It seemed, however, that Harry was wrong – Quirrell had lasted the week, and the weeks after. Harry had to give the man credit – although he grew thinner and paler and his stutter became more pronounced in the weeks that followed, it didn't looked like he'd cracked.
In the end, the trio had not gone to anyone, but they hadn't any reason to – not yet, anyway; for if Snape's nastiness was anything to go by, he hadn't had much success in his quest for the Stone. And, after all, who could they go to, when half – and maybe more – the school hated them?
Though Hermione had assured the boys that the Stone lay safe – courtesy of the detention Weasley had gained by venturing into the corridor, and, of course, running into Fluffy –, Harry had begun to grow more paranoid. Potions classes were less than enjoyable now, with the bare minimum of attention he actually paid to his work, and instead keeping an eye on the Professor throughout their lessons.
"Stop it, Harry," Draco had warned, after Snape had stalked away from their desk, glaring down his nose at the mediocre Cure for Boils Harry had brewed. "He knows something's up."
To Harry's bemusement, Snape had not said a word about it, nor assign him a detention, or corner him in the halls. Sometimes, though, when he was caught unawares, and he looked the man directly in the eye, the strangest feeling would wash over him – the same one he'd felt in the Headmaster's office, as if something was moving around in his head. It made him terribly uneasy, what with the random pains shooting through his scar at the most inopportune moments, but he made no mention of it to his friends – They're worried enough as it is, Harry reasoned.
Draco, still, was not entirely convinced that they had the full truth, but he had ceased his ridicule of Quirrell's stutter, and both of them had begun to take Defense more seriously, instead of joking behind the Professor's back and doodling in the margins of their textbooks. And though Harry's Potion's grades slipped, those of his other subjects had improved, thanks to both Hermione's and Draco's preparations for the upcoming exams. They were still weeks away, yes, but the detailed study schedules and the colour-coded stacks of notes had helped – and, most importantly, these sessions let him laugh, as he had not really done since that night in the Forest.
"Granger, your quill's in my face."
"Get those Frogs out of here, Draco!"
"Merlin, Granger. She asked for twelve inches, not fifty!"
"Seriously, Draco? You're building a castle using my books?"
Sometimes, Neville joined them, and for a while he'd seemed nervous to do so, but eventually even he was amused by Draco and Hermione's bickering. Millicent and Theodore joined them too, after they'd finally realised that Harry would not stop hanging around with the Gryffindors, no matter what they said – and it wasn't half-bad, Harry would think after.
Amidst his friends' frantic studying and the piles of homework they'd been set, Harry had less and less time to worry about the Stone, but a note that arrived amidst the flurry of owls one morning added another worry to his list.
Harry, it read, in Hagrid's slipshod lettering. Come to my hut at 7.00 today. I have something to show you.
"What now?" Draco groaned, leaning in to read the message. "Did he find a recipe for a different-flavoured rock cake?"
Harry couldn't stop the laughter that escaped him. "For all we know, it could be."
At precisely seven that evening, Harry and Draco rapped on the door of Hagrid's hut. To their surprise, the curtains were drawn, and the low, rumbling barks that usually greeted them were absent.
"Hullo, Harry. Hullo Draco," Hagrid muttered, as he ushered them into his house and quickly shut the door. "Good of yeh te' come."
Harry looked around him, taking in his surroundings. The hut itself didn't seem any different from the last time they had visited, but something wasn't right either – Hagrid, and even Fang, were acting abnormally.
"Is it just me or is it hot in here?" Draco whispered as he eyed Fang, who seemed to be staring miserably at something in the fireplace.
"It is boiling," Harry whispered back, shrugging off his school robes. "I'm going to open a window."
"No!" Hagrid yelled, when he turned and noticed Harry's hand on the window latch, causing everyone else to wince. With shaking hands, Hagrid dropped the tea set onto the table, sloshing and clattering, and hastened to return Harry – who was still frozen in position – to a seat.
Harry blinked in disbelief as he plonked down onto a chair beside Draco. What in Salazar's name was that?
"A'right, look," Hagrid explained, as he bent over to pick up something from the fireplace. "Here's why yeh can't open the windows."
Both boys' jaw dropped as Hagrid cradled the huge, black egg and set it before them.
"Where did you get the egg of a Norwegian Ridgeback?" Draco asked, in awe. "Do you know how rare they are?"
Harry swivelled over to stare at his friend. Surely Hagrid had more pressing concerns, like – "Hagrid, you live in a wooden house."
Hagrid, humming merrily as he carried the egg back into the fire, didn't seem to hear him; though Draco's eyes widened, almost as if he'd forgotten that fact.
"Damn. And it's been outlawed since 1709 – it's the only reason why Mother wouldn't let me have one," Draco muttered.
How had Harry not known that his best friend was so crazy over dragons?
It's not as if his name is Draco, Harry thought sarcastically.
"Won it," said Hagrid proudly, as he brushed his apron down of ash and joined them at the table. "Las' night. I was down in the village havin' a few drinks an' got into a game o' cards with a stranger. Think he was quite glad ter get rid of it, ter be honest."
"What?" the boys exclaimed, though for rather different reasons.
"Glad to get rid of it? Glad?"
"You got it off a stranger? Isn't that just a bit dodgy?"
Hagrid waved their questions away with a chuckle.
"Well, I'll raise it well, I will. Bin doin' some readin', he said, pulling a large book from under his pillow. "Got this outta the library – Dragon Breeding for Pleasure and Profit – it's a bit outta date, o' course, but it's all in here. Keep the egg in the fire, 'cause their mothers breathe on em, see, an' when it hatches, feed it on a bucket o' brandy mixed with chicken blood every half hour."
"Seems like you've got it all planned out, then, Hagrid."
"Wonder what life would be like if I'd never met you," Draco sighed when they'd left, with another worry upon their shoulders.
"Ronald's brother works with dragons, apparently," Hermione said when they'd told her.
"Merlin, they breed like rabbits."
Hermione narrowed her eyes at Draco, though she did have to admit that it wasn't quite normal for one to have that many children – not by Muggle standards, and apparently not by Wizarding ones either.
"How many siblings does he even have?" exclaimed Harry, who couldn't quite believe it either.
Counting off her fingers, Hermione answered.
"So, there're the twins – Fred and George, and Percy, whom you all know. There's Charlie, who Ronald says works with dragons in Romania, the oldest is Bill, who's a Curse-Breaker for Gringotts, and then there's Ginny, his younger sister. So… that's six."
"Merlin, and they couldn't even give them better names? I mean, Percy's alright, but the rest are basically plebeian."
"You think Draco is any better?" Hermione enquired, smacking the boy with a scroll she'd just rolled up.
Draco glared down his nose at Hermione.
"It's a most respectable name, I'll have you know, and it's a circumpolar constellation steeped in mythology, but I wouldn't expect you to know that."
Hermione, who really was quite well-versed in constellations – seeing as there'd been a stage of her life in which she'd wanted to name her children after constellations – would have rattled off what exactly she knew for the next hour, if not for Harry's hasty intervention.
"So, Hermione, why'd you bring up Weasley's brother?"
"Well," Hermione said, slightly unsure. "You might think it's a stupid idea, but – but we could ask him for help?"
"And how exactly, Granger, are you planning to do that?" Draco asked, as if she'd indeed gone mad. "You think the Weasel would help us?"
Hermione rolled her eyes, in an expression that meant please, of course not.
"No, we could ask the twins to deliver a message for us. And quickly, before it hatches, and before we get into more trouble than we're already in."
Draco looked sceptical, and Harry looked contemplative, but he soon got that look in his eye – the look that no one would be able to shake.
"Okay, let's do it."
And the trio bent over a parchment to pen the letter that would – hopefully – solve this one problem, at least.
Luckily for them – really, it was all thanks to Hermione – the Weasley twins were willing to help, despite not knowing what exactly that help entailed, and Hermione had arranged for them to meet after lessons the next day.
Whispers filled the library as soon as the Weasley twins walked in, and Harry nodded in greeting as they approached.
"Well, well, Forge, we haven't set foot in here in years," one half of the twins grinned, glancing around the library.
"You're right, Gred. I almost forgot this place even existed."
"Are you sure they can help? If they're anything like the Weasel…" Draco whispered, unconvinced, overhearing their exchange.
Hermione puckered her lips, as if Draco's cynicism was a direct insult to her.
"Would you rather we go to Professor Dumbledore, then?"
"Guys, stop it," hissed Harry, and his friends deflated.
"So, firsties, however can we offer our services?" Fred – as Hermione had pointed out (she could tell the twins apart, somehow) probed as he plonked down beside Harry, throwing an arm across his shoulders, who looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"What's the matter, kid?" George laughed as Draco scooted away from the new arrivals in a bid to avoid the same fate.
Draco scowled at Hermione as she slid the folded parchment across the table.
"We need to send this to Charlie. Like I said, it's important."
"Don't you lot have owls?"
"Well, yes, but Romania's days away from Scotland, and what if he doesn't even read it?"
"Why Charlie, anyway? What does he have that we don't?" George asked with a wink.
Hermione blinked; the twins shared a grin.
"Alright, if we owl it to Mum to Floo to Charlie, you'll owe us one."
"I thought they were Gryffindors," Draco muttered. "Since when do they strike deals?"
"What's that, Malfoy? The Hat said we could've made fine Slytherins, you know," they smirked.
This time, it was Draco's turn to fall speechless.
"Okay, but make sure it stays secret," Harry answered.
"Of course," George winked, tucking the parchment in his robes. "Who do you think we are, Slytherins?"
The twins fled, leaving two bristling but confused Slytherins and a blushing Gryffindor in their wake.
Charlie Weasley's reply arrived two mornings later, and if all went according to plan, the egg would be on its way to a protected dragon reserve in Romania by the week's end, and no one else would be any wiser.
But alas, as Harry would discover soon enough, when did things in his life ever go according to plan?
The night of the proceedings started out well enough – Harry and Draco (Hermione, no matter how much they'd tried to sway her, would not agree to following them.) under the Invisibility Cloak by the edge of the castle, watching, in case anything went wrong.
"Do we really have to be here?" Draco pouted. "It's past curfew, and if we get caught…"
Harry shushed him.
"If Snape didn't catch us when we were following him, who's going to catch us when we're standing still? We won't get caught."
Frowning, Draco squinted into the distance, tugging on Harry's sleeve when he made out the shadowy outlines of two figures descending on brooms near Hagrid's hut.
"I think they're here. Look."
The figures entered, and a while later, after what Harry assumed was Hagrid's desperate attempts to keep the egg, (he did feel sorry for Hagrid, but this was best, in the end.) they emerged with what looked like a crate carried between them and somehow managed to secure it to their brooms.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief as Charlie's colleagues vanished into the night sky.
"There, it's done."
The boys cautiously made their way back into the castle, which was, at this time of night, a fortress of darkness and silence – which only made their journey harder. They only narrowly managed to skirt around the ever-watchful Mrs Norris, and as the wall to their Common Room slid open, Harry let the Cloak fall, their hearts finally calm –
"It must have been an entertaining escapade indeed, wandering around in the dead of night."
Snape, in his swirling robes of black, towered over them, his face devoid of emotion.
Thank you, my dear readers, for waiting around yet again for this chapter. It wasn't a particularly easy one to write, but I sure hope I managed to retain the personalities of each character and continue the story in a realistic fashion. So, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you did, please leave a review - they really mean the world to mean, as do each and every one of you. Please 'follow' and 'favourite' too - I'd greatly appreciate it!
Anyway, there's a week left till Christmas, so if I don't release a chapter before then, Merry Christmas!
Until next time.