It was a cool night, the sky a deep blue and the twinkling stars like flickering specks of white, hidden by the occasional cloud that passed over. The moon was scarcely a sliver, so the world was dark, the grass on the rolling hills appearing to be a blanket of shadow, but it was not at all unsettling. In truth, as Harry sat in the windowsill beside his four-poster, stroking Hedwig absently, he found it to be pleasant. More pleasant, in fact, than any night he could remember. It wasn't necessarily the nicest weather he'd seen on a late summer night, for as he watched the leaves amongst the trees rustle about, he knew it must be windy, perhaps cooler than a comfortable temperature.
It was, however, a more beautiful sight than he could have ever imagined. After a life of spending his nights beneath a cupboard under the stairs, seeing the grounds of Hogwarts was much like recalling a nice dream; there, but seeming distant. He was most certainly here, though, even if it felt far too good to be true. He was a wizard, he had friends, he was in Gryffindor. He had just had the most amazing night, one he would have previously thought unimaginable.
Harry's blazing green gaze fell on the great lake, just outside of his window, admiring its perfect stillness despite the inevitable breeze. It reflected much like a mirror, and as the silver light of the moon spilled out from behind the clouds, he could have sworn he saw himself, tiny, staring back at him from a miniscule Hogwarts reflection. In spite of himself, he felt a grin tug at the corners of his mouth, and he let it spread. Briefly, he turned his eyes to Hedwig, the pure white owl falling asleep as she sat beside him. She must have felt Harry's eyes on her, for her golden orbs widened and she turned her head toward him. He simply ran the back of his fingers down her neck, her soft feathers ruffling slightly as she enjoyed his touch. Once more her eyes fell shut, and again Harry's attention was captured by the window.
What an incredible world sprawled out before him. It seemed endless, yet within a sort of secure barrier, so that he felt, had he been walking along alone he would have never stumbled across this magical land. It was at once he decided tomorrow would be a day for exploring this extraordinary place he'd found himself in, and with that thought and a contented smile on his face, Harry pulled himself to his feet, clambered into his four-poster, nested himself within the soft, warm, crimson blankets, and drifted off to sleep.
When Harry awoke the next morning, he was greeted by the raspy snoring of Ron. A glance around the room showed him Seamus, Dean, and Neville had already left the dormitory, most likely to have breakfast. For a moment Harry wondered if every meal at Hogwarts would be as grand as the feast held last night. He expected himself to be hungry, but to his surprise the thought of food made him feel rather ill. He had never eaten as much in his entire life as he had the night before, and he still felt as thought his stomach might pop open should he force one more treacle tart down his throat.
Sitting up, he thought of waking Ron and joining him down to the Great Hall despite his lack of hunger, but he stopped himself. There were no classes on this first full day at Hogwarts, and he well remembered his plan to explore. He would have plenty of days to wake Ron early and pull him along, and so he would leave him be this morning. Besides, he would hate to disturb him from what he guessed was a deep slumber, judging by the sound of his snores.
Harry hopped off the edge of his bed and quietly rummaged though his trunk, searching for his robes. He slipped into the washroom, changed out his clothes, then made his way into the Gryffindor Common Room. Upon seeing it, he felt as if a great weight had been taken from his chest. Although he had seen his owl, wand, and all sorts of magical things once he'd woken, seeing the common room assured him that all this was real. He had feared that it had happened that day. He had once or twice pinched himself just to be sure, so to see the room covered in scarlet tapestries and with a cozy fire burning in the fireplace was nothing short of a relief.
As Harry started for the door, he was stopped by an all too familiar face that he wasn't too fond of seeing.
"Good morning," said Hermione Granger, tossing her bushy brown hair as if she'd just told him an interesting fact. "Going to breakfast, are you?"
"Er," began Harry meekly, wondering if she would disapprove of his planned venture onto the grounds (or worse, demand he let her accompany him), "not exactly. I was just going to take a look around the castle."
"Oh, searching for your classrooms, then?" she said, smiling smugly and revealing her rather large front teeth. "That's a smart idea. I was studying the floor plans of the castle in Hogwarts: A History, so I've already found all mine. If you'd like, I could show you around."
"Er, thanks, Hermione, but I think I'll just find them for myself," said Harry.
"Alright, suit yourself. If you change your mind, I'll be at the library. That's on the second floor, mind you. Good luck not getting lost."
She gave a genuine smile, which Harry returned half-heartedly. He knew she meant well, but it had certainly sounded like she fully expected him to become lost.
Clutching several books to her chest, Hermione turned on her heel and disappeared through the portrait hole. Harry let out a silent sigh of relief, and in all honest was very glad he had decided to let Ron sleep. The two didn't seem to get on well, and the last thing he needed was to be distracted from his exploration of the grounds. That reminded him, was already distracted, standing without reason in the middle of the common room. After waiting a few more seconds so that he wouldn't run into Hermione again, he too climbed through the portrait hole.
The corridors were bustling with activity, students of every house flitting from room to room. Older students lined the halls, looming over the tiny first years as they got bumped and bruised trying to find their way through the castle's mazelike floors. Harry somehow managed to make his way to the Grand Staircase without being jostled too much, though his glasses rested askew on his face. Upon stepping onto the seventh floor platform, he found himself staring stupidly at the staircases. As they moved about above and below him, he modestly guessed it would take him at least an hour to reach the ground floor. There was no pattern to the stairs' movements — at least none that he could make out — and just watching them was beginning to make his head spin.
At last he convinced himself to set off down the steps, and it didn't take him nearly as long as he'd guessed to make it to the Entrance Hall. More than once, of course, he'd landed himself on an abandoned platform and had to wait for a staircase to return to pick him up. He was often climbing up stairs in order to reach a downward set, only to find it had left just after he had reached the landing. Despite his dizzying efforts, Harry felt rather proud of himself for reaching the ground floor at all, even more so that he'd done it without an older student as a guide.
Now that he had managed to get to the Entrance Hall, pushing through the flood of people to get at the door was a small feat, and within moments he had reached the great doors. Once given a heavy shove, they opened with a low, wooden rumble, and Harry was hit instantly with a gust of crisp air. The sunlight poured into the castle, bathing every last spot of floor and wall in gold. Harry let the fast air fill his nose and let a slow breath out through his mouth. Even the outdoors smelled better at Hogwarts.
Hesitating no longer, he practically tripped over himself as one foot fell in front of the other, making him stumble out into the courtyard. The sun was very warm on his face, and there wasn't a doubt that it was still summer. Harry made his way through the courtyard and onto the fresh grass, still wet with dew. He continued on, somewhere between tripping and jogging, not fully aware of where he was going, and not really concerned about it.
There was a soft breeze that brushed his hair against his forehead and caused his robes to billow gently behind him. He quickly came to the realisation that it was much too hot to be wearing such dark, heavy clothing, but as it was the uniform, he couldn't very well take it off. As thankful as he was for the wind, it wasn't enough to keep him cool, so he looked around for a shady place.
Of course, the grounds were all but surrounded by thick trees, but Harry recalled the Dark Forest was out of bounds, and probably for good reason. Next Harry spotted an odd, little hut on the edge of the grounds. It looked rather out of place, such a small, humble thing within the same property as such a grand castle as Hogwarts. Harry's curiosity got the better of him and he went to give it a look. He didn't remember anyone saying anything about a hut being restricted, so he could see no harm in inspecting it.
As he got nearer, he noticed a tiny garden outside the hut, strewn with the beginnings of pumpkins. A smile crossed Harry's face as he was reminded of pumpkin juice, pumpkin pasties, and pumpkin pudding from the feast the night before. This must have been where they were coming from. He wondered who was responsible for growing Hogwarts's most important ingredient. At first he considered the Herbology Professor — Sprout, he thought her name was — but then remembered seeing her class took place in greenhouses. He couldn't imagine why she would grow pumpkins in such modest patch of dirt when she had access to greenhouses, so it had to be someone else.
Coming ever closer to the hut, Harry decided there could be nothing wrong with poking his head in the window to see if anyone was inside. Gingerly he made his way around the pumpkin patch and over to a small window just a bit to the right of the door. Some pumpkins Harry had ever seen before, and they made very nice step stools.
Grasping the windowsill, he climbed up and popped his head in front of the window. It was closed, and the glass was so dirty he could barely see a thing. He squinted and thought he could see a little table, perhaps a sofa, and an empty fireplace. From the looks of it, there wasn't much space in it at all, and it wasn't incredibly well kept. He pushed himself a bit further up, trying to find a grime-less spot on the window to get a clearer view.
Very suddenly, there was a monstrous bark, and it surprised him so badly he fell backwards off the pumpkins. Harry sat there a moment, stunned and a tangled mess of boy and robes. There was more barking, and this time mad scraping came from the door. His heart nearly jumped into his throat as he scrambled to his feet, and his imagination ran wild. The creature inside the hut sounded to be huge and aggressive, and it more than likely had long, sharp teeth that could shed him to bits as though he was made of paper.
As quickly as he could, he dashed away from the hut, further down the hill and away from Hogwarts. After a few seconds, he could no longer hear the barking, but that did not stop him. He ran until he could no more, for he'd run out of ground. To his left and right was nothing but trees, and straight ahead was the lake. As Harry caught his breath and decided the monster — whatever it was — was not after him, he took better notice of his surroundings. At the water's edge, it was considerably cooler, as the wind had picked up and felt wet like the lake it came from.
A grin found its way onto Harry's features, and though he could think of little to do here, he wanted to spend as much time as he could sitting on the bank of this lake. Perhaps he could do homework here (Did wizards have homework, he wondered. Hermione had seemed convinced they did.) or just sit about here when he had not much better to do. It was such a quiet spot, and he could think of nothing like it in his life back with the Dursleys. Had it only been yesterday that they had left him at Kings Cross with nothing but a ticket and a trolley? Already that felt like it was years away.
Harry forced himself to not think on them any longer. That part of his life was over, at least for now. He didn't have to see Dudley's pudgy pink face for a full year, or watch the thick vein on Uncle Vernon's very purple neck pulsate as he shouted at him for something he couldn't explain. No he could explain, though, and that made it all the better. It was magic, he was wizard, and he wouldn't trade any of it for the world.
Sighing contentedly to himself, Harry settled down onto a large rock jutting from the lake. It was a perfect place to sit, surrounded completely by water but no need getting wet to access it. His cloak sprawled out over the rock, and he spent a moment trying to pull it against his legs, but the wind continued to spread it back out, so he gave up and let it have its way. He let his eyes fall shut, focusing on the sound of the water as it gently lapped onto the shore, and if he'd let it, it could have easily lulled him to sleep. As it was, he was too enthralled by the sight of his surroundings that he couldn't drift off to sleep and again found his eyes wide open.
Slowly his head lifted to the horizon, where the lake came to an end and marvellous, snow-capped mountains sprung into view. Harry knew it must have still been warm even up there, for the snow was only at the very tip of the jagged mountains, which faded into green trees that otherwise covered them. His green gaze slid down, back over the massive, near-black lake. Hogwarts reflected in it much like it had the night before, though this time much more vibrant. It looked as though there were two castles, one on land and another beneath the lake's surface, and at once Harry imagined an underwater kingdom and couldn't help but wonder if such a thing existed.
A brilliant blue dragonfly flitted by then, settling down on the water's surface just where one of the reflected castle's spires was, and the glasslike appearance was melted into a ripple by the insect's tiny legs. How odd, Harry found it, that something as ordinary as a dragonfly could exist here. Perhaps it was a magical dragonfly, he thought, but guessed that to be far too silly to be true. Then again, in a world where dragons could be real, maybe dragonflies could be special, too. He reminded himself this was still the same planet he had always lived on, just a new and different was just as ordinary as it would be anywhere else, just as plain as the small, smooth rocks that laid across the shore and by Harry's stone perch.
Now that he had found the rocks, he couldn't stop his thoughts from wandering to whether they could be skipped like normal rocks. Well, rocks were rocks, here, there, and everywhere. Why should they be any different? As if to prove the point to himself, he took up a stone and fitted it firmly against his palm. Placing his fingers along its edges, he pulled his wrist back, ready to throw. Once more he found the dragonfly, still floating in his line of fire, oblivious to his actions.
"Shoo," said Harry quietly. "Go! You don't want to get wet, do you?" There was, of course, no response from the insect. He tried to coax it away a few more times, but to no avail. With a roll of his eyes he gave in, then shifted himself so that he was no longer in any danger of hitting the dragonfly.
Pulling back his arm again, he flicked his wrist and let the rock fly, and as expected, it skipped beautifully across the lake's surface. He chuckled softly to himself, and for whatever reason felt compelled to toss another stone. Within moments another rock had been let loose and it too skipped with the grace of the first rock.
"What are you doing, Harry?" The voice came just as he had taken up another stone, and as a reflect he let it go, causing it to hit the water and sink with a deep plunk. Harry spun around, twisted awkwardly as he remained sitting, and found Ron staring at him from the bank with a dumbfounded look.
"Hi Ron," said Harry, grinning as he realised he was talking to someone that wouldn't shout at or try to hit him. "I'm skipping some rocks. When did you get up?" Surprisingly, Ron raised a red brow as though he had just been told something very strange.
"Just a few minutes ago," he answered. "I had just changed when I looked out the window and saw you down here."
Carefully, Ron made his way over to Harry, hopping from stone to stone and somehow fitting his lanky limbs on an averaged-sized rock, but not without dunking his tattered cloak into the lake a few times.
"Now what's this about making rocks skip?" he asked.
"You've never skipped rocks before?" said Harry, a little shocked. "You just make them hop over the water, like this."
He took up yet another small stone and flicked it out over the lake. It skipped the surface four times before sinking, and he heard Ron gasp.
"Blimey, Harry, I didn't know you could do magic without a wand!" said Ron, his freckles wrinkling as a huge smile covered his face.
Harry blinked, brow furrowing as he thought.
"But this isn't magic, he said, "it's just skipping rocks. You just throw them a certain way, and they skip. That's all there is to it."
The next several minutes were spent by Harry attempting to show Ron how to properly hold and throw rocks to make them skip, which was having little success. Ron kept on about how Muggles could do such a thing without a spell, and halfway convinced Harry that perhaps it was magic after all. It wouldn't have been the first time he had done something magical without a wand. However, he knew he had seen his classmates in primary school skipping rocks, and of course not all of them could be witches and wizards, could they?
At long last, Harry succeeded in getting Ron to skip a rock a hop and a half across the lake.
"Wicked!" exclaimed Ron, beaming. "That was fun! We'll have to practise some more, but right now I'm starved. Let's go get some breakfast, fast, before they start serving lunch. Fred and George have told me about their bacon sandwiches, and I'm dying to try some. . ."
The two boys then headed back up the hill and to Hogwarts. Feeling his stomach rumble, Harry decided eating his first magical breakfast was just the thing to do. As they entered the courtyard, he noticed how much more crowded it had gotten as the morning had become later. It was truly becoming a beautiful day, and the sun was only growing warmer. Harry was glad he had explored the grounds early, for the heat from his robes was already making him break into a sweat.
Ron shoved open the doors to the Entrance Hall and they stepped inside, welcoming the shelter from the sun and the cool stone walls. Ron clapped his hands together, rubbing them and licking his lips.
"Let's have us some breakfast, shall we?" he said, eyes shining with eager anticipation. He got two steps forward before Hermione popped in front of him, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Looking for your classes?" she asked, her tone sarcastic as her gaze fell on Harry. "I didn't know you had any outside."
Harry thought about making up a lie that he'd been searching for the Herbology greenhouses, but he never got the chance.
"What's it matter to you?" said Ron, frowning. "Now would you get of the way? I'm so hungry I could eat a Graphorn."
"No, you couldn't," said Hermione, tossing her hair. "Graphorn hide is thicker than a dragon's. Most spells can't penetrate it, so your teeth would only break if you tried. You'd know that if you'd read Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newton Scamander—"
"Oi, that's a third year textbook!" said Ron, folding his arms over his chest. "Why would I have read that?"
"To actually learn something," she said, then looked to Harry. "So you still don't know where any of your classrooms are then, do you?"
"Well, no, but after breakfast I was going to—" began Harry, but Hermione interrupted.
"That can wait," she said. "If you don't know where your classes are, then you'll get lost and be late tomorrow. I won't have you losing points for Gryffindor because you don't know where to go." Without warning, Hermione had grabbed hold of Harry's arm, and it was all he could do to allow her to pull him along. "I suggest you come, too," she said, glancing back at Ron, who had gone very red in the ears. Not wanting Harry to have to suffer alone, he stomped off after them, muttering something under his breath about bacon sandwiches.
It dampened Harry's spirits that Hermione was able to expertly navigate the staircases despite only having been there half a day. She pulled him along and within just a few moments they were on the first floor. There was nothing special about these corridors, Harry noticed, nothing that distinguished them from any of the others. There were very accustomed to talking paintings, so he had yet to acquaint himself with any of them.
He was then being pulled down another staircase and whipped around a corner. Hermione hadn't said a word, and from her expression he could tell she was reigning in the countless things she knew about this otherwise barren hallway. He would've mentioned this to Ron so he wouldn't be so bitter, but with Hermione grasping his arm he supposed that wasn't such a good idea. The thought faded into nothing as a burst of warmth and sunlight hit him, and he realised Hermione had managed to somehow get them outside.
A grassy courtyard sprawled out before them, a covered walkway surrounding it. A few older students stood around, tossing strange, floating balls or playing a game of sorts with exploding cards. Some were reading and others were merely talking to their friends about their summer break. Overall, it was a very relaxed atmosphere, but Harry was not given the chance to enjoy it. Instead, Hermione rushed him through and soon he found himself on the other side of the covered walkway, planted in front of a set of very large double doors.
At last Hermione released him, still using one hand to cling to her books as she put her other, now-free hand on her hip and raised a brow at him.
"Do you know where we are?" she asked, as though the answer would be as simple as saying the colour of the sky.
"Er, no. . ." answered Harry quietly, knowing this would disappoint her and more than likely set her off on a lecture. He guessed correctly.
"Didn't you pay any attention to Percy's speech at all?" she asked, giving an exasperated sigh. "He told us where all the classrooms were and how to get there, not to mention there's a map on the message board and you could have always looked at the floor plans in Hogwarts: A History like I did—"
"I don't know about you," said Ron, and after being quiet for so long, Harry had almost forgotten he was there, "but some people like to eat, sleep, and breathe! We can't go reading all the time!"
"I expect you'll tell me your time was better spent practising that rubbish colour charm you tried to use on your rat yesterday?" said Hermione, and very quickly Ron shut his mouth and his ears went very red. She seemed quite pleased with this result. "This is the Transfiguration Courtyard, so that makes this room the Transfiguration classroom. It's our first class tomorrow, so you'd best know how to get here. Besides, Professor McGonagall wouldn't be at all pleased if you were late, and as she's our Head of House, she'd probably take off points to Gryffindor—"
"Do you ever stop talking?" asked Ron, frowning. "We know all of that! My brother's the prefect, for Merlin's sake!" Hermione gasped as if Ron had just said something terrible. Harry struggled to keep down a laugh.
"If you know so much, why don't you take us to where our next class is?" said Hermione, eyes still wide from Ron's apparently foul language.
"Fine, I will," he said and turned on his heel. Then he turned back around. "Er, which class comes next?"
Harry's eyes shut as he waited for Hermione to chide him. She did not defy his expectations.
"I thought you knew all this," she said, tone far too innocent to be sincere. "It's Potions with Professor Snape."
"Oh, right, I knew that." Again he turned around and Harry began to follow, only to look over his shoulder and find that Hermione had stayed put.
"You're going the wrong way," she said, and again Ron's ears went a shade that rather matched his tie. With a very disgruntled look, he turned around for a third time and shrugged past her, blatantly ignoring the smug smirk on the girl's face. Harry made a point to keep his eyes on the ground, not wishing to do anything that would embarrass Ron further. He quickened his pace to walk alongside his friend, well aware Hermione was still hovering behind them, extremely contented.
"You really don't know where you're going, do you?" he asked, lowering his voice so Hermione wouldn't hear.
Ron sighed gruffly, and he wouldn't look at Harry as though ashamed.
"Not really, no," he said quietly. "How are we supposed to know where Potions is? The castle is like a maze! Even after studying the floor plans, I'll reckon people get lost all the time!"
"If it's any help, I know who Professor Snape is," said Harry. "Percy pointed him out at dinner last night after I. . . well, Percy pointed him out. He's the Slytherin Head of House, too."
"Hold on, Harry, after what?" Ron had practically stopped and was looking at him now, like something he'd said had been bad. Harry swallowed, unsure of what to say. He didn't want Ron to think he was strange. After all, it was far from normal for a ten year-old scar to burn as if it was new simply from looking at a person. It gave him a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, but maybe it was merely a coincidence.
"It was nothing," said Harry quickly, walking a little faster to get Ron moving again so Hermione wouldn't become curious, "but did any of that help at all?"
"Yeah, I think so," said Ron, although his expression suggested he would question him later about the night before. "My brothers are always saying how the dungeons are Slytherin territory, and I don't think they mean that's just because they're scum. Maybe the Potions classroom is down there, if Snape's their Head of House."
"Worth a try," agreed Harry.
"If nothing else, maybe we can lose Hermione down there," added Ron, smiling as if the idea made him incredibly pleased.
The biggest problem with this plan, they soon realised, was actually reaching the dungeons. Completely disoriented, Harry wasn't even sure of which floor they had started on, much less how to get to the dungeons from wherever they were. It felt like, after every couple of steps, Hermione was telling them they were going the wrong way, or, worse, the long way.
She very much reminded him of a classmate he had had while in primary school. The classmate, too, had always been absolutely brilliant, exceedingly clever, and irritatingly proud of it, always answering questions and correcting everyone else's incorrect answers. She had never been well-liked by Dudley and his crew, and it was the fact that she was picked on by them that made Harry feel bad for her. Still, it was never as bad as his own bullying and the girl had never seemed to notice he was trying to help her. The greatest difference between the classmate and Hermione Granger was that, unfortunately, the classmate had at least been bearable.
After walking about seemingly aimlessly, the three found themselves in the Entrance Hall, which Harry thought had to be wrong. He waited to hear Hermione mocking them, walking absently beside Ron as he continued forward. To his great surprise, she said nothing and kept up behind them, and next he knew they were walking down a tiny staircase he'd never noticed before. Down and down they went, from one set of stairs to the next, finally reaching a spiralling set which seemed to reach down forever. He took notice of the lack of windows and even the torch light seemed fainter the farther they went, and this unnerved him a bit. After the barking creature in the hut, he didn't want to imagine what would be in the dark depths of the dungeons.
At last they stopped spiralling downward, and he was dizzier than he'd been after navigating the Grand Staircase. Ron gave a quick shake of his head, possibly to straighten his mind, as well. In the silence, Harry took a moment to take in his surroundings. They were just as dismal as they'd been in the stairwell, even though the dungeon was a bit more open. It looked as if this floor sprawled out just as far as the other corridors of the castle, and each corner was darker than its surroundings, hiding who knew what. He had a nasty feeling that if he drew too near a cranny, something would jump out and attack him. The walls were practically covered in spider webs, which didn't particularly bother him, but with a glance over at Ron, he could tell he was bothered by the eight-legged creatures crawling about as he cowered away from the walls. Hermione simply gave a huff and folded her arms as best she could while still holding her books. How she hadn't gotten tired carrying them everywhere was a mystery to him.
"So?" she asked after a moment, raising a brow.
"So what?" demanded Ron, frowning.
"Where do we go from here?" she asked. "This isn't the Potions classroom, if you haven't noticed."
"D'you mind? We're taking a break! We've been running up and down stairs for nearly an hour!"
"You're exaggerating. Besides, we would've found it a lot faster if you had swallowed your pride and realised you didn't know where you were going."
"Fine then! Just show us where to go so we can end this nightmare!"
Although Hermione looked satisfied as she walked past them, Harry found that Ron was smirking. Confused, Harry didn't put much thought into it and started to follow her, but Ron grabbed his arm.
"C'mon, let's go!" he told him, whispering. "She'll never know if we go off now!"
Harry's face brightened considerably.
"Alright, let's go!"
Giving a wide smile, Ron pulled him along back to the staircase. Harry considered how lucky they were that they hadn't ventured far into the dungeons, so there was no chance of them getting lost on the way back. He was also more than happy to be getting out of there. Something about the dim atmosphere set him on edge, which was something when he took into account he had spent most of his life cooped up in a dark, cramped cupboard under the stairs.
They were about halfway up the spiralling staircase when Ron stopped to catch his breath and Harry's mind began to wander.
"Is it right to just leave Hermione down there?" he asked in between gulping gasps of air.
"Of course it is!" said Ron, scoffing. "You've heard her go on and on about how well she knows the floor plans! And if she does get lost, well, it serves her right for being such a know-it-all!"
"Yeah, but I don't know if this is the friendliest place for her to get lost. . ."
Something like guilt crossed Ron's expression, but after a brief moment of consideration, he shrugged and apparently decided he didn't think it necessary to go find her. Again he started up the steps, and Harry had no choice but to follow him after casting a glance over his shoulder in hopes of seeing a bushy brunette chasing after them.
Harry really began to wish they'd not taken a break, for the ache in his legs was greater now than it had been before. His calves burned and he was growing rather tired of stumbling every time a step decided to disappear. Ron appeared to be having just as many problems as he was, hobbling up the stairs at a pace much slower than average. The only thing that kept the two going was the promise of delicious food awaiting them in the Great Hall once they reached the top of the stairwell.
After what felt like an eternity, they finally stepped out form the spiral staircase and onto a landing. Looking up, Harry rejoiced that they only had two flights to go until they reached the Entrance Hall, and then finally they could sit. Ron, however, took this as another opportunity to take a break and promptly braced himself against the wall. Harry did much of the same, leaning his back on the cool, stone walls, able to feel the chill straight through his robes. He welcomed the feeling, unaware until now of how hard his heart was beating, and he let his head fall backwards until it too rested against the stone wall, then slowly shut his eyes.
"Get lost, Potter?"
The smooth, smug voice he heard was not one Harry wanted to hear, especially not now. Opening his eyes and pulling his head up, he found himself face-to-face with Draco Malfoy, who was smirking just as arrogantly as he'd sounded.
"Or were you trying to find your way down here?" he continued. "You told the Hat you didn't want to be in Slytherin, but I'll bet you were lying to keep your Weasel fan-club happy."
"Shut it, Malfoy," growled Ron, straightening up. He towered over Malfoy, but that advantage disappeared abruptly as Crabbe and Goyle cropped up seemingly out of nowhere. Ron wisely backed down and stood beside Harry.
"No one needs to hear from you, Weasley," sneered Malfoy, folding his arms over his chest.
"What do you want, Malfoy?" demanded Harry, sounding a lot more confident than he felt. When Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle turned their eyes on him, he didn't falter. He matched Malfoy's stare, the look given to him reminding him strongly of Dudley. He wouldn't allow himself to be pushed around here, though, for this was different. He had Ron on his side, and he knew in just a few weeks he'd probably be able to make even more friends. No one was going to intimidate him, especially not a spoiled brat like Malfoy.
"Why, we were only trying to help you find your way," said Malfoy, "no need to be so rude."
"We've found our way fine on our own, thanks," replied Harry, using a tone much like he had the night before.
Malfoy narrowed his eyes at him.
"What were you doing down there? Lose something?"
"Mind your own business, will you?" said Ron, grabbing Harry's shoulder and giving it a tug. "C'mon, Harry."
"Sure you didn't lose something, Potter? Or rather, someone?"
Harry had begun to walk away, but something in Malfoy's tone forced him to turn back.
"What are you talking about?" he asked, brow furrowing.
"Well, that Gryffindor girl looked fairly out of place down in the dungeons," said Malfoy, the corner of his mouth curved up into a most cruel grin. "She seemed a bit flustered, too. You didn't leave her down there, did you? I don't want to think of the terrible things that could happen if. . . the wrong sort found her, if you know what I mean."
Before Harry could react, Malfoy had turned on his heel and stalked off down the stairs, Crabbe and Goyle following shortly after him. Harry glanced over at Ron, who was frowning.
"Hermione," said Harry, "they had to mean Hermione."
"What can we do?" asked Ron, still looking perplexed. "It's not as if we know enough magic to stop them— or any, for that matter. In fact, they don't know enough magic to do anything to her, so we've got nothing to worry about!"
"You don't need magic to do something to someone, I know that much," said Harry bitterly. He knew that all too well from experience with Dudley.
"What do you suggest we do, then? We can't very well fight them! Those two giant blokes could sit on us and we'd be done for!"
"We have to do something. Maybe we can find her before they do."
"Well, thank you very much for your concern, but I don't think that will be necessary."
Ron and Harry spun around to find Hermione standing there, one hand on her hip, the other permanently attached to her books.
"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Ron, his eyes very nearly popping out of his skull. "How did you—"
"Once I saw those three, I knew they'd be nothing but trouble," said Hermione, tossing her head. "I knew I had to get out of there without them coming back and finding me, so I took a shortcut."
"We're glad to see you're okay, Hermione," said Harry, "but where—"
"Secret passageway," she answered, jabbing a thumb back at a purple tapestry with a dragon on it. "You'd know about them if—"
"We'd read Hogwarts: A History, we know," said Ron irritably, but Harry grinned. Hermione was smiling softly as well.
"Yes, well, I suppose you're far overdue for your breakfast, aren't you?" she asked, trying to hide her rather toothy smile behind her lips. "Why don't' we go to the Great Hall?"
"It's about time!" shouted Ron, looking extremely exasperated. "My stomach's almost eaten straight through me!"
"And I suppose you can lead us there, at least?" said Hermione, keeping a hand rested on her hip as a brown brow arched itself over her eye.
"Yeah! Of course I can!" said Ron, pouting and making a move toward the stairs. At once, he hesitated, and Harry did all he could to hold back a laugh as his friend looked over at Hermione.
"Though, if you wanted to take us there, you could feel free—" he began sheepishly, but she was far ahead of him. Already the bushy-haired brunette was bounding up the steps, Ron and Harry chasing after her. She gave the doors at the top of the staircase a push and they opened, and she simply pointed a finger across the hall, where they could see the four long tables lined with students in the Great Hall.
"Finally!" said Ron, and suddenly he had a burst of energy Harry hadn't been expecting. Ron took off, leaping up the last of the stairs and darting across the Entrance Hall. Harry wasn't far behind as his stomach growled with the prospect of being fed, and Hermione trailed after him.
"After we eat, I can show you where the rest of your classrooms are!" she called after them.
"We'll find a way to lose her this time, I'm sure of it," he said, plopping down and promptly shovelling bacon sandwiches into his mouth.
"I dunno," said Harry, shaking his head, "something tells me it'll be a long time before we manage to lost Hermione Granger."