With a noise that Harry would later swear sounded distinctly like a burp, Floppy turned into a sombrero big enough for three to get shade under. To complete the look, the sombrero was a garish red – as though it was mocking the house with whom Harry was currently sitting. Two long ties came down and wrapped themselves under his chin. A small tear opened up on the right strap near his ear. “You’re the first person to ever ask me about that, Mr Potter.”
Harry shuddered slightly, as everyone at the Gryffindor table stopped eating and stared at the Hat on his head. Laughter slowly started ringing out across the Great Hall, and next to him, Ginny choked on her pumpkin juice.
Slapping her back slightly harder than was strictly necessary, Harry gave her the evil eye before giving it up as a bad job. Harry pulled out his wand and turned his spoon into a moderate-sized mirror sitting on the table.
Staring closely at the reflection on his head, he let out a slow sigh. “You do realize no one here has been to Mexico other than you and me, right?”
Floppy made an inarticulate sound before twisting into itself and turning into a tri-corn hat similar to what colonial warriors wore during the 1700’s. Its colour was more orange than red.
“England lost the war with the American colonies. Hasn’t anyone told you?” Harry was almost certain he heard burping now.
The Hat almost seemed to melt before shimmering back into a blood-red bowler hat.
“All right, all right. There’s no need to imitate that idiot Fudge.”
Harry was acutely aware that Hermione was watching the Hat with slightly glazed eyes, a bit of shepherd’s pie slowly falling off the fork suspended halfway to her mouth. Ginny was giggling almost non-stop, and Ron had finally given notice that he was aware of what was going on in the world around him by blinking owlishly.
With one last heave, Floppy made a rrrrrrrp! sound as it reverted back into a battered old wizard’s hat, listing precariously over Harry’s right ear. “What was the point, Mr Potter, of that little spectacle?” Floppy asked.
Harry paused to consider the question, absently returning his spoon to its normal state. Ginny was still giggling like mad, her eyes screwed shut, while Hermione was still staring with what Harry would swear was naked lust at the powerful magical artefact on his head. Ron seemed to wake up slightly, realizing that there was pudding on the table, and he resumed eating while glancing occasionally at Floppy. The redhead was most likely checking to see if the hat had turned any new tricks. Neville was rather passive, eating quietly and for the most part seeming to ignore Floppy, keeping a weather-eye on two redheaded blokes further down the table.
Harry reflected on what Floppy was trying to ask of him. Clearly the question was about something more than the surface appearance of the Hat. “Aside from the notion that people see or hear the label and make an association based on it? Bowler for Fudge and stuck-up idiots in general, the sombrero for hot days and lazy moments, that silly army hat for fighting, and the wizard hat for everything magical?”
Floppy seemed uninterested in his response. “Think about it, Mr Potter. The answer to your Sorting question is there.”
Hermione leaned forwards and hissed, “How do you do that, Mr Floppy?”
Floppy twitched briefly. “Eh, who’s that?” The tip of the Hat twisted around, almost like an antenna trying to tune in a weak signal. “Oh, Miss Granger. Do what? Change shape? Am I magical or not?” That seemed the definitive answer as far as the Hat was concerned, and no matter how many more questions she asked, Floppy had no other answers for Hermione.
Harry used the respite provided by Hermione’s frustration to actually eat some of his meal while considering the possible meanings of Floppy’s actions. Ginny had managed to get her giggles under control and was eating again, letting out random snickers with sidelong glances at Harry’s head. Ron meanwhile appeared to be slowing down in his food-vacuuming manoeuvres.
Harry also realized that as most people finished their dinners, they were beginning to stare at him again. It was quite annoying, really, that no matter what he looked like, what he did, or where he did it, people in this world would always react to his name or his scar. Even the people he had been talking to on the train – the same ones around him now – initially reacted like adolescent fans, although by now they seemed to have got over the first shock. He was almost certain that he could slap his name on dragon dung, and it would sell faster than Honeydukes’ Best Chocolate Bars – on sale now!
The whole concept of a sentient hat, with clearly unknown magical powers, changing shapes while adorning his head felt so typical of his life. He just seemed to blunder from one manic event to another when all he really wanted to do was sit back and relax somewhere with a good book or at least a decent historical programme on the telly. Of course, the fact that he just happened to also be the mysterious Boy-Who-Lived meant that he could never have such a simple life, assuming he stayed in the magical community. The idea of just transplanting his scar and hair upon some unsuspecting bystander and letting them deal with the idiocy was a temptation that he was unable to completely suppress.
Even the idea of just becoming someone else for a day….
Harry felt a moment of surprise, as though the proverbial light switched on in his brain.
Whipping his wand forwards, Harry drew an intricate pattern in the air, thrust the tip of his wand through the centre and said, “Tweet, Tweet!”
Hermione’s mouth formed a silent ‘O’ as a nimbus of grey light radiated off of Harry’s body and clothes, including Floppy. The absolute silence that descended around him let Harry know that his Aura Silencing Charm was working just fine. Harry promptly ignored the rest of the people in the hall, closing his eyes and concentrating on his senses to let him know if there was danger.
“Gryffindor hasn’t always been known as the home for the brave, has it Floppy?” Harry knew the answer, but he was a trifle unclear how he knew.
“Very good, Mr Potter. As a matter of fact, no, it hasn’t.”
“You sing a song extolling the virtues of each house prior to the first years’ Sorting, as I understand it. Do you change the association with each house?”
“Slowly, yes. I can’t just up and say that this year Slytherins are brave and Hufflepuffs are cunning, now can I? It takes a longer view, Mr Potter.”
“The Hat is just a hat, regardless of shape or utility. The House is just a house, not some clique of the stated attribute. It’s a place to live, to meet people with similar values and hopefully grow a bit, but not where everyone is brave or cunning or some other label.” Harry felt the rightness of the statement, but there were many open questions. “So the stated Sorting – bravery, brains, loyalty, sneakiness – that’s just superficial – a cover to keep people from asking questions, isn’t it?”
“You might be on to something, Mr Potter.” Floppy almost sounded smug, although Harry was less than positive he could read meaning into the Hat’s speech patterns. For all he knew, Floppy was exasperated with his lack of intelligence and was just humouring him.
“Right, so that explains why someone as cunning as a flobberworm wound up in Slytherin. I fail to see how Malfoy could ever be thought of as sly, cunning, or sneaky. What with the stories I’ve heard over the years and his actions on the train....” Harry let his sentence taper off meaningfully.
“Yes, well, not everyone can be what they want to be, now can they, Mr Potter?”
“There’s more to this, I can feel it. Godric wasn’t known for his bravery, was he? Nor was Salazar some evil snake plotting to take over the world every night.” Harry knew this was a tangent, but it might help him resolve Floppy’s little puzzle. “Ideas change with time, and values change as well. As human beings, our perceptions of life evolve and our society is forced to adapt to fit the new standards… conflicts arise from the old battling the new….”
Harry felt like he was facing a brick wall. The answer was there, just on the other side, but he had no idea on how to approach it.
“I think that’s enough for now, Mr Potter. The answer will come to you. Just give it some time. You’ll get there in the end!” Floppy twirled his tip slightly. “I think you should return to your classmates, Mr Potter. They are growing somewhat alarmed at your lack of response to their questions and your most interesting display of magic.”
Harry opened his eyes quickly, and then immediately leaned back. Hermione was standing prominently, leaning over the table, and appeared to be about to hit him. Flicking his wand one more time, the glow dissipated and sound returned to normal. “What?” he asked the bushy-haired girl.
Hermione sat down sharply, blushing slightly. Across from Harry, Neville piped up, “She was going to smack you to see if you were okay. I tried to warn her not to, but once she gets an idea in her head….” Neville trailed off with a hesitant smile at Hermione.
Hermione’s blush deepened, and then she seemed to realise something. “There is no spell I’ve ever heard of that’s called `Tweet, Tweet’, Harry! That’s not even close to Latin! What was that?”
Harry nodded to Neville, understanding that curiosity was Hermione’s driving force in life. He looked blandly back at Hermione. “Well, clearly, you haven’t been reading the right books, now have you?” Hermione’s eyes slowly widened at the implications of the innocuous question.
Before she could ask anything in response, two other redheaded boys that looked perfectly identical came up and leaned around her. “‘Ere, now, Hermy love, you can’t keep young Harry to yourself all night,” the one on the left said. Harry squinted slightly at the boy, trying to get an impression to tell him apart from his brother.
The other one on the right piped up, “Yeah, Hermy, we all need to talk to such a glowing inspiration of the Light.” He stood with an expression of slack-jawed, drooling hero worship on his face. Harry had seen similar expressions that unfortunately were genuine, but it was easy to spot the signs here of artistic imitation. Still, it was a good bit of acting, and he could feel the grin forming on his face.
“Too right, brother mine! Makes me all tingly inside knowing there’s such an illuminating figure around.” Shaking his head solemnly, the first redheaded boy looked up at the Head Table. “There’s only so much twinkling us poor students can take before we all run screaming for the outer darkness.” A long pause took place as the twins simply shook their heads in sorrow at each other.
“Oi! Manners, brother, manners! Introduce us!” The one on the right was now staring pointedly at Ron, who was looking puzzled.
Ginny reached around Harry and smacked Ron lightly on the back of his head. “They’re asking you to introduce them to Harry, Ron. How you even find the dinner table sometimes….” She rolled her eyes. “Fred,” she said, pointing to the one on the right, “and George,” now pointing to the one on the left, “are our brothers. I think we mentioned them on the train.” She then pointed to Harry. “This is Harry Potter. He wanted us to warn you not to prank him or try to pry his secrets out, or else he’ll fight dirty to get even.” She put on an angelic smile as she faced Harry. “Did I get that right, Harry?”
Fred and George exchanged evil grins while Harry felt like quietly leaving the room. Putting on his best poker face, Harry looked back at Ginny and said, “I think your halo is stuck around your ankle, Ginny.”
Ginny’s face flushed a dark red at being called out so directly and so smugly. Harry could tell payback would be coming later for that comment. “You might want to try that look on someone susceptible to temporary insanity induced by batting eyelashes.” Harry smirked at her, daring her to do her worst as her flush approached the colour of her hair.
Turning back to Fred and George, Harry slowly looked them up and down. “Pranksters, eh?”
Fred leaned over with his hand extended. Harry could swear he saw a flicker of movement as the hand came closer but was uncertain as to what he saw. Ignoring the impression for the moment, Harry briefly shook hands with Fred, who merely smiled and said, “Pleased to meet you, young Harry. Although given the lovely shade of red our sister has become, I’m sorry to say this may be the last time I meet you as well. I think you’re about to be the Boy-Who-Got-Hexed-To-Death.”
It was George’s turn to lean over as Fred took his hand back. “Quite. It was a pleasure knowing you for a few moments, Harry. Do be sure your insurance is up to date, right? Ta Ta!”
The twins scampered back off to their end of the table while Harry ignored the fuming girl beside him. Ron and Neville, however, stared at Harry, somewhat horrified, and slowly edged away from him. Harry glanced at Ginny to see her eyes squinting dangerously, and he decided to go for broke.
Winking at her, he re-transfigured his spoon – this time into a halo – and cast an oscillating floating spell and random colour change spell upon it before setting it on her brow. He watched in amusement as the halo sat at a lovely forty-five degree angle a few inches above her head before it began slowly twirling, giving the impression of an angel who lost all rights to have a halo in the first place, as it repeatedly cycled from yellow to green to black.
Ginny’s eyes bulged, and Harry was certain the payback would be spectacular. She ripped the halo off of her head and furiously tried to reverse his magical modifications. Meanwhile, Ron and Neville actually fled to the other end of the table. This left two prime openings – one next to Harry and another across from him – which were immediately filled with two pretty girls who introduced themselves directly.
“Hi, I’m Lavender… this is my friend, Parvati….” Both girls blushed slightly. “Welcome to Hogwarts, Harry!” Lavender’s voice oozed saccharine goop as she tossed her hair outrageously. Harry wondered what she would do if he called her on her posturing. Realising that he had one fuming girl on his right, he failed to see how it could get any worse with another one on his left, so he just jumped right in.
Harry adopted his best clinical voice. “Nice to meet you. I notice you keep flipping your hair over your shoulder. Did you know that’s been proven to be a clear sign of attraction and flirtation in attempt to win a date or even a mate?”
Lavender blinked once before smiling as if she held the world in her pocket. “Is it working?” she asked, leaning forwards slightly to enhance the effect of her feminine assets.
Harry decided it was time to really start messing with heads. “I don’t think so. Ginny doesn’t seem to be that interested in you. Have you tried flirting with Hermione yet?”
Dead silence met this statement. Lavender seemed to be stuck somewhere between horror and mortification. Parvati choked on her juice and coughed violently. Hermione looked like a deer caught in headlights, while Ginny had gone from a deep, angry red to ghostly pale in the blink of an eye.
Deciding it was time to exercise the better part of valour, he concluded by grabbing his goblet of pumpkin juice and stating blandly, “Well, then again, maybe it is working with Ginny. She’s certainly not angry with you for flirting, whereas she seems downright hostile to me. I’ll leave you girls to get better acquainted. Let me know how it goes.” Harry rose promptly yet walked casually back towards Fred and George, his senses on high alert, expecting a major assault on his person at any second.
Once he reached Fred and George – who were staring with admiration at Harry – he chanced a look back to see all four girls with their heads bent together, whispering furiously. Fast and crisp hand gestures frequently punctuated the discussion. Harry experienced a sinking sensation, realising that payback would not only be swift and vicious, it would be completely without any mercy at all. Fred whistled softly, causing Harry to look back at him.
“Brass ones, young Harry,” Fred said quietly. “You’ve got brass ones if you’re going to hack our sister off like that and just walk away.”
George nodded his head vigorously while Ron and Neville were once again trying to get as far away from Harry and whatever imminent violence he would soon be receiving. “Ruddy brilliant, but you are definitely going to be unhappy soon.”
“If she’s so good at scaring the crap out of people,” Harry asked, “why the hell is she wanting to learn to fight Muggle-style against fools like Malfoy?”
Fred and George wound up with poker faces before Harry could realise he had crossed some invisible line. “Asked you about that, did she?” Fred inquired in all seriousness. Harry just shrugged in response. “You going to teach her?” Fred continued. Harry shrugged again. “We three need to talk later, Harry, before you decide anything. Clear?”
Harry took a long moment to stare at Fred and George individually and nodded slowly as it became apparent just how serious they were over the topic.
“Excellent. Now, since they appear to be delaying your imminent and no doubt painful doom until after the feast, why don’t you join us?” Fred rapidly oscillated back to being the extreme, jovial extrovert.
George pushed the fellow next to him down a bit, and Harry sat down beside him. While everyone was shifting places and trying to make a little more room, Harry casually swapped his goblet of pumpkin juice for George’s. After all, if one of them had done something during that brief flicker of movement, it was only fair that they pay the price for trying to prank him. Harry made a slight production out of reaching for his goblet before raising it to Fred and George and offering a toast. “To payback in all its forms, especially with redheads!” Fred and George both laughed as they took up their goblets, smirked at each other, and then clanked them together with Harry’s before all three took a long drink.
George promptly turned into a duck and started quacking at everyone. Fred took one look at George and burst out laughing, while Harry just smiled broadly. “Put it in my pumpkin juice, did you?” he asked with a smirk.
Fred looked surprised that Harry had made the connection, before looking back at George. “It’ll wear off in about two minutes. You realize you just pranked us, don’t you?”
Harry went for his own angelic look. “Me? Prank you? I was just offering your own prank back to you. I didn’t actually arrange anything.” Harry batted his eyes a bit as he finished, causing Fred to laugh some more. Both watched George hop up on the table and waddle along its length, irritating people by poking his fat bill into everyone’s drink. With a short puff of exploding feathers, George reverted back to human form halfway down the table, coincidentally close to Ginny and her planning partners.
Scrambling back to Fred and Harry, George leaned in and whispered urgently, “Harry, you might want to consider vacating Hogwarts right after the feast and saving yourself a lot of pain and public humiliation. Those girls are downright evil.” Shuddering slightly, he stared at Fred for a moment before looking back at Harry. “Right. I believe young Harry here needs to learn not to mess with Weasleys. You’ve got our sister plotting against you, and you’ve pranked us. You do realize this is a declaration of war, do you not?”
Fred leaned over and finished the challenge. “You can surrender now and grovel at our feet here in the Great Hall, because when we’re done with you, you’ll be doing it in nothing but your underwear while wearing a sign proclaiming our greatness. Choose quickly!” Harry carelessly noticed that all the people sitting around Fred and George were suddenly looking decidedly nervous.
“Right, so when I win,” Harry responded, “you’ll come in here on your knees in your sister’s underwear, swear undying loyalty to me, and also confess to finding Snape ruggedly handsome enough to warrant a torrid one-night stand.”
Fred and George almost fell out of their seats laughing. “Right! You’re on!” both exclaimed in some twisted form of stereo sound. “Rules?”
Harry paused to think over the last few prank wars he had been involved with. “First, nothing that is untested and could have unknown side effects. Second, no prank that lasts more than twenty-four hours. Third, no prank that prevents one of us from defending ourselves.”
Fred and George nodded at this. “Excellent!” Fred said while George bobbed his head in concurrence. “I say we keep going until one side capitulates. No point in keeping score.” George agreed to this idea as well.
Harry looked back and forth before grinning evilly. “One other clause – we need to be able to call a truce period of not more than forty-eight hours. Each truce period will have to be agreed to by all of us, which means we have to provide a basically honest explanation of why it’s needed.”
Fred and George nodded again, but this time George responded. “Good idea, Harry. We’ll need those truces during Quidditch games, since we’re on the team.” Harry shrugged, and Fred and George each extended a hand.
Harry shook each in turn and then motioned them closer. A wave of whispered conversations suddenly shot down the table as everyone rapidly discovered the declared prank war. “I need to declare this weekend a truce weekend. In fact, I’ve got a little business proposition for you where we can mutually benefit. I need something done here without my name on it. You guys will make a tidy little sum, get a bit of decent publicity out of it, and it won’t take up much of your time. Interested?”
Fred looked at George, who looked back at Fred, and then both turned to stare at Harry. “When we talk later, you’ll fill us in. Then we decide. For now, conditional agreement.”
“Fair enough,” Harry replied. “Now, explain to me why your entire family is scared to death of your sister. She seemed quite timid on the train.”
Fred chuckled and was obviously preparing to lay out the basic facts of life to Harry when Dumbledore rose to his feet and clapped his hands together to obtain everyone’s attention. Floppy sat up a bit straighter and pointed his tip towards the aging Headmaster. “Later!” George hissed into Harry’s ear. Harry just nodded while keeping his eyes on the supposed leader of the Light side in times of darkness.
“Welcome back, one and all, to another exciting year at Hogwarts. As usual, I must make a few start-of-term announcements. First, your Heads of House will be informing the Quidditch captains of the yearly schedule, so tryouts will begin at the discretion of each captain. Second, I feel I must remind all students, especially people here for the first time,” Dumbledore stated while staring straight at Harry, “that the Forbidden Forest is very dangerous and, therefore, is off limits to all students. If you enter, you may not come out alive, and there are a great many things worse than death.”
Returning his gaze to the rest of the students, Dumbledore paused to sip of his drink before continuing. “Mr Filch has asked me to once again remind everyone that magic should not be used in corridors between classes, and he has expanded, yet again, the list of forbidden items. I suggest you consult the full list outside his door if you are unsure whether any of your cherished belongings should not be found in your possession.”
“As you may notice, we have two vacant seats at the Head Table tonight. I wish to assure you that Professor Moody has agreed to return for his second year of teaching, but he is caught up in some Auror paperwork from events earlier today and will not be in the castle until after curfew this evening. Professor Snape has similarly been detained,” at which point Harry started chuckling while Fred and George shot him confused looks, “and should be returning in a few days. I hope he will be back in time for classes on Monday, but we will post announcements if alternate arrangements for Potions classes are required for the start of lessons next week.”
Dumbledore paused once more to take another sip of his drink while many quiet conversations started again, most speculating about the location of the Slytherin Head.
“I would like to welcome Harry Potter to our ranks once again, but his arrival requires some additional information for each of you. As some of you have no doubt noticed, Harry does not wear a traditional school uniform. Indeed, we are very lucky to have with us, for the first time in over two hundred years, a young man on the path to becoming a full War Mage.” Dumbledore hesitated, unsure of what level of reaction such a statement might generate, but from the complete silence and somewhat baffled looks, it appeared that most families had long since forgotten about the discipline.
“You will note that his outfit consists of robes in simple black, with two silver emblems on his shoulders. The mace on the left shoulder represents a sworn oath to the War Mage training and values. This oath is both magically binding and recognized around the world. It is a most difficult and strenuous training regimen, and there has not been a new member sworn into their ranks for over one hundred and fifty years now. I suggest that those curious to know more should consult the library’s historical section, where you will find many references on what this lifelong oath entails. Of much greater significance, however, is the fact that once a War Mage has been trained sufficiently, they carry on the right shoulder a dagger emblem. This emblem symbolises their legal right to respond to any attack upon their person and their right to use lethal force in response to anything they consider to be life-threatening.”
Dumbledore gravely looked over the student body which was sitting in silence, many now openly staring at Harry. For his part, Harry tried to project bored indifference to all the attention he was getting. He quietly sat while Floppy’s tip slowly rotated in a circle. It had been a very long time indeed since he allowed something as trivial as unwanted attention to affect his external behaviour.
“I must repeat that warning. Every person in this room must understand that when a War Mage is entitled to wear both symbols, as Mr Potter is, any attack – even in jest – may be seen and responded to as life-threatening, justifying the use of lethal force in retaliation.” Dumbledore again paused to let the full implications of his statement sink into everyone. Harry could suddenly feel several eyes on him, as Fred and George frowned heavily. Glancing back up the length of the table, he could almost swear that Ginny’s evil eye was actually working on him. The Slytherin table seemed mostly indifferent to the comment, while many of the other students looked slightly nervous.
“The only exception to this is when you are in classes with Mr Potter and a teacher specifically asks Mr Potter to participate in a class exercise, and all of you are following the professor’s instructions. If you go beyond the confines of the approved exercise, be prepared for consequences. Each of you should be aware that his use of force, be it magical or physical, is fully permitted under the law. Mr Potter also has the right to detain someone who is acting against the law and remand them to the Aurors for questioning, and, if necessary, prosecution. In many ways, Mr Potter resides outside the law and is immune to many of the normal procedures. Again, I refer any of the more curious amongst you towards the library for more information. At this time, there are no other War Mages in training, nor are you likely to encounter any, so I see no need to continue elaborating on this topic. Rest assured that Mr Potter is not someone you wish to trifle with.”
Dumbledore quaffed from his goblet, letting conversations pick up once again. He looked at his staff, pleased with their lack of reaction to this news. Of course, Harry had required the Headmaster to inform his entire staff of the situation upon submitting his letter accepting enrolment at Hogwarts, so they should be used to the idea by now.
“I must now also relate an important piece of news which many of you will be disturbed to hear. In a unanimous decision, the Heads of House have agreed that any student found assaulting another without due cause will be summarily expelled from Hogwarts and have their wand snapped. If it is deemed appropriate and the wounded parties involved so wish it, we will also remand the offending students to the Aurors for prosecution and trial. In accordance to this decision, Mr Malfoy, Mr Crabbe, and Mr Goyle have been expelled from Hogwarts, and their wands have been snapped. Each is currently in the custody of the Aurors. Mr Crabbe and Mr Goyle are facing assault charges, and Mr Malfoy is facing multiple attempted murder charges. Due to these and other events, Professor Snape is presently dealing with the Aurors and will be returning to us when the initial issues have been resolved.”
Harry had to applaud the Headmaster for the way in which he could tell the complete truth yet simultaneously lie so beautifully. Any real understanding of a situation was dependent upon the truth, but the skew in understanding centred on how the truth was told.
While Harry was not expecting a standing ovation at the news regarding Malfoy, at the very least he had anticipated some show of gratitude considering the bevy of rumours he had heard both on the train and prior to arriving at the platform that morning. As it was, he was not prepared for the expressions of raw fear on most of the students’ faces. Many of them glanced nervously at the Slytherin table, obviously trying to disassociate themselves from these events. Meanwhile, most Slytherins glared at Harry with pure, undiluted hatred, and it seemed abundantly clear that Dumbledore’s warning would be tested many times over the weekend.
Apparently noticing the tension in the room, Dumbledore brought the announcements to a rapid close. “Now that we have all been properly fed and informed, everyone enjoy your weekend. Prefects, please see to the first-year students. Mr Potter, please accompany me back to my office, where we will discuss today’s events.”
Harry nodded briefly at Fred and George before rising and walking with Dumbledore back to his office. He had the sinking feeling that the factions that would be arrayed against him would doubtless fail to heed the Headmaster’s warnings. The likely result would see the hospital wing becoming a hotbed of subversive activity aimed at eliminating his presence from Hogwarts with all due haste.
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 cwarbeck and Chreechree. Thanks to Reg and others for their Brit-picking, to Sovran for a sanity check plus tweaks, and Sherylyn for her polishing touches before it gets uploaded.