Disclaimer: Requiem aeternam dona eis, JK Rowlingus.

Chapter 45

Hermione didn't get out of bed for breakfast the next morning, nor did she bother getting up to go to Grimmauld Place for her lessons. She doubted that lessons of any kind were going on in magical Britain today anyway, and even if they were, from how skittish Professor Slughorn was about the Death Eaters, she'd bet good money that he'd already done a runner from Grimmauld Place now that the Fidelius wasn't secure anymore.

She was still lying in bed, half-awake, when she heard someone ring the doorbell, and a minute later: "Hermione come down, please. Septima is here."

Her eyes snapped open, and she sprang out of bed. Grabbing her wand, she ran down the stairs and skidded to a halt in front of Septima on the hardwood floor, her wand pointed in her face. "Describe the Riemann tensor and its purpose," she demanded.

"What?" Probably-Septima said, taken aback. "Um…the Riemann tensor is a rank-n tensor that fully describes the local curvature of an n-dimensional manifold. And…and you told me that in four dimensions, it can be contracted down to the Ricci tensor in Einstein's equation using…was it Christopher symbols?"

"Christoffel symbols," Hermione corrected, and she lowered her wand. "Mum, I know you couldn't really stop a dark wizard from coming in if they wanted to, but just for my own peace of mind, please ask me to check when someone you know is a witch or wizard comes to the door."

Mum stared at her like she'd grown a second head. Normally, her mother was the one telling her to be extra cautious. This was an odd reversal. Hermione ignored it and turned back to Septima. "How are you doing, Septima?"

"As well as I can be under the circumstances. I'm worried about Hogwarts, and my family, too…and honestly, the Ministry, but…Look, Hermione, I'm sorry to disturb you, but Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape want you to come back to Hogwarts immediately."

"What for?" Hermione said warily.

"I don't know, but they said it's important."

She wondered what that meant. Did they want to question her about what happened? Did the Aurors? Did they actually know what was going on? The autumn term ended after tomorrow, so she could agree it was urgent. "Alright, um…I'll get ready as soon as I can and Apparate by myself, if that's alright," she said, still wary of the possibility of the Imperius Curse.

"That's fine, Hermione," Septima said. "I'll see you soon."

Hermione suited up to the extent she could. Her "battle robes", if she could call them that, were still stained with blood. She wore her older, pure carbon vest and shorts, and her basilisk-skin coat was easy to clean, being basilisk-skin, but she felt vulnerable without her full kit. And she knew now that Hogwarts wasn't safe. Hopefully, the staff would watch closely to prevent another Malfoy, but she was already thinking about a hood or helmet to go with her robes. Surely, that was paranoid; wizards didn't go into battle in full plate armour, after all; but it was the mindset she was in now.

She apparated to Hogwarts and make the slow trek up from the gates. Inside the castle, she saw students milling around, looking solemn, and she watched them on high alert.

"Classes have been cancelled," Septima said when she met her again. "They're rushing Dumbledore's funeral in case something happens. It's tomorrow, down by the Lake. And Professor McGonagall's been made Interim Headmistress pending a formal appointment in the spring term."

Hermione nodded. Barring serious problems, she'd come for the funeral. "Where did they want me to go?" she asked.

"The Head's office."

She trudged up the many flights of steps to the Head's office. For all the good memories she had here, the castle seems darker and more foreboding than it ever had before—emptier, in a way. When she reached the Head's office, nothing had been disturbed yet. It still looked like Dumbledore's office, only with no Dumbledore. Professors McGonagall and Snape were there instead, along with two Aurors in uniform whom she didn't recognise. McGonagall wasn't crying presently, but her eyes were red and swollen. Snape looked as dour as ever, and the Aurors appeared shell-shocked.

"What's going on here, Professors?" she asked.

"Miss Granger," McGonagall said shakily, "the Aurors here need to take a statement from you regarding Dumbledore's…murder. They have already spoken with Mr. Potter. Given the circumstances, there probably won't be any action in court, but they need to make a full investigation."

"Nothing too formal," one of the Aurors said to her. "Just tell us what happened in your own words."

"O-okay," she replied. "Well…Dumbledore, Harry, and I left the castle last night…" She trailed off and looked at Snape. How much should she tell them?

"We know the basics, Miss Granger," the Auror said. "It was a secret mission for the war effort. You don't need to give any details. Just start from Headmaster Dumbledore's injury."

Hermione began again, describing the curse that befell Dumbledore from the ring, cutting off his finger, and the events that transpired after they returned to Hogwarts. She knew the drill well enough. Seeing as this was a criminal investigation, she restricted herself to things that she personally witnessed, but that alone was draining, especially going over it a third time in the space of a few hours. But when she was done, the Aurors seemed satisfied with her story. They thanked her for her help and took their leave.

"Thank you for coming, Miss Granger," McGonagall said. "Talking through…what happened with you and Mr. Potter has clarified a few things. I still can't believe a student would turn on the Headmaster like that, even a Death Eater's son. And what Potter did…"

"Harry did what he had to," she said.

"I know, and that's what's so terrible about it. You children shouldn't have to fight this war."

"We knew what we were getting in for, Professor. We knew even before we were kidnapped at the Ministry."

"I suppose you did," McGonagall said with a sigh. "Well, the other reason we called you here is that Professor Dumbledore left you a message."

"He did?" Hermione said in surprise.

"He left messages for several of us in the event of his death," Snape answered, "which was wiser than I expected of him. Last night was not the first time that the man's optimism got the better of him."

"Alright, then, let me see the letter."

"The message was not a letter," Snape said. He motioned, and Hermione saw him pointing to Dumbledore's Pensieve. "The Headmaster left a series of Pensieve memories to various people he felt needed personal instruction. He left the Pensieve itself to his brother, interestingly enough, but that is another matter. He asked the memories to be played for their intended recipients in private. The memories for you are already in the Pensieve. You know how to activate it?"

"Just to play them back? Yes, sir," Hermione said. "I take it you've already seen yours?"

A thoughtful look briefly crossed Snape's face.

Hours Earlier

"My dear Severus, I regret that I could not aid you longer than I have, although given the circumstances of our working relationship, you may be just as glad to be rid of me. It is impossible to serve two masters, and in some ways, neither I nor Voldemort was your true master. No, you have always been serving three. But that is neither here nor there.

"I have much to tell you, Severus, but I will begin with the most important. I had previously entrusted you to give Harry the knowledge of your true position in the Order—to win his trust entirely, as you did mine—and to tell him the truth of the horcrux inside him. However, circumstances have changed. Miss Granger is without a doubt the most brilliant witch I have ever met, and thanks to her, this role is no longer necessary. Tell Harry what you will.

"I do strongly urge you, however, to entrust your secrets with Minerva, merely so that there is one person who knows you are truly on our side, and who knows not to kill you if it comes to it. We can too easily forget that cats, however domestic, are natural killers, and I do not wish to see you on the wrong end of her wand.

"But now, I'm afraid I do have a new task for you and new secrets for you to remember. These secrets, however, are ones that I sincerely hope you never have to tell. It would be better if you would let them die with you. I am telling you only so that someone knows, in case unforeseen circumstances make it necessary to reveal them.

"I know that you did not grow up reading the same stories most of the wizarding world did, Severus, so I will give you a brief overview. There once lived three brothers of unparallelled skill, whose power together was the equal of Merlin himself…"

"Yes, I have, Miss Granger," Snape said. "However, that does not concern you. Your own message will tell you all you need to know."

"Yes, sir."

"I also wanted to warn you," he added. "Narcissa Malfoy is naturally distraught over her son's death. I truly do not know what she will do, but it is entirely possible she will come after you."

"Oh…er, yes, sir."

Snape and McGonagall left the office, leaving Hermione alone. It was then that she noticed that she was standing in complete silence. All of Dumbledore's marvellous silver instruments had gone still like the proverbial Grandfather's Clock. It was eerie in there. The office seemed wrong somehow without the white noise she had experienced every other time she had visited. She stepped forward and looked down into the Pensieve. The silvery memories were there, swirling about. She tapped the correct sequence of runes with her wand, and a ghostly image of Albus Dumbledore rose from the surface. But the image was strangely flat and a little bit distorted, and it took her a moment to place it.

Dumbledore was looking in a mirror.

It was obvious when she realised that Dumbledore's nose was bent the wrong way—a clever little way to leave a video message without a camera.

"Hello, Harry. Hello, Hermione," the image spoke. Apparently, this message was intended for the both of them. "If you're watching this, then our time together has been cut short before our task was completed. Most likely, I have gone on to the Next Great Adventure, or else incapacity or distance has separated us in a way that I can no longer help you. If this has happened, I apologise for being unable to aid you further. But I want you to know that I still have confidence in the two of you and your friends to finish the task before you.

"I am making this message on the day I intended to take you to retrieve the horcrux from Voldemort's ancestral home. While I am reasonably confident we will be safe there, there is always the chance for something to go wrong. I want to tell you now what I know of the other horcruxes so that you may search for them yourselves. First, as you know, there were five, leaving aside the one that is bound to Harry, though one has, I hope, been destroyed when we raided the Gaunt shack. Voldemort's snake he keeps with him for the most part. The others are the Gaunt ring, Slytherin's locket, and Hufflepuff's cup, as you saw in the memories. I believe the last one is most likely to be Ravenclaw's diadem, but this is merely a guess, and you should be vigilant for any other notable artifacts, particularly of Ravenclaw's or Gryffindor's, that Voldemort may have used in its stead.

"As for where the horcruxes are located, I am afraid I have only one solid lead besides the shack. There is a sea cave near Southend-on-Sea. I have left notes on its exact location and appearance for you in my papers. The young Tom Riddle went there on holiday as a boy, and he performed magic on two of his fellow orphans there that left them emotionally traumatised for life. I have been to the location and confirmed that Voldemort has placed enchantments on it consistent with a horcrux hiding place, but I did not venture further. I had intended to take you there early in the next term, but if you are seeing this, that is no longer possible. When you go there, I ask that to take either Alastor Moody or William Weasley to help you. They are both experts in dark magic and will be able to get through the protective enchantments nearly as well as I. If, for some reason, neither of them are available, you will have to make do.

"I have left notes on possible hiding places for the other two horcruxes, but I fear it will be far more difficult for you to find them. Some of the locations I have investigated already, such as the former site of Wool's Orphanage, while others, such as Riddle Manor, I have not yet been able to. They may also be in the care of other Death Eaters, as the diary was. I wish I had more for you to work with, but you now know as much as I do.

"Finally, I must give you a warning about the Gaunt Ring, whenever and wherever you find it: the stone in the ring is a powerful and ancient artifact in its own right—very dangerous beyond whatever protections Voldemort has placed on it. Do not touch it. Truthfully, I do not know myself how to destroy it. Best just to let it be buried someplace you yourselves cannot find it again, just as you suggested to me once, Hermione.

"I know the task before you is difficult—possibly the most difficult you will ever have to face. But despite the challenge, I want you to know once more that I still believe in you…Good luck."

The image of Dumbledore dissolved. That was singularly unhelpful. It told her nothing she didn't already know except that she still didn't know how to get all the horcruxes. Maybe she should be looking for another option. Even the warning about the ring was moot, as they'd already found it. B she didn't have time to dwell on it, as the image was immediately replaced by another nearly-identical one.

"Hello, Hermione," he said with a sad smile. "You should have already seen my message to you and Harry together. I have just a little more to say to you personally.

"First, and most importantly, you have already seen my books about horcruxes. I want you to take them. I want you to take them now. Use your enchanted handbag, and keep them hidden. I have also placed my notes on the search for Voldemort's horcruxes with them. Take those as well. If the Ministry finds them, they will confiscate them, and they will be far more likely to fall into Voldemort's hands.

"Your goal has not changed, I'm sure. You wish to remove the horcrux from Harry so that his life may be spared. I am giving you all the resources I have in pursuit of that goal. I am placing a great deal of trust in you, Hermione. I know we have not seen eye to eye on many issues over the past year and a half. Yet you have shown me my own mistakes, and I have come to trust your council more than most. I have faith that you will use this knowledge responsibly.

"I am not exaggerating, Hermione, when I say that you are the most brilliant witch I have ever met, and I am including both Seraphina Picquery and my own sister in that statement. You have single-handedly advanced the field of arithmancy by decades already. If anyone can do this, it is you. But I also ask you not to dwell on your failures—and failures will happen. You may even regard my own death as a failure. You should not. I have made my own choices in my life and my own mistakes. You will make mistakes as well, but it will not do to dwell on them. All you can do is learn from them and move forward. And remember that sometimes, you can make all the right moves and still lose, and while I pray that does not happen, if it does, all you can do is move forward just the same. Merely try your best, and you will have done well.

"Finally, I say to you what I have said to several others in these messages: Harry Potter is the best hope we have. Trust him. But for you, I will amend that message. You have a unique burden placed upon you, and I am sorry that you now have to bear it without the support I could have given, but I have every confidence you will rise to it. I say to you: You are the best hope Harry has…Trust yourself.

"And do take care of yourself as well, Hermione. Goodbye."

On impulse, Hermione showed up for Dumbledore's funeral in the closest thing she had to full military dress—the highest honour she felt she could pay the man. Of course, her basilisk-skin coat was also her go-to battle robe, so it wasn't that distinctive, but a quick trip to Twilfitt and Tattings made for a quick fix. After looking up what the army's dress uniform looked like, she had them add a wide, white belt around the waist, with her sword strapped over her coat rather than under it, gold epaulets on the shoulders, and silver caps on the buttons. She purchased an emerald-green, broad-brimmed witch's hat with a purple band around the brim, and she also had them polish the leather. It wasn't perfect, but it would be good enough for the day. Perhaps she would write back to that cursebreaker in India to see if she could commission a new coat in a dress style.

There were hundreds of people braving the cold to attend the funeral on the snowy Hogwarts lawn, including Madame Maxime from Beauxbatons, whom Hermione greeted warmly, a large contingent from the Ministry, Hagrid and Grawp in the back, and merpeople and centaurs waiting at a distance. She noticed an old man in the front row who looked strikingly like Dumbledore himself, who she assumed was his brother.

A few people gave Hermione funny looks when they saw her, but Harry took notice of her new outfit at once, and, after raising an eyebrow, he gave her a tight smile and snapped a salute. "Good afternoon, Captain Granger," he said.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Okay, I admit that's the effect I was going for," she said, "but why am I a Captain, now?"

"I don't know. It just seemed like the thing to say." His face fell, and he leaned closer to her and said, "So, did you see the message from Dumbledore, too?"

"Yes. And a little extra…The plan hasn't changed," she added when he gave her a questioning look. "We keep on hunting for the horcruxes the same as before, and I keep looking for a solution to your problem."

"Except without his help," Harry pointed out.

"Yes, without his help. But I have all his books and notes on the subject. We have enough to keep working."

"What about the Ministry though," Harry said. "I heard the teachers saying how they might not be able to stand up to Voldemort now that Dumbledore's…gone. And is Hogwarts safe anymore either?"

"I don't know, Harry. You'll have to talk that over with Sirius." It was worrying, for sure—threat to her home and her parents in particular. Dumbledore was the one who had set up their security. She'd have to look into what her options were now.

There were no lengthy speeches at the funeral—only a semi-lengthy eulogy by the officiant. Dumbledore probably would have wanted it that way, she thought. Besides, if everyone close enough to him to be worth the trouble got up to eulogise him, this would go on all week.

Hermione was rather interested in the ceremony itself. She had never seen a wizard pastor before (at least, she assumed he was the village pastor from Hogsmeade), but the tufty-haired little man sounded like a pretty generic C of E priest—nothing earth-shaking there.

When the officiant finished, there was no procession, just as she was pretty sure there had been no viewing hours. That surprised her—she didn't know if it was some aspect of wizard culture, just the security concerns, or something else—but when the priest was done talking, Dumbledore's body was magically encased in a white marble tomb to lie on the Hogwarts grounds for all time.

"Miss Granger!" Professor Snape's voice called to her as the crowd was breaking up.

She turned to face him, standing as straight as she could. "Yes, Professor?"

"I have something I want to give to you," he said.

"You do?"

He handed her a sheaf of parchment. She quickly thumbed through it and saw a copious amount of spellcrafting notes. "These are your spells?" she said. "But why—?" Or why not? She thought. Wasn't that what she was doing with the D.A. last year and the Defence classes this year?

"Miss Granger," he said, "at the beginning of the term, I gave Draco Malfoy my own sixth-year Potions book as a small token of loyalty to the Dark Lord. This book contained my extensive Potions notes including many improvements on the lowest common denominator textbook versions of the potions, as well as most of my spellcrafting notes in the margins. I was a dab hand at arithmancy myself in my day. I now see I was a fool to give the boy my spells and equally a fool to give only him my spells. I'm giving my notes to you now so that you can make good use of them…and perhaps to make some small repayment for my mistakes. That dossier includes all of the spells I have created except Sectumsempra."

"Not a problem, Professor," Hermione replied. "I already reverse-engineered that one."

Snape stared at her for a minute, no doubt deciding whether or not to put the fear of God in her regarding his spell. Finally, he said, "Once again, Miss Granger, I find myself glad that you're on our side."

"Thank you, Professor," she said with a smile.

The funeral was held on Friday, and by Monday, two days before Christmas, Hermione was back in action. She had made herself a new stiletto, with platinum runes this time instead of gold, and she converted her basilisk-skin coat back to its combat-ready appearance. She had made another set of slash-proof underclothes since she wore them every time she went out, now, and wanted to have a spare while they were being cleaned. She still wished she could do more with them. Slash-proof did not equal stab-proof, nor bullet-proof. Such a thin fabric had far too much give to make either of those work. So unless she could add a non-Newtonian, impact-hardening layer somehow, or else weave in some runes or something, she wasn't as protected as she would like.

Now there was a thought. Could she weave runes into the fabric for extra protection and still have them work? That would be easier without the Lycra, she knew. A fabric with less give wouldn't distort the runes in a topological sense when it folded because the geometry of the manifold would remain flat, but the stretchy Lycra-infused fabric would change their shapes. She might have to leave it for the outer robe and the lining of her coat only. Still, if it worked, it could do all kinds of things: impact-hardening, fire protection, maybe even temperature regulation…

In any case, both she and the Order had planning to do. A meeting had been called at Hogwarts, since the castle had been formally closed for the holiday and all the students sent home. The first order of business was what to use as a new Headquarters.

"Can't we just recast the Fidelius Charm on Grimmauld Place?" Hermione asked. She and Harry were the only current students allowed in the meeting. "Dumbledore can't have been the only person who could do it."

"He wasn't," Remus said, "but that assumes none of us have revealed the secret, even accidentally. The Fidelius Charm is useless for a secret that everybody already knows."

"The fact is, there aren't many options," Bill said. "It has to be private property. We can't just use Hogwarts or any other place where a lot of people have to go in and out. And unless we're desperate, it can't be someplace any of us are actually living."

"Minerva, don't you have a family home near here?" Remus asked.

"My brother lives there now," Professor McGonagall said. "I can ask, but I doubt he'll be willing to use it as more than a safe house. Severus, I don't suppose your house is in any condition—?"

"Pfft. A tiny muggle house in the poorest quarter of Cokeworth," Snape said. "We couldn't fit all of us in one room without magic. Besides, Narcissa Malfoy knows where it is."

"Sirius has money," Harry piped up. "So do I, for that matter. What if we just bought a new headquarters?"

"That would leave a parchment trail," Mad-Eye Moody growled. With Dumbledore gone, Moody was the best fighter and had already become the de facto leader of the Order. "It'd be risky at best."

"Even if you did it all through the muggle world?" Hermione said. "There'd still be a paper trail, but the Death Eaters wouldn't have any idea where to look for it."

That got some consideration. Several people looked to Snape. "It's worth a thought," he said. "It would still be difficult to hide it completely, but combined with a Fidelius Charm, it could work. It would take time though. We need something to carry us through in the interim."

Remus shook his head: "If it takes longer than the holidays, there's not much we can do besides break the Order into cells in separate safe-houses—limited contact."

"It'd be smart to do that anyway," Moody said. "Much safer if our information is compartmentalised, even if it slows us down."

Hermione nodded in agreement: "That's how muggle resistance movements do it."

"For goodness' sake, Miss Granger, we're not running a resistance movement!" McGonagall said.

"For how long, Professor? Everyone says the Ministry won't last long without Dumbledore around. If that's true, it'll happen sooner or later. How long do we have before they're co-opted?"

"I'm hopeful that we have at least a month," said Snape. "The Dark Lord wants to have many of his people or Imperiused puppets in place in the Ministry to ensure success. That will take time with the increased security."

"So set up the cells anyway," Hermione said, "or at least the safe-houses, if we haven't already. Sirius can look into getting us a new Headquarters—and anyone else who has a spare property available."

"In other words, keep our options open," Moody said. "Good to see someone has some sense around here. Best be warding your own homes, too. Can't be too careful these days."

Hermione couldn't ward her own home—not to the standards she wanted—not in a muggle area. She was of age, now, but there were tight regulations on casting area-effect magic in a muggle neighbourhood, and if the Ministry were compromised, they could learn a lot more than she wanted them to. Come to think of it, they already had her address on file. That was bad.

She was already worried for her parents, but it was eating at her more and more the past few days. She couldn't keep them safe while she was studying and helping the war effort at the same time, especially not when they were still running their dental clinic. This was something she'd need help with. She approached Fred and George after the meeting.

"What are you thinking, Hermione?" George asked.

"I'm thinking we need to do something about my parents," she said.

"You mean like get them to a safe-house?"

"That's one option. The thing is, the smart thing to do in their eyes would be to leave the country and take me with them."

"That would be the safe thing to do," George agreed.

"I know, and they could do it pretty quickly, but I'm not going," Hermione said. "For you, and for Harry."

"The horcrux problem?" Fred said softy.

"Yes. Dumbledore left me all his material on the subject. He gave me the job of saving Harry's life, and I'm not leaving it."

"You know you could still back out," George reminded her. "You could even work on the problem from overseas."

"I'm in this to the end, George, just like you," she said firmly. "Besides, I need to be close to Harry to examine him if I need to."

"But you want your parents safe?" Fred clarified.

"Yes. Safe and as far away from Voldemort as possible. I won't be able to focus if I'm worrying about them, too."

Fred nodded. "We know how you feel," he said. "You-Know-Who doesn't just operate in Britain, though—Dolohov, Karkaroff, all that time he spent in Albania…"

Hermione's face fell: "France won't be far enough will it."

"Not to hear Fleur tell it."

Hermione bit her lip and tried to think.

"What do you want to do?" George asked, pulling his arm tighter around her shoulders.

"I don't know…I had some ideas, but they're pretty wild, and they'll need some modifications…I think they're still doable, but the hard part will be convincing my parents to leave without me."

"Do you think you can?"

"That's the question, isn't it? I've pushed harder than I ever wanted to already. I threatened to run away from home rather than go back to Beauxbatons. I know legally they can't make me leave now, but I can't make them leave, either. So unless we do something really drastic…" She shivered and shook her head. "Could you come and talk to them with me?"

"Of course we will, Hermione," George said. "Don't worry. We'll find some way to make it work. And tell us what you're planning, and we'll see if we can improve it."

"Alright, then. Let's get started."

The plan they hammered out was a decent one, but it was useless if they couldn't convince her parents to go along with it. Hermione knew this would be the hardest part. That was one of the reasons she waited until after Christmas to break it to them. The Ministry was still standing, so that was good, but she was getting nervous. She really wasn't sure how much time they'd have.

"Hermione, we've been ready to leave the country for a year now if we had to," Mum said, "but you know we're not leaving without you."

"It's not going to work, Mum. I know you don't want me in danger, and I know we've had this conversation about six times, now, but I'm not going to leave."

"But why not?"

"The same reasons I told you before. I have to save Harry. I'm the only one who can."

"You keep saying that, Hermione, but you're only seventeen," Dad said.

"It's true, Mr. Granger," George said. "And you know ow brilliant your daughter is. She's probably the smartest witch or wizard in Britain who's still alive."

Dad raised an eyebrow at her boyfriend, but she quickly intervened. "Statistically, given the small magical population of Britain, there's a good chance he's right," she said. "And I could bring in Professor Snape or Professor Slughorn to confirm it. If I'm not the only one who can do it, I certainly have the best chance. I'm sorry, but I have to stay."

"Then I don't see why we can't either."

"I told you! Because the Death Eaters will kill you!" she shouted. "Even if you stayed in the country, you definitely can't stay in this house, and you definitely can't keep your practice. Our address is on file at the Ministry. All they'll have to do is look it up."

"But you said the Ministry doesn't normally intervene in the muggle world," Mum objected.

Hermione groaned: "The current Ministry. It'll be different when Voldemort takes over. You know what people like him do to people like you, and Narcissa Malfoy already has a vendetta against me."

"That's if he takes over the Ministry."

"No, Mum, when he takes over the Ministry. The time for maybes is over. Dumbledore is dead! Everyone who knows what they're talking about and is honest about it says Voldemort's going to make a move on the Ministry soon. And he's going to win. I've seen him fight. The Ministry can't repel firepower of that magnitude without Dumbledore's help."

There was silence in the living room for a minute.

"Did you just quote Star Wars at us?" Dad asked.

Hermione thought back over her words. "Bloody hell, I did, didn't I? I think I need more sleep. But it doesn't change anything. If you stayed in this country, the only way to keep you safe would be to send you to a safe-house. You wouldn't be able to leave. It would effectively be house arrest, and you'd be dependent on others to bring supplies. If the Secret-Keeper were killed, you could be compromised—or worse, cut off entirely with no way to get information in—and if you were compromised, you'd be sitting ducks, and I…" He voice broke. "I…wouldn't be able to…protect you."

"Hermione, it's not your responsibility—" Dad started.

"YES, IT BLOODY WELL IS!" she yelled, startling her parents and George and Fred back into their seats. "Face it. I have magic, and you don't." She pulled out her wand and held it out to them. "You see this? I can turn this into a shotgun, a pistol, a stun gun, a bulletproof shield, a hand grenade, poison gas, and a hundred nastier weapons in half a second. I carry three of them on me at all times. And the Death Eaters are even worse. They can mind-control you to kill your own family, torture you until you have so much brain damage you become a vegetable, and if they're in a hurry, they'll just use an instant death curse. You know I've spent the past five and a half years telling anyone who will listen that wizards aren't any better than muggles, but the fact is, when it comes to fighting, if you've got anything short of a machine gun, we are!"

Her parents looked on in horror. She lowered her wand, which she'd be brandishing like a sword, and slumped down onto the sofa in tears. Even George was warily keeping his distance. That wasn't the kind of thing one usually heard a muggle-born or an advocate for muggles say. "I can protect myself…" Hermione continued haltingly. "But I can't protect you…I wish I could so much…but I can't."

Mum got up and went to her daughter, pulling her into a tight hug. Hermione leaned her head against her chest and cried it out.

"Hermione, I didn't know…" Mum started, then corrected herself: "I've never heard you talk that way before."

Hermione sighed softly: "You've heard me say plenty about how amazing magic is. That's not that far different. But it has a dark side, too—a dark side filled with horrible things—things that are deadly beyond all reason. Look, muggles are pretty amazing too. We put a man on the moon. We have computers that can connect the world. And yes, I'll say it: we. I still consider myself half a muggle and proud of it. But for all that you can't win a fight against a wizard who's bent on killing you."

Fred and George watched, mostly providing moral support, although the Grangers could tell they wanted to help. "Look, Mr. and Mrs. Granger," Fred offered, "I don't know much about muggle fighting, but if Hermione says you can't win that fight, I believe her. She's not trying to sell you a bill of goods or anything like that. She knows what she's talking about."

"We know, Fred," Mum replied. "We trust Hermione, too. This is just hard to accept…"

"We already know all that stuff about magic, Hermione," Dad said. "Okay, I don't think we realised that the safe-house problem was so serious, but you don't need to tell us how dangerous magic is. We've seen enough of that to understand. We were just hoping you'd be willing to come with us."

She shook her head: "I'm sorry. I told you why I can't. Besides, after the things I've done, I'm probably pretty high on Voldemort's hit list. It would be safer for all of us if we split up."

Mum and Dad exchanged one of those silent conversations. It was eerie, the way parents could do that—and eerily like how George and Fred communicated. She thought she could do a decent job with Harry or even George, but not on that level. Not yet.

"God help me," Dad said, "but I think you're right."

"I don't want to accept it, but you've made it pretty clear," Mum agreed.

"So you'll go?" Hermione asked.

Dad sighed heavily: "Within reason, yes."

"You know we're going to worry the whole time," Mum said. "I wish it didn't have to be this way, but you've clearly made your decision."

Hermione sighed with relief. "Thank you," she said.

"But that's not the only problem," Dad pointed out. "You said something about France not being far enough."

"I'm afraid not, Mr. Granger," George agreed. "You-Know-Who has agents all over Europe."

"Australia would be better," Hermione said. "It would be doable, although I'd be worried about you being found out even there…It would be…it would be better if you got new identities. Of course, even then, there's the risk of slipping up—not a big risk if you stay away from the magical world, but it's still there. The absolute safest thing you could do would be to make sure you yourselves couldn't reveal your identities…" she trailed off and looked at her parents expectantly.

Mum stopped, holding her out at arm's length, and immediately became stern. "Hermione, if you're saying you want to alter our memories, we are drawing the line there. We are not letting you do that to us, and frankly, I'm surprise you would even suggest it. I thought you hated mind-altering magic."

Hermione gave her parents an uncomfortable smile: "I thought you would say that, Mum. It was just an idea. Someplace like Australia with false identities should be plenty."

"But if we're going to do that, we'll need to move fast," Fred jumped in. "How soon can you two get out of here?"

"Whoa, whoa, you two," Dad said. "When we said we were ready to leave, that didn't mean literally at a moment's notice. We need time to pack, at least, book the plane tickets, deal with the immigration issues. This is a complicated process, you know, especially going outside of Europe."

"We may not have much time," Hermione pleaded. "We really don't know how long the Ministry is going to stand."

"We'll just have to do the best we can, but it's going to take at least a few days," Dad replied. "Be thankful you convinced us at all. I still don't like it."

Hermione's heart sank. She felt like she'd taken too long with this as it was. "You know I'm going to be worried the whole time," she echoed.

"We'll do our best," Dad promised.

"I just hope it'll be enough," she said.

It was technically New Year's day, just after midnight when the cloaked figure came. Most muggles in Crawley were already asleep, too busy celebrating, or too drunk to notice anything awry at first. The house at Number 17 Salisbury Road was lighted, but relatively quiet. Nice, calm family gatherings were more typical in that part of town. No one noticed when a single dark-cloaked figure appeared from nowhere in the middle of the street with a soft crack. One witness who happened to be looking out the window at that moment noticed an odd-looking figure in a black robe and a white mask crossing the street, but thought it was just some weird hooligan at the time.

The cloaked figure stopped to check the name on the mailbox and proceeded up the front walk. It was only when they blasted the front door in with a small explosion that the neighbours noticed. Bright, coloured flashes of light, loud bangs and other, indeterminate sounds, and blood-curdling screams issued from Number 17. Windows blew out. The lights flickered off. There was a bang that was later determined to be the television exploding. The house was badly damaged, cracked down to the foundation, but the attack finally ended with two bright flashes of sickly green light, after which the house caught on fire.

The dark, cloaked figure stepped out of the flames, raised their wand to the sky, and conjured a ghostly green shape of a skull with a snake emerging from its mouth above the house. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, they vanished into the shadows.

The house burnt hot and fast. By the time the fire department arrived and put out the flames, it was a total loss. An hour later, two bodies were pulled from the wreckage. They showed evidence of both lacerations and gunshot wounds, but they were so badly burnt that they had to be identified from their dental records. There was a sort of sick irony that they were a pair of dentists—Daniel and Emma Granger, the owners of the house, survived by one daughter who had been at a friend's house for the holiday. Muggle witnesses variously described it as a robbery gone wrong or else a bizarre terrorist attack.

Molly Weasley was the first one up at the Burrow on New Year's morning—a habit borne of years of feeding a large family and keeping chickens besides. But she was immediately on alert when she heard a whimpering sound and a feeble knock at the door. Wand drawn, she peaked through the curtain and then quickly threw open the door to find a sobbing Hermione Granger standing on her front porch.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Weasley," she choked out. "I just…I just didn't have anywhere else to go."