Harry was tired of listening to Ron going on about the "Bossy Little-Know-it-All," but he really wasn't sure how to tell him. Ron was his best friend. Nobody had ever wanted to be Harry's friend before Ron, so Harry wasn't entirely certain how to tell a friend to stop being a jerk.
Yeah, it was true, Hermione Granger was a bit bossy, but Harry didn't see what was wrong with being smart. He'd read all of his own schoolbooks before term started, which had all been very interesting, and he wanted to know everything there was to know about magic. Losing a point in his first ever Potions lesson for suggesting that Professor Snape let Hermione respond to the questions when she clearly knew the answers had been particularly galling.
Harry had read his potions book, and he had read One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, but he couldn't remember everything he'd read. Maybe Snape wouldn't hate him so much if Harry had been able to remember everything and answered the questions properly. Harry had meant to ask Hermione if she had any tips for improving his memory, but then he'd forgotten all about it after visiting Hagrid's hut and seeing the newspaper clipping about the Gringotts break-in.
Before Harry knew it, another week had almost gone by and the next time he had noticed Hermione was on the Thursday that the Gryffindors had their first Flying Lessons together. He had noticed how terrified Hermione had seemed of her broom. Then that creepy little bully with the blond hair - the one who thought he was better than everyone else, Draco Malfoy - had stolen Neville's Remembrall.
Harry had grabbed his broom, ready to go after him and Hermione had tried to stop him.
"No - Madam Hooch told us not to - you'll get us all in trouble," she had shouted.
Harry had almost ignored her completely, but then he remembered that he wanted to talk to her later and noticed that she looked like she was extremely distressed and on the verge of tears.
"Look - Malfoy's the one causing trouble Hermione. You have to stand up to bullies - if you don't, they think that they can get away with anything."
That had seemed to work. Hermione had looked conflicted for a moment, then she had nodded.
"Just be careful Harry - I don't want you to get hurt or get blamed unfairly."
Of course, when McGonagall had stormed out of the castle furiously, it had seemed for a short while that Harry would get into loads of trouble. And Hermione's voice had been one among the chorus of voices trying to tell the stern professor that it wasn't Harry's fault. Hermione had seemed quite appalled when she noticed that Malfoy's part in things had gone unremarked on while Harry had been unceremoniously dragged off by Professor McGonagall - possibly to get expelled.
Of course, things hadn't worked out like that at all; to Harry's great surprise, he had been drafted onto the Gryffindor Quidditch Team instead. Harry had been very happy not to be expelled, and he had been thrilled to learn that he was good at something his father had also excelled at.
But then things had gone all wrong again - and in retrospect, Harry had to question McGonagall's decision to hold the threat of punishment over his head to make sure that he trained hard at Quidditch. At the time, he had been too excited by the prospect of being on the team to consider how much that might cut into his study time.
In any case, Harry had begun to seriously question his own decisions. It had been thoroughly stupid to allow himself to be goaded into an after-curfew Wizard's Duel with Draco Malfoy. What did he know about dueling?
They had been running from Filch in the middle of the night, and just as Hermione was gasping "I - told - you," and clutching at a stitch in her side, Harry had remembered that he barely knew any spells at all, and that he wanted Hermione to give him some study tips. Yet there he had been, gallivanting around the castle in the middle of the night simply for the sake of showing Malfoy up. Harry hadn't even had the justification of standing up to bullying that time. Harry had seen Hermione's distress and ignored it.
"Malfoy tricked you," she had reproached him. "You realise that, don't you? He was never going to meet you - Malfoy must have tipped Filch off..."
"You're right Hermione," Harry had replied, interrupting her, shame written all over his face. "I'm sorry - I should have listened to you..."
Hermione's eyes had widened in surprise at being acknowledged and apologised to, as if it were an extremely rare occurrence. And Ron had given Harry a strange look - as if Harry was a nutter for apologising to Hermione Granger - the Bossy Know-It-All. Then Peeves the Poltergeist had shown up and Ron had idiotically taken a swipe at him. After running into the room with that mad giant three-headed dog thing to escape Filch once more, Hermione had been infuriated all over again.
"We could have been killed," Hermione had snapped, glaring at Ron and Harry when they had returned to the Gryffindor Common Room, "or worse, expelled. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to bed.
"No, we don't mind," Ron had said to Hermione, glowering as she stormed off, "You'd think we'd dragged you along..." he had snarled at her as she gave them both one last withering look.
Harry hadn't said anything. Hermione had been right - about Malfoy tricking him, and about the fact the dog was guarding something, most likely whatever was in the package which Hagrid had retrieved from Gringotts. But Harry had just stood next to Ron, not wanting to say anything to the first friend that he'd ever had.
Hermione didn't talk to either of them for a week. And every time Harry had caught her eye and wanted to say something, Ron had started loudly going on again about the Bossy Know-It-All, and Harry hadn't said anything - because Ron was the first friend that he'd ever had.
Hermione had bitten her lip and turned around, stalking away crossly.
At the end of that week, Harry had received a Nimbus 2000 broomstick at breakfast. Harry had been excited, but then he'd seen Hermione glaring at them as he had been gloating with Ron about how it was really all thanks to Malfoy being a bullying git.
Harry's face had fallen, and he had thought that he should try apologising again for last week. Hermione's eyes had seemed to flicker when she saw Harry's expression change; she had opened her mouth to say something.
But then Ron had scowled at her.
"I thought you weren't speaking to us," he had snarled. "Don't stop now - it's doing us a world of good."
Hermione had whirled around and marched off angrily. For the first time ever, Harry had felt like hitting Ron - but he had said nothing to the first friend that he'd ever had, and it started to eat away at him. Harry had barely been able to concentrate in classes all day as all he had thought about was his upcoming first ever Quidditch Practice - and Hermione Granger.
Despite everything, once he was in the air, Harry had felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. He had caught every golf ball which the Gryffindor team captain, Oliver Wood, had hurled into the air. Harry had wanted to try it with the real Golden Snitch, but Oliver Wood hadn't wanted to lose it, as it was getting dark. Finally, an extremely impressed Oliver Wood had said it was too dark to go on at all, and they had packed it in for the night.
The next few weeks had passed quickly. Lessons were growing extremely interesting now that Harry had mastered the basics. But the pressure was on, as Harry had team practice three nights a week, and Oliver had strongly reminded Harry that Professor McGonagall had bent the rules to allow a First Year student to play Quidditch, and suggested that Harry practice everyday.
As much as Harry loved Quidditch and flying, he also wanted to do well in school, and he was afraid that he would start falling behind - especially as Ron wasn't keen on spending their time together doing homework. Harry had begun to feel a bit desperate - and he couldn't get Hermione Granger out of his head either.
And it wasn't just because Harry was interested in study tips - he really wanted to get to know Hermione, as a friend. Harry had wanted to be her friend ever since the day she had said that she didn't want Harry to get hurt or unfairly punished for going after Malfoy - the day that Harry had told her that you had to stand up to bullies.
And every time Ron had bad-mouthed Hermione when she was nearby, Harry's feelings of guilt and resentment had grown stronger. If there was one thing he really hated, it was bullies. But Ron was his first ever friend - and he had no idea how to tell a friend to stop being a bully.
They were all trying to make feathers fly of their own accord. Seamus managed to make his and Harry's feather burst into flame. Professor Flitwick brought them a new feather and patiently demonstrated again.
"It's a nice simple wrist movement..." squeaked the diminutive Professor. "Remember - swish and flick."
Ron was flinging his arm around like a propeller.
"Wingardium Leviosa," he yelled at the feather.
"You're saying it all wrong," Hermione fumed.
Harry rather thought that Ron's problem went a lot deeper than poor pronunciation, but he paid close attention when Hermione pronounced it correctly.
"It's Win-gar-dium Levi-o-sa... make gar nice and long and put the accent on the o..." she said.
"Go on then little Miss Know-It-All..." snarled Ron, "Let's see you do it if you're so bloody clever!"
Harry had to admire Hermione's restraint and composure considering the great duress that Ron was putting her under. She sniffed haughtily and delicately flicked her wrist as she precisely enunciated the incantation. The feather lifted several feet off the desk and floated in mid-air. Harry focused his attention, ignoring Ron's huffing, and copied Hermione meticulously.
"Oh look..." Professor Flitwick remarked loudly, "Miss Granger and Mr Potter have both gone and done it... well done you two! Five points apiece to Gryffindor!"
When Ron's ears turned beet red, Harry thought he might see steam shoot out of them at any moment. Ron was in the foulest mood that Harry had ever seen him in - not even Draco Malfoy, Snape, or Filch had ever managed to infuriate Ron so completely.
When the lesson was over, Harry walked out of class quickly hoping to avoid Ron, but Ron barged through the other students and rushed up beside him.
"Can you believe her? Win-GAR-dium Levi-OOOOOO-sa," Ron sneered mockingly, miming an effete wrist movement, "It's no wonder she doesn't have any friends - She's a Bloody Nightmare!"
Several other students giggled and nodded. Hermione pushed past Ron and Harry, bursting into tears, running down the hallway sobbing. She darted around the bend and was gone.
Harry stopped dead in his tracks and stared at Ron as something snapped inside of him.
"What's wrong with you?" asked Ron.
"What's wrong with me?" Harry shouted. "You should be asking yourself that! You sound like my bloody cousin Dudley...a big bullying git! ...and you eat like him too!"
Ron's jaw dropped and he stood there in the middle of the corridor gaping in bewilderment at Harry's bizarre pronouncement as he watched his best friend storm off to look for the Bossy Know-It-All.
Harry never did find Hermione, and she wasn't in any of their classes all afternoon. He sat as far away from Ron as possible, who kept squirming, shrugging, and shooting Harry befuddled "what did I do?" looks.
Harry had never been more miserable on Halloween. Not even the Halloween decorations, nor the hundreds of live bats fluttering above, nor the sumptuous feast held any interest for him. Hermione was still nowhere to be seen and Harry refused to look at Ron who was still trying to get his attention with a hurt expression on his face.
Harry picked at his food, until he saw Parvati Patil glowering at Ron and overheard her telling Lavender Brown that Hermione had been crying in the girl's bathroom on the first floor all afternoon. Ron flushed uncomfortably, which was the first sign of remorse that Harry had seen on his face all day.
But Harry wasn't feeling in a particularly forgiving mood. Hermione probably thought he hated her too, or else surely he would have defended her like he'd defended Neville. Harry pushed his plate away and went to look for the girl's bathroom to apologise to Hermione. Ron looked even more confused and started eating a piece of Pumpkin Pie.
Not more than twenty minutes later Professor Quirrell skidded into the Great Hall, stammering and sputtering loudly with a terrified expression on his face.
"T...t...t...troll... in the dungeon!" he shouted before his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. He keeled to the floor and passed out.
The Great Hall erupted into bedlam as students began screaming and squealing. Ron's eyes bulged when he anxiously realised that Harry still wasn't back, and he had no idea where Harry had gone. He began to panic, and not knowing what else to do, Ron swiveled around and tried to get Percy's attention. But Percy was too busy being a pompous prat and trying to order everyone about to listen to anything Ron had to say.
Ron caught Parvati's eye and swallowed his pride, suddenly realising where Harry had gone.
"Er... Hermione - is that you?" he asked tentatively.
Hermione's sobs halted and she called out in a shaky voice from the stall that she was in.
"Who's there? This is the girl's loo - go away! I want to be alone!"
"It's me... Harry! I just found out you were in here... and I wanted to apologise. I'm really sorry Hermione..."
"Why do you even care about me?" Hermione shouted. "Why now? After all this time...? Ron's been mean to me for weeks - and..." Hermione's voice broke into another loud sob, then she continued "...and you never said anything then!"
"I thought you must hate me too... I'm just a stupid Bossy Know-It-All! Who could possibly like me enough to stand up for me...?" Hermione lost it again and began sobbing uncontrollably.
Harry's heart shattered into million tiny little pieces. He knew how much it hurt to feel all alone - like nobody cared about him. But he hated talking about it... How could he not? It would be like admitting that he really was a freak who deserved a good thumping - and the last thing he wanted was to be pitied. He'd never told anyone - not even Ron.
All Harry had ever told Ron was that his aunt, uncle and cousin were horrible and didn't like magic - that they made him wear Dudley's old clothes and didn't give him any presents.
Trembling, Harry moved towards the toilet-stall within which Hermione was sobbing and opened the door. He swallowed again... not sure how to begin.
"I... I'm really sorry Hermione... It's hard for me to explain - I... I've never had any friends before I met Ron on the train..."
Hermione stifled her sobs and peered at Harry incredulously.
"You're just saying that to try and make me feel better because you know that I don't have any friends... How can you not have any friends? Everybody knows you - you're famous! You're in all those history books..."
"I didn't even know I was a wizard until a month before school-term..." Harry said quietly, steeling himself to tell the truth. "That's why I didn't know what you were on about on the train. My aunt and uncle hate me... They hated my parents because my mum and dad were wizards..."
"They never told me anything except lies... that my mum and dad were drunks who died in a car crash. And they never let me have any friends - they told all the neighbours that I was a dangerous nutter and wouldn't let me play with anyone - they let my cousin and his gang beat me up all the time - my Uncle..." Harry croaked, barely able to say it.
"...Uncle Vernon... He hits me too sometimes - he calls me a freak - they all do..."
Hermione looked utterly horrified; she bore a sickly expression of revulsion but Harry kept going. He didn't know why, but now that he'd started talking he couldn't stop.
"...I never even had a bedroom - they used to lock me in a cupboard under the stairs until they started getting my Hogwarts letters. S...so... when I met Ron on the train - he was the first person besides Hagrid who ever liked me..."
"I'm sorry, I know it's n...not a good excuse, b...but that's wh...why it was hard for me to say anything to Ron wh...when he was being mean to you! Ron was my first ever friend..."
Hermione started crying again, but this time as her tears rolled down her cheeks, her trembling breath was barely audible.
"Th...that is a good excuse..." she almost whispered, "I'm sorry... I had n..."
"No!" Harry interrupted her. "It's not... I hate the way he treats you - and I hate myself for letting him! And today was just too much for me to take anymore! I..." Harry gulped as he got to the hardest bit, "...I'd rather be your friend Hermione..."
Suddenly Hermione lurched forward.
Harry flinched, not knowing what to expect, and was shocked when she flung her arms around him and buried her bushy head under his chin. Usually when people came at him, he had to dodge blows; he'd never been on the receiving end of a hug before - at least not in his memory. Harry stiffened awkwardly, but the heat of Hermione's embrace - teary as it was - began to melt his glacial tension.
"I'd like that very much too Harry..." Hermione sniffled into his chest. "B...but you don't have to give up your friendship with Ron just for me. I understand now - and it's alright to have more than one friend, even if they don't like each other... I can try harder to ignore him! Like my parents told me I should do when people make fun of me!"
Harry grit his teeth at the terrible advice Hermione's parents had given her. But it was hard to stay cross while she was hugging him.
"You won't have to," Harry murmured as a fuzzy warm sensation unlike anything he'd felt before filled him. "I'll tell him off from now on... Urgh! What's that smell?"
Harry wrinkled his nose; the toilet hadn't smelled this dreadful when he'd come in. Then the whole lavatory shook as if there had been a small earthquake. Harry spun around and peered out of the stall. His eyes nearly popped out of his head at the hideous sight and Hermione let out an ear piercing scream.
It was a troll - at least that was Harry's best guess - an ugly dingy greyish creature at least four metres tall wearing a filthy loincloth and brandishing an enormous wooden club. The foul stinking monster roared and swung his bludgeon.
Harry yanked Hermione out of the stall in the nick of time and pushed her behind him against the tiled wall. The club demolished the stall from which they had just departed on impact, shattering the toilet, and water began to geyser from the burst pipes.
"I'll distract him... Hermione, run!" yelled Harry as the beast lumbered towards them splashing through the puddles and gushing water, but she was petrified with fright and couldn't move.
His heart pounded in his ears and Harry wished he knew more spells. He couldn't think of anything that he'd learned yet which would be helpful in a fight with a gigantic monster. Then an idea struck him. Harry pointed his wand at the club as the troll began to swing again. He swished and flicked as he carefully muttered the incantation and the club soared out of troll's grubby hands.
The troll paused and stared in bewilderment at his hovering bludgeon. Harry instinctively directed the bludgeon until it was several metres above the troll's head and he released the spell. The club fell straight down, slamming into the troll's thick skull with a sickening crack.
Harry and Hermione both held their breaths as the mountainous beast teetered dangerously, then it slowly toppled and hit the floor with a thunderous boom that rocked the entire lavatory. Harry and Hermione were both drenched by the subsequent splash when it struck the ground.
Hermione was still quivering with fright as they stared at the fallen beast; Harry instinctively wrapped his arms tightly around her.
"Good Heavens!" gasped Professor McGonagall, suddenly appearing in the doorway with Ron and Parvati. Her features were pale with shock as she took in the scene.
Snape's face appeared right beside hers, no less pallid - but that was his usual colouration. Only the narrowing of Snape's dark glittering eyes suggested any sort of emotion. Fresh anxiety churned in Harry's gut as he wondered how much trouble they might be in.
Quirrell brought up the rear, trembling like a leaf at the sight of the unconscious troll.
"Well... I never... how did you...?" Professor McGonagall could barely get her words out.
"Harry saved me!" Hermione finally managed to squeak, still somewhat shakily. "H...He used the Wingardium Leviosa spell and bonked the troll on the head with its own club."
"A First Year bringing down a mountain troll all by himself? Truly astonishing... well done indeed Mr Potter!" McGonagall eyed her student proudly. "Fifty points to Gryffindor for your quick thinking and Chivalry! I must say that when Mr Weasley and Miss Patil brought your disappearance to my attention that I feared the worst..."
Ron glanced at Hermione who was still shivering in Harry's embrace. When the pair of them peered back at Ron in surprise, he shuffled and stared at his feet abjectly.
"I'm really sorry Hermione - it was my fault you were in here all day, and that Harry had to come find you. I was really horrible to you. I'm sorry for being such a prat..." Ron looked up again at Harry.
"I tried to get Percy to help," Ron continued stiffly, "but he wouldn't listen. Parvati suggested we get McGonagall when we both realised you must have gone looking for Hermione. I... I just want you to know that I'm sorry too...and... and I hope we can still be friends Harry."
Harry felt a lump in his throat, and gazed back at Ron uncertainly. All Harry was sure of at the moment was that he really liked Hermione and didn't want anyone to be mean to her. But Harry had to admit that he still really liked Ron too - even if he was a bit thick and rude. They did have loads of fun together sometimes.
"Just try to be a bit nicer alright!" Harry sighed, giving Ron a half-smile. Harry caught Snape's dark gaze again, but was a bit taken aback to see that the glittering malevolence had dissipated; the Potion Master's features were now inscrutable.
"Well, I must say that I am quite pleased that you three have worked that out," said Professor McGonagall. "And I must give you some credit Mr Weasley, for being brave enough to admit your culpability and make amends. Alright then come along everyone, off to Gryffindor with you - the feast is continuing in the Common Room!"
As they made their way to Gryffindor Tower, Harry and Hermione thanked Parvati warmly, both remembering how she'd stuck up for Neville on the day of the Remembrall Incident. Ron ambled slightly behind everyone, still feeling a bit awkward, but much happier now that Harry seemed to have at least conditionally accepted his apology.
Harry gave Professor McGonagall one last hesitant look as they reached the portrait of the Fat Lady. As McGonagall watched Harry pass through the entrance, she was left with the distinct impression that he had wanted to tell her something, but then thought better of it, perhaps to leave it for a more appropriate time.
Professor McGonagall had almost reached the gargoyle which guarded the entrance to Dumbledore's office when it suddenly struck her. Mr Potter was clearly taken with Miss Granger, who was perhaps her most fastidious student. The House Mistress of Gryffindor groaned when she realised that she might have to make some adjustments if she wanted Mr Potter to remain on the Quidditch Team.
McGonagall shook her head as she acknowledged her own appalling behaviour in regards to looking out for Mr Potter's best interests. His education must take precedence over her desire for a House Victory at any cost. As she climbed the staircase to Dumbledore's Office, Professor McGonagall took some solace in the fact that Harry Potter was a Natural, born to fly, with remarkable hand-eye coordination. There was a good chance he could perform just as well on match days with far less practice if necessary.