'I am thoroughly disappointed in you, Professor, and ashamed I ever wanted to be anything like you!' The last words she said still echoed between her mind and her heart whenever she paused for thought, making her feel very much on her own with no one left to look up to. 'Some strong, independent young woman I am,' she thought to herself, 'crying in a bathroom and still giving her the respect of a title after what she's done. I'm supposed to be better than this,' she chided herself.
Grimy floors and splintered doors gave the room a depressive feel, as if it was steeped in a thousand years of neglect and disappointment. The fact it was the worst loo in Hogwarts didn't help matters much, but it virtually guaranteed you'd be alone, on most days at least. Hermione sniffed and wiped her runny nose as a mocking, disembodied voice added their wails to her dwindling tears.
"It's not often I hear crying in here that isn't my own," the voice said dramatically when its wailing was done as a ghostly head floated through the narrow stall's wall to look in on her, giving no more mind to her privacy than McGonagall had. "What brings you here?" asked the glummest face she had ever seen, half-hidden behind lank hair and thick, pearly spectacles.
"Nothing that concerns you," Hermione replied shortly as she rose from her seat, scrubbing her eyes dry as she left the stall, leaving the door to bang its way through the ghost girl's head.
"I'm only trying to help!" the aptly named Moaning Myrtle cried in a voice now choked with tears as she followed her to a row of chipped sinks. "I do have feelings, you know, even if I am dead," she said, silver tears welling rapidly in her small, see-through eyes, which would have been enough to make her take it back normally but she had already had her fill of prying busybodies today, she wasn't about to take grief from another one.
"Well I don't need your help," she replied, turning the tap in front of her only for nothing to happen. "Crying never solved anything," she continued, moving to the next sink, "let alone really make anyone feel better."
"Oh, yes, who'd want to be like me?" howled Myrtle as she rose up into the air. "Who'd want to be like ugly, miserable, mopey Moaning Myrtle?"
Moaning Myrtle burst into anguished sobs and swept through the row of sinks, turning them on full blast before rocketing through a broken stall door to dive head first into the toilet, splashing water all over and vanishing from sight.
"I didn't mean it like that," Hermione said bitterly before turning to scowl at herself in the room's large and cracked, spotted mirror.
'Honestly, some people just enjoy wallowing for attention,' she thought as she scooped up some of the rapidly-rising water from the sink to dab her eyes with to erase any puffiness.
Hermione closed off the taps before the sinks could overflow – all except the strange one that seemed intent not to work – when, as if to respond to what she'd done, the toilets gave a great bubbling gurgle. She only had a moment to wonder what it meant before they belched out water in every direction, coating the insides of the stalls and flooding across the floor. Deciding that being anywhere else was preferable to being here, she fled the bathroom before she could be blamed for Myrtle's mess.
She briefly thought of reporting it as she hurried away, but quickly thought better of it. The Caretaker, Mister Filch, seemed to hate the students so much he's liable to thank anyone reporting a problem with a Detention, just for giving him more work to do. That was the last thing she needed, because she already had one Detention to look forward to tonight.
Before she knew where she was going, Hermione found herself in the Library, so she supposed some part of her still wanted to be alone. Unfortunately, there was very little she could do here even if she had wanted to hide some more. All her study materials were back in the common room and Madam Pince – who was looking strangely Gryffindor-like, with a red-and-gold stole around her neck – was far too engrossed in what she was pouring over to welcome being disturbed for the likes of a book recommendation.
The only thing she could really do was head back to Gryffindor Tower, so she left and headed there. There were still several hours remaining until she was due to be tortured by Lockhart's pompous prattle, and for the first time in a long time she was tempted to play chess. It'd be nice to have something intelligent to think about before Detention, or at least something she could do without serious thought, but it was no way to spend her time wisely.
Almost as soon as the portrait moved aside Hermione was greeted with the sight of her boyfriend. He had changed out of his scarlet Quidditch robes, but her eyes found him first regardless. It was strange, but she couldn't help but smile and feel a glow in her chest just from seeing him, and his green eyes made the glow shine brighter from having been missed.
"Where have you been?" their ginger friend Ron asked before Harry could, seeming to appear out of nowhere, though in truth she hadn't been looking for him.
"We were about to go look for you," Harry explained, silently adding his concerns as well.
"I was in the Library," she said evasively, hoping her studious reputation would cover for her.
"We checked there on the way here," her boyfriend said curiously, catching her out immediately with how well he knew her.
"Well, we did eat first," Ron added, unwittingly coming to the rescue again. "Maybe she left before we got there."
"I'm sure you left before I arrived," Hermione said, trying to shift things around to form a more credible story. "I just came from there and only stayed for a second," she admitted, hoping she now wouldn't have to come up with something to explain away the rest of the missing time.
"Lichfield said you ran off to do something," Harry noted, seemingly incapable of leaving even the tiniest mystery unsolved.
"Oh, that's not important," she said quickly, brushing things with McGonagall aside. "Unlike our homework," she added as she joined them at their usual table, hoping to distract them with the large amount of review work most of their professors had assigned, though Professor Snape's foot long essay on what they learned last year seemed a little excessive, even to her. "I don't suppose either of you have finished it yet?"
"We've still got tomorrow for it," Ron noted in vain as Harry began to put out his books. "And Snape's isn't due until the end of the week."
"And if you've got any chance to live up to your mother's 'At Least an A' rule for Quidditch, you'll need that time to work on next week's homework," Hermione replied. "Besides, your brother has his Defense Study Group tomorrow, and there's no telling what he has in mind. If it's anything more than an interest meeting it could last several hours."
"That's just what we need," their friend groused, "a more boring Lockhart."
Safely settled into their homework, their review took up most of the sparse conversation. Flipping through everything they'd learned last year for answers was easier for her and Harry than it was Ron since they had reviewed the material over the summer. From what Harry said though, Hagrid didn't seem to like Lockhart any more than she did, and she had to wonder how much her feud with him in the Daily Prophet had helped sway public opinion.
It sounded like Ron was going to add something new about their visit to Hagrid's, but Harry took that over as well. It seemed odd for Harry to want to hide anything but for some reason Hermione didn't think Ron was about to bring up pumpkins and flesh-eating slugs. Harry seemed to sink into silence afterwards, but it was hard to see what Hagrid had to do with Harry beyond friendship, though she supposed losing pumpkins for the Halloween Feast could help Dumbledore's efforts to sour Harry's Hogwarts experience or turn people against him in the hopes he drops his lawsuit.
The long hours without lunch began to catch up to her, but it seemed to effect Ron the most. His face became pinched and his stomach burbled more than Moaning Myrtle's toilets.
"Are you sure you don't need to go to the nurse?" Hermione asked the third time his stomach rumbled.
"Just bad fudge, I think," Ron replied, rocking uncomfortably in his seat. "Nothing dinner won't fix."
"I doubt it," she said skeptically, giving the boy's intestinal issues a sideways glance, but as quickly as Ron's disposition had changed, Harry's changed even faster.
"I don't think I like you being alone with Lockhart," he said suddenly, the words instantly raising a Controlling Boyfriend red flag she had never thought he'd raise. It seemed such a strange thing for him to say after being quiet for so long that even Ron looked at him curiously.
"What do you mean?" Hermione asked, wondering where Harry was coming from.
"I don't know," he replied, seeming to struggle with what he wanted to say as he nervously flattened his hair. "First there's Draco, and Ron having to fight him," he added quickly, "and you've been fighting with Lockhart all week–"
"You don't think Lockhart's going to do anything to Hermione, do you?" their other friend asked, putting everything into a different context.
"I certainly don't trust him," her boyfriend replied, almost sulkily. "Who knows what he's planning? He could pick a fight with her just to get her in even more trouble."
Hermione thought she saw what was going on, and it was far more in line with Harry trying to fill the "protective boyfriend role" than anything else. It didn't stop his concerns from being overblown, of course – she could hold her own or bite her tongue for a few hours, if need be – and the odds were Harry knew it. He was still on track to suggest something ridiculous though, and there was only one thing she could think of doing that wouldn't humiliate him.
"It might be best to have a third party in the room," Hermione interjected before Harry could, "but I don't see McGonagall agreeing to it."
"You think Lockhart's going to try something?" Ron asked again, stupefied as to why she'd go along with this insanity.
"It may be better safe than sorry," she said evasively before turning back to her boyfriend. "How do you plan to get in without being seen?" she asked leadingly.
"I could use my dad's invisibility cloak," he predictably replied. "Then I could try and slip in when he opens the door."
Hermione checked her watch.
"I'm supposed to bring Mipsy down to the kitchens tonight," she informed them. "Lichfield is letting her come here for extra work," Hermione explained, "so we'd better get going if we're going to make it to dinner."
"I'll be right back," Harry said before darting off to his dorm room.
He was barely out of sight before Ron spoke.
"You don't really think Lockhart's going to try anything, do you?"
"No," she said honestly. "I think Harry's just feeling a little left out."
"Left out?" he asked curiously. "Why would he be feeling left out?"
"Because he's my boyfriend, but you're the one who fought Malfoy," Hermione said patiently, hoping their friend would get it without her having to explain it all.
"Oh," Ron said, catching on. "Well, Harry did threaten him too. So you want me to be less of a friend then?" he asked, trying to piece together where he fit into things.
"No, of course not," she replied, "just that you should let Harry do more."
Ron made a face at that, though whether it was due to what she said or his own stomach she didn't know. Harry came bounding back down the stairwell after that, with a bulge to one side of his robes where he hid his cloak.
"Ready to go?" he asked, eager to get his mischief underway.
Ron rose – then stopped.
"Oh," he said with a hand pressed to his stomach, his slack face turning green. "I'll catch up," he added, hurrying quickly up the boy's stairwell.
Hermione thought it'd probably be best not to dwell on Ron's touchy stomach.
Work never stopped at Hogwarts, but sometimes they made you wait. The smell of food filled the kitchen as the cook fires flickered in the distance. Lines of house elves stood between long tables and Dobby had to stand on his toes to see the old elf Gimble at the far end of the room.
Gimble stood with his stick raised high, almost peering through the ceiling, and Dobby could feel the need for food growing in the room above. On and on it grew, like it did every night. Dobby didn't know how anyone could stand it!
Gimble's stick came down with a crack! and at once Dobby and the others motioned upwards to lift the food to the plates above so all the masters and missuses there can eat. There was such a burst of hungry appreciation afterwards that Dobby could see why many house elves would not want to leave. It was almost like serving Harry Potter.
Harry Potter was near, Dobby could tell, but Dobby couldn't tell where Harry Potter was sitting. Dobby hoped it wasn't near old master Draco, who Dobby could tell was sitting on the other far side, but Dobby didn't think Harry Potter would do this. Harry Potter liked Dobby's old family almost as little as Dobby did.
Dobby almost wanted to twist his ears for thinking badly of them, but Dobby didn't. Harry Potter was Dobby's master now and Harry Potter said Dobby mustn't punish himself. Still, Dobby had hoped to find Harry Potter so Dobby could send Harry Potter's favorite treacle up to him. Dobby had to worry later though for right then he felt the food he sent become suddenly low, so Dobby had to run back to get more.
"They be very hungry today," Pivot said happily as they waited on the cooks for food, before she ran off to fill her table's need.
Dobby had almost had the chance to nod before she left. This had been Dobby's first day without Pivot working with him. Working with Pivot had been fun but now it made him feel alone.
Dobby returned to his spot and sent up the food when he heard a growing murmur behind him. Students was coming in! Many rushed to meet them, but as they entered Dobby saw – It was Harry Potter!
Dobby turned to run to him–
It was Mipsy. Harry Potter had Mipsy. Harry Potter had Harry Potter's Mione and Harry Potter's Mione had Mipsy! What was Dobby to do?
Dobby thought Mipsy was very nice, but Pivot was nice too. Working for Harry Potter's Weezies with Mipsy had been fun, but working for Hogwarts with Pivot had been fun too. Dobby didn't know much about having fun. Why did Dobby have to find two people who were fun?
"Good evening," Dobby heard Harry Potter's Mione say. "We didn't want to disturb you. We're looking for Dobby."
Dobby didn't move so maybe no one would see him. Dobby saw Pivot look at him. Did Pivot think Dobby was wrong for not going to them? What would Mipsy think?
"Dobby?" Harry Potter called, his voice seeming to hook around Dobby's naval and force him to move.
"Dobby's here, Harry Potter, sir," said Dobby when he came close, trying not to look at Mipsy's smile as he picked at the edge of his pillowcase.
"Young Master and Miss is back," Gimble said beside him. "Yous be wanting a sit-on-floor meal again?"
"Er–," Harry Potter said, looking to his Miss Mione.
"Not today, thank you," she said ever so polite. "We brought you another worker. Mipsy here is able to do more work than her employer can give," she added with a hand on Mipsy's head, "so Professor McGonagall said she could work here with you. I thought perhaps Dobby could show her around since they know each other."
Gimble looked at Dobby.
"Mipsy does do very good work," Dobby said, because Dobby had to say something.
"She be put to work, Miss," Gimble said with a nod before turning to everyone else. "Plenty of work to do," the old elf scolded them, reminding them of all the people above them needing food.
"Oh, thank you," Miss Mione said as everyone but Dobby and Gimble hurried back to tend the tables.
Dobby looked to Harry Potter to see what Harry Potter wanted Dobby to do.
"Goodnight, Dobby," Harry Potter said with a smile but nothing else before Harry Potter was gone again.
'If only Harry Potter had given Dobby orders, Dobby would know what to do!' Dobby thought.
Mipsy stood smiling at him, carrying a wicker Miss Mione elf bed like his. Dobby smiled weakly but didn't know if that was the right thing to do either. Dobby could almost feel Pivot's eyes on his back.
"Pivot!" Gimble cried, making things worse as she came forward. "Put her to work," Gimble said, motioning to Mipsy with his stick as Dobby stood there not knowing what to do as Mipsy set her bed by a wall and went with Pivot to help with the food.
Dobby knew Harry Potter had said Dobby and Mipsy should make the choice for themselves but Dobby was used to not having choices. What if Dobby chose wrong? Much better, Dobby thought, not to have a choice – that way Dobby knows what to do and what's right.
If Harry Potter said Dobby should be with Mipsy then Dobby would be with Mipsy and everything would be good, but he hadn't said that. Harry Potter's Miss Mione seemed to want Dobby to be with Mipsy, but Harry Potter's Mione wasn't really Harry Potter's yet, so she's not family and Dobby shouldn't listen to her unless Harry Potter says so. If only Harry Potter had said something – or Gimble had given Mipsy to Dobby – then it'd be like not having a choice at all.
Dobby didn't know which way to go!
Gimble poked Dobby with his stick.
Dobby looked at Gimble, then remembered – Dobby had to serve food!
Dobby ran off to do his work and thought of something frightening–
What if Pivot and Mipsy spoke about Dobby?!
Dobby didn't know what to do…
Ron looked very pale when he got to dinner, almost green, so much so Harry couldn't help comparing him to Draco. But while Malfoy sat alone looking like he might belch slugs into his food if he tried to eat, Ron was slowly shoveling food into his mouth. It was his attempt, he explained, to bury Hagrid's fudge under layers of everything else.
With their homework (mostly) done and his friends' Detentions in front of them, they weren't in a rush to eat, but it seemed to kill off any interest they had in conversation. Harry couldn't help wondering if he should tell Hermione about what he had learned at Hagrid's, but it felt like something better done in private – which was odd since Ron already knew. Still, whether it was one of those new boyfriend/girlfriend things or not, it certainly wasn't something he wanted to do in the great hall.
Looking around for something less personal to distract them with, he saw Percy sitting with his Ravenclaw girlfriend.
"That's a bit odd, isn't it?" he asked, nodding to where the couple was sitting. "I don't think I've seen anyone but Gryffindors sit at our table before."
Hermione looked but didn't seem to pay it any mind.
"There's no rule against it, as far as I know," she replied. "It's probably tradition and habit which keeps more people from doing the same."
"Looks like they're studying," Ron said, taking note of the papers around the two as he turned back around in his seat. "Leave it to a girl to get you to study during meals," he added with a look.
"That's a great idea, Ron," Hermione said without missing a beat. "Looks like I know what we'll be doing every breakfast, lunch, and dinner from now on, Harry," his girlfriend added as an obvious joke – well, obvious for Hermione that is.
Harry smiled at it either way.
"If they're working on anything," she continued, "it's likely they're working on plans for their Defense Study Group. If they plan to include all seven years of study, it will be hard to plan around everyone's schedules."
"Well, he's bound to be better than Lockhart," Harry said, drawing a doubtful look from Ron.
The rest of dinner seemed to melt away, and in what seemed like no time the treacle was finished and it was five minutes to eight. Ron dragged his feet going to the seventh floor to meet Filch but Harry quickly ducked into a bathroom to put on his invisibility cloak. Walking alone with Hermione to Lockhart's office, he could finally admit he didn't know what he was doing, at least to himself. He didn't want to be left in the common room alone though, so what else was there?
Everything about this made him feel wrong about doing it. He had no plan to get inside besides hoping to slip in, Hermione and Ron seemed to think he was crazy to be concerned in the first place, though Hermione at least didn't say anything, and even the thought that Lockhart could do something Hermione couldn't handle seemed childish. Still, there was no way Harry could bring himself to trust someone who'd been fighting Hermione all week in public, not when he was going to have her alone with no one watching.
Hermione's face seemed set in stone when she knocked but Lockhart flung open the door and beamed down at her all the same. Harry had to pull up short when both he and Hermione tried to go through at the same time when Lockhart was still in the way.
"Ah, here's the scalawag!" the annoying professor said. "Come in, come in–," he added before taking her by the shoulder and shutting the door in Harry's face before he could get through.
Annoyed, it was all Harry could do to press an ear to the door to try and listen in.
"You can address the envelopes!" a muffled Lockhart seemed to say.
With more than a bit of disappointment, all Harry could do was wait.
"Gladys Gudgeon," he heard him say, "huge fan."
Harry sat on the floor under his cloak, wondering why he was even there.
Doing work didn't make anything better.
Going back and forth with food, Dobby saw Mipsy many times, but it never told Dobby what to do. Mipsy always smiled and Pivot always followed, so Dobby started avoiding both. Dobby even went to hide in the foodstuffs instead of cleaning up.
If Dobby didn't know how to decide before, seeing them more made it worse. Should Dobby go to Harry Potter so Dobby could see what Harry Potter wanted Dobby to do? Maybe Harry Potter would need something and that would tell Dobby?
If only Harry Potter and Harry Potter's Mione had bought Dobby and Mipsy matching pillowcases! That would tell Dobby and Mipsy, and all the others, what was supposed to happen so there'd be no choices. How was Dobby supposed to choose?
"This be the pantry," Pivot said from nearby, making Dobby stand still like a stone. "We keeps the foodstuffs here," she explained, telling Dobby Mipsy was there too. "Over here be laundry," she said before Dobby heard them move away.
The ham Dobby hid behind moved aside and an elf with a turkey looked at him. Dobby smiled then took the turkey and put it on the shelf like Dobby had been meaning to do that. Dobby then left to be anywhere but there.
Dobby saw Mipsy and Pivot go through the dish room, the laundry room, then the drying room, and Dobby followed behind them so he could hear what they said without being seen. Dobby heard Mipsy say they were the largest she'd ever seen, but Mipsy and Pivot didn't say anything about Dobby, not until they got to the sleep section. Dobby tried not to do anything the other elves would think odd but Dobby heard Mipsy ask where Dobby sleeps!
Pivot took Mipsy down the hall of house-elf houses until they got to the space where the basket Harry Potter's Miss Mione had given him stood, and Dobby saw Mipsy put her same basket there too! What did Mipsy think of this? What did Pivot?
'What did Dobby?!' Dobby thought, twisting the edge of his pillow case. 'Does baskets from Harry Potter's Mione make Dobby and Mipsy a pair? Does Mipsy think so? Would Pivot? Should Dobby ask Harry Potter?'
Dobby saw Pivot dart off, and Dobby didn't know why. Pivot then came back with a blanket, and Dobby didn't know what that meant either. Dobby didn't know if anything was anything!
Dobby didn't know what to do.
There was so much to tell Tom that it wasn't surprising at all to find herself still up after everyone else had gone to bed. Ginny didn't know if the boy in her diary liked Quidditch much, but he was a good listener – or reader, in this case. Either way, it was great to relive tryouts all over again and Tom wanted to know everything, so she shared all about the dives she made, the leap, the bully, McLaggen, and even what the other girls said about her.
Writing to him always made her very sleepy though, so before she really wanted to, Ginny felt herself seem to melt into her bed…
Taking control was easier the second time around. He still felt like ten pounds of stuffing in a five pound bag, but he had to work with what he had. The girl's body was only temporary anyway, eventually he'd find a way to be free on his own.
As strange as it was to have a young girl's body, it was stranger still to be lounging in bed wearing a pink bathrobe. The peculiar indignities immortality put you in were never the ones you anticipated. Closing his more permanent home, Tom pocketed it as he got out of bed, picking up the girl's wand before he moved to the door.
A spiraling stairwell greeted him, telling him 'Gryffindor Tower' was a tower in truth. He had discovered where on the seventh floor the Gryffindors disappeared to during his time at Hogwarts but had never been interested enough to go inside himself – at least he hadn't before he'd made the Diary. If that had ever changed, the old Tom had never told the part of himself he'd kept locked away for safekeeping.
'Things would be so much easier if the girl was in Slytherin,' he thought, but he might as well have hoped the girl to be Minister of Magic instead. Little Ginny Weasley wasn't much, but she'd do.
The stairwell eventually opened on what must be their common room. It looked smaller and much more lived in than the Slytherin one, with a hole on the far side of the low-burning fire to crawl in through like a bunch of Hufflepuffs. Unless he planned to abandon her outside every time he used her, the portrait guarding the entry would be a problem.
The entry creaked open and Tom darted for cover.
"Who's there?" came a voice from the entrance, the light of their lumos bathing the chair he hid behind. "Come out, I already saw you."
Considering what spell the girl's body might be capable of producing, suddenly it occurred to him – he hadn't done anything wrong yet. Putting on his best 'innocently guilty' face, Tom came out from behind the chair.
"Ginny?" a boy who looked as old as he himself should be exclaimed as he came close and lowered his wand. "What are you doing up so late?"
The use of her name and the pin on his chest told him this had to be the girl's brother, Percy, though it was too dark to see if the hair was really the same. This could be an advantage.
"I thought I heard a noise," he said, going for a 'brave Gryffindor' tone of girlish voice. "What were you doing out?" Tom added quickly, bouncing to 'suspicious sister.'
His gibe struck true, the boy blushed.
"I was doing rounds," the elder Weasley said unconvincingly, all but admitting to spending the evening on a moonlit stroll with his mudblood girlfriend. "I'm a prefect, remember?" he added, emphasizing his golden badge.
Tom put a worried look on the girl's face and glanced to the door.
"You don't think anyone could sneak in, do you?" he had her ask.
"Not unless they knew the password," Percy said comfortingly. "In which case they're already Gryffindors."
"Not if they guessed it," Tom countered, putting just a touch of fright in her voice.
"It'd take an extraordinary guess to come up with 'wattlebird,'" the girl's brother said with a grin. "The only real danger would be if someone told a complete stranger, which would be a very stupid thing to do, but even then they'd have to break into the castle – which they're not going to do. Go on to bed, Ginny, Hogwarts is as safe as the Burrow."
Tom kept the worried look on his little girl face and looked to the portrait hole again before sulkily heading back upstairs.
…Waiting out of sight until the boy made his own way upstairs, Tom sneaked back down and left.
Everything seemed frozen in time as the sun took forever to set. The last rays of light in the rose-colored sky glinting off polished suits of armor almost made him think he'd spend the rest of his life waiting for night to come, without knowing if it ever would.
The only thing breaking the quiet stillness was the sound of Lockhart's voice. Harry couldn't make out what he was saying, not from across the hall, but it was something to latch onto. There was no sign of Hermione, but he supposed as long as Lockhart was talking and Hermione wasn't, that everything was still okay.
Night finally fell and Harry was still no closer to knowing what he was doing there. Lockhart was an idiot only idiots took seriously, so whatever it was it couldn't have been about him. He still had the niggling sense it was about Hermione though, but he couldn't really tell what it was.
Harry was around her all the time, sure, but she had been spending a lot of time fighting with Lockhart in the Prophet. And while he spent every day with her, Ron was always there too. Was he just being weird because he wanted to spend more time with his girlfriend that didn't involve anyone else? It didn't seem like a bad thing to him, if he could get it.
As if to rub his nose in it, Harry saw Percy walking with his prefect girlfriend, Penelope, looking happier than ever. They were followed some time later by Snape, but he had never cared about anyone.
The night dragged on and the hallway got darker, and colder as the torch lights went out. Lockhart's voice became more of a murmur and Harry felt his eyes getting heavy, and the hard stone wall began to soften…
"Come!" said a voice in the dark hallway, jolting him awake.
"Come to me…," Harry heard from a voice fit to chill the bone marrow, a voice of breathtaking, ice-cold venom. "Let me rip you… Let me tear you…"
Harry stood up. The voice was all around him now, but he couldn't see a thing! From underneath the cloak he pulled out his wand, remembering a spell he'd heard about in Diagon Alley.
"Lumos," he whispered, shining a light from his wand as he looked for the voice.
"Let me kill you…," the voice cried more joyfully than it had any right to.
Harry looked to the wall he'd been sitting next to, it almost sounded like it was coming from there. Down the hall he went, concentrating on the wall, wanting to stop to put his ear next to it but not wanting to lose it if it was on the move, moving faster with every step. He ran full speed into a suit of armor, sending them tumbling to the floor with a thunderous crash!
The light from his wand went out as it fell from his grip, leaving Harry scrambling to find it night-blind. In the crushing stillness which followed, the only voice he heard was–
"Who's there?" Lockhart called, peering into the hall as light spilled from his office.
Harry snatched his wand before fleeing around the far corner, absentmindedly kicking loose bits of armor as he went.
"Must be Peeves having a bit of fun. Not to worry, I'll have the whole thing cleared up in no time," Gilderoy Lockhart said with a smile you could hear half a world away. "But Great Scott – look at the time! We've been here nearly four hours! I'd never have believed it. The time's flown, hasn't it?"
Harry didn't hear if Hermione answered. He was straining his ears to hear the voice again, but there was no sound now except for Lockhart telling Hermione she mustn't expect a treat like this every time she got Detention. Without a word, Hermione left, marching away from them straight towards the main stairs, making Harry have to pick his way back through the hallway and past Lockhart to follow her as Lockhart himself tried to put the armor to rights.
He caught up with her on the stairway, where she was waiting for him one floor up.
"Hey," the still invisible Harry said in greeting, making her jump a little, though it was followed immediately by another loud crash below them. "We should probably get moving."
Hermione nodded and took the next set of stairs faster than the one before, though she did hold out a hand for him to take, probably so she'd know where he was. Harry took it, thinking it was probably lucky Ron was in detention with Filch or they likely would have been caught by now. There was still Snape to watch out for though, so he kept an eye out in case he had to let go of her hand to keep her out of trouble.
"Thanks for getting me out of there," she said a short time later, squeezing his hand as they made their way down a better lit hall towards a secret passage short cut. "I thought he was going to keep me there forever. It's a pity you didn't do it sooner," she added with a bit of a joking smile, "I was beginning to wonder if you were still there."
"Yeah, I wasn't able to get inside," he said to her silent question. "Did you hear anything before the crash?" Harry asked, thinking it might be best if Hermione thought he had knocked over the armor on purpose.
Hermione shot a questioning look at roughly where he was supposed to be.
"Only Lockhart reading out his favorite bits of fan mail, why?"
"Because I heard a voice," he explained. "One wanting to rip and kill."
Hermione stopped just inside the secret passage.
"You mean like a ghost?" she asked as Harry lowered the hood of the cloak, feeling silly staying completely invisible when they were alone.
"That's what I thought at first but I didn't see anyone," he replied. "It sounded like it came from the wall. It might be the danger Dobby tried to warn me about."
"It could be," his girlfriend said doubtfully as they began to walk again. "What were you doing in the hall before it happened?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" he replied, wondering where she was going with this.
"This may sound odd," Hermione said hesitantly, "but were you just falling asleep when you heard this?"
"I wasn't dreaming, Hermione. I heard it," Harry replied, perplexed as to why she'd think this was the case. "I didn't sleepwalk into that suit of armor," he said, perhaps bungling his way into admitting it was an accident.
"I'm not saying you did," she said quietly, mindful of all the talking they were doing out of bed, after hours, "but the mind can do funny things when it's in that state."
"You think I'm hallucinating?" he asked incredulously, not even trying to guess what the other word meant.
"Were you asleep?" pressed Hermione.
"I don't know," Harry admitted grudgingly. "I was kind of in between, I think."
"Then it's possible it didn't really happen, even though your mind swears it heard something. Once or twice a month my mother gets out of bed to check the front door, because she's sure she heard someone knocking on it as she's falling asleep," she explained. "But when she checks, no one's there and no one else heard anything."
Harry didn't think that's what happened to him, but if it had, how would he know?
"That can really happen?" he asked, a bit less sure than he was before.
"Yes," she replied. "From what I remember hearing, it comes from one part of the brain being awake while the other's asleep. The dreaming side conjures up an image, sound, or smell – anything really – and the waking side reacts to it as if it's real. They're usually more simple things, like my mother's knocking, but anxiety has been known to produce more complex ones, like voices."
"So I may not have heard anything at all," he said, thinking it would be really weird if none of it had actually happened. 'I really would have run into the armor for no reason,' he thought, getting a new image of it in his head.
"I only mention it as a possibility," Hermione clarified. "It could have been a ghost or any of a thousand things we don't know about, but if there's anyone with a right to be anxious, it's you, with everything going on in your life right now," she said, now sounding like she was making excuses for him. "There's the bank, the press, Dumbledore, your case, me–"
"There's nothing wrong with you," Harry said, perhaps a bit too quickly, dropping her hand as he put up the hood of the cloak again as they got closer to the common room.
"But you were still worried about me being alone with Lockhart," she said pointedly, as if it proved anything.
He stayed quiet as they crawled through the portrait hole to find the common room empty, before finally asking, "So what did go on with Lockhart?"
"Nothing, really, except him reading off his favorite bits of fan mail," Hermione replied derisively as they marched past the dwindling firelight. "I tried not to pay attention but they seemed to alternate between telling him how wonderful he was and how I should 'keep my nose out of other people's business.' I got to address the envelopes for his replies, isn't it wonderful?" she asked with a roll of her eyes. "How anyone can still believe him is absurd."
"Well, not everyone's as smart as you," Harry smiled.
She turned to smile back at him before getting a put-upon look.
"Could you take that thing off?" his girlfriend asked half-chidingly. "I'd like to look at you when you're flirting with me."
Harry took off the invisibility cloak, though it was a bit embarrassing now that he'd been accusing of flirting. He didn't know if it counted as flirting or not, but what he said was true either way.
"You know you didn't have anything to worry about tonight, don't you?" Hermione asked, unknowingly bringing up what he'd been mulling over all night.
"Yeah, I know. I don't know why I was like that," he admitted finally, not knowing what he could say that wouldn't sound foolish.
"It wouldn't have anything to do with you not being the one to fight Malfoy, would it?" she asked, seeming to strike at something unrelated. The niggling sense from before made him think she wasn't completely wrong though, so maybe they were more connected than he thought. He certainly didn't like how he had just stood there when Draco had insulted Hermione – and things had started to go downhill then too – so maybe it did have something to do with it.
"I didn't really put much thought into it," Harry said, feeling almost like something restricting was unwinding from around him. "It could be it, or it could have been something Hagrid said."
"What could he have said to cause it?" a confused Hermione asked.
"He–," Harry started, only to feel the restricted feeling again. "Hagrid was there the night Voldemort killed my parents," he said finally, feeling very weak and exposed. "He was the one who took me from the house."
Hermione looked like she'd been hit by a bag of Bludgers. Whatever she'd been expecting, this had not been it.
"So he was the one to see–," she said quietly.
"–My parents were dead. Yeah," he answered for her, avoiding the more graphic description he didn't want to think about right then.
"So you weren't afraid of something happening to me tonight," Hermione said. "You just didn't want to lose anyone else."
"I was being stupid," Harry said, flattening his hair.
"Not stupid, human," Hermione replied, hugging him in the dim light as her hair tickled his nose. "I'm not going anywhere, Harry," she said, making him feel better. "You know I'm here if you want to talk."
"I know," he said, enjoying the hug for a moment longer before feeling the need to talk about something else. "It wasn't all bad," Harry explained, pulling away from her, though she kept a hold of his hand and led him to sit on one of the comfy couches. "After he took me away, Hagrid said I spent the entire day with him – and Fang," he added quickly, "who I apparently really liked at the time."
"You see?" Hermione smiled. "We can make a pet person out of you yet."
"It almost happened," he smiled, preferring to talk about happier things. "Hagrid said if he'd known what Dumbledore was doing he would have raised me himself. It'd be hard not to be a pet person if you're living with Hagrid."
"It'd be hard not to be Fluffy's chew toy if you were living with Hagrid," she jokingly countered.
"I'd be fine," Harry said offhandedly. "And best of all I'd be completely normal, coming to school riding a giant three-headed dog, just like everyone else," he grinned, leading his girlfriend to shake her head when she couldn't compete with his silliness.
Now things were back on a lighter note, and they were truly alone for the first time since they had got together, Harry wondered if this would be a good time to get Hermione to talk about all the stuff that's been bothering her. They'd talked about his, briefly, and he felt better, so…
"So what did Lichfield want with you today?" he asked, wondering if he would get a real answer this time.
"Oh, it was nothing, really," Hermione said evasively, taking her hand from his and all-but confirming it was something important. There were several things he knew she had been anxious about in the last week. There was him, his case, Dumbledore, what they were printing in the press, Lockhart – but there was one they'd talked about but he thought she might be hiding something on.
"Does it have to do with what happened in the hospital wing?" Harry asked, still feeling guilty for letting her drink from a potion meant for him.
Hermione hesitated for a moment.
"Not directly," she said finally, fidgeting with her hair as she looked away from him. "What happened with your health potion was only an issue because it was being complicated by something else, a completely unnecessary potion I'd been backed into taking to address a problem which wasn't a problem and they had no right butting into," she explained, becoming a little heated at the end.
"And what was the problem?" he asked before he could think twice about it.
"It's a – girl issue – I'd prefer not to talk about," she said haltingly. "The main concern was how I'd been strong-armed into it."
"By Madam Pomfrey?" he pressed, thinking this was out of character for the unpresuming nurse. 'Not unless she had to do it to save your life, or something along those lines,' he mentally revised.
"No, I think she was lied to, otherwise I don't think she ever would have gone along with it," Hermione replied.
"Then who was it?" Harry asked, wishing his girlfriend would tell him something about this new underhanded plot. "Dumbledore?" he asked in the off chance he hit something.
"It wasn't him, and I'd prefer not to tell you who it was so you don't lose respect for them."
That narrowed the suspects down considerably.
"No," Hermione said instantly. "I thought it might have been, but it wasn't. He's actually been very helpful in figuring out who it was," she explained. "Anyway, there's nothing for you to worry about or do because I've already taken care of it," she said in such an authoritative way he really didn't have much of a choice but to drop it.
"There was another concern we talked about though which does involve you," Hermione continued, moving on to other things as the firelight brightened as another log was placed on the magical fire from somewhere.
Rather than try to pry it out of her, Harry waited for her to explain.
"I don't know whether you noticed, but not all of the stories they've been writing about us have been focused on you," she began, instantly making him suspicious of what sort of Malfoy-like lies they've been saying about her. "Witch Weekly and the Daily Prophet have been using my image to sell ads and now, instead of fighting about it, the company behind it wants to pay me for them."
"Er – that's nice, I guess," he said confused, before a horrible thought popped into his head. "How does that include me?" Harry asked, dreading them finding yet another way of getting his picture in the paper.
"Because I know they're only doing it because I'm 'Harry Potter's girlfriend,'" Hermione explained. "And even though Lichfield said it'd be too hard to fight them on it, it'd still feel wrong of me to make money off it, even in a roundabout way. You don't think it crosses any ethical lines, do you?" she asked, sounding like she was asking for permission, which he thought she might have been.
"Oh," Harry said, flattening his hair down in a mixture of relief and confusion. "I guess it'd be alright."
"Are you sure?" she asked, perhaps worrying it wouldn't be 'the girlfriend-like thing to do.'
Listening for the internal niggling voice, he really didn't seem to care. The more he thought about it though the less it seemed to fit into normal boyfriend and girlfriend behavior – mostly because he didn't know any other boyfriends and girlfriends they were lining up to take pictures of. They certainly weren't doing it for Percy, which made it more of a 'fame isn't everything' celebrity issue.
"If they want to make you famous for being my girlfriend, it really doesn't have anything to do with me," he said finally. "It's stupid, but it's the same thing they did to me when my parents died, only I never knew about it until I got here. If they're putting you through it too, then at least you should get something out of it. I wish they'd pay me every time they wrote about me," he said with a single amused chuckle, "but they'd probably go broke with how often they do it."
"And you're sure you're okay with it?" Hermione asked again, seemingly in need of concrete reassurance.
"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?" Harry shrugged. "There might as well be something good to come out of it."
"I don't know if I'd push it that far," his girlfriend said with a look. "It's not like a line of hair care products is going to save the world or anything."
"No, but all the books you'll be buying with it might help you save it," he agreed with a smile – or at least he tried to before it was interrupted by having to yawn. The excitement of the cold-blooded voice long behind him, Harry was now beginning to see just how tired he was.
"We should both be getting to bed, it has to be well past midnight," Hermione observed, and for once he was in no way interested in fighting it.
They stood and hugged each other goodnight before turning to climb their respective stairwells.
Hermione had been his girlfriend for almost a full week, and it was different than he'd thought it'd be. There was plenty of studying, but only a little more than there had been last year. There seemed to be plenty of time for Quidditch and Ron too, but Harry didn't know if it was because it was still new or because things with Hermione tended to be put aside for later – which didn't sound like the right thing to do with a girlfriend.
They did manage to find a 'later' though, which he was thankful for. And while it didn't seem to get rid of everything bothering them, Harry certainly felt better about it. Leaving everything to build up like it had been only made things worse, so as awkward as it had been to start talking, maybe talking wasn't a stupid thing to do.
Ron wasn't back in the dormitory when he arrived but came in nursing a right arm and smelling strongly of polish before Harry was halfway into his pajamas.
"How'd it go?" Harry asked as Ron sunk into his bed.
"My muscles have all seized up," the boy groaned, seemingly unable to move. "Fourteen times he made me buff that Quidditch cup before he was satisfied, and the fudge made it worse. The blighter thought I was skiving off playing sick and accused me of trying to throw up on some Special Award for Services to the School.
"I reckon he's still mad all the gold stuff's been taken," Ron continued, trying to pry off one shoe with another. "If it weren't, I'd probably still be cleaning. How were things with Lockhart?" he asked when he wound down.
"I didn't make it in," he replied. "I spent the night in the hall."
"That's rotten luck," his friend commiserated, "but at least nothing bad happened."
Harry thought about telling him about the voice he'd heard, but in the end decided against it. After all, there was no point telling him if he had been imaging things. The last thing he needed was people thinking he was crazy.
In the end it didn't matter, Ron had already fallen asleep.
On a dark enough night there was precious little difference between the twisting halls of Hogwarts and the dank dungeons below. Deathly quiet, walking the dark corridors became like walking through dilapidated catacombs, forgotten by all but those who dwelt therein, and even they had not but thoughts to dwell on. Ghosts of the past clung to him like a cloak as he prowled the halls, waiting for his shift to end so he could finally put another endless day behind him.
A sound in the distance roused Severus from his thoughts and without a word he vanquished his wand's light and moved to intercept. Quick breaths and shuffled steps marked easy prey approaching the intersection, but he waited all the same. Better to wait until they were too close to run than announce yourself prematurely.
A small shadow crept past the corner and he struck – pouncing on them from the side and blinding them with light.
Severus froze, shocked by what he saw.
'Lily,' he thought, the ghost of the girl he once knew appearing before him as she had been, as time stopped and past and present merged.
The still-living girl's fear and surprise broke the spell and time moved again. As she cowered from the light, the differences became clear. The eyes were brown, not green, and the hair ginger instead of a true red, making this girl a stranger and a pale imitation of the original.
"Students have no place wandering the corridors at night," he said, taking in her diminutive First Year form and trying to place her. Severus had only had one class of First Years thus far and couldn't recall this one being amongst them. "Why are you out of bed, Miss…?"
"Weasley. G-Ginny Weasley," the girl replied. "And I don't know. I have no idea," she said frightfully close to crying. "I was in my bed. I don't know how I got here."
The girl's words rang true to his ear, which meant only one thing.
"If that's true," Severus said, his first instinct being to add to the girl's worries by making her think she wasn't believed, though something of the shock before still lingered on him and dampened the effect, "it would appear you're the victim of a rather low prank. No doubt your brothers were involved, or your Gryffindor friends."
"B-But why would they–?" she stammered nervously.
"–Ask them yourself," he replied brusquely, refusing to be involved in idle chatter. "Back to your common room with you," he ordered, seizing the shoulder of her bathrobe and moving her back the way she came.
For a while she floated fearfully before him, a malformed revenant leading him to his doom by tantalizing him with what he wanted but could never have, but before long she fell back to walk beside him through the dark. As naturally fearful as all children were of him, the dismal hallways full of spectral portraits – so different than when viewed in the morning light – seemed to make even his presence a welcome comfort.
'She's no copy of Lily Evans,' Severus told himself as they walked, refusing to look at her. 'She was never such a sniveling coward as a girl,' he thought before other memories came to the fore.
Lily had been overly attached to her shrew of a sister, especially when she was younger, and he had just told this girl her family had probably done this to her for a laugh. It might have been enough to get a few sniffles from an eleven year old Lily – which this girl was absolutely not, he reminded himself. She was a Weasley, nothing more.
'There's no spark of Lily in her,' he berated the sentimental part of himself who wished to see it so. 'There's no living spirit given new life through this girl. Lily Evans is dead and gone, no matter how much I wish it were otherwise.'
Impossible though it was, the prospect of sharing space with a young Lily Evans was now firmly lodged in his mind. It begged the question: If she was Lily Evans, would she know everything that had happened and judge him for it, or, if what he could say could change the past and alter the present, what would he say to her?
It was an unsettling question.
Part of him still wished to believe he had done nothing wrong, that he was entirely justified in every single one of his actions and had nothing to apologize for since he was only what circumstance had made of him. But that was before. Now, after exploring an all-too-real dream of what his life could have been, he wasn't so sure.
His life would've been different if he hadn't wanted to hurt his father, to torture the man who so tortured him and his mother and made him hate all muggles for being like him. He could have been a Ravenclaw or – god forbid – a Gryffindor, if his stupid stubborn defiance of his father counted as reckless bravery. That would have altered everything between him and Lily, and likely would have made him a different man.
It still gave him no better insight as to what to say for it still didn't answer the fundamental question: What would she know? If she knew everything, and changing the past was impossible, then apologizing would be the only way to get any modicum of understanding on the other side of it. If she didn't know, an apology for things yet to happen might make them easier to bare, though a warning would likely serve her better.
'But what would be the point of saying anything?' Severus asked himself. 'The past isn't going to change for an apology, it's already set in stone, so you might as well say nothing and keep such thoughts to yourself.'
At last they arrived at the portrait of the Fat Lady, the very one he had camped in front of for a chance to speak to her so long ago when things went wrong. The door opened to a great black pit beyond when the girl gave their password, and once again the irrational feeling of speaking to the dead came over him. This would be his last chance; what would he give: apology or warning?
'It doesn't matter!' Severus snarled to himself. 'She's not her and I'll never see her again. Saying either would be pointless.'
She was crawling into the chasm.
"Five points, will be taken from your House," he said suddenly, making the girl look back to him, the humiliation of being punished hurting more than the loss of a minuscule amount of points. "Don't let this happen again," he warned. "Unwanted nighttime wanderings won't save you if you fall asleep in my class, so take care in who you keep as friends," Severus said meaningfully before turning to sweep down the hall, his robes billowing behind him as if the night itself was agitated with how he'd given in.
Berating himself, he refused to look behind as the specter crept back into her grave.
AN: So here we are, and Great Scott – look at the time! We've been here nearly five years! I'd never have believed it. The time's flown, hasn't it? (Big Lockhart smile)
It doesn't really feel like it's been five years since I posted the first three chapters, at least to me, though the readers who were 10 and 12 when it started (if they're still around) probably feel like it's been going on forever. Oh well, if I've spent half my 30s writing this so far (and they're not even done), then I've got no reason to stop now lol. Thanks for sticking with me for another year.
As always, thanks for reading.