BE WARNED, NEW READERS!
The warning that used to be here has not been applicable for a little while now. Heh. Sorry!
When Hermione Granger killed Bellatrix LeStrange, she learned that a great and terrible person can indeed be overcome by one who is relatively unskilled and inexperienced. It was a night late in July; later she realized that it had been Harry's birthday. And on that July night she found the secret understanding that had haunted Harry's eyes since late in first year. A formidable person, a person who has spent years preparing and protecting themselves, can never prepare for every circumstance. There is always a circumstance that can overcome even the greatest and most skilled, and that circumstance does not require an equal opponent. That circumstance does not even require that opponent to recognize it as a circumstance. Sometimes the circumstance guides and shapes the opponent so that the downfall may have very little indeed to do with her. Where Harry had learned this lesson intuitively, six times so far, Hermione learned this lesson irreperably, since she was the first of the Trio to use the killing curse.
On that July night, Hermione sat in the same position on her living room floor, listening to the drone of cicadas until they disappeared sometime during the morning. She sat in the middle of three bodies. Her mother's lay the most to the east, which Hermione remembered because when the sun rose it peeled over her mother's face first, scrunched in on itself like a child's face in the middle of a nightmare. Hermione knew what hers would be, forever after that. It would be a hot night so humid it made her feel like she was moving underwater. She would be wet from a midnight swim; she had been unable to swim very far into the pond because she had been afraid of what she couldn't see in the water. She would hear what sounded like a baby's cry. There was every reason to think it was a baby's cry; her neighbors had just had one. It would turn, so slowly she almost didn't realize it, into an adult's cry, a woman's cry, a cry of pain. Funny how a child's meaningless cry and a howl of pain were indistinguishable. She would feel her heart disappear into her stomach, she would see her house, she would see that there was no Dark Mark above it yet, but she would know anyway. It would not be like one of those dreams where despite your fear you are rooted to the ground. If only it were one of those dreams. If only she had not been able to walk to her house, if only she had not had the misplaced presence of mind to open the ajar back door as quietly as possible, if only she had not seen a body on the floor, and a body writhing halfway to the floor, and a body standing over it, saying "Crucio". If only there were one spell she couldn't do, if only it was Avada Kedaveda. If only she had used Immobulus, or Petrificus Totalus. But Bellatrix had then said "Avada Kedaveda", and started to turn, and Hermione couldn't think of anything to do but echo those same words and mean it.
And after that she sat next to her mother and father and waited for the Aurors, listening to the unending drone of the cicadas.
Although Tom Marvolo Riddle publicly eschewed emotion, in truth his life was comprised of wave after wave of justified and growing anger. Between wandless summers at the Home for Boys ("Or you'll do what, you pale prat?"), a mother so long gone he didn't even know what her face looked like ("You don't even have a picture of her?), and a family that would have nothing to do with him ("Mr. Riddle, what do you know of the Marvolo line?") and the daily battle that it was to simply exist in Slytherin ("Riddle? What kind of a plebe name is that?"), he had by now watched wave after wave crest, unable to do anything about it, powerless to change his position or to avenge the wrongs that piled up at his feet. Instead he spent as much time as possible in the library, compiling information in the hopes that it would enable him one day to be the master of that overwhelming force known as fate. He held onto anger many times, for many reasons, only to realize there was nothing to be done, that he would simply have to move on, that one day his life would be worth this suffering. He did not notice the quiet anger that did not seep out, that cared less and less who it was that had affronted or wronged him. Perhaps he noticed that it held on longer and longer, but it did not worry him if he did. One day he would keep his anger, and revenge himself upon the one who inflicted it, and in doing so let out all the hurt and fear and pain that had accumulated over the years like a malignant cancer.
When Pendrake Malfoy betrayed him, he knew the time had come where there was no other way than to put his anger to use. For years, Tom had hidden the fact that he was a Marvolo from his fellow Slytherins. The Marvolo line was an old pureblood line, nearly dead. He was the last one but for a past his prime wizard who'd shown no signs of marrying and producing an heir. It would have made his life far easier to be a Marvolo; as it was he hid his half-blood nature from his fellow Slytherins by allowing them to think him a plebe, a pureblooded but unremarkable family, one whose name no one would bother to recognize. The thing was, the last Marvolo had disinherited him at birth, and he knew that if he allowed his housemates to know that he was of the family, they would know that the family wouldn't have him. The disinheritance on its own would be bad enough, but the reason for the disinheritance could quite easily be fatal. Tom was the first half-blood to be sorted into Slytherin in a century. Ironic that the last of Salazar Slytherin's descendants should be a half blood, that the only hope there was of passing on the traits peculiar to that line resided in what they condemned. He had learned about his link to Salazar the past year, his fourth year. It explained the parseltongue, anyway. However, this rather illustrious knowledge had to be kept inside, under lock and key, because the other half of what Tom was, was a victim of the prejudices set into motion by the other half. So it was that Tom had spent four years at Hogwarts the internal embodiment of the wizarding world's greatest war, the war that had been going on under Grindenwald, the war that looked never to end.
And, on the third day of his fifth year, his internal war became external. Tom entered the Slytherin dungeons to see every bulletin board plastered with copies of the official document that Crispin Marvolo had signed to legally extricate him from the family. Tom hadn't even seen the document himself. It was written in quite large letters. They were horribly easy to read for the crowd gathered around them. When Tom approached one group to see what the fuss was, it created a stir of faces that whispered at his approach. He saw his name first, below the title, "The Ministry of Magic recognizes that the Undersigned had been Officially Disinherited, by order of Provision 23A." Below that was about a paragraph of writing detailing the specifics, such as he was not allowed to contact said family and was allowed no part of the estate, or entitled to any recognition that may follow from use of the family name, and of course, that Crispin Marvolo had undetaken the proceedings because the undersigned was a half-blood. The repercussions were clear to even those Slytherins with the comprehension of a walnut. His standing in the house, as an independent plebian, had changed within the space of a day to Blight of the Slytherin House. Even people who he exchanged pleasantries with (and he had decided long ago only to exchange pleasantries with them), were careful not to look him in the eye.
Tom knew that the document resided in a locked safe that he legally had no access to deep in the halls of the Office of Official Records and Statistics, which was presided over by Loudon Malfoy. He was also quite aware that Pendrake Malfoy was one of the few Slytherins who was not crowded around the blasted bulletin boards, and that he was the only Slytherin who did not avoid his eye. No, Pendrake looked him quite steadily in the eye as Tom strode to his dormitory, a faint smirk overlaying his pale features. As Tom's heart pounded in his ears, sending wave after wave of heat surging through his body, Tom decided that he was not going to let go of this new anger until he had had his revenge on the entire bloody Malfoy line.
The Auror stated the questions without sympathy or emotion. He didn't look her in the eye. Before them was a roll of parchment on which a quill automatically and independently transcribed their conversation.
"Please describe in your own words the events of the night of July the 24th and the morning of July the 25th."
In her own words. What other words were there? "I... well, I had gone out for a swim. I couldn't sleep because it was so hot, and the air conditioning-- it's the Muggle version of a cooling charm-- was broken, so... And then I came back. I could hear screaming in the house. So I thought, I mean, I knew, that a Death Eater was in the house."
"What led you to this conclusion?"
"Well, I suppose that I've always known it was a possibility. I'm Muggleborn. Lucius Malfoy first pointed it out to me in my second year. And his son... And he's a Death Eater. Lucius, I mean. He knows I know Harry Potter. And I've helped him. And Voldemort--" Merlin, a shudder from an Auror. Things were dire indeed. "Well, they know I've helped him. So of the potential victims, I suppose I'm on a rather short list." She couldn't believe she'd just been asked to justify her immediate suspicions. After all, she had been right."
"Please return to the events, Miss."
"Right. I came in through the back door-- I get to the pond from a trail around the back, so I was nearer to the back door, you see. By then I knew-- who... the screams were from."
"My mother," she whispered. This couldn't be the most psychologically healthy way to come to terms with the deaths of your parents. "She- Bellatrix LeStrange, that is, was torturing her."
How else do Death Eaters torture? "With Crucio." You utter dolt. Her voice broke on her words, but she was determined not to cry. She could cry after this. In Azkaban, most likely.
"Do you need a moment?"
"No. I'm fine. I need to finish more than anything. So it was Crucio, and then Avada Kedavada, from Bellatrix, and then she started to turn towards me, and I just didn't have time to think, and she would have killed me I'm sure-"
"Can you explain why you didn't attempt to immobilize her or leave the scene?"
"Leave the scene? That-- she would have killed me, I was in a Muggle neighborhood. No one could have helped me. No one did help me. As for the other, it was just-- there was no time to think..."
"Have you ever used the Killing Curse before?"
Hermione flinched. "Of course not."
"Yet, on your first try, you performed it successfully?"
"So it would seem."
"Let it be noted that the suspect had the presence of mind to perform an adult-level spell successfully on her first try but did not have the presence of mind to think of another spell."
Silence. She thought of Bellatrix's picture in Kreacher's hovel.
"I-- Now hang on, I... I'm rather good at spells, first of all, so it's not as though it required the sort of presence of mind it would take Longbottom to successfully brew-- well, anything, and-- My parents are dead! Dead, and tortured! How are your parents? How would you react to find them dead and their faces-- Did you see their faces? A bit worse off than LeStrange, I assure you, for while I did kill in self-defense and reprisal, I didn't torture-- do you know what Crucio does? I'm not-- I'm not a bad person. Please. I don't want to be. I just want to go back--"
"You can't go back, Miss Granger. You can't change a thing. That is why we have laws in place to punish actions such as murder, no matter what the circumstances of the murder. Because those actions cannot be taken back."
Another voice came, then, a familiar and more welcome voice. "Quite right, Mr. Jarvey, quite right. But I assure you that Miss Granger is fully aware of the permanence of death." Hermione turned to the voice. Professor Dumbledore. She hadn't even heard the door open. But then, she felt no relief. She hadn't felt much of anything since the previous night, not fear when the Aurors showed up at last and put her into custody, nor exhaustion for not sleeping a wink since everything. The only thing that had escaped her at all was a rising anger and irritation at Mr. Jarvey throughout the interview and the inescapable suspicion that she had lost control of every ideal she held to become someone much different than the person who had left last night for a midnight swim. "If I may," said Dumbledore, gesturing vaguely. Apparently Mr. Jarvey knew what he was on about since he put a Finite Incantatem on the quill and rose from his chair.
"Right then," said Mr. Jarvey as he left. "I don't think I need anything more from Miss Granger."
The calmness on Dumbledore's face fell a little when Mr. Jarvey left. He sat heavily in the chair across from her, her confession in between them. "Miss Granger..." He took off his glasses and wiped them on his sleeve. "I cannot begin to tell you how terribly terribly sorry I am..." He replaced them. "For the loss of your parents, of course, but also that you were put in a situation that has led-" At this, he waved his hand around the room, walls crackling with wards- "to your current predicament. I have been prepared since Voldemort's return to hear that some Muggleborn student's family may be put in danger... Yours in particular, if truth be told. I have been prepared to prevent such an occurrence. However, from what I understand of the situation, Bellatrix LeStrange went to your house o her own accord, so it was not possible for Professor Snape to inform me. Please, Miss Granger, forgive me."
What was right, and what was easy. She had so taken those words to heart. "Professor Dumbledore?" she asked.
"Yes, Miss Granger."
"I-- Is this... I mean, did I do what was..." Right, or easy? But the answer was obvious. She had done what was easy. And Dumbledore was giving her a penetrating look now. She had a sudden suspicion that there was something he wasn't telling her, something he was not going to tell her. "I'm a murderer," she whispered.
He pressed his lips together. "You are a remarkable girl, Hermione. You have shown time and time again that you are willing to stand up for what you believe, and you have shown ingenuity in so doing. You have gone to great lengths to accomplish what is right. And you have shown a better sense of what is right and wrong than even the best of your peers."
A tear made its way down her face. She felt as though he was delivering a requiem for who she had been.
"Often remarkable people are made to pay for those qualities that make them so. That is what has happened to you. Yes, you have taken a life. The circumstances are such that it is eminently understandable. And, in a way, you have struck a blow for the side of the Light. But it is a weight, one that I know you will never shirk to carry. And I am grateful that it weighs upon you as heavily as it does. Perhaps I am grateful that you know the weight already, considering what you... inevitably face." Here again, that penetrating look. "Also, you have struck a blow against yourself. You have taken away one of Voldemorts more treasured followers. He knows your name now. Of that I have no doubt. You are now facing great danger."
Was it Gryffindor courage or despair that kept her from caring?
"I suppose it'll be really easy to get to me in Azkaban."
"Miss Granger, you are not going to Azkaban." His voice was strong, nearly angry. "I am taking you back to Hogwarts. It is the only place where you are safe from Voldemort. There will be a trial, of course. But I am quite sure there will be only reasonable repercussions. Moody is passing the right for Aurors to kill in the line of duty this fall. In the meantime, you will be in my custody."
She heartened a bit at this.
"When do we go?"
"As soon as you would like to leave, Miss Granger."
It seemed that anger did not want Tom to leave it either, for within a week of Pendrake Malfoy's little stunt, Tom believed he found the key to his revenge. There was, in the Library, a little known corner tucked away to the left of the Restricted Section. You could only access it if you were somehow descended from one of the founders, as Tom was. He was only able to pull Salazar Slytherin's books from the shelves. No spell yet had managed to free any of the other volumes. He had been particularly interested in a few of Ravenclaw's selection of books. Still, Slytherin had a vast array of books that existed nowhere else on earth. Tom spent much of his time there.
He had once read a story, or perhaps he had heard of it-- it was so far back he didn't remember the source, but it had always stuck with him. It was the story of a violinist and alchemist who found that the key to alchemy lay in an obscure note that one could only hit if they succumbed to a sort of chaotic wandering and pure faith. Muggle nonsense, of course; that obscure note was simple magical ability. However, the notion of chaos and faith had always held a sort of appeal to him, and Tom used it as a guiding precept now. He spent much of the first few days after the debacle avoiding hexes waiting outside and inside of his dormitory, in the halls, and in his food. He tried very hard to think of it as yet another enlightening sort of experience; after all, no one had gotten through his defenses yet. The rest of his time he spent in his nook pulling books from the shelves and opening them to random passages, succumbing to chaotic wandering and sending old Salazar as pure a faith as he could muster. Which wasn't very pure, to be sure. But Tom felt that it was the sort of faith that Salazar would like, anyway.
He was proved right when he pulled a book called Invisible Rooms of the Wizarding World and found, on page 23, a description of something called the Chamber of Secrets. A place hidden somewhere inside Hogwarts. A place that could only be opened by the heir of Slytherin. A place whose location sprung to his head unbidden, just as Athena had sprung to life in Zeus's head. Clearly, it had been waiting for him.
Tom hurriedly readied his things and replaced the book. It was dinner. He had avoided it since he had detected various poisons in every single piece of food he brought to his plate during lunch. He had enchanted a ring to warm against his finger if it detected a poison, so no one had managed to get him to ingest anything foul, but it was quite disheartening to reach for food only to have to leave it languishing on his plate. He hadn't even drank anything. Slytherin spitefulness had turned out to be a lucky thing, however, since he now had a window of time in which to go to the girl's lavatory, where the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets was to be found. He made the mistake of traveling up a particularly fickle staircase and ended up having to backtrack, but got to the lavatory soon enough, and found it empty to boot. The sinks stood in the dead center of the room, beckoning to them. As he drew nearer he noticed the snakes inscribed on the faucets. Why no one had noticed them before, he did not know. Foolish of them, really. He told them to open, unconsciously reverting to parseltongue.
"Open," he said. With a bone-rattling clank and a surge of magic, the sinks obeyed and revealed to him a long, slimy tunnel. Well, this looked to be messy. But, he supposed, revenge always was. He took off his robes, folded them and placed them in his satchel so that he could put them back on to hide whatever state his clothing may end up in. Then he stepped over the edge and let the darkness below guide him.
Hogwarts was strange in the summer. It had been empty enough the winter she spent there, but she'd had Harry and Ron. Well, for the first bit of the winter hols, anyway. It had been terribly lonely when they hadn't been speaking, and no amount of studying had distracted her, but still. She could feel them. Now, making her way through the empty corridors to Gryffindor Tower alone, Hogwarts felt unreal. Like some abstract painting of Hogwarts. Later, Hermione would come to find that everything would feel like that-- Hogsmeade, the Weasleys, school, studying. Very little in her would would feel the same again ever again.
But Hermione wasn't entirely alone, and there were some things that would always feel the same. Well, one thing. And he was sitting in his favorite squashy couch in the Gryffindor common room, playing a game of Wizard's Chess against himself. He looked about as bleak as she felt.
"Harry," she whispered, and he looked up. It was a long look between them. She knew that he knew what had happened. And she realized now that she understood what had happened to Harry. Harry had been so distant since Sirius died, but in that first meeting, the distance between them vanished. He smiled; she hadn't seen him smiling like that since fifth year. He stood, she ran, and she fell into his arms and sobbed her heart out. They stood like that for a long time, and then he walked her to a couch and sat her down, gingerly patting her head as her sobs died out. Once they were gone, the exhaustion came, and she breathed against Harry's shoulder deeper and deeper until she was asleep on his shoulder.
She woke up sometime later that night. Harry was asleep. She was still resting on his shoulder. She had always felt more comfortable around Harry than Ron. Of course, that was because her and Harry's friendly hugs and kisses meant nothing; Harry knew, as she did, that Hermione was Ron's. It hadn't happened between them yet. She had decided long ago to wait for him to make a move. He'd been unwilling for a little while to admit to himself what his jealousy over Viktor Krum meant. Sometime last year she'd seen that he finally realized what it was between them, that it was inevitable, that they were destined. Still, he didn't make a move. She knew he was afraid. The fool. As though she would ever deny him. And she'd decided that it couldn't happen until he realized this, that she was his. Things would be incomplete between them until there was no fear.
But, she realized, things were different now. Everything was different. If Ron had been afraid before, he'd be doubly so now. Merlin, the boy fell apart whenever she cried. He'd have no idea what to do about this. Besides making her tea, perhaps, she thought ruefully, remembering that time in Hagrid's hut.
And again, her stomach dropped and her body closed in on her and she was gasping for air as she realized anew that she was a murderer. Nothing between her and the Death Eaters now. Of course, she realized this wasn't strictly true, as she didn't exult in it, or in anyone else's pain. But still. She put her head in her hands and wished she was still asleep. Maybe if she wished hard enough...
Harry's hand was on her back, making a rough circle. "All right, 'Mione?"
She laughed bitterly, and strangely enough, he laughed too.
"Right stupid question, sorry."
"Oh, Harry... it's not my parents, it's that..." She drew a sort of hiccupping sigh. "I'm a murderer." And she was crying again. Same old Hermione.
He was silent. Then he took her chin in his hands and made her face him. "Listen to me, Hermione. You had no choice. You need to accept that. You are not the same as them. You did what you needed to do, and there are people who are going to live now, because of what you've done. No matter what you might think of it." His face was hard, and Hermione knew he was talking as much about the Prophecy as anything else. He dropped his hands and looked at the ground "And I think you know well enough how glad I am you did it."
"No. There's other things, Hermione, besides just right and wrong. There are things you have to do, wrongs that make things right."
She couldn't, didn't want to argue with that. For Harry's sake. Given what he would someday have to do. "Things aren't right, though, Harry. I may have-- well, she may be gone, but nothing's changed. It hasn't made things better."
"No," he answered, "But they will be."
The ground was littered with bones. Mostly, they were small bones. Hundreds of generations of rats, it looked like. Tom muttered "Lumos", and he saw the first human skeleton lying on the floor, shaded blue by the light. He still didn't know what secret it was that the chamber possessed. He shivered as he thought of Pendrake Malfoy's skeleton lying on the Chamber floor. He walked down the tunnel, wondering if he could bring himself to do it, cursing himself for not knowing. But he could imagine little satisfaction in his death. It would be better to see Pendrake squirm.
The tunnel opened up into a cavernous room, wet and rotting with a millenium's worth of age. It was still impressive, ornate even, one long path lined by serpentine statues. A watery, gray light from an indeterminate source shivered in the air. This room stank of a cold and horrible greatness. Tom had always known that terrible things were required to overcome fate, but standing in this room brought the truth home to him in such a way that he could feel it in his bones. Ignorant of what lay waiting for him in this room, he also came to understand that he must prove himself to earn this greatness. He wasn't afraid; the worst that could come of it was dying, which seemed a better and better option than a life lived like a ship tossed about by a storm. He was quite capable of striving, and of dispassionately seeing how far his grasp extended. He walked on, and came to a large, cement wall carved with serpents. After a time, he recognized it for what it was; a holding pen.
"Open," he said again; again in parseltongue. He would see if he was worthy. That was all there was to it. And the cage opened. A sound came, or rather, it slithered. Of course. What else could be waiting here but a snake? Before he could even see it, Tom found his mind wandering towards it, feeling for the shape of its consciousness with his mind. Possession was another ability that marked the line of Slytherin. It was how Salazar had made his escape from the rest of the founders, after all.
It was a basilisk. Instinctively, he closed his eyes, remembering what he'd read about them. He heard its body drop to the floor and curl towards him. It was his, to do with as he wanted. He wondered... Tom had found, early on in Slytherin when Earl Rosier had slipped Hydra poison in his drink (it made the victim prout two extra heads), that he was immune to the poisons of snakes. Oddly enough, this wasn't a characteristic of the Slytherin line. It was an evolution. But if he was immune to the poison, perhaps he would be immune to the fatal stare of the basilisk.
The worst that came of striving, after all, was only death.
Tom opened his eyes.
Hermione and Harry never left each other's company in those first few days back at Hogwarts. It turned out that Harry hadn't been able to stand it at the Dursleys, and had written to Dumbledore out of desperation. Dumbledore had insisted that Harry finish the month out at the Dursleys, for his own safety, and given his approval to let Harry go to the Weasleys in August. Once they had heard about what happened to the Grangers, and once Harry found out that she was going to Hogwarts, he'd volunteered to go there himself. Dumbledore had let him escape a few days early. Ron was coming in a few days, after the tumult surrounding Bill and Fleur's wedding had died down.
Hermione was under no circumstance to leave Hogwarts grounds. She wouldn't be allowed into Hogsmeade this year, as a percautionary measure. Neither would Harry. She wasn't sure if she cared yet. For now, all she needed was Harry. They talked freely about her parents and Sirius, respectively, exchanging all their memories and stories. Hermione knew most of the things about Sirius, but she let Harry tell her anyway. There still a few nuggets in there that she hadn't heard about.
"I tell you, he was a right berk," Harry was saying as they walked the perimeter of the forest, without a trace of bitterness in his voice. "I still wonder whether Dad actually did take off Snape's underwear."
"Maybe you should ask," Hermione suggested innocently. He grinned, quickly. Hermione hadn't quite forgiven the Professor for not letting her undertake a special project to work on improvements to Wolfsbane Potion. She was totally unfazed by his evilness to her, by now, but for goodness' sake, Lupin deserved better.
Harry looked at the Forest keenly for a moment. "Fancy a visit to Grawp?" Hagrid was away on another expedition to garner support from the giants. Grawp had improved a lot by now. Dumbledore had told Hagrid about a cave hidden to the northeast, and Grawp had learned enough manners and English to keep him out of, well, severe trouble. He liked Hermione the best of the trio, unfortunately. He still grabbed for her every now and again, but she had learned to dodge him by running, climbing, and levitating. A good conjunctivitus curse in the eye didn't hurt when he was being unreasonable. He never seemed to hold it against her. And it had become a sort of protection from the centaurs for the three of them, although Hermione had not seen one of them since that day she'd led Umbridge into the forest. This was mostly due to the fact that she'd spent much of her sixth year working on a corollary to the Marauder's Map, the Defense Diagram. She'd had the idea over the previous summer, and when she'd joined the Weasleys at Grimmauld Place she'd picked Lupin's brain so she could think of how to go about it. Then she, Harry, and Ron had gone on prolonged trips into the Forest with Hagrid in order to map it, enchanting the map to keep track of the various creatures it contained. She'd decided it would be vital should Voldemort find a way to attack the school.
"Why not?" she shrugged, and pulled out the D.D. The centaurs were mainly to the southwest, with a few stragglers; Aragog was in the central part of the forest, sleeping; the unicorns were by the spring, and the Thestrals (she shivered, knowing that now she'd find out what they looked like), were near Hagrid's hut. They could see Grawp. He was outside of his cave. They tucked their pants into their socks, something they'd learned to do after Ron fell sick after brushing against a patch of blithering baptisia. It would be a jaunt through the trail Hagrid had long since established to Grawp's cave, so Hermione didn't find it necessary to get the satchel of antidotes she'd been developing the past year. At night they always wore their invisibility cloaks and carried the antidotes on them. They were too tall by now to crouch under Harry's, and luckily Ron had been given one for Christmas by Fred and George. Not to be left out, Hermione had spent the Galleon's she'd been saving over the years on her own. But they didn't need them now.
A year spent walking in the Forbidden Forest had sharpened all of the Trio's senses so that they knew what to look out for, and where to run if necessary. They needed precautionary measures less and less, and Hagrid less and less. Walking the trail to Grawp's place in broad daylight required little else but the map. Hermione was used to the forest enough to appreciate its encironment. She'd always been content in a forest setting. The fresh smell always soothed her, and between the dense presence of forest life on the one hand and Harry's presence on the other, Hermione was as content as she had been for days. They walked down the path in relative silence, making occasional conversation, and let themselves be suspended in the belief that things promised to be normal for a little while at least.
When the attacks started, Tom didn't understand at first what had happened. He wanted the basilisk to attack Pendrake Malfoy, not Astor Pallas or Tiberius Winningham or Jordan Knightly's toad. He could feel the basilisk's consciousness, could connect with it, could feel it, and the thoughts it had felt like his own. But it would not do what he wanted it to do.
Pendrake Malfoy was totally unmoved by the petrifications. He had some sort of idea that the attacks were solely against Mudbloods. Tom had sent the basilisk out three times, each time when he knew Pendrake to be alone and unguarded. Each time, the basilisk had missed its target. It hadn't even managed to kill any of its victims, a rather astounding brush of luck for them. These days Tom was almost angry enough not to be relieved that there wasn't yet blood on his hands. His life had become a daily war, a constant defense against hexes and poisons. The outright antipathy from his house was rather grating as well. But the pity from the other houses, who of course would know that he was a halfblood, was almost worse. He hadn't been paired up with his fellow Slytherin prefect for months now, and he had to endure thoughtful, earnest attempts at conversation from that fool Hufflepuff Sue Llewellyn. The other week he had seen that awkward buffoon Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest, walking, of all things, an oversized spider, on a leash. When Tom had come up to dock points, Hagrid had thought he'd come to talk, or for pity, or something that caused him to introduce Tom to the spider, who he was keeping as a pet. Tom had been so fed up he'd simply whirled around and gone back to the library, where he'd had to immobilize a bucket of worms that Tristram Rogers had attempted to empty over his head.
The anger came in wave after wave, guiding all that he did, giving him some kind of preternatural focus. He absorbed everything from class, and many things outside of class, soaking up everything in case it might come in handy. And the worst part of it was that Pendrake kept himself completely seperate from it all. He didn't engage in any of the pranks and attempts at violence. He simply held himself aloof and smug, as though he'd had nothing to do with it and was slightly amused by the proceedings.
It wasn't until Myrtle McAffrey died that he understood what had happened. Standing in the hall waiting for her body to be brought out, he had looked inside of himself and found that secret component of his anger, the part that was directed at everything and anything. The basilisk had responded to his anger, but it had made it its own, and shaped it to fit the agenda that had been lying dormant in its head since the days of Salazar Slytherin. Tom thought "Kill." The Basilisk thought "Kill All Mudbloods." And now he was facing that wretched orphanage again. He had one hell of a mess to clean up. Then, most conveniently, he thought of Hagrid.
"You're a little scary sometimes, you know that? Brilliant, but scary."
How scary was she now? Hermione had barely talked to Harry at all the day before Ron was due to arrive. Merlin knew she was scared. Positively terrified. She had no idea what she'd say to Ron. If he'd even say anything to her. And here she was, sitting on a couch in the common room with her legs crossed, her foot twitching a mile a minute, unable to respond to any of Harry's attempts at light conversation.Maybe she should read a book. But if she actually got up to get a book, she might just faint. Any sort of movement now did not seem like a good idea. Neither did anything out of the usual. So she let out a startled gasp when Harry grabbed her hand.
"Calm down, Hermione. I don't see what you've got to be worried about."
She turned to him, wide eyed. "What if he hates me?" she breathed.
Harry let out a good-natured chuckle. It didn't amuse her in the least. "Hermione, the last letter I got from Ron was three feet long. From Ron! And I don't think there was a sentence in there that didn't have to do with you."
"He didn't write me."
"He feels like he always says the wrong thing around you anyway. He thinks he'll break you."
Harry gave her hand another squeeze. "No he won't." He let go of her hand and looked thoughtfully at the fireplace. "He loves you, you know."
It was the first time anyone had every said anything about it outright. Besides her extremely secret conversations with Ginny, of course. Ginny had written to tell her that she wanted to come, but that she thought it would be best if Hermione had time with her boys first. Her boys. Her rocks. She felt a little better.
And then the entrance swung open and Ron was there. He walked in a bit overconfidently, his bags trailing behind him. "Oi, you lot, don't tell me it's been this boring without me." He was looking right at Hermione. Harry had already stood up and was clapping Ron on the back, but Hermione couldn't move. He didn't turn his eyes away. She wished he would. She wished he wouldn't.
"You're a little scary sometimes." Why couldn't she stop thinking of that? She'd gotten over him calling her a nightmare, and giving her the silent treatment over the winter break, and his baiting of her at the Yule ball. Why did those words, of all words, rankle?
He was standing above her, tall and deep voiced and different from how she remembered. More important. More intimidating.
"Hi, Hermione," he was saying. He was saying it softly. Like he might break her. He might. She noticed Harry wasn't there, heard the door swinging shut, knew he'd left them alone. "I think the proper thing to say at this point is 'Hello, Ron.'"
"Hello, Ron," she whispered. He kneeled in front of her. He was a bit awkward with his new height. He'd be almost two heads taller than her now. He smiled, and it wavered.
"Don't worry," he said, taking one of her hands gently in his. Taking the other hand, continued, "I won't break you."
And finally, she knew he wouldn't.
So he had strived. He had reached and failed to grasp. It rankled within him. He had been so sure that he was worthy of the Chamber of Secrets. He had been so sure that he could manipulate the Basilisk. But the Basilisk had manipulated him. Or, Salazar through the Basilisk. It was his failure with the Chamber that made Tom realize that what he'd wanted all along, was not to be as great as Salazar Slytherin. He wanted to be greater. How else could he prove that his half nature didn't limit him but to outdo the wizard that had prescribed such limits in the first place? And then, another emotion crept in to sit besides anger. Fear. Whenever he thought about this new goal, his need to be a greater wizard even than Slytherin himself, his heart raced past his grasp with an overwhelming fear that he would not succeed, that he would lead an ordinary life, that people would think of him as they wanted and their thoughts would not be high.
It didn't take long for Tom to recognize what a liability it was, this fear, and recognize that anger too had been a liability, and that it had cost him his goal. He took his failure as a lesson and thought, very hard, about who it was he needed to be. A creature without emotion, a creature who was capable of ruthlessness if it would lead to his goal. There was no other way. He would not be tossed about by the winds of fate. He would have the winds at his hand, and toss about others, those who had wronged him, those who would take the wind from his hands, everyone, perhaps, if he needed to.
So he created himself in the image he cast, created himself cold and cruel and perfectly manipulative. He enchanted a book to contain a model of himself, all the attributes he would need and their refinements. Himself, but perfect. Then he gave himself its own will, so that he could converse with it through the book, so that it would be his teacher.
He would learn to make no mistakes when he manipulated. He would come up with a plan to entrap Malfoy and all the others who had wronged him, those Muggle fools at the orphanage and his father and Crispin Marvolo. And he had his perfect self to help him, and guide him, and form him in the image he had created. At the end of his fifth year, Tom stood on the edge. He spent his sixth year letting the darkness below guide him.
She knew they shouldnt've gone to Hogsmead. Sure, it was terrible not to be able to get a butterbeer and candy and meet up with Fred and George, or participate in the DA meetings that happened as a matter of course every Hogsmeade Weekend. Hermione knew that it sometimes got a bit claustrophobic being in the Trio, especially since the semester had started. Everyone knew about what had happened to Hermione, and no one wanted to intrude on the bond she and Harry and Ron had developed over the summer. Bellatrix LeStrange's death had also instilled a general unease among people Hermione had been friendly with, and it transferred to Harry and Ron. The only ones who really talked to them were Ginny and Neville and Luna. Without the Hogsmeade meetings with the DA, which had expanded to include most of each house's student body, and even a handful of Slytherins, their Trio were no longer really members of the club. They were its unofficial leaders. Everyone treated them as though they were generals or something. Harry was the most powerful wizard of them; Hermione was the brains, and Ron was the strategist. And with the respect that came with the others' deferrence, came distance.
But they had the Forbidden Forest, and the castle, which had already revealed four heretofore unknown rooms, and Hagrid, and Ginny and Neville and Luna, who would occasionally skip a weekend and stay at Hogwarts. Even though Ron could go, he never did. He hadn't left Hermione's side since the summer. He even studied with her, although he brought along a comic book or card game as often as he brought class materials. He came to her the second Quidditch practice was over with. On one occasion, as they were walking together while Harry was detained by Luna's new theory on heliotropes, he'd taken her hand. It didn't even look like he'd noticed he'd done it. His ears hadn't even turned red. And he hadn't let go.
So it was all right, really. She didn't see why Harry couldn't just find some way, somehow, to deal with it. Perhaps it was because he spent so much time preparing, working on new jinxes and hexes and countercurses with Lupin when he came on the weekends. Maybe he needed a break more than she did. She tried to argue with them, but as usual, she didn't convince them. And as usual, she went along with them to keep them out of trouble. It turned out that it was probably her presence that ultimately led to what happened.
They'd come out in Honeydukes, where they spent a good hour gawking over candy. They had their pick now, instead of everyone else's leftovers. When they went outside they found Hogsmeade covered in an early snow. They saw Hanna Abbott and Ernie MacMillan, and hailed them. They were heading to the DA meeting. At first it was a bit uncomfortable, as all the DA members turned to stare and insisted upon knowing how the Trio had got into Hogsmeade, which they really couldn't answer. Then they had a round of Butterbeers bought for them. Ron had a Firewhiskey and started regaling the group with tales of the clash of Fred and George's summer experiments and Bill and Fleur's wedding. Hermione was brought to tears at the mental image of prissy Fleur Delacour sporting golden acne and silver leeks sprouting from her nose. Harry and Ginny were talking animatedly in a corner, and Ginny was blushing. Luna was explaining something to Neville and Dean and Seamus very seriously; she didn't seem to notice that Seamus was laughing so hard that Butterbeer was spouting through his nose. It was evening by the time people started to filter out. It seemed like it had been a good idea after all.
Then Hermione and Ron and Harry had left, and Ginny had called Harry back, and instead of waiting for him, Ron pulled her into a little nook by the Hog's Head, looked at her so seriously that her heart seemed to collapse, and kissed her. And they had kissed for a long time, and then they held on to each other, and everything felt so nice, and so right. "We'd better go find Harry," Ron had said.
But they never did.