The Sugar Quill
Author: Paleologus (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Drastic Measures  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

 

***

Author’s note: This is the first of a series of stories set in Harry’s fifth year. If you enjoyed it, please watch my author page for the follow-ups, entitled “The Innocents” and “Feather and Flame” (and more if I can manage J ). Let’s raise our glasses to the day that JKR renders all this speculation obsolete!

***

The Dursleys had nothing to say this time. Harry simply waited at the end of the drive, along with his trunk and Hedwig's cage, enjoying the summer sun. Uncle Vernon stayed inside watching Match of the Day while Aunt Petunia fussed about in the back garden. Harry had no idea where Dudley had gone. He was probably out with his "community youth league", as Aunt Petunia optimistically referred to his gang of delinquent friends. Harry had spent most of the summer in his room, principally to avoid Dudley's group's charitable drives, which usually involved soliciting contributions from any generous soul smaller or younger than them, to benefit impoverished local tobacconists.

Happily, Mr Weasley's car appeared from around the corner before Dudley's gang did. Ron had told Harry to expect a car. Somehow Mr Weasley had obtained another one, but this time instead of charming it to fly, he had simply reconstructed a normal Muggle automobile engine and charmed each part to move on its own without the aid of petrol. The problem with this was that the car moved without making any sort of sound at all, which was both conspicuous and dangerous. The best Mr Weasley could do was to apply another charm, ingeniously adapted from a patented Fred-and-George trick, which made the car blow a constant raspberry sound as it moved. Harry smiled as the car splurted wetly toward him. He was certain he had heard cars with muffler troubles that had sounded worse.

The car pulled up. Harry saw Uncle Vernon's face appear at the window for a moment, then vanish. The car, perhaps an orange Renault of some years' vintage, was not spacious- Harry hoped Mr Weasley had charmed the boot as well as the engine. Mr Weasley hopped out, and from the passenger side came Ginny. Harry was surprised to see her. She waved enthusiastically.

"Hi," Harry said, smiling. Mr Weasley walked over.

"Hello, Harry. Ron stayed back to welcome Hermione," he explained. "But Ginny asked if she could come along."

"That's great," Harry said, and it really was great to see the first two friendly faces he had seen in nearly two months. Mr Weasley loaded the trunk into the boot- yes, Harry noticed, it had been charmed- and Ginny took Hedwig with her in the backseat.

"You want to say goodbye to your aunt and uncle?" Mr Weasley said.

"Already done," Harry said, eagerly climbing into the front passenger seat which Ginny had vacated for him. Mr Weasley shrugged and took his place in the driver's seat.

"Like the car?" Mr Weasley smiled as they set off.

"Yeah, it's nice," Harry said, impressed and relieved that the raspberry sound was not audible from inside.

"Orange, for the Weasleys!" Ginny announced. "Dad let me choose the colour for today."

Harry was startled to see a small cloth puppet figure of a policeman emerge from a tiny trapdoor in the dash. "Stop sign here," it said officiously. Mr Weasley obediently slowed to a halt.

"Don't do a lot of driving in Muggle areas," Mr Weasley explained. "This fellow reminds me of all the rules. He's just like a Muggle please-man!"

"Po-lice-man, Dad," Ginny said. "Honestly, it's you should be taking the Muggle Studies classes. How was your summer, Harry?"

"It was okay," he said. "Boring, really. I've been looking forward to today."

"Did you get my letter?" Ginny asked. "The one I sent with Ron's? On your birthday?"

"Yeah, sure, I got it. I-" Harry suddenly thought of something. He looked over at Ginny, her face inquiring but innocent. “Yeah, thanks. It was nice."

Ginny began telling him all about the birthday party they had thrown Harry in absentia, Mr Weasley occasionally filling in details, but mostly very intent on the roads, which suited Harry just fine.

The policeman began to rattle off directions to the motorway. "We're taking Muggle roads," Mr Weasley informed Harry. "Everyone felt that would be safest."

Harry frowned. He had just about managed to forget that it was anything but a lovely summer's day before the beginning of school. Just now he did not want to ask who 'everyone' was and why he should be anything but safe.

"What about you, Ginny?" Harry asked. "How's everybody?"

***

The car pulled on to a long road out of the village, and Mr Weasley called out, "Teatime!". "Right, guv!" the cloth policeman affirmed, and disappeared back down his tiny hatch. Mr Weasley also turned the ignition key, which did not stop the car but Harry guessed it did stop the wretched splurting noise. A minute or two later the Burrow appeared before them. Harry could see his friends outside in the garden, on a bench- Hermione, Fred, Ron and George. It was a strangely quiet scene- no pickup Quidditch games, no gnome-chasing, none of the usual chaos that prevailed at the Burrow. Was there some bad news waiting, Harry thought, something Mr Weasley had not told him yet? Harry was glad, at least, to see all his friends alive and well.

Their heads lifted as the orange car rolled up the lane. Crookshanks leapt off Hermione's lap as she stood. Ron was running ahead with the twins. "Harry!" When Harry stepped out of the car he was mobbed- Hermione threw her arms around Harry's neck and hugged him tightly, a habit of hers which Harry had always found unsettling. Fred, George and Ron clapped him on the back and he was bustled along toward the house by his friends, with Ginny a little way back and Mr Weasley bringing up the rear, smiling.

"So you got away from the Dursleys in one piece, did you?" said George. "Didn't have to knock anyone out?"

"Give Dudley a swift kick for us, did you?" Ron added.

"Are you joking?" Harry laughed. "He'd have sat on me. No surviving that."

"We have so much to tell you!" Hermione said, a bit breathlessly.

"Yeah," said Ron. "Later," he added, apparently directing this last more toward Hermione, confirming Harry's impression that there was something that he was not yet being told. Mrs Weasley was advancing on them from the door of the house, and Harry knew another crushing hug was imminent.

The table in the kitchen was already laid out for a feast, evidently expected by the others because no sooner was everyone through the door than they were seated at the table and tearing into the plates of food Mrs Weasley had prepared. "Thanks, Mrs Weasley," Harry said, apparently the only one to acknowledge that the meal was not *entirely* the result of magic.

"You're welcome, dear," she smiled at him with moist eyes.

The feast was a homecoming for Harry. Dish after dish of wonderful, filling food- something which the less-than-wealthy Weasleys never cut corners on, and the more-than-comfortable Dursleys never wasted on Harry. Harry's friends plied him with questions about his summer. Fred and George demonstrated some of their inventions. Mrs Weasley had apparently become resigned to this, as she was laughing as hard as any of them. Ron bemoaned the failure of the Cannons once again to secure the premiership (never really a danger, Harry thought to himself). Hermione talked about Bulgaria- "Fascinating country, Harry, really,"- although Harry noticed that she diplomatically said nothing about Viktor Krum, and Ron's face remained a blank throughout her account.

Suddenly Ron seemed to think that the time had come to bring up whatever it was he had wanted to put off before. "Dad, maybe you ought to tell us now," he said to Mr Weasley, who had silently watched the conversation from the end of the table. Everyone fell quiet, Hermione looking ever so slightly cross.

"Yes, I expect I should," he said, pulling his chair forward. "Harry, I didn't want to tell you until you were safe with us. We... didn't think there was any need to alarm you over your holiday."

Harry sat up.

"Two weeks ago, there was a riot at Azkaban. The prisoners... somehow... organized an uprising," Mr Weasley announced. "Nobody has been able to contact the warden's office."

Harry swallowed. "How did they manage that? The Dementors-"

"Exactly, Harry. No prisoner could organize such an action under the Dementors' watch. He would be morally and physically incapable. He would hardly have the energy to rise from his cot."

"So, the Dementors were not trying to stop them."

"That's right. Any *thinking* person-" Mr Weasley practically spat the word through clenched teeth, something so startlingly uncharacteristic of him that Harry flinched- "any *thinking* person would recognize that this was planned, and organized with the co-operation of at least some of the Dementors. It seems that we have lost a prison, and You-Know-Who has gained a fortress and an army." Mrs Weasley, sitting next to her husband, shuddered.

"But that's not what the Ministry's telling people," Fred added.

"No," Mr Weasley agreed, shaking his head. "We are busy reassuring the public that all necessary precautions have been taken and that order will soon be restored. Life continues as normal throughout the wizarding world."

"How about school?" Harry asked.

"School will start as usual. Which is perhaps the best thing, because there's nowhere in the world we'd rather have you all than at Hogwarts. But nobody will tell you this information, Harry. The world is in denial. I know that the Ministry has done nothing, save remove the warden of Azkaban's fireplace from the Floo Network."

"But things'll be different at school this year," Ron said.

"Yes," Mr Weasley continued. "Thanks to Dumbledore- and thank goodness for him- there will be plenty of precautions taken. Dumbledore has hired monitors for each of the four houses, who will be staying in the dormitories."

"So it will be a terribly dull year," Fred grinned.

"Only if we are lucky," said Mr Weasley, smiling but serious.

"And that's not the only reason things'll be dull, eh Hermione?" George said slyly.

Hermione straightened up. "I'm going to be Gryffindor prefect this year."

Harry's eyes popped wide. "Congratulations!"

Mr Weasley broke in. "She’s the best candidate in these circumstances, I think.”

"Why? Erm, I mean, I think it's a great idea, of course-" Harry sputtered. Hermione just smiled.

"Well, she’s respected by everybody, of course, but especially because she is loyal to you, Harry. And she knows exactly what you face. Nobody else, no matter how well-meaning or trustworthy, would understand exactly how important it is that you are protected." Mr Weasley paused, and Harry noticed Ron shifting in his seat. "This was Dumbledore's thinking."

"Well, erm, congratulations, Hermione, it's great for you."

"It's all about who you know, eh Harry?" Fred said, smiling and crossing his arms in mock disapproval.

***

The Weasley party's annual assault on Diagon Alley took place the next day. After stocking up on school supplies, the group split up for some leisurely shopping, Fred and George heading one way with Mr Weasley, while Mrs Weasley headed another way with Hermione and Ginny in tow. Ron led Harry to Florean Fortescue's ice-cream parlour, apparently glad for a chance to speak privately with his friend. Harry had noticed that Ron had been a little uneasy ever since his arrival the previous afternoon. He had hardly spoken directly to Hermione, for one thing. Harry dreaded that they were in the midst of a row that must somehow have started in the four hours between Hermione's arrival at the Burrow and Harry's.

Ron led Harry to an out-of-the-way table, after they had paid and picked up their ice-creams from the counter.

"So what d'you think of all this, eh?" Ron said. Harry understood the apparently vague question.

"It's going to be very strange this year."

"You're right about that. And that's not half of what Dumbledore has in mind, I hear. Dad's met with him a few times. Not openly."

"What do you think about Hermione?" Harry asked, sure that Ron was waiting for him to bring the subject round to her.

"Prefect?" Ron shook his head. "I don't know."

"I notice you've hardly talked to her. Have you had anoth- have you had a row or something?" Harry corrected himself, not wishing to make it sound so expected.

"No, nothing like that," Ron said, then stopped. He looked away and stayed silent a moment. "You know, it's stupid, that someone can be your best friend in the world, then a few weeks later you can't find anything to say without completely choking."

Harry nodded. In his last letter to Ron, Harry had accused him of having an obvious crush on Hermione. Ron had not answered. Harry was glad to find at least that Ron was not angry, or trying to deny it. Harry was sympathetic- he had found himself choking once or twice himself in front of Cho, the Ravenclaw seeker, and would not have wished that wretched feeling on anyone. But at least Harry only spoke to Cho a few times a year.

"You know, Harry," Ron continued, "I think this'll be the end, for the three of us."

"Why would you think that?"

"Hermione'll be a prefect. She'll have much more important things to do. And you, well you know how important you are."

Harry's lips tightened. More than once he had been exasperated by Ron's conviction that he was a third wheel between famous Harry and brilliant Hermione.

"That's rot, Ron. We will stick together. You heard your Dad- Hermione's been made a prefect-"

"-Because everybody respects her and she's the *only* one who understands you," Ron said acidly.

Harry blew an exasperated breath. "Ron, shut up. So you fancy Hermione, do you."

"That's neither here nor there," Ron said indignantly. He crossed his arms and looked up toward the list of flavours on the wall.

"It's okay, Ron. I'd have given anything for Cho to talk to me-" Harry broke off, thinking of Cho in tears the last time he had seen her, and of how he was sure he would never be able to look her in the face again. "I know it's bad. I wouldn't laugh, if that's what you're afraid of."

Ron brightened up a little. "I think about her, and I feel great. Then she shows up and I talk to her and I feel wretched. I can't control it. I don't know what to do."

"You should, I don't know, tell her-" Harry said and Ron shook his head violently. "She's your friend. She'll hear you out. Do you want me to tell her?"

Ron looked at him. "I don't want to do anything that'll make her go away. I'm so afraid of that. I was okay knowing I'd see her every day, thought nothing of it, until Krum came along and I thought, that's it, we're done now, she's going away, going to be someone else's friend. It seemed so unfair."

"But she didn't, did she?" Harry pointed out.

Ron was silent for a few moments. "But a prefect, Harry. You can’t date a prefect, not at school."

"Why not?" Harry smiled slyly. "Prefects have private rooms, I hear."

"Harry!" Ron's cheeks were glowing hot. "This is Hermione we're talking about!"

"What about her?" came a familiar voice. Hermione helped herself to a chair from the next table and sat down with them. Harry hoped his guilty face was not glowing like Ron's.

"I was telling Ron you'd make a great prefect. He said no, you'd be brilliant.”

Hermione seemed to examine Ron’s face for a moment. "Well, never mind if you don't want to tell me anyway."

"Aren't you supposed to be shopping?" Ron said, the familiar old sting back in his voice.

"Yes. I am. Ginny shooed me away for five minutes. I think she's buying my birthday present."

"Oh yes," Ron nodded sagely.

Ginny, smiling broadly, appeared at the open window and waved. "All right, Hermione, it's safe now!"

"Excuse me," Hermione said, and stood up. "You can get back to your boy talk."

"D'you suppose she heard me!" Harry whispered as Hermione strode off.

"I'm a rat," Ron announced. "We're both rats."

"Why?"

"Have either of us ever given Hermione a birthday present?" Ron asked rhetorically.

Harry swallowed, looking toward the space Hermione had recently vacated. "I guess not." He thought of the Broomstick Maintenance Kit, a prized possession of his, sent to him by Hermione one lonely summer.

"We ought to be whipped," Ron said sadly. "She's going to be sixteen, you know!"

"It's right at the beginning of the school year... it just never occurred to me..."

"Well, we're in Diagon Alley and we've got an hour. There must be something fantastic we can find," Ron said desperately. They stood up and left their ice-creams to melt unfinished.

***

Ron and Harry tore up and down the Alley, dodging Hermione and the other Weasleys. "What do girls like, anyway?" Ron said pleadingly as they passed shop windows.

"I don't know," Harry said. "Anyway, Hermione's not like most girls." Ron looked at Harry. "I mean, she likes books-" Harry added hurriedly, as they passed Flourish and Blotts.

"Yeah, but which ones hasn't she read! Anyway, we'd have to find two. Look, mate-" Ron said suddenly, turning on Harry.

"Yeah?"

"I've got to get her something nicer, okay?"

"S-sure-"

"I know you've got pocketloads of Galleons there, but I'm trying to impress her."

"I'm sure you do anyway, Ron," Harry said, smiling wryly.

"Yeah, but in a nice way this time," Ron said, walking on with determination.

"Don't worry. Um-" Harry began awkwardly.

"Yeah?" Ron stopped walking.

"I mean, if you want to get her something really nice, don't be offended but... if you don't have enough on you, just at that moment..."

Ron’s expression was blank for a moment, then he smiled gratefully.

They passed a ramshackle shop called "The Sorcerer's Souk", and peered into the window, between posters proclaiming "For Fair Trade!" or advertising wizarding community events in an assortment of foreign languages. It seemed to sell everything and nothing at once- the shelves and walls were piled high with jars, lanterns, talismans, statues, clothing. Harry and Ron walked in and looked around. The shop did not sell two of anything.

Harry noticed that Ron seemed to keep returning to one shelf, where a very large piece of fabric lay neatly folded. It was- well, Harry thought it might be blue, but the closer one looked the more the colour seemed to recede deeply into the fabric. Along one edge was an embroidery of dark gold that made living, slowly moving swirls. Ron touched it and barely visible silver ripples ran out from where his hand was.

"What do you think?" asked Harry as Ron stopped in front of the shelf for the fourth time.

"It's like her, isn't it?" Ron said, not seeming altogether aware of what he was saying. "Very nice, but... serious..." He pulled his hand away, and barely perceptibly he shook himself. "Anyway, it's just a bit of cloth."

"That's a saree," said a voice, in a manner that was both testy and ingratiating if that was possible. The proprietor had appeared next to Ron. "From India. Women wear that."

"Do they now," Ron said, once again absorbed. Harry could practically see Ron's imagination trying to work out how a woman would wear it.

"Parvati would know about that," Harry said. "I think she's worn them before. Are you interested?" Harry noticed that all of Ron's shopping money was perhaps a fourth of the price tag.

Ron looked over at Harry, clearly torn. "What do you think? I mean, it would hardly be from me."

Harry lowered his voice. "Ron, about the price, don't worry. It's not even my money, mate, it's my Dad's. It's a good cause. The only thing is," he continued at normal voice, "if you give it to her, she'll know exactly what you're trying to say."

"How do you mean?"

"What did Hermione give you for your last birthday?"

Ron considered a moment. "Bag of dungbombs. Quidditch book. Some sweets."

"So you get my meaning."

Ron's eyes were wide. "Blimey, Harry! D'you think it's too much?"

"I don't know," Harry shrugged. "I'd have to ask my loads of girl friends. But maybe you want it to be too much..."

"She might be embarrassed. *I* might be embarrassed!"

They stood staring at the fabric until the proprietor, forgotten, walked away exasperated. "Hey!" Harry said to him as he retreated. "We're going to take this!" On the way to the cash, Harry picked up a small silver and glass lantern he had been looking at before, which had an infinitesimal bright point of light suspended perpetually at its center.

Ron was on autopilot as he and Harry piled up their Galleons to pay the proprietor. "If you chicken out, we can say it's from the both of us," Harry told Ron, who nodded thoughtfully as the proprietor neatly wrapped the saree in paper. They stepped out of the store just in time to be well out the door when Hermione and Ginny rounded the corner with Mrs Weasley.

"Where've you been? What have you got there?" Hermione said.

"Never you mind," Ron said testily.

***

The arrival at Hogwarts was an altogether different affair this year. Harry's ride on the Hogwarts Express was subdued, partly because everyone's memory was cast back to the sad and anxious parting two months before, and partly because, although Ron's mood had lightened considerably, he was if anything less able to speak to Hermione coherently than before. Harry wondered what she made of Ron's behaviour, pressed so tightly in his seat it looked like he was trying to get himself swallowed by it. She wasn't giving anything away, though, chatting happily as Crookshanks dozed across her lap. The houses had each been herded into their own cars at King's Cross, so that Harry saw nobody other than Gryffindors on the ride. The first years were separated and kept in yet another separate car, and Harry had the impression there were fewer than usual this year.

About fifteen minutes before arrival, Hermione was summoned out of their cabin by a seventh-year student. Ron looked crestfallen as he watched her leave. Harry guessed that Hermione's prefect duties would begin on the platform at Hogsmeade.

"There she goes," Ron muttered. Harry said nothing. He had a feeling the remark was not for his benefit.

Sure enough, as they stepped out, there was Hermione, in full robes and wearing a badge, calling out, "Gryffindors over here! Gryffindors!" Next to her was Professor McGonagall and, Harry guessed, the newly-hired monitor for Gryffindor tower.

"Is that who I think it is?" Ron said, nudging Harry.

The stranger turned to face the oncoming gaggle of Gryffindor students.

"Professor Lupin! What are you doing here?" Harry said, amazed, as they lined up in front of Lupin, McGonagall and Hermione.

"Not Professor this time, I'm afraid," Lupin said, smiling. “Just sir.”

"You're going to be staying in our dormitory?" Ron asked, as they were led to the carriages.

"Yes, well, three weeks out of four," he said to the two, winking. "I'll be away on business the rest of the time, of course."

"Quiet there, please," Professor McGonagall said.

As the carriages took the Gryffindors up to the castle, Harry looked out the window, and saw what he presumed was the Slytherin procession riding parallel. He was grateful at least that the segregation of the houses on the train had spared him the customary snide greeting from Draco Malfoy. On the front of the lead carriage of Slytherin was... could *he* be their Monitor? Harry smiled. It was Alastor Moody, "Mad-Eye". And the roving eye was watching carefully down the row of carriages as the normal eye looked forward up the path. Further down the road, he saw the Ravenclaw procession, led by a woman who reminded Harry a great deal of his old babysitter Mrs Figg.

***

The students were led into the hall still separated into their houses. Dumbledore was already at the front table with a severe expression as the crowd seated themselves, a strict silence enforced by the house heads, the monitors and the prefects. Harry caught some dirty looks from his fellow Gryffindors as Hermione shushed them.

Dumbledore cleared his throat audibly as the house heads took their seats at the head table. "Welcome," he intoned gravely. No "a few words" this year, Harry thought. Straight to business.

"You have no doubt observed," Dumbledore went on, "that we have taken a number of extraordinary measures this year, to ensure the safety of our students. We have been forced to take these measures by circumstances outside of our control, and I speak for everyone on the staff when I say that I hope that this condition will be temporary. However we cannot promise anything. As a result I must advise you that all school regulations will be enforced to their fullest extent this year." Harry was sure that Professor Snape was looking directly toward him when Dumbledore said this.

"There are several precautions we are taking. First and foremost, each house has been assigned a Monitor who will quartered in the house's dormitory. The Monitor is empowered to carry out inspections of every part of the dormitories at any time. He or she will be inspecting all magical objects in the possession of every student in their house. All student possessions are subject to confiscation. There are no exceptions to this."

The room bubbled with subdued voices. Fred and George looked at each other. Ron looked at Harry.

"The Monitors will be assisted in their duties by the house prefects, as well as by the Head Boy and Girl." Harry glanced at Hermione, seated next to Lupin at the front end of the Gryffindor table. Her face was a blank. "You are to show unconditional respect to your Monitors and your prefects. They are working to ensure your well-being."

"There are some," Dumbledore continued, "who will not understand or believe in the necessity of these measures. There are some who will wish to undermine or circumvent them. So be it," he said, looking over at the Slytherin table. "We can only reassure you that we are all eager for the opportunity to relax this extraordinary discipline. Whatever you have heard over the summer, it is a fact that Voldemort has risen again. You are privileged to be in the safest stronghold in Britain. This house is protected by more enchantments than I could learn about in many lifetimes."

“It has now been demonstrated that Voldemort's only power to penetrate this castle is his ability to penetrate our own hearts, to turn us one against another, to tempt us to treachery. Be on your guard, then. Watch your companions, but especially, watch yourself. He will not come in open assault. He will come to us singly, as we move among our crowd of friends.”

***

The Sorting was brief- Harry was sure there were less than half the number of new admissions this year than there had been in previous years. Spirits rose slowly over the course of the feast, as sumptuous as ever, and tables began to mix as students sought out friends from other houses. Harry walked around the back of the room, and drifted near the Slytherin table, where he heard Draco Malfoy holding forth.

"-even tried to dissolve Slytherin house, but the Governors soon put an end to that notion. Takes more than a senile old bat of a headmaster to end a thousand years of tradition-"

Harry was impressed. Could that be true, that Dumbledore had tried to dissolve Slytherin house? He supposed it would make running the school easier if he could have the Malfoys and Crabbes and Goyles and their like, children of known Death Eaters, separated or expelled. But with Harry the only living eyewitness of Voldemort's rebirth, the wizarding world had not yet acknowledged the state of war, and people like Lucius Malfoy remained respectable. Harry moved away before he was spotted. He was not eager to confront Malfoy tonight.

Next was the Ravenclaw table. He stopped a moment. A sober and sad-looking Cho Chang sat with a knot of her friends. She spotted Harry and gave a little wave and a thin smile, which Harry returned, then looked away, maybe too quickly, he thought. He looked back, and she was again talking to her friend. Harry moved on.

Back at the Gryffindor table, he found Hermione sitting alone, looking at nothing in particular. She hardly noticed him taking the seat next to her. "Hey", he said.

Hermione looked over at him. Her eyes were hollow. "Harry, everybody is going to hate me."

"What do you mean?"

"Nobody's even said hello to me all evening. Did you see the looks people were giving me? I've made a horrible mistake. Everybody is going to hate me!"

"Hermione, don't be ridiculous," Harry said. "It's just your job. People will understand..."

"I'm not so sure. This is terrible. I wish I could leave. I can't stand this. I've got to sit here looking important. Look, even Ron hasn't spoken to-"

Harry, surprising himself, grabbed her hand under the table. Hermione looked at him. "Don't worry, Hermione. If anyone makes trouble for you, Ron and I will help put it right." Harry let go of her hand, as quickly as he could without appearing (he hoped) to rush.

Hermione was silent for a moment, then, in a gesture that startled Harry, she raised her arms to her face and rubbed her eyes angrily with the heels of her hands. She pulled her hands away and stood up, her eyes as blank as before. "Excuse me, I have to go back to work." She walked into the milling crowd, a space opening for her as she went.

Harry looked around. Ginny was nearby, watching him. Harry smiled at her, but this time it was she who moved away suddenly, barely acknowledging him. Harry stood up, and went to find some boys to talk to.

***

Dumbledore unexpectedly called an end to the feast at ten o'clock, and instructed the prefects to lead their houses back to the dormitories. Hermione led the Gryffindors. If Mr Weasley had been there, he might not have been so quick to assert that everybody respected her. It was a distinctly grumbling crowd that climbed the marble staircases toward the tower. "How d'you like her, eh?" Harry heard Dean whispering to Lee Jordan. "Doesn't take long for a little power to go to your head."

"Shut up, Dean," Harry said. "She hasn't done anything Dumbledore didn't tell her to." Harry was mortified to see Hermione's head turn- she hadn't heard Dean but she had heard Harry's response. "Quiet down there," she muttered. Dean made a gloating face at Harry that made Harry want to hit him.

Lupin was waiting by the portrait of the Fat Lady. She seemed to be holding a long sheet of parchment in her hand. Lupin stood next to a table with a vat and many glass vials, a candle, and incongruously enough, a top-hat. "Good evening," he said. "Before you go in, I have another procedure to advise you about. You're going to have to drink this-" he held up one tiny vial of clear liquid- "and state your name. It is a very small dose of Veritaserum, to confirm your identity. I will then give you the antidote." At this, he held up a vial of red liquid. You will then be given your own password, which you are to keep strictly to yourself. Don't forget it."

"Oh no!" Neville whispered. A couple of students near him giggled.

"You will whisper your password when you arrive at the portrait from now on," Lupin continued. "Hermione will go in first. Hermione?"

Lupin gave a clear vial to Hermione, who drank it back. She coughed slightly. "Your name?" Lupin asked.

She spoke with a slight slur. "Hermione Granger, although my dad calls me-"

"Don't say anything else, Hermione, and drink this." Lupin handed her one of the red vials. "Aww," said a voice, as she tossed back the antidote. There was a slight titter from the crowd. Lupin held out the top-hat, and Hermione pulled out a small piece of parchment. She examined it a moment, then put it into the candle flame where it was consumed in a flash. She walked up to the portrait, whispered as the Fat Lady leaned over to hear, and waited while the Fat Lady made a note on her own parchment. Finally the portrait swung aside, and Hermione disappeared into the common room.

"This is going to take ages," Dean muttered.

"Well if you're bored," Ron said from behind Harry, "just picture Moody going through this with the Slytherins." Dean nodded, smiling.

***

The next day, classes began but all students were instructed to return to their dormitories at four o'clock. When Harry and Ron got back to Gryffindor tower, Hermione was standing at the entrance, making sure each student was entering with their own password. "Hi," she said, with a forced smile. "Got to make sure you use your password." Harry went up to the Fat Lady, who was getting tired of all this bending down. He whispered "budgerigar" in her ear. The Fat Lady checked her list then swung aside. "Don't know how long it's going to take me to memorize all this," she complained from the other side of the frame. Ron began to follow Harry in but Hermione's arm appeared to block his way.

"Sorry, Ron, you've got to do it too," Harry heard her say.

"What's all this for," Ron said huffily as the frame swung shut. Ron reappeared a few seconds later. "Well it's not like I like it either," said Hermione's voice from the other side of the portrait hole as Ron climbed through.

The common room was slowly filling up with Gryffindor students. Lupin stood patiently by the fireplace, waiting for all heads to be accounted for.

"What do we have to do now, Professor- I mean, sir?" called a voice. "Isn't anyone getting tired of all this?"

"Got to be done, Angelina, sorry," Lupin answered, smiling. Harry was impressed with Lupin's style. His prior reputation helped him win over an otherwise grumpy crowd time after time. Unfortunately, Harry had already observed that the Gryffindors' impatience was being transferred to their prefect. Hermione had joined Lupin at the front of the room. Harry saw the same blank look on her face she had had after the feast. He looked over at Ron, who was watching Hermione with an equally inscrutable expression.

"This part isn't going to be fun, my friends," Lupin began. "Inspection of all magical objects in your possession. All of them. Hermione and myself will be going room to room, checking for unauthorized spells, hexes or charms. "

A groan rose from the assembled group, as Lupin led Hermione toward the stairs to the boy's dormitories. "Oi!" called Seamus Finnegan. "You're not bringing her up there, are you?"

"Do you expect me to be able to do all the work alone, Seamus?" Lupin called back. "If you've got magic underpants up there I promise I'll do the inspection myself." The assembled Gryffindors laughed as the boys followed Lupin and Hermione up the stairs. The girls rushed up the opposite staircase, obviously hurrying to take advantage of their head start to clean their rooms.

"Harry!" Ron whispered as he and Harry climbed the stairs. "I can't have her looking in my trunk for magical objects!"

"Why n- oh, right," Harry said, suddenly remembering that Ron had packed their gifts. "Let's see what we can do."

Harry and Ron bustled up the narrow stairs, pushing past students- "Hey! Careful! Where's the fire, mate?"- trying to reach Lupin before he got to the dormitories.

"Sir-" said Ron, as they caught up just after reaching the top of the stairs. He was suddenly at a loss, realizing that Hermione was also there, looking straight at him.

"Yes, Ron?" Lupin said.

"Uh- can you inspect our room yourself, sir?" Ron said.

Hermione grimaced. "Why's that, Ron?"

Ron floundered, speechless.

"Ron's got magic underpants, sir," Harry said, suppressing a snicker. Ron didn't seem amused. Neither did Hermione. Lupin looked over at her. She just shrugged and turned.

"Let's go to it, then," Lupin said, and Ron and Harry followed him into their room. Ron didn't look too pleased to see Dean, Neville and Seamus follow close behind- Harry guessed he'd rather not have this go on under their scrutiny.

"Let's start with the underpants, then," Lupin said jauntily. "Always wanted some of those."

Ron opened his trunk. Lupin looked in, and prodded some items with his wand, whose tip was glowing blue. Every time it touched a magical object, it would turn orange. "Sneakoscope- nothing out of the ordinary there. A couple of Chocolate Frogs, they'll be gone soon enough, I expect..." He prodded the package from the store. "I'll have to have a look at this, Ron."

Ron leaned over and unwrapped the paper. Lupin's eyes were wide. "That's quite something, Ron! Who's the lucky- ah," he stopped, obviously putting two and two together. Behind them, Dean, Seamus and Neville were looking at each other. Ron was glowing red.

"It's from the both of us," Harry said. "It's her birthday soon."

It was clear, however, from the expressions on their roommates' faces that they had already arrived at their own version of events. Dean and Seamus were grinning stupidly, while Neville simply stared, impassive.

"Well, a few unusual spells, but harmless. It's very nice work though. Someone will see you have excellent taste," Lupin concluded, moving on.

***

The next few days wore all the students beyond endurance. It seemed like every day there was a new procedure to learn or inspection to carry out. At meals Hermione was to be found seated at the front end of the table, often leaving early to assist Lupin. Harry and Ron hardly spoke to her except for a few words between classes, and even then she would usually make excuses and disappear again.

"Is she ever going to speak to us again?" Ron said glumly as she rushed off again after a gruelling first class in Potions.

"She's really busy," Harry said.

"It's not that. She's not speaking to us. Probably still mad about that inspection."

"Can't blame her," Harry said. "I'm glad her birthday's soon. So we can explain." Ron didn't answer.

Arriving at the door of Gryffindor Tower, Harry and Ron found Lupin once again allowing only one student to enter at a time. Katie Bell was stopped at the portrait hole. "How long are we going to have to do this, sir?" she said plaintively.

"Until I'm sure you'll all do it yourselves, Katie," Lupin said with his characteristic smile. "Simple." Katie went through the routine, and disappeared into the common room. Harry followed, then Ron. As they went up toward the stairs to the boys' dormitory, a knot of students sitting near the fire erupted into laughter.

Harry came down alone a few minutes later, showered and ready to go down to the Hall for supper. The same group was still gathered by the fire, and this time Harry overheard a snippet of their conversation.

"-deserves to be taken down a notch, doesn't she?" A murmur of assent rose from the group.

Harry stopped in his tracks, frowning. Another voice rose up from the group.

"Did you hear about Ron Weasley? He fancies her, you know, and there's proof-"

"Shut it," Harry said sharply, not even aware he'd spoken. There was a pause, and a head appeared from around the wing of one of the armchairs by the fire.

"Can I help you, Harry?"

"You shut up about Hermione, Geoff. You all sound like a roomful of Slytherins."

"Mind your own business, Harry. Not all of us benefit from the special treatment you get," Geoff said.

Harry walked off, gritting his teeth.

***

"Uh, Harry. May I see you a moment, please?"

Harry stopped and turned. It was Lupin's voice. Lupin was poking his head out the door to his rooms, beckoning Harry. Harry walked over.

"Sir?"

"Harry, you know that I have to leave tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"It was a condition of my taking this job," Lupin explained in a low voice. "Dumbledore was rather insistent that I be at or near Hogwarts this year, and quite a nasty bit of negotiating was done to bring it about. I go well away from the school at least two days before the full moon, and I don’t come back until at least three days after. That means I'm going to be away for most of a week." Lupin dropped his voice still further. "I think you've noticed that Hermione is getting a bit of a rough ride."

"Yes."

"Don't know quite what to do about that. I'll let everyone else know that I expect them to show her respect while I'm gone, but- well, you know, not everybody seems to understand exactly why all this is necessary." Harry nodded. "You and Ron will keep an eye out for her, won't you? Support her?"

"Of course, sir."

"Thanks, Harry. Go on now."

***

The fifth-year Gryffindors filed down the narrow stairs from the tower where their Astronomy lesson had just wrapped up. The class ended at midnight, and Hermione had the unenviable task of shepherding a tired and rowdy group of students quietly back to Gryffindor tower. Once again she did not walk with Harry and Ron. She was at the head of the group, occasionally making signs to keep it down when their chatter got too loud. The effect of this was always temporary at best. Harry tried to do his part to keep his group from making trouble for her- "Quiet, okay, guys?"

The group arrived at the portrait hole, and Hermione once again enforced the excruciating ritual of going through the door one password at a time. Going through this at that late hour made the mutinous grunts even louder than usual.

"Come on, we're not going to conjure the Dark Lord at this hour, Granger, just want to get in our pajamas!"

"That's not funny, Katie," Hermione answered.

"That's not funny, Katie," sneered a mocking voice. Hermione turned, looking furiously at the group, but all faces remained blank.

When Harry entered the common room, however, it did not look like a group about to wind things down for the night. Fifteen or so Gryffindors were sitting around, chatting, playing chess or Exploding Snap, and they beckoned the fifth-years who had just entered to join them. Somebody had managed to bring out a crate of butterbeer.

"Come on, guys, " the third-year named Geoff called out cheerfully. "When the cat's away..."

"The cat is not away, Geoff," Hermione said. "Remember, lights-out is in forty-five minutes," she announced to the room. Her words made no impact. "Forty-five minutes," she repeated. She watched the room a moment, then disappeared down the corridor toward her private room.

Harry went upstairs to change, and came back down about forty minutes later to see what he could do to clear the common room. There was no noticeable decrease in the level of activity. Two boys were duelling, and purple flashes crossed the air between them. A wireless was playing. Six Gryffindors were levitating a study table. "Look, it's a seance!" called out a second-year girl who was watching. "I'm a Muggle and I hate dirty witches!" she called out, and started setting fire to their robes with her wand, which caused general hilarity. Harry was annoyed. He knew that any other day the common room would have emptied out by that time. Harry was doubly annoyed to see Ron in a corner, a butterbeer in hand, playing a noisy and destructive chess game with Dean Thomas. Out of the corridor at the far end came Hermione, in pajamas and a dressing-robe. Her face was twisted in annoyance.

"It's lights out, everybody," she called above the hubbub.

"Sod off, Granger," Geoff shouted. Harry was shocked by this patent disobedience. So, apparently, was Hermione- her face was twisted even further, and Harry recognized that she was fighting tears. "I'm very disappointed in you all," she said with difficulty, her eyes fixed on Ron as she said it.

"D'you hear that, Ron? Very disappointed, she is," Dean Thomas said with a cruel smile. Ron said nothing.

"Ron. Dean. Come on," Harry whispered. Ron looked at Harry, then over at Dean.

"I'm staying put," Dean said.

"Very well," Hermione announced to the room. "I'll be speaking to Professor McGonagall about each and every one of you tomorrow morning." She disappeared down her corridor. Harry was shaking with anger as he went up the stairs.

In the darkness, Harry sat up in bed, thinking furious thoughts as he waited for Ron to return. Only he and Neville had obeyed the curfew. It was almost an hour later when the door of the dormitory opened and Ron, Seamus and Dean walked in. Even Neville sat up when they entered- Harry realized that he, too, must not have been sleeping.

"What was all that about!" Harry whispered sharply.

"You're still up?" Ron said dully, at normal voice.

"Don't be thick. What are you all playing at!"

Dean answered. "She can't tell us what to do. Don't know where she got the idea she could."

"From Dumbledore, you idiot! And Lupin! Anyway, you'll get yours soon enough," Harry said, then turned to Ron. "As for you, you're supposed to be her friend."

"She's supposed to be mine, too, isn't she?" Ron said, disappearing behind the curtains of his four-poster.

"Oooh- I guess we were wrong about who her boyfriend was, eh?" Dean muttered to Seamus.

"Quiet in there," came Hermione's voice outside the door, then receding footsteps.

"We're going to have some words tomorrow," Harry said, flopping down on his bed.

"Shut up," came Ron's voice, and no more was said that night.

***

The next day, Ron, Harry and Hermione went from class to class separately and not exchanging a single word. It was on the way to the Great Hall for teatime that Harry ran up behind Ron, who was deep in Quidditch talk with Dean Thomas, and grabbed his arm in mid-sentence, pulling him in the direction of an adjoining corridor.

"Hey-" Dean started as Ron vanished from his periphery.

"Hi, Dean," Harry said acidly. "Ron'll catch up with you."

Dean shrugged and walked off as Ron looked after him, an alarmed expression on his face. "Come here," Harry spat, pulling him into the side corridor.

"What do you think you're doing!" Ron said finally.

"I was going to ask that. What was that little show about last night?"

"You heard Dean. She can't treat us like that."

"Are you going to hide behind them? That's loyal of you. Too embarrassed to let them think you like her, are you?"

"I don't," said Ron, almost inaudibly.

"Eh? Look at me and say that, Ron."

"Sod off, will you? Mind your own business."

Harry gritted his teeth. "So you'll be taking a miss on her birthday, will you?"

Ron looked impatiently down the hall then back at Harry. "Take the thing back. She won't want it from me anyway."

"I've got no use for it!" Harry shouted.

"Well well," came a voice from around the corner. "The boys have stepped outside to have a scrap? Some business to settle between men?" It was Professor Snape.

"We weren't fighting, sir," said Harry.

"Can't have that, Potter. Twenty points from Gryffindor. And another ten for not being in the Hall in time to hear an important announcement. All Gryffindors are to report to their tower immediately after tea. Something to do with a bit of unpleasantness last night. Now get to Hall immediately and I might reconsider giving you detention tonight."

"Yes, sir," Harry and Ron said dully, as Snape walked away. They walked in silence to the Great Hall. Harry saw Hermione watching them as they entered and took their places. Ron quickly resumed his conversation with Dean, and Harry ate in silence.

***

Once again the Gryffindors were gathered in the Common Room, whispering to each other. Everyone in the house had by now heard of the previous night's mutiny. Some were muttering 'about time', others were cursing the participants for landing everyone in trouble. There was no doubt that a talking-to from Professor McGonagall was imminent. A hush fell when the portrait-hole opened.

The Gryffindors were worse off than they feared. It was not McGonagall- it was Snape.

"Good afternoon," he began, sneering with what Harry guessed was sadistic enjoyment. "Professor McGonagall informs me that there was a brazen act of insubordination, disobedience to school regulations and vandalism in this room last night. She has kindly provided me with a list-"

Here Snape waved a sheet of parchment.

"A list of twenty-three names of students who participated in these acts. However, this list is of no interest to me," he said, tearing the parchment into small shreds, each of which flashed into flame and vanished before it hit the floor. "I am not at all surprised that discipline has lapsed in this house, under the lax supervision and unearned favour you have until this point received. Therefore I see no need to discriminate. For the remainder of Mr Lupin's absence, I will be taking over monitor duties in this house."

The Gryffindors looked at each other but did not dare utter a peep. Harry understood now why Snape had uncharacteristically forgiven them detention.

"Tonight after supper, and every night for the remainder of the week, all Gryffindors will return to this tower for two hours of quiet study and curfew at eleven o'clock. This evening Miss Granger and I will make the best of this opportunity," he continued, "by re-inspecting- properly, this time- all magical objects in your possession. Do not be late. You may return to your classes."

Once out into the corridors, the Gryffindors erupted into noise and commotion. Hermione ran down the stairs ahead of the group, clutching her books to her chest, but she was not fast enough to avoid being followed by a couple of students calling after her. "What did you do that for! Happy now? We'll *really* make you pay this time, Granger!" Harry and Ron watched as Ginny Weasley pushed past Hermione's tormentors. She caught up with Hermione, and Harry saw Ginny put hear arm around Hermione's shoulder and lead her off to one of the girls' toilets.

"Now there's a friend," Harry muttered informatively to Ron. "You want to go toss in an insult or two before she makes it to the loo?"

"Shut up," Ron said. His face was red, eyes brimming, as he ran down the stairs away from Harry.

***

There was no getting around it this time. Snape entered the dormitory with Hermione in tow, and the five boys stood quietly by their beds. Snape indicated Dean Thomas' trunk with his wand, and Hermione obediently went to open it. Snape didn't say a word as he prodded the contents of Dean's trunk with his wand. He took a handful of objects, ranging from quills to playing-cards, and tossed them into a sack which Hermione held open. "Confiscated," he reported matter-of-factly. Dean's face was livid, but he didn't say a word. Snape moved on to Neville's trunk and confiscated his Remembrall and some Chocolate Frogs. Snape took special delight in confiscating Harry's invisibility cloak. "Nice to see an end to this," he muttered.

With another wordless order Hermione opened Ron's trunk, and Snape went to work. He pocketed his wand and pulled out the two wrapped parcels. "What are these?" he said icily to Ron. Ron opened his mouth but all that emerged was a squeak.

"With all due respect sir-" Harry put in.

"I was not addressing you, Potter."

Ron's face instantly turned pink. "They're... presents, sir."

"Presents?"

"Birthday presents," Ron declared. Harry saw Hermione look up, her eyebrows lifted.

"How touching. For whom, Weasley?"

"For Hermione, sir... from Harry and me," Ron said, keeping his eyes fixed on Snape, as Harry saw Hermione's hand go to her mouth.

"Many happy returns, Granger," Snape said baldly as he tossed the two parcels in Hermione's direction. "We'll examine those afterwards. But I think we can safely assume they'll be confiscated."

Hermione dropped the sack she was holding as the two parcels came her way. She caught the smaller one in her arms, much to Harry's relief, as the lantern would not have survived impact with the stone floor. The larger parcel slipped from her grasp and flopped limply onto the floor. She reached down and picked it up, and put both parcels into the sack.

"Sir, the *little* one's from me, but the *big* one's from Ron," Harry enunciated pointedly, continuing to look at Snape. Harry caught a nod from Hermione out the corner of his eye. Ron turned his head and glared.

"Thank you for that relevant information, Potter," Snape said, rolling the 'r' in 'relevant' snidely.

Snape completed the inspection with a few more confiscations, and left the five boys standing in their room, shaken. Ron turned to Harry, his voice unsteady.

"I may kill you, Potter," he said. "I haven't decided yet."

***

The breakfast table was now the closest the Gryffindors had to freedom. Snape prowled the common room all evening, enforcing the period of quiet study he had promised, although there was no problem enforcing the curfew as most students had scattered to their dormitories well before eleven. Clearly the other houses were enjoying the sight of the cowed, if well-rested, Gryffindors filtering into the Great Hall.

When Harry arrived with Ron he saw that Hermione had taken her by-now customary seat at the front end of the table. Only Ginny was sitting with her. Harry caught Hermione's eye but she looked away quickly. Her face remained unreadable.

"How about you going over and saying good morning?" Harry suggested. Ron's lips were tight. "Just an idea," Harry sighed.

When they sat down, Harry overheard the Gryffindors discussing the inspections of the previous night. Lee Jordan whispered, "Hermione's eyes were red when they came into our room. Looks like she's really having a rough time."

"Well spotted, Lee," Harry said bitterly down the table. "She is, in case anyone's interested," Harry announced to the group in general. The group lapsed into silence and started pushing their breakfast around their plates. "Don't suppose anyone would be up to apologising to her, would they?" he said with annoyance.

Ron stood up suddenly. "You're coming with me," Ron said gravely. "I'm not doing this by myself."

"Sure, I'd like to speak to her," Harry said.

"No, not to Hermione. To Snape." Ron's hands were balled into nervous fists.

"Are you mad!" Harry said, standing up.

"Possibly," Ron said. "Look, he's talking to McGonagall. If we do this right-" Ron started walking down the row. Harry followed, glad not to have eaten yet because his stomach was starting to flutter. They walked directly behind Hermione and Ginny, who turned their heads to watch them pass. Hermione looked at Harry inquiringly. He shrugged, and followed Ron to the head table.

Snape was seated next to Professor McGonagall. "-and completed the inspection," Harry heard Snape tell her.

"Was that strictly necessary, Severus? Surely Lupin had already-" McGonagall was answering, as Ron reached the table.

"Professor, sir?" Ron said ingratiatingly.

Snape turned his head and regarded Ron then Harry with undisguised hostility. "Weasley. It is very impolite to interrupt a private conversation."

"I beg your pardon, Professor. I had just one small question," Ron said, with such deference Harry thought he might choke.

"Out with it then."

"I was wondering if you could return the birthday gifts we got for Hermione which you confiscated, just for a day," Ron said in one breath, and Harry saw Ron's eyes briefly travel to Professor McGonagall as he said this. "It's just that, tomorrow's her birthday and I have nothing else to give her."

"That's not my concern, Weasley," Snape said with finality. He turned to resume speaking to McGonagall, but she now turned to speak herself to Ron.

"Mr Weasley, an illegal item is an illegal item. We cannot make an exception, no matter how good your intentions," she explained.

"It was only a dress, ma'am," Ron said.

"I beg your pardon?" McGonagall said.

"It was a dress, ma'am. A very pretty one. I should like to see her in it just once before it's taken away," Ron said dreamily. Harry thought he might be ill. He turned and saw Hermione not ten feet away, watching all this with her eyes wide. Ginny looked like she was about to spit.

"Severus, is-" McGonagall began.

"It was a magical item, Professor, which Weasley was keeping concealed," Snape said in a thin furious voice.

"But Severus, surely we didn't intend *all* magical objects- Weasley, Potter, go back to your seats. We will see what we can do," she said impatiently.

Harry and Ron didn't dare look back. Hermione watched them pass again. Harry saw that she was blushing, but Ron was avoiding her eye as he made his way back to their place.

"Don't say anything just now," Ron said, grabbing his glass of pumpkin juice and taking a huge draught. Neville and Dean looked at them with wide, admiring eyes.

"That's guts," Dean muttered.

***

That evening the Gryffindors were summoned to yet another assembly in the common room. Harry wondered what further torments Snape might have in mind for them, especially in light of Ron's little display at breakfast. There was an audible letting go of breath on the part of everyone assembled when Professor McGonagall came through the door instead of Snape. She was holding a bundle which Harry recognized as the sack of confiscated items.

"You have all made a great deal of trouble for the staff in recent days," she began, her tone sharp. "It should be clear that we have much more important occupations than disciplining troublemakers. Professor Snape will not be returning this evening, as he has far better things to do."

There was another collective breath.

"Upon further review," Professor McGonagall continued, "we have decided to return some- I repeat, some- of the items confiscated last night. Miss Granger will distribute them once I have finished with you."

"Good one, Ron," Harry heard a voice whisper behind them. A couple of other voices breathed assent.

"Quiet, please," McGonagall said, raising her voice slightly. "There remains the matter of detention for the participants in the mutiny of two nights ago." Several students shifted on their feet. "I will be asking Miss Granger to furnish the names once again, if you please, Miss Granger." Professor McGonagall turned to face Hermione. There was a collective swivelling of heads, and Harry saw Hermione's face redden slightly as she fell under the gaze of the whole house.

"I don't remember," she said weakly.

Harry looked over at Ron, whose jaw had flopped open.

"I beg your pardon!" McGonagall snapped.

"I couldn't possibly remember, Professor. There were too many," she said, more distinctly this time.

"Surely at least some, Miss Granger-"

"Well it wouldn't be fair to punish only some of them, would it?" Hermione said. Harry shook his head.

McGonagall's lips were thin. "I rather think it's up to me what's fair and what's not in this house." She paused and blew out her cheeks, then turned to the ranks of Gryffindors. "Well. Well. That will be all for this evening," she said, hands on hips. "You are all confined to this tower for the remainder of the evening, where I suggest you spend some time reflecting on your good fortune. I leave them to your wisdom, Miss Granger."

Professor McGonagall turned on her heel and strode to the portrait hole. Nobody so much as twitched until it was closed behind her and all were sure she wasn't about to come back.

"Thanks, Hermione," Dean said, letting go of his breath.

"That was *cold*," Lee Jordan cooed admiringly. "Yeah," several voices agreed. "We owe you," Fred said.

Hermione stood, her arms folded. "Yes, you do," she said. "Take your things, and let's be good just tonight, can we?"

"Yeah, all right." Mutters of assent came from around the room as several students came forward and started to root through the contents of Snape's sack. Hermione knelt down and pulled out the lantern and the saree, both out of their wrappers. Harry and Ron made their way up as Hermione was about to walk away. Ron did the second very surprising thing he was to do that day, and clumsily threw his arms around Hermione and squeezed her like a pillow. "Imm so sorrym," he said into her hair. Looking somewhere between bemused and horrified, she tried to pat his back amicably, as much as she could with her arms pinned to her sides. Ron let her go as suddenly as he had grabbed her.

"That's okay," Hermione said with a startled laugh. She held up her presents. "I'm keeping these, by the way."

"It's not your birthday yet," Harry protested.

"It will be soon enough. I'll be having my birthday party tonight. It's formal- get yourselves washed and dressed properly and come to my room in an hour."

Harry smiled. "Who's invited, exactly?"

"Just you two," Hermione said. "And Ginny."

"What's she got to come for?" Ron said plaintively.

"Because she got me a present," Hermione said smugly, and walked off.

***

"Not much, is it?" Ron finally declared, looking at himself in the mirror. Taking Hermione at her word, he and Harry had changed into their dress robes. Ron still had his same robes from the previous year, slightly improved by some alterations he had pestered Mrs Weasley into making the previous summer. She had removed the last traces of lace from the sleeves, but they remained ill-fitting, as Ron was not getting any smaller. "Should've spent the money on my own clothes, if I wanted to impress anyone," he said glumly.

"You look okay," Harry said, shrugging. Privately Harry thought he looked rather handsome himself, although he remained annoyed with his hair, which could not be persuaded to behave. He patted down a particular annoying flop, which flipped right back again as soon as he had stopped looking. "It's gone over again," the mirror called out helpfully.

"Yeah, never mind," Harry answered.

"Has it been an hour yet?" Ron said, for the third time.

Harry checked his watch. "Yes." Ron grinned. "Let's go, then."

Ron rushed ahead of Harry down the stairs and into the common room. A couple of students looked up as they passed. "Looking good, Weasley." "Where's the funeral, Harry?" They went down the corridor toward the prefect's quarters. "Ever been in there before?" Harry asked.

"Are you kidding?" Ron said. "Percy would've rather swallowed a toad."

They reached the door, and Harry knocked softly. The door opened. Hermione's head appeared around the door, but she kept herself hidden. She wore a very tentative smile, and her hair was tied tightly back. Harry saw the lantern suspended on a chain from the rafter. It was much brighter than it was in the store, its light seeming to adjust itself to the room it filled. Harry thought it looked great, and complimented himself on his taste. Hermione's room was small but cozy- the bed seemed to fill half of the space, but there was also a fireplace, a table and desk which was piled high with books and pieces of parchment. There was a cake sitting on the table, behind which Ginny sat, dressed in jeans and a sweater.

"Formal, is it?" Harry said smiling, looking over at her.

"What, and look like a penguin like you two?" Ginny said. She blushed, then added, "Just kidding, Harry, you look great," she ended, spluttering a little.

Ron uttered a sound from behind Harry that was something like "cor!" and Harry turned to see Ron busy staring at Hermione, who had closed the door behind him.

"Parvati taught me a spell to wind it..." she said quietly, looking at Ron. "And lent me these," she added, vaguely indicating a golden pair of earrings. "Anyway, it's really nice. Thanks."

"Yeah. That's all right," Ron said, waving his hand abstractly. Harry had to agree that the dress looked quite smashing. The blue fabric was shimmering degrees of dark, but when Hermione turned there were faint waves of light that would ripple across it like an aurora borealis. The saree was wound around her elegantly, even exposing a bit of waist on one side which Harry imagined was like Christmas morning to Ron's eyes. Harry noticed Hermione's hand unconsciously tugging slightly at the fabric over the gap from time to time. He perceived that she did not have the same confident demeanor as she had had walking into the Yule Ball the previous year with her blue robes and new teeth- she was clearly unaccustomed to making such a grand and exotic impression.

"Shall we sit down, Ron?" Harry suggested helpfully.

"Yeah, okay," Ron said. "You're still going to be there if I turn around, aren't you?" he said to Hermione. She grinned and nodded. Harry smiled, and took a seat next to Ginny, who was watching him, obviously relishing the atmosphere. He wondered if Hermione always kept her room so warm.

***

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny had the first real conversation they had had together for months. Ron was at ease for once, brightening a little every time he made Hermione laugh. He didn't even seem to mind Ginny being there, although Harry imagined that he would perhaps have preferred to contemplate Hermione without his little sister watching. It occurred to Harry that maybe Ron would rather not have him there either, but Ron was keeping that to himself if he was thinking it. They quickly demolished the cake that Hermione had received from her parents (HAPPY 16th, PET). "My one sugary treat a year," she explained.

Around ten o'clock Ginny stood up. "I'm so tired!" she announced. "You want to walk me home, Harry?"

"Why?" Ron said, adopting the instinctive younger-sibling tone. "It's not twenty feet from here. Oh yeah," he added, his tone suddenly changing. "Why don't you do that, Harry? I'll catch you up later." Harry saw a silly grin cross Hermione's face and took the hint.

"See you in the morning, Harry," Hermione said, opening the door for Ginny and him. "Yeah, goodnight," said Ron.

Harry turned. "I'm not saying goodnight to you, mate," he said severely. "I expect to see you later."

"Go home, Harry," Hermione said. "Or I'll be obliged to report you."

Hermione shut the door behind Harry and Ginny. "The nerve of him complaining," Ginny said. "That's the nicest thing I've ever done for him."

Harry laughed, a little self-consciously. "That was weird," he said, and walked toward the common room. He was glad to see that Hermione's request had been honoured, and all but a couple of Gryffindors had retired already. Ginny followed him out into the hall, and they stopped for another awkward moment by the stairs to the girls' dormitories.

"Well, goodnight, Ginny," he said, shrugging. She did not move right away, however.

"It was fun tonight, wasn't it?" Ginny ventured.

"Yeah," Harry said. "Best time I've had in months."

Ginny smiled, then knitted her brows, then smiled again. "You fancy going for a walk in the morning? Before breakfast?"

Harry was caught quite at unawares by this. His first reaction was to scratch his head. "What do you say in a situation like this?" came an almost coherent thought.

"Either yes or no, I expect," came another, even more coherent thought.

Then the clearest of all: "And why not?"

"Sure, I'd like that," he said finally, wondering how long it had taken him to answer. He realised, with a twinge of embarrassment, that Ginny looked like she was absolutely certain he would say no.

"All right, then," she said, now bright again. "Down here, at seven?"

"Okay," Harry said. Ginny turned and ran briskly up the steps. Harry stood still a moment longer, his face flushing. He was overwhelmed with a sense that he had just done something terribly wrong.

"You didn't, stupid," he said to himself, not realizing that his lips were silently forming the words as he walked past a small knot of students watching the last moves of a particularly exciting chess game. "She asked you, and you said yes."

Harry found himself running up the marble steps, and forced himself to slow down. Neville was asleep, but Dean and Seamus were up reading. He went through the motions of changing, flopped into bed and closed his eyes, but he did not find sleep.

Ron came in. Harry picked up his watch, and saw that it was just before midnight. Dean and Seamus had both blown out their candles, and one of them was snoring.

"So?" Harry whispered.

"It suits her, doesn't it?" Ron said.

"Yeah," Harry said. "So?"

"We just talked," Ron said quietly, sitting on his bed.

"What about?"

"I told her a bloke might fancy her if she weren't such a fussy know-it-all," Ron answered with a lopsided grin.

"You idiot," Harry said, smiling. "What did she say?"

"She said I might be all right myself if I weren't such a whinging prat," Ron said, with a full grin this time. "Likes the red hair, though."

"Cool. So... are you going to do anything about it?"

Ron shrugged. "She told me she'd promised herself she'd never kiss a boy before she was sixteen. I told her I could wait that long. Then she told me to get out, it's curfew."

Harry laughed. "Sleep well, then."

"Slim chance."

Harry flopped back. "Oh, Ginny asked me to go for a walk with her in the morning," he whispered.

Ron's eyes were closed. "Good work. Are you going?"

"Yeah," Harry said, staring up at the canopy of his bed.

"That's all right, then," Ron said. Not two minutes later he was snoring.

***

THE END – Continued in “The Innocents”

//
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