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Quiet Like a Fight

Chapter Text

Harry Potter, eleven years old and floundering in oversize hand-me-downs that made his small frame look even smaller, wheeled a trunk considerably larger than himself through King’s Cross Station.  Several travelers hurrying by gave him concerned looks, wondering if a boy that young really ought to be alone. They were also concerned by the caged owl atop his trunk. Was that allowed in the station? One fretful businesswoman had to be assured by a stationmaster that a whole lot came through every year; some sort of birder convention, biannual affair.

In between Platform 10 and Platform 9, Harry parked his trunk for a moment. He fished a ticket out of his pocket, and held it up to the owl. In small, somewhat smudge type, were the numbers .

“What do you reckon, Hedwig?” Harry asked. “Make a run for it, like Hagrid said?”

The owl hooted, earning more glances their way. Harry hastily shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over Hedwig’s cage. Calmed by the dark, she settled down. After a minute, no one was looking at them anymore.

“Right,” Harry said, checking one more time to make sure Hedwig’s cage was secure on top of the trunk, and ran towards the barrier. There was a brief moment in which it sounded as though the entirety of King’s Cross Station had been submerged in a swimming pool, and then the noise came back tenfold. Harry stumbled. Hedwig hooted in annoyance, and Harry nudged the jacket halfway off her cage so she could give him a baleful glare. “Sorry,” he whispered, wheeling them both farther away from the barrier.

Once out of the line of traffic, near the back of the train, Harry stopped for a moment to take everything in. There were so many people! Parents hugging children his own age, some of whom were looking put-upon and embarrassed, others who hugged back so hard that their parents were trying to dislodge them again. Teenagers had congregated in knots, sitting on their trunks or in one case, balancing on them pretending as though they were about to fall off. Down near the front of the train, a square-shouldered girl was admonishing a grey tabby to leave someone’s owl alone.

Harry swallowed down his growing unease. He hadn’t actually met any other Hogwarts students, yet. No one else had seemed to be doing their school shopping, that wonderful day when Hagrid had taken him to Diagon Alley. Now he was in the middle of a massive crowd of them.

Just then, a tall, red-headed teenager peeled out of a group sporting badges, and made his way to Harry.

“First year?” he asked. Most of the other students and their parents were in Muggles clothes, or what they thought passed as Muggle clothes, but this boy had already changed into the school uniform. He was in crisp black robes, and his tie and the edging of his badge were both striped with red and gold.

“Yeah,” Harry said. He supposed he stood out a bit in his bulky cast-offs from Dudley, and no parents or older siblings or other family nearby.

“Let’s get you onboard,” the teenager said, taking the handle of Harry’s trunk. Harry picked up Hedwig’s cage. “I’m Percy Weasley, Gryffindor prefect.” He jerked his chin down towards the silver badge, both hands busy pulling the trunk up a set of stairs onto the train. “If you have any questions or problems, come find one of us.” With a tremendous heave, he shoved the trunk onto a rack in an empty compartment. Harry set Hedwig down near the window, and turned back to Percy, but the prefect had already left. Harry quickly stuck his head into the corridor, and saw Percy walking away.

“Thank you!” Harry called. Percy gave a friendly wave without looking back, and stepped off the train again.

Rather overwhelmed, Harry slid the door of the compartment shut, then flopped onto the seat next to the window. He blinked down at Hedwig. “It sure is noisy, huh?” he asked her. She hooted softly, and Harry dug an owl treat out of one ginormous pocket of his jeans to give her. Hedwig accepted the treat daintily, and after eating it, settled down on her perch for a nap.

“Good idea,” Harry whispered. He tucked his hand up between his cheek and the window. By the time the train started moving, he was already fast asleep.

~~~

“Trevor?” a voice whispered. Harry cracked his eyes open a fraction, and saw a round, worried face reflected in the window. “Trevor?” Harry almost answered, to say that no, there wasn’t any Trevor in here, but the worried face retreated before he could. The door slid back shut. Harry stretched, and settled back against the window.

“Is it him?” a new voice asked, sometime later. Harry had woken at the sound of the door this time, and saw three faces reflected in the glass. Two of them were rather craggy, reminding him of the trolls in Fantastic Beast & Where to Find Them he’d glimpsed before Aunt Petunia had slammed all his books back into his trunk and told him to clean the kitchen. The third was smooth and pointy, like a ferret that had gone through the wash.

“Hasn’t been anyone else,” the owner of the ferret face said, and one of his craggy friends frowned.

“He might not be coming,” he said.

“Well we’re not waking him up if it is him, that’d be a terrible first impression. Come on.” The door slid shut once more. Harry thought about trying to do some reading before they arrived. Aunt Petunia had seemed to think August was her last chance to make Harry normal before he went off to Hogwarts, and kept him doing chores from dawn to dusk the entire month. The books had looked so interesting, the little he’d seen of them before Aunt Petunia had locked his trunk away, but Harry was so tired. Napping a bit longer couldn’t hurt, could it?

Not ten minutes later the door practically flew open. “Excuse me,” said the girl who’d shoved it back. Harry turned away from the window and saw that the worried boy from earlier was with her. “Neville’s lost his toad. Have you seen it?”

“No,” Harry said. “Sorry.”

“Thanks anyway,” Neville said, and the girl’s eyes narrowed at Harry’s rumpled Muggle clothes.

“You should get changed,” she told him. She and Neville were both in their robes, though not ties. “I heard the trolley lady say we’re almost there.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, and looked pointedly at the girl’s hand on the door frame. She followed his line of sight, flushed, and hurriedly backed out into the corridor, taking Neville with her.

~~~

It turned out that Percy Weasley calling himself a Gryffindor prefect had meant something, Harry learned when Professor McGonagall herded all of the first years into the little room off the Great Hall. Harry’s stomach was tied in such a knot it was practically a bow by the time his name was called. Here he was at the start of the year, so far behind all the other students that he hadn’t even known they’d be sorted until now.

I knew I shouldn’t have napped so long on the train, Harry thought miserably, as Professor McGonagall lowered the Sorting Hat over his head. The Great Hall vanished from sight, and the noise dropped to a distant murmur, much like the push through the barrier at King’s Cross had sounded. If only he’d been able to read his school books! Or practice with his wand! Or do anything wizardly, really, aside from lean out the window and watch Hedwig hunt for mice.

“Difficult,” the Hat said thoughtfully. Harry winced, barely noticing that it kept talking. He didn’t belong here at all, it was going to say there’d been a mistake, and they’d make him leave

“Quite a thirst to prove yourself,” the Hat said. “How do you feel about Slytherin?”

What? Harry thought, startled. His stomach abruptly unknotted and he sat up straighter. Um, fine? Anything’s fine, really. Um. Thank you?

“Excellent,” the Hat said. It sounded…smug? Before Harry could think about that further, it roared out the name SLYTHERIN! so loud that Harry jumped.

The hall went sharply silent.

As Harry handed the Sorting Hat back to Professor McGonagall, he saw that most of the teachers at the high table behind her were rather stunned. One in particular, with long black hair that was so greasy Aunt Petunia would have fainted, looked as though he had been hit on the back of the head with a board. Only Professor Dumbledore seemed unsurprised, though thoughtful.

Cheers erupted from the Slytherin table, breaking the tension. Harry scurried over as Professor McGonagall called the next first year to be sorted. He slid into an empty seat at one end. It turned out to be empty because the next person on the bench was an incredibly tall ghost, whose translucent antique clothing was covered in equally translucent silvery blood. On the other side of the ghost was the ferret faced boy, who had turned out to be named Draco Malfoy according to Professor McGonagall’s roll call list, and his two friends Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle.

Momentarily, all of the first year students had been sorted, the Headmaster had warned them away from both the Forbidden Forest and some corridor on the third floor, and the feast commenced. Careful not to get his elbows in the bloody specter on his left, Harry made quick work of anything within reach, stomach quite annoyed that he hadn’t eaten since leaving Privet Drive that morning.

A while into the feast, Harry’s forehead flared with pain, right in his lightning bolt scar. Wincing, Harry rubbed at it, catching the attention of the girl across the table from him.

“You’re that kid that killed You-Know-Who as a baby,” she said. She was around Dudley’s height, and stared at him the way Petunia would at a new brand of detergent that might not be worth the bother of trying out. Harry blinked. She was the one who’d been admonishing her cat back at King’s Cross.

“That’s what they tell me,” Harry said. He looked nervously at the ghost from the corner of his eye, but he seemed to be ignoring them, engaged in a staring contest with another ghost at the Hufflepuff table.

“They say you got a scar out of it,” the girl said.

In response, Harry shoved back his bangs. The pain was already receding. The girl nodded at his scar, then held her hand out across the table, wiggling her fingers to draw attention to the marks peppered all over them.

“Gnomes,” she said solemnly, before drawing her hand back. Harry gave the same nod she had, hoping it was the right thing.

“I’m Millicent.”

“Harry.”

Their conversation drew to a close, then. Periodically, Malfoy or the other students further down the table would crane around the ghost. A few opened their mouths, looked at the ghost, and then shut them again. Eventually, they were dismissed to their common rooms for the night.

“Attention, first years,” a cool voice called. A girl with one long braid and the same badge Percy had been wearing, this time edged in silver and green, was standing at the far end of the table with her hands on her hips. “Attention, if you don’t want to get lost and sleep in the hall.”

Half of the new Slytherin first years, Harry included, hurried nervously over to the girl. The other half tried to saunter, as though they had no concerns whatsoever, but a truly evil glare from her got them to speed up.

“I’m Gemma Farley, one of your prefects,” she told them, once they were all together. The older Slytherins were streaming past. “Tonight, I’ll be leading you to your new dormitory. You’ll have to get to the Great Hall on your own tomorrow, but if you get lost at all, ask one of your housemates for directions. If I catch you embarrassing us by asking a Hufflepuff for directions, or worse yet one of the ghosts, it’ll go badly for you.”

“Don’t we have a house ghost?” the girl to Harry’s left, Pansy Parkinson, asked.

“The Bloody Baron has better things to do than act as a glorified map,” Gemma informed them. She beckoned them to follow her. As they passed through the entrance hall, Harry saw the mass of students flashing Gryffindor red and gold, and Ravenclaw blue and bronze, sweep up the marble stairs leading to the second floor. He caught no sigh of yellow and black; the Hufflepuffs must have been faster than everyone else.

The Slytherin first years followed Gemma to a long set of stone stairs, lit by torches in iron sconces.

“Your curfew is eight at night,” Gemma told them as they proceeded downwards. “Though you’d be smart to treat seven-thirty as the cut-off. It’ll be later when you’re older. The exception is Astronomy class, and you’ll be escorted for that. Everyone’s allowed back out at four in the morning, and if you’re the sort to be up at that time the rowing team will be happy to have you.”

“Does the rowing team compete for house points?” Theodore Nott asked. They had reached the bottom of the stairs, and Harry was trying to pay attention to the twists and turns they were taking.

“No,” Gemma said. “It’s three teams unrelated to houses, and they’re all mad as pants.” The last part sounded very odd in Gemma’s cool tones. “Choir doesn’t get house points either, but if you can pass their auditions, they’re worth joining.”

The longer they walked, the more sconces Harry noticed decorated with snake etchings, or even little sculptures. When they reached a corridor where every torch was held up by a sconce shaped like a coiling snake, Gemma stopped. She held her hand up in front a blank stretch of the wall.

“Prefects will tell you when there’s a new password, and you are never to tell it to someone outside our house.” Gemma looked towards the wall. “Venomous.” A portion of stone slid aside.

The hidden door led to a round, unlit stone archway ten feet around and five feet long. The first years hurried through, and some of them gasped when they saw the common room. Gemma pushed them forward, out of the way of the entryway, then stopped with her hands back on her hips, a pleased smile growing as she saw their awe.

“Welcome home,” Gemma said.

To their left was an enormous fireplace, flanked by several ridiculously high-backed chairs that no one was bothering to sit in, though an older student was hanging upside down from the back of one, laughing at a friend. A hodgepodge of variously sized armchairs in all shades of green was spread across the long room, interspersed with little end tables. Directly across from the entrance were more dark archways, leading to the sleeping chambers.  Unlike the school hallways, which were mostly of mortared-together stone, the Slytherin dungeon appeared to have been carved into the bedrock itself.

Most of the light was coming from a number of lamps hung from the ceiling, with the fireplace providing warmth. Suddenly, the right side of the room brightened; the entire wall was curved inwards, and filled with high, wide windows carved into the rough stone. Harry and several of the other new Slytherins went over to them. The sills were deeply recessed and piled with green cushions, and the window glass was easily three yards thick. Twining silver, bronze, and gold sculptures of snakes were affixed to the wall around the windows, like intricate picture frames.

Harry pressed one hand to a pane and looked up. They had gone down so many stairs that they were under the lake itself. The sudden light had been the moon breaking through the clouds, and shining down through the water.

It was the most magical thing Harry had ever seen.

Chapter Text

Draco and Theodore flanked Harry on their way to breakfast the first morning, chatting at each other about things they’d done over the summer. They both made attempts to draw Harry into the conversation, but since he’d never been on a broom, or gone to the theater, or knew the other people they talked about, he didn’t have much to say. It didn’t help that Draco’s friends Vincent and Gregory were trailing behind them in a way that reminded Harry an awful lot of the times Dudley’s gang would herd him towards a mud puddle.

Harry was able to join Daphne and Tracey’s conversation at lunch, since they were discussing the first two classes of the day, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Transfiguration. At least, until Tracey grew tired of talking about the transfigurations Professor McGonagall had demonstrated for the class, and started making fun of Professor Quirrell’s stutter.

After dinner, Harry settled into one of the recessed windows with A History of Magic. He agreed with Pansy that Professor Binns was a bit hard to pay attention to, but didn’t want to say so. Maybe if the reading overlapped with the lectures enough, it wouldn’t matter that the class nearly put him to sleep.

“Do you want to play Exploding Snap with us?” Millicent asked some time later, holding up a packet of cards. The gray tabby cat from the train was winding around her ankles.

“Can you teach me the rules?” Harry asked. Millicent nodded, so Harry set his book down and joined her, Daphne, and Gregory at a nearby table.

“Snapdragon likes you,” Millicent said approvingly when her tabby jumped into Harry’s lap. He scratched it under the chin absently, trying to pay attention to Daphne’s explanation of the card game. Exploding Snap turned out to be quite fun, and it was over an hour until the group broke apart. After a final scratch behind Snapdragon’s ears, Harry handing the purring cat back to Millicent and went back to his windowsill.

A History of Magic was gone.

Harry frowned. Maybe he’d been in one of the other windows? A quick search failed to turn up the book, even when Harry rummaged under all the cushions.

“Has anyone seen my textbook?” Harry asked the other first years. They all shook their heads. An older student, perhaps in their sixth or seventh year, overheard and sneered at him.

“Lost something already?” they tsk’d. “Bad luck. I suppose it’s to be expected, what with your family being what it was.”

“What do you mean by that?” Harry asked, very confused, and fairly certain he should be angry. The older student smiled nastily, but then spotted something past Harry’s shoulder and sauntered away.

“Is this one of yours?” Gemma Farley asked. “Derrick saw it in the fireplace.”  She was levitating a charred copy of A History of Magic towards the card table. When she set it down, flakes fell off the cover. Gregory nudged it open with a quill just as Draco, Vincent, and Pansy wandered over. Most of the pages were destroyed, but enough of the cover was intact to see where Harry had printed his name the night before.

“You’ll need to keep better track of your things, Potter,” Gemma told him. Harry was unable to answer, a tight feeling in his chest. “There’s duplicates of all the course books in the library, if you can’t get another one. You’ll have to read it in there, Madam Pince doesn’t allow them to be checked out.”

Harry nodded, and picked the ruined book up with a corner of his robe. Draco patted him on the shoulder, and was saying something about getting him a new copy, but Harry wasn’t listening. He could see older students around the room pretending not to watch the cluster of first years. He didn’t want to stay there any longer, and pushed past Draco to the sleeping chambers.

~~~

Later in the week, Harry forgot his notebook, and turned back to the dorms while the rest of the first years went on towards breakfast. Hurrying along the dungeon halls a few minutes later, Harry realized he wasn’t quite sure which turn led to the entrance hall stairs. As he paused at a dim juncture, trying to remember which way to go, three seventh year boys came up behind him.

Move, firstie,” one said, shoving Harry into the wall. He bit back a curse as he hit the stone, and heard something snap inside his bookbag. Great.  Rubbing his bruised elbow, Harry followed the older students. At least he knew which way was out, now.

“You do realize that was the Potter kid, right Evan?”

Maybe it would be better to follow at a distance.

“You think I don’t know that?” Evan snapped. “Little bastard’s mother took my aunt’s leg off during the war.”

Harry froze. Hagrid hadn’t mentioned anything like that when he’d talked about Harry’s parents.

“I’ve met your aunt, you can’t tell me she didn’t have it coming.”

“She was Imperius’d.”

“Uh-huh.”

After lurking at the top of the stairs to make sure the seventh years wouldn’t notice him behind them, Harry crossed the entrance hall and slipped into breakfast just as all the owls swooped in. As he slid into a seat by Blaise, Draco was gleefully unwrapping a care package from home.

“Mother sent me Ice Mice,” Draco announced happily. He handed Gregory and Vincent each one of the strange sweets, and turned to Harry. “Do you want one?”

“No, thanks,” Harry said, eyeing them warily. Eating something mysterious before class didn’t seem like a good idea, especially with his stomach still unsettled from the incident in the dungeons.

“Well I want one, Draco,” Pansy said, and Draco sent the candy scurrying across the table to her. Pansy caught it under her empty goblet, and then popped it into her mouth. Seeing her shiver from cold despite the warmth of the Great Hall, Harry was glad he’d declined.

In Defense Against the Dark Arts, Harry discovered that all the quills in his bag had broken during the collision with the wall. Pansy loaned him one, and Harry gave it back after their afternoon classes, despite Pansy telling him to keep it. He dumped the broken quills in the bottom of his trunk, and locked it.

Back in the windowsill closest to the big archway, Harry poured through The Standard Book of Spells, waving away Millicent’s offer to play Exploding Snap again. He eventually found Reparo, which sounded like it ought to mend the quills. Deciding to try it in the morning, Harry closed the textbook and wiggled deeper into the cushions.

The sculptures framing the windows were echoed in shallow, intricate carvings inside the recessed sill. Harry pressed one hand against them, letting the pads of his fingers depress into the stone. The rippling light from the lake was making him feel dreamy. Despite his elbow winging a little, he traced his fingers up and down the carved snakes. The ones that ran along the bottom, mostly covered by cushions, included scales and flicked out tongues. He wondered if that boa constrictor from the zoo had made it to Brazil. He hoped so.

~~~

As Harry was careful to not leave his belongings unattended in the common room again, the rest of the week passed without incident. The worst thing now was the odd looks the Ravenclaw students in their shared Herbology class gave him; like he was a particularly frustrating puzzle. Fortunately they usually lost the look once Professor Sprout began instructing the assemblage, and they had something else to focus on.

Friday morning, Harry was delighted to receive an invitation to tea from Hagrid. As this was the first mail Harry had received since the school year started, several of the other Slytherin first years crowded over his shoulder to read it.

“Do you mind?” Harry asked, pressing the invitation to his chest.

“Sorry,” Tracey Davis said, not sounding sorry at all.

“Is that a letter from the groundskeeper?” Draco asked. “I didn’t know he could write, Father says he’s something of a wild man.”

“Hagrid is the Keeper of the Keys and Grounds of Hogwarts,” Harry said, putting as much pomp into the title as he could. “And he’s my friend.”

Draco did not know what to say to this.

~~~

Block Potions with Gryffindor was their only class on Friday’s, and it brought Harry to the unpleasant conclusion that he was not going to like his head of house at all. Professor Snape was flat out mean to the Gryffindors, only calling on students who hadn’t raised their hands, deducting points for wrong answers, yet not giving any for correct ones, haranguing them for mistakes while they brewed yet not telling them how to do it properly, and generally being unnecessarily cruel. Poor Neville Longbottom was so flustered that he messed up his potion to the point of landing in the hospital wing. The other Slytherins actually laughed as Longbottom was escorted from the dungeon, whimpering with pain. Harry glared at his housemates. They thought that was funny?

Meanwhile, Snape treated the Slytherins exactly the opposite; points were awarded for a correct answer, but not deducted for wrong ones, and he only called on actual volunteers. He was just as quick to criticize their potions, but then told them how to do it right, instead of just snapping for them to reread the instructions. As the class went on, Harry’s glare left his fellow students, and fixed on the Potions master.

Pansy noticed this, and kicked Harry’s leg under their table. “You can lose us points for disrespect, you know,” she hissed.

But it turned out that Harry couldn’t lose points in Potions class, nor gain them. Because Professor Snape acted like Harry didn’t exist. He ignored their table entirely, even when they added too many pine needles and produced a short burst of green smoke. It wasn’t until Pansy raised her hand and asked about their homework assignment that Snape even looked in their direction, at which point his eyes slid right over Harry, as though the lab stool were empty.

“Can I partner with you next week?” Daphne asked, when they were finally dismissed for the day. “It was nice and quiet at your table.”

Harry hesitated for a moment, then nodded acquiescence. He had the impulsive thought to share this strange gift of invisibility with Longbottom, who surely needed it more than Daphne. But then two other Gryffindor and Slytherin students would have had to pair up, and that might end very badly.

The Bloody Baron was at their table at lunch that day, and Harry deliberately sat next to him. After the way they’d laughed Longbottom, he didn’t feel much like talking to the others. It had brought back memories of the times he hadn’t been fast enough to escape Dudley’s gang. If he thought about it too much, he could almost hear Piers Polkiss’s nasal snigger.

~~~

The early September sun was still warm, so Harry spent the hours between lunch and tea lying in the grass by the lake. He was just over the crest of a knoll, on the far side from the castle. In the distance, he could see the dark trees of the Forbidden Forest. This wasn’t too close to it, was it?

Eventually, Harry’s contemplation of the wispy clouds was interrupted a booming bark. Alarmed, Harry shoved himself upright, looking around wildly. Which direction had that come from?

From the castle, Harry thought, as something loomed over the top of the knoll. Before he could stand up properly, a large boarhound knocked him back down and proceeded to happily lick at the apple juice stain on the front of his robes.

“Down, Fang!” a familiar voice roared. With a final lick, the boarhound sat on its haunches, grinning a warm doggy grin at Harry. “All right there, Harry?”

“Fine,” Harry said, looking up at Hagrid, who had his hand on the boarhound’s collar now. “It’s not three o’clock already, is it? I didn’t hear the bell.”

“Nah, ‘s only quarter till,” Hagrid said. “I was just on my way home.”

Relieved, Harry followed Hagrid to his hut by the edge of the grounds. It had a fenced off garden to one side, and a number of interesting things hanging on the outer walls. Inside, Fang flopped down under the sturdy table, giving Harry a pleading look. Harry knelt and scratched his belly obligingly.

“How’s classes?” Hagrid asked, after the kettle was all set to boil. “Settling in all right?”

“Classes are good,” Harry said. “But I don’t think the older Slytherins like me much.”

“Why d’you think that?” Hagrid asked. He sounded a bit odd, so Harry looked up. Hagrid was firmly paying attention to measuring tea leaves for the pot.

“Well, apparently my mum took someone’s leg off,” Harry told him, trying to sound casual. The kettle shrieked, making everyone jump. Hagrid set the tea to steep, and settled down across the table from Harry, who’d gotten a bit tired of kneeling by Fang, and claimed a chair.

“Harry,” Hagrid said, after a long moment of thinking. “Has Professor Binn talked about the war, yet?”

Harry shook his head, and Hagrid sighed.

“Went on for over a decade,” Hagrid told him. Under the table, Fang wriggled until his head was on Harry’s lap. “Yer mum and dad graduated Hogwarts in the thick of it, and some say they must have been unnaturally hopeful sorts, to still start a family in the middle of all that. I can’t say as I remember a particular time Lily took limbs offa anyone, but I can tell you, she must have been protecting someone.”

“It was Evan Pershore’s aunt,” Harry said helpfully. He felt a bit better, hearing Hagrid’s view of his mum.

Hagrid thought for a moment, pouring the tea into mugs and putting cream and sugar on the table. Harry helped himself to a large spoonful, and scratched Fang behind the ears.

“Must have been Ephesia Pershore, then” Hagrid said eventually.  “Had a trial after the war was over, got off by claiming she’d been under the Imperious curse. Now, I’m not saying she wasn’t, but she was a right nasty sort before everything, and she’s still a right nasty sort.”

“What’s the Imperious curse?” Harry asked.

“One of the Unforgivables,” Hagrid said. “Turns you into a sort of puppet. Dark magic. A lot of people said they’d been under it, when the dust settled. Lot of ‘em were.”

Harry shuddered, and clutched his tea mug tighter. Searching for a topic change, his eyes fell on a copy of the Daily Prophet. He snatched it up, attention caught by the blaring headline GRINGOTT’S BREAK-IN LATEST.

“This is when we were there!” Harry exclaimed. Also relieved by the change of subject, Hagrid leaned over the table. Harry turned the paper sideways so they could both read it. “Look, it said the vault was emptied earlier that day! You don’t think the thieves weren’t after that thing you picked up for Professor Dumbledore, do you?”

“Course not,” Hagrid said, though he was suspiciously quick to go back to stirring his tea. “Half of the world’s greatest treasures are in Gringott’s, and it’s busy all day.”

This seemed to Harry a bit too much denial, but he let the subject drop, flipping through the paper until finding a section of International Broom Racing for them to talk about instead.

~~~

The second week brought an additional class with Gryffindor; flying lessons, to continue every other Thursday until a practical exam in late November. In his excitement for the class, Harry forgot his bookbag in the Charms classroom, and had to double back for it when Daphne pointed out it was missing. Flitwick had noticed the forgotten bag as well and handed it to Harry when he skidded to a stop in front of the classroom door.

“Thanks, Professor!” Harry gasped. Flitwick merrily waved him on his way, and Harry went racing off again. Down the moving stairs, through the corridor whose suits of armor had auburn plumes, one more set of stairs, across the entrance hall–

Watch it, firstie.”

–and apparently face first into the floor, was going to be his route to flying class. Harry shoved himself up, and a large hand grabbed him under the arm.

“Are the first years getting clumsier?” the older student asked nastily, pulling Harry to his feet. He looked around; he was expecting Evan and his friends again, but a different two housemates had cornered him.

“Bonier, too, I think he bruised my ankle,” said the one who’d tripped Harry. He was pretty sure she was in the seventh year, but the one with a hand around his arm might’ve been sixth.

“Let go,” Harry said, trying to yank his arm free. He winced when he spoke; his lip had split when he hit the stone floor. “I’ve got class.”

“Not going to thank us for helping you up?” the presumed sixth year asked, mock affront in his tone. “Ruder, too.”

“Could use some manners–” the seventh year started to say, and cut herself off, staring past her friend. He noticed her look and twisted his head around. Coming out from one stairway towards the dungeons was Professor Snape.

The sixth year hastily let go of Harry’s arm. “S-sir!”

Snape’s eyes flicked towards the students, and then straight ahead again. Ignoring Harry’s split lip, he continued walking towards the Great Hall.

“That’s interesting…” the seventh year muttered, but Harry hardly heard her, already halfway to the door. The two older Slytherins cursed when they noticed his absence, and he heard their footsteps pound behind him, but he was out the door, then down the stairs, and running across the grounds towards his classmates clustered around the broom shed.

“What happened to you?” Tracey asked when Harry stopped next to her, bracing his hands on his knees for a moment. She noticed the blood on his chin. “Did you trip on that moving staircase? It got Millicent yesterday.”

Harry shook his head, but didn’t elaborate. A quick glance over his shoulder showed that the bullies hadn’t followed him. Harry wiped the blood from his face and straightened up. Madam Hooch hadn’t noticed his tardiness, and was already handing out brooms.

Harry was really looking forward to flying.

Unfortunately, before they could even mount up, Neville Longbottom’s rotten luck reared its head, and landed him in the hospital wing once more. Unlike Professor Snape, Madam Hooch didn’t send another student to escort Longbottom, but threatened the class with expulsion if they flew unsupervised and walked Longbottom off to the castle infirmary herself.

Harry sighed, and idly thought about getting on the broom anyway. Flying sounded amazing, the way the wizarding-raised students had talked about it. And he’d gone soaring without proper supervision minutes ago; was it so much to ask, that he get to fly of his own volition now?

Harry’s reverie was broken by loud, angry voices; some sort of orb had fallen from Longbottom’s pocket, and Draco had gotten to it before the Gryffindors could.

“May I see?” Harry asked, curious, and wanting a distraction. The shocked numbness had worn off, and his split lip was starting to throb. Startled out of his gloating plans to stick the orb in a tree or some such, Draco handed it over. Harry turned it over in his hand, looking into the murky depths. “What’s it supposed to do?”

“It’s a Remembrall,” Granger said primly. “It turns red if you’ve forgotten something.”

“Does it tell you what you forgot?” Harry asked.

“No,” Millicent rumbled, from behind Pansy and Tracey. “And if you don’t bother looking at it, you don’t even know if you’ve forgotten something.”

“Sounds kind if useless,” Harry said. A notebook that you could check off seemed more practical.

“Well it’s not yours anyway,” Weasley said, holding out his own hand. “Give it over, we’ll take it up to Neville.”

Harry looked at his outstretched hand. Pansy had been nice enough to loan him a quill last week…because an older student from their own house had shoved him into a wall. He had to do his history homework in the library, thanks to his textbook being chucked in the fire. And now a different seventh year from Pershore had sent him tumbling into the floor.

Everyone kept saying that Slytherins weren’t Gryffindors and Gryffindors weren’t Slytherins, but what did that even mean? Nobody bothered saying things like that about Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. Harry let his eyes move up from Weasley’s hand, to his face. Very deliberately, without breaking eye contact, Harry dropped the Remembrall into his pocket.

Draco laughed and clapped him on the back, and half the Gryffindors opened their mouths angrily, but then a Ravenclaw prefect swooped down upon the class.

“Madam Hooch sent me,” she said. “We’re getting those brooms back in the shed, lesson’s over for the day. Come on.” Harry wondered if anyone was going to tell the prefect about the Remembrall, but a few glares seemed to be the extent of their retribution for now.

~~~

Hermione couldn’t believe her eyes.  She had had high hopes when Ron brought Neville down from the infirmary that, under the watchful eyes of teachers at the high table, they could simply ask Potter for the Remembrall back, and receive it. But not only was Potter conspicuously absent from dinner, Malfoy and his two flunkies were sauntering over to their table.

It would be better to shun the horrible snot entirely, Hermione thought, but unfortunately her housemates didn’t share her philosophy. Within minutes, Malfoy had gotten Ron to turn bright red in rage, Neville to turn the same shame in mortification, and challenged them to a wizard’s duel at midnight.

“After all, it’s the only way you’ll get that Remembrall back,” Malfoy laughed, as he took a step back from the Gryffindor table.

“What do you mean by that, Malfoy?” Ron asked, eyes narrowing, fists clenched.

“Where do you think Harry is?” Malfoy said, gesturing around the Great Hall with a smirk.

“Hiding it,” Goyle said, before any of them could answer. Malfoy frowned. He’d probably wanted to make them guess.

“See you at midnight,” Malfoy said dramatically, turning to go, and throwing a few more words over his shoulder. “Remember, west Astronomy tower.”

“He can’t possibly hide it well enough for the teachers not to find it,” Hermione said once the Slytherin boys were back at their own table. Ron and Neville turned to look at her.

“Th-that’s nnnot the point,” Neville stuttered. “I c-can’t turn down a duel.”

“And it’s not your business anyway,” Ron said with a scowl.

“We’re in the same house,” Hermione hissed. “Dueling isn’t allowed, and neither is being out of the dorms at midnight, and you’re going to lose us points.”

“Oh shove off, Hermione,” Ron said.

“S-sorry,” Neville added, before standing up from the table. “But w-we have to.”

~~~

“The library is closing, Mr. Potter,” Madam Pince said from directly behind him, and Harry jumped.

“Thank you,” he said, scrambling to put his books back in his bag, though not so fast that the stern librarian would tsk him for endangering them.

Harry had been spending all of his hours between dinner and curfew in the library, since their disastrous first week. If he hid away enough food during lunch, he could go right up after class and skip dinner entirely. At first thinking he’d just do his History homework there, Harry had found that the quiet of the library made it much easier to concentrate than in the Slytherin common room. He’d spent the rest of the weekend there, getting all of his other homework out of the way. When he didn’t have any assignments left, he browsed the shelves.

The Hogwarts library hours were carefully timed so that any students shoo’d out the door had just enough time to get back to their respective houses before curfew. Halfway down the first flight of stairs, the rumbling of his stomach reminded Harry he’d missed dinner today. He absently pulled out an apple he’d pocketed during lunch and started eating it. He half expected the juices to sting his lip, but a visit to Madam Pomfrey after flying class had taken care of the split. She’d made the same assumption Tracey had about the moving stairs; apparently a spate of minor injuries as first years got used to the castle was common.

As he swallowed the last bit of apple, Harry came to an abrupt stop. Flying class. Dinner. Seeing the other houses. Longbottom.

Harry pulled the Remembrall out of his pocket and groaned. He could give it back at breakfast? No, his housemates might ask about it before then.

Several polite inquiries with the paintings along the hall later, Harry was standing before a portrait of a woman who put Uncle Vernon’s girth to shame. He took a moment to get his breath back, having run as much of the route as he could.

“Excuse me,” Harry said, and she smiled down at him. “Um, I’ve come to return something of Neville Longbottom’s, is he here?”

“Can’t tell you that,” she said, shaking her head, making the ringlets of her hair bounce.

“Oh. Is there anyone who could?”

“What are you doing here?”

Harry spun around, and found himself face to face with Granger, who he dimly recalled seeing at one of the other tables in the library.

“Bringing Longbottom back his orb?” Harry said, a little unsure of himself now. Granger’s glare could level a forest.

“Malfoy said you hid it,” Granger said, brows furrowing. “You haven’t swapped it for something nasty, have you?”

“What? No.” Harry pulled the Remembrall from his pocket and showed her.

After a long moment, Granger nodded decisively. “Wait here,” she told him, then whispered something to the portrait. The frame swung to one side, and Harry got a brief glimpse of a warm stone room bedecked in red and gold, before the frame swung shut again.

“Um…” Harry said, hoping she wouldn’t take too long. He really did need to get back to the Slytherin dorms before curfew, and the time for that was rapidly dwindling. “I’m Harry. What’s your name?”

“Oh, everyone just calls me the Fat Lady,” the portrait said, waving a hand. Before Harry could ask anything else, the portrait opened once more, and Granger stepped back out, Longbottom and Weasley in tow. She was saying something that sounded an awful lot like “I told you so.”

“Here,” Harry said, practically shoving the Remembrall into Longbottom’s hands, and fleeing down the corridor.

“Th-thanks!” Longbottom called after him.

“Is Malfoy backing out on the duel, then?” Weasley asked.

Harry paused, spun on one heel. “I don’t know about any duel, and I don’t care. Take that thing outta your pocket before getting on a broom next time, it could crack someone’s skull.” Harry ran around the corner before they could ask any more questions, and didn’t stop until he was on a completely different floor.

At least, he thought he was. He’d gone the wrong way, leaving Gryffindor, and didn’t recognize this part of the castle. And the only painting he could see was a lovely landscape, which unfortunately couldn’t give him directions.

Great. Two weeks into school, and he was going to get expelled for breaking the rules.

Okay, probably not expelled. Definitely a detention.

Not if you don’t get caught, Harry told himself. Just keep going down, and the dungeons were bound to show up sometime.

After ten minutes of trying to walk as quietly as possible, Harry ran into his first dead end. A locked door. Perfect. Should he backtrack, or…? No. He’d wasted too much time already.

“Alohamora,” Harry whispered, pointing his wand at the doorknob.

Click.

Harry stuck his head through the door.

He pulled his head back through the door and bolted back down the hallway, stealth forgotten.

Surprisingly, Harry made it back to the Slytherin dorms without further incident. He probably wouldn’t have even noticed if Filch or a teacher had tried to stop him, distracted as he was by sheer terror.

Dogs! Big dogs! Three of them! Or…was it one dog? He knew he’d seen three heads. Either way, they could eat Fang for breakfast! Why are they in the school?!

Harry didn’t sleep much that night. The next day, at Hagrid’s, he asked about it, but Hagrid got even cagier than last week, and suddenly Harry was absolutely sure the package from Gringott’s was somewhere beyond the dog. He didn’t tell Hagrid that though, since Hagrid seemed stressed enough by subject as was.

~~~

Harry discovered the greenhouse at the end of their third week.

Hogwarts had a great many unused classrooms, including a lecture hall in the east wing with marvelous acoustics which the choir had taken over for practicing in. According to the older Slytherins, this current class was the smallest Hogwarts had hosted in centuries; it was the war, they said. Families were killed. Children used as hostages, or worse. Couples had refused to start families, while it was raging. And though Hogwarts was still ‘the safest place in Britain’, many parents (and aunts and great uncles and second cousins who’d had  to step in when parents died or went to Azkaban or fled the country) were reluctant to let their children stray too far from home.

“My cousins are homeschooled,” Millicent told Daphne during breakfast on Saturday.

“My father’s old sister-in-law moved to Norway,” Pansy Parkinson interjected. “Her second husband wanted their children to go to Durmstrang.”

“Did they get in?” Daphne asked.

“Of course,” Pansy snapped, as though the question shouldn’t have been asked at all. Daphne shrank a little ways from her.

“Draco, didn’t, though,” Millicent pointed out.

Draco sneered. “Father and mother chose to send me to Hogwarts. A Malfoy is welcome at any school.”

“Not at the Randall James Academy in America,” Daphne said. “You have to have at least one Muggle parent to get in there, it’s part of their funding allotment rules.”

“And why would you know about it, Daphne?” Pansy said, rounding on her.

“Because it’s in our Potions reading,” Harry said. They all turned to him, looking rather like a flock of startled owls. They’d noticed that he wasn’t talking to them outside of class anymore. “One of their graduates invented a potion that relieves migraines.”

“The book didn’t say Naomi Kijek was from there,” Pansy said irritably.

“It was in the footnotes,” Harry said. He abruptly got up and fled the table. After the disaster of getting Longbottom back his Remembrall, Harry had taken to exploring the castle in his free time, asking the portraits for directions and advice. He didn’t want to get lost again, and find something scarier than the three headed dog. By now, Harry felt reasonably confident that he could recognize each wing and floor, though perhaps not all the individual corridors, and get himself back to known hallways speedily.

They’d had drizzly rain for half the week, and today the sun was back. Harry was determined to spend his weekend out of doors. It was the perfect moment to get outside for something other than Herbology or flying lessons, and explore the grounds themselves. Though he wouldn’t say no to more flying lessons.

Checking to make sure none of his housemates had followed him, Harry slipped out the door of the main hall and scampered down to the greenhouses. At the end of the row were two that Professor Sprout said were off-limits. The charms to keep pests out had worn down, and all magical plants removed. The greenhouse closer to the ones still in use for classes appeared to have a large number of flowerpots just inside the door. Harry had overheard Gemma Farley inviting a Ravenclaw down to it last week; it was used for storage now, and prefects who assisted Professor Sprout all had keys.

The greenhouse closer to the lake, though, was truly abandoned. Harry wiggled his way through the overgrown hedges around it, and pressed his face to the glass. Inside, perfectly mundane plants had overgrown their pots, and worked their roots down into the soil. Directly across from Harry, a set of shelves had broken down the middle, and in front of him a table had slumped to the side, one leg rotted. Shattered glass gleamed in the far corner from a broken pane in the roof.

Harry slid down to his knees, and began to crawl around the greenhouse’s perimeter. It was easier to get past the bushes down here. He went slowly, hoping that if anyone was passing by they would mistake the rustling of the bushes for the wind’s work. He kept his face turned towards the glass walls; it was sunny but cool out here, and looked invitingly warm and green inside. If he found a taller bush with room to sit underneath, this might be a nice spot to do his reading assignments, though probably not essays or worksheets.

Watch out!” a small voice hissed.

Harry froze, one hand in the air. He turned his head forward. On the ground directly in front of him was more shattered glass, right where his hand would have landed. About two feet away, a flat rock lay next to the greenhouse wall, just where the bushes parted enough to let the sun through.

A grass snake coiled up on the rock was looking at him.

“Um,” Harry said. “Thank you?”

The snake flicked its tongue at him, and settled its head back down on the rock. “Mind the glass if you’re going in,” it told him, sounding rather sleepy.

The glass had come from yet another broken pane, this one right at the bottom, where the wall met the ground. Harry could see several rocks around the size of his fist just inside, and a few next to the flat one with the snake. Someone had probably been kicking them. That must have been a long time ago; most of the rocks were being taken over by moss.

After a minute or so of looking around, Harry started collecting the pieces of glass shard. Did magical greenhouses need all their original components? Or could they just install a new pane? Cautiously, Harry piled the shards against the greenhouse, next to the hole, in case they would be needed some day to repair it. Within the few minutes, the ground was much safer, and Harry sat back on his heels.

The snake opened one eye, then the other. Harry smiled at it. The snake uncoiled and slithered down off the rock. Harry heard its small voice hiss “Nice!” as it vanished into the greenhouse.

Chapter Text

“Stop crying,” Hermione told herself, glaring fiercely at the bathroom mirror. Her hands were clenched so hard around the sink basin her knuckles hurt. A little paper bat fluttered at her from one corner of the frame, a Halloween decoration that had accidentally gotten in from the hallway.

“You’re here to learn. It doesn’t matter what– doesn’t matter what– some, some…it doesn’t matter what they think of you!”

Much like the last few times she had given herself this little speech over the past several hours, it did not help in the least. If it had just been one comment, it might have. It had certainly helped her first week! But now Hermione had two months’ worth of such comments, and rolled eyes when she raised her hand in class, and glares when a teacher gave her points, and bruised egos lashing out when she just wanted to give a few pointers

Honestly, she’s a nightmare.”

Oh, here was the floor again. The paper bat fell down in the breeze from her abrupt motion, and landed in her hair.

She must have noticed she hasn’t got any friends.”

Hermione wrapped her arms around her legs and bawled.

Tap tap.

“Are you all right?”

Go away!” Hermione sobbed at whoever was outside.

“I’ve got pumpkin pasties,” the voice said. Was that…was that Harry Potter out there? “They’re a little squashed but they’re still good.”

“I don’t–” Hermione’s voice cut off with a sob. She took a deep breath. “Why are you down here anyway? Shouldn’t you be at the feast?”

“Shouldn’t you?” Potter asked. The door creaked open. “I was in the library. Look, honestly, I grabbed so many at lunch, I think my bag might break. You’d be doing me a favor.”

“This is the girl’s room,” Hermione reminded him, but she didn’t find herself caring very much. Potter grinned at her, and stuck his head back outside to see if anyone else was going to tell him off if he joined her in the loo. His eyes went wide and his bag, already sliding off one shoulder, dropped to the floor. He went absolutely still.

“Granger,” he hissed. “Granger there’s a troll in the hallway.”

“What?” Hermione gasped, scrambling to her feet.

Potter practically fell into the bathroom. “We have to hide we have to hide I think it saw me!

They dashed into the stall at the back and climbed up onto the toilet. Hermione crouched on the seat, and Potter was balanced on the water tank. Hermione could hear the heavy, dull footsteps now, and the drag of a club against the stone floor.

Why was there a troll in Hogwarts? How did it get in? Maybe through that tunnel by the lake? Was it from the Forbidden Forest? Why was it here? Was this some awful test?

Hermione’s racing thoughts were interrupted by a horrible smell, and a low grunt.

They could see the troll’s head just inside the door, over the top of the stall.

Which meant it could see them.

Hermione whimpered.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Potter said, no longer trying to be quiet.

“It’s blocking the door,” Hermione pointed out. Her voice was embarrassingly high and she didn’t care. The troll took a slow step further into the bathroom, and then another. They were going to die.

“We can go around it,” Potter said.

“It’s taking up the whole room!”

The troll’s club broke a sink.

“Climb over the stalls!” Potter said, immediately enacting his idea by grabbing the edge and pulling himself off the water tank. The troll roared. Hermione leapt from the toilet seat to the edge of the stall and pulled herself up. She almost fell into the last stall, making the final stretch towards the door, but then she was on the ground by the doorway and Potter was pulling her arm and they were in the hallway.

They ran.

So did the troll. The hallway shook with its footsteps. If they could just get somewhere more open and split up, they could distract it–

“Look out!” Potter yelled, and shoved Hermione out of the way of the club. She fell and rolled towards the wall.

Crack!

Potter screamed. The troll was bringing the club back up, and Hermione yelled the words that had gotten her into this mess in the first place.

Wingardium leviosa!

The club, already at the height of its swing, kept rising. And rising. The ceiling was very high here, and the troll…wasn’t letting go. Hermione panted, keeping her wand trained on the club, sending it higher and higher as the troll roared in confusion. Hermione snapped the end of her wand down. The club, and the troll with it, slammed into the floor.

Wingardium leviosa!” Hermione yelled again. The club rose on its own now, and Hermione dropped it on the troll’s head. Then again. And again. And again. And again–

“Miss Granger!”

Wingargium leviosa!”

“Miss Granger, stop!”

Professor McGonagall grabbed her shoulders. Hermione stared at her face, and slowly, oh painfully slowly, lowered her wand arm. The troll wasn’t moving at all.

“Thank you, Miss Granger,” Professor McGonagall said. She pulled Hermione to her feet. Past her head of house, Hermione saw Professor Snape conjure a stretcher and slide it under Potter. Snape quietly intoned the same charm Hermione had been shrieking moments before. As the stretcher rose, Potter’s arm slipped off, dangling limply.

“Is he…?” Hermione asked. Her voice was hoarse. She couldn’t bring herself to end the sentence.

“Mr. Potter has a broken leg and appears to be unconscious,” Professor Snape said. Hermione sagged with relief, and Professor McGonagall put an arm around her shoulders. “He will, of course, be checked for a concussion.”

“You’re both coming to the hospital wing,” Professor McGonagall firmly. Several other teachers were rushing into the hallway now.

“I’m fine,” Hermione tried to say, but Professor McGonagall was already ushering her after Snape and Potter.

“You are taking a Calming Draught and staying put until Madam Pomfrey says you may go.”

 “How did you find us?” Hermione asked.

“Mr. Longbottom and Mr. Weasley informed a prefect of your absence from the feast, and Miss Patil added that she had last seen you in the bathroom on this floor.”

“Oh,” Hermione said. She hoped Parvati hadn’t mentioned that she’d been crying.

“I am…” Professor McGonagall paused outside the hospital wing. “I am very proud of you, Miss Granger. Not many first years could protect themselves and a classmate from a mountain troll.”

“He pushed me out of the way,” Hermione said. It was important. “He got me out of the bathroom too. I would have been trapped and the ceiling isn’t nearly as high in there–”

Hermione, to her embarrassment, felt herself beginning to sob again. Professor McGonagall steered her into the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey had apparently finished seeing to Potter, as he was now sleeping on one of the beds with a gently glowing cast around his leg.

“Sit,” Madam Pomfrey said, point to the next bed over. Hermione sat. “Drink this.” Hermione drank the Calming Draught that was placed in her hands. As the soothing warmth seeped through her, the sobs receded. Breathing became much easier. The last half hour took on a sort of distant quality, and she suddenly remembered the paper bat decoration. She pulled it from her hair, and tried to straighten out the crumpled wings.

“Any injuries?” Madam Pomfrey asked, now that Hermione didn’t look like a strong voice would knock her over. Hermione frowned a little, thinking, and all of bruises she’d acquired made themselves known.

“I banged up my knees,” Hermione said, and Madam Pomfrey bustled about with gentle mending spells. Then she made Hermione lie down, taking the bat from her to set on the nightstand, “you need rest after all that,” and shoo’d Professors McGonagall and Snape out of her infirmary.

Hermione curled up on her side on the hospital bed, and looked over at Potter. The cast on his leg was slowly vanishing as the magic mended his broken bones. When the last gleam went out, Hermione closed her eyes.

~~~

“We’ve still got class,” was the first thing Harry heard upon waking up the next morning. He blinked at Hermione Granger, who was sitting in the chair next to his bed. How did she get into the Slytherin dorms? Wait. This was the hospital wing. Why was he in…?

“I’ve been trying to get the pumpkin out of your books, but it’s not working,” Granger continued.

Pumpkin…?

The events of Halloween flooded back into Harry’s mind, and he flung the sheet over his lower half off. Someone had taken off his shoes. His leg…looked fine. And he wasn’t in pain. Experimentally, Harry wiggled his toes.

“I mean, the charm to clean the fabric worked perfectly well, but I can’t find one that works on paper.”

“Granger,” Harry interrupted. He pushed himself up, and swung his feet around to plant them on the floor. “What happened? Last thing I remember is…” he glanced down at his leg.

“Hermione,” Granger said. She was staring intently at his transfigurations textbook, and tapping her wand against the cover. Were those…tears, at the corner of her eyes? “You saved my life, I think that warrants a first name.”

“Harry,” he said back. “If I’m here, you must’ve saved mine too.”

“I…”Hermione finally looked up at him. She shoved the heel of her palm against her eyes, smearing the tears away. “I hit it with its own club until the teacher showed up. I just wished I’d thought of the levitation spell before you– before you–”

Hermione cut herself off with a gulp, and shoved Harry’s book into his hands.

“Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape were in here earlier talking to Madam Pomfrey,” Hermione told him. “And she said we were well enough to go to class, especially since it’s just the one today. And Professor Sprout found our bookbags and brought them up, and it looks like the t-t-troll stepped on yours, and I transfigured your quills back together, but–”

“Thanks,” Harry said. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. Harry was relieved. He really didn’t know what to do about the crying, especially since she seemed pretty determined to act like she wasn’t crying. “I think Blaise might know how to get the pumpkin pasty out, his books seemed fine after that time Theodore knocked a goblet over on them. So. Um. So don’t worry about that.”

Hermione nodded, then took a deep breath in through her nose, and pulled her head up. “We can still make it to breakfast, if we hurry.”

“I know a shortcut,” Harry said, but at that moment a tray laden with breakfast foods popped up onto the small table next to the bed, and Madam Pomfrey came over with two steaming goblets that she insisted they drink before going to their block potions class.

“And don’t worry about being late,” she told them, watching with a stern eye as they drained the goblets. “Professor Snape is escorting you himself, so you can’t be anything other than on time.”

Hermione looked quite startled at that, and Harry almost choked on the potion. Snape was escorting them? Snape was acknowledging he existed? Well, Harry supposed Snape might just walk with them, it wasn’t like he had to look at Harry to do that.

~~~

Hermione stuck close to Harry while they followed Professor Snape down to the dungeons for class. After a brief, hushed conference with Madam Pomfrey, Snape had curtly informed them that Dumbledore had given both their houses five points for the events of last night, and swept past them into the hall, obviously assuming they would follow.

“Professor?” Hermione asked, as they passed the Great Hall. “How did the troll get inside the castle?”

“That is none of your concern,” the Potions master said.

“Well I’m concerned,” Harry said. “It nearly killed us.”

Snape stumbled, then continued walking at a faster pace. “And yet here you both are,” he said. “Truly a testament to Professor Flitwick’s teachings.” By the time they reached the last set of stairs down to the dungeons, Hermione and Harry were nearly jogging to keep up. Hermione grabbed Harry’s arm to keep him from colliding with Snape when the professor halted sharply at the hallway leading to the classroom. All of the other Gryffindor and Slytherin first years were flocked around the classroom door, which was, as usual, locked while class was out of session.

“You may be assured,” Snape said in murmur. “That no further such incidents will interrupt your studies.” With that, he swooped over to unlock the door. The gaggle of students parted hastily for him and then, spying their missing members, descended upon Hermione and Harry.

Neville and Ron were the first to reach Hermione, while Harry, after awkwardly patting her elbow, avoided Parkinson and Malfoy’s attempts to get his attention, and started talking to Zabini instead. Hermione let herself be pulled into the cluster of Gryffindors as they streamed through the classroom doors.

“I’m really sorry,” Ron said, at the same moment Neville asked “Are you all right?” and Parvati said “Padma heard from Penelope Clearwater that Professor Flitwick said you used the levitation spell to knock out the troll, all the Ravenclaws are really impressed with you!”

Professor Snape called the class to order, sounding, if possible, even more irritable than usual. Hermione soon found herself mixing a Burning Bitterroot Balm with Lavender Brown, who quietly told her that Ron and Neville had practically tackled Percy so he could contact a teacher with the charm in his prefect’s badge.

“Mr. Potter,” Professor Snape said, halfway through class, winding his way between the high lab tables. “Which knife should you use to cut the rose leaves?”

Everyone in class looked over, never mind that Snape was sure to tell them to pay attention to their own work when he noticed. Harry himself looked stunned, but he quickly flicked his eyes to the open pages of Greengrass’s potions textbook.

“Silver, sir,” Harry said.

“And what is in your hand?”

“…steel, sir.” Harry hastily set the small steel knife in the lab table’s drawer, and Greengrass handed him the silver knife she’d retrieved while Snape was talking. Apparently satisfied, Snape moved on to the next table, snapping at Parvati and Dean to shred their bitterroot into smaller strips.

~~~

To Harry’s dismay, he found himself the center of attention from the other Slytherins during lunch. Everyone wanted to know details about the troll. The older students were speculating on how it got into the castle; Marcus Flint suspected the Weasley twins of letting it in as a prank, though Flora Carrow said that was too reckless even for them.

Across the Great Hall, Hermione was similarly mobbed by her house. She was smiling, though, unlike Harry, and didn’t seem to be having trouble getting a sandwich down. Harry dipped a breadstick into his tomato soup again, still unable to take a bite. Everyone said Gryffindors liked grandstanding. She was probably having a great time.

“Granger’s the one who beat it,” Harry insisted, when Pansy asked what dueling spell he must have used for the third time. “Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about spells, just running.”

“It’s just too bad that–” Draco started, but was interrupted by a roar of laughter from the Gryffindor table. Harry looked up, and caught Hermione’s eye. The smile she wore suddenly grew, reaching her eyes, and Harry realized the earlier one had been rather strained.

“As I was saying–” Draco started again, but was cut off when something large and white fluttered past him. Pansy shrieked. Harry simply moved his goblet out of the way, and Hedwig landed on the table in front of him. She dropped a folded piece of parchment in his soup, and nuzzled his face. Harry stroked her head, grinning.

“They’re only supposed to come at breakfast,” Tracey huffed, patting Pansy’s shoulder consolingly.

Harry lifted the parchment with his breadstick. He recognized Hagrid’s handwriting.

Harry,
Heard about last night. Don’t worry about coming down for tea if you’re not up to it. Kettle’s on any time if you are.
-Hagrid.

Smiling, Harry slipped the note, still a bit soupy, into his pocket. Hedwig nibbled at the dry end of the breadstick, then nuzzled Harry again and flew off. Harry decided she had the right idea, and pushed away from the table.

“Sorry, I’m a bit tired,” he said, when it looked like half of this yearmates were going to get up too.

“Trolls are tiring,” Millicent said helpfully. She was making up a little packet of sandwich meats to share with Snapdragon later. Harry shot her a grateful smile and fled. At the door out of the Great Hall, he risked a look back. Hermione was watching him from between the Weasley twins. Harry jerked his head towards the door and slipped out.

Nervously, he waited a little way down the corridor, near a pillar he could duck behind. He really didn’t want to keep talking to his housemates. All the attention was reminding him of his first week all over again, and he kept waiting for someone to do something nasty. He also didn’t want to deal with the rest of Gryffindor. They tended to be…loud.

Thankfully, Hermione was equally successful at shaking off her well-meaning housemates, and within five minutes had escaped the Great Hall. Harry waved when she stuck her head out into the hallway, and Hermione hurried over to him.

“Do you want to meet Hagrid?” Harry asked, before she could say anything. “He’s aces.”

“All right,” Hermione said, and fell in step with Harry as he headed out of the castle. She shrank back when Fang knocked Harry over at Hagrid’s door, but when the giant boarhound did nothing scarier than lick Harry’s face, she dared to step forward and scratch under his chin.

“Hagrid,” Harry called, wiggling his way back out from under Fang. “This is Hermione, she’s in my flying class.”

“Aye, McGonagall’s mentioned you,” Hagrid said, beaming at Hermione and pouring three cups of tea for all of them. Hermione, tugging on Fang’s ears, looked up nervously. “Says you’re the quickest study in Transfigurations she’s had in years.”

“Really?” Hermione said, delight chasing away the last trace of worry on her face. “She said that?”

Hagrid nodded, and led the two first years to the table. Fang followed, and rolled onto his back by the woodstove the kettle was sitting on. “Flitwick seem ter think you’re grand as well. Maybe you could help Harry here some, eh?”

Harry blushed, but met Hermione’s eyes when she turned towards him. “My wand work’s all right, but I keep having trouble with pronunciation. It’s kind of embarrassing, since Flitwick says my mum was one of his best students.”

“We could practice together!” Hermione said. She deflated, the worry creeping back. “That is, if you want to…”

“That’d be great,” Harry told her eagerly. “Really, it would.” His appetite was finally coming back, and he accepted a stoat sandwich from Hagrid. By the woodstove, Fang was gnawing determinedly at a rock cake.

Hagrid regaled them for the afternoon with tales of previous students’ adventures. Hermione gasped several times as he told them of the Weasley twin’s attempts to get into the Forbidden Forest, and hearing of the time Hagrid had to tickle the giant squid into letting go of a Slytherin second-year who’d fallen into the lake, actually squeaked and hid her face in Fang’s ruff. The hours flew by, and it seemed all too soon Harry and Hermione were walking back to the castle for dinner, Fang’s loving drool staining the hems of their robes.

“See you tomorrow?” Harry asked, before splitting up in the Great Hall. Hermione nodded rapidly, her bushy hair bouncing with the motion.

~~~

Life for the two of them changed for the better, after Halloween. The cold weather kept Harry indoors more than before, so he couldn’t visit the greenhouse snakes, but he didn’t find himself minding much. Hermione was perfectly willing to explore the castle with him, as long as they got their homework done and didn’t stay out past curfew.

Impressed by her bravery against a troll, the other Gryffindors had stopped rolling their eyes at Hermione, and started asking her for help instead. Halfway through November, Hermione told Harry proudly that Ron Weasley had passed a Transfigurations test because of her, and Lavender Brown called her a “brilliant gift to Gryffindor” for correcting her Astronomy charts.

Slytherin had rather the opposite reaction to Harry; after the first few days, when the high of having a “hero” in their house wore off, they noticed he was spending time with Hermione. Rather a lot of time. Neither Millicent nor Blaise had been overly concerned with what Harry did or did not do before, and didn’t change their behavior, but everyone who’d tried so hard during their first weeks of school to befriend him were now treating him as a leper. Even Daphne, now that Professor Snape wasn’t ignoring him during potions class, had switched to being lab partners with Theodore. Blaise worked with Harry instead, nudging Harry to do the more unpleasant steps for any potions they created, as a return favor for getting the mashed pumpkin pasties out of his schoolbooks.

On the plus side, with word spreading through Slytherin that Professor Snape was acknowledging Harry’s existence, the shoving and tripping incidents had stopped entirely. They had been slowing down anyway, since Harry saw most of them coming, and dodged, resulting in several sixth and seventh years cursing when their bare hands smacked the castle’s stones.

The Slytherin first years did get over their annoyance with Harry enough to scoop him up for the first Quidditch match of the season. It was important to cheer together, Tracey had said. You couldn’t not have house pride for Quidditch. Harry went along with them, waving to Hermione across the pitch, and then getting enraptured by the game.

He had to try out next year.

“You hang around that know-it-all too much,” Theodore sneered, when Hermione waved back to Harry as everyone was flooding out of the stands after the game.

“Well, yeah,” Harry said. “That’s what friends do. Did no one tell you that?”

~~~

The last Thursday of November saw their final flying lesson; the class only ran through the fall, to make sure the students could fly without falling off or crashing into anything. The test was pass/fail, and if you failed you had to wait until next September to take the course again. Hermione spent the weeks leading up to it fretting, so Harry asked Madam Hooch if they could get some extra practice in.

“All right now, nice and steady,” Madam Hooch called up to them. She had lit up the hoops in the Quidditch pitch to supervise them after dinner. Hermione determinedly flew in a straight line from one end of the pitch to the other. She had invited Neville Longbottom to practice with them as well, and Harry had told Lisa Turpin about it during Herbology. The Ravenclaw was hovering a bare four feet above the ground near Madam Hooch, making her broom zoom forward in short bursts and make sharp turns, getting the hang of not falling off during the sudden changes in speed and direction.

“You’ve got it, Hermione,” Harry said. He was flying upside-down over her and Longbottom as they traversed the pitch.

“Stop distracting me,” Hermione snapped. She gripped the handle of the broom tighter, eyes straight ahead. Harry twirled his broom right side up, and flew back down to their teacher, doing a loop-de-loop around Longbottom on the way.

“Potter,” Turpin said, remounting her broom and brushing grass and dirt from her hair. “Hold still, would you? I need to try getting around obstacles.”

“Okay,” Harry said. Madam Hooch flew up on her own broom to hover a few yards away. Turpin shook her arms out and then darted forward, doing a slow figure-eight around Harry and the teacher.

“You’ll need to be faster on the test,” Madam Hooch said, after Turpin’s second pass around them. The Ravenclaw nodded, and sped up. Harry winced when she nearly clipped him, but she didn’t actually collide. Hermione and Longbottom slowly rejoined them, and Madam Hooch had them each take a turn doing the impromptu obstacle run. When they each managed to do the figure-eight without problems, Madam Hooch called an end to the practice.

“You’ll all do fine, tomorrow,” she said, as they put the brooms away. “Now off to the castle with you, go on.”

Madam Hooch proved perfectly correct; they all passed the flight test, even with Draco calling out rude things during Longbottom’s turn at the obstacle course.

“Can’t you get him to shut up?” Hermione asked, watching anxiously as Longbottom slipped sideways on his broom. Her own test was long over.

“Not really,” Harry said, but Hermione gave him a look, so he cupped his hands and called out to his housemate. “Hey, Draco!”

“What is it, Harry?” Draco asked, turning away from jeering at Longbottom. Above them, the nervous Gryffindor finished his test, stumbling off his broom and nearly fainting with relief as Madam Hooch nodded at him and made a mark on her clipboard. Back at the beginning of the obstacle course, Lavender Brown kicked off with a whoop.

“You ever think about, I don’t know, letting people fly in peace?”

Draco sneered. “Get back to me when you stop reenacting The Tragedy of Teutberga,” he said, and immediately started heckling Brown.

“Yeah,” Harry muttered, turning to Hermione with a shrug. “Still don’t know what he means by that.”

~~~

The morning after their flight test, Harry awoke with the conviction that Hermione ought to be told about the grubby little package from Gringott’s. He’d been turning his suspicions about it over in the back of his head since seeing that Daily Prophet article at Hagrid’s, and couldn’t shake the feeling that the troll incident was involved. And if it was, Hermione deserved to know.

Once up from the dungeons, Harry stuck his head out the door of the entrance hall, before slipping into the Great Hall for breakfast. The day looked cold, but dry and sunny. Perfect. They could talk outside the castle without being overheard.

Hedwig fluttered down with an invitation to tea at 4 o’clock that afternoon. That would give them plenty of time to talk after Potions. Grinning with anticipation, Harry scribbled note to Hermione on the back of Hagrid’s invitation, and sent Hedwig fluttering across the Great Hall to the Gryffindor table. He could hear the Weasley twins laugh as the snowy owl alighted in front of Hermione.

“That is the laziest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do,” Tracey Davis said, sniffing derisively.

“You said that yesterday,” Millicent pointed out. “When Snapdragon brought me my inkpot.” Millicent’s sleek gunmetal grey tabby cat was often seen dashing through the Slytherin common room, head held high and some odd item or other grasped in its mouth. Third year Graham Montague had tried to stop Snapdragon once, saying first years didn’t deserve to have familiars fetching things for them; the cat had sent Graham howling off to Madam Pomfrey, then trotted back to pick up the deck of tarot cards the boy had made her drop. Nobody bothered Snapdragon or Millicent after that.

“Well it’s not yesterday anymore,” Tracey snapped. Harry ignored both of them and left early for Potions. It was a good thing he’d gotten used to Snape acknowledging his existence by then, because the Potions master was in a particularly foul mood that day. He ripped into the Gryffindors, and didn’t bother giving corrections when telling the Slytherins they were making mistakes. Even Draco seemed intimidated, smothering his snigger quickly when Longbottom lost house points for mixing up tin and aluminum whisks.

“I’m so glad we only have Potions once a week,” Hermione said, as they made their way out of the dungeons for lunch.

“You?” Harry said. “Glad to have less of a class? Is this the same Hermione Granger who once asked Professor Sinistra for extra time in the Astronomy tower?”

Hermione rolled her eyes at him. “What did you want to show me today, anyway?”

“Let’s get food first,” Harry said. “You’ve got your cloak, right?”

“No, it’s up in my wardrobe,” Hermione said. “I haven’t exactly had any free time since you sent that note.”

“Go get it,” Harry said. He had his own draped over this bookbag; the twisting hallways that led to the Slytherin dorms could get painfully cold. “I’ll grab us some lunch, meet me in the entrance hall?”

Hermione nodded and walked off before they reached the Great Hall. Harry didn’t bother sitting down at the Slytherin table, instead swinging his heavy winter cloak over his shoulders and opening his book bag. He rolled a few oranges into its open maw, then wrapped a few sandwiches and muffins in his handkerchief. Blaise raised an eyebrow as Harry gathered the food and left, but didn’t say anything. It didn’t take long for Hermione to get back from Gryffindor tower, and soon the two first years were crunching over the frosty grass towards the greenhouse.

“Harry…” said Hermione slowly, when she realized their destination. “These are off limits.”

“Only the insides,” Harry said, unconcerned. “Come on.” He dropped down to his knees, and beckoned over his shoulder to her. Muttering about rule-breaking under her breath, Hermione followed him into the bushes. When they reached the largest one, Harry settled down on his haunches, cloak between him and the cold ground, and laid out their lunch. Hermione sat down cross-legged, keeping the bottoms of her shoes off of her cloak, and looked up at the leaves over them.

“Can anyone even see us in here?” she asked.

Harry shook his head. “They’d have to be really close, we’d hear them. I did a lot of my reading out here, before we started studying together. Bit cold for that now.”

Hermione nodded absently, then suddenly reached into her bookbag. After a moment of rummaging around, she pulled out a small glass jar. With a flourish of her wand, she conjured a blue flame into the jar, and placed it down on Harry’s handkerchief, between two of the sandwiches. Harry held his hands out over it, stretching his fingers in the warmth.

“Brilliant,” he said. Hermione smiled, pleased, and picked up one of the muffins.

“I found it near the end of our Charms book,” Hermione explained. She nodded to the greenhouse next to them. “Is this what you wanted to show me?”

“Mm-hm,” Harry said, and swallowed the bite of sandwich he’d taken. “I also wanted to talk to you about something.”

“You can talk to me any time, you know,” Hermione reminded him.

“Without anyone eavesdropping, I meant,” Harry said. Hermione looked up at him. “It’s about the troll.”

Hermione winced, but gestured for Harry to keep talking.

“I think someone let it in as a distraction,” Harry said. “Someone’s trying to steal something from the school. Listen, when you were getting your school supplies, did you go to Gringott’s?”

Hermione nodded. “Professor Vector escorted my parents and me and other Muggle-born students on our trip to Diagon Alley. We stopped at Gringott’s first to get our money changed.”

“Well, Hagrid took me to get my supplies.” Harry decided not to say why. “And we got money for my school things out of my parent’s vault. I guess it’s my vault now. But we also stopped at another one, for Hagrid to get this grubby little package. Dumbledore sent him to pick it up.”

Hermione frowned, thinking through why Harry would tell her this. “That was before the break in, wasn’t it? The one all over the papers.”

Harry grinned at her. “The same day,” he said. “Hagrid won’t talk about it, so I think that must’ve been what they were after.”

“And someone who would break into Gringott’s wouldn’t stop trying to get…whatever it is, just because it’s at the school now,” Hermione mused. She starting peeling an orange. “The troll couldn’t have worked though, I think the teachers would be more worked up if something were actually stolen from the castle.”

“Well, they would’ve had to get past the three headed dog,” Harry said, and quickly filled Hermione in on his mishap back in their second week. “I thought maybe it was just, you know, a Hogwarts thing, but I bet you anything it’s a three headed guard dog.”

“That makes sense,” Hermione said. She stuck her chin out, a resolved look on her face. “We’ve got to talk to Hagrid about this.”

Hagrid, though, was not inclined to give them more information. “It’s bad enough you ran into Fluffy,” he told them, “And that Gringott’s told the papers anythin’.” He sighed deeply. “Can’t you just think about school, instead? I know there’s always big assignments before the break.”

“This is thinking about school,” Hermione said stubbornly. Her mug of tea was getting cold, forgotten by her elbow. “Especially if whoever’s after it tries to break in here!”

“Look, you don’t need to worry about that,” Hagrid said. “It’s between Professor Dumbledore and Nicolas Flamel, and when those two are involved, it’s beyond anything students can handle.”

“Who’s Nicolas Flamel?” Harry asked, but Hagrid only sighed again, shaking his head.

~~~

The Tuesday before break, Harry was in the owlery, gently stroking Hedwig’s feathers and trying to calm down from a snide comment Evan Pershore had made at dinner, when Hermione found him.

“Here,” she said, thrusting a small address book towards Harry. Hedwig ruffled up at the sudden motion. “I need your home address for your Christmas present. We might as well use the postal system, don’t you think? So the owls don’t have to go through all the snow.”

“You…don’t have to send me anything,” Harry said, blinking. It hadn’t occurred to him that friends gave each other Christmas gifts. In his life before Hogwarts, “presents” were something that happened to Dudley, not him. He’d never really paid attention to who was giving them.

“Of course I’m sending you something,” Hermione said, puzzled, still holding out the address book. He pushed it gently back towards her.

“I’m staying here over break,” he said. “Professor Snape already passed the sign-up sheet around.”

“Oh,” Hermione said. Harry knew her parents were dentists, and that they had two very elderly, smelly cats when Hermione was small. But Harry had never told her about his life before Hogwarts. The recent history books already noted that he’d been sent to live with “Muggle relatives” after his parents were murdered.

“Can I have yours?” Harry asked quickly. Hermione nodded and scribbled her address down on a blank page from near the back of the address book and tore the page out to give to Harry.

“Don’t send Hedwig out in the cold,” she said, pressing the paper into his hand. “Break is short, I’ll see you right after the New Year.”

Harry flushed. Hermione must have realized he hadn’t planned on a Christmas gift for her. He made a mental note to borrow a catalog from Blaise or Millicent before they left for home, and order her a book or something.

“I’ll write you if I find something on Flamel,” Harry said, changing the subject slightly. Hermione lit up; they’d been looking through the library for any hint of the name Nicolas Flamel ever since Hagrid had accidentally let it drop.

Chapter Text

“Morning, firstie,” a tired voice greeted Harry when he walked into the common room the first day of Christmas break. Third year Adrian Pucey was sprawled across one of the armchairs by the fireplace. Her house tie was knotted around her head, making her short hair look like a sort of fuzzy skullcap. Gold and crimson paint streaked her robes. There were twin smears of black on her cheekbones and her shoes were nowhere in sight. “Have they taught you all that summoning spell yet?”

“No…” Harry said. He sidled over, nervous and excited. He hadn’t expected any other Slytherins to stay for the break; he’d overheard most of them talking about Christmas parties with extended family, and slipping each other fancy invitation cards. Yet here was Adrian Pucey, who played Chaser for the Slytherin Quidditch team, and had once dodged a Bludger and then kicked off from it to gain momentum, talking to Harry.

“Damn,” Adrian said. She pushed herself up from the armchair and rubbed at her eyes, then looked at her hand in annoyance. She’d apparently forgotten about the war paint on her face. “I don’t suppose you’ve got make up remover either? I borrowed Hestia’s mascara for this, and I think it’s merged with my skin.”

Harry shook his head. “I know a couple cleaning spells, though.”

“God no,” Adrian said. She flopped back into the chair. “Never use spells on your face. Terrible idea. Well, except healing spells. But then it’s better to get Madam Pomfrey.”

Harry sat down in the next nearest chair. Despite the light still being tinged cool green from the thick windows that held views of the lake, the common room felt a lot friendlier and warmer than usual. “What, um, happened to you?”

Adrian groaned. “Terence. Terence happened. Bugger hopped the train home and leaned out the window to dare me to steal a Gryffindor Quidditch robe.” Her voice took on a nasally quality as she quoted her teammate. “You’re here all break, Adrian,” she mimicked. “They’re too smug from beating us in our first match, Adrian. We gotta knock ‘em down a peg, Adrian.” She groaned again, and her voice returned to normal. “I forgot the Weasleys were sticking around this year. Madam Hooch gave the twins permission to practice in the pitch over break, and they caught me in the locker room. Terence is never gonna let me live this down.”

“You could transfigure that robe into one of theirs,” Harry suggested.

Adrian turned her face from contemplation of the ceiling to beam at Harry. “That,” she said, pointing at him. “Is brilliant. I’m doing that. Don’t tell Terence.”

Harry made a zipping motion across his lips, and the older Slytherin laughed. Adrian finally got all the way off the chair, stretched, then ruffled Harry’s hair. “Stay here a moment, all right, firstie? Professor Snape told me to keep an eye on you.”

“What,” Harry said with a touch of sarcasm, as Adrian walked towards the girls’ dormitories. “He doesn’t think there’s going to be another troll, does he?”

“Nah, Peeves is just a pain over breaks,” Adrian said, before vanishing. She reappeared fifteen minutes later in a fresh robe, mascara mostly wiped off except for a bit that had simply managed to get smudged onto her right ear, tie properly affixed, and still no shoes.

Adrian and Harry were greeted with whoops from the Hufflepuff table when they entered the Great Hall. It looked like all the students staying over break had congregated there, including three of the four Weasley siblings currently attending Hogwarts. Harry slid into an empty seat across the table from Ron, who gave him a nod between cutting up a waffle. Adrian didn’t sit, but pressed her knuckles against the tabletop and leaned menacingly towards the grinning twins.

Before any of the three could say anything, a Ravenclaw boy thumped a pair of green leather oxfords onto the table. They squelched. “The giant squid doesn’t like it when you chuck things in the lake,” the Ravenclaw said, with a glare at the twins. Their grins only broadened. Adrian grabbed the shoes without looking and handed them to Harry. Startled, he clutched them to his chest.

“Where’s. My. Wand.” Adrian enunciated slowly, leaning closer to the twins with each word. The intimidating effect was somewhat ruined by the smudge of mascara on her ear. Harry shot a glance towards the high table, but most of the teachers remaining at school had already finished their breakfast and left. The two still lingering, Professors Quirrel and Vector, seemed to be engaged in deep conversation.

“Aw,” said Fred.

“Come on, Pucey,” said George.

“You don’t think–”

“It’s gonna be–”

“That easy–”

“Do you?”

“I could just get Professor Snape to get it back from you,” Adrian sighed, but she finally sat down and reached for a platter of sausages. Under his breath, Harry used a drying charm on the shoes before dropping them onto his lap, and began piling his own plate with food.

“And let him know you were committing grand robbery?” George asked wide-eyed.

“And then ran around after curfew?” Fred added. Adrian snorted, and the Hufflepuff on Harry’s far side piped up. “You two were out too, you’d all be in trouble.”

“Us?” Fred asked dramatically, leaning back and placing a hand over his heart. Next to him, Ron ducked to avoid the arm that was flung out. “We were simply defending our poor locker room from this nefarious thief!”

“What are you all laughing about?” asked Percy Weasley, appearing behind the twins suddenly.

“Your upcoming chess match!” George said, beaming at Percy.

Adrian slapped a hand against her forehead. “You didn’t need to steal my wand to get a rematch out of me.”

“Give Pucey her wand back,” Percy said, glaring at the twins. “Didn’t I tell you to stop setting up games for me? I am perfectly capable of finding challenging opponents on my own.”

“You’ve only played against Ravenclaws for a month,” Fred said, while George coughed something into his hand that sounded a lot like “Penelope”.

“The wand, please,” Percy said, ignoring the twins’ comments and holding his hand out.

“Um,” Fred said, rubbing the back of his head. “About that…”

“You hid it in the board again, didn’t you,” Percy said in a flat tone.

“It’ll pop out again no matter who the winner is,” George reassured him hurriedly. The twins began moving the serving platters in the middle of the table down out of the way. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws helped, passing the platters further down, and leaning forward to watch.

“Again?” Harry asked Ron, who shrugged. Once the center of the table was clear, the twins produced a chessboard from underneath the bench, and then pulled Percy down between them.

“I call winner!” the Ravenclaw who’d retrieved Adrian’s shoes from the lake said suddenly, and the table erupted with voices claiming matches. Harry kept quiet, a bit puzzled. What was so exciting about chess?

It turned out that quite a lot could be exciting about chess, when the set talked back to you. Percy and Adrian’s first match was over surprisingly quickly; Harry had expected the Gryffindor prefect to take ages over every choice, but Percy shot out directions to his pieces rapidly, apparently doing most of his planning while Adrian was discussing possible moves with her side in hushed whispers. At the end, the king on Percy’s side pushed the crown through the board, and pulled Adrian’s wand back out. Adrian stuck it into the pocket of her robes, and slid the board down the table for the next set of players.

Several students rushed off to their house dorms, and came back with their own chess sets. Most only had one half needed for a game, because you couldn’t very well just play against yourself, could you? Some sets sported blobs of paint on the tops, or had gems affixed to them. The Hufflepuff who’d pointed out Fred and George’s hypocrisy owned a set made of redwoods that gleamed from regular polishing, while a Ravenclaw fourth year had a hollow set of beaten copper, turning green at their bases. Some argued fiercely with the witch or wizard commanding them, while other simply moved as directed, and in one match between Percy and Ron, the entire board stayed quiet until the last five moves, when a pawn started shrieking at Ron that he was making a mistake.

“Want to have a go, Potter?” Fred asked, when the breakfast dishes had long since cleared, and they’d had to snatch the board hastily off the table to keep it from getting covered in sandwiches for lunch.

“I’ve never played before,” Harry said. If they’d asked a few hours before, he would have said he didn’t know how, but after watching the informal tournament all morning, he felt pretty confident in the rules.

Adrian had slid her shoes back on and thunked her head onto her arms for a nap after three games, but now snapped up. “You’ve never played chess?” she asked, looking honestly horrified. Harry shook his head. “Not even boring Muggle chess?” Harry shook his head again. “Oh no. No. This won’t do. You’re in Slytherin. You’ve got to play chess. Take my next round, I’ll coach you.”

So Harry found himself staying in the Great Hall for the rest of the afternoon as well, losing soundly to nearly every other student that was staying for Christmas break.

“You’ll get better,” Adrian told Harry on their walk to the library after dinner. Harry had turned toward the upward stairs instead of downwards out of habit, and Adrian seemed content to accompany him. “I think you really had old Percy putting in an effort, that last match.”

“Thanks,” Harry said.

“I just can’t believe you’d never played before,” Adrian said with a frown. “Someone’s always got a match going in the common room.”

“I don’t hang out there much,” Harry pointed out.

“Yeah, I noticed,” Adrian said dryly. “It’s a lot warmer than the library, you know,” she added, as they arrived. She looked around and shrugged. “I guess the light’s better here.” With that, she thumped down into a chair near the door, and slipped a copy of the Daily Prophet from her bookbag.

Nervous about looking for Flamel with an older student nearby, Harry got down a copy of Quidditch Through The Ages instead, and sat down by a window to read. Adrian reminded Harry of curfew some time later, a good ten minutes earlier than Madam Pince normally would, and Harry returned Quidditch Through The Ages to the shelf.

“Keen on flying, are you?” Adrian asked on their way back to the dungeons. Before Harry could answer, Adrian suddenly snapped her wand straight upwards, and yelled “Impervius!

A pile of snow cascaded down around Adrian and Harry, held back by an invisible bubble in the air. When Adrian dropped her arm down a few last flakes landed on their hair. Peeves, armload of snow depleted, zoomed off, cackling loudly.

“Every damn year,” Adrian muttered under her breath. She leapt over the small snowdrift and beckoned for Harry to follow. “Come on, firstie. He’ll be back with more soon. Gets a little repetitive with only a dozen of us here to prank.”

~~~

After that first day, Harry spent mornings learning chess with Adrian in the Slytherin common room, venturing out in the afternoons to eat in the Great Hall and play against other students. The Weasley twins seemed to take particular delight in throwing screwball moves at him, while Ron just seemed happy to play against someone he wasn’t related to, and thus couldn’t predict him as well as usual. Hagrid waved to Harry when they saw each other, but was actually quite busy. With classes out of session, it was a good time to do a lot of winter maintenance work around the grounds without students underfoot.

Harry was a little frustrated that he couldn’t get any alone time in the library, but having someone who was willing to talk about Quidditch, and answer his questions about wizarding culture, made up for it. Hermione hadn’t known the odd references the Slytherins threw around and more than Harry did, very few of them were in the enormous dictionary chained to a table in the library, and Harry was extremely reluctant to ask his yearmates for clarification.

Adrian, on the other hand, had shrewdly taken Harry’s chess-novice status as a clue that he was out of his depth for other things, and flat out told him to ask her anything. Harry learned about several historical figures that Professor Binn hadn’t gotten to yet, a handful of old novels and poets that his housemates had apparently been quoting all semester, and that most of what Draco and Pansy had been saying about Hermione was a lot more offensive than he’d realized.

Harry almost asked about Flamel, too, but ultimately decided against it. He had no idea who was looking for the package from Gringotts, after all. He and Hermione figured that it was probably someone in the castle, to get the troll past the defensive spells, but were they a teacher? A student? One of the support staff? Harry was pretty sure that it wasn’t Adrian, but it might be one of her Quidditch teammates, or a teacher she admired. What if she mentioned to someone that he’d asked after Flamel?

Christmas brought more questions; there were several parcels at the foot of Harry’s bed when he awoke, and the first one he set his hand on was unmarked. Puzzled, Harry unwrapped the brown paper, and shook out a long cloak of silvery fabric. A scrap of parchment slipped from the folds, landing writing-side up on the bed. The note proclaimed the cloak to be an old possession of his father’s.

Harry’s breath caught. He picked the note up and read it again, turning it over, searching desperately for a signature, but there was none.

Shakily, Harry draped the cloak on over his pajamas. Everyone said he looked like James Potter had. If he saw himself in his dad’s old cloak, would he be able to really picture him?

A strange yearning in his chest, Harry hurried over to the big mirror at the end of the dormitory. But there was…nothing there. Harry looked down, and couldn’t see his body. He shoved the hood off his head, and suddenly his face appeared in the mirror.

It was an invisibility cloak. James Potter had owned cloak that made you invisible. None of Harry’s books had even mentioned such a thing, nor had his housemates, even with all their bragging about family heirlooms. It must be very powerful magic. With a painful mix of pride and disappointment, Harry ripped the cloak back off, and shoved it down into the bottom of his trunk.

Harry’s mind was racing. Who had known his parents well enough to have this? Why give it to him now?

Feeling rather overwhelmed, Harry pushed his thoughts down and turned to the other packages on his bed. Not only had Hermione sent him a gift, but so had Hagrid, and even the Dursleys. Granted, what they sent was a short note with fifty-pence taped to it, but that was fifty-pence more than they’d ever given him before.

Harry hoped his present for Hermione had arrived on time; he’d traded doing one of Daphne’s potions worksheets for an Obscurus Books order form. He’d almost traded for a Sugarplum’s Sweets Shop form instead, but wondered if Hermione’s dentist parents would frown on their daughter getting a large bag of candy for Christmas. Hermione, however, seemed to not mind that sort of thing at all, and sent Harry a box of Chocolate Frogs.

Tootling experimentally  on the wooden flute Hagrid had carved for him, Harry wandered into the common room. Adrian was kneeling in front of the fireplace, and Harry was about to say hello, when a sharp female voice cut across the room.

“You’re being very silly about this.”

Harry ducked behind a chair, looking around wildly. Was there a ghost? He thought he’d met all of them by now, and none of them had a voice like that.

“Just because you don’t care about Quidditch doesn’t make it silly,” Adrian said. Harry peered around the chair. Was Adrian talking to the fireplace? He’d never heard the fireplace talk before. Then again, he hadn’t heard a snake talk before either until going to the zoo with Dudley and Piers.

“It’s a waste of time,” the sharp voice said. “You will drop it next term, and take proper electives.”

“No,” Adrian said. Her shoulders were hunched up to her ears. “If this is all you’re going to talk about, I’m dumping water on you.”

Harry crept out past the chair, trying to get a better look without being seen. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so hasty to hide his dad’s cloak.

“You’ll never get a ministry position if you don’t start taking your education seriously.”

“Merry Christmas, Mother,” Adrian said firmly, and flicked her wand. Water gushed from it into the fireplace, and the flames went out with a nasty hiss. Adrian’s shoulders dropped. She sighed. Harry didn’t dare move.

“I know you’re there, firstie,” Adrian said, after a long moment. Harry gulped and pushed himself up. He walked over to the steaming fireplace, and sat down next to Adrian.

“Are you ever going to call me by my name?” Harry asked.

“Beat me at chess, and we’ll see.” Adrian bumped her elbow against his arm. “How much of that did you hear, anyway?”

“Just the end,” Harry said. “Did you really just dump water on your mum?”

Adrian’s shoulders hunched again. “It’s just a communication spell,” she said. “She wasn’t really there.” Adrian ran a hand over her head. “Dunno where she really is.”

“I don’t know where mine is either,” Harry said, wrapping his arms around his legs. “Buried, I mean. My aunt never told me.”

“They’re in Godric’s Hollow,” Adrian said. Harry jerked, and looked at her. The older student was frowning at the fireplace. “There’s a statue, too.”

“Does everyone know more about my parents than I do?” Harry asked bitterly, thinking of the anonymous note tucked away with the invisibility cloak.

“Probably,” Adrian said. Harry snorted. Adrian ruffled his hair, then took his arm and pulled the two of them to their feet. “Come on, the feast is the best part of Christmas, and if we’re late the Weasleys’ll get all the good crackers.” At the archway leading to the rest of the castle, Adrian paused. “Would you mind…not telling anyone about this?

“It’s not a safety problem, is it?” Harry asked. When he and Hermione had first speculated about the troll getting into the castle, she’d insisted that it wasn’t through Apparition, but Harry didn’t know what to make of the fireplace spell.

“No,” Adrian said. “I’d tell Dumbledore myself if I thought Mother could get in here. I just don’t want to deal with the Aurors again.” Adrian scowled. “They can’t trace the spell; they used to try, back when she was calling home during the holidays. She never tells me where she is anyway, but they don’t believe me.”

“Erm,” Harry said, as Adrian finally started walking again. “What are Aurors?”

“Wizard cops,” Adrian said shortly. “Self-righteous overbearing bastards.” She deflated a little as they started ascending the stairs out of the dungeons. “I mean, I don’t think they shouldn’t try finding Mother, she did some awful things before fleeing Britain, but I wish they’d get it through their heads that I’m not any sort of confidant for her.” Adrian rubbed her hand over the back of her head in frustration.

“Why don’t they–” Harry cut himself off before finishing the question, feeling that it was probably rude.

“Why don’t they bug my father?” Adrian asked. Harry nodded. “I’m sure they do. Loads. He’s in Azkaban.”

“Oh,” Harry said, feeling more and more awkward. Azkaban was a very touchy subject among the Slytherins, usually only spoken of in hushed murmurs in secluded corners, or occasionally at very high volume in the middle of a row.

“Merlin’s pants I’m putting my foot in it today,” Adrian muttered. Both of them fell silent for the rest of the journey to the Great Hall. It was a relief to step through the doorway and be bombarded with calls from the other students to pop Christmas crackers with them. Even the teachers, and Dumbledore himself, were crowded together with the students at the Hufflepuff table.

~~~

Late that night, it occurred to Harry what a marvelous opportunity for investigation his dad’s cloak offered. He could sneak into the library without anyone knowing. Excited at the thought of telling Hermione all about Flamel when she came back, Harry quickly slipped out of bed, and pulled the cloak from his trunk. He might even be able to browse the Restricted Section!

Unfortunately, while the cloak made him invisible, it did not make him inaudible. One near miss with Filch later, Harry was hiding in an unused classroom, waiting for Mrs. Norris to stop sniffing around the door. When she finally left, Harry let out the breath he’d been holding. He turned to examine the room he’d taken refuge in . . .

~~~

Two nights later, when Harry let the cloak’s hood fall from his head and settled down in front of the wondrous mirror showing his family, he was jolted from his reverie by Adrian’s voice in the doorway.

“Kid, you need to get away from that.”

Startled, Harry spun around, and nearly fell over. Tangled up in the cloak, it took him a moment to get to his feet. Adrian stayed in the doorway the entire time, watching him with worry.

“What are you doing here?” Harry asked.

“You’ve been acting weird,” Adrian said. “So I stayed in the common room tonight, and I heard footsteps come outta your dorm. It’s really hard to follow someone you can’t see, firstie, so you better be impressed with me. Now come on, get away from that.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s driving you bug fucking nuts,” Adrian said. “You’re already entranced, you didn’t even notice me follow you. The thing’s cursed.”

“You are half correct, Miss Pucey,” a new voice said, and they both jumped this time. Professor Dumbledore stepped out of the shadows, smiling at them benignly.

“Sir!” Harry said, and Adrian asked “What do you mean, half right?”

“The Mirror of Erised is not cursed,” Dumbledore explained. “But you are correct that it is not healthy for Mr. Potter to linger by it.” He gently placed his hand on Harry’s shoulder.

That’s the Mirror of Erised?” Adrian asked, going pale in the face. “What’s it doing here?”

“Merely being stored on its journey to somewhere else,” Dumbledore said. He was steering Harry towards the door. “It seems you’ve heard of it, Miss Pucey. Not many third years have. Would you care to explain the details to young Mr. Potter?”

Adrian wrenched her eyes from the mirror. “It shows your heart’s desire. Your real heart’s desire, what you crave most in the world. Even if you don’t know what that is. And it is cursed, it’s driven people mad.”

“Not knowing its true function has driven people mad,” Dumbledore corrected. “Great witches and wizards have wasted away, unsure if it is predicting the future, or showing a glimpse of the past, or acting as a muse for the impossible.” He lifted his hand from Harry’s shoulder to softly pat Adrian on the back.

“When’s it being moved?” Adrian asked. Harry still wasn’t sure why she seemed so afraid of it. Maybe it had entranced him a bit, but knowing how it really worked, surely Adrian wasn’t in any danger of getting stuck?

“Tonight,” Dumbledore said. Adrian’s entire posture slumped, and she let out a sigh of relief. Then she straightened up again.

“I’m sorry we were out after curfew, Headmaster,” she said. Dumbledore actually chuckled. “Would you please escort us back to Slytherin? I’d really rather not explain…anything about tonight to Professor Snape.”

“Do you fear your head of house?” Dumbledore asked, stepping to the side and gesturing for Adrian to lead the way.

“I fear him finding out I chased after a first year on my own instead of getting him, when I hadn’t a clue what was going on,” Adrian said, heading off towards the dungeons. “He’s been unnervingly keen on safety since Halloween. I swear he wasn’t nearly this intense about it when I was a first year.”

“I have always said,” Dumbledore replied, “that we continue learning our whole lives. It would appear that Mr. Potter and Miss Granger’s rather unfortunate adventure this fall taught Professor Snape not to take the safety of his students for granted.”

“Wish he’d learned that before Marcus tossed me into the lake,” Adrian grumbled.

“Marcus Flint tossed you into the lake?” Harry asked, astounded. The casual way Adrian was talking to Professor Dumbledore confused him, but he was already feeling a lot more…normal, than he had in front of the mirror. “You’re the second-year Hagrid rescued from the giant squid?” Adrian covered her face with her hands and groaned.

“I do believe I recall being told that was an accident,” Dumbledore said, tapping his chin.

“Well,” Adrian said, dropping her hands, sounding a little nervous now. “He still says it was. And I can’t prove it wasn’t.”

“Ah,” was all Dumbledore said, and the subject somehow turned to a discussion of sweets, both magical and Muggle. The last thing Dumbledore said to them, waving goodnight as they gave the password to get through the stone wall into their common room, was “But of course, nothing really compares to one of Mr. Fortescue’s creations.”

It didn’t occur to Harry, until just before he drifted off to sleep, that neither Adrian nor the Headmaster had made any comment whatsoever about his cloak.

Chapter Text

Hermione alighted up the steps to the entrance hall, and made a beeline for the library. She and Harry had promised to meet each other there as soon as the break was over, and she was practically buzzing with excitement. She had such big news!

Harry lit up when he saw her, waiting down the hallway from the library’s door.

“I found Flamel!” they said in unison. “…wait, what?”

Harry was the first to recover from his surprise. “Um…” he dug into his pocket, and then held up a Chocolate Frog card triumphantly. “Nicolas Flamel,” he said, handing Hermione the card with a flourish. A miniature portrait of Dumbledore twinkled at her. “Alchemist.”

“First and so far only known creator of a Philosopher’s Stone,” Hermione said, pulling the book Harry had gotten her for Christmas out of her bag. She held up Notable Sorcerers of France, and then flipped to the chapter on Flamel. “He’s from the fourteenth century, you know,” Hermione said excitedly. “That’s why we couldn’t find him in any of the books about modern wizards.”

“So what’s the big deal about alchemy?” Harry asked, shuffling over to look at the book as well.

“The Philosopher’s Stone,” Hermione said dramatically, pointing to the relevant line on the second page of the chapter, “can produce limitless gold, and an Elixir of Life.”

Harry whistled, then looked around to make sure they were still alone in the hallway. Tomorrow was the first day of the new term, so there wasn’t any homework yet, but that was no guarantee the library would be empty; after all, they were there. “That covers why someone’s after it,” he said. “I mean, if it is the Stone. It could be some other alchemy thing.”

Hermione shook her head. “The book says all his other experiments were reproducible, so there really isn’t anything else he’s made that they can’t get another way.” She stuffed the book back in her bag. “It’s good luck you sent me this. Why’d you pick it?”

“You said your parents had always wanted to visit France,” Harry said. Hermione blinked. He’d remembered that? She’d only mentioned it once, back when they first started hanging out. “It’s good luck you sent me the Chocolate Frogs.”

Realizing the absurdity of their double clues, Hermione started giggling. Harry looked startled, and then started giggling too. After a few minutes they were both leaning against the wall, howling with laughter. Madam Pince stuck her head out of the library doors and told them to take their noise elsewhere.

Wiping away tears, Harry suggested they go read Hermione’s book outside the greenhouse, since she was still bundled up, and Harry had his winter cloak in his bag. On their way to the side door that let out closer than the main hall would have, they passed two older Slytherins. One of them was holding up a Gryffindor Quidditch robe, and exclaiming “I can’t believe you actually got one!” Hermione frowned, but then the other Slytherin caught sight of Harry and waved. Harry waved back, smiling.

“Were those the Slytherin Chasers?” Hermione asked, once they were out of sight.

“Terence is the Seeker,” Harry corrected. They stopped for a moment once they got outside, adjusting to the glare of sun shining on snow. “Maybe this wasn’t the best idea…”

“We can read it in the choir hall,” Hermione said. “I don’t think they have practice today.”

Harry nodded agreement, and they went back inside. “Anyway, you’re right about Adrian, she’s a Chaser. We were the only two Slytherins here over break, so she taught me to play chess.” Harry grinned at her. “You should play with Ron Weasley some time, he’s really good.”

“Why did they have a Gryffindor Quidditch robe?” Hermione asked, not wanting to mention that she didn’t play chess. Her parents had always preferred card games.

“It wasn’t really a Gryffindor robe,” Harry said. He ran his fingers through his hair. “The Weasley twins can tell you about it more than I can, really.”

~~~

The chapter on Nicolas Flamel had been so interesting, and they’d spent so much time discussing it, that Harry forgot to tell Hermione about his adventures during the break before they split up for dinner. Then the first week of school proved just as busy as the last week before break had been, as well; the teachers were determined to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything in all the holiday excitement. It took until nearly the end of January before Harry could get Hermione away from homework long enough during daylight hours to get her out to the owlery.

“I’m glad you didn’t ask to meet by the greenhouses this time,” Hermione said, stroking Hedwig. “It’s much too snowy to go crawling about in the bushes. What did you want to talk about?”

“Someone sent me a strange Christmas present,” Harry said. Careful testing had proved that one of the long bars stretching across the owlery could take his weight. Harry swung himself up onto it now, so he could watch the door easily. “My dad’s old invisibility cloak.”

“I didn’t know your dad had an invisibility cloak,” Hermione said. She’d stopped petting, so Hedwig bumped her head against Hermione’s hand until she started again.

“Neither did I,” Harry said. “I want to ask whoever sent it why they had it, when everything else my parents owned is either in Gringotts, or got blown up when they died. But the note wasn’t signed, so I don’t really know who it’s from.” He kicked his legs back and forth. “I think it was Dumbledore though.”

“What makes you say that?” Hermione asked, brows drawing together in puzzlement.

“Well he didn’t say anything when he caught me using it,” Harry said. “I mean, neither did Adrian, but I doubt she knew my parents.”

“How could someone catch you using an invisibility cloak?” Hermione asked, and Harry told her about the Mirror of Erised. He did not mention that his old nightmares about a flash of green light had returned after visiting it, this time with his parents vanishing in it since he knew what they looked like now.

“That makes two odd things hidden in the school,” Hermione mused, when Harry finished his story. She looked into Hedwig’s eyes. “What do you think Hedwig, is the Mirror related to the Stone?” Hedwig ruffled all her feathers up in response, and Hermione fed her a treat they’d gotten from the bin by the door.

“Dumbledore said it was being moved,” Harry pointed out. “It’s not like it was locked up or anything, I mean I practically tripped over it. There’s probably loads of weird artifacts around the school.”

“I guess it could just be a coincidence,” Hermione conceded.

~~~

Harry had been afraid that his tentative friendship with Adrian would fall apart once the term started up again, and they did see each other much less. It wasn’t like they had classes together, being two school years apart, and Adrian was busy with Quidditch practice. She made a point of sitting with Harry at meals sometimes, though, and dragged him back to the common room after dinner once a week to play chess. During their February Quidditch match, Harry nearly screamed himself hoarse to cheer on the team, and actually leapt to his feet in delight when Terence beat Ravenclaw Seeker Cho Chang to the Snitch by mere inches.

Covertly watching the Weasleys in April, Harry wondered if this was what it was like to have an older sibling. With that in mind, Harry asked Hagrid if it would be all right to invite Adrian too, the next time he and Hermione came down for tea.

“That might not be the best idea,” Hagrid said, to Harry’s surprise. “Got a bit of a project right now. Delicate.”

Hagrid’s project, it turned out, was a baby dragon. Hermione and Harry eyed the creature with concern as Hagrid told them about winning the egg in a card game. “Ron told me private dragon ownership was illegal,” Hermione whispered to Harry, as Hagrid mixed up brandy and chicken’s blood for the hatchling. “His brother Charlie, in Romania, they have to do rescues sometimes. There are awfully strict laws about it all.”

“Hagrid’s not going to mistreat it,” Harry whispered back.

“Of course he’s not,” Hermione hissed, rolling her eyes. “The law doesn’t care about that, it’s to keep Muggles from seeing them on accident.”

“If a Muggle gets into Hogwarts, I think there’s bigger problems than seeing a baby dragon.”

“And when it stops being a baby, and starts flying?”

Harry had no reply to this.

~~~

“You all right, firstie?”

Harry looked up from his chess set into Adrian’s face. She was tilting her head at him, and by her side, Terence was eyeing the chess pieces. Harry had gotten his own set from one of the Christmas crackers, and had them sitting on a table in the corner of the Slytherin common room. He didn’t have a board, and was idly arranging and rearranging the pieces in different ways. Currently, he was halfway through getting them into order by height. His homework lay in a forgotten pile around them.

“Not really,” Harry answered. He picked one of the pawns up. It made a sound a lot like someone blowing a raspberry, and jumped out of his hand back onto the table.

“It’s not exams, is it?” Terence asked, looking at the textbooks and parchment around the chess pieces. “Those are still two months away.”

“Six weeks,” Harry corrected, Hermione’s timetables fresh on his mind. Fresher still was Draco’s smirk, when he whispered to Harry during lunch that he’d been looking for Harry yesterday and glimpsed the baby dragon through Hagrid’s window.

Harry rubbed the back of his head, a gesture that made Terence smirk at Adrian. “What do you do,” Harry asked. “When someone has dirt on one of your friends?”

“Get dirt back,” Adrian said, at the same moment that Terence said “Bribe ‘em.”

“Uh…and if you can’t do that?”

“Destroy the evidence?” Terence suggested, face screwing up in puzzlement. “Everyone’s got dirt, though, you just gotta dig more.”

“Try a combination,” Adrian said. She ruffled Harry’s hair. “You’re a bright kid, you’ll figure it out.” She shoved Terence’s shoulder. “We gotta get to practice.”

“Bye,” Harry said. “And, thanks.” They both waved over their shoulders as they walked away. Harry picked up a bishop and frowned at it. What did Draco want? He hadn’t made any demands yet, just let Harry know that he could. If the dragon was gone, there wouldn’t be a problem…but in the meantime, what would stop him from blabbing?

Harry’s eye fell on his pile of homework, and an idea swirled up.

The next morning after breakfast, Harry tapped Draco’s shoulder on their way to class. Surprised, Draco turned to look at him.

“We’re working on Charms together again this afternoon, right?” Harry said. It was a bit of a gamble, but he’d seen Draco struggling during the class, and irritably snapping when Blaise offered dry corrections of his wand movements.

“Again…?” Draco asked, and then the penny dropped. “Of course. Like we did on Monday.”

“Yep, just like on Monday,” Harry confirmed, nodding. They’d fallen a bit behind the other students, but Harry lowered his voice anyway. “We worked on Charms. We definitely didn’t go wandering down to the groundskeeper’s home, because like I’ve heard you say so many times there is nothing interesting there. Right?”

“Right,” Draco drawled. He smirked. “I’ll see you in the common room after class.”

~~~

Hermione was worried. She’d only seen Harry in brief flashes since Tuesday afternoon. He hadn’t come down to Hagrid’s to help feed the baby dragon, whom Hagrid was calling Norbert. He hadn’t been in the library. He was showing up to meals, but sitting between Parkinson and Malfoy, and didn’t even look at Hermione across the Great Hall. She’d had to find a solution to this dragon problem all on her own, which felt rather lonely after they’d spent all that time investigating the Philosopher’s Stone.

A twinge of unease flared up when Hermione thought of that. They hadn’t made any progress since January on that, stymied at who, in all the school, might be trying to steal it.

Potions was the only class Gryffindor currently had with Slytherin, since flying classes were long over. Hermione hurried down to the dungeons after breakfast, hoping to catch Harry before the rest of the class showed up.

Her heart sank as the Slytherins flooded into the classroom together. Harry looked over at her, but turned quickly away when Malfoy said something quiet. Hermione gulped down a wave of hurt. What was going on?

On his way to a seat, Harry bumped into Hermione, and pressed a piece of paper into her hand. Hermione didn’t dare look at it with Professor Snape stalking to the front of the classroom. She quickly slipped the paper into her pocket, spirits rising.

After class let out, Hermione ducked into the first empty classroom between the Potions dungeon and the Great Hall, and retrieved the note from her pocket.

Bribing Snotface into silence, Harry had written. Sorry for not telling you sooner, he’s like a limpet. Can you maybe get Freckle’s brother to collect our scaly buddy?

Hermione rolled her eyes at the far too obvious codenames, and at the request. She’d already talked to Ron Weasley about Norbert, and he’d written to Charlie right away. Ron had been itching to relieve his guilt over the troll incident for months. Hermione almost felt bad, calling in the favor, but only almost; Ron had decided writing to Charlie wasn’t enough, and started coming along to Hagrid’s when Hermione went help feed Norbert. Only yesterday he’d yanked her back in the nick of time, when the baby dragon tried to take a bite out of her arm.

With a slow twirl of her wand, Hermione set the note aflame, and patted the small fire on the desk out afterwards. Most of them were so old and scuffed up, one small scorch mark was hardly noticeable.

 At dinner, Hermione made sure to sit with her back to the wall, and stare at the Slytherin table until Harry happened to look up at her. This took some time, as Harry was mostly staring morosely at his plate, clearly only half-listening to whatever elaborate story Malfoy was telling. When he finally did look up, Hermione smiled and gave him a thumbs-up, and jerked her head towards Ron. Harry perked up at that, and smiled back. Next to him, Malfoy followed his line of sight, and scowled at Hermione.

~~~

Thursday morning, nearly two weeks since Norbert had hatched, Harry got up before everyone else in Slytherin, and skulked his way to the Great Hall. Curfew was technically over at 4AM, thanks to several manic Quidditch captains petitioning for early practice sessions over the centuries, and it was past 6AM already, but Harry couldn’t shake the caution. He had passed a second note to Hermione on Monday morning, saying he’d try to get to breakfast early each day until Norbert was gone, in case they needed to talk.

Hermione appeared a mere five minutes later. Seeing as the students on the inter-house rowing teams had taken over the Ravenclaw table, the plotting first years sat down at one end of the empty Hufflepuff table.

“They’re coming Sunday night,” Hermione said, before Harry could even ask. “We’ll need to get Norbert to the top of the highest astronomy tower by midnight.”

“I’ll meet you outside Gryffindor at ten,” Harry said. “That’ll give us time to pick up Norbert and carry him up. Can you tell Hagrid?”

“Leave it to me,” Hermione said, with a firm nod. She looked thoughtful. “Is your dad’s cloak big enough to cover Norbert?”

“It’s huge,” Harry said, shrugging. “Besides, what choice do we have?”

Hermione sighed. “Well, I’m going to look for invisibility spells, just in case. I think I read something about a don’t-notice-me spell somewhere…” she trailed off, brows furrowed, trying to recall which book it had been in.

“That might not be a good idea,” Harry said. “What if it made us not notice Norbert, too?”

“I don’t think it worked like that,” Hermione muttered, but by now more students were straggling into the Great Hall, and giving them confused looks. After going over the basics of the plan one more time, they got up and went to their respective house tables. Draco, fortunately, did not arrive until well after Harry had settled down at the Slytherin table with a plate of eggs.

~~~

At the top of the highest astronomy tower, Harry and Hermione waved to Charlie Weasley’s friends as they flew out of sight. When the last broomtail wasn’t even a speck anymore, they let out a great, shared sigh of relief, and slid down against the wall. Making sure the hood of the invisibility cloak was still secure around them, Harry tilted his head up to look at the stars. There were so many more, here, than in Privet Drive.

“Oh,” Hermione said, after a while. “I made us new study schedules. Only four weeks until exams.”

“Five until we leave…” Harry said. He kept his eyes on the stars, not wanting Hermione to see the hint of tears that thought had produced, or admit to himself that they were there. “Reckon our thief will try before that?”

“If they’re a student, yes,” Hermione said. “Or any of the teachers. But I think they have access during the summer…” She trailed off, and suddenly smacked her hand against her leg. “The troll!”

“The troll?” Harry asked.

“If they were able to get at the Stone during the summer, would they really have risked getting caught bringing that thing in?” Hermione pointed out.

“No,” Harry agreed. “So we’ve got five weeks to figure out who it is.”

“And pass our exams,” Hermione said firmly. With that, the conversation turned to all the little things it would have during the past week and a half, had they not been separated.

Eventually, having seen Hermione safely through the Fat Lady’s portrait into Gryffindor, Harry returned to the dungeons. With a whisper of the password, he stepped through the hidden door, walked quietly through the archway into the common room, and was stopped in his tracks by Adrian softly saying “Out kinda late, firstie,” and yawning.

Harry’s foot hovered over the floor, and still under the cloak, he looked furtively around the common room. Adrian was flopped over an armchair in one corner, looking half asleep, but still staring at the archway. No one else was around.

“You can hear the stones slide back, when it’s quiet enough,” Adrian explained, and Harry shoved the hood off with a huff, and walked over. He sat down nervously in the nearest chair. Adrian pushed herself up, swinging her legs around to set them on the floor, instead of over the arm of the chair.

“And can you take that off?” Adrian asked. “I really don’t like talking to just…just a head.”

“Sorry,” Harry said, having to stand up again for a moment to get the cloak off. He shoved it hastily into the inner pocket of his robe; for as usefully huge as it was, the cloak was remarkably easy to hide away.

Adrian pulled a small table around from the far side of the arm chair, revealing a box not much bigger than Harry’s Transfigurations textbook. It had a checkerboard pattern on top, and a flick of a latch exposed a set of small black and red plastic circles inside. They were marked with silhouettes of chess figures. Adrian scooped them up, closed the box, and began arranging them on the cover. Each made a small click as she put them down.

“It’s a Muggle travel set,” Adrian explained, as Harry watched in fascination. She held up one piece, revealing a flash of metal on the bottom.  “See? Magnetic, so you can play even if the train is jumpy. It’s marked for chess, but you can play checkers too.”

“Where’d you get it?” Harry asked curiously.

“Where’d you get the cloak?” Adrian shot back.

“Um…”

“I’m not actually asking,” Adrian said, putting the last piece down. She eyed the board, then spun it around to put the red side closer to Harry. “You get first move.”

Rolling his eyes, Harry did so, moving a pawn forward without any planning. It was long past midnight, and he had class in the morning. Adrian, who looked even more tired, still put just as much thought into her moves as usual. When she checkmated Harry, she quickly began resetting the board, spun it around, and pushed forward the same pawn Harry had.

This time, Harry payed attention to the game. The longer it went on, the more the differences from wizarding chess made themselves known. Already Harry was having to pick up and set down each piece, rather than directing them to move themselves. He kept expecting them to yell at him, yet even his riskier decisions were greeted with nothing more than the click of the magnet. Once, Adrian had almost set a bishop down, then abruptly pulled back, returned it to its position from the start of turn, and moved a knight instead.

“We can do that?” Harry asked, surprised.

“It’s not final until you let go,” Adrian said, shrugging. When she beat him again, this time it was Harry who reset the board.

A few moves into their third match, Harry asked “Did you actually stay up waiting for me?”

“Duh,” Adrian said. “You’ve been acting weird since last week, and then today, well, yesterday by now, you kept looking at the clock. It was obvious something was gonna happen. I told you-”

“That I need a better poker face,” Harry finished. He fidgeted with a rook, and then placed it down on the board. “…thanks.”

“You dealt with that whole ‘dirt on a friend’ problem?” Adrian asked, ignoring the thanks. Harry nodded, and she grinned at him from across the board. “Knew you could do it, firstie.”

~~~

 

Monday, Harry evaded Draco’s usual attempts to spend time together, and went right back to his old habits of avoiding most of his housemates. Holing up in the library after dinner with Hermione, not coming down to the dungeons until curfew, was simply the final clue that things had changed back. Draco cornered Harry after breakfast on Tuesday, grabbing his arm when Harry tried to get past him to class.

“You’re looking awfully happy for someone who’s friends with a criminal,” Draco said, keeping his voice low.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry said cheerfully. He shook his arm, but Draco didn’t let go. “You know, spring is a migratory season for a lot of birds,” Harry added helpfully. “It’s really nice to just watch them all…fly away.”

Draco scowled. “And what, you’re going to fly away too? You can’t tell me that scaly little monster was the only reason you’ve spent so much time with us lately.”

“What do you think?”

“I thought,” Draco said. “That you’d finally figured out who your real friends are.”

“My real friends don’t blackmail me,” Harry said the cheer gone from his voice. He shook his arm again. Draco snatched his hand back.

“Working on Charms together was your idea,” Draco snapped.

“Yeah, it was,” Harry said slowly. “And then when you finally had the hang of last week’s work, you flipped my Potions textbook open to a page on dragon’s blood and dragged out our Astronomy assignment. When I didn’t want to hang out with you and Pansy after dinner, you asked her if McGonagall would ever teach us to transfigure lizards! I’m not stupid, and you’re not subtle.”

“Did you ever think maybe I was doing you a favor?” Malfoy shot back, flushing. “You’re never in the common room, you hardly talk to us at meals. If Pucey wasn’t dragging you to chess you’d never get to know the older Slytherins. You think you can get through seven years at Hogwarts without talking to your own house, Potter? Even your little Mudblood friend isn’t that arrogant.”

Don’t call her that,” Harry hissed, hands curling into fists, nails biting into his palms.

“You never minded before,” Draco sneered.

“I didn’t know what it meant!

“Didn’t know what…what meant?” someone asked. Harry spun around. Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown had stopped on their way to class. Harry realized belatedly that he and Draco were blocking the hallway.

Draco smirked at Harry, and waved a hand carelessly at the two Gryffindor girls. “I was just telling Harry here that if he really wants friends, he could do a lot better than a bossy little know-it-all Mudblood–”

A loud crack echoed throughout the hall as Patil slapped Draco.

There was a tense silence for a moment, and Draco, stunned, raised a hand to touch his face. “You–”

“What is going on here?”

Professor Sinistra, who taught Astronomy, was hurrying towards them, arched brows drawn together. “I could swear that I heard a slap, which must be wrong, as fighting is strictly forbidden at Hogwarts.”

“Patil hit me,” Draco said, pointing at her.

“No she didn’t,” Harry said quickly. Professor Sinistra’s brows shot upwards. Draco’s left cheek was a bright, undeniable red. “I did. I can see why Draco’s confused though, since we’re the same height and all.” Draco gaped at Harry.

“Twenty points from Slytherin for striking another student,” Professor Sinistra said. “And…detention.”

“Malfoy deserved it, Professor Sinistra,” Brown said. “He called Hermione a Mudblood.”

“Is this true?” the Astronomy teacher asked Draco. Before he could answer, a portrait of three witches dancing around a pond interjected with a chorus of “Yes, yes we heard him! He said it twice!” Professor Sinistra looked up at the ceiling for a moment, and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“I will discuss this with your head of house,” she said finally, and then gestured down the hall. “I believe you all have classes to get to?” The four first years quickly hurried away.

During lunch, when someone noticed that Slytherin had dropped by twenty points, Draco quickly passed the word that not only was Harry to blame, but that he could have avoided it if he had just stayed silent. By the time dinner rolled around, the entire house knew of the incident, and Harry was starting to get nervous about the dirty looks some of them were giving him. He wondered if it would be possible to hide in the Ravenclaw tower for a while; rumor had it they didn’t use a proper password.

Unfortunately, it seemed Professor Sinistra really had talked to Snape. The Potions master summoned Harry to his office after dinner.

“You realize,” Snape said, as Harry gingerly sat in the chair across the desk from him. “That fighting is considered grounds for expulsion from Hogwarts?”

Harry winced. He actually had forgotten; half the school knew about the fistfight that Draco had provoked in the stands during Gryffindor’s Quidditch match against Hufflepuff in March, but there had never been any consequences. Professor Snape continued speaking. “The decision to do so is ultimately in the hands of the Headmaster, though in practice it usually comes down to the faculty who witnessed the infraction, and the heads of houses of any students involved. Professor Sinistra considers all of you to be decent students, and believes expulsion to be an over-reaction. Professor Dumbledore and I are inclined to agree, though the school will not be so lenient should this reoccur.”

Harry felt a wave of relief wash through him.

“We will discuss the terms of your detention later,” Snape said, rising. “For now, I will escort you back to Slytherin.”

Harry would really have preferred to spend the hours remaining between now and curfew in the library, perhaps with his face mashed against a table and a book over his head, but was forced to keep pace with Snape for the short trip through the dungeon halls to Slytherin. Snape was not coming in to the dormitory, but did linger in the hall until the hidden door slid back into place behind Harry.

Twenty points!” Draco was saying, as Harry stepped through the archway. The rest of the first years were clustered around Draco, though Harry could tell Blaise was trying to look uninterested. The other students in the common room were drifting away, clearly having heard the relevant portions of Draco’s rant. A few shot Harry glares, but most considered studying for their exams more important than giving a first year a hard time for losing points, even if it was quite a lot to lose all at once.

“All because you,” Draco said, spinning on one heel to point dramatically at Harry. “Couldn’t keep your mouth shut and let that stuck-up Patil get the detention she’d earned!”

“Wait…” Terence Higgs said. He was sitting up properly in an arm chair, reading from his Transfigurations textbook, and next to him Adrian was sleeping with one foot on the floor, one hidden somewhere in the depths of her chair, a knee up by her ear, and a copy of the Daily Prophet draped over her face to block the light out. Harry still didn’t understand why she kept falling asleep in the common room instead of just going to the girl’s half of the dorm if she wanted to nap. Terence stood up and shook Adrian’s shoulder, and she sat up with a snort. The newspaper slid down onto her chest.

“You said Potter lost us points for hitting you,” Terence said slowly, gesturing towards Draco. Around the common room, students picked up on something interesting happening, and turned towards the cluster of first years. Harry was still nervously standing by the archway, though he’d stepped a few feet away out of habit. It only took getting run over by a sixth or seventh year in a hurry once to get a clue about lingering.

“Yes,” Draco said, scowling. “Professor Sinistra docked him twenty points and gave him detention for hitting me, but he was covering for Patil.”

“Which Patil?” Adrian asked, rolling out of the chair. She ignored Draco and walked over to Harry, a grin starting to spread across her face. “Come on, was it the Ravenclaw or Gryffindor that decked Malfoy here?”

“Um, well, it was a slap, actually,” Harry said nervously. “And he deserved it,” Harry added quickly, but Adrian made a dismissive gesture, clearly unconcerned by such details, and several older students around the room gave short barks of laughter. “And, um, it was Parvati, she’s in Gryffindor.”

Adrian let out a loud crow of delight, grabbed Harry under the arms, and lifted him straight off his feet. Startled, Harry grabbed her forearms, and she spun him around, still laughing.

“You brilliant kid!” Adrian declared, finally dropping him. Harry stumbled, and she ruffled his hair.

Brilliant?” Draco gasped. He was going a bit red in the face. Behind him, Blaise had started sniggering. “Brilliant? For losing us twenty points so we’re tying with Hufflepuff for the house cup?”

“We’ll earn it back,” Terence said laconically, though a dozen or so students started glaring at Harry again with the reminder.

“You just got a Gryffindor into your debt!” Adrian explained. Harry blinked. He hadn’t really thought of that. “She owes you now! You keep this in your back pocket, all right, firstie? It’s going to be dead useful someday.”

Stunned, Harry nodded, and Adrian ruffled his hair again before tugging him over to the armchair she’d abandoned. “Come on, Terence bet me five knuts he knows our Herbology vocab better than me, we need you to judge.”

Chapter Text

“I still can’t believe Parvati hit Malfoy,” Hermione said, as she walked with Harry to the abandoned greenhouse. “She and Lavender wouldn’t say why, either.” Though, upon reflection, they might have simply stopped talking because Percy was walking past, and it wasn’t usually a good idea to talk about rule-breaking in front of prefects.

“He was being rude,” Harry said shortly. He paused next to the bushes, making sure no one else was in sight.

“Ron thinks you’re plotting something,” Hermione said. “He says if you were ‘really the chivalrous sort’, you’d have stopped Malfoy from using the Leg-Locker curse on Neville.”

Harry grimaced. “I can’t exactly stop things I’m not around for, can I?”

“That’s what I told him,” Hermione said. Satisfied that they were sufficiently alone, Harry dropped down to the grass and wriggled into the bushes. Hermione followed a moment later. Soon Harry stopped crawling, and lay down flat on his stomach under the bushes, with his chin propped up on his crossed arms. Hermione imitated him.

“This isn’t where we stopped last time,” she said.

“I wanted you to meet someone,” Harry told her. Before she could ask who, Hermione saw a snake slither out of a hole in the greenhouse wall.

“Harry…”

“Don’t worry, grass snakes aren’t venomous,” Harry reassured her. The snake coiled up on a rock in the sun, and turned its head towards them. “And there aren’t any adders at Hogwarts, I already asked them.”

“Asked who?”

“Them.” Harry inclined his head towards the rock, where another snake had joined the first. To Hermione’s great surprise, Harry began hissing quietly at the two serpents, occasionally pausing for a moment, as though listening to the other half of a conversation.

“What do you think?” Harry asked suddenly, turning his head towards Hermione.

“About what?” she asked, bewildered.

“Whether a hawk’s cry or their shadow is scarier,” Harry said.

“I haven’t thought about it before,” Hermione said. “You know, I’ve never heard you hoot at Hedwig like this, or meow at the cats around the castle. You don’t even bark back at Fang.”

“Why would I do that?” Harry asked, now looking as bewildered as Hermione felt.

“Well, apparently you hiss at snakes,” Hermione said.

“What?”

“You’ve been hissing at them,” Hermione said, feeling a little worried. “Are they hissing back very quietly, or something? Because I can’t hear anything.”

“We’ve…we’ve been talking,” Harry said. He glanced between Hermione and the snakes. “Just regular talking, I wasn’t…I was hissing?”

Hermione nodded.

“Nobody else heard anything at the zoo,” Harry said quietly, half to himself. Hermione couldn’t remember him mentioning a zoo before, but maybe now wasn’t the time to ask. “I thought it was just, you know, a wizarding thing. Talking to animals. I mean, not all animals, but the owls can find addresses, and I swear Millicent’s cat understands everything she says, even if it doesn’t talk back.” He lifted a hand from the ground to run through his hair. “You really can’t hear them?”

“Not at all,” Hermione said. One of the snakes slid down off the sunning rock and slipped into the bushes.

“This must be really boring for you then,” Harry said glumly, dropping his hand back down and letting his head fall into his arms.

“It’s not boring at all,” Hermione said firmly. She pressed her shoulder against his until he looked up again. “Why don’t you translate for me?”

~~~

Slytherin beat the pants off of Hufflepuff in their May Quidditch match, giving Slytherin such a wide lead that it would take a miracle for Ravenclaw or Gryffindor to surpass their point total in the final match of the year. The entire house flooded back down into the dungeons as one massive, cheering entity when the game was over. Every member of the team itself was carried in atop the mob, and several of the smaller first and second year students found themselves pushed up by their ankles into the air, jubilant hands reaching up to touch the stone ceiling on their way down. Harry himself was lifted aloft by a happily screaming Evan Pershore of all people, and Blaise Zabini had lost his unruffled expression for once, outright whooping as Graham Montague hoisted him onto his shoulders.

Inside the common room, the faster members of the house had already thrown decorations up. The stone walls were splashed with green and silver paint, someone had bewitched the flames in the fireplace to burn green, and a massive serpentine windsock was coiled through the chains holding up the ceiling lamps. Back on his feet now, Harry beamed up at it.

“We won we won we won!” Adrian was yelling, as she grabbed Harry’s hands and spun the two of them in a circle. She let go suddenly, and Harry went flying into Terence, who hadn’t stopped laughing since he caught the Snitch.

“The Cup’s as good as ours!”  Miles Bletchley shouted, standing on top of the wide mantelpiece over the fireplace.

“It is ours!” team captain Marcus Flint yelled back, before laughing so hard he had to sit down.

Before the exhilaration could wind down, a dozen or so older students darted off into the sleeping chambers, coming back with oddly shaped bottles, baskets of food, and boxes full of popping crackers. Two fourth year girls rolled in a large barrel, which they set up in one of the windowsills.

“A toast, a toast!” someone yelled, and Peregrine Derrick began conjuring up glasses for everyone. The strange bottles were being passed around the older students, held out of reach whenever someone in year four or below tried to reach for one. Terence steered Harry towards the barrel in the window, and they both came away with glasses of some foaming, caramel colored drink. When it looked like everyone had something in their hands, Marcus climbed onto the seat of one of the high-backed chairs near the fire.

“To the Quidditch Cup!” Marcus roared, holding a green bottle aloft.

To the Cup!” the crowd roared back. Adrian had found Terence and Harry again, and clanked her glass of the caramel liquid against theirs.

“To victory!”

To victory!”

“To  Slytherin!”

TO SLYTHERIN!

This last roar was so loud that the lamps shook, and the windsock rippled as though alive.

Harry finally took a drink, and beamed up at Adrian and Terence. “This is amazing!”

“Of course it’s amazing, it’s butterbeer,” Adrian told him. Harry blinked; it hadn’t tasted like a beer. “There’s barely a drop of alcohol in it,” Adrian assured him, seeing the flash of confusion. “It’s mostly sugar; worst thing you have to worry about is cavities.”

A few feet away, Terence was trying to plead with the fifth year prefect. “Just a bit, Gemma. One glass? Please?”

“You can’t possibly tell me you have the palate to appreciate this,” Gemma said, gesturing to a cobalt bottle in her hand. There were silver and green ribbons braided into her hair. “Go pop some crackers, Higgs.”

“Crackers!” Adrian yelled, face lighting up as she was reminded. She grabbed Terence and Harry and steered them over to the box. Pansy and Tracey were pulling one apart as they arrived, and it exploded with such force that they both fell to the floor. A miniature burst of fireworks sparkled through the air, and turned into jellybeans as it fell.

“Again, again!” Daphne cried, clapping, while Theodore and Draco pulled the girls to their feet. Harry tugged a cracker apart with Blaise, laughing when dragons of smoke sped out of it, leaving behind a handful of small chocolate lizards wrapped in foil.

Hours later, Adrian found Harry in one of the windowsills, where he’d flopped down on his stomach to better examine the snake sculptures running around it.

“Stop hiding in there, firstie, you need to see this,” Adrian said, hauling Harry out of the windowsill by his armpits. There was a house tie wrapped around her head, which couldn’t have been hers, since all the team members had kept their Quidditch robes on, and ties weren’t part of the Quidditch uniform.

“Wasn’t hiding,” Harry said. He was starting to feel a little ill from all the candy. “Did you know, some of these have gems in their eyes, and some don’t?”

“Uh huh,” Adrian said, not paying attention. She pushed him closer to the fire, and tugged him down so they could sit on the floor by Terence, leaning against an overturned armchair. Half of the house had already gone to bed, but the rest were slowly converging around the fireplace. Gemma Farley was standing in front of it, her hair unbound.

“Child of Calliope,” Gemma declared, gesturing with both hands. She’d tied the ribbons from her hair around one wrist, and they flashed in the firelight. Her voice was as cool as ever. “For whom music and magic were as one. Most famous of all who have tried to defeat death. Orpheus!

As she said the name, Gemma threw her glass into the fire, and the flames turned blue. Harry jumped, and Adrian put a hand on his shoulder.

“What’s going on?” Harry whispered to her.

“We got lucky,” Adrian whispered back. “Gemma’s just lit enough to do one of her epic poetry recitations. I think Flora goaded her into it this time. If we’re really lucky, she’ll remember most of us don’t speak Greek.”

~~~

“Are you quite all right?” Hermione asked Harry, when they met up in the entrance hall on Saturday morning. Hagrid had invited them down for brunch.

“Too much sugar,” Harry said, blinking at her, and squeezing his forehead with one hand.

Hermione peered at him. “At least you look a lot better than most of your housemates,” she told him after a moment, pulling back. “I think some of them are hungover.” She let her voice drop down to a whisper at the last word, and then straightened up with a sniff. “You’d think the older students would try to set a better example.”

“Well,” Harry said. He winced in the sunlight when they stepped outside, but didn’t let it slow down his pace towards Hagrid’s. “I reckon most of them think it’s up to us to decide which of their examples are worth following.”

“Hmph,” Hermione said, but let the subject drop.

Hagrid, upon taking one glance at the slightly queasy look Harry still wore, fixed up a pot of mint tea for all of them.

“I’m never eating jellybeans again,” Harry moaned into his mug, the minty steam fogging up his glasses.

Hagrid chuckled. “I said something a lot like that after I won Norbert’s egg,” he said. At the thought of the baby dragon, Hagrid’s face practically glowed with fondness, though it was somewhat tempered by the accompanying sadness of having had to send Norbert away.

“I thought you won him in a card game?” Harry asked.

“Oh, honestly Harry,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes. “He told us it was a card game at a pub. How drunk do you think someone had to be, to bet a dragon egg? No offense, Hagrid,” she added quickly.

Hagrid waved her embarrassment away. “Nah, I knew I was lucky ter win it. Not many people with dragon eggs out and about.”

Harry was frowning at the tabletop. “Hagrid,” he said slowly. “Did they, erm, did they ask if you could really take care of a dragon? I mean, we all know your house wasn’t big enough for it.”

“They were mostly concerned that it wouldn’t eat my arm as soon as it hatched,” Hagrid said. “Told ‘em after Fluffy, a dragon would be easy.” He put a hand to his forehead. “Forget I mentioned that.”

“It’s all right Hagrid,” Hermione said. “It’s not like we don’t already know.”

“Did you see their face?” Harry asked. He stuck a finger in the mint tea, hissing when he found it was still too hot to drink.

Hagrid shook his head. “Kept their hood up.”

“Right,” Harry said, nodding. He winced, and Hermione tsk’d at him. Since Harry seemed to be getting lost in his own thoughts, Hermione took it upon herself to keep up the conversation. A pleasant half hour passed while she and Hagrid talked about the beasts Hagrid had helped the Care of Magical Creatures instructor with over the years.

“Did you tell them music puts Fluffy to sleep?” Harry asked suddenly, when they were discussing whether Professor Kettleburn’s assistant was likely to come back another year.

“Professor Kettleburn already knows that,” Hagrid said, but Harry was shaking his head.

“No, the person you got Norbert from.”

“It might have come up,” Hagrid said. “Where did you hear it?”

“Slytherin story-time,” he said sheepishly. Hermione frowned. What on Earth did that mean? “Er,” Harry continued. “There was three-headed dog in this poem from last night, and it got put to sleep with a lyre. At least, that’s what I thought happened. It was a little hard to tell by then.”

~~~

Just before exam week, Harry was finally presented with a note from Professor Snape at breakfast.

Your detention will take place in the Forbidden Forest. You will be escorted from the entrance hall at eleven o’clock tonight. Do not be late.

Harry was quite concerned when he saw Mr. Filch and his unpleasant cat Mrs. Norris waiting for him in the entrance hall that night. Fortunately, Mr. Filch simply passed him along to Hagrid at the edge of the tree line, and went back to the castle, Mrs. Norris taking a swipe at Fang before following him.

Detention may have gone very differently, Harry determined, if it were not for Fang. At the first loud snap of a branch, Fang had taken off, and Harry, holding onto his collar at the time, went along with him. Hagrid’s cry of “Fang get back here!” was covered by the crunch of ferns, the slap of branches, and the cries of birds startled from their nightly rest as Fang and Harry shot past.

Eventually, Fang stopped, quivering, in a clearing. Harry let go of his collar, and flexed his fingers. He tried not to think of what would have happened had he lost his grip alone in the forest, far from the path, with nothing but his wand for protection. Perhaps he would have felt more confidant were Professor Quirrell a better Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

Fortunately for both boy and dog, Fang had stopped in a clearing that connected to one of the more worn paths. Harry sighed in relief at the sight, and turned to direct Fang along it.

Fang whimpered.

Harry gulped. A snapped twig had scared the dog into running, but what would make a giant boarhound like Fang whine like that? Slowly, Harry took another look around the clearing.

There. At the edge. A glimmer of white. Harry was about to whisper Lumos, when the moon broke through the clouds. Harry hissed in a sharp breath. The white glimmer was a unicorn, broken on the ground. Bright red covered its throat.

“Oh no…” Harry whispered. Fang pressed against his side, and Harry patted down the fur of his ruff. He needed to send up the green sparks for Hagrid, let him know where they were.

Something slithered in the bushes.

Harry froze, his hand inches from his wand. What was…?

The slither moved away from him, through the trees around the clearing. The clouds were slowly covering the moon again, but Harry could still see when a hooded figured appeared next to the unicorn, crouched, and began to drink its blood.

When the figure rose, pain shot through Harry’s skull, pulsing in the lightning scar. He screamed.

~~~

Hermione paced in the Gryffindor common room. Harry’s detention was out in the Forbidden Forest, doing who knows what, and she couldn’t sleep.

“Give it a rest, Hermione,” Ron said with a yawn. He was curled up in a chair by the fireplace, a deck of Exploding Snap abandoned on a small table. Neville was in the next chair over, and Hermione was fairly sure he was actually asleep.

“It’s not like he’s coming back here,” Ron pointed out. “You’ll see him tomorrow, stop worrying.”

“I can’t help it!” Hermione said. “It’s called the Forbidden Forest, and we’re strictly told to keep out! It’s very dangerous! We don’t even know which teacher is supervising, what if they can’t handle it?”

“It’ll be Hagrid,” Ron said. “Fred and George have had loads of detentions, and it’s always doing something helpful for the school. Like summoning the chalk dust out of erasers so it can be turned back into chalk, or polishing armor. And Hagrid’s the only staff who’s got business in the forest.”

“What help to the school could Harry possibly give out there?” Hermione asked.

She got her answer the next morning, when a very shaken Harry beckoned her outside after breakfast. Cloaks spread under the largest bush by the abandoned greenhouse, they sat down in the speckled sunlight. Harry ran his hand through his hair, took a deep breath. Let it out. Took another.

“Voldemort’s killing unicorns.”

“…what?” Hermione clapped her hands over her mouth, hoping no one had heard her. She and Harry held their breath, but no footsteps approached their hiding place.

“Sorry,” Harry said. “Um. I should start over.”

“Yes, you should,” Hermione scolded. “Especially since You-Know-Who has been dead for ten years.”

“Hagrid always said he didn’t think he was really gone,” Harry said, frowning down at his knees. “And just say the name, Hermione, it’s shorter.”

“Would you please get on with it, Harry.”

“Right.” Harry ran his hand through his hair again. “Hagrid noticed someone was killing unicorns over the year, it was spread out, so it took them a bit to realize it was a pattern. And so last night he was gonna see if he could find one of them, and tell what killed it, and I guess the teachers decided two people looking into it was good? Or maybe discourage me from using violence to solve my problems, I don’t know.”

Hermione laughed nervously, and Harry grinned weakly, before sobering.

“Well, Fang and I found them, and…” Harry looked away from her. “It was like my head was splitting open. And the thing is, it felt like…like I did my first night here, at the Beginning of Year Feast.”

“Your head hurt at the feast?”

Harry nodded, and pushed back his bangs to show her his scar. “Right in this. I thought it was just, you know, stress. It’s happened before. But it’s always short, and last night…I thought it was never going to stop. But then Firenze saved me.”

“Firenze?” Hermione asked, confused.

“He’s a centaur,” Harry said.

“He saved you?” Hermione asked, grabbing her knees and leaning forward. “But they never interfere with people from the school! At least, that’s what Hogwarts, A History said. They’ll talk to teachers, sometimes, but they’re very insular.”

“More insular than people with a Statute of Secrecy?” Harry asked dryly. “They knew Hagrid. Firenze and these other two, I mean, Bane and Rowan. Bane was mad at Firenze for saving me. I guess the stars want me dead?”

“Divination is an unreliable field of magic,” Hermione said automatically. She bit her lip. “Harry. You still haven’t said what this has to do with You-Know–  I mean, Voldemort.”

Harry winced. “He was drinking the unicorn blood. That’s why they were getting killed. And–”

“But drinking unicorn blood curses you!” Hermione said. “It saves your life, but it’s too terrible to use, that’s why potioneers haven’t even experimented with it in eight centuries. It…” She trailed off, thinking. One of the grass snakes Harry had befriended moved languidly into the space between them, and flicked its tongue a few times at Harry’s knee. Harry made a very quiet hissing sound, as though trying to whisper and not derail Hermione’s train of thought.

“Harry,” Hermione said eventually, when the snake had left. “Why does Hagrid think Voldemort never really died?”

Not enough human left in ‘im to die,” Harry quoted. “I dunno what that really means, exactly, but Hagrid seemed pretty sure.”

“Then…then he might not be human enough to be properly cursed by the unicorn blood,” Hermione concluded. “There’s unicorns all over Europe though. Why kill the ones here? So close to Hogwarts, and Dumbledore, and all the books said Voldemort never dared to directly go up against him.”

Harry didn’t answer, waiting for her to think just a few steps further.

“So close to Hogwarts,” Hermione repeated slowly. “So close to the safest place in Britain, the safest place to keep something, like a stone that makes…an Elixir of Life…”

“Yeah,” Harry said, when Hermione had been silent for a long moment. He let out a shaky breath. “I guess we know who’s trying to get the Stone, now.”

~~~

There had followed, in the bushes by the greenhouse, a fierce debate over what to do next. Obviously, they couldn’t let Voldemort steal the Stone. Hermione insisted they ought to tell the teachers; Harry pointed out that it had to have been someone inside the castle who let the troll in, and their earlier suspicion of an inside job wasn’t wrong, it was just likely that someone was trying to steal it for Voldemort, or smuggle him in, or something. They couldn’t, therefore, trust any of the faculty.

Telling Dumbledore seemed like a good idea, since he was definitely the one person aside from Hagrid who wasn’t a suspect, but that brought up the problem, of, well, Hagrid. He’d very likely told a stranger how to get past Fluffy, and in exchange for an illegal dragon egg, no less. They also weren’t keen to mention that Harry had gotten separated from Hagrid out in the Forbidden Forest. Losing a first year, however temporarily, didn’t exactly look good for a staff member.

“That leaves…just our suspicions about the troll being let in,” Harry said glumly.

“And they probably already thought of that,” Hermione said. “Look, you said you told Hagrid about the cloaked figure, right?”

Harry nodded. “He said it might be a vampire, but he’d need to examine the unicorn to be sure. But, um, I wasn’t really able to give directions back to the clearing, and Firenze had already left.” Harry brightened up a little. “Hagrid did say he’d tell Dumbledore about it, and that some of the teacher would double check the school’s vampire wards.”

Hermione snapped her fingers. “That’s it! The teachers!”

“What about them?”

“They’re probably protecting the Stone too,” Hermione said eagerly. “It can’t just be Fluffy, if that was enough they’d have left it in Gringott’s; they’ve got a dragon. It bet there’s loads of protections around the Stone, that’s why it’s taking the thief so long.”

“And Halloween was…a distraction, so they could go look,” Harry speculated.

“Or testing the castle’s wards,” Hermione said, with a shrug. “Or both.”

Harry drummed his fingers against his leg. “Or…a mistake.”

“What do you mean by that?” Hermione asked, looking at him intently.

“I mean, there hasn’t been anything else since, right?” Harry said. “Just the unicorns, and those aren’t about getting the Stone. Letting the troll in got everyone’s attention, and I’m sure it got everyone away from the third floor corridor so the thief could go take a look, but I’d bet you it also made Dumbledore and all the teachers helping him guard it a lot more alert. So they’ve been lying low all year.”

“And now they’re running out of time,” Hermione said. “If they’re going after it this year, I mean. They might go for it next year.”

“Not if it’s a seventh year student,” Harry said. “There’s a couple in my house whose parents would love to help Voldemort come back. And some of the teachers are only temporary, like Professor Kettleburn’s assistant.”

“So we have until exams are done,” Hermione said, with a firm nod. “Nobody lying low would try anything before that, if they got caught it’s so much harder to explain what you’re doing away from studies than normal.”

~~~

Exam fervor made the time fly, and Harry threw himself into his studies as fiercely as Hermione. If Voldemort really was trying to come back, any one of their classes could be key to defeating him. Weren’t the older witches and wizards always bemoaning how slow they had been, to respond to Voldemort the first time? Harry refused to be caught unprepared.

The sense of urgency was only increased by the return of his winter nightmares. Now though, instead of vanishing in a flash of green light, Harry’s family fell before his eyes, throats streaming blood like the unicorn had. When Harry tried to reach them, pounding on the Mirror, the first crack he made in the glass sent a sharp stabbing pain through his forehead, jolting him awake.

The interrupted sleep didn’t exactly make studying any easier. Before their Potions exam, Millicent Bulstrode commented on the bags under Harry’s eyes, and gave him a large caramel. Grateful, Harry offered to go over her history essay after dinner. Millicent accepted; Harry had been doing a lot better in history since Adrian had started discussing the readings with him, but Millicent, like most students, was stuck trying to absorb information while fighting the stupor Professor Binn’s drone put them in.

Finally, the last essay was turned in, the last test completed, and last practical exam finished. Harry sought out Hermione the moment he was done, and found her lying limp on a small knoll by the lake.

“I can’t believe we’re finished,” Hermione said. Harry lay down next to her, arms twitching a little, muscles sore from practicing wand motions. Above them, lazy June clouds drifted across the blue sky. “I’ve pulled out my timetable five times already, and it still says there’s nothing left to study for.”

“Think we need to patrol tonight?” Harry asked. It was the best solution they had come up with; once they were done with exams, lurk in the third floor corridor under Harry’s cloak every night, and run to Dumbledore’s office if they saw or heard anything suspicious. Harry had discovered the entrance to Dumbledore’s office back in October, when he’d spent so much time exploring the castle.

“Well, the seventh years are still finishing their essays,” Hermione said. She had her eyes closed against the bright sky. “And the teachers are all busy grading. But it might be good to start now.”

“Meet you at ten thirty?” Harry asked. Despite all the fuss over exams, their prefects might still notice their absence from the dorms at start of curfew, so it was best to meet up later. If Harry waited for her outside Gryffindor tower, Hermione could sneak out and whistle for him, and he’d get the cloak over both of them. It was what they’d done to get rid of Norbert.

“Better make it eleven,” Hermione said. “Percy’s been staying up in the common room, lately.”

~~~

Dinner brought a nasty shock. Hermione caught Harry’s eye from across the Great Hall, and she jerked her chin towards the head table.

Dumbledore wasn’t there.

He wasn’t always at dinner, Harry reminded himself. The Headmaster only ate lunch and breakfast with the rest of the school a few times a month, after all. Sure, he seemed to view dinner as a good time to catch up with the faculty, and twinkle benignly down at the students, but it wasn’t like this was the first time he’d been absent.

Telling himself this did nothing to quell the growing unease in Harry’s gut. Impulsively, he turned towards the classmate nearest him, who happened to be Gregory Goyle.

“Do you know where the Headmaster’s gone?” Harry asked.

Gregory frowned at the head table. “Dunno. Weird.”

“Why is it weird?” Harry asked.

“My cousin said Dumbledore always tries to eat as many meals with us as he can, in the last week,” Pansy said. Harry gave a great internal sigh of relief. Trust Pansy to stick her nose in other people’s conversations, especially if it made her look better informed, and thus better connected.

“Reminding us all that he’s approachable,” Blaise added, with a slow shrug. “Some students don’t want to talk to their professors directly, if they’re worried about how they’ve done. Or if their head of house might not approve of their elective choices the next year.”

“So why isn’t he here tonight?” Harry asked. Blaise shrugged, and Pansy scowled, annoyed that she didn’t know.

“He was called away to the Ministry,” Gemma Farley said, leaning around the Bloody Baron to look at the first years. “Don’t worry, he’ll be back tomorrow if you need to ask him anything.”

“Thanks,” Harry said. Biting down curses, he looked over at the Gryffindor table. Hermione had been watching this exchange, and was still staring at him. Harry jerked his head towards the door, we need to talk, and Hermione nodded slowly.

They only had a few minutes after finishing dinner, slipping into the shadows of a pillar in the entrance hall, furtively watching for potential eavesdroppers.

“Dumbledore was called to the Ministry,” Harry said, when he was sure there were no students, teachers, or ghosts nearby. “I don’t think they really called him. It’s gonna be tonight.”

“I want to tell Professor McGonagall,” Hermione said firmly.

“Okay.”

“And don’t tell me that we can’t trust– wait, what?”

“I said okay,” Harry said, grinning at Hermione’s surprise. “I know I said we couldn’t risk any of the teachers, but you’re really smart, Hermione, and you know her better than I do. Just…maybe don’t mention…?”

“I won’t mention Norbert,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes. “Honestly Harry, it’s like you think I’ve no discretion at all."

“Well you are a Gryffindor,” Harry pointed out, still grinning. “She’s probably going to tell you it’s perfectly safe, though, just like Hagrid keeps saying.”

“Then you’d better meet me like we planned, then,” Hermione said grimly. “And we’ll protect the Stone ourselves.”

~~~

Harry slipped his cloak and the flute from Hagrid into the inner pockets of his robes after dinner, and spent several hours in the common room playing Exploding Snap with Terence and a few other Quidditch players. After using their brains for exams all week, none of them really felt like chess. Adrian was draped across a chair by the fire, asleep. One of the anti-cheating quills was still tucked behind her ear, steadily dripping ink down the side of her face.

When the other first years had all gone to bed, Harry bid goodnight to Terence, and went back in the direction of the dorm rooms. Making sure no one could see him in the dark stretch of tunnel, Harry whisked on the invisibility cloak.

Harry snuck around the edges of the common room, careful to keep away from the occupied chairs. Passing by the lake-viewing windows, he stroked the littlest of the silver snakes for luck.

~~~

Hermione dropped down from the entrance to Gryffindor tower, and let the portrait swing shut behind her. The Fat Lady was half-asleep, but Hermione knew from experience she wouldn’t tell on Hermione for sneaking out even if she’d been paying attention. She might not always approve of what her charges did, but the Fat Lady did consider keeping their comings and goings confidential an integral part of proper security. Students who didn’t trust her, after all, might try to trick their way past if they had secrets to keep, and then where would everyone be?

Harry swept the cloak over her before she even whistled, and Hermione bit back a squeak of surprise.

“Any trouble getting out?” he whispered, immediately walking them away from Gryffindor.

Hermione shook her head, realized that was a bit silly while under the same cloak, and answered belatedly. “Almost. Ron saw us gesturing during dinner, and started to give me this talk about you being a bad influence who’d get me in trouble, but I told him we were just planning to meet up and discuss how we’d done on our exams.”

“He thinks I’m a bad influence?” Harry asked, surprise clear in his voice.

“You did get a detention for fighting,” Hermione said delicately. “And he blames you for getting me involved with Norbert.”

“That’s fair,” Harry conceded. A few minutes later, when they were almost to the third floor corridor, he asked “I guess this means McGonagall didn’t believe you?”

Hermione sighed. “She was really surprised I knew about the Stone, but you were right. She’s like Hagrid, absolutely sure it’s safe. Thinks me worrying about it is leftover exam stress.”

They almost got caught, when Peeves heard them whispering, but Harry did a reasonable impression of the Bloody Baron to scare him away. Once inside the room with Fluffy, Hermione whipped the cloak off of them while Harry pulled out his flute, but it was unneeded. The monstrous canine was fast asleep, an enchanted harp playing softly in one corner.

“He really is here, then,” Hermione said, staring down at the trap door that was still open.

“So are we,” Harry said. He caught Hermione’s eye. “We’ve beaten Snape’s potions final, McGonagall’s transfigurations exam, and a mountain troll. I think we can beat a measly dark lord.”

Hermione laughed, then clapped a hand over her mouth. Harry grinned at her triumphantly, and lit up his wand and stuck his head down the trap door. “No ladder. We gotta jump for it.”

Hermione took Harry’s hand, and leapt into the dark.

~~~

It’s just one more exam, Harry told himself, as he and Hermione made their way closer to the Stone, and possibly Voldemort. You’ve studied for this all year, you can do it. If he thought of it like an extension of their practicals, the protections around the Stone didn’t seem so scary. Mostly he didn’t want to think about what might be waiting for them at the end. Was it a teacher he’d learned from? A student he’d seen every day in the Great Hall? Or the wizard who had murdered his parents?

Nearly being killed by plants had been an inauspicious start, but the room full of flying keys had lifted Harry’s spirits. It was wonderful to be back on a broom. The giant chess set bolstered his confidence further. Once Harry had figured out that the white pieces could only plan two moves ahead, the match had gone swiftly. It wasn’t like he’d been trying to beat Adrian or Percy, who could watch his face and modify their strategy based on his reactions. It wasn’t exactly an easy match, but it wasn’t impossible.

The unconscious troll had been the nastiest surprise; Hermione had shrieked when she saw it, and Harry stepped in front of her. Slowly, watching it for any movements, they had inched around the massive body and into the next room.

Now Harry watched nervously as Hermione paced in front of a table holding numerous bottles. Being trapped by oddly colored flames was worrisome, and the clue for getting out being written on presumably flammable paper did not help Harry’s nerves. Riddles had not been in their curriculum, but Hermione just waved a hand and called it a “logic puzzle”. Eventually, her face brightened, and she stopped pacing.

“I’ve got it!” Hermione pointed out two bottles, explaining that the tiny one let the drinker forward, to whatever lay ahead, while the larger one let you back out. Admit defeat and retrace your steps. Her face fell as she realized the small bottle barely held enough for one person to drink.

“I’ll go forward,” Harry said quickly. He looked at the bottle, thinking of housemates who’d run out of the room if they caught so much of a whisper of the name ‘Azkaban’. Of Tracey Davis, raised by relatives even more distant than the Dursleys. Of Adrian Pucey, chasing after some first year she’d barely known a week because she thought he’d been cursed, yet terrified he might tell anyone she still talked to her own mother. “We can’t…we can’t let him come back.”

“Harry…” Hermione said, and then flung her arms around him. He heard Hagrid’s voice in his head, saying that Lily Potter must have taken off Euphasia Pershore’s leg to protect someone. Hugging Hermione back desperately, he thought, I think I know how she felt, now. He’d never needed the Mirror of Erised to see his parents, really. Just a regular one.

“You’re brave enough for Gryffindor,” Hermione told him. Harry laughed, and was struck by a sudden thought. He pulled back, holding onto her shoulders.

“Gryffindor…Hermione, I know McGonagall didn’t listen, but what about the rest of your house? If you told them about Voldemort being in the forest, and how someone was ahead of us down here, would they listen?

“I’ll make them listen,” Hermione said, chin sticking out. “…there’s a lot of the go-back potion in there. You could come with me.”

Harry shook his head. “There’s no time. I can at least distract whoever’s in there, hold him back while you get help.”

“I’ll be quick,” she assured him, then blinked, remembering something. “I nearly forgot, I borrowed Hedwig,” she added.

“What?”

“I sent her with a letter to Dumbledore,” Hermione explained. Hedwig was fond of her, after all the times Hermione had accompanied Harry to the owlery and made much of her, so Harry wasn’t surprised that Hedwig had accepted direction from her. “I couldn’t stop trying just because Professor McGonagall didn’t believe me, could I? Even if Dumbledore thinks we’re silly kids too, at least he’ll know we’ve gone after it and follow us once he’s back, and then he’ll see, won’t he?”

“Hermione,” Harry said. “That was brilliant. You’re…you’re cunning enough for Slytherin.”

“Thank you,” Hermione said. She hugged him once more, then took a swift gulp from the larger bottle, and vanished back through the flames.

Harry took a deep breath. This might be the last protection for the Stone, or there might be further enchantments ahead. He rolled up the sleeves of his robe, and readied his wand. Another deep breath, and he drank from the tiny bottle.

Alone, Harry stepped through the fire.

Chapter Text

“He’s going to wake up soon, isn’t he?” Hermione paced outside the hospital wing. Her requests to go inside had been rebuffed firmly by Madam Pomfrey twice so far.

“Professor Dumbledore seems to think so,” Pucey said from behind a copy of the Daily Prophet. She was sitting on the floor across from the door, leaning against the wall, long legs stretched against the stones. Hermione had already tripped over her once.

“It’s been three days,” Hermione said.

“Well, killing a teacher with your bare hands takes a lot out of you,” Pucey said in a reasonable tone, as though discussing something as mundane as potions ingredients. Hermione shuddered. All of Gryffindor had seen Professor Quirrell’s shiny, blistered body as he was levitated out of the Stone’s chamber for a proper burial. The ones at the front of the mob had actually heard Harry screaming, before Dumbledore reached the chamber and forcibly separated the two.

 Pucey hadn’t been there, the Slytherin dungeons being far enough away from both the Gryffindor tower and the third floor corridor that none of them had heard the commotion, but the news was all over the school. That first day, when everyone was sending Harry candy and flowers and “Get Well Soon!” cards, Hermione had been mobbed for details of their fight through the protections.

She was heartily sick of talking about it, by now. It didn’t help that with Harry’s invisibility cloak hidden in her pocket, Hermione was constantly reminded of the parts of the story she couldn’t tell.

“Granger,” Pucey said. Hermione paused; the older student had actually flipped down the newspaper to look at her. She spoke slowly, now. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

~~~

Harry blinked his way slowly back into the waking world. Everything felt heavy, as though lead were coating his limbs. Above him, the ceiling of the hospital wing solidified, and Harry frowned blearily. What was he doing back here again…?

“Voldemort!” Harry gasped, and next to him, someone began to make soothing noises. Harry ignored them, struggling to sit up. “He’s in the castle, Quirrell brought him in, we’ve got to–”

“I assure you,” the soothing voice said, one hand firmly pressing Harry back down against the pillows. “That Voldemort is no longer in this castle. Nor is Professor Quirrell. You did quite well, Harry. We’re very proud of you.”

Harry let himself be settled, and looked up at the speaker. Professor Dumbledore was sitting next to his hospital bed, wearing the same mixture of concern and pride he had that night over Christmas break, when Adrian had followed him to the Mirror of Erised. Past him, candy and flowers were heaped upon the bedside table. Harry ignored them, gaze returning to the Headmaster.

He had so many questions, they piled up behind his tongue, fighting to spill over. What had happened after he blacked out? When did Dumbledore return? Had Hedwig reached him? Who sent all that stuff on the table? “Is Hermione all right?” Harry finally blurted out.

“Miss Granger is perfectly fine, and eager to talk to you,” Dumbledore said. “The rest of the school is as well, as you can see.” He gestured to the pile of candy and flowers. “It would appear that Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw are quite keen to make up for missing the action. I must admit, while I was concerned about what I might find upon my return to the school, the sight of the entire Gryffindor house charging down the stairs was not one I had expected. It seems Miss Granger can be quite persuasive, when she puts her mind to it.”

Harry grinned at the thought, and then the other questions pushed themselves forward. Dumbledore seemed quite content to answer anything Harry might think of. What happened to the Philosopher’s Stone? It had been destroyed after the struggle. What would happen to Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel? They had already begun to finalize their affairs and prepare to destroy the Stone before this week’s events had transpired; this was not the first time the Stone had nearly fallen into dangerous hands, and the Flamels were quite tired of the fuss around it. Where was Quirrell? Dead. And Voldemort? Fled. Had Hedwig reached Dumbledore? No, he had already turned around on his own. It had been Dumbledore who sent him the invisibility cloak, hadn’t it? Yes. Were they all in trouble for breaking curfew?

Dumbledore actually chuckled, when Harry asked that. “No, Harry. Though I am sure the teachers and Mr. Filch would like me to remind you that this is an exception, and not a precedent for further rule breaking.”

Harry nodded somewhat absently, feeling the arms of sleep reaching for him again. A question he hadn’t quite had the nerve to ask yet was still nagging at him “Sir,” Harry said quietly. “Quirrell killed all those unicorns for Voldemort. So…why couldn’t he kill me, too?”

“He very nearly did,” Dumbledore said gravely. Harry frowned, and the Headmaster continued with a sigh. “After your detention with Hagrid, did you learn why it is so rare for someone to drink unicorn’s blood?”

“It curses you,” Harry said.

“And why is that?”

“Firenze said it was because unicorns are…are pure and defenseless, and killing them is monstrous.” His face scrunched up, and he looked at the Headmaster in disbelief. “You’re not saying I’m like a unicorn, are you? I’m not.”

“No, Harry, you have proven quite capable of defending yourself,” Dumbledore said, smiling. “You are, however, protected by something as pure.” He gently touched the lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead.

Harry tried to blink back the tears brought up by the reminder of his parents’ deaths, and his next question came out as a whisper. “He said my mum died for me. That he wouldn’t have killed her, if she’d just…gotten out of the way.”

“Yes,” Dumbledore said. “Her love for you was strong and true, and completely incomprehensible to Lord Voldemort. Her love protected you unto, and into, death. Quirrell, willing to do so much evil for power, was unable to touch you without agony.” Dumbledore leaned back in the hospital chair. “Unfortunately, it seems that touching someone willing to share his very self with Voldemort’s essence was equally agonizing for you, my boy, though thankfully not as destructive.”

Harry looked down at his unmarked hands, remembering the blistering red which had appeared on Quirrell. He shuddered. Dumbledore patted his shoulder reassuringly, and rose.

“I am afraid you do need rest,” he said. “And if I keep you up much longer, Madam Pomfrey may take matters into her own hands.”

“Professor Dumbledore?” Harry asked, before the Headmaster could step away. “Why did my mum need to protect me? Why did Voldemort even want to kill me?”

“I am afraid I cannot tell you that, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “You will learn some day, I promise you. But…not now.”

Harry sighed, but nodded, and finally fell back asleep.

~~~

Eventually Harry was able to convince Madam Pomfrey to let Hermione and Pucey in. Hermione nobly resist the urge to spring another hug on him, seeing how carefully he was holding his head up against the pillows, and wincing a little at the bright lights. She settled for squeezing his hand. Pucey started to reach out to ruffle his hair from habit, but changed course to pat his shoulder at the last minute instead.

“I can’t believe you actually got all the Gryffindors,” Harry told Hermione admiringly, when they had settled down into the chairs by his bed.

“Well, I caught all the Weasleys together, that really helped,” Hermione said, blushing. Neville had been with Ron when she’d found them, and actually raced off to gather the rest of the Gryffindor first years for her.

“Smart,” Pucey  said, nodding. “Everyone knows Percy’s a stuffed shirt about rules, so if you got him to believe you everyone would know it was serious.”

“He’s not that bad,” Hermione said, and both Harry and Adrian snorted. Hermione rolled her eyes and turned towards Harry. “You already heard what I did after we split up. What happened to you in there, Harry?”

“Got the Stone out of the Mirror before Quirrell could, tried to keep him from grabbing it out of my pocket before Dumbledore could get there,” Harry said, shrugging.

“Wait,” Pucey said, frowning. “Mirror? Not…that mirror?”

Harry nodded. “Quirrell kept seeing himself giving the Philosopher’s Stone to Voldemort, but the Mirror didn’t do anything, until he dragged me over to it and I thought about just, you know, hiding the Stone. I think that was Professor Dumbledore’s protection for it.”

“Son of a bitch.” Pucey let out a long string of complicated swearwords, and Hermione made a mental note to look some of them up later. “That sneaky old bastard must have bewitched it to only give up the Stone to someone who didn’t want to use it.”

“I don’t think you really ought to be talking about the Headmaster that way,” Hermione said, frowning.

“I can when he’s a liar,” Pucey said, but she still looked nervously over her shoulder to make sure Madam Pomfrey was out of earshot.

“He didn’t really lie, though,” Harry said reasonably. “I mean, the Mirror was moved. Just, you know, from that one room, into the Stone’s chamber. We assumed he meant out of the castle.”

Pucey crossed her arms and slouched back in the stiff hospital chair, but didn’t protest further. Harry turned to Hermione. “We were right about him sneaking Voldemort into the castle,” Harry told her. “He was sticking out the back of Quirrell’s head and yelling at him to kill me. He’d been there nearly all year, I think.”

Hermione felt ill at the thought, but Pucey actually laughed.

“We better tell the Weasley twins to watch themselves if You-Know-Who ever does come back,” she said eventually, wiping away a tear. There was a slight tinge of hysteria in her voice, which Hermione diplomatically didn’t point out. And Harry said she wasn’t discrete!

“They had those enchanted snowballs chasing Quirrell this winter, remember?” Pucey went on. “Kept getting him right in the back of the turban. Oh, we can’t ever let him come back to power now, he didn’t sound the sort to take snowballs to the face well.”

~~~

Harry woke from a perfectly normal nightmare, no visions of family, no pain in his scar, and sat bolt upright in the hospital wing bed.

I forgot to add the beetroot!” he whispered hoarsely into the darkness. “It’s going to explode!

“Go ‘ack to sleep, firstie,” Adrian mumbled from nearby. Startled, Harry looked over. Madam Pomfrey had chased Hermione and Adrian out after around an hour, insisting Harry needed rest. They’d barely had time to tell him about the Ravenclaw/Gryffindor Quidditch match he’d missed. Yet there was Adrian, tilted back in the rickety little chair, rubbing at one eye.

“What are you doing here?” Harry asked quietly.

“Came back after dinner,” Adrian said, covering a yawn. “Told Madam Pomfrey that Professor Snape wanted me to keep an eye on you.”

“…does he?”

In the moonlight coming in through the window, Harry saw Adrian shrug. “Dunno. Don’t care. I think the Headmaster’ll back me up if she calls my bluff.”

Harry wiggled back into the pillows, still sitting up. The nightmare was receding from his mind, but he knew he was too agitated to get back to sleep. His wand was on the bedside table, so he grabbed it and lit up the candelabra there as well, hoping Madam Pomfrey wouldn’t wake up. Adrian made a small noise of protest at the sudden light, and leaned forward, dropping the front legs of the chair back down.

“Here,” Adrian said, after they’d sat in silence for a long moment, watching the candle flames dance over the hospital bed sheets. She pulled the small travel chess set from the depths of her robe. “Let’s see if I’m better than McGonagall.”

Harry perked up at the sight of the little red and black magnets. Something to do. “It wasn’t really like a proper match,” Harry told Adrian, as they got the pieces set up. “They were all reaction, no strategy.”

Two games later, when Adrian had checkmated him, Harry impulsively brought up something that had been puzzling him. “You never saw into the Mirror, did you?” Harry asked, while they were resetting the board for another round. “Back over Christmas?”

Adrian’s hands stilled over the red pieces. “No,” she said, after a long enough pause that Harry was worried he’d overstepped. “Wrong angle from the door.”

Harry nodded. He’d thought as much, since he’d had to come all the way into the room and position himself just so to see his family behind him.

“Can I ask another question?”

Adrian held out an open hand over the board. “Never took back that offer to explain all this wizarding weirdness, did I, firstie?”

Harry grinned. He knew such a personal question was a far cry from the cultural oddities Adrian had talked him through over Christmas break, but he recognized permission to ask when he heard it.

“Why are you so scared of the Mirror?”

“It driving people mad isn’t enough?” Adrian asked, sighing. She rubbed the back of her head. “Your heart’s desire says a lot about you, doesn’t it? And…I can’t stand the thought of knowing, for sure.” She let out a small, bitter laugh, slumping forward and letting her hands dangle between her knees, looking away from Harry, into the dark. “Some Slytherin I am, huh? House of ambition, and I can’t even stand to find out what it is I really want.”

Unable to think of a response, Harry reached out and patted Adrian’s knee. She patted his hand absently back, and set the last chess piece back on the board. Silently, they took up another game.

Hours later, the candles guttering low and the moon long gone, Harry clicked the little magnetic rook down. “Checkmate,” he said, barely able to stifle a yawn. Madam Pomfrey wasn’t going to be happy with him staying up all night.

Adrian grinned across the board at him. Realization at what he’d done dawned moments before the sun itself did.

“Well played, Harry.”

~~~

Hagrid engulfed Harry and Hermione in an enormous hug before helping them into the boats that led across the lake. He’d felt awful about everything to do with the Philosopher’s Stone, and sobbed all over Harry while trying to apologize in the hospital wing. It turned out Harry needn’t have tried to keep Norbert secret from Dumbledore after all, because Hagrid had told the Headmaster everything himself, fully expecting to be sacked.

“It turned out all right, Hagrid,” Harry had tried to reassure him. And it really had; Harry was mostly fine, the Stone couldn’t be used by Voldemort, and Hagrid had not, after all, been sacked. Instead Dumbledore had given him the day off to complete a project Hagrid had quietly been working on since the early spring; owling the Potters’ old school friends, and getting photographs of them. The resulting scrapbook was now the most precious thing Harry owned, wrapped up carefully in his school robes, and nestled into his trunk.

Harry watched the castle get smaller and smaller as the boats glided over the water. It was going to be very strange, going back to Privet Drive after this year. He wondered if he’d be able to find any grass snakes in Aunt Petunia’s garden; he never had before, but, well, you never knew your luck.

“I can’t believe we’re not allowed to practice magic over the summer,” Hermione huffed.

“Do you really want to imagine the Weasley twins doing magic?” Harry asked. “And no teachers around to put the fires out?”

“I’m sure their parents could handle it,” Hermione said, but without much conviction. Harry stuck his arm over the side of the boat, and let his fingers trail through the water. Somewhere at the edge of its depths, he imagined the fire in the Slytherin common room being put out.

“We won,” Draco was moaning to Vincent and Gregory, as they all climbed out on the far shore. “The cup was ours! And then Dumbledore had to go and give Gryffindor all those points for breaking curfew.”

Harry didn’t bother swallowing his laugh at that, letting it ring out across the boarding station for the Hogwarts Express. During the End of Year feast, Dumbledore had given Harry and Hermione twenty points each for their actions, a number Harry was sure Dumbledore had chosen to match the points Harry had lost earlier that year, when he took that detention for Patil. Then the Headmaster had awarded every Gryffindor student a single point each, for “upholding the ideals of their house, and coming to the aid of their school at great personal risk.”

“You could have more house pride,” Draco muttered, as Harry and Hermione walked past him to the gleaming Hogwarts Express. Harry supposed maybe he should feel disappointed, losing the house cup in his first year, but instead he felt quite happy. Adrian had elbowed him as the decorations around the Great Hall changed from silver and green to gold and crimson.

“Look at the seventh years,” Adrian had said with a grin. All around the hall, not only were Gryffindors cheering, but the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws were as well. The older students looked particularly ecstatic. “Slytherin’s won the cup six years in a row. I bet they didn’t think they’d ever see another house get it, until your friend roused the lions.”

Now Adrian stuck her head into Harry and Hermione’s train compartment. “I’ll be up front with the rest of the team,” she told them. “You’re trying out next year, right firstie?”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “And I thought you said you’d start using my name I ever beat you at chess.”

“I said we’d see,” Adrian said. She ruffled his hair, patted Hermione on the shoulder, and loped off down the train corridor. Hermione seemed quite pleased by the shoulder pat.

Lisa Turpin and Anthony Goldstein soon joined them in the compartment, and half the train ride was spent companionably playing Exploding Snap. Neville Longbottom and Ron Weasley stopped by for a while, before Longbottom’s toad Trevor made another bid for freedom and they went chasing after it.

“You’ll send Hedwig with letters, won’t you?” Hermione said suddenly, as they were pulling into the station. “We’ve got that summer homework, after all, and we’ll need to compare notes.”

“We don’t even have our books yet,” Harry pointed out, but seeing her face drop, quickly added, “of course I’ll write, Hermione. Besides, Hedwig’s going to miss you if I don’t.” Hedwig hooted loudly at this, causing Hermione to beam in delight.

Despite seeing all the students milling about the platform in Muggle clothes, waiting to be let back into King’s Cross proper, it was still stunning to step back through the barrier and see so many people running around in jeans, capris, button-up shirts and tees. Most striking of all were the Dursleys; the skirt of Petunia’s floral dress was stiff from ironing, a sharp contrast to the flowing school robes Harry was used to. Vernon wore his usual full suit despite the summer heat, simmering with rage at the wizarding parents around him who’d mismatched Muggle clothing in their poor attempts at blending in. Harry didn’t think he had any right to judge, as Dudley still proudly wore his Smeltings uniform; a maroon tailcoat paired with orange knickerbockers would have fit right in in Diagon Ally.

“What are you smirking at, boy?” Vernon snapped. Hermione, reuniting with her parents, looked over in surprised concern at his tone.

“Nothing,” Harry said. He waved to Hermione as they parted ways. “Write soon!”