Chapter 50

For disclaimer and author notes please see chapter 1.

1991-09-04 08:30 UTC, Hogwarts

The morning after Slughorn's public display of anger saw the two most powerful wizards in Britain - according to perception anyway, and didn't some management guru say "perception is reality"? - in a similar mood.

In fact, this was a golden opportunity wasted - if they could have met that minute, and allowed to vent against the person who they were currently most angry with, they would have realised they had a lot in common. Who knows from what little acorns the oak tree of friendship grew? Plus Dumbledore already had prior experience with being friends with dark lords!

Sadly for the rest of Britain, none of that happened. Both wizards remained blissfully unaware of their nemesis' plight.

Dumbledore had spent the previous day annoyed with himself at having been taken in so easily. He was not allowed the time to dwell on it too much, because - even though he had skipped breakfast - the news of Slughorn's decision to leave, and how McGonagall had salvaged the situation, had forced his attention. He had tried - vainly - to get Slughorn to stay on as head of Slytherin, but Slughorn was refusing to even remain in any room that he entered, leave alone listen to him!

Once that drama had settled down, and the paperwork (there was always paperwork!) done, it was past mid-morning. He had then rushed off to the room in which he had caught the elf, to check if the stone was still there. Thankfully, it was - clearly the elf had not been able to remove it.

With that, he allowed his thoughts to come back to the bigger problem.

He could not believe he had been overcome so handily. After thinking about it all day, followed by a fitful night of trying to understand how this had happened, he had woken up this morning, freshened up, and suddenly remembered that he had a pensieve.

Slapping his palm to his forehead, he opened the cabinet that held his pensieve and pulled the ancient device out. Holding his wand to his temple, he muttered the spell required to extract his memory of the event, and carefully placed the material into the already more than half-full pensieve. Having done that, he dipped his head into the top of it, and went in, so to speak, to take a good long look.

Once he had viewed the memory, he came out. He had, indeed, allowed himself to be riled far too easily, but there were extenuating circumstances. No one - absolutely no one - had ever seen a house-elf behave in such a fashion. The language, the phraseology, the diction, everything was human. Not just "human", it was "irreverent teenager".

Who was this elf? Had the so-called Phantom captured a human teen and somehow - who knew what dark magic he knew - forced him to morph into an elf? But then, the elf was happy. No magic in the world could force true, genuine, happiness in anyone, as he well knew. It was not just a matter of dark magic - it had long been determined that happiness was the one emotion that could not be forced.

(A few months after the first love potion was invented, way back in the late seventeenth century, a team of potioneers had tried to create a potion for each of the primary human emotions. They found that they could do all of them except happiness. Then one of them had the idea that, since the tickling charm existed and made people laugh, perhaps this was more in the realm of charms than potions. A team of charms masters then tried the same, with just as much success. Research into inducing happiness continued sporadically among the charms community for a few decades, until 1734, when Tubipore Dillpickle died from a tickling charm that was held too long - he had a heart attack from being forced to laugh for nearly half an hour. That was when people finally realised that tickle-induced laughter was far removed from genuine happiness, and decided to stop chasing that particular dream!)

So, whatever the Phantom had done, it was not forced on this creature, whoever he was. Could a real house-elf be trained to behave like that? What would happen if a wizard treated his elf as an equal, and took care of him the same way someone would treat their own child?

Dumbledore's brain screeched to a halt at that thought. The cognitive dissonance of this extremely unusual concept was too much for the hidebound wizard, and he moved his thoughts back.

He would have to trap the elf within two layers of wards - the inner one would not allow any elf to pass, and the outer one would not allow any wizard except himself to pass. And he would not make the mistake of entering the warded area at all. It was a pity there were no wards that were effective against both elves and wizards, but their magics were too different.

His fellow "super wizard" was in the same mood, though he had had a small amount of good news too.

After yesterday morning's theatrics at the breakfast table, he had somehow allowed Quirrell to go through the motions of handling the day's classes. No homework was assigned, no detentions given - he would be busy that evening, he had told his unwilling host.

Late that night, he had set out for Little Hangleton to check if the ring was in its place.

His anger at finding the Gaunt shack not just destroyed, but it and the area around it levelled, was impressive.

With Malfoy dead, he had no illusions as to the diary - very likely that was the start of the unravelling of his scheme. No doubt a search of Malfoy's manor was conducted at some point - whether before or after Malfoy's death was not relevant - and this Phantom had found the diary. Analysing that, they would have determined what it was. He must have then approached Slughorn, and asked him the all-important question.

But Slughorn had not known what items he had chosen, nor where he had secreted them. That was something to ask the Phantom when he captured him, but he had to assume he had somehow deduced all this.

He could not approach Gringotts. With Black having taken up the lordship, he would have wreaked as much havoc on Bella's vault as he could, at least after the two Lestranges were dead. No doubt he had found the cup and destroyed it.

That left the locket.

Despite the late hour, and Quirrell moaning and whining about being tired, he had risked a trip to the seaside near the cave.

Quirrell's magic was not equal to going into the cave, traversing the lake, and checking the horcrux in the island in the middle. So Voldemort had contented himself to checking if the outer wall had been breached recently.

He could not get an accurate read on it, but it was clear that no one had been here in at least the last seven to nine years.

Since this so-called Phantom had turned up less than six years ago, he breathed a sigh of relief, and apparated back to Hogwarts' gates.

Still, he needed to be careful. At the moment he had only one horcrux that he was sure of. He could not afford to treat Quirrell too harshly - if he died, he would have a lot of trouble finding a willing host again. His soul was now damaged enough that he may have to bite the bullet and re-absorb the piece in the locket, and that would require Quirrell to be in good shape.

He would bide his time, and focus on softer targets. A very soft target was right here, and a very auspicious date for taking action against him was less than two months away.

After all, to someone who was immortal, what was a mere two months?

Meanwhile, Quirrell never knew what circumstance to thank, but the next two months were pure bliss for him.

1991-09-15 11:30 UTC, Hogwarts

Hermione and Harry had enjoyed their first couple of weeks in Hogwarts. They were already friends with Neville. The other boys and girls in Gryffindor looked like a decent bunch. Ron - about whom Hobby had been strangely silent - seemed to be tolerable, if a little, shall we say, unintellectual?

Anyway, they had spent the previous weekend settling in socially, so to speak, and now, this second weekend, they decided to step out of the castle for a bit, and take a walk around the lake. The weather was still pretty good, and this was a chance to spend some time with just the two of them, away from the rest of their classmates. They were so used to having only each other, that even having just Neville as an every-day presence was a strange feeling. A good feeling, but strange nevertheless.

Hence the walk.

"What do you think Hobby is doing?" asked Hermione. They had not heard from Hobby after the night of September 1st. He had not turned up even after the Slughorn drama - and Harry was so sure he had caused it too!

"Should we call him, just to chat?"

"Maybe after some time. Let's walk by ourselves for a bit. And I'd rather call him when we're a little further away from the castle, just in case someone is watching".

Harry smiled at his best friend. "Oh I had not thought of that! What would I do without you, Mione?"

Hermione grinned back. She was used to praise from him, and had long ago stopped blushing at his compliments. (No doubt they would start again once both of them got hit by hormones, but that was some years away still).

"What do you make of Malfoy's attempts to rile us?" asked Harry.

Though their two weeks so far were by and large peaceful, a somewhat expected trouble had popped up, albeit in a very mild form. Draco Malfoy appeared to have set his sights on the boy-who-lived, although he was being very Slytherin about it.

He was annoying them in ways that were not actionable, even by a professor who hated him and wanted to punish him. It was nowhere near the bull-in-a-China-shop aggression they had heard of from Hobby.

He had started by ditching his "muscle-men" without making a scene (and thus being very discreet about airing the uncomfortable fact that they had ditched him!) He had then picked up a different minion - Pansy Parkinson. Pansy was perfect for him in this - she hated Potter as much as Malfoy himself did, she was as much a blood purist as he was.

Together, they had embarked on a subtle campaign to discredit Harry and Hermione, starting with their own house. One time, when Harry had made some mistake in potions, he had calmly turned to Pansy and said "This is what happens when someone who could have been a proper wizard, goes and stays in the muggle world, of all places." It was not said too loudly, but a good number of people had heard him. More importantly, it was said in a pitying, shaking-head-in-sorrowful-disbelief kind of way.

Slughorn had heard, but - while he was no fan of the child of a convicted death-eater and a just-out-of-jail woman - he couldn't really do anything. Heck, Malfoy hadn't even used the "m" word!

His target, or perhaps targets, since Harry and Hermione were inseparable, did not even blink. They looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and continued working on their potions.

That day, Neville had played straight man, too, with great effect.

"I think little Draco is trying to rile you up, Harry", he had said.

"Well he is certainly trying!", Harry had laughed dismissively.

Remembering this and a couple of other similar attempts, Hermione said, "I get the impression that this Draco is very different from the Draco that Hobby knew".

"From what I remember of Hobby's tales of his years, his version of Draco Malfoy would have attempted to intimidate Crabbe and Goyle into coming back to his way of thinking, as it were, whereas this one appeared to have cut them loose within a day of arriving here."

"I think they were standing together at the sorting, but after that I don't remember seeing them again", agreed Hermione.

"So yes", said Harry. "He is definitely more Slytherin in his approach this time".

"Isn't that surprising? That an orphanage would have more Slytherin influence on him than his own father?"

Harry thought about that for a bit. "Well...", he drew out the word, still thinking. "Look at it this way. It appears that his father used to spoil him, and I don't think that's conducive to bringing out any Slytherin tendencies", he laughed. "In Hobby's timeline he never had to work for what he wanted - he just got it!"

"Makes sense, I suppose", Hermione nodded. "So far, he has not succeeded, but he's not letting it show either."

"Well, so far, his shenanigans have been limited to words", she continued. "And we have not been responding at all, which must be really annoying to the little twerp. So I predict he will be 'upping the ante', so to speak".

"Physical attacks?"

"Unlikely. But it all depends. I think Sirius's policy of staying away from him the last three years is backfiring on us. We have no idea what kind of company he kept while at the orphanage. In fact, do we even know how many other kids there were in that place? Where do they go to learn magic? Or do they just learn some trade, like Stan Shunpike or the workers we saw in the magical menagerie?"

Harry, of course, had no idea, so he just nodded. "We'll need to give Sirius a nudge to go and find out".

1991-09-19 06:00 UTC, Gryffindor common room

The following Thursday was Hermione's birthday, as well as their first flying lesson.

This was Hermione's first birthday away from her parents, but Padfoot and Mooney had sent her a most appropriate present the previous night, via Harry. As soon as he got it, he had rushed to the common room, found Parvati there, and asked her to take a note to Hermione, who had already given Harry a hug goodnight and gone to her dorm.

As a result, bright and early at 6am, Hermione came down the stairs to find Harry waiting for her with an obvious gift in his hand.

He put the gift aside, and pulled her into a hug. Kissing her on the cheek, he wished her a happy birthday, and then said, "you must open Sirius and Remus's present first. Mine is upstairs; I'll get it down in a minute".

He had her sit down - just in case, in her excitement, she dropped it - and watched while she carefully opened the wrapping, extracting a cardboard box, about the size of a somewhat squarish book, from it.

Opening the box, she found a simple mirror, with some runes engraved around the border. It didn't seem like something to get so excited about, but to look at Harry - who was almost vibrating with excitement - there was more here than met the eye.

"What does it do, Harry?"

"Say your mum's name, or your dad's name".

"Kate Granger. Richard Granger", she said to the mirror. Hermione being Hermione, she very quickly guessed what this was, and she could now understand why Harry was so excited.

Her mother and father appeared in the mirror, and she squealed in joy. "Oh mum and dad - I was feeling this was the first birthday I am not with you guys, but this is the next best thing!", she said. With her other hand, she pulled Harry to her and side-hugged him, making sure he was in the picture too.

"Happy birthday, sweetheart", said her mother and father simultaneously. Between them, they could see Sirius and Remus sitting on a sofa. A few seconds later, her mum and dad were also sitting down on an adjoining loveseat, while Remus kept the mirror levitated and focused on all four of them.

"Thank you mum and dad! And Sirus, Remus, this is the best present you could ever have given me - thank you so, so, much", she gushed.

"You're welcome Hermione", said Sirius, while Remus just waved. "Now that we made sure it's working, we will leave you to talk to Richard and Kate". Waving goodbye, the two marauders left.

Harry also discreetly left, ostensibly to get his own present for her. He had, of course, planned it this way so it wouldn't look too awkward, but he need not have feared. While her mother was saying something, she glanced at Harry and mouthed "come back quickly", while waving her hand in an urgent manner.

Harry came back a minute or two later with his present under his arm. It was a silver bracelet that he had purchased one of the few times he and Sirius had gone shopping without Hermione.

As he came up, he heard her mother, in the mirror, say, "...Hedwig must be on her way with it now". Looking at Hermione, he thought he saw her faintly blushing, but decided not to ask.

1991-09-19 15:30 UTC, Hogwarts quidditch pitch

They spent an hour or so walking around the lake before breakfast. The rest of the day went normally, and now they were on the quidditch pitch, for their first flying lesson. It was supposed to have happened two weeks ago, but Madam Hooch had been laid up with an unexpected bout of some minor but enervating illness (at least as far as the students knew), and had not felt up to the task of supervising newbie flyers till today.

This class included all four houses, so there were a few dozen broomsticks lying on the ground in neat rows. Many of them seemed old, but carefully maintained to be usable, at least for learning. Harry immediately wondered how many of the players in the house teams used their own brooms - using these may be safe enough, but would certainly be a handicap in terms of performance.

Harry, Hermione, and Neville took their places next to each other, with Hermione in the middle. They saw Draco Malfoy take his place opposite Dean, who was a couple of spots away from Harry. He appeared to be very nervous, and was glancing somewhat fearfully at the broomstick.

Hobby had told them something of what had happened here in his timeline (he appeared to be dribbling all the detailed information to them on a "we'll talk about it when it happens" basis, they had noticed). This Draco was nothing like what they had heard - far from boasting about evading muggle helicopters, he did not look like he'd ever flown.

"I don't think that's it", said Harry quietly to Hermione when she voiced her suspicions. "It almost seems like he had flown, but it did not end well".

That made more sense, so she nodded.

Fortunately, all three of them had had some practice - more than enough for Hermione and Neville not to be nervous about it. This Hermione also had the same fear of flying to start with, but it had reduced quite a bit after a few practice sessions (first with Sirius and Remus, then with Harry).

Harry, of course, had taken to it like a duck to water, and absolutely loved flying. He seemed to always be in complete control of the broom, regardless of what stunts he was pulling (or attempting to pull, while under the watchful eye of Sirius and Remus) - it was lucky that the back garden of Grimmauld was not too big, and thus offered limited scope for Harry to really let go.

Once all the students had lined up, each next to one broom, Madam Hooch started off by giving them a short warning "lecture", then told them to hold out their dominant hand and say "UP".

Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Ron succeeded immediately. So did most others, with one or two exceptions here and there who needed help from Madam Hooch.

The only oddball was Draco, who did not even attempt to say "up" to his broom. He had a scared look on his face, confirming to Harry and Hermione that things were quite different this time around.

Eventually, Madam Hooch made her way to him. "Mr Malfoy, what seems to be the problem?"

Draco gulped. "I...", he stammered. "I don't want to. I... I had an accident once, and I never want to fly again. I can't control the broom".

Madam Hooch had never heard of anyone who had magic but was unable to control the broom. Being afraid of heights, while not common, was at least known. This, however, was unheard of.

Resolving to deal with this after the others had started, since they had waited long enough, she told him to wait, and turned to the rest of the class. Glaring at Ron and a few others - not all in Gryffindor - who were sniggering at Malfoy, she said, "mount your brooms, gently kick off, pointing your broom slightly up, like so" - she demonstrated - "and fly around in a gentle circle".

"Do NOT", she continued, "speed up beyond a slow walk, or you may hit one of your classmates. Sit with your back almost straight, bent only a wee bit forward - that will slow down the broom. To stop completely and hover, if you wish to, sit with your back straight. To stop suddenly, lean backwards - the more you lean backwards, the faster you will stop. To the muggleborn or muggle-aware among you, leaning backward is the same as braking, and leaning forward is accelerating."

She demonstrated all this, and spent a few minutes making sure everyone was up and flying slowly in a circle. Hermione was impressed; this was not a mean feat - almost forty kids, many of them newbies at flying, managing to stay up within an area that seemed too small, and not hitting each other. And not an ATC in sight, though we do have several "towers", she grinned to herself.

At this point, Draco was the only one on the ground, and Madam Hooch was gently coaxing him onto the broom. Hermione was looking down at the scene with a neutral expression - she did not like the boy but neither she nor Harry were the type to gloat. She briefly glanced at Harry, who was flying a bit higher.

Looking back down, she saw Draco glance up briefly, then suddenly scream. His broom shot forward and up at a steep angle, very fast. To her horror, Draco hit the tail of Harry's broom from underneath, with his head, causing Harry's broom to tip almost vertically down.

Any other flyer - even most second and some third years - would have fallen off the broom instantly. The movement was just too sudden, and indeed Harry almost did fall off.

But his reflexes were excellent, and he gripped the broomstick tightly. For a small fraction of a second, all his weight was on his wrists, and he was staring almost directly down at the ground, while flying toward it.

He immediately began pulling up sharply on the front, and by the time the broom had got to within a couple of feet from the ground, he had levelled off.

All this took barely a few seconds - before Hermione could take a breath to scream, there was no longer any reason to.

She and Neville dropped down as fast as they dared, dismounted, and ran to him. Neville got to him first, but he allowed Hermione to catch up and pull Harry into a hug.

After a few seconds, Hermione addressed Harry, but with a glance that included Neville. "We need to talk to Sirius as soon as possible", she said.