Harry lay in bed thinking over the series of images the diary had shown him. For whatever reason, he felt that the spiders were the key. Something about the spiders.
"Harry!" Draco called from the bottom of the stairs up to the dorm. "Everyone's back!"
Harry jumped up and raced down the stone stairs. Hermione greeted him with a hug and he clapped Ron on the back with a grin. They exchanged thanks for the gifts they had received from one another then Harry helped Ron carry his things up to the dorm.
"How was your holiday, mate?" Ron asked, face still flushed from the cold outside.
"Not bad," Harry said honestly. "Severus and I are talking again."
Ron looked a little surprised. "Really? I thought you would never patch that up. Not that I was happy about that or anything..." he added, ashamed.
Harry shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Everything isn't back to normal yet anyway."
Harry dropped the heavy trunk onto Ron's four poster bed then they made their way back downstairs. Hermione was curled up in front of the fire, her hair almost reminiscent of the Weasley's in the red glow of the flames. Harry sat down on the couch behind her.
"Where'd Draco go?" Harry asked.
Hermione shrugged. "He didn't say."
Harry frowned but decided to take advantage of his absence. "I think we should go ask Hagrid about the spiders."
Ron paled. "Spiders?"
"There won't be any there, you idiot." Hermione rolled her eyes. "And, Harry, I agree. How about after dinner tomorrow?"
"I'll tell Draco," she volunteered.
Harry lowered his voice. "Um, I feel like maybe we should do this alone. Well, as in the three of us..."
"Why? Don't you trust him?" Ron blurted, the master of tact.
Harry hesitated. "I'm not sure. I think things are out of his control at the moment and it would be best to keep this a secret. Okay?"
Hermione scrutinized his face. "Alright. Does that mean we should keep an eye on him?"
"Probably," Harry responded. "But remember, it isn't his fault."
Ron looked skeptical.
"Really," Harry emphasized. Finally, Ron nodded. "Good. We will meet tomorrow and slip out under my invisibility cloak if he is around."
Agreed, they watched the fire dance in silence.
"Hey there!" Hagrid said in his customary booming voice as he opened the door to his tiny hut. "I thought you fergot 'bout me."
Harry smiled at the huge man. "How could we do that? Merry Christmas, Hagrid!"
He returned the smile and stepped aside for them to come in. They shuffled inside the warm hut and shook the snow off of their cloaks. Fang raised his head and sniffed the air but soon returned to his slumber.
"Tea?" Hagrid asked.
"Sure," Ron said, speaking for everyone.
They chatted aimlessly about the holidays and gifts before Harry voiced his question.
"Hagrid, what kind of animal would spiders run from?" he asked, acting as if it were out of simple curiosity.
"They won' tell me," he said seriously. "I'm guessing some kind of terrible monster. Aragog was a pretty brave little guy but..." he trailed of and shook his head. Harry knew better than to ask who Aragog was.
"So you don't really know?" Harry asked, disappointed.
Hagrid gave a great sigh. "All I know was tha' it wasn't Aragog."
"What wasn't?" Harry asked.
"Why, the Chamber o' Secrets of course."
Hermione had leaned forward on her stool. "What do you know about the Chamber of Secrets?"
Hagrid shook his head. "I'm not talking 'bout this with you guys. You'll get yerselves into trouble. The last time som'one died. I don' want you to follow."
"But-" Harry started to protest.
Hagrid raised a giant hand. "No, Harry. Trust me."
And that ended the discussion on spiders.
Hermione, Ron and Harry trudged back up to the castle through the ankle deep snow.
"So...we learned nothing?" Ron asked as he kicked a snow bank.
"We learned that it definitely has something to do with the spiders," Hermione said. "I'll head to the library. Anyone want to come?"
Harry and Ron looked at one another as they stepped over the threshold to the castle.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Fine. See you later."
Relieved that they didn't have to spend the remainder of the night flipping through dusty books, Harry and Ron headed back up to the common room. Despite the late hour, they were surprised to find it almost empty. Harry pulled out his textbooks after realizing that if classes started the next day, he better do his homework. He struggled through his Charms homework and repeatedly glanced at the portrait hole, waiting for Hermione to come back and tell of what she found. She, like Severus weeks before, never came.
Apparently, Harry had fallen asleep in front of the fire, textbooks strewn around him, for that was where he woke up. The situation was made even more unconventional due to Professor McGonagall looming above him.
"Mr. Potter," she said quietly but in a controlled voice. "I think it would be best if you wake Mr. Weasley and Mr. Malfoy and come with me."
"What happened?" he asked, alarmed. He imagined that he was quite a sight with his hair stuck flat to the side of his face.
She hesitated. "I best show you."
Harry nodded tentatively and gathered his friends. Ron was still groggy but Draco was fully aware and to say he was concerned would be an understatement. They followed their Head of House in a tense silence to the Hospital Wing. Once inside, they were presented with a huddled groups of adults and a soft light by a cot. It illuminated Hermione's frozen face. Draco gasped and Ron was mute. Harry had no outward reaction though his thoughts were swimming. He looked over at Draco whose face was so pale it seemed unhealthy. A hand touched his shoulder. Harry looked up into Severus's face where he found nothing but analytical curiosity.
"Harry," Dumbledore said from across the bed, "Ron, Draco. Do you know what Hermione was doing in the halls so late?"
They were silent. "Researching, sir," Harry spoke up. "She must have been coming back from the library."
"She had this in her hand," Dumbledore said, holding up a small mirror. "Does it mean anything to you?"
The three shook their heads. Harry wondered where she would have gotten a mirror.
Dumbledore nodded as if he had expected no answers from them.
"Will she be okay?" Draco asked in a trembling voice.
Dumbledore smiled a little sadly. "She will. Professor Sprout says that the mandrakes are almost ready and the moment they are, Severus here will brew a cure."
Since it was expected of him, Severus nodded. Draco still looked borderline catatonic. Harry took one last look at Hermione then put his arm on Draco's shoulder.
"Come on, let's go back to the dorm. She isn't going anywhere," he said sadly though he had tried to be encouraging.
The professors watched as Harry steered Draco towards the door, followed be a silent Ron. They said nothing as the students left. Before long, they had arrived at the dorm and all three climbed silently into bed. Harry was filled with guilt. If only he or Ron had gone with her to the library, somehow things might have turned out differently. Harry was not cocky enough to believe that he could have saved her, but he might have gotten a glimpse of whatever it was and survived to tell everyone else. He frowned in the darkness. It took a very long while for Harry to fall asleep.
It took a while for things to get back to normal, though "normal" in itself was a relative term at best. Harry forgot what normal was, if he had ever experienced it in the first place. The common room seemed less inviting without Hermione curled up by the fire and there was much less incentive to study. Conversations seemed lacking without the intelligent commentary and paying attention in class became noticeably more difficult. The third attack on the Gryffindors had left the entire house's spirit crushed. Students became nervous and sullen and tension with the Slytherins grew. Their smug attitude pushed many Gryffindors to the edge. That very morning, Dean had taken a swing at Pansy Parkinson for mocking Seamus. Unfortunately, Snape saw and took twenty points from Gryffindor for brawling.
"But she instigated it!" Dean cried, voice rich with injustice.
Snape gave him a dull stare. "Quite frankly, I do not care."
Dean fumed. He turned, glared at Harry and stormed off. Harry threw his hands in the air. "How was that my fault?"
Ron shrugged and they let it go. Harry slid into his seat in Defense Against the Dark Arts a few minutes later and moodily got out his books. He honestly did not feel like putting up with Lockhart today. It had been two weeks since Hermione's attack and Harry was still working hard to figure out what the spiders meant. Lacking Hermione's researching skills, it was taking him an eternity. Harry had not even known where to start. He had taken to carrying two or three books around with him to peruse in his spare time. As tedious as he found the task, it would be a better use of his time than listening to this fool.
Lockhart began what you could call the "lecture" portion of his class which was primarily a speech praising his good qualities. Harry was in no mood to cooperate with the narcissism. He raised his hand.
"Ah, a question, Mr. Potter?" Lockhart said with a smile. "Anything to help a rising star. Go ahead."
"What do you think is behind the attacks?" Harry asked with borderline rudeness.
He looked stumped for a moment, as if the thought had never before crossed his mind. "Some sort of Dark Magic, I should think."
"And you are the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, correct?" Harry asked smartly. "Why aren't you doing anything about it?"
He looked offended. "I am doing something! By teaching you, I am preparing you in case you come in contact with whatever it is."
Harry was honestly getting angry now. It felt good to channel his anger into this argument. "You taught Hermione, didn't you? Didn't you say she was your best student?She was attacked in case you didn't notice."
Lockhart was stunned by the outburst. He recovered himself and tugged his robes straight. "Obviously she caved under pressure. I could have taught her to handle her nerves, it is a shame."
Harry stood. "She was fine under pressure last year when we went to save the Philosopher's stone from VOLDEMORT."
There was silence in the room.
"Harry, I am afraid I will have to give you detention," Lockhart said, smile gone.
Harry sat back down. As the attention turned back to the front of the room, Harry leaned over to Ron to rant about the use of "Voldemort". "What are we not allowed to address things by their names anymore? 'Ron, will you hand me my you-know-what?' 'Draco, meet me you-know-where.'" He rolled his eyes and fumed. Ron looked a little scared and didn't say anything.
For the rest of the class, Harry blatantly ignored Lockhart. Instead, he used the time to finish searching the latest book on spiders for any hints of information. As usual, there were none.
The next day, Harry, Ron and Draco went once more to visit Hermione. Despite repeated assertions that she couldn't hear them, they insisted on coming. Gathered around her beside, the trio talked about the brighter side of life, just in case she could hear them. Harry picked up the mirror. Just as he did so, McGonagall burst into the room. Madam Pomfrey shuffled over with an anxious and inquisitive look on her face.
McGonagall nodded sadly. "They've taken Hagrid."
"What?" Harry shouted. "Why?"
"They needed someone to blame for the attacks," she explained slowly, as if unsure whether or not she should be telling them this. "He was blamed the last time, and the ministry wanted to seem like they were doing something about it."
"That's absurd!" Ron said indignantly. "Hagrid would never do that."
"I know," she said. "You best go now. Try to keep this quiet; it will be better for him."
They nodded and went to leave.
"Wait," McGonagall said, walking towards them. "I must escort you. It is the new policy."
Harry groaned. She led them back to the common room where there was nothing to do but read and wait for the day to expire.