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A Stranger in the Promised Land Chapter III (part2)  

2009-07-17 13:23:08|  分类: HP转载 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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"Is this all of it?" asked Hermione, staring down at the parchment in her hands.

Katie nodded. She had written down everything that Trelawney had said. She was now sitting with Ron, Hermione, and Neville in the farthest corner of the common room. Luckily for them, two third years who now were employees of Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes were displaying the latest merchandise courtesy of Fred and George Weasley. A crowd had gathered round the two lads in question, meaning that no one was near where Katie and the gang were sitting and the room was loud enough for them not to be overheard.

Neville and Ron leaned in to read the parchment over Hermione's shoulders.

"Kay," said Neville, looking her straight in the eye. "Sorry, but I have to ask - are you sure this isn't standard home-grown Trelawney BS?" Katie had expected it. Neville had a good mind, although somewhat irrational at times. She knew he or Hermione would ask that question.

"No," said Katie adamantly, shaking her head. "Trust me, I know this is real. She went from drunk to…weird, almost possessed, in an instant and then back again. It was just like a couple of years ago. This is one hundred percent real." She leaned back in the chair, her arms wrapped around her, as she stared defiantly at the group, as if daring anyone to accuse her of being wrong.

"Then you have to share it with Riddle," said Hermione. "He needs to know." This was something else that she had expected, and she had made up her mind.

"No," said Katie firmly, shaking her head again.

"Look, I know he's been ignoring you," said Hermione. "But he needs to see this - it's important."

"He doesn't have time for anyone this year," said Katie. "He comes and goes like the wind, probably up to his eyeballs trying to find out what is happening with Grindelwald - get a grip, Ron - and he doesn't need to be bothered by this."

"But this is important," protested Hermione. "A prophecy, a real one: Katie, we can't just sit on this."

"All he'll do is nod and then tell me to go to bed," said Katie. "And anyway, the prophecy itself says that it's my choice, not his."

"But he could at least give you some advice," said Ginny.

"And help you make an informed choice," said Hermione. God, was everyone against her? Katie grimaced in frustration. Didn't they see that Riddle didn't have time for this? Her anger was so close to its boiling point. The headmaster was always too busy for her these days, and so he was too busy for this.

"He's never here," said Katie, her anger boiling over. "He's always off doing something with the Order. He doesn't need to know! When we have something more concrete, we can go to him. Look, I know you are trying to help, but please, let's deal with this ourselves."

Hermione didn't look convinced and sat glowering for a second before nodding. Ginny exchanged a glance with Neville, who shrugged. Katie got the distinct impression that she was being humoured. Yet, she managed to stop herself objecting and returned her attention to the prophecy. Hermione's eyes had returned to the parchment; she began to read aloud.

"He shall come to you on swift wings, a stranger from an unholy land," she said. "I think we need to keep an eye out for anyone new, anyone we don't know." Hermione looked thoughtful, as if she was scanning her memory for anyone new who had arrived recently, or anyone from an 'Unholy Land'. She evidently drew a blank.

"He could be from Israel or Palestine," suggested Ron.

"Israel is the Holy Land," Katie corrected him. "Not the unholy land, though considering they haven't stopped shooting at each other since the second world war…anyway, that's beside the point. I doubt this stranger will be from the Middle East."

"The stranger from the unholy land," said Hermione. "I'm positive I've heard that expression before. Where on earth was it?" She leaned back into her chair, staring into space. Katie could almost see the cogs whirring.

"Whoever he is," said Ron, "he can't be good. Disaster apparently follows in his wake. But what does 'my last shall be rewritten, your future re-cast' mean?" Katie shrugged.

"Beware your guardians; each will tempt you to his own darkness," said Neville, reading the next line aloud.

"I have a feeling it is not talking about my aunt and uncle," said Katie.

"They are all male, whoever they are," Ron pointed out, "his own darkness, not their own, or her own. Also, it says 'his own', not 'the'. These guardians appear to both be dark."

"Could one be Riddle?" asked Neville. "He apparently guards you. And if he is, it's another reason not to tell him about the prophecy."

"He isn't dark," said Katie. "Unless you count his hair, but I doubt prophecies would trouble themselves over hair colour. It can't be Riddle, so who else? Any thoughts, Hermione?"

"No," she said. "There was a book called a Stranger in a Strange Land. It was about a boy who was raised on Mars by Martians. When he was almost grown-up he came to Earth. It was so different from his home world, so strange, and as it turns out he didn't belong there. Hence the title."

"Indiana Jones once said he was a pilgrim in an unholy land," said Neville all of a sudden. "I love that film - one thing Muggles definitely do better than us - entertainment, except Quidditch of course. Anyway, the thing is though, if this is a true prophecy, a message from beyond, it probably wouldn't reference literature or cinema."

"I think we are taking this a bit too literally," said Katie. "I think it is safe to assume that we will meet a stranger from some far distant shore, somewhere we think is evil or Godless. We also know that I have to beware my guardians. Now what about the next bit?"

"Choose wisely, chosen one," said Hermione. "That's pretty obvious. Your fate and the night are now entwined."

"God knows," said Katie.

"He isn't as strong as he seems to be. His life hangs in the balance but it is you who must choose for him, and with your choice he may forever be lost to this world," finished Hermione.

"Whose life hangs in the balance?" asked Ron. "Who is 'he'?" Katie had a suspicion that he was worried it might be him. "And what was that about the night?"

"Whoever it is," said Neville, "it sounds like you will have to choose whether or not he dies."

"Obviously no," said Katie. She wouldn't let anyone else die in this. Cormac would be the last!

"I fear it will not be that simple," said Hermione. "Fate wouldn't have warned you if it was an easy choice. We don't know who this man is or how important he is. We don't know what he has to do with this, though if it is this stranger, he may well be dark. We also don't know what he has to do with the night."

"We won't know exactly what it means until it happens," said Ginny, looking thoughtful.

"Really?" asked Katie, her voice oozing sarcasm. "I never realised…"

"My point," said Ginny, her tone defiantly calm, as if battling her own anger, "was that we can not guess what it means. You have two choices. Basically, you can face it or run from it. You can go searching for all Israelis in this country and make yourself paranoid, or you can wait, let them come to you. If you let things unfold, not tell Riddle, and see what happens, you may discover more. "

Katie paused, thinking about what had just been said. She didn't want to live in fear, anymore than she already was. No, Ginny was right - it was better to carry on, come what may.

"You're right, Ginny," conceded Katie. "Sorry." Ginny shrugged. She wasn't entirely happy with Katie's behaviour, but accepted the apology to maintain the peace.

Katie rested her elbows on her knees and leaned forwards. She was exhausted, and this prophecy was as vague as they come. None of it made sense, and it only served to add to her worries. She glanced around the room. The fire was burning, and the WWW salesmen were demonstrating the latest gadgets of the Weasley twins, suitable for Umbridge avoidance. How innocently they all went about their lives. How she envied them.

She glanced at the couple playing chess on the other side of the room. She could imagine herself as one of those pieces, with Riddle and Grindelwald moving them around the board, and her powerless to do anything else. Was she always to be a slave of their game? Couldn't she take charge of her own life? No, it seemed. There were too many others who would get hurt. How many pawns would be sacrificed?

Was she the king? Moving slowly, one step at a time, not being able to venture into check, where the other side might be able to attack her? Was Riddle the queen, darting in every direction, taking pieces and protecting her? The irony of the genders was quite amusing. Hermione would be the bishop, the one who kept her on track with her preaching from the good book, or rather a library full of them. But what of Ron and Neville? Were they the castles, her home who came in straight lines to save her? Were they the knights who moved in strange patterns through other pieces to ride in and save…

"Knights!" she exclaimed, sitting bolt upright. Hermione jumped as she did.

"Your fate and the knight's are entwined!" she repeated, her heart pounding and her face showing her excitement. "Knight with a 'k'. We will meet a knight." She looked around as the others took in her theory.

"Err…" said Ron, glancing at Neville who shook his head. "As far as I know, there are no knights in our world. Wizards don't officially exist, so we can't really be knighted."

"What about Sir Cadogan," asked Katie. "He's a knight."

"A nitwit more like," said Ron.

"He was a Muggle knight who stumbled across a dragon and so into our world," said Hermione. "He was not a wizard."

"But there are suits of armour all over the castle," said Katie, convinced she was right. "They were worn by knights."

"This is a castle," said Hermione, to Katie's ear condescendingly, "They're decoration. What good is a sheet of metal against a curse? With magic we can remove it, melt it, transfigure it, curse it, and God knows what else. They are for decoration, and Peeves' amusement." Katie grimaced in frustration. She was probably right, as usual. But Katie had been so convinced…

"How do we know a Muggle knight isn't going to come into this at some point?" asked Katie, racking her brain for another solution.

"We don't, but it seems so…unlikely," said Hermione.

"About as unlikely as having your parents killed when you were a baby, growing up constantly being stalked by the same man who most people thought was dead, and then being entered illegally into a tournament and your blood being used to bring him back to life, after he killed your friend in front of you. That, is unlikely. By those standards, a Muggle knight seems laughably easy to imagine."

Katie was aware of how snappy her tone sounded, but she didn't care. Why was she so stressed these days? Lack of sleep, Riddle's ignoring her, generally Umbridge frustration. Her blood seemed to be boiling all the time now.

"Yeah," said Ron, "but…"

"Heads up!" hissed Neville. Katie turned to see Harry Potter come back into the room. He gave a small nod to a group of second years by the door, one of whom spoke to him, most likely welcoming him back. As Katie watched, Harry crossed the room and headed for the stairs. He was a few feet away when he paused.

 ~~~~ + ~~~~

Harry hesitated. What had seemed like a cold and easy decision while all alone on the opposite side of the castle was a little different when he could look into her eyes. He had spotted her instantly as he had stepped into the room; his eyes had been doing the instinctual search for a threat. But then something else had happened. The instincts of the Dark Knight were overruled by someone else. Harry Potter briefly returned.

The cold, calculated thought left him and his mind strayed ever so slightly into the depths of his memory. Seeing her sitting around with Ron, Hermione and Neville, Harry felt a deep pang of homesickness. It should be him seated there with his friends, not her. He should be back home, safe, with his friends. Hadn't he earned it?

It seemed so long ago that he had been with his true friends. After they came back from the Ministry, he had wanted to be alone. Oh, what a fool he had been. He should have valued every second he was with them. But he hadn't known he was about to be torn away from home.

Was Katie destined for the same fate? Would she be forced to see her godfather killed, just before being dragged to another world where she would have to fight her way out of hopeless situations, with no hope of returning home? He stared into her eyes across the room. There was fire in those eyes, a determined desire to go on. Harry saw himself in those eyes. Himself before all of this, when he was still just a student.

She didn't know how lucky she was. It was always the way. You never know how lucky you are until it is gone. In a few months, she would know what it was to suffer. She would know what it was like to be in Harry's shoes. Poor girl. Harry had often thought that he wouldn't wish his life on anyone. Now here was someone else, having been through more or less what he had. Yet she was still so…words failed him. Maybe it was his experience in Rose's world that had really changed him, but he saw her as just a child. She seemed so inexperienced compared to him. Lucky girl.

Harry looked her up and down, appraising her. The defiance was clear in her posture and her eyes, but there was fear behind them. She was slowly losing it. She was so close to despair. As tough an exterior as she tried to portray, there was fear, frailty, and sadness in those eyes. If it was identical to what Harry had been through: at this point in time, she wouldn't even know why Riddle was avoiding her or why Vold…Grindelwald was after her.

Poor girl.

Harry knew exactly what she was feeling. Oh, how he had wanted someone to talk to, someone who knew what was happening, someone who could tell the difference between him and his reputation. It had been Dumbledore's ignoring him that had really been the hardest to take. Now Harry knew that he had been trying to protect him, but at the time, he had hated the headmaster. He still questioned the headmaster's methods, though he no longer doubted his intent.

Was Riddle the same? No - he was a cold-hearted bastard. When Katie found out, he would be as cold as he truly was. The man was only one step away from Voldemort. Harry wondered what had changed him, but realised that it was way down on his list of priorities to find out. He would take it as read that the man was a bastard and that was enough. He was a suspicious git and was making Harry's life much harder. Harry would need to keep his distance from Riddle.

Then again…

Suddenly a plan popped into Harry's head. There might be a way to keep an eye on Katie. Riddle didn't want him anywhere near Katie, but Harry was smarter than he was and had an ace up his sleeve. What if Harry were to keep her under surveillance? He would then be able to find out exactly what was happening. He may just have found a way to be in the room without her or Riddle realising it. What worked for Katie would in time work with Riddle as well. Harry could catch wind of any of Katie's little plans, or her worries about Harry, as soon as she had them. By her movements and her interactions with teachers, he might be able to find out more about Riddle. It would mean that he could come and go from almost any location at any time without arousing suspicion. However, the main point was that he would get advanced warning of her suspicions or plans for Harry. He could keep himself out of trouble. If he knew her movements, then he could plan his to avoid her. Knowledge was power and this would allow him to keep his ear to the ground.

His plan solidified in his mind. He checked his watch. He would wait until everyone was asleep.

~~~~ + ~~~~

Harry turned slowly back to face Katie. Uh-oh! She had been caught staring. Her initial reaction was to tear her eyes away, but she held fast, staring into his emerald green eyes. His head sunk slightly, but not into a nod. He seemed to be looking her up and down, appraising her. Something told Katie that he was not assessing her in the way most sixteen-year-old boys did, and she didn't start to blush as his eyes scanned her body. Instead she was positive that he was assessing something deeper, something inside her. His eyes seemed to penetrate her flesh, seeking what lay in her soul. It was a creepy stare.

After a second, he looked down to check his watch and then gave her a small nod. With that he turned and disappeared up the stairs.

"What was that all about?" asked Ron.

"No idea," said Katie. "But he gives me the creeps."

~~~~ + ~~~~

Katie sat on the windowsill, her back to the wall, her head turned and staring mournfully out of the window. The fires had been put out two hours ago, but on the still winter's night, the smell of burning was still in the air. The mist had come in from the lake, in absence of a wind to clear it. Veiled in a blanket of mist, the valley had an eerie, still appearance, and coupled with the faint smell of burning, the scene brought images of death to Katie's mind. She had seen the Thestrals as the carriages had arrived at the castle, bringing the returning students back. This had only acted to cement the feeling of death and hopelessness in her mind.

She yawned involuntarily as she gazed out over the window. It had been a long day, and in truth she was tired. She turned to glance at her bed, the curtains drawn back, casting shadows over the bed. It looked almost like a cave or a cell. She didn't want to admit it, but she feared sleep these days. She feared being awake, yet she feared going to sleep. It was a sad realisation, but her entire life was spent in fear.

By day she was in danger. Grindelwald was back, and she knew she currently topped his list of thorns in his proverbial side. She constantly had to look over her shoulder, just in case. She had enemies out there, and she didn't know who was working for Him. Anyone she met could potentially be here to kill her.

As if she didn't have enough to worry about with a homicidal maniac on her tail, there was the Ministry who had turned her into a laughing stock. She tried to put on a brave face, but it hurt. It hurt when you stood up for what was right, only to be shunned by the very people you were trying to protect. She was lonely. She could talk to Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Luna, and her friends, but in truth, she was alone. None of them understood - none of them came close.

A single tear ran down her cheek as she stared out the window over the forest, lit up by the nearly full moon. Above the blanket of clouds the valley was clear, bathed in moonlight with the dark peaks of hills rising from the sea of mist. She shivered in the cold air as another tear began to fall.

The Ministry and Grindelwald had turned her life into a living Hell, a prisoner in her own life. Even Riddle, who had always been there for her, was now not even looking at her. Neville, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were friends, but none of them had been in the graveyard. None of them could see the Thestrals. There was no one who understood her. Who could she talk to? No one would understand, so she bottled it all up. She knew it had given rise to her newly found temper, but there was nothing she could do, no one she could turn to. What she wanted, now more than ever, was a hug. She wanted her mother to scoop her up in her arms, to protect her from the horrors of life.

That was a fate that had been stolen from her so many years ago, leaving a poor, scared girl all alone. And alone was how she found herself now, with no one to help her and no one to protect her. Now, more than ever. Last year she had been lucky not to be in this situation, but at the time, she had not appreciated it. It was the same the year before that and the year before that, which painted an ill picture of next year - if she even survived that long.

For Katie, it was like a horrible headache, one that kept pounding at her. During the day, she had the constant stares and the Occlumency lessons and then at night she had the dreams. The horrid nightmares of last year, the images of the Tournament, or McLaggen spread-eagled on the ground, the life having been sucked out of him in a flash of green light. And then there was the door, the endless dreams about the door, and the pain that followed. It had saved Mr Weasley, but it was taking its toll on her.

She wished it would end. She wished a guardian angel would appear and take her misery away.

Katie rose to her feet. While she feared her bed, she knew she had to sleep, and that she had to be up early tomorrow morning. She tiptoed over to her bed, cautious not to wake the others. If her dreams were too bad, she would wake them all later anyway. There was no point in making it worse. She climbed into bed and reached up to close the curtains, taking a side in each hand. She was about to pull them closed when there came a gentle tap on the window.

She released the curtain, sitting bolt upright, muscles tense, ready to move. She grabbed her wand and raised it, ready to curse whoever or whatever was out there. It couldn't be Grindelwald, could it? No, a male would not be able to enter the room.

Gently parting the curtains, she stood up, her feet making no sound on the thick carpet. She stepped away from the bed, her eyes doing a lap of the room. She could see nothing out of place.

TAP!

Katie spun around to face the sound. Her jaw dropped. On the ledge outside the now closed window sat a beautiful, fiery orange phoenix. As she stared at it, the bird bowed its head low, displaying its beautiful plumage. Katie opened the window, allowing the bird to soar in. It fluttered the short distance to her bedpost, but it still seemed to glide. Katie left the window and returned to her bed, staring at the new arrival.

"Who are you?" asked Katie aloud, albeit as a whisper. She extended a hand, and using the back of her fingers, she gently stroked the magnificent bird. She wouldn't have been surprised to have had it answer her question in plain English. Instead, the bird simply cocked its head, allowing her to stroke its soft, warm body.

Katie found herself smiling as she stroked the animal, its presence somehow soothing. It felt like the first time she had smiled in years. The bird simply sat still, its deep green eyes watching her intently as she stopped stroking it and drew the curtains. It didn't seem the least bit fazed as she drew the curtains; it remained in place, watching her as she climbed beneath the covers.

The phoenix stayed with her, and in its presence, she fell into a deep sleep, thinking that finally she had found a friend.

~~~~ + ~~~~

"Erg!"

Katie opened her eyes as the sound of chattering voices invaded her thoughts. As she was drawn from her dreams, she groaned and rolled over. Voices floated through the curtains; her dorm-mates were up. Katie shot a filthy look at the curtains in their general directions, and slammed her head back down, covering it with another pillow. She was knackered and did not want their bloody interruptions.

Hang on!

A thought suddenly occurred to her and she sat bolt upright. Last night, there had been no nightmares, no visions of a door, no nothing, just a deep slumber. What had brought that on? It certainly wasn't that bloody Occlumency. Truth be told, she had not even attempted to clear her mind the previous night. It must have been the phoenix.

The phoenix?

She looked towards the end of her bed where the phoenix had been perched last night. Where was it? Had it left? Had the other girls scared it away? Katie drew the curtains and jumped off the bed, walking barefoot out into the dormitory. She wore pyjama bottoms and a crop-top. She caught sight of herself in the mirror, but ignored her wild hair and general lybedraggled appearance. She looked towards the window, which was now closed and locked, though she had been sure it hadn't been her who had closed it.

She was suddenly aware that the other girls were all watching her. She looked over: Lindsay was showing the other two a set of photos which she had had done, hoping to become a model or something like that for Witch Weekly.

"Yes?" asked one of them.

"This is going to sound really odd," said Katie, throwing caution to the wind. "But there wasn't a bird in here when you got up this morning, was there?"

The girl gave her a bemused look, before shaking her head. Katie turned back to the window, wondering what had happened to her visitor. She would have to ask Grubbly-Plank about phoenixes and if it was normal for one to behave like that. With that in mind, she forwent a shower and threw on her uniform. She brushed her hair quickly and splashed water on her face to wake herself up. Katie considered makeup, but decided that time was more precious than pride. Looking slightly improved, she grabbed her bag and darted down the stairs in the direction of the Great Hall.

The others were already there and eating, and she quickly slid into a chair next to them. She was still panting from the run as she helped herself to some orange juice. As she drained the glass, she was aware of the others watching her.

"Rough night?" asked Neville.

"Quite the opposite," she replied, putting the glass down and catching her breath. She was tempted to add that it was the first decent night's sleep she had had in ages, but she didn't want to fuel their worries. The last thing she needed was more pity. Katie took a moment to catch her breath. At length, she spoke.

"Last night," she began, "I was…lying awake." She felt it best not to admit she had been up late, crying and praying for a miracle. "There was a tapping sound coming from the window. I opened it, and a phoenix flew in."

"Ooo," squealed Hermione and Ginny together. "A phoenix…wow, a real live phoenix. What did it do?" Neville and Ron looked impressed, though neither squealed; Neville, as it was unlike him, and Ron, as his mouth was full of scrambled egg. Ginny, on the other had, was practically bobbing up and down in excitement.

"Nothing much," Katie said. To be fair, it hadn't really done much, just kept her company. But in truth, that was all she needed. "It kind of just sat there, at the end of my bed, until I fell asleep." And a peaceful sleep it had been. Definitely a good influence.

"Awww," fawned Ginny dreamily. "I wish I had a phoenix."

"What do you mean 'had'?" asked Katie. "It wasn't like I owned it." Her feelings towards the animal were slightly mixed. She had felt a connection, but still felt as if it was a wild animal, not a pet and not hers; just a friend who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

"You can never 'own' a phoenix," said Hermione, falling into the tone of voice she used when reciting a passage from a book. "The phoenix chooses to spend time with the witch or wizard. It would have chosen to come to you, not the other way around."

"Is it still there?" asked Ginny excitedly. "Can we see it?"

"It's gone," said Katie, shaking her head. "By the time I woke up, it had gone. Anita bloody Fleming must have scared it off with her fascinating tales regarding the contents of her boyfriend's underpants." She grimaced at the thought of the other girl's stupidity and shallowness. "I lost track of which boyfriend it is these days," she added.

"Woodward," said Ron, through a rasher of bacon. "Apparently he now has the pleasure," he finished, bobbing his eyebrows up and down in a suggestive manner.

"Never on a first date," said Ginny, smiling innocently.

"I must say that sounds a bit odd," said Hermione, her brow furrowed in thought. She had that look that said a trip to the library was imminent.

"You would on a first date?" asked Ginny innocently.

Hermione ignored the comment, though Katie noticed that Ron had coloured somewhat at this talk. Whether it was Ginny's frank use of English or Hermione's response was uncertain. Either way, Katie dismissed it, certain that Hermione was sticking to the important part of the conversation - the phoenix.

Hermione continued: "Phoenixes aren't the sort of creatures to be startled by an idiot girl and her carnal tales. Once they show themselves to a person, they usually stick around, rarely leaving until…the end of the line."

"Till death us do part," added Ginny unhelpfully.

Katie was glad that at least Hermione was sticking to the pressing matter at hand. However, the mood was suddenly broken by the end-of-the-line comment. After the last few years, she would rather not think about death.

"They are also supposed to be mystical," said Neville. "My mum used to tell me about them when I was only yay-high." He held his hand up two feet above the floor. "I don't know if she was just spinning fantasy tales, because I was only a kid at the time, but they are supposed to come when needed, but to be a free spirit. Almost like a higher purpose, a higher being - as if called from the spirit world to guide you."

"That is definitely fantasy," said Hermione. "Romanticism at its worst. There are no other worlds. Phoenixes are not messengers from beyond. We can only assume, Katie, that this phoenix will return when you have need of it. It will be watching over you, rest assured. I am almost certain that you haven't seen the last of the phoenix."

"Thanks, Hermione," she said. It was a weight off her mind. "I'm glad," she continued. "It was relaxing, soothing to have it near me. When I looked at it, those eyes stared back at me with comprehension. I mean, you could see in its eyes that it was thinking. It was like looking into the eyes of another human, another intelligent being. There was something almost familiar about it. And it stopped any nightmares."

"Did it sing you to sleep?" asked Neville, failing to hide a grin. "Sing you a lullaby? Rock-a-bye Katie on the tree top, when the wind blows…."

"I'll knock off your block!" she finished, cuffing him on the arm and shaking her head, but smiling none the less. She had had to resist the temptation to rhyme 'rock' with another part of his anatomy, and hit that instead, but she wasn't genuinely angry. "Seriously, though," she continued. "It was just soothing to have it around, and, well, with all that's happened lately, it's the best thing that has happened in a long time."

"I wouldn't tell too many people," said Ron. "Educational Decree Number twenty-whatever-it's-up-to-now will be that you aren't allowed to own anything that might cheer you up."

"Umbridge couldn't control a phoenix," said Hermione.

"Wouldn't stop her trying," said Katie. Ron was right - she'd try to ban it, try to kill it as well probably. There was no depth that she would not sink to.

"Heads up," said Neville quickly, glancing at the door. Katie turned her head, trying to be subtle. Harry Potter had just entered the room and had slid onto the bench at the end, near the door. As he reached for the cornflakes, he stifled a yawn. His hair was scruffy, and his eyes had bags underneath them. It was clear that he had been up most of the night.

"Someone didn't get a lot of sleep," said Neville, echoing Katie's own thoughts. "I wonder what he was up to. I didn't notice him. Ron?"

"Nope," said Ron. "He went to bed, and we didn't hear a peep from him."

"Above your snoring," announced Ginny. "He could have been playing the bugle all night, and you wouldn't have noticed." That may have been the case, but Katie agreed with Neville. What the hell was Harry Potter up to?

"Hmm," said Katie. "There is something fishy going on with him. He has changed so much, he's secretive, and he was up all night. What was he doing? Are you sure he was in his bed?"

"Well," said Ron. "we saw him head up to bed just after ten. We went up a few minutes later, and he was just getting into bed. He even said good night. I didn't notice him get out, and no one opened the door, I don't think."

"Well, he's up to something," said Katie. "I wonder what?"

"Oh Merlin, she's on the warpath," muttered Ginny, earning herself a glare.

"I'd say he's got bigger problems than just your inquisitive nature," said Neville, staring over her shoulder. "If looks could kill..."

Katie turned to face the direction Neville was looking at. At the Slytherin table, Malfoy was watching Harry like a predator, his steely grey eyes locked on the boy eating at the end of the table. His jaw was set and he looked like he would like nothing better than to throttle Harry. The boy in question sat obliviously eating his cornflakes, staring into space. He seemed completely unaware, but after having seen him and Malfoy last week, Katie was fairly sure that Harry held no fear for Malfoy. This was completely unjustified, as Harry was nowhere near Malfoy's level of magic and a duel would end painfully for Harry.

As odd as the boy had become, he was still the same old Harry, and he still was in need of protection. He was one who would definitely benefit from a little training, but until she knew more, Potter was not setting foot in the Room of Requirement.

~~~~ + ~~~~

Today was not going to be enjoyable. Harry was to be back in lessons, proper lessons, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. He had found all the books he needed in the trunk that was apparently his, and was prepared as he was ever going to be. Ever since he had been caught up in this unholy mess, he had given so little thought to lessons. They seemed so…insignificant. What were these lessons worth, when life was teaching him the ways of the world better than Severus Snape ever could? Well, at least Snape wasn't here. Harry didn't know where he was, and he didn't care. Whatever rock he was hiding under, Harry hoped it was never kicked over. Who would I least like to teach me, he wondered, Snape or Riddle?

Harry hadn't even glanced at the books he now held since he had been back, and so had next to no idea what to expect in these lessons. He had been whisked away before starting his NEWTs, so this would be his first taste. He was going to be thrown in at the deep end. He briefly considered boycotting the lessons, but he did not wish to draw attention to himself. Hence, as nine o'clock neared on Monday morning, Harry threw the books he needed into his bag, pocketed his wand, and headed down towards the dungeons. As sod's law and fateful cock-up would have it, he had ended up with double Potions to begin with, followed by double Defence Against the Dark Arts after lunch. Luckily he had the remainder of the afternoon off.

Any other time or place, having double Defence might have cheered him up, but given the teacher, Harry had a nasty feeling that he was not in for a pleasant day. He would have to concentrate on that free period in the afternoon to pull him through the lessons of the day. The free time would not afford him a rest - he had work to do. Officially he would have to catch up with missed school work. Unofficially, he would be taking a quick trip to London.

Harry had no idea what this Horace Slughorn was like as a teacher, but could not imagine him being any worse than Snape. Then again, as head of Slytherin house, he was hardly going to be nice. From what Harry had heard, he was alright, just very orientated towards his favourites and the so called Slug Club. Harry had no idea what this club was or did, but judging from the name, it had to be about as exciting as a meeting of Flobberworm Appreciation Society, if such a thing even existed.

When Harry entered the room, most of the students were already there, unpacking various supplies and equipment. Harry slid onto an empty desk quite near the front and began to remove his things from his bag. It was quite a novel experience being back in lessons. All the little things like spelling, uniform, homework, and revision all seemed so trivial when compared to saving the lives of millions across two, now three, different worlds. When his entire life seemed to be life or death, how important was homework, really?

Part of him, a part that sounded suspiciously like Hermione, knew that to become an Auror, he needed to study, plus the life skills learned here would carry him through life; but compared to Dark Lords and inter-dimensional travel, it didn't feature high on his list of priorities.

"Hey, Potter," drawled a voice from the back. "What are you going to do for us today then, melt your cauldron or set your pants on fire, perhaps?"

Harry ignored the comment and continued unpacking, having no idea what he would actually need.

"Potter," snapped Malfoy. "I'm talking to you, are you deaf?"

"Pardon?" asked Harry innocently, unable to resist. He felt a glimmer of satisfaction as Malfoy's jaw clenched. Malfoy opened his mouth to speak again, but quickly shut it as Slughorn waddled into the room.

"Ah, here already," he beamed. His eyes passed around the room, coming to a stop on Harry. "Ah, Mr Potter, welcome back." Not knowing what else to do, Harry nodded.

"Right, today we will begin a new section on Jaredain's principles of potency," he announced. "Can anyone tell me the nature of Jaredain's studies?" No one moved. They all looked down, avoiding eye contact and hoping that they were not the one to be asked. Harry glanced around the room, wondering why a certain young witch was not answering.

Slughorn seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "Where is Miss Granger?" he asked the silent class. Harry looked at Ron and Neville. "No idea, sir," said Ron, shrugging.

Just then, the doors flew open and Hermione ran in, panting.

"Sorry I'm late, professor," she managed to say between breaths. "I had to see Professor McGonagall."

"Of course, of course," said Slughorn, looking as though he did vaguely remember that she would be late. "I was just wondering where you had got to. What fortuitous timing. Please take a seat." Harry was suddenly aware that the only spare seat in the room was next to him and sure enough, a second later, Hermione slid onto the bench next to him, and began to unpack.

"I was just saying, Miss Granger," said Slughorn, "that we are now beginning a new section on Jaredain's research." Hermione seemed to understand as she nodded. "Could you please tell the class what Jaredain was researching?"

"He…" she took a breath to steady herself. "He was looking into the correct dosage, and how to calculate it based on the ingredients and recipient," she announced. "Too much of a potion, even an antidote, can be dangerous, so he tried to find a way to calculate dosage based on the recipient's size and weight and the ingredients of the potion, thus making the testing of new potions much safer and reducing accidental deaths in hospitals by assuring safe dosages."

"Excellent," said Slughorn. "Now, unfortunately, this first session will be on the theory and you won't get to start brewing until next time." A collective groan went around the room. Harry instantly regretted having gotten everything out of his bag.

"Now, before we begin, we need some simple ingredients," said Slughorn. "Mr Potter, can you pop into my office and get me some crushed beetles, Ghost-Lily roots, and some giant squid ink? That should be enough to start with."

Harry rose from his seat and walked past Slughorn into the office. He could hear the professor talking in the other room.

"The first thing we shall do when mister Potter returns will be to look at the chemical and then magical properties of the ingredients and their effects on a given measure of human bone marrow. The stems cells contained therein will be enough for us to gauge a potion's effect on any cell in the entire body. From here it is possible to give each ingredient a rating on a standardised scale and then we can begin to compare potions."

Harry opened the supply cupboard and scoured the drawers and bottles for the ingredients. It took him perhaps fifteen seconds to find them all. He turned to leave, both hands full, using his backside to edge the cupboard door shut. As he did so, his eyes fell on the other store cupboard, which was slightly open. In the bottom, staring Harry in the face, was a pile of Advanced Potion Making books. Suddenly an idea filled his mind.

He moved to the cupboard quickly and put the ingredients on the floor. He sank to his knees and opened the cupboard. He picked up the first book and opened it. There was nothing but the print. Harry cast it aside and picked up the next - nothing. Again he picked up another book, only to find it empty.

Come on, where are you? he thought.

"Are you alright in there, Potter?" called Slughorn.

Where is it? Harry cast the next one aside and picked up the sixth book. He opened it again to find nothing but the print. There was a scrape from in the classroom, and Harry's heart began to race. That was a chair scraping the floor. Slughorn had gotten up from his chair and was coming in after him. He needed to hurry.

Another blank! Harry threw it back in the cupboard as the footsteps sounded outside. He picked up another book, and opened it. Yes! The inside was covered in neat writing, additions and spells. Harry thrust it up his jumper and pushed the cupboard closed, just as Slughorn's bald head came around the corner.

"Are you okay, Potter?" asked Slughorn. Harry was still kneeling on the floor.

"Er, yes sir," said Harry innocently. "I was just tying my shoelace."

"Well hurry up, Potter," said Slughorn impatiently. "You are holding up my lesson." Harry's heart was racing, but he managed to appear calm. He was relieved, but managed to keep it from his face.

Harry mumbled an apology and stood up, handing Slughorn the three ingredients he had acquired. The professor nodded and disappeared back into the classroom. Harry took a deep breath. He shrunk the book under his jumper and slid it into his pocket before walking back out into the classroom and over to his seat.

At the front, Slughorn was fiddling with the ingredients. Harry sat back down next to Hermione, who had finish unpacking and was unscrewing the top of her pot of ink.

"Morning," said Harry, following suit, getting ready to copy down notes. "You all right? You look knackered." She was still red in the face and breathing quickly.

"I ran from McGonagall's office," said Hermione, avoiding the question. Harry let it go. He wasn't here to find out where she had been. However, there was something she could do for him .He had to move carefully, though. Softly, softly, catchy monkey.

As Slughorn began to drone on about potions, Harry turned to Hermione again. "How have you been?" he asked, keeping his tone light and friendly.

"Fine," she replied in true English fashion. She was glancing from the blackboard to her parchment on which she had already started to make notes. He was mildly annoyed at her answer. 'Fine' was a way to avoid an answer, and also cut the conversation short. It was like 'whatever', the ultimate argument stopper. How does one come back from 'whatever'? Anyhow, Harry needed to drive this conversation forward.

"Really?" he asked. Hermione looked up from her notes and looked him square in the eyes. She hesitated for a second before answering.

"Well, you know Ron's dad was hurt just before Christmas?" asked Hermione. Harry nodded - he hadn't, but he had surmised that it would happen eventually, or something similar to it. Hermione continued, "That was a bit scary, but yeah, generally good, despite Umbridge's best attempts to get us down."

"Tell me about it," muttered Harry, though his mind was elsewhere. So Mr Weasley had been attacked, had he? They had all gone to St Mungo's? But they were all back here before Harry arrived on New Year's Day. It must have happened sooner than it had in his world, before Christmas. It seemed Katie was better than him at Occlumency. Harry grimaced at the thought, but accepted that he hadn't been brilliant at it. Anyhow, it did no good to dwell on the past. He needed to look to his future and to do that, he needed Hermione's help.

"How are lessons?" he asked, gently pushing her in the right direction. Harry knew that this was his chance to size her up for helping him. He needed to be careful, subtly manoeuvre her and let her make the conversation. He needed to give her just enough rope to hang herself with, so to speak.

"What, since you disappeared?" she asked, looking slightly suspicious. Harry nodded. "Well, Defence is still awful, and we don't learn anything. The rest are more or less fine, as long as Umbridge isn't inspecting the teacher - were you around when she started?"

Harry nodded.

"Well yeah, aside from when she's there, the others are fine."

"Even Arithmancy?" asked Harry, making his move.

"Look," said Hermione, rolling her eyes - her tone had turned firm. Harry grimaced inwardly. Had he blown it? "I know everyone says that it's a boring geeky subject, but it is interesting! I don't go around saying what you like is boring, do I? Just let me be!"

"Easy, Hermione," said Harry quickly. "I never said it was boring, I just know that it is hard. NEWT must be nearly impossible. I'm impressed you can cope - I wouldn't stand a chance, even at the OWL." Harry had to move carefully. The gentle flattery should hopefully put her back on track. Come on, Hermione, bite!

After a second, she gave him a small smile, "Sorry I snapped," she said. "I'm just very tired."

"I can understand that," he said, nodding. He really could. Having spent several hours in the girls' dormitory last night (and not in the way most boys would like), he was shattered.

"But you're right," said Hermione, seemingly happy to talk about her subject. "It is hard and Professor Vector pushes us at a quick pace." Yes! Harry felt a rush of excitement. She had bitten and was moving the conversation herself. Hook, line, and sinker.

"It must be really useful," said Harry, again using flattery to keep her on track. "I mean, from what I hear, from a drop of blood or a bit of magic, you can work out a person's soul or magical core or something like that, can't you?" He was practically shaking with excitement. Come on, Hermione, tell me that you can get me home!

Hermione smiled and shook her head; it was the look a mother gave her overzealous child. This was not what Harry wanted to see. A chill ran down his spine and it took all his concentration to stop his disappointment from showing.

"Yes, you can," she said, "but that's a little beyond NEWTs, don't you think, Harry?" No, no, Hermione had to be able to help! She just had to!

"Even for you?" asked Harry, struggling to hide the disappointment, or the huge gap that had opened up as his stomach clenched tight. He tried one last stab at flattery, but already knew the answer. A sickening feeling spread through him as he realised that his great plan was in tatters.

"That particular discipline is purely theoretical and highly experimental," Hermione informed him. "The only people who would really do anything like that are the Unspeakables." Harry shivered involuntarily. He had no desire to visit the Department of Mysteries. It seemed that every time he went there, someone was killed in front of him. The Unspeakables gave him the creeps, but it seemed that once again, he would have to brave the Department of Mysteries.

"Oh well," said Harry, smiling outwardly. "At least you are enjoying it." Inside he was screaming. His plan was in jeopardy. If Unspeakables were the only ones who would experiment with that kind of magic, Harry would need to convince one of them to part with their knowledge, and that wouldn't be easy as he didn't know any of them. Also, he needed one lucid enough to use his blood and wand to do the equation. He couldn't control one of them, so he had to convince one. One of them would have to do it voluntarily. This was not going to be easy.

"Potter! Granger! Pay attention," said Slughorn suddenly. Hermione shot Harry a glare, as clearly it was all his fault that they had been caught. Harry grimaced.

"Sorry, sir."

Hermione didn't speak to him for the rest of the lesson, but that wasn't exactly a problem. He had learned what he needed to know and that was enough. She was of no further use to him. He had the problem of the Unspeakable to sort out, but his first priority should still be the acquisition of the key. He would go to London tonight after lessons had finished. The Unspeakable was a problem for another day.

After another two hours of scribbling down notes, Harry's wrist was aching. He could use a sword for what seemed like ages without aching too much, but this much writing was hurting his wrist. He was so unused to using a quill that his muscles ached from the effort and his writing was so untidy it resembled a four-year-old's.

I might as well have written in crayon, he noted.

He ended up massaging his wrist for the rest of the lunch break between spooning ratatouille into his mouth. His head was spinning with potions and a measure called a mol (without an 'e'). It was linked to Muggle Chemistry, apparently, and could be used to work out quantity and subsequently concentration. Harry noted that it 'could' be used to calculate concentration, but not that he could use it. The lesson might as well have been in Swahili. He wasn't looking forward to his real NEWTs back home.

Things didn't get any better after lunch as he headed up to the Defence Against the Dark Arts room, already knowing what he would find. As he took his seat, he could already hear the footsteps approaching down the corridor.

Harry was suddenly reminded of the Star Wars march. He remembered Dudley watching the film and then dressing in black, painting a stick red and then hitting Harry with it, singing the Imperial March. Harry was humming it in his mind as the toad swept into the room. She strutted to the front and turned to address the class, the stupid girly smile on her chubby face.

"Good afternoon, class," said Umbridge in her shrill girly voice.

"Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge," replied the class.

"Wands away." No one moved as no one had taken their wand out. "Right, I want you to read chapter twenty-two and we shall discuss it once you are done. There will be no need to talk."

Harry opened his book and began to read. He had managed three lines when his mind began to wander. On the parchment he had ready, he wrote Dolores Jane Umbridge at the top and beneath it he began to jumble the letters around to alleviate his boredom. The class read in silence for nearly half an hour before Umbridge decided it was time for the debate.

By this time, Harry had read about a page and a half between playing with anagrams. The most interesting thing he had learned from this lesson so far was that 'Dolores Jane Umbridge' was a perfect anagram of 'Burdensome Jailer Dog' which was quite appropriate, and that if he just used 'Dolores Umbridge', it was a perfect anagram of 'Murder Old Bogies'. Harry wasn't sure about the spelling of the last one, but it made him smile in a class that really needed some cheer.

Harry yawned. The class was so boring that his heart rate had slowed right down and he just wanted to go to sleep. The jailer dog had risen from her chair and was standing at the front. When she spoke, Harry didn't take a word of it in. It was the usual drivel, and looking around the class, not even Hermione was paying attention. Reading the text almost verbatim after the class had read it was a poor way of teaching.

It was such a relief when the bell rang. Harry's eyelids had been heavy for the past forty-five minutes and he was on the verge of dropping off. As the bell sounded, he threw his books back into his bag and made for the exit. He had no lesson final period and that gave him the perfect excuse for a trip to London. He just needed to change his clothes, as his uniform would identify him, and Borgin must not learn who he was. It was 16:00 now and at this time of January it was dark by 17:00. Harry had no desire to visit the shop in daylight. He would wait another forty-five minutes or so. That gave him time to get changed and to store the Half Blood Prince's book somewhere safe.

It occurred to Harry halfway up the stairs that Flourish and Blotts would be as good as useless, but it couldn't hurt to check them briefly. However, he was well aware that his best chance of success was Knockturn Alley. Last time he had been there, he hadn't noticed any book shops. In fact, he felt it was most likely that the only place he would get such dark material was from a black marketer. He knew just the shop. However, the shopkeeper was not likely to be helpful. They way Harry saw it, he had two options - masquerade as a Death Eater, or bully it out of him. Since Harry didn't have a Dark Mark, or even knew what Grindelwald's symbol looked like, posing as a Death Eater would be unrealistic. If the conman asked him a question to prove it, Harry couldn't even produce information on this world generally, let alone on the Dark Lord whom he had never even seen. No, he decided, he would need to bully Borgin into compliance.

It was time for a certain shopkeeper to receive a visit from the Dark Knight.

~~~~ + ~~~~

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