I do not own, or receive any benefits from the Harry Potter properties.
Lurking in the Shadows: Chapter 10
By Larry Huss
Lucius Malfoy was deeply disappointed in the search the Aurors made on his estate that summer. He had been properly snobbish and nasty as they showed up for their "surprise" inspection of Malfoy Manor for Dark and Forbidden Artifacts; he had certainly fulfilled his role in the charade. But somehow, the Aurors' hearts just weren't in it, and the hit and miss way they went about the job was saddening to him. They even missed the carefully "hidden" cache of slightly risqué (in a magical sense) materials that were up in the room Father had died in earlier that year. Abraxas Malfoy had been a notorious Muggle -baiter and rakehell in his time, and not finding something under his mattress or hidden in a hatbox in a closet would have been perfect evidence that the secrecy of the search warrant issuing had been compromised. After all the work he had done to prepare the perfect indiscretion, and hide off of the estate his really incriminating materials, Lucius felt that he had been somehow cheated of a proper courtesy.
Of course, that sort of thing was only to be expected in a Fudge administration. Having maneuvered Fudge into the post of Minister for Magic had ensured that there would be no effective resistance to the eventual proper restoration of rule by the right Families, when the right time came. Still, the damage that his lackadaisical time in office was doing to proper administration and discipline would probably take twice as long (however long he was in office, that is) to repair when things were put in their proper order. It was a sad statement that the best people in the magical world would have to ruin their own government in order to get in a position to change and repair it.
After the event, Malfoy waited until Draco was back up at school to begin rounding up the truly useful Artifacts and Grimoires, and putting them into new hiding places that were both secure and easily accessible. Finally, after realizing that little Miss Parkinson was both too well watched-over (for reasons that did not implicate him in anything) and (from the medical reports) so scrambled in her wits as to no longer be any sort of a danger, even if she wanted to be one, Malfoy went down the Ministry to retrieve the most dangerous and incriminating of the items that he had taken out the hidey holes and delvings of the Estate prior to the visit by the policing authority.
Lucius was practically chortling over his cleverness as he walked into the Department of Dead Letters (No Ghosts!) to retrieve the most cleverly hidden item of all. When he had dropped it off here, at the earlier part of the season, he had carefully made sure that the normally comatose employees were out on their usual prolonged luncheon break. Now, he repeated the process, a not-difficult one as down in the bowels of the DoDL(NG!) on a damp and chilly autumn day they took their extended luncheons seriously, and stretched them from 11:30 AM through to at least 2 PM if they could. And as their domain was one which was by definition the last destination of the undeliverable mail it was hardly surprising that few came to seek, and even fewer to complain about letters or packages that hadn't been delivered years, if not decades earlier.
He had cunningly disguised the one most likely to bring him real trouble by a classic ruse. Wrapped in plain brown paper, and tied with a piece of common twine the pristine Journal of T.M. Riddle, addressed to a family that had become extinct sixty years before, had been slipped into a pile of similar bundles that included pieces that were approaching the century mark in being a bit late. How many families had been rift apart over angry letters of thanks (that had never been sent) for presents (that had never been delivered) Malfoy had no idea, but as a hiding place it would make the Journal a perfect "tree in the forest." And like one tree in a glade, impossible to pick out by random chance, certainly so!
Malfoy didn't fear for it being damaged by the mildew and mould; empty as it was the diary still had been drenched in protective spells and soaked in potions that guaranteed its physical preservation. It might only be, in the Dark Lord's words, "a little sentimental journal of my youth," but to one still loyal to the cause, having access to that blank book (the Dark Lord being proverbially as sentimental as a rock); it could be used as a political talisman at the right time and among the right people.
It should not be difficult to imagine his emotions when, as he wandered to the newly cobweb and dust free aisle toward the back of the cavernous storage area, he saw that in the place of the deep and long and overflowing wooden bins there were new and shining steel rows of shelves, with the merest few of them covered only one parcel high, and clear and distinct new labels indicating the dates for the materials thereon. Lucius Malfoy came very close to fainting.
When he was certain that his legs would support him again, Mr. Malfoy was off at the run to the front desk of the DoDL(NG!), which was still unstaffed. He contemplated causing a rumpus, but discarded that idea as too likely to draw attention to himself. He wondered at his chances of success in hunting in the Ministry dining area for the staff, but realized he had little idea of what any of them looked like. There was nothing to do but wait, and put on a disguising Charm.
When, after two days subjective time, and one hour objective time, the three people who were the guardians of the empty and echoing place returned to their place of nominal employment they were surprised to discover a visitor. The Supervisor, Mr. Androsine Cogless, rose to the occasion of having someone not doing a drop off appear at their place of work. When he heard the reason for the visitor's visit; a matter of a Solicitor checking up on a possible lost-in-the-mails wedding present that was figuring in a inheritance suit ongoing from 1942, and the complications it had caused, Cogless regretfully was the one to disappoint their guest.
"All change and bother over nothing, but upstairs they're all 'out with the old, in with the new!' The Minister's Assistant only granted us the budget to get new shelving Transformed permanently if we guaranteed that everything would be labeled and in just that certain place. You can't do that with two hundred years of stuff, can you? So we activated Clause Three, Paragraph B of Section 31 of the Code of Postal Service and just cleared out everything over fifty years old. Everything perfectly according to Regulations, I assure you!"
"And how was the discarded material taken care of?" the Solicitor gamely continued, showing a great deal of perseverance in his pursuit of either the Law or his fee.
"In the dustbin out back, but that was picked up weeks ago. Pennelli and Leibowitz handle that. They're out East Anglia way I think. Have their Floo address somewhere," Cogless said as he began rummaging around in his coat and vest pockets for a business card. Having your pockets' capacity magically expanded so that they could hold hundreds of items was convenient for carrying things around, but it usually led to what has been called "Overstuffed Purse Syndrome" in the Muggle world.
As to why an outside firm was contracted to provide waste disposal, when any talented Witch or Wizard could use a Vanishment spell to take care of such situations was in fact completely innocent. Vanishment is not, in fact, the easiest of Magical Disciplines, and after some precious item gets accidently damaged, or disappears when any inept attempt at housecleaning goes terribly, terribly, wrong, the professionals are often called in to handle such situations in the future. As the DoDL(NG!) had few occasions to get rid of materials with strong magical elements in them it behooved them not to risk setting off any unexpected explosions, contaminations, or pollutions. Having Mr. Pennelli or Miss Leibowitz (actually Mrs. Pennelli, but the sign and cards for the firm had been first made up before the wedding, and they didn't want to confuse their customers about who they were dealing with) do the potentially unpleasant disposal at a far off location had probably proven a wise decision of Mr. Cogless.
But not one to make him popular with Mr. Malfoy, who (cleverly disguised as a relatively harmless member of the legal profession), once he had received the proper address was off in a tearing hurry to a location that would not ordinarily figure on his social calendar.
Tom Marvolo Riddle was a very confused, evil young Wizard. Or something. In truth, even he was currently uncertain about what he was. His most coherent memories were of being an exceptionally talented evil young student Wizard at Hogwarts in the year 1943, with subsequent occasional confused and dream-like fragments of memories of talking with various dull and uninteresting people while he sucked away at their life force. There had never been enough, and his essential need to end the possibility of ever being hungry again had always been unfulfilled. Until a functional alcoholic had managed to get ahold onto the book, and write in it enough to finally let him become strong enough to leave his protected, but claustrophobic, refuge. He had, of course killed the Witch involved: it was much how his first birth had been, he'd been told; killing his first mother. He felt a mixture of mild affection and deep contempt for this female who had given him life this time, also.
In any case, his domestic arrangements had never satisfied him in the least; from the days in the Orphanage to the few times he had stayed over Holidays with one of his condescending upper-class 'friends' from school. Now, looking down at the cooling corpse of the elderly, gangrel, grey-haired witch sprawled on the floor next to the table where she had literally written her life away, he contemplated his options. He was tempted to see if he could re-enter the book, a place of ultimate and secure safety. At least, since the latest newspaper in the pile in the corner of the rented room had a date of 1992, it seemed to have managed to protect him from death or even aging for nearly fifty years. From the look of it, the diary was itself still undamaged and perfect in its defenses. At least as far as he could tell with the spells he had been trying on it with the recalcitrant wand he had pulled from the hat-band of his dead host.
Tom was sure that this current situation wasn't exactly how a Horcrux were supposed to work. But here he was, so chalk this up to another case of the secret lore of the Hogwarts Library's Restricted Section Hidden Shelves (the ones that even the Librarians had never found despite centuries of dusting and rearranging) being less than perfect. Either that or an inexperienced student had skipped a necessary step in the ritual, and since the student was him, that was unthinkable.
But there were more important things to deal with this drizzly autumn day than reminisce about his inadequate education. He was real, there was a corpse on the floor, and he was effectively displaced a half century out of his own time. Looting the apartment and body was the work of half an hour. Everything that might have resale value was shrunken and put into a pocket, the diary itself placed in his school blazer's inside coat pocket, right over where his heart was, giving it better magical protection than a battleship's armor. The body could be left; finding a corpse (when the smell started to attract attention) that had no wounds wouldn't cause any particular notice. Just a drunk who had pawned everything to support her habit, and finally died of the results of her addiction. A reasonably explainable body being found was far less likely to arouse any sort of suspicion from the Aurors than a mysterious disappearance would.
He wondered a little bit how much further he would have moved in time from his… concealment… encapsulation… splitting… if the witch hadn't been in the alley behind the Ministry that day scavenging for anything useful, and found a still perfect little book to record her bitter complaints about how horrid everyone was to a sensitive flower like her, and how that numinous 'They' had ruined her life. Tom still remembered her first hesitant and shaky passages, and how she had rejoiced at an endlessly sympathetic correspondence companion. Probably the diary would have protected him for however long it would have been until somehow a… life-donor would have found him. Perhaps he should give the book to some follower when he assembled his conspiracy, with instructions to give it to some sacrifice if he should happen meet a physical misfortune. But, that was a possibility for another day, when he actually had some decent followers. He stepped boldly out into the dreary day, and half-flinched back from the uncomfortable brightness of the concealed sun.
Hermione was staring at the few still un-netted Cornish Pixies. She was on the verge of doing something that she rarely did out loud: admitting she had made a major academic mistake. One of the Pixies seemed to be preparing to take wing again, and she decided to be merciful and merely Stupefied it, rather than going for her patented quick and nasty Stinging Hex. The other creatures took one look at their unconscious companion and gave up all hope of a riotous tour of the school, spreading mayhem and confusion. The look in the young girl's eye promised too much misery for them if that course was followed. They obediently marched back into one of the cages that the current DADA teacher at Hogwarts had released them from a few moments earlier, though not without mutterings and grumblings in their obscure Celtic dialect.
"Perhaps Professor Lockhart might be a little bit of a fraud, after all, Neville," she said to the boy nearest her, who was currently reinforcing the conjured nets that held most of the Special Live Exhibits that the Professor had persuaded the school to rent for the week to give the students an opportunity to practice their defensive skills on annoying but not lethal targets. Hermione had been so very disappointed when said Professor had managed to somehow not have an appropriate spell ready when he had released the creatures, and had fled when he realized that they were running amok among the students. Hermione had noted that as he had dashed out of the classroom his hair had had a most unusual movement to it, or perhaps it would be best to say, lack of movement. She'd have to confer with either Lav or Parvati to confirm her suspicions about that.
Perhaps her first suspicions should have been when she'd been told Professor Lockhart's first actions, after introducing himself, had been to give the class a test of their knowledge of Gilderoy Lockhart. It had asked questions from all seven newly required textbooks, an unrealistic expectation of effort on the first day of classes, since many of the students would have only picked up their school supplies a week or so ago. There were possible explanations for this teaching procedure, but it had somehow seemed "off" to Hermione, a feeling she had put down to her youth and ignorance of the latest magical educational theory. And in any case, if she had been in class, instead of in the infirmary, she knew she would have aced the quiz in any case.
And then there had been the way Professor Lockhart had latched onto Harry.
The events of the last summer, and what had happened on the trip up, had made Harry rather more nervous than normal at being singled out, or as he liked to say, "Targeted." Once up at school, and then being grabbed and held against a man's body, while invitations to be photographed together were voiced, had made him queasy. Invitations to become a Professor's apprentice in the art of public relations, and serve as a personal secretary in his spare time, had stirred up Harry's usually hidden rebellious streak. Evidently the personality characteristics that had gifted the Professor with Star Quality with some parts of the Wizarding population were not carrying over to his educational career.
Perhaps it was time to engage in some sort of Higher Literary Criticism on the collected works of Gilderoy Lockhart? Something that she had heard during the summer was lurking in the back of her mind; she wasn't quite sure what it was, but she remembered it was of a cautionary nature. In any case, it would give her an excuse to immerse herself once more in the Collected Works of Gilderoy Lockhart. If they were to be tested on them, it certainly made sense to refresh her memory. And maybe this time she would be able to tease out exactly how he had cured werewolves, settled the hash of Zombie hordes, unraveled all those ancient curses, and discovered all those hidden enchanted fanes and sanctuaries. Despite her usually sharp memory and analytic skills, she was still a bit hazy on exactly how he done so many of his marvelous feats.
There was no way to get around it. Harry had been (much against his will) drafted. And Ron also, though with a great deal more enthusiasm. Wood was a fanatic, it was true, and for that reason he was very hard to stop when he decided that the best flyers in the Second Year (H. Potter [Chaser] and R. Weasley [Keeper]) had to start to give something back to Gryffindor for all the benefits they received for being members in good standing. To him it was obvious that the proper way to do that giving back… was to become backup members of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. That Harry argued that whatever House they had been Sorted into would have provided much the same sort of treatment was ignored as the ravings of a confused child. Ron's eager acceptance of his fate was held up to Potter as an example he should attempt to rise to. Reluctantly, Harry went along… at least he would be getting a chance to fly regularly at the practices, and it really was fun trying to get his throws past Ron's attempts as Keeper. An added side advantage was when Malfoy found out about the situation he was heard to mutter something along the lines of that if only he hadn't been stuck in stuffy old Slytherin…
Harry soon discovered an even greater benefit from his initially reluctant enrollment in the Team. Professor Lockhart's attempts to use him as both a drudge (answering Lockhart's correspondence), and as a name to drop was severely inhibited by Professor McGonagall's insistence that her House's Quidditch Team's newest players not miss practices, even for (what she considered petty and maliciously assigned) Detentions. If that caused any increased tensions at the Staff Meetings, or when the teachers gathered for a quiet cup or stein in the Faculty Lounge, Harry neither knew nor cared. His House Head was, in his opinion, doing her job in protecting him from low company and bad influences.
His greatest complaint this year was that Professor Lockhart was displaying an even greater difficulty than Professor Quirrell (of dubious memory) in actually imparting useful DADA spells, techniques, and knowledge; both in class and in the assignments given. It was for that reason that on Sundays… as Second Years were not allowed to be off campus… he had (more by accident than plan) gathered a small group of First and Second Years for a series of games and exchanges relating to DADA. The Malfites were frequent attendees, as well as, of course, The Boys (and Hermione, who while certainly not a boy was somehow automatically included in that labeled group by all) and sometimes Kandice and/or Parvati and Lav, Ginny Weasley, Creevey (due to Harry's guilty feelings about terrorizing him at the beginning of school), Lonely Lovegood from Ravenclaw (at least that's what the others thought she was being called), and Tony G. (as he was being called, at his insistence, this year).
Spell Tag, Dodge the Hex, Show Me a New One, Swimming with the Squid, and other moral, wholesome, and upright witch and wizard amusements were the staple meat of these innocent outings onto the grounds and environs of Hogwarts. All became adept at Warming and Drying charms as the weather up in the Highlands turned chill and damp.
All-in-all, Harry thought that his Second Year was going swimmingly so far: no rabid beasts had managed to get through the Hogwarts protective wards to attack him, only two course equivalents were totally wasted (DADA a complete waste, ¾ of History of Magic being a waste, and about ¼ of Potions wasted catering to Snape's ego and emotional problems), he was with his friends, and he was never going back to Dursleykaban.
"What, never?" Neville asked as they were sorted out into a rough column near Greenhouse Three on a relatively warm and clear Monday morning. Professor Sprout had decided to take advantage of the good weather to widen the experience of her students, and show them the winter forms of the many naturally magical things growing in the nearby and safer parts of the Forbidden Forest. The collection of wild-growing materials was an essential part of the skill repertoire of any aspiring Herbalist, and knowing what to look for in winter was important; many of the most important plants had some of their most potent essences concentrated in their roots during the cold season. Also… some of the more dangerous ones were slow and lethargic during that season, and a lot safer to collect.
"Yes, never," Harry said. "The paperwork is all done, and when the Headmaster tried to protest about how good the wards around the house were, Tonks just took his arguments apart. Since he never told me to keep quiet about things, like I had for where I lived during the summer, the old place was compromised. Anyone who wanted to know could just ask around and find out, and the protections were only good from keeping Magicals from finding the place. Muggles have no trouble; the wards are a kind of anti-Wizard charm. Otherwise the place could never have mail delivered, repairmen show up, and the electric would be turned off. Just impractical; Muggles can't live that way. So, I'm through with them, they're through with me, and everybody is a lot happier.
"There are a couple of places I might be over the summer or holidays, but I can't tell anybody until certain precautions are worked out. Still, being up here September to June suits me fine, and by the time the Term ends, things should be worked out."
"I still say you could come over to our place, we've really tightened up the wards, "Ron put in.
Hermione objected (and completely not because her home was totally unsuited for the job until such time as she could put up a incredible set of protections around it): "Really Ron, the two first places anybody looking for Harry would think of would be the Burrow and Longbottom Manor. Until we know what went after Harry last summer the best thing is to keep him hidden when he's not up at-"
At that point they all chimed in: "The Safest Place In Britain!"
The Professor had by now gotten everyone organized to her liking, and led them out towards the woods. As an added level of security, Hagrid was accompanying them, billhook in hand… just in case. Of what exactly had been left undefined, but it stirred up equal measures of both reassurance and dread in the students… precisely what had been intended.
As Herbology was both a double-length and double-sized class, there were a bit above twenty in the double file; still a very handy number for Professor Sprout to point out the distinguishing characteristics of various plants (magical and not, useful and not) as the passed from the briar-choked edges to the more open areas inside the forest where the shade of the trees kept the growth of shrubs and brambles more under control. Every now and again they would stop and gather specimens, some accompanied by groans when it meant roots would have to be excavated from the frozen ground. Just yanking them out wouldn't do, so transfigured picks (from some of the ubiquitous prickles around them) and shovels (from the shoulders of those assigned to carry them at the beginning of the march) had to be used. Harry, his hands roughened by years of ungloved gardening, and Neville, the acknowledged star student of his Year, were the mainstays of the effort.
It was Susan Bones of Hufflepuff who made the most interesting discovery about forest life that day. While she and her close friend, Hannah Abbot, were enjoying the sight of the Gryff boys brushing away the snow that hadn't melted yet from an early season storm (protected from the sun by the shadows of the trees) she saw something white and seemingly suspended in midair between two tree trunks.
"What's that? Looks awfully like a mummy, but I didn't know the Egyptians ever got this far north."
Hermione was about to tell her all about the indications that Mycenaeans had left their graffiti at Stonehenge when, moving forward, she actually spotted what Susan had been talking about. It certainly looked like a well wrapped mummy, suspended in the middle of a gigantic spider's web. But a spider's web, even one with thread as thick as that, couldn't have lasted since then, could it?
As the students gathered in a clot around the suspended thing it was, oddly enough, Hagrid who supplied the background for their discovery.
"Oh, the Acromantula always wrap up their catch, iffin they don' finish it off righ' when they catch it."
"How big are these Acromantilla?" Ron Weasley asked, a very fake smile pasted on his face.
"They'll be, a big one 'at is, maybe fifteen hunnerd or more pounds. O' course, my little Aragog must be more'n a ton by now; he's a healthy one!
"Now, one thing that's interestin' t' know," Hagrid said as he stepped forward with his billhook in hand, "'s that in winter time they sleep the days away, in some cave they kick the bears out of, or a house they'll take over, or sumptin'."
With that he cut the clothesline thick webbing, the mummy (or whatever) fell to the ground. Hagrid delicately put the tip of the hook part into the wrapped bundle, and began to cut it away from whatever was inside.
"Couldn' do this if the weather were warmer; the thread'd be too springy and sticky.
"Ya' see, when an Acromantula catches somethin' big it'll bite it with some poison that puts it to sleep, and then hangs it up somewhere cool and out of the way. The catch will stay alive for weeks. Keeps fresh in the larder, so to speak.
No one noticed Ron Weasley falling to the ground in a dead faint as the Groundskeeper lifted away a flap of cut netting, and revealed the desiccated face of Quirinus Quirrell, the long-lost Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor.
"Now, this 'ere fellow been out here too long to do much with, 'ceptin bury. But if we'da been here a few months ago we might 'ave rescued him. If we coulda fought off a whole bunch of great big beasties!" Hagrid said with a laugh.
Hannah Abbott joined Mr. Weasley on the ground, and not a few others from the party felt more than a bit queasy. Especially when, as Hagrid was lifting the corpse up onto his shoulder for its return to Hogwarts for a proper burial, the back portion of the covering fell away from Professor Quirrell's head, and the grotesque face on the back of it was also revealed.
Hermione, Neville, and Harry teased him, of course. That was their right, as his best friends. George and Fred… well, they were his brothers. If anyone else tried though, they all shouted them down. And that's what family and best friends do. So Ron, even though not being teased at all would have been far better, was at least tolerably content. Especially as Hannah could join with him complaining about that sort of treatment, her getting much of the same, even being in Hufflepuff.
Of course, everyone who had been on Sprout's expedition was a minor celebrity for the next few weeks, and the more lurid the description of Quirrell's remains was, the greater the awe and respect for the intrepid explorer. "And that's why they call it the Forbidden Forest, you see," was the usual ending for such retellings of the events. The effects of the recovery of the body had rather more far-reaching effects beyond the student body, however.
When Gilderoy Lockhart saw the pitiful corpse, especially the Janus-like skull, he turned a distinct tint of green. When the fates of some of the other recent DADA professors was recounted to him by his colleagues (by Professors Snape, Flitwick, and McGonagall in particular) he quite lost his lunch, and was even too upset to magically clean up the mess afterwards. If the Headmaster had had a rolodex he would, at that point, have started checking it for a possible mid-season replacement. Having to pull the extra duty last school year had been only right, all things considered. But he had no desire to try to do a schedule like that again if he could help it.
"But shouldn't a real wizard have been able to blast the damn spider away?" Ron asked, hoping more than anything that the answer would be 'yes.' His nightmares had come back, and while his roommates had been understanding at first, after the first week of being woken up by his night-time screaming, they had rushed to learn silencing charms to put either onto his bed, or their own ears before going to sleep.
"Well, Ron, " Hermione said, " the spiders could have got him while he was asleep, or jumped on him suddenly and knocked his wand out of his hand. If you scale things up, something like an Acromantula should be able to jump fifty, sixty feet at least! Do you know if they found his wand with him? Oh, and maybe it shot out a thread of sticky web and just pinned his arms down right from the start."
"Not helping, Hermione," Harry said.
She ducked her head in embarrassment. Despite the teasing they did of Ron, everyone secretly agreed that being frightened of an intelligent (the IQ of an adult Acromantula being just a bit more than one standard deviation from human level), web shooting, jumping, huge, poisonous, carnivorous spider was reasonable in the main. She would have tried to give Ron psychological therapy, except she knew she would never be able to live with herself if something drastic happened and he had a meltdown. The Owl Post message that Mrs. Weasley would have sent her in that case was a daunting thought, also.
She'd brought up pretty much that problem, what quick and powerful spell could they use against a powerful, leaping… (etc.) enemy at the DADA class last week. The answer had not been clear, and the recommendation that the students re-read Wanderings with Werewolves (by Gilderoy Lockhart) was not at all helpful.
Somehow, when Lovegood told them (they had shifted their Sunday recreational games and spell practices to a currently un-used classroom, the weather outside being normal Northern Scottish winter weather) that for the pertinent years (as recorded in Magical Me, an Autobiography by Gilderoy Lockhart) there was no record in the House Annals of a Ravenclaw Quidditch Seeker named Lockhart, no one was all that surprised. Hermione was only chagrined that she had never actually got around to doing the research herself, but she tried not to hold it against the younger girl, who seemed to be having some problems in her own House right then. And her name was 'Luna,' not 'Lonely,' which said much to Hermione, who tried to give her a cheerful hello whenever they passed in the halls.
"Harry, would you mind terribly, if the next time you send a letter to you-know-where you included a request from me that, perhaps, you-know-him, or you-know-her, might send us a bit of advice on, well, vicious and violent spells, and how to cast them? I realize they might not- "
At that point Harry had smiled, and put a quieting finger over her lips. He took it away far too quickly in her opinion, but she allowed him to voice his interruption in any case.
"I've thought about it, but I think I've got something better planned. It'll be Winter Holiday soon, and rather than do something honest and aboveboard, and easily traceable in that line, I've guilt-tripped the Headmaster into letting me sign up to stay here for it. Instead, I'll just be here a day or so, and take a walk off the school grounds, where she/he/etc., will whisk me away to… maybe not paradise, but certainly a better place than this. When I come back, same route, I'll have a trunk load of stuff for us to use.
"Had to really work on Nev and Ron not to kidnap me for my own good, but I think I've got them all going in the right direction now."
"You will let the Headmaster know where you'll be going, won't you?" Hermione asked in a worried voice. The idea of a comedic series of frantic searchers (with very varying motivations) running into each other during the Holiday, with spectacular collusions, routs, and general elements of farce, was strongly attractive to her, but if the Headmaster had been told that Harry would be at school for the period, and suddenly disappeared he'd probably be unfairly panicked, and he was over a hundred nowadays.
"Don't worry, he knows. I'm trying to condition him, like one of those Pavlova's dogs. Do right by me, and I'll do right by you. Just hope that particular old dog learns the trick. He's a bit long in the tooth for new concepts, like really playing straight with us students!"
"Good," Hermione said. "It's the proper way to do things." Then her face took on a sly grin. "And when you really do plan on pulling a fast one on him, he won't be as prepared."
On the trip back to London The Boys (-1) sat together; Ron and Neville turning a suspicious eye at each opening of the compartment door, their hands drifting casually toward their wands. Hermione was a great deal more casual and tried to keep things light; she knew that despite whatever she told them they considered themselves on duty as her bodyguards. It was endearing, but she was quite certain that the only one who could possibly have benefitted from a bodyguard was up at Hogwarts for the next day or so.
Perhaps an hour into the trip Ginny Weasley popped in, and refused to accept their assurances that Harry was staying up at school. She practically demanded that he be turned over to her. It seemed her prestige in her dorm was completely dependent on her close association with the Boy-Who-Lived. Or else her coming domination of the Quidditch team as soon as 'they' let her join and lead it to victory. Whichever. In any case, Ginny persisted in looking at Hermione in a suspicious manner, as if she had taken to carrying Harry around in her pocket. That was totally ridiculous… at least until she had taken Sixth Year Transfiguration.
By the fourth time his sister just happened to stop in as she was just passing by, Ron's recently gained patience slipped a bit. There was only so many times he could stand being called a liar when he wasn't currently being one. Her response to his perfectly polite request to take her lazy arse out of there was met with one of her typical unreasonable tantrums, and a threat, sliding over into her weapon of first resort, an obnoxious hex that cleaned out Ron's nasal passages in a most painful way.
Her indignation, when her entire body spasmed on receiving an accurate and over-powered Stinging Hex, while simultaneously being flipped ass over teakettle, banging her head brutally against a wall, was epic to behold. If Neville hadn't managed to scoop up her wand right after her body hit the floor it cannot be doubted that major brawl would have occurred. But, disarmed and outnumbered, she backed out of the compartment, using language Hermione was sure would have shocked Molly Weasley if she had heard her daughter using it in public.
As a recovered Ron was handed her wand, to be returned only when the train had arrived at the London terminus, Neville commented: "She's a good witch, I guess, but I wonder if she'll turn out to be a good witch."
Back home, in the domestic bosom of her family, Hermione baked a fruitcake, wrapped it in metal foil, and sent it up to Hogwarts addressed to Harry Potter. She had followed her mother's directions as carefully as if it had been a Potions recipe, included in the covering note that it wouldn't really be ready for another week or so (fruitcake often need a bit of extra time to properly mellow), and had included just a bit of de-scented Juice of Moly (which had done Ulysses so much good in the Odyssey). It also had the property, of course, to counteract many harmful potions (as Circe had discovered) it came into contact with. Since it could also mess up the effects of any potions people were taking for medical reasons it was usually only used at need. Most well-run Magical households with young children had a bottle of Moly Juice somewhere towards the back of the family medical cabinet, usually with the date of 'best used by' well in the past.
Having done her best to spread the holiday spirit by Post, she took up the challenge of living it in reality. Catching up with old Muggle acquaintances was oddly poignant. Her last year completely in the Muggle world had been eased by her finally finding some acquaintances that had seemed to have been trending toward real friendship. It was awkward to have to dodge questions about how her school was, beyond its beastly climate and co-educational nature. For example, none of the others seemed to have a Chemistry Classroom with a sign '_ days since our last painful accident' that never had the number get out of the single digits. Different worlds entirely.
Somehow her more perceptive acquaintances seemed to get the idea that she was currently involved, romantically, with three or more boys, no matter how she tried to make it clear that Neville, Harry, Ron, and Fred were just good friends. Evidently the idea of just being friends with boys was considered in their Muggle schools as merely being a dim memory of Primary School days. It really was a different world. They were nice enough people, just… drifting away. Only their mutual regard for hot chocolate drinks in that season of freezing winds remained as a common binder. Not enough to build a relationship on. On both sides, as they parted, there was the secret knowledge that the promises 'I'll write as soon as I get the chance' was nothing more than the most common polite fiction.
She got together with her roommates for a foray into Muggle London, where they went to a Pantomime (Puss in Boots), as well as a carefully conducted (and expensive) foray to three shops: one a traditional sweets shop, one dealing with cosmetics, and one to Hamleys Toy Shop (est. 1760) for a suitable holiday overdose of the caloric, the beautiful, and the cute. Impoverished, and oblivious to it, the exhausted quintet made their arrangements for the ride up to school before parting.
She, and Mother, had taken a trip into the Alley earlier in the month and finally picked up a good, basic, Post Owl. The savings on the messages carried that holiday season alone between the Longbottoms, Weasleys, and the Grangers almost paid for it, for it was the mainstay of her Magical communications system, often doing two deliveries a day at some of its stops. The need for a Granger Owl was obvious: the Weasley Owl was more than a bit past it, and the Longbottoms' one was fully engaged in helping with arranging Lady Augusta's profuse and intricate social life, so the Granger one developed a set of wing muscles to be admired by all who understood that sort of thing. Hermione had wanted to name it Pheidippides (after the messenger), but was persuaded that the name was too long, and finally decided on Paul (another messenger, and one who didn't drop dead right after he delivered his missive).
To her relief and delight there was no 'Incident on the Hogwarts Express' this trip up. Only a delightful yo-yoing between the compartment with the Boys and some friends discussing the mystery of the day (a seeming rash of unexplained and symptomless deaths among the more sottish elements of Wizarding society, leading to an inspection of all the Fire Whiskey distilling firms), thankfully having nothing to do with Hogwarts, Potter, or the price of Basilisk venom (through the roof, due to the rarity of the deadly buggers), and her roommates' (and Lovegood's) one.
There was the smallish event when Malfoy showed that he had not neglected his lessons in Slytherin cunning, and had showed up (minus bookends) just as The Boys had emptied their pockets of their spare cash and decimated the Sweet Vender's trolley of its most delightful cargo. His raid was so well timed that the evidence was still out in the open, and there was no decent way for them to deny him least a sampling of certain items that he claimed he had never had before, and was curious about. A suitable revenge began to be plotted as soon as he left the compartment.
It was a little confusing as to why Lovegood was riding up with them. Ordinarily Hermione would have thought that the girl would have been sitting with her roommates. Failing that, Ginny Weasley was practically a next door neighbor, and Percy had babysat for Ron, Ginny, and Lovegood before he had come up to Hogwarts. Yet Ginny was busy with another set of friends, and had no time for the girl.
For a Firsty she had been holding up her end of the Sunday Potter led get-togethers, so despite a degree of eccentricity notable even for Magical circles, the Gryff Girls gave her a place to park her bottom, a portion of the share-out of the Paternal Back-to-School baskets, and when the gentle rocking of the train soothed them all toward quietness, and some to napping, her shoulder was a very nice height for a drooping head to be supported by.
It wasn't until she had got back into the dorm that she got the two-fold indications that all was not right, or even normal, in her local environment.
Bliggi (House-Elf extraordinary, and almost a member of their circle due to her ability to round up useful bits of ribbon, cloth, and sometimes essential female sanitary products on short notice), who had insisted on immediately redoing Fay's bed with the new flannel sheets she'd gotten after reminding her parents exactly how uncomfortable a Hogwarts winter could be on a person's toes, had made a comment that she was glad the Beast wouldn't be coming back to ruin her work. This had, naturally, led to a few questions.
On Boxing Day morning, she narrated with glee at being the center of attention; she had come up to just give everything a bit of a dusting, when she discovered all of the dormitory rooms had been thoroughly and messily ripped apart. Desks had been rifled, bedding disturbed, things hung up thrown to the floor; in short, proper chaos and immorality (to a House-Elf). In point of fact Bliggi had checked with some of her compatriots that day, and every dorm and residence in the castle except for the Slytherin one had been devastated; including those of Professors Flitwick, McGonagall, Sprout, Lockhart, and Sinistra. Immediately thereafter the School Wards had been raised to a higher level of alertness, and it had been perfect Hell trying to maintain the old pile ever since.
No magical creature could cross the magical property line, not even if carrying in essential supplies, without having an authorized Professor at the spot to open a short-termed gateway into the property. Not all the Professors necessarily being quite competent enough to actually open such a gateway had proved to be a great inconvenience, for without such help an honest House-Elf on its legitimate assignment would be coming over all sick-like trying to carry the needed eggs-and-bacon-for-breakfast in. All Floo connections were to be turned off when not in use. Yes, it had been a perfect Hell for the last few weeks.
Hermione had quietly excused herself right after that information was received. There was a good chance the Boys hadn't heard about this; they had never mentioned dealings with the House-Elves since the Halloween trap of last year. Except for their trips after-hours to the kitchen they probably never thought about the creatures, much less talked to them. They had to be brought into the loop on this.
When she entered the Boys' room she saw all of them, including Seamus, Dean, George, Fred, and Percy, clustered around a desk near a window, looking down on something while first Fred, and then Percy, cast some sort of spell. It was Harry who showed a higher state of awareness, and was the first to notice she had come in. He waved her over. "An old family recipe?" Harry asked.
There, on one of the simple writing desks that Hogwarts had originally (1724 AD) had the Fifth Year Transfiguration students create was an opened sheet of metal foil with what might have once been a meatloaf, or perhaps even (if one was imaginative enough) a fruitcake, on it. The metal was corroded, even burned through at one point, while the loaf (of some sort) was now showing signs of aspiring to become a huge charcoal briquette. Occasionally a little puff of smoke coursed out of some cranny or pit in the surface, perhaps where some innocent raisin or walnut that had once broken the golden surface the loaf had once been. Moly was an innocent thing; the worst usual reaction was to induce vomiting as it chased and pulled some putrid potion out of the system of the afflicted. This sort of result had far exceed any fears Harry and she had had when they talked about this little test of the sanctity of the Owl Post.
"How could a potion have done that to my cake?" she demanded.
"A potion didn't," Percy said. "There were at least three added to it in transit, and also I think at least two of the more dangerous alkaloid poisons. The interactions are… unique, I think."
The cake took that opportunity to split apart with a dull 'crack', and the interior showed various coloured veins, similar to the sort of diagram a geology text might have of the lava flows leading up from the center of the Earth to the surface volcanoes.
"Odds on," Harry said, "that even if you hadn't prepared our little surprise, the three or four or five people who managed to get their hands on this innocent baked good managed to ruin it without knowing that they were all after the same thing. What is that thing from the books you love so? Yes… 'oft evil shall evil mar.' Or maybe it's, 'too much of a bad thing is a bloody mess.' Whatever, we were right, and that's the important thing."
Hermione had started with such hopes that at least the Post, one of the foundations of civilization, would prove to be pure and uncorrupted. The smoking evidence before her was almost as depressing as the news about the ability of the Beast (at least until Hogwarts had gone onto Limited Moderate Lockdown) to extend its rampage into the school. Still, she would have been remiss if she had neglected to do her duty…
Special thanks to Nathan Huss, my ever diligent proof-reader and continuity monitor, for providing the dialect for Hagrid.
Said dialect being the best one could do on memory of just what Hagrid's accent is actually supposed to be like, other than noticeable.