Chapter 20

"Right," Hermione said in as steady a voice as she could. "Are you sure you're ready to do this?"

"No," Harry replied jokingly. Then he added in mixture of ruefulness and apology. "I suppose that wasn't the reply you wanted?"

"No," Hermione said exasperatedly, "This is very serious Harry."

"I'm being very serious." Harry said sternly, in a quick change of tone. "I'll never be sure when I'm ready unless I try it."

"You don't go by halves, do you?" Ron remarked wryly as he remembered the times they had been through some of the most exhilarating, and dangerous, adventures that average witches and wizards thrice their age would not even have imagined becoming entangled in. Each was an adventure of a lifetime and Ron felt as though they had survived several lifetimes. Like the first time they went into Hogwarts without knowing much. Well… Hermione did, with all her memorising of books and casting of charms. But it did not mean she knew how to combat trolls and You-Know-Who. He and Hermione were that close to seeing him face to face in their first year. First Year. Merlin, was it really that long ago when he had nearly been suffocated by the Devil's Snare?

The Chamber of Secrets, Sirius, Professor Lupin, Dementors, the Triwizard competition, the Department of Mysteries… these were all incidents where they were at the brink of death. And the word now was that a battle was coming. One that would soon bring death and destruction. It was not practical to listen to gossip but many were frightened. There was no strong leader they could look to for strength in the Ministry. Dumbledore might still be the most powerful wizard, but he was only a Headmaster of a school. And Harry… well, some people still saw him as a kid and not a little bit loony.

Who knew that in Hogwarts, under the watchful eyes of his trusted friends, Harry was about to do something he had not done before?

Ron observed quietly as Harry and Hermione sat cross-legged opposite each other in the Room of Requirement, the one convenient place to have absolute privacy. This time, they were using it for an experiment which demanded no disturbance, something which was difficult to avoid in a castle inhabiting the likes of Peeves and Filch. And students of course. Harry was going to attempt to enter Voldemort's mind for two objectives. He wanted to save Adora and break Voldemort. He forbade Ron and Hermione to tell anyone else because he knew the staff would stop him and he did not want anyone to know if he failed.

Hermione was the most sensible in the Trio and the most likely to dissuade Harry from his decision, one would have thought. But Hermione and Ron were not Harry's friends for nothing. They had done things together that were not 'sensible' or 'wise' throughout their school life. Perhaps this was why the Sorting Hat saw something of a Gryffindor in Hermione. She was willing to plunge into a foolhardy mission without hesitation.

Ron himself could not refrain from complaining, "Why can't I join you?" He was already sore that he had not joined them in Quadrivium.

Hermione shook her head fervently. So did Harry.

"It's bad enough that I'm asking Hermione to take the risk with me." Harry said, "But I'm not complacent enough to think I can do this on my own. I need someone to cover my back and try to pull me out if I go too deep into Voldemort's psyche. He might even discover what we're doing. And Hermione's experienced her mind going into another realm before. She'll know what to look out for."

"Besides," Hermione smiled encouragingly, "You have the most important task actually."

"Yeah?" Ron tilted his head to a side.

"You're our messenger Ron!" Harry exclaimed. "You're going to have to find the professors if this goes wrong."

"Oh…" Ron responded and made an exaggerated O-shape with his mouth. Then he frowned, "So I'm the messenger who isn't the kind who rings the bell and says 'All's well!'. And how would I know when something's wrong?"

"Well, if you see us vomiting blood or growing two heads…"

"Ha. Ha. Ha."

"Why don't we set a time limit?" Hermione suggested. "If we aren't out of our trance after an hour, you'll go and find help."

Ron reluctantly agreed. "I don't like this."

"Try not to worry too much." Harry said lightly, although he did not feel any lightheartedness in him. He looked straight at Hermione. "Okay, Hermione, let's go."

"Yes." Hermione said.

She took out her wand and made a seal around Harry and her to deflect any stray magical interference. Then she made a sign between Harry and her to form a portal. She had made careful studies regarding linking minds and looking into. She had started out with Legilimency and went on from there. She questioned Flitwick innocently and conversed with Severus about his experiences. She felt a little guilty for not telling them the reason for her questions but Harry would not hear of them informing anyone about it. She next found out the limitations a person had to endure while trapped in another person's mind. Finally, she thought up of different ways for Harry to get out of the portal safely.

When she was confident that the portal was stable, she nodded to Harry and indicated that all was ready. The plan was for him to enter Voldemort's mind while Hermione held the fort. She was to act as the guardian, hovering between the tangible and intangible sides of the world, watching over the events of Harry's attempt and making sure there was always a chance for him to return conscious.

"Okay. Think about Voldemort."

Harry snorted.

"Harry…" Hermione remonstrated.

"Sorry."

"Think about Voldemort. Where he might be, what he's doing, find him."

Harry stared at the portal in deep meditation. The portal glowed slightly and appeared to hypnotise himself. Hermione observed carefully as Harry's eyelids grew heavy. Outside the seal, Ron was shuffling his feet uneasily.

Soon, Harry's eyes became dull and expressionless. An odd sensation followed. Hermione felt nauseous because she was suddenly in two realms at one time.

-

"And after the disruption Mr. Lupin has caused, I'm afraid there will be a lot of work to do to reverse the damage." Severus said sardonically to his class that consisted of the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws. Several of them looked indignant, whilst others pretended that they were not in the least perturbed. One Hufflepuff was frowning and Severus thought in amusement at the possibility that the girl was taking him seriously.

Sometimes, in each year that he taught, there would be the bold, stand-up-for-others, type of student, and such a student stood up to defend Lupin.

"Are you quite certain you understand the difference in property between puffer-fish eyes and porcupine quills Mr. Pennifold? Surely Professor Lupin must have taught you that if he is as wonderful as you describe him to be."

When the student sputtered some excuse that those were in the second half of the textbook and Lupin had not taught them about them, Severus nonchalantly deducted ten points from Ravenclaw.

Of course, there were none as audacious as Potter. As for Longbottom, well, Severus would always view in distaste that episode where an image of him was dressed in frightful clothing. That was something more audacious than even anything
Potter had done to him, but it was Lupin's fault. Amazingly, Longbottom still stood in trepidation around him even though he had passed his DADA, which meant he had overcome his fear and subdued the Boggart.

During class, Severus instructed the students to make a potion and subtly tested their knowledge to see what they had learnt last week. Lupin had told him but Severus wanted to check for himself. As in any other lesson, some students remembered their work, and others did not. It strengthened Severus's belief that a teacher's attitude had no impact on a student's learning process and it was all up to the student's ability and willingness to study. A teacher's friendly and patient attitude was only helpful in gaining popularity and popularity was not something Severus craved for. He did crave for it, once, when he was young and suffered jealousy as a result of seeing James Potter and his cronies liked by everyone, but it was useless to crave for an elusive thing. He was never going to change his personality and he knew later on in life that it was not popularity he sought for but acceptance. And it was the few people who accepted him that meant more to him than huge numbers of the public.

When class was over, Severus's thoughts wandered to Hermione. He guessed she was studying for her N.E.W.T.S. and it made him reluctant to find her. He had not spoken with her since he had come out of the Hospital Wing, which really was only two days ago.

Severus was embarrassed to admit that he already missed her.

-

This better be worth it Harry.

Hermione communicated telepathically with Harry who was currently orientating himself to a much darker setting. An unsettling mood prevailed. There was something wearisome and sinister about them, but that was to be expected of being in Voldemort's mind. Hermione congratulated them both for succeeding in linking Harry's mind to Voldemort's on the first attempt.

How are you feeling?

Weird. Harry replied, And I thought I'd be looking out of his eyes so that I can see his surroundings. But I'm all right. We better not communicate with each other too much. We don't to attract any unwanted attention.

Be careful Harry.

Ha. I don't need reminding Hermione.

A quiet journey followed as Hermione sensed Harry trying to grasp the inner workings of Voldemort's mind. Everything was blurry and confusing to her but Harry seemed to know what he was doing and he became increasingly confident as he moved about. Voldemort had always been the one taking advantage of the link they shared. Now it was Harry who turned the tables round. He was grimly satisfied.

Adora, where are you? Hermione could hear Harry ask.

More time passed, and there was no progress. Harry started to feel frustrated. Hermione wondered exactly how much time had passed. She withdrew from the place a little and glanced at Ron, who in turn was checking his watch.

Hermione's stomach lurched forward and her mind started hurting. It was not a normal person's capability to stand being in two places at one time, even for a witch. The pressure exerted upon her threatened to overcome her.

Harry…

Shush. Hermione, I think there's something.

Hermione hesitated. She broke into sweat and wanted Harry to give up and leave the place but just then she felt his delight.

There was someone else with him. Adora?

Hermione felt the portal waver and panicked. She noted that her energy was sapping due to suppressing the pain that was pounding her brain. She decided to concentrate on the portal. Harry would have to work his way through.

She only hoped that he paid attention to the time ticking away. By now, she was oblivious to the exchange Harry and Adora were having.

"Adora," Harry was exclaiming happily. "This is great. This is absolutely great."

"How did you come here Harry?"

"Never mind that. Come on, let's get you out of here first." Harry took Adora's hand and intended to go through the portal. But Adora shook her head.

"That isn't the way to do it Harry." Adora said.

"Oh."

"I overheard… him tell his servant… Peter Pettigrew…"

Harry's mood darkened, "He's still alive then."

"Pettigrew? Yes." Adora said, "Anyway, he was talking about how you can't save me unless you transfer me back to my body directly."

Harry frowned, "How's that possible?"

Adora looked sad, "I don't know."

"Okay." Harry was disappointed, but all was not lost yet. "Is there anything important we should know?"

Adora looked startled. "Now that you've mentioned it…" She shook her head, "This filthy place is oppressive. It makes me forget things." She bit her lower lip, agitated.

Harry looked at her sympathetically.

Adora picked up her courage. "Right. You can't stay here for too long. You're lucky. He's sleeping now, that's why he's not on his guard or he'll be aware of us talking. Don't interrupt me. I need to tell you everything straight before I forget everything."

Harry… hurry. Please.

Harry blinked at Hermione's words. She sounded horribly weak.

Hermione?

But Hermione did not reply.

When Adora told him all that she knew, Harry thanked her and was about to leave when Adora stopped him.

"Harry, get me out of here quickly."

Harry blinked. "Yes."

"And if you can't… just kill him Harry." Adora was solemn. "Destroy him. It's better that I'm dead along with him than for me to linger in here always."

Harry stared at her. Then he nodded curtly and left.

Hermione, get me out.

Harry was relieved when he felt himself leaving Voldemort's mind. It felt a little like travelling using Floo Powder. As he opened his eyes, he sighed as in release.

"At last! Where did you go? On second thoughts, what did you do?"

"How long was I was there?"

Ron checked the time, "Half an hour."

"It seemed longer." Harry turned to Hermione, "That was excellent Hermi…"

In their distraction to talk with each other, Harry and Ron had not noticed how dreadfully pale Hermione was. Her lips were almost bloodless, and sweat was breaking out profusely from her forehead. Her eyes were shut tight.

"Hermione?" Ron tried to rouse her.

Hermione started swaying. She was panting.

"She's weak." Harry said unsteadily. Not daring to use further magic on her, he picked her up. Walking out of the Room of Requirement swiftly as he carried her, Harry told Ron, "I'm taking her to the Hospital Wing. Get the professors."

-

Severus rubbed his brow wearily. He had written a letter to Lupin curtly thanking him for teaching his students while he was absent and laconically commenting on the results of different teaching techniques. He was not trying to be humourous but knowing Lupin, the man would simply smile and shrug it off. He might even put it down to Severus's sardonic outlook in life.

He mused over what he could do for the rest of the afternoon before dinner as he had a school owl deliver the message to Lupin. Lupin had left immediately after Severus took back to teaching duties. Even Severus thought that he had left a little too hastily, but that was Lupin and his infinite consideration for you. While there were many students who were fond of him, there were others who feared him, knowing he was a werewolf. Furthermore, Lupin would not dream of making it inconvenient for Dumbledore to keep him.

In that way, Severus thought, he was luckier than Lupin. Hogwarts had been a prison, but also a needed refuge for him ever since the end of the first war. Not many knew that he had been a Death-Eater of course, but he was deemed a misfit in society. There was no place for him to go or work in. The Ministry certainly would not accept him because of the confidential information it held regarding his activities as a Death-Eater. If Albus had not offered him this job, Severus knew he would have ended up like his father, cooped in a run-down flat and a meager salary as an independent researcher. Brilliant, but not valued.

Yes, he was lucky. Lupin did not have his own proper place to live in. Severus had learnt something of the wandering days of Lupin when Lupin was conversing with Hooch in the staff room. Lupin tried to make light of them, but Severus understood the underlying unpleasantness. It was amazing to him how anyone could remain cheerful and not bitter under those circumstances. He knew that Lupin was more deserving of staying in Hogwarts than he was. Now no one knew where Lupin was. Albus had suggested that Lupin stay in Grimmauld Place, but Lupin could not stand it even when Sirius and others were there, much less alone.

Maybe one day Severus would have a word with Albus and see if something else could be arranged. Lately however, Albus was always preoccupied with things.

Severus shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. As long as that confounded Dark Circle existed, they would always be preoccupied with hunting it down and subduing it.

A walk. He would take a walk, terrorise the students and deduct points from every House but Slytherin. He had informed Hermione that it was therapeutic and she was not amused. She had suggested that reading was a better outlet and Severus told her that he did not want to sully his reading leisure with petty and morose thoughts. She had not argued against that.

As Severus left his office and walked up the stairs, he wondered again what Hermione was doing. It would just be like her to be in the library. The N.E.W.T.S. examinations were approaching and despite the menacing threat of war, Hermione had kept to her studies as keenly as ever. She planned to do the best in every one of her subjects and was determined to prove to Severus that she could beat him at studies, or at least be on par with him.

He had not told her that he did not take fourteen N.E.W.T.S. That had been her assumption. But he was not about to contradict her for the time being. She knew what she was doing and was fully capable of taking fourteen N.E.W.T.S. if she were so inclined.

The sound of running steps greeted him in the corridor. Looking for the person responsible, he saw Ron Weasley at the other end of the corridor. Well, look who was his first victim.

"Mr. Weasley," Severus started, "This is not a Quidditch field."

But Weasley did not appear perturbed.

He said anxiously, "It's Hermione professor."

Severus's remaining words died in his throat.

-

Many people and many explanations later, the professors in the Hospital Wing were looking disapprovingly at Harry and Ron, except Dumbledore, who marvelled at the Trio's brave antics.

"You couldn't get Adora out," he asked in confirmation after Harry related all the events.

"Yes… but I found out something." Harry said shakily. "Voldemort's going to attack Hogwarts next month."

Dumbledore nodded, "All right. It's a pity. Nevertheless, at least, at least this allows us to prepare ourselves. There's time to gather help." He did not betray any of his shock or nervousness. Either Voldemort was getting impatient, or he was very confident he would win. He was threatening to destroy Hogwarts. Plans must be made with the Order to get the students out of harm's way. That was of utmost importance. The Order would face Voldemort and his followers in battle. It would happen sooner or later, and it was best that it happened when they were expecting it. More had to be done. More aid had to be recruited.

Severus and Minerva were chilled by the news too. On the other hand, they were still seething with rage. The latter was angry at her students for repeatedly risking their lives. The former was angry simply because it was Harry Potter causing trouble again. In addition this time, his attachment to Hermione made him protective over her.

"So you thought up of this splendid idea to test your powers over Voldemort and bring Hermione along with you," he whispered, fighting the urge to scream at Harry.

"I would never want to see Hermione hurt if that's what you're suggesting." Harry stamped his foot hard on the ground in frustration.

"But there she is." Severus pointed to her lying unconscious on the bed while Poppy was attending to her.

"How is she Poppy?" Minerva enquired.

Poppy sighed in relief, "It's nothing serious. Mere exhaustion. She'll sleep it off."

Ron smiled, "That's good, isn't it?" Then he tried to liven things up a bit, "We really make a habit of having meetings in the Hospital Wing now, don't we?"

He grimaced when everyone else glared at him, not at all amused.

-

Hermione stirred in her sleep. When she opened her eyes, she saw shadows dancing above her. Her brain registered that it was night-time, and she was not in her dormitory because there were no shadows on her ceiling.

She felt unbelievably rested. It was as though she had driven herself to extreme exhaustion and had collapsed at the end, without care and worry. She had just allowed herself to fall into a deep sleep to her heart's content.

Turning her head around, she found a dark and lanky silhouette sitting on an armchair beside her. She could barely make out his features. But they were welcome features.

Seeing that she was awake, Severus leaned over her and smiled. Hermione was surprised by how warm his smile was. It was the only way she could describe it. It was touching and oddly soothing. She smiled in return.

"Severus."

Severus's smile broadened. "Hello Hermione."

He had spent the night watching over Hermione after dinner. If he were still that cold logician he used to be when he was a student and later a Death-Eater, he would say accompany an unconscious person was unnecessary and a complete waste of energy. But that was when he did not understand other human complexities. There were things that could not be explained with logic. He had done it for Albus out of loyalty and friendship when Albus was recovering from the first war with the Dark Lord. Now he did it out of affection and concern for Hermione. He felt more at ease here in the Hospital Wing than going to bed in his comfortable chambers, knowing she was sleeping soundly.

Hermione breathed deeply and looked around. She said matter-of-factly. "We're in the Hospital Wing."

"Yes. Do you realise the irony of the situation?"

"Sorry?"

Severus grunted, "I asked if the irony of the situation's occurred to you."

"I'm not hard of hearing Severus. I just lack understanding. What irony are you talking about?"

"That you're the casualty this time and I'm the one gloating over you while you're lying in the Hospital Wing."

Hermione scoffed as Severus continued, "Honestly, perhaps I shouldn't take advantage of the situation. It appears your faculties haven't fully recovered yet if you can't even comprehend such a simple thing."

"I do not gloat." Hermione said without bite.

"We have to make do with the difference in our character." Severus said drily.

"Is Harry all right?"

"Yes, he's in his dormitory now, unless it suddenly strikes his fancy to take a midnight stroll."

"Don't be so hard on him." Hermione said, "He only takes those night walks when they're necessary. So, what happened?"

"I don't think you should work that mind of yours so much after just waking up. How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Hermione replied. "Can't you tell me anything?"

"You're to listen to me this time. Potter's told the Headmaster all the details of his trip to the Dark Lord's mind and you'll learn about everything tomorrow." Severus paused. "That wasn't the cleverest thing to do. Bold, yes, but not clever. It was highly dangerous. I won't give you a lecture because no one can ever stop you, or Potter, or Weasley. I'm just conveying my piece of mind. Now try to relax. Engage in light conversations instead of delving in tasteless topics."

Hermione grinned slightly, "I doubt that it's easy to have light conversations with you Professor Snape."

Severus chuckled in self-deprecation, "I suppose not."

Hermione took in his sallow complexion and the lines around his eyes.

"You should get some sleep yourself."

"I'll sleep when you sleep." Severus said.

Hermione smiled again. Severus could not help being caustic when he talked. Nonetheless he was caring when necessary.

"That's rather sweet of you Severus," she said softly.

She closed her eyes, "Aren't you tired?"

"I know my limits Hermione." His reply came by way of remonstration for her not knowing when to quit when she was on the brink of collapse.

"Touché." Hermione muttered and listened to Severus leaning back against the chair. Soon, she slipped back into slumber, secure in the knowledge that Severus was with her.

Now that Hermione had woken up and chatted a little with him, Severus was calmer. He gazed at Hermione's carefree expression as she slept and smiled. It did his old and tired self good to bask in her youth and innocence. She said it was sweet of him to accompany him. He had yet to thank her for choosing to be with him.

He marvelled at the topsy-turvy feelings human relationships brought. They were a burden. If a person were a hermit, he or she would not enjoy the joys of companionship. Then again, he or she would not experience the woes either. A hermit would live life in peace. It was tempting in its way but that sort of life was… what was it Albus say? Blend, that was it.

A person could not have the best of all worlds. He might as well be resigned to the fact that he appreciated companionship and Hermione was cherished and anyone be damned if that person made fun of sentamentality. As long as Adora was rescued and the wizarding world overcame the present evil,Severus would have no regrets.

When Hermione next woke up, Severus was no longer there. But he had left a thoughtful note that read, "How are you? Do not miss the morning class if you want to score tops in Potions."

"So I'm the messenger who isn't the kind who rings the bell and says 'All's well!'.": Just a skewed reference to The Night Watch in Discworld.

Amazingly, Longbottom still stood in trepidation around him even though he had passed his DADA, which meant he had overcome his fear and subdued the Boggart.: Actually I'm not sure. Did Neville pass?

"I'll sleep when you sleep.": This is from Margaret's and Leo's exchange in The West Wing, fourth season finale.

Leo"I'll sleep when he sleeps But you should sleep for a few hours."
Margaret"I'll sleep when you sleep."
Leo"Well, this is going to be interesting 'cause we're going to have a small band of dedicated people who can't lift their arms."

Another two more chapters should do it.