It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
-Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts Headmaster
These are Hermione's thoughts.
These are Dumbledore's thoughts.
AN: This has been one wild ride and I am both relieved and sad that it's over. It is always a joy to stretch oneself beyond one's limits and I hope to continue to do so. Once again, I am indebted to hearingdr for catching the numerous grammatical errors that my keen eyes somehow missed. My keen, astigmatic eyes... But enough of my rambling. On with the finale!
And now the conclusion...
Dumbledore looked into Hermione's eyes and said, "Legilimens."
She was six, being pushed into the dirt by a bully and sobbing... She was eight, and she and her parents watched in wonder as pencils and pens floated around the room... She was eleven, and she had just received her Hogwarts letter and she finally understood... She came sobbing out of a bathroom stall when she heard a rumbling and looked up... She was running toward Harry through the Great Hall... Her hand stung from striking Malfoy, but she felt wonderful as well... Grawp's giant hand came at them and Harry pushed her out of the way... A purple beam of light struck her in the chest... Harry breaking down in her arms about Sirius... She stared at the black skull with a serpent protruding from its mouth like a tongue on her arm and felt her mind go into shock...
Stop. Go back.
The memory paused then slowly moved backwards. Her sleeve jumped back onto her robe... Malfoy backed away from the Trio... She and Harry sat back in their seats... Professor Glass left the classroom... She lazily propped her head up with her elbow, watching Harry and Ron argue about Quidditch... She was backing into Gryffindor Tower...
Wait, that can't be right...
You are correct. You are missing approximately twenty minutes from when you left the tower to when you entered the classroom.
Yeah, that's quite disturbing in itself, but I see another problem. Where are Harry and Ron? I would never leave for class without them.
Are you certain that you are leaving for class then?
What do you mean, Professor?
Give me a moment and I will show you. Someone with extraordinary skill has laid this Memory Charm on you. By removing only twenty minutes, this tampering would have gone unnoticed by anyone not skilled in Legilimency. Fortunately, because it is so subtle, it's not very difficult to break. Ah, I think I have it...
Professor, I don't feel good about this...
Everything will be fine, Miss Granger. Let's begin...
Hermione walked rapidly though the hallway. She was worried about why Professor Glass had told her to meet him a half hour before Defense class began. It was possible that she was being called for something good, but the worrier in her couldn't help wondering if she had done something wrong. And to top it off, Harry and Ron's antics had caused her to leave later than she had planned.
By the time she stepped into Glass's office, she had worked herself into a fret. She barely glanced at her teacher before she took a seat and began babbling. "Please forgive me, sir. I really didn't mean to come late. I'm usually much more punctual than this. I hope that this didn't cut into your schedule or anything. So what was it that you wanted to talk about? Nothing bad I hope?" Hermione gave a small smile, which quickly faded. "Sir?"
She finally noticed that the whole time she had been speaking, Professor Glass hadn't moved. He simply sat behind his desk with his hands folded, staring at her with a frozen grin and glassy eyes.
Hermione almost tripped over her chair backing toward the door. Her hands covered her mouth though they really wanted to cover her eyes, but she knew that if she began screaming that she wouldn't be able to stop.
"Don't get hysterical on me, Granger. One would think that you'd never seen a dead body before."
Hermione whirled around to see Draco Malfoy leaning against the doorway. He smirked at her then said, "But he isn't dead so I guess you still haven't. You'll wish he was soon enough though."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Hermione demanded. She wanted to feel relieved that Glass was still alive, but she couldn't put it past Malfoy to jerk her around. But why would he kill a teacher then show her?
She hated not knowing what was going on more than anything, but she'd gladly take ignorance if she could get out of here alive. If Malfoy had snapped...
Her hand inched toward her robes.
Revealing a speed that she had only seen during Quidditch matches, Malfoy suddenly had a wand pointed at her. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"I'll scream," Hermione said, knowing that it was futile. Her suspicions were confirmed when the boy merely shrugged.
"Silencing Charm," he said simply.
"What do you want?" Hermione asked nervously. Her heart was pounding so hard that Malfoy had to have heard it. She had known since first year that her life could end up with an early expiration date, but she had never expected to die in Hogwarts castle.
"I suppose this is the part where I reveal my diabolical plot," Malfoy replied, smiling cruelly. "Unfortunately for you, it's not my plan. But back to your original question, I'm sure you remember what Imperius is."
He gave a wave with his wand and Professor Glass lurched to his feet and stumbled into a wall. He awkwardly regained his footing and stood at attention.
"Your technique could use some work," Hermione said dryly. Sounding and looking brave wasn't as difficult as she had imagined, but it was taking all her strength to prevent herself from either bawling or rushing Malfoy in a suicidal charge.
Malfoy looked a little disgusted. "He's asleep. It was the only way to make sure that he couldn't fight back. And to relax him sufficiently for my Master."
"Master?" Hermione had a bad feeling about this.
"Hermione Granger, your reputation precedes you," said a high, cold voice.
Hermione slowly turned her attention back to Professor Glass, who now stood in a natural stance and stared at her with red, gleaming eyes.
"V... Vo… Vol..."
Voldemort gave her a tight little smile. He said, "I'm a little disappointed. Aren't you the girl who has made it possible for Harry Potter to escape my grasp time and time again? I would have thought you'd be... taller."
There was a mocking edge to his tone. He gave an exaggerated glance of concern at Hermione's trembling form then said, "You seem weary. Please have a seat, Hermione."
Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly, Hermione thought. She couldn't make herself stop shaking. She was ashamed of her terror, but she wasn't a hero. She was just a bookworm who was in over her head. She would be dead before she drew her wand. The logical thing to do was obey this madman's demands and hope for the best.
Like hell! Just as Hermione was about to sit down, she grabbed the chair and swung it into Professor Glass's body. In the next instant, she was through the door that Malfoy had foolishly left open. She was down the stairs and halfway to the doors of the Defense classroom when she heard the last syllables of a spell.
"Protego!" Hermione cried out in desperation. But her concentration was shot and the streak of light blasted through her weak shield like it wasn't even there and slammed into her.
Unable to control her body, she impacted the ground with great force.
Damn it! Hermione wanted to cry, to curse, to do anything, but she was totally immobile. She mentally shuddered when she felt an arm turn her over. Voldemort stared down at her with an unreadable expression.
"I can see why he's so taken with you," he said. "For a Mudblood, you're quite talented." His face hardened. "I would almost rather kill you and be done with it, but as distasteful as I find it, I need you."
Hermione's eyes widened with horror as Voldemort pushed up her sleeve and touched his wand against her arm. His lips moved-
That should be sufficient. I see no need to make you relive this, Miss Granger.
Hermione found herself standing outside her body staring at Voldemort frozen in mid-motion. She knew that she was still inside her mind, so she was not surprised when she turned her head and saw Professor Dumbledore standing beside her.
Are you all right?
Hermione opened her mouth to reply then realized that she didn't have to. I... I don't know.
Dumbledore nodded sagely. If it is any comfort, I think that you are handling things very admirably. And I will need you to maintain your composure for a little bit longer. We have all assumed that Tom had to have been in Hogwarts physically to Mark you. That clearly was a mistake.
I don't understand how he could possess someone, much less someone in Hogwarts! There was Professor Quirrell, but that was completely different.
That is worrisome, indeed. I will have to speak with Professor Flitwick once we get back. But first, I must apologize for going to such lengths to check your innocence. I still consider it necessary, but I apologize nevertheless.
Hermione intended to reassure him that it was okay and that everything was going to be okay now. But before she could, a shadow passed through her mind and she realized...
It wasn't Professor Glass's body standing over Hermione's image anymore, but that of Voldemort himself. The reptilian head gave a slight nod toward Hermione as he got to his feet.
"Tom," Dumbledore spat. He moved to block Hermione with his body.
Voldemort seemed amused. "What happened to that famous detachment, your irritatingly calm attitude? I must have really taken you off-guard. Or perhaps I simply hit a nerve." He glanced over at Hermione again.
"You will not have her!"
"Poor Dumbledore. So predictable," Voldemort replied, shaking his head. "It was never about her!"
Dumbledore tilted his head as if he was listening to something only he could hear. Then a look of horror crossed his face. "You're not really here. You're just a memory."
"I've always been good at those as your precious Harry Potter can attest. Or that dim-witted Weasley girl. But another diary would never fool you, Dumbledore. Possessing this girl would have been too easy to block for a man of your abilities. But a simulacrum hidden in the mind that you activated yourself?
"I see that you have already guessed what my purpose is. I wish I was actually here to see the look on your face when I tell you I got this idea from those Muggles you love so much. I'm sure you're familiar with the tactic of strapping bombs to young children and sending them over to the enemy.
Everything seemed to slow down as Hermione watched the room burst into flame the instant Voldemort vanished. She cried out when she saw chains spring from the ground and bind Dumbledore. The old man sank to his knees, struggling and gasping in pain.
Hermione felt like she was fighting the air itself as she made her way toward him. Her mind raced through every spell she knew, but before she could choose one, Dumbledore flung a hand out at her.
She was flung out of the room and she felt the connection snap. Out of the memory and back in the real world, Hermione watched in frozen fascination as Dumbledore fell from his chair with an agonizing groan. His complexion grew grey and his chest stopped moving.
Harry and Ron stared at her in horror.
Hermione stared blankly at the headmaster's body. The genius of Voldemort's plan was just sinking in for her. The Dark Mark had been a red herring. This had never been about discrediting her or hurting Harry. And to make matters worse, the end result would have been the same even if she had never come here but remained locked in the dungeons. All she had accomplished was moving up the activation of the trap by two weeks. She had actually helped Voldemort!
She finally understood why Sirius Black laughed so madly. She felt like laughing too. Putting in so much effort to do something good only to end up doing the complete opposite was hilariously ironic. This feeling of being moved around like a puppet on a string was... funny. It was freaking hysterical!
Her sanity was hanging on by a thread and she wished it would snap. She wished that Voldemort had killed her for trying to escape. This was it. Her life was over. She'd be thrown into the darkest dungeon in Azkaban. No amount of truth potion would sway any jury in the United Kingdom. She'd be forever known as the girl who killed Albus Dumbledore, champion of the Light.
Get my pensieve. Book of Kade Siblins. Page 476. Watch out...
Hermione jumped to her feet, her heart beating fiercely. Was it possible? No, she had to be imagining it. Voldemort wouldn't have gone to all this trouble to leave the man alive. She knelt down by Dumbleore and felt for a pulse.
Her eyes widened. A heartbeat! It was weak and it was slowing, but it was there. A man of his age should have died instantly from the mental assault, but she wasn't about to question her good fortune.
Hermione whirled toward her friends. She demanded, "I need a wand! I have to put him in stasis until help arrives."
Ron gave her a look of disgust. "Give you a wand? Do we look like Crabbe and Goyle? Haven't you done enough to him?"
Not again! She didn't have time for this! Hermione said through gritted teeth, "I'm not responsible for this. I'm trying to save him!"
Ron fingered his wand as if to reassure himself that it was still there. He replied stiffly, "I'm willing to consider that this isn't what it looks like, but there's no way in hell I'm giving you a wand."
"So you're just going to let him die then?" Hermione spat at him. The instant the words left her mouth, she knew she had gone too far. She knew without looking that Rational Ron had left the building.
His voice rising with every word, Ron spoke, "How do I know you're going to save him? You're the one who caused this! Do you think if you go through the motions, we'll automatically believe your innocence again? At what point does it become stupid to trust you? When we're hanging from the rafters and the Dementors are coming for our souls?"
Hermione was speechless. Why of all the times did Ron have to pick now to be so damn logical? She couldn't promise not to escape since she had no credibility at the moment and even if Ron believed her there was no guarantee that Dumbledore would survive so she would actually be making things worse for herself if she tried and failed, but she had to do something...
"It's done," Harry's voice said, startling her. How could she have forgotten about Harry? She supposed the great desire not to see his disappointment in her was a major factor.
"You did it?" Hermione asked in disbelief. She turned and saw the shimmering blue glow surrounding Dumbledore's body.
"Yeah, you spend enough time in the infirmary, you pick up a few things," Harry said dully, not meeting her eyes. He had withdrawn into himself again.
Hermione sighed. This just wasn't her day. She was too tired to feel depressed or outraged and there were bigger concerns to worry about. She wanted to hit Ron upside the head and hug Harry, but she didn't have time for either. Whatever Dumbledore wanted must have been important enough for him to use up his last energies like that. Logically and hopefully, this was information intended to save his life. The objects he wanted were most likely in his office back at Hogwarts, but they might as well have been on Mars because neither Ron nor Harry seemed to be in the mood to let her leave. And she couldn't blame them.
There had to be another way. She thought furiously and the sound of a crash down the hall interrupted her thoughts.
Then she heard Tonks' voice shouting, "Search every room! And remember they're just kids because if you hurt them, Merlin help me..."
Ron's eyes shifted from Hermione toward the door and it was transparently clear what he was thinking.
In a near panic, Hermione began speaking rapidly. "I don't expect you to believe me, but I didn't do this! Voldemort put a booby trap in my head. I swear that I didn't know about it. But I can fix this! I need Dumbledore's pensieve and a book in his office called Kade Siblins. There's something on page 476 that might help us. I need one of you to go back to Hogwarts now. By the time the Ministry gets through questioning you, it might be too late!"
With obvious restraint, Ron said, "Would you stop it? Just tell us the truth. I'll still be pissed, but I'll still respect you. Stop treating us like we're idiots!"
Hermione felt like tearing out her hair. "Then stop acting like one! I am telling you the truth! What other possible motive would I have for asking this?"
"Questions like those that are the most worrying!" Ron yelled. The bitterness and despair in his voice was almost tangible. "It's rather convenient that one of us has to leave right this very minute. And that you're the only one here that can make a Portkey. One that could go anywhere. What's the Muggle saying? Fool me once..."
So all your pretty words about friendship and forgiveness meant nothing then? Those words died before they ever reached her lips. No, she would not sink so low. It was not fair of her to demand from Ron more than he was able to give. He was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but not to the extent of obeying her directions. Faith and loyalty could only be stretched so far.
If she attempted to take advantage of their bond, to guilt him into this when he had every reason in the world to refuse, then their friendship would shatter permanently.
The footsteps were coming closer, but instead of fear, Hermione felt a sense of calm settle over her. She had gotten a second chance, something few people could claim, and it blew up in her face through no fault of her own. There was no point in asking for more. She had done all she could and it was time to accept that. Some battles can not be won by strength of will alone.
"Okay, Ron. We'll do it your way," Hermione said. She smiled gently at him to show that she wouldn't hold this against him.
To his credit, Ron didn't take advantage of her surrender to start yelling out their location and for that, Hermione was grateful. She wanted a few moments to tell Harry how much he meant to her and that she wasn't angry with him. Hesitantly, she turned toward Harry.
A wand clattered to the floor in front of her.
"Take it and go already." He still wouldn't look at her and each word was tinged with pain.
Ron was incredulous. "What are you doing?"
"It's the best solution, isn't it? If she's innocent then we'll have helped her save Dumbledore. If she isn't then neither of us gets sucked into a trap," Harry said hollowly.
"Did you overlook the fact that in this plan Hermione escapes and leaves us with the body?" Ron asked. "We should let the Ministry sort this out. If you're worried about Dumbledore, we can ask Tonks to get this bloody book!"
"This isn't about Dumbledore," Harry replied in a terse, clipped fashion. He finally looked up and his eyes were dark green.
Ron looked like he was selecting his words very carefully. "Then what is this about? Hermione means a lot to me too, but we can't let our feelings-"
Harry cut him off. With his hands clenched and his voice cracking, he looked like a man on the verge of breaking completely. "You wouldn't understand. I'm not letting her go to Azkaban. Not after Sirius. Not after my parents. I'm done losing people. I don't care if she's a murderer. I. Don't. Care."
Ron looked like he wanted to argue, but he just lowered his wand and said, "It's your call, mate."
Hermione stared at Harry in utter astonishment. He couldn't be serious. This went beyond all logic or faith. If he truly believed that she really was responsible for Dumbledore's condition, then letting her go was insane. She wished that she knew what he was thinking, but she didn't have time to ask. Dumbledore needed her help and she had to do something to make this right.
"I love you both. And I'll see you again shortly." She picked up Harry's wand and touched it to the Portkey they had arrived with. "Portus."
The moment she finished saying the word, the doors sprung open. Aurors came pouring in toward the far end of the table where Hermione stood, but she had already touched her finger to the quill.
In the instant that she began to fade away, she felt someone grab her around the waist from behind and the certain weight of a foot on the front of her shoe. But there was no time to investigate the matter because she was now transporting hundreds of miles back to where this all began.
As soon as her feet made contact with solid ground, Hermione launched herself away from her hitchhiker, convinced that an Auror had managed to grab her before she had vanished completely.
She whirled around with her wand in hand. "Stuf- Harry!"
Hermione just stared at him, unable to believe that he came after. Harry stared back, his emerald eyes boring into hers. They were still dark and haunted, but there was a spark of something that she couldn't identify. When it became apparent that Harry was not going to be the first to speak, she asked, "Why are you here?"
Harry finally looked away. He said quietly, "I don't know."
She didn't press him. She simply began walking and the sound of footsteps told her Harry was following. She set a quick, efficient pace and forced herself not to hurry. She wouldn't be able to help anyone if she got caught by Filch or Peeves.
They had arrived in the Great Hall. The Headmaster office had too many protections to be casually Portkeyed into by a student no matter how intelligent she was. But the wards around the dining hall would recognize her as a student and allow her to pass since this was the preferred entry and exit site for students who regularly went home to visit their parents on the weekends. Without Dumbledore's authorization, the Ministry forces would have to make their ways through the grounds by foot.
The hallways of the castle were still dark and empty. It was hard to believe that it had only been a few hours before that she had walked this way filled with confidence and optimism that it would only be a short time before she came back to resume her normal life.
She had come back, but she didn't think that things would ever be normal again. Being revealed as a Death Eater, escaping her confinement, stealing Ministry information, creating unauthorized Portkeys, and making her Headmaster drop nearly dead were not the type of activities for which Head Girls were known.
She finally couldn't take the silence any more. "Do you believe that I'm not a Death Eater then? After all, this doesn't look like Voldemort's dark, villainous lair."
Harry shrugged, not even cracking a smile. "I told you that I didn't believe that you were a Death Eater. I still believe that. Nothing that has happened has changed that. But I never said that you weren't capable of evil."
Hermione stopped walking, forcing Harry to stop and look at her. She said, "Granted. But can you really picture me murdering someone?"
The look on Harry's face made her wish that she hadn't asked. His eyes were so unbearably sad.
"Everyone is capable of murder," he said softly. "Even me."
Hermione had known of the Prophecy since sixth year and as much as she wanted to comfort Harry about his inevitable confrontation with Voldemort, she knew that mentioning it would only cause him to clam up even more tightly.
Instead, she asked gently, "Then why, Harry? If I'm not a Death Eater, why would I try to kill Dumbledore? What possible reason would I have?"
"You'd do it if you thought it was right," Harry replied slowly. "If it would accomplish something good."
Harry hesitated for so long that she thought he wouldn't answer, but he finally whispered, "Saving someone you can't live without."
Hermione's eyes widened. "Yes, I can see that, but killing a friend is completely different from killing an enemy to save someone."
"In fifth year, I would have gotten all my friends killed to save Sirius. If it hadn't been for the Order, all of us would have died for nothing."
"That's different!" Hermione insisted, taken aback by this abrupt change in subject.
"Is it really?" Harry asked. "In matter of degree perhaps. Maybe I wouldn't have been the one to cast the death spells, but the results would have been the same. I never should have brought any of you along. The fact that I willingly and knowingly brought five students against trained serial killers...
"I loved Sirius so much. I couldn't think. The fact that I was putting all of you in danger was nothing compared to the thought that he was dying and I had to do something, no matter how dangerous. It wasn't that I cared about you and Ron less at that moment. It was just..."
Harry sighed. "Sirius was in danger and I had to help him by whatever means necessary. Right and wrong had little room in my thoughts at the time. You'd be amazed at how stupid you become, how your morals break down when someone you love is in danger. If Voldemort had your parents and threatened to kill them if you didn't do what he said, wouldn't you obey?"
Harry continued walking without waiting for her answer, which was fortunate because she didn't know what to say. She was dismayed at Harry's cynicism and thought sadly of the little boy who had never known such angst. And she hated that Harry had a point.
To save her parents, to save Harry, how far would she go? Hermione wondered if Harry was kept awake at night pondering the very same question. If he struggled with questions of what he would do if Voldemort had ever gotten hold of her or Ron. If he would go down the slippery slope of preserving their lives by taking the lives of others.
Then a connection was sparked inside her brain and she had an epiphany. In his mind, Harry was thinking that he was here to help her accomplish Voldemort's goals. And he wasn't trying to argue with her or trying to convince her that there were other ways to save her supposedly kidnapped parents.
"Harry," she asked suspiciously. "Why do you think we're here?"
"I'm here to help you with whatever needs to be done," he replied calmly, staring at her with quiet acceptance in his eyes.
Heroes weren't supposed to act like this. They weren't supposed to put hostages above the fate of the world. She had the certain insight that if she told him that she was here to kill Professor McGonagall, he wouldn't protest.
Because he trusted her judgment.
Hermione sighed to herself. Harry could be so stupidly noble sometimes. Instead of believing her story, which was admittedly far-stretched, or accepting that she was just downright rotten, he had concocted this fantastic story of her being this damsel in distress who was being manipulated into doing hideous deeds, and he would help her get through these trying times. It probably appealed to his hero complex, which she would never, ever point out to him.
When both logic and common sense had failed him, he still insisted on believing her to be a good person who was doing what she thought was best. It was something she noticed a long time ago. Even when he had every reason in the world to be angry with her such as after the Firebolt incident or the argument over going to the DOM, he respected her opinions even when he disagreed with them.
Harry really did have a blind spot when it came to her.
It was actually rather sweet.
The problem was that Harry was so used to her having all the answers that he couldn't believe that she hadn't known about the mental bomb beforehand, and despite his words, he couldn't believe that she would willingly kill someone, so this was the bizarre result.
Oh, Harry, what am I going to do with you? Hermione thought fondly.
Hermione gently grabbed his arm to gain his attention, but kept on walking. She said, "Harry, if the situation was different, maybe I could kill Ron, Dumbledore, or..." She couldn't make herself say 'you' so she uncomfortably stumbled on, "...another student. But in this case I didn't. You have got to believe me on this."
He was listening. Heartened, she continued, "Trust doesn't mean automatically believing everything I say. It does mean giving me a chance to prove what I say is true. You have always done that. Even when you don't believe me, you always give me a chance to explain my side.
"I wasn't coerced or blackmailed into this. I was just as surprised as you were. Voldemort doesn't have a hold over me. I am not here to kill anyone or destroy the castle or whatever grandiose idea you've come up with. Can you please just accept that I was an unwilling booby-trap who had no idea what was going on? That I dragged you to the other side of the world just as blind to the truth?"
The silence dragged on and Hermione watched the flurry of emotions that crossed Harry's face. Skepticism. Consideration. Hope. Realization. Embarrassment. Then finally, acceptance.
"Yeah, I guess that makes sense." He gave a little, awkward shrug. "I'm sorry, but there were just so many coincidences. I just couldn't believe that after everything that you had no idea about this. That we went to all this trouble to see Dumbledore and none of us knew about this. I just could not believe that life could be so messed up."
"If it helps, neither could I," Hermione said.
"I guess it's just easier to blame another person than accept that life is really, really unfair," Harry replied with a nervous laugh. Then he asked very seriously, "Are you disappointed in me?"
Hermione had to laugh and the wounded look on Harry's face made her laugh longer. Aware that someone could be just around the corner, she quickly stifled her mirth. She looked warmly at her friend. "How can you think that I would be disappointed in you? You broke me out of confinement, you believed that I killed Dumbledore and you let me go anyway, and you came after me despite that. You're here by my side, Harry, and that means a lot."
Harry's face had always been easy to read, at least for her, and the message was clear. I really am sorry.
Hermione smiled back at him. I know. It's okay.
The strange glint appeared in Harry's eyes again, but after a slight pause, he merely said, "We better get that book then before it's too late."
Without any further conversation, the two quickly navigated their way to the gargoyle. Harry had the password and wasted little time in pointing out how fortunate Hermione was that he came along. She quickly retorted that without her, he'd probably be searching for the book all night.
They continued their mock argument up the growing stairway, but froze when they heard a slight thump behind them. When nothing was forthcoming, they quickly ran the rest of the way past the door with the griffin knocker and into Dumbledore's office.
Hermione stared around in wonder. She had never been in this place before and Harry's descriptions hadn't done it justice. She would have liked to examine the portraits of previous headmasters and headmistresses who seemed to be genuinely asleep at the moment, the silver instruments that seemed to permeate the room, or even the red and gold plumage of the slumbering Fawkes, but her attention was drawn to the books.
There were hundreds of them on the shelves of sturdy, oak bookcases in the back of the room. Harry had never mentioned them, but they weren't the type of thing that he would have been wont to notice. And there was undoubtedly the desire to avoid having her pester him for details, Hermione thought wryly.
Without a word, she scrambled over to the bookcases and to her dismay, saw that there was no discernible order. With no other alternative, she and Harry began scanning the shelves for the Book of Kade Siblins.
The next couple of minutes proved to be frustrating as not only could she not locate the book she needed, but also she kept running into works that she'd been looking for months for but weren't in print any longer. Books on conjuration, spell formulation, alchemy, and more, and she had no time to look at any of them!
She decided to ask for help, but for some reason, she didn't ask the obvious choice of the portraits. Maybe it was the strain of stress she'd been under, the lack of any real sleep, or the adrenaline crash she was going through, but Hermione turned to Fawkes, who had recently awoken and was staring at her curiously. She asked half-seriously, "You wouldn't happen to know where the Book of Kade Siblins is, would you?"
To her great surprise, the phoenix immediately flew over to a seemingly random spot on the shelves and returned with a heavy tome in his talons. The gold script on the binding confirmed it was what she had asked for.
Hermione quickly flipped through it to page 476 and was gratified to see that it held a rarely used but effective method for treating mental attacks caused by intangible simulacrums. She handed the book back to the phoenix.
"Very good, Fawkes. Now, I need you to take this to-"
"I would stop there if was you, Miss Granger," a sleek, almost silky voice said from behind her.
"Lucius Malfoy," Hermione uttered with a groan as she turned around. How could she have forgotten about him?
With his wand still pointed at her, the silver-haired man casually stepped over his dropped Invisibility Cloak over to a frozen Harry who glared at him with hate-filled eyes.
"Be a dear and hand over the book," Lucius said with a brittle smile.
"This seems familiar," Hermione forced herself to say. She tightened her grip on the book, her thoughts racing furiously. She was missing something. Why hadn't the man just killed both of them once they opened the office and taken the book himself?
"Not quite. It's true that I want you to hand over the book, but I would be satisfied with you destroying it yourself. And unlike our delightful stand-off in the Department of Mysteries, I have a little more incentive on my side," Lucius replied, nonchalantly ruffling Harry's hair.
Hermione's stomach tightened and her breath caught. The hate in Harry's eyes was nothing compared to the ferocity in Lucius's when he looked at the boy. She needed to distract him from Harry. She needed more time to think. "What are you doing here? How did you know to follow us?"
"It was supposed to be so simple," Lucius growled. "Get you framed then have that Muggle-loving fool return and have his brain fried. Then watch as the wizarding world turned against all Mudbloods. My job was to keep track of Dumbledore and make sure both of you died in the attack. There were a few unexpected surprises, but I'm sure I can salvage the situation. Now, hand over the book."
Why does he keep asking? And why hadn't he gone after her first? She still had Harry's wand. He had to know that! You always take out the armed opponent first.
Maybe the book had to be freely given to him. Maybe he didn't want to wake the portraits though they should have woken by now if they were capable of it. Maybe...
"You won't kill Harry," Hermione said boldly. "Voldemort wouldn't like it."
"No, he wouldn't," Lucius agreed. "But no one said that his mind had to be intact. Cru-"
"Wait!" Hermione cried. She bit her lip nervously. Slowly, almost unable to believe she was considering this, she asked, "If I give you the book, will you let Harry go?"
Lucius seemed to take great enjoyment in thinking over the answer. He finally said, "No."
"What?" Hermione exclaimed. This wasn't the way it was supposed to go!
Lucius was grinning widely now. "You don't seem to understand that no matter what you decide, I win. If you decide to save Dumbledore, then I will drive your little boyfriend into insanity then you. Then I will kill you and make it look like you were responsible for all of this. How will the good wizards and witches react when their savior is a drooling idiot and the cause of that was a Muggle-born?
"I don't anticipate that the boy will last very long without his mind, but at least his death won't be certain... just probable. If you decide to give me the book, I will still kill you but it will be quick. And then I will take young Harry Potter back to my Master to do with as he will."
"So no matter what, Harry will die," Hermione whispered.
"Perhaps, but there are many ways to die. Whether it will be quick or slow and lingering is really up to you," Lucius replied, again revealing his shark-like grin.
Hermione fell back against the wall, trembling. She finally understood. Lucius Malfoy could have taken the book at any point. He went after Harry simply because he hated him more. He left her with the wand simply to show that she was powerless. There was no hidden reason for why he kept asking her to choose. He was merely being sadistic.
That's the problem with sociopaths. They just had to maximize the pain at the expense of expediency, Hermione thought hysterically.
Hermione had no idea if the Prophecy would protect Harry and she couldn't depend on it. Wizards and witches died when they insisted they knew the true meaning of a prophecy.
Why was this so hard? With one word, Fawkes would be gone in an instant. She couldn't just let Dumbledore die. But Harry...
"No more time to think," Lucius announced. "Crucio!"
Harry's Petrified body twitched then stood still. But his eyes were bleeding.
"Stop it! Stop it!" Hermione shrieked.
Lucius ignored her and rubbed his chin in an exaggerated manner. "Hmm, I forgot to remove the binding spell." He waved his wand again and Harry crashed to the floor.
Harry's body jerked and shuddered and his mouth was stretched open in a silent scream. His arms and legs danced around wildly.
"Take it! Take the damn thing!" Hermione cried, thrusting the book out at him.
Lucius didn't appear to hear her. His eyes were on Harry and there was a serene look on his face. The civilized mask had fallen away revealing the monster within.
"Stupefy! Petrificus Totalus! Impedimenta!" Hermione shouted spell after spell, but Lucius lazily blocked every one of them, and the torture didn't let up for a second.
In a reckless rage, Hermione charged the man determined to bring him down by physical means. When she was a mere foot away from Lucius, she was rocketed back into the shelves. A dozen books landed around her.
And Lucius continued to smile smugly.
An audible snap signaled that one of Harry's bones had finally broken.
Hermione had never hated someone so much. Her life was crashing around her ears and she had betrayed her principles by surrendering to this bastard and it still wasn't enough for him. Her best friend was breaking down before her and he wanted her to watch it.
Power, dark and deadly, flowed down her arms.
There was a flash of green light and the sound of an invisible blade speeding through the air toward its target. Lucius Malfoy had the expression of complete and utter shock and Hermione could almost see the signal racing from his brain to his legs telling him to dodge, but he would be too slow... too slow...
The killing curse glanced by his ear, slammed into the wall behind his head, and burst into flame.
Before Lucius could react, Hermione Stunned him. She looked at him dispassionately. Her body trembled, but if it was in disappointment or relief she couldn't say.
She meant to miss him, Hermione told herself. She did it on purpose.
Almost mechanically, Hermione told Fawkes to go and he was gone in a flash of fire. She then conjured some ropes and proceeded to tie up the unconscious man. Whatever spells had frozen the portraits seemed to have dissipated as dozens of sleepy, anxious voices shouted questions at her. She ignored them all.
Then she turned to Harry. She set his leg with magic as best as she could and checked him over for injuries. Tears obscured her vision, so she didn't even realize that Harry was still awake until he weakly grasped her hand.
"You should rest, Harry. Help should be here soon," Hermione said hoarsely.
"Don't cry, Hermione," Harry said faintly. He tried to smile, but it came out as more of a pained grimace.
Despite herself, she smiled. Harry was riddled with self-inflicted bruises and his nerves were probably still stinging from the liquid fire that had run through them, but his first concern was for her. Then her smile faded.
"I almost killed him."
"But you didn't."
"But I wanted to. I wanted him to die."
"You wouldn't be human otherwise."
Harry's eyes bored into her telling her that he understood and she realized that he probably did. Hermione said, almost rambling, "I... didn't want you to die. I gave in so quickly. Was that wrong? If he had stopped... we'd both be dead now. As it is..." She looked over at the scorched wall. "Should I have found another way? What does it say... my being capable of that?"
"I find that having a capability and what you actually do with it to be very different things," Harry said.
"When did you get to be so philosophical?" Hermione asked, bemused at his answer.
"Have Dumbledore give you his speech about choices and abilities sometimes," Harry replied with a wry grin. Then he grew somber. "You know what I tried to do to Bellatrix."
"I told Dumbledore because I was afraid of the type of person that meant I was. He told me that hate may have fueled the Cruciatus I shot at Bellatrix, but I hated her for Sirius's sake and not merely my own, and that was why he was sure that I would be okay. He believed in me. And I believe in you."
Harry closed his eyes, winded by his response. Hermione sat silently watching him breathe. She had done it for him. She wouldn't kill people just because it was fun. Neither would Harry. But both of them would kill to save the people that made life worth living.
Love was messy like that.
The sound of pounding footsteps coming up the stairway and the echoing of McGonagall's voice told them that this whole ordeal would soon be over.
"I guess that it's back to the dungeons for me," Hermione said, only half-joking.
Harry's grip on her hand tightened. "After everything that's happened, do you really think I'm going to let you out of my sight? You're not going anywhere without me."
His words were that of a friend comforting another, but the way he said them caused Hermione to flush slightly. Turning her face away, she looked around the wrecked office and what she saw made her sigh. "Will anything ever be the same?"
"Nothing ever stays the same," Harry said quietly. "Well, almost nothing."
He smiled at her, green eyes meeting brown. And there was no need for words.
The next four days flew by in a daze for Hermione. She had spent them by Harry's side in the infirmary while he recovered. Madam Pomfrey had placed him in a healing trance, so she had plenty of time to think and to deal with the myriad of apologies that came from the other Gryffindors.
Dumbledore had awoken, weak and still in much need of medical care, after the book was delivered to the Healers and doing so kept Hermione from being carted away. An investigative team from the Ministry had stopped by to take down her story. Fortunately for her, the Killing Curse only carried a sentence if used upon another human being. She did have to endure a long lecture about using it without Ministry approval, but she had the sense that some of the members quietly approved of her actions.
There was even a visit from a member of the Experimental Charms committee who had tried to remove the Dark Mark from her arm. After much fruitless effort, he finally covered it with a flesh-colored bandage and gave her a note signed by the Minister to hand over if she was ever mistakenly arrested.
Hermione was disappointed that the unsightly tattoo would remain, but she decided to see it as a badge of survival rather than a reminder of her horrible experience. Lucius Malfoy was back in Azkaban and she wasn't. That was something to celebrate.
Professor Flitwick had taken the time to investigate how Malfoy had gone through the wards with her and Harry. Apparently no one had adjusted the wards after Lucius Malfoy was removed as a School Governor. That flaw had now been fixed.
Draco Malfoy had vanished. He had undoubtedly scurried off to his Dark Lord and since Hermione had the feeling that Voldemort didn't take failure kindly, she felt a brief pang of pity for the young man. A very brief pang.
Professor Glass was understandably shaken to discover that he had been possessed by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named himself and tried to resign. When he had shown up for his classes the day after, it was evident that he had changed his mind. From what Hermione had been able to piece together, Dumbledore had offered to teach the man Occlumency in exchange for remaining at Hogwarts. The students speculated that the Headmaster was simply tired of hiring a new Defense teacher every year.
It was on the fourth day while she was reading that Ron stopped by. She stared at him curiously. While almost all the other Gryffindors had stopped by to wish her well and apologize at least twice, Ron had apparently only came by once when she and Harry were both unconscious.
Without preamble, Ron said, "I'm not going to apologize for trying to do the sensible thing."
There was a hint of defensiveness in his tone that made her smile. She replied, "Seeing as how that's the only time I've ever seen you do anything sensible, I wouldn't dream of berating you for it."
Ron relaxed marginally. He asked uncertainly, "So you're not mad? That I didn't go as far as Harry for you?"
"It's not a race, Ron," Hermione said kindly. "You not wanting me to leave the crime scene doesn't mean you distrusted me. You went as far as you could on only friendship and faith. That's more than my other friends did. Harry went further... for other reasons."
It had taken her some time after all the chaos and emotional hardship had settled, but she had finally figured out what the look in Harry's eyes meant.
There was something beyond logic and faith that motivated Harry to keep going after her, and that something was belief. It wasn't the type of belief that had become synonymous with 'blind faith.' It was the type that developed over a period of time after one got a chance to truly know and understand another person. It was the belief that one could give their heart to another and trust that it would be kept safe.
Harry didn't believe her because he loved her. He loved her because he believed in her.
The sound of flipping pages made Hermione look up from her reading. She had to stifle the giggles that threatened to erupt and ended up coughing.
"Ron, what are you doing?"
"I'm doing my Potions homework," Ron mumbled.
Hermione couldn't resist. "But it's Saturday."
"I said," Ron replied through gritted teeth. "I'm doing my Potions homework."
Hermione rolled her eyes and fell back onto her pillow, turning to look at Harry. He sleepily blinked his eyes at her in concern.
"I'm fine, Harry. Go back to sleep," Hermione said. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the forehead. Harry snuggled deeper into his pillow and closed his eyes.
Hermione watched his peaceful face for a moment then throwing caution to the wind, she said softly, "I believe in you too."
The smile on Harry's face widened.