The small measure of satisfaction which had come from wiping the smug look from Draco's face at breakfast faded away during History of Magic when Harry remembered that his next class was Double Potions. His stomach knotting with anxiety, he found it nearly impossible to concentrate—which was admittedly not unusual for him during Professor Binns' lectures. But unlike Ron, Seamus, and Neville—who were all snoring—Harry was wide awake.
Nonetheless, he was so lost in his own little world that he didn't notice the nudges until he felt a sharp poke in his ribs. He turned to look at Hermione who was frowning at him.
"Harry," she hissed under her breath, "are you sure you're up to this? Maybe you should take a few days off like Dumbledore suggested."
"I'll be fine," he said curtly before catching himself. "Sorry—it's just..."
"...Snape! I know—and Potions is next. That's what I meant."
For a moment, Harry seriously considered taking Hermione's and Dumbledore's advice. Then he shook his head.
"I'm going to have to see him sooner or later. I might as well just get it over with."
Hermione lifted her eyebrows at him. Harry sighed at her dubious expression.
"I'll be fine," he said again, "I swear! I can handle Snape."
Hermione still looked skeptical, but she seemed to know it was no use pressing him further because she returned to taking notes without another word. Harry started to feel guilty when he saw a tear trickling down her cheek, but he was determined not to let Snape and his questionable allegiance get to him.
He started to have second thoughts again on the way to the dungeons after History of Magic was over. Groggy though he still was, Ron seemed to notice something was wrong.
"You okay, Harry?" Ron asked quietly. "Maybe you should skive off Potions—"
"I'm fine," said Harry through gritted teeth, trying his hardest not to let his irritation show when he spotted Lavender and Parvati looking at him worriedly too; and he was more determined than ever not to let anyone see how feeble and pathetic he felt, "Really! I'm all right."
"If you say so," said Ron, sharing a skeptical look with Neville.
There was silence the rest of the way as Harry and his friends trailed behind the other Gryffindors who had no idea that anything was amiss. He ignored Draco's dirty looks when they finally arrived and took their seats. The Potions classroom seemed somehow darker and more ominous than usual when Snape scowled at Harry and sat behind his desk.
It took every effort for Snape to restrain himself from provoking Potter and Granger into giving him a particularly good reason to dock a whole load of points from Gryffindor and give them detention. He had—as had the other Heads of Houses—been informed that Granger would be sharing Potter's quarters indefinitely for the foreseeable future. Snape had complained vociferously to Dumbledore, but his objections had fallen on deaf ears.
Dumbledore's decision was absurd and unfathomable. All he had said was that it was for Granger's safety. Snape snorted bitterly at the headmaster's transparent ploy to indulge Potter's every whim. From Potter's very first year Dumbledore had pampered him, turning a blind eye to his rule-breaking, rewarding Potter with points at every turn instead of giving him the punishments he so richly deserved.
Clearly Dumbledore had allowed his sentimentality to get the better of him, as if dead parents and being hunted by the Dark Lord were worthy reasons for coddling Potter. Utter nonsense! Potter should have been expelled many times over, not exalted for his misbehaviour.
Still, Snape's curiosity had been piqued. He wondered what Potter had said to convince Dumbledore to give him the opportunity to cohabitate with Granger. He caught Potter's eye and decided to take a peek inside. It should be easy enough to rummage around in Potter's empty head without a wand, he reckoned.
What on earth? Snape scowled at Potter, perplexed when he found that the entrance to Potter's brain was blocked.
Potter couldn't possibly be an Occlumens. There was no way Potter could have learned Occlumency without a teacher, and there was no such teacher at Hogwarts. Occlumency was not part of any school syllabus, as it was far too advanced for most underage wizards.
Only the brightest and oldest of teenagers had the potential to learn it, and Potter hardly qualified as a bright pupil, no matter what Dumbledore claimed, as far as Snape was concerned. It was only in comparison to Longbottom and Weasley—the dimmest bulbs in the class—that Potter appeared in any way intelligent at all, thought Snape.
It had to be a fluke, some sort of instinctive reaction to the invasion of Potter's mind. It was unlikely in the extreme that Potter could give a repeat performance. Snape tried again, certain that this time he would penetrate Potter's feeble mind with ease.
Potter glared at him, and Snape was shocked when he felt a pricking at the back of his own eyeballs. It had not been a fluke after all. Potter was an Occlumens, and a Legilimens to boot—one who was stronger than he had any right to be at his age.
Fortunately, not even the Dark Lord could invade Snape's mind, and Potter was certainly no Dark Lord. … Perhaps Granger's mind would give up the information he wanted. Snape was just about to call out Granger's name to get her attention when she looked up of her own accord to see what was upsetting Potter.
When Snape discovered that Granger's mind too was impenetrable, he inwardly groaned. Of course! Undoubtedly Granger had come across some books about Occlumency and Legilimency in the school library and been practicing with Potter.
Unless… Perhaps Dumbledore…
Somehow the thought that Dumbledore himself might be teaching Potter and Granger Occlumency and Legilimency was even more unnerving than the idea of them learning on their own. Potter's life was an open book, splashed across the headlines of newspapers and magazines, so what was Dumbledore trying to hide?
"He must be spying for Voldemort," said Harry quietly, trying to restrain his anger as he and Hermione trailed behind the others after class, hanging back so they couldn't hear. "Why else would he try to Legilimens me the day after he told Voldemort he was going to keep his eye on me and Dumbledore?"
"I don't know," moaned Hermione, looking extremely distraught. "It is awfully suspicious. He tried it on me too."
Harry had a sudden, terrible thought, and the blood in his veins turned to ice.
"What's wrong now?" asked Hermione anxiously when she saw his expression change.
"Er..." Harry tried to think of something to say.
He was regretting now that he had agreed to let her stay with him in his quarters. If Voldemort ever found out she was his girlfriend… Then he remembered Rita Skeeter's articles. What had he been thinking, asking Hermione to be his girlfriend, when he was quite literally a marked man?
"Harry! What is it? What's wrong?" she asked again, sounding frightened when he didn't answer right away.
"Er… Just worried about Snape, really," he said evasively.
She glared at him, and, feeling more horrible than ever, he was glad when Ron turned around and called out, "Oi! What's going on back there? You two coming to lunch or what?"
"Yeah! Of course," said Harry brightly, speeding up to catch the others. "I'm famished."
But over lunch, he found himself staring at his plate, avoiding Hermione's gaze, and feeling like he was going to throw up.
"I'll be right back," he muttered, rising to his feet. He spun around and quickly fled the Great Hall as Hermione and his friends gaped at his backside.
"'S'okay! I got this," said Dora, getting up to follow Harry.
Everyone else turned to stare at Hermione and she felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She didn't know what to say. Her eyes brimmed with tears and her nostrils flared with emotion.
"Maybe he's anxious about you moving in tonight," Neville suggested after a few moments of silence.
"Of course," said Parvati. "I'm sure that's all it is, Hermione."
"Right!" said Hermione, her voice brittle as she stood up and tried to control her anger as the realisation washed over her. She didn't need to be a Legilimens to know that Harry was having second thoughts because of Voldemort—not due to a fit of nerves. "Well, I'm going to go and set things straight."
"Wait, Hermione—" said Ron.
"No! He's just being stupid..." Her voice cracked, and then she too was gone.
She made her way to the boys' bathroom on the ground floor to check for Harry there first; she didn't even register Ron's footsteps echoing behind her as she marched through the stone corridors of the castle. When she spied Dora standing guard up ahead, she knew she was right.
"He's in there," said Dora unnecessarily, but looking very sympathetic.
"Thanks," said Hermione shortly, throwing open the hefty oaken door, struggling to contain her roiling emotions.
"Hermione," panted Ron as he ran up behind her, "that's the boys' bathroom—"
"I know!" she snapped, trying to keep from crying. "I've got eyes, Ron!"
They both entered the bathroom and heard the sound of retching coming from within one of the stalls. Hermione burst into sobs and with her trembling hand she opened the door to see Harry hunched over the loo, heaving.
"F-f-finite Vomite," she stammered, waving her wand over him.
Harry stopped retching, then slumped back against the wall of the bathroom stall, sitting on the tiled floor and wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He rubbed at his scar, which was blazing crimson against his clammy pale forehead, and she knelt down beside him.
"Harry, don't," she cried, putting her hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "Don't do this to yourself."
She had to restrain herself from snapping.
"Don't try to push me away," she said as gently as she could. "I know you're thinking about breaking up with me."
"But… but I wasn't—" He looked confused, torn between denial and admission.
"Don't lie, Harry. I know you're afraid for me, because of Voldemort. But I'm not going anywhere."
Harry looked like he was about to object to the truth again, then he sighed.
"No! Hermione, please. It'll be safer for you—"
"Are you mental?"
Hermione turned towards the sound of Ron's voice and shot him an exceedingly grateful look.
"What?" Harry glowered at Ron, who was crouching now.
"I said, 'Are you bloody mental?'" Ron retorted. "You need her, mate. Even if Hermione wasn't your girlfriend, you'd still need her. … You know you do."
"I don't—I mean, what I need isn't important. I don't want anyone else to die because of me—especially not Hermione..."
"Huh? Because of you? What?"
"He means like his mother," sniffled Hermione, taking one of Harry's hands between her own heated palms; it felt like ice. "He doesn't want Voldemort to kill me just to get to him. Isn't that right, Harry?"
Harry ran his other hand through his damp, messy hair, sighed again, and nodded.
"Yeah," he admitted, "it is."
"Oh, Harry, don't you see? Voldemort doesn't need an excuse to kill people. I'd be a target eventually, even if you weren't around, just because I'm a muggleborn."
"She's got you there, Harry."
Harry glared at Ron again, but there wasn't enough anger behind it this time to have any real impact.
"I suppose," Harry grumbled, "but it feels different somehow."
"That's because you love Hermione," said Ron sagely.
Despite her distress, Hermione smiled to herself; she rather thought it was because Harry knew it was a bit different being targeted by Voldemort specifically to get at him, but she wasn't going to tell Ron that.
"Anyway," said Hermione, "I love you too, Harry. How do you think Ron and I would feel if we let you die for us? We're not going to let you throw your life away, any more than you would ours. We're all in this together."
She raised her eyebrows at him until she felt the tension in his hand slacken and saw a sheepish little smile on his face.
"Got it now?"
"Got it!" he said quietly, giving her a look which almost made Hermione want to cry again.
"Come on, Ron," she heard Dora say. "Let's give these two a bit of space to themselves."
"Yeah, okay. ... See you guys later. Hope you feel better Harry."
And then Hermione was alone with Harry. She leaned in and gently pressed her lips to his. She felt him relaxing, and when the kiss was finished she led Harry to the sink where he washed his face.
"So, Harry..." she began, giving him a pointed look.
"Yeah—okay! You win," he replied, picking up on her unspoken admonition. "I suppose I probably should take some time off..."
"Good call, Potter," said Professor Moody, his voice surprisingly gentle; his gruffness was far more muted than Harry had thought possible from the battle-hardened ex-Auror. Harry, Hermione and Dora were in his office, having told him about their latest encounter with Snape.
"I've seen a lotta rough stuff in my time," Moody continued, "but that scene at the Riddle place was a real horrorshow. I can't imagine witnessing it first hand in real time—through Voldemort's eyes no less. Good t'see that Granger can get through to you at least."
Moody's electric-blue eye swiveled to briefly land on Hermione and she reddened.
"Not soon enough," Harry muttered, his cheeks flushing.
"Regardless, you listened eventually. That's what counts. … Your head's not gonna be great any time soon, that's for certain, but a couple'a weeks away from that nightmare'll at least give you a chance to pull yourself together a bit.
"Mess around a bit—you can do a bit of training and homework on your own too. Should help you keep your mind off things without havin' t'deal with the pressure of classes and cretins like Snape.
"Speaking of which, I'll be watchin' him a lot more closely. You're bang on about that—It's mighty suspicious that he'd try an' look into yours an' Granger's noggins the first chance he gets after getting back with Voldemort."
"Anyway, I'll check back in with you soon enough, and we'll get you back on track with preparin' for the Third Task. For now you might as well go on and fly around a bit—or whatever…"
That sounded like a good idea to Harry, and ten minutes later he was on the Quidditch pitch with his Firebolt. He felt much better in the air, swooping around the goalposts. The rushing wind seemed to clear his head, and the bright sun swept away his darkening mood while Hermione watched from the stands with Dora, looking much happier.
After classes let out for the day, Dora helped Hermione bring her things down from her dormitory, and between the three of them they carried the lot to Harry's quarters, Crookshanks trotting along beside them.
Once inside, Harry pulled up short and gasped when he entered the bedroom; Hermione ran right into him when he halted.
"Oof!" she yelped. "What's up, Harry?"
"See for yourself," he said, bemused, and he stepped aside for her to get a better look.
The room seemed slightly larger, and there, next to Harry's bed, was another four-poster with his mahogany nightstand in between.
"Hmm..." said Dora, unable to help herself, "can't see that bed getting much use."
Harry and Hermione both blushed furiously.
Dora chuckled and shook her head. "I'll leave you both to it then."
As soon as she was gone Crookshanks jumped up on the new bed and purred, as if to claim it for his own. Hermione soon had her clothes arranged neatly in the wardrobe and chest of drawers next to Harry's, and he helped her organise her books on his—on their bookshelf.
"Shall we go down to dinner now?" asked Hermione when they were finished.
Harry thought for a moment, then shook his head.
"I'd rather just have Dobby bring us some here tonight, if that's all right with you."
"Of course, Harry." She smiled and gave him a peck on his cheek.
Not long after dinner, Harry sighed happily, lying on his bed with Hermione nestled beside him, her arm curled around his waist and her bushy head resting on his shoulder. He was starting to drift when he heard it—a little voice he recognised coming from the nightstand calling out his name. He woke right up and excitedly reached for his mirror as Hermione stirred.
"Sirius!" Harry practically yelled.
"Good to see you, Harry," Sirius beamed from the other side of the mirror. "I just called to let you know that it's official, thanks to you. I'm a free man. … I'm just sorry it cost you so much horror."
"Yeah, it was pretty horrible," said Harry ruefully. "I don't think I would've got through it without Hermione."
"So I hear." Sirius shot her a grateful look. "Thanks for looking after him so well, Hermione."
Her cheeks took on a rosy hue.
"Hi Sirius," she said, seemingly unable to conjure up any further response in her embarrassment.
"Anyway," said Sirius, "now that I'm fully exonerated, I'll be able to pay you a visit and make sure Snape isn't giving you too hard of a time..."
AN: Sorry for the long wait. Life has a way with interfering with the process. I'll try and update when I can, but I can't make any promises as to how long it'll be.