Disclaimer: Harry Potter was made on purpose, JK Rowling said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of Harry Potter, divide it by his diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another Harry Potter, drawn kilometres downstream of the decimal point.

Chapter 31

In December, Hermione was relieved to get several lucky breaks. First, there were no more attacks for a month, so she didn't feel quite as awkward telling her parents she wanted to stay at school for Christmas. Second, the raid of Snape's private potions stores went off without a hitch. Oh, Snape probably had a good idea of who had blown up Goyle's cauldron and what had been taken, but he could prove anything. And third, the school announced the formation of a duelling club.

"Finally!" Hermione said. "Maybe we can learn some advanced Defence, now."

"What, you reckon Slytherin's monster can duel?" Ron said.

"Well, anything could help, Ron. I wonder who's leading it. I hope it's Professor Flitwick. He always likes talking about his days on the professional duelling circuit."

"Just as long as it's not Lockhart," Harry said.

But to Harry's dismay, it was indeed Professor Lockhart who was leading the Duelling Club, along with his "assistant", Professor Snape.

Snape kicked Lockhart's arse.

All he used was a Disarming Charm, and Lockhart tried to brush it off as intentional, but Hermione was having a hard time believing it, as much as she wanted to. There were only so many "mistakes" she could accept on Lockhart's part.

Things didn't improve after that, as Professor Snape instructed Hermione to duel Millicent Bulstrode, and she somehow wound up painfully trapped in a headlock until Harry pulled the larger girl off of her. Next, Snape put Harry and Malfoy up on the platform and whispered something in Malfoy's ear. Lockhart looked like he was trying to show Harry a spell, too but he dropped his wand. Harry looked lost as Lockhart counted them off: "Three—two—one—go!"

Malfoy made a great flourish with his wand and yelled, "Serpensortia!" With a bang, a long, black, venomous snake shot from the end of his wand and landed on the platform, raising its head to strike at Harry. Hermione (and most of the rest of the crowd) backed away from it fast. Harry stood motionless, obviously having no idea how to stop it.

"Don't move, Potter, I'll get rid of it," Snape said lazily.

"Allow me! Alarte Ascendare!" Lockhart brandished his wand, but, far from getting rid of the snake, he merely launched it high into the air and enraged it. The snake started toward the nearest target, Justin Finch-Fletchley, with fangs bared.

And then it happened.

Harry opened his mouth, but no spell, indeed, no words came out of it, only a strange hissing sound. There was something wrong about it—something unnatural, like it wasn't quite a normal part of reality, or at least wasn't a normal part of Harry.

But the snake stopped.

Hermione had certainly never seen or heard it before, only read vague descriptions, but that clinched it. Harry was speaking Parseltongue, and from her extensive reading about the Chamber of Secrets, she knew that ability was what Salazar Slytherin had been famous for. But Harry couldn't possibly be the Heir of Slytherin. She knew where he was during both attacks. She was there for the first one.

Harry actually looked happy with his…ability, that is, before Justin panicked and ran from the Hall, and he noticed all the looks of horror directed his way. Ron quickly grabbed him and dragged him from the Hall. Neither he nor Hermione spoke until they made it all the way up to the Common Room, and Ron shoved Harry into a chair and whispered, "Why didn't you tell us you were a Parselmouth?"

"A what?" Harry said in confusion.

"A Parselmouth! You can talk to snakes."

"Yeah. So?" Harry replied. "It's not like I meet that many snakes. I mean, I accidentally set a boa constrictor on Dudley once, but that's the only other time it's happened."

Hermione's mouth dropped open slightly. Harry's story really wasn't all that surprising. Being muggle-raised, and not very well at that, he probably wouldn't know anything about it.

"You set a boa constrictor on your cousin?" Ron said worriedly.

"By accident," Harry repeated.

"But you just set that snake on Justin…"

"What?! No! I told it to back off. Couldn't you tell?"

"No, we don't speak Parseltongue, Harry," Ron told him. "It sounded like you were egging it on or something. It just sounded like hissing. I bet that's what Justin thought."

"But that's ridiculous. I was speaking English…wasn't I? Hermione, I was speaking English, right?"

She shook her head and whispered: "No, Harry. It just sounded like hissing to me—probably everybody else, too. Only Parselmouths can understand it."

"Okay, so I'm a Parselmouth. What's the big deal?"

"Harry," Hermione said gently, "the most famous Parselmouth in history was Salazar Slytherin." Harry gaped at her, finally grasping the horror of the situation. "That's why Slytherin House's symbol is a serpent."

"Exactly," Ron continued, "and now everybody's gonna think you're the Heir of Slytherin."

"But I'm not…!" Harry kept looking between the two of them uneasily. "You know I'm not," he said fiercely.

"We know that, Harry—or at least we know you didn't attack Mrs. Norris and Colin," Hermione replied. "But Salazar Slytherin lived a thousand years ago…you could still be descended from him."

Harry looked fearful, realising that she might be right. "But…how?"

"Just do the maths. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on—twice as many ancestors per generation, right?"

"Uh, I guess," Harry mumbled, but he didn't look like he wanted to be convinced.

Hermione tried anyway: "It's called exponential growth. If you go back ten generations, you have over a thousand ancestors—twenty generations, a million—thirty generations, a billion, which is more than the muggle population of Europe at the time, and it's still only seven or eight hundred years ago. At that point, you start having duplicate ancestors from distant cousins—fourth and fifth and tenth cousins—marrying. Go back a thousand years, and even the purebloods are probably related to everybody else. Ron could be descended from Slytherin. I could be descended from Slytherin. In fact, I might be more surprised if I'm not. Purebloods can't stay pure forever."

"But the 'real' Heir of Slytherin is probably a Parselmouth," Harry said glumly.

"But we know you didn't do it, and you wouldn't do it," she insisted. "Honestly, the fact that you're so worried about it is a good thing."

Harry wasn't consoled, though. He was brooding for the rest of the evening and all day the next day. Maybe he wasn't so worried about possibly being the Heir of Slytherin, but he was definitely worried about what everyone else would think. Hermione did her best to give him some space, hoping he would come around after a while. It was probably wishful thinking, given how stubborn Harry was, but she was getting tired of his attitude.

As Herbology was cancelled that day due to inclement weather, Hermione suggested a game of chess with Ron. It had been a while since they played, and he eagerly accepted. Hermione had been putting up a tough fight the last few times they'd played with the Queen's Gambit and other standard openings, but the best she'd been able to manage against him was a draw. She thought she was doing pretty well in this game, though, and to her relief, Harry left halfway through to go and find Justin and explain things.

In fact, she had just managed to push Ron into an advantageous endgame when there was a commotion at the portrait hole. Everyone looked up to see Katie Bell tumble into the Common Room, yelling, "There's been an attack! There's been an attack!"

At once, there was a commotion of jostling and shouting as people mobbed Katie, trying to get the story out of her. Hermione's heart started pounding. Katie spotted her and Ron and sought them out: "Granger! Weasley! They think Harry did it."

"What?" Ron said in disbelief.

"No!" Hermione cried.

"They found him at the scene. Hagrid swears it wasn't him, but Dumbledore's talking to him now."

"It c-c-couldn't have b-been Harry," Hermione stammered. "W-we were with him when the first attack happened."

"Who was petrified?" Ron said. Both he and Hermione feared the answer.

"That Hufflepuff from last night—" Katie said, to gasps from the Common Room. "Justin Finch-Fletchley…and Nearly-Headless Nick!"

Hermione covered her mouth with her hands, not just from horror but also a sudden spell of nausea, dizziness, and sweating. She started trembling all over and then, with a single "Eep!" of shock, bolted from the room and up the stairs. She didn't even go all the way up to her own dorm, she just ran in the first dorm and then into the bathroom, finding it mercifully empty, and locked herself inside.

Somewhere in a distant, dissociated corner of her mind, part of her brain was thinking, Oh my God, I'm having a panic attack. The rest of her brain was racing at a mile a minute, struggling to put any coherent thoughts together.

Nearly-Headless Nick? What could possibly petrify a ghost? What could even hurt a ghost? And Justin! Was the Heir trying to frame Harry? Was he targeting people close to him? Was it Malfoy? Was she next? She sat there for she didn't know how long, cowering in the corner of a bathroom that wasn't even hers. I was like last year all over again.

Draco Malfoy was out to get her, she thought. And if he was the Heir of Slytherin, and if no one could catch him or figure out how he was doing it, she was sure it was only a matter of time. In the best case, she would lose the next several months of her life and probably have to repeat her second year at whatever other school her parents would send her to since they would certainly never let her come near this place again. But deep down, she knew—she knew—that Malfoy wouldn't hesitate to kill her if he could get away with it. Could you cut the throat of someone who was petrified? If not, there were surely plenty of bloodier—NO! She couldn't think about that. She was scared enough as it was. Thinking about that would only make it worse.

But what was she going to do? She could only leave the castle at Christmas and Easter. She was already committed to stay for Christmas to finish the Veritaserum, and she'd miss her exams if she left at Easter, but staying in the castle with Draco Malfoy a minute longer than she had to suddenly sounded like a very bad idea.

She was startled by a frantic knock on the door.

"AHHHH!" she screamed.


"Who is it?" Hermione said, groping for her wand.

"Just open up!" the other voice yelled back. It sounded as frightened as she did.

Wand at the ready, she staggered to her feet and opened the door just a crack to peak outside. "Ginny?" she said in surprise.

It was only then that Hermione realised that the room she had run into in a panic was the first-year girls' dorm. Ginny didn't even respond to her. She just forced the door open and pulled Hermione out of the bathroom. She didn't look good. Ginny's face was chalk-white, her robes and hair were dishevelled, and she was sweating and shaking worse than Hermione was. Once Hermione was out of the way, she ran inside and locked the door. Within seconds, Hermione could hear the sound of Ginny losing her breakfast. She didn't blame her. She may not have been targeted as a pureblood, but the whole thing was still pretty horrifying. She waited uneasily for a few moments, but when Ginny didn't immediately emerge, Hermione decided she wasn't in a condition to help and went up to her own dorm.

Dear Mum and Dad,

I changed my mind. I'm coming home for Christmas, and I'm not sure if I'm going back, either. Could you please write to Beauxbatons and ask for the forms for a transfer student?

There was another attack here, and this time, it was even worse. A Hufflepuff boy in my year was petrified, and so was a ghost. A ghost! I have no idea how that's even possible. No one does. I still think Draco Malfoy is behind it, or at least in on it. I'm sorry to sound so hysterical, but I honestly think he wants to kill me. I know that sounds hard to believe of a twelve-year-old, but his family is basically wizard Nazis.

I'm sorry. I just can't take it anyone. I'm getting paranoid and having panic attacks; I can't go anywhere alone anymore, and I need to get out of this school. I don't want to abandon my friends, but I'm no good to them petrified or worse.

Love from Hermione

Dan and Emma Granger read and reread over the letter in horror, wondering what had happened to Hogwarts being a safe place.

"Something's really got to her," Dan said, wrapping his arm around his wife.

"Can you blame her?" Emma replied. "Her friends are being attacked by a monster that nobody knows who or what it is."

"I don't blame her, Emma. I think she's doing the smart thing. It's just that she was nearly killed by a mountain troll, and then her teacher was murdered in front of her, and she was still eager to go back. Now, she can't bear to stay there any longer."

"I think it's hitting closer to home, now. Even if this Malfoy kid isn't the one attacking students, she's apparently still being targeted for her heritage. It's a shame, I know. She's been getting on so well with her friends and especially that Professor Vector. That night when we were at the Weasleys'…" Emma was close to tears. "I hadn't seen her happier for a long time." She buried her face in Dan's shoulder.

"I know, dear, I know," he whispered. "But at least she'll be safe. And she came to it all on her own. We're certainly never going to turn her down on that."

Hermione knew she had preparations to make, and she only had a week to do it before the Express took her back to London, maybe for the last time. Having a plan and knowing her responsibilities to that plan had largely pushed away the panic attacks for the moment. She was back in her determined mode.

The first step was to get Myrtle's bathroom ready. It took every piece of glassware in her potions kit to build and test a working chemical still without relying on transfiguration that she didn't trust to be reliable. She would have to use her partner's kit in class on Thursday and buy a new one over break. Her parents wouldn't like that, but there wasn't much choice in her mind. She had reshaped the glass pieces with conjured fire, working almost entirely from theory. It only worked so well when she tested it with water. She would probably lose a lot of the liquid, but it was enough. The Veritaserum was still on schedule.

She still talked to Myrtle when the ghost was in a talkative mood. Since the last attack, though, she was well aware that her questions had taken a morbid turn, asking about her "life" as a ghost. Myrtle seemed to like the attention, which only fed the unhealthy cycle, and the more Hermione dug into it, the stranger and more disturbing the afterlife seemed.

"Myrtle…" she asked as she was putting the finishing touches on her setup, "have you ever thought about…finishing your schooling?"

"Excuse me?" the ghost said indignantly. "I can't do that very well when I can't even cast a spell with this stupid wand." She pulled a ghostly wand from her robes and waved it around, to no effect.

"I know that. It's just that I thought you could still go to the lectures. It would give you something to do."

"Why would I want to do that?" Myrtle sniffed. "I like it in here."

But you're miserable in here, Hermione thought, but what she said was, "Well, if you're going to haunt a school, you might as well learn something."

"What's the point? It's no good to me."

"Come on, Myrtle, you're a Ravenclaw, aren't you. 'Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure.' Isn't that what you say?"

"It was…once…a long time ago," she mumbled. "But it's so tiresome to remember anymore…"

Hermione's eyes narrowed. Her memory was sparked with something she'd read weeks earlier, but it wasn't coming to her through all her more pressing concerns. She'd have to look it up if she ever got another chance. "I'm sorry, Myrtle, I still don't understand ghosts that well," she said, "but isn't there something you'd like to do besides spend all your time in here?"

Myrtle sniffed again: "Not really. There's no one to make fun of me in here, besides Peeves. And you've at least tried to be nice to me. It's not so bad here."

Hermione thought that just sounded depressing, and she didn't think Myrtle would appreciate what she had to do next: "Well, I'm really sorry, but I'm not sure if I'm coming back after Christmas. I hope you can understand with this Heir of Slytherin business. I mean, he even got Nick."

"Oh, go on, save yourself," Myrtle said mournfully. "Don't worry about me. No one will ever bother coming after me in here again. I don't see why you're so frightened now. These kinds of things have always been going on here."

"Huh? What are you talking about?" Hermione said. But Myrtle had already dived back into her toilet. Hermione just chalked it up to Myrtle being her moody self and took her leave.

She'd begged Harry, and he'd loaned her his invisibility cloak so that she could come and go to Myrtle's bathroom on her own without fear of being found by the Heir. She hadn't been out in the halls alone without it once since Justin was attacked. Putting the cloak on, she wandered invisibly through the corridors, looking for the two people she needed to help her. It wasn't hard.

"Make way for the Heir of Slytherin! Seriously evil wizard coming through!"

The Weasley Twins were escorting Harry through the hallways, mocking everyone who ran and hid from him thinking he really was the Heir. Ironically, it seemed to be the only thing that cheered Harry up, so they'd been doing it all week, despite Percy and Ginny both telling them to cut it out.

"Watch out, he'll call all the adders into the castle for the winter," Fred said.

Hermione ducked behind a statue and removed the cloak. "Psst. Harry," she called.

Harry looked her way, and she caught his eye.

"Here's your cloak, Harry," she whispered. "Thank you. I've got everything set up, now."

"No problem, Hermione. You're sure you can't stay?" Harry said sadly.

"No, I'm sorry, but I barely made it through this past week."

"Planning a secret tryst with the enemy?" Fred snuck up behind them.

"Not with Harry," she said sharply. "It's you two I need."

Fred's and George's eyebrows vanished into their hair. "And just what kind of services—" George started.

"—might we be able to provide to you, Miss Granger?" Fred finished.

"I'll show you. Come on, follow me."

Fred and George gave each other enquiring looks and went after her as she led back to Myrtle's bathroom.

"A girls' bathroom?" said Fred. "Why you cheeky little—"

"Oh, get your minds out of the gutter…I'm…I'm planning something much more nefarious than that."

That got their attention: "This is gonna be good, George."

"Yes, we might get pranked into next week, but it'll be good," he replied.

Hermione sighed: "Just look." She opened the stall door, showing them the cauldron.

"Oh my," George said. "Why, you're brewing illicit potions, and is that a still."

"Yes. I had to jury rig it myself since I couldn't very well buy one."

"Of course she did, Fred."

"Of course she did. So…if we brought you some Butterbeer…"

She glared at Fred: "It's not a very good still. It's not worth the effort."

"Alright, oh great Potions Mistress," Fred replied, "and just what are you brewing?"


Fred's and George's jaws hit the floor. "You're taking the mickey out of us," they said in unison.

"Nope. Here are the instructions I copied out of Moste Potente Potions." She held up her notebook. "If all goes well, it should be ready on Christmas day."

George snatched the instructions from her hand and looked them over: "Bloody hell, she's not kidding. She really is making Veritaserum."

"This is nutters," Fred said in astonishment. "It's seventh-year stuff: a whole month to make it, distill it at the end, and some of these ingredients…jobberknoll feathers, devil's trumpet, and where on earth did you get ground fire crab shells?"

"Stole them from Snape."

The Twins' jaws hit the floor again, and they both threw their arms wide and exclaimed, "Marry us!" before grabbing her in a hug that lifted her off her feet.

"Augh!" She pushed them away. "Can you please be serious?"

"But this is the most incredible thing we've seen all term," Fred countered. "You, Miss By-the-Book."

"Miss Rule Follower," George joined in.

"Miss Goody Two Shoes.

"Brewing illicit potions in a bathroom."

"And stealing from Snape, now. Are you feeling alright, Hermione? You seem a little feverish." Fred laid his hand on her forehead.

She swatted it away, yelling, "No, I am not alright! I'm bloody terrified!"

And at that, Fred and George finally turned completely serious as they saw Hermione shaking in fear and clearly trying not to burst into tears. "It's all these attacks on muggle-borns," she sniffed. "And no one can seem to do anything about them. I'm…I'm scared to leave my dorm anymore, and…and I just know Malfoy's out to kill me." The Twins got angry looks on their faces at that. "This potion is for him—to find out what he knows about the Heir of Slytherin."

Understanding dawned on their faces. "So you want us to find a way—" Fred started.

"—to slip Malfoy some of this potion," George finished.

"Yes, but more than that. I'm going home for Christmas. And I…I might not come back." Fred and George gasped. "I might transfer to Beauxbatons for the spring. I need you to finish making the potion for me."

The Twins gasped again. "But we couldn't—" George said.

"Yes you can. I remember those animal sound potions you used a few weeks ago. Snape may hate you more than anybody, but those were pretty advanced. Please? You two are the only people I trust to finish the potion correctly and keep it a secret. I need someone to help me or I'm going to go mad, here!"

Suddenly, George grabbed her trembling form and wrapped his arms around her, and Fred patted her on the back. She slumped between them, crying softly into George's robes. "There, there, Hermione," said George. "We won't let anything happen to you. You just tell us how to get that little ponce."

"Yeah, nobody messes with our Hermione," said Fred. "We'll take care of him for you."

Their Hermione? she thought. It was strange, but she thought she actually rather liked it. As much trouble as they caused, they had always been really good to her in their own way, almost like having older brothers of her own. Ron and Ginny didn't know how good they had it, she decided.

"Thank you," she whispered once she collected herself. "Thank you so much."

"No problem," said Fred. "We like your style. And we owe you at least that much for expanding our knowledge of the castle."

"Right, so what's the plan?" said George.

Hermione handed them several pieces of paper: "First, finish the potion. I wrote out all the steps for you here and when they need to be done, including how to work the still."

"Alright…yeah, I think we can do this," Fred said, looking over the instructions.

"Oh, easily," George said. "If Snape were this clear, people might do better in his classes."

"Nah, he'd just find another excuse to flunk people."

"Ahem," Hermione interrupted. "Once the potion is ready, you need a way to get it to Malfoy and interrogate him without anyone finding out. I already let Harry and Ron in on this, so you can get their help. I think I can trust that bit to you."

"Naturally," said Fred. "Those kinds of plots are our speciality."

"Hmm…" George was thinking. "It might be harder than it sounds, though. Even if we have foolproof disguises, a rich pureblood like Malfoy's gonna recognise he's been given Veritaserum. How do we keep him from telling what happened?"

"Oh, that's the easy part," Hermione said with a small smile. "Just give him a Forgetfulness Potion."

The Twins looked at each other nervously. "Um, I'm sorry Hermione, but I think you must've read one of your books wrong," George said.

"Yeah, a Forgetfulness Potion just makes someone ten times as forgetful than normal so they forget all their appointments and where they put their keys," Fred told her.

"I know that," Hermione replied, "but if you give him a Sleeping Draught with it, that'll take care of that problem. People don't normally remember the last few minutes before they fall asleep, anyway, because the hypnagogic state before falling asleep wipes out long-term memory formation. So if he's ten times as forgetful, he won't remember the past half hour."

Fred and George exchanged another nervous, wide-eyed glance. "Um…just how do you know that, Hermione?" asked George.

"My parents are dentists, remember? They had to take pre-med at university, so they have the muggle equivalent of basic Healer's training."

"George," said Fred, "why do I get the feeling our little Hermione could mess us up beyond all belief?"

"Probably because she can. A future spellcrafter and potions mistress with Healer's knowledge in her pocket—that's a dangerous combination."

Hermione hadn't particularly thought of that before—and she didn't really want to think about it now, but it was true. Exploiting medical knowledge could easily be a way to come up with lots of nasty curses. She sincerely hoped she would never need to do anything like that. "Well, luckily, I'm not planning on messing you up," she said, "although there are a few things I want to clarify."


"Such as?"

"Well…I'm not going to tell you not to keep any Veritaserum for yourselves."

"You're not?" the Twins said in disbelief.

"No, I'm not, because I know it's a waste of time. I'm just going to tell you that this is straight-up illegal, and if I go down, I'm taking you with me." And at that point, the Twins saw the same fire in her eyes that Harry and Ron had seen weeks earlier. They nodded fervently.

"And that means you can't be using it to get blackmail information or for pranks or anything like that, and you should be very careful asking Malfoy anything that's not about the Chamber of Secrets, or he might start asking questions about how you found out later."

"Hmm, that's a good point," George said.

"Kinda puts a damper on things," replied Fred.

"Still, we might be able to think of one or two discreet uses for the stuff," George said. "But don't worry, we'll save you a vial, too."

"It's the least we could do with you giving us this windfall," added Fred.

"Thank you," Hermione said. "I don't know if I've told you this, but you're good friends, even when you're really annoying."

"Careful, Hermione," said Fred. "Flattery might get you somewhere."

"Was there anything else you needed?" asked George.

"Well, there was one more thing you could do for me," Hermione said.

"Name it," the Twins said together.

"Come up with me to the elves' Common Room? I need to talk to them before I leave, but I don't want to go anywhere alone."

Fred and George laughed, and it was all she could do to keep them from escorting her to the Great Hall arm in arm. They climbed the small staircase to the elves' quarters (to much grumbling from the tall boys) and made it to their Common Room.

To their surprise, they weren't the only students there. Luna Lovegood was in the Common Room playing a game of Exploding Snap against Sonya while a small elf girl braided her long, stringy, blond hair.

"Hello, Hermione, Fred, and George," Luna said dreamily, looking up from her game. "Thank you for showing me where the elves live, Hermione. They're quite fascinating, don't you think?"

"Um, yes, they are," Hermione said, surprised that Luna was making more sense than usual.

"Are you alright, Hermione?" she asked. "You look like you lost a fight with an aquavirius maggot."

And it was gone again. "Oh, I'm alright—mostly," Hermione said wearily as she sat down at the table. "Deal us in?"

Sonya reshuffled the cards with practised speed, and Hermione tried to watch closely to make sure she didn't stack the deck. She wouldn't put it past that one. Luna was humming to herself. However, Hermione was soon just staring into space.

"Is something being wrong, Miss Hermione Granger?" Sonya asked.

"Well, I…changed my plans," she replied softly. "I'm going home for Christmas, now."

"Ah, it is good to be spending time with your family, miss."

"Yes, but I'm not sure if I'm coming back."

Sonya dropped the whole deck of cards, which exploded with a loud crack and flew all over the table. The little elf girl jumped and hid behind Luna. "You is leaving Hogwarts, miss?" Sonya said in horror.

"I might be—at least until they catch whoever is behind these attacks. I'm sorry, I don't want to leave any of you, but it's muggle-borns who are being targeted, and I think I've hit my limit of being in danger. It was hard enough to convince my parents to let me come back after last spring."

"But…but you has been so kind to we elves, miss," Sonya sniffed. "No student has come to visit the elves so much in a very long time."

"I know, and I'll miss you, too, Sonya. If someone can do something about these attacks I'll definitely come back, but…but I'm not sure I can until then." She felt guilty—and selfish—but try as she might, she couldn't think of anything else to do. She was very grateful that Harry, Ron, and the Twins all understood, even if they didn't like it either. (Ron took some real convincing.)

"If you is scared, miss, we can be watching out for the monster," Sonya offered.

"No! No, Sonya, please don't put yourselves in danger for me—any of you." She looked around at both the elves and her fellow students. "It can't go on forever. I just hope they can catch the Heir of Slytherin before anything worse happens."

"So do we, Hermione," said Fred.

"Of course, we might have some say in that," added George.

"In a controlled fashion, of course," Fred concluded.

"Just keep each other safe, alright? For me?" Hermione said.

"Awww, our little Hermione cares about us," said George.

"How thoughtful of her," Fred replied with a goofy grin.

Hermione sighed heavily: "Let's just play."

But Sonya wasn't giving up quite yet. "Miss Hermione Granger…" she said timidly, "if you is wanting, Sonya can puts an Elf-Trace on you."

"A what?"

"We elves puts a Trace on our masters using our bond of service so that elves can come when our masters calls, miss. Since you is a student at Hogwarts, Sonya can put a Trace on you through her bond to the school, miss, and you can be calling Sonya for help if you is wanting it—if Sonya is not on duty, that is."

"You don't have to do that Sonya…" Hermione said, but when she saw the elf's pleading face, she couldn't bring herself to say no. "Okay, if you want to, I won't stop you, but I don't know that I'll use it, even if I come back. I still don't want you to get hurt."

"Thank you, Miss Hermione Granger." Sonya snapped her fingers, and Hermione felt a tingling sensation running down her spine. "It is being done, miss."

Now that Sonya was as satisfied as she was going to be, she dealt out the cards again. Play was fast and fierce with the elf and the Twins in the mix. Luna also proved to be surprisingly good at the game. Hermione could play the odds, but she wasn't as much of a strategist as the others, and she struggled to hold her own. Even so, it was fun. She was glad she could at least get in one more fun afternoon before the holidays.

For a while, the little elf-child was excitedly hopping around and working on Luna's hair, oblivious to the rest of the conversation, until, at one point, she squeaked, "Miss Loony Lovey-good, your hair is being done! You sure is having a lot of it!"

"Thank you, Smidgen," said Luna, "but it's Luna Lovegood," she said slowly.

"Loo-nuh Lov-eh-good…" Smidgen sounded out.

"Mm hmm, much better," Luna said happily.

While Smidgen had attempted to braid Luna's hair, she had done it irregularly, in five braids of different sizes. Hermione giggled at her. "Luna, you look like my roommate, Lily, with your hair like that," she said.

Luna tilted her head and replied, "Interesting. Perhaps she also has her hair done by elves. I hope a different hairstyle will confuse the nargles."

Hermione forced herself to admit that it wasn't worth the trouble to ask.

"For homework over break, problem one: compute the arithmantic expansions of the five heraldic colour variants of the Lumos Charm and describe how the modifying elements result in the specific colours. Problem two: prove that the basic Lumos is a simplification of the degenerate Argent form of the Charm and that the Nox Charm may be described as a degenerate Sable variant. And problem three: apply this sevenfold group of modifiers to the Colour-Change Charm; explain your reasoning with particular attention to how the Sable modifier acts differently on the two charms. Happy Christmas. Have a good holiday."

It was a long assignment, but, in Hermione's mind, not particularly difficult. She could already see a rough outline of how the colour terms in the equations worked based on the frequency spectrum of light, and it helped that it was a modification in only one variable. With more variables, the equations could get a lot longer and more complex than the ones muggle students studied, although the actual mathematical tools were the same.

Hermione already knew that the Lumos Charm was described with three spatial variables for the equation of a sphere: x^2 + y^2 + z^2 = B, where B was the brightness of the light. (That had to be taken as a given by the rest of the class, since they hadn't gone into conics in detail yet.) The colour terms just involved adding another quadratic equation in a single variable, f, for frequency, with coefficients based on a certain numerological table.

The tricky part was to apply the arcane rules that translated the arithmantic equations into a wand movement (which was an equation in two variables, or more in complex spells, depending on the hand position) and the rhythm of the incantation (which derived from an equation in one variable). Hermione didn't know that part offhand, but she did know that the colour terms didn't change the wand movement in the Lumos Charm, which was a big clue as to how they worked. On the other hand, the results might not be as simple when applied to the more complex arithmantic expansion of the Colour-Change Charm.

But it was the last Arithmancy class before break, and Hermione didn't know whether or not she would ever get a chance to hand in that assignment. She was dreading telling Professor Vector as much as anyone, but it had to be done.

"Professor…?" she said timidly as the students filed out.

"Yes, Hermione?"

"I…I have to tell you…I don't know whether or not I'll be coming back for the spring term."

"Oh…" Vector understood at once why Hermione would make such a decision, but she couldn't fully hide her disappointment.

"I asked my parents to look into it, and…with what's been going on, I can get a Special Circumstances Transfer to Beauxbatons for the spring term," she continued. "I'm sorry, Professor, I wish it could be different, but…"

"You don't have to apologise to me. I can only guess how hard this is for you. The only person deserving of blame is this Heir of Slytherin cretin." Vector stopped and sighed: "I'll certainly miss you if you don't come back, but I'll at least be happy that you're safe somewhere else."

Hermione felt even guiltier at that. She felt like her favourite teacher's sympathy, on top of everything else, was more than she deserved. She lowered her gaze and muttered, "I guess I'm not much of a Gryffindor."

But Vector put her arm around her shoulders and said, "Hermione Granger, you are one of the bravest girls I know, but no one should have to be half this Gryffindorish at your age, and there's no shame in doing what you have to to keep safe. You proved your colours last spring, and nothing can take that away from you."

"I just feel like I'm letting the Heir of Slytherin win. And I'm worried about all the other muggle-borns who are stuck here, too."

"He's not going to win; I can promise you that. If we have to scour this castle from top to bottom next summer, we'll find Slytherin's monster. Professor Dumbledore has already been implementing additional security measures, starting with asking the ghosts and portraits to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. And you've already heard the recommendation not to go anywhere alone, something which you've been following admirably yourself. And if you do come back after the holidays, all the staff will do whatever we can to keep you and the other students safe. But right now, you need to take care of yourself. You're no good to anyone if you have a nervous breakdown. Go home, Hermione, enjoy your holiday, get some rest, put some space between yourself and Hogwarts for a while, and see how you feel then. And I'll write you if anything changes here."

Hermione whimpered softly and hugged her teacher: "Thank you so much, ma'am. You've been so good to me…"

"You're worth it, Hermione. Never forget that. Now…are you still going to take your exam in vector calculus while you're at home?"

"Yes, I've kept up with that—barely."

"And your potions experiments? Are you still going to work on those?"

Hermione twitched before she realised Professor Vector was talking about her scholarly paper. "Yes, ma'am," she said. "I've drawn enough runes for my parents to try the potion I wanted to use. There are some…complications with the paper, but I hope I'll be able to solve them before long."

"Good. Now, whether I see you in January or not, have a good holiday."

"Thank you, ma'am. You too."

As her favourite student left the classroom, Septima Vector felt a pang in her chest and a mad, wild urge to follow her. But she couldn't leave her post mid-year, especially when her other students needed her. Then, the feeling was quickly replaced with anger. If she ever got her hands on the bastard who drove away the brightest young mind she'd seen in her lifetime, there would be hell to pay.

The reunion at King's Cross was a sombre one. Many students were returning to their parents with downcast and worried faces, or else relief at being away from Hogwarts for a couple of weeks, and there were rumours of other people transferring to Beauxbatons, the Canadian magical school, or even as far away as Australia.

Hermione (though she wasn't the only muggle-born so affected) was in a particularly dark mood. She'd barely been able to talk to her friends from Arithmancy class on the train. She couldn't help feeling like she was leaving them forever, even if she would be back for third year. It hurt like she was leaving a piece of herself behind at that castle—like she should have been braver and fought back instead of going home and leaving the boys to finish the plan that she had started.

When she spotted her parents, none of them spoke to each other. Hermione was still debating what to say to them when her anxiety got the better of her, and she dropped her trunk, threw herself into her mother's arms, and let herself cry for a while like she was a little eight-year-old again.