Harry didn't think he'd ever been so worried for his own safety in his life. Ron made an odd whimpering noise, and Draco was unhealthily pale. The giant dog – and not just any dog, but a dog with three heads – yawned, showing teeth as long as Harry's forearm. It sniffed and then growled. Had it been smaller, Harry might have approached it, and tried to pat it – after living with Padfoot for so long, he had a fair idea on how to pat dogs – but it wasn't small, it was huge, so Harry backed off.
Ron yanked open the door with a, "Hurry up!" and ran out of it. Harry followed, pausing to grab Draco's arm; he didn't seem able to move without help. The Prefects, thankfully, were nowhere to be seen in the corridor. Harry wasn't sure where they could have gone, because they'd been there moments before, but he wasn't going to complain.
Ron closed the door and the three of them ran back the way they'd come, through the moonlit halls, past the trophy room, around the corner and to the staircase. Harry had to half drag Draco, who was stumbling along, apparently in shock. They rounded another corner, and knocked right into one of the Prefects Harry and Blaise had seen sitting on the stairs earlier.
"Got them!" she shouted, and movement revealed a panicked looking Prefect Ed - with Moony of all people - at the end of the hallway. Harry's entire body flooded with relief.
"Harry?" Moony said, sounding shocked. "Ro- Draco, are you all right?" Draco, his wrist still clamped in Harry's hand, nodded weakly.
"I'll handle this," Moony assured the Prefects, who nodded importantly. "Thank you for being so vigilant tonight."
"You're welcome," Ed said. Moony was still staring very hard at Harry, as if he was trying to read his mind.
"Come with me, you three," Moony said, and led them away. Ron stuck very close to Harry's side, and Draco had started to quiver. They walked in complete silence to Moony's office, on the floor below. He lit the lamps with dim, orange fire – Harry was grateful for that, because bright light probably would have blinded them after a night sneaking around in the dark - ushered them in, conjured them chairs, and then sat down at his desk, looking unusually stern.
Harry suppressed the urge to wilt. Eventually, Moony sighed.
"You all look terrified," he said, and, with a click of his fingers, summoned a house elf. "Four mugs of hot chocolate, please." The elf bowed, without even looking at the boys, and vanished again. "Would any of you like to explain? Because I'm trying – really I am – but I really can't think of any good reason that explains why you'd be up and about at half-past one in the morning, and why you were up there-" Moony jabbed a finger at the roof of his office, which was below the forbidden corridor. "-in a place you have been told specifically not to visit."
Draco just shook his head. Ron gave Harry a nervous look, apparently wondering whether or not they were supposed to tell Moony the truth.
"I was meeting Blaise," Harry said. "We needed to talk, about his mum and everything that's happening with Padfoot." Moony ran a hand over his face.
"I'm not saying that wasn't a good idea," Moony sighed, "but now? In the middle of the night, Harry? It would have made far more sense to meet in the morning, before anyone's up, or while everyone's at dinner, or on the way back from Quidditch training, don't you think?"
"Probably," Harry said in a small voice. Moony didn't sound angry, just bewildered. It made Harry feel stupid, and he rather felt he deserved it.
"And you two? Harry said 'I', not 'we'." Moony looked at Ron and Draco.
"He didn't come back," Ron said, rather timidly. "We thought something might have happened, so-"
"So you went to find him," Moony finished for him. Oddly, his expression had softened during Ron's declaration. Draco nodded.
"Then there was Filch," Harry said, "and the Prefects, and we didn't want to be found, and one thing sort of led to another and well-"
"-you ended up in the Forbidden corridor. And not just in the corridor; of all the doors up there, you managed to pick the most dangerous one." Harry considered denying it, but if he did that, Moony would never tell him what the dog was doing there. "It's warded," Moony added, when none of them said anything. "And, since my office is closest, I'm the one that hears the ward alarm when someone goes inside. That's why I was there so quickly after you went in."
"Oh," Harry said. Moony sighed again. The house elf reappeared, with four steaming mugs, and passed one to each of them. Moony thanked the elf, as did the other three – though their expressions of thanks were muttered and guilty – and it vanished again. Harry sipped his hot chocolate and felt better at once. "Sorry for waking you up," he mumbled.
No one said anything. Moony was apparently trying to decide whether or not to tell the other teachers, or Dumbledore, and whether or not to punish them, Ron was just staring at his mug, still pale beneath his freckles, and Draco was staring hard at Moony.
"Why's it there?" Draco asked, speaking for the first time. His voice was surprisingly steady.
"I beg your pardon?" Moony asked.
"The dog," Draco said shrewdly. Moony hesitated, and then sighed.
"For the N.E.W.T. level Care of Magical Creatures students," he said. Harry didn't think he believed him, but he didn't know why Moony would lie about it. "They can't let it run around the forest, with me spending full moons out there, and there wasn't really anywhere else to put it." Draco moved slightly, and Moony gave him an odd look. "Ten points from Gryffindor from you, Harry. You're smart, but your actions tonight didn't reflect that at all." Harry did shrink in his chair this time. "Five points from each of you," Moony added, looking at Ron and Draco, neither of whom said anything. "And I hope you've learned that when Professor Dumbledore gives a warning, it's not without good reason."
Moony let them finish their hot chocolate, but Harry's had turned bitter in his mouth. He escorted them back to the common room in silence; he appeared to be deep in thought, and Harry wasn't sure what to say, either to Moony, or to the others.
"Night," he said.
"I'll see you all in lessons," Moony said, and nodded to the Fat Lady; she clucked her tongue, but swung open to admit them when Ron said the password, and Harry thought he heard her say something to him about tides turning.
The common room was empty – not that that was surprising, given the early hour – and Harry supposed he ought to try to get some sleep; they had double Potions with Snape in the morning, and that was unpleasant even when he wasn't tired and grumpy.
"He's lying," Draco said.
"Professor Lupin," Draco clarified. "About that dog."
"Maybe," Harry said. He'd thought the same thing, back in Moony's office.
"No," Draco said. "Not maybe; he is." Harry glanced at Ron, who shrugged, but still looked rather glum about their lost points.
"What makes you say that?" Harry asked.
"I could tell," Draco said. "And we'd have heard rumours about a dog for the seventh years."
"Unless they don't know," Ron said. Draco gave him a flat look.
"They don't know because they're not supposed to," he said.
"Did either of you actually look when we were in there?"
"Yeah," Ron said. "I saw a giant bloody dog with three heads!" Harry nodded.
"It was standing on a trapdoor," Draco said, looking exasperated. "It's not for N.E.W.T. students, it's there to guard something."
"Guard?" Ron said.
"Why would Moony lie?"
"Why would a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher be the one the wards alerted if it was a school project?" Draco countered. "Why wouldn't the Care of Magical Creatures teacher just live next door?"
"Moony specialises in magical creatures," Harry said. Draco shook his head.
"They're either keeping something in, or something out," Draco said. "Either way, Lupin's going to be the next best thing after the dog – except for Dumbledore – to help with that, because he's the Defence teacher."
"Maybe," Harry said.
"Do you know what I really want to know, though?" Draco asked them.
"What?" Ron asked.
"Why, in Merlin's name, a door with that monster behind it could be opened with a simple opening charm," Draco snapped, looking angry. Something about the outburst reminded Harry of Snape, though he couldn't say what. "Obviously the assumption was that no one would be stupid enough to go against Dumbledore-" He gave the pair of them a rather pointed look. "-but when a quarter of the school is specifically known for taking stupid risks…" He trailed off, shaking his head.
The three of them went to bed shortly after, and managed to get a few hours sleep before Potions the next day, and all three of them chose an extra hour in bed over breakfast.
Blaise, was the first person Harry spotted – mainly because he was sitting right in the middle of the classroom – and he looked none the worse for wear after the night's adventures. He looked a little tense when Harry walked in, but that faded to releif when he spotted the three Gryffindor boys, and he called out a greeting.
Surprised, Harry lifted a hand to wave at him… and then Theodore Nott edged past them, muttering about blocking the door, and greeted Blaise as he sat down.
Harry saw Blaise's mouth twitch into a smirk, and then something sold collided with his back with a loud, "Harry!"
"Hermione, ow," Harry said, struggling; her textbooks were poking him in the side through her overstuffed schoolbag.
"Sorry," she said breathlessly, letting go. She looked at Ron and Draco, apparently to confirm they were real. "When you weren't at breakfast, I thought-" She shook her bushy head. "And you two- I suppose you did something silly, like go with him?"
"Well, no," Ron said, his ears turning pink, "not exactly-"
Hermione narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, but a rippled whisper of, "Snape!" ran through the Gryffindor side of the room. Harry grabbed Hermione's arm and dragged her over to sit next to him, while Draco and Ron sat down near Neville.
Hermione sat impatiently through Snape's introduction; they were making a potion that revealed invisible ink (they'd made that the week before), and turned to Harry as soon as Snape told them to get started.
Keeping his voice down, Harry filled her in on the night's events.
"It still could have been a trap," Hermione said, watching Blaise. She didn't sound apologetic, just defensive, and Harry knew that was the best he'd get from her on that particular matter. "Oh, Harry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have gone to bed, I should have come to help you, with Ron and Malfoy. And after I told you I'd see you in the morning if you hadn't been expelled, and then you didn't show up to breakfast- I felt awful, I thought something had happened, and-"
"Hermione," Harry said. She measured and added squid's ink to their potion and wiped her hands on her robes, looking upset.
"And the fact that it was Professor Lupin that caught you," she said, looking sympathetic. Harry didn't think he deserved sympathy - Moony was right about him making some unnecessarily silly choices the night before – but he much preferred that to Hermione telling him off, or telling him he deserved it. "That's got to be hard, for both of you." Harry nodded as he peeled violet petals into little strips and sprinkled them into the cauldron. "I'm sure he's not too angry-"
"He's not angry," Harry said, "that's the worst part. And I don't know if I should apologise, or- I don't know. And I haven't been able to get through to Padfoot and talk to him about it, yet-"
"I'm sure it'll be okay," Hermione said, and then glanced up at the instructions on the board. Harry wanted to believe her, just as he'd wanted to believe Ron when he'd said the same thing on the way to the lesson. Neither of them had a close friend – a godmother, to be technical – for a teacher though. They didn't understand just how tricky it could be at times.
Harry was very quiet for the rest of the day. Potions didn't end in complete disaster - he and Hermione ended up with a functional invisible ink revealer, which was better than most of the rest of the class - and they had the afternoon off. He didn't feel like flying when Ron asked, though - he had Quidditch that night anyway - didn't go to the library with Hermione, or take Draco and the twins up on their offer of a game of Exploding Snap.
"Well you won't know if he's upset unless you talk to him, Harry," Hermione said reasonably, when he confessed the reason for his silence. "He's hardly going to turn you away."
"He might," Harry said, even though he knew Moony wouldn't. "He's completely right, too; there was a better way to talk to Blaise than sneaking around in the middle of the night." It even sounded stupid as he said it. Hermione clearly agreed, but didn't say so. Instead, she sighed.
"Blaise didn't think of anything better either," she said. Somehow, that didn't make him feel any better.
"And here I thought you were ever cheerful," Draco commented, sitting down opposite him (and very obviously at Hermione's instruction). Harry had stopped moping under the pretence of flicking through his Latin dictionary. If anyone wondered what he was doing, they didn't ask. "Lupin's about as friendly and forgiving as they come, Potter," he said. "He thinks you made a stupid decision, but that's nothing new. I mean, it's you." He smirked, and Harry managed a weak smile back. Draco's affected haughtiness faded, and was replaced by an earnest look. "Kids do stupid things all the time. I bet Lupin even did some stupid things, when he was at school, and I bet he got told off for them too."
Not by a man that was practically his uncle, Harry thought, but that didn't stop him from smiling properly.
"Life goes on," Draco drawled, seeming pleased with the smile he'd earned.
Slightly cheered by his conversation with Draco, Harry was in a decent mood at dinner, and a better mood during and after Quidditch training. Harry hadn't seen the other House teams play, but he was willing to bet that Gryffindor stood a fair chance of beating them. Wood was a good Keeper, and a good captain, if a little manic. He kept them in shape, went through good general drills, and also had a set of specialised activities for each of them to practice on their own.
Fred and George were just at good at appearing and disappearing mysteriously in the air as they were around the castle, and were more than a match for the pair of bludgers. The chasers, Alicia, Angelina and Katie worked well together, and what they didn't have in muscle mass, they more than made up for in speed and skill.
"And they look good doing it," Fred commented, as he, Harry and George made their way back up to the castle. George whistled and nodded, and Harry just glanced between them.
"Ah, bless the little firstie," George said, ruffling Harry's hair. "So young and innocent."
"Those were the days," Fred agreed.
"Yeah but young and innocent?" Harry asked. "You two?"
"Well, young," Fred amended, grinning. "Innocent's not really our style-"
"We find it boring," George said seriously.
"We doubt the Marauders were ever innocent either and they're the best roles models a pair of pranksters could ask for." Draco's words about Moony doing silly things at school - which had now been seconded by the twins - popped back into Harry's head, and he felt his mood boost again.
"I dunno," Harry said. "Padfoot wanted to be innocent for a long time..."
"Liar," Fred said, but Harry could see that both twins were excited by the prospect of new information about the Marauders. "Padfoot's the biggest rule-breaker of the lot and Prongs isn't much better."
"How would you know?" Harry asked, curious now. It wasn't the first time the twins had alluded to actually knowing the Marauders... Harry just couldn't for the life of him work out how.
"We just do," Fred said, winking at George.
"Did you know Prongs was Head Boy?" Harry asked. Fred and George burst out laughing.
"Yeah, right," Fred said.
"Good one, Harry. We'll make a prankster of you yet."
"I'm not joking," Harry said.
"Prove it," Fred said.
"Tell me how you're talking to them," Harry said. "Please. And I'll tell you whatever you want about any of them. Even Wormtail." The twins knew Wormtail was a touchy subject with Harry, so they clearly understood the value of the offer. Fred and George exchanged a long look.
"We'll have to think about it," Fred said.
"We're not saying no," George assured him. "Just..."
"Give us a few days," Fred said. "This is a huge secret-"
"Hugest secret in Hogwarts," George said. "If Filch knew-"
Fred shuddered dramatically and said, "We'll talk it over with them, see what they think."
Harry forgot all about Fred and George's promise over the coming week. He spent Saturday with his friends in the common room, playing chess and exploding snap, and later, on his own, working on his incantation translation.
He managed to meet Blaise on Sunday afternoon, at the back of the library and talked to him about the Padfoot-Zabini situation. Blaise kept a very straight face all through it, and had nothing to say when Harry had finished explaining except for, "Well, what am I supposed to do about it, Potter?" Harry didn't know why he kept expecting things from Blaise; Blaise Zabini might not have been as bad as Harry'd first thought, but he was still a very different boy to Blaise Benson. Perhaps Hermione was right, and he just wasn't worth the effort. That thought left Harry stomach in knots, though, and he knew, deep down, that he'd probably still keep trying to get through to Blaise.
Harry spent all of Monday stressing about Tuesday's Defence lesson, and whether Moony would be any different. He spoke briefly to a very tired Padfoot - who, thankfully, wasn't angry at all, or even disappointed; he just seemed amused that Moony had taken points - who assured him Moony wasn't angry, and he proved correct; Moony greeted him with his usual friendly smile, showing that the events of Thursday night were behind them and nothing significant in the scheme of things, and he and Harry had dinner together after Quidditch training and talked to Padfoot about his time off (and the job he was working in the meantime, searching for a man called Quirrell).
They had a whole heap of homework from Snape, McGonagall and Flitwick, unfortunately, toward the end of the week; they seemed to have decided - all at once - that the first years were well and truly settled at Hogwarts and that they were fair game for larger workloads. And, when Harry wasn't doing homework, he was at Quidditch training. With September almost over, the Quidditch season was almost upon them, and Wood was reminding them of that fact at every possible opportunity.
The first free moment Harry got that week, was on Saturday morning. He and Draco were discussing what might be behind the trapdoor; Ron wasn't up yet, and Hermione was doing homework at a nearby table, because, while interested by the trapdoor, she maintained that it wasn't their business. She was probably right, but it made for an interesting conversation anyway.
"Maybe it's a-" Draco looked at something over Harry's shoulder. "Ah," he said. "Weasley One and Two."
"Malfoy," Fred said jovially. He and Fred - unlike Ron - were morning people. That was when there the the most mischief to be made, they'd told Harry a few days ago, when he'd commented on it. "How are you?" Harry wasn't sure what had happened between the twins and Draco, or when, but they talked to Draco almost as much as they did to Ron.
"We're not here for you this morning, I'm afraid-" George said, patting him on the head. Draco scowled.
"We've come for Harry," Fred added, waggling his eyebrows.
"Me?" Harry asked. George gestured for him to follow.
"You'd better," Draco said. "Those buffoons will probably drag you if-"
"Drag him?" Fred said.
"Now there's an idea!" George exclaimed. Harry leapt to his feet, and the other three sniggered. Harry gave Draco a questioning look, but he just shrugged and relocated to where Hermione was sitting.
"Where are we going?" Harry asked. Neither twin answered; instead, they led him up the boys' dormitory staircase, past the first year dormitory - it sounded like Dean and Seamus were stirring, and arguing good naturedly over a pair of socks - and up to the third year boys' dormitory. "Am I allowed?" Harry asked. There were no rules against it, but even Ron - who had brothers in the higher years - rarely visited the other dormitories. Most of the socialisation was done downstairs, in the common room.
"The dorm's half ours," George said, pushing the door open. "And we say so, so in you come." Harry stepped into a room that was almost identical to his own room; there were four beds instead of six, and Fred and George's window overlooked more of the castle than the grounds, and one of the other third year boys had posters of pretty witches in very revealing Quidditch robes instead of Dean's football team, but otherwise, it was the same.
"Close the door," Fred added. Harry did so.
Fred and George's beds had been pushed closer together than the normal arrangement; their four poster hangings were connected - either by spells, or by muggle methods, Harry wasn't sure - and it formed a big red dome of bed that he couldn't see into. George lifted a section of the hanging and ushered Harry in.
Quite unsure now, he crawled onto the bed, and then laughed; there was a large table between the two beds, not visible from the outside. It was covered in cards, and sweets, and drawings of strange objects, and there was also a small cauldron and a potions kit on it. There was also a photograph of the Weasley family - from back when Ron was still shorter than Ginny - a large collection of prank objects, and, what appeared to be Percy's Prefect badge. Harry chuckled.
"Welcome to our office," George said, in a tone he'd obviously copied from Percy.
"We make our best plans here," Fred said proudly, joining George on the bed opposite Harry. "And this is where we meet with the Marauders."
Harry snapped to attention at once, looking around. George grinned and slid a piece of ragged parchment across the table toward him.
"This?" Harry asked, prodding it.
"We took your request to them."
"And got a very interesting response," George said, giving Harry a curious look.
"Prongs demanded we bring you here," Fred added, "as soon as we said your name."
"And we are but their humble servants," George said, making a reverent gesture toward the parchment.
"What is it?" Harry asked.
"So you don't know?" Fred said, apparently surprised. He looked at George. "Interesting."
"Talk to it," George suggested. Harry stared at them, trying to work out if they were joking or not. Both looked unusually serious.
"Er, hi," Harry said to the parchment. "I'm Harry."
Mr Moony passes on his greetings, and thinks it is a pleasure to meet Harry.
Mr Prongs would like to know if this is the same Harry he was told about?
Mr Padfoot would like to second Mr Prongs' question and add his greetings.
Mr Wormtail would like to third the question and add his greetings too.
Harry stared at the words before him, which had scrawled themselves over the front of the parchment as soon as he spoke. He stared at the writing, two sets of which were very familiar, and two set of which was recognisable, but only because he knew whose they were; he'd seen them scribbled in margins in their old textbooks, and on the backs of photographs.
"Hi, Prongs," he whispered, holding the parchment with shaking hands. "I'm Harry James Potter."