fic by ninnieamee

Headmistress McGonagall was nowhere near as controversial as her predecessor. She was given a thankless task, but rose to it with aplomb. Her work rebuilding the school was lauded even by the Prophet. And she never once had a salacious biography published about her early romance with some budding Dark Lord. Young wizards and witches mourned the loss of her presence when she gave up her post, cheered her retirement, and toasted to her good health. Their parents, however, raised some complaints. McGonagall had a habit of hiring young, untested staff. Longbottom for the Herbology position. Thomas to cover a year of transfiguration. Granger as a contentious visiting professor of Muggle Studies; she stuffed the children’s heads with anti-establishment notions, and proved to be difficult grader, besides. And, as if this was not bad enough, sometimes these young radicals did not merely visit or stay for a year. Longbottom was gifted Head of Gryffindor in short time and proved to be a fixture, patient and smiling and impossible to oust even at the efforts of school governors who swore up and down that his wartime actions were a fluke brought on by desperation. In truth, screamed parents and governors, he had very little magical power, quantitatively speaking, and ought to have been driving the Knight Bus, not handling magically powerful children. 

But nothing could induce Professor McGonagall to fire him. And so too with his fellows, for Thomas and Granger came and went as they liked; and, worst of all, on the eve of the Headmistress’s retirement, flighty adjuncts Vane, Chang, and Brown were awarded tenure.

Awful! Vane was a bubble-headed creature, as arrogant as her name suggested, who was far too gossipy to be an effective librarian. True, she seemed to know instinctively which books which children desired, but often these were books on young love and skincare and fashion, not the proper thousand-page Instructional Tomes of yesteryear. And Chang was given to emotionality; everyone knew that. As flying instructor, people whispered that she let her adoration for a long-lost Hufflepuff override natural house pride. Accordingly, she was distressingly fair when it came to judging matters of Quidditch, putting down anyone from any house who looked to spice up the game with a little cheat here or there. And besides, she seemed more interested in teaching escape tactics and defensive flight from Dark wizards than manly feats of derring-do like the Wronski feint; blending flying and Defense in ridiculous new ways, entirely ignoring the Ministry-approved syllabus. As for her friend, that near-werewolf Brown? She used Divination not so much to foretell the future as to instruct the children on how to weed out charlatans and liars. She whispered that the point of teacups and tea leaves was fun, and also knowing when someone was having you on. She claimed that nine out of ten prophecies had no real point; they always came true, whether you knew about them or not. But knowing where to find the excitement in magic, where to let yourself enjoy it, even if it was wooly? She could teach them that.

Oh, these girlish beings were unbearable. Governors and parents could not abide them; it was not simply that they failed to care much about testing and studying, but that they were failures as witches. They did themselves up in Muggle fashions instead of pointy hats, flaunted boyfriends (and girlfriends) in Hogsmeade, and cheerfully gabbed to students about using Mugwort to make lipgloss, of all silly things! It was terrible of the Headmistress to lock them into their positions. The Headmistress! Formerly so sensible.

Of course, in the year leading up to the Headmistress’s retirement, she had considered gently sending them away. She did not dislike them, but they were not as clear-headed, as stiff-lipped as her favorite students. They had recommended that she hire Daphne Greengrass (of the very much still blood purist Greengrasses) for the Potions position, purely because they’d met and admired her hair at some mixer in Diagon. And they went to mixers in Diagon! They did not don long, professorly nightshirts and patrol the halls like the staff of yesteryear. They tossed on dangly earrings and danced the night away in these new nightclubs, and then quaffed hangover remedies and exhaustion-curing potions before their morning classes. True, they knew their subjects and taught them well. But this was still very cavalier behavior.

But then, over Christmas, Yasmina Yaxley went missing.

Yaxley was a silly little Slytherin. Her family was dreadful, her father imprisoned, and yet the daffy little creature seemed not to notice. She floated through the halls discussing Witch Weekly to anyone who would listen; she cared very little about politics or current affairs; and she had begun a strange kind of dungeon sorority that ran on networking and gossip. It occurred to the Headmistress that of course Yaxley would go missing for no reason; Yaxley was just the type to cause trouble like that, not at all a rational, sober, and shrewd child. 

Protocol was followed by most teachers. Search parties dispatched to the forest. Owls sent home. Students send to their dormitories. Rote, sensible procedure, carried out with methodical accuracy.

But Vane, who’d had long, girlish talks with Yaxley and seen her check out books on the war alongside books on haircare, immediately conferred with Chang. And Chang had lent an ear to Yaxley when she’d seemed down, and helpfully flown her near a certain still-cursed section of the grounds that Yaxley had seemed particularly interested in. So she suggested they take what they knew to Brown. And Brown confirmed it. Yaxley saw particularly morbid things in tea leaves; she had a kind of secret fixation she rarely revealed to her fellow students, but she would come out with it, if you happened to be her favorite professor.

So Vane seized up her owl to send for help should they need it, a sensible notion. And Chang grabbed her broomstick to get them to where they had to go – also very clear-thinking. And Brown? Just to make sure, she cross-referenced school records, and also brought along a certain book by Horace Slughorn, a book not much noticed in these postwar days, for it discussed the role of Slytherins in the war, and the truth was: much of the Wizarding World longed to pretend the worst of the war had never happened.

Then, when they found Yaxley, they gave her the book, and also cocoa, and also they looked each other in the eye. They privately decided that, the student having been unhurt, despite straying into a place very badly affected by Dark Magic, and in fact no one having been hurt, perhaps they ought to take this cause up with the Headmistress. Perhaps, in this case, it would be fairer to leave off point-taking and detentions.

“She’s really not so very silly when you get to know her,” said Vane to the Headmistress. “The truth is, the silliness is a bit of an escape.”

“Speaking of,” said Chang, “That’s just what her brother did. You know, in the war. Escaped. And then after that he was struck down here at the Hogwarts grounds, blown to pieces by some curse.”

“Slughorn has the time and place of death recorded,” said Brown, “And it appears to be right where Yasmina likes to go. Of course, she didn’t realized the full extent of the trapping hexes there, and she got herself caught by one.”

“Well, that is foolish in the extreme!” said the Headmistress. She was horrified and angry, scarcely able to believe that some child in her care was obsessed with the resting grounds of a Death Eater. Silly Yaxley had probably made an idol of him, as foolish little girls were wont to do. “An in-dungeon suspension should–”

“Deter her not at all,” said Vane.

Chang gave a delicate cough. “Begging your pardon, but it didn’t deter her brother. After you sent him and his housemates back down to the dungeons, he came right back up. And fought. For us.”

All words dried up in McGonagall’s throat.

“Speaking as someone who was there, professor, you weren’t wrong,” said Brown. “But you rather are now. See, sometimes I think we assume we know the measure of people, when really all we know are silly little details. Houses. Colors. What they read. Not who they are.”

“So we recommend tutoring in hex defense,” said Vane.

“And therapy,” said Chang.

“And perhaps a shoulder to lean on, a fellow Slytherin. It’s been so long since we had a Slytherin on the staff,” said Brown. “Still longer since we had a nice one with nice hair.”

In the end, McGonagall decided to keep these three girlish creatures on a more permanent basis. They were new thinkers, in their way. Good for the school. And Yaxley received her tutoring and therapy. And Greengrass, in short time, was hired.

Which was lovely, because she made an excellent hangover remedy.

They say there is a hall in the Department of Mysteries where the incurable remain: the motionless corpses of basilisk victims, frozen in death, a testament to the snakes’ unstoppable venom; rooms and rooms of statues, princes who once dared to cross Celtic sorceresses; and beautiful women buried up to their knees, waists, and heads, their faces twisted in horror, preserving the moment they fell prey to some ancient curse. There are hacked and ill-reassembled men who had their swords enchanted against their own limbs. In wide pens are hens that once were fine ladies, and eternally slumbering dogs dreaming the dreams of country squires who foolishly trespassed on a witch’s land.

The children speak of this hall. Adults laugh, and say it does not exist. But if you could sneak in and wander from exhibit to exhibit, upending drawers and pressing your nose to the cases of this strange gallery, you might very well find odd mummies bent in pain; and the remains of people who seem similar to us, but perhaps not quite human, ice figures with swords drawn, sleeping away the centuries in mysterious iron boxes.

The business of the Department of Mysteries is, after all, mysteries. And so it is not simply a secret government collective. It has become, in its own way, something like a hidden museum. 

Only the very lucky – and the very unlucky – are granted admission.

(source)

The truth was: people did not like Potter, Weasley, and Granger coming to work for the Ministry. Powerless people felt it was a breach of trust to have their heroes suddenly side with the government. And those in power resented a bunch of upstarts coming in on the coattails of that rebellious replacement, Shacklebolt. They gave the trio impossible tasks in order to stay on, all the better to fire them when they inevitably failed. Potter was told that he would have to solve the decades-old murder of Tiberius Ogden’s cousin, with his only clue a photo in the Prophet. All the other evidence had mysteriously vanished along with the body. Potter winced, went to work, spent a week furious and bored out of his mind in the newspaper offices, and, miraculously, cracked the case (Wilkie Twycross did it. And, as they say in the MLE, he would have Apparated away with it, too). 

They also tried to remove Granger. They sat her at a desk and kept a snowy owl’s vigilant watch on her. They told her not to leave until she had tracked down the Department of Mysteries’s missing collection of flying and teleporting seven-league boots (overkill, but that was the Department of Mysteries for you), which they claimed had been absconded with by some fashion-conscious Voldemort supporter. The truth was, every last boot had gone up in Fiendfyre during the war and they all knew it, but the paperwork documenting this was conveniently missing. Granger sifted through reports all day, and then, finally, sent off a missive through the floo. They left her working through the night, and rejoiced to find her desk empty in the morning. But at half past she floated in, well-rested, and said, “Oh, is this what you were looking for?”

(source)

The easiest to oust should have been Weasley. He was the weakest link, in their opinion; they knew all about his rigid mother and his bumbling father and his upbringing, and they suspected that they could have a bit of fun with it, they could make him squirm in the process. So they told him he would be doing a routine patrol of Knockturn, and of course he would be fired if he couldn’t clean the place up, but not to worry: it was routine, and this was positively the easiest stretch of Knockturn, just a few smuggling rings and a dragonsblood dope den, no trouble at all. Perfect for a beginner. And then they deliberately assigned to him the worst route, the fool’s route, that long stretch with all the houses of lewd foreign monster girls. When he appeared the next day, bleary-eyed and somewhat horrified-looking, they pounced on him and said, “We notice it’s just as bad as it was before, Weasley!" 

Weasley blinked at them. "Not at all,” he said. “It’s a cleaner place now. Go and see. Why, even my old mum would approve.” They did go and see. It was, to his credit, a cleaner place. The placards did the trick. His old mum would have approved.

(source)

So the miraculous trio stayed on. They could not be ousted. They seemed unstoppable. No one knew how they had done it.

Except for Ms. Lovegood, whose father had snuck into the Prophet offices years ago and seized up copies of all their lost work on the Ogden case. And Winky the house-elf, who had access to the Hogwarts time turners and was fully capable of defending against fire. And Fleur Delacour, who spoke the language of the Veela and could provide helpful pointers on how not to inadvertently proposition them.

She’d also laughed herself silly when she’d received Weasley’s Owl.

Potter later reformed the Prophet and gave a boost to the Quibbler’s public image. Granger championed the cause of house-elves everywhere and made sure their Fiendfyre-repelling methods went public, with full credit to the elves themselves. And Weasley became a passionate magical creatures immigration advocate (and, thanks to some research Hermione forced onto him after the Knockturn Alley affair, a fierce protector of the rights of the working girl – or fellow). 

Heroism at its finest is not an individual endeavor. Sometimes one cannot win on one’s own. A true hero recognizes this. And, if they end up taking all the glory, they still find a way to pay it back, somehow.

3

The Hogwarts Express is revered by all as an institution of British wizardry, a symbol of one’s coming of age and of the sacred passage from beloved childhood to full-fledged magical adulthood. But rites of passage are by no means unique to Hogwarts.

Half a world away, hopping on and off of lines that otherwise service the Shinkansen, occasionally dropping underwater between Hokkaido and Kyushu, is the train to Mahoutokoro. It makes multiple stops rapid-fire, it employs time turner technomancy to arrive always five minutes early, it has no central platform or candy trolley, and it is charmed to be volcano-proof. And the students adore it.

In Britain they play Quidditch, which has a Quaffle and two Bludgers and a golden Snitch, and in the United States they play Quadpot, which they say has a kind of bomb for a ball.

Some Australian wizards and witches find this very cowardly. The local game of Hoonsmack, when played properly, includes all of the above, multiplied by four, plus a clutch of massive wild venomous spider eggs. You need at least three reserve Seekers to a side. Everyone doubles as a Beater. The Keeper is authorized to hex your broom. 

And of course the best position belongs to the Thwacker, who does not fly at all, but who is tasked with refereeing from the ground, armed with her croquet mallet-esque cudgels (curiously called ‘Muntsummoners’). These become necessary when players crash to the ground, as they often do, and need a nice pick me up.

For Hoonsmackers, this means being pummeled right back into the heavens.

Many would-be prophetesses attempted to follow in Cassandra Trelawney’s footsteps by fainting at tea leaves, rolling their eyes back horribly at crystal balls, and generally making nuisances of themselves. But none could match her. They could hoard gauzy fabrics and speak loudly of portents all they liked, but they did not have the Sight.

And in fact no one of Cassandra’s caliber was born until Neviah Merhawit, seer of the Sub-Saharan, who rarely liked to use the word ‘portent’ or even the word 'omen,’ preferred cream soda to tea, and was often heard saying, “What? No, I don’t need a crystal ball. Just give me whatever you have on hand.”

The beautiful witch was mad for Muggle romance novels, so she very happily followed the vampire to his lair. This was a dark and crumbling castle high on an isolated hill charmed against Apparition, a perfectly-laid trap decorated in the most morose manner possible; but so helpfully laid out, she thought, with romantic candelabra for mood lighting and also many convenient velvet-covered antique beds.

“What,” she began, in what she hoped was a breathy and titillating and feminine voice, “Are you planning to do to me, you fiend?”

“Tell me,” said the vampire, pinning her menacingly on the bed, baring his fangs and his chest, with the dim light of the lamps setting his alabaster skin to best effect, “What do you think of paragraph twelve of the Guidelines for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans?”

“…what?” said the witch.

“Because I find that Ministry regulations are often promulgated by those with little interest in cultural competence, and it’s a real problem,” said the vampire. “Never mind how preconceptions color the terms on which our people deal–”

“Wait a minute–” the witch said.

“–and canny undersecretaries use media outlets like the Prophet to make the situation worse,” said the vampire.

“Oh, not again. Kill me now,” muttered the witch.

But the vampire hardly thought that was the way to achieve interspecies cooperation, and privately felt that he could never bind himself for eternity to someone with no interest in current affairs. When he finally met the right girl, the girl he’d spend millennia with, the girl he’d transform into a fiend, into one of the living dead – she’d care about failures in public policy. She’d concern herself with injustices wrought by the MLE. She’d campaign to fix the flaws inherent in the structure of the Wizengamot. And she was out there, he was sure of it.

Every time,” said the witch. 

“It goes without saying that he was a master of the mind. This cliche term is one we affix to nearly everyone who successfully manages the business of Occlumency and Legilimency, and in his case he turned these arts on the very creature that first introduced them to him – no small feat.

"But what does that mean: to master the mind? Does it make one a champion of rational thought? Does it allow one to understand every spark of emotion, every odd flicker which can light up a temperament with the electrical awakening of the synapses? I think in some ways the mind, that great, dark engine crammed inside our paltry craniums, is not meant to be mastered. Certainly not if he was the result of such an endeavor. 

"Consider this: he had one of the most coveted positions in our world, where Hogwarts – particularly Hogwarts under Albus Dumbledore – is as prestigious as the Ministry, as Gringotts. He was, for someone in such a role, surprisingly young. He had very clever colleagues, if few friends, and he lived in an area that, while to magical eyes was crumbling and ordinary and ugly, very Muggle, to Muggle eyes was ripe for gentrification, for promise, for new blood to come in search of cheap housing. Within three years of his death, it was a revitalized town, and before then it was an artist’s paradise, a place for free thinkers, a place that might have suited him if he’d let it.

"For he was a free thinker, in his way. An intellectual. For all his flaws, he must have had a massive brain. His articles are brilliant, even by the standards of today, and, with Dumbledore’s backing, they were always published straightaway. He had the backing, too, of several very prominent names who regarded him as the cleverest among them, as a survivor, as one who slipped away from punishment; and who ought to have been commended for it. He had the support of Lucius Malfoy, of Yaxley and Baddock, and in those days that meant quite a bit.

"But I say this as one who knew him: he was a miserable man. If he was brilliant, then it sparked frustration and cruelty when his students were not. If he was admired for escaping Azkaban, then it meant nothing to him; and if he was derided for it by some, then surely the derision grew in his mind and dominated his thoughts. He never forgot a slight. If he ever longed for forgiveness, then probably it was because he could not comprehend receiving it. He had Occluded against it, blocked his mind so that he himself could not forgive.

"One wonders if he looked at the walls of his reclaimed Northern town, and saw, despite some very real successes even at a very young age, there written a story of failure, of living and dying without any growth whatsoever, frustrated.

"Skeeter paints him as a romantic and intellectual hero, cruel only for the Cause, and cruel only in the way spurned lovers are, who still somehow deliberately thought out every action and methodically brought us to victory. I think he did have good qualities – he must have; most do. I think he did help us on our way to victory.

"I also think he was trapped inside his mind. It made him horrible.”  

- Hermione Granger, Senior Undersecretary to the Department of Mysteries, on Order spy Severus Snape

Have you heard of Bill’s near-life experience?

Not his near-death experience. That was the werewolf thing. But the werewolf thing was a blessing in disguise. You’ll see why soon.

Bill was tall and pale and bright-haired, could achieve anything, and was always first – first born, first named, first in through the door – winning all the prizes, captivating the prettiest witches, cooler than cool, all leather and dragonhide. You know this. But he was also, in that way all truly cool people are, weird. He’d picked up something of his oddball dad, in that he fixated on the esoteric, the non-magical, the goblin-made, the bizarre. Bill’s peers set out to carve their way up through the Ministry. Bill only wanted to go down – into tombs, into vaults, into strange caverns at the center of the earth.

See, always being first and always winning wasn’t exciting. You needed a little bit of danger, a little loss now and then. You needed to get dragged down, to side with the misshapen and the strange against those who would cheat them, to flirt with some sharp-witted bird girl your mum hated. Bill knew this. So when Grabclaw – Bill’s boss – held up the file on someplace called the Damia’s Cavern, a place of legend, a place of death, a place no curse-breaker had come back from, the home of the oldest and purest witch in the world, Bill jumped at it. He thought it might be the coolest place yet: skulls piled high, bones crunching beneath the boot, treasures barred from access by terrible winding serpents and fountains of venom. And, true to form, to reach the cavern, Bill had to suffer through all of that, and it was exciting, and it was dangerous, and it was oh-so-Bill

But the cavern itself was a letdown.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful. It was suffused with light, and the fountains brought forth clear water and nectar and wine, and the vast halls shone like gold. And the Damia! What a stunning creature she was. Older than old, Bill knew, but so youthful-seeming, with her shining platinum eyes and hair, and her laugh like a song. 

She laughed because he’d thought there might be skulls there. How young and fair and dear she found him. How perfect, even with those scars of his, which indeed only added to Bill’s cool, Bill’s charm. The Damia was like Bill. She collected odd and dangerous things, she liked a bit of glamour, she couldn’t abide all this boring golden rock – oh, wouldn’t Bill stay with her? Just for a bit? Just to keep her company? 

Now, something in the back of Bill’s mind rebelled against the perfect Damia. She was too perfect. She was so beautiful, and her skin so clear and inviting, and her nails so sharp and shining. And sometimes he thought he could see, reflected in the golden nectar fountains, tall and white forms, an endless parade of handsome young men, drowning and gasping out for air. But he’d blink and they were gone. And then the Damia would laugh coyly and tell Bill that sometimes she collected the dearest trinkets, every now and then. The dearest, most perfect, coolest little specimens. Not like those failures that usually came out of the human race, oh no. Not like those monster creatures that they intermarried with sometimes. 

Bill had a wife, up on the surface. Not a pure being, but a pretty one, a sharp one, a dangerous one, a bird-girl, from high up in the air, who was perfect for him. Now the memory of her began to leave him. He would catch it sometimes, when he ran his fingers over his scars, but then the Damia would take his hand and bring it to her breast, and he’d forget again, forget his monstrous wife and the three rambunctious, fierce little children who were waiting for him at home.

“Your home is an awful place,” the Damia told him, “With nothing but danger and bigotry and evil, and eventual death. And here everything is perfect, and you will always win, and I will preserve you forever.”

And the parts of Bill that were Bill, not the winning parts, but the weird ones, the convictions, the courage? These began to fade. 

‘Til one day to the cavern came a sharp knock, and the Damia hissed to hear it, and there in the entryway stood a cursebreaker, a creature with its delicate nose all smudged, and its boots encrusted with mud, and its fair hair knotted and tangled from all the trials it had undergone to reach the Damia’s cavern. The Damia made to push Bill into the nectar fountain, for you must have seen by now that whenever a new one arrived, she would get rid of the old one, for she was easily bored; but perhaps it is good that she did not succeed, for this was no ordinary cursebreaker, and this was not the kind of person the Damia wanted. This cursebreaker gave a horrible shriek and it seemed to become a curse itself: its pretty face became elongated and monstrous and horrible, it sprouted hideous wings, its lovely limbs became claws, and it attacked the Damia, seemingly without provocation.

Bill attempted to intercede on the beautiful Damia’s behalf. To think that a monster should come and attack something so perfect! But it was like the monster suspected that he might try this. Whenever he came close it snatched out a claw and scraped along those old scars of his, mingling its blood and his own, and in those moments Bill would suddenly recall, with great clarity, a voice crying out that it would love him always, that scars (and fangs, and claws, and bits of monstrosity) could show that one was brave. And then he would retreat to the edge of the fountain, stupefied, and attempt to gather his wits while the fight raged on. 

The Damia met death that day. And the fountains dried up, the youths trapped inside whispered out a silent thanks, the golden light of the place dimmed, and finally Bill could see all those skulls. So there went Bill’s chance to live forever, united in perfect victory with the Damia, never suffering, never losing, bathed in gold.

Fleur, for her part, transformed back. She became again that pretty, perfect-seeming person with just a touch of the horrible about her. She worried about the dirt smudges on her nose and the blood beneath her fingernails. She informed Bill that the children were with his mother, and that he’d been gone for a year and a day. She’d had to go crawling home to Gabrielle and her mother to learn all kinds of embarrassing ancestral things, and he had another thing coming, Bill Weasley, if he thought she was going to apologize to Molly for any of it.

Then she took him home.

Ms. Lovegood, Ravenclaw, returns from her first year at school to greet her closest friends. These being the nargles infesting the rustling pages, the moon frogs who come down every summer to live in the binding, and the humdingers who’ve taken up residence in the shelves, one might suppose she is rather lonely, and one would be right. Yet through shelves, books’ binding, and rustling pages one learns of those things at once fanciful and necessary: loyalty, courage, kindness, and truth.

And with these, in time, she will craft friendships.

His father will not speak to him. His sister will, but she is ever-careful about it, deliberately not mentioning how disappointed everyone is. His brother sees him in Knockturn, and makes dithering, awkward remarks about how thin he looks, and how much better it would be if he just settled it with dad once and for all. His mother says, “You’re breaking his heart, taking a job with her. Being your own man, I suppose, but breaking your dad’s heart all the same.”

This sort of behavior crops up sometimes on her side of the family, so she seems comfortable with it. But by nature she is entirely partisan, and as far as anyone can tell she is entirely on dad’s side.

“How is that old roach, anyway?” Mum adds.

“Oh, all spite and cigarette smoke,” he says, “Demands seven hundred words in an hour. Sees leads where there’s only gossip. Lives on youth-rejuvenating serum and bitterness.”

“Like her that much, do you?” Mum says.

“Loads,” he says, and isn’t even lying. His cousins are all knife-sharp wit, and his uncles have a hidden occasional cruelty to them. They are a family with an edge, though no one will admit it. So hard people delight him. Mean people, funny people who poke and prod at others – they make him grin. Why would they think she should be any different?

“You’re not always perfect yourselves, you know,” he’ll tell his father eventually, “You’ve got just as much darkness in you as anybody.”

“Planning on using that against us, are you?” his uncle will shoot back before his dad can say a word, “The next Prophet headline, another smear against your old man, but this time with your name on the byline – I bet Rita would wet herself, she’d–”

“She’s a dreadful person,” his aunt will say, “And so are you, if you think–”

“I think it can be about more than smears!” he’ll tell them, “Fine. Do you want to know the truth? I think the Prophet’s rotten, the way we do news is rotten: the celebrity worship and the lies, and the way we conceal things – gloss over Squib abuse and inequality, hide it behind what Warbeck’s wearing this week. But I think that’s not going to change if all we do is sit about and complain!”

“And you’re the one to change it, are you?” his dad will say coldly. “By falling in with Skeeter and her bullies?”

And, defeated, he’ll say, “I’m a bit of a bully myself, I guess. But I’m willing to use that for a good cause.”

And eventually, his dad will understand what he means by that, and he’ll Floo-call the dank little Knockturn flat, where his once-coddled boy is holed up churning out byline after byline, and he’ll say, “What’s this about, then? Not another three pages on Padma Patil’s failing marriage, I hope.”

“Half a page is all she’s giving me, about how we’re invading traditional centaur territories,” he’ll reply, “She wanted less than that, but if she wants to say she’s got a Potter in her pocket–”

“If she thinks that, then she doesn’t know the Potters.”

“We’re our own men,” James will say, delighted.

“Well. I don’t know about that,” Harry will say, “But we’re not quite what you’d expect, us Potter-Weasley sorts. We’re a bit angry, you know? Explosive. Not perfect. But I can trust you, I think, to use that for good.”

The Muggles once told tales of women in green kirtles; of men with star crowns and silver serpents around their necks; of fair people living hidden inside hills, between stones, in towers on the other side of the sun, or where the waterfall flows in reverse. And of children. Children are always at the center of the stories. Beautiful children. Special. Capable of enchanting even a queen with a star on her brow. Children who walked widdershins around the church like Childe Rowland’s sister. Children warned not to drink the fairy drinks of fire, or the curious enchanted elves’ food. Children warned not to talk to anyone, not to help anyone, not even the animals. Children exchanged for peat moss.

For once there were those among us who had a very different attitude towards Muggle-borns. It was not that they did not belong. It was that they belonged with us.

They say that once wizards and Muggles lived side by side in harmony. But it is wizards and witches who say that. The Muggles – if only they could remember – might tell a very different story.

We do not know who the first student at Hogwarts was, for each house claims it was one of their own. And the first students to be taught at Beauxbatons were the last Duke of that palace’s six lovely daughters and rather lackadaisical son; we do not know who first picked up a book among them, but we suspect it was one of the girls.

Everyone, however, knows of the first student to pledge herself to Durmstrang. It was haughty, beautiful Sigrid, who saw the gods of her fathers giving way to weak and sentimental Muggle nonsense, who excelled at curses, who would be the death of kings. Oh, you may flout your Merlin all you like. But he was a charlatan half the time, and besides this everyone knows that the Muggles have confused their account of him, have thrown in a bit of every sorcerer that preceded him, have elevated him to the status of half-demon just to make his saga more powerful, more terrible, more imposing.

They did not need to do this with Sigrid.

Laughing Roxanne would never be a prefect. Her grandparents feared she might not even graduate — not because she was stupid, for in fact she was enormously clever, but because she was so determined to enjoy herself.

Here was Roxanne in bright dress robes, wittier and wiser than all her contemporaries, and yet choosing to dance the night away, not to study for OWLs. And here was sharp Roxanne putting down some big-headed cousin so merrily and so quickly that he wasn’t to realize he’d been insulted until next week. But never was Roxanne particularly committed to anything, never did she announce plans to try for Head Girl, or an intent to someday become Minister. No, instead she built marvelous contraptions out of granddad’s plugs for his amusement, recreated the Ford Anglia from some spare parts and flew the younger children to visit Aunt Fleur on the shore, caused fights between a dashing-but-cruel Ravenclaw and a pretty-faced-but-arrogant Hufflepuff, both determined to accompany her to Madam Puddifoot’s.

Only to take a Slytherin instead, because she thought it might be funny. Always a laugh with Roxanne.

It was her father’s fault. From the moment of her birth, he seemed to sense a kindred spirit. Something seemed to have been restored to him. And so she’d always been adored; she had never felt that there was an inadequate and broken part of her, a part that needed to be perfected, some missing element which might only be corrected with a shiny prefect’s badge, with glory and adulation, with the title of Minister.

And her father was comforted by this. She would never know what it meant to be fragmented, incomplete.

The house became a livery stable, then a pub, then a demolished and empty lot with nothing but bunches of weeds in it, then a square office building, then a heap of rubble; and then, finally, an art museum.

And still Lealy did not leave. 

Lealy was the truest soul that ever lived, you see; and he watched the old old men of the old old family venture forth into the world to be crowned and manipulated and murdered, and saw the old old women retire, for an instant, to bed, and never come back up again. And when they were gone he befriended the horses, and made sure there were always sugar lumps for them (but not too many), and had the ruder stablehands sacked and the kinder ones rewarded. And at the pub Lealy saw the happy drunks home safely, and the cruel ones to the gutter. And, when he was surrounded by nothing but great bunches of weeds, Lealy helped them grow as tall as weeds could, and saw to it that they blossomed into sturdy, fuzzy flowers to captivate passing schoolchildren. 

Even the office building prospered because Lealy was there. The young men and women with padded shoulders to give them courage became genuinely brave over time, for Lealy would make sure that their charts and graphs were always in the right place, that there was always a cuppa for them at their desks, and that in the angular boardroom the men with cruel eyes and bristling mustaches were seated in the lowest, most unreliable, most uncomfortable office chairs – Lealy liked to reserve the lowest places for the lowest people.

Lealy even stacked the rubble, when the office building came down; and kept a solid fellow in a sturdy hat from plummeting to his death; and contained the great billowing of smoke so that no worker, busy demolishing and building back up again, might find their lungs clouded up and their futures likewise clouded with sickness.

But in the museum Lealy found something new, something different. Here people came not to shore up old names, or discuss charts and graphs, or even to drink away their sorrows. Here people hung rebellion on the walls, and preserved brilliant moments between loved ones, so like those precious moments long ago with the old family that Lealy had by now nearly forgotten. And so Lealy became the protector not of horses or harassed secretaries, but of ideas, of progress, of bursts of expression.

It was the oddest task Lealy had ever had. The pictures did not need a cuppa. But he soon learned to protect them from camera flashes. The young artists who came all full of dreams did not want his service. But perhaps they could use some inspiration – which was a harder thing to provide by far.

But Lealy took to it. Lealy never shirked his duties. And so he began to swell up as he never had before, learning about love in the curve of a brushstroke, and beauty as it was reflected in the glaze of a common pot. They did not use the pots to make tea here; they displayed them. Ordinary, loyal little things – they were now repurposed as beautiful, ornate, precious, worthy of admiration.

Lealy loved the museum best of all. And the museum-goers, they loved him. They came looking for something extraordinary (one does not look for wonderment in a pub or in stables or in an office building, or even at home – but in a museum! That is a different story), and the ones with the clearest eyes, the youngest hearts, the most open minds – they found Lealy. 

Lealy would whisper to them the secrets of how to stay loyal and true, and, above all else, how to put kindness into the world. Lealy was not supposed to talk to these clear-eyed persons, not really. While Lealy had stayed in this one spot, watched it mutate around him, the world had undergone even greater mutations, and now there was a Statute that said Lealy was not supposed to be in a Muggle museum at all.

But what did Lealy care for such ever-changing, unreliable things as Statutes? Statutes are forged to tell men their proper places. But Lealy was no man. He was a house elf; he did not need to be told where he belonged.

Here is the story that most have forgotten, that Kendra told her sons, though only her daughter, hidden in the corner, was listening at the time; that old Isla told Alphard when he tracked her down before her death; that lines of Duffers have passed down over the years, while the other houses have let it fall away; and that Hermione once found on a crumbling bit of parchment in the darkest corner of the Restricted Section (though she did not have time to decipher it fully).

The first wizard was Saynday, say some, though his name matters little. He is called many peculiar things all around the world. And his power was the power that all wizards and witches have and do not always remember that they have, which is the power to dance between clarity and confusion, by turning empty words to powerful reality. So Saynday cherished his words. He needed some loyal and clever being to help spread them all throughout the world, and in particular to help spread them to the first witch, who likewise has ten million names and who he had spied once, beautiful and dark-skinned with flashing eyes, gazing at him from her winter home on the sea foam. But now, alas, she was guarded from his gaze, in her jealous parents’ summer palace at the center of the sun.

So a great contest was held, to find who was the most loyal and courageous and cunning and clever creature in the world, who might carry the first wizard’s love missives to the very first witch. And the eagle, the buzzard, the crow, and the raven all failed on the first try, for they could fly far, but not to the center of the sun. And at last only magical beasts – the great dragon, the great thestral, and the great phoenix – remained. And to each of these Saynday gave a different proposal of marriage, and bade them to bring it to the beautiful witch in her sun palace.

Dragon flew half-way, until he could see the handmaidens of the sun witch gazing at him with their eyes that were stars. At that point he heard some twitting near his ear, and it was the very common and thoroughly un-magical Owl. 

“What do you want?” asked Dragon.

“Oh dear,” said Owl, “Oh dear. Oh dear. The witch of the sun will never look at you. You are all fleshy and pink and disgusting, with that webbing between your wings. Look, see how even the star-handmaidens turn away and flicker out their eyes to avoid seeing you. Quick, let me hold that missive for you, and you can use your magic to give yourself lovely bright scales.”

So Dragon did as he was told, but when he was done Owl had sprung ahead with the missive, and he could not follow, for his scales were heavy and slowed him down.

Great Thestral, large and black, made it three quarters of the way, to where the first witch’s moon gatekeeper stood, and there Owl caught up with him.

“Oh, he will not let you through!” screeched Owl, “For look, the Phoenix who came before you has tricked him, and so he is furious. You will have to turn yourself invisible. Hand me your marriage proposal, and I will hold it while you do so.”

So Thestral did just that. But when it was done Owl would not give the missive back, no matter how furiously he stomped his hooves.

“What is that stomping?” asked the gatekeeper.

“Take this knife and plunge it into your heart, and you will see,” said Owl. And the gatekeeper did so (this is why the sun and stars are hot and living, but the moon is cool dead rock), and caught sight of Thestral, but by then it was too late, for Owl had vanished through the gate.

Owl caught up with Phoenix just as he was circling the palace. 

“Oh dear,” said Owl, “Oh dear, oh dear. Look at you, terrified of a few sunny flames. The witch of the sun is laughing at you, I think. Here you fly, nervous and terrified of being burnt, when you are such a powerful magical being yourself and can surely stand a few flames. Fly right in!”

“I worry, dear Owl, that my missive will burn up.”

“Oh, never mind that,” said Owl, “I’ll hold it, and you can go in and fetch the witch of the sun.”

So Phoenix did just that, but of course he never reached her. The sun burned him up to a crisp, and, pitifully, he crawled out and cursed Owl with his last dying breaths.

But Owl felt he did not deserve curses, for he knew perfectly well that the witch of the sun was a kind being. She would not let any creature die at her doorstep. And so it was. Out she came, and when she saw Phoenix she cried over him and gave him back his life, and gave him besides that the power to revive himself, to be born from his own death, should he ever need it.

So the great dragon and the great thestral and the great phoenix became more magical than they yet were for their troubles. But it was clever, ordinary Owl who gave the sun witch her proposals, and who subsequently flew back with her acceptance.

And this is why common owls are trusted with our words. 

“I look a right tit,” hissed Roger Davies.

“All the Muggles dress like this,” said Anthony Goldstein, “What were you going to do: stroll into a Muggle neighborhood with your dress robes on?”

“Nice neighborhood it is, too,” said Roger. He looked around, paranoid, at the strange metal staffs on each corner that flashed a cryptic pattern of red, green, yellow; at all these people without proper robes on, the women in skintight denim and odd bright chemises, wires feeding dissonant noise straight into their ears; at the sinister way young men in this area walked with secret chiming rectangles in their hands, violently beating out indecipherable codes. “Where’s your man, Tony? When’s he going to get here? Is he even coming?”

“He’s coming. He’ll be here,” Anthony said. But he didn’t sound too confident.

They waited. They tried to look nonchalant. Around them, the Muggle city grew darker.

“This had better be worth it,” said Roger, “Do you know what we’re risking? Do you know what they say? This stuff is dangerous.”

“It’s mind-blowing, is what it is,” said Anthony, “I tried it once – you should’ve been there; Su Li had this haze of charms and transfig–”

“Good, powerful magic’s supposed to block it,” said Roger. His hands were clammy. He wanted to leave. “Good wizards aren’t supposed to–”

“Listen to me,” said Anthony, “This–this is a high like you’ve never felt before. This is it. The boundaries of all knowledge just melt away. You feel like you could know anything, like you’re connected to every other living being. It’s nirvana. It’s total transcendence. My man’ll be here.”

But his man was a woman. A Muggle, looking dangerous in skintight denim, looking like she didn’t realize what they were risking, what they’d come for. Maybe she didn’t care. Roger didn’t look her in the eye as he handed over the payment they’d painstakingly transferred to Muggle currency earlier this morning.

But then after she’d gone he looked down at the books and traced their titles, wondering. Coding for Beginners. Advanced Topics in Types and Programming Languages. The Expert’s Voice in Software Development

“Mix that with some Arithmancy,” said Anthony knowingly, “Throw in some of Su Li’s stuff. And then you’ve got yourself a cocktail resistant to even the most magical abode, my friend. And then you can go–”

“On the internet,” Roger said. He looked half-drugged with delight.

In Melbourne there lived a couple, a cosmopolitan and clever couple who spent their days operating a private practice and their nights watching films, attending lectures, teaching night classes, and driving to the theater (A Winter’s Tale! We must go see it!).

And people could see that they were happy. There were no signs that anything was missing. Their life seemed to have been constructed for them by some benevolent force outside their control, which had determined that theirs should be an existence blissfully free of any inconvenience, annoyance, or pain.

Except for the nightmare. In the cold hours of the morning, when Dr. Granger would toss and turn and wake Dr. Granger, they would sit up, disheveled, and look at each other, and resolutely not discuss the little girl they both saw when they closed their eyes at night. But who is she? they would later think, while pulling teeth and cleaning gums. Who is she? they would ask themselves, laughing with noted experts on dental radiology. Who is she? they wondered, midway through the Melbourne Underground Troupe’s terrifically intellectual take on Shakespeare.

They did not know anything about her, beyond a solid conviction that somewhere, in some wild forest or rambling castle or terrible manor, in some fantastic place, she existed. She was real.

That was not the nightmare. The nightmare was that they knew she was alone.

2

For a long, a very long time, Muggles have been fascinated by the thought of young women trapped in towers. Brittle, fair creatures, their golden hair a stairway to some other plane, their sad eyes pleading for rescue, their thin wrists waving uselessly down at the ground: Help me! Help me, for I’m trapped! I seem to be so far above you, I seem so lovely as to be a goddess from another realm, but it’s a trick. It’s artifice. Oh, spend your blood to free me, sacrifice your eyes so that you might not be blinded by my loveliness, slay dragons and climb my golden stair and then tumble down to your muddy land for rebirth, and if you do all this I will descend, and I will be with you, and we will be together!

And perhaps, once, there really was a girl in a tower, and perhaps some Muggle, coming up and spying her in the window, asked her what he could do for her, what cruel parent had forced her there. And perhaps she looked at him with sad eyes and said he could do nothing, for she was the daughter of a witch, she was a child of magic, and so she would be forever above him.

The Muggles have written a thousand different endings to bring the girl down from the tower throughout the years, as they have spent blood to free themselves from old towers of caste and greed, as they have slain a million dragons with new inventions and new tricks; as they have tried to climb, again and again, a thousand different ideologies, stairs to the stars, only to tumble back down into mud to try all over again. As they have grown.

But the sons and daughters of witches and wizards are taught to hold themselves apart. They are trapped in dungeons, behind hidden doors, and – yes – in towers, where they learn to despise and fear Muggles, where they learn that Muggles are beneath them.

They have never heard this rescue story. They would not understand it even if they did. They peer from the clouded panes of their old houses at the filthy Mudblood (oh, what would they say if they were to learn that mud can be rebirth?), the blood-traitor climbing down to greet him, and they are afraid. They are trapped. They trap themselves.