Author's Note: I'm back! As I told readers of my blog (the link to which can be found in my profile), I ran into a horrific amount of computer trouble, resulting in me losing all of my old RotA files. I'm still working on piecing together the plans I had for this fic, but I've cobbled together enough to write this chapter. I hope you enjoy it!
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Chapter Fifteen: What Have I Done?
"It's weird being in this room with such a small group."
"It's weird being in this room without Harry."
"Hell, it's weird being in this room at all," said Neville. "After Umbridge last year, I thought for sure that I'd never be back here."
"Yes, well, if you could all get over the weirdness of being in the room, we haven't got much time," Hermione said, with an astringency that she immediately regretted. She too had been struck by the surrealism of returning to the Room of Requirement when she had arrived, fifteen minutes ahead of the others. The last time they had been in this room, Dobby the house elf had burst into the room, shaking with terror, to warn them that Umbridge was on the way. Hermione remembered flying from the room, all dignity forgotten, certain that life as she knew it was about to end.
Being expelled from Hogwarts was a disaster for any of its students, but for none so much as the Muggleborns. In the best-case scenario, Hermione could expect to complete her magical education at one of the Ministry-run day schools, which taught less advanced curriculum, worked at a much slower pace compared to Hogwarts and didn't offer the N.E.W.T. qualification. Without access to the leading experts who taught at Hogwarts, she'd have to spend years of independent study to achieve N.E.W.T. level all on her own. Then, even with her N.E.W.T.s in hand, her post-graduate educational and career opportunities would be severely diminished by her inferior schooling; a degree from Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, or Durmstrang was all but a prerequisite for a European-born student seeking admission to the elite magical universities of the Continent and the United States. In Britain, which largely eschewed post-secondary education in favor of apprenticeships run by individual employers, Hermione would be especially constrained: generations of pureblood elites passing through the school had given Hogwarts alumni a stranglehold on the upper echelons of government, business, and society. For graduates of the lesser schools, there was no glass ceiling; the ceiling was as strong and opaque as thickly-poured concrete.
And again, that was the best-case scenario. Over the years, Professor McGonagall had often warned Hermione that being both Muggleborn and top of her class at Hogwarts was dangerous. She was drawing attention to herself. Some of it was good, but more of it was from powerful figures to whom her success would be a profound political threat. By excelling the way she was, Hermione was a living repudiation of pureblood dogma. "There are many very powerful, very important people who would love nothing more than to watch you fail, and who will attempt to arrange your failure if given half a chance," Professor McGonagall had told her in her third year before giving her the Time-Turner. "You cannot give them a single opening." Because of this, Hermione was terrified that if she should ever be expelled, her enemies would not be content to simply exile her to one of the St. George schools. There was a very real threat that she might find herself in a Ministry hearing room, listening to a magistrate order her be sent back to her parents with her wand snapped and her memories of the Wizarding world erased. This was the fate handed down to hundreds of "subversive" Muggleborns before her, although the practice had become much less common in the years since Dumbledore became Chief Warlock.
Thus, she had run for her life, too upset and terrified to have a strong sense of where she was going. Luckily, she had quickly come upon an empty classroom, which she ducked inside, Disillusioning herself and casting a quick Notice-Me-Not jinx on the door. It would never hold if Umbridge decided to hunt for her specifically, but she prayed that it would give her enough time in the chaos outside. She had sunk onto one of the desks and held herself, shaking from the adrenaline, furious with the world that the D.A. had been discovered before it had a chance to really explore defensive magic, and furious with herself for risking so much for so little gain. Harry would be expelled for certain, his had always been the head Umbridge was looking to mount on her wall. She felt horribly guilty for pushing Harry into the project and hoped that he would forgive her for getting him tossed out of Hogwarts. He had money, sure, there was no reason for her to think Harry wouldn't be able to provide for himself without the Hogwarts seal of approval, but Hermione knew that Hogwarts was the only place Harry considered home and she hated herself for taking it from him. The last thing she had done before she left the classroom was indulge in a brief fantasy of herself and Harry living life on the lam, living in Muggle hotels and magical tents, dodging Ministry agents and Death Eaters alike at every turn, maybe going with Sirius to whichever paradise he had sent all those tropical birds from the previous year. It would have been the stuff adventure novels were made of...
So she understood, perhaps better than most, the full emotional weight that returning to this Room bore. However, their time in here was limited: she and Blaise had used their communication rings to invite the others from the Atoll group - Seamus, Dean, Neville, and Ernie MacMillan - to the Room for a quick meeting before the other old members of the D.A. arrived.
"We just wanted to tell you guys about how we're going to handle things this semester," Hermione said, now that she had the attention of the others.
"We made a lot of progress at the Atoll this summer, but there's still tons of work we still need to do. The problem is that we need to keep what we're doing as secret as possible, which is a definite challenge with all the surveillance Dumbledore has in this school. So this is what we've come up with."
"Hermione is going to tell the rest of the D.A. that instead of having one weekly meeting, as you all had last year, we're going to have four one-hour meetings every week," said Blaise. "The justification is that with Voldemort back and in the open now, we need all the training we can get. And that's not wrong, but the real purpose is so we can have one of you guys stay back with one of us for your actual training session."
"Our thinking is that if anyone is watching us, they will just see the mass of D.A. members leaving at once and not notice that two of us are missing," said Hermione, picking up where Blaise left off without missing a beat. "And if they do notice," she added, looking slightly uncomfortable, "well, without putting too fine a point on it, there's an advantage to the fact that Blaise and I are girls and the four of you are boys..."
"Huh?" asked Neville, clearly not getting it.
"We want them to think we're having sex, Neville," said Blaise, rolling her eyes. "If they notice that a boy and a girl are staying behind after every meeting, they may think that we're simply having sex, not training to become assassins and plotting to overthrow the Ministry."
Neville turned bright red and only managed a small, "Oh," in response.
"Right," said Hermione, ruthlessly quashing the mental image of Neville trying to have sex with someone. "So, obviously I'll be in charge of Seamus' training; since people know we're seeing each other anyhow that will work nicely. And we thought I might also take Ernie, so that Blaise can take Dean and Neville. Any objections?"
None of the boys said anything.
"Right," Hermione said again, eager to move on. "It's not perfect, but we hope it'll do some good. We're also going to randomize who stays behind on which day, so hopefully that will be another smokescreen to anyone watching us; no patterns to detect. The biggest thing is we can't let anyone know that these meetings are happening. No one can know, including the others in the D.A. Are we all good?"
The boys nodded.
"Good. We won't have any training today because I imagine more people than usual will want to stay late to ask questions, but Seamus and I will get started tomorrow, and the rest of the week's schedule will get sorted out from there," Hermione said. "Now, the others will be here in just a couple minutes, so go talk amongst yourselves or something, pretend we haven't been here forever."
The group dispersed. Hermione walked up to the head of the Room, where a comfortable office chair and a desk very much like the one in Professor McGonagall's classroom sprang into existence. Hermione sat down behind it and pulled her notes for today's session. Undoubtedly, some of the D.A. members' skills would have atrophied over the summer, but revision could wait until tomorrow's meeting. This would be Hermione's first time in a formal instructing position, and she wanted to have as engaging of a meeting as possible. That meant picking up exactly where they left off when Umbridge busted the club last year: the Patronus Charm.
After a couple minutes reviewing her notes, Hermione looked up around the Room. Neville, Dean, and Seamus had made their way to the far wall and were sitting around a fireplace in chairs just like the ones in the Gryffindor common room, chatting amiably. Ernie was sitting with them too, but wasn't really participating in their conversation, preferring instead to comb through the financial section of The Daily Prophet, as was his habit. Blaise was standing around by herself near the bookshelf, awkwardly in between Hermione's desk and where the boys were sitting. Hermione felt a pang of guilt as she watched Blaise's eyes aimlessly trace over the titles on the wall for what must have been at least the tenth time: the two of them had long ago decided that they couldn't let those outside the Atoll group know how friendly they had become, it would raise too many questions about what might have gone on over the summer. Dumbledore knew Blaise was dating Harry, everyone knew that, and he must have known that Hermione spent the summer living with Harry, so he would expect that Blaise and Hermione knew each other. However, if that mutual relationship was the only way Blaise and Hermione knew each other, it would be rather odd for them to be particularly close to one another.
Thus, there could be no more of the bonding they shared over the summer; no more late nights depleting the Atoll's impressive cellar of rare wine, debating the relative merits of Aspen versus St. Moritz as skiing destinations; no more putting their heads together to solve seemingly intractable magical and strategic problems; no more consoling each other after a particularly awful lesson with Bellatrix. Hermione would sorely miss that. Blaise was intelligent and had enough intellectual curiosity to keep pace with Hermione, she was refined and cultured in a way that few of Hermione's peers had ever been, and she had this way of being open, understanding, and casual about topics that had previously made Hermione uncomfortable that was nothing short of miraculous. Blaise wasn't perfect - she could be impulsive and reckless, she had something of a temper, and she occasionally liked to make digs about the fact that the Grangers were not quite the plutocrats that the Zabinis were - but she already felt like the best female friend Hermione had ever had. Hermione already felt the pain of losing the easy access to that friendship she had once had, and she suspected it would only get worse; she'd never had very many female friends.
Hermione could not dwell on Blaise, though, as the first members of what Hermione thought of as the "public" D.A. came strolling into the Room of Requirement. Just as they had the previous year at the Hog's Head tavern, they came mostly in groups of twos and threes corresponding to their year and house. Hermione was quite pleased with the turnout; with the obvious exceptions of Marietta Edgecombe and those who had graduated or otherwise departed from Hogwarts, everyone from the previous year had returned. Even Cho Chang had come - a shocking development given how poorly most of the D.A. had treated her after Marietta's betrayal - leaving Hermione to suspect that the older girl was truly desperate to ace her Defense N.E.W.T. There were also a few new faces in the group: Colin Creevey had brought along a few of his yearmates in Gryffindor, and Zacharias Smith had a couple younger Ravenclaws in tow; Hermione didn't know which was which, but recognized both as scions of important political families. Finally, Blaise's friends Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis arrived, causing some minor grumbling from the Creevey contingent. Hermione was glad that Blaise was no longer alone in the group, but watching the blonde light up at the Slytherins' appearance was bittersweet, so Hermione turned away, taking one last look at her notes before standing up and calling for quiet.
"Hello everyone, and welcome to the resurrection of the D.A.!" Hermione called with genuine enthusiasm, and several of the more dedicated members gave a cheer, heartening her.
"I see we have a couple new faces here today, so in case any of you don't know, my name is Hermione Granger and I'll be leading the group this year in Harry's absence," Hermione continued. "As ever, our goal here is to deeply study the practical aspects of -"
"I'm sorry, but before you go any further, I have to ask you something," broke in Zacharias Smith, whose voice was as loud and abrasive as ever.
"I showed up here tonight with my friends because I learned a lot in last year's D.A. and because I have a lot of respect for you personally, Hermione," Smith said. "But at the same time, Umbridge is gone. Professor Ketteridge seems more than competent. And, most importantly, no offense intended, but Harry isn't here anymore. So, what's the point?"
Yes, you have so much respect for me that you have no problem interrupting me and questioning my authority and competence within 30 seconds of arriving, Hermione seethed to herself, but she had anticipated this challenge.
"'What's the point?'" she repeated incredulously. "I'm sorry Zach, but did you miss the part where Voldemort's return is out in the open now? Don't you remember how he and several Death Eaters stormed the Ministry itself, or how Lords of the Wizengamot are being murdered in their homes now? Have you already forgotten that just a couple months ago, Death Eaters tortured Ron right in the streets of Diagon Alley?"
The last sentence was met with a collective wince from the group, and Hermione heard a strangled yelp that must have come from Ginny Weasley. Hermione pressed on undeterred. I need a pig, she thought, and suddenly there was a pig trundling around to her left.
"The point is that the world is more dangerous now than it has been at any point in our lives. The point is that no one - not the purebloods among you, not the half-bloods, not anyone who isn't willing to bend their knee to Voldemort - is safe."
Hermione turned to face the pig and quickly brought all the anger and frustration that she felt toward Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Zacharias to the fore of her consciousness. "Avada Kedavra!" she cried, and the pig's life was wiped away instantly in a sickly flash of green.
"The point is that there are evil people running loose in this world, and if you do not know how to defend yourself, they will take you and everyone you have ever loved or cared about and slaughter you. Like a pig," she finished, pointing to the carcass at her feet.
"Does anyone else have a question about the point of being here?"
The room was silent.
"Good. Let's get started, then."
The green glow of the Floo fire receded, and so too did Albus Dumbledore. He slumped back into his chair and heaved a great sigh of frustration. Lord Rivers had been at least the seventeenth of his allies in the Wizengamot to come crying to him after the murder of Lord Shearman. Dumbledore did not mind offering protection to these Lords, of course, anything that cemented their place in his pocket was fine by him. The problem was they didn't seem to want anything he could actually offer. Rivers had been the most unreasonable, demanding a permanent garrison of Order members to defend his home, but all of them were being difficult: invariably, they wanted a set of completely impenetrable wards that would make their homes impossible to find and that would kill any Death Eater foolish enough to come within a mile of their house, but that also wouldn't in any way restrict the Lords or their families from coming and going as they pleased or even modestly inconvenience any guests they might wish to have over.
It wasn't that wards like that were impossible - families that were lucky enough to have been wealthy enough centuries ago when William Potter was alive had just that advanced level of protection. But for all his mastery of much of the world of magic, Dumbledore had never been particularly expert in wardcrafting; it just wasn't much of a priority when he had spent the majority of his adult life living at Hogwarts and had no great ancestral home to protect. He was competent with big, powerful, general effect wards like the Fidelius Charm, but the more subtle nuances involved in keying wards to individuals, integrating Legilimency to determine the intent of someone approaching, variable alert states, 'smart' wards that could detect and analyze magical signatures...these things were beyond him.
And so there was a large portion of his contingent in the Wizengamot unhappy with him today. He'd been able to get the Lords to accept some of his special, untraceable emergency portkeys, which he hoped would prove sufficient to keep his more morally flexible allies from turning to Voldemort for protection. Nonetheless, it was becoming clear that the Shearman case would not simply blow over. The Lords, once so convinced that their blood status protected them from Voldemort so long as they did not actively fight him, had been shaken to the core by Shearman's murder, and Dumbledore feared that another such killing would lead to complete chaos. He needed to become certain of Lord Gaunt's identity, and then he needed to eliminate the threat.
The obvious place to begin his investigation was with Harry, whom he still strongly suspected of being Gaunt, even if his confidence in Gaunt's involvement in the Shearman murder had been shaken by his last discussion with Professor Snape. If only he could get closer tabs on Harry's whereabouts, he could get much closer to his answer. Severus reported that since his Introduction, Lord Gaunt was always at the meetings Voldemort held with his top lieutenants and frequently - but, importantly, not always - at the meetings with the broader body of Death Eaters. If Dumbledore could establish that Harry's whereabouts were known during those absences and that he was missing when Gaunt did show up, that would be an important piece of evidence. On the other side of the coin, if Harry's whereabouts were known during a Gaunt appearance, that would eliminate him as a suspect.
The problem was that Harry was extremely hard to pin down these days. Harry was almost never in the public eye: he was only occasionally seen out with his Quidditch teammates, he didn't strut around the Ministry with a team of staff the way many Wizengamot Lords did, he didn't frequent any of the various restaurants or clubs haunted by the elite of Wizarding society, and there wasn't evidence that he ventured into the Muggle world either. There were only two places Harry could be counted upon to appear at. First, as the Prophet sports section reported on incessantly, he was always present at the Tornados' semi-weekly practices. Second, Harry would also be making his debut at the Wizengamot the next week and would thereafter be attending those sessions every week, plus the meetings of whichever committees he was placed on...
A plan slowly began to take shape in Dumbledore's mind. Smiling to himself, he Summoned his pot of Floo powder and threw a pinch into the fire.
Sweating, winded, and thoroughly exhausted, Harry collapsed in a heap onto the back seat of his stretched Rolls-Royce.
"Tough practice today?" asked Peter Stamper, a sardonic edge to his voice. The young lawyer was the picture of cool elegance sitting in the seat across from Harry, and in that moment, Harry hated him.
Harry tried to glare at the wizard, but found he couldn't summon the energy to do it properly. "Yeah," he coughed out instead, stumbling in his seat a little when the car began to move.
"Well, we can get started whenever you're ready, take whatever time you need," said Stamper. "No magic today, go with traffic," he called to the driver, and Harry immediately felt the car decelerate, causing another wobble.
Harry took that time. The limousine had been Stamper's idea, possibly the best one the wizard had had thus far. It was an extremely comfortable place to rest and recover after the Tornados' grueling practices, and Harry found that he enjoyed watching the buildings and people beyond his windows on the route from the Tornados' West London practice facility to Diagon Alley. It had the added benefit of giving Harry somewhere to meet with Stamper that was neither Stamper's office (where Harry had been mobbed by the secretarial pool the one time he had visited) nor either of Harry's homes.
Stamper, in turn, had been Blaise's idea. Now that Blaise was no longer around to instruct him in the ways of governing and operating within the ruling class, Harry needed someone to fill that role. Really, even if Blaise were available, it would have been a good idea to hire someone; It was customary for Lords of the Wizengamot to have a staff that managed much of their political affairs. So, Stamper was Harry's first step in that direction. Stamper was young, but very well-credentialed: in just nine years out of Hogwarts, he had earned a degree in law and policy from Harvard Magical, risen rapidly up the ranks among the staffs of various Wizengamot Lords, and headed the policy shop in the Minister's office. For the past two years, Stamper had been a senior associate at Preston, Beauregarde, Fields, and Swaine, the all-services legal firm at which Harry's agent was a partner, taking a leading role in their lobbying practice.
"What do you have for me, Stamper?" Harry asked, much more civilly, when his breathing had returned to normal.
"Mostly more of the same, I'm afraid," Stamper said. "I did manage to secure a promise from Lord Treehart's people that he will take you on the Goblin Relations committee, but it's still slow going with the staffs at Muggle Relations, Commerce, and Justice."
Such was life. Stamper often reported that the influential members of the Wizengamot had absolutely no idea what to make of Harry. Was he the attention-seeking lunatic they had read about in the Daily Prophet the previous two years, or was he the Chosen One? Was he the mild-mannered, polite, reclusive Quidditch star and sometime hero the Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff children told their parents about, or was he the arrogant, incompetent, lazy blood traitor the Slytherin children told their parents about? Was he still Dumbledore's Golden Boy, or was he the more independent young man who had rowed with Dumbledore in the middle of Diagon Alley? Most saliently, Stamper said that the Lords didn't know whether they should welcome Harry as a potentially powerful ally, or if they should fear that including him in their committees would doom all their pet initiatives if he should happen to disagree. No new Wizengamot member had ever had Harry's combination of youth, notoriety, and sheer voting power, and the existing powers in the Wizengamot simply had no idea of how to deal with him.
Stamper was going on about the overtures he was making to influential Lords on the Banking committee, and Harry could not have been less interested. Listening to Stamper detail the subtle dynamics between Lord Whatshis and Lord Thingy and how Stamper was thinking of trying to play them off each other was like watching Muggles fight over control of the remote while a tornado was bearing down on their house. It didn't matter to Harry which committees he would join; he was just going to take over the country with Voldemort anyhow. Still, he couldn't really say that to Stamper, so he did his best to make the right noises at the right times.
"There's just one more thing," said Stamper at long last. "Lord Crane approached me just before I came here about a meeting he's planning on having with Lord Niles to discuss how to move forward in the wake of Lord Shearman's death. They want to include you, he said."
This was interesting.
"Will Dumbledore be there? What about other Lords?" was Harry's immediate question.
"No, just the two of them and you, if you want to come."
Well. Crane and Niles were the two most important remaining progressive voices in the Wizengamot. Each had a long history of voting with Dumbledore and being among the most vocal and effective advocates and allies Dumbledore had in the Wizengamot. There were even rumors that they were members of the Order of the Phoenix, although Harry had never seen either at Grimmauld Place. Either way, now that Shearman was dead, these were the two closest people to Dumbledore in politics. If Harry could get in with them, they would be an invaluable source of information on what the aging wizard was thinking and doing.
Stamper was talking. "I told him that I'd bring it to you and that we'd think about it, but I don't think this is a great idea -"
"No, I want to be at that meeting," Harry told Stamper firmly. "Send an elf accepting their invitation as soon as possible, and if it's scheduled during one of my practices, tell Swaine to smooth things over with the Tornados. I'm going to be there."
"My Lord, not to argue with you, but I have to ask you why? You told me that you didn't want to be seen as Dumbledore's man..."
"You're right Stamper," Harry grinned, "I don't want to be Dumbledore's man. I want to make Dumbledore's men my men."
"Good session today, Seamus," said Hermione brightly as she leaned over the desk, packing up the last of her notes. "You're really starting to get some of this defensive Transfiguration down!"
"Thanks," came Seamus's reply from over her right shoulder. She felt him come up behind her and run one of his slightly rough hands down her back. "You know," Seamus began, his voice gaining a light layer of husk, "we could stay a little longer if you'd like..."
"We have to get back," giggled Hermione, turning around and sitting on the edge of the desk. Seamus wrapped his arms around her back and moved in for a kiss, but Hermione laid a hand on his chest to stop him from getting too close. "Plus, I'm still mad at you, remember? You're on punishment," she said, though her tone remained light.
"Oh come on then, Hermione, let me apologize to you properly," begged Seamus, going in for the spot just above her collarbone this time. Hermione allowed herself to enjoy it for a brief moment, but then gently pulled away.
"No, we really need to get back. It will be after hours soon, and you're not a prefect." She smacked Seamus lightly on the bottom to make him lean up, and put away the last of her things. "Come on, let's go back to Gryffindor."
Hermione took Seamus' hand, and the Irish teen reluctantly followed her to the door of the Room of Requirement. Almost immediately after they exited the Room and made the turn towards Gryffindor Tower, however, they were stopped by a voice.
"Have fun in there?" The voice was hard, but unmistakably that of a teenaged girl.
"Ginny!" exclaimed Hermione as the younger redhead emerged from the shadows across the hallway. "I didn't see you there, you startled me!"
"No, you haven't seen very much of me at all lately," said Ginny. Her voice was frozen acid. "Run along now Seamus, Hermione and I have to talk."
Seamus looked helplessly at Hermione, who nodded to indicate that he should go. He did.
"Ginny...what's wrong?" Hermione began. "Why are you so upset?"
"Why am I upset?" Ginny choked out. The girl gave a shout of laughter that was utterly devoid of mirth. "Well, goodness, I just don't know Hermione. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with the fact that my brother was tortured into insanity this summer!"
"We missed you at the Burrow," Ginny cut across Hermione, pain and bitterness etched into every syllable she spoke. "Where were you? It might've been nice to have someone there, you know? Maybe someone I could share my grief with? Someone who was just as hurt and angry and devastated as I was? What would you call someone like that? A friend, perhaps?"
"We did come," Hermione said meekly, but Ginny interrupted her again.
"Oh, yeah, you came. Once." Ginny sneered. "Yes, two days after it happened, a day after you talked to the bloody media about it, you and Harry and Tonks came. It was very nice of you to do that. You even stayed for, what, a whole two hours? How extremely generous of you, pardon me for forgetting. And please excuse me for forgetting all those other times you came, too...now that I think about it, you were there every Tuesday, weren't you? You even stayed with us for a week that one time, right?"
"No! That's bloody well not right, is it? You abandoned us, didn't you, you bitch?"
"We were busy!" Hermione wailed in anguish, realizing too late that this was entirely the wrong thing to say. "All of us were, Harry, Tonks, myself, we were so busy this summer, you have no idea!"
"Oh, yeah, you were too busy," sneered Ginny again, rolling her eyes this time. "So busy that you had time to go clubbing and party so hard you wound up in The Daily Prophet, is that right?"
"No, please Hermione, tell me what it was you were so busy with this summer. Fucking Seamus? Learning the Unforgivable Curses? Shacking up with Harry and that Slytherin bitch?"
"We're trying to fight Voldemort!" cried Hermione, desperately trying to reason with the girl. "We're trying to make it so what happened to Ron -"
"YOUR BEST FRIEND WAS TORTURED AND YOU DIDN'T EVEN CARE!" Ginny screamed. "WE WERE LIKE FAMILY! HOW COULD YOU?"
The verbal onslaught left Hermione utterly speechless. All she could do was gape and mouth wordlessly at Ginny, tears streaming down her eyes.
"You're a stuck-up, pretentious bitch and a pathetic, worthless excuse for a human being," Ginny snarled. "Don't ever talk to me or my family again. You're dead to me, you cunt."
"Go fuck yourself. That is, if Seamus hasn't used you all up yet. Here, I'll get you started with some lube." And with that, Ginny spat on the floor at Hermione's feet and stormed away.
Hermione didn't know how long she stayed there, huddled on the floor next to the entrance of the Room of Requirement, crying softly to herself. Her only way of judging was from the wad of spittle and phlegm Ginny had deposited at her feet, and that had evaporated long ago.
The worst part of the whole thing was that there wasn't a single thing Ginny had said that was factually wrong. There were no two ways about it, Hermione had abandoned the Weasleys in their hour of need. Hermione briefly tried to justify this to herself by remembering the way Molly Weasley had turned on Hermione in fourth year when the stories about her dumping Harry for Viktor Krum had come out, but that was no good. If the same sort of tragedy had befallen Hermione, there was no way Ginny would have abandoned her the way she had abandoned Ginny.
Ginny was even right about her not caring about what had happened to Ron. Sure, she had been upset when she had first read the news, but hadn't she immediately started rationalizing what had happened as cosmic payback for Ron's treatment of Harry? Hadn't she immediately resumed the training with Harry and Tonks as if nothing had happened? Hadn't she been perfectly content to stay away from the Burrow? Had she thought about what Ginny must have been going through, even once? Truly, who could deny the fact that she was a terrible friend?
Hermione wondered how Harry had felt, how he would feel if and when she told him about the fight with Ginny. She had told him the news about Ron that morning, and he...well, he had barely reacted at all when she told him. That was Harry's way, though, he always bottled up his emotions and refused to let them show until he couldn't hold on to them any longer. His dam had broken the next day, when he had run up to his bedroom full of anguish and grief after that short visit to the Weasley household.
Still, it was weird, now that Hermione thought back on it, the way that he hadn't seemed to react at all. He had gasped, or something, but then it was straight to that training with Tonks where Moody and Kingsley had shown up unexpectedly. Where Harry had used the Cruciatus Curse on Kingsley.
What was it Harry said he had been doing after Sirius' will reading? Signing paperwork all day with the goblins? That was strange, it hadn't taken nearly so long to get through the paperwork after his parents' will reading; the goblnis had even said that they could take care of most of it so Harry and the girls could go enjoy their day. And Harry had said that he had overheard some of the fight she'd had with Ron after Sirius' will reading...
A horrible suspicion was slowly taking form in Hermione's mind. She brought out her wand and tapped her messenger ring.
We need to talk. Now., she sent, turning the center stone red to indicate her urgency.
Moments later she got her reply. Meet in Hogsmeade?
No, too public. Grimmauld Place. 30 min.
OK, see you then.
It actually took Hermione about 40 minutes to travel far enough down the secret passageway behind the statue of the one-eyed witch to escape Hogwarts' wards and Apparate to Grimmauld Place, where she reappeared in the drawing room with a soft pop. Harry was there waiting for her, seated in one of the room's signature wingback chairs. He stood as he saw Hermione and wrapped her in a hug. Hermione returned it gladly, realizing for the first time just how much she had been missing him at Hogwarts.
"Are you alright?" Harry asked when they finally broke apart. His face was the picture of concern. "What's the matter?"
Hermione walked over to the brown leather couch in front of the fire and felt Harry slide down beside her. It was the couch she and Harry had shared the night they found out about Ron, the night Voldemort had made contact with Harry for the first time. She had thought Harry might have made a move on her that night, thought that she might give herself to him for a moment of comfort. She would have welcomed it, then. Though she didn't often admit it, even to herself, Hermione had had romantic feelings of one sort or another towards Harry ever since he had jumped on the troll's back to save her life that fateful day in their first year. She had never seemed to catch Harry's eye in that way, though; as far as Hermione knew, Harry had never had those sorts of feelings for anyone but Cho. Or, rather, Cho had been the only one until Blaise came along. So Hermione had always figured that if she and Harry ever were to hook up or get together or anything like that, it would have to be in a moment like that. A moment of vulnerability. A moment of euphoria. A charged, heightened moment, something completely out of the ordinary.
Not tonight, though.
"I got into a fight with Ginny just now," Hermione said, her voice trembling slightly as the emotions of the night came back to her. "Or, it wasn't really a fight so much as it was Ginny screaming at me for a while and leaving..."
And Hermione told him everything that Ginny had said, all the emotions the young redhead had made her feel.
"And of course, she's right, which is just the worst part about it. We were awful to them, Harry, just awful," she was saying, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. "I mean, what were we even doing those days? Why couldn't we have gone and see the Weasleys right away, or have gone more often over the days after. They needed us, Harry!"
There was a pause as Harry appeared to choose his words. He may also have been jogging his memory, for which Hermione couldn't blame him. The silence was broken only by her occasional soft sniffling.
"I don't know, Hermione, " Harry finally said. "That was before we knew the true prophecy...we thought we had to spend every moment of every day training to beat Voldemort. 'We were busy' might not have been the most tactful thing you could have said to Ginny, but it was true."
There was another silence.
"Harry," Hermione said in a small voice, no longer able to avoid the real reason she had come. "Why didn't you really react when I told you about Ron?"
"When I told you what happened to Ron, you barely reacted," Hermione said, rotating herself on the couch so that she could face Harry head on. "You gasped or something, but that was it. I had just told you that our best friend had been tortured! That he had lost his mind! Why weren't you surprised, why didn't you seem to care?"
Harry stared back at her, confusion written all over his expression. Hermione thought there might have been a little bit of fear hiding in his eyes as well, but she didn't know if that was only her imagination.
"Hermione, what are you getting at?" he said eventually.
"I don't know," Hermione sighed, despairing that she would actually have to give voice to her thoughts. "I'm probably just upset and not thinking clearly, but with the way you didn't react to the news, and the way you avoided the Weasleys all summer...and I know the paperwork at Gringott's couldn't have taken all day..." Hermione trailed off, realizing that she was babbling. "I just...I have the most horrible suspicion, and I need you to tell me it's not true."
There was no mistaking the panicked look that shot across Harry's features this time, and that was all the confirmation Hermione needed. She gasped in horror and immediately slid backwards across the couch, putting as much distance as she could between them, and stared back at Harry with wide, betrayed eyes.
"Hermione, please! You don't understand!" Harry begged, voice full of what could only be called raw desperation. Hermione could only keep on staring at him.
"I lied to you. I didn't just overhear some of the fight you had with Ron that day, I was there and saw all of it. When you turned your back on him, he pulled his wand on you. He was going to curse you, and I stopped him. And then, when I found out what he was going to do to you, that unthinkable curse he was going to use...I don't know, I just snapped. I didn't mean to hold him under t for as long as I did, but that's just the way it happened. I was protecting you!"
This helped Hermione find her voice. "Well, I thank you for protecting me, but Harry, that job was done when you stopped the attack! The rest...don't you see how completely awful that is? How completely excessive? You used the Cruciatus Curse on our best friend! He's gone now! How can you possibly begin to justify that?"
"Yeah, you're right," said Harry, violently jumping from the coach and pacing in front of the fireplace. "I tortured him. He deserved it, Hermione. Ron was just about the worst friend its possible to have. He was selfish, he was petty, he was jealous, and he tried to curse you! I'm glad he's gone! I hope they never find a cure and he spends the rest of his life drooling and shitting himself! I hate him! If I could curse him all over again, I'd do it without thinking twice! Fuck Ron Weasley, I'd kill him if I had the chance!"
There was a glint in Harry's eye that Hermione had never seen before. Harry looked utterly mad and deranged. Hermione's shock and anger melted as she looked at him, and they were replaced instantly by fear and the horrible realization that Harry was not saying these things at all. Lord Gaunt had taken over.
"Harry, please, listen to yourself," she cried, jumping off the coach and coming to his side. She laid a hand on his back and rubbed him in what she hoped was a soothing way. "This isn't you, that's a human being you're talking about. Please Harry, come back to me!"
And suddenly - before Hermione had time to process whether it was a good idea, before she even really registered that she'd had the idea - she was kissing him. She felt Harry stiffen briefly in surprise before returning the kiss enthusiastically, voraciously, violently. Hermione struggled to set the pace and succeeded, matching Harry with passion and feeling. Slowly but surely, Harry's aggression faded and the kiss, still heated and sensual, became more tender and visceral.
They broke apart. For a moment - and Hermione could not have begun to guess how long it lasted - the two just stared at each other. Neither of them said a word.
Then, moving as one, they crashed back together.
Two hours later, Hermione slipped out of the master bedroom of Grimmauld Place, completely naked. She tiptoed back down the stairs to the drawing room, where her Hogwarts uniform and undergarments were strewn all about the floor and furniture, mixed and mingled with the casual eveningwear Harry had had on. She dressed herself, double-checked that she had not forgotten anything, and Disapparated, reappearing in the secret passageway leading to the statue of the one-eyed witch. She climbed out of the statue, climbed up to Gryffindor tower, and climbed into bed. There she lay, still in her robes, wide awake despite the late hour.
Oh dear Merlin, she thought. What have I done?
Author's Notes: The first thing I'd like to say is that this chapter finally puts RotA over the 100,000 word mark. That's a really important milestone to me, and I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of you who have stuck with me over the years. It means a lot to me that you've stuck it out this long and taken so much of your own time to read my writing. Cheers!
As always, you can find a complete set of author's notes on my blog. Just a couple things I want to say, and then we can move on to review responses!
First, I really hope everyone enjoyed this chapter. I'm not sure if I would call this my favorite chapter of the story so far, but writing it required more emotional investment than I've ever put in before. Especially in the confrontation between Ginny and Hermione, I really felt the emotions of my characters as I was writing more powerfully than I ever have before. I hope that came through.
Second, I would really encourage you to go to my blog and read my full treatment of Hermione's use of the Killing Curse, particularly if you were as troubled by it as I was the first time I read it. In this space, I'll just say that it was a very deliberate choice on her part, but not one that is entirely without risk.
Third, Over the years, several people have asked me what my plans for Ginny were. Obviously, you saw the beginning of that in this chapter. I hope her scene (and the one that followed) also gives some validation to those of you who thought that Ron's fate was treated too casually in the beginning. I agree with you, and hopefully the gravity of that moment was felt in this chapter.
Alright, let's respond to some reviews!
To Dragonazar: I don't really have a lot to say in response to your review because that would be spoiling, but I thought you asked some really good questions and wanted to give you a shoutout for that. I'm sorry for not getting to the Pureblood Caucus in this chapter, but obviously you haven't seen the last of them.
To karlii: I'm glad you picked up on how Blaise's reaction to Harry going on that raid without her was only nominally about her place in the Atoll group. Also, I told you this on twitter, but I just wanted to reiterate that I got a real kick following along with you as you read and reviewed every chapter, that was a great pleasure.
To texasjeanette: Tonks is the one who's applying Harry's Meminisse charm now, sorry for not making that clear. Great question!
To ladysavay: Thanks for the great review! Don't worry, everything will be ok! Or, maybe it won't, I did read the A Song of Ice and Fire books in between the last update and now...
Frequently Asked Question: Why did Sirius give Remus and Tonks so much?
-Because he could. /question.
Alright, that's all for this time! Be sure to leave reviews, check out my blog on Wordpress, and follow me on twitter!
Until next time,