A/N: Because you demanded it, you crazy skim-reading people! Inspired by my other similarly titled fic, "Hermione Granger, Demonologist", and the dozen or so people who reported that they read its title wrong on their first glance. This one's for all of you, and especially for Astramancer, Kate in Space, and bluspacecow who thought it really should be written. Please enjoy this little bit of silliness that somehow blew out into a long and unexpectedly serious fic.
Hermione's ambition was sparked in first year, in her very first Potions lesson where they brewed a Boil Cure Potion. She could barely believe what she overheard Professor Snape tell Goyle, one of his Slytherin students who wanted an explanation of what the potion did. It would cure boils, and other similar pus-filled bumps on the skin, and even the most virulent pustules like those caused by diseases like Dragon Pox or Spattergroit would be helped to recede (though not be entirely eliminated) by the topical application of the potion. Hermione tuned out of her eavesdropping as her teacher explained in an irritated whisper to Goyle what "topical" meant and how it had nothing at all to do with pineapples and bananas.
Hermione had realised what else it would probably cure. Pimples. Smear it on your skin and your blemishes should be gone within minutes. She crushed her snake fangs and stewed the horned slugs with the utmost attention to detail.
Forget bottling fame or brewing glory, this easy first year potion could do both of those things, and make you incredibly rich to boot. All she'd have to do was find a way to mass produce it for Muggles in a way that wouldn't draw the attention of the wizarding world. There could be an incredible future for her in marketing her own line of skin and hair care products!
Nettles, snake fangs, horned slugs, and porcupine quills. Difficult, but not too exotic. Nothing too magical. And if she could only manufacture small quantities? Well, there would still be people willing to pay through the nose for tiny jars of her very exclusive remedy.
While the rest of the class was distracted by Neville's horrible accident – poor boy – with her hands trembling from excitement and nerves she covertly ladled as much potion as she could into every single one of her spare glass phials.
Now all she needed was a test subject, and she knew just who to ask – Eloise Midgen. Her dormmate had a number of unattractive blemishes that reminded Hermione of her very own humiliating experience with getting a big fat pimple right on the tip of her nose on school photo day a few months ago. Except Eloise's face was spotted all over with reddened skin and pus-filled pimples that looked ready to burst at any moment.
They hadn't hit it off so far in their first week at Hogwarts. Eloise had asked what Hermione's favourite Quidditch team was, and "none of them" wasn't an answer that had met with her approval. Hermione had tried with brave persistence to find something else to bond over by talking about their respective favourite books, but her new favourite Hogwarts, A History didn't inspire Eloise who favoured the Enchanted Encounters series of romances. Both girls were rather unimpressed with the other's incomprehensibly dull tastes.
Parvati Patil had cooed in agreement with Eloise about the romance of the latest Enchanted Encounters book all about destined soul mates finding each other, with what Hermione had pronounced a dreadfully poor grasp of the statistical likelihood of finding the one person among billions who was destined just for you. The two had taken great offence to her sneering scepticism about destined love.
In an ill-fated attempt to keep the peace amongst her new acquaintances, Lavender Brown had cheerfully attempted to change the topic by volunteering that she loved reading the comic book The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle. Far from calming the situation down, however, it had started Hermione off on a shocked rant about the condescending and discriminatory attitudes against "Muggles" that appeared to be rife in wizarding society.
But the uncomfortable tension so thick in the air of their dorm you could almost feel it was soon to disappear. For on Friday afternoon Hermione was practically bouncing up and down she was so excited to chat with her dormmates about that morning's Potions class.
Hermione waited with great anticipation in the dorm for Eloise to return from wherever she'd wandered off to after their last class, while Lavender re-braided Parvati's long dark hair for her, chatting with her amicably about which teachers they liked the best. Hermione was pacing up and down, ignored by the other two girls, when Eloise finally arrived.
With a beaming smile, Hermione rushed up to her and said, "Eloise! I'm so glad you're here! Wasn't Potions class fantastic today?"
Eloise blinked, and looked very taken aback by her enthusiastic greeting. "Uh, I didn't really like the professor much. I didn't think you did either? He didn't let you answer any questions, even though you obviously knew the answers."
"Ooh, he was dreadful wasn't he?" agreed Lavender. "The way he picked on Potter was really mean. And he didn't explain things very well at all."
"That's all quite true," Hermione said with a nod, which seemed to please her. "I didn't think much of Professor Snape's teaching methods either. But Potions itself is going to be such a wonderful subject! The possibilities are incredible!"
Parvati shrugged wordlessly, and shared a sceptical look over her shoulder with Lavender. Eloise grudgingly said, "I guess. Maybe."
Hermione twirled one of her locks of bushy hair nervously as she took a deep breath and asked Eloise the question she'd been dying to ask since that morning. "So, Eloise, I was wondering if you'd help me test a potion? I don't want to offend you, though. So if you don't trust my brewing I'll understand. I'd be happy to brew it again if you're at all unsure. You can say no if you want to."
"Test what potion?"
"The Boil Cure Potion," Hermione said, nervously.
"I don't have any boils," Eloise said, looking a bit offended. Lavender tittered in amusement.
"Your um, pimples," Hermione explained. "I'm pretty sure it could cure them. Instantly."
"Blessed Merlin!" Lavender exclaimed in amazement, dropping the brush in her hand with a clatter to the stone flagstones as her hands rose up to her cheeks. "Do you really think it could do that? I'm so scared of getting pimples! My peaches and cream complexion would be utterly ruined!"
Eloise sat down on her bed with a heavy thud, looking shocked. But at least she didn't look offended.
"Me too!" cried Hermione. "I got a big one on my nose earlier this year, and it was awful, I was so embarrassed and my mother said it's just part of growing up and probably no-one would even notice. But I've seen so many teenagers with scars from acne it gets so bad! I get teased enough because of my hair and teeth, I don't want to add my skin to the list of reasons everyone thinks I look dreadful."
"Oh, you don't look that bad, you're quite pretty really!" Lavender kindly rushed to reassure her. "And a bit of Sleekeazy's Hair Potion would smooth your hair down beautifully! It's so thick and long, it just needs a bit of care and it would look wonderful, I promise!"
"I don't know, I've never had any hair products make it look any good before," Hermione said doubtfully. "Hairspray was just a disaster."
"Oh, this one is fantastic, I promise-" started Lavender, before Eloise interrupted her.
"-Do you really think it would work?" Eloise asked Hermione, eyes wide and hopeful. "I never thought of trying a potion. And we don't really have the Galleons for luxuries like that at home in any case."
"It should! The theory is sound," Hermione said. "I double checked in some other textbooks at lunch time and apparently it reverses the spots caused by the Pimple Jinx. Also, I asked Neville what Madam Pomfrey used to cure his boils, and he said she used a blue potion, so I expect it's just the same as the cure we brewed in class."
"I wish I could try it, then," moaned Eloise. "But mine didn't work, and the whole cauldron contents just got vanished in any case."
Hermione rummaged in her robe pocket and drew out a vial of shimmering navy-blue potion. "But I kept mine! I really wanted to try it. That is, if it's alright with you."
"Is it ever!" Eloise said eagerly. "You're a great friend, Hermione."
Hermione straightened up proudly from her slightly nervous hunch. "Let's try it then!"
With Parvati holding a silver-handled mirror up so Eloise could watch the procedure, Hermione cautiously dabbed on a little of the potion onto one of the smaller lumpy red pimples with a clean hanky. The potion foamed gently on the spot as soon as it touched her skin, and a couple of minutes later after it stopped bubbling, Hermione wiped it away to reveal beautifully smooth skin without even a touch of redness.
"You are a genius! It's incredible!" babbled Eloise gratefully. "Let's do the rest!" Soon, her face was carefully covered in a layer of pale blue foam, and after it was all cleared off she sobbed with joy to see her skin so clear. She hugged Hermione in gratitude, who was startled but pleased to be pounced upon. Like she was a friend. Appreciated for something over than doing someone's homework for them, which had been the only way she'd ever gained anything like friends in primary school.
"That was really kind of you," said Parvati wonderingly. "I didn't know you cared about uh… cosmetic things. I thought you only cared about books, like my sister Padma."
Hermione patted Eloise gently on the back, after which Eloise let her go and returned to admiring her restored complexion in Parvati's mirror.
"Well I really do love books!" Hermione babbled excitedly. "They can teach you so much! Did you know there's all kinds of potions that affect your skin and hair? I'm only just starting to research them. I came across a reference to a Hair-Raising Potion that can make your hair stand on end! Isn't that funny? But you know, I'm hoping to find some more medical potions for skin conditions, and if I can't find them I think I might try to invent them once I know more about the subject. Imagine if I could find a cure for skin cancers! I always thought it would be a fine thing to become a doctor, and now I'm thinking I might become a dermatologist."
"A derma-what? What's that?" asked Parvati. "And what's a skin cancer?"
"They're Muggle words, I guess. A dermatologist is like a Healer who specialises in just looking after problems with a patient's skin or hair. And skin cancer is like… weird spots on your skin, where a mole starts getting bigger or itchy. They can be really dangerous. They're odd growths that usually have to be cut out of your skin if you don't want them to spread. At worst, they can be life threatening if they metastasize, and at best you end up with a scar. Sorry, I'm not an expert so I might be getting my definitions a little wrong." Hermione hated getting things wrong. She'd have to see if she could borrow a school owl to beg her parents to send her some medical textbooks, so she could give her a better answer later – a more precise quote.
"They sound dreadful!" gasped Parvati.
"What a wonderful ambition!" gushed Lavender. "I'm going to owl mother and ask to send me some of Sleekeazy's potion for you to try."
"Have you thought about brewing some Bruisewort Balm?" Eloise suggested. "It's really popular with Quidditch players. You could probably even sell it if all your potions are as good as this one was!"
"I know Healers have an apprenticeship to go through after school," Parvati said, chiming in to add a tale about her second cousin's experience with studying for her Mastery in Healing in Maharashtra in India.
Over the next couple of hours before dinner, Hermione's social confidence blossomed under their praise and support. While the other girls for their part were all flattered to be treated to Hermione's eager and respectful attention to their expertise and experience with cosmetic potions and Healers, instead of her scorn for their interests.
Over the next couple of months Professor Snape's stern attitude unbent a little in the face of Hermione's persistent rapt attention to his every word, and eager admiring questions after class about how one went about becoming a Potions Master in record time just like he had.
Draco Malfoy retained his class position of favourite student, however, due to a dire misstep on Hermione's part.
One day she took a present to class for her favourite professor (even though the feeling wasn't entirely mutual) and he was not at all pleased by it even though she explained all about it after class as she put the large glass bottle down carefully on his desk.
"It's some shampoo!" she said proudly as she gestured at her gift. "I thought you might like some to deal with the potions residue in your hair. I made it just for you. Your current one clearly isn't good enough so I thought I'd help out." Her own hair was hanging in smooth waves instead of a bushy frizz, these days. She'd tested out some recipes with great results after she'd deconstructed the suspected ingredients of Sleekeazy's Hair Potion.
"Out, Miss Granger!" he huffed, pointing commandingly with one thin pale finger at the door.
"It's a present for you - I'm not trying to sell it. It's not just ordinary shampoo," she explained, thinking he just might not have understood the effort she'd gone to. "I brewed it with witch hazel, chamomile, and tea tree oil for oily hair, and some dirigible plum juice for added bounce so it won't be so limp. I formulated it especially for you, sir! And I have some thoughts on vitamin D supplements for your skin, if you're interested in hearing them?"
"OUT!" he hissed angrily, shoving the stopped bottle back into her hand. "Three points from Gryffindor for your cheek!"
"I did test it," she muttered under her breath as she left, the unwanted bottle clutched tightly in her hand in frustrated disappointment at his reaction. "It's perfectly safe."
On Halloween that year, when Ron Weasley – the prat – complained loudly after Charms class about her being a "nightmare" and a know-it-all for attempting to help him master the Levitation Charm, Hermione's friends surrounded her as they rushed to her defence.
"She was only trying to help you know," Parvati said in a superior and aristocratic tone of voice. "You really do need it. Charms is cleary not your strength."
"I have yet to see anything that is his strength," Eloise said dismissively, coming up beside Hermione and wrapping an arm around her waist supportively, as Hermione sniffled sadly.
"You should really choose a better class of friend, Potter," Lavender suggested. "He's only going to drag you down. There's nothing special about him. The only thing he's good at is eating with his mouth open. You should find someone better than a hanger-on who's only interested in being with you because you're famous. He brags, you know. When you're not around." She said that last part in a quiet, confiding tone of voice, which was deliberately loud enough to be audible to the intended target of her pointed gossip, whose face turned as red as his hair.
Harry Potter, whom Hermione still wasn't particularly well acquainted with, looked startled at that judgement, and turned a narrow-eyed considering look at his best and only friend. Who promptly shoved his way through the crowd and rushed off.
"That was a bit mean, wasn't it?" Hermione asked cautiously as she watched the redhead's hasty departure.
"Maybe," said Lavender grudgingly, "but it was all true. Boys! They're so immature. Don't worry about what he said, Hermione."
Ron didn't show up to their next class, but he was there for the one after that, with suspiciously red eyes and nose that suggested he might have been crying for a while.
He was there for the Halloween feast, of course. Ron would never miss out on a meal, no matter how upset he was. Though he did seem to have taken Lavender's criticisms at least a little to heart – he was chewing with his mouth carefully closed, and only spoke while he was eating once, before he remembered not to.
Harry seemed to have taken Lavender's advice under consideration too, and while he wasn't shunning Ron he was talking with the other Gryffindor boys more than he usually did. He and Dean Thomas spent much of the feast chatting about soccer.
The teachers dealt with the rampaging troll while the students were all safely ensconced in their common rooms. That really was the only sensible way to manage such a threat. The only damage was to a few doors and suits of armour, and they were easily repaired with the right spells.
While sharing her newfound enthusiasm for beautification potions had won her the affection of her peers, her teachers were proving consistently less impressed with her efforts. Hermione's second attempt to use her burgeoning dermatology skills to ingratiate herself with one of her professors went even more disastrously than the first. In fact, though she didn't come to realise how badly she'd erred for a few years afterwards, for her misplaced efforts she earned his implacable enmity.
"I'm just saying," she continued explaining to Professor Quirrell patiently, "that putting garlic in your turban is clearly exacerbating some kind of skin or hair condition. There's this smell, you see…"
"How dare you!" he hissed, stutter oddly absent for a change.
"Sorry. You shouldn't be embarrassed," she said, trying to reassure him, "lots of people have problems with their skin, and I'm sure you can't help the uh… rotting smell. Most people won't even notice it over the garlic. And if you don't want to be treated by a first year I'd certainly understand. But if you wanted to take the turban off so I could have a look at it, I'm sure-" She reached out tentatively for the dangling cloth strip at the end of his turban, and he stepped away from her, raising his hands to clutch at it protectively.
"-NO! Leave it alone!"
"Well alright then. I'm really very sorry if I upset you, sir," she said apologetically, "but you really should see Madam Pomfrey about it, instead of relying on home remedies. Garlic and apple cider vinegar don't fix everything you know. You should get some medical or magical help instead of trusting in old wives' tales," she finished sternly. "Something's clearly going very wrong."
"If you don't get o-out of my c-classroom immediately you will regret it for the rest of your very short life!" he stuttered angrily.
She scarpered while the going was good, relieved that at least she hadn't gotten a detention. Silly man, she thought. He really should see someone about that.
Professor Quirrell's thoughts, as the door closed behind her as she left his classroom, were painfully filled with the angrily hissed mental rants of his parasitical master.
Hermione hadn't really made friends yet with most of the boys in her year. Neville was the sole exception – he was so shy and quietly friendly that it'd be like hitting a kitten to be mean to him. They were moderately friendly acquaintances, but not much more than that. It didn't mean she hated any of the other boys – though she wasn't terribly keen on Ron who never had given her a proper apology for his spiteful words – just that they weren't close.
She went with the girls to visit Harry in the hospital in November, after he was thrown from a malfunctioning broom in the middle of his first Quidditch match. He'd hit the ground with a sickening cracking noise, and been knocked unconscious. Hermione hadn't been the only one to scream at that! The word was that he'd broken his broom, and both his legs, but at least he was still alive. Eloise was shakily reconsidering her plan to try out for the Gryffindor Quidditch team next year, and Hermione thought Quidditch was an even more ridiculous and dangerous sport than ever before. While Eloise couldn't really blame her for that, she was still disappointed that coaxing Hermione along to watch a Quidditch match had gone so horribly wrong.
They entered the Hospital Wing in a little group, bearing gifts for their injured House-mate.
"How are you doing?" Lavender asked sympathetically, sitting down on the crisp white sheets of Harry's bed. "I brought you a chocolate frog, in case you don't get treats in here." She put it down carefully on his bedside table, which seemed to already have a couple of bunches of flowers and some cards decorating it.
"Not too bad, I guess," he said, sounding a bit glum. "I lost us the match, though. Higgs got the Snitch. Stupid broom. Seamus said he thinks the spells when haywire when Flint blocked me – that he must've cracked the broom or something. But Professor Dumbledore said he's sure someone was jinxing it. One of the teachers was apparently trying to counter it, but it didn't work forever and that's when I took a nosedive."
"It's a shame we lost our first match, and to Slytherin at that," Eloise sighed. "But it's not your fault, Harry. This wouldn't have happened in a professional match – the arenas are warded against spells from spectators. Too many umpires have been attacked over the years, not to mention players. But you know, it was the attacks on umpires that got it brought in as a standard ward."
"Don't worry about the Quidditch match Harry, we were wondering how you were," said Hermione. "We heard your legs were broken!"
"Yes, both of them got pretty badly broken – the left one was shattered. Madam Pomfrey actually had to vanish the bones in my left leg, and had me taking some Skelegrow Potion last night to regrow everything it was so bad. I'm on some pain relief potions at the moment, so it's not as painful now as it was yesterday."
"You're so brave!" cooed Parvati in admiration, making Lavender grin teasingly at her, and Harry blush.
"I wonder if Madam Pomfrey would let me help out in the Hospital Wing," Hermione pondered aloud, looking speculatively around at the room full of mostly empty beds. "I'd like to learn some more about Healing magic. Which reminds me! Harry, did you ask her about your scar?"
"My scar?" Harry asked, touching his forehead absent-mindedly. "Why would I ask her about that?"
"Well, I noticed the other day in Defence Against the Dark Arts that it was bothering you, like it was hurting or itching? You kept rubbing at your forehead, and your scar looked kind of red and inflamed. You should really consult a medical professional-"
"-Healer," corrected Lavender.
"Yes, you should see a Healer about that," finished Hermione. "And ask about scar removal cream, if it bothers you to have it there at all. I've read that 'Dr Ubbly's Oblivious Unction' is very helpful for reducing the appearance of scars. Obviously it would work best on newer scars, but it still might help. If you try it, please let me know the results because I'm very curious as to whether it'd have any noticeable effect."
"Why would he want to get rid of his scar?" Lavender asked her incredulously. "It's very distinctive!"
"I think it should be up to Harry," said Parvati, with a sympathetic look in his direction. "For us it's a reminder of how You-Know-Who was defeated, but for him it might be nothing but a reminder of how he lost his parents."
"Oh," said Lavender, looking apologetically at Harry. "I didn't think of that. Sorry, Harry."
"It's alright," he reassured her. "I actually quite like my scar. But you're right, Hermione, it really has been bothering me in Defence classes – I've had some nasty headaches recently, in fact. I promise I'll talk to Madam Pomfrey about it."
Harry Potter was absent from school for the next couple of weeks. Gossip uncovered the reason why – Hermione asked Lavender about it, and she asked Dean. Dean said that he and Ron had heard that Harry had been transferred to St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries to get a specialist opinion on the pain he'd been having recently with his curse scar.
Hermione, projecting a little about what would be one's greatest concern when missing school while in hospital for something serious, sent a school owl with a thick scroll of notes to him which covered what they'd been studying in class. She got a very nice – if short – thank you note back from him in return.
He returned at the start of December, minus his trademark lightning bolt scar. In its place was a large circle of shiny red new skin, taking up almost a third of his forehead. He clearly didn't want to tell anyone exactly why the Healers had removed his scar, but the curious gawkers in the Gryffindor Common Room weren't satisfied with shy silence, and pressed him until finally he caved and gave them something.
"Look, I can't say exactly what was going on, but it was a very uh, problematic curse scar," he told them eventually. "It was… it never healed right when I was a baby. There was something… uh… a bit like some Dark magic got stuck in there. So they had to cut it out entirely. Even a bit of my skull, which was really dangerous to do, and I had to be extra careful while I was recovering until the bone grew back, then the skin. It took a lot of spells and potions to get it right, and to heal me afterwards."
That satisfied the masses enough to leave him be, after that. Though Lavender quietly bemoaned the loss of his "cute" lightning bolt scar to a dull large circular scar like someone had pressed the bottom of a red-hot metal mug onto his forehead.
Some of the teachers seemed perturbed by the change too. Professor Snape looked like an angry black thundercloud at every meal, and couldn't seem to decide between whether he'd prefer to frown and stare at Harry, or scowl furiously at the Headmaster, who seemed to be assiduously avoiding returning his angry gaze. Professor Dumbledore was acting almost like his usual cheerful self – perhaps just a little subdued compared to before. Madam Pomfrey on the other hand was alternating between looking guilty and sad, and had been poking despondently at her meals for weeks like she'd lost her appetite and was just going through the motions.
Harry sought Hermione out privately one day in the library, where her friends weren't always interested in joining her as often as she felt the need to be there, surrounded by massive teetering piles of leather-bound tomes as she worked on her lengthy assignments.
"I wanted to thank you, Hermione, for your advice to talk to Madam Pomfrey about my scar," he said earnestly. "I really, really appreciate it. You don't know… it was just horrible. What they said about how bad my scar was. Please don't tell anyone, but I think you might've saved my life."
"Really? It was that bad?" she asked, jaw dropping.
He nodded emphatically. "Really. Have you heard of 'life debts', in any of the books you've read? Or from any of your friends? It's a wizard thing – a tradition. Where you owe someone a favour for saving your life. I want you to know that I think I owe you one – a life debt, that is. So if you ever need help with anything, especially if it's something big, or dangerous, just let me know. I'll do whatever I can to help you."
"Goodness! Well, you're welcome, Harry. I don't know much about life debts I'm sorry, but I'll ask my friends, and read up on it. I wouldn't want to be culturally inappropriate. It's important to integrate and be respectful of local customs. But speaking from a more Muggle perspective, you're absolutely welcome and you don't owe me anything, and I was happy to help you." She smiled brightly at him, and he grinned back at her shyly.
"Friends?" he asked, holding out his hand to shake.
She took it and shook it firmly. "Friends."
Hermione helped Harry research Nicolas Flamel, even though deep down she believed it was all best left up to the Headmaster to worry about. When Harry came to her at dinner time one evening in June, panicked that Professor Dumbledore was leaving the school and Snape was going to make an attempt to steal the Philosopher's Stone, she promised she'd help.
"I really don't think Professor Snape would do such a thing," she said doubtfully, "but I suppose it might be wise to take some extra precautions this evening. Did you talk to Professor McGonagall about it? She's the Deputy Headmistress, you know."
"We tried that already – she wouldn't listen. Then we tried just sitting outside the door – you know, in the Forbidden Corridor. But she chased us away from there too. But I'm going down there tonight," he said, with a stubborn set to his jaw. Harry continued in a whisper, "I think… I think Voldemort's still alive. Sort of alive – just hanging on like a ghost, or something. And don't tell me I'm crazy because I know he is, but don't ask me how because I promised I wouldn't talk about it. I think Snape's going to try and steal the stone and bring his old Master back to life. He was a Death Eater once, you know, though they say he was a spy. And I'm going to stop him getting the Stone. Are you with me?"
Hermione sighed, and whispered back, "Well, I still think you're crazy, but I'm with you anyway, Harry."
Late that night she rendezvoused with Harry's group of friends in the Common Room, to head off to guard the Stone. It was a big group, in the end. Harry had brought Ron, Neville, and Dean, while Hermione had brought Parvati and Eloise, and Parvati's pet owl Lakshmi, a dumpy little brown and white spotted owl with yellow eyes.
"What are they doing here?" Ron asked, sounding annoyed. "You were supposed to keep this secret, Granger! And why on earth would you bring an owl?"
"I did keep it secret – I only told my friends, and they wanted to help. Well, except Lavender – she was too tired. I didn't tell any prefects, or other teachers, even though I really think that would be a better idea," she said defiantly.
"I brought Lakshmi so if we run into trouble she can fly off and fetch help," Parvati explained, patiently enough. "She's a very clever owl, aren't you sweetheart?" The little owl on her shoulder hooted "kiew, kiew" in answer, and closed its eyes happily as Parvati scratched its head very gently, ruffling its feathers.
"That's a good idea!" Harry said, surprised. "I should've thought of that."
"Thank you, I thought it was," Parvati said. "I've given her a pre-written message – the little scroll tied on her leg. That was Hermione's suggestion."
"I wouldn't have even thought of it without you thinking of bringing Lakshmi in the first place," Hermione said humbly.
"There's no way my cloak is going to cover everyone," mumbled Harry to himself.
In the end, Harry and Ron went ahead under his invisibility cloak to scout ahead, while the rest of them trailed behind at a safe distance.
Unfortunately for their plans, such a large group was caught, of course. Harry and Ron managed to redirect Filch away from themselves, but he then ran straight into the group with Hermione, Neville, Dean, Eloise, and Parvati.
"You lot are in big trouble!" Filch cackled as he rubbed his wrinkled hands together gleefully. "Out three hours after curfew, and up to no good on the third floor? Just as well I've got the manacles all polished up and ready to use! You'll be in detention with me until the end of the year!"
Hermione quailed in fear at the thought of endless detentions, and Neville looked utterly terrified. But Parvati's eyes flashed angrily and she put her hands on her hips and said firmly, "You don't scare me, Mr Filch. You're not allowed to treat us like that, and you know it."
"Yeah, you're right, Patil!" said Dean, with dawning realisation. "That's gotta be, child abuse or something. If you even threatened that at a regular high school, they'd fire you. He can't do anything except take points. No big deal."
"No big deal!" gasped Hermione, horrified by his growing nonchalance.
"Yeah, no big deal," repeated Dean with a shrug. "I asked around – all the House Cup gets you is your House banners on the way at the end-of-year feast. That's it."
"You," hissed Filch, "will all be coming with me to see Professor McGonagall right now, you nasty little creatures, or I will see you all expelled."
"Fine by me if we go see her," said Parvati, crossing her arms rebelliously. "We weren't doing anything that wrong."
"We'll see about that!" said Filch. "It'll be detentions for the lot of you, for breaking curfew, being in the forbidden corridor, and blatant disrespect! And that's twenty points from Gryffindor!"
Hermione moaned unhappily.
"Each!" added Filch with a triumphant snarl. This time there was a chorus of groans from everyone except Dean, who just looked faintly amused, though he had the common sense to try to hide it. "Now march!"
They tromped obediently to Professor McGonagall's rooms, and none of them said a word about how Harry and Ron were still sneaking off to guard the corridor and what it hid, and to keep watch for Snape.
Filch rapped smartly on the door. "Professor! I've caught some more trouble-makers on the third floor!"
Professor McGonagall opened the door. Her hair was in a long grey plait, and she was wearing a red tartan dressing gown with matching slippers. "Not again," she said with a sigh. "It's almost midnight, what were you thinking-" She looked tiredly past Filch's shoulder and caught sight of the gaggle of students awaiting her judgement with varying degrees of trepidation. "Just how many of you are there this time?"
"Uh, five of us, ma'am," said Hermione.
Neville raised his hand nervously, as if he was still in class. "H-harry said that it was really important. That he was sure someone – maybe Professor Snape, was going to try and steal… Um… You know what. M-maybe you could help check he's not uh… doing that?"
Professor McGonagall raised a hand tiredly to her brow in frustration. "It's too late for this. I think it would be best if we discussed your punishment in the morning. If I send you lot back to bed, will you stay there this time?"
The group looked around at each other.
"Of course, Professor," Eloise said immediately with a polite smile.
Neville shook his head minutely at Hermione, and widened his eyes in an attempt to communicate something – she wasn't sure exactly what. He seemed to be voting for "no", she guessed.
Parvati and Dean were whispering to each other, then said in chorus, "Yes, ma'am." Their cheerful agreement seemed insincere even to Hermione, and judging by McGonagall's resigned sigh it hadn't convinced her of their sincerity either. Filch nodded in approval, however.
"Excuse me, Professor. Perhaps if you first wouldn't mind just quickly checking if Professor Snape is where he should be? If it's not too much trouble?" Hermione asked as politely as she could.
"There was a dog bite, you see," Neville added in a nervous attempt to support her, if not particularly clearly. "Harry saw it when he went to get a book b-back from him. I heard all about it."
"It really would be good if you'd check," agreed Eloise.
Dean chimed in, "We're all a bit worried, actually." There was a chorus of nods.
"It's because Professor Dumbledore is away tonight," explained Hermione. "It's an opportune time for thieves to try something."
Professor McGonagall shook her head then ignored the lot of them while she had a quick word with Filch, who went on his way back to his rounds after she'd spoken to him. Then she turned back to the children, and took a deep breath before saying, "I will be taking you nowhere except back to bed. The point losses will stand, and you will all have detention on the weekend. What's guarded in the corridor is perfectly safe and well protected, and Professor Snape is certainly not trying to steal it.
Hermione hung her head. Well, at least they'd tried. At the very least, they'd given Harry and Ron a chance to try and intercept Professor Snape, or anyone else who might be taking advantage of the headmaster's absence.
Most of them were looking resigned to the inevitable, but Parvati was wearing a stubborn look again. She whispered something to her owl, and Lakshmi flew off down the corridor.
"Back to the owlery? Good," said Professor McGonagall, sounding a bit relieved. "Let's go, children. Back to the dorm."
It was only after they were all back in the Gryffindor Common Room and McGonagall had left – with a warning that the Fat Lady wouldn't let them out again that night – that Parvati belatedly offered the correction she hadn't wanted to give with Professor McGonagall listening in.
"Lakshmi hasn't gone to the owlery," she announced smugly. "She's fetching help. If our own Head of House doesn't believe us, maybe someone else will."
"Oh dear, but won't Harry and Ron get caught?" worried Hermione. "We wrote it to say we were in the room past the trapdoor that the cerberus guards, and that we were in dire need of help," she explained to the boys. "It has just us girls and Harry listed on it – we didn't know you two and Ron were coming too."
"I suppose they might get caught, but Thomas is right," Parvati said. "There's not much they can do to any of us with only a couple of weeks of the school year left to go, and all our exams finished! So they won't be in too much trouble. And you know, if Snape or anyone really is trying to steal this mysterious treasure you won't tell us about, the boys could be in a lot of danger."
"They don't have us there as back-up, after all," agreed Dean.
"Who did you send it to? I mean, obviously it wasn't to Professor McGonagall like we first planned," asked Hermione.
"Lakshmi's taking it to Professor Flitwick," Parvati said. "My sister says he's a Duelling Champion, and obviously he's very smart. If anyone is going to recognise a problem and be able to deal with it, it'll be him."
Neville tested if McGonagall's pronouncement about not being able to leave was true – and it was. None of them were prepared to try to blast their way out through the Fat Lady's portrait, and Dean's wild suggestion of leaping out the windows on broomsticks was quickly ruled unfeasible when they all realised none of them had a broomstick.
"Well, I do own one," Eloise elaborated. "But you know the rules – first years can't bring their broomsticks to school. Maybe Potter got an exemption, but his was broken anyway so that's no help to us. A sad fate for a Nimbus 2000."
Most of them went to bed after that, a bit dispirited and anxious, but resigned that they'd done all they possibly could to help.
"I'll wait up," volunteered Neville. "In case they come back. I can sleep on a sofa near the door if I get tired. If something happens I'll wake everyone up, alright?"
"Good man," Dean said, clapping him on the back.
No-one woke them up that night, and in the morning they found Neville asleep in the Common Room, sprawled uncomfortably on a plush red sofa he'd dragged over near to the portrait hole some time during the night.
They heard all about what had happened at breakfast time, though. Professor Flitwick rushed over to the girls as soon as he spotted them. His bright eyes and beaming smile suggested they weren't in any kind of trouble, which brought Hermione at least a lot of relief.
"You saved those young men's lives last night, girls!" he said, grabbing Parvati's hand and shaking it enthusiastically while he spoke, then moving on to Hermione's hand which got the same treatment. "Poisoned, the both of them! They did marvellously, don't get me wrong, but they didn't get past Severus' potions challenge. Which was probably for the best really, because guess who was stuck in the final room?"
He shook Eloise's hand while he waited for an answer to his rather bewildering question.
Hermione guessed he was talking about wherever the Philosopher's Stone was hidden. "Was it Professor Snape, like they guessed? And are Harry and Ron alright?"
"Oh, they're fine," Flitwick said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "A bit of purging, and they're well on the mend, if as hungry as a herd of hippogriffs. It wasn't that dire a poison. Incapacitating, rather than fatal. Between you and me, Professor Snape was a bit worried the Weasley twins would make their way down there at some point, and he didn't actually want to kill the poor blighters if they got overly curious. Very talented at Potions, you see.
"Now, don't you want to know who the thief was?" he said, in an excited squeaky voice. "Because it wasn't who you suspected! It wasn't someone any of us suspected!"
"Oh, do tell us, please!" Parvati begged, catching his excitement.
"Professor Quirrell!" he said dramatically.
Professor Flitwick nodded. "It's true! Underhanded blighter. Professor Dumbledore's trap had caught him at the end, and he was nicely distracted so knocking him out was a breeze. He's in custody now, I'm pleased to say. The Aurors took him away last night, still unconscious. For your estimable help I think you're due… one hundred points to Gryffindor!" He squeaked the last part with loud enthusiasm, and got a chorus of cheers for that which spread down the table as the gossip was passed along as to what had gotten everyone so excited. Hermione wasn't quite as impressed, since it merely balanced out the points Mr Filch had taken off them last night.
"I helped too," Dean added eagerly, "and so did Neville! Could we have some extra points too?"
"It's true, they came out too!" confirmed Hermione, and the other girls also murmured their agreement.
"I wish I'd gone," sighed Lavender regretfully. "I missed out on all the fun."
"Why not, why not!" laughed Flitwick. "Take another twenty points for Gryffindor, boys!" Dean tried to give Neville a cheerful high five, but Neville just looked confused at the gesture, and in the end, they shook hands and grinned at each other instead.
"Does Professor McGonagall know what happened?" asked Hermione. "She was… rather cross with us. For raising a false alarm."
Professor Flitwick tugged at his robe collar distractedly. "Ah. Yes. Well, she asked me to pass on her apologies to you all, and that your detentions are of course cancelled, given the circumstances." He paused for more cheering, and for Dean's second attempt to explain to Neville how exactly how one gave someone a 'high five', and what the point of it was. "She's busy with the Headmaster's duties today, and dealing with some particularly urgent correspondence, while Professor Dumbledore is off talking with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."
Harry and Ron got a growing stream of visitors throughout the day whenever anyone could snatch a moment to pop by, and there was a collection of a massive pile of sweets - and for some bizarre reason a toilet seat – on the table between their two beds in the Hospital Wing. Harry looked a bit uncomfortable with all the attention, but Ron was revelling in it.
"I almost died," Ron said in a reverent whisper to the whole group of them – they'd all decided to visit together in solidarity. "I thought my whole stomach was literally going to come out my mouth, I was that ill. Snape had this crazy obstacle to get past down there – all the teachers had one. But his was the worst. There were seven bottles, right? And you had to figure out this riddle, and drink the right potion that would let you go onwards. Or back. And three of the bottles had poison in them! Now, we figured out the one on the far right wasn't poison. But it wouldn't let us go forward, either – we guessed wrong. Harry got his hand burnt!" He paused for a moment so Harry could wave to them.
"All fixed up already," Harry said, wiggling the fingers of his perfectly ordinary looking right hand.
"Fresh burns are supposed to be the easiest to heal without scarring," Hermione agreed knowingly.
"So then of course we had to guess. Unfortunately, we guessed wrong again. I mean, we took a bottle each, because then at least one of us had better odds of surviving and going forwards, right?" He jutted out his jaw as if to illustrate the courageousness of the act, and Lavender at least was impressed.
"That was so brave," she said admiringly.
"So dumb, more like it," muttered Hermione under her breath.
"Three bottles of poison, two of wine, and one left that should let us go forward through the fire. The door out, you see. It was on fire. So was the one to go back," Ron explained messily. "But a different colour fire."
"Just our luck – we both picked bottles of poison," said Harry. "We started choking pretty much right away. I thought we were done for! It was terrifying. Professor Snape stopped by the Hospital Wing to explain it – he said we never would have died. But it sure felt like it at the time, I swear."
They listened eagerly to a more thorough recitation of all the obstacles Harry and Ron had gotten past, like Professor McGonagall's chess set where the two boys had taken the places of the King and Queen. Then the others shared their half of the tale, and Ron and Harry gave Parvati their very solemn thanks for her timely owl to Professor Flitwick.
"Everyone seems very excited to have caught Professor Quirrell up to no good," Harry added with a thoughtful frown. "Professor Snape wasn't even mad at us for thinking he was the thief. He shook my hand and said with him in custody things would be a lot different in the future. I've never seen him so polite or friendly, actually. He shook our hands."
"Yeah," agreed Ron. "He was almost smiling. I mean, not actually smiling. Just looking, I dunno, like he wasn't frowning. Like he might be thinking about smiling, but was really out of practice and didn't know how to do it any more!"
That got a round of laughter from them all.
"Maybe he's just happy because now he'll get the Defence job," suggested Dean. "I heard he's dying to teach that instead of Potions!"
"That's probably it!" laughed Ron.
Whether or not they'd have a new teacher for Potions or not next year, they all agreed that a happier Snape would probably be more tolerable in next year's classes.
Gryffindor won the House Cup, of course, to the jubilation of all that House's students, and the pride of their Head of House. It wasn't a surprise for almost anyone – Professor McGonagall had spent the past few days handing out apologetic points to the first years like candy, and even Professor Snape had shocked his Slytherins by awarding a few points to Gryffindor in Potions class. Neville even earned one solitary point for Gryffindor, for "not being a total dunderhead and keeping your cauldron from melting or exploding for a change". He was being practically a soft fluffy bunny of a teacher… but only compared to the start of the year. He remained a stern and prickly teacher that few except Hermione really admired, apart from his own favourite Slytherin students.
There was one final surprise for the school, before they all went home for the year. Professor Dumbledore made a shocking announcement at the end-of-year feast.
"I regret to say that I will be retiring as Headmaster," he announced solemnly, to gasps of widespread disbelief. He'd been around so long that he'd even taught half of their teachers, so it was pretty stunning to consider he'd even contemplate leaving Hogwarts. "I will be doing some researching and travelling in my retirement, and I won't have time over the next few years to dedicate myself to the wellbeing of the school and the students here the way you all deserve. I am pleased to announce, however, that Professor McGonagall will be stepping into the role, and I hope you'll all give a hearty round of applause for your new Headmistress, whom I'm sure will do a marvellous job."
They all applauded her enthusiastically – with the claps and whistles from the Gryffindor table the loudest of course. She gave a brief thank you speech, and in turn led a round of farewell applause for Professor Dumbledore.
"Do you know why he's leaving?" Hermione asked Lavender, who usually had a good ear for gossip.
"No, I hadn't heard about it at all!" she said, shaking her head. "He is pretty ancient, though. I think he turned a hundred this year! So maybe he's just getting old?"
Harry was sitting on Hermione's other side at the table, and leant in to whisper to her, "I know why. And I can't tell you the details, but it's important. It's really important. And when he finds… the stuff he's looking for, it's going to ensure the world stays safe." He looked so absolutely certain about it, Hermione was instantly convinced that Professor Dumbledore was surely off on some epic noble quest.
"Something to do with the thing Professor Quirrell was after?" Hermione asked, with a meaningful raise of her eyebrows.
"Sort of, yes. It's related," Harry said. "No-one should live forever," he added, in a very quiet and grave whisper.
"Well, good luck to him, then," Hermione said. She was dreadfully curious, but tried to respect that Harry was telling her as much as he felt he could.
Harry nodded. "Yes, good luck to him. There's nothing more important to do than that. I offered to help, but he said I'm too young, which is fair enough I guess because I can barely levitate a feather. He'll be fine, I'm sure. And the world will be better for it."
Harry toyed with his food for a while, and Hermione turned to chat with Lavender instead. Ron on Harry's other side seemed to be having his own turn at a confidential discussion with Harry, though the art of covert whispering seemed to elude him as he got a little loud occasionally.
At one point, Hermione overhead him say, "You're really considering it? It's Snape! You can't be serious!" in a very shocked tone of voice before Harry shushed him, looking around worriedly like he was worried people were listening in. But most people didn't seem to care, and just carried on eating and laughing happily, busy with the celebration.
Over pudding, Harry had a question for Hermione. "You spend a lot of time with Professor Snape, right?" he asked her. "Fred and George – Ron's big brothers, the twins – they say he's not so bad. He lets them do extra brewing in the afternoons after class, to work on their own potion recipe inventions. That he's strict, but doesn't actually hurt anyone. What do you think of him?"
"Well, he's very intelligent – he's the youngest Potions Master in recorded history. He broke all the records, you know. I think he's friendlier to students who are better at Potions, and likes his Slytherins the best. And I think he's very touchy about his hair being greasy, so don't mention that even if you're just trying to help," she added ruefully. "I figured that out a bit late."
"Do you think-" Harry started, and ignored an interrupting snort from Ron on his other side, "-do you think he has any kids? Can you imagine him being a dad?"
"I'm pretty sure he's not married," she said slowly. "There's no ring or anything. I guess he could still have kids anyway, though wizards seem pretty formal about that sort of thing. Victorian morals, you know. I think hypothetically he'd probably act towards his kids like he does to Draco – very strict on behaviour, but indulgent in regards to praise, and wanting them to be good at Potions just like he is. Why do you ask?"
"No reason, just curious," Harry said vaguely. Ron let out a disgusted snort, and rolled his eyes.
Hermione was intrigued by the mystery of his questions, and Ron's obvious disapproval. She found out what it was all about during summer, in a letter sent from Harry at his new home, but the vast majority of students wouldn't discover whom Harry's new guardian was until the start of the next school year, when Professor Snape was spotted bringing Harry to the Hogwarts Express, and waving a very temporary farewell to him as the train pulled away from the station.