cclix. a little birdie

The incessant prodding of a snake's cold nose woke Hermione from her fitful sleep.

She had never been fond of snakes, but she found it particularly jarring to wake and find a large, hissing serpent looming over her, unsure if it was one of Harriet's or an errant, wild beast about to bite her.

She blinked and finally recognized the silhouette of Livius' horned head.

"Livius," she croaked, clearing her throat. It was quiet in the dormitory aside from her own voice and the snores of the other witches. "I don't know if you can understand me, but I'd appreciate it if you would find another bed to nest in."

The Horned Serpent hissed again, insistently bumping his nose against her shoulder before turning his head. Befuddled and still more than a tad sleepy, Hermione squinted in the dark, following his attention back toward Harriet's covered bed. He turned to nudge Hermione again.

A cold spike of adrenaline hit, and she sat up, heart pounding, head almost dizzy from the speed she used to lurch out of bed.

"Harriet," she said, breathless. The cold floor stung her feet as she stumbled from her blankets, and the hangings screeched when she jerked them aside. "Harriet, are you—?"

The younger witch snored into her sheets, twisted in such a way she couldn't possibly be comfortable, but somehow managed to snooze on. She had her face pressed to the pillow, body partly on its side, and her right arm crossed against her middle so the hand itself flopped against her shoulder. In the soft, dim glow of the closest silver lantern, Hermione could see a dark spot spreading through the bandage wrapped about the hand's knuckles.

"Oh, Harriet…" she murmured, taking the hand in her own to tip it closer to the light. Harriet's skin felt sticky and too warm, and she grumbled when Hermione touched her. Livius returned, using his size to slither back onto the bed and coil on Harriet's covered feet. He peered at Hermione.

"Yes, yes," she told the creature, adjusting the hangings so she could flare one of the candles on Harriet's nightstand without waking anyone else. Harriet groaned and buried her face further into the blankets, grunting what sounded like "Go away."

"I don't much fancy Livius giving me a nip if I go away, so I think I'll decline, thank you," Hermione replied, distracted as she unwrapped Harriet's bandages. She kept her movements careful and slow as she peeled back the final layer of gauze, revealing the injury to the air.

"Did you really go see Madam Pomfrey for this?" Hermione asked, dubious, as she inspected the large slash marring the back of Harriet's hand. It was partially healed, or at the very least not bleeding, but the skin appeared quite red and irritated. Hermione prodded at the edges of the cut, then brought it to her nose, sniffing. She cringed at the strange, sudden sweetness. "Is this Dark magic?"

Harriet mumbled incoherent nonsense.

The hangings on the other side of the bed flew to the side, revealing a rumpled and irritated Elara. "You're not nearly as quiet as you think you are," she snapped, her anger losing its potency when she yawned.

"Sorry," Hermione told her, though she had her mind set on the trunk at the foot of the bed. She opened the top compartment and poked through Harriet's monogrammed valise. "It should be in here. I helped pack her emergency kit earlier in the summer…."

As she searched, Elara sat on the bed. She rubbed her face for a moment, trying to wake up, and took Harriet's injured hand. She inspected it much as Hermione had. "Did she get this from Slytherin?"

"She must have. Though, I would imagine leaving such a lasting mark should go against their contract—ah, here it is."

Hermione found the bottled Dittany and the little jar of pungent Equill-Emollient, gathering those and another roll of gauze. She dropped the items on the comforter as Elara reclined next to Harriet, the latter protesting the mattress' dipping motion, wriggling under her blankets.

What caused this? Hermione pondered, using the dropper to apply Dittany along the wound's edges. Seriously, Slytherin should have tended to this, or sent her to Snape. She's definitely bluffing about seeing Madam Pomfrey. She would have kept Harriet in the ward overnight.

Harriet snorted, blinking, glaring at her hand as it stung under the Dittany. "Wuzzit?"

"Oh, go back to sleep. For Merlin's sake…."

Harriet did just that, and Hermione finished fussing over her injury, smearing on a healthy dollop of Equill-Emollient. It stunk to high heaven and caused Hermione's eyes to tear up. Once done, she capped both the bottle and the jar, then wrapped the gauze into place. She returned the Dittany and cream to Harriet's trunk.

"Did you finish your Charms essay?" Elara asked. Yawning, Hermione tucked into the blankets next to Harriet and slumped her head onto the pillow. She rubbed at her eyes, feeling the grit of sleep clinging to her lashes, her fingers smelling of Pleomele and Lyre-flower.

"Of course," she replied. "Did you believe I wouldn't?"

"You've been quite busy lately. I wondered if you had time."

Hermione had been busy, both reading and writing correspondences, furtively going through her notes on pure-blood families and those who sat on the Wizengamot. She'd made…inroads, though they were less roads and more like paths, winding little foot trails bullying their way through the undergrowth. They weren't pretty, they weren't smooth, but they were steps in the right direction.

Harriet huffed between them and wriggled again, turning so she could squint and scrutinize her hand again.

"You didn't have to do that," she muttered.

"I beg to differ. Your familiar was insistent and that wound looks terrible. What did you do? Why didn't you see Madam Pomfrey?"

"Mmph," was the only answer Hermione received.

They stayed quiet for several minutes, almost long enough for Hermione to drop off to sleep again. She stirred herself, knowing they all needed to get up and get ready for the day soon.

Harriet touched her bandages with her uninjured hand, her thumb idly picking at a stray corner of gauze. "D'you know what Professor Slytherin said to me yesterday?"

"No. What did he say?"

"That one girl, Eden Prince? She came up to me when Slytherin was standing there like a dunce, and she asked for help with some extra credit."

"Yes, we know that. We saw you go help her."

"Yeah, but you didn't hear what Slytherin said." Harriet chewed her lip, her brow furrowed. "I expected he'd get in a snit about it, right? But instead, he said he's pleased. Slytherin! Pleased! Without anyone having to die! What are the chances of that?"

Elara snorted, covering her nose with her hand.

Hermione smiled, finding it humorous—but it was curious. Slytherin demanded attention, especially from those he had an interest in, and didn't suffer distraction well. Hermione had noticed this term, in particular, he didn't like when Harriet appeared inattentive.

He needs an audience, Hermione thought, rolling her eyes to herself. He wants the respect, even if it's a begrudging, unwilling kind. Perhaps especially so.

How strange of Slytherin to react positively when a first year deferred to his apprentice rather than to him. She'd seen that exact scenario play out between Slytherin and Snape when a new student mistook the latter for their Head of House, and Snape suffered for it. Why hadn't Harriet?

"That's what he wants of you, though, so it's not entirely surprising," Elara said.

"How d'you mean?"

"He wants Harriet to be the Defense professor when she graduates. He sees himself as Headmaster soon."

That was a troubling thought, but not something Hermione had the ability to undertake. Though Headmaster Dumbledore was well over a hundred years old, he could be expected to live many more years. Many more decades. In fact, his predecessor, Headmaster Dippet, had lived to be well over three hundred with no particular aid or elixir-providing stone, and Hermione had to trust Professor Dumbledore could keep himself in good health. She couldn't worry about the safety of a wizard infinitely more capable than herself.

"He'll want me to teach Dark magic," Harriet corrected Elara. "Fat lot of good it'll do him."

"But that's such a good idea," Hermione blurted out before she had a moment to think things through.

"What? Teaching Dark magic? You keep saying I need Madam Pomfrey, but you're the one talking gibberish."

"Honestly," Hermione retorted, crossing her arms. "What I meant was it's quite clever to start teaching those younger than us—and not what Professor Slytherin has in mind, of course. Rather, it'd be a good idea to teach them defense, to teach them in a manner more structured than you do now."

"Like—like a class, or something?"

"Exactly like a class."

Harriet snored in disbelief. "Now I know you've gone barmy."

Despite her protests, Hermione still thought the idea worth considering. Umbridge was apparently determined to ruin their Defense education just to paint Slytherin in a negative light. Were that all, Hermione wouldn't care much—but the O.W.L and N.E.W.T students would needlessly suffer permanent detriment. Beyond that, the Ministry's petty feud could have lasting consequences beyond a few iffy grades if—when—the war escalated and people couldn't protect themselves.

The hangings pulled open again as Parkinson stepped through, her shoulders drawn taut in indignation.

"Are you incapable of being quiet at half four in the bloody morning?" she demanded. "I should report you to a prefect."

"I am a prefect," Hermione pointed out, much to Pansy's annoyance. "Your other choice would be telling Lestrange or Vuharith."

Pansy grimaced. "The nutter or the slag. No thanks." She sat on the foot of the bed with a huff, all too close to Livius, who'd gone invisible to avoid notice.

Her reply surprised Hermione, though perhaps it shouldn't have. Lestrange's popularity in the House had taken a nosedive after he'd been defeated and outfoxed by a witch almost three years his junior. Had he been gallant about the whole thing, no one would have batted an eye, but being an incessant braggart without the means to back it up had done him no favors.

As for Vuharith, well. Hermione cringed. She didn't agree with how others had decided to view her and found it incredibly misogynistic, but the witch's behavior had begun to color her reputation. She spent too much time hanging off the arms of Lestrange or his cronies, and Hermione knew from the other seventh-years her marks were slipping.

Pansy responded as if she could hear her thoughts. "Vuharith's parents should have gotten her married," she said. "Married and out of Hogwarts."

Unbidden, her gaze turned to the bed on the far side of the room, the bed that should have contained Katherine Runcorn but remained empty as it had since the start of term. Katherine had been married over the summer. Her parents were employed in the Ministry, and Hermione guessed the situation there had grown fraught with dangers from Gaunt's tantrums, to the point where the Runcorns felt it necessary to marry their daughter off so she'd be far from potential conflicts. The Runcorns had not been the only family to think so.

"Barbaric," Hermione said aloud.

"Stupid," Harriet chimed in.

"Foolish," Elara finished.

Pansy glared at them and stood, putting her nose in the air. "I swear, the three of you idiots share the same brain cell!"

The trio of witches looked at her, then at one another. Suddenly, Elara reached over Harriet to pat Hermione on the head—one solid thump. Hermione blinked at her, and Elara said—.

"It's my turn to use the brain cell."

Harriet cackled, and Hermione couldn't help her own laughter at the absurdity. Pansy rolled her eyes and stomped away.

Soon enough, Tracey, Millicent, and Daphne all stirred and woke, meaning Hermione and the others could get out of bed and make noise. Elara went to shower, and Harriet sprawled beneath her blankets again. Meanwhile, Hermione wrapped her dressing gown around herself and went to her carrel, eying the new stack of letters that had appeared overnight.

More news from Lucius. She shuffled to the uglier, rumpled parchments underneath the rest. And from Winky.

Winky had been a tremendous help so far in Hermione's quest to find blackmail material. House-elves often passed unseen in Wizarding homes, even by other house-elves, who were so indoctrinated to ignore what they considered their masters' private business, they didn't question if a new elf came to their manors on the pretext of being on loan from another family for the day. Hermione never asked Winky to risk her safety, and the elf brought back interesting tidbits of information.

Today, however, Hermione was to be disappointed. "No enter," Winky had written. "House is no place for elves. Master keeps them out."

Hermione tossed the missive to the side, sighing. Of course, it wouldn't be simple. The particular place and family Hermione had wished for Winky to investigate didn't command many votes in the Wizengamot, but she'd found that numerous other small Houses liked to follow their lead and respected the Lord's advice. It was an old House, not original to England, but naturalized over a century ago—and paranoid of house-elves.

She let out another annoyed grunt and slumped back in her chair, using the hard back to stretch her spine. According to Mr. Malfoy, she really needed this family to cooperate, and not just for those they personally swayed. He explained them as being a sort of turnkey, a stone she had to step on if she wanted to reach the next, no matter how they weren't connected.

Ugh, I probably shouldn't be using stepping on someone in an analogy, Hermione told herself. Crooks sauntered over on his bandy legs, and she let him jump into her lap. She rubbed her fingers under his chin, lost in thought.

Elara returned from the bathroom, her dried hair falling loose past her shoulders, her laundry gathered in her hands. She deposited that in her hamper for the elves to take care of, then proceeded to wake Harriet. The shorter witch pretended to be deep asleep until Elara lost patience, changed into her Animagus form, and pounced. Harriet yelped.

Hermione smiled at the scene.

xXx

Forty-five minutes later, the students of Hogwarts sat in the Great Hall, enjoying their morning meal. Elara read the Prophet over a cup of tea, and Harriet had gone off across the room to the Gryffindor table to hear about a new invention made by the Weasley twins. Meanwhile, Hermione stirred fruit into her porridge, mulling over her latest problem.

It's the only place Winky hasn't been able to enter. She turned the spoon in her hand, studying the school's crest pressed into the silver. That doesn't bode well. They're cleverer than the average wizard. Hermione scrutinized one of the candles, scowling at it. If only….

Harriet came scuttling down the aisle from the other end of the table, slipping onto the bench between Hermione and Emile Elderberry. She barely gave them the chance to move.

"What are you up to?" Elara asked from across the table, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"Nothin'," she replied, convincing no one of her innocence.

"Why does nothing have you looking so nervous?"

"I dunno what you mean." She took Elara's tea, and before the other witch could say a word, doctored it to her preference. "Needs more sugar."

"You're a menace," Elara complained, already reaching for a new cup.

"Well, how did things go with the twins?" Hermione asked. "What did they show you? They're developing something new, aren't they?"

"They got these new snackbox things," Harriet explained even as she continued to peek down the table, her feet tapping an anxious rhythm on the floor. "They're supposed to make you sick."

"Sick? Whatever for?"

"So you can, y'know, skip class."

Hermione gaped at her. "That's horrendous!"

"Might come in bloody handy if Umbridge is going to be hovering around like a giant—anyway. So they made all these different treats, and they do different things. Right now, they've got a beta group that runs through your system right quick, though they're looking into something that'll last until you take the antidote. Different boxes for different scenarios, yeah?"

"Okay…."

"Well, they wanted to test their beta batch on first-years—."

Hermione's hair puffed with righteous indignation. "They can't do that! They're too young—!"

She fell silent when Harriet hushed her, glancing around again. "Course I told them that. I also told them I had a ah, better sample group available."

"What do you—?"

As if on cue, Accipto Lestrange—seated roughly ten places away—choked, and then projectile-vomited over his breakfast. Those seated nearest him shrieked and struggled to get away before he could do another bout.

Elara slapped a gloved hand over her nose and mouth. "For God's sake, Harriet."

"That's disgusting," Hermione commented, idly watching as Lestrange tried to stand and splattered sick over Graham Montague. Vuharith, who'd backed away into the wall, suddenly wailed when her face broke out in aggressive boils. Cassius Warrington fainted into his eggs, plopping face-first on the plate. "How long did you say it'd last?"

"Eh, a minute or so?"

Pity, Hermione thought, the rest of the Great Hall echoing with laughter and squeamish squeals. Lestrange vomited a final time, this time on the floor, as Slytherin and Snape came down from the High Table to investigate. "How did you manage that?"

"What?"

Hermione nodded toward the sick-speckled place settings, indicating the spiked food.

"Oh. Bird," Harriet replied, mindful of listening ears. She pointed out the familiars that had swept down to deliver the post and lingered, munching on toast or offered bits of bacon. Though the majority were owls, a few other birds mingled in the bunch, including ravens and crows. No one would notice if an extra one slipped through.

If only….

Hermione tipped her head to the side, a sudden idea occurring to her. "Huh. That might be just what we need."

Slytherin swore aloud when Lestrange managed one final expulsion of puke—right on the Defense Professor's shoes.

"Harriet," Hermione asked, interrupting her laughter. Her glasses flashed with mirth.

"Yeah?"

"I have a favor to ask you…."


A/N: In b4 someone cries "you can only heal sectumsempra with vulnera sanentur!1!11!" I'm interpreting the vulnera spell as being the best and most immediate way to close wounds caused by Snape's curse, but it's not the only way. Also to note, it's been established in CDT that the amount of force, momentum, and power you put behind a spell impacts its performance. So Harriet whispering the curse, sitting in bed, isn't going to have the kind of inertia needed to lop off an arm or cleave through bones.

Hermione: "This is my villain arc."