Author's Notes: I'm back again! It's been a long time since the last update, but between Half-Blood Prince, my job, and back-to-school preparations, I've been extremely busy and have not had much time for leisurely things such as writing.
So Half-Blood Prince. Wow. I don't think there's much to say here, but I'll just let you all know that I am not one of the people who were disappointed. No, on the contrary, I was everything but disappointed. I hope most of everyone who is reading this story has read and finished HBP, but in case you haven't, I won't discuss the surprises/happenings of book six. And needless to say, this fic is now officially AU. Sigh. Fortunately, the death in Prince does not contradict much in this story – in fact, the only thing that differs is how that person died. So I'm going to continue writing BCD ignoring Prince (making it pre-HBP, post-OOTP, whatever you like).
Beware of an extremely long chapter! This one is, in fact, the longest to date. And I'm quite happy with it. Lots of revelations, questions being answered, more questions being raised, etcetera. Unfortunately, because I am a bit stupid and wasn't thinking at the time, one of the biggest revelations isn't much of a surprise at all because I included it in the summary. I apologize. Pretend you're surprised, won't you? It's something big for the trio, at any rate, and is a large part of the overall plot.
For those whose Hermione/Ron needs have not been satisfied thus far, I believe this chapter will be to your gratification. That's all I'm going to say. You're going to have to be forced to actually read the chapter, I'm afraid, if you wish to find out more.
And I do hope I still have people reading this. Don't think I've forgotten this story again; I had said in my last Author's Notes that another update would not probably come soon, and I stuck true to that. Of course, future updates may come a bit slower now that school's starting again and all (to hell with education, I say!), but I'll still be working on this fic, never fear.
So as always, please read and review! If you get confused at any part, do let me know, because I did my best to make this chapter as un-confusing as possible.
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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: ILLUSION OF PERFECTION
Hermione skipped dinner that night and spent her time alone in the sanctuary of her dorm. Though her stomach protested strongly, she certainly was not going to face Ron, her students, and anyone else who might have heard of her afternoon explosion. In fact, she yearned to never again set foot out in the corridors of Hogwarts; sure, her room might be a bit empty and forlorn, but anything was better than being publicly humiliated again.
She gave up attempting to think of other things and let her mind determinedly dwell on the thought of Ron. Thinking about what she had said to him made her cringe in mortification. She still had not let the hidden message underneath his scuffle with Braedon weeks ago sink completely in, either. Ron seemed to want to let the past go, finally, but Hermione now mentally berated herself for being so utterly stuck-up and stubborn; wasn't it time to move on and amend relationships? They all were facing much larger problems at the moment than something that had occurred six years ago. Lestrange, the Death Eaters, the raid of Harry's room, the book, the safety of the students – all of this certainly presided over Ron and Hermione's confused emotions. And confused Hermione indeed was.
The exhausted Transfiguration teacher let out an extensive sigh and flung herself backwards onto her bed. She vaguely wondered what time it was and how long she had been cowering in her dorm. On the other side of her window, the last remnants of winter snow glistened with the rays from the setting sun, which was slowly sinking behind the tall, dark trees of the Forest. It must have been somewhere around seven o'clock, she imagined, judging from the location of the sun and the rumbling in her abdomen. She began to regret skipping supper.
A sudden knock on the door startled her; she quickly rolled over and closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep. She was seeking solitude in her dorm for a reason and was certainly not in the mood to be bothered.But the door never opened. Instead, a voice issued from behind it, muffled and sounding quite concerned.
"Hermione?" It was Ginny. "Are you all right?"
Hermione let the silence answer for her.
"I've brought you something to eat," Ginny said. There was the distinct sound of a plate being set on the floor. "If you want to talk, I'll just be in my room." Retreating footsteps indicated that Ginny had turned and begun traveling down the staff's corridor to her own dorm. A door creaked open slowly but then stopped, as if the person on its threshold hesitated; a moment later it snapped shut, though, and Hermione's world was silent once more.
She opened her eyes, still lying on her bed in the direction of the window, to watch the last rays of sunlight fall across the grounds of Hogwarts. The sky, which had not been sunny in many dreary months, was growing steadily darker and seemed to be swallowing up the red and orange shades that bathed her room in radiance. Though the snow had all but disappeared, the Hogwarts lake was still as frozen as an ice cube; the sun shone out over the glistening surface one last majestic time before finally vanishing over the horizon, plunging the grounds and Hermione's room into fresh darkness. The professor inadvertently shivered, though her room was hardly cold in the least. Her dorm no longer appeared warm and comforting as it had an hour ago, with the bright, fiery colors from the sun illuminating it, and on the contrary, it now seemed to serve as a prison of obscurity.
Hermione swung her legs over the side of her four-poster and stood. Her decision had been made in a moment – of course it was physically impossible to hide in a dormitory for the rest of one's life, and she knew it also conveyed a sense of weakness. Hermione was anything but weak and would not have the rest of the school deeming her as such. She crossed the floor and opened the door slowly, hoping Ginny wouldn't hear the noise and come out into the hallway. She nearly tripped over something lying on the floor and, looking down, realized she had completely forgotten about the food Ginny left. Staring up at Hermione enticingly was a plate containing a roll, a large lump of mashed potatoes, two small slabs of meat, and a sparkling goblet of pumpkin juice. She reached down, grabbed the roll, stuffed it into her mouth in three rather vulgar bites, and continued on her way, very thankful to Ginny for bringing her up food. Otherwise, she was sure she might have starved. Or almost.
The staff room was oddly vacant, which surprised Hermione, as it was late in the evening and most professors were usually seen plowing through mountainous piles of homework before they turned in for bed. Professor Sprout was seated in a far corner, reading over an extremely lengthy parchment that trailed to the floor and then some; Jeffery Yang was two tables away from her, clearly falling asleep over what appeared to be a very boring essay, judging by how his eyes closed and then snapped open every few seconds; the rest of the tables were strewn with empty coffee cups and discarded quills, and a chair every now and then stuck out oddly from a haphazard table. Hermione was admittedly grateful that nobody was around to question her about the afternoon lesson, and it was clear the other two Professors in the room had no intentions of even acknowledging her presence, which was fine with her. She glanced towards the armchairs in front of the fire, thinking of how appealing they looked, and saw that though she had not noticed when she first entered the room, a person was actually seated in one. The back of their head was not visible, nor was any other part of their body, but one robed arm rested on the side of the chair. Hermione made her way towards the fire, wondering who the person was, and idly found herself wishing that it was Harry. He had probably heard of her outburst hours ago, but hopefully he would listen to her and be a source of comfort. On the other hand, she mused, he might also take to laughing uncontrollably at her, as that was a very Harry thing to do, and she wasn't sure she quite liked that. So perhaps it would be best if it wasn't Harry.
She rounded the armchair and began to lower herself into her own before she altogether realized who was seated next to her, and it certainly was not Harry. She jumped up as the person turned their head slowly to gaze at her, almost sorrowfully, though their expression was quite blank and unreadable.
"Oh," she yelped, embarrassed. "Sorry, I – I didn't know anyone was, er, here…"
The person, who also happened to be Ron, said nothing and returned his gaze to the fire. Hermione stood awkwardly aside his armchair, completely at a loss for words. She hadn't considered that Ron, the last person she wanted to talk to right now, could be in the staff room when she had quickly made up her mind to venture out of her dorm. True, he had been spending more time out of his own room the past couple weeks, but she honestly had not assessed this possibility. She was trapped. She could very easily run in the opposite direction, or even out of the room – Hogwarts was massive and surely, if she hid well enough, no one would be able to find her for days. Or she could stay and sit in the vacant armchair and painfully plod through a conversation, although she was not entirely sure Ron would talk to her.
She knew what she had to do.
"Can – can I sit?"
Ron didn't answer, so Hermione took that to be a yes and sunk into an adjacent armchair. They both wordlessly stared into the roaring fire. The silence was awkward and deafening and Hermione hated it. She desperately cast her eyes around the room as if expecting something to jump out and plant a very clever subject to converse about in her mind. But dusty tables, drained coffee mugs, scraps of parchment would all make for rather pointless conversation.
"What happened with George Lance, the Ravenclaw boy?" Hermione asked suddenly. She was very grateful for something that didn't sound entirely stupid to pop into her head. "Did Harry set him right?"
Ron nodded, not taking his eyes off the fire; the flames reflected eerily in his eyes.
Hermione let out a breath of relief. "I knew he would, Harry's always been so efficient with tasks like that. Is Lance all right? Will he be back in class tomorrow?"
Ron shrugged. "Probably," he said hoarsely, speaking for the first time since Hermione had arrived in the staff room. "Couldn't stop thanking me enough for turning him into a bird, actually. He thought it was brilliant," he added crisply.
"Oh," Hermione uttered, though it wasn't really a word and actually more of a discomfited sound in the back of her throat. When had she ever become tongue-tied around Ron? On most good days, she usually couldn't stop the words from pouring out of her mouth, especially when Ron was vexing her. A hundred witty remarks about him being not so brilliant and rather more arrogant were begging to flood out, but Hermione suppressed them. Now was not the time for immaturity.
"So, er – where is Harry, by the way?" Hermione asked hesitantly.
Hermione could have sworn Ron's eye twitched a bit, but perhaps it was only the light from the fire creating illusions. "Somewhere," he muttered, "with Bella. Mentioned visiting Hagrid or something, I don't know, but I didn't believe it."
"What do you mean?"
Ron glanced quickly at Hermione, his expression sharp, before locking eyes with the fire again. "Nothing. Never mind," he said curtly.
The notion to press Ron for more information passed over Hermione. The words, the ones that she had been debating on whether or not to speak for hours now, the ones that the person sitting opposite would hopefully return, were becoming thick on the edge of her tongue. She was sure she would completely botch everything up, and another furious tirade would ensue for professors Sprout and Yang to witness (as involved in their work, or in Jeffery's case, sleeping, as they undoubtedly were, Hermione knew that no normal human could tune out such incensed yelling). The logical side of Hermione who yearned for peace and good will to all craved to set things right in the world; the other, more defiant, stubborn, and livid side, however, wanted to wait for Ron to beat her at her own game and perform the debatable act first. She knew she had been wrong that afternoon to carry on in such an embarrassing manner when Ron was only trying to aid her class, but that certainly didn't erase all of his wrong from both six years ago and the present. So why should she do it when Ron was clearly harboring most of the blame?
Hermione took a deep breath and gazed absentmindedly into the hearth. The crackling embers shot up at abnormal intervals, rebounding off one another and creating minuscule little fireworks amongst the flames. The heat drifted from the grate and to her face, soothing her worries and bestowing a strange yet not entirely unfamiliar sense of calm upon her.
She knew Ron. And Ron would not do it. But that was not his fault; that was simply how Ron was. And that could only mean one thing – she would have to do it. They were both lost causes unless Hermione stepped up and assumed the role of the mature one once again, as she always had. It was the only way she could save them.
She took another deep breath, and in a split second, without another thought, the once heavily guarded words were finally spilling from her lips.
There was a long silence. Hermione could've sworn Professor Sprout's quill stopped scratching.
Ron did not detach his eyes from the fire. His expression remained as stony and blank as ever. The only movement on his face was that of the flames dancing in his eyes, still giving him a very ethereal and not entirely sane look. His eye did not twitch again, his muscles did not constrict, and his breathing remained perfectly regular. Hermione nervously began to wonder if he had even heard her and considered running from the room again.
"Ron? I said I'm – it was wrong of me, this afternoon, to – to treat you like that. In my classroom. I know you were only trying to help, but I don't like other people attempting to take over my classes all that much."
There was more silence. A hot, burning sensation was now rising in Hermione's throat, the kind of feeling one gets when they are perfectly aware they just made a huge, glaring mistake. She knew she should've just let things be; they weren't exactly ideal, of course, because Hermione had never really fancied being in a constant dispute with someone, unless it was for a very logical reason or with Ron, but this one was admittedly growing tedious. Obviously, Ron didn't feel the same way.
"Er, Ron?" she tried one last time, her voice sounding very small and squeaky. When another unbearable silence met her uncertain pleads, she was then sure she had just made a complete and utter fool out of herself. There would be a later time for groaning about her foolish mistake, but first, she needed to slip out of the room and out of Ron's company. She had never wanted to be elsewhere with such a burning desire before in her entire life.
"Ah – well, I have – I have lessons and things to do, so I'll just…go do them. And I'll…see you around, then. Erm…bye."
Cutting off her farewell before she could possibly stutter any more, Hermione made to stand up, careful not to breathe or let her gaze stray towards Professor Yang, who she was not all sure was actually sleeping anymore.
But before she could run from the room, from Ron, and from her uncomfortable stupidity, someone caught her arm.
Ron was no longer ogling endlessly into the grate. Instead, his eyes were now fixated upon Hermione's face, and for the first time in a very long, painful era, they were not full of hatred or scorn. He gazed at her so intently, as if he had never before laid eyes upon her, with a remarkable hint of both regret and selflessness in them. Slightly surprised at herself, Hermione restrained a growing notion to cry, and hiccupped instead. A small smile grew on Ron's face, starting at the corner of his lips, then spreading across their flesh, until his entire face was basking in the warmth of a truly genial grin.
"I'm – hic – sorry!" Hermione all but wailed, still standing beside Ron's armchair and not caring that Jeffery Yang had just abruptly awoken from an allegedly deep slumber. Ron's smile slipped off his face at her outburst. "I was so stupid, Ron, and – hic – the Ravenclaw boy could have been hurt today, if I had just – hic – shut up and let you help the students, they were seriously struggling with that spell, it was too – hic – complex! I don't know what I was thinking, of course you know that – hic – spell, you're probably better at it than me, but what would we have done if it hadn't – hic – been for Harry and – ?"
"Hermione," Ron said abruptly, strengthening his grip on her arm. Tears began pouring down Hermione's cheeks and her hiccups only intensified; she sunk back into her chair and started sobbing. Ron looked like he was trying very hard not to smirk.
"Hermione, stop," he said loudly over her moans and incoherent mutterings of "stupid teacher, don't even – hic – know how to turn a bird back into – hic – a boy" and "I'm sorry, I'm so sor – hic – sorry!"
Ron reached inside his robes and drew out his wand. With a quick swish in front of Hermione's face, her hiccups promptly deceased, leaving her to sniffle and cough amongst her heaving sobs. Inside her mind, Hermione was mentally making a note to kick herself later for breaking down twice in a day in front of Ron, and both in quite embarrassing fashions.
"Come on, stop that," said Ron quietly. Professor Sprout threw aside her lengthy roll of parchment and slunk around the tables to Yang, only to whisper animatedly in his ear. Ron rose from his chair and stepped towards Hermione's, in which the emotionally distressed Transfiguration teacher sat, cradling her face in her hands. He bent down beside her chair, extended an arm, and looped it around her shoulders comfortingly. Hermione's cries began to fade away quickly as hundreds of small invisible lightning bolts traveled from Ron's touch to her brain. She raised her red, blotchy head out of her hands and looked up into Ron's, disorientation and vulnerability contorting her face.
"It's all right," Ron said quietly. "Maybe we should go for a walk or something," he added, his eyes flickering over towards the excited little Professor Sprout. "You've been closed up in your dorm for too long, you see what's happening to you?"
He smiled again and Hermione chuckled, still sniffling. Ashamed for crying in front of Ron, she wiped her eyes urgently and pushed heir untidy hair behind her ear, quite aware that Ron's arm was still around her shoulders. She stood hastily, nearly falling over in the act, and unwillingly caused his arm to fall back to his side.
"Good idea," she whispered shakily as Ron stood from his crouching position aside her armchair.
They both turned and traveled across the room to the door. Professor Sprout jumped up and dashed back to her chair, grabbing at random pieces of parchment on the floor and then hiding her face behind them. She was evidently attempting to appear busy, which didn't go over too well, as her face was still rather flushed and her parchment was upside-down. Jeffery Yang, on the other hand, feigned sleeping again, his snoring a bit too loud to be believable.
Ron wrenched open the door and held it open for Hermione to step through. When it snapped shut behind both of them, the comfortable crackling of the staff room fire vanished, only to be replaced by a cold and still silence in the corridor. It was then Hermione became painfully aware that she and Ron were alone, for the first time in six years, and neither was shouting at the other. She vaguely wondered how they had gotten there; shouldn't she still be up in her dorm, hiding, never wanting to see or speak to Ron again?
They set off silently down the hallway, their doubled footsteps reverberating around them. Several windows lining the stone wall confirmed that the hour was indeed late; brilliant moonlight bathed the corridor and engulfed the two dark figures traveling past the glass panes. Hermione distantly pondered where Harry could be with Bella Levrero and why, but Harry's issues weren't exactly imperative at the moment. Hermione was concentrating very strongly on keeping her tongue from blurting out anything offensive or cynical (and really, she was willing herself not to break down and cry again at the words "I'm sorry").
"I took that Ravenclaw boy to Harry right after your class," said Ron suddenly. "I told him what happened, and he did some complicated gesture with his wand. Before I knew it, the boy was sitting on a table in front of me, thanking me repeatedly for transforming him into a bird. He still had a few feathers sticking out of his ears, so I took him to the hospital wing, but he said he couldn't wait to tell his mates."
Hermione grinned weakly. "I figured as much."
There was silence once again. Uncomfortable, awkward, tense silence. Hermione desperately wished for the two of them to lapse into conversation about the boy who was transfigured into a bird, but there honestly wasn't much more to say.
"Have you any idea why Harry's off with Bella?" Hermione asked again, wondering if she was pressing her luck by bringing up the subject once more.
Ron shrugged nonchalantly. "They were talking in the staff room earlier, and I think Hagrid's name was brought up. Bella said she didn't know him all that well, and Harry said he should introduce the two of them – Hagrid's just gotten something odd and dangerous imported from Italy, so Harry probably thought Bella'd like that." He sighed. "Harry has a lot to learn about women."
"He seems quite taken by her," Hermione commented, as she and Ron turned a corner into a corridor housing a long row of old, dusty statues.
"Tell him that and he'll hex you," said Ron. "I said that I think he fancies her and he became very distant and denied it, of course. But you'd have to be a complete git not to notice it."
There was a small, almost unnoticeable trace of disgust in Ron's tone that sparked Hermione's curiosity. They ascended up a marble staircase to the floor above, and she asked, "What? You don't like Bella?"
"No, she's very nice and all that," Ron said quickly, "but I don't think Harry – he shouldn't – he's being – he's just been, well, alone for so long, and he's being –"
"You don't think he should become involved with anyone right now," Hermione finished slightly triumphantly, for she was able to articulate quite well now, whereas Ron seemed to have a bad case of stuttering.
Ron nodded quietly.
"Because of everything that's going on? You think he's too busy to have a relationship?" Ron nodded again, not looking at Hermione and instead staring at his shoes. "Ron, do you think you're a bit jealous?"
"No!" Ron replied sternly. "I'm not jealous, no. I'm just…thinking about what's best for Harry."
"Harry's a grown man, Ron. I'm pretty convinced he knows how to look after himself by now, but I'm sure he thanks you very much for having his best interests at heart."
Ron said nothing as they both continued walking on aimlessly, having no idea where they were going, or, really, where they were. The halls of Hogwarts were all blurring together and beginning to look the same, as they always did during the night hours. Hermione was afraid it had been the wrong thing to say – she hadn't meant anything by it, she really hadn't even thought it was too sardonic. But perhaps Ron thought otherwise.
The meaningless discussion about Harry had obviously dwindled to an end and silence once again settled over Ron and Hermione. Their slow, clicking footsteps bounded off the walls and echoed down the long, deserted corridors.
Suddenly, the half of Hermione's brain that contained the better part of her logic seemed to catch up with the rest of her. She rapidly realized where she was, who she was with, and hardly dared to believe it – had she perhaps fallen asleep in her dorm earlier? Just hours ago, she never would have believed that in due time, she would find herself taking a night stroll with a certain Ron Weasley, acting very civilized and mature (which was quite unordinary in Ron's company). In fact, each was trying so hard not to provoke the other that the atmosphere seemed strained, even almost fake. Hermione didn't like it. It just wasn't right. She was waiting for something; she had been for many minutes now, ever since her outburst in the staff room. Had she once again overestimated Ron? As before, would he fail to meet her expectations? She had been hoping that this time, it would be different; she was giving Ron, and herself, a second chance. But would he take it? It was now beginning to seem unlikely.
The silence droned on, as unwavering as ever. Hermione found herself wishing that she were back in the staff room or in her dorm, even. It seemed as if their "walk" had served its purpose, though she was not quite sure what that was. If it was getting her and Ron back onto mild speaking terms, then she was certainly ready to call it a night. The day had been long and draining and she was now yearning for the serenity of sleep.
The two adults turned another corner and suddenly found themselves in an all-too-familiar corridor. Hermione's breath caught in her chest; she recognized the flooring, the walls, the tapestries, everything. The thing she recognized the most, however, was the large portrait hanging on the wall halfway down the hall, a portrait depicting a very fat lady snoozing on the side of her frame. Hermione sensed a change in Ron's manner as well and knew his thoughts were quite similar to her's; he was remembering.
"Haven't been down here in a while," he muttered.
Ron was right. Hermione hadn't yet traveled down this particular hallway during her reign as Transfiguration professor. She also hadn't visited it, she realized, in nearly six years. The corridor leading to the Gryffindor common room remained unchanged and looked exactly as she remembered it. The Fat Lady obviously had not noticed the two Hogwarts graduates, but she did seem to be in a rather deep slumber. Hermione preferred it that way – she wasn't in the mood to chatter with the portrait she had passed through every day for so many years, at least not so late at night.
"Hermione," Ron said abruptly. He stopped and caught her arm, pulling her around to face him.
He halted. Hermione kept quiet, examining his expression, and waited with bated breath. She physically felt her heart quicken with every passing second. Could this be it? After six years, was it finally going to end, here and now, at nighttime in the middle of the Gryffindor corridor?
"Look, I – there's something I need to say," he muttered. His ears colored slightly as he talked, but he kept his gaze firm and did not take his eyes from Hermione's face.
"I was a git, I know. It might be a bit too late for that now, but…what I mean is, that day, after we…er, well, I didn't mean it. I didn't mean anything I said. I just wasn't – thinking clearly. I just – I'm sorry."
Another silence followed Ron's short speech. Hermione, for once in her life, did not know what to say. She'd been waiting for those two powerful words for years, and now that she had finally heard them, her voice and her mind seemed to fail her. All she could do was stare at Ron, her mouth slightly open.
"I'm sorry about everything."
The Fat Lady snorted and mumbled something in her sleep about second years abusing school rules at night. When she returned to her slumber, the silence between Ron and Hermione stretched on. From Ron's countenance, it seemed that he was feeling the same way Hermione had when she had apologized to him. For some strange and unfathomable reason, this made her want to grin, and she felt the corners of her lips tugging upwards.
"What?" he asked quickly.
"Oh…Ron!" And without a second's warning, Hermione had launched herself at Ron. She threw her arms around his neck, causing him to stagger backwards slightly. He seemed surprised, and after a moment in which he obviously decided Hermione wasn't going to hit him, he returned the favor and wrapped his arms around her. Hermione's eyes stung with fresh tears of happiness but she restrained herself from openly crying on Ron's shoulder (crying again would undoubtedly be the last straw).
"I'm so sorry, Ron, I really am; six years is ridiculous! I was so young and stupid and I had no idea what I was talking about – "
"You're not the only one – "
"I don't know what I was thinking, the last day was just so awful, and I thought I'd be able to block you and Harry out for the rest of my life but when you showed up here at Hogwarts I knew it was impossible and I knew I had been wrong and it was all a mistake and – "
"Hermione, breathe," Ron said, loosening his grip and pulling back to face her and grin. He still clutched onto her arms, and Hermione couldn't help but grin back. She didn't know what to think or do – the words just tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them, six years' worth of bottled up feelings finally erupting inside her. She wouldn't break down again, she just could not, but it was very difficult for the Transfiguration professor to keep calm and sane. Standing there in the Gryffindor corridor with Ron holding her arms and bearing such a warm smile, Hermione was absolutely elated. All dark thoughts concerning Lestrange and the Death Eaters and the danger they were all in vanished; a small, distant voice in the back of her head even said, Who cares? You and Ron have finally made up. Leave the matter of Lestrange alone for now.
An odd noise behind them caused Ron and Hermione to jump and swivel around. The Fat Lady had awoken from her sleep and was looking down upon them with a half-astonished, half-mischievous smirk. When she finally seemed to realize who they were exactly, she let out a hoarse squeal, causing both Ron and Hermione to jump.
"Goodness me," she murmured, squinting slightly to get a better look at the couple. "Could it be? You two have finally returned to visit me, after all these years? A bit old to still be going to school here, aren't you?"
"I'm teaching," Hermione said quickly, with a hint of pride. "And Ron's – helping McGonagall."
The Fat Lady nodded and yawned widely. "And where's your friend? I'd've thought he'd be with you, since you three were always sneaking out late and night and waking me up to go back into the common room. Should've just let you sleep out here."
"He's busy," Ron said, grinning noticeably. He began backing away from the portrait slowly, his hand still clutching Hermione's arm tightly. Obviously, Hermione reasoned, the same thought was on his mind, and neither of them was very eager to stay and chat with the Fat Lady. It would surely take quite a long time to catch up after six years, and truthfully, neither adult ever really considered the animated portrait a close friend worthy of such valuable time.
"And where are you going?" the Fat Lady asked. Her face fell a bit as she watched Hermione and Ron retreating inch-by-inch back down the corridor. "Aren't you going to stay? It's been so long. The students just aren't what they used to be," she sighed, her posture drooping a little in her frame. "All little pricks and quite cheeky to boot. You tell McGonagall she needs better security around here. I am dreadfully tired of waking up at ungodly hours to let disrespectful little third-years back into the common room!"
"We'll let her know," said Ron. "And we'll tell Harry you've said hello. Maybe we'll send him on by if we're feeling especially vengeful towards him. Have a good night!"
Before the Fat Lady could say anything else, Ron turned Hermione and pulled her down the corridor, clutching her hand securely. Both were grinning from ear to ear and were trying very hard to suppress giggles. Hermione did not care that they had run into their old common room portrait; honestly, she wouldn't have cared if she ran into Peeves and he dumped a bucket of toad spleens on top of her head (fortunately, Peeves had been evicted long ago from the castle, or so she had been told, but she highly suspected he left of his own accord, as Peeves never showed any inclination to leave the castle at the request of his superiors during her own schooldays). As she and Ron careened through the Hogwarts hallways back to the warmth and sanctuary of the staff room, she firmly believed that nothing in the world could spoil her good mood, because she and Ron were friends again. Everything was perfect.
But the illusion of perfection was quickly diminished for Hermione, and reality once again set in, as reality always does when one least expects it. Though a certain area of her life was finally repaired, much to her euphoria, others only continued to prove more demanding and problematical. In no time at all, February and the slowly diminishing wintry conditions faded into March, which brought sunshine and young, reborn life to the Hogwarts grounds. The gloomy sense of despair that had been prevailing over the castle for many weeks seemed to dissolve slightly in light of the uplifting weather. Students of all years were vigorously studying for their upcoming exams (which were looming ever closer, now only three short months away) while their professors busied themselves with their own work of preparing the students. As expected, no student was quick to forget the events of the past few months and all residents of Hogwarts castle remained as watchful as ever, but Hermione sensed a noticeable change for the better in the school's atmosphere, a change in the attitudes of both the students and professors. They all seemed stronger, more united, perhaps, and ready to face any other challenge that would undoubtedly be directed their way. She nor anyone else would not begin to hope that the mysterious happenings were over just because nothing out of the ordinary had occurred lately, because Hermione was clever enough to deduce that whenever she began to think it was finally over, she would only be proved wrong again in the worst way possible.
Preparing the students for their exams soon became harder than Hermione had ever dared to believe. She often wondered how teachers who had been at Hogwarts for so long, such as Professors Flitwick or Sprout, made it through year after year without completely going insane. Other things were almost always on her mind, but Hermione made it her top priority to pull all of her Transfiguration students through the lessons, organizing everything to the very last detail and ensuring that they would be ready come exam time. While June had once seemed so very far away, now it didn't seem far enough.
During these March weeks, her classes weren't, however, her most strenuous task at hand. She, Ron, and Harry, all broken ties repaired and friendships mended, had taken to spending nearly all their nights together, sitting at small, round tables, deep in discussion by the glow of candlelight. The raid on Harry's room had drawn much attention to the odd, neglected book the students had attempted to steal (all of whom were now doing reasonably well, considering a couple had been Stunned; the Head Girl, unfortunately, was forced to spend a night in St. Mungo's and undergo a demanding questioning the next day, only revealing what everyone expected – she nor any of the others remembered anything), and though Harry had been thoroughly reading through the book during his spare time, he had come across nothing of interest. Late one night, in the staff common room, Harry had revealed to Ron and Hermione that the book seemed to focus on the ancient magic of Greek wizards. None of the three had any idea why this would be relevant or even important to Bellatrix Lestrange, but at Hermione's urging, the three continued to pursue the book at night when they were sure they wouldn't be interrupted.
On one particular evening, after a suspenseful Quidditch match between Ravenclaw and Slytherin nearly leaving the latter house in tears of disappointment at their loss, the staff room was especially busy and noisy and full of excited professors. Hermione had never been much of a Quidditch fan (and would never admit this in the prescence of Harry or Ron) and was slightly surprised at how closely many professors seemed to follow the game. She would have expected Ginny to be quite a fan (Ginny had gone to the game decked out in Ravenclaw colors and, even though she was a professor, did not seem to think it was inappropriate to chose sides with her students), but she never would have thought other teachers, such as tiny little Professor Flitwick or quiet Jeffery Yang, could carry on so much in the staff room after the game. It took hours for the small staff party to finally end; Desdemona passed out on top of a long table after doing a jig at the request of Ron, Bella and Harry both seemed particularly bubbly and spent most of their time laughing together in a corner, and nearly everyone was intoxicated with the warmth of butterbeer, though the details on how the drinks had arrived were quite blurry and suspicious. At last, when Ginny carted a snoring Desdemona off to bed, Ron, Hermione, and a still slightly-bubbly Harry gathered around the only table not strewn with empty butterbeer bottles, and Harry drew out the small, black book from inside his robes.
"I don't know why we're still wasting our time on this," Ron groaned, as he always did in some form or another every time the trio began scanning the pages of the book. "This has got to be, I dunno, the fiftieth time we've done this."
"Have a butterbeer, mate," Harry said suddenly. He pushed a half-empty bottle towards Ron, grinning stupidly. Ron glanced incredulously at Hermione, and as Hermione ran her finger down page five yet again, she vaguely wondered whether Bella had practiced a Cheering Charm on Harry.
"Come off it, Hermione," Ron tried again. "If we haven't found anything by now, what makes you think tonight will be any different?"
"Ron, why else would those students break into Harry's room and attempt to take this book?" Hermione countered. She turned the page and stared at the small never eleven at the bottom and felt like she had gone through the book so many times she could probably recite it by now. Her eyes blurred slightly and flickered towards her watch; the time read ten till midnight.
"But they didn't get the book," Ron said, his voice sounding rather strained and beseeching now. "Whatever Lestrange wanted in there, she won't have, will she? So what does it matter if we know what it is or not?"
Hermione didn't reply and instead ran her eyes down page sixteen, admittedly hardly taking in a single word. She had gone over every page so often that the words now all seemed to run together, becoming a large, meaningless blur. The logical half of her brain considered Ron's argument and began wondering if he was in fact correct. Perhaps Lestrange only wanted to do a bit of background reading on Greek wizards; did that seem so harmless?
Hermione mentally kicked herself. Of course it wasn't harmless. Bellatrix Lestrange was capable of everything far worse than harmless and would never result to something so innocent as background reading. She knew the late hour was definitely getting to her and suddenly yearned to go to bed – they could continue their search tomorrow, anyway. Perhaps a night off would do them all some good.
"Hey, Hermione, let me have a go," Harry said. His grin had faded a little and he seemed slightly less cheerful, and since Hermione had just been overcome by an intense wave of drowsiness, she didn't object and pushed the book towards Harry.
The staff room soon grew completely quiet, save for the nearly inaudible ticking of Hermione's watch and pages being turned by Harry at unsystematic intervals. Every so often, Hermione checked the time; seconds seemed to be crawling by at a snail's pace. Ron had long ago fallen asleep and his snores were growing steadily louder against the silence. No more words were spoken amongst the trio (and, after Ron fell asleep, just Harry and Hermione); Harry made no comments about the book, only confirming Hermione's worst fears that the book was proving to be useless. Her eyelids were now beginning to droop…she closed them, just for a minute, and noted how wonderful the feeling felt…she would only rest them for a moment, because she was so very tired, but she wouldn't fall asleep, she just couldn't…
Suddenly, just as Hermione was falling into a light slumber about broomsticks and butterbeer bottles, Harry slammed his hand onto the edge of the table. Ron snorted and fell off his chair, and as Hermione slowly opened her unwilling eyelids, she saw that Harry was staring at a page of the book, his eyes wide.
"Wha's it?" Ron slurred, appearing above the table and setting himself in his chair again.
"Gnomi Elencho," Harry enunciated.
"What?" Hermione asked. She was now completely awake and alert, her heart beating fast at the thought of all their hard work of studying the book finally paying off.
"Gnomi Elencho," Harry repeated. He pointed to a spot halfway down page sixty-one. "Right here, on this page." His former bubbly attitude had by now completely worn off, and the Harry Hermione was accustomed to in situations like these had returned. His voice was quick and excited and his expression was one of stimulation.
"Harry, what's – wait a moment," Hermione said slowly. A memory was coming back to her, something from the meeting they had held with the Aurors at Christmas. She could picture the large group gathered together in the hidden room, and suddenly Romina's face swam into view, talking to Harry…then another vision appeared in her mind; she was seated at a bar, her head down, and two men were talking amongst themselves at her side…
"It's the book," said Harry. "The book that Lestrange found out in Eastern Europe. Hermione, it's what the Death Eaters at the club were talking about the night you overheard them, remember?"
Ron was looking from Hermione to Harry in complete confusion and massaging his head from where he had toppled to the floor. "What the hell is this, Harry? What book? What's Lestrange got to do with this?"
"And Romina – Harry, when the Aurors came on Christmas for the meeting, Romina said –"
"She read the term Gnomi Elencho in a book somewhere," Harry finished. A vacant expression crossed his face and Hermione had the feeling he was deep in thought, concentrating everything on retrieving the exact conversation from the meeting. "It's this book!"
"What book?" Ron demanded.
"Romina said she thought she recognized the term from a book in the Ministry library. She took this from the Ministry and lent it to me, when I went on that mission to the Middle East, because the wizards in the Dark Arts ring I were after all descended from ancient Greeks."
"So Bellatrix Lestrange found a book about Gnomi Elencho," Hermione continued, piecing the story together in her mind as she talked, "and wanted your book, Harry, because she thought it would be of use to her. Apparently, she doesn't know what Gnomi Elencho is, but your book doesn't say much about it, does it?"
Harry shook his head. "All it says is, 'Gnomi Elencho, one of many Dark talents fashioned by the ancient Greeks, proved useful for the people during their flourishing years until the practice of it was outlawed throughout the magical world.' Then it just goes on to talk about their 'flourishing years.'"
"And what the hell is this Gnomi Elencho?" Ron interjected.
For the first time in minutes after Harry's enthusiastic revelation, there was silence once again. Harry gazed down at the book, his eyes traveling back and forth rapidly (he appeared to be re-reading the passage about Gnomi Elencho over and over). Hermione realized that she didn't know what the term meant, and didn't know anything about it, really, other than that it was Greek and related to the ancient Greek people.
"I don't know," Harry said quietly. "The book…doesn't say."
"So Lestrange's involved after all?" Ron asked.
"Honestly, Ron, when isn't she involved?" snapped Hermione. "Don't be thick. But what use is this Gnomi Elencho to her? It must be awfully important if she's willing to have four students break into Harry's room to steal another book with hardly any information on it at all."
"I reckon she didn't know that," Ron muttered.
"You know," Harry said suddenly, with the tone of someone who just realized their birthday was tomorrow, "if this term is truly Greek, I think it could be translated into English."
"I figured as much," Hermione said. "And Gnomi Elencho does sound familiar to me, now that I think about it. I'm almost sure I've read about it somewhere, but I just can't recall…"
"You've read half the world, Hermione," Ron sighed. "I still don't understand how you can remember any of it."
Hermione ignored Ron's comment and turned to Harry. "You should send a letter to Auror Headquarters straight away, Harry. Moody and Romina especially would want to know about this, and it seems awfully imperative to me. If we find out what Gnomi Elencho means, it could tell us what Lestrange has been up to all these months. It could be the key to everything."
"We just need to translate it," said Harry. He reached across the table and grabbed a spare bit of parchment that had been lying there, pulled out his quill, and began scribbling a note addressed to Mad-Eye.
"This – this is crazy," Ron said croakily. "I – you actually think this all makes sense?" he asked Hermione.
"Haven't you been paying attention, Ron?" Hermione implored. "Everything fits! The students raided Harry's room in hopes of coming across his book and returning it to Lestrange, because she doesn't know what Gnomi Elencho is and thought the book could help her. My guess is that the Gnomi Elencho itself is in all Greek, which would explain why she's having trouble deciphering it. That's what the Death Eaters were doing in Eastern Europe; they were searching for the book, and I'm not all that sure it's good they've found it – "
Ron scoffed and looked to Harry, who was concentrating on his letter to the Aurors. When Harry did not disagree with Hermione, Ron said defiantly, "You actually think it's important, then? The Gnomi Elencho or whatever? We've got students attacking and being attacked and Death Eaters in Hogsmeade clubs, and all you want to worry about is some stupid and probably unimportant book Bellatrix Lestrange can't even read?"
"That's not the point, Ron – "
"Right, I'm off to the Owlery to send this now," Harry interrupted, having not been paying attention to Ron and Hermione's growing argument or either wisely choosing to ignore it. He stood with his letter in hand and started towards the door. "I think we should leave it here for tonight, and tomorrow we can look in the library for any Greek translation books. If we can't find them there, there's got to be some at the Ministry…I'm sure Mad-Eye can find something for us, I asked him in the letter."
Within seconds, the door behind Harry closed with a muted snap, leaving the staff room still once more. Ron and Hermione stared at one another, more disagreeable bickering surely on the way, but Hermione quickly reminded herself they had just made up from their last fight and gave in with a sigh. Her watch now read past one o'clock in the morning.
"I'm going to bed," she announced, pushing back her chair and standing.
"Good idea," Ron muttered. "See you in the morning."
Hermione snatched Harry's discarded little book from the small table she had spent so many hours at and made her way across the room and towards the staircase that led to the professors' dormitories, Ron not far behind her. Complicated emotions and excited thoughts swirled around her mind, but minutes later all thought was extinguished gratefully as Hermione sank onto her four-poster, completely dressed, and drifted off into a much needed sleep.
"I would like the essay on my desk by tomorrow, all twenty-four inches and not one less."
Hermione's seventh-year class groaned audibly at this assignment, some bolder students protesting loudly and rudely, causing the professor to dock several points from their houses without flinching. It was not uncommon for Hermione and other professors to set such challenging homework tasks for the seventh years, and though the students themselves argued that this was completely unfair, Hermione's retaliation was that the most important exam of their lives would soon be upon them and it was her duty to make sure they would be prepared.
"But Professor," whined one student that suggested he could have been a first-year rather than a seventh-year as far as maturity went, "King just set us Slytherins an impossible essay that's to be four pages long, and it's also due tomorrow!"
"Don't forget the report for Flitwick, it's not as long but I'd say it's certainly harder, and I don't even know what a Mulchingus Charm is – "
"Not to mention we've got Quidditch practice all week!" shouted a tall, male Gryffindor. "We won't let those blasted Slytherins take the cup from us this year, so our Captain's having us out on the field every night possible and I can't even find time for my Wizard's Chess Club anymore – "
There was a sudden uproar on the other side of the room as the Slytherins all began shouting quite nasty comments at the Gryffindor Quidditch players about who had the advantage to win the Cup (them, of course). The Gryffindors reacted quickly, insulting the Slytherins and obviously forgetting a professor that was already in quite an aggravated mood was still in the room, ready to dock more points when she was given the chance.
"Your Seeker couldn't catch the Snitch any better than if she were blindfolded – "
"I could say the same thing about your Seeker!"
"Don't even get me started on your Beaters – "
The room immediately fell quiet and all eyes strayed to Hermione, who was standing behind her desk, her wand out, and a fire blazing in her eyes. It appeared as if everyone had forgotten she was still there. Now the Gryffindors and Slytherins who had engaged in the shouting match all dropped their gazes, their cheeks touching pink.
"Fifteen points from both houses," said the professor. No one dared to groan again. "I have never seen such impertinence from seventh-year students. If you wish to carry on in this juvenile manner about Quidditch, please refrain from doing so inside my classroom, or else I will be forced to take away more points until Gryffindor and Slytherin are both left with nothing.
"The essay is due tomorrow and I expect it in this classroom and ready to be turned in when the bell rings. As I have said countless times before, you are receiving an unnatural amount of homework because the other professors and I only have your best interests at heart and wish to see you pass your exams successfully. If you feel you do not need our guidance and do not care whether or not you excel come June, then please let me know, and I will step aside and watch you fail without the smallest trace of remorse."
None of the seventh-years met Hermione's gaze and all kept their mouths shut. Though Hermione was highly agitated, she smiled slightly to herself, always amazed at the power she had over her students. The feeling of superiority was very self-satisfying.
"Right, there are a few minutes left before the bell sounds for dinner, so let's continue on with the lesson. As a review question, who can list the proper steps a wizard must take before he or she performs a partial transfiguration of the human body?"
Scattered hands were raised across the classroom, the hands belonging to rather brave owners who dared speak to their professor even after her scolding. Hermione called on a blonde girl in the fourth row and was listening intently to her quite accurate answer when the door to the classroom suddenly flew open. The girl, a Ravenclaw, halted in her answer and turned around in her chair along with the rest of her classmates to see who had arrived on the threshold of the room.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Weasley," Hermione said placidly, as Ron hurried into the room and toward her desk. She was accustomed to Ron's frequent visits now and did not mind them as much as she used to. Ron had proved to be quite helpful and did retain more knowledge about the subject of Transfiguration than Hermione had thought.
"Miss Blake was just telling me the proper steps a wizard must take before he or she per – "
"Hermione, the Aurors owled Harry back," Ron interrupted in a low voice upon approaching her desk. He was out of breath and appeared to have run to the Transfiguration classroom. Hermione noted that he seemed eager and excited, just as Harry had the night they discovered the mentioning of Gnomi Elencho in his book. That had been nearly a week ago, however, and although Harry had sent a letter to the Ministry straight away, they hadn't heard back yet from Moody or any of the others. Until now, that is.
"And this is important enough to interrupt my class?" Hermione snapped back, feeling slightly annoyed. Couldn't this news have waited until the bell rang, which was only minutes away?
"They sent another book," Ron continued as if he hadn't heard her, "and I'm not sure what it is, Harry was a bit vague about it which makes me think it was obtained illegally – "
" – but they're doing research too and Mad-Eye wants us to look through this one and – and can't you just come now? Harry's in the staff room, he told me to go and fetch you – "
"Ron, I can't leave my class!" Hermione exclaimed quietly, glancing at the students behind Ron's back. They were all watching avidly, most in the front row trying to catch snippets of the conversation, and broke off into whispers at regular intervals. Hermione knew the students had their suspicions about her and Ron and was sure their hushed discussion only confirmed their beliefs.
"This is important, Hermione," Ron said firmly.
"I know, but it can wait until later, can't it? Besides," she added quickly upon seeing a flicker of fury cross Ron's face, "the staff room will be packed, all the teachers are going to stop for coffee before heading down to dinner like they always do, and we can't exactly go through an illegal book imported from God knows where in the prescence of a dozen professors."
"The library's open through dinner, isn't it?"
"Yes, of cour – Ron, you aren't listening to what I'm saying!" Hermione hissed. She raised a hand in exasperation and began gesturing. "You don't understand the importance of the exams, you never have, and you're wasting the students' time standing here arguing with me – "
Ron suddenly reached out and grabbed Hermione's outstretched hand. She immediately halted in her lecture and gazed dazedly at their conjoined hands, completely forgetting what she had been going on about. But a distinct cough from the class of students behind them snapped her back to her senses and she quickly wrenched her hand from Ron's grip, determinedly avoiding his stare and letting her eyes fall to the floor.
"Hermione, if the Death Eaters attack us before June, there aren't going to be any exams," Ron said sternly in a voice that more or less sounded like her own.
"What makes you think they're going to attack us?"
"Er – nothing," Ron replied quickly, a bit too quickly for Hermione's satisfaction. "They're not, I mean, I didn't mean to say it like – "
"What did you mean?"
"Hermione, Harry needs you now," Ron said, dropping the former subject. "Moody seems to think the book he's sent us might be of some use, but – please just come?"
"Professor, er, I don't mean to…interrupt, but – ?"
The timid voice that issued from the corner of the room startled Hermione. She had nearly forgotten her students were still present and suddenly realized how long Ron and she had been discussing suspiciously at the front of the classroom for all of them to witness. She stepped around Ron, faced the assembled seventh-years, and said loudly, "I apologize for wasting your time. You all may leave early today and we'll pick up tomorrow on where we left off, but don't forget your essay due tomorrow. I will not be lenient on those who fail to meet my expectations."
As the students began to stuff their books back into their bags, Hermione turned resolutely to face Ron and found that he was grinning. She kept her head up and her posture tight, as if to say that even though she gave in to Ron's begging it did not mean he was not any stronger than she was. But Ron did not say anything, as Hermione had expected him to, and instead grabbed her hand again and pulled her down the middle row of the classroom quickly. As they passed, students looked up and smirked but Hermione barely noticed; all that was on her mind now was whatever Harry had received from the Aurors. She had become more involved in the case than she had ever thought she would and now felt as if it were her personal duty to solve the mystery surrounding the Gnomi Elencho book and Lestrange.
Minutes later, Ron, Harry, and Hermione arrived outside the Hogwarts library, Harry holding a large and dusty-looking book in his arms. They entered the library and checked the front desk, but the librarian, Madam Pince, did not seem to be present. Hermione wondered whether she was at dinner with the rest of the staff, though she never recalled seeing the snippy old librarian at the head table, but put the thought out of her mind as she led the way to the back of the library. There, placed next to a tall, clear window, was her favorite table as a youth at Hogwarts. She couldn't help but grin.
"You're the only person I know who smiles because she's in a library," Ron commented slyly. Hermione stepped on his foot without a second thought and made her way towards the table, Harry and a limping Ron following.
They pulled up three chairs, seated themselves in them, and Harry slammed the large volume onto the small, round table.
"Moody sent this to you, Harry?" Hermione asked. Ron gave her look as if to say I've already explained this to you, but Hermione did not feel Ron explained it thoroughly back in her classroom and wanted to hear it first-hand from Harry.
"Yeah," he said, opening the book and brushing dust off the first page. "I got a letter back from him and the other Aurors just before Ron went off to get you. They're really interested in this Gnomi Elencho now and Mad-Eye said we're all fools for not investigating it any sooner. He reckons Lestrange could do some damage with the book in her hands, but seeing as we don't know where she is or what the book's about, there doesn't seem like much we can do."
"Except translate the term," Hermione said matter-of-factly.
"Right. The Ministry's banned all Aurors from accessing the Ministry library now, which is damn wrong, if you ask me, but Romina managed to sneak out a couple books the other day and they're looking through them now. This book, though," he said, gesturing down to page three of the hefty volume, "came from Wales. Basil Hardy has a friend whose family is Greek, so he managed to persuade him to lend this to us. The problem is, exporting it from Wales to England is illegal between the two Ministries, so we had to go through a few – er, steps, you could say – to get it here."
"In other words, we received it illegitimately," Hermione said shrewdly.
"That's not the point," Harry said dismissively. "The Ministry won't find out – well, if they do, I have a feeling the Minister will just go and fire all the Aurors at once, but there were enough precautions around the book's importing that it isn't possible for them to ever know."
"So why this book?" Hermione asked.
Harry was now brushing aged dust off the bottom half of page five and began running his fingers over the lines. "Hardy's Welsh friend said this one contains information about the magical practices of the ancient Greeks. Gnomi Elencho would most likely fall into that category. Of course, the books Moody and the others are going through right now are all supposedly about the ancient Greeks too, so between all of us, hopefully we'll come across the term and figure out what the hell Bellatrix Lestrange wants with it."
"How can we help?" said Ron, watching Harry skim over the pages of the book.
"You two go over that half, and I'll take this one," Harry said, pointing out the assignments. The book and its pages were so large that it honestly did seem to require three grown adults to peruse it at once. Harry turned another page and began looking down it, Ron and Hermione taking the other side.
During the next few minutes, nothing of interest jumped out at Hermione. The ancient Greeks were fascinating, she knew, but she had already read countless books about them and found this one rather tedious and hard to follow. Some of their ancient practices were quite gruesome and disturbing, however, and she admittedly was not enjoying reading about them. But Gnomi Elencho still seemed to be absent.
Twenty minutes passed and amongst the trio, nothing about the mysterious term had been spoken. The book was written in such a way that the term could come up at any time, Hermione felt, but thus far, it had not. She checked the entrance of the library at regular intervals, ready to jump up and hide the book at any given time. It was an unspoken agreement amongst the three that it would be best if no one found them in the company of an illegal book.
Suddenly, when Hermione was halfway down page twenty-six, she remembered something Ron had mentioned earlier in her classroom. Her eyes left the grimy page and traveled over to Harry; his head was bent and he was avidly reading the text, his mouth moving as he absorbed the words.
"Harry," Hermione said, breaking the silence. He didn't look up, but nodded to suggest that he had heard her. "Do you think the Death Eaters would come here and attack Hogwarts?"
She noted a disturbance in Harry's eyes and realized he had stopped reading, though his eyes were still fastened on the page. "They don't really have any reason to, do they?" he answered in a questioning tone. Hermione detested having her question answered with another question and narrowed her eyes at Harry. She would not let him off so easy this time.
"Are you sure about that?" She now noticed that Ron too had halted in his reading. He raised his head to stare at Hermione, a blank expression inhabiting his face.
"Why are you asking?" said Harry, still pretending to be studying the book.
"Oh, just something Ron said earlier," Hermione answered airily. Harry's head suddenly shot up and he glared noticeably across the table at Ron, who shook his head slightly in response. Though Hermione did not understand their strange language of male movements, she knew something was up.
"They wouldn't come to Hogwarts, would they?"
"Ron, I told you not to mention it!" Harry hissed.
"I didn't mean to, mate, it just – kind of slipped out – "
"Mention what?" Hermione pressed. "Harry, what are you talking about? What aren't you telling me?"
"It's nothing, Hermione," Harry muttered. He cast his eyes down towards the book again. This time, Hermione was sure he wasn't reading and knew something else was on his mind.
"No, it is not nothing, Harry, don't lie to me. If you don't tell me, Ron will."
Ron opened his mouth to protest, no doubt quite loudly, but Harry finally gave in. He raised his head again, looking much older that moment than he ever had, and stared Hermione strongly in the eyes.
"You haven't figured it out by now?" he asked her quietly. It wasn't a rough or sarcastic question but one that was soft and composed. "Lestrange and the Death Eaters have been moving in a steady northwestern direction for months now. I hadn't realized it myself until Moody mentioned it, but – they're coming here, Hermione. To Hogwarts. They're coming for me. For us."
Hermione gaped at Harry, unable to form any coherent sentences, as she let Harry's words sink painfully into her brain. Why hadn't she deduced that before? It was so obvious. Of course they were coming for Harry, and any who assisted him; Lestrange and the remaining Death Eaters had wanted Harry dead for as long as Hermione could remember. By now he must seem a menace to them, an annoying thorn in their sides, but how did Harry, Ron, and even she all tie into their grand scheme? What did they honestly have to gain by traveling northwestern to Hogwarts, only to enter the school and murder the ones who stood in their way for so many years?
"Hey, Harry – here it is! I've found it!" Ron exclaimed abruptly while poking at a paragraph in the center of page thirty-one. Hermione and Harry leaned forward to read the certain section of the book, Hermione's heart pumping unnaturally fast. This was it. Everything would come to a head here, everything they had been searching for was right at the very tips of their fingers. She bowed her head against Ron and Harry's as Ron began to read aloud.
"Gnomi Elencho, originally created by the renowned Sir Achelous Elencho of the twelfth century, was a most admired form of magical art during the times of the ancient Greeks. Popular amongst the gifted and skilled and later mastered by the powerful Dark warlock Demogorgon, Gnomi Elencho was an ability one witch or wizard usually was born with, though it has been said to be possible for dedicated witches or wizards to obtain the ability through strenuous mental practice. It was afterward outlawed in later centuries due to its widespread misuse for torture and malevolence. While it is extremely rare and entirely uncommon for witches or wizards of the current age to be born with the discussed ability, Gnomi Elencho is said to be almost completely lost to the times of the ancient Greeks. When broken down accurately, the term can be translated into the English language literally referring to the art of magical mind-control, quite different and highly more effective than the present-day Imperius Curse."
Ron stopped in his reading of the passage to stare up at Hermione and Harry. The three sat motionless for several long seconds, silence prevailing around them (save for the remote clattering of footsteps, clearing indicating that dinner was ending), none seeming able to speak. Hermione felt numb and distant from her body and did not know of anything commonsensical to say. So instead she took to staring into the blank faces of her two friends, who looked as equally astonished as she felt.
Finally, Harry broke the silence and said in a croaky voice, "Mind-control. That's what she's using over the students. Mind-control."
"Isn't that…isn't that a bit of a, well, myth?" Hermione asked, the rational part of her brain taking over momentarily. "You don't really think 'mind-control' exists…do you?"
"How can it be different than the Imperius Curse?" said Ron, furrowing his brow deeply. "I've always thought that's pretty much as controlling as it gets. Aren't they the same thing, then?"
"No, they aren't," Harry said vaguely to no one in particular. He was gazing down at the page of the book, his eyes unfocused and looking quite distant. Hermione knew this time he was actually studying the page. "Ron, you didn't read on far enough. It says here that while it is possible to break out of Imperius, it's almost completely impossible to break out of Gnomi Elencho. In fact, it's so impossible that no one in history has ever been recorded of doing so. I've broken out of Imperio, it honestly isn't that difficult – "
"I have too," Hermione added.
"This is different, though, because you control others through Gnomi Elencho literally with your mind. You don't need a wand or anything, there aren't any spells or curses, which means there aren't any counter-curses, either. The one who initiates Gnomi Elencho is the only one who can stop it. Apparently, you can put anyone under – well, I suppose it is mind-control, then, isn't it? They can stay in that state of mind for as long as you like, the book says."
"Is it possible for Lestrange to be the one doing it, though?" questioned Hermione. "She's quite far away, Harry, even if she is nearing Hogwarts."
"But she doesn't seem to know much about Gnomi Elencho," Ron pointed out. "She's gotten a hold of the real book and doesn't know how to work it. That's why she sent the students – no, controlled the students to steal the other book from Harry's room."
"She can't have controlled them, Ron," said Hermione. "If she wants to learn more about it, then she probably can't do it herself, can she? So how could she have controlled the four students into raiding Harry's dorm?"
"The book doesn't say anything about distance," Harry said. "I reckon it isn't possible to do it miles away in another country. Then again, we don't know exactly where Lestrange is right now, but I doubt she's here in England yet. And if she isn't the one controlling them…then who is? And why's she so interested in Gnomi Elencho?"
"Harry, Lestrange probably thinks she can use this to, well, take over the wizarding world or something like that, doesn't she?" Hermione said logically, thinking it was clearly obvious. "At least, most Dark wizards would be likely to think that way, I'd assume. Just imagine the possibilities at hand when one has the ability of complete mind-control. It's pure power, and someone like Lestrange who thinks they are the only one capable of dominating the world with Death Eaters would not pass up an opportunity like this."
"But," Harry started, screwing up his face in contemplation, "I don't understand one thing. If Lestrange herself isn't responsible with the use of Gnomi Elencho, then…who is?"
"Another Death Eater, maybe?" Ron suggested half-heartedly. "There were those two in that club at Christmas, don't forget."
"I doubt either one of them are capable of anything more than waving a wand," Hermione said sardonically. Harry and Ron looked to her expectantly, as both of them were at loss for an answer, but Hermione sighed and lowered her eyes. "I don't know, Harry. I don't understand it either."