Disclaimer: Merry Christmas to all, and to all JK Rowling.
A/N: I apologise if I have misrepresented Hinduism in any way in this chapter. I tried to get the terms and concepts right using a range of sources, but Hinduism is a diverse religion with many schools of thought, and it is hard for someone who is not well-versed in it to make accurate, definitive statements.
"Now for the latest news on the movements of the Chief Death Eater," Fred spoke into the microphone. "We can confirm for our listeners tonight that You-Know-Who was definitely sighted this week in Kent, attacking a muggle-born family, whose identities will remain secret for safety's sake. One member of the family was killed, while three others escaped to an undisclosed location. This marks just one of several attacks by Death Eaters against muggle-born families with young children since the beginning of September. And it is with deep sadness that we inform you that Puddlemere United Keeper Oliver Wood was also killed in the incident whilst trying to protect the family. He will be deeply missed. While we do not wish to detract from this tragedy, we have more important news to give you from that incident."
"First, the good news," George continued. "On that very night, Harry Potter was seen engaging the Chief Death Eater in aerial combat, and he escaped unscathed."
"Why is this good news, you ask?" said Fred. "Well, for one, it means that Harry is still out there, fighting the good fight—"
"—and for another," said George, "it means that Harry faced You-Know-Who and escaped yet again."
"That's got to put a damper on the Dark Tosser's mood doesn't it, Raccoon?" Fred cut in.
"Indubitably, Red Fox. However, now for the not-so-good news. There are a lot of wild rumours circulating about the Chief Death Eater, and tonight, dear listeners, we can confirm one of them: You-Know-Who…can fly…without a broom."
"Yes, reports are that the Chief Death Eater was swooping around like an overgrown bat all on his own, even better than the impression that Severus Snape always makes. No broomstick in sight. Let's go back to our arithmancy guru, Lady Archimedes, to explain the importance of this."
Hermione leaned into her microphone and tried to sound professional, even though her heart wasn't really in it. They were spinning this so hard to make it sound like a solid victory rather than a narrow escape. It galled her, but you couldn't be too picky in wartime. "Thank you, Red Fox," she said. "You-Know-Who was seen flying without a broomstick. This is a truly shocking development because it is supposed to be impossible to fly unassisted."
"But is it, really?" asked George.
"Not precisely. You can levitate a person a few feet off the ground, or you can lift them up by their clothes. There are half a dozen spells that can do it in regular use. On the other hand, to fly under one's power without the aid of any broomstick, creature, or other magical aide is widely considered by charms experts and arithmancers to be impossible. However, this has never been arithmantically proved. The Unsupported Flight Conjecture is one of the great unsolved problems in arithmancy."
"And you believe the Chief Death Eater found an answer."
"It certainly looks that way, Raccoon, but I'm sceptical. You-Know-Who is smart, but I would have thought arithmancy of this calibre to be beyond him. If it wasn't an outright trick, I suspect this spell was actually the work of his chief arithmancer, Augustus Rookwood, which is especially worrying because it means there are probably other Death Eaters who can do this, too."
"Now keep in mind, there's no need to panic," Fred jumped in. "The Death Eaters were always able to attack on brooms. This flying business is just to look scary. It doesn't make them any more powerful than they were before." That was an oversimplification. Without a broom, You-Know-Who was more manoeuvrable and had both his hands free, but close enough. "Lady Archimedes, do you think you could replicate this feat?"
"I don't know," she said honestly. "I've never had cause to look much into it myself. Given time I'm sure I could, but as you said, it's really just about looking impressive. I have more productive things to do with my time than Rookwood apparently does." Take that, she thought.
"Well, there you have it. No need to fear death from above."
"At least no more than usual."
"Yes. And that's all we have for you tonight on Radio Free Britain. Next week's password will be 'Mad-Eye.' Until then, keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night and good luck."
Hermione leafed through her notes trying to solve her problem—the one that was still plaguing her: the Soul-Detection Charm. She'd reacted to her mistake in Kent that had cost Mr. Clarke his life by throwing herself deeper into her work. She'd gone to the muggle house because she was worried her spell was specially distinguishing wizards in some way instead of detecting souls like it was supposed to, and if that had been the case, she would have needed a prolonged session with one of them to run more extensive tests and finally get it working right. It was important to find out, and in that sense, it was arguably worth it, but it was ultimately moot. Muggles and wizards showed up the same under the charm.
She eventually had to admit that she didn't know what the spell was doing. The way she understood the concept of a soul, animals shouldn't show up at all. But maybe, she reasoned, she didn't fully understand the concept. After fumbling around for a while, she admitted she didn't have the resources she needed. She bit the bullet, left the building, disguised, and went into town.
She found a religious bookstore in the phone book and made a beeline for that one rather than the regular bookstore. An hour later, she left, feeling confident about her purchases: a Tanakh, a Septuagint, a Greek New Testament, a Vulgate just in case she needed it, and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries. That should be enough, she thought.
It ought to be a simple matter to figure out exactly what was meant by the word "soul"—that word that she knew absolutely was the key because it was used in Secrets of the Darkest Art. However, she soon found there was a snag in that idea. There were actually two words in the Bible that described what seemed to be the concept of an immortal soul: "soul" and "spirit." And these seemed to be direct translations of the Greek psyche and pneuma, respectively. For example, in English, Matthew 16:26 read, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" And in her Greek copy, the word for "soul" was psyche. That was fine. However, in Luke 23:46, where "spirit" was clearly used in the same way: "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," the Greek word was pneuma.
The two words were subtly different on closer inspection. Psyche seemed to be the narrower word, used exclusively for talking about literal souls, while pneuma could also mean "breath". And she found there was some distinction between the two when she dug deeper. Hebrews 4:12 read, "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit." Psyches kai pnematos.
That gave her pause. If she was detecting pneuma and not psyche, that would be a perfectly valid reason for both humans and animals to read on the spell. But then, why did they look different? Could she be distinguishing between the two as well?
Maybe the Old Testament would give her a clue. The Hebrew ruach seemed to be used in pretty much the same way as the Greek pneuma, for both "spirit" and "breath". But the Hebrew word for "soul"—that was different. The word was nephesh, and it was used not just for "soul", but also for "life" or "living creature". Nephesh could apply to animals. Not all animals—according to the dictionary, it applied to all vertebrates, including fish (despite not having literal breath), but not to insects and other invertebrates, and yet her spell still pinged on cockroaches.
It seemed, though, that the ancients did believe some animals had a degree of spiritual existence. The distinguishing feature of human beings in the Old Testament was not nephesh, but tzelem Elohim, "the image of God." So in that respect, the problem wasn't as dire as she'd thought. And the fact that the wizarding world had as close as you could come to concrete proof of the existence of souls made her put a fair amount of stock in it. But that still didn't fully solve her problem. Her spell didn't precisely fit any of the terms she'd looked up, and even if she were detecting both psyche and pneuma, she shouldn't be able to. Atma Prakata was only designed to detect one thing—
"Oh, I'm an idiot," she said.
She got the communication mirror from Harry and called to Hogwarts. "This is what I get for trying to do religious philosophy and spellcrafting at the same time," she muttered.
Luna's face appeared in the mirror. "Hello, Hermione," she said. "We weren't expecting a call from you tonight."
"I know. Password is 'de Gaulle.' Something came up."
"Is something wrong?" she asked with a frown.
"Not wrong, per se," Hermione said. "Could you put Padma on, please? Parvati too if she's available."
Luna tilted her head in thought, and Hermione belatedly realised that it would sound odd to ask for both sisters on a research project. "Is there anything happening with their family?" she asked.
"No, nothing like that," Hermione said. "I need to talk to them about one of my projects." She hoped the pair would be able to help. She knew Parvati, at least, wasn't all that observant from her time rooming with her, but the Patils were practising Hindus.
"Okay. Can you wait a few minutes? I'll bring them someplace more private."
"You read my mind. Thank you, Luna."
Luna's face vanished, and Hermione waited. A few minutes later, the Patil Twins appeared, squeezing their faces into the field of view.
"Hi, Hermione," they said.
"Hi, Parvati, Padma."
"So what's up?" Parvati asked.
Hermione sighed: "I need your help with a spell."
Parvati gaped melodramatically. "You need our help?"
"Yes, yes, laugh it up. What I'm about to tell you is under the strictest secrecy, you understand?"
That made them get serious. "Okay. What is it?" asked Padma.
"I created a spell to detect atman without fully understanding what it meant."
Padma smacked her forehead.
Parvati groaned: "Hermione, how do you make half the stuff you do these days sound like a violation of the laws of nature?"
"From a muggle perspective, that describes all of magic," she said coolly. "Trust me when I say it's important."
"Fine, but still…" Padma said. "Okay, and what did it do?"
Hermione described the basics of her Soul-Detection Charm, what she wanted it to do—detect "dark spirits" as she called them and distinguish them from humans—and the results when she cast it on various targets. Parvati and Padma listened curiously, but ultimately explained how misguided she was.
"I can understand why it didn't work as intended," Parvati said. "You're trying to impose a Western concept of soul onto a philosophy where it doesn't really fit. I'm not sure why it didn't trip on plants or rocks, though."
"Rocks?" Hermione said in confusion.
"It's…complicated," Padma explained. "Atman means different things to different people. It literally means the innermost self, basically, but that's open to interpretation. In monist schools, Atman is said to be the same as the universal soul, Brahman, which pervades even inanimate objects."
"You mean pantheism," Hermione said.
"If that's the way you'd put it. That's also Western terminology. But dualistic schools say different. They say the universal soul is different from individual souls, jivatman or jiva, and as a Christian, I'm sure you we're been thinking that way."
"But either way, the Hindu concept of soul can mean…Well, are you familiar with Samsara?"
"Close enough. In Samsara, the soul, whatever you want to call it, can be reborn in the body of a human, an animal, a spirit, or depending who you ask, maybe even a plant. It doesn't exactly distinguish between them."
"But my spell did," Hermione protested. "I created a spell that's called Atma Prakata, and it distinguishes animals, humans, and spirits, and doesn't pick up plants at all."
"Wait, so you don't believe animals have souls?" Parvati cut in.
Hermione sighed. "Christians believe they don't, but the original Hebrew usage of the word included some animals—vertebrates and only vertebrates. But my spell still picks up insects."
"You know, this really sounds like more of a question for Professor Flitwick," Parvati said. "It sounds like your arithmancy worked as intended, right?"
"It looks like it did," Hermione said. "But I need to know if I'm interpreting it correctly before I go on."
"Then that's definitely a Charms question. Would you trust him if we asked him?"
"I…yes, I suppose so."
"Okay, can you wait a while? The Carrows are watching the teachers as much as the students. We'll need to talk to Neville about checking the Map to make sure they don't notice of us."
"Of course. Call again when it's safe."
"By, Hermione," they said, and the mirror switched off.
In took nearly an hour for the Parvati and Padma to contact her again. This time, Professor Flitwick's face also appeared in the view in his office.
"Ah, an ingenious little device," the professor said. "I remember James Potter and his friends using these. Oh, hello, Miss Granger."
"How may I help you this evening."
"Well, I'm working on a spell. I can't tell you what I'm using it for, but it's meant to be a Soul-Detection Charm." Hermione and the Patils then explained her problem a second time to Professor Flitwick and the linguistic and philosophical difficulties they were having. Flitwick listened attentively and considered the problem.
"I think there is no great difficulty, Miss Granger," he concluded. "I trust your arithmancy, and given that, I see no reason not to take the results of your spell at face value."
"Then why doesn't it match any of the words?" she asked.
"Magic is intent, after all. You used the Hindu word, intending the Christian or Judeo-Christian concept, not knowing there were vital differences, and your intent won out. But intent can also be collective. And interpretive. You applied this concept of nephesh to your spell. You say that nephesh does not apply to insects, but I think it is likely that the ancient writers would have interpreted insects as nephesh if they had the understanding of life we do now, and those things also played into your spell."
Hermione closed her eyes. "Anything with a brain," she muttered. "The same as the Killing Curse."
"Excuse me?" Flitwick said with raised eyebrows.
"I convinced Professor Snape to do some animal tests last year. There's a fitting symmetry there that I probably should have seen before."
"Oh. I see," he said, looking uncomfortable.
"Well, the main thing is, the spell works," she said. "Thank you, Professor. Now I can move on to the next step."
"I don't know what next step you could possibly be making from here, but I wish you luck, Miss Granger. Good night."
"Good night, Professor, Parvati, Padma. Mirror off."
November turned into December. With her Soul-Detection Charm in hand, and her other results from the past year, Hermione now felt like she had a good lead for getting rid of regular horcruxes. She wasn't certain Dumbledore would have approved, but she wasn't going to hold back on his account. The way forward looked challenging, but clear, and she pursued it doggedly. It would take time, though.
She'd also poked at the problem of You-Know-Who's—or rather Rookwood's—flight spell when she needed a break, but she didn't have any insights there. She had no idea how he'd pulled that one off. She took her own advice and didn't spend too much time on the problem.
The Order was continuing to fight the good fight. Hermione didn't know a whole lot about what was going on. Only so much was passed through to Radio Free Britain and Liberation, and it took time when it was, but that was as it should be. At least there wasn't too much more bad news for a little while. She made a little time to give people helpful tips over the wireless like basic spells and security tactics anyone could use. It was going as smoothly as it could under the circumstances.
The next news from Hogwarts, however, was not good.
"Harry…" Neville said in a hollow voice on the communication mirror. "They took Luna."
"What?" Harry gasped, and in moments everyone was crowded around him. Mr. Lovegood was there at once, standing over Harry, as white as a sheet.
"Wh-wh-what happened, Mr. Longbottom," her father said.
"Mr. Lovegood, I'm sorry," Neville said. "They found out—or maybe they guessed, I reckon—that you were printing Liberation."
Mr. Lovegood swooned, and Fred had to put a stool under him so he wouldn't fall over. "My Luna," he cried. "Did I say something wrong? Did I drop a line about Nargles in by accident?"
"I don't know, sir," Neville said. Now that she looked closer, Hermione could see he'd been crying, himself. "I don't think so. I don't know if they had anything to go on but the timing."
"How did it happen?" Harry asked.
"They just took her. You know how many Death Eaters there are around here. We—the D.A.—we've been guarding people we thought were at risk, but they just came in force and overpowered us. I…couldn't stop them," he sobbed softly. "I lost her."
"Do you know anything else, Neville?" Harry demanded. "Do you know where they took her? What they want?"
"They want to stop Liberation, of course," he said. "They didn't exactly leave a note, but they said why they took her like they knew it'd get back to you, Mr. Lovegood. I don't know where she is. I wish I did. I'd go in there and tear the place apart—" His voice cracked, and he broke off.
Hermione patted Mr. Lovegood's shoulder. "We'll get the Order on it," she said. "We won't force you to keep printing the paper. We can keep going and try to bluff that it's not you, or—"
"I don't know," he said shakily. "I just don't know."
"Hermione," Neville said from the mirror. "There's something else you should know. There was…there was a lot of fighting when they took her, and…Hermione, it's Septima."
Hermione felt her knees go weak, and George quickly grabbed hold of her to keep her on her feet. "Is she…"
"She alive, but…she's in bad shape. Madam Pomfrey's got her now, but I think she'd have been transferred to St. Mungo's if Pomfrey trusted them."
Hermione raised one trembling hand to grab onto her boyfriend's arm. "George, I need your help," she said.
Hermione and George took their two remaining brooms on the same path she had taken with Harry weeks ago: Apparating to the woods, flying under the Lake, and floating up from the Anchor Stones. Going out in the field was far from her thing, but this was personal. Even Harry understood, and he lent her the Marauder's Map for the trip.
Daphne met them at the base of the Grand Staircase with her wand out. "Password?" she asked.
"Montgomery," Hermione said. "How is she?"
The Slytherin girl dithered a bit. "She's awake," she said. "The D.A.'s guarding her. She made some people really mad, so we're trying to protect her. Madam Pomfrey's covering for us saying whoever's in there is there for something boring or personal."
"Thank you," Hermione said.
They proceeded up to the Infirmary, keeping hidden. Once there, Daphne entered first. All Hermione could see was an area in the back that was curtained off, a boy sitting on a nearby bed, turned away from her, and Madam Pomfrey busy cleaning.
"Madam Pomfrey," Daphne said. "I brought visitors."
The Mediwitch turned toward them and looked at the seemingly alone Daphne. "Who is it, Miss Greengrass?"
Hermione and George cancelled the Disillusionment Charms on themselves.
"Miss Granger!" Pomfrey gasped. "Mr. Weasley!"
"Hi," Hermione said. "I had to see…"
"Of course. Of course. I understand completely. This way." Madam Pomfrey ushered them to the back and motioned for them to wait outside the curtain. It was then that Hermione noticed who the boy was sitting on the opposite bed with his wand in his lap.
"Zabini!" she exclaimed, drawing her wand.
"Zabini?" George said.
But to her surprise, Zabini flinched and dropped his wand. "Don't hurt me!" he said, putting his hands up.
"Easy, Granger. He's with us," Daphne whispered, putting her hand on her shoulder.
Hermione half turned to face her, not taking her wand off the boy. "He's not a Death Eater?" she asked.
Daphne winced a little, and Zabini rubbed his left arm.
"He is?!" she hissed.
"Megan says he's okay."
Hermione's eyes widened in understanding. "The boyfriend?" she said, glancing back at Zabini. "He's her boyfriend?"
"I'm as surprised as you, Granger."
"She trusts him? Wait, you trust him?" Sure, there were people who went against their families in Slytherin, but Blaise Zabini was famous for his mother being widowed seven times over. He was the sort of boy you strongly warned girls not to associate with on general principle.
"Are we good, Granger?" Zabini asked. "Don't turn me into anything…unnatural?"
Hermione's face fell, and she lowered her wand. "I've got a reputation now, don't I?"
"Er…Theo's dad told everyone what you did to Umbridge," Zabini said. "Word gets around."
"Hey, the more you scare them, the better," George said. She didn't feel convinced.
Daphne motioned Hermione off to the side. "Don't worry about it, Granger," she said. "If you scare some Death Eaters, so much the better. Look, Blaise's had plenty of chances to capture or kill Megan by now. The Death Eaters don't like her because of her sister, and the Dark Lord would've made him do it if he knew about them. We're keeping an eye on him, but we're pretty sure he's legit. And we definitely trust him enough to guard our Head of House."
Hermione looked to Septima's curtained off the bed. In all the chaos, she'd forgotten that she was the new Head of Slytherin this year.
"Miss Granger," Madam Pomfrey said. "Septima is ready to see you. Just…try to go easy on her. She's not at her best. And…keep the visitors to a minimum." She looked apologetically at George.
Hermione stepped through the curtain alone and saw Septima half-sitting up on the bed, propped up on some pillows. Physically, she didn't look too bad—just some bruises—but appearances could be deceiving with magical healing. She was wearing thick glasses like Professor Trelawney used to.
Septima extended a trembling hand to her. "Hermione," she said. "Thank you for coming. But…it's dangerous, you know. Death Eaters everywhere. I don't…know if you should have come."
"The Carrows are watching out for intruders, and I'm…afraid of what they'll do if they find you here."
"I had to come, Septima," Hermione said. "And I know how to get around unseen. No one saw me. What happened?"
Septima sighed and lowered her gaze. "Well…there was a disturbance this morning after breakfast when I was on my way to class. Your friends have been watching each other's backs this year. They never go anywhere alone, and I…guess they've appointed lieutenants in each house to make sure everyone is safe. So when there are fights, it usually means a group of them against…Death Eater sympathisers—"
"I know, Septima," Hermione interrupted. "I've been in touch."
"Oh…right. Well…ah, I've lost my train of thought."
"The disturbance this morning."
"Yes. There was a lot of shouting, and a lot of the teachers heard. I went to look, and…you remember when Umbridge was driven out of the castle by Dumbledore's Army? It was like that, except there were a lot of Slytherin students, and it had already come to curses. Two of them had Miss Lovegood, and they were dragging her off."
"To You-Know-Who?" Hermione said.
"No…or that's not what they said. No one really said what the real story was, but they said she was…" Septima screwed up her face in concentration. "Wanted…something like wanted for questioning about…propaganda against the Ministry…I don't remember, exactly, so I might have got the story wrong, but I think that's what it was—"
"I—I know why they took her, Septima," Hermione said. "Neville told me."
Hermione frowned at her teacher. She was rambling. She couldn't seem to finish her thoughts when she spoke, and she would get stuck on some of them. If you didn't know her, you might not even notice anything was wrong. It wasn't too far outside the norm, but the difference from how she spoke before was obvious. Something awful must have happened.
"So they said they were taking Luna to the Ministry?" she continued.
"Yes," Septima said, "but I don't think anyone believed them. The Carrows and Professor Crouch were helping them take her—to take Miss Lovegood. There were…there were a lot more of Dumbledore's army trying to fight them. The rest of the teachers got involved, but we were more worried—they were using all sorts of dark curses, and we were worried about keeping the other students safe, especially—and they were even using Cruciatus Curses, and they were especially after the Slytherins."
Hermione gasped. "I…I think I'm starting to understand," she said.
"There's more, Granger," Daphne said from behind her. "Tracey and Georgina were with the group that tried to save Lovegood. The other Death Eaters were mad that they joined in."
"What about you?" Hermione asked.
"I was stopping Astoria from joining in. She'd have only got herself hurt. Blaise was on the other side, but he was just making a show of it, for what it's worth. He had to. He couldn't go against the other Death Eaters. Anyway, it was a cluster. The teachers were trying to save Lovegood and trying to stop the Death Eaters from hurting the students at the same time. Nott, Crabbe, and Goyle went after Tracey and Georgina, and…"
Hermione suddenly looked around nervously. "Where are they?" she asked.
Septima started crying. "Detention," she said. "The same thing—the same…"
"Detention mean Cruciatus," Daphne said coldly. "At least, it does for something that serious. Slytherins working against what's clearly the Dark Lord's orders, even if they don't say it? Tracey tried to run, but she couldn't just hide in the Room forever. Professor Vector tried to protect Georgina."
"She's only a fourth year," Septima sobbed. "I tried to say she was too young to understand…"
"They didn't give her the chance. They Crucioed her before she could talk. Not that it would've matter. I've seen them Crucio firsties."
"That's how you got hurt?" Hermione breathed.
"N-no," Septima said. "When they…hit me, I…hit my head."
"Take it easy, Professor," Daphne said. "She doesn't remember very well. She was under the curse long enough to do permanent damage, but that wasn't the worst. When they tortured her, she cracked her head on the floor. Repeatedly." Hermione squeaked in horror and raised her hands to her mouth. "It was bad. Worse than they do to the students. They knew they could get away with it. There was blood everywhere, and I didn't think she'd make it after she passed out and went limp. Then Hagrid went berserk and hit Amycus so hard he nearly killed him."
"Hagrid!" Hermione said.
"Yeah. They chased him out of the castle, but they got away with Lovegood in the scuffle."
"Oh, Hagrid," she sighed. "So, the head injury, Septima?"
Septima sobbed harder and buried her face in her hands: "I'm sorry, Hermione. I'm so, so sorry. I can't be of any help to you anymore. I've lost it…I've lost it all!"
"What? Lost what?" Hermione said.
"Arithmancy!" she yelled, and Hermione recoiled in horror. "I can't do it anymore. I've tried, but my memory…my memory is shot, and…I'm struggling just to add and subtract without making a mistake."
Hermione was frozen for a minute. Finally, she felt George putting his arms around her from behind, and she turned and clung to him. She felt tears running down her cheeks. Her voice caught in her throat. "You're…you're still healing, aren't you?" She turned to the Slytherin girl. "Daphne?"
Daphne shook her head: "You'll have to ask Madam Pomfrey."
"I heard everything, Miss Granger," the matron said. She stepped around the curtain and looked pointedly looked at Septima. Septima nodded, giving her permission. "I understand muggle healing for head injuries can be quite slow," she said, "but it's usually quite quick with magic. Even if someone is out for a few hours, a witch will be back to normal in a day or two—if it's possible. But sme things magic just can't heal—especially with the Cruciatus Curse involved. I expect Septima will show improvement with further recovery and retraining, but…it'll be a miracle if she's ever able to teach again."
At that, Hermione broke down completely and buried her face in George's shoulder, sobbing. Traumatic brain injury. Perhaps the cruelest curse of all—robbing her of her faculties, her memory, her talents, and her livelihood. Irreversible and, to add insult to injury, no magic. It was one of Hermione's own greatest fears—a fear so deep that she hardly even dared think it—having the thing that was so much of her life ripped away from her forever.
She wasn't sure how long she was there. The next thing she knew, she was sitting on a bed, still clinging to George. Zabini had left the room, and Daphne was standing at a respectful distance.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I can't…"
"It's okay, Hermione," Septima said automatically.
"It's not!" she said.
"Uh—no, I suppose it's not. But I have faith in you. You need to worry about yourself."
"But you're the one who…"
"Yes, but you—you're more valuable than I am. Dumbledore himself as good as said it, so don't—and I could see it too ages ago. So don't try to deny it."
Hermione wiped her eyes and forced a small smile. "Septima, what are you going to do?"
"Don't worry about me. I have a few options once I'm well enough to leave."
She sighed, then had another thought. "Oh! but your replacement—"
"I know," she said. "I don't want to have another Death Eater in the castle, corrupting the students and hurting them, but do you know Mr. Tinworth from Annals of Arithmancy?" Hermione nodded. "He was there at that award ceremony when you were there, and I think you've written to him a couple times. He kept his head down during the whole thing with Umbridge, so I can tell he'll stay away from being politically objectionable, and he'll be a good teacher. Anyway, I made sure he knew he owed me a favour after he wouldn't give you the Wenlock Prize, so—just for the rest of the school year—I called him in to take over—just hoping we won't have to worry about next year."
"We probably won't be able to avoid one of the Death Eaters taking over as head of Slytherin, though," Daphne said.
"How much trouble will that cause?" said Hermione.
Daphne shrugged: "It'll be a lot harder for Slytherins to join in any D.A. stuff without Professor Vector to cover for us. Probably not a lot else. It's bad enough already."
Hermione was about to point out any number of ways things could get worse when Hannah Abbott provided a distraction by coming into the Infirmary at a dead run.
"Hermione! You have to go now!" she said. "I don't know how, but they know you're here!"
George was on his feet before Hermione was. He pulled her to the exit, and she nearly tripped going down the stairs. When they reached the third floor, they pulled in different directions. The Hospital Wing was near an exit, but not the way they came in.
"No, there's no time," George said when he realised she was heading back to the Anchor Stones. "Get the brooms out again. We'll make for the Forest."
She stopped to open her handbag and pulled out the brooms they'd flown in on under the Lake.
"Go! Go! Follow me!" George yelled.
Curses flew past them, and Hermione jumped on her broom and flew unsteadily after George. She wasn't used to flying indoors (and neither was he, to be honest). Hermione slashed behind her with curses of her own, though she was mostly hoping the reputation Zabini had alluded to would work in her favour. There was a boom as George blasted the doors open and flew out into the Clock Tower Courtyard. She followed him above the covered bridge and out towards the Forbidden Forest, over the trees.
"Do you think we lost them?" she called over the wind.
"I think so," he said. "We just have to get outside the wards—"
A bolt of red light flew past them. Hermione looked over her shoulder and saw three pursuers, also on broomsticks.
"Scratch that! Dive! Dive! Dive!" he yelled. George dropped down and flew into the trees. He slowed to be able to dodge them, but Hermione still couldn't keep up, barely weaving between the tree trunks without hitting them.
"AHH! George, I—AH! I can't do this!"
"Dammit!" He slowed enough to pull alongside her and held his hand out to her. "Get on my back!"
"What? Are you crazy?"
"Just do it!"
She grabbed his hand with both of hers and squeezed her eyes shut as he pulled her off her own broom and onto his back, where she held him tight. A moment later, she felt a stick hit her. He'd flipped her broom around somehow and was trying to hand it back to her. She struggled to get it back into her handbag as he accelerated. If she'd known they'd be flying through the Forest, she would have started with just one. She screamed and held him tight as he sped up to what seemed a suicidal pace through the trees. There were still spells flying past them, not that anyone could hit anything at these speeds.
"Hermione, I need your wand," he said.
She peaked out and looked over her shoulder, trying to shut out the sight of trees flying past her. Three broom riders were closing in on them from behind, but there was no way she could hit a small target in these conditions. She had to use the terrain. Concentrating on a very specific area to target, she waved her wand in a long arc directly over her head and cast, "Facite Aqua Lignorum!"
Huge tree limbs snapped off at the trunks under their own weight and crashed to the ground behind them as her spell destroyed their structural strength, barricading their way.
"Woo! Whatever that was, keep doing it!" George said.
Wind and flame roared out behind them, blowing the barricade aside. Hermione tried to drop another one on top of their pursuers but the wind was already blowing George off course, and a hail of twigs bombarded them.
"Who's that! What's goin' on, there?" a voice called.
"Watch out!" George yelled.
Hermione turned to see what he was warning about only to duck when she saw an arrow fly past her head. They swung wide as they emerged into a clearing.
"Get 'em, Grawpy!"
George and Hermione zipped by just as Grawp lifted a log that had to weigh three or four hundred pounds and swung it at the first pursuer. Hagrid fired another crossbow bolt at the second. Hermione and George both started casting hexes, and they were quickly put to rout.
The two giants turned to them, and they flinched back, but Hagrid said, "Easy, Grawpy. Hermione! George! Er, it is George, isn't it?"
"Hermy!" thundered Grawp. Hermione waved to him nervously.
"Yeah. Thanks for the save, Hagrid," George said.
"Weren't no trouble. But what're yeh doin' here?"
"We had to see Septima," Hermione said.
"Ohhh…Should've known, then. Yeh shouldn't take such risks on her account, though, and I'm sure she'd tell yeh that, too."
"We thought we'd be okay. I still don't even know how they knew we were there."
Hagrid grumbled. "Who knows how them Death Eaters know everythin'. How is Septima, then?"
She shook her head: "Not good. Head injury. She's stable, but Madam Pomfrey doesn't think she'll ever be able to teach again."
"Oh, no!" he said in horror. "Not Septima. Oh, and that's got ter be awful for yeh, too."
"I know. She…she said you defended her."
"Said you nearly killed Amycus Carrow," George added.
"Yeah. Wish I had," he growled.
"He was the one who did it?" Hermione asked.
"Uh huh—wait, yer not thinkin' of goin' after him, are yeh, Hermione?"
"I just want to know," she said. She didn't know what she'd do if she actually got the chance. "I know you were her friend, too. Thank you."
"Had teh do it, yeh know. Did they at least save Luna?"
"No, I'm sorry. They got her. We don't know where she is."
Hagrid sighed and sat down hard enough that the ground shook. And then Grawp sat down beside him and nearly knocked Hermione and George off their feet. "Terrible business," he muttered. "Terrible." Hagrid and Luna didn't even get along that well despite their mutual love of animals, but she knew he'd be blaming himself for her capture as much as for Septima's injury. "An' they took her 'cause of her dad, didn't they."
"They couldn't prove it, but yes."
"We'd better go soon," George said. "Are you gonna be okay out here, Hagrid. I guess you got chased off the grounds."
"Sure, I'll be fine," he said. "I've lived out in the wilderness before."
"You'll be safe here?" Hermione asked.
"Course I will. Ain't nothin' gonna mess with me an' Grawp, here."
"At least let me give you…" she started.
"I don' need anythin', Hermione. You'd better get out of here before there's any more trouble."
"I've got one thing, though." She dug through her handbag to find her one spare dagger—a larger one than her stiletto that she'd made and briefly considered adding to her kit before deciding against it. At Hagrid's size it would be the perfect size for a survival knife. "Give me five minutes, and I can put a handle your size on this."
"Yeh don' need teh."
"I'm not going to use it. And I guarantee it'll be the toughest and sharpest knife you've ever owned. Unless you're hiding a goblin-made dagger somewhere." She carried a bag of charcoal in her handbag as well to use to make nanotubes in a pinch, and it did take only five minutes for her to build a handle sized of Hagrid's hand. She handed it to him, and it tried it on a tree branch. It cleaved right through.
"Blimey! Thanks, Hermione," he said.
"Happy Christmas, Hagrid. Let's go."
They made it back to the factory without any trouble. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before they heard from the Order that the Death Eaters were, at what must have been an enormous expenditure of labour, extending the Caterwauling Charm from Hogsmeade over the entire Unplottable Area around Hogwarts—ten times the area it covered before. Their last safe route into Hogwarts was closed.
A/N: So I ended up making another significant cut in my outline here. I originally had a big subplot planned with Blaise turning spy in a close parallel to how Snape did, but it just didn't fit—not in Hermione's story, anyway. There's no reason for him to go to her in particular, and I realised it didn't even matter beyond what became the second half of this chapter, so I cut it down to just a cameo. As of now, the final battle is pencilled in to begin in Chapter 76.