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Fan Fiction:
Back Again, Harry?

Chapter posted Oct. 24, 2007

Chapter Five:
Balancing Acts

In the week and a half since Harry had wound back the last six years of his life, he hadn't woken from a nightmare even once. He had tried to avoid putting much thought into the reasons why; he'd half-expected terrible dreams after everything that had happened, and he'd been irrationally convinced that if he drew any particular attention to their absence they'd return. Whether or not his not-thinking strategy had had any effect, however, their forbearance gave out the night before term was due to start. Early Monday morning, several hours before breakfast, Harry jerked awake, panting and sweating, from a familiar dream filled with green light and a high, piercing laugh.

He clapped a hand to his forehead immediately, automatically bracing for the heat and pain that always plagued him when Voldemort tried to access his mind, then stiffened in surprise when he realised there wasn't any sign of a headache. Harry's breathing slowed as he considered that anomaly; he couldn't remember ever having had a Voldemort-dream that didn't hurt. Was it because it was just a memory this time? He vaguely remembered dreaming of the night his parents had died before, after the first time he'd seen the mirror, and he couldn't recall whether or not those dreams had woken his scar.

Then he slapped his forehead again as another obvious reason for the difference filtered through his sleep-muddled mind: the Horcrux! Harry's connection to Voldemort had been linked to the bit of soul stuck in his scar, and with it gone he'd never be sensitive to Voldemort's presence in that way ever again. At least, in theory. So it couldn't be Quirrell's presence in the castle causing him nightmares: it had to be good old-fashioned, normal-person trauma for a change.

He grinned stupidly up into the dark for several seconds, thinking about what that meant. All the sleep he'd lost over the last six years that he wouldn't lose this time around. All the important events that had been interrupted by sudden scar pain and visions. All the--

The visions--

The smile slid off Harry's face as he realised what else that would mean. As much pain as the visions had caused him over the years, especially in his O.W.L. year, they hadn't all been bad. They'd saved Mr. Weasley's life, and they'd been the key to his eventual success when he'd begun chasing Horcruxes. They'd been a vital source of information when he'd really needed it, a way of peering in on Voldemort that hadn't depended on whatever so-called "news" he could glean from the Prophet or his limited communication with the Order.

On the other hand, if he played his cards right, things would never get bad enough for him to need that kind of inside information in the first place. He hoped. And he was far better off with that connection severed in the long run; he was almost sure of it.

After all, Dumbledore hadn't found out for sure that Voldemort had made any Horcruxes until after Harry's first year, or at least that's what he'd told Harry. If he never showed any signs of being contaminated by Voldemort's evil, if Dumbledore never had any reason to conclude that Harry had been infected with a bit of Voldemort's soul, then he might not be quite so keen to train Harry up as a martyr this time. That had to be worth the sacrifice of information, right?

Harry mulled over that conclusion a little longer, then yawned and checked the time. It was too early to be up for classes, but he'd never fall asleep again with so many other boys breathing around him; he was used to sleeping in the same space as Ron, but it had been awhile since he'd had to deal with Seamus, Dean, and Neville, too. He decided instead to take an early shower, then study his texts a bit more before breakfast to make sure he was as prepared as he could be.

That turned out to be the last moment he truly had to himself that week as classes, Quidditch, and assignments swept him up in a disorienting whirl. The rhythm of schoolwork turned out to be both more and less difficult than he'd been expecting; his classes were full of people whose fate he remembered clearly from the War, and it was a struggle not to react to the changes in them, but homework was much less of a burden, and Quidditch was unspeakably wonderful no matter how hard Wood worked the team. None of his future knowledge mattered when he was on the back of a broom; he was free to let his guard down and abandon all other worries in pursuit of that winged, golden sphere.

The difference of years didn't matter much in Astronomy, either; the stars didn't change significantly in so small as span of time, no matter what the centaurs said, and he'd retained enough that all he had to do was dutifully look where Professor Sinistra directed their telescopes and make sure he didn't misspell anything or add too many stars on the charts they were assigned. He recognised many of the names this time from the tapestry at the House of Black, and entertained himself during the boring lecture portions imagining other names Sirius might have had, like Betelgeuse or Eridani.

Even Herbology was easier than he'd feared. Neville was as gifted with plants at eleven as Harry remembered; all he had to do was sit next to Neville and treat him like an authority on the subject, and his own uncertain depth of knowledge was completely camouflaged by the other boy's enthusiasm. Not to mention, it gave him a chance to befriend Neville a little earlier than he had the first time round. No one who'd seen the older Neville fighting Death Eaters in the Ministry, or proudly wearing the marks of his resistance against the Carrows, could ever doubt his worth as a Gryffindor or as a friend.

That didn't set well with Ron, of course; the youngest Weasley boy had always been a bit jealous of Harry's other friendships, as far back as the first day they'd met. Rather than react defensively, though-- especially since, long-term, Harry knew his plans were going to require a lot less time spent sitting around in the Common Room in the evenings-- Harry decided instead to expend a little more effort reassuring his red-haired friend that he wasn't going to leave him behind.

He hadn't been able to do that before; his own insecurities had blinded him to a lot of things, and he'd taken each doubtful reaction and sour comment as a personal attack. He'd known Ron long enough now, though, especially after their joint encounter with the locket Horcrux, to understand that the other boy was often too full of his own hurts-- and fears-- to realise how he was affecting other people. Besides, they were eleven. Hardly an age to be expecting emotional maturity out of anybody. And it wasn't like it would take much to make Ron happy, and salvage a little of his own childhood for himself at the same time. He'd just have to schedule regular breaks between plotting, Quidditch, homework, and classes-- or even during classes.

With that in mind, he nudged Ron toward a desk behind Hermione in their first History of Magic lesson, and livened up Binns' lecture with scribbled commentary and drawings on scraps of spare parchment. Hermione was very pleased to see him and Ron alert and awake at the end of the hour; fortunately, she didn't think to ask them what they'd actually been doing.

The Auror classes-- the ones he'd need N.E.W.T.s in if he picked the same career option he had the last time-- were where things got trickier.

Charms was the first hurdle, and the one-- after Potions-- that he'd worried the most about. It wasn't as though he could just fake his way through the spell-casting portions; he could cast most of the simple first-year charms as easy as breathing after all the practice he'd had in the D.A. and with Hermione. Which meant he couldn't just pronounce the spells a bit wrong or flub the wand movements, like first year students often did. Once a wizard trained their magic in the degree of effort and intent needed for a charm to function, deliberate errors could produce unexpected and dangerous results; Harry hadn't forgotten Flitwick's cautionary tales about the Wizard Baruffio.

The strategy he eventually settled on, as he fidgeted in the line of students outside the door waiting for the professor to arrive, was to see if he could master casting the charms silently instead of the usual way. That would slow him down enough to hopefully hide his experience, and make his spellwork look about as skilled as a first year's should.

The challenge was pulling it off without anyone else realising what he was up to. He had to pretend to cast each charm a few times, muttering the necessary incantation aloud but trying not to push any magic through his wand, then cast it for real when no one was looking. He had to stay to the back, and he had to be careful when they were partnered up for demonstrations, but on average he thought he should simply seem a bit quicker to learn than before.

In the meantime, he'd have to keep up his visits to the library, and then next term he could pretend to have read far enough ahead to have a basic grasp of all the Charms in the text, like Hermione. He would have been tempted to try that right from the start, but he knew it would be too drastic a change; Professor Flitwick would be sure to compare notes with Harry's other teachers if he showed that sudden of an increase in aptitude, and that would be a definite mark against him as far as the "convince Dumbledore I'm not a Horcrux" plan was concerned.

He was feeling cautiously optimistic about his chances of actually getting away with his grand deception by the time he got to Transfiguration that week; aside from Ron's defensive behaviour, everything had gone about as smoothly as he could have hoped. Excepting the usual "Boy Who Lived" nonsense, he was just one more eleven year old in a sea of them, and not a particularly gifted one at that. No one was paying him any extra attention, not even Hermione, which was just the way he wanted it.

He ought to have known it wouldn't be so easy to pull the wool over Professor McGonagall's eyes.

Harry's year had begun their first term with the matchsticks-to-needles transformation, and concluded before the holidays by transfiguring mice into snuffboxes; they started off the second term with a quick review, and then were given drumsticks to transfigure into feather dusters. Hermione, as usual, was quickest to produce a recognisable, finished object, though McGonagall was not immediately satisfied with the texture of her feathers; Harry simply prodded at his drumstick awhile, waving his wand aimlessly at it while he muttered under his breath, then decided on what he thought would be a decent compromise. Rather than perform the complete transfiguration, he deliberately stalled it at intermediate stages, first lengthening the drumstick and changing the grain of the wood, then performing a second transfiguration that made the ex-drumstick look rather like a miniature broom with a bundle of branching twigs at the end instead of a bunch of feathers. Then he set about transfiguring the twigs into feathers, one by one.

He looked up about halfway through his work on the feather end to find the professor standing over him, a pinched expression on her face as she watched him spell another individual twig.

"Mr. Potter," she said, sharply. "I appreciate your taking the time to progress through the individual stages of the transfiguration for the benefit of your classmates, but you are doing yourself no favours."

"Professor?" He blinked up at her, dismayed, not sure what she wanted him to say. He'd been trying to make it look like he'd failed to grasp the entire spell and was trying to approximate the results with transfigurations he did know; how had she known he was faking it?

The lines around her mouth deepened as she frowned at him; then she glanced around at the other Gryffindors and raised her voice to address them as a group. "In this subject, your goal should be to envision each step in a transfiguration progressing into the next as swiftly as possible, not training yourself to slow the process down. The diagrams in your text are there as suggestions, not to serve as a substitute for your own imagination; you must see the shifting form of the object in your mind's eye as you cast the spell in order to facilitate the changes, and crippling your ability to clearly and quickly visualise complex alterations will have a serious impact on your marks in the future."

She glanced down at him again then, and shook her head, lowering her voice once more. "While I am pleased to see that you have discovered a method that works well for you, Mr. Potter, you must not allow bad habits to develop; performing the entire transfiguration in one go may be difficult, but it will serve you far better in the long run."

Harry stared up at her, wide-eyed behind his glasses, for a long moment; then he flushed and stuttered his way through a "Yes, ma'am." She nodded by way of reply, then sailed majestically back up the room to her desk; he watched her blankly as she went, feeling round the edges of her impromptu little lecture as the words bit into his mind.

Suggestions, he thought to himself, as he finally dragged his attention back to the half-completed feather duster lying on his desk. He prodded the sad thing with his wand, feeling strangely short of breath, as though he were on the verge of an important discovery. Diagrams, imagination, visualisation; had McGonagall ever explained it like that before?

She had to have, he realised. In fact, he'd probably already memorised the concept from the books six times over for one test or another, or heard Hermione repeat it ad nauseum during homework sessions. But he didn't think he'd ever heard it spelt out quite that way.

Could it be that simple? Was it truly just a matter of picturing how the object was supposed to change as he cast the spell, as though it were a bit of action captured in a wizarding photo, rather than applying a huge effort of will to simply force it to go from one state directly to the other?

Harry lifted his wand and said the incantation to reverse the changes he'd already made, this time closing his eyes and picturing every change inside his head as he made the required wand movements: the feathers fading back into twigs, the twigs joining back together into a smooth piece of wood, the wood itself changing texture and size back into the form of a drumstick. The gathering of will, the mental focus he was using, felt almost familiar to him; he frowned as he opened his eyes, wondering where he knew it from, but the thread of thought escaped his grasp as he gaped down at the perfectly innocent drumstick lying on the desk.

Transfiguration had never been that easy for him. Never. Not even with spells he'd known backwards and forwards. Something had to have changed; this couldn't be right. He'd expected to do better than he had in his original first year, but this--

Another test, then. He had to prove it wasn't an accident. Harry took a deep breath, then cast the proper spell, this time with his eyes open, willing the bit of wood to length and lighten and sprout feathers until it should look exactly like the exemplar the professor had on her desk at the front--

"Bloody hell," Ron muttered disgustedly beside him. "I still can't even get feathers on mine."

Harry laid his wand down on the desk, ignoring his friend, and stared down at his completed feather duster in something very like shock. After a moment, he rallied and reached for the stabilising effect of the bit of Occlumency he'd finally mastered, trying to block out the turmoil of his emotions as he'd held off Voldemort's anger; he couldn't afford to be this distressed in class. How would he explain it?

Then he realised what he was doing.

No wonder his attempt to follow McGonagall's instructions felt familiar: he was applying principles of Occlumency-- the sustained focus of will for a single purpose-- to Transfiguration! No wonder it was easier than before; even if he had completely grasped the gist of the instructions back when he was truly eleven, he wouldn't have been able to do the visualisation bit properly.

So, not a freak then. But-- so much for keeping McGonagall in the dark about his abilities. He glanced up at her, and caught a rare smile on her face as she nodded at him; he flushed and looked back down.

At least she just seemed to think it was late-developing talent, not something more ominous. Maybe because of his dad? And maybe because he hadn't been wizarding-raised?

Maybe it'd be okay. Maybe Tom Riddle hadn't been especially gifted in Transfiguration-- even if he had been flat scary with it during that duel in the Ministry. Maybe Dumbledore wouldn't think anything of it; maybe he'd just chalk it up as a sign that Harry was James Potter's son, instead of ticking off another mark on his list of "Harry's connections to Voldemort".

Right. Because that was just the kind of luck Harry usually had. So much for his plans.

And he hadn't even been to Defence or Potions yet! He was doomed.


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