Down the Rabbit Hole, Part 1

All the way to the castle, Draco was lost in thought, comparing everything he saw and heard that day with everything he had known before.

First, it looked like it was Voldemort who killed unicorns. Well, it was possible that Firenze had meant serving Evil as such, but this explanation seemed to be a little too abstract even for a centaur. Draco had never seen any pictures of Voldemort, neither painted nor made by a camera, in his research of First War wizarding papers, and he still wondered why they were absent. Anyway, the black-robed monster fit the idea of a terrible dark wizard very well.

Secondly, Voldemort drank blood of the dead unicorns. Draco had never actually read anything about the liquid, but some conclusions were almost forced on him: a forbidden substance; the living energy of one of the most powerful magical creatures (only dragons and phoenixes could compare to them); said energy was gained by force, through murder. It should have fantastic healing properties – and awful side effects. In short, even a baby could understand why Voldemort needed it. Why Severus refused to talk about it now, though? Well, they could always ask Geraint…

Thirdly, the Philosopher's Stone that false Quirrell was looking for was hidden in the forbidden wing. Was he seeking it for himself? Or on someone's orders? Voldermort's, for example? Draco imagined an immortal and infinitely rich Dark Lord and shuddered. No, they just had to get to the Stone before him. For the good of the Wizarding world.

After making sure that Harry was feeling alright and walking the boys back to the meeting point with Hagrid (who either really had not noticed him or, more likely, had been forewarned), Severus limped back to his rooms, fell into his armchair and closed his eyes. He actually should go and report to Dumbledore about Voldemort haunting the Forbidden Forest, but right now he felt totally drained. On that clearing, in his fright he not only put up the most powerful shield he knew, but poured so much magic into it that his hands were still shaking from the effort. Not that he achieved anything with his efforts. Well, it was good that nothing had happened, but… well, who knew that the best way of dealing with the dark lords was a solid horse kick?

Severus choked on a nervous laugh and sadly thought that he seemed to be hysterical. Where was Lucius with his stupid jokes when he was so desperately needed? Where was Cissy with her unwavering pragmatic composure? Or at least…

Somebody knocked on his door.

Speak of the devil! the Potions Master thought helplessly. Damn, he had not had the time to discuss Harry's headaches with Lucius and to decide what to tell the Headmaster about it. He would have to improvise.

"Enter," he called out and tried his very best to stand straight.

The door opened, Dumbledore calmly entered the room, followed by a house elf with a tea tray.

"Just stay there," the old wizard advised, taking the tray and sending the elf away.

Severus did not argue. He just silently watched at Dumbledore, as the Headmaster arranged tea cups, saucers and sweets on the table and poured two cups of tea. Severus obediently accepted a cup, held it with both hands hoping to control the trembling and waited for questions.

"Have a chocolate," Dumbledore said.

"He is not a dementor," Severus smirked a little, but took a bite. The chocolate turned out to be milky and atrociously sweet, but it was just what he needed at the moment.

"No, Tom is not a dementor." The Headmaster was sad for some reason. "Dementor enjoys the process, at least. And the result."

Severus almost chocked on his tea.

"Don't joke like that."

"I do not. I think. Now, was it actually Tom?"

"No doubt about it," Severus said grimly. "My arm all but fell off when he saw me. Thank Merlin, it's the left one that is Marked." The Potions Master shook his head, trying to clear it, as his thoughts seemed to be in quite a mess. "He… He is not simply killing the unicorns. He drinks their blood."

"So Tom finally made up his mind," Dumbledore sighed.

"Have you hoped he would restrain himself for ethical reasons?!"

"I have hoped he would have enough preservation instinct," the Headmaster corrected him.

"You think too well of people," Severus grumbled. After two cups of tea and a chocolate bar, he felt a little better. "He never had a preservation instinct in his life. That is why…"

"…he strikes such an impression on… erm… strong-minded men of under twenty," Dumbledore agreed. "And when they find out what it entails…"

"…it's too late to change anything."

"It's not necessarily too late. It is hard, however, and not anyone has strength to do that."

Severus made a face.

"It was a compliment, Severus, you don't have to make such a face," Dumbledore teased. "That's beside the point, though. If you are feeling better, tell me all about what you saw, please."

To Draco's great disappointment, Harry was very sceptical about the idea of going after the Stone right away.

"Every Slytherin still looks at us as if we are plague-stricken," he grumbled. "And Severus will have our heads."

"He didn't kill us for the dragon," Draco shrugged.

"The worst thing that could have happened then was a scandal," Harry objected. "And now… There is that three-headed dog for one. Try to imagine what else there is."

Draco did – and winced.

"You're right. We can't go there unprepared. We need to do a little reconnaissance first."

"How do you propose we do that? We're constantly watched. The first careless question will lead to Slytherin losing all the points! We can't let the House down again! And the exams are coming soon, too."

"You're worse than Granger," Draco grumbled.

Alas, Harry was not to be moved. Draco had to admit, though, that there was truth in his words: even though the Slytherins stopped turning away from them, the atmosphere was still tense. The yearly exams were coming, O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s frayed everyone's nerves and dampened the mood.

A week later May ended, and June began with a terrible heat.

The classrooms were stuffy and hot, and several hours of writing in there were a torture in themselves aside from the necessity to answer dozens of tricky questions. Everyone longed for getting out of the castle and going to the lake where the air was cooler. And know-it-all Granger tried to corner them after each test and retell her answers to all the questions in great detail.

And on top of all that, Draco soon noticed that there was something wrong with his brother. Harry became pale; there were always dark circles under his eyes as if he was not getting enough sleep.

"It's just a headache," he said with a grimace when Draco asked him about it.

"Go to Pomfrey then and ask for something."

"I have already seen Severus," Harry waved him away. "It's alright."

Draco knew that it was not a lie, but it was not the whole truth, either. In different circumstances, he would have pried, but now he decided not to interfere. Harry never asked him questions when he had crept to the mirror of Erised… Summer is coming soon, they will return home in a little while, and everything will be fine.

Sometimes it seemed that even the most diligent students would not live to see this outstanding event, but, lo and behold, the exams were almost over. The first-years had only one left to pass. The whole school despised the History of Magic because of Binns – maybe, apart from Granger who just adored getting information, no matter how useless. After answering a ton of boring questions (List the names of twenty wizards who helped William the Bastard during the battle of Hastings; When did Æthelred the Unready lost a diamond button and provoked the eighth Goblin revolt? and Who was the first one to invent self-pulling armour?), they left the stuffy classroom at last and went to the lake. Draco was delighted despite the fact that Granger and Longbottom followed them.

"Holidays," he sighed dreamily and stretched on the grass in bliss. "The best birthday present ever."

"When is it?" Hermione asked.

"Tomorrow," Draco replied. He felt too lazy to be annoyed.

"Why didn't you tell before?" the Gryffindor seemed upset. "I don't have time to find a present now…"

"Don't worry," Draco waved it off generously. "We'll celebrate for real later, at home. But if you want to make me happy…" He paused for a dramatic effect.

"Yes?"

"Don't retell me your history exam!"

Everyone laughed, even Granger, and the conversation turned to birthdays. Draco half-listened to Longbottom's mumblings about July, 30th and his grandmother when he saw Harry rubbing his forehead discreetly.

"What is it?" he asked quietly, raising on his elbow. "Is it hurting again?"

Harry nodded.

"Yeah. Something is wrong."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. It's just a feeling. Something… bad is happening."

"What are you whispering about?" Granger asked.

"Nothing special. I have a headache." Harry rubbed his forehead again. "I'll go to Madam Pomfrey."

"I'll go with you," Draco stood up. "Bye!"

They left and heard Granger and Longbottom laughing at the Weasley twins who teased the Giant Squid from the shore.

Harry went to the castle, trying not to show how horrid he felt. The head was about to split apart, he felt sick, his scar was on fire. He had to get to the dormitory as soon as possible and to take the potion Severus gave him. But first he had to warn their godfather.

He was sure the headache was not a normal one: Voldemort was up to something, and it would happen soon, whatever it was.

"Harry?"

"Hmm?" He saw Draco's worried face.

"Listen, don't tell me if you don't want to, but…"

Harry understood him right away.

"Sorry, I can't. On Severus's orders."

"Let's go to Severus then!"

"I will… I just need to drink my potion first… I feel too sick."

They reached the dormitory; luckily, it was empty. Harry winced as he drank up the useful, but foul drink and sighed in relief.

"Ah… Now, that's better."

Severus was not in the Potion class or in his rooms, and they had to go back up again to check the staff room. Harry knocked on the door, then peeked inside. Alas, Severus was not there too. Professor McGonagall sat at the table by the window and reviewed some parchments. She looked distressed.

"Mr. Potter, Mr. Malfoy, I think I can congratulate you upon the end of your examinations, can't I? Why aren't you celebrating with the other students?" she asked kindly, if somewhat dryly. "The dinner is hours away."

"Excuse us, Professor, but we're looking for Professor Snape. Do you know where he is, by any chance?"

McGonagall's face darkened, strengthening Harry's premonitions.

"By chance, I actually do. He's not in the castle now."

Harry and Draco looked at each other. Should they tell her anything else? Or not?

"What about Professor Dumbledore?" Harry asked cautiously.

McGonagall pursed her lips and shook her head.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Potter, both of them went for London. They were urgently summoned to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Has something happened?"

The boys looked at each other again. Draco was obviously scared, and Harry suspected that he looked the same. The business for which Severus and Dumbledore left the Stone unattended – both of them! – must be a disaster at the very least.

McGonagall must have understood their expressions right because she softened immediately.

"Don't worry, nothing really terrible has happened. It's just an unpleasant misunderstanding," she explained. "I'm sure that Professor Dumbledore will settle everything, but it will take time, and they will probably return late after midnight or even tomorrow morning. What is it? Maybe I can help."

Harry feverishly considered their options. He could not allude to anything family-related, now that he already mentioned the Headmaster. That was a mistake. Bringing up the Stone was unwise too. Even if Dumbledore and Severus knew what Draco and he had discovered, the Head of Gryffindor might be still unaware. Tell her about Quirrell? What if she did not know about him too?

"Well…" he started with an unhappy face, "After seeing in the Forbidden Forest what we saw… I... erm... feel kind of uneasy…"

At least I can always tell her that Voldemort drank unicorn's blood. Anyone would feel uneasy after that.

Luckily, the strategy he chose on the whim worked without a hitch. McGonagall got so sympathetic that she even left her scrolls for a moment and stood up to pat Harry on the shoulder.

"I assure you, Mr. Potter, you are safe in this castle. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named cannot harm you here. If you stop breaking the curfew and wandering around the school at night, of course," she waggled a finger at them.

"Thank you, Professor," Harry nodded. The boys said their good-byes and left.

Upon reaching the dungeons, they went to look for the Baron. After the episode with Nott, they did not want to take any risks. Geraint nodded at them absentmindedly, absorbed in some huge tome and not being in the mood to chat.

"Alright," Harry said decidedly after closing the door. "We must send an owl to Dad."

Draco nodded.

"And now what? We'll wait?"

"We'll go and check the Stone up. If Fluffy is there, we'll wait for Dad or Severus. If not… we'll play it by ear."

They hurriedly wrote a letter to their father, and Draco ran up to the Owlery while Harry went to the Slytherin dungeons to get the invisibility cloak. The first-years' dormitory and the common room were still empty: the students who had already passed their exams were enjoying themselves by the lake, and those who were still not done were studying in the library. Harry put on the cloak and ran to the forbidden wing door. It was locked. He put his ear to the door and listened to the snuffling and growling: it seemed that Fluffy was there and he was fine. Harry breathed a sigh of relief. He returned to the main staircase, made sure there was no one around, took off the cloak and waited for Draco on the third floor landing.

His brother came rushing several minutes later.

"Well?"

"Everything is fine. For now."

"We'll wait then."

When Ulysses delivered Draco's letter, the Malfoy manor was already wrapped in soft summer dusk. Lucius frowned as he took the parchment from the bird. He knew at once that something was not right. As soon as the boys got their owls, they started writing home once a week, on weekends. A letter on a weekday surely meant trouble.

He broke the seal and quickly looked the letter through.

"Merde."

Dad,

Severus and Dumbledore were lured into the Ministry, and it has something to do with Magical Law Enforcement. We don't know what happened, but McGonagall is worried, and that means some serious business. The Stone is poorly guarded, and Quirrell will try to get it today for sure. Voldemort haunts the Forest and drinks unicorns' blood. We'll keep watch, but you'd better come over.

D & H

It took only a couple of minutes to rekindle a fire in the fireplace and check if Severus had returned to school. Alas, the Potion master's study and private rooms were empty. Lucius hesitated, but tried to contact the Floo in the Headmaster's study to which he had access as any other member of Hogwarts Board of Governors. Not only he failed to contact Dumbledore, but even the Headmaster's Floo appeared to be blocked.

"Merde!" he repeated with feeling.

I should have taught the boys to write normal letters, this is Hades knows what. They didn't even try to be cautious with words. What if the letter were intercepted? The idea was good, if highly irrelevant. Lucius incinerated the missive with a flick of the wand and dashed to the door, on his way stuffing his pockets with magical trinkets that could be useful in extraordinary circumstances. What have we come to! I shall need to get battle robes, maybe even two full sets… Just like years before.

"Cissy!" he called, running down the staircase.

"What's going on?"

"It has begun. Close down the manor, completely, for everyone. Except the family and Severus."

"Alright. Then Hogwarts?"

"No, wait here. I will call you if you are needed."

"But Luc…'

"Not now!"

You can kill me later, darling. If you will feel like it.

Why hadn't he arranged a quicker way to contact Shacklebolt than owl post?! Now he will have to spend precious time and visit the Ministry hoping that the Auror is fond of late working hours. In addition, this visit will be difficult to hide, which means that on the way there he needs to invent a plausible excuse…

He exited a fireplace in the Atrium still without an excuse, but with an unflappable expression on his face. It seemed the fate favoured him because he only made a couple of steps and ran into the very person that he was looking for and didn't know where to find.

"Good evening, Senior Auror Shacklebolt."

"And good evening to you, Mr. Malfoy," the latter grinned. "How fortunate, I was just thinking of stopping over your place for a goblet of some vintage poison."

"Has something happened?"

"Nothing serious. I just wanted to share a bit of our small joys with you. The department have received a most peculiar anonymous tip-off on you. We are used to hearing all sorts of bizarre things…"

"Indeed. Pray tell what I am up to."

"You are breeding dragons on your mansion's grounds and smuggle them out of the country through Hogwarts. Do tell: is it a profitable business?" Shacklebolt grinned.

Lucius smirked.

"Very much so. Do you want a share? I can offer you a very attractive deal. If you have a place where we can talk in private, of course."

The Auror nodded. He said, "This is Lucius Malfoy – on an official invitation," – and led him to the DMLE floor, and then to one of the small rooms that officially served for 'taking private statements of evidence' and unofficially – for unsupervised interrogations. Lucius managed not to wince, but he had quite unpleasant memories of these quarters.

"Were you looking for me?" Shacklebolt asked gravely when a seriously magicked door closed behind them. "What happened?"

"You're quite perceptive," Lucius nodded. "I have new information for you and one urgent question. First of all, Voldemort was seen in the Forbidden Forest."

The Auror flinched.

"Is the information reliable?"

"Absolutely. It's unclear, though, how stable he is. If we're really lucky then he's not. And he didn't try to summon anyone yet. But there's no doubt that he's back."

"I see. And what is the question?"

"What sort of urgent business, concerning magical law enforcement, calls for summoning Headmaster Dumbledore and Severus Snape here?"

"What?!" Shacklebolt was extremely surprised. "I've never even heard about it."

"I thought so," Lucius said grimly. "I suspect that Madam Bones was not informed of it either."

"I will inquire into this matter immediately." Auror even gritted his teeth in indignation.

"Hurry then while I go to Hogwarts. I don't like coincidences like that. I hope your most peculiar tip-off can wait a couple of days, can't it?"

"Of course. Do you need help? Should I send a couple of Aurors with you?"

"I think it's unnecessary. I'm not planning to chase Voldemort through the forest. I'll simply keep McGonagall company until the Headmaster returns to school. Just to be on the safe side."

"Ah, of course," Shacklebolt nodded. "In this case, I'll try to find you later. You can use my Floo. Do you have a broom, by the way? The walk from the village to the castle takes at least thirty minutes."

Lucius cursed under his breath. I'm getting old, he thought with annoyance. Fifteen years ago I'd have taken it with me out of reflex.

"Here, take it," the Auror handed him a standard Nimbus-1500 with the Ministry insignia. "You can return it later."

"Thank you."

"Good luck."

Lucius threw a handful of Floo powder, said, "Three Broomsticks" and disappeared in flames.

The rest of the day was pure torture; it seemed that the hands of the clock were not moving at all. It will, of course, take time for Ullisses to reach Malfoy Manor: magical owls fly faster and tire less than ordinary ones, but the distance between Scotland and Wiltshire is long. Still, Draco and Harry burned with impatience. They checked on Fluffy several times, but he was alright. The dinner came and went. Most students went to the common rooms, so the boys had to spend some time with their housemates in order not to raise suspicions.

The Slytherin first-years huddled in a corner; only Crabbe, Goyle and Nott were not with them.

"I wonder why Professor Snape was summoned to London," Pansy mused aloud.

"They were summoned together," Draco corrected. "Headmaster went too."

"Nope," Pansy shook he head, stroking Milady, who curled up on her knees and purred. "Professor Snape was summoned, and Headmaster was very angry and didn't let him go alone."

"How do you know?" Harry frowned.

"I heard Olivia talk to Stapleton. She saw Professor Snape receive some sort of official stamped parchment, delivered by an express owl, and showed it to the Headmaster.

"I doubt the Professor would like us poking into his personal affairs," usually silent Daphne remarked.

"We're not, we're just discussing," Millie objected. "And if we don't blab about it outside of Slytherin no one will know."

After that the topic exhausted itself, everyone started sharing their plans for the summer: who would be going where, who had already been invited, who had the worst distant relatives requiring to be visited.

Harry and Draco looked at each other: they could bet Aunt Petunia would have won the Worst Relative Contest. Unfortunately, first of all, they were strictly forbidden to mention her, and, second, most students in the House of Slytherin were not favourably disposed towards an information about Muggle relatives.

Gradually, evening conversations died out, and parties split up. Some were planning to review something or other for tomorrow's test, some wanted to simply read in bed before sleep, some (mostly senior girls) insisted that everyone had to go to bed, otherwise they'd have bags under their eyes tomorrow.

Feigning yawns, Harry and Draco went to the dormitory, trying to avoid suspicions. It would not do if one of Prefects suspected something and guarded the common room door!

Time passed excruciatingly slowly, but finally everyone was in bed, the lights were out. Harry pulled the curtains together and lay on top of the bedspread, listening to his roommates' breathing evening out. Crabbe was snoring, and when no one grumbled about it, not even Nott, Harry decided that it was time.

He quietly got out of the bed, put Hagrid's flute into the pocket and grabbed the invisibility cloak. Draco was already standing by his bed, holding his shoes in his hands. Harry took his own, and both tiptoed out to the hall.

Fortunately, there was no one there. They hastily put the shoes on, pulled on the invisibility cloak and went to the Slytherin dungeons door as quietly as possible.

Severus had no patience for the Ministry of Magic – and not only because he was an ex-Death Eater and a Dark wizard. He could not stand idiocy in other people, and most of the Ministry employees, in his opinion, were stupider than the most insufferable Gryffindors, which was a feat in and of itself. There were exceptions, but Cornelius Fudge was not one of them.

"Your pet Death Eater was seen in the Diagon Alley by three respectable witnesses!"

"On Wednesday?" Dumbledore inquired good-naturedly. "At 2.30 p.m.? Very curious."

Fudge in his righteous indignation sputtered and paced around the office. The Headmaster kept his usual cool, but Severus thought that only a deaf man or an imbecile could miss mockery in his voice.

"What can be curious about it?!"

"You see, the thing is, Professor Snape was conducting an examination for third-year students at the time. Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, is that right?"

"Yes, it is," Severus confirmed dryly.

"So what?" the minister asked dumbly.

"I am curious, dear Cornelius, how Professor Snape could perform Dark magic in Diagon Alley while being in a Hogwarts classroom in Scotland in front of twenty students."

Fudge blinked, trying to digest this information.

"Children can make mistakes!" he blurted out.

If it weren't for the damned Philosopher's Stone and two nosy brats left unsupervised, Severus would have enjoyed this theatre of the absurd since his own part was minimal. The play was getting too long, though, it was close to midnight, and Severus became more and more restless. Quirrell was an idiot, of course, but even he was not stupid enough not to use such a chance. Was it really only a chance? Since the Death Eaters' trials ten years ago, no one accused Severus of anything like that; the so-called charge was so obviously falsified that it was ridiculous. Obviously, he was in no danger apart from a scandalous article in The Prophet maybe, but if the 'investigation' would take another couple of hours, Quirrell would have enough time to get to the Stone. Severus tried not to think what would happen if the Dark Lord himself, not Quirrell, would come for it.

Suddenly the door banged open, and Amelia Bones entered the office, followed by a black man wearing robes with the insignia of a senior Auror. He met Severus's eye and surreptitiously winked at him.

This must be Mr. Shacklebolt, I presume, Severus realized, relieved. It means Lucius knows. Thank Merlin!

"Cornelius, this is simply unacceptable!" Madam Bones didn't waste time on courtesies. "When did the Magical Law Enforcement become your jurisdiction? Minister or not, such cases are handled by my department!"

When Harry and Draco reached the stairs leading out of the dungeons, they stopped to rest. They had not met anyone, even de Combrai, which was very lucky. The Baron would not have approved their quest to the forbidden wing, especially with Severus away. No one knew if ghosts could see through invisibility cloaks work, and they didn't want to check it themselves…

They had to take one more stairway to get to the third-floor landing when trouble began: Peeves swooped down from the shadows high up, obviously planning some sort of trick. It was impossible to pass him by without alerting him, and should the poltergeist raise hell, they would be done for.

Suddenly Harry had an idea.

"Peeves," he said in a hoarse whisper.

The poltergeist jumped like a balloon yanked by the string and zipped around the landing, looking around jerkily.

"Who's there?" he whined. "Who're you? Who's scaring poor little Peevsie?"

"You know who," Harry answered in the same voice. Draco put a hand over his mouth to stifle giggles. "Clear off, don't stand in the Bloody Baron's way!"

Peeves shivered and fidgeted, "My mistake, Your Bloodiness, right this minute…"

He wailed in lieu of good-bye and disappeared, leaving a trail of unpleasant smell.

"That was brilliant!" Draco whispered.

"I just hope de Combrai wouldn't know about it," Harry replied.

Several minutes later, they were in the corridor leading to the forbidden wing when Draco suddenly stopped – so abruptly that both tripped and almost fell head over heels.

Hermione Granger was sitting by the door to the Fluffy's room, leaning onto the wall and hugging her knees. She probably heard something despite their efforts because she jumped up immediately.

"Who's here?"

"Go back! Round the corner," Draco hissed, and they quickly retreated.

"Who is here?" Hermione repeated. "I heard footsteps!"

"Now what?" Harry asked very quietly. "Do we answer? Or better yet wait for Dad?"

"I have no idea. You tamed her, you decide."

Harry thought for a moment and whispered decidedly, "We need to know what she's doing here. It must be important. This is Hermione! She wouldn't have broken rules for nothing."

"Whatever you say," Draco agreed reluctantly. "But hide the cloak first."

As soon as they took off the magical cloak, Harry hastily rolled it up and tucked it away. Then he peeked around the corner. Hermione was looking around in alarm, clutching her wand and trying to understand where the threat was coming from.

"Hey!" he called out in a whisper. "Hello."

Hermione jumped, but strangely enough, she didn't look very much surprised.

"Ah, it's you," she sighed in relief, lowering her wand. "Hello."

"What are you doing here?" Harry asked, coming closer. Draco was not far behind, of course.

"I'm waiting for you! I was hoping you'd come!" Hermione announced in an excited whisper. "Quirrell's already in there!"

Draco and Harry stared at each other.

"Wait, were you following him?" Draco asked.

"Well, yes. That is, I followed him after dinner when I heard that both Dumbledore and Professor Snape were not in the castle," she babbled. "It was obvious that Quirrell would use this chance! I was shooed away from the staff room, and McGonagall, Professor McGonagall that is, even threatened to take points when I asked if the Philosopher's Stone was well-guarded…"

"What did you ask?" Draco asked, horrified. "Granger, you're mad!"

"…and I had to return…" She stopped in midsentence. "What? No, I didn't ask it in those exact words. Professor McGonagall asked why I wasn't with my friends, and I blurted that I was worried if everything was alright in the forbidden wing when the Headmaster was not at school." She looked guiltily at Harry. "Yes, I know I shouldn't have, but I couldn't think of anything else, and I didn't mention the stone, I swear!"

Draco gritted his teeth, but kept silent.

"Then what?" asked Harry.

"At first, I returned to the Gryffindor tower," Hermione sighed. "Then I thought it was unlikely that Quirrell would come here before Prefects, Head Boy and Head Girl went to bed. The risk of meeting someone in the halls would be too high."

Brothers exchanged irritated glances: it was stupid that they hadn't thought of that themselves and chased their own tail most of the day! It seemed they got too carried away by their plans for the evening to think straight.

"Anyway, after dinner I settled in the corner of our Common Room with The History of Magic and waited for everyone to leave," the Gryffindor girl continued. "I often sit there till late at night so no one would have noticed anything out of the ordinary." Suddenly she hesitated, and her expression turned sad.

"Would have noticed?" Draco echoed, frowning.

Harry ran out of patience and stepped on his brother's foot.

"Don't worry, Hermione. Do continue."

"It was past curfew, and everyone left, and I was packing too when Neville called me out. I don't know what he was doing in the common room, looking for Trevor again, probably. And we… quarrelled." The more she talked, the more upset she looked. "He tried to talk me out of this. He said this was a dangerous and stupid thing to do. And then he threatened to tell McGonagall… Professor McGonagall about this."

"And?" Draco asked impatiently. "Speak up, we don't have time!"

"And I used a body-bind on him."

Harry and Draco stared at her. It took them a lot of effort and training to learn the Full Body-Bind Curse and to make it work right. When did Hermione learn to use it, and all by herself at that?

"Wow," Draco said, impressed.

"I am to be kicked out of Gryffindor, aren't I?" Hermione asked miserably.

"Of course not," Harry smiled encouragingly, even though he wasn't entirely sure about that. Severus would not have expelled her, but who knows what McGonagall would do?

"The worst they can do is making you clean toilets under Filch's supervision the whole next year," Draco nodded. "Piece of cake!"

"I'm not afraid of toilets," Hermione tried to smile too. "Even the ones with trolls."

The three of them giggled, even though their laughter was a little nervous.

"Alright, we got it." Draco decided to stick to business. "You got rid of Longbottom and came here and… How do you know that Quirrell is inside? The door is locked. Did you see him?"

"No, but who else could it be? And the door was half-open," Hermione explained. "I closed it because Fluffy kept waking up and growling. I know the Unlocking Charm. So I waited for you. I was sure that you'd figure him out and come! It's so logical!"

"What if Quirrell came out of the room?" Harry frowned.

"Well, I'd have made something up," she waved his concerns away. "Like I was going to the library and accidentally lost my way."

"To the library? At night?" Draco snorted.

"Just so you know," she pursed her lips, "there's a round-the-clock pass. Even to the Restricted Section." She sighed dreamily. "It's granted only by the Headmaster's special permission and is available only for students of fifth year or older, though, but one day I'll get one…"

"We have to go," Harry interjected decisively. "Are you coming? I don't mean to offend, but Neville was right: this is very dangerous. And you're a girl."

Hermione straightened haughtily.

"If you say something like that again, Harry Potter, I'll…" she faltered as if trying to find a proper threat, "I'll hit you, that's what!"

"You don't have to start a fist fight," Draco chuckled. "Both of you have wands. Remember, Granger, you are a witch!"

"Alright, I got your point, Hermione," Harry reassured her. "Let's go."