Chapter 10: Discoveries

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Harry was just about finished with his breakfast when Neville entered the Great Hall wearing a pair of sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt. Harry jumped up and rushed towards him.

"Good morning, Harry." Neville greeted him with a smile.

"Good morning, Neville. I'm sorry if I had Dobby wake you up for this," he smiled sheepishly.

Neville chuckled, "It's alright, Harry. I was already up doing my routine when Libby came to me about your request. He nodded towards Harry's abandoned meal, "Are you just about done with your breakfast? I'm sorry for the wait; I was in the middle of my routine when Libby came to tell me about your request."

"It's alright, Nev. I was happy to indulge Dobby. And no, I didn't mind waiting for you," Harry assured him.

Neville grinned, "Alright then, come with me."

Harry fell into step with Neville, and together they exited the now empty hall. They were quiet for a while, neither seem to know how to start a casual conversation which Harry completely understood. He had been absent for a considerable time and being around him might be as overwhelming as much he felt the same thing too.

"Er, how is everyone?" Harry started, he threw Neville a glance.

Neville gave him a sidelong glance before he smiled at Harry's attempt at small talk, he guided Harry up the second floor. "As good as you might expect, we manage." he sighed then pointed towards what Harry remembered as Moaning Myrtle's bathroom.

Harry threw Neville a bewildered look.

Neville caught it and laughed, "I don't know what you're thinking, Harry. But follow me."

Harry kept the confused look on his face but remained quiet. He followed Neville into the bathroom and then started to gape at the different interior. Gone were the toilets and sinks except for one cubicle that Harry remembers to belong to Myrtle.

As if on cue the ghost appeared and circled him closely.

"Well, hello there, Harry." Myrtle greeted seductively and tried to press herself closer.

Some things never change.

Harry grinned at the ghost, "Hi, Myrtle. How have you been?"

The ghost frowned, then snorted, "How do you think I have been?"

Myrtle was just about to go on one of her angry rants when Neville interrupted the two.

"Sorry, Myrtle," he eyed the ghost sternly when she tried to object at the interruption, "But Harry is here with me. He will come visit with you some other time."

Instead of replying, the ghost pouted before she walked, er, floated away from the two boys, muttering as she went out the room.

Harry chuckled as he watched her go, "Glad to know she's still the same."

Neville rolled his eyes, "She drives everyone barmy sometimes." he laughs, "But you're right, of all the things that had happened, she had been consistent, and it's nice to know that some of us can stay the same."

Harry sobered at what Neville just said.

Neville noticed the shift in Harry, so he changed the subject right away, "Okay so, this is where we decided to house the Guardians."

Harry gave him an incredulous look, "The bathroom? Really?" He continued to look around the limited space, trying to find a door along the walls.

Neville smirked, "No, come this way."

Harry followed Neville to the spot where the sinks used to be. He remembers it well because of what transpired in his second year. Harry watched as Neville reached up and touched the sapphire-blue stone on the badge pinned to his chest and in the next moment an archway shimmered into view as if a Disillusionment charm had just been canceled. He didn't have time to question anything when Neville reached out to clasp at his forearm and tugged him towards the opening. Harry felt like walking through a cool waterfall, and his eyes blurred for a few moments then cleared as they passed through the arch a few feet.

The questioning look in his eyes prompted Neville to explain, "It's a safety measure. It gives us an advantage when an intruder comes in slightly disoriented."

Harry just stared at Neville for a few seconds before his eyes were pulled away to look around. His eyes bulged at what was around him. He somehow figured where they were headed as he went through the archway with Neville but he didn't expect the way they got there. He stared at the circular stone door at the end of the long corridor they were facing.

"The Chamber of Secrets?"

Neville nodded, "We didn't appreciate sliding down, so the archway was added as part of the renovation. It's actually a portal like the one we used last night when we flew in to help you, only the one upstairs is permanent. Although Dean did suggest putting in an elevator, he was quickly vetoed, too much work, the carpenters said." He said nonchalantly as he guided Harry into the chamber.

Harry didn't have time to ask when he noticed that the outer door had lost the snake locks and it opened as Neville got closer.

"What happened to the snakes?"

Neville shrugged, "Don't know. I guess they were destroyed, we didn't have a parselmouth among us, and it would prove to be inconvenient to wait for that person every single time just to gain entry, wouldn't it?"

Harry kept his other question to himself when they walked past the door. He took in all the massive changes that happened in the chamber. He delightfully noted it was no longer wet and musky but dry and the air was surprisingly fresh. The polished stone floor echoed their footsteps as Neville guided him in. If Harry hadn't been down here those years ago, he would just have been impressed by how everything looked so new; now he is blown away by the difference.

"The elves had been enthusiastic at the renovations, as you can see, except for that one over there," Neville pointed at a far corner. "They took out Salazar Slytherins statues and the snakes. They replaced it with stone pillars, and that gained us more usable space to work with." He pointed at openings along the walls,"During the repairs, we luckily found hidden inner chambers along the walls; we widened them by putting two or three together, sometimes more depending on what we needed the room to be. We figured they might have been prisoner cells at some point or so, but we didn't try very hard to find out. We mostly use them as training rooms except for this first one as you come in. We had that fitted as a conference room for when the Professors come down." He said as he pointed at a closed door right off the entrance. Harry looked around as Neville started pointing out at the spacious doorless rooms along opposite walls, Neville began with the one he called the machine room; Harry saw that it had an assortment of muggle exercise equipment inside and saw Lavender and Parvati on treadmills. Another one was completely padded with mats and saw just in time as Seamus threw another boy down on the mat, Neville called that one their combat room, it was three times bigger than the machine room. When he turned to the opposite side, Neville identified the mess hall where he spotted dining tables and kitchen counters and the study with shelves of books and desks.

Neville stopped right at the spot where Harry found a prone first-year Ginny years ago that was now set up like a common room with comfortable chairs and couches scattered in groups. Harry stared at that spot for a moment and turned his attention back to Neville who gave him a look of understanding but chose not to say anything about it. Instead, he went on with the "tour," "This is where we hang out."

Harry grinned at the flat-screened TV's on each of the opposite walls and the pool table at one corner, he also noted that the opening where basilisk once came out was now a roaring fireplace. It made the entire chamber warm and cozy. Flanking the fireplace are a pair of curved staircases heading up to a second level.

"We have all the living quarters up there," Neville indicated with his hand.

"That's door to the pool, the bath, and the sauna room," Neville pointed on the right side of the main chamber, he hesitated for a moment before he indicated the closed the door on the left, "That's the infirmary."

Harry made a move toward that door when Neville stopped him, "Hold on, Harry. I haven't talked to Luna about your visit just yet," he said sheepishly and scratched the back of his neck, "Wait here a while, I'm sure she will let you see her, but just let me talk to her for a bit."

Translation: Let me convince her to allow you in.

Harry nodded his agreement; he wasn't in the position to argue, so he took the offered overstuffed chair facing the infirmary and watched as Neville paused by the door before he opened it and walked in. Harry got nervous the moment the door snapped close behind Neville. He fidgetted in his chair never taking his eyes away from the door.

"Hello, Harry!"

Harry smiled as Seamus approached, "Morning, Seamus."

Seamus nodded towards the door, "I figured you'll end up here sooner or later, but I say this only because you are still a friend to me. When you go to see her, and she's awake, remember not to stare and whatever you do, don't rush her."

Harry had a mixed look of shock and confusion at Seamus' words, "What-"

"Just, be careful, Harry," Seamus lost the friendly smile on his face, "We don't want her hurt more than she already is."

"Back off, Seamus."

Both boys turned to look at Dean approach; he threw Seamus a warning glance before his expression softened towards Harry, "Harry doesn't have a clue what happened, lay off him. He's her best friend."

Seamus sighed, "Look, Harry. I didn't mean to come too strong; it's just-" he sighed again, "Just do as I say. Don't make her uncomfortable." he walked away without waiting for Harry's reaction.

Harry saw Lavender hurry after Seamus following her quick greeting.

"He's just worried, Harry, we all are." Dean said sadly, "But were glad that you're back. Just take it easy at first, be patient. She's brilliant but stubborn. Try your hardest to understand. That's all I'm saying." He patted Harry on the shoulder before walking towards Daphne who was waiting for him by the machine room.

Harry was left stewing in his seat after his encounter with the other Gryffindor boys. Thinking about what they said and why they said it, made him worry some more.

It felt like forever before the infirmary door finally opened and out walked Luna and then Neville. Harry jumped up as the pair approached. Neville kept his arm around Luna; he gave Harry a slight nod, and that brightened the raven haired boy considerably.

"Hello, Harry." Luna gave Harry a small smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, "How have you been? You look very healthy," Luna stopped talking when Neville squeezed her shoulder.

Harry smiled at the soft-spoken witch, "Good morning, Luna. It's good to see you."

Luna nodded but kept from meeting Harry's gaze. She kept quiet until Neville cleared his throat, "Uh, she is currently asleep. Madam Pomfrey gave her a dose of potion to help her rest completely when she stabilized early this morning; she will not wake up anytime soon, so-"

"It's alright," Harry hurriedly interrupted, he was afraid that they wouldn't let him see her now, "I mean, if it's alright with you, Luna." he sent the younger witch a pleading look, "I would just like to sit with her. I haven't seen her in a long time." He sighed, "I just need to see her. Please, just for a while."

Harry saw how Luna's lips thinned, but Neville leaned down and whispered something to her, she sent him a look, but Harry wasn't able to catch it. Neville pressed closer, and she finally nodded after that.

Harry brightened, "Thank you, Luna."

He let Neville lead him to the infirmary after Luna refused to move, with a nod Neville indicated the bed at the far left corner of the room, bid him good luck before walking out.

~0~

Harry nervously made for the bed Hermione occupied. His heart thundered in his chest, and his palms started to sweat. Slowly, he made his way to the curtained bed of his best friend. He paused and took a calming breath and plastered a smile on his face. He knew that she was still unconscious after a dose of the sleeping potion, but he wanted to make sure she wouldn't feel any of the anxiety he might give off. He pulled the curtains apart and stepped closer to her bed; the room was darkened since she was encouraged to sleep, so Harry moved slowly towards the chair on the right side of the bed. Fortunately, Hermione was asleep on her side facing the seat with a hand tucked underneath her right cheek, her breathing even.

Harry felt desolate at best when he sat down beside the bed. He was missing something. He was used to getting bone-crushing hugs whenever he gets to see her after an absence. To make up for lack of her embrace at the moment, he did the next best thing, he leaned down and buried his nose in her hair and hungrily inhaled her scent, instantly it calmed him considerably. He smiled, let out a happy sigh and kissed her forehead.

I missed you so much.

He pulled away with great difficulty, but the thought of disturbing her was out of the question, so he sat back on the chair.

Harry held his breath while he watched her in deep slumber. He drank her features in but suddenly gasped when he finally got to see her face up close after the haze of happiness lifted at finally seeing her for the first time in a very, very long time.

She had lost so much weight that she almost looked gaunt and bony. The skin on her face was stretched out over thin cheeks, and there were dark shadows around her sunken eyes. She looked so small and fragile on the bed that it almost swallowed her.

Oh, Mione!

He couldn't help it, he moved from his seat and kneeled by the bed and buried his face in her neck. He pulled her close in a sort of an embrace as he struggled with the lump forming in his throat and the persistent unexplainable pain pinching his heart. He missed her so much that the blow in seeing her current condition more than overwhelmed him.

What happened to you?

He wanted to know what caused her to be like this. He knew Hermione had a tendency to overwork herself when she wanted, and Harry was always the one who hounded her to eat and rest.

He flinched when she shifted in her sleep; she must have felt his weight on her as he draped his upper body all over her. He slowly pulled back but kept his arms around her. Hermione made a small noise down her throat and sighed as she rolled onto her back. Harry let his arms go slack around her and followed her movements with soft eyes. When she presented her right cheek to him, his eyes bulged in horror.

Harry let out a strangled growl; he felt like his heart was being clenched savagely in between a vice before getting ripped into minuscule strips. His arms tightened around her involuntarily that Hermione's face slightly contorted in her discomfort. At seeing the expression on her face, Harry eased a little and watched her face relax. He lifted up a hand and with his thumb, tenderly traced the livid scar spread out on her cheek. It was large and red, it was a series of spidery lines starting a mere inch from her right ear and spreads out with one almost reaching her right eye. As Harry stared at it, it began to look like an impression of broken glass. It looked old; it was fully healed so he figured she must have gotten it a long time ago.

What happened, Mione? Who did this to you?

Slowly the despair gripping Harry's heart evolved into a roaring fury. He started to get angry at Dumbledore first, then at Sirius for keeping him away from her and then at Remus and the adults around here for not protecting her better and then lastly, Harry started blaming himself.

Harry gritted his teeth as he fought back a choked sob,"I shouldn't have let them take me away. I should have been there for you." he continued to caress her cheek, "I'm so sorry, Mione. I failed you," he whispered to her. "You were always there for me, you never left my side all those times, and when you needed me, I wasn't there." Harry pressed a kiss on that angry cheek, "Forgive me. Please forgive me, Mione."

Ever so slowly, Harry took hold of her hand and pressed a kiss on her palm; he frowned when he felt something on her wrist. He peered at the inconsistency on her skin and went deathly pale at the numerous crisscrossing scars on it. He forgot to breathe when his eyes swept up her arms and saw more. Disbelievingly, he took hold of her other arm and inspected it too then almost let out an outraged cry when he saw that it was in the same state.

His breathing came in labored gasps. He recognized that some of the scars were just freshly healed, and thought that some but not all of them were self-afflicted.

No.

He started to shake his head in earnest.

No. This is not real.

His eyes started to roam all over her. Frantically he tried blinking his eyes, willing all the marks on her to disappear only to be vastly disappointed.

NO! NO! NO!

Harry roared his denial in his head.

No, not Hermione. I not her.

Tears started to fill his eyes.

Not like this, please not like this.

Harry sagged back and gently held her still sleeping form, and sobbed his despair at the unfairness of it all. He cried until his tears stopped coming and after a while consciousness gradually left him as he succumbed from lack of sleep coupled with the stress from last night and today's horrifying discovery finally took its course. Harry fell asleep as he held Hermione securely in his arms.