A/N: In order for some elements of this tale to make work, one must remove from canon Zero's nonsensical, unexplained hibernation at the end of Mega Man X6. Likewise, the entire plot of Mega Man Zero must be considered elseworlds. Unfortunately, I do not own Mega Man X, Harry Potter, or any related characters. Thanks to Amber from Portkey.org for beta-reading. All feedback, including constructive criticism, is welcome. Let me know what you think. Thank you.

August 29, 1995

1537 Zulu

Granger Residence

Unbelievable. The word kept running through her mind, even as she carefully laid her copy of Hogwarts, A History on top of her newly acquired Standard Book of Spells, Grade 5. She was doing her best to keep her face free of the glare that begged to be allowed to erupt across her features. If she hadn't been so distracted, she without a doubt would have put the older book on the bottom of the stack. It was bigger and far more worn, and putting it there would have made the entire pile more stable. But she had far more pressing matters to worry with than making sure she stuck to her normal packing routine. She rose from her crouched position next to the foot of her bed and turned to face her mother. "You're not serious, are you, mum? Please tell me this doesn't have anything to do with my teeth. He had nothing to do with me taking the opportunity to straighten them."

Lucy Granger was a woman of average height, light, creamy complexion, and long, straight, raven-black hair. Her blue eyes were soft and warm, though at the moment they were tinged with concern. "Hermione, dear, it's not about your teeth. Your father and I certainly would have preferred you gave braces time to work, but under the circumstances," and Hermione was surprised to see a rare look of mischief flash across her mother's face, "I probably would have done the exact same thing. And no, you are not to tell your father I said that. And we both know it's not Harry's fault. It's that horrible Draco boy that starts every one of these little incidents – I still don't understand why he hasn't been expelled yet," she spat righteously, scowling, "after all the things you've told us he's done and said to you, and it sounds like he's only getting worse. Surely his father can't be that well connected, whether he sits on the Board of Governors or not. He's a real role model, that one. I was half hoping Arthur Weasley would manage to pop him one that day in the bookstore during your second year."

Hermione just scowled, not really sure what she was supposed to say. Thinking of Draco Malfoy was doing nothing to improve her less-than-good mood. As for his father ... well, she still hadn't managed to tell her parents Lucius Malfoy was a Death Eater – and she was sure he was. Harry believed it, and that was good enough for her. No, there was no way she was telling either of them that her personal tormentor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had a murderous Dark wizard for a father. Especially considering the nature of her current conversation. "Draco's family is too influential," she said finally. "His father's a noted philanthropist. No one's going to do anything to upset him, or his money." She blinked. She hadn't realized her voice could sound that bitter.

Lucy shook her head. "Sometimes, I think you're a bit too smart, Hermione."

Hermione smiled, showing a perfectly straight row of evenly sized teeth. But she wouldn't be thrown off. "Mum, you're trying to change the subject. If it's not about the teeth, then what is it? Why don't you want me around Harry anymore? You just sprang it on me out of the blue earlier, and I'm confused. What did he do that's upset you?" Part of her knew what her mother was most likely to be thinking, but she didn't want to believe it, because there really wasn't any way for her to completely disprove the notion. And she hated that more than she cared to admit.

Her mother shifted uncomfortably, but when she spoke again, her resolve was unmistakable. "He hasn't done anything, dear. From everything you've ever told us, and what little of him we've seen ourselves, we're sure he's a wonderful boy. But," Here it comes, she thought, "your father and I are worried that you might be getting too attached to him."

Hermione felt her face heating up, just slightly. "Attached? I ... I don't like Harry like that," she said quickly.

For the moment, Lucy thought wryly. "That's not what I meant, dear. It's just that, well, everything you've told us ... this Voldemort is obsessed with ... killing him. And," her tone sharpened a little, if only for a moment, "Scott and I have the distinct impression there are certain things you haven't told us. But we've never pressed you to fill in any oddly missing details. We trust you. If there was something we needed to know, we trust you would tell us."

Hermione nodded slowly. There were, indeed, a number of things she kept from her parents. Not a lot, of course; simply a few details she felt it better they not get the opportunity to worry about. Like the fact that I was nearly lost my soul to a horde of dementors trying to help a convicted murderer escape from the Ministry of Magic at the end of my third year. Certainly not my idea of the perfect first kiss. Just a few little details ... She suppressed a shiver at the memory of being surrounded by the horrible, eyeless creatures, Harry urging her to attempt a spell she had no experience in performing even as their cold, draining influence began robbing her of consciousness and will. Her last sight before blacking out was of them closing in on she and Harry, the dark-haired Seeker still standing erect, doing his best to fight them off. And it looked to her like he was losing. She would never admit it, but in that instant, she welcomed the cool darkness that overtook her.

But her mother was speaking again. She gladly let her attention snap back to the present. "But what we do know is that Harry is in a great deal of danger ... and so is anyone around him, from the sound of it." She began to speak faster, not at all liking the way Hermione's eyes had widened. Then again, it didn't surprise her that much either. "The professors and staff at your school are obviously confident they can keep all of you out of any trouble ... after all, if they weren't, they wouldn't be letting all the students come back, would they? But you're our daughter, and our only responsibility is you, not Harry, or Ron, or anyone else. That's why ... that's why I have to ask you not to expose yourself to any," she had to choose her words carefully here, she knew, "undue risk."

Hermione took a deep breath through her nose. Blasting her mother was the absolute worst thing she could do right now, tempting as it was. "Go on," she said calmly, hoping her voice didn't sound too strained.

"Your father and don't want you to stop being Harry's friend. We just think it would be better if you didn't spend so much time around he and Ron. You're making yourself a target, dear. I know it sounds cliched, but the more you're around him, the more anyone looking for a way to hurt him is going to look at you. Professor Dumbledore will be doing his best to protect the three of you, but you and Ron will always be more accessible, because you're not Harry. Dumbledore may be a great wizard, but he's only human, and even he only has limited resources. It would be better for you – it would certainly make your father and I feel better – if you distanced yourself from him. You don't have to cut off your relationship, just tone it down a little."

All thoughts of not loosing it with her mother evaporated. "What? 'Just tone it down a little?' That's ... that's absurd!" She felt her face burning, and her fists were shaking, but she didn't care. Part of her had expected this. She couldn't find any real surprise, but there was suddenly plenty of righteous indignation at her disposal. "So, what? I'm just supposed to carry a watch around with me? 'Sorry Harry, I've spent my daily allowed twenty minutes around you ... see you tomorrow.' That's not right, mum. Not at all."

Lucy frowned. She should have known it wasn't going to be so easy. "Hermione, this isn't something your father and I decided on lightly. We put a lot of thought into it, and we concluded it would be easier for you this way. He can still be your friend. You have other friends, like Neville Longbottom and Dean Thomas – you've mentioned them before – and you don't hang around them all the time, but you still have a good relationship with them."

Her voice was louder than she intended when she spoke again, and some part of Hermione was glad her father wasn't home. "Neville and Dean are just my friends, mother. They're not my best friends. I won't let my relationship with Harry suffer because I'm afraid of what may or may not happen in the future."

Lucy blinked, momentarily forgetting her displeasure at that fact that Hermione was almost yelling at her. Maybe I didn't hear right. "What did you say?" she asked softly.

Hermione winced slightly. I can't believe I let that slip out. Idiot! "I said ... I said I won't let my relationship with Harry suffer because you're afraid of what may or may not happen."

Lucy smirked. "I'm not your grandmother, Hermione. My hearing is still pretty good. You said 'I.'"

"Yeah," she sighed, and all her anger seemed to disappear. "Yeah, I did. It's just ... all of it ... it's not fair. Of course I'm afraid. I mean, an insane maniac wants to kill him, and every year it seems like his attempts work a little better. I think ... I think we almost lost him last year. He wouldn't talk about all of it, but the look in his eyes in the hospital wing ... " she shuddered. "For an instant, the light in his eyes was just ... just gone." In truth, it reminded her of the hollow look Sirius' eyes sometimes held, but she didn't dare mention that. As far as her mother was concerned Sirius Black was simply a fugitive that stayed far, far away from Hogwarts for fear of capture. By the same token, Hermione had a horribly difficult time remembering Harry's godfather's name, though she often mentioned that he was a very nice, private individual and didn't like to be the subject of undue attention. "He doesn't deserve any of it, and I'm not going to make it worse."

Now, Lucy was slightly confused. "Worse?"

"How do you think he would feel if he found out my parents didn't want me around him because they thought his mere presence made me unsafe? He's already got ... way too much to worry about. I'm sure he'd understand your argument, and he'd probably agree with it, but I won't do it. Nearly everyone at school's obsessed with the fact that he's the 'great Harry Potter.' They let it determine the way they treat him, and he doesn't say much, but it's obvious he hates it. They love to celebrate his successes, but they're just as eager to use him as a scapegoat whenever the opportunity arises. I've never been one of those people, and I think he appreciates the fact that I've never let who he is determine how I think of him. Everything I think about him, I think as a result of what he's shown himself to be. If I cut him off like you want me to, he would figure out why, even if I didn't tell him. I'd be betraying him. And I'll never do that. Not for anything. He trusts me too much."

For a few seconds, Lucy didn't speak. She was torn between displeasure at the fact that Hermione simply wasn't going along with her and immense pride in her daughter's loyalty to her friends. She had never been one to go against her parents' wishes, unless she felt like she had a very, very good reason. It didn't take very long for the latter to win out, and she smiled resignedly. "I'm not going to make you do anything, dear," she said finally, "and I can't say I'm disappointed in you, either. Harry's very lucky to have a friend like you, you know." She sighed heavily, and Hermione noticed for the first time the deeply worried look in her mother's eyes. As much as she hated to see it, her course was set, and she wasn't going to yield to fear, be it hers or anyone else's. "Just promise me one thing."

Hermione nodded. "Anything, mum."

"Just be careful, dear. I know Dumbledore and the rest will be doing their best to protect all of you from ... whatever might come, but ... just be careful."

Hermione smiled and nodded. "I will." When Harry Potter's involved, it's a given. Then she added, almost without thinking about it, "Everything will be fine." With that, she threw a copy of Conquering Acrophobia into her trunk and slammed it shut.

"Harry!" And before he knew what was happening, Ron was enveloping The Boy Who Lived in a quick bear hug. Harry steadied himself as air rushed back into his lungs, and looked around the compartment he had just entered. Ron was the only one there, though he easily spotted a small ginger bundle curled up under one of the seats that could only be Crookshanks. He spotted something that looked suspiciously like a purple rubber chicken, and knew George and Fred had to be somewhere on the train. Ron was speaking again, and he sounded profoundly relieved. "We thought you weren't going to make it, mate. The train ... well, the train is moving! Where were you? Ginny was worried something had happened to you ... well, we all were, but she was the only one willing to bug us all by admitting it. Hermione looked ready to strangle her for a full minute."

Harry grinned reassuringly before dropping into an empty seat. He put Hedwig's cage next to his feet. He couldn't be sure, but it looked like the owl was glaring at the redhead. Apparently, she didn't like it when people attempted to crush her master. In spite of his worries about Voldemort, one thought went through his head. It's good to be back. "Nothing so serious. The radiator on my uncle's car busted on the way to King's Cross. I thought about discretely using the repair charm on it, but I don't think Fudge would be so kind as to bail me out this time. So we had to wait for the tow truck." He frowned sharply, recalling Uncle Vernon's latest screaming rant. He had to play the Sirius card yet again, and he was left wondering how much longer that was going to work. "But I'm here now."

Ron nodded and sat across from him, readjusting the tarp over Pigwidgeon's cage and tugging on his robes in an attempt to hide his ankles. Amazingly, the tiny owl seemed to be sleeping. Ron couldn't help what came out of his mouth next. "What's a radiator?"

Harry smirked lightly. Some things just didn't change. "It's a metal box that holds water in the front of the car and keeps everything from overheating." Ron nodded, apparently satisfied. Crookshanks had just jumped in his lap and curled up, and he scratched him behind the ears. "Ron, where is everybody?"

"Looking for you, mate. Hermione seemed insistent on it once the train started moving. I think she was hoping you'd locked yourself in one of the restrooms or something. We all thought it was a grand idea, especially since she was a lot less likely to murder Ginny if she had something to do. She left the room muttering something about your aunt and uncle, with Fred, George, and Ginny in tow. I think it's good that we didn't hear exactly what it was."

Harry nodded, newly annoyed with Vernon and Petunia's latest maniac antics. He brushed the thought aside as best he could and grinned devilishly. "What about you? Why aren't you looking for me?" he asked teasingly.

Ron's cheeks suddenly went quite well with his hair. "I ... uh ... I was told to stay here so you would know where we were. That, and we didn't want to leave our stuff unguarded. It'd be just our luck to have Draco and his thick-skulled minions come along and hex everything. I'm sure they'll be back in a minute." Harry nodded. "Say, did your birthday present work out alright? I wasn't sure if it would fit."

Harry brightened. "Yeah, it was great. I would have sent you a thank you note, but Dudley got a BB gun. I'm a little weary of letting her out around the house now unless it's an absolute emergency."

Ron blinked. "Bee-Bee Gun? It shoots bees?" He looked highly affronted.

Harry chuckled. "No, it shoots little metal balls. Good for killing birds," he finished darkly. Absentmindedly, he rubbed at the bruise on his hand. Doesn't feel too good to a human, either.

Ron frowned. "You've got a lovely cousin, Harry."

"Don't I?" He fished around in the pocket of the black jeans Sirius had sent him, relishing in the fact that he was wearing pants that actually fit. His shirt was still one of Dudley's baggy old ones, but he didn't mind. It was summer ... and it was hot. His hand came back out holding a silver watch with a brown leather wristband and a black face. It's resembled the clock in the Weasleys' house that kept track of the redheaded clan. It only had one arm, labeled "Ron." It currently pointed to a small running man, the symbol equivalent of "Traveling." "I haven't had an opportunity to add any more hands," he said as he put it around his wrist, "but I brought the instructions. Apparently I have to get someone's permission before the watch will track them." He attempted to latch the straps, but it was obvious they were far too big, even with the peg through the last hole.

Ron scowled. "I thought you said it fit!" He sounded embarrassed. "I knew this would happen. I had to pick it up second hand," he grumbled, adding quickly, "but I made sure it was in perfect working order before I bought it."

Harry shrugged. "Well, it will, soon enough. It came with instructions for a fitting spell, but I couldn't do it at the Dursleys'. Like I said, the whole Ministry thing." He withdrew his wand from his pocket, along with a small piece of white parchment, smoothing the later out on his lap next to Crookshanks and beginning to read.

A few minutes later, he and Ron were admiring the perfectly resized watch. "So," Ron was saying, "what else did you get?"

"Let's see ... Snuffles sent me these pants, Hagrid sent me some of his homemade treacle fudge ... you know, it's actually edible if you warm it up a little ... and have forty minutes to spend chewing each piece. There were the meat pies from your mum and dad." He smiled at the memory. "And Hermione –"

"Is coming," Ron said quickly. Harry turned around and peered at the door. Sure enough, a bushy brown mass of hair was rapidly approaching with a girl attached to it. Harry smiled.

A few seconds later, Hermione was bursting into the room in a huff. Like Ron, she was already in her robes. The remaining Weasley males were close behind her, looking at Harry with identical relieved expressions. No, he thought after a moment, that's not right. They're looking at me like I'm a ten foot tall solid gold statue of Merlin. Ginny was standing behind the three of them, smiling.

"We looked everywhere," she said dejectedly. "He's not on the – Harry!"

And then, he was being hugged again. But he was ready this time, and he managed to keep a good bit more air in his lungs than he had when Ron descended on him. She unlatched herself from him almost instantly, and he pretended not to notice her cheeks were slightly pink. "Hi," he said.

"Harry ... how did you ... where have you been? I thought you missed the train." She sat down next to him, and Crookshanks abruptly abandoned Harry and scampered into her lap.

Harry shifted uncomfortably. "I ... sort of ... did."

Hermione blinked, and Fred and George were looking very interested now. "Then how," she asked, not bothering to mask her confusion, "did you get here? And where have you been?"

Harry frowned. "I'd rather not discuss it. Let's just say it involved a busted radiator, my Firebolt, a levitation charm, and one very angry porter at the rear of the train." He sighed. "If Professor Snape hears about it, I'll probably be pickling newt brains every night for a month." Apparently, this didn't bother him very much; he was smiling again. "But I figured since we're allowed to use magic on the train, using it in the general vicinity wouldn't be that bad."

Hermione looked like she wanted to press the issue, but she was too happy to see him on the train to really want to dwell on it. Before she could say anything, however, Fred and George were upon them, clapping Harry on the shoulders. "You chased the train down?" Fred asked, grinning like an idiot.

"They'll be talking about this for years, once it gets out," George broke in, wearing an identical expression, "No one's ever chased down the Express. Once you decide you want to talk about it, you've got to tell us how you did it!"

"Well," Harry said, "the train isn't going that fast yet ..." There was silence for a moment, and everyone just stared at him. Then Ginny started to giggle, Ron picked it up, then George, and before long the entire compartment was roaring with laughter. Everyone except for Harry. He wasn't that worried about Snape's wrath ... but McGonagall's – that was another matter entirely. It didn't help that he actually valued her opinion of him. He shrugged it off; there wasn't much he could do about it at the moment.

Hermione was smiling at him, and there was more than a hint of resigned exasperation on her face. "Well, at least your horrid aunt and uncle didn't have you locked up in a broom closet again."

"They don't do that anymore," Harry said mischievously. "They don't want my godfather to show up and eat them."

Hermione seemed to have a thought, and suddenly went very pale. "Harry! If you were at your aunt and uncle's all summer, what about your supplies?"

"It's alright," Ron said mysteriously.

"Yeah," Harry added. "A few weeks ago, when Uncle Vernon was at work and Aunt Petunia was out with Dudley – you know, he's so big now, they have to get clothes specially made for him, diet's not working at all – Ron's dad showed up in our living room again. Said something about Dumbledore having them under watch so he'd know when they were out of the house. Apparently, he passed the information on to Mr. Weasley so someone could take me to get my supplies." Harry wanted to add that he thought the Hogwarts headmaster was doing this because he was nervous and wanted to know where Harry and his relatives were at all times, but thought better of it. "After we cleaned up the living room and I managed to pry your father away from all the plugs, we were off. He had me back before everybody else got home, and I let Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia bask in the false belief that they had prevented me from properly preparing for school. It made them happier, in a perverse sort of way."

"So that's where he went," Ginny said brightly, "he said he had to run some errands for the Ministry, but wouldn't say what."

"Wierd. Why wouldn't he say he was with me?"

"Simple," George said, grinning.

"Yeah," Fred finished, wearing an identical expression, as usual, "Mum's still miffed that Dumbledore wouldn't let you come see us this summer. She's not angry with you at all, but the whole thing's a bit of a sore subject with her. Dad probably didn't want to aggravate her ... again."

Hermione nodded, looking very pleased. Before she could say anything, though, Ron was suddenly standing up, heading for the door. "I'll be right back. There's something the two of you have to see." And he was out of the room.

Fred caught Harry's eye and winked at him, tugging on his own robes. Harry smirked lightly, nodding in understanding. He had left the twins the previous year with one-thousand galleons for their joke shop, with the only stipulation being that they use some of the money to buy Ron some decent dress robes. Apparently, they had already taken care of it.

"What is it?" Hermione asked, sounding slightly annoyed. She didn't like being left out of the joke.

"I'll explain later, Hermione," Harry said quickly. "Look, he's coming back. That didn't take very long," Harry mused as Ron came back in the room holding a reddish-orange bundle under one arm.

"Nope," he said, unfurling the fiery silk. It was indeed a new set of dress robes, and Harry had to admit that it looked very nice indeed. It seemed perfectly matched to his hair, and Harry figured that was probably the intention. Fred and George caught the approving look in his eyes and tried to hide their grins. "My trunk is only two compartments down. What do you think?"

"Dashing," Harry offered. "If James Bond were a wizard, he'd surely dress in something like that."

Hermione giggled shortly at everyone else's blank looks and offered her own, less flamboyant complements. It was obvious she and Harry were the only people in the room who had any idea what the reference meant.

Ron looked confused. "Who's James Bond?" Yes, very obvious, indeed.

And so it was that the remaining Weasleys at Hogwarts School, Harry Potter, and Hermione Granger found themselves traveling together along the Hogwarts Express' railway. After a solid twenty minutes of pestering, Fred and George had coerced Harry into recounting the epic story of his arrival on the train. Yet this was, in truth, a bad idea, as he initially suspected. For even now, Hermione was looking at him as though he were completely insane, and had attempted to do something truly stupid, like Apparate onto a plane moving at supersonic speeds. And she was right, he knew, but he wished she wouldn't look at him like that. Only one course of action was available to him. Flattery. "So," he said, putting on his best please-stop-glaring-at-me smile and attempting to change the subject, "thanks for the broom strap."

She held her glare just long enough to make sure he entertained no illusions about being able to distract her so easily, then beamed at him. "I was worried you didn't get it ... you didn't send anything back. Not that was sitting around waiting on thank you note or anything ..." And she wasn't. At least not for the purpose of being thanked. It had made her slightly nervous when he didn't send anything back, and that feeling had only intensified when he didn't show up on the train. She hadn't mentioned any of this to her parents.

Harry held up a hand to stop her rambles. "No, I got it just fine. But I didn't want to risk Hedwig trying to send a note, and the post owl left before I could put one on his leg. Dudley's aim is getting better." He sighed. "Sorry."

Hermione frowned deeply. "Dudley's aim? They've armed him now?"

Harry nodded. "BB gun."

Hermione was furious now. "Are they insane? He could have tried to put your eyes out!"

Ron chuckled. "What about Dudley's eyes, Hermione?"

She was trembling with fury now, but before she could say anything, Ginny mumbled, "She looks like mum does when she talks about Harry's relatives." Hermione suddenly looked very self-conscious and tried to calm herself.

"Yeah, well, you haven't seen them, Ginny," Fred said darkly. "They're nutters, the whole lot of them."

Harry wished he knew a spell that he could use to sink through the seat bottom. Watching his friends bash his sorry relatives, as much as he agreed with everything they said, was somehow highly embarrassing. "You guys want to see it? I need to change, and it's in my trunk with my Firebolt." There were nods all around. "I'll be right back, then." And he was out of the room.

When he returned fifteen minutes later (his trunk was on the caboose of the train, and his compartment was somewhere in the middle), he was wearing his full Hogwarts uniform, with a notable edition. A dark red dragon hide strap was slung over one of his shoulders and across his chest and ran the length of his torso. His Firebolt, bristles up, was threaded through a loop in the back. Ron flashed him a thumbs-up and motioned with his hands for him to turn around so they could see the back.

"Well," George said jokingly, "if all else fails, we know you could probably pull off a job as a fashion model. Nice sashay, Harry." Ron and Fred abruptly punched both of his arms, hard.

"Very nice," Hermione said, beaming at him again. "But you've got it twisted in the back. Turn around ... there we go." She stepped back from him, sitting back down.

Harry remained standing, peering out the compartment's window, suddenly deep in thought. "What do you think it'll be like this year?" he asked no one in particular, as an endless wall of clear blue sky passed outside. They were up on the side a small mountain or hill now, he couldn't be sure which. In four trips, he had never managed to memorize the landmarks that lined the path to Hogwarts. Whether that was because of some spell working to keep the location a secret or simply due to the fact that he always had more interesting things to think about, he didn't know. He found himself wondering where Sirius was now, and farther off, in the back of his mind, what Professor Snape would act like now that his position as spy for Dumbledore was seemingly taken up once more. He felt a flash of sympathy run through him, and he couldn't help it – it surprised him. "I mean ... now that Voldemort's back." Everyone in the room but him flinched in some form of another, but they all seemed to have given up trying to stop him from saying the name. "Even if everybody doesn't believe it, it'll have to change things."

"Enough people believe it," Ron muttered. "Fudge may be in a dream world, but from what dad says, there's a number of people at the Ministry that are doing their best to get ready for anything behind his back. For instance, I heard him telling Bill one of his friends in the HMRAC Recruiting Office is preparing a proposal to increase enlistment bonuses and benefit. I'm sure you can guess the motivating factor there."

Harry blinked. "HMRAC?" He looked at Hermione, and the curious look on her face made him feel slightly better.

"Her Majesty's Royal Auror Corps," George supplied helpfully.

"Yeah. Bill was thinking about joining before he went off to work for Gringrotts. The Auror Special Operations people were trying to recruit him. Mum nearly had a heart attack." Apparently, Ron found this amusing; he finished his sentence with a chuckle.

Ron suddenly had a dreamy look in his eyes.

"Wipe that dumb look off your face, Weasley. The Aurors don't admit your class of idiot." Everyone turned in their seats, and Harry spun on his feet, resisting the urge to draw his wand from his pocket. He knew that voice – they all did. Draco. He was standing placidly at the far end of the compartment, leaning in the doorway. Harry was left wondering how someone who didn't know how to Apparate was so good at constantly sneaking up on them. In the end, he blamed the train's background noise. Still, he thought, something's different.

He saw Hermione and Ron tense. Fred, George, and Ginny were trying to glare the Slytherin into non-existence. "What do you want, Malfoy?" And the dance began.

And then he realized what it was that was abnormal. There was Malfoy, and only Malfoy – Crabbe and Goyle were nowhere to be seen. That's new, he thought dryly, maybe they got tired of him. Yeah, and maybe Fudge will be at Hogwarts to coordinate Voldemort's defeat with Dumbledore.

"Want, Potter?" He shrugged, his cold, drawling voice washing over all of them. "I assure you, neither you, the mudblood, nor your fanboys have anything I want. Just checking to see if you had indeed managed to get on the train. I heard one of the porters ranting about a 'maniac on a Firebolt' chasing the Express. Sounded like you. Maybe, if you're lucky, Colin Creevey got a picture of it. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Potter? Little bit of extra notoriety."

Harry saw Ron reddening, his mouth beginning to move. He held up a hand to stave off whatever scathing response his friend was planning. Draco was focusing his jeers on him alone, for the most part, and that was rare. Harry intended to keep it that way. "I don't know why you can't seem to understand it, Draco," Harry began coolly, "but I'm not a glory hound." It was then that Harry noticed it – Draco was shifting on his feet, just slightly. He'd been doing it since he appeared in the doorway, actually, but it was so subtle it was nearly impossible to see. Harry was confused now. Draco was nervous about something. Maybe he's missing Crabbe and Goyle ... "And as you can see," he added in a final sort of tone, "I am indeed on the train." He looked at Ginny. She was watching the two of them with a look he couldn't quite identify. George and Fred were watching silently, though Harry could tell they were ready and eager to assist him in dealing with Malfoy should the need arise. Fred already had his hand in his robes, no doubt clutching his wand.

Draco smirked. "So you are, Potter. Well," he said, "I'll be going, then. I've got better things to do then watch the six of you stare at me. Enjoy the ride," he said briskly. And he was gone, the door sliding shut behind him.

Harry stood there for a second, then turned and resumed his place next to Hermione. Crookshanks purred in her lap, lost in some feline dream. "Did anyone else think that was a bit ... odd?" He ran a hand through his hair. "Not that I'm complaining or anything – he was almost nice, by Draco standards."

"Definitely creepy," Hermione said softly. "He didn't even insult me ... well, directly, at any rate." Everyone looked curiously at her. "Don't look at me like that. He didn't, did he? He seemed a little ..."

"Distracted?" Harry offered. "Nervous, maybe?" She nodded. "And where were Crabbe and Goyle?"

"Bizarre," Ron muttered. It was then that he heard the light tapping noise, almost inaudible against the hum of the train. "Hey ... does anyone else hear –" but he didn't get a chance to finish the question. For at that moment, there was a loud popping noise, and they were not alone.

The man was no taller than Harry, with pasty, unhealthy looking skin, beady, watery eyes, and a distinct lack of hair. What little was growing out of his ratlike head was colorless and limp. Deep in Harry's brain, a synapse fired. The solid silver hand on the new arrival's right arm confirmed his suspicions, and he was standing up before his mind really caught up with the information presented it, reaching for his wand. "Wormtail!"

Harry was raising his wand then, even as Hermione and Ron rose to their feet behind him. He heard a girl gasp, but it might have just as easily been Ginny. Somewhere behind him and to his side, Hedwig was hooting angrily, rattling her cage. His mouth was moving, trying to get out the Stunning Spell. He would think it was odd, later, how clear his mind was in that one instant. There was surprise, but there had been no shock. It didn't even occur to him to wonder how Peter had appeared in the room without Apparating. He'd locked eyes with Pettigrew, seen the glint of malice there, and knew he had to act. And he had to do it quick – he knew that too. Any moment, his subconscious was telling him, his emotions were sure to catch up with his instincts, and he would begin to feel real fear, real confusion, and perhaps panic. Even now, some half-formed thought was beginning to bounce around the depths of his mind, demanding to know how a Dark wizard had managed to sneak onto the Hogwarts Express, asserting that something was dreadfully wrong.

But it was all for naught. Somehow, Wormtail had managed to out-draw him, and was even now zeroing in on Harry's chest, whispering, "Crucio!"

"You bastard!" Ron screamed, fumbling with his own wand – his hands were slick with cold sweat, and it kept catching on he edge of his over sized, second-hand robes.

Harry felt himself crumpling to the ground, eyes watering with pain, every inch of his body on fire. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brown, bushy mass as a small hand reached under his arm, trying to keep him from toppling completely. He thought he heard her calling his name, but he couldn't think clearly enough to be sure. Hermione. Can't let her stand there trying to hold me up. "Move," he managed to force the words past his lips, "go ... help ... get ... help."

"No," he heard her voice, small, shaky, but determined. It was getting easier to make sounds out now. "No. George has already gone for Professor McGonagall." He felt the pain subsiding, and he began to steady himself as Hermione's wand appeared in his field of vision, aimed at Pettigrew's torso, "Stupefy!" But in the next instant Wormtail reverted back to his rat form, scampering across the room. The red bolt of magic flew through the air – but there was no longer a Death Eater standing there to take the hit, and it slammed through a window. The glass shattered. Behind them, Ron swore. Fred had been preparing to launch a Conjunctivitus Curse at this madman who had suddenly appeared in his compartment and used an Unforgivable Curse on one of his friends, and was caught totally off guard when Pettigrew reappeared next to him, smashing the back of his silver hand against the side of his red-haired skull. There was a wet crunching sound, and the oldest Weasley in the room fell to the floor, moaning lightly. "Oh, God ... oh, my God ..." Hermione whispered, and Harry saw her wand start to tremble, just as Ron appeared in his field of vision, making for his brother. Harry couldn't know this was the best thing his friend felt he could do, as he couldn't think of a single spell he knew that would be useful against a fully trained Dark wizard.

The pain was nothing more than a murmur now, and Harry shook himself free of Hermione, but otherwise didn't move. She was safely behind him, for the most part, and that was fine with him. The fear was beginning to creep slowly through his body now, but he ignored it as best he could. This is wrong, he thought wildly, something's not right. Not right at all. Wormtail hadn't spoken to them once, indeed, his face was almost blank. And since when has Wormtail ever been this ... this good? The Wormtail he knew was a coward, afraid to so much as look at Lord Voldemort's face. He certainly wasn't anything like the Death Eater commando who had been in the compartment with them for the last thirty seconds. Not that Harry had any time to really think about it. Wormtail was turning his back on them now, pointing his wand at something else.

Hermione saw it first and nearly screamed, the remaining color draining from her face. "Ginny!" Harry followed her gaze, and felt a chill run down his spine.

Ginny Weasley had not stirred at all since Pettigrew appeared, and as to why, it was obvious to anyone who cared to look. Her skin was white as sheet. Indeed, pure terror seemed etched onto her face, and she wasn't moving. But that was soon to change.

Wormtail's voice was clear and calm. "Reducto!" An instant later the compartment shook violently, and Harry landed hard on his knees, throwing his arms out in an attempt to regain his balance. It didn't help in the least when Hermione fell on top of him. The impact forced him to his stomach. "Sorry," she mumbled quickly, scrambling to get off. Any other time their position might have been embarrassing, but at the moment, Harry didn't have time for hormones either. One of her knees hit something he really wished she could have managed to avoid, and he let out a high-pitched squeak. Yes, it would be a good long time before anything remotely hormone related managed to enter the equation again.

Once she was finally off him (it seemed to take a very long time to Harry, but only a few seconds had passed), he looked up, and sincerely wished he hadn't. Fred was still on the ground, half-awake, but that wasn't what he was looking at. A large piece of the wall facing the edge of the mountain path was simply gone, a great, gaping hole in its place. Ginny Weasley was nowhere to be seen.

For one horrible instant, he was sure she had been pushed through the gash in the wall, and he imagined her limp body rolling down the mountain, a sick feeling welling up in the pit of his stomach. Next to him, he heard a retching sound – Hermione had arrived at the same conclusion. He felt the spark of anger and rose to his feet, grabbing his friend's wrist and pulling her up with him. It was Cedric Diggory all over again. He didn't know where George was, or why no one was busting through the sliding door to help them, but Pettigrew was playing to kill them all, it seemed, and it was just like before – no matter what, he was going to do his best to fight. If he died, it would be on his feet, like his father. He wouldn't give Voldemort or any of his ilk the satisfaction of letting them see the fear fighting to control him. "You alright?" he asked Hermione quickly. His voice was much smaller than he was hoping it would be.

"Y-Yeah. Harry," she pointed once more at the missing wall, "look!"

Harry saw Ron near the edge, bending over. At first he thought, with a tinge of utter and complete sadness, that he was looking for his sister. Then he saw one of his friend's hands. It was clasped around something. A wrist, Harry thought, elation momentarily canceling out everything else, he's got her wrist. She held on long enough for Ron to get to her! Thank God. Even now, the red-head was struggling to lift his sister back into the compartment, but he was at a horribly difficult angle and wasn't having an easy time of it. He turned his attention back to Wormtail. "He's leaving Ron and Ginny alone." Because they can't get away. "Got any ideas?" The Death Eater was between Harry, Hermione, and Ron and Ginny. He knew he couldn't risk another Stunning Spell. There was nothing to keep his enemy from pulling a repeat performance. If the spell hit the fifth year Weasley – well, that was something he wasn't willing to risk. "Stupefying is out," he said quickly, nodding at Ron.

Hermione nodded in understanding, then almost smiled, her eyes lighting up. She had an idea. She stepped around Harry, standing at his side. Her wand was pointing at Wormtail's feet. If she missed, the spell would harmlessly knock a chunk of the flooring loose. "Petrificus To –"

But Wormtail had a much shorter word in mind. "Silencio!" The golden beam struck Hermione's throat. Her mouth continued to move, but it was futile – not so much as a squeak escaped her lips. Her eyes widened in panic. She'd been muted. Before Harry could react, the Death Eater was pointing his wand at the space between their heads. The Boy Who Lived locked eyes with Ron then, seeing the pained, utterly helpless look in his eyes. He was still straining every muscle in his body in an attempt to keep Ginny from falling to her death. He had been unable to get any significant leverage, and hadn't been able to raise her up in the least. "Relego ex tempo te!"

A wave of soft blue light, three feet wide and three feet thick, sprang forth from his wand with a soft hissing sound. Harry's eyes very nearly bulged in their sockets. He had no idea what this particular spell was supposed to do, he had never heard it before, but he knew anything that came from Wormtail's wand simply couldn't be good. It wasn't Avada Kedavra, and he was thankful for that, but he was perfectly aware it would wash over he and Hermione in a matter of seconds. Me and Hermione. He jerked his head around to look at her. She had lowered her wand, her face a mask of confusion, and more than that, fear.

All at once, Harry knew what he had to do. Voldemort's quarrel was with him alone, as far as he was concerned. Ron and Hermione were his friends, and often managed to get caught in the crossfire through no fault of their own. He didn't know what was about to happen, but he would be damned if Hermione was made to suffer for her relationship with him. If he had to face whatever was coming alone, so be it.

And so he lunged, reflexes and muscles refined by three years of Quiddich games and practices coming to bear for one purpose – pushing Hermione Granger far, far away from him and the encroaching wave of Dark magic. As for getting himself out of the way, he entertained no illusions about his own agility – it was either him or her, and that was a startlingly easy choice to make.

Harry felt the palms of his hands pushing against Hermione's shoulders – they were shaking underneath her robes. His momentum carried them sideways; they were falling. Good, Harry had time to think, if she's on her back, it'll shoot right over her. Another little voice made sure to add, And it'll slam right into you, hero. When had his subconscious gotten so cynical? They continued to fall.

Yet, for the second time that day, Harry's body failed him, and he simply wasn't fast enough. Hermione's back was still six inches from the ground when the wave crashed over them – it caught both of them, totally and completely.

An instant later, Harry was surprised to find that he wasn't dead. He and Hermione were suspended in midair now, about two feet off the ground. He was still above her with his hands clamped down on her shoulders. And apparently, he wasn't the only one who couldn't so much as blink. Her eyes were the only thing she seemed to have any control over. They were flying around wildly, finally settling on him. It was fortunate the blue haze around him was distorting his vision; he couldn't make out the tears sliding down her cheeks. And – well, he really didn't know how to think of this new sensation, but it felt as though he was somehow becoming less ... substantial. That was the best way he could describe it.

Wormtail calmly turned his back on them again, shooting two bright blue strands of light at the sliding compartment doors. Harry couldn't hear the incantation – it was either being whispered, or there was none – but had a pretty good suspicion he was looking at a room sealing charm. God, he's not done with us yet.

"Ah. Harry, so good to see you again." He spoke to them directly for the first time since his arrival, and if Harry could have done a double take, he would have. The man attacking them may have looked like Peter Pettigrew, but there was no way this was the same coward who had been afraid to look Voldemort in the eyes mere months ago. His voice was filled with confidence, calm, self-assured. His motions were precise and purposeful. Harry had no choice but to wait and see what he did next. He didn't have to wait long. "My master's orders were very specific, Harry. You, quite simply, aren't going to be arriving at Hogwarts this year. Or any year, for that matter. Now, he instructed me not to permanently harm any of your friends. I'll admit, I botched it up a little there." For a brief moment, a bit of the old cowardice flashed in his eyes. "But honestly, lad, after your last performance, I expected you to put up more of a fight. And as for the obnoxious little mudblood you've attached yourself to, I doubt he'll loose too much sleep over her – ow! Damned cat!"

Crookshanks had managed to recover from being thrown across the room when Pettigrew blasted the wall, and had just dug his front claws deep into one of the wizard's legs, determined to aid his Hermione and her friend. Wormtail reached down and angrily ripped the cat from his body, careful to hold him at arm's length, and threw him at Hermione. The moment the blue energy washed over him, he was immobilized, hanging there with the two young humans in what looked like some bizarre display of modern art.

"Little beast," Wormtail began again. "By now you've probably began to feel the effects of the spell. My master created it especially for your disposal. It's a pity you cannot talk. I would so be interested to hear what it's like to slowly cease to exist. Apparently, despite the fact that you're no longer protected by your idiot mother's sacrifice," Harry's eyes blazed at this, but that was all he could do, "he did not consider the Killing Curse the best way to deal with you. But I do not dare question the wisdom of Lord Voldmort. My work here is done. Goodbye, Harry, Hermione ... the rest of you." He Apparated.

Minerva McGonagall's voice was shrill when she pointed her wand at the sealed compartment door. George stood next to her, rubbing his shoulder, his wand drawn. Rushing the door had proven less than effective. "Alohamora!" Nothing happened. Blast it!

"Professor?" George muttered worriedly. The compartment was completely silent now. "What's wrong? Why won't it –"

"It's been sealed, Mr. Weasley," she said urgently. "A formidable charm. Raise your wand. The Reductor Curse – blast the point where it meets the walls. Now!"

"Reducto!" Their voices joined perfectly, and twin bolts of magic flew from their wands. They found their marks, blasting the walls around the door into pieces. The door itself fell forward, and for the first time they had a clear view of the compartment and its occupants – or what was left of them.

Minerva paled. "Oh ... oh, God ..."

The room was in total disarray. In her cage, Hedwig was hooting sadly. Ron was crouched up on the floor against the remaining wall, as as far away from the breach as possible. Ginny – or some small, red-haired mass of robes that most likely contained Ginny – was wrapped up in his arms, shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. Fred was up again, though he was significantly paler and looked very dazed. The side of his head Wormtail hit was swollen; small rivulets of blood were flowing from his temple. When he saw George he started trying to get up, but Minerva was by him instantly, holding him down with strength that defied her age. He looked at her numbly. "Too late," he whispered. "I wasn't fast enough. They're gone ..."

Minerva looked at the hole in the wall, saw the world flying by. A look of horrified comprehension dawned on her face. "You ... you mean they –"

"No," Ron said quietly, his voice hallow, lifeless. "It was Wormtail ... Peter Pettigrew. He ... he ..." his voice broke then, and he couldn't stop the sobs that escaped him. "I couldn't help them. I had to keep Ginny from falling. He killed ... he killed them both." He pointed at something behind the Transfiguration teacher, and she turned around, beholding the spot where Harry and Hermione made their stand. She felt her knees go weak.

Everything the blue energy had touched was charred and blackened, but there was no smoke, no smoldering flames. The only thing on the floor was a single, black pair of glasses. For a while, no one spoke. Then Minerva turned to George, who had begun to walk shakily towards his siblings. "George," she began, in a voice that wasn't entirely under her control, "stay ... with them. I'm going to ... get Poppy to come for your brother. Someone must owl ... must owl Dumbledore. He must be told that Mr. Potter and Miss Granger are ... gone," by the time she finished her voice had taken on a defeated tone. George, apparently with great effort, nodded at her and stood by the ruined entryway. She exited quickly. Had anyone been bothering to look, they would have seen the tears pouring silently down her face.