AN: Every once in a while – and by that I mean virtually every update – I get people who say that nothing's happening in the story. While some don't catch the importance of the subtleties playing out in front of their eyes, others forget about the timescale all of this stuff is happening in. The events of the last 515k words (488k without ANs) have taken place in the span of one month and one day, with the last four chapters (80k+ words) all happening within a single day that isn't over yet.

With that in mind I wrote the first two paragraphs to show just how much this one character's had to deal with lately before we move on from there. And as a heads up, the very end of the fourth scene slides from one point-of-view to another so the full action of the scene can be shown.

.o0O0o.

It had been a rollercoaster of a day. First came the lumbering climb to Platform 9 & 3/4 that seemed to take forever, then the exciting whoosh! of seeing Harry again followed by quick twists and turns of casual conversation used to lull you into a false sense of security before the mad plunge that was Draco left no time to think about the boyfriend you'd gotten before the whole world was turned upside-down by the Pansy Parkinson loop-the-loop. Hermione didn't know what game the girl was playing but heartthrob Harry, Hagrid's hooky, rebarbative Ron, Dumbledore dilemmas and Pomfrey problems prevented her from dwelling too much on it.

All-in-all, it was a good thing all of those were issues for later because her nerves were shot and her brain was fried. She'd have no chance of absorbing any information in class tomorrow without a good night's sleep but now she'd probably still be awake for hours wondering if she's subconsciously undermining her own attempts to continue their friendship with Ron. And despite the herculean effort she put in to show it'd take more than a magical medical mistake to get her to break things off with Harry, the gnawing fear he'd leave her had plagued her since Pomfrey's office.

'He's only ever been complimentary about the way I look,' Hermione tried to remind herself as she lingered in the girls' stairwell just off the common room. 'And though he never said anything, he seemed to find it odd that I felt the need to tame my hair at all. But still, his affection for odd appearances was sure to break if that potion mutated my growth and I began to look more and more like the horse-faced woman he called an aunt,' her nagging doubts made her add.

Taking soothing breaths until she was calm enough to worry herself to sleep, she climbed up to the Second Year girls' dorm and went inside.

"There she is!" the leader of the Talkative Two instantly proclaimed.

"It's about time," Parvati Patil agreed.

"Oh, thank God," the girl she thought was named Fay cried out in relief. "Can you two please stop talking now and just let us go to sleep?"

"Oh hush," Lavender said to her with a look.

"Where's Sally-Anne?" Hermione asked, gesturing to an empty space that'd once held a fifth bed in an attempt not to have to deal with anything the Talkative Two wanted to talk about.

"Her parents wouldn't let her come back," Lavender said quickly as Hermione went to her bed and the girl disgorged news she must've gotten from their sleepy dorm mate. "For some reason they thought trolls, giant dogs, and a professor going missing made for an unsafe school."

"I can't imagine why," Parvati added, as if those were the most normal things in the world. "It's not like we had a dragon here or anything," the girl said, making Hermione glad she'd kept that bit of information secret from her mother or she might've shared Sally-Anne's fate.

"Where is she now?" she asked, trying to stay politely disengaged with the rumormongering duo.

"Wherever she is," the third girl chimed in, "I bet she's asleep!"

"Knock yourself out then," Lavender said scornfully. "We've got important matters to discuss."

"Important?" Hermione asked, wondering how anything the other girl was interested in could be in any way important.

"Dreadfully," Parvati said with an insinuating smile. "Where have you been hiding?"

"I haven't been hiding anywhere," Hermione said stiffly, choosing to distance herself further by turning to dig through her trunk for pajamas.

"When we last saw you, you were dragging Harry and Ron through a secret passage," Lavender said coyly.

"And that was over an hour ago," the Indian girl added as if the words themselves were delicious.

"Did you find a nice broom closet to snog your boyfriend in while Weasley stood watch?" the shallow girl said teasingly, as if that wouldn't destroy her scholarly reputation.

"Oh no, not you too. You're the last sane girl left," their other dorm mate moaned before taking the dignified way out and covering her face with a pillow as if she wanted to end it all.

"Oh, shut up, Fay," Parvati said, stalking over to twitch the girl's bed curtains closed.

"You two need to get your minds out of the gutter," Hermione reproached with a look and thinking the situation required some version of the truth to get her out of this intact. "Madam Pomfrey wanted to see Harry after the feast, so naturally Ron and I went with him."

She hoped for a moment they'd zero in on why he'd need to see her and use that to leap to Harry's relatives but instead they went for something else.

"So you don't deny Harry's your boyfriend?" Lavender said as if Christmas had come early.

Hermione fought to keep a blush off her face at being caught out so soon.

"Whether he is or not is entirely beside the point–"

"–No, it's entirely the point!" the girl swatted back.

"What, you think we stayed up this late to bug Fay about Sally-Anne?" Parvati asked curiously.

"Pleeaase let me sleep," the exaggeratedly mournful Fay begged as Lavender rolled her eyes. The girl had said more to them in the last few minutes than she had all last year but she was such a light sleeper it was surprising that she hadn't already scoured the library for some sort of silencing charm to put around her bed.

"He's the most famous boy in the country," Lavender declared, not inaccurately, as she hovered behind her. "You've got to tell us how it happened."

"There's really no 'it' to talk about," Hermione lied as she rose and went to the side of her bed to kick off her shoes.

"Oh, please," Parvati rebutted immediately. "Everyone on the train was talking about it."

"Then Draco's better at spreading rumors than you are," she replied as she sat and removed her socks. "It only just happened today."

"Don't try to lie to us," Lavender said with a patronizing smile. "Everyone knows that you two have been going out for weeks!"

Hermione turned to look at her curiously. There was certainly an argument to be made that she and Harry had been an unofficial couple since before they met at Diagon Alley, but there was no way for either of them to know.

"What makes you say that?" she asked, regarding them dubiously.

"I forget we're talking to Hermione," Lavender said to Parvati as she walked over to her bedside table to pick something up. "She's not going to believe we know anything unless she personally sees it in a book."

What the girl handed her was very far from a book. It barely even qualified as a magazine, in her opinion. It was a worn and dog-eared Teen Witch Weekly.

"What does this have to do with anything?" she asked, gesturing to the trashy teenage periodical before the girl took it back to open it up and thrust back at her.

'Harry Potter's Romantic Rendezvous,' the title of the article said in lurid pink print over a hazy full-page picture of the two of them sharing a very private hug – albeit in the middle of Diagon Alley.

'Now you'd normally think an intimate evening stroll would be just the thing to cap off a first date,' the article started out saying, 'but you'd be wrong, at least if your name was Harry Potter. This inventive youngster used it as a teaser for the next day's events – though that didn't stop the devilishly mysterious Hermione (a fellow Hogwarts student in Harry's year and House [Gryffindor], surname currently unknown) from darting in to add a quick kiss on the cheek that left our young man speechless!'

It was absolutely horrible; not only was it already two weeks old but Teen Witch Weekly had somehow pieced together almost everything they'd done the next day. The amount of snooping involved didn't seem to faze the unnamed author one bit though as long as they could say, 'Neither them were asked to comment on the date or precisely what their relationship is, since they deserve to have a private life, but that can't stop us from wondering!' at the end of it.

They had them meeting at the Leaky Cauldron, visiting Flourish & Blotts, going by the Magical Menagerie, and looking through the window at Quality Quidditch Supplies to see that new Nimbus that'd come out. Hermione thought the order was a little off though because most of that came after their clothes shopping at Madam Malkin's and their stop at the bank, the latter not even being mentioned at all.

Madam Malkin's though was apparently a big enough event to merit a full story of its own called 'Harry Potter's Modern Magical Style' – this time in sparkling green. No detail seemed too tawdry or tiny for the meretricious media to peddle out to their teenage audience either. Did they really need to know how much his slacks cost, what color shirts he liked, or whether Harry favored boxer briefs over traditional wizarding undergarments?

One passage did stand out to her though. 'While it doesn't strictly comport with the Wizarding Wear Code of Conduct,' the article said curiously meaningful way, 'Harry's inspired mixture of magical and muggle wear is comfortable, yet classy, in a real "down to earth" kind of way that defies – and defines – his celebrity status.' But if that wasn't enough, they'd somehow managed to finagle a certain curly-haired Marjorie Malkin to tell them about her use of Sleakeazy's Hair Potion – which they put above a half-page ad for it!

"Who wrote this? How did they get it?" Hermione asked scandalized, looking down at a moving picture of her kissing Harry before running off.

"Who cares who wrote it?" Parvati said dismissively. "What matters is it happened."

"And besides," Lavender added, "you kissed him in the middle of Diagon Alley. Did you really expect no one to notice?"

"Yes," she said defiantly, unable to keep up the pretext when there was black-and-white proof. "Because when I kissed him no one was there. Do you honestly think I would've done it if anyone was around?"

"We're frankly shocked that you had the guts to do it at all," the other girl replied.

"Who'd believe it without pictures?" Parvati added. "Bookworm Hermione kissing the famous Harry Potter?"

"I didn't kiss 'the famous Harry Potter,'" Hermione said with a look. "I kissed my best friend Harry. If you can't see the difference, you'll never understand how it happened," she said before thrusting the tasteless teenage tract at Parvati.

The Talkative Two seemed to take it as the only explanation they're going to get and retreated back to their beds to talk amongst themselves as they all got changed for bed. Hermione wished she could've been so easily distracted though because the articles were rather puzzling.

As much as she wanted to, she couldn't really fault anyone too much for telling what they'd seen them do. It would've been nice to think what they'd done had been private and therefore not seen as anything worth reporting, but the shopkeepers did have their own businesses to promote and this was one way to get their name out. The placement of the Sleakeazy's ad where it was though was far more ethically shady since it almost made her into an unwilling and unpaid spokesperson, which had to run afoul of the law even in the wizarding world.

The far more worrying aspect of it though was how anyone could know what no one had been around to see. She knew from Harry that there were ways to sneak around invisibly, but it didn't make sense for anyone to have been using something like that to follow them. If they had, they would've known all about the Sorcerer's Stone days before it was released to the public.

'Had someone simply been standing there and we just never noticed?' Hermione had to ask herself. 'But if they had been, why would they be standing invisibly in a deserted alley just in case something interesting happened? It doesn't make sense.'

A stray question of Parvati's drifted over to rouse her from her thoughts.

"Do you think this thing with Harry will be enough for them to change the Wizarding Wear Code of Conduct?" the girl asked Lavender hopefully as she climbed into bed.

"I doubt it," the other girl said without a moment's hesitation. "People have been wanting to ditch it for decades, they're not going to change it just for him."

"What's the Wizarding Wear Code of Conduct?" Hermione asked, wondering how the curiously legal turn of phrase could be addressed so insightfully by frivolous girls like them.

"It's only the reason fashion's been stuck in the Stone Age," Lavender replied, dashing any hope that the girl could take anything seriously besides gossip.

"It really only applies to over-seventeens," Parvati tried to explain only to fail to make things any clearer, "but the Ministry expects everyone to go by it in public. Teen Witch Weekly is the only publication left that tweaks their nose about it."

"Wait a minute," she said putting the two together. "You mean there's a dress code for adults?"

"Psh, yeah!" Lavender said scoffingly like she was a dunce for not knowing this already. "You think anyone'd be caught dead in robes if they didn't have to wear them?"

"They're completely unflattering," Parvati agreed with a nod.

"And as much as I'd like to wear whatever I want when I'm older," Lavender continued, "there's a limit to even what your boyfriend can get them to do. Merlin, it sounds strange to say that," she said turning to Parvati. "Hermione Granger, of all people, has a boyfriend and I don't!"

The girl then twitched her bed curtains closed as if to shut herself off from the strange new world she'd found herself in. Parvati followed suit close behind her and Hermione was about to do the same when Fay's head popped out from across the room to look at her disgruntledly for a moment, as if all the sleep she'd missed out on was her fault. Laying in her bed's secluded darkness didn't accomplish much in getting her any closer to sleep though, the sizable diversion they'd given her doing nothing to prevent the concerns from before from returning.

For a while she lay there with her two most constant companions, Doubt and Worry, before a sudden swell of sadness and betrayal drowned them out. Not only could she not enjoy her private time alone with the person she liked, like everyone else could, now all the adults around her she'd always gotten on well with were implicitly telling her that her judgement couldn't be trusted about it. Who were they to tell her something like that and why did she have to prove them right almost instantly by putting her health at risk in an insane bid to impress Harry?

'No, I'm not going to give any credence to this,' Hermione thought as she tried to shift her emotions into anger. 'I'm not an air-headed girl too immature to make my own decisions about my life that needs someone more "responsible" to impose those their decisions upon me.'

She still didn't think her dad would've done something like this. He'd write to ask if there was a magical equivalent to her Health class she could take, sure, but not force her to take contraceptives. Even her mother wouldn't do it since she was dubious about the long term effects of using hormones on developing adolescents anyway.

Lichfield was the obvious alternative, but there the reasoning got trickier to follow. She knew for a fact that the man had no qualms about doing shady stuff – encouraging and abetting a runaway, using flimsy pretexts to kidnap people, holding them for questioning with or without legal representation, and helping those who're going against the legally appointed government – but he also did everything in his power to further the cause of his clients, or at least he did when the client was Harry.

She knew that Harry had come to see him as a kind of elderly friend but was that, and his quasi-bailiff position, enough for him to stomp down on his other clients' wishes? Without getting more information it'd be impossible to tell and the only other curiosity that might shed light on him was that time the two of them had had a falling out.

It'd seemed too early in their not-yet-official relationship to ask about what'd happened but Hermione could see it coming from the man engaging in 'independent actions on Harry's behalf' one time too often. It seemed the thing he'd likely do and after dealing with Dumbledore and the Dursleys, Harry wouldn't be so keen on potential father figures trying to call the shots anymore. But if that was the case, why would Lichfield risk a second explosion if Harry found out about this when he'd responded badly to whatever had caused the first one?

'The contraceptive potion seemed too personal to tell Harry about,' she rationalized to herself, 'but maybe I should've told him anyway. If Pomfrey had lied about the potions he'd taken, then one of them might've been a boy's version, and he might've been behind it as well,' Hermione thought before a sinking feeling hit her.

She sat up at what occurred to her then. It was far too early in life to think about having kids – and she wouldn't even want to have them for a good ten to fifteen years if she did – but it was also too soon to dismiss the subject completely, to say nothing about losing the option by accident. What if it wasn't a potion to fix Harry's growth they'd given him? What if the second was a boy's contraceptive potion in disguise?

How would that kind of potion interact with the one she'd taken? Madam Pomfrey told her of the concerns she had about what could happen if the potions' sympathies influenced each other the way she thought they could, but had she been sugar-coating it? How much worse could it be and why wouldn't she have told her straight away? Would it mutate her looks or just permanently halt her ability to have kids?

Would Harry like her if she looked like a freak? Would he stay if she couldn't have kids? Could she blame him if he didn't if it was either – if not both? She pulled herself back from picking apart Harry's views on the Dursleys and his parents in an attempt to figure out what he'd do because that was a swirling vortex of never-ending anxiety that she was not prepared to handle.

Hermione took a calming breath and tried to put her mind in order. If you find yourself in a hole, her father always said, stop digging and try to find a way to climb out. Right now she was in a hole and worrying about things that may not actually happen wasn't helping her get out. And when she thought of it, there was really only one thing that could.

Firmly resolved, she left her bed, extracted her book bag from her trunk, gave an apologetic look to Fay when she inadvertently woke her up, and began to write a letter.

.o0O0o.

Besides the new nickname he'd been given, Harry felt remarkably good when he woke up the next morning, which was surprising since he always felt sluggish when he got up early. For some reason though he felt full of energy, almost as if he'd grown taller, gotten stronger, and became a super hero overnight. None of that happened, of course; looking in the mirror as he got dressed, he looked exactly the same as he had the night before, so it couldn't have been the potions he'd taken already getting to work.

Harry supposed it was a good thing they didn't have anything to do with it – or at most it's his mind tricking him into thinking he was feeling better after taking them when they really didn't have anything to do with it – because if they did then Hermione might be feeling the opposite, and she already had enough on her mind thanks to them. He didn't know how to keep her from worrying about it, but at least he could try not to make it worse.

They got down to the common room at a decent time, only to find that Hermione wasn't there. She'd usually gotten up before them last year, and while it's true they hadn't made plans to meet up before going down to breakfast, he supposed she could've already left. That still left him in a tricky situation though since if she had done that and he went down to join her then it'd be no big deal, but if she hadn't and he didn't wait for her, then that wouldn't be a boyfriend-like thing to do on his first full day of being one.

"Hey, Lover Boy!" Seamus called over to him, earning a silent groan as he hoped the nickname wouldn't catch on. "You'll want to see this."

Turning from the girls' stairwell, he found several people clustered around the bulletin board. Wondering how bad this year was about to get, Harry walked over to see what the fuss was about.

As it turned out, it really didn't have too much to do with him at all. It looked as though the twins were right about Oliver going Quidditch crazy though since what they were looking at was a hastily made notice scheduling Quidditch tryouts for that very weekend. Making his way through to get a better look, he found that his name was already on the signup sheet, along with the rest of the team – and somebody else's.

"Hey, Ron?" he said, turning to his ginger-haired friend with a smile. "It looks like you've been drafted."

"Whassat?" Ron replied as he struggled to keep all of his school books in his bag as he fished for a quill.

"You've already been signed up," Harry explained as sudden movement on the girls' stairs caught his attention, only to leave him rather disappointed when it wasn't his girlfriend.

"Why did I get drafted?" his friend asked as two girls in their class, Parvati and Lavender, swept by them with smiles just shy of giggling. "Seems fishy to me."

"You were just about to sign up," he pointed out. "You really gonna complain when Wood did it for you?"

"Well, how would you feel if you'd been entered into something without knowing?" Ron replied before his brows lowered conspiratorially. "And who asked him to anyway? I bet it's a prank by Fred and George to embarrass me in front of the whole school."

"Or it could just be because they know you want to play," Harry responded as yet another non-Hermione girl their age passed them by only for her to double back when she saw the notice.

"Sure," the other boy scoffed. "Maybe this is them trying to be good brothers without anyone knowing."

"Aw, sweet," the tired girl yawned as she peered in close before turning to walk away. "Now I need a broom."

Ron's muttered recriminations about the lengths his brothers would go through to set him up went ignored though for right then Harry's girlfriend was walking down the stairs.

.o0O0o.

Despite feeling everyone there was waiting to see her reaction as she entered the common room, Hermione's morning still took a big leap upwards as soon as she saw Harry smile at her. It did make her worries from the night before roll over in her stomach though, but she wasn't about to let them get to her today. Madam Pomfrey was sure to have an answer for her soon… she hoped.

Still, anything was better than having to suffer through the Talkative Two's endless prattle while Lavender stepped up her own personal idiocy by indulging in a double dose of her early morning chest exercises. She had considered telling her that breasts were made of fatty tissue, not muscle, so exercises wouldn't help her with that at all. Instead she settled for leaving the fool girl to waste her time learning that tidbit of information on her own.

She hoisted her book bag a little higher on her shoulder as she made her way over to the boys, even going so far as to give Ron a friendly 'good morning' he seemed to need. To Harry though she gave the biggest sideways hug her bag would allow before they moved to go down to breakfast. Both boys seemed better rested than her, which wasn't surprising considering her low-grade worried state, but what was rather peculiar was what had gotten Ron out of sorts.

Hermione would've thought that being drafted to try out for the Quidditch team would've been the best present in the world for him to get but it seemed like his summer bluster had only been a cover for some pretty deep insecurities. Ron didn't put it that way, of course, preferring instead to externalize his fear of inadequacy by making it into a conspiracy that was out to embarrass him.

The fact it was his own family supposedly doing the plotting spoke volumes about where all his hang-ups came from though. It seemed as though no matter who you were family issues were always going to be a minefield to navigate. Still, she'd never thought about what being the youngest of six boys – and still not being the baby – would've done to her friend's mindset, but considering it now made quite a few things pop into place.

'Everyone's got a story inside them,' her father's voice said in her head. 'If you understand what it is, it's much easier to understand why they do what they do.'

Whether Harry subscribed to the theory or not, he seemed intent on combatting their friend's unspoken fears by asserting that he'll be great. She tried to add her own assurances by noting all the practice he's had over the summer, and the fact that his brothers had nothing to gain by setting him up to fail, but she didn't think Ron was really interested in that part just yet. Still, she'd done her due diligence to put their rough patch behind them and give him something to think on so they could continue on as friends.

As they entered the great hall Hermione could see signs of Dumbledore's subtle scheme to slowly turn everyone against Harry, but with all the people around you had to be pretty sharp-eyed to catch it. The four long house tables were still laden with tureens of porridge, plates of kippers, and large piles of toast – but they all looked more modest than they had last year. The porridge looked watery, the kippers smaller, and the toast came more in mounds than mountains.

Madam Pomfrey was reading something at the high table as Hermione took a seat next to Harry and Neville greeted them cheerfully, the sight making the uncertainty roiling in her stomach match the dull gray clouds of the enchanted ceiling above. She briefly considered going over to see if the woman had discovered anything yet, but she didn't want to draw attention to herself by doing it in front of everyone. Surely there'd be time for that later on, so she put it on hold for now.

Worries piled on top of worries though as she saw other students with copies of one Lockhart book or another, all trying to get in some last minute reading before class. In a moment of panic, Hermione wondered if Ron would let her borrow his copy of Voyages with Vampires or the like, just in case she'd been wrong about everything she'd thought this summer.

'Stop it. You're not going to do this to yourself,' Hermione said in her mind as she covertly tried to hide her rapidly fraying nerves from everyone around her. 'If you're going to worry about things, you should only worry about important things, and Lockhart isn't one of them. It may be possible for the man not to be a fraud but it's no use worrying about the lost time studying until he proves you should've studied his books in the first place, and that's on him.'

"Mail's due any minute," Neville said as she took a breath and tried to soothe herself by dishing up some food and observing the monotonous and ultimately unstressful details of everyday life. "–I think Gran's sending a few things I forgot."

She'd just started her porridge, and was thinking about engaging the unassuming Neville in conversation, when a sudden rushing sound overhead announced the arrival of a hundred owls or more. The birds streamed in and circled the hall, dropping letters and packages into the chattering crowd, one of them bouncing a big, lumpy package off Neville's head as another landed next to her. Thinking that withdrawing from the social sphere entirely might do more to take her mind off her worries, she relieved the post owl of the Daily Prophet and dove headfirst into its pages.

Surprisingly, the Prophet was full of good news for a change. Front and center, above the fold, were the goblins standing beside the Ministry wizards they'd been holding captive for weeks. And though she shared their hope the event would 'mark the beginning of a new age of peace, prosperity, and better understanding between peoples,' what she didn't understand was why everyone had pizza boxes in their hands, as if the whole thing was nothing more serious than a company picnic.

She had just started a dense-looking article about the goblins winning their case concerning the Isle of Gringotts when movement to one side drew her attention. It looked as though the workings of the wider wizarding world would be harder to keep abreast of now that they were here for at that moment Professor McGonagall was moving along the Gryffindor table handing out course schedules. Even more surprising than the misplaced pizza boxes was the excited look in her boyfriend's eye when he saw their head of house.

"Professor, I have a question," Harry shockingly said before he ever set eyes on their schedule. "Is it alright if I have a house-elf here at Hogwarts?"

Hermione didn't know which part more strongly underscored just how much he'd changed for the better over the summer. The fact his first impulse wasn't to smuggle Dobby in and keep him a secret was definitely laudable, but actually asking permission – albeit rather late in the day when it came to proper planning – was something she'd never thought he'd do. Unlike what some may say, it didn't look like all boys were untamable hooligans after all.

"I assume this is the house-elf you told me about a few weeks ago?" their professor asked with a scrutinizing look in her eye.

"Er – yes, ma'am," he replied awkwardly. "He's been doing work at the Weasleys for a while but now that summer's over…," Harry said, his glance around them telling her that he was becoming increasingly aware that they were sure to attract more attention the longer they talked. "He can stay in my room. He won't cause any trouble," he finished quickly, for the life of him sounding like a child trying to convince his parents to let him keep a stray puppy.

Professor McGonagall looked at him in the patented a-puppy-is-a-great-deal-of-responsibility way sure to have Harry sitting on pins and needles.

"There's no rule against it, so far as I recall," she said eventually. "Regardless, I don't want it to be a distraction, and keeping him in the dorm would certainly create one. We have lodgings in the kitchens directly below us for the house-elves in our care; I'm sure your elf will be happy there."

"Would the same be available for any other elf that wanted it?" Hermione asked as she took her schedule, something else to talk to Lichfield about crystalizing in her mind.

"You have a house-elf, Miss Granger?" McGonagall replied curiously. "I didn't think you would support the practice."

"I didn't, at first, until I learned more about the complexities involved," she tried to explain in as few words as possible. "The house-elf I'm talking about though isn't mine, it works for Mister Lichfield. He allowed her to work for me since he has so little for her to do and I wouldn't want her to suffer from its loss now that we're in school."

"Well, if Mister Lichfield is alright with it, I see no reason to deny it," the woman said swiftly before turning to the nearest eavesdropper. "Do you have something you need to ask about, Mister Weasley?"

Ron just shook his head as he got his schedule and continued eating as tartan-swathed professor continued on her way.

"You think Lichfield will let Mipsy come here for work?" Harry asked as Hermione checked her schedule and saw they had the morning full of double Herbology with the Hufflepuffs and a single period of Transfiguration.

"I hope so," she replied with a twisting stomach as she wondered if the potential good that could still be gained through the man outweighed the trouble of staying quiet about all the other things he did. "It'd not only give her all the work she could possibly want, it'd also allow her to socialize with a whole community of house-elves for the first time. And if Dobby's there," she said as she tried to work out her own thoughts, "he could serve as a stabilizing influence as she begins to make other friends on her own."

"Well, who could say no to that?" her boyfriend said supportively as she returned to her copy of the Daily Prophet in an attempt to clear her head. "How do we get to the kitchens anyway?"

"There's supposed to be a stairway leading down there," Hermione said absentmindedly as she skimmed the headlines in the last few minutes remaining to them. "I'm not sure where it is but it can't be far. Besides that, I know you're supposed to 'tickle a pear' to gain entry, so it probably goes to a hallway with portraits."

A bit of a flash on the Prophet caught her eye but she couldn't pin down what had done it.

"I suppose we can find it later then," Harry said as he checked his watch and another flash drew her attention and settled a weight in her stomach.

It an ad for Sleakeazy's Hair Potion. It was an ad with a picture of her smiling face as she looked off the Hogwarts Express not twenty-four hours ago.

'The gall of these people!' she screeched in her head. 'Taking advantage of Harry to sell tawdry gossip magazines might be unavoidable since he's a public figure,' Hermione fumed, 'but this is rank stupidity. How could they possibly think they can use my image to tell their product?!'

"Harry, can I borrow Hedwig? It's important," she asked as she quickly dug into her bag for her letter, quill, and ink eager to strike a blow at someone for a change.

"What – now?" he replied as everyone started to leave for their first classes.

"Yes, I'm afraid it can't wait," Hermione said seriously, not wanting to lose the several hours of flying time Hedwig would have before lunch.

"Er – sure," her boyfriend replied, obviously at a loss as to what was going on.

"I may be late for Herbology," she said as she folded up her newspaper with no time to explain. "Could you take my books for me?" she asked, hoping to avoid having to haul the heavy load back and forth through the castle if she didn't have to.

"Sure," Harry agreed again as he and Ron stood.

She could tell they both had questions, though far more in Harry's case. Unfortunately though, there wasn't time to answer any of them. Instead, she darted forward to give him a hug and a kiss-on-the-cheek for the imposition.

"Thanks," Hermione said with a smile before turning to run off.

Rather than taking her straight to the owlery, the chaos of everyone leaving was just the cover she needed, so she detoured up to the high table where Madam Pomfrey was just getting up.

"Did you find out anything?" she asked quietly as soon as she stood across from her.

"Nothing definitive, Miss Granger," the nurse said understandingly. "I've spoken to colleagues at Saint Mungo's and while what you did may be uncommon," the woman said, placing the blame on her rather than admitting any irresponsibility on herself for leaving them unsupervised in the first place. "They've all agreed that it shouldn't be life-threatening."

Hermione breathed a little bit easier at that, but only a bit because there was still a host of things it could be that'd still be very bad.

"Furthermore," Pomfrey continued in a hushed tone, "they seem to think whatever affects you do experience will likely be minor. That assessment though is based on the quantity of potion you said you took, not on a detailed analysis of how the potions might interact. Of course, they're trying to determine what those effects might be, based on the information they have–"

Hermione cut her off, "–I still don't want you discussing this with Professor Snape."

The nurse gave her a you're-not-acting-in-your-own-best-interests look.

"You're going to be late for class," the woman said, giving her no choice but to conclude she'd go behind her back as soon as she could but there was nothing she could do without making everyone aware of everything she didn't want them to know.

'I hate this world and all the people in it!' Hermione fumed as she ran off to the owlery.

.o0O0o.

He and Ron left the castle and much to his dismay, he quickly found managing two book bags was ten times as difficult as carrying one. The only consolation he found though was that neither of them were as heavy as they could've been for neither he nor Hermione had bought any of Lockhart's books. Still, the greenhouses were a torturously long way from their seats in the great hall when the carrying options seemed limited to leaning to one side when trying to stay upright or having your hand destroyed by the extra weight on that little top strap.

"Did Hermione seem… stressed to you?" his best mate asked when Harry paused to take a break on their journey through the vegetable patch.

He couldn't deny he'd picked up on a stressful vibe from her, especially when she'd run off like that. Ron calling it 'stressed' though was probably a polite way for him to say 'your girlfriend's on the verge of going mad,' which was hopefully exaggerating things. Running up to talk to Madam Pomfrey said a lot about what was on his girlfriend's mind, but it wasn't his place to talk about it when Hermione hadn't mentioned it yet.

"I can't see why she would be," he lied, bending over to hoist up her bag again. "We don't even have any homework yet," Harry said, hoping to deflect things as he stumbled his way into finding a comfortable way to carry the second bag.

As it turned out, if he held it directly in front of him most of the issues disappeared.

"She probably just wanted to write to Lichfield straight away," he finished feebly, hoping at least part of it was true. Harry hated lying to Ron about things with Hermione, but hated the thought of betraying Hermione's confidence even more. He hadn't expected being a boyfriend would put him in this kind of situation.

As they neared the greenhouses where the magical plants were kept they saw the rest of the class already standing outside waiting for them. Professor Sprout, the squat little witch wearing a patched hat to cover her flyaway hair, looked particularly earthy with smears of dark soil embedded in her clothes and fingernails that would've made Aunt Petunia faint. When Harry and Ron joined them, she decided it was time to begin.

"Greenhouse three today, chaps!" a particularly cheerful-looking Sprout said as she turned to guide the class to the greenhouse in question.

A murmur of interest rose from the class as it moved to follow her, and Harry couldn't help but feel the same. They'd only ever worked in greenhouse one before; greenhouse three was supposed to house far more interesting and dangerous plants. In spite of the grudging dislike he'd gotten from being forced to do the Dursleys' gardening, he still found the weird magical plants really interesting when Hermione'd had him learn about them during the summer.

Ron turned to give him a look when it was their turn to amble along behind them, and it was then he'd realized that his feet were stuck. By now, Hermione could've gotten to the owlery and maybe sent off Hedwig, but even then it'd still be several minutes before she got here, even if she ran the whole way. If he stayed to wait for her though they'd both be late and have to wander into a dangerous greenhouse together with no idea what's in there, but if he didn't wait she'd never know where they were in the first place.

The problem was, neither of those options seemed a boyfriend-like thing to do. Still, he had to do something, Harry told himself as Ron slowly backed away to with a shrug and a grin as if to say, 'Hey, you signed up for this.' In the end, he had to solve it the only way he could: by asking himself what Hermione would do and darting off after the teacher.

"Professor," Harry huffed as he skid to a halt and Professor Sprout took a large key from her belt and unlocked the greenhouse door. "Hermione had to run and mail a letter, so–"

"Just leave her a note then," the stout witch said with a wave as she opened the door, releasing the smell of damp earth and fertilizer mingled with a heavy flowery perfume. "There's no reason for you to be late too. Come along, everyone!"

She started to lead the class inside, several passing girls giving him a look that said they knew exactly why he was holding two book bags instead of one.

'At this rate it'll be all over the school by lunch,' he thought, conflicted about how he should feel about that.

It wasn't as if he were embarrassed or ashamed by her or anything – not at all, Hermione was great. There was a part of him though that liked it better when it just them who knew. All these other people knowing made him feel singled out even more than he usually did, and that made it seem all the more likely to fail.

Setting Hermione's bag down, Harry shrugged out of his own and turned to Ron.

"Can you carry this in for me?" he asked.

"Sure, I can, but it doesn't mean I will," his friend replied, standing immovable for a moment before reaching out to take his bag from him and smiling as he went inside, seeming to take joy in the fact that this wasn't happening to him.

Harry made his way back to the path that'd brought them here, finding quill, ink, and a scrap of parchment in her bag to make the note.

Up against the door to greenhouse one he wrote, 'I'm worried about Her–' before stopping.

That hadn't been what he wanted to write.

Trying again produced: 'I'm concerned abou–'

Increasingly aggravated at all the little things in life turning against him, Harry tore off that part and tried again. 'We're in greenhouse three,' normally wouldn't've seemed that big a victory but he took it nonetheless. Then, thinking she might miss the note if he took her bag with him, returned the stuff he'd used and leaned the bag against the door with the note clearly visible on top.

Slipping into greenhouse three he saw a rather unusual sight coming in the form of umbrella-sized flowers hanging from the ceiling. Professor Sprout was standing behind a trestle bench as Harry took a spot next to Ron. There were several potted plants the class was gathered around, and next to them, larger empty pots and about twenty pairs of different-colored earmuffs.

"We'll be repotting mandrakes today," she said in the straight-forward way she had as the name tugged at Harry's mind. "Now, who can tell me the properties of the mandrake?" she asked, eyes scanning for the first raised hand.

To his own surprise, that hand belonged to him.

"It's a restorative," Harry could almost hear Hermione say even though he was the one saying it, their time spent studying already paying dividends. "It's used to cure people who've been cursed."

"Cursed or transfigured, yes," Professor Sprout elaborated. "Take five points for Gryffindor. The mandrake forms an essential part of most antidotes," she explained to the class. "It's very powerful, but it's also very dangerous. Who can tell me why?"

Ron gave him a look when his hand narrowly missed hitting him as it shot up again.

"Their cry is fatal to whoever hears it," he said promptly, his brain refusing to let him forget a plant that could kill him instantly.

"Precisely. Take another ten points," said Professor Sprout. "Now, the mandrakes we have here are still very young," she said, pointing to the row of deep trays.

Everyone shuffled closer for a better look at where the hundred or so tufty little plants, purplish green in color, were growing in rows. He couldn't remember the picture their book had, or even if it'd had a picture, but they looked unremarkable to him. It was hard to see what was meant by the "cry" of the mandrake too since they were just leafy plants.

"Everyone take a pair of earmuffs," Professor Sprout said chipperly.

Suddenly there was a mad dash as everyone tried to seize a pair that wasn't pink and fluffy. He managed to grab two, for him and Hermione, but Ron wasn't so lucky. His friend gave him to look as if to say, 'Come on, she's not even here,' and Harry reluctantly agreed to trade; he had carried in his bag after all.

"When I tell you to put them on," Professor Sprout said in a warning tone, "make sure your ears are completely covered. And when it's safe to remove them, I will give you a thumbs-up," she said, demonstrating the gesture in the clumsy way only adults had. "Right – earmuffs on."

Everyone snapped the earmuffs over their ears, shutting out sound completely. Professor Sprout put a pair pink, fluffy earmuffs on, rolled up the sleeves of her robes, grasped a tufty plant firmly, and pulled hard.

Harry let out a gasp of surprise no one could hear when instead of roots, a small, muddy, and extremely ugly baby popped out of the earth. It had pale green, mottled skin and was bawling at the top of its lungs – which wasn't surprising since the plant she'd pulled was growing right out of its head!

'Why didn't they have pictures of this in the book?' he thought. 'There's no way anyone would forget seeing that yelling out at them from its pages.'

Professor Sprout took a large plant pot from under the table and plunged the mandrake into it, burying him in dark, damp compost until only the tufted leaves were visible. She then dusted off her hands, gave them a thumbs–up, and removed the earmuffs as if she'd done nothing more exciting than water a begonia.

"As our mandrakes are only seedlings, their cries won't kill yet," she said calmly. "However, they will knock you out for several hours, and as I'm sure none of you want to miss your first day back, make sure your earmuffs are securely in place while you work. I will attract your attention when it is time to pack up.

"Four to a tray," she called as the door behind them opened and everyone began to separate out. "There's a large supply of pots here," Professor Sprout gestured in front of them as Harry turned to see Hermione making her way over to them. "–Compost in the sacks over there," the woman said with a wave, "–and be careful of the venomous tentacula, it's teething."

She gave a quick sharp slap to a spiky, dark red plant when she was done, making it draw back the long feelers it had been inching eerily over her shoulder.

Hermione seemed more like herself as she joined them at their tray. Harry didn't know whether to ask what she'd been doing or if it'd be better to leave it for later, perhaps using the points he'd just earned as an additional distraction from her worries. None of it was needed though for just then they were joined by a curly–haired Hufflepuff boy that he knew by sight but never spoken to.

"Justin Finch–Fletchley," he said brightly, taking Harry by the hand. "Know who you are, of course, the famous Harry Potter… And you're Hermione Granger, always top in everything."

Hermione's spirits seemed to rise as she had her hand shaken too.

"–And you're…," Justin floundered when he turned to Ron, his brain already coming up empty. "…Wesley?"

"Weasley," Ron said without a smile. "Ron Weasley."

"Right," the boy said happily. "All these plants are really something, eh?" he asked as they began filling their pots with dragon dung compost and Hermione looked dubiously at the earmuffs. "The class I'm really looking forward though is Defense Against the Dark Arts.

"That Lockhart's something, isn't he?" Justin said smilingly as Hermione shifted her doubting look to him. "Awfully brave chap. Have you read his books? – I'm sure you have," he said as an aside to her before barreling on. "I would've died of fright if I'd been cornered in a telephone booth by a werewolf, but he stayed cool and – zap! – just fantastic.

"My name was down for Eton, you know," the boy continued undauntedly. "I can't tell you how glad I am I came here instead. Of course, Mother was slightly disappointed," he claimed with an air saying he was sure they understood, "but since I made her read Lockhart's books I think she's begun to see how useful it'll be to have a fully trained wizard in the family…"

Harry put his earmuffs on after that, followed quickly by Ron and Hermione. But while it didn't leave much chance to talk with their newfound 'friend' they could finally concentrate on the task at hand. Hermione stood watching for a moment, trying to piece together what the lesson was about, and Harry was having a hard time showing her.

Professor Sprout had made it look easy, but it wasn't at all. The mandrakes didn't seem to like coming out of the earth, but didn't seem to want to go back into it either. They kicked, squirmed, flailed their sharp little fists, and gnashed their teeth whenever anyone tried to move them. He and Hermione spent ten whole minutes trying to squash a particularly fat one into a pot and by the end of class everyone was sweaty, aching, and covered in dirt – Hermione was properly impressed at the points he'd gotten though, so that was something at least.

Thankfully, they had time for a quick wash before they hurried off to Transfiguration.

Professor McGonagall's classes had always been hard work but today wasn't as bad as he expected – at least in the beginning. The first part was fairly easy since it was a review of what they'd learned last year and Hermione made sure they'd spent extra time studying it when she learned he hated it. Still, he supposed he fared better than Ron did; he sat there looking like everything they'd learned had leaked out of his ears and McGonagall had crammed it all back in at once.

The lesson turned grueling though as soon as she moved on to something new, and today's task was turning a beetle into a button. Ron shared his frustration but all he managed was giving his beetle a lot of exercise as it scuttled over the desktop avoiding his wand. Harry didn't know whether it was luck or annoyance but by the end of the class he'd managed to turn a couple of those bugs into flattened disks with little wiggling legs on them.

He was still relieved to hear the lunch bell though because his brain felt like a wrung sponge. As they went down to lunch he tried to be supportive of the pair of perfect coat buttons Hermione had produced, but it was hard to get excited about anything other than getting out of that classroom. To him, Transfiguration would always be torture.

As they sat, Harry considered asking her how she was and about what was going on. For the life of him though he couldn't see how doing it now was any better than doing it at breakfast and, more importantly, he didn't know if it'd make things better or worse. Sure, maybe the silent stress-filled vibe she was giving off really was her getting stressed out – or, the vibe could just be her being 'a worrier' and she's not talking about it because it keeps her from worrying even more.

This was a side of her he didn't really didn't know, so what was he supposed to do?

"What've we got this afternoon?" he asked instead, and regretted it almost instantly.

"Defense Against the Dark Arts," Hermione said in a growl.

Ron looked at her from the side of his eye before seizing her schedule with a bewildered look.

"Why have you drawn little skulls around Lockhart's lessons?"

Hermione shot him an unflinching look.

"I mean–," their ginger-haired friend equivocated as he put her schedule back. "We know you hate him, but isn't that a little much?"

"We'll see what is and isn't too much when we get to class," she said firmly like a magistrate about to pass judgement.

Ron looked over at him as Hermione pulled out her Daily Prophet again and his meaning was clear; Harry though had the unenviable job of pretending he saw nothing scary going on with his girlfriend and it was perfectly normal to shoot death glares at your best friends for asking questions. He'd have to find a way to talk to her soon, he decided, even if it meant asking Ron to leave for a while – though now he probably wouldn't even have to ask. He'd thought having all these people around would make it more difficult to talk but he'd never expected this.

They finished lunch in silence and afterwards went outside into the overcast courtyard. It didn't look like the open air would help improve his girlfriend's mood though since she immediately sat down on a stone step with her nose still buried in the Prophet. Thinking this might be the best chance he'd be likely to get, Harry looked to Ron.

Ron understood and without a word made his way to where Seamus and Dean were sitting.

He sat down next to Hermione, and nervously flattened down his hair as he tried to come up with what to say. He just opened his mouth when–

"All right, Harry?" an eager voice asked somewhat breathlessly.

Looking up, he saw Colin Creevey, the mousy–haired boy from the Sorting, now staring at him transfixed. He was clutching a muggle camera – though thankfully he didn't blind them again. The moment Harry looked at him though he went bright red.

"I'm – I'm Colin Creevey," the boy said nervously, taking a tentative step forward. "From the Hopefuls?" he prompted as if he could've forgotten.

"I remember," Harry said politely.

"So how are you liking Hogwarts?" Hermione asked as she pocketed the Prophet so she could give the first year her undivided attention.

"Oh, it's great!" a smile Colin said as he raised the camera. "It's amazing here. I've taken loads of pictures. That reminds me–," he added, quickly hanging the camera around his neck as he dug in his bag. "I developed this one already," he said proudly as he handed them a photograph.

He couldn't help but chuckle when he saw the picture. It was so expected but so great he had a hard time knowing which part he liked best. All it showed was him and Hermione at the Hopefuls meeting, but rather than anything staged his eyes were half-open like he'd been knocked out while standing up and Hermione's were open wide, as big as an owl's.

"I've heard all about you since I got here," Colin said eagerly. "Everyone's told me. About how you survived when You–Know–Who tried to kill you, and how he disappeared and everything, and about how you've still got a lightning scar on your forehead–," the boy said as his eyes raked Harry's hairline. "A boy in my dormitory even said if I develop the film in the right potion, the pictures'll move."

Colin drew a great shuddering breath of excitement and said, "I'm hoping to send one to my little brother, Dennis, and it'd be really good if I had one with you, so I could prove I've met you." Darting a look to Hermione he added, "Maybe your friend could take it and I could stand next to you? And then, could you sign it?"

"Signed photos? You're giving out signed photos, Potter?"

Loud and scathing, Draco Malfoy's voice echoed around the courtyard. He had stopped right behind Colin, but Harry couldn't fail to notice the continued absence of Draco's thuggish cronies, Crabbe and Goyle. He found them on the far side of the courtyard but they made no move to back up their boss.

"Everyone line up!" Malfoy roared to the crowd. "Harry Potter's giving out signed photos!"

"Shut up, Malfoy," Harry said angrily, his fists clenching as he stood.

"You're just jealous," piped up Colin, whose entire body was about as thick as Crabbe's neck.

"Jealous?" asked Malfoy, who didn't need to shout anymore since the entire courtyard was now listening in. "Of what? I don't want a foul scar right across my head, thanks. I don't think getting your head cut open makes you that special, myself."

"Neither do I, but it doesn't stop people from thinking it," Harry retorted.

"At least Harry doesn't have to pull stunts to get people to notice him," Hermione chimed in to say. "What are you going to do next once this one fails?"

"Eat slugs, Malfoy," Ron said defiantly as he came back over to join them.

Unperturbed, the blond git struck out at the new target.

"Oh! It looks like Weasley'd like a signed photo, Potter," smirked Malfoy. "It'd be worth more than his family's whole house–"

Ron whipped out his wand but Hermione was quick to whisper, "Look out!"

"What's all this, what's all this?" Gilderoy Lockhart cried as he came striding toward them in immaculate turquoise robes, his golden hair shining under a perfectly positioned turquoise hat with gold trim. "Who's giving out signed photos?"

Malfoy started to speak but he was cut short as Lockhart flung an arm around Colin's shoulders.

"Shouldn't have asked! We meet again, Harry!" he thundered jovially as he maneuvered Colin to stand between them with a fixed grin. "Come on then, Mr. Creevey," Lockhart said with a pat on the boy's shoulder. "You go on over and I'll take the picture myself, you can't do better than that."

Colin fumbled his camera towards him and came over to them while a disgruntled Malfoy slid back into the crowd. Harry positioned them so Ron and Hermione were standing with them when they took the picture so it'd hopefully look like a group of friends more than anything else.

"Here you go, Mister Creevey," Lockhart said as he handed back the camera as the bell rang out behind them, signaling the start of afternoon classes. "And make sure you don't forget the autograph he owes you," he added with a glittering smile. "The time may come when, like me, he'll need to keep a stack of those handy wherever he goes, but that one will always be unique."

"Wow! Thanks, Professor," Colin beamed before heading off with his new prize.

"Now off you go," Lockhart called to the crowd as they began to disperse. "Move along there or we'll all be late for class," he chided with a smile before he swept off up to the castle, leaving the rest of them to follow in his wake.

"That wasn't what I expected of him," Hermione said as they set off back to the castle.

"Malfoy?" Harry asked. "It's exactly what I expect from him."

"Not him," his girlfriend corrected him, "Gilderoy Lockhart."

"Why, what'd you expect Lockhart to do?" Ron asked as they entered the building through a side door.

"Seeing how he tried to use Harry to make the front page the last time he saw him," Hermione reminded them as they moved down the corridor, the aforementioned showoff swirling up a staircase far ahead. "I expected him to do the same here, possibly making a show about what a big celebrity he is. Mind you, he did do a bit of that at the end, but I expected him to go much further, like butting into the picture with Colin."

"You think the thought of Lichfield scared him out of it?" Harry said with a smile, remembering the way the old bailiff had sent the man twirling off just by twisting his pinky.

"Perhaps," she said dubiously as they went up the staircase themselves. "Knowing him, there's a more self-serving motive behind it," Hermione mused, determined not to give the man the benefit of the doubt. "He might be trying to undo the damage that did to his reputation though by trying to make it seem like he's not a self-aggrandizing fool."

"And he could be buttering up Creevey to get him to start a Gilderoy Lockhart fan club," Ron added with a snicker. "Are you really going to sign that photo?"

"No," he said immediately.

"Why not?" Hermione asked curiously, as if she really thought he should.

"I don't want to be a celebrity," Harry said, wondering how his girlfriend could've forgotten the one thing he really shouldn't have to remind her about.

"Of course not," she replied, "but that doesn't mean it still wouldn't be a nice thing to do."

"How so?" Ron asked.

"While Colin may see you as a bit of a celebrity now," Hermione addressing her remarks to him instead of Ron, "that doesn't mean it'll always be that way. You saw how he was at the Hopefuls meeting," she reminded him.

"He was fascinated by everything," he recalled.

"Exactly, so he may be fascinated by you right now, but it could also be him making the most of a limited opportunity," she said meaningfully, though for the life of him he couldn't see it. "If he was going to be a Hopeful, it means his family's in dire financial straits. So he could be sending all those pictures home to show his brother what he's got to look forward to, but…"

"But if they can't pay for it, he may not see it at all," Harry finished for her, the worming feeling of guilt coming back to nest in his stomach again for ending the good things Dumbledore had been doing with the money he stole.

Today was turning out to be a very complicated day.

They reached the classroom just in time to join the scrum of people trying to get inside. The front and back rows had already been taken when they got in, leaving the seats right in the middle that teachers seemed to call on the most. Ron and Hermione sat down on either side of him, Ron going so far as to pile all seven of Lockhart's books in front of himself in an attempt to blend in.

The lack of Lockhart's books made Harry feel out of place since almost everyone else had them.

When the whole class was seated, Lockhart cleared his throat loudly and silence fell. He reached forward, picked up Neville's copy of Travels with Trolls, and held it up to show his own, winking portrait on the front.

"Me," he said smarmily, pointing at the winking book and winking at them well. "Gilderoy Lockhart, Order of Merlin, Third Class, Honorary Member of… –of many distinguished groups," he said falteringly, "and five–time winner of Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile Award – but I don't talk about that. I didn't get rid of the Bandon Banshee by smiling at her!"

Their would-be "professor" waited for them to laugh but only a few people smiled weakly. It was remarkable though how he could show every one of his teeth, even when he wasn't talking. It was more than a little creepy.

"I see you've all bought a complete set of my books," Lockhart said, his eyes seeming to go out of their way not to see the people who didn't. "Well done. I thought we'd start today with a little quiz. Not to worry, it's just to check how well you've read them and how much you've taken in."

He then returned Neville's book and handed out a thick load of test papers. Harry looked over to Hermione to see what she thought of this, but somehow it looked as though she was the one giving the test. Afterwards Lockhart returned to the front of the class.

"You have thirty minutes," he said cheerfully. "Start – now!"

Harry looked down at his paper and despite everything Hermione had said, he still couldn't believe what he read:

1. What is Gilderoy Lockhart's favorite color?

2. What is Gilderoy Lockhart's secret ambition?

3. What, in your opinion, is Gilderoy Lockhart's greatest achievement to date?

On and on it went, over three sides of paper, right down to:

54. When is Gilderoy Lockhart's birthday, and what would his ideal gift be?

'How on earth is anyone supposed to know any of this stuff?' Harry wondered.

Ron seemed to be thinking the same thing when he looked over to him but in the end shrugged and looked determined to make up the best answer he could. On his other side, Hermione was hard at work answering every question, though he couldn't see what she wrote. Lacking anything else to do, he decided that might as well fail with flying colors – at least he thought the answer to the first one was lilac.

"Harry, don't answer that," his girlfriend whispered.

He looked at her from the corner of his eye while trying to look busy.

"Save that test for me, will you?" Hermione asked quietly with the same determined look she got when she was tracking down the right answer for something.

Lockhart was admiring his own pictures and determining the perfect place for the frames to sit on his desk, so Harry was able to slip the test into his bag without him knowing.

"Thanks," she whispered afterwards as she continued to work.

Ron just shook his head at this and went back to making stuff up.

Half an hour later, Lockhart collected the papers and rifled through them in front of the class.

"Tut, tut – hardly any of you remembered that my favorite color is lilac," the toothy man said with a glittering smile. "I say so in Year with the Yeti, though – a Mister Ronald Weasley got very close with his 'whatever color you're wearing' answer. Lilac's truly my all-time favorite but I wear whatever strikes my fancy day-to-day.

"A few of you need to read Wanderings with Werewolves more carefully too," he continued. "I clearly state in chapter twelve that my ideal birthday gift would be harmony between all magic and non–magic peoples – though I wouldn't say no to a large bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhisky!"

He gave them all a roguish wink he must've thought disarming.

Ron looked to Harry and nodded at Lockhart with an expression of disbelief on his face. Seamus and Dean, who were sitting down front, were beginning to shake in silent laughter. Hermione, on the other hand, sat stone still and completely impassive, seeming to wait for something to happen. She didn't have to wait long.

Lockhart stopped flipping through the papers and his brow lowered.

"Well now," he said as he flipped over to the next page, his face looking testier and testier as he went. "Besides getting everything wrong, this person's being intentionally insulting! Where is Miss Hermione Granger?"

Hermione's hand shot up straight into the air, not that it needed to since everyone'd turned to look at her. Ron's ears became decidedly pink and he slumped down to hide behind his books. Harry, on the other hand, was trying to do his best impression of someone who'd just gone blind and deaf, but was no less happy about it.

"You have a problem with my quiz, Miss Granger?"

"I have a problem with everything," she replied, which only made Harry feel like a heel when he thought her statement was truer than she intended. "What exactly are we supposed to be learning with this? How is knowing your favorite color or ideal gift supposed to help us with Defense Against the Dark Arts?"

"Well, it's – um," their professor stammered, his jaunty personality slipping.

"It's useless information, that's what it is," Hermione decreed, and Harry could almost hear the gavel hammering down 'guilty!' "Those books are the worst sort of textbooks imaginable."

Lockhart's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he said, "Well, of course they are. They're not supposed to be textbooks."

"What?" Harry asked, suffering a sudden reversal of deafness.

"Well do use your common sense!" the man smiled, as if it were obvious. "No one wants to read a textbook, they're boring."

"How about you use your common sense," Hermione demanded. "Those books have no place being in a classroom. They fill your mind with useless fluff when they should be providing facts."

"Alright, everyone, raise your hand," Gilderoy Lockhart said to the class at large. "Raise your hand if you read your boring old textbooks over the summer."

Hermione's hand went straight into the air again. Harry added his shortly afterwards, though it was more a show of support than anything else. When he thought about it though, he had read parts of them. No one else seemed eager to join their little club though.

"Now, everyone raise your hand if you've read one of my books," the man smiled as hands rose around him. "There, you see?"

"That doesn't prove anything," Hermione maintained.

"It proves they're far more entertaining than any old textbook," Lockhart said with a wave.

"And that still doesn't help us!" she said angrily as she stood. "How is entertainment supposed to teach us how to identify werewolves, ward off vampires, or survive against a troll?"

"Oh, honestly!" Gilderoy cried with a put-upon face. "When are you going to face a troll?"

'Halloween?' Harry thought.

Seamus Finnigan broke out laughing.

"Yes, see?" Lockhart said, gesturing to the laughing boy, "It's ridiculous."

"What's ridiculous is your lack of ethics," Hermione said, rather than going for the obvious. "You assigned seven books you wrote to every student in school, that's hundreds of copies you make money from," she said accusatively. "How many thousands of galleons have you made by forcing us to buy your books – books you've admitted are useless when it comes to teaching?"

While Hermione had gotten nowhere singing the praises of textbooks, Harry noticed this point drew in more than a few people. No one liked being bored but they all hated being taken advantage of.

"Those books aren't here to teach, there here to fill up your free time," a flustered fraud said. "I'm the one here to teach."

"Then everyone who bought them wasted their money and you never should have assigned them in the first place. Our time is better filled by doing work that'd actually teach us something."

"That booklist was approved by – um," a worried Lockhart cut off quickly.

"By Albus Dumbledore?" she asked scathingly. "Yes, tell us all about how a criminal who steals from children told you it was okay to extort money from your students! I, for one, refuse to stay in a useless class when I can learn more by pulling down any book in the library."

"Fine then, go!" Lockhart said prissily before remembering he was supposed to be a teacher. "But when you go to the library, make sure to drop by Detention on your way there!"

"Gladly!" Hermione growled before snatching up her bag and stalking from the room.

"Feel free to return when you're ready to apologize!" the blond git called after her.

Harry bent down to grab his bag and follow her but Ron grabbed his arm before he could.

"Don'tleavemealone," he squeaked quietly from his hiding place, the attention focused on them still palpable.

Before he could decide what to do, Lockhart dipped down behind his desk and lifted a large, covered cage onto it.

"Now – be warned!" the man cried dramatically to put the spat behind them and continue on with class. "It is my job to arm you against the foulest creatures known to wizardkind! You may find yourselves facing your worst fears in this room. Know only that no harm can befall you whilst I am here. All I ask is that you remain calm."

That whole thing sounded weird to Harry because no human being spoke like that. It sounded like he was reading from a script but everyone else seemed to key into it. Seamus and Dean had stopped laughing, Neville was cowering in his front row seat, and even Ron started to peek out from behind his pile of books for a better look.

"I must ask you not to scream," said Lockhart in a low voice as he placed a hand on the cover. "It might provoke them."

As the whole class held its breath, Lockhart whipped off the cover to reveal a swarm of electric blue insect-like things. They were about eight inches high, with pointed faces and voices so shrill it was like listening to a bunch of budgies arguing. The moment the cover was removed they started jabbering and rocketing around, rattling the bars and making bizarre faces at everyone.

"Yes," he said dramatically. "Freshly caught Cornish pixies."

Seamus Finnigan couldn't control himself. He let out a snort of laughter even Lockhart couldn't mistake for a scream of terror.

"Yes?" He smiled at Seamus.

"Well, they're not – they're not very – dangerous, are they?" Seamus choked.

"Don't be so sure, Mister Smarty-pants!" said Lockhart, waggling a finger annoyingly at Seamus. "Even tiny things like this can be devilishly tricky blighters if you don't know what you're doing!"

The man darted a quick look around the room and then–

"Right, then," Lockhart said loudly. "Let's see what you make of them!"

He opened the cage and unleashed chaos as pixies shot in every direction like little blue bullets. Two grabbed Neville and hoisted him into the air by his ears. Several rocketed through the window, showering the back of the class with broken glass. The rest proceeded to wreck the room more thoroughly than a rampaging rhino.

Harry and Ron dove under their desks as the pests grabbed ink bottles and sprayed the class with them.

"Can you believe him?" Ron roared as a pixie bit him painfully on the ear.

He swatted the thing away but as they shredded books and papers and tore pictures from the walls, Ron saw him make a break for freedom. Using his bag as a shield, Harry narrowly avoided an up-ended waste basket as he bolted through the door. Harry had left him!

Bags and books were being torn apart and thrown out of the smashed window. Within minutes, the rest of the class were sheltering under desks and Neville was swinging from the iron chandelier.

"Come on now – round them up, round them up, they're only pixies," Lockhart called gleefully.

Ron peeked out to see if maybe he could make a break for it too. What he saw though was Lockhart rolling up his sleeves, brandishing his wand, and bellowing, "Peskipiksi Pesternomi!"

Whatever spell it was had no effect, besides getting one of the pixies to snatch his wand and throw it out the window. The man then dove under his own desk, narrowly missing being squashed by Neville when the chandelier gave way a second later. He ducked below his desk again to avoid getting hit as the bell rang and there was a mad rush toward the exit.

A bit of peace settled in afterwards, so he poked his head up again. Lockhart did the same and, catching sight of him, said, "Well, I'll ask you to just nip the rest of them back into their cage," as he swept out of the room and quickly shut the door behind him.

'Why do I have to get drafted for everything?' Ron groused as a pixie cackled its way towards him.

.o0O0o.

"By how much?!" she asked scandalized.

"It depends on your body's natural development and how it responds," Madam Pomfrey replied. "In terms of what the effects could have been though, you're actually quite lucky."

"How is–," Hermione faltered, unwilling to repeat the effects the woman had named. "How is that supposed to be lucky?"

"Besides the fact that it's what most girls your age would ask for, if given the chance?"

"I am not like most girls."

"Regardless, whether you like the effects or not, at least the feminine potion is dominant," the nurse explained. "Had Mister Potter's potion taken control it would have twisted the other potion's sympathies in more severe ways and you'd be looking at very different set of problems. Emotional instability, bizarre hair growth, increased muscle mass beyond the norm for a girl your age–"

"I get the idea," she said quickly, hoping to avoid any mental images. "How could the other potion have gotten control though? All I took was a sip."

"Even a tiny bit of a magical potion can still have pronounced effects," Madam Pomfrey said. "For years, Professor Snape has had to brew countermeasures for what he'll be teaching, due to the number of pranks people pull."

The nurse's use of his name all but confirmed what she thought this morning.

"You spoke to him, didn't you?" Hermione asked. "I told you I didn't want him involved."

"You were making the assessment impossible," the nurse replied just as sternly, "so of course I spoke to him. I didn't tell him anything particular about your issue though. I simply asked for the relevant information for all the potions he's made for me, in case something goes wrong."

"And he just handed it over?" she asked, doubtful he'd be so forthcoming.

"Of course he did," Madam Pomfrey said. "No matter what you may think of the man, he's still the best potions master we've ever had."

"Is there any way to undo it?"

"Not without devising a potion specifically designed to counter it," the nurse explained. "Since this is both rare and not life-threatening, I've already been told Saint Mungo's will not be spending any of its limited resources on it. And even if you'd consider entrusting it to Professor Snape, he'd likely consider it a waste of his time."

"Of course he would," Hermione grumbled.

"Since it has a natural cut-off, the best thing to do may be to let it run its course and forget that it ever happened," Madam Pomfrey said supportively.

"Hermione?" Harry called from the far side of the hospital wing, still lingering at the doorway as if uncertain whether he was allowed to enter.

"If that's all, Miss Granger?" the nurse asked with a raised brow before taking her leave.

He inched his way forward the further away Madam Pomfrey got from her, but it was how he looked to the nurse as she passed him by that struck her. Harry might've been looking to her for answers but the question on his mind seemed to be whether it was safe to approach her. He must see her as a complete monster.

"Are you alright?" Harry asked as he approached.

"I'm fine," she replied, closing her outer robe and folding her arms in front of her.

"You yelled at a teacher and walked out of class," he said seriously. "You are not fine."

"Lockhart doesn't qualify as a teacher," Hermione said in return. "If anything he's a white-collar criminal."

"Still, would you like to tell me what's going on?" a concerned Harry asked.

"It's just…," she said, faltering in what she could say without it straying into the boy-girl areas that were too serious for them to talk about yet. "It was just one thing after another, and when he publically singled me out for ridicule – just for privately rebuking him on his behavior – I lost my temper, though I won't say it wasn't deserved."

"I'm not saying it wasn't," her boyfriend agreed, "but arguing with him in class is hardly what I call private."

"Of course not," Hermione said, finding a bit of amusement in how his mind always leapt to the most extreme part of things, even if he ended up overlooking the right answer. "That part was public, the private part was how I answered the quiz."

"How did you answer the quiz?" Harry asked as if he'd forgotten there'd been one.

"Critically, with something along the lines of: 'This is irrelevant. This is irrelevant. What does this have to do with Defense Against the Dark Arts? This question is useless.' That sort of thing," she replied.

"And the insulting part?" he prompted.

She hesitated before saying, "I called him a vainglorious poser with delusions of grandeur. Now, admittedly, that may not be completely true," Hermione equivocated. "He may have done at least part of what he says he's done – but he certainly comes off that way."

"Well, if you thought that way before, it's a good thing you left when you did," Harry said as he flattened down his hair.

"Why? What'd he do afterwards?" she asked, thinking the man took the opportunity to attack her again in front of the class.

"He released a bunch of pixies to demolish the place."

Hermione looked at him then, trying to find a glint of humor. It was harder than she thought.

"You're making that up," she concluded.

"Nope," Harry smiled. "He let them loose and they ran amok. I barely got out of there."

"Is there no limit to the depths of his incompetence?" Hermione asked thinking she may have to take matters into her own hands when it came to the man.

"I guess not," he said in a more sober tone and a shrug. "You were out of sorts way before him though," her boyfriend said, finally getting to more to the point without ever actually saying it.

"That's… less of an issue now," she said finally, thinking that he may have caught at least part of what they'd been talking about before he arrived. "Madam Pomfrey's learned more about what the potion's likely to do. It won't be anything too extreme–"

'I hope,' Hermione added to herself, hoping she wouldn't have to deal with the looks and sexist comments that'd come from enormous balloons sprouting from her chest overnight.

"–But there will be effects."

"Oh," Harry said somberly. "Er – sorry," he added, taking all the guilt upon himself again.

Trying to think of a way to get him not to think of it as his fault, a thought occurred to her.

"When you really think on it though, it's not unlike what it'll do to you," she said.

"What's that?"

"I told you last night the potions you took were likely going to affect your height, weight, and cognitive development, remember?" Hermione reminded him. "They're all aspects of normal human development you'll go through in the next several years."

"And now you'll be doing it too," Harry concluded.

"Technically, we all will," she said, trying to frame things within a normal adolescent context. "There's a great deal of change people go through at our age, and there's always individual variation in how pronounced the general changes are. Malfoy might look skinny and ferret-faced now but in the future he could get as bulky as Crabbe and Goyle currently are, and one of them could get lean while the other gets fat."

"Well, that's a pretty picture," her boyfriend replied.

"Now, our changes may be a little more than they would've been otherwise – but how are we to know what they would've been without it?" Hermione asked more to herself than him. "It's not like we can compare ourselves to an unaltered version once it's done."

"So I guess there's no real way to know if the potion did anything at all," Harry said with an odd look. "You kind of expect more out of a magic potion though, huh?" he asked in a clear attempt to lighten the mood.

"Normally, yes," she agreed, "but in this case I think less is more."

Harry shrugged, refusing to take a solid stance on a joke topic, while Hermione debated whether she should tell him about the potion she had secretly taken and her suspicion about Lichfield. It seemed much ado about nothing now though since talking with him and Madam Pomfrey had successfully mitigated the anxiety. Plus, there was the letter she'd sent, so she supposed there was no reason to until she knew for sure either way.

A series of muffled groans shook her from her thoughts and drew their attention to the hospital wing's door where Ron was supporting a limping Neville Longbottom.

"What happened?" she asked as they drew close and Madam Pomfrey bustled out of her office to see to the new arrival.

"He hurt himself falling from the chandelier," their friend replied.

"And what was Mister Longbottom doing on a chandelier?" the nurse asked disapprovingly.

"Well, it's not my fault," Ron said defensively. "The pixies put him there."

As Madam Pomfrey shooed them from the room, Hermione's mind was made up. She was going to do something about Gilderoy Lockhart before anyone else got hurt.

.o0O0o.

AN: Although the first three chapters were posted on a Christmas Eve, I'd actually been writing on it a bit beforehand. This means I've officially been working on this for the last three years. I guess it's kind of fitting then that this chapter marks where I passed 500k words, without Author's Notes, so it's two major milestones in one.

I can't take all the credit for this chapter though, there was plenty of things to use from the original book and this chapter covers all of CoS, Ch 6. Kind of strange that I covered so much though since the first 37 chapters only covered CoS, Ch 2 – 5 collectively. I kind of expected less, coming from me, but I guess there's only so much even I can do to draw things out. I'll try to do better in the future, lol. ;)

Thanks to everyone for sticking with me for this long, I hope it's been worth your while so far.

As always, thanks for reading.