Actions

Work Header

Hermione Granger and the Serpent's Renaissance: No bed of roses

Chapter Text

...

-~sSs~-

Year 2: No bed of roses?

-~sSs~-

"You've reached the home voicemail of Vernon Dursley, senior manager at Grunnings. For business-related messages, please leave your inquiry with my secretary."

"Hi Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, this is Dr. Granger from the dental clinic, calling to remind you of your son's Saturday appointment from 4:30 to 5:30. On a more personal note, my daughter tells me she had the pleasure of meeting your nephew at school. We'd love to have him over for a stay, if that's agreeable with you. Have a nice day!"

 

 


At the clinic, a startled secretary nursed her ringing ear as she promptly cancelled Dudley Dursley's Saturday afternoon appointment, and all future ones as well. 'Good riddance. The boy never brushes his teeth anyways.'

 

 


"Hello, am I speaking to Mrs. Dursley?"

"Are you a telemarketer? I don't recognize your number." The voice sounded familiar, and Mrs. Dursley didn't want to accidentally hang up on one of her friends.

"Oh no, Petunia. I'm using my personal phone number, you see. This is Olivia Granger -"

Beep... Beep...

"Hello? Petunia?"

Beep... Beep...

 

 


"You've reached the home voicemail of Vernon Dursley, senior manager at Grunnings. For business-related messages, please leave your inquiry with my secretary."

 

 


"You've reached the home voicemail of Vernon Dursley, senior manager at Grunnings. For business-related messages, please leave your inquiry with my secretary."

 

 


"You've reached the home voicemail of Vernon Dursley, senior manager at Grunnings. For business-related messages, please leave your inquiry with my secretary."

"Hi Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, this is Olivia Granger again. I understand your unwillingness to talk to me, and I've a feeling you're ignoring calls from this number, though I assure you that your alarm is unfounded. My husband and I are ordinary people like you, after all. We just happen to be experiencing a similar... situation -"

(The message was cut off, because Petunia Dursley had already pressed the delete button.)

 

 


"You've reached the home voicemail of Vernon Dursley, senior manager at Grunnings. For business-related messages, please leave your inquiry with my secretary."

"...Ah, so sorry for breaking up my message into more than one recordings. I was afraid you might've deleted my first message before you could hear me out... As I was saying, I'd like permission to invite your nephew to my home from July the 30th to August the 14th -"

(Petunia Dursley had once again pressed the delete button.)

 

 


"You've reached the home voicemail of Vernon Dursley, senior manager at Grunnings. For business-related messages, please leave your inquiry with my secretary."

"...It must be tiring for you to look after two children, especially when little Dudley still needs so much attention! Surely a small break would be nice, no? And adjusting to your nephew's circumstances must've been so overwhelming - we went though the same thing last year. Why don't we, er, talk sometime so that we can complain together, Petunia? Anyways, call me back on my home phone! This thing has to be kept strictly secret, as you understand."

 

 


It was a testament of a combination of two dentists' patience and professionalism, their expertise in coaxing children and childish people, and Olivia Granger's in depth knowledge of Petunia Dursley's love for gossip that, on July 30th, the Grangers were allowed to pull up on the driveway of 4 Privet Drive.

"Honestly," Olivia Granger admitted with a pained expression on their way there, "extracting your friend from the Dursleys is like pulling teeth!"

"Pulling their son's teeth." Hermione's dad, Jean Granger, laughed. "We've worked with loads of stubborn children, but Dudley... He kicks me every time, and he's quite strong I might add."

"Oh yes... Mrs. Dursley is most proud of him. Said he's growing up to be just like his father."

"It must've been tough on your friend Harry though," murmured Jean, "He has to put up with them, and I suspect they didn't take to magic very well."

"Many people wouldn't," Hermione hugged him from the backseat, "I'm so glad you and mum don't mind, though." Moments like these reminded her of how fortunate she was to grow up with parents she loved and respected so much - in both her lives.

See, it was easy for people to take acceptance for granted, but Hermione was very thankful that her parents loved her enough to accept her peculiarities. She had many of them: Magic, two wands, a sizable stash of rare books, and the fact that she'd already lived once as Dark Lord Salazar Slytherin and was currently working to - to reinstate herself, for a lack of a better word. Her parents didn't know about the last three yet, of course. She didn't want to push their limits.

But back to the immediate objective: Give Harry Potter a break from Privet Drive because she promised last year that she'd try. "Maybe they'll be more tolerant once they talk to you, though."

"Ah, we hope so," smiled Olivia, "I thought Petunia would be happy to meet someone else that knows about magic, when I first called... But judging from her reaction I'm guessing her family's afraid to be seen as abnormal because of Harry. I guess that's where we can help, to show that we can still live like ordinary people."

"Yup," Hermione teased, "just don't mention that you tried to buy a moving portrait! And you don't want to mention anything related to snakes, because Harry told me that they - er - had a pretty bad experience with one."

Upon arrival, they were warily greeted by Petunia Dursley, a tall thin woman with rather long features, who eyed her suspiciously as if trying to pick out something freaky, or out of place. Hermione smiled back charmingly, knowing that she would never find any.

"Good morning, Mrs. Dursley. My name is Hermione Granger. It's a pleasure to meet you," she offered her hand, which Mrs. Dursley gingerly shook. Hermione pretended not to notice that she almost looked relieved when nothing weird happened at their contact. "Oh, mum brought you something."

"Vidal 1990," Olivia Granger proffered the bottle to her with an equally charming smile. It had been helpful that mum knew Mrs. Dursley's taste in ice wine very well, from her copious amount of gossip about her husband's business dinners. "Thought you'd like it."

The wine seemed to have fulfilled its purpose, because their hostess blushed in happy surprise and shifted her body to allow them inside. From there, Hermione knew that the battle was won. In all her past experiences with explaining magic to the select muggleborn families that didn't seem inclined to lynch their children, Salazar had always been treated like a dangerous specimen. Mum and Dad, however, can speak to the Dursleys as one of their own. It was an added bonus that both Dr. Grangers were excellent conversationalists, mum more so than dad, and exceptionally good at calming people. Soon enough, the adults were all sitting on the sofa sipping wine, while exchanging stories about how they found out about magic. Petunia confessed, a little shamefully, that they'd locked all of Harry's school things away out of fear, and that they hadn't even dared to use the word "m-magic" up to now. The last time they'd dealt with wizards was not pleasant at all, they complained. A giant man had been sent to burst down their door, for Christ's sake!

Olivia and Jean gently assured them that for the most part, aside from taking their daughter to downtown London for shopping from time to time, their life hadn't changed at all. "There really isn't any cause for alarm, Petunia. We were so surprised when the lady who came for Hermione arrived through our fireplace, but I think they're just doing those things to prove to you that magic is real. Normally, magic hides itself well, she said. They're decent people, and you won't see much of them anyways."

"Wizards just live a bit differently," Hermione added when the conversation paused, as Petunia was looking a little wistful. Perhaps she was jealous of her sister? "Things they do with magic, we do with science. They never invented pencils, for example, because they can use magic to erase the ink." While the magical world had far greater potential than muggles can attain, which was why she still strongly believe that magic must be kept a secret, the living standards in the two societies were comparable. Petunia shouldn't have to feel that her sister lived a better life than her.

This cheered Petunia up significantly, enough for her to invite her nephew downstairs to sit with them. Harry was, of course, ecstatic to find Hermione here. "Sally!" He grinned, all apprehension regarding his aunt's possibly unusual niceness gone.

"Ah, still using that nickname from preschool and primary?" Olivia raised an eyebrow teasingly.

"You should've expected this when you named me Hermione, mum." Hermione rolled her eyes, "None of my classmates then could pronounce it. Heck, they were going to choose something for me if I don't, and that definitely won't be good." If her memory served, they'd gotten as far as suggestions like "Twinkie" or "Pinkerbell" before she'd stopped them, proposed "Sal" and settled with "Sally".

"I like it," It seemed that Petunia had warmed up enough to pay her a compliment, for which Hermione was glad. "It's sophisticated. Much better than something common."

This launched her parents into a discussion on Shakespeare's various works, which turned out to be another common ground between them and Mrs. Dursley. Petunia adored the romances such as Romeo and Juliet. Vernon Dursley didn't care much for plays or literature, and so the conversation eventually shifted to the economy and hiring practices. At the end of the surprisingly pleasant afternoon, Hermione and Harry packed Harry's school things into the back of their trunk and waved goodbye to a smiling Mrs. Dursley. "She's going to try to be nicer to you," Hermione whispered to him, "Try not to hate her too much, please?" If he was going to live with them for the next few summers as well, then his happiness depended on it.

Harry was still gaping. "She actually smiled at me! Sally, your mum and dad are brilliant!"

"We do what we can, Harry," Olivia Granger blushed, "We've known your aunt for some time, and we've gotten rather good at talking if I may say so myself."

"It also helped that Hermione briefed us on what to say and what not to say before we came," admitted Jean.

Now would be a good time to change topics. "Oh, Harry! How come you didn't reply to my letters? I almost thought I had the wrong address!"

"I didn't get any letters," Harry frowned, confused.

"That's odd... Mercury returned without the letter both times. Someone must've untied it, right?" Hermione realized that she may have to explain her owl, now that Harry was here. Mercury was the owl she'd purchased with her own gold and hidden away at the end of last summer. Her parents hadn't asked too much about it, but hopefully Harry wouldn't say much either.

If they did ask, she was still deciding between "Christmas present" and "I found it when it was injured". Now, how to distract them from the subject of her owl... "So you haven't been receiving mail from anybody at all? Maybe someone's trying to cut you off?"

"Maybe Malfoy's doing this as a joke," Harry wondered, remembering his archenemy from school. "I don't see how though."

"I've read," - and affirmed - "that ravens and falcons are good at intercepting letters." They were not always gentle with the victim owl though. Imperio worked better, much of the time.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Malfoy's bought a whole zoo just because he can," Harry muttered. "Er, Malfoy's this insanely rich kid from our school, Mr. Granger. He brags about it all the time,"

"Oh yeah, Harry, where do you want to go for your birthday tomorrow?" Hermione asked, reminded by the mention of zoo. "The clinic is closed tomorrow, and mum and dad said they'll have time to take us somewhere."

Harry protested, saying that they didn't need to trouble themselves, but Hermione's parents insisted. "Besides, Hermione's been cooped up all summer too," Mum said, "we wanted to take her somewhere anyways."

"Yeah!" Hermione chimed in, "If you don't choose, we'll have to choose for you, Harry." The zoo? No. Then they wouldn't be able to avoid the reptile house, and Hermione would rather that they didn't bring up the subject of snakes at all in front of Harry. The science center? She would be very happy to go there if Harry had the same interests.

"Well... I've always wanted to go to the beaches," Harry ventured.

"How about Lincolnshire, then?" Dad suggested. "It's close by, and it's quite beautiful."

Beaches? Beaches sounded nice... Wait. Lincolnshire?!

They eventually settled on a picnic at the beaches in the region now called Lincolnshire. Hermione nearly laughed at their choice of location. 'Well...' She looked forward to tomorrow with both curiosity and trepidation at what she might see. After all, she knew that area, and the fens adjacent to it, all too well. Home, for the first and last fifteen years of her first life...

"Here we are, Harry! Now, there's a boardwalk trail just to our left that we can do, and a good picnic spot just ahead. Hermione, I don't think we've gotten around to taking you here before either, so you'd probably like the nature walk... Ah, doesn't it feel so relaxing out by the beach, with the cool, fresh air blowing inland? It's all caused by the convection currents, of course..."

"Oh yes, I read about that last week, Dad," Hermione smiled and took in the familiar misty, green-gray tinted horizon before her with wide eyes. Throughout their visit, she tried not to reminisce too much, though this was far from easy. Although the landscape had certainly changed drastically, she could still vividly remember the waterlogged fields, the lapping waves within the estuary, the wooden houses of the village, the monastery far in the distance - That was still standing, sort of. Well, one wall of it was, and had been made a heritage site.

"Hey! The water feels amazing! Come, you kids should take off your shoes and have some fun - don't be shy! That's a good boy, Harry..."

Hermione watched her whooping dad and a giggling Harry kick water at each other. She remembered longing to splash in the water like that as a very young child, but having to stay indoors in fear of losing control of magic and being seen - accidental magic for a Slytherin can often be quite explosive, after all. She remembered riding through the fens, the horse's hooves sloshing through the wet grass. She remembered coming out to the shore sometimes on hot summer days, then having to duck away to avoid being dragged into the company of the muggle boys. She remembered talking to the snakes that lived in the vicinity, and teaching them why they should not bite unless necessary. She remembered tending to the garden of roses, that grew strong and flourished despite the leached and waterlogged soil.

And even now, she could swear she saw the shadow of a seemingly infallible stone castle just beyond the corner of her eye - Ah, who was she kidding? There was only empty grasslands there. Castle crumbled, roses wilted. No more, no less.

She'd expected as much before she came, but it was yet another crushing reminder. The once proud House Slytherin, that once seemed to stand as a bastion of the magical society, was no more. She knew she couldn't count on any of her dear cousins to uphold that position and descendants were out of question. She had left her legacy another way, through educating the masses. Evidently, she'd failed even then...

'But not all dead yet. Blaise, Theodore, Daphne and the others - many of them still remember our ideals to some extent. And I'm still alive, miraculous as that is, am I not?'

Upon returning to her current home, Hermione and Harry spent some time doing their summer assignments, which Harry hadn't had a chance to look at. Despite the large pile of unfinished work before him, he was grinning widely. "I've never done anything special for my birthday before. This is the best birthday ever! Well, finding out that I'm a wizard last year was brilliant too, but this is definitely right up there with it."

"Glad you're happy," Hermione smiled, concealing her distraction well. For some inexplicable reason, she had a constant feeling of being watched. Always something just beyond the corner of her eye... But why would anyone want to do that?

It was just nerves, probably. Besides, the wards she'd cast on herself while at school were still at full power, and she always kept her wand with her anyways.

Wishing Harry happy birthday again, she turned in for the night.

Chapter Text

Hermione was startled out of her sleep by an odd scuffling sound. It wasn't loud, and she doubted her parents would've heard a thing. She'd only noticed it because she'd always slept lightly, and because the sound was coming from the neighbouring room - Harry's room. Soundlessly, with her wand ready within her sleeve, she crept out of her room and carefully opened Harry's door.

An unkempt-looking house-elf was sitting at the foot of Harry's bed, staring at the boy with some amount of reverence. Harry seemed to have shrunk against the head of his bed, staring back with astonishment. Neither noticed her enter, even as she was standing at their side with her arms folded.

"Harry, what happened?"

"Sally!" Harry looked up, surprised. "That... That thing just appeared out of nowhere!"

"Dobby is Dobby, Harry Potter sir," the house elf pipped. "Dobby the house elf."

"Dobby," Hermione smiled at him gently. "It's good to meet you. Please tell us - quietly - why you're here?"

"Miss is kind to Dobby," the elf looked up at her gratefully, "Dobby has come to warn Harry Potter... Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts!"

"Why?" Harry yelped, alarmed. Hermione watched Dobby expectantly.

"There is a plot."

"What plot?" Harry pressed, but to his horror, Dobby began to hit his head on a lamp.

"Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby! Dobby cannot tell because master forbids, Harry Potter sir. Dobby will have to put his ears in the oven later for coming here, too, but he came anyways. Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts!"

"Your master makes you do that?" Harry exclaimed, picturing the punishment, "But that's awful!"

"No, Dobby must punish himself for disobeying his master, sir. Master usually lets Dobby carry on with it for a while. He finds it amusing - Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!" He began to hit himself again before Harry grabbed his flailing fists. "Dobby must not speak ill of his master," he explained.

"Were you about to expose your master's secrets?" Hermione asked understandingly. She had a feeling that the question "Is your master involved in the plot?" would've brought on another round of self-punishment.

Dobby nodded.

'So his master is involved in this. His master doesn't seem to be treating him very well either.' Not only was it morally offending, Salazar had always thought it was rather stupid of wizards to mistreat their house elves. How could they expect any loyalty from someone they abuse? How could they confidently entrust secrets to someone who despise them? How could they even feel safe eating food served by someone who would more than love to be rid of them?

"Dobby, are you able to tell us how you found out about this plot?"

Dobby shook his head. It seemed that this also concerned his master.

"Did you infer that Harry will be harmed by this plot after discovering it? Or did you know for sure?"

"Dobby guessed, Miss. But Dobby also knows for sure. All the house elves know that Harry Potter defeated He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!"

'Was that a hint?' "So this concerns the person who you now know as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?"

Judging from Dobby's inability to answer, that was a 'yes'.

"And you think that Harry would be safer if he does not return to Hogwarts?"

Dobby nodded again, vigorously. "Harry Potter must not return to Hogwarts!"

"You think the danger is within Hogwarts, then?" Hermione prodded. "I'm not asking you to tell me. I'm just asking for your opinion."

"Dobby cannot."

Definitely a 'yes', then. "A new danger, then? Something that wasn't there last year?"

"Not exactly, miss."

"An old one, then? Something that was dormant, but will ... reactivate again in the near future?"

Dobby nodded vigorously, eyes wide with relief. A sudden suspicion made Hermione narrow hers. "How old?"

"About ten centuries, miss. Or fifty years."

And by now she had a decent idea of what that "danger" might be.

Tom Marvolo Riddle, or Voldemort, would once again attempt to open the "chamber of secrets". As if he hadn't done enough.

'Well there's no bloody way that's going to happen again!' But why the sudden interest in the chamber of secrets? He didn't try to go near it last year - because he was afraid to get caught before he could steal the Philosopher's Stone. But what makes him so impatient about seeing Harry dead now? It wasn't as if Harry proved himself to be such a terrible threat last year that he would be forced to fight. Shouldn't his priority still be getting his body and power back? This did not make sense.

"Dobby, do you think He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will be inside Hogwarts this year?"

"Not He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, miss!" Dobby said, his eyes widening as if to give them another hint.

"Then who?" Harry demanded, a bit frustrated. Anticipating another round of head-banging, Hermione asked both of them to calm down. Dobby seemed to think that Voldemort and the Chamber of secrets would be involved, but Voldemort wouldn't be doing it in person?

"Can you tell me if you think the person - no, entity you now know as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will be inside Hogwarts this year?"

"Dobby cannot, miss."

Another yes? How could he be both inside the school and not? She had thought someone would be somehow acting on his behalf - not that she had any idea how that would work either.

Unless... There were two of him? Two pieces of soul, maybe?

She could hardly believe her luck! All summer she thought she'd have to research Tom Marvolo Riddle, then hopefully find a lead on where the horcrux might be. Knowing that it would be brought into the school certainly was convenient. Of course, she still had no idea what it was, but just knowing that it would be at school helped. But who had it? Dobby's master? She wanted to ask Dobby more, but saying any else would make both Harry and the elf suspicious. But maybe she could at least find out who the master was. It had to be an old family, or else a rich one, if they had a house elf.

"Dobby, let's play a muggle game called twenty questions. Is your master male or female?"

Dobby blinked in surprise, but was fortunately able to answer.

"Ohh, does he have light coloured hair, or dark?" Harry joined in.

"Long or short?"

...

Eventually, it became quite obvious who Dobby was working for.

"Does he have a peacock at his manor?"

Dobby nodded.

Harry and Hermione exchanged a look. Definitely Malfoy. "Dobby, thanks for the warning, but Harry needs to go back to school. It's the only way he'd going to learn to protect himself."

"You are kind, miss... But Harry Potter must promise not to go back to Hogwarts! It's for his own good!"

"I can't!" Harry told Dobby exasperatedly, "All my friends are there!"

"Friends who don't even write to Harry Potter?" Dobby said slyly, and Hermione suddenly realized where her letters went. Evidently, so did Harry, who flushed angrily.

"Hey, how do you know I haven't been getting letters - Give me back my letters!"

Harry made a grab for the letters, but Dobby simply shook his head sadly, exploded the lamp and apparated away. Five minutes later, Harry and Hermione balked at the letter from the ministry: 'Good day, Mr. Potter and Ms. Granger. One of you have been performing underage magic. This is a warning...'

"We're not expelled, right?" Harry asked with dread.

"No," Hermione assured him. That elf sure was annoying, though... And she couldn't even tell him to back off because there was no threat! But he had helped greatly by coming here, and she was grateful for that.

"I bet Malfoy sent him as a joke," Harry muttered. "He would do that."

Apart from the first day though, Harry's stay was very uneventful. Mum and Dad needed to go to work for six days a week, and Hermione and Harry spent most of their time reading and doing homework. Harry seemed a bit bored by this, but he was saved from the monotony by the letters from their friends. Neville and Harry wished each other a belated happy birthday, since their previous letters obviously never reached their intended recipients. Theo was surprised to hear that a house elf had been stopping his letters, and wondered why someone would do that. Daphne confirmed that Malfoy was the only one who invested in peacocks, for Merlin-knew-why. Blaise hoped Harry was having fun at Sal's house, and declared that he'd been trying one of the easy melodies from the Nocturne repertoire Sal had sent him despite the "no magic" rule. ("They can't tell if you're doing magic when you live in a magical household," Hermione explained. "Oh, that reminds me. I found this book on Nocturnes - magical music, that is - in a second-hand shop, and we thought it would be nice to learn. I made a copy for you too...")

And Ron confessed that he and his brothers had been hatching a plan to come and check on Harry if there was still no reply to his next letter. Harry and Hermione thought it was touching.

They'd also received their Hogwarts letter, and were surprised to see that the booklist was twice as long as last year. It turned out that half of the required readings were written by a wizard named Gilderoy Lockhart - apparently accounts of his adventures. Interesting character, Lockhart.

On the last day of Harry's stay, Mum and Dad dropped them off at Diagon Alley on their way to the clinic. It would be better not to ask the Dursleys to do it - they didn't want to push them too far. While Harry went to visit his Gringott vault, Hermione altered her appearance slightly before approaching the teller herself. "Good morning Griphook," she smiled, noticing how the goblin once again stiffened at the sight of her key, "I need to visit my vault, please."

She believed she heard him mutter "Of course, Slytherin," under his breath, but smiled innocently and didn't comment. She didn't need much from the vault this time - only three books that pertained to Horcruxes, which she carefully hid in one of the concealed inner compartments of her bottomless bag. Then she bid Griphook good day, and slipped away into Knocturne Alley. The peddlers once again started to leer at her, but a cold look of warning was enough to keep most of them from being bothersome. The shop owner of Borgin and Burkes snapped his head up to meet her eyes, the moment she opened his door. "Why, hello again, girl. I seem to remember seeing you jinx a couple of those bastards in some painful places last year this time."

"How did you know it was me?" She was wearing a different disguise, after all.

"Your manner of ... dealing with people is rather unique. We hardly see children here in the first place. And whenever we catch sight of one, they're either quivering with fear or swaggering around and boasting of their fathers." He sneered slightly as he finished. Hermione wondered if the Malfoys had been here not long ago.

"Anyone with a decent brain should've remembered you. It's a pity that this can't be said for those useless fools, though," he glanced out the window with distain, chuckling darkly. "I still find it hard to accept that we have to share a street with them... Anyways. Usually I don't waste time on entertaining children, but you're an interesting one, girl. You're welcome to look around."

She could see he was trying to figure out who her parents might be, but one of the biggest rules in Knockturne Alley seemed to be, "Don't ask questions." Nodding, she examined the rather intriguing collection of items in the shop, well aware that Mr. Borgins was taking this opportunity to watch her. The enchantment of items is especially useful for practitioners of the Dark arts, as it saves them the trouble of casting an tricky or dangerous spell more than once. In a way, it was risk reduction. Why risk botching a spell more than you need to - and this could potentially be disastrous with the dark arts - when you could cast it successfully once and allow your children's children to use it again and again?

Unfortunately, Arthur Weasley's new law, the way it was currently written, discouraged the enchantment of items. No doubt this would've made many old families very angry. Judging from the pile of items on the counter that seemed to be "new arrivals", the ministry was conducting raids as well. Knocturne Alley truly was a good reflection of the Dark Arts today: shoved into the shadows, underrepresented and under-regulated, but still surviving. Repressing a sigh, she left Mr. Borgins and returned to the sunny main street.

She met Harry, who'd brought the Weasley children along with him, in Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour at the pre-arranged time. Apparently they'd spent their whole morning waiting in line at Flourish and Blotts because Lockhart was signing books. Of course, this was before Lockhart spotted Harry and pulled him onstage despite his protests. Following this, Ron's dad got into a spectacular fist fight with Mr. Malfoy because of the new law, which ultimately resulted in all of them getting tossed out of the store.

"Is your dad ok?" Hermione asked with concern, secretly wishing that she'd been there for this last part. She'd wanted to see how Mr. Malfoy lost his temper enough to fight like a muggle.

"Just a black eye," Ron scooped at his ice cream. "So where have you been?"

"Around," Hermione gestured vaguely.

When everyone acquired all their school things, Hermione's parents returned Harry to his aunt and uncle's house. Mrs. Dursley, Hermione was happy to see, gave him a tiny smile in greeting. Harry smiled back slightly shakily in return. And the Grangers beamed, knowing that his summer would be a little more enjoyable from here on.

"See you on the train, Harry!"

Chapter Text

But somehow she didn't see Harry, and Ron for that matter, on the train, despite looking up and down the carriages for them.

'Were they on the train at all?' Hermione thought as she listened to Parvati and Lavender fawn over a large poster of Lockhart, their idol. Perhaps the elf, Dobby, actually did something? She appreciated his tenacity, though she dearly wished he would scale back on his efforts.

The professors would sort the problem out once they arrive, of course.

"And he'd announced that he's going to be our professor!" Parvati squealed, "He's done all these great things!"

Who? Lockhart? No wonder half the booklist consisted of his work.

"He sure didn't get the Witch Weekly Best Smiles Award for nothing," Lavender sighed dreamily.

"Oh yes, these are some adventures he had," Hermione agreed. She'd skimmed through the Lockhart books quickly to find out what he was like. His accomplishments were something to be proud of, as they did require some level of skills and cleverness. On top of that, the man certainly wrote good stories, and he certainly wasn't shy on praising himself. His expertise seemed to center around magical creatures, though that was a rather broad field in itself. She didn't know how good he was at duelling. His adventures didn't seem to involve encountering any conflicts with other wizards.

The Lockhart in the poster smiled toothily and winked at the girls. Lavender blushed and looked as if she might swoon.

"Just how famous is he in the magical world?" Hermione asked.

"Oh! Sometimes I forget you're a muggleborn," Parvati realized, then promptly started gushing happily. "He's a household name in England. Everybody knows him and his books! My mum adores him!"

"I can see why," Hermione smiled, knowing that she was expected to say something but not wanting to encourage them any further. If this was what she'd have to put up with in the girls' dorms from now on -

Lavender was about to say something, but was interrupted by the arrival of the food trolley. Hermione bought an amply amount of chocolate frogs, remembering how popular those were. Now stocked with sweets, Lavender and Parvati settled back into their seat to talk about Lockhart. Hermione excused herself to find Neville when it became clear that they weren't likely to talk about anything else any time soon. Hopefully he'd want to play chess.

Harry and Ron weren't at the welcoming feast either - it seemed that they definitely hadn't made it on to the train. But she didn't give them much thought at the moment, because the Sorting Hat had been brought out. Like always, its rim opened up:

"Sir Gryffindor liked jokes, Lady Hufflepuff liked songs,

and Lady Ravenclaw preferred subtle clues

But Lord Slytherin wished me to speak plainly,

and it's about time I do.

...

Hogwarts has four houses,

for four particular types of personalities

But each has a place in the world,

and each house its own glory.

...

Daring Gryffindor,

for the bold and brave

For you who want excitement,

and a life full of adventures.

...

Thoughtful Ravenclaw,

for the wise and studious

For a life seeking knowledge,

for whom knowledge is the greatest treasure.

...

Kind Hufflepuff,

for the content and happy

For a calm, peaceful life,

free of pain or misery.

...

Cunning Slytherin,

for the ambitious and competent

For you who want advancement,

and do what it takes to make it happen.

...

So put me on, don't be afraid!

and I'll tell you where you best belong

But remember that we must all be friends

for united we are strong."

There was applause all around, as well as some whispering among the older students. "That was a little unusual," Percy whispered to Hermione, who sat beside him, "Less trivia, more informative."

"If that's called speaking plainly, then Shakespeare's sonnets are news reports," Hermione muttered.

"That's as plain as it gets, I guess," Percy shrugged, "I do wonder what happened to my brother. I hope he hasn't gotten himself into detention before school's even started."

"I haven't seen him either," Hermione agreed. "It's a pity he's going to miss all this, and Ginny's sorting."

Soon enough, the little red-haired girl joined them at the Gryffindor table. She was very excited to be at school and with her brothers, though she looked a little disappointed that Harry was not at the table. Hermione wished Ginny didn't ask so many questions about him. It was beginning to remind her of Lavender and Lockhart.

Speaking of their new Defence professor, the man was currently wearing an flamboyant gold set of robes and seated at the High Table. He seemed to be taking especial care to show off his sparkling white teeth, and winking at the female students around the hall. The professors didn't look very happy with him, though. Hermione wondered if he'd had some sort of a history while he was at school... Or maybe they felt they were being trotted on?

After dinner, Hermione and the others returned to the common room, where they found Ron and Harry. It turned out that as Percy feared, they had gotten themselves detention already. And for flying and crashing Mr. Weasley's enchanted car, no less.

Hermione liked Mr. Weasley as a person, for the short time she'd seen him, but she thought he was being rather hypocritical. He was telling others they can't own enchanted objects, yet he had an enchanted flying car the whole time?

Ron also managed to break his wand, and both of them nearly got killed by the whomping willow. Hermione started to demand why they couldn't just wait for a professor to come and collect them, but apparently they'd already been lectured once by McGonagall, so she relented. Instead, she advised Ron to buy another wand soon, since his old one was pretty much useless now. The other Gryffindors didn't see a problem with their mode of arrival, though. They cheered and clapped the boys on the back for making such a spectacular entrance.

Once everyone had calmed down a bit, and Percy had stormed off to write to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley about what happened to the car, Hermione and Neville told Harry and Ron about the sorting and the hat's song. Ron clearly still wasn't used to this description of the four houses, but nodded in acceptance. Hermione smiled. The hat was still talking in rhymes, but at least now no house should be thought daft or bad by default.

Finally, Hermione went upstairs to the girls dormitories, where Parvati and Lavender were indeed discussing Lockhart and outlining his classes on their time tables in little hearts. She resolutely shut her curtains and went to sleep.

The next day, a large portion of the student body (predominantly female) could be seen admiring Professor Lockhart and asking him for autographs, which he graciously bestowed upon them. The exceptions were Ginny and a first-year named Collin Creevy, who directed the same sort of attention toward Harry instead, to her friend's embarrassment. The great Gilderoy Lockhart, however, turned out to be a bit of a dolt. He began the first class by passing out a ridiculously long "little quiz" about himself. ("What is Gilderoy Lockhart's favourite colour?") Hermione answered as well as she could, of course, and ended up getting a solid "2 out of 54". She couldn't have cared less.

Then the idiot let loose a cage of extremely annoying but by no means "dangerous" Cornish pixies, and actually had to flee the classroom because of them. The spell he'd invented, "peskipiksi pesternomi", did absolutely nothing, yet somehow he still dared to try to show it off. Lazily flicking her wand to freeze the pixies, Hermione wondered how a man like that could even survive any one of his conquests. Were they even real? Or was it all fiction?

Ron and Harry and all of the professors were openly disgusted by Lockhart, who miraculously didn't notice any of it. Blaise, Theo, and Daphne were much less vocal about the new Defence professor, but one could tell from their frequent snide comments about how his "'Travels with Trolls' must've turned him into their intellectual equal" (Daphne's words) that they didn't like him one bit. Hermione also noted proudly, and a bit enviously, that there were significantly fewer Lockhart fangirls at the Slytherin table than at the other houses.

"Either he's very good at making things up," they'd concluded during one of their library meetings, "or he's stealing other people's work. There's no way he did all these things he said he did."

"And he said he got a, what? Order of Merlin, 3rd class? For his accomplishments? Shame..."

"So who's re-enacting his werewolf stories in your class?" Harry asked, rolling his eyes.

"Goyle," Blaise smirked, "At least the class's entertaining, if it can't be instructional. What about in your class? Don't tell me he makes you do it?"

"Guilty as charged," Harry grumbled, "And the dolt thinks he's doing me a favour, too. He even wants me to answer his fanmails for detention!"

"Now that is truly awful," Daphne patted him on the back sympathetically, "but at least you'll learn not to be reckless next time." They didn't talk about the Weasleys' car. It would make more than one person unhappy, one way or another.

"He's going to make me play vampire next. I think I should bite him for dramatic effects," Harry mused.

Theodore considered that, before shaking his head. "Nah...Trolls can't taste too good."

They left the library with barely contained laughter, amid some not-exactly-well wishing hypothesizing of the scenario for Lockhart's early departure. So far, they ranged from fleeing the mayhem of the castle in the middle of the night to a humiliating public dismissal in the Great Hall at breakfast, which seemed to be Blaise's personal favourite.

The next morning, Hermione would quickly come to appreciate that Lockhart hadn't been fired as Blaise had been fantasizing the afternoon prior.

Something much more...fortuitous happened instead.

Chapter Text

Hermione went down to the Great Hall early in the morning as usual, book in hand, and was surprised to see that Ginny was also there, book in hand. She had a quill and an inkwell with her, and seemed to be making notes.

"Hi Ginny," Hermione greeted the younger girl warmly, "what are you reading?" Very few people woke up this early. So far, they and Percy were the only occupants of the Gryffindor table. Percy was currently sitting at the other end of the long table, head buried in his copy of the Prophet.

"Nothing," Ginny said a little too quickly, hurriedly shutting her the black book she was holding. In doing so, however, she allowed Hermione to see something that made her heart skip a beat.

On the corner of the front cover there was a name: T. M. Riddle.

"Not many people get up this early," Hermione said, distracting Ginny. Acting quickly, she wandlessly made a duplicate of the book beneath it and disillusioned the real one. Then, without moving a muscle, she levitated the now invisible book toward her. "It's pretty lonely here at this hour. I like to read over my notes for the day's classes before breakfast, but most people prefer to sleep in. Especially Ron."

Ginny snorted, putting away what she thought was her black book before it could draw more attention. "Yeah, especially Ron. He wouldn't get up until the sun's tanning his backside!"

Though she wanted nothing more than to examine Tom Marvolo Riddle's book immediately, Hermione placed her transfiguration text over it and read normally - well, appeared to read normally. The words were hardly registering. When an allowable amount of time had passed, she packed both books together into her bag and made a quick trip to the "Chamber of Secrets" that Riddle was so ironically determined to open. There, she removed the disillusionment and flipped through the book carefully. It was completely blank, and seemingly just another empty diary. The name of the owner and a superficial magical test, however, said otherwise.

This was the horcrux. And the enchantments that had been cast on it matched the theory that Voldemort had wanted his soul to possess, or else facilitate, someone to continue the work he'd started 50 years ago.

Hermione stood in the grand entrance hall of the chamber, thinking. Her first thought was to ask Esmeralda to destroy it immediately, but then she would be wasting an opportunity. She could learn something about Tom Marvolo Riddle, or Voldemort through this. Besides, how often would she get the chance to study, let alone experiment with, an actual, proper horcrux?

It would be better to keep the diary safe for the time being. Carefully, she permanently transfigured some parchment into a chest and deposited the diary inside. She then sealed the chest with various locking charms, warded it against spell damage and soundproofed it, before sticking the chest to the floor of the entrance hall in a corner. Even though she doubted the horcrux could hear or see, there was no way she was letting her "heir" into the chamber's interior.

Time to go to class, then? There was still a little bit of time before Defence Against the Dark Arts with the dolt.

'Wait. Come to think of it...'

Hermione steepled her fingers.

'That gives me an idea.'


"Good morning class! Today's lesson is about my book, Voyage with the Vampires. We'll be having another little skit, of course. Harry will, of course, help me demonstrate..."

Gilderoy Lockhart flashed his dazzling, award-winning, trademark smile around the class. He noticed, with great satisfaction, that Miss Pavarti and Miss Lavender sighed contently. Ah, yes, the world simply adored him. But of course, why shouldn't they? He was Gilderoy Lockhart, after all! Chuckling lightly at this, Gilderoy awarded the girls with a roguish wink.

Inside though, even he, Gilderoy Lockhart, couldn't help but feel a little nervous. When he agreed to take the teaching position at Hogwarts, it had been out of necessity. Well, sure, he didn't need the salary - why would he? His lovely fans would probably gift him anything he needed! And he would the graciously decline them, of course, saying that while he appreciated that they loved him, he was already well provided for, and they should try to take care of themselves more. And he wasn't that concerned about money, anyways. He lived off the attention, the love that his fans sent...

But he hadn't found a single lead for a good potential story these past years. The brilliant Gilderoy Lockhart couldn't be seen to sit around and do nothing, could he? He had to do something great to occupy his time until he could have another adventure. And what better to do than to devote his time to teaching at one of the best magical schools in the world, to help the next generation of young witches and wizards become almost nearly as great as himself? Especially since he would be tutoring Harry Potter, the boy-who-lived?

Except, now that he was here, the students actually want him to show them something useful, which was such a headache. He'd brought in those pixies, but those demented creatures simply made a mess of his beautiful class room and, more importantly, his portraits. It was a disaster! But what should he teach now? His stories should be enthralling enough, right? Why, of course they would be! He could see Miss Pavarti and Miss Lavender sitting on the edge of their seats, leaning forward and hanging onto his every word as he described how the Armenian wizard - how he froze the frightful vampire with a single spell - "Yes, that's it, Harry. That snarl was perfect," - and claimed victory! And though she was in the back of the class, Miss Hermione's eyes never left his face! He awarded all three girls his stunning smile for their attentiveness. Miss Pavarti and Miss Lavender blushed and giggled. Miss Hermione gave him an angelic smile in return - not as beautiful as his own, of course, but she certainly had potential.

But unfortunately, being the ever-perceptive man that he was, Gilderoy couldn't help but notice Mr. Finnigan and Mr. Thomas rolling their eyes at him, or Mr. Weasley yawning in the back. Well, perhaps he was being too suspecting. He must keep an open mind. He must try not to suffer the pain of overthinking and suspicion that comes with great intelligence! But still, what could he teach, if not his stories? Demonstrations were out of question - he would not suffer another round of the pixie disaster! And unfortunately, not all the students seemed to be interested in the skits. Perhaps Harry's acting skills needed work?

Gilderoy sighed. The boy still had a very long way to go. But then again, he couldn't expect everyone to be as perfect as himself!

When class ended, some of the students leapt out of their chairs and dashed out the door - too intimidated by the company of one so great as himself, he suspected, poor things. Others (such as Miss Pavarti and Miss Lavender) walked out slowly, hoping to be near him for as long as they could. Miss Hermione stayed behind, even when all her classmates had left.

'Oh dear,' Gilderoy chuckled to himself, 'hopefully the poor dear doesn't ask for something I can't give!'

"Professor," she began, "I hope I'm not taking up too much of your time, but..."

"Yes, my dear?" Gilderoy smiled, gently so that she would not be frightened. He ought to appear approachable, to all his fans.

"I found this empty book - it looks like a diary. But when I write something in it, it disappears! And I didn't know what to make of it, so I thought, 'I should give it to Professor Lockhart! He would know how it works, and what to do with it!'"

"Oh yes," Gilderoy was flattered by her faith in him, "you made the right decision to come to me, Miss Hermione. 5 points to Gryffindor! This diary could have some very dangerous spells on it, and should be carefully handled by someone who knows what they're doing... like myself!"

"Oh, thank you, sir!"

Gilderoy smiled after her, but more at himself, as she left his classroom, before contemplating the book on his desk. It was rather old looking, but still in good condition. And the elegant patterning on its spine certainly made up for its age. So intricate, so fancy...

On a whim, Gilderoy took out his lilac ink pot and his special peacock feather quill. He opened the book to the first page and signed, in large, fancy, loopy letters, 'Gilderoy Lockhart'.

To his surprise and slight disappointment (that was a beautiful signature!), his writing disappeared. A moment later, another line of writing, in black ink, appeared. The writing was even, gently sloping, somewhat forceful yet still languid, with an elegant flourish that made Gilderoy slightly jealous - but only slightly of course. It was hardly as rounded, hardly as exuberant, and definitely nowhere as eye-catching as his own.

Either way, it was definitely not his own handwriting.

'Hello, Gilderoy Lockhart,' it read.

'I am Salazar Slytherin.'

Chapter Text

"Good morning, class!" The Idiot, dressed in lilac today, beamed down at them with his obnoxious grin.

'Good morning my arse,' thought Blaise as he sat down beside Daphne. Since they were all Slytherins, his classmates took their seats with either an arrogant sneer (Malfoy), a polite smile (Daphne) or a blank expression like the one he was currently wearing himself. On the inside though, he knew they were all thinking the same thing - with some exceptions such as Crabbe and Goyle, of course. He still hadn't figured out whether they could think.

"Now, I promised you we would talk about my Year with the Yeti today, but then I realized, 'We can't just spend the whole year talking about me!'"

'Oh good,' Blaise almost snorted out loud, 'He's going to resign, then?'

"I know! I know! Such a disappointment..." Lockhart actually pouted. Blaise thought he couldn't have described himself better just now. "But you can learn about me on your own time! Today, we must talk about..."

Oh his right, Blaise saw Daphne raise an eyebrow. Where was Lockhart going with this?

"... the Dark Arts." And he wrote these three words in big, flowery letters on the blackboard.

The nerve of the dolt! Blaise slid forward in his seat, wondering what this buffoon thought he could teach them about the dark arts. If he thought pixies were dangerous -

"So," Lockhart glanced around, before checking his notes, "What do you think the dark arts is?"

This was not a question that any Slytherin would give a serious or truthful answer to. It was too sensitive. And thus, Blaise was not surprised that the entire class had stayed silent.

"Not pixies," Pansy Parkinson smirked.

Lockhart frowned a little at that, but then grinned toothily and continued. "True, Miss Pansy. But now for a serious definition..." He checked his notes again, before starting to write on the board. "Simply put, the dark arts is a collective name for magic with high potential - both constructive and destructive. Since they cannot be used lightly, on a daily basis, the dark arts are studied and used far less frequently than other magic. This creates a notion of mysteriousness around them, hence the name 'dark'."

Had he read wrong? Blaise blinked at the board. Around the room, he saw his classmates glance at each other in surprise while trying not to react too much. This was not something they'd expected to hear from anyone, much less so the lilac-clad dolt! Maybe someone was polyjuicing as Lockhart? Apart from the fact that he was now worth listening to, Lockhart's speech still sounded the same. The vanity, the way he emphasized certain words with his body language, the way he managed to show off his teeth while he talked, was all there. Was there something Blaise was not understanding, or had he somehow misjudged their defence professor? But how could that be?

"Ever since the 13th century, people have feared its potential to harm - and rightly so - and have attempted to ban their usage. However, as much as they try, they could not. Because without potential, we can accomplish nothing."

These words were met by attentive silence. Though he didn't look around, Blaise was sure that every single pair of eyes in the room were focused at the front of the room. Lockhart revelled in the attention, of course, and continued.

"There are two main types of potential. The first kind is power - and you'll find that any spell, potion or ritual that uses a large amount of magic is considered dark. And we're not talking about potion-class-explosions scale of power," he wagged a finger at them for emphasis, "We're talking about enough power to keep tonnes of water circulating through a castle's plumbing steadily. We're talking about enough power to excavate a common room under a lake, and to fortify the windows to sustain under the water pressure. We're talking about enough power to build and maintain a magical school, and protect it from a thousand years worth of weather and spell damage."

The class gaped. Even if Lockhart hadn't paused for dramatic effect, the impact of what the statement implied was enough. "Sir," Tracy Davis raised her hand uncertainly, "Are you saying that Hogwarts was..."

"Oh yes, this very school we're sitting in was built by dark magic," Lockhart assured her, thoroughly enjoying the small gasps around the class. "Think about what would happen if, for example, the spell used to push the water in the pipes was used to crush a room full of people! You are safe here, of course - there are other spells in place to ensure that no one can enter the pipes. And I will protect all my students from harm, in any case. But if the same spell had been used for evil, the effect would be quite terrible."

Blaise and Daphne nodded. He'd suspected something like this before, like many others probably, but had known better than to discuss it. Just from watching his classmates attack Slytherin's book, he'd noticed that dark spells (which he didn't recognize) were generally more powerful than the legal ones (which he did recognize). If Salazar Slytherin was a dark wizard, and dark arts were more powerful, of course he would choose the more effective option. But since the magical society would be devastated if they closed down Hogwarts, it was no wonder that people weren't too keen on investigating the castle.

But he would consider that later. Lockhart was starting to write again. "The other kind of potential is control. Who can think of one spell that falls into this category?"

"Imperio," said Theo from the row behind Blaise.

"Very good," Lockhart beamed - though that wasn't saying much, since he was always beaming. "5 points to Slytherin! Imperio controls the mind - very useful for turning away a troll or a werewolf without anyone getting hurt - yes, I know, I dealt with them differently. But I assure you, there are more than one best way of doing things. On the other hand, it can strip away a person's free will and theoretically bind them as a puppet forever."

Blaise suddenly wondered whether someone was mind-controlling Lockhart to make him teach better?

"Another dark spell in this category, and this one is less obvious, is Crucio - the spell that allows you to control exactly how much pain your subject feels. But please don't make the mistake of thinking that crucio can only be used to torture someone to insanity!"

"But sir," asked Pansy Parkinson, "They say Crucio only works if you really mean for someone to get hurt." Blaise thought it was a bit careless of her to say that, as it could've gotten someone into big trouble. Fortunately, Lockhart didn't seem to care.

"The subject of the crucio curse will feel exactly how much pain you will them to feel. If you don't mean for them to get hurt, then what would they feel?"

"Nothing?" Blaise realized. "So the curse would still work. It's just that some people... define 'work' differently?"

"Precisely," Lockhart gave him a smile that would've made him feel proud - if it wasn't from Lockhart, that is - before glancing down at his notes again. "Another 5 points to Slytherin! On that topic, what do you think is the best thing you can do for your friend, if someone is torturing him with Crucio? Assuming that you're not in a position to attack the torturer?"

"Cast crucio on him too, and will him to feel nothing?" Theo ventured.

"Exactly," Lockhart awarded 5 more points to Slytherin. "And what do you think is the best thing you can do for yourself, if someone is torturing you?"

"The same thing?" Daphne guessed, "Crucio yourself?"

Lockhart looked up from his notes. "That usually won't turn out well. Most people cannot imagine themselves feeling complete bliss while they're under excruciating pain, so you'd probably end up amplifying the effect. The best thing to do is to somehow force your opponent to end the spell as soon as possible... But what do you think is the worst possible thing you can do for yourself, if someone is torturing you with Crucio?"

The class needed a moment to think about this.

"Never, ever, torture your torturer back," Lockhart eventually revealed. "Any pain you inflict on them will echo into their curse, and theirs into yours. Before long, both of you won't even have enough sanity left to break away... Now, as you know, Crucio and Imperio are both classified as Unforgivable curses by the ministry. Unless during extenuating circumstances, casting either of them on a human will earn you a life sentence in Azkaban."

"Sir," asked Tracy Davis, "what about the third Unforgivable? Which category is that?"

"Uh..." Lockhart glance at his notes. "Ah, I was just getting to that. It's neither, actually. I suppose it's considered dark simply because it's highly effective at causing death, through instantaneously separating the soul from the body. In addition, I can't see any other uses for it, apart from killing."

"It can only be used for evil, then?" Blaise wondered.

"That depends on whether killing is evil, Mr. Zabini."

Right.

At then end of the class, Lockhart dismissed them with a cheery wave as usual while posing against his desk, and the students filed out of the room in their usual orderly fashion. Blaise, Theo, and Daphne glanced at each other, before following their classmates out and heading to the library where Sal and Harry were waiting for them a bit impatiently. "Did you have Lockhart's class yet?" Harry demanded as soon as he saw them.

"I'll have to process all this for a while," Daphne said quietly, "That lesson was just... wow."

"Lockhart's definitely different," Harry nodded, "do you think it's polyjuice or mind control? Or did he suddenly get smarter overnight? I mean, when he first started talking about dark arts my class thought he went completely loony, but by the end of it... If this is really him, I think I might even start to respect him!"

"Imperio doesn't look like that, right?"

"And if it's polyjuice," Daphne considered, "then the impersonator would have to be a very good actor."

They were thoughtful for a moment. "You know," Sal said, "I rather like how things are right now."

"I agree," Blaise nodded, "I'll take anything over another lesson on Lockhart's life." In Slytherin, that would be something like a code for "let's stop investigating". They seemed to be rubbing off on her.


What happened with Lockhart was simple really, Hermione thought as she closed the "transfiguration textbook" that lay in front of her, and discreetly packed away the invisible quill that she'd been wandlessly directing to write on it on when she needed to. All it took were two plain notebooks enchanted to reflect each other's writing - a form of two-way parchment, sort of. One book was then transfigured to look like something that might belong to Salazar or Lockhart, and the other illusioned to read like a textbook for anyone but her. Yesterday, after defence class, she'd written in her copy of the book...

'Hello, Gilderoy Lockhart. I am Salazar Slytherin.' Several surprised blobs of lilac ink had appeared at this. Lockhart's expression must've been hilarious, she'd imagined.

Chuckling, she'd continued,

'I have been told some things about you. Let us make a deal, Gilderoy, shall we?'

A moment later, uncharacteristically shaky lilac ink had replied: 'What kind of deal?'

Erasing Lockhart's writing, she'd continued, 'I believe in mutual benefits. You do not want to look like a' - here she'd almost written "dolt", but checked herself in time - 'professor who teaches nothing, and I do not want my students to learn nothing. In addition, we both want a good reputation.

'Here is my proposal. I will provide you with a lesson plan each day, and I will allow you to pass the knowledge off as your own. This should be new information for all seven years, so you will be able to use roughly the same lesson plan for all of your classes. In fact, I dare say you will be hailed a genius revolutionary, since no one has been taught the things you will teach since very long ago. If anyone discovers this book, they will assume it is your own notes, and I will not write back to them. If a student asks a question you do not know the answer to, you will "write it down so that you can remember to discuss it after class", and I will provide you with the answer.

'However, you will teach exactly what I tell you to teach, and you will discourage slandering of me, my house, or something related to me. If you break this agreement, and I have my way of knowing things, the deal is off and you will be on your own for the rest of your tenure. Is that agreeable?'

She'd hardly finished before Lockhart had written a 'Yes'.

'Good,' she'd smirked, 'I look forward to working with you, Gilderoy.' She had Voldemort to thank for the inspiration - both the "use a book to make someone do your bidding" part and the "use the defence professor as puppet" part. And though she didn't particularly want a buffoon to act as the champion of the dark arts, Gilderoy Lockhart was the perfect marionette because he had no problem with acting and was simple enough to control - not too stupid and not too clever. Since it was early in the year, he also still had a salvageable reputation and would be listened to. Then there was the mutual benefit - Lockhart could keep on pretending to be great, for the time being, and she would have an avenue of clarifying the misconceptions around the dark arts somewhat.

Hermione was glad her friends liked the lesson. She actually looked forward to Lockhart's classes, now.

Of course, Lavender and Pavarti would be more Lockhart-crazy than ever, but that was a small price to pay.

Chapter Text

"Ah, Gilderoy, we've been waiting to talk to you all day!"

Like always, Gilderoy Lockhart strolled into the staff lounge, arms spread, as if expecting excited gasps or admiration. For once, Minerva thought, he was actually met with anything close.

"We've heard much about your - er- radical new curriculum," Filius informed him, "The students are very excited for your classes." Indeed, the Gryffindor common room had been buzzing with discussions. One half of them expressed wonder that dark arts can be used for good. So far, Minerva had caught snippets of conversations such as "Hogwarts is built with dark arts", "there is no fundamental difference between a jinx and an anti-jinx", "often, the most effective defence against the dark arts is also dark", and "Death Eaters have been using crucio wrong".

The other half consisted primarily of the girls shouting "I told you so" to the boys, most of whom didn't have a very high opinion of their defence professor before. Now, the popular opinion among her students was split between that Gilderoy had deliberately started out dull to throw off some kind of suspicion, or that Gilderoy was not the same person as the - dare she say "dolt"? - who taught them a day ago.

Even Albus had been surprised. Minerva suspected he'd only hired Gilderoy because no one else would accept the job because of some ridiculous rumoured curse. Minerva strongly doubted that curses worked like that, but apparently the rest of the world didn't see it like that.

And now that Gilderoy had started teaching students that dark arts was not evil, but simply dangerous, Albus had become visibly worried. It wasn't that he thought Gilderoy was wrong or lying - After hearing the shocking rumours, the professors had asked the headmaster to verify them. Albus had rather gravely confirmed that every bit of Gilderoy's lesson was true, but did not elaborate when prompted by Severus. He did seem uneasy about Gilderoy promoting this view somehow, though he didn't try to stop the lessons. He'd wondered whether Gilderoy might be possessed, like poor Quirinus last year, but they'd arrived at the conclusion that it wouldn't benefit Voldemort at all to criticize his own use (or misuse, as Gilderoy called it) of the dark arts.

Minerva somehow suspected that there was more to Albus's reaction than this, but once again, he'd refused to elaborate.

"Congratulations," said Severus carefully, "I must say, I was not expecting this - er - sudden change in course plan. How did this come about, if I may ask?"

"Ah," Gilderoy grinned at him in his trademark fashion, "I merely realized that I could give the students more, since of course they would've read all my books already! I can use this opportunity to teach them about a topic that no one had dared to touch for - oh a good number of centuries now. It's a bold move, of course, but Gilderoy Lockhart is always up for a challenge when it comes to showing our next generation an important truth."

"How did you develop such a view on the dark arts, Gilderoy? It's not something we hear everyday."

"I've seen many things during my travels, Pomona," Gilderoy replied solemnly. "And with as much experience as I, one can't help being more - er - enlightened than most."

Normally even someone as gentle as Pomona would've frowned at this, Minerva thought, but today she ignored the slight. "Then perhaps you can help us resolve a small discussion we had sometime last year. Weren't we talking about whether this hatred we have for dark arts might be based on fear and a lack of understanding?"

"Oh yes, I remember that," Minerva nodded, "wasn't it something Cuthbert brought up?"

"Was it?" the ghostly professor looked up, "I might've said something I suppose. Can't remember what, though."

"Anyways," Filius prompted eagerly, "do you have an opinion on this, Gilderoy?"

"Well," Gilderoy leaned back into his chair comfortably, as if he was being interviewed by the press. "As I told my students, the dark arts is simply the name we give for highly potent magic. Damage done by dark arts can be hundredfold greater, and hundredfold more permanent, than other spells. However, it can also do a hundredfold more good than any other magic. In fact, I dare say if you want a piece of magic to last centuries, you'll have to use dark arts. Unfortunately, due to the great difficulty in wielding so much potential, not everyone feel it's worth the trouble to learn."

"And eventually, people became too horrified by the catastrophes, and decided to outlaw dark arts altogether?" Asked Pomona. "If that's the case, then dark arts is not evil. But won't we all be safer without it? Why do some people insist on keeping it alive if it's so dangerous?"

"Because it's effective, perhaps?" Severus shrugged.

Pomona frowned, clearly unhappy with that sentiment. "But we're still going to discourage students from studying dark arts, right?"

"Actually, the best way to defend yourself against a spell is by understanding how it works - take the cruciatus and imperius curse, for example," Gilderoy interjected, "The students had no idea what they actually targeted, and their attempts at defence would be counterproductive! Fortunately, I will be teaching them the theory behind some of the more commonly known branches of dark spells."

"At least it'll help them understand what was being thrown at their families during the last war," Minerva nodded, "and if they can see that the spells are stoppable, it might make them feel better." She remembered the death of numerous aurors and Order members all too well. Poor Gideon and Fabian, Frank and Alice...

"And while I won't encourage my students to use dark spells - so you can relax, Pomona," said Severus, "One must admit that the best defence to dark spells is usually also dark. If someone cast fiendfyre at you, for example, you can try to cast an impossibly strong shield charm. Or, you can push it back using a dark but much more manageable water-based spell. Just something to keep in mind,"

"As a fellow duellist, I second that," pipped Filius, "I think Wilbert Slinkhart said something like that, too. Except he was trying to argue the other way - he thinks no offensive spells should be used at all, jinx or counterjinx. Personally, I'm not sure if the things he advocates for are practical."

"Ah yes, about duelling," Minerva remembered, "Albus has asked us whether we would be able to start a duelling club. It'll help students gain practical experience." It was originally meant to compensate for the lack of a competent Defence professor. Minerva thought this was a good idea still. It was only a bonus that Gilderoy turned out to be... much better than they'd expected. "Perhaps Filius and Severus could lead this?"

"Ah," Gilderoy beamed, "Duelling club! I'd be happy to give a pointer or two as well, of course."

Minerva, and the rest of her colleagues she saw, looked at Gilderoy critically. A day ago, they would've laughed him out of the arena. But now... well, they would see. At least it would shed some light on Gilderoy's newfound (?) expertise, and Filius and Severus can take care of the situation if he messed up royally. "So Fillius, Severus, and Gilderoy? Excellent. We'll talk more about the place and time, and then we'll put out a sign-up sheet. I expect this would be quite popular."

Once more, she had a lot to think about. But considering that this was Hogwarts, what was she to expect?


Albus was pacing in his office. Since he was alone, he'd allowed a small frown to creep onto his forehead.

He'd heard what the students were saying about Gilderoy's recent lessons. It wasn't that he disagreed with Gilderoy here. Gilderoy's argument had been very reasonable, very logical, and well-supported. Too right.

Minerva and the others had been surprised when he confirmed that Gilderoy's view was valid. They did not know that it was exactly what Albus himself had firmly believed in, in his youth - the only other living soul who knew and shared his views being Gellert.

And look where that got him.

Now, Albus was afraid of this perspective on dark arts, on power, on ambition. He dared not think about it anymore, in fear of the conclusion he would reach and where that conclusion would lead him. He'd almost slipped once down that slope. He didn't trust himself to go near it again.

And Gilderoy had brought the subject back up. Gilderoy, of all people...

There was also the matter of whether Gilderoy formulated this argument on his own - which he highly doubted. So then the question was, who was Gilderoy's new source of knowledge, if not Tom Riddle? Perhaps the author of an old, rarely-touched book in the restricted section?

Because Albus just happened to know of one such author, whose portrait had advised him while he was a student to read one such book.

Albus carefully glanced at the green portrait hanging above his chair. The figure inside was still sleeping peacefully. Albus sat back down.

He would let Gilderoy carry on with his lessons. There was nothing he could do - nothing to do about it. There was nothing wrong, after all. Nevertheless, even this idea did nothing to settle the slight but deep-set feeling of apprehension in his stomach.

He'd just have to be more careful, more watchful. Especially with Slytherin.

Chapter Text

'I've received 60 letters from parents today, praising me for being a revolutionary! That's a record-breaking number of fanmail in a single morning!'

'Well congratulations, Gilderoy.'

'And I've also got 5 howlers, but we revolutionaries can't always please everyone, eh?'

'That is the unfortunate truth, Gilderoy,' Hermione wrote back distractedly, while studying another unassuming journal that lay on the cool stone floor before Uncle Malory's statue, where she currently sat. 'Remember, for tomorrow, make sure to reiterate that misuse of the dark arts will not go unpunished, as it weakens the soul and will eventually lead to insanity and the loss of one's magic. This should reduce your howler counts further.'

It wasn't just dark arts, of course. As she'd explained to him, any assault of great enough magnitude on one's conscience would damage the soul. She wondered if Lockhart would pick up on this warning, as she was beginning to find his conscience highly questionable.

But damage on the scale of this, a horcrux... was rare even among dark wizards. Hermione sighed.

She'd torn off a page of the diary, and watched the movement of magic as the paper vanished and a new page grew out in its place. All horcruxes containers could repair themselves - unless when damaged by certain magically powerful things such as basilisk venom. In addition, it seemed that Voldemort had cast many more charms around the diary to protect it. The most recent two seemed to be designed to act on one's mind, and were quite strong. Though curious, Hermione refrained from trying to determine what they did just yet. That would involve interacting with the charms, and could potentially trigger an alarm. Perhaps later, when she was done with it.

As she progressed inward through the layers of charms, the spells become noticeably cruder, though still very impressive considering Voldemort's knowledge and experience at the time. The earliest one was the charm that allowed the soul fragment to communicate through writing. Later on, one had been cast to let the horcrux function like a pensive. After that came a failed attempt to enable the horcrux with legilimency, which should've created an effect similar to the Mirror of Erised, the Sorting Hat, and several experimental items that Salazar had worked on prior to designing the Sorting Hat.

'You know, Salazar, I think we're quite alike.' Meanwhile, Lockhart was still scribbling away.

Hermione sincerely hoped not, but refrained from commenting. She wouldn't have been able to write back in time, in any case. Her quill seemed to have accurately lodged itself in Uncle Malory's left nostril.

'We've both got impeccable style, and we both have beautiful penmanship. I'm sure if you'd played the crowd right, you could've been as popular as I am - well, almost. I think my smile still gives me an edge, eh? I've spent 5 years perfecting it, after all -"

'Yes, Gilderoy, your smile is beautiful no doubt,' Hermione interrupted, not wanting to waste anymore time entertaining his vanity. The self-important chatterbox was really getting on her nerves. In addition, she was already exhausted between dealing with classes and her classmates, as well as chronically staying up late to finish homework, Lockhart's lesson plans (which should cover all possible questions people might throw at him), and her own exercises. Unlike a sentient diary, she didn't have all day to spend on him - the downside of her "masterplan", she supposed. 'Now what is this about starting a duelling club?'

'How did you know I'm starting a duelling club?' Lockhart's surprised reply came after a small pause.

Portrait Salazar had heard McGonagall mention this to Dumbledore in his office, in fact. The professors had been asked to keep an eye on Gilderoy. This was all expected, and all would've be fine except... 'Gilderoy, be honest with me. In a duel with a one-time champion like Flitwick, or someone who'd had to duel for his life during the last war as many times as Snape, how good would you look? Better or worse than you would in a duel against pixies?'

There was another pause. Apparently Lockhart couldn't bring himself to write down such a terrible realization for a second.

Slightly more contained, but still flowery, writing eventually appeared. 'I just offered to give a few pointers in the spur of the moment! I didn't expect Filius and Severus to be that good. I mean, they don't look like much! Severus has greasy hair and dresses so drably and -'

Hermione stifled a yawn and removed his rant before he could even finish, knowing that he never would. Maybe she should warn him not to bore her to sleep, if he wanted his questions answered in time? She might miss out on useful information, but perhaps it would be for the better. 'I get your point, Gilderoy. At the duelling club, do not embarrass yourself by attempting to duel with spells you have not tried. In fact, do not participate in the duelling at all.' It would be both a threat to Lockhart's credibility and public safety if he did.

'Alright, alright,' Lockhart replied placatingly, 'I'll tell them I want to give my colleagues a chance to run the show or something.'

'The first meeting is in two days, yes? I will teach you several duelling forms to show the students as your promised "pointers". For your own popularity's sake, do not actually duel. Do not go to the second meeting.'

'Whatever you say, Salazar,' Lockhart replied, probably while rolling his eyes she imagined.

Sighing, Hermione started to draw him the duelling forms, after which she would probably have no time or energy to do anything apart from going to sleep. She would rather not touch a horcrux when tired.

And she'd best start making some contingency plan to preserve at least some of her progress, in case Lockhart manages to screw up in two days despite her efforts.

She really hated dealing with dolts.

 


'Playing the Nocturne is an excellent way to train and test your magical dexterity. You must be able to release enough power to sustain an audible note, and you must be able to control your magic well to play a melody. If you lack either, you will have difficulty with advanced spellwork, nonverbal magic, and wandless magic. You will also be unable to safely perform magic as demanding and dangerous as the dark arts. Thus, as a part of your final examination for Understanding the Dark Arts, your Nocturne will be evaluated.'

All the more reasons to learn, Blaise thought, smoothing the pages of Hogwarts' repertoire of Nocturnes on his lap. By some good fortune, he'd been able to acquire one of the leather armchairs by the fireplace. The bright, steady green flame within was lukewarm, surprisingly. Perhaps something's been done to it - a permanent chilling charm?

Daphne was seated in one of the long sofas on his left, and laughing with Parkinson and Davis. Theo was apparently off to somewhere, despite the fact that curfew had already begun half an hour ago. (Not that any of the prefects cared, so long as he could avoid getting caught.) Like himself, all three of them had followed the instructions in the book and started to teach themselves the Nocturne over the summer. Currently, they were more or less on the stage of reliably producing and holding a steady note, at any desired pitch. Blaise tried a scale once, and had been pleased to find that he could just about stumble through it. But he would keep practicing the notes for now. He'd rather learn to walk before he try to run.

"Nott's been reading a book like that too."

Blaise started. He hadn't noticed Avery reading over his shoulder until now. "Geez, don't sneak up on me like that!"

"Not my fault I walk lightly," Avery said indignantly, "Can't expect me to lumber around like Goyle or Bulstrode. This looks interesting though. I thought I heard my great grandpa mention something about Nocturnes, but I've never thought much of it before. Who would've thought it was so important? Especially if we're going to learn dark spells in the future."

No one would've admitted that so openly last year, but ever since Lockhart's lectures, things had changed a little bit. Blaise subtly wondered whether it would be a good idea to get the rest of his house interested in Nocturnes before he could get a significant head start. But then again, wouldn't it be better if everyone could appreciate its worth? In any case, he couldn't stop Avery now. If this was once a Hogwarts textbook, he could probably find another copy in the library. "Have you ever heard it played before?"

"Nope," said Avery, turning his head sideways and trying to skim the rest of the book by lifting the page corners slightly. "Oh look, there's a piece for each house near the back."

"Really? I haven't gotten that far yet," Blaise turned to the pages he indicated. Indeed, there were four compositions titled 'Gryffindor', 'Hufflepuff', 'Ravenclaw', and 'Slytherin'. Each consisted of several lines of melodies, of varying complexity, to be played simultaneously. In Slytherin's Nocturne, for example, the most difficult line had a lot of tiny notes that flew up and down the staff. The simplest one looked like something he would be able to try in a few weeks' time. He would look forward to that. "You think they made so many variations so that everyone can play, no matter which year you're in?"

"Probably," Avery nodded, "And the last Nocturne's for the whole school. Four lines, one for each house? It reminds me of the four voices in choral music. Slytherin gets tenor." He pointed to the third line from the top. Even though he was not as familiar with things relating to music as Avery, Blaise could recognize much of it as segments from the previous composition. "But it's not like those muggle cantatas where one voice runs the show. Each of the four lines here sounds good on its own, but somehow they're all supposed to mesh together."

"Each has a place in the world, and each house its own glory," Blaise suddenly remembered.

"And united we are strong, says the Sorting Hat," Avery quirked an eyebrow, then shrugged. "I really do wonder what this sounds like."

They were interrupted when Avery was bumped by Malfoy and Flint as they passed by.

"You heard, right?" Avery murmured when they were out of earshot, "Malfoy's bought his way on to the Quidditch team by offering to replace all the Slytherin brooms with Nimbus 2001s."

Blaise quickly glanced at Flint, who was clapping Malfoy on the back in a rarely seen brotherly fashion. Malfoy was smiling smugly. Clearly he was jealous of Harry, despite his attempts at looking nonchalant. "Looks like he succeeded, then,"

"Well, he certainly succeeded in giving the brooms away," said Avery, "And Flint is training him to play seeker for the next game."

In other words, Flint was letting Malfoy fly for the next game. If Malfoy performed decently, then Flint would keep him. If not, then Flint would keep the brooms and probably put him on reserve - which was technically still part of the team. Somehow, Blaise doubted that Malfoy realized this possibility. "So Malfoy's got three more days to practice."

"Yup. Let's see how that turns out," Avery turned over what looked like a bird's skull with interest. It was one of the smaller among the row of skulls of various animals that sat on the mantle, in juxtaposition with the vase of pink roses there. "I don't know which I look forward to more - the game, or the duelling club. I bet the whole school's going - well, maybe not that many Hufflepuffs, but still."

"Oh yeah," like pretty much all of his housemates, Blaise had signed up for that at first chance. "Wonder who's hosting? I heard Flitwick used to be a competitive duellist."

"Yeah maybe him, or maybe Snape or McGonagall - they both look the type," nodded Avery, "or maybe Lockhart. Just a guess... Oh, Pike's calling me. Good luck with that, by the way."

Blaise smiled in return, and continued to practice varying the volume of his 'C#' note.

It was slow, unspectacular work. But lately he was really coming to appreciate that patience and perseverance aren't exclusively useful to the 'Puffs. Sometimes you have to play a longer game, and it pays off in unfathomable ways. Just like how all his little efforts to become more than one of Malfoy's nameless goons were adding up much better than his earliest expectations. He was relevant now. If he was feeling bold, he might even say he was influential.

Blaise was tempted to bump this insight up to #3 on his mental list of "lessons in Slytherin", but then he remembered that he didn't exactly learn this one from the Slytherin common room. Maybe just a lesson in life, then.

Chapter Text

"Sally? I... I was wondering... if you could help me learn something?"

Hermione looked up from her breakfast, at a fidgeting Neville. She'd been hoping to look at Voldemort's diary before midnight, but she didn't want to scare Neville away either. And he didn't look so nervous when he asked her for help before, she remembered. What was different about this time? She rubbed her eyes. "Sure, Neville. What do you need help with?"

Spending time on Neville meant that she wouldn't have time to finish her experiments before midnight. This unfortunately meant that she would have to wait in Gryffindor tower until midnight for the new password to come out until she could leave, again. Once more, she cursed the inconvenience of being in Gryffindor. Unlike the non-sensical Gryffindor passwords, the Slytherin passwords were particularly designed to let true Slytherins back into their common room after utilizing their curfew: each new password would always be a word somehow related to the previous three passwords. Thus, if you knew the pattern, if you'd been in the Slytherin common room for three consecutive days, and if you were reasonably knowledgeable, you would be able to guess the password within twenty tries. It also helped that you wouldn't have to rely on the presence of some portrait for access.

"Well," he swallowed, "If you have time later today, I was hoping to - I mean, I thought it would be a good idea to - "

Before he could answer, a loud crash could be heard as Harry and Ron stumbled into the Great Hall. Ron seemed to be leaning on his shorter companion for support. Hermione narrowed her eyes, wondering what this could be about. Neither of them looked visibly injured.

"What happened?" she asked as Harry deposited Ron on the bench, before plopping down next to him.

"Malfoy," Ron managed to say, before doubling over. To Hermione's horror, he vomited out four slimy slugs onto the table, which narrowly missed her plate as she snatched it out of the way.

"The Slytherin team came out and demanded to share the field during Quidditch practice this morning," Harry elaborated, seeing as Ron was currently incapacitated. "We booked the field, but they had a note from Snape because they needed to train Malfoy - Malfoy bought his way onto their Quidditch team!"

"Ah, jealous of you, perhaps?" Hermione wasn't surprised. She wondered, though, when that boy would stop relying on his father.

"Oh, he'd definitely jealous of Harry," Ron laughed. Since he'd stopped spewing slugs, Hermione was able to vanish the mess with a cleaning spell. "Anyways, he started showing off his money and insulting my family, and I kind of lost my temper."

"He tried to hex Malfoy but his wand backfired," Harry explained. "good that it seems to be stopping, though. Earlier, Hagrid and I had to give him a new bucket every minute."

"Ron, you see now why I recommended that you lock your wand up in your trunk where you won't be tempted to use it?"

Poor Ron nodded, and answered her by coughing up another squirming slug. Malfoy, who happened to be strolling in with Crabbe and Goyle at this moment, pointed and laughed loudly. Ron clenched his fists and made to get up, before Hermione and Harry stopped him. "You can't do anything here," Harry muttered.

Hermione shook her head, and pushed her plate away. She didn't have much of an appetite these days to begin with. Ah well... at least dinner would be more enjoyable, especially with what she'd arranged to happen tonight.


 

"So yesterday was the last lesson on Merlin, Morgana, and king Arthur," Neville thought he heard professor Binn say as he doodled a mimbulus mimbletonia on his parchment. He wasn't sure. To his left, Dean was slumped over in his chair and snoring softly.

"And a short while after Morgana perished in exacting her revenge on Arthur, and Merlin succumbed to the injuries he sustained in trying to stop her, Hogwarts was founded. And a short while after that, Hengist of Woodcroft established Hogsmead, the village beside the school. You will be able to visit it in third year. And a while after that, Gringott was built. Or wait - maybe it was before?..."

Eventually, Neville heard the scraping of chairs that indicated the end of the class. He stood up as well. Unfortunately, he'd accidentally bumped the table, causing his inkwell to fall off and shatter, splashing ink everywhere. Maybe he shouldn't have put it so close to the edge. Gran always said he was clumsy...

"Oh, I almost forgot," Professor Binn suddenly shouted, "there will be a second part of this lesson at dinner!"

To his right, Seamus groaned. "Oh come on! I was hoping to go to sleep after dinner, not during dinner!"

"Yeah," Dean snickered, "but lesson at dinner? He never did that before, did he?"

Neville thought it was strange too, but he was too busy wiping ink off his trainers to join the conversation. Besides, he also had something else to think about - such as the spell he wondered if he should learn.

On the one hand, he knew he needed it. He wanted to make sure that he could protect the people he loved. He didn't want anyone to suffer like his parents, ever again. On the other hand, it was a very dangerous spell. He wasn't sure he liked the idea that he was learning the spell she used. And after that time he really didn't want to see it, ever again. What would Gran say, when she hears that he'd been practicing not just a dark spell, but that spell no less? Would she be disappointed? Would the other Gryffindors be upset with him?

And how would Sally feel? She would have to cast it too, wouldn't she? Would she be willing to do this?

Neville barely realised the time passing until he was seated at the dinner table, and people started wondering how Binn was going to teach his special class. Neville wondered too. Looking around, the Great Hall was just like it would be during any other dinner.

"Ahem," Professor Binn cleared his throat. Neville wondered why he needed to do that. Did ghosts even get things in their throats? "So as you know, I told all of you that there would be a second part to today's class. But considering the subject matter, it had been suggested that this part of history would be better described by the representative ghosts of the four houses. This lesson will be about the four founders of Hogwarts, who are arguably the most important witches and wizards of their era."

"Oh yes," Dean snorted, "because if you can have one ghost teach history, why not have five?"

"I honestly can't imagine Nick teaching," Ron sniggered, but covered his mouth nervously when he hiccuped.

"Well I think this is a wonderful idea," said Percy, who was Ron's brother, "the ghosts of Hogwarts have lived during the early days of the school, and might actually know the founders personally. They would remember things no history book can tell you."

"Do you think Peeves can teach a class on dungbomb planting?" grinned Fred and George, who were Ron's other brothers, together.

But the murmurs quickly died down, because the Fat Friar had started to speak.

...

"Helga Hufflepuff," he laughed merrily, "was the best healer in her village. She was quite well known in quite a large part of the country as well, before Hogwarts. Ailing people would flock to her for her miracles. She was around twenty-five, she said, when Hogwarts was founded. Then, after the school was in operation, she'd taught herbology and charms, and ran the hospital wing. Even at Hogwarts, people would come in from all over of the country for her help with healing."

"Hufflepuff was famous even before Hogwarts?" Ron asked, awed. "How come nobody ever talked about that? But I guess when you compare founding Hogwarts to any other accomplishments, Hogwarts trumps all..."

"I was fortunate enough to be taught by her, in her later years - she and her husband both taught and lived at Hogwarts all their lives. She was such a gentle soul, and the kindest lady I've ever met. Helga and her husband Arthur both lived long, happy lives, before they passed away peacefully in their sleep. They had eight adorable children, whom I also had the good fortune to meet," the Friar finished, beaming. Neville saw that the Hufflepuffs were smiling proudly, and whispering among themselves with excitement.

...

The next was the Grey Lady, the ghost of Ravenclaw. "Lady Rowena Ravenclaw, my mother," she began haltingly, as if pained by something. "was the greatest philosopher of her time, as well as a prolific author - I dare say she'd written a textbook for every subject I can think of. But I suppose you already know of her intellect..."

Neville didn't think she liked talking about her mother very much. The other ghosts must've talked her into this.

"She was a revered poet, and a good musician. Not the best - that I know for sure. My mother couldn't be the best at everything," the Grey Lady smiled slightly, almost victoriously, before continuing. "She invented countless charms and spells. At the time of Hogwarts' founding, about three quarters of the contents of the school library were her contribution. She'd taught astronomy, runes, and the dark arts after Salazar left. That's all I have to say."

There wasn't much new information for Ravenclaw, Neville thought, since everyone knew she was smart and wise and very knowledgeable. The only surprise was the last part. "Ravenclaw taught dark arts?"

Then, somebody said, "why not?" And there were nods all around.

This made Neville feel a bit better about what he was going to do.

...

The third to speak was Nearly-Headless-Nick, who was gliding up and down the Gryffindor table dramatically. Neville could see that he wore an extra-large ruff around his neck today.

"You reckon he's been rehearsing for this?" Dean whispered.

Seamus and Lavender shrugged.

"Sir Godric Gryffindor," enunciated Nick carefully, rolling his tongue with each syllable. To Dean and Ron's horror, this was followed by an embarrassing pause as Nick forgot what he was going to say next. Neville felt sorry for the poor ghost. Could ghosts get stage fright?

Fortunately, Nick started speaking again before anyone could snigger at him. "- had retired and passed on when I was a very young child. Nevertheless, my parents had told me enough about his adventures for any child to look to him as a hero -"

"You've never actually met him?" Ron blurted, a bit disappointed.

"Er, no," Nick scratched his head, "Myself and the Friar are much younger than the other two ghosts, you see - they were already here as ghosts when we were here as students... But then again, Helga Hufflepuff and Godric Gryffindor also lived the longest, of the four founders. Er, I believe the order was Slytherin first at around age 55, followed by Ravenclaw at 65, then Hufflepuff at age 120 -"

"Nick!" Seamus yelled across the table. "Skip all the death stuff and tell us about Gryffindor!" Neville saw several people snigger at this.

"Anyways," Nick coughed, looking a little flustered, "Sir Godric Gryffindor became a knight in his youth under the training of old Sir Cadogan -"

"What?! Cadogan?" shouted the entire hall.

"Er, but of course," Nick continued, "his prowress was such that he'd grown to surpass his mentor by far, eh?''

Ron laughed. "You could say that again!" Most of the Gryffindor table nodded in agreement.

"Er, as I was saying, Sir Gryffindor became a reknowned knight. Over time, he'd also established a reputation as one of the best duellists in the country. Not a single child hadn't heard of the dragon-slaying, evil-fighting Sir Gryffindor. I was so proud to be sorted into his house..." Nick sighed dreamily, "My grandparents had told me - and they had been taught by Sir Gryffindor himself - that he was a master of transfiguration, and an expert in all sorts of magical beasts and creatures. He was also the one who invented the flying broom. At first it was meant to be a way for witches and wizards to escape from muggle witch-burning mobs, disguised as a common household object. But, er, in doing so, he helped people discover the joy of flying for sport, and soon Quidditch was born."

And here Nick had to stop, because it became very hard to hear him over the loud cheering of the Gryffindor table. It took nearly five minutes for the room to quiet down again. Then, the dead silent hall turned toward the Bloody Baron.

...

At the Head Table, Severus's plate was long forgotten. Indeed, aside from Lockhart and Sybil, who seemed to be off in their own worlds as always, all of the professors were currently frozen in their seats.

"Lord Salazar Slytherin," the Baron's cool gaze swept the room, as if daring them to challenge him, "was one of the best and greatest wizards of all time. By this I do not mean most formidable duelling prowess, most brilliant intellect, greatest wealth, or even greatest influence. I am referring to the magnitude of problems he solved, and contribution to society."

Nobody did. The room remained silent, dead silent. A number of Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws rolled their eyes at this, as Severus expected, though most of them quickly stopped after accidentally meeting the Baron's eyes. Most of the students of his own house were able to refrain from visibly reacting to both the Baron's words and the eye-rolling. They knew that they would be doing themselves a disservice by showing weakness.

But on the far side of the hall, all of the Gryffindors were listening attentively and politely. Severus was greatly surprised, as he'd expected them to have started booing and shouting insults by now. Instead, some of them - including Potter - seemed to be... nodding?

"Apart from educating the populace, Professor Slytherin's greatest accomplishment was the successful resolution of the muggle-magic situation."

"But he hated muggles and muggleborns!" shouted Ernest Macmillan from the Hufflepuff table. "So he failed, didn't he? He probably tried to kill them all!"

Severus prepared to scold the boy for the rude interruption, but his mouth nearly dropped open as Mr. Macmillan's had when at least a dozen Gryffindors replied, "No."

Potter was among them once again. "He actually wanted people to welcome muggleborns," he explained, "and he tried not to hurt muggles, even though he really didn't like them. He wanted people to leave the muggles alone and hide themselves rather than retaliating for the witch-burnings."

'Ah, they must've read that book as well,' Severus realized.

"We found a book he wrote -" said Fred Weasley,

" - and it was rather surprising -" said George Weasley,

"- right, Slytherins?"

While Severus knew that the Weasley twins were the ones who had (admittedly ingeniously) placed Slytherin's book in front of the Slytherin common room, it still surprised him that the House of the Lions had actually taken the time to circulate the book around and read it. It surprised him more that they were actually willing to reconsider what they'd been taught all their lives because of it. Perhaps, he realized with a little shame, there was more to them than he chose to acknowledge...

Currently, the Bloody Baron was wearing what most would call a perfect poker face. But Severus, being a Slytherin and a spy, noticed his silver brows furrowing slightly and realized that he was similarly astonished. "Indeed. Professor Slytherin knew that it was better for both parties to avoid confrontations between muggles and wizards entirely. The Statute of Secrecy was made possible because of Salazar's work in proposing and advocating for the concept, because he used his political influence to sway important figures to support it, and because Hogwarts taught people the means to enforce it - such as the obliviation charm. Salazar strongly disliked the muggles of our time - hate was too strong an emotion to waste on them, he'd said - yet he sought a peaceful solution."

The Slytherin ghost gave the room another sweeping look, before fixing Macmillan with a cold gaze that in Severus's opinion would make even the likes of Voldemort shiver. "But young sir, if you somehow feel that you know my professor and mentor better than I, you may discuss your reasons with me."

The boy gulped, then blushed, then scratched his head with obvious discomfort.

Having achieved his desired effect, the Baron continued. "At Hogwarts, Lord Slytherin addressed the needs and concerns of his subjects at his village, for whom he felt responsible - yes, this included the well-being of the muggles - even as he taught us. His classes were Potions, Charms, and yes, Understanding the Dark Arts. Here you are not surprised, since as Merlin's name became synonymous with magic, Salazar's name became synonymous with dark arts. This had been intentional."

Again, hushed silence met the Baron's cool gaze. Severus suspected that the students would've been in an uproar by now, had it not been for Lockhart's classes. But thanks to Lockh - the alternative explanation of the dark arts, people were willing to listen first before jumping.

"He was leading by example. He wanted to show people what a dark wizard ought to be: someone who wielded his power with careful control, great efficiency, and never frivolously. Someone who worked to better himself, but also took responsibility for others' well-being. Someone who refrained from using the dark arts selfishly or to cause mass destruction, not out of weakness but out of principle. And people followed his lead, up until the 13th century."

And Voldemort was nothing like this, Severus suddenly saw. Voldemort frequently overpowered his spells just for dramatic effects and cursed people for entertainment. Voldemort would destroy a thousand lives without hesitation, if only for a minute benefit to himself, if only because he can. Voldemort called himself a lord, yet he felt no responsibility for those who followed him.

If Voldemort was Slytherin's heir, then the apple had certainly fallen very far from the tree.

The Baron sighed. "Up until the 13th century, dark arts were used constructively - and if anyone breached the moral code, unlike today, other dark wizards were capable of stopping him together. But it had always been a difficult edge to balance on, and no one could entirely control what happens in the distant future. In the 13th century, when the Ministry of Magic was first created, there was a frenzy to create laws. Someone proposed that to prevent the possibility of a disaster, dark arts should be eradicated. Since people had always been fearful of what the dark arts could do, and since they were at the time confident that the Ministry could do anything, the law was passed. Some, mostly members of Slytherin house, remembered that dark arts had indispensable benefits and opposed it, of course, and for this we were treated like all the other law-breakers - like the murderers and the thieves. After that, everything went out of control."

'And if they'd convinced some dark wizards that they are murderers and thieves...' Severus supressed a grimace. It didn't take a genius to see that it was a terrible idea.

"They tried to incinerate all of Professor Slytherin's work too, but," he chuckled darkly, "ironically, the dark wards on them couldn't be destroyed without powerful dark magic. Then they tried to collect all copies of the books, to be locked away somewhere deep within the Ministry. This would've worked, except one copy of each book had been charmed to remain in Hogwarts. It had been very... entertaining to watch them try, however."

Severus saw his students trade knowing glances among themselves at this last statement, no doubt remembering their own experience attempting to destroy one of Salazar Slytherin's books. Severus also saw some cogs turning in their heads as some of them scanned the Head Table, and this made him smile slightly. Should a student - of any house - approach him with a request to borrow a book authored by a founder from the restricted section for supplementary reading, one that was suitable for their level of understanding of course, he would most likely oblige.

The Baron was surveying the room again. Severus thought he might've been a bit amused at the variety of expressions that met his gaze. Then he added, almost casually, "Ah, and Professor Slytherin was also an excellent musician. His Nocturnes were the best I've known. You can find some of his compositions near the end of Hogwart's Nocturne repertoire, in the library. That covers everything important, I believe."

Severus noticed that the idea that Slytherin could have such a peaceful hobby, and was presumably better at it than even Ravenclaw, managed to shock some students as much as everything else the Baron had said so far.

Interestingly, the silence in the Great Hall prevailed throughout the rest of dinner. Lockhart eventually broke it as people started to leave, by saying, "I hope to see you all at the Duelling Club tomorrow!", at which point chatter broke out as if on cue. 'And as to Lockhart...' Severus glanced at the periwinkle-clad man who was looking obnoxiously pleased with himself. He still didn't know what to think of him, but he'll be watching very closely tomorrow.

As Severus left the Great Hall, he murmured a quiet "thank you" to the Bloody Baron, and received a small nod in return.

He could feel that something was slowly shifting within the school - the appearance of the book, the Sorting Hat's new song, and now this... Severus didn't know whether these unconnected events were really a trend, or simply a cluster of coincidences. He suspected it was a mixture of both - possibly the discovery of Slytherin's book created an opportunity last year, one that various parties had been smart enough to seize?

Whatever it was, Severus certainly didn't mind.


 

Neville followed his housemates back to the Gryffindor common room. Dinner took much longer than usual today - who could eat during such an unusual history lesson? In his book bag, his hand closed around the smooth, curved glass wall of the jar. It felt warm, both from him holding it so much and from the restless scurrying of the mouse inside. He'd nicked it from transfiguration class. He didn't think it was very happy about being carried around in his bag, especially because he had a tendency to accidentally bump it into things.

But it was definitely going to like the next part less.

"Neville, what are you working on?" Sally.

Neville didn't answer her straight away. Instead, he tried to scan the room for a empty table in a inconspicuous corner without looking too suspicious. He wasn't very good at sneaky. And Salazar, why did the round Gryffindor common room have to have so few corners? This table near the edge of the room will have to do...

Sally didn't say another word as she followed him to it and sat down across from him. Once they were both seated, Neville reached into his bag for the umpteenth time and took out the poor mouse's jar. Surprisingly, his hand didn't shake at all as he set it on the table.

Again, Sally didn't say a word, only glanced down at it in question.

So Neville explained, not sure if the firmness of his voice quite corresponded to how he was currently feeling. "I want to learn the Cruciatus Curse, so that it can never be used to hurt someone I love again. Can you cast it on this mouse, so that I can try to counter it?"

And now the second hardest part was done!

Sally's eyes snapped up to his face the moment he named the curse. Apart from that, she didn't seem exactly shocked, or alarmed. Neville tried to guess what she was thinking, but he quickly gave up. He wasn't very good at reading people either.

But somehow, he knew that it was okay to ask her. Just a gut feeling, he supposed.

"Neville... That's very brave of you."

Brave? Neville blinked.

"Will you be okay, though?"

Would he? Neville took a deep breath and nodded "yes".

The white mouse had calmed down a lot, now that it realized it was on a stationary, stable surface. Sally gently picked it up out of the jar and placed it on the table. It promptly began to stroll around, enjoying its newfound not-quite-freedom. "We won't ... go all out," Sally murmured, carefully pointing the tip of her wand at its leg. Neville guiltily noticed that the mouse was completely unaware of this. "I'll try to make it feel it's broken a leg. Neville, if you're ready..."

Now came the hardest part, Neville thought.

'I can do this... I can do this...' Shaking away the recurring nightmare of terrible screaming, flailing limbs and cruel laughter, Neville copied Sally and aimed his wand at the mouse too.

"Crucio." "Crucio."

The mouse shuddered, surprised by the sudden pain in its left front leg. It was limping badly now. But Neville was relieved to see that it didn't look too awful - worse things happen to it in transfiguration class, even. This was manageable.

And Neville concentrated harder. He wanted the mouse to feel nothing, nothing at all... But how? It was even more difficult than he'd thought!

"I think you've got to focus on a feeling you can imagine," murmured Sally.

Like numbness, when you plunge your hand into a bucket of ice water? Or better yet, like the cool feeling you get when you put ointment on a wound? Or maybe both? He could try that.

The mouse, Neville was very pleased to see, was limping less and less.

"You're really getting it, Neville!" Sally whispered happily.

Neville felt himself smile widely. But in his slight distraction, the limp was returning. He couldn't have this happen. And if he was to protect people, he'd have to get this perfect. He'd have to keep trying. After all, Bellatrix could do much worse than his friend, and that was what he had to be prepared for.

He focused again on the soothing, healing feeling, imagining it in his mind. And very, very slowly, the mouse put more and more weight on its "bad leg", until it could almost walk normally again. Neville watched it for a while with Sally, struggling to maintain his focus, before they both removed their wands and left the mouse in peace. Neville leaned back in his chair to rest. He wanted to keep trying - just to prove to himself that he could do it every time, but his brain felt exhausted after all that concentrating. And was it really so late already? he hadn't even noticed the time passing.

"Want to call it a day?" Sally asked, rubbing her eyes. She looked a bit tired too, Neville saw. But of course... He'd almost forgotten that it must've been as difficult for her as it was for him.

"Alright," Neville agreed. "I think I'll go to sleep now."

"That's a good idea," Sally laughed softly. "Oh, and Neville? Remember that book I sent you over the summer?"

"The book on Nocturnes?" Neville had skimmed through it because it was from Sally, but he hadn't tried any of the passages yet.

"You'll have a easier time with this if you practice some of the compositions. Then we won't have to hurt the mouse as many times."

Neville nodded at the good news. He'd like playing music much better than casting crucio at a mouse for hours. "Thanks, Sally! And good night!"

"Night, Neville."


 

"Night, Neville." Hermione bade goodnight to Neville and sat back down to complete her homework. Even though she rarely needed to look things up like the other students, the assignments still took time to write, and her teachers mustn't notice a change in quality.

She was impressed by Neville's courage. To seek out one's deepest fear, then to master it, was a highly difficult thing to do. On top of that, to be willing to learn an "unforgivable curse", despite knowing what his friends and family's reaction would likely be... Clearly, there was a reason Neville was in Gryffindor.

Not that anyone saw him. The room had been too loud at the time for anyone to hear the muttered incantation, as people were busy discussing the events at dinner. She'd asked the Baron for the favour yesterday night. It was pushing the timeframe a little tighter together than she'd liked - she would've preferred for students to have at least a month to get used to the new perspective on dark arts, rather than two mere weeks. This meant that many students might still lump all the recent events together and reject them altogether. But she also wanted to capitalize on the effort she'd spent on Lockhart early, should he make a fool of himself at the Duelling Club and undo all his (but really her) good work. By clearing her own name - Salazar's name - she would be left with more channels to either maintain or salvage things, even when Lockhart loses credibility.

And so Edmund had convinced the other ghosts to co-operate - which was an impressive feat, considering that this included the Grey Lady. And together they'd persuaded Binn to make them a part of his lesson, today. Hermione chuckled softly, picturing this. She sincerely thanked him for his efforts, and the very flattering speech as well.

On the whole, Hermione thought it went well. What was happening within Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff remained to be seen, but she was fairly confident that her fellow Gryffindors would see that Salazar wasn't an evil git. Even Ron was quietly mulling things over, which was encouraging. Yawning, she packed away her now completed assignments and made a mental note to brew more invigoration draught while she worked.

So, they would be duelling tomorrow, huh?

She wished Lockhart, and Flitwick and Severus, the best of luck.

Chapter Text

"Excited for the duelling club, Sally?" asked Ginny at breakfast. The little redhead was practically bouncing up and down in her seat. There had been no need to worry about odd looks from their classmates, since the Great Hall was still relatively empty.

"Certainly," Hermione nodded, absentmindedly cutting a piece of toast in half. "I can see that you are too?"

"Oh yes! I always knew Hogwarts would be exciting, but I can't believe so many cool things happened already!" Ginny's face split into a brilliant smile, something that Hermione got to see much more often this past week. She was glad that Ginny had gotten over her discovery that "Tom" no longer wrote back to her. The girl had moped over the black book for the first few days, during which Percy had repeatedly scolded Fred and George for upsetting her with their jokes (something they were not entirely innocent of). But eventually Ginny had put "Tom's diary" away and carried on with her life.

Ah, Tom... He must've had quite an effect on Ginny, to make her mourn his loss for so long. He'd have to make himself her friend, attentively listen to her and reply back with care. But then again, he had strong incentives for doing so. From the diagnostics Hermione conducted on the real diary yesterday, it seemed that the soul fragment within it had been permitted to temporarily wander out of the host object. This would possibly enable it to possess someone susceptible - that is, weak-willed, overly trusting, or overly attached to it. In fact, Hermione now highly suspected that one of the two most recent charms was making the diary seem friendlier.

Hermione filed this away with the composite image of Voldemort that she was slowly developing in her mind. Such a pity, that all this should be used for all the wrong things. He could've been brilliant, not this disgrace upon her family and her house...

"...Sally?" Ginny waved her hand in front of her eyes. Hermione looked down and saw that her toast and fork were still hovering between her mouth and her plate, and hastily took a bite. "You kind of spaced out just then. Not fully awake yet?"

"Possibly," Hermione laughed softly, "I'm glad you're liking Hogwarts."

Ginny bobbed her head. "I had flying lessons yesterday. Ron got me so excited about those, and it was every bit as fun as he said. I can't wait to watch Harry fly at the Quidditch game!"

"Oh, yes, it's tomorrow, isn't it?"

"Well of course! Where've you been all year?" Ginny stared incredulously. "Anyways, Colin said the Slytherin team's got really cool brooms this year. Their seeker's very mean, though - I think it's the same guy whose dad got into a fight with our dad in Diagon Alley. Apparently his dad was the one who bought their brooms, and he started waving it in the Gryffindor team's face yesterday. Colin said Ron got mad and tried to curse him, but it backfired on himself and he started barfing slugs - I tried to ask Ron whether it was true. He wouldn't talk about it."

Hermione confirmed that it was.

Ginny snorted. "Now I know. Colin didn't manage to get a good picture."

"Ah, about Colin," Hermione was about to say when her necklace warmed, signaling that Lockhart was writing to her again: 'Salazar, I need your help! I don't know what to do, and there's hardly any time left to decide!'

"What about him?" Asked Ginny.

"Oh it's not much. Just, if you see him again, could you ask him to stop taking so many pictures of Harry? I don't think Harry likes it very much." Hermione refrained from furrowing her brows as she directed the invisible quill to reply. What trouble could he have gotten into so early in the morning? 'What is the problem, Gilderoy?'

'Should I wear plum or emerald today? Which one would look better at a duelling club? Emerald is a classic, but plum would add a nice, unique flair.'

...The moron!

"... be so disappointed, poor Colin. But I'll try to tell him, I guess." Hermione was so preoccupied trying not to facepalm or display any outward sign of her immense irritation that she'd missed the first part of Ginny's reply. Her temples were starting to buzz slightly - a mild side effect of the invigoration draught, aggravated by stupidity.

"Thanks, Ginny," she managed to ignore the ache and smile while she wrote back, calmly so that her calligraphy wouldn't change, 'Plum suits you better, Gilderoy.'

Emerald was a colour she'd rather not have associated with an idiot.

Hermione talked with Ginny some more, then with Neville when he arrived cheerily. Harry and Ron eventually appeared as well, still speculating who would be hosting the duelling club. Thanks to last evening's events, in addition to Flitwick, McGonagall and Lockhart, the pool of possible candidates had now expanded to include Nearly-Headless-Nick, the Baron, and even Cadogan's painting. Then Seamus pointed out that Cadogan couldn't teach them, since according to the legends he'd already broken his wand by the time he charged at the dragon on the fat pony.

Sometime in the midst of this, Malfoy strolled in while smugly listing to his two goons all the curses he would use on some "mudbloods" at the duelling club. This earned him multiple hateful glares from everyone who heard him and wasn't wearing green ties, and a few not entirely successfully concealed apprehensive looks from those who were. Hermione was once again reminded that something need to be done about him, and probably a handful others as well, or they would undo her work - once again.

Finally, after thirty minutes, Lockhart finally appeared in a deep plum robe set. Thank goodness.

The rest of the day passed rather quickly, and soon it was the time that everyone was anxiously waiting for. At 8 o'clock, the tables in the Great Hall had been temporarily vanished, and a golden stage had been set up along one wall. Lockhart stood in the center of the stage and beamed at the gathered students, flanked by a happy-looking Flitwick and an expressionless Snape.

"Gather round! Gather round! Can everyone see me? Can you all hear me? Excellent!

"Now, Professor Dumbledore had an excellent idea to start this little duelling club, to train you all in case you ever need to defend yourselves. My colleagues have, of course, invited me to share some of my expertise in this area, since -" he flashed his white teeth, dazzling Lavender and quite a few other girls "- I've had to defend myself on countless occasions - for full details, see my published work. But remember, this is their show, after all! I'll just say a few words, then I'll let them have the spotlight."

Harry snorted at that, though he wisely kept himself quiet. "You think he can manage it?"

Hermione certainly hoped so.

"The first thing you need to know about duelling," smiled Lockhart knowledgeably, "is the proper posture. Good duelling form will help you a long way, since it increases your agility and accuracy. This is the most versatile form:"

He took a step forward, so that his body was facing the end of the stage, and raised his wand arm. Hermione was glad to see that he'd executed it fairly correctly. She had spent some time sketching and labelling her diagrams to ensure this, after all. "You'll notice that my side is facing my opponent, and my knees slightly bent, to allow for quick movement from side to side. This lets me dodge oncoming spells, and gives my opponent a smaller target area. My feet are shoulder width apart, for stability - especially important if I cast a shield to block my opponent's spell. My wand is raised just below eye level. This makes it easy for me to aim my spells, while giving my arm plenty of freedom to execute the wand movements perfectly. My back is straight, for balance... Not to mention it makes me look more dashing, no?" Lockhart finished with a rather obnoxious wink, but thankfully the merit of his "pointers" meant that no one was repulsed too much.

Lockhart then had everyone try this toward the stage, while Flitwick, Snape, and himself went around the room to correct students.

"This feels a bit like the flying lesson in first year," Ron remarked.

"Hopefully nothing disastrous happens this time," Neville gulped, remembering how he'd slipped off his broom and had to go to the hospital wing. But then he became much more confident. "But I don't think I'll get hurt badly this time. I can cast the shield charm if anyone tries to jinx me."

After about fifteen minutes, the professors made their way around the hall and returned to the stage. "All yours, Filius!" Lockhart waved dramatically.

Hermione let out the breath she'd been secretly holding since morning when Lockhart dutifully stepped off the stage, honouring their agreement. Flitwick demonstrated "Expelliarmus" by disarming Snape, who had been holding his wand out in good humour. Following this, the students were split into pairs to practice disarming each other. This went fairly smoothly, even when the partners were from different houses. Everyone adhered to the "disarm only" rule, and whoever succeeded would kindly hand the wand back to their opponent - with the exception of Malfoy, who'd managed to disarm Goyle and was now taunting him about it.

Harry had successfully disarmed Hermione six times now, she was pleased to see. Ron and Seamus had to take turn, to avoid any more mishaps with Ron's broken wand after the slug incident. Neville hadn't disarmed Justin Finch-Fletchly yet, but he came very close.

At 9 o'clock, Flitwick wanted to call up two students who could confidently cast the disarming spell to demonstrate. "How about Miss Granger? I'm sure you have no problem with this spell."

Hermione stepped up to the stage. As she did, she distinctively heard Malfoy snort.

"Now Miss Granger, is there any one you would like to challenge?"

Hermione glanced around, intending to call either Blaise, Theo, or Harry. But then her gaze just happened to sweep over Malfoy's arrogant, sneering face.

She'd found her opponent in an instant.

"I challenge Draco Malfoy," she announced clearly and coolly. As the words left her mouth, Hermione was rather surprised that she actually got angry for a moment. Apparently the headache was making her incredibly short tempered.

But she didn't have a lot of time to ponder this before Malfoy swaggered up to the stage and faced her with a condescending smirk. Hermione smiled back respectfully, as was customary of any duellist with any class when facing their opponent.

"It is customary for each of the two participants of a wizard duel to name a second - that is, someone to take over in case you are unable to continue. The challenger must defeat both his opponent and his second to win," said Flitwick, "the wizards or witches named as seconds are also responsible for ensuring that their opponents obey the accepted combative rules. Now, Miss Granger, who would you name as second?"

"Harry," Hermione said, glancing toward her friend and receiving a nod.

"And Mr. Malfoy?"

"Professor Snape's my second," smirked the blond to the shock of the whole room. Even Snape looked surprised at Malfoy's nerve, though he accepted with a silent jerk of his head nevertheless.

"Al...right," said Flitwick hesitantly, "now you will bow to your opponent."

Again, per customs, Hermione gave her opponent a proper bow. Per habits, she still made sure to keep her eyes on her opponent at all times.

Malfoy didn't bow, and merely jerked his head rudely when urged by Flitwick and Snape.

Flitwick sighed. "And now you will begin on three. One... two..."

"Expelliarmus!" Malfoy shouted on two.

"He cheated!" shouted Harry, but Hermione had already dodged the spell and returned her own. Malfoy gasped and dodged the disarming spell with difficulty, nearly falling over in the process. "Flipendo!" Malfoy shouted, his pale face flushed with rage, then drained with surprise as Hermione's shield charm deflected it directly back toward him. Unprepared for this, he was hit squarely in the chest. He looked a bit dazed, she saw, but as expected there wasn't enough power in his original spell for the weakened rebound to knock him off his feet. Throwing an arm out to regain his balance, Malfoy gritted his teeth and shot a pus-squirting hex, a cutting hex and a head-swelling hex at her - all of which she'd redirected to the ground near his feet, knowing that their effects would not be pretty. Eventually, Malfoy was hit squarely in the forehead by a rebounding stinging charm. "Expelliamus," she cast as Malfoy automatically raised his wand hand to touch the sting, and watched his hawthorn wand fly into her waiting hand.

"Excellent casting of the disarming spell, Miss Granger! And the shield charm, a third year level spell, as well!" Applauded Flitwick, taking Malfoy's wand from her and returning it to its sullen and red-faced owner. "And while Mr. Malfoy's spells rebounded, they were obviously quite well cast. Bravo to both our student volunteers! Now -"

"Professor Snape's Draco's second!" Shouted Goyle before Flitwick could move on, "Granger has to duel him still!"

And the Great Hall suddenly quieted at this surprising prospect sunk in. A student was supposed to duel a professor?

It was necessary by the rules of duelling, of course. As challenger, she was required to face her opponent's second, no matter who he was. Now, she could simply stand there and let herself get hit - since Snape would be only aiming to disarm at first. But on the other hand, some semblance of a duel with Severus could be educational for her. Her opportunities to practice with a live opponent was scarce, and as Godric's philosophy rightly maintained, practical experience was highly important too.

"Indeed," muttered Snape. "Hermione Granger, I take Draco Malfoy's place as your opponent."

They both bowed and began with a round of disarming spells. All were dodged, even as the firing rate steadily increased on both sides and Snape began to cast nonverbally. Clearly, more varied attacks must be used, or the duel would likely drag on till past midnight.

Eventually, Snape cast a very small nonverbal blasting spell at her. Having expected some sort of relatively wide-area spell to end the endless game of dodging by now, Hermione was able to easily brace herself behind a shield charm before the spell impacted. Still dodging her "expelliarmus", Snape shot three targeted spells at her in quick succession before casting confringo again, but stronger this time. These, too, were either dodged or blocked. Snape didn't use the shield charm against her spells, preferring to dodge them instead so that he could free up his wand to attack and end the duel. Hermione observed his eyes narrow slightly in concentration as his casting pattern gradually became more and more complex.

Snape was starting to cast what should be another wide-area spell, judging by his attack pattern and the slight variation in his wand movement. And Hermione was preparing to cast a shield to counter it, when she thought she saw wands being raised in the corner of her eyes. She was no stranger to ambush, having had a fair share of first kidnappers, then assassins, in her previous life. And so even before her would be attackers could start to speak the incantation of their spells, her left hand already shifted by instinct to cast a second shield...

... But she wasn't supposed to cast wandlessly or silently, she suddenly realized, just in time to stop herself. She'd have to dodge, then... But her first shield wasn't supposed to be strong enough to withstand the impact from both sides either, so she'd have to worry about Snape's oncoming spell as well...?

She heard the muttered spells now among the hushed audience, and knew that she was running out of time - but somehow, her brain felt as it it'd sunk into molasses, and simply throbbed in protest as she urged it to run faster. How in the seven hells was this happening? No - focus!

The shield shattered, and an incredible wave of pain rippled and reverberated through her chest and back. As her world flashed white, then faded to black, the last thought on her distracted mind was,

'I really need to sleep.'


Why? Why? Why?!

What in Salazar's name possessed him to use the blasting curse on a student?!

Ignoring the screams from the students, Severus dashed to the other end of the duelling platform. The girl was breathing steadily enough, he saw with relief. No broken ribs either - at least not on the front. It was fortunate that she'd managed to protect herself from the brunt of his spell before her shield failed...

'And of course it would shatter!' The largest part of his mind berated him, 'That was your objective, wasn't it? Are you proud of yourself, Professor Snape?'

Yes, what the hell was he even trying to do in the first place? He'd been only aiming to disarm her so that they could finish this stupid duel that Malfoy's brat had roped him into quickly, but somehow she kept either dodging or shielding. So he slowly increased power to knock her off balance first. He did.

'But don't you realize that you could've just ended the duel any time by simply standing still? You only had to duel, not duel to win!' His mind was yelling at him again with staggering wisdom that, he wished, could've made itself present sooner, 'She was only casting expelliarmus at you anyways! How much would that hurt?'

And then the remainder of his spell pushed her backward into the path of three bludgeoning hexes that would've otherwise missed - courtesy of Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle.

In the background, Severus could vaguely make out Filius shrieking at Malfoy for attacking a classmate behind their back, Potter giving Malfoy a faceful of bat bogey hex while claiming that it was his right to do so as Granger's second - then disarming Malfoy before he could retaliate, and Filius holding Crabbe and Goyle back before they could jump on Potter in retaliation. Severus would deal with those three brats later... But he couldn't say it was all their fault, Severus shamefully remembered. His own lapse of judgement was to blame for this as well. Three students attacked their classmate right under his nose, and he was... too preoccupied duelling a twelve-year-old?

Severus gently levitated the girl to take her to the hospital wing. She looked as it she could be waken, but it was better to be careful.

"Oh dear, dear, dear!" Lockhart seemed to have climbed onto the duelling platform as well. "Allow me -"

"No, Poppy is capable of take care of her," Severus pushed past him distractedly,

" - Rennervate!"

The spell made a sickening whip-like crack through the air.

Instead of waking, Granger gave a strangled gasp before her head rolled back to the side. "Ah, s-seems she's too hurt to be waken, eh?" Lockhart shuffled back when Severus rounded on him, "better take her to the hospital wing, Severus..."

Severus barely refrained from informing Lockhart just how fortunate he was that levitation required the use of a wand, and headed for the hospital wing without delay. There, he gave a fairly complete account of what happened to a shocked Poppy as she conducted a more thorough diagnosis.

"There is a large bruise across her entire chest, and two broken ribs near her back. Poor dear, being sledged from both sides," said Poppy once she reappeared from behind the drawn curtains.

"That's all, right? But you can heal bones easily, yes?"

"I can, and I did," Poppy looked exasperated, "but they'd already punctured her lungs before she's brought here. She's also hemorrhaging at a surprisingly high rate. That'll be Lockhart's doing, I suppose. Some expert he turned out to be, can't even cast a simple rennervate right..."

"Seems that whatever's given him his knowledge couldn't give him the practical skills to match," Severus muttered. "I was surprised that he didn't want to duel one of us to show off, but now his reason is obvious."

"I've given her a blood replenishing potion and a healing potion. I'll see if I can do something more for her lungs, and then she'll have to lay still for a day or two... Are you going to continue with the duelling club?" Poppy crossed her arms, "Quidditch is trouble enough, and now this,"

"It won't happen again," Severus promised. He certainly won't be duelling any more students.

Why did he even consent to the duel anyways? He'd agreed to be Malfoy's "second", a whimsical request that he didn't think would come to anything. But even if it was duelling convention for him to take over for Malfoy, he could still refuse as professor. He could say that some rules didn't apply to a practice duel - especially since Filius had already returned Malfoy's wand, or anything if he needed to. But he'd still went alone with it, partly because he wasn't keen on disappointing Malfoy.

But mostly because Granger didn't object.

She hadn't protested that the setup clearly wasn't fair to her, or even flinch at the notion of duelling the "evil" professor, he realized. Potter, Weasley, and Longbottom did look apprehensive on her behalf, but Granger just... bowed calmly and went right ahead?

Severus glanced toward the white curtains that hid the young muggleborn potion prodigy from view. Had she been so vain as to think that she could duel an adult? Severus highly doubted it, but even if she did, he would have to admit that her arrogance was understandable. He honestly hadn't expected her to last longer than five seconds, but instead she'd held out for almost twenty minutes using only expelliarmus and protego. True, a half-decent adult opponent would've overpowered her shield from the start, but Granger was unarguably skilled for a student.

Or had she trusted that Severus, as a professor, would not hurt her? There were preciously few students who would share this sentiment, especially in her house...

Presently Poppy had nothing else to ask him, and so wasted no time in shushing him out of the hospital wing. Severus headed for his office in the dungeons - Filius would've dismissed the students by now, so there was no point going back to the Great Hall. He ignored the Potion Master, whose portrait guarded the secret passageway, when asked about the duelling club. It was rather rude, especially to the only other person at Hogwarts - living or not - who could actually hold a meaningful discussion on the magical properties of various substances, but Severus really wasn't in the mood to chat.

Sitting alone in his office didn't improve his mood either, as it gave him more time to think and appreciate the full implications of this incident.

Over the past year or so, by some fortune, a fragile, shaky tolerance had been slowly forming between the other three Houses and his own. Over his time at Hogwarts, Severus had seem many attempts by students, teachers and headmasters alike to bridge the divide, but those were doomed from the start like twigs in a torrent. Never before had things clicked into place as well as now, with singular "twigs" interlocking and strengthening each other until they just might form a scaffold - one that Severus did everything allowed by his circumstances to reinforce. Never before had it seemed so possible that the poisonous rivalry between the Hogwart Houses could end once and for all, and Severus sincerely doubted that such an opportunity would arise again.

Unfortunately, Granger's injury at the hands of three Slytherins - four if he included himself - would be the spark that burned this fragile network of twigs to ashes.

Tomorrow, three-quarters of the Hogwarts student body would be slinging insults and possibly hexes at the "slimy, conniving snakes". Malfoy would sneer at them and say something along the lines of "the mudblood got what she deserved". The rest of the Slytherins would be forced to defend Malfoy - because any fool could see that Malfoy was arguably the most influential person in his House, and no one would risk being ostracized by their own house in exchange of dubious acceptance from the other side. The rest of the student body would then scream that the slimy snakes are all the same - evil, dark wizards, Death Eaters, etc. etc.

And they would be back to where they started. Severus sighed.

A small knock sounded at his door, and Severus called for his visitor to enter.

"Professor, I'd like to know if Granger's alright."

"Two broken bones and a punctured lung," Severus recited truthfully. Theodore Nott was another interesting one. While the children had been understandably secretive, it did not escape Severus' attention that Nott, Zabini, Greengrass and Granger were close friends. And while the ludicrous notion that Minerva had nagged him into investigating was completely ridiculous, Severus strongly suspected that it wasn't completely ungrounded... "Knowing Madame Pomfrey's efficacy, she should be fine by the day after tomorrow."

"I see. Thank you, sir."

"Before you go, Mr. Nott, what's happening now in the Slytherin common room?"

"Everyone's trying to find out what other people think about Malfoy and the duelling club without saying too much, I believe."

Severus nodded. "Curfew begins in five minutes, Mr. Nott. I advise you to return to the common room immediately. Goodnight."

The small, reticent second-year Slytherin nodded simply and shut the door behind him, leaving Severus alone to his thoughts and his slowly forming list of everyone he should keep an eye out for in the near future. So far, it consisted of Potter, Albus, Lockhart, the ghosts, Granger, and the Gryffindors. And definitely his Slytherins - with especial attention to select individuals...

'And what would you say, Lily? Will we ever learn?'

Chapter Text

If there was anyone Draco Malfoy hated the most in the school, the first would be scarhead Potter - the famous Boy-Who-Lived. Draco hated how people gasped when they hear his name, how the professors loved him, how the first years simply admired him. He hated how Potter was able to play Quidditch in first year, and Draco wasn't. How could Potter get better treatment than him? He was a Malfoy, for Merlin's sake!

The second would be Granger.

Draco couldn't say what, but there was always something about her that ticked him off. Maybe he wouldn't have hated her so much if in the first potion class, she had just quailed in front of her betters like she should. Or looked hurt when he'd called her a mudblood. Or winced. Or anything, other than sitting there with that infuriating half-smile.

Maybe her calmness was what made her so irritating. Sometimes, Draco would even get a crazy notion - that she thought he wasn't worth reacting to! Draco didn't know who she thought she was, because he was clearly superior to her. He was heir Malfoy, the richest and most influential family in magical Britain. He lived in a mansion, with five house elves at his bidding. His father had the ministry and the school's board of governors wrapped around his finger. His father could get him almost anything he wanted.

Granger was a mudblood. Yes, Draco knew Salazar Slytherin said that mudbloods should be welcomed, but clearly they would never be nearly as good as him. Because when they had no prestige to their name, when his father was worth ten times more than their fathers, what chance did they have? What did Granger have to be proud of?

But somehow, Granger never broke composure. Not when he took her loser friend Longbottom's rememberall. Not when he'd tried to flick puffer-fish eyes into her cauldron in potion class. Not even when he pelted her with the best curses he'd learned from older Slytherins and from the Malfoy library. He still had no idea how he'd lost that duel. How dare someone as common as her beat him, a Malfoy?

He didn't even get to see fright on her face when his spell hit her. She'd been facing away from him.

And somehow, the sight of her lying still on the floor of the duelling platform didn't make him feel good either.

He tried to squeeze as much satisfaction from it as he could - since he'd already lost Slytherin 400 points for it, as well as earned himself weekly detentions all the way up to Christmas. He tried to get people to laugh at how spectacularly Granger lost, but no one seemed to find it very funny because really, what would you expect when you pit a second year against a professor? Then he tried to get his fellow Slytherins to say that Granger's been taught her place, but somehow the conversation kept being diverted, and always managing to end with concerned inquiries to how his forehead must've hurt from the stinging hex. Draco didn't like this at all. Slytherins were subtle people. They still acted the same as they always did, as long as he steered clear of the last five minutes of the duelling club, but Draco could tell that something was not right. It almost felt as if they were starting to not listen to him! Weren't they all clambering over themselves to please him last year around this time? Didn't they know they have to get on his good side, or they wouldn't be invited to his father's winter ball?

Later that evening, Snape had called him, Crabbe and Goyle to his office without any notice or elaboration beforehand. There, they had been silently asked to sit, again with no explanations given. Draco was forced to look down to avoid the gaze of the black eyes that bored into him from across the table. There was a reason Snape was the Slytherin Head of House.

"Do you three know why you are not expelled yet?" Professor Snape finally began, in a perfectly neutral tone.

Crabbe and Goyle actually looked at each other and shook their heads, the idiots.

"Because Madame Pomfrey conducted a detailed analysis of Granger's injury and determined that even together, your three bludgeoning hexes would've been too weak to do any more than create some painful bruises. It was only due to your unfortunate timing and positioning with my spell that Granger's ribs were cracked, and only due to Lockhart's miscast spell that she requires any amount of hospitalization at all.

"You are still here, Draco, not because the professors are afraid of you or your father. You are still here only because they do not yet consider you a danger. For your own sake, all three of you should remember this. As you grow older, there will be consequences to acts like this - Azkaban, for example, and even your fathers' name will not excuse you."

In other words, he hadn't gotten away with anything. But of course they would say that, wouldn't they? In reality, they all knew father would have them fired if they dared expel Draco, right?

So why was he so afraid to meet Professor Snape's eyes, and why had he not written home yet?

But Draco didn't dwell too much on these thoughts when there were much better things to think about - namely the Quidditch match tomorrow, and how he would bask in the glory as Slytherin's hero. How the whole house would gather around him like Gryffindor had done for Potter. At least his classmates were still enthusiastic when they talked about Quidditch. Avery, Pike, Nott and Zabini wished him luck. Pansy, Tracy and Daphne insisted that he didn't need it, because he would catch the snitch in no time. Crabbe and Goyle smirked widely and nodded along, though in Draco's opinion they'd nod along with anything. Flint whispered that he had access to a decent source of butterbeer, and that Draco could look forward to it at the victory party.

Draco had only the slightest hint of a feeling that perhaps their intention was to distract him with Quidditch, but that flickered out as quickly as it came.

And so on the morning of the game, Draco strolled in to the Great Hall, full of excitement. There, he was greeted by his house, and accepted two slices of toast buttered for him by Pansy. After he finished, Crabbe and Goyle dutifully picked up their unfinished food to follow him to the Quidditch field. As he was left, he heard the mudblood Thomas talking to Potter not far behind: "Hey Harry, good luck on the game! You know, I still kept the banner of the lion eating a snake from last year. Shall we bring it out today?"

"Let's not," came saint Potter's reply, "It'll be mean, and Malfoy doesn't represent the Slytherins at all. I mean, Theodore, Blaise and Daphne are all really nice. I'm sure they didn't like what Malfoy did yesterday anymore than we did..."

Ha! Who was Potter to say things like that? Gryffindor's Golden Boy certainly did like to kid himself. Draco would ask Nott, Zabini and Daphne about what they thought of Potter and his fan club at the victory party - no, as the team carries him back to the castle on their shoulders. Then they'd all see how Slytherin they really were.

Still smirking, Draco met his team in the changing room and put on his emerald Quidditch robes. He held his head high as he marched out to the field, to the cheering of the Slytherin section of the benches. As the captains shook hands, Draco caught Potter's gaze for half a second. Draco sneered. Potter returned a hateful glare that actually bordered on murderous.

Then they'd kicked off, and everything began to go downhill.

Draco searched for the snitch while deliberately swooping around the field to show Potter how brilliant his new broom was, but it was starting to rain and making it difficult to distinguish the fluttering of wings or the glittering of the gold. At least Potter wasn't having any more luck, especially with his glasses and the Weasley twins circling him. Presently, Draco's nenemis seemed to be dodging a bludger that just seemed to have it in for him.

But even as Draco laughed at his predicament, he found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to deny that there was a reason Potter had been chosen as seeker even as a first year. And Draco found himself realizing that even on his newer, better broom, he might not be able to swerve quickly enough to dodge that bludger.

The Weasleys were no longer hovering around Potter now, having apparently decided that the rest of the team needed protecting too. This gave Draco an unobstructed view of Potter just in time to see him do a hilariously stupid sort of twirl through the air. "Trained for the ballet, Potter?"

Potter turned his head to glare, before suddenly swerving to the left and gaining speed. He must've seen the snitch! Wasting no time, Draco chased after him. Potter was fast, but the Nimbus 2001 did have certain improvements. Draco leaned forward with anticipation. They were almost neck to neck now, and soon enough he would over take him -

But then Potter suddenly did a sharp flip and doubled back.

"What the -" Draco barely managed to say, before the bludger slammed into his back and he felt himself fall...

...

"... almost the same injury as her, isn't it?"

"... except not as bad, because Lockhart didn't ..."

"... Malfoy and Potter are lucky... didn't have to suffer that fool...call himself a professor... nerve to come and put a note under her pillow..."

"... you think Potter did this just to shake off the bludger, or because of yesterday?"

"Oh, he's awake. He's awake."

Draco woke in one of the white beds of the hospital wing, wincing, and opened his eyes to the sight of his housemates hurrying over to him. Avery filled him in on what happened. Apparently one of the bludgers had been jinxed to target Potter specifically. Potter had, in what Avery called a surprising display of Slytherin cunning, apparently decided that he had no chance unless he took the other seeker out - though Pike and Zabini didn't quite believe this interpretation. Either way, Draco, who'd thought he'd seen the snitch, followed him and got wiped out by the bludger instead. Professor Snape had saved Draco, of course, causing him to just float down slowly rather than crash. Meanwhile, Potter continued to loop and swirl to dodge the bludger. He did eventually catch the snitch in the gulley somewhere, but not before the bludger broke his elbow.

So now both seekers were lying in the infirmatory. (Though Madame Pomfrey had sensibly put them as far from each other as possible, perhaps because both of them had a rather large entourage of visitors accompanying them.) Madame Pomfrey had already healed them. Apparently Lockhart had also offered to heal them on their way up, but thankfully Professor Snape had shouted "Protego" before he could even get a word out. The embarrassed look on his face, Avery swore, had been hilarious.

But Draco didn't exactly feel like laughing right now. This wasn't how he wanted the game to go. And though that wasn't going to stop him from milking this injury for all it's worth, there would be no victory party. All because he fell for Potter's trick, which funnily enough didn't even count as cheating.

He wanted to be carried back a champion, not an invalid. He wanted his whole House to shake his hand and gather around him with awe. Well, all the Slytherin second years were here now, as opposed to just the Gryffindor Quidditch team for Potter. This made him smirk smugly for a moment, until he noticed how every once in a while, someone's eyes would flicker to the third occupied bed in the hospital wing when they thought he wasn't looking.

And Draco had a tiny suspicion that perhaps for many of them, visiting him was an excuse to be inside the hospital wing so that they might have a chance to see a certain someone else. This time, it didn't flicker out.

Well, there was one way to fix that.

Draco laughed loudly. "Nott, I heard something else that's hilarious today. Pothead over there seems to think you were going to defend the mudblood yesterday!"

Even Draco was surprised with the effect of his own words. In the blink of an eye, the room had went dead silent, so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Everyone froze. Even Potter, who'd just woken as well, sat up and turned toward Draco in surprise. Granger didn't move. She was probably under the effect of some potion still.

Nott cocked his head. "Come again, Malfoy?"

Translation: Are you sure you want to ask that? And are you sure you want to ask that here?

Well, sure he did. "I asked, Nott, if you're friends with Potty, Weasel and the mudblood."

Now everyone was waiting with bated breath. The Slytherins looked simultaneously surprised, curious, and something else that Draco couldn't place his finger on. The Gryffindors looked dubious. And Potter was staring at Nott nervously but expectantly. It was blatantly obvious now that whatever Nott say next would have dramatic reactions. And there would be no taking it back.

And throughout all this, Theodore Nott glanced around once, calmly, giving nothing away. "Well, since you're so interested, Malfoy," he finally said, and Draco was struck by how the silkiness of his tone reminded him of father and Snape and, somehow... Granger? "While I'd rather not associate myself with Ronald Weasley - no offense - Zabini, Greengrass and I are in fact close friends with Harry Potter. We are also close friends with Sally Granger, who I believe is the muggleborn you're referring to. And while we're on that topic, Malfoy, we think what you did to Sal at the duelling club was utterly despicable."

What? Nott had to be joking, right? Any second now he would burst out laughing at how Potter was stupid to even believe that, right?

"It's true," said Zabini, "none of us wanted to say it yesterday, but since you insist on bringing it up..." He shrugged.

What? How could they side with her instead of him, a Malfoy and a fellow Slytherin? Draco's jaw dropped. "But she's a mudblood! Why do you care? I didn't think you would stoop so low, Nott!"

"Because Sal is smart, caring, and a great friend, Malfoy." Greengrass crossed her arms, "and because we're not a house of crooks and villains. Honestly, dirty tricks like this is part of the reason why our house got such a bad rep! And just after the Baron showed us what we used to be, just when we have a chance to make friends outside our house, you want them to forever remember us as the house that attack people behind their backs?"

The room was still silent. The other Slytherins, Draco noticed, were watching the exchange like spectators at a duel - a duel that was starting to feel rather lopsided. Why wasn't anyone speaking on his behalf? Draco looked to Crabbe and Goyle for assistance, an act that turned out to be pointless because the two morons apparently only had one programmed response - crack their knuckles and look menacing. Nott merely spared them a condescending glance.

On his right, Pansy was opening and closing her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but couldn't think of anything else to say.

"What about Slytherin unity?" Draco shouted, "What's wrong with you lot?"

"Well Slytherin refuses to stand by your rash decision to attack someone behind the back, on stage, just because you lost a duel," said Zabini coolly.

This finally stirred the rest of the Slytherins out of their spectatorship. "Indeed," Pike nodded, "it was very un-Slytherin of you, Malfoy."

"Yeah, were you even thinking?"

"And it was a direct breach of duelling etiquette too! It'll bring shame to our family names!"

"You can't rope all of us into this, Draco!"

Draco looked around at his murmuring housemates desperately. He didn't even want to see what the Gryffindors' expressions were. "You choose the Gryffindors over us!"

"No, Draco," said Tracy Davis quietly.

"Because the ultimatum is actually everyone else, Harry Potter, Sal, Nott, Zabini, Greengrass or you, mate," Avery told him, "We all want a unified Slytherin House. Please don't make us choose, mate."

Translation: You're still valuable to us, but if it really comes down to that, you won't like our decision.

"I hope Sal gets well soon," Daphne told the Gryffindors. This time, there were nods all around.

"Come and find us when you're ready, Malfoy," said Zabini, before he, Nott and Greengrass made their exit after giving everyone in the hospital wing one last sweeping glance. The rest of the Slytherins slowly trickled out after them. Potter and the Gryffindors gave him an awkward look, before thankfully shuffling out as well.

Translation: You know where we stand. Whether you still want to be friends is up to you now.

Eventually, Pansy was the only ones left by his bed, apart from Crabbe and Goyle. She swallowed. "See you later, Draco?"

Draco nodded numbly, staring after her as she left, before gathering his things from his bedside and quietly slipping out as well. He'd never felt so lost.

But at least they hadn't cast him out. He'd lost - and he wasn't even sure how much or to whom, but they were still willing to have him back as long as he could accept it and move on. And Draco Malfoy wasn't stupid. He knew he had to figure out what he'd done wrong, and then...

Draco looked over at Granger's bed in the furthest corner.

He'd have to make amends.

Chapter Text

Should an outsider somehow manage to peek into the Slytherin common room, Blaise decided, he would find very little out of ordinary this evening. The green fire burned steadily, the long, black sofas were occupied by the usual groups of people, and the circles of students were going about their usual business - plus quiet conversations on the side, as always.

But for Blaise, the second year circle looked very different from the center than from the edge.

He still found it hard to believe his luck. Certainly, he'd always wanted to sit here - or more realistically, relatively close to here, but he knew it would be very hard for a "newcomer" like himself. People knew of his mum (one might even call her infamous actually, he snorted), but she hadn't gone to school with their parents. Most of the other Slytherins - the old names like Malfoy - pretty much grew up together at their parents' parties, but Blaise hadn't known anybody until after his sorting.

But now, somehow, he and his friends managed to shake up the power structure so much that Malfoy had been knocked off his throne. And miraculously, he'd really done it!

"Parvati smiled at me today," Davis informed them, "I do believe the rumour mill has started."

"I do kind of miss playing dress up with her, Padma and Hannah," Parkinson seemed to debate with herself, before finally admitting softly.

"I can arrange a get together for us this Sunday. It'll be great!" smiled Daphne. She was currently seated on Blaise's right. Theo was seated on her right. "Millie, I don't think you've really met them yet. Why don't you come along, and we can introduce you."

"Ah, then we'll count on Queen Daphne to work her magic," said Bulstrode, leaning back and relaxing against the leather. "Frankly, I'd rather sit with you three than Malfoy. He keeps trying to imply that I'm ugly whenever he talks to me."

Blaise nodded sympathetically, and pretended not to notice Avery's tiny, inconspicuous but decidedly guilty gulp. Of course, none of the Slytherins could truthfully claim they'd never spoken ill of anyone. But Malfoy, who insulted people left and right, to their face or behind their back, was a whole new level of irritating. Blaise had no doubt that if he acted like Malfoy, no one would've put up with him for half a minute.

Blaise whistled under his breath. "Blimey, Malfoy's really managed to offend the whole House at some point of the other, hasn't he? I hope he'd stop being a prat and strutting around as if he owns us, because he doesn't." This was met with sincere nods all around. "Hear, hear," said Terence Higgs, who was passing by on his way to join the rest of the fourth years. Blaise remembered he was Slytherin's Seeker before he got replaced by Malfoy.

And thus officially concludes Malfoy's reign over Slytherin House, Blaise thought. He really had it coming.

"So, you lot replaced Malfoy, huh?" Adrian Pucey, who was a fellow fourth year and Quidditch player of Higgs's, looked up with interest. "It's true then, what I've been hearing all day?"

"Depends on what you've heard, but I believe so," said Theo casually.

"Malfoy's not going to be happy about this, of course," chuckled Graham Montague with a few other third years, "he's going to be so pissed at the next Quidditch practice. Who wants to bet that he throws a tantrum?"

The chuckle was echoed around the room. Apparently the idea of Malfoy throwing a tantrum wasn't too hard to imagine. "To be honest, I'm rather surprise he hadn't threatened to not invite us to his family's winter ball," said Davis.

"True," Pike sighed, "no access to Malfoy's father's connections would be a big loss for us. And I was hoping his father could get me in to the ministry..."

"But at least for me," Avery commented candidly, "riding on the coat tail of a coat-tail rider isn't enough. Malfoy whines to his father for everything, but even Lucius Malfoy can only get him so far. You three though," he shrugged, "you're clearly going places. Between Blaise, Greengrass and Nott, you've obviously got no shortage of family background, capital, charisma, brains or talent. Obviously it'll be better for everyone if Malfoy comes back sensible, but I'd say I value your friendships more than his."

"How very reasonable of you, Avery," said Davis.

"Thank you. I am a Slytherin."

"I wonder about Granger, though," MacDougal tapped his chin curiously, "she - Sal - must've been something really special, if you became friends with her. We already know she's a prodigy, of course. Tied with Nott for top place last year, wasn't she?"

Blaise tried to think of how best to sum up the many things that made Sal stand out, in a way that would interest his housemates the most. Should he mention her familiarity with magical traditions? That she didn't seem to be repelled by the dark arts even from the start? That she didn't mind talking to the supposed "enemy house"? Her charisma? Her grace and mannerism?

Of course, there was also how Sal had stood by him, Daphne and Theo when Ron Weasley had insulted them, or just the general feeling of assurance that he'd sometimes get around her. These things he wouldn't mention to his housemates. It probably wouldn't add to his argument.

"Sal ended up in Gryffindor, but I'm willing to bet a thousand galleons that the Sorting Hat seriously considered sorting her in Slytherin." Theo said.

Sal, in Slytherin? That idea had never occurred to Blaise. He hadn't seen Sal demand any favours from anyone, and she didn't seem to really really want anything either. And he definitely couldn't imagine any Slytherin spending so much time on helping a stranger - at the time - with potion essays, for free. Regardless, it had been the perfect thing to say, Blaise thought as he mentally congratulated Theo. Very little else could've spiked their housemates' interest even higher than it already was.

"Interesting," muttered Avery.

"Quite," nodded Bulstrode, "I think I'd like to talk to her sometimes."

Which reminded Blaise. Unlike Theo or Daphne, who already had deep roots in the Slytherin hierarchy, people were still not used to taking "Zabini" too seriously. Which meant that Blaise had to put in much more effort to ensure that he wouldn't be gradually pushed back to the peripheries again.

And what better way to cement his newly gained influence, than to exercise it?

"You know, guys, for our own safety," Standing up, Blaise spoke so that his voice carried to the entire common room. He wasn't exactly counting on the older students' attention, actually, but there was no harm in speaking a little louder. "We need to do something about that safety hazard named Lockhart..."

Draco opened the door to the hospital wing, quietly - partly so as not to attract the attention of the formidable Madame Pomfrey, but mostly to leave himself the option of turning back.

He wasn't completely sure why he wandered up here. Ever since he'd left in the morning, his feet seemed to have been carrying him on their own, about the usual routine: go to class, sit down and listen to the teacher like his classmates, get up when dismissed, walk with Crabbe and Goyle to the dining table, chat about something safe, then get up and repeat the process again... But by the time they'd normally head back to the common room, Draco told Crabbe and Goyle to meet him later. He wasn't ready to go back yet.

The room was silent, he realized with relief. Perhaps it was empty, and he could go back telling himself that this was all a waste of time? But that hope was dashed when he finally made himself look at the bed in the furthest corner. Unfortunately, yet thankfully, she was still there.

But she was still asleep though, so Draco dared to shuffle a little closer, then a little closer.

He still felt as if he was thrashing around in a thick mist, with no sense of direction, but at least some things were becoming more clear to him since the morning. Firstly, the power hierarchy in Slytherin house had been irreversibly altered. Nott, Greengrass and Zabini had replaced him, and they were there to stay.

Secondly, his place at the top of the power hierarchy in Slytherin house had never been absolute in the first place.

He'd never realized this until after Avery's parting advice. True, as a Malfoy, he'd entered Hogwarts as the most valuable Slytherin of his year. He had the most money, a powerful father, and knew the most people. Some of the others, such as Zabini, had next to nothing compared to him. But throughout the year, Zabini had successfully inserted himself into their circle. Greengrass became everybody's friend. Nott became one of the professors' favourites despite being in Slytherin. And meanwhile, Draco had been bullying people around. It made him feel like a king, seeing people get all offended but couldn't do anything to him, but it slowly eroded the friendships he'd started out with - no, more like pseudo-friendships probably. If he'd been in their shoes, Draco mulled over the depressing idea, he would've never really liked himself either.

When he looked at it this way, it wasn't all that surprising that people would stop following him sooner or later.

Which lead to the third realization. He would have to make himself worth people's while. His father's power and wealth would help, of course, but clearly it would no longer be enough. He needed to be good at something, do something for himself as well, if he wanted people's respect... Perhaps he could start with Quidditch? He loved that sport. His father had set him on a good start by putting him on team, but he would use the opportunity to train and familiarize himself with all the strategies possible. And he would become better than any Seeker Slytherin's ever had. Perhaps he'd even be the first one to beat Potter. But he should spend more time on the other things he cared about as well... like learning spells? He knew it was too early to hope to surpass Nott or, as much as he loath to admit it, Granger, but it was no reason not to develop his own skills.

And of course, he had to stop being mean to people for no reason. It had been very un-Slytherin of him to do something that was all harm and no real benefit, but he knew better now. Over time, he hoped people would start to really care for him as a person, and not just a way to get closer to his father.

Fourthly, there was one thing he could do immediately, that could improve his re-integration into the newly reorganized Slytherin house by three-folds.

He knew that an introduction, or re-introduction in his case, would go a long way - especially from someone important. But he wouldn't count on Nott, Zabini, or even Greengrass to do this for him. Emotionally, he'd insulted their friend, pretty much just declared war on them, then tried to turn the other Slytherins against them. Rationally, he was a threat to their new influence, and they had everything to gain in keeping him from climbing back to the top. Draco was out of luck either way. But there was one other who was both in a position to make a difference, and who just might be willing to help him. Granger - Sal.

Unlike the others, Sal - and it made Draco feel better to call her that, as he could almost pretend she was someone else - didn't have anything to lose. Plus, she was a Gryffindor. That meant she didn't necessarily hold grudges like he suspected most of the Slytherins would, and might be quicker to forgive. Besides, weren't they supposed to be saints or something? Or was that the Hufflepuffs? Either way, she was his best bet, and hence why he was here.

Draco didn't think of himself as a very brave person, and so he was glad that Sal was still fast asleep. If she'd showed any sign of consciousness, he would've probably bolted from the room and never to return. But she didn't, so Draco was able to make himself stay long enough to write a note on a clean sheet of parchment and place it by her bed. An apology, that he hoped she'd accept. And maybe, if he was lucky, she would convince the others that he'd changed - something he didn't quite have the courage to do himself...

He paused for some time, staring at the neatly folded parchment. It was securely placed on a corner of the small table, neither too conspicuous or too easily overlooked. And he really should go back, now, before he could decide to snatch it up and destroy all evidence of its existence.

Draco Malfoy left the hospital wing for the second time that day, feeling no less unnerved than he was in the morning.

But at least he was no longer lost.

Chapter Text

Hermione woke to golden sunrays, falling comfortably over her face and her blanket. Judging by the angle at which they beamed in through the window, she would guess that it was around 8:00 AM. After dressing, Hermione acquired Madam Pomfrey's permission to attend class before leaving to retrieve her book bag from her dormitory.

The potions had made her very drowsy, and she'd been drifting in and out of sleep for most of yesterday. Still, nothing short of a large overdose of sleeping potion would've kept her from being woken by all the commotion after the Quidditch match. She'd allowed them to think she was unaware of their presence, partly because her vision still swam whenever she tried to open her eyes, and partly because things were playing out nicely on its own. She had been worried that the duelling club incident would force the school into an ultimatum too soon - a mistake on her part that could've been detrimental, but her little snakes had truly exceeded her expectations.

And they would be great, she knew. She'd never been more certain.

Most of all, she was pleasantly surprised by the decision of Draco Malfoy. When she'd woken to find him standing over her - she wasn't sure what time it was then, she'd already surreptitiously trained her wand (which she'd slipped back into her sleeve at first chance) on him from beneath her blanket, half expecting him to hex her again for losing him his supporters. But ultimately, Draco proved himself to be more sensible than she'd previously thought, and she was glad for him. She knew why he apologized, of course: something like nineteen part practicality and one part guilt. He'd realized that making up with her could possibly give him a better chance of reconciling with the others - especially Theo, Blaise and Daphne. Moreover, he now respected her intelligence enough to take some care in writing his note. This itself was a commendable improvement.

She would let people know that he was sorry, perhaps even bring up the possibility that he could change his ways. She still have a vested interest in Draco's well-being, as with all the other students in Slytherin House. Not to mention that she still needed material to show her house in a better light. Of course, Blaise, Daphne and Theo would realize that she liked Draco Malfoy just about as much as they liked Ron Weasley, but Draco wouldn't be too disappointed on the whole.

The open corridor that joined the towers smelled of fresh morning dew, she noted pleasantly. It really did feel good to be well rested. With such an ample supply of invigoration draughts at her disposal, it had been too easy to forget that a twelve-year-old's body cannot sustain the same working hours that Salazar had grown accustomed to. Nevertheless, while potions could induce alertness temporarily, they were useless against the symptoms of missing sleep in the long term - that is, slowed reaction, reduced creativity and memory, and poorer fitness in general. She was juggling too many things at once, and there was simply too little time.

She would have to prioritize. The horcrux, her research, and even a portion of her daily training may have to wait while she deal with Lockhart, which meant this whole business with Lockhart had to be wrapped up very soon. She'd more or less gotten from him what she needed, and the benefits of any further investment of her time in him no longer outweighed the cost.

Not to mention, she was very displeased to be the victim of his attempt to show off.

Meanwhile, it seemed that Lockhart hadn't been holding out too well. Hermione nearly chuckled out loud as she scanned the large loopy writing, sentences long and short, while helping herself to toast and strawberries at breakfast. It consisted of something like:

'Salazar, you didn't give me the lesson notes for today yet. You didn't forget, right?'

'Salazar?'

'Salazar why aren't you replying?'

'Salazar what do I do? The Quidditch match is almost over!'

'Salazar, help me! Everyone's giving me these looks at lunch, and then Peeves lobbed a dozen dungbombs over my head and now my beautiful hair stinks! And it won't come off no matter how much I wash it! What do I do? Those things are abominations! Where did he get those from anyways? I can't leave my room like this!'

'Salazar! I've spent the whole afternoon and evening in the bathroom, and the stink still won't come off! What do I do?'

'Are you ignoring me?'

'Salazar Salazar Salazar Salazar'

...

'Ahh! I tried to use scourgify on my hair, but I accidentally singed half of it off! Now I have a bald patch on one side! What do I do? It's so ugly!'

'Salazar! Please!'

'Please Salazar I can't fall asleep when my hair smells like dung!'

Hermione, of course, had a very good idea where Peeves' dungbombs came from. Thus, she also knew their smell was strong enough to last at least another five day unless one knew to use the one unintuitive but effective designated remover. She would let Lockhart suffer for a while longer, partly because it served him right and partly to be sure that people don't draw the connection between Lockhart's reappearance and her release from the infirmary. Besides, even if Lockhart did manage to get the dungbombs out of his hair and leave his room, she'd heard Fred and George quietly affirming to each other that they still had six more on hand.

Contemplating whether to gift Peeves with another box of dungbombs as a thank-you present and deciding against it, Hermione finished her breakfast before turning to chat with her classmates. Her Gryffindor friends reacted to Draco's note mostly as she'd expected them to. Harry was surprised that Draco would actually sincerely admit that he was wrong, and guessed that Blaise, Daphne and Theo probably made him do it. Ron, who'd been forced to scrub the trophy room during the Quidditch match as detention for the flying car stunt, was still in awe that the Slytherins actually sided with "the right side over Malfoy". (And with some work, she'd finally got him to admit that "maybe the snakes weren't all slimy gits after all".) Fred and George debated whether to proceed with their plan to prank Draco, and were still undecided by the time she left for Potions.

The small progression that entered the dungeons must've been very interesting to see. Harry and Ron walked just ahead of Blaise, Hermione and Theo, who were followed closely by Daphne, Lavender and Parvati. Behind them were Tracy Davis, Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bulstrode, followed by Gaius Avery, Mark Pike, and Draco Malfoy (and the ever-present Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle). For the first time, Malfoy took his seat behind her with not a sneer, but a hopeful smile. "Morning, Sal,"

"Good morning, Draco," Hermione replied with her usual smile.

The unusualness of their entrance was unmissed by their classmates who'd already arrived. Some, like Neville and Morag MacDougal, looked as if they'd somewhat expected it. Others, like Seamus Finnigan, seemed too surprised to notice that their jaws were hanging open. The now obvious cordiality between what previously felt like two warring factions was clearly unmissed by Professor Snape as well. Though he gave impressively little physical reactions, Gryffindor was no longer losing points for no particular reason, and Slytherin was no longer gaining any for trivial things. Though he still scolded Gryffindor students brutally when they made mistakes he no longer intimidated them by breathing down their necks, and certain Slytherins such as Crabbe and Goyle received their fair share as well. And though Draco still received a disproportionally high amount of praises, Severus was trying not to be too unfair to Harry. Perhaps despite whatever history he'd had with James Potter or Lily Evans, Harry's support during the Baron's speech had earned his respect.

At the end of class, Professor Snape quietly asked Hermione how she was recovering, and requested that she bottle all of her potion rather than just a sample. Madam Pomfrey would have use for it, he said.

The remainder of her day passed simply enough, and mainly consisted of catching up on work she'd missed. At first convenience, Hermione made a visit to her Chamber to inform the portraits of the recent developments since the duelling club.

"So that's why Severus was in such a foul mood that day," Portrait Salazar muttered, after Portrait Godric had finished ranting about lack of duellist's honour and Portrait Helga had finished scolding her for overworking herself. "In any case, this is a cause to celebrate."

"It is," Hermione agreed, "The ridiculous rift between the houses had finally been closed, now that both side's done something to gain the other's respect. Our house now at least know why taking off after the likes of Voldemort is not favourable for anybody, and the stigma over the Dark Arts has been dissolved somewhat. Now I just have to draw the whole set-up to a suitable close, one that wouldn't cause all our work to go to ruin."

"And finally things are as they should be," Portrait Godric beamed, "I knew our students had it in them!"

"Maybe now they'll finally stop trying to lock our books away," Portrait Rowena sniffed, "I know some of them are not suitable for all readers, but no one's touched them for centuries! It's a waste of knowledge and good research!"

"We need a more sophisticated system of accessing the Restricted Section," Hermione made a mental note.

Portrait Helga smiled gently. "You know how I feel about the Dark Arts, but I'll take anything over people pledging themselves to that monster Voldemort and attacking each others like lunatics."

"Ah yes, Voldemort..." Hermione steepled her fingers, "I wonder if Lucius Malfoy would wonder why no catastrophe is happening at Hogwarts? He wouldn't have been told that the diary was a horcrux, of course - or even the specifics of what it's supposed to do. His end goal was to land Arthur Weasley in trouble, which Ron and Harry had already accomplished for him. Arthur is facing an inquiry at the ministry, according to the Prophet. I sincerely doubt he still had the diary on his mind, and I hope I'm right."

"True," Portrait Rowena thought about this for a while, "there are more than enough explanations for why the diary didn't 'work', and he'd probably attribute it to Albus's work in any case."

"How's Albus taking all this?" Hermione asked. "I thought he'd looked a little apprehensive when Baron Edmund talked about me, but also contemplative. That's understandable, I suppose, considering that we were his formal introduction to the Dark Arts. He wasn't surprised that Rowena taught it though."

"Oh, he talked to us once when you were out, Sal," Portrait Godric told Portrait Salazar, "He wanted to confirm whether what the ghosts said were true, and we told him of course they would never lie about us. He asked about things like whether Helga was a famous healer, and whether I was tutored by Cadogan,"

" - But I suspect those weren't his real interest," said Portrait Helga. "Albus's very good at keeping his secrets, but we've learned a thing or two from being around you."

"He suspected that Edmund may have been misleading, I expect," Portrait Salazar shrugged. "He's afraid. Something's changed him between the time he'd left Hogwarts and the time he'd returned as professor."

"And what exactly happened during that time is where our theories differ, yes," Hermione said, twisting her silver ring.

"I must admit though, Sal, yours is the more interesting of the two... Anyways, Albus was very careful not to look at me at all for the entirety of yesterday - more careful than usual, I mean. He did tell me 'Congratulations' today. Just that word. I think he was looking to see whether I had any idea what he was talking about."

"So as a whole, Dumbledore is not alarmed by the dynamics among the students, but he is watchful." Hermione summarized. "Good."

They talked for some more, before Hermione needed to return to the main body of the school again. It wasn't until the next day that Hermione finally wrote back to Lockhart. 'You will understand my absence, Gilderoy. Upon discovering your moronic attempt to show off by casting a spell you have not mastered despite my warning against such actions - potentially fatally injuring a student,' If said student hadn't been wearing very subtle wards to deflect objects and magic away from her heart, brain and spinal cord, anyways... But Lockhart didn't know that. 'And, that despite the disastrous outcomes, you attempted to repeat the same moronic attempt yesterday morning, there seemed to me exceedingly good grounds to terminate our arrangement.'

A rather large splatter of lilac ink appeared over a good half of the page.

'Salazar! Surely you're not saying you won't help me anymore! I didn't mess up that badly, did I? I might've accidentally made Miss Hermione's injuries worse rather than waking her, but I've left a "Get well soon" note under her pillow with one of my most perfect signatures! I'm sure she won't hate me for it! She'll be thanking me in no time!'

Hermione actually chuckled out loud this time, before deciding not to dignify that with a reply.

'I know, my popularity's taken a heavy hit after the Duelling Club, but I'm sure they'll forget all about it soon enough! Oh, worst comes to worst, I'll just obliviate Filius and Severus. I won't mess that spell up, I promise!'

'You think your popularity is the only casualty? Do you not care at all that you have endangered students, or that you might ruin your colleague's lives by erasing their memories? Gilderoy, this will be the most important advice I give you, so pay attention:' Hermione stopped his words before he could formulate anymore of his mad plan. She'd suspected that he was an unsavoury character for some time, but she hadn't thought him so blatantly apathetic. 'Ordinarily I find it difficult to even imagine someone destroying their soul without ever practicing dark magic, if only owing to the difficulty in delivering damage of that magnitude, but now I can see how it might be possible for someone like you. Recall how I told you that the loss of one's soul will lead to insanity. And extreme ugliness. You will lose all your hair and possibly your nose or teeth. Your skin will turn grey and your eyes bloodshot. And if you keep trying to better yourself by trampling others, that is what you will become. Take care not to destroy your soul, Gilderoy.'

There. That ought to deter him somewhat.

Not that it mattered now. He would be rendered incapable of doing anything soon enough.

'As I was saying, I have been considering the prospect of ending our deal. However, I am not one to give up on Hogwarts' students so quickly - present or former. I have decided to allow you another chance, Gilderoy. But any more of this stupidity - which totally unbefits you - and I will no longer work with you.'

Her next steps were simple enough. First, replace Lockhart as the primary supplier of truthful information relating to Dark Arts. Concurrently, replace Lockhart with a less embarrassing avenue to reach the wider public. Finally, have Lockhart removed from the picture altogether - though she trusted that the students had this part covered.

In the past, Salazar generally tried to look out for the well-being of past and current collaborators - the main reason why people were usually happy to do business with him even with knowledge of his knack for manipulation. Hermione kept the same personal rule. If Lockhart hadn't tried to sacrifice the safety of herself and people she cared about, she might've taught him and helped him toward real success. But now, it was almost a given that Lockhart would not like the outcome of their deal when it ends.

'Yes I understand I'll do as you say Thank you Salazar!'

'Good. Dungbomb can be removed by washing with one part chicken eggwhite mixed with two parts urine.' The active ingredient was, of course, the eggwhite, but she found it somewhat entertaining to imagine if he'd actually do it. 'I will show you the contents of your next lesson shortly.'

Chapter Text

"Love how we can finally meet somewhere other than the library," Blaise sighed, watching the snow fall from high above. "Are you staying at school again over the holidays, Sal?"

Hermione, who'd been accompanying the others to Hogsmead to see them off, nodded. She needed to catch up on work. Not to mention, the next stage of her plan involved some amount of travelling, and disappearing in an empty castle was much easier to do than in a two-storey house.

Like last year, Gryffindor tower would be deserted except for herself, Harry and the Weasleys. Most of the Hufflepuffs would be spending time with family as well. Any Slytherin who was not preparing for OWL or NEWT would be going home for certain. The Ravenclaw tower would be more populated, however. This was reflected in the undiminishing presence of blue ties in the library even as the holidays approached.

"See you after the break!" Hermione waved goodbye to her friends as students began boarding the train. She checked her watch. Breakfast was most likely just under half-way done, which meant that Harry and Ron would most likely still be sprawled out in their beds - because who would get up early on a holiday? If she turn back now, she might even be able to make it in time to join them at the Gryffindor table.

Instead of doing that however, before the professors could realize that there was one extra student, Hermione disapparated.

If any of the occupants of Knockturn Alley saw her land, they gave her nothing more than a curious glance. They'd seen stranger things, after all. Still, Hermione made sure not to reveal her face until she'd completed her disguise, before heading straight to Borgin and Burkes.

Mr. Borgin was staring straight at her from the minute she opened his door. "Hello, Mr. Borgin," Hermione greeted, "I see you've acquired more items since the summer."

"You again, girl? Yes, since the raids are still ongoing, many families are... depositing magical artifacts with me." he peered at her curiously. "Surely you're not here on a similar business?"

"I've got two books you might find interesting," Hermione told him, and placed the volumes in question on the counter.

"'Understanding the Dark Arts', volume one and two," Mr. Borgin murmured. "But I do not believe the Ministry has sunk so far as to confiscate books just for mentioning this subject. I do wonder why your parents are selling it."

"They didn't tell me," Hermione shrugged.

"Ah, perhaps because of the name of the author. I understand that the subject of the dark arts is ... sensitive as it is, especially for families that have not previously displayed an inclination toward it, am I right?"

Hermione wasn't required to answer him, so she didn't.

Mr. Borgin smirked at her silence, before continuing to seemingly murmur to himself while leafing through it. "Yes, I do believe some others might appreciate a copy of his work, and any store in Diagon Alley certainly won't carry anything even borderline dark so soon after the war. But how can I be sure this is really Salazar Slytherin's writing?"

Clearly he was trying to bargain. "Father says it's easy enough to verify."

"True, true," he laughed. "The magical residue on the signature cannot be copied. And I sincerely doubt anyone these days could recreate the charms weaving we've got here. I'll give you twenty galleons for the two of them."

"Fifty galleons, Mr. Borgin."

"Thirty."

"Forty five."

"Thirty, and that's my final offer."

"But my father said not to sell for less than forty galleons,"

"Ah, but I doubt he's aware of what these wards on the book do," Mr. Borgin smiled, "you see, they prevent you from destroying it, turning it invisible for more than around ten minutes it seems, or shrinking it beyond a certain size. I suspect it probably won't even allow itself to be under a certain depth of water or soil for long. And even if you bury it, a ministry official with dark magic detector might pick up the magic around it - and then they'll be even more suspicious. Very thoughtful of Slytherin, who was trying to preserve his work, but it also means that you cannot get rid of it unless you have a very good hiding place. Or if you give it to me..."

Hermione bit her lips. "But..."

"Tell you what, I'll give you thirty-six galleons - that's only two galleons short on each book. Your parents won't be disappointed at you for that."

"But..." Hermione contemplated for a moment, "Alright."

And Mr. Borgin bowed his young customer out of his shop, smiling to himself. The girl was a smart child, a very capable child, but she was still only a child. She revealed her bottom line far too soon, and she'd let him influence her asking price too much! Maybe the next time he sees her, he'd tell her so she wouldn't make the same mistake with someone else. That's how you learn, isn't it?

Fifty galleon for two of any item associated with Salazar Slytherin was already a good bargain. But the best part was that unlike some modern books, these didn't have anti-duplication spells on them. No, he wouldn't sell the originals. His customers would be willing to pay ten galleons just for a copy of the words alone, and those he could sell again and again... He could get so rich off this.

Mr. Borgin chuckled. The girl's parents must've been really paranoid to show their face, to send a child to bargain with him. He wondered who they were.

Hermione smiled unnoticeably as well. She trusted that Mr. Borgin would take care of distributing her books among the dark-inclined families for her rather nicely.

The first and second year Understanding the Dark Arts textbooks contained a comprehensive overview of the possibilities and dangers in each branch of the dark arts, and had been more or less the source of Lockhart's lesson notes. Actual incantations, recipes, or procedures wouldn't appear until the third year textbooks, so these books were relatively safe. And while she knew that Borgin would no doubt try to squeeze as much gold out of his customers as possible, they would most likely still purchase her books if only out of curiosity. Besides, she could also trust Borgin to play up their value dramatically.

That was the easy part. The more difficult part was to reach the remainder of the population.

It was 9:15. Breakfast at Hogwarts would've just finished, and Hermione had until just before lunchtime to apparate back to her Chamber. In the meantime, since she was already here, she strolled around Diagon Alley to do some Christmas shopping. For Ron, she got a set of Chudly Cannon figurines. She'd thought about buying him a new wand, but decided not to deprive him of the chance to find one that was fully compatible with him. For Neville, a plant pot that she would make resizable and self-watering. Theo, one of the better books on magical theories. Blaise, a quill with a silver stand - soon to be charmed damage-proof and self-inking. Daphne, a silver bracelet that would change to any colour the wearer imagined.

For Harry, she bought a gold-trimmed locket made of polished wood. It was not expensive-looking enough to attract thieves, but just handsome enough to be somewhat valuable. This was very important, as she intended to modify one of its shells with an undetectable extension charm just deep enough to contain a wand. Of course, she would also add a locking charm that opens to a password Harry could set for himself. She knew that the Dursleys would be treating Harry better now, but no wizard or witch should ever allow their wands to be locked up in a cupboard. This was just a precaution.

By mid-day, Hermione joined Harry and Ron in the Great Hall. "Sally, where did you go? We didn't see you at all this morning!" Harry asked when she sat down.

"Oh I came down early to see Blaise, Daphne and Theo off, and then I sat in the library for a while. We must've just missed each other."

"We're still one person short," Fred noticed, "Where's Percy? He's always disappearing these days."

"And by that he means since the start of the year," added George.

Hermione thought she saw Ginny choke on something, but didn't mention it.

"Did someone mention me?" Percy chose this moment to sit down beside Ginny.

"Oh yes," nodded Fred pleasantly, "We were just getting worried that your fat head might've gotten stuck in a door somewhere."

Percy glared at them, then at Ron when he failed to hold back a snigger. "You lot better behave yourselves this Christmas. No more pranks. You already made enough trouble for us when you crashed the car."

Hermione, who'd read the Daily Prophet this morning, knew he was referring to the fifty galleon fine that Arthur Weasley had recently been charged with. She nodded sympathetically.

"We're the laughing stock of the ministry! And with Malfoy at our neck, the last thing we need is for the world to hear that Dad couldn't even set rules for his own children -"

"Percy," George interrupted, "Relax. We're on holiday."

Percy gave him a exasperated look, and started on his lunch without another word.

"He always gets his knicker in a twist whenever we have any fun," Fred sighed dramatically, before whispering to Hermione, "These days he's always going of to do Merlin-knows-what kind of boring officious stuff, and whenever he does appear -"

"- he's always scolding us! It's as if mum's given him special instructions to watch us or something -"

" - even during Christmas. Wouldn't want him to get a heart attack," said Fred.

"Indeed," George nodded solemnly, "Mum'll blame it on us."

Hermione arched her eyebrow. "You sound like you've got something planned?"

The smirks she received were answer enough.

"But seriously though. If our little goody-two-shoes can talk him into taking a chill pill -"

" - We would greatly appreciate it."

"I'll see if I can talk to him," Hermione decided. For Fred and George's request, but more for something else...

Her afternoon was spent reasonably productively in her Chamber, practicing her Nocturnes and enchanting trinkets that were to be her friends' Christmas gifts. After fine tuning the low-level legilimency charms required to make Daphne's bracelet work, Hermione returned to the Gryffindor common room to watch Harry and Ron play Gobstone by the fire while entertaining Lockhart's longwinded retelling of one of his book signings.

At around five o'clock, Percy returned to the common room.

"Percy, do you have some time now?" Hermione asked, "I was hoping you could give me some advice on which classes to take next year, and they all sound so interesting!" Meanwhile, she wrote in her book, 'Intrigued, Gilderoy. Tell me how you published your first book?'

Percy puffed his chest out at this. "Of course, Hermione. It's my duty as prefect after all."

"But Sally, we don't have to worry about that until Easter!" Harry looked up from his game, surprised.

"We choose our own classes?" Ron blurted, "your move, Harry."

True, it was a bit early to ask about this, but it would be understandable for her to want to be prepared. Percy seemed to agree. "It never hurts to think about your future early," he assured her, "you should do more of this, Ron... It all depends where you want to go, Hermione. I don't suppose you need to take Muggle Studies, but it would be interesting to see the muggle world from the magical point of view. Arithmacy would be useful if you're interested in conducting magical research. You'd need Runes if you're interested in history - because that's what people used before our system of latinate spells was developed. Then there's care of magical creatures, and divination..."

Meanwhile, a cursory glance at her book showed that Lockhart was already scribbling away:

'Well, I'm glad you asked, Salazar! The first is always the hardest of all. After all the trouble I went through - getting my story, actually writing the book, making the cover all dazzling, the editor looked up at me with his beady little eyes and said, "Gilderoy who?" Gilderoy who! He'd never even heard of my name! And then I said ...'

Satisfied that Lockhart would be kept busy for some time, Hermione closed the notebook so that she could give her full attention to Percy. "I wonder, what would I need for a career in the ministry?"

"Ah," Percy's eyes lit up as they entered his area of expertise, "in that case you definitely want either arithmacy or runes - you'll need to look sophisticated. But you might not want to take both, because you need your grades to look good as well. Muggle studies can help you relate to a large part of the population, but you also don't want to antagonize the old families too much - because they can get you kicked out faster than you can say 'Merlin'. It's a tricky balance, and you have to get everything just right to please the right people..."

By the far-away look in his eyes, it was evident that Percy was no longer giving advice, but rather reciting everything on his mind. And now that the subject's been opened, it was time to approach the problem.

"It's tough, isn't it?" Hermione commented, "perfecting that public image - the classes you take, how you conduct yourself, even the people you associate with..."

Percy nodded vigorously. "Exactly! They look at everything, even your family members! You have no idea how annoying that is, Sally. To work so hard to make yourself presentable, then to have people look at you and think of your up-to-no-good brothers and their bloody jokes ... "

"They're not trying to mess things up for you, Percy. They just want to get you to loosen up more. They're afraid you're going to get a heart attack from all this stress."

"But how can I relax? Me and Penny are supposed to intern at the ministry together! Tough luck there, if I'm going to walk into this big mess when I graduate in two years! First Dad just had to enchant his muggle stuff even though he wrote a law that says you can't do it. Then Ron had to crash it and let the whole world know. Almost a third of the senate never liked us much in the first place, and Lucius Malfoy's been just waiting to jump on something like this since the new Muggle Protection Act!"

This, Hermione had been waiting for. "Oh yeah, Ron told me about that. I never did get it... If your dad enjoys enchanting things so much, why did he prohibit in the first place?"

"Muggle protection," Percy shrugged, then sighed. "Besides, he can't back out now."

"Still, I think if somebody can propose an amendment to this law that keeps magical objects away from muggles without taking away wizards' right to use them, everyone would be a lot happier," Hermione suggested.

She'd been entertaining this idea for a while now. Percy was in the perfect position to talk to both sides because while he was not an unfamiliar name, he was still a "rookie". His perceived alignment was not as set-in-stone as the older politicians, and he'd made the effort over the past years to maintain good relationships with everyone. People might hear Percy Weasley out whereas they might quickly turn the other way if, say, Arthur Weasley or Lucius Malfoy had said the same thing.

If Percy could be the one to propose this amendment - with help, of course, if he needed it, he would earn the respect of both sides. This could be his chance to make his name - and probably earn him much more than just a simple internship at the ministry.

That is, if Percy was willing to do it.

Percy shook his head sadly. "Sometimes you just got to make a sacrifice. As much as I don't want him at our neck, we can't cower in front of Malfoy. We've got to stand up for what we believe in."

"I don't mean to submit to Malfoy, Percy," Hermione clarified, "I meant a solution that satisfies the requirements of both sides. Your dad wants to protect muggles. Malfoy wants to keep his magical artifacts and his privacy. These two criteria are not inherently mutually exclusive."

"There's no such miracles, Hermione. There's no point wishing for one. You'll learn that as you get older."

It was no longer safe to push any further, so Hermione nodded. "Thank you for your advices, Percy."

She wasn't too surprised. Percy was ambitious, but not ambitious enough. He wanted to be successful, but he wasn't willing to push the limits of possibility. And thus, while Percy wanted to climb as high as possible in the ministry, he lacked the drive and vision to make a good minister. 'But that's alright. The shaft that stabilizes a spear is just as important as the head.'

And Hermione would get back to Percy on that amendment. While Percy might not be willing to take this opportunity for himself, he was still in a good position to help her with it. If she timed things optimally, this could potentially go a long way.

She looked forward to seeing how her alternative plan would turn out.

Chapter Text

Arthur Weasley sat at the small wooden breakfast table of his kitchen, contemplating the letter before him. A post owl had delivered it a few minutes ago in a neat envelope addressed to the Head of Department of Muggle Artifacts. Ministry business?

'To Mr. Arthur Weasley, Head of the Department of Muggle Artifacts:

Good morning. I respect the value of your time, and so I will cut straight to the topic.

I would like to bring to your attention a number of insights on the Muggle Protection Act. To start, I must commend you for your valiant effort. I think we as wizards and witches have a responsibility to be considerate of the muggles. It is good that we are taking action to keep our non-magical neighbours from being accidentally harmed by our craft.

However, you must have realized at this point that the Act brings numerous disadvantages. With no way to clearly distinguish "muggle-like magical artifacts" from "acceptable magical items", it forbids the enchantment of household objects like pots and pans to improve our work efficiency. It forbids the invention of ingenious tools and devices like the ones we marvel at in the muggle world. It forbids us from pursuing our interests and passion, such as the rather unconventional refurbishing of a muggle vehicle.

But please consider that "muggle-like magical artifacts" can be regulated by many means. We do not need to resort to prohibiting their "production for use". Indeed, I am imagining one solution - one amendment to the Muggle Protection Act - that will be mutually beneficial to all relevant parties:

In this amendment, the ministry searches for magical artifacts will continue, but they will take place in muggle stores rather than in the homes of wizards. The teams currently stationed to repeatedly tear apart our properties in attempt to find spell-anchoring artifacts against a heavily magical background, will be reassigned to periodically patrol a designated neighbourhood of muggle Britain by simply strolling through shops while carrying their magical detectors on their persons. While on duty, they can also take the opportunity to examine the muggle merchandises, learn about the newest muggle technology, and collect first-hand information on muggle culture. They will then publish their discoveries in a periodical, to educate the magical society on their findings.

Enchantment and use of all magical artifacts will be legal, but those who are found responsible for allowing their belongings to enter the muggle market will be subjected to a fine depending on the severity of the offense - both to give wizards incentive to keep muggles safe from their artifacts and to compensate for the patrol teams' salaries.

For muggles, this amendment will mean improved protection. Currently you are merely checking whether a small portion of the magical population is keeping magical items at home. This provides information on which magical items are not being distributed to muggles, but you are no closer to finding the sources of the ones that are. By refocusing our attention from monitoring wizards onto monitoring the muggle market regularly and comprehensively, we can bypass these uncertainties and ensure that no magical items reaches muggles.

For wizards, benefits will be even greater. As you've realized, our knowledge about the lives of our muggle neighbours is sorely lacking. I myself take time to pick up a copy of one of the muggle newspapers outside the Leaky Cauldron about once a month, but they tend to be dedicated more to the muggle celebrities and the outcome of sport games. Yet, the things they use in their everyday business are what really intrigue you and I. We want to learn about the incredible ideas that the muggles have developed - electricity, computers, plastic, engines, etc. - and this amendment will bring us up to date. It will even create the opportunity for us to be inspired by the muggles, and to incorporate aspects of their work into our own lives.

Imagine this, Mr. Weasley, and imagine the possibilities.

And now I write to you in hope that you will see the same vision as I, and put this amendment into practice. Of course, I understand that there will be challenges in changing any law, or instating any new policy. Thus, I have written to certain senators to convince them of the merit of this proposal and ask for their full support. If I am successful, then you will likely hear from them soon. I am sure that with all of us working together, we will turn this vision into reality.

Have a good day, and good luck,

A member of the public.'

"What's this?" Molly read over his shoulder.

"An interesting suggestion," Arthur muttered, deep in thought.

It was a pretty good one, actually. It shouldn't be too hard to find enchanted things in a muggle store. True, it would take up a lot of his department's resources to do blanket checks on a whole region, but raiding manor houses wasn't exactly time-efficient either. And a muggle market research team! This was just what wizards needed. Arthur had always wanted to know what the muggles are using these days, but he could hardly find the time between his job and spending time with his family. He hadn't dared to think about it before - he'd just assumed they would never get the resources, but if someone else was as interested as he was then maybe they'd finally get the support they'd need!

Was this plan worth restructuring the department for?

Arthur carefully folded the letter into his pocket - it might be a good idea to bring it up at work today, before everyone goes on holiday. If he'd need to pitch this idea to a senator soon, then he'd better start preparing.


 

Lucius Malfoy sat at the richly ornate redwood desk of his study, contemplating the letter before him. It had been dropped off by a nondescript owl last morning, but had been neglected until now as he hadn't recognized the handwriting as that of anyone significant. He'd finally opened it today just before his usual lunchtime, expecting to spend no more than three minutes on it, but instead he ended up reading it over and over again until Narcissa sent Dobby up to get him.

After telling the elf to advise Narcissa that she should not wait for him today, Lucius ordered the obnoxious creature out of his sight and sat back down to read the letter again.

'To the Venerable Mr. Lucius Malfoy:

Greetings, and please excuse this unexpected arrival of this letter. I hope you will find it worth your time.'

Judging from the use of the proper address for a prominent family's head of house, Venerable, he was corresponding with another old family. The mudbloods and even many of the mixed bloods had not an ounce of respect for magical tradition - like that fool of a wizard Arthur Weasley, who worshipped muggles so much he might as well snap his wand and join them. Of all the things to be caught enchanting, a flying muggle car? Really? What use would that have, that couldn't be accomplished by a proper form of transportation?

Unfortunately, they composed of nearly half of the population, so Lucius had to at least appear to tolerate them.

'I am aware of your commendable effort to preserve our common interest, an interest infringed upon by the current Muggle Protection Act. Thus, I am also aware that the fact that the raids are still in effect was not due to our lack of trying.'

Lucius snorted. Our lack of trying? He was the only one doing anything! The other purebloods were all sitting on their hands, knowing that the moment they expressed disapproval of the new bylaw they would be searched. Of course, Lucius couldn't blame them. If he wasn't already under suspicion, and if it wasn't so obvious that the Malfoys had the most to lose, he wouldn't have taken up the mantle either.

'Perhaps we can try another approach. We do not have sufficient reason to repeal the Muggle Protection Act, but they cannot argue against a "revision" to it. There are more ways to protect muggles from magical artifacts than through prohibiting their existence (and through invading upon our privacy). I have written to Arthur Weasley, proposing that he stop the raids on our estates and remove the restriction on the enchantment of artifacts. Instead, his task force would patrol muggle stores and removing any magical items they find. I dare say he will accept, as I have reminded him that patrolling the muggle market will allow for the tantalizing prospect of learning about muggle gadgets and writing about them in a periodical. He should also realize that without our ... political and financial support, shall we say, this tantalizing prospect would likely remain a dream.

I have proposed this amendment to others like us, such as Ven. Mr. Nott and Ven. Madam Greengrass, as their co-operation may be required as well. Nevertheless, among all of us, you are in the most optimal position to conduct the actual negotiations with Arthur Weasley, as you have been the most outspoken on this topic. I hope you will consider this approach. Its benefits greatly outweigh the inconveniences.

To the speedy termination of ministry raids,

S.'

Lucius set down the letter again and considered. It was true that they needed the raids ended quickly - any more, and even his secret chamber under the floorboards might not hold up to inspection. It was also true that all his attempts to scrap the law and get Weasley fired had been to no avail, even after the flying car incident. The man simply had too much backing from Dumbledore. However, if Weasley really could be convinced to change the Muggle Protection Act to something more sensible by his own accord, then no one could really say anything against it.

Yes, he supposed it was an option to try. Lucius didn't give a damn what Weasley did with his time. The existence of a publication dedicated to muggle news would be an annoyance... but one that was far more easily tolerated. And any funding that Weasley can think of asking for certainly wouldn't be a problem. He sincerely doubted that the man had ever even seen a thousand galleons together in one place.

But who was 'S'? Severus? But then Lucius would've recognized the writing. One of the Selwyns, maybe? It seemed that the author of the letter had decided to remain anonymous. This was not overly surprising, as if Lucius had known their name he would probably write back and ask for something to compensate for his effort.

But of course, one could only hope for so much, and stopping the raids was the priority concern.

Lucius folded the letter away, took out a blank parchment and started to write.

Chapter Text

Blaise carefully picked off a shrimp from the glistening, expertly arranged seafood cocktail tower.

Like last year this time, they were all converged in the children's lounge at the Malfoys' winter ball. This year, however, there was one more thing on their minds aside from the magnificent dishes, the card games and the usual gossip.

"Any luck with Project Give-Lockhart-the-boot?"

"Surprisingly, still no," Draco, who was carving a slice of roasted lamp chop for himself, shook his head. "That's odd... I didn't think Father would be so reluctant to sack him. And that's after I complained that he was going to accidentally curse my arm off before Professor Snape stopped him!"

"So what did he say?" Theo asked.

"Something along the lines of, 'Lockhart still has his uses. You should be able to defend yourself easily from that fool, if he's really that hopeless at magic. And listen carefully in his classes.'"

"My mother is the same," said Daphne, "It shouldn't be difficult for her. She owns 50% share in Witches Weekly after all, and all she has to do is to have them print the truth - that Lockhart can't defend himself from pixies, can't cast rennervate, and singed his own hair off when trying to cast scourgify."

"Why does Witches Weekly give him that 'most beautiful smile award' in the first place?" Tracy asked curiously, "He's been waving that title in our faces for the whole year!"

"He looks good on picture, and also there's reader expectation," Daphne shrugged. "It's a frivolous title anyways. I'm pretty sure mother has about as much respect for him as we do - she was only three years above him when they were in school."

Blaise was surprised too. When he'd called this project, he'd thought that with all their families' resources, Lockhart would've been out in no time - especially since their request was actually perfectly reasonable and justified. What he didn't expect was for all of their letters home detailing Lockhart's various embarrassing deeds to be ignored, or once they get home, for all their attempts to bring up the topic of Lockhart to be turned down with a vague "leave him alone because he has his uses".

This didn't bode well for Blaise. As much as he had been using this opportunity to prove himself, his housemates were also taking the opportunity to assess him and see whether he was worth following or not. If his first project turned out to be a failure... Blaise took another shrimp from the ice cold seafood tower. Its cool smooth meat had a slight calming effect as it rolled on his tongue, and it was less obvious than chewing the ice cubes.

Blaise wondered what Sal would say if she was here. Draco, understandably, hadn't dared invite her to his party. While in school everyone went out of their way to be friendly with her now, it would be unwise to introduce her to their parents. Not that Sal wouldn't know the type of behaviour expected at these social functions - Blaise was now reasonably confident that she'd be able to handle herself as well as any of them. Only that it would lead to questions about her parentage, and Blaise suspected that many of the adults had a rather more... extremist view on muggleborns than their children.

"My father's like that too," commented Theo, "it almost feels like they're not just unwilling to help - because then they would've said that Lockhart isn't worth their time and end the discussion there. It almost feels like they're trying to discourage us from going after the dolt."

The table fell silent as they considered this. "I can see your point, now that you mention it," Gaius nodded in agreement, "You think there's something we haven't thought of, then?"

"Maybe, but maybe there's something they haven't considered," Blaise defended, "They haven't seen how Lockhart's like at Hogwarts. They haven't seen how he shoots his bad spells left, right, and center. Heck, even whatever it is that's making him a good teacher for theory can't make him a safe person to keep in a school! It would be much better if we can get rid of him, and try to get his knowledge from its source."

Theo set down his forkful of duck confit thoughtfully, "I say we try one more time today, together, and give it our best shot."

"And if our parents can't be convinced?" Tracy asked.

"Then we'll find another way," Theo said simply, and gave Blaise a sidelong look.

They'd have to, and Blaise really, really hoped they could.

Outwardly though, Blaise nodded without hesitation. They wasted no time in discussing their best course of action - it was good fortune that the Malfoys decided to extend the party by three hours this year, beginning just before lunch rather than in the afternoon, but they still only had a day. Draco called a house elf to bring parchment and a Dicto-quill to note down good ideas. Throughout all this, Blaise saw that the others were perfectly relaxed as they continued to eat their meal so he did the same - even though he found it difficult to taste the food now.

To have a hard goal, to know that something must be done, was stressful. He wondered whether this was how the adults feel, every year out there in the main room, as they chat and dance and appear to enjoy the party favours. Or maybe they'd long gotten used to it - as would he. Or, maybe he was worrying himself too much. One couldn't expect to win on the first try every time, after all. His housemates should remember that. He should remember that.

They decided to put their plan into action in the late afternoon, before supper time.

At 6:23, Tracy, Daphne, Pansy and Millicent strolled out of the children's lounge. At 6:33, Millicent came back. "All ready," she announced.

"That's our cue, guys," Blaise nodded, before he, Theo and Draco left the children's room for the main dining room.

Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Nott were nonchalantly discussing something about the economy when the three boys found them. This was good, as Theo had guessed that economy was their default topic when they didn't have anything better to talk about. Even better, as the children had frequently observed, they had Minister Fudge sandwiched between them once again.

"Father," Draco interjected as soon as the conversation paused, "My friends and I are hoping that the orchestra can play a song for us."

"Ah, isn't this Draco and Theodore!" The bumbling, slightly sweaty minister greeted them, happy for a break. "And you are, young gentleman?"

"Blaise Zabini," Blaise supplied. "It's a pleasure to meet you, minister."

"And mine too, Blaise," Fudge gladly shook hands with him. Blaise knew he was in no hurry to return to the conversation with Draco and Theo's fathers even as they waited for him. After all, it was much less stressful chatting with children than seasoned politicians, where his every response would be evaluated even for a topic as generic as the economy. And so, it was not unexpected that Fudge proceeded to ask them the first question that adults always asked them at a party: "How was school this year?"

"It was excellent, for the most part," Theo told him, but loudly enough so that his voice carried, "but we don't think Gilderoy Lockhart is a suitable professor."

It was more blunt than they usually strived to be, but they'd decided that it was necessary. Anything less plain and less clear would be too easily glossed over by their fathers. Besides, they were just kids. They would be forgiven.

"My dear children," Fudge admonished, "Surely there's no need to say that about your professor! Mr. - er, Professor Lockhart's done many brilliant things, after all. Who better to teach the subject, right?"

Blaise saw that Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Nott were both giving them significant looks. Theo pretended he hadn't noticed and went on anyways. "But there's been a number of incidents involving him this year. I think Daphne's just telling her mother's friends now -"

The adults turned to glance at the other side of the room, where Daphne and Pansy were indeed talking with a circle of Madam Greengrass's associates - all journalists and editors of various news organizations. Mr. Greengrass was deep in conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Parkinson. The Greengrass matriarch was nowhere to be seen.

Of course, Blaise had very good reasons to believe she was being engaged in a long conversation by Tracy, but that was irrelevant for the moment. It took all the self-discipline he could muster to stop himself from fidgeting nervously.

The plan had been to show their parents that even if they didn't get help from them, they could still take the dirt they'd gathered on Lockhart to other people - and they would not be easily stopped. Of course, they wouldn't actually try to have the journalists publicly shame Lockhart just yet (Daphne and Pansy were merely discussing the Quidditch games and potion class). They didn't even know if it would work. But to their parents it would still be enough to become a consideration, and how relevant your interest was, depended on how much influence you appeared to have on the situation, didn't it?

Tracy had raised the concern that they might be messing with somebody else's plans if they really managed to turn, say, Fudge against Lockhart. Theo had reasoned that their parents would be able to stop them in time before they reached that point. Draco had worried that their parents would be displeased with them for making trouble. Daphne had argued that their parents would not, because how Slytherin would they be if they gave up just because they were told to? Instead, she'd said, their parents should be proud.

If they were going to stop, Blaise had agreed and added, it had better be because they were convinced by a proper reason and not this vague excuse. And the best part about this plan was that even if they wouldn't get support, they would at least get a negotiation, or at least some explanation.

Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Nott exchanged a glance. "Please excuse us, minister. We need to tell the orchestra of our childrens' ... request. We will return shortly. Draco, please ask your friends who requested this song to come with us."

'Call them off,' the cold, hard eyes of Lucius Malfoy were demanding. Blaise obliged.

And the five young Slytherins, plus Tracy who caught up with them, were led back to the children's lounge by the expressionless Mr. Malfoy and an equally expressionless Mr. Nott. No one said a word on the way. Once they entered the room of expectantly waiting students, Mr. Malfoy locked the door behind him. A second charm later and they were completely cut off from the noise of the party. There was a chorus of "Good evening"s as the children hurried to greet the two adults.

"Good evening," said Mr. Malfoy silkily, "I would like to congratulate all of you. Whatever your plan was, you have successfully forced us to stop our conversation with the Minister of Magic to come here."

"Commendable, really," Blaise caught Mr. Nott murmur.

"I must admit, we are impressed. This is obviously a collective, well-coordinated effort, and you have demonstrated that you are a force to be reckoned with. But we must ask you to cease your attempts to remove Gilderoy Lockhart from Hogwarts. You're interfering with something deeper than you realise."

"But Mr. Malfoy, sir," Tracy protested, "he can't control what his spells do, or where they're going!"

"We know," Draco's father agreed, "he never could when he was a student. In addition to shooting unsafe spells left, right and center, we also remember him blowing up cauldrons to make shampoo and breaking his own ribs with a self-invented spell that was apparently supposed to make him more muscular. He is the definition of safety hazard. But we still ask that you leave him alone."

"We understand that there may be value in his lectures on the dark arts," Blaise ventured, "and that we should pick out the grains from the dust. But since there's no way Lockhart could've prepared those material himself, surely we can find the source of his knowledge and learn directly from it?"

"We already have," Theo's father revealed. "Very recently, Borgin and Burkes begun to sell copies of the earliest Hogwarts first and second year textbooks on Understanding the Dark Arts, authored by Salazar Slytherin himself. Judging by what I gathered from Theodore's letters, the materials, arguments and evidences Lockhart presents are all strikingly similar to those left for us by Lord Slytherin. Thus, although Mr. Borgin refuses to reveal how exactly he had acquired the books, we have good reasons to believe those were the sources Lockhart had been teaching from. Most likely he went searching for lifelines in the restricted section out of desperation once he realized he was out of his depth."

Now Blaise and his classmates shared a glance. They were out of arguments. Their parents seemed to have already considered everything they'd thought of. What now?

"Then why, father?" Theo finally asked, "Why is it necessary to keep Lockhart around?"

The corners of Mr. Nott's lips lifted by the slightest amount. "Ah, it seems you will not stop until we fully convince you of our reasons. Very well... The long and short of it is, Lockhart is at the moment our best chance of restoring the noblest and most potent of magic back to its rightful place. He is doing much good for your generation by encouraging your classmates to accept and embrace what magic is capable of, rather than attempt to suppress it like their weakling parents. They will not believe the likes of us, who they have been taught to hate, but they will believe him. With luck, given ten years or so, Lockhart might even persuade the adults to be less offended by our existence in the world. A large part of our population worship him so much that they'll listen to whatever he says."

"Granted, anybody with brains wouldn't be swayed so easily. But then again, they would hardly be inclined to love him in the first place," Mr. Malfoy added, "But do you see now why Lockhart's still useful to us? If you discredit him in any way, this opportunity would be lost to us. Again, it's commendable that you've come this far. You've planned, you've strategized, and you've persevered. Whichever ones of you were responsible for organizing this did an excellent job. But I hope you will all be reasonable and tolerate Lockhart for a bit longer."

Blaise had to agree. He really hadn't been thinking that far or that big when he convinced his fellow Slytherins that Lockhart needed to go. They were right. He hadn't considered all the consequences. Project Give-Lockhart-the-boot couldn't go on, after all.

It wasn't a total fail, though. Even if they didn't manage to kick a lilac-clad dolt out of Hogwarts, they had been complimented on their planning and their strength. His housemates would remember that. Some might even count it as a success, so Blaise was safe. Not so shabby, right?

But...

Blaise still didn't feel completely satisfied. It wasn't right, that Lockhart would be praised for something he didn't do any work for - and taking credit for Salazar Slytherin's genius at that! Or, that Lockhart would hurt his friend and walk away scot-free. Even Draco hadn't. Why should he? But as Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Nott said, there wasn't much he could do...right?

After receiving all of their assurances, Draco and Theo's fathers turned to slip back into the main party. "Ah, by the way, was there really a song that you would like played?"

"Actually, there is," Theo smiled, producing the Hogwarts Repertoire of Nocturnes and turning it to the composition titled 'Slytherin'. "I wonder if they could."


Lucius Malfoy and Tristan Nott exited the children's room with a sigh. "I suppose this is what we get for raising clever children,"

Indeed, Lucius was pleasantly surprised by his son. He'd honestly thought Draco had been simply whining about Lockhart like he complained about herbology grades or the weather, but this... "You think we could've pulled off something like that in our second year?"

Nott smiled. "Maybe, or maybe not. We'll never know."

"And they seem to have already started teaching themselves the Nocturne too," Lucius glanced at the composition book in his hand. "I was going to wait until Draco becomes a little more... mature. I didn't think he would take an interest at such a young age."

"Well, it never hurts to start training early."

They handed the composition book to the orchestra outside. The conductor and the first violinist both furrowed their brows in confusion over the strange structure of the scores and the elaborate cadenzas, but they were persuaded with some extra galleons to do as much with it as they could. Any four of the nine lines would do, Lucius told them, and skip the difficult sections. He didn't see how those were humanly possible either, so they needn't embarrass themselves by attempting it.

Then, the Malfoy and Nott patriarchs made their way back to the manor dining room.

"I've been meaning to ask you," Nott said as they passed one of Lucius's white peacocks on the hedge, "if you have received correspondence from our mutual friend S."

"I have," Lucius confirmed, raising an eyebrow, "and I am in accordance with our mutual friend's plan if that's what your concern is. I have already written to Weasley. Though, how successful our mutual friend's been at persuading him, I do not know. If things go through, this could potentially solve some problems for us. Have you any idea who our mutual friend is?"

"Not at all. Although, I do wonder why our mutual friend has decided to provide a letter in place of a signature, rather than none at all."

Lucius considered that. "What's your theory, then?"

"Merely a guess," Nott said without elaborating. "You have my support in this matter, Lucius."

"I'm glad of that. I'll be counting on it."


Yuletide, or Christmas, at Hogwarts was cool but sunny with snow-capped mountains and a clear blue sky. The ceiling of the Great Hall had really outdone itself this year, producing sparkling snow that fell gently to the tables below before vanishing. Seated under the thick streamers of holly with a warm goblet of pumpkin juice, Hermione wrote thank you notes for the presents she received, while waiting for Harry and the Weasleys to come downstairs.

This year, she'd received a biology textbook from her parents. Hermione had requested this, as the muggles had apparently developed very interesting theories regarding "cells" and "genetics". From the little she'd read so far, these theories didn't seem to be entirely applicable when magic was factored in. The Mendelian distribution was not observed in magical inheritance and the production of squibs, for example. Still, they seemed to be well supported with evidence and explained a number of things Salazar hadn't known before. Wizards would do well to learn a bit more about them.

From Neville, she'd received a letter saying that he'd give her his present once he return to school. He'd just realized his present would probably break if he gave it to an owl, he wrote. This made Hermione rather curious. She wondered what it was.

From Blaise, Theo, and Daphne she'd received a set of crystal potion vials, a book on magical theory that she just happened not to have read yet, and a beautiful quartz canary that she'd decided to set on her bedside table. From Harry, she'd received another elegant eagle feather quill - her last one had unfortunately collided with Lockhart's...posterior on one of those days... From Ron, she'd received another box of chocolate cauldron. She'd actually grown partial to those, she found, even if their shapes suggest themselves for dosing with poison. It wasn't as if she wasn't in the habit of checking her food anyways.

But the best thing Hermione received this morning wasn't actually for her. It was a piece of news, sent in mail by Arthur Weasley to his children.

"'Dear kids,'" Read Fred aloud to the breakfast table, "Merlin, why does he always write that? We're not babies anymore!"

"'Have a wonderful Christmas at school!'" George continued, "'I don't know if you noticed, but your mother put one extra piece of fudge in each of your packages. - Though I might've sneaked one from either Ron's or Percy's. Sorry.'"

"Fred and George, you better not be making trouble again, bla bla blah... Oh, listen to this: 'Ginny, your mother and I are happy to hear that your first year's been fun. We really miss you too, but we knew our little girl has to grow up someday. Oh, and your mother insists that I tell you this now, so I'll do it even though I don't really see the point: don't go kissing the boys just yet!'" The Weasley brothers chuckled at this, and Hermione felt a bit sympathetic toward poor Ginny who was blushing red.

"' Ron, we hope you're still working hard. You got Acceptables and above in all your classes except Potion last year, and we expect you to keep up your good performance. Those three Slytherins you mentioned last year turned out to be quite something, huh? I'm glad some of them are still willing to stand up for what's right. And you're all still kids, so maybe there's time to bring the rest of them around too...We read what you wrote about Lockhart at the duelling club in your last letter. Your mother thinks there might've been a misunderstanding, or you didn't quite see what you thought you saw. Just try to keep an open mind, alright? At least you said the lessons were OK?'"

"Did you tell them what Lockhart's lessons were about?" Hermione muttered softly to Ron.

"I wrote them after his first proper lesson, but Mum was all like, 'You're not fooling me about Lockhart! I know Fred and George told you to go along with their joke!'," Ron muttered back, "Maybe because they'd tried to convince her that Lockhart's married two years ago..."

"' Percy, it's good to hear that your studies are going well, but don't overwork yourself! Merlin knows you deserve a break over Christmas. Yes, I promise, I'll try to throw in a good word or two for you at the ministry from time to time. Things at work have been going very well for me. It turns out that there's interest for "all that muggle stuff", as you lot call it, after all! The department's looking at a change to the Muggle Protection Act to protect muggles and learn from them at the same time. It involves putting our people in charge of checking on the muggle stores once in a while, to see what new gadgets they're selling but also to make sure there's nothing magical there at the same time. Most of our department is really warming up to it - they're relieved that they won't have to worry about getting jinxed in the back anymore while they worked, they say. And who knows? If we can get one of the senators on board with this we might even get enough funding to publish a newsletter about the muggle market. Of course, everyone's on break right now, but I'm planning to have the draft ready as soon as Christmas ends so that we can start the negotiations. Better move quickly while we still have support, right?'"

"Dad's going on and on about all that muggle stuff again," Ron rolled his eyes, "getting paid for snooping around muggle shops would be his heaven."

"Well I think your dad has a great idea," Hermione defended, "I mean, muggles might not have magic, but they actually figured out how to do some things that wizards can't! Think of what an arithmacer can do with a magical equivalent of the computer, for example. A lot of those calculations wouldn't have to be done by hand anymore! Besides, think of how many new jobs for muggleborns this is going to create! Right now it's hard for them to get good work because they don't know anyone here, but the new version of the Muggle Protection Act will really need to be enforced by people who understand both the muggle culture and the magical culture. Right, Percy?"

"Definitely," Percy nodded, "and if he manages to get a senator's support, then it'll be harder for Malfoy to get at us!"

"Hey guys! Are we going to finish reading this or not?"

Under the table, Hermione steepled her fingers as Fred and George proceeded to read out a P.S. that was tagged onto the end of the letter by their mother and longer than the letter itself.

Lucius Malfoy's response should be due any day now - real business observed no holidays, after all, and she expected little difficulties on this front. From what she'd learned of the Malfoy patriarch from his past activities, she'd more or less established that a clear, logical explanation of what he had to gain was enough to convince him to act.

Arthur Weasley, however, was another matter. She needed to appeal to his emotions and his values. In her letter to him she'd tried to speak to his pride in serving the public, his passion for muggle technology, and his joy at finding someone who shared his interest - and it seemed she'd succeeded in exciting his enthusiasm. But emotions were volatile, and she could not assume that he would stay enthusiastic for long enough to see the proposal through. Especially the minute he finds out who he would be co-operating with.

Unfortunately, twelve-year-olds had very short arms, and anonymous members of the general public had no arms at all. She had very few channels to reach Arthur Weasley at her disposal, let alone influence him - and even fewer that could be maintained for a sustained period of time. One of these was already in progress.

She hoped it would be at least effective enough to tide things over.

Chapter Text

Arthur Weasley was humming happily to himself as he worked on tidying and decorating the cozy little living room of the Burrow. The smell of Molly's excellent cooking wafted through the kitchen door. He was just rearranging the bunch of holly on the mantelpiece when the fireplace flashed green. He jumped back in surprise as the old headmaster of Hogwarts stepped smoothly out of the floo.

"Merry Christmas, Arthur," Albus Dumbledore smiled genially, using a silent wandless spell to clean off his half-moon glasses.

"Oh! Merry Christmas, Albus! This is really a surprise! Merlin, there's so many owls flying around near Christmas time, we must've missed yours - Would you like to join us for supper? I think Molly's just adding the finishing touches!" What brought him here today?

Professor Dumbledore shook his head politely. "No, I won't trouble you and Molly further - I really should be getting back in a few minutes. I apologize for not sending you an owl first. You see, something has recently been brought to my attention, and given the pace at which things are progressing I think it would be best if I informed you without delay."

"Urgent matters, Albus? It doesn't have to do with...You-Know-Who, surely?"

"Not quite so troublesome, Arthur, but something to take seriously nonetheless... This morning, I've received a letter from our good friend Alaster Moody - wishes for Yule, and all that. In his letter, Alaster complained of being, and I quote, 'derived of the chance to punish escaped Death Eathers due to a plot they've concocted to get Arthur's department under their thumb.' Alaster seems to believe it to be somewhat successful."

Arthur thought he felt his heart miss a beat. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised, seeing as they'd been trying to do that for almost as long as he'd been in office, but how dared they! They don't give a damn about muggles, or their welfare, let alone their artifacts! They'd rather have all the muggles tortured and killed for fun like they did on their demented Dark Lord's muggle hunts! "My department, under their thumbs! Malfoy can keep dreaming!"

And Arthur's got so much planned for his department! Would he return from the Christmas break just to see Malfoy's sneering face at the door, telling him to get out of his office?

"Now, perhaps there's no cause for alarm just yet, my boy," Albus put a hand on his shoulder reassuringly, "Alaster said his suspicions were based on rumours relating to certain changes in your department only - and Merlin knows he does have a tendency to overdramatize, so there might not be anything to it. I merely thought you should be aware. If Lucius is really planning something then he will likely make his move immediately after everyone return to work, having already made his preparations during the holidays. He won't give you a few days leeway, so you'll need to be on guard from the day you go back."

"Thanks for the warning," Arthur nodded. "I'll watch out."

The grandfatherly headmaster inclined his head, and took a pinch from the old jar of Floo powder. "I should return to Hogwarts before Minerva and the others finish the roast turkey without me. Please don't hesitate to owl me if Lucius attempts to pressure you on the political front... What's this?"

Arthur followed his gaze to the disorderly pile of letters on the mantelpiece. "These are some more letters that - oh, this one's from Percy, and this one's from Barty Crouch - I haven't had a chance to open. Is there something in it, Albus?"

Albus pulled a third envelope out of the pile and passed it over for Arthur to read. "This one's from Lucius Malfoy."

Malfoy!

Arthur put his son and his friend's letters safely out of the way before casting several diagnostic charms over Malfoy's letter, but there didn't seem to be anything wrong with it. No explosives, no hidden poisonous needle, no cursed pieces of paper to burn him upon contact. After looking to Albus for confirmation, Arthur gingerly opened the envelope with the tip of his wand and took out... just a normal letter, albeit written on very fine parchment.

"Strange... he's never written to me before," Arthur unfolded the letter that was apparently from Malfoy and held it out so that both he and the headmaster could read it. It went,

'To Mr. Arthur Weasley, Head of the Department of Muggle Artifacts,

I believe you have received correspondence regarding a revision to the Muggle Protection Act, one that involves a number of bold initiatives such as designating a muggle market research team and a newsletter dedicated to muggles. Owing to certain challenges that one can foresee in putting these changes into practice, I am willing to assist you either personally or as a member of the senate provided that mutual benefit can be assured. It would be best if we meet soon to discuss this revision to the Muggle Protection Act in greater details. If you are interested, please reply with a time.'

"Intriguing. This is not Lucius's usual style of bribery," Albus regarded Arthur with a questioning stare. "He realizes that he can't pay you to stop searching his manor, so he offers to support the department."

A... bribe? So that proposal, that brilliant idea he'd been telling everyone at the office about, was...

...just another of Malfoy's attempt to get his own way?

"My boy, surely you aren't intending to accept?"

"That sneaky snake!" Arthur's teeth were gritted so tightly together that he could hardly hear himself speak. He wretched that first letter he'd received out of his pocket, where it had been safely stored up to now. "'A member of the public' indeed! I bet he wrote this too, to trick me into leaving his hoard of dark magic alone! Merlin, he nearly had me sold, Albus! He was going on about how 'refocusing our attention from wizards onto monitoring muggles' can keep muggles safer - like he actually gives a damn! And 'We want to learn about the incredible ideas that the muggles have developed' - Ha! Lies! I should've expected it from those Slytherins. Of course those conniving bastards would think of something like this! And now he's gotten me to convince the largest part of my department that it's a good idea!"

Arthur half expected the headmaster to scold him for being so gullible, so he was a little surprised by the indecipherable look in the pair of usually jovial blue eyes. He might even venture to call them thoughtful, though he had no idea why. "Do only what is right, Arthur," Albus merely told him, before leaving by the Floo in a flash of green flames. Arthur was left alone with the handful of letters and a lot to think about.

Yes, he would do only what's right. He would rip Malfoy's attempt at bribing him to shreds and send him the pieces! Bribing him, of all people! Did Malfoy think him one of his slimy business associates who can be bought off just like that? - On second thought, he still needed Malfoy's letter. He'd have to take it to the office, apologize and ask people to forget what he'd suggested. It would be embarrassing, but he'd have to do it. Can't let Malfoy get his way.

Arthur sighed, deciding to put aside Malfoy's letters in favour of more pleasant things. His busy friend Barty's letter was concise as usual, wishing him a joyful Yuletide or a merry Christmas, whichever he preferred. Percy's was much lengthier.

'Dear Dad,

Thank you for the letter, and mum for the jumper and the delicious fudge. Ginny and Ron especially loved those. My NEWT studies are coming along fine. There is a lot of material to learn in the courses I've chosen, but so far it's still manageable. I think it would be better if I start preparing for the exams now rather than next year. Better safe than sorry, right?

Don't worry about Fred and George. I'll keep an eye on them to make sure they don't get into trouble this year. Ron's behaving himself too. I think he feels sorry about the gaffe he pulled with your car. I know we've just lost twelve galleons, but is it possible to buy him another wand this summer or in the coming year? The one he got from Charlie broke in the crash. He's making do in class by borrowing a friend's right now, so all is fine. But his friend is not always there to lend him outside of class (she is very studious and spends a lot of time in the library), and he wastes entire mornings playing exploding snap rather than practicing his spellworks.

Speaking of muggle artifacts, I think your idea for the revised Muggle Protection Act is great! Talk about hitting two birds with one stone! I told a muggleborn friend about it, and she's really excited about the idea of looking to the muggles for inspirations for innovation. She also looks forward to all the job opportunities that your department would create for muggleborns, who are somewhat disadvantaged in our world. Anyways, I really think people are going to love this, except Malfoy and some of the purebloods. But if they complain that you're wasting ministry resources or something, you can say you're trying to ensure muggle safety while minimizing the disturbance to magical households - as they requested! They can't argue against that!

Good luck on getting the amendment passed! Love,

Percy

P.S. The package you took the fudge from was Ron's. Feel free to take from mine next time. It makes things easier for everyone.'

Oh the irony...

"It's dinner time!" Molly called. "Ah, Albus left already? I thought I heard him out here. Shame on you, Arthur! You should've made him stay... Is something the matter, honey? Why the long face?"

"These!" Arthur tossed the letters onto the table in frustration. Ministry work could be such a headache sometimes.

Percy had a good point there. Many people would love the amendment - this was obvious from the positive reception it'd gotten so far. Arthur would've loved it too, if only it wasn't a part of Malfoy's plot.

But look at the first letter again, the one from 'A member of the public'. Would Malfoy know what electricity was? Or combustion engines? Would he even care to remember that the word existed, let alone how to spell it?

He was supposed to do what's right, and only what's right. But which was it? To serve the public interest even if it meant compromising with people like Malfoy, who had obvious ulterior motives? Or to be steadfast and stand his ground, but to maybe disappoint some people - like his friends from work, his son, and the young muggleborn girl? And what if there was really a fellow muggle technology enthusiast out there who'd gone through all this trouble to write to Malfoy, only for Arthur to say no?

What in Merlin's name should he do?


It was a pensive, and slightly conflicted, Albus who stepped through the Floo of the headmaster's office.

Lucius Malfoy's ... unusual political move was only one of the occurrences this year that made him feel somewhat uneasy. Once again, Albus couldn't exactly pinpoint what it was. It wasn't that the idea being proposed was undesirable, of course. It was actually sensible - and surprisingly fair. It wasn't that the loss of the chance to raid the Malfoy manor would be catastrophic. Especially since so far the raids haven't been very fruitful, and Albus knew that Lucius was intelligent enough to behave himself without needing to be locked away. That is, until Tom returns... in which case Azkaban wouldn't be much use anyways. It wasn't that cooperation between Arthur and Lucius, two men who couldn't see eye to eye even when they were students, was a bad thing.

Which was why Albus couldn't impress upon Arthur that it was dangerous to consider this amendment anymore than he did. Just like he couldn't bring himself to agree with Arthur's rant that Slytherins were conniving bastards who cared only about themselves.

But Albus also knew that sometimes things would appear to be going right until it was too late. And he had a strong hunch that they were heading for some mysterious direction - on a revolutionary scale. Perhaps that was why.

Unwittingly, Albus found himself glancing up at the portrait in green, whose occupant was nonchalantly lounging across his velvet chaise and pulling at a rose leaf.

'What are you playing at, Slytherin? And if you're responsible for this one as well, just how far can you reach?'

Chapter Text

(After six revisions, the following letter was sent by Arthur Weasley via a rented post owl:)

'To Mr. Malfoy:

I have received your letter about correspondence. I also believe it best to discuss what you mean by mutual benefit.

I will be available to meet you in my office the mornings of the next Monday, Tuesday or Thursday.

Please reply with a time that I should be expecting you.

Arthur Weasley

  1. I hope your intention of cooperation is sincere.

PPS. Do note that negotiations will not include the amount of influence you have over the Department of Muggle Artifacts.'


 

(A few days later, in the Daily Prophet:)

Change on the way for the Department of Muggle Artifacts - but not the one you're expecting!

By Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet senior reporter

As Mr. Arthur Weasley has recently come under heavy fire when the secret of his enchanted muggle car literally flew out into the open, many readers no doubt expect his resignation in the near future.

Well those readers will be in for a surprise. Not only will Mr. Weasley return to the Department of Muggle Artifacts following the Yule holiday, there are words that he will return with a bold new plan to take his Department in a direction that, many believe, will make the Department more relevant than ever before.

Recognizing the current inefficiencies in the enforcement of the Muggle Protection Act, the plan seeks to shift the department's efforts from raiding magical households to eliminating hazards to muggles in the simplest and surest way possible: by comprehensively monitoring the muggle market itself.

This would evidently involve much manpower, and would require the deployment of all of the department's current task forces and more. However, there will be no fruitless work under Mr. Weasley's new plan. Every minute spent by ministry wizards in the muggle world will also be used to understand our non-magical neighbours better. This will be great news for anyone who's ever wondered, once in a while, just how in Merlin's name did those muggles accomplish those moving stairs near the Leaky Cauldron without magic?

The details are still in the works, of course, but the idea seems to be gaining steam. I chanced to meet Mr. Perkins, one of Mr. Weasley's co-workers, in front of the Leaky Cauldron yesterday. When asked about Mr. Weasley's new initiative, Mr. Perkins' reply was succinct and clear: "It's a good plan. That's all I have to say."

So, Mr. Weasley's penchant for flying notwithstanding, will this new initiative ...take off?

It seems likely. Albus Dumbledore, for one, has always stood behind Mr. Weasley and his department.

And as for the opposition?

"Perhaps I have been hasty in condemning Mr. Weasley's leadership of the Department of Muggle Artifacts," Senator Mr. Lucius Malfoy surprised me by saying. "I do not agree with the department's actions in the past, but this new initiative sounds like a sensible and meaningful goal. I wish Mr. Weasley luck in bring about this change, and I am willing to offer him my support."

And there you have it, my avid readers! Can the two sides work together to make this daring idea fly? Myself, like all of you, eagerly await new developments.

Until next time, my dear readers!


 

(Meanwhile, a well-groomed owl left the Malfoy Manor with the following letter:)

'To Mr. Weasley:

As you can see, I have every intention of honouring the offer in my previous letter. It is now pasted all over Diagon Alley in today's Prophet and will not be retractable.

The operation of your department is not my expertise, nor is it of great interest to me. Thus, you can be assured that my involvement will be minimal. I will not interfere in the decisions and plans of your department - provided that they are not obviously insensible.

I will arrive at your office the next Monday, at 10 am. I look forward to meeting with you then.

Lucius Malfoy'


At the Gryffindor table in Hogwarts' Great Hall, Hermione closed her copy of the Daily Prophet and smiled imperceptibly.

The appearance of this article meant that Arthur Weasley must have been somewhat receptive to Malfoy, at least receptive enough that there was no risk of him denouncing the anticipated stopping of the raids as a lie. Good.

It was evident that the Ven. Mr. Malfoy was the one who'd "leaked" the story to Rita Skeeter in the first place. The article accomplished several things, of course. Firstly, it could be used as evidence of Malfoy's "good faith" as it would force Malfoy to keep his words. Secondly, and more importantly, it ensured that Weasley couldn't simply back out anymore, now that so much of the magical population knew. It also helped that Skeeter framed the whole plan as Weasley's idea and implied that Dumbledore supported it.

And Perkins's jumping to Weasley's defence when ambushed by Skeeter? While Hermione imagined that normally such a short quote would've been difficult to use, here it was just what they needed.

Hermione took a sip of her pumpkin juice and glanced at the other end of the table, where Percy sat smiling happily in front of his own copy of the Prophet. Excellent indeed.

Surprisingly, the Prophet had deemed the article important enough to deserve a small column in the upper right corner of the front page, though Hermione suspected that it was done more as a courtesy to the prolific reporter than due to public interest. However, just the existence of this article should be enough to attract substantial media coverage to the subsequent negotiations - coverage that would be imperative to the next part of Hermione's plans…

"Wow! Isn't somebody happy today!"

Hermione looked up to see Fred nodding covertly in Percy's direction.

"Yeah, I don't think I've seen him smile like that in months. Granted, I haven't seen him much at all for months," said George, "you'd think someone secretly told him he's going to be head boy or something!"

"I think he's relieved for your dad's job," Hermione showed them the paper.

"I still don't see why he'd be so worried in the first place. Of course dad wasn't going to let Malfoy beat him...So dear Percy will be less likely to have a heart attack if we play a prank now, yes?"

"I… suppose you could say that,"

"Phew," sighed the twins, "That's good, because -"

"- we've already done it."

"Done what?" Hermione asked, curious.

"You'll see, tomorrow -"

"- or the day after -"

"- or within the week. Probably."

"-probably. Shouldn't be long now-"

"- but that'll be ok too. Didn't they say the longer you wait, the stronger it gets?"

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "You mean you don't know when it's going to happen?"

"Not exactly," said George mysteriously, "but we think - "

"- you'll like it. See ya!"

Hermione tried to think or guess what in the seven hells did she have to do with this, but ended up drawing blanks. Ah well.

Watching the twins' retreating backs move off, she left the table to make her last trip to Diagon Alley of the holiday. With luck, there would be voice-disguising howlers for sale.


Meanwhile, on the Hogwarts Express, Blaise was doodling hippogriffs on the misted compartment window. Across from him, Theo and Daphne were engrossed in a book about magical theories and a beauty magazine respectively. The three other occupants of their compartment, three Ravenclaw firsties that had been allowed in primarily for the purpose of keeping anyone else out, were fast asleep. For all intents and purposes, they had the compartment to themselves.

"Theo, about what your father said at the winter ball... don't you think something's not adding up?" Blaise asked. He'd deliberately chosen not to discuss this in front of other Slytherins. Officially, Project Give-Lockhart-the-boot was done. He didn't want to accidentally give off the idea that he was insisting on pursuing a dead goal.

"What's not adding up?" asked Daphne.

"At the party, the Venerable Mr. Nott told us that Lockhart probably took his lessons from an old textbook from the early days of Hogwarts. I know some of us thought of this ourselves before, too, but I've been thinking about it some more and something about it doesn't seem right."

Theo raised a surprised eyebrow. "I agree. Lockhart couldn't have been just reading out of books because he wouldn't have understood any of it. I didn't know you were still thinking about this as well."

"But the books have translation charms on them, so Lockhart wouldn't have had any trouble with the Latin right?"

"No, I don't mean that," Theo clarified, "Lockhart might've been able to read the words, but how was he able to answer all our questions? He would have to actually understand and learn what's written in the books, and I don't think he could've done that. If he really gets all the things he taught us, he wouldn't be half as awful as he is."

"Exactly!" Blaise simply couldn't see Lockhart as someone who actually gave a rat's fart about what he was teaching. If Lockhart had even only practiced a few notes of Nocturne every day like he'd advised the class to do, he wouldn't have messed up his spells so badly! And he would've been able to invent some proper spells, or at least ones that were more effective than the peskipixie whatsit, wouldn't he? "There has to be something else going on."

"Well, what are your theories?" asked Daphne, interested.

Blaise and Theo looked back and forth between each other for about a full minute. Eventually, they both admitted, "… No idea."

"It does seem like a bit too much work on Lockhart's part," nodded Daphne, "but remember that he could've just been very lucky. I mean, I've taken a look at the books, and they seem to be very comprehensive. Maybe we just haven't been asking the difficult questions."

"That's possible," Theo admitted thoughtfully. Blaise could see the merit of her point. In every one of Lockhart's lessons, they had a lot of new ideas to take in. And didn't Lockhart seemed to be flipping through his notes a lot?

But still…

"Of course, we can still verify whether this is true if you really want," Daphne said placatingly, "We can take extremely detailed notes during his classes and review them when we get back to the common room. And in the next class, we grill him about it."

But no one really had anything else to add to the topic.

"Oh, did anyone read today's Prophet? Who wants to bet that Skeeter's article was real?"

Chapter Text

"Isn't it great that everyone's back at school, brother dear?" asked George

"Oh yes, certainly. Noise and din, just as we like it," smirked Fred. Indeed, the Great Hall was once again filled and busy as usual. To his right, he could see Percy trying to discreetly sneak off to who knows where. To his left, little Sally was being gifted a rose cutting by Neville Longbottom as a belated Christmas present - which Fred thought would've been kind of sweet if there was actually a flower on the branch, rather than just a bare branch from the rosebush outside sticking out of a pot of dirt. Whatever. At the Head Table, Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape were each reading a copy of the Daily Prophet. "Hey look, Lockhart's not at breakfast yet."

"Yeah, this is late even for him… Do you think he finally ate our Christmas presents?"

"The chocolate cauldrons filled with love potion -"

"- made from his own hair?"

They sniggered. "Maybe."

"How long do you think it'll take for people to figure out that Lockhart's been drugged?"

Fred expressed that maybe they won't notice the effect ever, because Lockhart probably loved himself enough already. "I still wish we could've just spiked his pumpkin juice with it at breakfast though. Too bad these goblets vanish everything automatically whenever we try to put potions in." Indeed, the last time they'd snuck into the kitchen to drug the turkey with a giddiness potion, but inadvertently caused the whole dish to vanish. The house elves weren't very happy with them, needless to say.

"We have to at least get an account of how it went," George decided. "Who has his class first?"

"Second year Slytherins, I think."

"Aw, damn it. Snape's going to find out for sure!"


Meanwhile, Blaise, Theo and Daphne had arrived in the Defence classroom with well-stocked inkwells and newly sharpened quills, fully ready to record as much of Lockhart's lesson as they possibly could. Instead, they walked in on their famed Defence "professor" mashing his puckered lips against one of his various portraits around the room - and loudly too.

The sheer astonishment, disgust and fascination caused by the sight before them caused the second year Slytherins to freeze at the door for a full minute, yet their "professor" didn't seem to notice at all. Nor did he give any indication of being aware of his ... audience when they decided to wait politely at their desks for him to finish.

Finally, Daphne had enough. "Good morning, professor. What will we be learning today?"

Lockhart finally turned around to give her an extremely annoyed glare. "Can't you see I'm busy?" he demanded, and wasted no time in turning back around to pick up where he'd left off. Daphne and Gaius's eyes actually bugged out at this, and they mouthed a silent "WHAT?" at each other.

The Lockhart in the portrait actually looked quite flattered by the attention, Blaise thought, even though his flamingo coloured robes were becoming smudged due to the corporeal Lockhart's slobbering.

Ten minutes later, the class of second year students silently fled the room. It was generally frowned upon for Slytherins to walk out of a class since it was a punishable offence and didn't reflect well on one's tolerance, but this time they really couldn't take it anymore. The other Lockharts on the wall looked as if they were considering the prospect of joining in.

"Unprecedented level of narcissism!" Daphne exclaimed the moment they returned to the common room, attracting the curious glances of some upper years on break.

"Shameless public display of - of -" Yelled Millicent. Blaise figured she was about to say affection, but couldn't quite bring herself to use the word to describe such an obnoxious sight. "- of whatever the hell that was!"

"Ewwww..." Draco could only manage. Mark told him he couldn't have said it better.

"Hey, don't you lot have class right now?" Asked Adrian Pucey and Marcus Flint from two different corners of the common room.

The second years took a minute to consider how to phrase this. "Lockhart decided that he's less interested in teaching us than snogging his own portrait," said Theo.

They were left alone by the upper years after that. Although, this may have been because the older students had all left after Pucey muttered something about keeping a "pensieve" and Flint chuckled and announced that he was going to go and watch.

"This supports my point though," said Daphne quietly. "He might've gotten lucky with the questions in class, but there's no one to stop him from embarrassing himself in other situations."

"Situations like the Duelling Club, yes," agreed Theo, "but I still think there's got to be more to it though."

"You think someone slipped him a love potion or put him under some sort of spell today?" Blaise theorized, "I mean, we all know he's smitten with himself but he's never gone so far as to spend a whole morning kissing his own picture before."

"Probably," nodded Daphne.

"So he's probably not really thinking for himself today," ventured Blaise.

"True, but that doesn't tell us anything though."

Blaise had to agree. It was hard to carry out a debate when he didn't even know what theory he was trying to support.

"At the Duelling Club, Lockhart gave some instructions on duelling forms," Theo said after a while, "he even walked around to correct people - mind, he didn't get to check our side of the room, so we don't exactly know how well he was instructing people... But still, I don't think Understanding the Dark Arts, volume 1 and 2 went into that much details on duelling forms. I mean, it would make sense, since that's something you would normally teach in a class if you could, right?"

"So how did Lockhart know so much about duelling?" wondered Blaise excitedly. "He could've looked it up in another book, but that would involve him doing research, and I really can't see that happening."

"There is that..." Allowed Daphne, "but could it be possible that someone taught him duelling back in his school days? He would've just learned the basics - the forms and such - but he never practiced so he's still as shoddy a wizard as ever."

"But if you didn't really care for duelling in the first place and never practiced, why would you take the trouble to remember the forms?" Countered Theo.

"True, you wouldn't," Daphne nodded, "So what exactly do you guys think is happening?"

Blaise and Theo shrugged.

"Either he's trying really really hard to make himself look dumb - no, that doesn't make sense at all..."

"Or maybe he's really good at some things and bad at others? But why pretend then? Why give us all that peskipixie crap? It still doesn't make sense!"

"Oh, or maybe he's getting help from someone?"

"But how? There's no one else in the class when he's teaching!"

"I heard there's a spell that makes you invisible," said Theo, who was scratching his head, "but it'll make you invisible to everyone, including Lockhart. Whoever's helping him can still talk, I guess, but we would've heard them."

"But can't you cast a sound blocking charm for that?" wondered Blaise, "Oh wait... true, that wouldn't work for the same reason."

"Maybe they're whispering in his ear?" suggested Daphne.

"That's possible... if they're really tiny and sat on his shoulder."

They giggled at that. The thought of Lockhart carrying an invisible mini-person on his shoulder was funny.

"That's actually possible," Theo realized, "isn't there such things called two-way mirrors? Maybe there's one of those hidden on him somewhere... But then there's the motivation of whoever's helping him, if there's such a person. I mean, how would they benefit? Why don't they just come and teach us themselves? In fact, why don't they just apply to the Defence position for the next five years so that we don't have to suffer another idiot teacher ever again?"

"True... So what else could be happening, if there's no one helping Lockhart teach?"

There were shrugs all around this time. They continued to throw suggestions around, but still nothing really stuck out as a particularly likely one. If anything, Blaise thought their guesses might be becoming more and more ludicrous. By the time Pucey and Flint returned chuckling about the exclamations made upon witnessing Lockhart by Professors Flitwick and Snape, the former becoming suspicious after seeing fourth year Slytherins wandering in and out of a second year class and the latter arriving to administer a love potion antidote at his tiny colleague's bequest, Theo had started to suggest that maybe Lockhart had been struck with some curse that inhibited his brain from time to time.

Finally, Daphne suggested, "We haven't asked Sal and Harry yet. Maybe they'll have some more ideas."

All agreeing that this was the most sensible thing to do, Blaise, Daphne, and Theo began to work on their transfiguration homework.


 

"... So anyways, it was hilarious. And pretty gross. Flint says by the time Professor Snape got there, Lockhart was doing... a little more than snogging. Whatever that was supposed to mean."

Hermione smirked at Daphne's account of their morning Defense class and hid her growing unease. Well, it wasn't so much that she was disturbed by Lockhart making a right fool of himself as... "but you still think there's more to him?"

Theo nodded. "He knew more than he should at the Duelling Club."

And therein lay the problem. She had anticipated individuals being curious about Lockhart's sudden increase in competence levels, but she hadn't counted on anybody being so determined to solve the mystery. Well, there was Dumbledore and perhaps some of the professors, but they would have very little first-hand information.

Why, oh why did Lockhart have to insist on helping with the Duelling Club, forcing her to teach him forms? And why couldn't he have just kept up the illusion of competence all the way, rather than blowing his own cover with his atrocious attempt at a simple rennervate? Well, that was really her fault she supposed. She'd allowed herself to get injured... which incidentally was what had prompted her well-meaning friends to take a closer look at Lockhart in the first place.

That mistake had even more repercussions than she'd initially realized. While she was glad that Blaise, Daphne and Theo were observant enough to catch on to these details, it created still more complications for her. Because although there were many possible explanations for everything she made Lockhart do or say individually, if one tried to string them into an all-encompassing theory... Well... "And, er, what's our working theory again?"

"That someone's helping him, probably."

"And you really don't think he could've done some research after one of the professors asked him to help with the Duelling Club? He was a Ravenclaw, remember?"

Everyone shook their head in disbelief. Pity. It was worth a shot.

"Do you think it might be one of your parents' friends, then? I mean, it would make sense that they want us to know what the dark arts really mean, right? and It would be weird for them to come and teach as themselves, because didn't you say some of them are not on very good terms with Professor Dumbledore?"

Daphne chuckled. "You could say that again,"

"But that would make sense," nodded Harry. "They would know that Lockhart needed... help, because they went to school with him. And they, erm, wouldn't mind making deals with him, right?"

"It does sound like the sort of deal they would make," agreed Theo thoughtfully.

"Maybe that's it!" said Blaise excitedly. Thankfully, they were too deep in the library to be heard by Madame Pince. "At Malfoy's Winter Ball, Mr. Malfoy and Theo's father more or less ordered us to stop trying to get the dolt fired because he's helping to clear the stigma of the Dark Arts. Maybe that's why they told us to leave Lockhart alone... because they already have a hold on him!"

"Aw! Well why couldn't they've just told us that and saved us all that trouble?" Daphne pouted. "Adults and their damned secrets..."

Content, they ended their regular library meeting there, and Hermione made sure to act normal as she and Harry returned to Gryffindor Tower. So now they think some mysterious person out there is telling Lockhart what to teach, which was not ideal. But it was better that having them run around suspicious and attracting the attention of their esteemed headmaster, and she simply couldn't make them forget their theory without wiping around a month's worth of their memories. The only thing she could do now is convince them that the mystery is solved, and let the whole matter get buried deeper and deeper in their minds where it would be less likely to shout "read me" at inconvenient twinkling eyed leglimens at the wrong time.

But this imposes a much tighter time constraint on her work, because now she really needed Lockhart gone as soon as possible. The last thing she needed was for Dumbledore to be made curious enough to want to ask Lockhart who was helping him under veritasium, then to hear the reply "Salazar". Then, depending on whether or not he was aware that Voldemort had a horcrux, he may or may not begin to theorize that Salazar Slytherin had one somewhere as well, and then all hell would break loose... No, as soon as Dumbledore catches on, Lockhart needs to disappear from the picture no matter her progress. She would simply have to try again if everything unravelled.

But it would be such a pity, to have come so far only to just fall short.

Hermione absentmindedly squirted some water into the pot sustaining the rose branch that she'd promised Neville she'd take good care of, and cast a small shield around it so that it would be undisturbed. One of the reasons she admired the apothecary's rose so much, apart from its magical properties, was its resiliency. A single live branch could take roots and eventually grow back to what it was always meant to be - but until then it was still so damned fragile...

It all came down to how soon she could finish the remainder of her plans, then. Negotiations for the Muggle Protection Act seems to be moving adequately well toward some kind of resolution, but it could not be rushed... Well, they did say patience is a virtue.

And besides, if her plans progress without too much complications then the rewards would be quite great indeed. She would look forward to that.

There was a gush of wind as Mercury soared in through her window. "Decided to visit me?" Hermione asked gently, and patted the silver-grey owl that nibbled at her fingers. "Remember to get enough rest, my beauty. There's going to be a difficult job for you up ahead."

Chapter Text

"I still think this line here, the Department's right to inspect personal properties of Citizens is henceforth revoked… is too absolute. It should be changed to 'will be limited'."

"Ah, but why ever would you wish to diminish the rights of our citizens without cause, Mr. Weasley?"

"It'll make the muggles even safer -"

"Hardly, Mr. Weasley, as long as your Department is doing its job properly. Besides, if we write 'will be limited', people will think that you want to pry into their lives for some ulterior motives, no?"

"You'd know all about ulterior motives, Malfoy…"

"Now, now, let's use our limited meeting time to discuss something more productive, shall we? …"

Lucius waved nonchalantly at two stony-faced Department of Muggle Artifacts workers as he left yet another tedious meeting with Arthur Weasley. How annoying it was to play "nice" with that uncouth blood-traitor! If it hadn't been for the fact that Lucius had more self-restraint than most due to his father's disciplining and his education in Slytherin, he would've had Weasley frothing at the mouth in minutes.

But tedious though it may be, this was the closest he'd came to stopping those stupid raids for good. He wasn't about to let all that hard work and forced smiles go to waste now.

'Just a few more days at most, and then I won't have anything to do with him…'


"... and the senate has already agreed to double your department's annual budget, provided -"

"My department reserves the right to make our own decisions, Malfoy. In case we're not clear, this will include starting and terminating projects, hiring and promotion of employees, and allocation of funds within the department."

"Of course, of course. As long as this Amendment takes effect, is what I meant to say."

Arthur showed Lucius Malfoy out of his office after yet another tedious meeting with said blond ponce. How taxing it was to play "nice" with that Death Eater! Three times during this one meeting, he'd considered tearing up the half-written Amendment. He actually had no idea how he'd managed not to throw Malfoy out his door yet.

Another letter appeared in his mailbox.

'Dear Mr. Weasley,

I'd just like to tell you how much I love your new and improved Muggle Protection Act! I really like how it creates opportunities for us to learn something about the muggles while we protect them at the same time. Talk about shooting two birds with one stone, huh? And I agree with you that a newspaper about trends in muggle technologies is just what we need...'

This, these letters, were the reason, Arthur supposed. People were counting on him now, and he really didn't want to let them down. He had to make this project go through, which meant that he needed resources, which meant that he had to tolerate Malfoy for a little longer.

There was also that small vindictive pleasure of knowing that Malfoy's gold and cunning will be used to protect muggles, educate the magical population on muggles lifestyles, and create jobs for muggleborns. He bet the snobby blood-purist loved that.

'Just a few more days at most, and then I won't have much to do with him...'


 

Muggle Protection Act Amendment to be signed Monday

By Alec Hasting, Daily Prophet politics correspondent

After what appears to be weeks of negotiations, our insider source informs us that the amendment of the controversial Muggle Protection Act has finally been finalized. A formal announcement will be made by the Department of Muggle Artifacts on the coming Monday morning…'

Hermione neatly refolded her copy of the Prophet. Glancing up at the High Table, she saw Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape do the same.

Finally.


Monday morning six o'clock, a lone figure and a formerly silver-grey but currently charcoal black owl appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the still empty Whitehall Road.

"Remember this face, Mercury?" the girl showed the owl a picture of a well-dressed man with long blond hair, then tied a small, disillusioned two-way mirror onto the owl's head. "You have to trust me, Mercury. I wouldn't do this if the task isn't so complicated. This is going to feel bizarre, but I won't let any harm come to you. I promise."

The owl couldn't exactly understand her words but knew that she meant well, so it hooted softly and nudged her hand.

"Thank you, Mercury. Imperio."


Monday morning eight o'clock, reporters from various publications began to gather in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic. Looking about her, Rita Skeeter could see many familiar faces. There was good old Robert from Witches Weekly, that annoying Brenda from the Sunday Hoot, and Donovan the photographer, who was from Witches Weekly as well. Then there was also old Xenophilius Lovegood from the Quibbler, but he probably came to look for Nargles or something.

For a seemingly boring announcement like this, Rita noticed, the Atrium was surprisingly full. But the interest was probably not in what the Department of Muggle Artifact wanted to do, but in the fact that the two primary supporters for the amendment, Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley, were notoriously unable to stand each other. Good journalists sniff out situations that can potentially turn into front page material. And after what happened in Flourish and Blotts in September, it wasn't surprising that many people brought cameras.

Rita personally didn't think those hopeful photographers would get that lucky this time, but they'll see.

None of the journalists, not even the ever-watchful Rita, noticed the black owl perched on a shadowy alcove high above their heads.

Monday morning nine o'clock, Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley stood side by side in the Atrium.

Lucius let his face slide easily into his practiced, coolly polite "press release" face. The Weasel, meanwhile, looked a little uncomfortable. It appears that he was not used to speaking in front of so many reporters - which was probably true, and for good reasons. Up to now, his department just barely made it onto the politics section of the Prophet.

But Lucius refrained from showing any derision. He would do that on his own time.

"We have amended the Muggle Protection Act to allow for more effective, well, protection of muggles against enchanted items, as well as to increase the gains of our magical society. By the amended Muggle Protection Act, the Department of Muggle Artifact will cease to randomly inspect residences for muggle-like objects. Its task forces will be remobilized to monitor muggle stores for magical objects. Should a magical object be found and traced back to one of its previous magical owners, the aforementioned wizard or witch shall be charged a fine, between one sickle to one thousand galleons, depending on the severity of threat to muggle safety." Weasley delivered his part of the announcement. "The amendment will remove any potential confusion of the definition of a 'muggle-like object'. This change in the method of enforcement of the Muggle Protection Act will also create an opportunity for us to gather timely information on current trends in the muggle market."

Now it was Lucius's turn. "The senate is in full support of this amendment and the restructuring of the department to support it. It is also in favour of the decision to double the Department of Muggle Artifact's annual budget to partially offset the salary expenses of the additional employees." And he made especially sure to smile "sincerely". One must be careful with cameras around.

The next part of his speech was very carefully worded. He had to appear to support Weasley's muggle-loving motivations as much as possible, while refraining from going overboard. The purebloods already knew his true opinions because most of them were also in on this, but if he actually ended up encouraging the public to muggle-fy themselves more than they already did then they might begin repaving Diagon Alley to make it car compatible. "I believe it is high time for us to understand our muggle neighbours better. Up to now our society lacked a reliable, up-to-date source of information on their lives and their culture… but the market research and publications produced by the restructured Department of Muggle Artifact will change this. In support of this bold endeavour to benefit the magical society, the Malfoy family will donate five hundred thousand galleons to help finance the capital costs - and I encourage the public to contribute as well if you are able to do so."

Here Lucius had to work a little harder to keep his face convincing. To say that he was not used to asking for financial aid in any form in any fashion would be an understatement… Yet in this case the "plea for help" made it seem less like a one-man funded project and consequently toned down the suspicion level, so he made an exception.

They were then met with a round of polite applause, the customary cue for journalists to surround the speakers and begin firing questions. Weasley's questioning seemed to revolve around "Please elaborate on the reasons for the amendment". Lucius's questioning went mostly along the lines of,

"Mr. Malfoy, I understand that you did not approve of the Department of Muggle Artifact in the past …"

"Mr. Malfoy, how do you see muggle technology in the lives of we witches and wizards? What place will it take?..."

"Mr. Malfoy, what is your opinion on the optimal muggle-magic relationship?"

Of course, there was also the occasional "Mr. Malfoy, what did you do to manipulate Weasley into calling off the raids?" in disguise, asked by a couple of relatively new reporters who thought themselves clever. But Lucius was able to… deter those from becoming troublesome fairly easily.

Suddenly, Lucius felt a gust of wind whoosh past overhead. Hurrying to protect his hair (one picture of him with messy hair just might be front-page worthy), he looked up to see a black owl swoop away into whatever passage it entered from. Odd, since owl deliveries to the Ministry were generally deposited at a collective mailbox outside then transported from there to the individual mailboxes in the offices. Then he saw all the hungry, anticipating eyes around him and realized that a red envelope had been deposited at his feet.

Lucius was weighing the disadvantages of destroying the howler against the benefits when it opened itself and started shrieking in a whiny, nasally voice,

"MALFOY! YOU SLIMY SNAKE! DON'T YOU PRANCE AROUND WITH THAT SMUG SMILE! NEVER TRUST A DARK WIZARD, MY MOTHER ALWAYS SAID! AND, AND YOU'RE NOT FOOLING ME! DID YOU HEAR THAT? YOU AND YOUR SLYTHERIN CRONIES ARE NOT FOOLING ME! YOU'RE JUST DOING THIS TO MAKE YOURSELF LOOK GOOD - WELL GUESS WHAT? IT'S NOT WORKING! YOU LOT THINK YOU'RE SO CUNNING - HA! DON'T EVEN DENY IT! OR ELSE YOU'RE UP TO SOMETHING! YOU'RE ROTTEN! YOU AND ALL YOUR SLYTHERIN CRONIES WHO CAME OUT OF THAT EFFING HOUSE ARE ALL ROTTEN TO THE CORE! AND, AND -"

Lucius silenced the howler with his cane and let his smile slide into a somewhat offended frown. "Sorry for the interruption."

On the inside he was laughing.

This howler had combined most of the things people wanted to tell him, but never dared to say out loud, into the single most ill-constructed argument ever - no, argument was too generous a term to describe it. Of all the things they could've accused him of, this rant had somehow managed to avoid making a single substantial claim. Now what would be the best way to make his opposition look bad?

All the journalists had gathered around him now to watch his reaction - even the ones previously badgering Weasley. They would love what he'd say next.

"I generally entertain only civil correspondence, but it seems I must make an exception in this case. I can tolerate the insults to myself," he could afford to be magnanimous here. It was simply so easy. "but I will not tolerate such blatantly ungrounded slandering of my alma mater. The author of this letter seems to believe that due to House Slytherin's teachings, all of its students are -" he considered saying Death Eaters, but decided that it would be risky. Better use something neutral. "- out to destroy society with the dark arts."

And even if it wasn't quite exactly the point that the author of the howler wanted to make, who could blame him? There was a reason that indiscernible rants were rarely heard in a senate or Wizengamote debate.

"To the author of this letter, I will ask you to refrain from shrieking in public when your opinion is so obviously uninformed. I shudder to think of the terrors that would plague us today if not for work of alumni of House Slytherin over the ages - including wolfbane potion and about half of the healing potions available to St. Mungo's. I also suspect you are ignorant of the length that Salazar Slytherin himself went through to preach responsible use of magic. In fact, if one has done a bit of research one would have found, in Slytherin's literature, detailed explanations of how many spells we label "dark" should be used for good."

And there! Lucius was rather pleased with himself for his handling of the howler. At worst he would divert attention from the amended Muggle Protection Act - and more importantly his involvement in it - onto this much more controversial topic altogether. At best he might even convince people to seriously consider the idea that dark arts might not be evil. (Whether it was true or not was irrelevant, actually.)

If people had a problem with the radical argument? It was the book's words, not his. They were more than welcomed to try sending howlers at the thousand-year deceased Salazar Slytherin if they wanted.

"If I may ask, Mr. Malfoy, is there any way we can check the validity of these claims?" A reporter called.

"I own a copy of the books, but Borgins and Burkes in Knocturn Alley owns the originals complete with the centuries-old anti-tampering spells - which I'm sure he would be agreeable to displaying for public viewing. If you really want to be sure you're getting the truth, then I'd advise you to read the originals." Lucius told him with a perfect polite smile. The faces around the room looked as if they'd struck a goldmine, so Lucius readied himself and asked the obvious. "Now, any more questions?"


"Mr. Malfoy! Are you defending the dark arts?"

"I'm informing you of the existence of certain 'lost' literature that offers some interesting perspectives. In Understanding the Dark Arts, Slytherin wrote that the Dark Arts were simply the name given to the most potent of magic, and were neither good nor evil. The remainder of the book describes how spells we label as dark could be used as effective ways to prevent violence, ward properties, prevent blood loss, reduce pain during surgery and the likes - complete with evidence of course."

"Mr. Malfoy! What is your opinion on this then?"

"I have yet to find anything illogical in Slytherin's logic here. Have you?"

"Mr. Malfoy! Are you saying that dark arts are good?"

"I'm informing the public that in the book Understanding the Dark Arts, Slytherin reasoned the Dark Arts were simply the name given to the most potent of magic, neither good nor evil."

"Mr. Malfoy! ...""Mr. Malfoy!..."

Hermione watched pandemonium unfold among the reporters (expertly handled by the Venerable Mr. Malfoy, however) through the small mirror nestled between the pages of her book. 'Mercury, fly out of the building the way you entered. Take care not to be seen. Then return to Hogwarts and wait in Hermione Granger's dormitory. Take breaks in your flight as needed.'

"…Miss Granger. Summarize what I just said about the three uses of boomslang fangs in potion."

"Er, yes sir. One of the uses is to increase the speed at which slow-acting ingredients such as pufferfish eyes take effect. Another use is in the blood-replenishing potion to prevent clotting due to the sudden increase in blood solute concentration. Boomslang fangs are also used in various magical poisons."

"Five points to Gryffindor for studying independently. Six points from Gryffindor for not paying attention in class. As I was about to say before Miss Granger kindly informed you, the third use of boomslang fangs is to increase the acting speed of certain potion ingredients. And as I was saying, I would take careful notes on this one if I were you because you will not find it in this textbook…"

Rather embarrassed at being caught out, Hermione quickly disabled her mirror and listened earnestly. Her classmates were probably going to take the mickey later, she'd bet ('Can you believe it? Teacher's pet Granger just lost us a point for not paying attention in class!'). Ah well. She'd tell them she thought she'd found a pimple or something if they saw the mirror. Which would be still more embarrassing ('Can you believe it? Granger didn't pay attention in class today because she was busy staring at her own face!'), but she was in too good a mood to care.

All went as planned. While she'd wanted both the stopping of the ministry raids and the muggle market newsletter, her primary goal had been to reignite public interest in the nature of the Dark Arts as a controversy. The idea of cooperation between Weasley and Malfoy attracted an audience of good reporters. Then, by playing devil's advocate and by providing Lucius Malfoy with an obvious counterargument, an opportunity was created - or one might call it an incentive - for Malfoy to defend the Dark Arts in public. Such a controversial idea would of course become THE topic of debate for at least the next month or so, creating a reason for various newspapers to receive and publish half a dozen passionate letters to the editor, each one written by a different Dicto-quill…In addition, the embarrassing reception of her "howler" should hopefully discourage people from bombarding Weasley with hate-mail if they'd been so inclined. Three birds, one stone, so to say.

Of course, she still had to write the letters, but the most difficult part was over. She'd more or less won.

Hermione steepled her fingers, and let just a tiny bit of her elation show.

Twelve years ago she was resurrected in person. Now, her legacy will be revived as well, one step at a time.

One step closer to true resurrection.

Chapter Text

'Dear Editor,

I've read Ms. Skeeter's article, and Mr. Malfoy's surprising revelation, in Tuesday's paper and I simply felt I had to say something.

In her article, Ms. Skeeter pondered a multitude of "possibilities". She asked whether our world has gotten Dark Arts all wrong. She asked whether our laws regarding the Dark Arts need to be amended "for the betterment of our society". She even asked whether we should actually allow witches and wizards to use the Dark Arts, legally.

True, the book that Mr. Malfoy referred to does exist. True, two antique enthusiasts in addition to Borgins have verified that it was genuine. True, Salazar Slytherin really did advocate for the use of Dark Arts for good, and wasn't an amoral terrorist like we thought. True, maybe he isn't even a bigoted blood-purist like we thought.

But what does it matter if a long-dead wizard was actually good and not evil? It does not change the fact that today, Dark Arts is being used to wreak havoc on our lives! In the last century alone we've seen two wars, both caused by madmen wielding dark spells as weapons!

Please, I know that all shocking discoveries inspire many questions. But for our own safety, we should not get carried away. Legalizing Dark Arts is a can of worms that should never be opened. Let's just change Slytherin's chocolate frog card and leave it at that.

Sincerely,

Charles Spinner'

At the Daily Prophet, Emily Anderson came across this letter among two dozen others of varying quality and opinions. Skeeter's writing certainly never failed to rile people up.

To be honest, Emily didn't appreciate the way Skeeter put the Dark Arts in a good light. Merely thinking about what the last dark lord did made her shudder. But she understood that articles like this brought in the money. Besides, who was she, a junior editor, to say no to a star writer like Rita Skeeter? Especially this time, when what she wrote was all actually true?

At least people out there share her worries, Emily thought as she fished Charles Spinner's letter out of the pile again. It was fairly comprehensible and logical, unlike some of the others. She'd try her best to convince the boss to publish this, preferably in a fairly visible position too.

Charles Spinner deserved to be heard.


'Dear Editor,

I've read the article written by Ms. Skeeter on Tuesday. I've also read the letter you published from a fellow reader, Charles Spinner, and found some of the points he made quite profound. Mr. Spinner is concerned that a slackening of laws regarding the Dark Arts would create dangerous situations, a sentiment that I understand perfectly.

But one of his points made me wonder. As Mr. Spinner wrote, "madmen wielding Dark Arts as weapons" were responsible for the catastrophe of the past two magical wars. But isn't Dark Arts just that: tools? In the hands of madmen, they cause grief and suffering. Yet, in the hands of the good and responsible, can it not be used to better the world, as Ms. Skeeter had theorized?

In fact, I suspect that our ignorance of the Dark Arts is a part of what fuels the problem. After all, eight centuries of laws have not stopped Grindleward and the most recent dark lord from becoming what they were. Yet, these past two wars would have been much less destructive if the common people knew how to cast a dark ward on their homes, or a pain controlling spell on their companions, or how to control the Fiendfyre that would otherwise burn down their house, or even some of the more potent spells to counter the spells of their attackers (for as Wilhelm Slinkhart argues, there is no fundamental difference between a curse and a countercurse). I too have sought out the book on everyone's tongue these days, Understanding the Dark Arts, out of curiosity. Although it does not name the incantation of any spell, it was really an eye opener in just how many ways dark can be used to counter dark.

I think whether we open a can of worms or not, we all need to understand the Dark Arts better.

Your faithful reader,

Olivia Dickens'

"More letters, Emma?"

"Yes, sir. Er, this one addresses a previous letter to the editor from another reader. Should we publish this?"

"Sure! It's not as if the lady insulted or said anything rude about this Charles Spinner, is it? Ha, now what we need is for Spinner to send us another rebuttal. A good debate always attracts plenty of attention!"

"True," Emma conceded, "as readers they don't need to maintain any semblance of objectivity like we do."

"Exactly! Charles Spinner and Olivia Dickens… Here's to hoping they don't get bored any time soon, because this is gold!"


'Dear Editor,

I noticed the letter you published from fellow reader Olivia Dickens, and I felt that I should reply.

I agree that a better understanding of many of the things we classify as Dark Arts might be beneficial. However, the truth remains that the Dark Arts is a collection of very dangerous magic. I am very concerned that making such potent magic more easily accessible would create trouble for both ourselves and our muggle neighbours.

I think a comprehensive and complicated system of regulations need to be worked out before we even begin considering legalizing the Dark Arts. For example, who is reliable enough to have access to the incantations? How do we control the flow of information?

I think once we have answers to these questions, it would be safe to explore the Dark Arts further. But judging by the pace at which things get done these days, it would take a miracle…'


'Dear Editor,

I'd just like to express that I think Mr. Spinner made a very good point about matching potential with control. I am also hopeful that one day we will have the answers to the questions he raised, and sooner rather than later.

On another note, I also read your most recent article about Whizz Hard Books re-investigating the biography of Salazar Slytherin and the other Hogwarts Founders...'


At Hogwarts, Gilderoy was becoming more and more nervous by the day. This certainly won't do, especially since he'd heard that anxiety cause one to grow old faster.

Everything was going so well until Christmas! He didn't know just what happened after the children went home, but when they came back three of the students have somehow developed a habit of asking ridiculously detailed questions on everything he said! And if that wasn't enough, the whole of the second year Slytherin class was starting to follow their example! Teaching was becoming harder and harder for him, and it was also becoming harder and harder to duck into his office quickly enough to dodge the bombardment of questions. So far he'd been able to just fend them off because Salazar can mostly predict what they might ask, but this also meant that Gilderoy now had to flip through pages of writing and actually search for the information he need!

Gilderoy fell into his chair with a sigh of exhaustion. "Why can't they just be satisfied with what I'm teaching them already?" The photo of his beautiful self on his desk nodded with pity.

His fellow professors also seem to have something against him now, even though he had no idea how. He supposed it might've had something to do with Valentine Day. He'd good-heartedly decorated the Great Hall beautifully and hired some dwarf cupids to deliver valentines to spread the cheer – and of course, since the students loved him so much, he'd received fifty cards and five singing valentines throughout the day. A poor dear had also sent him a singing love letter at dinner. It was rather sweet, especially the part,

"I know you don't notice me because you're famous

and I'm just a little boy,

and I sit in the back of your class because

I'm afraid to get in your way.

I know you might think my red hair's ugly,

But I don't really mind

If it'll make me just a little

Easier for you to find…

But I will always dream of you,

and a kiss from you would be heaven-sent…"

Oh, Gilderoy had been the perfect celebrity. He'd looked suitably flattered, then clearly announced that while he regrettably couldn't give his young fan that kind of attention because his love belonged to all his fans, he should not despair. And that while he cannot have the real "magical me" he could still purchase a copy of his book. But unfortunately his fellow professors were so worried for the poor boy that they felt they had to blame someone! They insisted that Gilderoy was a bad influence on the students, and that he should not be encouraging them, and that he should stop winking at them so often – which would hardly be fair, in Gilderoy's opinion, because he strongly felt it was a gift that all of his fans deserved. But alas! Not everyone could be as considerate as himself.

And throughout all this, Gilderoy keep getting the annoying little suspicion that he was being watched. Yes, he realized that his highly observant nature was likely making him paranoid, but he just had to be sure. Salazar had promised that he wouldn't tell anyone anything to wreck his reputation. He couldn't anyways, since Gilderoy always kept him safely hidden within his bag. But recently Gilderoy couldn't help but remember that young Miss Hermione knew about Salazar's diary. Not a lot, mind, but what if she tells someone that she'd given Professor Lockhart a strange book? What if they ask to see it? True, Gilderoy most likely wouldn't be coming back next year in any case, since he'd finally found another lead – a nice adventure five-year-long and all, just what he needed to restore his mysteriousness… But Gilderoy would rather not take the risk.

Which was why after class, Gilderoy held the girl behind and asked her whether she would like to help him collect some potion ingredients in the Forbidden Forest tonight. She readily agreed.

Gilderoy then asked her to meet him at the main gates at nine, and not to breathe a word to anyone about this lest they become jealous and thought him unfair. She easily agreed again.

Gilderoy met her earnest face with his best winning smile and sent her on her way. Everything went without a hitch, and at nine o'clock he found the girl waiting patiently for him. "Ooh I've never been in the forest before," she bounced on her feet excitedly, "They said there's monsters in the forest! But it's okay… I'm not scared because I know I'll be safe with you, professor." If it was any consolation to her, Gilderoy thought, at least she got to go on a walk with the Gilderoy Lockhart, even though she wouldn't remember any of it. If fact, to remove a memory from so long ago, she probably wouldn't be remembering any of the past year. Or three. Or five, give or take… But really, not many fans could claim that honour.

"So what are we here for, professor?" Hermione smiled up widely at him. "I mean, I'll be more help if I know what you need."

"Yes, thank you for agreeing to come with me," Gilderoy patted her hair with he left hand and took out his wand with his right.

"Oh I can't believe I forgot to keep my wand at ready!" she gushed, pulling out her wand as well. "We'll have to be ready if monsters come, and I won't be any help if I'm still trying to fish my wand out of my sleeve! It's a good thing you reminded me… Professor?"

The dear girl gasped when Gilderoy levelled his wand at her head. "Is there something behind me, Professor?"

Poor, poor dear… "I'm sorry, dear," Gilderoy told her apologetically, before getting ready to cast one of the strongest memory charms he'd ever done, "but I can't have you exposing my secret. Obliviate!"


Even as the memory charm met her silent 'protego', Hermione knew it was powerful. Really, the obliviation squad or even the Unspeakables could use that kind of talent. Or if he could've devoted the time he spent honing this spell elsewhere... Such a shame. But either way, it was obvious that a shield cast by a child, or even by an average adult, would not hold under such a powerful spell. It was also obvious that she could not afford to be hit by the spell. The recent several years of her life happened to be rather important.

So Hermione deflected it back to its caster, but not before concentrating it and amplifying it threefold.

When Lockhart asked her to accompany him to somewhere with an obvious lack of witnesses, she'd wondered what he was up to. Perhaps he might ask her if she knew what Blaise, Theo and Daphne were up to. Perhaps he might ask her where exactly she found the "diary". Perhaps he might extract a promise from her not to tell anyone about said "diary". Perhaps maybe there was a possibility that he might attempt foul play. But this…

She'd also considered various ways to keep people from finding out about the "diary" until she was prepared to handle the backlash. Up to now she'd been entertaining the idea of arranging for him to live in a secluded tropical town, lost to the British magical community for the next five years, and probably having his fraudulence activities partially exposed in the process. But this…

Well this simplified things.

Now, with time, a competent mind healer could probably restore most of Lockhart's memories up to a year or two beyond his graduation. With luck, a powerful leglimen might manage to glimpse bits of his memories up to last summer. But his memories of his time as a professor at Hogwarts and this confrontation, the epicenter of the rebounding memory charm, would be irreversibly scrambled. Lost forever. And she really must say, he had it coming.

It wasn't even vengeance, which would require active plotting on her part. It was simply apathy as allowed by the exemption clause in her personal rule. If he didn't give a rat's fart about destroying her life, why should she care about his?

'I'm sorry too, Professor,' she watched Lockhart's shocked eyes steadily grow blank, 'But I can't have you exposing my secret either.'

Chapter Text

The next morning, the Daily Prophet published an article about how the famous author and adventurer Gilderoy Lockhart had been found in a secluded part of Diagon Alley the previous night with no idea who he was or what he was doing. The Prophet remarked that he had since been taken to St. Mungo to receive treatment for what seemed to be near complete memory loss, and theorizes that Lockhart must've suffered some unfortunate injury while protecting Hogwarts and the world from some foe they didn't even know about. It then wished the beloved hero and revolutionary good luck in regaining the memories he'd lost.

Within the Great Hall of Hogwarts, half of the student population wept for Lockhart's misfortune while the other half stayed silent. A handful of students, including Ron, didn't fit into either camps.

"Good riddance," the redhead declared loudly upon seeing the news.

"Ron stop pretending!" Lavender sniffed, "You miss him as much as we do! It's ok to cry a little!"

"What in Merlin's name are you talking about?" Ron spluttered back. "Honestly, it's as if everyone suddenly started thinking I'd fall head over heels for him like one of his fan-girls! Even McGonagall and Dumbledore! Dumbledore, the wisest wizard alive! Can you imagine that?"

"It's probably because your hair is the reddest among the lower year boys, and I'm pretty sure some of them are just pulling your leg," Hermione repressed a snigger. "But you know, we won't judge you if you actually do... what do they say? Keep for the other team?"

"No! I hate that moron!"

She'd noticed Theo cackling over at the Slytherin table on Valentine's Day ("I was going to wait till he'd actually understand it," he'd admitted to her when asked, "but then Lockhart announced the Valentine Day thing and it was just too good to pass up..."). She knew that Ron had adequately paid his dues by now for the scandalous comment he'd accidentally made back in first year after the dragon incident. She really did. But she simply couldn't resist ribbing him a little more.

Meanwhile, Hermione's little library study group attempted to guess at what really happened to Lockhart – which proved to be difficult due to their lack of information. All they could conclude in the end was that Lockhart severely pissed off someone he shouldn't have messed with, possibly in the middle of some less-than-glorious business.

The rest of the year passed fairly smoothly. Hermione had overheard some of her classmates discussing whether they agreed with 'Charles Spinner' or 'Olivia Dickens' more. She herself, of course, maintained diplomatically that both had equally valid points - it was only fair, after all, since she wrote both. She'd needed to monitor the papers especially carefully and pull a few strings here and there, but the time she'd freed up by "losing" Lockhart was a big relief. When it came time for course selection, Percy's advices proved to be extremely helpful. He'd mentioned that supposedly in 1980 a very keen student had been permitted to take all the electives with the aid of something called a time turner, inspiring her to do the same. After an extensive discussion on the list of electives, Harry decided to take Arithmacy with Theo, Blaise and Daphne, and Care of Magical Creatures because it sounded exciting. He also chose Divination with Ron in the end, in exchange for Ron's promise to take Care of Magical Creatures with him. (Harry and Hermione had very nearly convinced him to swap divination for arithmancy or runes too, but eventually relented when he insisted that he needed the time to do better in the important classes.)

And finally, she was saying goodbye to the portraits in her Chamber before she would depart once more for the summer.

"I'm so happy for you, Sal!" Portrait Helga beamed widely, "It was so awful, to listen to the way those people talked about you, but now they're finally learning about the truth! And your house is definitely turning around too - well the younger students at least. You've finally won, Sal."

Hermione smiled. "I can't express how relieved I am, to be honest. My house, my name, everything I've ever stood for – it's like a snapped rose branch that's been dead for so long, I was afraid it's rotten away for good. But now I think it's truly resurrected. Seems it's stronger than I thought."

"That it is, Sal. You're very hard to kill," Portrait Godric chuckled, "how tall are your roses now? I'd imagine they'd covered your castle wall in a thousand years."

"What?"

Portrait Rowena looked uncharacteristically confused. "You mean… you haven't been back to your own castle? But when you said you're going home last summer we just assumed –"

Hermione frowned. "It didn't have any muggle-repellant charms, so I couldn't expect it to stay intact after a thousand years could I? Or maybe my dear cousin's descendants inherited it and squandered it away like everything else the Slytherin family used to own. Besides, I did go there and check. It's gone. There's nothing there anymore..."

'…Except that shadow of something in the corner of my eye?'

"No, Sal," Portrait Salazar frowned as well, "After you drank the potion, Godric, Rowena and Helga apparently cast an impressive ward around our castle to seal it away from the world, similar to a fidelius charm, in case you do manage to return. They kept me in the dark about this the whole time until several weeks ago actually, but I thought it would've been the first thing you found when you returned to this world… Perhaps you weren't able to see it because you didn't believe it still existed."

Hermione gasped. Could it be? There was one easy way to know for sure.

She closed her eyes, picturing the tall, infallible stone castle standing proudly amidst a garden of blooming roses under the drifting white mist. Alive and whole, in all its glory. 'Resurrected, or maybe never really dead in the first place...'

And she felt the distinctive squeeze of apparition.