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The Anti-Heroine

Chapter Text

Prologue: 

 

How It All Began

Saint Agnes Home For Orphaned Children was a neat little building, quite normal looking in every way. Run by a convent of nuns, the twenty-three children currently living there were good Catholic, god-fearing children. Well, all except one.

Hermione Jane Granger was not a normal girl, and in more ways then one.

She was extremely intelligent for her age; at almost six years old, she could already read a newspaper, had decent handwriting and had conquered enough math to be considered a prodigy. Maybe her intelligence would have been viewed with awe and glorified if she didn't have her other unusual... ability. For as long as she could remember, Hermione had been able to make the impossible happen, like making objects hover in the air and fly across the room with nothing but a glance.

The nuns and the other children feared her and made her life miserable. With already strict punishments in place for the orphans, such as the bamboo canes wielded liberally by all the nuns and the leather strap of the stony-faced Mother Superior, whenever Hermione was caught doing something 'unnatural' the nuns would make her kneel and pray in front of a cross for hours on end or they would lock her in what the children called 'The Black Hole' for days, a small, windowless room without bedding, ventilation or light, going without food and sometimes without water... and the other children were just as vicious.

Living in the oppressive environment of St Agnes, the children had little means of escaping the sense of powerlessness, and one of those means was the bullying of those singled out as 'different'. They'd steal anything she owned, and they'd physically hurt her. She was different. She was a freak, the devil's spawn.

For three long, long years Hermione had lived under the harsh reign of the nuns and their attempts to exorcise the devil from her, the worst being when at age five Sister Bernedice was injured when her 'secret talent' caused a cup to explode and Mother Superior had burned her legs with a red-hot poker.

She used to be a sweet girl who sat on her mother's lap as Dr. Jeanne Granger read Shakespeare aloud to her young daughter, and learned basic arithmetic concepts with her father, Dr. Archidemus Granger. But when she was three years old, her parents had been cruelly torn from her, and she'd been sent to Saint Agnes's- or, as she called it, Hell. To survive, Hermione had had to become clever and cunning, with a side of ruthless, but even that was not enough. Not until the night, at age six, that she decided to take action.

-

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Hermione's POV:

Hermione stared at the shadows dancing across the whitewashed walls of the locked room she was in, with only a thin mattress and a bible, envious of their freedom, though relieved that she was finally in a room with light again, after three whole days in the Black Hole. Her thoughts turned to what got her locked up this latest time- she had, once again, been caught by the nuns doing the secret thing.

The day in question had started normal enough. She had risen with the rest of the orphans, ate her small meal of breakfast then set to work on the chores for the day- she'd been on gardening.

She actually liked the garden, partially because she enjoyed been out of the stifling institution that she had the misfortune to call 'home', but also because she liked making things grow, tending to them lovingly, even though by the end of the day her hands were often raw from tending to the garden without protection for her hands, and either shivering from cold winds or red from the sun.

Hermione let out a low sigh, as she reflected on what had happened that day. She had checked, she had been so careful, but Sister Bernedice, who still nursed a special dislike for her, had caught her doing the secret thing to mend her broken trowel. Which was why she was in a room alone, no one else wanting to share with the freak, her stomach still hurting because she'd yet to be given anything but bread and water, staring at the shadows dance.

God, she hated this place. She hated the stiff grey uniforms, she hated that all the lessons were pathetically easy and yet her intelligence earned her nothing but scorn, she hated the endless hours of praying, she hated the other children, who either ignored her or spited her, and most of all she hated the Sisters. More and more she'd find herself wishing that she had the strength to hurt all of them the way she was hurt.

Hermione took a deep shuddering breath and tried to imagine she was somewhere else, a better place in a kinder time, when she was loved and no one ever hurt her, and once she'd calmed, she turned her attention to the battered watch she'd stolen from one of the other kids, stolen because hers had been ripped off her wrist and stomped on by one of the older girls. She watched the second hand tick and then, at the stroke of midnight, Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, making her birthday wish as she turned six years old.

She wished, with all her heart, that she was free.

And then the padlock, locking her inside the room she had the misfortune of calling her bedroom, floated soundlessly to the floor, meeting the ground with a soft clunk. The door swung open.

Hermione froze for a few seconds, then decided to grant her own wish. She crept out of her room, silently slinking along the wall, hidden in the shadows. She made it to the kitchen safely and then set about getting enough food to at least last a few days- a loaf of bread, a couple bottles of water and a bunch of apples, unable to help her trembling with fear as she thought about what would happen to her if she was caught.

Next making her way to the coatroom, a room where the children were forbidden to go, Hermione found a small satchel into which she placed the food.

And then she used her secret thing to unlock the door of the orphanage and creep out into the dark of the night.

Little Hermione walked for hours until she reached the city of London. Her feet were bruised and blistered, her legs ached and her eyelids were so heavy she could barely see ahead. The first park she found, she curled up under one of the thick bushes and fell into an exhausted sleep.

She slept there for three more nights. It was uncomfortable and cold and on the third night it rained, soaking her to the bone, until she used her secret thing to dry herself again. The food didn't last long and the nights and days stretched on forever. She was dirty and exhausted and starving, but it was still better then Saint Agnes's.

And then, on the fifth day of her new freedom, everything changed. That's when she met Sting.

Sting was a boy and he was ten. He'd also been living on the street for two years. He took her under his wing, introducing her to other homeless, street kids and teaching her how to survive. He taught her how to pick pockets so that they could eat. He taught her how to find the various hidey-holes, like burned out warehouses and vacant lots, how to spot dangers, like the police, and men with eyes that stared too long, too interested. He taught her where the good places to sleep were, and how to fight, both hand to hand and with blades, stealing for her her first switchblade.

It was Sting who told her she needed a street name, and so Hermione Jane Granger became just Jane. And, for the first time in years, Jane was happy.

Chapter Text

Chapter I:


Jane/Hermione's POV:

The flapping of wings woke her and Jane sat bolt upright as an owl of all things swooped over to her and landed on the stone steps of the doorway she was sleeping against, in the small alley. Iago let out a snarling, spitting noise from where he was, as usual, draped over her shoulders, and the owl gave a somewhat alarmed hoot and stuck its leg out revealing– "is that a letter?" Jane asked, incredulously.

The owl hooted and hopped forwards a few steps, leg still held out. Eyes narrowed, Jane reached out cautiously, unfastening the letter from the owl's leg, observing the bird as she did so. If she wasn't mistaken- and she was very rarely mistaken- that species of owl was certainly not native to the area, maybe not even to the country. That meant that it most certainly should not be here, and likely shouldn't even be in Britain, unless it was part of some kind of private collection or had escaped from a zoo.

The private collection, she decided, as she unrolled the thick, yellowing paper –dear god, it was actually parchment of all things– was the most likely explanation.

And then she read the address and all thoughts of the mystery owl's origin left her mind, leaving a tingling fear. "Bloody hell," she whispered, allowing herself the rare use of vulgar language.

Miss H. J. Granger,
Empty Doorway, Dark Alley
London

Someone not only knew who she was before she became Jane, but they knew exactly where she was. Trying not to panic, she pulled out the letter and read, her eyes steadily growing wider and wider with each word.

Dear Miss Granger,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment. A professor will arrive at a provided location to give you an introduction into the magical world, as well as a tour of Diagon Alley. They will also be able to answer any questions you or your guardians have.

Term begins on September 1. We await your owl by no later then July 31.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall
Deputy Headmistress

Jane blinked, several times, and took several deep breaths. Her mind was racing, incredulous, barely able to believe what she'd just read. How could magic exist and nobody realize it? Although... her eyes narrowed slightly as her mind worked overtime on this new puzzle.

Magic was thought to be impossible because there was no proof or logical explanation for it. But if there really actually was a magical community they would, in all probability, be so much more advanced and could easily hide any evidence that would prove the existence of magic. Which meant that it wasn't impossible, normal humans simply didn't have the information to prove the logic behind it.

Yes, Jane decided, that was most likely it. That problem solved, she absently stroked Iago's mangy fur as she stared at the owl in contemplation. It blinked back at her, slowly. It was waiting for a reply, she deduced, and she fished in her pockets for the ratty spiral notebook and old pen that she carried everywhere.

Dear Deputy Headmistress,

If this is indeed a genuine offer, and not an elaborate prank, then I would be happy to accept a place in your school. I do have to warn you, however, that my family is very poor and we will most likely not be able to afford the tutelage.

I can meet you tomorrow at the entrance of Hyde Park, London, at 9am, if that's a convenient time and place for you. My parents, unfortunately, won't be able to make it, as they both work long hours to support us. I apologize for the inconvenience, but they are happy to let me deal with this.

Yours sincerely,

H. Jane Granger

Ripping out the page, Jane gave it a doubtful look. She hadn't revealed her parents death due to the fact she was certain they didn't realize she was a runaway. As she had absolutely no intention of returning to either an orphanage or foster care, claiming her parents worked full-time to support the family was the best excuse she could give.

She gingerly attached the tiny slip of paper to the owl's foot, and shuffled backwards slightly, watching as it took off. She watched until it had flown out of sight, before returning to the letter to read the book list enclosed. "Bugger." She muttered, eyes scanning over the list. There was no way she'd be able to afford any of it- dragon-hide gloves? Three different sets of uniforms? Eight different books? Brass scales? Crystal phials? A telescope set?

At least she'd be able to bring Iago, she comforted herself, reaching up to scratch the temperamental cat behind the ears. Iago grumbled, but allowed it. She'd been with the crotchety cat since he was a tiny kitten that she'd saved from a dog- ever since she yanked it from the mutt's jaws, albeit leaving half the poor kitten's tail behind, the two of them had been inseparable.

Jane was confident in the fact she wouldn't be getting anymore sleep tonight and instead focused on making herself as presentable as possible. She couldn't do much about the fact that, like most runaways, she could be the poster child for street rats; just skin and bones and so malnourished that her eyes appeared overlarge in the bruised contours of her thin face, but she'd changed into her best, cleanest clothes– a pair of jeans that were only slightly torn and had faint stains, a black jacket with a working zipper and only three rips and a pair of black boots that were shabby but comfortable– wanting to make the best possible impression.

Nine a.m. found her anxiously waiting at the entrance to Hyde Park, her satchel hitched over her shoulder with Iago sleeping inside it. The satchel contained all the money she'd been able to scrounge up over the past few days but it had been a bad week and Jane was currently the sort of hungry that had her gut cramping. She only had enough change left for two cups of tea, however, and she knew better then to buy them right now. One tomorrow, one the day after. She'd load them with sugar for the calories and that would be breakfast. She'd have to skip lunch or try to steal something and dinner would be a cup of water with a sachet or two of sauce which she'd call tomato soup.

Keeping moving would make it easier to ignore the clawing hunger, the emptiness in her stomach, and as the weeks grew colder and she grew hungrier she'd keep walking or running until the early hours of the morning, maybe two or three am, when she was honestly too exhausted to keep moving around.

Winters were always the worst and it felt as if it was coming early that year. Nobody was out and about, which meant she had no one to rob. She rarely had problems with staying warm with her special talent and all, but when she was hungry and tired, not unlike she was right now,  her talent was weaker and she was always hungry and tired in winter.

There were other options apart from pick-pocketing to get money, if she was getting really desperate– Sting, she knew, sometimes broke into houses. He also competed in street fights, as did Pike and Sledge. Cat rarely had a problem finding clients as men were willing to pay for sex no matter the weather and Jackie, Jill and little Hornet carried around drugs for one of the local gangs.

Jane rarely participated in street fights; she was always so much smaller and weaker then her opponents which was too much of a handicap when they were already aware of her skill with knives. She also knew better then to get involved with gangs and a bad experience involving a close call had left her wary of stealing anything more then wallets and watches. She also couldn't make herself sell her body, despite it been the best way for a girl to get some quick cash, she wasn't like Cat and the other girls who could be having a conversation, go suck off a john behind a dumpster then walk back over, pop a mint in their mouths and continue the conversation like nothing had happened.

Jane had been eight the first time she watched one of the girls work, a fellow runaway who went by 'Sharpie'. The night had started with Sharpie down on her knees, the harsh stone of the pavement tearing more holes in her already ripped fishnet stockings and leaving the skin bruised and broken, though Sharpie hadn't seemed to care about the faint smudges of red she'd left behind on the pavement. Jane had found herself wondering more then anything why Sharpie wasn't bald, with how hard the john had been yanking on her hair.

It hadn't exactly gotten any better from there, with Sharpie mostly being pressed against a wall in an alley for forty pounds, making gasping and moaning noises that Jane still couldn't believe anyone could possibly think were genuine sounds of pleasure. At one point a john had hit Sharpie across the face hard enough to knock her down and Sharpie hadn't bothered getting up until he'd left– making the johns pay first had made much more sense after that.

It hadn't been Jane standing on that street corner, with chafed and bleeding knees, bending over to spit to empty her mouth as men drove away in their expensive cars, but Jane had felt as used and dirty as if it was.

It wasn't fair, it never was, that life had reduced someone like Sharpie to the desperate measures it had, someone intelligent and quick-witted and who'd had so much more to offer the world then she could on her knees.

Afterward, Sharpie had told her she was too young to be bending over anytime soon, but that didn't mean she shouldn't learn the tricks of the trade. "Yer gonna be real pretty one day, Jane," she'd said, "and yeh gonna need ta know how ta use that."

The lessons had been incredibly useful too. Sharpie and Lacey, another teenage runaway turned prostitute, had taught her how they had to be able to use their sexuality and sensuality to lure men in, to keep them coming back for more– some, like Sharpie with her bright red lips, fishnets and skirts barely more than a belt, dressed provocatively in order to tempt johns by displaying their "wares", while others would play up being a tiny, weak-looking thing men thought they could throw around, like Lacey in her pretty little dresses, batting her big blue eyes to get the johns lining up.

Jane had also learned prostitutes needed to be smarter and more observant then most people realised; they had to be able to profile their 'clients', to figure out if they should cut their losses and run, or how best to get someone off as fast as possible. They also had to be able to defend themselves too if things turned nasty– they needed to know how to get away from people who were bigger and stronger then them.

But they weren't always successful, and Jane had seen firsthand what could happen when things turned nasty and the prostitute was unable to get away. It had been barely dusk and Jane had been close to where Sharpie, Lacey and some of the other girls worked their thing, close enough to hear screaming she'd been horrified to realise sounded like Lacey.

She'd been right too, it had been Lacey screaming– but Lacey hadn't been hurt, hadn't even been bleeding for all her hands were drenched with red where they were pressed against Sharpie's chest.

At the sight of it, the ground had rushed up to meet Jane, her knees slamming and cracking against the red-stained concrete. A knife had been jammed between Sharpie's breasts, buried between her ribs right up to the handle, and blood had been pulsing around the hilt, pouring onto the ground and over Lacey's hands as she screamed at Sharpie to open her eyes, to fucking open her goddamn eyes!

But Sharpie hadn't and Jane had been violently shaking apart against the ground and against Sting's hands where he'd fallen to the ground next to her, a low moan escaping him at the sight of the blade stuck in Sharpie's chest.

"Say something!" Lacey had begged but all that came out of Sharpie's mouth was blood, great big gushes of it coughed up as she'd tried to breathe. Lacey went from screaming to sobbing to silence when the coughing finally stopped. She shook Sharpie's hand, trying to get her to move, but Sharpie's head had just rolled to the side and Lacey had curled over her best friend's corpse and just keened while Jane had turned and pressed her face into the curve of Sting's neck to muffle the sobs ripping out of her.

She'd never found out who'd stabbed Sharpie; he'd just been another faceless, nameless stranger who hadn't wanted to pay for what he'd taken.

And while the skill set she'd gained from Sharpie and Lacey had been overall useful and informative, Jane didn't think she'd ever be able to use it for the purposes that it had been developed, the fear and trauma linked with Sharpie's death having so far been too much of a deterrent. If that meant she had to go without food because she didn't have enough money, well, she wasn't hungry enough to reconsider her decision.

Yet.

Shivering slightly in the cool breeze of Hyde Park, Jane tucked her hands in her pockets, her fingertips icy numb. Yes, winter was definitely coming early this year, or maybe fall was coming harsh. Jane didn't really care which, either was bad news.

Winter meant cold and less money, which meant more hunger and longer days of working harder so she could scrape by. It meant the street rats, runaways, homeless and junkies of London all dividing into either banding together in gangs or adopting an every man for themselves philosophy. Each year proved to be a daunting ordeal, but it was one Jane had dealt with and survived for six years now and she was unquestionably in a better position to handle it at twelve then she had been at six.

An odd feeling suddenly brushing over her body had Jane's eyes narrowing. She followed the strange tingling sensation, sharply turning to face an approaching man. He had shoulder-length hair that was a touch on the greasy side, sallow skin and a hooked nose. He wasn't unattractive to look at and his black suit gave him a debonair look.

He met her gaze and approached her, stopping a few feet away. "Miss Granger?" he asked, in a stiff yet silky sort of voice. Jane decided that, as far as first impressions went, this man had made a good one.

"Yes, sir." She kept her tone and posture perfectly respectful and it seemed to satisfy him.

"Follow me," he ordered, and Jane walked swiftly after him, having to move quickly to keep up with his longer strides. He lead them over to the nearest café and then to a table in an alcove near the back. The smell of the café was making her stomach hurt even worse but the rush of warmth accompanied by stepping inside was a welcome one. Jane picked at the fraying strands of her satchel, her nervous actions hidden by the table as the man threaded his fingers together and fixed her with a piercing stare.

"My name is Professor Snape," he introduced himself, "I am the Head of Slytherin House." Jane desperately wanted to ask what he meant by 'Slither-in' House, but she kept her mouth shut. She could read the impatience on the man's face and had a strong inkling that he was not meeting with her by choice. Quick and brief would be the way to go if she wanted to remain on his good side, definitely no asking the hundreds of questions she had despite the temptation of it.

Professor Snape seemed pleased by her silence, as she had guessed he would, and continued on. "Professor McGonagall," here he seemed to allow himself a small sneer, "sent me to answer any questions you have."

"I only have a few." Jane said, keeping her voice polite and her expression a touch on the shy side. She decided to address her most pressing issue first. "To put it bluntly, sir, my family has no money. We can't afford any school fees."

"There is a fund set up for muggleborn families who cannot afford Hogwarts that covers tuition costs and a stipend for uniform and supply costs," Snape said, his gaze sharp and assessing. "Where are your parents today?"

"They're at work, sir. They can't take any time off." Jane lied without pause, her voice and body language genuine. Snape looked like he didn't believe a word she said, but he didn't comment.

"What other questions do you have?"

"The letter mentioned something about a Diagon Alley...?" She let her voice trail off questioningly, and Snape nodded.

"A shopping district in Charring Cross. You can access it through a pub called the Leakey Cauldron. I can take you there today to acquire your school things."

"That's quite unnecessary, sir, and thank you for the offer but I wouldn't want to use up any more of your time then I already have," she smiled politely, "I'm quite comfortable doing it myself if you just give me the address."

"In that case, when you enter the pub, ask the bartender, Tom, to show you the entrance." He directed and she nodded. "Surely you have other questions?" He then asked when she stayed silent, contemplating.

"No, sir, I'm sure there are books covering the subjects."

"In that case," he gave her the address to the Leakey Cauldron and stood, pulling a small silver key from his pocket. "When you enter Diagon Alley, one of the first buildings you see will be Gringotts Bank. Present this key to the goblins and they'll provide you with the assigned amount."

Goblins? Jane's mind was spinning, even as she stood up and accepted the key, her fingers brushing slightly against his lightly calloused palm. "Thank you." She said to the professor before adding a polite, "Good bye, sir," before hurrying out of the café, needing to get away from the smell, both so wonderfully tempting, yet the richness of it nausea inducing.

A group of businessman were arguing up ahead and, seeing an opportunity she couldn't resist, she bumped into one of them, her hand snatching his thick wallet before he'd even realized it. "Sorry, sorry, sorry," she told the distracted man who glared at her and hurried along. A small smirk crossed her face as she opened the wallet and produced a twenty-pound note. It should definitely be enough to get her to Charring Cross. "Looks like today's our lucky day, Iago." She said. The cat let out a grumpy spitting noise, poking his head momentarily out of the satchel to glare at her, not pleased about having been bumped into the man. Jane just grinned.

Now with a bounce in her step, Jane headed towards one of the closest bus stops, unaware of the amused professor watching her retreating back.

-

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Severus's POV:

Severus couldn't help but feel amused as he watched the girl bump into the overweight Muggle jabbering away with his companions. He recognized the move all too well, and he wondered how long it would take the man to realize his wallet was gone.

Looking a tad more cheerful, Hermione Granger opened the wallet and a brief flash of relief crossed her face. She spoke a few words out loud, and he watched as a cat stuck its head out of the ratty satchel she was clutching tight to her body to mew at her. It was one of the ugliest cats he'd ever seen– and that was including Argus's miserable creature. It was a flea-bitten, beat-up, mean looking, one-eyed menace.

He watched Granger walk over to one of the closest bus stops, watched her until a bus pulled up and she climbed on board. He wasn't sure how... comfortable he felt, letting the preteen traipse around London by herself, no matter how accustomed to it she seemed to be.

He usually hated having to introduce Muggleborns into the Magical world- they asked question after question, barely letting him finish a sentence, and their parents were just as bad. Dumbledore had had to force him to go meet Hermione Granger, with McGonagall unavailable at the meeting time the girl requested and out of the remaining professors he was the one with the most experience with the muggle world.

He'd stalked over to where the girl had said she'd meet her escort, annoyed and wondering which one of the infernal children milling about was his charge, when one of the little cretins had stiffened slightly, then turned around, sharp brown eyes meeting his. He'd been moderately impressed that she'd been able to sense his magic as well as surprised- and immediately concerned- by her actual appearance.

Hermione Granger had looked half-starved and exhausted, with a restless, jumpy air about her. Even with the sheer volume of curly hair that she'd managed to bully into two braids, she was at least a head shorter than the average eleven-to-twelve year old, a small slip of a girl made of sharp, cutting angles from her bones pressing out against her stretched-tight skin. Her eyes, set in grey hollows, appeared far too large for her skinny face and her shabby, threadbare clothes did little to hide how pale and gaunt she looked; tiny and fragile with veins starkly visible against colourless skin and an expression carefully wiped blank.

If she hadn't been Muggleborn, he'd say she was a perfect Slytherin. She was unfailingly polite, her expression schooled and she had managed to figure out his general temperament quite quickly, correctly deducing that he wasn't a fan of question after question. Yes, she was quite a pleasant girl, very clever.

And, apparently, a pick-pocket. A good one, too, if what he'd just seen was any indication. Of course, that lead to the question of why she was such a skilled pickpocket, his suspicion being that the girl was severely neglected by her parents- a thought reinforced by her alarming appearance- and it brought a scowl to his face.

He couldn't stand it when parents neglected their children- the Grangers hadn't even come to meet him! For all they knew, he could have just been some pervert planning to take advantage of their daughter. Or perhaps they just didn't care.

Thinking back on the brief moment when her hand had touched his to pick up the key, her fingers so thin and frail-looking like brittle bird's bones, Severus grimly recalled the crisscross pattern of raised lines of her palms, a spiderweb of scars with some pink and knotted, others older and faded to white, and his suspicions of abuse grew stronger.

Scowl rapidly deepening, he turned and stalked away, over to an alley where he could disapparate to the Hogwarts' gates. He stormed up the path and into the castle, aiming for his dungeons, but was unfortunately intercepted by Albus and Minerva.

"Back already?" Minerva exclaimed, "it hasn't even been half an hour! Why, I haven't even set out yet!"

"Really Severus," Albus sighed. "What did you do to the poor girl?"

"I didn't do anything," he snapped at them with a dark scowl. "The child was polite, straight to the point and didn't require any assistance. I gave her the key, the address to the Leakey Cauldron and then she left before me."

Albus frowned slightly. "That's quite strange. What about her parents?"

"She came alone. Said they were working." Here he sneered. Gut instinct, finely tuned over his decades of life, had told him that was a lie, despite the perfect ease with which the girl had said it.

"Perhaps it will be prudent to keep an eye on Miss Granger," Albus mused. Minerva flicked her wand, summoning from her office a small, crumpled note about the size of a serviette.

"This was her reply," she said, showing the other two, "notice how she signed her name H. Jane Granger, instead of Hermione J. Granger?"

"That is indeed strange." Albus nodded, thoughtfully. "Of course, for all we know we could be overreacting. Perhaps the girl is just not fond of her name and prefers Jane, and her parents could very well have been working. Either way, Severus, if you're back then I'd like to discuss a slightly more serious matter with you."

More serious then a very likely neglected and possibly abused child? Severus sneered inwardly and raised a dark brow.

"Indeed, and what is this 'slightly more serious' matter?"

"Harry Potter's return to Hogwarts." Albus said, his face grave. Severus felt his lips thin into a tight line, and he tried to refrain from glaring.

"You better not be making me go visit the brat," he just about growled. Albus waved a hand dismissively.

"Of course not, my dear boy. I've sent Rubeus to go do that." Severus kept his expression blank. Sending Hagrid was a clever and carefully planned move on Albus' part. He could already hear the half giant singing the praises of the grand and mighty Dumbledore, greatest headmaster Hogwarts has ever seen, raving about the insipid boy's parents, the grand and noble House of Gryffindor, and the evil, slimy Slytherins of whom Hagrid had never quite managed to hide his dislike of.

By the time Hagrid had finished with the boy, Harry Potter would want nothing more then to be sorted into Gryffindor and dread the idea of being a Slytherin.

Severus nodded shortly at Minerva, and swept after Albus, wondering what the manipulative old coot wanted with him, regarding the Potter boy, now.

-

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Jane/Hermione's POV:

Jane slipped through the crowd, moving like a shadow. Diagon Alley was a truly fantastic place, filled with the strangest people, and absolutely buzzing with magic. She'd left her hair out, and the mass of wild curls was partially concealing the cat draped over her shoulders, making bad-tempered sounds.

With a bit of work, Jane knew she could be considered a pretty child, more during summer when she looked less like she was starving but in the colder months Lacey had taught her to use cheap makeup to give her face colour, to hide the shadows under her eyes and make her cheeks rosy, helping her to blend in with crowds. She had a face that wasn't memorable but still nice; heart-shaped with big doe eyes and framed by curly hair. With her sweet, childish looks it was easy to play up the innocent child angle when in fact the opposite was true. Thieving and whoring were two of humanity's oldest professions and those who lived on the streets were often forced to become masters at one or both, and Jane was no exception to the rule.

Sting had been the one to teach her how to pick-pockets as well as how to defend herself and fight with her body and her knives. He'd been a harsh taskmaster because there could be no room for error in the real world. Learning to defend herself and to fight meant ending up covered in black and blue bruises and cuts that sometimes went so deep they had to be sewn together with dental floss and her whole body would be left aching for weeks. Learning how to be a pick-pocket had meant practicing stealing watches, purses, handbags and jewellery over and over for days on end with harsh penalties for mistakes.

It had been worth it, though. Now Jane could be walking next to a person and they'd never hear her there as she swiped their handbag, could smile sweetly right to someone's face while slipping their rings and bracelets and watches into her pockets, could brush against a passerby and come away with their purse or wallet. It was her entire livelihood and Jane had never let herself be anything but the best at whatever she did, be that fighting or stealing or using the switchblades she kept hidden on her at all times.

Like Professor Snape had said, Gringotts was hard to miss. The building was extremely grandiose and her first glimpse at the goblins with their pointed faces and long fingers standing guard at the outer doors of the bank intrigued her. She paused inside the second set of doors to examine the poem inscribed there:

Enter, stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed
For those who take, but do not earn
Must pay most dearly in their turn
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there

Analyzing it, she found her lips curving up in amusement. "That's a challenge." She murmured, aloud.

"Clever girl. Not many people pick up on that." The voice was smooth, greasy almost, and Jane turned towards the two goblins standing at each side of the second set of double doors, both looking at her with clever, cunning faces.

"I... thank you, I suppose." Jane said, head tilted slightly. "May I ask if anyone has ever actually completed the challenge?" Both goblins chuckled, exchanging wicked grins.

"Many have tried, Miss."

"But none have succeeded." Jane concluded, with a smile. "Your defenses must be very good."

"You sound like you're probing for clues," one of the goblins noted. She smiled wider.

"Oh, I don't think right now's the best time for me to try my hand at bank robbery. Not before I've got a wand, anyway. Maybe later when I know some spells." She winked at them and they laughed.

"I'm Bogrod, and this is Uric." The goblin on the left introduced them both.

"I'm Jane. It's nice to meet you both." Jane smiled, comfortable talking to these odd looking creatures, familiar to her in the sharpness of their smiles and the keen intelligence gleaming in their eyes.

"And what is your business at Gringotts on this fine day, Miss Jane?" Bogrod asked.

"Just Jane, please," she said, "and I've come to get some money from the Hogwarts Fund for underprivileged children." She couldn't help but roll her eyes slightly at that. "Really, for the amount of spending money they actually give us, I'm surprised I bothered. Surely for such a grand and noble school they could afford to shell out a few more galleons for us underprivileged."

"Yes, fifteen galleons doesn't exactly get you far." Uric agreed. "Though I suspect you have other plans in place to acquire what you need." He added, with a sneaky grin.

"Mm, I was considering a little prestidigitation." Jane laughed with the goblins before Uric accompanied her over to one of the high desks behind which an old-looking goblin sat.

"Gornak, this is Jane." He introduced her, "she's a smart girl," He added, turning to give Jane another quick smile, "a quick mind. She recognized the challenge."

"Indeed?" the goblin, Gornak, raised an eyebrow. "And what are you in here for, child?"

"Hogwarts Fund for the Underprivileged. My given name's Hermione Jane Granger but I tend to go by Jane." She said, handing over the silver key. Gornak nodded and stepped off the stool, disappearing behind a door then reemerging a few minutes later carrying a small velvet pouch.

"Fifteen galleons for Miss Hermione Jane Granger." He said, passing it over the desk along with the key. Jane pocketed the key and smiled.

"Thanks Mr. Gornak." He gave her a small but genuine smile and she said her good-byes to Bogrod and Uric before exiting the bank. Blinking slightly in the sunlight, she quickly went over the list in her head, picking out the necessities. Obviously, she was going to need a wand and she was going to have to buy one legitimately.

Yes, that would be her first stop, she decided, making her way down the cobbled street, avoiding any eye contact, just slipping through the gaps of the crowd, swift and unnoticeable. The wand shop, Ollivander's, was right near the end. It was quite a quaint little shop, she noted as she stepped inside. Long, slim boxes covered the shelves, not unlike books in a library.

"Anybody here?" she called out.

"Hello Miss...?"

Jane reacted to the sudden presence in her blind spot on pure instinct, one honed from years of rough-living. Her hand dove into her pocket and she had a flicked open switchblade at the throat of the man who had silently approached her from behind in one clean move.

Both of them froze, examining the other. He didn't appear threatening, he just looked like an old, strange man with large, luminescent eyes, but she knew better then to trust appearances. The old man gave a small smile and she didn't miss the sharpness in his eyes.

"I'm sorry for startling you," he apologized and Jane stared at him stiffly for a long moment, before she lowered the switchblade. She wasn't going to apologize for holding him at knifepoint, not when he'd shocked her like he had. "I suppose you're here for a wand?" the man mused when she stayed silent, "My name is Garrick Ollivander, I am the owner of this store and creator of many of the wands you see before you."

"Hi." Jane acknowledged, slipping the switchblade back in her pocket.

"I have a feeling your wand is going to be very suited to combat," Ollivander smiled and she found herself unsettled by the knowing look in his eyes. The old wandmaker moved behind the counter and started producing box after box, lining them up in a row. "Here," he said, opening first a dark green box. Inside it, nestled on red velvet, was a beautiful wand of carved black wood.

Almost reverently, Jane reached forwards and touched the smooth, glossy looking wood, only to almost instantly yank her hand back as it shocked her. "Ow!" She exclaimed.

Iago was not amused, digging his claws into her shoulder and yowling angrily before jumping off to go curl up on the whicker seat behind her. Ollivander was shaking his head, muttering something under his breath about ebony definitely not being the way to go, already opening the next box. A lot more cautiously this time, Jane reached forwards to pick up the wand. It didn't shock her at least, but it resisted her efforts to pick it up quite stubbornly.

"Certainly not holly either," Ollivander remarked. As they went through more and more wands, Jane could feel herself getting more and more frustrated. Finally Ollivander produced a box containing a wand made out of a pale wood, almost as white as bone.

Not expecting anything at this point, Jane reached out to touch it then gasped in pleasure as warmth rushed through her. "Yew and unicorn hair, twelve inches, unyielding. Not a common combination." Ollivander noted, with another creepy, knowing smile. Jane lifted the wand and rolled it around in her hands, soaking in the feel of it, the wood warming under her touch.

"How much?" she asked distractedly.

"Seven galleons." Was the reply and Jane fished through the velvet pouch the goblin had handed her, pulling out seven shiny gold coins.

She left the wand shop still in a daze, her new wand and her money pouch tucked snugly in her satchel, underneath a curled up Iago.

As she caught sight of a snobby looking mother and daughter, she shook her head slightly, pulling herself back into the game. The girl looked about her age, with dark hair and a nose that resembled that of one of those small dogs with squashed faces. She appeared to be going to Hogwarts too and Jane was pleased to see that all the mother and daughter's purchases appeared to be contained in the cauldron levitated in the air a step behind the girl. She recognized one of the visible books as one on her list- 'The Standard Book of Spells: Grade 1'. Excellent.

She tailed behind them, careful not to get too close, waiting for the best opportunity to strike. That time came when a massive, hairy man holding a cage containing a snowy owl almost collided with the pair. Jane casually cut across between the girl and the floating cauldron as the girl made screechy annoyed sounds and the woman made indignant gestures, snagging it and disappearing into the crowd before the girl and her mother even realized that they'd been robbed.

Honestly, that had been so simple it wasn't even fun.

Bolstered by her success, though, she tailed another family, this one exiting a shop called Madam Malkin's Robes for all Occasions. The girl looked like she was eleven or twelve and it only took a quick brush past to snatch the package containing the uniform, disappearing into the crowd as the girl started to shout.

Ducking into a side alley, Jane looked through her spoils, figuring out what she did and didn't have. She appeared to have a complete set of books, as well as the cauldron, one set of robes and one cloak. She could manage with one set of robes and one cloak, she decided, so that was fine. But there was still no hat, scales, crystal phials, telescope or winter cloak, plus she'd need a trunk and she'd have to figure out a way to hide all of her stolen goods- she couldn't just go walking about the streets that were her home with all this; she'd be mugged.

"Bloody hell." Jane swore softly, her mind working furiously to solve these first, in what would likely turn into a rather long list, obstacles.

She was surrounded by witches and wizards- surely someone could manage some kind of spell to temporarily shrink all her belongings? True, it would mean she wouldn't be able to access any of it until the school term started, but at least she'd actually still have it all. Plus, she could choose two or three books to keep in her satchel.

Problem one sorted, she decided briskly. And she didn't have to steal everything now- it would probably be easier when she was at Hogwarts to nick other students stuff. Problem two sorted- well, sort of. Hopefully.

So, trunk next. Filled with a sense of purpose, Jane made her way down the Alley, scanning the stores advertising their wares on either side of the cobbled street. She passed by several flashy shops and then paused as she noticed a branch forking off from the main streets of Diagon Alley. Nobody seemed to be going down there- in fact, people seemed to be steering quite clear of the place.

Intrigued, Jane approached it. A battered old sign read Knockturn Alley and, deciding she may as well, she steeled herself and entered it. Compared to the brightness of Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley seemed dim, overcast with an almost oppressive air about it. Her instincts pricked, warning her to be wary and watchful– and Jane was in the habit of listening to her instincts.

She walked swiftly along, cautious. She ducked into one of the first shops she came across and was pleasantly surprised to find it appeared to be some kind of secondhand shop. "Can I help you?" A nasally voice asked and Jane turned to face the shopkeeper. He looked like he was in a bad mood- or maybe that was just his natural expression, she mused, before smiling winningly up at him.

"Do you sell any secondhand trunks here, sir?" The man narrowed his eyes.

"Off to Hogwarts, then?" he basically grunted.

"Yes, sir," Jane nodded, staying polite. He narrowed his eyes, leaning towards her.

"You ain't a mudblood, are you?" he half-growled, "'cause you ain't no pureblood, not dressed like that."

Jane assessed the situation quickly, her mind whirring- whatever a 'mudblood' was this man didn't seem overly fond of them. She was woefully ignorant of wizarding terms and for all she knew she actually might be one, though she suspected 'mudblood' was a slur rather then an official title.

Schooling her face into a disgusted expression, Jane replied hotly, "You think I'm a filthy mudblood?" The shopkeeper grunted, leaning back, seemingly satisfied.

"Halfblood, then?" Body language relaxed, tone not unfriendly- a halfblood was something okay to be, at least in the eyes of this shopkeeper, and it was certainly better then a 'mudblood'.

"Yes." She snapped, deciding that it wouldn't do to drop the act so quickly.

"Good. So, a trunk you say?" Jane nodded, and watched as the man shuffled around the shelves before returning, tugging a large shabby looking trunk after him. It was clearly secondhand, but it was clean, relatively undamaged and obviously well cared for.

"How much?" she asked.

"Five galleons." The shopkeeper grunted. Jane resisted the urge to bite her lip as she thought it over. It seemed like a good price, she decided, and she nodded, producing the five gold coins.

Deciding that it would probably be in her best interest to leave the dark alley, at least until she found out what a 'mudblood' was, she hurried back out to Diagon Alley, failing to notice the second pair of eyes trailing after her that day, though the owner of these eyes, gleaming amber in the muted sunlight, certainly weren't quite as benevolent in their stare as the professor's had been.

Back in Diagon Alley, Jane found a nice witch with a daughter about her age and asked the lady to shrink her trunk for her. Mrs. Abbott had happily complied, helping her pack all her new things inside, including the cauldron, which she magically made fit into the trunk before shrinking it to the size of a tennis ball.

The day fading towards evening, Jane slipped unnoticed back into The Leakey Cauldron, taking to the shadows and never drawing attention to herself- that was the number one rule for a thief. With practiced ease, her fingers slipped nimbly into the money pouches that these magical folk carried around, a nice change to her usual marks who carried around those annoying bits of plastic called 'credit cards' nowadays instead of actual cash, listening to everyone for even a scrap of useful information.

Three hours later, the sky was dark and her patience had borne fruit. Her multiple hidden pockets were nearly bursting with all the money she'd nicked, more success then she'd had in the last few weeks combined, and she'd learned a few strange things about a boy who had apparently passed through the pub earlier. This boy, Harry Potter, had managed to survive a curse that was impossible to survive when he was an infant and somehow destroyed the man trying to kill him, a dark wizard they called 'You-Know-Who' in voices still hushed with fear, at the same time.

According to all these people, Harry Potter himself had passed through the pub earlier today and was about to start his first year of Hogwarts.

Jane wondered if he'd be likeable, or if he'd be a stuck-up little brat. She hoped for the former, especially if she was going to have to put up with him in her year level for the next seven years.

-

-

Severus's POV:

"You want to what?" Severus asked incredulously.

"I want to test the boy." Albus said, as if what he'd just announced was perfectly reasonable. Severus resisted the urge to either start pacing or curse the older wizard. Instead he glared ferociously.

"And this is how you've decided to test the little brat? With a bloody obstacle course?"

"Yes," Albus nodded, face calm. "Rubeus, as per my instructions, today picked up the Philosopher's Stone, while accompanied by the boy. I told him it was of upmost importance to keep it secret, so our dear Rubeus will undoubtedly have behaved in a manner that will make young Harry quite curious."

"You assume," Severus pointed out, tone acidic, and Albus chuckled.

"He's a young boy, Severus- of course he'll be intrigued!" Severus ground his teeth together.

"What of the Dark Lord?" he asked, abruptly. "This will attract his attention."

"Indeed," Albus said thoughtfully, "perhaps this little test could prove to serve two purposes- a trial for our young Mr. Potter and a lure for Voldemort." Severus gave a low hiss at the sound of the name and scowled up at the Headmaster.

"I want no part in this, old man."

"But alas, my dear boy, you have no choice." Albus stated firmly. With an angry sound, Severus turned on his heel and stormed out of the headmaster's office, hating the truth in the old man's words. There had been no choice for him since the Dark Mark had been burned onto his flesh. 

Chapter Text

Chapter II:



Harry's POV:

The door to the compartment opened and Harry flinched slightly then felt his cheeks flush, embarrassed at his automatic response. Half peeking up from under his bangs, Harry got a good look at the person standing in the doorway.

It was a girl, body too thin to be just naturally slim, with curly brown hair that was on the knotted side, eyes the color of whiskey, one of the drinks Aunt Marge was so fond of, and sharp, prominent cheek bones. She was short, not ridiculously so, but enough for her height to be noticeable, and her clothes hung loosely off her frame. The jeans she wore were baggy and both stained with dirt and ripped in several places. Her oversized black jumper was also torn in multiple spots and her heavy black boots were looking worse for the wear, though they appeared to be quite sturdy.

Harry swallowed uncomfortably, hands unconsciously tugging at the hems of his sleeves. The girl's trunk was secondhand, and the cat draped over her shoulders had a torn ear, one eye, stark ribs, only half a tail and a torn lip, which gave a rather permanent impression that the cat was snarling.

"Um... hello," he said after she fixed her piercing stare on him for several long moments without saying a word. "Do you want to sit in here?" The girl pursed her lips as if in thought, then nodded. She made her way into the compartment with a certain slinking sort of grace and he stood up to help her lift her trunk, being careful to stay away from the vicious looking claws of the cat.

The girl settled herself down on the seat, her face still quite blank. "I'm Harry," he introduced himself. "And this is Hedwig," he introduced his snowy white owl who had fixed the cat with an assessing, wary look.

"I'm Ja-Hermione." The girl said, "and this is Iago." She added, as an afterthought, gesturing to the cat.

"Er, Iago? Does that mean anything?" Harry asked, and the girl- Hermione- gave her first actual smile.

"He's named after one of Shakespeare's greatest villains, a jealous, evil-hearted, malicious man who gets joy out of the pain of others."

"Well... he does sort of look like a villain, so I guess Iago suits him." Harry said awkwardly, and honestly that name really did fit the vicious looking cat. He wondered, though, what she'd been about to say before she switched to Hermione. Jay, maybe?

"I rescued him when he was a kitten." Hermione told him, her lips twitching up slightly. "Tried naming him Cuddles. He wasn't impressed, scratched the hell out of my arm." Harry couldn't help a laugh at the thought of the vicious beast still draped around Hermione's shoulders being called Cuddles. As if reading his thoughts, Iago made an angry spitting sound, fixing his remaining wide, unblinking gold eye at him.

It was with a comfortable silence that the two sat together, half listening to the other children boarding the train, yelling excitedly at their friends and their parents. Owls were squawking indignantly and Harry picked out the sounds of more then one annoyed sounding cat.

The red-haired boy whose mother had helped him figure out how to enter Platform Nine and Three-Quarters poked his head into the compartment, "Um, anyone sitting there?" he asked, pointing to the seat next to Harry. "Everywhere else is full." Really? Harry thought, doubtfully. Everywhere else was full?

"Everywhere else is full?" Hermione asked, her skeptical voice echoing Harry's thoughts pretty much verbatim. The red-haired boy blushed, his cheeks turning a bright flaming red.

"W-well, I- um-" he started stammering and Hermione made a snorting sound in her throat, dismissing the red-head before turning to him and raising an eyebrow. What do you think? She seemed to be asking. Startled, Harry paused for a second then nodded slightly. He really didn't have a problem with the other boy sitting in here. It would be nice to meet another wizard his age. Hermione turned back to the redhead.

"Fine. Come in, sit down and for god's sake don't make too much noise." She ordered briskly. The boy nodded hastily, quickly settling down on the seat next to Harry and across from Hermione. Harry couldn't help recoiling slightly at the closeness and scooted over a bit to further the distance between them- he wasn't a fan of physical contact, not after years of another touch promising nothing but pain, be it Aunt Petunia's bony grip, Uncle Vernon's heavy-handed boxing of his ears or Dudley and his gang's fists.

Ron didn't seem to notice, but Hermione certainly did, her sharp eyes catching the movement instantly.

Hermione was a survivor, Harry decided, in the privacy of his mind. But, at the same time, she was more then just a survivor; she was a predator- a predator who had once been prey. She was completely focused on her surroundings, having chosen to sit where she had a clear view of the door and the entire compartment, and she held herself tensely, her face hard and her eyes sharp.

She... well, she sort of reminded Harry of himself. A rather tougher version of himself, he tacked on to this thought, after a short reflection.

"I'm Ron Weasley," the redhead started talking, looking and sounding annoyingly cheerful, "what's your name?"

"Er, Harry Potter," Harry introduced himself, already bracing himself for the Ron's reaction though he still ended up cringing when it came.

"You're Harry Potter!" Ron gasped, "Have you really got– you know..." he pointed at Harry's forehead, and Harry debated whether or not to show him, before pulling back his bangs and resigning himself to the fact that he was most likely going to have to do this a lot.

"Whoa!" Ron breathed, "so that's where You-Know-Who-"

"Yes," Harry interrupted the eager boy, "but I can't remember it." He added, trying to put an end to the uncomfortable topic. Ron, unfortunately, seemed to miss that completely.

"Nothing at all?" He asked eagerly.

"He doesn't want to talk about it," Hermione's sharp voice cut in. Harry felt a sense of relief even as Ron went red again and turned around to glare at Hermione. Harry tensed at this, his protective instincts automatically flaring, but he held back, somehow knowing that Hermione would not be impressed with him trying to fight her battles for her.

"Who are you, anyway?" Ron demanded rudely.

"Hermione Granger. You can call me Granger." Hermione answered, her tone one of distaste.

"That means you're a muggleborn, yeah?" Ron scrunched up his face.

Hermione gave Ron a droll look. "Aren't you the genius?" she drawled, voice just about dripping with sarcasm. Ron's cheeks were so red now that Harry was certain he'd be able to fry an egg on them.

"Want to go sit somewhere away from her?" Ron asked, turning back around to face him with an angry look on his face. Harry eyed the other boy incredulously.

"Are you serious?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ron nodded hurriedly, before lowering his voice slightly and leaning forwards, "she's a right bloody nightmare, isn't she?"

Harry stood up, feeling his anger growing inside him. "I think you should leave." He said coldly. Ron opened and closed his mouth several times, disbelief clear on his features.

"What?" he just about squawked.

"He didn't stutter." Hermione sounded amused, lounging back in her seat, looking for all intents and purposes like royalty. Ron glared, face still red, and got to his feet. He opened his mouth to most likely to dish out some sort of scathing comment when the head of a large, fat rat stuck out of his pocket. That's when all hell broke loose.

Hedwig gave a loud, shrieking caw-like noise in her cage, her gleaming eyes fixed on the rodent, and Iago lunged forwards with his claws outstretched. Ron gave a shrill scream that was actually quite impressing in sheer pitch and threw himself backwards, tripping and landing on his butt just outside the compartment. His fall ended up saving his fat pet rodent, though, serving to remove it from Iago's path. The rat let out a shrill squeak, burrowing back into the pocket.

"That cat's a menace!" Ron shouted, continuing to hastily shuffle backwards even as Iago made his way back onto Hermione's lap, the feline making odd snarling, spitting noises.

"And?" Hermione asked, raising an eyebrow before making a sweeping gesture with her hand that caused the compartment door to slam shut. Harry couldn't help but gape at her.

"How did you do that?" He breathed in amazement.

"I've always been able to do things like that," Hermione admitted after a short pause. "What sort of crazy stuff can you do?"

"Um, nothing that I can control." Harry admitted, feeling worried now. "I turned a teacher's hair blue one time and grew back my hair overnight. Oh, and once I ended up on the roof when some bullies were chasing me."

"That's impressive," Hermione said with a small but genuine looking smile. "Transporting yourself like that, it's called apparation. Students don't get to learn it until they're of age, which is seventeen in the wizarding world." Harry blushed slightly at her admiration.

"I-I can't control it or anything, though."

"Doesn't matter," Hermione said dismissively, "it would be a worry if you could. The fact that you have enough untrained power to achieve that means you're going to be a very, very powerful wizard. Me? I only learned how to control my magic because I had to."

Harry blushed deeper at her praise, or at least what he thought was praise, before focusing on the other thing she mentioned- she'd learned how to control her magic because she'd had to. Why? What did she mean by that?

"Any other funny incidents?" Hermione asked, honestly looking interested in what he had to say. It was really quite the novel experience. No one had ever really been interested in him before. Well, people seemed to be interested in the Harry Potter but not him, not just Harry.

"I'll trade you," he offered before immediately ducking his head, horrified at the casualness in which he'd tossed the comeback. Oh god, just when he thought he'd started making a friend- something he'd never, ever had before! He chanced a peek up at Hermione but she didn't seem upset, rather she looked like she was thinking.

"Once I made a man's underpants shrink to an extremely small size," she said, giving him a wicked smirk as he winced in sympathy for the male. "He made some very interesting sounds, curled up on the ground. Quid pro quo."

Harry wasn't exactly sure what that last bit meant but guessed that it meant something along the lines of it being his turn and he quickly searched his memory for another occasion in which he'd used accidental magic. "I set a boa constrictor on my cousin at the zoo," he remembered, with a grin. Hermione laughed then stopped suddenly, curiosity suddenly shining in those whiskey colored eyes.

"How did that happen?" she asked.

"Um, I was talking to the snake then Dudley shoved me to the side and the glass vanished."

"Did the snake say anything to you?" Hermione pressed.

"Yeah, it said, er, 'thanks amigo' when it slid past me." He remembered.

"So you're a parselmouth," Hermione said, sounding intrigued.

"A... a what?"

"A parselmouth," Hermione repeated, "it means you can talk to snakes. The actual language itself is called parseltongue." Harry squirmed, uncomfortably.

"That- it's a common thing for wizards, right?" He asked, hopefully.

"No, it's incredibly rare and there's a lot of prejudice surrounding it." Hermione replied, promptly, not sugar-coating her words. He found that he actually liked her frank honesty. "I wouldn't reveal that little gem to anyone you don't trust to keep it a secret, one hundred percent." She added, and then she paused. "Would you like me to swear a wizard's oath that I won't tell anyone?"

"What's a wizard's oath?" Harry asked, embarrassed by how much more Hermione seemed to know.

"If I break it, I lose my magic." Hermione answered bluntly. Harry's eyes widened. 

"You-you'd do that for me?"

"Why wouldn't I?" Hermione's face was calm, "we're the same, you and I. I could tell the moment I saw you and I think you did too."

She was right, he realized with a start. The second he'd seen Hermione, he'd noted the way she held herself- defensive and tense; the state of her attire and belongings- shabby, broken and secondhand; and her figure- the unnatural thinness, with the wiry undertone of muscle. He recognized all this, because he saw it, every day, in the mirror.

"I... I thought that too," he told her, honestly, "you remind me of... of myself." Hermione gave a small smile, but a very real one.

"Yes. We're quite the pair of kindred spirits. So, oath time?"

"No," Harry said, shaking his head, "no oath." Hermione's smile was wider this time, and she actually looked... somewhat delighted, despite her following words.

"You're a fool, Harry Potter. A naïve one."

"We're kindred spirits." Harry reminded her, "We don't need an oath to keep each other's secrets." Hermione gave him a long, searching look.

"No," she said, finally, softly. "No I suppose we don't. We don't have anyone else in this world to rely on so we may as well have each other's backs." Harry couldn't help his smile because he thought that sounded a bit like she was saying that they should be friends.

The train journey past mostly in a comfortable silence. Both of them declined purchasing anything from the trolley and spent most of their time reading with Harry occasionally asking Hermione to explain something to him when he didn't understand it. He'd discovered very quickly that Hermione was very smart.

They both looked the other way while the other changed into their robes. Hermione's uniform looked clean and brand new unlike her other clothes, though they were about two sizes too big. She noticed him looking and gave a small smirk. "A nice family decided to donate these to me." Harry felt his lips twitch, getting the feeling that the 'donation' hadn't exactly been... donated, as such.

"I'd tell you to neaten up your hair but I suspect that's a lost cause." She then noted, sweeping her gaze over his appearance.

"Hypocrite." He pointed out and she laughed before casually running her fingers through her hair. Harry watched, astonished, as the knots unraveled and the curls untangled, leaving behind somewhat wild but now neat-ish hair. "How did you do that?" Harry gaped.

"I don't know," Hermione admitted, "I've just always been able to do it but never on other people. However," she pulled out her wand from her sleeve and pointed it at Harry's face. Harry couldn't help going slightly cross-eyed, trying to keep the tip in sight and Hermione gave a soft snort before murmuring, "reparo!" To Harry's surprise, the piece of tape holding together his glasses vanished, now unnecessary with the broken frame having been completely repaired.

"There," Hermione said approvingly, sliding her wand back up her sleeve, "much better." Harry was about to ask her which book she'd learnt that from as he could foresee himself using it quite a bit in the future when the compartment door slid open and three boys entered. Harry recognized the middle one at once: it was the pale boy from Madam Malkin's robe shop. He was looking at Harry with a lot more interest than he'd shown back in Diagon Alley.

"Is it true?" he said. "They're saying all down the train that Harry Potter's in this compartment. So it's you, is it?" Harry mentally cursed Ron Weasley and gave the blonde a strained sort of smile.

"Er, yes," he replied, quickly scanning the other boys. Both of them were thickset, extremely mean looking and stood on either side of the blonde boy much like bodyguards.

"Oh, this is Crabbe and this is Goyle," the pale boy said carelessly, noticing where Harry was looking. "And my name's Malfoy, Draco Malfoy." Hermione made an amused sound, which prompted Draco Malfoy to look at her. "Think my name's funny, do you?" he asked.

"No," Hermione cut in, smoothly, "it's quite regal. Very befitting a Malfoy, actually. It was more the manner of your introduction, it reminded me of a rather interesting film I once saw called 'For Your Eyes Only'." Hermione cleared her throat before saying in a deep voice, "the name's Bond, James Bond."

Harry couldn't help a surprised laugh at the reference and Draco looked somewhat mollified which he assumed was a good thing if Hermione's appeasing of the blond was of any indication. He'd only known her for a few hours but he could already tell that Hermione wasn't the sort to needlessly pander to someone's ego- but she wasn't an idiot either. If she was acting like this way then she was doing it for a reason.

"So who are you?" Draco asked her and Hermione gave him a sweet smile.

"I'm Hermione Granger." She introduced herself and Draco's lip curled in distaste.

"You're a muggleborn." He said. Harry was surprised by the scorn and derision in the blonde's voice and he gave Hermione a nervous look but she remained calm.

"I wouldn't know. I never knew my parents," she told Draco.

"Oh?" He asked, looking surprised.

"I was left on the steps of an orphanage." She said, very bluntly. Harry looked at Hermione in horror while Draco gave her a much more assessing look then before.

"So you really don't know," the blond boy mused, "can you do much magic?"

"Oh, she's amazing," Harry quickly interjected, "she fixed my glasses and everything!" Draco gave Hermione one last evaluating look and then nodded. Harry felt relief flood his body as he got the feeling Hermione had passed some sort of test.

"You're probably a halfblood then. You wouldn't be powerful enough to do that already if you were a mudblood." He said dismissively, before turning back to Harry. On one hand, Harry felt indignant on Hermione's behalf, but the scorn in the blonde's voice was gone at least. "I heard you met up with Weasley, earlier." Draco said.

"Er, I did." Harry nodded, uncomfortably.

"You'll find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don't want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there." Draco held out his hand. Harry froze for a second before catching sight of Hermione gesturing behind the blonde's back for him to shake the hand so he did.

"I... I'll keep that in mind. Thanks for the warning." He said awkwardly, trying to be as diplomatic as possible. Draco gave a smug sort of smile.

"See you later, Potter, Granger." He nodded at both of them before leaving, Crabbe and Goyle trailing after him.

Harry waited until the compartment door slid close before turning to Hermione. "Wh-what was all that about?" he asked, weakly.

"Politics," Hermione said, her lip curling in distaste. "The Malfoy family are powerful players, Harry. We don't want to go making enemies."

"He was really rude to you," Harry muttered, "What's a muggleborn, anyway?"

"Someone born to a non-magical family." Hermione explained, "as compared to the Malfoys who are known as purebloods as both parents are magical, and in the Malfoy's case the magic can be traced back hundreds of years giving them a rather noble sort of status. And then there's Halfbloods, who have one pureblood or Halfblood parent and one Muggle or muggleborn parent."

"So... you're a halfblood?" Harry said, remembering what she said to Draco. Hermione snorted.

"Hardly. I'm a muggleborn through and through, though chances are I do have some wizarding blood in my family a few generations back."

"Then why'd you lie?" Harry asked, still confused.

"Because muggleborns aren't exactly looked on nicely by all wizards," Hermione said, her lips pressed tight. She was angry, Harry realized, but not at him. "They think we're unworthy of our magic. It was safer for me to cast doubt on my status as a muggleborn. Especially if I end up in Slytherin."

"Slytherin?" Harry asked, startled by the idea that Hermione thought she might be sorted into Slytherin. "But aren't they all evil?"

"Not evil," Hermione shook her head, looking slightly amused, "they're ambitious and cunning."

"But Hagrid said there wasn't a witch or wizard in Slytherin who hadn't gone bad." he told her and Hermione snorted.

"Let me guess- he suggested Gryffindor?" Harry nodded, starting to feel quite unsure about his foundation of knowledge of the Hogwarts Houses.

Hermione sighed. "There's a lot of prejudice attached to the Slytherin House and with you being who you are, I don't doubt that you're expected to end up in Gryffindor, the House of the bold and noble and all that is inherently good" –another snort– "but that's lies, Harry. Anyone can go bad."

"Huh," Harry said, feeling a bit like his world had been tipped upside down.

"Besides," Hermione added, "I actually do suspect I'll end up in Slytherin, despite being a muggleborn."

"You are very cunning," Harry smiled weakly at her, "and sneaky. And really good at thinking on your feet."

"It's learned behavior," Hermione's voice was thoughtful now, "for people like us. It's how we survive."

And she was right, Harry realized.

"Do... do you really live in an orphanage?" he blurted out, before slapping a hand over his mouth, cringing. "Er, ignore that. I'm prone to the occasional foot in mouth syndrome." He admitted. To his relief, Hermione seemed more amused then anything else.

"It's half the truth. I did actually know my parents but they died when I was three. I remember them quite clearly- I'm... somewhat of a prodigy, you could say– I have a very good memory. They died in a car accident."

"I'm sorry," Harry said softly. Hermione gave a small, tired smile.

"Thank you, Harry. After that I lived in an orphanage until I ran away when I was six. I've been living mainly on the streets since." Harry's jaw dropped.

"On the streets?"

"It's easier then you think," Hermione said with a shrug. "Not in winter though... it's hell in winter. That's where my magic came into good use, though. I'd cast heating charms on myself. I figured that out when I was reading my course books."

"How did you afford the money to get all the books?" Harry asked.

"I didn't," she admitted, "I stole them from a snobby girl and the robe from someone else- for being witches and wizards and all, it's actually quite comical how easy it was to steal from them." She added, with a soft laugh, "I've only got about half the supplies I should have, though. I've only got one pair of robes and we're supposed to have three and I had to nick some protective gloves from a muggle store- I couldn't afford the dragon-hide ones and I'm going to have to save up for a winter cloak- or steal one. Basically all my money went towards my wand and trunk." She finished with a sigh.

Harry thought of the towering piles of gold in his vault and bit his lip. "I... I could get you the stuff you don't have." He offered, "I mean, you can pay me back if that would make you feel more comfortable." Hermione gave him a surprised look.

"Oh Harry, I didn't tell you that to make you feel like you had to buy the stuff for me. I was just trying to explain more about how life on the street works. You tend to spend any money you can steal or scrounge up on food."

"So stealing is your main income?" Harry asked, grinning at her. She grinned back, expression mischievous.

"Oh, Harry dearest, I know every trick in the book."

"Can you teach me how to pick locks?" He asked, thinking of all the time he spent locked in his cupboard.

"That was one of the first things I learned," Hermione agreed easily, "at the orphanage I stayed in the nuns used to put padlocks on our rooms and the cupboards and fridge so we couldn't steal any food. Of course, if they actually gave us enough so that we were at least halfway fed then we wouldn't have to try and steal it in the first place." She narrowed her eyes slightly at this.

"We will be reaching Hogwarts in five minutes time." A crisp, feminine voice suddenly echoed through the train. "Please leave your luggage on the train, it will be taken to the school separately."

"I am certainly not leaving Iago," Hermione said, lifting the mangy, flea-bitten creature up into her arms.

"You could probably hide him in your hair," Harry suggested and Hermione mock-glared at him before just draping the cat around her shoulders again then hitching the hood of her robes over the top so that the cat was mostly hidden.

Harry's stomach lurched with nerves as they stood up and joined the crowd thronging in the corridor. The train slowed right down and finally stopped. People pushed their way towards the door, prompting several angry noises from Iago whenever someone knocked into him.

The platform was tiny and dark and he shivered in the cold night air. Hermione stuck close to his side but didn't try to touch him, something he found he was glad about. Kindred spirits, she had said. She probably didn't like being touched either.

"Firs' years! Firs' years over here!" a familiar voice called, and Harry turned to see a lantern bobbing over the sea of heads. "All righ' there, Harry?" Hagrid's big hairy face beamed down at him. "C'mon, follow me- any more firs' years? Mind yer step, now! Firs' years follow me!"

"The Gryffindor lover?" Hermione asked, her voice sarcastic as they carefully followed the gigantic man down a steep, narrow path.

"And Dumbledore worshipper," Harry recalled, "he kept saying how Dumbledore is the greatest wizard of all time." Hermione raised her eyebrow and made a thoughtful hmm-ing sound. "What?" he asked anxiously.

"Don't you find it just a bit too coincidental that the person sent to introduce you into the magical world not only apparently adores Dumbledore but literally stated that Slytherins are evil?" She asked, raising an eyebrow. Harry almost tripped over in his surprise.

"I... huh?"

"Hagrid's not a professor and it's the professors who are supposed to be sent to introduce and educate muggleborns and those who don't really know about magic to this world," Hermione explained, "but instead you were sent someone who is most likely not just indebted to Dumbledore judging by the near hero worship, but is quite prejudiced against Slytherins. Did Hagrid sing the praises of Gryffindor?"

"He... he told me that my mum and dad were in Gryffindor." Harry said.

"I'm not surprised." Hermione muttered. "How much do you know about your parents?"

"Hardly anything. I... I wasn't allowed to talk about them at ho-with the Dursleys. My mum's sister and her family. I live with them." He admitted.

"I'm assuming that you idolize your parents." Hermione's voice was soft and Harry had to swallow before answering.

"Yeah," he admitted, quietly. "I really do."

"And your first instinct after learning your parents were in Gryffindor?" Hermione prompted.

"I wanted to be Sorted there too. To make them proud." Harry just about whispered before looking at Hermione again. Her face was expressionless but his felt pale. "I was... I- someone really wants me to be in Gryffindor." He said, shocked at how easily he had been manipulated.

"Yes," Hermione said quietly, dipping her chin in affirmation. "He really, really does."

"He?" Harry asked confused and then comprehension hit him. "You think Dumbledore?" He gasped, wide-eyed.

"Yes," Hermione nodded her expression now thoughtful, "I do. Very much so."

Before they could keep talking, Hagrid yelled out, "Ye'll get yer firs' sigh o' Hogwarts in a sec, jus' round this bend here." And then there was a loud 'ooooh'. Harry too gasped as the narrow path suddenly opened onto the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers. It was amazing.

"No more'n four to a boat!" Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore. Hermione seemed to instantly stiffen as she looked at the water, a brief flicker of something that almost resembled fear showing on her face before it was hidden behind a blank mask and a hint of steely determination. He followed her to one of the boats and they were joined by a round-faced, anxious looking boy and a plump, pink-faced girl with blonde pigtails who was clutching the front of her robes, terror clear on her face.

Harry was pretty sure if he didn't know how to school his face to hide his emotions so well he'd look the same. Hermione's face was almost eerily blank. "Everyone in?" shouted Hagrid, "right then- FORWARD!"

The fleet of boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was smooth as glass, and Harry took this as an opportunity to try and sort out his thoughts.

Hagrid... Harry just wasn't sure what to think of him. The man just seemed so... genuine. But he could be, Harry noted. Hagrid was nice; he wouldn't have suspected that he was being used. Used by someone who obviously had a great deal of practice of playing people. Someone, who he now suspected, went by the name of Dumbledore.

Harry absently bent his head as the little boats carried them through a curtain of ivy that hid a wide opening in the cliff face. They were then carried along a dark tunnel, which seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they reached a kind of underground harbor, where they clambered out onto rocks and pebbles.

He and Hermione walked side by side, still sticking close together, as they all tripped and stumbled up a passageway in the rock, finally coming out onto smooth damp grass, right in the shadow of the castle. Harry resisted the urge to pant as they walked up a massive flight of stone steps and then they were there, standing outside a huge, oak front door. "Everyone here? You there, still got yer toad?" Hagrid raised a gigantic fist and knocked three times on the castle door.

The door swung open revealing a stern looking witch, who instantly took over. She led them into an entrance hall of some kind and along a corridor before halting outside a doorway from which Harry could hear the droning of hundreds of voices on the other side.

Harry could only half concentrate on the teacher's –Professor McGonagall she'd introduced herself as– speech, instead he tried not to be sick. "Don't worry," Hermione murmured quietly, giving him a small but reassuring smile.  McGonagall finished her speech and disappeared briefly.

"Oh god," Harry whispered to Hermione, unable to say- or think- much else, "oh god!" Iago lifted his head and rubbed his whispered cheek against Hermione's face, the first semi-affectionate gesture Harry had ever seen the furred menace give.

The appearance of several ghosts caused quite the shock and Harry almost jumped a mile high as they floated above him, before shooting a nonchalant Hermione a half scowl. "How can you not be at all shaken by that?" he demanded, playfully.

"I read about them in 'Hogwarts: A History'," was the prompt answer she gave and before he could respond McGonagall was back and leading them into the hall.

A sea of faces swam before him and Harry swallowed, again having to fight the urge to be sick. Ahead of them, McGonagall silently placed a four-legged stool in front of all the first years. On top of the stool she put a pointed wizard's hat. The hat was patched and frayed and extremely dirty- something Aunt Petunia would have never allowed in the house.

"Maybe we have to try and get a rabbit out of it," he whispered to Hermione, who snorted good-naturedly.

"I doubt that." Feeling slightly reassured by her words seeing as Hermione had spoken quite confidently and she had yet to be wrong about, well, anything really, Harry followed the gazes of the hall, all directed at the hat. For a few seconds there was complete silence. Then the hat twitched. A rip near the brim opened wide like a mouth- and the hat began to sing.

Harry gasped as the hat sung about the values of the different Houses, truly amazed. When at the end the whole hall burst into applause, Harry couldn't help but join in. Even Hermione clapped, albeit belatedly.

Professor McGonagall stepped forwards, a long roll of parchment in her hands. "When I call your name, you will put on the hat and sit on the stool to be sorted," she announced, "Abbott, Hannah!" The girl who'd been in the boat with them stumbled out of the line, put on the hat which fell right down over her eyes, and sat down. There was a moment's pause – "HUFFLEPUFF!" shouted the hat.

Harry watched the sorting, his stomach twisting and turning. His heart almost stopped when McGonagall called "Granger, Hermione!"

"Good luck," he whispered. Hermione smiled at him.

"Your choices are yours to make, Harry. Do what feels right. Don't let anyone manipulate you." She murmured, before walking over to the hat. She appeared calm and confident, to most at least, but Harry knew by now that she was as good as hiding her feelings as he was- better, even.

The hat seemed to be taking an awfully long time to decide where to put Hermione and Harry suddenly had the most awful thought that he might not be chosen at all. What would happen then? He thought, frantically. Oh god, oh god, oh go-

"SLYTHERIN!" The hat shouted. There was a moment of silence and then hesitant clapping filled the hall. Hermione wasn't deterred, however, and walked with confidence and grace over to the table, giving him a small smile once she was seated.

The line was slowly but surely dwindling, with the round-faced boy from their boat, Neville Longbottom, sorted into Gryffindor after a pause longer then Hermione's, and Draco was sorted into Slytherin pretty much the very second the hat brushed against his impeccably styled hair.

And then, at last –"Potter, Harry!"

As he stepped forwards, he was uncomfortably aware of the whispers and pointing and was grateful when the hat dropped over his eyes so he didn't have to look at the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him.

"Hmm," said a small voice in his hear. "Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes- and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting... so where shall I put you?"

Where should it put him? Thought Harry, anxiously, gripping the edges of the stool. Before he'd met Hermione, he'd have said Gryffindor in a heartbeat, or at least prayed that he didn't end up in Slytherin, but now...

"Slytherin will help you on your way to greatness, no doubt about that," the small voice said, "But Gryffindor would also aid you in your pursuit of your goals..." God, he wished Hermione could help him with this, he thought. Hermione... Hermione was in Slytherin. He liked Hermione. She was the first real friend he'd ever had.

"Slytherin," he whispered as quietly as he could, "I want to go in Slytherin."

"Very well," the hat said, "in that case – SLYTHERIN!"

The hat had shouted the last word for the whole hall to hear and even before the hat had been lifted off his head, Harry was well aware of the shock his sorting had caused. If he thought the whispers and stares before had been bad, they were twice as bad now.

He walked shakily over to the Slytherin table amidst the startled applause, most of which was coming from the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables. The Gryffindors seemed shocked and the Slytherins calculating.

He slid into place next to Hermione, and she gave him a soft smile. "I'm proud of you." She murmured, and his heart swelled in pride.

Chapter Text

Chapter III:



Hermione's POV:

Hermione kept her face expressionless as she lowered herself gracefully onto the stool. "My, my, my," a voice which she assumed belonged to the hat sounded in her ear, "you, my dear, are quite the enigma. Intelligent and talented, you'd make a fine Ravenclaw if it wasn't for the fact you'd scare them stiff!" Hermione's lips twitched slightly at that.

"Yes, not Ravenclaw... You're very loyal, but only to a very small handful of people and you've got quite the vindictive streak so most certainly not Hufflepuff! Hmm, Gryffindor or Slytherin? You're certainly brave, but you're just as cunning and ambitious. You've got quite the mind for politics too... I don't usually put muggleborns in Slytherin, but I really think you'll do best there."

"I agree." Hermione murmured.

"Yes, you truly do. Definitely SLYTHERIN!"

She ignored the moment's silence before the hesitant clapping, making her way over to the Slytherin table and sitting across from the blonde on the train- Draco Malfoy. Ignoring her new Housemates, she kept her eyes on the sorting- or, to be more specific, on Harry.

When it was his turn to go up his face was pale and she smiled at him, the best gesture of support she was currently able to give.

Harry Potter... she'd spotted him wandering through King's Cross Station and later placed him as the famed Boy-Who-Lived, recognizing him due to the fact he looked very much like the photographs of his father she'd seen in one of the history books she'd read, but that was something she'd noted only after she shared a compartment with him. Because it hadn't been the Boy-Who-Lived she'd noticed; it had been a scrawny boy whose skin was pale from not receiving enough sunlight, whose growth was stunted from lack of food and who wore glasses that had been repaired with sticky-tape and clothes that practically drowned his slight frame.

In other words; at best a neglected boy, at worst an actively abused one.

She'd followed him sedately, correctly deducing from the owl that he, too, was a wizard and wondering why he didn't seem to know where to go. She'd then watched suspiciously as a family of redheads talked loudly about muggles and Hogwarts in a way that seemed entirely unnatural, almost like they were actually trying to get the boy's attention.

She'd moved close enough to hear what they were saying and became even more suspicious when she learned that the boy didn't know how to get onto the platform. It had been written on her letter- why hadn't this boy been told?

Her ever mistrustful mind had then ran through several scenarios, before settling on the most likely explanation given the evidence– for some reason, someone had wanted the boy to run into the family of redheads. Her suspicions had grown further as one of the children, Ron Weasley, tried to sit with them- all the other compartments were full, her arse!

Insensitive git, she thought, narrowing her eyes at the boy who was still standing in line and waiting to be sorted. She would figure out exactly what that Weasley family was up to, she decided- and she'd find out how that meddlesome, manipulative headmaster was involved too!

Harry had been under there an awfully long time and she was actually starting to worry when; "SLYTHERIN!" the hat shouted. Hermione snapped her gaze straight over to the headmaster, wanting to catch his reaction. The old man's eyes widened then narrowed, giving credence to her assumption that, yes; Dumbledore had definitely been trying to get Harry sorted into Gryffindor.

Again, the question was why?

Harry sat down next to her looking shaky and she ran through several simulations in her mind, looking for the words that would comfort him most. She wasn't sure of the level of physical abuse Harry had suffered but his appearance practically confirmed he'd suffered from severe neglect, therefore the emotional abuse levels were likely just as high. "I'm proud of you." She decided on, keeping her tone soft and warm. Yes, she thought, watching Harry heave out a sigh of relief- that had been just right. 

The headmaster got to his feet once the last handful had been sorted (Ron Weasley had gone to Gryffindor where the rest of the red-haired family were already seated) and gave a great, beaming smile. One that definitely did not reach his eyes as he glanced over the Slytherin table. "Welcome!" he said, arms held wide, "welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!"

People clapped and cheered, but Hermione wasn't one of them. By her side, Harry wasn't either. "He looked at me funny," Harry murmured as they both turned back to the table, Harry with wonder in his eyes at the suddenly filled plates before them, "he's not happy about me being in Slytherin."

"No," she agreed, "he's not."

Unused to the massive amounts of food, Hermione chose several slices of thick, buttered bread to nibble on before sitting up straight, face washed clean of emotion as Draco Malfoy started speaking. "I have to say, I'm a touch surprised you're here, Granger." He drawled.

"I must have more magical blood then I realized," she responded to his careful baiting with a bland smile, "obviously if I was a muggleborn, I wouldn't be in Slytherin." There were several noises of agreement and attention was turned to Harry instead.

"I don't think anyone expected you to end up in Slytherin, Potter," Draco said, with a laugh.

"No," one of the older boys said, "Everyone expected the golden boy to be a Gryffindor."

"I don't know if I'm exactly a golden boy." Harry answered with a wry smile and Hermione held back her own smile at his answer. He'd caught on to the Slytherin House politics very quickly, it seemed. She hoped he could keep it up.

"No," the same boy chuckled, "obviously you're not. I'm Marcus Flint, by the way."

"Nice to meet you," Harry smiled and Flint actually smiled back.

"You any good on a broom, Harry?" he asked. Hermione felt Harry stiffen slightly beside her and answered for him.

"You'll have to wait and see." She winked at Flint. Harry gave her a thankful look as the attention turned to her.

"So, Hermione Granger. You're a Halfblood, right?"

"Judging by the strength of my magic I suspect so, but I never knew my parents." She told him, keeping to her story. It was even more important that they believed her now then it had been before. The snake pit was not the safest place for a muggleborn.

"How did you and Potter meet?" The girl she recognized as the owner of the cauldron and books she'd stolen, the one with a pug-like face, asked- Pansy Parkinson, Hermione recalled from the sorting.

"The same way most people meet, I expect," she told Parkinson with a very fake smile, "we said hello."

Iago chose that exact moment to make his appearance, sticking his head out from under her cloak and giving sharp hiss, clearly unimpressed with the fact she'd failed to offer him any food.

"Oh my god, that thing is hideous!" Parkinson screeched, eyes wide with horror as she completely forgot to keep badgering for answers that didn't concern her in the face of Iago's... less then typical appearance.

Hermione rolled her eyes at the annoying girl and summoned a miniature sausage from a tureen of them with a flick of her wrist. It was a basic skill she'd mastered years ago, moving things with her special talent- her magic- to help with her... prestidigitation. Magic had been a useful aid when it came to thievery, though she'd always been careful not to use it as a crutch.

Iago was satisfied by his sausage and Hermione was equally so- the casual use of her wandless magic hadn't been a spur of the moment decision because she'd known it would not go unnoticed. It showed she was obviously powerful and by their own standards she therefore could not possibly be a muggleborn- not without them having to contradict themselves and one of the core basis of their biased beliefs. In reality, she suspected if any of these children had grown up unaware of what their magic really was and had a lot of free time on their hands (or have a desperate need for something to distract themselves from the agony that was slow starvation) they'd figure out how to use their magic for the neat little tricks she'd taught herself through exploration and a lot of trial and error.

"Iago doesn't take any shi-any rubbish from anyone." She scratched said cat behind the ears and he made a rusty purring noise.

Conversation was carefully polite and Hermione avoided making small talk the best she could. At one point, Harry made a sudden hissing noise, clapping a hand to his head, and she frowned.

"What is it?" she asked, voice low.

"N-nothing," he replied and she raised an eyebrow, unimpressed with his answer. He sighed. "I... my scar hurt when I looked over at the teachers."

"Cursed scars don't tend to hurt for no reason," she noted quietly, "which professor?"

"The one with black hair that's kinda greasy," Harry answered.

"That's Professor Snape, our Head of House. He's a decent sort, really. Any others?" she pressed, "I haven't read about cursed scars before but delayed effects might not be uncommon."

"Um, Quirrell. The guy in the turban." Harry said after a pause, "When he turned away."

"I'll do some research," she decided, "and Harry?"

"Yeah?"

"I probably wouldn't tell anyone if I were you. Not yet, anyway."

"Agreed." Harry nodded before giving her a small smile. "I've told the only person I actually want to, anyway." Hermione had to fight her cheeks going pink, startled by the boy once again; the first time having been when he'd denied her offer of a magical oath– one that, almost ironically, she'd offered up with the intention of giving him the impression she was trustworthy, even though she was anything but. And now she actually felt the need to live up to the far too freely offered trust– and if Harry wasn't so bloody genuine, she'd have felt like he was manipulating her! 

After dinner, the first years followed their House prefects to their new common rooms and Hermione stuck close to Harry, aware of his nervousness. Her own anxiety was buried deep under a blank mask of stoicism. Fear was a vulnerability– if you showed even a hint of fear living on the streets then you were eaten alive. Hermione had a feeling the snake pit was going to be similar in that regard.

The Slytherin Common Room was grand looking; all sleek furniture, low burning fireplaces and a number of green and silver banners decorating the walls. All the first years lined up looking nervous as Snape entered, cloak billowing out behind him. Absently, Hermione wondered if he cast a spell to create that effect. It was very dramatic and regal and she'd quite like to use the spell herself.

"Here in Slytherin, we have three rules," Snape started without so much as a 'welcome'. "Rule one- do not get caught." His gaze swept over them all, lingering momentarily on Harry. "Rule two- House problems stay within House quarters. Once outside of these walls, a united front will be presented. Rule three- do not become predictable."

The rules set in place were quite defensive, Hermione noted. Slytherin had definitely acknowledged its place as the 'enemy' and had consequently provided for as such.

On the streets, Hermione had lived by a set of rules too, rules thought up and followed by her fellow street rats in order to protect themselves and each other and to regain some uniformity in a world without any:
We don't steal from our own
Keep hitting them until they stop hitting you
First come, first served
Fear is a vulnerability

She had a feeling that most of their rules could apply to Slytherin house perhaps equally as well.

"First years," Snape continued, "if you have any questions or problems you will take them to a Slytherin prefect. Any rule breakers can expect to be punished harshly." Their Head of House gave them one last assessing look, eyes once again lingering briefly on Harry, before exiting.

"Well," she told Harry, smiling slightly, "that's certainly one way to make an impression."

With the exception of Parkinson, who'd yet to make any sort of good impression on her, Hermione's dorm mates weren't bad. Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis seemed to be old friends and they both seemed to know Parkinson too. Millicent Bulstrode and Lilyan Moon were both quiet and courteous which was always good when sharing close quarters with someone. Well, she assumed the same applied when those close quarters were a dorm room instead of an abandoned factory or dried up sewer duct or whatever else served as 'base' at the time.

With Iago curled up next to her, Hermione relaxed into the four-poster bed and tried to enjoy what she'd considered a rare and luxurious treat for practically as long as she could remember. Except it turned out to be less of a treat then she'd expected. The bed was too soft. Too soft and too warm under her skin and face, and every dip and curve of the mattress and slide of the sheets felt like it was trying to drive her mad.

When morning came around, Hermione (which she still felt odd calling herself) was the first one up in her dorm, having slept poorly. And even if sleeping on the ground beneath her  too-comfortable bed would have meant she wouldn't be so tired being singled out by her peers was certainly something she wished to avoid.

Hermione dressed quickly for the day, wrestling her flyaway curls into two tight braids before making her way down to the Common Room where she was pleased but unsurprised to see Harry already up, sitting on one of the leather sofas with a book open on his lap.

"Good morning," she greeted him and he smiled brightly at her, setting the book aside and quickly standing.

"Hi," he said enthusiastically before blushing slightly. Hermione's lips twitched. Honestly, Harry was quite adorable. He had the biggest, greenest eyes she'd ever seen, made even bigger by the thinness of his face, and he was almost as petite as she was. But she knew that her appearance, at least, was deceiving in its apparent vulnerability. She wondered whether Harry's was too, but doubted it. He just seemed to have this—this innocence about him, one that she couldn't deny was drawing her in.

Together, they made their way up to the Great Hall and tucked in to the delicious spread before them. Only a scattering of students were present at the early hour and even fewer professors. One of those professors was their Head of House. Snape, she noted, was looking at Harry in a very odd sort of way. His expression appeared... indecisive, if she had to guess.

By the time they'd finished breakfast, the rest of the professors- or at least the ones who had been present at the feast the night before- had arrived and the four Heads of Houses were starting to make their way over to their respective House tables, large stacks of parchment floating behind them.

"Miss Granger, Mr. Potter," Snape drawled as he stopped a few feet before them. Hermione thought he was addressing them and opened her mouth to respond when two of the slips of parchment from the pile zoomed out, floating over to hover before them. Curious, Hermione plucked it out of the air and examined it.

"Oh," she smiled, realizing it was her timetable. "Thank you, sir."

"Thank you." Harry echoed. Hermione gave him a sharp look and he quickly added, "um, sir," with a light blush. To his credit, Snape looked more amused then anything else and the indecisive expression from before gone, the feeling having either dissipated or been hidden under the mask Hermione recognized.

Kindred spirits, she'd told Harry they were, and Hermione had a feeling Professor Snape was a kindred spirit too. One learned to recognize their own kind. There were shadows in the eyes of those who'd suffered; shadows and invisible scars painted across them that only the likeminded could recognise.

"Our timetables are the same," Harry said, looking over at hers, his face relieved. She smiled back at him.

"Excellent. We've got Herbology first- shall we go collect our books?" The corner of Harry's mouth twitched slightly and Hermione playfully mock-scowled as he answered in a pompous voice,

"We shall."

They were first to arrive at the greenhouse where Professor Sprout was waiting. Pleased to see some 'enthusiastic learners' as she called them, she was happy to answer Hermione's questions about the beginnings of Herbology and its uses in modern magic.

Hermione found herself fascinated by the healing properties ordinary Muggle plants could have when mixed together with the aid of magic and she couldn't help thinking how beneficial they could be to the runaways and homeless people out there who couldn't afford any actual medicine or risk a visit to the hospital to get treatment.

The first and only time she'd ever suggested going to the hospital, the reaction had been immediate.

"Janey, we go to hospital, they'll get the cops involved and the cops, they'll tell us they'll do what's best for us and catch us up tight." Lacey had said with her voice as anguished as her face as she stitched up a stab wound with dental floss while Hermione had tried to stem the blood flow with an old shirt and ignore the screaming and crying of Rooster, the boy they'd been trying to save. "They'll catch us, put us in homes an' then it's lies and belts an' men in the night an' worse an' you can't–" Lacey's voice had broken then and, needless to say, Hermione had never suggested it again; not even when she'd had to watch people bleed to death in front of her or succumb to sicknesses that with the right medicine could have been easily treatable.

Rooster was the first person she'd seen die.
He'd been a fourteen year old boy, tall and thin with a shock of red hair, sly eyes and a knife-sharp grin. Personally, she'd liked the sticky-fingered boy– he had been clever, with a cutting tongue and a biting sense of humour. He'd helped teach her pick-pocketing tricks and had given her sticks of gum when she got them right. He'd then bled out in front of her and died with his blood sticky on her hands as she'd tried to hold him together.

He might have been the first person Hermione had seen die, but he'd turned out to be far from the last.

When the rest of the class arrived down at the greenhouses, Professor Sprout launched into a lecture and they started their first lesson in how to take care of the strange plants and fungi Hermione knew didn't exist in the Muggle world- or, at least, the Muggle world wasn't aware that it existed there.

As the day progressed, both she and Harry became increasingly aware of the irritating attention Harry was gathering. Whispers seemed to follow Harry wherever he went and people craned on their tiptoes to get a glimpse of him when lined up in the hallways. Harry was mortified by the attention and Hermione, frustrated by it, vowed to find a way to stop the nonsense.

Iago, who rarely left his perch of her shoulders, helped slightly by glaring and snarling at anyone who got too close.

Charms, their second class of the day, was taught by a tiny little wizard called Professor Flitwick who had to stand on a pile of books to see over his desk. At the start of the class he took the roll and Hermione had to cough to hide her laughter as, when he reached Harry's name, he let out an excited squeak and toppled out of sight.

Hermione and Harry both quickly figured out that there was a lot more to magic then waving your wand and saying a few funny words, which she occasionally translated from Latin to English to Harry who seemed interested in her knowledge of the obscure language.

Despite her lack of official schooling, Hermione had spent countless hours of her life in public libraries, most of which had functioning toilets and all either heated or air-conditioned depending on which time of the year it was. It also meant she'd had a lot of time to read, picking up a widespread amalgamation of knowledge over the years. Learning enough of the language to read Virgil's 'The Aeneid' in its original Latin, a book series she'd remembered her mother owning and being fond of, had been an endeavour that took the better half of six months. Her mother had always loved the Greco-Roman histories– Hermione had actually been named for a character in Ancient Greek mythology, the only child of Helen of Troy.

She didn't tell Harry any of that, though– for all she enjoyed his company, Harry was still a stranger to her and most things to do with her parents were a vulnerability she guarded closely.

Their last class of the day was quite interesting from Hermione's point of view as she'd always been a bit of a history buff and enjoyed reading about times long past– 'The Aeneid' being a prime example of her true dedication in this area. Harry, and every other student in the class it seemed, did not share her interest. Indeed, at the end Harry complained to her about how he'd struggled to even stay awake in the face of the monotone recitation of facts.

She could admit that the ghost who taught it, Professor Binns, was a little dry but the subject matter in and of itself was fascinating. Harry had given her a look when she explained this out loud and she gave up and said she'd figure out a way to replicate her notes for him.

With their day coming to an end, they managed to find themselves hopelessly lost while trying to return to the Slytherin Common Room. After wandering around the school for nearly an hour they came across a locked door. Hermione rattled the doorknob and let out an aggravated sigh of frustration, preparing to turn and continue on with Harry, when a loud voice exclaimed "Ah HA!"

Spinning around, she and Harry came face to face with the caretaker of Hogwarts, Argus Filch. The man smiled greasily at them and Hermione was about to explain that they were lost when he spoke first. "Trying to force our way into the forbidden corridor, are we? Brave little first years, aren't we?"

Swearing in her head, Hermione plastered on her most innocent expression and was about to start bluffing her way out of this when something startling happened.

A meow by their feet made Harry and Hermione look down to where Filch's cat sat. It was a scrawny, skeletal looking thing, with dust-colored fur and bulging, lamp-like eyes. Hermione's heart instantly melted. On her shoulders, Iago perked up and meowed back to the cat.

To Hermione's surprise, the caretaker's cat scampered over then stood up on its hind legs, hooking it's claws in Hermione's robes to balance as the two cats appeared to have a full conversation with each other, mewing back and forth.

The three humans blinked, just watching the spectacle, until Iago jumped down onto the floor beside Filch's cat and the two felines intertwined their tails before wandering off.  Hermione blinked.

"Did... did that just happen?" she asked. To her surprise, the caretaker let out a wheezing laugh.

"That's the ugliest cat I ever saw," he told Hermione, "'e's perfect for Mrs. Norris." And with that, the caretaker turned around and shuffled off.

Harry and Hermione traded bemused looks and then hurried off in a different direction before their good fortunes ran out.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus had called Draco Malfoy, the son of one of his oldest friends, to his office after the first full day of the school year. He had Potions with the Gryffindor and Slytherin First years in three days and he needed to prepare himself for dealing with the Potter brat. Also, he was curious to see how the wily young Miss Granger was faring- a muggleborn in Slytherin was quite... unusual, to say the very least.

"Draco," he greeted the young boy as he entered his office.

"Good afternoon, sir," Draco smiled up at him.

"How are you enjoying Hogwarts so far?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"It's brilliant!" Draco replied enthusiastically, eyes lighting up. Severus allowed the boy to carry on about his first day for a few minutes before directing the conversation towards the two he was most curious about.

"Tell me, Draco, what do you think of the young Mr. Potter and Miss Granger?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Potter's quiet," Draco shrugged, "hasn't left Granger's side much. Barely said two words to us in our dorm last night or this morning. Didn't really speak up in class either."

"And Miss Granger?" Severus prompted.

"Granger's not bad for a Halfblood." Draco admitted, "She's really, really powerful. She can levitate and summon stuff without speaking or using a wand. Plus she mastered everything in class today on her first try."

Halfblood? Severus hid his amused smile. Oh, that girl was clever- clever and sly. She'd obviously realized the... unsavory aspects of being a muggleborn in Slytherin and had acted accordingly. He wondered, though, how in Merlin's name she'd managed to convince a House that was, he could admit, full of Pureblood snobs that she had magical ancestors.

"Very well. You may go, Draco." He nodded, dismissing his godson then watching as the young blonde left.

"And the mystery thickens." He murmured, quietly to himself with a wry smile.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry found that the week passed by quickly. He really enjoyed his classes and found that he was actually quite good at them– especially with Hermione instructing him how to improve whenever he struggled at anything– and he was relieved to find out that he wasn't miles behind everyone else like he'd first feared.

The professors all seemed nice, at least the ones he'd met anyway, though Binns was undoubtedly the dullest 'person' he'd ever met. He enjoyed Charms, enjoyed looking up at the night sky with his telescope during Astrology, enjoyed working in the greenhouses during Herbology and even enjoyed Transfiguration, which was run by the stern Professor McGonagall whose opening speech had been a warning that if they messed around in her class they would "leave and never come back".

Defense Against the Dark Arts was treated like a joke by most of the year and indeed Quirrell wasn't exactly an astounding teacher, but Harry felt an odd draw towards the man that he couldn't quite explain. Hermione had also, much to his delight, managed to produce several actually instructive books on DADA that he'd enjoyed reading after finishing his homework.

So yes, he was enjoying his classes and even more then that, he was enjoying Hermione's friendship. Slytherin seemed full of indirect, discrete power plays, which confused him to no end, but Hermione seemed to navigate her way around them easily. She was supportive, friendly and seemed genuinely happy to spend time with him.

In fact, if it weren't for the Gryffindors, Harry would say Hogwarts was perfect.

The first time he was confronted with Ron Weasley and his mates, a muggleborn called Dean Thomas and a halfblood, Seamus Finnegan, he'd been waiting outside the girl's loo for Hermione to emerge and was surprised by their offensive stance.

"Potter," Ron sneered, a rather ugly expression on his face. "A slimy snake! You're a traitor and we're going to show you what we do to traitors!"

Harry had learned two very important things when it came to dealing with bullies, courtesy of his cousin- he either had to run or turn the other cheek. Harry was fast and could often outrun Dudley and his gang but he had a feeling that these three wouldn't quite be so easy to escape from.

That left turning the other cheek. Harry took a deep breath was preparing himself for the inevitable when Hermione stormed out of the bathroom, her eyes as sharp as shattered glass. Harry almost flinched away from her just by pure instinct upon witnessing the look of pure fury and loathing on her face.

"If you try this shit ever again and I swear on my mother's grave I will curse you within an inch of your life!" she hissed, her voice low and icy. Ron tried to sneer at her but it was obvious that he was intimidated as he took a few steps back. Dean and Seamus, too, looked uncertain. They had, after all, heard about the amazing Granger- the first year at the top of every class with a talent unmatched by any of her classmates. Hell, they'd even shared a few classes with her. She wasn't someone to trifle with.

"And what are you going to do about it?" the redhead tried bluffing.

"What are we going to do about it, more like." A smooth voice interjected. Harry jumped slightly at the sudden appearance of Draco Malfoy and his posse but he couldn't say he wasn't glad to see them. He remembered Professor Snape's words- a united front will be presented- and in that moment he couldn't be happier about having been sorted into Slytherin.

"Why are you defending her anyway?" Ron hotly demanded of Malfoy, "She's a muggleborn!" Harry froze slightly, half expecting all the Slytherins to turn on Hermione, but instead Hermione took control of the conversation with ease.

"Oh yes, I'm definitely a muggleborn," she said, her voice scathing, "a muggleborn whose scores have outdone several generations of Hogwarts students, including all Purebloods. A muggleborn who's powerful enough to do this-" Hermione raised a hand towards Ron, who tried to take several hasty steps back, but found himself frozen in place with Hermione advancing on him, a chilling look on her face, "-but I dare say that's either highly unlikely or impossible."

"It's impossible," Draco scoffed, "no mudblood could ever be as powerful as Granger."

"Indeed," Hermione nodded, "although, I must admit that Muggle violence does have its attraction." She said in a thoughtful voice, before pulling her fist back and punching Ron square in the nose. Ron let out a shrill screech of pain, falling on his butt as Hermione canceled whatever magic she had holding him in place. "Do not ever go near Harry again." She warned before turning and striding back to Harry.

To his surprise, she then held out her elbow. "Shall we?" she asked an for the first time, Harry touched her, tentatively linking arms with her. He could feel her twitch slightly at the contact and he too felt uneasy for a heartbeat, but then the moment passed and he came to the realisation that with Hermione he was safe. She wasn't going to hurt him.

He couldn't help the large, beaming smile that crossed his face as he answered her, mimicking his previous response. "We shall." And then they walked to their next class, Harry just about buzzing with excitement. Part of him wondered if it would be possible for Hermione and Dudley to run into each other...

Or even better... "How did you do that freezing thing?" He asked her, "could you teach me it?"

"Most of my little tricks I figured out through trial and error," Hermione said and Harry was surprised by how serious her eyes had turned, her mouth setting in a grim line. "Remember how your accidental magic apparated you to the roof to escape your cousin?"

"Yeah," Harry nodded, a bit confused. Hermione's eyes turned dark and, he couldn't help but think, dangerous.

"The first time I performed that particular piece of magic was as accidental as your apparating." She said, very quietly. Harry swallowed, not really needing her to elaborate on a situation where she'd been so afraid of someone that her magic had literally frozen them in place. "I figured out how to replicate the effect," Hermione added, her eyes losing the dark edge they'd gained as she'd revisited what was clearly a painful memory. "It's not very strong- it only lasts about a minute at most and I suspect a fully trained witch or wizard wouldn't be affected by it at all. But I've always found that for scaring people by not only making myself seem far more powerful but also rendering them powerless, it is gloriously effective."

Thinking about Ron Weasley's face, Harry couldn't help but grin and agree.

And yes, that was the first and last time that Ron ever threatened to 'teach him a lesson' but it hadn't stopped the redhead from glaring at him every time they passed each other, or the snide comments traded. It also seemed that the animosity towards Harry had spread beyond Ron when a fourth year Gryffindor had cursed him. Hermione had performed a counter-curse, a general one she'd looked up in the library for just such an occasion- the incantation was 'finite incantatem' and she'd promised to teach it to him- her face almost white in her fury, before she'd disappeared.

The fourth year in question had ended up in the hospital wing less then an hour later, having been temporarily blinded. When Harry asked a now returned Hermione how she did it- because he honestly had no doubt it was her- she gave a secretive smile and told him that the boy wouldn't bother him again. And so far he hadn't, and there'd been no other physical attacks. 

Of course, the whispers of "Dark Lord in training" and "traitor to the Light" and "evil, slimy serpent" didn't exactly lift his moral, but the Slytherins seemed to enjoy it and his House was surprisingly protective of him, even the upper year levels. Hermione was also being treated with a great deal of respect by their housemates- especially after the incident with Ron and the fourth year. Apparently they approved of the viciousness of her retaliation, her cunning in not being caught, her just hospitalising a Gryffindor in general and her loyalty to her fellow Slytherin.

It was at the end of the week that Harry and Hermione made their way down to the dungeons for their first ever Potions lesson. Much to Harry's dismay they had to share it with the Gryffindors- which meant he had to put up with two and a half hours in close proximity to the House that believed him to be a "traitorous snake". Of course, seeing the steely glint in Hermione's eyes as they entered the classroom did make him feel better. Hermione was the best friend anyone could have- she was tough and loyal with a streak of vindictiveness that he had to admit made him feel touched when she turned it against those who'd wronged him.

The potions classroom, Harry decided as he and Hermione entered it, was by far his favourite, in a macabre sort of way. The classroom, which was situated in a dungeon located even further below the castle then the Slytherin Common Room, was filled with pickled animals floating in glass jars all around the room. The students entering after him were shivering, giving him the impression that the room was quite cold but he'd long since realized that her years on the streets had given Hermione the ability to wandlessly and wordlessly cast warming charms which she'd automatically applied to them both as they walked in.

It was one of the first spells she'd truly mastered doing on command, she'd told him the other day. Winters were icy cold and while she spent any time that she wasn't picking pockets in heated public libraries, the night times that she spent holed up in some makeshift shelter or other, sometimes with a few other street kids, the only real source of warmth came from her magic.

Hermione lead them over to one of the tables near the front and had her ink, parchment, textbook and quill all neatly laid out in front of her and her cauldron sitting neatly by her side before Harry had even opened his book bag.

He was slightly surprised when Iago stuck his mangy head out of her satchel to grumble at Hermione- lately the fleabag cat had been spending a majority of his time with Mrs. Norris. To both his and Hermione's delight, this had made Filch behave in an almost friendly manner towards them; when they were lost he seemed happy to point them in the right direction and they'd even shared a conversation or two- about the cats, of course.

Professor Snape swept into the classroom, his robes billowing out behind him in a somewhat intimidating manner, and Harry shrank back in his seat slightly and internally cursed how nervous he was. Hermione gave him a soft, calming smile and under the table her hand gently grasped onto his, a contact that no longer had him automatically tensing. To his surprise, he found it did help with his nerves and his hand seemed to squeeze tighter around here without him realising it, centring himself with her steady presence.

Snape started the class by taking the roll, pausing for a moment on Harry's name with his gaze flicking over to him, before he continued on. Harry got the oddest sensation that he'd just dodged a bullet.

His Head of House's lecture was quite entrancing and Harry found himself leaning forwards slightly in his seat to listen. "You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making," Snape said, in a voice barely above a whisper, "as there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don't expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses... I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death- if you aren't as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach."

Harry noted out of the corner of his eye the looks that Ron and Dean were trading and the derisive twists of their mouths as they whispered to each other but most of his focus was on the professor before him.

"Weasley," Snape suddenly barked, causing the redhead to jolt, "since you seem to know this subject well enough that you don't feel the need to listen in on my lessons why don't you tell me what I would get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood." 

Harry gained a great deal of pleasure watching Ron sit there with a stumped look on his face. He could hear the snickering of the other Slytherins and Hermione, too, seemed darkly amused. "I told you he was a good sort," she murmured quietly to Harry.

"You don't know? Pity." Snape sneered at Weasley, "Can anyone else tell me?" Hermione tilted her head to the side, as if considering whether or not to answer, before raising her hand. "Miss Granger?"

"Asphodel and wormwood make a sleeping potion so powerful it is known as the Draught of Living Death." Hermione said without pause or inflection.

"Two points to Slytherin," Snape said, before turning back on Ron. "Let's try again, Mr. Weasley. Where would you look if I asked you to find me a bezoar?" Ron flushed an ugly red, obviously unable to answer this question either. To Harry's surprise, he actually could- he'd joined Hermione the night before in covering (or re-covering in her case) the first few letters of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi. The book was arranged in alphabetical order and though Harry wasn't sure exactly how a bezoar counted as either herb or fungi, they'd gone over 'A' to halfway through 'E'.

He wondered if he should put his hand up and then took a deep breath, steeling himself before raising his hand, pleased to see it was only trembling slightly. "Mr. Potter? Have you, perhaps, managed to bother to actually opening a book before entering my classroom, unlike Mr. Weasley here?" Snape drawled. Harry felt his cheeks go a bit pink and he cleared his throat.

"Um, a bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat." He tried not to stammer. "Sir." He quickly added as Hermione nudged him with her knee. Snape gave him another one of those intense stares before nodding coolly.

"Two points to Slytherin. How about one last try, Mr. Weasley. What is the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane?"

"I don't know," Ron scowled, "we weren't told we needed to remember any of this stuff!"

"Tut, tut- clearly you don't possess the skills of your brothers in potions." Snape said silkily and Harry instantly realized that his Head of House had hit Ron exactly where it hurt most. Ron turned a brilliant shade of red and he glared furiously at Snape.

Harry had to say, he was extremely grateful that he wasn't in Ron's shoes right now. "I think that will be three points from Gryffindor, Mr. Weasley, for not being able to answer any of the questions and another three for your disrespect. Now can anyone answer the question?"

Harry turned to Hermione as one of the other Slytherins raised their hands to answer. "Why do you think he's picking on Ron?" he whispered, "not that I'm upset about it." Hermione gave a quick grin.

"I've heard Professor Snape is quite protective of his snakes," she whispered back, "I can't imagine he's too pleased with the way Weasley is treating you."

"Oh," Harry said, surprised, "I always got the feeling Snape didn't like me very much- er, Professor Snape." He quickly corrected himself as Hermione raised an eyebrow. He was half expecting her to wave away his thought as ridiculous but instead she looked thoughtful. Harry's lips twitched as he realized he recognized that look- it was the 'I've just had an idea or I'm about to anyway and I'm not saying anything yet in case I'm wrong but I never am' look. Okay, he added the last part but the rest was true.

"Yes, I did get that impression too."

They were all paired up and set to mixing up a simple potion to cure boils. Harry was delighted to realize he was actually a fair hand at potions- so far, anyway- and didn't need any added instructions from Hermione. It was probably all the practice he'd had cooking for the Dursleys. 

Snape swept around the room in his long, black cloak, watching them all weigh dried nettles and crush snake fangs and criticizing almost everyone except Draco, who he seemed to like. Harry and Hermione managed to escape any criticism and even though Snape didn't point out to the class the perfect way they had stewed their horned slugs like he had with Draco, he did give them a short nod of approval.

Hermione was just collecting a phial of their finished potion when clouds of acid green smoke and a loud hissing filled the dungeon. One of the Gryffindors, Neville Longbottom, had somehow managed to melt the cauldron he and Seamus Finnegan were working with into a twisted blob and the potion contained in it was seeping across the stone floor and burning holes in people's shoes.

Hermione had reacted quickest, yanking her and Harry up onto their stools which left them the only ones with their shoes fully intact. The Gryffindor boy had been drenched in the potion and Harry felt sorry for Longbottom as he moaned in pain, angry red boils springing up all over his arms and legs- Longbottom was one of the only Gryffindors who never gave him any grief.

"Idiot boy!" snarled Snape, clearing the spilled potion away with one wave of his wand. "I suppose you added the porcupine quills before taking the cauldron off the fire?" Longbottom whimpered as boils started to pop up all over his nose. "Take him up to the hospital wing," Snape spat at Finnegan, before rounding on Weasley. "You- Weasley- why didn't you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he'd make you look good if he got it wrong, did you? That's another point you've lost for Gryffindor."

Harry had to admit that he didn't really blame Weasley when he opened his mouth and started protesting, but at the same time he didn't feel any pity for the boy as he ended up with a detention.

In fact, as he walked out of the dungeon, Hermione by his side, he announced to her that Potions was his favorite subject so far. He didn't notice Hermione turn slightly to smirk at someone behind them as he enthusiastically started a step-by-step recount of the entire lesson.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus raised an eyebrow at the cheeky smirk Granger shot him before she turned back around to continue listening to Potter. The clever girl had picked up on his mixed feelings about her friend, apparently, and was just as amused as he was that Potter had declared Potions his favorite subject.

As he strode on, he reflected over the lesson, not unlike Potter was though with a great deal less enthusiasm then the boy. He'd expected to hate Potter, had expected the little brat to be a carbon copy of his father. Indeed, before the sorting his suspicions had been confirmed as the boy was almost identical to how Severus remembered his father being at that age, but then the boy was sorted into Slytherin and the foundations of his beliefs started to crumble.

Potter was quiet, well behaved, attentive in class and genuinely seemed to enjoy learning. According to Draco the boy was mild-mannered, consistently polite and didn't go about hexing people in the corridors- even when people tried to hex him. Draco thought it rather weak of the boy but Severus' thoughts were darker in nature and if he was correct then he couldn't blame Potter at all. 

Either way, he was reluctantly glad that Potter had Granger there to help him. The girl was a force to be reckoned with; intelligent, powerful and very talented. She had more awareness, and therefore control, over her magic then most fourth years even. Which was one of the main reasons he wasn't surprised that the girl had gotten the better of the fourth year Gryffindor who had cursed Potter (it wasn't proven, of course, but everyone knew it was her). Granger had quite the streak of vindictiveness and apparently a talent for using simple spells to cause significant damage. The 'lumos' to the Gryffindor's eyes had not only left him blinded for three days but also completely unable to identify his attacker. 

He was also impressed with how she had managed the Weasley boy. Not only had she put in place a powerful deterrent for the red-haired boy to not attack Potter but she had actually trapped her fellow Slytherins in a position where they'd have to believe she was a halfblood as to consider otherwise would uproot their belief system about muggleborns being less powerful, and she'd done it without them even noticing. Her display of power, loyalty to her house and ruthlessness had also put her in high regard with the older Slytherins.

The girl was quite the little evil genius and he very much approved. He also approved of the broken nose she'd given Weasley. Vicious little thing, Hermione Granger was. Very, very vicious and very, very clever. Severus couldn't help but snort- to think Albus had been trying to get Harry to become best friends with the Weasley boy! Granger would be the one to keep the boy alive better then Weasley could ever hope to. He could already tell that the girl was the sort of person to do whatever it took to take care of and protect those she took under her wing and somehow Harry Potter had been the one she'd chosen.

Entering the headmaster's office, Severus didn't bother to announce himself, knowing the old man would be aware of his presence anyway with the eavesdropping spells he had in place outside the entrance of his office.

"Ah, Severus!" Albus exclaimed happily as he walked through the door, "just who I was looking for!"

"Save it, old man," Severus sighed, sitting down heavily. "Just say what it is you want to ask."

"Of course, my dear boy," Albus said, his expression now serious. "It has now been almost a week since the start of the school term. What are you thoughts on Miss Granger? I know that she and Harry are rarely seen without each other's company. Should this concern me? What is the girl's personality?"

"The girl's a master seducer," Severus admitted, "She has near-complete control over her expressions and emotions. She's brilliant at acting and one of the smartest students I've ever taught- something I can tell after one class she's that skilled and she's a muggleborn who's managed to convince all the Slytherins otherwise, backing them into a position that to say anything otherwise will be going against their own rhetoric."

Albus frowned, looking rather put out. "So she's using Harry."

"The opposite, rather." Severus snorted, before looking thoughtful. "Potter's the only person she appears to be... somewhat genuine with. She runs circles around everyone else, but Potter she treats like an equal."

"I'm not sure I like this," Albus said, still frowning. "I need you to keep a close eye on the girl, Severus."

"Of course, headmaster." Severus sighed.

Chapter Text

Chapter IV:


Hermione's POV:

For Hermione, the weeks started flowing past. There was a bit of mystery surrounding a report of an attempted break in at Gringotts that Harry told her was on the same day as he had visited the bank. Harry had also mentioned Hagrid collecting something on the same day from another vault that was "worth more then his job to be honest" which naturally made her suspicious– Harry too, now that he was more able to recognise the manipulation that Dumbledore seemed fond of weaving. Hermione didn't let it bother her much, though. Classes were enjoyable, the Slytherins were friendly, the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were polite and the Gryffindors now knew better then to harass Harry.

It wasn't long until Halloween was upon them, and Hermione could tell from the way Harry was looking more and more morose as the day wore on that something was wrong.

As they read in the common room after classes had finished on the 31st, Hermione waited until most of the other Slytherins had left for the feast before curling up beside the boy who had become her best friend, the one who reminded her the most of the street rats she'd grown up around and found comfort in the familiarity his presence brought. She leaned her head on his shoulder in silent support, finding his hand with hers to entwine their fingers together and squeeze gently.

"Ready to go to the feast?" Harry asked sounding miserable.

"Why would we?" She asked, keeping her voice gentle. "I don't really feel like celebrating today and I don't think you do either." Harry immediately slumped and she knew she'd hit the nail right on the head.

"They died today." He said hoarsely, looking straight ahead at the fireplace as if the flickering flames held the secrets of the universe within them. "They died and for some reason I lived. It's not fair-" his voice choked slightly and Hermione waited patiently as Harry took a few minutes to collect himself before continuing. "Is it wrong," he whispered, "that for so long I wished that I'd died in the car crash my relatives told me killed my mum and dad? That I'd died with them?"

Hermione felt herself stiffen slightly at the mention of a car crash, her own memories momentarily surfacing of the truck skidding out of control, of her parents loud cries of surprise and her own frightened scream as it collided with their small car, sending it flying off the side of the bridge and crashing into the lake below.

And then she remembered the days spent in the Black Hole where she relived the accident over and over... her father had been free- well, as free as one could be while trapped in a car sinking to the bottom of a river, but her mother hadn't been as lucky. Trapped by bent metal, her mother told her father over and over to just leave her behind, to get Hermione to safety.

Hermione remembered screaming as her dad managed to unbuckle her from her car-seat and pull her out of the car and into the freezing water of the lake. She remembered the burning of her lungs followed by the intense relief when they broke the surface and she could breathe again.

Her father had swum her over to the side of the lake, pushing her up onto the bank before diving back down for her mother.

He never reemerged.

And a part of her died that day with them.

"No Harry," she whispered back, her voice trembling slightly as she answered him, "no I don't."

So they didn't go to the feast. They curled up together, bringing a certain comfort to the other in the knowledge that they weren't alone. By the time nearly an hour had passed, Harry suggested that they go to the library before it closed and she eagerly agreed, having wanted to cross-check a reference in her transfiguration essay with 'The History Behind The Incantation; Transfiguration Issue II'.

They were making their way down one of the more obscure corridors that Harry had found a few days ago when she paused suddenly, wrinkling her nose as she was hit by a foul stench. "Can you smell that?" She asked. Harry paused and sniffed then made a face.

"Oh that's just gross." He grumbled. "It smells like old socks and those public toilets that no one cleans!"

"Thank you, Harry, for adding such delightful imagery to th-" she started saying, her tone the epitome of sarcastic, when they first heard it- a low grunting and the shuffling footfalls of gigantic feet.

"Hermione," Harry said slowly, his eyes wide with fear as they started backing away from the massive creature shuffling around the corner of the corridor towards them. "What the fuck is that?"

"Language," Hermione muttered to him absently even as she stared wide-eyed and terrified at the creature. It was a truly horrible sight. Twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite gray, it's lumpy body like a boulder with its small bald head perched atop. It had short legs thick as tree trunks with flat, horny feet and it was holding a huge wooden club which dragged long the floor because its arms were so long.

Grabbing a handful of Harry's robes, Hermione turned and ran, pulling Harry after her to the nearest classroom. They almost fell inside the room, shoving the door shut behind them.

Panting, they looked at each other frightened and panicked, listening as the shuffling of the troll drew nearer and nearer. Hermione, suddenly remembering a passage of a book she'd read, felt her face go cold as it drained from blood. "Harry," she whispered and she wasn't ashamed as her voice shook in her fear, "Harry, mountains trolls sniff out their prey." Harry paled as the troll stopped outside the classroom door.

"I... I think it smelled us." He whispered.

"Fuck!" Hermione hissed and then she was running again, dragging Harry with her away from the entrance to the classroom and just in time as the massive club slammed into the thick wood of the door, smashing it into smithereens.

"What do we do?" Harry shouted above the noise, looking about as terrified as she felt. Hermione's mind raced through every single bit of information she knew about trolls. She'd got them into this mess by pulling them into the classroom where they were cornered; it was up to her to get them out.

"Their skin is impervious to almost every spell," she said very quickly as she and Harry backed away from the advancing troll whose massive club was knocking over desks as it shuffled forwards, beady eyes fixed right on them.

"Almost?" Harry asked, sounding desperate.

"Only Dark spells can hurt it. I know some that might work but I don't know the wand movements, only the incantations." She had to choke back a sob. She didn't want to die, oh god she really didn't want to die. And Harry couldn't die- he just couldn't!

In her desperation an idea suddenly struck her and she pointed her wand at the wall behind the troll and shrieked, "bombarda!" The exploding wall caught the attention of the troll and in the precious few moments it turned its back to them she was running forwards and leaping, clawing, climbing, managing to fasten her arms around the troll's neck from behind. Her wand clattered somewhere on the ground but that didn't matter. Magic wouldn't help her here. But she knew what would.

Life on the streets had taught her to never be unprepared. That's why, holding onto the troll's thick skin with one hand, her other hand was already holding the flicked open switchblade that had been hidden in her sleeve and she was driving it into the troll's eye-socket with as much force as she could muster, forcing her arm nearly up to her elbow into the creature's skull, its eye bursting like an oversized grape as she drove the blade through the back of the socket, skewering its brain.

The troll made an absolutely horrific noise and Hermione had to fight to keep her grip, especially with the blood spurting from the wound, as the troll flailed around, its desperate movements those of a dying animal. It let out a gurgling sound, its still intact eye rolling back into its head, and then, with one last dying moan, the troll swayed on the spot and fell.

Hermione hit the ground next to it—hard—causing something to snap inside her chest while at the same time agony exploded in the shoulder of the arm she'd buried inside the troll's skull. The intensity of the pain nearly made her pass out, her vision blurring grey for several seconds, but then Harry was there beside her, cradling her head in his lap and speaking frantically.

"Oh god, Hermione, oh god, please say something! Are you okay? Please say you're okay! Please!" He begged, and Hermione managed to stretch her lips into what she tried to make look like a smile but ended up resembling more of a grimace.

"Don't worry Harry," she wheezed through blood-flecked lips, "it takes more then one measly mountain troll to keep me down." Harry was making mixed sounds like he was laughing and sobbing at the same time as Professor McGonagall came bursting into the rom, closely followed by Snape and with Quirrell bringing up the rear. Quirrell took one look at the gruesome sight of the dead troll in the growing pool of blood, the destroyed classroom and the bloody ruins of the troll's right eye-socket with the switchblade still buried inside and let out a faint whimper, quickly sitting down on one of the desks that had been spared the troll's club.

Snape hurried forwards, leaning over her with his face expressionless. "Where does it hurt?" he asked, voice equally clear of all emotions.

"Ribs," she managed to wheeze out, "right side. Can't breathe properly. And my shoulder- dislocated or broken, don't know." Snape nodded, face turning grim, and with a wave of his wand her world went black.

-

When Hermione next woke, she was intensely relieved to find herself pain free. "Hey," someone said and Hermione turned her head in the cot she was laying on to see an exhausted looking Harry seated in a chair by her bedside. She smiled at him as she pushed herself up into a sitting position and Harry immediately stood up to arrange her pillows so she could lean back on them.

"Thanks," she said and patted beside her, inviting him to sit on the bed next to her which he did, reaching for her hand as she leaned into him. Getting a good look at his face which looked tired and wan Hermione frowned. "Did you sleep at all while they healed me?" She asked and Harry gave her a half incredulous, half guilty look.

"That's the first thing you ask?" he asked in disbelief, followed by a quick, "and, er, no." Hermione sighed, shaking her head.

"Harry Potter, I swear you'll be the death of me." When Harry immediately winced, she realised her mistake. "I will admit that was not the best choice of words at the present moment." She said, her turn to be sheepish.

"You don't say," Harry muttered before he looked at her fiercely. "I swear to god, Hermione, if you ever do something like that again I will kill you myself. Slowly. And painfully."

"That's the best death threat you can come up with?" Hermione asked playfully with a roll of her eyes. "Oh that's just pathetic, Harry."

"You do better on a moment's notice." He challenged her and Hermione did without even skipping a beat.

"If you ever do something like that again, I will take you out to the middle of the Forbidden Forest to where nobody can hear you scream and tie you to a tree where I'll then skin you from the knees down so that you can experience the joy of all the man-eating creatures who live there. And while they rip the flesh off you from feet upwards, I will occasionally glance up to monitor their progress while I read 'Hogwarts: A History'."

"That was... descriptive." A dry voice said and both of them turned around to see their Head of House standing by the entrance to the hospital wing, Dumbledore and McGonagall a half step behind him.

"Thank you, sir." Hermione smiled, deciding to take that as a compliment before turning to Harry and arching an eyebrow. "Well?"

"Okay, okay, mine was kinda pathetic." He admitted, "how's this- if you ever do anything like that again, I will... um... er... chop you into little pieces then feed your miserable remains to a nest of acromantula?"

Hermione couldn't help but laugh at him, squeezing his hand so he knew she wasn't mocking him. "And so the student becomes... the student still."

"It's supposed to be and the student becomes the master." Harry reminded her and she raised an eyebrow again.

"Harry dear, let me assure you that I have a creative and cruel imagination I'm always delighted to put to use. Are you sure you're up to challenging me?"

"No." Harry said, with a pout that he'd probably later deny.

"As amusing as this is," Snape drawled, "I believe there's the small matter of the dead troll occupying one of the empty classrooms that we need to address."

"How long was I out for?" Hermione frowned.

"It's ten o'clock. In the morning." Harry informed her and Hermione let out a huff.

"Well isn't that just brilliant." She muttered. "Now I'm hours behind."

"It's Saturday," Harry reminded her.

"I know that." She replied, "but I happen to have a schedule. A schedule that I am now behind on."

"You both have the attention span of an infant," Snape interrupted them for the third time. "For all our sakes, save your idiotic chit-chatting until after you explain what happened last night!"

"Harry didn't tell you?" Hermione asked in surprise.

"I told them to wait until you woke up," Harry explained, face once again sheepish, "I only saw part of what happened."

"Fair enough." She agreed before turning to the professors. "Where would you like me to start?"

"How about why you weren't at the feast?" McGonagall snapped, looking at Hermione with narrowed eyes. Hermione had to fight to keep from retaliating- the Head of Gryffindor wasn't fond of her, she had realized early on, and keeping up the veneer of politeness and respect was something she just couldn't be bothered right now- her and Harry could have died last night.

"I would have thought the reason was obvious, professor." She answered McGonagall, her voice icy and her expression just as cold. "I'm assuming you can remember the significance of yesterday's date to some of us present?"

Understanding lit in the older witch's eyes and McGonagall gave a somewhat guilty look at Harry who was determinedly looking only at their still joined hands.

"I didn't even know the date of their... of what happened until Hagrid told me." He muttered as Hermione gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Potter." McGonagall said, her voice now truly regretful. "I knew your parents well and they were wonderful people." Hermione fought to keep from wincing as Harry's grip tightened to the point she could feel her bones in her hand grinding together.

"Last night," she interrupted McGonagall, before the woman could upset Harry even more, "Harry and I stayed in the common room until we decided to visit the library before it closed for the night. We ended up walking straight into the troll's path," and here Hermione couldn't help but look down, unable to keep her stoic mask in place and not wanting the professors to see her vulnerability. "And then I messed up." She said with pure loathing in her voice, "I pulled Harry and I into a classroom to hide. I didn't remember until it was too late and we were already trapped that mountain trolls track their prey by smell."

"Miss Granger, seeing as mountain trolls haven't been covered in any of your classes and aren't included in the first year syllabus, I think you can excuse yourself for forgetting that one little fact in a moment of terror." Snape drawled but Hermione shook her head. There was no room for error in real life- out on the streets, people who made mistakes ended up dead.

"I should have remembered," she said bitterly. "The troll smelled us out, of course, and then smashed open the door to the classroom. I knew that the only spells that would get through the troll's skin weren't any I could cast so with magic not an option I went with the Muggle route."

"The Muggle route," McGonagall repeated, incredulously and Hermione lifted her head back up, her emotions now in check as she steadily met the woman's gaze, her eyes glittering coldly.

"I cast a blasting curse behind the troll to distract it and get it to turn around. When it did I jumped onto its back, climbed up to its neck and then used a blade to pierce its brain through its eye. That made my hands rather... slippery which along with the troll's flailing led to me losing my grip and hitting the ground as the troll fell."

"You managed to kill a mountain troll with a Muggle knife." McGonagall stated, her expression incredulous.

"Oh I know, not bad at all." Here Hermione allowed herself to smirk solely to rile up the professor she so disliked.

"And where did you get that knife, Miss Granger?" McGonagall snapped angrily, rising perfectly to the bait, "As talented as you are in my class, I doubt you have the ability to transfigure anything like that!"

Here Hermione paused before mentally shrugging and deciding to answer truthfully. "It wasn't a knife, professor," she corrected the Transfiguration professor who was rapidly growing angrier as she needled the woman, "it's called a switchblade. Good for self-defense. A dear friend of mine acquired it for me and I carry it everywhere I go."

"You carry one of those- those switchblades everywhere?" McGonagall just about squawked. Proud of how much she'd manage to stir up the strict, no nonsense professor, Hermione leaned back against her pillows and smirked.

"No."

"No? Then why were you carrying it last night?" McGonagall demanded.

"I wasn't carrying one of them, professor." She smiled sweetly. "I was carrying four."

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus had to admit that he was enjoying watching his little snake running circles around the usually cool-headed Head of Gryffindor. Granger was... clever didn't really sum it up anymore. He'd seen enough in Potter's mind to confirm that Granger was something else... something else entirely.

The terror she'd initially displayed when cornered by the troll had faded quickly to the cold expression that she'd assumed seconds before casting the bombarda- a curse that she technically shouldn't even know let alone be able to use. It was, he'd deduced, the expression that had crossed her face when she'd decided the troll had to die. And then she hadn't even hesitated.

Not once.

Stabbing someone was infinitely more difficult then it looked. He'd examined the girl's blade and while it was sharp, in the hands of an amateur it wouldn't have been enough to get further then to scrape against the back of the troll's eye-socket, a painful injury that would have infuriated the troll but not killed it. Granger had stabbed through bone and tissue while clinging to the back of a twelve-foot tall mountain troll, driving the switchblade in deep enough to pierce the troll's brain causing severe, instant and extensive damage to the brain tissue, effectively incapacitating the troll. An added twist of her wrist had ensured that death followed quickly.

Granger knew how to use those blades she carried and it made him think of the criss-cross scars on her palms. They could be defensive wounds, cuts on the palm were not uncommon when defending against a knife, but Severus suspected the cause of the scars, all of which appeared to have been inflicted on seperate occasions, was less defensive and more offensive. Like he said, stabbing something wasn't as easy as it looked. Not only did all the blood make it hard to keep a grip on a knife, but when a blade hit something resistant, bone for example, the abrupt stopping of the blade could cause the hand holding it to slide forwards, slicing along the palm. And folding knives, like Granger's switchblade, could also fold back against the hand holding it when hitting resistance, slicing across the palm.

Granger's hands had no fresh wounds on them which was even more telling then the fact all the blood hadn't made her hand slip. Snape suspected that she had had practice with those blades of hers– the blades her friend had stolen, if that glint in her eye had been any indication. A glint that he knew he only saw because she wanted him to. The only time the girl's mask had faltered after she'd snapped it in place the very moment she realized they were in the room despite the apparent way she'd let herself be 'distracted', a method that he, unlike Minerva and possibly Albus though he couldn't be sure, recognized she'd used in order to cause them to underestimate her, was when she told them about when she 'messed up'.

She was furious with herself in that moment and he hadn't needed to see her face or read her mind to know that. And, in a rare moment of compassion, Severus has decided that he didn't want the girl who was rapidly becoming one of his favorite students (and she was moving up the list with each new shade of red Minerva turned) to feel responsible for what had been an understandable error. What he'd told her had been true- mountain trolls weren't covered in Defense Against the Dark Arts until third year. That she'd even been able to identify the troll was a credit to her, especially considering she'd grown up unaware of magic, and more then what could be expected of the majority of the first years.

But the girl had dismissed his reassurances, instead quickly reining in her fury and cheering herself up by tormenting Minerva. Granger seemed fully aware that the Transfiguration Mistress did not like her and in all probability never would and had proceeded to wreak havoc on the woman's composure.

Severus approved.

But he could see how tired Potter was, the foolish boy having stayed up all night by his friend's side, and he interjected himself into the conversation- although, 'conversation' wasn't exactly the right word; Granger was playing Minerva like a cat played with a mouse which was a somewhat ironic analogy when considering the woman's animagus form.

"Now that it is clear my students have done nothing wrong and were simply the victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time we can leave them to their healing. This has been quite the traumatic ordeal and I dare say Mr. Potter and Miss Granger handled it superbly. In fact, twenty-five points to Slytherin. Each." Severus smirked at a furious and flustered Minerva before turning and striding over to the doors of the Hospital Wing, pausing only to look over his shoulder and snap, "Mr. Potter, get some rest you foolish child. You look like you're about to keel over any second."

He waited outside the wing for Albus and Minerva to catch up. Minerva was bristling, and Albus had a serious look on his face. "This is a conversation best moved to my office." He said, his voice grave.

"I should think so," Minerva huffed indignantly. Severus tried not to smirk too obviously as he followed the irate woman and the oh-so highly esteemed headmaster to the headmaster's office. Once in there, they all sat down, Minerva upset and Albus solemn.

"Hermione Granger is a danger and a disgrace!" Minerva immediately started ranting. "She may be extremely talented but-"

"Extremely talented?" Severus interrupted her tirade, raising an eyebrow at his fellow professor. "She's top of every single one of her classes, has mastered spells third years struggle with- and that's just the ones we actually know she can use, Merlin knows what else she's taught herself, and with her help Potter's the third highest student in the year level. And, on top of all that, she defeated a mountain troll to protect the boy. Imagine, if you would, what would have happened to Potter if it was the Weasley boy you tried to set up as his 'best friend' who'd been with him. They'd both be in pine boxes."

Minerva let out a sound that was half horrified and half indignant while Severus leaned back in her chair, satisfied with the points he had made. "I will concede," Albus stated, tone somewhat reluctant, "that Miss Granger acted with no regard for her own safety in order to keep Harry from getting hurt."

"In other words, you pedantic old fool, she risked her life to save him." Severus stated, voice purposefully bored. Minerva's lips tightened into a thin white line while Albus sighed heavily.

"Miss Granger is one of the most brilliant students I have come across in all my years at Hogwarts. She has the potential for greatness, but for Light or Dark?"

"She loves the boy," Severus said firmly, "I saw as much Potter's mind. She calls them both 'kindred spirits'. It's a Muggle term for those who are... alike in nature or circumstance, or both. They've been inseparable since the train ride." He decided not to add that it was Granger who had revealed the headmaster's manipulations to Potter. He'd gleaned that little gem when Potter caught sight of the headmaster walking in, though he'd had to keep to surface skims, not wanting to alert the boy to his presence- Potter had impressive natural defenses already in place.

"Speaking of minds," Albus said frowning, "Miss Granger appears to know Occlumency." Minerva let out a comical sounding 'oh my!' while Severus rolled his eyes in very real exasperation.

"She doesn't know Occlumency, you fool, she knows how to shield herself from her memories and emotions and she was on guard from the moment we entered the hospital wing. As Occlumency relies heavily on emotions being able to separate the two gives her mind strong enough barriers that a Legilimens would have to make their presence known to break through them, especially considering the fact that shielding herself from her memories means she already has natural barriers in place." He paused for a moment before adding, "Potter also has this ability, albeit to a much lesser extent and certainly not one that could keep a Legilimens out if they wanted to get in."

"The girl can separate herself from her emotions?" Minerva frowned, "is that why she looks so... cold all the time?"

"It's a coping mechanism," he informed the older witch, "abused children tend to develop it to lessen pain and to protect themselves from the memory of past trauma."

"Surely you're not suggesting that Harry was abused!" Minerva gasped looking horrified and Severus abruptly found himself furious.

"Oh it's all about precious Potter!" He snapped, "did you not even spare a thought to Miss Granger?" He glared at Minerva who at least had the decency to look somewhat ashamed of herself.

"The girl doesn't exactly go around trying to make friends. If she acted at least-"

"At least what, Minerva?" he interrupted, "she's a muggleborn in Slytherin! If she acted anything else, she'd be eaten alive! But that's what it is, Minerva. An act. She's not a frigid little bitch-" he ignored the indignant noise Minerva made at his crassness and continued without pause- "she's kind and loving towards Potter as well as fiercely protective of him. If you recall, she was the one who protected precious Potter from your Gryffindors."

"She temporarily blinded Oliver Wood and broke Ron Weasley's nose!" Minerva exclaimed.

"We don't know she was the one who did that to Wood," Severus rolled his eyes- really, everyone knew Granger had done that to the fourth year, "and what she did to Weasley counts as self-defense. If you want to press the matter further then point loss, then Weasley will have to share equal blame- and equal punishment."

"I am afraid," Albus interrupted them, "that we have gone off track. Miss Granger did indeed save Harry from the troll, and at great risk to her own life, but the manner in which she dealt with the troll..."

"She probably only meant to blind it," Severus said, coolly, deciding to use Albus and Minerva's complete lack of knowledge on most things Muggle to his advantage and not mention the fact that Granger had definitely intended to kill the troll when she drove that blade through its eye. "Muggles children are taught that if they are ever attacked eyes are one of the most vulnerable parts of a body. Granger knew that spells would bounce off the troll and she and Potter would be unable to get past it, not with it blocking the doorway, so she did what she needed to get them both out alive."

Albus sighed, heavily, and nodded, looking weary. "I agree that Miss Granger does appear to be fond of Harry and has proven her ability to keep him safe. For now, I believe this friendship won't hurt either of them."

"Albus-" Minerva protested, but the wizened old man held up a hand, silencing her protests.

"But," he said, voice grave, "Severus I want you to make it very clear to Miss Granger that carrying Muggle weapons around Hogwarts is against the rules."

"Of course headmaster," he sneered, before exiting the office, leaving Minerva to bicker with the old man.

He had his own thinking to do. 

And while he was doing that, he might just conveniently 'forget' to pass on Albus's message to Miss Granger. After all, one never knew when one might need a good blade handy.

Chapter Text

Chapter V:


Harry's POV:

The weeks following the troll incident, he and Hermione had been hailed as some sort of heroes. Hermione dealt with this with the same cool indifference she treated most things- well, in front of others anyway. Behind closed doors was quite the different story that involved her storming back and forth across a room while muttering about what complete and utter "brain-dead morons" their classmates were.

Harry listened to her rants while making the appropriate noises while trying not to smile with how happy he was that she felt comfortable in letting down her defenses around him.

Entering November, the weather turned very cold and despite her constant application of warming charms Harry noticed that Hermione seemed to be shivering more and more. It was when he noticed during one Potion's lesson that her lips had acquired a blue tint that with the help of Blaise Zabini, one of his dorm-mates, he managed to send off an Owl Order for a black winter cloak with silver fastenings.

When it arrived he half expected Hermione to object to his purchase but instead she let out a sigh of relief and gave him a tight hug. "Thank you," she'd told him later, very quietly but voice full of sincerity. "Thank you for knowing what I need even when I'm too stubborn to admit it myself."

"What are best friends for?" he'd replied, meaning every word.

The Quidditch season had begun and Harry found himself quite entranced by the sport unlike Hermione who had refused to even mount a broomstick in their flying class, instead handing Madam Hooch a two and a half foot essay on the theory of flying and the mechanics behind it in compensation. Madam Hooch had reluctantly allowed her to stand to the side and after Longbottom's incident had asked her to take the Gryffindor boy to the hospital wing while she stayed behind and taught the class. Hermione had been only too happy with that and Harry hadn't seen her again until the next class.

When he asked her why she hated the idea of flying so much her face closed off and he quickly realized it was one of those topics. The topics that, despite how much they truly cared for each other, they just weren't ready to talk about and perhaps they'd never be. He didn't ask again.

The first Quidditch match was Slytherin against Gryffindor and Harry had dragged a reluctant, complaining Hermione to the stadium to watch with him. Draco, Blaise and Theo had joined them, laughing at the scowl on Hermione's face.

His dorm-mates really weren't that bad. Blaise seemed to enjoy riling people up and was always able to find something to complain about or pick fault in no matter what the topic was and yet the Italian was still one of the most cheerful people Harry knew. Draco was a cocky, somewhat shallow and spoilt-rotten brat but he was genuinely friendly towards Harry and didn't harbor any ill feelings towards Hermione either. Theo, a slightly weedier boy then the other two, was the one Harry liked the most out of the three. Theo understood what it was like to be the underdog, something neither Blaise or Draco ever could and Greg and Vince were too thick to even realize– to use Hermione's words: "such shining examples of inbreeding at its finest, those two".

"Why anyone would ever want to play an outside sport in conditions like this is a mystery to me," Hermione said angrily as she wound her silver and green scarf tight around her neck. The scarf had been borrowed from one of her dorm-mates, Daphne, a pretty blonde Pureblood 'princess' who was gracious in all her actions with exceptional manners and a hidden sweet side that she only showed to those she approved. Iago, from where he was draped over Hermione's shoulders getting cat-fur all over the scarf, gave a grumbling, ill-tempered snarl of agreement while Mrs. Norris, who was curled up on Hermione's lap, purred, the sound reminiscent an old car engine that wouldn't start properly.

One of the older Slytherins shook his head as he looked across at Hermione. "I don't know how you did it, Granger, but that's the most impressive magic I've seen you work." He commented, nodding towards Mrs. Norris. The cat in question raised her head to hiss at the Slytherin who jerked back, instinctively looking over his shoulder for a rapidly approaching Filch.

Hermione let out a small laugh at that and Iago slunk down from her neck so he could curl up with Mrs. Norris, giving the older Slytherin his own scathing, one-eyed glare. Harry shook his head- he was with the other Slytherins on this. Filch absolutely despised every student in the castle and constantly bemoaned about the fact he wasn't able to string them up by their toes in the dungeons. Every student, that is, except Hermione and by default, it seemed, him. Hermione and Filch constantly stopped to chat when they crossed paths and both of them seemed to think the burgeoning romance between their cats was beyond adorable instead of terrifying.

Harry hoped that at least one of the cats was neutered, or otherwise unable to reproduce. He didn't even want to think about what their offspring would be like. He wasn't sure the world would cope- he knew Hogwarts certainly wouldn't!

Shuddering, he pushed that disturbing thought from his mind and tuned back into the conversation around him. To his amusement, and that of the surrounding Slytherins, Hermione was still ranting.

"It's just pure idiocy that the Quidditch cup of all things motivates teenagers to spend hours in freezing, soaking weather, unites them into a solid unit and draws out determination like nothing else!"

"Of course it does," Draco interrupted, looking at her incredulously, "it's the Quidditch cup."

Hermione continued on as if he hadn't spoken. "It's bloody ridiculous, that's what it is! If that was required for just about anything else, everyone would whine and complain and drag their feet, but because it's the precious Quid-" Harry silenced her by covering her mouth with his gloved hand just in time for the loud blast of a whistle that signified the start of the game.

Hermione shoved his hand away, glaring halfheartedly at him before pulling a book out of her satchel and resting it gently on top of the cats to shield them from the wind as she started to read. To Harry's amusement she kept scowling as the wind tugged on at the pages.

Most of his attention, however, wasn't on her but on the game. Quidditch was exhilarating to watch and Harry wondered just how much more exhilarating it would be to play. Lee Jordan, a Gryffindor third year, was giving the commentary- one with his own personal touch that McGonagall kept interrupting to yell at the boy for his favoritism.

The game was fast moving, action packed and absolutely brutal. Harry now understood that the injury and fatality statistics Hermione had thrown at him as he'd dragged her down to the stadium were not an exaggeration. He could definitely picture the occasional accident turned deadly.

He booed as Marcus was hit in the back of the head by a bludger and cheered when the Slytherin Quidditch Captain retaliated by blocking the Gryffindor seeker, causing the boy's broom to spin off course. When Higgs, the Slytherin seeker, caught the snitch, Harry joined the rest of his House, jumping to his feet and cheering as loud as he could. Hermione mumbled something extremely uncomplimentary at them that made his grin widen further.

Satchel slung over her shoulder and a cat in each arm, Hermione was one of the first to return to the castle with a beaming Harry trailing a few feet behind her and raving enthusiastically with the equally excited Draco and Theo and an amused Blaise about the game.

All in all, it was a great day.

-

Christmas was fast approaching and Harry woke one morning to find Hogwarts covered in several feet of snow. The Black Lake was frozen solid and the Weasley twins Fred and George, Ron Weasley's older brothers, were punished for bewitching snowballs to follow Quirrell around and bounce off the back of his turban.

No one could wait for the holidays to start. While the Common Rooms and Great Hall had roaring fires, the drafty corridors had become bitter and icy. When Professor Snape had come around the week before, making a list of students who would be staying for the holidays, Harry had signed at once. Hermione had stared at the list for several long moments and then neatly added her name under his.

"I'm going to miss Sting." She told Harry as they walked back over to the couches, "and some of the others, I suppose. There's a few of us who tend to band together during winter. But seeing him isn't worth slowly starving while trying preserve enough energy to use what I now know are warming charms to keep from catching hypothermia. The warming charms were never as effective when I'm exhausted and hungry. And lord knows how much trouble you'd get into without me, Harry."

Harry had to admit he felt a pang of jealousy whenever Hermione talked about Sting. He loved Hermione being his best friend and the insecure part of him borne of the fact he'd never had a friend before in his life was worried that he was just a replacement for Sting, the boy who Hermione told him had likely saved her life and who her affection for was always clear in her voice when she spoke about him.

But Harry pushed his jealousy and insecurities out of his mind the best he could and instead focused on what promised to be the best Christmas of his life.

Once the holidays finally started, he and Hermione were overjoyed to find out that they were the only ones left in their respective dormitories and that the Common Room was far emptier then usual which left all the good seats available. Hermione had demanded they finish their holiday homework before they started anything else and he had reluctantly agreed. Once they'd finished up though after two full days of hard work, Harry decided it had been a brilliant idea- he now had twelve free days where nothing was expected of him.

On Christmas Eve, Hermione snuck into the boy's dorm and they shared his four-poster bed, both looking forward to the next day.

Hermione woke first and let out a delighted shriek and the sound was so child-like and unlike her that Harry thought for a moment she was an imposter. But then he saw the small pile of packages at the end of his bed and let out a nearly identical shriek. A pleased looking Hedwig was perched on the end of his bed, preening her feathers while Iago was lying on the rug on the dorm floor purring with Mrs. Norris curled up next to him and grooming his still-intact ear.

"Holy shit, we got presents!" Hermione just about squealed, grabbing his hands and dragging him out of bed. "I haven't had a real Christmas since I was three!" she said breathlessly, her eyes shining with excitement.

"Anything the Dursleys ever gave me was out of spite," Harry said, too excited to be properly upset about that fact.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Hermione asked, grinning at him. "Let's start!"

Deciding not to point out that she had been the one just about dancing all over the room and dragging him along with her, he followed her lead and picked up the top parcel from the pile of presents which were labelled with Harry. Wrapped impeccably in posh green paper with an elegant silver ribbon, Harry wasn't at all surprised to find out it was from Draco. The elegant quill and inkwell set looked handsome and expensive, another thing that didn't surprise Harry, but he was delighted by the present all the same.

Blaise had sent him a large hamper of some kind of Italian chocolate and a note asking him if he could pretty please convince Hermione to send him a copy of her History of Magic notes for his holiday assignment. Theo had bought him a pair of dragon-hide boots, which were actually quite comfortable and definitely a step up from his old trainers, and had also attached a request for a copy of Hermione's History of Magic notes. He gave it a week before Draco frantically owled him pleading for them too.

Harry was surprised to see that Hagrid had sent him a gift- he hadn't seen the groundskeeper much other then an occasional hello when they ran into each other in the hallways and Harry decided to make more of an effort to know the man. He resolved to at least go down and visit him today to thank him for the present- which looked like some sort of wooden flute that Hagrid had whittled himself.

The Durselys, much to his shock, had even sent him a present attached to a note- We received your message and enclose your Christmas present. From Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. The tiny parcel contained a fifty-pence coin. "That's friendly." He remarked. Hermione snorted.

"Wankers."

"And you tell me off for swearing." Harry rolled his eyes and Hermione gave him a stern look.

"Harry Potter, you are much too young to swear."

"You're less then a year older then me." He pointed out and she gave him a 'duh' look as if he had just proved her point entirely.

"Exactly."

Rolling his eyes- again- Harry turned to his last two presents. Saving the one he knew to be from Hermione until last he picked up a rather light-looking parcel. He unwrapped it, curious, and something fluid and silvery grey went slithering to the floor where it lay in gleaming folds.

"Er- Hermione?" he asked, unsure of what the weird cloak was. Hermione glanced over, raising her eyebrows in surprise when she saw the cloak.

"Well that's rare." She commented. "And very valuable. Is there a note?"

"Er-" Harry fished around in the folds of cloak for a note. It was strange to touch the shining, silvery material- it felt like water woven into material. "Here," he said, producing a note and unfolding it so they could both read it.

"Your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well. A Very Merry Christmas to you." Hermione read out loud. "No name. Doesn't matter, I recognize the handwriting from Theo's chocolate frog card collection- the writing matches Dumbledore's signature."

"Um, can we go back to what it is?" Harry asked and Hermione grinned at him.

"Why don't you try it on and see?" A touch anxious- Hermione was smiling her evil smile- Harry threw the cloak around his shoulders then gasped as he looked down at his feet. Or rather, where his feet should be. They were gone. Dashing over to the mirror, his reflection looked back at him with just his head suspended in midair and his body completely invisible. He pulled the cloak over his head and his reflection vanished completely.

Hermione gave a very evil sounding cackle, like a witch from a movie. "Oh we are going to have so much fun with that!"

Laughing at her, Harry let the cloak spill from his hands onto his bed and turned to his last present. It was small and square. Curiously tearing away the paper, he revealed a small, wooden box. "Should I be scared?" he asked her and to his surprise Hermione blushed and looked away.

"I- I know it isn't much, b-but I saw how much you liked Quidditch and I thought, you know..." Her voice trailed off as Harry lifted the lid off the box and gasped.

"Hermione, I love it!" A wide smile crossed Hermione's face as he pulled the slowly fluttering golden snitch out of the box. "You naughty rule breaker." He teased Hermione, as he held the snitch reverently, tracing one of the delicate-looking wings with the tip of a finger. "You stole this, didn't you?" Hermione shrugged, smiling at him.

"How can you try out for the team next year if you haven't had time to practice?" It was his turn to blush.

"How did you-"

"Harry," she interrupted him, her eyes sparkling with mischief, "I know everything. Plus you spent the next week after the Quidditch maps drawing little pictures of yourself on a broom chasing and catching snitches in the margins when you should have been taking notes."

"Oh." Harry smiled sheepishly at her before turning back to the snitch.

Hermione shook her head and smiled at him.

After breakfast the two of them made their way across the wide school grounds to where Hagrid lived in a small wooden house on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. A crossbow and a pair of galoshes were outside the front door and when Harry knocked they heard a frantic scrabbling from inside and several booming barks.

Hagrid's voice rang out, saying, "back, Fang—back!" His big, hairy face appeared in the crack as he pulled the door open. "Harry!" He exclaimed, face lighting up. "Hang on- back Fang!" Smiling wide as anything, he let them in while struggling to keep a hold on the collar of an enormous black boarhound. Hermione edged around it, quickly seating herself at the table and out of reach of the slobbering dog.

There was only one room inside. Hams and pheasants were hanging from the ceiling, a copper kettle was boiling on the open fire and in the corner stood a massive bed with a patchwork quilt over it. "Make yourself at home!" Hagrid beamed, releasing Fang who bounded straight at Harry and started licking his ears. Like Hagrid, Fang was clearly not as fierce as he looked. Hermione shuddered- his best friend was very much a cat person.

"This is Hermione, my best friend," Harry told Hagrid, who was pouring boiling water into a large teapot and putting rock cakes onto a plate.

"Hermione, eh? You're the one they're all talkin' 'bout. Smartest witch o' her age." Hagrid said and when Hermione turned pink at the compliment Harry wondered how much of her reaction was an act and how much of it was genuine. He was used to watching Hermione fake emotions around other people and understood that for her it was a second nature, but when she looked at him her eyes always softened slightly and that more then anything told Harry that with him she felt comfortable to be genuine. It was a heady feeling, that trust she had in him and he vowed that he would never do anything to break it.

"Oh thank you Hagrid! That's so nice of you to say!" Hermione exclaimed, smiling sweetly up at the giant man.

"Nothin' but the truth." Hagrid smiled at her and Hermione nodded, her eyes going slightly wide as she leaned forwards and spoke in a hushed sort of voice.

"I've wanted to take Care of Magical Creatures since the start of this year but Professor McGonagall says we have to wait until third year. She told me, though, that if I was interested I should come to you because you know more about magical creatures then Professor Kettleburn could ever hope to."

Harry watched as Hagrid just about swelled up in pride at Hermione's words- which he knew were blatantly false. McGonagall disliked Hermione and Hermione had never once shown any interest in Care of Magical Creatures outside the mild curiosity any student raised in the muggle world had. Harry wondered where his best friend was going with this as she ooh-ed and aah-ed and made all the appropriate noises as Hagrid excitedly spoke about different– and terrifying sounding– magical creatures. When Hermione discovered Hagrid's love of dragons, Harry resigned himself to sitting there and listening to them rave about how wonderful the massive, scaly beasts were.

"Dragons are used for guarding things, aren't they?" Hermione said suddenly, nudging Harry under the table with her foot. He quickly sat up straight and started paying attention to the conversation again. "I mean, I've heard they have them guarding vaults in Gringotts. I've never been anywhere but the foyer, though, so I don't know if that's real or just a story the goblins spread around."

"Oh it's real," Hagrid said, enthusiastically, "Harry an' I went passed one at Gringotts!"

"Isn't that cruel, though? Keeping them trapped underground?" Hermione asked, with a frown. "I mean, aren't there other animals who are better at guarding small places for long periods of time? Plus, is it really safe to have them down there, what with the wooden tracks Harry told me about?"

Actually, he hadn't said anything about wooden tracks but he didn't pay that any attention- he was used to Hermione knowing, well, everything.

"Aye, it is cruel," Hagrid agreed, looking disheartened before lightening up, "bu' yer right about there bein' other creatures- ye've got sphinxes an' Cerberuses, to start with."

"Have you ever seen either of them?" Hermione asked, eyes wide.

"I've actually got a Cerberus o' me own." Hagrid said enthusiastically, "leant 'im to Dumbledore this year to guard sommit, bu'-"

"Is that what's in the third floor corridor?" Harry asked, unable to help himself though he quickly regretted it when Hermione glared at him. Hagrid looked shocked.

"'ow do you know about Fluffy?"

"Fluffy?" Hermione repeated, losing her glare as she turned back to face Hagrid sounding genuinely incredulous, "you named a Cerberus Fluffy?"

"'e's a gentle soul at heart," Hagrid protested.

"If Cerberuses are used as guards, does that mean he's guarding something? Is that the thing that someone tried breaking into Gringotts for? Didn't you say that the only place safer then Gringotts was Hogwarts?" Harry asked, eagerly.

Hagrid frowned. "Listen to me, you two- yer meddlin' in things that don' concern yeh. It's dangerous. You forget that dog, an' you forget what it's guarding', that's between Professor Dumbledore an' Nicolas Flamel-"

"There's someone called Nicolas Flamel involved?" Harry asked and Hagrid looked furious with himself.

"Harry," Hermione scolded him looking genuinely annoyed before she turned back to Hagrid. "I'm so sorry, sir- I didn't mean to distract us from our conversation- if I realized that it was a sensitive topic, I wouldn't have pressed. Is it... is it okay if I keep asking questions about dragons or should we go?"

Hermione pulled the most incredible sorrowful, wounded expression Harry had ever seen in his life and he wasn't at all surprised when Hagrid immediately melted before it, reassuring Hermione that he wasn't angry with her at all and that she was a sweet, sweet girl and Harry was a good boy and everyone got curious- he didn't blame them for being excited about a good mystery. With a sigh, Harry slouched back in his seat again and resigned himself to more dragon talk.

It was nearly a half hour later that they finally left Hagrid's hut, Hermione beaming and waving with her free hand at Hagrid as she promised to visit again soon. "Did you have to spend hours talking about dragons?" Harry moaned as they trudged back up to the castle.

"Don't exaggerate, it was only half an hour and it was well worth the effort." Hermione said. "We've got almost a whole week and a half left of holiday and I want to find out more about Dumbledore's little plan- starting with this mysterious package collected from Gringotts."

"Well, I suppose we can start researching Nicolas Flamel," Harry suggested before grinning when Hermione snorted. "Okay, definitely should have known better then to doubt you knew who he was already."

"Nicolas Flamel is the only known creator of the Philosopher's Stone. The stone is about the size of an adult's fist and can transform objects to gold and create a substance known as the Elixir of Life." Seeing his blank look Hermione let out a sigh. "It gives you immortality, Harry."

"Oh." Harry said in surprise before smiling at her. "You're the smartest person on the face of this planet, Hermione. Just so you know."

"Oh stop it." Hermione muttered, giving him a halfhearted shove. But Harry grinned, knowing that this time the pink blush on her cheeks wasn't faked.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Stunned, Hermione had found herself stopped short in the entrance of the Great Hall when she got her first glimpse at what was inside. Never in her life had she seen a Christmas Lunch anything like this. To the street rat in her, this was what she thought Heaven must look like. A hundred fat roast turkeys; mountains of roasted and boiled potatoes; platters of chipolatas; tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce— and stacks of crackers every few feet along the table.

The wizard crackers were fantastic too— when she pulled one with Harry it didn't just go bang, it went off with a blast like a cannon and engulfed them all in a cloud of blue smoke while from the inside exploded a rear admiral's hat and several live, white mice who hastily fled, probably because of the interested looks the two cats who were both sitting on her, perched like an owl on one shoulder each, were giving them.

By the time Hermione finally left the table, she was laden down with a stack of things out of the crackers including a hideous bedazzled pink cloak, a pack of exploding snap cards and a crystal ball. Both Iago and Mrs. Norris had disappeared shortly into the meal and she had a feeling that those mice were going to end up as the cats' Christmas dinner.

She and Harry spent a happy afternoon outside, her reading while Harry joined a handful of Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs and the Weasley family in a snowball fight. Hermione couldn't help occasionally, er, "helping" one of Harry's stray snowballs drift back on course and took a vindictive pleasure in making Ron Weasley's own snowballs turn back around and smash into his face, something he kept blaming his twin brothers for.

Rolling her eyes at a cold, wet and gasping for breath Harry, Hermione led the way back to their common room and sat him down in front of the fire to warm up, curling up next to him with book in her hands.

It had been the best Christmas day she'd had since her parents had died and she was genuinely sad the day was almost over.

The pair of them dozed off in the common room in front of the crackling flames of the fireplace, not waking until the chiming of the school clock at midnight. Yawning, Hermione rubbed her eyes and then grinned as a seriously brilliant idea hit her.

"Harry, I have a seriously brilliant idea." She told the green-eyed boy who groaned and flopped back.

"We're doomed." He moaned into the sofa cushion.

"Oh hush you," she huffed before grinning again. "So... you aren't interested in using your father's invisibility cloak to do a little nighttime exploring?"

Harry was up on his feet and dashing off to the boy's dorms to get the cloak before she could get in another word. Laughing, she waited for him to come skidding back down. "Here," he said breathlessly, throwing the cloak over them.

Hermione couldn't help sucking in a surprised breath as she looked down at herself and all she could see was shadows and firelight. "Do you know what this means?" she whispered and Harry grinned at her, eyes sparkling.

"It means the whole of Hogwarts is open to us."

"We can go anywhere in this and no one will know!" she added gleefully.

"Well where do you want to go first?" Harry asked, sounding almost breathless with excitement. She didn't hesitate for a second, the answer already on her lips.

"Restricted Section."

"I shouldn't have asked." Harry groaned, shaking his head in mock exasperation, and she laughed softly.

Together, they climbed through the mirage wall of stone that was the entrance to the Slytherin Common Room and crept through the darkened passageways of the school. The library when they reached it was pitch-black and very eerie and Harry lit them a lamp to help navigate their way through the rows of books. The Restricted Section was right at the back of the library and Hermione almost felt like drooling. After stepping carefully over the rope that separated these books from the rest of the library, she conjured herself up a handful of bluebell flames to light her way and wandered off among the stacks, absently telling Harry over her shoulder not to touch anything.

Entranced, she ran her fingers along the air just before the spines, feeling the magic in the old tomes hum. She could hear faint whispering coming from the pages and her fingers danced in the air as she tried to decide which book to choose first.

And then a piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence.

"Oh Harry!" she moaned, hurrying over to where a guilty looking Harry was trying to shut a screaming book. "For the love of god," she hissed, snatching the book out of his hands and shoving it back in the empty spot before throwing the cloak back over them. Harry stumbled slightly, surprised by the brisk movement, knocking over the lamp with his elbow causing it to go out at once.

Now relying solely on her bluebell flames, they both started panicking slightly as they heard footsteps coming down the corridor outside. Hermione was on good terms with Filch but she doubted he'd be able to overlook this little 'slight'.

She and Harry crept past the caretaker in the doorway, Hermione giving Filch a silent apology as they slipped under his outstretched arm and streaked off up the corridor. She had to grab Harry's shoulder and pull him to a halt when her idiot best friend, so intent on getting away from the library that he hadn't been paying any attention to where he was going, almost ran straight into a tall suit of armor.

"Where are we?" Harry whispered after shooting her a guilty, apologetic look. She rolled her eyes at him then looked around, taking in their surroundings.

"Haven't a clue." She answered in a hushed voice and was about to say more when they both stiffened, hearing Filch's voice far too close for comfort.

"You asked me to come directly to you, Professor, if anyone was wandering around at night and somebody's been in the restricted section." Hermione couldn't help but feel slightly relieved when she heard Snape reply, grateful it wasn't McGonagall or Dumbledore.

"The Restricted Section?" Snape asked. "Well, they can't be far, we'll catch them." Both of them standing as still as the statue behind them, Hermione and Harry watched with baited breath as Filch and Snape came around the corner ahead. They couldn't see her or Harry, of course, but it was a narrow corridor and if the two men came much nearer they'd knock right into them.

Harry tugged gently on her arm, backing away as quietly as he could. Hermione followed with her heart in her throat as he led them to a door standing slightly ajar to their left. Somehow, someway, they managed to squeeze through it and to Hermione's utter relief they managed to get inside the room without the two men outside noticing anything. Indeed, the pair walked straight past the empty classroom and she and Harry stayed as quiet as possible as they listened to the sound of the footsteps gradually fading away. There was a chill in Hermione's stomach, a cold swell of nausea as the familiar sensation of adrenaline coursing through her veins had her body tensed and ready to react to the slightest of sounds as she and Harry stood there against the wall and panted.

Harry, recovering from their close shave much quicker then she could, was already looking around curiously but Hermione was far too ready for violence to move. Her fight or flight instinct was finely honed from the years she'd spent living in a situation with the knowledge that any day could be her last, knowing that if she messed up or if she wasn't quick enough or smart enough or skilled enough she'd end up as dead as far too many of the street kids, runaways, addicts and homeless people she'd known.

Time seemed to drag on and on as she tried talking herself down, but with the adrenaline that was flooding her body triggering her survival instincts and pulling old memories too close to the surface of her mind even Harry's hand on her arm felt like a threat and had her fighting the urge to lunge away from him and twist his fingers until the bones broke. She was relieved when he finally let go of her, no longer quite so ready to attack as her pulse started to slow and the threat of hyperventilation was no longer present in every ragged breath.

She still kept her eyes fixed on Harry as he looked around the empty classroom, hyperaware of his every movement as she clenched her trembling hands into fists and talked herself down degree by degree until she could almost feel her fingers again, until she could breathe without checking the corners of the room and Harry's movements didn't have her fighting not to lash out or go for a blade.

"What's that?" Harry asked suddenly, pointing to an object that looked highly out of place in the abandoned classroom. Hermione very carefully did not react to his sudden action, holding her body entirely still even as her instincts screamed at her to arm herself and either incapacitate the possible threat or run.

Still aware of her breathing and making sure to keep her hands by her sides, Hermione looked away from– threat/not-threat– Harry and took in the magnificent mirror Harry had pointed towards. It was as high as the ceiling with an ornate gold frame and was standing on two clawed feet. There was an inscription carved around the top "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi" and going for the rather obvious assumption that it was in mirror-writing, Hermione tilted her head and slowly read it backwards. "I... show... not your face... but your... heart's desire."

"Sounds cool," Harry said as he moved closer towards it, "what do you think it does?"

"My guess would be it shows us what we most desire." She answered quietly, sympathy helping chase away the leftover adrenaline and remaining vestiges of fear as she watched Harry freeze in front of the mirror, clapping his hands to his mouth in what looked like an attempt to stop himself from screaming. He spun around, wide-eyed, before turning back to face his reflection.

"Hermione- there's a whole crowd of people standing behind me." He whispered urgently.

"I think it's your family, Harry." She said gently, walking over to him so as to tentatively rest a hand that was still trembling slightly on his shoulder, being very careful avoiding looking into the mirror herself. As if in a trance, Harry reached one of his hands up to touch hers, not seeming to notice her tremor.

"Mum? Dad?" he whispered in a choked up voice and Hermione felt her heart break for her friend.

"Oh Harry," she murmured, pulling him into a hug and ignoring the kick of fear from her still frayed nerves that the contact caused. Harry reluctantly let his gaze break from the mirror to hug her back, pressing his face into her shoulder.

"What is that thing, Hermione?" he asked, voice choked and muffled by her robes.

"I think... I think it's enchanted to show someone what they most desire." She answered quietly. "You... you see yourself with your family."

Harry made a sniffing noise, lifting his head and making to turn back around to face the mirror. Hermione stopped him, reaching up to grasp his face gently but firmly and turn his chin so that he was facing her. "That mirror is dangerous, Harry– it's an empty promise, a useless dream, and there's no place for dreams in the real world, only survival. Promise me you'll never come back here. Promise me Harry. Promise me!" She demanded.

Harry looked at her with wet eyes, looked at the fierceness in her own eyes and after a long moment he nodded. "Okay." He whispered, his voice thick with the tears he was fighting back. "Okay, I promise." Hermione smiled at him, relieved, but as she turned back towards the door the worst possible thing happened- she caught sight of the mirror in her peripheral vision.

Hermione stopped breathing as her entire body froze, the only movement that of her legs as they trembled with her paper-thin will to remain upright.

"Hermione?" Harry asked, touching her arm, but she didn't answer. She couldn't.

All day, every day, she kept her defenses in place, guarded herself against the pain inside her. She guarded herself from her darkest secrets, her worst traumas and her biggest heartaches. And, as she stared in the mirror, all those defenses crumbled at once.

When she was younger and her mind lacked discipline, when the defences she'd built weren't as strong, they'd periodically break down and she'd be hit with everything she'd buried and locked away all at once. Now she could hold it all back for up to a year before she had to let them down, too wary of it all becoming too much and bursting out at an inopportune time. She would always put it off for as long as she could, though, for as long as she possibly dared, because when she did let go it was like all her pent up emotions and memories spilled out, dizzying and out of control; suffocating her in panic as she drowned in the grief, pain and horror of her past.

But there was always one particular horror that never failed to rip away every shield she had, every defence she painstakingly built, to send her spiralling headfirst into everything she kept locked back, and it was staring right at her.

Hermione stumbled forwards, falling to her knees as one trembling hand reached out to touch the mirrored glass. And then the dam broke.

Silent sobs made her body shake as she hunched into herself– curl into a ball; smaller you are the less room they have to target. Don't make any noise; if they know it hurts they'll do it again and again and againclawing at her own arms, clawing at any skin her nails could reach, anything, anything to make something hurt worse then the grief and panic that was tearing her insides to pieces and ripping her apart as she spiralled down into her rage, her anger, her pain, her grief, her longing, her loneliness.

Memories slithered in her mind, wrapping around her in tendrils that squeezed tighter and tighter– no no no don't please– the images spilling before her as screams and cries echoed in her ears and left her desperately trying to suck in air– blood blood so much blood she did this she did this her fault– even as her stomach rolled and she felt herself begin to retch.

She hated when this happened. She hated how hopeless and helpless it made her feel, hated how weak she was, hated how it made her feel like a stranger in her own skin, a stranger she hated, a stranger that was useless and pathetic and fucking broken.

At some point Iago appeared, climbing up onto her and purring long and deep while Mrs. Norris crouched beside her, her lamppost eyes glaring balefully at the back of the room before softening as she nuzzled up against Hermione who bit back any noise that threatened to escape– her fault her fault her fault– as she tried not to fall apart.

Her body shook so hard with her silent sobs that it felt like her bones were rattling inside her and she couldn't breathe– don't cry, don't scream, don't you dare make a goddamn sound– couldn't even think properly the pain and panic was so overwhelming.

She felt like she was dying.

Hermione curled into herself as tight as she could and tried to hold all her broken pieces together until she was exhausted and raw and hollow and could hear the silence in the room once more, the echoes in her mind fading to nothingness. She kept her head bowed as ragged breaths tore from her throat, her shoulders hunched under the weight of her life and yet she felt empty of everything.

Painstakingly, she built up her shields and locked it all away again, far, far away, buried deep down in the recesses of her mind. Iago was a familiar weight around her shoulders, the rumble of his purr grounding her while Mrs. Norris started to bring feeling back to her numb fingers as she rubbed her whispered cheek against her hand.

Harry, when Hermione could finally make herself lift her head to face him, looked pale and sick and like he'd been crying himself. "Are you okay?" he whispered. She nodded back at him, empty and hollow, nothing left but broken pieces that she couldn't quite fit back together yet.

"That happens... about once a year." She said and when he opened his mouth to keep asking questions she elaborated on her answer before he could. "Usually on the... anniversary."

The sudden sensation of something nudging against her newly built defences had a flare of blinding rage flood the emptiness inside her and she very carefully did not react; instead she used the anger to pull her broken pieces back together, let the hatred stitch close the wounds on her soul and the spite give strength to her weak limbs.

"What just happened to you? Are you alright? What was that?" Harry demanded frantically and Hermione's lips twitched into a ghost of a smile as slowly forming plans of revenge began to erase the last of the hollowness inside her.

"That was how I survive. That was every little thing I have to keep locked away so it doesn't eat me alive."

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus stood beside Albus, his hands clenched into fists as he watched the girl break down. When someone occluded for too long like Granger did, eventually it became too much and everything came spilling out.

Granger's break down was... something else entirely. Just like everything else about her. The sheer mental discipline to stay silent as she was torn to pieces inside honestly both terrified and horrified him, because in the short span of years that little girl had been alive she had been completely indoctrinated to react to pain by both making herself as small a target as possible and staying completely silent, not allowing herself to make a single sound even as she shook with tears and broke to pieces inside. And it sickened him to think about the horrors in her past, the traumas that she had suffered, that had led to such thorough indoctrination that even when she had no control over her own mind her body's automatic response to pain was to make herself small and keep herself silent.

Not even he was able to hold back all noise during the times, now years apart, when he let down his own barriers, always when hidden and locked away in his room so nobody could witness him fall apart before slowly, painstakingly pulling himself back together.

Severus felt a wave of anger on Granger's behalf– this was private, not some spectacle that he and Albus should be watching. And the pleased expression on Albus's face made him want to punch the old man. "Are you happy?" he hissed quietly knowing that the sounds Potter was making would cover up the sound of his voice. He'd already cast a silencing charm on the room the second he'd seen the look in Granger's eyes when she saw the mirror.

What sort of greatest desire tore open someone's mind and laid it bare for all to see? The Mirror of Erised was supposed to bewitch people, ensnare them with what they desired most so they would waste away before it, not break them to pieces.

"Do you not realize what this means?" Albus asked him quietly.

"It means that in her short life my student has already suffered untold horrors and is in an extraordinary amount of pain!" He hissed.

"It means that underneath all that, Miss Granger still feels." Albus said, a smile on his face like what he'd just said excused everything.

"We already knew that, old man!" Severus had to fight to keep from shouting at the headmaster, instead keeping his voice in a low, furious whisper. "She loves Potter, adores him! You didn't need to do– do this to her!" he gestured angrily at the curled up ball that was Hermione Granger. She'd finally stopped shaking several minutes ago. Mrs. Norris, Argus's cat which somehow the girl had manage to charm, just like everyone else she met, was glaring at them with its creepy eyes, fully aware of their presence.

"I truly did not foresee that she would accompany Harry to the mirror," Albus murmured in the closest thing to an apology Severus knew he'd get on Granger's behalf, "or that she would react the way she did."

"You're a fool." Severus muttered, watching with a sinking stomach as Granger lifted her head back up, her eyes blank and her face an expressionless mask. She'd built back up her Occlumency shields faster then he, a Master Occlumens, had ever done and she was only twelve years old. That was not a good sign. "Putting the Mirror out there, even for Potter– you're a fool."

Potter looked pale as he anxiously hovered next to his friend. "Are you okay?" he whispered. Granger nodded before going into more detail when Potter opened his mouth to push.

"That happens... about once a year." Her voice was empty of any emotion. "Usually on the... anniversary."

Anniversary? Severus wondered, glancing at Albus and knowing from the older man's face, from those twinkling blue eyes fixed on Granger, that he was thinking the same thing he was. The anniversary of what?

"What just happened to you? Are you alright? What was that?" Potter asked frantically and Granger's lips curved up slightly in a smile that wasn't anything close to what a smile should be like.

"That was how I survive. That was every little thing I have to keep locked away so it doesn't eat me alive." She stated.

That mirror is dangerous... it's an empty promise, a useless dream, and there's no place for dreams in the real world, only survival...

What sort of life had that poor girl suffered?

Severus's stomach rolled violently and he had to turn away from the two children. "You're sick." He whispered to Albus. Wisely the old man didn't reply. Severus wasn't sure if he'd be able to stop himself from cursing the headmaster if he had.

Chapter Text

Chapter VI:


Harry's POV:

When Harry woke up the next day, his first thought was of Hermione. The girl was curled up next to him, her lips pressed in a thin, white line. The scratches on her arms were hidden under long sleeves and the red rims under her eyes were gone. The only sign of what had happened to her last night was the dead look in her eyes.

That's when he made the decision.

"I slept in a cupboard under the stairs until I received my Hogwarts letter. I was forced to cook and clean for the Dursleys. Once Aunt Petunia purposefully tipped boiling water on my hands and then yelled at me for being clumsy and sent me to my cupboard. I'm never fed enough, Dudley beats me up at every opportunity he can get and Uncle Vernon just encourages it. They've never shown me one bit of kindness in all my life. I hate them." He felt tears prick his own eyes and Iago, to Harry's absolute shock, rubbed his cheek against his hand. The tomcat's fur was softer then he'd expected it to be.

Hermione looked at him then reached out to grip his hand tight in her own and he was relieved to see that there was life in her eyes once again. And then she spoke.

"I killed someone."

Harry blinked in shock, unsure if he'd just heard her right. "He deserved it," Hermione continued, still looking him straight in the eye, "and I don't– I don't regret it. He killed her. He did sick, sick things to her and then he killed her. So I killed him."

He didn't ask who 'her' was or 'he' was and he didn't need to ask what the 'sick, sick things' were. Instead, he hugged Hermione to him. "I think about killing the Dursleys all the time," he whispered in her ear. "Especially at night. This darkness seems to soak through my mind and all I can think about is how easy it would be to cut their throats open while they sleep."

"You'd have thought, that when I looked in the mirror, I'd see my parents." Hermione whispered back. "That my heart's greatest desire would be them. Alive. But it's not. When I looked in the mirror, I saw her. I was supposed to be looking after her; she was my responsibility. She moved out of my sight and then just vanished. I looked everywhere but it took me nearly twenty minutes to find them and I was too late, she was already dead. He was still standing over her, his pants still around his ankles."

Hermione gave a short bitter laugh, leaning her head against his chest. He held her tight. "I lost it. Just absolutely, completely lost it. He was a big man, strong, and I knew I'd have to catch him by surprise. And I did. Crept up behind him and used a switchblade to cut across his calcanean tendons," Harry wanted to ask what they were but didn't, scared that if he interrupted her then she'd stop altogether.

"The tendons just tore and snapped. It sounded like a wooden box lid snapping shut. The bastard hit the ground, making this awful, awful sound." Hermione shut her eyes and whispered the next part. "But I was just so angry and he wasn't– he wasn't screaming enough. I wanted to make him hurt more. So I cut off his... his parts." Harry almost blanched out of pure male sympathy, but instead reminded himself that the scumbag didn't deserve that sympathy, any sympathy, and he just hugged Hermione tighter. "She was so little," Hermione choked out, "she was practically just a baby. God, I thought Sting would hate me for losing her and letting her be killed." She buried her face in his shoulder and Harry could feel her tears soaking into his shirt. "But he didn't," she practically moaned. "He said that it was  just part of life on the streets. That it was dangerous. I knew that, I did, I'd seen people die before but she... she was just like me and she was my responsibility and I failed her. And now I'm a murderer, just like him."

"You're not a murderer. Scum like that needs to be put down." Harry told her, his voice dark and fierce. If he looked in the mirror across from his bed, over to the left, he would have seen his eyes briefly flicker crimson, before fading back to green, almost just a trick of the light. And then Hermione looked up at him and smiled, a terrible, terrible smile.

"It turns out that bloody mirror did have some use. Dumbledore put it there. He was in the room."

"What?" Harry gasped, finding himself furious that not only had the headmaster put the mirror there for anyone to walk across but had spied on something as private and intimate as Hermione's break down.

"I felt him." Hermione said, her face going dark and vicious, her eyes shards of glass. "He was trying to get into my head."

"What?" Harry couldn't decide if he was more furious or horrified now.

"He's tried it before, after the troll incident. I read up on it– it's called Legilimency. He's probably used it on you before."

"How come I didn't feel it?" Harry asked in panic, loathing the idea of someone in his head.

"I did some research. There's a type of magic that blocks it called Occlumency." Hermione explained. "People like us, our minds develop natural defenses to protect us. Mine seem to be further developed then yours since I can feel when someone's trying to get in."

"You're Hermione Granger, of course you're the best at it." He told her, feeling very pleased with himself when he got her to give a watery sort of smile.

"I started reading up on Occlumency, and I discovered more information on how to use it." She explained further. "It's very theoretical, but it blends in quite nicely with my efforts to become an animagus. Both require an obscene amount of meditation."

"Wait, wait, back up a second- you're studying to become an animagus?" Harry asked, shocked.

"Of course," Hermione said, with a wave of her hand and a glimmer of mischief in her eyes, "Harry it's me- were you expecting anything else?"

"Good point," he nodded, grinning, "carry on."

"Well it's taken a while to really get the hang of it, especially without someone to actually test the barriers, but I've improved enough that I noticed when he tried to read my mind after my... episode."

"That bastard!" Harry spat, hands curled into fists. He had never seen anything like what had happened to Hermione last night. He'd been terrified and honestly on the verge of running to get Snape, punishment for being out of bed be damned, when she finally snapped out of it.

Dumbledore was responsible for her pain last night.

And Dumbledore was responsible for so much more pain too– Dumbledore put him with the Dursleys. Dumbledore had been controlling his life since he was fifteen months old. Dumbledore had started to manipulate him from the very moment he entered the Wizarding world. Dumbledore was responsible for hurting Hermione.

The headmaster of Hogwarts was not going to get away with that- Harry wouldn't let him. Somehow, someway, Harry would make the man pay for what he'd done.

"He's a right bastard," Hermione agreed, her eyes bright and burning with barely contained fury, "but I've got a plan."

"Yeah?" He asked and when Hermione smiled her evil genius smile and he knew, instantly, that this was going to be good.

"We're going to steal the Philosopher's Stone."

Oh he was right- this was good.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus paced in his office, a private war raging inside him. He was absolutely furious at the headmaster, of course, but that wasn't his main concern right now.

Granger.

She was far more advanced then your average first year but she was being treated like one. She wasn't being challenged, so she challenged herself. Spell after spell she was mastering with seemingly no effort. She had the sort of control between her mind and her magic that most adult wizards would be envious of. She was going to be a very powerful witch.

And she was damaged. Far more damaged then he'd originally realized. This was a worry, because he'd already been concerned about how damaged he'd theorized her to be.

He couldn't help but feel relieved that she'd connected so strongly with Potter. The boy grounded her, kept her from disappearing into herself; into her research, her magic and her mind.

He needed a way to rein her in slightly. A way to let her sink into studies of magic but in a controlled way.

And he needed to get the girl in therapy.

Severus sighed. He'd probably have better luck with the therapy.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Hermione was the sort of person who liked to plan at least five steps ahead, collect all relevant material and run multiple scenarios and simulations through her mind until she'd decided on the one with the best possible odds of success. That's why she was as surprised as Harry when she agreed to his insane plan of "let's go steal it tonight then".

It was almost midnight when they donned the invisibility cloak and set off for the forbidden third floor corridor. She was holding the flute Hagrid had made Harry in one hand and her wand tightly in the other. In Greek mythology the Cerberus who guarded the Underworld was tamed by Orpheus playing his lyre. As they didn't exactly have a lyre handy– or any other ideas for how to get past a giant three-headed dog– they were hoping any sort of music would have an effect on "Fluffy". Even if they got past the Cerberus there would be other obstacles she was guessing, but she chose to remain... optimistic. Or at least try not to have a nervous breakdown from not having at least three contingency plans.

As they reached the door, Harry turned around, looking a bit uncertain. "Er, maybe we should do a bit more investigating first." He suggested nervously and Hermione couldn't help laughing softly and kissing him on the cheek.

"God, I love you Harry." She said, actually sort of sure she meant it too.

"Me too," Harry told her, reaching out and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She took a moment to lean into his embrace before stepping back and pointing her wand at the door.

"Alohomora."

There was a loud clunking noise and then the door swung open. Beside her she heard Harry gulp– loudly– at the sight of the three-headed-beast and the Cerberus started to growl. Hastily, Hermione raised the flute to her lips and blew. Playing with one hand, the tune was choppy and uneven and all her musical knowledge was theoretical so it hardly counted as proper music anyway, but it turned out to be enough to cause the Cerberus to... doze right off?

Not quite what she was expecting from "taming" but she'd gladly accept it.

Harry edged forwards, pointing silently to a trapdoor under the foot of the beast. She nodded and gestured for him to open it which he did. Kicking the door shut with her foot, Hermione cautiously made her way towards Harry, still playing the flute as she peered down the trapdoor with him.

She couldn't see anything except a vast expanse of darkness. Well, that was easily fixed. She pulled the flute back from her mouth to mutter a quick, "lumos!" before playing again, all-too aware of Fluffy starting to stir slightly.

Lumos was the same spell she'd used to temporarily blind the Gryffindor fourth year who'd tried cursing Harry and it was quite a nifty spell. Using her wand as a torch, she cast a brilliant beam of light down the seemingly endless shaft which, it turned out, actually did end. With a Devil's Snare.

On the plus side, the man-eating plant would break their fall. The down side? The man-eating plant was a man-eating plant. Devil's Snare, Devil's Snare... hates sunlight and fire! Triumphant, she nodded to Harry. "Really? Jump?" he asked doubtfully. She nodded then moved quickly as she stopped playing the flute.

"Don't freak out when the plant tries to eat you." She told him. And then she jumped.

Harry stood for a few moments, obviously indecisive, before wisely choosing to take his chances against the man-eating plant then the stirring three-head dog who, incidentally, was also a man-eater.

Wise decision, she though, somewhat morbidly amused by watching him flail around in the grip of the plant's tentacles while she relaxed into the strangling grip. "Stop struggling, Harry," she ordered before casting in incendio which the Devil's Snare immediately cringed from, the plant literally shoving them down and away from it and Hermione swore lightly as her knees hit the ground underneath.

"You couldn't have mentioned the bit where you had a plan in place before you jumped?" The still breathless Harry asked her sarcastically

"When did I have the time to do that?" She pointed out, but her faux-indignation was ruined by the fact she was unable to help snickering as she did so- it really had been funny watching him stand there with that gobsmacked look on his face.

"So evil." Harry sighed, shaking his head before following her lead down the dark passageway. Neither commented on the strange whirring noise like hundreds of wings until they reached the end of the passageway and walked into a brilliantly lit chamber.

"Hm," Hermione raised her eyebrows as she took in the sight before her. On the opposite side of the chamber from where they were standing was a wooden door while the space between them and it was filled with flying keys; small and jewel bright as they fluttered and tumbled through the air. "I think you're going to need to catch the key to let us get through the door, Harry." She said.

"What? Why me?" Harry demanded, a bit panicked. "And why do we need a key to get through the door– can't you just magic it open?"

"Dunderhead," she muttered under her breath, ignoring Harry's pout as she crossed the chamber to the wooden door and tapped it with her wand. "Alohomora!" Just as she'd expected, the door didn't budge.

"Urgh," Harry moaned behind her, "how am I supposed to catch the key?"

"Well if I was you, I'd probably use one of those brooms," Hermione said with a grin as she pointed out the broomsticks laying to the side. Harry visibly perked up at this, just as she knew he would, and dashed over to grab one of the broomsticks, mounting it then kicking off the ground without a moment's hesitation. "You're looking for a big, old-fashioned one!" she shouted after him after examining the lock, "it's probably silver!"

Harry spent the next few minutes weaving and diving and looking like he was having the time of his life before he closed in on one of the keys and pinned it to the wall. Instantly, the rest of the keys started shooting towards him, looking for all intents and purposes like they were about to skewer him and Hermione shouted a freezing charm, casting them all immobile.

She grinned as Harry landed on the ground beside her. "That was excellent flying work," she praised and Harry grinned back at her, his hard-won prize still held tight in his hand. "You're going to make a great seeker, you know." She told him as he unlocked the door.

"And you could have frozen the keys before sending me off to go catch the one we needed."

"Well I can't do all the work," she teased before adding, "besides, you needed to prove to yourself you could do it. Now you officially have no excuse for not trying out for the Quidditch team next year, because let's be honest; Higgs is absolutely rubbish."

"You actually watched the game?" Harry asked sounding shocked.

"It's called multitasking." She said, amused. "There's no reason why I can't read and be aware of the game at the same time. I just make a habit of ignoring it out."

"Should I take the broom with me?" Harry wondered.

"Couldn't hurt." She replied with a shrug.

They stepped through into the next room and Hermione rolled her eyes. "Chess. Oh what fun." She said, sarcastically. "Excellent thinking with the broom, Harry."

"Do you even know how to fly one?" Harry asked looking annoyingly amused as he mounted the broom again.

"I know the theory." She scowled as she gingerly sat down on the room behind him and wrapped her arms around his stomach as tightly as she could. Harry laughed before kicking off the ground, letting out a delighted whoop as they soared into the air. She just held tight onto him with her eyes shut and tried to ignore the horrible swooping feeling in her stomach. 

It was just as awful as she'd imagined. Ever since the truck had knocked their car over the edge of the bridge and sent it into the river below the sensation of falling had terrified her, almost as much as the dark did– she hated the dark; a hatred born from the three years she'd spent in the orphanage where she'd be locked in that tiny, pitch-black room; hungry, thirsty and so painfully alone, always with that fear that this would be the time they wouldn't let her out. Only years of the sheer necessity of it had her able to not quite overcome the phobia but be able to outwardly appear as if the dark didn't bother her at all.

At least she didn't have to play chess, Hermione comforted herself as the broomstick seemed to start angling back to the floor, increasing the falling sensation to the point where her heart was strumming erratically like a tension-tight wire and her lungs felt too tight as panic started building.

And then Harry was landing and she was gratefully stumbling off the broom and onto the ground, taking a moment to let out a deep shuddering breath and pull herself back together.

Seeing her nod that she was ready, Harry pushed open the next door only for them both to freeze at seeing what was behind it, and then gag as the smell hit them harder then a bludger.

"Well this isn't good." Harry stated as they both stated at the mountain troll that was even bigger then the one they'd previously faced. "Flying again?" He suggested and Hermione just groaned, closing her eyes and clinging to Harry once more as he kicked off the ground. As he soared into the air and up over the troll she concentrated on her breathing, the tightening in her chest making the air wheeze out of her lungs and the thought of having to do this again on the way back threatening to send her into a full-blown panic. 

"Out of interest," Harry asked, having to shout to be heard over the sounds of the angry troll, "what are the spells that can get through troll skin?"

Seizing the distraction for what it was, Hermione pushed the panic back and concentrated in Harry's question. "The most well known one," she shouted back, "and the simplest one to cast would be the Killing Curse."

"Oh." Harry was silent for a second. "What's the incantation?"

"There's a reason I didn't try using the Killing Curse against the troll before," she answered, "It's an Unforgiveable Curse– and the whole Unforgiveable part is fairly of self-explanatory. Using it would earn you a life sentence in Azkaban– that's the wizard prison!"

"I'm not going to cast it, I promise, I just want to know!" Harry called out as he angled the broom towards the doorway and the sensation of falling turned her mouth dry and she felt like she was going to be sick, her fingers probably leaving bruises on Harry's ribs she was clinging to him so tightly

"It's Avada Kedavra. No wand movements needed, just sheer intention." She said in a shaky voice once her feet were back on the ground and she just about tore the door handle off in her haste to get it open.

Both of them staggered across the threshold, away from the angry troll, only to both let out shocked cries when a fire sprang up in the doorway behind them. It wasn't ordinary fire either, instead it was dark purple in colour. At the same instant, black flames shot up in the doorway leading onwards, trapping them inside the room. It was bright, though, from the flames and Hermione consoled herself with the fact there weren't any man-eating anythings trapped with them in the room which was a pleasant change of pace.

No, this room was mostly empty with only single table in the middle on which seven differently shaped bottles were lined up.

"Fantastic." Harry groaned as he looked back at the fire blocking their exit. "If we're stuck down here Snape will kill us."

"Oh relax," she said, crossing over to the table and picking up the roll of paper lying next to the bottles. It was a riddle and she couldn't help but smile as she read it out loud to Harry.

"Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, which ever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead
Two among our number hold only nettle wine,
Three of us are killers, waiting bidden in line.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here forever more,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine's left side;
Second, different are those who stand at either end,
But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;
Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
Fourth, the second left and second on the right,
Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight."

"Oh goodie." Harry said, not looking nearly as enthusiastic as she did, "I hope you know what to do because I haven't got a bloody clue."

"I'm a terrible influence on you, Harry," she said with a laugh, "had you even said 'bloody' before you met me?"

"Damn was the worst word I ever used." Harry admitted before gesturing to the table. "So, figured it out yet?"

"It wasn't hard," she shrugged, reaching forwards and plucking the smallest bottle up. "This one will get us through the black fire."

"There's only enough for one of us to drink." Harry pointed out, frowning at it.

"It probably refills automatically. It wouldn't make sense for it to only have one dose in here." She replied. Harry raised an eyebrow then snatched it out of her hand before she could stop him and downed it in one gulp. "I'm going to kill you, Harry Potter." She told him calmly. He gave her a sheepish look and backed towards the flames.

"See you in a bit!" he called, before adding a cheeky– "if you're right of course!" before disappearing beyond the doorway. Hermione ground her teeth together and was about to blast a hole through the damn wall to get to him, flames be damned, when the little bottle in her hand filled up again.

"I told him so." She lectured the bottle sourly before following Harry's example and downing it in a gulp. She shivered as a feeling like ice licked through her veins and hurriedly stepped through the flames after Harry. And then she froze, just like he had only a foot ahead of her.

Because in front of them was the Mirror of Erised.

"Can we smash it?" Harry asked, his voice shaky as he very carefully didn't look at its surface.

Hermione didn't bother replying, instead she pointed her wand at the loathsome thing and snarled, "BOMBARDA!"

As her curse collided with its reflective surface the mirror exploded.

Everywhere.

Hermione and Harry had to hit the floor in order to avoid the the tornado of glass, whipping around the room in wild bursts of magic. Hermione watched in disbelief as Harry suddenly stood, remaining upright in the magical whirlwind of glass for a handful of seconds before he crouched back down again.

"Are you insane?" she hissed, glaring at the bleeding gash on his shoulder, a shard of glass having torn right through his jumper to the skin beneath, and several shallower cuts on his hands. Harry just grinned at her and held out his prize and she couldn't help her own wide grin at the sight of the large red stone. "I take it back, you're brilliant." She said, breathless with excitement. "The Philosopher's Stone... and it's all ours."

Once the glass had finally settled they both cautiously stood up, Hermione helping Harry apply pressure to his shoulder wound until it stopped seeping blood. "That was surprisingly anti-climatic." He told her and she couldn't help but laugh.

Making their way back out was actually almost harder then going in. The flying once again almost sent her into a panic attack– too many things had pushed her towards the edge in too close together, leaving her usual tight control shaky and thin. Adding to that, the troll was pissed off and more prepared and it took blinding it with a well-aimed lumos right to the eyes for them to get passed. "I'm starting to think you have an eye fixation, Hermione!" Harry snickered as they walked into the room with the chess pieces.

"I do not have an ocular obsession, thank you very much." She said, elbowing him in his ribs.

Flying over the chess set and getting past the still frozen in place keys was simple enough, but how to get back through the Devil's Snare from underneath took her nearly a half hour to figure out and she was grateful Harry had thought to hang onto the broom past the key room so once she'd blasted their way through the plant he could fly them up to the still open trapdoor.

Inspired by Harry's earlier teasing, she then proceeded to blast the Cerberus in the face with an over-powered lumos, blinding the massive beast long enough for them to get out. Slamming the door to the third floor corridor shut behind them and leaning their weight back on it, they both stood there panting and just looking at each other, not really knowing what to say after the thrilling bout of thievery and breaking of about a hundred school rules and several property laws too.

And then Harry spoke up. "Reckon we can keep the brooms?" He asked hopefully.

Hermione couldn't help it. She laughed.

-

The rest of the holidays passed at a lazy pace. She and Harry had hidden the Stone in her mattress and Hermione had carved some runes she'd found in a book into the wooden bedframe to keep it from being summoned, traced or scryed.

The two then spent a large amount of the time on the grounds with her focusing on her animagus studies while Harry practiced flying on his 'new broom' chasing after the golden snitch she'd stolen for him for Christmas.

The return of the rest of the students was almost disappointing but Hermione had to admit it was sort of nice to see Draco, Blaise and Theo again, as well as Tracey who'd sent her a book on interesting curses for Christmas and Daphne who'd sent her a beautiful pair of sleek, dragon-hide gloves, having noticed that Hermione didn't own a pair.

Neither she nor Harry quite knew what to do with the Stone yet– Harry was all for destroying it but Hermione didn't want to, at least not until they figured out why the stone had been moved to Hogwarts in the first place and just who had broken into Gringotts trying to find it.

Hermione was also determined that they learn as much defensive and offensive magic as possible to both protect themselves– Harry in particular– against the meddlesome headmaster as well as to also be as prepared as possible for whatever obstacle he deemed fit to throw at them next.

And so the months fell into a familiar pattern for the two of them. After classes they'd go to the library where they'd read and do their homework and then they'd find an empty classroom where they practiced new spells she'd found. Occasionally Daphne and Tracey joined them, Tracey always having a new curse she was happy to teach them, and sometimes Draco, Blaise and Theo did, but more often then not it was just the two of them.

Hermione was further along in her animagus study then before and she'd found a book in the Restricted Section for Harry called 'Parseltongue: A Secret Art', and, much to his delight, Harry could now write in Parselscript and use Parseltongue to cast spells.  

Hermione had devoted a portion of her time to learning Parselscript as well and had a rudimentary enough knowledge to be able to communicate with Harry in it when passing notes during class.

Life was going fairly smoothly and Hermione found that she was enjoying herself which made her wary– in her experience, happiness didn't last.

-

-

Severus's POV:

It was nearing the end of the school year when Albus summoned him to his office. Severus had been enjoying the few and far between nature of the headmaster's little 'catch-ups' and hadn't been too pleased about this one.

To his knowledge, Potter and Granger had been staying out of trouble. Since the... incident with the Mirror of Erised, they'd both taken their studies even more seriously and more then once he crossed paths with a determined looking Granger making her way out of the library while balancing a precariously tall stack of books covering a variety of subjects in her hands– notably, the most frequently occurring topic seemed to be combative magic, both offensive and defensive. Severus decided that was not something he needed to pass on to the headmaster.

Potter's grades, having already been quite impressive, had improved in leaps and bounds and the boy appeared to be becoming friendlier towards others in the year level and not just the Slytherins. Granger was as standoffish as usual though she seemed to make the occasional effort for Potter's sake.

The worst thing he'd caught them doing was passing notes in class and even though he'd confiscated the note he hadn't been able to make sense of the squiggly lines and just threw it out, more impressed then annoyed with their cunning in creating a code only the two of them could read.

So yes, he was quite pleased with how Potter and Granger were going and he was also tired from a full week of teaching so he wasn't in the best of moods when he strode into Albus's office. "This better be good– I have a bottle of Odgens waiting in my quarters with my name on it and two glorious days free from keeping the moronic brain dead cretins I have the misfortune of calling 'students' from blowing up my classroom." He grumbled as soon as he walked through the door. Minerva made a hmph-ing sound, obviously unimpressed with his manner.

"This is a very serious matter, Severus." Albus said gravely. "The Philosopher's Stone is gone."

Severus froze in place and blinked. Twice. "What?" He demanded in a strangled voice.

"I went to check on it," Albus said heavily, looking very old for a moment, "only I found that the Mirror was destroyed and the Stone was nowhere to be found."

An awful sinking feeling in his stomach had Severus sitting heavily on one of the many armchairs decorating the headmaster's office. "Do you think– is it– the Dark Lord?" he whispered, aghast. Albus sighed.

"I do not know, my dear boy. But I have certain suspicions and I'd like you to question Miss Granger." The sheer level of disbelief that flooded Severus almost managed to fully drown his fear at the thought of his old Master.

"Granger?" he asked incredulously, "you're actually blaming Granger? What of Potter! If Granger stole the stone then you can guarantee that Potter was right by her side!"

"No," Albus shook his head, his voice confident. "I know Harry. I am confident he is not that sort of boy who would steal the Stone."

"Despite the company he keeps, Harry is a very sweet child." Minerva agreed, "He's always so friendly to all the other Houses and always so happy to offer his classmates his assistance. It's the Granger girl's influence over him that's leading him astray."

"You're both wrong." Severus snarled as he stood sharply and glared at them both, "you're both so wrong it's almost painful to hear you speak!"

"No, Severus," Albus said, his voice frustratingly serene, "it is you who is wrong."

Severus made a strangled noise and then turned and stormed out, heading straight back down to his dungeons, needing to get as far away from such sheer, blind idiocy as possible– he dealt with more then enough of that during the school week and wasn't paid nearly enough to put up with it from the headmaster and his deputy too.

Chapter Text

Chapter VII:

Harry's POV:

"I want to know what's going on with Hagrid," Hermione said with a frown on her face. They'd just bumped into Hagrid in the library for the third time in two days which was very unusual seeing as in the entire school year, Harry hadn't seen Hagrid in the library once until now. Still, Harry groaned in dismay.

"Are you going to talk about dragons for hours again?" he asked.

"It was thirty minutes, and no." Hermione told him, rolling her eyes. "Harry, Hagrid is going to be a reasonably good source of information over the next few years. Being 'friends' with him could prove to be quite helpful. Besides, you like him."

Harry sighed and conceded to that point and Sunday afternoon he found himself sitting in Hagrid's cabin which felt even warmer then usual and watched Hermione flatter Hagrid while learning interesting facts about Magical Creatures– well, she claimed they were interesting facts anyway. He just felt sweaty.

"Hagrid, can we have a window open? I'm boiling." He interrupted the conversation to ask.

"Can't, Harry, sorry," said Hagrid and Harry noticed him glance at the fire. Harry looked at it too and then stared.

"Hagrid– what's that?" He asked, rather needlessly as he already had a fairly good idea of what it was. In the very heart of the fire, underneath the kettle, there appeared to be a very large black egg.

"Ah," said Hagrid, fiddling nervously with his beard, "That's er..."

"That's a dragon egg, Hagrid." Hermione said, her voice sharp now as she stood up and crossed the small room to crouch over the fire and examine the egg. "It's very, very illegal."

"I, er," Hagrid scratched his beard nervously, "I won it, see, a couple o' nights ago. I was down in the village havin' a few drinks an' got into a game o' cards with a stranger. Think he was quite glad ter get rid of it, ter be honest."

"I'm not surprised. What the f– what on earth are you going to do with it once it's hatched?" Hermione demanded.

"Well, I've bin doin' some readin'," said Hagrid, pulling a large book from under his pillow. "Got this outta the library- 'Dragon Breeding for Pleasure and Profit'- it's a bit outta date, o' course, but it's all in here. Keep the egg in the fire, 'cause their mothers breathe on 'em, see, an' when it hatches, feed it on a bucket o' brandy mixed with chicken blood every half hour. An' see here- how ter recognize diff'rent eggs- what I got there's a Norwegian Ridgeback. They're rare, them."

He looked very pleased with himself. Hermione didn't. Harry wasn't either. "Hagrid, you live in a wooden house," Hermione snapped but Hagrid wasn't listening, instead he was humming merrily as he stoked the fire.

Harry groaned, trading looks with Hermione. Great, now they had to figure out what to do about the illegal dragon Hagrid was hiding in his hut. 

"Wonder what it's like to have a peaceful life," He sighed as they walked back to the castle.

"Boring." Hermione answered without missing a beat. "We'd hate it."

With exams drawing closer, the teachers seemed to be loading them up with more and more homework and Harry pushed his concern over the dragon egg situation from his mind.

Then, one breakfast time, Hedwig brought Harry a note from Hagrid. He had written only two words: It's hatching.

"Oh fuck." Hermione said.

"What are we supposed to do?" Harry asked anxiously as they made their way to their first class. "I don't want Hagrid to get in trouble, but I don't want us to get in trouble either!"

"We'll have to figure out whether or not it's worth getting even more involved in this situation," Hermione said, frustrated, "Do you know how much trouble we could get in if it comes out that we're aware of an illegal dragon—"

"Quiet!" Harry hissed, noticing a sudden absence of movement behind them. Ron Weasley and his lot were only a few feet away and Weasley had stopped dead to listen. How much had he heard? Harry didn't like the look on the redhead's face at all.

He and Hermione quietly debated what to do all through their class, Hermione leaning more towards letting Hagrid figure his own way out of the mess and Harry wanting to protect him– Hagrid, after all, had been the one to buy him his first birthday present. Eventually they decided to go down to Hagrid's during morning break and talk to him before making a decision. When they arrived Hagrid greeted them looking flushed and excited.

"It's nearly out." He ushered them inside where the egg was lying on the table with several deep cracks in the black shell. Something was moving inside and a funny clicking noise was coming from it.

They all drew their chairs up to the table and watched for several minutes with bated breath. All at once there was a scraping noise and then egg split open and the baby dragon flopped onto the table. It wasn't exactly pretty; Harry thought it looked like a crumpled, black umbrella– its spiny wings were huge compared to its skinny jet-black body, it had a long snout with wide nostrils, the stubs of horns and bulging, orange eyes.

It sneezed. A couple of sparks flew out of its snout.

"Isn't he beautiful?" Hagrid murmured. He reached out a hand to stroke the dragon's head and it snapped at his fingers, showing pointed fangs. "Bless him, look, he knows 'is mummy!" said Hagrid.

"Hagrid," Harry said with a familiar sinking feeling in his stomach, "how fast do Norwegian Ridgebacks grow, exactly?" Hagrid was about to answer when the color suddenly drained from his face– he leapt to his feet and ran to the window.

"What's the matter?" Hermione asked sharply, alarm clear on her face.

"Couple o' people were lookin' through the gap in the curtains– it's some kids– they're runnin' back up ter the school."

Harry bolted to the door and looked out. Even at a distance there was no mistaking that red hair– Weasley and his buddies had seen the dragon and they had seen him and Hermione with it.

"Oh shit." Hermione swore beside him, her eyes dark with anger as they tracked Ron's movements back up to the castle.

They bid Hagrid a hurried farewell and made their way back to the Slytherin Common Rooms, trying to decide what to do. Hermione was all for cornering the Gryffindors and cursing the spit out of them until they swore an Oath not to tell anyone about the dragon or, more importantly, his and Hermione's involvement with the dragon but Harry thought that would make the situation worse and argued that there had to be an easier way.

That's when Hermione came up with option two.

"We kill the bloody thing and get rid of any evidence it ever existed."

Harry blinked at her. "What?"

"We get rid of the bloody thing and all signs that it ever bloody existed." She repeated.

"Oh." He said weakly. "Right."

Harry was very uncomfortable with the idea but spending the following day as the recipient of frequent smirks from Weasley and his buddies helped him make up his mind. He was a Slytherin, after all– self-preservation was a strong instinct and he cared more for Hermione and himself then the squashed-umbrella-dragon.

"How are we going to get it out without Hagrid noticing?" he asked glumly after classes were over and Hermione's eyes glittered.

"Leave that to me." She promised.   

That night, using the Invisibility Cloak, he and Hermione snuck down to Hagrid's cabin from inside which Harry could hear loud snores. Hermione tapped the lock and muttered, "Alohomora," causing the door to swing open.

Harry couldn't help but cringe at the sight of the dragon. It had grown at least three times in length since the last time he'd seen it. Smoke kept furling out of its nostrils even as it slept and there were empty brandy bottles and chicken feathers all over the floor.

"How are you going to kill it?" Harry whispered, still feeling squeamish at the thought.

"Drown it." Was Hermione's answer, "I don't know any spells that will pierce its hide– there's a reason our protective gloves are made from it; dragon hide is tougher even then troll hide."

Harry watched unhappily as Hermione took a deep breath and pointed her wand at the dragon. "Wingardium Leviosa!" She whispered. The dragon stayed asleep as it floated up into the air and they both hastily backed out of Hagrid's hut.

Harry couldn't help but let out a small sigh of relief once they were actually outside again with the door shut once more and he turned to face Hermione. "What's the matter with it?" He asked, voice hushed– he was pretty sure this wasn't normal behavior for dragons. 

"I drugged it earlier." Hermione said, her face grim with concentration, "sixth and seventh years who take NEWTs potions have hemlock in their potion kits and I... borrowed some. I put enough in the brandy Hagrid feeds it to kill a herd of cattle– or, apparently, paralyze a dragon. I was hoping it would kill it."

Cautiously, the two made their way over to the Black Lake and Hermione pulled a face. "I don't like hurting animals." She muttered. "They're not cruel, not like humans are."

"We can still think of something else," Harry told her and Hermione's answering smile was knife-sharp, dark amusement glinting in her eyes.

"I said I don't like hurting animals," she said, "not that I can't or won't. I have my priorities in life and we happen to be much higher then a dragon." With that, Hermione casually flicked her wand to release the levitation spell, causing the poisoned dragon to fall into the Lake with a loud splash that made Harry cringe.

Hermione gave him a pitying look, easily reading the misery on his face as he watched the dragon sink, and she wrapped her arm around his waist and let him lean his head on hers. Together they waited as a stream of bubbles and steam rise up from where the dragon had dropped until no more bubbles emerged. The lifeless body of the dragon drifted to the surface of the Lake for a few seconds before sinking once more, this time for good.

Harry thought he was going to be sick as nausea churned in his stomach and Hermione pressed her lips briefly to his cheek. "It's alright to be sad, Harry," she said gently. "But you can either regret what we did and feel awful about it or stand by the reasons for which we made our decision and move on."

"But our reasons were selfish," Harry said miserably.

"Were they, though?" Hermione challenged him. "I wanted to protect you and I assume you wanted to protect me. I don't see anything selfish in that. It was us or it and I certainly value us far more. That's the decision I made and I can stand behind my reasons for it. Can you?"

Harry took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. He still felt sick thinking about what they'd just done, but Hermione was right. He didn't want her to get in trouble and he didn't want to get in trouble himself either. He valued them over the life of the dragon and had acted accordingly when the dragon's existence had threatened them. Was that a decision he could stand behind? "Yes," he answered both himself and her. "I can."

"Good," Hermione smiled, pride and warmth evident on her face. "Remember that, Harry. Now let's head back to bed– I'm exhausted."

Relieved at the thought of his bed after such a long, stressful day and the emotional rollercoaster involved in the dragon's death, Harry was glad to make the familiar journey back up to the Castle only to freeze at the sight of a grim faced McGonagall waiting in the Entrance Hall. And the Invisibility Cloak was stashed in Hermione's satchel.

"Mr. Potter, Miss Granger– what were you two doing out of bed and outside the castle at this late hour?" the Deputy Headmistress demanded furiously. Harry frantically tried to think up some excuse while Hermione's expression turned cold and she unflinchingly met McGonagall's angry gaze with a dark, icy one of her own.

"Who ratted us out?" She asked scathingly. "Considering the fact no one confronted as directly about our plans I'll have to assume it was a Gryffindor." McGonagall's glare increased tenfold at the not-so subtle insult to her House and Harry was impressed by Hermione's ability to stand firm against the older witch's fury because he felt about two feet tall and shrinking fast, but he also wished she wouldn't rile McGonagall up further seeing as they were already in enough trouble as it was.  He knew that was probably too much to ask of her though– Hermione and McGonagall had never gotten along.

"Misters Weasley, Thomas and Finnegan will be sharing an equal punishment as you." McGonagall said tartly which confirmed Hermione's Gryffindor theory, Harry thought sourly. "Now follow me at once!" The Deputy Headmistress ordered.

Harry tried to copy Hermione's face which was wiped clean of emotion as they followed McGonagall to her office where Ron Weasley, Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan were all already seated and looking furious.

"I am disgraced at all of you. Nothing gives a student the right to wander about the corridors after hours," McGonagall started lecturing, "I am deducting fifty points–"

"Fifty points?" Weasley interrupted, looking dismayed.

"Fifty points each," McGonagall continued as if she hadn't been interrupted. "And you will serve a detention this Friday. Now get back to your dormitories at once!"

Hermione waited until they were back in the Slytherin Common Room before voicing the same question that Harry had– "how the bloody hell did those three know we were out on the grounds?" She demanded, visibly enraged.

"I was hoping you'd know." Harry said glumly.

-

The day of their detention, Harry felt miserable and Hermione appeared to be in a right foul mood beside him. She kept muttering things under her breath in French whenever she caught sight of McGonagall or the Gryffindor trio that Harry had a feeling weren't very complimentary. Not that he blamed her, of course. He was rather upset with the Deputy Headmistress as well.

He consoled himself with the fact that Slytherin had only lost one hundred points, not like Gryffindor who'd lost one hundred and fifty. And to his utmost relief the majority of Slytherin didn't see to mind the point loss, too gleeful about Gryffindor's situation, and he didn't think Hermione cared either way about House points– she hadn't even batted an eyelash.

Really, he was pretty sure the only thing that really pissed her off about the situation was not knowing how Weasley and his buddies had found out they were out of bed after curfew.

The two of them were walking to the library, ready to make the most of the few hours they had before their detention, when they heard the sound of whimpering coming from a classroom up ahead. As Harry drew closer, tugging Hermione after him, he heard Quirrell's voice.

"No- no- not again, please–" Quirrell was pleading. He turned to Hermione and raised his eyebrows, silently asking her whether or not she thought they should go in. Hermione shook her head and tapped her ears. Keep listening, Harry realized, and he did as she advised, moving closer. "All right– all right–" Quirrell sobbed and the next second he came hurrying out of the classroom, straightening his turban. He was pale and looked like he'd been crying. He rushed straight past them not even seeming to notice their presence.

Hermione blinked slowly as she stared at his retreating figure. "Well that was interesting." She murmured. Harry agreed with her, but didn't really feel like adding yet another mystery into his life.

"Come on, we want to get some study time in before detention." He reminded her before a horrified look crossed his face. "Did I just say that?"

Hermione burst into laughter which made a few passing students look at her with wide-eyes at her uncharacteristic behaviour. "Bloody hell, you're right. I've corrupted you."

Glad to see her smiling, Harry linked arms with her and tugged her along. They had just reached the library when Snape was suddenly in front of them, blocking their path. "Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, if I may have a word?" he said in a voice that was dangerously silky.

Harry winced as Snape turned and strode towards the dungeons with his cloak billowing behind him, recalling with painful clarity the three rules of Slytherin– the first being 'do not get caught'.

"Well, we're fucked." Hermione commented under her breath and Harry tried not to laugh nervously at her use of profanity.

But as it happened, Snape hadn't brought them to his office to talk about their nighttime adventure. No, what he wanted to talk about was worse. Much, much worse.

"I'm sure you remember the headmaster's warning at the start of the year about the forbidden third floor corridor," Snape began and Harry immediately froze then frantically tried to school his face so he didn't look as guilty as he felt. Chancing a quick peek at Hermione, he wasn't at all surprised to see her face was as calm and serene as ever.

"I do recall that he mentioned circumventing it would be a wise choice should one wish to evade an excruciatingly painful death."

"Yes," Snape fixed Harry with a look, obviously deciding he was the weak link– and he wasn't wrong. Hermione gave his hand a sharp squeeze and Harry suddenly remembered what she'd told him about Legilimency and how eye contact was the easiest way to accomplish it. Hastily, he moved his gaze away from Snape's eyes and instead focused on the wall behind the professor.

"Is there any particular reason why you're bringing this up, sir?" Hermione asked, her voice the epitome of innocence. Harry almost laughed at the sound of it– Hermione Granger was not an innocent, not by a long shot; she was the most conniving, intelligent, cunning, vindictive and loyal person he'd ever met and he adored her for it.

"That corridor contains a Cerberus that was guarding something for the headmaster and his friend. That something has gone missing." Snape drawled.

"Well that can't be good." Hermione stated, her expression one of faux-concern .

"That's an understatement, Miss Granger. In the hands of the wrong person, this... object could be used to accomplish great evil." Snape sounded dead serious and Harry swallowed nervously.

"Wouldn't it be better, then, if the object was destroyed? To avoid the possibility of it being used to accomplish great evil?" Hermione countered and Harry was startled to see the corners of Snape's mouth twitch.

"Indeed, that was my own suggestion Miss Granger." He said, sounding amused before his expression turned serious again. "The headmaster suspects you, Miss Granger, of being involved in the... thievery of the object."

"Mm, and does the headmaster have any proof, or are his suspicions simply born from his prejudice against all things Slytherins?" Hermione asked scornfully, mouth curled in a sneer.

"The latter, I believe." Snape sighed and Harry noticed for the first time just how tired the man looked.

"Well, without evidence you can tell the headmaster that he can join his stupid Mirror in hell and that I hope whoever took the object had a grudge against him and blasted it into hundreds of little pieces in revenge. Good day, professor." Hermione said sweetly before turning and leaving the room. Harry remained frozen for a second then followed after her, horrified.

"Hermione," he hissed as he caught up to her and grabbed her arm to get her to stop walking. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"That I trust Professor Snape." Hermione answered promptly. "You should too. He may be a bit of a git, but he's on our side." He gave his best friend a doubtful look but she met his gaze steadily and he sighed.

"Fine. But if we get called up to Dumbledore's office or end up arrested then I am so blaming you."

"I wouldn't have it any other way." She smirked back at him.

-

At eleven o'clock that night Harry gave his farewells to the other Slytherins in the common room and with Hermione at his side made his way down to the entrance hall. He received a large amount of satisfaction out of seeing Filch waiting with a lamp and sneering at the three Gryffindor boys.

Upon seeing he and Hermione approaching Filch gave them a look that seemed more exasperated then anything else. When they got within a few feet of the caretaker Iago, who had been laying draped over Filch's shoulder, leapt over to Hermione. Mrs. Norris purred and wound her way around Harry's legs and then Hermione's legs, looking up at his best friend adoringly as Hermione crouched down to scratch behind her ears.

"Follow me," Filch ordered, giving both Hermione and the cats a fond look before leading them outside. He and Hermione fell back a few steps as they all marched off across the dark grounds and listened in amused glee to Filch's taunting of the Gryffindors who the caretaker appeared to have a great personal dislike of– Harry thought it probably had something to do with Weasley's older twin brother.

The moon was bright overhead but clouds kept drifting across it and throwing them into darkness. Up ahead Harry could see the lighted windows of Hagrid's hut and he heard a distant shout. "Is that you, Filch? Hurry up, I want ter get started."

Harry couldn't help feeling a small touch of relief as Filch led them to where Hagrid stood, his large crossbow in his hands, a quiver of arrows tossed over his back. Hagrid was, to quote Hermione, 'thick enough' to have failed in catching onto the fact that Harry and Hermione had been caught outside the castle after curfew on the same night his dragon had disappeared. From what Harry had gleaned between Hagrid's large, gulping sobs was that Hagrid blamed himself for leaving the door unlocked. Harry had felt guilty until he remembered Hermione's words and steeled himself against it– he still stood behind the reasons he'd made the choice he had and that wasn't going to change so there was no point in feeling bad about what they'd done.

"Abou' time," Hagrid said to Filch, "I bin waitin' fer half an hour already. All righ' there, Harry, Hermione?"

"We're as well as we can be considering we're about to go into the Forbidden Forest." Despite her words, Hermione sounded more amused by the prospect then anything but her observation had caused the three Gryffindors to pale and Harry to gulp.

"Th-the Forbidden Forest?" Dean Thomas gasped, "but isn't that full of– of dangerous creatures like werewolves?"

"It's not a full moon, you idiot, but you're right. The Forest is filled with dangerous creatures, hence the 'forbidden' part." Hermione smiled slowly at Thomas, showing all her teeth.

"This– this isn't right! It has to be against the rules!" Weasley protested shrilly and Filch cackled slightly.

"That's your problem, isn't it? Should have thought twice about breaking the rules, boy."

Hagrid lead them to the very edge of the forest and held his lamp high, pointing to a narrow, winding earth track that disappeared into the thick, black trees. "Look here," he said, "see that stuff shinin' on the ground? Silvery stuff? That's unicorn blood. There's a unicorn in there that's bin hurt badly by summat. This is the second time in a week. I found one dead last Wednesday. We're gonna try an' find the poor thing. We might have ter put it out of its misery."

"And what if whatever hurt the unicorn finds us first?" Weasley asked, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

"There's nothin' that lives in the forest that'll hurt yeh if yer with me or Fang," said Hagrid with confidence. "An' keep to the path. Right now, we're gonna split inter two parties an' follow the trail in different directions. There's blood all over the place, it must've been staggerin' around since last night at least."

"Excellent," Hermione said, rubbing her hands together, "Harry and I'll take Fang. We'll send up sparks if we find the unicorn."

"Green sparks if yeh find it, red sparks if yer in trouble." Hagrid said with a proud smile at Hermione's thinking. "All righ', be careful now. Let's go."

Harry and Hermione turned down the left fork of the path and walked swiftly along it as Fang gambolled along a few meters ahead. "What do you think hurt the unicorn?" Harry asked her after all sounds of Hagrid the three Gryffindors had faded.

"Unicorns are incredibly powerful magical creatures. Even werewolves aren't fast enough to catch one. Whatever– or whoever– hurt that unicorn and killed the other one is very powerful." Hermione said, her eyes scanning the path ahead and not looking at him. Harry frowned.

"Why would someone want to kill a unicorn anyway?" he asked, confused.

"Their blood." She stated simply. "A unicorn's blood can bring you back even from the brink of death, but at a terrible price– whoever consumes it is cursed to forever live a half life. Only those who have nothing to lose and everything to gain will resort to it."

"And who the hell'd want that?" Harry said incredulously.

"I can think of one glaringly obvious option." Hermione said, and Harry's eyes widened.

"Wait– you mean– Voldemort?"

"Yes," Hermione agreed, her voice grimmer now, "Voldemort." Harry looked at her in shock.

"So we're out here on our own and in the Forbidden Forest with Voldemort?" He demanded in a hissed whisper, wondering if she'd lost her mind and they were both about to die horribly at the hands of the Darkest wizard who'd ever lived.

"Yes, we're out here on our own and in the Forbidden Forest where, considering the need for unicorn blood, an extremely weak Voldemort is likely currently located, but right now we've got the advantage." Hermione said and the sharpness in her eyes had Harry relaxing– Hermione would never purposefully lead him into danger, that he was confident in. He trusted her.

"Okay, so what advantage do we have?" he asked not really able to think of anything.

"What do you think could have drawn a weakened Voldemort out of hiding and into the close proximity of the only man he was ever known to be afraid of?" Hermione prompted and Harry frowned, thinking.

"Probably something he could use to strengthen himself but what– oh!" Harry stared in wide-eyed wonder at his best friend. "The Philosopher's Stone. Bloody hell, you are brilliant. You are beyond bloody brilliant."

"Why thank you." Hermione practically preened under his adamant praise, "you know, you're quite clever too, Harry. You put that together much quicker then most would." Harry blushed at her words.

"I'm not that clever, not like you are." He said and Hermione tossed her head with a mock-snobbish look on her face.

"Nobody's like I am." She declared and he laughed before a rustling branch had him fall abruptly silent, the reminder of where they were– and who was out there with them– sending a sharp jolt of fear through him.

"What do you mean by 'we have an advantage'? I mean, we know what he wants but I don't see how that helps–" Harry broke off again as Hermione lifted her hand to show him the brilliant, blood red stone that had been hidden in her pocket.

"Argus told me what our detention was, a few hours ago. I connected the dots and made preparations." She told him, her expression dead serious as she looked at him with grave eyes.

"So... what do we do if we do come across Voldemort?" he asked her anxiously, not understanding at all what her plan was.

"We talk to him."

"We talk to him?" Harry repeated, wondering if he should revisit his earlier theory that Hermione really had lost her mind.

"We'll offer him a deal– he stays away from us and we give him the stone. If he agrees, we'll both swear a Wizard Oath. He won't be able to go back on this word then, not unless he wants to lose his magic." Hermione then paused and stopped walking, looking unsure for the first time. "I... I understand that you likely hate Voldemort seeing as he's responsible for the death of  your parents so we don't have to do this. We can always just turn around right now." She offered, looking uncertain at how he would react to her plan.

Harry thought about it for a long, long moment. He thought about what Voldemort had done and then what Dumbledore had done. He thought about which one of the two he hated more– the one who had killed his parents or the one who'd left him at the Dursleys to suffer for ten years before proceeding to try and manipulate him from the second he learnt about the Wizarding World.

"Better Hufflepuff than Slyth'rin. All of 'em Dark wizards came from Slyth'rin. Like Yeh-know-who." Hagrid had told him. But he liked it in Slytherin. He liked his dorm-mates. He loved Hermione. He just... fitted in his House. For the first time ever, he had people who were willing to fight for him, not just step back and watch as life beat him to a pulp.  

You can either regret what we did and feel awful about it or stand by the reasons for which we made our decision and move on. Giving Voldemort the Stone in return for an Oath that guaranteed Hermione's safety from the Dark wizard– and his own safety, as him being in danger would have Hermione ending up getting involved anyway– felt beyond selfish. Was giving Voldemort a way to regain his body a choice Harry could ever live with? Were his reasons, if he made that choice, ones that he could ever stand behind or would he end up feeling guilty for the rest of his life? I wanted to protect you and I assume you wanted to protect me. I don't see anything selfish in that. It was us or it and I certainly value us far more then an animal. That's the decision I made and I can stand behind my reasons for it. Can you?

Yes, Harry thought. The Wizarding world had never done anything for him and he certainly didn't owe it– or its people– anything. If anything, it was them who owed him. Hermione though, she mattered. He would do anything in his power to keep her safe. Even without the Stone, Harry had little doubt that Voldemort would eventually find a way to regain his full strength and his body. And when that happened, Harry had little doubt that he'd be a target which would put Hermione in grave danger. Could he stand behind his reasons for making such a choice, though? Was helping Voldemort in in order to guarantee Hermione's safety a decision he'd ever be able to live with?

The answer to that was obvious to him.

"I don't like Voldemort," Harry said, finally giving voice to his thoughts, "but I don't hate the evil git. I despise him, sure, and I wouldn't mind seeing him dead but I don't hate him. My hate is saved for the Dursleys and the bastard who left me there," here Harry gave a bitter laugh. "I mean, what's one attempt on my life compared to ten years of misery and suffering? I'm not going to be anyone's pawn. Let's fucking do this."

"Are you sure?" Hermione pressed and he nodded firmly, steely and fierce in his resolve.

"This is a decision I can live with and I'm not going to let myself feel bad for making because I stand by my reasons. I value our lives more then those of anyone else, and maybe that's selfish and wrong but it doesn't change the fact that you're more important to me and your safety matters more then anyone else's." He said strongly and sincerely, meaning every word because the simple truth was that he cared more about Hermione and himself then the world and that would always be something he'd stand behind.

To Harry's surprise, Hermione pulled him into a tight hug before pressing her lips to his cheek in a chaste, lingering kiss. She then rested her forehead against his, her eyes soft and warm and proud as they met his. "I love you, Harry." She whispered.

"I love you too." He whispered back, swallowing past the lump in his throat. They slowly stepped apart and Harry discretely wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. "So, how do we find the evil git anyway?"

Hermione pointed to the trail of unicorn blood that left the path and led off into the depths of the forest. 

"Er, should we really go off the path?" Harry asked.

"I can get us back if we get lost." Hermione assured him and then paused. "Well, I probably can. Trees all look fairly similar, especially in the dark."

"Well that just fills me with confidence," Harry teased her before turning serious. "I trust you." He told her. Because he did– he trusted her with his life.

The Forest had been dark and eerie enough on the path and it was twice as bad off it. Following the light of Hermione's wand, their path was marked by splashes of silvery blood and they walked along it for nearly half an hour before Harry reached a gap in the trees that opened up to a clearing and stopped instantly. "Oh," he murmured and beside him Hermione made a soft, sympathetic sound.

"That's... sad."

And it was. Harry had never seen anything quite as beautiful or devastating as the dead unicorn. Its long, slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves. Harry had taken one step forwards toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze in place. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered... then out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast.

Harry and Hermione watched, transfixed, as did Fang, as the cloaked figure reached the unicorn and lowered its head over the wound in the animal's side and began to drink its blood.

"I believe," Hermione whispered to him, her voice shaky, "that we just found Voldemort."

Chapter Text

Chapter VIII:


Hermione's POV:

Hermione stood frozen, mouth dry and heart pounding erratically in her chest as she wondered– and not for the first time– if this was really the right thing to do. But, steeling all her courage, she took a deep breath and stepped forwards into the clearing. Her movements attracted the attention of the cloaked figure and he raised his head and looked right at them, unicorn blood trickling down the front of his dark robes. Fang let out a yelp and turned to flee and Hermione acted quickly, knowing that when the boarhound reached Hagrid the giant man would run straight to them.

"Incarcerous!" she hissed, her voice as quiet as she could make it, and shining ropes of silver light sprang from her wand to bind the massive dog. "Silencio!" She added when Fang started yelping and the boarhound was forced into silence. Hermione let herself bask in her victory for a moment before spinning back around as behind her Harry let out a strangled cry.

"No!" she cried out as Harry stumbled backwards, his eyes dazed with pain and his hands clamped over his scar as he fell to his knees.  "Stop!" Hermione shouted at the spectre that had started moving swiftly towards them, dropping to her knees beside Harry with her wand out and pointed defensively at the cloaked figure. A centaur suddenly galloped into the clearing, getting between them and the spectre and rearing up on its hind legs, ready to defend her and Harry. A ragged gasp escaped Hermione as she pointed her wand at the centaur. "Incarcerous! Silencio!" she repeated and the centaur joined the boarhound, toppled over on the ground, silenced and unable to move.

The spectre paused, halting his movements and tilted his head slightly as if curious. And then he spoke.

The voice sounded more like hissing then anything, but she could make out the words. "What issss your purpossse child?"

"W-we have a proposition. My friend and I." She tried to speak with more confidence then she felt from where she was on her knees next to Harry who was still clutching his head, strangled sounds of pain being torn from his throat. She took a deep breath, fiercely shoving her mounting panic before she got them both killed.

"Proposssition?" Hissed the spectre, "what do you have that could posssibly interessst Lord Voldemort?"

"How about the Philosopher's Stone." This was Harry, voice shaking and raspy with pain as he pushed himself up off the forest floor, one hand still pressed against his forehead and his face twisted in pain.

There was a long pause before the wraith-like figure spoke again. "It isss to my underssstanding that the ssstone isss hidden in the ssschool? What makesss you think that you can sssucceed in retrieving it?"

"We don't think, we know." Harry's voice was still shaky but he was speaking with more confidence now and she stood up, waiting a moment to make sure her legs would support before before helping Harry up to his feet.

"You know?"

"We already have the Stone. We stole it ages ago." Harry told the murderer of his parents, voice hoarse.

"And we'll give it to you under one condition," Hermione added, proud that her voice didn't tremble despite the fear and adrenaline coursing through her. Her deeply ingrained instinct to arm herself against the threat to her safety was making her free hand twitch towards where one of her concealed blades, hidden where she'd easily be able to reach it in a single motion. Her instincts were screaming at her and ten months didn't erase the habits of a lifetime– making her brain realise the slender piece of wood in her hand was just as dangerous as her knives wasn't easy, not when she knew just how deadly a blade was in her hands, when she knew her capabilities with them as well as she knew her own face. She clenched the hand not holding her wand into a fist and forced herself to focus on the Dark wizard, holding her chin up and keeping her fear off her face and out of her voice. "We want a Magical Oath," she said firmly, "we give you the Stone and you won't kill either of us for as long as we might live."

"An interesssting proposssal. But how will I know that you will keep up your ssside of the deal?"

"We'll both take the Oath." She told him, "We'll swear to give you the Stone, you swear not to harm us or kill us or get anyone else to harm or kill us."

Another long pause, and then a whispery sigh-like noise. "Very well. I will agree to your proposssition, but I have a demand of my own. If I swear not to harm or kill either of you, or get anyone elssse to do ssso, then I want your oath that you'll do the sssame to me."

"Deal." She said, instantly.

"Then ssspeak the wordsss, girl," the wraith-like figure ordered.

She cleared her throat, "I, Hermione Jane Granger, swear on my magic that if the recipient swears not to harm or kill me or my companion or get anybody else to do so for as long as we might live, we will hand over the Philosopher's Stone when he demands it and shall neither harm or kill the recipient or get anybody else to do it for us."

Hermione couldn't help her shiver as something made her skin glow pale red for a moment. Beside her, Harry's skin glowed silver.

"I, Lord Voldemort, ssswear on my magic that if the recipientsss hands over the Philosssopher'sss Ssstone when I demand and shall neither harm or kill me, nor get anybody elssse to do it for them, then I shall neither harm or kill the recipientsss or get anybody elssse to do it for me, for asss long asss they might live."

The wraith-like form glowed for a moment, a bright, gleaming green and Hermione felt the binding inside her, tying her to her Oath. Harry shuddered beside her, obviously feeling the same thing.

"The Ssstone," the spectre hissed and Hermione pulled it from her pocket and held it out. "Clever girl," the specter sounded amused now, "you had thisss little encounter planned from the beginning."

"Yes," Hermione nodded and steeled her nerves, knowing Voldemort wouldn't react well to what she said next, "Harry and I both did." The spectre froze and she responded by taking several hasty steps backwards, yanking Harry back with her.

"Harry? Harry Potter?" The spectre whispered, voice no longer amused.

"You took a Wizard's Oath, Lord Voldemort. You cannot harm him." She said quietly, "and he can't harm you."

"But the prophecy!" Hissed the spectre.

"Prophecy?" Harry asked, confused looking up at Voldemort for the first time since he'd collapsed in pain, "what prophecy?"

"Why do you think I tried to kill you, boy, all those years ago?" The spectre hissed, "a prophecy was told. 'The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approachesss, born to those who thrice defied him, born as the ssseventh month diesss'. There's more, but that's all my ssspy heard before he was dissscovered. Dumbledore isss the only perssson who knowsss the complete prophecy."

"Dumbledore?" Harry looked even paler then before. "He... he wants me to be his weapon. He wants to use me to kill you."

"Well that will no longer happen," Voldemort sounded amused again, much to Hermione's relief. "Now hand over the Ssstone, girl." She nodded mutely and stepped forwards again, holding out her hand. She shuddered as icy skin, still cloaked in shadows, brushed against hers and then the wraith drew back, Stone in his grasp.

"It would be prudent," Voldemort hissed, "for the witnessss to be... removed."

"The centaur?" Harry asked, nervous. "You want us to kill him?" Dark laughter.

"Did I sssuggesst that, Harry Potter?"

"Memory charm," Hermione spoke out loud.

"Yesss, that would work." Agreed the wraith, "you are young– do you know the spell?"

"It's obliviate," She replied nervously, "but I don't know much else. I... I'll probably end up wiping his entire mind."

"It isss your choice, girl. Either kill it or wipe it'sss mind." The specter ordered. Hermione took a deep breath and sent out a silent apology to the centaur but she knew she wouldn't regret her decision– she needed to protect Harry and herself and she'd never regret the choices she made to do so.

Pointing her wand at the centaur Hermione spoke firmly and clearly. "Obliviate!" She felt her magic flow through her, through her wand, and then the centaur fully slumped to the forest floor and stopped struggling in his bindings. His eyes became unfocused and glassy and Hermione knew it had worked.

"Good," Voldemort hissed before vanishing in a whirl of black smoke.

Harry fell back to his knees and Hermione was quick to follow. Her hand was trembling from the adrenaline and leftover fear as she reversed the spells binding and silencing the centaur and boarhound. Fang sprinted off yelping and whining while the centaur just lay there. "I think... I think I probably destroyed his mind." She admitted, feeling sorry for the being who had tried to protect them but she stood by her reasons– it was him or them. That wasn't even a choice at all. Harry didn't seem to hear her, his expression lost and horrified.

"He wanted me to be a killer," he croaked and she knew he was referring to Dumbledore. She wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tight.

"Well his plan failed." She spat.

"I read something once. It said that the first victim of war is innocence." Harry whispered to her, wrapping his arms around her and pressing his face into her neck. She could feel the warmth of his breath against her skin as Harry shuddered.

"Then Dumbledore is responsible for the first casualty." She replied, voice cold as ice, as she held Harry tight. "But in a fight whoever lands the first blow isn't important– the only one thing that really matters is whoever lands the last blow. And Harry? It's our move now. We're going to make him pay."

-

-

Severus's POV:

"You lost them in the Forbidden Forest?" Severus bellowed at the half-giant before turning to face Minerva, his eyes alight with pure fury. "What were you thinking, woman?"

Minerva at least had the decency to look ashamed even as she defended herself. "I wanted them to truly learn from their actions!"

"By sending them into the Forbidden Forest?" Severus shook his head in disbelief. "They're children and whoever's killing those unicorns is a monster!"

"We don't know that it's a 'who'." Minerva protested, her voice quivering slightly. He gave her a scathing look.

"We both know exactly just who it is!" He hissed, "and you've just handed the Boy Who Lived to him on a silver platter so he can finish what he started ten years ago!" Enraged and genuinely afraid for his students, Severus spun around away from the sorry pair and stormed towards the oak doors of the castle.

As soon as he was out of sight of the others, he broke into a run, practically sprinting across the castle's grounds. Once he reached the edge of the Forest Severus balanced his wand on his flat palm. "Point me Harry Potter and Hermione Granger!" he ordered and the wand spun several times before stopping, the tip pointing in a northeastern direction.

Fear built up inside through Severus as he navigated his way through the Forest. If either of his snakes had been hurt there would be hell to pay and it would be paid in blood and tears.

Severus then almost stumbled when it struck him that he'd just called Potter one of his snakes and he had to face the shocking realisation that he wanted to protect the boy not because of his oath to Dumbledore but because he actually liked Potter and felt as protective of him as he did all his Slytherins. Potter was one of his snakes and he'd be damned if he let anything happen to that boy and one of the most brilliant witches Hogwarts had ever seen.

Severus found the pair of them in a clearing with a dead unicorn and a barely-stirring centaur. Both his students were limp on the ground and a terrible fear gripped him as eerie green light flashed in his mind. "HARRY! HERMIONE!" he shouted, praying with all his might that they weren't dead; that they hadn't been slaughtered alongside the unicorn due to Minerva's foolishness.

He fell to his knees beside them, the pair slumped together on the forest floor, curled up in each other's arms even like this. Severus let out a sound that was half groan and half sob of relief when his urgent fingers felt the fluttering pulses in their wrists. "Mobilicorpus." He whispered and both his students floated up into the air.

He levitated them back to the castle, crossing paths with Albus and Minerva in the entrance hall.

The grave-faced headmaster went pale. "Is Harry alive?" he asked urgently and Severus was too exhausted both emotionally and physically to yell at the headmaster for not even sparing a thought for Granger.

"Yes." He said dully striding past the headmaster and his deputy and leading the way straight to the Hospital Wing. Poppy gasped in horror as he entered but instantly sprang into work, as efficient and diligent as always, and with a great deal of relief he let the mediwitch take over, levitating both unconscious children into separate beds as he slumped down on the closest chair.

A hand settled on his shoulder and he didn't have to look up to know it was Albus. "You have truly become fond of the boy." The headmaster said sounding pleased.

"Old man, if you do not remove that hand I will remove it for you. With a cutting curse." He muttered venomously and he wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed when Albus backed off. A bit of dismemberment would probably have improved his mood.

Meddling fool.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry let out a small groan as his eyes fluttered open. His body felt stiff and sore but something warm and familiar was curled up next to him. "Hey 'Mione." He mumbled through a yawn.

"If you ever call me "'Mione" again I will castrate you." Was the tired reply his best friend gave and he could help the small laugh that escaped him as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. Hermione sat up beside him, yawning, and handed him his glasses. Gratefully, he put them on then blinked in surprise.

"We're in the hospital wing?" He asked in confusion. "And we're in the same cot?"

"I had a nightmare." Was Hermione's only explanation.

"Oh." He said, wisely not pressing the issue. "So, um, do we call for Madam Pomphrey?"

"I believe she'll be along shortly." Snape's drawling voice startled him and both he and Hermione turned to see their Head of House sitting across from them and looking exhausted.

"Sir?" Hermione asked worriedly, "Are you okay?" Snape snorted.

"'Are you okay?' asks the girl whose unconscious body I found in the Forbidden Forest along with a dead unicorn and brain-dead centaur."

The corners of Hermione's mouth twitched down slightly and he knew it was because of the confirmation her memory charm had failed. Still, he could see the moment her face smoothed out as she dismissed any guilt– she'd always prioritise them over anyone else, Harry knew. He also knew it would take him much longer for the sick feeling in his stomach to go away from the thought of what they'd done to the innocent centaur who'd only tried to help them. 

And then Harry realised something that distracted him from his guilt entirely– Snape had just said that he was the one who'd found them. Which meant the snarky professor had gone looking for them.

Harry actually felt... touched. He'd never gotten the feeling that Snape liked him. It was nice to know that his professor had cared enough to go find them when they hadn't returned.

"Do you remember anything of what happened– anything at all?" Snape asked looking very serious as he leaned forwards in his seat.

"I remember seeing the unicorn," Harry told the professor, reciting the story he and Hermione had memorized last night before something strange had happened. "We were walking towards it and then this– this thing appeared."

"It looked like a wraith." Hermione added quietly.

"I didn't see much from that point," Harry said, looking down at his hands as if he was ashamed when really he was making sure Snape couldn't read his thoughts. "My scar..." he shuddered because this part was true enough. "It's never done anything like that before. There was this horrible pain like my scar was on fire. And that's all I remember."

"Harry collapsed." Hermione continued their story, her voice still quiet. "It was awful. The wraith was just so still as it faced me with unicorn blood dripping down its front. I pulled out my wand and then it rushed at me. That's when I think I passed out."

Under the blanket, Harry crossed his fingers and desperately hoped that the professor wouldn't question their story. To be fair, most of what they'd said was true– they'd just left out the part where they'd met, chatted to and made a Wizard's Oath with Lord Voldemort before handing over the Philosopher's Stone which they had stolen earlier in the year to him.

Like he said, it was mostly the truth. Mostly.

The bit where they'd passed out hadn't actually been part of the plan, though. They'd expected to be conscious when they were found. Harry wasn't even sure how they'd ended up unconscious on the forest floor and seeing as his last memory was of Hermione going limp in his arms moments before he blacked out, he was quite certain she'd had nothing to do with it.

"Very well. The headmaster may wish to speak with you later, but for now, rest." Snape said in a shockingly gentle voice before standing up. Harry watched him leave then turned to Hermione but before he could say anything, Madam Pomphrey had emerged from her office and was bustling towards them and making indignant squawking sounds.

Harry laid back down and Hermione slumped down beside him, curling into him as he held her tight.

He'd been an excited child at the start of the year. One who, admittedly, had experienced an abusive childhood which had damaged a part of him but he'd still been able to trust. He'd still believed in the best of people. He'd still been an innocent.

But that had all changed.

He might only be eleven and only ten months had passed but Harry felt like he'd aged years. Aged and turned guarded, no longer able to trust the people around him, no longer able to believe they had his best interests at heart. The only person he knew he could rely on one hundred percent was the one lying next to him.

Hermione Jane Granger, his best friend, the only person in the entire world that he loved.

-

-

Voldemort's POV:

Lord Voldemort looked down at the Stone in his/Quirrell's hand. It was a thing of beauty and unimaginable power and by this time next year he would have his own body once more.

But almost as extraordinary as the Stone itself was how he had acquired it. Two first years had done what he could not. And they weren't just any first years: Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, the cause of his downfall, the supposed 'Hero of the Light', had aided the wizard who murdered his parents with the process of regaining a corporal form in exchange for an Oath that ensured the protection of both him and his friend.

So yes, that had been surprising, almost amusing even, but Harry Potter had not been the brains behind the plan.

The girl. Hermione Granger.

Hermione Granger had done what not many others could claim. She'd one-upped him. She'd tricked him into making a Wizard's Oath swearing not to harm Harry Potter. Had he known who the boy was he never would have made the Oath but he hadn't even noticed how carefully Hermione Granger had avoided using her friend's name. Not until it was too late and the consequence of harming the boy in any way would cost him a price he would never pay– revenge was not worth the loss of his magic.

Reluctantly, Voldemort had to admit he was impressed.

Equally so by the cold way she had dealt with the centaur, casting a spell years above her age level, a spell she had fully known she couldn't control and would end up leaving the centaur damaged if not brain-dead. He could tell from the set look on her face as she pointed her wand at the creature she had bound and silenced that she was aware of what was going to happen. Yet she did it anyway. She had not even hesitated.

Harry Potter and Hermione Granger were not ordinary first years. He closed his/Quirrell's eyes and replayed the memory of after he had 'left' and the two thought they were on their own before he'd cast Stupefy as he'd heard Severus' approach– it would do none of them any good if it looked like they'd had any part in the state of the centaur.

The first victim of war is innocence, the Boy Who Lived had said.

Then Dumbledore is responsible for the first casualty, Hermione Granger had replied. But in a fight whoever lands the first blow isn't important– the only one thing that really matters is whoever lands the last blow. And Harry? It's our move now. We're going to make him pay.

A smile twisted over his/Quirrell's mouth. Perhaps he could still play this to his advantage after all– they were children playing war but they were going to be powerful one day and he wanted them on his side, fighting in his ranks.

It wasn't as if they weren't already halfway there.

-

-

Harry's POV:

The final two weeks of school passed in a blur. Exams came and went but Harry barely even noticed.

Dumbledore had cornered them for a meeting and he and Hermione had repeated their version of the events which the old man had accepted with a cheery smile and an offering of lemon drops. They had both declined.

The end of year feast was underway with Ravenclaw winning the House Cup and Slytherin coming a close second and all his dorm-mates had gone to celebrate while he'd stayed behind.

Harry felt... he didn't know what to feel. He was furious at Dumbledore—hated him in fact, for everything the man had done and hidden. He was relieved that he didn't have been hunted down and killed by Voldemort as revenge for his temporary downfall in his future. He was overjoyed to actually have someone he loved and who loved him. And he was utterly miserable that tomorrow he would have to leave the castle that was his home.

"Harry?" he heard Hermione ask from the entrance of the boy's dorm and he looked up and smiled at her, his heart immediately lightening as he took in the sight of his best friend. Her face was flushed with excitement and her eyes bright as she rushed over to him.

"Hey." He greeted her, genuinely happy.

"I've got something to show you." She told him with an exhilarated smile on her face. Harry couldn't help grinning at her joy.

"Oh yeah?" he asked, mimicking her by raising an eyebrow. Hermione beamed and winked at him then, in a the space of a heartbeat, she'd vanished and in her place was a– "you can turn into a snake?" he gasped in shock.

::Yes:: Hermione replied and Harry's eyes widened further as he realized–

::You can speak Parseltongue now?::

::I think so:: Hermione replied, her long, slender form weaving its way towards him ::the more time I spend in this shape, the more I seem to pick up:: Harry nodded dumbly, only half taking in her words as she slid across to him. Her animagus form was beautiful and elegant, almost a meter long with dark silver-grey colouring. Harry held out his hand and gently touched the top of her head with his fingertips. Her smooth scales felt like silk.

A somewhat evil grin crossed his face as he looked down at her. ::We're going to have so much fun with this, aren't we?:: he hissed and Hermione made a strange noise in response that he assumed was a snake's version laughter as she dipped her diamond-shaped head up and down.

::Oh yes we are::

-

The next morning at eleven a.m. Harry and Hermione boarded the Hogwarts Express along with their Slytherin friends and found a compartment.

Despite the sadness he felt at leaving Hogwarts, Harry enjoyed spending the ride home chatting and laughing with the boys as Hermione rolled her eyes at them and interjected every now and then with a comment of her own though she mostly just read her book. Iago was in a bad mood, spitting and snarling every time someone so much as looked at him with Hermione defending the fleabag by claiming that the tomcat was miserable about having to leave Mrs. Norris behind.

Harry found that himself heavily aware of the notice in his pocket that reminded him he couldn't perform magic over the holidays. He'd asked Hermione how anyone would even know if he did and she'd explained about the Trace and how it monitored the wands of underage witches and wizards. "Of course," Hermione had added at the end of her explanation with a smile as sharp as one of her switchblades and an evil glint in her eyes, "the Dursleys don't have to know that." Harry had responded with a sharp smile of his own, wicked glee rising inside him at the thought of his childhood tormentors cowering before him.

As the train arrived at Platform Nine and Three Quarters Harry had to swallow past the lump in his throat and reach out to squeeze Hermione's hand. She gave him a warm smile and helped lift down his luggage, her own trunk having been shrunk down by one of the Slytherin prefects and stashed in her satchel for safe-keeping.

It took quite a while for them all to get off the platform. A wizened old guard was up by the ticket barrier, letting them go through the gate in twos and threes so they didn't attract attention by all bursting out of a solid wall and alarming the muggles.

"Write to me," Hermione ordered him as they passed through the gateway together. 

"Write to me too." He replied and she smiled warmly at him.

"I promise."

Harry let out a heavy sigh as he spotted Uncle Vernon waiting for him and trudged over, Hermione walking beside him with her eyes going cold as she took in his relatives.

"Ready are you?" grunted Uncle Vernon, still purple-faced, still mustached and still looking furious at the nerve of Harry carrying an owl in a cage in a stadium full of ordinary people. Behind him stood Aunt Petunia and Dudley who both looked terrified at the very sight of him. It was a good look on them.

"You must be Harry's relatives." Hermione said in a voice like ice. Her expression had turned dark and wild and, in that moment, Harry thought that his best friend looked dangerous. Dudley made an alarmed squeaking noise and Uncle Vernon cleared his throat.

"In a manner of speaking. Hurry up, boy, we haven't got all day." He turned as if to walk away but suddenly found himself unable to move. Harry remembered Hermione using this same bit of wandless magic on Ron Weasley during their first week at Hogwarts—wandless magic wasn't picked up by the Trace, after all.

"No, you don't have all day." Hermione purred to his Uncle, stalking around so she was standing in front of him again, her dark eyes boring into his piggy ones. "So I'll make this very brief. If you do anything to Harry that I don't like I'm going to know and I'm going to make you regret it. You have no idea what I'm capable of but I would be oh-so happy to spend several long, long hours teaching you." Harry wasn't sure when she'd pulled out one of her switchblades, but as Hermione stepped even closer to his uncle he saw the flash of silver in her hand as she pressed the edge of the wickedly sharp blade to Vernon's throat. "If you hurt him," she said quietly and Harry had never heard her sound more dangerous, "I will tear your wife and son to pieces before I gut you like the pig you are."

Hermione stepped back, switchblade vanishing as she released his uncle. Vernon's face was white as a ghost and Hermione smiled pleasantly at him. "I'm glad we had this little chat." She said before walking back over to Harry and hugging him tight. ::Have fun. I'm going to miss you:: she hissed.

::I'm going to miss you too:: he hissed back, enjoying the looks on the Dursleys faces as they heard them communicate in the "abnormal" language.

::Oh, and Harry?:: Hermione said as she stepped back from him. ::Don't be a stranger::

-

-

END OF PART ONE: THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE

Chapter Text

Chapter IX:

 

Harry's POV:

Little Whinging was an ordinary town. It wasn't large but it wasn't too small either. It had been deemed perfect by Mr. and Mrs. Dursley when they had first decided to move there several years ago. Normal and tidy with lots of neighbors to spy on and plenty of garden space for their future children to play in. The house of Number 4 Privet Drive couldn't have been more ordinary if it had tried.

The only thing less ordinary about the house was that one of its inhabitants was a Wizard named Harry Potter; Petunia Dursley's nephew. The Dursleys had been forced to care for Harry after his parents had died eleven years ago and despite the fact that Harry spent most of the year at a boarding school in Scotland they thought of him as a burden.

Vernon Dursley could never be mistaken for a nice man. People might think he was benevolent and polite but those who knew him knew better. Harry knew his uncle very well and the longer Harry spent in the man's company the more he hated him.

Usually, Harry liked to pass the time by imagining how fun it would be for him to invite his Wizarding friends over to visit him in his nice, ordinary, normal Muggle household (he'd never dare, of course. Vernon's wrath wouldn't be worth the small moment of amusement but it was nice to dream regardless) but some nights when he was laying awake he found himself daydreaming about what it would be like if the Dursleys somehow ended up in prison, or were killed in a car crash like they had claimed Harry's parents had– and on the really, truly bad days he wondered about what it would be like if he killed them himself.

Harry didn't think he had honestly ever really wished them dead, though. No, he might have imagined them dying and might have even imagined murdering them himself but when push came to shove the closest Harry had always ever seriously wished death on anyone was after the Mirror of Erised incident the previous school year.

That is, it was the closest Harry had ever seriously wished death on anyone until now.

Harry found himself actually thankful he didn't have his wand handy because he thought he might actually kill his Uncle– there was only so much of Vernon's bigoted bullshit and spiteful hate that he could take. Harry just wanted, just needed, one more shove in the right direction and he would be happy to curse the muggle to within an inch of his life. His feet tapped restlessly against the floor as if urging him to go fetch his wand while his right hand twitched, fingers curling uselessly around air. Harry stayed where he was though, silently listening as Uncle Vernon verbally ground him under his shoe.

The beginning of the holidays had been bearable despite the fact he couldn't see Hermione or use magic but they had progressively grown worse when he didn't receive any letters from Hermione. Harry knew that Hermione was fierce, tough as nails and, above all else, a survivor but he also knew that living on the streets was dangerous and he was scared for her.

Another factor that had added to his increasing misery was the fact that Aunt Petunia, unfortunately, remembered only too well that underage witches and wizards weren't allowed to use magic out of school and Hermione's threat at King's Cross had only held the Dursleys back for so long. Which led to where he was now, with his stupid uncle yelling at him.

"–you no good freak! And don't get me started on your mother!" Pausing for breath, Uncle Vernon opened his mouth to continue but Harry's hand was suddenly pointed at his face. It clenched at the air and he imagined the feel of his wand between his fingers and his palm, the stick of holly heavy and familiar in his hand.

"Don't talk about my mother." He said, his voice quiet but dangerous. Lily Potter would always be a sore point for Harry. His mother and father had both died to protect him but it always hurt more to hear his mother insulted, knowing she was the one who had stood between him and Voldemort, shielding him with her own body.

"Your worthless mother was no better then a cheap who–!" Again, Harry cut him off. Anger rushed through him; a dark anger like black smoke that seeped through him, poisoning his thoughts, feeding his hatred and Harry let it consume him, embraced it as rage turned his vision red.

"Avada Kedavra!" He shouted and Vernon's eyes went wide, his face paling at the 'magical' words as he backed away hurriedly with his hands in front of his face– but that was the only thing that happened. Without a wand, Harry hadn't been able to cast the Killing Curse.

Harry dropped his arm, his fingers still clenched at his side. With wide eyes he looked upon the still living form of his uncle who had now been joined by an equally horrified aunt and cousin.

"I didn't mean... I didn't mean to..." Harry mumbled to himself, his hands shaking as he tried to force out more words through the lump in his throat. He couldn't speak, he could barely breathe: he was that shocked. Why had he tried to use that spell? Why, knowing what it did, had he screamed it out while hoping it would work?

Harry spun away from his loathsome relatives and fled from the house as if Fluffy was chasing him. He ran along Privet Drive and then Wisteria Walk, further and further until at last there was no chance of him seeing Number 4.

Then he collapsed to the ground. His scar had started to throb, not painfully but enough so that he was aware, and Harry pressed one hand to it while his right hand unconsciously grasped a wand that wasn't there as half-formed memories of brilliant green light flashed behind his eyelids accompanied by the sound of chilling laughter.

He stayed out all night, too horrified to go back and face what he had almost done. How could he go back, knowing that when he returned he would be disappointed that the curse hadn't worked? Harry closed his eyes, squeezing the fingers of his right hand into a tight fist to stop himself from practicing the curse.

He desperately wished Hermione were here.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Being Jane again felt... strange, Hermione couldn't help but think as she slipped through the gap in the barbed wire fence, and approached the old warehouse, shut down due to being labeled as hazardous.

Reaching the locked side entrance, Hermione knocked sharply– three big knocks, two little ones, followed by another two big ones. There a slight scuffling noise and then a scraping noise of wood on wood as the door was pushed to the side. Suspicious blue eyes peered through the gap then widened comically.

"JANE!" Hermione couldn't help but laugh as Sting shoved the door open the rest of the way and yanked her into his arms. "Look at yeh Janey!" He grinned, spinning her around, before placing her back on her feet to take a good long look at her. "Wot happened ta ya? You look like one of 'em now!"

"Believe me, Sting, I'd never ever want to be one of them." Hermione grinned, finding herself slipping back into Jane easily.

"I missed you heaps." Sting said, yanking her into another hug and Hermione relaxed in the embrace of one of the only two people in this world she trusted.

Absently, she wondered how Harry was going. She'd have to visit him soon– she missed him already.

Sting dragged her into the warehouse where a few members of the crowd were hanging about. She could see Hornet, Sledge, Cat, Pike, Jackie and Jill all present, all of them people she got along with.

Street kids tended to band together, joining up into small groups for safety though they didn't stay together all the time. After the previous leader of their "gang" died, a guy who'd gone by Rottweiler, she and Sting stopped spending so much time with the others.

Rottie had been a scary son of a bitch but he had kept the order, enforcing his rules without any mercy for those who broke them– Hermione had seen him break fingers and arms in punishment, never discriminating between boys or girls. Rottie had also protected them from the meaner bands of kids out there– when Lacey, one of the girls working as a prostitute, was assaulted by one of those gangs Rottie had hunted down and slit the throats of every last boy who'd been involved.

Like she said; he'd been a scary son of a bitch. He'd also been the one who'd taught Sting to fight with knives and Sting had then taught her. Rottie had even taught her a few moves himself, ones concentrating on how to fight back against someone bigger then her, especially if they had a knife, but Hermione had avoided him when she could– he'd scared her.

Once Rottie was dead, she and Sting had been warier about associating with the others. Rottie had kept the peace through his violence and without him their safety wasn't as assured. During the colder months though banding together was a means of survival when warmth and shelter became a serious issue. A base would be chosen and set up for winter, one that was safe to use for fires, open enough that the smoke wouldn't kill them and out of the way enough that local police wouldn't spot the light in an abandoned building.

Out of the group in the warehouse, the same group she and Sting most commonly associated with, Pike was the oldest- Hermione guessed he had to be in his early twenties by now- and little Hornet was the youngest, at around eight and a half. Pike had been chosen as the unofficial leader of the handful of street kids after Rottie's death as out of them all he'd been on the streets the longest and was considered the oldest and toughest. 

Jackie and Jill, both fifteen, were twins and had been living on the streets for about three years now. Like most street kids, they'd picked up new names after they started interacting with other runaways and homeless people, the twins having picked theirs from an old nursery rhyme. Hermione didn't know for sure but she suspected from the cigarette burns on their arms and neck that Jackie and Jill had run from an abusive home. It was a common enough story for those who roughed it out on the streets of London, including fourteen-year-old Cat who had a bell-sweet voice, long dark-red hair and sticky strawberry-red lips. She'd earned her nickname from her habit of lounging like a cat in the sun; before that she'd been known as Rose which was the name she still went by when she was pulling tricks.

Hornet had earned her name from the single black braid that reached the small of her back and looked like a hornet's stinger. The young girl had long, twisting scars on her forearms from being pushed out a window by her junkie mother two years ago. She'd been living on the streets for a year and a half. Sledge had been the one to find her, curled up in an alley like a tiny kitten. Sixteen-year-old Sledge was built like a mountain despite the lack of nourishment over the years. He was fiercely protective of those he considered his, Hornet in particular ever since he first found her. He looked incredibly intimidating with a long scar stretching from his eyebrow to his chin, slicing down the middle of his face. 

Finally there was Sting with his shaggy blond hair and light blue eyes. Now fifteen years old, he barely resembled the scrawny nine-year-old that had first taken Hermione under his wing, his recent puberty having left him with powerful muscles made lean and dangerous from living on the streets.

There had been others, of course; those who were either dead now or just not around. Some she'd go hunt down, searching their usual haunts, while others Sting would have to pull her aside later and tell her they were gone. That was the way it worked– survival wasn't guaranteed, you had to fight for it and it wasn't a fight everybody won.

As she and Sting entered the factory Hornet let out a delighted squeal. "Jane!" She shrieked jumping to her feet and racing over. Hermione grinned as the small girl wrapped her skinny arms around her– Hornet was the only person aside from Sting and now Harry that she let hug her.

"Hey shortcake." She greeted the dark haired girl and Hornet pouted, sticking out her bottom lip.

"I ain' short! I's jus' younger then you!" She defended herself and Hermione smiled as the others laughed. This felt good. This felt like home.

"C'mon," Sting urged, grabbing her hand and pulling her away. She waved as they left, Sting leading them to an old park that was mostly just weeds and a few sickly looking trees.

"I fuckin' missed ya," he told her as they finally stopped, just the two of them alone again. Hermione grinned.

"Believe it or not, I missed you too."

Sting grinned back at her. "Ya look all soft, Janey– no one ter fight in tha' posh school o' yours?"

"Are you trying to get me to punch you?" She asked playfully and Sting laughed, holding out his hands.

"Go ahead 'n try, luv," he grinned. "C'mon, lil bit, give it ya best shot." Hermione laughed too and lunged at him, Sting twisting out of the way with the sort of speed he'd practically beaten into her. Hermione let her brain settle into the familiar pattern of strike, dodge and block that had been her life for so long, ducking his first punch and blocking the follow up. When Sting moved to strike her ribs and she kneed him in the gut and the second he was in reach she jabbed her fingers at his trachea only for him to ram his shoulder into her, knocking her back.

Sting eventually pinned her, pressing a pocketknife to her throat as she tried to catch her breath. "Tha' was too fuckin' easy." He said, glaring down at her.

"Fuck off!" she panted, reaching up to shove the hand with the knife away only for Sting to dig the steel at her throat in deeper. She hissed between her teeth as she felt the sharp sting that meant he'd broken skin and went still.

"Have ya forgotten everythin' I taught ya?" Sting demanded. "When some'un puts a knife ta yeh throat ya break their fuckin' fingers!" Growling under her breath, Hermione lashed out, one hand grabbing the wrist holding the blade to hold it steady as she used her other hand to wedge her fingers under Sting's middle one, pushing her thumb on the joint and yanking the finger back with enough force that he had to let go of the pocketknife or risk getting his finger broken.

Hermione remembered his lesson on teaching her how to get away from someone holding a knife to her throat quite vividly– he'd used a blunt knife for her to practice but her hand had still been cut up something awful when she messed up the grip and had to grab the blade itself to shove it away from her. Sting had yelled at her, made her do it over and over again while she was dripping blood all over the place then poured alcohol on the gash before staunching the blood flow with a rag and using duct tape to both keep pressure on the wound and avoid leaving it open for infection.  

Sting had never gone easy on her, not even when she was only six years old and knew nothing about survival. But it was thanks to him that she was still alive when so many others weren't. Every scar she had from his training, every bruise and cut and sprain and even that one time he'd broken her nose, was worth it. Besides, after he broke her nose she'd punched him in the mouth so hard he'd lost a tooth. She'd also cut up her knuckles on his teeth but it had been worth it. 

"Again," Sting ordered her, picking up his pocketknife and stowing it back in his sleeve. He smirked at her. "Unless yer scared."

"Shut your fucking mouth," she growled back at him, lashing out with a kick and then twisting her body around when he caught her foot so she could jab out with her elbow.

An hour later they were both covered in bruises, scrapes, cuts and sweat and Sting had her pinned to the ground beneath him, his knees trapping her hands to her back while one hand was fisted in her hair and the other held the pocketknife to her throat.

"You're such a bastard," Hermione groaned and he laughed, releasing her and standing up. Hermione stood too, unable to help her smirk at the sight of the bruise swelling up on his jaw despite the way her body felt like a giant bruise and she was pretty sure her face matched his from when he'd elbowed her brutally in the jaw. The familiar adrenaline was rushing through her body though and the physical exertion paired with the sheer thrill of the fight, of letting her body move in the way it had been trained and conditioned after ten months of being sedentary, had plastered a huge grin on her face that didn't want to leave.

"I missed ya, Janey," Sting muttered, yanking her into another hug. His fingers gripped onto her hard enough to leave fresh bruises and she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed fiercely, digging her nails in like she never had to let go.

-

The next few weeks passed with Hermione splitting her time between roaming the streets of London with Sting and tracking down old acquaintances. She also made sure to return to the base every now and then to visit Hornet and check in with Sting who had fallen in more with Pike during her absence, something she didn't begrudge him– Pike was heavily involved with street fights and Sting had always done well in those. Besides, without her there for winter she imagined Sting had had little choice but to ally with the crowd for survival.

Hermione thought about Harry a lot. He hadn't sent her any letters and she was starting to worry because without Hedwig she couldn't write back to him. She used a phone booth once to try calling him but his aunt answered instead so she claimed a wrong number.

Worried, she'd made her way to Diagon Alley where she'd located a post office and sent him a letter asking if he was alright. When nearly a month had gone by without any response, she'd started to panic. If she didn't get a reply within the next week she was already planning to go to Little Whinging herself and either slap Harry silly for worrying her like this or flay his relatives alive for hurting him.

Her panic reached a crescendo when, two days away from her deadline, a frantic-looking Hedwig swooped into the old warehouse where she'd been hanging out with Sting, Hornet and the others, the owl screeching loud enough to wake the dead. A surprised Hermione held her arm out for the bird to perch, but the beautiful snowy owl wasn't carrying a letter instead she kept screeching and dug her talons into Hermione's arm and flapped her wings almost as if she was— oh hell, the owl was trying to drag her. 

Hermione swore violently in French then Latin then Parselmouth, the latter gaining her some attention from the others, before springing to her feet. "Wot's th' matter, Jane?" Sting asked, looking at Hedwig with a great deal of fascination though his face creased in concern at the look of barely concealed panic on her face.

"I don't know Sting– it's an emergency with that friend I told you about, I don't know what's happened but I've got to go." She explained hurriedly, slinging her satchel over her shoulder. Iago leaped down from one of the low rafters where he'd been stalking one of the many rats that roamed London's streets, landing half on her shoulder, half on her back. Hermione winced as the cat sunk his claws into her to keep from falling before rearranging him so he was draped over her shoulders.

"You gotta be safe." Hornet ordered and Hermione flashed her a strained smile.

"Will do, shortcake."

The nearest bus stop was a ten-minute run and a panting, red-faced Hermione skidded to a stop by the sign. Hedwig had been flying above her up ahead and Hermione was very aware of the owl– and the deep scratches the snowy had left on her arm. She got a disapproving look from one of the people waiting for the bus but she just shot the lady a dirty look in return before urging Iago to hide in her satchel.

She shelled out a handful of pounds for the ticket, resigning herself to a few missed meals or some dumpster diving, and spent the bus ride in a state of nervous suspense, bouncing her knee up and down in a way that annoyed the person in the seat next to her greatly. After they disembarked, nobody else chose to sit next to her.

The trip took a little over four hours and she had to change buses three times and spend even more money she really couldn't afford to but eventually she found herself in Little Whinging. Hedwig swooped down from the sky the moment she stepped off the bus and Hermione followed the snowy owl in a brisk jog as Hedwig led her to Harry.

The owl steered her to a small park near a train tunnel where Harry was sitting on a bench looking cold, miserable and pale. Hermione could tell at a glance that her best friend had lost at least four pounds of weight he couldn't afford to lose and in just a month. Her teeth ground together angrily as her mind went over the worst untraceable Dark curses she could use on the Dursleys and then some that weren't so untraceable but would be highly satisfying.

And then she saw the red rims around his eyes, and her heart nearly broke. "Oh Harry..." She breathed.

A look of complete shock and then intense relief covered Harry's face as he looked up and saw her. He immediately leapt to his feet and ran over and Hermione hugged him tight as he clung to her and started sobbing into her shoulder. She was trembling in fury at the thought of what could have caused this, her mind already racing ahead and making plans as she comforted Harry.

She let him cry until he was out of tears then steered him back over to the bench and sat down, tugging him down after her. As he slumped against her she grabbed his hand and tangled her fingers with his. "Tell me." She said softly and he did.

She was unconcerned with what Harry had almost done and her dismissal of how serious Harry had perceived his actions to be seemed to calm him down significantly. After he finished explaining she stayed silent for a few moments, finalizing the plan in her head before standing up and tugging Harry up with her. "We've got a quick job to do and then you're coming with me." She told him in a voice that left no room for any sort of protest.

And Harry grinned at her, looking absolutely and positively delighted.

-

Hermione knocked on the front door of No. 4 Privet Drive and gave a cold smile as Vernon Dursley opened it. "You!" He blustered angrily, "I know the truth now! I know that you little freaks can't use magic out of that freak school of yours!"

"Correction," She said with a sugary sweet smile while she fought back her instincts to pounce forwards and claw the fat Muggles eyes out with her bare hands, "we can't use our wands outside of school. The rules don't say anything about using not using magic."

Vernon tried to step backwards but he was already frozen in place, unable to move. Hermione pulled out a flick-knife and twirled the blade between her fingers, enjoying the look of horror on Vernon's face. "I could do anything to you right now," she said, her voice lowering to a dangerous whisper. "I could cut out your eyes," –as she spoke she traced the point of the blade just under the rim and over the lid of each eye– "and you wouldn't be able to make a sound." She smirked as Vernon started dripping copious amounts of sweat.

"Now, Harry's going to come with me but he's leaving his school stuff here," she told him, her voice soft and poisonous, "and on the first of September we are going to return for it. If anything is missing or damaged in any way then I will burn your house to the ground with you and your pathetic family in it, frozen like you are now and unable to run from the flames. Even if I have to hunt you down, I can and I will. And since you clearly disregarded my previous warning, maybe this will convince you I'm not bluffing."

Vernon's face was crimson and pinched in his fury with sweat rolling down from his forehead. His skin parted easily under the sharpness of her blade as she carved a deliberately agonisingly slow line down his face, starting with slicing through the multiple double chins and then up his cheek to finish under his right eye. Blood leaked steadily from the cut as she'd intentionally made it deep enough to require stitches and soaked into the collar of his shirt. The acrid smell of urine mixed with the coppery tang of fresh spilled blood as Vernon lost control of his bladder and the saltiness of the tears streaming down his cheeks only added to his pain.

“Let that remind you that you’ve had your first strike." She told him, tracing the point of the knife along the cut that looked roughly like a '1'. "And I only ever give one.” Hermione gave him her best wolf smile, hungry and predatory, and tapped the flat of the now bloodstained steel against his bulbous nose. "I think I've made my point clear but we both know you're a slow learner so let me repeat– Harry's things are not to be touched. When we return for them if they are in less then perfect condition I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll burn your house down, little piggy. Blink twice if you understand."

Vernon's eyes, watery and bloodshot, hastily blinked twice and Hermione's wolf smile grew wider as her eyes turned very cold. "This is where you run." She suggested, lifting the flick-knife to her mouth and slowly licking along the bloodied blade as she released the magic holding the man in place. Vernon immediately started screaming, stumbling back into the house as quickly as his large girth could manage and slamming the door shut. Hermione pulled a face as she heard the sound of a deadbolt sliding into place. "Gross," she muttered, spitting out the sweet-coppery fluid and wiping her tongue on her sleeve.

Harry, who had been hiding crouched behind one of the hedges, stood up and looked at her wide-eyed and pale. "You're absolutely right." He said in a shaky voice.

"Of course I am." She said before pausing. "About what this time?"

"You do give the best death threats." Harry said fervently. "You nearly made me wet myself!"

Hermione smirked, remembering both the conversation they'd had in the hospital wing after the troll incident and the look of terror on Vernon's face. "Damn right I do." She said before turning serious.

"Did you get what you needed?" she asked and Harry nodded, holding up a back-pack he hadn't been holding before.

"Snuck in and picked the lock on the cupboard under the stairs like you taught me while you were distracting Uncle Vernon," he confirmed, "I got my wand and the cloak then snuck back out in time to catch the end of your little crazy-psycho speech."

Hermione gave a cold, cold smile. "I cut him because he starved you and while I wouldn't actually kill him for destroying your things if he had hurt you, Harry, if any of them had hurt you, I would burn them all alive."

Harry hugged her then and she felt the fiery heat of her rage, hatred and fear finally start to simmer down and she exhaled slowly. "I love you too." Harry whispered and she squeezed him tight before stepping back.

"Come on," she said, "we need to get out of here in case your pig uncle calls the police. I don't fancy been arrested."

Harry shuddered at the thought and pulled on his backpack. Harry led the way to the bus stop and Hermione made them board the first one that turned up, very conscious of the fact they needed to make a fast get away, and let it take them far, far away from Little Whinging.

Above them, a very proud snowy owl soared through the sky, following them back to the rough streets Hermione called home.

-

-

Voldemort's POV:

Lord Voldemort had to admit he was surprised when he felt a burst of pure hatred that wasn't his flicker briefly in his mind. Closing his/Quirrell's eyes and tracing the source of the foreign burst of emotion, he found himself looking at an obese, purple-faced Muggle as a voice he recognized to be Harry Potter's shouted, "Avada Kedavra!"

He'd honestly expected to see a flash of green light but as the boy looked down he saw through Potter's eyes that his wand hand had been empty.

And then Voldemort had been pushed out of Potter's mind, the link between them suddenly closed. He prodded it thoughtfully and deduced that if he had his normal strength he'd be able to push past the barrier that apparently didn't work when Potter was overcome by extreme emotion but he was currently too weak.

With a frustrated sigh, he opened his/Quirrell's eyes and glared at the mirror across from him. The weedy face of his ungrateful servant looked back at him, completely unexceptional except for the glowing crimson eyes. His/Quirrell's mouth curved into a smirk.

He was slowly gaining more and more power, now able to take control of Quirrell's body for a full day without tiring. He fully expected that the process of his rebirth would be completed sooner then he'd originally anticipated and then he'd begin rebuilding his empire to take over Wizarding Britain. And he'd start with enticing Harry Potter and Hermione Granger over to the Dark– and after the little display he'd just witnessed, he was more confident then ever that it wouldn't take much prompting.

Really, it would barely take a push.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry couldn't help his anxiety as he followed Hermione who was making her way through the rapidly darkening streets of London with an enviable confidence. In an odd sort of way, she reminded him of an alley cat; scrawny, alert and vicious when provoked. Savage. A survivor.

He decided not to mention that likeness to her out loud– a stray cat probably wasn't the most flattering thing to compare someone too.

They'd had to take a train and two different buses before Hermione had decided they were close enough to walk and he was now exhausted and nervous despite his absolute trust in her, unable to help his fear of being in an unfamiliar city as night set in.

Hermione wasn't going to abandon him, he reassured himself– she would never abandon him. The thought easing his panic somewhat, he concentrated fully on following her, pushing his fears about what the darkened streets could hold from his mind.

Watching her threaten his uncle and then carve up his face had been... Harry honestly didn't know how to feel about it. There was a vicious part of him that had been gleeful and darkly satisfied by the sight of the blood pouring down Uncle Vernon's blatantly terrified face as his childhood tormenter had peed his pants. There was also a part of him that felt uneasy; queasy, almost. He'd like to think he was a good person and he was pretty sure good people didn't enjoy watching someone cut up someone else's face. No matter how much they hated that person.

Harry took a deep breath and remembered what Hermione had said after they'd killed Hagrid's baby dragon– he could either feel guilty about what just happened or he could stand by the reasons for which it had happened and move on. Hermione had hurt Uncle Vernon because he'd hurt Harry. If someone hurt Hermione, Harry thought he'd probably be angry enough to cut them too. Hermione had done what she did to his uncle because she wanted to protect him– and that was something he could stand behind. Taking another deep breath, Harry pushed his guilt to the back of his mind where he didn't have to acknowledge it and instead focused on where he was going.

Hermione led him through a gap in a barbed wire fence and over to the old, falling apart warehouse the fence was supposed to keep people out of. She knocked on the side door in a quick pattern, and then the door was pushed open by a grinning, gangly boy, who wrapped his arms around Hermione and spun her around.

Harry knew instinctively that this boy was Sting. "Janey!" the boy cheered, slurring his words, "yer back!"

"And you are working your way towards a truly epic hangover." Hermione replied dryly as Sting placed her back on her feet. "Not your best first impression, Sting, although it's admittedly not your worst either." Hermione gestured for Harry to come closer, reaching out and clasping his hand in hers, tangling their fingers together as she smiled up at him.

And in the space of a heartbeat, all Harry's jealousy and insecurity flooded away. She hadn't looked at Sting like that. Only at him.

"Sting, this is my friend." She said and Harry noticed that she didn't say his name.

"So he's th' one ya went teh fetch?" Sting asked, his blue eyes surprisingly sharp given his state of intoxication as he fixed Harry with an assessing look. Harry tried not to look as nervous as he felt.

"He ran away from his Aunt and Uncle. They're complete and utter bastards." Hermione told the older boy and Sting gave him one last long look then gave a nod of approval.

"In tha' case, kid needs a name." He told Hermione.

"Er, I already have a name," Harry said causing them to both turn and look at him.

"Picking something for us to call you is a tradition mixed with a safety measure," Hermione explained, "if any of us get picked up by the police, it's better that we don't know each other's names." Harry tried to think of some kind of nickname and turned to Sting for some kind of inspiration.

"How did you choose 'sting'?" he asked Sting. To his surprise, Sting scowled at this and Hermione laughed.

"He didn't choose it– it got chosen for him. When he first started living on the streets he tried to be a real hard-arse. He punched Rottie who swore at him and said not to ever do that again because even though he, and I quote 'hits like a girl, it still stings like a bitch'. And thus, 'Sting' was born."

"And you're Janey?" he guessed, remembering what Sting had called her earlier.

"Close," she said, flashing him a smile, "it's Jane. Sting made me choose pretty much straight off the bat when we first met, like he's making you, and my middle name was the first thing that came to mind."

"Er, shall I be James then?" he asked her, "and should I call you Jane?"

"Only call me my other name when we're talking in Parseltongue." She said before giving him a brilliant smile, "and James works fine."

"Aww, Janie an' Jamsie, sittin' inna tree," Sting started singing only to suddenly double over, making an 'oof' sound.

Surprised, Harry looked down at the girl who'd elbowed Sting in the stomach to shut him up. She had black hair she wore in a long braid that came to a pointed end at the small of her back and she was tiny; short and skinny as a matchstick. "Yeh mus' be Jane's frien'." The girl said excitedly, giving him a snaggletooth grin. "Wot's ya name?"

"Ha–er, I mean, James. What's your name?"

"She's shortcake." Hermione answered with a teasing look at the younger girl.

The girl automatically scowled up at Hermione. "I ain't short! An' my name's Hornet." She huffed and Hermione laughed then tugged him forwards in through the doorway.

"Come on, I'll introduce you to the others who are here." She said and he reached out to grab her hand, letting her pull him into the warehouse.

-

-

Severus's POV:

"So what you're telling me," Severus said slowly as he fixed the Headmaster with an entirely blank look, "is that Potter left his home, and subsequently the safety of the blood wards, and you currently have no idea where he is." Albus sighed.

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Well that's just fantastic." Severus snarled.

"I do, however, have an inkling of who the boy may be with." Albus mused, twirling a strand of his long beard around his finger, while Severus looked on in disgust and anger. "He and Miss Granger. They are... 'inseparable', I believe, is the word you used."

"Yes," Severus allowed somewhat reluctantly, "during the entirety of the school year they rarely left each other's side."

"Well, my dear boy, I'd say it's a reasonably safe assumption that wherever our young Mr. Potter is, Miss Granger is also."

"Well that doesn't help," Severus sighed, allowing himself to flop down on one of the chintz seats in the headmaster's office. "I have no idea where the girl lives."

"No idea?" Albus asked puzzled, "weren't you the one sent to introduce her to the magical world?"

"If you'll remember," Severus said dryly, "The girl didn't need much introducing. She asked where Diagon Alley was and about tutelage fees then left. And she met me by the entrance of Hyde Park without either of her parents accompanying her."

"That is troublesome," Albus frowned, "can you locate a copy of the acceptance letter sent to her?"

"Minerva will have it, ask her." Severus said, bored. "And if that's all, then I'll be off." Accompanying his words with a sneer, he stood and strode out of the Headmaster's office. 

He didn't have time for the old man's blathering on– he had a pair of troublesome children to locate.

After passing through the Hogwarts gates, he apparated to the front door of No. 4 Privet Drive under a strong disillusionment charm to ensure that none of the Muggles saw him appear out of thin air. After checking that there were no eyes pointed his way, he let the illusion drop and knocked on the Dursleys front door.

"I-I'm warning you! I'm armed!" Came the quivering voice from behind the door and if Severus wasn't so worried, he'd be amused. But he was worried so with a small burst of magic he blasted the door open.

He was expecting Vernon Dursley, who was currently holding a rifle and pointing it at his chest, to look even more terrified at the sight of him but instead relief briefly flooded the walrus-like man's face before it settled firmly on dislike. "What do you want?" he asked, gruffly. Severus raised an eyebrow as he took in the man's appearance. A livid red line looked like it had been carved into his face, running from one eye, down his cheek and to his chin. Tiny black stitches ran through the entire length of the wound and it looked worryingly... recent.

"I'm here to visit Mr. Potter." Severus drawled, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary and there wasn't a sense of foreboding building up inside him. "I trust he's available?" Vernon Dursley's face turned an odd shade of purple.

"The boy doesn't want to see you!" He snapped before trying to shut the door which refused to move. Severus raised an eyebrow and swept into the house, shoving the large Muggle to the side with magic.

"V-Vernon? Is it one of them?" A voice warbled from the kitchen. Severus couldn't help the smirk that settled over his face as he rounded the corner to come face-to-face with the woman.

"Petunia, it's certainly been a while."

Petunia let out a shriek, staggering backwards, both hands pressed up against her heart. "Y-you!" She shrieked, outraged and blatantly afraid.

"M-me!" Severus mocked her. "Where's the boy, Tuney?"

"D-don't call me that!" She hissed at him, reaching behind herself to grab the edge of the bench for support.

"Why not? You've moved onto bigger and better things, have you? Well, certainly bigger..." He let his gaze settle on Vernon, his lip curling, and Petunia flushed angrily.

"What are you doing here, Snape?" she snapped.

"Looking for Lily's son. I believe he has the misfortune of calling this place his residence?"

"Not anymore!" Petunia snapped bristling. She was so easy to provoke it almost wasn't fun, he mused, before focusing on what the vile woman had just said, his eyes narrowing infinitesimally.

"Oh?" He asked in a dangerously silky voice that any of his students could have warned her about.

"He ran away with that horrible little bitch!" Petunia spat, pale-faced and almost trembling with rage and fear.

"And why would he run away? You were tasked with providing the child with a stable home. Surely even you couldn't have mishandled that so appallingly?" His taunting finally got a response from Dursley, who stepped forwards and pointed the rifle right at his chest.

"I will not have you talking to my wife like that under my roof!" he bellowed.

One lazy flick of Severus' wand transfigured the rifle into a bread French stick. "Try not to eat that." He drawled, before striding forwards and seizing the piece of lard's chin, avoiding the stitches as he forced the Muggle to look directly in his eyes. "Legilimens!" He hissed.

Picking through Vernon Dursley's mind was an extremely unpleasant experience and Severus skimmed quickly to the memories he was looking for which were thankfully on the surface of Dursley's mind thanks to their current conversation.

Severus felt himself grow angrier and angrier as he watched Dursley shout abuse at the boy. At Harry. Hot rage flooded him when the pathetic man dared to mention Lily and he was moments away from cursing the Muggle himself as Dursley said– "and don't even get me started on your Mother–" when Harry interrupted him, voice low with fury.

"Do not talk about my Mother."

"Your worthless mother was no better then a cheap who-" Vernon started to say and then something happened that made Severus' blood run cold. The emerald green eyes– Lily's eyes– looking back at him seemed to flash crimson red and then the boy was shouting the Killing Curse.

Severus didn't even know where the boy had learnt of its existence, let alone the incantation, though he suspected through Granger. He truly hadn't realized just how much hatred existed inside the boy towards his relatives, to the point the child genuinely wanted to kill them. If Harry had been holding a wand, Severus had no doubt that Dursley would be dead.

The boy's eyes turned back to Lily's shade of green and he appeared to be horrified, looking down at his hands like he'd never seen them before. He stammered to himself several times and then turned and fled from the house.

Severus pulled himself out of the man's mind, uncaring about the severe migraine he'd just inflicted on the worthless scum. "You are very lucky," he said, his voice cold, "that the boy was not holding his wand. Was that the last time you saw him?"

"Yes," Dursley panted, seething with hatred and resentment.

"Are you telling me the truth? Because I can find out easily if you're lying to me." He threatened and the morbidly obese muggle paled further. Severus ignored Petunia who was sobbing hysterically behind them.

"It was the last time I saw him, but I saw his little bitch friend!" Dursley burst out.

"Indeed?" Severus said smoothly before invading the man's mind again, actually curious to see what Granger had done to cause the muggle to fear her so. He was extremely impressed by Granger's wandless magic though his stomach turned slightly with the knowledge that accidental magic most commonly manifested itself in times of trauma and great need. For Granger to be able to repeat that accidental magic on command she first would have had to experience a situation where her magic had reacted in that way specifically. He didn't even want to think about why she'd need to freeze someone that desperately and why she'd felt the need to learn how to do it at will–

Severus pushed the dark thought out of his mind, telling himself that he'd deal with it later, and instead continued to watch the memory. He was actually quite amused by what he saw. He could have done without the girl cutting the "piggy" as she'd called Dursley because now he was going to have to perform several tongue-tying curses so Albus would never find out about what she'd just done, but as he pulled back out of Dursley's mind he was appeased by the fact that his star student was there to keep Harry safe.

Harry... when did Potter become Harry? He wondered absently as he flicked his wand first at Petunia who screamed and then at Dursley who was sprawled on the ground, ensuring they wouldn't be able to speak the truth about how Dursley had been injured.

"I would listen to Miss Granger this time if I were you," he told the cowering man, "as I'm sure you're now aware she is fully capable of carrying out her threat. I'll be seeing you both on September 1st. Lovely seeing you Tuney."

With a last sneer in Petunia's direction, Severus turned on the spot, apparating himself to the Malfoy Manor. He needed to talk to Lucius but more then that he needed a stiff drink.

Chapter Text

Chapter X:

 

Harry's POV:

What followed his running away from the Dursleys was undoubtedly the strangest summer of Harry's life. 

The weather was mostly warm and Hermione had mastered a wandless cushioning charm, which meant that they could sleep out on a park bench under the stars and be as comfortable as they would be in their four-poster beds back at Hogwarts. When it rained, Hermione would take him to the London Underground and they'd cut across to the edges of the tracks and run along the lines until they found a maintenance tunnel to go down. The London Underground was popular enough with the homeless and Hermione knew of several bolt holes, mostly small maintenance sheds that had been abandoned for years. They were usually padlocked shut but Hermione was an excellent lock-pick and Harry was a pretty good student. 

They didn't spend a huge amount of time with Hermione's street friends, instead keeping mostly to each other and occasionally Sting. They'd pawned some of his galleons with a somewhat shady looking man Hermione knew who she called "Magpie" the day after she took him with her back to London which gave them enough money anyway that they didn't go hungry and they could spend their days exploring the city, spending time in public libraries and with Hermione teaching him survival skills.

Hermione had confronted him on the first day– upset– about him not sending any letters to her and a bemused Harry had told her that he hadn't gotten a single one of her letters, and apparently she hadn't gotten a single one of his.

That had pissed Hermione off to the point where Harry was surprised steam hadn't been pouring out of her ears though she quickly calmed down when Harry asked her to teach him how to fight. He came to regret that decision very much though she'd probably have brought it up herself if he hadn't done so first.

Hermione, Harry learned very quickly, was not the sort of teacher who believed in going easy on her pupils. For his first lesson she'd told him that hesitation and half measures would only get him killed and to always keep hitting the other person until they stopped hitting him before ordering him to attack her. Harry had been apprehensive about trying to hurt her but she'd had no patience for that and told him to get his shit together or he'd get them both killed so just hit her already.

Harry did as he was told and, remembering her earlier warning about hesitation and half-measures, did his best to actually punch her, not wanting her to be annoyed at him when she had that scary look in her eyes. She'd easily knocked his fist aside and responded with a punch of her own, one that had him doubled over and gasping for air.

Hermione was vicious in her training, knocking him down over and over as she didn't hesitate to land blows on him– not as hard as she could, of course, but enough for them to hurt like buggery and knock the breath out of his lungs every time she sent him crashing to the dirt. She taught him as they went along, telling him where to aim and why before demonstrating– on him– just how effective her instructions were. The closest Harry got to landing a proper blow was when he managed to kick her in the hip and she'd responded by slamming him to the ground and holding a switchblade to his throat announcing he needed to learn how to defend himself against knives too.

After their lessons Harry would be bruised, sweaty, winded and often bleeding, but he could already see his improvement and Hermione always smiled proudly at him once she'd finished laughing at him wheezing on the ground.

She'd also taught him how to pick-pocket and shop-lift, getting him to train with her over and over before sending him out to actually try it for real. Harry managed to get caught shop-lifting during his second try and it had been terrifying. A security guard had grabbed him by the back of his of neck and Harry had struggled to get free but he was a skinny twelve-year-old kid and the guard was a big, beefy man who reminded him a bit of Uncle Vernon and Harry had eventually stopped struggling and let himself be locked in an office.

It had been hard to think through the panic, thoughts of being locked in jail or sent back to the Dursleys making him dizzy as he couldn't even decide which of the two would be worse, but there had been a window in the room and it gave Harry an idea. Grabbing the first heavy object he could find, which was some sort of paperweight that had been on the desk, he'd smashed the glass and wasted no time in scrambling out of the newly formed exit. He'd cut himself up in the process but he'd been free, landing outside with a stumble and then sprinting away as fast as he could until Hermione was suddenly there, hugging him tight as she talked him down from his panic.

Later she'd pulled the glass shards out of his palms and cleaned the cuts with alcohol, declaring none of them were deep enough to need sewing up much to his relief and then kissed his cheek and told him not to expect any mercy from her in their spar the next day just because he was injured. By then Harry had known better then to expect any and he'd been right– Hermione had certainly not pulled any of her punches but at the end of the session she'd said it was time he learned how to use a knives, explaining that bringing a knife into a fight without knowing how to use it would only get him stabbed. She'd taught him the basics using blunt pocketknives, going over how to hold the knife and where he should aim on a person as well as demonstrating how to not let his hand slip when the blade hit resistance.

It wasn't an easy summer– they ate cheap food that could be bought in bulk, Harry often felt like a giant bruise, he'd nearly been arrested and he'd never been more glad about the existence of public toilets in his life– but it was definitely the best summer of his life. The freedom, the lack of Dursleys and constantly been with Hermione more then made up for those things and Hermione kept them away from the more dangerous side of things, steering them both clear of other street kids and homeless people to avoid fighting and making sure they were in the safer areas of the city when night came.

It was nearing the end of the holidays and September 1st was drawing rapidly nearer when Hedwig brought him his Hogwarts book list. Seeing as no owl seemed to be able to find Hermione, they decided to just get double what was on his list.

"There's a lot of books by this Lockhart bloke," he commented to Hermione who narrowed her eyes.

"I've heard of him. He's supposed to be this absolutely amazing wizard who's defeated a number of dangerous creatures."

"Supposed to be?" Harry asked and she made a dismissive sound.

"If he's done even half of what he says he's done, then I'll snog Weasley."

"Ew," Harry pulled a face and gagged dramatically, "I really did not need that mental image!" Hermione laughed before turning back to the list with a thoughtful look on her face.

"We're going to need some way of getting into Diagon Alley without being recognized," she mused, "I know some glamour charms but none that I can do without a wand."

Harry grimaced at the idea of being discovered– he planned on putting off the inevitable lecture he was going to get from Dumbledore for running off for as long as possible and he also had absolutely no intention of returning to the Dursleys. "Any ideas?" he asked and Hermione gave him a mock-affronted look.

"When do I not have an idea, Harry?"

He just rolled his eyes at her. "Well do you?"

"Of course," she said before giving him that wicked grin that he knew meant they were about to stir up some trouble. "We're going to do this the Muggle way."

The Muggle way, Harry found out, was to use hair-dye and sunglasses to change their appearance. Hermione had also decided to practice using wandless magic to change his hair– just for good measure, she assured him– and he was confident he was going to end up bald. Hermione had flicked him on the nose when he'd voiced his fears.

With a plan in place, Hermione had taken them to the flat of a prostitute she knew. They'd been greeted at the door by a woman with restless, sad eyes who wore thick blue glittery eye makeup, smelt faintly of lavender and gasoline and looked at them with a drowning expression. The woman– "call me Glitter"– had let them use her matchbox-sized bathroom and hair-dye, helping them turn Harry into a brunet and Hermione into a blonde. Glitter had then straightened Hermione's wild curls so her newly-dyed hair hung in a flat curtain around her face and used gel to tame Harry's messy hair, adding hairspray to make sure it stayed that way as well as applying concealer to his forehead to cover up his scar.

Bidding Glitter goodbye, Hermione then took them to a public restroom with a still mostly intact mirror and forced him to sit in front of it so she could follow through on her earlier promise of using the same sort of wandless magic she used to untangle her hair to change the length of his. Harry was understandably nervous about this.

"Honestly," she huffed as he squeezed his eyes tight shut, "you'd think I was about to torture you."

"You aren't?" he muttered under his breath though the consequent whack to his shoulder told him he hadn't been as quiet as he'd thought.

-

"You are a genius," Harry told Hermione for about the eighth time as he caught sight of his reflection yet again in a shop window. He looked nothing like himself. Through Hermione and Glitter's efforts his unruly hair actually looked neat; it was now light brown in color and long enough to be brushing against his shoulders. The make-up covered up his scar and Hermione had bought him a cheap pair of square-framed glasses as well as taking him to an op-shop to pick clothes that actually fitted him, unlike the hand-me-downs he received from the Dursleys.

Hermione looked equally as unrecognizable. She was wearing a skirt, pretty white sandals with pink flowers on them, a pink coat and her long, straight hair was light blonde. She'd also used the same glittery eye stuff as Glitter and hair clips shaped like pink butterflies held her bangs out of her eyes.

In other words, she looked nothing like Hermione Granger.

But the crème de la crème of their disguise? Beside them, whistling cheerfully as he walked, was Sting.

"After all," Hermione had said with a sly, clever smile, "people looking for you are going to expect you to either be alone or with me. Nobody's going to be keeping an eye out for a group of three."

Despite their amazing disguises, Harry's stomach still clenched with nerves as they entered the Leakey Cauldron, Sting muttering a few choice words under his breath in amazement after walking into a pub he hadn't been able to see, but Hermione's plan had worked flawlessly.

Looking back, Harry should have realized that with everything going so smoothly, something was just bound to go wrong.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Hermione didn't dare collect her money from the Hogwarts fund having decided not to take the risk of the school somehow being alerted. Instead, Harry had withdrawn enough from his account for both of them.

Despite Sting's constant distraction as the older boy wandered around in wide-eyed in amazement they managed to get their school shopping done relatively quickly. Supplies all bought and shrunk, thanks to the lovely witch in Flourish and Blotts, they stopped at Fortesque's to eat an ice-cream.

Amused, Hermione watched the way Harry's eyes kept moving back to stare at the Quidditch supply shop, the boy almost drooling.

"Oh bloody hell, James, just go!" She sighed, unable to hold it in any longer. Harry jolted in his seat and started blushing.

"I- I don't need–" he started to say but she interrupted him with a stern look.

"James, just go and take a look around. You're going to be Slytherin's seeker, this year– you might need supplies."

"Yeah, wot Janey said," Sting said eagerly.

"You just want to go look at the brooms." Hermione said amused.

"So?" Sting asked smirking at her and she sighed, shaking her head.

"Boys."

Sting and Harry exchanged a look before saying at the exact same time; "Girls."

Reaching over to give them both a good smack over the head, Hermione then stood up and checked her watch. "Okay, James, Sting, you two go look in the Quidditch shop. I'm going to take a quick... side trip."

Both of them narrowed their eyes suspiciously at her. "And what, exactly, does this 'side trip' entail?" Harry asked suspiciously.

"Just picking up a few books." She said with a light, breezy smile.

"We already went to Flourish and Blotts," Harry pointed out, "and we spent over an hour in there."

"Yes, well, I'm more interested in the books that Flourish and Blotts doesn't supply." Hermione said meaningfully and Harry's eyes widened momentarily in understanding before narrowing again.

"And where exactly are you going to be getting these books from?" he asked rather pointedly. Hermione debated whether or not to be vague or just omit certain truths then decided to be honest.

"Knockturn Alley." She answered. Harry instantly opened his mouth to protest, having heard more then enough from the other Slytherins to know what a sketchy place it was, but Hermione firmly spoke first. "James, this is important. I promise you that I will not take any unnecessary risks. Trust me, okay?" Harry looked at her, his expression torn, before he nodded.

"First sign of trouble, you get the fuck out of there– promise me." He said fiercely and she nodded.

"Stop picking up swearing from Sting. And yes, I promise."

"If it's tha' bad, d'ya need me as backup?" Sting asked and she and Harry both instantly shook their heads.

"They do not like Muggles there." Harry said at the same time as she said,

"They'd cut you open and sell your organs as potion ingredients if you tried. Besides," she added as Sting gave her an alarmed look, "I thought you wanted to see the broomsticks."

Sting brightened at that and turned to Harry. "Wot yeh waitin' for, James? Let's go!" Giving her hand a quick squeeze, Harry let Sting drag him towards the Quidditch store his expression quickly brightening the closer he got to the building.

Giving both her boys a fond look, Hermione then steeled herself for trouble and made her way towards Knockturn Alley, fully aware of the location and proximity of each of the knives she had on her– three switchblades; one in her boot, one up her sleeve and one on her hip, a butterfly knife up her other sleeve and a pocketknife stashed in her side pocket.

She couldn't help but shiver a little as she entered the alley but she held her head high and walked confidently– and quickly– to the bookstore she'd noticed last time in her brief venture down the shady shopping district.

The store was small and smelt vaguely of mould but it was crammed full of books. Peering closely at one of the nearer titles, Hermione literally jumped as she heard a hoarse, throaty voice from behind her, a switchblade drawn in one swift motion and pointed at the shop owner– or at least who she presumed it was the owner– an old woman with a hunched back and greasy, straggly grey hair pulled back in a messy knot. Her robes were somewhat ragged and Hermione got the feeling that there was something not quite... right about the old woman.

"It's not often I get kids in here– especially without their parents." The woman croaked, sharp eyes fixed on the sharp steel of the switchblade.

"Yes, well, I'm not exactly your usual sort of kid," Hermione answered as she relaxed out of the defensive stance she'd fallen into, though she didn't put away her weapon yet. "Besides, my parents are long dead."

"Ah," the old woman nodded, crooked mouth curling into an amused-looking smile, "and what exactly is it that I can do for you, young Miss?"

"Jane."

"Miss Jane."

"I'd like any books you have on Parselmagic." Hermione said. "I've found my school library to be rather... lacking." The old woman looked even more amused.

"Parselmagic? Now why would you be wanting something like that, little girl?"

"Call it good old fashioned curiosity." Hermione's smile was frostier this time as she let her the switchblade dance between her fingers in a subtle but unmistakable threat and the old woman looked delighted almost, cackling to herself as she shuffled past Hermione and to the back of the shop.

"I may have a book or two, Miss Jane, but they don't come cheap." She warned over her shoulder. Having already expected that, Hermione didn't say anything and just watched.

It took the old woman nearly eight minutes to produce the books. Both were old with cracked leather covers and yellowing pages but Hermione was ready to take whatever it was she could get, curious as to how the magical language worked and what it could do.

"That will be sixteen galleons," the old woman said her eyes gleaming in a predatory sort of way. Relieved by the fact that Harry had inherited such a bloody huge fortune and had seen fit to provide her with a ridiculously huge amount of spending money that actually made her feel dizzy and slightly queasy to think about, she paid the old woman.

Tucking the books in her satchel, Hermione said bid a polite farewell to the shop owner, finally stashing her knife away as she walked out of the thoroughly unpleasant little bookstore and made her way to the pawn shop she'd visited last time.

The owner seemed just as ill-tempered as last time and Hermione wondered whether a requirement for owning a shop in Knockturn Alley was a permanently bad mood and total lack of social skills.

"What do you want?" the man grunted before peering a little closer at her. "Didn't you have brown hair last time, kid?"

"I fancied a change," she smiled blandly back at him. "I'm looking for a bag that can hold more on the inside then the outside. Do you have any?"

"Yep," the man said and rather then hauling his large girth off the chair he muttered a few words under his breath and flicked his wand. An array of different sized bags soared over and landed on the counter before her. "Pick one." The shopkeeper rather unhelpfully directed her.

Hermione let her gaze slide assessingly over each bag before she reached for one of the smaller ones that looked to be made of fake-leather. "How much is this one?"

"Two galleons." Was the grunted reply.

"I'll take it." She decided, thinking the price was probably too steep but not willing to make a fuss.

Glad that she'd finished her shopping in the unpleasant Alley, Hermione exited the shop and started to make her way towards the exit of the Alley which was when a rough-looking man stepped out in front of her, blocking her way. The man had long grey hair, yellow stained teeth and long, ragged nails. His clothes were in terrible condition, like he hadn't washed them in weeks and his feet were bare and Hermione went very still as she saw the hungry look on his face, the way his amber eyes gleamed as they took in her small form.

Hermione was no longer so malnourished that she was just skin and bones but she was still a deceptively delicate-looking slip of a girl, all slender limbs and thin bones in her wrists and eyes too large for her skinny face. What people didn't see realise when they looked at her was that in truth she was all sharp angles and even sharper edges; when they looked at her they didn't see the lean, wiry muscle, the knife scars on her hands and the way the she held herself like a fighter, like a predator.

This man, as he looked at her, only saw the willowy, wispy thing she appeared to be and Hermione could see in his eyes that he thought she was prey.

Fiery-hot anger and fear and fury rose up within Hermione as she took in this man, took in the way he was staring at her, at her body. He was looking at her like she was something for him to use and abuse and then discard when he was done; like her only worth was her flesh and the pleasure it could bring him. He was looking at her the way the monster who'd hurt the little girl whose name Hermione couldn't bear to even think had looked at her; his pants had been around his ankles and there'd been a dead child at his feet yet when he turned to see Hermione staring at him in horror he'd looked at her like she was an object to rape and strangle and leave lying in the trash like she was worthless once he was done.

And then the man spoke.

"What's a pretty little thing like you doing all the way down here?" He just about crooned, eyes still feasting hungrily on her. She started to take a step back but an inhuman growl escaped the man and his arm snapped out, hand fastening tightly on her forearm. She made herself go still, adrenaline pumping through her body. "Don't be like that, pretty– I just want to play." The man's eyes suddenly sharpened on her face and he shook his hair out of the way. "Oh hello lovely. I remember you. Was wondering if I'd get to see you again."

The loathsome man's smile was feral now and Hermione pushed the useless fear to the back of her mind and let her icy hatred bring sharp clarity to her thoughts as she made and discarded plans in the space of heartbeats, running through scenarios in her head of how best to escape this situation. She settled for the helpless little girl routine that Lacey had taught her to play so well; a protective smokescreen guaranteed to get anyone to take pity on or, more importantly, underestimate her.

"Wait! Please! Don't hurt me!" She begged tearfully, fear bright in her eyes she cowered before the man, her face the very picture of terror. As she'd anticipated, just as so many policemen and opportunistic men had before him, the man relaxed his grip on her and as Hermione cringed back as if she was curling into herself, her free hand slid to her hip and to the blade hidden there.

"Now, where would you get an idea like that? I wouldn't hurt a pretty little thing like you." The man said as he leered down at her. He reached out with his other hand to touch her face and Hermione moved in one swift, practiced motion, drawing her blade and lashing out to slit the man's throat from ear to ear, careful to avoid the resulting arterial spray.

The man made a choking, gurgling noise as he doubled over and she took advantage of his weakened, distracted state to yank her arm out of his grasp with a disgusted look and she allowed herself a moment to watch with cold eyes and a satisfied heart as the man clutched at his ruined throat, blood spurting through the gaps of his fingers. Her lip curled as the man keeled forwards, collapsing onto the ground with a meaty thud. Spite curling up inside her she lashed out with her foot, kicking the man in the jaw with enough force to knock his head back, tearing the neck wound open wider as well as causing an audible crack– she hoped it wasn't his neck breaking; that would be too quick.

"I hope you drown in your own blood." She told the downed man coldly before swiftly moving around him and exiting Knockturn Alley. She flicked her switchblade closed, slipping it into one of the pockets of her pink coat and checked to make sure the blood splatter on her white sandals wasn't too glaringly obvious. Smoothing down her skirt and tucking her long blond hair behind her ears, she put a sweet smile on her face and skipped lightly along the cobbled path of Diagon Alley, the very image of childhood innocence.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus had seen a lot in his life– so much that very few things fascinated him anymore. Potions was one of those things, with limitless possibilities for discovery and improvement if one tried hard enough and was dedicated enough, and to those who had that spark of intuition and creativity there was very little to keep them from reaching the stars.

Metaphorically, of course.

Which was why, when he wasn't looking abso-fucking-lutely everywhere for his two sneaky, runaway snakes he'd he'd spent his time over the summer holidays brewing potions in the upstairs room of an old "friend's" Apothecary. Compared to the school term, Severus was fairly certain this was what heaven looked like- even with the grimy window offering an even grimier view of Knockturn Alley.

He'd been about to start on a new batch of Draught of Peace when he noticed the child on the street below, a small wisp of girl with long, blond hair wearing a pink muggle jacket, a white skirt and flowery sandals. She had emerged from the bookstore owned by a hag a few moments earlier and proceeded to walk lightly up the street and into Jiggers' Knacks Pawn Shop as if she hadn't a care in the world.

Stupid, idiotic, dunderheaded children, Severus cursed to himself, unable to help the frustrated groan that escaped him. Usually there weren't any kids in Knockturn Alley and when there were, they were most definitely guarded closely by their parents– and for good reason.

Severus groaned again and placed down the stirring rod so he could go save the silly, little girl.

He was just exiting the Apothecary when he heard a familiar voice calling out his name. "Severus!"

Severus quirked an eyebrow as Lucius Malfoy stepped out of Borgin and Burkes. "Lucius."

"I could have sworn I just saw a child go walking by, old friend." Lucius commented.

"I know. I was going to give her directions." He replied shortly. "Hopefully before she runs into Greyback or one of his pack." Lucius nodded, a sneer twisting his aristocratic face.

"She was dressed like a Muggle."

"I'm aware of that." Severus said dryly.

"Are you certain you shouldn't just leave her to the wolves?"

"I'm certain. Granted, I might let her get knocked around for a bit so she learns her lesson not to come down here again." He grumbled, quirking an eyebrow questioningly when Lucius fell into step beside him.

"I do enjoy a little sport every now and again." Lucius waved his hand airily, cane clicking on the cobbled stones in pace with each carefully measured step. "Though it does raise questions when a Professor is willing to let a potential student come to harm." He teased. 

"The hot stove teaches best," Severus quipped, prompting an amused chuckle from one of his oldest friends. They rounded the corner together, easily catching sight of the petite blonde child stepping out of Jigger's Knacks Pawn Shop with her hands swinging lightly by her sides and a satchel slung carelessly over her shoulder. Severus frowned– there was something oddly... familiar about the image.

The small girl had barely taken five steps further down the street when an unfortunately familiar man stepped out in front of her, causing her to come to an abrupt halt. "What's a pretty little thing like you doing all the way down here?" Greyback's voice carried easily down the alley, the werewolf practically growling when the child immediately started to back away. Quick as lightning, Greyback had a hold of one of her arms. Standing before the werewolf the child looked like a doll, her tiny porcelain arm so fragile looking in his thick, dirty hand. "Don't be like that, pretty– I just want to play."

Greyback's smile suddenly turned feral, and he shook his grey mane out of his face. "Oh hello lovely. I remember you. Was wondering if I'd get to see you again."

"Wait! Please! Don't hurt me!" Severus quickened his pace when the fearful little girl cowered and started pleading, her voice thick with tears– Greyback was going to eat the stupid child for dinner.

"Now where would you get an idea like that? I wouldn't hurt a pretty little thing like you." Crooned the werewolf, the hungry gleam in his eyes telling a very different story as he loosened his grip on the doll-like child curling into herself in her terror, reaching out with a hand to touch her face.

The petite girl struck quickly and with a vengeance– the second the grip on her faltered her free hand shot out. There was a flash of silver and then Greyback was choking and gurgling, a deep wound gaping along his throat. The girl avoided the arterial spray with an ease that spoke of prior experience and ripped her arm free, swiftly moving back. Severus expected her to turn and run, but instead she stood there, watching as Greyback fell to his knees, blood spurting from his neck at an alarming pace.

As Greyback buckled forward onto the ground the girl reared back and kicked the werewolf in the chin– hard– and both Severus and Lucius winced automatically as the action tore the gaping wound slitting Greyback's throat from ear to ear even wider, the blood starting to gush at an even more alarming rate as Greyback gurgled.

"I hope you drown in your own blood." The petite blonde with butterflies clips in her hair said in a cold voice that was much too calm for what had just happened. It was also very familiar.

Severus watched, stunned, as the girl proceeded to step around Greyback's weakly stirring form and continue walking to Diagon Alley like nothing had happened. It was just as she turned out of sight that it finally clicked.

"That was well-done," Lucius commented, sounding reluctantly impressed. "Very well-played. I do believe that child will soon be one of your Slytherins."

"Actually, she already is." Severus said in a strangled voice. "That, my friend, was Miss Hermione Granger."

Lucius raised a surprised brow. "The Hermione Granger? The halfblood girl that Potter's inseparable from? Draco's told me about her– he seems fond of the girl." Lucius then chuckled. "That was extremely vicious– and there was no panicking or hesitation, just cold calculation. She must be quite the Slytherin."

Severus glanced back at Greyback– the werewolf was unconscious and lying in a large pool of his own blood. "Indeed." he agreed. "I'm going to follow her and hope she leads me to Ha– the idiotic Potter brat," he amended as he silently cursed his slip of the tongue. "Would you like to accompany me?"

"Certainly. I welcome extra entertainment." Lucius said, his grey eyes glittering with interest.

Severus half jogged down Knockturn Alley with Lucius a few steps behind him not wanting to lose Granger. He then slowed his pace as he entered Diagon Alley, subtly scanning the crowds for a pink coat and long blonde hair.

He caught sight of Granger standing in front of Gringotts looking bored and not at all like she'd just probably killed a man. She was staring further up the street as if waiting for someone and he shifted closer as Lucius cast an eavesdropping charm on the girl. Granger immediately tensed, hand moving subtly to her pocket as she scanned the crowd with sharp eyes.

"Impressive," Lucius noted. "I didn't think she'd sense my charm."

"If something appears to be either impressive or improbable then it can be guaranteed Miss Granger will accomplish it." Severus said dryly.

They both stopped talking when a pair of boys exited the bank and approached her, one of them older with shaggy sandy-blond hair while the other boy had brown hair that was long enough to brush against his shoulders.

"Didja get ya stuff?" Asked the older boy. He was quite obviously a Muggle and Severus muttered a silent 'thank you' that Granger had had the sense not to let him accompany her to Knockturn; that would have been a fucking disaster.

"It went fine. I found those books I was searching for as well as this bag. It's quite brilliant– there's an unlimited amount of space inside it to store things." Granger pulled a leather bag out of her satchel to show the two boys.

"That's awesome!" Said the younger boy. Severus frowned, concentrating on the brunet for a moment before a smirk crossed his face. He had no idea how the boy had managed to grow his hair that long without magic but that was definitely Harry Potter– he'd recognize those green eyes, Lily's eyes, anywhere. Severus took a moment to bask in his victory before tuning back into the conversation.

"Someone tried to grab me, annoyingly enough. I'm quite glad that you weren't with me– especially you, Sting. Remember what I said before about them chopping you up for potion ingredients? Turns out that was a complete understatement."

"C'mon! Wot's not ter like 'bout us Muggle people?" The older boy– Sting she had called him– protested playfully, tugging on a long piece of blonde hair. Severus snorted quietly even as he noted with a touch of shock how comfortable Granger seemed with the boy's touch– he'd never seen her like that with anyone but Harry.

"Muggle people?" Lucius looked amused as well.

"Do you mean Muggles in specific or just you?" Granger asked dryly.

"Cheeky bitch," Sting scowled as Harry laughed before his– Lily's– eyes turned serious again.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Oh I gave him the helpless, scared little girl routine." Granger said with a light shrug of her thin shoulders. "You know– 'oh please don't hurt me, please mister, I'm so afraid'." She affected the same sweet, pleading voice she'd begged Greyback with, thick with tears and fear.

"Lacey taught ya tha' one, righ'? 'S' a classic– works ev'ry time." Sting snickered but Harry looked concerned and kept pushing.

"You've got blood on your sleeve, Jane."

"Already?" Granger looked dismayed, "I just got this! Urgh, blood never comes out." The Muggle boy laughed again but Harry looked even more concerned.

"Jane," he said and Severus watched as Granger visibly softened and gave Harry a sad sort of smile.

"It's not the first time someone's tried to grab me. I'm fine, I promise." She said gently. "And he's not going to be bothering anyone again."

Severus gritted his teeth because being attacked like Granger had been today shouldn't be something the child was so used to happening to her that she could just shrug it off like nothing had happened. It made him feel sick to think of what sort of living situation she must be in, to be in that kind of danger.

"What if he survives and reports you to the magic police?" Harry asked anxiously and Severus was once again struck uneasy, this time by the ease in which the boy tossed around the idea of Granger having just killed someone. Granger smirked slightly at Harry, her voice teasing as she answered him.

"Do you really think that pervert would just walk into the Ministry of Magic and turn me in? I can see it now; he goes up to an Auror– the magic police– and tells them 'so I just attacked a little girl in a dark alley and I was going to fuck her raw but she slit my throat like the pig I am and I'd like to press charges. Will you kindly take care of it?' Is that about how it would go?"

"Probably," Harry admitted. "Well, except for the bit where he refers to himself as a pig." He added 'helpfully'. Granger shook her head and sighed.

"Oh why do I bother?"

Severus was thrown by the sarcastic narrative. Truthfully, despite Granger's hardness and unspecified past traumas he hadn't really expected the girl to fully understand Greyback's intentions, but 'fuck her raw' left very little to the imagination, making it explicitly clear that the girl fully understood what she'd just avoided. He needed to learn to stop underestimating the girl. And he really needed to stop thinking about those other men who'd tried to grab her so they could 'fuck her raw'. Actually, he needed to stop thinking about the absolutely horrifying, sickening possibility that Granger's past trauma involved her being sexually assaulted altogether.

"Didja get anyfing fun in Sketchy Alley?" The Muggle boy asked conversationally.

"What's wrong with the books I got? They're really rare–" Granger started protesting but the boy interrupted her.

"Fucking shit, Janey. Yer such a fuckin' nerd."

"Well we can't all be illiterate thugs!" Granger protested playfully and Severus was reminded of the curiosity of the Muggle boy and Harry both calling her 'Jane'. He also recalled Granger's signature on the reply she'd sent back to Hogwarts a year ago– H. Jane Granger, she'd signed it. Yet another mystery which was just what he needed in his life.

Severus then had to bite his lip to keep from chuckling when the Muggle boy glanced around, scanning the crowd the same way Granger often did, and his eyes suddenly landed on Lucius.

"Oi, check out blondie! I think tha's th' prettiest man I ever saw!" The grip Lucius had on his cane tightened noticeably and Severus hastily cast a disillusionment charm on himself so that Harry or Granger didn't see and recognize him. That wouldn't do– not when he still needed to find out where they were staying.

Harry gave Lucius a thoughtful look. "Does he remind you of–?"

"Draco?" Granger interrupted him, "he should. That's Lucius Malfoy; Draco's father, James." She added, and Harry blinked while Severus found himself immediately enraged, scowling furiously.

James. She'd just called Harry James. Forcing himself to think rationally before sinking into his rage, Severus went over what he'd just learned in his head. 'Sting' was obviously a nickname. Hermione Granger was being referred to by 'Jane'– her middle name. Harry's choice of the name 'James' was in all probability the boy copying Granger and using his middle name as his... his code name?

"We've spent enough time here," Granger said briskly, "we should get going if we want to get back before it's dark."

"Or we could catch us a cab," Sting grinned, looking unusually excited at the prospect. "Now tha' we got some actual money an' shit."

"Is that what you were doing back in the bank?" Granger asked curiously and Harry blushed.

"I've got this pile of gold I'll never need and I– I wanted to– to help out Sting and Glitter and the others." He mumbled. Sting clapped Harry on the back.

"Gotta luv 'is bleedin' heart," he grinned. "Now how 'bout we go an' catch ourselves tha' cab, yeah?"

"It's barely an hour's walk back," Granger said sharply, "we don't need a bloody cab!"

"Bu' a cab'll be quicker," Sting complained.

"This is why Pike will put someone else in charge of the money when James and I leave." Granger informed the boy. "Maybe Cat– she's good with math."

"Bu' she's just a kid," Sting protested.

"She's fourteen, Sting, and she's been working street corners for around a year and a half now. She's hardly a child." Granger said like there was nothing wrong with what she'd just said when it was actually horrifying. What kind of living environment had the poor child grown up in to consider a fourteen year old prostituting herself as normal?

"Come on, you two," Harry interrupted them sounding amused, "cab or not we do need to get going before it gets dark." Sting and Granger looked unblinkingly at each other until Sting let out a loud, theatrical groan.

"Fine!" He conceded to defeat with poor grace, throwing his arms up in the air, "have yer way, ya Majesty!" Granger looked triumphant.

"Let's get going, then."

Severus, dropping the disillusion once the three were a safe distance away, started following them as Lucius kept pace beside him looking entertained.

The three children walked into the Leakey Cauldron and he followed only to stop short. He couldn't see them anywhere. He blinked in shock as Lucius voiced his thoughts. "Where in Salazar's name did they just disappear?" his old friend asked, raising a slim eyebrow and looking surprised. Severus ground his teeth together.

"They can't be far." He said grimly as he prepared to find the little brats and wring their necks when he did.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry watched Snape's expression turn from puzzled to annoyed to downright pissed in less then five seconds. He snickered softly and beside him he could see Hermione bite back her own smile. Sting looked more bored then anything, obviously not appreciating have to crouch down in the corner of the small court yard with the three of them packed tighter then sardines so they could all hide under the Invisibility Cloak.

"Good spotting." Hermione murmured to the older boy who gave her a cocky grin.

"Us Muggle people do 'ave our uses, ya know." Harry had to bite his tongue to stop from cracking up; both from the smug look on the older boy's face and the thought that a Muggle had just outwitted Snape.

Turns out that Sting and Hermione had worked out a system for when they were robbing people on the streets. Different gestures meant different things and Sting had given Hermione the sign that he thought they might have been followed.

And, as it turned out, Sting had been right. The moment they'd stepped into the small courtyard outside the Leakey Cauldron Hermione had thrown the Invisibility Cloak over them while Sting clapped a hand over Harry's mouth before he could say anything and pulled him backwards. "We got ourselves a shadow." He'd whispered and Harry had been puzzled for a few seconds then downright shocked when he saw Snape stride through the entrance, the professor obviously on a mission with the elder Malfoy following beside him looking much more relaxed.

"How did you know?" he whispered and Sting grinned.

"I saw 'im make 'imself go invisible when I pointed out blondie. When blondie started followin' us, I took a guess."

"Sting has good instincts," Hermione murmured, smirking as she watched Snape give a frustrated sound and turn to talk to Lucius in a low voice. Lucius looked more amused then anything, something that, by the looks of it, was only adding to Snape's ire.

"How long do you think we're going to have to wait here?" Harry wondered aloud.

"Make yourself comfortable, James. We're going to be here for at least an hour." Hermione said dryly before pulling one of the books she got from Knockturn Alley out of her satchel. Harry looked at the writing and his eyes widened in surprise.

"That's Parselscript!"

"Brilliant deduction," Hermione said without even looking up from the text. "Why do you think I had to go into Knockturn to get it?"

"Good point." Harry sighed before leaning back slightly to take the weight of the balls of his feet and to put him into a better position to read over Hermione's shoulder. Sting muttered something under his breath about 'fucking nerds' and Harry bit back a smile.

Chapter Text

Chapter XI:

 

Harry's POV:

All too soon September 1st had rolled around and Harry and Hermione bid Sting, Hornet, Glitter and the others all farewell before getting up at an ungodly hour to make the journey to Little Whinging. Harry was sad about the summer being over, something he'd never thought was possible, but at the same time he was excited about heading back to Hogwarts.

They reached Privet Drive at around nine in the morning and Hermione donned the Invisibility Cloak before they walked up to the front door. They'd decided Hermione appearing out of nowhere would give the biggest shock factor should the Dursleys have decided to make things difficult.

Taking a slow breath, Harry knocked on the door and prepared himself for the shouting only to take several hasty steps back when it wasn't Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia or even Dudley who opened the door.

"P-professor?" he stammered. Snape's lips curled into a somewhat sardonic smile.

"Mr. Potter. Why don't you come in? You too, Miss Granger." Behind him, Hermione shimmered into existence as she pulled off the invisibility cloak. Her face was the picture of politeness as she stared up at their Head of House.

"Certainly, sir." She said prodding Harry's back. Nervously, Harry stumbled slightly before walking into the house.

"Living room." Snape ordered and Harry obeyed in somewhat of a daze. Snape here, in Privet Drive, was... unbelievably bizarre. Had he finally lost it? He wondered.

He rounded the corner and stopped suddenly, Hermione almost crashing into him. The three Dursleys were sitting on the sofa, their faces terrified. His school trunk was neatly laid out in the middle of the floor and Hedwig's cage was sitting next to it. "Sit down, Mr. Potter, Miss Granger." Snape said in a voice that expected to be obeyed.

Harry hastily walked over to the nearest couch and sat down, praying he wasn't in too much trouble. Hermione sat next to him, tucking her legs up under her chin and leaning into him, tangling one of her hands with his.

::Remember Harry, innocent until proven guilty:: she hissed quietly, just loud enough for him to hear ::don't tell them anything:: He nodded and worried his lower lip with his teeth as he waited anxiously for what was going to happen next.

"So, Tuney, I believe you and your pathetic excuse for a family owe Mr. Potter here something." Snape said in that dangerous, sibilant voice of his. It took Harry a moment to figure out that when Snape said "Tuney" he was referring to Aunt Petunia.

Petunia glared at Snape, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. "I'll never know what she saw in you, Snape!" she spat angrily and Snape just raised an eyebrow.

"Not quite. Try again." He drawled, tapping his wand against his thigh in a somewhat threatening manner. Petunia took several rapid deep breaths before turning to Harry with a look of absolute loathing on her face.

"We're very sorry for the way we treated you earlier this holidays," she said, her voice stiff, "and we're happy to have you back here next summer." Harry wondered whether he should make the most of this rare opportunity but instead he just nodded.

"Now that that's sorted, Mr. Potter collect your belongings. Miss Granger, I trust you have yours with you?" Snape raised an eyebrow seeing her carrying only a satchel.

"Everything's in here, sir." Hermione said, her tone even and a polite smile still in place. A smile that curved into something much less polite and much more wolf-like as she met Uncle Vernon's eyes. The scar on his uncle's face was half hidden among the fat folds, a livid line of shiny pink marking his first and only strike. Harry bit back an inappropriate smile as his uncle shrank away from his best friend and looked back at Snape who was sneering.

"Then I believe it is time for us leave this atrocity Tuney has the misfortune of calling a home along with her equally unfortunate family." Snape shot his furious, flushing aunt a mocking sneer then turned on his heel and marched off towards the– er... kitchen?– his robes billowing out behind him. Harry exchanged a wary look with Hermione then grabbed the handle of his trunk.

Hermione picked up Hedwig's cage, and her gaze flicked over to the Dursleys. "See you next summer." She told them in a mockingly sweet voice that made Uncle Vernon shudder before following their Head of House. Biting back another inappropriate grin, Harry followed her without even sparing a glance to his relatives.

Once he entered the kitchen, Snape flicked his wand at Harry's trunk and it quickly shrank to the size of a matchbox. "Put that in your pocket." He ordered and Harry did as he was told, Snape repeating the spell on the birdcage which Hermione slipped into her satchel. Harry then watched cautiously as Snape's sharp gaze swept around the kitchen before settling on one of Petunia's favorite vases, his dark eyes lighting up with a sort of gleeful malice. "Portus." His professor cast and the vase glowed bright blue.  

"Oh hell, your bitch-aunt is going to be so pissed, Harry." Hermione said, wickedly amused. He turned to her for explanation at the same time as Snape drawled,

"You're quite fortunate, Miss Granger, that term hasn't started yet or I'd be forced to take points off my own House for your vulgar language." The professor's tone was admonishing but he was smirking back at Hermione, obviously agreeing with what she'd just said.

"Er– why is Aunt Petunia going to be mad?" Harry asked a bit timidly, feeling out of the loop.

"You'll see." Hermione grinned and he narrowed his eyes at her.

"I remember what happened the last time you said that." He said suspiciously, "I had to hide the fact I'd grown a tail from my dorm-mates for nearly a week!" Hermione's face as she looked back at him was one of picture perfect innocence. 

"I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, Harry dear."

"Children," Snape interrupted them and Harry flushed slightly though he was relieved to see that his Head of House looked more amused then anything. "I don't have all day. Now touch the vase." Harry swallowed nervously but held out his hand to touch his finger against the still glowing vase. Hermione did the same, her eyes shining with that gleam they got when she was about to experience or attempt some new magic. "Three, two, one–" Harry let out a yelp as an incredibly unpleasant sensation of a hook behind his navel jerked him up and then there was light and colors and– and– and– and he was toppling onto the ground, landing face-down in an ungraceful heap.

"Oww," he moaned, turning his body so he was lying on his back. His best friend smirked down at him, standing fully balanced with not a hair out of place. Next to her, a glitter of amusement in those dark, dark eyes, Snape was also looking down at him with a raised  eyebrow. Harry managed to notice through his dizziness that they'd landed beside the gargoyle guarding Dumbledore's office.

"No time for laying about, Mr. Potter," Snape drawled, "the Headmaster wishes to have a word with you."

Instantly, Hermione tensed and turned to face Snape. "I'm going with him." Her voice left no room for argument.

"The Headmaster will have heard our arrival and he wishes to see you both... privately. Mr. Potter first." Snape appeared to be choosing his words deliberately and Hermione's eyes narrowed as she picked up whatever subtle message Snape seemed to be trying to get across.

"Can I say goodbye to Harry then, sir?" she asked, sugary sweet. Snape gave her an approving nod and stepped back, turning away. Instantly, Hermione was helping him get to his feet and then her arms were wrapped around him as if she was hugging him and her lips were pressed against his ear.

::Do not look him in the eye, tell him it doesn't matter where you spent the summer and say we met this morning as per an arrangement we made on the train and decided to go to your Aunt's house to pick up your things together:: she hissed so quietly that even with her mouth right next to his ear he could only just make out her words.

"Wh–" he started to ask but she interrupted him by digging her fingernails into his ribs, over one of the bruises she'd left during their sparring.

::Dumbledore is listening. He has eavesdropping spells in place:: She hissed at him almost noiselessly. He nodded.

"Alright. I'll see you after." He said stepping back and giving her what he hoped was a convincing smile. She smiled back but her eyes were like shards of glass and she was doing that smile that showed all her teeth. Even though Harry knew her anger wasn't directed at him he was still intimidated by that look.

She was scary– brilliant, but scary.

"Wait here, Miss Granger." Snape told Hermione and she nodded stiffly, eyes sharp enough to cut. "Follow me, Mr. Potter."

Harry numbly follower after his Head of House, up the revolving staircase and then into the office that Dumbledore lorded over. It took a lot of willpower to keep the loathing he felt for the Headmaster off his face and as the old man beamed at him that loathing started growing, hatred twisting up alongside it. Carefully, Harry fixed his gaze so it was directed at the wall beside the manipulative bastard.

"Harry, you gave us all quite a scare!" the Headmaster exclaimed, shaking his head like Harry was some kind of wayward child. "My dear boy, I must ask that you never leave the care of your relatives again when not at Hogwarts. It is only in your home that the Blood Wards can protect you."

Harry didn't say anything, still carefully not making eye contact. Dumbledore's twinkling blue eyes narrowed. "Where were you this summer, Harry?" he asked, his voice a lot sterner now.

"It doesn't matter, sir." He said flatly.

"It is very important that I know, Harry. You had a lot of people very worried. Now, were you with Miss Granger?"

"No, sir."

"Is there a reason why you won't look at me, Harry?" Dumbledore asked "gently" and Harry stiffened further.

"No, sir." He bit out.

"Then you won't mind repeating your answer while looking me in the eye?" Dumbledore pressed and a brief flare of panic caused him to sharply inhale– something that the Headmaster picked up on. "Look me in the eye, Mr. Potter." It was no longer a request: it was an order.

Seeing no way around it, Harry tried to remember everything Hermione had taught him about Occlumency and warily looked up into the Headmaster's twinkling blue eyes. Immediately he felt a pressure in his head and he sucked in another sharp breath and tried to clear away his emotions. His meager barriers held up for around five seconds before collapsing.

Pure panic overtook Harry in that moment as his mind was suddenly free for the Headmaster to plunder– and then something bizarre happened. It felt like something moved in his mind and then Dumbledore was being forced out of his head, new Occlumency barriers standing tall and strong in his mind. Impenetrable. 

What?

Shocked, Harry stumbled back slightly and blinked several times. Then an unbidden smile crossed his face and he looked back up, meeting the Headmaster's gaze this time with confidence. "I believe you wanted me to say 'no, sir'." He said in a confident voice. "Is there anything else?"

Dumbledore's face was clear of all emotion as the old man nodded at him. "You may go, Harry. Please send up Miss Granger." Harry didn't even nod, just turned and walked back down the revolving staircase as quickly as he could without appearing like he was running off. What had happened? He wondered. Where had those Occlumency barriers come from?

Seeing Hermione's worried look he gave a quick nod and then hugged her so he could whisper his own message. "He tried reading my mind but something strange happened and he couldn't. I'll tell you about it later." Hermione nodded wordlessly then smiled. It was a dark smile that screamed of bloodlust and revenge and as she made her way up the spiral staircase on silent feet he could see murder in the lines of her face.

So brilliant but so, so scary.

-

-

Voldemort's POV:

Voldemort let out a low hiss as Potter's panic flooded through the back of his mind, half drowning him. Sweet Salazar, what was the boy doing? He wondered trying and failing to convince himself that this occurrence displeased him when in fact the opposite was true. Using the link between them was one of his favorite pastimes these days, seeing as he had absolutely nothing else to do while he was creating his new body and all the while getting flashes of just how utterly and unbearably happy Potter had been.

He waited patiently as Potter's panic grew and grew until the link opened fully and he was in Potter's mind. The second he was in there, though, he knew something was very, very wrong. There was a foreign presence in Potter's mind– and an unwelcome one at that.

Another low hiss escaped his lips, this one furious as Voldemort pushed the invading presence out of Potter's head and built new Occlumency shields in the boy's mind, strong ones that could withstand any Legilimency attack.

It was just before he was pushed back out of Potter's mind that he got a look at the invading Legilimens. He started laughing as he was pushed back into his/Quirrell's own body, genuinely amused by what he'd seen.

He thought that persuading Potter would be a challenge, the boy had so many more morals then Hermione Granger and seemed to depend on her to commit any Darker acts, but the Headmaster was just making this all too easy for him.

Trying to invade Potter's mind like that– would the old man never learn? Harry Potter was His now. Harry Potter's mind, his thoughts, his memories, they all belonged to Lord Voldemort; unknowingly signed over to him by the boy himself the moment he and Hermione's Granger handed over the Stone. Voldemort knew, had known as soon as he'd made that Oath, that he would never be able to them go.

-

-

Severus's POV:

"You just made a serious miscalculation there, Albus." Severus' voice was cold as he addressed the Headmaster.

"I needed to know Severus," Albus shook his head, "but that... I have never encountered that before." Curiosity getting the better of him, Severus arched an eyebrow.

"Well, old man? Are you going to get around to actually telling the class?" he asked sarcastically.

"He tried putting up barriers but they were of no consequence and I was inside his mind but then... he pushed me out and the barriers he put up– I could not break them," Albus shook his head in disbelief. "It should not be possible."

"Miss Granger is quite the student," Severus drawled, "I'd not be surprised if she had something to do with it."

"I think I'll take that as a compliment, sir." Granger spoke from behind him, sounding amused. He swore internally, wondering how in the seven hells she'd managed to sneak up on him.

Granger had a smirk on her face like she knew exactly the sort of reaction she had just caused in him and he tried to scowl but it came out a lot more like a proud smirk. She was good, his little star Slytherin.

"I hope this doesn't take too long, sir." Granger said, except she was suddenly using the sweet little girl voice she had with Greyback and it felt like in the space of a blink the hard-eyed, coldly furious Hermione Granger had vanished and been replaced by a delicate little girl with long, curly hair, big innocent doe eyes and a childish earnestness on her face. "You see," she said, sweet sincerity in her voice as she looked up at Dumbledore with shy eyes, "Harry says he suddenly came down with a headache so I told him if I take too long he should go to the Hospital Wing and lay down. And because the headache was so sudden and out of the blue I told him and Harry agreed that he should ask Madam Pomphrey to take a look at him and figure out if there's a specific cause."

Perfect innocence on that deceptively young, sweet face. Hermione Granger was undeniably brilliant and she was running the Headmaster's face in it, taunting him by doing absolutely nothing.

Severus had to fight the urge to laugh at the position Granger had just backed Albus into. Madam Pomphrey would be able to tell in a heartbeat that someone had forced their way into Harry's mind and she'd be absolutely furious at Albus. Add to that the fact it was technically not legal and that Harry could press charges if he so wished, a fact Miss Granger seemed fully aware of...

Brilliant. Just brilliant. She was a delight.

"Well with Harry's best interests at heart, let's make this quick." Albus smiled down at the now second year student as they all pretended they weren't fully aware of the fact that the thirteen-year-old child had just completely outmaneuvered him.

"You have questions?" Granger asked, shedding the innocent child act, face as cold as her voice as she arched an eyebrow and curled her lip. The urge to laugh almost doubled in intensity as Severus watched his student pull off a move he recognized as his own. And she did a good job of it too.

"Was Harry with you this summer?"

"No, sir."

"Did you see him at all this summer?"

"No, sir."

"Did you write to him at all this summer?"

"No, sir."

"How did you come to be together this morning?"

"Pre-arranged meeting at the end of last year, sir." Granger answered with perfect poise and control. "Is that all?"

"Miss Granger," Albus began, his face stern, before he stopped as Granger took an exaggerated look at her bare wrist as if she was checking the time on a watch. "You may go, Miss Granger." The Headmaster's voice was not friendly and neither was Granger's smile as she turned and left.

Severus bit back a sigh. She was undeniably a delight but she did make his life difficult.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

"So, how did it go?" Harry asked once they were in the Slytherin Common Room, well out of the way of any of the headmaster's eavesdropping charms.

"I found it quite satisfying," Hermione answered with a smirk, "I got the rare pleasure of blackmailing our illustrious headmaster. Basically I said that he had to let me go back to you or I'd get him pulled up on charges for invading the mind of a minor under his care. But enough about that for now, we can gloat later– you said something strange happened?"

"Yeah," Harry said with a frown, "the headmaster pushed past my Occlumency walls easily and I was panicking and then suddenly it felt like there was something... something else in my head and it forced Dumbledore out and there were suddenly these really, really strong Occlumency barriers in my head that didn't fall until a few minutes after I left his office."

Hermione tilted her head and frowned as examined Harry, noticing how he kept rubbing his scar. "Does your head hurt?" she asked him and he paused his movements.

"It's not my head, it's my scar... but it doesn't hurt it just feels kind of strange." He said.

"Your scar links you to Voldemort– do you think that he could have been that foreign presence in your mind?" She asked in alarm and Harry gave a sort of half shudder.

"God, I hope not. That's just... creepy."

"I agree," she said before pausing. "Though if it was him he did just save you– and all our secrets."

"But does that mean he can read my mind and stuff?" Harry asked anxiously.

"I don't know," Hermione murmured, thinking hard. "Whatever link it is between the both of you seems to be two way– you can sense when he's near and it's likely that he can slip into your mind. Do you think you could try getting into his?"

"Getting inside Voldemort's head is a very scary idea," Harry shuddered, "but... I could try, I guess? How would I do it, anyway?"

"I'll do some–"

"Research," Harry finished her sentence for her, a grin on his face. She rolled her eyes at him.

"Immature much?" She sniped and he just laughed and slung an arm around her shoulder.

"Just a little bit."

Seeing as they had a few hours before the rest of the student body arrived, Hermione made the most out of the time by unpacking everything, letting Iago go off to find Mrs. Norris, the love of his life, and then settled down on one of the leather armchairs with one of the Parseltongue books.

The book was full of bizarre and interesting facts, like how wards created and spells cast in Parseltongue could only be undone by those who could speak Parseltongue and how there were certain spells that were strengthened when cast in the snake tongue but other spells that were weakened or made downright ineffective. 

Harry laid down on the couch with his head on her lap, dozing. ::Lazy:: she hissed and he snickered, not even bothering to open his eyes.

"What sort of mischief do you think we should get up to this year?" he wondered aloud.

"None, I hope." Drawled Snape as he stepped through the enchanted wall that led to the Slytherin Common Room. Hermione had to laugh at deer in headlight's look on Harry's face as his eyes flew open in horror.

"I'll do my best to keep him in line, sir." She told the professor, running her fingers through Harry's wayward hair. He'd decided he liked it longer and had kept his nearly long enough to brush against the collar of his school shirt.

"A difficult task but I suppose you are one of my more gifted students." Snape allowed.

"Was there anything you wanted to address with us, professor?" she asked, her mouth twitching into a smile.

"The headmaster has requested that I push you for details pertaining to your whereabouts this holidays. Naturally, I shall tell him I was unsuccessful in my endeavor which leads to the second reason I'm here." Snape paused for a moment which piqued her curiosity. "The headmaster doesn't wish to alarm you with the details but I feel that you should be forewarned." He said slowly.

"Forewarned is forearmed." Hermione murmured, her eyes sharp as they met the professor's.

"Mr. Potter, Miss Granger... the Dark Lord is not as vanquished as most believe," Snape appeared to be choosing his words carefully, "I agree that the headmaster should have approached the matter differently but the fact is his rash, foolish actions were based on his fear for your safety, especially with the signs pointing towards the idea that the Dark Lord may be growing in strength."

Hermione was honestly surprised that Snape had chosen to share as much as he had with them as she'd expected the headmaster to avoid telling Harry anything until the last possible minute if what she'd heard of the prophecy so far was anything to go by.

"Could you find us, Professor Snape?" Harry spoke up, surprising her slightly as he usually let her do the talking when it came to situations like this. "Could Dumbledore or anyone else find us?"

"While you were in the Muggle world, no." Snape answered slowly.

"Then what makes you think that Vol– You Know Who or any of his followers could have found us? After all, everyone says that Dumbledore is even more powerful then the Dark Lord." Harry pointed out and Hermione couldn't help her surge of pride– Harry really was growing up to be quite the Slytherin!

Snape's mouth quirked into a smile at that. "Indeed. Mr. Potter, Miss Granger; the welcome back feast will be starting in just under an hour. I expect to see you both there."

"Of course, sir." Hermione smiled as she watched Snape leave. Once the professor had gone, she looked down at Harry and ruffled his hair affectionately. ::look at you, all grown up!:: she teased and he rolled his eyes.

"Har, har, har."

-

"Why weren't you guys on the train?" Draco demanded, as he sat across from them, at the Slytherin table. The hall was filling up and everyone was talking and shouting and laughing excitedly. Hermione smirked at their friend's indignant expression while Harry full on laughed.

"Yes, we missed you too." Harry told the blonde who scowled even harder, crossing his arms.

"Ignore the princess," Blaise rolled his eyes at Draco before smiling across at them, "did you two enjoy your summer?"

"It was brilliant," Harry said instantly and she smiled back at Blaise as she agreed with Harry.

"One of my best."

"Let me guess, you spent the whole time together?" Theo asked dryly.

"We just finished explaining to our illustrious headmaster how that wasn't the case at all." Hermione said with a sweet smile.

"So basically you barely left each other's side." Blaise summed up and Hermione smirked at him but didn't confirm it.

"What about you guys? How did your summers go?" Harry asked and Hermione listened to the three other boys all talk about what they'd done over the holidays, fully aware of the blue eyes boring into the side of her skull. "He's staring at us, isn't he?" Harry murmured quietly to her.

"Oh, yes." She snorted.

Eventually McGonagall led in a line of nervous looking first years and Hermione watched mostly disinterested– that was, until her gaze settled on a pale girl with long, dirty blonde hair and a dreamy look on her face.

"Hm," she mused, head tilted slightly as she watched "Lovegood, Luna" drift towards the hat while humming softly and appearing to be completely unaware of the sea of students watching her.

"D'you think she's a, you know, a kindred spirit?" Harry asked, softly, examining Luna.

"I don't think so," Hermione said, quietly, "not yet, anyway, but she's halfway there." As the hat shouted 'RAVENCLAW', Hermione felt a wave of disappointment flow through her. "Pity," she sighed. If the girl had been a Slytherin she'd have been able to observe her more closely.

The rest of the sorting passed quickly with Hermione scowling at the latest Weasley was sorted into Gryffindor, this one a girl. Her ire only grew as "Weasley, Ginevra" looked over at Harry with pink cheeks, a look in her eyes that Hermione recognized only too well– the stupid little girl had a crush on Harry.

She could already tell what an annoyance that was going to be. Weasleys.

Chapter Text

Chapter XII:

Harry's POV:

The morning after the Welcome Feast, Harry rose early like he always did and met a fully dressed Hermione who was waiting, somewhat impatiently, for him in the Common Room. "You're late." She informed him.

"And yet I'm still here before pretty much every other student in Slytherin." He reminded her and she sighed noisily even as a fond smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

Together they made their way to the Great Hall where the four long House tables were already laden with tureens of porridge, plates of kippers, mountains of toast and dishes of eggs and bacon. Harry buttered himself up some toast, knowing that his stomach would need time to adjust to the rich foods provided by Hogwarts, and Hermione propped open a copy of 'Curses and Countercurses: When To Use Them' against a milk jug.

"That wasn't on the booklist." He noted and she pulled a face.

"It's not like we're going to learn anything from the crap Lockhart assigned us." Harry nodded in agreement at the same time as Snape approached them.

"Mr. Potter, Miss Granger," he said and two of the schedules from the pile levitating behind him shot out and landed in front of their respective owners.

"Thank you, sir." Hermione smiled and Harry echoed her words. Snape nodded and started to walk away before pausing and looking back.

"I advise keeping your voice down in the future, Miss Granger. Not everyone will support your opinions as wholeheartedly as I do... at least not right away." Their Head of House said smoothly before continuing on his way.

"See, he thinks Lockhart's a fraud too." Hermione pointed out. Harry rolled his eyes and finished off his toast before looking at his schedule.

"We've got double Transfiguration first, then Herbology, then– oh no," he groaned, "Double DADA with the Gryffindors." Hermione pulled a face.

"I swear, this year I'm not taking any of their crap. One stupid comment from Weasley and his parents will have two daughters not one." She muttered.

"I saw the Weasley girl during the sorting- Genevieve, right?" he recalled from the night before.

"Ginevra." Hermione said her expression rapidly darkening. Harry thought about asking what the Weasley girl had done already to piss off his best friend without even speaking to her then decided against it.

"If we get to Transfiguration early we can make sure we're seated away from the front." He suggested instead and Hermione nodded, standing up and stashing her book back into her satchel which was hitched, as always, over her shoulder.

Transfiguration was okay. McGonagall and Hermione still appeared to absolutely loathe each other but the Deputy Headmistress was forced to reluctantly award Slytherin five points when Hermione transfigured her beetle into a button on her first try.

Personally, Harry was pleased to find he was the third in the class to accomplish it as he'd never had Hermione's natural skill at the subject– after all, Hermione was most probably the youngest Animagus in history!

Herbology was interesting enough as they were introduced to a species of plant called Mandrakes. Harry found them really quite fascinating, screaming baby-shaped plants whose cries were fatal to anyone who heard them. He wondered morbidly if he could steal one to take home to the Dursleys...

They ate lunch with the boys then went outside into the overcast courtyard where Hermione helped Draco and Blaise practice their Transfiguration, as at the end of the lesson Draco's button still had six wiggling legs and Blaise's stubbornly kept its antennae, while Harry and Theo talked about Quidditch.

It was near the end of lunch that Harry became aware that he was being closely watched. Looking up, he saw a small, mousey-haired boy staring at him as though transfixed. The boy had a Gryffindor tie on and was clutching what looked like an ordinary Muggle camera. The moment Harry looked at him he went bright red.

"H-hi Harry, I'm– I'm Colin Creevey," he said, somewhat breathlessly, taking a tentative step forward. "I- d'you think– would it be all right- if– can I have a picture?" he asked, raising the camera hopefully.

"A picture?" Harry repeated dumbly.

"So I can prove I've met you," said Colin Creevey eagerly, edging further forward. "I know all about you. Everyone's told me. About how you survived when You-Know-Who tried to kill you and how he disappeared and everything and how you've still got a lightning scar on your forehead and a boy in my dormitory said if I develop the film in the right potion then the pictures'll move." Colin drew a great shuddering breath of excitement and opened his mouth as if to continue, but Hermione interrupted.

"Actually– Colin, was it?" As Colin nodded, she gave a sharp-edged smile and continued, "I think you should get lost– right now– before my patience runs out and I turn that camera into a spider." Her voice grew more and more menacing until Colin gave a scared squeak and turned and ran.  

"That was a bit mean," Harry noted, though he was smiling slightly. Hermione shrugged.

"I had to make sure that I got the point across otherwise he'd just try again." She said and Draco snickered, while Blaise and Theo looked on in amusement.

"Stupid Gryffindors." Harry sighed.

"Speaking of stupid Gryffindors, we've got DADA next." Hermione said with a scowl, "which means we're going to have to not only deal with two hours of listening to an incompetent fraud droning on about himself but also have to put up with Weasley and his moronic friends. And I'd so enjoyed not having to listen to his pathetic whining."

Harry and the boys laughed at the expression on Hermione's face as they stood up and made their way towards their final lesson for the day. Choosing seats at the back of the classroom, Harry pulled out all his course books and piled them up on the corner of his desk. Beside him, Hermione refused to even take Lockhart's books out of her satchel– in fact, Harry was pretty sure she hadn't even brought them to the class. Instead she was getting started on the two foot long Transfiguration essay McGonagall had assigned them.

Theo let out a sound of amusement as he looked across at her. "I never thought I'd see the day where Hermione didn't give her hundred percent in a class." He teased and Hermione shot him a glare that just amused him further.

After the rest of the class had arrived, Ron Weasley shooting his customary glare in Harry's direction, Lockhart cleared his throat loudly several times and silence eventually fell. Hermione didn't even look up from her essay, her quill scratching noisily across the parchment. Harry tried not to laugh.

At the front of the room, Lockhart had reached forward and picked up Neville Longbottom's copy of 'Travels with Trolls', in order to hold it up to show his own winking portrait on the front. "Me," he said, pointing at it and winking as well. "Gilderoy Lockhart, Order of Merlin Third Class, Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defense League and five-time winner of Witch Weekly's Most-Charming-Smile-Award– but I don't talk about that."

"Could have fooled me," Hermione muttered without even looking up. All those in hearing range had to choke back a laugh.

"After all," Lockhart continued on, "I didn't get rid of the Bandon Banshee by smiling at her!" He paused, obviously waiting for them to laugh and a few people just smiled weakly. "I see you've all bought a complete set of my books–well done. I thought we'd start today with a little quiz. Nothing to worry about; just to check how well you've read them, how much you've taken in–"

He sent the test papers floating down the middle of the aisle and once everyone had one he gave them a big smile and said, "You have thirty minutes– start– now!"

Harry looked down at his paper and read:

1. What is Gilderoy Lockhart's favorite color?

2. What is Gilderoy Lockhart's secret ambition?

3. What, in your opinion, is Gilderoy Lockhart's greatest achievement to date?

On and on it went, over three sides of paper, right down to:

54. When is Gilderoy Lockhart's birthday, and what would his idea gift be?

"Is this a joke?" He asked incredulously.

"I'm starting to think Hermione's right." Theo groaned, "the idiot is... Merlin, he's something else entirely!"

"You're only just starting to think I'm right?" Hermione asked, looking up from her halfway done essay to give Theo her own incredulous look. "How long have you known me again?"

"Point taken." Theo nodded, "are you actually going to do it?"

"Of course not. I'm not wasting my time on something as ridiculous as that." Hermione said disdainfully before returning to her essay. Harry traded a look with Theo before pulling out a piece of parchment and a quill.

"Hangman?" he suggested. A moment's pause, then–

"I dibs going first."

Half an hour later, Lockhart collected the papers and rifled through them in front of the class. "Tut, tut– hardly any of you remembered that my favorite color is lilac. I say so in 'Year with the Yeti'. And a few of you need to read 'Wanderings with Werewolves' more carefully– I clearly state in chapter twelve that my ideal birthday girl would be harmony between all magic and non-magic people–though I wouldn't say no to a large bottle of Odgen's Old Firewhiskey!"

He gave them another roguish wink and the class seemed split in two with the boys all either shaking in silent laughter or staring at Lockhart with expressions of disbelief on their faces and most of the girls listening with rapt attention with only a handful of Slytherin girls who seemed in complete agreement with Hermione.

"Oh dear," Lockhart clicked his tongue and looked most disapproving as he reached their test papers, "some of you don't appear to have read my books at all! You haven't managed to fill in any of the answers!"

"Oh I'd dreadfully sorry, sir," Hermione said, a sardonic smile on her face that Snape himself would be proud of, "but my sense of self-preservation just would not allow me to even touch any of your books lest I die of absolute and utter boredom."

There was dead silence for a moment and then half the class cracked up, no longer able to keep their laughter silent. Harry's eyes were watering he was laughing so hard and Lockhart's expression was most put out.

"I think," he said, speaking over the laughter, "that you'll change your mind most quickly after this! It is my job to arm you against the foulest creatures known to wizardkind! You may find yourselves facing your worst fears in this room. Know only that no harm can befall you whilst I am here."

"I highly doubt that," Hermione scoffed, and Lockhart continued his little speech, pretending not to hear her.

"All I ask is that you remain calm." He said, gravely as he bent down behind his desk and lifted a large, covered cage onto it. In spite of himself, Harry leaned around his pile of books for a better look at the cage. Lockhart placed a hand on the cover. "I must ask you not to scream," he said in a low voice, "it might provoke them."

As the whole class, barring Hermione who still looked scathing, held its breath Lockhart whipped off the cover. "Yes," he said dramatically, "freshly caught Cornish pixies!"

"Well they're not dangerous," Weasley scoffed from the front row and Harry, for once, had to agree with him. The thought of that didn't sit well in his stomach.

"Don't be so sure!" said Lockhart, waggling a finger annoyingly at Weasley. "Devilish tricky little blighters they can be!" Harry surveyed the electric blue, eight inch pixies with an amused look. They sounded like a load of budgies with their high-pitched squeaking and the moment the cover had been removed they had started jabbering and rocketing around, rattling the bars and making bizarre faces at the people nearest them. "Right, then," Lockhart said loudly, "let's see what you make of them now!" And he opened the cage.

Pandemonium ensued.

The pixies shot in every direction like rockets, proceeding to wreck the classroom more effectively than a rampaging rhino. They grabbed ink bottles and sprayed the class with them, shredded books and papers, tore pictures from the walls, upended the waste basket, grabbed bags and books and threw them at the windows, smashing them and showering the back row with broken glass. Harry and Theo only narrowly avoided the glass due to a quick wand movement by Hermione that created a shield above them that the glass bounced off. The tables on either side of them weren't as lucky.

Within minutes, half the class was hiding under their desks and one of the Gryffindors, Neville Longbottom, had been hung from the iron chandelier in the ceiling by the back of his collar.

"Any advice, sir?" Draco yelled out, batting away the bloody blighters that kept coming at him with a copy of 'Voyages with Vampires'.

"Of course!" Lockhart said, rolling up his sleeves and brandishing his wand. "Peskipiksi Pesternomi!" He bellowed.

It had absolutely no effect and one of the pixies seized his wand and threw it out of the window. Lockhart gulped and dived under his own desk, narrowly avoiding being squashed by Longbottom who fell a second later as the chandelier gave way.

The bell rang and there was a mad rush toward the exit. In the relative calm that followed, Lockhart straightened up and caught sight of the handful of Slytherins, including Harry and Hermione, who were almost at the door and said, "Well, I'll ask you there to just nip the rest of them back into their cage." He then swept past them and shut the door quickly behind him.

"Can you believe him?" Draco spluttered incredulously. Hermione's face was dark with annoyance as she pointed her wand at one of the nearest pixies.

"Incendio!" She spat and its screams as it burst into flames were enough to attract the attention of the rest of the pixies. "Get out!" she shouted at them, making a gesture at the window, "get out now or I'll burn you too!"

The pixies might not speak English but Hermione's gestures were quite clear and they all started swarming for the windows, fighting to get out as quickly as they could.

"Brutal," Blaise noted, nudging the corpse of the pixie she'd burned with the toe of his shoe. Theo and Draco looked impressed.

"But effective." Hermione shrugged before glancing down at the tiny blackened body and vanishing it with a murmured word and a flick of her wand. "Shall we get going?" 

"Definitely." Harry agreed, with a slight shudder as he glanced at the torn off cover of  'Gadding with Ghouls' where a beaming Lockhart was waving merrily at him.

Harry's mood brightened though by the time he'd reached the Slytherin Common Room and saw the notice pinned up on the board.

"Quidditch tryouts?" Draco also perked up beside him, looking excited. "They're scheduled for Friday afternoon! Are you trying out, Harry?" he asked, turning to face him.

Harry scratched behind his ear. "I– I was thinking about it."

"Nonsense," Hermione said in a brisk voice, "there's no thinking about it– he is trying out and he is going to get the Seeker position." Harry blushed at her words and Hermione rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Harry dear, your lack of self-confidence while not surprising is utterly appalling."

"Why is it not surprising?" He asked. Hermione pulled a face.

"One word," she said darkly."Dursleys. Now hurry up and put your name down so we can go to the library and finish the Transfiguration essay the old crone set us."

-

The next week passed at an unbearably slow pace. Harry spent a lot of time dodging out of sight whenever he saw Gilderoy Lockhart coming down a corridor. He also had to deal with the fascination that Colin Creevey had with him– and Creevey wasn't the only one.

Much to Harry's bemusement, the littlest Weasley– Ginevra– seemed to be quite enamored by him. She and Creevey seemed to have memorized his schedule and nothing seemed to give them greater pleasure then trailing after him, watching moon-eyed from a distance. Draco, Blaise and Theo's sniggering was becoming unbearable and Hermione looked more and more pissed off with each incident.

When classes on Friday afternoon finally ended, though, Harry forgot about his annoyance because it was finally time for Quidditch Tryouts.

He joined a group of Slytherins on the edge of the Quidditch Pitch, holding his broom– the one he and Hermione had "acquired" while stealing the Philosopher's Stone– tight and trying to ignore his sweating hands inside the new gloves he'd bought from the Quidditch supply shop in Diagon Alley. Beside him, Draco was holding his highly polished, brand new broom, fine sets of gold lettering spelling the words Nimbus Two Thousand and One running up the glossy sides.

Harry listened nervously as Marcus Flint, the Slytherin Quidditch Captain, gave an introduction before splitting them off into groups. "How nervous are you?" Draco whispered, looking anxious.

"I think I might throw up." Harry whispered back.

But the nerves he was feeling, the panic, the anxiety, it all seemed to just flow away as he mounted his broomstick and kicked at the ground, soaring up into the air. Flint put them through a series of training exercises, picking people off one by one and whittling them down until there were only three people left trying out for the Seeker position– Harry, Draco and Terrence Higgs, last year's Seeker.

"No hard feelings, right?" Harry asked Draco nervously.

"Definitely not," Draco assured him and Harry hoped that the blonde would keep his word if Harry did win.

"Okay, this is the final test," Flint barked, holding a small golden ball with wings fluttering lazily on either side– the golden snitch. "I'm looking for three things– skill, technique and aptitude. Even if you're the one who catches the snitch, I'm not guaranteeing you a place on the team."

They all nodded, Harry and Draco looking much more nervous then the relaxed, easy-going Higgs. "Go on the whistle," Flint ordered as he released the snitch. Harry tried to keep his eyes fixed on the golden ball but it quickly vanished. The piercing blast of the whistle nearly made him flinch but he kicked off the ground, flying up into the air.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Hermione watched as Harry circled the pitch like she'd seen Seekers do during Quidditch matches, his head turning from side to side as he scanned around for the small golden ball. He looked nervous but determined and, hands safely hidden in her pockets, Hermione crossed her fingers. "Come on, Harry, come on," she murmured.

For almost ten agonizing minutes, the three wannabe Seekers circled the pitch until Harry suddenly leaned forwards, pointing his broom handle down and diving towards the ground. She bit back the horrified gasp that wanted to escape her as Harry stretched out his hand and caught the madly fluttering small golden ball only a few feet from the ground, just in time for him to pull his broom straight before toppling gently onto the grass.

Theo and Blaise were whistling loudly while Flint was grinned broadly. He strode over and pulled Harry to his feet, giving him a hardy clap on the back. "Excellent job, Potter." He said, "You're going to make a fine Seeker."

Hermione watched with pride as Flint discussed details with Harry before letting him go and Harry walked over to her. "I told you that you'd get it." She told him. Harry looked rather shell-shocked.

"I –I can't believe it." He mumbled and she sighed, rolling her eyes.

"What's the golden rule, Harry?"

"Hermione is always right." Draco, Blaise and Theo chorused from behind them.

"Exactly." Hermione grinned and Harry gave a weak smile.

"That was amazing, mate." Draco said, slinging an arm over Harry's shoulders, his eyes wide. "I thought you were going to break your neck! Slytherin is definitely going to be winning the Quidditch Cup this year!"    

Hermione was pleased that Draco didn't seem to be harboring any ill feelings towards Harry's victory over him– instead, the blonde looked impressed. And she didn't blame him; she's almost had a heart attack watching Harry dive like that.

"First practice is tomorrow morning so you better get to sleep early." She told her best friend.

"Yes, mother." Harry replied cheekily and she reached over to cuff him behind the ears.

"Arse," she grumbled and they all laughed.

The next morning rolled around, and Hermione found herself walking with the Slytherin team over to the Quidditch pitch to watch Harry's first training session, holding an apple in her hand and a book tucked under her arm. Iago and Mrs. Norris had decided to join her with Iago strolling on the ground while Mrs. Norris had draped herself over Hermione's shoulders and Hermione had the sneaking suspicion that Mrs. Norris's recent laziness and weight gain wasn't the result of the two cats figuring out how to get into the school kitchens. 

As they reached the edge of the pitch, Hermione couldn't help but smirk slightly in wicked expectation as she saw that the Gryffindor Quidditch team had decided that they wanted to practice this morning too– pity for them that Professor Snape had written a note.

A burly fifth year Gryffindor flew towards the ground, landing hard and staggering slightly. Hermione felt her lip twist into a sneer– this boy, Oliver Wood, was the same one she'd temporarily blinded last year after he'd cursed Harry. He also happened to be the captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

"Flint!" he bellowed, "this is our practice time! We got up specially! You can clear off now!" Marcus smirked

"Plenty of room for all of us, Wood." He replied.

The Gryffindor Chasers had landed and stood slightly behind their Captain who was positively spitting with rage. "But I booked the field! I booked it!" he shouted.

"Ah," said Flint, "But I've got a specially signed note here from Professor Snape. 'I, Professor S. Snape, give the Slytherin team permission to practice today on the Quiddith field, owing to the need to train their new Seeker.'" 

"You've got a new Seeker? Where?" Wood demanded. Harry looked nervous as the Slytherin team parted to reveal them standing there, Harry clutching his broom in his hand.

"Potter." Sneered Wood.

"Wood." Harry returned and Hermione smirked.

"What are you looking so happy about?" Wood snarled at her.

"Just picturing what's going to happen next Quidditch match. I'm sure you've heard about James Potter's incredible talent– and according to Madam Hooch, Harry's a natural. She said she wouldn't be surprised if Harry wound up even better then his father, who was one of the finest Quidditch players the school's ever seen."

Actually, Madam Hooch had said none of this but Wood's face had paled dramatically at her words. "Worried?" She smiled at him, long and slow. "You should be." Wood's face went from white to flushed with fury.

"Shut up, bitch!" He spat at her.

"What did you just call me?" Hermione asked in a low, dangerous voice.

"I called you a bitch. What are you going do? Go running to mummy?" Wood taunted. Hermione went ice-cold with fury.

"My mummy's dead, Wood." She said coldly, ice in her eyes. Wood's eyes widened as he realized he'd just crossed a line, even as Harry whipped out his wand and pointed it at the Gryffindor Captain.

With one shouted word and a loud bang that echoed around the stadium, Wood's front teeth were suddenly growing at an alarming rate, already nearly reaching his chin as the force of the spell sending the fifth year reeling backward onto the grass. The Slytherin team had burst into laughter, even as the Gryffindor's crowded their fallen captain.

"Oliver? Are you alright?" One of the chasers gasped and Wood tried to speak except his oversized teeth got in the way.

"We'll get you for this!" One of the Weasley twins shouted as they both pulled Wood up by the arms and supported him out of the stadium and back up to the castle, the rest of the Gryffindor team not far behind.

"Alright, enough fun," ordered Flint, "Everyone get on your brooms. Practice starts now!"

After watching Harry's Quidditch practice, Hermione spent most of the day with Harry, the pair of them finishing any homework they had due then practicing their Occlumency and a few new nasty spells that they were both itching to try out on Wood.

After dinner, they both returned to the Common Room and socialised with the other Slytherin second years, Hermione teaching Daphne, Tracey and the boys how to play poker and then thoroughly trouncing them. 

It was nearly midnight and she was thinking about heading up to bed when she heard it. ::Come... come to me... Let me rip you... Let me tear you... Let me kill you...:: It was a voice, a voice to chill the bone marrow, a voice of breathtaking, ice-cold venom. Hermione basically leapt to her feet while a wide-eyed Harry jerked up into a sitting position from where he was lying on the couch, sniggering as Draco pushed yet another pile of coins towards Hermione.

"Did you hear that?" she asked urgently.

"Hear what?" Blaise asked as he placed his hand of cards facedown on the table.

"Yes," Harry replied, ignoring the curious looks they were getting from the other Slytherins. Hermione grabbed his arm and basically dragged him out of the Slytherin Common Room, pulling the Invisibility Cloak out of her satchel as they went so the instant they were out in the corridor, away from the stares from Blaise, Draco, Theo, Daphne and Tracey, she threw it over them.

"It was in Parseltongue." She whispered.

"Which way did it go?" Harry whispered back. 

"I don't know," she replied, frustrated. They both strained their hearing but they couldn't hear anything else.

"What do you think it was?" Harry asked, his voice hushed as they stood there looking at each other. Hermione thought for a moment before answering, letting profanity slip into her speech.

"I think it was a fucking huge snake."

Chapter Text

Chapter XIII:

 

Hermione's POV:

October arrived without any reappearances of the mysterious snake's voice and it was spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. It rained for days on end, the lake froze, the flowerbeds turned into muddy streams and Hagrid's pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds. Students were wandering around smoking at the ears from consuming Madam Pomfrey's Pepper-Up Potions and Hermione found great amusement in Harry's annoyance about the fact that Marcus Flint still held regular training sessions, come wind, rain, storms and snow.

By the time October 31st arrived, the rest of the school was happily anticipating their Halloween feast; the Great Hall had been decorated with live bats, Hagrid's vast pumpkins had been carved into lanterns large enough for three men to sit in and there were rumours that Dumbledore had booked a troupe of dancing skeletons for entertainment.

At seven o'clock, she and Harry made their way down to the packed Great Hall which was glittering invitingly with gold plates and candles, Iago draped over her shoulders as the tomcat usually was during mealtimes– he enjoyed the food at Hogwarts even more then she did. Hermione had asked Harry if he really wanted to attend a celebratory feast that was held on what also happened to be the day his parents had died and Harry had said he did, looking stubborn as all hell, so she had dropped the subject and hadn't asked him again.

The feast turned out to be everything it had promised to be but Hermione struggled to enjoy herself as she watched Harry's expression grow more and more morose. They'd only been there about an hour before she decided that enough was enough.

"Let's go." She told him and Harry gave her a weak smile.

"Remember that time when you thanked me for knowing what you needed, even though you told me that you were too stubborn to admit it yourself?"

"I do," she said as they stood up and made their way towards the exit.

"Thank you for knowing what I needed even though I said I didn't, Hermione." Harry whispered to her. She just reached out to clasp onto his hand, tangling their fingers together and squeezing gently. 

They were in the entrance hall and heading in the direction of the dungeons when they heard it. ::...Rip... tear...kill...:: It was the same voice, the same cold, murderous voice, the voice of the 'fucking huge snake'.

"Which direction is it coming from?" Harry asked, looking a bit pale.

::...kill... time to kill...::

"Upward– it's moving upward." She said, after a moment.  

"Come on," Harry urged, "let's find it." They took off, sprinting up the marble staircase to the first floor. Hermione strained her ears– distantly, from the floor above and growing fainter still, she could still hear the voice.

::...I smell blood... I SMELL BLOOD!::

"I think it's going to kill someone!" Harry said, giving her an alarmed look. Hermione's lips tightened into a thin line, not keen on the idea of running into danger, but she let Harry drag her up the next flight of stairs, taking the steps three at a time. She tried to listen over the sound of their footsteps as they hurtled around the whole of the second floor, Harry not stopping until they turned a corner into the last, deserted passage.

"Look!" He gasped, pointing down the corridor.

Something was shining on the wall ahead. They both approached it cautiously, squinting through the darkness. Foot-high words had been daubed on the wall between two windows, shimmering in the light cast by the flaming torches.

THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED

ENEMY OF THE HEIR, BEWARE.

As they edged closer, Harry almost slipped, almost pulling her down after him– there was a large puddle of water on the floor and Hermione only just managed to keep them both standing. He flashed her a quick smile of thanks before they inched toward the message, their eyes fixed on a dark shadow hanging beneath it. Hermione was certain that Harry figured out what it was at the same time as she did as he let out a horrified gasp at the same time as she let out a inarticulate sound of pure fury.

Mrs. Norris was hanging by her tail from the torch bracket. She was stiff as a board, her eyes wide and staring.

"NO!" Hermione snarled, rage and fear warring inside her as she let go of Harry's hand and sprinted forwards. Iago let out a terrible yowl launching himself off her shoulders, dashing ahead.

She barely heard the rumble, as though of distant thunder, that told them that the feast had just ended. She barely heard the hundreds of feet climbing the stairs and the loud, happy talk of well-fed people. She barely even noticed as the noise died suddenly when the people in front spotted the hanging cat.

"No-no-no-no-no," Hermione breathed, reaching out to touch Mrs. Norris.

The cat felt as cold as ice.

Someone shouted through the quiet. "Enemies of the Heir, beware! You'll be next Mudbloods!" Hermione turned for a split second to see who had spoken. Draco had pushed to the front of the crowd, grinning at the sight of the hanging, immobile cat. His grin quickly faded when he saw her face, pale with fury and murder in her eyes, and the cat at her feet. Everyone knew about Hermione Granger's odd relationship with the caretaker and his cat.

And everyone knew just what Hermione Granger was capable of when she was angry.

"What's going on here? What's going on?" Attracted, no doubt, by Malfoy's shout, Hermione watched Argus come shouldering his way through the crowd. The caretaker's eyes met hers, then moved past and saw Mrs. Norris. His expression turned horrified.

"My cat! My cat! What's happened to Mrs. Norris?" he shrieked. He charged the rest of the way, dropping to his knees beside where Mrs. Norris was hanging. Hermione grabbed the caretaker's arm, holding it tight, fiercely holding back her tears.

Hermione had killed before. She had killed more then once. She was used to death, numbed to it. Mostly because there were so few things alive that she cared for.

Mrs. Norris happened to be one of them.

Mrs. Norris, the sweet-natured feline who Iago, the tomcat who'd been Hermione's constant companion for so many years, had chosen as his mate and was pregnant with his kittens. 

Dumbledore had arrived on the scene, followed by a number of other teachers. In seconds he had swept past Harry and reached over Argus and Hermione to detach Mrs. Norris from the torch bracket. "Come with me, Argus. You too, Mr. Potter, Miss Granger."

Hermione nodded, eyes glued to the skeletal grey cat whose stomach had started to swell. Argus was as pale as she was, his eyes already red and swollen. Hermione felt almost eerily blank as she followed the headmaster, Harry looking sick and horrified at her side.

They entered the nearest teacher's office– Lockhart's– and Dumbledore laid Mrs. Norris on the polished surface of the fraud's desk and began to examine her, the tip of his long, crooked nose barely an inch from Mrs. Norris's fur. Professor McGonagall was bent almost as close, her eyes narrowed. Snape loomed behind them half in shadow, his face unreadable.

And bloody useless Lockhart was hovering around all of them, making ridiculous suggestions and boasts which Hermione tuned out. Argus was slumped in a chair by the desk, unable to look at Mrs. Norris, his face in his hands as he let out dry, racking sobs, Iago winding his way around the caretaker's ankles and rubbing his scarred, whiskered cheek against his leg. Hermione felt cold.

At last Dumbledore straightened up. "She's not dead, Argus." He said, softly.

"Not dead?" choked Argus, looking through his fingers at Mrs. Norris. "But why's she all– all stiff and frozen?"

"She has been petrified. But how, I cannot say..." Dumbledore then turned to her and Harry. "Miss Granger, Mr. Potter, can I ask how you two managed to find yourselves where you did?"

That's when she snapped, the cold blankness thawed by the wave of fiery, burning emotion as her thin control was shattered to pieces. Hermione knew that she wasn't "right", that her moral compass was skewed beyond repair; she knew that most people couldn't carve into someone's face or slit a man's throat and walk away like nothing happened, that the wrong wires in her brain were crossed, the bits of her that had cracked and broken with each new trauma she'd suffered not quite fitting back together. She logically knew all this but it didn't change the fact she struggled to care about people she had no vested interest in– she just didn't see the point in caring about them or see why she should. They didn't matter; they weren't hers.

Mrs. Norris, however, was one of those rare few she did care about– Mrs. Norris was hers and someone had done this to the cat, to something that belonged to her, they had dared hurt something under her protection and Hermione was furious.

And she'd always liked animals so much more then humans– they weren't needlessly cruel like people were. They didn't kill for the sake of killing, didn't cause pain for the sake of their own enjoyment. They were innocent.

Mrs. Norris was hers and she was innocent and Hermione was going to tear the person who'd done this to her into pieces

"I would never hurt Mrs. Norris!" Hermione snarled at the Headmaster, her rage and hatred a vicious, red-hot thing inside her. "She's mine! She's mine and whoever did this to her is going to pay!"

"Can you explain your presence where you were?" Dumbledore's voice was sharper now.

"If I might speak, Headmaster," said Snape from the shadows, "Mr. Potter and Miss Granger simply appear to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. No second year could have performed this sort of Dark magic."

"Be that as it may, they have yet to answer my question." Dumbledore said, looking stern. Hermione inhaled sharply and then slowly exhaled, pulling herself together and sliding all her masks back into place, furious with herself for the momentary loss of control.

"We left the feast about a fifteen minutes ago. The people on our table can vouch for us. We decided to make the most of the time before curfew to just walk around, talk about things, about memories..." she let her voice trail off and she turned to Harry, her face now the perfect picture of a concerned friend.

Harry, whose acting skills had either improved in leaps and bounds or he was genuinely feeling emotional, gave her a shaky smile back, reaching forwards to clasp her hands in his, squeezing gently. She squeezed back so hard her knuckles went white and she had to be hurting him, but Harry didn't even flinch, just let her use him to anchor herself.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus watched, sharp-eyed, as Granger put on one hell of a performance. She appeared to be the perfect friend, kind, caring and compassionate. Except everything she'd just said was complete and utter crap.

Well, maybe not all of it, but the bit where they'd walked around to talk about their feelings and memories? A lie.

If her shock and horror at the state of Mrs. Norris hadn't been so genuine, as evidenced by her sheer, possessive rage during her momentary loss of control, he'd have assumed that she'd had some part in this.

As it was, he still wasn't entirely certain that she'd had nothing to do with the opening of the Chamber and that Mrs. Norris's petrification hadn't just been a complete accident, the old caretaker's cat having been in the wrong place at the wrong time...

Except for that burning, raging hatred in her eyes as she'd promised to make whoever had done this pay– that had been very, very real. Maybe she really did have nothing to do with this– even if she and Harry weren't telling the whole truth.

"If you've finished interrogating my students, then I ask that you let them return to their dormitories." He said acidly, levelling both Albus and Minerva with a glare and not even bothering to look in Gilderoy's direction. Granger was completely accurate in her description of the man– Gilderoy was a fraud and Severus had planned on taking great pleasure in exposing the real story behind the man's claims.

Except now this had come up.

The Chamber of Secrets... it was a legend that every Slytherin had heard. A legend that was whispered about, worshipped almost and believed in whole-heartedly from the safety of their Common Room. 

And it had been opened once before.

The exact dates were hidden but from father to son, mother to daughter, the Pureblood lines had passed down what knowledge they had, that around half a century ago someone had opened the Chamber and a Muggleborn had died.

And somehow, someway, it had been opened again.

And of course it had to be when The-Boy-Who-Lived was attending Hogwarts with his Muggleborn best friend– Severus really hoped this wouldn't end up exposing Granger's lie about her blood status, because that would be an utter disaster.  

Merlin, he should just Avada himself right now– it had to be quicker then the slow death the stress was going to give him.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

"Hermione, I'm sor–" Draco started to apologize as she and Harry entered the Slytherin Common Room.

"I'm not angry at you," Hermione interrupted the apologetic boy, her face wiped clean of all emotions barring the muted, possessive fury evident in her eyes, "and I don't give a damn that the Chamber is open."

Draco looked relieved that her rage wasn't directed at him. "So do you think this is it? Do you think this is the real deal? The Chamber of Secrets has really been opened?" he asked, eagerly. Nearly the whole Common Room turned to face in Harry and Hermione's direction, obviously interested in their answer.

"This is the real thing." Harry told Draco and the rest of the listening students, "there were no students on the corridor. None except us."

"What were you two doing there, anyway?" One of the fifth-years asked.

"That's none of your business." Hermione said coldly before turning to Harry. "Let's talk in the morning." She said and he nodded at her. Hermione turned and made her way up to her dorm, the crowd of students parting for her to let her through, none of them keen on getting in her way.

Iago was already curled up on her bed looking absolutely miserable and Hermione pulled the mangy tomcat into her arms and cradled him gently.

As she sat with her cat in her arms, she finally calmed down enough for her mind to start analyzing all the information and evidence she possessed. She knew that, according to legend, the Chamber of Secrets was built by Salazar Slytherin himself and was said to contain his monster. Salazar was famous for his ability to talk to snakes. Combining that with the voice of the "fucking huge snake" she and Harry had heard, she felt she could state with reasonable confidence that Slytherin's monster was a breed of massive serpent that could somehow petrify living creatures. Salazar had been a proud man and Hermione didn't think he would settle for anything but the best, for the most impressive serpent there was, so the answer seemed fairly obvious. Chances were the monster in the Chamber was the King of Serpents itself– a Basilisk. 

Of course, a Basilisk's gaze was supposed to kill... but the corridor had been flooded, hadn't it? If the monster in the Chamber really was a Basilisk, and the more she thought about it the more sure Hermione was with the conclusion she'd reached based on the evidence available, then it was possible that Mrs. Norris had only seen the reflection of the King of Serpent's deadly gaze. 

A Basilisk. For once, Hermione actually hoped she was wrong. She just didn't think she was.

-

Hermione slept restlessly that night, tossing backwards and forwards, and by five in the morning she'd given up on trying to get any more sleep and made her way down to the common room where she made herself comfortable on one of the leather couches, the Parseltongue book she'd bought in Knockturn Alley propped open on her lap and flicked through it until she found what she was looking for– information on Basilisks. 

Known as the King of Serpents, the Basilisk is the most deadly of all snakes- magical or muggle. The venom in its fangs is fatal, its gaze murderous- even the reflection petrifying its victims, leaving them unable to run from its fearsome jaws. They live hundreds of years, growing to gigantic size, and are difficult to train. Its theorized that the basilisk imprints on the first Speaker it comes across, in most cases the one who hatches it, and from then will only obey that of the Speaker's line. If one wishes to hatch a basilisk, they will need—

Harry was one of the first to emerge from the staircase to the boy's dormitories, and he made a beeline straight over to her. "Hermione, what's the Chamber of Secrets?" was the first thing he said.

"Good morning to you too," she snapped before taking a calming breath. "I apologize, that was uncalled for. I didn't sleep well last night. The Chamber of Secrets is a legendary hidden chamber that Salazar Slytherin built into the castle, which none of the other founders knew anything about. Slytherin was... choosy about who he thought should be able to learn and practice magic– he didn't include Muggleborns within that number. A rift grew between him and the other founders and Slytherin left the school. But before he did, he apparently sealed his secret chamber so that only his own true heir would be able to open the chamber and unleash the horror within, the beast which would purge the school of all who were unworthy to study magic."

"And none of the teachers have ever managed to find this thing?" Harry asked, his tone incredulous. "It's not something they can exactly just ignore, right?"

"Most people think that the Chamber doesn't exist, that it's just a tale told to frighten the gullible." She explained, "Only a select few actually believe it to be real, a large number of which consists of Pureblood Slytherins who would be more then happy for the monster to do its job and cleanse the school."

"Huh." Harry was silent for a moment before he asked his next question. "The 'horror within' the Chamber– what is it?"

"It's been theorized to be some sort of monster that the heir of Slytherin alone can control." She told Harry.

"Any ideas?" he asked her hopefully. Wordlessly, she pointed to the page in front of her. Harry's eyes darted over the page, confused for a brief second before comprehension dawned over him.

"You think it's a Basilisk?" he asked, sounding excited.

"Yes." She answered.

"But why isn't Mrs. Norris..." Harry trailed off, obviously trying and failing to think of a delicate way to phrase his question.

"Dead?" Hermione said, taking pity on him, and he nodded, sheepishly. "I think she only saw the reflection. The corridor was flooded so she could have only seen its eyes in the reflection from the puddles on the ground."

"Do we... do we tell anyone?" Harry asked, hesitantly. Hermione sighed and shut the book.

"It won't help them un-petrify Mrs. Norris," she said, "and not only will we be questioned for our knowledge but it also puts us directly in the heir's crosshairs. I'm not willing to endanger our lives for the sake of a handful of Muggleborns I don't even know."

::But you're a Muggleborn:: Harry hissed quietly, the change in language a countermeasure to make sure no one could overhear him– they didn't know if the other Slytherins had eavesdropping or surveillance charms active in the common room and the knowledge of Hermione's blood status becoming public was even more dangerous now that they were being actively hunted.

::And nobody but you knows that:: Hermione hissed back. ::Weasley tries to spread rumors but no one believes him. I am safe from the heir::

"So you really don't care if someone... dies?" Harry asked her, speaking in English again. Hermione closed her eyes and tried to find a way to word this.

"Harry, I stopped believing in the fairness of this world a long time ago. I stopped trying to save everyone and concentrated just on the people I care about. I'm not going to risk our lives to save some students I don't even know." She answered after a short pause, opening her eyes so her steady gaze meeting Harry's emerald ones. "That's my decision and I stand behind my reasons. Can you accept that?"

"I can." Harry said, after a long pause, "I understand it and... I'll stand by your reasons too. I'll always on your side, Hermione." He said earnestly and she smiled, a tired smile.

"Then let's go get some breakfast and prepare to be the subject of stares and whispers for the next week or two."

-

-

Harry's POV:

Hermione had been right. The next few weeks passed slowly, with the school able to talk about little else then the attack on Mrs. Norris. Whenever people caught Harry alone, they tried to get him to stop and talk to them but everyone knew better then to approach him when Hermione was by his side and Harry very much doubted anyone was stupid enough to approach Hermione when she was on her own.

The Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors all seemed suspicious of them, with Ron Weasley, Seamus Finnegan and Dean Thomas the worst out of the lot; the three of them glaring at him and Hermione whenever they crossed paths, calling things out after them and stopping and whispering to each other. Harry had a sinking sort of feeling that they were planning something and by Hermione's scowls he guessed that she thought the same.

He and Hermione had gone over who it could be more times then he could count but they'd never managed to reach a plausible answer. The only real hint they had to the heir's identity was that whoever it was must be able to speak Parseltongue because only a Parselmouth would be able to control a Basilisk. Whoever it was also had to be a descendant of Slytherin but the last known descendant of Slytherin was Voldemort and they both agreed that there was no reason for him to be sneaking in and out of the school just for the sake of setting a Basilisk on a bunch of school-age muggleborns. 

Hermione had increased the frequency of their sparring, which left Harry bruised all over though they were careful not to hit each other in the face as that could raise some awkward questions, as well as the Occlumency lessons which Harry thought he'd improved in– keeping his mind safe from Dumbledore had had him become a very keen, very dedicated student. She'd also started helping him figure out how to take advantage of the mental link he had with Voldemort and Harry could now identify exactly where it was located– right behind his scar– and if he concentrated on it he found he could sense brief flickers of Voldemort's emotions but he tried not too, as Voldemort's head wasn't exactly a place he wanted to ever go.

The sparring and Occlumency lessons paired with Quidditch training, classes and homework was exhausting, though, and the constant staring and whispering and the lack of progress in trying to solve the mystery of who the Heir of Slytherin could be was frustrating as hell, and Harry found that the Quidditch match against Gryffindor seemed to be the only good thing on the horizon.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

The day of Harry's first Quidditch game was cold and Hermione rugged up warm as she followed the team down to the pitch. Harry was clutching his broom so tight his knuckles were white. She'd basically had to force-feed him a piece of toast.

Kissing his cheek, she wished him luck and made her way into the stadium, finding seats with the other Slytherin second years. "You look almost as nervous as Harry." Draco snickered. She glowered at him, her hands bunched into fists in her lap.

"Shut up Draco."

"Yeah, shut up Draco." Snorted Blaise.

"No seriously, shut up– the game's about to start!" She snapped, and the boys obediently stopped talking, knowing better then to cross her when she was in this sort of mood. Daphne and Tracey just exchanged amused, knowing looks that Hermione felt she should probably be annoyed by but wasn't sure why. 

Madam Hooch let out a piercing whistle and the two teams kicked off the ground. Hermione watched anxiously as Harry flew up into the air and started circling the stadium.

The boys had a great time poking fun at her as she jumped every time a bludger went near Harry and he did a three-sixty roll to avoid it and then did a loop-the-loop to celebrate Slytherin scoring and pretty much every time her best friend did anything even relatively risky.

She was literally about to curse them when Harry suddenly dived, broom zooming towards the ground. "No-no-no-no-no!" She moaned under her breath as she watched the Gryffindor Seeker fly after him. Harry's hand reached out and he grabbed the tiny golden ball known as the stitch, then she literally had to swallow a scream as he just managed to pull out of his dive in time, still tumbling of his broom but at least not plowing into the ground head first.

The Slytherins all stood up and cheered as Harry weakly sat up and waved the snitch in the air and she slumped back in her seat feeling drained.

She was never watching another one of Harry's Quidditch games again.

She didn't think her heart could take it.

-

It was around a fortnight after the Quidditch match that the dull monotony the days had taken on was disrupted by notices pinned up on the noticeboard in the Entrance Hall.

"They're starting a dueling club?" Harry said excitedly from beside her. "Brilliant!"

"Wicked," Theo grinned, obviously agreeing with Harry's assessment whole-heartedly. Hermione tilted her head, eyeing the notice thoughtfully.

"It could be useful." She said.

"You reckon Slytherin's monster can duel?" Ron Weasley asked Dean Thomas from their positions closer to the board.

"If that's case, Weasley, then you should start picking out your headstone." Theo snickered and Weasley and Thomas shot the three Slytherins a glare before hurrying off, muttering quietly to each other. Hermione glared after them.

At eight o'clock, Hermione and Harry, along with Draco, Blaise and Theo, returned to the Great Hall where the long dining tables had vanished and been replaced by a golden stage, lit by thousands of candles floating overhead.

Most of the school was present, all carrying wands and looking enthusiastic. Hermione couldn't deny her own stirring excitement– that was until Gilderoy Lockhart strutted onto the stage and she started scowling thunderously instead.

"At least Snape's there too." Harry said glumly from beside her.

"Professor Snape," she corrected him absently, even as she nodded her agreement. Snape, who was stalking behind Lockhart, looked positively murderous.

The group of Slytherin second years listened with great displeasure as Lockhart went on and on for a few minutes and Hermione was about to leave when Snape blasted Lockhart backwards off the stage into a wall, sending him sprawling down onto the floor. The Slytherins and indeed a good many of students from other Houses, all equally as fed up with the incompetent Lockhart, couldn't resist cheering as loud as they could with much foot stomping and whistling. Hermione joined in, sending multi-colored sparks into the air.

Snape had never been as popular with the student body as he was in that moment. 

Lockhart clumsily tried to talk his way out of his rather undignified defeat before quickly splitting them up into pairs to practice. Hermione moved to partner with Harry when Snape reached Ron Weasley, a few meters to their left, and drawled loudly, "Time to split up the dream team, I think," as he sneered at Weasley and his buddies, "Thomas, you can partner with Mr. Nott, Finnegan, with Miss Granger and Mr. Potter, lets see if Weasley can put up a halfway decent fight."

Torn between amusement at the plight of the Gryffindors and annoyance at being split up from Harry, Hermione stalked over to Finnegan who was admittedly looking a touch green around the gills.

"Face your partners!" called Lockhart, back on the platform, "and bow!" With a mockingly theatrical hand gesture, Hermione gracefully bowed to a flushing Finnegan, who jerked his head. "Wands at the ready!" shouted Lockhart, "When I count to three, cast your charms to disarm your opponent– only to disarm them, we don't want any accidents! One... two... three!"

Finnegan, to Hermione amusement, had already started on two, but she easily sidestepped the spell and sent one back of her own, a nifty curse Tracey had taught her, Harry and Daphne last year in one of their study sessions– that girl's knowledge of the more shady curses out there was suspicious in the best of ways. Finnegan immediately let out a yell of pain, dropping his wand as he moved both hands to his face as blood starting to gush from his nose.

Lockhart was yelling some shit about disarming only and screaming for everyone to stop but nobody listened, of course. Hermione smirked at Finnegan who was actually tearing up and was disappointed when Snape took over and shouted, "Finite Incantatem!" Finnegan let out a relieved gasp as his nose stopped bleeding, though anger crossed his face as he snatched his wand up off the ground

"You evil little bi–"

"Silencio!" She snapped, having no patience for listening to his drivel, and Finnegan was rendered silent.

"I think," said Lockhart from the stage, "I'd better teach you how to block unfriendly spells. Let's have a volunteer pair– Longbottom and Finch-Fletchley, how about you?"

"A bad idea, Professor Lockhart," said Snape, gliding over to the incompetent blonde ponce with a smirk on his face, "Longbottom causes devastation with even the simplest of spells. We'll be sending what's left of Finch-Fletchley up to the hospital wing in a matchbox. How about Potter and Weasley?"

Hermione coughed back a laugh as Harry sent her an annoyed look. "You could be a bit more sympathetic." He muttered as she, along with the rest of the crowd, backed away to give the two of them room.

"Good luck." She replied with a wink, saluting him.

"Three– two– one– go!" shouted Lockhart. Harry cast first, sending a stinging hex Weasley's way, but by some miracle the red head managed to leap out of the way.

"Let's see how you do against a real snake!" Weasley yelled at him before bellowing, "Serpensortia!" The end of his wand exploded and Hermione watched, eyebrow raised, as a long black snake shot out of it and fell heavily onto the floor between them.

::Who dares summon me?:: The snake hissed angrily, raising its body up ready to strike.

"Allow me!" shouted Lockhart, as the crowd screamed and backed away, bar a small handful of Slytherins, including Hermione. He brandished his wand and there was a loud bang; the snake, instead of vanishing, flew ten feet into the air and fell back to the floor with a loud smack.

::I WILL KILL YOU!:: it hissed furiously, slithering straight towards Harry with its fangs exposed, ready to strike.

Hermione raised her wand, ready to vanish it, when Harry did the stupidest thing he possibly could in that moment. ::STOP!:: he ordered and the snake immediately slumped to the floor, docile as a thick black garden hose.

"Fuck." Hermione muttered as the attention of the whole Hall was now focused on Harry, shocked gasps and whispers erupting all over the room.

Harry, blind to what was happening around him, kept hissing. ::Face the fool who summoned you:: he ordered the snake who whipped its body around and bared its fangs at Weasley. ::Now attack him but do not kill him::

Hermione at least had to appreciate the high-pitched scream Weasley gave as the snake darted towards him, fast as lightning. Harry might have just fucked up– majorly– but at least it was momentarily entertaining. To her disappointment, before the snake reached Weasley, Snape stepped forwards and waved his wand, vanishing the snake in a puff of black smoke.

"Well?" Harry asked Weasley loudly, "How do you think I went?"

"You– you're– a Parselmouth!" The red head accused, face white as bone, eyes wide as galleons. He pointed at Harry with a trembling hand. "You're the Heir of Slytherin!"

"I'm going to fucking kill him," Hermione hissed as the Hall erupted into even louder ominous sounding whispers.

"Did you know Harry was a Parselmouth?" Draco muttered, his eyes wide in shock.

"Of course I knew," she replied before striding forwards and seizing a handful of Harry's robes. "We need to get out of here– now." She ordered him. He gave her a confused look but allowed her to drag him from the Hall. Yanking them into a hidden alcove, she threw up a quick silencing charm and then started yelling at him.

"Harry James Potter you bloody idiot!" she shouted, "You complete and utter moron! What the fuck were you thinking? Of all the fucking, stupid, thick-headed, idiotic things to do! You utter–"

"I'm sorry!" Harry said, raising both his hands up in a surrender gesture, eyes wide with panic. "I honestly didn't mean to– it was just instinct!"

"Your instinct should have been to Banish it," she seethed, "we're re-starting the offensive and defensive magic lessons!"

"On top of the Occlumency and sparring?" Harry sounded dismayed and Hermione slumped against the wall of the alcove, suddenly feeling very drained.

"Harry, you don't get it," she said, feeling a bit like she was going to cry. "Speaking to snakes is what Salazar Slytherin was famous for, I've told you that! Everyone's going to think you're his great-great-great-great-great grandson now- which means they're going to think you're the bloody Heir of Slytherin! That you've opened the Chamber!"

"Oh," Harry said, paling slightly, "that's not going to be good."

"No fucking shit!" She moaned, "oh Harry, you're going to have to be so careful– especially if the basilisk attacks again because people are going to blame you and they could attack you! Panicking people do dumb-arse things... and fuck, you could be arrested!"

Harry's face was even paler now and he slid down the wall, sitting heavily on the ground. "What am I going to do?" He whispered.

"Train." Hermione answered grimly, "and don't ever wander off alone. Make sure you when you're out of the Slytherin Dungeons you're accompanied by a minimum of two other people."

"Shit, this is going to be bad, isn't it?" He said, looking up at her with tired green eyes.

"Yeah," she told him heavily, "it is. But I'll be with you every step of the way."

Chapter Text

Chapter XIV:

 

Hermione's POV:

"Why didn't you tell us you were a Parselmouth?" Was the first thing Draco demanded when they entered the Common Room. All other conversations went silent as the other Slytherins waited to hear what Harry would say.

"I didn't want word getting back to Dumbledore," Harry replied and Hermione felt a stab of pride– Harry's grasp of Slytherin politics and cunning had improved so much since the start of last year and she hadn't had to coach him at all for his answer.

"So are you the Heir?" One of the sixth years, Adrian Pucey, asked.

"I'm not," Harry said, shaking his head, "honest. I'd never even heard of the Chamber of Secrets until Hermione and I found Mrs. Norris and that writing."

"Can you say something in Parselmouth?" This was Blaise, the Italian's jewel-bright eyes gleaming with interest. Harry looked towards her and she shrugged.

"Why not?" She said and Harry's lips tugged into a smile.

::Wonder what they'd think if they knew a Muggleborn could speak Parseltongue?:: he hissed to her and Hermione had to bite back a snort of laughter.

"That's awesome!" Breathed Theo, looking truly awed, "what did you say?"

"That Dumbledore's a moron." Harry shrugged, a grin spreading across his mouth. Theo laughed and Hermione rolled her eyes.

"I've got homework to do. Don't you dare leave the common room at any time unless there are at least two others with you," She reminded, before squeezing Harry's hand in a farewell gesture and making her way up to her dormitory. Sitting down on her bed, she closed the hangings and cast a quick silencing charm before copying Weasley's spell from earlier. "Serpensortia!"

Like Weasley's had, the tip of her wand appeared to explode and a heavy black snake fell onto her bed. It raised its head and tilted it to the side, fixing its wide, unblinking stare on her as its tongue flickering out to taste the air. ::Where is the enemy?:: it hissed, sounding confused.

::There is no enemy:: Hermione hissed back. ::I wanted to test something::

::A Speaker?:: the snake sounded surprised. ::I thought they were things of legend::

::Do you have a name?::

::I am Sssthssa:: the snake told her and Hermione nodded before realising the snake– Sssthsaa– wouldn't be able to appreciate the gesture.

::I was wondering what you could do, Sssthssa?:: she asked the snake.

::Anything Mistress wants:: answered Sssthssa and Hermione smiled, somewhat wickedly. She believed the saying went something along the lines of 'an ace up her sleeve'. This spell had the potential to be very convenient. 

::It was nice to meet you, Sssthssa:: she told the snake before gently tapping the large black serpent with her wand, causing it to disappear in a small cloud of black smoke.

The next step was researching how to conjure up smaller, more discrete, breeds of snakes– preferably venomous ones. 

-

By the next morning the snow that had begun in the night had turned into a blizzard so thick that the last Herbology lesson of the term was cancelled. Hermione took the time to with Harry to revise the defensive and offensive magic they'd taught themselves the year before, as well as some nasty curses that Tracey had suggested that would take down anyone who tried attacking with great prejudice. 

Afterwards, they went to the library to start on their holiday homework. Draco had invited them to spend the Christmas holidays at Malfoy Manor and, after a long discussion, she and Harry had agreed. She knew Harry was excited by their plans– Draco had told them before that he had his own Quidditch pitch– but Hermione wasn't quite as delighted seeing as the Malfoys held a Yuletide Gala every year. She'd never been to a Gala before and she certainly hadn't planned to do so anytime soon, but Draco had already said they were invited and if they were actually staying with the Malfoys then they had no excuse to miss it. 

Hermione and Harry were heading back from the library down to the dungeons when they found themselves face to face with the basilisk's latest victims. Hermione froze and Harry sucked in a quick breath at the sight Finch-Fletchley, a Hufflepuff second year, lying on the floor all  rigid and cold with a look of shock frozen on his face as his eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. And that wasn't all– next to him was another figure and it was one of the strangest things Hermione had seen. The Gryffindor ghost, Nick-something, was no longer pearly white and transparent, rather he was black and smoky, floating immobile and horizontal, six inches off the ground. His head was half off and his face wore an expression of shock identical to Finch-Fletchley's.

"We need to get out of here," she said urgently, turning to Harry, "we need to get out of here now!" But before they could run, a door right next to them opened with a bang and Peeves came shooting out. The poltergeist opened his mouth, no doubt to make some sort of mocking remark, when he caught sight of the two petrified bodies.

"ATTACK! ATTACK! ANOTHER ATTACK! NO MORTAL OR GHOST IS SAFE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! AiTTAAACK!" He shrieked, at the top of his lungs.

"I'm going to fucking kill him," Hermione snarled as crash– crash– crash: door after door flew open along the corridor and people flooded out. For several long minutes, there was a scene of such confusion that Finch-Fletchley was in danger of being squashed and people kept standing in the Gryffindor ghost. Hermione found herself pinned helplessly to the wall, Harry by her side, as the teachers shouted for quiet. 

"Caught in the act!" one of the Hufflepuff second years yelled dramatically, pointing at Harry, and Hermione snarled.

"Fuck off you little piece of—!"

"Language, Miss Granger!" snapped McGonagall, using her wand to set off a loud bang to restore silence. "That will be five points from Slytherin!" The stern professor then turned to the Hufflepuff and gave him a sharp look. "That will do, Macmillan!"

Hermione linked arms protectively with Harry, a fierce look on her face as McGonagall ordered the students back to their classes and together they watched the teachers bend over Finch-Fletchley and 'Nearly Headless Nick', as she'd heard someone call the ghost.

The petrified second year was levitated up to the hospital wing by Flitwick, and one of the other teachers conjured a large fan out of thin air to waft the ghost up the stairs. This left them with McGonagall.

"This way, Potter, Granger," the Deputy Headmistress said.

"We didn't do this." Hermione said, voice tight. 

"This is out of my hands, Granger!" Snapped the deputy headmistress and Hermione suppressed a groan as she and Harry found themselves, once again, being marched to the Headmaster's office.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry chewed his lip nervously as he stepped on the revolving staircase. Hermione looked stony-faced beside him and McGonagall's lips were pressed into a thin line.

Dumbledore was already standing in the office waiting for them, giving Harry an unpleasant sense of déjà vu of the first day of term. He turned to Hermione and she leaned over and whispered in his ear, "use the mind-link if you have to." 

"That's enough, Miss Granger!" McGonagall barked and Hermione straightened again and glared at the woman. Harry swallowed nervously and turned his attention inward, trying to focus on the slight pressure behind his scar. Focusing on it as hard as he could, he pushed a thought to it.

'Voldemort? Can you hear me?'

For a moment there was nothing and Harry was starting to feel very stupid when his scar burned suddenly and a disembodied but familiar, voice spoke inside his head: 'Potter, this is a surprise. I didn't realize you knew how to manipulate our... link.'

'I, well, I kind of didn't. Hermione taught me how' Harry admitted. Low laughter echoing in his head– Voldemort was amused. Harry tried not to feel too horrified. 

'Why did you contact me, Harry?' Harry didn't miss the change from his surname to his first name but decided to freak out about that later– he might have a truce with Voldemort but he didn't exactly plan on befriending the Dark wizard considering the fact he'd murdered Harry's parents and try to murder him too. 

'I think Dumbledore might try to read my mind. Can you protect it again?' Harry asked tentatively. He then blinked as Voldemort's emotions flashed briefly through the link– anger, hatred and something else, something he didn't recognise.

'Dumbledore will not touch your mind.' Voldemort's voice was dark now. 'You'll feel the link grow stronger– don't break it or I'll be pushed out.' Harry swallowed nervously as he felt the same foreign presence enter his mind as last time. He could immediately feel what Voldemort had referred to and he had to focus to keep his mind from lashing out at the presence, from snapping the thread connecting their minds. 

"Mr. Potter!" Harry jumped slightly at the sound of McGonagall's irate voice, "are you even listening?"

"Er, yeah." He nodded, "professor." He quickly added. Hermione glanced at him her face questioning and he nodded slightly to confirm it had worked. 'She's a clever girl,' mused Voldemort in his mind, 'what is all this about anyway?'

'They think I might be the Heir of Slytherin.' Harry almost missed the headmaster's question over the sound of the laughter in his head.

'You? The Heir of Slytherin? The fool really is going senile in his old age.'

"Mr. Potter," Dumbledore said gravely, "I must ask you, is there anything you wish to tell me? Anything at all?"

"No sir." He said, looking up and meeting the twinkling blue gaze of the headmaster with as much confidence as he could. He was unsurprised to feel something brushing against the Occlumency shields in his mind and he was glad that Voldemort's shields stayed strong as the probing force grew in strength.

'Of course they'll stay strong!' Voldemort sounded insulted.

"If you've finished breaking the law, Headmaster, Harry and I have packing to do." Hermione spoke sharply. The headmaster turned his gaze to her. Hermione glared. "If you so much as try to invade my mind, I will have you hauled in front of the Wizengamot!" she snapped.

"Miss Granger! You do not talk to teachers that way!" McGonagall said furiously, apparently unable to keep quiet any longer. "It is unacceptable! Twenty points from Slytherin!"

"You think I care about points?" Hermione demanded, "Why would I give a damn about something as inconsequential as the House Cup when someone is trying to set my best friend up for attempted murder?" She fixed her icy glare first on McGonagall and then on Dumbledore. "If you don't do something to stop the rumours and Harry gets attacked then his blood will be on your hands!"

Harry actually had to fight to keep his cheeks from turning pink at Hermione's fierce protectiveness. He wasn't sure if someone was trying to set him up or not, but if Hermione got the headmaster or McGonagall to say something to the students then maybe he could ease up on the whole having to be escorted everywhere thing.

"You may both go." Dumbledore said, his voice sounding disappointed. Hermione gave the room one last narrow look before turning and sweeping towards the stairs in a rather Snape-like manner. Harry hurried after her feeling relieved.

"Is he still there?" Hermione asked, slowing down slightly so he could catch up and walk beside her.

"Uh, yeah." Harry nodded.

"Can you ask him if he has any idea who's behind all this? I want to give them a good piece of my mind." She snapped. "And then I'm going to curse the spit out of them and tell them to either get their act together and do it right or to just fuck off before they get you killed!" 

'Um, did you hear that?' Harry asked Voldemort.

'I did.'

'And are you going to answer?'

'I don't know which student is opening the Chamber and I do not care. I have more important things to be getting on with. I bid you farewell, Harry Potter.'

Before Harry could say anything else, Voldemort slithered out of his mind, causing his scar to burn again for a brief moment as the link broke. "Ow." He grumbled, clapping a hand over it.

"You okay?" Hermione asked and he nodded.

"Yeah. He just left."

"Did he know anything?"

"No," he sighed, "he told me he didn't know which student was opening the Chamber. I think he was being honest too. I mean, he is kind of evil but he doesn't have a reason to lie to us."

"Shit," Hermione muttered, before shaking her head, causing her curls to bounce slightly with the movement. "We should go pack. The train's leaving early tomorrow."

"Yeah," Harry agreed.

The Slytherin Common Room was abuzz with conversation when they walked in, students of every year grouping together to share information and trade theories. Harry had to say over and over again that no, he was not the Heir, before he managed to escape to his dormitory and he knew that this time nobody except Hermione and maybe Blaise, who didn't seem excited so much as entertained by it all, believed him.

Among the other three Houses there had practically been a stampede to book seats on the Hogwarts Express and Harry was glad that they were travelling to Malfoy Manor via Portkey– the same bizarre device Snape had used to transport them from the Dursley's kitchen to outside Dumbledore's office.

Draco's owl had delivered the Portkey at breakfast, which Harry had spent studiously ignoring the panic of the other students and the whispers and glares being sent his way. Hermione's expression was eerily blank, a sure sign that she was planning something that had the potential to be quite... fatal.

"Honestly," Draco complained as they walked back down from the Great Hall to the dungeons, "everyone's acting ridiculous– only the Mudbloods need to be afraid. Maybe we'll get lucky and none of them will turn up next term." Seeming buoyed by that idea, Draco was in an excellent mood as Hermione joined him and Harry in the boy's dormitory where the blond had set up the Portkey. "Are you ready?" he asked, expectantly.

Harry tightened his grip on his trunk. "As I'll ever be."

"Three– two– one," Harry shuddered through the unpleasant experience of travelling by Portkey and was relieved when they arrived in a large, open room.

Harry, of course, had landed sprawled out across the floor once again, and he quickly scrambled back to his feet, with pink cheeks and a sheepish smile. Both Hermione and Draco looked impeccable, not a hair out of place, and Draco was smiling at the regal looking couple standing across ways. "Mother, father." He said, somewhat formally.

Narcissa Malfoy had the same haughty, disdainful look on her face that all Purebloods seemed to have perfected but Harry could see her eyes warm with love as Draco spoke. Her clothing looked to be made of high quality silk, her skin was smooth and blemish free and her ice-blonde hair was pinned up in an artful braid. Elegant. That word pretty much summed up the Lady Malfoy perfectly.

Harry turned from Narcissa Malfoy to look at Draco's father. The only time he'd seen Lucius Malfoy before was when Lucius had accompanied Snape during his attempt to follow them that day in Diagon Alley. Lucius had seemed amused then but right now he wore a cold, closed off expression. His hair was long and pulled back into a low ponytail. He, like his wife, wore an expensive silk robe of the highest quality. In his hand he held a cane.

His eyes, the same color as Draco's, pierced Harry's but Harry held his ground. Lucius then turned his eyes to Hermione who had her own mask of indifference in place, meeting his eyes with a bored, assessing look of her own. The elder Malfoy dipped his chin slightly and the tension in the room seemed to melt away.

It seemed that Harry and Hermione had passed some kind of test and the atmosphere relaxed accordingly. "Mr. Potter, Miss Granger. I fear I was at a disadvantage the last time we crossed path," Lucius said, with a slight smile." You and your... friend managed to evade Severus and myself quite skilfully in Diagon Alley."

Draco spun to face them, a pout on his face. "You never told me about that!" He accused.

"Draco, love, don't whine. It's unbecoming." Scolded Narcissa, before turning to smile warmly at him and Hermione. The smile transformed her face completely, making her seem even lovelier then before. "It really is a pleasure to finally meet you both in person." She said sincerely. "Draco has told us so much about you."

"Only good things I hope, Lady Malfoy." Hermione smiled back and Narcissa laughed.

"Call me Narcissa, love. And don't worry– he didn't include anything too scandalous." Harry turned to glare at Draco who had suddenly found something very interesting on the ceiling.

"Why don't you go see if your rooms are to your liking," suggested Narcissa, "and then we can meet in the Dining Room for lunch."

"That sounds lovely, Narcissa." Hermione agreed.

"Dobby!" Narcissa called out and Harry blinked in surprise at the sight of the little creature that had appeared before them with a popping sound. It had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls and was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm and leg holes. The creature bowed so low that the end of its long thin nose touched the carpet. "How can Dobby serve Masters and Mistresses?" The creature– Dobby– said in a high-pitched voice.

"Take our guests and Draco's luggage to their rooms." Instructed Narcissa and Dobby bowed again before scampering over to the trunks and disappearing, along with the luggage, with another small pop.

"House elf," Hermione told him, her eyes glinting in amusement and Harry quickly schooled his expression so he didn't look so... clueless. Narcissa and Lucius seemed more amused then anything else, though, and Draco grabbed his and Hermione's hands and dragged them out of the room, leading the way through the large, sweeping manor.

"This is your room, Harry," he eventually announced, stopping in front of one of the many doorways and opening it with a flourish. Harry's trunk was already sitting at the foot of the large mahogany bed with its royal blue awnings. The lavishly decorated room was done in tasteful shades of silver and royal blue, with everything from a desk, to a full-length mirror, a walk in wardrobe and an adjoining bathroom.

"Wow," Harry breathed and Draco looked both pleased and proud.

"Your room's just over here, Hermione," he said, leading Hermione across the wide, sweeping corridor to another door. Harry wandered into his room, examining it fully. He thought it looked like the sort of bedroom that belonged to a king or a queen, like something out of a story book. 

"Ready for lunch, Harry?" Hermione asked from the doorway, jolting him out of his thoughts. Nodding, he followed the other two down a winding staircase and through two more extravagantly done-up rooms before they reached what appeared to be a very grand dining room.

Narcissa and Lucius were already seated side by side on the far side of the table and Harry took one of the seats opposite them, Draco and Hermione sitting on either side of him.

When lunch was finished and Narcissa started up a conversation, Harry was expecting the Malfoys to start questioning him about the events currently taking place in Hogwarts but instead they asked him and Hermione about their classes and their favourite subjects and what they thought of Hogwarts so far. Harry thought Draco was lucky to have such amazing parents– especially when Narcissa gave him a delighted smile when Draco told her about how Harry caught the snitch in his first ever Quidditch game, winning the match for Slytherin. She'd also given his shoulder a gentle squeeze later on, when they were all leaving the room and Harry didn't think he'd ever been shown that sort of affection from an adult before– not since he was a baby, anyway. Harry went to bed that night feeling warm and happy. 

The next few days passed in a pleasant blur of Quidditch, fine dining, horseback riding and, in Hermione's case, reading– the Malfoys had a vast library that had Hermione almost drooling when she first caught sight of it. They'd even spent a day in Diagon Alley, Hermione not protesting when he paid for everything as they shopped for presents for their friends and bought dress-robes to wear to the fast approaching Yuletide Gala. Apparently 'Yule' was what witches and wizards traditionally celebrated instead of Christmas, which was the muggle version of the holidays. Harry wondered why Hogwarts celebrated Christmas then but Hermione told him she wasn't sure and Draco just shrugged. 

Christmas– or Yule– morning dawned cold and white and Harry was woken early by an excited Draco who dragged both him and Hermione into the Living Room where three truly enormous stacks of presents were neatly arranged, before dashing back out again.

"What on earth?" Hermione mumbled, blinking in wide-eyed amazement at the gifts, "are they all–?"

"Ours? I– I think so." Harry answered her unspoken question with bemusement. "But who sent them all?"

"Who do you think?" Draco said as he entered the room, this time followed by his amused, sleepy looking parents. "The other Slytherins, of course. They all think you're the Heir, Harry, so they want to get in good with you. And everyone knows that you and Hermione are inseparable."

Harry glanced over at Narcissa and Lucius when Draco mentioned the 'Heir' but neither Malfoy gave any reaction. "Well? Can we start?" Draco demanded and Lucius rolled his eyes at his son.

"It's like you're four years old again." He said dryly, but Narcissa just laughed.

"Go ahead, loves."

Apart from the toothpick the Dursleys had sent, his presents were all amazing. Slytherin students, some who he'd never even talked to before, had sent him expensive chocolates, rare books, luxury quills and designer Quidditch gear. Hagrid had sent him a large tin of treacle fudge; Hermione had given him a book called Quidditch Through The Ages; Tracey had sent him a very questionable book about Dark curses that made Hermione's eyes gleam; Daphne's gift was a set of silver cufflinks with tiny emeralds on them arranged in a 'H'; Theo had bought him a new pair of silk-lined dragon hide gloves, as Harry had complained that his chaffed and Blaise had given him the same Italian chocolate as he had last year, this time along with a bottle that Harry was suspicious contained Firewhiskey– the wizarding alcoholic drink of choice.

But it was the present Draco bought him that Harry loved most of all. When he'd unwrapped it he'd gasped and raised disbelieving eyes to the Malfoy heir. "Is this–?"

"A Nimbus Two Thousand and One? Why yes it is." The blond smirked.

"Draco," scolded Narcissa, "Don't be so crass!" As Draco ducked his head Harry ran his hands reverently along the smooth wood. This... this was a thing of beauty.

"Thank you," he told Draco, having to swallow past the lump in his throat and blink back the moisture in his eyes. He then turned to Narcissa and Lucius and added, "really– thank you so much!" Narcissa smiled fondly at him.

"It was our pleasure, Harry dear." She said and she sounded like it really was. 

After a glorious breakfast, the caterers and chefs arrived and Narcissa kicked them all out so she could prepare the Manor for the Yuletide Gala. Harry spent the morning flying with Draco while Hermione curled up with a pile of her new books. Lunch was served outside, under a marquee, and Harry enjoyed it thoroughly.

When the evening drew nearer, Harry, Hermione and Draco returned to their rooms where they prepared for the Gala. Harry was uncomfortably tugging at the neck of his dress-robes, black velvet lined with deep, emerald green silk when Hermione entered his room. He gasped.

The thin, scrawny street rat he knew and loved had transformed into a delicate, doe-eyed princess. Her frilly dress-robes were the same emerald green colour as the lining of his robes with a matching black velvet sash that looped around her waist and tied at the back in a large bow. Her wild curls fell in perfect ringlets to her elbows and a black velvet bow had been pinned to the top of her head. With her soft skin, rosy cheeks and pink lips she looked positively cherubic; the picture of childhood innocence. 

"If you dare laugh I will fuck you up." She warned him, her words very much at odds with her sweet little girl appearance, and Harry had to grin.

"You look like a pretty princess." He said and Hermione let out a small whimper.

"I know. God help me."

By the time they entered the ballroom, the large space was already half-filled with important people dressed in the fanciest robes Harry had ever seen. "That's the Minister of Magic," Hermione whispered in his ear sounding surprised as she nodded towards a short, bumbling figure dressed in lime green and deep purple robes.

"He looks kind of..." Harry trailed off, trying to think of the right word.

"Stupid?" Hermione suggested and he snorted.

"Basically."

"Can't believe we have to rely on idiots like that to run our society." Hermione sighed and a familiar voice chuckled behind them.

"Astute as always, Miss Granger." The two spun around to where Snape, donned in his usual black robes albeit ones that looked heavier and more expensive then the ones he normally wore, was standing behind them with an amused expression on his face.

"It's good to see you, sir." Hermione smiled brightly up at the snarky professor.

"Um, you look nice tonight." Harry said, not quite sure what else to say. "Sir." He quickly tacked onto the end of his statement feeling his cheeks heat up. Snape just looked even more amused. 

"Thank you, Mr. Potter, Miss Granger. I do hope you both enjoy your evening."

"Ah Severus!" Lucius approached them, a smile on his face. "How are you, old friend?"

Harry and Hermione moved away as Snape replied in a familiar, snarky way that spoke of long years of friendship with the elder Malfoy. As they made their way across the room, they were stopped more then a dozen times with introductions from an assortment of different people, both Lords and Ladies and Ministry officials– it seemed that everyone here was eager to shake hands with the Boy-Who-Lived.

Finally Draco saved them, appearing out of nowhere and dragging them to the side of the room where he and a a number of their other schoolmates were hiding, including Millicent Bulstrode, Pansy Parkinson, Blaise, Theo, Tracey, Daphne and Daphne's younger sister Astoria who had started Hogwarts this year, along with a pair of twins Harry didn't know other then recognising they were also in Slytherin and were introduced to him as Flora and Hestia Carrow. 

"Granger," Pansy Parkinson nodded to Hermione, "you don't look awful."

"Why thank you Parkinson," Hermione responded dryly, "you don't look half bad yourself."

They chatted amongst themselves for a while before Narcissa appeared and shooed them away from the wall with orders to either dance or mingle. Hermione chose dancing and forced him to do it with her which resulted in a bit of awkward swaying and toe stomping as they tried to copy the movements of those surrounding them. "Pretend we're sparring and don't be so afraid to touch me," Hermione said sounding exasperated as she forced his hands onto her hips. "Half measures, remember?" 

"I don't think not being able to dance will get us killed," Harry protested.

"I've had your head trapped between my thighs during our spars, Harry. You can put your hands on my hips." Hermione said with a roll of her eyes and Harry blushed but did as she said, finding that it was easier when he thought of it like that. 

It was nearing midnight when his scar prickled and Harry frowned, reaching up to rub it. "What is it?" Hermione asked instantly, sharp as always.

"Scar feels funny." He told her. The familiar thoughtful look crossed his best friend's face and he was waiting to hear her start sharing her latest theory when the prickling increased to an odd sort of throbbing that wasn't unpleasant just strange and a long fingered hand closed on his shoulder.

Harry stiffened and turned around slowly. The man standing before him was one he'd never seen before yet Harry felt an odd sense of familiarity with. He was tall, in his early thirties maybe, and had light brown hair and brown eyes.

"Harry Potter... it's been a while." The stranger greeted him, with a nod. "Miss Granger, you're looking lovely." The stranger added, voice smooth. Harry was about to ask who the hell the man was when those eyes met his and the throbbing in his scar increased tenfold. With widening eyes, Harry came to the conclusion that he was currently looking straight at Lord Voldemort.

Harry had to clear his throat before addressing the man. "What should we call you?" He asked nervously, taking a step back so Voldemort's hand fell off his shoulder. Beside him, Hermione also seemed to have connected the dots and her grip on his hand tightened to the extent Harry could feel his bones grinding together.

"Marcus Culpepper, for now." The Dark Lord said, with a dismissive wave of his hand, "I'm here as the guest of one of Lucius' many... business associates."

"Is that your new body?" Harry couldn't help but ask curiously. Voldemort chuckled and shook his head.

"This is Quirrell's body under Polyjuice. There is, unfortunately, a very specific ritual involved in restoring my body."

"Huh." Harry said, somewhat unintelligently. "So, er, why are you here?"

"I wasn't aware I had to run my actions past you, Harry." Voldemort didn't seem annoyed, just amused. 

"You seem more sane then last time," Harry said before he could stop himself and Hermione gave a soft groan from beside him. 

"I'm glad you think so." Voldemort drawled looking like he was trying not to roll his eyes. He started to stride away, dismissing them both with a nod, before pausing and turning back. "If you ever require my assistance again, Mr. Potter, then I will require a debt in return." Voldemort said, and then he disappeared into the crowd.

"Who was that?" Harry jumped, spinning around to face the Malfoy heir.

"Dammit, Draco!" he complained, "You just gave me a heart attack!" Hermione scowled alongside him at the blonde.

"Very funny, Harry," Draco rolled his eyes, though his expression was curious, "but seriously- who was that? Why are you both so jumpy?"

"We just ran into an old acquaintance." Hermione said, stiffly. And that was the last they spoke of Voldemort for the rest of the evening.

The last week of the holidays seemed to pass far too quickly and before he really knew it Harry was saying goodbye to Narcissa and Lucius as it was time for Hermione, Draco and him to return to Hogwarts as classes started once more. 

Chapter Text

Chapter XV:

 

Hermione's POV:

Draco strolled into the Common Room and made his way over to where they were seated, Greg and Vince trailing after him as per usual. "Wait here," Draco gestured to his 'bodyguards' as she and Harry often called them– well, that or the living examples of the dangers of inbreeding– to sit down on the empty seats across from where Hermione and Harry were reading in front of the fireplace, Hermione curled into Harry's side as he ran a hand absently through her hair, winding the curls around his fingers. "I'll go and get it," Draco said sounding gleeful, "my father's just sent it to me!"

Hermione observed Vince and Greg as they sat down looking uncomfortable. "You two okay?" Harry asked in concern and both boys hastily nodded. Hermione frowned at the strange behaviour but before she could say anything Draco had returned, holding what looked like a newspaper clipping.

"Listen to this," he cleared his throat, "'Inquiry At The Ministry Of Magic. Arthur Weasley, Head of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, was today fined fifty galleons for bewitching a Muggle car. Lucius Malfoy called today for Mr. Weasley's resignation. 'Weasley has brought the Ministry into disrepute,' Lord Malfoy told our reporter. 'He is clearly unfit to draw up our laws and his ridiculous Muggle Protection Act should be scrapped immediately'. Mr. Weasley was unavailable for comment, although his wife told reporters to clear off or she'd set the family ghoul on them.'"

Hermione let out an amused snort but neither of Draco's goons laughed. "Well?" said Draco impatiently. "Don't you think it's funny?" Greg gave a bleak chuckle.

Hermione and Harry exchanged looks, both puzzled by the behaviour of Draco's goons, but Draco continued on, seemingly oblivious to it. "Arthur Weasley loves Muggles so much he should snap his wand in half and go join them," Draco said scornfully. "You'd never know the Weasleys were Purebloods, the way they behave."

"Is something wrong, Vince?" Harry asked worriedly as Vince's face seemed to contort.

"Stomachache." He grunted.

"Well go up to the hospital wing and give the mudblood a kick from me," said Draco with a snicker. "You know, I'm surprised the Daily Prophet hasn't reported all these attacks yet," he went on thoughtfully, "I suppose Dumbledore's trying to hush it all up. He'll be sacked if it doesn't stop soon. Father's always said Dumbledore's the worst thing that's ever happened to this place."

"The sooner the old bastard kicks the bucket the better." Hermione said, lip curling in disgust. 

"Any half decent headmaster would never let any Mudblood trash in." Draco scowled. "It's a good thing the Heir's actually doing something about it. It's a disgrace– this place is really going to the dogs. I just wish we knew who it was– we could help them!"

Vince's jaw dropped and Greg, with much more coherency then usual, asked, "You must have some idea who's behind it all..."

"You know I haven't, Greg! How many times to I have to tell you!" Draco snapped, "and Father won't tell me anything about the last time the Chamber was opened either. Of course, it was fifty years ago so it was before his time, but he knows all about it and he says that it was all kept quiet and it'll look suspicious if I know too much about it. But I know one thing– last time the Chamber of Secrets opened a Mudblood died! So I bet it's a matter of time before one of them's killed this time."

"What the hell's the matter with those two?" Harry muttered to her under his breath, nodding at Vince who was clenching his giant fists. Greg shot Vince what almost looked like a warning look and said, "D'you know if the person who opened the Chamber last time was caught?"

"Oh, yeah... they were expelled. They're probably still in Azkaban." Draco said dismissively then shifted restlessly in his chair. "Father says to keep my head down and let the Heir of Slytherin get on with it. He says the school needs ridding of all the Mudblood filth, but not to get mixed up in it. Of course, he's got a lot on his plate at the moment. You know the Ministry of Magic raided our manor last week?" 

"Are your parents alright?" Harry asked, immediately concerned. Draco nodded.

"Nobody found anything, of course. Father's got some very valuable Dark Arts stuff but we've got our own secret chamber under the drawing-room floor–"

"Ho!" Said Vince and Draco looked at him weirdly. So did Greg, Hermione and Harry. Hermione's eyes narrowed as Vince blushed and she stood abruptly, drawing out her wand as she watched Vince's hair start turning red and his nose slowly beginning lengthen. Harry stood too, pulling out his wand out as 'Greg' and 'Vince' both jumped to their feet.

"Medicine for my stomach," 'Vince' grunted and without further ado he and 'Greg' started to sprint the length of the Common Room.

"Impedimenta!" Hermione spat, springing after them. 

"What are you doing?" Draco yelled as Harry mirrored her actions, shouting; 

"Petrificus Totalus!" 

'Greg' dived out of the way causing the jet of light to narrowly missing him and as 'Vince' pulled the door to the Common Room open, Hermione got a good look at his face– except it wasn't Vince's face looking back at her now, it was a familiar face that was covered in freckles and had a head of bright red hair.

"Weasley!" She hissed, slashing her wand forwards. The silver jet of light missed by an inch as Fred or George Weasley– she couldn't tell– yanked Ron out of the way and they disappeared out of the Slytherin common room.

"What the hell was that?" Harry demanded, coming to a panting stop beside her.

"My guess? Polyjuice Potion." She said, grimly.

"But why?" Harry asked, bewildered.

"I think," she said slowly, "they were trying to figure out if any of us were the Heir of Slytherin."

"Oh." Harry's eyes widened in comprehension. "Oh!"

"Do we go tell Snape?" Draco asked, having hurried over, his cheeks tinged pink.

"You need to go owl your father about your hidden drawing room," Hermione said briskly and Draco paled, nodding hurriedly. "Harry, you go find two older Slytherins to accompany you and go tell Professor Snape what happened."

"You're not coming with me?" Harry asked her.

"Oh no," she gave both boys a malicious smile as she flicked her wand at one of the shoes Ron Weasley had been wearing, the huge boot having fallen off his significantly smaller foot as he ran out of the common room. It soared into her hand and as she caught it her smile widened. "I've got something to do."

Hidden under the Invisibility Cloak, Hermione made her way alone up towards where she was fairly certain the Gryffindor Tower entrance was located, though she couldn't be sure. Stepping into an alcove, she put up a silencing charm. "Serpensortia Austrelaps Labialis," she whispered and a snake, about three feet long with copper colored scales, flew out of the end of her wand. Its head swayed dizzily from side to side as the serpent tried to figure out where it was. ::I have a job for you:: Hermione hissed to it, crouching down to lift snake up into her hands.

It coiled around her arm, looking up at her with wide, unblinking eyes. ::Whatever the Mistress desires:: Hermione smiled down at the copperhead snake.

The copperhead's venom was only moderately toxic but they delivered a substantial quantity of venom in the bite, and if left untreated could easily kill a healthy adult male. Unfortunately, Madam Pomfrey should easily be able to heal anyone bitten but the venom was agonizing and caused sweating, salivating, vomiting, nausea, blurred vision and mass numbness which would hopefully leave the snake's victims laid up for a few weeks.  

::I need you to find the boy that smells of this and his hatch-mates:: She told the snake, holding up the shoe. :: I need you to bite them but not kill them::

::Yes speaker:: hissed the snake, its forked tongue flicking out to taste the scent. 

::Happy hunting:: Hermione hissed, crouching back down and the snake's head bobbed up and down as it uncoiled from her wrist, slithering down to the ground then disappearing into the shadows of the corridor. Hermione gave a satisfied smile– the Weasleys wouldn't be breaking into the Slytherin common room again any time soon. 

When Ron, Fred, George, Percy and Ginevra Weasley all initially disappeared to the Hospital Wing, there were a flurry of rumors about their disappearances with everyone assuming they'd been attacked. When Draco asked Hermione what she'd done she'd just smirked at him– her conjured snake had been very thorough.

All too soon the Weasleys had left the Hospital Wing and Ron Weasley had resumed his stalking of Harry, who he (and his brothers) fully blamed for their stay in the Hospital Wing. By now the sun had begun to shine weakly on Hogwarts once more. There had been no more attacks and the mandrakes were almost ready for cutting and stewing, which left the overall mood inside the Castle much more hopeful– except for the Slytherins who kept giving Harry 'hints' about when would be good times for the Heir to attack.

The months passed in a relatively peaceful manner, the only hiccup being the absolute and utter horror that had been February the fourteenth. Bloody Lockhart had covered the walls of the great hall with large, lurid pink flowers with heart-shaped confetti falling from the ceiling and managed to get a dozen dwarves wearing gold wings and carrying harps to roam around the school delivering Valentines. One of the dwarves had tried delivering a Valentine to Harry but Hermione had set its harp on fire before it got any further then 'His eyes are as green as a-'. A relieved Harry had sworn he was indebted to her forever. Hermione was inclined to agree.

The Easter holidays came and went with the second-years been given something new to think about– the time had come to choose their subjects for the third year, a matter which Hermione took quite seriously. "It could affect our whole future," she told Harry as she examined the lists of new subjects. She ended up choosing Arithmancy, Study of Ancient Runes, Care of Magical Creatures and Divination. Beside her, Harry had pretended to deliberate for a few minutes before just copying down what she'd chosen. She'd rolled her eyes but hadn't been bothered, pleased that they'd be in the same classes.

It wasn't until the day of the next Quidditch match– Hufflepuff against Gryffindor; Hermione was hoping the 'Puffs flattened Gryffindor– that excitement once again stirred the school.

They'd woken up to brilliant sunshine and a light, refreshing breeze and Hermione had reluctantly agreed to attend the match with Harry. It was as they both left the Great Hall, ready to head down to the pitch, that they heard it.

::Kill this time... let me rip... tear...::

Hermione traded looks with Harry who nodded slightly. "It's none of our business." She murmured to him and he hesitated and then nodded, his expression grim but determined.

"We better make sure we're in a public place then." He said and she agreed. By the time the announcement came that the basilisk had claimed another victim, she and Harry had been sitting with their fellow second years for the last twenty minutes. McGonagall had come half-marching, half-running across the pitch, carrying an enormous purple megaphone and Hermione knew at once that the basilisk had claimed another victim– she just didn't know whether it had been fatal or not. She didn't particularly care either, though she'd prefer it if the school didn't have to be closed down. Then again, she'd heard good things about Beauxbatons– she'd just have to figure out how she and Harry were supposed to get there. 

"This match as been cancelled!" McGonagall addressed the packed stadium. "All students are to make their way back to the House common rooms where their Heads of Houses will give them further information!"

"Well, let's get going." Hermione said as she stood up. Theo narrowed his eyes at her.

"You don't seem that surprised," he accused, "and neither does Harry."

"Bloody hell, really?" Hermione sighed, "We've been right next to you the whole time." Theo conceded to that point and nothing more was said.

In the Common Room, Draco rushed over to them. "Have you heard the rumours?" he demanded before continuing to speak before any of them could actually answer him. "Somebody actually died!"

Before Hermione or Harry could reply to Draco's announcement in any way, a blank-faced Snape swept into the Common Room.

"Silence!" He ordered and the room immediately went quiet. "In light of the recent attacks, new rules have been put into place. All students will return to their House Common Rooms by six o'clock in the evening. No student is to leave the dormitories after that time. You will be escorted to each lesson by a teacher. No student is to use the bathroom unaccompanied by a teacher. All further Quidditch training and matches are to be postponed. There will be no more evening activities."

Snape paused then and his lip curled slightly. "The Headmaster has told me to advise you all that it is likely that the school will be closed unless the culprit behind these attacks is caught. I have been ordered to urge anyone who thinks they might know anything about them to step forward."

Hermione wasn't surprised when no one did and it was Draco who asked the question on everybody's mind. "Is it true someone died, professor?"

"Yes. A Ravenclaw seventh year, Penelope Clearwater." Snape said quietly before he turned and exited the Common Room.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus had to admit that the look on Granger's face had disturbed him when he'd announced the death of Penelope Clearwater. Nothing. She'd shown absolutely no emotion. And it had struck him, right then, that Granger simply hadn't cared.

It was a chilling notion.

Seeing her at the Malfoy's Yuletide Gala had surprised him– not her presence, he'd known she would be in attendance, but the manner in which she'd interacted with the other attendees; in every appearance, she'd acted like she'd been raised in the privileged, Pureblood lifestyle. She'd played the crowd like she'd trained for it, greeting all the important guests and chatting with them ever-so-sweetly, Harry a constant presence at her side. Only one interaction had puzzled him, an interaction she and Harry had shared with a tall, light-haired man that Lucius had originally dismissed as a guest of one of this business associates.

Granger and Harry had recognized the man, of that he was certain. And Hermione had actually looked... well, not quite afraid, but what was likely one of the closest things to it the girl would allow to show. 

Severus bit back a groan as he slumped in his office chair. Thinking about Granger tended to give him a headache. She was a contradiction; the muggleborn Slytherin who appeared as comfortable mingling with Pureblood nobles and Ministry officials as she did navigating her way around muggle London. 

He could never really peg down what the girl's aim was, only that she seemed to adore Harry and appeared willing to do absolutely anything to protect him.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Summer was creeping around the grounds and, to Harry's great surprise and delight, Dumbledore had been ordered to leave Hogwarts. With the death of the Ravenclaw and Dumbledore's suspension, fear had spread through Hogwarts as Harry had never seen it before. Outside of Slytherin house there was barely a face to be seen that didn't look worried and tense and any laughter that rang through the corridors sounded shrill and unnatural.

Classes were growing in intensity which Hermione seemed to adjust well to about but were starting to tire him out. And the animosity from the other Houses towards the Slytherins had risen to a worrying levels. It seemed the other three Houses had banded together to try and curse the Slytherins whenever the chance arose– which, thankfully, wasn't often, not with everyone being escorted everywhere by teachers. More then once, though, Hermione had had points deducted for cursing her attackers back in a vicious fashion and despite the amusement it brought the points loss wasn't good for their chances at winning the House Cup– not that Hermione actually cared about that. 

Harry thought he should probably feel guilty about withholding what he knew about the Basilisk, especially after the death of that girl, but the last thing he wanted was for their Heir to come after him or Hermione in retaliation so even though he felt bad for Penelope Clearwater he didn't regret his decision. 

When McGonagall had announced that exams were still on, Hermione was the only one who seemed to be even remotely pleased. Much to his, Draco's, Blaise's and Theo's dismay, she was forcing them to study with her, Tracey and Daphne and, just like with their sparring, Hermione didn't believe in showing mercy. 

Then three days before exams, McGonagall made an announcement during breakfast. "I have good news!" she said, causing the Great Hall to erupted into loud shouts.

"Dumbledore's coming back!" several people yelled joyfully.

"You've caught the Heir of Slytherin!"

"Quidditch matches are back on!"

Beside him, Hermione rolled her eyes and continued eating her breakfast and Harry tried not to laugh as the McGonagall waited for the Hall to quite down. Once the hubbub had subsided, she spoke again. "Professor Sprout has informed me that the mandrakes are ready for cutting at last. Tonight, we will be able to revive those people who have been petrified. I need hardly remind you all that one of them may well be able to tell us who, or what, attacked them. I am hopeful that this dreadful year will end with our catching the culprit."

There was an explosion of cheering and Harry wasn't surprised that the Gryffindor table was the loudest, shouting and stomping their feet. "Honestly," Hermione muttered to him under her breath, "none of them would have seen the Heir. All they'll be able to tell us is they saw a pair of big, golden eyes and don't remember anything else."

"True." He nodded before putting it from his mind and concentrating back on his breakfast. 

They were in Charms when it happened. McGonagall's voice, magically amplified, echoed around the castle. "All students are gather immediately in the Great Hall!" 

"Really?" Hermione complained, looking put out. "The Heir couldn't have waited until after exams were over?" Harry rolled his eyes and grabbed her hand to pull her along as everyone poured out into the corridors and made their way to the Great Hall, talking excitedly and anxiously among themselves as they all listened for gossip and rumors.

Said gossip and rumors came in the form of a Ravenclaw third year. "There's more writing on the wall!" He shouted, "right under the first message! It says 'her skeleton will lie in the Chamber for ever'!"   

"Who?" Several people called out and a pale-faced Gryffindor first year spoke up in a fearful voice.

"Nobody's seen Ginny Weasley since first period."

There was silence and then it was like an explosion. "YOU KILLED MY SISTER!" Shouted Ron Weasley at the top of his voice, lunging across at him. Harry tried to whip his wand out in front of him, but Weasley's fist punched him in the face– hard– before he could cast anything. Weasley might have had surprise on his side, but Harry had been sparring with Hermione for nearly a year and he managed to throw Weasley off him, only for one of the twins to join in. The twins weren't the Gryffindor Quidditch team's Beaters for nothing and despite the fact Harry had skill on his side, against two opponents who were both bigger then him he started to struggle keeping his own. 

The Hall was filled with shouting and screaming as Harry punched, kicked and jabbed as hard as he could, fighting the furious redheads. Hermione seemed to be in some kind of scuffle beside him and he saw, through swollen eyes, that she was duelling the Weasley twin who hadn't joined Weasley's attempt to pound his face in. 

"What are you doing?" Shrieked a teacher, "Get off him! Get off him now!"

A blow to his face had Harry stumble, stunned, which was enough for one of the Weasleys to tackle him to the ground. His head was slammed into the floor with a sickening crack and Harry moaned in agony as his vision blurred. His mind felt foggy and disjointed, unable to concentrate. Everywhere hurt, everywhere hurt so much, he just wanted it to stop, to please-please-please stop. This felt worse then sparring with Hermione, worse then the beatings Dudley and his gang had given him, worse then the time a drunk Vernon had pummelled him before locking him in his cupboard.

His head lolled to the side and he briefly noticed, through his hazy vision, that the floor next to him looked very red.

And then Harry passed out.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus wanted to murder those Weasley boys– or, at the very least, have them expelled and their wands snapped but instead their unforgivable behavior had been excused because they'd just learned their sister had died.

That didn't give them the excuse to beat one of his students half to death, he'd argued, but the little shits had gotten away with nothing more then a slap on the wrist (only fifty points from Gryffindor each and a month of detentions for almost killing his student!).

Granger had looked murderous. Beyond murderous. The Weasley twin she'd been duelling was currently unconscious in the hospital wing and he wasn't exactly sure which curse the girl had used on the boy– Poppy wasn't sure either– but George Weasley's orifices seemed to be leaking some kind of tar-like substance and the boy had yet to awaken. 

Granger... she hadn't left Harry's side, not once. McGonagall had tried to get her to return to the Slytherin Common Room but one vicious glare from the girl had had the Deputy Headmistress backing off and leaving her alone and as soon as Poppy had healed Harry to the best of her abilities and confirmed he was in no danger Granger had yanked the curtains around Harry's bed shut in a way that screamed 'Do Not Disturb' (actually, it was probably closer to 'FUCK OFF') to everyone else in the room.

Severus had wanted to join her, to escape the idiocy and hypocrisy that surrounded him and examine Harry himself, but Poppy needed his help to figure out exactly what Granger had cursed the Weasley boy with.

Granger had refused to tell them.

He didn't blame her– in fact, he bloody commended her.

And if Poppy noticed his... lacklustre efforts in reversing the curse, well, the mediwitch certainly didn't say anything which wasn't surprising considering she'd been the one who'd had to heal Harry.

Chapter Text

Chapter XVI:


 

Hermione's POV:

Hermione let out an inarticulate sound of pure rage as she looked down at Harry's limp form. If she'd been murderously angry when Mrs. Norris had been attacked now she was ready to paint the walls of Hogwarts red with the blood of all its occupants. She would make those who'd hurt Harry pay and she'd gladly tear down the whole world to do so.

But first whoever was setting the Basilisk on muggleborns had to be stopped; she couldn't allow them to continue, not when students attacked Harry because they thought he was the Heir. Under no circumstances could she let something like this happen ever again.

Hatred and bloodlust turned her vision red as she looked down at Harry's beaten form, at what Ron and Fred Weasley had just done to him. As she reached out to gently brush her fingertips against his poor battered face she felt a plan slowly begin to form. She cast a quick silencing charm around the cot and, using her thumbs, she gently pulled up the lids of Harry's eyes so she could stare into the unfocused emerald-green irises. "Legilimens!" She whispered.

It was the first time she'd ever cast the spell. It felt odd at first, like she was zooming through a tunnel, and then she was floating, floating, strands of memories flowing by...

Focus! She thought, sharply, as she refused to let herself get swept up in the stream of Harry's subconscious mind, instead searching for an anomaly. It wasn't hard to spot; a heavy, dark inky blur so different to the innate brightness of Harry's mind. Hermione targeted it, pushed against it the same way she'd read about pushing against Occlumency walls, until suddenly she was f a l  l i n g

–and then she was surrounded by thick, inky black tendrils that were wrapping around her, trapping her in place and tightening. Hermione started to panic because she was struggling but she had no limbs, no physicality. She was shapeless, formless; trying to shout out of a non-existent mouth as she attempted to stop herself from being crushed at the same time as she tried to keep herself from dispersing into nothingness.

And then suddenly the tendrils suddenly weren't so much as crushing her as they were holding her together. 'The Mind Arts are not something to dabble in without an experienced instructor' a familiar voice seemed to echo, except she didn't have ears so how could she hear it? 'Calm yourself' the voice ordered and Hermione desperately focused on the words, on the sounds, letting them anchor her to herself. She wasn't sure how long it took for her to be able to think clearly once more but the owner of the voice seemed to be waiting patiently.

Which actually surprised her a bit when she remembered just whose mind it was she'd visited. 'Thank you' she– said? thought?– because that had been one of the most terrifying experiences of her life and she was very aware of the fact that if her consciousness had fallen apart, her body would have been left brain dead as who she was disappeared entirely– there was a reason why precious few witches and wizards learned Legilimency; it was dangerous magic.

"That was a very stupid thing to do." Voldemort spoke out loud this time but Hermione could hear every word.

'I know' she replied, 'I'm sorry– I was desperate'

"So desperate you risked losing yourself completely?" Voldemort asked.

'I didn't realise it would be that... bad' Hermione admitted, trying not to remember the horrid feeling of nothing anchoring her together, the eerie feeling of being formless.

"Children." Voldemort said, sounding a lot like an exasperated Professor Snape. "Speak, Miss Granger, before I run out of patience."

'I need a favor.' Hermione told him.

"A favor, you say? And what will I get in return?" He sounded amused now.

'What do you want?' She asked, not sure what Voldemort could possibly want from her but knowing it was unlikely to be anything good.

"I'll decide that at a later date, Miss Granger." Voldemort decided, which was possibly the worst answer he could have given her. "Do we have a deal?"

It was a risk, it was a huge risk, but Harry was public enemy number one and people were calling for his expulsion. This beating had almost killed him and there was no guarantee it would be the last. Harry could even be arrested and taken from her–

'Yes.'

"What do you need, child?" Voldemort asked.

'I need you to get me into the Chamber of Secrets. I know you can do it.'

For a moment, silence, and then Hermione felt herself being pushed back; hurtling out of Voldemort's mind, then out of Harry's mind and then she was opening her eyes and she couldn't help but gasp and harshly dig her fingernails into her palms, the sharp flicks of pain grounding in their physicality. Despite her relief at being in her body once more, she couldn't help but wonder what had just happened. Did Voldemort decide not to go through with their deal?

And then Harry was opening his eyes, except instead of the familiar green his irises were a gleaming, crimson red. "Voldemort," she whispered and Harry's mouth twisted into a smirk she knew could never belong to him.

"You're a brave girl speaking my name," and it was Harry's voice but nothing like she'd heard it sound before– silky and sibilant and so cold. "Brave," Voldemort said with Harry's mouth, "or perhaps foolish." Harry's/Voldemort's expression then darkened. "The boy is injured."

"The Weasleys." Hermione said, hands suddenly itching to pull out one of her knives so she could start flaying the family of redheads alive. Voldemort looked very displeased and the expression was alien on Harry's features.

"I'll leave the boy's mind once I have shown you the Chamber." He said and Hermione nodded then frowned slightly.

"Is it normal, to be able to possess someone so easily?" She asked, uncomfortable with the thought.

"The link we share appears to make possession almost disturbingly easy. Especially while the boy has retreated into his subconscious." Voldemort said, sounding dismissive of the fact. Hermione took a deep breath and nodded.

"Okay. So... why do you need to be here?" Voldemort arched an eyebrow.

"To get into the Chamber, one must be able to speak Parseltongue, Miss Granger." He said and Hermione gave him her sweetest smile. 

::I assure you, that won't be a problem:: The look of shock on Voldemort's face was almost enough to make her laugh despite the anger-rage-hatred that was still clouding her mind.

::How?:: Voldemort demanded, also in Parseltongue.

::My animagus is a snake. Over the summer holidays I spent enough time in the form that I picked up Parseltongue:: Hermione explained, deciding to go with honesty.

"You are an animagus? Already?" Voldemort asked, sounding startled as he switched back to English.

"It coincided nicely with my Occlumency studies." She replied. Voldemort's lips curled into a smile that wasn't cold or cruel, but rather contained a hint of respect.

"You are quite an unusual twelve-year-old, Miss Granger."

"Thirteen, actually. And I'm taking that as a compliment, just so you know." She said with another insincere sweet smile. Voldemort chuckled and the sound was surprisingly pleasant.

"It was intended as such. Now I believe we have work to do, though I must ask just why it is so important that you find the Chamber of Secrets?" He asked.

"Because Harry's being blamed for the attacks and now the stupid little Weasley girl's managed to get herself killed and taken down into the bloody Chamber so fucking Ron Weasley and his shit-head brothers attacked Harry, beating him half to death!" Hermione said with a smile that showed all her teeth. "I plan on having a very pleasant conversation with the Heir requesting they cease the attacks until Harry and I have graduated. If they're not inclined to stop the attacks then I'm going to have a much less pleasant conversation with them that will include a number of death threats. Should they still be reluctant then I'm going to introduce them to my very, very sharp collection of knives."

"Very well," Voldemort said, sounding thoughtful as his red eyes met hers and she kept her chin high and fiercely stared right back. "I shall show you to the Chamber."

Getting out of the hospital wing was surprisingly easy. Voldemort, using Harry's wand, simply cast Disillusionment charms on them both and they simply walked right out.

The school seemed almost eerily empty with all the students sequestered in the Great Hall and they didn't even come across a single ghost as Voldemort led them to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, of all places. Hermione followed on silent footsteps as he crossed over to what at first appeared to be an ordinary sink. She was confused for a moment but then Voldemort hissed ::Open up!:: and the tap of the sink glowed with a brilliant white light and began to spin. The sink then sank right out of sight leaving a pipe exposed; a pipe wide enough for a grown man to squeeze through.

"That's disgusting." Hermione muttered, eyeing the slimy looking pipe with revulsion.

"Indeed." Voldemort replied, smoothly. "Lady's first." He added with an elegant hand gesture towards what was, apparently,  the entrance to Salazar Slytherin's legendary Chamber of Secrets. In a girl's loo. She really hoped that the room had been used as something different a thousand years ago because a secret chamber in a girl's loo was suspiciously close to 'pervert' territory.

"The basilisk isn't going to kill me when I go down there, is it?" She asked Voldemort, deciding not to consider the fact the founder of her House was possibly a pedophile.

"You figured out the horror within the Chamber, did you?" Voldemort asked, red eyes gleaming with a sharp interest she didn't think boded well for her.

"After Mrs. Norris– the caretaker's cat– was petrified." She told him, "Harry and I heard it talking in the walls and I puzzled it out from there."

"Indeed." Voldemort gave her another thoughtful look then said, "the basilisk will only come when called. You are safe to go down." Hermione nodded and took a deep breath before lowering herself slowly into the pipe and let go.

It was like rushing down an endless, slimy, dark slide. She could see pipes branching off in all directions but none as large as the one she was in, which twisted and turned, sloping steeply downwards, until she knew she was lower in the school then even the dungeons, miles and miles under even the deepest dungeon. The feeling of falling was almost as bad as when she'd used Legilimency and the panic building up inside her was nearly enough to make her throw up. She couldn't feel her hands, couldn't feel her face, she couldn't even breathe

And then the pipe leveled out and she shot out of the end with a wet thud, landing on the damp floor of a dark stone tunnel, large enough to stand in. For several long moments she laid there trembling, ragged breaths being torn from her lungs, but the sound of Voldemort's approach had her stumbling to her feet and shoving away the threatening panic attack as she dug her nails into her palms to keep her hands from trembling.

The dark, enclosed tunnel was barely an improvement to falling– memories of a pitch-black room she couldn't escape made cold nausea swell up inside her and she almost choked on her instinctive fear. But this was a phobia she'd beaten down over and over from the sheer necessity of it; she'd trained herself to be able to think past the fear that threatened to suffocate her, to force it down until she was left light-headed but able to breathe, able to think, and she wouldn't let her body or her mind betray her in front of the Dark wizard.

When Voldemort slid out of the pipe he landed on his feet with apparent ease despite his borrowed body– practice, she guessed. There was a look of distaste on his face as he looked down at his slimy robes and Hermione realised that in her panic she hadn't even noticed the muck clinging to her. "Evanesco," Voldemort muttered, vanishing the slime from his robes with a wave of his hand. He then flicked a hand in her direction and the gunk vanished from her robes too. Hermione nodded at him in thanks, not wanting to talk until she was sure her voice wouldn't tremble.

Looking around them, the tunnel was so dark Hermione could only see a small distance ahead. "This way," Voldemort ordered, casting a lumos then starting to lead the way along one of the tunnels. She followed after him, taking care to not make a sound as she walked, slipping quietly through the looming shadows the way she'd been taught. Her heart nearly stopped when they rounded a bend and she caught sight of something massive and curved, lying right across the tunnel.

Her sharp inhale gave away her fear to Voldemort who paused and looked back at her, amusement on his face. "It's only the shed skin." He said.

"How silly of me to be concerned by the over twenty foot long shed snake skin." She replied with a smile that showed all her teeth. Voldemort didn't say anything but the corners of his mouth twitched as he turned back around and continued on.

They walked until they reached the end of a very long, dimly lit Chamber where towering stone pillars entwined with carved serpents rose to support a ceiling lost in darkness, casting long black shadows through the odd, greenish gloom that filled the place.

The final pillar, however was different– a giant figure had been carved into it, one of an ancient and noble looking man with a long, thin beard that fell nearly to his feet. And laying at the feet of the effigy of Salazar Slytherin was a small, black-robed figure with flaming red hair.

Hermione walked over and examined the girl curiously. Ginevra Weasley's face was clammy and white as marble but her eyes were closed which meant she wasn't Petrified.

"She won't wake," said a soft voice and Hermione turned sharply towards the sound and saw a tall, dark-haired boy leaning against the nearest pillar and watching her. He was older then her, sixteen or seventeen she guessed, and strangely blurred around the edges almost as if she was looking at him through a misted window. Hermione slid the hand not holding her wand over to her hip where she could feel the comforting weight of a switchblade. Smiling her 'wolf-smile' as Harry called it, as she started moving towards the unfamiliar teenager, her eyes not leaving his for a moment as she held herself in a loose fighter's stance ready to react to the first sign of movement. The strange boy's eyes sharpened in interest and she didn't miss the hand holding his wand– or the Weasley girl's, she wasn't sure– twitch slightly.

And then Voldemort stepped forwards from where he'd been lurking further back. "Hello Tom." He greeted the teenager. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

The handsome boy reacted swiftly, wand up and aimed at Voldemort in a single motion. Hermione reacted just as fast, using the distraction to close the distance between them and shove the edge of her blade threateningly against the vulnerable flesh of his stomach, pressing down hard enough for the sharpened steel to draw blood. "Drop the wand or I'll gut you." She snarled to 'Tom'– she didn't care what happened to Voldemort but the Dark wizard was currently possessing Harry's body and she'd die before she let Harry's body be hurt and she'd kill anyone who tried.

'Tom' went very, very still, the wand dropping from his fingers and hitting the ground with a small clunk. Hermione kicked it away with her foot, sending it skidding across the ground and far out of reach, before taking several quick steps backwards– with 'Tom' now unarmed she was in more danger if she remained within striking distance. Voldemort had watched their brief exchange with sharp eyes and as she moved back he stepped in closer. 

"Who are you?" 'Tom' asked in a voice that was flat and cold. Hermione wasn't sure if he was talking to her or Voldemort but Voldemort was the one who answered.

"Your past, present and future." He said smoothly, "I am Lord Voldemort."

"Prove it!" Demanded 'Tom', in a dangerous voice, "how do I know you're not just Harry Potter trying to trick me?"

::So suspicious, Tom... good:: hissed Voldemort. ::The first snake we ever spoke to called itself Thsaasss::

"It really is you." The boy said slowly, a gleam in his eyes. His gaze then flickered over to her. "And who is your companion?" He asked and Hermione didn't reply, instead examining the younger Voldemort with narrowed eyes– Tom was very attractive; fair skinned with dark tousled hair, an angular face and eyes an interesting grey-violet shade.

"She is an associate of mine." Voldemort answered for her anyway. "Her name is Hermione Granger."

"Granger... Hermione Granger. Yes, little Ginny wrote to me about you," Tom mused, his voice turning soft and lightly mocking, "she was quite jealous. Wanted the famous Harry Potter to notice her like he noticed you."

Hermione narrowed her eyes at Voldemort, ignoring Tom for the moment. "You knew what was happening from the start," She said in a low, furious voice. "You knew this–" she gestured in Tom's direction, "whatever he is, was opening the Chamber!"

"I am a memory," Tom said lightly, "preserved in a diary for fifty years." He pointed towards the floor near the statue's giant toes. Lying open there was a little black diary.

"That's impossible." Hermione disagreed flatly, "memories don't work like that. There's something else about that diary, some other magic you used. Very powerful magic– and probably very Dark and very, very illegal."

Tom gave her an interested look, like he was seeing her properly for the first time, while Voldemort smiled a deceptively pleasant-looking smile. "You are a very bright girl, Miss Granger." He said.

"I've heard that before," Hermione muttered under her breath before sliding the switchblade away and striding over to pick up the diary.

"What are you doing?" Tom demanded, his voice suddenly sharp.

"What I came down here to do," she replied coldly. "I'm stopping you from opening the Chamber– I don't know how you're doing it, except you're doing it through your little diary and you're putting Harry in danger. I can't let that happen– I won't let you."

Tom's eyes narrowed. "Yes, Harry Potter. Ginny told me his whole fascinating history. May I ask how it is, exactly, that this situation came about?"

"A Magical Oath." Hermione said, meeting his narrow-eyed stare with a fierce, challenging one of her own. "Our guaranteed safety in return for the Philosopher's Stone." She had to fight the urge to fidget under the weight of the twin gazes directed her way, one an almost glowing crimson and the other the color of crushed violets. "I don't want the diary, you can have it back, I just want you to keep it out of the school until Harry and I have graduated." She told them both, more then happy for the Chamber mess to be put behind her. The mental and emotional trauma of the past few hours had the ghosts of old memories trailing ice-cold fingers down the back of her neck and she just wanted to be curled up next to Harry somewhere; wanted to anywhere but this dark, enclosed space far too reminiscent of her nightmarish past. 

"I believe you owe me a favor, Miss Granger." Voldemort's voice was just as soft as Tom's and twice as dangerous. Hermione felt herself tense, her fingers suddenly aching for her knife again.

"A promise is a promise." She said stiffly.

"Yes," Voldemort said, "and I think I'll collect on that promise now." He walked over to her and held out his hand. Wordlessly, Hermione handed him the diary and he stroked the black leather cover thoughtfully. "This diary is very valuable to me, Miss Granger. I would hate to see anything happen to it."

"And?" she asked cautiously.

"And I want to bind you to it." Voldemort said simply before smiling– it wasn't a nice smile and it didn't belong on Harry's face. "Consider it protection and insurance."

Fear rushed through Hermione before she pushed it back down and nodded at the Dark Lord. It wasn't like she had any choice– a promise was a promise and she'd have to be an idiot to go back on her word to Lord Voldemort. And nobody had ever accused her of being an idiot.

Voldemort raised his hand and touched the tip of Harry's wand to her forehead and began speaking in Latin. Hermione managed to translate a handful of words before a sudden pain exploded white-hot behind her eyes, turning her vision black and spotted. She inhaled sharply, gritting her teeth to hold back the scream that threatened to tear itself from her throat as for nearly ten seconds there was just blinding agony and then it was gone and the world slowly started to swim back into focus.

Hermione took several deep, ragged breaths as panic crawled over her, thick enough for her to choke on. It was only the memory of the Magical Oath, that whatever Voldemort had done wasn't intended to harm her, that allowed her to suppress the sharp flashes of old traumas dancing at the edges of her mind.

Voldemort was still holding the diary but Tom was nowhere to be seen and Hermione forced her empty lungs to fill then empty then fill again until she was confident she could speak without her voice betraying her. "Did it work?" she asked and was viciously proud by her flat, steady tone.

The diary flipped open by itself and an invisible hand wrote yes.

"Alright." She nodded, "how does this work then?"

"Consider yourself a safety measure." Voldemort answered, his crimson eyes meeting hers unblinkingly. "If something happens to the diary, you will feel it. In dire cases, you will be able to draw power from it and Tom will be able to draw power from you."

Protection and insurance, Hermione remembered his earlier words. Now she understood what he meant– he wasn't talking about the diary, not really; he was using it to bind her and Harry to him. By binding her to the diary Voldemort was ensuring that she, and therefore Harry, had a vested interest in... well, in his best interests. Hermione exhaled sharply, frustrated with herself and with Voldemort but knowing better then to complain. 

"Can he come out at all?" She asked instead and in response the pages of the diary fluttered and then Tom was standing in front of her; not fully corporal but not a ghost either, much clearer then he had been before.

"Interesting." He mused, "You are a very powerful witch. Your magic is... quite intoxicating."

"Thanks." Hermione said awkwardly, thrown by the somewhat suggestive wording and frustrated with herself for being thrown. She felt shaken, emotional and bone-tired, but more then that she felt vulnerable and she hated feeling vulnerable. So Hermione did what she'd always done in the past– she used that hate, used it to smother the fear and the anger and the panic and let cold-hearted, calculating survivor slide into place; the girl who'd been torn apart and built back up by the rough streets of London, her sharp edges made sharper by the cruelty of the world she'd raised herself in.

It was more Jane then Hermione who glanced down at the body of little Ginevra Weasley with cool indifference before turning back to the two Dark Lords. "We're going to need a scapegoat." She told them.

"I can think of someone." Tom said with a smirk. "If you don't mind a death being on your conscience, that is."

"Murder does very little to affect my conscience," she said, ignoring the curious and intrigued looks her statement had caused. "What's your plan?"

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry blinked blearily as he drifted into consciousness. The world around him was blurred and out of focus and he wasn't quite sure where he was. He tried to remember what had happened but it was like his brain was filled with fog, his last memories about as tangible as mist as he tried to reach for them.

"Hey." A soft voice murmured and moments later a small hand was sliding his glasses onto his face bringing the world back into sharp focus. He was in the hospital wing and there was a very familiar person sitting on the chair beside the cot he was laying on, looking thin, tired and wan but still the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen.

"Hermione," Harry croaked, wincing slightly as his mouth felt like sandpaper when he tried to speak. He still managed to smile at her, despite how stiff and uncooperative his body felt and how concerned he was by her appearance.

Hermione's hair was free, the wild curls spilling chaotically down over her shoulders, and there were dark shadows like bruises under her eyes and a hollowness to her cheeks like she hadn't eaten for days. She still smiled at him, her eyes lighting up as she stood and fetched him up a glass of water, pressing the cup to his lips. Harry gulped the water down greedily and when he tried speaking again he was much more successful. "What did I miss?" He asked, voice hoarse but legible.

"What do you remember?" She asked, her voice soft. Harry strained his memory and it slowly started to come back to him.

"I remember... the Great Hall," he said, slowly, "and then... someone attacked me? I think it was Weasley, but... the memories are kind of muddled and then there's just this whole heap of nothingness."

"I'm not surprised, considering how hard your skull hit the ground." Hermione muttered, looking furious for a moment. She then leaned forwards and pressed her lips to his ear, hissing softly. ::Weasley and his brother beat you half to death in retaliation for their sister being kidnapped by the Heir and taken down to the Chamber of Secrets. I used your mind link to talk to Voldemort and he possessed you and led me to the Chamber. It turns out that little Ginevra Weasley was the one who attacked the muggleborns, except she was being controlled by a diary that Voldemort used some powerful Dark magic on to preserve a... shade, of sorts inside it. Almost a living, breathing copy of his teenage self, but not quite. We all came to the agreement that diary won't be used to open the Chamber again while we're both still at Hogwarts and no one thinks you're the Heir anymore::

::Why not?:: he hissed back, puzzled. Even in Parseltongue, Hermione's voice seemed to radiate smugness.

::It turns out that Gilderoy Lockhart was being quite the naughty boy. Pity for him that he was caught in the act, setting fire to the greenhouse where the mandrakes were kept. Even more's a pity that instead of allowing himself to be taken into custody, he fled into the Forbidden Forest and ended up being torn apart by a nest of Acromantula. When a search of Lockhart's office then revealed Ginevra Weasley's dead body the Ministry immediately launched a full inquiry and found a highly illegal potion hidden in his roomsa potion that mimics the effects of a Basilisk, petrifying the one who drinks it::

::And the ghost?::

::The Ministry assumes the ghost witnessed Lockhart and he used some sort of foreign spell on it he learned while he was travelling looking for stories to steal:: Hermione hissed, looking very amused. Harry couldn't help but snort.

::The Ministry are idiots. How about Dumbledore?::

::He can't prove anything. But he did get reinstated as headmaster:: Hermione looked very annoyed by this.

::Damn:: he pulled a face and Hermione's face softened into a smile as she straightened back up and ran her fingers gently through his hair.

"I've missed you these past few days." She told him quietly.

"Few days? How long was I out for?" he asked, surprised.

"Four and a half days altogether. You beat George Weasley in waking up though– he's still unconscious but finally on the mend, unfortunately."

"What was the damage? To me?" Harry asked, shocked that he'd been unconscious for so long. Hermione's face darkened.

"Four broken ribs, three broken knuckles, your left wrist was broken and the back of your skull was fractured. You suffered a cerebral hematoma– if Madam Pomfrey and Snape weren't as good as they are or as quick, you could have died."

"Please tell me Weasley and his brother were expelled!" Harry said furiously.

"Apparently, Ginny's death was punishment enough. I think a total of, oh, one hundred and fifty points were taken from Gryffindor for nearly beating you to death!" Hermione's voice actually shook she was so furious and Harry clenched his fists as rage rushed through him.

"Those fucking bastards!" He seethed.

"Don't worry," Hermione said. Her voice was flat and cold and there was death in her eyes. "They'll pay in blood for what they did to you." Her words weren't a threat they were a promise and Harry smiled a fierce smile back at her because he might not be a naturally violent person but he could definitely be a vindictive one and he'd help Hermione see her promise through.

-

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Severus's POV:

They'll pay in blood for what they did to you. Those words echoed in Severus's mind over and over as he paused outside the curtains shielding Harry's hospital bed from view.

Granger's voice had been colder then he'd ever heard it, colder even then when she'd told Greyback she hoped he drowned in his own blood or when she'd promised retribution on the one who'd petrified the cat. And he knew she wasn't exaggerating either– she meant exactly what she said. He didn't know when or how, but Granger was not going to ever let this go and she was going to make Ron, Fred and George Weasley bleed for what they'd done to Harry. He didn't blame her either– didn't even feel slightly inclined to stop her. Severus was furious enough that he actually felt like helping her dish out whatever revenge she thought was necessary.

And Granger was capable of being ruthless. Beyond ruthless, if what she'd done to Lockhart was any kind of example.

He didn't know how she'd found the Chamber of Secrets, how she'd got inside it or how she managed to get past the monster to get Ginevra Weasley's body, but he had absolutely no doubt in his mind that she had.

He also didn't know how she'd gotten control over Lockhart when the whole school was on full alert or how she'd managed to leave Ginevra's body in his office and got him to burn down the greenhouse where the mandrakes were kept before sending the incompetent moron to his death in the Forbidden Forest, but she had.

And it had worked.

Apart from himself, Minerva and Albus, everyone was satisfied with the conclusion the Ministry inquiry had come up with– Gilderoy Lockhart had murdered Penelope Clearwater and Ginevra Weasley, had petrified the others and had cast some sort of foreign Curse on the ghost after Nearly Headless Nick had witnessed him trying to drag Finch-Fletchley into an empty classroom. His fraudulent books had been proven as false and it was widely accepted that setting everything up as if the Chamber of Secrets had been opened so he could fight and defeat the culprit would be the late fraud's latest 'victory over evil' to write about.

In the eyes of the world, the culprit had been found and punished.

More importantly, in the eyes of the student body of Hogwarts Harry Potter had been cleared of any wrongdoing or possible involvement in the whole mess.

All was "well".

Except Albus was angry, Minerva loathed Granger with a passion and Severus torn– torn between the fact that he not only understood but approved of Granger's actions and that he was supposed to be on the side of the Light. Which Hermione Jane Granger was certainly not.

Pulling himself from his thoughts, Severus cleared his throat to signify his presence and pulled open the curtains surrounding the hospital bed Harry was occupying.

"Mr. Potter, a pleasure to once again see you in the land of the living," he said, actually quite sincere in his words. "I trust Miss Granger has explained what has happened in your absence?"

"She did," Harry's expression was equal parts surprised and horrified. "I had no idea that Lockhart was such a– a monster!"

"Indeed," he said, dryly. "And I trust that neither of you will be surprised that Mr. Potter is being summoned up to the headmaster's office."

"Not in the least." Hermione said, cold-eyed and calculating. "But Dumbledore won't find a thing."

That was a lot more ominous sounding then 'we have nothing to hide' and Severus just hoped she was right, that if there was anything to find– and he had no doubt there was– that Albus wouldn't be the one to uncover it.

-

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Harry's POV:

"I'm to be personally escorted to the Dursleys by Professor Snape." Harry said flatly as he looked up at Dumbledore.

The headmaster had questioned him for nearly ten minutes about anything he might know about the Chamber of Secrets to which Harry had replied it was a legend and that Lockhart had been responsible for the hoax– that the Ministry officials had said so. Dumbledore had then tried questioning him about Hermione's possible involvement to which he'd flatly stated was ridiculous and refused to say another word about it. Then the headmaster had moved onto Legilimency but Harry's mind had been well protected by a darkly amused Voldemort.

Finally defeated, Dumbledore had then given him the crushing news that he wouldn't have the chance to escape from King's Cross with Hermione like they'd previously planned as instead he was being escorted to the Dursleys by his Head of House to "make sure he didn't try to run off again".

"It's the safest action we can take, Mr. Potter." Dumbledore said gravely. "You need to spend time with the Dursleys otherwise the blood wards will not hold."

"I don't care about the blood wards!" Harry said furiously.

"My dear boy," Dumbledore said gently, "I know you are too young to understand now but in a few years you will thank me for this."

"Yeah, that's likely!" Harry spat angrily. "Now if you'll excuse me, sir, I have to go pack."

With that he turned on his heel and stormed out of the headmaster's office. Hermione was waiting at the bottom of the spiral staircase for him and she linked her arm through his as they headed to the Slytherin common room, Harry openly seething.

"What did he have to say?" She demanded.

"I'm being taken to the Dursleys, personally." Harry snarled. "And wards will be put up so I can't leave!"

"That bastard." Hermione hissed, eyes flashing with fury before a sudden thoughtful expression crossed her face. "I think I've got an idea." She said slowly as Harry snapped the password to the Slytherin dungeons. But before she could expand upon that as they stepped into the common room, Draco practically ran over to them, grabbing Harry by his forearm and dragging him– and by default Hermione, whose arm was still linked with his– into their dormitory.

Theo and Blaise were already sitting there talking quietly to each other, but their conversation immediately stopped when the three of them entered.

"Chamber. Truth. Now." Draco demanded, releasing Harry and crossing his arms.

"The Chamber of Secrets? You already know the truth." Harry said while Hermione raised an eyebrow at the three boys.

"The Ministry might be thick enough to believe that Lockhart was responsible, but that's a lie." Draco said, narrowing his eyes at them. "That ponce had nothing to do with the Chamber, but you two do– and everyone in Slytherin knows it. Hermione went missing for hours and then suddenly there was an announcement that it was all over and that the culprit had been identified."

"I wasn't missing. I was in the hospital wing, sitting next to Harry." Hermione said calmly.

"With the curtains around the bed drawn. Nobody would have been able to see if you were there or not. The Chamber of Secrets opening wasn't some hoax that Lockhart staged for his next book– it really was opened. And you two know what happened– you've known since the first attack!"

"Maybe," Hermione said before a wicked smile crossed her face ::Or maybe not:: she hissed.

Laughing at the stunned looks on the three Slytherins' faces, Hermione turned to him. "Coming?" She asked, deeply amused.

::Right behind you:: he replied, cheered up slightly.

As the next morning rolled around, though, it was a very glum Harry who stood in his empty dormitory with his packed trunk beside him.

Hermione had shrunk her own trunk and asked him to store it in his earlier that morning before she'd kissed his cheek and said good-bye by the school gates and he'd had to walk slowly back up to the castle on his own– Snape was going to Portkey Harry directly to Privet Drive.With a groan, Harry grabbed the handle of his trunk and pulled it into the Common Room, about to head up to the Great Hall to meet Snape when he froze and his eyes went wide.

Curled up in front of the fire, a familiar looking silver-grey serpent lifted its head and flicked its tongue at him. ::Summer can be lonely:: Hermione hissed, in her animagus form, ::which is why your most wonderful friend in the whole world bought you a snake to keep you company before she left this morning on the Hogwarts express. Do you think your new familiar will like Privet Drive?::

::I think:: Harry hissed back, as he lifted the snake off the ground and let it coil around his neck, ::that staying with the Dursleys is going to be a lot more fun with my new pet::

-

-

Terrible screams of agony echoed around the empty manor house in Little Hangleton. The screams seemed to carry on for hours and hours, until they finally stopped. On a bed of silk, a figure rose into a standing position. Robes cut from expensive black cloth clothed him. A pale, long-fingered hand lifted and a slender wand of yew flew across the room to be reunited with its master once more.

And miles and miles away, in his office at Hogwarts, Severus Snape let out a gasp as his Dark Mark flared to life, turning jet black on his pale skin.

-

-

-

END OF PART TWO, THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

Chapter Text

Chapter XVII:

 



Harry's POV:

The second the words left his mouth, Harry Potter knew he'd have to run. He turned on his heel and sprinted down the hall with Dudley on his heels. He was scrambling up the stairs now, if he could just get to his room, to his best friend, to his only source of protection–

Harry yelped as he felt one of Dudley's large clammy hands grab his ankle. He thrashed his legs wildly, trying to free himself from his cousin's grip, but to no avail. Dudley yanked him by the leg and he lost his grip on the top stair, enabling Dudley to drag him back down the stairs.

The friction of Petunia's hideous floral carpet left angry burns on Harry's elbows and Dudley pushed him roughly against the wall making him wince as he felt the end of the banister dig into the small of his back. There was a part of Harry that was screaming at him to fight back, the same part of him that Hermione had ruthlessly trained in hand-to-hand fighting for the better part of a year, but a childhood of torment suffered at Dudley's hands and the steep price he'd paid whenever he fought back had Harry's deeply ingrained instincts kicking in, turning pliant in his cousin's grip.

Dudley was about three times his size and the fist that collided sharply with his jaw had Harry seeing stars as pain exploded across his face and there was already another punch fast approaching his left eye.

And then Dudley screamed and practically threw himself off to the side, his fist only clipping the side of Harry's chin. The cause for Dudley's distress was the very reason Harry had so urgently tried to reach his room.

The beautiful silver-grey snake at the top of the stairs reared its head, spitting angrily with its fangs bared ready to strike. Harry, as he slid down so he was sitting and lifted his hand to gingerly prod his already swelling jaw couldn't help the dark enjoyment he felt at the sight of Dudley's distress.

::I am going to kill him!:: hissed his best friend Hermione Granger from where she was poised ready to strike at the top of the stairs.

As far as Harry knew, Hermione was the only witch who had ever been able to achieve an animagus transformation at twelve years old. A Muggleborn in Slytherin, even at age fourteen Hermione was known as the brightest witch of her age and promised to be one of the most powerful witches of their time.

And she had secrets. Secrets that only he knew; dark, dangerous and disquieting secrets, not the least of which being that Hermione was a murderer. His best friend had killed people, or at least played a significant role in their deaths. Some of them had deserved it like her first "victim", a Muggle pedophile who had murdered Hermione's young charge. And some who didn't, like their old Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, who had been torn apart by Acromantula in the Forbidden Forest.

But Harry loved Hermione. She was his first friend and he'd do anything and everything for her. It was Hermione who had helped him uncover the truth about the manipulations of Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts. Dumbledore had wanted to groom Harry into becoming an ideal weapon and an icon for the Light– and he'd wanted Harry to become a killer.

But the old man's plans had been ruined when Hermione appeared in his life and blasted them to smithereens. Harry trusted Hermione more then he trusted anyone else in this world and he knew that despite her default wariness and mistrust of the world in general, Hermione trusted him.

In some ways, Hermione's life wasn't dissimilar to his own. Kindred spirits, she'd called them, when they first met on the train on the way to Hogwarts. Hermione's parents had died in a car accident when she was only three and Hermione had spent the next three years living in an orphanage run by abusive nuns before running away at age six. From then on, she'd lived on the streets under the name Jane.

Harry had spent the last summer as a runaway, living on the streets with her and it had been the strangest but best summer of his life. This year, though, Dumbledore had made sure he couldn't leave the Dursleys. The old bastard had spouted shit like it was for Harry's own good as he trapped Harry with his abusive relatives with magical wards that tied him within a hundred meters of Number Four Privet Drive at all times.

That's when Hermione had come up with her plan and had joined him at his home in Privet Drive as his pet snake, a disguise that neither Dumbledore nor anyone else had managed to see through. Hermione had sworn that she wouldn't let Harry come to any harm which was what had led to their current situation.

"MUM! DAD! THERE'S A SNAKE IN THE HOUSE!" Dudley wailed as Hermione slid down the stairs, her dark, shiny eyes fixed on the large, blonde boy. There was the sound of stampeding feet like a herd of elephants was running through the house and seconds later the large form of his uncle emerged from the living room.

Vernon Dursley was a large, beefy man with very little neck and a lot of moustache. He also had a pink scar on his face, like a wonky 'U', that Hermione had carved into him last summer in retaliation for his treatment of Harry. Behind his Uncle was Petunia Dursley; Vernon's wife, Dudley's mother and Harry's dead mother's sister. Petunia resembled some kind of sickly horse with her long neck and stick-thin body and his Aunt let out a shrill scream as she caught sight of Hermione, clutching at Vernon's arm.

"Vernon! Vernon! Do something!" she demanded shrilly.

"You! Boy! What have you done?" Bellowed Vernon, pointing a shaking finger in Harry's direction. Harry scowled at Vernon.

"If Dudley hadn't attacked me then she wouldn't be attacking you." He snapped.

Harry's feelings regarding his relatives had moved into a very dark territory. For a long time, although Harry didn't love them– hell he didn't even like them– he'd never seriously considered killing the Dursleys or asking one of his more bloodthirsty acquaintances to have them killed. He'd just fantasized about it.

Dark thoughts for a teenager to have, but eleven years of hell twisted a boy and over the past two years being best friends with Hermione had made his morals a lot more flexible as well as loosening some of his... darker inhibitions.

So as Hermione, in her highly venomous form, slid towards the Dursleys Harry found himself wondering whether or not he should stop her or if he even wanted to.

The answer to the latter was no– he didn't want to stop her. But to his dismay, he found himself speaking up against his wishes. ::Stop. You can't kill them:: he hissed to Hermione who stilled and turned her black, shiny stare on him. ::Not yet at least:: he added, wanting to appease her.

::Your heart is too big:: she informed him, before slithering over and winding herself around him so she was draped over his neck in a similar manner to which her mangy fleabag of a cat, Iago, was usually draped around hers. Except Iago had stayed at Hogwarts this summer, keeping the old caretaker company as Argus Filch's cat was still Petrified thanks to Hermione setting fire to the greenhouse where the mandrakes had been kept in order to set up Lockhart.

He knew Hermione felt bad about that– which was probably the only part of the whole Chamber of Secrets mess she felt any guilt for– but it had been necessary to frame Lockhart as the person responsible murdering two students and Petrifying several more. The official story was Lockhart had faked the opening of the Chamber of Secrets for the plot in his newest book as a lengthy investigation into him had revealed that the man was a fraud who stole other witches and wizards achievements to pass off as his own.

According to most, the Chamber of Secrets was still just a myth and Lockhart was the culprit behind all the attacks. Harry, however, wasn't part of the "most" and neither was Hermione. They both knew the truth, that it had been Lord Voldemort who'd opened the Chamber through Ginny Weasley. He'd used a diary in which he had preserved some sort of living, breathing version of his sixteen-year-old self that had possessed the girl and used her life-force to give him enough strength to form his own body. And now that diary was in Hermione's care.

"Boy," Vernon's voice was low and calm which was a danger sign in and of itself. Harry couldn't help but cringe slightly. Hermione– no, Tox she'd told him to call 'snake-her' if anyone discovered her or she had to reveal herself in a situation like this– tightened her coils around his neck in a gesture that was comforting rather then threatening. "What is that?"

Uncle Vernon had been far more manageable since Hermione had threatened him last summer, barely speaking to Harry at all which he'd been more then fine with. He was pretty sure this was the longest they'd been in the same room since McGonagall had dropped him off at the end of the school year.

"This is Tox," Harry said somewhat awkwardly through his stiff and swollen jaw.

"Get rid of it." Vernon's voice left no room for argument. Harry had to steel up his courage for what was about to happen next– his first real altercation with the Dursleys since his return, five weeks ago.

Harry had been making quite the effort to stay out of the Dursleys way this summer. He only sat down to eat with them at dinner, skipping breakfast and lunch with them by making his own when they were out of the way. Other then that, he'd spent most of his time in his room reading, practicing his wandless magic, doing his homework and cursing Dumbledore's existence. In fact, until a little earlier when he'd finally snapped and angrily retorted to Dudley's goading he'd successfully managed to avoid any conflict at all.

Gritting his teeth then immediately regretting it as his sore jaw sent sharp bolts of pain radiating through his face, Harry met his uncle's piggy stare. "No." He said simply.

"No?" Vernon's face was rapidly going purple which made the scar stand out even more and the vein in his head pulsed in a thoroughly unpleasant manner. "No?"

"No," Harry repeated with a calm he most certainly didn't feel. "I didn't stutter. Tox is mine and she's staying here." This caused an immediate explosion.

"GET RID OF IT!" Bellowed Vernon, advancing on him with clenched fists. Immediately, Tox reared up hissing, fangs bared and body poised to strike. Vernon froze and Petunia and Dudley both made horrified sounds. Summoning his energy, Harry hauled himself to his feet and traded with the Dursleys looks of absolute loathing.

"Tox is staying. If you try doing anything, I'll let her kill you." His words had their desired impact causing Petunia's face to go white, her hands clutching her chest while Dudley let out a frightened wail. Vernon looked like he was about to have an aneurysm.

"GO TO YOUR ROOM! NOW!" He thundered and Harry didn't spare the obese walrus another glance, instead striding up the steps and into his room and shoving the door shut behind him. Tox slid from his neck and flowed into her natural form, her human form.

"Collorportus." She said, touching her hand to the door.

Hermione had read in their first year that the Trace applied to underage witches and wizards only picked up magic used through wands– any magic cast wandlessly the Ministry wouldn't be alerted to. She had then proceeded to spend the last two years teaching both of them to use as much wandless magic as possible. Harry wasn't as good at it as Hermione, as a childhood of using her magic to help keep her alive meant Hermione had an instinctive grasp of wandless magic that most adult witches and wizards couldn't match, but thanks to her help– or, as he liked to refer to it as, her strict, compulsory, merciless training regime– Harry's knowledge and ability was far beyond that of a normal almost-third year.

The door to his bedroom gleamed as if covered with a layer of film and Hermione stepped back with a satisfied look on her face. "No one's getting in here." She stated with absolute certainty before turning to him, her eyes narrowing. "You should have let me kill them."

Harry sighed, crossing the room and sitting heavily on his bed. "Dumbledore would have known I'd had something to do with it." He mumbled through his swollen jaw, "I mean, the Dursleys dying from a snake bite and me being a Parselmouth? Even Dudley would be able to connect the dots."

It should disturb him, he mused, that he talked about killing the Dursleys or letting them die with such nonchalance. But the truth was, he simply didn't care if they lived or died. Not anymore. No, he, Harry James Potter, did not give a flying fuck whether or not his relatives were murdered. In fact, he rather hoped they were or that they'd all die in some horribly 'tragic' accident.

Hermione crossed the room to sit next to him, a concerned look on her face and muted anger in her eyes as she took in the bruise. "I've got saddling solution and bruise paste in the bag in my satchel." She told him.

"Oh thank god." Harry groaned, relieved.

Hermione's satchel was currently hanging on the back of his door and she rarely went anywhere without it– for years it had carried all her worldly possessions and even now it was filled with everything she liked to have on hand, from a set of vicious looking blades to a worn copy of 'The Complete Works of Poe'.

Harry pulled the small leather bag she was talking about from the satchel and stuck his arm in it up to his elbow, rummaging around for the paste. The bag was a more recent addition– it hadn't been cheap, even secondhand, but it contained a nearly infinite amount of space to store things. It took Harry nearly five minutes to locate the bruise paste and swelling solution from amongst all the contents and he gratefully lathered them both on his chin, sighing in relief as a good portion of the pain ebbed away and he didn't need a mirror to know that the bruises would have changed from black-purple in color, to yellow-green. 

As he went to replace the paste and solution with Hermiones other emergency medical supplies– both muggle and magical– his hand brushed against a familiar leather cover that stung his hand. "Ow." He complained, picking up the small black diary in question so he could glare at it. The pages fluttered and the figure of an older boy appeared in his room beside Harry. The boy was sixteen, very handsome and happened to be the younger self of Lord Voldemort. His name was Tom Riddle.

"Ouch." The older boy commented, raising an eyebrow at Harry's bruised chin as he crossed the room to lounge down across Harry's bed, next to Hermione. She glared halfheartedly at the older boy but to be honest they'd both started to accept Tom's presence– five weeks of being in close quarters with someone and you were bound to exchange more then a few awkward hellos. Tom was insanely smart, very charismatic, manipulative in a way no Slytherin could help but admire and had a certain dry wit about him that would make Snape proud.

When Harry met Tom for the first time and learned just what Hermione had sacrificed and the risks she'd taken in order to clear his name after the Weasleys, who'd blamed him for the death of their sister, had beat him half to death over the whole Chamber of Secrets mess, Harry had been furious with her. But Hermione had stubbornly dug her heels in and said she'd do it again a hundred times if she had to and said she knew he'd have done the same thing if he was in her shoes. Knowing when he was defeated, Harry had reluctantly admitted she was right and they'd decided to make the best of the situation they'd found themselves in.

At first Harry had been extremely wary of Tom– and he still was to a degree– but the... memory or shade or whatever Tom was had slowly but surely started winning Harry over. It might be because of the fact he'd been trapped with the other boy in Number Four Privet for over a month now and the frequent exposure and boredom had led to a growing fondness of the younger counterpart of Lord Voldemort. Or maybe it was because Hermione seemed to mostly get along with Tom and Harry trusted her judgment.

Well, he trusted her judgment in everything but her killing his relatives.

"Dudley." Harry answered Tom's unspoken question about how he'd gotten the bruise with a shrug. Tom narrowed his eyes.

"My older self would be happy to dispose of those muggles."

Harry let out a small groan. "If you guys keep offering to get rid of them, one day I won't have enough strength to say no." He complained.

"You've figured out our master plan," Tom smirked, "what a pity. Now we'll have to kill you."

"Good luck with that." Harry told him grumpily before sitting down on his desk chair, seeing as Tom had stolen his spot on the bed. He spun the chair around a few times, trying to alleviate his boredom.

"Why don't you do your homework, if you're that bored." Hermione suggested, seemingly reading his thoughts.

"Oh I'm not that bored yet." Harry assured her. "But if you've got any other ideas, I'd be open to them." He added, after a short pause. Hermione gave him a mischievous smile.

"Want to play poker?"

It didn't take Harry long to bow out of the game and instead sit back and watch Tom and Hermione battle it out with fascination, all traces of boredom long gone. Both the geniuses were card-sharks and smart enough to do something Hermione called 'counting cards' to cheat.

Except Hermione claimed it wasn't cheating since it technically wasn't against the rules and was a natural and automatic ability for people who were skilled enough at maths and had excellent recall skills. Needless to say Harry fit neither category and had been losing miserably against the two.

Miserably.

Deciding that it would probably be safer to stay out of the Dursleys way, Harry skipped dinner and spent the rest of the day in his room. He fell asleep that night next to Hermione, both of them kind of squished on the small single bed but happy enough for the comfort the close proximity to each other brought that they didn't really mind.

Tom had returned into the diary to preserve his strength which had increased dramatically since absorbing the life force of Ginny Weasley, killing the girl in the process, but still wasn't strong enough to allow him to leave the diary for extended periods of time.

Harry slept soundly that night and woke at seven the next morning with the realization that he was now thirteen years old.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Hermione couldn't help but smile at the expression on Harry's face when he saw the pile of presents at the end of his bed. She knew that Harry didn't look forward to his birthday like most children– instead, he barely seemed to remember it. But this year was different; this year Hermione had made sure that everyone knew when Harry's birthday was, thanks to a few dropped hints to certain people in the Slytherin Common Room.

She'd woken up early that morning to open the window in Harry's bedroom in readiness for the inevitable long stream of owls. She'd then untied the parcels and shooed each owl away before placing the present it had delivered at the foot of the bed.

Although Harry had always been treated well in Slytherin, it wasn't until last year that he had really earned the respect, and even the admiration, of his House. The revelations of Harry being a Parselmouth and the suspicions the Slytherins all had that Harry had had a large part in the events surrounding the opening of the Chamber of Secrets– which technically wasn't a complete lie– were the causes of his raised status in the House, something Harry felt slightly uncomfortable about but Hermione was happy to use to their advantage for him. 

One such advantage including making sure Harry's birthday this year was one he'd never forget.

"Happy birthday!" she grinned and he beamed up at her.

"You are the best friend anyone could have." He told her before just about bouncing out of bed to start opening his presents.

He seemed to be thrilled with them all but it was the note from their friend Draco Malfoy that seemed to delight him the most.

Dear Harry,

Compared to all the excitement of last year, this summer's been quite dull. I hope those filthy muggles haven't been causing you any problems.

I've been missing your company, I have to admit, and I've tried to invite you over to spend the final few weeks of the holidays at the Manor– Mother in particular is quite fond of you and Hermione– but Uncle Severus says that the headmaster will not allow you to leave your disgusting relatives' house.

I'll need you to tell Hermione about the invitation as, like you, she's welcome to come stay at the Manor anytime and I know that you'll be able to get into contact her– I tried sending her a letter by owl but it just looked at me confused.

Anyway– happy birthday.

Sincerely,

Draco A. Malfoy

"He sounds like an obnoxious prat even on paper." She said with a snort and beside her Harry burst out laughing.

The most unusual present Harry had received was the one from Hagrid. He'd opened the rectangular shaped package and a book of all things had fallen out. Hermione barely had time to register the handsome green cover, emblazoned with the golden title 'The Monster Book of Monsters', before it flipped onto its edge and scuttled sideways along the bed like some weird crab.

"Uh-oh." Harry muttered and Hermione couldn't help but groan.

The book toppled off the mattress with a loud clunk and shuffled rapidly across the room. After trading bewildered looks, Harry followed it stealthily while Hermione sat back and watched in amusement. The book was hiding in the dark space under his desk and Hermione watched with an expectant grin as he dropped onto his hands and knees and reached toward it. She wasn't disappointed.

"Ouch!" Harry yelped as the book snapped shut on his hand and then flapped past him, still scuttling on its covers. Hermione almost fell off the bed she was laughing so hard as Harry scrambled around after it, eventually throwing himself forward and managing to flatten it.

Hedwig, perched on the edge of the windowsill, watched interestedly as Harry struggled to clamp the struggling book tightly in his arms. Finally getting off the bed now that her ankles were safe, a still giggling Hermione crossed the room and pulled a belt out of the chest of drawers and tossed it over to him. Harry quickly buckled it tightly around the book which shuddered angrily but could no longer flap and snap.

Harry threw it on the bed, disgruntled, and reached for the accompanying card.

Dear Harry, Hagrid had written,

Happy birthday!

Think you might find this useful for next year. Won't say no more here. Tell you when I see you.

Hope the Muggles are treating you right.

Say hello to Hermione for me!

All the best,

Hagrid

"At least we know this year's not going to be boring." She noted before handing over a letter stamped with a Hogwarts crest. Harry opened it and pulled out the first page of parchment within. It was a letter from Snape.

Mr. Potter,

I've included Miss Granger's booklist and Hogsmeade form in here as I have no doubt that unlike the rest of us you'll be able to contact her.

Professor Snape

"Short, brief and to the point." She noted.

"Everyone seems to expect I know where you are." Harry complained.

"Which you do." She reminded him.

"Yeah, but I'd look really stupid if I didn't." He muttered.

Rolling her eyes, Hermione fished out the booklist which was underneath the two permission slips for Hogsmeade.

Harry, however, seemed more interested in the forms. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to visit Hogsmeade?" He sighed, "just think– it's a village entirely for witches and wizards!"

"What makes you think you can't go?" She asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I need the Dursleys to sign the permission slip," Harry pointed out, "and I don't exactly see them doing that."

"Harry," Hermione said slowly, as if she was explaining something to a small child, "you have a highly dangerous pet snake that obeys your every command. I highly doubt you'll have a problem getting the Dursleys to sign." Harry's face instantly lit up with a wicked grin.

"You're an evil genius, you know that, right?"

"You tend to remind me of the fact at least once a day," She replied dryly. Practically bouncing up and down, Harry grabbed the permission slip and headed for the door.

"Hurry up Tox," he called over his shoulder and with another roll of her eyes, Hermione let the sensation of changing into her animagus form wash over her until instead of a human she was a snake, darting across the floor with quick movements and then being scooped up into Harry's arms. He lifted her onto his shoulders where she draped herself lazily, feeling a sadistic sort of excitement for what was about to happen.

Harry went down to breakfast where the Dursleys were already sitting around the kitchen table, watching a brand-new television– a welcome-home-for-the-summer present for Dudley. Dudley had spent most of the summer in the kitchen, his piggy little eyes fixed on the screen and his five chins wobbling as he ate continually.

Of course, as Harry sat down the television was instantly and abruptly forgotten, all three gazes now turned to her and, by extension, Harry. Tox flickered her tongue, enjoying the taste of fear in the air.

"Morning," Harry smiled brightly before placing the form on the table. "I need you to sign this, Aunt Petunia." Petunia opened her mouth, no doubt to throw a shrill negative at Harry, when Tox raised her head and hissed threateningly. Petunia paled and stood up, crossing the kitchen to retrieve a pen before returning to the table and signing the form with a hand that shook slightly.

"Thanks," Harry said just as brightly, before tucking the form in his pocket and helping himself to a piece of toast. He looked up at the reporter on the television, who was halfway through a report on an escaped convict:

'...the public is warned that Black is armed and extremely dangerous. A special hot line has been set up and any sighting of Black should be reported immediately...'

"No need to tell us he's no good," snorted Vernon, staring over the top of his newspaper at the prisoner. "Look at the state of him, the filthy lay-about! Look at his hair!" He shot a nasty look sideways at Harry. According to her best friend, Vernon had always found his nephew's untidy hair to be a source of great annoyance. Of course, when she gave a warning hiss, raising her head to fix the walrus man with a snake-y version of a glare, Vernon hastily looked back over at the television.

Tox turned her gaze over to the television too, mildly interested by the image of the gaunt face displayed on the screen that was surrounded by a matted elbow length tangle of hair. As the reporter reappeared, Tox noted something strange.

The reporter hadn't told them where Black had escaped from.

Vernon, still eyeing her nervously, drained his teacup, glanced at his watch and said, "I'd better be off in a minute, Pet. Marge's train gets in at ten." Tox felt Harry tense beneath her.

"Aunt Marge?" he blurted out, "She– she's not coming here, is she?"

::Who's Aunt Marge?:: asked Tox, enjoying the nervous, frightened looks on the Dursleys faces as Harry hissed back to her, speaking to her in Parseltongue, a language which only she, Harry, Voldemort– and by extension Tom– could speak.

::Vernon's sister. Last time she visited her dog chased me up a tree and the hag didn't call him off until past midnight::

Tox let out an angry sound, turning venomous eyes towards each of the Dursleys in turn. They all shrank back from her stare and she could taste the fear in the room which had spiked in potency.

"Y-yes," Vernon stammered, before clearing his throat and drawing himself up, trying not to look as intimidated as it was. "And while we're on the subject, we need to get a few things straight before I go and collect her."

::Act like Snape:: Tox hissed to him. Under her, she felt Harry straighten up slightly, shifting his posture to mimic that of their Head of House.

"Do tell," Harry said to Vernon in a cool voice.

"Firstly, you'll keep a civil tongue in your head when you're talking to Marge." Vernon blustered, obviously trying to take control over the situation.

"As long as she returns the favor." Harry curled his lip in a move worthy of Snape and Tox hissed her approval.

"Secondly," Vernon said, acting as though he hadn't heard Harry's reply. The man's blustering was quite amusing– Tox could taste his panic and it was delicious. "Marge doesn't know anything about your frea– school stuff," Vernon hastily corrected, seeing Tox once again turn her head to look at him, "s-so no doing anything funny while she's here, like talking to that snake." Harry arched an eyebrow.

"I'll consider it." He drawled and Vernon had to take several deep breaths before continuing, his mean little eyes now slits in his great purple face.

"We've told Marge you attend St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys." He informed Harry who promptly burst out into laughter.

"Thanks for the warning," he chortled when he managed to calm himself down, "I'll try and remember that." Her best friend then took a few quick breaths, before reassuming his cold mask. "'Course, if Marge doesn't behave herself, I might get angry and start to forget..." His voice trailed off, threat clear.

Feeling smug, Tox flicked her tongue at the Dursleys, in an immature gesture they couldn't quite appreciate while she was in her snake form, and Harry stood up to make his way back to his bedroom.

Tox flowed back into Hermione the moment he placed her on the bed and she couldn't help but start snickering. "Well that was amusing."

"What was?" Tom asked, the Diary lying innocently open on Harry's desk and the older boy in his corporal form.

"Harry threatening the zoo downstairs," Hermione explained. "I thought the walrus was going to blow up he was that pissed."

"Zoo?" Harry asked.

"The walrus, the horse and I'm tossing up between blubber whale and hog for dear old Dudders." She clarified. 

"Darling Duddykins? Definitely a blubber whale." Tom drawled, "Calling him a hog is an insult to pigs everywhere– they're actually quite clean, intelligent animals."

"They are?" Harry asked at the same time as she huffed and said,

"I know that."

"'Course you do." Harry threw his hands up in the air dramatically which caused her to shove him, before turning back to the topic at hand.

"So what are we going to do about Marge?"

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, sounding confused as he looked over at her.

"Who's Marge?" was Tom's question from where he was leaning back against the wall now and looking amused. Hermione grinned.

"The walrus's sister. She's been told Harry goes to St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys." Tom sneered at that, his lip curling, but he did seem amused by the lie. Really, it was hard not to be.

"Tell us about this Marge, Harry." Tom ordered the younger boy and Harry frowned at both of them before walking over to his bed and flopping down on it.

"You're going to do something horrible to her whether I tell you about her or not, aren't you?" he asked, looking up at the ceiling instead of at them. She and Tom traded evil grins. Well, she grinned– Tom's expression looked more like the lovechild of a sneer and a smirk.

"Oh Harry," she told her best friend, affectionately, "You know us so well."

"She loves dogs." Harry mused, rolling over so he could look at them both smirking wickedly back at him. "She breeds bulldogs. Her favorite one's called Ripper. He always comes with her, wherever she goes. He chased me up a tree last time she visited and didn't let me down for hours. It was dark by the time Marge called him off."

"Looks like Ripper's going to meet Tox." Hermione said, her voice a purr and her irises darkening briefly to the shiny, coal black color of her animagus form. Tom laughed, the ice-cold sound of it thrilling in a way she couldn't quite identify, and Harry didn't seem to be able to help his own reluctant smile.

Hermione got the feeling it was going to be a very entertaining few days.

Chapter Text

Chapter XVIII:

 



Hermione's POV:

They all heard when Marge arrived but Harry decided not to go down until dinner so they spent the day going through Harry's new things. Hermione lost herself in a book on the Grey Arts that had been a present from Tracey Davis while Harry enthusiastically used his new broomstick servicing kit to polish his Nimbus Two Thousand and One, which had been a Christmas– or Yule, as traditionalists called the holiday– gift from Draco.

Tom remained in the diary for the majority of the day, emerging only to play a game of Wizarding Chess, Gobstones and then Exploding Snap with Harry. He won them all.

At seven o'clock, Vernon bellowed up to Harry that dinner was ready and Hermione changed into her animagus form, coiling out of sight under Harry's shirt. Tom had politely requested that they take him with them so Harry had stashed the diary in his pocket. 

Her head poking out of Harry's collar, hidden behind the curtain formed by Harry's shoulder-length, messy black hair, Hermione's first impression of Marjory Dursley was that she looked very much like her brother– large, beefy and purple-faced; she even had a moustache, though not as bushy as Vernon Dursley's.

As Harry sat down at the table, a big, mean-looking bulldog growled, directing Marge's attention towards Harry for the first time.

"So!" she barked, "Still here, are you?"

::I've figured out which member of the zoo she is,:: Tox hissed softly, so only Harry could hear, ::she's the dog– and I'm going to go with a bulldog::

"Yes." Harry answered Marge, who Tox decided suited her 'bulldog' nickname more and more with every new word the woman spoke, every new tone she used.

"Don't say 'yes' in that ungrateful tone," Marge growled, "It's damn good of Vernon and Petunia to keep you. Wouldn't have done it myself. You'd have gone straight to an orphanage if you'd been dumped on my doorstep."

"Actually, I think I'd rather live in an orphanage than with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia." Harry said in a deceptively pleasant sounding tone. Marge swelled up in fury and looked like she was about to start shouting at him. Vernon hastily tried to change the subject, but without success.

"Heard the news this morning, Marge? What about that escaped prisoner, eh?" Marge ignored her brother and instead concentrated her mean stare on Harry.

"Ungrateful boy!" she barked, before turning to her brother, "you mustn't blame yourself for the way he's turned out, Vernon. If there's something rotten on the inside, there's nothing anyone can do about it."

"Shut. Up." Harry's voice was low and quiet. It was a danger sign. Tox could taste the tenseness in the air, Harry's mounting fury, the Dursley's panic and Marge's self-righteous anger.

"It's one of the basic rules of breeding," she continued, loudly, "you see it all the time with dogs. If there's something wrong with the bitch, there'll be something wrong with the pup–"

"DON'T TALK ABOUT MY MOTHER!" Harry shouted, standing bolt upright and knocking the table as he did so, sending plates and wine glasses crashing. Tox decided to make her presence known, slithering up out of Harry's shirt and onto the table. Petunia started screaming and clutching Dudley to her.

Tox remembered Harry's account of his last summer with the Dursleys. It was Vernon mentioning Lily, Harry's mother, which had lead to Harry yelling the Killing Curse at him. Lily Potter was a sensitive topic for Harry– Marge calling her a "bitch" was possibly the worst mistake the woman could have made.

"YOU PROUD OF YOUR PARENTS, BOY?" Marge was screaming at Harry as she swelled up with fury, "YOU ARE AN INSOLENT, UNGRATEFUL LITTLE–" that's when Ripper let out a loud howl and Marge, Vernon, Dudley and Harry seemed to notice, for the first time, that the snake wasn't on the table anymore.

"Ripper!" Marge shrieked out in horror as Tox slithered away from the convulsing bulldog who was now lying on his side and frothing at the mouth. She was feeling quite satisfied with herself as the dog's sounds of anguish were echoed by his owner as Marge fell to her knees beside the dying dog. "RIPPER!"

"Don't you dare disturb me!" Harry just about snarled at his relatives before spinning around and storming out of the room, up the stairs. Tox slithered after him, her movements quick and darting.

Once they were in Harry's room, she changed back and placed her palm on the door again. "Collorportus." She muttered, incase Marge was stupid enough to try barreling up here to pummel Harry into a pulp.

Harry's face was pale with anger and there was crimson swimming in his Avada Kedavra-green eyes. Tom, who had emerged from the diary, was observing Harry with a shrewd look on his face. Hermione was concerned– Harry was just about trembling with fury with his hands clenched into fists.

"Harry," she said soothingly, walking over and placing her hand gently on his arm. "Deep breaths, Harry." Harry closed his eyes and inhaled then exhaled, repeating the exercise four times before opening his eyes again.

"I want to kill her." He said flatly.

"I know." She replied gently, "but we can't, not right now."

"Why not?" Harry shouted, tensing up again. "All summer you've been trying to convince me to let you kill the Dursleys! Now I want to and you're saying no?"

"I'm saying no, Harry, because I want to make sure you don't regret this in the morning." She said sharply. "You're fucking furious right now and not thinking straight! Now get on the bed, lay down and close your fucking eyes!"

Harry looked like he was about to argue, before he slumped, the fire in his eyes dying, any trace of red disappearing from the green irises. He did as she ordered, walking over to the bed and laying down on it, closing his eyes. "Now what?" His voice was flat.

"Now think about something that makes you happy. I mean it, Harry!" She snapped when he opened his mouth to argue, "Do it. Think over your happiest memory." Harry exhaled noisily but nodded and Hermione ran her fingers through his hair in a soothing, repetitive motion until his breathing evened out and soft snores started to escape him.

Tom crossed over to her and spoke softly, looking down at Harry. "Have his eyes done this before?"

"Only when Voldemort possessed him." She whispered back.

"Hmm," Tom's eyes were sharp and knowing but he didn't say anything more.

-

-

Voldemort's POV:

Harry Potter really did have quite the temper, Voldemort mused. As soon as that ugly female Muggle made the comment about Lily Potter, the mind link burst open, allowing him a front row seat to what had proved to be quite the entertaining show. He especially amused of the swift and deadly way Hermione Granger had taken care of the dog.

An animagus by the end of her first year– if he hadn't seen the proof with his own two eyes he'd say it was impossible. It should be impossible. Hermione Granger was... an anomaly. She would only grow more powerful as she grew older– one of the main reasons he'd entrusted the care of his Horcrux with her. The other main reason was the fact that he needed some influence over her and through her the boy; Harry Potter, his so-called prophesied enemy.

Those children had the potential to be invaluable allies. Ones that he, unlike Dumbledore, would take great steps to avoid making his enemy.

Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, as per the Oath they'd taken, could not kill him or harm him– physically. But there were more ways to destroy someone. Permanent imprisonment for one, so long as he wasn't harmed, just contained. Becoming the figurehead to his enemies, someone to rally around. Fighting his forces just not him. When he discovered the loophole he'd thought it was an oversight of the girl.

Now he wasn't sure.

Hermione Granger didn't seem to do oversights.

Underestimating your enemy was just as dangerous as overestimating one and that was why Voldemort was so wary about Hermione Granger and Harry Potter becoming his enemies– he had no idea of what they were capable of.

-

-

Tom's POV:

Tom Riddle had spent a very long time being very, very bored.

He sometimes wondered if the other soul pieces had the same awareness as he did; the ability to think and feel for themselves.

He didn't know.

He hoped not. Because he wouldn't wish the sheer utter boredom of the last fifty years on even the worst of his enemies... except Dumbledore, perhaps.

Being trapped in the pages of a diary... sometimes he wanted to curse Voldemort, as he'd taken to calling the original soul who was currently residing in the homunculus it had created after its original vessel was destroyed– the body he was born with, before he became they. Although they, Voldemort and Tom, were bound quintessentially to each other, they started to form their own seperate memories. Had their own experiences.

So although they had originally been one, although they were still tied to each other, they weren't the same being.

He was Tom Marvolo Riddle, age sixteen, almost seventeen, in his Final Year of schooling at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Lord Voldemort, despite his late thirties appearance, was in his seventies, had initiated the Blood War, fought, murdered, tortured, created several more Horcruxes, led armies, lived as a wraith for eleven years...

Yes, the differences between the two of them were rather extreme. Lord Voldemort had taken his path and Tom Riddle would take his own.    

Fifty years of having nothing to do but stew through his thoughts had allowed him to gain some introspection. He was immortal, which was nice, but he'd rather like to gain a permanent form of his own.

And he knew who could help him.

Hermione Granger.

He couldn't figure her out. He understood why the original soul kept her close– the girl was an enigma with an intelligence and skill that far surpassed her age of fourteen. She had accomplished achieving her animagus form at age twelve, had a firm grasp of wandless magic and had a good grasp on two languages other then English– not including Parseltongue. She was a prodigy and as much as it pained him to admit it– and it pained him a great deal– the girl had more raw power and potential then even he'd had at her age.

And she was ruthless. Especially regarding Harry Potter. When he'd initially seen her approach the dying little Ginny Weasley he'd been surprised as all hell about how she'd gotten into the Chamber before deciding she'd make a nice snack for Blink the basilisk– once he'd figured out how she'd done it, of course. He'd taken great pleasure in surprising her and had taunted her with the fate of little Ginny, who was beyond salvation, but Hermione had been unaffected. She simply hadn't cared, hadn't had any feelings about Ginny's situation other then scorn for the silly little girl getting into it in the first place. She had similarly not had a problem with allowing his future self to use the Imperius Curse on one of the faculty to set the fool up and then send him to his death.

Anything for Harry Potter. That's what Voldemort had told him, briefly, while the girl was distracted with moving the Weasley girl's body. Hermione would do anything for the boy.

And Harry Potter. His raw power levels were much higher then your average wizard's, even Hermione's, but he lacked the instinctive talent she seemed to have. That wasn't to say he didn't excel. Harry worked just as hard as Hermione and his exam results were third highest in their year. The boy was powerful in his own right with his own brand of intelligence. He could think on his feet, quickly picked up what he was taught and could be lethal.

But his fierce protective instinct only seemed to stretch to cover two people– his dead mother and Hermione. Which brought him back to the Harry and Hermione paradox. 

To his unending frustration, Tom couldn't get a bead on their relationship. There didn't seem to be any romantic interest, despite the fact they were both very attractive people, although he supposed they were still young. But despite the lack of romantic interest, there was this bond, this powerful, powerful bond. And he knew, without a doubt, that they would do anything for each other. They would kill for each other. They would die for each other.

And he was jealous.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus sat down heavily in Lucius's study, a tall glass of Firewhiskey in his hand.

Lucius gave him an assessing look and he supposed his long time friend was taking in the rumpled state of his robes, the paler then usual pallor of his skin and– most telling of all, once he dropped the glamour– the dark shadows under his eyes.

"Something," Lucius appeared to be choosing his words very carefully, "appears to be bothering you, my old friend."

"Something is, Lucius." He agreed, taking a large sip of Firewhiskey to try and slow the maelstrom in his head. "I fear I have become... disillusioned. And it has affected me more then I thought it would."

"Ah," Lucius said, leaning back in his leather chair, "I suppose we are referring to the Potter boy."

"Actually," Severus snorted, taking another large swallow, "for once I am not. For all my bluster, I must confess that I find myself quite fond of the boy." Lucius raised his eyebrows.

"I suspected that you harbored no ill-feelings towards the child, but an expression of fondness... from you, Severus, that is the equivalent of a declaration of undying love!" Severus rolled his eyes at his friend, doing his best to ignore the smug look on Lucius's face.

"If this bout of melancholy isn't originating from the Potter boy then my second guess would have to be the esteemed headmaster." The blonde ventured a guess, sipping from his tumbler of expensive whiskey.

"I admit that despite my allegiance to the Dark Lord, I had always held Albus in high regard." Severus sighed, running a hand through his hair in frustration, "I had always thought him to be a good man."

"Until?" Prompted Lucius, with an arched brow.

"Until he ordered me to personally escort one of my students to an abusive home after putting up wards to ensure that said student cannot leave the home, nor can any of his friends get in!"

"Potter's guardians are abusive?" Lucius sounded surprised. Severus gave him an exasperated look.

"For the sake of my sanity, let us at least pretend you don't know just exactly who it is I'm talking about."

"Why?" Lucius countered, "Harry Potter is being abused." Severus felt himself flinch, but Lucius ignored it and kept going. "The son of your worst enemy is being abused–"

"Stop."

"–and despite how hard you've tried, when you look at the boy you don't see James Potter. You see yourself."

"Stop!" Severus repeated, knuckles turning white as he gripped the glass hard.

"And you decided to do what nobody did for you," Lucius continued, talking right over him. "You tried getting him removed from his home. And from what you've said, I assume that Dumbledore has taken action to prevent you from doing so. The headmaster you admired is not only knowingly allowing a student to remain in an abusive home but is actually taking action to ensure that he stays there."

Lucius's calm steel-grey gaze met his and Severus took a deep shuddering breath. "I always saw Albus as a good person despite my allegiance and loyalty to the Dark." He said hoarsely. "But now when I look at him, all I see is a monster. A monster who's actions– and inactions– are equally as terrible as the Dark Lord's. Or perhaps worse."

"Worse?" Lucius raised an eyebrow.

"Worse," Severus repeated quietly. "For at least the Dark Lord recognizes what he is." He couldn't help his bitter laugh here. "To think that a Muggle-raised first year figured it out before even entering the man's presence, whereas I've known the man since I was eleven and have spent the past twelve years in his highest confidence yet am only just beginning to see the slips in the old man's façade."

"You shouldn't be too hard on yourself, Severus." Lucius said, reaching out to gently clasp his hand. Severus looked up and gave the blonde a tired smile. "I have spent time in Miss Granger's presence. I dare say her mind is a match to the Dark Lord himself."

He was taking a deep swig of his Firewhiskey when Lucius dropped a bombshell on him. "A part of me wonders whether they're related, her and the Dark Lord." Severus spluttered, spraying the alcohol all over Lucius and his desk. The blonde pulled a face and vanished the liquid while Severus eyed him incredulously.

"You think Miss Granger and the Dark Lord could be related?" He repeated, mentally reminding himself that as far as most were concerned Granger was a Halfblood.

"Well, she does speak Parseltongue." Lucius shrugged.

Severus dropped his glass.

-

-

Harry's POV:

"Okay, we need a plan."

Harry looked across at the determined Hermione who was perched up on the edge of his desk, looking deep in thought. "What for?" he asked her and she gave him a look that clearly said he was being an idiot.

"To get out of here. What else?"

"Oh." Harry said, a bit surprised as he took in his best friend's fierce expression.

"There is not a fucking chance that we stay here any longer then we absolutely have to." She said, eyes flashing. "Look, we've got our booklists. Owl Hogwarts and ask if someone can take you to Diagon Alley, seeing as you're under house arrest, and once we're there we'll give them the slip."

"We?" he asked and Hermione gave an innocent look.

"You and your new pet, of course. Tox hasn't seen Diagon Alley before– she's quite looking forward to it."

-

Deciding to go about the same route as last time, with Hermione's help Harry packed his trunk and left it in his room, released Hedwig from her cage, with instructions to meet him at Hyde Park and packed anything that he'd need for the final few weeks of the holidays into the leather bag– including Hermione's satchel– which he then stashed in a back-pack along with his wand and invisibility cloak.

"It's such a bloody shame we can't use our wands out of school." Hermione muttered, eyeing his trunk. "It would be so much easier if we could just shrink your trunk so we could take it now."

"There is a solution to that," Tom commented. The older boy was holding the Diary and flicking idly through the pages. Hermione's reaction to his words was so swift it was almost violent.

"You wait until now to tell us?" she demanded and Tom rolled his eyes at her.

"The solution isn't any use until you can visit Diagon Alley. And even then, there's a certain amount of... skill required that I'm not certain you can both accomplish."

"Oh really?" Hermione's voice was low– a danger sign– and Harry winced for Tom. Tom, however, met Hermione's angry stare with an impassive stare.

"The wand chooses the wizard, but you can gain allegiance over a wand by defeating its previous master." He said in a lecturing tone, "if you want a wand that works for you and doesn't have a Trace, you need to defeat another wizard and take theirs– which is something even more difficult to do because of the fact you cannot use your own wand due to the Trace."

Harry grimaced. "Yeah, I can't see that happening any time soon." He muttered but Hermione looked thoughtful.

"Do we have to defeat its previous owner using magic?" she asked and Tom's face turned equally thoughtful.

"I am unsure– wand lore is vague; it never fully specifies."

"That man in Knockturn Alley," Harry realised suddenly and Hermione nodded.

"Exactly. I defeated him without using magic."

"Knockturn Alley?" Tom looked exasperated, "Why does it not surprise me you've been down there?"

"Because it's Hermione we're talking about here." Harry snorted before turning glum. "Is there any other way to get rid of the Trace? Any way at all?"

"There's one other way," Tom said before smirking, "and it has a five hundred galleon fine if you get caught."

"Now I'm intrigued," Hermione leaned forwards, arching an eyebrow.

"You buy a second wand."

Harry blinked.

"What?" Hermione asked and Harry was pleased to see she looked just as surprised as he did. "Where on earth do we buy another wand?"

"Where do you think?" Tom countered and Hermione's brow furrowed for a moment for smoothing over and she looked like she was about to hit herself.

"Knockturn Alley." She said. "We need to go to Knockturn Alley."

That, Harry realized, unfortunately made sense. It also made him cringe. Although he knew Hermione had been there twice, Harry had never actually set foot in the shady Alley– and for good reason too. He was held in regard, by the Britain Wizarding population as the symbol of the Light, despite the fact he'd never actually done anything Light. Well, not since he was fifteen months old. But he was the boy who brought down Voldemort. The Boy-Who-Lived. Supposed paragon of everything that was Light. And Knockturn Alley? The people who ventured there were decidedly not Light. They were Dark and he was the symbol of their defeat. In their eyes he was their enemy.

"I'll be killed before I take two steps in there, Hermione." He told her but Hermione shook her head.

"We'll disguise you like last time." Harry immediately blanched and Tom laughed at his expression. Hermione looked affronted. "You liked what I did to your hair!" she complained. Harry cringed and desperately tried to think up a plan b. His jaw actually fell open when he came up with one.

"I've got an idea!"

Hermione gasped theatrically, falling back on the bed and fanning herself. "It– it's a miracle! Hallelujah!" she cried out.

"Oh shut up," he grumbled, "but seriously– I do have an idea. How about I go under the cloak?"

"Oh." Hermione looked putout. "Why didn't I think of that?"

-

Professor McGonagall met him at the front door at nine the next morning. Her expression was a lot more relaxed when faced with what she thought was just Harry and her smile was warmer. That was, until she spotted the snake that was coiled around Harry's neck not unlike a scarf.

"Good morning, Mr. Potter." McGonagall smiled at him, before her mouth twisted slightly in distaste as her gaze flicked back to the snake. "You're bringing your... pet?"

"I don't trust the Dursleys around her." Harry lied flawlessly. "I want to make sure she's safe." McGonagall's expression clearly read that she didn't care at all if the Dursleys did something to the snake but she didn't protest and instead walked into the house. Harry closed the door behind her as McGonagall looked around.

"Where are your relatives?" she asked. Harry pulled a slight face.

"Sleeping. They don't get up until past ten at least, on a weekend." McGonagall looked extremely disapproving at this and she held out her arm.

"Ready Mr. Potter?" Harry nodded then gritted his teeth through the awful experience that was Side-Along Apparation. Well, apparation was terrible whether it was side-along or not.

They arrived in the courtyard out the back of the Leakey Cauldron and McGonagall briskly tapped the bricks with her wand, opening up the archway and revealed Diagon Alley in all its glory.

Just like Hogwarts, this glimpse into the Magical World still took Harry's breath away. Well that, or maybe it was Tox tightening around his neck slightly as McGonagall shot the snake another look of distaste.

"Can we go to Gringotts first, ma'am?" Harry asked politely. McGonagall agreed and after he withdrew the gold they'd need from the bank with McGonagall waiting outside, he and the Deputy Headmistress spent up until lunchtime gathering everything on the booklist. When McGonagall asked why he was buying two of everything, he explained that he was also purchasing Hermione's things. McGonagall's lips tightened.

Tox hissed her amusement.

"Well, it's almost time to head back." McGonagall said after checking the time and shrinking everything they bought so it fit inside Harry's backpack.

"Can we get some lunch first, ma'am?" Harry asked politely.

"I don't see why not," McGonagall decided after a short pause. "Is there anywhere in particular you wish to go, Mr. Potter?"

"This is only the third time I've been here, Professor." He explained, "I don't really know anywhere."

"Well I know a nice little restaurant up here," McGonagall said with a small but genuine smile before turning and leading them further up the Alley. Harry walked behind her slowly, waiting until she was around a meter ahead before acting quickly.

::Now!:: hissed Tox and he yanked the Invisibility Cloak out from where he'd rested it right on top of the backpack, the zip of which he'd left undone in order to be able to quickly pull it. In the hustle and bustle that was Diagon Alley, no one noticed one boy disappear.

Except McGonagall, of course, who once she realized her charge was no longer following her started to panic. "Mr. Potter!" She called out, "Mr. Potter! Come back here at once!"

::Stupid old cow:: hissed Tox, rubbing her diamond-shaped head against Harry's chin in an affectionate manner. ::Time for Knockturn?::

::Yes:: Harry agreed, though his stomach crawled at the thought. ::Time for Knockturn::

Chapter Text

Chapter XIX:

 

Hermione's POV:

Tox enjoyed the feeling of being invisible as Harry cut unseen through the throngs of people swarming around the Alley, expertly weaving his way through the crowd. It wasn't long until they were standing by the entrance to Knockturn Alley, McGonagall left far, far behind them. ::It'll be okay, Harry:: she hissed, comfortingly, rubbing her head against his cheek.

::I hope so:: he hissed back. Tox held herself poised and ready to attack at a moment's notice as Harry crept, unseen, down the creepy as hell Alley before stopping in front of the shop labeled 'Wendelin's Wands'. ::This is it:: he hissed softly before crouching down and placing the back-pack he'd been carrying on the cobbled ground. He sifted carefully through it before pulling out the Diary and standing back up. The pages fluttered and Tom joined them, the older boy stooped under the cloak.

"Can we get out from under this infernal thing?" He drawled, raising an eyebrow. Tox hissed wordlessly at him and he sighed in a heavily put-upon before holding up an arm so that she could slide from Harry's shoulders into his grip. Tom then carefully placed her on the ground and Tox flowed back into Hermione.

"Get changed, Harry," she ordered, pointing to the backpack.

"Yes, your Majesty." Harry said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly before crouching back down and pulling out the robes that had been stuffed in there. With much shuffling, standing on toes, bumping and cursing, Harry was finally dressed in full wizarding robes just like Tom and Hermione, albeit Tom's were several inches too short despite both his and Hermione's best efforts to wandlessly lengthen the material. Harry was a short boy, his growth stunted from a decade of malnourishment, and despite Tom's own slender build the sixteen year old was still much taller then Harry was.

Pulling off the invisibility cloak, Hermione felt the slight tugging as Tom drew strength from her magic to make himself look fully corporeal. The older boy then led the way, sweeping into the shop with a regal air.

The shop inside was small, dusty and cluttered and Hermione scrunched her nose slightly, hoping she wouldn't sneeze. "Naughty little boys and girl, creeping down the bad, bad alley." The thin lady with strange, pale lilac eyes and long dark hair standing behind counter cooed at them. Her voice was high and reedy and her wide smile was disturbing as she peered across at them. "Come to buy one of Wendelin's special wands, have you?"

"We have the money," Tom's voice was smooth, "seventy-five galleons a wand, if I'm not mistaken. We'd like three." Hermione nudged Harry in the ribs and he jolted slightly before getting her meaning and pulling out the pouch from Gringotts.

The witch– Wendelin– peered inside the pouch, at the gleaming gold coins it contained and her smile widened enough to reveal all her gleaming white teeth. "It looks like the naughty little boys and girl can afford Wendelin's special wands," she murmured. "Well come forwards, my little ones, come forwards and find which wand picks you."

Almost an hour later they left the shop, two hundred and twenty-five galleons lighter and the owners of three very illegal wands.

"I think I need a shower. A long one. With lots and lots of soap." Hermione muttered.

"Or a bath." Harry mumbled, looking equally as uncomfortable. Tom, meanwhile, was twirling his new wand between his long, slender fingers with a triumphant look on his face.

"Yew, eleven inches, with a Basilisk heartstring core." She murmured, as she looked over at Tom's wand.

"Acacia, ten inches, cockatrice feather core." Tom replied. He raised an eyebrow as she shot a flat look at him. "You mean we weren't stating what each other's wands are?" he asked, dryly.

"Oh shut up." She told him, before turning to Harry and the blackthorn wand he held with its unicorn hair core. Harry was looking down at it with a fascinated look on his face. 

"It feels so... different to my other wand." He said, his tone reverent almost. "But they both feel so right!" 

Tom rolled his eyes at Harry's statement but Hermione found herself nodding in agreement. This wand felt... different. It felt Darker.

She found that she rather liked it.

"What happens to your wand when you're in the Diary?" Harry asked Tom curiously. 

"Hermione will need to look after it." Tom said easily and she narrowed her eyes.

"Oh Hermione will, will she?" Harry snorted at this while Tom's mouth curled in amusement. Hermione narrowed her eyes at them both. "Boys." She muttered.

"We should leave here," Tom warned, the good-humour leaving his face as his eyes swept up and down the Alley.

"Diagon's probably crawling with Dumbledore's cronies by now." She said, frowning.

"We've got the cloak, we can get passed them." Tom said dismissively before he started heading towards the mouth of the alley. Hermione exchanged a look with Harry before hurrying after Tom. Aware of all the looks they were gathering she tried to stick closer to the shadows, falling back on the old instincts that urged her to keep out view. 

That proved to be a mistake when calloused hands grabbed her, one clamping over her mouth before she could make a sound as she was dragged down a darkened side-street. She immediately kicked back at her assailant making him grunt and she managed to rake her nails down his arm before he threw her against the side of a building. A groan escaped Hermione as her skull collided against the brick wall with enough force to make her vision go spotty. She tried to pull her magic forth but her head was spinning and she couldn't focus, couldn't even think straight.

One hand fastened around her neck, blocking her airway, and holding her body off the ground. She writhed and choked, clawing at the hand around her throat while her toes scuffed against the stones below as she desperately tried to find some kind of purchase.

"You know, we never exchanged names." Her attacker's voice was rough and raspy, almost as if coming from underground, and through her blurred vision, Hermione could make out the reason for that. A deep raised scar crossed over the man's throat.

Her blood ran cold as the familiar face leered down at her. Amber eyes, a mane of grey hair...

"I'm Fenrir Greyback, the most feared werewolf in Britain," the man's voice lowered to a growl and Hermione's heart raced as she tried to think through the dark fog that was clouding her head, her struggles growing progressively weaker as her brain was deprived of oxygen. "And you– you're the little bitch who almost killed me."

Just when she thought she was going to pass out Greyback suddenly released his grip. Hermione fell to her knees and gasped for breath, ignoring the sharp aching in her throat as she sucked in precious lungful's of oxygen. "You know," Greyback leered down at her, "I rather like you on your knees like that." Panic overtook her need for breath and she tried throwing herself to the side but Greyback had grabbed a handful of her hair and was pulling her back up, back to her feet.

His lips crashed onto hers and she struggled fiercely to shove him back, to push him away from her, but he was stronger and she was concussed and jammed up against the wall with no room to manoeuvre. She was half-dazed but still had enough presence of mind that when Greyback forced his tongue into her mouth she bit down on it– hard. He pulled back laughing and gave her a bloody grin, his lips and teeth stained red with his own blood. 

"You like to bite, my pretty girl?" he chuckled, eyes gleaming as he stroked her face with the hand not holding her upright. He leaned in to whisper in her ear, his breath rancid. "Well guess what? So do I." The hand on her face suddenly moved, clamping over her mouth so that she couldn't scream and Greyback used his teeth to rip the material of the robes she was wearing, looking up briefly to grin at her panicked expression before his teeth sunk into the soft flesh of her shoulder and there was pain.

Hermione tried to scream but the sound was muffled so she viciously bit down as hard as she could on the hand over her mouth only to let go in agony when Greyback increased the force behind his bite.

It felt like forever before Greyback released her shoulder. His head moved back into her sight and her stomach rolled at the sight of him, of the bloody grin on his face. There was a lot more blood now, smeared across his chin and dripping down onto his tattered robes. Blood. Her blood. 

The world blurred in and out of focus and Hermione could feel her mind trying to shut down, to dissociate her from her body in a way she hadn't had to for years. She fought it, though, fought to stay present, but when a rough hand ripped open her shirt and ragged fingernails started kneading her breast she stopped fighting it, stopped fighting her mind's attempt to protect her, giving into the inevitability of it. 

Except suddenly there was nothing supporting her and she was falling, hitting the ground with a jarring thud. A small, pained sound escaped her as her head slammed against the stone below and Hermione had a moment to register that the hands were gone before darkness rose up to claim her.

-

-

Tom's POV:

It was Harry who first noticed that she was gone. "Hermione!" He gasped, causing Tom to spin back around, his new wand raised and a curse on his lips. The reason for the younger boy's alarm was abruptly clear– Hermione was no longer with them.

Tom's eyes narrowed as possessive rage reared its ugly head inside him– somebody had dared touch what belonged to him. Furious, Tom turned back the way they'd come, striding back deeper Knockturn, reaching out with his free hand to seize Harry's forearm in a grip the younger boy wouldn't be able to free himself of. "Stay close," he warned the younger boy who glared at him despite the blatant fear on his face. 

"Kind of hard to do anything else when you're grabbing me tight enough to cut off my circulation!" he snapped trying to yank his arm free, but Tom ignored him as he scanned for any sign of Hermione– he wasn't about to let the boy be defiled in any way by the predators in this Alley too. 

"There's her wand!" Harry said suddenly and Tom changed direction, cutting down the small alleyway between shops. "I can hear something up ahead," the younger boy whispered, and Tom nodded, his face grim, as he turned a sharp corner only to go still.

A man was holding Hermione against a wall, his hand pressed over her nose and mouth. There was blood on the ground under them and Hermione's head had lolled to the side, her eyes vacant and glassy. Harry let out a furious shout and tried to rush forwards, and Tom could have cursed the boy for losing their advantage gained by the element of surprise. The man spun around, releasing his grip on Hermione who fell to the ground and landed in a crumpled heap. Tom's mouth curled into a snarl as her head met the ground with a sharp smack.

"Avada Kedavra!" He snarled but Hermione's attacker ducked, the jet of green hitting the blood-smeared wall he'd been holding Hermione up against.  Before Tom could cast again, the man was gone, apparating away with a loud crack.

Tom released his grip on Harry and the younger boy rushed forwards, falling to his knees beside Hermione with a desperate expression on his face. "She's still breathing," he choked out and Tom felt something loosen slightly in his chest. 

"Let's keep it that way." He said, voice grim.

"We need to find McGongall," Harry said urgently, "she'll still be searching for us–"

"I've got a better idea," Tom interrupted him, having absolutely no intention of going to Minerva McGonagall– and through her, Dumbledore. "We need an owl." 

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Awareness slowly filtered back through her and the survival instinct that was second nature to her had Hermione keeping her eyes closed and her breathing slow and even, giving no sign to whoever was near that she was awake.

The surface she was laying on was soft and a blanket was draped over her. She couldn't feel any restraints of any sorts so she concentrated on the sound of low voices.

"When will she wake up?" Harry whispered.

"Soon, love." A feminine voice assured her best friend, soothing and familiar.

"She's already awake." This third voice was amused, but grimly so. It was Tom's voice. 

Hermione's body was moving before she'd even fully opened her eyes, pushing up into a crouched position that had her ready to either fight or flee. For a heartbeat she held herself there, tensed and panicked, before she registered her surroundings. 

"Oh." She said, frowning slightly as she let some of the tension leave her body. "When did we arrive at Malfoy Manor?"

"You were unconscious." Tom informed her from where he was leaning against the doorframe. Harry rushed forwards then, wrapping his arms around her and hugging so tight that she could barely breathe. Hermione clung to him for a moment before looking up over his shoulder to where she could see Tom's gaze fixed on her, some hidden emotion flickering behind his eyes.

Taking in his stiff stance, Hermione felt a tired smirk stretch across her face. "Aw, Tommy, were you worried about me?" she taunted the young Dark Lord. Tom narrowed his eyes at her.

"I was nothing of the sort."

"Liar." Harry said without even looking at Tom, having not moved from his stranglehold around Hermione. Tom scowled, his face going dark, dangerous. Hermione dropped her mocking air, giving him a tired but sincere smile.

"Thanks." She told him, softly, before tugging herself out of Harry's fierce embrace and turning to face the owner of the familiar voice she hadn't quite placed before. "It's lovely to see you, Narcissa," she greeted the Lady of the Manor, "I'm sorry it was under these circumstances."

"Believe me, love, Lucius and I don't mind you and Harry coming to stay." Narcissa said, with a warm smile and worried eyes. "Why, we've been trying to invite you all holidays," she added lightly, "but Severus– ah apologies, Professor Snape says that Harry wasn't able to leave the house of your relatives and that no one could find Hermione." 

"Er, Hermione and I kind of gave McGonagall the slip in Diagon Alley." Harry mumbled, looking embarrassed.

"How did you get me here, anyway?" Hermione asked, her hand drifting to her shoulder which was currently covered by what felt like silk. Looking down at herself, she figured out where the silk had come from– she was wearing what looked like some kind of nightgown out of the eighteen-hundreds, all lace and frills and bows. She had to fight the urge to blanche.

"Tom cast some kind of healing spell on you to stop you bleeding then he went into Eeylops to owl Lucius while I hid outside with you under the invisibility cloak." Harry explained and Hermione leaned forwards and pulled Harry into her arms again, as if she were hugging him.

"And what's the story about Tom?" she murmured in his ear.

"You met him in Diagon over the summer and bonded over your nerdiness. I said I wanted to meet him when you wrote about it so we all arranged to meet up today after I gave McGonagall the slip." Harry whispered back.

Deciding that the cover story was acceptable– which meant that Tom most likely came up with it– Hermione slumped back down on the pillows. "Narcissa," she asked, hesitantly, "what– what's the damage?" 

Seeing Narcissa's confusion at the Muggle term, Harry quickly clarified, "She means her injuries."

"Oh," Narcissa said, comprehension dawning on her beautiful face before she hesitated, "you don't mind Harry and Tom being here, do you?"

"I'm not leaving." Tom stated, flatly, at the same time as Harry asked,

"Can we stay?" and Hermione said,

"I don't mind my boys staying."

Narcissa looked between them all, amusement clear on her face, before her expression turned more serious. "You had a bad concussion, love, and some nasty bruises which I was able to heal without any trouble, but the bite mark... I got it to stop bleeding and heal over, but the scar tissue is... rather inflamed, and I can't get it to heal properly."

"I'm not surprised." Hermione said with a fierce glower. "The bastard was a werewolf."

"A what?" Harry demanded, his eyes wide and shocked. "How did you know?"

"Easy," Hermione said with a bitter laugh, "he told me. Claims to be the most feared werewolf in Britain. Fenrir Greyback." Narcissa let out a soft gasp, her lovely face paling as she raised a hand to her mouth. The gears in Hermione's head began to turn and her stomach lurched. "He... he really is the most feared werewolf in Britain, isn't he?" she said, uneasily.

Narcissa nodded, face still pale and shaken. "I'm afraid so, love. I– I need to talk to Lucius." The beautiful blonde gave her a strained smile before turning and hurrying from the room.

Tom immediately shoved the door shut and strode over, to join Harry on the bed. His eyes were narrowed and he looked angry but his movements were gentle as he lifted her arm and slid across the silky material of her nightgown. All three of them sucked in a breath at the sight. 'Inflamed' didn't really do it justice. "He nearly bit down to the bone." Tom murmured, running the tips of his long, slender fingers over the raised scar tissue and Hermione couldn't help but shiver slightly.

"I'm not one of those girls who hates scars," she said as she stared at the marred flesh of her shoulder, "but this isn't a scar. This is a fucking mark." Her stomach rolled and she had to close her eyes. "I think I'm going to be sick." 

"What about a glamour?" Harry asked, his voice sounding desperate.

"Normal glamours would have to be constantly reapplied," Tom answered for her, "but..." Hermione felt the smooth tip of a wand trace the scarred tissue. ::Dissimulare:: hissed Tom and she felt a pulse of magic wash over her. Harry's relieved sigh gave her the courage to open her eyes and she looked at the unmarked skin of her shoulder in relief.

"Parselmagic is very different from normal magic." Tom explained to Harry as he reached out to trace his fingertips over her shoulder again. The skin was smooth.

"So... it's healed?" Harry asked, reaching out to feel it too.

"No, just hidden. It can't be healed." Tom said, eyes flashing with anger.

Hermione felt oddly... touched by the protective side both boys were showing. Of course, should anyone ask she'd deny it in a heartbeat, but there was a part of her that found all their worrying– no matter how hard Tom was trying to hide it– and their fierce protectiveness of her... well, attractive would be the most polite way to phrase it, but honestly? It made her feel empowered.

"Hermione?" She pulled herself out of her thoughts as two pairs of eyes looked down at her, emerald green and crushed violet. She'd chosen well, she decided, with a slight smirk; she had very attractive friends.

"Yes?" She replied to Harry.

"Just wondering where you went." Harry smiled at her and grasped her hand, squeezing it gently.

"Just thinking that next time I fatally wound someone, I better make sure they actually do die."

"Wait, Greyback was the person who attacked you last year?" Harry demanded.

"You got the drop on a werewolf without magic?" Was Tom's question. Giving Tom a quick glare, she turned to Harry.

"Yes, same pervert. He must have been fucking goddamn lucky because I slit his carotid artery and he should have bled out within three minutes. But no, some dumb shit healed his stupid arse and now I have an angry werewolf out to get me!"

"You slit his carotid?" Tom arched an eyebrow. "Are you positive it was the same person?"

"Oh I'm pretty damn sure," she responded with another bitter laugh, "and the damn big scar on his throat cleared any doubts I had." She then sighed and ran her hands through her hair in a frustrated gesture. "Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry for lashing out, I'm just really pissed off. Plus I'm getting a headache."

"Narcissa said that if you stressed too much you'd mess up your healing," Harry instantly started fretting over her, "lay back down and relax. Heal first, work everything out later."

"Okay." She agreed with a fond look at her best friend, not seeing any reason not to now she knew she was in a safe place. It didn't take her long to fall back asleep and when she next woke up Harry was the only one in the room.

"Tom went back in the Diary." he said quietly, nodding to her satchel which was sitting on top of the drawers. "He had to use a lot of magic to stay out for as long as he did looking fully corporeal, as well as casting spells without using your magic to help."

"Does Narcissa know about the glamour?" she asked and Harry shook his head.

"If she does ask, though, we can just tell her the truth. Well, a slightly omitted version of the truth," he amended, "she knows we both speak Parseltongue, so we tell her it's Parselmagic. We just don't mention it wasn't one of us who cast it."

"Alright." Feeling a lot more relaxed, she fixed Harry with a look as a thought struck her. "Oh you two had better have found my wand! If I got attacked by that filthy mutt for nothing then I'm going to kick both your arses to– oh." She broke off guiltily as Harry pulled her lovely new illegal wand out of his sleeve. "Sorry."

"It's how we found you, actually. Dropping it turned out to be a good thing." He said as he passed it to her. She scowled at him, even as she slid it under her pillow.

"I didn't drop it, Greyback took it off me!" She snapped. Harry raised his hands up in a surrender gesture and she huffed. "How long was I out for?" 

"It's been about... sixteen hours." Harry checked his watch then nodded. 

"Which means it's...?" she prompted him.

"Oh. Right." He gave her a silly grin, "around three in the morning."

"Three in the what?" Hermione lowered her voice to a loud whisper. "Harry James Potter, have you slept at all?"

"I wanted to make sure you were okay." Harry's grin faded and a serious look replaced it. "Hermione, you gave me the biggest fright of my life today. Well, yesterday, but you get my drift. Never do that again."

"Never," she promised, reaching out her open palm. Harry took her hand in his and they shook on it before she used her grip to yank him forwards, pulling him into the bed next to her. With a bit of squirming she managed to get the duvet out from under Harry and move it so it was on top of them both. "Sleep." She ordered him before turning over so her back was facing him. "And cuddle me." She added.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry woke up with a yawn. He then choked when said yawn caused him to inhale a mouthful of his best friend's hair. Spluttering and coughing, he rolled away from her and, once his airways were once again blessedly unobstructed, he became aware of something which made him incredibly thankful for his impromptu choking fit.

This had only happened to him a few times. Unfortunately, one of the first times was when he and Hermione had been sharing a bed. He had been embarrassed and confused and mortified. Hermione had been completely nonchalant and told him that it wasn't uncommon that when males reached puberty they started getting 'morning wood' she called it. Seeing his somewhat bemused expression, she'd rolled her eyes and told him that he'd start waking up with erections every now and then and the best thing to do was go wank in the shower.

His face had burned hot enough to fry an egg and she'd burst out into laughter which led to him trying to smother himself with his pillow. Once she'd finally stopped laughing, Hermione told him not to worry, it'd go by itself.

She was right– as usual. All he had to do was think of something embarrassing, like Hermione's birds and bee's talk with him, and it'd disappear in a flash. The problem was when he woke up with his problem and Hermione was in the same bed as him.

Like now.

Praying she hadn't noticed, he turned and gave her a bright smile. She was scowling at him. "If you were that hungry, you could have called the house elf– you didn't need to start chomping my hair!" She complained. Relieved that she hadn't noticed, Harry poked his tongue out at her and they bickered back and forth for a few minutes before Hermione stood up and announced she was off to get changed.

Picking up her satchel, she paused in the doorway of the walk-in closet and turned to give him a truly evil smirk. "Shower's on the left, Harry." She said sweetly before disappearing, leaving him trying to smother himself with his pillow once again. 

After the suggested shower, Harry dressed in the clothes Hermione had so thoughtfully laid out for him on the end of the bed– light grey casual robes and dragon-hide boots– then made his way down to the dining room, hoping that would be where he'd find the Malfoys.

He was relieved to see that yes, Hermione and Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy were already there– Draco had yet to return from Blaise's, where he'd spent the last few days– and after quickly apologizing for taking too long in the shower he sat down next to Hermione. He then ignored Hermione as she kicked his leg gently under the table, and instead smiled at the Malfoys. "We're very sorry about all the drama," he apologized, "but thank you for helping us."

"It was nothing, love," Narcissa dismissed with a wave of her hand, "anything for a friend of Draco's."

"It means a lot to us, Narcissa." Hermione spoke quietly from beside him, a genuine look of sincerity on her face. "And not just for healing me, but for welcoming us into your home." Two small spots of pink appeared on Narcissa's cheeks, and it took Harry a moment to realize that Narcissa was blushing. He hadn't actually known she could do that. 

Dobby served up breakfast soon after that and Harry started eagerly tucking into the delicious food the house elf had cooked up. That was until Hermione let out a sharp sound from his right and he glanced over and almost sprayed his mouthful of scrambled eggs all over the Malfoy's expensive-looking white tablecloth.

"Isn't– isn't that the guy from the Muggle news? The one who escaped jail?" he asked, forgetting decorum as he stared at the cover of the copy of the Daily Prophet Hermione was reading. Featuring on nearly the entire page was one of the Wizarding world's moving photographs, this one of the same man Harry had seen on the Muggle news with the gaunt face and elbow-length matted hair.

"Well, that explains why they never mentioned which prison he escaped from." Hermione said with a frown. "They couldn't exactly say he escaped from Azkaban."

"Azkaban?" Harry echoed, feeling like an idiot.

"The Wizarding prison." Hermione told him. "It's a fortress surrounded by the ocean. Nobody has ever broken out of it before. Ever. It's supposed to be impossible."

"People also thought that the very notion of there being a Chamber of Secrets was impossible," he told her, forgetting their company, "and they were wrong."

"Harry," Hermione's voice was dry but the look she gave him was amused. "The Chamber of Secrets is a myth, remember– Lockhart just faked it opening for his new book."

"Oh." Harry gave the Malfoys a weak smile. "That's right."

"Why don't we get back to the original topic?" Hermione suggested, seemingly having found enough sadistic enjoyment from embarrassing him today– for now, at least. "Sirius Black."

"Mr. Mal– I mean, Lucius," Harry quickly corrected himself, "do you know what Black was imprisoned for?"

Here he'd expected Lucius to just throw around a few names of people Black had killed, buildings he'd destroyed, lives he'd ruined, etc.. Instead, both Lucius and Narcissa traded a long look before turning back to him. "Harry," Narcissa seemed to be trying to figure out exactly how to say. "Sirius Black is the one who betrayed your parents to the Dark Lord."

Dead. Silence.

Harry sat there stunned, unable to even think properly. Words like 'betrayed' and 'parents' kept floating around his mind and some long forgotten memory niggled at the corner of his mind.

"How?" Harry's question– demand, actually, would be a better way to describe it– caused the elder Malfoys to trade another long look, and this was when Harry figured out they weren't thinking about not telling him rather they were deciding who should tell him.

It was Narcissa, again, who spoke. "Sirius was my cousin," she said quietly, "he was.. quite the rebel of the family, the only Gryffindor in our lines for generations. And when Sirius met James Potter... they were practically soul mates, brothers in all but blood. When Sirius ran away from home at sixteen it was the Potters who took him in."

"But– but why would he betray them? If they were best friends?" Harry demanded.

"We don't know." Lucius spoke this time and his voice was just as quiet. "It's said that even the Dark Lord's followers had no idea where Black's loyalties truly lay."

Harry didn't hear much else that breakfast, too lost in his own thoughts. 

Chapter Text

Chapter XX:

 

Harry's POV:

Harry was sitting on his bed, Hermione next to him with a book propped open on her lap, when Draco entered the room looking equal parts pleased and annoyed. "Mother said you were here," he informed them, "but she wouldn't say what happened."

"What makes you think something happened?" Hermione shot back and Draco huffed.

"Mother doesn't lie to me. She just doesn't respond if she can't tell me the truth."

"We were attacked in Knockturn Alley." Harry decided to answer and Draco gave him an incredulous look.

"What were you doing in Knockturn Alley?"

"Buying illegal goods." Hermione answered, without pause. She then scowled. "I've definitely learnt my lesson."

"What, that we shouldn't wander around Knockturn Alley?" He asked her.

::No:: Hermione hissed, surprising him slightly with her abrupt change to Parseltongue, ::Next time I fatally injure someone I should make sure they're actually dead before leaving::

Harry couldn't help his surprised snort and Draco pouted, crossing his arms. "That's just mean!" he whined.

"That's life." Hermione smiled blandly at the irate blonde who just grumbled louder before sighing.

"Okay, we're going to just forget the why and concentrate on the fact that you're here now," Draco informed them. "We're going to have a wonderful time." He added smugly and Harry couldn't help but laugh.

"Agreed." He said, a big smile on his face.

-

-

Severus's POV:

"You lost him?" Severus looked at Minerva incredulously. "You managed to lose Ha– Potter?"

Minerva scowled at him with her arms crossed against her chest and Albus had a concerned look on his face. "You said he was there one minute, then gone the next." He confirmed with Minerva who nodded. "Then I fear," he said grimly, "that I know how our Mr. Potter is vanishing from sight."

"How?" Demanded Minerva, "how in Merlin's name did he just disappear?"

"Two years ago on Christmas I returned an item his father lent me." Albus confessed, actually looking rather sheepish despite the gravity of the situation. "An Invisibility Cloak."

"You gave a first year an Invisibility Cloak." Minerva said, just about bristling with fury. Severus, who'd already known about the blasted cloak, leaned back in his chair, looking for all intents and purposes as if he was enjoying the show when in actuality his mind was racing.

Harry would be safe, he assured himself. Granger was logical to the point of icy– she'd have prioritized Harry's physical wellbeing over that of his emotional wellbeing. If she had aided Harry in his escape, of which he had absolutely no doubt, then she was fully confident that the boy would be safe.

After all, if Albus couldn't find them then how could anyone else? He reasoned with himself. Except... except would Granger know about Black? About the danger he presented to Harry? A sick feeling grew in his stomach as Severus realised just how much danger his two students were in. How could Minerva have taken her eyes off the boy for even a moment, knowing Black was out there hunting him down? He thought, furiously.

A house elf suddenly apparated into the room with a pop and Severus recognized it as one of Lucius's elves. "Master is asking Dobby to bring Master Snape to Master's home." The small creature– Dobby– stammered nervously.

Severus directed his gaze to the headmaster. "While you're sorting out the mess Minerva's made, I believe my friend needs me." He said icily, none of the fear that made him feel like he might be sick showing on his face. Albus nodded.

"I will contact you if I am in need of your services."

Giving Minerva one last sneer, Snape strode out of the headmaster's office and quickly made his way to his quarters, the elf trotting at his heels. Throwing a handful of powder into the fireplace, he stepped into the emerald flames with a snapped, "Malfoy Manor, Lucius's study."

Lucius was waiting for him as he stepped out of the fireplace, flicking his wand at his robes to wordlessly vanish the soot. "You look upset, old friend." He stated and Severus glared at him.

"The Deputy Headmistress, in all her wisdom, managed to lose Harry in the middle of Diagon Alley when Black's trying to kill him!" he seethed. "Stupid, incompetent–"

"Harry's here, Severus." Lucius interrupted his rant and Severus jolted slightly then glowered at Lucius, murderous intent clear in his gaze.

"And you couldn't have opened with that?" He just about snarled. Far from being intimidated, Lucius just laughed.

"And miss seeing the expression on your face? Most assuredly not."

"You," Severus informed him darkly, "are evil."

"That was part of the requirement for our little extracurricular group." Lucius pointed out his steel colored eyes flicking down to his left forearm, covered by his sleeve.

Under the thick material of the expensive robe, Severus knew what he would find– a faint mark similar to that of a tattoo of a skull with a snake protruding from its mouth.

"Out of interest," Severus didn't bother trying to hide his desire to change the subject, "how did Harry come to be a guest at the Manor?"

"Ah," Lucius leaned back in his chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. "That's actually quite an interesting tale. Around six hours ago, I received an urgent letter via owl requesting my immediate presence in Diagon Alley. When I got there, Harry and an older boy I didn't recognize were waiting outside Eeylopes. The moment they saw me, Harry revealed Miss Granger from where she was hidden under an invisibility cloak."

Here Lucius paused, a sympathetic expression crossing his face. "Greyback, unfortunately, managed to survive his encounter with her last year and this time she was lucky to survive him."

Severus felt a wave of fury rush through him at the thought of Greyback even touching his brightest student. "How far did he get?" His voice was low, a sure sign for anyone who knew him that this quiet voice was far more dangerous then any screaming or shouting he could be doing.

"A severe concussion was the worst injury," Lucius said before his mouth twisted, eyes narrowing. "The filthy mutt bit her."

"But it wasn't a full moon!" Was his automatic response and Lucius shook his head.

"Not that sort of bite, he bit her while he was in human form." Severus's eyes widened in furious comprehension.

"The animal marked her as his." He said through clenched teeth.

"Yes, in Greyback's eyes Hermione belongs to him." Lucius agreed, before a sinister looking smirk crossed the older blonde's face. "What a shame for the mongrel that only werewolves will even pause to acknowledge it."

"While true, that doesn't negate the fact that Greyback's life is forfeit." Severus stated, his face dark.

"Maybe this will post-pone the mongrel's death sentence," Lucius said and the sudden trace of anger in the blonde's voice had Severus pause, dread starting to build up inside him.

"What is it?" He asked and Lucius's face turned grim.

"When Narcissa was using purity charms to examine the girl for sexual assault, she discovered something rather... disquieting."

"Are you actually going to get around to spitting this out, Lucius?" Severus asked through gritted teeth, already knowing he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.

"Our Miss Granger... she isn't a virgin. And according to the charm, she hasn't been one for nearly four years."

Severus blinked. "Nine?" he just about croaked, horrified beyond belief. "She was... assaulted when she was just nine years old?"

Lucius nodded grimly and Severus proceeded to sum up his thoughts with one word.

"Fuck."

-

-

Hermione's POV:

The remainder of the summer holidays passed quickly but pleasantly with Hermione enjoying making use of the Malfoy family's library which was filled with a number of rare and expensive books that hummed with all sorts magic– Light, Dark and Grey. She wasn't ignorant of the looks she was receiving from the elder Malfoys, but she dismissed them as products of Greyback's attack.

The time he wasn't spending with Draco, Harry spent with her to practice and perfect the new spells she'd found– something they were able to now do, courtesy of their new, illegal wands.

Tom also kept her company while Harry was off playing Quidditch or whatnot with Draco. The three of them had decided to hide Tom's presence from the Malfoys and when he was out of the diary Tom would put up wards to warn them when one of the Malfoys were approaching.

It was two days before their scheduled return to Hogwarts that Narcissa brought up the Gala the Malfoys were hosting that evening. They hosted two every year, one near the end of summer and one over Yule.

As the boys fled off with Lucius, Hermione resigned herself to being Narcissa's dress-up doll for the day as the older woman seemed to absolutely adore pampering her; taking her to get her nails done, for spa treatments, hair appointments... She treated Hermione like her own daughter which Hermione normally found useful though at times like this it could be quite horrifying.

Looking in the mirror, Hermione decided she had never seen a set of dress robes quite as hideously girly as the set she was now wearing. They were made of rose-pink silk with silver Acromantula thread stitched in twirling, intricate patterns and far there were frills and bows and so much fucking lace.

Narcissa had done something funny to her wild, curly hair using mother-of-pearl hairpins and a diamond encrusted silver hair comb to hold it high up above her neck, with only the odd curl springing free.

This was worse then the Yule Gala, Hermione thought darkly as she glared at her reflection. The only thing she liked about this particular dress was that compared to the last one Narcissa had dressed her in was that instead of making her look like a pretty little princess, this dress actually complimented her maturing body. She was still petite, but the cut of the dress didn't make her look short so much as slender and delicate-looking and it was expertly tailored to bring attention to the subtle flare of her hips and the soft curve to her chest.

If it weren't for, well, for every other fucking part of it, she might have actually liked the dress. But– pink. Frills. Bows. Lace.

Enough said.

-

The Gala had a 'Heaven on Earth' theme, and the Malfoy Manor was done up spectacularly. Whites, creams, and glittering gold gave the entire ballroom an ethereal glow. Sheer, flowing fabrics were draped down, some crisscrossed, to give the room a soft feel to it as if the place were one with the clouds. Feathers floated down from above around the outer edges of the room, so as not to interfere with the guests, while the illusion of falling feathers could be seen now and again around the dance floor.

"Holy hell," Harry muttered from beside her.

"It's stunning," Hermione agreed before turning to face Harry and then startling. "Tom? What are you doing here?"

Tom, fully corporeal, was dressed in a set of fine silk robes and looking handsome, elegant and smug. "My other self will no doubt be attending and I wish to speak with him." He said.

"And you couldn't, oh I don't know, have just asked me to talk to him?" She asked sarcastically.

"Do you have any idea how dull it is in the Diary?" Tom countered and Hermione shuddered at the idea. Without any stimuli, she couldn't even imagine how unbearably bored she'd be.

"Fair enough," she admitted.

"There you two are!" Draco said sounding annoyed as he appeared behind them. The blond's expression turned confused as he looked at Tom who was standing between them. "Who's this?"

"This our friend, Tom." Harry introduced with a smile. Hermione was tempted to raise an eyebrow at the 'friend' status Harry had apparently elevated Tom to but refrained while in front of Draco.

Draco seemed satisfied with that explanation, and smiled in a somewhat pompous manner at Tom. "Draco Malfoy, welcome to my home." He said in a gracious voice.

"Charmed." Tom drawled back and Hermione bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Linking her arm with Tom's, Hermione gave Draco a bright smile.

"We'll catch you later, Draco. Tom's introducing me to a few of his friends." She lied, "come on Harry." She added when Harry just stood there, looking at her arm linked with Tom's. Sensing his insecurity, Hermione reached out her free hand to clasp onto Harry's, tangling their fingers together and tugging him after them.

"So that's the Malfoy boy," Tom mused aloud, "he reminds me of his grandfather, Abraxas."

"Shallow?" Hermione guessed and Tom smirked.

"Exactly."

"He's not that bad!" Harry defended the blond. "Well, maybe just a little." He admitted as they both just stared at him, amused. Taking pity on him, Hermione scanned the room.

"Do either of you know what he actually looks like?" She asked the other two, quietly.

"No," Tom shook his head, an odd gleam in his eyes, "but I don't need to– I can feel him."

Hermione let the older boy lead them across the room, angling towards a handsome man who looked to be in either his late twenties or early thirties. She could see traces of Tom's features in his face but there were differences, significant ones, like the lighter shade of hair and the slight changes in bone structure.

Voldemort was talking to Lucius as they approached and the blond aristocrat nodded at them in greeting as they approached. "Hermione, Harry, Tom, this is Thaddeus Dagworth." Lucius introduced them to Voldemort, "he's quite the up and comer at the Ministry."

"Mr. Dagworth, it's a pleasure." Hermione smiled sweetly.

"The pleasure is mine." Voldemort replied, his voice a pleasant baritone.

"Lord Malfoy," a lady twittered as she pranced over to Lucius– Hermione guessed that she was a wife to one of the Ministry employees. "Can I just say, what a lovely house you and your wife have!" she gushed.

Taking advantage of Lucius's distraction while dealing with the woman, Voldemort led the way out of the side of the ballroom and into one of the cloak rooms so they could speak in private.

"Have you enjoyed your summer, Tom?" Voldemort asked and Hermione was reminded of when the Dark Lord had asked a similar question down in the Chamber of Secrets.

"Yes," Tom replied, leaning back against the wall in a languid pose that both Hermione and Harry recognized well. "It was very... enlightening."

"Er, can I ask a question?" Harry spoke up, sounding nervous.

Voldemort tilted his head. "I'm going to guess you want to ask about your godfather." He said and Harry nodded.

"I– I can't blame you for murdering my mum and dad," he said quietly. "I mean, I can, but you never– you didn't betray them. You didn't have their trust and their– their love and then give them up for slaughter." He took a shuddering breath, eyes wet with unshed tears and Hermione reached out for his hand again to squeeze it gently. "I need some sort of revenge," Harry said, his voice almost pleading. "I need to make someone pay for taking them from me and leaving me to grow up in that– that hell-hole! It's his fault! It's that traitor's fault!" Harry's voice had started to rise and Hermione rubbed soothing circles on his palm with her thumb.

"What are you asking?" Voldemort looked thoughtful and Hermione had to fight the urge to glare at him. She didn't quite succeed.

"I want to know what happened. What he did. And... and I want him to pay for what he did. I want him dead." Harry said, firmly.

Hermione was unsurprised by this. Harry needed revenge for the murder of his parents, and seeing as he couldn't harm their murderer then their betrayer was the next best thing, really.

"What will I get in return?" Voldemort asked pointedly.

"I'll owe you another favor." She said bluntly before Harry could offer one of his own– she'd much prefer she was in the Dark Lord's debt then Harry. Voldemort's lips stretched into a satisfied smile even as Harry shook his head.

"Hermione!" he exclaimed, "don't do that!"

"Too late." Hermione told him calmly before turning back to Voldemort. "The full story please."

"Sirius Black is innocent." Voldemort paused for a moment, seeming to enjoy their shock. "It was Peter Pettigrew who told me your parents location. Black was set up to take the fall."

"Pettigrew's dead." Harry denied, shaking his head.

"Possibly. But Pettigrew has a few tricks up his sleeve, the most... interesting being his ability to turn into a rat."

"He was an animagus," Hermione said slowly as comprehension dawned on her. "Black went after him for revenge then the little rat faked his death to set Black up."

"That is my belief." Voldemort agreed.

"So you weren't involved in his escape from Azkaban." Harry guessed.

"No." Here Voldemort grimaced. "I have yet to figure out a way to free my most loyal from Azkaban without alerting the Ministry to my return."

For such an intelligent man, Voldemort could be quite stupid, Hermione noted. "You realize you've just been given the perfect set-up, right?" She asked, somewhat incredulous that the Dark Lord hadn't thought of it himself. "To the world, Black is a Death Eater. Black escaped Azkaban. It's not much of a stretch to think that he'd return to free his comrades in arms."

Voldemort looked disgruntled. "That... could work." He admitted reluctantly. "But we're straying from topic. Pettigrew. With the world believing him dead, it will be almost impossible for you to track him down, Harry. Which is why I'm going to offer you a deal."

"A deal?" Harry asked cautiously.

"A deal." Voldemort said pleasantly. "I have a way to track Pettigrew. You do this one thing for me and I'll deliver you the rat."

"He won't say yes until you tell him his part of the deal." Hermione said quickly. Her expression left no room for negotiation– she wasn't going to risk Harry getting trapped in some a possibly harmful situation.

"It's not hard. Kill Black, Harry, and the rat is yours." Voldemort told her best friend.

"Kill... kill Sirius Black?" Harry asked, looking honestly bewildered. "Why?"

"He must not be proved innocent." Voldemort said. "He will approach you, Harry, I have no doubt, and when he does, if you kill him and I'll give you the rat."

"Can– can I think about this?" Harry asked, face looking somewhat pale. Voldemort smirked, somewhat mockingly.

"Take all the time you need, Harry. I don't require an immediate answer." And with that, the Dark Lord strode out of the cloakroom and back to the ballroom to rejoin the crowd.

"I... I... I..." Harry mumbled in what seemed to be shock and she wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tight.

"The cocky bastard's right," she told him. "No offense Tom." She added as an afterthought and Tom just rolled his eyes at her so she continued on. "You don't have to figure out an answer right now. So stop worrying. Enjoy the party."

Harry gave her a doubtful look, but nodded. "Okay. Let's do that." He mumbled.

-

-

Severus's POV:

Severus watched Harry and Granger leave the ballroom following after Thaddeus Dagworth, a smooth, charismatic politician who was rising quickly through the ranks of the Ministry and Wizengamot. He didn't recognize the older boy with them but Lucius had identified the teenager as 'Tom', the one who was with the two in Diagon Alley when Granger was attacked.

"Do you think they know each other? Potter, Granger and Dagworth?" Lucius asked, looking in the same direction.

"If they do, I'll be quite interested in knowing how." Severus commented. "Granger looks well." He added and Lucius nodded.

"She recovered quickly. Narcissa tells me that the girl uses a parseltongue glamour to hide the scar."

"Has Narcissa talked to her at all about the sexual assault?" Severus asked quietly.

"No." Lucius admitted, "but she plans on doing it soon."

"She doesn't have much time left to put it off." Severus noted Lucius grimaced.

"I know, but Cissy... she dotes on the girl. Adores her. And Miss Granger seems fond of Narcissa– at least fond enough to allow my wife to dress her up and play doll with her." Lucius chuckled slightly.

"I couldn't see Granger picking out those dress robes." Severus laughed with his friend before his face turned serious again. "Dagworth... everyone keeps saying he's quite the up and comer."

"He's certainly stirring the waters," Lucius agreed. "He has money, charisma and a silver tongue. The women love him and the men respect him. Those of us who see through his mask can only respect him more for it– he's going to make big changes, Severus. Good ones too."

"Good ones?" Severus asked, truly curious.

"Mr. Dagworth is very much inclined towards the restoration of old ways, amongst other things. The Pureblood circles are getting excited." Lucius said quietly, nodding at the crowds of nobles and dignitaries, Ministry employees and close friends. "And if I'm being honest, Severus, I have to admit that I am getting excited too."

"Dagworth has returned," Severus noted, when the man they'd just been discussing strode back into the room, and was immediately accosted by eager fans.

"Without the children." Lucius noted. "Should we be concerned?"

"Lucius, this is Granger we're talking about." He reminded his friend and Lucius chuckled.

"Good point."

Chapter Text

Chapter XXI:



Hermione's POV:

After the Gala, with only one night until the return to Hogwarts Hermione found herself sitting next to a nervous looking Narcissa in a private wing branching off the older woman's rooms.

"Are you okay, Narcissa?" Hermione asked, concerned by the woman's actions. Narcissa gave a shaky sort of smile.

"I'm okay, love, just unsure about how to proceed." The woman confessed.

"Just say what you need to, Narcissa. I won't be mad, if that's what you're worried about. How could I be angry after everything you've done for Harry and I?" Hermione coaxed the woman, playing on Narcissa's maternal instincts, the one weakness in her Pureblood mask.

"Were you assaulted, love?" Narcissa burst out, before her cheeks tinged pink.

"Pardon?" Hermione asked, confused. "You know I was– you healed me." She reminded the woman, wondering if she maybe needed to notify the house elf about his mistress's ailment. "Have you found you've been forgetting things, recently?" she asked Narcissa, concerned.

"I, no I could have worded that better." Narcissa twisted her hands slightly in her lap. "Hermione, love, when I was healing you I performed a spell... it's an old Pureblood one. It records a woman's... purity."

"Ah." Hermione murmured, finally understanding where Narcissa's hesitation, fear and worry were coming from.

"Your purity was taken four years ago, when you were nine years old." Narcissa's eyes filled with tears and she leaned forwards, gently clasping Hermione's hands in her own. Narcissa's skin was very soft, Hermione noted. "Is there anything I can do to help right this terrible wrong that had been done to you?"

"The man who did that to me is in jail." Hermione forced herself to tear up, made her voice choke. "Muggles are mostly useless, but they did make the one who hurt me pay for it."

"I am glad," Narcissa let out a relieved sigh and leaned forwards, gently kissing her forehead. Hermione hid her surprise and gave Narcissa a watery smile that was absolutely and entirely fake.

"Thank you, Narcissa. You have... you have no idea how much this means to me. You, caring..." Narcissa looked like she was about to burst into tears and Hermione gently wrapped her arms around the older woman. Narcissa hugged her back, and Hermione felt her lips twitch.

For a Pureblood, a Black especially, Narcissa was exceedingly easy to manipulate.

As she made her way back to Harry, Hermione thought over the conversation she'd just had.

Purity.

It was treated as such a treasured commodity in the Wizarding world, in Pureblood circles especially. Which was why she couldn't have just come out and told Narcissa that she hadn't been sexually assaulted.

She had been taken advantage of, Hermione could admit, though she didn't like doing so– she heavily resented the fact that she, the master manipulator, had been manipulated with such relative ease.

Jed had been four years older then her. He was a street rat, just like her, and he'd been... nice. He'd wormed his way around her defences and was one of the few people she'd ever let into her heart.

It certainly hadn't been an experience she'd repeated in a hurry.

Jed had introduced her into the world of sex and despite her age, Hermione had had the relative maturity to deal with both the repercussions and the act itself. Sex, she had discovered, was a useful tool. And that's when Jed had stopped using her, and she'd started using him. He didn't realise she'd been using sex control their relationship manipulate him into getting her what she wanted until after she'd finished the arrangement. She'd left Jed after milking him for anything that could possibly be of any use to her and she had never taken on another lover. But she hadn't forgotten what the older boy had taught her and the realizations that had accompanied his teachings– men were stupid when it came to sex, stupid and easily manipulated, and her body could be used as a weapon in more ways then one.

Narcissa, who would have been pure until her wedding night as per Pureblood customs, if she knew the truth would likely be horrified. Hence the necessity of the lie.

-

Hermione noted that the atmosphere the night before their return to Hogwarts was relaxed, with all of them laughing freely– or at least pretending to, in her case, chatting happily, sharing stories and Lucius even letting Draco and Harry have a small glass of wine each. Hermione, much to Narcissa's approval, had declined the gracious offer.

What the proper Pureblood wife didn't know was that Hermione's lack of interest in tasting the fine wine was less to do with the fact that it wasn't considered very 'proper' for a young lady and more to do with the fact the very few times she'd drank in the past she'd preferred something stronger and had usually done so on cheap whiskey before Sting stitched her up, the warmth of the alcohol in her stomach numbing the pain in place of painkillers. Other times, on especially bad days, she and Sting would find somewhere and drink until they passed out.

Alcohol just had too many associations for it to particularly appeal to her as anything but a coping mechanism.

Lucius had accompanied Hermione over a week ago to retrieve Harry's belongings from Privet Drive. Harry wasn't able to retrieve them himself due to the fact that if he stepped foot within a certain radius of Number Four the wards would trap him, rendering him unable to leave.

Lucius had been particularly unimpressed with this and, upon Hermione's request, had provided her with a series of books on Wizarding law as well as a promise to send around a few queries about the legalities of such wards.

It seemed that all too soon the night had rolled into day and Hermione was dressing in a pretty lavender dress that Narcissa had had tailored for her, her satchel slung over her shoulder and her hair neatly braided. Her vine wand, the legal one, was resting in her pocket, while her acacia wand was hidden up her sleeve. Tom's yew wand was stashed in her satchel along with the Diary.

She and Harry, along with the Malfoys, all flooed to Platform Nine and Three Quarters and after thanking and bidding Lucius and Narcissa farewell, she and Harry boarded the Hogwarts Express. It was already packed and Draco seemed unsurprised when instead of joining the other Slytherin third years, Hermione and Harry went to find their own compartment.

Unfortunately, they were all full except for the one at the very end of the train. "The Malfoys really take the whole 'fashionably late' thing to the extreme." Harry noted as they peered at the lone occupant of the compartment. "I've never seen an adult on the train before." He added.

Hermione took note of the man sitting fast asleep next to the window. He was wearing an extremely shabby set of wizard's robes which had been darned in several places and he looked ill and exhausted. Though he appeared to be quite young, his light-brown hair was flecked with grey.

"Who do you think he is?" Harry asked as they sat down and slid the door shut, taking the seats furthest from the window.

"Professor R. J. Lupin." Hermione answered him.

"How the hell d'you know that?" Harry asked her, surprised.

"I used my eyes, Harry. It's on his case." She gestured to the luggage over the man's head where a small, battered case, held together by an abundance of knotted string, had the name R. J. Lupin stamped across one corner in peeling letters.

"You'd think after a childhood of being punished for missing even a speck of dust when cleaning would teach me to be more observant." Harry noted. "Pay attention to the small details, and all that."

"Can't argue with that." Hermione agreed, before pulling the Diary out of her satchel, along with a Muggle pen. 'You can't come out' she wrote, 'there's a professor here, the new Defense one probably, but he's sleeping so you can still write'.

Can you do a silencing charm? Tom's flowing handwriting appeared on the slightly yellowing page.

'If you want to spend the trip sitting under the invisibility cloak, then sure.' She wrote, not really expecting the pages to flutter in response and for Tom to appear. He looked more incorporeal then he usually did, which she supposed was due to the fact he wasn't wasting any magic to solidify his appearance more because he was about to be invisible.

"Here," she said, fishing the invisibility cloak out of her satchel and tossing it over to him. Tom donned it immediately, disappearing from sight, and Hermione pulled out her vinewood wand and cast a few quick silencing charms so that Lupin wouldn't be able to hear them talk.

"So that's the new Defense professor," Tom said, his voice sounding amused. "Certainly doesn't look like much, does he?"

"He can't be worse then Lockhart," Hermione said.

"Even Quirrell was better then Lockhart and he had Voldemort growing out the back of his head." Harry added.

"Could you try to make my future self sound less like some sort of parasite?" Tom asked dryly.

"Well technically he's not your future self anymore," Hermione corrected him, turning so she was looking approximately where she thought Tom's face would be. "We're shaped by our experiences just as much as we are our DNA. With you and Voldemort both experiencing different things, thus forming your own memories and separate relationships with people, you can't say you're past and present versions of the same person anymore. You might have started off that way, but with whatever magic Voldemort used to separate you from him he ended up creating a whole new personality."

There was a short pause, then Tom spoke, his voice surprisingly hesitant. "Do you... do you really think so?" he asked quietly.

"We know so, Tom," Harry answered for her. "You're not him; you're Tom and you're both so different. I mean, both of you are mean, snarky, sarcastic, sadistic evil geniuses, but that and sixteen years of memories is the only thing you have in common."

Tom fell silent and Hermione sensed that this was probably a good time to change the subject– she knew the older boy wasn't a fan of appearing... vulnerable. She understood– she didn't like it either.

"So, have you thought at all about Voldemort's offer?" she asked Harry who immediately stiffened, throwing a nervous reflexive glance in Lupin's direction. "Silencing wards." She reminded him and he nodded slightly before answering.

"A bit." He admitted quietly.

"And where have your thoughts been drifting?" She coaxed and Harry sighed.

"I don't know. Back with Marge, I was really ready to kill her, Hermione. I wanted her dead. Hell, after twelve years of dealing with them, I want all the Dursleys dead and I know that if it really came down to it, I could probably kill them. But I don't know if I could kill Black. I don't know if I could kill a stranger. An innocent."

"Black isn't really innocent," Tom pointed out. "If he hadn't impulsively gone after Pettigrew, you wouldn't have had to grow up with the Dursleys. In a way, he's as much responsible for your time spent in their tender loving care as Dumbledore."

Harry's face darkened and Hermione knew that Tom had hit the jackpot. If anything could bring out Harry's murderous intent, it was the Dursleys.

Hermione decided to direct the conversation away from the rather serious path it had taken, and brought up the subject of Animagus transformations. "This is the year you'll do it, Harry." She stated with absolute confidence.

"You really think so?" Harry asked doubtfully and she smiled at him.

"I know so, Harry. You are, after all, the third in our year." Harry blushed a bit at that and she couldn't resist the urge to pinch his cheek.

"Hey!" he protested weakly causing her and Tom to both laugh.

And the conversation carried on.

The Hogwarts Express moved steadily north and the scenery outside the window became wilder and darker while the clouds overhead thickened. At around mid-afternoon it started to rain, blurring the rolling hills outside the windows, thickening as the train sped further north. The train rattled as the rain hammered and the wind roared but still Professor Lupin slept.

"I think he might be dead." Harry commented, leaning forwards in his seat to look closer at the professor. Those words had barely left him when the train started to slow down.

"That's strange– we can't be at Hogwarts yet." Hermione frowned.

"Why are we stopping?" Harry asked, puzzled. As he was nearest to the door, it was Harry who got up to look into the corridor. "There's loads of other people looking out," he said and he might have been about to say more when all the lamps on the express went out at the same time and they were plunged into darkness.

"What the hell?" Hermione demanded, cancelling the silencing charms and casting a lumos. It sent an eerie glow through the carriage and she was startled to see that Professor Lupin seemed to have finally woken up. The dim light illuminated his grey face but his eyes looked alert and wary.

"Stay where you are." He said in a hoarse voice as he slowly got to his feet. But the door slid slowly open before Lupin could reach it and standing in the doorway was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood and the single hand protruding from the cloak was glistening, greyish, slimy-looking and scabbed.

As an intense cold swept over them all, Hermione felt her breath catch in her chest as she realized what this was. Dementor.

Slamming her Occlumency shields in place, Hermione tried to push past the cold that went deeper then her skin, the cold that was inside her chest, inside her very heart...

And then her attention was pulled away from the Dementor as Harry let out some kind of gasping, whimpering sound. Something was wrong– he had gone rigid in his seat, his eyes rolled back in his head. Then he crumpled, sliding off the seat and onto the floor and twitching and jerking like he was having a seizure.

"HARRY!" she screamed, before slashing her wand in the direction of the Dementor. "REDUCTO!" she shouted, and a burst of red light exploded out of the tip of her wand, forcing the Dementor back several feet. If it were human, she would have just blown a hole in its chest. As it was, the Dementor just got angry and swooped forwards, her shields started weakening, cracking, the dread was growing, there was a rushing in her ears... Take Hermione! Take our little girl, get her out of here! Do it! Do it Richard! Please! – Sharpie, no-no-no, please don't die – red hair, purple bruises, blood on her hands – there's bone, she can see bone and she's going to be sick – Lacey, don't leave me- please, please – stop, stop, it hurts, please, don't touch me – pain so bad it's like she's been split in half – you've got a sweet face; it won't stay that way – Nymph! Oh god, oh god, don't be dead, don't be dead –

"Expecto Patronum!" Professor Lupin shouted, and a silvery thing shot out of his wand, and it was forced back.

Hermione swayed and she felt hands grab her, balance her, invisible hands– Tom's hands. Her breathing was coming in short, wheezy gasps and her body was shaking violently as she sat down heavily. She could feel the weight of her memories pressing against her and it felt like one noise would shatter the brittle tension keeping her spine stiff as she held back a break down like the one in front of the Mirror of Erised. It was too much to hold back for long; she knew her shields wouldn't last another day before they crumpled to pieces, but she wanted to be alone in the safety of her dorm with the curtains drawn around her bed and silencing charms applied as she shook to pieces under the onslaught of the memories rattling at the bars of their prison.

She was still forcing herself to breathe, raw and ragged, while she painstakingly patched up her Occlumency shields the best she could when Harry shuddered his way back to consciousness, gasping and trembling as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. Reasonably confident she wasn't going to fall apart the moment she tried moving, Hermione slid to the ground next to him and gently ran a hand through his hair, damp with sweat. It was a motion that grounded her as much as it did Harry and he pushed his glasses back on, looking sick. "W-what happened?" He asked in a voice that shook. "Where's that– that thing? Who screamed?"

Who hadn't screamed? All their voices, echoing in her ears, a medley of grief-pain-horror-fear memories kept buried down where they couldn't hurt her–

"That was a Dementor. Once of the guards the Dementors of Azkaban." Lupin answered, Hermione unable to open her mouth for fear of what would come out. There was a loud snap and she spun around, a curse already glowing on the tip of her wand before relaxing as she saw that it was only Professor Lupin breaking an enormous slab of chocolate into pieces. "Here," he said gently, handing Harry a particularly large piece and then passing another to her. "Eat it. It'll help."

Harry took the chocolate and when he didn't make a move to eat it at once she nudged him. "It will help," she said quietly. "Chocolate releases endorphins in your brain. It helps counteract the Dementor's effects."

"Who screamed?" Harry asked again, his face very pale looking. Hermione imagined hers looked the same.

"I don't know." She told him, shivering. "A Dementor makes you relive your worst memories. The screaming was from a memory."

"But– but what memory?" Harry asked, bewildered. "I don't– I've never heard that before in my life!" Hermione turned and fixed Lupin with a look.

"Maybe you should go speak to the driver." She said pointedly. Lupin nodded in understanding, giving them both a tired smile before exiting the compartment and disappearing down the corridor. A flick of her wand had the door slide shut, a quick murmur reapplying the silencing wards and a final notice-me not charm ensured no one would be looking in through the windows.

Tom appeared, the Invisibility Cloak tossed onto the seat as he leaned over and helped her pull Harry off the floor and back onto his seat. "Did any of you– fall off your seats?" Harry asked, now sounding embarrassed as well as shaken.

"Dementors affect people in different ways," Hermione explained quietly. "The strength of the impact it had on you doesn't say anything about your character, it means that you've had worse memories to relive. I escaped the worst of the effects because I threw up my Occlumency shields the moment I figured out what it was, otherwise I would have been down there on the floor beside you." She didn't tell him what would be happening that night. He'd been a wreck after seeing her break down in front of the Mirror– there was no need to put him through that again.

"I– I still don't know where the screaming came from." Harry said helplessly.

"I have an idea." Tom said, his face carefully wiped clean of any emotion. "Twelve years ago on Halloween you witnessed at least part of the death of your mother. I suspect that event was traumatic enough that your younger self repressed the memory and the Dementor's presence dragged it to the front of your mind."

Harry shuddered again and she curled into him, offering silent comfort. He wrapped an arm around her as she rested her head on his shoulder, one of her hands tangling with his, their fingers entwined.

"Lupin will be back soon." Tom said quietly. "I'll return to the Diary." Before she could even acknowledge that she'd heard him, Tom disappeared and the Diary flipped shut. Hermione pulled away from Harry for a moment to pick up the cloak and the Diary to push them into the satchel and pulling her wand out of her sleeve to take down the charms she'd put up before curling up to Harry.

About a minute later Lupin appeared in the entrance of the compartment. He paused, looked around and said, with a small smile, "I haven't poisoned that chocolate, you know..."

Hermione silently picked up the piece he'd given her and took a bite. Warmth spread through her body, to the tips of her fingers and toes. Harry looked similarly lifted beside her. "We'll be at Hogwarts in ten minutes," Lupin said, "Are you all right, Harry?"

Hermione didn't spare a thought as to how Professor Lupin knew Harry's name– everyone knew Harry. Harry looked embarrassed and muttered a quick, "fine."

Hermione knew his pride was hurt, so she didn't try to start any conversations, just kept leaning into him.

At long last the train stopped at Hogsmeade station and there was a great scramble to get outside. It was freezing on the tiny platform; rain was driving down in icy sheets. Hermione, gripping Harry's hand tight so they didn't get pulled apart by the crowd and made their way along the platform, out onto a rough mud track where at least a hundred stagecoaches awaited the remaining students, each pulled by a thestral, a creature only visible to those who had witnessed death.

As Harry hadn't mentioned them, Hermione could only assume that he couldn't see them which gave her the idea that while he'd heard his mother's death he hadn't witnessed her being murdered.

They joined Draco, Blaise and Theo in one of the coaches. It smelled of mold and straw, and bumped and swayed along. As the carriage trundled towards a pair of magnificent wrought iron gates, Hermione saw two more towering, hooded Dementors standing guard on either side. Her spine turned to cold iron and she couldn't feel her fingers for a moment, whispers echoing in her ears as a wave of sickness threatened to engulf her. Beside her, Harry shuddered.

"Those things are fucked up." Blaise muttered, his face pale.

"I nearly pissed myself when one passed our compartment." Draco shuddered.

"I got my feet trampled all over and Pansy's head almost broke my nose." Theo complained.

"Did they go into your compartment?" Draco asked.

"We must have got lucky." Hermione lied, shaking her head. "It just drifted past ours, but that was more then enough."

After exiting the carriage, Hermione once again held Harry's hand tight as they joined the crowd swarming up the steps through the giant oak front doors and into the cavernous entrance hall which was lit with flaming torches and housed a magnificent marble staircase that led to the upper floors.

The sorting was over quickly and when the headmaster stood up to speak Hermione's eyes narrowed and beside her Harry tensed. Dumbledore appeared to be a grandfatherly figure, with his kind smile and twinkling eyes, but she and Harry knew the truth.

Dumbledore was a manipulative old bastard who was planning to forge Harry into a weapon to destroy Lord Voldemort. Unbeknownst to him, Harry had no intention of killing Voldemort– in fact, he physically couldn't due to the Magical Oath he had taken. Hermione was looking forward to seeing Dumbledore's expression when he found that out– preferably moments before she killed him.

Dumbledore gave a short speech, welcoming everyone back and warning them about the Dementors stationed at every entrance to the grounds. As he introduced Professor Lupin, Hermione couldn't help but notice the expression twisting Snape's face– there was more then just anger in his expression; it was a look pure loathing. Hermione knew immediately it wasn't the result of Lupin had been given the post as the DADA professor– no, this was caused by something deeper and darker.

Lupin wasn't the only new member of the staff, however– Hagrid, it seemed, was now taking over the post of Care of Magical Creatures professor. She supposed that certainly explained the 'Monster Book of Monsters'.

"We should have known– who else would have assigned us a biting book?" Harry voiced what she was thinking with a laugh as he joined in the applause.

"Not a soul." Hermione agreed with a small but genuine grin.

It was a delicious feast with the hall echoing with talk, laughter and the clatter of knives and forks but Hermione, her body still wired and subtly trembling, struggled to enjoy it, especially with the knowledge of what the night would bring and the weight of old memories breathing down the back of her neck. Adrenaline was thrumming through her veins and when Harry bumped his shoulder against hers for a moment, her vision blacked out, but she forced herself back into the present. Her hands were aching for her knives and old instincts were screaming at her to get away from the boisterous crowd, to find somewhere hidden and alone and safe. Soon, she promised herself, clinging tightly to the remaining shreds of her shields.

At the end of the feast, she and Harry were making their way down to the Slytherin Common Room which was situated near the dungeons when Snape stepped in front of them.

"Let me guess," Hermione said, feeling drained and exhausted and jittery. "Our illustrious headmaster would like a word with Harry."

"Right in one, Miss Granger." Snape nodded. "Five points to Slytherin for the correct answer." He added after a moment, which was enough to draw a tired smile to her face.

"Well, let's get go see what the great and powerful Oz wants." She said, her attempt at a joke falling flat as she was unable to summon the energy for her usual cheek. The corners of Snape's mouth still twitched slightly and Harry let out a quiet snort.

"He said alone, Miss Granger." Snape said and Hermione let her anger lend her strength.

"The Hogwarts rules clearly state that a student has the right to the presence of a third party of his choosing when meeting with a figure of authority." She said, raising her eyebrow as though daring Snape to counter her statement. He didn't. Very wise of him. Instead, he looked proud.

"Very well." He said, the approval clear in his voice, before he turned and led the way back up to Dumbledore's office, her and Harry trailing after him.

This was going to be fun, Hermione thought sarcastically.

-

-

Severus's POV:

As he lead the way to the Headmaster's office, Severus reflected on the memory Narcissa had passed on, about her asking Granger about the loss of her 'purity'. Granger had acted the part of a distressed victim admirably but Severus knew her better then the Lady Malfoy and he could read the look in her eyes. She was lying. He didn't know why, just that she was.

Severus wondered whether she'd be more open to him. Maybe he could ask her, as her 'concerned' Head of House. Yes, that could work, he thought with a roll of his eyes, as they entered Albus's office.

Albus was seated behind his desk smiling genially though his expression dimmed when he spotted Harry's companion. Minerva's face was severe. "Severus, did I not say that I wished to speak to Mr. Potter alone?"

"Kind of hard to speak to me alone with Professor McGonagall in the room." Harry pointed out.

"Harry, my boy," Albus's face had turned stern, "I really must–"

"Hermione can stay." Harry interrupted, his voice firm and Granger raised her chin in defiance.

"I must insist–" Albus started but Granger interrupted him.

"I did some reading over the summer, professor. Check section nineteen, subsection three of the Hogwarts Faculty Code of Conduct." She smiled darkly. The anger in her expression made her look less pale and hollow-eyed– the Dementors, he was guessing, had not agreed with her. "It states that if a student feels uncomfortable in the presence of a member of the staff, they are able to– how do I put this?– 'bring along a friend'. Also, section thirteen, subsection nine of the Hogwarts Faculty Code of Conduct states that a student has the right to the presence of a third party of his choosing when meeting with a figure of authority."

Minerva scowled at Granger who looked extremely smug and Severus found himself smirking slightly, impressed by his little snake.

"She's right, headmaster." He drawled and Albus shot him an irate look.

"Very well then," the old man said in a tone that clearly stated that it wasn't at all 'well', "let's get to the topic at hand. Your disappearing act this summer, Harry, was an extremely foolish thing to do and I find myself very disappointed in you."

"And?" Granger countered before Harry could say anything, "Harry doesn't give a damn about how you think of him and his behaviour– and neither do I, for that matter. Is that all?"

"Is that all?" Albus looked incredulous. "Miss Granger, Mr. Potter left the Dursleys against my direct orders for him to remain there over the holidays!"

"Well it's a pity that during the summer you have no legal right to demand anything of Harry." Granger said pointedly.

"No legal right? Harry has to stay at the Dursleys where the wards can protect him for his own safety!" Albus snapped.

"And he acknowledges your advice but politely declines and if you even try to imprison him again in Privet Drive we will be forced to take legal action." Granger's eyes were glinting with a vicious sort of victory.

"And can Mr. Potter speak for himself?" Minerva snapped. Granger raised an eyebrow.

"Why don't you ask him? It's not like he isn't standing right next to me." Minerva bristled at the mocking tone.

"I agree with everything Hermione said." Harry said quickly, seeing Minerva about to open her mouth and start arguing with Granger. Severus was almost disappointed– he enjoyed watching his student outwit the Deputy Headmistress.

"We shall be talking about this again, Mr. Potter, Miss Granger." Albus warned before turning to him. "Take them to their dormitories, Severus." He ordered.

"As you wish, headmaster." Severus sneered at the headmaster before spinning on his heel and striding out of the office, Harry and Granger on his heels. They walked in silence until they reached the entrance to the Slytherin common room which was enchanted to look like a stone wall. "I shall see you both tomorrow. The password is 'runespoor'. Now get to bed." He ordered them as the door appeared. They both nodded and Granger even had the audacity to salute him.

"Aye, aye, sir." She said, before ducking through the door and out of glaring range. Harry gave him a slightly sheepish look.

"See you tomorrow, sir."

"Just get to bed, Potter." Severus rolled his eyes at the boy before turning and making his way back to his office, where he had no doubt Albus would be waiting.

It was going to be a long night.

-
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Hermione's POV:

The bathroom was empty and quiet. Hermione had tried laying in her four-poster bed, forcing her lungs to work until the panic of being underground became too much, rising up in her throat to choke her, and she had to get out of the dungeons.

The girl’s loos where the Chamber of Secrets entrance was located was almost permanently out of order and Hermione didn’t have any issue slinking through the darkened of the corridors of Hogwarts. No patrolling professors could sneak up on her or catch her unawares, not when she was so hyperaware, when all her senses were trained on picking up the faint patter of footsteps, the quiet rustle of clothes and the soft, whispering sound of inhaling and exhaling. And Hermione had been hiding from grown men in shadows since she was six.

The ghost– Moaning Myrtle– wasn’t present, much to her relief. Locking the bathroom was easy, as was applying the necessary silencing charms. The old fashioned bathroom had a row of sinks, three toilet stalls and three shower stalls. The only source of light was through the window, the soft glow just barely lighting the empty room.

Hermione was shivering, teeth chattering in a way that had little to do with the cold and more to do with the knowledge of what was about to come. It felt like there was ice sliding through her veins and, somewhat impulsively, she stepped into one of the shower stalls and turned on the hot water.

She wasn’t sure if it would work, if it was out of order like everything else, but with only a slight rattling of piping hot water started pouring from the tarnished shower head.

Hermione sat on the floor of the stall, pulled her knees to her chin and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She could feel the steaming water soaking through her pajamas, the burn of it centering her. Her hair was quickly plastered against her face, neck and back and she wrapped her arms around her legs and let her head fall down onto her knees.

Her skin was already stinging, the heat of the water now painful against her raw-feeling flesh, but the ice had thawed inside her so Hermione just sat there, letting the shower stream over her. The water couldn’t rinse away the memories, though. No matter how hot it was, no matter how long she sat under it, and Hermione let her nails dig into thighs as the pitiful dregs of her Occlumency patch-job washed away down the drain.

It was as horrible as it always was. Hermione wasn’t sure how long she stayed curled up at the bottom of the stall, only that by the time she unfolded from herself and turned off the water, her skin was raw and burning. Stumbling out of the stall felt almost like stepping into a freezer and she started shaking violently, teeth chattering hard enough it felt like they might shatter in her mouth.

She felt numb and broken and empty and heavy, so heavy. She remembered the spell to dry her pajamas but her hair hung wet and cold as she slipped through the empty corridors back down to the Slytherin dungeons. With her shields firmly in place once more, being underground no longer caused panic to steal the breath from her lungs. Her hair soaked straight through the thin material of her pillow but the exhaustion dragged Hermione under before it could bother her.

She dreamed of nothing. 

Chapter Text

Chapter XXII:



Harry's POV:

As usual, he and Hermione were some of the first to rise. Harry actually arrived in the common room before Hermione, which wasn't quite as usual, and his best friend's face looked wan with purple smudges under her eyes. She didn't say anything, though, so Harry didn't mention it either and together they made their way down to the Great Hall. Halfway down they ran into Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts and the one who'd taken care of Hermione's beloved tomcat, Iago, over the summer holidays while Hermione was staying at Privet Drive with him.

After an affectionate reunion between Hermione and Iago that Harry was pleased to note had made Hermione looking less tired and drawn, he led the way to the Great Hall rolling his eyes at his best friend who was making cooing noises with Iago draped over her shoulders like a scarf, purring loudly. Harry sort of liked the cat, but he was pretty sure Iago hated him– despite Hermione's claims that the opposite was true. If it was, then Iago must go by the old saying "love hurts" because he'd clawed the hell out of Harry on multiple occasions. 

As usual, Snape was already handing out schedules and Harry examined his. "We've got Divination first," he told Hermione, "then after that Transfiguration then Care of Magical Creatures."

"At least our first class is a new subject." Hermione said. "Though I wish it was Arithmancy or Ancient Runes."

"You were the one who decided to do Divination," Harry reminded her, "I just copied your schedule."

"It should be interesting," she shrugged, "but not as intellectually stimulating as Ancient Runes and Arithmancy."

"Which means I'll probably like it the best." Harry muttered, under his breath, before making an 'ow' sound as Hermione elbowed him.

"Also," she added, leaning in so only he could hear her next words, "remember that prophecy Voldemort mentioned?" Harry nodded, pulling a face– that prophecy had been the reason his parents had been killed. "Well, I thought it would be a good idea to learn more about it." Hermione said quietly. "And about prophecies in general."

"That's pretty clever," Harry admitted, because he hadn't thought of that– though he tried not to think about the prophecy at all if he could.

"I just wish the spy had heard the whole thing from start to finish," Hermione said, frustrated. "Only knowing part of it makes me very nervous." Harry pulled another face, shuddering slightly. He hated the idea of some prophecy giving him a predestined fate– he hoped the Magical Oath he'd given Voldemort rendered the whole thing invalid; he refused to be a puppet, not even to destiny. 

Hermione had fallen into a contemplative silence and Harry had almost finished his breakfast when Hagrid entered the Great Hall, dressed in a long moleskin overcoat and absentmindedly swinging a dead polecat from one enormous hand. "All righ'?" he said eagerly, pausing beside them on the way to the staff table. "Yer in my firs' ever lesson! Right after lunch! Bin up since five getting' everythin' ready... Hope it's okay... me, a teacher... hones'ly..." He grinned broadly at them and headed off to the staff table, still swinging the polecat.

"Whatever he's been getting ready, it can't be worse then Fluffy or Norbert- right?" Harry asked Hermione anxiously and she groaned.

"Dammit Harry, you just jinxed it you idiot!"

As the hall started to fill, more and more people coming up for breakfast before their first lesson of the day, Harry and Hermione returned to the Slytherin dormitories to get their things and flip through a book– Harry had 'Quidditch Through The Ages' while Hermione was re-reading their Arithmancy course-book– for a half hour before Hermione shut her book with a sigh and stood up.

"The Divination classroom is at the top of the North Tower," she said, "we probably ought to get going– it's going to take us about fifteen minutes to get there." Harry stood up too, slinging his book-bag over his shoulder and they headed off to their first class of the school year. 

The journey through the castle to North Tower was a long one. Two years at Hogwarts hadn't taught them everything about the castle and neither of them had ever been inside the North Tower before. Finally, at the end of a long hall, they approached a narrow spiral staircase and climbed, proceeding to get dizzier and dizzier until they climbed the last few steps and emerged onto a tiny landing where most of the class was already assembled. There were no doors off this landing but there was a circular trapdoor above them with a brass plaque on it.

"Sibyll Trelawney, Divination teacher." Harry read, "How're we supposed to get up there?" As though in answer to his question, the trapdoor suddenly opened and a silver ladder descended right at Harry's feet. Hermione made a face– heights, Harry knew, weren't her thing; or rather, it wasn't the heights, exactly, but the fear of falling. 

"After you." His best friend gestured at the ladder and Harry cautiously climbed up first and emerged in the strangest-looking classroom he had ever seen. In fact, it didn't look like a classroom at all, more like a cross between someone's attic and an old-fashioned teashop.

He and Hermione quickly made their way to a table situated in the middle of the room as the rest of the class climbed up the ladder, all talking in loud whispers.

"Where is she?" Ron Weasley asked loudly causing Hermione tensed up beside him and Harry couldn't help the scowl that crossed his face at the sound of the redhead's voice. Ron Weasley had been responsible for nearly killing him last year when he and his brothers blamed him for their sister's death and Dumbledore had refused to expel them, saying that losing their sister was punishment enough. In Harry's opinion, it definitely wasn't– and it was an opinion that Hermione shared.  

"Welcome," a soft, misty sort of voice interrupted his thoughts, causing him to look up to the front of the classroom and at the professor now standing there. "How nice to see you in the physical world at last."

His immediate impression of Professor Trelawney was that of a large, glittering insect. She was very thin, draped in a gauzy, spangled shaw and her large glasses magnified her eyes to several times their natural size. Innumerable chains and beads hung around her spindly neck and her arms and hands were encrusted with bangles and rings.

Harry listened to her welcoming speech, unable to help but feel doubtful. It all sounded a bit fantastical, even in a world of magic. This term they would be "devoted" to reading the tea leaves after which they'd study palmistry, followed by the progression to the crystal ball in second term.

After spouting a lot of Muggle fortune-telling sort of predictions, the Trelawney instructed them to divide into pairs and collect tea cups which she then filled. They were to then sit down and drink the tea until only the dregs remained– Blaise audibly complaining about the "atrociously cheap" flavour of it as he did so– and then hand the cup to their partner to read and interpret the patterns using pages five and six of their textbook 'Unfogging the Future'.

Harry drank his scalding tea quickly– Blaise was right, it was awful– and swilled the dregs around as Trelawney had instructed before draining the cup and swapping over with Hermione.

"Well? Am I going to win the lottery?" She asked sarcastically and Harry grinned as they both opened their books at pages five and six.

"Dunno. All I can see is a load of soggy brown stuff."

"Well you've obviously been gifted with the Sight." Hermione said, her mouth twitching, and Harry grimaced slightly– the heavily perfumed smoke in the room was making him feel sleepy and stupid.

"Broaden your minds, my dears, and allow your eyes to see past the mundane!" Trelawney cried through the gloom and Harry tried to pull himself together.

"Right, well, that kind of looks like a diamond which means you will be gratified by a sum of money– maybe you should buy that lottery ticket after all." He joked weakly and Hermione rolled her eyes.

"I'll keep that in mind." She said, before peering into his teacup and making a face. "Well that could be a hammer which is triumph over adversary," she turned the teacup the other way, "and that looks like a wonky cross which means you're going to go through trials and suffering– you know, the usual." Harry had to stifle his laughter and Hermione smirked before returning to the teacup. "And there's something here," she turned the cup again, "that looks like some kind of four legged animal. Since it's you we're talking about, it's probably an ass." 

Harry wasn't quite as successful in stifling his laughter this time and Trelawney whirled around as he let out a loud snort.

"Let me see that, my dear," she said reprovingly to Hermione, sweeping over and snatching Harry's cup from her. Hermione's eyes narrowed dangerously and everyone went quiet to watch the inevitable Hermione versus Trelawney– nobody snatched something off Hermione Granger and Harry was already feeling a bit sympathetic towards Trelawney as he settled back in his seat and wondered if Hermione would end up making their new professor cry. 

Trelawney, currently, was staring into his teacup and rotating it counter-clockwise. "The falcon... my dear, you have a deadly enemy." She said, in her misty voice. 

"Everyone knows that." Hermione scoffed. When Trelawney stared at her, Hermione arched an eyebrow and stared right back, her gaze challenging. Wisely choosing not to reply, Trelawney lowered her huge eyes to Harry's cup again and continued to turn it. "The club... an attack. Dear, dear, this is not a happy cup. The skull... danger in your path, my dear."

Everyone barring Hermione was staring, transfixed, at Trelawney, who gave the cup a final turn and let out a small scream. Harry's Seeker instincts had him grabbing the cup the professor dropped before he watched with a kind of morbid fascination as Trelawney sank into a vacant armchair, her flittering hand at her heart and her eyes closed.

"My dear boy... my poor, dear boy... no... it is kinder not to say... no... don't ask me..."

"What is it?" Ron Weasley asked at once. Everyone had got to their feet and crowded around Harry and Hermione's table, starting to press close to get a good look at Harry's cup before Hermione shot them a withering glare that had everyone taking several very hasty steps back.

"My dear," Trelawney's huge eyes opened dramatically, "you have the Grim!"

"The what?" Harry asked. He could tell he wasn't the only one who didn't understand but most of the class had clapped their hands to their mouths in horror.

"The Grim, my dear, the Grim!" cried Trelawney, who looked shocked that Harry hadn't understood. "The giant, spectral dog that haunts churchyards! My dear boy, it is an omen- the worst omen– of death!"

Harry's stomach lurched and one of the Gryffindor girls let out a small shriek. Everyone was looking at Harry with wide eyes, everyone except Hermione who had slid the cup back across the table so she could take a look inside. "I don't think it looks like a Grim," she said flatly and Trelawney surveyed Hermione with mounting dislike.

"You'll forgive me for saying so, my dear, but I perceive very little aura around you. Very little receptivity to the resonances of the future."

"Then you're wrong twice, Professor." Hermione said, with a saccharine smile.

"Wrong?" Trelawney looked puzzled.

"Yes, twice." Hermione's voice was dripping with sweetness. "First, I don't forgive you. And second, that's not a Grim at all– it's a dog and its position at the top of the cup is a favourable sign of faithful friends." Trelawney blinked at Hermione, her mouth hanging open slightly as if she was unable to process what Hermione had just said. Hermione smirked. "My, my, what sort of Seer are you if you didn't see that coming?" she taunted the woman.

"I think we will leave the lesson here for today," said Professor Trelawney after a long pause, purposefully looking away from Hermione. "Yes... please pack away your things..."

Hermione snorted and stood straight up, not bothering to take her teacup back to Trelawney before packing her book back into her satchel and descending down the ladder without even waiting for Trelawney to dismiss the class. With an internal shrug, Harry followed after her.

"Well that was a load of crap." Hermione commented once they'd reached the bottom of the spiralling staircase.

"When did you read up about the dog thing, anyway?" he asked her and she grinned at him.

"I memorized the course-book." She said, before pulling a face. "Wouldn't have bothered if I knew the class was going to be such a waste of time."

Leaving the North Tower proved to be just as difficult as finding it in the first place and they ended up taking so long to find the Transfiguration classroom that, early as they had left Divination, they were only just in time for class to start. Harry chose a seat near the middle of the room and worked on ignoring the way the rest of the class kept shooting furtive glances at him as though he might drop dead at any moment. Hermione kept snickering at him.

He concentrated on the lecture Professor McGonagall was giving them about Animagi, only half interested to watch as she transformed herself in front of their eyes into a tabby cat with spectacle marking around her eyes. Hermione's form, he decided, was much prettier.

He still gave a polite clap as she transformed back but he was one of the only ones and McGonagall noticed. "Really, what has got into you all today?" she said, turning back into herself with a faint pop and staring around at them all. "Not that it matters, but that's the first time my transformation's not got applause from a class."

"Oh yes, it doesn't matter one bit." Hermione whispered mockingly and Harry had to fight the urge to grin, even as everybody's heads turned towards him in response to the teacher's question. "Oh honestly," Hermione snorted before speaking up, her voice thick with sarcasm. "We've just had our first Divination lesson and Professor Trelawney dazzled us with her incredible gift by reading the clump of tea dregs in Harry's teacup and informing us he is going to die." 

It really went to show how much McGonagall apparently didn't like Trelawney that she didn't once tell Hermione off for mocking another professor– in fact, she didn't even scowl at Hermione like she usually did, instead there was a rare glint of approval visible on her face before she turned to fix her eyes on him. "I believe you should all know, then, that Sibyll Trelawney has predicted the death of one student a year since she arrived at this school. None of them has died yet. Seeing death omens is her favourite way of greeting a new class. If it were not for the fact that I never speak ill of my colleagues–"

McGonagall broke off and Harry saw that her nostrils had gone white. She took a moment before she went on, speaking more calmly. "Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic. I shall not conceal from you that I have very little patience with it. True Seers are very rare, and Professor Trelawney–" she stopped again and then said, in a very matter-of-fact tone, "You look in excellent health to me, Mr. Potter, so you will excuse me if I don't let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in."

Hermione leaned back in her chair, expression equally as mocking as it danced over the class who all looked less... well, less like they were expecting him to drop dead any second.

When the Transfiguration class had finished, they joined the crowd thundering toward the Great Hall for lunch. Unfortunately, Ron Weasley stopped ahead of them, an ugly sneer on his face. "You'll be dead soon Potter! My Uncle saw a Grim and he died twenty-four hours later– how long do you think you have? In my opinion, the sooner you drop dead the better!"

"And that's why no one asks for your opinion, Weasley." Harry told Weasley with a look of disgust on his face.

"You never know, Harry– with one less Weasley around now, he has got more room to talk." Hermione's amused comment was vicious and Weasley looked furious at the reference to his dead sister.

"You bitch!" he shouted, apparently too overcome in his fury to even think of using magic and instead just lunging at Hermione.

"MR. WEASLEY!" shouted McGonagall, appearing just as Hermione neatly sidestepped the furious redhead then stuck out her foot so he went stumbling, arms waving around wildly, before he fell on his face right at McGonagall's feet. "Five points from Gryffindor for that outrageous show of behaviour!" The professor snapped.

"She– that bitch– how dare she–!"

"Oh do shut up, Weasley." Hermione drawled as the Gryffindor sputtered incoherently, his face red with rage. "Let's go, Harry." She added and Harry linked arms with her, letting her cut a path through the students.

"That was great." Blaise snickered as they all sat down at the Slytherin table.

"Which part? With the bug-eyed fraud or with Weasley?" Hermione looked very satisfied with herself, not unlike the cat who'd caught the canary.

"Both." Theo said, at the same time as Draco said,

"Weasley." And Blaise said,

"Bug-eyes."

"You're on a roll today." Harry told Hermione who laughed, leaning into him slightly as he slung an arm around her waist.

"What does that mean?" Theo asked, looking confused by the Muggle saying. Harry and Hermione just exchanged exasperated looks.

"Never mind." He said, at the same time as she replied,

"Figure it out, geniuses."

Harry was pleased to get out of the castle after lunch. Yesterday's rain had cleared; the sky was a clear, pale grey and the grass was springy and damp underfoot as they set off for their first ever Care of Magical Creatures class.

Hagrid was waiting for his class at the door of his hut where he stood in his moleskin overcoat with Fang the boarhound at his heels, looking impatient to start. "C'mon, now, get a move on!" he called as the class approached. "Got a real treat for yeh today! Great lesson comin' up! Everyone here? Right, follow me!"

For a horrible moment, Harry thought that Hagrid was going to lead them into the Forbidden Forest– going by the look on Hermione's face she had too– but instead Hagrid strolled off around the edge of the trees and, five minutes later, they found themselves outside a kind of paddock. There was nothing in there. "Everyone gather 'round the fence here!" Hagrid called. "That's it– make sure yeh can see– now, firs' thing yeh'll want ter do is open yer books–"

"How?" drawled Draco.

"Eh?" said Hagrid, looking puzzled. Hermione looked like she was trying not to laugh and Harry elbowed her.

"How do we open our books?" Draco repeated. He took out his copy of 'The Monster Book of Monsters', which he had bound shut with a length of rope. Other people took theirs out too; some, like Harry, had belted their book shut; others had crammed them inside tight bags or clamped them together with binder clips.

"Hasn'– hasn' anyone bin able ter open their books?" asked Hagrid, looking crestfallen. The class all shook their heads. "Yeh've got ter stroke 'em," he said, as though this was the most obvious thing in the world. "Look–"

He took Hermione's copy and ripped off the Spellotape that bound it. The book tried to bite but Hagrid ran a giant forefinger down its spine and it shivered then fell open and lay quiet in his hand. "Oh, how silly we've all been!" Pansy sniped. "We should have stroked them! Why didn't we guess!"

"I– I thought they were funny," Hagrid said uncertainly to him.

"Oh, tremendously funny!" Pansy sneered. "Really witty, giving us books that try and rip our hands off!"

"Shut up, Pansy!" Hermione snarled, and Pansy wisely stopped talking and eyed Hermione nervously as Hermione gave her a dark glare that promised pain– and lots of it– if the girl kept talking. 

"I think they're great," Harry lied to Hagrid, an encouraging smile on his face. "They're like practice for the real magical creatures we'll be learning about– you need to know how to approach them all differently, just like you need to stroke the book's spine." 

"Righ' you are, Harry," Hagrid said, instantly seeming to brighten up again, a wide smile returning to his face. "Five points ter Slyth'rin for workin' it out!" Harry grinned back at Hagrid who beamed at the class again. "Righ' then," he said, "yeh've got yer books so now yeh need the Magical Creatures– wait here an' I'll go get 'em." 

He strode away from them into the forest, whistling happily as he turned out of sight. A few people looked like they were going to say something but a withering glare from Hermione had them all staying silent.

"Oooooooh!" squealed Brown suddenly, pointing toward the opposite side of the paddock. Trotting toward them were a dozen of the most bizarre creatures Harry had ever seen– they had the bodies, hind legs and tails of horses, but the front legs, wings and heads of what seemed to be giant eagles, with cruel, steel-colored beaks and large, brilliantly orange eyes. The talons on their front legs were half a foot long and deadly looking.

Each of the beasts had a thick leather collar around its neck which was attached to a long chain and the ends of all of these were held in the vast hands of Hagrid, who came jogging into the paddock behind the creatures.

"Gee up, there!" he roared, shaking the chains and urging the creatures toward the fence where the class stood. Everyone drew back slightly as Hagrid reached them and tethered the creatures to the fence. "Hippogriffs!" Hagrid roared happily, waving a hand at them. "Beau'iful, aren' they?"

Harry could sort of see what Hagrid meant. Once you got over the first shock of seeing something that was half horse and half bird, you started to appreciate the hippogriffs' gleaming coats, changing smoothly from feather to hair and each of them a different color: stormy gray, bronze, pinkish roan, gleaming chestnut, and inky black.

"So," said Hagrid, rubbing his hands together and beaming around, "if yeh wan' ter come a bit nearer–"

No one seemed to want to, but Harry approached the fence cautiously and he heard Hermione sigh in exasperation but she followed him. "Now, firs' thing yeh gotta know abou' hippogriffs is, they're proud," said Hagrid. "Easily offended, they are. Don't never insult one, 'cause it might be the last thing yeh do. Yeh always wait fer the hippogriff ter make the firs' move," he continued. "It's polite, see? Yeh walk toward him, and yeh bow, an' yeh wait. If he bows back, yeh're allowed ter touch him. If he doesn' bow, then get away from him sharpish, 'cause those talons hurt. Right– who wants ter go first?"

Most of the class backed farther away in answer. Even Harry had misgivings– the hippogriffs were tossing their fierce heads and flexing their powerful wings; they didn't seem to like being tethered like this. "No one?" said Hagrid, with a pleading look.

"I'll do it," said Harry. There was an intake of breath from behind him as he climbed over the paddock fence and he heard Hermione swear under her breath.

"Good man, Harry!" roared Hagrid. "Right then– let's see how yeh get on with Buckbeak." He untied one of the chains, pulling the gray hippogriff away from its fellows and slipping off its leather collar. The class on the other side of the paddock seemed to be holding its breath– Harry was holding his breath too. "Easy now, Harry," said Hagrid quietly. "Yeh've got eye contact, now try not ter blink.... Hippogriffs don' trust yeh if yeh blink too much...."

Harry's eyes immediately began to water but he didn't dare shut them. Buckbeak had turned his great, sharp head and was staring at him with one fierce orange eye. "Tha's it," said Hagrid. "Tha's it, Harry... now, bow."

Harry didn't feel much like exposing the back of his neck to Buckbeak but he did as he was told and gave a deep, albeit quick and jerky, bow and then looked back up. The hippogriff was still staring haughtily at him. It didn't move. "Ah," said Hagrid, sounding worried. "Right– back away, now, Harry, easy does it– "

But then, to Harry's enormous surprise, the hippogriff suddenly bent its scaly front knees and sank into what was an unmistakable bow. "Well done, Harry!" said Hagrid, ecstatic. "Right– yeh can touch him now! Pat his beak, go on!"

Feeling that a better reward would have been to back away, Harry moved slowly toward the hippogriff and reached out toward it. He patted the beak several times and the hippogriff closed its eyes lazily as though enjoying it. The class broke into applause, all except for Weasley and his lot who were looking deeply disappointed.

"Righ' then, Harry," said Hagrid cheerfully. "I reckon he might' let yeh ride him!"

This was more than Harry had bargained for. He was used to a broomstick; but he wasn't sure a hippogriff would be quite the same– but for Hagrid, he gritted his teeth and nodded and the large man beamed at him. "Yeh climb up there, jus' behind the wing joint," Hagrid instructed, "an' mind yeh don' pull any of his feathers out, he won' like that...."

Harry put his foot on the top of Buckbeak's wing and hoisted himself onto his back. Buckbeak stood up and Harry wasn't sure where to hold on; everything in front of him was covered with feathers. "Go on, then'" roared Hagrid, slapping the hippogriffs hindquarters.

Without warning, twelve-foot wings flapped open on either side of Harry and he just had time to seize the hippogriff around the neck before he was soaring upward. It was nothing like a broomstick and Harry immediately knew which one he preferred– the hippogriff's wings beat uncomfortably on either side of him, catching him under his legs and making him feel he was about to be thrown off; the glossy feathers slipped under his fingers and he didn't dare get a stronger grip; instead of the smooth action of his Nimbus Two Thousand and One, he now felt himself rocking backward and forward as the hindquarters of the hippogriff rose and fell with its wings.

Buckbeak flew him once around the paddock and then headed back to the ground; this was the bit Harry had been dreading and he leaned back as the smooth neck lowered, feeling he was going to slip off over the beak, then felt a heavy thud as the four ill-assorted feet hit the ground. He just managed to hold on and push himself straight again.

"Good work, Harry!" roared Hagrid. "Okay, who else wants a go?" Emboldened by Harry's success, the rest of the class climbed cautiously into the paddock. Hagrid untied the hippogriffs one by one and soon people were bowing nervously all over the paddock. Longbottom ran repeatedly backward from his, which didn't seem to want to bend its knees, and Hermione was tickling under the chestnut's chin as it let out crooning, chirping noises, having long since bowed. Hermione was actually smiling and Harry was reminded of her saying, back in their first year, how she'd always liked animals better then humans– animals weren't cruel, not like people were. As he watched, his best friend leaned in to kiss the hippogriff's beak which it rubbed affectionately against her cheek.

Draco, Vince, and Greg had taken over Buckbeak. The hippogriff had bowed stiffly to Draco who was now patting his beak, looking disdainful. "This is very easy," Draco grumbled, "I bet you're not dangerous at all, are you?" he said to the hippogriff. "Are you, you great ugly brute?"

It happened in a flash of steely talons; Draco let out a high-pitched scream and next moment, Hagrid was wrestling Buckbeak back into his collar as he strained to get at Draco who lay curled in the grass, blood blossoming over his robes. Harry's stomach lurched, fear for his friend rushing through him.

"I'm dying!" Draco yelled as the class panicked. "I'm dying, look at me! It's killed me!" Hermione was kneeling at Draco's side in a flash, forcing the blond's hand away from the wound. Hagrid, who had gone very white, leaned over above her. 

"He'll fine," Hermione reassured the large man and Harry let out a sigh of relief that was echoed by Hagrid. 

"I'm dying!" Draco wailed again and Hermione slapped the side of his face causing him to promptly shut up and stare at her in shock. 

"Shut up," she ordered him briskly. "It's just a little cut and if you keep carrying on like a child you'll just work yourself up into a right state, so calm the fuck down!

Draco shut his mouth with a click and looked very much like he was pouting. 

"Honestly," Hermione muttered as he gestured for Hagrid to pick him up which Hagrid did easily, "I've been stitching up deeper cuts then that since I was seven and I swear I never complained half as much."

Harry winced slightly, mouth turning down– he hated hearing about how Hermione had suffered in the past, though he comforted himself with the fact she didn't have to live like that anymore. 

"Harry, you deal with this–" Hermione gestured to the class as she wiped her bloodied hands on her robes. "Hagrid, let's go." 

Harry felt himself smile slightly, despite the gravity of the situation– Hermione keeping a cool head in an 'emergency' and taking charge was so typical of her and no one had even tried to protest. 

"Right," he said, as everyone turned to him. "Class dismissed?" Blaise snorted but everyone just went along with it. Harry hung back and eyed the hippogriffs, Theo and Blaise staying with him. "I think we're going to have to figure out how to get their collars back on." He said glumly.  

"You mean you have to figure it out," corrected Blaise with a smirk. "Hermione ordered you to deal with it, remember?" 

"Yeah," Harry said, smirking right back. "And since she put me in charge, I'm ordering you to get off your lazy arse and help me." 

Theo just laughed. 

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Hermione's POV:

Hermione had to walk swiftly to keep pace with Hagrid's strides as he carried Draco through the school and to the Hospital Wing. Madam Pomfrey, of course, didn't have any difficulty healing the blond and Hermione ordered Hagrid to go make sure Harry hadn't accidentally released all the hippogriffs, patting his arm briskly and waiting for him to leave before she settled down on the seat next to Draco's bed.

"What did you mean by 'stitching up' cuts?" Draco asked, looking puzzled. 

"Muggles don't have potions, remember?" Hermione said, reaching over to tap the white bandage wrapped around Draco's forearm. Underneath the bandage, there was only a thick pink line left where only ten minutes previously there had been a jagged wound. "If a cut is deep enough, they have to use thread to hold the skin together while it heals." 

"Thread?" Draco asked, horrified. "Like for robes? Do they actually use needles to sew skin together?" 

"Usually it's done by doctors– Healers– with a special drug that's injected into the skin that numbs the area," Hermione explained. "A drug is sort of like a potion," she added, seeing Draco's confusion at the term. "I... did not have access to any doctors," she admitted, "which meant when I was injured I had to do it myself, or have a friend do it, without the drug." Draco looked at her with wide eyes as she showed him her palm. Scars criss-crossed the surface, some looking older then others. "See that one?" she said, tapping one of the thicker scars. "I was seven, I think, when I did that– can you see the little white spots along the scar?" 

Draco peered closer and nodded. "That's where–?"

"That's where it was stitched together," she confirmed. Draco looked up at her with wide eyes.

"Didn't it hurt?" He demanded and she laughed.

"God yes– but my friend told me to suck it up and shut the fuck up before I gave him a headache with my bratty little princess whining." Draco frowned.

"He doesn't sound like a good friend," he said.

"Where I lived, there was no room to be soft," Hermione told him. "We've led very different childhoods, Draco– I needed to be tougher, needed to be harder, if I wanted to survive. Making sure I'd be able to survive was more important then cuts and bruises. Sting was harsh with me because the world can be a harsh place to live in and I needed to learn to be harsh to stay alive– tears are useless and so is complaining; if you're hurt then you're hurt, nothing you do will change that so you just have to grit your teeth and carry on."

"That sounds..." Draco trailed off, not seeming to know how to finish his sentence. "I'm sorry you had to grow up like that." He said, after a moment. "That– that's not fair. You shouldn't have had to. Nobody should."

Hermione blinked, looking at Draco in surprise. That had been shockingly insightful for the blond. "Thank you," she said. "But life isn't fair and that's just the way it is. I can either be angry and mad about it or just accept it and make the best with what I've got."

"I'm not going to try and get Hagrid fired, you know," Draco said, his cheeks going a bit pink. "I wouldn't do that to you and Harry. You're my friends and I know you're fond of him– well, Harry's fond of him and you're fond of Harry."

"Oh," Hermione said, surprised. "Thank you. I thought I was going to have to threaten you– no, I'm joking. Will your father let it go, though?"

"Oh," Draco said, frowning. "Probably not. I could talk him out of going after Hagrid, but he'll want the hippogriff to be put down at the very least."

"Could we possibly go about that in a way that in a slightly less official way?" She asked. "I'd rather the authorities weren't alerted to the... incident." 

"Less official way?" Draco asked, confused. 

"The hippogriff will still be put down but we could just not involve the Ministry." 

"I'm still confused." Draco grumbled. "How can we not involve the Ministry?"

"Because I'll kill the bloody pigeon," Hermione said, exasperated. "Honestly, Draco. I should ask Madam Pomfrey to check you for brain damage because that was a sensational impersonation of a Gryffindor."

"It's the blood loss!" Draco exclaimed, looking outraged. "I'm not even slightly like a Gryffindor! Wait– did you say you were going to kill it?" 

"You're the one who thinks Harry and I opened the Chamber of Secrets," she pointed out, "following that logic, why on earth wouldn't I be capable of dealing with the hippogriff?" 

"So you're not denying it?" Draco asked, eagerly. "You really did open the Chamber?"

"For fuck's sake," she muttered. "No, Draco, that wasn't a confession of guilt. Yes, Draco, I am saying I'll kill it. Will that satisfy your father and stop him from going after Hagrid and getting the Ministry involved?" 

"I'll make sure of it," Draco said, determinedly. 

"Thanks." Hermione told him and she meant it.

Now she just had to go kill a hippogriff. 

-

When Hermione rejoined Harry later in the Great Hall for dinner, he was looking anxiously up at the staff table. "They won't fire Hagrid, will they?" he asked her, his face pale.

"Don't worry, I sorted it out with Draco." She told him, "he said he's not going to try and get Hagrid fired and he said he'll make sure his father doesn't either." Harry let out a sigh of relief.

"How did you convince him to do that?" he asked.

"I didn't have to ask Draco anything," Hermione said, "he knows you like Hagrid. We had to figure out a way to appease his father so Lucius wouldn't try kicking up a fuss regardless but we sorted that out." 

"You did? How?" Harry asked with a frown. 

"You don't want to know." She said dryly and he immediately looked concerned.

"What did you sort out?" he demanded.

"Harry, relax." She sighed. "Honestly. We just skipped the official process that would have been involved regardless and went straight to the inevitable conclusion." 

"And that inevitable conclusion is?" Harry prompted. Hermione fought the urge to roll her eyes.

"Fine, don't say I didn't warn you– if Lucius had kicked up a fuss the hippogriff would have had to be executed, so I... expedited the execution." 

"You... killed Buckbeak?" Harry asked, eyes almost comically wide. 

"It was Hagrid or the hippogriff, Harry. I chose Hagrid." She told him with a shrug. "I stand by my reasons– I dealt with it before coming to dinner. Hagrid's job is safe and there's going to be no messy paperwork and legal proceedings."

Harry was looking a bit stunned but he nodded. "Thanks. For doing that." He told her, in a quiet voice. "I know how much you don't like, you know, hurting animals, but... you saved Hagrid's job. So thank you." Hermione smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

"Anything for you, Harry." She said. And she meant it. 

-

The next day, she and Harry went down to visit Hagrid who was inconsolable, the half giant having been the one to find a decapitated Buckbeak. "An' 'is head's still missin'!" Hagrid howled, tears leaking down his face and into his beard while Harry tried to comfort him– Hermione wasn't that good at comforting people, which wasn't surprising considering Sting was more likely to tell her to "suck it up and shut the fuck up" then pass on any sympathy. Harry was much better at it then her. 

"At least Draco said he wouldn't complain, Hagrid." She said 'encouragingly' while mentally counting down how much longer they'd have to spend here before they could claim they had a class they had to get to. "He admits that it's his fault for not listening to your warning about them being proud creatures and as long as you don't give him detention or take points for disturbing class and ignoring a professor then he won't make a complaint."

Hagrid nodded, sniffed again and blew his nose noisily on a handkerchief the size of a tablecloth.

"Yer a good girl, Hermione." He said emotionally, patting her back hard enough to pitch her forwards, almost into her tea.

Hermione bit back a snort, darkly amused by the thought of what Hagrid would think of her if he knew the truth about the demise of two of his beloved pets, Buckbeak and Norbert. 

"Draco said he'll spread around the story that one of the older Slytherins killed the hippogriff to get in good with his father," she told Harry later, when they finally got to head back up to the castle. "Because everyone "knows" that he won't complain because he knows how much you like Hagrid. The teachers will get wind of the story before the end of the day, and everything will be settled."

"Let's just hope Hagrid starts off smaller next lesson." Harry sighed.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIII:


Hermione's POV:

Potions was their first class of the day and the Slytherins all spent the morning gaining a great deal of amusement out of Snape ordering Weasley to prepare all of Draco's ingredients due to Draco's 'injury'. It was when they were exiting the classroom that she and Harry overheard two Gryffindors talking excitedly about a nearby sighting of Sirius Black. They'd both exchanged looks at this and Hermione's heart ached at her best friend's torn expression.

After Potions was lunch and then their first Defense Against the Dark Arts with their new professor. Professor Lupin wasn't there when they arrived at the classroom so she and Harry just found some seats and took out their books, quills and parchment. The whole class was present when Lupin finally entered the room.

"Good afternoon," he said. "Would you please put all your books back in your bags. Today's will be a practical lesson. You will need only your wands."

A few curious looks were exchanged as the class put away their books. They had never had a practical Defense Against the Dark Arts before, unless you counted the memorable class last year when Lockhart had brought a cage full of pixies into the classroom and set them loose.

"Right then," said Professor Lupin, when everyone was ready. "If you'd follow me."

Puzzled but interested, the class got to its feet and followed Professor Lupin out of the classroom. He led them along the deserted corridor and around a corner where the first thing they saw was Peeves the Poltergeist, who was floating upside down in midair and stuffing the nearest keyhole with chewing gum.

Peeves didn't look up until Professor Lupin was two feet away; then he wiggled his curly-toed feet and broke into song. "Loony, loopy Lupin," Peeves sang. "Loony, loopy Lupin, loony, loopy Lupin–"

Rude and unmanageable as he almost always was, Peeves usually showed some respect toward the teachers. Everyone looked quickly at Professor Lupin to see how he would take this; to Hermione's slight surprise he was still smiling.

"I'd take that gum out of the keyhole if I were you, Peeves," Lupin said pleasantly. "Mr. Filch won't be able to get in to his brooms." Peeves paid no attention to his words except to blow a loud wet raspberry. Lupin gave a small sigh and took out his wand. "This is a useful little spell, he told the class over his shoulder. "Please watch closely." He raised the wand to shoulder height, said, "Waddiwasi!" and pointed it at Peeves.

With the force of a bullet, the wad of chewing gum shot out of the keyhole and straight down Peeves's left nostril. The poltergeist whirled upright and zoomed away, cursing. "Cool, sir!" said Dean Thomas in amazement.

"Thank you, Dean," said Lupin, putting his wand away again. "Shall we proceed?"

They set off again, most of the class looking at shabby Lupin with increased respect. Hermione was reserving her judgment.

Lupin led them down a second corridor and stopped, right outside the staffroom door. "Inside, please," he said, opening it and standing back.

The staffroom, a long, paneled room full of old, mismatched chairs, was empty except for one teacher. Snape was sitting in a low armchair, and he looked around as they all filed in. His eyes were glittering and there was a particularly nasty sneer playing around his mouth that Hermione made note of to practice later– she'd learned several very impressive scowls from Snape in the past.

As Lupin came in and made to close the door behind him, Snape said, "Leave it open, Lupin. I'd rather not witness this." He got to his feet and strode past the class, his black robes billowing behind him. At the doorway he turned on his heel and said, "Possibly no one's warned you, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult."

Longbottom went scarlet and Hermione bit back an amused smile at the look of anger on the faces of the Gryffindors. Honestly, it wasn't as if any of them were actually friends with Longbottom.

Lupin had raised his eyebrows. "I was hoping that Neville would assist me with the first stage of the operation," he said, "and I am sure he will perform it admirably." Longbottom's face went, if possible, even redder. Snape's lip curled but he left, shutting the door with a snap. "Now, then," said Lupin, beckoning the class toward the end of the room where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall. "Nothing to worry about," he said calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. "There's a boggart in there."

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Hermione frowned, remembering what she'd read about boggarts– they were amortal shape-shifting non-beings that took on the form of the viewer's worst fear.

Longbottom gave Lupin a look of pure terror and Harry turned to her confused and she mouthed 'later'.

"Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces," said Lupin. "Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks– I've even met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice. So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a boggart?"

Patil answered the question. "It's a shape-shifter, sir," she said, a look of apprehension on her face. "It turns into what scares us most."

"Excellent," Lupin nodded at the Gryffindor in approval. "So the boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears. This means," he said, apparently choosing to ignore Longbottom's sputter of terror, "that we have a huge advantage over the boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?"

Beside her, Harry looked a little bit stunned at being called upon to answer the question. "Er– because there are so many of us, it won't know what shape it should be?" He said, after a moment.

"Precisely," said Lupin and she flashed a relieved Harry a quick smile. "It's always best to have company when you're dealing with a boggart." Lupin continued. "He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a boggart make that very mistake– tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.

"The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.

"We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please ... Riddikulus!"

"Riddikulus!" said the class together.

"Good," said Lupin with a smile. "Very good. But that was the easy part, I'm afraid. You see, the word alone is not enough. And this is where you come in, Neville."

The wardrobe shook again, though not as much as Longbottom who walked forwards as though he were heading for the gallows. "Right, Neville," said Lupin. "First things first: what would you say is the thing that frightens you most in the world?" Longbottom's lips moved, but no noise came out. "Didn't catch that, Neville, sorry," said Lupin cheerfully.

Longbottom looked around rather wildly, as though begging someone to help him, then said, in barely more than a whisper, "Professor Snape."

Nearly everyone laughed. Even Longbottom grinned apologetically. Hermione traded amused looks with a snickering Harry. Lupin, however, looked thoughtful. "Professor Snape... hmmm... Neville, I believe you live with your grandmother?"

"Er– yes," said Longbottom nervously. "But– I don't want the boggart to turn into her either."

"No, no, you misunderstand me," said Lupin, now smiling. "I wonder, could you tell us what sort of clothes your grandmother usually wears?"

Longbottom looked startled, but said, "Well... always the same hat. A tall one with a stuffed vulture on top. And a long dress... green, normally... and sometimes a fox-fur scarf."

"And a handbag?" prompted Lupin.

"A big red one," said Longbottom.

"Right then," said Lupin. "Can you picture those clothes very clearly, Neville? Can you see them in your mind's eye?"

"Yes," said Longbottom uncertainty, plainly wondering what was coming next.

"When the boggart bursts out of this wardrobe, Neville, and sees you, it will assume the form of Professor Snape," said Lupin. "And you will raise your wand– thus– and cry 'Riddikulus' – and concentrate hard on your grandmother's clothes. If all goes well, the Boggart-Professor Snape will be forced into that vulture-topped hat, and that green dress, with that big red handbag." There was a great shout of laughter from the Gryffindors, but Hermione's lips tightened as she narrowed her eyes, not finding the idea of her Head of House being humiliated like that at all amusing.

"If Neville is successful, the boggart is likely to shift his attention to each of us in turn," said Lupin. "I would like all of you to take a moment now to think of the thing that scares you most, and imagine how you might force it to look comical...."

The room went quite and Hermione tried to think. Beside her, Harry shivered before quickly glancing around, most likely hoping that no one had noticed. Many people had their eyes shut tight. Ron Weasley was muttering loudly to himself. Hermione's lip curled.

"Everyone ready?" said Lupin.

Hermione felt a lurch of uncertainty. She wasn't ready. She had no idea what scared her the most, she couldn't pin-point one thing, not when she spent so much time pushing her fears to the back of her mind and repressing them, ensuring she never had to think about them. Could a boggart turn into a dark, enclosed space? Could it make her feel like she was falling? Hermione doubted it, which meant she honestly had no idea what it could turn into but she didn't want to ask for more time; everyone else was nodding and rolling up their sleeves. Well, everyone except for Harry who was trying to hide a look of desperation. She squeezed his hand, trying to both give comfort and receive it. He gave her a strained smile in response.

"Neville, we're going to back away," said Lupin. "Let you have a clear field, all right? I'll call the next person forward.... Everyone back, now, so Neville can get a clear shot–"

They all retreated, backed against the walls, leaving Longbottom alone beside the wardrobe. He looked pale and frightened, but he had pushed up the sleeves of his robes and was holding his wand ready. "On the count of three, Neville," said Lupin, who was pointing his own wand at the handle of the wardrobe. "One, two, three– now!"

A jet of sparks shot from the end of Lupin's wand and hit the doorknob. The wardrobe burst open. Expression menacing, her Head of House stepped out, his eyes flashing at Longbottom. Longbottom backed away, his wand up, mouthing wordlessly. Snape was bearing down upon him, reaching inside his robes. "R- r- riddikulus! "squeaked Longbottom.

There was a noise like a whip crack. Snape stumbled; he was wearing a long, lace-trimmed dress and a towering hat topped with a moth-eaten vulture, and he was swinging a huge crimson handbag. There was a roar of laughter from the Gryffindors and Hermione's jaw clenched. The boggart paused, confused, and Lupin shouted, "Parvati! Forward!"

Patil walked forward, her face set. Snape rounded on her. There was another crack, and where he had stood was a bloodstained, bandaged mummy; its sightless face was turned to Patil and it began to walk toward her very slowly, dragging its feet, its stiff arms rising–

"Riddikulus!" cried Patil. A bandage unraveled at the mummy's feet; it became entangled, fell face forward, and its head rolled off.

"Seamus!" roared Lupin. Finnegan darted past Patil. Crack! Where the mummy had been was a woman with floor-length black hair and a skeletal, green-tinged face– a banshee. She opened her mouth wide and an unearthly sound filled the room, a long, wailing shriek that made the hair on Hermione's head stand on end– "Riddikulus!" shouted Finnegan. The banshee made a rasping noise and clutched her throat; her voice was gone.

Crack! The banshee turned into a rat, which chased its tail in a circle, then- crack!- became a rattlesnake, which slithered and writhed before- crack!- becoming a single, bloody eyeball.

Hermione couldn't help but find herself disgusted– these were her classmates biggest fears? Pathetic. They wouldn't know real fear if it slapped then across the face.

"It's confused!" shouted Lupin. "We're getting there! Dean!"

Thomas hurried forward. Crack! The eyeball became a severed hand, which flipped over and began to creep along the floor like a crab. "Riddikulus!" yelled Thomas. There was a snap, and the hand was trapped in a mousetrap.

The only people with actual, genuine fears in their class were two of her fellow Slytherins, Blaise and Tracey. Blaise's boggart had turned into a beautiful woman dressed all in black with a veil covering her face. She was clutching a framed photograph in her hands, both clad in black silk gloves– a photograph of Blaise's face.

Adrienne Zabini, the Black Widow. Blaise's mother. She had six dead husbands– and Hermione felt a twinge of sympathy as she realised there was a part of Blaise that apparently feared one day he would be her next victim. With a 'Riddikulus' Blaise had changed his mother's mourning clothes into a wedding dress. Hermione didn't understand why it was amusing but Blaise had let out a bark of laughter, and apparently that had been enough.

Tracey's fear was an Auror. Hermione, thinking of Tracey's knowledge of nasty, questionable curses and her gifts of books on Grey Arts, didn't have to wonder just why her fellow Slytherin was so afraid of law enforcement. Tracey's 'Riddikulus' had set the Auror on fire– Hermione had laughed, but most of the class had been too shocked.

Hermione waited impatiently for her own turn, nervous anticipation building up inside her until there was only Weasley left before her and Harry.

"Excellent! Ron, you next!" Lupin called out and Weasley leapt forward. Crack! Quite a few people screamed. An Acromantula, six feet tall and covered in hair, was advancing on Weasley, clicking its pincers menacingly. For an entertaining moment, she thought Weasley had frozen and wondered if boggarts actually tried to kill people, Lupin hadn't said. Before she could find out if the Acromantula would actually attack, though–

"Riddikulus!" bellowed Weasley and the spider's legs vanished. She had a moment of disappointment and then it rolled over and over until it came to a halt at Harry's feet, to her left. Harry raised his wand, ready, but–

"Here!" shouted Lupin suddenly, hurrying forward. Crack! The legless spider had vanished. For a second everyone looked wildly around to see where it was. Then they saw a silvery-white orb hanging in the air. Annoyance flared through her as Lupin raised his wand.

"Excuse me!" She spoke up sharply, drawing the class's attention. "You skipped Harry and I." Lupin looked awkward, though half of his attention was fixed on the silvery white orb. "There's enough time." She added when it looked like he was searching for some sort of excuse. She might not want to face her fear but if she ever found herself up against a boggart she fully intended on knowing how to deal with it– that's what the class was for, after all, learning how to defend themselves.

"Very well," Lupin's voice was reluctant. "You first, Hermione." Equals parts triumphant and nervous, she stepped in front of the professor and Crack!

It was Harry; Harry's body, sprawled on the ground, his bright green eyes dull and glassy. The pale skin of his neck was marred with violent, purple-black hand-shaped bruises; identical to the ones she'd seen on her

Hermione's vision blurred for a moment and she couldn't breathe around the ice in her lungs. "R- Riddikulus!" she choked out, but her voice was strange and cracked; like it splintered and been put back together all wrong. There was another crack and the class gasped, most letting out cries of shock and horror as Hermione's whole body seized up and her throat made a dry keening sound. Lying before them all was the corpse of a small girl. She was naked, curled up on the floor like a baby kitten and her long red hair made her look almost like she was lying in a pool of blood. Her tiny body was mottled with bruises, including a ring of dark purple ones around her small neck that were shaped like fingers. Her little face was battered and bloody, there was blood and semen streaked down her inner thighs and–

"R-Riddikulus!" Panic had slammed into her in full force; it was like she'd hit her head, she couldn't focus and the world was blurred and now it was Tom's body there, laying spread-eagled on the staff-room floor, eyes blank and unseeing. "Fuck this!" She hissed between her teeth, a sudden, terrible rage filling her. If anyone hurt Harry or Tom she'd rip them to pieces– there wouldn't be enough of them to fit in a match box once she was done. Anger gave her strength, the way it always had, and this time her voice was strong and clear. "RIDDIKULUS!" Life flowed back into Tom's body, causing 'him' to stand up, alive and healthy, and blow the room a kiss. The action was so unlike Tom that she couldn't help her burst of laughter, though the sound edged closer to hysteria then humour.

Someone touched her shoulder and she flinched, wrenching herself out of their grip. Her heart racing a million miles an hour, Hermione sucked in a breath, then another and another, not breathing out until it hurt, and then everything reassembled itself around her, the blurriness in her vision receding as the world swam back into focus.

"I'm fine," she said, before anyone could ask. "I'm fine." She wasn't fine. She was rumpled, sweat-soaked, wild-eyed and shaking, but she glared so fiercely at everyone in the room that no one could meet her eye and not even Lupin protested her words. She glanced over at the professor as she stepped back, letting Harry take her place. Lupin's face was pale, sick, his eyes horrified as they met hers and she couldn't breathe properly again, neither of them looking away until– a loud crack and the lamps around the staffroom flickered and went out.

Hermione turned her head back around so quickly she almost gave herself whiplash and then had to fight the urge to stumble backwards as she saw the Dementor the boggart had turned into, its hooded face turned towards Harry and one glistening, scabbed hand gripping its cloak.

The Dementor started to sweep silently forwards, drawing a deep rattling breath and Hermione watched Harry go rigid. She knew that he had precious few seconds of consciousness left so, taking advantage of the dim light of the staffroom, she grabbed a handful of Harry's robes from behind and yanked him back so she was the one in front of the Boggart-Dementor. The classroom dissolved, she was f a l l i n g through a thick white fog–

Get Hermione out of here, Richard, get her out– screech of tires on the road, screaming in her ears, can't breathe, iron bands tightening around her lungs– blood bubbling between Sharpie's lips as she coughs– you like to bite, pretty girl? So do I– why're ya here, Janey? Ya think this is worth it? Go home, kid!– fuckin' shut up or ya gonna git us all killed!– it hurts, oh god it hurts so much, please stop, please stop, please!– wicked devil child!– black, it's all black, there's no light and she's hungry and she's crying and pleasepleaseplease get me out of here– she's dead, she's dead, and it's my fault, all my fault–

Hermione jerked back to life. She was lying flat on her back on the floor and the lamps in the staffroom were alight again. Cold sweat plastered her clothes to her body and her heart was pounding frantically in her chest. She could hear the muttering sounds of their classmates but she was unable to stop herself trembling all over and her throat made a pathetic little sound. Breathe, she needed to breathe, she needed to get herself back under control and get out, she was too exposed

Hermione managed to push herself up with trembling arms so she was sitting, pulled her knees to her chest and rested her forehead on them, drawing in longer and longer breaths like Sting had taught her; in, count to one, out, count to one, in, count to two, out, count to two... her breathing finally evened out and she lifted her head back up. Harry, who was kneeling beside her, looked grey and sick and she reached out to him, curling a hand around his wrist, her thumb digging into his pulse, letting the steady thud of it anchor her.

"Are you alright?" He asked, his voice shaky.

"I've certainly been better." She replied hoarsely.

"I can't believe you fainted!" Weasley's voice suddenly called out, mocking and derisive, "that's pathetic Granger!" Hermione felt a blaze of anger rush through her. On her feet in a second, she had her wand out and pointed towards him with a curse on her lips and her other hand reaching for a blade when Lupin shouted,

"ENOUGH!"

Panting angrily, her hand shook but she refused to lower her wand. "The effect the Dementor had on Hermione has nothing to do with weakness." Lupin said, sharply. "Dementors are among the foulest of creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, and they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. And it is those with true horrors in their pasts that are affected worse."

Hermione wanted to cut Weasley open, she wanted to punch Lupin and even more then that she wanted to curl in a ball and cry. "If you'll excuse me." She spat as she strode across the room, cutting a path through the students who hastily parted for her and storming out of the staffroom.

Harry jogged to catch up to her, panting slightly. "Theo says he'll grab our stuff from the classroom." He said and she nodded shortly, her lips pressed tightly together. "Hermione," his voice was pained, "I– I'm sorry, I should have been able to–"

"You would have passed out too, Harry." She interrupted him and if her voice was shaking then it didn't matter, because only Harry was there and Harry was safe, he had no sharp edges for her to cut herself on; he wouldn't make her bleed. "And you're a boy." She added. "You'd be ridiculed for something that isn't your fault. I'm a girl. We're expected to faint."

"Thank you, Hermione." Harry said, still looking horribly guilty as he kept up with her brisk strides. "You're... you're right."

"It's the golden rule, Harry," she muttered, her breath hitching as hysteria swam inside her. "Hermione's always right."

She entered the Slytherin Common Room and went straight up to the girl's dormitory, Harry following close on her heels. She made it to her dorm room and slammed the door shut, locking it behind her before she collapsed into a crouch on the floor. She couldn't do anything but violently tremble as she harshly bit her tongue hard enough she could taste the sweet copper of her own blood; didn't have the energy to try and lift herself up, to do anything at all.

Tears streamed down her face as silent sobs tore through her, rattling her bones. Her hands curled over her head, nails digging into her scalp as she hunched into herself, breaking to pieces for the second time in a mere handful of days. She felt hands stroking her back, cradling her, rocking her, running through her hair... absentmindedly, she noted that Tom must have emerged from the Diary.

She pulled herself together as quickly as she could force herself to. Despite the double attack of the boggart and the boggart-Dementor, practice made perfect and she was getting better at pushing down all the memories, locking them away so they could rattle at their prison bars but were unable to reach her.

It took much less time then after her first run-in with a Dementor for her to become aware of her surroundings once more, all her broken shields forced back together and stronger then ever. She was, Hermione realised, being cradled between Tom and Harry. Harry's arm was wrapped around her waist, his hand resting on the curve of her hip, while Tom's arm curved around her shoulders.

She blamed her raw emotional state on the way her skin tingled and her abdomen clenched. She was fourteen years old now and it wasn't unreasonable for her to be attracted to people.

She hadn't given romance much thought over the years, but as she became very aware of Harry's hand on her hip she realised there was a part of her that had always expected she and Harry to end up together like that. She loved Harry. She trusted him with her life and would gladly lay down her own life in trade for his. Before he'd been younger, before she hadn't seen him in this sort of light. But the way his green, green eyes seemed to burn with concern, his innocently intimate touch... yes, it felt quite nice.

Tom, though... she hadn't expected Tom. His whole presence was still something she was wary about, the knowledge of just who he was and how dangerous he could be never quite able to leave her. But they were bound together; Hermione wasn't sure if it was a temporary arrangement or something irreversibly permanent. And Tom wasn't someone who was difficult to be around– he'd grown on her, not unlike fungus, and had started to worm his way behind her defences. He was sharply intelligent, handsome and he understood her, understood her deeper, darker urges, understood the way Harry never would be able to– the way she never wanted Harry to be all to– and never condemned her for them. He fulfilled the one need in her that Harry couldn't and she hadn't realised how much she'd needed that until she suddenly had it.

Tom and Harry knew her; they knew who she was underneath her masks, knew about her scars both internal and external and the blood on her hands. Their dead bodies were two of her worst fears. She loved Harry, loved him more then life itself. She didn't love Tom, but she didn't think it was impossible that one day she might feel something very close to love for him. Not yet, she didn't know him well enough, didn't trust him enough; didn't trust him to put anyone but himself first. Not that she judged him for that– she would always put Harry and herself before anyone else, would gladly kill whoever or whatever she needed to in order to keep them both safe.

She loved Harry and he loved her. She understood Tom and he understood her. Harry's heart was too big and Tom was too possessive– and she was greedy enough to take advantage of both those facts, to want both of them, to want them as her own. She doubted either of them would protest.

She could already see it, could already the three of them tangling themselves up together so tightly they'd never be able to let each other go, and oh; what a glorious mess they would make.  

-

-

Remus's POV:

"I'm not surprised."

Remus looked over at Severus, shocked that it had been him who first responded.

"Miss Granger has always shown that she will do anything to protect Mr. Potter." Severus continued, tone matter-of-fact.

It was a staff meeting and Remus had just given everyone present a brief recap over the Boggart lesson with an emphasis on the conclusion. He'd never seen something like that before. After realizing the threat the Boggart-Dementor posed, Hermione Granger hadn't hesitated a second before pulling Harry out of the way, and standing in his place. She had literally stepped in the path of a Dementor for Harry– a Dementor!

Time had seemed to stand still as Hermione fell to the ground, her body seizing like she was having a fit, before Remus had jerked back into motion, banishing the Boggart. Harry had dropped to his knees at the girl's side, pulling her out of unconsciousness. Hermione had then been able to calm herself down from a panic attack in a way that spoke of experience, and the look in her eyes when Ron Weasley had taunted her afterwards... if he hadn't stopped her, Remus got the feeling that Ron would be nothing but a smear of blood on the wall. She hadn't looked like she wanted to curse the boy, to hurt him. She'd looked like she wanted to kill him. Remus himself had been furious enough that he'd given the boy detention.

"I'm also not surprised she passed out. Her past is decidedly less then pleasant. Before coming to Hogwarts, she was homeless and lived on the streets of London. Her last known address is Saint Agatha's Orphanage, except according to their records she ran away when she was six years old." Severus continued, and the staffroom was filled with shocked gasps.

"That's just awful!" Filius squeaked, face horrified.

"No wonder the poor dear's always so distant." Pomona said, looking teary. Remus turned to Albus and Minerva and was surprised to see their grim expressions unchanged.

As the meeting drew to a conclusion, Remus was shocked by Severus approaching him. His old classmate's expression was fixed in a sneer but for once it wasn't aimed in his direction.

"Nothing Granger does is ever good enough for those two." Severus nodded at the headmaster and his deputy. "In her first year she fought a mountain troll without a wand to protect Harry and they still don't trust her."

Remus wasn't sure what startled him more– Severus's use of Harry's given name, or the man's defense of Hermione Granger. "Why don't they like her? Is it because of House prejudices?" He asked.

"They don't like her because she's smarter then them, more cunning then them, has far more influence over Harry then them, absolutely loathes them and can see through Albus's manipulations." Severus listed with a snort.

"Oh." Remus murmured, "I... I have to say, I am glad Harry has her. She seems to care a great deal about him. One of her worst fears was him dead, as well as another boy, an older one."

"Dark haired, pale skinned, strange eyes?" Severus asked curiously and Remus nodded. Severus looked thoughtful but didn't elaborate. Instead he asked, "was that all the boggart showed?"

Remus hesitated, shuddering slightly at the memory– "A third body. One of a young child." He said, quietly. Severus's face went blank. "The child's body, it was... Well, both Harry's body and this Tom's body both had the same cause of death– manual strangulation. I believe that that particular fear is too specific not to have actually happened to somebody she knew. I suspect that specific fear originated from the young girl's death."

"Describe the child." Severus said quietly. Remus didn't want to think about the child's corpse but Severus was Hermione Granger's Head of House and out of all the staff, he seemed to care the most for her– he would have the best chance of helping her.

"Young, maybe seven at the most. Underweight, old scars like cigarette burns on the arms. Naked and beaten, strangulation bruises around her neck, lying on the ground as if she'd been dropped or thrown, just... discarded." He tried to be as clinical as possible, before he just couldn't. "She'd been raped," he whispered and Severus immediately, "there was so much blood on her thighs... and she had long red hair and green eyes. She looked so much like–" Severus made a sharp sound, slashing his hand through the air in a slashing motion.

"Enough." He hissed and Remus fell silent. Severus closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly.

"I would appreciate it," he said stiffly, opening his eyes to meet Remus's and Remus tried not to flinch at the truly tired look in them, "as would Miss Granger, if details of her boggart were not spread around."

"Of course," Remus said, surprised and a little defensive, "I would never violate a student's privacy like that and I made sure all the students in class knew that anyone caught discussing what happened in the room would be given detention." Severus nodded, exhaling slowly. He still looked very tired but he wasn't ending their conversation and moving away so Remus tentatively spoke up again. "Is she related to the Dagworth-Grangers?" He asked, "I don't recognize her surname."

"Hermione Granger is a Muggleborn." Severus said and Remus gaped at him, openly shocked.

"What?"

"She's a Muggleborn in Slytherin and she's got the whole House wrapped around her little finger." Severus seemed amused by this, and he'd relaxed, his body losing the tenseness and his mouth curling into a smirk. "She actually displays the qualities of a true Slytherin, not like most of my students, the majority of them being blood purists and from old family lines."

"Do they know she's a Muggleborn?" Remus asked and Severus snorted.

"She backed them into a corner," he said, appearing genuinely amused. "She made it so they couldn't claim she was a Muggleborn without going against their own Pureblood supremacy rhetoric."

"How in Merlin's name did she manage that?" Remus asked incredulously and Severus smirked.

"By very publically retaliating to Ron Weasley's attempted assault on Harry in their first year. He tried to ambush the boy and she defended Harry, warning Weasley to back off and the other Slytherins backed her up. Weasley then asked them why they were associating with a Muggleborn and Granger wandlessly froze the little idiot in place, gave a pretty speech about how she must be a Halfblood because how could a Muggleborn be as powerful as she was, then she broke Weasley's nose."

Remus blinked. "She... she is..."

"I believe the words you are looking for are 'something else'." Severus said and Remus nodded, feeling a touch dazed.

"You said– you said she took on a mountain troll?"

"Killed it too." Severus looked very proud and Remus didn't blame him– Remus was proud of the girl and he'd only had one lesson with her. Stepping in front of a Dementor for someone she loved was one of the bravest things he'd ever seen someone do and it was twice as impressive coming from a child. Lily would love her, Remus thought, remembering the other muggleborn in Harry's life who had stepped in front of Harry, protecting him from danger.

And apparently the Dementor wasn't the first time Hermione Granger had reacted so selflessly, disregarding her own wellbeing for Harry's sake. How could Severus not be proud of the girl?

"And you said she didn't have a wand when she faced son the troll?" he asked, wide-eyed and stunned.

"Correct." Severus nodded, his pride clear for anyone to see. "Granger and Harry got trapped in an empty classroom with a twelve foot mountain troll. She knew that its skin was impervious to spells, so she climbed up onto its back and used a switchblade to skewer its brain."

"Skewer its brain?" Remus repeated faintly, trying to picture petite little Hermione Granger who must have been even tinier in her first year taking on a twelve foot mountain troll. "How? Their skin is so thick!"

"Granger believes in being prepared," Severus smirked at the memory, "as it turned out, she carried several blades upon her person– a relic from her life on the streets, I imagine. Being a homeless is not safe for a child." Brief anger flashed in Severus's eyes and Remus swallowed back a growl at the thought of the poor girl being attacked, of only having herself. "She used one of those blades to pierce one of a troll's only vulnerabilities." Severus returned to the troll story.

"Its eyes," Remus realised. "That's why she climbed up to its neck– she needed to reach its eyes. Oh, that clever girl! And it worked?"

"She had her arm almost elbow-deep into its skull while clinging to its back." Severus confirmed and Remus shook his head in amazement.

"That's... brilliant." He said. "And my god, what a brave girl! Most adult wizards wouldn't be able to keep their head when faced with a mountain troll but she managed to figure out its weakness and formulate a plan– what an amazing, clever, selfless little girl."

"She's one of those rare children that makes teaching feel less like I'm pulling my own fingernails out with a pair of pliers." Severus agreed.

"You must be very proud. She is truly a credit to your House," Remus said very genuinely.

"That she is." Severus said, looking even more smug.

"How did she and Harry become friends in the first place?" he asked, curiously, deciding to make the most of Severus's seemingly pleasant mood.

"They bonded on the Express their first year, before the Sorting." Severus told him, "Granger runs circles around everyone else, but as I have told Albus and Minerva over and over, with Harry she is always genuine."

"You keep calling him Harry," Remus couldn't help but say, even though he knew it would most likely annoy Severus and cause the other man to sneer at him, spit out a few insults, then storm away. To his surprise, although Severus did sneer he still answered Remus's unspoken question, albeit not in great detail.

"I call him Harry because he is not his father." Severus said, before turning and walking off, leaving Remus to puzzle over what the Head of Slytherin had just said.

-

-

Severus's POV:

"Ah Severus," Lucius greeted him as he stepped out of the floo. "Here already? You must have had a trying day." Severus pulled a face.

"I just experienced the absolute pleasure of a conversation with an old school friend of mine." He sneered, his lip automatically curling at the thought of the werewolf, but try as he might he just couldn't manage his old hatred, too drained by the revelations of the boggart class that he really wished he'd stayed for after all. And, if he was being honest, too pleased by Lupin's open admiration and praise of Granger. He hadn't been expecting that from him– he'd been expecting Lupin to side with Albus against his student, but Lupin had been genuine in both his own pride in the girl for her actions in his class and in his amazement of her previous actions.

She is a credit to your House, Lupin had told him, and it hadn't been an insult. The werewolf had genuinely complimented both Granger and Slytherin.

"Remus Lupin, I assume?" Lucius arched an eyebrow and Severus nodded, keeping his thoughts about Lupin's open approval of Hermione– and his surprising lack of animosity towards Slytherin and the fact that Harry had been sorted into it– to himself.

"He was very interested in learning about Harry and Granger's friendship." Severus did say.

"Can you blame him?" Lucius asked. "I am curious myself. They seem closer then just school friends, yet they don't appear to share a romantic relationship of any kind."

"And then there's the older boy. Tom." Severus said with a grimace– he didn't like puzzles and Tom, whoever he was and however he'd gotten close to Harry and Granger, was most certainly a puzzle. "They went up against a boggart today. Granger's worst fears included Harry and this Tom dead."

Lucius winced, genuine sympathy on his face. "That can't have been pleasant. What about Harry's?"

"A Dementor. Lupin told me he passed out on the train when the Dementors were searching it. He almost collapsed again but Granger stepped in front of him, I presume to save him from the ridicule."

"How did she go against it?" Lucius asked, interested and impressed.

"She collapsed and according to Lupin had a sort of seizure." Severus answered. "Then she almost blew Weasley's head off."

"Pity she didn't." Lucius sighed. "Any other interesting news?" Severus decided not to mention the dead child– that was a mystery he intended on solving himself.

"Yes, your son had an unpleasant encounter with a hippogriff during Care of Magical Creatures." Severus had to hold up a hand as a suddenly furious-looking Lucius opened his mouth, presumably to start yelling. "Draco declined to make a complaint and asked me to pass on the request that you don't make an issue over it. He said there was no point involving the Ministry and making an official mess when it could all be sorted out quietly."

"Sorted out quietly?" Lucius asked through gritted teeth.

"The hippogriff in question was found decapitated."

"You suspect Granger had something to do with it." Lucius looked slightly less like he was about to storm to Hogwarts and demand Hagrid be fired. "She certainly has quite the vicious streak, doesn't she?"

"That she does." Severus agreed dryly. "She was also the one to accompany Hagrid up to the hospital wing after his Draco's injury, giving her plenty of time to talk it out with him. Harry's quite fond of Hagrid, which I presume she used to talk Draco out of issuing an official complaint."

"I'm not sure whether to be annoyed or impressed." Lucius mused, looking disgruntled. "An official complaint would have led to the possible firing of the oaf and the execution of the beast. It seems Miss Granger and Draco decided to skip straight to the execution."

"She's quite the enigma, isn't she?" Severus commented and Lucius nodded, chuckling slightly.

"I think we can expect interesting and powerful things from her, Severus."

Severus nodded, in complete agreement with his oldest and dearest friend. Hermione Granger was destined for greatness and even Albus wouldn't be able to hold her back.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIV:



Harry's POV:

In no time at all, Defense Against the Dark Arts had become most people's favorite class. The next few lessons were just as interesting as the first. After boggarts, they studied Red Caps, nasty little goblin like creatures that lurked wherever there had been bloodshed: in the dungeons of castles and the potholes of deserted battlefields, waiting to bludgeon those who had gotten lost. From Red Caps they moved on to kappas, creepy water-dwellers that looked like scaly monkeys, with webbed hands itching to strangle unwitting waders in their ponds.

Divination on the other hand... Harry was growing to dread the hours he spent in Trelawney's stifling tower room, deciphering lopsided shapes and symbols, trying to ignore the way Trelawney's enormous eyes filled with tears every time she looked at him. He didn't like Trelawney, even though she was treated with respect bordering on reverence by many of their classmates. It was only Hermione's blatant challenging and subtle mocking of Trelawney during the lessons that got him through.

Care of Magical Creatures was interesting. At first Hagrid seemed to have lost his confidence and they spent to next few lessons learning how to look after flobberworms, which had to be some of the most boring creatures in existence. But after Hermione had a stern speaking to with Hagrid, dragging a pouting Draco along to do so, he had cheered up and introduced them to a range of both interesting and terrifying Magical Creatures, including bowtruckles, fire crabs and even a shy little mooncalf. Originally he hadn't set much homework but Hermione had forced him to go over all his lesson plans with her and assigned the different classes and year levels appropriate work to be completed after class. Harry had been annoyed until Hermione pointed out that if Hagrid's students all failed their exams then he'd be fired for incompetence. Harry had apologised and the homework wasn't really that bad– it was more diagrams and stuff then essays.

At the start of October, Harry had something entirely new to occupy him. The Quidditch season was approaching and Marcus Flint, Captain of the Slytherin team, was working them hard. No matter the weather, he'd drag them out to the pitch every day– the two hour practices on weekdays alternated between mornings and evenings and on Saturday and Sunday practice could be anywhere between two to four hours long. 

Harry was exhausted by the new work load and practices, and he was relieved that Hermione hadn't tried to make them start their extracurricular lessons on offensive and defensive magic, though she did make him spar with her twice a week– once with knives, once without.

He was returning to the Slytherin common room from Quidditch practice one evening, cold and stiff but pleased with the way the training had gone, only to find the room buzzing excitedly.

"What's happened?" he asked Hermione, who was sitting by the fireside and completing her Divination homework with a look of great distaste.

"First Hogsmeade weekend," she said absently, pointing at a notice that had appeared on the bulletin board. "End of October. Halloween."

Harry felt excitement flare up in him. "Are you coming?" He asked her excitedly and was shocked when she shook her head. "What? Why not?" He demanded.

"No one to sign my permission form." She shrugged.

"What about Snape? He might," Harry suggested, not really wanting to go without her. It wouldn't be nearly as much fun exploring the village without her obscure facts and cutting observations.

A thoughtful look crossed Hermione's face. "You know, that's actually worth a try." She said.

Together they made their way to Snape's office and Harry knocked. "Enter." Drawled Snape and Harry beat down the usual flutter of nervousness he always got in Snape's presence– during their first year Snape had seemed to dislike him; it hadn't been until after their detention in the Forbidden Forest that he'd warmed up to him.

Their Head of House looked up as he and Hermione entered his office and raised an eyebrow. "Is there something I can do for you?"

"According to the Hogwarts rules, as an orphan I'm officially considered a ward of the school." Hermione said calmly.

"I'm sorry for your recent loss." Snape drawled and Hermione rolled her eyes.

"We're both know that's not true, professor," she said, "there's no point continuing the lie when by now I assume you're aware my parents weren't working that day I met you in Hyde Park."

"Your parents have been dead for eleven years." Snape said bluntly and Harry winced slightly. Hermione didn't even twitch.

"Yes." She said calmly, as if they were discussing the weather not the death of her mum and dad. "And because they're dead, I'm a ward of the school."

"And your point, Miss Granger?" Snape prompted.

"My point is that as my Head of House you can be considered my de facto guardian and it is therefore within your rights to sign my permission slip for Hogsmeade." Hermione said confidently. Snape's lips twitched into a smile.

"Indeed, Miss Granger." He said, before he seemed to shift his attention to Harry. He swallowed nervously. "And do you have your slip, Mr. Potter?"

"Right here, sir." He said hastily, pulling out the form with Aunt Petunia's signature. Snape examined it.

"It's rather shaky." He observed.

"As it happens, Petunia Dursley isn't a fan of snakes." Hermione smiled her wolf-grin, sharp and predatory on her pretty face. Snape snorted.

"Consider you form signed, Miss Granger. Try not to cause too much trouble at Hogsmeade."

"We'll certainly try our best." Hermione said sweetly and Harry just rolled his eyes and pulled her back out of Snape's office with a hasty goodbye before Snape took points off them for cheek.

-

To Harry's surprise, they actually managed to follow their Head of House's orders to not cause trouble. It wasn't that he'd been setting out to do so, but trouble had a habit of finding him. For once, though, it seemed that everything was going smoothly. Harry was filled with amazement as he and Hermione visited their first ever all wizard village. They tried to visit everything– Dervish and Bangs, the wizarding equipment shop, Zonko's Joke Shop and the post office in which there were over two hundred owls, all sitting on shelves, all color-coded depending on how fast you wanted your letter to get there.

They finished up at Honeydukes where they bought a mountain of brilliantly colored sweets before returning to the school with just enough time to place their purchases in their dorms before hurrying back to the castle in time for the Halloween Feast. This year Harry was determined to sit through the feast– not because he wanted to celebrate on the anniversary of his parents death, but because after the last two Halloweens he wanted to spend the evening surrounded by witnesses and in the safest location possible. Hermione, upon hearing his reasons, had laughed but agreed to go along with it.

The Great Hall had been decorated with hundreds and hundreds of candle-filled pumpkins, a cloud of fluttering live bata and many flaming orange streamers which were swimming lazily across the stormy ceiling like brilliant watersnakes.

The food was delicious and even though he was full to bursting with Honeydukes sweets, Harry managed second helpings of everything. The feast finished with an entertainment provided by the Hogwarts ghosts. They popped out of the walls and tables to do a bit of formation gliding and the Gryffindor ghost had a great success with a reenactment of his own botched beheading.

It had turned out to be such a pleasant evening that even the knowledge that it was the anniversary of his parent's murder failed to spoil Harry's good mood. At the end of the feast, he and Hermione followed the rest of the Slytherins to the Common Room and had started to make themselves comfortable, settling down in front of the fire when Snape reappeared.

"Everyone return to the Great Hall immediately," he ordered. Harry bit back a groan as his hopes for a peaceful Halloween were abruptly crushed underfoot.

As the confused Slytherins all trooped back to the Great Hall, Harry didn't miss the fact that Snape was walking within arms reach of him; face grim and wand in hand.

"Something's happened," Hermione murmured to him, her eyes sharp with focus. "Something big." Harry swallowed back his uneasiness and nodded.

The Gryffindors were already in the Hall, chatting excitedly amongst themselves, while the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs trailed in looking a confused as the Slytherins. Dumbledore stood up at the head of the Hall and his wand let of several loud bangs, attracting the attention of the student body. "The teachers and I need to conduct a thorough search of the castle," he announced as Professors McGonagall and Flitwick closed all doors into the hall. "I'm afraid that, for your own safety, you will have to spend the night here. I want the prefects to stand guard over the entrances and I am leaving the Head Boy and Girl in charge. Any disturbances should be reported to me immediately," he added to the Head Boy, one of the Weasleys, who was looking immensely proud and important. "Send word with one of the ghosts." Dumbledore paused, about to leave the hall, and said, "Oh, yes, you'll be needing..."

One casual wave of his wand and the long tables flew to the edges of the hall and stood themselves against the walls; another wave, and the floor was covered with hundreds of squashy purple sleeping bags. "Sleep well," said Dumbledore, closing the door behind him.

The hall immediately began to buzz excitedly, the Gryffindors telling the rest of the school what had just happened. Sirius Black had been spotted in the castle. Sirius Black had tried breaking into the Gryffindor Tower. Harry felt his heart stutter inside his chest and for a long moment he couldn't breathe. Hermione tangled their fingers together and squeezed and his lungs started working again.

"Everyone into their sleeping bags!" shouted Weasley. "Come on, now, no more talking! Lights out in ten minutes!"

"Let's go," Hermione muttered and he quickly picked up a sleeping bag and followed her into a corner where they curled up together, Hermione resting her head on his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her.

"Do you think Black's still in the castle?" He asked quietly, not sure how he felt except overwhelmed and lost. He'd very purposefully tried not to think about Voldemort's proposal– could he really kill someone? Harry shuddered, horrified that he was actually even considering it, because he was and that just made him even more confused and distressed.

"Dumbledore seems to think he might be," Hermione said. "But Dumbledore's a fuck-wit, so who knows?" Harry had to stifle a laugh, feeling that it wouldn't exactly be considered appropriate. "It's quite the coincidence he picked tonight, you know," Hermione mused, the corner of her mouth twitching as they climbed fully dressed into their sleeping bags and propped themselves up on their elbows to talk. "The one night when the students weren't in their common rooms."

"Not really," Harry offered. "We know he's innocent– he probably didn't want to hurt anyone."

"But why would he come here at all then? And what does he need to get that's in the Gryffindor Tower?" Hermione pressed and Harry had no answer.

Unlike Hermione who was concentrating on the why, everyone else seemed more interested in how– all around them, students were asking the same question: "How did he get in?"

"Maybe he apparated," said a Ravenclaw a few feet away. "He could have just appeared out of thin air, you know."

"Disguised himself, probably," said a Hufflepuff fifth year.

"He could've flown in," suggested a Gryffindor.

"Honestly, am I the only person who's ever bothered to read Hogwarts, A History?" Muttered Hermione disdainfully under her breath to Harry.

"Probably," he agreed readily. "Why?"

"Because the castle's protected by more than just gates and walls. There are all sorts of enchantments on it, to stop people entering by stealth. You can't just apparate in here. And I'd like to see the disguise that could fool those bloody Dementors. They're guarding every single entrance to the grounds and they'd have seen him fly in too. And Argus knows all the secret passages, he'll have them covered–"

"The lights are going out now!" Weasley shouted. "I want everyone in their sleeping bags and no more talking!"

The candles all went out at once. The only light now came from the silvery ghosts, who were drifting about talking seriously to the prefects, and the enchanted ceiling, which, like the sky outside, was scattered with stars. What with that, and the whispering that still filled the hall, Harry felt as though he were sleeping outdoors, like in the summer after first year.

Once every hour, a teacher would reappear in the hall to check that everything was quiet. Around three in the morning, when many students had finally fallen asleep, Dumbledore himself came in. Harry watched him looking around for Weasley, who had been prowling between the sleeping bags, telling people off for talking. He'd only tried telling Hermione off once– she'd fixed him with a venemous look of pure loathing and had continued talking, blatantly ignoring his orders. Weasley had spluttered a bit but hadn't tried to challenge her.

The hall was quiet enough and Weasley close enough that Harry and Hermione, pretending to be asleep as Dumbledore's footsteps drew nearer, were able to hear the conversation between the two. 

"Any sign of him, Professor?" asked Weasley in a whisper.

"No. All well here?"

"Everything under control, sir."

"Good. There's no point moving them all now. I've found a temporary guardian for the Gryffindor portrait hole. You'll be able to move them back in tomorrow."

"And the Fat Lady, sir?"

"Hiding in a map of Argyllshire on the second floor. Apparently she refused to let Black in without the password, so he attacked. She's still very distressed, but once she's calmed down, I'll have Mr. Filch restore her."

Harry heard the door of the hall creak open again, and more footsteps. "Headmaster?" It was Snape and Harry kept very still, listening hard. In his arms, he could feel Hermione tense slightly, her breathing deceptively deep and even. "The whole of the third floor has been searched. He's not there. And Filch has done the dungeons; nothing there either." Snape reported.

"What about the Astronomy tower? Professor Trelawney's room? The Owlery?"

"All searched."

"Very well, Severus. I didn't really expect Black to linger."

"Have you any theory as to how he got in, Professor?" asked Snape. Harry almost stopped breathing, only Hermione's fingers briefly applying pressure over where her arm was draped over his chest reminding him again.

"Many, Severus, each of them as unlikely as the next." Dumbledore replied in a frustratingly enigmatic way.

Harry opened his eyes a fraction and squinted up to where the three people stood; Dumbledore's back was to him, but he could see Weasley's face, rapt with attention, and Snape's profile which, he was surprised to see, looked tight with anger.

"You remember the conversation we had, Headmaster, just before– ah– the start of term?" said Snape, who was barely opening his lips as though trying to block Weasley out of the conversation.

"I do, Severus," said Dumbledore, and there was something like warning in his voice.

"And has this made you reconsider your stance?" Harry pictured Snape's sneer that went with that specific tone of voice and almost felt sorry for Dumbledore (okay, that was a lie- he felt more gleeful, then anything).

"I do not believe a single person inside this castle would have helped Black enter it," said Dumbledore and his tone made it so clear that the subject was closed that Snape didn't reply. "Now I must go down to the Dementors. I said I would inform them when our search was complete."

"Didn't they want to help, sir?" asked Weasley.

"Oh yes," said Dumbledore coldly. "But I'm afraid no Dementor will cross the threshold of this castle while I am headmaster."

Weasley looked slightly abashed. Dumbledore left the hall, walking quickly and quietly. Snape stood for a moment, watching the headmaster with an expression of deep resentment on his face; then he too left.

Harry glanced sideways Hermione. She had her eyes open too and looked thoughtful. "What was all that about?" He mouthed.

"I'm not sure," Hermione mouthed back, her eyes steely with determination. "But I'm definitely going to find out."

"We're going to find out." Harry corrected her, in a low whisper, and she smiled warmly at him, a smile that made his heart skip a beat.

"Yes," she whispered back, "yes we are. Together."

The school talked of nothing but Sirius Black for the next few days. The theories about how he had entered the castle became wilder and wilder, while he and Hermione brainstormed what exactly it was that Black could have needed in the castle. They were both coming up blank.

To Harry's surprise, Professor Snape summoned him into his office the following day.

"Potter," he said, in a serious voice, that for once wasn't filled with it usual drawl, "the headmaster has decided there is no point hiding the truth from you any longer. Sirius Black is after you."

"That's not much of a surprise" Harry gave a wry smile.

Snape seemed momentarily taken aback by Harry's apparent easy acceptance of the fact a mass murderer was targeting him. Maybe he should have acted more disturbed, he thought. After all, only five other people knew that Black was actually innocent and Snape wasn't one of them.

His Head of House gave him a long look before continuing. "Professor McGonagall has raised the concern that it's not a good idea for you to be practicing Quidditch in the early mornings and evenings. She believes that out on the field with only your team members, it's very exposed–"

"And I'm sure the fact we've got our first match on Saturday against her Gryffindors has nothing to do with her 'worries' at all." said Harry indignantly and Snape's lips twitched into a smile.

"Well then," his Head of House drawled, "all things considered, I believe that I should inform Professor McGonagall that I'll be requesting Madam Hooch to oversee your training sessions. Like you pointed out, we do have a match on Saturday and you will need to train." Harry couldn't help but grin slightly.

"Thanks sir."

The weather worsened steadily as the first Quidditch match drew nearer. Undaunted, the Slytherin team was training harder than ever, now under the eye of Madam Hooch.

It was after an early morning practice that Harry was running late to class and he was still panting when he skidded to a halt outside the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, pulling the door open and dashing inside.

"Sorry I'm late, Professor Lupin. I–" But it wasn't Lupin who looked up at him from the teacher's desk; it was Snape.

"This lesson began ten minutes ago, Mr. Potter. Go sit down. If you are late again, I'm afraid I won't be as forgiving." His Head of House ordered.

"You took ten points off Dean for being five minutes late!" Ron Weasley said furiously.

"And you just lost another five points for Gryffindor by speaking out of turn." Snape sneered.

Making his way over to Hermione, Harry sat down and whispered, "Where's Lupin?"

"Snape says he's feeling too ill to teach today," she murmured and Harry frowned.

"Did he say what's wrong with him?"

"Only that's it's nothing life-threatening. He sounded disappointed." She grinned slightly Harry muffled a snort as he pulled out a roll of parchment and a quill while Snape resumed the lecture.

"As I was saying, Professor Lupin has not left any record of the topics you have covered so far–"

"We've done boggarts, Red Caps, kappas, and grindylows," one of the Gryffindors, Fay Dunbar, piped up. "We're just about to start–"

"Be quiet," said Snape coldly. "I did not ask for information. I was merely commenting on Professor Lupin's lack of organization."

"He's the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher we've ever had," said Dean Thomas boldly and there was a murmur of agreement. Personally, Harry also thought that but he was definitely smart enough not to say so out loud. Snape looked more menacing than ever as he fixed Thomas with a cold stare.

"You are easily satisfied. Lupin is hardly overtaxing you– I would expect first years to be able to deal with Red Caps and grindylows. Today we shall discuss–" Harry watched him flick through the textbook, to the very back chapter, which he must know they hadn't covered. "Werewolves," said Snape.

"I wonder why he wants us to cover them?" Hermione murmured to Harry, looking curious. "We're not supposed to do werewolves yet." Harry shrugged, flipping his book open to page 394 as Snape instructed.

Many of the Gryffindors were trading bitter sidelong looks and muttering sullenly as they opened their books but personally Harry found the topic fascinating.

"Which of you can tell me how we distinguish between the werewolf and the true wolf?" said Snape. Everyone sat in motionless silence; everyone except Hermione that is, who raised her hand almost lazily. "Anyone besides Miss Granger?" Snape asked, dipping his chin in Hermione's direction. Hermione dropped her hand and leaned back in her seat, a slightly malicious smile playing on her face as the Slytherins all prepared for a bout of Gryffindor baiting.

Snape gave the class a twisted smile. "Are you telling me that Professor Lupin hasn't even taught you the basic distinction between-"

"We told you," said Patil suddenly, surprising Harry with her boldness. "We haven't got as far as werewolves yet, we're still on–"

"Silence!" snarled Snape. "Well, well, well, I never thought I'd meet a third-year class who wouldn't even recognize a werewolf when they saw one. I shall make a point of informing Professor Dumbledore how very behind you all are...."

"How can we know about werewolves when we haven't even studied them yet?" Weasley asked furiously. "Were you even listening when we said we hadn't reached them yet? What's the point in asking questions you know we don't have the answers to?"

The class knew instantly Weasley had gone too far. Snape advanced on him slowly and the room held its breath. There was a gleeful anticipation in Harry's stomach– if there was one student at Hogwarts he absolutely loathe it was Weasley. "Forty-five points from Gryffindor and detention," Snape said silkily, his face very close to Weasley's. "And if I ever hear you criticize the way I teach a class again, you will be very sorry indeed."

No one made a sound throughout the rest of the lesson. They sat and made notes on werewolves from the textbook, while Snape prowled up and down the rows of desks, examining the work they had been doing with Lupin.

"Very poorly explained... That is incorrect, the kappa is more commonly found in Mongolia.... Professor Lupin gave this eight out of ten? I wouldn't have given it three...."

When the bell rang at last, Snape held them back. "You will each write an essay, to be handed in to me, on the ways you recognize and kill werewolves. I want two rolls of parchment on the subject and I want them by Monday morning. It is time somebody took this class in hand. Weasley, stay behind, we need to arrange your detention."

Harry and Hermione left the room with the rest of the class. Once they were well out of earshot, the Gryffindors burst into a furious tirade about Snape.

"Snape's never been like this with any of our other Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, even if he did want the job," Thomas said angrily. "Why's he got it in for Lupin? D'you think this is all because of the boggart?"

"He's actually got a point," Hermione said thoughtfully to Harry. "Whatever's going on between Snape and Lupin, it isn't over a teaching post– it's personal. Deeply personal."

-

Harry woke extremely early the next morning to the sound of thunder rumbling overhead, the pounding of the wind against the castle walls, the distant creaking of the trees in the Forbidden Forest and the disheartening knowledge that in a few hours he would be out on the Quidditch field, battling through that gale.

Quickly giving up on the idea of more sleep, Harry got up, dressed, picked up his Nimbus Two Thousand and One and walked quietly out of the dormitory.

The noise of the storm was even louder in the Common Room but Harry knew better than to think the match would be canceled; Quidditch matches weren't called off for small trifles like thunderstorms. Nevertheless, he was starting to feel very apprehensive. The Gryffindor Seeker was a fifth year and a lot bigger than Harry– Seekers were usually light and speedy, but Greene's weight would be an advantage in this weather because he was less likely to be blown off course.

Harry whiled away the hours until dawn in front of the fire until at long last he thought it must be time for breakfast so he headed to the Great Hall.

He revived a bit over a large bowl of porridge, and by the time he'd started on toast, Hermione and the rest of the team had turned up. "It's going to be a tough one," said Marcus commented.

"I'm sure you boys won't mind a bit of rain." Hermione replied with a smirk.

But it was considerably more than a bit of rain. Such was the popularity of Quidditch that the whole school turned out to watch the match as usual, but they ran down the lawns toward the Quidditch field with heads bowed against the ferocious wind, umbrellas being whipped out of their hands as they went.

The team changed into their green robes in the locker rooms and trooped after Flint as he beckoned for them to follow him. The wind was so strong that they staggered sideways as they walked out onto the field. If the crowd was cheering, Harry couldn't hear it over the fresh rolls of thunder. To his dismay, rain was splattering over his glasses and he had no idea how he was supposed to see the Snitch like this.

The Gryffindors were approaching from the opposite side of the field, wearing scarlet robes. The Captains walked up to each other and shook hands; Wood and Flint both looking like they were trying to break the other's fingers. Harry saw Madam Hooch's mouth form the words, "Mount Your brooms!" He pulled his right foot out of the mud with a squelch and swung it over his Nimbus Two Thousand. Madam Hooch put her whistle to her lips and gave it a blast that sounded shrill and distant they were off.

Harry rose fast, but his Nimbus was swerving slightly with the wind. He held it as steady as he could and turned, squinting into the rain.

Within five minutes he was soaked to his skin and frozen, hardly able to see his teammates, let alone the tiny Snitch. He flew backward and forward across the field past blurred green and red shapes with no idea of what was happening in the rest of the game. He couldn't even hear the commentary over the wind and the crowd was hidden beneath a sea of cloaks and battered umbrellas. Twice Harry came very close to being unseated by a Bludger; his vision was so clouded by the rain on his glasses he hadn't even seen them coming.

He quickly lost track of time and it was getting harder and harder to hold his broom straight. The sky was getting darker, as though night had decided to come early. Twice Harry nearly hit another player, without knowing whether it was a teammate or opponent; everyone was now so wet, and the rain so thick, he could hardly tell them apart.

With the first flash of lightning came the sound of Madam Hooch's whistle; Harry could just see the outline of Marcus through the thick rain gesturing him to the ground. The whole team splashed down into the mud.

"I called for time-out!" Marcus told the team. "Come on, under here-" They huddled at the edge of the field under a large umbrella; Harry took off his glasses and wiped them hurriedly on his robes.

"What's the score?" He asked, shivering.

"We're seventy points up," said Marcus, "but unless we get the Snitch soon, we'll be playing into the night."

"I've got no chance with these on," Harry groaned, waving his glasses. At that very moment, Hermione appeared at his shoulder; she was holding her cloak over her head.

"Hand them over, quick!" She ordered. He handed them to her and as the team watched Hermione tapped them with her wand and said impervious.

"There!" she said, handing them back to Harry. "They'll repel water!"

"Brilliant!" Marcus grinned approvingly. "Good work Granger. Okay, team, let's go for it!"

Hermione's spell had done the trick. Harry was still numb with cold and wetter than he'd ever been in his life but he could see. Full of fresh determination, he urged his broom through the turbulent air, staring in every direction for the Snitch, avoiding a Bludger, ducking beneath Greene, who was streaking in the opposite direction....

There was another clap of thunder, followed immediately by forked lightning. This was getting more and more dangerous and Harry needed to get the Snitch– quickly.

He turned, intending to head back toward the middle of the field, but at that moment, another flash of lightning illuminated the stands and Harry saw something that distracted him completely, the silhouette of an enormous shaggy black dog clearly imprinted against the sky, motionless in the topmost empty row of seats.

Harry's numb hands slipped on the broom handle and his Nimbus dropped a few feet. Shaking his sodden bangs out of his eyes, he squinted back into the stands. The dog had vanished. "Potter!" came Flint's yell. "Behind you!"

Harry looked wildly around. Greene was pelting up the field, and a tiny speck of gold was shimmering in the rain-filled air between them.

With a jolt of panic, Harry threw himself flat to the broom-handle and zoomed toward the Snitch. "Come on!" he growled at his Nimbus as the rain whipped his face. "Faster!"

But something odd was happening. An eerie silence was falling across the stadium. The wind, though as strong as ever, was forgetting to roar. It was as though someone had turned off the sound, as though Harry had gone suddenly deaf– what was going on?

And then a horribly familiar wave of cold swept over him, inside him, just as he became aware of something moving on the field below...

Before he'd had time to think, Harry had taken his eyes off the Snitch and looked down. At least a hundred Dementors, their hidden faces pointing up at him, were hovering beneath him. It was as though freezing water was rising in his chest, cutting at his insides. And then he heard it again.... Someone was screaming, screaming inside his head... a woman...

" Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!"

"Stand aside, you silly girl... stand aside, now.... "

"Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead "

Numbing, swirling white mist was filling Harry's brain.... What was he doing? Why was he flying? He needed to help her... She was going to die.... She was going to be murdered....

He was falling, falling through the icy mist.

"Not Harry! Please... have mercy... have mercy...." A shrill voice was laughing, the woman was screaming and Harry knew no more.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Hermione's heart nearly stopped as Harry's slight frame fell from his broom, fifty feet up in the air. "NO!" she shrieked in horror, lunging out of her seat, her hands reaching out to the tumbling body as if trying to catch him. She didn't know any spells to use, spells to help Harry, so she did what she'd always done, back before she knew what magic was and thought it was some sort of genetic mutation– she used her intent. Pushing her magic out through her palms, Hermione concentrated on the panic she felt inside her and used it, let it fuel her 'special talent' the way she'd taught herself, when she was alone and freezing and starving and afraid. She could feel the yank of her magic inside her as Harry's fall slowed but it wasn't enough, she wasn't strong enough.

Remembering what Voldemort had said in the Chamber, Hermione desperately reached to the back of her mind, to where she could feel the Diary bound to her, and she pulled. A fresh wave of power welled up inside her, foreign and humming in her veins as it joined her own magic and Harry's body was slowing, slowing, slowing, until he finally came to a standstill, hovering around a meter of the ground.

Hermione shoved through the crowds, scaling over the stands and dropping over the edges, falling almost ten feet down to the ground below. She landed in a crouch that jarred her ankles but she ignored the pain, stumbling back up in the slick mud and running forwards, beating even Dumbledore onto the pitch. Pushing past the icy cold of the Dementors, past the screaming voices in the back of her mind, she stumbled over to Harry, reaching him at the same time as her spell gave out.

Harry's body fell on top of her, knocking her to the ground, but she didn't care, all that mattered was that he was okay, he was still breathing. Tears streamed down her face as she clung to him, barely noticing Dumbledore's arrival on the field, barely noticing the silvery phoenix of shining light that burst out of the tip of his wand and drove the Dementors back.

Snape and McGonagall joined him on the field and as Dumbledore looked down at her, for once his expression wasn't one of dislike– it was one of relief. He magicked a stretcher, and tried to levitate Harry onto it but she stubbornly clung to him, refusing to let go. Her body was trembling from fear and adrenaline, her skin felt like it was too tight and short, strangled sobs were bubbling from her throat.

"Hermione," it was the first time she'd heard Snape call her by her first name. His voice was soft, another first. "Hermione, you need to let go. You need to let the Headmaster take him up to the hospital wing. He's going to be fine, I promise. You did very well and now it's our turn."

Hermione released Harry and let Snape pull her into his arms. She swayed unsteadily, exhaustion weighing down her limbs. "You did a good job, Hermione." Snape told her gently and she nodded, tears still streaming down her face.

Snape helped her up to the hospital wing, supporting her as she kept stumbling and tripping, to the point where he was half carrying her despite all the mud on her robes and she just clung to him, pathetic but not caring.

When they reached the hospital wing, Madam Pomfrey hurried over and cast a drying charm on her before coaxing her over to the cot next to Harry. It really said to the fact of how utterly drained she felt that Hermione didn't even put up a fight, just turned her head so Harry was still in her line of vision.

"Severe magical exhaustion," she heard Madam Pomfrey tell her Head of House, "I'm surprised she's even conscious– should be as right as rain in a day or two, she just needs to rest."

Hermione fought her heavy eye-lids, refusing to let Harry out of her sight. Snape noticed, of course he did, and with a murmured word her cot slid across so it was close enough to Harry's that she could reach out and clasp his cold, clammy hand in her own, could press her thumb against his pulse with bruising pressure, letting the steady thump-thump calm her to the point that she could finally surrender to her exhaustion.

-

She woke before Harry, lethargic and with a brain that felt full of wool. She managed to move from the cot she'd been lying in to one of the seats next to Harry's cot where she leaned against the mattress. Harry didn't wake up for nearly another hour and by the time he had, Draco, Blaise, Theo, Daphne and Tracey had all joined her, gathered around his hospital bed.

"Harry!" Theo said, as Harry's eyes snapped open suddenly. "How're you feeling?"

"What happened?" Harry croaked, the tired-looking boy pushing himself up into a sitting position.

"You fell off your broom," Draco's voice was shaky, "must've been about seventy feet!"

"But the match," Harry shook his head, looking confused. "What happened? Are we doing a replay?" Hermione couldn't help it– she exploded.

"Who gives a fuck about the fucking Quidditch match!" She shouted, causing everyone to spin around and look at her. She knew her eyes were bloodshot and that her controlled visage had fallen, but that didn't matter, not right now. "You almost fucking died Harry!"

Harry's face went white and he reached a hand out towards her. "I'm sorry." He whispered, as he intertwined his fingers with hers. She took a deep, shuddering breath.

"If you ever do something like that again, I'll–"

"Take me out to the middle of the Forbidden Forest, to where nobody can hear me scream, tie me to a tree and then skin me from the knees down so that I can experience the joy of all the man-eating creatures who live there. And while they rip the flesh from me, feet upwards, you will occasionally glance up to monitor their progress while you read Hogwarts: A History." Harry interrupted her, with a weak smile

"I was going to say I'd fucking kill you, but that works," Hermione glared before her expression softened slightly. "You remembered."

"It was kind of hard to forget." Harry admitted and for the first time since he fell off the broom she smiled.

"That was disgustingly vivid." Theo said with a grimace.

"That was almost exactly what Snape said." Harry gave a tired laugh.

"Professor Snape." She corrected him, absently.

"So what did happen? You know, after I fell?" Harry asked, quietly.

"Hermione blew everyone's minds by using wandless magic to slow down your fall, stopping you about a meter off the ground. She and Snape, McGonagall and Dumbledore all ran onto the field and Dumbledore pointed his wand at the Dementors, shot some silver stuff at them which made them them leave the stadium while Hermione went over to you." Blaise recounted.

"And her spell cancelled right when she was standing under you, so you squashed her." Draco added helpfully.

"And then she clung to you like a limpet and Snape had to practically drag her off you." Theo added with a grin. The glare she fixed on him was murderous and Theo gulped.

"Did someone get my Nimbus?" Harry appeared to be trying to change the subject, possibly in an effort to save Theo's life.

"Er—" The boys traded panicked looks and Hermione winced, knowing that couldn't mean anything good.

"What?" Harry asked, looking from one to the next.

"Well... when you fell off, it got blown away." Blaise said hesitantly.

"And?" Harry's voice sounded panicked.

"Andithitthewhompingwillow."

"What?" Harry asked Blaise in bewilderment.

"And it hit the Whomping Willow." Blaise repeated, slower and with a cringe. Harry's face paled.

"And?" he repeated weakly.

"And, well, the Whomping Willow, it– it doesn't like to be hit." Blaise grimaced.

"Flitwick brought it back just before you came around." Draco said quietly and Theo slowly reached for the bag at his feet and turned it upside down on the bed, tipping a dozen bits of splintered wood and twig onto the bed.

"Bollocks." Whispered Harry.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXV:


Severus's POV:

Severus was sitting in Albus's office only half listening to the headmaster and Minerva talk, too distracted by his thoughts to give them his full attention.

Harry had almost died.

Harry had almost plummeted about sixty feet to his death and Severus had been fucking terrified for the boy.

Severus knew from the Boggart lesson that Harry's worst fear was a Dementor and he knew from Lupin that the boy had passed out on the train when the Dementors had searched it– and now he also knew that he needed to teach Harry how to defend himself from a Dementor.

"What magic was that, Albus?" Minerva's subdued voice broke him from his thoughts. "I've never seen anything like that."

Ah. Granger's—Hermione's magic. It was impossible to stay continue staying impersonal about the girl and using her surname after she'd clung so desperately to him, trembling and crying those Merlin-damned silent tears– Severus hated whoever had taught his student that she wasn't allowed to make noise when she cried. He'd held her up, let her get mud all over his robes and had come to the shocking realisation that Hermione trusted him enough to let herself be vulnerable with him.

Like he said, staying impersonal was impossible after that.

And her magic... Severus honestly had no idea what she'd done, or how she'd done it, just that she had reached out with her hands towards the boy and his plummeting had slowed to a standstill. Minerva was right– he'd never seen anything like that before, that raw burst of magic formed only by her sheer strength and the force of her intent.

"I have no idea what kind of magic that was." Albus spoke slowly. "It seemed to be some combination of wandless and accidental magic. Yet it wasn't wandless magic for she did not use a spell and it wasn't accidental magic because it wasn't an uncontrolled burst– she was able to get it to do exactly as she intended. I truly do not know how she managed to accomplish such a feat and I confess that it concerns me greatly." 

"It doesn't matter!" Severus spoke up with an angry snarl, unable to believe that they were worrying about what she'd done while skipping over the why. "It doesn't matter how she did it, because if she hadn't then Harry could have died!" Both Albus and Minerva visibly flinched, Minerva's face showing her horror at the idea while Albus looked very tired.

"She needs watching, Severus." He said quietly. "She's even more powerful then we realized, and that makes her even more dangerous then we've predicted."

"You've predicted." Severus corrected the headmaster in a low, furious voice. "Miss Granger is dangerous, I agree, but only towards those who aim to harm Harry."

"We cannot guarantee that, Severus," Albus said gravely.

"When has Miss Granger ever threatened or hurt someone who hasn't wronged or threatened or hurt Harry?" Severus demanded.

"What about when she stole the Philosopher's Stone?" Albus countered, his twinkling blue eyes serious over his half-moon spectacles.

"A mere theory," Severus dismissed with a sneer. "And a pathetic one at that– there's no evidence whatsoever that she had anything to do with it." Except I happen to know for a fact she did, he thought. Which once again had him wondering what in the seven hells the troublesome twosome had done with the Stone. From Hermione's words he suspected they'd destroyed it, as revenge for the Mirror of Erised 'incident', but he couldn't be sure– for all he knew, she could have been misleading him. While she'd trusted him enough back then to hint that they were the ones responsible, he doubted she'd trusted him enough to be honest about what they'd done with their stolen treasure– and he doubted someone who'd grown up homeless and starving would destroy a source of unlimited gold in a fit of spite.  

"You're always defending her!" Minerva said, visibly frustrated. "Why?"

"Because someone has to!" He exploded, the stress and anger stripping his control from him. "Her parents died when she was just three years old, chances are she's been living on the streets since about age six, she was raped on at least one occasion when she was nine and has formed what seems to be her only genuine friendship with Harry, and yet you're trying to rip them apart!"

"R-raped?" Minerva's face went white. Even though the deputy headmistress didn't like Hermione, it was clear the woman was horrified by Hermione's ordeal– only a monster wouldn't be.

"While healing Granger after an accident during the summer, Narcissa Malfoy used an old Pureblood spell on her which showed that she lost her purity when she was nine. So unless you think she was willingly having sex before she even hit double digits..." Severus let his voice trail off, his expression dark.

And yet, his thoughts were racing– this was Hermione Granger they were talking about. Her life was one he couldn't even imagine living. Was it actually possible that she had willingly had sex at nine years of age? And when he said 'willing' he wasn't actually talking about her truly consenting– there was no such thing as consensually having sex when there was a child involved; no, he was referring to Hermione been manipulated into the situation as so that she believed she had willingly consented. 

Or, even more sickening and yet even more likely, was the possibility that she had been desperate enough to prostitute herself like that fourteen year old girl she'd been talking about. It sickened Severus that he could see it happening all too easily– Hermione had been skin and bones the first time he'd met her and she'd been dressed in clothes that were barely better then rags. To a starving, freezing child whose only tradable item of monetary worth was what people would pay for her body, what was there to truly stop her from selling herself? Why wouldn't she use what she had, just to get something to eat or a place to stay? She'd been young, alone and desperate– and Severus knew just how coldly practical Hermione could be. Her ruthless pragmatism wasn't something people were born with, and in his experience the origin of such traits was never a good one. He just hoped to Merlin he was wrong about this, because it honestly didn't bear thinking about.

"Whatever Miss Granger's faults," Albus spoke up, and Severus was actually thankful to the distraction from the disturbing turn his thoughts had taken, "she does seem to care for Harry very much. Her distress was very genuine. So while we will be keeping a close eye on her, you are right, Severus, and perhaps... perhaps we should cut her a little slack."

Severus gave a curt nod. "See to it, headmaster." He said coldly before leaving Albus's office and making his way back to his quarters. He was only about halfway there before he changed his mind and turned, making his way up to the hospital wing.

A reluctant Madam Pomfrey allowed him in and he strode over to the cots Harry and Hermione were lying in. They were still side by side and their hands were clasped. Hermione, he noticed, had her thumb pressed over Harry's pulse– he was quite confident that the placement was not accidental. 

"Professor." Hermione's voice was quiet and hoarse and her eyes were still rimmed with red. "Can we help you?"

"Once you're both in full health you're going to start lessons with Professor Lupin on how to defend yourselves against Dementors." He said in a voice that left no room for argument. He would teach them himself except his Patronus was possibly one of the most private things in his life. And he was sure Lupin would be more then happy to teach them– and if he wasn't, well, Severus fully intended on using guilt to convince the werewolf to do so. 

"The Patronus charm?" Hermione asked and he nodded, not surprised she'd heard of it– after her experience with the Dementors on the Express he imagined she'd researched them quite thoroughly. And even if she hadn't then, she most certainly would have after the DADA lesson with the boggart. 

"The Patronus charm? What's that?" Harry asked, speaking up for the first time since Severus had entered the Hospital Wing. 

"It's a spell that drives away Dementors." Hermione explained and Harry gave a small nod.

"I guess that could be useful." He mumbled.

Guess? You guess? Severus wanted to ask incredulously– Hermione looked just as incredulous at Harry's noncommittal attitude– but neither of them said anything. The boy looked too tired and too miserable to chastise, so instead he just gave a short nod before he left.

-

-

Tom's POV:

"And this is why I loathe that ridiculous, infernal sport!" Tom snapped as he paced angrily in the Hospital Wing, empty except for Hermione and Harry– the petrified students from last year had been transferred to their own homes seeing as no special care was required to keep them in perfect health. Tom glared at the younger boy who was slumped back in his cot.

Harry looked exhausted, purple shadows dusting under his eyes, his skin pale and his hair limp. Hermione looked similarly exhausted, but her eyes glittered with anger.

Tom had felt the sudden pull on his magic, had felt the surge of Hermione's urgency through the binding, and had pushed as much magic as he could spare to her. He'd then had to wait for nearly twenty-four hours for one of them to fetch the diary and tell him just what the hell had happened.

Been back at Hogwarts was boring, Tom would admit. After fifty years of being confined in the diary, however, a little boredom was something he could deal with– whenever Hermione or Harry left him in the dorm, he'd be able to read from Hermione's rapidly growing collection of books, catching up on the last fifty years. She'd also managed to procure a complete set of course-books for the seventh year curriculum as Tom had been sixteen when the diary was created– which meant he had no memory of Voldemort completing their seventh year at Hogwarts. The studying had certainly kept him busy, which helped stave off the boredom, but after spending the summer constantly interacting with Harry and Hermione he found he was missing the company. 

Which, considering his entire childhood all he'd wanted was to be left alone, was bizarre. Then again, fifty years of solitude did tend to change things– the silence weighed down on Tom now, it made him feel stagnant and claustrophobic in a way he'd never admit to. It was a weakness, his desire for contact, one that he'd never reveal but hadn't been able to stop himself indulging. 

When she had time or when she was studying away from the other Slytherins, usually during Harry's Quidditch practices, Hermione would always ask if he wished to come out– which he always took care not to sound too eager about agreeing to– and they'd discuss and debate magical theory for hours, would trade knowledge on spells and potions that they'd picked up and sometimes they'd just read in each other's company. 

There was an unspoken understanding between the two of them. They both had a darkness lurking inside them, monsters under their skin. Hermione's "monster" was cold-hearted, calculating, vicious when provoked and a survivor. Her past had shaped her into a dangerous person who would not ever hesitate to do what she felt needed to be done, had made her into someone incapable of empathising with those who she didn't care about. Her suffering had made her capable of cruelty, too– it was the vicious cycle of life; the abused become the abusers, victims turning into the biggest monsters of them all. After all, nobody truly knew suffering like those who had suffered and those who knew suffering could cause the greatest suffering of all. 

Despite the similarities, at the core Tom's own "monster" was different to Hermione's. While Hermione was born with the capacity of becoming the person she was today, it had been her experiences that had turned her into what she was. She had learned not to care, but Tom never had; he'd simply been born that way– smarter and stronger then the other children at the orphanage, the only real person in a world of paper cut-outs. Other humans were meaningless, useful only in what they could do for him; what he could make them do. The power he'd had over others– the power to hurt them, to make them suffer, the power to force them to do his bidding, being the hand that pulled their puppet strings, and the power to kill them, to snuff out their worthless existence– had always been something capable of breaking the monotony. The world was a dull, grey thing that had always bored him in its predictability. Even magic had only added colour to his life for so long, eventually it just became another part of the grayed out world. 

There had been a few people, however, who weren't just grey bits of scenery. Lucretia and Cygnus Black had been bright splashes of colour; real and visceral in a way almost everyone else was not, lighting things up and bringing brightness to the world. There were others, others who'd attracted his attention, had become real to him in a way that most people weren't, became more then objects for him to manipulate for his own enjoyment. Lucretia and Cygnus had been special. They were dead now, a fact which sat uncomfortably with him as he found he quite disliked that his lovers were gone. The world was a duller, greyer place without them.

But Hermione Granger had colour; bright and fierce and real, a bloodied streak of red against the grey that bled colour into his life. 

Harry Potter had colour too. He shone, almost; bright and steady and real, a constant, unwavering spark that lit up the world around him in soft radiance.

Harry wasn't like Hermione– he'd trusted Tom long before she had even started to let him in; a process he was still working on. Harry had darkness in him– you didn't grow up with people like his disgusting muggle relatives and stay whole. The boy had spent his childhood in a cupboard– everything about him screamed dark and yet people expected him to be untouched, pure, unblemished. The truly astounding part, though, was that he'd actually almost succeeded in fulfilling those expectations. It was only the small things that gave him away; the short bursts of anger, hot but fast to burn out, his acceptance of the Darkness in those around him, his capability to rationalise away acts of violence that would horrify anyone else– and his willingness to sacrifice the rest of world for the sake of those he loved, if the deal he made with Voldemort was any indication. 

Harry didn't discuss magical theory or read with him and he wasn't really interested in most of the spells Tom liked– violent, messy, Dark curses that gave him a rush or the complicated, fiddly charms and pieces of transfiguration that required absolute precision, challenging him to be interesting. But Harry did like talking and he liked playing card games and chess– even though he always lost– and he was surprisingly tactile in a way Tom didn't think the boy even noticed. And Harry genuinely seemed to care; he treated Tom like a person, like a friend– he cared how Tom felt, was happy when Tom was happy and upset on his behalf when Tom expressed any sort of discontent. 

Harry and Hermione were bright and beautiful and they were his. And Dementors had dared enter the school grounds, had dared hurt Harry, his Harry, they had nearly killed him– and Tom was furious. Hermione's face was pale but rage had colored her cheeks a rosy pink. 

"The sooner Black stops being a problem, the better," she snarled. "I don't care if he's killed, Kissed or arrested– I just want him dealt with and the Dementors gone!" 

Flushed with rage, Hermione made a pretty picture; the too-large pyjamas supplied by the school mediwitch slipping down past a thin shoulder, exposing an expanse of pale, soft skin and just the barest hint of the curve of her breast. She was such a delicate-looking girl; a deceptively petite build that hid the vicious strength and brutal violence it was capable of, and her long, wild curls framed a pretty face; all big eyes, sharp cheekbones and soft, pouty lips. She was already a lovely-looking thing and Tom knew she'd only grow more beautiful as she got older. 

Harry was just as lovely, in his own way. He had hair as dark as Tom's, a slight build with subtle but defined muscles from his Quidditch practice. He had a slender figure, porcelain skin that contrasted so nicely with his hair and set off the brilliant green of his eyes, the shade reminiscent to the Killing Curse in a way that made a familiar heat coil inside him.

They were both such pretty, little things; each beautifully broken in their own ways and all the more desirable for it. He wanted them like he'd wanted Lucretia and Cygnus. He wasn't surprised Voldemort had kept them so close– he was actually more surprised that the original soul had been able to let them go. They were young, he supposed; too young to fuck, probably. He wasn't quite sure. He just knew he wanted to push them down, wanted to touch them and taste them and let them show him the world through their eyes, bright and colourful. He wanted to own them, wanted to claim every part of them; he'd consume them and he'd never let them go. 

Hermione used a knife-scarred hand to tug the slipping pyjama sleeve back up which was slightly disappointing and Tom turned his attention back to the conversation. "Dumbledore is going to be watching me closely after this," Hermione was saying and Tom nodded, agreeing with her. Tom had made the mistake of showing Dumbledore he was different; had slipped up that day the man had visited the orphanage and brought with him a burst of colour that made Tom reckless. He regretted that immensely– Dumbledore had never forgotten what he'd seen that day and had never stopped watching Tom for what he'd known was lurking beneath his charming mask, just like he'd never stop watching Hermione for what he suspected hid inside her. And he wasn't wrong. 

"Do you think he'll try anything?" Harry asked nervously. Hermione shook her head.

"No." Hermione said, confident in what she was saying. "Not yet, anyway."

"Not yet?" Harry's voice rose in his anxiety.

"Oh one day he'll do something," Hermione said, her voice deliciously dark sounding in a way that made Tom want to lick the words from her mouth. Her sharp wolf smile was fierce and challenging and he could almost see the blood on her teeth. "But we'll be ready when he does, Harry. And he's going to regret everything he's done to us."

Tom couldn't help the answering smile that stretched over his face, sinister and anticipatory. Even Harry, the most gentle of them all, looked grimly determined. There was no trace of hesitation on his features and Tom let a curl of laughter escape him because he knew then that when they struck, Harry would not falter. 

-

-

Harry's POV:

Madam Pomfrey insisted on keeping him and Hermione in the hospital wing for the rest of the weekend. Neither of them argued or complained but Harry wouldn't let her throw away the shattered remnants of his Nimbus Two Thousand and One. He knew he was being stupid, knew that the Nimbus was beyond repair, but he couldn't help it; he felt as though he'd lost one of his best friends.

Both he and Hermione had a stream of visitors but nothing anyone said or did could make Harry feel any better. He felt sick and humiliated every time he thought of the Dementors– everyone said they were horrible, but only he and Hermione collapsed every time they went near one. Hermione had good reason to– Harry was well aware that what he knew of the traumas of her past only brushed the surface– but he didn't even remember the traumatic event that the Dementors kept forcing him to relive.

The echoes in his head of his dying parents.

Harry replayed it over over and over again during the night hours in the hospital wing while he lay awake, staring at the strips of moonlight on the ceiling and remembering what the last moments of his mother's life, her desperate attempts to protect him and Voldemort's laughter before he murdered her. Harry spent his nights tossing and turning, sinking into dreams full of clammy, rotted hands and petrified pleading before jerking awake to dwell once more on his mother's voice.

He thought he'd be angry at Voldemort, that he'd hate him and want the man dead. But he didn't. He couldn't. He'd grown to tolerate the dark wizard. And he certainly liked Tom. He'd spent an entire summer getting to know Tom but he couldn't blame isolation completely for their friendship, not when even now at Hogwarts he continued to enjoy spending time with the older boy. Tom helped him with his homework, was always happy to card games or chess or gobstones with him or take him exploring, the three of them hiding under the invisibility cloak while Tom showed them parts of the castle Harry hadn't even known existed. Not to mention Tom and Hermione could argue for hours about magic theories that made his head spin and they'd swap spells and trade knowledge, Tom proving to be a talented teacher with a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of spell. 

And Tom offered Hermione something that he couldn't– Harry had always been able to accept Hermione's Darkness, but he couldn't embrace it, not like Tom did. Harry felt horribly guilty that he couldn't be enough for Hermione in that way; she'd never asked him to, had never wanted him to, but Harry still felt like he was failing her when to him the violent, cruel parts of her were just another facet of what made her Hermione. Tom, though– Tom saw them as something beautiful and Hermione needed that, needed someone who looked at all the Darkest parts of her and didn't just accept but embraced them, celebrated them. It just wasn't who Harry was to appreciate the Darkness in people; he accepted it and he loved them regardless, but he couldn't appreciate it. And that's why Harry had decided to open his heart up and let Tom in, and he had yet to regret that decision. 

So, no; it wasn't Voldemort or Tom who filled Harry with burning rage and icy hatred every time he dwelled on his mother's pleading voice– it was Pettigrew; the traitor, the one who his mum had trusted but who had betrayed her. It hadn't been personal to Voldemort– it was a war and his parents had been an obstacle. But Pettigrew, he was supposed to have been their friend. Harry didn't know how or when but he vowed he'd make the traitor pay– because he might not be able to appreciate and embrace people's Darkness but that didn't mean he was afraid to ask them to use it. And it definitely didn't mean he didn't have his own lurking inside him. 

-

It was a relief to return to the noise and bustle of the main school on Monday where Harry was forced to think about other things, even if he had to endure Ron Weasley's mocking. Weasley was almost beside himself with glee at Slytherin's defeat an whenever they passed each other in the corridors he'd do spirited imitations of Harry falling off his broom.

Weasley also spent much of their next Herbology lesson doing Dementor impressions across the greenhouse until Hermione lost her temper and flung a heavy flower pot at him. It hit him in the face, knocking him out and causing Sprout to take fifty points from Slytherin and give her a week of detentions ("Worth it." She'd muttered darkly).

"I wonder if Snape's teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts again?" Harry tried to change the subject as they headed toward Lupin's classroom after lunch, Hermione's expression still stormy with barely suppressed rage.

"It'll be Lupin. The Full Moon was five days ago." Hermione answered him absently, distracted by her seething. 

"What does that have to do with it?" He asked before nearly falling over and dropping his book-bag as realization struck him. "He's a werewolf?" He whispered furiously to her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I only figured it out after completing the essay. I was going to wait and see how long it took you to figure it out." Hermione said, calming down from her rage as she smirked. Harry ran over the evidence in his mind– Lupin's "sick" days, his Boggart, the fact that Hermione thought he was and Hermione was always right...

"Well," Harry said, blinking. "That's... different."

And so, to neither his or Hermione's surprise, Lupin was back at work. Harry noted that the man's robes were hanging even more loosely on him and there were dark shadows beneath his eyes. Nevertheless, Lupin smiled at the class as they took their seats, and all the Gryffindors burst at once into an explosion of complaints about Snape's behavior while he'd been ill.

"It's not fair, he was only filling in, why should he give us homework?"

"We don't know anything about werewolves two rolls of parchment!"

"Did you tell Professor Snape we haven't covered them yet?" Lupin asked, frowning slightly. The babble broke out again.

"Yes, but he said we were really behind he wouldn't listen–"

"–two rolls of parchment!"

Lupin smiled at the look of indignation on so many faces. Hermione looked disdainful. "Don't worry. I'll speak to Professor Snape. You don't have to do the essay."

"Bugger," Harry muttered, thinking of the two rolls of parchment he'd spent nearly three and a half hours on. Hermione looked similarly displeased.

They did, however, still have a very enjoyable lesson. Lupin had brought along a glass box containing a hinkypunk, a little one-legged creature who looked as though he were made of wisps of smoke, rather frail and harmless looking.

"Lures travelers into bogs," Lupin said as they took notes. "You notice the lantern dangling from his hand? Hops ahead– people follow the light– then–" The hinkypunk made a horrible squelching noise against the glass.

When the bell rang, everyone gathered up their things and headed for the door, Harry and Hermione among them, but–

"Wait a moment, Harry," Lupin called. "I'd like a word." Harry doubled back, Hermione right next to him, and watched Lupin cover the hinkypunk's box with a cloth. "I heard about the match," he said, turning back to his desk and starting to pile books into his briefcase, "I'm sorry about your broomstick, Harry. Is there any chance of fixing it?"

"No," Harry said, mouth turning down. "The tree smashed it to bits." Lupin sighed.

"They planted the Whomping Willow the same year that I arrived at Hogwarts. People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye and we were forbidden to go near it. No broomstick would have a chance."

"Did you hear about the Dementors too?" said Harry with difficulty. Hermione stiffened beside him and Lupin looked at them quickly.

"Yes, I did. I don't think any of us have seen Professor Dumbledore that angry. They have been growing restless for some time– furious at his refusal to let them inside the grounds.... I suppose they were the reason you fell, Harry?"

"Yes," said Harry. He hesitated, and then the question he had to ask burst from him before he could stop himself. "Why? Why do they affect me like that? Am I just–?"

"It has nothing to do with weakness," said Lupin sharply, as though he had read Harry's mind. "Like I told Hermione, during the lesson with the boggart– Dementors affect you worse than the others, both of you, because there are horrors in your pasts that the others don't have. Similarly to how Hermione, who has mastered every other spell I've set on her first try, struggled with the boggart," Hermione stiffened at his side, and Harry hoped Lupin realized the dangerous territory he was stepping in. "For those of us with fears that are very real and memories so terrible..." Lupin shook his head slowly, looking very tired. "Getting too near a Dementor... every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself– soulless and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. And the worst that happened to you, Harry, is enough to make anyone fall off their broom. You have nothing to feel ashamed of."

"When they get near me," Harry stared at Lupin's desk, his throat tight. "I can hear Voldemort murdering my mum." Lupin made a sudden motion with his arm as though to grip Harry's shoulder but thought better of it. Hermione's hand clasped onto his and she squeezed hard. Her lips were pressed into thin white lines. There was a moment's silence, then– "Why did they have to come to the match?" said Harry bitterly.

"They're getting hungry," Lupin said, shutting his briefcase with a snap. "Dumbledore won't let them into the school, so their supply of human prey has dried up.... I don't think they could resist the large crowd around the Quidditch field. All that excitement ... emotions running high... it was their idea of a feast."

"Did Professor Snape speak to you, sir?" Hermione cut in, suddenly.

"He did." Lupin nodded, suddenly looking reluctant. "He has... requested... that I teach you both the spell that repels Dementors. He assures me that despite your age, you are both powerful and talented enough to learn it."

"Oh we will." Hermione's voice was grim. "We definitely will."

Lupin looked into their hard, determined faces, hesitated, then nodded, "I'll try and help but it will have to wait until next term, I'm afraid. I have a lot to do before the holidays. I chose a very inconvenient time to fall ill." 

Once they left the room, Hermione and Harry traded looks.

"Yes, he 'chose' a very inconvenient time to fall ill." Hermione muttered and Harry snorted. 

With the promise of anti-Dementor lessons from Lupin, the thought that he might never have to hear his mother's death again and the fact that Ravenclaw flattened Gryffindor in their Quidditch match at the end of November, Harry's mood took a definite upturn. Slytherin were not out of the running after all, although they could not afford to lose another match. Marcus was working the team as hard as ever in the chilly haze of rain that persisted into December. Harry saw no hint of a Dementor within the grounds. Dumbledore's anger seemed to be keeping them at their stations at the entrances.

Two weeks before the end of the term, the sky lightened suddenly to a dazzling, opaline white and the muddy grounds were revealed one morning covered in glittering frost. Inside the castle, there was a buzz of Christmas– or Yule, if he went by traditional magical customs– in the air. Flitwick had already decorated his classroom with shimmering lights that turned out to be real, fluttering fairies. The students were all happily discussing their plans for the holidays. Both Harry and Hermione were among the first to sign up to stay and to everyone's delight there was to be another Hogsmeade trip on the very last weekend of the term. "We can do all our present shopping there," Hermione said, sounding very satisfied with the fact.

On the Saturday morning of the Hogsmeade trip, he and Hermione wrapped up tightly in cloaks and scarves and walked out into the snow.

Hogsmeade looked like a Christmas card; the little thatched cottages and shops were all covered in a layer of crisp snow; there were holly wreaths on the doors and strings of enchanted candles hanging in the trees.

After a quick visit to Honeydukes, Hermione suggested they go to the Three Broomsticks and get a butter beer. Harry was more than willing; the wind was fierce and his hands were freezing so they crossed the road and in a few minutes were entering the tiny inn.

Too busy exploring, they hadn't visited the Three Broomsticks last time but it was a nice place– it was extremely crowded and noisy, but it was also warm and smoky. A curvy sort of woman with a pretty face was serving a bunch of rowdy warlocks up at the bar.

Harry made his way to the back of the room where there was a small, vacant table between the window and a handsome Christmas tree which stood next to the fireplace. Hermione disappeared then came back a few minutes later, carrying two foaming tankards of hot butterbeer. "Merry Christmas!" She said with a smile, raising her tankard and Harry drank deeply. It was the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted and seemed to heat every bit of him from the inside.

When they spotted McGonagall entering, along with Hagrid and a few other teachers and, surprisingly, the man Harry recognized from the Malfoy's gala as the Minister of Magic, they both decided to leave and made their way back out into the snow storm.

Christmas shopping took them nearly two hours, Hermione not complaining about Harry supplying the funds, and then they headed back up to the castle, ready to wrap the gifts and get a head start on their holiday homework.

By the next morning, most of the students had left and the usual magnificent Christmas decorations had been put up around the castle, despite the fact that hardly any of the students remained to enjoy them. Thick streamers of holly and mistletoe were strung along the corridors, mysterious lights shone from inside every suit of armour, and the Great Hall was filled with its usual twelve Christmas trees, glittering with golden stars. Harry wasn't exactly sure why Hogwarts celebrated Christmas instead of Yule and according to Tom when he attended Hogwarts they'd celebrated Yule so he guessed it probably had something to do with Dumbledore.

On Christmas morning Harry was woken by Hermione pouring a cup of water on his head. He spluttered, sitting up and grabbing his glasses while she and Tom laughed at him. One of the reasons Harry loved Christmas so much was because Hermione seemed to glow during it. It was one of the only times when she let a childlike joy overwhelm her.

A large stack of parcels had appeared at the end of his bed and apparently Hermione had already cheerfully started unwrapping hers and he stumbled out of bed to join her. He quickly sorted through all his presents, the ones from his friends in one pile and the ones from the other Slytherins in the other, and, to his confusion, spotted a long, thin package that looked suspiciously like a broomstick– he'd think it was from Draco, if he hadn't already moved Draco's present into the friend pile as well as the fact the wrapping paper was plain, nothing like the expensive stuff Draco was fond of using.

"Who sent that?" Hermione asked curiously as she glanced over, a freshly unwrapped set of delicate, gossamer dress robes on her lap– Harry guessed they were probably from Narcissa.

"Not sure..." He said as he ripped the parcel open, then gasped at the magnificent, gleaming broomstick that rolled out onto his bedspread. He couldn't even speak. This wasn't a Nimbus Two Thousand and One– it was a Firebolt; the newest and best broom on the market. Its handle glittered as he picked it up, breathless, and he could feel it vibrating under his touch. Harry let go and it hung in midair, unsupported, at exactly the right height for him to mount it. His eyes moved from the golden registration number at the top of the handle, right down to the perfectly smooth, streamlined birch twigs that made up the tail. It was the most amazing broom he'd ever seen. Ever. 

"Look and see if there's a card," said Tom, looking impressed despite himself. Hermione had already started picking through the Firebolt's wrappings, though, and she frowned. 

"Hm. Nothing. Who do you think spent that much on you?"

"Well," Harry said, feeling stunned, "I'm betting it wasn't the Dursleys. Do you... do you think it was Dumbledore? I mean, he sent me the Invisibility Cloak anonymously...."

"That was your father's, though," said Hermione, with a shake of her head. "Dumbledore was just passing it on to you."

"Besides," added Tom, "no matter how much he wants to win you over, I doubt he could afford to spend hundreds of Galleons on you."

"I can't believe this," Harry muttered, running a hand along the Firebolt, while Hermione and Tom traded thoughtful looks. "Who–?"

"Sirius Black is technically your godfather, isn't he?" Hermione said, suddenly.

"Yes... according to Lucius, anyway." Harry said, confused for a moment before his eyes widened. "Oh! You think–?"

"It's my best guess." Hermione shrugged.

"The Blacks are– or, they were extremely wealthy," Tom added, "and as the only surviving heir, Black has a fortune at his fingertips."

"So... do you think it's safe?" Harry gave the broom a cautious look.

"Black doesn't want you dead so I don't see why it wouldn't be." Hermione said. "Of course, we should definitely scan it for different curses and jinxes– Tom?" 

Tom nodded and Hermione handed him his wand. Waving it over the broom, Tom started chanting in Latin. Nearly ten minutes passed of quiet casting before Tom sat back with a small smile. "I can't find any trace of Dark magic on it." He said. 

"Which means we give you permission to drag us out onto the grounds and make us watch you fly while we stand in the cold." Hermione added. Harry instantly opened his mouth to say they didn't have to but she just laughed and Tom shook his head in amusement.

"Don't worry, I'll bring along some of my new books to read." Hermione promised when he still went to protest and Harry just didn't have the strength to insist. 

After spending an exhilarating morning on his broom while Tom and Hermione read, Harry and Hermione made their way to the Great Hall after returning the Firebolt to his dorm. When they arrived they found that the House tables had been moved against the walls again and that a single table, set for twelve, stood in the middle of the room. Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape, Sprout, and Flitwick were there, along with Filch who had taken off his usual brown coat and was wearing a very old and rather moldy- looking tailcoat. There were only three other students, two extremely nervous-looking first years and a sullen-faced fifth year.

"Merry Christmas!" said Dumbledore as they approached the table. "As there are so few of us, it seemed foolish to use the House tables.... Sit down, sit down!"

Harry and Hermione sat down side by side at the end of the table. "Crackers!" said Dumbledore enthusiastically, offering the end of a large silver noisemaker to Snape, who took it reluctantly and tugged. With a bang like a gunshot, the cracker flew apart to reveal a large, pointed witch's hat topped with a stuffed vulture.

Harry, remembering the boggart, winced for Snape's sake. Snape's mouth thinned and he shoved the hat toward Dumbledore who swapped it for his wizard's hat at once. "Dig in!" he advised the table, beaming around.

As Harry was helping himself to roast potatoes, the doors of the Great Hall opened again and he almost groaned out loud. It was Trelawney, gliding toward them as though on wheels. She had put on a green sequined dress in honor of the occasion, making her look more than ever like a glittering, oversized dragonfly.

"Sibyll, this is a pleasant surprise!" said Dumbledore, standing up.

"I have been crystal gazing, Headmaster," said Trelawney in her mistiest, most faraway voice, "and to my astonishment, I saw myself abandoning my solitary luncheon and coming to join you. Who am I to refuse the promptings of fate? I at once hastened from my tower, and I do beg you to forgive my lateness...."

"Certainly, certainly," said Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling. "Let me draw you up a chair–" And he did indeed draw a chair in midair with his wand, which revolved for a few seconds before falling with a thud between Snape and McGonagall. Trelawney, however, did not sit down; her enormous eyes had been roving around the table, and she suddenly uttered a kind of soft scream.

"I dare not, Headmaster! If I join the table, we shall be thirteen! Nothing could be more unlucky! Never forget that when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die!"

"We'll risk it, Sibyll," said McGonagall impatiently. "Do sit down, the turkey's getting stone cold."

Trelawney hesitated, then lowered herself into the empty chair, eyes shut and mouth clenched tight, as though expecting a thunderbolt to hit the table. McGonagall poked a large spoon into the nearest tureen. "Tripe, Sibyll?" Hermione snorted quietly and Harry bit back a grin. 

Trelawney, though, ignored her. Eyes open again, she looked around once more and said, "But where is dear Professor Lupin?"

"I'm afraid the poor fellow is ill again," said Dumbledore, indicating that everybody should start serving themselves. "Most unfortunate that it should happen on Christmas Day."

"But surely you already knew that, Sibyll?" said McGonagall with her eyebrows raised and Harry could see Hermione biting her lip to keep from laughing. Trelawney gave McGonagall a very cold look.

"Certainly I knew, Minerva," she said quietly. "But one does not parade the fact that one is All-Knowing. I frequently act as though I am not possessed of the Inner Eye, so as not to make others nervous.

"That explains a great deal," said McGonagall tartly. Hermione couldn't quite muffle her loud snort this time and Trelawney's voice suddenly became a good deal less misty.

"If you must know, Minerva, I have seen that poor Professor Lupin will not be with us for very long. He seems aware, himself, that his time is short. He positively fled when I offered to crystal gaze for him–"

"Imagine that," said McGonagall dryly and Harry watched in amusement as Hermione ducked her head to hide her silent laughter behind a curtain of curls. 

"I doubt," said Dumbledore, in a cheerful but slightly raised voice, which put an end to McGonagall and Trelawney's 'conversation', "that Professor Lupin is in any immediate danger. Severus, you've made the potion for him again?"

"Yes, headmaster," said Snape.

"Good," said Dumbledore. "Then he should be up and about in no time... Derek, have you had any of these chipolatas? They're excellent!" The first year boy went furiously red on being addressed directly by Dumbledore, and took the platter of sausages with trembling hands.

Trelawney behaved almost normally until the very end of Christmas dinner, two hours later. Full to bursting and still wearing their cracker hats, Harry and Hermione got up first from the table and she shrieked loudly.

"My dears! Which of you left their seat first? Which?"

"I don't believe it matters, Professor." Hermione's voice was saccharine, and McGonagall added her two cents.

"And I doubt it will make much difference," she said coldly, "unless a mad axe-man is waiting outside the doors to slaughter the first into the Entrance Hall."

Hermione and McGonagall actually traded looks of 'can you believe this sheer idiocy?' and Harry tried not to feel like the apocalypse was impending as girl and woman nodded at each other, before Hermione linked arms with him and tugged him after her.

(Harry carefully did not comment on the fact that she made sure she was the first one to step out into the Entrance Hall, apparently 'just in case').

Chapter Text

Chapter XXVI:




Harry's POV:

After a perfectly enjoyable holidays it was a shame when the rest of the school returned shortly after New Year and the Slytherin Dungeon became crowded and noisy again. It also meant that Tom couldn't lounge around the common room and dorms with them anymore and Harry found himself missing the older boy's company.

When classes started again, the last thing anyone felt like doing was spending two hours on the grounds on a raw January morning but Hagrid had provided a bonfire full of salamanders for their enjoyment and they spent a good lesson collecting dry wood and leaves to keep the fire blazing while the flame-loving lizards scampered up and down the crumbling, white-hot logs.

The first Divination lesson of the new term was much less fun; Trelawney was now teaching them palmistry, and she lost no time in informing him that he had the shortest lifeline she had ever seen. An angry Hermione retaliated to this by loudly providing logical counterpoints to everything Trelawney said, which caused her to get flustered to the point where Harry thought the woman might burst into tears.

Defense Against the Dark Arts continued to be great fun and both he and Hermione were keen to get started on the anti-Dementor lessons as soon as possible.

"Ah yes," said Lupin, when they reminded him at the end of class. "Let me see... how about eight o'clock on Thursday evening? The History of Magic classroom should be large enough.... I'll have to think carefully about how we're going to do this.... We can't bring a real Dementor into the castle to practice on...."

At eight o'clock on Thursday evening, however, it was only Harry who left the Slytherin Common Room for the History of Magic classroom. Hermione was serving detention for cursing Weasley– the only consolation was that Weasley had also been given detention because he'd thrown the first curse–  so it was just him. It was dark and empty when Harry arrived but he lit the lamps with his wand and only had to wait about five minutes before Lupin turned up, carrying a large packing case which he heaved onto Binn's desk.

"What's that?" Harry asked curiously.

"Another boggart," said Lupin, stripping off his cloak. "I've been combing the castle ever since Tuesday, and very luckily, I found this one lurking inside Mr. Filch's filing cabinet. It's the nearest we'll get to a real Dementor. The boggart will turn into a Dementor when he sees you, so we'll be able to practice on him. I can store him in my office when we're not using him; there's a cupboard under my desk he'll like."

"Okay," said Harry, trying to sound as though he wasn't apprehensive at all and merely glad that Lupin had found such a good substitute for a real Dementor.

"So..." Lupin had taken out his own wand and indicated that Harry should do the same. "The spell I am going to try and teach you is highly advanced magic, Harry– well beyond Ordinary Wizarding Levels. It is called the Patronus Charm."

"Yeah, Professor Snape said that. How does it work exactly?" asked Harry nervously.

"Well, when it works correctly, It conjures up a Patronus," said Lupin, "which is a kind of anti-Dementor– a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the Dementor." Harry had a sudden vision of himself crouching behind a Hagrid-sized figure holding a large club. Lupin continued, "The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon– hope, happiness, the desire to survive– but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can't hurt it. But I must warn you, Harry, that the charm might be too advanced for you. Many qualified wizards have difficulty with it."

"What does a Patronus look like?" Harry asked curiously.

"Each one is unique to the wizard who conjures it." Lupin said, mouth curving into a sad-looking smile.

"And how do you conjure it?"

"With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory."

Harry cast his mind about for a happy memory. Certainly, nothing that had happened to him at the Dursleys' was going to do. Finally, he settled on the moment when he had first ridden a broomstick. "Right," he said, trying to recall as exactly as possible the wonderful, soaring sensation of his stomach.

"The incantation is this–" Lupin cleared his throat. "Expecto patronum!"

"Expecto patronum, " Harry repeated under his breath, "expecto patronum."

"Concentrating hard on your happy memory?"

"Oh– yeah–" said Harry, quickly forcing his thoughts back to that first broom ride, and he held out his wand. "Expecto patrono– no, patronum– sorry –expecto patronum, expecto patronum!"

Something whooshed suddenly out of the end of his wand; it looked like a wisp of silvery gas. "Did you see that?" said Harry excitedly. "Something happened!"

"Very good," said Lupin, smiling. "Right, then– ready to try it on a Dementor?"

"Yes," Harry said, gripping his wand very tightly, and moving into the middle of the deserted classroom. He tried to keep his mind on flying, but something else kept intruding.... Any second now, he might hear his mother again... but he shouldn't think that, or he would hear her again, and he didn't want to... or did he?

Lupin grasped the lid of the packing case and pulled. A Dementor rose slowly from the box, its hooded face turned toward Harry, one glistening, scabbed hand gripping its cloak. The lamps around the classroom flickered and went out. The Dementor stepped from the box and started to sweep silently toward Harry, drawing a deep, rattling breath. A wave of piercing cold broke over him–

"Expecto patronum!" Harry yelled. "Expecto patronum! Expecto-" But the classroom and the Dementor were dissolving.... Harry was falling through thick white fog and his mother's voice was louder than ever, echoing inside his head–

"-Not Harry! Not Harry! please -- I'll do anything-!"

"-Stand aside. Stand aside, girl-!"

"Harry!" Harry jerked back to life. He was lying flat on his back on the floor. The classroom lamps were alight again. He didn't have to ask what had happened.

"Sorry," he muttered, sitting up and feeling cold sweat trickling down behind his glasses.

"Are you all right?" said Lupin.

"Yes." Harry pulled himself up on one of the desks and leaned against it.

"Here–" Lupin handed him a Chocolate Frog. "Eat this before we try again. I didn't expect you to do it your first time; in fact, I would have been astounded if you had."

"It's getting worse," Harry muttered, biting off the Frog's head. "I could hear her louder that time. And him– Voldemort." Lupin looked paler than usual.

"Harry, if you don't want to continue, I will more than understand–"

"I do!" said Harry fiercely, stuffing the rest of the Chocolate Frog into his mouth. "I've got to! What if the Dementors turn up at our match against Ravenclaw? I can't afford to fall off again. If we lose this game we've lost the Quidditch Cup!" He then paused for a moment. "Er, don't tell Hermione I said that. If she asks or anything, could you just stick to the 'what if Dementors turn up' bit?"

"Alright then, " said Lupin, his mouth twitching slightly in a smile. "You might want to select another memory, a happy memory, I mean, to concentrate on– that one doesn't seem to have been strong enough."

Harry thought hard and decided his feelings when Slytherin had won the House Championship last year had definitely qualified as very happy. He gripped his wand tightly again and took up his position in the middle of the classroom.

"Ready?" said Lupin, gripping the box lid.

"Ready," said Harry; trying hard to fill his head with happy thoughts about Slytherin winning, and not dark thoughts about what was going to happen when the box opened.

"Go!" said Lupin, pulling off the lid. The room went icily cold and dark once more. The Dementor glided forward, drawing its breath; one rotting hand was extending toward Harry -

"Expecto patronum!" Harry yelled. "Expecto patronum! Expecto Pat-" White fog obscured his senses... big, blurred shapes were moving around him... then came a new voice, a man's voice, shouting, panicking-

"-Lily, take Harry and go! It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off-" The sounds of someone stumbling from a room a door bursting open a cackle of high- pitched laughter

"Harry! Harry... wake up...." Lupin was tapping Harry hard on the face. This time it was a minute before Harry understood why he was lying on a dusty classroom floor.

"I heard my dad," he mumbled, not even meaning to. "That's the first time I've ever heard him -- he tried to take on Voldemort himself, to give my mum time to run for it...." Harry suddenly realized that there were tears on his face mingling with the sweat. He bent his face as low as possible, wiping them off on his robes, pretending to do up his shoelace so that Lupin wouldn't see.

"You heard James?" said Lupin in a strange voice.

"Yeah..." Face wiped dry again, Harry looked up. "Why– you didn't know my dad, did you?"

"I– I did, as a matter of fact," said Lupin. "We were friends at Hogwarts. Listen, Harry– perhaps we should leave it here for tonight. This charm is ridiculously advanced–"

"No!" said Harry. He got up again. "I'll have one more go! I'm not thinking of happy enough things, that's what it is.... Hang on...."

He racked his brains. A really, really happy memory... one that he could turn into a good, strong Patronus... Hermione. If she wasn't a happy memory, he didn't know what was.... Concentrating very hard on the memory of her arms around him, the smell of her hair, her eyes glowing with rare, genuine happiness as she looked at him, Harry got to his feet and faced the packing case once more.

"Ready?" said Lupin, who looked as though he were doing this against his better judgment. "Concentrating hard? All right– go!" He pulled off the lid of the case for the third time and the Dementor rose out of it; the room fell cold and dark

"EXPECTO PATRONUM!" Harry bellowed. "EXPECTO PATRONUM! EXPECTO PATRONUM! "

The screaming inside Harry's head had started again, except this time, it sounded as though it were coming from a badly tuned radio– softer and louder and softer again– and he could still see the Dementor– it had halted– and then a huge, silver shadow came bursting out of the end of Harry's wand to hover between him and the Dementor, and despite how his legs felt like water, he was still on his feet, though for how much longer, he wasn't sure–

"Riddikulus!" roared Lupin, springing forward. There was a loud crack and Harry's cloudy Patronus vanished along with the Dementor. He sank into a chair, feeling as exhausted as if he'd just run a mile and felt his legs shaking. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lupin forcing the boggart back into the packing case with his wand; it had turned into a full moon again. "Excellent!" Lupin then said, striding over to where Harry sat with a wide smile on his face. "Excellent, Harry! That was definitely a start!"

"Can we have another go? Just one more go?" He pleaded.

"Not now," Lupin said firmly. "You've had enough for one night. Here–" He handed Harry a large bar of Honeydukes' best chocolate. "Eat the lot or Madam Pomfrey will be after my blood. Same time next week, I think, though I imagine that Hermione will be joining us."

"If she doesn't get caught cursing Weasley again," Harry said without thinking then he blushed. "Er... I mean, uh–" Lupin shook his head, amused.

"Don't worry, Harry," he said, "I remember being a student too. Eat your chocolate." Harry smiled sheepishly and took a big bite of the chocolate, watching Lupin extinguishing the lamps that had rekindled with the disappearance of the Dementor.

Harry said goodbye to Lupin and left the classroom, walking along the corridor and around a corner before taking a detour behind a suit of armor and sinking down on its plinth to finish his chocolate. Despite himself, he found his thoughts kept wandering back to his mother and father.

Despite being so full of chocolate, Harry felt drained and strangely empty. Terrible though it was to hear his parents' last moments replayed inside his head, those were the only times Harry had ever heard their voices that he remembered. But he'd never be able to produce a proper Patronus if he half wanted to hear his parents again... "They're dead," he told himself sternly. "They're dead and listening to echoes of them won't bring them back. You'd better get a grip on yourself if you want that Quidditch Cup."

He stood up, crammed the last bit of chocolate into his mouth, and headed back to the Slytherin Common Room.

-

-

Hermione's POV:

Harry had finally cheered up much to her relief, and it was in no small part because of Gryffindor's win against Ravenclaw which had left Slytherin in the running for the Quidditch Cup. Practices had increased to every day of the week and Hermione loyally watched every single one, even those that began at five in the morning.

The patronus lessons with Lupin were continuing and Hermione could admit that she was... struggling with them. Not only with finding a happy enough memory, but the innate Lightness of the spell went against the Darkness in her mind, the Darkness that whispered to her, always tempting her to just get rid of her problems, of threats to Harry, in a very permanent fashion. And then there was the fact the spell was so fuelled by emotion and Hermione was always careful to lock her emotions down– though the Dementors had been wreaking havoc on that. She'd had to escape to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom every night after the patronus lessons where she could privately break down before building her Occlumency shields back up. It was exhausting and Hermione wasn't sure she'd be able to cope with it happening many more times.

Harry was struggling too, but for a very different reason. Her best friend had admitted to her that he had to fight the urge to just let the Dementor do its work so he could hear his parent's voices, clear as crystal in his mind. And she understood.

Neither of them possessed a single photograph of their parents. There were no letters, no trinkets, nothing to say they ever existed except the memories– memories she had, but Harry... Harry did not. The first time he'd ever heard his parents was because of the Dementor on the train and then during the Quidditch match and now during the lessons– they were the only memories he had of them. She couldn't even imagine how hard it was.

So while they could both manage to produce indistinct silver shadows, their patronuses were too feeble to do anything but hover between them and the Boggart-Dementor.

"I thought a Patronus would– I don't know– charge the Dementor or something!" Harry said to her frustratedly as they were walking back to the Slytherin dungeon after a lesson.

"A true Patronus does," she told him, her voice as dull and strained as Harry's was. The 'but we can't cast one' went unsaid but still rang loudly in their ears.

January faded into February and Hermione watched as Harry grew more and more tense as the match against Hufflepuff drew nearer.

The afternoon of the Quidditch match, Hermione felt wired and shaky, sharp panic edging at the corners of her mind. Although they didn't say it, both she and Harry knew that they were both terrified by the idea of the Dementors turning up again.

It was, at least, a nicer day; Hermione reflected as she joined the Slytherin third year boys and Daphne and Tracey up in the podiums. The sun was out and the sky was clear. Foot bouncing up and down, Hermione watched with baited breath as the two teams walked onto the pitch.

A surge of anger punched her in the gut as the Ravenclaw Seeker smiled at Harry and Harry's cheeks went pink. Harry was hers and everybody knew that– what was that bitch playing at?

The game started and Hermione kept her eyes glued to Harry. She didn't bother keeping track of the score, though she did note that Slytherin was in the lead. The Ravenclaw Seeker kept cutting Harry off and Hermione only just refrained from cursing the Ravenclaw beater when he pelted a bludger straight at Harry when he dived for the snitch, causing him to have to swerve and lose sight of the flying golden ball.

Grinding her teeth together and promising a later revenge, Hermione tracked Harry with narrow eyes. The Slytherins on either side of her knew better then to even try speaking to her, or distracting her from the game. She knew the moment that Harry spotted the snitch and she grinned as he started racing down the pitch, in her direction. He was so close to getting the fluttering golden ball when the Ravenclaw Seeker made a loud exclamation and pointed down.

Hermione's blood turned to ice. Three tall, black hooded Dementors were beside the pitch, looking up at Harry. Both she and Harry reached for their wands, Harry pulling his out quicker and whipping it in the direction of the Dementors he bellowed, "EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

She couldn't help but gasp in shock as an enormous silvery stag erupted from the end of his wand and pride rushed through her, fierce and sure. She was so focused on Harry's Patronus, his fully corporeal Patronus, that she didn't even realize he'd caught the snitch until she heard the Slytherins around her start cheering.

Leaving the podium, Hermione rushed to the grounds to where Harry had landed and was being tackled by several members of the team. He was grinning widely at her as he yanked her into the fold, hugging her tight while simultaneously shielding her from the press of bodies around them.

"That was quite the Patronus." Lupin looked both shaken and pleased, as he joined the crowd moving forwards to congratulate Harry.

"The Dementors didn't affect me at all!" Harry said excitedly, squeezing her hand tight in his "I didn't feel a thing!"

"That would be because they– er– wren't Dementors." Said Lupin and Hermione felt anger stir inside her as he said, "Come and see."

The professor lead them out of the crowd until they were able to se the edge of the field. "You gave them quite a fright," said Lupin, sounding very amused by the fact.

Lying in a crumpled heap on the ground were a handful of Gryffindors, including Wood, Ron, Fred and George Weasley and Seamus Finnegan, all of them struggling to remove themselves from long, black hooded robes. Standing over them with an expression of fury and loathing on his face was Snape.

Hermione couldn't hear what it was her Head of House was saying, but judging by the pale, wan expressions on the Gryffindor's faces, it wasn't good– and she could see McGonagall storming over looking just as enraged.

"Did you see what form my Patronus took?" Harry asked her as they joined the crowds making their way back up to the castle, Hermione committing the memory of Snape and McGonagall both shouting at the Gryffindors.

"I did," she told Harry, smiling softly up at him. "It was a stag– and it was magnificent, Harry." Harry's cheeks turned red and he beamed at her.

The Slytherins threw a party that didn't end until an irate looking Snape stormed into the Common Room at one in the morning and threatened anyone who didn't return to their dormitories within the next ten seconds with detention scrubbing chamber pots.

The next morning they were all in for a surprise when they learned that Sirius Black had once again broken into the Gryffindor Tower. Apparently he'd slashed the curtains around Ron Weasley's bed with a knife.

"It's a shame he didn't slash Weasley's throat." Draco pouted nearly all morning. Hermione nodded in very sincere agreement– Weasley was a problem and Hermione did not like problems. She had yet to properly repay him and the twins for their attack on Harry but revenge was a dish best served cold and the death of their sister had certainly not satisfied her need to make them pay.

Tighter security had been employed in the castle, including a bunch of surly security trolls that had been hired to guard the entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room. To Hermione's continued bewilderment people still thought that Black was after Harry. They all just assumed that he thought Harry was in Gryffindor and hadn't got the memo that Harry was, in fact, a Slytherin. "I mean, how thick can you get?" She kept asking Harry who looked just as bewildered as her.

Divination classes were dull and infuriating and when she finally snapped, Hermione was just honestly surprised it had taken so long for her to reach her breaking point.

It was just before Easter when she'd entered the dim, stifling tower room and found herself faced with a crystal ball full of pearly white mist glowing on every table. Hermione had no interest in fortune telling or seeing the future– she'd wanted to take Divination to find out more about how prophecies worked. It was a lingering worry in her mind she'd had ever since Voldemort had first spoken about it, and she'd hoped the Divination classes would provide the answers she'd been looking for.

She had been very, very wrong and found herself wishing she did have the Inner Eye solely so she'd have been able to see how pointlessly boring and ridiculous Divination was and have never signed up for the damn subject in the first place.

Already in a terrible mood from the classroom alone, she found a seat with Harry and studied the orb sitting in front of them with a great deal of disdain. "I thought we weren't starting crystal balls until next term," She said, her eyes narrowing.

"Don't complain, this means we've finished palmistry," Harry muttered back. "I was getting sick of her flinching every time she looked at my hands."

"Good day to you!" said the familiar, misty voice and Trelawney made her usual dramatic entrance out of the shadows. Patil and Brown quivered with excitement, their faces lit by the milky glow of their crystal ball. "I have decided to introduce the crystal ball a little earlier than I had planned," she said, sitting with her back to the fire and gazing around. "The fates have informed me that your examination in June will concern the Orb, and I am anxious to give you sufficient practice."

Hermione couldn't help her disgusted scoff. "Well, honestly... 'the fates have informed her' who sets the exam? She does! What an amazing prediction!" she said, not troubling to keep her voice low. Harry choked back a laugh.

It was hard to tell whether Trelawney had heard her, as the woman's face was hidden in shadow, but she continued on as though she had not. "Crystal gazing is a particularly refined art," she said dreamily. "I do not expect any of you to See when first you peer into the Orb's infinite depths. We shall start by practicing relaxing the conscious mind and external eyes so as to clear the Inner Eye and the superconscious. Perhaps, if we are lucky, some of you will see before the end of the class."

And so they began. Hermione felt like an absolute moron scowling at the crystal ball, not even bothering to try and keep her mind empty of thoughts such as 'this is pathetic'. It didn't help that Harry kept breaking into silent laughter.

"Seen anything yet?" She asked him sarcastically after an exceptionally dull quarter of an hour of 'gazing into the Orb'.

"There's a burn on this table," Harry pointed out. "Someone's spilled their candle."

"This is such a waste of time," Hermione spat, frustrated. "I could be practicing something useful–" Trelawney chose then to tustle past.

"Would anyone like me to help them interpret the shadowy portents within their Orb?" She murmured.

"I don't need help," Harry whispered to her. "It's obvious what this means– there's going to be loads of fog tonight."

Hermione burst out into laughter and Harry looked pleased with himself. Trelawney, however, did not. "Now, really!" She said as everyone's heads turned in their direction. Patil and Brown were looking scandalized, though Hermione was viciously satisfied to see that both girls carefully avoided making eye contact with her, cowardly little lions that they were. "You are disturbing the clairvoyant vibrations!" Trelawney chided them as she approached their table and peered into their crystal ball. "There is something here!" She whispered, lowering her face to the ball, so that it was reflected twice in her huge glasses. "Something moving... but what is it?"

Hermione was prepared to bet everything she owned that it wasn't good news, whatever 'it' was. Harry's expression, she was sure, was a perfect reflection of her own.

And sure enough– "My dear," Professor Trelawney breathed, gazing up at Harry. "It is here, plainer than ever before... my dear, stalking toward you, growing ever closer... the Gr–"

"Oh, for fucks' sake!" She said loudly, unable to hold it in any longer. "Not that fucking ridiculous Grim again!"

Trelawney raised her enormous eyes to Hermione's face. Patil whispered something to Brown, and they both glared at her too– that was until she swept her venomous gaze over them and they both cowered and quickly looked away.

Trelawney stood up then, surveying her with unmistakable anger. "I am sorry to say that from the moment you have arrived in this class my dear, it has been apparent that you do not have what the noble art of Divination requires. Indeed, I don't remember ever meeting a student whose mind was so hopelessly mundane."

Hermione couldn't help it. She started laughing incredulously. "Are you fucking kidding me?This shitty class is an absolute joke and you're the shittiest excuse for a teacher I've ever met, not to mention a complete and utter fraud! And you know what? I can't be bothered pretending to give a fuck about any of the crap you're constantly spouting anymore. I'll come back if Dumbledore ever regains enough of his senses to toss you out on your arse and get us a proper teacher." She gave Trelawney a last sneer before getting up, not even bothering to pick up her copy of 'Unfogging the Future'.

And, to the class's amazement, she strode over to the trapdoor, kicked it open, and dropped down the ladder out of sight.

She was halfway down the spiral staircase when Harry caught up with her. "I've wanted to do that all year." She told him and he laughed.

"Me too.

She and Harry never returned to Divination and nobody tried to make them. Classes continued and she and Harry skipped the next Hogsmeade visit, instead hanging out in Harry's dormitory with Tom. It was harder spending time with him when they were so busy with homework, Harry's Quidditch and classes, but she and Harry both did their best and they did have a handful of spare hours that used to be occupied by Divination that they could spend with him.

Tom was... good company, Hermione had long since discovered but only more recently had cared to admit to herself. He wasn't like Harry; Harry had no edges for her to cut herself on, he was safe and she loved that. Tom wasn't safe, he was nothing but edges; the sharpness of them cruel and vicious and cutting, but she knew better then most the rush that came with the pain of bleeding, the harsh sting of it twisting and tangling into pleasure as adrenaline thrummed in her veins, numbing her nerves and boiling her blood.

Hermione didn't think she'd be able to let either of her boys go, which was a problem. Harry, she knew, would cling on to her just as tight as she would to him; they were two parts of a whole, incomplete without the other. But she was greedy and Tom meant something to her too. He wasn't Harry, wasn't inseparable to her the way Harry was, but he was something to her. Tom had chipped away at their defences until he'd managed to slip through the newly-made cracks, twisting himself around them so they couldn't even take a breath without feeling him. Hermione didn't know if Tom understood, though, the consequences of what he'd done, of purposefully making himself such an intrinsic part of their lives. She and Harry both knew what it was like to have nothing, which meant they clung on to what they did have, to what was theirs, with a fierce, stubborn tenacity that screamed of never letting go. In his need to own them, Tom had instead managed to tangle them up to the point where she doubted either Harry or herself would be capable of letting the older boy go; they'd dig their claws into him and carve their names into his skin and onto his heart, making him theirs, always theirs.

Hermione had never doubted, not once she'd actually stopped to think about it, that one day she and Harry would become romantically involved. It was a given to her– she was Harry's and Harry was hers. She hadn't considered inviting anyone else into the intimacy they shared, though, until that day after the boggart lesson when she'd come back to herself after her break down and Harry had been pressed to one side of her and Tom to the other. They'd both been holding her together as she'd fallen apart and there'd been something about that shared moment that had been impossible for her to forget.

And she didn't want to forget it. She wanted to explore it, to unravel the complicated thing the three of them shared so the answer was as clear to Harry and Tom as it was to her. She wanted them, wanted both of them, and if there was anything she'd learned in this cruel world it was that she had to take what she wanted before someone took it from her.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXVII:

 

Hermione's POV:

The Easter holidays weren't exactly what Hermione would call relaxing. The third years had never had so much homework and poor Harry had had Quidditch practice every day for hours at a time.

The whole school was obsessed with the Quidditch final which was to be held the weekend after Easter and Hermione was sick of listening to everyone talk about it all the damn time. More and more she found herself retreating to abandoned classrooms where Tom could come out to keep her company as she poured over both her school and extracurricular work. She'd even managed to talk the older boy into sparring with her and after a few hours of repeatedly slamming him into the floor Tom had picked up enough so that as long as she didn't pull out her knives he could put up a semi-decent fight– there might be a large margin of difference in their skill levels but Tom wasn't afraid of fighting dirty or using his greater strength against her and he knew where to aim to hurt the most and read body language like an open book, anticipating her moves before she landed them by viewing the fight as a series of cause-effect reactions of the human body and reacting accordingly. 

It was thrilling to be able to let loose; she didn't have to go easy and Tom and he didn't want her to. She could use her full strength, lash out at him with all she had, and on top of that she enjoyed watching Tom fight; she enjoyed watching inherent grace of his movements, the shift of his muscles and the shine of his sweat. And Tom didn't hold back, didn't hesitate to hurt her, to smack her around or crush her to the ground; he treated her like she was an equal and she loved it. Fighting with him was like dancing on broken glass; she'd come away bloodied but with a buzz in her veins, her muscles singing from use and pleasure flooding her nerve endings. And if there were times that she let Tom pin her to the floor just to feel the hot weight of him pressed to her back, well, that was her business.

They duelled too, sometimes. Hermione didn't enjoy it as much, didn't enjoy the lack of true physicality to it, but there was something truly stunning about Tom with a wand in his hand. It was easy to see how he'd ended up as Voldemort, a wizard so powerful that even after his 'death' people were too scared to say his name. Every victory she'd had against Tom while they sparred, he took out on her hide when they duelled and just like he wouldn't have thanked her for going easy on him during their spars, he never went easy on her either and she was glad for it. 

Harry joined them when he had a spare moment, which admittedly wasn't often. He preferred to watch then join in, usually too exhausted and sore from Quidditch practice to get any enjoyment out of forcing himself to participate, but Hermione didn't mind that– she liked having him there, liked the feel of his eyes on her as she pinned Tom to the ground with her knees on his back or when she was trading curses with the older boy at a faster pace then she breathed. 

She felt greedy and possessive and she didn't care, because in those moments the attention of both her boys was on her and she coveted that feeling, craved it like the oxygen she breathed. She wanted them, wanted both of them, her beautiful boys; her sweet, darling Harry, with his love, his loyalty, his kindness and his fierce protective spirit, and Tom, her vicious, clever Tom who radiated power and superiority and casual cruelty, like a black panther showing off its teeth as it prowled lazily around its helpless, cornered prey. 

She wanted her boys but for the moment she contented herself with the knowledge that they were still hers, even if they weren't intimate; neither Tom or Harry looked at anyone but her or each other, they orbited each other without even realising– a solar system of three. And for now that was enough to satisfy her. 

As the Quidditch match drew closer, getting away with Tom and Harry became more difficult and Hermione became unwilling to leave Harry alone as members of the Gryffindor and Slytherin Quidditch teams began to be targeted in the corridors. At first Harry had been having a particularly tough time of it, being unable to walk to class without Gryffindors sticking out their legs and trying to trip him up. Hermione had, however, firmly discouraged such behaviour by using bone-crushing curses on three of the saboteurs, leaving them screaming in agony, curled up on the corridor floors with splintered shins. She'd used the acacia wand so that when the professors tested her vine wand, they were unable to prove she was responsible.

The days approaching the match were filled with a highly charged nervous energy and a number of scuffles broke out in the corridors, culminating in a fourth year Gryffindor and sixth year Slytherin being hospitalised with leeks growing out of their ears. Hermione ended up cursing no less then seven people who'd tried to curse her and she found herself exceedingly grateful for Tom's ruthlessness in their duels as she was able to defend herself with ease from the far inferior duellers. 

On the day of the match Harry looked to be a nervous wreck and she had to basically guide him to the Great Hall for breakfast he was so out of it. After force-feeding him toast and cereal, she was accompanying him out of the hall when the Ravenclaw Seeker, Cho Chang, called out, "good luck Harry!"

The sight of Harry's blush in response had anger pulsing through her, sharp and fiery, but she pushed her seething jealousy aside and instead concentrated on what Harry needed, hugging him tight before they had to part ways, Harry and the Slytherin team heading for the change-rooms while she joined Draco, Blaise, Theo, Vince, Greg, Daphne and Tracey on their way to the pitch.

-

-

Harry's POV:

None of the team spoke as they changed into their emerald green robes and Harry wondered if they were feeling like he was– as though he'd eaten something extremely wriggly for breakfast. 

In what seemed like no time at all, Flint was saying, "Alright team, let's go–" and they walked out onto the field to a tidal wave of noise. Only a quarter of the crowd was wearing green rosettes, waving green flags with the silver serpent of Slytherin glittering on them upon them or brandishing banners with slogans like "GO SLYTHERIN!" and "SNAKES FOR THE CUP". Everywhere else was a sea of scarlet and gold, but that didn't matter to Harry, because Hermione was up in the stands, sitting in the very front row with green ribbons wound through her twin braids and cheering for him.

"And here are the Gryffindors!" yelled Lee Jordan, who was acting as commentator as usual. "Greene, Bell, Johnson, Spinnet, Weasley, Weasley, and Wood. Widely acknowledged as the best team Hogwarts has seen in a good few years–"

Lee's comments were drowned by a tide of "boos" from the Slytherin end and Harry rolled his eyes at the blatant favoritism. 

"And here come the Slytherin team, led by Captain Flint. He's made some changes in the lineup and seems to be going for size rather than skill–" More boos from the Slytherin crowd and Harry decided then and there to just ignore the highly biased commentator. He knew that the Slytherin team were all skilled and that they'd all worked damn hard– Wood's words were inconsequential in the face of those facts. 

"Captains, shake hands!" said Madam Hooch. Flint and Wood approached each other and grasped each other's hand very tightly; it looked as though each was trying to break the other's fingers. "Mount your brooms!" ordered Hooch. "Three... two... one..."

The sound of her whistle was lost in the roar from the crowd as fourteen brooms rose into the air. Harry felt his hair fly back off his forehead; his nerves left him in the thrill of the flight; he glanced around, saw Greene on his tail, and sped off in search of the Snitch.

"And it's Gryffindor in possession, Alicia Spinner of Gryffindor with the Quaffle, heading straight for the Slytherin goal posts, looking good, Alicia! Argh, no– Quaffle intercepted by Warrington, Warrington of Slytherin tearing UP the field– WHAM!– nice Bludger work there by George Weasley, Warrington drops the Quaffle, it's caught by– Johnson, Gryffindor back in possession, come on, Angelina– nice swerve around Montague– duck, Angelina, that's a Bludger!– SHE SCORES! TEN-ZERO TO GRYFFINDOR!"

The Gryffindor Chaser punched the air as she soared around the end of the field; the sea of scarlet below was screaming its delight– "OUCH!" Johnson was nearly thrown from her broom as Marcus went smashing into her.

"Sorry!" said Marcus as the crowd below booed. "Sorry, didn't see her!" Harry tried not to laugh, but he wasn't laughing a moment later when one of the Weasley twins chucked his Beater's club at the back of Marcus's head. Marcus's nose smashed into the handle of his broom and began to bleed.

"That will do!" shrieked Madam Hooch, zooming between then. "Penalty shot to Gryffindor for an unprovoked attack on their Chaser! Penalty shot to Slytherin for deliberate damage to their Chaser!"

"Come off it, Miss!" howled the Weasley, but Madam Hooch blew her whistle and Spinnet flew forward to take the penalty.

"Come on, Alicia!" yelled Lee into the silence that had descended on the crowd. "YES! SHE'S BEATEN THE KEEPER! TWENTY-ZERO TO GRYFFINDOR!"

Harry turned the Firebolt sharply to watch Marcus, still bleeding freely, fly forward to take the Slytherin penalty. Wood was hovering in front of the Gryffindor goal posts, his jaw clenched. "Come on, Marcus, come on, come on, come on," muttered Harry.

"'Course, Wood's a superb Keeper!" Lee Jordan told the crowd as Marcus waited for Madam Hooch's whistle. "Superb! Very difficult to pass– very difficult indeed– YES! I DON'T BELIEVE IT! HE'S SAVED IT!"

Groaning, Harry zoomed away, gazing around for the Snitch but still making sure he caught every word of Lee's commentary solely in order to keep track of the score.

"Gryffindor in possession, no, Slytherin in possession– no! Gryffindor back in possession and it's Katie Bell, Katie Bell for Gryffindor with the Quaffle, she's streaking up the field– THAT WAS DELIBERATE!"

Graham Montague had swerved in front of Bell and instead of seizing the Quaffle had grabbed her head. Bell cartwheeled through the air, managing to stay on her broom but dropping the Quaffle which Keane Dale managed to catch. But then Madam Hooch's whistle rang out again and she soared over to Graham to start shouting at him. A minute later, Bell had put another penalty past Cassius Warrington, the Slytherin Keeper.

"THIRTY-ZERO! TAKE THAT, YOU DIRTY, CHEATING–"

"Jordan, if you can't commentate in an unbiased way–"

"I'm telling it like it is, Professor!"

Harry felt a sudden jolt of excitement. He had seen the Snitch it was shimmering at the foot of one of the Gryffindor goal posts– he pulled his Firebolt around and sped towards the goal posts, flattening himself against his broom and– WHOOSH.

One of the Bludgers came streaking past Harry's right ear, hit by one of the Weasley twins. And again– WHOOSH. The second Bludger grazed Harry's elbow as the other Weasley twin started closing in.

Harry had a fleeting glimpse of the twins zooming toward him, clubs raised and he turned the Firebolt upward at the last second, the twins colliding with each other below him with a sickening crunch.

"Dammit!" yelled Lee Jordan as the twins lurched away from each other, clutching their heads. "That little–! Too bad, boys! But it's Gryffindor in possession again as Johnson takes the Quaffle– Flint alongside her– poke him in the eye, Angelina!– it was a joke, Professor, it was a joke– oh no– Flint in possession, Flint flying toward the Gryffindor goal posts, come on now, Wood, save–!"

But Marcus had scored; there was an eruption of cheers from the Slytherin end and Lee swore so badly that Professor McGonagall tried to wrestle the magical megaphone away from him.

"Sorry, Professor, sorry! Won't happen again! So, Gryffindor in the lead, thirty points to ten, and Gryffindor in possession–"

It was turning into the dirtiest Quidditch game Harry had ever played in. Enraged that Gryffindor had taken such an early lead, his fellow Slytherins were rapidly resorting to any means to take the Quaffle. Lucian Bole hit Bell with his club and tried to say he'd thought she was a Bludger. One of the Weasley twins elbowed Lucian in the face in retaliation. Madam Hooch awarded both teams penalties, and bloody Wood pulled off another save, making the score forty-ten to Gryffindor.

The Snitch had disappeared again. Greene was still keeping close to Harry as he soared over the match, looking around for it...

Bell scored. Fifty-ten. The Weasley twins were swooping around her, clubs raised in case any of the Slytherins were thinking of revenge. Lucian and Peregrine Derrick took advantage of twins absence to aim both Bludgers at Wood; they caught him in the stomach, one after the other, and he rolled over in the air, clutching his broom, completely winded.

Madam Hooch was beside herself. "YOU DO NOT ATTACK THE KEEPER UNLESS THE QUAFFLE IS WITHIN THE SCORING AREA!" she shrieked at Lucian and Peregrine. "Gryffindor penalty!"

And Spinnet scored. Sixty-ten. Moments later, a Weasley pelted a Bludger at Warrington, knocking the Quaffle out of his hands; Spinnet seized it and put it through the Slytherin goal– seventy-ten.

The Gryffindor crowd below was screaming itself hoarse and Harry could almost feel hundreds of eyes following him as he soared around the field, high above the rest of the game with Greene speeding along behind him.

And then he saw it once again. The Snitch was sparkling twenty feet above him and Harry put on a huge burst of speed; the wind was roaring in his ears and he was stretching out his hand when suddenly his Firebolt started slowing down– Horrified, Harry glanced back and saw that Greene had thrown himself forward, grabbing hold of the Firebolt's tail and pulling it back.

"You fucking piece of shit–"

Harry was angry enough to hit Greene, but couldn't reach him– Greene was panting with the effort of holding onto the Firebolt but his eyes were sparkling victoriously. He had achieved what he'd wanted to do– the Snitch had disappeared once again.

"Penalty! Penalty to Slytherin! I've never seen such tactics." Madam Hooch screeched, shooting up to where Greene was sliding back onto his Comet.

Marcus took Slytherin's penalty and scored.   

"Slytherin in possession, Slytherin heading for goal– Montague scores–" Lee groaned. "Seventy- thirty to Gryffindor..."

Harry was now marking Greene so closely their knees kept hitting each other. Harry wasn't going to let Greene anywhere near the Snitch.

"Get out of it, Potter!" Greene yelled in frustration as he tried to turn and found Harry blocking him.

"Fuck you!" Harry yelled back, snickering to himself as he turned sharply in order to block Greene again, sending the other Seeker spinning backwards in an effort to avoid a crash. 

"Angelina Johnson gets the Quaffle for Gryffindor, come on, Angelina, COME ON!"

Harry looked around. Every single Gryffindor player apart from Greene was streaking up the pitch toward Spinnet, including the Slytherin Keeper– they were all going to block her– and yes! Slytherin had the Quaffle!  

Harry suddenly saw something which made his heart stand still and he skidded to a halt in midair, reversed, and zoomed back into the middle of the field. Greene was diving, a look of triumph on his face, and there, only a few feet above the grass below, was a tiny, golden glimmer–

Harry urged the Firebolt downward, but Greene was miles ahead– "Go! Go! Go!" Harry urged his broom. He was gaining on Greene– Harry flattened himself to the broom handle as Weasley sent a Bludger at him– he was at Greene's ankles– he was level– Harry threw himself forward, took both hands off his broom. He knocked Greene's arm out of the way and–

"YES!"

He pulled out of his dive, his hand in the air, and the stadium exploded, the Gryffindors, Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs all booing but the Slytherins screaming and cheering in victory. Harry soared above the crowd, an odd ringing in his ears. The tiny golden ball was held tight in his fist, beating its wings hopelessly against his fingers.

Then Marcus was speeding toward him and he clapped Harry on his shoulder, hard. Harry felt two large thumps as Lucian and Peregrine hit them; then Graham's, Cassius's, and Keane's voices, "We've won the Cup! We've won the Cup!" Tangled together in a very manly, many-armed hug, the Slytherin team sank, yelling hoarsely, back to earth.

The emerald supporters was pouring over the barriers onto the field. Hands were raining down on their backs and Harry had a confused impression of noise and bodies pressing in on him. Then he, and the rest of the team, were hoisted onto the shoulders of the crowd. And there, fighting her way towards Harry, was Hermione. Words seemed to fail her. She simply beamed as Harry was borne toward the stands to where Dumbledore stood waiting with the enormous Quidditch Cup.

If only there had been a Dementor around.... As Dumbledore passed Marcus the Cup and he lifted it into the air, Harry felt he could have produced the world's best Patronus.

-

Harry's euphoria at finally winning the Quidditch Cup lasted at least a week. Even the weather seemed to be celebrating; as June approached, the days became cloudless and sultry and all anybody felt like doing was strolling onto the grounds and flopping down on the grass with several pints of iced pumpkin juice, perhaps playing a casual game of Gobstones or watching the giant squid propel itself dreamily across the surface of the lake.

But they couldn't. Exams were nearly upon them, and instead of lazing around outside, the students were forced to remain inside the castle, trying to bully their brains into concentrating.

Hermione's slave driving ways came into use as all the third year Slytherins went pleading to her to make them study timetables and beg for copies of her History of Magic notes. 

The exams themselves were exhausting.

Harry was proud to say his Potions practical went well and he was even sort of confident with the written part of the exam. Then came Astronomy at midnight, up on the tallest tower; History of Magic on Wednesday morning, in which Harry scribbled down everything Hermione had ever told him about medieval witch-hunts in a stifling classroom. Wednesday afternoon meant Herbology, in the greenhouses under a baking-hot sun; then back to the common room once more, with sunburnt necks, thinking longingly of this time next day, when it would all be over.

To Harry's utmost relief, Thursday morning brought with it their last exam. The Defense Against the Dark Arts exam proved to be the most unusual one he'd ever taken; a sort of obstacle course outside in the sun, where the class had to wade across a deep paddling pool containing a grindylow, cross a series of potholes full of Red Caps, squish their way across a patch of marsh while ignoring misleading directions from a hinkypunk, then climb into an old trunk and battle with a boggart.

"Excellent, Harry," Lupin muttered as he climbed out of the trunk, grinning. "Full marks."

Flushed with his success, Harry hung around to watch Hermione. She did everything perfectly, of course, and even emerged from the boggart trunk with a satisfied smile on her face despite the trembling in her hands.

While everyone else had a final exam of the day, due to dropping Divination Harry and Hermione found themselves finally free from exams and Harry literally fell asleep in the common room and slept until dinner.

It was after dinner that something unusual happened. He and Hermione had just finished eating and were about to make their way back to the Common Room when they were approached by the Ravenclaw Seeker, the fourth year Cho Chang. "Hey Harry," she said and Harry felt his cheeks grown warm.

"Er, hi Cho." He tried not to stammer too obviously as the pretty older girl smiled at him.

"Chang." Hermione greeted, smiling her brightest, emptiest smile at the girl while her eyes turned sharp as the steel edge of one of her knives. Harry turned and gave her a puzzled look, not understanding the sudden animosity. Did Hermione not like Cho? Before he could think any further on Hermione's strange behaviour, Cho was speaking again and he turned back to her to listen.

"So, I was wondering whether you wanted to practice flying together sometime." She said, smiling prettily at him, and he smiled back shyly, blushing even harder.

"S-sure," he stammered and Cho's face lit up. 

"Great! See you soon, Harry." She said, giving him another bright smile before turning to Hermione. "Granger." She said with a short nod. Hermione smiled at Cho like she was planning a thousand ways to break the older girl into pieces and the moment Cho turned away, shuddering slightly, the smile vanished and blankness settled on Hermione's features like fallen snow, chilling and silent. Before Harry could ask what that was all about, Hermione turned and without a word she stalked off, leaving him standing there, watching her retreating back in confused bewilderment before almost tripping over in his haste to rush after her. 

-

-

Hermione's POV:

As she stormed back to the dormitories with Harry hurrying after her, seemingly baffled by her bad mood, she could feel the subtle tremor in her hands as rage and hatred warred for dominance inside her. She wanted to make Chang bleed, wanted to break her bones, to make her scream; she wanted to wrap her hands around the bitch's throat and watch the naked terror in Chang's eyes as she squeezed until she'd permanently snuffed the other girl from existence. 

"What's up with her?" she vaguely heard one of the other Slytherins ask Harry as she stormed past them, cutting her way through the common room straight up the stairs to her dorm.

"I dunno." Harry replied, sounding bewildered. She kicked the door shut behind her as she entered her dorm, cutting the noise cut off, and started to pace. Her mouth tasted like copper and she wanted to murder something. 

"You're in quite the mood," noted Tom, emerging from the Diary and lounging across her bed. 

"Fight me," Hermione snarled, wheeling around so she was facing him, fingers curled like claws. Tom raised an eyebrow but inclined his head before standing and she lunged at him, throwing herself into the fight. Her muscles sang and her breath came heavy and ragged as she ducked a punch, grabbing Tom's arm and twisting it behind his back until the older boy was swearing and she had to let go before she broke bones. It didn't take her long to get him on the ground, kneeling on his chest with her hands on his neck, and it wasn't enough– she was still seeing red and her rage was such a bright, burning thing inside her. 

"Hermione," Tom said, his voice soothing but tight, "let me up. Come on, darling– let me up." Hermione realised, suddenly, that she'd been pressing down on his throat without even realising. She released him instantly, stumbling back to her feet and backing away from him. Tom stood up slowly, lifting a hand to rub against the red marks over his adam's apple. "I think we should duel," he said, after a long moment where his eyes didn't leave hers. "We're too... unevenly matched, for me to give you what you want in a fight." His face twisted slightly at his admittance of her higher skill and Hermione exhaled sharply.

"Alright," she said, pulling Tom's yew wand from her pocket and tossing it over to him. He easily caught it, running his fingers down the pale length of it and smiling. It wasn't a particularly nice smile, but Hermione wasn't looking for nice and she smiled right back as pulled out her own wand– it was a smile that showed all of her teeth  and no humour at all.  

They both gave a short bow and fell into a dueling stance. Tom launched the first spell. She twisted away and cast her own back. The following volley of spells was violent and lit up the room in a brilliant array of colour. Tom's spells were growing increasingly destructive, and a cutting curse tore through Hermione's arm, tracing a line of fire against her skin that soaks her sleeve in red but she didn't even flinch, her blood singing in her veins as her own curses grew in viciousness to match his.

A well-timed reducto blasted a bedside table into her legs, setting her to stumble long enough for Tom to get close enough to shove her bodily her to the nearby wall. Tom slammed the thin wrist of her wand arm against the wall and used his body weight to hold her in place.

Hermione, furious and snarling, met his eyes and was struck momentarily breathless by the familiar hunger evident there. She knew how to use that hunger, how to use it to her advantage, and she let herself lean forwards ever so slightly, her lips parting slightly as she focused on Tom's face before her. As his grip on her loosened slightly in response, she twisted out of his grip and threw herself away, diving into a roll then leaping back to her feet lithe as a cat, spinning around so her wand was pointed squarely at Tom, who was already on letting another curse fly.

And then they were dueling again, a furious firing of curses back and forth. Tom lashed out, a whip of flame darting towards her and she dodged it with quick steps, slinging a trunk towards him with a sharp flick of her wand. The fire whip faded away and she went on the offensive, casting a series of cutting hexes in quick succession, moving in a wide arc around her target.

She hadn't counted on Tom using Dark Arts though.

A vicious curse caught her in her upperarm and sent her blood spattering on the wall behind her as a crackling lightning strike of pain streaked up her arm, down her spine and exploded behind her eyes, turning her vision white and then black before she pulled it back into focus. She gasped and wheezed, coughing up flecks of blood. Tears were trickling down her cheeks as she looked up and met gleaming red eyes– it was the first time she'd seen it happen to Tom.

Hermione could sense the escalation in violence before it happened. It was like a scent in the room, heavy and heady. Curses came soaring across the distance between them as the Darkness in Tom curled through her, coaxing and crooning to her own Darkness, urging it to come out to play.

She met burning crimson with fierce eyes and smiled with blood-flecked lips, let her crimson-stained teeth show, and Tom simply stopped playing and lunged at her. He ducked underneath the curses she sent, his body contorting to avoid the bright beams of colour that flew toward him and tackled her to the floor.

Her acacia wand skittered across the ground as Tom held her down the way she'd taught him, straddling her waist and holding her thin wrists in an iron hold above her head against the floor, squeezing hard enough she could feel her bones grinding together.

There was a moment's pause where Tom seemed to take the time to look down at her, his captive, and then he leaned forwards and savagely claimed her lips in a wild, possessive kiss, his tongue sliding in her mouth to lick the blood off her teeth.

When he finally released her wrists to brace himself Hermione reached up, tangling her fingers in his dark, silky hair and pulling harshly. There was nothing gentle here; no sweet words, no gentle touches and no hesitation. The kiss was all sharp teeth, splitting open her lips and tongue and flooding her mouth with the sweet-copper of her own blood. She was so fucking wet, the adrenaline, pleasure and pain all tangling inside her and making her moan. She rubbed her body against Tom's, drawing a guttural sound from the older boy and prompting him to start undressing her, yanking her robes off her in rough, impatient movements that caused the fabric to tear in places. 

She wriggled out of her shirt and bra and quickly set to work on Tom's robes and shirt. It was only when Tom's pale chest was exposed that everything stopped suddenly, and they were both left panting on the floor. Hermione stared up at his chest, not with horror or pity, but with understanding. Freak. It was carved into his flesh. A scar for life. She looked up into those eyes, the red having since faded away. She looked back down and let her fingers trace the marks with a muted sort of fury, different from the burning rage and hatred from before but no less powerful.

"It was when I was a boy, before I came to Hogwarts." Tom said quietly.

"Did you kill them?"

"I did."

"Did you make them suffer?"

"As much as I was able."

"Good." And then she reached up and pulled him back down for another kiss, one that escalated until the older boy was pushing inside her, an achingly familiar stab pain of that had her gritting her teeth as her muscles cramped. She was well used to smiling through these bright, sharp bursts of agony, though, all too practiced at riding it out until the pain ebbed to a low thrumming. Tom's hips moved in deep, brutal thrusts and the swell of pressure grinding inside her began to feel good, prompting her to start rocking back against Tom. Her nails raked red lines down his back and drew blood as Tom's teeth dug into her shoulder, over where she knew the scar of Greyback's own teeth lay hidden. 

The sharp ridge of Tom's pubic bone grinding against her clit had her gasping with pleasure and she came so hard that she felt it shake through her from the tips of her fingers to her toes. She let her head fall back and her body go limp beneath Tom, too-sensitive and twitching at the over-stimulation as he continued his thrusts, but it didn't take long for the shivers of it to stray closer and closer to good. She came again, just moments before she felt warmth spill inside her and then Tom was pulling out, moving off her so he was laying on the ground by her side. They were both panting, their bodies damp with sweat and smears of blood. Hermione could feel the stickiness between her legs, could feel the stinging salt of her tears on her split lips and the wild curls of her hair were plastered against her cheeks and neck. 

She lifted a lazy hand to push her hair out of her eyes then let it flop bonelessly beside her. "That was nice." She said, voice slurred with pleasure. 

"Mmm," Tom agreed lazily. "But I know what could have made it better." 

"You mean who," she corrected and a moment of silent understanding past between them as they considered the missing member of their trio.

-

-

Harry's POV:

Harry gently closed the door before Hermione or Tom saw him watching them through the small gap. He was glad Hermione had taught him how to cast silencing charms, because he was sure that the whole of the Slytherin dungeon would have been able to hear the sounds of Tom and Hermione's... well, their that. Sex. Oh god.

Retreating to his own dorm, Harry sat down on his bed in a state of shock. He'd been watching them since around halfway through their duel when Daphne had sent him up to make sure Hermione wasn't destroying the dorm room the Slytherin third year girls shared.

He'd watched, impressed, as Hermione put up a good fight against the more powerful Tom, casting a quick silencing charm to make sure the Common Room couldn't hear the duelling any longer seeing as none of them actually knew about Tom's existence and hearing an unfamiliar male voice might lead to awkward questions.

It was at the end of the duel he was stunned into silence. Frozen, unable to move, unable to look away, he'd watched as Hermione and Tom had done that. Had sex. With each other. 

It had been... well, Harry's pants were feeling rather tight, and he knew he was going to need either a cold shower or a bit of relief soon. They had both just been so...

Primal. Passionate. Overwhelming.

Oh god.

Harry returned to the Common Room around an hour later, after a trip to the bathroom where he quickly 'took care of things' and pretended to be engrossed in a large tome on Animagus transformations when he wasn't absorbing a single word.

Hermione emerged around a half hour after he did, the only evidence of what she and Tom had done been her swollen, split lips which were easy to dismiss. She looked perfectly at ease, her burning anger from before having calmed, and she made her way over to him, curling into his side like she usually did. He had to resist the urge to wrap an arm around her, feeling too awkward and confused to tuck her to his side like he usually did.

"Is our dorm still in one piece after your little temper tantrum?" Tracey asked with a grin and Hermione's lips quirked into a smile.

"There's still a few scorch marks, but I fixed everything else."

"Sweet Morgana," Daphne sighed and Hermione smirked briefly before turning to face him.

"I need some fresh air. Come with me?" she asked and Harry nodded.

"Let me get the cloak," he said, closing his book and hurrying up to his dorm room. Returning with the cloak, he waited until they'd exited the Slytherin Common Room before covering them both and rendering them invisible.

They made their way out to the grounds without any trouble, only having to dodge Flitwick who was whistling merrily to himself as he patrolled,

Exiting the school, Harry had to admit the fresh air did feel nice and Hermione's face was unguarded and relaxed. The very last rays of the setting sun were casting a bloody light over the long-shadowed grounds and the Invisibility Cloak made noises like a whispering creek with their movements.

Taking a deep breath, Harry steeled himself to bring up what he'd witnessed earlier.

And that's when they heard the screaming.

"What the hell?" He asked, startled, as Hermione whipped out her acacia wand, her eyes hard.

"It's coming from over there." She said, pointing to the Whomping Willow with her free hand. Its branches were thrashing from side to side and something huge and black was dragging what looked like a student, judging by the school robes, to the base of the trunk.

"What do we do?" he asked, turning wide-eyed towards Hermione. She frowned.

"I suppose nothing isn't the answer you're looking for." She said and Harry shook his head.

"No, not really." He admitted.

"It could be dangerous," she warned.

"Well do you have the Diary?"

"Yes, but–"

"Then we'll be fine." Harry said, firmly, before taking off. He heard Hermione swear under her breath, but she followed him anyway, like he knew she would. 

Chapter Text

Chapter XXVIII:



Harry's POV:

The invisibility cloak now rendered practically useless, Harry shucked it and shoved it into his pocket, the one Hermione had experimented on with a bottomless charm Tom had taught her. The pocket wasn't exactly 'bottomless' but he could stick his arm in it up to his elbow so he thought it was pretty useful– Hermione hadn't been as pleased as he was, though, and he now had four other jumpers with pockets of varying sizes as she'd continued practicing until she'd got the spell right.

The two of them reached the Whomping Willow, slowing to a halt just out of range of the branches, and Harry watched as the student– he couldn't see the face of whoever it was, though from their size he guessed they were either a second, third or fourth year– hooked their leg around a root in an effort to stop themselves from being dragged underground. And then a horrible crack cut through the air like a gunshot; the unidentified student's leg had broken and the next second they'd vanished from sight.

"Did you see who it was?" He asked, panting slightly. Hermione shook her head, her lips pressed into a thin white line. Harry took a deep breath and measured the distance between them and the hole where the massive beast and the student had disappeared. "Okay. How do we distract the tree?" he asked, determinedly.

"Distract it?" Hermione's voice was pitched higher then usual. "You want us distract the bloody tree then try and go fucking rescue that idiot kid?"

"Hermione– please!" Harry pleaded, needing her to understand that he couldn't just let some innocent kid be dragged off in front of him and not do anything about it. Harry knew his morals were already compromised and that they'd only get more so as time went on– but he also knew he wasn't the sort of person who could just stand back and watch a classmate be dragged away by some sort of monster.

Hermione let out a low groan as she correctly read the determination on his face but she nodded. "Fine," she said, "fine." A look of great concentration crossed her face and Harry watched as she swished her wand in a graceful arc and shouted, "IMMOBULOUS!" Abruptly, as though it had just been turned to marble, the Whomping Willow stopped moving. Not a leaf twitched or shook.

Hermione didn't waste a second, grasping his arm in a painful grip and sprinting forwards. They covered the distance to the trunk in seconds then dove through the hole, sliding headfirst down an earthy slope to the bottom of a very low tunnel. Behind them, Harry could hear the Whomping Willow start moving again and silently gave thanks for Hermione's foresight.

"Can you see anything?" He whispered to her as he tried peering around but Hermione shook her head.

"Let's keep moving," she urged and they hurried along as fast as they could, bent almost double. On and on the passage went and then the tunnel abruptly began to rise; moments later it twisted and Harry could see a patch of dim light through a small opening.

He and Hermione paused, gasping for breath for a few moments before edging forwards. He raised his wand and Hermione mirrored his actions to see what lay beyond.

It was a room, a very disordered and dusty room, with paper peeling from the walls, brownish stains all over the floor that looked suspiciously like dried blood, with every piece of furniture broken and the windows all boarded up.

Harry carefully pulled himself out of the hole, staring around. The room he was in was deserted but a door to their right stood open, leading to a shadowy hallway. "Harry," Hermione breathed in his ear, "I think we're in the Shrieking Shack!"

"Well ghosts didn't do that," Harry whispered back, nodding towards where large chunks had been ripped out of the wall. At that moment there was a creak overhead– something had moved upstairs. Harry raised his eyebrows at Hermione and she narrowed her eyes, her lips pursed, but she nodded reluctantly.

Quietly as they could, they crept out into the hall and up the crumbling staircase. Harry's mind was racing and as they reached the dark landing he whispered, "Nox!" Only one door was ajar and, wand held tightly before him, he kicked it wide open.

On a magnificent four-poster bed with dusty hangings was– "Weasley?" Hermione's face was twisted with contempt and loathing. "Are you fucking kidding me?" She turned and glared furiously at him and Harry shrugged helplessly, already resigning himself to an extended ranting session and several 'owed' study sessions.

"Sorry?" he offered weakly and she scowled darkly at him.

"You are going to make this up to me." She threatened lowly. And then Ron Weasley spoke up.

"It's– It's him! He's a dog! An animagus!" Ron was staring over his shoulder and Harry wheeled around. With a snap, the man in the shadows closed the door behind them.

A mass of filthy, matted hair hung to his elbows. If eyes hadn't been shining out of the deep, dark sockets, he might have been a corpse. The waxy skin was stretched so tightly over the bones of his face that it looked like a skull and his yellow teeth were bared in a grin. It was Sirius Black.

"Expelliarmus!" he croaked, pointing the wand that Harry guessed was Weasley's at them. His and Hermione's wands shot out of their hands, high in the air, and Black caught them. Harry was never more thankful for the fact that Hermione had demanded they go and get illegal wands– he had a spare wand tucked in his pocket and he knew that Hermione had both hers and Tom's on her.

"Brave of you," Black said quietly as he stepped forwards with his eyes fixed on Harry, "not to run for a teacher. I'm grateful... it will make everything easier..."

"Make what easier?" Hermione asked sharply. "Pettigrew's the one you want to kill, not Harry, so what was the point in dragging Weasley down here?" Black's eyes bulged slightly.

"You know?" he demanded hoarsely, his eyes shining slightly as he turned to face Hermione. Harry began moving slowly, his hand drifting towards his pocket as Hermione held Black's attention.

"Pettigrew's a rat animagus. He betrayed Lily and James and then set you up." Hermione told Black calmly. "You know this, we know this. So what I don't know is why you're here and why you went after Weasley. Not that I blame you," Hermione's lip curled as she glanced back at Weasley, "whiny little shit, isn't he?"

"You bitch!" Weasley's voice was shrill. "You're in league with Black! You and Potter! I knew you were evil! I knew you were Dark! I knew it!"

"Oh for Merlin's sake!" Hermione's acacia wand was suddenly out and pointed right at Black's chest. "Do you ever shut up, Weasley?"

Harry froze slightly as Black jolted into movement, pointing the wand in his hand at Hermione with an incantation on his lips until a new sound interrupted them.

Muffled footsteps were echoing up through the floor– someone was moving downstairs. "HELP!" screamed Weasley, "I'M UP HERE! IT'S SIRIUS BLACK– HELP!"

The footsteps were now thundering up the stairs and the door to the room burst open in a shower of red sparks. Harry wheeled around as Lupin came hurtling into the room, his face bloodless and his wand raised and ready. His eyes flickered over Weasley, lying on the bed, over him, standing frozen, to Hermione, her wand covering Black, and to Black, whose wand was covering Hermione.

"Expelliarmus!" shouted Lupin.

Hermione's wand flew out of her hand, over the room, and Lupin deftly caught it. Harry immediately saw red at the sight of Hermione defenseless with two grown men pointing their wands at her. His hand dived into his pocket and then his blackthorn wand was in his hand. "Stupefy!" he shouted and a bolt of red light slammed into Lupin, who collapsed to the floor.

Hermione instantly dived forwards, knocking Black to the side as she lunged for her wands. Black tried grabbing onto her but Harry had his wand out and pointed at Black, and he shouted, "Stupefy!" sending Black slumping to the ground.

Panting, Hermione scrambled to her feet with both her wands in her hand. Stashing her legal one in her pocket, she pointed the acacia wand at Weasley and gasped, "Stupefy!" causing Weasley's eyelids close and his body go limp. Harry looked around them, at the three unconscious bodies scattered across the room. "Well," he said in a voice that only shook slightly, "not bad."

"No." Hermione's voice was calm, the sort of calm he knew meant she was burying whatever emotions she was really feeling under a mask of apathy or nonchalance. "Not bad at all."

"What do I do?" He asked her, starting to panic as the realization set in that he actually had Black right here, right in front of him.

"Whatever you choose." Hermione said quietly and Harry took a shaky breath, blinking back a suspicious dampness.

"I want Pettigrew." He whispered, the shameful admittance falling so easily from his lips.

Hermione lowered her wand and reached out to gently squeeze his shoulder. "Remember what I told you in our first year," she said, her voice quiet. "If you're going to kill Black make sure you do it for reasons you can stand behind or you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Whatever your decision is, if you don't think you can live with it then it's not the choice you should make."

Harry could feel himself trembling as panic threatened to steal the breath from his lungs. "He wants me to do this because I'm the only one who hasn't killed yet," he realized suddenly.

"I think so," Hermione said gently and Harry choked back a sob as he remembered the sound of his mother's terrified last moments.

"I don't think I could live with myself if I let Pettigrew get away with what he did to my mum and dad," he whispered, his face feeling numb. Hermione's hand, still resting on his shoulder, gave another soft squeeze.

"Then you know what to do," she said, her face tight with grief. "I'm so sorry Harry." She added tearfully and her eyes were wet. Harry gave her a weak smile, reaching up to his shoulder to press his hand over hers briefly before he took an unsteady breath and walked forwards so he was standing over Black, Hermione's hand falling away as he moved out of her reach. She didn't try walking after him, just stayed still and silent; a steady presence guarding his back.

"I– I'm sorry about this," Harry rubbed his damp eyes with the back of his hand, his wand shaking as he spoke to the unconscious man.

Black would never know what had happened, Harry tried to comfort himself. He'd never have that split-second to know that it was his godson who had killed him– he'd just... never wake up.

"I- I have to." He told the unconscious man, voice thick in his throat as he tried to explain why he was going to do what he was about to do to a man who'd never hear a word of it. "Voldemort– he said he'll give me Pettigrew if I kill you." Harry took a breath and closed his eyes, thinking about the Dursleys, about how much he hated them and how they treated him and what this man's role in him being placed there was.

When Harry opened his eyes he had built up a layer of darkness, of resolve, enough so that he could do this. "Your impulsivity left me to grow up in hell while the true betrayer went free." He said quietly. "You probably don't deserve this but because you prioritised revenge over taking care of me I never got to know you well enough to say either way. I'm sorry."

He didn't... he couldn't use the Killing Curse. He'd read up on it, after the incident with Uncle Vernon, and he already knew he just didn't have that level of hatred, of desire to see Black dead. So, jaw set, Harry pointed his wand at Black's head and spoke with a voice that only shook slightly. "R-Reducto!" 

Black's head burst like an overripe melon and blood, bone and brain matter went flying. Harry let out a gasping, choking sound, stumbling backwards, his eyes wide. Horror filled him, horror and despair, and he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe, but then Hermione was there. Hermione was there and she had caught him and she'd wrapped her arms around him tight, hugging him fiercely.

His whole body was shaking, violent tremors that made his bones feel like they were rattling inside him. Hermione held him and as he cried ugly tears into her shoulder, soaking her shirt in tears and snot. She held him until the sobbing slowed down enough that he could breathe properly again and then she cradled his face in her hands and kissed him.

She kissed him and he kissed her back with a sort of desperation, clumsy and urgent; a hot, wet slide of mouths that tasted faintly of salt. His hands found her hair and he tangled his fingers in the curls, held her head in place as their teeth were clicked together and the sweet-copper tang of blood mixed with the saltiness from his tears as her bottom lip split open again.

When his head started to swim from lack of oxygen, he broke the kiss, panting and blinking back the dizziness. He didn't know what to say, what to do, and was relieved when Hermione moved into action.

"Tergeo." She said, pointing her wand first at his clothes and then at hers, vanishing all traces of blood.

"What do we do about Weasley and Professor Lupin?" Harry croaked, very carefully not looking behind him and concentrating on the immediate situation, pushing the kiss from his mind– for now.

"Memory charm them both." Hermione answered easily and he nodded, agreeing with her plan, before blurting out the question tingling at the forefront of his attention.

"Does," his voice cracked and he had to swallow, "does it get easier?" She looked at him and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

"When they deserve it, I sleep like a baby. And they've always deserved it." Her words were honest and he nodded in understanding.

"Do you think... do you think he deserved it?" he gestured in the direction of Black's corpse, still not able to look. Hermione's face turned hard.

"People's stupidity, impulsivity and carelessness can ruin lives," she said tightly and Harry couldn't help but feel relieved that her anger wasn't directed towards him. "I don't know what kind of man Black was, but I do know your parents trusted him to take care of you if they died but he ignored their wishes, prioritising his revenge over your wellbeing and that decision cost you your childhood, leaving you to grow up abused and alone. I don't know if he deserved to die but I don't think he didn't deserve it."

Harry let out a long, slow exhale. He still felt sick when he thought about what he'd done, overwhelmingly sick, but... he stood by what he chose. He didn't think Black deserved to die but Pettigrew did and Black had had to pay the price for his decision, just like Harry had spent a childhood paying the price for Black's decision that Halloween twelve years ago.

"Close your eyes, Harry." Hermione's voice was gentle but firm and he nodded obediently, squeezing his eyes shut. He heard her murmuring things under her breath and started counting slowly, timing the numbers with his breathing. He'd reached one hundred and eleven when she told him he could open his eyes again.

The first thing he noticed was that much to his relief any sign of Sirius Black had vanished from the Shack. Harry didn't ask what had happened to the remains, Hermione's expression convincing him that he didn't need to know.

"Er, what about them?" He gestured to Lupin and Weasley. "Can you do the Obliviate better now?" Hermione's expression was conflicted.

"I don't know," she confessed, her voice troubled. "It's a hard spell, and I don't want Lupin to end up like that centaur. I think I sort of like him."

"Me too." Harry agreed, before sighing. "So what do we do?"

"Tom." Hermione said, snapping her fingers suddenly. Harry flinched slightly at the unexpected sound.

"You think he can do it?" He asked doubtfully, not sure when Tom would ever have used a memory charm before. Hermione gave him a droll look.

"He's a master Legilimens, Harry. For him, memory charms will be a piece of cake."

"Okay." Harry agreed readily enough and Hermione pulled the Diary from her pocket. The cover flipped open and the pages rustled, Tom appearing before them. He arched an eyebrow as he scanned their surroundings and Harry had to fight the urge to blush, the memories of what he'd witnessed earlier that evening briefly surfacing. And then Tom spoke up, distracting him.

"You never take me anyplace nice anymore." He drawled.

"We've never taken you any nice in the first place." Hermione corrected him smartly.

"The Gala was nice," Harry mumbled, just for the sake of. Hermione tilted her head then nodded.

"That could qualify," she agreed before her expressions turned serious. "Tom, we need you to modify their memories." She said, gesturing to the unconscious Lupin and Weasley.

"May I ask why?" Tom said in a way that made it very clear he wasn't actually 'asking'.

"I did it." Harry said, his mouth suddenly dry. Tom looked at him, confusion dancing on his features, and Harry swallowed before repeating, "I did it. I... I killed Black."

For a moment Tom's face was blank and then his lips curved into a smile that looked hungry, and in a swift movement the older boy closed the distance between them. Standing so close to him that their feet were nearly touching, Tom gently cupped Harry's chin with his long fingers and tilted his head up so his eyes were boring into Harry's. "Let me in," Tom murmured and Harry took a shaky breath then relaxed his Occlumency shields.

The memories flashed before his eyes; following the dog and the student, figuring out the student was Weasley, fighting Black, him pointing his wand at Black, ready to kill him, the curse on his lips, Black's head exploding, the tears, and then the kiss between him and Hermione; the heated, passionate kiss, which led to the memories of watching Tom and Hermione kiss, of their hands touching each other's bodies, of Tom thrusting into her–

Harry gasped as Tom pulled out of his mind, sweat running down his back. He felt as though he'd just run a marathon and his legs threatened to collapse beneath him.

"You really did it," Tom's voice was soft and wondering, almost, and he was still cupping Harry's chin. Harry felt himself blush as he became uncomfortably aware of both their proximity and the fact Tom now knew Harry had watched what he and Hermione had done.

And then Tom suddenly leaned forwards and brushed his lips against Harry's own.

Tom's lips were soft and almost burnt him with their touch and Harry returned the kiss without even realizing what he was doing. It only lasted a few seconds, their mouths moving together slowly and lazily, almost, and then Tom was stepping back and leaving him standing there dazed and confused as the older boy turned to face Weasley.

Hermione had already pulled Tom's wand out of the bottomless pocket that she hadn't spelled onto her clothes until she'd finished mastering the charm on Harry's and handed the carved length of yew to the older boy. Tom twirled his wand in his long fingers before turning to face the bed and with a lazy flick and an "Obliviate" Weasley had been dealt with.

"I erased the last day from his mind." Tom explained out loud, before moving forwards and crouching down beside Lupin. "You want me to be careful with his mind." It wasn't a question, it was a statement. An observation. Harry nodded anyway.

"Remove any doubts he has about Black's guilt. Replace the memory of him coming down here with one of him doing whatever it was he was doing before all this. Oh, and while you're digging around in there can you please figure out how the hell he knew we were here, anyway?" Hermione asked.

Tom nodded at her and, wand tip pressed against Lupin's temple, and he spoke firmly, "Legilimens!" The older boy's expression was blank for almost a minute before he pulled out of Lupin's mind and fixed Hermione with an annoyed look.

"You could have warned me he was a werewolf." He said and Hermione smirked.

"I thought you'd figure it out," she said and Harry couldn't help his growing smile. This almost felt... normal again. Hermione teasing, Tom trading barbs with her, and Harry laughing at them both.

"So how did he know we were here?" Hermione asked.

"He had a map of the castle that he enchanted along with Black, Pettigrew and Harry's father while they were at Hogwarts." Tom answered. "It turns out the four of them were best friends– they called themselves the 'Marauders' chose nicknames based on their animagus forms– Padfoot, Wormtail, Prongs and Moony."

"Moony has to be Lupin, Wormtail's the rat, and if I had to guess Padfoot would have been Black." Hermione mused and Harry suddenly had to swallow past the lump in his throat.

"My dad," he whispered. "Prongs."

"He was a stag animagus." Tom told him and Harry's eyes widened.

"My– my Patronus! It's a stag!" he said, excited. "Do you think that means I'll be a stag animagus too?"

"My Patronus is a raven," Hermione reminded him gently and his face fall.

"Oh." He mumbled.

"You still could be, Harry." Hermione said encouragingly and he gave her a weak smile before turning back to Tom.

"You said something about a Map?"

"The Marauder's Map. A complete map of the castle, including an ink dot of every single last person, giving the ability to track anyone and everyone in the castle. It's an impressive piece of magic." Tom sounded grudgingly impressed.

"How did he end up with it?" Harry asked.

"Apparently your father got it confiscated in their seventh year by Filch." Tom said, with a slight smirk, "Lupin found it in the possession of the Weasley twins."

"That's how they found us!" Hermione exclaimed loudly, sounding equal parts outraged and triumphant.

"What?" Harry asked, confused. She gave him an impatient look.

"Back in first year, when we got rid of Hagrid's dragon– we never did figure out how Weasley, Finnegan and Thomas knew we were out on the grounds." She explained and Harry's eyes widened in comprehension.

"Oh wow, I forgot about that." He said and Hermione narrowed her eyes at him.

"I'm glad one of us could."

"Not meaning to interrupt your very important conversation, but we might want to get out of here." Tom spoke up, a slight drawl to his voice.

"Why?" Harry asked, confused again, and Tom pointed up with one finger. Hermione's eyes widened with comprehension.

"Oh fuck," She said with a groan.

"What is it?" He demanded.

"It's a full moon tonight, Harry." She told him and he flinched away from Lupin on instinct.

"Let's get out of here!" He said, panicked.

Hermione made her way to the door, pausing only to pick the Diary up off the edge of the bed where she had left it and Harry made to follow her then paused. "What about Weasley?"

"What about him?" Hermione asked impatiently.

"If we leave him, he'll end up werewolf chow." He pointed out and Hermione raised an eyebrow.

"And?"

"And how do you think Lupin would feel, waking up amongst Weasley's bloody remains?" He asked her pointedly and understanding flickered over her face.

"Oh fine." She flicked her wand in Weasley's direction. "Mobilicorpus!" Weasley's body rose up into the air and started bobbing after them, as the three made their way through the Shrieking Shack.

"Do you think Lupin will be confused waking up here?" Harry asked the other two nervously.

"Not at all. This is where he normally transforms." Tom told him, "it's where he transformed back when he was at Hogwarts too."

"Oh." Harry blinked. "That's... convenient."

Hermione gave an amused snort. "Yes, how convenient this is." She said and he rolled his eyes at her.

"You know what I mean." He grumbled.

"I do," she agreed, giving him a warm smile. "Now let's get the hell out of here– there's an Acromantula nest in the Forbidden Forest I'm just dying to introduce Weasley to."

"Hermione," Harry said disapprovingly and she gave him a truly fierce glare.

"He will pay for what he did to you, Harry– if not today, then one day." She warned.

"But not today." He said, firmly. "Not after..." he shuddered slightly and Hermione's face softened.

"Fine." She agreed. "Not today. But I reserve the right to string him up somewhere public in a very humiliating fashion."

"That I have no problem with you doing." Harry grinned weakly but genuinely at her.

"If you did, then I'd have to take a very careful look at our friendship," Hermione said, mischief in her eyes, and Harry snorted.

"C'mon, let's go."

-

-

Severus's POV:

After forcing the wolfsbane potion down the still unconscious Lupin's throat, Severus followed Harry and Hermione back up to the castle, his brain still not working properly after everything he'd just witnessed.

Earlier he'd followed Lupin who had dashed out of his office, forgetting his wolfsbane, and he'd watched suspiciously as Lupin approach the Whomping Willow. After casting a strong Disillusionment charm over himself, Severus had followed his old classmate to the Shrieking Shack where they'd come across quite the sight.

Black's wand had been pointed at Hermione and Hermione's wand had pointed right back at him while Harry stood frozen a few feet behind the two and Weasley lay squawking on the old, dusty bed.

Severus's vision felt like it had turned red when he saw Black pointing his wand at Hermione and when Lupin disarmed Hermione, Severus had moved, ready to kill them both when Harry had stunned the werewolf and Hermione had lunged for her wand, wrestling with Black briefly before Harry stunned him too. Hermione had then stunned Weasley and proceeded to have the most confusing conversation with Harry that he'd ever heard.

Not that what they were discussing was confusing in anyway. No, it was rather straightforward– they were discussing whether or not Harry was going to kill Black.

And then Harry had spoken to the unconscious Black, had told him that the reason he had to do 'this' was because Voldemort had promised to deliver to him Pettigrew, the true traitor, if Harry killed Black.

Severus was bewildered. Beyond bewildered. And then he'd watched with a morbid fascination and a grim sense of satisfaction as Harry had killed Black.

Harry had broken down briefly and Hermione had comforted them. They'd kissed and then, to make things impossibly stranger, the older boy Severus kept hearing about and seeing in their company appeared from the pages of a small, black bound book.

This boy, this Tom, wasn't just some ghostly apparition though, or an imprinted memory. No, Tom could use magic– and he could use it well. Neither memory tampering or Legilimency were easy to accomplish but Tom had performed both with ease.

And he'd kissed Harry.

Tom had kissed Harry.

Harry, who had just kissed Hermione.

Hermione, who hadn't seemed to mind the two boys kissing.

Sweet mother of Merlin, please spare him the complicated drama of teenage love-lives.

The fact Hermione had fully intended on feeding Weasley to the Acromantula colony probably should have bothered him, but Severus was already aware of the fact that the Gryffindor's life had already started on a count-down– Hermione Granger did not forget and she certainly did not forgive– and he had too much to concentrate on to worry about that.

The Dark Lord. Harry and Hermione had spoken to the Dark Lord. When?

The centaur– Hermione had mentioned a centaur and that time in the Forbidden Forest, back in their first year, both she and Harry had been found passed out beside a brain-dead centaur.

A growing sense of realization had Severus's eyes widening. The Philosopher's Stone going missing... the unicorns drained of blood in the Forbidden Forest... the attacks on the unicorns stopping after Harry and Hermione's detention in the forest... the Dark Mark growing in strength...

Had Harry and Hermione actually given the Stone to the Dark Lord?

Severus wasn't an idiot. He knew Hermione would have worked out the danger Harry was in from the Dark Lor