Harry was greeted enthusiastically by Hermione, who threw her arms about him and hugged him, crying, "Oh, Harry, I'm so glad you're okay!" much to Harry's embarrassment when they met just outside the Great Hall for lunch. People stared and some of the Slytherin girls and boys snickered behind their hands and one older Hufflepuff girl laughed and said, "Aww, how sweet! A firstie romance!"
Harry went scarlet and hissed, "Uh, Hermione, please let go! I'm fine, see?"
Ron was trying manfully not to crack up, and Hermione was oblivious to everything save for the fact that her best friend was alive and well before her. Harry was quietly wishing he had his Invisibility Cloak and knew a Forgetful Charm. But he had to admit, very softly, that it was nice to know that someone else cared enough to miss him if he died. Besides Severus, that is.
"We were so worried about you, Harry," Hermione continued, releasing him at last. "You were nearly dead when we brought you to the infirmary and Ron started an argument with Professor Snape over you and wouldn't leave till I dragged him out by his ear, and I really thought the professor was going to hex him."
Harry gaped at her. "Ron started a fight with Snape over me?" He turned to his other friend, who was looking rather sheepish and staring at the ground. "What the hell, mate? Snape saved me, he brewed an antidote that neutralized the poison, and you start a blasted argument with him?"
"I didn't know that when we brought you there, Harry." Ron said, apologetically. "I still thought Snape was out to, uh, you know, get you. I didn't want to leave you alone with him."
Harry scowled. "Ron, you stupid dumbass, how many times do I have to tell you, Snape is not trying to kill me?" He punched the other hard in the shoulder. "The man was up all night and all day with me, making sure the antidote cleansed all the poison from me. Holy Mary, now does that sound like somebody that wants to murder me? I'm going to tell you once more, drop your vendetta against Snape once and for all, or else it's over between us." And Harry fixed the redhead with an uncompromising glare reminiscent of his guardian angel.
Ron actually winced. "Okay, okay. Christ, Harry! Hermione already shredded strips off of me yesterday. She explained everything to me, how Snape's actually protecting you and all," he lowered his voice and looked about, they were alone in the Entrance Hall. "I'm sorry . . .it's just hard for me to trust a Slytherin, there have been so many who went dark from that House."
"And some have went dark from our House too, Ron," Harry said quietly. "Evil knows no boundaries. You shouldn't judge all Slytherins based on a few rotten apples."
"He's right. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," Hermione added.
Ron gave her a blank look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means don't judge others unless you're willing to judge yourself too, since nobody's perfect," Harry translated.
"Oh. Why didn't you just say that, then?" Ron rolled his eyes. "Anyway, like I was saying, Hermione told me how she figured out Snape was on our side after all. She said she started changing her mind when he brought you back to the school after the night in the Forbidden Forest, and the Quidditch match when he called a foul on his own team ‘cause Flint nearly knocked you off your broom."
"And I started thinking about how you insisted Snape wasn't the one who hexed your broom during the first Quidditch match, that he was performing a countercurse." Hermione continued, whispering. "Hagrid told me that countercurses required the caster to not blink or lose focus on the one they were protecting, so Snape could have been doing that and not a jinx. Of course, that means somebody else is trying to steal the Stone and . . .and kill you." The girl looked sick as she hissed that last.
"I know. Last night proved that for damn sure," Harry sighed. He showed them the ring Snape had given him. "The professor gave me this ring, it will protect me from being poisoned again. And he wants me to stick close to both of you, he says there's safety in numbers. But he doesn't know we know about the Stone, or that the creature in the forest was Voldemort. I think we have to watch people closely, because somebody here is helping Voldemort."
"Malfoy probably," Ron muttered angrily.
"Not necessarily." Harry disagreed. "I know he's an arrogant little twit, but that doesn't mean he's evil. We can't accuse without evidence. Besides, I think whoever it is isn't a student, but an adult."
"But who? Surely not one of the teachers . . .?" Hermione said.
Harry shrugged. "Who knows? Come on, let's go and eat. I'm kind of hungry." He led the way into the hall, not wanting to tell his friends that if he didn't show up for lunch, Snape would come after him and drag him to a table by his ear and stand over him while he ate.
Sure enough, he saw Severus standing near the staff table, scanning the hall for him. When he entered, Snape frowned and jerked his head at the Gryffindor table, indicating Harry was to sit down and eat. Harry gave him a nod and quickly sat down near the end next to Neville, with Hermione and Ron on his other side.
Food appeared on all their plates, though Harry nearly groaned when he saw a rather large portion of spinach sauteed with garlic on his plate next to a small piece of ham, a hard boiled egg, and another large piece of whole grain bread. But at least the bread had butter on it. His glass also had iced green tea flavored with honey instead of his usual pumpkin juice.
Everyone else was eating mashed potatoes swimming with gravy and glazed ham and fried chicken.
Ron frowned in puzzlement when he saw what Harry had for lunch. "Harry, why are you eating spinach?" The other made a disgusting face.
"Doctor's orders. Or I should say, Snape's orders," Harry amended glumly. "He told me I have to eat food with lots of sulfur and antioxidants and fiber for lunch and dinner today to make sure I'm completely free of the poison. So that means spinach and whole wheat bread and eggs."
"Poor you!" Ron said sympathetically. "I hate spinach." He began to eat his chicken with relish.
Harry surveyed his plate, then began eating slowly. Spinach was tolerable in his opinion, and this wasn't half-bad, at least it had seasoning and the garlic added flavor. He had gotten used to eating vegetables when he was growing up with Severus, and actually liked some of them, though he would never admit that to anyone, since kids were supposed to hate them. He glanced at Hermione and saw she also had a salad along with her fried chicken and potatoes.
"Vegetables are good for you, Harry," she said, eating her salad happily.
"Merlin, you sound like my mum!" Ron groaned. "Girls!"
"My gran was like that too," Neville spoke up. "She used to make me eat brussel sprouts when I was little."
Ron gagged. "Gross!"
"I like brussel sprouts," Hermione said.
"Figures," Ron muttered.
Harry ate his ham, not wanting to admit that he also like brussel sprouts, oddly enough. With butter, salt, and pepper. He made sure he finished at least half of his lunch, eating all of the spinach and the bread and most of the egg, for he knew across the hall a certain professor was watching.
* * * * * *
The next month was a killer as everyone crammed for final exams. Harry played in the last Quidditch game of the season, against Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor won, much to his delight. He had caught the Snitch handily about ten minutes into the game, arrowing out of the blue like a comet, making the startled Hufflepuff Seeker spin around on his broom, trying to see what had flown past him at such a speed.
Wood declared him a prodigy and a miracle, the best Seeker he'd ever seen, and invited him to an even bigger after-hours party. Harry declined, however, recalling what had happened last time, and instead chose to celebrate quietly with Hermione, Ron, and Hagrid at Hagrid's cottage.
They had butterbeer and fizzy chocolate sodas and some other sweets that Hagrid had purchased from Hogsmeade, though no chocolate frogs, he figured that would not be wise considering Harry had nearly died from eating one, though the youngster admitted he still liked them. "Only I don't think I could eat one just yet. Maybe in a few months, though."
"Thas' what I figgered, so I got ya some chocolate bonbons and Screamin' Butterscotch Taffy instead." Hagrid said, gesturing at the other sweets.
The Screaming Taffy yelled when you pulled a piece of it, but it was delicious, though Hermione ate only a small amount of it. "I don't like talking food, and besides, taffy's really bad for your teeth and I've got braces, my parents would kill me if I ruined all their work by eating some magical taffy." Hermione's parents were dentists.
"You've got braces? I never noticed," Harry said, astonished.
"They're clear, so you wouldn't unless you look close," Hermione said, and smiled widely so he could see them. "My mum put them in, they're new, since I got sick and tired of kids teasing me in school, calling me train track mouth and all that."
"How long have you had them?"
"Since I was about eight, but I'm getting them off next year," she answered, sipping a butterbeer. "Then I'll have to wear a retainer for a year or two, and after that my teeth will be fixed, finally!"
Harry thanked God his teeth weren't crooked.
"Are you all studying hard for your exams?" asked the gamekeeper.
All three nodded, though Ron made a face. He wasn't looking forward to finals at all and thought they were a waste of time.
Harry was thinking of Voldemort, however, and ways he could try and get past the Cerberus and whatever else guarded the Stone. "Hagrid, when you won that dragon egg off that person in the pub, what did he look like? Was he pale?"
Hagrid's forehead crinkled. "Well, I can't really say, Harry. He wouldn't let me see his face, he had a hood over it. He wouldn't take off his cloak either."
All three looked very alarmed and the gamekeeper raised an eyebrow. "That's not too strange, y'get a lot of them sort down at the Hog's Head in the village. Some of the blokes there like t'keep a low profile, see? An' if he was a dragon dealer . . .he wouldn' be too keen on me seein' his face, like."
"Hagrid, did he ask about Hogwarts?" Harry frowned.
"Yeah, I tol' him I worked here . . .he asked me a lot o' questions about me job, wanted t'know what kinds of creatures I'd taken care of . . .he couldn't give the egg t'just anyone, see . . .I tol' him I'd always wanted a dragon, an' that after Fluffy, a dragon shouldn't be too hard t' raise . . .He kept buying me drinks, really friendly, he was, and innerested in all my pets . . ."
"Did he ask about Fluffy?" Hermione asked.
"Sure, there ain't too many people who can raise an' train a Cerberus, even at Hogwarts," Hagrid said proudly. "They're touchy, an' they get their feelings hurt easy, and they need lots of space and they eat lots but they're very loyal an' they'll defend ya to the death or whatever ya tell them t' guard. I said Fluffy was a piece o'cake once ya learned how to calm him down, he likes music, see, and if you play him a lullaby he'll go straight ter sleep jus' like a little baby-"
Hagrid broke off, looking absolutely horrified.
"Blast! I shouldn't have tol' you that! Forget about it! It's not important."
"But Hagrid, you told the man about it. What if he's the one trying to steal the Stone?" Harry protested.
"Harry, listen to me. The Stone's well protected, now quit sticking yer nose in stuff that's none o' yer business. Study for your finals, that's what ya should be concerned about. Not the Stone. You have any idea how much trouble you'd be in if any of the teachers ever found out ya knew about the Stone? You could get expelled, all of ya, that's classified information, that is. Now do yerselves a favor and jus' forget about it. I tol' ya before, there's no place safer than Hogwarts to hide something, unless it's Gringotts."
"But Hagrid, what if-" Harry protested.
The big man shook a finger at him. "Harry, stop, I mean it. Mind your own business. Unless you want me t'get Professor Snape an' maybe he can put it so's you understand?" Harry shook his head, gulping. "No? Then quit askin' me about it and worry about your exams. Leave stuff like that to the adults, that's their job, an' their concern. Got me?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said, but he knew he wouldn't be able to take Hagrid's advice. He knew too much to just forget about it, and the worst part was he didn't dare confide in Severus, for he had no illusions about how furious the Potions Master would be if he ever learned Harry had been snooping and gathering top secret information about a secret magical object. He'd really go off on me then, and I'd probably end up with a sore bum and locked up in his dungeon forever. But there's something not right about this whole thing, and now whoever it was that talked to Hagrid knows about Fluffy's weakness . . .Harry's mind raced. The stranger in the pub tempting Hagrid with a dragon egg and then just happening to question him about Fluffy was too much of a coincidence to not be a set-up. In all the mystery novels he'd ever read, the murderer had usually had an accomplice, or at least a dupe, to help him commit the crime.
But who was the mastermind? And who was the pawn?
Those questions kept turning around and around in his brain, try though he did not to think about them. He wished suddenly he didn't have such insatiable curiosity or a mind that loved solving mysteries. He picked up a chocolate bonbon and ate it, then changed the subject to something safer-discussing the victory that Gryffindor had won, the first time in seven years they had managed to win the Quidditch cup over Slytherin. Harry stroked Hedwig while he related his winning maneuver again, and Hagrid and Ron beamed proudly.
* * * * * *
Despite his fear that the Stone would be stolen right from under their noses while they slept, nothing happened over the next three weeks of note, except Hermione developing a migraine and having to get a Headache Remedy for it from Madam Pomfrey. She was stressing too much over her exams, the medi-witch said, and recommended she take a break from her books and take a long walk in the sunshine.
Harry and Ron accompanied her, for they too were sick of all the homework and review sheets their teachers were giving them, and together they walked around the lake, skipping stones across the water and throwing crackers for the squid to eat.
They were so intent upon their little bit of free time that none of them noticed the great feline that padded along behind them some hundred yards away, silent as the ghost he was named for. Wraith purred softly, relieved to note that his reckless charge was taking his advice for once and not roaming about alone. The poisoning, awful as it had been, had done one good thing, the big cat reflected, sitting down in the shade of a large yew tree. It had scared Harry enough so he started being mindful of his own safety at last. But Wraith would not relent in his vigilance. Not until the one who was behind this was gone to hell and facing the final judgement.
The snow leopard remained alert while the three played along the lakeshore, none of them realizing that this was the last peaceful interlude they would know for quite some time.
Between his exams and his fear that Voldemort would come bursting into the school at any time, Harry hardly got any sleep, and he began to pick at his food, his nerves robbing him of his appetite. Severus summoned him to his office the night before finals began and made him eat dinner with him, practically counting every bite.
"You will never be able study if you don't eat properly," he scolded. "I want you to promise me you will eat a good breakfast every morning of your exams, mister. Your brain needs energy to work properly, and therefore you need to eat a well balanced meal. Have I your word?"
"Yes, sir," his ward sighed, wishing he could tell his guardian the other reason he was so peckish lately. But he didn't want to die at eleven, so he kept quiet and ate dinner. Afterwards, he played a game of chess with Snape, who managed to beat him without half-trying, as usual. Then they spent a half-hour going over some of the potions material Harry wasn't grasping, until Severus escorted Harry back to the tower just before curfew. "You'll do well. Just clear your mind before you start looking at the exam paper, and then read each question thoroughly and completely before putting down an answer. Don't rush and above all, get a good night's sleep." He gave Harry's shoulder an encouraging squeeze before bidding him good night and watching as the boy climbed through the portrait hole.
* * * * * *
The exams weren't half as bad as Harry had feared, though the large classroom they took the written portions in was swelteringly hot and all the students removed their robes before they sat down. All of them used special quills for their finals, bewitched with Anti-Cheating Charms and a never-ending supply of squid ink. He followed Snape's instructions, clearing his mind before taking each test and reading each essay topic and question completely and throughly before answering it.
Some subjects, like Potions, also had a practical lab in addition to a written exam, and they had those in their regular classrooms. Flitwick called them in individually to see how well they could make a pineapple tapdance across a desk, and then demonstrate a charm of their own choosing. Harry earned himself bonus points for demonstrating a Summoning Charm, and he silently thanked Severus for teaching him that one.
McGonagall graded them on how well they could transfigure a snuffbox into a mouse, with points given if the mouse had fluffy fur and taken away if it looked wooden.
Snape terrified them all by breathing down their necks while they brewed, trying to remember how to make a Forgetfulness Potion. Harry thought that was Severus's little idea of a joke, giving them that particular elixir to brew, and he knew that one by heart, which was one advantage of being the ward of a Potions Master since he was four.
Neville looked like he was about to be sick, however. He kept muttering, "I can't fail potions, Gran will murder me."
Harry felt sorry for him and considered offering the plump boy some extra help next term, since it was too late now.
Their last exam was History of Magic and everyone let out a cheer when it was over and ran outside. Everyone except Hermione, Ron, and Harry. Hermione was trying to remember if she'd gotten a question right on the Goblin Wars and Ron was tying his trainer, when Quirrell went by, twitching and jerking more than usual and muttering to himself.
Something about the Defense professor's manner made Harry uneasy, and he moved off a little ways behind the man, his ear cocked.
"I can't . . .yes, yes . . .I understand, Master . . .it shall be done . . .tonight . . .does he know?" More wringing of his hands and a nervous tic followed. "No, no, of course not . . .it must be done . . ."
Quirrell hurried away then and Harry could not follow, but the wizard's words sent a sudden chill through him. What did he mean, tonight it must be done? Grading his exams? But no, he acted like he was talking to someone, he called someone Master. Could it be Voldemort? The more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Quirrell had always acted a little odd, and Harry's scar had started throbbing and aching ever since the first day he'd had class with him. In fact, it was tingling now. He could also recall Severus saying that Quirrell was a waste of breath as a Defense instructor, and he didn't know what Dumbledore had been thinking to hire him.
"We have to go and talk to Dumbledore," he blurted suddenly, startling his friends, who looked at him in puzzlement.
"How come, Harry?" asked Ron quizzically. "You think you did that bad on your exam? He won't let you take it over, y'know. Fred tried that last year, ‘cause he was failing Arithmancy. Besides, our grades won't be out till next week and then we can see how awful we did. I'm just as glad, I won't get lectured and grounded by my mum till I go home, she won't get the results till then."
"Speak for yourself, Ron. I'm hoping I got at least a ninety- five in everything or maybe even a hundred or better," said Hermione.
"Know-it-all," Ron coughed.
"Harry, you want to do well on your exams, right? Not like some people."
"Uh, yeah," Harry replied, thinking that if he didn't do well, Severus would kick his arse. It had never been spoken between them, but Harry knew that he would face Snape's wrath if he failed anything, not that he thought he had. Now that he didn't have to worry about being dumb like Dudley and faking poor marks, he could ace his classes, and let his natural intelligence shine. "But Ron, that's not why I need to see Dumbledore."
"Because I have to warn him about Quirrell. I think he's going to steal the Stone tonight. I overheard him talking to himself just now . . ." Harry quickly told them what Quirrell had said and both his friends looked properly horrified. "Hagrid must have told him or Voldemort about how to put Fluffy to sleep, and he knows how to get past him and probably the other protections as well. We need to tell Dumbledore right away and hope he believes us. Anybody know where his office is?"
Both of them shook their heads, they had never asked where the Headmaster lived or if anyone had ever been to his office before.
"Maybe we could-" Hermione began.
"What are you three doing inside? Looking for trouble?" came a familiar voice from across the hall.
Snape emerged from the staff room, holding several potions manuals in his arms, they had just arrived and he needed to peruse them to see if they were suitable for his sixth and seventh year Advanced classes. He eyed the trio suspiciously.
"No, sir. But we need to speak with Professor Dumbledore. Would you direct us to his office, please?" Hermione said calmly, surprising the boys with her poise under pressure.
The Potions Master frowned. "You need to speak with Professor Dumbledore? Why?"
Harry gulped, for Snape was eyeing him sternly and he felt a sudden urge to yell I didn't do anything, honest. We're trying to prevent a robbery, Severus. Instead he located his courage somewhere in the vicinity of his feet and said, "Uh . . .it's a private matter, sir. It's complicated."
"Really?" Snape's eyebrow went up and he curled his lip in a slight sneer. What are you up to, boy? Because I know you're up to something. "Professor Dumbledore is not here. He received an urgent owl from the Minister of Magic and he left immediately to answer it."
Harry felt as if the bottom had fallen out of the world. "He's gone?"
"Potter, did you suffer hearing loss in the recent future? What part of ‘he left immediately' do you not understand?" demanded Snape irritably.
"But we need to talk to him, sir!" Harry said frantically. "Can you owl him?"
"Professor Dumbledore is a very great wizard, he has many demands on his time, Potter. He cannot be at your beck and call every minute, celebrity or not."
"But this is important."
"More important than the Minister of Magic, Potter?" Snape sneered. What has you so flustered, Harry? He wondered, wishing he could end this pretense and simply ask the boy what was the matter.
"Sir, it's about the Sorcerer's Stone," Hermione interjected, feeling that they would get somewhere by telling the truth for once.
Snape looked as if she had socked him one in the jaw. Clearly that was the last thing he had expected to come out of her mouth. "The Sorcerer's Stone, Miss Granger? How do you know about that?" he snapped, giving her a stern glower.
"Uh . . .we know that . . .I mean we think that . . ." she stammered, wilting under that patented glare.
"Quirrell's trying to steal the Stone, sir!" Harry said quickly, throwing all caution to the wind. He had weathered Severus's death glare before and it did not affect him as much as it did other students. "Please, you've got to believe us, we need to talk to Professor Dumbledore right away."
"You are accusing a faculty member of attempted theft, Potter?" Snape growled, looking mightily annoyed. "Of all the cheek! Do you think I am stupid, to fall for your little prank, boy?"
"No, please! You don't understand!"
"Don't I? You three, inside on a beautiful day after your exams, are clearly up to no good. Now then, you've had your pitiful little joke, Potter, stop before I take points."
"But the Stone is in danger!" Ron added.
"Enough! The Stone is well protected, you needn't concern yourselves with it. Now go outside and play your little jokes on your classmates and forget this conversation ever occurred, because if you pursue this matter, you will all regret it. Now go!" He pointed imperiously towards the doors.
Ron blanched and scurried away, Hermione lingered a little longer, as if trying to think of a way to convince the Potions Master that they were serious, and Harry stepped up to Snape and hissed, "Severus, I'm not kidding, I heard Quirrell whispering to himself that he was going to try and steal the stone-"
"Harry, no one can get to the Stone, it's far too well protected," Severus said out of the corner of his mouth. "Do not concern yourself with it. I shall go and check on it myself." Then he said loudly, "Mr. Potter, if you do not cease this foolishness, you will be one very sorry little boy. Now move your over-privileged backside outside unless you want to spend the last week of school scrubbing all the toilets a dozen times over with a toothbrush. Move!" he barked, then he turned Harry about and sent him off with a firm swat to the seat of his jeans, forgetting for one instant that Hermione was still watching.
Harry went, feeling his face flush at Snape's dismissal. Dammit, Severus, I was serious! And do you have to treat me like a seven-year-old in front of Hermione? Bloody Christ!
Hermione gave him an astonished look as he caught up with her and they started out the doors. "Did he just . . .swat you? Because I was sure I saw . . ."
"Uh . . .yeah, he does that sometimes . . ."
"So does my dad, if I'm pestering him too much," Hermione said thoughtfully.
Harry blushed and looked away.
Hermione eyed him speculatively and muttered, half to herself, "Curiouser and curiouser."
Ron met them halfway down the path. "You okay, Harry? He looked like he was about to skewer you. Did he give you detention? Or take points?"
"No. But we have to get back inside. If the teachers won't believe us, we have to guard the stone and watch Quirrell ourselves." Harry said decisively.
"Umm . . .let me think. You think Snape's still watching the entrance, right? Okay, the twins told me of a secret way," Ron said, and beckoned them off the path and through the shrubbery.
Five minutes later they were back inside the castle. They quickly slipped up the stairs to the third floor, only to discover a stern Minerva McGonagall standing before the door where Fluffy was kept.
"And what, may I ask, are you three doing up here? The third floor is off limits to students and I thought I heard Professor Snape tell you distinctly to go outside."
"But Professor, we're just trying to help," began Hermione.
"And prevent a robbery," added Harry.
"Now that is quite enough, Mr. Potter. You've had your little prank on Professor Snape and frankly I am not amused. I would suggest you stop this nonsense and go out and enjoy the sunshine, because if you persist in following in your father's footsteps, I shall take points, yes, from my own House again, Potter. So do not test me."
She gave them a thunderous look, so that Hermione squeaked and backed away and Ron did likewise. Harry remained for a moment more, then decided that discretion was the better part of valor and followed his friends down the stairs, fighting the urge to swear and stamp his foot like a five-year-old. Now what? It seemed there was nothing left to do but to go outside and try and enjoy what was left of the afternoon.
* * * * * *
Later that night, however, he plotted rebellion. "He's going to do it tonight, I heard him," he whispered to Ron and Hermione up in the stairwell inbetween the two dormitories, there was a small alcove where they could all squeeze into and discuss plans. "He was communicating with Voldemort, I'm sure of it."
"Don't say his name, Harry!" hissed Ron, his face white.
Harry lost his temper. "Why not? He's coming here, or maybe he's here already, somewhere in the school, plotting with Quirrell to make himself a bloody immortal. So what's it matter if I say his name? Huh? Voldemort! Voldemort! Voldemort!" he shouted. "There! Where is he? I don't see him anywhere, do you? See, he's just a bloody dark wizard after all, not the devil! Now quit acting like a scaredy-cat, Weasley, and start acting like a Gryffindor. Maybe the hat ought to've put you in Hufflepuff instead?"
Ron socked him one in the shoulder. "That's a low blow, Potter!"
"Stop it, the pair of you!" Hermione ordered angrily. "What are we going to do?"
"I don't know about you two, but I'm going through the trapdoor tonight and trying to prevent Quirrell and Voldemort from stealing the Stone."
His friends just stared at him, as if he had said he was going to hang himself from the Astronomy Tower.
"You bleeding cracked, mate?" Ron demanded.
"You . . .you can't do that, Harry! Didn't you hear what McGonagall and Snape said? You'll get expelled for sure if you go anywhere near the third floor." Hermione squeaked.
Harry clenched his fists, his green eyes blazing. "And if Voldemort steals the Stone, we won't have a school to be expelled from, don't you get it? Hogwarts will be gone, he'll blow it up or take it over and we'll all be dead or slaves to him and his followers. And I'd rather be dead than risk that. It doesn't matter if we lose points any more, or win the House cup, that won't stop Voldemort from taking the Stone and becoming immortal and once he does that, he'll rule all of Britain. My parents died to stop that from happening. I won't let their sacrifice be for nothing. I won't let him win, and kill Severus and . . .and all of you . . .not if I can stop it. I'm going through the damn trapdoor tonight and if you're not coming with me, you better find a deep hole and hide in it, because one way or another somebody's gonna die tonight, and if God is merciful it'll be that wicked bastard."
Such was the determination and conviction in his tone that the other two found themselves quite speechless. They had never seen this side of Harry before and it impressed the socks off them.
"We'll help you, Harry," Hermione said softly. "You won't have to do this alone, right, Ronald?"
"Uh, yeah, we'll be right beside you, mate," Ron said in a small voice. "And I just hope we don't all die."
"We won't," Harry reassured him. "Believe it, Ron. We'll kick Voldemort's arse all the way across the Atlantic and save Hogwarts. If you go into a fight believing you'll win, then you'll stand a good chance of coming out alive," he quoted one of Severus's mottos, that he had told him one evening during a Defense lesson. "Don't and you stand an excellent chance of dying. But that's not going to happen, right? Because we're going to win."
"We sure are!" Hermione declared firmly, with a proud lift to her head, like a young lioness who had just sighted prey on the savannah.
"Yeah, we're gonna kick Quirrell's skinny arse all the way back to Arabia," Ron said quickly. "And . . .V-Voldemort's too."
Harry grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "That's the spirit."
"We're all bleeding insane," Ron moaned then.
Harry nodded. "Yeah, well so are most heroes."
* * * * * *
The clock in the common room struck midnight and Harry, Hermione, and Ron crept down the stairs into the common room, Harry had the Invisibility Cloak tucked under his arm and a flute Hagrid had lent him in a pocket of his robe. Hagrid had said he didn't need to be a musician to play it, for which Harry was very grateful, since he'd failed music class in primary school.
"Good thing we got your cloak, Harry, and it covers all three of us," Ron said eagerly, having lost most of his misgivings somewhere inbetween the afternoon and the evening, and was now looking forward to this latest adventure. "Only we need to watch out for is Filch, Peeves, or Mrs. Norris."
"But what about Quirrell's accomplice?" queried Hermione worriedly. "We never did figure out who helped him get into the tower to put the poisoned frog into Harry's trunk. We'll need to watch out for whoever that is too."
"How d'you know it wasn't Quirrell who did it?" Harry said, not wanting to admit that he'd forgotten about the accomplice until now.
"Because Quirrell doesn't know the password to Gryffindor Tower," Ron said. "And after you almost died in the Quidditch match, I heard McGonagall tell the Fat Lady that no one who wasn't a House member was to be admitted to the tower, except of course, the Headmaster."
"And Quirrell wasn't a Gryffindor, he was a Ravenclaw." Hermione recalled. "So it couldn't have been him."
"Where are you all going at this time of night?" came a quiet voice from the far right of the room.
The three jumped about a foot.
"Neville! You scared us! How come you're up this late?" Hermione asked.
Neville came over to stand in front of them. He was wearing an oddly determined expression on his moon face, and there was a faintly confused look in his eyes. "I . . .I was waiting for you. You're sneaking out again, aren't you? Going to get yourselves in more trouble and cost us more House points?"
"No, no we're not, Neville," Ron said quickly. "We just couldn't sleep. Don't mind us. Just go back to bed. Sorry we woke you."
"No, you aren't," Neville's voice suddenly hardened, now he sounded suspicious and not timid. He gave them all a hard glare. "You're just sorry I caught you." He moved to block the portrait hole. "Why don't you go back to bed then?"
Harry scowled, they didn't have time for this. Quirrell was probably charming Fluffy as they stood here arguing. "Neville, get out of the way. Now. If we get caught, it's on our heads."
But Neville remained stubbornly in front of them. "No. I-I can't. . . .Don't you understand? You'll die if you go there . . .he told me so . . .he said he would kill you, Harry and then the threat would be ended forever . . ." Longbottom's eyes were wide and unfocused, his words tumbling over themselves to get out. "He made me come here . . .he told me if I didn't do what he wanted . . .he'd make sure my parents had an accident and died . . .and so would Gran." Neville began to tremble uncontrollably. "Keep them here, boy . . .delay them just long enough . . .please, please . . .I had to do it, Harry . . .he looked at me . . .he went inside me . . .and I couldn't keep him out . . .I couldn't!" Tears were trickling down Neville's cheeks now, but he made no move to wipe them away.
"Harry . . .he's been bewitched!" Ron cried in horror. "By Voldemort."
Neville whimpered. "No . . .no . . .don't speak his name . . .he'll come for you . . .no one is safe . . .we're all going to die . . .unless we obey him . . ."
"Neville . . .move away from the door," Harry ordered quietly. "We're going to stop him, and then you'll be free."
"I won't! You'll have to fight me!" he declared, lifting his fists.
"Neville! Get the hell out of the way!" Ron growled, clenching his own fist.
Harry grabbed him by the shoulder. "No, Ron. He doesn't know what he's doing. Voldemort's using him. Or Quirrell. Neville, it was you who put the chocolate frog in my trunk, wasn't it?"
Neville nodded. "Yes . . .but I didn't know it was poisoned, Harry!" he wailed, sobbing. "I just thought it was a present, Quirrell said it was a reward for . . .for doing well in class. I didn't know . . .I swear to God, I didn't . . .! Then Quirrell came back and said . . .he showed me . . .ahh . . .You-Know-Who was there . . .and he . . .he . . ."
"He hurt you, didn't he?" Harry said sadly. "Made you into a catspaw."
"Yes. I can't let you leave."
"Now what do we do?" Hermione groaned. "I really don't want to hurt him."
Harry drew his wand. "Sorry about this. But it has to be done." Then he cried, "Petrificus Totalus!"
And Neville toppled over on the ground, frozen stiff and unable to move a muscle.
"Merlin, what'd you do to him, Harry?"asked Ron.
"I cast a full Body Bind on him. It'll wear off in a few hours." Harry answered.
"Poor Neville. We're sorry." Hermione apologized.
"Yeah. Hope it didn't hurt too much, mate." Ron added, looking at the other with a mixture of pity and shock. Out of all people, he never would have suspected shy timid Neville of trying to harm Harry, even unknowingly.
Harry knelt beside the stricken boy, whose eyes held a strange mixture of fear and relief in them. "I know it wasn't your fault, Nev. I forgive you. You were the catspaw, not the mastermind. Don't worry. We'll stop him." He patted the other on the shoulder, then swirled the cloak about himself, Ron, and Hermione.
Together they stepped from the portrait hole and into the corridor. Down the stairs they went and across the main entrance to the stairs that led to the third floor, the same stairs which Harry had fallen down that fateful night of the duel that never was.
Together the three started up them, silent as wraiths from beyond the grave, to try and catch a thief and a murderer.
Chapter End Notes:
So . . .were you surprised??
Thanks for all the awesome reviews, they really make me want to keep going with this one! So don't stop reading or reviewing, please!
Next: The trio encounters all the protective traps and tricks as they try to find the Stone before Quirrell does.
Thanks for all the awesome reviews, they really make me want to keep going with this one! So don't stop reading or reviewing, please!
Next: The trio encounters all the protective traps and tricks as they try to find the Stone before Quirrell does.
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