4th June 1992
"Where are you going now?" came Neville's voice from the corner of the common room.
Harry cursed inwardly. Nothing seemed to be going according to plan. Once they had learnt that the stone was in danger, they had tried to keep an eye on both the entrance of Fluffy's room and on Snape.
Hermione had been assigned to the latter. She had tried to hang around the staff room, under the pretence of meeting with Professor Flitwick. But Snape had found her and dismissed her to come back later. As much as they suspected him, they couldn't tip him off, and so they lost track of the Potions Professor.
Harry and Ron had tried to hang around outside Fluffy's door, checking if the guardian was still doing its job. Once again, however, their plan was foiled when Professor McGonagall had found them and driven them away.
Having no plan to check up further on the situation, they had decided to go and stop Snape themselves. Actually, Harry had decided that he would go and his friends had refused to stay back. They had stayed awake in the common room late enough for the students to empty, before heading out. But again, to their rotten luck, it was not.
"Nowhere Neville. It's nothing. We-We are just stretching our legs," Harry said, trying to sound casual. His companions nodded quickly, but the guilt was evident on their faces.
"You're going out again. You'll be caught, and Gryffindor will be in trouble again," the normally shy Neville spoke angrily. "Haven't you done enough?"
"Why don't you go to bed, Neville? We aren't-" Hermione tried to placate her fellow Housemate, but was interrupted immediately.
"Don't lie to me. You sneaking out for some stupid joke has cost us already-"
"You don't understand, Neville," Harry pleaded. "This-this is important."
Neville was not convinced and took a few steps towards the portrait hole.
"I won't let you do it," he said, reaching in front of the exit, "I'll - I'll fight you!"
"Don't be an idiot!" Ron exploded. "What do you think you're doing? -"
"I think I'm stopping you from breaking any more rules! And don't you dare call me an idiot!" Neville retorted, his fists shaking in anger.
Hermione seemed to be getting impatient and decided to cut the argument short.
"I'm really sorry about this, Neville," she said drawing out her wand and pointing it at Neville. "Petrificus-"
"Petrificus Totalus!" came the rapid cry from behind them, and the spell hit Hermione before she could complete hers. She went rigid, tumbling onto the floor. Harry twisted quickly, his hand reaching for the wand in his robes, but the voice warned them.
"Oh no, you don't." It was Mark, standing below the stairs to the boy's dorm. "Any of you draw your wand, and you'll be down before you know it."
Mark walked towards Harry, his wand still pointed towards the two boys. Neville seemed both angry and relieved at the intervention of his friend.
"Now will you tell me exactly what it is you're going out there for you to justify hexing Neville for?" Mark demanded.
Harry tried to evaluate the situation he was now facing. He was quickly losing time, and Snape would probably have reached Fluffy already. There was no way they would be able to give Mark the slip. Should he tell the truth?
"It's none of your damn business!" yelled Ron. "Why do you have to poke your nose where it doesn't belong?" Harry could make out that Ron was getting distressed, and Mark was quickly losing his patience. Coming to a decision, he spoke.
"It's alright Ron. I think its best we explain." Ron seemed shocked at this but nodded weakly. Harry then turned to Mark.
"You know the forbidden corridor on the third floor? Well, Professor Dumbledore has been hiding the Phi- something there all year. We - We know that Voldemort-" There was a small gasp and shudder from Ron and Neville, but Mark seemed unfazed.
Harry continued, "is looking for it, and Snape is going to steal it tonight since Dumbledore is not in the castle."
A stunned silence followed as both Neville and Mark digested the information.
"We'll come with you"
Harry was surprised. Not just at the words, but by the fact that Neville had spoken them.
"It'll - it'll be dangerous" Harry warned, but he could sense the futility of the words as the left his mouth.
"We'll be careful then," Mark said, his eyes holding a silent conversation with Neville.
As they edged near the forbidden third-floor corridor, Mark wondered how he had managed to land himself in this situation.
He was sneaking out after curfew, going to a section of the castle explicitly forbidden to the students, and possibly attack one of his teachers. Harry, Ron, and Neville were currently at the head of their group, hiding underneath Harry's invisibility cloak, checking if their path was clear. He was following a few steps behind along with Hermione, trying to stick in the shadows.
Mark tried to mentally review all that he had learnt from Ron's head in the common room. Obviously, Harry had not been lying, and Hagrid had told them the things which supported the story. There was a possibility that Harry had lied to Ron and Hermione about his encounters with Snape and Quirrell, and about the time he had spent in the Forbidden Forest, but that was not Harry.
The most surprising part was the fact that it was the Philosophers Stone that was being protected. Ron's memories about the book Hermione had shown them came to his mind. Elixir of Life. Was it possible?
Mark stole a glance at the witch beside him. Hermione was clearly irritated at being stuck with him, and his earlier attack was the most likely reason. Moments after Mark had lifted the spell, she had tried to dissuade him and Neville from coming with but had been outvoted. His musings were interrupted when Hermione whispered.
The five of them crowded outside the door and were surprised to find it ajar.
"Well there you are," Harry whispered, "Snape must have already gotten past Fluffy"
That was it. Actual proof that Harry had spoken the truth. Mark tried to steel himself, his hand fisting inside his pocket. A spare quill and a chocolate frog pack brushed his fingers. Swallowing the nervous lump in his throat, he followed his companions inside the room.
A low rumbling reached his ears before he could take in the sight before him. As his eyes wandered across the three oversized canine heads staring at him, his mind timidly registered the fact that out of the five, he was seeing Fluffy for the first time.
"What's that? Look - near its feet." Marks eyes followed Ron's instruction and came across a small golden instrument half covered by the dog's enormous paw. He recognised it.
"It's a harp."
"Snape must have left it," said Harry. "It must wake up once the music stops. Well, here it goes …"
Mark saw Harry draw a flute from his robe and bring it to his lips. The boy blew on it, and the tune which came out was the most atrocious one Mark had ever heard.
"Do you even know how to play it?" Mark hissed. The growls from Fluffy had now become pronounced; the dog was clearly unimpressed by the performance.
Harry tried to improve his playing but ended up making it even worse. Fluffy was getting impatient, and now becoming more alert. Mark shared the dog's sentiment; he hated a bad tune. Impulsively he reached out and snatched the flute from Harry. Putting it to his own lips, he remembered the one tune Mr Cayley had taught him a few years ago.
As the music started to flow, Fluffy' growls softened, and eventually, the big mongrel dozed off. Once he was sure the dog was sound asleep, he stopped playing and looked at his companions.
"Through the Trapdoor, then."
Neville peered down the trapdoor - all he could see was black.
"There's no way of climbing down, we'll have to drop" Ron whispered beside him, his nervousness evident.
"I'll hold the door open," Neville said, surprising himself with his own bravery. He still couldn't believe the situation he was currently in.
Harry nodded slightly, and after taking a deep breath, jumped in.
"It's alright. There's a soft landing" came the faint voice of Harry after a few moments. Nodding to the others, Hermione went next. She was followed by Mark and then Ron until it was just Neville who remained.
He was surprised when he too jumped into the tunnel beneath the trapdoor with no hint of nervousness and anxiety that he associated with himself. As he fell in, his mind wandered to the revelations that Harry had made earlier in the common room. Harry was going to stop You-Know-Who, and all Neville could think of was his parents lying in 's. There was no way he would let that monster come back to power.
His thoughts were interrupted when he landed with a thump onto something leafy. He found himself in pitch darkness. The only light was coming from the trapdoor above.
"Guys, I'm here." All he heard in reply were muffled voices. A voice, which he reckoned belonged to Ron was the most clearly audible.
"Trap…can't breathe…can't move"
'What?' Before Neville could think about what Ron's words, he found himself immobilised. Something strong had already gripped his legs and he could feel it snaking onto his arms.
"Some sort of vine…" came the weak voice of Harry. "cant concen - dizzy"
'Vine? - Dizzy?' Neville's mind raced to process all the information about the situation he was in. A brief memory of Great Uncle Algie's greenhouse came to his rescue.
"Its Devil's Snare!" he shouted, trying to reach for his wand in his robes. After a brief struggle, he touched the handle and shouted one of the few incantations that he knew well.
A Yellow warmth touched his side as it illuminated the area to his right. The building pressure from the vines around his arms lessened. His eyes wandered to the now illuminated room.
'Bloody Hell' Devil's Snare was one of the most controlled plants in the magical world. Great Uncle Algie was especially proud of the four-foot vine in his greenhouse. Now, Neville found himself surrounded with a vine at least a dozen time's larger. 'Make that twenty times' he added to himself. Now free of his binds, he started moving slowly towards the others.
Five minutes later, all five of them were safely out of the Devil's Snare, illuminated in the bright and warm glow from Neville's wand.
"Thanks, Neville," Harry said weakly, his hand massaging his sore ribs. "Let's move"
Ron followed Harry and the others into the next chamber. His hand was still cradling his throat where the stupid plant had tried to choke him. Thank Merlin Neville had decided to join them. The boy knew his plants well.
As they stepped into the next room, his mind was diverted to the sight before him. Unlike the previous room, it was illuminated by a small white lamp on the ceiling. However, it was not the light which had drawn his attention but the hundreds of sparkly birds flying around the room.
"Will they attack us?" asked Hermione, looking above.
"Probably," said Ron. "They don't look very vicious, but I suppose if they swooped down at once…"
"Even one aiming for our eyes can do a bit of damage," said Mark. "Remember, this is supposed to be a protection for the stone."
Harry had now crept to the door on the other end of the chamber. He tugged at the door but it refused to open.
"Let me try," quipped Hermione, aiming her wand at the door and using the same charm she had used on Fluffy's door that day
"Alohomora." She tried the door again, but to no avail. "I should have known, that was too easy."
"The birds have to come into the picture. Why haven't the attacked us?" Mark spoke, addressing Neville beside him. Harry was now squinting upwards, when suddenly he exclaimed,
"They're not birds! They're keys!"
"Keys?" Ron too examined the sight above him; yes, they were keys.
"You think one of them opens this door?" Mark asked. Harry didn't answer and instead started searching for something in the room.
"Ha! Look - Brooms!" Harry said, "We've got to catch the key to the door!"
"But there are probably hundreds of them!"
Ron approached the door and examined it.
"Judging from the handle, its probably silver - a big old fashioned one like this lock," he said to Harry, who had already clambered onto a broom. Taking his lead, the others were soon floating on broomsticks.
Ron squinted his eyes, trying to search for the key among the hundreds sweeping past him. He saw that the others were not faring much better than him, except for perhaps Harry. The Gryffindor seeker was flying above everyone else, speeding in short bursts. Ron privately marvelled at the manner in which Harry was handling the rickety broom.
"There! - Look - with bright blue wings!" Harry cried. "Its feathers have been crumpled on one side!"
'How in the name of Merlin can he see that' Ron cursed inwardly as he squinted to where Harry was pointing.
"How do we do this?" asked Neville. Ron looked towards the pudgy boy who had surprised him earlier tonight. Not only had he agreed to join Harry, Hermione, and him, but also managed to free them from the Devil's Snare. He had privately doubted Neville's place in Gryffindor along with his own, but now he thought it unfounded.
"As a team," Mark answered. "We are in a closed room, so it will be possible to box the key towards a wall. Hermione, Neville, and I will corner from the sides, you can fly from the top, while Ron can handle the bottom."
Ron swallowed the lump in his throat s his eyes met Mark's. He gave a slight nod despite himself and positioned himself below the others.
The whole manoeuvre must not have taken more than half a minute, but it seemed longer to Ron. According to plan, the four of them moved to corner the winged key as Harry raced after it, managing to grab it near the wall. With a loud cheer, they all descended. Harry handed the key to Ron once they reached the door. Hands trembling, he inserted it into the slot and turned.
AN: Thus we are edging towards the final confrontation of the first year. You may have noticed I changed a couple of things here. To not use Neville to get past the Devil's Snare was a huge missed opportunity by JKR in my opinion. Here the plant is obviously beyond the Herbology OWL (perhaps NEWT) curriculum, and the only way Neville knows about it is his own experience and interest.
Similarly, having Fluffy go to sleep at just a hint of music is lazy writing, and playing the flute on your first time never sounds melodic. I hadn't thought about this scene when designing the characterization of Mark, but it seemed like a ripe opportunity to cash on. Rest assured, his guitar playing and musical skill isn't just a gimmicky thing, but is part of his character arc throughout the three books.
Some of you may think I'm trying to undermine Hermione and her contribution to the story. Her character is an important one in canon (a bit too important but she is JKR's self-insert) and so will she be here. Her clash with Mark is a part of her character arc, and it will evolve over the course of the story. I am also trying to provide a narrative for Ron's insecurities and character, and how he views everyone else around him. This was implicit in canon but missed out by many (mostly the ones who saw the movies)
The next four chapters will finish year one. Again, I'll just be summarizing near canon events. Do enjoy the story, and I'll be happy to respond to any feedback you give me. Please review!