Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. No claim is made on the characters or setting, and no material profit is intended or expected.
"You need a haircut," Uncle Vernon barked.
Harry Potter looked up at the black hair sticking just in front of his eyes.
"And don't roll your eyes at me!"
"I wasn't. I was looking at my hair," Harry protested.
"Don't you get smart with ME, young man." Uncle Vernon shook a finger at him. "You rolled your -- your unnatural-colored eyes at me."
Harry didn't think that green was a terribly unnatural color, but there was no point arguing. He did want to get to King's Cross the next morning, as his third year at Hogwarts was about to begin, and it would be better to avoid giving the Dursleys any more excuse to interfere with this than necessary.
All the lights in the house went out.
"HARRY!" Aunt Petunia shrieked into the darkness.
"I didn't do it!"
"Dinner will be ruined.... Poor Dudley, don't worry, we'll find you something to eat...."
Maybe he should try to sneak out and walk there overnight.
Harry pushed his bangs out of his eyes -- he was starting to agree with the Dursleys about his needing a haircut, and only about that -- and was about to walk through the barrier and onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters when all the lights went out. Again.
Now, it was morning, so King's Cross was not exactly plunged into pitch darkness, but it was still noticeable that all the artificial lighting and electrical signs suddenly dimmed to nothing. They came back on with a sort of plaintive buzz after only a moment, flickered a bit, and then died partly away again, still buzzing whinily. Harry thought it sounded like a cross between Dudley and a fly, except that the lights seemed to be working harder.
He hauled back on the cart carrying his trunk to stop it and looked around worriedly, much as most of the other people in the station were doing, and then glanced at the Weasley family, expecting Mrs. Weasley to shoo him and her own children comfortingly on ahead. Instead, she was looking alternately at Mr. Weasley and anxiously around at the crowd.
She was probably worried that the small scroll in her husband's hand, or more likely the miniature quill pen that was scribbling independently on it while he watched with a tiny furrow between his eyebrows, might attract attention.
"Mr. Weasley?" he asked a bit uncertainly.
Ginny was bolder. "Dad, what's going on?"
"There is a problem with the city's ellipticity-- eclecticism-- el--"
"Electricity," Harry said under his breath. He had gotten that far on his own, never mind the scroll.
"Electricity. One that is magical in nature." Mr. Weasley looked grave. "This is serious, very serious. A matter for investigation. I -- shoo! All of you! You mustn't miss your train. I have to --"
"Come with me. Right now," a disembodied voice muttered apologetically from somewhere nearby. Harry jumped. "I'm terribly sorry about showing up like this, -- er -- not showing up like this -- but I had to Apparate here and didn't dare be seen. It's terribly urgent."
"I can see that -- it must be --" The lights dimmed again. "Ginny, boys, go on. Quickly now."
"Do you have Muggle transportation? Something inconspicuous?" the voice asked anxiously.
"Yes, yes, come on!" Mr. Weasley reached as if to take hold of the voice's arm, thought better of it, and began walking very quickly back in the direction of the car. This was not the original enchanted car, which was still running wild in the Forbidden Forest, but it did have a few magical tweaks to make it easier for a wizard to drive. Also to prevent it from falling apart, which usually seemed imminent. It had been very affordable, and there was good reason for this.
Harry noticed that Mr. Weasley did not mention the enchantments on the car. But of course he wouldn't. The invisible voice must be someone else from the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. Harry wasn't quite sure whether power outages resulting from magic were necessarily the result of the misuse of Muggle artifacts, but obviously someone thought so if they were putting Mr. Weasley on the case.
Mrs. Weasley patted his shoulder, then caught Ron's and Fred's and herded them all gently in the direction of the barrier. "You'd all better go. The train leaves in a few minutes. I have to get back to your father." She glanced over her shoulder, then up at the clock. "Quick! Go go go! Be careful! Don't forget to carry a handkerchief and brush your teeth! Remem--"
Her voice faded out as Harry, leaning into his cart, charged onto the platform. They had all run this time, even though they were used to it enough not to be nervous.
"It's good to see yeh all again," Hagrid said happily, dusting off seats covered in some sort of tawny fur and gesturing expansively for his guests to be seated.
The Hogwarts Express was on a slightly different schedule this year, an experimental one so that there was some time between the Sorting and dinner for the first-years to get their things up to the appropriate dormitories and freshen themselves up. Everyone else had had little trouble settling rapidly into their rooms again, so Ron, Harry, and Hermione were taking advantage of the interval to visit the gamekeeper.
"What's your latest monster, Hagrid?" Ron asked a little warily, watching a tuft of fur drift into a candle flame.
"Oh, yeh'll like this one! Come out, Kiffy...." The gruff voice crooned coaxingly as Hagrid looked behind a long bench and patted a sheeted lump until it padded out into the open. The three students were just beginning to be apprehensive about the size when Hagrid turned the sheet back tenderly and a human face looked up at them dolefully from a lion's enormous golden body.
"A sphinx?" Hermione asked incredulously.
"Isn' she a beauty?" Hagrid asked fondly. "The poor thing's mute, though. Can' ask riddles. Makes her awful depressed sometimes."
Indeed, the lovely head was drooping as the mouth moved soundlessly.
"That might be just as well," Hermione muttered. "If it started throwing people off walls.... I wonder if she could ask visual riddles, though?" she speculated.
Hagrid, who had just begun to look offended at the implication that his beloved pet might fling people from walls, brightened at the thought of visual riddles. "Like rebus puzzles, yeh mean?"
The sphinx's head lifted too, light in its gold-brown eyes as they turned adoringly to Hermione. Hermione gulped.
"You, ah, might want to keep her indoors, though. She, ah, might --"
Seeing Hermione flounder, Ron suggested brightly, "She might not be able to tell who can fly or bounce and who can't, and you'd hate for her to make a mistake."
Hagrid looked at Kiffy regretfully, then heaved a sigh. "They're right, gel. Yeh'll have to stay indoors mostly. I'll be sure an' try to give yeh some chances ter run, though." Kiffy rubbed her head against his knee as if the thought of being an indoor sphinx was a perfectly acceptable one. He sniffed a bit, then shook his head quickly. "I'm sorry. Here I am not even offering yeh any tea."
Harry thought that he might have been happier if the tea had been Hagrid's usual rather than tasting vaguely of spinach. He was thirsty from the wizard candy he'd torn into on the train, though, and with his throat parched the time until dinner in the Great Hall stretched before him as a much longer wait than it really was.
"Say, Ron," he asked suddenly, his throat moistened and his mind now in search of some distraction from the flavor, "did -- did you ever get your wand repaired?" He suspected it could be an awfully embarrassing question, especially if the answer was no, but this was about as much privacy with the best guarantee of Draco Malfoy not showing up as they were likely to get.
"I think so." Ron drew his wand out and held it up for inspection. "The Spellotape wasn't working, but I didn't want to have to go back to Ollivander's -- so I lined the broken parts up really carefully and wrapped it in duck tape." There was indeed a band a few inches wide around the middle, where the break had been, that had a luster and color pattern reminiscent of duck feathers.
"Smart, that was!" Hagrid said approvingly. "Spellotape's not meant for wood. But yeh can fix anything with duck tape." He paused to consider. "Well, almost."
"Then you think it should work now?" Ron looked hopefully at his wand. "I haven't had a chance to test it, yet."
"Yeah, should work just fine! Except on healin' spells. Yeh won't want ter use it for that."
Hagrid nodded darkly at the wand. "Don't yeh know what a quack can do ter a healin'?"
"A... quack?" Ron blinked. "It quacks?"
"Muggles call fake doctors 'quacks,'" Harry explained.
"Or real ones who are just incompetent," Hermione added.
"Really?" Hagrid said with interest. "Musta got it from us somehow, then. Do a spell, Ron. Yeh've done a feather before, right?" He fished one off the floor and laid it on the table.
"First year...." Ron eyed the rather ragged feather, shrugged, and gestured with his repaired wand. "Wingardium leviosa."
The feather rose into the air. The wand emitted a raucous quack, and Ron nearly dropped it.
"See," Hagrid said with some satisfaction. "That'd be why I didn' give yeh anythin' breakable. It's fine for everythin' else, but healin' doesn't work so well. None too good for stealth, either, ter tell the truth." He took a long gulp of his own tea, then looked from the cup to the students reproachfully. "Yeh could've told me the tea wasn' right! Let me fix some new."
Harry was walking back across the grounds from with Ron and Hermione, heading for the Great Hall and dinner, when Ron started and stared across the meadow at a small group of black-robed figures. "I think I heard Dad's voice...."
Harry and Hermione both looked. Harry shaded his eyes. "Well, let's go over there."
"Should we?" Hermione asked worriedly.
"Why not? It's Ron's father. And if they wanted to keep it secret -- whatever it is -- they wouldn't be meeting about it in the open with no precautions," Harry replied reasonably.
As they drew closer, something very strange became evident. While most of the group consisted of black-robed witches and wizards -- including Dumbledore, Mr. Weasley, Snape, and Professor McGonagall -- there was one woman there who did not fit. She didn't have a black robe. She was in Muggle clothing.
She was wearing blue jeans and a bright pink shirt; her dark hair was streaked with gray, and there was a peculiar sort of scarf draped over her shoulders.
"What is that thing?" Ron whispered. "It looks like a -- a leather boa or something."
"You mean feather," Hermione hissed.
"Does that look feathery to you?!"
Harry had his own thoughts on the subject, but didn't voice them; he waved at the other two to be quiet. He was busy listening.
"--Traced the problem to its source," Mr. Weasley was saying, "inside a Muggle home. We had to enter, of course. The family inside turned out to be very agitated; it seems their child had been," he paused and pronounced the next word with careful emphasis, "electrocuted. By playing near one of the, the --"
"Electrical outlets," the strange woman put in. Everyone looked at her.
"Electrical outlets," Mr. Weasley repeated. "One of the places they extract this electricity. It's really very ingenious!" He brought himself up short and damped down his enthusiasm. "But dangerous as well," he added. "Very dangerous. So they had had to take their child to the hospital, and when we arrived they were there as well as a neighbor who had apparently come to visit them for, ah, moral support."
"I went over to house-sit, at first. They ran out without locking the door. Then I stayed."
"Of course." Mr. Weasley took a deep breath. "We went to this outlet, and looked at it, and it appeared that the child had jammed some sort of small metal object into it. Now, this was a very delicate situation. First of all, as the child found out, metal objects conduct this electricity. Second, well... I pried it out, very carefully of course, with my wand. Wood doesn't conduct." This last was confided with considerable delight before he went sheepish and proceeded. "The other problem, you see, is that it turned out to be cursed. The object... was this."
He raised his wand solemnly, holding it very carefully horizontal. A small ring perched at the very end of it, glinting in the light and looking rather sinister.
"We used a Memory Charm on the family," he concluded, "and then were on our way."
"And none of this," Snape said acidly, "explains why you brought a Muggle to Hogwarts."
"What's a Muggle?" the woman interrupted.
The wizards all looked at her again.
"A Muggle," Dumbledore explained kindly, "is a nonmagical person. There's nothing really wrong with it; most people are, in fact. Some wizards can be a mite condescending about it, admittedly. Do forgive them. There are always the others such as Arthur here, who find it absolutely amazing how you get along without magic."
Harry suspected that her expression, which he couldn't see, was indescribable.
"And WHY," Snape repeated, "since we are supposed to avoid notice by Muggles, is there one here?"
Mr. Weasley looked unhappy. "Because... she is somehow connected to the charm on the ring. We may need to analyze it more extensively, and going back for her if that became necessary would have been very awkward."
There was a brief silence.
"It was my mother's. Just a cheap trinket-type ring. Something her boyfriend gave her when she was nineteen -- he left without even knowing she was pregnant, so she wasn't especially attached to it, and it was in a box of toy-type junk I gave to my neighbors." She looked sad about that. "I didn't realize there was something he could hurt himself on."
At this point, the leathery-looking scarf shifted on her shoulders, and Ron shouted, drawing looks of astonishment from some of the professors. "SNAKE! That's a snake! Watch out, it's trying to kill her!"
He ran forward -- Harry tried to grab him, but missed -- and pointed his wand, gabbling a spell hastily that for once went in the right direction, demonstrating the efficacy of the duck tape.
The snake stiffened, then slid from the woman's shoulders in a limp coil, feebly trying to catch itself. She caught it and rounded on Ron furiously. "What do you think you're doing? Rex is my pet; he wasn't trying to hurt me!"
Ron looked dazed. "You... have... a pet snake? ...Doesn't it bite?"
"He could, but he won't. King snake, though. No venom," she snapped, dropping to her knees and cradling the serpent, hissing softly to it in between soothing, apologetic murmurs.
"Why?" Ron asked incredulously.
"Why would you want a pet snake?"
Jessica raised her head for a moment and said coolly, "Because." Then she turned back to making soothing noises at her pet, obviously not planning to give any further explanation.
"Parselmouth? Is she -- did your dad bring back a Muggle Parselmouth?" Hermione muttered incredulously to Ron at the next hiss. "Is that even possible? Wait -- Harry? Is she really speaking Parseltongue?"
Harry listened intently. "I don't think so," he said after a moment. "Just a second...." He eyed the snake and asked it, just in case he wasn't understanding it as well from the Muggle woman, and then shook his head and reported, "It -- er, Rex -- says he doesn't really understand her."
"Well, he's doing about as well as us wizards, then."
Harry blinked. He must have been hearing things; he could have sworn that mutter was from one of the professors, and it sounded like Snape. "Er -- that is, he says she's mostly speaking gibberish. She says something halfway intelligible every once in a while, but it usually seems to be pretty much an accident."
"Oh." Everyone relaxed slightly, except for the Muggle woman, who was still fussing over her pet.
She looked up after a moment, as the snake began to revive after a counterspell from Dumbledore, and stared straight at Harry. "Did you just talk to Rex?"
"I -- yes. I'm -- a Parselmouth." He paused, then remembered she was a Muggle and added, rather lamely, "It means I can talk serpent-language. Um... I'm Harry Potter, and this is Ron Weasley, and this is Hermione Granger. Ron didn't mean to hurt your pet, really. He thought it was attacking you."
She sighed, looked down at Rex, then looked up again and offered a hand. "Jessica Blake. And I'm having the strangest day of my life; sorry if I'm a little off."
"It is kind of strange here at first. Nice, though." Only she couldn't stay, could she? "Can we help any?" Harry looked up at Dumbledore hopefully, and received a nod of permission as the other adults turned toward each other in conference.
Jessica Blake looked back over her shoulder, then sighed. "Well, everyone else seems too distracted to be informative.... Answer a few questions?"
"If I can," Harry replied carefully.
"Are you really a Muggle?" Hermione broke in, before Jessica could ask any. "I can't believe Mr. Weasley brought you here...." Harry wondered what Hermione would think of the enchanted car. On second thought, he didn't.
"Is it just me, or does 'Muggle' sound very rude?"
Harry somehow didn't think that had been what Jessica had originally planned to ask them.
"Oh, no," Ron interrupted eagerly. "It's just the regular word. There are insulting ones, but some people will insult anything. Slytherins especially." He paused, looked down at the snake in her lap, and looked daunted.
"They're against Muggle-born students being allowed to matriculate, for one thing," Hermione said coldly, though quietly, with a glance at Snape. "They refer to it as having dirty blood. Mudblood."
Jessica frowned. Ron grimaced at the term and then snorted audibly. "It's not like that makes any sense. Hermione's parents are Muggles and she's one of the best students here."
Hermione sniffed. "One of?"
"It's really annoying," Ron added blithely. "Anyway, it's just stupid people who use that. Most wizards have Muggle in them not too far back, even if they won't admit to it."
Jessica -- Harry wasn't sure if he ought to call her that, since she seemed to be about Mr. and Mrs. Weasley's age, but he wasn't sure whether she was a Miss or a Mrs. Blake and she somehow seemed like a Jessica -- looked slightly bewildered.
He could understand this. It seemed to be the practice when bringing someone in from the Muggle world to Hogwarts to dump information over their heads and just hope some of it stuck. And being a Muggle, she probably did feel a little insulted by some of it. He didn't mind insulting some Muggles, but she wasn't like the Dursleys. She talked to him -- and Ron and Hermione -- like people, even if she was a little irritable.
"Like I said... it's confusing here, but nice," he said aloud. "I guess you'll be here for dinner -- it ought to start soon -- just watch out for the Slytherins."
Harry looked down at Rex. Jessica was stroking beside one of the unblinking eyes.
"They're one of the houses. Their symbol's a snake, but you don't want to sit with them." Gryffindors might look askance at the pet serpent, but Harry didn't even want to think about sending a perfectly nice Muggle to Draco Malfoy's table.
"Actually, Harry, I believe we shall seat her amongst the professors, as our guest," Dumbledore announced, "while we continue trying to fathom her connection to this ring."
The ring glittered without comment from the end of the wand.