Author's Note: This week's delay has been brought to you by extended rewriting and The Stormlight Archive, featuring: The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. And now back to your regularly scheduled broadcast.
Knocking could be heard outside the library. Not the usual woody echo from regular doors but a solid tap, tap, tap against hard stone. Harry could easily guess who might want in. With a wand in hand as a precaution, he entered the main room to feel two familiar presences behind the seventh floor entrance. No wonder I can tell them apart lately, they feel quite distinct from each other. And Fred is uniquely... bolder? Hmm, that seems right, I've never noticed what someone's personality feels like before. But maybe that's only in my mind - hard to tell.
He opened the door to reveal twin red haired boys doing a marvelous job at acting nonchalant, as if they happened to be passing by and stopped for a second to discuss the eccentric tapestries.
Sliding past Harry, they nodded as if he was their butler, ready to take their coats. "Evening," they chorused.
"We just heard the most unusual rumor about you two venturing through the forest for detention..." Harry only raised his eyebrows in puzzlement at how it spread so quickly, not giving anything else away.
The twins soon caught on. He wasn't going to be baited into boasting about exploits, so they dived into the meat of things with a keen hunger. "Did you really meet some centaurs?"
"Did you see the giant spiders too?"
"Hear any thestrals?"
"What about the three headed dog?"
"How do you know about Fluffy?" Asked a curious Hermione, standing in the library doorway.
The twins eyed each other knowingly, "Not even her first time in the forest and she's already naming the beasts like they were pet Puffskein." Fred teased.
"Hopefully she doesn't find a werewolf pup next and name him snuggles." George managed to get a smile out of her.
Harry played along, "I was guessing it might be Mittens the dragon, but it wasn't Hermione that named Fluffy. And he's in the castle now, did you hear the bark last night? - That might be what got us caught."
Stunned silence was the only response as the Weasleys looked back and forth from the two earnest first years and then at each other, wondering if it was a joke.
"You can't be serious!" Fred almost shouted.
"You let that three headed demon into the castle and all you got was fifty points and a single detention?" George was staring at them like solid gold bars were flowing out of their noses.
"That's almost worse than what we've done! And McGonagall threatened a whole month worth of detention if she caught who let that loose in the dorms."
Harry chucked and held up his hands, "No, no, the teachers probably let him in at the beginning of the year to guard something. We don't know what, but recent talk has given me an idea. Last night we only checked in on Fluffy, probably should have waited until daylight for that."
"Now you say that..." Hermione grumbled, "The first time you get me to break a rule and we get caught."
"You little imps, should have brought us along!" Fred chastised them, "Wouldn't have gotten caught with us along."
"We even know a good silencing spell that could have helped." Offered George as he twirled his wand.
"See George, I told you they both should have been in Gryffindor. I bet we could have got McGonagall to let Harry on the quidditch team his first year too!"
"You've got to tell us everything, how did Flitwick react? He's always so calm in charms."
"And what really happened in the forest today?"
Harry and Hermione exchanged an amused look, then led them into the library to explain most of the story, yet again. Feeling resigned at having already been caught, Harry let on about adventuring into various house common rooms but left out how it was done to keep them guessing. To prove it, he allowed the twins to help develop the photos with a simple potion they had on hand. While they became entranced with the various scenes from other houses, Harry quickly removed the numerous photos of Hermione for safe keeping. Although he was sorely tempted to hide some even from her, the wry look she gave him upon noticing the piles he pocketed made him reconsider.
After much talk and further speculation on how Harry accomplished it all, they came upon a revelation. It turned out that the Slytherin Dungeon was how they got caught. George remembered once overhearing a smug Slytherin bragging about the protections for their house. "He claimed there was a spell on the door that could detect anyone who entered the dorms, unless they were polyjuiced. And since Snape is the potions professor, he would know about anyone trying to brew that."
"Silly duffer told us exactly how to get in." Laughed Fred.
"Except once we found the recipe and landed those ingredients, someone forgot to stir in the lacewings often enough." George gave a pointed glance at Fred.
"I couldn't be expected to wake up at five in the morning every other day for a month! It's inhuman. And that's why we need a house elf next time." Hermione rolled her eyes at that, but refrained from commenting.
While Harry smacked himself in realization, "So that's why Snape was rushing through the hallway so late at night!"
The rest of the evening was spent telling stories and bargaining for Harry's secret in exchange for borrowing the map or learning other secrets in return. Hermione didn't like the idea of the two worst pranksters ever using an invisibility cloak and the marauder's map at the same time, but they tried to coax the secret out of her none the less, knowing she might be the key to convince Harry. On the other hand, Harry secretly encouraged Hermione's skepticism as they conspired together to negotiate the best deal possible, whenever they did decide to reveal it all.
Hagrid was up and about the next day, on the largest crutches Harry had ever seen, yet those would only last a couple of days. When Harry and Hermione visited him in the hospital wing he thanked them for their help and pulled Harry aside as he started to apologize for only saving Hermione.
"Yeh did good out there, don' let no one tell yeh different. Can't protect everyone, an' she needed it more. Much more. - Yeh both were right too. Forest ain't no place fer kids, an' I'm not much good without a wand. Useless really..." He brushed off Harry's protests and continued, "Next time yeh get in trouble, I can take yeh fishin' by the lake or somethin'. Oh, an' I talked ter yer teachers about them points, considerin' yer help yesterday, they decided ter let it go."
"Thanks, I'm sure Hermione will like to hear that." Harry looked to her, talking eagerly with madam Pomfrey about specific healing spells, then turned back. "But you're not useless Hagrid, everyone has a different set of skills. Ours just aren't great at keeping trees upright, though how often could that be useful?" They both smiled and Harry got his hair ruffled in thanks.
"Supposin' yeh'll be wantin' another project then, what with not needin' moke skin pouches anymore. What would yeh say ter helpin' me collect Mooncalf dung? Professor Sprout can't get enough o' the stuff."
Chuckling under his breath, Harry considered the offer, "Hmm, I have a feeling Sue and Padma might want pouches of their own when they get back. So we could still keep checking the traps, but a new project might be fun too. Only, I don't think Flitwick will let me out of the dorms in the middle of the night again to help track Mooncalves... What do you know about Graphorn?"
"Ha!" Hagrid clapped him on the back in amusement. "An' here I thought yeh wanted ter stay away from dangerous beasties. Tell yeh what, why don't we stick with an easy one fer now. Professor Snape's bin needin' a bunch o' flitterby moths fer potions, an' so has Clagan fer who knows what. If yeh catch enough, maybe he'll improve that watch o' yours."
Harry shrugged, "Not as interesting, but tempting enough. I guess we can discuss it next weekend after classes start?"
"O' course." Hagrid ruffled his hair once again as Hermione returned to be filled in on their latest plans.
Later in the day, Harry and Hermione were alone again, revising their lists of spells and desired items after the windfall of amazing gifts and recent events. Harry sat thinking, watching Hermione scribble out the pros and cons of each new spell she wanted to learn with an intent expression on her face.
What do you do after finding out someone, or something wants to kill you? Run and hide? Confront them? Ignore it? Complain? - No... If you're smart, you research and prepare. You don't make rash decisions or allow the fear to consume you. You learn from other's mistakes. - The stupid ones push people away to protect them and are left defenseless. The gullible ones trust in those they don't know and get betrayed. The pessimistic trust nothing and lose everything. The overconfident face things head on and get duped. While I sit here pretending to know something about fighting for my life after reading a bunch of fiction...
Ughhhh... what am I supposed to do? Sit around reading The Art of War while some loon tries to have me killed in the middle of school? No, I can't start moaning about how horrible my life is, not when things are finally starting to look up.
Hermione held up a whole page of notes and grinned in satisfaction at him, then went back to writing more on the reverse side. Glancing at his empty page now and then.
She'll be in danger too, as long as she's around me. But I'm not going to push her away, even if it is completely selfish. She wouldn't want that either... would she? - Forget it, I never worried this much when I was scared of getting slapped around by uncle Vernon. I'll do what I did then. Practice like crazy and find a way to stop the bad things from happening. I'll make plans but stay flexible. Learn what my limits are and use the skills I have. I won't give in. I'll fight.
But this time I might have help.
Harry smiled back at Hermione as she looked up at him again. She roller her eyes and tapped his paper, "Are you going to help or leave me to do all the work like that history project last term?"
"Hey, I did research! Just because you read everything I did doesn't mean I didn't try. I even offered to write it but you complained about my bad handwriting. Besides, I'm thinking things through in my head before writing it down."
"Excuses, excuses, get to work mister." She waved him away. Harry smirked slightly and began tickling her with wandless magic. "Don't. You. Start!" Hermione tensed, pulling out her wand as he cracked up laughing at her indignant expression. He held up his hands in surrender as she leveled her wand at him.
"Okay. Okay, I'll work now. No need for jinxes."
She gave him a watchful glare and huffed when he finally started writing.
They spent the next hour comparing notes and narrowing down their lists, each picking new spells to learn and selecting the most needed items. Harry neglected to mention some spells he intended to research privately, so as to not worry her, as she did the same. Finally completing their discussion left them with nothing to do but read silently for a while. Although that didn't last long.
Glancing up at each other from the other side of the table, both could guess what the other was thinking but neither willing to say it. Harry began tossing the doorknob up in the air and catching it, pretending not to care.
"Alright already!" Hermione gave up first, slamming her book shut, "We can practice Occlumency again, but no more talk of embarrassing moments or anything like before, okay?"
Harry tried to resist smiling but failed miserably by the look of chagrin on her face. "As you wish."
They began with simple exercises Dumbledore taught him, moving a memory out of reach, disguising it as something else, and placing a solid wall in front of everything to block him out. But soon the imaginary room they practiced in was filled with more thoughts and memories inching toward Harry. When one memory of them kissing on Christmas hit him on the lips, Hermione shoved him out of her mind, surprised at how easy it was this time.
After resting for a while, sorting books, they tried again, and then had a dueling match when Harry saw her desire to defeat him. He won as was usual lately, but Hermione was getting progressively better. Pushing him to improve and refine the way he moved and cast, even struggling to keep up with the variety of new spells she was learning. They ended by experimenting with the new spells they'd chosen, and then returned to the library to rest.
Drained from a long day, Harry transfigured the puffskein chair into a small couch and they read together, Hermione with one foot over the back, the other on the arm, sprawled out taking up the lion's share. Harry didn't mind, except when she slapped his hand away from playing with her hair.
The last days of winter holiday were much the same, reading, playing, dueling, and practicing every form of magic they could manage. Intermixed with exploration journeys into deeper parts of the room, while Fred and George continued goofing around like usual and playing in their new potions lab. During their rides Harry kept trying to summon something, but wasn't successful, avoiding any questions about what it was. The twins were stockpiling rare and unusual potion ingredients along with a variety of equipment and other supplies, not giving away any secrets either. While Hermione openly asked them all to keep a look out for magical ink and clean parchment.
Saturday the fourth was another ordinary day with Harry meeting Dumbledore in his office after lunch. Earlier however, misfortune greeted Hermione as she was trying to stuff an extra book into her already packed mokeskin pouch. It burst apart inside the Ravenclaw library, dumping everything onto the floor for the whole world to see, or rather the three Ravenclaws who weren't paying attention. Harry bent down to help pick things up, but before he could touch anything she dived for her brush and other items, knocking him over in the process. Quickly picking things up and stuffing all she could in her pockets, she turned around sheepishly toward Harry with rosy cheeks.
Harry just laughed, "Well that was unexpected. Need some help with the books?" She nodded, and they stacked them on the table.
Picking up the flattened remains of her mokeskin pouch, Hermione frowned in extreme disappointment, "It's completely broken, not even a inkwell could fit in it now."
"At least it's not ripped, it looks like only the leather strap came apart." Harry checked his own, it was stretched and worn as well. "It almost looks like Hagrid used that old dragon leather he got at the junk shop..."
"You think it can be repaired? We don't have any dragon leather, and some of those enchanting books you have say not to try re-enchanting anything and only buy new."
He shrugged, "There's bound to be some way to fix it, and I'm sure the room has dragon leather somewhere." While inspecting his pouch and thinking, a smile slowly formed as he reached into it, "But we don't need dragon leather when we have these." He pulled out the bundle of unicorn hair, "And I'm meeting with Dumbledore today, I'm sure he can repair it."
A similar smile grew to match his, as Hermione hugged him tightly, "Thanks Harry, you're definitely worth putting up with."
Harry snorted, "Thanks for that ringing endorsement, you're quite the comfortable heater yourself." She punched his shoulder lightly and grabbed an armful of books, heading towards the Gryffindor tower then the disappearing room. They stored all their possessions and went to lunch soon after.
Parting ways with Hermione following their meal, he circled back around to the Great Hall, only to be greeted by some older boys still sitting at a table, discussing the latest professional quidditch match or something equally unimportant nonsense. One of them noticed him at the door and gave him a funny look, so Harry wandered away heading up to the third floor. Catching sight of the large stone gargoyle, Harry wondered how he would get in without the password, but upon his arrival it stepped aside obediently, even bowing to him this time. That's strange, I guess he's expecting me to come this way.
Muffled talk could be heard before Harry opened the doors outside the spiral stairs, but it quieted instantly as soon as he touched the handle. Dumbledore swung around to face him as he entered, looking as though he had been pacing in front of his desk. He wore deep red robes with gold filigree, making him appear much more serious than usual. And there was Fawkes, finally sitting on his golden perch. Resplendent red feathers almost glowing in the dim light, outshining the headmaster in all his finery by a mile. Fawkes seemed to bow ever so slightly, acknowledging Harry's presence, and then disappeared in a flash of flames at a simple wave of Dumbledore's hand. What's that about? Does he worry I'm going to become too interested in his Phoenix as well?
A knowing grin appeared on the Headmaster's face, "Decided to make your own way up this time? I cannot say I am surprised. Not after what happened in the forest will I underestimate your inventiveness. Using two wands at once to compensate for your lack of leverage was inspired, although I question why you did not use the same technique in reverse to push the tree off course."
"I only thought of it halfway through falling... and how did you find all that out? Were you really following us? Because I don't think Hagrid even saw what I did."
He shook his head regretfully, "I was not, unfortunately. Professor McGonagall mentioned you assumed that, and how I suggested Hagrid take you there as well. Yet neither is accurate. While I did persuade Hagrid to supervise your detention while I was away, I seem to have once again underestimated his unique interpretation of danger."
As I thought, that presence I felt outside the forest must have been someone else. "Then how did you know what happened?" Some kind of magic tracking device?
"Ah, yes. Hagrid did help me with that." The twinkle in his eyes reappeared, "Memories can be tricky things, but magic can be as well. - I am glad you all are well though. I talked to Madam Pomfrey and she informed me Hagrid will be back on both his feet by the start of school." His expression grew solemn once more, "Would you mind explaining what happened while you were being chased?"
Harry narrowed his eyes at Dumbledore, "You know what it is, don't you? You knew what it was the first time I described it entering my mind. Is it him? Voldemort?"
"...I cannot be certain. Many of his followers took on similar traits as him, were taught the same skills, and twisted into unrecognizable travesties of their former selves. But I have taken measures to protect you and the school from further harm." He returned to the severe attitude from the moment before he saw Harry, seemingly wanting to pace again, and speak his thoughts aloud.
"Were these the same protections at Halloween? Did you suspect one of his followers to be here then, creating chaos?"
The headmaster winced ever so slightly, "I can see it will be difficult to keep you from discovering some things, yet I must try. For your own safety and everyone else's. Although I can tell you this, there was a test then to see if my suspicions were true, and later the attack on your mind confined it. We prepared for Halloween, but never suspected an attempt like that. Preparations have improved greatly since then."
Raising his eyebrows, Harry blinked a few times, "Like having the groundskeeper escort kids into a dangerous forest and making sure trees don't suddenly fall on people? Or like leaving a precious artifact to be guarded here in the castle like bait? - What the bloody hell is going on around here?"
"How...? Never mind, you undoubtedly will learn much more about the Philosopher's Stone and why someone might want it, but you must not seek out this person." He eyed Harry with a forbidding expression. "I have been lenient, forgiving your disrespectful attitude and impudent behavior in the past, but not on this issue. It is imperative to capturing the culprit alive and discovering who is behind it all. As for the perpetrations, nothing is foolproof, yet this is close."
Harry felt slightly ashamed under that piercing gaze as he had never spoken to an adult so bluntly, unless to intentionally insult them. Their growing familiarity over the past months was distracting him from staying calm and collected. Yet those thoughts and emotions fled as he brooded over the danger to Hermione. "So you want me to sit on my hands here, while a crazed cult follower somehow stalks the grounds attempting to murder me and my friends? I can only guess what the Halloween incident was supposed to accomplish, but it's obvious that I'm being targeted now. I thought Hogwarts was supposed to be safe! How are you even allowing this to happen in a school of all places?"
With a resigned sigh, Dumbledore sat down in his chair. "It was a difficult decision, but there are only two things that desperately need protecting from this cult as you call it. The Philosopher's Stone, which we have guarded with many different methods, and you, which we guard with many more. Bringing both together in the only secure place where we have the advantage, was the best option and the only option now that it has started. - The one other safe place for you is your home with the Dursleys, and if we send you back, there is no telling what their next attempt might be."
"You mean you want to keep me here or at my relatives until I grow old and die? Don't-"
"No. The protection at the Dursleys only lasts until you are seventeen, when you come of age. That is why this plan was formed, to lure them out of hiding, to prepare you, and hopefully stop this once and for all. That is why it must succeed, otherwise you might be hunted for the rest of your life, or worse."
Harry noticed the portraits glancing down at them in his peripheral vision, greatly interested in the conversation. Trying to calm himself, he continued, "How much is actually planned and prepared for, rather than made up as time goes on?"
"I shall admit, learning more about you and your abilities has greatly altered our original plan, yet for the better. Precautions have only increased due to these dangerous incidents, and we are expecting the trap to be sprung soon. Only my most trusted professors know the details, as any inexperienced actions might risk exposure. So I strongly urge you not to pursue this matter further, else it could all be for naught."
So am I part of the bait, or just an unpredictable variable?
Thinking it all over, Harry's stomach began twisting in knots at the idea of being left in the dark, helpless to do anything. He yearned to find out more and try to gain some measure of control to confront the problem or destroy it, yet he also knew that was exactly what he told Hermione he wouldn't do. - Harry breathed deeply, deciding instead to risk his trust one more time and let Dumbledore handle things. Which might also allow him to use the situation to his advantage.
"I want a favor in return for going along with this." Harry said evenly. Dumbledore scrutinized him, but didn't refuse outright. "You have to help me prepare a defense personally."
"Legilimency is not a defense, and I have told you before I will not teach it to you, nor other aggressive tactics." He hesitated, "But I will try to help any other way, if time allows. Is that acceptable?"
Taking a moment and pretending to think it over, Harry was secretly overjoyed. As he didn't even need Legilimency training any longer and this would allow him to prepare in other ways. "I suppose. - I've been thinking about getting a few emergency portkeys and enchanted clothing, but how about we start off with something small, like re-enchanting these mokeskin pouches?" He plopped them on the table, resisting any hint of a smile.
With another shake of his head, Dumbledore began to chuckle, "I should have known..." He picked them up and inspected the quality, noticing the threaded unicorn hair and rather large size compared to most. "These must be the ones from Hagrid, but what happened to disenchant them?"
"The dragon leather straps broke apart, so I figured unicorn hair might work better."
"Indeed they might, indeed they might... possibly too well for so much. Let us see if I can add a preservation and impervius charm to make them last longer as well. That might offset the magic needed for the undetectable extension charm. Now, I trust you will not try something like this on your own, since it can be very dangerous if performed incorrectly." Harry nodded, eager to watch someone permanently enchant something for the first time.
Sitting up straight and subtly slipping on a few rings, Dumbledore rolled back his sleeves, pulled out an unfamiliar wand from a hidden pocket and made a complicated design in the air, then cast. Brilliant white light illuminated the room, glowing from one bag, then extending to the other. Dumbledore's face took on a strained countenance, as the rings on his fingers seemed to burn a deep red, giving a pink cast to the surrounding room. A loud crack and hiss ended the show as he slumped back into the chair, looking weary and slightly puzzled.
"Ehm, sir, your ring is smoking." With a languid energy, Dumbledore examined the cracked gem on top, tapped it a few times with his wand and slipped it back in a drawer with the rest. "I'm, guessing that didn't go as planned?" Inquired Harry.
"That is an accurate assessment. I expected it to possibly test the limits of my magic, not exceed them in such an alarming fashion. The pouches should be fine, although I do not suppose you knew that all the parts were assembled from the same two creatures?"
"I guessed the mokeskin was, but I never suspected it of all that unicorn hair. But why should it matter?"
Standing up with renewed vigor, Dumbledore was incredulous, "Why should it matter? Dear boy, do you not read those enchanting books professor Flitwick has been stocking in the library for you? Enchanting twin items made of the same material is extremely difficult, and requires double, or often triple the amount of magic used, depending on the spells performed. That is one of the many reasons enchanting is so dangerous."
"Oh... a book mentioned something like that in context with purposefully connecting wood vanishing boxes, but nothing else. I'm sorry, it simply never occurred to me that it could happen accidentally with hair and skin." Harry frowned in frustration, "I really wish enchanting was a subject at school, so I could learn it properly. Some of those books are awfully lacking in details. - I hope you're alright?"
Dumbledore stretched a little, nodding, "Of course, though mainly because of precautionary measures, which should always be adhered to. I do not suppose that ring will ever be the same though."
"I'd be happy to replace it, I saw one like it in my vault. Except I don't know if it's that similar."
Dumbledore waved it off, "It was a mere imitation I created in my earlier years, and as you might guess, enchanting is not my strongest area of expertise. Your idea of an enchanting class does have merit. Usually it is left for an apprenticeship, such as wand making, but many students have failed wretchedly trying to enchant things on their own. A course including safety precautions and basic theory might help, but finding a teacher would be exceedingly difficult. I shall have to think on it." He adjusted his glasses while opening a jar of pink coconut ice on his desk and offered some to Harry, "I expect neither of us are in a fit state to practice occlumency today. What do you say to a game of wizard's chess?"
Picking the pristine looking pouches off the table Harry let a smile form as he took a sweet, "Sounds like fun."
On his way back from being beaten twice in a row, and tying once, Harry began inspecting his pouch. The mouth seemed to stretch a little easier, and it felt different reaching his hand inside, but he couldn't touch the bottom. It was apparently much deeper than before, since his whole shoulder and arm still didn't reach the limit. A passing Hufflepuff girl nearly screamed in panic at the sight. He quickly reassured her he was okay, and moved on, making a mental note to save that for April fools day.
Presenting a repaired and improved pouch back to Hermione yielded another generous hug, as she hopped up and down against him in excitement. They quickly escaped to the disappearing room after grabbing their stuff again to test them out completely. Searching for something that might be long enough to determine the depth, they tried all kinds of things as they couldn't see to the bottom. Hermione picked up a yard stick but started laughing when it still couldn't reach. A few minutes later Harry found a magical pointing stick that extended twice their size or more, appearing to be something that Flitwick might use in class. They both watched, amazed as nearly the entire device disappeared inside his pouch, leaving only a hand width outside when it finally hit the bottom. Accidentally letting it go was a surprise, they discovered it didn't move but was held in place somehow where Harry left it. Pulling it up gave the same effect, like it was stuck in a thick pudding. Hermione dropped a few old teacups in hers, testing if they would drop down and break but instead stayed near the surface, able to be retrieve by hand.
Quite pleased with the new enhancements, they took another tour on the flying carpet, looking for useful larger items they could now easily carry around with them. Both picked up relatively good brooms, some seasonal clothing, blankets, a few pillows, and a couple unbreakable containers. Harry found another comfy leather chair, collapsible table, and a ton suitcase he wanted, along with the strange kris and some kind of magical shield. Hermione had to crawl inside hers to arrange everything after finding a long enough rope. She managed to get a small bookcase, a desk, chairs, lamp, rug, and cabinet to store some extra clothes and other trinkets inside. It was slightly odd for Harry to watch her climb down a thick rope into a small bit of leather but he figured it must be worse to actually do it. When he tried joining her to see what it was like, he got stuck as his own bag wouldn't follow him in.
The old conundrum about having bags of holding within bags of holding seemed to be answered. So he left his outside in order to get in Hermione's way and bug her while she worked, or at least that was how she put it. The lip of the pouch pulled tight around the rope, obscuring any light from outside. It was a small tent sized room, lit well from a flameless lamp on her new desk, and already had a cozy feel like it had been lived in for ages, while today was only a spring cleaning. After being scolded for hovering, Harry sat in a chair and watched Hermione put her books away, sort the clothes, arrange some stationary at the desk, and hide a few other things in the cabinet. When she was finally done she sighed, as Harry clapped.
"Now you have to hope nothing falls over while carrying it around. Want me to go test it?"
"With me inside? Are you asking to get hexed?" She put her hands on her hips and started him down.
Harry only smiled, "We already saw how it keeps things in place from the outside, but what if it's different from inside? Wouldn't you like to make sure nothing is going to fall down and break before you leave? Besides, it'll be an interesting test to see how it works."
"I've got a better idea, you stay here and see first hand while I go out and shake it." Smirking at him, she made for the rope in bluff.
"Okay, but do it gently, just in case."
"You're serious aren't you? - Fine, I guess if you really want to. Yell if anything starts moving." She cast the featherlight charm on herself and made her way up the rope. Looking over her shoulder with a wary eye at Harry, as she made sure he didn't look up her skirt.
As soon as she exited, Harry began poking around in her stuff, worried about what made her react so strangely earlier in the day. Everything seemed to be normal, then he felt gravity shift on him, yet it didn't pull him or anything else physically. It became harder to move in the opposite direction, making him feel weird, like he was strapped in a chair that was glued sideways to a wall. He kept going, making sure Hermione didn't pick up anything dangerous in the room, casting spells and letting his senses roam as he did so. Nothing seemed wrong until he opened one last drawer, containing some pink knickers. He closed it quick, realizing what he was doing; invading her privacy like some creepy stalker. Walking back to the ladder he called up, "It all seems fine, I can feel gravity change as you move it, but nothing is falling over."
"Do you like how I folded my clothes too? Or were you just testing how they would be affected?" She called down to him.
He could hear the thick sarcasm on her voice. Definitely busted, and completely at her mercy. "I... I was worried, I'm sorry."
"Worried about what Harry? Me having some privacy?"
Best to be honest, as it sounds better than any other reason I could have. "I was afraid something might be influencing you from the room. I read all those books on protecting yourself from evil spells or artifacts and acting weird and secretive all of a sudden is a sign, like earlier today when your pouch broke. That's why I wanted to know what you keep in here."
Sounding calmer, she talked while sliding down the rope, "I believe you, and I allowed you to look around while I watched, but there are some things that need to be kept private. With you in my head lately, that's even more important. I can see why you might be suspicious but girls being secretive around boys is normal. I expect you to ask first if you ever get worried again, not go snooping around. Okay?"
Harry nodded in disgrace, worried about what might be coming next. If she would stop talking to him again, or something even worse. But instead, he got another hug. This one he savored because he didn't deserve it.
"I'm really sorry. I wasn't thinking, and I promise to always ask you first."
She squeezed him tighter in response, a little too tight.
Fawkes alighted back on his perch in a fiery squawk, startling a few nearby portraits and gaining a kindly smile from Dumbledore. The conversion picked up again after the interruption.
"Was it wise to trust the boy with such information Dumbledore? He does not seem the type to obey authority or trust in others easily." Cautioned a long nosed witch with glasses.
"Obey authority Eupraxia? He downright sneers at it after spitting in its eye!" Growled Black, "To trust such a child... the way he treats authority is an affront to the entire headmaster position. Let alone the bold face manipulation that's allowed. He must imagine himself head boy and the long lost heir of every house in Hogwarts combined!"
A balding man with a trimmed white beard barked a laugh, "He certainly does think highly of himself, and acts nothing like a timid first year student. But if I remember correctly, you were not much different Phineas."
"I was nothing like him." Black clipped, while glancing away.
"Does his brash attitude and abnormal maturity make you uncomfortable, as if looking in a mirror? Or is it that he doesn't belong to Slytherin that upsets you the most?" A curt snort was all that replied back.
One of the oldest portraits there, a grey haired man in simple brown robes spoke up, "It is known, that excessive use of magic can alter developing minds. That is precisely the reason wands are restricted until a fit age, and only then taught progressively more advanced spells. Even unconventional ancient houses who ignore that rule, know not to bestow wands to their children too early, or allow them free reign thereafter. If the tale of his childhood is true, it might explain his oddities."
"Yes, yes, we all know that the boy is unusual, even for a Ravenclaw. But that is beside the point. It is obvious he will attempt to learn what is kept from him. However I agree with Dumbledore, he would have undoubtedly searched for the perpetrator on his own if not informed of the plan. No doubt piecing events together enough to unwittingly sabotage the trap in the end. Now at least he knows the point of what we do, and to be careful, even if he does not obey."
Dumbledore nodded, "Thank you Armando. But it is also imperative that we keep and earn his trust further. I could not bear to see him withdraw due to fear or betrayal, shunning companionship and his humanity, as a similarly exceptional student did. If that means suffering through rudeness while earning his respect, it is a small price to pay." The previous portrait grunted in acknowledgement.
"Can you earn his respect while allowing such familiarity and insolence? Surely you shouldn't have consented to his attempt at exploiting your openness." Asked an elderly woman in white robes.
"As none of you are able to enter the boy's mind, I shall assure you again. He is exceedingly astute, beyond even what he shows on the surface. I believe he knows exactly what I asked of him and he requested my help in return for his trust." Fawkes began a hopeful song while Dumbledore continued, "Even if I am incorrect, we have many years to curtail his behavior, so long as we can keep him close."
Sunday was the last day off and the day everyone else would be arriving back on the Hogwarts express. The air around the castle seemed alive with energy once again, as twelfth night came to usher in the end of the holidays. Decorations were taken down, trees carried out, and fairies freed, just as they were starting to get grumpy. Hagrid was feeling better, ready to be off his crutches but no one was letting him do any work, and madam Pomfrey kept checking in on him to make sure that was the case. Not all of the teachers were back yet, but those who were seemed happier than ever, glad to be back and chip in after a pleasant holiday. Dumbledore had even gone down to the train station to greet the students and organize their return in the carriages.
It was nearly dinner as the first of the students started pouring in, bringing with them their restless and lively spirit from being stuck on a train most of the day. The chatter increased to near deafening proportions in the entrance hall, especially when compared to the quiet over the holidays. Most streamed into the Great Hall, waiting for dinner and eager to talk more. Harry and Hermione came down to greet people as well, sitting back at their assigned tables, enduring all the questions that inevitable popped up about their detention in the forest. They saw Padma and Parvati walking in together, seemingly fed up with being close to each other for so long. Splitting off, they came to sit at their respective tables just as the meal appeared in front of them and there was quiet for a moment.
Except something was wrong, and Harry could definitely feel it this time.
The girl beside him was not Padma.
She walked, smiled, ate, and even wore her hair similarly, yet there was a distinct presence, some indefinable nuance that made him feel uneasy. Sue wasn't there yet and no one else around seemed to notice. Is it an illusion? Someone polyjuiced to look like her? Or is someone else controlling her mind somehow? He looked around frantically at Parvati, wondering if that was why they seemed upset with each other, but as he did, it struck him. He felt relieved. His magical sense was already telling him who was beside him, and who was really at the Gryffindor table.
They had switched, playing a trick on their friends for some reason. Maybe to see who would notice, or who was the better actor. But that only meant he could have a little fun as well.
"So, how did you like the gift I sent you Padma, I hope it was a little entertaining for you."
Parvati smiled, "It was fun actually, I didn't know muggles could make things like that. But my father seemed to enjoy it more than I did after showing it to him. Have you used the gift I sent you?"
"Not yet, but there's not much need to test for poisons around here. Though I was talking about the other gift I gave you, the secret one." He gave conspiratorial wink, playing it up as much as possible.
Pretending to cough from something she ate, Parvati looked grim as she took a sip of water and cleared her throat for extra time to think. "Oh, that. It was nice too, thanks."
Harry leaned in close and whispered, "I hope you like it, because if we're caught using it, we would be expelled for sure. Not to mention Azkaban."
Carrot bits flew from her lips at his words, she gapped at him with a hand over her mouth and urgently looked around the table for help.
That's when he started laughing.
Restraining himself as much as possible so he didn't seem like some cracked nutter, he whispered to her again, "Thanks for the laugh Parvati. Sorry I didn't get you anything."
A disgruntled and sour expression came over her as she began to shout, "How-" But caught herself and whispered back, "How did you know? I barely even said anything!" Wiping her face with a napkin, she tried to keep it together.
"Magic." That earned only a withering glare. "I don't know, it's just something distinctive about you two, your presence is different."
She raised an eyebrow at that, "What, does she smell weird or something? We've been practicing for a week to imitate each other, and she barely does anything to be noticeable, let alone stand out. I figured I'd only be caught after Hermione asked me a question on homework or something."
"Well here comes Sue, she might be able to explain it better."
"Oh, don't tell her! Padma says she's the real test, she didn't even expect you to notice." They both quieted down as Sue sat between them.
Harry started the conversion off again, "Why were you so late?"
"Putting something in my room, why do you care?" Replied Sue.
"Only curious, but I was starting to tell Padma about this wonderful dim sum restaurant me and Hermione visited in Diagon Alley. We should all go sometime."
Sue's lips tightened and her brow furrowed instantly, yet she managed to get out a few words, "You're a git, you know that?" Harry looked taken aback in mock pain, covering his heart at the insult.
"I wholeheartedly agree. Now what's this about a restaurant?" Interjected Parvati.
Turning to face her, Sue stopped right before responding, scrutinizing her intently.
Uneasy again, the secret agent looked to Harry and back, confused, "What?"
"Not enough sarcasm Parvati." Sue turned back and began to take food on her plate as if nothing was wrong. Harry laughed more.
"No way you could notice that easily!" She hissed, "Harry, did you tell her somehow?"
"How? It's only been thirty seconds since she sat down. She's right though, Padma would have said something snarky, though I bet there's more to it than that. I can't wait to see her attempt to imitate your giggling fits with Lavender and not groan."
"We don't have giggling fits... and, wait, is Padma still teasing people? She told me she gave that up ages ago, the little cheat."
"Still?" Harry asked, "You mean she hasn't always done that?"
She spoke in a conspiratorial hush, "Of course not, she used to be shy and quieter than a mouse. Until our aunt Aja started babysitting us when we moved here several years ago. Aunt Aja was always a bit daffy, but nice enough. Except every other sentence that came out of her mouth was indecent, sarcastic, or teasing. And sometimes all at once. Even about the most common things. You could ask her to pass the milk, and she'd offer to let you suck on her... I mean-"
Sue and Harry both started cracking up this time, barely able to keep the food in their mouths as Parvati blushed and shook her head. "That bad huh?" Harry mumbled.
"You have noo idea. - And then Padma started copying her. Our parents almost had a fit the first time she asked if we could have hamburgers for dinner. And I almost thought their heads might explode one time she asked if they had fun jumping on their bed the night before."
"Now that sounds like the Padma we know." Chuckled Harry.
Sue huffed, "She's not that bad. Besides, parents deserve it sometimes."
"Well you don't even want to know what she said the last time she talked that way to them. They were stunned. Completely speechless. But the next thing she does is put her bare feet up on the dining table and start whistling a lewd song aunt Aja taught her. They freaked! Threatened to send her back to live with our grandmother in India, have her homeschooled until she came of age, and then marry her off to some noble's son to teach her how to behave properly."
"That's barbaric!" Sue gasped.
"They weren't serious. Everyone was just angry that Aja was moving away, but that was the last time she ever said anything like that around them. She still talked that way with me for a while. But when we fought once I told our parents to get her in trouble... After that I thought she quit completely." Parvati stirred the food around her plate.
"That's kind of cruel." Harry remarked, "I thought twins supported each other against their parents."
"Were not all the same! And Lavender doesn't like you anymore." She bristled.
"Okaaay?" He was baffled by the abrupt change in topic.
Suddenly a row of firecrackers exploded in front of them. Splattering food all over the Ravenclaw table, eliciting screams and scaring most of the first years, while quieting the whole hall to a whisper as the salvo died away. Penny was already up and casting cleaning charms with help from her friends and other Ravenclaws. Harry turned around to look at Fred and George, but they shook their heads as everyone else looked towards them as well.
After being hit with a cleaning charm himself, Harry's eyes locked on the twisted smile of the obvious culprit. His lips curled into a typical sneer as he saw Harry glaring.
Draco, once again back to torment the unamused. No one else seemed to catch the prideful and superior way he was acting the moment before, except maybe his returning flunkies. But by the resentful frowns they wore, it was easy to tell that Crabbe and Goyle had somehow been inducted back into service without much choice of their own. Harry wanted to return the favor of thrown food but wasn't going to risk wandless magic in the Great Hall after Dumbledore noticed last time.
Instead he ignored Malfoy completely, pretending to enjoy the excitement and helping others with the mess. Then went back to eating the new mixture of flavors sprinkled across his plate while fresh food appeared to replace the rest. Conversation picked up again just as he heard uneasy and forced giggling from the Gryffindor table. He turned around to see, as Padma's ruse didn't last long after that.
I'm learning all kinds of things these days...