Act One - Best Friends
Chapter Five - The End of Term
Deep within Hogwarts, a door opened all on its own just enough for someone to squeeze through. A moment passed, and it closed without a sound.
Right then, Harry thought to himself. I have a couple hours before the DMLE shows up. That's plenty of time.
Harry regarded the repurposed classroom before him. The chairs were stacked and out of the way for the most part, only a few escaping imprisonment and arranged conveniently where they would see the most use. The desks had moved into small islands to give him space to work. A heap of crumpled parchment filled a corner and flooded the nearby floor, a monument to both practice making perfect and the startling fact that parchment actually had more function than mere paper.
Quills were still antiquated rubbish until proven otherwise, however.
It was official now. The thought was somewhat alarming, but it also made Harry laugh. Hermione had ruined him as he and Ron had her. She had her own secret project that had a tendency to explode in her face, and now he did, too. He’d flown right past the more humble swot into the full monty of a mad scientist.
Harry kicked a few discarded balls of parchment away from his workstation into the corner, one of which bounced off and rolled back to be kicked away again.
Point in fact, Harry said to himself. Kicking away a piece of parchment that might be – but probably was not – unstable hardly demonstrated good lab safety. Need to work on my maniacal laughter. Get Hermione to work on her cackle. He hummed to himself. Need to look up some stock phrases, too. I can only shout, ‘It’s alive!’ so many times before it becomes unfashionable.
As Harry went about gathering parchment and quill, he deliberately ignored niggling thoughts concerning the worst part of all this: Hermione was going to find out. He wanted to tell her and put her brain to work, of course. And yet at the same time, he was really, really not looking forward to that moment. He could just picture her now. That smug expression and conceited attitude telling him she told him so – after her having to bribe him, guilt trip him, craft an intricate argument, hug him, and practically beg him to take school seriously, living with her would be insufferable when she learnt the truth.
“Stupid runes,” Harry mumbled to himself.
From his robe pocket, Harry withdrew a small tablet of sandstone. There were far better materials to work with. Parchment and ink worked well enough for quick and basic practice, while blood supposedly paired well with just about everything. Stone and chisel, however, yielded a durable product capable of holding a decent amount of magic.
Harry placed his tablet atop his workstation. He tapped his wand to it, pushed a little magic forward, and within his windowless workshop, there was light.
A grin lit up Harry’s face. An embarrassingly large part of him was tempted to play with his first somewhat useful, working enchantment; flipping a light switch on and off should never bring so much unadulterated bliss.
I’m so doomed.
It was true. Unlike everything else about magic, which almost made sense if one squinted hard enough and shrugged often enough, runes pierced the veil of insanity and crossed into the realm of order. Where in potions seemingly random ingredients produced a sort of related effect, the rune for light made light. The rune for water made water. A runic array to detect something connected to the rune for fire detected fire.
And there were so many possibilities. Harry could barely imagine what he might be able to do after finally finishing just next year’s runes textbook.
But that was the past. It was old news. It was time to look to the future, the glorious, marvellous future.
Harry flipped open his borrowed book on runes to where he’d left off. There were three ways to power an enchantment: manually, with a battery, and passively. The light on his workstation had a battery he manually filled with magic. Now, it was time and past time to graduate from the simpler forms to make something truly inspired. He transfigured a small pile of paper and a pencil for scratch work and got to work.
Magic, as it turned out, functioned something vaguely like electricity or diffusion. It liked to move from high concentrations to low concentrations to reach a uniform distribution. The trick with runes was in forcing magic into a certain form, a certain shape. A wand did much the same, just requiring a lot less work in advance of the actual spell being cast.
On the plus side, though, once runes were carved, they were carved. It was unnecessary to recreate them for later use. That was something. There were no incantations to memorise, either.
Harry flipped the page of his book, his brow furrowed in concentration. Throwing magic at a cluster of runes with a wand was the simplest way to provide power to them. It was both wasteful and annoying. Next came the magical equivalent of a battery. The exact details of the mechanics were beyond Harry right now, but he could copy and paste with the best of them. A battery could take in, store, and release magic, each rate of which could be calibrated as necessary – or as required. Harry had learnt a valuable lesson about overpowering rune-based spells, and his eyebrows had paid the price.
While those two forms had their uses, it was the last to which Harry turned his attention: passive absorption. One could pull in ambient magic, concentrate it, store it if needed, and release it through a series of well over a hundred interconnected runes that went way beyond his understanding. The more ambient magic present, the more magic that was captured. Being able to passively generate power was simply brilliant, but there was an entirely different way of rephrasing that which was even more brilliant and elegant in its simplicity.
And Harry had a brilliant idea.
Two plus three is five. Six plus eight is fourteen.
Perfectly still, eyes closed, Hermione sat solving random, simple addition problems in her head.
Nine plus one is ten. One plus seven is eight.
The world consisted entirely of Hermione and her numbers.
Nine plus seven is sixteen. Three plus three is six.
As soon as it came, Hermione shut down the urge to itch her arm. Or at least she did her best to put it out of mind.
Four plus five is nine. Two plus six is eight.
Hermione had tried working on her occlumency exercises before abandoning them for legilimency. She truly had given it her best effort. But if Harry was absolutely pants at occlumency, as he so considered himself, then Hermione was abysmal. For the life of her, she could not clear her mind. It just kept going and going from one thought to the next. Emotional calm was perfectly doable, but asking for a silent mind on top of that was too much, and her continued failures only drove her spare.
Seven plus seven is fourteen. Six plus Six is twelve.
On the other hand, Hermione was pretty sure she was shaping up to be at least a decent legilimens. Granted she still needed to practice for real, but she was going through exercises to improve her focus faster than she could find them.
Two plus one is three. Six plus Two is eight.
Not that Hermione was terribly surprised. She’d always been able to concentrate on her current task to the exclusion of all else to the point where it was hard to get her attention. Harry and his trigger-happy fingers would no doubt love to testify to that fact. It was that mental discipline, apparently, which made for a good legilimens.
Three plus nine is twelve. Six plus four is ten.
With as tedious as the task was, Hermione had to admit there was a certain challenge in forcing her mind not to wander, especially so in the courtyard where students tended to congregate in late spring. Sometimes it was hard not to eavesdrop.
Four plus two is–
The sound of a small bell rang out, heard despite the rather loud background chatter of the courtyard. Hermione opened her eyes and glanced down at her recently charmed watch; exactly fifteen minutes had passed. Picking it up, she replaced it on her wrist and pulled on the new knob to deactivate the alarm.
Only yesterday, Hermione had gone to Professor Flitwick asking after the alarm charm used on Hogwarts’s beds, seeing as it was a bit more involved than Hermione felt comfortable casting herself. This turned out to be the right decision, since he told her that charms and enchantments had a bad tendency to break or otherwise disable delicate mechanical objects. One needed an almost machine like precision to interface magic and technology, even with something as relatively simple as a watch. She supposed that was why muggleborn had yet to flood the market with magical versions of mundane objects.
In hindsight, Mr. Weasley’s flying car might be a sign of mad brilliance, as strange as that sounded. Despite its numerous magical modifications, it did still function as a regular vehicle, after all. Maybe that was where the Weasley twins got their poorly utilised genius from, although in frivolous potions rather than charms.
Now done with her routine exercise, Hermione finally let herself relax. At the moment, that meant a very unladylike furious scratching of every itch that had gone unattended. Who cared if she got weird looks from the people nearby; it had to be done.
“Ahhhh…” Hermione sighed contentedly. That’s much better. Stretching, she cast her gaze outward and saw a pair of aurors walking down the hallway toward the stairs up to the first floor. Oh, yeah. It’s Thursday. I wonder if Lady Bones would let me see the Chamber of Secrets if I asked. I wouldn’t be surprised if she sealed it off afterwards to preserve the crime scene slash archaeological site. If I’m lucky, I could find some primary source documents to stuff down the Sorting Hat’s…um… Hmm, my hat-based vocabulary is lacking.
Shrugging to herself, Hermione figured that there was no harm in asking. The worst that could happen would be a firm scolding and being sent on her way. She cast a charm to waterproof her bookbag, swung it on over her shoulder, and set off.
Into the castle and down the hall, Hermione found her way to the ground floor staircase. As was often the case, the stairs were nice enough to rotate to the landing she needed. She was sure they were enchanted to somehow know which way she wanted to go, but she had yet to find a spell even remotely similar in the library. Ron – and Harry especially – loved to complain that it was the stairs’ fault whenever they were late to class, but they were obviously just trying to shift the blame for their own lack of punctuality. It was never a problem when she was with those two whiners.
Well, to be fair, there were times when Hogwarts was less than cooperative and sometimes made Hermione want to tear her hair out trying to understand it. The first room she’d tried to carve wands in had vanished into nonexistence the next day. But Hogwarts was never so bad that it made her late to something.
Now was a perfect example. It took but a minute to arrive at Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom, which had a single auror standing watch at the doorway. Approaching him, Hermione asked, “Excuse me. Would Lady Bones be available for a moment?”
The auror looked down at Hermione, his face not betraying the slightest hint of his thoughts. It was really rather unnerving, and Hermione had to wonder if he was perhaps a former unspeakable.
“If you need to speak with the chief, make an appointment at the ministry.” The auror paused to think for a moment. “Or if this is a personal call, I suppose you can wait inside with the others and try to catch her after today’s investigation is over.”
Well, that’s better than nothing. “More the latter.” After the auror nodded and let her pass, Hermione said, “Thank you.”
When Hermione entered the bathroom, the first thing she noticed was the gaping hole in the middle of the room that plummeted down into darkness. Unlike what Harry had reported about his latest misadventure, the shaft looked perfectly clean without the slightest hint of slime.
The second thing Hermione noticed was a trio of familiar faces. There was Susan talking animatedly with Tonks – Nymphadora, specifically – who was wearing robes reminiscent of an auror uniform, but the badge was noticeably missing. More curiously, the metamorphmagus had apparently decided to literally talk on Susan’s level, having shrunk herself to the size of a thirteen-year-old. The bubblegum pink hair remained as usual, though.
And then there was a morose-looking Harry slumped against a wall with his forehead on his knees.
“Good afternoon,” Hermione said, greeting everyone.
“Wotcher, Hermione,” said Tonks.
“Oh, hello,” Susan said, turning her head to actually have Hermione in her field of vision.
“Hey,” Harry said glumly. He sat still, not bothering to so much as halfheartedly wave a hand. It would be such a heartwrenching sight if there were an actual cause.
Hermione chuckled. “Let me guess. Lady Bones only takes you down when they find a sealed passage?”
Harry only groaned, but Tonks answered for him. “You’ve got the right of it. The chief has me on babysitting duty.” That got Harry to actually lift his head, if only to let it drop onto his knees again.
“Oh, Harry,” Hermione began, fighting off another case of the giggles. “What did you expect? The police don’t take civilians into danger, much less children.”
“We would be right awful bobbies if we did,” Tonks said, nodding her head, “even if it was you who killed that monster.”
Monster, hmm… “Harry has described it to me, but I haven’t seen the basilisk yet. Well, not that I can remember. How bad is it?”
Susan shrugged, turning to look at Tonks. “I haven’t been down, either.”
Speaking with her usual irreverent tone – so generalised from meeting her all of three times now – Tonks said, “Yeah, pretty sure I’d have died if it’d been me. That damn Mad-Eye has me training till I'm knackered every day, and I still wouldn’t want to fight something so magically resistant. Add in the length, the darkness, and that you can’t bloody look at it, and that’s me in a right mess. But you really have to see the thing to do it justice.”
“What an oxymoron,” Susan said, drawing a smile and a laugh from the other two girls. Harry was no more amused by the quip than he was about being left out of the ‘fun’.
“How long have you three been waiting here now?”
“Three. Hours,” Harry moaned. If it really had been that long, Hermione supposed she could give him a pass for being bored out of his mind.
“Has it been?” Susan asked, her surprise evident on her face. “I met Aunt Amelia at breakfast, but it hasn’t felt that long.”
Tonks smirked and said, “Time flies when you’re having fun. Isn’t that right, Cuz?”
“I hate you, too, Nympha – ow!”
Being kicked in the hip, Harry actually uncurled from the little ball he was in. He rubbed the afflicted area and glared at Tonks, but really, what had he expected to happen? Her response to her name was fairly predictable, at least to non-coworkers. Hermione had a hard time believing that kind of behaviour would be tolerated internally in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
Inserting herself in-between Harry and Tonks, Hermione turned to the latter and asked, “So how have you been since we last saw you, Tonks?” Everyone noticed the slight emphasis she put on ‘Tonks’.
“Eh, could be worse. Studied a bit over the year, applied to the job, took the screening test, and Bob’s your uncle – got into the auror program. But I got Mad-Eye for a combat mentor. The man is ridiculously paranoid; I’ve had to memorise an absurd number of personal contingency plans he has just for himself, and I‘ve had to come up with my own, let alone the insanity he calls combat practice. Luckily, you'll be spared meeting him. Dumbledore called him away earlier today for something, so here I am with on-the-job ‘training’.”
Susan looked at Tonks with a deeply pitying gaze. “At least you’ll be well prepared. Most aurors don’t make it to a natural retirement due to injuries, but you’re his last responsibility before he’s forced to retire. He’s very good at investigating and duelling, and he’s still alive and mostly intact.”
After a dry laugh, Tonks said, “He would take that as an insult, you know. ‘Duelling is for fools’, after all, and the injuries are the ‘mistakes of his youth’. But like I said, it could be worse. My mentor could be Dawlish, the brown-noser. With how far that man has his nose up the minster’s arse, you’d think he’d smell like shite.”
“Language,” Hermione said more out of habit with Ron than anything else. It was a futile effort to get Tonks to filter her words.
“Kid, don’t make me arrest you for interfering with an auror investigation.”
Hermione rolled her eyes, and Susan just laughed quietly to herself.
“Anyway, Harry here tells me you and he have been getting into trouble again this year.”
“That’s not exactly how I put it,” Harry said.
“Close enough.” Tonks waved a hand dismissively in Harry’s direction before asking, “So now that we have more than twenty minutes together to meet-and-greet, you can fill me in on everything. What’s going on with you two that Harry doesn’t want me to know?”
Heedless of Harry’s protest, Tonks continued, “Any kissing stories yet?”
“No,” Harry said, but Hermione hummed thoughtfully, smirking.
“Oh? Do tell.” Tonks obviously missed the very embarrassed look that Susan had on her face, although Harry hid his thoughts well enough that a casual inspection would reveal nothing. One really had to know him to tell.
“I have my suspicions, but I hardly think it’s anything serious – probably just a thank you kiss on the cheek. Teasing material only, I believe.”
Hermione placed an index finger on her cheek, tapping it thoughtfully. “Hmm, I wonder if I should…”
Fortunately for Harry and Susan, the faint but audible sound of Lady Bones and Headmaster Dumbledore chatting faded into existence, echoing up from the chamber below. Tonks scowled momentarily but quickly adopted as professional a manner as one could ever expect on her. The hot pink hair ruined the image before she could even get started, really, but at least she was her usual height and age again.
“–at least see the diary, Albus. I know very well when something is not to be spoken of, but this is not one of those times.”
Hermione tried not to let her eye twitch at the idea of hiding knowledge too much.
“Every time Malfoy has to bribe his way out of trouble, it drains his coffers. Eventually, something will stick, or he’ll back off. It’s the only legal means we have of tearing down their power bloc, Albus. You must see that.”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Hermione felt a little uneasy with the stress Lady Bones, who was essentially the magical police commissioner and a member of the magical House of Lords, put on the word ‘legal’. She had no idea what meaning to take away from that, only that it most likely was not a good sign of things to come. Not that there were many good signs to spoil recently.
The headmaster’s voice drifted up after a likely reflective silence. “You’ve been reading last year’s muggle newspapers, haven’t you?”
“Of course I have! We’re in the same deadlock, except we don’t have the monetary or material resources to outspend the Death Eaters like the States did to the Soviets.”
If Hermione had any doubt left that Daphne’s claim about the ministry’s funding was spot on, it’d have all up and left right then and there. An entire government being unable to outspent a collection of wealthy rebels was a joke, even if those rebels had put legal blocks in place.
“It wasn't that simple, Amelia.”
“That doesn't change my point. We need to get them to hurt themselves financially. There’s no other way around it. I have no idea what Malfoy expected to gain from this mess that he couldn't obtain elsewhere and quietly, but if we let him keep trying unchecked, he'll eventually get it. Unless you’ll finally–”
“Amelia,” Headmaster Dumbledore interrupted, “you’ve suggested that before, and my answer is still no. If it’s at all possible to avert, we must. Our world cannot afford such a heavy blow. Even the muggle world hasn't done that in centuries, and for good reason. I understand how you must feel about–”
“You know nothing of the sort!” Lady Bones snapped. Her voice echoed loud and clear, no doubt even reaching the hallway outside the bathroom.
The two fell quiet for a few seconds before Headmaster Dumbledore could once again be heard. “Where would you even find the support? The Wizengamot is split, and the populace simply wishes to forget. My position only goes so far.”
“Something has to be done, Albus. I refuse to fight the same war twice.”
“I agree that something must be done, Amelia. Truly. But we must find an alternative response. Just the other day, I had two students bring their concerns to me on a related matter. Students, Amelia. Our children are beginning to notice.”
There was a prolonged silence broken only by the sound of footsteps and the clatter of displaced pebbles. Hermione had to wonder what exactly Lady Bones had been proposing, but she was sure she would rather not know after she found out. Rebelling armies in the muggle world centuries ago tended to meet less than savoury fates when they lost, if not always simply death.
A spell was cast, although Hermione was unable to hear the incantation clearly, and both the headmaster and Lady Bones appeared in the tunnel rising upward quickly before coming to a fast halt. They floated there in midair for a moment and then stepped forward onto solid ground.
“I still need to see the diary, Albus. I won’t take it, but I must see it myself if for no other reason than to ensure no charges stick to Miss Weasley.”
Headmaster Dumbledore sighed. “As you wish. Come to my office when your investigation is finished.” It was only then that he looked in Hermione’s direction. “Ah, Miss Granger. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Feeling a little childish after the heavy conversation she’d just overheard, Hermione felt a small blush creep onto her face. “I just wanted to see the chamber later today when the all clear is given, if possible.”
A smile displaced the tired look the headmaster so often sported recently. He chuckled briefly before saying, “I don’t see why not. We came back up for Harry, but I wouldn’t be averse to a little more company. Miss Bones?”
Susan deliberated for a moment, but in the end, curiosity won out as it almost always did. “If that’s okay with you, Aunt Amelia?”
“I suppose it’s fine. Tonks, keep an eye on the kids.”
“Yes, Sir!” Tonks said, snapping to attention with perhaps a bit too much zeal.
“Miss Granger,” Lady Bones said, “I hope I don’t need to tell you to stay close to Tonks and not to touch anything.” Hermione shook her head. “Good. Then let’s get going. I’m getting sick of wading through these tunnels.”
The six of them stepped into the pipe – Hermione with a bit of encouragement that no, she would not plummet to her death – before descending rapidly down. If anyone asked her, Hermione would utterly deny that she let out a strangled scream.
Once at the bottom, Lady Bones led them through a surprisingly tidy passageway. With how Harry had described it and with how old it was, Hermione would have guessed it to be in much worse shape. But then Harry said part of the tunnel caved in. It’d be unsafe not to rebuild it properly.
Eventually, the group arrived at a large, circular portal, although the door was missing at the moment.
“Watch your step,” Lady Bones said just as Hermione felt her foot sink a few centimetres further down into water than expected. The water flooding the chamber was surprisingly clear and warm, and there were bright wisps spread about seemingly at random filling the chamber with light.
Hermione might have commented that the giant snake head statues were a bit much, or she might have noticed the gigantic bust of Salazar Slytherin at the far end of the chamber, or she might have questioned the need to have such an elaborate and long hallway leading to the chamber proper, but there was something rather more attention grabbing in front of her.
“That’s…a bit bigger than I was imagining,” Hermione said, reining in her simultaneous desires to one, run away screaming; two, cast the most dangerous spells she knew; three, just plain screaming; and four, smacking Harry upside the head for thinking it was a good idea for him to come down here the first time.
“Told ya you have to see it for yourself.” Tonks put a hand on Hermione’s shoulder, which while appreciated, was unnecessary. Once the initial shock was gone, the basilisk was no worse than a really big statue – a really, really, unnerving one, granted, but still just a statue.
Not too far away, Susan was getting a similar treatment from her aunt.
Focus, Hermione. It’s just a snake. “What’s going to happen to the basilisk? Is it useful for anything?”
Headmaster Dumbledore picked up that question. “The venom has its applications, Miss Granger, particularly as potion ingredients. The eyes, if undamaged, can be preserved for a time with their killing gaze intact, much like a gorgon’s, although the gorgon’s gaze, as I’m sure you know, only ever turns the beholder to stone. The hide is highly resistant to magic, which is useful in the construction of an area in which you wish no magic to enter or leave, but if you’re willing to endure the expense, dragonhide is equally effective and far more plentiful. The meat is venomous to every known species, and legend holds that it possesses an unsavoury taste.”
Nodding her agreement, Hermione said, “Poisonous species usually have a vile taste so that predators learn not to eat them. Humans are really the only animals that…”
Hearing Harry laughing quietly to himself, Hermione noticed him stepping her way with fingers drawn. She cut herself off then and there to avoid another finger snap in her face.
“Quite alright, Miss Granger,” Headmaster Dumbledore said, smiling all the while. “Now as to what we will do with it, I confess I haven’t given it much thought. It might be best simply to leave it here in case the basilisk has an unusual interaction with Hogwarts’s wards. I shall have to ruminate on the matter tonight.”
Hermione shrugged, letting the issue go. She’d only been curious to begin with; there were no plans forming in her head to use the basilisk for something herself, and she doubted Harry had any particular use for it.
“Now then,” Headmaster Dumbledore said, their group having moved into the chamber proper, “before we let you three wander, we have one last passageway we need to investigate.” He gestured toward the still far off bust of Slytherin where a dozen aurors were waiting with wands drawn, shields raised, and who knew what else. “If you would do the honours, Harry.”
Nodding, Harry shouted a strangled hissing sound that sent shivers down Hermione’s spine. It echoed around the chamber, which only enhanced the eerie effect. If she were to compare the feeling to something mundane, it was almost like listening to a waterphone in a dark bathroom.
Everyone waited for Slytherin’s mouth to open, except perhaps for Susan, who might not have heard the story yet. But all that happened was the occasional sound of water swishing about.
Deciding to state the obvious, Hermione asked, “Harry, what did Quirrelmort–” She paused a moment at the smothered snorting coming from Lady Bones. It occurred to her that that particular moniker should be for private use only, given that it made a connection that was not public knowledge. “What did he say to…uh…open, I guess, the bust?”
“Something about talking to Slytherin,” Harry said before descending into mumbles. To be entirely fair, it’d been nearly a month now, and he rather reasonably had had other things on his mind at the time. “Ah! I think I’ve got it.” Harry then proceeded to make a long series of awful hissing noises that sounded just as spine tingling as the last, which really made no sense. It was just hissing. After he was done, the mouth of Slytherin’s bust parted without further fanfare, and the aurors went about their work.
Headmaster Dumbledore seemed amused, however, as he was chuckling to himself. When he felt nearly everyone’s gaze fall on him, he said, “I never took Slytherin to be so vain.”
“You’re a parselmouth!” Harry reacted immediately. He stomped a foot in the water getting both Hermione and Tonks wet. “Why didn’t you say something! I spent months dealing with that” – he thrust a hand toward Susan who still looked very much ill at ease – “before Hermione was attacked and everyone let up.”
Headmaster Dumbledore made a sad sort of smile before making a series of hissing sounds that did not in any way set Hermione to shivering or otherwise stoke some primal fear in her. Harry looked just as confused as she was.
“One can speak parseltongue without speaking parseltongue, Harry. I presume you could not understand me?”
“There is a magic to the language, whose secrets are, if not lost, then jealously guarded. The only known person to become a parselmouth is the alchemist Paracelsus in the sixteenth century. Many have, however, learnt the grammar and vocabulary. Incidentally, I also speak Mermish and Gobbledegook. Lovely languages. It’s a shame more people don’t take the time to learn them.”
If the harsh grating sounds Hermione had heard goblins make on occasion qualified as ‘lovely’, she rather doubted Mermish was any better. Frustratingly, Hermione made a mental note to at least spare five minutes thinking about why the headmaster might be dropping a subtle clue to learn those languages. She and Harry had more than enough to do without adding foreign language studies to the mix, so unless there was a very good reason, she fully intended not to bother.
Ack! I completely forgot to look up The Tale of the Three Brothers in the library, and I forgot to ask Mum and Dad to buy Reaper Man. Oh well. It’s too late for the latter, and I’m sure if I ask around in Flourish and Blotts, I can get the right book there. Later, then.
Hermione snapped out of her thoughts with Harry pulling at her sleeve and found she was already walking; their group had set off to explore the chamber. Lady Bones and Headmaster Dumbledore were gone, as were all but two of the aurors who were standing guard at the base of Salazar's bust, one facing in and one out.
“Out of curiosity, Harry, what was the passphrase?”
“Speak to me Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts four.”
Their group of four, Harry, Hermione, Susan, and Tonks, walked through the sewer-like tunnels of the Chamber of Secrets, all of which were flooded. Hermione could only presume that basilisks were amphibious snakes, since otherwise one would have a hard time surviving down here. Thankfully, the floor was remarkably intact despite centuries of water damage affecting it, or more likely not affecting it due to some enchantment.
They wandered about, taking turns at random, many of which should have led them back to where they’d come from but somehow did not. Hermione had long ago given up trying to understand Hogwarts’s geometry – or so she liked to pretend – but it still irked her that they could take six quick lefts and somehow not cross their own path.
The good news was that the aurors must have tidied up a bit, since Harry had said the chamber was strewn with bones and the occasional shed skin. Hermione would much rather avoid all of that if she could. That was entirely too morbid for her tastes, or at least it was when outside of a potions lab or a greenhouse.
Unfortunately, the bad news was that without the danger, the bones, the skin, or the basilisk, the Chamber of Secrets was dreadfully boring. The ancient art they occasionally ran into was interesting and notably much better than contemporary muggle art, but that was all there was. Excepting an expansive underground lake at the end of one tunnel – which Harry mentioned was an underwater exit – there was nothing else to be found. Hermione would have bet just about anything that there would at least have been exits into the school proper for the basilisk, but if there were, then the chamber was aptly named, for they remained both hidden and secret.
“I just don’t understand!” Hermione complained, kicking up water as she walked to vent her irritation, not that it helped. “Why go to the effort of building a secret chamber underneath the school if you’re not going to put anything in it?”
“Besides a basilisk,” Tonks commented, obviously amused at how long Hermione’s ranting had gone on. It was fast approaching five minutes at least by now.
“But that’s just it! It’s just a big snake. What’s the point? Why the ‘Chamber of Secrets’? Basilisks were known before Salazar bred this one. A basilisk as a guardian, I could understand, but the basilisk being the secret itself? It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, Slytherin wanted to keep muggleborn out of Hogwarts. Maybe the basilisk was supposed to do that in secret somehow.” Susan said that, but she sounded even less sure of the idea than Hermione was vexed.
“Not a chance,” Hermione said. The Sorting Hat had all but challenged her to research Slytherin her first year, and she had. At least I got one up on that stupid hat. She knew she was being petty, but she hardly cared.
“She’s right, Susan,” Tonks said. “A basilisk wouldn’t be able to do much harm before everyone was evacuated and Hogwarts shut down. The school stayed open as long as it did because Malfoy was threatening the board of governors. First attack after Dumbledore was gone, he let the closure order go through.”
Hermione tucked that piece of information away for later analysis. “No, it’s not even that. I really doubt Slytherin was interesting in murdering children.” One hand reaching into her bookbag, Hermione blindly searched through it until she found a notebook. She tore out a sheet of paper and pulled a pencil out along with it. Balancing on one leg and using the other as a table, she wrote ‘My name is Harry Potter’ on it.
“Here,” Hermione said, holding the paper out to Harry, who quirked an eyebrow at her, without letting anyone else see it. “You’re a tenth century muggleborn with a typical muggle peasant background. Please tell me your thoughts on what I gave you.”
It took all of half a second before Harry’s eyes widened in understanding. Susan looked on curiously while Tonks tried to read what Hermione had written without even being subtle about it.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I can’t read this.”
Hermione rolled her eyes at the ridiculous accent Harry had adopted, but he got the point across.
“Hermione, what on Earth did you write?” Susan asked.
Tonks refused to wait and snatched the paper from Harry’s hand. “‘My name is Harry Potter’? I don’t get it.”
Continuing on with his absurd accent, Harry said, “Please forgive me, Ma’am. I never learnt to read or write.”
Satisfied with the shock shown on both Susan’s and Tonks’s faces, Hermione said, “I don’t know what Slytherin’s actual reasoning was, but I’d have kicked muggleborn students out, too. It’d be like sticking first years into NEWT classes and expecting them to excel. It’s not fair to them, and it’s a hindrance to everyone else’s education.”
“And so you’re frustrated because you wanted to find out what he was thinking,” Harry concluded with a nod of his head.
“Oh, don’t even get me started! If there was one place in Magical Britain that’d have documents untouched by the changing politics of the country, it’d be here.” Hermione swung her foot through the water and kicked up an especially large wave. “But there’s nothing. Nothing! Where are my secrets! A giant basilisk should be guarding a treasure hoard or a secret library! Confront the monster. Collect the reward. That’s how things are supposed to go.”
“Hermione…” came the hesitant voice of Susan.
“What?” Hermione said, trying her best not to snap.
Tonks took over, asking, “This isn’t some joke, is it?”
“No, but this whole chamber is.”
“What she means to say,” Harry said, “is muggle education has come a long way. The upper class muggleborn back then would have been able to read, write, multiply, and such, but everyone else learnt their trade and not much else. Literacy was a precious gift for centuries after Rome collapsed and life became complete bollocks for everyone. These days, however, we educate from age five to eighteen just for mandatory, general knowledge. A lot of people go to university afterwards for another four years to learn a science or an art in depth, and some go even further for at least another four years to become… The equivalent here would be a master of their discipline.”
Harry finally noticed Hermione glaring at him. “Er, what?”
“You.” Hermione took a step closer and poked Harry in the chest. “Why are you barely passing history of magic?” She poked him again for good measure. “Huh?”
“Because Professor Binns’s lectures are so boring,” Harry said, punctuating the last two words for emphasis. “You are literally the only one who can pay attention to them the whole way through.”
“And I give you and Ron my notes. What are you doing with them? Making paper aeroplanes?”
“I read them, but I’m not a walking encyclopedia. I’d love to be able to pull random names and numbers out of my head in a snap, but I can’t. There’s just no…purpose. No incentive. I don’t have any reason to care. I really don’t know how you do it.”
Tonks shoved Hermione back with one hand, and with her other, she pushed Harry a step away as well. “Not to interrupt this domestic or anything, but go back a sec. Muggles go to school for thirteen years at minimum?”
Hermione crossed her arms and first gave Harry her best imitation of Professor McGonagall’s glare before replying. “Yes, but a lot of what we learn in primary school – which is only the first half of that – you expect students to come to Hogwarts already knowing. You essentially require homeschooling until eleven. Results vary.”
“That explains so much,” Susan said to Tonks.
“Shouldn’t you already have known, Tonks?” Hermione asked. “Your dad is muggleborn.”
Tonks just shrugged.
“And explains what?” Harry asked.
“There are a lot of schools that cater specifically to muggleborn, while most of the rest are…” Susan looked to Tonks for support.
“The rest would ban muggleborn, if they could, but settle for having discouraging policies.”
“Not all of them,” Susan protested. “It’s a big political issue.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Kid,” Tonks said.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Hermione said, “The fundamental problem with education here is Magical Britain ignores mundane subjects almost completely and makes several assumptions about what everyone already knows, not that it's discriminatory. The simple fix is for everyone to start school earlier, muggleborn included. Start with mostly non-magical education – maybe a bit of theory, potions, herbology, and so on – while each student’s magic grows and stabilises, and end at OWL classes. Then you can have NEWT magical and equivalent mundane courses in university, and that way you can even include a lot more in those courses. And your life spans are so much longer, too! You have the time to require a full and complete education. It doesn’t matter if you all graduate at thirty.”
“No one would ever go for that,” Tonks said. “At least no one who has any real power to make the change. Regardless of how muggle it’d sound, the old families wouldn’t want their children getting any ideas that aren’t their own. Can’t let them out of sight for long, you know. Not until they're indoctrinated.”
“Bah! It’s a long overdue change that anyone with any sense–” Hermione looked to Harry, who’d tapped her on the shoulder. He had a look on his face that said to drop it. Presuming he had a good reason – he usually did – Hermione shifted her rant back to the original topic of her ire and resumed walking, leading the group forward and splashing to vent her frustration all the way.
“Anyway, we’ve been through practically this whole chamber, and there hasn’t been any evidence that other heirs took anything out. You’d think there’d at least be an empty office, or dusty, empty bookshelves, or something down here. Actual secrets! Not a big, dumb snake that likes to eat children.”
Harry’s quiet snickering at her rant abruptly stopped. Hermione turned to him, only to find him with a pale expression on his face.
Hermione put a hand on Harry’s arm just to see if he would respond. He blinked and opened his mouth without saying anything. Then trying again, he said, “Oh, bugger me.”
What? “Harry, what is it?”
“I wasn’t even thinking at the time. It… She? He? It sounded like a she. He told her to kill me. Merlin, that’s two now.”
Hermione took both of Harry’s hands and turned him away from Susan and Tonks before throwing up a privacy charm. They would still see, and if they crossed the charm’s boundary they would hear, but it might help. Hermione was fairly sure this was quickly developing into something private.
Likely seeing the unasked question on Hermione’s face, Harry whispered, “The snake wasn’t the secret. It knew the secrets.”
The silence that followed was stifling, if not prolonged, broken only by the increasingly frequent sound of Harry's breath. Hermione silently signalled for Tonks and Susan to back off further and stay that way before focusing all her attention back on the twelve-year-old boy who now had two counts of justifiable homicide hanging over him.
Or is it three? The diary– Hermione shook her head of the thought. It hardly mattered, and bringing it up would hardly help matters. The last thing Harry needed was to feel any kind of guilt over Quirrelmort’s fate, even if the diary was kind of sort of not really him. She was still a bit unclear on what exactly the being in the diary had been, or if it’d even been a person at all.
“Harry, listen to me,” Hermione said, pulling him closer to whisper, their foreheads barely a centimetre apart. That was the next best option to help him relax without awkwardly explaining the privacy charm to him, which would probably only make him feel like she thought he had something to hide. Having done this once already, hopefully she could avoid making the same non-obvious mistakes as last time. “You are a wonderful person and a wonderful friend. There’s nothing you could possibly do to get rid of me.”
“I could kill you, too,” Harry whispered through his laboured breaths.
Hermione’s eye twitched, and she did the first thing that came to mind.
“Oh, bugger me.”
“Harry, what is it?”
Harry stared for a moment into Hermione’s eyes. Of all people, she would never judge him for this. He knew that in his head. She’d thoroughly convinced him of that last year after badgering him enough to get him to open up. But that was just in his head.
Stringing together words as best as he could, Harry said, “I wasn’t even thinking at the time. It… She? He? It sounded like a she. He told her to kill me. Merlin, that’s two now.”
This is how it starts, isn’t it? Desensitisation to killing. I didn’t even realise what I was doing; I didn’t even bat an eye when it was done. That’s it. All hail the dark lord, Harry Potter.
“Harry, listen to me.” Harry felt himself being pulled dangerously close to Hermione. “You are a wonderful person and a wonderful friend. There’s nothing you could possibly do to get rid of me.”
There was an obvious flaw to that reasoning, one the future Dark Lord Harry would probably have no qualms about. Tom Riddle had had no problem murdering his brilliant muggleborn.
His voice weak and trembling, Harry spoke between breaths so quietly before thinking that he had to wonder if Hermione could even hear him. “I could kill you, too.”
An instant later, Harry was in such shock that he almost missed the mild sting of pain.
Did – did Hermione just headbutt me?
With poorly disguised fury, Hermione whispered, “Stop being stupid! I don’t know what’s going on in that head of yours, but there’s clearly something wrong with it. I’m tempted to try legilimency right now to find out what just so I can tell you exactly why you’re being an absolute dolt.”
A second after his apology, Hermione’s eyes widened and the anger vanished from her face, only to be replaced by distress. “Oh, Merlin, Harry, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” I think I hit an emotional trigger. That's… I'll have to think about that. Cutting Hermione off, Harry continued, “Not that I’m recommending the method, but I think you shocked me out of the early stages of a panic attack. Thanks for that.”
Hermione shut down for a moment as she tended to do when she was completely lost. She would probably be embarrassed if he ever told her, but Harry thought it was awfully cute, much akin to looking at a confused kitten.
Really though, as much as Harry would absolutely love to see Hermione deck Malfoy when he inevitably pushed her too far, Harry really should talk to her sometime about her tendency to lash out when angered, whether that be physically or, much more often, verbally. He sometimes wondered if she even realised she had almost as bad of a temper as he did. She did have a much narrower range of things that set her off, however, although apparently, he’d just uncovered another one.
“Um… You’re welcome. I guess.”
“Besides,” Harry said, trying to put his previous train of logic behind him, “you’ve spent the last ten minutes ranting and raving and the fifteen before that simmering. What did I expect to happen?” He suppressed a laugh at the blush that entirely accurate description of Hermione’s recent behaviour had pulled out of her.
“Really, though. Thanks.” Then since he knew it would be coming sooner or later – there was no uncertainty with Hermione; she was a very physical person – Harry gave her a hug. With her, at least, he was getting used to them and the rest of her pokes, prods, and other general physical contact. It was nice, really, to have someone he could be mostly comfortable with being that physically close to. If he were to put it in the most succinct way possible, he expected her to have him properly trained by sometime early next year.
Of course, saying that to her would probably earn me a book thrown in my face. Harry silently laughed to himself at the image before breaking away from Hermione, who he heard mutter a finite incantatem. He turned around to find a grinning Tonks behind him, which boded ill, even if she was just trying to help.
“So, teasing material only, eh?”
Hermione must have still been awfully upset, seeing as she gave Tonks the two finger salute. Not that Tonks took offence. She only grinned wider and laughed.
“That the spirit. We’ll have you swearing like a proper Brit in no time.”
By some unspoken agreement, the four of them said nothing more about the last few minutes, instead walking back toward the main room of the Chamber of Lost Secrets. When they arrived, Lady Bones and the headmaster were already there chatting with each other. Harry just caught sight of an auror heading out of the chamber and assumed they were all packed up and heading out.
There was, of course, also the basilisk. Harry tried his best not to show how much that still hurt, but as per usual, Hermione was not fooled. He felt her hand brush against his. Turning to look at her, her expression alone was enough to understand that there was a promise to talk more later when they were alone.
It was foolish, really. Harry knew that. Even if it was at Quirrelmort’s order, the basilisk had tried to kill him. But still, it would be just as wrong to pretend nothing had happened. He lacked even such trivial knowledge as the basilisk’s name, and he’d killed her all the same. Was it something silly like Blinky? Something majestic like Alexandra? Was she named after an old family friend like Cleopatra? The Slytherins must have been around during the Roman Republic if they claimed to be pure blooded in Salazar’s time. Did she even have a name, or was it just ‘Basilisk, do my bidding’?
Harry sighed. What a rotten way to end the year. Even though he knew it would jinx him, he thought, I hope the next one is better.
It was a little unnerving to be eating at the Hufflepuff table with an adult, let alone Lady Amelia Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and sitting member of the Wizengamot. That was doubly true for Hermione, who was thankful that she’d remembered to leave her rowan wand behind and to tell Harry to do the same, just in case.
Some part of Hermione was convinced she should be more alarmed about breaking the law, but the rules were so unfair and biased against her, the rest of her promptly told that minority to be quiet. Besides, it was not like she was going to rescue a condemned prisoner from execution or something.
Susan, naturally, was not so afflicted with guilt and was absorbing the affections of her aunt like a sponge. On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, Tonks, who’d been permitted to stay behind to chat with Harry, was uncharacteristically restrained in word and deed. It was almost like she was a civilised human being.
For the moment, Hermione had been left to her own thoughts. Today had not gone at all as expected or as hoped. And she found it hard to decide whether her barging in and asking to be shown around had been a disaster or not. On the one hand, the trip had been ultimately fruitless and had upset Harry. But on the other, he would now never have the chance to realise that the basilisk was a person and bury himself in guilt without her knowledge and in her absence. That was something.
I suppose it does make sense that Slytherin told all of his secrets to a basilisk. There weren't many parselmouths outside his family, let alone ones who would ever have access to Hogwarts. A ten tonne killing machine with a very long lifespan is a much more…secure medium for storing information than writing. If you're going to hoard knowledge, then well done, Slytherin. Jolly good show.
Hermione let out a wistful little sigh. I do wonder what secrets the basilisk possessed. They must have been the stuff of legends to go through all the trouble. She paused a moment. Well, they are now, of course, but they must've been back then, too, to go through the bother.
A sudden realisation occurred. Hermione's dropped fork drew a bit of attention to her, but she quietly pretended that her grip had simply loosened. Suddenly, her dinner seemed much less appetising.
Quirrelmort knows all of them. He has a hoard of otherwise forgotten legendary magicks, an unknown agenda that at least peripherally involves killing thousands upon thousands of people, we have no idea where he is or when he'll next be back – Hermione gulped – and both Harry and probably myself are on his hit list.
“Oh, by the way, Aunt Amelia, Harry had something he wanted to ask you.”
Hermione perked up at the words and nudged Harry. Anything to distract her right now was more than welcomed. When he turned to look at her, she nodded her head toward Susan and Lady Bones.
“Susan tells me you had something to ask me?”
For a moment, Harry looked confused. Hermione reined in her urge to sigh in exasperation; how could he forget his entire reason for meeting with Lady Bones to begin with?
Well, the basilisk was a bit of a distraction. And then we talked for a few hours after we’d gotten away from everyone else. And then Ron dragged him off for a game of chess. I guess I’m being unfair. Hermione could admit that much.
But she still thought this was a bad idea.
“Oh!” Harry said. “Right. I asked Susan, and she wasn’t sure. Is Sirius Black allowed visitors?”
Lady Bones knocked back her drink. Slamming her glass down, she said, “The only visitors the vermin in the pits of Azkaban receive are dementors. Why do you want to see that arsehole?”
“Well, he didn’t receive a trial, and no one seems to have found out why he betrayed my parents. I was hoping if I went, maybe I could understand why I’m…well…an orphan.”
Hermione noticed Lady Bones’s gaze shift slightly toward Susan, yet another child in Hogwarts who’d lost her parents.
“Dammit,” Lady Bones muttered. “Fine. Show up at the ministry on June thirtieth at one in the afternoon and ask for me. Dress warm and cheap.”
That’s only six days from now. I hope Daphne’s estimate was accurate.
As she thought about how she was breaking yet another law beyond wand regulations, underage magic restrictions, and probably a half-dozen other things, Hermione had a moment of inspiration. Both she and Harry had completely forgotten about something else they could use help with.
“Lady Bones?” Hermione said. Once she had the woman’s attention, she said, “Last summer, Harry got an underage magic warning when a house elf named Dobby performed a hover charm in his house. Could we get that removed from his record?”
An eyebrow raised, Lady Bones asked, “Can you produce this house elf for questioning?”
Hermione looked to Harry, who shrugged.
Come to think of it, how did Dobby find Privet Drive if it’s under a fidelius? I guess I never asked the headmaster how the Dursleys allow new people to come to their home. Maybe Dobby fooled them somehow? No, that he even knew where to start looking to begin with is…worrying.
“I tricked Lord Malfoy into freeing him in May. I don’t know where–”
“Please tell me I’m not hearing things,” Lady Bones said. “You tricked Malfoy into freeing his house elf?”
“That’s…not a crime, is it?” Harry asked.
“Ha! Probably to the muggles, but not here. House elves are expensive to buy” – Hermione tried not to do more than frown at that – “and that was probably one born and raised in the family. Good show, Mr. Potter! You’ve just made my day.”
“Does that mean you’ll help?” Hermione asked.
“Of course,” Lady Bones replied. “Sounds like an expulsion plot by Malfoy, anyway. We get those from time to time, and first offences sometimes slip through the cracks. Hopkirk is a little too eager at her post.”
That was, technically, what had happened, but Dobby had done it of his own volition and actually against the Malfoys’ interests. Of course, Hermione felt no need to volunteer that fact, nor did Harry, if his silence on the matter was anything to judge by. They had what they needed; there was no reason to risk upsetting the apple cart or to risk getting Dobby in trouble, although he did need a good talking to about how to help others.
”Tonks, remind me to talk to Hopkirk again about proper procedure.”
“Ah!” Startled out of her side conversation with a seventh year Hufflepuff, Tonks spun in her seat, already saluting. “Yes, of course, Chief!” Hermione tried not to laugh at how nervous Tonks was around her boss, but it was a hard and losing battle.
The rest of the evening passed in good cheer and conversation. By the time dinner was over and Headmaster Dumbledore had reminded everyone to start packing, Lady Bones was very definitely drunk, if not outright sloshed. Tonks left Hogwarts in her company acting as something of a third leg.
When Hermione finally made it up to her room to get changed for bed, she found a small, thin, rectangular box sitting in her trunk. That was suspicious. But there was an envelope resting near the box, so Hermione cautiously picked it up after casting a few detection spells and opened it.
“DO NOT GET CAUGHT,” the letter inside read. The words were furiously underlined more than a dozen times. Below that was a note that the potion was diluted enough in the chocolate for it to be missed in a casual inspection.
Looking about, Hermione made sure she was alone and unobserved before burning the letter and envelope together and scourgifying the ashes. No need to leave evidence lying around.
Hermione paused for a moment to reflect on that. It was more than a little worrying that her first reaction was ‘burn the evidence’. She’d said it before, and she would say it again. I really need to spend more time with nice, guileless, law-abiding Susan.
Shaking her head, Hermione tucked the box of chocolate underneath some of her clothes. She was living the life of an adventurer and a heroine. Well, it was more the case that Harry was dragging her into such a life, but the fact remained. Of course she would have to break and bend a few rules. When was the last time she’d read a novel where the protagonist on The Quest never did anything illegal, not counting the collateral damage they inevitably caused?
After pushing aside the niggling knowledge that that entire train of logic had been a huge rationalisation, Hermione whispered a quiet thank you to Daphne. Now that she had her truth serum in hand, all she had left to do was find a good time when they were alone to give it to Harry.
Friday came and went. The leaving feast had been a pleasant enough affair, even if the speeches had been a little boring. Gryffindor had somehow won the house cup again. Since the headmaster had only given Harry and Ron – and annoying still not Hermione, despite Harry’s efforts to the contrary – an award this year for surviving and not house points, Harry could only assume Hermione had carried them to victory on the back of her academic achievements. Was it any wonder that Professor Flitwick still wanted her for his house?
Now on the Hogwarts Express on his way back to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, Harry idly watched the scenery go by while ignoring the tense atmosphere in his compartment. Hermione's book on occlumency laid on his lap, momentarily forgotten, as he reflected on a most singular encounter he, Hermione, and Ron had had less than two hours ago.
Harry had just left Hogwarts’s grounds in the company of Hermione and Ron. They made their way from the front gate to where the enchanted carriages to Hogsmeade were waiting. The only problem was that the carriages were most definitely not self-pulling, and Harry had to wonder if they were enchanted at all.
“Hermione, what on Earth are those?” Harry asked, pointing at an underfed winged horse in front of the carriage. Somehow, it managed to make his stomach queasy and his legs shake just by looking in its general direction. It called up vague, mostly forgotten memories of pain, blood, and the darkness of his cupboard.
And to top it all off, Hermione hesitantly replied, “The carriages?”
“No! What’s pulling the carr… You can’t see them, can you?”
Hermione turned to Ron, who looked just as lost as her. Seeing no help coming from him, she turned back to Harry and asked, “Okay. Okay, the last time you were hearing voices, you actually were. What is it, exactly, that you see this time? Details.”
“Every carriage has a pair of… Imagine a horse crossed with a bat that’s a few hours short of starving to death.”
“Harry, that is the most ghastly sounding creature I’ve ever heard of, and I just saw a thousand-year-old basilisk two days ago.”
And of course only I can see them. Surprise, surprise. What else is new?
“The school wouldn’t let them pull the carriages if they were dangerous,” Ron said.
Hermione, on the other hand, sounded distinctly unsure as she said, “I suppose so.” After thinking for a few seconds, she gave Harry a strange look that he knew was supposed to mean something, but for the life of him, he had no idea what. “So they’re a subspecies of magical horse, then? Like an abraxan or a unicorn?” She made that weird look again, gesturing toward the skeletal horses with her eyes, and Harry understood.
“I suppose. It doesn’t have a mane, and the tail only has hair at the very end, but I guess it looks close enough to a horse that it…might be.” Harry looked between the still frankly disturbing horse and Hermione. “Girls like horses, right? Do you want to pet it?”
Rolling her eyes, Harry swore he saw Hermione’s lips silently form the words, “You big baby.” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess,” without further comment before moving toward the empty carriage in front of them. Stopping off to the side just in front of it, Hermione asked, “Where are they?”
“One is just in front of you about a metre away. It’s…looking at you.”
Hermione chose not to comment, and in all honesty, Harry was very happy with that. Instead, she said, “Tell me if I should back off or run away screaming, okay?”
“Yeah, go for it.”
With one hand extended, Hermione blindly reached for the horse thing. When she finally found its barrel, it shifted its wings, which brushed against her. She froze with a stifled scream on her lips. “Harry…”
“It was just its wing, Hermione. It was…getting more comfortable, I suppose.” That put Hermione at ease again, and she went about feeling her way to the horse’s tail.
From Harry’s side, Ron asked, “There’s really something there?”
“Undoubtedly,” Hermione replied. “Its skin feels… Harry, does it even have a coat? Anywhere?”
“Er, no. Guess I forgot to mention that.”
Hermione finally found the end of the horse’s tail, and when she had a firm grip on it, she subtly drew her wand. Harry could only tell by the ruffling of her robes, and even then only because he’d expected it.
As Hermione went about her work, Harry circled around the creature and took it all in while suppressing the uncomfortable feeling he got looking at it. In the right light, it actually seemed a bit familiar.
“Ron, do you know of any other invisible magical creatures?” Harry called out to Ron, who was cautiously approaching the horse.
“Well, there’s demiguises. They look a bit like a gorilla. And there’s mokes, I guess. They’re lizards that shrink themselves smaller than a gnat, if that counts.”
“Maybe…” Harry mumbled. Then he asked, “Any birds?”
Ron shrugged. “Not that I know of, Mate. Why?”
“If you look at it just right, it kind of looks like a dinosaur.”
Hermione – Hermione! – actually squealed in glee at that. “A dinosaur! Oh my gosh, Harry! I have to see this for myself. Could you draw it for me sometime?”
Harry, who was no artist, said, “I…can try. No promises, though. And I only said kind of like.”
“What’s a dinosaur?” Ron asked. Hermione then proceeded to regale him with stories of giant lizards and a recommendation to watch The Land Before Time. While Ron did sound taken with the dinosaurs themselves, Harry doubted he would ever get around to watching that movie. The Weasleys, while very pro-muggle, were equally ignorant of how the muggle world actually worked. Mr. Weasley was the expert in the family, and he got confused about rubber ducks of all things.
“Um, excuse me. Harry?”
Surprised to hear him, Harry turned about to find Neville looking conspicuously away from the horses. The silver-haired girl with him, however, was not. It took a moment, but Harry recognised her as Luna Lovegood, one of the Hogwarts residents who could stand on disappearing-steps. She eagerly skipped forward to pet the horse without a care in the world.
“Hello, Neville. What is it?”
“You can see them?” The them in question was obvious, but Neville briefly looked toward the horses.
“You can, too?” Harry asked, although he already knew the answer. Luna obviously could, or was very good at faking it, and Neville was deliberately looking everywhere but exactly where the horses were.
Neville nodded. “Unfortunately. It’s… There’s an unpleasant tradition at Hogwarts. If you notice someone who can see thestrals, you’re supposed to explain it to them.”
Like magic, Hermione suddenly appeared at Harry’s side, all talk of dinosaurs forgotten. “They’re called thestrals? Why can you and Harry see them? Where did they come from? Do you know if–”
Harry put a hand on Hermione’s shoulder, which cut off her barrage of questions, much to Neville’s relief.
“Um, yes, Hermione. They’re thestrals. Hogwarts has a herd of them for the carriages, but I don’t know where they hunt. The Forbidden Forest, probably.”
“They’re carnivorous?” Hermione asked. It was fairly obvious to Harry, at least, that she was uneasy with carnivorous, invisible, flying animals pulling carriages that young children rode in. It was an entirely valid concern, even if they were domesticated.
“Yes, but they only eat birds, bats…anything that flies, really.”
Harry nudged Hermione in the side with his elbow and whispered to her, “Sounds like you have nothing to worry about.”
Hermione nudged him back a bit harder. “Maybe they’ll eat you, then.” Turning back to Neville, Hermione again asked, “So how does one go about seeing them?”
“Right, um… It’s… Well, it might be best if I told Harry in private and let him decide if he wants to share.
Pouting, Hermione reluctantly gave the two of them some space. While Harry and Neville stepped off to the side, she went off and introduced herself to Lovegood.
“I’m sorry in advance if this brings up bad memories,” Neville began. “You can only see thestrals if you’ve watched someone die and understand what happened.”
“Oh…” Well, I certainly have enough deaths in my life for that. Harry sighed before asking, “Does it have to be human, or could it be a pet like a cat?”
Neville shook his head. “It has to be a person. But it doesn’t have to be, you know, human human. Goblins, veela, werewolves, and such all count. Probably creatures like sphinxes, too.”
Which means it was probably the basilisk and not Quirrell, who I didn’t actually see die. Or my parents, maybe. Fantastic. “Well, I’m not sure if I wanted to know that, but thanks all the same.” Harry traded sad smiles with Neville and forewent the opportunity to ask him who he’d lost. Neville was kind enough to return the courtesy.
That over with, Harry and Neville rejoined Hermione, Ron, and Lovegood, who was still pampering a very appreciative thestral while she talked at Hermione and Ron observed. And it was definitely talking at. Hermione was barely responsive as she stared at Lovegood while looking utterly lost. On occasion, she emitted a short question that only renewed Lovegood’s enthusiasm.
As it was past time to board the carriages, Harry bid their unexpected company goodbye after briefly introducing himself. He then grabbed ahold of a still comatose Hermione’s shoulders and marched her into their carriage. It was only after they were in motion that she recovered. That Luna Lovegood girl must have been something special to get Hermione to freeze up for that long.
“Harry. I… There’s something going wrong in that girl’s head. I don’t know if she’s mad, or acting, or has some magical gift, or what, but… Just… Nevermind. What lets you see thestrals, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Not at all, although you may mind after. Neville said…”
Harry explained how he thought the basilisk’s death was what let him see the thestrals, which of course led to Ron asking what he meant. That in turn led to a more thorough discussion of his and Hermione’s short excursion into the Chamber of Secrets than they’d given him before. Then that had led to Ron asking what Harry was going to do with the basilisk, which then led to Hermione asking what Ron meant. Ron had gone on to explain that anyone who slayed a sufficiently dangerous creature somehow obtained ownership of its carcass.
Really, one did not have to be a closet Slytherin to see the flaws in that particular law, and Hermione had said as such. She could, however, have chosen her words a little more carefully. As much as Harry loved her honesty and frankness – most of the time, anyway – Ron had a bit of a hairpin trigger on his temper when he felt insulted or embarrassed. His tendency to yell when he was mad only made matters worse. If one explained nicely to Hermione why something she said hurt, she would listen and try better next time. But when she was yelled at, she usually dug in her heels.
Harry sighed as he turned away from the compartment window and glanced at his friends. Ron was snacking on candy bought from the trolley and occasionally glaring at Hermione now that their shouting match was over. Across the compartment sitting next to Harry, Hermione was curled up with a book in front of her face and not paying attention to anything else in the slightest, which on the bright side, meant she would take no further offence unless Ron decided to say, well, just about anything, really.
At least they’re still in the same compartment. That’s something, I guess. Sometimes, Harry had to wonder how those two ever managed to occupy the same room, let alone be friends. Mrs. Weasley had said it was a sign of young love and confused feelings neither knew how to deal with, but for the life of him, he could never see it. Maybe Ron, but Hermione was far more mature than that. Harry knew exactly how she expressed affection, and that was not it. Mrs. Weasley had spent all of a day, perhaps, with her, while he had two years; he liked to consider himself the better judge.
Besides, Hermione had always struck Harry as the type of girl who would just ask a bloke out on a date if she were interested.
Shaking his head, Harry propped Hermione’s book on occlumency back up to continue skimming through it again. She claimed she was untalented in the art and far worse than him, but he found that hard to believe. He’d had a bit of luck with some of the exercises, true, but that was it. Occlumency was, to put it briefly and extremely inaccurately, the art of lying to oneself. His area of expertise was more in lying to others, sadly, and to the Dursleys and primary school staff in particular.
A knock came at the compartment door, which meant someone besides Malfoy and his two stooges was behind it. Harry would take literally anyone else at the moment if they could lighten the atmosphere.
“Come in,” Harry called out.
The door slid open, and the girl behind it said, “Hey, Harry. Do you mind if–”
“Susan!” Harry said, springing to his feet and taking her trunk for her. “You are exactly the girl I wanted to see. Hermione and Ron were having a…eh…debate, and I think you can help us resolve it.”
“Uh, alright. I’ll do what I can. Hello, Hermione, Weasley. Do either of you mind if I hide out here? Hannah and Ernie are snogging. Poorly.”
“Go ahead,” Hermione said.
“Whatever,” Ron added.
“Thanks.” Susan took the open seat across from Hermione next to Ron. “So what are you two arguing about?”
“Ronald thinks that because Harry killed the basilisk, he owns it.”
“He does!” Ron protested. “My great, great gran Ursula killed a dragon and got to keep it.”
“You don’t even know if it was a wild dragon or not,” Hermione retorted. “Who else would even have had a claim against it?”
“There haven’t been wild dragons in centuries!”
“No one has seen a wild dragon in centuries. Who’s actually looking?”
“Everyone all the time! If one flew over a muggle city, it’d be a disaster!”
“Oh, yes. I forgot how dragons don’t migrate.”
Susan looked to Harry with a pitying expression that seemed to ask, ‘Do you always have to deal with this?’ He just sighed and shrugged in return. If there were some trick to get Hermione and Ron to stop arguing, it was beyond him.
“Alright, you two, break it up.” Turning to her side, Susan asked, “Weasley, when exactly did your great, great gran slay this dragon?”
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“Er, maybe? It was in the spring, I think.”
Susan nodded to herself, saying, “Thought so.”
“Please tell me he’s not actually right,” Hermione said before Susan could continue. “That would be a stupid law even by Magical Britain’s standards.”
“Oi!” Beside Ron, Harry noticed Susan bristle slightly at the comment as well, even if Hermione was completely and utterly right, both in the sense she meant it and in the literal logical sense. But Susan, at least, let it go without riling up either Hermione or Ron any further.
“Let’s all calm down,” Susan said. “You’re both right. Sort of.”
Seeing as the two who were actually arguing over this were still fuming, Harry – who, he realised, was the only one it actually concerned – asked, “How so?”
“Well, the short answer is the basilisk isn’t yours.”
“Ha! Told you!”
Harry put a hand on Hermione’s shoulder and pushed her gently back into her seat. She was usually right in these sorts of situations, and Ron had a fairly predictable response to her gloating. Once she settled down, Harry turned back to Susan and said, “Go on.”
“Alright. So, as I said, the basilisk isn’t yours, but it’d have been if you’d killed it between May fifth and ninth of 1897. It’s something of a cultural myth that the law was never repealed, but on May fourth, the Wizengamot passed a law that made whoever killed a non-sentient creature the owner of it. Not the remains, mind you, but the creature itself.”
“Then I definitely don’t own the basilisk,” Harry muttered under his breath.
Not having heard his aside, Susan continued, “It…wasn’t exactly the most well thought-out plan. The day before on the third of May, a company of aurors raided a group of smugglers. The criminals were caught, but in the process, a number of dragons, lethifolds, basilisks, and a nundu were released into the wild, along with a variety of less dangerous exotic creatures. An emergency session of the Wizengamot gathered to decide how to respond, and, well, that law was the result.
“By the sixth, nearly all the escaped animals were accounted for, except the nundu, which was nowhere near worth the risk. By the seventh, it became apparent that there were far more basilisk parts on the market than could conceivably be legal. As it turned out, people had been illegally breeding basilisks for the black market and decided to let their illegally bred basilisks escape into the wild for a confederate to legally kill and claim.”
By this point, Harry had to keep a hand on Hermione's leg to keep her from exploding at how incredibly irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid Magical Britain was. She would likely include the rest of the magical world as well for good measure. To be fair, though, Harry shared the sentiment. Any government that would throw someone, especially someone like Hagrid, into Azkaban simply to ‘be seen doing something’ had fundamental problems in it.
Still, Harry could somewhat guiltily admit to himself that if such events were what it took to wean Hermione off of her respect for authority – authority outside Hogwarts, that was; Merlin forbid a professor be anything less than perfection incarnate – then they were a price worth paying. He would hate for her to turn into Percy Weasley.
“Then on the eighth,” Susan continued, “the ministry was flooded with complaints of neighbours killing and stealing livestock, at which point it became apparent that there was a serious problem. But the real tipping point was when the” – Susan faked a cough – “then Lord Bones sent a Hungarian Horntail to Black Manor, watched it burn the house and most of their fortune to ashes before the Black family managed to bring it down, and then told them to exercise better control of their dragons.”
Harry quietly whispered, “Flies,” to Hermione. She promptly snapped her mouth shut.
“This wasn’t long after the Black Family brutally reneged on a betrothal contract between heirs Sirius Black the Second and Ellen Bones. That bastard convinced Ellen he loved her. She was so young and sheltered, and he was admittedly both handsome and charming; she never stood a chance. He convinced her to emancipate herself so that they could begin the legal process of merging the families upon their marriage. But after he stole half of my family’s magicks with his silver tongue, the Blacks killed her. Not that we could ever prove it.”
Ignoring the bitterness in Susan’s voice, Harry gave her his condolences. That pulled her back to the here and now, and she nervously shifted from side to side, glancing at Ron. “Incidentally,” she said, “that’s probably the dragon your great great gran slew.”
Shrugging, Ron said, “Whatever. The Blacks were awful people. Serves them right.”
“Uh…right. I'm glad you agree. Well, by that point, absolutely everyone realised they’d made a disastrous mistake, even those who were profiting from the law and had a vote in the matter. If the noble and most ancient House of Black could be all but ruined without consequence, then anyone could; it’d be post-Britannia anarchy all over again. The Wizengamot convened on the ninth for its shortest session on record, and that was the end of that. Well, mostly. There are a few modified provisions for extraordinarily dangerous creatures like nundus that you simply don’t breed, domesticate, guide, control, and so on, but a basilisk doesn’t qualify.”
Now recovered from the shock of it all, Hermione sat up straighter, crossed her arms, and stared at Ron. Even without looking, Harry was well aware that she had a victorious smirk on her face. With any luck, she would stay silent and just let Ron cool down on his own.
Deciding to aid in that plan, before either Ron or Hermione had much of a chance to speak, Harry said, “Thank you, Susan. Your aunt has obviously rubbed off on you.”
“Yes, well, she’s very…” Susan said, blushing. “It’s kind of hard not to pick up a few things growing up around her.”
“It must be more interesting than listening to Binns drone on about his goblin racism, if you get to hear the black comedy in history.”
“Professor Binns,” Hermione said. “But succinctly put.”
Alright, that’s Hermione satisfied and distracted. Ron next. “Speaking of, though, what was that about your great, great gran slaying a dragon? If you knew that already, you must know the rest of the story.”
Obviously happy to have the attention, even if he was still resolutely avoiding looking at Hermione with anything less than a glare, Ron shared the family legend of Dragonslayer Ursula over the rest of the train ride to King’s Cross. And as it turned out, ‘Dragonslayer’ was an actual title one could earn in the magical world, even if it was purely an honorific.
At any rate, Ron’s story was a good distraction for Harry as well. Hermione’s parents, who she’d told who knew what to, were waiting for him at the end of this train ride. Despite her reassurances to the contrary, Harry was certain his remaining lifespan was measured in minutes.