Dinner was enjoyable, to Hermione's surprise. Tom the innkeeper put three tables together in the parlor, where Harry, Hermione, and the seven Weasleys ate their way through five delicious courses. Hermione was surprised to learn the Weasleys would be spending the night at the Leaky Cauldron as well.
"Just easier, really," Mr. Weasley said. "We can all leave for King's Cross from here together in the morning. The Ministry's providing a couple of cars."
All the Weasley children looked up in surprise to look at Mr. Weasley, while Harry and Hermione exchanged a glance.
"Why?" Percy asked curiously.
"It's because of you, Perce," George said seriously. "And there'll be little flags on the hoods, with HB on them—"
"—for Humongous Bighead," said Fred.
Everyone save Hermione, Percy, and Mrs. Weasley snorted into their pudding, and Hermione rolled her eyes.
"Why is the Ministry providing cars, Father?" Percy asked, keeping his voice very dignified.
"Well, as we haven't got one anymore," Mr. Weasley said, "and seeing as I work there, they're doing me a bit of a favor—"
His voice was casual, but Mr. Weasley's ears had gone red, like Ron's did under pressure, and Hermione looked at Harry meaningfully, who nodded shortly, his mouth grave. It was plausible that the Ministry was just being nice to the Weasleys, sure. It was more plausible that they had agreed to send the cars if the Weasleys would chaperone Harry safely to the station.
Later that night, as Hermione was packing her new school things up and readying herself for bed, there was a knock on her door. To her surprise, it wasn't the Weasley Twins at all - it was Harry, looking disturbed.
"Can I come in?" he said. "I just heard something, and I wanted to— is that that cat?"
Harry was staring at Crookshanks, who had sprawled himself over Hermione's bed, looking very smug, and Hermione ushered Harry in and closed the door behind him.
"Ron'll have a cow, you realize," Harry said, but he looked amused now. Hermione rolled her eyes.
"Ron can get over himself and realize that the world does not revolve around him," she said primly. "Besides, Crookshanks will be downstairs in the Slytherin dormitory with me. Ron will never even have to see him."
Harry shrugged at this. He plopped down on the bed next to Crookshanks, who carefully sniffed at his hand before settling back down, ignoring him, which Harry seemed just fine with. He stayed quiet for a moment, just watching Hermione packing up her new books.
"I overheard Mr. and Mrs. Weasley talking," he said finally. "In their room. About Sirius Black."
Hermione glanced over at Harry. "Oh?"
His voice subdued, Harry related all he had overheard from the Weasleys to Hermione, how not only was the Ministry not any closer to catching Black, but how they were sure Sirius Black was after Harry.
"Apparently, Black was talking in his sleep for a while before he escaped," Harry said. "He kept saying 'he's at Hogwarts, he's at Hogwarts'. Mr. Weasley reckons that Black is deranged, and that he thinks murdering me will bring Voldemort back to power."
Harry looked moody, scowling at the floor. Hermione bit her lip, weighing her options carefully, before she went over and sat down next to Harry. She reached over, taking his hand in hers, and she squeezed.
"You do realize how ridiculous that is, right?" she said gently, and Harry's eyes flew up to hers.
"What? How?" Harry wanted to know. "Everyone thinks Black is after me. Even Fudge said—"
"Not that," Hermione said. "But the rest of it. There's no way Black thinks murdering you will bring back Voldemort."
Harry paused for a moment. "Why not?"
"Because Dark magic doesn't work that way," Hermione said patiently. "No magic works that way, really."
Harry gave Hermione an odd look.
"What do you think Black's doing, then?" he asked, and Hermione shrugged.
"Oh, no, I think he's probably coming after you, but just in revenge," she said. "But a deranged madman bent on revenge is a lot easier to defeat than a thoughtful, methodical killer intending on resurrecting someone." She gave him a twisted smile. "If Black is smart, he'd listen to rumors and go after Voldemort's shade himself, wherever he flew off to after leaving Quirrell to die. He'd have to try and help him find a new body, but that'd be the quickest way to actually get Voldemort back to a position where he could try and re accumulate all the power he lost all those years ago."
"He could do that?" Harry asked, blinking. "He could actually get another body?"
"You know that's possible, Harry," Hermione said gently. "Tom's said as much. It's not so much a matter of 'if' but a matter of 'when'. It's only a matter of time."
"Why hasn't he done it, then?" Harry said moodily. "If he can just get a new body and come and off me, why doesn't he just get on with it—"
"I never said it was easy to get a new body," Hermione countered. "And remember – Voldemort's barely even a ghost at this point. He had Quirrell helping him to try and get the Elixir of Life. He's going to have to find someone else to help him again this time. And even if Black does find him to help him, these things take time. It's not as simple as just Frankensteining a new body together and possessing it."
Harry started to snigger. Hermione gave him a skeptical look, but Harry's eyes were glinting.
"Can you imagine, though?" he said, his voice low. "The new and improved Voldemort, seven feet tall with bolts on his neck, but absolutely terrified by fire?"
Hermione started laughing.
"It was quite different in the book," she protested. "The monster was intelligent, there, and he—"
"Merlin, what if it went even worse?" Harry said. "What if he ended up like the monster in Young Frankenstein? Just moaning and groaning around?"
Despite herself, Hermione started giggling.
"That'd be brilliant," Hermione said, grinning. "Oh, can you imagine the Death Eaters? Having to follow him?
Harry laughed even harder. "They'd be all 'how are we going to take over the world, my lord?', and all he'd do is groan and demand they bring him soup!"
This went on for a while, their suggestions growing more and more ridiculous. As their giggles finally began to subside, Harry looked at Hermione fondly.
"I really appreciate you being honest with me, you know," he told her. "The Weasleys are trying to protect me by not telling me anything, like I'm too young to hear about it."
"Of course," Hermione dismissed. "You can't be expected to make educated decisions without the facts."
"Still." Harry's smile was faint. "You were even honest with me about the body thing, and about Black coming after me, even though it's kind of scary."
"Harry," she said. "Let me reiterate: Voldemort coming back would be very bad. It's probably inevitable, but it will be very bad. But Black?" She scoffed, shaking her head. "He's been in Azkaban, getting his magic drained for twelve years. You're going to be safely ensconced in Hogwarts with your coven, all of whom will be able to know immediately if you're in danger, who will come and help defend you."
Harry looked at her. "Really?"
"Well, as fast as we could," Hermione allowed. "If you're on the seventh floor and Blaise and I are in the dungeons, it's going to take a couple minutes. But if you were able to hold off Voldemort and Quirrell for several minutes when you were eleven, surely you can stall an insane Dark wizard without a wand for a few?"
Harry started to grin.
"You're somehow very cynical while still being very encouraging," he told her, laughing. He looked at her, his eyes alight. "Alright. If Black comes after me, he comes after me. I won't worry about it, but I won't shy from the possibility of it being a thing, either." He paused. "I wonder if Luna would know. She knows things, sometimes."
"We can sit with her on the train tomorrow, if you like," Hermione suggested, and Harry's smile was warm.
"That'd be great," he said honestly. "Ron can catch up with Neville and Dean and Seamus and tell them all about Egypt."
"Then it's a plan," Hermione said, smiling. "But you should go now, Harry. It's getting late."
Harry laughed and hugged Hermione tightly before he left.
"You're a great friend, you know?" he told her. "I'm really glad we're friends, Hermione."
"Likewise, Harry," Hermione said, smoothing his hair off his forehead. "Now, go get ready in your room. I'll see you shortly."
Rolling his eyes with a grin, Harry went, and Hermione closed the door after him, turning around to look at her trunk thoughtfully. After a moment, she went and opened it, digging through it until she found a familiar, slim black book she'd hidden in a set of rarely-worn robes, also pulling out a quill and pot of ink before settling down onto her bed.
Tom, she wrote. Do you think Voldemort had contingency plans for if he fell? Did you?
A pleasure to hear from you as always, Hermione, Tom wrote back. What kind of contingency plan do you mean?
If he 'died', for how his followers could bring him back, Hermione explained. As a Plan B if he were ever defeated.
Tom's reply was slow and thoughtful.
I would doubt it, he responded. I think seeming immortal and unvanquishable was probably more important to him than letting anyone in on his secrets, even if he had a Plan B himself.
Do you think an escaped Death Eater would be more likely to try and get revenge or try and find Voldemort to resurrect him? Hermione asked.
Well, Tom wrote wryly, there are still plenty of Death Eaters walking free, aren't there? And they're hardly going after their old master. They're too busy hiding his old school things in their enemies' books. I'd put my money on revenge – that's a lot easier to achieve, and a lot more immediately rewarding, I'd suspect.
Though his words weren't particularly optimistic for Harry's outlook, Hermione was at least reassured that until Voldemort had a follower actively trying to help him, she wouldn't have to worry about him for a while, allowing her and her friends to focus exclusively on Black.
"Someday, my life won't be so complicated," Hermione told Crookshanks, who yowled when she made him move over on the bed. "Someday, I will be busy with adult things and decisions, and I won't be busy worrying if evil men are coming to kill my friends."
Crookshanks huffed, settling back down, and Hermione contented herself with stroking his soft fur as she contemplated.
At half past eleven, the door to Hermione's room eased open, and Hermione slipped out, very quiet. She was wearing black silk robes lined in purple, and there was a bag slung over her shoulder.
She carefully padded down the hall to Harry's room. She had only to tap lightly on his door twice with a knuckle before the door was opened, Harry's eyes and hair wild.
"Is it time?" he whispered.
"It's time," Hermione whispered back. "C'mon."
Harry followed Hermione out, both teens moving as silently as they could through the Leaky Cauldron. There was still some noise by the bar, and Hermione desperately hoped that whomever it was, it was none of the Weasleys. She would dread for them to find out what they were up to right now.
Miraculously, they made it unseen to the Floo. With a whisper of "Lovegood House," she and Harry were sent whirling through the Floo Network to spill out on Luna's floor. Luna was there waiting for them, eyes alight.
"Tracey and Millie are here," she told Hermione, her eyes bright with mischief. "They are not pleased with you, me, or all the mystery around why they're here at all."
"I'll deal with them," she sighed. "Are we the last ones?"
"Yep," Luna said cheerfully, popping the 'p'. "Let's go."
Hermione and Harry followed Luna outside, and the night was bright, the moon big and full. There were other people waiting near the tree line. Hermione could see that Susan and Blaise had worn their ritual robes as well, while it looked like Tracey had come in her pajamas.
When the rustle of their movement through the tall grass caught their attention, Tracey whirled on Hermione.
"Hermione!" she demanded, though she kept her voice down. "What is this all about? You said it was a matter of dire emergency, but Blaise and Susan seem to think we'll be doing a ritual—"
"We are," Hermione interrupted. "We're cheating. It could help save our lives."
Tracey cut off, looking at Hermione with big eyes. Millie stepped forward, eyes narrowed.
"Ritual magic is dangerous, Hermione," she said, her tone sharp. "Whatever ritual you intend for us to do to save our lives might risk our lives in the process." Her eyes were hard, glinting in the dark and moonlight. "Why should we go along with this?"
Susan and Blaise had come closer, listening. Hermione took a deep breath.
"This is a ritual that makes an Occlumency barrier in your mind," she told the group. "It's performed in pairs. Each of you will make a reflective barrier with your magic in your partner's mind, and it will protect your partner's mind from being invaded against their will."
"Oh, excellent," Harry said emphatically. "No more lessons with Snape, yeah?"
Susan shot Harry a look, nudging him towards Tracey and Millie, but the two Slytherin girls had gone pale.
"Dumbledore," Tracey murmured, her eyes wide. "He's a Legilimens, isn't he?"
"He is," Millie confirmed grimly. "It's been documented in court."
"I've done this ritual before," Hermione told Millie. "I've done it before, and it works. It's tested, and so long as you listen to me, it will be safe. I promise."
The two girls exchanged a long, dubious look, but in the end they nodded.
"Okay," Tracey said, taking a deep breath. "What do we need to do?"
The ritual circle was one of her more complicated ones. Together, the group burned away a lot of the dried grass to make a large circle. Hermione dragged a stick through the ground to mark out the lines of the circle, inner circles, and triangles and lines, as well as the protective runes in the outer ring.
"I think I only have enough supplies for one of these," Hermione said, pulling out a bag of powered silver, "so we'll have to take turns, yeah?"
The others watched and helped as Hermione walked around the border of the circle putting down the powdered silver, carefully, making sure there were no gaps. The silver gleamed in the light of the full moon, and Hermione shivered with something felt terribly like déjà vu.
"Put these fire seeds in the semi-circles?" Hermione asked Blaise. "The seax and the mirror go in the center."
Blaise obeyed without a word.
"Who wants to go first?" Hermione asked.
Harry and Susan both stepped forward, glancing at each other, and Hermione nodded.
"I need you to sit down into the inner circles," she instructed. "Careful, now – don't disturb the silver. Be mindful of how you arrange your robes."
While they sat down carefully, Hermione withdrew a small cauldron of liquid silver. She carefully spilled small amounts of it in smaller circles inside the larger one, casting air containment charms as quickly as she could. Harry watched with interest, but Susan's eyes had gone wide, seeing what Hermione had done.
"You are both going to invoke your magic," Hermione told them. "You will need to channel it through the veins of the circle, past the liquid silver, and over the mirror. The goal is for your magic to take on the reflective qualities of the silver and the mirror before it reaches your partner."
Harry and Susan nodded, looking at each other.
"After your magic is ready, you will cut your hands and clasp them together," Hermione instructed, "blood touching blood. This will give your magic the path it needs to shield your partner's mind."
Tracey and Millie looked sickened, but Harry and Susan just listened. Blood in rituals didn't really phase them at this point, Hermione figured.
"When one of you decides you've transferred enough magic to the other and can feel your magic reserves running low, that person must pull back with their magic, back through the circle to themself, do you understand?" Hermione said sharply. "And when the other feels this happen, they must also pull back and follow suit. If you don't, you could end up foolishly drained of magic, passed out, and risk ruining the entire ritual. Do you understand?"
Harry and Susan both nodded, wide-eyed. From the side, Blaise began to snort into his robes, hiding his laughter, and Tracey turned to question him. Hermione ignored them both.
"Are you ready?" Hermione ask them. "I'll give you the incantations you need at the proper time."
"Ready," said Harry.
"Ready," Susan said firmly.
Hermione nodded to them both. "Then let us begin."
It was odd, watching the ritual from the outside. She gave them the chant to help raise their magic and flow into the circle lines, and soon Harry and Susan's voices blended together as their magic stretched out. Hermione couldn't feel it, like she could when she had done this ritual herself, but as they did, the silver of the ritual circle lines lit up brilliantly, gradually expanding before pausing at the center of the two circles.
"Take the knife," Hermione instructed. "Repeat: 'With this cut, I freely bleed. May my magic protect you in time of need'."
Harry cut himself and recited the couplet dutifully, followed by Susan, who then carefully set the dagger aside.
"When you're ready," Hermione murmured, "clasp your hands, and let your magic go."
Harry looked at Susan, pausing, before they grabbed the other's hand, blood touching blood.
Immediately, a sort of opaque, mirror-y bubble arose over them from the ritual circle lines, invoked by the protection runes, and a whirling wind could be heard inside of the circle. Hermione had never realized that a bubble had formed over her during the ritual – she'd been too busy doing the ritual, she supposed, and trying to stop Draco from killing himself…
She held her breath, watching with wide eyes.
Thankfully, neither Harry nor Susan were idiots. After only a few minutes, the shimmery bubble slowly came down, both Harry and Susan panting, cradling their cut hands to their chests.
"That was wicked," Harry said, grinning. His eyes were a bit wild. "Was that Susan's mind?"
"A construct of it, yes," Hermione said, helping Susan stand up. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Susan said, though she was a bit breathless. "So that—Harry's magic is now protecting my mind from Legilimency?"
"Whenever someone attempts it, Harry will know," Hermione told her, "and his magic will stop it. Same for him – if someone tries to read his thoughts, you will suddenly know, and your magic will protect him."
"Excellent," Susan said. "I'm just—ah—I'm going to sit down over here."
Hermione healed Harry's and Susan's hands as Blaise and Luna carefully stepped into the ritual circles. She carefully poured more liquid silver into the necessary circles and cast the air containment charm – the previous amount had been used up in Harry and Susan's ritual.
"You might need to be careful, Blaise," Luna told him seriously. "If you are going into my mind, make sure you stay tethered to yourself and don't wander off and get lost."
Blaise looked startled, thrown by the seriousness in her voice. "I'll be careful, then."
The ritual worked beautifully with Blaise and Luna as well, their resonating voices quickly finding harmony, and the shiny bubble rising over them as they clasped bleeding hands. The bubble remained in place for almost five minutes before it gradually came down, Blaise panting while Luna looked calm.
"I think we're good, Hermione," Luna said, standing up on her own. She looked at Blaise. "Are you okay?"
"You—" Blaise broke off, trying to catch his breath, and looked up at her in wonder. "Luna—your mind—what was that—?"
"No idea," Luna said breezily, stepping out of the circle. "Come on, it's Tracey and Millie's turn next, and I'm sure they want to go to bed."
Hermione turned to look at Tracey and Millicent. They had watched both coven pairs go before them and seen it work successfully twice now, though they still had wariness in their eyes.
"It's your call if you want to do this or not," Hermione told them quietly. "But… given what we all know, and the events of last year…"
"I'll do it," Millie said abruptly. She grabbed Tracey's wrist, tugging. "Come on. Better safe than sorry."
Tracey squealed a bit as she was dragged toward the circle, but she was willing enough as she and Millie carefully stepped inside.
"I'll guide you," Hermione assured them. "This is not Dark magic. If you follow my instructions, everything will be fine, okay?"
"Let's just get this over with," Tracey groused. "I want to go to bed."
Hermione put the last of her liquid silver into the inner circles, draining the last of the mercury onto the ground and casting quick air containment charms. "If you're ready, then."
Tracey and Millie's chant took a while to begin to resonate together, and the lines of the circle were slow to light up this time. Hermione was unsurprised – Tracey and Millie hadn't needed to call directly on their magic like this before, she suspected. Their magic slowly lit up the lines of powdered silver, and when the entire circle was finally glowing, both Tracey and Millie seemed somewhat out of breath.
"Take the knife," Hermione instructed gently. "Repeat after me…"
Tracey gave the incantation and cut her hand, handing the knife to Millie, who followed suit with a grimace.
"Get ready," Hermione warned them. "Don't forget – pull back when you feel your power running out, do you understand? Then—on three, two, one—"
The two Slytherin girls clasped hands, and both of them gasped sharply, eyes flying open wide as the shiny bubble formed and covered them.
"Their eyes opened," Susan said, alarmed. "Why did their eyes fly open? Mine were closed the whole time."
"I don't know," Hermione said, uneasy. "It's—there's nothing about open or closed eyes in the ritual, only the mental construct visualizations, so—"
"Nothing we can do now but wait and see," Blaise said grimly. "They did everything else the same – hopefully they were just startled by the magic of it all."
The coven watched the reflective bubble steadily while Tracey and Millie completed their ritual inside of it unseen, the light of the full moonlight glittering off the shield brilliantly. Luckily, theirs did not last long, only about two minutes, and when their bubble came down, both girls were panting, their eyes wild.
"We did it, I think," Tracey said breathlessly. "Millie's mind – I put up a barrier, I think—"
"If it didn't work, I'm not trying that again," Millie groaned, rubbing her temples. "What a trip. Magic shouldn't be like that, urgh."
Despite their grousing, Hermione looked around at her friends with a sense of satisfaction.
Dumbledore couldn't read their minds, now, nor Snape, nor anyone, for that matter. Her friends were shielded; they were protected from Legilimens trying to break into their memories. They were all safe, now.
As were her secrets that they carried in their heads.