A/N: I have, and shall continue to use "Master" as a uni-sex reference for someone who has obtained a level of experience that they can have an apprentice of their own. This is intentional. I do this instead of using Master/Mistress save for the use of "headmistress" which is a job title. Why? Because in my world (in my head, and the chairs are comfy here) you are either a master or an apprentice—or you are a person who doesn't need/desire to be so and just goes out in the world with the standard education. Come to think of it, look at the Jedi. It was always about masters and apprentices. There was never "Mistress Jedi". (Just a little disclaimer because I still end up with some people sending me reviews trying to correct my use of Master and force me to use "Mistress.")
Beta Love: The Dragon and the Rose, Dutchgirl01, and Flyby Commander Shepherd
Disclaimer: JKRs stuff is still hers and not mine
Scales of Judgement
"What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life-to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?"
"You've been trying to get a bead on the lot of us for a long time, haven't you, Snivellus," Sirius said with a arch lift of his head in that seemed all too like the rest of his wealthy, entitled family.
Severus sneered, but said nothing, keeping his wand hand ready, the fingertips of his hands brushing against the smooth ebony of his wand. "What do you want, Black?"
"Oh, nothing much, just—" Sirius grasped the bars of the grate and shook it loose, allowing Snape to walk out. "Offering you a bit of the truth. You can appreciate the truth, yeah?"
"And I'm supposed to trust your truth?" Snape scoffed. "After all you've done?"
"All we've done, Snivelly," Sirius smirked. "We've both cursed and hexed each other silly since day one. Ever since we first met on the train."
"What are you up to, Black?"
"I'm offering you up a slice of truth on a plate, Snivellus," Black crooned. "A little peek into why we will always protect each other and why the likes of you—couldn't possibly understand."
"You want to know where we are always sneaking of to, right? You're convinced we're up to some sort of evil, dastardly plot."
"Trouble. Evil. Whatever," Sirius shrugged. "It's all the same to us. You think we're up to something and you want in. Well, what if I could show you exactly why you're barking up the wrong tree, hrm?"
Snape's black eyes practically burned a hole into Sirius.
"Oh, come on, Snape," Black said with a heavy sigh. "Look I'll let you make your own judgement. See that tree over there?"
"The Whomping Willow? Who could possibly miss that?" Snape scoffed.
"There's a knob," Sirius said. He pointed his wand at it, turning an area on the bark bright pink. "Turn it and the willow stops trying to pummel you to death."
"I don't plan on going near it," Severus said.
"I think you'll want to tonight," Sirius said.
Black shook his head. "Some things you just have to see to believe, alright?"
"There is a path under the willow," Sirius said. "Your answers are there, I swear it."
"You'll have to forgive a little suspicion as to your intentions, Black," Severus said.
"Just check out the tunnel, Snape," Sirius said. "Or don't. No skin off my back." Black threw up his hands and walked back towards Hogwarts.
Snape looked toward the Whomping Willow and back at the retreating form of Sirius Black. Sighing deeply, he walked toward the notoriously aggressive tree, happy that the moonlight was at least providing enough illumination for him to navigate the path.
"I don't know what you're up to, Black, but this had better not end up with rotten eggs in my hair again," he muttered.
As Severus' eyes froze on the form of Remus Lupin—his face pushing out into a naked muzzle, skin stretching over pointed canines that were suddenly way too big for his mouth even as fur erupted from his abused skin—he realised that the gang of Gryffindor were hiding more than just a secret. They were hiding far, far worse: a werewolf.
Lupin was screaming like he was burning to death, and Severus was pretty sure the agony alone was driving away whatever semblance of humanity the wizard may have had. Of all of his tormentors, Lupin had been most tolerable. It hadn't been because he hadn't taken part in the ridicule and the pranking, but there was something in the look Lupin would sometimes give him when the others went all out to torture their most hated Slytherin target—something that almost seemed like regret. None of the others—Potter, Black, or Pettigrew—had ever displayed anything even close to remorse for their actions. They weren't chums in any sense of the word, but in that moment of primal terror and horrified realisation, he realised that Lupin had been cursed in a way far worse than an abusive, alcoholic father.
Remus Lupin would never be able to escape himself.
And Severus—he would be lucky to get out of this alive.
Suddenly, he wished he'd focused less on retribution and more on discovering his own Animagus form. Professor McGonagall had been generous enough to teach him, and she had shown great faith in him. Severus, however, had only focused on it in-between attempting to find something, anything to pin on Potter, Black, Pettigrew, and…
Lupin the bloody sodding werewolf.
"Fuck," Severus swore, realising he was stuck between a werewolf and the exit. There were no windows. There were no doors save the trapdoor he had used to get into the shack. What kind of house has no windows or normal doors?!
Even in the midst of his half-transformation, tortured with pain, Lupin was both there and not there. Severus could see his horror even as the yellow bled into his irises. Fear. Terror.
The werewolf's muzzle was short and flecked with foam. Slaver dripped from his mouth, mixed with blood. Hunger filled the werewolf's eyes. Hunger not only for meat, no. It was hunger for kinship, pack and freedom.
But a werewolf's craving for such things was perverted into something monstrous. Severus knew that Lupin would do everything he could to insure he wasn't alone the next time he shifted. He would infect any and every human he could.
And someone had put him here—in a house with no windows or doors—only a breath's run away from both Hogwarts and Hogsmeade.
Severus pulled out his wand and tried every spell he knew starting from standard to his customised curses. Ropes went around Lupin, tightening, but he busted out easily, seemingly even more pissed off. He lunged at Severus and snapped, his heated breath brushing against his cheek.
So dangerously close.
Severus yelled, sticking his wand to the werewolf's head as he used his arms to brace and his feet to kick, scramble, and push the werewolf's mass off him.
Stunning spells only pissed Lupin off.
He used a blast of magic to send the werewolf careening into a wall, but it was in the wrong direction. Again, Lupin was now even more well-positioned to stand between him and the only door to freedom.
The one door that wouldn't even guarantee he could escape.
And even if he did, a werewolf would be free to roam across the Hogsmeade and Hogwarts itself. Even if he was free, how many might fall to Lupin's jaws before dawn?
Any restraint Snape may have felt for the boy werewolf had died with the first vicious snap of those frothy, infectious jaws. Severus kicked the werewolf in the face with his boot and hastily scrambled up the stairs, his hands clawing out on the wooden floor.
Scraping into the wood with his nails.
Never had his nails been so sharp. Never had his fear been so tangible. Had he been the type to overindulge in fizzy drinks and pumpkin juice, surely his trousers would have been soaked with urine. He ran, crawled, scrambled, and forced his body to move.
He clutched his wand, trying to blast a hole in the wall of the house, but someone had enchanted it. The spell blasted back on him, nearly hitting him directly in the face, but he dodged just in time to send the pissed-off werewolf careening down the stairs.
Had to escape.
"Hey Moony," Sirius had said as he taunted the sickly looking wizard with a candy bar. "Howl was your night, hrm?"
"Shut it, Padfoot," Remus had groaned.
"Look, Prongs, Snivellus is watching us."
"He's always watching us, Wormtail."
Padfoot. Prongs. Wormtail.
That was how they avoided being harmed by the werewolf. They shifted into their Animagus forms. That had to be how they escaped being infected. Humans could be infected, but animals could not. As long as they were in animal form, they were safe.
"You're such a dog, Padfoot."
Black was a dog Animagus.
Severus remembered Potter carrying a fat-looking rat with a huge block of cake. Pettigrew was the rat.
"Not my fault you always get your head stuck in the doorway, Prongs," Black had laughed.
"Fuck off, Padfoot."
Antlers. Potter was a sodding deer.
All this time, the reason for how they had always been able to find him. Always had been able to escape being detected. They were always out on the green after hours. They were always just out of reach.
They were Animagi, all.
But unlike Severus, who was training under Professor McGonagall and had his name registered legally as a potential Animagus until he obtained his full shift, the banes of his life had achieved it on their own.
They were illegal.
"I'm sorry you don't have any peers to work with, Mr Snape," McGonagall had said. "Most do not have the strength of will or desire to study for it."
He should have studied harder.
He should have focused on that instead of following his hated enemies around, trying to catch them red-handed doing something they could be punished for.
He would never have caught them because they were bloody Animagi.
In his meditations, he could fly. He had wings. Huge, leathery wings.
He had been scared, so scared, that his form would be a sodding bat. It was bad enough that people constantly made fun of him because of his black hair and uniform and how it made him look like a vampire bat.
But now he didn't care. Now, he only wanted to escape. Bat, mouse, twittering English Robin—he didn't care. He wanted out. He wanted to escape.
Lupin was bounding up the stairs again. Closer, closer.
Snape threw debris down the stairs, hoping to buy himself more time.
Wings. Great, black, leathery wings. He could feel the gnash of razor-sharp teeth. He could feel the pull of muscles he didn't, well, shouldn't have.
Please, for the love of all magic, he prayed. Don't let me die here. Don't force me to live out my life as a werewolf.
Snape screamed as Lupin leapt, thrusting a dresser between them with sheer terror and adrenaline. The werewolf tore and snapped. The wood cracked and splintered. Snape thrust a candelabra between Lupin's jaws, praying none of those teeth nicked his skin.
His teeth ground together. He tasted blood. His muscles ached as he tried to keep the dresser between them.
"It's not about knowing the spell, Mr Snape," McGonagall had said. "It's about allowing your other self free. Be what you are. People think becoming an Animagus is just about acquiring a form and using it, but it's more than that. It's about being your true self. It's about embracing what has always been inside you. That is why you can never be another shape once you make that shift. You're not turning into a random animal, or an animal that is like you. You're turning into the animal that IS you."
Lupin's jaws snapped but a centimeter in front of his face. The armoire was splintering. The candlestick had snapped.
Fear and rage mixed together. Fire churned in his belly.
"I WILL NOT DIE HERE TONIGHT BECAUSE OF YOU!" Snape screamed furiously.
Magic swirled around his body, churning around his core, and it blasted its way out as molten flames—as hot as lava.
There was a tremendous roaring, screeching, bellowing sound, and Severus realised it was coming from himself. His arm smacked into Lupin, sending him bouncing down the stairs, yelping as he fell.
Fire and rage replaced fear.
Severus roared, his shape twisting, churning, and reforming as the shadow of giant, leathery wings burst from his back and utterly obliterated the room he was in, taking out the walls and ceiling. He was rising up, higher and higher.
His head hit the ceiling.
The room was too small. It was crushing all around him. Squeezing him. Pinning him down!
Severus burst free, using all his might to shove away the oppressive force of the walls. Plaster, wood, and stone flew in all directions.
Cold, damp air filled his nostrils, and Severus snorted, sending steam and smoke rising from them. Molten saliva dripped from his super-heated mouth, burning where it landed like lava meeting grass.
One wing unfolded and then the other. A long, whiplike tail with a spike at the end smashed through the sole remaining wall, and swordlike talons pulverised the remains of the floor. The supports groaned with the excess weight, creaking ominously and threatening to crash the remnants of the structure to the ground.
Severus' vastly larger mass caused the shack to actually shatter down around him.
Moony tore out of the dust cloud, looking to attack again, but as he clambered over the debris to find his human victim, his jaws wrapped around Severus' obsidian talon-spur.
Severus' jaws opened and he belched several gouts of flame in short bursts, but not for long. Soon, he seemed to realise exactly what he was, and his eyes narrowed menacingly as his fanged maw opened wide.
Huge gouts of orange, red, and superheated blue and white flame poured out of Severus' elongated, pointed snout.
Moony yiped, tumbling, scrambling, and tearing away as fast as wolfishly possible. The end of his tail was charred and naked, the flesh smoking.
Predator had suddenly become prey.
The werewolf, sensing its life was in grave danger, tore off at top speed in the general direction of Hogwarts,
Glowing, purple eyes radiated hatred as the dragon leapt into the air, unfurling a massive set of wings from his body.
Severus leapt into the air with a cry so low it shook the earth rather than making any audible sound. His muscles flexed. Thickly plated ridges rippled down his back as his rough scales moved over his skin. His tail swished, tail spikes gleaming in the moonlight. As his tail snapped back and forth like a whip, the arrow-like spade on the end seemed to scream through the air with a high-pitched vibration.
Giant horns curved up from his head and to the side, dipping before curling back up, counterbalancing his head as he zoomed after the fleeing werewolf. Lupin ripped swaths across the green in his mad dash across the grounds, seeming to sense his impending death
Severus roared, but the sound that came out was a low, earthshaking rumble. The lower frequency vibrated across the earth, and even the nearby Black Lake rippled in response. But as Lupin dove into the trees and disappeared into the forest brush, he startled a large deer, driving it out in the clearing.
Severus' eyes glowed brighter as he spotted the bolting deer. In a flash of movement, he banked, breaking off from his pursuit of the gangly werewolf in favour of the plump deer. His talons extended, his digits expanding—
The deer was crushed almost instantly, his sword-like talons slicing through the unfortunate prey in seconds. Without landing, the new dragon banked again, carrying his meal off with him as he glided over the Dark Forest and beyond, leaving behind the human world of torment, ridicule, and pain.
The world that would harbour a werewolf on the school grounds where any hapless student could stumble upon them—no lock on the door save one aptly-named Whomping Willow with a convenient off-switch—that was no world he wished to remain in.
The mountains called to him, and he would carve his own place in them to call his own.
Sirius was having the very best night of his life. He'd arranged for James to be with Lily all night. He'd set up Severus to meet with Moony, which he hoped resulted in teaching the greasy fuck to keep his oversized nose the hell out of their business and fun, Wormtail was off pranking his oh-so-proper Slytherin baby brother, and Marlene McKinnon was gloriously naked underneath him.
Better yet, she had been sneaky all on her own to find him as he was parking himself on the grassy knoll nestled between the rosebushes, waiting to hear the glorious sound of Snivellus' terrified screams to let him know that it was time to get himself to Hogwarts and connect back with the others to see how their nights went.
Alas, Snape was evidently taking his sweet time getting to Moony, but Sirius wasn't complaining a bit about that. He and McKinnon were gloriously compatible, and their hyperactive libidos were apparently proof of the fact.
The gathering of bushes was perfect to cover their activities—close to Black Lake, but far enough from Hogwarts so the sounds of their lustful pursuits didn't tip anyone off. Better yet, he would be able to hear Snape's screams when they began and even get to play the hero to sweet, little Marlene. Perfect!
He had planned to get a little closer to the Shack and park himself in a tree for a better view, but with Marlene with him, all thoughts remotely resembling rationality had promptly fled off to the lake and drowned themselves in its fact, the only thing Sirius wanted at the moment was to drive himself back into Marlene's inviting, insatiable body. Thankfully, he'd had many experiences with a great many witches, and he knew exactly what places to caress and kiss to get Marlene all hot and bothered all over again. Their little love nest in the bushes was warm and cozy, having been transformed into a roomy, comfortable place to explore each other at their leisure.
Sirius kept his ears perked for any outside noises, but oddly, the night was terribly, eerily quiet. The noises they were making, however, were more than adequate to fill the gap, and Sirius couldn't remember a time when he felt so powerfully driven. So…
They collapsed together again, panting, in boneless bliss.
"Merlin, Black," Marlene gasped. "I never believed the stories about your insatiable appetite."
"Mmmm no," Marlene replied with a stifled yawn. "I think I'm quite happy to be here. I never thought sneaking out after curfew would be so—wonderful."
"It's strangely quiet and peaceful," Sirius admitted. "I'll admit, I expected to be plagued by crickets at the very least."
"Guess the silence bubble spell I've been studying really worked," Marlene purred, snuggling into Sirius. "The other girls have been teaching each other so they don't get caught out by Filch."
Sirius froze. "You did what?"
"A silencing charm," Marlene said. "You know, so everyone up there doesn't hear us going at it. We all learned the contraceptive charm from the book that showed up in the girl's dorm too. The upperclassman said they had to go to Madam Pomfrey for a potion, but the charm was so much easier."
"This will be BRILLIANT, Prongs!" Sirius had crowed. "We put this dummy book about a contraceptive charm in the Slytherin dorm, and they'll think it's all convenient and wonderful. By the end of the year, half of them will be pregnant and expelled."
"What is it?" Marlene asked, frowning.
"You know how my family is all about old values right? Marry the witch if she's pregnant?"
Marlene shook her head. "I did the charm correctly, Black. I got the tingle down there when I did it and everything."
Sirius was quiet for a while. "So you haven't been taking the potion like the other girls?"
"It was so embarrassing going to Pomfrey about it," Marlene admitted, blushing. "The charm was so much better. The upperclassman still use the potion. Too traditional, but the rest of us just love the charm."
Sirius had stopped petting Marlene's body, his body having suddenly gone unnaturally still. His eyes flew open. "Fuck, I need to warn James!"
"Wha—?" Marlene blurted as Sirius burst up into a sitting position and then pushed his way out of the rosebush as he struggled to put his underpants and trousers back on.
Sirius gave a strangled cry and a yell as a blur of brown fur slammed into him and sharp teeth buried themselves into his arse.
"Sirius, what is going—" Marlene screamed as she realised Sirius had fangs buried into his rump as a huge, disheveled and annoyed-looking werewolf pinned him on the ground. Marlene lunged for her wand, but it was tangled up in her cast-aside clothes.
Moony's lips pulled back from his teeth, and he leapt upon her, his mouth clamping down viciously on her wrist.
Marlene's scream pierced the night air as she went flying out of the rosebush. Moony held fast, ensuring that his special "gift" was properly transferred into her human bloodstream. After shaking her back and forth a few times and taking a few more chomps to make sure she was properly mauled, Moony leapt back on Sirius and sank his fangs into whatever exposed part he could wrap his mouth around—which happened to be almost everything thanks to his current state of undress.
"Moony, no!" Sirius yelled. "Moony!" Black transformed as the pain became too much, shifting into his dog-form, but the transformation broke off Moony's attack only to find another sticking point.
Marlene screamed. "Y-you're a werewolf too!" She had her wand in her bloody hand as she clamped her other hand over her bleeding wrist. Blood was flowing freely, but she used her fear and will to keep her wand steady. She blasted both Sirius and Moony away from her, using every spell she could remember before running for her life, back up the hill towards the theoretical safety of Hogwarts.
Her screams, like the cries of a banshee, caused many lights to appear in the windows of Hogwarts.
Sirius limped-ran after her, whining and growling, but Marlene fled from him as though he were the Devil himself.
Sirius, having never told anyone but his best mates about his Animagus form, had no ground to stand on. There was absolutely no reason for Marlene to trust him. There was no reason for her to think anything but what she did—that Sirius was a closet werewolf too.
Sirius, desperate to help Marlene, attempted to shift back and prove he wasn't a werewolf, but the moment he did, he realised his error as Moony snarled and tore into him again, biting, biting, and biting again.
Curious students were poking their heads out of the windows as they pointed and screamed upon seeing one of their number under attack. Teachers were streaming out of the school. Mage-lights were zooming over the area.
Red and green beams of magic flew in many direction.
Moony yelped as he was knocked away and suspended in the air. He snapped and struggled for all he was worth, but he was unable to get down or move away. His mouth twisted in both impotent rage and total desperation to insure that he had a pack of his own upon the next full moon.
McGonagall threw a handful of pebbles into the air, transfiguring them into a heavy iron cable that wove and twisted around the werewolf. Sprout pulled out a bag from her robes and tugged open the mouth. She threw the contents into the werewolf's face, causing the werewolf to sneeze uncontrollably as hundreds of little pollen sheep baaed and frolicked around his head. Moony slumped with a whine as his body fell to the ground, completely bound. Flitwick mumbled a charm that caused a cage to form around Moony's face—preventing from biting any others to add to the growing pile of victims.
"Merlin's thick and crusty toenails," Minerva blurted. "What the bloody blue blazes is going on here!"
Rolanda Hooch, Madam Pince, and Aurora Sinistra rushed down from the school with Poppy Pomfrey hot on their heels.
"Minerva, Mr Fenwick and Miss Dearborn took Mr Black and Miss McKinnon to the infirmary!" Rolanda said, panting. Her hair was sticking up straight from her head, making her look like a hawk. "They both had several nasty animal bites!"
"Not just any animal, Rolanda," Sinistra said with a shocked gasp. "That's a werewolf!"
"A werewolf? But how?"
Poppy paled. "That's Mr Lupin," she said in a hoarse whisper. "But he—Dumbledore swore that he'd be safe!"
"What?" McGonagall exclaimed.
"There's a house with no windows and doors. I escort Mr Lupin there via the pathway by the Whomping Willow on every full moon. Dumbledore bought the house and arranged it so it would be safe for him. It was supposed to be completely secure! It was supposed to be safe for him and others! He swore it!" Poppy wrung her hands in distress.
"How is this even possible?"
"Dumbledore allowed a werewolf to attend Hogwarts?"
"Minerva, how did you not know?"
Minerva frowned. "Albus always has preferred to keep his secrets close. He never said anything about a werewolf to me. I've brought up a few incidents to him about Mr Lupin and Messrs Black, Potter, and Pettigrew instigating various nasty pranks over the years. He always tells me he'll deal with it himself."
"What do we do with him?" Aurora said. "If he wakes up—"
A little owl hooted as it zoomed quick circles around their heads, looking for a place to land.
Minerva extended an arm, and the owl landed on her, presenting her with its leg. She unrolled the scroll and read it quickly. "Have any of you seen Mr Snape? The Head Boy says he's missing. No one in Slytherin knows where he is, and Regulus Black says that's not like him at all. They were supposed to meet to study tonight, and Mr Snape never showed up."
"He wasn't in the library," Madam Pince said, frowning. "He usually is."
"We need to take Mr Lupin outside the gates of Hogwarts," Minerva said, making a decision. "Filius, could you please sent a Patronus to the Aurors and inform them that we need their assistance to transport a werewolf away from Hogwarts?"
"Right away," Filius agreed.
"Rolanda, Pomona," Minerva said. "Could you assist me with levitating Mr Lupin to the gates?"
"I'll check on the children in the infirmary with Poppy," Madam Pince said with a nod.
"Thank you," Minerva sighed. "Let's worry about this first. We will have to bring the Aurors into Hogwarts. Difficult questions will be asked, and Albus will need to hear all of our reports. Let's go!"
"So, Miss McKinnon," Auror Moody said, sitting down in a chair by the bed. "Could you tell me what happened?"
Marlene sniffled. "We—we were out near the lake, you know, kissing."
Marlene shook her head.
Moody's eyes narrowed. "Look, Miss. I didn't fall off the turnip truck this morning. You want me to believe you were out there, just kissing, without any clothes on."
Marlene went deathly pale. Her arm was bound in herbal poultices lined with silver nitrate that had been reinforced with special healing spells. "We were making love, okay?" she said.
Moody sighed. "And then what happened, lass?"
Marlene swallowed. "Everything was fine until Sirius asked if I had used my contraceptive potion. We haven't been because we switched to the charm months ago."
"Contraceptive charm?" Moody questioned gruffly.
"Yes," Marlene said. "You know—to stop from getting preg—"
"I am aware of what contraception is, lass," Moody said. "I'm questioning this charm you speak of."
"It's the newest thing. Easy charm. The movement is a spiral on the abdomen. You even feel it take effect. Most of us switched from potion to the spell when the book came out."
Moody frowned, and Marlene went back on track. "Sirius stood up saying he had to talk to James right away. He didn't even dress all the way. He just stood up and—that's when the werewolf bit him on the arse. He—he transformed into this giant black beast. I thought… I thought he had become a werewolf! I ran. I ran so fast, but I was bleeding so badly. I must have passed out. Next thing I know, I was waking up here in the infirmary."
"Well, Miss McKinnon," Moody said. "Mr Black was not a werewolf. Unfortunately, you were both bitten by a werewolf tonight. That means you will both be werewolves come next month and that puts you in danger from people and them in danger from you three times a month."
"Wuaaaaah?!" Marlene cried.
"Miss McKinnon," Moody attempted to placate the distraught girl. "It is not the end of the world, but there will have to be changes. The Dutch Ministry has created an isolated wilderness community for werewolves. They are far enough away from humans not to infect anyone else, and they have their own community, schools, and laws. It's not the same as being free to roam the world, but you'll be safe there. No one can come and murder you just for being a werewolf, and you won't have to worry about someone coming to harm because of you."
"I'll have to live with a bunch of furry freaks?!" McKinnon cried, wailing hysterically.
"Miss McKinnon!" Moody snapped. "There are thirty days in a month, three of which you will transform into a violent, wolf-like beast that lives to spread the curse. Three days out of thirty. The rest of the time you and everyone like you will be perfectly human. They will look human, have feelings, and act like humans!"
McKinnon whimpered and wailed, preferring to wallow in her incoherent emotional breakdown and anger rather than even considering an attempt at rational thought. "But you want to ship me off into the dark WILDERNESS! Where there is DIRT!"
Moody's eyebrow twitched.
"What do you mean I'm being shipped off to an island in the Netherlands?!" Sirius screamed from somewhere in the hospital wing.
"Mr Black, calm yourself!" Poppy chided. "You are in a hospital suffering from a werewolf bite!"
"Cut my arm off, FUCK!" Sirius screamed.
"You were also bitten on the rear, Mr Black!"
"Then carve a chunk out of my ruddy arse!"
"Alastor," Auror Savage said as he rushed up with Auror Proudfoot. "We have a report about the disappearance of the student, Severus Snape."
"Well, spit it out, man," Alastor growled, impatiently pulling them to the side.
"We found a ruin of a house just outside Hogsmeade, connected by a tunnel here on the Hogwarts' grounds," Savage said.
"Anyway, it's pretty much just rubble now," Proudfoot said, "but we found torn scraps of what appear to be a set of robes, a Slytherin school uniform, and blood. There were claw marks all over the rubble."
"We think the student was most likely lured there—to the house," Savage said, swallowing hard. "We found tracks leading there, but none leading away. If the werewolf didn't kill him, the house collapse definitely did. It's nothing but rubble, Alastor. We scanned for any signs of life. There was nothing to be found."
"No trail leading away from the scene? No sign of a possible escape?"
"He'd have to have flown away, Moody," Proudfoot said. "Lupine tracks led away and to the lake where the attack happened. We found tracks where Madam Pomfrey said hers would be. We found another set of tracks leading down the tunnel, some old deer tracks, dog prints, and even rat trails, there were two sets of human tracks leading into the passage. One was Mr Lupin, the other must have been Mr Snape. We couldn't find anything leading away."
Moody rubbed his temples. "This is such a sodding mess. A bloody werewolf loose at a school full of children and teachers. Have Bournes and Starkweather finished taking a report from the Headmaster?"
"Yes, boss," the Auror pair answered together.
"Did we get permission to collect memories off of Black and McKinnon?"
"Deputy Headmistress McGonagall said she would do it as soon as the permission slips come back from the families."
Moody glowered. "I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that Albus purposely harboured a werewolf on school grounds. I find it even harder to believe he didn't put some sort of safeguard on that house! Even if—IF—he did want to provide educational equality and all that rot, why would one of the most powerful wizards in the world not have some sort of heavy-duty safeguard in place—" Moody stopped.
Moody froze in place. "Werewolf. Missing student. Possible murder—Maybe it is time to talk to Pennyworth and Hopkins. They were investigating Mr Snape's belongings and the other students in the dormitory. Savage, Proudfoot, stay here and observe and collect the memory vials from Black and McKinnon."
"Aye, sir," Savage said with a salute, causing Moody to scoff and mutter as he shuffled off.
"Do try not to blow anything up," he growled, storming out of the infirmary.
"You don't understand, Mr Moody," Regulus said. "While there was plenty of bad blood between Severus and Potter, my brother, Pettigrew, and Remus, we are talking one person again four almost every single time. It was actually quite impressive that he managed to get in a few licks of his own."
"What are you saying, Mr Black?"
"I'm saying that while neither party was entirely blameless for holding and acting on a serious grudge," Regulus said grimly, "my brother made it his personal mission in life to make Severus take a fall whenever he could, to humiliate him in front of the entire school , and, in particular, to do whatever he could to part him from his childhood friend, Lily Evans. He hated Severus that much and even I don't know why. I have many memories of such incidents, all of which were duly reported and yet were always ignored."
Alastor rubbed his temples. "And you are not the only one to have witnessed such things?"
"The most recent horror was a book that inexplicably turned up in the girls' dorm detailing a "new and improved" contraceptive spell," Regulus said. "I heard the girls talking about it, and they showed me the book, thinking it was from Madam Pomfrey. It was written in my brother's distinctively atrocious formal script. He cannot write a proper "r" correctly to save his soul."
"What did you do with this book?"
"I had it returned to Gryffindor tower via owl," Regulus said.
A look of dawning horror spread across Moody's face as he realised that Miss McKinnon had specifically mentioned such a "new" spell. "I'm going to need a giant bottle of Ogden's after this."
"We have memories too," one of the younger students said, approaching."
A large crowd of Slytherin approached and made themselves known to Moody.
"Take our memories," they said together.'
Alastor sighed and squared his shoulders. "You all have owls, yes?"
The students nodded.
"I need you all to write your parents for permission to gather your memories of these events. Do that, and we can start recording your testimonies."
The students moved in a flurry to do as he asked, and Alastor sent a Patronus out to inform his people of what needed to happen.
Shocking Revelations of Favouritism at Hogwarts
Headmaster Dumbledore Endangers Students By Secretly Harbouring Werewolf!
Multiple Pregnancies in Hogwarts Students Thanks to Hoax Contraceptive Charm
Bullying Ignored by Headmaster! Called "Harmless Pranks".
Student Missing After Werewolf Attack on Hogwarts Grounds, Two Students Infected With Lycanthropy!
I have a very special edition of The Daily Prophet for you this day, dear readers, and it is the complete, unvarnished truth!
Hogwarts students have been placed in grave danger by the current Headmaster, Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. He not only chose to secretly harbour a dangerous werewolf on the school grounds without bothering to inform his staff or the Board of Governors, but he has also been found guilty of multiple acts of blatant favouritism that allowed a particular gang of students to constantly avoid being punished for "harmless pranks."
Offenses that Headmaster Dumbledore has tacitly permitted through ignorance and inaction during his so-called leadership at Hogwarts, despite numerous complaints from staff and students, include:
Allowing three unregistered student Animagi to rampage throughout the school, breaking curfew, pulling often-dangerous pranks, and bullying fellow students and yet escaping punishment for a period of at least six years.
Allowing student bullying to continue without punishment when it involved students belonging to a particular house in Hogwarts
Concealing dangerous infective hazards, such as lycanthropy from students and staff.
Allowing the pranking and humiliation of a squib staff member despite multiple complaints.
Blatant manipulation of student rewards, such as house points, to reflect a desired outcome.
Willful ignorance of circumstances that lead to the harm of multiple students and the disappearance of another student
Turning a blind eye to the willful import of extremely dangerous magical creatures by an irresponsible staff member, requiring a specialised team to be sent to exterminate from the forest surrounding Hogwarts a breeding colony of Acromantulas, the result of which has caused the deaths of over a hundred witches and wizards who were apparently "camping" in the forest. The victims sadly perished due to a stampede of angry and apparently very hungry spiders that fled from the nest during the process of said extermination.
Previous knowledge of said "campers", a possible group of anti-government conspiracists, all bearing a strange skull and serpent tattoo on their arms. Rumours say it the mark of a Dark Wizard who calls himself "Lord Voldemort".
Rumours of Dark activities in the vicinity of the school were confirmed by Aurors when a number of the survivors, delirious due to Acromantula envenomation, spewed forth plans of rushing Hogwarts for their Lord "the moment Dumbledore was pulled off this throne."
The investigation into the events in question are currently ongoing.
Headmaster Dumbledore has been removed from his position at Hogwarts pending a trial in front of the Wizengamot. Hundreds of vials of memories from students and staff have been collected with permission from the families of all affected minors.
The most damning of the shocking discoveries made, however, comes with the simultaneous trials of Mr Sirius Black, eldest son of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black, and his friends James Potter, Peter Pettigrew, Remus Lupin and Lily Evans, all who have been questioned due to suspicions of conspiracy. While it is not known how involved Mr Black's friends were with the prank that led up to the disappearance of Slytherin student Severus Snape, it has been confirmed that they were Black's accomplices in the malicious pranking of several other Hogwarts students.
Mr Black had, on the night of the infamous werewolf attack, lured Mr Snape to a Hogsmeade home being used as a containment for the werewolf during full moons. He then proceeded to wait nearby to better enjoy Mr Snape's screams. Pieced together from memories extracted after the incident and bitter confession after the fact, Mr Black fully intended to "teach him a lesson about being nosy" and claimed that "he got what he deserved." It seems as though his actions on that night, at least, were independent of his other pranking activities.
The charges currently pending against Mr Sirius Black currently include:
A malicious prank that is believed to have caused the grave harm and probable death of a fellow student.
The infection of himself and another Hogwarts student, Miss Marlene McKinnon, with lycanthropy, which required his removal along with McKinnon, and Remus Lupin to a secure werewolf-only community outside of Britain.
Multiple accounts of assault and battery committed by himself and his friends against their fellow students
The malicious hoax and deliberate spread of an alleged "contraceptive charm" targeted towards one Hogwarts house in particular, which caused a significant number of teenage pregnancies that would have been prevented had the standard contraceptive potions been taken.
And the list goes on.
The full list can be found on Page 6B, under "Sirius Black, Teenaged Troublemaker Under Fire."
Mr Dumbledore and Mr Black will be having separate trials before the Wizengamot on Friday, and the results of which will determine if charges will be brought against his known accomplices, or if the school will be allowed to render punishment now that Mr Dumbledore has been relieved of his post.
In the interim, until the Board of Governors can vote on a replacement, Deputy Headmistress, Professor Minerva McGonagall and Professor Filius Flitwick will be the acting Head and Deputy, respectively and will work together to tackle the multiple issues facing Hogwarts in the aftermath of Mr Dumbledore's dismissal.
As for the status of the missing student, Severus Snape, an intensive search of the rubble has revealed only blood and tattered clothing. With no sign of possible survival, it can only be presumed that he met his end in the collapsed house, having been crushed and then burned to ash in the resultant fire.
Death Eaters Disappearing Across Europe!
The torn and charred remains of yet another Death Eater was found at the steps of the Ministry of Magic yesterday, bringing the total of slain marked Death Eaters to five-hundred and sixty two.
Years after the beginning of the public rise of Lord Voldemort, he has been sending his tattooed agents to all corners of Wizarding Britain, to terrorise Muggles and magicals alike. Yet, one thorn remains in the side of that rising Dark Lord: his minions keep turning up savaged and burned to death by an unknown assailant or assailants.
Each victim, if you can truly call anyone who is a known Death Eater a "victim", was ripped to pieces and burnt to the bone, with only one part of them still pristine: their left arm, bearing the distinctive skull-and-serpent tattoo.
Since the public posting of rewards for bringing in Death Eaters, dead or alive, requiring only visible proof of the tattooed arm as evidence, whoever it is who has been leaving the bodies at the Ministry has been gathering quite a hefty collection of monetary rewards. No one, however, has ever witnessed the drop offs—only the results.
Ever since the attack on his family by his sister-in-law, Bellatrix Lestrange, and the subsequent transformation of his confirmed Death-Eater father into a dragon due to an exotic strain of dragon pox which caused the destruction of an entire borough of south London, Lucius Malfoy has contributed a sizable amount of galleons for each confirmed Death Eater brought in to the Ministry—dead or alive.
Dead was apparently the preferred choice of one particular "donor."
After a number of confirmed Death Eaters were killed by Acromantulas in the Dark Forest, autonomy was given to the local centaur herd, granting them unprecedented freedom to guard their lands and govern themselves. The peace treaty between the centaur and the new Headmistress of Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall has led to the capture of over a hundred Dark wizards and witches and Death Eater initiates. None have breached Hogwart's gates since the changing of the guard, and many seem to think that the school is more efficient and safe than it ever was under Albus Dumbledore.
Ever since Dumbledore was sentenced to 25 years in Azkaban, the attacks from the Dark Lord Voldemort have been coming fast and furious, but they have also been very public and shocking. The daylight attacks have been countered by the efforts of numerous Auror groups, both British and foreign, and the night's tally seems to be counted in the charred bodies delivered by an anonymous benefactor.
Whatever the case, the war seems to be losing wind, and rumour has it that vials of condemning memories have turned up, gift wrapped, to the DMLE. This has supposedly led to multiple arrests and the destruction of Dark objects all across Britain. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but no one seems to be able to deny the fact that Tom Riddle's grip on Wizarding Britain has been in a sharp decline since an anonymous publisher posted a full dossier pinup of his personal history in cities all across Britain—namely the pertinent details of his birth, family, and half-blood status.
The pureblood movement, which was sweeping throughout Britain a few years ago, has been sputtering out significantly since then.
As for Tom Riddle, no one has seen him, and whether that will change or not remains to be seen. If the Aurors have a plan in mind, no one is saying anything, and perhaps that is for the best. We can only wish them the very best of success in their campaign to stop him for good.
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Lord Voldemort Cornered and Commits Suicide by Auror, Proclaiming He Will Return, Leaves Behind Recipe For His Own Demise
Tom Riddle was a genius. He was also an exceptionally disturbed individual.
The self-styled Dark Lord has committed suicide by Auror, throwing himself into a gathered throng of law enforcement officers as though his own life did not matter to him at all. At the moment he did so, Death Eaters all across this nation fell into convulsions as their Dark Marks spontaneously dissolved off their left arms.
He left behind a very detailed diary explaining his quest for immortality, including the forbidden creation of Horcruxes, which he conveniently provided further details of every location of and what they looked like—almost as if he expected the writing to disappear after his death.
Aurors have found a total of five Horcruxes and disposed of them, and used a trace on them to find any others that might have possibly existed. While the nature of the objects in question has not been disclosed, the DMLE assures the public that every last one was found and has been neutralised.
The end of the Dark Lord Voldemort has, at long last, finally come to pass!
Hermione plopped herself down under a moss-covered tree and let out a long sigh of pure relief.
"Escaping the other foals, foal-sister?" Magorian asked, folding his legs under himself as he plopped down beside her.
Hermione smiled. "Does it show so easily?"
"You are the only foal who can come and go in these woods without incurring the threat of a spear to the throat or an arrow buried in their ribs," he chuckled.
"You can't fool me, Elder Magorian," Hermione said with a small chuckle. "Centaurs do not harm foals."
"Unless they do or intend harm to ours, yes," Magorian said, smiling at the young witch. "But you are a special case, regardless, having risked your life and having taken care of one of ours. Springberry will remember you for along as the stars burn and the planets spin."
"I'll settle for having friends here and now," Hermione said thoughtfully. "Having quiet places to go and good company to share them with."
"So disappointed for one so very young," Bane said as he joined them. "Magorian calls me the storm cloud over our herd. Perhaps you have spent too much time around me."
Hermione smiled. "It's just hard not having friends," she said. "There I mean," she clarified, nodding her head to the school. "I have more friends amongst the teachers than the students. And the friends I do have, no one trusts because they are Slytherin. I have more enemies, it seems, than friends."
Bane snorted, tossing her an apple before biting into one of his own. "I think you just happen to know who your real friends are, foal-sister. That is something most foals do not know so young. I will confess, I thought all humans were unworthy of any respect or positive regard until you, even when Magorian ordered me to—"
"Stop acting like a colt trying to be a stallion," Magorian said with a smile.
Bane sighed, tail swishing. "Yes."
"Firenze would tell you that it was fated for you to have been there, that day, at just the right time," Magorian said, "but I would like to think that it was your choice that bade you save our filly from danger. Many would not lift a finger to help a centaur, even with the treaty."
Hermione frowned. "That's hardly fair."
"This," Magorian said, as he fingered the chain of tribal markings that mimicked the stripes on an okapi on Hermione's arms, "shows us that your heart is with the herd. Herd magic would not have bound you to us had this not been so."
"Here, I thought it was because Springberry and I bled over each other," Hermione said cheekily.
"Hah," Magorian said. "It takes more than blood, Hermione."
"It takes heart," Bane added firmly.
Hermione traced the distinctive stripes on her arms. "It's funny. I thought when I first came to Hogwarts that I had finally found a place to call home, but I didn't really find that until I gained these."
"You do have your Professor McGonagall, yes? Your Master?" Magorian said.
Hermione smiled. "Yes, I do have her. She encourages me to never give up."
"She is a remarkably wise woman," Bane said. "Even I know that."
"Will you be coming to our autumn harvest?" Magorian asked. "The stallions will be out hunting, of course, but the mares will be cooking and smoking meat and fish with the foals. At night we plan to have quite the celebration."
"I would love to, Magorian," Hermione replied with a smile.
"Good. You may bring your palomino friend, and please send our invitation to your master, yes?"
Hermione nodded. "Of course, I will. Thank you so much for allowing me to invite Draco."
"He is more respectful than most," Magorian reasoned. "I trust he will not forget his manners."
"He's a Malfoy," Hermione said with a smile. "He always remembers his manners. He just doesn't always use them."
Bane barked laughter, clapping Hermione on the shoulder. "I'll make sure to tell the fillies to stomp on his toes if he gets out of line."
"Any luck yet with your Animagus form, Hermione?" Magorian asked. "Any chance you might be a centaur for real?"
Hermione almost choked on her apple. "Not unless you're half-pegasus. I felt wings in my meditation."
Magorian pouted. "Hooves at least? Tell me you had hooves?"
Hermione stared down at her feet. "They felt… odd? My feet, I mean."
Bane nudged Magorian. "Maybe she's a hippogriff."
"Well, at least they are part-equine," Magorian remarked with a grin.
Master McGonagall is sure the change will happen "soon" and "as soon as I get properly inspired."
"Cryptic, that one," Bane said, shaking his head. "Rather like Magorian."
Magorian snorted. "Just don't be a waxwing. We'll never get you out of our fruit trees."
Hermione coughed. "I'll, um, try."
Magorian grinned at her.
"When we were foals, Magorian had us all go out and 'find ourselves'," Bane said. "We weren't allowed to come back until we had a proper epiphany. It was the first time we were allowed away from our dams, and we were cold and hungry and didn't know our arses from a hole in the ground. We couldn't hunt, and didn't know how to fish."
"How did that work out for you?" Hermione asked, practically making equine-esque ears and perking them forward with interest.
"We gathered in a group and huddled together to keep warm. Firenze managed to build a kind of shelter he remembered from watching his dam, and Coltsfoot managed to find some sparking rocks, but he didn't know how to use them. Luckily, I did. Brambles found tinder and kindling, and Arbor made a stone axe head to chop up some logs from the deadwood. We were tired and terribly hungry, but at least we were warm," Bane reminisced. "The next morning, Magorian was there, cooking up a bunch of fish on a spit he had made over our fire, congratulating us on learning the first lesson all young centaur need to know. Well… a few lessons. One, never, ever disrespect your dam. Two, the herd is life, and together you can survive. The third lesson was pay better attention when your elders are teaching you critical skills." Bane smiled.
Hermione laughed. "Good life lessons. But was it just for the colts? Or did the fillies go too?" she asked.
Magorian shook his head. "Fillies are too smart to be lured away from their dams at that age. They stick like burrs to their dams' legs. They absorb everything their dam does for at least a year or two before they allow themselves to wander. Colts are—"
"A little dense," Bane said.
Hermione laughed. "I see."
Magorian tilted his head. "Colts are the next generation of stallions. They are built to be brave and curious, protective and a bit overactive. We guard our herd from any and all threats. We defend against danger. We are the first line of defence. Mares excel in thinking their way out of danger. They avoid conflict, not for lack of bravery, but to protect their foals. When cornered, however, they are incredibly fierce fighters. Make no mistake about that."
Hermione nodded. "Why was Springberry out in the open that day I found her? Away from Highbush?"
"Highbush was ill at the time," Magorian said. "Springberry went out looking for herbs for a poultice, knowing it would help her fever break, but she got lost coming back. I know she put on a brave face for you, Hermione, but she was quite terrified when you found her. I meant it when I said she would remember you forever."
"She can't seem to remember how to get back home, but she will always remember you," Bane chuckled.
Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose. "Well, that's something."
"Well," Bane said, plucking up one of Hermione's schoolbooks. "What are we drilling you over today?"
Hermione grinned. "Chapter forty-two."
Bane flipped through the pages until he got to the right one. "Advanced techniques in holistic potion making?"
Hermione shrugged. "Master McGonagall believed I needed more to expand my mind."
"I should introduce you to a friend of ours," Magorian said, peering at the book. He excels at such things."
Hermione perked. "You know a Potions Master?"
Magorian eyed Hermione. "We are centaurs, but we are not so terribly isolated that we can't have contacts in the outside world."
Hermione flushed. "I'm sorry, it's just—you don't mention anyone outside the herd very often."
"I suppose you're correct," Magorian agreed. "He's a bit of recluse, even by our standards. He likes having plenty of space."
"The entire forest is not enough space?" Hermione questioned.
Magorian shrugged. "We all have our own quibbles. It is a long trip up the mountains to visit, so we usually allow him to come to us."
Hermione shook her head. "I suppose that's fair. Maybe one day, I will get to meet him too."
The elder centaur smiled warmly. "I'm sure you will, Hermione."
"You should just move in with us," Draco said, pushing a rock with his toe as he dangled his legs over the pier. "Gryffindor obviously can't be bothered to protect their own."
"My master is a Gryffindor," Hermione protested. "And at least I'm not living in the Gryffindor dorms anymore." Hermione attempted to skip a rock on the water, and it plopped in without even trying to skip. She sighed and slumped. "I got tired of all the pranks, losing my shoes, and having my toothbrush be used to clean someone's trunk."
Draco put a rock on her hand and guided it up. "Keep your hand flat like this," he said. "Sent it out as if it's going glide across the top."
"Oi, Granger," Theo said, plopping down beside them. "Still trying the skipping stones, eh?"
Hermione groaned. "I just can't do it."
"Bah, it's all in the wrist," Theo said. It is a bit like whistling through your teeth. Some people just have it easier. Draco is one of those show-offs."
Draco shoved Theo on the shoulder, and they got in a tussle on the dock, both ending up half-covered in seaweed and a gull.
Hermione snort-laughed. "Where is Blaise, Theo? Normally you two are conjoined twins."
"Blaise got in trouble for retaliating against Weasel," Theo said. "Made it look like he was the one torturing Weaselbee. Him and Potter are both having a contest to see how many Slytherin they can get in trouble before the holidays."
Hermione frowned. "Why do those two hate on me so much."
"Don't take it personal, Bieb," Theo said. "They just hate on you because you're a bibliophile, and their grades prove they aren't."
"I swear they follow me around, Theo," Hermione said. "Somehow, they can end up in the oddest places and I never see them come in. It's almost like they know how to Disillusion themselves—but that's such complex magic."
"You know how," Draco scoffed.
"Yeah, but Master McGonagall has been teaching me since I was eleven. I don't think either of them have an Apprenticeship or the inclination to study for that. All they want to do is win at Quidditch."
"And dislocate my arm," Draco said, rubbing his arm at the memory. "Potter ran me into the grandstand last game. Did you see it?"
"No, but we saw the tower collapse," Theo said.
"On top of me," Draco said, rolling his eyes. "I still got the Snitch though, the bastard."
"Language, Malfoy. Your father would give you the look," Theo droned.
"Then don't tell him," Draco hissed.
"One more year to go, Bieb," Theo said, "and you don't have to worry about Pottery and Weaselbee."
Hermione choked at the nicknames. "Pottery now, is it?"
"Every since he ended up with a fanged geranium on his head spitting teeth into his rump," Theo said. "I don't forget things like that.
"Neville was angry. That was his favourite geranium," Hermione recalled. "He had to repot it and tuck its roots, and it was so angry that it bit him on the nose.
"Could have been worse," Draco mused. "He could have been bitten on the—MFFFPHF!"
Hermione's scarf throttled Draco to cut off what he was going to say.
"Grrkffk!" Draco wheezed. "Witch abuse!"
Theo rescued Draco by taking him in a headlock, and the two tussled for a bit before bursting into laughter.
Hermione used her foot to kick water on them both.
"Potty and Weaselbee still trying to get you in trouble, Bieb?" Theo asked.
"It never stops, Theo," Hermione confessed. "Been like that since I was eleven and Draco helped me carry my trunk in. Toxic waste. Nothing but rubbish."
Theo's expression darkened. "Don't talk like that. You don't really believe that crap, do you?"
"Part of me doesn't," Hermione sighed. "It's been almost seven years now, right? You'd think being an adult would give me some sort of clarity."
"Clarity doesn't just come with adulthood, Bieb," Theo said. "About all you get out of it is a date for sitting your N.E.W.T.s and in your case, an official job offer since you've already submitted your mastery project. McGonagall doesn't mess around."
"Hah, the moment I turned seventeen, she had a pile of paperwork for me to sign, a skills test appointment at the Ministry, and did some sort of complex wand-waving to remove my trace," Hermione recalled. "Then she had me grade a stack of first year parchments just to see how long it would take for me to want to murder the lot of them."
"That all?" Draco asked.
"We had a party on the ramparts after hours," Hermione grinned. Her smile faded. "After she pulled me out of that giant spider web and the tiger pit."
"We really need to find out how those bastards manage to get around the school unseen," Draco said, eyes narrowing.
"We can't assume it's them, Draco," Theo said.
"I know it's Potty and Weasel," Draco insisted. "Those arrogant berks have been laughing at and mocking her since day one on the train, and they set her bloody hair on fire at the Gryffindor table."
Theo shook his head. "I know, but—"
"No proof," Hermione said, putting her hand on their shoulders and pulling them together. "Don't worry about it. After this year, they go off and be whatever their grades will allow them to be, and they'll be out of our lives for good."
"Blaise would rather arrange to have them dragged down to fifty fathoms by a sea leviathan," Draco mused.
"I'm not sure what jobs they would be good at," Theo mused. "Maybe working for Weasel's twin brothers at the joke shop? Law enforcement isn't exactly going to fly, despite Potter dreaming of turning his pitiful grades into Os."
"If they put half as much energy and work into their studies as they do pranking Hermione and every non-Gryffindor with a pulse, they'd be set for any job out there," Theo mused.
"There's always Quidditch,"Draco said. "I dislike them both, you even you have to respect Potter's seeker skills. Weasel, well, he might get a spot on a second-rate team somewhere. If they're desperate enough."
"Probably the Cannons," Theo mumbled.
"In Weasel's dreams," Draco said with a snort.
"We should probably get back for dinner before they send out the search parties,"Theo said. "We have that study group for Slughorn's exam. He promises it will be harder than anything we get on the N.E.W.T.s."
"Slughorn?" Hermione said. "Cracking down on you?"
"Must you sound so surprised?" Theo mumbled.
"Who is he trying to impress?" Hermione asked.
"Bieb, why are you so cynical?"
"I prefer to call it pragmatic," Hermione said. "You're the ones who nicknamed me Bieb of all things."
"You spend so much time there," Theo said with a grin.
"So you nickname me 'library' in Dutch?" Hermione said with a scowl.
Theo gave her a thoroughly disarming smile, causing her to roll her eyes and sigh.
Suddenly, the three of them went tumbling off the dock with a large splash as the dock reared up and bucked them off.
Draco, Theo, and Hermione spluttered and swam back to shore. They pulled lake weed off each other. Clouds of steam rose up off of Hermione, making an audible hissing noise.
"Merlin, Granger," Draco said, his eyes going very wide. "You have sodding horns."
Hermione's eyes narrowed, purple flames of magical energy seeping out from her eyelids. Male laughter snickered from the shore, and Hermione's head spinned around as she let out a very inhuman growl.
"Bieb, Bieb," Theo said, giving her a hug. "Hey, it's okay. It's just the Wanker Twins. Don't get yourself thrown into Azkaban because of those idiots."
"I want their heads on a PLATE," Hermione hissed venomously.
"They eat nothing but junk," Draco said. "They'd make for terrible nutrition. Come on, let's go tell McGonagall. She can add it to the list of things she'll ream them for when they slip up."
"Almost seven whole years, Draco," Hermione growled, but the glow of her eyes dimmed as her horns faded. "They haven't messed up yet. Somehow, they never get caught in the act"
Theo ribbed Hermione and plucked lake weed out of her hair. "Forget them. Let's have an exciting conversation about how you just grew horns and had glowing eyes."
Hermione huffed, but laughed as Theo favoured her with his full charm and eyebrow wiggle.
"You going to teach us your mad skills after you make a full shift, aren't you, Hermione?" Draco asked, his eyes locking with hers.
Hermione arched a brow. "Something wrong with learning from Headmistress McGonagall?"
"Father said it would be far better if you taught us as your first apprentices to build up your resume," Draco said smoothly.
"Hn," Hermione muttered. "You'll have to pardon my disbelief that either of you wish to pursue a career in transfiguration, Draco, and both of us know you're far more interested in becoming an Auror along with Theo."
"Why do you have to be so practical, hrm?" Draco said. "Maybe we just want to have an official excuse to make sure you don't saunter off and become some famous witch without us."
"Without you, all we have is Blaise," Theo remarked. "Some would argue he's girly enough for anyone, but—"
Draco jabbed his elbow into Theo's ribs.
"I don't think you have to worry about that, guys," Hermione chuckled. "I don't think there is a ditch your friends at graduation clause after passing your N.E.W.T.s."
"I hear you get to sit your N.E.W.T.s early so you can help Headmistress McGonagall oversee the exams," Theo said. "Blech."
Hermione laughed. "If I'm not ready for them by now after all my master has put into my education, I'll never be ready. Besides, I have to to stand in front of the mastery board and be interrogated."
"And turn into some fantastic beast and make them all quiver in their boots!" Draco said, giving her a grin and a nudge.
"I might be something completely unimpressive," Hermione speculated.
"You had steam rolling off you, horns, and glowing eyes. Even small, that's already impressive," Theo mused.
Hermione sighed. "I have no idea what I am going to be."
"A brassed-off, horned owl with real horns," Draco suggested.
Hermione pounced on Draco, and they laughed and tussled as they got the remaining pondweed off themselves. Theo did a warming charm to ward off the shivers.
"Come one, mates, let's get back to Hogwarts before we fall into a sodding tiger pit thanks to the Wanker Twins."
Hermione nodded. "My master wants a report every time something "inexplicable" happens."
"She's a good one, our Headmistress," Theo said approvingly. "It's not her fault there is never any evidence to allow her do anything officially. Let's go. We don't want to be late for cherry strudel night."
The three friends grinned and tore up the hillside, racing back to Hogwarts.
"Congratulations, my lass," Minerva said with a proud smile, pinning a gem and laurel to Hermione's collar. "You've survived the mastery board."
Hermione trembled. "They were so scary!"
Minerva put her arm around her. "They are scary for everyone," she confessed. "When I told them I was going to pursue becoming an Animagus, they gave me all this information on what happens to people that fail. They made me think I was pretty foolish to even consider attempting it."
"You, Master?" Hermione asked, automatically bowing her head in deference to her master and Headmistress. "Hard to believe you'd not stand up to that."
Minerva lifted her chin so Hermione would look at her. "You're your own master now, Hermione. You can look me in the face, and I won't claw your eyes out."
"I'm proud of you, lass," Minerva said. "You've been as excellent as could be expected and more. And I also hope that you'll sign on to become our next Transfiguration teacher here at Hogwarts."
Hermione's cheeks gained some pink.
"You wouldn't be starting officially until next term, just so there is no question of favouritism to your peers of your current class, but until then, you'd be helping me as you always have and getting paid for it."
"You'll also have your own private chambers," Minerva tempted Hermione, her invisible cat tail twitching in invitation to pounce.
Hermione, like a good apprentice, conditioned by almost seven years of feline Animagus-tempered behaviour, rose to the bait and pounced Minerva, giving her a hug with an excited giggle.
"That's my girl," Minerva said with a smile, patting her hair. "We can't have you all working at the Ministry. Think of the children."
Hermione bust up, laughing. "Thank you for believing in me, my master."
Minerva smiled. "Minerva, lass. You've earned it, Master Hermione Granger." Minerva passed her a scroll and a writing quill. "Soon to be Professor Granger."
Hermione beamed. "Minerva." She took the quill and scroll and set to work.
"Pull the line over here!" Harry yelled.
"I got it! I got it!" Ron yelled back, tossing a coil of rope towards his best mate.
Harry reinforced the robe with magic and pulled it tight around a nearby boulder. "It's tight. Pull it tight!"
"Tight!" Ron grunted as he anchored the rope around the base of the trees. "Ready!"
"Wait for it!" Harry shouted.
"Buckbaaaawk!" A gargantuan chicken ran right by them, its feathers dyed bright pink and green.
"Here it comes!" Ron yelled.
The two Gryffindors held the ropes tightly as a giant forest troll ran by, chasing after the brightly-dyed chicken-bait.
"Ugh, the stench!" Ron said, gagging. He lost his grip on the rope as the troll ran into the cord. It tangled around the troll's legs and sent Ron careening into the underbrush.
The troll teetered and fell into the pit Ron and Harry had dug earlier, landing with a low bellow and a pained grunt. Ron fell on top, the wind knocked out of him as the cords tangled around the troll and him.
"Gerroff!" Ron cried.
"Hold still, mate, let me get you out!" Harry shouted, trying to aim his wand at the cords and not Ron's head.
Ron pointed his own wand at the troll's head and blurted out,
Ropes swirled around the troll and pinned it down, and Ron ran up the troll's back and bounced off his head to get out of the pit, pulling himself out.
"You okay, mate?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Ron panted. "I'll be happier when I see what it does to that snake-loving brown-noser, yeah?"
"You sure we can get it into position?" Harry asked. "This thing is bloody huge."
"I've been practicing the shrinking charm," Ron said confidently. "We can just stuff him into a box until we need him."
"Couldn't we just transfigure it into a marble or something smaller? Like a rabbit?"
"You actually pay attention in Transfiguration class?" Ron boggled. "McGonagall is a Slytherin sympathiser. Germy Hermy is always shadowing Professor Meow. It's doubly horrible to be in that class."
"Hey, my dad said transfiguration was a good class!"
"Maybe if the teacher wasn't ancient and actually had a sense of humor." Ron wrinkled his nose. "She's such a killjoy." He pointed his wand at the troll and said, "Reducio!"
"I dunno, Ron, I think we lost our window of opportunity," Harry said. "Rumour has it Hermione moved out of Headmistress McGonagall's chambers. That means she passed her N.E.W.T.s and her boards, yeah?"
"So she's passed a few tests," Ron snorted. "She's still one of our year until we graduate from this school."
Harry pointed his wand at the shrunken troll. "Stupefy! Levicorpus!" He levitated the mini-troll into a matchbox and sealed it.
"Okay, let's go fetch the map and cloak," Ron said. "This is going to be brilliant. We already know they're going out to party with those dirty half-breeds, and McGonagall is going to be patrolling the halls until late. That'll be the perfect time."
"Did you hear something?" Draco asked with a frown, heaving the large basket of supplies between them. Hermione counterbalanced it, smiling at him.
"Other than you grunting like carrying this is absolutely killing you?"
"I swear McGonagall filled this basket with stones and charmed it to be resistant to levitation." Draco scowled at her.
Hermione chuckled. "You always bring offerings in without magic or it insults our friends, Draco, you know that."
"Don't have to like it," Draco muttered half under his breath.
"Poor puppy," Hermione teased.
Draco made sad puppy eyes at her and then stuck his tongue out at her.
"Really mature," Hermione laughed. "What are you, ten?"
Draco snickered and grinned unrepentantly at her.
"Hello, foal-sister," Bane greeted as two other stallions stepped forward, allowing their bow arms to relax as they returned their bows to their backs.
"Herd brother," Hermione greeted with a smile. She flared her nostrils, bowed slightly, and stomped her foot in the dirt like the foreleg of one of the centaur.
"Good evening, foal of Hogwarts," Bane said as he placed a hand on Hermione's shoulder and stared at Draco.
Draco bowed respectfully. "Greetings, Bane of the Dark Forest Herd, and to you, centaurs of the Dark Forest Herd."
"Argoth," the black and white pinto stallion greeted, bowing his head.
"Mathus," the red roan beside him said.
"Greetings, foal of Hogwarts," the centaurs said together.
A snap of a twig caused all three centaur to cluster around their "foals" and take out their weapons again. Arrows notched and bow strings pulled back, each centaur glowered into the forest shadows, nostrils flaring.
After a few moments, they decided to stand down, but remained watchful and suspicious. "Come, the herd awaits," Bane said. "Magorian looks forward to telling our great stories of the year, and the youngest foals have decorated the camp with squash lanterns and wish to show them off."
Hermione and Draco grinned together. They hoisted the basket between them made haste beside their centaur escorts as Argoth and Mathus hoisted them up be the arm and carried them, basket and all, between their locked arms. They squealed in excitement as they were carried off.
Bane grinned, but his ears flattened as he heard something rustle in the forest. His eyes narrowed as he looked around once more, nostrils flaring as his lips curled from his teeth. He pulled back one arrow, notching it on his sinew string—and released it.
The arrow was embedded into the thick bark of a tree.
Bane approached the arrow, his face twisted with suspicion. He yanked the arrow out of the tree and snorted, rubbing his nose as a disgusting scent tickled his nose and the back of his throat. He replaced his arrow into his quiver, but glared into the forest, staring.
Finally, he snorted, tossing his black mane and flipping his tail as he cantered off to meet up with the others.
After a few minutes of silence, the two pranksters fell to the ground, gasping in relief, the invisibility cloak falling away. Harry's hand went through a spot in the cloak where the arrow had pierced, and he looked horrified that his heirloom had been damaged. Ron was checking his body for damage, despite the arrow having missed him.
"That sodding horse shot my cloak!" Harry exclaimed. "Now I really want to see them scurry."
Ron nodded in agreement. "We owe them now. Come on. Just pinch the cloak shut where the arrow hit. Let's get this party started."
"Springberry—OOF!" Hermione greeted, getting slammed into by a happy filly and squeezed around the waist.
"Hermione! Hermione, look at my lantern!" she cried, thrusting a carved squash lantern into Hermione's arms. The squash was carved to resemble a scary face hidden in the leaves.
"Beautiful!" Hermione praised, causing the filly to beam with pride. She took her wand and cast a spell, causing the lantern to light up with bright shifting colour.
The nearby foals all watched and snatched up their lanterns to show Hermione too, each wanting the privilege of having their own lights inside their lanterns.
"Now you've done it," Magorian chuckled.
Hermione and Draco bowed respectfully, brushing their feet against the ground in greeting. Magorian took each of them by the arm, wrapping his large hands around their arm, just above the wrist, his thumb brushing against their skin just before he released them. The stripes around Hermione's arms glowed softly, singing like soft wind chimes.
"Come, join us for the skinning and smoking of the stag in celebration of the harvest. The mares have been busy preparing the rest of the food, so it's traditional for those of us who are normally spoiled by the mares to take care of the preparation of the stag."
Hermione and Draco nodded in agreement as the centaur led them deeper into camp. The foals, all carrying their glowing squash lanterns, hung them around the camp to light the path and the camp.
Argoth and Mathus passed Hermione and Draco small knives, and both looked to Magorian for permission. The elder centaur nodded, and they set to work, slitting the stag from vent to throat. The teenage foals, caught the guts in baskets and scurried off with them to wash and prepare them for other uses.
"Hey, that's our job!" one of the stallions said, chasing after the teens. The young centaur, far too used to having the honour of cleaning and sorting the organs and other guts, squealed and whickered as they played chase with the elders.
"Teenagers," Firenze said, starting to skin the carcass, now that the guts had been removed.
Hermione and Draco helped pull the skin back from the carcass as the other stallions set to work separating the skin from the flesh. They peeled it away in tact, and two stallions took the hide and worked on fleshing it over a log before spreading it out. Meanwhile, they sawed off the antlers and carried them off to be stored for buttons and knife handles. Flesh was removed from bone, sinew was removed and set aside for bowstrings and sewing, and bone was taken away to be cleaned for future use.
They all took large pieces of meat and began to cut them into strips, all save the tenderloin which was put on a spit and given to one of the elder stallions to tend over the smoking fire. They worked diligently, cutting the meat into thin slices and hanging it over a low smoking fire covered with hardwood chips.
"Smells really good, doesn't it?" Magorian said as he watched Hermione and Draco work over the meat.
"Amazing," Draco agreed enthusiastically.
"Hawthorne makes a venison roast of the likes that brings other herds stampeding the borders," Bane said. "Rumour has it that's how he got his mate, almost causing a herd war."
"I heard that, Bane! It's a lie!" Hawthorne yelled from his post by the roast.
Bane grinned. "Don't believe him."
Hermione and Draco grinned as they arranged the last of the meat on racks set over the smoking fire. Magorian spread hardwood chips over the fire, bringing up the smoke.
The foals were kicking around a ball made of woven vines and rattling gourds, so it jingled as they kicked it around. Hermione and Draco grinned at each other, feeling very lucky to be privy to a sight that most humans were not allowed to see. The ball went careening towards Draco's head, but he ducked in time only to have it smack directly into Magorian's flank. The elder centaur eyed the younglings with a critical eye, causing them to cringe en masse, but then he kicked the ball high over their heads. They tore off after it, giggling and laughing joyfully.
"Foals," Magorian said with a sigh, shaking his head slowly. "I think it's time we fed all the hungry stomachs, hrm?"
"My foals, take food to your elders," Magorian said with a sharp clap of his hands. "It is time to start our celebration!"
The young centaurs immediately swarmed the clearing, taking wooden bowls and plates and filling them with food before taking them to the gathered elders. Two of the little ones brought Hermione and Draco bowls, even as Hermione and Draco were filling plates for Magorian and Bane.
"Aww," Hermione thanked them. "Thank you so much!"
She and Draco cradled their bowls and sat down around the main camp's bonfire.
"Today is a celebration of friendship and a harvest of plenty," Magorian said as the crowd settled. "We are blessed with health and good company. The stars glimmer and the planets move, and all have aligned to bring us together. Our success has come to us through our joined hard work, whether it be herd or herd-friend that unites us today and tomorrow. May we rejoice tomorrow as we do today—in friends and family."
The centaurs cheered and stomped their legs enthusiastically.
"Eat! Eat! Let us revel until the stars shine down upon us!" Magorian said, and all the gathered raised their goblets in a toast before digging into the food.
"This is wonderful," Draco said, looking as though he was savouring every molecule of the experience one by one.
"It sure looks like you're enjoying it," Hermione ribbed as she ate from her bowl. "You're right though."
"You make an excellent roast, Hawthorne," Draco said, smiling.
"Thank you, herd-friend Draco," Hawthorne said. "I earned my dapples watching my dam cook around the fires when I was but a colt."
"My compliments on your skill," Draco said admiringly.
"Stick around long enough, herd-friend, and you you may pick up on some of his tricks," Firenze teased. "He hides them well, however, so you might have to be sneaky about it."
Hawthorne snorted. "Enough. Turn your stories over to someone else!"
The centaurs laughed good-heartedly, resuming eating and enjoying the chilly autumn air. The sun hovered over the horizon for quite some time and then dropped out of the sky as though someone had kicked it out of orbit. The warmth and glow of the fire light the faces around the fire, casting them in harsh relief.
Hermione lifted her head and noticed a dark figure speaking with Magorian. A hamper heavily-laden with herbs and flasks changed hands, and Magorian laid a hand on the man's shoulder.
"Stay for while, old friend," she heard him say. "The foals always so enjoy seeing you."
The figure nodded and the pair clasped arms. He took a place by the fire, and one of the foals ran up and shoved a giant bowl of food into his hands, nickering happily.
"Careful, wing-brother," Bane said, nudging the dark-clad man. "You're charming the fillies young."
The man rolled his eyes. He took small bites of the food, clearly savouring it as much as everyone else.
Magorian walked out by the fire. "Herd brothers and sisters," he said with a smile. "We have come a long way since the times when fear and misunderstanding tainted our ideas of friendship and allies and even the meaning of what we called brother and sister."
"One thing we have always valued is the bonds we have between our herd-mates, and even more so we desire to thrive with each other," Magorian said. "The greatest accomplishment is to see the foal live long enough to pass their wisdom on to the next, and tonight—tonight we celebrate the coming of age of our herd-sister, Hermione."
Hermione's eyes grew very, very wide, her fork frozen in mid-lift to her mouth.
Magorian smiled and extended his hand to her. He dipped his fingers into some pigment and drew it across her face. "Hermione, we recognise you as a foal no more. You are one of us, an adult, and fit to defend yourself and your family, to walk the forest without escort, and to come and go freely as the wind does through the trees. You may draw weapons to hunt and to defend, and you are of the age to court and be courted, if so you would choose."
Hermione blushed furiously as Magorian grinned at her.
Firenze and Bane brought up a bundle and placed it in Magorian's hands, and he unwrapped it. Pulling out an intricately woven amulet that appeared to have been made of natural vines so that it looked alive, he carefully placed it around her neck. A piece of shining material, that seemed to be somehow woven of the stars themselves, glittered as a focal point on the amulet. "We name you Eltanin amongst your herd, Hermione. You are a foal no longer. We stand beside you as you shall stand beside us. We name you for the brightest star in the celestial dragon, who flies above us in the grand hunt."
Magorian dipped his fingers into a shimmering paint that glimmered like a galaxy. "Eltanin, may your footprints be deep for the young to follow and your allies always be at your back. May your choice in mate strengthen you and help raise your foals to be strong." He painted a vast starscape across her forehead and down her hair, giving her the impression of a mane. "You are one of us, until the stars burn out."
A warm breeze rose up between the herd as the starry pigment came to life, merging with her skin and body before fading just enough not to be obvious to the untrained eye. The stripes on Hermione's arms glowed brightly as the herd-magic solidified, and the glow slowly faded. The centaurs all nickered and snorted in approval.
Hermione bowed respectfully. "I thank you for your trust in me. You have taught me many things, and I am glad to be a part of the herd."
"Thuban also once stood where you do, Eltanin," Magorian said, "for many of the same reasons. So, too, did your Headmistress, whom we know as Denebola. We are happy to know such friends, allies, and family. We are also glad the times when we once thought humans as a blight upon our forest are in the past. We chose your names from the human stars to bridge the gap between our worlds."
Hermione smiled as he took her hands, and the gathered cheered.
"Take your place in the world as a foal no more, Eltanin," Magorian said. He gestured to an empty spot by the fire next to a tall wizard cloaked in robes as dark as the midnight sky. "Sit and join us this night in peace."
Hermione sat in the space indicated as Magorian folded his legs and sat down beside the other stallions. The black-clad wizard looked at her through his cage of long, equally black hair. "Congratulations, Eltanin," he rumbled softly.
"You are Thuban?" Hermione asked.
The wizard nodded silently. "I hear you are a master. Congratulations on that as well. Transfiguration can be a complex subject. An art as much as it is a prized skill that only a few can truly master."
Hermione smiled. "The same could be said about potions."
The wizard arched an enquiring brow.
"You have a scent about you," Hermione said. "Herbs and tinctures, but not entirely limited to healing. You brought a hamper of liniment and salves." She tapped her collar where her pin and laurel was. "You hide yours under your hair and significant collar, but you too are a master—of potions."
The wizard regarded her with an arched brow. "Impressive deduction. Do you foretell the future as well?"
Hermione wrinkled her nose. "I am not a fan of divination."
"At least there is some hope for Hogwarts graduates," he replied.
"I fear I am not the norm," Hermione admitted. "I am an outcast amongst my peers, and Minerva's protection, while it sheltered me from harm, only served to make me more of a pariah."
"Some would say the Headmistress is not a bad trade as an ally, sponsor, or master," Thuban said with a tilt of his head.
"I did not say it was a bad trade," Hermione confessed. "Why have I not seen you before this?"
The wizard pressed his lips together. "I tend to be rather private in my affairs."
"How mysterious," Hermione said. She looked into the fire. "I will not pry then, despite the curiosity that eats away at me."
The dark-haired wizard seemed to have his own curiosity, and he looked Hermione in the eyes, seemingly searching for something there.
Hermione flushed under the scrutiny, unused to being the object of curiosity that didn't involve scorn and ridicule. She was so unsure of how to feel, that when she reached to take a piece of of the roast with her fork, it slipped, causing the elusive meat to leap off the bottom of the bowl like a thing possessed.
Thuban's hand moved quickly, snatching the offending food from the air. He held it out to her, a tug of a smile on his lips.
Hermione flushed even darker red, and plucked the meat off his fingers in complete embarrassment. "Sorry," she managed. What the hell is wrong with me? she admonished herself. The brush of his warm fingers caused her to breathe a little heavily, and she shook it off and ate something to cover up her mortification.
The heat from the wizard's brush of skin lingered both on her fingers and in her mind, and Hermione tried desperately to think of England—anything that wouldn't fan the flames of the strange fascination. She dug her fingernails into her palm and flashed a consoling smile, hoping the twitch of her eyebrows and the slight waver in her breaths didn't give her bewilderment away.
"Thuban is a star in the dragon constellation," Hermione sputtered facts in an attempt to shift the conversation. "The Egyptians used it as their polar northern star."
"Yet, Gamma Draconis—Eltanin—is the brightest star of Draco, outshining even Rabastan," the dark-haired wizard said.
The mention of Draco caused Hermione to stare at her blond-haired friend over the firelight. Draco was giving her very curious eyebrows, as if his eyebrows were trying to lift weights in a therapeutic regimen. He made figures with his hands and eyed Thuban and her, smooshing his hands together in a very obvious togetherness sort of gesture.
Hermione half-choked on her food and turned away from both Draco and Thuban, utterly embarrassed.
Bane dropped some pristine apples in Hermione and Thuban's bowls. "See something you like, hrm, sister?" He nickered in amusement, moving off to distribute more of the apples.
Hermione looked up, seeing Bane whispering something into Thuban's ear. The dark-haired wizard's pale skin went pink, and he clenched his fist in a very familiar gesture of trying to think of—anything but what he was thinking about.
"Meddling centaurs," Thuban muttered, grabbing the apple from Hermione's bowl and cutting it into slices for her with a silver knife he had pulled out of thin air. He cut his too, and ate it, saying nothing.
"Thank you, Thuban," Hermione said, staring at her apple slice before munching on it.
"Severus," Thuban said quietly, staring into the fire.
Hermione's eyes widened as she mouthed the name a few times. "Severus. Thank you."
Severus looked skyward. "The night is beautiful tonight. Do you fly?"
Hermione shook her head. "I do not—brooms and I do not get on."
Severus looked at her with something akin to sympathy. "I found that flying without a broom is much more satisfying—under your own power rather than riding a thin stick between your legs keeping you from an earthly demise."
"Fly? Without a broom?" Hermione asked.
"I—" Hermione paused. "Sometimes I dream of it."
The pale wizard regarded her with a tilted head.
"Perhaps, it more than just a dream," Severus said quietly. "They did name you under the dragon constellation, after all."
"I've never—thought it possible," Hermione admitted, finishing her apple slice.
"Perhaps," Severus offered. "I could teach you."
Hermione's eyes grew wide. "You could—I mean—You'd do that?"
The wizard raised a brow. "I am not completely inept."
"I didn't meant to—" Hermione gasped. "I never—"
Severus made a low, rumbling sound, and Hermione mistook the sound as irritation. He turned his head up, black eyes sparkling in the firelight, and she realised he was laughing. "I take no offence," he said, pulling a parcel out from under his robes and tapping it with his wand. He enlarged it and unwrapped it, exposing a significant pile of fluffy white objects.
He produced a stick, which was quietly whittled down to a sharp point on one end, speared one, and extended it to her. "We seem to have an appropriate fire. I would hope your education was not lacking in the proper use of marshmallows, hrm?"
Hermione grinned broadly as she accepted the stick, and she quietly put it near the embers near the fire. Severus did the same with yet another stick, and their actions caught the eyes of many a curious foal—large and small, and perhaps those who were still harbouring a foal in their heart.
Hermione collected quite a few foals around her, all watching to see what she would do with the marshmallow. When the toasted marshmallow gave off a small puff of smoke, she turned it, repeating the process until all surfaces of the white had turned a golden brown. She then delicately pulled the toasted surface off the marshmallow and ate it, putting the re-exposed white back to the fire.
Severus tutted. "A witch who makes perfectly golden brown toasted marshmallows. Some would call you a myth."
Hermione flushed as she offered the toasted end of her marshmallow to a nearby foal. He plucked the end off with his fingers and popped it into his mouth, eyes growing wide as his excitement manifested as an ecstatic stomping of hooves against the ground.
Wild nickering and excited whispers went through the foals as Severus sniffed and pointed to the basket. "Alas, I have no more sticks. Whatever shall I do?" He tilted his head, giving a nod to Magorian, who was pretending not to be paying attention.
"How sad," Magorian said, shaking his head mournfully. "Wherever shall you find appropriate sticks for such a tasty endeavor? If only we lived in a forest where there were sticks everywhere."
All the foals swarmed over Magorian, hoping to gain permission to hunt for just the right roasting stick.
Magorian kept them writhing and nickering at the end of his bait for a minute or two and then shooed them off to find sticks of their own. The tide of foals rushed out into the woods to find what they needed—but not too far. Foals were always careful to stay within earshot of the camp.
"If only human children chose to stay near their elders and listened as well as they listen to you, Magorian," Thuban said, tilting his head to bow at him.
"It is my ceaseless centaur charm and wealth of experience," the elder centaur said with a wink.
Draco, in the meantime, had found himself a roasting stick, stabbed a marshmallow, and began to roast one, a wide grin on his face.
"I see you are not a stranger to marshmallows," Severus said, eyeing Draco with a curious glance.
"Hermione's mum and dad bring them to every camping trip," the blond said. "We go every summer together to Forest of Dean."
Severus arched a brow.
Draco stared back at him, a flicker of confusion on his face. "Do I know you, sir? You seem somehow—familiar."
"Unless you've had the distasteful experience of running into my drunkard father, which if you had I must apologise for what must have been quite a traumatising experience, I'm not sure where you would have run into me." Thuban took a bite of his marshmallow and returned the white to the fire.
Draco frowned and shrugged. "I just feel as though I have."
"By all means, let me know if you ever figure it out," the black-haired wizard said with clear amusement.
Draco scowled and shook his marshmallow threateningly at a him. "Oh, I will."
Suddenly, one of the foals gave a terrified equine squeal, followed by a chorus of screams from the other foals. There was the trampling of many hooves as the foals came stampeding back, quaking in terror.
"It's a troll!"
"It's got Nelly!"
"Nelly is back there!"
The older centaurs surged forth, escorting the foals to safety as the others grabbed their bows. They thundered out of the clearing. Hermione, Severus, and Draco began to move, but Bane held Draco back. "You come with me, friend-Draco. Until you are free of Hogwarts, we are responsible for your welfare."
"I can fight!" Draco protested.
"I do not doubt this," Bane said. "Please, help us now by guarding the foals."
Draco looked conflicted, but then nodded in reluctant agreement.
Hermione and Severus ran side-by-side, following behind the rush of armed adult centaurs, all of them heading towards the frantic screams of a terrified foal. They screeched to a halt as a giant club swooshed in the air, slamming into one of the elder centaur with a dull crack. Arrows screeched through the air, some bouncing off the troll's supernaturally tough skin, and half of the centaurs broke off to help the elder that had been brutally smacked like a bludger back through the trees.
A black and white pinto foal neighed in terror, the troll's thick hands wrapping around her body like a vise. The foal tried to kick and free herself, kicking her rear legs out to smack the troll in the eye, but it only served to goad the troll into squeezing harder.
Hermione pointed her wand. " Oculatero!" she yelled, sending her blinding hex zinging out to smack he troll in the face.
"Incarcerus!" Severus yelled, sending twirling ropes around the troll's body.
The troll roared and dropped Nelly. She squealed and struggled to get off the ground, her legs bruised and strained from being badly crushed. Arrows went zinging by their heads as the elder centaurs attempted to perforate the troll, but most of them bounced off its incredibly thick, magically-reinforced hide. He clutched his eyes and blindly stumbled forth, swinging his club wildly, the robes falling to the ground in torn shreds.
The centaurs ran by, using their powerful rear legs to kick at his feet, ankles, and knees—anything to hinder his progress towards the rest of the foals and mares. The stallions yelled, attempting to make themselves a more annoying target over whatever the troll might desire in the other direction. The troll, however, didn't seem to care what direction he ended up going and he swung his club around and sent five centaurs flying into the trees, inadvertently slamming into Severus in mid-cast. There was the crunch and crack of impact as the heavy centaurs landed on the dark-haired wizard.
Hermione dodged a swing and sent a spell careening towards the centaur, "Wingardium Leviosa!" she yelled, moving the centaurs off the wizard as well as away from the swinging club. Severus, however, wasn't moving.
Nelly was whinnying in fear, her legs refusing to obey her, and Hermione hit her with the levitation charm and then send her flying through the forest trees towards the elders with a blast of propelling magic, praying she didn't smack into something hard on the way through.
Hermione panted, trying to catch her breath and decide who to assist first. Her decision, however was made up before she could focus as she heard a group of foals trying to assist Nelly get back to the herd. The mares were yelling. The stallions were scrambling, limping, and sharply barking orders for the young ones to get away—while the herd mentality saved them often, it also made it impossible for them to ignore one of their own in distress. This time, at least, it was getting them in serious trouble.
A groan and cursing from the base of the tree told her that the dark-haired wizard was alive and less of a priority than getting the still screaming foals back to safety, and she rushed forward.
Faster! Faster, Hermione! she urged herself.
Suddenly, Hermione found herself crashing face-first into the dirt. Her wand when spiralling out of control somewhere in the undergrowth.
Raucous male giggles surrounded her, barely audible amidst the cries of the terrified foals and the bellows of the out of control troll.
The image of Crookshanks—lifeless—his paws stuck to the floor with a sticking charm in an obscure part of the school.
Her precious Kneazle friend had starved to death.
She had searched for him for days on end. Called out for him. Tried to lure him with tasty food, but he never came. She'd never had the familiar bond that would've allowed her to sense where he was. Never before had she ever regretted being a stupid, ignorant Muggleborn—a witch who didn't realise she had to formally acknowledge a magical bond between herself and her familiar to make it solidify.
She didn't know.
She hadn't known.
They had known.
He had died because of her ignorance and their hatred and spite.
The two of them snickering in the dark as she wept over her only friend.
Never enough proof.
Never any witnesses.
It was as if they strutted through the school invisibly and somehow always knew where other people were—or weren't.
The foals were screaming. The troll was clobbering the elder centaurs, using its nigh-impervious magical hide to its clear advantage.
Hermione tried to get up, but something terribly heavy was pressing down upon her.
She reached out her hand. "Accio, my wa—"
Mud was shoved into her mouth, and she sputtered helplessly.
Foals screaming. Stallions—centaurs—her friends.
Hermione struggled to get up, her arms flailing. She hit something in the empty air, her fist connecting with solid that she couldn't see. She staggered forward, but the phantom mass was suddenly gone, and she ended up in the mud again. She sputtered mud out of her mouth. "Accio, my—"
Moss crammed into her mouth, almost down her throat, and she gagged.
Springberry's terrified squeal caused her to panic. "No, no, no, no, no!" Hermione cried.
She struggled off the ground and surged forward. Thin ropes wrapped themselves around her body, keeping her from running to help.
"Eltanin!" Springberry screamed.
Hermione's eyes began to glow purple. Flames leaked of her tear ducts. "Springberry!"
"You won't be able to help your half-breed friends," harsh voices hissed into her ear. The ropes tightened, jerking her off the ground, suspending her in mid-air.
The troll had stumbled forward towards Springberry, and Magorian charged up in front to defend her, kicking out his front hooves wildly. The troll swatted at him viciously in response, connecting with the stallion's upper body. His teeth bared in a victorious snarl as he opened his mouth impossibly wide, preparing to take off the elder centaur's head.
"NO!" Hermione spat blood and mud out of her mouth. Her teeth were sharp and shiny, oh so white. Too white. Steam came rolling off her body as a set of curved horns grew out from her skull as her face twitched and jerked into a reptilian snout full of dagger-like fangs. Scales erupted from her skin, bony plates erupted along her spine, and her body shook, convulsed, and reformed.
"YOU WILL NOT HARM MY FRIENDS!" Hermione screamed, a roar bellowing out from deep within. Her body grew, grew, and towered, smashing into the trees as her tail whipped around and leveled the ground like the swipe of a mighty axe.
Her head whipped back, her eyes blazing bright purple, and she let loose a torrent of superheated flame straight toward the troll's head.
Magorian kicked the troll squarely in the face, landing on his feet as he used his right flank to push the terrified foals away from the troll. The troll was gripping his head tightly, which was both bashed in and aflame at the same time. Hermione snarled, pushing her way through the trees as a cat would through grass, sending the trees off kilter, careening to the sides at odd angles.
Hermione's maw opened wide, caustic drool dripping from her huge, shiny, white fangs. Raw magical energy gathered in her mouth as flames leaked from the sides of her jaws, and she blasted the troll full on, immolating him with dragon-flame until the stench of charred flesh turned to the scent of ash. Then there was an earth-shaking roar in the air, and it was all Hermione, the sound of her fury mixed in with the sound of flames reaching a temperature that was beyond melting point and more in tune with disintegrate. Her jaws snapped shut over the charred troll with a loud CRACK.
Violently shaking the troll back and forth like a terrier with a rat, she flung the corpse into the air and launched up into the air, her wings spreading over the canopy to block out the moonlight.
She blasted the troll's body once, twice, and yet again with white-hot flames accompanied by earth-shattering roars of draconic rage.
The troll's charred remains fell to the earth once more, careening down a slope at ever-increasing breakneck speed before slamming hard into the earth, breaking into smouldering pieces saturated with the putrid stench of troll, rotting flesh, charred bone, and oily motes of ash that reeked horribly of Eau de Troll.
Hermione landed in the newly-created crater of scorched earth, looking around with a screeching growl of rising panic as her nostrils flared in both disgust and horror, her purple eyes frantically scanning the clearing for any sign of her friends.
Dark flames moved against the glow of the fire as it smoldered, and Hermione stiffened as she evaluated yet another looming threat. But as it moved, giant wings unfolded as a great dragon shape revealed itself. Black scales and intimidating spinal ridges, curving obsidian horns, dagger-like talons, and sword-like teeth combined together into the draconic species Hermione knew as the Hebridean Black.
Caustic drool dripped from his mouth, but just as Hermione braced herself for the fight of her life, the foals ran out from under his wings to hug her legs. The centaurs cheered her name—her centaur name, Eltanin.
She lowered her head instinctively, her nostrils flaring as she snuffled each centaur carefully, recording their individual scents into her memory. The foals, clearly unafraid, hugged her snout, touched her horns and wings, and nickered affectionately at her. Springberry—her sweet, beloved friend—wrapped her arms around her dagger-filled mouth full of teeth and held her tightly.
"I knew you would save us, Eltanin!" she cried, stroking her scales. "Just as Bane and Firenze predicted. Just as my dreams said you would."
Hermione's glowing purple eyes widened in amazement as all the strength and fury drained out of her, and she slumped down onto the ground. Her dragon-shape fell away and she reverted back into a wobbly-legged, stunned-looking, bushy-haired witch. She staggered forward, then began to fall.
The scoop of a large, leathery wing caught her, and the great Hebridean Black dragon transformed into the form of Thuban of the Dark Forest Herd. Hermione's eyes met his as her fingers touched his face in wonder. "Severus?"
"I'm here," he said softly, his voice like warm velvet. "Rest now."
Hermione slumped against him as exhaustion finally claimed her, and she lay nestled in the black robes of the dark-haired wizard. His expression softened as the young witch snuggled into his embrace, burying her face into his neck.
Thuban's eyes locked on Magorian, who was doing a swift foal count. "You knew," Severus said.
"Of course, old friend," Magorian said with a smile. "But would you have believed me had I told you before this? Us and our 'unreliable divination', hrm?"
Severus scowled, but nodded in reluctant agreement. "I would not have."
The centaurs were all chattering together in excitement
Draco pushed his way through the foals and stared, wide-eyed. "My best mate is a dragon?!" he cried aloud.
Bane snorted as he placed a hand on Draco's shoulder. "Did you really think we named her after the dragon constellation purely out of whimsy?"
Draco's jaw worked up and down silently, making him look like a gaping fish. "I remember you," he said after a while, staring at Thuban. "You always come to visit my father late at night, when he thinks everyone in the house is sleeping. You're Severus. Severus Snape. The wizard who turned in over three hundred Death Eaters and claimed more Dark wizard and witch bounties than anyone alive or dead. You saved my father's life. I heard mum and dad talking about in the early morning one time."
The dark-haired wizard, still with a bundle of bushy-haired witch in his arms, tilted his head to the side. "Tell me, Draco. Why is it that you were awake so late past the witching hour, hrm?"
Draco flushed, caught at being not only a snoop into his father's affairs but also being up long after his bedtime.
Cries from the foals carried through the crater. The foals were surrounding the smoldering remains of a fallen tree. The colts were brandishing spears, and the fillies all had small skinning knives and hand sickles in their hands. The colts snorted and thrust their spears forward into seemingly nothingness where an undeniable stench rose up from the log.
As the elder centaurs came closer, the 'emptiness' was slowly filled with the gradual exposure of the forms of two young wizards as they struggled to free themselves from the weighty log. A heavy, oily, intensely putrid stench clung to the cloak as well as the boys fighting to extricate themselves from the tree and the troll remains covering both it and them.
As they struggled, the fabric of the cloak, now tattered, charred, and covered in equally charred and rapidly liquefying troll pieces, slowly became anything but invisible. Yet the wizards beneath it were moving around very carefully as though they still believed that no one could see them.
One of the older colts abruptly thrust his spear up to the redheaded wizard's throat. "Do not move, human," he said coldly, his herd-mates also bringing their weapons to their exposed throats.
The pair froze, suddenly realising that they were exposed for all and sundry to see.
"Potter. Weasley," Draco hissed, his grey eyes narrowed in anger. "They're from Hogwarts!"
"Thunderchase, Bayleaf," Bane snapped. "We do no harm to foals of Hogwarts—regardless of whether or not they deserve it."
"Elder Bane, what are we to do? They positively reek of troll. They trespass in our lands. They may have led the foul creature here in the first place!" The foals all chattered together in their anger and distress.
"I can send a Patronus to Minerva," Severus offered. "She and I go back quite a long time. These are children from Hogwarts. I have a feeling she would take a personal interest in ensuring that Mr Potter and Mr Weasley are appropriately… dealt with."
Severus' face twitched as he realised he still had Hermione wrapped snugly in his arms and a part of him didn't really appreciate the thought of relinquishing her to anyone.
Magorian reached out his arms. "I will keep her safe, Thuban," he said with an understanding nod.
Severus gently transferred Hermione to Magorian and then pulled out his wand. "Expecto Patronum!"
The clearing lit up with a bright blue-white glow as a dragon flew out of the end of Severus' wand, swirled around the clearing, and darted over the trees towards Hogwarts. He stood, transfixed, staring at the tip of his wand.
"What's wrong, Thuban?" Bane asked.
Severus' face twisted in confusion, his brows knitting together and face wrinkling. "My Patronus."
"Pretty impressive, if you ask me," Bane admitted.
"It is supposed to be a doe," Severus said quietly.
Firenze clapped Severus on the shoulder. "Are you so sure that is what it was ever truly 'supposed to be'?"
Severus frowned. "I really hate divination."
Firenze smiled. "I foresee trouble in paradise for two foals of Hogwarts."
Severus glared at the two extremely stanky wizards who reeked of putrid, dead troll. "Nothing a really hot fire can't fix."
Minerva pulled on her travelling robed, getting ready to trek out into the Dark Forest to join with the late-night harvest festival that the centaurs often held until the wee hours. She looked forward to it every year, but she had school concerns to take care of before she could.
Minerva sighed, looking out her window to the green and forest below. The lake glistened with moonlight.
"Always such a sight, even after so many years," she said to herself. She frowned as a brilliant light zoomed across the forest canopy making a beeline toward her. "A Patronus?"
The bright form flew into her open window, blasting through her as it spread its wings and unfurled into a dragon. "Minerva," Severus' rumbling voice emitted from the dragon. "There are two Hogwarts students here in the Dark Forest. There was an incident involving a troll attacking the centaurs. A few have been injured, but no one is in need of Poppy's tender care—yet. You may want to contact the Aurors, Minerva. I have a feeling there is far more to this situation than meets the eye. I must, as you know, step back, but Eltanin—your former Apprentice—will be able to fill you in."
Minerva stared at the fading Patronus. "Whatever happened to the doe?"
Alastor Moody looked decidedly grumpy, Hermione decided as she leaned back against the gathered foals, who were doing their best to help prop her up and give her a safe space to rest during the aftermath. Centaurs were, Hermione knew, extremely resilient creatures, and they dealt with non-fatal stressors with the bounce back of a freshly-minted rubberband. Even Nelly had perked up considerably after wrapping her sore legs with warm compresses. Magorian had another scar to add to his collection, but he remained as good-natured as usual, as long as his herd remained safe.
"Alright, lass," Moody said, sitting down by the fire. One of the little fillies brought him a bowl of food and a drink, having already pegged him as being "one of the elders." "Please tell me what happened to the best of your ability."
Hermione yawned drowsily. "We were enjoying the autumn festival. Draco, myself, and my Master. Minerva had to stay at the school to tie up some loose ends, and she said she'd come down when she was finished for the day. We were all enjoying dinner together, and Magorian had sent the foals out to fetch suitable sticks with which to roast marshmallows. They started to scream just a few minutes later. We ran up to find out what had happened, and came upon a troll attempting to grab some the foals. We all fought it off. Every single one of us did. The foals were still screaming, some were already injured. Magorian defended them, but the troll picked him up, to try and take off his head—"
Hermione closed her eyes, remembering the moment in question. "I just lost it. I saw red. The result being that I made my Animagus transformation for the first time under tremendous stress, and I—burned it to death."
"You burned it… to death?" Alastor asked, visibly astonished.
"What are you, lass, a phoenix?"
Hermione smiled sleepily. "A phoenix would have been far more… portable." She pointed to the ground right next to him.
Alastor looked down to examine the torn up earth. "A badger?"
Hermione laughed. "You might want to put a bit of light on the subject."
Alastor squinted into the dirt and gave up, casting a Lumos. The bright end of his wand illuminated the giant swath of dragon tracks on the ground. "Holy Mother of Merlin! You shifted into a dragon?"
"Alas, I have no idea what I looked like, Auror Moody, but from the herd's description, it seems I am most likely a Hebridean Black dragon." Hermione said. "It was my very first change, so I have yet to be examined by the registry and recorded as to species, form, and colouration."
"Ah, well, I can be a witness and take care of that along with my report, Master Granger, if you so wish," Alastor offered. "Might as well add it to the report and make matters a bit easier. No filing fees if I do it, since it was a clear case of change under duress and extreme stress, as it were."
"I would really appreciate that, Auror Moody," Hermione said gratefully.
"Alastor, please," Moody said.
Moody nodded. "Headmistress McGonagall tells me that Mr Potter and Mr Weasley have a long history with you. Can you explain?"
"I had plenty of reasons to wish to see them pay, Alastor," Hermione admitted, "but I did not. There was never any proof, you see. They were always one step ahead. They always knew when I was alone. They appeared out of nowhere, and left just the same."
"How did you know it was them?"
"Their distinctive laughter," Hermione said. "Sometimes I would smell that—racing broom polish, I think. It was different from the typical stuff you smell on normal brooms. Custom. It was never anything I could prove. This was the first time they actually stuck around."
"Seems like they have a lot more than that sticking to them," Alastor said darkly. "The stench tells me everything that they won't. They aren't talking, but they are of age, so we won't be needing permission from mummy and daddy to interrogate them under Veritaserum in front of the Wizengamot, if it should come to that. It doesn't take much to realise those two were up to no good tonight. We found this interesting bit of parchment on them—but it's blank. Any idea what it is? I tried a reveal on it, and it proceeded to write out a bunch of insults about my hair and my choice of coats."
Hermione raised a slender brow. "May I see it?"
Alastor handed it over. Hermione ran her hands over the parchment. "Magical, definitely, but judging by the use of the parchment—the obvious wear and tear, they carried it everywhere." She ran her wand over it, and writing appeared.
Mr Padfoot thinks you need to keep your know-it-all-ness out of our bloody business.
Mr Prongs agrees with Mr Padfoot and thinks you need to trim that overgrown shrub on your head.
Mr Moony would like to suggest that you're barking up the wrong tree.
Mr Wormtail believes you need to keep your front teeth filed down so that you no longer resemble a Scottish hare.
Hermione raised a brow. "Well, that's a first," she commented. "There is probably some sort of trigger phrase required to get it to reveal its true nature. It looks a lot like those passcode parchments Professor Flitwick teaches for enchanting diaries and secret messages."
"Ah, I remember those classes," Alastor snorted. "I wasn't very good at them. I always forgot the password I used."
Hermione smiled, amused, and handed back the folded parchment.
Alastor looked around. "Can you take me to this clearing? Show me your form?"
"I can try," Hermione said with a wry tug of her lips. "Do you plan on scaring me to death to get me to change?"
"I hope that won't be necessary."
"Me too," Hermione agreed. "This way." She stood up rather shakily, and Moody offered his arm to her amongst the concerned whickers from the foals. Hermione hugged them to reassure her young friends.
She walked Alastor through the forest, Bane following not very far behind them, keeping watch over her and Moody as they made their way back to the circle of char.
"Oh, this stench," Alastor groaned. "I should have had Proudfoot do this one instead of me."
Hermione eyed him, but quickly realised he was only joking.
Alastor sent a few spells out from his wand, and lit the area with a multitude of floating mage-lights. "That must be the troll," he said, wrinkling his nose at the still-smoldering remains.
He stared at the multitude of hoofprints, footprints, and shattered debris. "What a ruddy mess. Well, let's get this over with, yeah? Do try not to stomp on me, eh?"
Hermione shook her head in amusement. "I will attempt to."
"Step on me or not?"
"Yes," Hermione replied, mischief clear on her face.
Moody huffed, crossing his arms across his chest.
Hermione took a step into the middle of the clearing, sidestepping various random troll bits. She took in a deep breath, closed her eyes, and made the shift.
More fluid and smooth than her first change, which had been almost painful as her body had been forced into a different shape for the first time—and one significantly larger than the typical animal at that. Her dragon form rose up, towering high over both the forest canopy and a gaping Moody.
Alastor stared up at her in amazement. "You're quite the beauty, lass," he said. You'd send a real Hungarian Horntail crying home to his mam."
Hermione chuckled, flames and smoke trickling out of her mouth.
Moody looked her over under the lights, touching her scales, talons, and wings as well as finding various distinguishing marks on her hide. "I think I've got everything I need, lass. I can always extract a memory for them if they get all snippy with me."
Hermione returned to human form, wobbling slightly, and Moody gave her an arm to lean on. "There now, I got ya," he said. "First changes are draining, from what Minerva tells me. Myself, I never got past the walking around with a mandrake leaf in my mouth for a month. Wasn't really my thing."
Hermione grinned up at him. "It's not for everyone."
"Knowing my luck I'd end up a bloody honey badger or something really useless, like a lady beetle," Moody mused.
Hermione sputtered, flushing pink. "I—honestly can't see you as a ladybird beetle," she confessed.
"I have a hard time seeing you as a giant Hebridean Black dragon, Hermione," Alastor said. "Yet, there you were in all your highly intimidating glory."
"I can't even fly on a broom very well," Hermione admitted. "Believe me, no one was more surprised about this than myself."
Moody snorted laughter. "Well, I got enough from you and Proudfoot and Savage are handling the rest with the two students and the Headmistress. If we need you to testify, I will send you an owl, okay?"
Hermione nodded. "Thank you."
Alastor smiled. "Well, I need to go tell Magorian what is going on and take my leave. Mr Malfoy has already given his statement and returned to his dorm, so there is nothing more I need to do here."
"Thank you for being so efficient, Alastor," Hermione thanked him with a smile.
"I wish others were so good about telling us what we need to know without giving us loads of grief," Moody sighed.
"Believe me, Alastor," Hermione said. "I am very much interested in everyone learning the true facts in this case."
Moody gave her an evaluating look. "I believe you do."
"They're children!" Molly wailed, wringing her hands as she paced back and forth in front of the one-way wall of the interrogation room.
"Molly, they are both of age," Arthur pointed out. "It's only because they are still students at Hogwarts that they are allowing us to sit in and watch the proceedings."
Molly shook her head, still highly distressed. "They're good boys, Arthur. They would never do such things!"
Lily, who was also looking quite distressed herself, stared bleakly into the interrogation room. "They can't be in trouble. Not our Harry. Not Ron."
James had his hand on the one-way glass. "Veritaserum. We'll know soon enough." His face was grim.
"This must all be a big mistake," Lily fretted. "They've always been very curious boys. We all wanted to know what was in the Forbidden Forest. You and the boys were always sneaking out there—"
"I did not tell them about Sirius, Remus and Peter," James insisted. "We burned that bridge back when we found out what Sirius did! This is much more than that, Lils. If it was just about them galavanting around after curfew, they would be at school in detention rather than in a Ministry interrogation room with a healer overseeing the use of Veritaserum!"
All four parents sat down anxiously in the observation area as one of the Aurors guarded the door to ensure nothing unseemly went on during the viewing.
"The interview is beginning. 1100 under caution. This is Auror Stanford. Overseeing for the health of Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley as they are administered three drops of Veritaserum is—"
"Healer Hashito," the man in dark green robes introduced himself.
"Witnesses for the interview are—"
"Auror De Vries," the wizard with dusty brown hair said.
"Auror von Easton," the taller wizard with a dark gold mane of hair contributed.
"The three drops of Veritaserum are now being administered," Stanford stated for the record.
At that, Healer Hashito pulled out a small vial and dropper, tilted back Harry's head, and put the three drops into his mouth. He did the same to Ron, but Ron clenched his jaws shut, pointedly refusing to open his mouth. Hashito narrowed his eyes, firmly tilted Ron's head back, and placed the droplets into his nasal cavity, only releasing him after the drops made their way down his throat—one way or another.
"The requisite three drops have now been administered," Hashimoto said grimly, stepping back.
Stanford sat down at the table. "You are both in Ministry custody at the moment," he said grimly, tapping the dossier in front of him. "Do you know why you are here?"
"You're trying to frame us," Ronald accused. "It's obvious that's what this is all about."
"Care to explain this notion of yours, Mr Weasley?"
"A bloody frame-up," Ronald scoffed. "You're covering up that you've been harbouring a bloody dragon and setting it loose on people."
"Is that what you really think, hrm?"
"Yeah, that's what I think. Like I said, it's obvious," Ron snapped.
"Tell me, Mr Potter, what brought you out to the Forbidden Forest after curfew, knowing full well that the forest was off-limits to students?" Stanford asked.
"We just wanted to prank her," Harry snorted. "She's been going off into the forest for years, taunting us with her stupid permissions. We wanted to see what she was on about. She always gets to go in there, taking whoever she likes, but we never do. Why is she so special?"
"Who is this 'her' that you're referring to?"
"Are you aware of her status at Hogwarts."
"She's a know-it-all suck up bitch who gained the favour of her professors over being a normal student like the rest of us."
"What do you consider to be 'normal', Mr Potter."
"Getting along with her peers. Us!" Harry snapped.
"Tell me Messrs Potter, Weasley, did you at any point extend the hand of friendship?"
Ronald smiled. "Of course we did," he said, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
"Did you mean it?"
Ronald looked as though he was struggling. "No. She's nothing but a bloody freak. We only go to 'er when we need our assignments done. She thinks if she helps us that we'll be her friends."
"Tell me, just what did tonight's 'prank' entail?"
"Just to scare her, yeah?" Ron shrugged. "Show her that she don't know everything."
"She's not as smart as she thinks she is," Harry said insolently. "She was in our class, right? She belonged with us. Not that she ever really belonged," he added scornfully.
"We made her feel special," Ron said with a strange, twisted sort of grin.
Stanford pulled out a photograph. Leaves swirled about a giant hole in the ground, carved into the earth to form a makeshift pit. "Have you ever seen this before?"
"N—yes," the boys said together.
"What is it?"
Harry and Ron seemed to struggle, fighting to avoid telling the truth.
"It's the pit we used to catch the troll," Harry finally blurted.
"Why a troll?" Stanford asked.
"Because she's a troll!" Ron bellowed. "She trolls us all the bloody time! Telling on us, trying to get us in trouble! Seemed kinda fittin' yeah? Setting a troll on the troll."
"Trolls are classified as an XXXX beasts," Stanford growled. "What made you think that setting one loose on a gathering wouldn't backfire on you?"
"Troll wouldn't be able to see us," Harry said airily. "My dad's old cloak saw to that."
"Invisibility cloak," Harry said, clapping his hands over his mouth belatedly.
"And your father gave it to you?"
"Yes—well, no," Harry blurted out, looking horrified. "We found it in the attic inside a trunk that was buried under a bunch of other assorted crap. It was hidden beneath a sliding panel in the floor. Ron and I found it while we were looking for some old picture albums for mum. Back when we were little kids."
"What was in this trunk?"
"Mementos, mostly," Harry said dismissively.
"Pranks," Ron blurted. "A bunch of really cool journals and all sorts of clever ideas."
"Stories about my dad and his school mates, having fun!" Harry boasted. "He never told us. He never said anything, but we found the journals! We found the cloak and the map! We were going to be the new Marauders!"
"But we're way better than they were!" Ron blurted, clearly proud of himself.
"So you had no permission to take this cloak, those other items?"
"We didn't need anyone's permission. They were in the house. Harry's house. They belonged to him!" Ron snarled.
"We read it in the journals!" Harry said. "All of the pranks. All the fun! All the reasons why people like her don't belong at Hogwarts."
"Why Slytherins deserve to be pranked!" Ron added venomously.
"It's all in there," Harry said. "All of it. They kept this book of all their exploits. Picture books. The journals said it was going to go to their sons to see how to really treat people. It's all in there!"
"What is all in there?"
"The best places to ambush Slytherins," Ron crowed. "How to suspend people in the air by their ankles."
"That spell was brilliant!" Harry added enthusiastically.
"Permanent sticking charms!"
"What were you putting that on?"
"Hermione's annoying cat, Crookshanks."
"Why put a sticking charm on a cat? And where?" Stanford asked.
"To the floor up in the deserted wing that no one goes to anymore," Ron said proudly. "Stupid cat was always following us around, trying to get us in trouble. Worse than Mrs Norris, that one, so we showed it who was boss."
"We showed her!" Harry added, smirking.
"How did you do that?" Stanford asked.
"We stuck that stupid cat to the floor."
"Yeah, if she'd been a real witch, she'd have made the familiar bond and found him right easy."
"Yet you never thought to teach her?"
"Psh, she's just a Muggleborn freak," Ron scoffed.
"She doesn't deserve to be here, period," Harry added spitefully. "We read all about it in the journals. Unless you're like my mum, who earned her place in the magical world."
"Yeah, his dad wouldn't have ever married her if she hadn't earned her right to magic," Ron said approvingly. "My dad says Muggles have metal contraptions that they use to drive around on crowded roads. They can't even use a simple floo. They don't use brooms, they can't Apparate, and they—they're so bloody useless! They don't even play QUIDDITCH!"
Stanford squared his jaw. "So, Muggleborn witches and wizards have to earn their magic, do they?"
"What about half-bloods?"
"Half-bloods are fine," Ron snorted. "They are born half-right, aren't they? They just have to work harder to catch up to the rest of us. Harry's fine, yeah?"
The two wizards nodded to each other.
"This Hermione, she has proven magic," Stanford said. "That makes her a witch."
"Yeah, but she's not," Ron said, curling his lip in disgust. "She doesn't even understand that if you give a house-elf clothes, they'll die without bonding to somebody else. And the Ministry must have given the bint some little trinket that turns her into a dragon. There's no way she could've ever done that on her own."
"No way at all," Harry agreed.
"She doesn't even like Quidditch," Ron snorted. "She's a freak. No real witch wouldn't like Quidditch."
"Are there any other… "pranks" you inflicted on Hermione Granger? Or anyone else?" Stanford asked.
"We totally charmed her clothes to go transparent in the Great Hall. Her and a bunch of the Slytherin girls. And maybe a few others," Harry boasted.
"That was totally brilliant!" Ron exclaimed delightedly. "We also snuck some of Fred and George's experimental products into her food and put polyjuice in her pumpkin juice with a little "gift" we nicked from a Slytherin robe. We thought it would turn her into that pug-faced bitch, Parkinson, but it ended up turning her into a catgirl."
"Me-ow," Harry snickered.
"She looked a lot better as a half-cat," Ron smirked. "At least cats don't have beaver teeth, do they?"
"We framed her for slipping befuddlement draught into the dead ferrets Hagrid feeds to the hippogriffs," Harry bragged. "He doesn't trust her around any of his animals anymore."
"We tore up some books in the library and made sure that Pince thought Hermione did it, since she was the last one to use them. The little bint cried when Pince shrieked at her right in front of everyone. It was beautiful," Ron said dreamily.
Stanford busily wrote things down in a log. "What things did the journals you found teach you?"
"How to get the house-elves to bring you as much food as you want, even in the middle of the night," Ron continued.
"We figured out how to free a house elf too," Harry said proudly.
"Freed him, and now he will do anything for us," Ron added with a toothy smile.
"What sort of things do you have this elf do for you?"
"Fetch us objects, steal the answer keys to tests, cause convenient distractions, bring us snacks," Harry said. "He cleans our stuff all the time, and he does anything, absolutely anything we ask of him."
"This question is for you specifically, Ronald," Stanford said. "What made you think those journals weren't hidden away because Harry's parents didn't want you to think it was how they truly believed."
Ron snorted. "Of course it is what they believe," he said. "Otherwise they wouldn't have left me with Marquilla Burke when I was just a tike. She taught me all about stupid Mudbloods and why Slytherins can't ever be trusted."
"And you, Harry? Why did you believe it was true? The trunk was hidden away, after all." Stanford leveled his gaze at Harry.
"My dad's handwriting was all over the journals," Harry said proudly. "He wrote inside that he wanted his future son to know what a real Gryffindor does to Slytherins, like some berk they made an example of named Severus Snape."
Stanford stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Tell me, both of you, did you, at any point before releasing the troll on the centaur encampment, ever realise you were endangering far more than just Hermione Granger?"
"Oh, we knew," Harry chuckled.
"We just didn't care," Ron finished smugly.
Stanford closed the file and sighed heavily. "Interview suspended for the required break. It is now 1413. Mr Potter and Mr Weasley will be remanded to the Ministry holding cells until the Veritaserum works its way out of their systems. This interview will resume tomorrow." He waved his wand and the glowing recording crystal winked out before zooming off and out of the room."
Hermione opened her eyes to find herself in a circular papasan-like bed. The air was cool and refreshing—the crisp scent of autumn rolled in from nearby.
"You'll be happy to know, Eltanin," a baritone rumble said, "that your tormentors have been convicted of cruelty to animals, causing the death of a family pet, malicious pranking that went far beyond mischief, assault, multiple counts of sexual violence, and multiple counts of 'malicious intent to cause grievous bodily harm'."
Hermione pulled herself up and yawned, blinking as a cup of tea appeared in front of her. "Thank you," she said, taking the cup and a sip without even adding anything to it.
"This is wonderful," she sighed. "Thank you."
"You are," Severus replied, " quite welcome."
"Are we near the forest?" Hermione asked. "It smells like we are."
"Near, or rather in," the dark-haired wizard said with a tug of a smile on his lips.
Hermione finished the tea in a gulp. "I like the feel of the place. It feels alive, like the centaur groves."
"I took some lessons from the centaurs in making the place. Near water, plenty of ventilation, but sheltered from rain and weather." Severus bowed his head. "Hidden from the casual eye."
"How long have you," Hermione asked, "been a dragon Animagus?"
"I was seventeen when I made my first change," Severus said quietly. "It, like yours, was a very traumatic experience. The difference is I knew exactly who it was and that they truly did wish me dead. Mine was not a change of rage and retribution. Mine was about survival."
"Trauma is trauma," Hermione mused. "Fighting for your life or for the lives of others. Apparently both are equally capable of bringing about enough stress to trigger the change. I do hope I'm not going to be this wiped out every time I change. Not that this isn't the most comfy bowl I've ever napped in."
A tug of a smile played over Severus' lips. "You may find that sleep comes easier in a bowl-shape. A nest, if you will."
"It makes perfect sense," Hermione said. "Minerva loves to sleep sprawled on her back in the sun. She also adores tummy rubs."
"How positively indecent," Severus quipped amusedly.
Hermione flushed. "As a cat!"
"Hn," he replied, arching a brow. "As you say."
Hermione flushed, huffing. "You're purposely trying to get a rise out of me, aren't you?"
"Did it work?" he replied, lips pressing together in a slight pucker.
Hermione sighed. "Yes."
"You'll be teaching children as a career," Severus mused. "You may have to develop a thicker skin as a matter of principle."
"I suppose I'll have to learn to sprout scales in a figurative sense as well as literal," Hermione mused. She looked around more closely, her eyes scanning the shelves filled with countless jars of ingredients, from the unusual and exotic to the mundane. "You are the mysterious curator of the Black Scale," she whispered in awe.
"And how would you know of the Black Scale?" Severus asked, setting his cup down before waving his hand to move it to a dish basin where an magical brush washed it before it floated up to a shelf.
Hermione pulled a vial out from her robes. It dangled on a silver chain—fashioned from dark cobalt glass and topped with a small cut crystal stopper. "In my second year, my classmates pranked me. They spiked my drink with polyjuice and turned me into a cat-girl. Professor Slughorn could not cure it, so they sent out to the one person who they knew could make the antidote. They thought I was asleep, but I heard them talking in the infirmary. When the owl came with the vial, I was instructed to take a sip each night until it was gone. I kept the vial after. It was the most beautiful vial I had ever seen, and it had saved me from a fate worse than I had ever imagined."
Hermione closed her eyes for a moment. "Ever since, I've worn the vial around my neck to remind me not to never take the positive things in my life for granted."
Severus stared at her for several moments. "And they say you are not a witch," he said. "Yet you can transform even a perfectly ordinary potion vial into something beautiful."
Hermione flushed. "It was already beautiful."
Severus curled his lip. "Some things are just ordinary. Some things forever remain… ugly and broken."
"Some things hide their beauty on the inside to protect themselves from those who can't understand or appreciate them," Hermione said.
Severus' expression softened. "How very Gryffindor of you." Conflict flickered across his face before he reached out a hand to her and helped her out of her impromptu nest. "Would you like a—tour?" he asked with some awkwardness.
Hermione smiled. "I would love one." She took his hand, the warmth of her skin brushing against the cool of his.
He pulled her up. "I fear this is the only guest room, but it is also a bit of storage for ingredients."
"I love this window," she said, staring a huge stained glass depicting dragons swirling around the sun, blotting the sky with their wings. "It's beautiful."
A business acquaintance of mine works on a dragon preserve in eastern Romania," Severus said. "Usually he needs nutritive potions, scale moisturisers, fire retardant potions, and the like. But during one particularly ill-timed mating season, half his dragons came down with the wizard pox. They all started growing beards of moss, losing their scales, and developing clusters of iridescent boils all over their abdomens. I made some potions and sent them out, and he said it cured most of them before they were too far gone to be saved. He paid me with this glass. He said it was made by one of the traditional craftsmen on the preserve. It depicts a flock of Hebridean Blacks, circling and breathing fire on their eggs to hasten its hatching. Legend says a larger and more ancient pair flies through the cosmos, tending to their eggs. Eggs that, to us, are the suns that bring light and life to countless worlds."
"That's beautiful," Hermione said with wonder, touching the warm, glowing glass orb. "Do you know much about the Hebridean Blacks?"
"Only what Charlie Weasley blurts out each and every time he visits me," Severus said, amused. "And from what I have come to know from my own personal alien instincts."
"Does he know? That you're a dragon Animagus?" Hermione asked.
"No," Severus sighed. "I believe that he suspects, but I keep refusing to permit him see me in that form."
"Why?" Hermione asked, curious.
Severus shook his head wryly. "Because then I'd never be rid of him. He would be here forever, asking to practically move in and examine me at his leisure."
Hermione's eyes widened. "I suppose that would be rather frustrating, yes."
"He is not a fool," Severus mused. "He had this specially crafted for me, after all. And of all the varied species that he could've chosen, he requested that the craftsman depict the images of Hebridean Blacks. The rarest amongst the rare—said to be even more protective than the Hungarian Horntails."
Hermione smiled. "Is Charlie Weasley by any chance related to—" she trailed off, frowning.
"Yes, unfortunately," Severus answered. "He and his brother William, however, both have good sense and intelligent heads on their shoulders. They have far less of the fiery temper of their mother, Molly, and more of the wisdom and patience of their father, Arthur."
Hermione sighed sadly. "I am glad there is some redemption in the family," she said.
Severus brushed his hair away from his face in a habitual motion. "My knowledge of the Weasley clan has been limited. My exposure to them ended many years ago, save for Charlie and William, the two eldest Weasley children, who have contacted me regularly regarding business for the dragon preserve and the goblins, respectively."
"Are you in hiding?" Hermione asked, curious.
"I value my privacy," Severus explained. "I fear that I had very little of it during a time when I desperately needed it, so I made up for it in my old age."
"Old age?" Hermione scoffed. "Wizards live much longer than non-magicals. And it is said that the Hebridean Black lives much longer than most dragons due to the 'rough Scottish lands that bore them'."
"Someone has clearly done their homework," Snape mused, his black eyes glittering with amusement.
"I did a little light reading on dragons during my fourth year when Hogwarts hosted the Tri-Wizard Tournament," Hermione said. "Ron wouldn't stop blathering on about his brother and the "cool" dragons—he inadvertently told everyone what the challenge was. Not that it made the task any easier, as I understand."
"He comes from a long line of red-headed weasels, each even feistier and more foul-tempered than the others," Severus said with a rather derisive snort. He lead her into a larger chamber, and she followed, eyes growing wide as she took in the vast cavernous space.
"Wow," she breathed.
Vast bubbling hot springs lit with blue-white mage lights sprawled around stalactites and stalagmites. A glowing white mist lazily wound itself around their feet like a cat. The chamber was vast—far, far larger than she had ever expected. "Beautiful," she whispered. "No wonder you choose to stay hidden away from the rest of the world. This is your priceless, natural treasure. Your dragon's hoard."
Severus smiled a little. "It's very peaceful here. I don't want rampaging hordes of wizards and witches coming here to demand various potions and salves. That's why I run a owl-post business. The owls seem to appreciate the relative quiet it too. They have the entire forest to roam and hunt as they wish in-between deliveries."
"Sounds absolutely wonderful," Hermione said somewhat wistfully.
"The main laboratory vents out one of the wall cracks. Perfect for not smothering myself," Severus said. "The living chambers is heated via the hot springs that run beneath it, but the air circulation comes from vents in the stone—natural breaks and gaps. It's really quite perfect." He tilted his head. "And there is a library just past the door," he said thoughtfully.
"Library!" Hermione gasped.
The moment Severus extended his hand in invitation, Hermione disappeared behind the door with a barely concealed squeal of excitement.
"Bartlan's Treatise on Transfiguration and the Soul!" Hermione gasped. "Vapourbend's Of Agrimony and Men!"
Hermione popped her head out from behind the door. "This is amazing!" She held a ball of ginger fur with bat-like ears. "And who is this?"
"Moron," Severus answered, scratching his head.
Hermione frowned. "You named your Kneazle… 'Moron'?"
"He tried to jump into a boiling cauldron while chasing a moth," Severus explained. "He earned his name."
Hermione's eyes widened. She pet the little furball until he rolled over on his back and purred riotously with all four paws in the air. "You're the cutest little Moron I've ever seen," she cooed.
The Kneazle kitten purred even more loudly.
"Did you lock him up in there?" Hermione asked.
"No, he's quite the dodgy little rascal," Snape replied. "He appears and disappears as he chooses. Usually puts his cold paws on your neck the middle of the night."
Hermione giggled. "You're so sweet," she said, touching her nose to the kitten's.
"Mrrrowl!" he agreed, licking her nose.
"Now you've done it," Snape said with a resigned sigh. "He'll be absolutely insufferable now."
"Is he your familiar?" Hermione asked.
"No, he's just quite insistent that this is his home," Severus replied. "Not for long if he keeps trying to boil himself."
Hermione pet the kitten. "We need to teach you cauldron etiquette."
Purr. Purr. Purrpurr. PURR.
Snape just rolled his eyes.
Moron mewed and jumped out of Hermione's arms, padding off into another room. He mewed and came back to Hermione then walked back to the room.
"Want me to follow you?"
Severus suddenly barred the way. "That—is my private chambers."
Hermione flushed. "I'm so sorry!"
Moron mewed in protest. Snape shot the kitten a glance of ultimate disapproval.
Hermione slinked past the quarreling Kneazle and its master, choosing to explore the nooks and crannies of the natural cave. She touched the cool surface of the stone, smiling as drops of moisture dampened her fingertips. She continued to walk around the different chambers, finding a few store rooms, a study, multiple cauldrons in mid brew, and a corridor that led outside.
Stepping out into the light, she lifted her hand to shield her eyes. All around her, great trees rose to the heavens—far more ancient than others she had seen. A roar of a waterfall heralded the rush of water from above, and she realised why no one had found this sanctuary. The cave was concealed behind the waterfall—beyond that the trees—and a steep mile-long drop to the rushing water and rocks below. As she stepped out, she looked up, and saw there was equal distance going up. No one was ever going to just casually visit here—unless they knew exactly what they were looking for. Even then, they had best have wings of their own.
"The updrafts are perfect here," Severus' voice. "You can fall into them and rise up without ever having to work at it.
Hermione startled and turned, her feet sliding across the smooth wet rock. Severus' arm reached out and caught her, pulling her closer to the hidden dias. For a moment, Hermione froze, her nose pressed into the soft fabric of his robes, recording the various scents that were layered upon it. The smell of the forest, the water, the stone, earth, herbs, and so much more lured her in like a moth to a beckoning flame. She flushed, and stood away from him in a more proper distance. "Thank you. That was rather clumsy of me," she apologised.
Severus' eyes searched her face, perhaps wondering why her touch had lingered upon him. "It was nothing," he said, absently tugging his cravat. He stared out over the water. "Before you said you had never been flying. Would you—" he said, pausing awkwardly. "Would you consider taking a flight with me?"
Hermione froze, her feet seemingly glued to the ground.
Severus closed his eyes in regret. "Please forgive me. I was much too forward."
Hermione's head jerked up and she shook it. "It's not that at all," she said. "I just—have had some very bad experiences with flight."
"You seemed to have a handle on it the other night," Severus said, his eyes narrowing.
Hermione turned away and grimaced. "That was pure instinct. Whenever I think about it, I immediately panic. All I have to remember is that flight involves a broom, and brooms and I do not get along."
Severus held out his hand. "Trust me?"
Hermione stared at it, slowly reaching out to grasp it.
"What if I fall?" Hermione asked shyly, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
"I will catch you if you do, but I do not believe you will," Severus said. "The instinct—it is incredibly strong."
"Promise?" she whispered.
"I will be with you," he reassured her. "This I swear."
Hermione placed her hand in his and grasped it tightly.
"How is this fair?" Molly protested. "Arthur?"
"This is far more fair than it could've been, Molls," Arthur said grimly. "They could've been thrown into Azkaban for life for attempted murder. At least now they will have the chance to finish their educations while working off their sentence in service."
"They'll be thirty-something before they ever get out of service!"
"This was NOT just a childish prank, Molly," Arthur said firmly. "This wasn't just some silly little thing that got way out of hand. You heard what they said during interrogation. You know I'm telling it as it is. It doesn't matter how they found the trunk. It doesn't even matter that they did. They took it without a shred of remorse. They didn't ask. Some part of them knew it was wrong because they didn't tell James or Lily or us. They didn't tell anyone, Molly. Anyone but themselves."
"But if they'd destroyed that trunk—" Molly insisted.
"Molly, do we know every thing stashed away in our attic?" Arthur asked.
"Of course we do! It's our house!"
Arthur gave Molly a rather dubious look.
Molly wrung her hands together inconsolably.
"I know you, my Molly," Arthur said. "I know when it really settles in, you're going to be angry. You're going to want to tear him to bits on your own terms, and it's going to be peppered with your need to blame yourself for not seeing it coming. Well, we can't hold our kid's hands all the time. We couldn't have seen that Burke was a sodding blood supremacist. How could we? She seemed perfect. Everyone else thought she was too. She had even won multiple awards for humanitarianism at the Ministry. How could we have possibly known?"
"We could have asked more questions!"
"She could have lied!"
"I would have known!"
"Like you knew she was a blood supremacist, Molly?"
Molly's face twisted in agony.
"There was no way we could have known, Molls," Arthur said gently, taking her hands in his. "They were perfectly well-behaved children on breaks with us. They were perfectly normal boys."
"But, magical rehab?" Molly groaned. "Ron will be so far away from home. We won't even be able to visit! We won't be able to tell if he's getting better! What if they abuse him? What if they don't treat him right?"
Arthur shook his head. "Come on, Molly. You know they're both going to need extensive mind healing, probably a lot of that Muggle counseling, and then there is that matter of the fact they positively reek of burnt troll and no one can seem to make them to smell any better."
"They take away their wands and make them wear those medieval devices around their necks that sap away their magic—"
"Molly!" Arthur admonished. "It could have been Azkaban! For life! At least there they will have a chance. Provided that they don't still smell so awful in fifteen years. If they do well, they get their wands back, their magic returned, and a little starter money from the work they completed while in service. That's far more than the chances I've seen others get. They took into consideration they were still in school. It could have been worse. Much worse."
"That Bagnold—using magical suppression collars. That is positively barbaric!" Molly cried.
"Consider who it's being used on, Molls," Arthur said. "You want the likes of Bellatrix bloody Lestrange being able to escape if someone should manage to blow a hole into the side of Azkaban? I certainly don't. Now think of what Ron and Harry almost did without being Dark wizards. Unforgivables, Molly."
The pair were interrupted as James and Lily Potter filed out of the interview room looking both grim and ashen-faced.
"I've tried to remove that bloody trunk from the house, Auror Moody," James said. "I can't. I've even tried to burn the ruddy thing. It won't even open for me. It won't open for Lily. Send whoever you want to try and get it out. I even took out Bill Weasley as a loan from the goblins, and he said it's tied into the Potter and Black family lines—the children's lines, specifically. Sirius' insidious little 'heirloom' to ensure the next generation of Marauders' pranksters continued on."
James' jaw tightened and he swallowed hard, feeling the bile rising at the back of his throat. "I left that life behind the moment I realised my best mate distracted me so that my other best mate could murder someone. He lived under my parent's roof for three whole years, trying to escape his murderous family, or so he told me. And now I find out that even now, while he's hundreds of miles away from here, he's successfully managed to corrupt my own son without my knowing. Get that disgusting thing out of my attic, Alastor. Burn it to ash with fucking Fiendfyre if you have to. I want Sirius Black out of my life for good."
The moment Hermione took to the air, Severus felt something incredibly powerful surge through his body from nose to tail tip. The brush of her leathery wings against his as she caught the thermals and was carried up along with him—it all felt so wondrous, if somewhat surreal. To have someone to share the skies with. Gods, how long he had ached for that, for someone special to share the joyous experience with. Even that first night he had escaped Hogwarts, his dragon had called for another of his kind with a deep, instinctive, burning need.
Hermione brushed against him, skin-to-skin and scale-to-scale, a low, almost seductive purr vibrating throughout her entire body as she banked sharply over the forest. The moment her warmth left him, he felt an ache growing deep inside of himself—an almost physical pain. She tentatively began to spin and turn, testing her wings and the extent of her body, surrendering to the skies as he had once done, so very long ago. He remembered all too keenly what it had been like the first time that he had truly realised he could fly.
The wind whistled through the spines on her back with a distinctive high vibration, seemingly in tune with his. Then, suddenly, she flattened them tightly against her back, and she became as silent as an owl that had spotted a tasty-looking prey animal.
So taken by Hermione's presence, he hadn't even detected the two bucks that were fighting, probably over a nearby doe, down below, but she had. Ah, deer in rut season, the preferred prey of a very hungry Hebridean Black dragon.
He banked with her, a shrug of muscles causing his spines to flatten as his skin relaxed to allow the fine hairs along his body to muffle the muscular flaps of his wings. She dropped like a stone from the air, wings pinned back—the instinct and desire for food having claimed her—and he knew there would be no stopping her. That first hunt, the first drive for food—he hadn't realised what he'd done that first night until he had devoured the entire carcass of some poor rancher's cow, a rather wooly sheep, and the unfortunate fox that had been trying to get into the hen house. Ironically, the chickens had survived the encounter.
He'd made sure that the poor rancher had more than enough Muggle money to cover the loss, and he'd even struck a deal with him to provide an annual supply of whole beef, ensuring said rancher never need to struggle to find a good price to sell his cows to. The rancher never knew the real reason Severus had a need for so many cows, perhaps thinking he had a restaurant or other some sort to supply, but he also didn't ask questions of someone who provided him a steady income and more than fair price for his beef.
Thanks to the more than ample reward monies for countless Dark wizards, witches, and Death Eaters as well as a booming mail-order potions business, Severus had also managed to assimilate the surrounding forest of his "territory," turn it into a sanctuary, and deed it over to the Dark Forest centaur herd for "safe keeping."
Magorian and his herd, of course, had been more than delighted, as they not only had a dragon Animagus guarding the stretch of forest, but they also had a connected forest causeway to the neighbouring herd. Decades had passed them by without being able to meet thanks to the land being infested with humans. With the Dark Forest herd having traditional territory as well as actual property—they were set to be the most well established centaur herd in history.
But all of that was also satisfying Severus' need for a vast forest territory—a safe place for his growing hoard of tomes and artefacts as well as various shiny objects, both potions-related and non. How was he supposed to impress a female, if his territory could not provide food, shelter, and a safe place to raise hatchlings?
Good one, Severus. Go directly to magical offspring that everyone believes shouldn't be possible. Who was he to complain? He was a bloody dragon Animagus who wasn't "supposed" to be possible either. Shouldn't he at least try and court a witch the normal way before—sod it, what was normal anyway?
But to fly, wing-to-wing, with another like himself—to feel truly a part of something bigger—it was a feeling he never thought he'd ever get to experience. Hebridean Black dragons were rare as it was, even in Scotland where they were native. Some family called the MacFusty clan tended them on the outskirting shores of the moors. They were, as he had found out, extremely aggressive and highly territorial creatures. From what he understood, the MacFustys had quite a job keeping the drakes from killing each other over the right to even attempt to court the jennies, and impressing a jenny dragon was—at least for a Hebridean Black—about so much more than simply being a healthy male specimen.
Hungarian Horntails were all about hoarding food for their young and destroying all vegetation around their lairs so they could see any and all potential threats coming towards their extravagant nests. The Peruvian Vipertooth, on the other hand, would breed anywhere that wasn't underwater. They were small and fast as well as highly venomous, which made for a rather embarrassing history with nineteenth century wizards sending extermination squads after them to prevent the dragon population from growing out of control. Unfortunately, the wizards actions had introduced the infamous Dragon Pox to the world, which gave dragons a rather bad reputation on top of their already bad reputation.
Dragons had one singular dietary pleasure that other creatures tended to shy away from: humans. Whether it was because of the greater size or a taste for the flavour, Severus wasn't certain. From the many Dark wizards he had—ahem—chewed upon, he knew that humans were rather foul dining options unless well-charred before consumption. Still, even then, Severus had found them mostly disgusting when compared to a nice deer or even a domestic cow, and had adjusting his hunting strategy accordingly. Since no one cared how a Dark wizard was "turned in," especially if they had a skull and serpent tattoo, he had become very good as an ambush predator.
Thanks to his "hobby" ridding the world of Dark wizards and witches, he now had a vast, legal territory, a successful business, a wonderful home, and an ever-growing hoard of interesting things. The one thing he didn't have, however, was someone to share it with. And since he wasn't just a run of the mill dragon, he wasn't exactly willing to settle down with just some fine-looking jenny dragon. Sure, it might have satisfied the dragon within him, but what about the part of him that was a very human wizard who loved creating his potions and reading his tomes?
He had the sinking feeling that his list of possible companions in life was rapidly shrinking rather than growing.
Yet, as Hermione dropped down from the sky, silently descending on the two rutting bucks with wings pinned to her sides and talons outstretched. She was silent, deadly, and, dare he think it, absolutely beautiful.
She used her powerful momentum to topple the one stag, sinking her claws in as she dragged it along the ground. Her tail wrapped tightly around the other in passing, crushing it as she drove the spines deep into the stunned stag's body. The awkward weight of the second stag disrupted her sense of balance and she instinctively flung it away before righting herself again. She landed, her talons skidding across the earth.
The second stag, however, went careening toward Severus' head, and he snapped at it, clamping his jaws and snapping its neck as he landed.
Hermione hissed at him, her wings spread to cover her kill as she instinctively protected her food, but her eyes soon began to lose their wildness. Sanity slowly crept back into her demeanor, and Severus frilled out his head crest, lowering his snout as he dropped the other dead stag. He tore open the belly and shoved his snout in, seeking the perfect "gift" for his lovely companion. He tugged on the soft, steaming innards, his teeth wrapping carefully around the delicious liver. He rumbled softly, offering the delicacy to her.
She stared for a while, her spines lowering to flatten against her back as she slowly relaxed. She tugged on the offered organ and relieved him of it, snapping it up with a sharp tug and clack of her teeth. The luminous purple glow of her eyes seemed to grow a bit brighter. Slowly she gnawed at the belly of her own stag and her snout went seeking inside. She tugged out the liver and the heart, and almost shyly offered them up to him.
Severus curled his neck around hers, gently taking the offerings with his mouth and making them disappear. He rubbed his scales across hers, rumbling softly. She froze at first, seemingly unsure, but slowly leaned into his body, crooning in response. Accepting his presence, she began to eat, allowing him to share the spoils and her company.
Human mind unsure, but his dragon mind very pleased, Severus felt the soft lean of the jenny dragon against his body. The instinctive rumble of sound grew in his throat, and he loosed a tongue of flame to gently caress her scales. She purred against him, seeking the touch of his skin and the warmth of his flames.
As they worked on the carcasses, reducing them to bones, and then they blasted the bones with their fire. Crunching the remains, their teeth pulverising the bone to small, charred pieces, they relished the inner marrow, their long tongues running across their glistening teeth. Hermione tentatively licked his snout, cleaning the blood off his face.
Severus rumbled, eyes half-closing as he savoured the feeling. Her attentive licks and nips sent small charges of pure electric ecstasy down his spine. He desired—needed—to reciprocate. His jaws closed around the back of her neck, his tongue flicking across her skin. His teeth pressed into her scales and fine spinal crests, nipping her carefully without letting her go.
Her body trembled underneath his touch, but she did not pull away. A fine trickle of blood seeped where his dagger-like teeth pressed carefully into the soft spaces between her scales and her leathery spikes. He licked her tenderly, the blood disappearing under the attentive strokes of his tongue.
Her neck moved against his, teeth flashing as she nipped the softer skin of of his neck that was covered in spiny frill. The moment her teeth pressed into his skin, he groaned lowly, a rumble like thunder escaping his throat as twin spirals of smoke emerged from his nostrils. She licked at the tiny, almost insignificant wound, but with just that small gesture of tender reciprocation, Severus felt a growing need stirring deep within his body—a hunger he had dodged, had stubbornly denied, for so many years.
He rumbled, rubbing against her and leapt into the air, giving out a roar of invitation, and she followed. Their wing beats sounded together as they chased each other in the clouds and over the trees, moonlight dancing across their skin. Their wings touched every so often, and they would playfully change roles—one the chased, the other the pursuer. They burst through the clouds then dove towards the earth, entangling themselves with the other before parting and starting to chase again.
Severus let out a barking roar.
Khehhk. Khekk! KHECK! KHARRRRRRR!
A roar of sound and flame burst from his throat as he proclaimed his prowess and who lorded over this particular patch of forest.
Hermione let an ethereal keen like the sound of a whale's song through the night's sky. She shot off through the sky, and he was with her. He flew faster than he ever had. He spun in the air, stretching his wings to blot out the sky. While larger dragons such as the Ukrainian Ironbelly existed, Severus made up for mass by sheer awe-inspiring presentation. He swooped and brushed Hermione's wings, running his wings over the sensitive membranes of hers. He breathed jets of flame across her scales, driven to show off the extent of his prowess—to prove he would be a good provider and fierce protector of his chosen territory and, if she would be accommodating, his choice in companion.
He curled around her in mid-flight, gently guiding her slowly back toward his lair. Soft nudges of pressure stealthily steered her towards the waterfall hideaway. She yielded to his guidance, banking back to the waterfall, her wings spread in a lazy glide. She sang, her keens like the song of gods or sirens leading him to her and only her. He was enraptured by the sound of her calls. She might as well have been Amortentia incarnate as it wouldn't have made any difference to Severus.
Severus let a low, rumbling croon, sliding across the jenny's back so their wings brushed together. Their wingbeats synchronised as he drew her against him, guiding her under the falls to the hidden cavern beyond—carved out by natural water and his own draconic encouragement. Claws, fire, and dragon-elbow grease had all combined to craft the ultimate home behind the falls. Wizarding magic had done the rest. Human investments and a human business had ensured both his land, privacy and well-being was well provided for. The one thing he could not have crafted with his own hands was a female dragon—a jenny—who would be impressed enough by his prowess and home to settle and share it with him.
Hermione landed in the bowl of his meticulously crafted nest, her purple eyes glowing as she sniffed it over. She eyed the smaller, human door with curiosity, catching sight of a ball of orange Kneazle curled up on a nearby chair. The way they had come in—a tunnel leading up high to the falls guaranteed that nothing human was going to come in the way they had flown in—even if they managed to find the way in.
She sniffed the various tomes and shiny artefacts lining the outside of the nest, but she also tested the lining of the nest, tapping the cloth and silks he had gathered to line it. Under it was a plush lining of glowing down he had meticulously gathered from magical firebird nests year after year. She belched a test gout of flame, eyeing the lining critically. The lining did not burn, and she seemed satisfied. Her nostrils flared as she tested each tome for the particular scent she desired: age and preservation, the quality of the parchment, and the vintage of the ink. Her tongue flicked out, tasting the air.
Severus remained frozen in place, feeling like the Bower bird hoping and praying to whatever gods were listening, that the female would judge him worthy.
Hermione leaned into the nest, pacing around it, shuffling her wings to judge the width. Her tail ran across the woven bowl as her eyes narrowed to judge if the bowl would flex and adapt to movement. New to being a dragon she may have been, but her dragon-self seemed all too in the know of what she wanted.
Severus swallowed hard, his fin-crests rising and falling in both anticipation and fear or ultimate rejection of his decades long construction of the perfect nest. He tensed as the jenny slowly eased herself into nest, whuffing as she relaxed into it. Her eyes closed as she savoured the feel of it. Suddenly, her head came up, and she narrowed her eyes. She sniffed around the cavern, rubbing against the sides of it, searching for something only she knew.
Moron mrowled at her, running around her legs and then bounding up her tail to her back. He headbonked into her neck, chewing on her neck spines. Hermione eyed the Kneazle, eyes narrowing in some sort of disbelief.
"Mrrrwol!" Moron said. "Mrrrt!"
Hermione licked her fangs, seemingly dubious.
Severus felt a twitch growing in his gut as he realised what the jenny was looking for—signs of another jenny. She wanted to know if she was to be a part of a harem of jennys or if Severus was alone. Dragons had a tendency to go either way. Severus, however, was more of a monogamous sort. He didn't want to share. He wanted—
Hermione's nostrils quivered as she pressed the side of her snout against his, and all of Severus' coherent thoughts fled out the high corridor and past the falls. His teeth chattered, a croon gathering in his throat. She slinked by him, moving back to the nest and rolling onto her back, up and back, up and back. She half-closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the cloth, silk, and down.
Severus tentatively joined her, pressing himself against her as his wing curved around her. He crooned, carefully observing her body language lest he misread her and ruin a good start. She keened and sang, leaning into his warmth, and he snuggled into her, tucking her under his wing as he pressed his snout against hers, their smoking trails of breath mingling together.
Moron purred and snuggled between their heads, radiating pure smug feline satisfaction.
(Celestial spider shuffled across screen, bumps into screen due to bucket on head)
(Plush spider pops bucket off his head)
"I think we made a wrong turn."
(Moron pounces and snags spider in mouth, carrying him off.)
(Celestial spider runs after.)
"Come back! Don't chew on my friend!"