Chapter Eight – Pawns
Closing behind Neville and Harry with a definitive boom, the heavy iron door fell into position as its lock clicked shut and sealed it in place. Harry glanced about, fighting the distraction of his numb leg, and immediately saw the figure standing in the center of the amphitheater of a room. His back to the two students, Quirrell's palid eyes glanced at the two intruders via the tall mirror standing before him. Locking eyes with the man, Harry saw the face in the mirror smirk.
"Well this is a pleasant coincidence," said Quirrell, his voice oily as he turned around to face the boys. Holding out his arms he let his flowing pomegranate sleeves dangle down to the floor. "I was expecting Snape to be honest, but this should prove much more enjoyable."
Harry stepped in front of Neville and walked down the pair of sand colored steps onto the main level of the room. "I knew it would be either you or professor Snape," said the young sorcerer, mustering all his defiance. "You were the one who broke into Gringott's looking for the Stone, you were the one who let the troll into the dungeon, and it was you who tried to kill me during the Quidditch game. All while Snape was trying to stop you."
Quirrell's grin widened and grew malicious. "Very good," he said, clapping his hands once. "You and Severus, you and Severus, both as clever as foxes- No, clever as snakes, to see right through my scheme. I guess I couldn't turn you against old Snape in the end, but that's alright I suppose. He doesn't factor into my designs anymore, not after I learned that I didn't absolutely need you to get to the Stone."
Taking a quick glance passed Quirrell to the gold mirror beyond, Harry winced to see absolutely nothing reflected in the glass. "You're not going to fool me," he answered. "I found the letter from Snape in your office. I know you forged it to throw Professor Dumbledore off."
Quirrell's eyebrow snaked up his forehead and his countenance took on a hue of amusement. "Snuck into my office, did you?" he asked. "I can only imagine how you got passed all of the wards I set up specifically to keep snooping brats at bay. But it's funny to say that you intercepted an intercepted letter. Snape penned that report to Lucius with his own hand and sent it off by owl. I'd still be sure his loyalties lay with Dumbledore if I hadn't gotten it first."
"What?" Harry whispered. "Snape couldn't have written that. He's loyal to Professor Dumbledore."
Quirrell shrugged nonchalantly and looked towards the door. "You won't believe me one way or the other, but you might as well know that Snape indeed wrote the letter. In fact, it was that letter that threw such a kink into my plan that I had to disappear to reassess my position.
"You see," Quirrell began pacing back and forth, "I knew from the start that I was unlikely to find the Stone at Gringott's, since odds were that Dumbledore had it moved here. Without a good reason however, the old oaf might have simply left it somewhere, hidden in a random desk in a back room protected by divination counter-measures where I'd have to search for years to uncover it the old fashioned way. I broke into the vault anyway because I needed him to place it under lock and key in the most secure location he could devise. That way I could simply track the resources our beloved headmaster devoted to its protection and thus discern its true location. After that it would be a simple matter of peeling back those defenses one at a time until I could claim the Stone for myself."
As Quirrell began laying out the bare details of his scheme, Harry glanced back at Neville. The two boys, through the fear evident on both faces, agreed silently on the necessary action and nodded to one another. As Harry remained motionless, Neville began taking slow and cautious steps around the raised perimeter of the room, wand in hand.
"Snape however," Quirrell exclaimed as though discussing an exciting aspect of one of his classes, "turned out to be a complete wild card. After I intercepted that letter of his I had no way of knowing his true intentions. He might be genuinely working for our Dark Lord, in which case his mistrust of me was simply born of his own ignorance or misdirected zeal. Or he could still be working for Dumbledore. Were that the case it would mean that he'd meant for me to intercept the correspondence, and as I couldn't rule out that possibility, it left me with but one option. I had to test the idea that I didn't need you to get to the Stone after all. If that proved true, then my job would be done... and if it didn't then all I would have to do would be wait until summer and then take you from those muggle zookeepers of yours." Quirrell grinned, but his eyes flitted from Harry up to the massive door. "Where's-"
The man in the turban took his eyes off Harry for only an instant to cast about for Neville and spot the boy sneaking into position behind him. The professor swore and raised his wand, pointing it at Longbottom, but the instant Quirrell had looked away Harry had readied his own action. As the sorcerer loosed a breath of his magic, his wand shook and the ecru chamber filled with a sound like the striking of an enormous iron tube. Quirrell turned back just in time to see the emerald bolt of force race towards his face, but too slow to move out of the way. The professor's head snapped to one side as if a sledgehammer had struck him in the jaw, and he spun to one knee.
Harry, feeling the exhaustion beginning to ache in his chest, took aim again as Quirrell stood up. The teacher's face was already bruising a violent purple, but both mages raised their wands towards the other. Quirrell's implement danced through a quick pattern as Harry's jerked and again clanged like a bell.
The missile of emerald light shot for Quirrell's skull, but warped around the professor as the man in the turban shielded himself with his wand. Manipulating the emerald energy with a twirling of his dark implement, Quirrell grinned and turned on Neville, flinging the dancing light at him. Gasping Neville jumped to the side as the missile of force slammed into the wall behind him him, demolishing the stone and sending shrapnel spraying in all directions.
"Snape isn't the only one who can counterspell," Quirrell laughed as Neville went limp and tumbled down the short steps to the floor. "And I'm better than even him in that regard!" Quirrell drew from his robe a tiny glass cone, flicked his wand, and muttered a command.
Instantly Harry felt the air grow frigid around him as the crystal cone in Quirrell's hand vanished in a puff of smoke. A blast of arctic air blew from Quirrell towards Harry, and the sorcerer ducked and spun around, covering his head as the icy wind washed over him, chilling him to his core, making his hands burn with the cold. The moisture drained from the air in a flash, condensing on Harry's exposed hands and cracking his already near-frozen skin.
Dropping to his hands and knees, Harry gasped for air, sucking in the frigid breath and coughing as he did. The arid air seemed to freeze his lungs and sucked the moisture from the boy's mouth and nose. Harry, too chilled to react, could only hang in the air as Quirrell, suddenly behind him, picked him up and flung him by his collar. Landing hard on his shoulder and rolling to the mirror, Harry looked up as Quirrell walked slowly towards him. He boy's mind screamed for his body to move, but the arctic cold lingered in Harry's limbs, paralyzing his muscles.
"You look like a proper little Yeti!" Quirrell growled, grabbing a handful of Harry's hair and hoisting the boy up to face the mirror. "Now tell me! What do you see!"
Forced to look on the reflective sheet of silver, for a moment Harry could only see himself, looking as though he'd just been drawn from a night in a freezer, and Quirrell. Before the boy's eyes the vision melted away and the gold-framed silver went black. The surface of the mirror rippled like the surface of a lake and through the undulating glass, Harry saw a woman with fiery red hair and eyes that sparkled green. She looked passed, or maybe through Harry, chilling the boy through to his bones, and glared at Quirrell. Harry shivered, feeling quite clearly from the lightning in the woman's eyes that the figure in the glass wanted nothing more than to annihilate Quirrell.
Then another image washed over the surface of the mirror: Harry, standing alone in the sand colored room. The reflection of the boy grinned back at him, and reached into the pocket of his black and green robe with one hand, holding a wand made of gold in the other. Harry's reflection drew out a red stone, not unlike a ruby the size of a tennis ball, and slipped it back into his pocket. The real Harry, still hung like a caught fish in front of the mirror, felt his own pocket grow a little heavier as the vision faded and the mirror again showed only reality.
"There's something," Harry muttered, the numbing cold beginning to give way to an infernal burning that covered him from head to foot. "Your ugly face," he tried to laugh.
Quirrell gritted his teeth and threw Harry to the ground. The man's strength baffled the young sorcerer. "That was hysterical," Quirrell growled, stalking towards the boy. "I might need you to get the Stone out of that mirror, but no one ever said I need you in one piece!"
The professor jerked forward as something struck him from behind. A boiling sphere of green liquid a few inches across blasted into his back and burst, spraying Quirrell with a hissing, fuming acid. The man in the turban whirled around, turning his back on Harry, and pointed his wand at a barely lucid Neville. He held out a fleck of amber, barked a command and flicked his wand, the component burning up in his hand. Neville screamed and again went limp as a bolt of lightning arced between his chest and Quirrell's wand.
"No!" Harry raised his hand, pointing two fingers at Quirrell's burned back. A spear of white hot light drained the last remainder of Harry's magical reserves and stabbed into the professor, punching through his shoulder and exiting out his front like a bullet. The man's left arm went limp and he shrugged to one side, turning again to Harry.
"Little bastard," Quirrell hissed, all sanity leaving his voice, throwing his wand to the ground. He bent down and picked Harry up by his throat, dangling him in the air like a toy. "I don't need magic to get that Stone from you... where is it! Where have you hidden it!"
Harry cracked a grin, gripping Quirrell's wrists as the man in the turban strangled him. "B-Bacid?" Harry managed to choke out.
"Bacid?" Quirrell growled, eyes lit up with fury. "Who-" the man's gaze turned to Harry's sleeve as a pitted black head emerged from the boy's garment.
Unable even to scream in time, Quirrell dropped Harry as the serpent's white mouth opened wide, fangs popping into position as Bacid shot forward like an arrow from a bow. Bacid's wickedly long teeth passed effortlessly through the flesh of Quirrell's neck and the snake wrapped around his throat like a bullwhip. Quirrell stumbled backwards, one good hand clawing at the snake. Bacid's head twitched again and again, the corners of his jaw pulsing as the muscles pumped dose after dose of venom straight into his gagging victim's jugular.
Finally, after the snake had drained its reserves, Quirrell got his hand around Bacid and threw him to the ground. The snake flipped over and promptly scurried away as the man in the turban choked and clutched at his neck. Mouth open, spitting and gasping, Quirrell's wild eyes turned to the door as he dropped to his knees. The loud click from the locking mechanism sounded in Harry's ears, and from his spot on the floor, the boy turned towards the portal.
Wand at the ready as he pushed the obstacle aside, Snape took a single step into the chamber. His glance shot between Harry and Quirrell as he raised a pinch of dust with one hand and flicked it into the air, weaving his wand through a quick motion and uttering a command. The dust exploded in a green flash and a crackling line of emerald energy shot through the air towards Quirrell. The man in the turban screamed as the light struck him, a pulse of green and blue particles radiating out from his chest and disintegrating him in an instant.
Watching for a second as the ashes, all that remained of Quirrell, floated to the ground like snow, Snape took a deep breath and surveyed the rest of the scene. Walking passed Harry, he crossed the room to Neville and knelt down by the boy. Harry felt himself grow light as the edges of his vision blurred. The pulsing migraine in his head gave way to a cool numbness and he laid his head back against the stone floor.
Unconsciousness, unmarred as it was by pain or worry, had become dull to the young Harry Potter. His mind had sat idle, undreaming, for a span of time he didn't care to think about. Nevertheless, when the warm blanket of black began to break away and he found himself slowly rising out of the comfortable murk towards reality, he began hearing the one sound, the only sound in all of Hogwarts that genuinely annoyed him: the scratching of a quill pen's nib on parchment. That ubiquitous, omnipresent, tugging and pulling sound as the nib began running low on ink filled his head and made his eardrums ache for what felt like hours as him mind began to stir.
Who could be writing so much? he wondered as the scratching went on. Is someone penning a novel or are they just copying every book in the library by hand? He tried desperately to ignore the noise and go back to sleep, but soon the tugging sound of the pen, coupled with the sensation of warm light on his face overpowered his drowsiness and Harry opened his eyes.
For a brief moment all he could see was white. His eyes ached and he squinted, but gradually the dazzling blindness faded and the colorful ceiling high over his head took shape. He felt the feather mattress pressing at his back, and the warm pillow tucked behind his head. He recognized the ceiling as that of Hogwarts' infirmary... he'd been here only once before, shortly after the Halloween incident with the troll, but the vaulted heights decorated with fading frescoes of satyrs and dancing veela were anything but forgettable.
The pillow creaked beneath his head as Harry turned to one side, looking for the source of the scratching and finding that beside his bed was a desk likely borrowed from the library. Sitting on a simple wooden chair, looking intently down at the vellum on which she copied line after line of runes from her spellbook, Hermione Granger sat next to a dozing Ron Weasley. Just passed Ron, Tracey Davis leaned over a small book, scanning its paragraphs and lazily turning the pages.
"Hey," Harry said, his voice more of a dry groan than the happy greeting he'd intended.
Tracey and Hermione both started and looked up from their books when he spoke, breaking into wide grins and standing up. Tracey jostled Ron to wake him while Hermione turned and sat on the edge of the bed, grabbing Harry's hand and holding it so tight the young sorcerer winced from the jolt.
"You're awake," Hermione beamed, giving Harry's hand an enthusiastic shake. "You had everybody so worried when Snape brought you back from the vault..."
Harry grinned as Ron gasped and woke up wide-eyed from a dream. "Sorry about that," said the sorcerer. "I'll try not to do it again."
"You better not," Tracey sat on the bed next to Hermione. "Not without me at least. I can't believe you'd leave me behind like that," she pouted.
"Sorry, sorry," Harry apologized again. "Next time the world needs-" He sat up in bed, twitching at the needles of pain that shot down his spine, and looking around. "The Stone," he said. "Where is it? What happened down there?"
"It's all fine," said Hermione, gently pushing on Harry's shoulder, prompting him to lie back down. "It's all fine. The Stone is safe."
"Snape showed up at the last minute," Ron interjected, walking around the bed and standing over Harry. "I was just coming to when the door to the giant chess room burst open and professor Snape came running through. He stopped just long enough to demand to know if you had gone ahead. When Hermione told him you had, the man was off again like a bat out of hell."
Harry thought for a second. "I remember that now," he said. "I saw him at the end when he... dealt with professor Quirrell." Harry looked between the three people hovering over him. "Wait, where's Neville?" he tried to sit up again, but Ron and Hermione held him down. "Is he alright?"
The three other students looked among themselves for a second.
"What happened to Neville?" Harry demanded.
"He's alive," Ron said, nodding to a curtained-off bed a few yards from Harry. "He might never be pretty again, but he'll live."
"I remember a flash," Harry said.
"A Lightning Bolt, to be precise," Hermione responded. "The spell went off half charged, but it still did more than enough to poor Neville."
Harry swallowed hard. "What did it do to him?"
"We don't really need to talk about that right now," said Tracey, smiling as Ron shifted between Harry and Neville's bed. "We've been keeping you up on your homework while you were sleeping."
Harry shook his head, trying not to think about what Neville must look like behind the curtain. "How long have I bee out?" he asked.
"Two weeks," Ron answered, watching with little amusement as Harry's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "You got hit by a Cone of Cold so Madam Pomfrey decided to keep you comatose until you could heal up some... what did you expect? But like Hermione said... we've been keeping you caught up so when Dumbledore gets back everything should be fine."
"Professor Dumbledore still hasn't gotten back?" Harry asked, voice still dulled with shock about the length of his recovery.
Tracey shook her head. "He's been in London for quite a while. The Daily Prophet hasn't exactly been full of detail, but The Quibbler-"
"If you believe that cocked up rubbish," Hermione interrupted.
"-says that Dumbledore is fighting more for Hagrid's sake than his own," Tracey went on, before turning to Hermione. "You kiss your mother with that mouth?" she whispered.
"Well it is cocked up rubbish," Hermione whispered back. "And no, I don't."
Ron and Tracey shook their heads as Harry relaxed into the bed a little more.
"So who has the Stone?" Harry asked.
"No one," the ophidian voice made all four students jump in surprise. Snape, standing a few paces away from the bed, crossed his arms and looked over the gathering. "Study hall ends in one minute," said the teacher. "None of you wish to be late to your next hour... leave."
Harry received a few cursory glances as Hermione, Ron, and Tracey all began packing up their things while Snape stood back and watched. After a final volley of goodbyes and assurances that they'd be back after classes, the three students left, and Harry shifted up in bed. Leaning against the headboard, he turned to Snape.
"Professor," he said. "Thank you for helping back there."
Snape grimaced. "Spare me," said the teacher. "I'm here for a question, not your thanks... when you looked into the mirror," the professor said quietly, "what did you see?"
Thinking for a minute, Harry went silent and shrugged. "Myself," he said. "I was holding the Philosopher's Stone and then the real thing dropped into my pocket."
"And nothing else?" Snape pressed.
Despite Snape's completely placid demeanor, Harry believed he sensed a slight urgency in the teacher's voice. "I also saw a woman in the glass," said Harry, stopping when Snape's face softened so noticeably that the young sorcerer almost forgot to whom he was speaking. "She had red hair," he went on.
"And green eyes?" Snape's question finished Harry's statement.
"Yes, she was beautiful but I didn't recognize her," said the student. For the first time in his brief time at Hogwarts, Harry saw a smile cross Severus Snape's face. Not a cynical grin, or a mocking sneer as he'd seen countless times already, but a subdued and almost happy smile. "Professor, can I ask you a question?" asked Harry.
"I suppose that's fair," said the teacher, his demeanor quickly growing as withdrawn as ever before. "Ask."
"What was that mirror? I saw it once before, when you were arguing with professor Quirrell in the library."
Snape took a deep breath and crossed his arms. "Simple enough," he said. "Dumbledore called it the Mirror of Erised... one of his more transparently titled artifacts, but I couldn't tell you by what name it went before he discovered it."
"And what is it?" asked Harry. "Besides just a mirror, I mean."
"Call it a window into the heart if you would," said the teacher. "For what purpose the mirror was created is a mystery, but what it does, most of the time, is provide the person looking into it with a glimpse at their deepest desire. Dumbledore however recently repurposed it and charmed it to protect the Philosopher's Stone. He keyed it to release the Stone onto your person when his wards sensed your Dwoemer before it."
Harry looked down at the blanket, fiddling with it and turning over recent events in his head. "And you planned on it from the start," said the boy, "getting the Stone out of the mirror before Quirrell could figure out how to do it without me?"
Another, more cynical grin, tugged at Snape's lip. "I did." he said. "Dumbledore will likely call me reckless and callous, but I always keep my promises."
"So there was a way to get the Stone out without me?"
"Perhaps,"said Snape. "But if there was, then I didn't know it."
Harry sat back, shivering once despite the sunlight warming him. "Then... then why... why did you say so in that letter," Harry demanded, frustrated and trying to remain civil. "Why were you even writing to Lucius Malfoy in the first place and why would you even think of giving him the Stone?"
"I don't need to explain myself to you," the teacher sighed. He started to turn away, but stopped in the middle of the action, and went silent for a minute. "I never gamble," Snape began, "though I may arrange events so it appears I am doing so. For months I'd been watching Quirrell, waiting for a chance and an excuse to deal with him, though I knew the latter condition would never arrive on its own.
"Quirrell had given himself over to the control of the Dark Lord, leaving no option but to destroy him before he could carry out whatever design he had in mind. Dumbledore refused to see this and insisted that we wait, his belief that you, and thus the Stone, was secure fueling his resolve. I however saw the flaw in his defense, so rather than wait until you left Hogwarts, when Quirrell would meet little resistence trying to kidnap you, I decided to goad him into making a mistake...
"I wrote that letter to Lucius, knowing that Quirrell would intercept it. My whole purpose in doing so was to plant in his mind the idea that he might not need you to get to the Stone. That way, as soon as he began going down to the vault to investigate I'd have every excuse to deal with him. I also suspected that upon finding the letter, you might decide that neither Quirrell nor myself were trustworthy and go after the Stone yourself, allowing me to find and destroy it after you unlocked Dumbledore's wards."
"You couldn't have known that!" Harry barked. "You had no way of knowing I'd find that letter."
Again Snape smirked. "Perhaps not, but after giving you the invisibility cloak, the perfect means to search anywhere in the castle with impunity, I would have been surprised if you didn't. Honestly I'm nothing short of shocked that you didn't ransack my personal study for evidence of my guilt. Then again, you probably searched Quirrell's office first and didn't bother to investigate any deeper."
Harry stopped mid accusation and sat dumbly for a moment. "You got me there."
"Nevertheless," Snape added, "the letter's primary design was to goad Quirrell. Your unlocking the Stone for me may not have been a given, but I would have been surprised if you hadn't. The only thing I didn't anticipate was your getting to the Stone before me... but it all worked out."
"Except!" Harry shouted, stopping short and glancing over towards Neville's bed. He bit his tongue and clenched his fists, remaining silent.
"Mr. Longbottom will be alright," said the professor. "I won't forget what he did for me, and neither should you forget that he saved your life... quite nearly at the expense of his own." Leaving as Madam Pomfrey arrived to attend Harry, Snape retreated without another word
The rest of the afternoon blurred by as Pomfrey's medicines began kicking in and making Harry woozy. Not remembering having gone to sleep, Harry came to some time later, feeling groggy and lethargic. Looking up at the ceiling and scanning the frescoes, darkened as they were by the nighttime gloom, Harry slowly pushed himself into a sitting position. A quiet hiss beside his bed made Harry twitch in surprise, and he looked down over the railing to spot a slithering shadow behind his nightstand.
"Bacid?" whispered the sorcerer. "Is that you down there?"
The serpent's pitted head peeked out of the darkness, into the light cast through the window by the moon, and flicked his tongue at Harry. "You've been asleep for a long time," said the snake. "My stores of venom recovered in the time you've been sleeping... and they were empty during that fight."
Harry leaned back down on his elbow, a stiffness in his side making him ache. "Thanks for that," he whispered back. "I'd be dead if not for you."
"I know," said Bacid. "I was thinking maybe you'd like to help me hunt rats in the sewer as a kind of thank you."
Harry grinned and tried not to laugh. "Sure," he said. "Sure, I think we can do that... not for a little while though. Wait until they release me from the hospital and then we can catch all you'd like."
Bacid flicked his tongue again. "Sounds like a plan," he hissed. The serpent began to slither away, following the shadows along the wall and quickly disappearing from sight. "It's good," the snake hissed from somewhere in the dark, "that you survived."
Leaning back on the bed with a sigh, Harry tried to get comfortable and looked back up at the ceiling, before another rustling noise caught his attention. He looked back to his right, towards where Bacid had slunk away, but saw nothing.
"Harry," a croaking voice muttered. "That you over there?"
The sorcerer turned and pushed himself up again, looking over towards the other occupied bed. "Neville," he almost shouted. "You're alright."
Longbottom, laying flat on his back and wrapped in bandages from his waist up to his chin, nodded just a little and smiled at Harry. "Yeah, but I hear that I'm not looking too good."
"Thanks Neville," Harry blurted. "Thanks for saving me and I'm so sorry you got hurt. If you ever need anything, let me know and I'll be happy to make it up to you."
Neville raised one hand and shook his head, as much as he could, given his wrappings. "I'm just glad I could help," said the boy. "You know what's kind of funny?" he asked.
"What would that be?"
Neville cleared his throat and, grimacing as he did so, pushed himself up to grab a glass of water from the nightstand. After taking a long drink, Longbottom turned back to Harry. "When you popped into the hallway like you did, to get your cloak from Ron and Hermione," his voice rasped less now, "I had no idea what you were talking about, but somehow I knew that whatever you were up to was important. I didn't know where you were going, but I knew that I had to go too, and when Ron explained what you were planning it only made me more determined to come along and help however I could."
"And I really appreciate it," said Harry. "Thanks Neville. Thank you very much."
"Pleasure," Neville grinned.
Pausing, Harry lay a little lower on the bed and tried not to think about the aching in his side. "Well I'm glad you're not angry," he said. "Tell the truth, I was worried you'd be more than mad at me, and not wrongly so."
Neville shook his head and lay back down. "No," he said. "In fact I think I should be thanking you too..."
"For what?" Harry asked.
"I don't think my grandmother will recognize me," Neville smirked. "When I go home I'll be able to tell her Harry Potter and I fought a dark wizard all by ourselves. A year ago I never would have thought of doing that. I never would have dreamed I'd have the courage to stand up to anyone like that, but then I met you, Ron, Hermione, and Tracey and the four of you showed me something I'd stand up for any time, to anyone at all."
"And that is?"
Neville laughed once but immediately stopped. A quick combination of a whimper and a chuckle escaped him as he pressed his hands to his stomach. "Well my friends of course," said Neville. "I've got a reason to be brave now."
"Well that makes two of us with reasons to be brave," answered the sorcerer. "We've probably got matching scars now too, you and me." Harry grinned, pointing to Neville's chest.
"Yeah, I think we do," answered Longbottom. "Mine's just a real lightning bolt is all."
The following week saw Harry return to his classes. Madam Pomfrey insisted that he spend his nights in the hospital wing, allowing her to monitor his recovery from severe frostbite and several bruised bones, but gave him leave to attend classes during the day, at which point the sorcerer began to feel that life at the school was slowly returning to normal, with a few notable exceptions.
In Quirrell's absence, Snape and McGonagall took turns instructing Defense Against the Dark Arts, both attempting to make up for the previous teacher's lack of real instruction by packing the class full of information and demonstration. The class's homework load more than tripled as the teachers tried to pick up lost time.
Dumbledore remained absent from Hogwarts until late March. His return was marked by very little ceremony and even less cheer. For the first several days after his return Dumbledore declined seeing anyone other than Snape and Hagrid, who returned to Hogwarts as groundskeeper, ostensibly having won his case against the Ministry. Even Harry couldn't catch a moment with the headmaster, his status as the old wizard's aide temporarily revoked. The boy missed the headmaster's instruction, finding even the fevered pace of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts class to be somewhat less than challenging, and tried to fill the gap with whatever time with his friends he could muster.
More even than studying under Dumbledore, Harry missed Quidditch. His injuries, while less than crippling, were substantial enough to prompt Pomfrey's insistence that Harry not be allowed to play. Harry's being gone prompted many students on all of the Quidditch teams to expect a radical change in the outcome of the season... a sentiment which only intensified when Travis Davis announced that he was stepping down as captain of the Slytherin's team. However, the sorcerer's medical leave left an absence on the Quidditch field that Draco was only too happy to step in to fill. Malfoy's performance as Seeker, which lead Slytherin to one victory after another, left Harry with a bittersweet taste in his mouth.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of the events surrounding the Philosopher's Stone, to Harry at least, lay in the constant rumors he heard circulating about himself. The boy had returned to normal life at Hogwarts expecting that he might be thought of as something of a hero but, much to his dismay, the other students, both in his year and those above him, began avoiding the young sorcerer and going out of their way not to speak to him.
More than one of the many rumors which sprung up only days after Harry's return from the vault suggested that Harry had been responsible for Neville's injuries. Another suggested that Harry had actually lured the three Gryffindor students into the vault to feed them to the Devil's Snare, and another postulated that Quirrell and Harry were secretly vampires who fed on young students. Of course Harry's friends spared no pains to point out, both to Harry and everyone else, that such rumors completely ignored common sense, but the air of mystery surrounding the events in the vault provided more than enough fuel to keep the rumors alive in the mind of the average student.
Nevertheless, as an already old winter grew into spring, Harry kept close with his friends as the five of them studied for their upcoming exams and kept trying to readjust to everyday life. Each day seemed to repeat itself over and over again. The five friends would meet for breakfast, go to classes, spend lunch together and finish up their last classes for the day, before retreating to the library to study. It was one such day late in April, while the five students sat gathered around one of the many round tables in the library, that Harry packed up his things early and stood up from the table, prompting several glances of curiosity from the other students.
"Got somewhere important to be?" asked Ron, looking up from his spellbook.
Harry nodded and slung his pack over his shoulder. "It's been three months since we got out of the vault," he said. "I've had more than enough time to recover, and I'm tired of not being able to play Quidditch so I'm going to go talk to Dumbledore and see if he'll let me back on the team."
"You sure he'll have time to talk?" asked Hermione. "He's been busy ever since he got back from London after all."
"I'll wait if I have to," said Harry. "But we haven't spoken since Christmas and I need to talk to him about a few things anyway. Quidditch especially."
"Good luck," said Tracey. "Want some company?"
Harry shook his head. "No, you guys stay here. Some of it's kind of personal."
"Alright then," said Neville. "See you later."
Tightening his pack's shoulder straps as he left, Harry walked from the library and out into one of the winding halls of Hogwarts. It had been several weeks since he last navigated the route to Dumbledore's office, and more than once before reaching the alcove with the golden eagle the young sorcerer had to stop and make sure he hadn't turned the wrong way.
"Comitis," Harry said, stepping back and waiting for the eagle to move. "Comitis," he repeated, a little louder when nothing happened. Tapping his foot on the stone floor while the statue continued to do nothing. "Great..." he muttered, stepping into the alcove and putting a hand on the eagle's talon. Glancing about the hall and finding it empty, Harry drew on a wisp of his sorcerous magic and focused it into the statue. Finding the small gemstone at the center of the statue, Harry forced some of the energy into the gem. With a quiet whir, the statue jerked and began rotating upwards through the shaft in the ceiling.
Coming into Dumbledore's personal library, Harry stepped off the lift and crossed the room to the closed door at the end. Listening for only a second and hearing a quiet murmuring on the other end, Harry straightened up and knocked. The murmuring instantly went quiet and a moment passed before Dumbledore called Harry by name and told him to come in.
Stepping over the threshold, Harry saw the old wizard sitting low in his chair opposite his mahogany desk from two other figures. One, Severus Snape, remained facing Dumbledore while the other, a younger man turned around to study the new arrival. The third gentleman, a handsome figure with solidly built features and reddish-brown hair he wore tied back, nodded to Harry and gestured to him with one hand.
"This would be the boy?" said the younger man to Dumbledore.
The headmaster nodded slowly. "Yes," he looked up at Harry. "Allow me to introduce Nicolas Flamel," said the old wizard, "one of my oldest friends."
"Technically speaking," said Nicolas with a smirk, "I am your oldest friend." He turned back to Harry. "It's a pleasure."
"Is there something you need?" Dumbledore asked Harry, looking at the student over the rims of his glasses.
Harry shook his head. "I don't want to interrupt," he said, "I'd be happy to wait."
"I think we're done here anyway," said Nicolas, standing up and patting Snape on the back. "No hard feelings my young friend."
"None whatsoever," said Severus, his face a blank sheet and his tone devoid of empathy as he looked at Flamel from the corner of his eye. "I'm only sorry our meeting had to be under such circumstances."
"There's nothing to be done now anyway... I don't have enough elixir to last me long enough to make a new Stone, and I wouldn't make one even if I did," the man stretched his hands above his head and groaned. "Still, I've got enough to last me till the wife and I can get our affairs in order." Bowing low to Dumbledore and Snape, Nicolas took his leave after a quick goodbye to Harry.
"No harm done," Snape said as soon as the door shut behind Nicolas.
Dumbledore sighed and waved his hand, prompting Snape to follow Flamel out of the room, before sinking even lower in his chair and frowning. The old wizard, Harry thought to himself, looked older than ever before, lines seeming to run deeper into his face and eyes growing a little less bright as Dumbledore set his hands on his lap and took a deep breath.
"I'm glad you're here," said the old man. "I've been meaning to speak with you for a while now."
"It's been busy lately," said Harry. "But it's good to see you again too professor."
Dumbledore smiled and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk and glancing at Fawkes. The phoenix sat on his golden perch by the window, half-napping in the sunlight and lazily watching Harry and Dumbledore with one eye cracked open.
"I'm sorry for Severus's actions," said the old wizard. "It troubles me that he'd hatch a scheme as reminiscent of the old days as that but I suppose that he will always be himself. I don't condone what he did, but I want you to know that he would never knowingly put you in any danger. "
Harry felt bile well up in his stomach, but he bit his tongue until the spiteful anger passed. "I'll have to trust you on that," he said. "I can't say I've seen any evidence of it."
Smile fading a bit, Dumbledore stood up and walked across the floor to Fawkes, running his fingers through the phoenix's feathers and scratching his crest. "Severus is a complicated individual," said the headmaster. "And his motives are likewise complicated."
"What does he want from me?" asked Harry. "What are his motives?"
"It's not my place to tell anyone, not even you," said Dumbledore. "Severus has built his entire life around fulfilling a select few promises and that's all I'm going to say about it."
Harry nodded and stared at the relief of the eagle carved into the front of the headmaster's desk. "Alright," he said. "If you trust him then... Professor, I have to ask," the sorcerer's tone shifted and his voice grew quieter. "Is it over?"
"Is what over?" asked Dumbledore.
"This," Harry held his arms out to his sides. "All of this about professor Quirrell and Voldemort and the Stone... is it over?"
Again Dumbledore sighed and looked back at Harry. "This episode with the Philosopher's Stone is indeed over, yes. Severus destroyed the Stone and Nicolas will not make another. But Voldemort is still out there, somewhere. He still possesses a great number of loyal servants and I fear he is again growing strong. So no Harry, I don't believe it is yet over."
"I didn't think so," Harry sank into his chair.
Walking behind the boy, Dumbledore put a hand on Harry's shoulder and smiled down at him. "You needn't concern yourself about it yet. Leave the fretting to worry-withered old wizards like me and Severus."
Harry grinned and looked over towards the phoenix. "Thanks," he said. "I want to help though... however I can."
"You will," said the headmaster. "I don't doubt that your role will be an important one. For now though, you need to be Harry Potter, the first year Slytherin. Just focus on school and your friends. They're what count in the end after all, and yes." The headmaster went quiet.
"Yes what?" Harry asked.
"I'll tell Madam Pomfrey that you're more than fit to return to Quidditch, so you'd best practice to get yourself back in shape for the last few matches."
A wide smile burst across Harry's face and he jumped up from his chair. "Thank you," he started forward, ready to hug the old wizard before stopping short. "Sorry," he said.
"Perfectly alright," Dumbledore patted Harry on the shoulder. "I may be your teacher, but, if you'll allow it, I'd also like to be your mentor and friend."
Harry nodded and looked up at the wizard. "That sounds fine to me."
The hissing steam from the sedentary locomotive washed over the loading platform as the Hogwarts Express blared its whistle one last time, as if to bid farewell to the students stepping down from the various cars. As parents and children helped unload luggage and great piles of suitcases and trolleys formed along the sides of the platform, a group of five stood off to one side by themselves. Hermione, Neville, Harry, Ron, and Tracey stood in a circle talking and looking about at one another to stave off the impending separation for as long as possible.
"I guess that's my number," said Ron, looking off towards the sound of someone calling his name. His mother, a stout woman flanked by three of Ron's other siblings, stood waving for him and shouting that they were getting ready to go. Ron wished everyone a happy summer, hugged Hermione and Harry goodbye, and put his hands on his cart. "Be good while I'm away," he pointed his finger at Harry, his face so serious he could only be joking. "Don't you dare go fighting any trolls without me."
Harry grinned and promised as Ron wheeled his things over to his family. A few moments later, an old woman who carried herself like a queen broke away from the crowd and waved to Neville. The young Longbottom waved back and motioned for her to give him a moment.
"Well, that's my grandmum," he said. "I'd better be going." He shook Harry's hand and hugged both Tracey and Hermione goodbye. "Till next year," he said, wheeling his cart over to Augusta and stopping beside her.
The old woman looked down at her grandson for a moment, then put her hand under his chin and lifted his face towards her. "What are they feeding you at that school," the old woman toned, her voice carrying even to Harry. "You look five years older."
Tracey, Hermione, and Harry stood around in silence, two of them knowing this was likely the last time they'd all be together for much longer than a single summer. As the station began to clear out, Hermione's parents, both respectable looking people dressed far nicer than most others on the platform, arrived and walked up to the trio of students.
"You must be Hermione's friends," said Mr Granger, a well-built if slightly pot-bellied middle aged man. He shook Harry's and Tracey's hands.
"Our little girl told us so much about you in her letters," said the woman. "Thank you for being there for her," she looked around as though she were lighting on a secret, "during the incident on Halloween. Thank you very much."
"Anything for a friend," said Harry as Tracey nodded.
The Grangers departed after another round of thank yous and goodbyes, leaving Tracey and Harry on the platform. The better part of an hour passed and before long, the pair of students stood almost alone on platform nine and three quarters.
"Your parents sure are running late," said Harry.
Tracey grinned and shook her head. "No, they would have been here before the train arrived."
"Then where are they?" the young sorcerer asked, glancing about the platform.
"I asked Travis to have them wait for me," she said.
Harry turned to the girl, a quizzical look on his face. "Why?" he asked.
Tracey stepped forward and pulled Harry into a tight hug, catching the boy quite off guard when she dropped her forehead onto his shoulder and stood there silently for a moment. After he realized what exactly had happened, Harry embraced her back and the pair waited.
"Because," said Tracey, stepping back, eyes somewhat red. "I might not get to do that again for a long time."
Harry smiled and glanced at his shoulder. "You got my robe wet again," he joked.
"Sorry," Tracey laughed. "I promise," she put up her hands in mock defense, "I won't let it happen again."
"I'm not worried about it," said Harry. "Just promise you'll write me," he went on. "Even if it's about nothing, just write."
"Same goes for you," said Tracey. "You're the one with the owl, not me."
"Good point," said Harry. "I'll send Hedwig with a letter at least every week."
Tracey nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. "Good."
They stood there in silence a while longer before Tracey finally plucked up the courage and mentioned that her parents probably wouldn't want to wait much longer. Harry commented that he'd probably kept the Dursleys waiting long enough, and together they pushed their trollies towards the illusory brick wall.
AN: Alright, thus ends the first arc, the experiment, and the gamble of posting in larger chunks. Now that I'm done with a big part of The Sword and the Sorcerer, I'll be focusing primarily on The Sun Soul for a while and working to get the ball rolling there. I'm not going to post a solid date on when I'll have arc two ready to post, but my best guess would be sometime between March of 2011 and the winter solstice of 2012.
Thanks very much for reading and I'll see y'all on the other side.