"Mr Potter," Professor Flitwick began, "do you really feel that the amount of force you used against those three boys was appropriate? Professor Dumbledore informed us of your unusual status, but surely you could have been less brutal."
Harry realized that this was one conversation that was likely to become very tedious, very quickly. "The human mind is a negative feedback mechanism, and the more humiliating the incident, the longer it will be burned into the brain. It does wonders for teaching manners."
With the professors glowering at his flippant response, Harry gave a casual shrug of indifference and tried for a more innocent look. "Tell me, Professor Flitwick, do you really feel that the lack of punishment for bullying and harassing the other students by those three 'boys' was appropriate?" Harry did his best to look like an eager young student waiting for a lecture to begin.
The professors, for their part, shifted uneasily in the chairs they were sitting in, apparently preparing for a long discussion of events with Harry.
Flitwick scowled slightly as he regarded Harry. "I thought those students were being punished. When we passed along student complaints, both Albus and Severus told us they would take care of the problem." He paused for a moment to look closely at Harry. "Are you telling me that they were not punished?"
Harry shrugged his shoulders again. "Honestly, I don't have any direct personal knowledge. From what I was told by more than one student, however, it would seem that no, they weren't punished in any real way. Moreover, those who did complain seemed to find themselves in the hospital wing shortly after every complaint. Does that seem to indicate that the offending students were being effectively reprimanded?"
Flitwick frowned again before looking to the other Head of House. Professor Sprout looked unhappy as she turned to face Harry directly. "Well, is that why the complaints dropped off? I thought it was an indication that the problems had ceased."
"Maybe you should be asking your students these questions yourself," Harry offered in return. After a rather awkward moment of silence, his stomach growled loudly. "Would it be possible to get some sandwiches? It's been a very long time since breakfast."
Flitwick nodded quickly before calling out, "Blinken!" With a soft pop! an elf appeared by the professor.
Harry felt his eyebrows rise involuntarily. He had no knowledge that professors had their own personal house-elves at the castle. Flitwick seemed to catch Harry's surprise, for he gestured to the elf and kept his eyes on Harry. "Blinken is not my personal house-elf. Instead, she is assigned to me as a Hogwarts professor, and as long as I am an instructor here, Blinken treats me as though I were a proper Master."
Harry nodded his acceptance of the information, but Flitwick had already turned back to his house-elf. "Would you please bring us some sandwiches and tea? And perhaps a butterbeer or three for Mr Potter?" Blinken smiled happily before disappearing with another soft pop!
"Thank you," Harry said politely. "Back to the point, though, why do any of you trust that Death Eater to be an educator of children? Does no one monitor him to make sure his actions are appropriate? And does the person in charge of the hospital wing not report back to the Heads of House when a student is injured?"
Professor Sprout seemed shocked at Harry's blatant accusations, regardless of the kind words he had used, but Flitwick merely looked like he had eaten a Super Sour Sherbet Lemon. He recovered enough to answer first. "As for the injured students, no, Madam Pomfrey does not generally inform us. She does tell the Headmaster of every incident, but she only lets us know if anything serious has occurred that requires an overnight stay. Between being a professor, a Head of House, and monitoring the wards on the castle, we don't really have the time to deal with lesser matters such as who is sick for some reason. Most people are in and out in less than an hour. Maybe we should suggest some changes or something..." Flitwick trailed off thoughtfully. Whilst he was thinking, Blinken reappeared with a tray of food and drinks. After setting it down on an end table, the house-elf returned, presumably, to her usual duties.
Harry helped himself to two sandwiches and a butterbeer, letting Flitwick and Sprout talk quietly with each other for a minute or two. It seemed utterly ludicrous that a person nominally responsible for keeping track of up to a hundred students would receive no notice of injuries, ailments, or other problems concerning those very students. Students here were clearly dumped into a sink-or-swim pool, and if what those on the train had said was true, no effort had been made to harpoon the sharks.
This suggested deeper problems, and Harry was disinclined to get involved. Perhaps finally agreeing to attend Hogwarts was a mistake after all. It would certainly make things difficult for his own plans if he were constantly dealing with idiots and their fumbling attempts to neutralize his own resources.
After devouring two sandwiches, during which he somewhat absently noting how rich the food was in flavour and basic quality of ingredients, Harry decided he wanted to get the rest of his answers regarding Snape before Dumbledore returned. He cleared his throat briefly to get the attention of the other two professors.
"Would you mind answering a few of my questions about Snape?" Harry asked politely.
Flitwick sat back and studied the ceiling. "What makes you think he's a Death Eater?"
Harry smirked. "Please, as the head of the so-called brainy house, don't act like an idiot."
Sprout huffed and shifted noisily at Harry's flagrant disrespect, but Flitwick sighed before looking back at Harry. "Honestly? Because Albus Dumbledore swears that Snape can be trusted and is a spy for our side against You-Know-Who. Snape seems to be bitter and twisted most of the time, but I have to say that he's first-rate at Potions and their applications. I'm not sure he knows how to teach, but he does know the material better than many who are entitled to be called Potions Master. He's nearly as good as his original mentor."
Harry slowly let his gaze move to the fireplace. "Thank you for your candid answer. In reality, the evidence of Snape being a spy goes both ways. Personally, after reviewing the evidence and many Pensieve memories from different witnesses, coupled with events from this summer . . . I don't trust him. I think he's either working for himself or is in truth actually aligned with Voldemort, especially since his rebirth."
"What?!" Flitwick shot to his feet, and Harry realised for the first time just how diminutive the man was. "What are you talking about? And what do you mean that Voldemort has been reborn?"
Any opportunity to reply was curtailed, as the merry trilling of the phoenix in the corner indicated that the Headmaster was returning. Moving his chair so that the back faced the solid wall rather than the door, Harry waited patiently. After mere moments, the Headmaster and Deputy Headmistress walked in together. Both returning professors picked up a cup of tea before seating themselves next to Flitwick and Sprout, forming a semi-circle of professors facing Harry.
"Mr Potter," Dumbledore began after sipping from his teacup, "do you realize that the charges you are levelling against Professor Snape are going to make a great many things very difficult? In fact, you may be placing the lives of many innocents at risk!" Clearly Dumbledore was less than pleased with Harry.
Harry smiled blandly at the Headmaster. This was going to be fun. "I prefer to think of it as eliminating a major risk of serious injury or death for the students under your care. Or do you think that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others?"
Dumbledore blinked twice before returning to an external state of calm. "And what are you referring to? Severus is not a threat to the students here."
Harry continued his bland, mindless smile. He hoped that it would irritate the Headmaster, as legend held the man to be nearly unflappable. "You mean that letting his Slytherin slugs terrorize, brutalize, and sexually abuse other students without reprimand was helping all those students in some magical way?"
Dumbledore sat back in his chair. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Professor McGonagall shifted in her seat, leaning forward to look more closely at Harry, a stern and disapproving gaze making his hackles rise.
"Really?" Harry felt his irritation truly rising now. "So you are telling me that you didn't receive unceasing reports from the matron of the hospital wing of injuries to students? Suspicious injuries? You did not notice the lack of Slytherin student injuries? You did not notice the steady stream of accusations of student abuse from the other Heads of House to your not-as-tame-as-you-think Death Eater?" Harry's voice had become increasingly cold. "For a man who is reported to be extremely observant with at least a genius-level IQ, as well as supposedly being very bloody sneaky, I find your statement to be fallacious at best."
Harry was still very irritated and on the verge of a dangerous state of anger. At the same time, he was inwardly pleased to see Dumbledore visibly reacting now and starting to look ever so slightly annoyed. "What do you know of Death Eaters or Severus?" Dumbledore's own voice was frosty.
"Heard any new prophecies lately, old man?" Harry casually drawled in imitation of Malfoy's superior attitude. Dumbledore's look of utter shock caused Harry to make a mental note to send a copy of his sensory monitor to his tutors. Otherwise no one would believe that Harry had caught Dumbledore completely bent out of joint.
Professor McGonagall, however, recoiled as if slapped. "Show some respect, Mr Potter! Were school in session, I would have you in detention for a month!" She seemed honestly upset and affronted at Harry's casual and mildly insulting demeanour.
Harry stared back at McGonagall. "Oh? And how should I address someone who is clearly lying to me? And, for that matter, lying to all of you? Someone who has been withholding critical information from me for a great many years now?" Harry then turned his attention back to Dumbledore. "For a leader of the Light side, I'm not very impressed."
McGonagall appeared amazed that anyone would talk back to her, let alone a student. Dumbledore showed increasing signs of anger and irritation. "I believe it is time that Mr Potter and I had a frank discussion in private. I ask you all to please leave us and to verify that everything is prepared for the students' arrival in a few hours."
Harry and Dumbledore continued to stare at each other balefully as the other professors departed. When the door closed, the Headmaster abruptly stood and moved behind his desk. Sweeping his wand in dozens of intricate movements whilst muttering under his breath, a palpable feeling of power soon permeated the room. "Very well, this room is now secure from listening and scrying attempts. Let us be frank with one another, Mr Potter. Very frank." Dumbledore stared hard at Harry for a long moment.
Harry merely yawned in the face of Dumbledore's ire, much like he had with Snape. Their efforts at intimidation were completely inadequate. He was quite pleased with how things were going thus far and saw no reason to change tactics yet. If he could keep Dumbledore on edge, perhaps he could actually pry loose some of the secrets that had been evading his grasp for the past four years.
"First, do you know what role Severus plays in things?" Dumbledore peered quite intently at Harry.
Harry reverted to his innocent, vacant, school-boy look. "Of course. You think he spies for you, but in reality, you don't really know who he works for. It could be you, it could be Voldemort, it could be himself, or it could even be me. Isn't that fun, guessing who he supports today?" Harry was almost positive that the combination of his facial expression and deliberately light voice was grating on the Headmaster's nerves like nothing else in recent memory.
Dumbledore remained standing and glaring at Harry. "I have full faith that Severus is working for me and the side of the Light. I am asking you to drop your charges against him. We think that Voldemort is coming back into power, perhaps even seeking to gain a new body. I need the information that only Severus can provide!"
Harry could not stop himself, as he started laughing at Dumbledore. The man's expression and naivetι in trusting Snape were beyond the pale as far as Harry was concerned. Dumbledore's demeanour gradually became more angry, and were Harry easily intimidated, he might have stopped laughing sooner. As it was, it took a long moment to be completely calm again. "Really, Dumbledore, you are a fool. Has Severus not told you yet that Voldemort has regained a new body?"
"What?!" The roar of irritation and the magical charge in the air caused the furniture to shake slightly and the phoenix to take to the air, singing a calming song to placate Dumbledore's temper. "You will tell me what you know! Now!"
Harry smiled with a grin more appropriate for a drunken gambler stumbling into a major casino. "Oh? I will? Why should I?" Harry nonchalantly began a leisurely inspection of his fingernails.
It was obvious to even a casual observer that Dumbledore was close to a towering rage, although Harry suspected that the trilling phoenix was curtailing the man's actions. At the same time, he knew his calculated indifference about telling Dumbledore what he wanted to know should be making him desperate. At this point, either the old man would stoop to asking and cajoling, or else he would lash out and demand the information. Harry further knew that by not asserting any claims of mental defence from Snape's invasion, any trained Legilimens would immediately assume that Harry had no shields at all. Given that in the right circles, people knew that Dumbledore was only second to Voldemort in Occlumency and Legilimency, Harry was extremely curious to see which way the headmaster would move hastily attacking and demanding, or patiently cultivating logic for why Harry should tell the man everything he knew.
Harry kept his face as neutral as possible as the headmaster's power clearly gathered, and when he felt a full assault against his mental defences, he knew the answer. Dumbledore clearly was not used to being thwarted on something so critical. Though the man's powerful attack was impressive, Dumbledore's face revealed the blatant shock of encountering Harry's well-protected mind. As his tutors had worked so hard on his skills, he knew that to an unprepared attacker, it was as though Harry's mind simply did not exist . . . as if he were, in fact, dead.
Harry gave the headmaster a wicked grin. "Tsk, tsk, Headmaster. I think, just this once, I will overlook your actions and not press charges against you even though my sensory monitor has just caught you doing illegal Legilimency against me. That was a rather amateurish attempt to control my mind, you do realize?" The mocking tone in Harry's voice was apparently completely lost on the Headmaster, who slumped into his seat, staring at the boy in front of him in obvious confusion.
After a long silence, Dumbledore finally looked Harry in the eye and asked the question he seemed suddenly afraid of knowing the answer to. "Who are you?"
"Me? Why, I'm the Boy-Who-Lived, didn't you know that?" Harry smirked evilly. There was no way this memory was not getting sent back home for blackmail material. In all likelihood, someday Dumbledore and Harry would be allies and possibly even friends, but there was a long keel to haul to get there. Playing this back later should be good for hours of entertainment.
"I don't understand. You refused to attend Hogwarts for four years. You announce out of the blue that you are ready to attend. I put out feelers, and no one could name or think of anyone who had tutored you. Yet you sit there clearly knowing more than I can guess. How is this possible?" Dumbledore looked resigned to a situation he would have little control over for the moment.
"Do you really understand what it means to be the Boy-Who-Lived? What that whole vanquish-Dark-lord fine print really means? What kind of power I have inside of me?" Harry looked mildly surprised that Dumbledore of all people had failed to consider this. "I've had training, trust me. When, where, what, and who are irrelevant questions at the moment as far as you're concerned. The why of the matter stems from that bloody prophecy. What I want from you are concessions. You'll agree to my terms, or I'll be out of here before the feast even starts. We both know that once I get Sorted, I'm bound by oath to finish at least my O.W.L. exams before I can leave permanently just like every other student barring expulsion. In return, I'll give you some answers including what happened with Voldemort."
Dumbledore slumped forward and, in a clearly unthinking reflex, popped a lemon drop into his mouth. "What concessions do you require?" he asked, wariness evident in his tone.
"Nothing drastic, Granddad. You will tell me everything you know about Voldemort, everything you suspect, and as soon as you find out something new or hear a rumour relating to him, you will tell me as soon as possible even if I'm in class or sleeping. In return, I will make you the same offer. Likewise, you will tell me or take me to a copy of the entirety of any and all prophecies relating to Voldemort or myself, or those you suspect might do so. I don't like partial information, and just knowing the first bit of that whole 'vanquish' rubbish has been irritating the hell out of me for over four years now." Harry sat back and regarded Dumbledore coolly.
Dumbledore sat staring at Harry for a while, clearly lost in thought. "Alright, Mr Potter, I will agree. What you are asking for is what I already planned to do, but not until you were older and had finished Hogwarts. Since I now appear to have little choice in the matter . . ." Dumbledore just sighed slowly, nodding in acceptance of the demands.
Harry shook his head. "No, sorry, that won't work. You're too good at being clever and sneaky. I want an Unbreakable Vow. I will give the same in return. After all, we don't trust each other yet. We can play catch-up on Voldemort after the feast since there's likely too much information to share before then, and we still have other things to get through before I'll agree to stay here."
With obviously great trepidation and reluctant frustration, Dumbledore swore an Unbreakable Vow to Harry, promising to inform him as soon as possible of any and all developments relating to Voldemort, and Harry reciprocated with his oath to Dumbledore.
In the moments after the exchange of oaths, Harry suspected that Dumbledore had ultimately decided that there was little to be gained by hiding from this unexpected development, as Dumbledore finally regarded Harry with no particular emotion or twinkle in his eye. After slowly assuming a blank expression, Dumbledore asked, "What must we discuss next?"
"Let's talk about Draco Malfoy and his friends. Why have you let them get away with so much?" Harry was genuinely curious to find out why the Headmaster had permitted a clearly dangerous situation to continue.
Dumbledore leaned back into his chair, tenting his finger tips as he seemed to collect his thoughts. "Mr Potter would you mind if I call you Harry since we'll clearly be seeing quite a bit of each other?" Harry waved his hand in an indifferent motion, and Dumbledore continued. "Harry, have you ever given someone a second chance?"
"Then why should I not give the same opportunity to those children who have been brain-washed into believing as their parents do? Do they not deserve the opportunity to learn for themselves that those beliefs are invalid? Or should we condemn the child with the parent, even though the child has never properly learned right and wrong?" Dumbledore paused, looking expectantly at Harry.
Harry wanted to groan with the oversimplification that Dumbledore was making. "Tell me, Headmaster, if a rabid dog bites a puppy, thus making the puppy rabid, would you think it appropriate to permit the rabid puppy to run freely amongst all the other puppies?"
Dumbledore frowned briefly. "Of course not. Even if it is only a puppy, the saliva will carry rabies to all that come into contact with it. But young Mr Malfoy and his peers are not rabid or contagious, so your connection does not work. By your own example and actions on the train, you are implying that we should eradicate someone for their acts even when they have no knowledge of the real right or wrong. That is what I cannot condone."
Sighing softly, Harry thought he saw the problem the Headmaster had with his peculiar vision and desire for granting second chances. "Let me suggest a different parallel, then. Would you agree that a person suffering from dementia should not be allowed weapons, for fear of the damage they might do to themselves or others?"
"And would you agree that hands, feet, elbows, sticks, knives, guns, wands, and, most importantly, the human mind are all weapons that can cause extreme harm, if not death itself?" Harry slowly leaned forward, wanting to drill in his next point.
"Yes." The Headmaster seemed uncertain where Harry's line of questioning was headed. It was clear that though Dumbledore understood that the students were perfectly in possession of their faculties, he most likely thought they were just skewed in their beliefs.
"And what would you recommend doing to a person suffering from dementia?" Harry asked.
"Well, in general, you confine them in such a way as to ensure the safety of everyone, and then proceed to treat their illness whether by therapy, potions, or something else. The primary aim is to safely contain the poor soul and to help them heal." Dumbledore started to lean forward as well, obviously curious to see what the connection would be.
Harry wanted to smirk, but given how much he had already pushed the headmaster, he kept his face neutral. "And do you agree with the common definition of dementia, which states that it is either not being aware of one's own actions through illness, or being incapable of telling wrong from right in their own mind?"
Dumbledore just stared at Harry. The phoenix on his shoulder let out a soft cry, before flying back to its perch in the corner. After some time, Dumbledore blinked and seemed to become aware of his office again. "I think I see what you are trying to convey. You believe that they are the equivalent of a specific type of dementia and should be treated accordingly."
"Not really," Harry shook his head. "The problem as I understand it and bear in mind this is based on limited observations today and comments made to me by others is that you've set up a double standard and have no accountability in place. If they are safe enough to be students amongst the general population, then they should be treated as the rabid puppies they are assaulting and molesting the other students, pushing their so-called brainwashing on others, and so forth and so on. If, however, you believe they cannot tell right from wrong, then they are not safe to be amongst the populace and they should be confined until therapy solves their problems if they ever can be solved. You can't have it both ways, Headmaster. You are harbouring a group of students who are either rabid or demented, and they are already heavily armed with just their wands. Imagine the damage if they discover other means for inflicting pain and suffering? I applaud your aims but not your methods for trying to achieve them."
Harry leaned back in his seat, gazing impassively at the Headmaster. Even though Harry admitted that the man's goals were very noble, in that he wanted to offer a framework for those to learn a different point of view and perhaps change their allegiances, the horse led to water can only drink if it so chooses. Harry understood that you cannot change others by force or persuasion. In order to change, you have to want to change. The lack of repercussions to the problem cases only encouraged further assaults and cemented the abusers' sense of superiority.
It had taken years to really understand some of the underpinnings of how this magical society in England worked, even with the combined minds of his Muggle and magical tutors. As to whether the fundamental problems could ever be fixed, none of his mentors could agree. The situation inside of Hogwarts, however, needed to be fixed, or this next war with Voldemort would be lost even if Harry and his group won all the battles.
Dumbledore walked over to the window, obviously oblivious to the world as he absently petted the phoenix and stared out through the thin glass. Harry waited patiently for the headmaster to truly understand the point, taking the opportunity to study the contents of the man's office. The various paintings on the wall were either staring hard at Harry or whispering to each other as they moved through the different portraits. Behind Dumbledore's large desk was a tall, wooden stool with an old wizard's hat sitting on top of it. Turning his attention to the wall of books opposite the window, Harry rose and began examining the titles, searching for something new to read.
Harry caught movement in his peripheral vision when Dumbledore turned and watched Harry in front of the books. Harry let the man continue to think he was unaware of the scrutiny from across the office, only looking at the headmaster when he cleared his throat briefly.
Dumbledore nodded to the extensive collection of books. "Feel free to borrow any book that catches your interest. Please take only one at a time and return it before taking the next one. With regards to your views on Mr Malfoy and the other children, I must think more on this. Perhaps your proposal is the only approach for a solution, but I hope not. You are, however, correct to point out the damage that is being done to the other students through my inaction. I shall redress this tonight at the feast."
Harry paused in his inspection to look back at Dumbledore. "Thank you, sir." There was no reason not to be polite, now that he had successfully pushed Dumbledore off balance enough to listen to what people told him instead of selectively hearing what he probably thought was being said. The change may only last a short time, but it was enough to plant the major seeds as far as Harry was concerned. "And what of Snape?" Harry asked.
"Professor Snape, Harry," Dumbledore corrected absently. "You know I need him. You also must know that your charges against him will fail and that he will return and be very hostile towards you. I also doubt your charges against the young Mr Malfoy and his two friends will stand up. The evidence doesn't really support the charges against his two friends, and you know that his father, Lucius, will spend all the money necessary to save his son from Azkaban. Unfortunately, I believe he will succeed with that plan."
Harry chuckled lightly. "Oh, I know. You could say that I'm counting on it." Turning back to the bookcases, Harry resumed his perusal before continuing. "I am happy enough for now that the students have been expelled and their wands will be snapped, forcing them to purchase new ones if another school will accept them a school such as Durmstrang, perhaps. This will alleviate many fears here in Hogwarts, and at the same time will take much time and money away from Lucius. And if they should attack me again, I will be well within my rights to deal with them most firmly. I trust you will do something about those that remain?"
Dumbledore sighed rather audibly. "Yes, Harry, I will make an announcement tonight that should any student assault another student without due cause, they will be expelled and their wands snapped in two. I will continue to think about your dementia argument and try to find a usable solution since the Ministry and Board of Governors would never let me directly punish them that way."
Harry paused as he found a book that looked interesting. Pulling it out, he showed the cover to Dumbledore whose eyes started twinkling again slightly before pocketing it under his robes. A book like that demanded to be read slowly and carefully, and this was not the time to start. For casual reading or when otherwise bored, Harry had a copy of the latest David Weber paperback, Oath of Swords.
Dumbledore pulled out his pocket watch and looked back at Harry. "We should wrap this up soon, Harry. I need to prepare for the students arriving in the next hour or so. Is there anything else we should talk about before the feast, since we will be meeting afterward?"
Harry shrugged briefly. "We need to talk about what subjects I'll take, but we can do that later. We should discuss my living arrangements, although I assume that has to wait until I've been Sorted. I would like your permission to freely come and go from the grounds when I am not required to be at a school function. I won't skip lessons, and I will keep up with my studies. As long as I do that, I expect you to let me travel unhindered. You already have my oath on keeping you informed about Voldemort's activities, so you'll know if my travel is for that purpose. Otherwise, I won't necessarily tell you the reasons why I am travelling."
Dumbledore grimaced before sitting behind his desk again. "This is most unusual, Harry. Can you not provide some examples of why you might need to leave? Your Head of House and I are, after all, nominally responsible for you."
"Oh, for many reasons, sir: to meet my tutors who cannot or will not come here, to deal with my financial obligations, to pick up materials which can't be ordered by Owl Post and which I require for my advanced studies. It's not just to pop out and meet a girl or two, although that's not a bad idea either, to be perfectly honest."
Dumbledore chuckled at Harry's comment. "Will you be able to provide me with some sort of notice and time frames, along with a general destination? Given your key role in the prophecy you already know part of, surely you understand my desire to ensure that your safety does not become compromised."
Harry looked thoughtful. "No, I'm sorry, I don't think I can do that. I can promise that anytime I'm going to be somewhere where I might be at real risk, I will ask you to arrange a guard. Otherwise, I have my mentors who like to act as guards and accompany me. I would just like to remind you, sir, that I've been on my own since before I was six years old and have dealt quite well with those problems peculiar to my status."
Dumbledore sighed again, this time with a slightly wistful expression on his aged face. "I am sorry for that, Harry. I should have checked in on you after leaving you there." Harry felt the deep stirrings of anger and hate bubbling to the surface but managed to push them away again. "I will agree to your terms. You are free to come and go when not required to be here, given the conditions that you will not skip lessons without permission, that you do not slip in your studies, and that you give me your word that any time you need to take a trip and cannot be accompanied by your normal escorts, you will allow me to provide one of my own people to accompany you. However, you may not take any other students with you without my permission, on a case-to-case basis, of course."
"Fair enough, Headmaster. I think the rest can wait until after the feast."
"Thank you, Harry, for a most unusual afternoon. When you return to my office after the feast, the password shall have been set to 'Ice Mice' just say it to the gargoyle in front of the staircase. Now, if you will follow me, I'll show you where to wait for the Sorting ceremony." With that, Dumbledore strode out of his office, and Harry followed along behind him. For a man of advanced years, Dumbledore set an impressively vigorous pace.
"I'll leave you in here, Harry. Professor McGonagall will collect you when it's time for you to be Sorted. The first years will, of course, go first. You should expect her in about an hour."
Dumbledore left Harry sitting in an empty classroom just down from the Great Hall. It appeared to be unused, possibly for some time, given the lack of furniture in good order. Most of the desks and chairs appeared old and in rough condition. Considering the decline of the population after the first rise of Voldemort and the reduction in student numbers at Hogwarts, Harry supposed it was likely that there were several unused classrooms by now. That might be useful later, but for the moment, it just gave Harry some peace and quiet to reflect. Pulling out his David Weber paperback book, he thumbed to his place holder and resumed reading.
"Mr Potter," Professor McGonagall called from the doorway of the room he had been waiting in. "It's time for your Sorting. Come with me, please."
Harry got to his feet, looking forward to the impending spectacle. He anticipated being gawked at, talked about, and treated simultaneously like a rock star and a leper. Replacing his bookmark, he pocketed the volume and followed the professor down the hall.
It was sadly typical of the magical community to not know how to deal with an icon. The media had blown the events when he was only a year old out of proportion. Combine that mystery with the many random conspiracy theories on why he had declined to attend Hogwarts earlier, along with rumours of Dark Arts rituals, and everything became crazy. Why they even cared about what flavour of sweets or brand of dental floss he preferred was a bit beyond his ken, but it was his lot in life. There was little he could do about it for now.
As Harry followed the Deputy Headmistress into the Great Hall, he was amused to find every eye riveted on him. It left him with the mild urge to do something theatrical, but knowing the way his life worked, he was sure something would happen without any deliberate effort on his part. He strolled to where McGonagall pointed him, toward a tall and uncomfortable looking wooden stool whereupon perched a dilapidated pointy hat. Harry distinctly recalled that he had seen both in the Headmaster's office earlier.
McGonagall whispered to him as they walked past the tables filled with gawking students. "It's tradition. When I call your name, you sit on the stool and place the Hat on your head. It will Sort you into your house." Moving slightly in front of the stool, she turned to Harry. Her face carefully neutral, she called out loudly, "Potter, Harry."
Excited whispering immediately filled the Great Hall. Why anyone was surprised he was there was beyond Harry, considering most people knew he was on the train after the drubbing he gave Malfoy and company. He was almost certain that others would have reported his Portkeying directly to the castle with Snape. Of course, the prominent absence of the professor and the three students that were involved with Harry could have been fuelling the speculation and whispers, but that was irrelevant.
Sitting on the stool, Harry dropped the Hat on his head. He waited good-naturedly for it to do whatever it was supposed to, although it seemed to be nothing to him. After a very long moment of tense silence, the brim of the Hat opened and shocked everyone in the hall. "Errr, where are you, Mr Potter?" the Hat asked.
"You're on my head, so obviously I'm underneath you," Harry patiently replied.
"Really?" the Hat asked back.
"Something I can help you with?"
The Hat became quiet for nearly another full minute. During that time, Harry scanned the students and saw that they were perfectly silent, waiting intently to see what would happen next. Apparently no one had ever witnessed or heard of the Hat casually talking like this. Looking at the Head Table, he noticed that every single person at the table seemed to be in a mild state of shock except one. Dumbledore alone seemed to be unperturbed, but he was instead slowly shaking his head from side to side as though hopelessly lost in his own back garden.
"Merlin!" the Hat exclaimed. "I can't find you at all. How is that?"
Harry shrugged whilst examining his nails again. "As I don't know how you work, I'm not really the best person to ask, now am I?"
"Have you had any Occlumency training?!" the Hat demanded.
"Quite." Harry idly pulled out the small book from under his robes and began turning to where he had left off reading. "Do let me know when you're ready to get on with this."
"Look, I've had Occlumens under me before up to level three, I might add and I've been able to read them just fine. In fact, I can see shields and the consciousness of people, but for some reason I can't see you. I don't suppose you'd lower your shields, would you?" The Hat seemed mildly depressed about the whole situation.
"Errr, since I don't really know you and can't see your brain either, why would I want to do a thing like that? I'm at level five, by the way." Harry felt his question was perfectly reasonable. Just because everyone else was stupid enough to put a sentient and heavily enchanted object in control of their brain did not translate to his following the same pattern of blind faith. Having found his place in the book he was thumbing through, he resumed his reading from earlier that morning. He had yet to make much progress in the book. For some inexplicable reason, he somehow kept being interrupted.
"Level Five? Really? Hmmm. Right," said the Hat. Opening the rip in its brim all the way, the hat yelled out, "CONFERENCE!"
Dumbledore looked surprised once again a situation he was probably starting to find unpleasantly common today and stood up. Walking down to the stool, he looked hesitantly at the hat. "Well, Floppy, what seems to be the problem?"
Floppy dropped the volume of its voice down to a near whisper before replying. "Albus, Mr Potter and I need to have a long talk. This could take hours. You need to start the feast whilst we chat."
Dumbledore looked almost ready to cry, or perhaps curse, at this. "By the rules and regulations, the feast can't start until every student has been Sorted. Can't you just Sort him and talk later?" Harry was not quite certain, but he thought Dumbledore might even be starting to whinge faintly.
"Hmmm. That's fair, so long as we all agree it's a temporary Sorting. He'll be properly Sorted later. Does that work for you, Mr Potter?" Floppy seemed to be getting almost excited by this turn of events. "In the meantime, you'll be wearing me until you trust me enough to let me Sort you properly by letting me in your mind."
"If that means I can go eat, then yes, let's do that. Do I get to call you Floppy?" It seemed a bit of a silly name for a hat, but since the Hat appeared to be sentient to some extent, who was he to complain? Harry was quite hungry and wanted to get something to eat immediately. If he waited much later, it would make his evening training more difficult. Much of the workout he needed to do would be rather unpleasant on a still-full stomach.
"Right then, you call me Floppy, and I'll announce your temporary Sorting. Any of the houses have a particular appeal to you, Mr Potter?" Floppy asked.
Truth be told, Harry felt no particular affinity to any of the houses, but he was going to have to choose one if he wanted to eat. "Err, it really doesn't matter. How about the one with the Weasleys? We were trying to talk about Quidditch earlier but got interrupted."
"That works." Floppy almost seemed to take a deep breath before it shouted out, "TEMPORARILY GRYFFINDOR!" Unlike the other students, there was no burst of applause for this. Most people, even the staff, were looking at each other in confusion over the disclaimer that the Sorting was "temporary," especially after the initial odd behaviour of the Hat.
Dumbledore looked at Harry and motioned him toward the Gryffindor table. "Congratulations, Mr Potter. Please join your new house for the feast."
Harry, with Floppy still on his head, strolled over to the Gryffindor table. As he approached, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, and Ron slowly stood and began clapping. Gradually the entire table was clapping, and the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs soon joined in. The Slytherins were fairly universal in their glares.
"Not popular with the Slytherins after that train incident, are you?" Floppy asked quietly, slowly drooping down over Harry's right ear.
"M'eh," Harry said with indifference. Spotting an empty seat between Ron and Ginny, Harry dropped down into the spot with Ginny on his right side. Ron offered a half smile, and Ginny looked at him sympathetically for a moment, eyeing the Hat that was draped over his ear with a mixture of curiosity and irritation. Harry was almost certain she was muttering about the Hat under her breath.
As Dumbledore returned to the centre of the Head Table, he clapped his hands together once and announced in a loud voice, "Tuck in!"
Harry piled food on his plate, ignoring the many strange looks he was getting from everyone around him. Hermione, sitting across from him with Neville, looked ready to explode with questions and speculations. Harry smirked at her. "Anyone seen Snape or Malfoy?" he asked in a loud voice, a look of innocent inquiry on his face.
A zone of silence descended over the Gryffindor table at Harry's question. Everyone looked at him askance before they scanned the hall, looking for the missing people. Whispered speculations started up again, but at least the focus was off Harry for the moment.
"That was rather Slytherin of you, Mr Potter!" Floppy whispered. Ginny jerked back slightly, and Harry suspected she was the only other person to have heard that statement.
"Tell me, Floppy," Harry whispered back, casually pouring some juice for himself at the same time. "In all of your thousand-odd years of sitting on little kids' heads, did you ever not Sort someone into one of the four houses? I mean, doesn't that get old? I doubt most people really can be identified by such a trite idea as bravery, or cunning, or raw intelligence, or basic loyalty . . . most people should be a mix. Why can't you Sort someone into multiple houses? Or better yet, no house? Isn't there something more to life than a label? Could you just make up a new house and call it `Floppyhat' or something?"
Ginny looked at Harry thoughtfully as Hermione leaned in closer, probably trying to hear the conversation accurately. Ron blissfully stuffed his face with food as fast as he could and was obviously paying attention to nothing else. Neville was watching Hannah with a slightly wistful expression on his face, seemingly lost in his own mind.
Harry would almost swear that Floppy chuckled. "Now that's an interesting question, Mr Potter."
A big thank you to my genius betas who have valiantly strived to make this story better, despite my crafty attempts to make it incomprehensible. So, immeasurable thanks to Chreechree and cwarbeck. Thanks to Reg for Brit-picking, to Sovran for a sanity check plus tweaks, and to Sherylyn for her polishing touches before it gets uploaded. Parakletos gave a thorough once-over for the re-editing process to be sure we missed nothing (or at least, as little as possible).