As the year marched on, snow began to fall. One morning in early December, Harry was informed that Herbology was canceled due to heavy snow. A quick peek out a window confirmed that yes, there was a full foot on snow on the ground and it was still coming down. Hermione dragged the group to the library to look up the plants they would have been doing that day (Ratataffle Roots), but Harry noticed that Ron had a copy of Quidditch Through the Ages hidden in the textbook. Neville was earnestly telling Hermione about how the Roots ate burrowing creatures, while Ginny was doodling something on a spare piece of parchment. It looked pretty good, but Harry couldn’t tell what it was yet; it seemed to be shrouded in some sort of smoke that obscured the creature. She didn’t actually seem to be paying attention to what she was doing, and seemed rather bored.
“Hey,” he said, poking the redheaded girl. “What’re you drawing?”
Ginny spun the parchment around to show him the chimera she was drawing; the dragon head was belching smoke that wreathed it. It was incredibly realistic, and Harry was quite impressed. “I do this a lot,” she said. “In all my classes.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “If they’re all as good as this, I’d like to see the others, then.”
“Later, maybe. I’m trying to stop; I keep having to ask Hermione for help, and she’s kind of…”
Ginny nodded. “No offense to either of them, of course, but I get that enough from Mum. She’ll probably want to know why I’m not doing better over Christmas break, too,” she said morosely. “’Ginny, why did you only get an A in Transfiguration?’ She always pushes me to do well, but Ron gets a free pass.”
Harry furrowed his brow, confused. “An A? Only an A? There’s something higher?”
“A is for Acceptable, E is above that and is Exceeds Expectations, O is Outstanding,” Ginny explained. “Those are the only passing grades, and are for midterms and finals, as opposed to the percentage thing we do normally. Do muggles have a different system?”
Harry nodded. “A is the best grade, and it gets lower as you go down the alphabet,” he said. “I guess that the wizarding world and the muggle world aren’t as close as I thought.”
Ginny gaped. “You still thought that they were similar? After spending three months, you still thought that the worlds are basically the same?” She struggled to stifle a laugh. “Harry, they do look similar at first glance, but the two worlds are very different. You should ask Malfoy to tell you about that stuff, though; I hear that his dad gave him lessons on the differences between muggles and wizards, to show how much better we are than them.”
Harry considered this. “I think I will,” he agreed. “And maybe he can explain the pureblood philosophy better.”
Ron, who had apparently been following their conversation, put his books down and turned to face them. “Really?” he asked, seeming as shocked as Ginny. “You want to know about that cra–“
“Ron!” Hermione interrupted. “Language!” She then turned back to Neville, though Harry was pretty sure she was still listening to them.
“Ron,” Harry said softly, “I don’t really know what I think as far as that goes. I do know that every wizard I’ve met has been nothing but kind and helpful to me, and every muggle I’ve met has treated me like dirt.”
This revelation was met with shocked silence from everyone.
“Harry,” Hermione said after a few moments, “surely you’ve met some people who aren’t bad. Your family–“
“My family,” Harry spat, “has made it very clear that they hate me. They don’t just not love me, they hate me. They tell people that I’m crazy; that’s their story right now, I’m in St. Brutus’ home for Criminally Insane Boys. Dudley beat me up every day! His favorite game is Harry-Hunting! He beat on anyone who tried to be my friend, too; you guys are the first people who haven’t been scared to talk to me!” By now, angry tears were beginning to pour down Harry’s face, and Hermione too was starting to cry listening to him. Ginny, Ron, and Neville’s faces, though, were merely becoming harder and harder. “I was kept locked in a cupboard, Hermione! For my whole life they kept me in a space barely large enough for a cat, and I’m only getting a proper room when I get home because Professor Flitwick threatened them! I don’t know how I’m going to survive when I go back there for summer, but I know this, Hermione.
“They don’t deserve to be called my family.”
Harry stopped and took several deep breathes. That had been boiling within him for far too long. He had wanted to cry it out every time he spoke to Remus, only fear for their lives holding it back. He–
Someone seemed to be choking behind him. Harry turned to see that Remus was standing there, a pained expression on his face.
“Harry, I…” the tall Auror was having trouble speaking. “I had no idea it was that bad. I came to tell you that… but not anymore. I need to take you to see Dumbledore. He needs to hear that.”
“…and that’s… that’s all.” Harry finished, still staring at Dumbledore’s desk.
“Harry, look at me.” Harry looked up into Dumbledore’s intense blue eyes, seeming to bore into Harry’s soul. After a moment, a tickling began in the back of Harry’s nose, and he sneezed. Dumbledore looked away with a sigh. “I think that it’s clear that Harry cannot return to the Dursleys,” he said finally. “They cannot be allowed to treat him as they do, and I suspect that the wards collapsed long ago.” He shook his head sadly. “I should have checked, or listened to Filius’ warning, but…”
“It is not your fault, Albus,” Remus said firmly. “You had no way of knowing how bad it was. I didn’t know until I overheard Harry telling his friends.”
Dumbledore sighed again. “But I could easily have checked the wards, or come to speak to Harry personally,” he said. “I simply assumed that they would treat him properly, being blood to him, and…”
“Where will Harry go for the summer?” Remus asked after several minutes of silence had passed. “I would be happy to take him–“
“No, Remus,” Dumbledore said firmly. “It’s too dangerous, you know that. And you know the Minister’s stance on… you know it as well as I do. If he should discover that the Boy-Who-Lived is staying with…”
“I know that Remus’ brother is a werewolf,” Harry said. “I don’t see why it should keep me from staying with him.”
Remus and Dumbledore’s eyes met for a moment, then the older wizard chuckled. “Keeping things quiet, I see. Nevertheless. Harry cannot stay with you, and he cannot stay at Hogwarts…”
“The Weasleys, perhaps?” Remus suggested. “Harry is friends with both sets of their twins. Or Alice would surely be happy to take him in.”
Dumbledore shook his head. “I cannot ask Arthur and Molly to take in an eighth child,” he said sadly. “And Alice and especially Augusta are far too prominent already; Lucius would not allow it easily. There is only one person who could possibly take Harry in without the Wizengamot or Lucius interfering and without being swarmed by the press.”
“Albus…” Remus began as Harry looked back and forth between the older wizards.
“We already planned this, Remus,” Dumbledore said firmly. “Fawkes can take you wherever you need to go and bring you back every month, and it must be done if there is any chance of him being innocent.”
Harry finally realized what they were talking about. “Black,” he said flatly. “You’re talking about Sirius Black.”
“Yes,” Remus agreed. “I had planned to go out and search for any possible evidence that might lead to Sirius getting a trial; if he is truly innocent, he can take Veritaserum and then he will be free.”
“Fawkes,” Dumbledore said, nodding to the fiery bird on its stand, “will be going with him, for transport and to take him to… his brother, every full moon. Quite ingenious, by the way, Remus.”
“Thank you. But I’m not sure I want to leave Harry alone over the break…”
“No, go look,” Harry told the auror. “I’ll be fine. It’s not like I’m the only person staying over break, right?”
Remus sighed. “Alright, Harry. But I may not be back for a long time, a year or more.”
“I’ve gone this long without an adult role model,” Harry said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his words. “I can go a little longer.”
Harry silently ground up the snake fangs, pouring them into the cauldron and doing his best to ignore Draco’s attempts at conversation.
“And then the brute tried to–“ he was saying. Something about the latest idiotic thing that Crabbe or Goyle (the two were as interchangeable as Fred and George) had done. Draco stopped talking in midsentence and sighed. “Alright, Harry. I’ve tried to get you not to think about it, but it’s clear you just want to wallow in yourself. Do you want to talk about whatever it is?”
“No,” Harry said bluntly. “I don’t. If you must talk, talk about something useful. What’re the differences between the muggle world and the magical one? Besides the obvious, I mean.”
Draco shrugged. “Okay. Let’s see… well, the first is that we’re not a democracy, not really. The Minister of Magic isn’t elected by the people, he’s elected by the Wizengamot. And he doesn’t have to run most of what he does past the Wizengamot, he can just do it.
“What else… teaching is a lot better here, we–“
“I know about teaching, Draco,” Harry broke in as he cracked the shells off of a pair of salamander eggs. “Ginny and Ron’s mum told me.”
Draco pulled a face. “The Weasley woman? Blech. Anyway, we don’t have as many businesses. After all, a proper wizard can conjure most of what they need, and there’s not much that needs to be enchanted. Most jobs are in the Ministry, which really only has one purpose, or grew out of it, anyway.”
“Really? What’s that?”
“The Statute of Secrecy,” Draco said. “I’ll give you a quick rundown on the history of the Ministry, but I’ll use the modern terms. The departments weren’t actually called what they are right now until about a hundred years ago. Anyway, it started with the DMLE, magical law enforcement. That was to punish people who broke the Statute, nothing else. Then, later, the DRMC, regulation of magical creatures. That was to keep magical animals under control.
“Then, let’s see… that was about the point that we started to really think of ourselves as a community, so we got the DIMC, international magical cooperation, because other Ministries were appearing across the Channel. Then we got DMGS, magical games and sports, and then other laws started to be made, other than the Statute and its relatives. So before long there was the DGML, general magical law. And of course stuff like obliviators and things appeared too, but I don’t remember when. And no one really knows when the DM appeared. That’s just the Department of Mysteries, I don’t know much about them.
“Anyway, that’s the Ministry.”
Harry closed his eyes, taking a whiff of their Potion of Flame Resistance, which was almost done. The book said that it should have a peppermint scent, but it smelled more like cinnamon to him. “Professor Snape!” he called.
“What is it, Potter?” Snape drawled, drifting over.
“The potion has the wrong scent,” Harry said as Draco sighed. “I’m sure we did everything right, but it smells like cinnamon, not peppermint.”
“Cinnamon?” Snape muttered, leaning over to sniff. His eyes widened after a moment. “Quickly, add syrup of heliobore!” he spat. “Before it–“BOOM