6: The Dark Lady Returns?
Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.
Quick Note: Sorry about the delay - a bit sick last week. Some people seem to think I made a mistake about Filch, because he seems to see Harry as a boy and a girl at different points of time. However, that was not a mistake; that was intentional - although that won't be explained until later.
Thanks again to my mysterious beta who dwells in the shadows of fanfiction, rarely emerging but ever watching, always watching.
Harry and the Mysterious Curse of the Girl-Who-Lived
CHAPTER SIX: THE DARK LADY RETURNS?
Harry gulped audibly and hoped he wasn't in trouble. "Professor, I didn't see you there."
"I find that being invisible sometimes means one isn't quite aware of their surroundings," said the Headmaster with an easy smile. "And you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised, which tends to have quite the distracting effect on one's senses."
"This was supposed to be my last time, sir," said Harry. "I know that it's not a good thing - that it's not right in some way."
Dumbledore nodded. "If true, that is an admirable attitude. The Mirror has ensnared many to waste away before its tempting images. I knew you would wish to return if you see what I expect, if you forgive me, your parents."
"Yeah." Harry sighed deeply. "But I wish I could've known them for real."
The Headmaster seemed to look a bit sadder. "And have you figured out the secret of the inscription?"
Harry looked back at the odd writing and shook his head. "No, I just thought it was a foreign language."
"Not quite, my dear," said Dumbledore. "The key is to read it in reverse."
"Oh?" Harry carefully read the letters backwards. "So let's see. I show not you, oh, that's your face but your hearts desire. Wait a moment." He blinked and thought for a minute. "So supposedly I should be seeing what I really want to see, even if it's not good for me to see it?"
"Very well put, Miss Potter," Dumbledore smiled. "That is precisely it. And now that you understand and as you did not plan to return in any event, you should not be concerned that I shall be moving the Mirror elsewhere."
Harry nodded. "Yes, that's fine." But then a sudden thought came to him, as he remembered the words of the Sorting Hat several months earlier. "Sir, if you have a minute, do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Not at all," assured the Professor. "Please feel free to ask me anything that concerns you. I will not lie to you, I promise, although there may be questions I cannot yet answer you."
Every other time Harry had tried asking someone about the curse, they had not seemed to understand. Only Ollivander seemed to hear Harry, but the wandmaker refused to believe. And the Sorting Hat wasn't really a person at all. None of his friends, none of the Professors. Harry had almost gotten used to the idea that he would always be called "Harriet".
He tried very hard not to hope too much at that moment.
"Sir, this may seem like an odd question, but do I look like a boy or a girl to you?"
Dumbledore blinked in surprise. "You appear as a girl, of course. Very similar to your mother, although with your father's eyes - and I daresay you've heard that particular description already."
Harry steeled himself, hoping he would be able to handle the inevitable disappointment when the Headmaster failed to understand him. "The thing is, sir, I'm not a girl. I'm actually a boy. And my name is Harry, not Harriet." He paused, thinking of something. "You could even ask the Sorting Hat!"
"I'm not sure I understand," said Dumbledore in confusion.
Harry sighed. "Never mind, I guess it was too much to hope for."
"But what do you mean, you are really a boy?" Dumbledore asked. "And what does the Sorting Hat have to do with it?"
"You-you mean you understood what I meant?"
"Of course I understood," said Dumbledore. "But I am not sure what you are trying to say. Do you believe that you are a boy in a girl's body?"
"No!" Harry insisted a bit angrily. "I mean that I actually am a boy, not that I think I'm one. It's just that everybody else seems to think I'm really a girl."
Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully. "How odd. So when you look in a mirror, you see a boy's reflection?"
"Yes, exactly!" said Harry. "In fact, even the Dursleys thought I was a boy. Although they didn't really use my actual name much at all."
"My goodness," marvelled the Headmaster. "Perhaps... no, that couldn't be right. What did you say your proper name was?"
"Harry, of course. And might I say that I really hate the name Harriet? No offense to you if your Mum's named that, of course, but I don't like it."
Dumbledore chuckled. "No worries, Harr-" The Headmaster stopped speaking suddenly in mid-syllable. He frowned deeply. "Well, now, that is extremely bizarre. I seem to be unable to say your actual name."
"You can't say 'Harry'? Why not?"
"I don't know," Dumbledore replied. "But it seems as if my mind does not wish to let me think of you as a boy, and the name you mentioned is a male one, so I literally cannot say it aloud. On the other hand, I do not have such limitations in my thoughts, as I can ignore internally what I apparently cannot externally."
"So you must believe me, then," said Harry excitedly. "That something is just odd and mysterious about it!"
"Oh, indeed I do... not-Harriet," responded Dumbledore. "As much as it pains me not to use your given name, not-Harriet, would it make you feel better if I simply called you 'Potter'?"
"I suppose so", Harry conceded. "I guess it's better than Harriet. Thank you for making the effort."
Dumbledore nodded with a smile. "Of course. Now then, it appears that there is a far more worrisome matter than the Mirror of Erised: this mysterious curse of yours. I can tell you that I do not know of anything like it, but do not despair. I have a great many resources, and I am certain that I can decipher the curse given some time."
"That would be... that would be wonderful," Harry said, an enormous wave of relief rushing over him. "Sure, I'm glad to have friends, even if they think I'm a girl, but I would still rather them know I'm a boy."
"You haven't told them?" Dumbledore inquired.
"I've tried, believe me," grumbled Harry. "Nobody seems to even understand me when I say I'm not a girl. Even the Professors, Flitwick, McGonagall... In fact, only the Sorting Hat and Ollivander seemed to understand, although Ollivander was kind of a jerk about it. Insisting I didn't know what I was talking about."
"Fascinating," the Professor mused. "I wonder what it is about Ollivander and the Sorting Hat that perceive your protestations differently from others. And myself, I suppose as well."
"I don't know," said Harry. "But the Hat actually said I should try talking to you about it. I guess I've never really had the time to ask you before, so I'm partly to blame. Please let me know if you find anything, sir."
Dumbledore smiled. "Of course I will, Potter Although your mention of McGonagall reminds me of something. A concern she brought to my attention."
"Oh, I think I know what you mean," Harry realized. "I kind of said I didn't want to live at the Dursleys anymore if I didn't have to. She said she'd look into it, although that was months ago."
"Yes she spoke to me about your relatives," said Dumbledore. "But as you might imagine, people act a bit differently when they think someone is a girl rather than a boy. I suppose people can more easily stomach difficult upbringings as regards to boys, but girls... That raises an ire and an instinctual protective reaction."
The Headmaster then chuckled. "You know, I believe that you have one advantage, seemingly appearing as you do, as opposed to say, your father. Professor Snape would probably not treat you as well if you did not look like his childhood friend."
Harry snorted a bit in amusement. "Yeah, he didn't exactly have complimentary words about my father." He paused and frowned. "But about the Dursleys - do you think you can help with that?"
Dumbledore sighed. "It is unfortunately not a simple matter, my dear not-girl. There are very powerful protections there against the forces of Volotredi and the Dark Lady herself, should she ever return. And you do not quite have the needed training in Defense to truly fight or escape from such evil."
"So you're saying I have to go back?" Harry said despondently. "Isn't there any alternative? I'm not picky, I'll even live here at Hogwarts. In fact, I'd love to do that."
"Well.." Dumbledore said slowly. "Perhaps there are some potential avenues I can explore. With the curse and my other responsibilities, I am not sure how far I will be able to proceed, but I promise you this: I will try my very best to assist you in every area you need such assistance."
Now Harry felt a bit embarrassed. "I didn't want to burden you or anything, sir. I guess I can keep going on like this if I have to."
Dumbledore shook his head sternly. "Nonsense, Not-Miss Potter! Such issues are hardly commonplace, nor should they be the burden of an eleven year old, be they boy, girl, or some mysterious mix between. Now, it is quite late. You should be off to bed, and I will find time to speak with the very moment I have news. Is that acceptable, Not-Miss Potter?"
Harry smiled readily. "Yes, thank you sir. It's the best news I've heard in a while."
The holidays had finally come to to close, and Harry waited eagerly for his returning friends. Of course, he had had a fine time with his male Gryffindor friends, but he missed the interactions of their rather large group. He even missed the never-ending debates that he was rarely able to follow between Hermione and Padma.
"Harriet!" A brightly smiling Parvati rushed over and grabbed Harry in a friendly hug. Harry still felt a bit odd about such expressions of affection, but he managed to somewhat return the embrace, feeling awkward until Parvati let go.
"How was your holiday?"
Harry chuckled. "A fair bit more eventful than I had anticipated, but it was good. Yours?"
"Oh, we had a marvelous time at home," Parvati said. "Didn't we, Padma?"
"Yes," her sister replied simply and in an almost toneless manner. "I assume you are well, Potter?"
"Um, yes, thank you," said Harry, a bit taken aback, but fairly used to Padma's brusque manner by this point.
"Have you seen Granger yet?" Padma asked calmly, a interesting glint in her eyes.
Harry shook his head. "No, but I'm sure she came with you on the train, so she's probably somewhere around."
"I think I will go look for her," Padma decided. "I need to see what she says about that controversial article in Potions Periodical." Without another word, she hurried off.
Harry turned to look back at Parvati, who had a sort of funny smile on her face.
"What?" He asked.
"Oh, you know perfectly well 'what'," answered Parvati. "You heard my sister. That's how it was the entire holiday. 'Granger said this' and 'Granger said that' - actually became quite annoying for the rest of the family, but my parents were so pleased she had any friends at all, they pretended to listen."
"You mean like we always do?" Harry said with a grin.
Parvati giggled. "Yes, exactly. And don't tell anyone, but I think Hermione was hiding from us on the train."
"Are you saying she wasn't up to a intellectual debate?" Harry asked incredulously. "Somehow I doubt it."
"Oh not that," Parvati said quickly. "I mean that Padma was sending her at least five owls a day, asking about things I'm sure the rest of us barely comprehend. And maybe, just maybe, Hermione might have been a bit worried that my sister was getting obsessive."
"Was she?" Harry asked.
Parvati shrugged. "I don't know, really. She's been like this since we were kids. I love her, of course, but she's a bit odd with people sometimes. I'm so pleased the group has accepted her."
"I don't have any problems with Padma," Harry assured his friend. "And I think that the very instant Padma says something Hermione disagrees with, she will not be able to hold it in very long at all."
Parvati laughed. "I think you're probably right at that. And thank you for being so accepting; you're a wonderful person."
Harry flushed in embarrassment. "Well now, no need to get ridiculous about it. And I don't want to forget, but I owe you a Christmas present as soon as I can get to a store."
"Don't worry about it at all, Harriet," Parvati smiled. "I figured you probably didn't have an easy way to mail for presents. Actually, there are some owl-order things you can do, the Prophet often has adverts for them."
A sudden high-pitched squealing caused Harry to step back in surprise.
Lavender had appeared, and was hugging Parvati, who squealed in return.
"Oh, hello Lavender," Harry said slowly. "Have a good holiday?"
Lavender smiled. "Well don't just stand there!"
"Um, no, of course not." Harry managed to awkwardly embrace Lavender, who wasn't nearly as shy in returning it.
"You both look fantastic!" said Lavender.
This was something Harry had already gotten used to, and he had already learned how to respond.
"Nonsense," Harry insisted. "You're the one that looks fantastic."
"Oh are we on about that again?"
It was Hermione, looking slightly bedraggled.
"Hermione, good to see you," Parvati said with a sly grin. "I think my sister is looking for you."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Yes, I noticed. I'm sure you already know about all the letters she sent, considering you were together for the holiday."
"All the letters?" Lavender asked, looking very excited for a touch of gossip.
"Apparently Padma sent Hermione something like five letters a day," explained Harry. "I'm surprised you didn't appreciate an exchange of the minds, Hermione."
Hermione scowled. "Oh, don't you start in! I just wanted a bit of time on the train to study and read by myself without getting into another discussion on the ethics of using rare animal components for Potions, or whatever it was she was being annoying about."
"Oi!" Ron shouted a bit and came over with Neville. "Nice to see you lot. I think Harriet missed having some other girls around."
"Well now we're back," said Lavender with a smile. "And we outnumber you again."
"Hey!" Ron said with a frown.
"Oh no," Hermione grumbled. "Here comes your sister."
Indeed, Padma had appeared, as if from nowhere at all.
"Granger, did you get to read that article in Potions Periodical that everyone was arguing about?"
Hermione scowled. "I had a fine holiday, and I hope you did as well."
Padma nodded. "Yes, yes, everyone had a simply marvelous holiday. But you did read the article?"
"Yes," said Hermione with a bit of an exasperated moan. "The very idea... no wonder it was controversial, saying it was acceptable to harvest organs from sentient magical beings!"
"I thought you would say that," said Padma. "So you agree that the gains in Potions research far outweigh the minor moral issues associated with killing lesser magical creatures?"
"What?" Hermione yelped. "Minor moral issues? Lesser magical creatures? Have you gone utterly mad?"
As Hermione continued her angry rebuttal, Harry watched Padma's face. In the time he had known her, Harry felt he was getting better at reading the Ravenclaw's often disconcerting facial expressions. And in the wake of Hermione's righteous fury, Padma seemed a bit happy.
And oddly enough, that didn't surprise Harry at all.
As the term continued, schoolwork and Quidditch practice kept Harry from focusing much on either of his mysteries. The Headmaster would often surreptitiously wink as he passed in the hallways, which let Harry know that at they very least Dumbledore had not forgotten their discussion. The study sessions that were ostensibly about the Mystery tended to actually focus on studying, but the group dynamic seemed to get to a point where it seemed everyone got along with everyone else. Padma had been showing up to their sessions so much that Harry began to wonder if she had any Ravenclaw friends at all.
Eventually when he had a private moment with Parvati, he cautiously broached the subject.
"I'm not offended by the question, Harriet", said Parvati reassuringly. "The truth is that my sister really doesn't much talk about anyone she knows or not in Ravenclaw. And I get the feeling she doesn't much care for them, although I wouldn't go spreading that around."
Harry snorted. "Obviously not. I'm not an idiot. Like I've said before, of course I don't mind Padma hanging out with us, but I still wondered."
Parvati nodded a bit sadly. "Yeah, but my feeling is that at least she has friends other than me. I had despaired of that for a long time."
Harry nodded, letting the subject drop.
Soon enough, it was time for another Quidditch match, this time against Hufflepuff. By this point, Harry felt so utterly confident he caught the Snitch in under five minutes.
Back in the Gryffindor dorm, celebrating with the rest of his house, Harry noticed someone was missing.
"Have you seen Ron?" Harry asked his friends.
"No!" Lavender said with a shocked expression. "He's not here, is he? Didn't he come back with us?"
"I think I saw him borrow one of the brooms," Neville ventured.
Parvati frowned and shook her head. "Oh dear, what is that foolish boy up to?"
"Maybe we should tell a prefect?" Hermione asked slowly. "Or at least make sure he's okay."
This idea went back and forth for a bit, but as it turned out, they didn't have to wait too long before Ron slunk into the common room. He was filthy, covered with mud and leaves, but he had a brilliant smile on his face.
"Oh look at you!" Lavender clucked her tongue. "Did you crash your broom into the mud?"
Ron put a hand behind his head nervously. "Ah, so you saw that. Actually, I did crash a little bit, but I'm fine."
"And the broom?" Harry asked a bit sternly.
"Of course it's also fine!" Ron assured them. "But that's not the point. I saw Snape sneaking off in a run, and I had to follow."
"You did not follow the Professor on a broom!" Hermione hissed in disapproval. "That's beyond foolishness."
"I wasn't going to catch up on foot," Ron pointed out. "Plus I'm a fair hand with a broom - obviously not Harriet's level, of course, but I can fly a straight line."
"But you crashed, didn't you?" asked Parvati with a grin.
Ron smiled and nodded. "Tease all you like, I was in a bit of a hurry coming back. But I have some major news - I overheard him and Quirrell arguing!"
"Ooh, really?" Lavender asked in excitement. "Let's talk in the corner so we're not overheard."
"Good idea," said Ron.
"All right," Harry whispered when they were a bit away from the noisy crowd. "So what did you hear?"
"It's just like I always figured," Ron said in a rush. "Snape was threatening Quirrell, asking if he'd found a way past Fluffy yet. Highly suspicious, if you ask me."
Lavender nodded. "Yes, I quite agree. Snape threatening poor defenseless Quirrell; why, he couldn't hurt a fly!"
"Which is highly disappointing, considering the subject he teaches," Hermione sniffed. "But we shouldn't rush to conclusions here. It's possible that Quirrell is the one trying to steal the stone."
"Oh now you're being ridiculous!" Ron insisted. "Quirrell is like a stuttering child! Back me up, Neville."
"Well," Neville said slowly. "I don't know, I don't really like Quirrell much either. Something seems off about him too."
Ron grunted and waved his hand in dismissal. "Not as much as Snape, though. You have to give me that much."
"I'm going to suspect Quirrell," said Harry. "Just because I like disagreeing with you."
Ron smirked. "Harriet, sometimes I think it's that you just like being too clever."
Harry nodded. "Point."
"So then I hear that Lisa has been saying the most awful things about Mandy behind her back, but just smiles to her face," said Parvati with relish. "Can you believe it?"
"What did she say?" Lavender asked.
Harry groaned softly and tried to block out the conversation with his pillow. It was frightfully late, and Harry had no interest in joining in the latest gossip sessions about girls he didn't really know.
And asking Hermione to vote to keep it down wouldn't help, as she was immersed in some late night studying, ignoring her surroundings completely. But the pillow muffled some of the sound at least.
"Are you quite certain?" Lavender whispered loudly in response to something.
Parvati said something Harry couldn't make out; it was hard to say if almost hearing it was worse than hearing it full blast.
The next day, an exhausted Harry stumbled from class to class, not really paying attention to the people around him, feeling in a cloud of haze.
McGonagall had noticed and asked to see Harry after class.
"Miss Potter, are you quite all right? You seem to be barely functional today."
"I'm sorry, Professor," said Harry. "I just didn't get much sleep last night. Plus the Mystery and the..." Harry yawned, not quite in his right mind. "You know, Stone, and all. It's been mad keeping up."
"What did you say?" McGonagall asked sharply.
Harry frowned and tried to focus his thoughts. "Um, that I didn't get much sleep?"
"No, about this Mystery of yours. I thought this was something to do with your mother's research."
Harry thought he may have said something out of place, but wasn't quite awake enough to figure out what exactly. "Yes, that's right. But it won't happen again, I promise."
The Professor frowned. "Very well, Miss Potter, but be sure to get more sleep or you may end up spending time in the Infirmary. Are we clear?"
Harry nodded, and McGonagall dismissed him
Later in the library, they sat around fairly listlessly. Harry had become slightly more alert, and noticed that the other girls were seemingly just as tired, although he had been too out of it earlier to notice. Hermione was not only tired, but unnervingly stressed as well.
"I can't believe exams are practically here, and with barely enough time to study!"
Parvati yawned. "Aren't they like two months away?"
"More like ten weeks," corrected Hermione. "And besides, I don't know that it's enough time to not fail!"
"Hello Gryffindors." Padma walked over and sat down with them. "Preparing for final exams, are you?"
"I expect this type of thing from you Ravenclaws," Ron said with a scowl. "But why'd you have to go infect Hermione? You know she's overly susceptible to mere suggestions of requiring studying."
Hermione blinked in surprise. "Ron, you know what 'susceptible' means?"
Ron shrugged. "Guess I must've picked it up somewhere." He smirked. "Blimey, I wonder where?"
Lavender giggled, albeit with a bleary expression. "I'm glad that we manage to learn something from them even if we can't just follow along normally."
"So Padma," Harry asked. "Have you also started preparing for exams?"
"No," Padma said in mild surprise. "I'm already prepared."
"What?" Hermione looked up with shock. "You know the material already?"
Now Padma actually looked a bit confused. "Don't you?"
"She does," Neville put in with a small smile. "But she worries about our grades."
Hermione smiled at this, but then frowned. "Well, I'm not sure I know everything I need to. What if the exams cover the advanced uses of Dittany or the lineage of Uric the Oddball?"
"And what if they don't?" Ron pointed out. "We've barely talked about either of those things this year."
Harry nodded. "He's right, Hermione. None of us are about to tell you not to study - we know better than that. Just don't overly stress yourself, okay?"
"Yes," replied Hermione slowly. "Yes, all right, that's a reasonable position to take."
"Say," said Ron suddenly. "Is that Hagrid over there? It is! Oi, Hagrid!"
Sure enough, the large man was there, hiding something very obviously, even enough to penetrate Harry's sleepy haze. "Um, hello, you lot."
He then noticed Padma sitting next to the others. "Ah, Parvati, it's yer sister, right? Padma, was it?"
"Yes!" said Padma with sudden excitement, which jarred Parvati and Lavender a bit more awake. "And you are Rubeus Hagrid, the Keeper of the Grounds and Keys! The progenitor of the Mystery of the Trapdoor that hides Nicolas Flamel's Philosopher's Stone that someone is trying to steal!"
Hagrid was so surprised he actually dropped the book he had been hiding. Harry caught a glimpse before Hagrid snatched up - it looked to be something on the care of dragons.
"Now look you lot!" Hagrid whispered a bit angrily. "Don' go shoutin' about it, what's the matter with yeh!"
"Yes, Padma," Hermione chided. "It is a secret after all, isn't it?"
Padma nodded but still seemed a tad overly excited.
Hagrid sighed. "S'pose it was foolish to think yeh'd forget about it. If you come an' see me later, I'm not promisin' I'll tell yeh anythin', mind, but don' go rabbitin' about it in here, students aren' s'pposed ter know. They'll think I've told yeh - don' want that spreadin' around. Will yeh stop talkin' 'bout it in public then?"
"Yes, of course," Harry said quickly before anyone could answer. "Thank you for trusting us - we would never betray your confidence."
Hagrid's mouth quirked about a bit, as if he was trying to hide a smile. "Right, see you lot later then." The large man held his hidden book close and quickly rushed out of the library.
"Do you think he actually has pertinent information to convey?" Padma asked the others.
"He does seem to know a bit about everything that goes on around here," said Hermione thoughtfully. "We can share our concerns about Quirrell and Snape as well and see if he dismisses the evidence like last time. Perhaps he might have a different perspective on things."
"What was he hiding, I wonder?" Ron pondered. "Saw him drop a book."
"I saw something," said Harry. "Something to do with caring for dragons, I think."
"Oh dear," Parvati frowned. "I don't have quite a good feeling about that."
Sure enough, as they approached Hagrid's hut later, every single curtain was closed in a somewhat foreboding manner.
"Why do I feel an impeding sense of doom?" Ron grumbled.
Neville looked about nervously. "I don't think anyone's followed us. Are we doing anything wrong?"
"Enough you two!" Hermione said chidingly. "You are both being ridiculous. It's not like Hagrid actually has an illegal dragon in his wooden hut. Be reasonable."
Harry exchanged a worried look with Ron and Parvati, both of whom seemed just about as anxious. Lavender seemed far too tired to care, and Padma had a very disconcerting smile on her face.
"There's probably not enough room in there, anyway," said Neville. "Why don't I just hide out here and watch for anyone just in case?"
Hermione rolled her eyes.
But sure enough, when Hagrid finally let them in, the hut was stifling hot, with a fairly large fire blazing in the grate.
"No," Hermione said almost stubbornly. "No, Hagrid. No, you did not get a dragon!"
Hagrid's mouth dropped. "Now how in the world did yeh hear about tha'?"
Ron cursed softly. "Merlin's bum! I knew it."
"What kind of dragon?" Padma asked eagerly. "Is it a native British one? Foreign?"
Hagrid smiled and nodded in pride. "Yeah, he's a Norwegian Ridgeback. Least I think it's a he. Hasn't hatched yet. Look, the egg's over here!"
Padma was the first to push over to see the egg in the heart of the fire.
"How exciting!" she said. "So it's still in the third phase of incubation."
"Yeah, that's right!" Hagrid said with a brightened expression. "Yeh got it dead on. Only a bit while longer til he hatches."
Padma nodded. "What does it eat? I assume some sort of meat and alcohol, since he'll be just a baby."
"Nicely thought out, lass!" Hagrid chuckled. "Yeh know yer dragons, yeh do. This type is usually okay with any kind o' meat, of course, but yer supposed teh to use brandy as the inflammatory agen'."
"How interesting!" Padma said with clear delight in her eyes, which seemed highly unusual for the mostly taciturn girl.
Ron squeezed in between Harry and Lavender. "Is it the dragon or Hagrid that's got her so excited?" he whispered in an exasperated tone to them so the others couldn't quite overhear.
Lavender clucked her tongue softly. "Oh, I hope she hasn't fallen in love with him."
"Lavender!" Ron looked back with horror. "Don't say such awful things!"
"Where did you even get the thing?" Parvati asked, thankfully having not heard that little exchange.
"Won it," said Hagrid. "Las' night. 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."
"So," Hermione started to say something then stopped. She took a very deep breath. "So anyway, we shall all just forget about the illegal dragon operation, otherwise I am sure I will probably faint with the stress of it all. Let's talk about the Stone, shall we?"
"Yes," said Harry in agreement. "We're thinking it's Volotredi." The others all winced. "Um, that is, You-Know-You. I mean that she's related somehow. Or maybe it's not her at all, but someone else. It seems like the mostly likely suspects are Quirrell and Snape."
"I vote Snape!" Ron put in.
"Agreed," Lavender said with a nod.
Parvati shook her head. "No, Snape's a jerk, but I think Harriet's right that he's not actually evil. Quirrell is altogether too odd not to suspect something."
Hagrid seemed a bit taken aback. "Well, I think that Dumbledore's worried abou' You-Know-You a bit, actually. But don't worry yer heads about it. He got most o' the Professors to help out to protect the Stone, and I helped with Fluffy, o' course."
"I think Fluffy sounds quite fascinating," said Padma with a grin. "A three-headed dog must be an interesting creature to care for."
"Oh, Fluffy's a great dog," Hagrid said fondly. "Nice to see kids interested in the care o' magical creatures. Most people would jus' rather not even talk about it."
Padma scowled. "How shortsighted. But did you read that article a few months ago in Potions Periodical about the moral problems of killing magical creatures for components?"
Hagrid chuckled nervously. "Eh, no, my readin' skills ain't quite all that good. But I heared abou' it, I can tell yeh that much. Messy business, it is."
Harry cleared his throat. "Oh, sorry to interrupt," he said insincerely. "But Hagrid, you said most of the Professors helped with the protections, right?"
"Oh, I see your point," said Hermione in realization. "Did Quirrell or Snape help out with the protections?"
Hagrid nodded. "Yeah, they did. Professor Sprout — Professor Flitwick — Professor McGonagall —" he ticked them off on his fingers, "An' Dumbledore himself did somethin', o' course. Great man, that Dumbledore."
"I wonder what he did," Ron wondered. "I'd expect something crazy and brilliant, maybe with a bunch of crazy colors."
Lavender and Parvati laughed.
"Yes, that does sound like him," replied Parvati.
"Here's an interesting question," said Hermione, tapping her chin in thought. "Do the Professors all know how to get past everything? Or is the knowledge kept compartmentalized from each person?"
Hagrid frowned in confusion. "Not sure wha' yeh mean by that last bit, but I don't think they know abou' everything. I'm sure nobody but me and the Headmaster knows how teh get past Fluffy."
Ron sighed in obvious relief. "Well that's something at least. Frightful beast he may be, but at least Snape can't get past a giant bloodthirsty dog monster."
"You mean Quirrell can't get past Fluffy," riposted Parvati.
"Oh no he doesn't!" Lavender insisted.
"Or maybe it's just You-Know-Who," Harry made sure to point out. "And Snape and Quirrell are just independently interested in the Stone."
"When does it hatch?" Padma asked with a wide smile. "I would certainly like to see it!"
Parvati groaned and leaned over to Harry. "She has got to get her priorities in order."
It wasn't long, only a week or so, before Harry received a note from Hagrid that the dragon was hatching. This led to a bit of an argument.
"I think it's exciting," Ron said. "I mean, how often do you get to see a dragon hatching?"
Hermione glared. "Think about Hagrid for once - even if he doesn't himself! We should tell a Professor about this, or maybe even the Headmaster! Hagrid will be a lot worse off if he gets caught with a dragon - at least the professors can actually keep him from getting into further trouble!"
"As for me," said Padma primly. "I wish to see the hatching - it is a singular occurrence, as Weasley pointed out quite astutely."
"Thank you?" Ron replied, a bit confused.
"I think Hermione's right, unfortunately," Neville said glumly. "Hagrid just doesn't seem to be in his right mind about it, and there are serious penalties to illegally raising dangerous magical creatures."
Harry frowned. "I'm supposed to meet McGonagall about something during morning's break, so I'm not sure I can make it over there. Maybe I can casually bring it up the possibility of someone accidentally having a dragon in Hogwarts."
"Oh come on, Harriet," protested Parvati. "Don't get Hagrid into trouble!"
"I wouldn't do that!" Harry assured them. "I just don't want to see him burning down his hut!"
"So it's settled then," Ron said with a nod. "We'll head over, Harriet will meet with McGonagall, and Neville will stay outside as lookout since he's too afraid to come inside."
"Hey!" Neville yelped.
"It's true, though, isn't it?" Lavender teased with a smile. "Besides, if we're dealing with something illegal, it's probably a decent idea to have someone watching outside."
Neville nodded. "Yes, a very good point. Good points all around, everyone."
It turned out that Professor McGonagall had a few things on her mind.
"Miss Potter, the Headmaster has informed me that he has been looking into your housing issue."
Harry brightened. "Oh, good, so where do you think I can live then?'
The Professor frowned sourly. "I am afraid the arrangements have not all been taken care of. Professor Dumbledore believes that he will be able to push things around without attracting attention from undesirables, which is not easy when one is speaking about the Girl-Who-Lived mind, although don't let that go to your head! Unfortunately, such careful attention means that the Headmaster believes it will only be possible to leave those... Muggle relatives of yours." She practically spat these last words.
"Only after next term," she finished. "But he says that you should keep sending letters to us, that is myself and the Headmaster, and possibly Professor Snape as well, every week or so to ensure that the Dursleys are staying on their best behavior."
Harry nodded and sighed. "I suppose I can live with that for now, especially with the promise of leaving soon. Will I have to stay there all summer long?"
"Hopefully not," McGonagall replied. "But we won't know for certain until closer to the end of the term. Now, as for a separate matter, there is the issue of this Mystery of yours."
"You know about that?" Harry asked in surprise, then remembered himself. "I mean, the Mystery of my Mum's research, you mean? Of course, anything to report."
The Professor looked highly suspicious. "No, Miss Potter. Nothing as of yet. But a few weeks ago, you mentioned a 'Stone' to me - do you recall that?"
"Um," Harry swallowed nervously. "No, no, not at all ma'am. Perhaps what I actually said was... Tome. As in the Tome of Women's Magic. Have you ever heard of that, Professor?"
"Hmm." McGonagall did not appear that appeased. "That is not a book I have heard of, Miss Potter. Are you sure you haven't made it up?"
"Why would I do that?" Harry asked, trying to plaster an innocent smile on his face, but getting the feeling his teacher wasn't at all fooled. "I'm sure I wouldn't even begin to know about anything I'm not supposed to know about."
"See that you do not," McGonagall said sternly. "I assure you, rules are in place for a reason. And your safety is just one of those reasons. Please ensure your friends understand this as well."
Harry nodded, inching towards the door. "Yes, certainly, Professor. May I go now?"
The Professor nodded and Harry sped off, hoping to catch his friends before they came back.
Unfortunately, something awful had apparently happened.
"Someone was spying on us!" Ron said indignantly. "Can you believe it? Neville caught a glimpse, and I don't think you'll be surprised who it was."
"It was Malfoy," Neville whispered. "He didn't realize I was outside, but when I was walking around the hut, I saw him. I shouted, but he ran off."
Parvati smiled with pride. "Do you hear that? Neville, our ever watchful lookout."
"But did the dragon hatch?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Hermione sighed, shaking her head. "And you will not believe what Hagrid called it."
Harry smirked. "Something cute and out of place? Was it Mr. Ticklesworth?"
Lavender giggled. "No, far worse."
"It was Norbert," Ron said with relish. "The most ridiculous name for a dragon I've ever heard. And my brother Charlie works with dragons, so I've heard more than a few odd ones."
"Wow," said Harry. "That is a bit odd, even for Hagrid. But what about Malfoy?"
Parvati scowled. "That little Slytherin git may not have seen much, but that won't stop him from complaining to someone about it. Maybe you can find Snape before he does? He might actually listen to you."
Harry considered this. "I dunno, Snape might not like Hagrid. Or maybe he does, I don't actually know."
"We can't take that risk!" Lavender insisted. "But what else can we do?"
"I know what we should do," Padma said firmly. "We should raise the dragon on our own."
Everyone else stopped talking and looked at the Ravenclaw in disbelief.
Padma nodded at her own words. "It would be a most educational experience, don't you think Granger?"
Hermione scowled. "Not everything is about studying, Patil. No offense, Parvati."
Ron gasped. "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Hermione?"
Parvati pushed him to the side and grinned. "On using my surname or implying I don't like studying?"
"Take your pick," said Hermione graciously.
"You are crazy," Padma insisted. "Education is the most important pursuit."
Hermione was about to reply, so Harry cleared his throat.
"Let's not start into that right now, all right?" he asked pleadingly. "I kind of forgot to ask McGonagall about the dragon, so maybe I can really subtlety ask Snape for help?"
"No!" Ron shook his head. "Sorry, Harriet, but I don't trust him."
"So what should we do?" Lavender sighed dramatically. "Poor Hagrid."
Harry gasped. "Wait, Ron, didn't you just say your brother works with dragons?"
Ron nodded. "Yeah, so? Oh, I get it!" He grinned. "Brilliant! Well spotted, Harriet. And this way, we can keep Evil Professor Snape out of the loop."
"Evil Professor Snape, is it?" Parvati snicked. "Don't let him overhear you say that. He'd not care for it."
"Or worse," Lavender put in. "He might actually enjoy it."
It turned out that Charlie and his dragon handling friends were more than happy to take Norbert off their hands. Hagrid wasn't happy about, but Hermione managed to distract him from being overly depressed by constantly asking Padma to interrogate Hagrid about something involving magical creatures. Padma was often doing this anyway, so that part was easy enough to play, and Hagrid did seem to feel a kind of odd kindred spirit with the Ravenclaw.
Ron and Neville had volunteered to take the dragon up to the tallest tower to meet with the dragon handlers in a few days at the designated meeting time, and Harry had very generously agreed to lend them his Invisibility Cloak.
"You are too nice sometimes, Harriet," Ron had said in an almost embarrassed voice.
"We won't let anything happen to it!" Neville had then insisted fiercely. "I'll jump off the tower first!"
"Nobody's jumping off any towers," Harry told them. "You guys are more important than any magical cloak, no matter how valuable. Understood?"
They both seemed fairly surprised to hear that.
Harry waited in the common room that night with the other girls, all of them incredibly anxious.
Finally, after several nerve-wracking hours had passed, the two boys climbed through the portrait hole. Neville looked horribly saddened for some reason, but he ran over to the girls, Cloak in his hands.
"Here you are, Harriet. I made sure never to let go of it."
Harry laughed. "I can see that, I never doubted you for a moment. How did it go?"
Ron walked over, a half-smile on his face. "Well, we have some good news and bad news. First, we did manage to get Norbert out of here - not easy getting him from Hagrid, mind you!"
"I'm just glad Padma wasn't there," said Parvati with a grin. "She might've tried to stop you."
"So what's the bad news?" Lavender asked.
Ron chuckled. "No, that part's just news. The good news is that Malfoy was waiting to catch us but didn't manage - with the Cloak and all. And McGonagall saw him and gave him detention!"
"Ooh!" Lavender clapped her hands. "That is good news. Then what's the bad news?"
Ron sighed and sank into a chair. "McGonagall caught us after that and gave us detention."
Neville made a kind of choked sound. "It's h-horrible. We had to take off the Cloak to get the dragon over to the handlers, and then we forgot to put it back on. We were right there in plain sight! I'm so sorry!"
"Calm down, Neville," Harry soothed. "We all make mistakes. The important thing is that you managed to get Norbert away without getting Hagrid into trouble. And you brought back my Cloak. And you managed to get Malfoy into trouble too!"
Ron pumped a fist. "Yes, thank you!"
As the day of their detention grew closer, things got into more of a lull. The older Gryffindors weren't happy at Ron and Neville's lost points, but they couldn't help but be pleased that at the very least Slytherin was down as well. Exams had come ever closer, and everyone, not just Hermione, was focused only on studying. They barely even mentioned the Mystery of the Trapdoor.
When Neville and Ron stood up, late at night, for their detention, Harry made sure to start a round of applause, which was quickly imitated by the others.
Neville blushed and Ron just laughed.
"We'll stay up until you get back," Harry promised. "We need to study anyway. Hermione will be glad for that."
Hermione smiled. "Well said, Harriet."
"Don't study too hard without us," Ron said teasingly. "You might steal all the studying and not leave any for us."
But it was very late, nearly morning, before they came back, both looking a mixture of horrified and determined.
Harry managed to pull himself awake and nudged the girls. "So what happened?"
Ron blew out a heavy breath and collapsed into a chair. "You will not believe what happened. We were out with Malfoy, of course, but the detention was with Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest."
"What?" Lavender shrieked then clapped a hand over her mouth. "That's madness!"
"Why?" Hermione asked in horror. "And why at night?"
"Ground work, we thought," Ron replied. "But then Hagrid said a unicorn had been attacked."
Parvati and Lavender gasped.
"Is that so odd?" Hermione asked.
Parvati's mouth dropped wide. "I'm shocked you didn't know about this already Hermione."
"It's probably a wizard thing," Neville said in support. "Killing unicorns is one of the most horrible things anyone can do - it's a well known legend."
Hermione frowned. "I see. I suppose I will have to research it."
"Never mind that," Ron said, waving his hands. "And remind me to mention the wondrous look on Malfoy's scared face later. Neville saw who killed the unicorn."
Neville swallowed audibly. "It wasn't Snape. I don't think it was Quirrell either. But the centaurs told us who it was."
"Oh no," Harry said in realization. "It wasn't?"
Ron nodded. "Yeah, exactly. You-Know-Who herself, killing a blasted unicorn of all things!"
Lavender growled, which was unusual for her. "Oh, but I hate her."
"I guess we know who's after the stone, then, don't we?" Hermione said with a fierce expression.
"Yes," Ron conceded. "Snape might be helping, but at the very least it's not just him."
"So we're agreed then?" Parvati asked.
"Yes," agreed Harry. "It's Volotredi."
Time practically rushed by as their exams came and went, despite the incredible stress of balancing school and worrying about the Stone. The only one who didn't seem concerned was, unsurprisingly, Padma - for her part, Hermione was actually far more anxious than anyone else about the exams.
"Why aren't you even worried?" Hermione asked Padma at one point, beyond frazzled.
Padma had shrugged. "Why should I be?"
Hermione had almost screamed but visibly held it back. "Are you so certain you'll get everything right?"
"No," Padma had replied, sounding very unconcerned. "And what does it matter? After all, isn't learning the more important part of it? You said so yourself weeks ago."
Hermione had no reply to that.
Finally, horrifyingly, the final day of exams had come; but, the Stone still seemed to be safe - they could still hear Fluffy breathing heavily behind the locked door. In a very nice thought, after their last exam, History of Magic, Hagrid had invited them all out for a bit of a celebratory tea.
Of course once there, Hagrid and Padma took no time at all before starting to chatter away about all manner of dangerous magical creatures.
"I think it's interesting how benign things like music can really 'soothe the savage beast', as the saying goes," Padma said to Hagrid.
Hagrid nodded. "Yeah, jus' most folks don't get it. I rem'mber sayin' somethin' like that to the guy I bought Norbert from. Couldn't see his face, but I could tell he was int'rested. So I told him, Fluffy's a piece o' cake if yeh know how to calm him down, jus' play him a bit o' music an' he'll go straight off ter sleep."
Padma laughed a bit shrilly. "Oh, it does seem obvious when you already know, doesn't it?"
Hagrid chuckled as well. "Aye, lass, very true. Very true."
Harry frowned at this conversation, which most of them had been ignoring as opposed to just relaxing after the exams. Something Hagrid had just said...
"Hagrid," Harry interjected. "Did you just say you told the guy you won Norbert off of how to get past Fluffy? Did you see who it was?"
Hagrid frowned. "Yeah, I guess yeh could put it like that. But I dunno who it was - face was hidden, didn't recognize the voice. All scratched and gravely."
Ron leaped up suddenly in his seat. "Was it Snape?"
"Or was it Quirrell?" Parvati made sure to add.
"Or perhaps You-Know-Who?" Hermione ventured carefully.
"What?" Hagrid frowned and shook his head. "Nah, that's silly. I mean, it couldn' been any of them - could it?" Now the large man looked very worried. "You don't think it was someone trying to get the Stone, do yeh?"
Harry stood up quickly and put down his tea. "Hagrid, thank you for the tea, but it seems we have to alert the Headmaster immediately. Do you know where he is?"
"Not sure," Hagrid said. "But probably his office. Good idea to make sure, actually. Glad you kids thought of it."
As they scrambled to get out, Lavender stopped and smiled to Hagrid. "Thanks again for everything Hagrid. Everything Harriet says about you it is true."
The enormous man flushed a bit at that. "Well now, yeh don't need to go on like that. Just go find Dumbledore, he'll know what to do."
"I'm staying," Padma announced. "I'm not finished my tea, and besides, Hagrid still hasn't told me about the feeding habits of Nundu."
Parvati scowled. "Padma!"
Hagrid laughed. "It's an inter'sting thing to talk about, that's true. I suppose there's no harm in havin' one of yeh stick around."
"Fine!" Harry almost yelled. "The rest of us, let's go! The Stone might be in danger right now!"
The group all ran to the castle, although some were breathing a bit hard when they came through the gates.
"Wait," said Harry. "Does anyone know where the Headmaster's Office even is?"
The others shook their heads.
"Merlin's smelly foot!" Ron cursed. "Now what?"
"Oh, look, it's Professor McGonagall!" Hermione raced over to the Transfiguration Professor, who was nearly in a run herself.
"What?" McGonagall looked down in surprise. "Miss Granger, I have no time for questions. There is an emergency meeting of all the Professors and I must go right away."
"But it's about the Stone!" Hermione insisted, almost in tears.
"Don't you think I know that?" The Professor said angrily. "Let us take care of it, and don't get involved." With that, she ran off down the hallway.
"Well that was pointless," muttered Parvati.
"Maybe we should go check on the door?" Ron ventured.
Harry nodded. "Good idea. At least we can check to see if the door is still safe."
Neville groaned, looking a bit more out of breath than the others. "More running?"
"Keep your chin up, Neville," Harry said with a grin. "It's for a good cause after all."
Neville nodded and his face now looked quite determined. "All right, let's go."
But when they reached the door, it seemed they had arrived too late. The door was wide open, and Fluffy was completely asleep - a harp was playing itself nearby.
"Oh, this is very bad!" Lavender shrieked. "Harriet, what are we going to do?"
Harry then realized the answer and a shiver ran through him. "We have to go in ourselves."
Next time...Harry face-to-face with someone from his past.
"Who creates a giant sentient chess set?" Hermione cried out in frustration.
"Well, I would if I could," Ron admitted.