soumisezita: Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies. ;-)

Gwest #1: Erik is one of several werewolves who were either mentioned but never shown or who exist only in my notes. The werewolves of Compiègne are a COMMUNE, but I didn't go out of my way to introduce every single one of them. Whenever a new name pops up in communication between Hazel and the wolves, it's safe to assume it's one of the many unseen others who populate the group. Ironically it makes it feel more real to me that there are people Hazel knows by name but who never showed up in any meaningful way that warranted explicit story-time.

Gwest #3: I don't know that I would compare McG to Ron directly, if only because she is far more perceptive than Ron was ever in the books and we've never seen her betray anyone because circumstances were inconvenient. (I'm not Ron's biggest fan, if you can't tell.) That said, a lot of McG's issues aren't hers specifically. Wizards as a whole aren't an especially creative or flexible culture. They have reasons not to be creative, and thankfully they are reasons that don't apply to Hazel. It does, however, mean that they don't have much of a foundation for handling new situations.

Whew! This took SO much longer than I thought it would. Lots of stuff going on IRL that took priority over writing. I'm going to TRY to do better over the next several months, but I can't make any guarantees.

Chapter 37
More Meetings

The sun shone cheerfully overhead, buoying Hazel's spirits even as she grew more and more frustrated. She had been walking around the periphery of the grounds for close to an hour, searching fruitlessly for a route of escape. Professor Sprout had told her the previous day in Diagon Alley that the anti-teleportation magic covering the castle was tied to the walls, and that meant that if she ever wanted to leave the castle and grounds for any reason at all, she needed to find away around that.

Unfortunately for her, she was already on the short side for her age, and the stone walls had clearly been built with defense of the school as the highest priority. The individual stones were each the size of her torso, and they were stacked ten feet high along the length of the wall. A massive wrought iron gate twice that height was the obvious route in and out, but despite her best efforts Hazel had been unable to even start climbing it. Every single one of the bars was slicker than anything else she had encountered throughout her travels, for which magic was the only obvious explanation.

On the opposite side of the campus was the train station where they had all arrived on the first night, but when she checked that possible exit, the stairs up to the platform had vanished to who-knew-where and all the arches had been blocked off with solid wooden doors that she could not recall seeing the night she first stepped off the train.

The gate was out. The train station was out. So far, the wall was out. Hazel would not deny that she already felt a sense of wanderlust luring her back to the neverending roads, but she was thankful that it was still only a low-level itch in the back of her mind for now. If she remained stuck here in this one little patch of land for months and months, though, trapped in a stone box like an animal in a cage…

She shook her head, focusing on the here and now instead of possibilities she would not let become real. There was a way out; she just needed to find it. As far as she could tell from looking across the campus, she had examined three of the four 'sides' of the school grounds. The gate, the train station, and the wall in between. That just left one more.

The Forbidden Forest that no one was supposed to enter.

The edge of the trees started not fifteen feet from her, a small hillock hiding the junction of woods and wall from the sight of the castle. Yes, it was supposed to be 'forbidden', but she still had yet to hear a good reason why that was. The most reasonable answer had been that it contained trolls and werewolves, but in all honesty she was not concerned about the latter. The moon was in its first quarter stage based on what she saw in the sky the previous night, which meant she had about a week before any hypothetical werewolves would lose control of their own actions. If anything, she was hoping she did find another commune of werewolves. It would be nice to find people as kind as Jean Luc and the others, and they might appreciate being able to communicate with more of their own people in a place as far removed as Compiègne.

What do you think, she asked Morgan as she looked at the inviting trees. You up for an adventure that has a chance to send us running for our lives again?

The blue tit tilted his head at the sight before them and chirped nonchalantly.

That's what I was thinking, too. Rolling her neck around on her shoulders, she walked into the tree line.

Getting lost was not that much of a concern for her. She had a helpful guide in the form of the very wall she had been examining for a good chunk of the afternoon; as long as she kept it with a meter or two of herself – and preferably in arm's reach if she could manage that – it would be a hard task indeed to get too lost. She could always just turn around and walk back the same way she came until she was out of the woods.

The thick trees all around her quickly swallowed up any sound that might have come from the castle grounds, and several minutes later a smile lit up her face. The constant and consistent shape of the wall changed ahead of her, and sure enough it was exactly what she was hoping to find. The wall might have once circled the entire castle, but here the stones were broken and came to an abrupt end. It was no small hole in the wall, either; the trees made it difficult to tell for sure, but she could see no sign of where this gap ended no matter how far she strained her eyes. It might as well not exist.

Such a gap was what she had been searching for, but it was just not a physical wall that was her problem. Hazel walked around the end of the stone wall and took several steps away from it. If Professor Sprout was telling the truth, if the magic that stopped her jumping was tied to the stone wall or, perhaps more accurately, where the stone wall was supposed to be…

Pushing herself towards a tree some twenty feet away, the world squeezed itself tight around her in the instant before she appeared exactly where she wanted to be. She hopped into the air and thrust her staff upwards. Teleportation was once more in her grasp!

She turned back to the stone wall, a small frown supplanting her beaming smile. This break in the wall was her one entrance and exit back to the castle. She did not think she would have a problem recalling it in the future as it was fairly distinctive, but considering how it was still her only access to what was supposed to be the most extensive magical library in Britain, it would not hurt to have some kind of insurance. Pulling out her sketch pad and a pen, she shrugged to herself and slid down the trunk of the tree to which she had jumped and started drawing a basic picture of the area, both the wall and all the trees nearby. It should be enough in case she ever did manage to forget what it looked like.

Sketching the scene out took twenty or so minutes, and when she was done and had put her notepad away she glanced up at what little bits of the sky were visible through the canopy. From the position of the sun, she judged that it was sometime in the mid-afternoon, which meant she still had plenty of daylight left before she was really worried about getting lost. What are your thoughts? Do we explore the stretch of the forest that is contained within the walls and protection of the castle's magic, or do we keep moving outward into the true heart of the woods, she asked her friend.

Morgan chirped once, then he glanced over at the wall and flapped his wings impatiently.

For all that Hazel knew his behavior would be incomprehensible to anyone else, she understood what he was telling her. That's a good point. If we do run into anything dangerous, best we be able to jump to the wall and away from the creature. That won't be possible if we go back inside. Decision made, she adjusted her grip on her staff, turned around, and started walking.

It quickly became obvious that the 'Forbidden' Forest within the school grounds was maintained and culled by man, something that was directly contrasted by the appearance of the deeper woods. The trees grew closer together, their trunks gnarled and twisted until in some cases they only barely resembled the idea of what a tree was. The canopy too was becoming thicker the farther she explored, making the forest even darker to add to the foreboding atmosphere. In some ways, it reminded her most of Wistman's Woods and the Black Forest close to the hags' home. Places that were dark, almost cruel, and certainly not the kinds of places she would ever expect wizards to set foot inside.

A small grin split her lips. Maybe that was the real reason the students were not allowed to come here.

Jumping upwards, she grabbed the upper edge of a root system and pulled herself up over the ledge that had eroded over time to leave just a blank wall of earth like a miniature cliff. Climbing to her feet, she brushed off the worst of the dirt on her legs. The motion slowed and finally stopped as she stared into what counted for distance in such a dense forest, the thought of dirt driven entirely from her mind and replaced by the sight before her.

Mist. Thick white mist, curling around on itself and slipping between the trees.

Mist that would have made sense in the late evening, but not the afternoon.

The forest was dark, now; darker than she would have expected before she started her wandering exploration. Hazel glanced up into the canopy, looking desperately for a break in the leaves so she could see the sky. Only after maneuvering around several trunks did she come across such a break, and what it revealed stole her breath away.

The sky was not bright blue. It was the dimming purple familiar to twilight, and if she tilted her head just right she thought she could see a star twinkling behind the leaves. It was a view that only made sense if she had been out here for hours and hours.

She knew she had not.

What in the world could be causing this, then?

The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A shiver crawled down her spine, like spidery fingers tapping incessantly. She turned her head to the right, then to the left. And she kept turning until she was looking over her left shoulder at the woods behind her. With her head in that position, Morgan was right in front of her face, and she gave him a mirthless smile at the way his feathers were all puffed up.

I feel it too, she reassured him before turning back around to look at the trees in front of them. We're being watched.

She held still for a long moment and let the faint sounds of the forest fill her ears. Birds twittering in the distance. Wind stirring the branches. Her and Morgan's breaths. But nothing more. No twigs breaking off by a creature's passing; no leaves crunched beneath massive paws. As far as her ears could tell, they were alone.

Which meant whatever was watching them was being very careful and very stealthy.

Hazel was left with two options. She could continue on, hoping whatever this thing was would not attack her, or she could jump back to the wall and run for the safety of the castle. Return to the cage the wizards wanted to build around her.

She rolled her shoulders and adjusted her grip on her staff. Whatever this thing was that was watching her, it had yet to make any aggressive moves. Best case scenario, she had stumbled into something's territory and it wanted to be sure she did not come any closer to its den. Worst case, it would spring out from the shadows, but its ambush had already been foiled. She knew it was there, and there was nothing stopping her now from snap-jumping into the boughs of the trees or somewhere else far away in her line of sight. By the time whatever hunted her knew where she was, she would be far enough away to jump back to the wall or literally anywhere else she wanted.

So long as she could teleport, safety was just a thought away.

Brushing Morgan's feathers, she resumed walking. Her eyes were on the path ahead of her, her ears perked for any signs of something attacking. A minute passed, then two. The feeling of being watched, of being hunted, did not abate, but no matter how much she waited, nothing came of it.

The trees parted a short distance before her, and she stepped out of the forest proper into a clearing. Wind stirred the long grass and the fog that drifted over the blades, bringing scents of flowers to her nose even as she glanced up to find the sky filled with stars. The moon, still in the same phase as the previous night, hung above her and filled the clearing with more light than she was used to from anything but a full moon. As she turned around, she finally heard something: feet moving in the grass. Not behind or around her, but in front.

Looking in the direction of the sound, she quickly spotted two yellow shapes on the other side of the clearing. Long heads perched on strong necks rose from the ground to reveal young horses. A pair of young horses stared at her in seeming confusion, and as she took in their graceful shapes her breath caught in her throat. One detail was now on full display that she had not noticed before.

Tiny horns. Which could mean only one thing…

These were not horses. They were unicorns.

One of the foals bleated softly in alarm, but the other was made of sterner stuff. It took a tentative step deeper into the clearing, then another. When she made no movement of her own, it nickered and trotted quickly in her direction until it came to a stop only a matter of feet from her. Its big brown eyes flicked around her, taking in her appearance.

She was probably the first human it had ever laid its eyes on, Hazel realized. Moving as slowly as she could, nearly holding her breath, she raised her left hand with her palm up. The foal took a nervous step back, but when she did nothing else it approached again and sniffed her fingers. The puffs of hot air tickled and made her giggle silently.

I'm sorry I didn't bring anything to give you, she told the foal. Next time I'll make sure to have an apple or some sugar cubes or something on me.

The foal came closer, letting her reach out and stroke its neck. The fur was so soft and silky, it made her almost want to bury her face into it and just luxuriate in the sensation. Before she could give in to the temptation, a louder noise came from the edge of the clearing where the two foals had first stood. Another unicorn stood there, this one a brilliant white with a longer horn than the foals possessed protruding from its forehead. The mother, no doubt.

Suddenly Hazel did not feel so secure in being this close to the foal, no matter how comfortable the foal felt.

The adult unicorn stepped towards her, its calm pace never wavering until it stood next to her. It looked down at her, and its gaze felt weighty, as though it was judging her. A shiver ran down Hazel's spine as she wondered what would happen if she were found wanting.

Suddenly what felt like all the thefts, all the lies, she had committed since running away from the Dursleys flashed through her mind. She knew from her reading that unicorns could sense 'purity', whatever that was supposed to mean. Would her crimes, all committed solely to keep herself alive and safe, cause the unicorn to deem her 'impure'?

The unicorn's eyes pierced her soul, and just when she felt the urge to flee, to run away and hide herself from its knowing sight, it blinked. The next thing she knew, a warm, wet, rough tongue scraped along the side of her face. Lick of approval given, the unicorn stepped back and whinnied to its two young. The family of three took off running towards the edge of the clearing and then out of sight behind the trees.

Morgan tweeted loudly in her ear, and Hazel shook herself. The haze that sat over her thoughts burned away like fog in the sunlight, bringing her back to herself and her surroundings. Even so, a stupid smile sat on her face.

Another burst of song from her friend, and she turned her head slightly to look at him. He did not look distressed in the slightest, and that was a perspective she could share. This is not what I expected when we set out, she told him, but I won't say no. Who knows when we'll encounter a family of unicorns again?!

Morgan tittered knowingly, and she nodded. Fair enough. We have somewhere else to visit now, but first… She looked up at the night sky, a sky that should not be present in the afternoon. Let's bounce over to London and see if the bookstore there has anything to say about a permanent twilight forest, here or anywhere else.

The library might have something, but we deserve a break from the castle.

The end of the weekend brought with it the return of classes. A return to the wizards' expectations.

Not that it was all bad, even compared to the first week of school. Charms class on Monday, for example, had been interesting. In their first couple of lessons with Professor Flitwick, he had of course talked about the theory of magic, but now he spent a good chunk of time explaining how the magic of the wizards' light spell was structured and how – best as anyone could tell – that magical structure led to the creation of the light. He even started drawing shapes and symbols similar to those McGonagall had used in her own classes, but at least Professor Flitwick explained what they meant in the most general of terms. More detail, he claimed, would require them to start taking the Arithmancy and Ancient Runes classes that would be offered when they entered their third year.

Was this increased level of detail about the mechanics of magic, not just the wand-waving the wizards wanted, purely for her benefit? Only mostly? Something Professor Flitwick had already planned on doing even before his discovery that she was not reliant on a flimsy wooden stick? She was not sure, and even when thanking him after class for the informative lesson his surface thoughts did not make his motivations clear.

The rest of the Hufflepuff first-years had already departed on their way to History of Magic class, but she had other plans. Namely, not spend her time listening to a ghost all but read from the book in a monotone. She was on her way instead to the library, where if nothing else she could read whatever book she wanted.

Walking down the corridor, Hazel's steps slowed to a halt when she heard an aggravated meow. She turned her head to look behind her and to the side only to discover a cat sticking its head out from around the corner of the intersection she had just passed. She took a few steps backwards, curious what a cat might want with her.

Oh, you poor thing, she thought towards the kitty when she was able to get a good look. Whoever did this to you?

The cat's fur, as best she could tell, was supposed to be a beige-y color, but the ragged fur was almost completely covered by a slimy brown goop. A goop that smelled horrid now that the aroma was wafting up to her nostrils. Turning large golden eyes towards her, the cat once again meowed, although this time it was not quite as irritated and more plaintive.

She lowered herself to the stone floor and crossed her legs. Do you want some help? I could clean you up at least.

A loud, shrieking twitter in her ear was the immediate response to her offer, and she turned her head to glare at the bird sitting on her left shoulder. Morgan was unrepentant, his feathers standing on end to make himself look twice as big as he truly was. Yes, I know she's a cat, she told him. But just because her species eats birds does not mean we have to treat her unkindly. She needs help. Can you imagine having to lick all that nasty stuff off? Morgan's stance remained resolute, and after a moment the only thing she could do was roll her eyes. You can't stop me from helping an animal in need, but I guess in return I can't make you stay. If you want to get some distance, you can wait over on one of the suits of armor or something.

With one final angry chirp, Morgan did just that, taking wing and flying not to the nearest armor on display but instead towards one almost on the other end of the hall. He perched on top of the metal helmet and settled himself on top like a blue puffball.

Hazel huffed out a silent sigh, then she turned to the cat who had taken only a couple of steps away from the corner. Its eyes had not moved to follow Morgan but instead were fixed on her. I'm sorry about him, she thought apologetically. I understand where he's coming from, but that was still rude.

That apology seemed to be what the cat was waiting for, and it – she? The longer Hazel looked at this cat, the more she thought it was a girl – raised her tail high into the air and crossed the rest of the distance in an almost imperious fashion. Which, based on what little Hazel knew about house cats due to cat-lady Mrs. Figg from farther down Privet Drive, was about par for the course. The cat did not climb onto her, however, but sat a couple of inches way and chirruped. Not a demand, but close enough.

Laying her hand on the cat's back, Hazel had to hold back a grimace at the feculent goop squishing around her fingers and deeper into the cat's fur. Hold on a moment. I know it's nasty, but I'll get it out as fast as I can.

Ripples of blue light swept over the cat and her own hand. Almost immediately, the gross feeling on her hand vanish, and she watched the coating of disgusting slime break up into puddles that continued shrinking into nothingness. When the last speck was gone, the cat's fur fluffed up as though she had just been run through a drier.

Hazel worried for a moment when the cat backed away and shook herself out, but those worries were assuaged when the kitty came right back to her hand, purring loudly. She supposed her efforts were appreciated after all. Stroking the cat made her satchel shift on her hip, and that in turn reminded her of the cans of food still in her bag. She had not needed to rely on those cans for the last week, and she suspected that would continue to be the case. And among those cans…

I think I have a little bit of tuna on me. You can have it if you want it.

The cat stopped rubbing against her hand and looked up at her face, almost as if asking for verification of what she had just said. When Hazel nodded, the kitty immediately started sniffing all around her.

Give me a second, okay? I have to pull it out and open the can first. Doing just that, she let the cat dig into her impromptu meal. How did you get so filthy in the first place? Did you go exploring somewhere you shouldn't? Was it something another student did to you? The cat ignored her, and while she considered the options another thought came to her. Was it that poltergeist? Peeves?

This time the cat looked up at her face and meowed once before going back to the food.

Ugh. I've had a run in with him before now. He is just the worst, isn't he?

"Where is she? I hope she isn't hiding because she got hurt by that blasted ghost…" A balding man in a battered coat, thin nearly to the point of being scrawny, hurried around the same corner the cat had come from and staggered to a stop. His eyes moved from the cat to Hazel's face to her hand petting the cat and back a few times. "What in the world? I've never seen her let a student pet her."

Well, it was good to have confirmation that her belief that the cat was female was accurate. Hazel raised her left hand – conveniently not the one occupied with petting the cat – to wave at the man. 'Good afternoon. I'm Hazel. Is this your cat?'

He blinked at her greeting. "I… what? Yes, she is. I'm Mr. Filch. Argus Filch. That's Mrs. Norris."

Mrs. Norris? As in the 'demon cat' she had heard other people both in Hufflepuff and in other houses in her year complain of dogging their heels? This was the kitty they were all upset about? Hazel had to hold back a silent snort. So much irritation and anger for such a silly reason. 'She's a very sweet kitty.'

"…Yes, I think so too. What is going on? None of the students are this friendly to me, or to her. I would expect this girl to kick her, not… What is this, anyway? I'm glad you found her. How did you convince her to come that close? She doesn't like students much."

If people were kicking her, Hazel found it to be no surprise that Mrs. Norris disliked them. Even if Mrs. Norris were as bad as everyone accused her and Mr. Filch of being, that was no excuse. Anyone who did that had better hope she did not find out because she refused to be held responsible for her reaction. Even hating Mr. Filch – who so far had yet to do a single mean thing to her and was only worried about his kitty – was zero reason to be cruel to an animal who was just helping her companion.

For Pete's sake, so far Mr. Filch and Mrs. Norris had been kinder than her fellow students!

She took a breath to clear any of the anger she felt off her face. It would not be right to make this man think she was mad at him or his cat. 'She asked for help. When I looked back at the meows, she was covered in smelly goop. I think Peeves did something to her. So I cleaned her off, and then I made the mistake of offering her some tuna. Then you showed up.'

"It was Peeves," the caretaker said with a nod. "He was messing about with some Dungbombs. I don't know what he did to them, but several of them exploded and covered Mrs. Norris. She ran off before I could catch her. And now she looks like nothing happened to her. Thank you. For cleaning her up, I mean."

'It was no trouble, Mr. Filch. I'm happy to help.' She stopped her petting of the cat, grinning slightly when Mrs. Norris looked up to learn why the stroking had stopped. I think your human wants you, Hazel told her. Mrs. Norris glanced over her body towards Mr. Filch then back to her. Go on. I'm sure I'll see you again.

Mrs. Norris gave her a dismissive sniff and bent down to scarf down what was left of the tuna in the can, revealing just what her real priority was. Then, flicking her tail regally, she strode back to the caretaker's side and meowed a single time before wandering down the hallway from whence they had both appeared.

"…I suppose she's ready to get back to work," Mr. Filch said after a moment. "Have a… good day?"

She waved goodbye to the man, and when he and his kitty were both out of sight she stood up and turned to glare at Morgan down the hall. See? You were worried about a whole lot of nothing. She was perfectly nice.

Morgan just twittered unrepentantly, and she sighed. There was going to be no convincing him, was there?

I wish I was making up the stuff about kicking Mrs. Norris, but it's mentioned in book 1 that many students want to do just that. During the trip to the gauntlet to stop 'Snape'/Quirrell, Ron even suggests they kick her while under the Invisibility Cloak. Mrs. Norris, Crookshanks; dude has a serious anti-cat attitude, and the suggestion of engaging in animal cruelty only makes me dislike him even more.

Silently Watches out.