Sitting cross-legged on the roof of the Gryffindor Tower at nearly two in the morning wasn't a very agreeable situation for Harry. He was nervous and glanced down at the deadly abyss every few seconds, wondering how on God's name could Hermione walk around the steep shingles with such confidence and grace.
"Promise me again, Harry. Please promise me that you won't... That you aren't going to think less of me after what I'm about to tell you?"
He sighed and wrapped his cloak tighter around. "I've said I promise three times already!"
"Right..." she answered sheepishly.
"Well?" he asked after another minute of silent pacing by Hermione.
"Urgh... Alright. I don't believe the people you saw in the mirror were your real parents."
Harry looked up at her and tilted his head. "Yeah, that's what Dumbledore told me, less than an hour ago! Now please tell me what you really wanna say?"
"My own parents died when I was two and I survived and I thought it was luck but now I think there was a wizard around and now I hate magic because they could've saved us all... Happy now?"
"I don't want your pity!" she interrupted.
"Fine! So you're an orphan, big deal, I'm one too!" he snarled back, "And I don't need your pity too!"
A minute passed in a silent staring contest until Hermione spoke again. "I didn't mean to say it isn't a big deal, Harry. I'm sorry, I know you lost your parents to You-Know--"
"Murdered by Voldemort," he corrected, ignoring the flinching she displayed, "and I'm sorry too. I didn't want to shout back at you... How? I mean, what did you survive?"
"A collapsed building. More than seventy people died, including my mother and father, and I... I was the only one left alive. The Miracle Baby, they called me," she added with a sad chuckle, "and now Madame Pomfrey tells me this wound is actually the result of magic!" Hermione finished, pulling her hair to the side and revealing her jaw and neck.
"Result of magic? I don't get it..."
"Don't you see, Harry? I survived because of magic, I should have died with them, but... But the magic didn't let me!" she said, swinging her arms around, "Either that or there was a wizard around, that could have saved us all but didn't because of the stupid Secrecy Statutes! And I hate it!"
Harry remained silent, not knowing what to do or what to say.
"So there you go, I'm a freak, bookworm, ugly and bossy orphan with a ridiculous moniker and a charity named after me, who hates magic but doesn't belong with the muggles either..."
Watching her crossed arms and pronounced pout, and being quite adept at reading people's expressions as a self-defence mechanism against his aunt and uncle's wrath, Harry scooted closer to Hermione and patted the cold shingles on his right side. She furrowed her eyebrows even tighter together but complied, sitting next to him.
"You don't hate magic, I've seen the excitement in your face when you're in class. And never call yourself a freak. Please, never do that again!"
"But that's what I am! Look at me!"
"You don't understand," Harry whispered.
"Listen Harry, I know what I am. I'm not like you, and... And I'll never understand why you know so little about magic, but I believe your family must have very good reasons to keep you detached from Wizarding Britain," she watched him snort at that, "yet I'd have loved to have been raised by people who understood what was happening to me..."
Now he simply let out a long laugh, which he promptly muffled with one hand, fearing they could attract Mr Filch's attention. He was sure it wouldn't happen, given that the roof was only accessible through a narrow passageway and ladder from the Gryffindor Common Room.
"Are you making fun of me?!" she asked and made to stand up, but he pulled her by the elbow back down.
"No, that's not it at all." Harry took a deep breath and looked up at the sky for a while. "The day I chose to believe in magic and Hogwarts, was the day I chose to believe the most wonderful lie I've ever been told."
Hermione snapped her face at him, a million questions etched to her inquisitive brown eyes.
"Hagrid, he... He came to my uncle's house and told me about magic and my parents." He paused again, not looking up at his friend but knowing her full attention was on his every word. Harry trusted her implicitly, and was grateful for her confidence in him as well. "I hated them, you know? My mum and dad... I hated them for being dead, for giving birth to a freak and for being the worthless people my uncles told me they were."
Bringing both hands to her mouth, Hermione gasped and shimmied closer to Harry, barely a millimetre separating her body from his. Her mind sped up and the mystery began to unravel. Harry never being allowed to have fun in a playground, his phobia against the word freak, him being rescued by Hagrid, Harry locked inside his cup-- His cupboard?! She felt her eyes moistening, but he needed no pity, he needed a friend to listen without judging or giving inane comments. She needed the same as well, and dared to hope the scrawny boy next to her would provide that comfort.
"But then I chose to believe what Hagrid said, that they were great wizards who loved me above everything else," Harry explained with a true smile, "and gave their-- Gave their lives for me..."
She decided right then to share the W.E.A.K. book with him and show him what happened with the Potter family, but remained seated next to him, giving him time to gather his thoughts and emotions, as well as collecting herself.
The night sky was devoid of clouds after one in the morning, the stars shone and the quarter-moon illuminated the grounds. The Gryffindor Tower's roof provided an extensive view over the eastern shore of the Black Lake, a large part of the Forbidden Forest and the steep, jagged mountains to the north. If they were so inclined, they could climb around the shingled roof and watch the entire castle, its cosy courtyards and several distinct towers making Hogwarts a remarkable place to see.
"I didn't even knew their names, Hermione..."
"Mum and dad's. Lily and James, my middle name is actually my dad's name," he said in awe, bringing a soft smile to her face.
Every few minutes, Harry released tiny bits of information. Painful memories and horrible feelings he would have never shared with anyone, had he not met Hermione and made her his personal guardian angel. She was different in the flesh, in fact he had resigned himself to believing she was a dream until meeting her again inside the Hogwarts Express, but she cared for him, liked him and promised to befriend him for as long as they lived. It was a promise he would cherish forever.
"So you see, they are the ones who truly hate magic. They hate anything and everything that goes against their perfect little lives... I'd be very sad if you became anything like them," he added, finally looking at his friend.
Harry was startled at finding her face so close to his own. He hadn't felt their bodies touching side by side until then either, and despite flinching initially, he found the strange sensation to be both pleasant and soothing.
"I take it the dormitory room is quite an improvement over a spidery cupboard, then?"
Hermione's light comment dispelled whatever fears Harry had. "She'll run away from me. She'll hate or pity me for being such a weakling," were the fears that circled his thoughts while he spilled his secrets on top of the tower. But she didn't. She accepted his past as it was, a part of him much like him possibly being a Parselmouth, a true freak among wizards.
"Definitely! Though I do miss playing this game I called racing spiders," he said with a chuckle and a genuine smile.
She laughed and threw her head back, finally looking back at him. Blushing and fiddling with the hem of her cloak, she spoke softly again. "Can I-- Would you mind if I held your hand?" He didn't mind, and now it was his turn to listen to her life story.
* * * * * * *
Dawn arrived a few hours later to shine upon the moist red shingles topping the round tower, dew droplets reflecting like diamonds over a velvet cloth. The sun also illuminated a couple of children hugged together and sleeping side by side, wrapped under their cloaks and resting their heads on a pair of wrinkled, rolled-up black pointy hats. It was a measure of their mutual trust and friendship that they fell into an innocent embrace after confessing their secrets and fears, sharing their joys and dreams, both awake and asleep at the same time.
He was first to open his eyes and feel his arm numbed by added weight, the presence of his friend enveloped by him making it clear that last night wasn't a dream. The feelings running through him were far from uncomfortable, but they were absolutely foreign to him. What was this? How much had he failed to learn in his deficient childhood with the Dursleys?
Harry knew of sadness, fear, even hate; but he also knew there were words such as love, joy, and happiness. There were hundreds of years of gorgeous music based on those emotions! And yet he wondered if he could actually say "I know what love is," for he soon realized his relatives had none for him. Perhaps once, as a very young child, he had even loved his uncles and, while shuddering at the thought, had also loved his cousin Dudley in some way.
Falling asleep lulled by Hermione's soft lecturing made him feel secure. After a long week of insecurities, fears, dangerous beasts and meddling adults, listening to her explain the stars and constellations above was comforting and cleansing. Knowing she cared for him without reservations was more wonderful than being told he wasn't worthless or that he was actually a wizard. Yes, right now he knew exactly what happiness is.
The unexpected yelp brought his attention to the bushy haired friend still in his arms, who was now squirming and covering her face with the collar of her robes. He watched her bury half her face under her robes and detach herself from him.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Hmmm? I don't understand..."
"I'll be right back," she said and plopped a kiss on his cheek before lifting the trapdoor and sliding back inside the castle.
Harry had never been kissed before, and right then he knew exactly what joy is.
The flaring torches along the bare walls of the passage leading down to the Gryffindor Common Room were probably useless, Hermione thought, because her blushing Weasley-hair-shade glowing face would suffice to light up the darkest of nights. "What was I thinking?" she berated herself, trying to ease her frantic breathing, "I kissed him!"
She lifted the tapestry that covered the inconspicuous door leading up the roof slightly and, after checking the common room was empty, ran across the circular lounge and up the girls' stairway to the lavatory. Stuffing her mouth with Twinkling Teeth mouth cleaning potion and unsuccessfully brushing her hair, Hermione dumped the potion in the sink and washed her face, darted into her room and silently browsed for the Wizengamot report that contained an explanation of what happened to the Potter family in Godrics Hollow, among many other victims of You-Know-Who.
The fancy magical alarm clock on Lavender's bedside table ticked six minutes after six in the morning, Lavender herself was snoring deeply while her arm hung limply over the side of the bed, and Hermione remembered the curious procurement she had requested of her, hoping she'd receive an answer today.
Tiptoeing out of the room, she sped downstairs again and dashed under the tapestry of the ancient castle held under siege by wizards mounted on flying cows, ignoring the squeaks she assumed were coming from her shoes over the polished floor. A single train of thought dominated her mind then, "Headmaster Dumbledore never gave his reasons for isolating Harry, he apologized but never explained." She had hoped it would all become clear after listening to Harry's recount of what the old wizard spoke to him in private and all that happened while she was in the Infirmary and in Astronomy class, but there were too many mysteries and unexplained motives.
They had opened themselves to one another on top of the tower, confessing embarrassing moments, retelling their greatest pains and sharing their dreams together. Hermione was pleasantly surprised when Harry praised her for being a hero, after she told him about her incident with smugglers that landed her in Manchester. They also came to the conclusion Mrs Morewitt was most likely hit with a petrificus totalus spell that evening, and the oddly dressed people she saw must have been Ministry Officers.
She opened the trapdoor and found him facing the sunrise, knees against his chest and closed eyelids, humming a melody. Not wanting to interrupt his obvious momentary peace, she sat behind him and waited.
"You're the real hero," she had told him last night, "you saved an entire world from evil!" But Harry had negated that completely, shaking his head and frowning. He said he wasn't because he had no choice in the matter, unlike her conscious decision to expose the exotic animal trafficking ring. "Perhaps I've been appointed to be a hero, but you've earned it yourself," he spoke, and Hermione understood the difference in his mind.
"Hullo, feel better now?"
She nodded and showed him the book in her hands.
"Is that the report where my... Where it says what happened to t-them?" he asked, and she nodded again, not daring to say anything further. "Wait right here for me!" Harry said and carefully crawled up to the trapdoor. He seemed unsure for a second and turned back, looking at her face mere inches away, but his neck and cheeks went red and he hastily escaped into the tower.
Yawning all the way back to his shared bedroom, Harry retrieved his photo album from under the pillow, took a brief detour into the lavatory to freshen up and tried to tame his hair to no avail, before sprinting back to the roof. He wondered if they'd be able to stand a full day of classes, having slept little more than an hour, and was thankful today was a Friday. Harry prayed to the heavens that wizards didn't have to study on Saturdays.
"I want you to meet them," he announced and slid to a rest beside Hermione, who almost jumped out of her skin, not having heard his return.
"You scared me to death!" she yelled and swatted him on the arm. "Are you always this stealthy?"
He shrugged and answered that "when the people you live with want you to be invisible, it comes naturally." He forgot to mention it was a good skill to avoid his cousin's favourite game of Harry Hunting too.
"Whom do you wish me to--"
"Them," he said, and opened the album's first page, where his family stood together.
Hermione gasped and looked at the assembled people, who in turn looked up at her with a curious expression. She analysed them one by one, noticing family resemblance and their respective apparent age, linking the Harry sitting next to her to the photographed wizards. "Is that... Is that you?" she asked, pointing at the chubby baby wearing a tiny pointy hat.
Shifting on his sitting place, Harry mumbled affirmatively, embarrassed at the picture of himself.
"Oh Harry, you look so cute!"
Harry wished he could somehow become invisible right then. Or perhaps he could climb to the top of the biggest and tallest tree in the Forbidden Forest and stay there until next year, or share the bottom of the Black Lake with the Giant Squid for a couple of seasons; those would be decent places to hide for a while, he pondered.
While Hermione sat browsing through more pictures of "cute baby Harry", he was silently reading the pages she had bookmarked for him. She kept looking at him out of the corner of her eyes, trying to gauge his reactions and read his face. Would he be devastated or simply ignore the events described? Was she doing him harm instead of good by showing him these truths? Or should she have hidden this from him? So many questions, but after last night, secrets would only hinder their friendship.
"It says here that a fiddlers charm was broken and it allowed Dumbledore to find my home?"
"Let me read. No, Harry, it says a fidelius charm failed, it's probably some kind of protection. And Professor Dumbledore was first to arrive, yes. That's his testimony you're reading..."
"But I'm sure Hagrid hinted he was the one that found me," he argued and continued to read.
Hermione was softly sniggering at a picture showing baby Harry floating on a tiny toy broomstick, when he closed the book with a snap. "You said these reports are restricted?"
"Yes, Mrs Morewitt was very reluctant to let me purchase it. I actually found it underneath a knut-a-piece misprinted run of Muggle Microbes and How to Find Them, and a toppled-over tower of Hogwarts: A History edition of 1789. The Earmarked Parlour was asking for five knuts each or a discount offer of two for seven knuts only on those! Can you believe that?"
"Er... Yes? I mean no?"
She laughed heartily at his indecision, closed the beautiful photo album and adopted a more serious expression. Too many things didn't add up, in her life and in his, and being the methodical person she was, she began formulating a plan to organize and plan their quest for answers.
"You can keep the book and read it later. Alone, if you feel it's better..."
"No, we'll read it together," he said with determination, "I won't understand half of what's written here anyway."
"Breakfast then?" she asked and stood up.
"And a shower!" he added, making them laugh.
Hermione and Harry left the tower's roof and exited from behind the tapestry, thankfully ignored by the few sleepy Gryffindors wandering about the common room. He forgot to ask her how on God's name had she found this passageway, but would rather ask whenever they find themselves alone again.
She glanced back at him before going up the girls' stairway, beaming at him with a blinding smile. Chiding herself for almost tripping on the first steps, Hermione bounced upstairs and wrenched her bedroom door open, coming face to face with her room-mates.
"We want to know where you've been all night long," Parvati told her, almost singing the last few words and wiggling her dark eyebrows.
"Busted!" Hermione thought and inwardly cringed. "Well... There was a... Uhm... A troll! Yes, there was a troll inside the castle and... And..."
"And?" asked Lavender, fully awake for the first time at such an early hour.
"And... Well, would you believe that a gigantic three-headed dog tried to eat me for dinner?" she asked pitifully, knowing they wouldn't believe that last factual truth either.
Parvati and Lavender laughed, dismissed her and shook their heads. They left Hermione standing in the middle of the room, wondering if she was going to be accused to some prefect on duty, or worse, to her Head of House. Without time to waste, she grabbed a set of clean clothes and went for a bath after her fellow Gryffindors.
Breakfast was a stressful affair. While Ron had pulled Harry to sit by his side, leaving Hermione opposite them across the table, Lavender and Parvati had squeezed the bushy haired girl in between them. Ron was constantly glaring at Harry, and he was starting to feel annoyed at his relentless questioning.
"Blimey Harry, why won't you tell me where that phoenix came from?"
"Because. I. Don't. Know!" he answered, again, angrily squashing a perfect toast Hermione had been eyeing for some time before Harry beat her to it from the bread basket.
"And where did Dumbledore keep you all night?"
"We only spoke like fifteen minutes after you found me inside that birdcage--"
"Some birdcage," Ron grumbled, "that was the bloody Phoenix Dome!"
"Shhh! Ron, please! Dumbledore asked us to keep it quiet, remember?"
"Yeah, yeah..." the red-head said waving a dismissing hand. "Then what were you doing all night?"
"I believe it's none of your business, Ron. Can't you see Harry doesn't feel comfortable talking about it?"
"Who asked you? Keep your bossy nose aw--"
"Fine!" Harry yelled and hit his closed fist over the table.
He pulled Ron to his feet and motioned Hermione to follow them outside, through the main doors and onto the weathered stone steps. He made them sit on them and paced up and down, scratching the back of his head.
"Headmaster Dumbledore, Harry."
"Fine then, Headmaster Dumbledore apologized to me for trying to separate me from you guys, but he didn't give any reason for it. As for the phoenix, he said it was his familiar named Fawkes, and that the bird had given me a very special privilege, whatever that means..."
"Really?" Hermione asked, excited curiosity written all over her face.
"Yeah. And as to where I've been all night," Harry looked at Hermione, who tensed her shoulders, "I spent it with Hermione, we talked and looked over some books till morning on the tower."
Harry expected the freckled boy to be annoyed, but the look of incredulity on Ron's face almost made him laugh. As it was, he barely managed to suppress it into a smile.
"You've been up all night talking t-to... To a girl?" Ron sputtered and pointed at the aforementioned girl, "Gross!"
Hermione crossed her arms on her chest and huffed, muttering "Honestly!" under her breath while Harry laughed and felt relieved that his friend hadn't noticed the preposition "on" instead of "in" the tower. For the first time in his life, Harry was grateful for Ms Vowel's English Language classes, because the roof over Gryffindor Tower would remain his and her secret for as long as he could keep it that way.
"And-- And reading books? Mental!" Ron added and stood up, patting Harry's back as if pitying him before telling them breakfast was getting cold and they should return to the table.
The bespectacled boy looked at the brown-eyed girl still sitting on the steps, extended his hand to her, blushed and helped her up. They shared a shy smile and, releasing their joined hands, walked side by side back into the Great Hall.
Helping himself to some eggs and sausage, Harry watched Professor McGonagall approaching and began to wonder what sort of trouble he was into now, when he remembered the scuffle during flying lesson yesterday. His shoulders slumped and he saw Hermione looking at him curiously, when all of the sudden the golden orb he had snatched out of the air in the strange office where he first saw Fawkes zoomed by his field of vision again.
He snapped his left arm up and grabbed it with barely a glance, feeling the same cold feeling up his arm and over his entire body, only this time the blue glow was quite stronger, almost blinding. The Gryffindor table fell silent immediately and someone dropped a fork, its clanging denoting the stillness around them.
"Mr Potter?" asked the Head of House from behind him, and Harry turned to see the most foreign smile in her usually stern face. He let go of the small sphere and it flew into Professor McGonagall's hand, where it shone brightly as well.
The older witch looked undecided for a second, she glanced up at the Staff Table and then tossed the object in Hermione's direction. She was startled and fumbled with it, but finally caught the golden orb with both hands, feeling a tingling up her arms making her shiver a little. It glowed as strongly as it did inside Harry's fist.
"Ms Granger, would you mind delivering the item in your hands to our esteemed headmaster? I'll escort Mr Potter to my office, and he'll join you soon for Divination class. Mr Wood, if you please?" she added and a tall, burly boy left the table, wearing a maniacal glint in his eyes Harry didn't enjoy too much.
Hermione nodded and excused herself. She walked up to Headmaster Dumbledore, holding the beaming sphere between her fingers. Upon her arrival, his expression was that of amazement, and Hermione had to look behind her back to see if there was anything out of the ordinary happening in the Great Hall.
Finding nothing strange, she turned to face the aged headmaster and told him Professor McGonagall had asked her to deliver the orb in her hand. Dumbledore extended his pale, long fingers and took the glowing sphere from her. It shone even brighter and she needed to turn her eyes away from it, until the old wizard placed the object inside his robes.
"Thank you Ms Granger," he said and looked at her above his half-moon spectacles. He shuffled the pointed hat over his head and lifted a white eyebrow at her. "Is there anything else?"
She gasped and looked down at her suddenly very interesting boots, "No sir! Sorry sir," she said and excused herself. Truth was, she had been remembering a certain gnome from her aunt Claire's front yard, the one wearing those same eyeglasses, identical beard and a similar hat, but she wasn't going to share that particular memory with the powerful Headmaster of Hogwarts.
Thinking of the suspicions Harry had been subjected to, suspicions that took a magical creature's intervention to put to rest, flooded Hermione's mind with possibilities and outcomes. Why did Professor Snape say he was after something, looking for it? Whatever it is, could it be related with the trapdoor Fluffy was guarding?
Nothing made sense, a phoenix is inherently drawn towards purity, goodness, and though she believed Harry embodied those qualities, he also had a very nasty temper and didn't hesitate to swing back, despite offering a forgiving hand first. Why did it take a phoenix to change Headmaster Dumbledore's opinion of him, then? And why Harry and not someone else?
Then there was the mirror and Harry's mother and father. Hermione was proud of her rationality, one of the things she tended to object about most people was their tendency to believe anything and everything without following proper logic and methodology for proving something as true or false. She frowned specially upon faith and religion. Not even the life-altering revelation that magic exists shook her staunch mentality, for even magic had a set of natural laws that bind it with the universe and gives it shape. James and Lily Potter in the mirror weren't real. Not even ghosts were properly dead but a pale and sorrowful echo of the people they once were, stuck on Earth and ever faced with the eternal question, or perhaps too fearful of it.
As she had soon discovered, the magical world faced the same questions that the muggle world did regarding the meaning of life and the existence of life beyond death.
She understood humanity's need for the divine, but god was nothing more than a convenient superstition to her. Hermione strived to know the world around her and the greater her knowledge, the lesser her need for tokens of all-powerful entities was.
Hermione finished her breakfast deep in thought, but still carefully selecting, cutting and dicing the food she ate. Harry had taken the only acceptable toast available, and she settled for a bowl of fruit instead. Gulping a well-shaken glass of pumpkin juice, she mused over large offices guarded by gargoyles, magical mirrors, and a singing phoenix that brought her friend into an strange room they didn't even know for certain was inside Hogwarts itself or somewhere else.
She laughed thinking that if this trend continued, they'd be facing more magical beasts than any Care of Magical Creatures syllabus could ever prepare them for! Ignoring the stares around her, she sighed when a blonde boy between goons arrived to cast a shadow over her finished breakfast plate.
"Tsk, tsk, Potter must be packing his trunk by now," the Malfoy boy drawled, "and you will be next to go, along with the rest of the mudblood filth!"
"Shut up, Malfoy!" hissed Ron from across the table.
"Afraid of losing your only chance at befriending someone to leech from, Weasel?"
"Don't call me weasel!"
"Is there a problem, little brother?" a couple of larger shadows asked from behind the Slytherin trio, while Hermione continued to ignore the insults flying over her head.
The Weasley twins waved their wands about, crossed their arms, and glared at Crabbe, Goyle and Malfoy, who raised his nose and left, not without first commenting on the stench of poverty and filth. The bullies didn't understand the cause of such raucous laughter following their departure, because they couldn't see that their robes and cloaks were wide open in the back, effectively exposing their pale buttocks to the entire Great Hall population.
"Honestly, you two!" Hermione reprimanded the twins, shielding her eyes from the trio of offending lower cheeks but failing to stifle her own laughter. She shook her head and watched the Slytherins trying to cover themselves and retreating towards their own table with their backs against the wall.
The morning owls arrived as they did every morning, bringing newspapers, letters and parcels to the hundreds of pupils in Hogwarts. One small brown owl with large, proud reddish-brown irises arrived holding parchment rolls and several muggle envelopes in its very small beak. "Scriptor! Thanks for bringing me these," Hermione spoke to the owl, and gave it a large portion of bread.
"What are those?" asked Ron, pointing at the white rectangular envelopes.
"And what are those drawings on them?"
"Stamps, Ron. This is how muggles know you've paid for mail delivery service."
By then Hermione was surrounded by Parvati and Lavender, who'd never seen a muggle envelope before, as well as Ron, Neville and finally Seamus, who had once delivered a letter using muggle Royal Mail but didn't understand that the stamps are supposed to be glued outside the envelope, not enclosed within it.
"Cool! I didn't know owls picked Royal Mail too," Dean said over the huddled students.
"That's because-- Lavender, stop opening my mail! That's because they don't, Dean. This a favour from a witch friend of mine who has access to a muggle address," Hermione explained, slapping Lavender's hand away again. "Now shoo! All of you, or else we'll be late for Divination!"
She waved her classmates away and stood up, storing all her letters inside her robe and picking her rucksack from the floor. The references to find the Divination classroom indicated they needed to walk to the highest floor on the west wing of the castle, find the portrait of the Oracle Octavia O'Malley, and then turn right and upstairs.
Doing as instructed, she soon found no further steps but a rope ladder leading up to the ceiling and into a trapdoor. She sincerely hoped no three-headed dogs were waiting for her up there.
"Do you reckon we're supposed to climb?" Ron asked.
"Looks like it, unfortunately."
Ron grumbled and pushed Neville up first, then climbed and looked down at Hermione, who told him to go on because she would wait for Harry and ask him what happened with Professor McGonagall.
"I'm so excited! I can't wait to see my future!" exclaimed Lavender who had just arrived with Parvati.
"You can't really tell a person's future, only infer possibilities. And that's assuming you possess all encompassing knowledge of the universe, something that's actually impossible for a human being," Hermione retorted, already feeling anxious at the prospect of Divination and its lack of credibility.
Alone by the base of the ladder, Hermione sighed and climbed, finding herself nose to nose with a strange witch wearing the thickest spectacles she'd ever seen. Her hair was dishevelled and she wore heaps of necklaces and bracelets, noticing pendants and symbols for protection and good fortune, among fertility tokens and even a plastic "smiley" she must have found somewhere in the muggle world.
"As I foresaw, the last to enter these divining walls, from another world is!" the witch said, turning her head around to face the seated pupils.
"Of course, all you had to do was look downstairs to see me alone waiting for Harry. And only a muggle-born would recognize that," she said, indicating the yellow smiling face with her eyes.
"So young and naïve... This is why I've pleaded with Albus three years ago not to give First and Second Years such a tremendous gift of developing their inner eye!"
Hermione placed a polite smile in her face and asked for permission to find a seat among the pouffes inside the draped, shadowed and incense-filled room. Joining a nervous looking Lisa Turpin and Parvati's identical Ravenclaw twin around a low table with a crystal ball in the middle, she took her parchment and quill out and kept waiting for Harry's messy hair to pop up through the closed trapdoor.
Class proved to be everything she feared it would be, and more. Fortune telling and future gazing by solving Teen Witch Weekly's last page puzzles wast the last straw, and she vowed to drop Divination as soon as her Third Year begun.
The trapdoor swivelled up, and a male voice spoke. "Excuse me Professor Trelawney, I have a--"
"Say no more, child... Yes, Harry Potter is excused from today's lesson, and please be sure to tell Professor McGonagall to mind her hat today?"
"Er... Certainly, professor," the boy answered and bowed. He excused himself again and the trapdoor closed.
The assembled class gasped and began murmuring among themselves, while Hermione crossed her arms in annoyance. Of course Professor Trelawney concluded this, since the only missing pupil from her name list was Harry! And only her Head of House has authority to write a pass and ask an upperclassman to deliver it. She couldn't believe such gullibility.
Taking her time to exit the stifling room, Hermione rolled her eyes at some of the girls' commentaries, but decided to keep her thoughts to herself. It was bad enough that even Lisa scowled at her for saying a crossword puzzle from Teen Witch Weekly was so random and disconnected from reality that nothing could be inferred from it regarding one's immediate future.
She really had no social skills, and this first week of school only served to prove that no matter what world she lived in, she'd always be an opinionated outcast. Perhaps that's the reason she felt so at ease with Harry, for he was victim to his fame and prowess, making him unreachable and different from everyone else, even though his greatest desire was to be "just Harry" as he confessed in the wee small hours of today.
A broad smile threatened to split her face when she descended the ladder. Harry was standing against the banister, surrounded by the four Gryffindor boys and gesticulating with his arms, explaining something to them.
"... and then Oliver just called me back to the ground and McGonagall sent me back up here," Harry told them.
"But-- But that's impossible! I mean you'd be the youngest seeker in like a thousand years!" Ron said, and Harry's smile doubled.
"In a century, actually. Give or take a few years."
Harry noticed Hermione and walked over to her, his eyes were sparkling despite the large bags given their lack of sleep and she noticed the happiness etched on his face. "Guess what?" he asked her.
"I realize I've just had Divination, but I can tell you immediately that it's all really woolly! I can only guess the meeting with Professor McGonagall went well?"
"She offered me a spot in the quidditch team! McGonagall saw me fly and catch your silver thingie yesterday and said I've got a natural talent for it!"
She tilted her head, looking curiously at him for a second, before opening her mouth to speak, "Harry, are you--"
"I know, Hermione..."
"I know, and I'm not falling for it again," he told her, silently conveying the fact he wasn't going to blindly trust someone like he did with Mr Harper. He would embrace his talent for flying as he did with music, but on his own terms.
"Will it make you happy?" she asked, although the answer was plain to see on his face.
"Very much, yeah. But I haven't decided yet."
"What about your music? Did you ask Mrs McGonagall if there's any possibility for continuing your piano studies?"
"That was the only request I had. Oliver didn't understand it, you see, but he insisted I should play after watching me catch this flying golden thing with wings... Ron, what's the name of that thing again?"
"It's called a snitch, and you have to play! I mean what's there to think about?" Ron told him, shaking his head.
As the group left the castle for Care of Magical Creatures, Hermione asked for clarification on who Oliver was and Harry explained he was the Gryffindor Quidditch Team Captain. He also explained that although there was no music club in Hogwarts except for the choir and its accompanying toads, their Head of House would be providing a suitable instrument and a room for him to play. It was part of the arrangement and the only condition he put forward before deciding to accept or decline his role in the Quidditch Team.
Harry was happy. No, it was more than that, it was the same feeling he had when his friend kissed the side of his face on the roof. It was joy. He also felt better about himself after confessing eleven years of his life; the good, the bad and the strange.
She had listened without interrupting or passing judgement. Not only that, but Hermione had actually found him worthy of listening to her own life! She was older than him by nine months and a veritable genius, someone who could tell you everything about anything you asked. He didn't understand her passion for people's equality and animal rights, however, but then again he hadn't been raised around animals nor had experienced much of the world beyond Privet Drive itself and Mrs Figg's house.
Walking slightly behind Hermione, flanked by Neville and Ron, who was hysterically trying to convince Harry to join the team as well as explaining the rules and intricacies of Quidditch, he continued to mull over his before dawn experience with the amazing bushy haired girl. Was it proper for him to spend time with her? Probably not, if Ron's reaction to it was any indication. Yet it felt right to be wanted, to know he was important to someone, and that was enough for him.
* * * * * * *
Spending detention along with Ron, Neville and Hermione was customary by now, and despite the fact they were forbidden from speaking to each other while scrubbing nasty cauldrons and dirty dungeon floors, Harry and the boys and girl whom he now considered true friends had developed a strange way of communicating and sharing things in silence.
Ron had grown tired of Harry's constant excuses and apologies, finally whacking him on the head with a filthy floor brush while telling him he was fine with it all, as well as mouthing the word quidditch again, hoping to convince him to take the Seeker spot in the Gryffindor team. Neville had gone over his shyness to actually laugh at the scene, but had stopped abruptly upon Professor Snape's swooping entry into the dank part of the dungeon they were scrubbing.
After about an hour of work, Hermione arched her back to pop her spinal vertebrae back together, and caught a glimpse of Ron's perfect imitation of the uninspiring flobberworm they'd been assigned to capture and feed before lunch in Care of Magical Creatures. He was laying on the floor half asleep and inching his way forward with one soapy brush in each hand. Harry and she weren't much more awake either and her eyelids were drooping, blurring her vision.
She glanced back at Neville and he grinned at Ron's impersonation before turning back to inspect the area he had just finished cleaning. Professor Snape looked up from the precision weighing scales catalogue he'd been browsing and watched the time, three minutes to seven in the evening, before casting a sneer in Harry's direction and unabashedly using the point of his left shoe for tipping a bucket of muddy potions gone bad all over the floor in front of him.
Not soon enough the quartet found itself relaxing and recomposing their bodies in the common room, but their lack of privacy prevented openly talking about their week full of adventure and discoveries, or mysteries rather. While fighting sleep and trying to keep their heads from rolling back instead, they discussed how interesting Ramified Magic with Professor Ismail Almohacid had been. As a fairly recent subject to be integrated into the Hogwarts curriculum, Ramified Magic was poorly structured and the syllabus quite condensed, much like the Defence Against the dark Arts was.
"I'd reckon wand magic was the only important kind, uh?"
"Yes, but it'd be nice to know more. The professor said there's a whole lot of wizards that use rituals instead of wands."
"But that's not very practical, is it?" Hermione said and yawned, "However the whole concept of..." Another yawn. "...Of magicks related to the elements and using crystals was..." Double yawn. "...Was very interesting."
Harry released a string of yawns to rival Hermione's and shook his head to try and clear his mind, but finally gave up and simply slumped back into the sofa, closing his eyes and leaving consciousness altogether. Ron snapped his fingers on his face and poked him in the ribs, but gave up with a chuckle and a shrug.
Neville and Hermione laughed as well, and the Gryffindor girl nagged the remaining boys to finish their work before twirling on her feet and leaving for her own bedroom. The last she heard from the common room was a rude comment regarding her being a, in Ron's words, bloody nightmare.
In another time, in another world, the rude name-calling and derogatory words directed at her would've caused much more than the deep disappointment they did now, because even if she was half expecting them, they still hurt, and they still opened unhealed wounds far deeper than the scar marring her body. She threw her things over the end of the bed and curled around a pillow, plunging into the eerie world of dreams.
* * * * * * *
First weekend at Hogwarts became, as expected, a one of a kind experience. Harry woke with a terrible cramp in his neck around four o'clock Saturday morning to find himself bent over the side of a sofa, an arm sprawled over the floor and missing one of his shoes.
"Morning! Sssleep well?"
"Whaaa... Ouch!" he yelled after toppling over and landing spread-eagled on the deep red shaggy rug.
Spitting lint and hairs of indistinct origin, he pat the ground looking for his eyeglasses, dismissing a broken quill and some candy wrappers before feeling his unmistakeable round black frames. Able to see clearly again, he stood up and looked around the darkened common room for the snake voice that greeted him.
Blacksnout was curled by the hearth, basking in the faint warm coming from the embers in it. But what intrigued him was the animal's appearance.
"What happened to your legsss?" Harry asked.
"There wasss thisss deliciousss looking rat deep inside a hole in the wall, but I couldn't reach it because of my legsss," the boa explained, "then they sssimply disssappeared!"
"Oh bother! Pleassse tell me you didn't eat Ssscabbersss!"
"Nah, red-haired babakuara's foul-sssmelling rat livesss. A boa keepsss itsss promisssessss! Sssay, did I ever tell you about the rattle-sssnake in the cage next to me? That wasss a dumb reptile if I've ever ssseen one, it managed to..."
Harry tuned out the boa's gossip and began looking for his missing shoe, finding it on a shelf between the bronze bust of Godric Gryffindor and an old brass chandelier whose candles were still lit. He picked it and Gryffindor's head frowned at him, but Harry simply shrugged in apology and struggled to put the shoe on while jumping on one foot back and forth to keep his balance.
He began to pace the room, thinking about the decision he needed to make regarding Quidditch, as well as pondering the many mysteries he was faced with. An apologetic Headmaster, possible animagus traits, a trapdoor guarded by a ferocious beast and a crazy firebird dominated his thoughts. His feet guided him to the hidden passageway and ladder leading to the tower roof but found it already occupied after lifting the trapdoor. Hermione was there.
"Morning Hermione," he greeted, plopping down by her left side, but a few inches back. Harry still wouldn't approach the edge of the tall tower so confidently as she did.
"Hello," she greeted back, but didn't lift her face from her crossed arms resting on her bent knees.
"I came here to think a bit, I didn't know you--"
"I'll leave you to it then, Harry," she said and made to stand up.
Surprised by her reply and impeded by the early morning darkness, he failed to notice the dried tear streaks on her face. Instead, Harry looked up at her retreating back wondering what happened. He wasn't good with words but his body could act upon that which he couldn't express.
Holding her arm and pulling her to him before she could leave, he awkwardly climbed a few feet up the conic roof with her on tow, until the steep angle forced them to stop and sit. Harry looked up at the pole bearing the fluttering Gryffindor House banner before locking eyes with hers and commanding her to speak. "Tell me."
"I'm horrible! Ron hates me. Neville fears me. The girls think I'm a fre-- I mean, that I'm strange," she corrected, avoiding the word freak he loathed so much. "Would you hate me too? If we... I we hadn't met a-all those years ago?" she asked between choked sobs.
"No, I wouldn't hate you... And Hermione, I don't think you're horrible..."
Silence ensued and she seemed to calm down after a while since her breathing returned to normal, so Harry took the chance to talk with her about all that was troubling him regarding the Headmaster and his phoenix, the lack of information on animagi and Fluffy's odd guardian duty. They discussed theories and ideas until first rays of sunlight, by which time they had agreed that his intentional isolation on behalf of the school staff and Fluffy's secret must be related, since Snape was so adamant about him being after something that night.
"Please don't take this the wrong way Harry, but I'm certain of it. It's the only explanation for what happened."
"He believes I'm evil then?"
Hermione chewed her lower lip for a few seconds, before replying. "No, I don't presume to know what Professor Snape believes, but I heard him referring to you as if you were--"
She stopped talking and Harry waved a hand in front of her face, trying to get her attention back.
"Quit doing that!" she said in a huff, "Do you remember when Professor McGonagall brought us before the older wizards that banished those flashy sock-hangers of yours?"
"Ha, ha. Funny you," Harry replied with a scowl, wondering what that particular evening, when the effects of his outburst in Potions were finally removed from their bodies, had to do with anything. "Yeah, I remember. Why?"
"They were looking at your forehead, Harry. Not only at your antlers, but at your fore-- And that's when he said you were possessed!"
Her last word struck him hard, and Harry squirmed down the moist shingles. He didn't understand her reasoning but possession was an unsettling word by itself, let alone when combined with a suspicion of being evil.
"The Headmaster cut Professor Snape's words short, but how... How could a professor be so... So prejudiced and unkind!" she raved, flailing her arms around in wide circles.
"Hermione, I don't follow what you're talking about." Harry was feeling embarrassed next to the workings of Hermione's sharp mind. He never spent much time memorizing or understanding the world around him, even a simple school assignment was a challenge for him! Surely the pressure of never achieving higher grades than Dudley was a contributing factor, but he'd been much happier creating music or admiring beautiful melody anyway. The rationality and deep thought the girl sitting next to him displayed was beyond his grasp in his opinion, and he was quite uncomfortable not being able to keep up with her.
Watching the confusion in her friend's eyes, Hermione berated herself for always jumping to conclusions without considering other people's insight, unable to ask for other points of view. "Always a dork," she mumbled, ashamed of ignoring Harry in something that was affecting him primarily.
Because other children always taunted her habits and her looks, she would constantly retreat inside her mind and her books. But now she had a true friend in Harry, a boy who could create beautiful music! Not just repeat and dissect the world around him like she did, but actually make something amazing come out of nowhere! She admired him for his art and felt sad for being so below him, yet eternally grateful for his friendship despite her self-perceived deficiencies.
"Mind you, I'm beginning to believe that Professor Snape and Headmaster Dumbledore concluded you were evil and possessed because of your scar and survival from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. That is until Fawkes befriended you, which proved beyond doubt you're neither evil nor possessed!"
"So..." Harry replied, "When he apologized for isolating me, he was actually apologizing for thinking me as evil as Voldemort?"
"Honestly Harry, must you keep repeating that name?" she reprimanded him, crossing her arms.
"Why not? It's just a name isn't--"
"Wrong, it isn't just a name. When I asked my friend Miranda, she told me saying that name would summon the very dark wizard himself to one's home!"
"Well he's either gone for good or dead, 'cause I've said Voldemort lots of times and my parents' murderer hasn't come a-knocking on my door," Harry said.
Hermione bit her lip again, for she had no real verification of her claim. Despite her usual rationality, the fear the darkest wizard of all times and his followers had instilled upon the magical world had made her accept Mrs Morewitt's brief and reluctant explanation as true, and the fact the very text of the Wizengamot Enquiries book neglected to call him by name further helped her assimilate that fear.
"I'm sorry Hermione. I didn't mean to upset you."
She looked at him with a surprised face, because she couldn't find a flaw in his argument. The only unanswered question was this dark wizard's ultimate fate, but like Harry said, it's only a name. "I'm not upset, and... And you're ri-- I mean your conclusion is sound, and I'll do my best not to fear that name."
"What name?" he asked with a mischievous glint in his eyes and a smile.
"You know, him!"
"Urgh! Fine, his name is... His name's V-voldemort! There, I said it," she huffed, but then her eyes widened. "V-voldie... Voldemort is simply a name, and if I can name my fear... Oh Harry, you're a genius!"
Knocked out by a fierce hug and struggling to breathe, he fell back and slid down the roof with his friend attached to him, until planting the soles of his shoes on the edge of the trapdoor leading back into Gryffindor Tower. The ear to ear smile on his face after being praised by Hermione was reflected by an equally sincere expression on her own lips.
They untangled themselves in a flash when a loud hoot passed over their heads, the white plumage blocking the rising sun giving the owl a unique ethereal look. Harry extended his arm and Hedwig landed firmly, digging its talons in his forearm.
Hedwig's sudden appearance reminded them of Fawkes, and Hermione decided it would be interesting to ask Ron and Neville everything they knew about the Phoenix Dome, as it seemed to be a wizard myth or fable and they would certainly know it by heart, much like The Joyful Gryffin and the Golden Muffin little children's tale.
The mirror inside the strange room and the petrified tree, however, were another matter. Harry felt it wasn't something he should share with anyone beyond Hermione, and besides he still had a very fuzzy recollection of what happened there in the first place.
"Did you know Blacksnout is a real snake again?" Harry asked while climbing down the ladder with his owl perched on the left shoulder.
"No, I didn't know that. He's become quite attached to you actually, given your... Er... Communication capabilities," she replied and jumped the last few steps before opening the hidden door behind the tapestry. She lifted it a little and peeked from under it, finding only a couple of early-risen seventh year boys inside the common room.
They made their way along the wall and dashed in what they though was a calm and nonplussed manner towards the large couch by the fire, when in fact they couldn't have looked guiltier. Sighing when the upperclass boys simply ignored them and left through the portrait hole, Harry picked his book bag and handed Hermione a roll of parchment, a quill and ink before she even requested it. He hadn't returned to his bedroom since the previous evening and took the chance to do so, leaving his friend to write down everything they had recently discussed.
Harry found it odd that Hedwig had come to him bearing no letters. Not that he was complaining at all since he most certainly enjoyed her company, but feeling her watching him undress for a bath was, to say the least, a novel experience. He jumped quickly into the bathtub and the self-adjusting temperature charm kicked in, making him sigh and rest his head on the porcelain edge while closing his eyes.
He heard Hedwig hoot and shake herself, and without opening his eyes easily located and followed her flight across the large lavatory, from the tall towel wardrobe to the windowsill. He examined his surroundings using his hearing only; the rustle of feathers, the faint sloshing of water against his skin, the sound of erupting fire?!
Water surrounded him in all sides but for some strange reason it allowed him to breathe. His motions were jumbled, however, and he suddenly remembered that swimming up only forced his body downwards to the impossibly green fire on the rocky bottom flooded by purple mist. With this knowledge in mind, Harry took a few calming breaths and floated freely, allowing the currents to drag him along without resisting any further.
* * * * * * *
After cross-referencing, labelling and colour-coding their many quests, Hermione began to scribble a relational chart, using her wand to enlarge and move words and concepts around, binding them with dashed or continuous lines depending on their significance. She was twirling the words "secret chamber" and linking them to both Fluffy and Fawkes when a crazed boy wearing a half-wrapped towel around his hips and sporting an unflattering soap-bubble-wig came running down the boys' stairway, yelling at the top of his lungs.
"I know what the symbol on the you-know-what where you-know-who brought me you-know-when to prove you-know-them that I'm alright is!"
She was so startled she fell off her chair, throwing quill and parchment on the air, and stared up at the almost naked lunatic jumping up and down from her low vantage point on the floor before blowing a few curls of hair from her face. "Harry? Are you feeling well?"
Hermione's eyes wandered up and down, looking over her friend's very pale and skinny figure while he bounced on his feet, until his Gryffindor emblazoned towel lost the necessary grip to stay put. She blushed madly and covered her face, but not without first concluding that Harry is most definitely and unmistakeable a boy.
Mortified beyond words, he squeaked loudly and covered himself with both hands before turning and bolting back upstairs while Hedwig swooped down and gracefully perched herself on the fireplace mantle. Hermione peeked from behind her hands, finding the room deserted again but for an owl rolling its eyes and hooting a tiny snort. She finally climbed back to her seat and organized her scattered parchments, willing her face to go down from glowing Weasley-red to an acceptable soft crimson at the very least.
She picked the discarded towel and paused, biting her lower lip and looking around the still empty common room. Deciding to borrow a page from Harry's unending impulsiveness, she dashed up to her room clutching her research in one hand and the gold-coloured drying cloth in the other, pushing the door open and tip-toeing inside in order to avoid waking her room-mates up.
Choosing her clothes for the day, she wondered if she could purchase the neatly folded towel now buried under her witch dresses and tucked reverently next to her puzzles and books. Making up her mind to speak with Mrs McGonagall before breakfast, she walked to the lavatory before that blasted magical alarm clock on Lavender's bed-side table maimed yet another line from the simple hair removal potion recited by Macbeth's Three Witches.
She briefly wondered which Lord or Lady had lost all his or her hair in the Scottish Court of the day.
Shrugging to herself and removing her cloak, Hermione strolled out of her bedroom towards the lavatory looking forward to a very long bath. One that might help remove all embarrassing visual imagery of a nude Harry and rein her mind back to the tasks at hand. Her greatest question was why. Why would the teaching staff suspect Harry of being an evil person unless they had cause to do so?
To answer that question they would have to answer many other questions first. What was, or perhaps still is, being guarded by Fluffy? Why and where was he taken by one of the most magical creatures on Earth? Did they know of his abuse in the hands of his relatives, which she was certain was worse than what Harry revealed to her? What happened to him as a baby when his parents were killed?
Not knowing how to answer any of these questions, she took a deep breath and dove under the scented, bubbly water, giggling at what Parvati and Lavender would say if they ever knew Harry had bared it all in front of her.
* * * * * * *
Harry was sure his neck would crack any moment now, and food had never been less appetizing than right now. He wished he could have stayed under his covers all day. Well, under his bed was even better. The same wish to be buried underground that surfaced when he learned of Professor McGonagall's animagus form hit him in full force again.
Sitting with his neck bent impossibly downwards, he failed to see Hermione leave her place in the table and walk to sit next to him, on the other side of Ron and in front of Neville.
"Would you mind visiting Hagrid today?" she asked, immediately drawing his attention to her.
He looked up and turned bright red, lowering his face again and moaning something nobody understood. Ron suggested he was probably speaking in Parseltongue with "that blasted snake" and Hermione knocked him on the back of his head, scolding him for language and hushing him at the same time.
"Yes, that'd be nice... A-and I'm sorry for... You know, er..."
"Never mind that," Hermione answered with blushed cheeks, "let's go now if you're finished?"
Together the four left the table and left under the watchful eye of several professors and the many distrustful glances from pupils sitting in the house tables. Hermione led them out to the grounds and paused to let her reptile familiar slide down to the tall grass, before straightening up and falling in step with Harry, who was still looking down at his feet.
"If it makes you feel better, I felt just as embarrassed as you were," she whispered.
He turned a little to face her directly and held her eyes with his. The instantaneous connection between them lasted but mere seconds, yet they managed to bypass words and twist time to last until they blinked, coming to the realization that they were able to feel comfortable with what happened despite the initial awkwardness.
Harry grinned and stood straighter, puffing his chest and drawing a chuckle from Hermione who swapped him in the back. "Don't get too full of yourself, Mr Potter," she said.
"But I thought you found me cute?"
"Yes, in that picture of you as a baby, Harry!"
He leaned closer to her, fighting the flock of baths in his belly and his galloping heart, "And now?"
With a tiny shrug and a furious blush, she looked at the scrawny boy who allowed her to witness his real self, who shared his dreams and fears. "No, now you're just pretty..."
That answer froze him where he stood and Neville bumped into Harry sending them both sprawling on the ground. The chubby boy apologized and rolled off Harry's back, with the unfortunate luck of stepping on his spectacles while doing it. The crushing sound made Neville pale and Ron burst laughing along with Hermione, who pointed her wand to them and incanted "reparo".
They helped the boys off the ground and continued down to Hagrid's, knocking on his oversized door. When nobody answered, they looked around and heard the sound of shovels and barking coming from the other side of the hut.
Harry held them back for a moment, and then one by one they peeked over a rough fence. There on a sloped area stood Hagrid, waving his pink umbrella at a set of shovels and forks that were ploughing the earth while Fang the boarhound barked at them.
"Mornin' children," he greeted back, taking enormous strides over the recently disturbed ground. "Me an' Fang been preppin' a pumpkin' patch! Oh, an' please don't tell any'un 'bout, yeh know... I'm not supposed ter be doin' magic at all..." he whispered conspiratorially.
Never one to ponder before acting, however, Harry ignored the big man's plea and blurted his question as soon as he towered over them. "Where's Fluffy?"
Hermione actually growled and slapped her forehead while Ron helped Neville from under Fang's paws, but to her surprise, Hagrid actually answered.
"Ah, don't yeh worry 'bout Fluffy, he's fine an' guarding the... Uhhh... Would yeh care fer a cuppa?"
"Guarding what, Hagrid?"
Using his big hands, he pushed the four of them inside the hut and busied himself with tea, evading any further questions, but Harry was getting angry. After he asked the same thing for the fifth time, Hermione decided it was time for a more subtle approach. She gave Harry a pointed look and his features softened, sending a tired smile back at her.
"Have you ever cared for other large creatures like that blue cerberus we met?"
"Aye, been lookin' after many creatures alright..." His beady eyes lost focus and drifted up to the ceiling at that, "Fluffy's only a couple years old, an' I've always wanted a dragon meself!"
Ron jumped on his seat and sloshed some tea, "My brother Charlie works with dragons," he said.
"Good boy Charlie! Best seeker Gryffindor's had fer years. Team's been a disaster ever since..."
"Until Harry, that is," Ron interrupted, "unless he's still stubborn about the whole bloody thing."
Ron then proceeded to tell Hagrid all about the opportunity Professor McGonagall was offering Harry, much to his annoyance, and telling him again that it would be stupid to turn the offer of being the youngest seeker in a hundred years down. Wanting to return to her subtle line of questioning, Hermione spoke before the subject of Harry's decision whether to play quidditch or not escalated.
"What are the practical uses of dragons or three-headed dogs, for instance?"
Hagrid took a moment to collect his knowledge and launched into a thorough reply including the uses of large magical creatures as sentinels, of rumours regarding mysterious sphinxes and the twelve uses of dragon blood discovered by Headmaster Dumbledore.
"Great man Dumbledore, he's been workin' with Nicolas Flamel and now Fluffy's guarding their... Errr... Uhmmm... Been' sayin' too much again, just forget I've said anythin' alright?"
Neville looked over his cup of tea with raised eyebrows, and Harry hid a smirk while Hermione continued to chat with Hagrid and Ron about dragons. A name was better than nothing, and Harry knew it was a good starting point for their quest.
He took time to think about all that happened to him the past couple of nights. Watching what could have been in the mirror had taken a toll on him, because he desired it to happen so much it hurt. Headmaster Dumbledore had confessed things to him after Fawkes allowed him out of the Phoenix Dome, once he dismissed his friends and they sat in conjured chairs under the screeching owls.
He confessed separating Harry from his friends had been a difficult decision and apologized for instructing the teaching staff to do so; he confessed seeing many people waste their lives in front of the mirror and how much it pained him to watch Harry entranced by its fake reflection. That led to a confession that the Headmaster had been following him in disguise, but lost him when Fawkes took him away in a ball of fire.
Harry had told his Headmaster that he saw his mother and father in the mirror, and laughed heartily at Dumbledore's confession that he saw himself being given a most comfortable pair of woolly socks. The older wizard then requested him and his friends to withhold information that the Phoenix Dome had been found and pointed his wand up at the bell shaped cage, causing it to shimmer and vanish from sight.
For some reason, he hadn't asked about the petrified tree nor confessed his strange dreams, and now that he knew what the coat of arms on it was thanks to Fawkes, Harry still felt compelled to keep that from the Headmaster. Besides, he had promised himself not to trust adults, wizard or muggle, ever since the only adult to have found him worthy of anything had lied and used him for his own purposes.
"Hermione must hear this first," he concluded, before sipping the last of his tea and feeling his face go red again for making a fool of himself earlier. What was he thinking, leaving the loo in a rush wearing nothing but a towel? It did have an unexpected result however, that she actually told him he was pretty!
"Eat your heart out, Dudley. Someone that isn't my mum actually likes me!" he mumbled under his breath, while accepting a refill from Hagrid.
* * * * * * *
Harry woke up with a start on Sunday, facing a reptilian triangular head with a pair of beady eyes. "Whatcha doin' here?" he hissed while rubbing his eyes.
"Abaeteh isss good to me, but can't ssspeak like you," Blacksnout replied, uncurling himself from the beam above Harry's head and sliding down to coil on top of the vacated warm pillow. "By the way, white bird came with a letter for you, sssnake whisssperer."
He glared back at the boa and it winked back. "Better than Boy-Who-Lived, I guess..." he said and stretched, pulling the curtains open and searching for his eyeglasses. Next to them was a folded piece of parchment from Head of House McGonagall, asking him to be present in front of her office at nine o'clock. Looking out the window, he calculated it was already past eight and zoomed out of the bedroom, leaving four snoring boys and one snake behind.
Meanwhile inside the first year girls' bedroom, Hermione sat with her back against the headrest writing on parchment. She was finishing several letters, the first one for her uncle Charles, one for her cousin Bernadette, another for her only muggle friend Annie and a longer one for her witch friend Mrs Morewitt.
She thanked the older witch for accepting her earlier condolences for her family, and expressed her gratitude that this knowledge would not affect their relationship. Hermione also thanked her for helping with letters addressed to muggle people, and for making the effort of keeping contact with her aunt and uncle despite the huge cultural differences.
Weighing the pros and cons of asking Miranda whether she had any knowledge of mythical phoenix dwellings or enormous fossilized trees, she added a last paragraph with a few questions on that regard. Sealing the four missives, she stacked them on her bedside table and prepared for a quick bath and breakfast with her friend.
Across the castle, three floors down, a nervous and still undecided first year Gryffindor boy paced back and forth in front of Professor McGonagall's office. He had looked at the time on the common room clock and left immediately as it ticked seven minutes to nine in the morning. He calculated no more than five minutes at a brisk pace and hoped to have arrived in time to make a good impression on his Head of House, since most if not all previous encounters were clearly disappointing for her.
"Good morning Mr Potter," she greeted and Harry jumped a little, being too consumed by his inner thoughts to notice the door opening.
"Good morning Deputy Headmistress. I received a note from you, ma'am?"
"That's correct. Walk with me," she said and strolled down the corridor, taking one flight of stairs up and turning left towards the eastern side of the fourth floor, close to the Ravenclaw dormitory if he remembered correctly.
Reaching for a door between identical doors to the right and left of the hallway, Mrs McGonagall pushed it open and stepped aside, allowing Harry to enter the larger than expected room. He gasped and stood still, slowly scanning the amphitheatre seating to his right, the arched ceiling and large, leaded glass cathedral windows facing the morning sun.
The wall to his left was lined with a couple of bookcases and a comfortable sofa under a large painting, and two white linen sheets covered the unmistakeable shapes of concert pianos. The stern professor waved her wand and uncovered the first instrument, making him whistle and turn his face up to her.
"Wow!" he exclaimed, pausing to gather his breathing, "Wow! Professor, are these conjured or...?"
"That's an original, Mr Potter. Built in 1844 by Mr Steinweg in his own Saxon workshop. It is part of Durmstrang's estate on loan to us, despite their hundred years of muggle loathing, so do be careful."
"Smaller magic school. Now this one," she said and uncovered the second grand piano with her wand, "is a modern Steinway Concert Grand Piano, a model tuned for medium-sized rooms like this one."
Mrs McGonagall then looked appraisingly at him over her lenses and straightened her robes. "Do not assume these offers are meant to force you into doing something you do not wish to, Mr Potter. These are opportunities that if other students have enough talent or interest can also participate in," she explained.
"Professor, I-- I don't know what to say..."
"I've witnessed your aptitude for quidditch, yet I haven't experienced your piano playing skills. Perhaps you could entertain your professor's request?"
Harry looked up at the stern looking witch with such a grateful expression that moved her back a few steps, then walked to the bookcase to look for a suitable music score. Running his eyes over the leather bound tomes bearing composer names, both muggle and magical, including a Musidora Barkwith he remembered hearing the Sorting Hat telling him about, he finally chose Sir Arthur Bliss.
Bliss' simplest piano sonata was an incredibly difficult piece to tackle, especially with late and interrupted training and not being a natural-born musical genius himself, but Harry learned many important things this past week. One of them being that magic requires concentration, technique and intent. Just like music.
And yet, all concentration, technique and intent wouldn't be enough to create wonderful things, in magic and in music. One needs emotion to do so.
So Harry gathered himself, remembered the feelings of happiness and joy, emotions he discovered with his guardian angel Hermione, and read the score twice for a few minutes while Professor McGonagall leaned back on a conjured chair by the centre of the room.
Watching a small boy dwarfed by the sheer size of the instrument in front of him, whose thin and frail arms would barely reach the corners of the keyboard, soaring over the opening notes of a piano sonata was eye opening.
Minerva McGonagall had been a little disappointed by young Harry Potter. He had barely arrived in Hogwarts and was already implicated in trouble, only to be found wandering the halls after hours that very same evening! Harry reacted poorly to their first encounter in class as well, displaying a lack of focus legendary to his own father, and was then given detention in his first day. Not to mention the odd transfigurations his classmates and him suffered, which she was certain were an undiscovered method of revealing animagus tendencies.
The worst came when he was caught running away from Hagrid's cerberus. What on Merlin's name was he thinking? That folly alone gave credibility to Severus' absurd suspicions, until a phoenix of all creatures kidnapped him from Albus' office. To say Harry had made an exceptional entrance into Hogwarts School was an understatement.
As was deeming his current performance to be breathtaking.
She remembered to breathe all of the sudden, steadied her jaw and closed her eyes, letting the beautiful music wash over her. This was nothing like a charmed instrument, repetitive and dull. This was an overwhelming, magical experience of the likes she had seldom participated in.
Twenty minutes later, Professor McGonagall opened her eyes to find herself surrounded by a handful of students and teachers alike, including Harry's three closest friends and Headmaster Dumbledore himself.
Harry had finished playing and was resting his hands over still pressed keys, his spectacles hanging dangerously over the tip of his nose and his messy black hair moist by the physical effort. He smiled to himself and turned right to face his solitary audience, startled at finding much more people than only Professor McGonagall sitting in the room.
The raucous applause Hermione initiated and others followed, albeit with lesser intensity, made him glow red in the face. He nervously wrung his hands and walked away to replace the music score in the bookcase, turning back to face his expanded audience and a bouncing bushy-haired girl.
"Harry that was amazing!" she told him, "We were going down to the Great Hall for breakfast and heard the music, and then Professor Dumbledore ran past us and then we found you playing and you were so focused and--"
"Hermione! Breathe," he commanded, and then shook her slightly by the shoulders.
"Oh, right... I was babbling, wasn't I? Sorry..."
Headmaster Dumbledore stood before him with a mad twinkle in his eyes and a big smile under his flowing white beard. "That was quite a masterful performance, Mr Potter. Do you realize that our own bodies make and enjoy music from conception to death, for rhythm, cadence and harmony are a part of every organic and inorganic element in the universe?"
The silence and awe around the headmaster must have been expected, because his smile only grew bigger.
"I dare say today the stars are singing, our hearts are dancing and one of the greatest magicks of old has graced these ancient halls for a short while," the old wizard concluded, tipping his pointy hat before leaving the room and disappearing beyond the door.
Magicks of old indeed, Harry believed, because somehow playing inside Hogwarts gave him a stronger connection with the castle and its magic. He could actually feel the waves of harmonic sounds reacting to something, feeding from his fingers but giving back into his body. That something must be the old magic his headmaster spoke about.
He watched a couple of older pupils leave behind Professor Sprout, who gave him a cheerful wave with her hand, and then turned to face his friends, who were enthusiastically looking and touching the two grand pianos along with Professor McGonagall.
"Mr Potter I must confess that I was somewhat sceptical of your request, however you've proven me wrong in many ways so far," Mrs McGonagall told him and waved her wand at an empty painting of a music studio. "Joseph, kommen Sie nach vorn, bitte?"
An old man wearing dark robes adorned with a single silver star hanging on his chest approached from a bench in the corner of the painted room. He had long, white hair and a severe look in his wrinkled eyes, which he focused intently on Harry.
"This is Joseph, he'll be in charge of your musical training, should you choose to continue it." Mrs McGonagall then paused and added, "It has been decades since Hogwarts had a music club... Perhaps you could inspire something in that regard?"
Leaving that question hanging in the air, the older witch exited the room and vanished down the corridor towards the Great Hall. Her departure left Harry alone with Ron, Neville, Hermione and an unnervingly quiet portrait.
Harry rounded his friends and explained the significance of the two instruments to them, and who Heinrich Steinweg, later known as Steinway was, as well as how his craftsmanship improved and evolved into the modern concert piano.
"Trials for quidditch team are scheduled for tomorrow evening," Ron insisted, "I'd reckon you better give up this piano rubbish, I mean wizards don't have do it by hand you know?"
Hermione swung her arm to clip Ron in the head, but the boy shied away and dodged the attack. "Doing it by hand is precisely why it's so amazing, Ron!" she yelled at him, "What's the point in charming an instrument to follow a music sheet if it lacks a soul behind it?"
The smile in Harry's face couldn't be broader, it was almost painful. She understood, she truly understood what it was all about.
Ron threw his arms on the air in exasperation while Neville shrugged and turned to leave. Harry picked the linen sheets from the floor and covered the pianos, sighed and turned to walk next to Hermione out of his music room, closing the door behind him. He then realized the answer to his dilemma wasn't really a matter of choice, and that he had already applied a solution to a similar problem earlier in the week.
"It isn't about choosing between music or quidditch. I shouldn't think in such absolutes, I'd rather try to handle both!" he thought, and then beat Hermione to the only grapefruit she had deemed appropriately round and orange enough to eat that morning for breakfast.
1.- Ramified Magic: Other kinds of magic as used and recognized by the I.C.W. (International Confederation of Wizards) around the world. Taught by Professor Ismail Almohacid.
- "Abaeteh" / Indigenous Tupi-Guarani (Brazil); abaetê / friend, honourable person.
- "Kommen Sie nach vorn, bitte?" / German / Come forward, please?
3.- I must confess this chapter slipped out of my hands. It was supposed to be small but it grew too much. And yes, I know it's a lot about nothing, however some events are important for this twisted tale.
4.- Sir Arthur Bliss is a British composer, please look him up on your available encyclopaedia or the web for more information. I'm particularly fond of his string quartets and wind instrument pieces.
5.- Almost forgot, Steinway&Sons was founded in New York by an immigrant whose family name was Steinweg. Weg means way in German, hence Steinway. Actually stein means stone, so he should have changed his name to Stoneway... I guess it just didn't sound right?
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