Monday morning, Harry basked in the knowledge that it was the first day of holidays. Ron grumbled a bit that they still had to get up at a reasonable hour because he, Harry and Hermione were expected in the potions classroom right after breakfast. Harry did not mind, though. Long days without classes or homework stretched out before him.

With almost everyone gone, the fear of being overheard was greatly reduced, and it was easy to talk about their projects. They talked about their animagus transformations all through breakfast, planning the work ahead, all of them agreed that they would use the upcoming weeks to make as much progress as possible. They also indulged in fanciful guessing of their animagus forms.

"It's strange, though, that Sirius thought you'd be turning into a black animal, Harry, but your feathers were really more of a brown," said Ron. "Now, with Hermione, here, we know the animal already, but of course with dogs there are so many breeds—"

"Keep your voice down!" hissed Hermione. "And how many times do I have to say it, we don't know enough about any of our forms to say what animals we're turning into, and that includes me!"

Ron sat back with a self-satisfied grin, but did not argue the point. "And then there's me. My fur is dark—"

"Maroon," supplied Harry. "Definitely maroon." He knew the colour well enough, from all the times Ron had complained about it.

This time was no different. The boy wrinkled his nose. "Anyway. Fur. But very smooth, and dense, and with white markings. And… I've still no idea what animal that could be."

Harry's face darkened a bit. "Sirius insists I ought to get better at shrinking spells, but he hasn't told either of you the same thing. Just how small does he expect my form to be? Alright, most birds are not that large, but neither are most dog breeds—"

"There are some really tiny birds, though," supplied Ron helpfully.

Harry's face darkened further. "So what. Doesn't mean I have to turn into one. I might turn into an owl or a hawk or something. Maybe a falcon. Most of them are brown, aren't they?"

"Well, with the extra time we have now, we can spend some time in the library," said Hermione, ignoring the disgusted looks the boys threw her way. "There'll be some illustrated books in the zoology section. Maybe something will look familiar."

Snow was still falling outside the windows when they slowly got up to leave the great hall, their talk switching to the potion they were about to brew. Snape had said they could be in and out of the potions classroom throughout the day, helping with the different steps as required. The highlight – according to him – would be adding the ground moonstone after moonrise which, due to the time of the year, would be happening relatively early in the evening.

Snape was already circling the cauldron when they reached the potions classroom. He had left the door locked as usual, even though there was almost no chance of anyone witnessing their visit to the classroom. When asked about it, they found out that a fifth year Slytherin student had also opted to stay at Hogwarts, and might see them in the dungeons.

"The second stage of the potion began yesterday, as you can see," said Snape.

"Oh, yes. It now has a sheen on the surface." Hermione had already reached the cauldron and was pulling up her sleeves.

Harry recognised the changes as well once he took a look. They had already seen the Wolfsbane brewed once from start to finish, after all.

"The third stage will begin in only a couple of days, on Wednesday," Snape went on. "All the major steps in the second stage still need to be done, as promised. You remember what they were?" He looked at them expectantly, similar to how he did during lessons.

Hermione rattled off a list of ingredients to be added – mostly herbs. "Oh, and the powdered moonstone, of course."

Snape nodded in agreement, unlike the way he always avoided accepting her answers in class. "Correct. Belby – rather fancifully – refers to the second stage as the 'flower' between the poisons—"

"'Course it was bound to be less interesting, then," said Ron.

Snape shot him a look. "My… affinity… for poisons is neither here nor there. This part of the potion is less innovative – but also easier to handle and less dangerous—"

Which definitely had to do with the lack of poisons, thought Harry. He also suspected it was at least partly the reason Snape found this part of the potion less interesting. Snape had gone on and on the previous month about the dangers of the poisons in the potion, but it had soon been obvious to Harry and his friends that he found poisons fascinating. Without much prompting, Snape had told them of his well-maintained collection, pointing to a number of jars that lined the walls of the potions classroom, as well as his office. It had given them the idea to give Snape basilisk venom as a Christmas present.

His least favourite part of the Wolfsbane potion it might have been, but it certainly would not have been obvious from the zeal with which Snape described what they would be doing in the following days. He sounded almost enthusiastic when talking about it. "After the introduction of the protective substances in the first part, like gurdyroots – which keep the human part of the werewolf safe, but are overall volatile – this second stage prepares the potion for the introduction of the ingredients that actively fight the wolf in the third stage – the aconite, or wolfsbane, of course, as well as the powdered moonstone. It has to balance a lot of contradictory elements."

"And it doesn't include any poisons," said Hermione.

"Yes. But that doesn't mean there are no precautions necessary. Potter, Weasley, do either of you remember what precautions you need to take – and why?"

Hermione looked like she wanted to answer in their stead, but restrained herself. The boys cobbled together most of the correct response, and so it went on. Snape was neither unfair nor insulting, the way he often was in class, but he was by no means less demanding as he went over the technical difficulties of adding the moonstone. If anything, he expected them to be more focused and better motivated, eager to learn the steps of the overly challenging potion.

~HP~

It was close to lunchtime when Harry, Hermione and Ron finally left the potions classroom. There was not a lot of time to do anything involved, and they meandered through the empty castle, Ron and Hermione debating whether or not to bother with returning to the Gryffindor tower so they could play board games or card games. Harry fell quiet for a bit, and then he brought up Pettigrew again. He wanted to discuss what they had overheard the day before, and the conclusions they had drawn. His friends, however, had other ideas.

Hermione exchanged a look with Ron and then told him that although she understood that he might be upset about Pettigrew evading justice, she agreed with Sirius – that Pettigrew was not their primary concern. Worse even, Ron agreed with her. He also argued with Harry, reminding him that Pettigrew, but especially Malfoy, were actual Death Eaters. He did not shy away from mentioning some of the awful things they had done, either, and finally angrily told him to refer to Voldemort as You-know-who.

Harry, finally upset, in turn brought up the prophecy concerning him, but Hermione shut that down as well, reminding him that Sirius was well aware of the prophecy, but still insisted Harry leave Pettigrew to him.

"Look," said Ron in the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between them, obviously casting around for a change of subject, "it's the holidays! It's nearly Christmas! Let's – let's go down and see Hagrid."

"Yes!" Hermione agreed at once. "We haven't heard any news from him about Buckbeak. Maybe all's well now—"

"Yeah, let's go," said Harry, "and I can ask him about Pettigrew this time, and how come he never mentioned last time we asked him about Sirius that he'd met Sirius the night my parents were killed."

This was plainly not what either of his friends had had in mind, but Harry would not be deterred, so they braved the cold and snow and went to Hagrid's cabin. There was no answer when they knocked, only a series of low moans from inside. After some shouting, Hagrid finally opened the door, and tearfully flung his arms around Harry's neck.

They managed to get him inside his cabin. Through his sobs, Hagrid shoved an official-looking letter towards them, as explanation. Buckbeak was to have a hearing by the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. It was only after reading the letter that they noticed that the hippogriff was actually inside the cabin with them, lying in a corner and chomping on something that was oozing blood all over the floor – instead of being isolated until the hearing, as the letter requested.

Hermione immediately began to think of ways to put up a strong defence. Harry thought to ask if Dumbledore could help, but Hagrid did not want to do that, not after the headmaster had already worked to convince the board of school governors that Hagrid bore no responsibility for Draco's stupidity.

"He's got enough on his plate what with keepin' them dementors outta the castle, an' Black an' Pettigrew lurkin' around," he groaned.

Ron and Hermione shot Harry uncomfortable looks at that point, all of them aware that this was the opportunity Harry had been waiting for to bring up Pettigrew. But he could not do it, not with Hagrid so miserable and scared. So instead, Harry joined in Hermione's plans to prepare for the hearing, while Ron made tea – like his mother did when someone was upset.

The combination of assurances of help and a steaming mug of tea finally helped Hagrid to pull himself together somewhat. With Fang also coming over to comfort his owner, Hagrid finally admitted that he had not been feeling well recently. He had been worried about Buckbeak and no one liking his classes – prompting his listeners to lie that they did like them – but mostly it was the dementors' presence.

"Gotta walk past 'em ev'ry time I want a drink in the Three Broomsticks an' ev'ry time I keep goin' over horrible stuff in me mind… the day I got expelled from Hogwarts… day me dad died… day I had ter let Norbert go…"

Then, much to Harry's discomfiture, Hagrid threw his arms around him and Ron and thanked the three of them for keeping him out of Azkaban after the basilisk attacks. It was not the first time he had thanked them, and Harry felt vaguely uncomfortable just as he had the previous time. What had really kept Hagrid out of Azkaban had been getting petrified. Hardly something to be grateful for.

That uncomfortable feeling stayed with Harry while they walked back to the castle. He listened to Hermione plan how to put a defence together for Buckbeak, and rail against the Malfoys, and felt doubts assail him. She was worried about Hagrid – as they all were – but he was aware that she was also trying to distract him away from Pettigrew.

Ron stopped in the middle of the snow-covered grass, not heeding the dampness soaking into their shoes. "No," he said vehemently, loudly. "We have to be careful about giving Hagrid false hope. Malfoy's a Death Eater, Hermione, and he's dangerous – same as Pettigrew, Harry. And we keep going after them! Weren't you listening to Hagrid! Thanking us for getting him petrified! Don't you remember how easily he could've died instead?" Ron made a choked off noise and almost stumbled forward. Then he pulled his hand out of his pocket, holding his wand, and stared at it miserably.

Harry and Hermione had had enough experience with this sort of thing to recognise it for what it had been.

"Did you just cast the animagus spell?" Hermione asked to have it confirmed.

Ron nodded, not looking at her.

Harry was feeling a heavy weight settle somewhere in the pit of his stomach. What if his friends were right about Pettigrew? He had to concede that sometimes their actions could have unintended consequences – as had happened with Hagrid.

"What word did you find?" Hermione went on quietly, without arguing with what Ron had said.

Ron's shoulders slumped. "I'm not sure," he mumbled.

~HP~

The great hall was almost empty at lunchtime, as it had been at breakfast. Professor Flitwick was there for the first time that day, however, and Hermione felt a jolt of excitement when he saw them walk in and waved towards them with the roll of parchment he was holding. Harry and Ron looked unsure whether the greeting had been directed at them, wondering to wave back or not.

Hermione was aware of their surprise when, with a soft, "Ah," she left their side suddenly and briskly walked towards the head table. She was not in a hurry to explain, and she knew why.

It had been on a whim that she had decided to talk to Flitwick a few days before, after yet another duelling session in which both Harry and Ron had shown her up. She knew more spells than either of them, was better at the spells they all knew, could cast them more consistently, more effectively. And yet. She had found it difficult to match her technical skill against their speed. No, it was not just speed, either. They – especially Harry – were more uncompromising in their attacks than she was, hard and fully committed, serious from the word go. They were fast with their initial attacks, quick to dodge, and their counterattacks took her by surprise far more often than she liked to admit.

Hermione may have been unpopular with her peers, growing up. She may even have been bullied, by some standards, but she had not been taught by experience to fight.

She had been asking Flitwick a technical question about the general counter-spell, which they were beginning to cover in charms class. He had sounded impressed at Hermione's admission that she – and Harry and Ron – had actually learned the spell the year before, right after Snape's demonstration of it during the very short-lived duelling club.

For once, it had not been enough to flatter her. She could cast the spell in theory, but that did little to help her win any duels against her friends, she had grumbled – only realising that she had spoken her thoughts aloud at Flitwick's look of surprise. Then it had all come out – all her frustration at her lacklustre duelling skill. Flitwick, to her surprise, had understood perfectly. Then he, in turn, had told her of his own struggles with duelling due to his physical limitations, and how he had overcome them to become a duelling champion.

Finally, to Hermione's delight, he had promised to give her some of his notes on duelling once teaching was done and he had time to spare. Hermione had not been expecting him to be so prompt and hand them over on the very first day of the holidays, but she certainly was not complaining.

Even if she was unprepared for her friends' curiosity once she returned with the roll of parchment.

"What's that?" Ron asked once she had sat down.

"Oh, just… something I asked Professor Flitwick about," Hermione said vaguely, not willing to explain just yet, before she had had a thorough look through the notes.

"Care to share?" Ron asked again.

Hermione relented somewhat at the blatantly curious faces of both her friends. "I'll tell you about it tomorrow, after I've had a look tonight." She waved off their objections before they had voiced them. "It… has to do with our duelling practice. But we won't have any time for that today, so might as well leave it until tomorrow."

Ron immediately looked less interested. It clearly meant more work, and he was more interested in the lunch at present. Harry followed suit.

The potion did not keep them occupied for long after lunch, and they had several hours until sunset and moonrise, when they had to return to the potion.

Harry suggested duelling practice, interested in the notes Hermione had received from Flitwick after all, but she wanted to go to the library to look for something to help Hagrid. Harry could not argue with that.

Madam Pince, the librarian, looked disgruntled to be asked to supervise students over the holidays, and left them to their devices without any comments. The library was large and empty apart from them and Madam Pince, and seeing the volume of books they might need to scan through, Hermione was almost tempted to ask Harry to mirror-call Sirius. She just managed to restrain herself from saying so, aware that of the three of them she was the most cautious.

Annoying as that could be sometimes. She could never voice any of her more outrageous ideas, because chances were the boys would agree, rather than argue her out of them – or better, come up with safer alternatives.

Thankfully, neither Harry nor Ron had thought to call Sirius, because Harmione was not sure she would have had the fortitude to argue them out of it. But once they had made themselves comfortable in the otherwise empty Gryffindor common room to look through all the books they had been able to carry with them, with less than a couple hours until they were expected back by Snape, it was time to get adult help.

Hermione asked Harry, who looked surprised, then looked over their pile of books, and nodded. "Good idea, Hermione." He put the mirror directly on top of the book pile, which put it nicely at eye level, and called his godfather.

Sirius clearly had not expected the call that early during the day. They could hear him muttering while he reached for the mirror. A strange background flashed through it, before his face appeared, with only a white wall in the background.

"Sirius, where are you?" Harry asked, mystified.

"Is everything alright?" Sirius asked at the same time, his face showing the worry at the unexpectedly early call. Once Harry's question had registered, he grimaced. His eyes focused away from them, sweeping over whatever he was seeing of the space he was in. He seemed reluctant to answer, but then he shrugged. "I'm inside a muggle house," he admitted.

Alarm bells went off inside Hermione's head, while she tried to put the pieces together.

"What – whose house—" Harry began to ask.

"Are you squatting?" Hermione cut across him. She heard the shrill note to her own voice, which she had been unable to suppress, the unwelcome surprise of her realisation rushing her words before she had considered them.

Sirius grimaced. "I suppose you could call it that."

Ron began laughing. "So where are the muggles, then?"

"Away on a holiday trip. They won't be back until Christmas Eve—"

Hermione looked at her friends, hoping to see the same disapproval she was feeling, but Ron was still grinning. Harry, at least, looked dubious, regarding Sirius with a frown, but he was not speaking up, either.

"But, but it's other people's home—"

"I know, and I'll make sure to leave everything as I found it," said Sirius. "But it being winter, this was one of the better options."

"Relax, Hermione. The muggles will never know he was there," said Ron.

"Because muggles never notice anything, of course," Hermione said rather sharply.

Sirius looked momentarily guilty, but then Harry said, "At least that house doesn't look like it's about to collapse around you."

Hermione was not sure what he was referring to, but Sirius must have understood. He nodded.

"I'll have to find another place after Christmas, though," he sighed.

Hermione was very tempted to point out that Sirius owned a house he could stay in, and did not actually need to impose on some unsuspecting muggles, but Harry got distracted by the mention of Christmas, and brought up their planned trip to precisely that house in London that they were intending to visit again on Christmas Eve.

Hermione, as always, had reservations because of the risks involved. And it was not that she was not looking forward to the trip – it was not that she did not want to go. She just wished she were not the only one pointing out the dangers, the problems.

It took Hermione a moment to notice that Sirius was distracted somehow. Even the mention of their visit – which usually got him fully engaged in the planning – did not seem to keep his attention. Harry noticed, and began to ask about it, but Hermione immediately brought up Buckbeak's scheduled hearing. It was the reason for their call, and she did not want them getting distracted away from it.

"These are all the books we found in the library." She pointed to the pile in front of them, and began listing the titles of the books they had brought with them.

Sirius frowned. "You want to put together a defence for Buckbeak? When you know Malfoy's behind the hearing? I don't mean to discourage you, but—"

"That's what I was saying," mumbled Ron, shooting Hermione an apologetic look. Then he told Sirius about finding another word. Once again, Ron had no clear reply as to what the word actually was. "I've tried a few words, but none of them fit. It's something about not over-estimating my abilities. I tried unconfident, but it wasn't that—"

Sirius grinned. "No, I don't think you're unconfident. But maybe it seemed so to you, compared to your friends. Neither Harry nor Hermione ever suffer from a lack of confidence, do they?"

Hermione caught Harry's gaze, who also did not appear to find the comment amusing, and they rolled their eyes.

"Yeah," Ron perked up. "It's more about not thinking myself more powerful than I am—" He grimaced. "But it's not, like, fear or cowardice, or anything. I checked those out. It's more – kind of – the opposite of Malfoy, who thinks he's powerful enough to bend the law to his will, and get rid of Dumbledore, and make the school governors do what he wants."

"Try 'modesty' or maybe 'humility', I'd suggest," said Sirius.

Hermione felt a heavy weight settle somewhere in the pit of her stomach. Sirius was wrong. She did not suffer from over-confidence. Maybe Harry did, a bit, she thought uncharitably. But lumping her in with him was unfair. She was only too keenly aware how difficult it would be to defend Buckbeak, knowing that Lucius Malfoy was working to prevent that.

Just because Ron's animagus spell had responded did not make him right. Hermione felt a bitter stab through her heart. She, after all, had also found a word for her spell the previous time they had talked to Hagrid – not that Sirius or either of her friends cared to remember. No, she was not being petty. It was simply that her drive to fight for justice was as fundamental to her character as modesty seemed to be to Ron's.

Instead of speaking up, she cast the animagus spell.

The words rushed to her, tumbled out of her. "It doesn't matter how powerful Malfoy is! We have to stand up for Hagrid, for Buckbeak, no matter who we're up against. Even if it's a fight we'll lose. It's a fight worth fighting – that's all that matters!" Hermione's breath hitched. "So—" She tried to go on, but the effect of the spell was wearing off, leaving her a bit disoriented.

Sirius was once again the first to notice. After a moment's pause, he said, "Care to tell us how your spell has progressed?" He was looking at her with a hint of a smile.

Hermione nodded at him and at her friends' curious faces. "I think I'll manage to get a full sentence now – like you did, Harry." She did not want to go on, however, did not want to discuss the development of her spell until she had done the calculations for herself.

Sirius hesitated a moment, waiting to see if she would go on. "You're right, of course, Hermione," he then said. "Now that you've promised Hagrid that you'll help, you have to try what you can to thwart Malfoy. I…" He hesitated, and a strange look came over his face. "This might actually tie in nicely with what I was thinking about. Do you know about the magical section of the British Library?" he asked abruptly.

Ron was the only one who had heard of it, and even so, he did not know much about it.

"At Hogwarts, you're most likely to find history books and the like, maybe with mentions of interesting case studies—"

"There's only a couple about actual wizarding law, but there's some books about human-beast relations over the centuries and one about the changes in the Wizengamot through the different time periods—"

"Yes, exactly. But you're unlikely to find technical law books. Very detailed wizarding law books are kept in the British Library, however – publicly available to the magical population. It's very dry reading, I'm afraid, but if you're willing to brave the challenge—"

For once, the boys did not complain about more reading.

"And… while you're at it…" Sirius had a considering look on his face. "Wait for a moment."

The connection ended abruptly, much to their surprise. They began to fret after a few minutes had passed without Sirius calling them back. Harry and Ron began to speculate what had caused Sirius to leave, while Hermione checked the time.

"It's almost late enough that we have to leave," she reminded the boys. Even she was not looking forward to potion brewing at the moment, much more interested in what Sirius might want to tell them, but she would insist on going and being on time, if necessary.

Sirius called back right before it was time to leave. He was holding a number of newspapers in his hand, trying to show them through the mirror.

"I found out a little more about the Riddles and the Gaunts," he told them. "I tracked down the marriage record. The murdered Tom Riddle really did marry a Merope Gaunt. I talked to a few older people in the village who still remember it – and still find it incomprehensible. To them, it was the most bizarre beginning to the Riddle family's end. Oh, and I met the gardener – Frank Bryce. He's still the gardener of the property that used to belong to the Riddle family—"

"He's the one who said he saw a boy running away that night, isn't he?" Harry asked excitedly.

"Climbing the hill, yes." Sirius frowned. "I talked to Bryce. And…" Here Sirius once again seemed distracted.

"Did you want us to borrow something from the library?" Hermione guessed impatiently, well aware of how little time they had.

Sirius nodded slowly. "Copies of the Daily Prophet of certain dates. Bryce told me that Morfin Gaunt wasn't around for a few years when he was a child. He must've been maybe seven or eight when he noticed the disappearance, and Morfin didn't return for several years. His father was apparently gone for a short while as well, but Bryce didn't remember that very well. The thing is, there was a rumour going around in the village that they'd been in prison—"

"And you're wondering if they really did go to Azkaban, and if so, what for?" said Hermione.

"Yes. Maybe there was something in the wizarding news. Merope seems to have run away with Riddle right after her brother and father disappeared. Riddle returned a year later, but she was never heard from again…"

Hermione began to busy herself with getting ready to leave.

"Oh, yeah, Snape," sighed Ron, being finally reminded of the time.

Harry began to regretfully say goodbye to Sirius, who looked like he was about to say more. He seemed to reconsider, saying goodbye as well.

"Wait," he said at the last moment, before Harry had cut the connection. "If you can – if the library allows it – try to request copies with the original pictures included," he instructed them.

Harry agreed and they were finally on their way, rushing down the dark corridor towards the dungeons. Harry had opted not to bring his invisibility cloak, thinking that no one would see them.

Then they saw the single Slytherin student still in the castle, walking away from them, but he turned when he heard them. He visibly startled.

"What are you doing here?" he called, suspicious, abrasive.

"There's no rule against us being here," Ron shot back right away.

The Slytherin scowled, began to say something, then reconsidered. Turning away, he hurried along on his way, but kept looking over his shoulder, shooting them displeased, suspicious looks.

"Prat," Ron said under his breath.

He, Harry and Hermione continued on more slowly, trying not to make it obvious where they were headed.

~HP~

Snape was already impatient when they reached his office. He had laid out a number of ingredients on the student desks closest to his desk, while the cauldron with the potion was still on its wheeled stand – the one that Snape used to push the potion out of sight during teaching hours.

"We're already running late," he told them as a greeting. "The moonrise is only minutes away. Let's hurry up with the packing."

Right then, Harry noticed the boxes with the small compartments on another student desk, which Snape had already begun to fill with the ingredients he had set out.

"Why are we packing up?" asked a mystified Ron.

"Just where do you see moonbeams in here?" Snape said curtly.

Harry actually felt compelled to glance around, even though after two and a half years of lessons in the potions classroom, he was well aware that there were no windows there.

Suppressing a sigh, Harry helped Ron pack up the bulkier items, while Hermione occupied herself with the more easily damaged ingredients.

"So where will we be taking all of these?" Hermione asked tentatively, once it became clear that Snape did not seem to find it necessary to explain himself.

"One of the first floor classrooms," Snape said without looking up. They all heard the implied 'obviously'.

"I'm asking because we just ran into that Slytherin student on the way here," said Hermione.

Snape did look up this time. He scowled. "I warned you not to get seen. It's not like it'd be too much to ask of you. Normally, you manage astonishingly well to get around undetected."

That was a fair point, Harry had to concede with a grimace, regretting his decision not to take along his invisibility cloak. He mumbled something to that effect.

Snape's lip curled, but he did not say any more. Instead, he cast a spell that Harry vaguely recognised from Hermione's descriptions. It was some sort of tracing spell, presumably to let him know if the coast was clear. Then he led the three students towards a narrow stone staircase that led from the dungeons to the ground floor.

Harry, who had been pushing the cauldron on its stand, regarded the stairs dubiously. "Should I use a spell to float it up the stairs?" he asked, pointing at the cauldron.

"Use a random spell on something as volatile as Wolfsbane potion? I think not." Snape sneered. Then he cast a spell himself, one that turned the stairs into a kind of escalator. "Be careful with it, Potter. It wouldn't end well for you if you poured some of it on yourself – and not just because of the consequences of having to deal with an unrestrained werewolf in a few days."

Harry kept hoping he had misunderstood, but Snape gestured impatiently, and with some trepidation, Harry pushed the cauldron stand onto the staircase, doing his best not to let it tip over too much as it went up. He breathed a sigh of relief when he made it safely upstairs. Hermione and Ron, laden with boxes of ingredients, grimaced at him when they reached him, looking apologetic. But Harry grinned back, well aware that Snape liked to assign the most unpleasant tasks to him.

They had one more staircase to go, but that one was less precarious, wider and better lit, leading up to the first floor.

The classroom they entered had several large windows, and Snape directed them to set up in front of the one closest to the professor's desk. Then he extinguished all the candles in the room.

"This part needs to be done in moonlight," he said.

While they were working, trying not to make any mistakes in the dim light, it occurred to Harry that Snape had to do this every month, and if not for their help, he would have been stuck with the extra workload all by himself. And while it would not be an odd sight to see the potions master carrying around a cauldron, Harry was sure that Dumbledore would have made Snape promise not to let anyone guess that he was brewing Wolfsbane every month – which meant that Snape had to be stealthy during these monthly trips, on top of everything else.

Hermione and Ron began discussing Buckbeak's scheduled trial while they worked, though they were both careful not to mention their plans to get involved. Hagrid had not turned up to dinner that evening and Hermione was suggesting they could join him in his cabin if he did not turn up for breakfast the next day. Harry reminded her of the rock biscuits, but had to concede that Hagrid might need cheering up more than they needed a tasty breakfast.

"I bet that git Malfoy's sleeping peacefully now, knowing the damage he's done. Him and his father both," said Ron.

It was the stillness that followed Ron's words that alerted Harry to the fact that Snape had not missed what had been said. Looking up, Harry saw him staring at them. His face was unreadable, yet Harry's thoughts still jumped to that conversation when Snape had suggested he really was fond of Malfoy. Harry tried to tell himself that the potions professor held no blame for this situation, but he realised he had been glaring when he saw Snape's face twist into a sneer in response.

Snape raised his eyebrows, challenging him to speak.

So Harry obliged. "Malfoy's going to get that poor animal killed, just so his father can have his revenge on Dumbledore."

"And you had absolutely nothing to do with it, of course," Snape said silkily.

Harry frowned, not understanding where Snape was going with that.

"You showed him up, Potter." Snape enunciated each word, as if explaining something to a small child – or someone not very bright.

"What? No, I didn't," burst out Harry. He was surprised more than anything at that point, puzzled by how Snape could possibly assign any blame to him.

"You showed off, going along with that completely ridiculous assignment Hagrid had set you – and succeeding," Snape went on in that infuriating slow manner.

There were several points Harry wanted to argue at once, which slowed down his response. He wanted to say Hagrid's assignment had not been ridiculous, but then remembered that even Sirius had thought hippogriffs were a bit advanced for third years. That still did not mean that he had done anything wrong.

"So I was better at listening to Hagrid – to my teacher. Is that it?" he finally said. "Malfoy didn't. He did exactly the opposite of what Hagrid had told us to do—"

"He tried to outdo you. After you had succeeded at the task which every other one of your classmates had deemed impossible. Is that not how it happened?" Snape asked silkily.

"Well, if he wanted to outdo me so badly, he should've gone first – should've listened to what Hagrid said."

"But he didn't, because Malfoy's a coward!" Ron came to Harry's defence.

"Or perhaps he had heard what a hippogriff is capable of before that day." At his listeners' outraged expressions, Snape's lip curled. "None of you appreciate the sort of pressure he – and many other Slytherin students – grow up with—"

"So what? That doesn't mean he has a right to being the best!" bristled Hermione.

Snape looked at her with a sneer, set out to give a scathing reply— And Harry was aware that there were things he could respond with that would cause him to walk out. By the way Ron had stiffened next to him, the other boy was feeling similarly. But Snape closed his mouth, looked away.

When he replied, it was in a much more measured tone. "I'm merely saying that the way he's been raised, Draco Malfoy would not have seen an alternative to acting the way he did. At that point, it wouldn't have been his intention to cause harm to the hippogriff – or even Hagrid. It was merely one attempt after another to save face."

A hostile silence settled over them. Harry did not know what he had expected, but he felt disappointment – even anger – settle over him, knowing that Snape was not condemning Malfoy. At least Draco Malfoy. He had not said a word in defence of Lucius Malfoy, at least. It was barely reassuring.

Harry felt the need to argue with Snape, but was not sure what to say. Then the animagus spell occurred to him. It had worked that day for Ron and then Hermione, as they dealt with the issue of Buckbeak. Maybe it was his turn now. He cast the spell.

It did not make him want to speak. If anything, it made him fall silent as he worked, made his thoughts turn inward.

Ambition. That was what Snape had been referring to. Malfoy was ambitious, was raised – expected – to be ambitious by his parents. To be the best. But was Harry not the same? Had the Sorting Hat not pointed it out to him, even if he had tried to convince himself otherwise? He did feel the need to prove himself. And he certainly liked to outdo Malfoy.

Even Sirius had said—

Harry recalled that thought. Sirius had called him over-confident, yes, but that was hardly the same thing as him wanting to show off as Snape claimed.

Could he dismiss Snape's opinion that easily, though? Had he not just today been faced with the realisation that some of Snape's complaints against Lupin might not be completely baseless? It really did mean more work for him, having to brew the Wolfsbane potion every month. Not that that was in any way Lupin's fault.

Harry angrily shook off that thought as well. Snape would not be complaining so much about the workload if he did not hate Lupin in the first place, he was sure.

Harry's train of thought took a detour. They had reached the crucial stage in the brewing process. It was time to add the ground up moonstone. Hermione was undecided whether she wanted to do it, saying that the physically demanding technique was not her forte and she might prefer to watch the first time, even though Snape had told her he would be able to catch any mistakes in time and not let the potion get ruined. Ron was willing to be her stand-in, but clearly did not want to be blamed for any mistakes. She then wanted to go over the steps again, but Snape did not have the patience for that.

"This is time-sensitive, remember? I'll do it this time, then. Maybe by next month you'll have decided which of you has the steadiest hand—"

"I think I do," spoke up Harry.

He had not been aware he would do so. The spell was interfering again. Hermione was regarding him with some surprise – normally his anger at Snape following their argument about Malfoy would have been enough to make him lose interest in anything Snape might be teaching. His silence of earlier must have seemed to his friends to be his usual way to deal with the remaining anger.

Was it ambition that had made him speak just then? That had made him volunteer to ride Buckbeak? And if it was, was it any different from Malfoy's?

There was Hermione's ambition – her need to work as hard as she could, to be the best she could possibly be. Yet, she got embarrassed when being praised and her greatest fear was failing in class. There was Ron, whose parents put so much stock in their children's achievements, and who would love nothing better than to outdo his brothers. Yet, he was Hermione's loyal friend, happy to have her outshine him in every class. The same applied to Harry, himself, it occurred to him, because he was the Boy Who Lived.

Malfoy, on the other hand, thought the success was somehow his due, and if he was outdone, he thought it permissible to blame everyone and everything else – including a poor animal that could not defend itself against the Commitee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. Malfoy must have been aware there would be consequences when he kept insisting his arm hurt. But he had found it more important to get his revenge.

Harry felt such rage well up in him, overwhelming every other thought. Yet, he still did not say anything.

Yes, he decided. He would do what he could to help Hagrid win Buckbeak's case. Sirius might call it over-confidence (although Harry suspected that had a little something to do with Sirius being worried about him), but it was not that. It was not that he was convinced he would succeed – that he somehow deserved to succeed. It was—

He got distracted away from his thoughts again, as Snape directed him towards the cauldron. There was a small fire burning underneath it, the flames a strange blue colour. Harry waved his wand to get the cauldron stirring, holding the powdered moonstone in the left hand. He was not feeling nervous at all, but was not sure if he had the animagus spell to thank for that.

Stirring in the moonstone was all about keeping pace – like in a piece of music. There was the beam of the moonlight reflected on the shiny surface of the potion, constantly disturbed by the stirring. The stirring going one way for a bit, then the other, reversing direction. The moonstone powder, falling in the dark spots, not illuminated by the moonlight. Very much like a piece of music, Harry decided. He could almost hear it. The moonlight, the moonstone, the stirring, all harmonising to turn the potion as it had been before into something new.

Separate voices coming together in harmony.

How had Hermione put it? A fight worth fighting. Yes, that. And Ron's willingness to fight despite understanding so much better than the two of them what they were up against. Maybe even Sirius' help despite his worry.

No, Harry was not trying to outdo anyone, or show anyone up. He was volunteering because he did have a steady hand, he wanted to give Hagrid's lesson a chance, he wanted to save Buckbeak – because when something needed to be done, he was willing to do it. He would step forward and let his voice be heard, let it join the—

"That was very well done, Potter." The quiet voice rang in the room, in the sudden silence.

Harry felt like waking up from a trance. Despite having gone through the process several times already, it still felt strange to him. He was sure he had not imagined the astonishment in Snape's tone, however. Nor had he misheard. Snape was looking at him like he was one of the strange jar creatures in his office.

"It was just keeping pace – a little bit of mechanical—"

Snape's face twisting into a sneer once again stopped Harry.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't refer to advanced potions skills as 'a little bit of mechanical' whatnot. Nor do I appreciate the time and effort that has gone into acquiring that skill – both on your part and mine – being downplayed."

Harry must have shown some of his astonishment at the words, because Snape's sneer dropped, to be replaced by almost a grimace. He looked away. Harry, Hermione and Ron began to pack up as directed, eager to speak to each other in privacy.

It could have been the end of it.

"The thing you Gryffindors fail to appreciate most about Slytherins, is that we don't always have a choice to act as we please. That applies to Malfoy, that applies to the only other Slytherin currently in the castle – which is why I keep telling you not to run into him. I wouldn't want him to do something foolish and get in trouble for it – and it applies to me as well." Here Snape grimaced again. "You three… may even have guessed some of the reasons for that last year." He rushed them through the packing up, then briskly dismissed them, claiming he would be able to handle taking everything back by himself.

Walking back to their common room, Harry began to explain himself to his friends.