Whispers in Her Hair

by Indygodusk

Chapter 14 : Second Year - Bookmarks, Ties, and Bookbags

Harry and Valeria snuck out of the locker room, closing the door quietly and ignoring the Gryffindor players cleaning up their portrait and complaining about the door moving without anyone to blame. A few corridors away, Harry dragged Valeria into an empty classroom and shut the door behind them. He ripped the invisibility cloak off their heads and stuffed it back in his pocket even as he held out his other hand demandingly. "Well? Give it to me."

Reaching into her pocket, expression neutral, Valeria passed over the thing she'd taken from Hermione's locker.

It wasn't a note.

Instead, the item in question turned out to be a familiar bookmark featuring Salazar Slytherin—the same bookmark from the set Harry had owled to Hermione over Christmas as a gift and forgotten to sign his name to. Brow furrowing, he turned it back and forth in his hands, searching in vain for the answers he'd been so desperately seeking. There was no message from Hermione written on the back. No comfort or answers. Nothing. It was just a bookmark. Fingering the crisp edges, he tried to keep his lower lip from either trembling or peeling back from his teeth.

The stern image of Salazar Slytherin watched him with hooded eyes, pursing his lips and fingering the emerald shaped S on his locket as if judging Harry for being such a failure as a friend and asking himself how Harry still hadn't figured anything out yet. Harry didn't know the answer to that either. Sure, he was pleased that Hermione seemed to be using his gift, but it was a distant sort of pleasure, swamped out by the waves of disappointment as he ran into another dead end.

As the silence stretched Harry felt his mood tipping into a freefall and decided that he'd rather argue with Valeria than cry by himself in a corner. "Well? Go ahead and say it. I know you want to," he told Valeria, sending her a sideways look as his mouth twisted bitterly. The back of his neck felt hot and sweaty. "Harry still hasn't found anything and almost got you into trouble for nothing. I know that's what you're thinking. You aren't even surprised. None of you believe me about Hermione and this certainly hasn't changed your mind. Don't bother sparing my feelings. You can just say it." He lifted his chin and, trying to act like it didn't matter, turned his back on her.

Heaving an exasperated sigh, Valeria reached around him and snatched the bookmark from his fingers just before he could slip it into his pocket. "The self-pity is irritating, Harry. You're not naturally stupid, so I know you're being like this on purpose. Stop it."

"You stop it," Harry answered, unable to think of a better come back and distracted by trying to steal back the bookmark. "And that's mine. Give it back!" He grabbed for the bookmark only to find it moved out of his reach again and again.

Shoving Harry away with a hand in the center of his chest hard enough to make him fall back against a desk, bruising his tailbone, Valeria strode over to the windows. She stopped in a beam of harsh yellow sunlight and held the bookmark up to her eyes, squinting at the details. "It's Hermione's bookmark, not yours, and you're still being a brat. Is this the thanks I get for sticking out my neck for you?"

Air hissing through his teeth, Harry wrestled with his temper as he stomped over to join her by the window. "Thank you very much for your help, Valeria. I really appreciate it, okay?"

She didn't bother acknowledging him, still staring at the bookmark. It made him want to slap it out of her hands, but he knew that would be a step too far for her to forgive without teaching him a lesson first. The last thing he needed right now was a painful lesson in respect from Valeria.

He held out his hands, fingers open but tendons tight. "I appreciate it, I do, but can you either give me back the bookmark or explain what has you so interested?" Harry said, working to keep his tone even instead of angry. "Please?"

"You gave up too easily. The borders here. See the difference?" The right side of the bookmark had a border decorated with a series of swooping curlicues and rolled scrolls while the left had a geometric border with straight lines, sharp angles, and little books.

"What about it?" He asked carefully, not wanting to get his hopes up.

"This is both a book and a scroll note taking bookmark," she said triumphantly, flapping it at him as if that explained everything.

Harry stared at her and wrestled with his temper. Again. He deserved a medal for not giving in and having a hissy-fit twenty times over today and it wasn't even close to dinner yet. He did like and respect Valeria. He did. Grabbing her shoulders and shaking her hard would not knock loose the clear answers he wanted, no matter how satisfying it was to imagine doing it. It would just end in him stuck to the floor in a gooey sludge writhing in pain and humiliation. "And how is that relevant?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Shaking her head and clucking her tongue, she looked him up and down. "How are you still so ignorant after two years at Hogwarts?"

"Inept Professors—and amature teachers—who don't explain things clearly or help their students?" He cocked his head and widened his eyes at her, making sure she knew he was including her in that statement.

Valeria sucked on a tooth, obviously unamused. "Don't look at me like that. If you're ignorant, it's up to you to find a way to correct that instead of blaming your problems on others." She gave him a hard look that made Harry flush and drop his eyes, remembering suddenly the scolding she'd given him after he'd lost the game against Gryffindor. Though how was he supposed to seek answers for questions he didn't even know he had?

"Now," she continued, shifting to stand next to him and pointing down at the bookmark, "pay attention. This is a high end note taking bookmark. It works with up to ten books and ten scrolls, based on the number of each on the borders. Instead of leaving the bookmark in the book or scroll and taking notes on a separate page, you merely select an open book or scroll slot on the border of the bookmark, link the bookmark to the sentence or page you are interested in, and write the notes on the back of the bookmark itself, which has a scrolling function built in so it never runs out of space. This way you can use one bookmark for keeping track of multiple sources of knowledge. The notes are usually locked so the information cannot be stolen, but as a failsafe you can retrieve the information without the owner being present as long as they haven't disabled that function. You just have to touch the linked book or scroll with the bookmark and it will reveal the notes the owner wrote. Understand now?"

"Yes," he released a slow breath to keep a hold on his impatience during her long-winded explanation. "Thank you for explaining," he said grudgingly.

She gave a shallow nod in acknowledgement and passed him the bookmark. "Tap the eighth book down and read what it says for me."

Harry touched the eighth book, which opened and revealed a tiny page covered in miniscule black writing that looked like it had been written with a brush the size of an eyelash. Holding it up closer to his face, he tilted it to get more light from the window and squinted at the words, reading them out loud, "Obscure Magical Creatures in Caverns Deep by M. Vorkosh - - Harry's Bas!"

Harry's heart jumped into his throat. "This has to be it! It has my name!" He sent an excited grin to Valeria.

"Looks like it," she smiled back crookedly.

"Where's the book so we can get the notes?" Harry looked around the empty classroom and then impatiently answered his own question a second later. "Probably in the library."

They rushed over to the library, only to find out from Madam Pince that the book had been checked out by Hermione on the very day she'd been petrified and never returned.

"You need her bookbag," Valeria said. "It's most likely still in there."

"Her roommates don't like me and I think Blaise is out of favor right now," Harry groaned as they walked down a moving staircase. He almost missed jumping over the trick step because he was focusing on the bookmark in his hand again, trying to see if he'd missed anything more and seeing what other books and scrolls she'd been reading. It was a wide variety, but nothing else had his name by it. If he was glad to not see any other boys' names written on there either, that was nobody's business but his own.

Just as they reached the landing they heard someone calling their names. Harry looked up and around. On the next staircase over, one not connected to their level, they saw Flint and Terence waving impatiently at them. "Where've you been!" Flint snapped, anger and relief warring in his voice as he leaned halfway over the railing.

Before they could answer a pale grey figure shot past them cackling wildly. Recognizing Peeves, Harry instinctively reared back, but it was already too late. The ghost snatched the bookmark out of Harry's hand and looped up into the air overhead, dropping a trash bin full of papers on top of him as a distraction. Valeria managed to put up a shield around herself to redirect the papers so only a few hit her, but Harry had no such luck. Growling, he kicked his way free of the pile of trash, slipping a few times on loose pages and broken quills as he raced after the poltergeist.

"Give that back!" he cried, skidding around the corner after Peeves, dodging around several groups of students just getting out of weekend club meetings. "That's mine!" He cast a petrification spell at the ghost to try and stop him but missed as Peeves flipped out of the way, wagging the bookmark between his legs mockingly.

The closest students to Harry reared back and gasped in horror, breaking into loud whispering.

"Did you see!"

"Potter tried to petrify Peeves just like Nearly-Headless Nick!"

"I knew it, he is the Heir of Slytherin!"

Growling, Harry ignored the gossip and tried to run faster. Peeves looked over his shoulder, wiggled his fingers at Harry, and snickered mockingly.

Harry was so irate he didn't notice until the last second that Professor Snape had just turned a corner and was now stalking down the middle of the hallway. Grunting in shock, Harry jerked to a stop and reared back, windmilling his arms. He barely managed to avoid a collision. It was a miracle that he didn't slap Snape in the process.

Peeves laughed and stuck his tongue out at Harry with a loud, "Ppptthhbb," then threw the bookmark at Snape and dived through the wall, disappearing. The bookmark slapped into Snape and fell to the floor.

Harry's dive wasn't fast enough to grab it before Snape had leaned over and picked it up, the older man's mouth pursing sourly. In his haste, Harry almost slammed his head into Snape's, barely stopping himself in time, though he was close enough to smell whatever sharply astringent herbs had left yellow-green stains on Snape's robes and catch an unpleasant whiff of his greasy scalp. Jerking back, Harry put a hand on the wall to keep from falling over and making even more of a fool of himself. He bit his tongue to keep from saying anything incendiary, like a demand to give the bookmark back or mention how Snape was probably overdue for a bath after he'd gotten distracted from mundane things by his latest project.

"Uh oh," someone snickered from the crowds of students slowing down to watch the show.

In the past, an interaction like this would have Snape insulting Harry and Harry responding with as much disrespect as he calculated that he could get away with, which may or may not lead to some sort of humiliation or punishment being meted out if he calculated wrong, creating entertainment for those watching and fanning the flames of Harry's hatred.

Since their talk the night Hermione was petrified, however, things had changed. Both of them were still adjusting to it, whatever "it" was.

"Potter," Snape drawled sourly and then did that strange little twitch that had become familiar in recent weeks where he took a quick breath, blinked rapidly, and then pushed down his shoulders and curled up the corner of his mouth in what Harry had at first thought was indigestion but now suspected was Snape's version of a smile—albeit a forced and awkward one.

Harry breathed in slowly through his nose and discarded his first, second, and third responses as too aggressive and impolitic. "Sorry, Professor," Harry finally said, forcing himself to sound properly respectful instead of spitting out the title the way he used to when dealing with Snape. He jerked his chin down in a little nod too, the best he could honestly do since he wasn't willing to lower his eyes or bow to the man just yet and wasn't the greatest actor. Reminding himself of the advice that cunning men built bridges instead of burning them (Blaise) and that you didn't have to like someone to work with and use them for your own benefit (Pansy), Harry forced his jaw to unclench. Since the reminder of Harry's Slytherin status seemed to recently help Snape be a decent human being, Harry gripped the dangling end of his loosely knotted green striped tie.

Snape followed the motion with his eyes. "Can I...help you?" he asked, looking back up at Harry's face through hooded eyes. The question sounded sincere, though Snape's voice was otherwise stilted. It was so weird, had been ever since that strange conversation. Harry still wished he knew what had changed. If he didn't understand it, he couldn't trust Snape's good behavior not to stop just as mysteriously as it had started.

"Um, that bookmark?" Harry gestured to Snape's hand. "It's—it's mine, sir," he stuttered, trying to pretend he was talking to a normal Professor like Flitwick or McGonagall. "Can I have it back? Please?"

A group of nearby girls gasped and tittered, whispering behind their hands as they watched, probably waiting for Harry to get verbally eviscerated and the bookmark either ripped up or confiscated.

"Now he's in for it," a male voice whispered gleefully, followed by the sound of shushing and muffled laughter.

Eyes hooded, Snape glanced between Harry and the bookmark, looking suspicious until he noticed the image of Salazar Slytherin. Then something smug flashed across his face. A second later he extended the bookmark out towards Harry between two fingers. "Here."

The whispering of students in the hall cut off into a shocked and bewildered silence.

It took Harry a moment to reach out because he was just as stunned as everyone else that asking Snape nicely had actually worked. "Thank you...Professor." Carefully taking the bookmark, Harry tucked it into the pocket inside his robe so it couldn't be stolen again and then stepped back against the wall with a much more sincere head bow. "I'll just… let you be on your way now. Sir."

Just as Snape made to turn away, his eyes suddenly narrowed with displeasure. Harry should've known things were going too well. Head tilting, lips thin, Snape's hand snapped out towards Harry's throat.

Blood freezing in his veins, Harry's thoughts raced, not knowing what he'd done wrong but bracing himself to be strangled or worse. Time seemed to slow. He didn't bother trying to dodge, not that there was anywhere to go with his back against the wall. He'd learned from a young age that avoiding a quick blow from an adult man often led to a much longer and worse punishment. Sometimes it was better to just take it and get it over with. It was only worth dodging Uncle Vernon if there was room to run and somewhere to hide for long enough for the man to get distracted by something else and forget about Harry. Uncle Vernon hit hard, but he was slow and ultimately stupid. He got bored quickly.

Snape was not Uncle Vernon.

Harry didn't know what to expect, so he flattened his expression and ordered himself not to react. He wouldn't give Snape the satisfaction of seeing Harry show pain. Two years of insults hadn't broken him. Snape's fists wouldn't either.

Snape's fingers disappeared beneath Harry's chin and….

Harry blinked.

Counting to five, Harry forced himself to slowly exhale. Snape wasn't hurting him. Instead, Snape's fingers delicately gripped the loose knot of Harry's Slytherin tie, carefully tightening and straightening the fabric until the knot rested at the base of Harry's throat and the tie hung flat. Then he patted Harry's chest and gave a faint smile that didn't look awkward at all. From someone else he might've called the touch caring or even paternal… but this wasn't someone else. This was Snape. He repressed a shiver.

"You've been representing Slytherin well lately, Mr. Potter," the older man said, dropping his hands and stepping back. "Do take care to keep it up."

Harry was so lost, no longer knowing how he even wanted to react to Snape's behavior. It was a complication he didn't know how to deal with right now. "Yes, Professor. Of course, Professor." Harry said woodenly, feeling strangely clammy as Snape gave a curt nod and swooped away down the hallway and around the corner, cloak billowing about his feet.

As soon as he disappeared, the students in the hallway exploded into chatter.

"Blimey, what was that?" someone exclaimed.

"Oh who cares about Potter and Snape, let's get going," said another voice.

Harry straightened his wobbly knees and lifted his chin. "Well then," he said, trying to act unaffected. He'd deal with it later, when things weren't so crazy. Maybe Snape would start making sense someday, maybe by the time Harry graduated.

From the corner of his eye he saw a clump of Gryffindor scarlet and gold. Harry forcefully turned his thoughts to the problem of solving the bookmark and away from unimportant memories and reactions dredged up from the traumas of his past.

As Harry watched through his eyelashes, Lavender Brown snapped her fingers and rolled her eyes. "Go on without me. I'll catch up," she called, darting away from the group to go rushing into a classroom down at the end of the rapidly emptying hallway. Lavender Brown was Hermione's roommate—just the person he needed to help him get Hermione's book.

Rolling his shoulders back to release tension, Harry waited for the hallway to empty and then pushed away from the wall and stalked after her, determined not to take no for an answer.

Inside the door to the classroom he paused to watch Brown gathering up a stack of playing cards from on top of one of the tables, tidying and tucking them into her pocket. He was still trying to figure out what to say when she turned to leave and saw him standing in the doorway watching her. Brown froze like an animal in the headlights of an oncoming car. Looking around and finding them alone, her eyes went wide. "Potter." She swallowed, the sound seeming loud in the empty room, and bit her bottom lip.

Harry didn't like people being scared of him, but he'd also had a very frustrating day, his arm hurt from the scratched on runes, and he was feeling off-balance. If her being scared right now helped him get what he needed to help Hermione, then by Merlin he'd use it.

"Brown." He held her gaze, refusing to blink first. "I need you to go and get me Hermione's bookbag, the one she was using the day she was attacked." He'd learned from Draco that if you demanded something with enough confidence, especially from someone not naturally dominant, they had a better than even chance of just giving it to you to avoid any sort of conflict. If Gryffindor had a hierarchy—which didn't seem to be the case—Brown would probably be near the bottom. Harry was not a bottom-ranked Slytherin. He would get what he wanted today—one way or another.

Dark lashes fluttering rapidly, Brown looked down and away, dragging the tip of her toe across the floor nervously. "What? No. Why would I do that? And for you?" She gave a forced laugh that trailed off. Not looking up, she started walking towards the door to escape.

When Harry didn't move out of her way, just crossed his arms and watched her in silent demand, she gulped and took a sharp left, scurrying over to look out the windows at the distant lake, as if that's where she'd been going the entire time. She shot him a quick look from the corner of her eyes as her shoulders went up around her ears.

The press of his crossed arms made the edge of the bookmark in his pocket cut slightly into his chest. The discomfort was a reminder both of why he was doing this and to not go too far in his actions. Seeing Brown cowering from him over by the window, arms trembling as she clutched her bag to her chest, not even trying to draw her wand, he realized that it would be a lot easier than he'd expected to threaten her. Her over-active imagination and his exaggerated bad reputation was doing half of the work for him. She was so scared she was barely even resisting. It wouldn't take much force to tip her over the edge and make her do whatever he wanted.

The thought left a bad taste in his mouth.

Dropping his arms, Harry shifted to lean back against the side of the doorframe with his legs stretched out, putting his hands in his pockets to try and make himself seem a little less threatening while still making it clear that he wasn't going to let her escape until she gave him what he wanted. "C'mon, Brown. It's just a simple favor." He gave her a wink and a soft smile, trying to project friendliness. "I just need to see one of Hermione's books. She won't mind. Please?"

"I—I don't know." Brown seemed absorbed in drawing circles on the floor with the toe of her boot. She watched him from the corner of her eye. Seeing him noticing, she bit her lip and ducked her head again, the sun bringing out glints in her elaborately braided hair. It was cute, he realized.

Distracted, Harry couldn't help the way his expression softened as he examined Brown's hair and thought about Hermione. He wondered what Hermione's hair would look like braided up like that, taming her chaotic curls into ordered lines and patterns. He'd never seen Hermione do a hairstyle so elaborate. Most of the time she just left her hair down or put it in a simple ponytail, though she'd braided it back for the last Quidditch game. Maybe she didn't know how to do more than a simple bun or braid? Harry certainly didn't, though it wouldn't surprise him if Blaise did, considering Blaise was now cutting not only Harry's hair but also Pansy's and could talk to girls about fashion and styling for hours (though Blaise never passed up a chance to talk to a girl, period).

Harry's breath caught and he felt strangely hot as the idea of touching Hermione's hair wiggled to the surface of his thoughts and got stuck there. Could Blaise teach him how to braid? And if he did, would Hermione let him practice on her hair until he got good at it? Good enough to create elaborate styles like Brown's? Harry bit his lip as he imagined burying his hands in Hermione's curls and taming them beneath his touch, bringing order to the chaos. Would she let him bare her nape and frame her face with a profusion of plaits? Would she melt beneath his touch, going heavy-lidded and soft with trust? He would be so careful with her if she did. He'd take care of her.

Harry had never actually touched Hermione's hair, though his fingertips had regularly itched with curiosity and the impulse to smooth back a lock or see how it bounced in response to a teasing tug. The closest he'd come was feeling it brush cool and soft against his chin and cheeks the few times she'd hugged him close before everything had fallen apart between them. When they were friends again and she was restored and her hair was once again soft instead of hard like stone, when she trusted him again—when, not if, he couldn't accept the idea of if—could he ask for the privilege? Would she say yes?

Chest aching, Harry rubbed at his sternum, trying to soothe the phantom sensation. It was a silly thought. Stupid. His friends would probably laugh if they knew what he was thinking. Draco certainly would. Nevertheless, the idea of even touching Hermione's hair, much less being allowed the intimacy and trust of braiding it, made something flutter in Harry's throat and brought heat to his face.

Blinking back to the present, he realized that Brown was watching him strangely, as if surprised by something. Probably because he'd been staring at her braided hair with a dumb expression on his face for who knows how long. He blushed.

How embarrassing.

Hair wasn't important—getting the book with Hermione's notes was. He had to help Hermione and this was the only way he knew how—by finding out what her words had meant, by discovering what she wanted him to know. He would not fail her now.

If Blaise were here, he'd know how to delicately turn Brown's fear into friendly interest and get her to help. Harry wasn't delicate like Blaise; he was a lot more awkward and blunt. However, he'd been told several times that he was also earnest and stubborn. All he could do was his best, even if that was blunt. "Look, I need a book from Hermione's bag and you're going to get it for me. It doesn't need to be a big deal. You can do it because you're a sweet person and want to help—" cheeks pink, Brown gave him a skeptical look before remembering that she was scared and flinching away. Harry felt a flash of irritation, making him impulsively change what he'd been about to say, "—or you can do it because I sit near you in Potions and since Snape decided to start favoring me like the rest of the Slytherins he won't care if I start sabotaging your work."

Mouth falling open in outrage, she looked at him straight on. "You wouldn't! You're too nice! You don't do things like that!"

Which… was true. He wouldn't. Harry had forgotten that it was stupid to threaten something he wasn't willing to do. He felt the side of his mouth quirk bitterly. Brown was one of the worst offenders when it came to passing along slanderous gossip about him and all of the horrible things he supposedly did, yet now she was admitting she knew he wouldn't actually do any of it. It was maddening.

Harry's mind spun uselessly. He didn't know what else to try. With no better ideas, he doubled down on his previous tactics and went for honesty. "No, I don't. I wouldn't do something like that. You're right. Not without a good reason." Running a hand through his hair, probably making it stick up wildly, his lips flattened as he stood up straight and let her see how desperately he needed this, though he kept his hand away from his wand, trying to ride the edge of implied threat and silently begging for her to take pity on him and help. "So don't give me a reason, Brown. It's not worth it, not for a book bag that won't hurt anything if you just give it to me."

She looked confused. That or constipated. Subtle threats weren't working here.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he widened his eyes and tried to project innocence and ratchet down the tension in the room. Was he or wasn't he a Slytherin? He tried flattery again. "Besides, you're always so kind and thoughtful. Everyone knows how sweet you are, how helpful. I've seen how everyone admires you for it." Harry was laying it on thick and lying through his teeth considering he didn't pay much attention to Brown at all and had no idea what people thought of her except for irritated, but she seemed to be eating it up. Finally. The flattery loosened the line of her shoulders and brought a pleased curve to her lips and sparkle to her eyes.

Harry tried to hide his sigh of relief. "That's why I thought I could ask you for help borrowing the book from Hermione's bag. Please help me. Please, Lavender?" The use of her first name made her blush bright pink. Harry did his best to keep his expression soft, clamping down on an inappropriate urge to snort, grimace, or roll his eyes. He couldn't ruin it now when he was so close.

Twisting her fingers together and biting her lip, Brown stared into his eyes for a moment before giving a jerky nod. "Fine. Okay, fine. Just this once, I guess, since I am known for being so helpful."

Relief surged up his spine. Harry grinned, though he tried to keep it from being too smug. Draco's smug little smirks when he got his way always made Harry want to punch him and take back whatever he'd just agreed to do. "Thank you for your help. You're the best, just like everyone always says. I'll be waiting for you at the base of the central staircase if you could go and get it now?"

"Okay," she said and then bit her lip. "Harry."

Stepping to the side of the door, he channeled Blaise and gallantly bowed, gesturing her to leave ahead of him with a flourish. "After you," he murmured as graciously as he could, accidentally channeling Blaise too much and mimicking even the Italian accent. It probably made him look and sound completely stupid. Hopefully she wouldn't change her mind about helping him after seeing him act like a complete dork and realizing that he'd obviously never intended to go through with his threat to sabotage her potions work and remembering that she liked to make up stupid gossip about him with her friends.

Brown looked startled and then flustered by his bow, like she'd just run face-first into a wall. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and stared at him wide eyed before scurrying out of the door, casting a quick look over her shoulder as she passed by. When she saw him still watching her, her cheeks went bright pink and a high-pitched giggle of all things escaped her mouth before she disappeared around the corner.


Harry left to wait for her at the rendezvous point. He didn't know what he'd do if she changed her mind and didn't show up. Probably something even more rash and risky than what he'd done so far today. Nevertheless, he had a good feeling about this.

"Hi Harry," a high-pitched voice called out in a syrupy tone, making him look up to see Myrtle's ghostly head and shoulders sticking out of the wall just down the hall from her usual bathroom. "It's way too crowded and creepy for me in the pipes today and my last visitor was super RUDE and used my sinks while completely ignoring me." She gave a pouty growl. "Want to come over and play another game of tag? Or something else?" Biting her lip, she wiggled hopefully and fluttered her lashes in an overly flirtatious way that always made him rather uncomfortable.

Harry cleared his throat. "Sorry, Myrtle, I'm in the middle of something. Maybe later?" he said, slowing down but not stopping.

"No fair! N—nobody ever wants to play with st—stupid Moaning Myrtle!" she wailed, bursting into noisy tears and disappearing back through the wall and out of the hallway.

Sighing, he felt a pang of guilt and made a mental note to stop by sometime soon to say hello, preferably with a few of his friends so she wasn't so focused on flirting with just him.

On reaching the main staircase, Harry sat down on the bottom step and waited… paced and waited… sat and waited. His stomach grumbled. He was hungry. It didn't look like Brown was coming. He should make a new plan for what to do next, but his mind was frustratingly blank.

The Weasley twins walked past, frowning faces covered in bright red pimples and their hair striped purple and gray, with little puffs of smoke erupting from their feet and ears along with farting noises on every third step. Over the laughter of the spectators they were loudly arguing about whose fault it was that they'd gotten pranked and seemed to be thinking that it had happened during either lunch or a game of exploding Snap they'd cheated at to win. The locker room wasn't mentioned at all. Harry had to hide a smirk behind his hand. Luckily they didn't seem to notice him as they passed.

In his distraction he didn't see Brown approaching until something heavy dropped over his shoulder and onto his lap. "Oof." Blinking down, it took him a second to recognize Hermione's bookbag.

"There you go, Potter. Or should I call you Harry?" Biting her lip, Brown tucked her cheek against her shoulder and giggled at whatever expression his face was making while she twisted back and forth and moved closer. Harry leaned back on the step to get some distance. She giggled again. "Oh, I probably shouldn't…we are in different houses after all, but… good luck with your research," she said softly, batting her eyes at him as if she had dirt caught in there.

"Um, thanks." He sent her an awkward smile.

She giggled again—the high-pitched sound hurting his ears—gave him a little finger wave, and finally left. He felt chilled. She didn't look scared of him anymore. In fact—a shiver ran down his back and he had to swallow hard—she looked uncomfortably similar to Myrtle when she was flirting. Harry really hoped he was just misunderstanding things.

Please let him be misunderstanding things.

Maybe if he just ignored it, she'd go back to slandering him behind his back. That was fine. He was okay with that. Better than being giggled at like… that. He shivered.

Standing up, Harry slung the book bag over his shoulder and retreated to an empty alcove near to the infirmary, wanting to be as close to Hermione as possible as he read her notes and tried to figure out what she wanted to tell him. As he started opening up the bag, he heard a muffled female voice crying out, "No, Ginny, no! Don't, please!"

He looked around, brow furrowed, but didn't see anyone. There was something familiar about the voice, something that made his breath catch. He strained his ears, but didn't hear anything else. It was probably just wishful thinking and the bag in his lap that had made him think that the voice sounded like Hermione. Most likely it was just a couple of girls arguing in a nearby classroom.

Dismissing it, Harry returned to exploring Hermione's bag. He was finally going to get his answers and then—and then—he was going to do something to get Hermione back and fix things between them.

AN: This chapter is not beta read, so if you see any egregious errors please point them out. Thanks for your wonderful and supportive comments! I really appreciate them!

In good news for me, I finally got my first Covid-19 vaccine, so that's making me feel better about things and less anxious. In bad, about a week ago my daughter woke up at 3 am having trouble breathing (croup—despite her being 6 she still struggles with it) and I had to take her to the ER for a steroid breathing treatment. Thankfully it worked. Last time this happened (18 months ago) she had to be hospitalized for 3 days. We got home at 7:20 am, just in time for me to wake up my son to go to school. I then took a quick nap for 2 hours and then hopped in the shower. My phone was still downstairs in my purse. Before I had even soaped, my husband barged into the bathroom demanding to know if I'd gotten my phone since the school had been calling me non-stop and he'd been on a work zoom meeting. I jumped out to find out that my son had hurt himself at recess and needed to get picked up. Picking him up revealed a badly swollen arm and a trip back to the doctors to find out he'd broken his upper arm bone—the humerus. (Did you know a break and a fracture are the same thing? I always thought a fracture was less serious than a break, but nope.) That whole day and the next sucked. But we had lovely friends who dropped us off dinner and checked in on us, so I appreciate everyday angels. We finally got his arm casted two days ago and he was very excited to have people sign his bright orange cast. I am not a bright orange person at all but my son definitely is, one of life's little ironies. My daughter is all better now too, so yay for that.

As for the story, I have the next chapter already written and with my Beta readers. Gasp! So as soon as I get it back and fix what needs fixing you will actually get it. That means probably 1 week instead of 2-3. Yay for all of us!