Chapter 20: Year Three
"Hermione!" gasped her mother, putting her mug down and rushing around the table to hug her, Mr Granger right on her heels. "We were so worried about you!" Hermione just let them hold her, too shocked for words. Her stomach tightened, and she forced herself to swallow repeatedly to keep from being sick.
"They told us about… about what you've been doing," Mr Granger said quietly. "We know you think it was the right thing to do, but it's far too dangerous, even for someone as talented as you."
Hermione's eyes darted to Harry fearfully. He'd told them everything?! Was he insane? She itched to draw her wand and Obliviate them all, but her arms were caught in the double-hug.
"We told them how you'd taken it upon yourself to arrest criminals who escaped justice," Harry explained. "And how we worried that you'd try to do too much and end up angering the wrong people. I told Sirius and Dumbledore, and we three put wards on your house, just in case."
"When we detected an intruder, we rushed over and evacuated your parents," said Sirius.
Dumbledore looked down at her with sadness in his eyes. "I took the liberty of performing a Structural Recall Charm before leaving, as well as hiding the destruction from your neighbours. It should prove no difficulty at all for four skilled wizards to return your house to its former state."
It took a moment for their words to sink in. Hermione just stared at each of them, especially Harry. He'd told Dumbledore and Sirius the truth, she knew that; the lies were for her parents benefit. He'd endangered the mission… thrown so much planning out the window…
Harry was responsible for her parents still being alive, while she was responsible for them being in danger in the first place. Without his actions, her family would be dead.
Her knees went weak, and only her parents hands kept her from falling.
Hermione recognised the ceiling above her instantly. It was the room Harry and Ron had shared once, a very long time ago, and judging from its current appearance, it was Harry's new bedroom. She lay on his bed with a blanket, feeling no better than she had before fainting.
Harry's scent was on the pillow, and some of his clothes were scattered around the room, as messy as though an actual twelve-year-old was living here. His desk had school books, parchment and stationery, and Hedwig's cage, which was empty at the moment.
Dumbledore sat on a tall-backed wooden chair beside the bed, knitting something. Hermione couldn't think of anywhere she wouldn't prefer to be. If Harry had truly told the Headmaster everything…
What does he think of me?
"Harry and Sirius are rebuilding your house as we speak," Dumbledore said conversationally, not taking his eyes off the wool. "I think they're both more accustomed to knocking buildings down than raising them up, but between them, they should have no trouble. Your parents are helping them get the layout right. They're very worried about you, but they understand."
Hermione didn't say anything. What could she say? Why did she feel so guilty for doing what was necessary?
"Family is important, more so than a great many people realise," Dumbledore continued. "Harry knows this. Such trauma, at such a young age - it is a wonder he turned out as well as he has. It took the near-destruction of this entire country to make him falter from his exceedingly strong sense of morality – something that would have broken other men within days. It is made even more impressive that he should have no close family to rely on – only his friends."
The Headmaster looked at her for the first time, and she flinched. "It was your time spent among Harry's thoughts that kept you from falling so far, wasn't it?" he asked.
Hermione couldn't deny it, she had been thinking the same thing only a day before. She nodded.
"I had a family, as I'm sure you are aware," Dumbledore returned to the needles. "My brother, Aberforth, and my sister Ariana. Few know about her these days."
"I know," Hermione croaked, before clearing her throat. "I know the whole story. Grindelwald, the duel – everything."
Dumbledore nodded. "You know how far I fell in my youth. My obsessions consumed me, made me think I was making the necessary, if difficult, choices for the greater good. Blindness to my own faults killed Ariana, not the duel. I carry the consequences of my mistakes with me today, a century later. When Aberforth broke my nose at my sister's funeral, I never saw fit to repair it. It seemed fitting to carry around a reminder that I, with all my talent and genius, could still make mistakes. I do not trust my judgements anymore, not without review. I have people around me I trust and who trust me back, who can draw attention to flaws in my reasoning. They do not always know the full scope of my plans, but I have input from someone on each segment."
Laying down the needles and wool, Dumbledore met her eyes once more. "The arrogance of the genius is also Voldemort's biggest flaw – he, like you have done over the summer so far, works alone when possible and always holds his opinion above anybody else's. It is one of the greatest advantages we have over him: he can be manipulated into ignoring the real threats to his power by hiding them behind other objectives he wants to pursue. His diary Horcrux is a prime example of this, provided he is not aware that his Horcruxes are compromised."
Hermione knew what the Headmaster was saying, knew he was correct in his assessment, but the thing that struck hardest was the recurring thought that, had Harry not intervened, she would be an orphan. It was the same thought that had made her faint, and she felt dizzy just remembering it. Jamming her eyes shut, she rolled over so Dumbledore couldn't see her face.
"Harry experienced painful episodes when he began feeling remorse for killing Lucius and Nathanael Malfoy," said Dumbledore. The clicking of needles returned. "After each bout, he began to look healthier, his appetite grew, and he found himself enjoying good moods for once. He told me some of the things you've spoken of in the past year, such as wishing to be innocent again. It is not too late."
"But I don't regret their deaths," Hermione said through gritted teeth. "I didn't kill them."
"Indeed, it appears the only Death Eaters you actually killed personally were Avery, Alecto, Gibbon and Greyback, including those members of his pack. Greyback I would expect no remorse for – but what of the others?"
Hermione sat up suddenly, turning to face the Headmaster furiously. "They're Death Eaters! If you knew what they were capable of –!"
"I have been reliably informed of their capabilities," Dumbledore said firmly, allowing no room to manoeuvre. "I do not ask you to regret killing them for their sake, but for yours."
"You cannot ask a person to regret," said Hermione quietly, looking away. "It doesn't work like that."
"I can ask you to try. Try, Hermione. Try for some remorse."
Hermione flinched. "Don't say that. You can't use Harry's words against me like that. I'm not Voldemort."
"You nearly suffered a terrible loss last night. Only by confronting your flaws can you seek to surpass them. I do not enjoy this, Hermione, but Harry could not bear to do it, and it would not mean the same coming from Sirius. Look at yourself, at what you've become, and ask if more killing will solve our problems. Ask if working alone with no guidance will prove more effective than working with powerful, dedicated allies. Most importantly, ask if the lives of those you love are worth the result you are trying to achieve."
Dumbledore gathered up his knitting supplies and left the room, closing the door softly behind him. Hermione was glad he was gone, because she couldn't take another second of the pain his words inflicted on her. It was worse than the Cruciatus Curse. She knew, somehow, that it wasn't one of the pain episodes he'd mentioned – it was the agony of having firm beliefs and assumed wisdom stripped away by the stark winds of reality, and it chilled her to the core.
Harry and Sirius arrived at the Granger residence wreckage alone. Hermione had just fainted and her parents wanted to wait with her for a bit before coming to help guide the reconstruction. All things considered, the poor Grangers were taking it rather well. Harry even thought he'd spotted a bit of pride when Mr Granger learned his daughter was out every night trying to 'apprehend' criminals – and succeeding, too. Dumbledore had done his best to make it sound more normal than it really was – as though overachievers often tried to do great things before even finishing school, and how many of them felt that their intelligence and talent gave them a responsibility to help people that couldn't wait until they were adults. To a Muggle, it was a decent cover story considering the weirdness of the wizarding world, but to other magical families, the lie would quickly become apparent. That was why Sirius had given some 'street smart' advice to not mention the whole ordeal to anyone, saying that while it wasn't unheard of, it still had a bit of stigma around it that could make more enemies than friends. As for the Granger's reactions to their entire home being destroyed - Harry half suspected a Calming Draught had been slipped into their drinks.
What a mess.
They combed through the rubble and wreckage while cars drove past in the early morning sun. It hadn't been quite as simple as arriving and saving the Grangers – Harry hadn't been about to let the attacker get away without a fight.
That was why Amycus's horribly burned body had to be recovered before the Grangers came to help with the reconstruction. The house had been coming down, and while Harry had meant to only stun him, the man had fallen into his own fire as the roof collapsed on top. It wasn't pretty.
A visit to the list of Death Eaters at the Hollow confirmed that it was likely Alecto's death that put Amycus in the mood for a kamikaze attack. But the thing that worried Harry the most was the speed at which the Death Eater had discovered Hermione's identity and location. Once rebuilt, the Granger home was going to be put under a large amount of magical protection – everything short of a Fidelius Charm.
Sirius always seemed to be able to tell what Harry was worrying about. "We'll find out who leaked her address, don't worry. Can't be many Death Eaters left outside Azkaban."
"Crabbe, Goyle, and Crouch Junior," said Harry. "Crouch Junior is unlikely to be doing much of anything yet, so it must be one of the other two."
Levitating a chunk of armchair out of his way, Sirius hummed thoughtfully. "Neither of those two were ever smart enough to pull something like this. Malfoy used to get the information and send in his hounds to take care of things. Most of the time."
"You think there might be another player? Voldemort?"
Sirius shrugged. "Dumbledore thinks he's definitely hunting for a new host, but with Death Eaters dropping dead left and right, he might think them too dangerous. All I'm saying is we shouldn't underestimate Crabbe and Goyle's resources."
Harry's foot nudged something, and an awful smell wrinkled his nose. "I found Amycus."
"What do you want to do with him?" Sirius crunched his way over, glancing distastefully at the body.
"I suppose we could just transfigure him into a bone and bury it somewhere."
"Did that happen to someone? You know, the last time around?" asked Sirius. "You sounded like it was a familiar method."
"Crouch Senior, by his son." Harry drew his wand. "I'll drop it off in the country somewhere." The corpse shrank and twisted into a long leg bone, which Harry gingerly picked up with a conjured handkerchief. Apparating away, Harry almost splinched himself by changing his mind at the last second. Only muscle memory kept him from losing focus, and in moments he was standing within view of Carrow house. There were a few distant people moving around the building, but Harry was certain they wouldn't be able to recognise him at this range.
"You don't deserve a burial, but I suppose you can at least stay near your sister," Harry said quietly, gouging a small patch of dead, grass from the ground and dropping the bone in. After vanishing the handkerchief, he filled in the hole and Disapparated.
"Ah – Harry, mind giving me a hand?" Sirius asked breathlessly, darting his wand back and forth to keep a raised bit of wall from crumbling. Mr and Mrs Granger had been dropped off by Dumbledore, and they looked around at the destruction with hollow eyes.
"Keep it steady. Did you tap into the Structural Recall spell before standing that up?" asked Harry, moving to help balance the wall.
Sirius blinked. "Ah. Might have forgotten that."
After an hour of work, and with guidance from Mr and Mrs Granger and the Recall spell, they managed to finish the bottom floor. Harry wiped sweat from his brow and squinted up at the sun. It was late morning now, and he hadn't gotten a lot of sleep last night.
"You know," said Harry, "This is your chance to do any renovations you've been thinking about. We don't have to put things back exactly as they were, as long as the changes are nothing big enough to draw attention from the outside."
The Grangers moods had improved as the work went on, when they started to realise their lovely home wasn't lost forever. Indeed, it hardly seemed as though anything traumatic had happened to them at all, and Harry decided they'd definitely been spiked with something to keep their nerves steady. Surely no normal family would take such an event as well as this. Mr Granger whistled a jaunty tune while his wife rubbed her chin. "I've always thought a bigger wardrobe would be nice," she said thoughtfully.
Mr Granger's whistling faltered. "Only if I get a bigger garage." They eyed each other suspiciously before breaking into soft laughter.
"You can have whatever you want," said Sirius, cracking his back. "But we can't give this place full protection until it's built, so decide quickly."
That certainly put an end to any joking, and they hurriedly instructed Harry and Sirius in the reconstruction of the second floor, with no further adjustments. Harry personally stabilised Hermione's room and cast the spell that repaired her book collection, bedding, and star-painted ceiling. He'd been avoiding thinking about what she and Dumbledore were talking about. In his heart of hearts, he hoped she'd finally been diverted from her destructive path, but he simply didn't know her well enough anymore to be sure. Worst of all, his chest still clenched in pain by merely thinking about her, not from remorse, but from simple affection. That certainly hadn't changed, even if it hadn't stopped him from effectively breaking up the partnership until further notice.
Sirius led the Grangers on a tour of their own home as though he was a real estate agent. Mr Granger began playing along, acting as a naïve first-time buyer, and they were both chuckling at their own cleverness by the time it was over. Mrs Granger endured them in silence, simply pleased to have her home back.
"Now that everything's back in order, we should probably go back and let Dumbledore know we're done. He'll want to help us with the protective spells."
Mr Granger's face fell, and he tugged at his collar uneasily. "There isn't, uh, any alternative means of transport beside that squeezing thing? I lost my lunch when you picked us up last night."
"Of course, we'll just use the fireplace. You're connected to the Floo Network now, right?"
"Yes, but the powder stuff isn't where I left it."
Sirius snapped his fingers. "Right, of course. We can't just make more Floo powder out of nothing, it's produced from a magical plant. I'll get a spare pouch from my house." He vanished with a crack.
"Harry," said Mrs Granger, wandering across the restored living room. There was no trace of the damage – that was the beauty of a Structural Recall spell. They didn't last forever, but if you moved quickly enough after the structure was destroyed, you could restore it from the spell's memory, greatly cutting down on reconstruction time. "You've been a wonderful help. I'm glad my daughter knows a boy like you."
A flash of guilt seared his bones as Harry did his best to smile in thanks. "She'd do the same for me. Please don't be too hard on her. Her intentions were good." Was that a lie? He wasn't sure.
"We know," said Mr Granger. "She's always been an overachiever. We're still so new to this magic stuff, it's hard to know what's considered strange and what isn't." He barked a laugh. "Hermione probably heard about those other high-level students trying to help the world before even finishing school and decided to replicate them, or do better than them." Harry didn't reply, and Sirius arrived with the Floo powder moments later.
Hermione was still upstairs in Harry's bedroom at Grimmauld Place, apparently sleeping. Dumbledore and Sirius decided to make an immediate start on the protection spells back at the Granger residence so that Harry and the parents could speak with Hermione alone.
Harry offered to wait outside the room, but they ushered him in along with them. "Hermione?" he asked tentatively. She was curled up on the bed, facing away, but Harry could tell she was awake. "We've rebuilt the house. Everything's fine."
"We know you didn't intend for this to happen, but there's no harm done, so there's no need to be upset," Mr Granger said gently. Hermione still didn't turn to face them.
Struck by an idea, Harry walked around to the other side of the bed and kneeled on the floorboards, leaning forward to press his forehead against Hermione's. He let his passive Occlumency shields down with enough force that she would sense it, and sure enough, a tendril of Legilimency slipped into his mind. He tried to summon a sense of understanding and forgiveness that couldn't be put into words, hoping that was what she wanted.
I'm sorry for not trusting you, said her voice in his head.
Relief surged through him, but he had to make sure. I know you are. So do you still think we can handle this all on our own?
No. I've been going through my memory palace for the last few hours, and I can't believe it took this long for me to realise we've made so many mistakes.
Harry gently raised his passive shields once more and pulled away. Hermione's eyes were open, and she was smiling softly at him, if shamefully. "I'll go give Dumbledore and Sirius a hand," he said, getting to his feet and straightening his clothes. Hermione sat up as well, finally facing her parents.
Mr Granger nodded appraisingly. "The old sympathetic forehead-bump, eh? An ancient technique."
"Effective, though," Harry replied with a smile. He left the parents as they sat on her bed and pulled Hermione into a hug.
The protective spells on the Granger household were going to be among the most powerful they had access to, which considering the skills and strength between the three wizards standing in the driveway, was certainly saying something. Even Voldemort at the height of his power would be hard-pressed to break through once they were done.
"How was she?" asked Harry.
Dumbledore didn't turn away from his spell, though his wand movements slowed. "As well as can be expected. She agrees that her approach was flawed, and I think the fright of nearly causing the deaths of her parents has shocked her into considering alternatives. It may be some time before she truly regrets the needless killing she has committed, however."
"I wouldn't blame her," said Sirius with a shrug. "James and I killed Death Eaters in the war. We never set out to kill them, but sometimes fights went wrong and accidents happened. Hermione's been fighting her own war, maybe that's how she sees things."
"You never set out to kill them – that's precisely why your souls were undamaged. Pure, cold-blooded murder is very different." Dumbledore patted Harry on the shoulder. "You will need to be more open with her than before, let her know she can talk to you."
"I intend to. But I'm not letting anyone inside my head again without good reason."
"As is your right."
They worked in silence for a time, the only sound coming from unknowing Muggles walking down the footpath, and the quiet muttering of incantations. Harry was still thinking about Hermione when they finished up in the afternoon. He didn't know what the coming year at Hogwarts was going to bring, but their actions had likely forced Voldemort to work much harder on whatever his plans were. A sudden thought surprised him: he didn't have to worry these things in silence anymore.
"I'm concerned about what Voldemort might be doing right now," he said aloud.
"No kidding," Sirius replied dryly.
Dumbledore wandered into the Granger living room with his wand angled vertically, checking the quality of the enchantments. "I have some thoughts on his activities, but perhaps we should wait to include Hermione in our discussions. It will help her if she is able to busy herself with work rather than brooding over what has happened."
Harry smiled slightly; Hermione wasn't the brooding type, but she would still appreciate something to keep her mind off it all. "I'll invite Hermione over tomorrow, how does that sound?"
It turned out to be a good idea, because all of the Grangers seemed exhausted by the time evening rolled around and they were escorted home. Sirius took a moment to explain the magic now in place around their house, so Harry pulled Hermione aside.
"I found this while rebuilding everything," he said quietly, holding her ring out.
Hermione's eyes widened and she took it, twisting it between her fingers. "I kept forgetting to wear this. It feels like I forgot a lot of things." She shook her head irritably, the most emotion he'd seen from her since the bedroom. "You won't believe how they figured out it was me. I made the most ridiculous mistake."
"It doesn't matter. Your family's safe now, and it's not like Death Eaters are going to take you to court. We need you to come over tomorrow so we can begin planning. We can still win this."
Hermione slipped the ring onto her finger. "I'll be there." She made an effort to smile, so Harry kissed her cheek in reassurance.
Harry slept well due to the lack of sleep the previous night, and he was up bright and early to cook breakfast for himself and Sirius. Kreacher skulked around the kitchen, so Harry tried to make conversation. In his patchy memories, he recalled that Kreacher could be quite friendly when he was treated with respect. The problem was, he wasn't Kreacher's true master, and Sirius treated the elf like a sack of garbage. There was little Harry could do right now to help the elf move past the previous owner's prejudices.
Thinking of Kreacher only reminded Harry of Dobby, whom he had only met once so far – as a stunned body on the floor of Malfoy manor. Harry felt bad about Dobby being stuck with Draco and Narcissa, but he hated the idea of sneakily separating him from the Malfoy family as well. He'd already taken the father from that family, and abused as Dobby had been, he couldn't bear to interfere with them any further.
"Smells good," said Sirius with a clap of his hands. They dug into some scrambled eggs and bacon, talking idly about Quidditch. It was relaxing to discuss something so normal after all the seriousness yesterday.
"You know, there's a Quidditch Cup next year," said Sirius.
Harry grinned. "Yeah, I know."
His godfather choked. "Who plays? Who wins?" he asked hurriedly.
"Are you sure you want to know?" Harry asked slowly, teasingly.
"Maybe I'll tell you next year."
Dumbledore arrived at midday, followed by Hermione. She looked nervous as they took their places in the living room. Harry decided to lead the meeting, and nobody objected.
"We need to discuss what Voldemort is possibly doing at the moment, and decide how to approach our other objectives," he said. Dumbledore and Sirius were on the couch, while Hermione had an armchair. She looked tiny sitting there with her hands on her lap, but her ring glinted on her finger.
"I have new information regarding the Horcruxes," said Dumbledore pleasantly, as though they were discussing their favourite books. "In Voldemort's current state, he cannot create additional Horcruxes. They require a real body to anchor the part of soul left behind. I do not know what would happen if he tried, but it would not be beneficial to him."
"That can't be true," said Harry. "He made his snake, Nagini, into a Horcrux in our fourth year, after killing Bertha Jorkins." Harry gave a start. His memories were fading, but there were still parts with surprising clarity. "She has brain damage from a Memory Charm that Barty Crouch Senior put on her to hide the fact that he's harbouring Crouch Junior in his home. Is there some way we can help her?"
Dumbledore made a note in his large book, his bright, blue-feathered quill swishing rapidly. "I will attend to her, but first we must focus on the Horcruxes. You say Voldemort created a Horcrux in the period after he lost his body and before he regained his true form?"
Hermione raised a hand, then glanced at it in surprise. Such an action was practically instinctual. "Voldemort didn't have his true form, but he had a rudimentary body that allowed spell casting and travel. He subsisted on a potion of Nagini's venom and Unicorn blood," she said hesitantly.
Dumbledore stroked his beard. "Then he was not truly formless when he made the snake into a Horcrux. Unicorn blood grants a half-life that would allow such actions – though of course, it is not a life worth living."
"But Voldemort doesn't have Nagini or Pettigrew to help him build that body," said Harry. "He's just a presence right now, hopping from creature to creature. Are you saying that even if he finds a wizard willing to host him in his body, he won't be able to create another Horcrux?"
"I believe so, yes. The process requires a form belonging entirely to oneself, whether it is a true body or a Unicorn blood-based Dark construct. The benefit to this is obvious – as of right now, the only existing Horcruxes are those we already know of."
Sirius opened a drawer in the side table beside the couch and drew out Salazar Slytherin's locket. "Took this out of Kreacher's collection this morning." He tossed it onto the coffee table that sat on a crimson rug between them all. "That's one."
Dumbledore produced Tom Riddle's ruined diary from within his azure robes, placing it beside the locket. "Two." He then revealed Marvolo Gaunt's ring, the Resurrection Stone glinting dully as it joined the other items. "And three. It was exactly where you said it was," he told Harry with a nod, "And I did not put it on."
Harry glanced at the ring in surprise. "I thought we were going to collect it together."
"Indeed we were, but when I realised Voldemort's first goal upon realising he cannot create more Horcruxes would be to move his existing ones – assuming he is aware they are being targeted – I decided time was of the essence."
"It's almost certain he is," Hermione said quietly. "He moved the Diadem from the Room of Requirement, and we have no way of knowing where."
"Hang on," said Sirius, "You said he abandoned Yaxley and the diary down in the Chamber of Secrets. Where could he have hidden the diadem in the time it took to go down there? He only had an hour or two to work with."
"He did not leave the school," Dumbledore added. "I was monitoring the entrances at the time in an attempt to discover what you two were doing."
"Then he must have moved the diadem somewhere else inside the school," Harry summed up, feeling hope grow inside him.
"The Chamber of Secrets is large, it is possible he left it down there with the diary. Else, I will speak to the portraits and attempt to discover where Theodore Nott went that day."
"But wait, he had weeks to move the diadem before that day," Hermione interjected. "Yaxley and Voldemort came to Hogwarts at the start of the Summer term."
"Then I will inquire as to whether any of the portraits saw Nott near the Room at any time. But I do not think he felt the need to move the diadem until at least he learned that Harry had the diary, which he only confirmed after the duelling tournament. Regardless, I was tipped off to his presence by Harry by the time class resumed, and I still would have noticed a student leaving when they should not be. Even Disillusionment Charms would not have helped him, which I believe is part of the reason Voldemort chose to abandon Yaxley and escape in his diminished form, as he feared an encounter. Therefore, the diadem is most likely still inside the castle."
Harry found himself pacing again. It was turning into a habit. "That leaves Helga Hufflepuff's Cup. It's in the Lestrange family vault. We can break in and take it, but it might cause a bit more noise than we really need." Harry noticed Sirius was grinning at him.
"For now, the vault is where it must stay," said Dumbledore. "Because breaking into Gringotts will make our intentions clear, it will be the last Horcrux we collect. The diadem must be found first."
They all nodded in agreement, but Hermione looked troubled. "I agree that we need to control the Horcruxes," she said, "But we need to remember that the lines and knots are still out there. Destroying Voldemort right now would be a very bad idea."
"There's also the Horcrux inside me we have to worry about," Harry added. "I'd rather not have to take yet another Killing Curse – it's getting a bit old."
Sirius sniggered, but his expression turned serious as he spoke. "Once you've taught Dumbledore and I how to untie those knots, we can work on them during the school year. I've got nothing else to do while you're at school."
"Indeed," Dumbledore clasped his hands together. "I am quite perfectly placed to work on such a project, if I say so myself. My hours are mine to commit where I desire, and Minerva has proved more than capable of managing the details while I am absent. As for the Horcrux within you, Harry, I believe Miss Granger is most suited to searching for an alternative way of destroying it, or perhaps transferring it onto something else."
Hermione blinked, but nodded. "I will look into it. My Akkadian research may be relevant – there are a lot of interesting developments that I wasn't able to share with you, Harry, before…" Her eyes returned to the floor.
"I'll be happy to hear them," Harry said firmly. "But what does that leave me to do?"
"What do you think, Harry?" asked Dumbledore.
Harry frowned and resumed his circuit of the room as he spoke. "Voldemort is active. One way or another, he's not going to just let this year pass in peace. Your absences will be noted, and he might feel encouraged to attack or infiltrate Hogwarts again in some manner. Someone will need to be managing the school's security while you are busy."
"My thoughts precisely. Upon returning to school, I will inform you of the school's inbuilt enchantments. As the Headmaster, only I may make significant adjustments to them, but I will welcome any improvements you think are necessary. The portraits and ghosts will be instructed to assist you when required, and of course, Miss Granger will be available if you need immediate assistance from a skilled wand."
Harry was taken aback at the amount of trust Dumbledore was showing. Why had they waited so long to involve him? "Thank you," he said sincerely. "I've also been thinking about the Defence Team and the Strike Team. Ron and Neville are fantastic for their age, but I don't want to put them up against a Death Eater or something equally dangerous if I have a choice. The same goes for the Defence Team: there are a lot of skilled kids in there, and they're getting better every year, but I'm concerned about how much use they'd really be in an attack."
Harry stopped pacing, holding his hands behind his back. "But then I remembered how they all supported me when the Basilisk attacked. Alone, they might not be strong enough yet to challenge an adult, but together, they can be extremely effective. I'm going to start teaching them diversionary tactics, hit-and-run, containment and so on – things that will not only strengthen the bond between them, but will also make them effective as a unit."
"It's weird hearing you speak like that," Sirius said slowly. "You sound like – well, he sounds like you, Albus. During the last war."
"Indeed." Dumbledore smiled.
There were a few more minutes of minor conversation before Hermione and Dumbledore left, promising to return tomorrow to begin the Deep Magic lessons. Harry and Sirius gathered the ring, locket, and destroyed diary into an unassuming box and stuck it out of sight. They handled each item delicately, the ring especially. The sooner they destroyed them, the better. Sirius agreed, and they contemplated taking the box out to a desert and using Fiendfyre on the lot, before deciding that might be a bit brash.
In the evening, Mrs Weasley arrived to invite them over for dinner, which both of them readily accepted. While Harry was a pretty good cook due to his forced labour at the Dursleys, he still wasn't comparable to the Weasley matriarch.
Unsurprisingly, Neville was there too, but not Hermione. "We invited the Grangers, but they said they were having a family night," explained Ron.
Neville gave Harry a shrewd look. "Have you two made up yet?"
Harry grinned. "Yeah. She came over earlier today."
The boys let out a sigh of relief. "Finally. It was bad enough having to walk on eggshells around both of you last year." Ginny, who was sitting across the table, quietly excused herself.
"That reminds me," said Harry thoughtfully, "We're stepping up the training this year." Neville cursed and handed three Sickles to Ron, who cheerfully stuffed them in his pocket. "What was that?" asked Harry.
"We're used to you announcing that we're going to have to train harder than ever," said Ron. "Neville didn't think we'd hear the speech at least until we were on the train back to Hogwarts. I said it would be any day now."
Harry stared at each of them flatly. "Anyway, we really are going to step up the Defence Team this year. I want to focus on teamwork, fighting as a unit, that sort of thing. I'll be expecting both of you to take charge if something goes down and Hermione and I aren't around." They both nodded as though that was a matter of course, and Harry felt quite proud of them. "I'm also going to introduce more of those rings – separate from the ones we have, but the same principle. That way, any Defender can call for help if they're caught in a bad situation, and the closest members can rush to help them."
"And for the high-level stuff, we use the Strike Team rings that only call us four, right?" asked Ron.
"That's right," said Harry. It was a little white lie, but a necessary one. He couldn't just tell them that they weren't quite good enough yet to face down a Death Eater one-on-one.
After dinner, the kids mucked around in the living room, playing Exploding Snap and chess, while the adults still chatted around the table. Mrs Longbottom was quite comfortable with the Weasleys now, and from the parts Harry overheard, she wasn't as snobbish as she'd pretended to be, giggling loudly with Mrs Weasley over some inappropriate comment.
It was a relaxing end to a rather stressful day. Harry hoped Hermione was having the same experience at home with her parents, rather than obsessing over what she'd done. The meeting had gone so well that he had high hopes for her recovery.
A soft breeze disturbed the hair of all four people present on the hillside. Harry stood to one side, letting Hermione do the talking. Dumbledore was taking notes and sketching runes in his book, while Sirius did the same on a hastily-conjured roll of parchment after realising he couldn't memorise it all.
Hermione had just conducted an example of their modified Base ritual, explaining each step as she did so. There were two large circles drawn in the grass, with runes between them and on the borders. It had taken much more time to give a comprehensive demonstration than it normally took to examine a line, so they'd been there for about two hours.
Harry drew his wand for the next part. Using the map, they'd found a knot in the countryside with no eyes to see. It felt different finding a knot in this timeline, without the country tearing itself apart around them, under a clear blue sky. Hermione noted some differences in this knot that hadn't been present in the ones they'd encountered after Voldemort died.
"We're definitely in the right place," she said absently, frowning at the ground as though she could see the knot. "But it's more compact than the others were. The transients are smaller, as though it's weakened."
"It must be because Voldemort is still alive," said Harry. "We were dealing with knots that could break apart and start firestorms or poison water, but these haven't received the trigger yet."
"If I might ask," Dumbledore interrupted politely, "Could you explain the nature of these 'knots' in more detail?"
Hermione took a deep breath. "The lines – currents of unseen magical energy – cause those transients we spoke of – tiny events around the line that are impossible to notice without this ritual: a bit of moisture evaporating, an atom vibrating for no reason, things like that – occasionally have fluctuations that are too big to be considered transients. They affect the area around the line too much, though still not noticeable to us without this ritual. Our theory is that someone managed to harness those super-transients – or 'knots' – and used them to prepare large, constantly resetting traps that are somehow linked to a single life."
"And what of un-knotting them? How does that work?"
"Once we've established that there is a knot in this area, we perform a second ritual, entirely custom-made for this purpose through months of trial and error," said Harry. He remembered cramming his head full of knowledge in that tent with Hermione more than he remembered his first year of school. "It – It's difficult to accurately describe what happens, but… if you imagine the line as a length of rope with a knot in the centre, we cut the knot away, and the rope grows and mends the gap between the two remaining pieces."
Hermione had a faraway look as she carved additional runes into the circle, controlling the environment even further and allowing for her to reach deeper into the line beneath them. "It gives a sense of… purifying, or perhaps cleansing. Cutting away the knots makes the lines… better, in some fashion." She shook herself, appearing surprised to have spoken.
Dumbledore, looking thoroughly fascinated, was taking notes rapidly, while Sirius was resting on his heels, content only to write down the instructions and not the metaphysical ponderings. Harry joined Hermione in preparing to 'untie' the knot. She was right – it felt smaller and more passive, as though it was dormant. That fit with their theory, so he accepted it.
"Intersection point established," Hermione said automatically after a few minutes, and she and Harry both jerked, startled.
"What is it? What happened?" asked Sirius warily, hand twitching towards his pocket.
"Nothing," said Harry, just as Hermione said, "An intersection point was also necessary for… coming back here." She glanced at Harry guiltily, clearly regretting saying so much.
"The runes are all different, though," Harry said firmly.
"You mean, this is similar to how you…" Sirius trailed off, eyeing the inlaid circles and runes watchfully.
"In some ways."
Hermione cleared her throat. "The intersection point is like a surgeon peeling back the skin in order to operate on internal organs. Since the lines can't be reached by just digging down, we use this to make them tangible enough to work on. This is extremely dangerous, so please, no more talking."
Like the lines and knots themselves, the intersection wasn't visible to the naked eye. But when Harry stepped inside the outer ring with Hermione, he suddenly felt strong wind tugging in every direction. He shivered – it reminded him of the unceasing wind that had stripped their physical forms away upon entering the time-stream two years ago. But this wind didn't come from so far down – Time was below even the lines, far, far below, possibly at the 'bottom', whatever that meant. This wind, he imagined, was like the wind above a river, cold and carrying drops of moisture, while the winds of Time were like a hurricane above the ocean, crashing as hard as the waves.
They went to work on the knot silently. Harry remembered the process – they'd done it enough times before to make sure his memory didn't fade. He could feel the line, stretching away from the northeast to the southeast, and in the centre was the knot, hard, compacted, sizzling with power despite its passive state.
Together, Harry and Hermione gathered their strength and clamped down on either side of the knot, severing it with the precision of a scalpel. He knew, somehow, that they could only 'cut' the lines because the knots were there – if they tried the same thing on an unaffected line, there would be no effect. As it was, the knot frayed and broke apart, but without the constant flow of energy through it from the line, it simply dissipated. The gap left by the knot's absence was immediately filled – there was no sense of water rushing in to fill an empty space; one moment there was a gap, the next there wasn't.
The line was now indistinguishable from any other, with no sign that the knot had ever been there. Hermione wiped sweat from her face and Harry touched his forehead, surprised to also find perspiration there. It had been a while since they'd used Deep Magic. Quickly, they set about closing the intersection point and scrubbing out runes and the circles. There was no point leaving any trace that someone else might figure out.
"Done," said Harry, a touch breathlessly.
"You'll have to show us that last bit again," Sirius said dryly. "All we saw was you two standing there, staring at each other and panting."
"It's something you have to feel for yourself," Hermione said shortly. "I'll write down what it feels like and what to do, but for now, I've had enough."
"The country is closer to safety because of you both," Dumbledore said cheerfully. "I would ask one of you to supervise our first few attempts, however, just in case. There is still a month before school resumes."
Harry nodded. "We can do that. It's probably going to take all day, the first couple of times."
It took almost a week before Dumbledore and Sirius finished their first knot. Harry and Hermione had severely underestimated how difficult it was to perform the ritual without having near-instinctual knowledge of which runes to use and when to place them, as well as the tinier details of the circle widths and detection charms. The first time the intersection point had been established, Sirius had nearly fractured one of the holding runes and destroyed a small patch of forest. He was far more attentive next time.
It was a strange experience, teaching Albus Dumbledore magic, but he proved a humble and attentive student, never requiring more than one demonstration. Much of the difficulty came from coordinating with Sirius – on their own, they were both obviously brilliant, but the rituals required teamwork if they were going to start clearing knots soon. They eventually agreed to divide the runes between them, so that they didn't accidentally draw the same ones and ruin the entire ritual. After that – and a few more practice runs, they were working far more efficiently.
As the return to school approached, Harry wondered how long they had before Voldemort forced them to go for the Cup. The diadem they at least had a chance at finding, but the cup was going to take more effort. What new horrors would the Dark Lord dredge up to challenge them? He wouldn't underestimate Harry again, but perhaps he might think there was still a divide between him and the Headmaster.
Hermione was slowly returning to her normal self, though she told him one night, after a failed knot-busting session, that she didn't think she was ever going to regret killing the Death Eaters. Harry supposed that was a possibility. Some hatred ran too deep. Harry knew he would never regret killing Rowle, that was for sure, though if he had another chance, he would try to bring the bastard to justice. Harry told Hermione that, which seemed to improve her mood. She wasn't as timid anymore, and was back to meeting his gaze.
On the morning of their impending return to Hogwarts, a feature article in The Daily Prophet caught Harry's eye over breakfast. The title stood out more than anything else on the page:
Barty Crouch Missing: Another Victim?
Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation Bartemius Crouch has been reported missing after failing to appear for work three days in a row. A search of his home provided little insight, and Aurors are asking for anyone with information relevant to the disappearance to come forward. This comes in the wake of a series of apparently targeted killings against prominent pureblood families, sparking fears that Crouch may be the next in the long list of victims. Only a month ago, Alecto Carrow was found dead in an apparent attack on the home she shared with her twin brother, Amycus, who is still missing. Other families that have lost members to brutal assassinations include the Averys, the Malfoys, Gibbons, Jugsons, Notts, Rowles, and the Yaxley family.
Aurors are hesitant to declare the presence of a serial killer in our midst, but a harried-looking Dawlish let slip that there were similarities between the killings that suggested a connection. Pressure is rising as influential pureblood and halfblood families grow worried for their safety, and Madam Amelia Bones has gone on record in saying that laws protecting the safety of those targeted are not out of the question. Will the killings continue? The Daily Prophet hopes not, and we fervently wish for the safe return of Mr Crouch.
Harry put the paper down and tried to force the details from his mind, with little success.
Dumbledore paid one last visit just before they were about to leave for King's Cross Station, informing Harry that Bertha Jorkins was being attended to discretely, and certainly wasn't going to Albania any time soon. There still wasn't any consensus on how to find Barty Crouch Junior, nor on how to defuse the growing support for laws that allow purebloods to protect themselves more effectively. Crouch Junior was very likely Voldemort's new host by now, but there was no way to be sure.
It was with a sense of strained hope that Harry boarded the Hogwarts Express. Hope tempered by caution, but hope nonetheless. Sirius and Dumbledore were still quite slow at dealing with knots, but progress was still progress, and every knot they cleared was one step closer to putting Voldemort in the ground once and for all. They still didn't know where Voldemort was or who he was probably residing in, and the location of the diadem remained a mystery, but now that Hermione was thinking straight again and Dumbledore and Sirius were on the job, Harry felt they were at least as prepared as they could be for whatever was coming.
He also realised, sitting in the train compartment with Hermione, Ron, Neville, Ginny, and Luna, that he'd also grown a few inches. It was still a while off his adult height, but at least he didn't feel as pathetically small as he had upon arrival.
Ginny was angled so he couldn't see her face, talking to Luna and trying to act casual. Harry knew she was upset that he and Hermione had made up, but he couldn't summon the energy to feel guilty about it. With the task of protecting the school ahead of him, the small things couldn't be allowed to bother him.
"Any idea who the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is? I hope it's Mallen again," said Neville.
"I doubt it," said Harry.
"His name is Professor Lupin," Hermione said distractedly, flipping through her enchanted notebook and crossing out entire paragraphs, seemingly at random.
Harry glanced at her in surprise. "Really? How do you know?"
"I saw him in one of the carriages we passed to get to this one. I don't know how you missed him, he's dressed quite differently from everyone else."
With no Dementors to stop the train, the rest of the ride was rather enjoyable. Harry was looking forward to meeting Lupin again, and Sirius likely was as well. They would have gone to see him sooner if they'd known where he was, but the poor werewolf was forced to constantly move around due to the prejudice against his kind.
"We can start going to Hogsmeade this year!" Ron exclaimed suddenly. "I'll be able to see if Zonko's Joke Shop is as good as Fred and George say it is."
"And take Padma to that pink tea shop," Neville added with a grin.
"That too," Ron said sheepishly.
The exchange reminded Harry of something. "Hey Luna, are you going to be attending Defence Team sessions again this year?"
Luna nodded dreamily. "Yes, it was very fun last year."
"You were improving quickly, if I remember right. Neville, maybe you should give her some personal tutoring? She'll be an Apprentice in no time." The ranking system of the Defence Team was strict, beginning at Novice and proceeding to Apprentice, Duellist, and Instructor depending on ability. As of the end of last year, only two students had achieved the rank of Duellist: Cedric Diggory and a Ravenclaw named Anthony. This year, Harry intended to increase the number of Duellists as much as possible while reorienting his teaching around teamwork. They had to be ready in case Voldemort made a move against the school, which was pretty much a given at this point. The fact that Voldemort didn't have his real body meant that any attack would likely be covert in nature, a scheme within a scheme. Harry just had to hope they'd see it coming.
Neville seemed surprised by the request, but then his eyes narrowed in understanding. Last year, upon discovering Luna had a crush on him, Neville had promised to ask her out if it persisted into their third year. Harry was merely aiding his friend's fulfilment of the promise.
When Harry noticed that Dumbledore and Snape were absent from the Welcome Feast, causing McGonagall to take his place as Professor Flitwick conducted the Sorting, he was concerned to say the least. Dumbledore and Sirius had agreed to pace their absences carefully to avoid notice, so it was unlikely the Headmaster was gone for that reason, and the fact that Snape was likely with him caused Harry no end of grief over the extensive dinner.
After the feast, Harry and Hermione were collected by McGonagall and brought straight to Dumbledore's office. Harry grinded his teeth as they climbed the rotating stairs. Only something very important could make Dumbledore break from their intended pattern of indifference to each other.
Snape swept past them on the stairs, cloak billowing and not even slowing to give them a sneer. Dumbledore stood behind his desk, and nodded when they approached. McGonagall remained outside.
"Narcissa Malfoy was here," Dumbledore said without preamble. "Her son has gone missing. Snape has managed to convince her not to report it yet, as well as hold off on bringing her suspicions about you to the authorities."
"Suspicions?" asked Harry, off-guard. Draco was missing?
"She believes you were involved in the death of her husband."
Harry shook his head and Hermione hissed softly. "So many mistakes," she muttered.
Dumbledore nodded slowly. "Realise that over half-a-dozen pureblood families have had members assassinated in the past two summers – fitting a student's timetable – so if Narcissa talks, others will too, and it will quickly grow out of control. Every other pureblood family, as well as the halfbloods desperate for acceptance, will bring their influence to bear. Barty Crouch's disappearance certainly doesn't help matters."
"We have to stop Narcissa from talking," said Hermione. When the men glanced at her, she shook her head violently. "Not like that. I… you know that I don't want to…" Harry touched her shoulder comfortingly, and she appeared grateful. Licking her lips, she continued. "Killing her would be a bad idea, even beyond the obvious moral problem. She has likely spoken to other pureblood families, and they will see her death as a confirmation of their fears. That leaves Obliviation or reason as our main tools."
"I don't want to Obliviate her after everything she's been through," said Harry resolutely. "We can find a way to convince her to keep quiet – at least until Voldemort is dead and the knots are unravelled."
"Very well," said Dumbledore. "I have instructed Professor Snape to remain in regular contact with her. When he is no longer able to keep her from talking, I will instruct him to invite her here, where you may reason with her. I believe she will stop at nothing to discover why her family has been torn apart, but perhaps a careful tongue will at least be able to delay her judgement."
"What does Snape think of this? Of me?"
Dumbledore was blunt, not in an unkind way, but in a way that said 'these are the facts and you must deal with them'. "To put it shortly, Harry, Severus believes your father was a saint compared to you – and that's without knowing the half of what you've done."
Harry understood. One way or another, he would pay for his crimes. It didn't matter how bad Lucius Malfoy was or how much he'd deserved to die. It was a personal matter, within Harry, that needed repentance to be resolved.
The first day of classes came with three more points of interest.
Firstly, Draco Malfoy was indeed not at school, and there were whispers that he had run away from home during the holidays. Harry supposed the boy couldn't handle going to school with the person he believed responsible for the death of his father. It didn't help that he was right. Wherever Draco was, he wasn't going to be back any time soon.
Secondly, Snape's awfulness had regressed somewhat from the near-psychopathic behaviour he'd exhibited the previous year. Harry learned from Dumbledore that it had been an act to fool Voldemort while he and Yaxley were disguised as Theodore Nott – at least, that was the reason Dumbledore gave Harry. It was an act that Snape had apparently enjoyed immensely. However, whether the act worked or not was still up for debate. Voldemort had made no attempt to contact or enlist Snape, but it was impossible to tell if that was because he didn't think Snape would follow a weakened Dark Lord, or if he didn't think Snape was loyal at all.
Finally, Professor Mallen was present for the first Defence Against the Dark Arts class. She was looking as immaculate as ever, high cheekbones and curly red hair giving her a mischievous, cocky aura. She and Lupin were discussing what she'd taught the class last year so he'd know what material to cover. Due to the suddenness of Lupin's hiring, he was still working on the overall lesson plan.
After the barebones class, Harry stayed behind to wait for Mallen, waving his friends on ahead. She emerged a minute later, tugging on a crimson jacket. When she saw Harry, a shrewd smile crossed her lips. "Hey."
"Hello." Harry shrugged awkwardly. "Listen, I'm sorry for trying to coerce you last year. Dumbledore and I have sorted things out between us. I know you were just toying with me and pretending to be cowed."
Mallen's smile turned into a grimace. "Toying with you? I used the Imperius Curse on you by reflex, remember? Dumbledore sure as hell didn't tell me to do that. You could've hung me up to dry whenever you wanted, so trust me, the balance of power wasn't that different to how it seemed."
That was rather gratifying to hear. "So how much of it was true? About your life, I mean," he asked.
"Some. It's kinda the point that you can't tell how much," she grinned.
"Are you going back to America now?"
"Maybe… I've been having fun here in the UK. I'm staying in London, too, so maybe I'll drop in and visit you sometime."
Harry laughed, hoping she was joking. "Please don't." As he walked away, her low chuckle followed him.
Dumbledore had left an envelope on Harry's bed inviting him to a private lesson that night. Using other students as messengers was a bad idea, they had agreed, since if Voldemort was watching it would make it clear that the divide between Harry and Dumbledore was no longer there. Harry used his invisibility cloak and crept down to the Headmaster's office, dodging Peeves and Filch with the ease that came from many years of experience.
"Every fifty years," Dumbledore began once they were both seated at his desk, "The security for the school is evaluated to see if it is up to modern standards. Since the grounds are so large, it is too expensive to keep all security spells up-to-date. Instead, after each evaluation, there is one big lot of security upgrades at once. The last upgrade was in nineteen-fifty, so the school has fallen behind in terms of modern security. However, it is still a core of powerful defensive magic that is designed to hold against large-scale attacks or attempts to reveal its location. But, as we are both aware, it is vulnerable to small-scale covert incursions. It is difficult to create magic that can keep out only those with bad intentions – the Mirror of Erised was not an easy feat."
"There was a spell," Harry said slowly. "In the other… place." He caught himself at the last second, realising all of the portraits were very likely listening. "It allowed only those with a certain mark on their arm to pass through a barrier, while repelling everyone else. If it could be reengineered in some way, perhaps it would be useful."
"Professor Snape might find it inconvenient, but yes, a modified version of such a spell could prove very useful. My advice would be to discover the weaknesses of the original spell – can it be surpassed through a proper disguise or forgery?"
Harry nodded. "I'll start experimenting. In the meantime, I intend to procure a Map of the school, even if I have to create one myself."
"A most valuable tool for the guardian of the school. You should also be aware that your godfather and I will be beginning our task tomorrow. Since my absences will be frequent, only Professor McGonagall will be aware of most of them. It would not do to broadcast my goings, so I will attempt to be present for mealtimes as often as possible."
"That reminds me." Harry drew out two simple silver rings and pushed it across the desk to Dumbledore. "Hermione and I finished these this morning. The other is for Sirius. To activate it, simple touch it between your thumb and forefinger and whisper 'I need help' followed by your location."
Dumbledore inspected the ring before slipping in onto his middle finger. "I appreciate the precaution. How many of these rings do you have now?"
Harry grinned and scratched the back of his head. "I'll be wearing three by the time the Defence Team is sorted out. The black one is for the Strike Team, which is myself, Hermione, Ron, and Neville. The pinkish-red one will be for Defence Team members. We have quite a few regulars, so it's like an alarm system that covers wherever they are. If they spot something dangerous, every nearby Defender can converge on them. It will help them depend on each other more if they have that sort of responsibility. The silver ring is obviously the same as the one I just gave you. Aside from us, only Sirius and Hermione will have one."
"A very fine system," said Dumbledore. "I feel more than satisfied that you will guard the school effectively."
"Here's hoping none of this is necessary," Harry said with an unconvincing chuckle. He sighed. "I just don't want a repeat of… the other thing."
"It will not come to that," Dumbledore said seriously. "Not as long as you and I both draw breath. It will not happen again."
Harry nodded, his resolve firming. "Voldemort can't possibly know what's coming."
"At the least, he cannot know the full extent of our knowledge. Voldemort despises not knowing things, and I fear he may act in a way that we cannot predict."
Harry stood. "Well, there's no point living in fear when there's work to do. If there's nothing else, Professor?"
Dumbledore smiled as Harry vanished down the rotating stairs, and the portraits of former Headmasters, which had all pretended to be asleep, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"I do think he's going to be alright, that one," muttered Armando Dippet to an assortment of agreeing mumbles.
"As do I," said Dumbledore.
This story is going on Hiatus for a while so I can try other things.
All I seem to be getting is negative reviews for the most recent chapters, which has kinda killed my motivation to continue.
It seems most of the trouble started when I deviated from my original plan - and short of re-writing the last 40,000-50,000 words, I'm not certain I want to continue down this path.
TO BE CLEAR, I am not blaming negative reviewers. I'm blaming myself for not taking into account just how big this story would become, and for failing to account for the various plot holes created by my aformentioned deviation.
Until I find a way to fix this trainwreck, I recommend a much better time travel story called 'Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past'.