Thank you for all the kind reviews. I've kind of lost track of who has reviewed in recent weeks (months?), I've had other things on my mind...
This chapter is dedicated to 'pstibbons' for his kind(ish) suggestion. I hope you stick with it. :)
As ever, all related names, places, etc. are owned primarily by J.K Rowling, and owned and copyrighted by Warner Bros.
Harry had not felt much like returning to the Gryffindor common room, for fear of running into anyone demanding to know more about Hermione, so he had spent his evening languishing in the library, actually doing some worthwhile studying, none of which went in. He was still worried about Hermione, and how she was coping with being back at Hogwarts, the constant danger of having to meet Malfoy hanging over her. He longed to share his burden with Ron, but he couldn't.
Please let Ron know I'm okay, but please don't tell him, or anyone else all of what happened... I am strong, Harry. I can get through this. Please don't question my judgement, you know me BETTER than that.
Remembering Hermione's letter from the hospital, Harry was further compelled to keep her secret. Having everyone know what had happened to her would destroy her in the long run. That's what Hermione thought, and Harry was finding himself believing her all the more.
"Time," came the bored voice of Madam Pince. "Lights out in half an hour; please return to your common rooms."
Harry sighed and shoved his copy of The Standard Book Of Spells, Grade Six into his bag, and trudged out of the library.
As he approached the Gryffindor common room, he heard a severe voice call his name. "Potter!" It was Professor McGonagall, and she didn't sound very happy.. Harry sucked in his breath, and hesitantly turned towards the teacher. This was probably because of his less than civil behaviour at supper that evening.
"I have been looking everywhere for you," McGonagall continued crossly. "Where on Earth have you been?"
"Library," Harry sighed.
McGonagall's eyes widened. "Well," she sighed. "That explains why I was unable to find you; I wouldn't expect you to be in the library until closing. Hermione on the other hand..." The usually hard-faced Transfiguration professor showed a rare sign of emotion of tears in her watery eyes, which Harry pretended to ignore. "Potter, I need to see you in Dumbledore's office, right away please."
"Dumbledore's office?" questioned Harry.
"That's right," McGonagall said curtly. "Dumbledore and I need to discuss something with you." She turned and began walking down the corridor, towards Dumledore's quarters. "Follow me."
Harry obliged, not wanting to irritate McGonagall further.
McGonagall led Harry to a gargoyle suspended from a wall. "Fizzy cola bottle," she said to it, and it noisily shifted to reveal a stone spiral staircase, which she began to ascend. Harry dutifully followed.
A stern looking Dumbledore was sitting behind his desk, neat apart from the wizarding contraptions whirring away. He glanced over his half-moon eyeglasses and considered Harry carefully. "Take a seat please, Harry," he said gently.
Harry felt somehow nervous. "What's wrong, Professor?" he asked.
McGonagall took a seat on the left side of Dumbledore's desk. "Potter," she began. "Professor Vector reported to me this afternoon. He was incredibly worried about Miss Granger's uncharacteristic lackadaisical behaviour in class this afternoon."
"Oh..." Harry said, as if this was news to him.
"I was also concerned at her out-of-character actions at the dinner table," McGonagall went on, "and I believe that this behaviour has something to do with what happened to her two nights ago."
Dumbledore drummed the fingers of his injured, blackened hand on the table. "Now, Harry," he said calmly, though there was a distinct quaver of concern in his voice. "Since you were first to discover Miss Granger after her... accident..." Harry could tell that Dumbledore was sceptical over what Hermione's situation could be referred to, "and nobody else was willing, or able, to give us any vital information about what had happened to her, we were wondering whether you could... shed some light on the situation."
"Have you asked Hermione?" Harry responded quickly, a little too quickly.
McGonagall sighed ruefully "We tried that, Potter," she told him, sadly. "However, Miss Granger was most unresponsive."
Dumbledore nodded his wise head sadly. "She would not respond to me, either," he added.
Harry frowned. "Why didn't you just use Legilimancy on her?" he asked.
Dumbledore's expression hardened. He flexed the long fingers of his healthy hand, and began to twist a gold and onyx ring Harry had never seen before,which he wore on the middle finger of his injured hand. "Professor," he said, "would you mind leaving the office for a moment? I need to speak to Harry in strict confidence."
McGonagall nodded, rose from her seat, and left Dumbledore's office. The heavy oak door shut automatically behind her with a thud.
"Harry," Dumbledore sighed. "Legilimancy did cross my mind, but, to be honest, Hermione seemed so distressed, that I decided not to employ the method against her. It would bring the obviously painful and harrowing incident, whatever it may have been, to the forefront of her mind once again, and this would have done her more harm than good."
"I see." Harry was disappointed. He thought Dumbledore could use his great and numerous powers with care, and could do something such as reading Hermione's thoughts, without causing her unnecessary harm to her. For the first time, Harry saw Dumbledore as something other than powerful; vulnerable, perhaps.
"However," A tone of irritation crossed Dumbledore's usually gentle calming voice. "I know, or at least strongly suspect, that you know something, Harry, and I implore you to tell what it is that is troubling poor Miss Granger."
Harry shook his head. "I... can't," he quavered. "I made a promise to Hermione never to share the experience with anybody else."
Dumbledore's bright blue eyes considered Harry, in a colder manner than usual. "Not even me?" he sighed.
"Not even you, Professor," Harry told him. "I'm sorry."
"Very well," Dumbledore heaved a sigh. "I know one way I can procure the information from you."
Harry's stomach lurched. I shouldn't have brought up Legilimancy, he thought.
"Whatever is troubling Miss Granger is a very serious matter indeed," Dumbledore went on. "I can tell you that Professor Vector was most distressed and upset with Hermione's behaviour in class today, so from the little information I have received, I feel that something is very wrong." He shook his head slowly. "I thought you could help, but I must say, I am very disappointed in you, Harry."
Now Harry felt torn. He genuinely wanted to help Hermione, but he didn't want to betray her nasty secret to anyone. "I'm sorry, sir," he said, close to tears, "but I really cannot tell you. I can't betray Hermione's trust."
"Very well," Dumbledore's usually steady voice was quaking a little with frustration. "You may go to bed now."
Harry stood up.
"But I must warn you, Harry," Dumbledore went on, "I am a very skilled Legilimens, as you well know, and if it comes down to it, I will use such a power on you to get the information I need."
"I understand." Harry bit his lower lip, worried, and sure that if anyone was to discover Hermione's secret, it would destroy her life. More so.
"Although," Dumbledore suggested, "you can avoid this eventuality if you just please tell me what happened."
Again, Harry hesitated.
"You don't have to tell me now," Dumbledore said reassuringly, "but please, see sense, and tell me soon." He paused, and blinked back tears that Harry didn't see. "I fear for Miss Granger's life."
Harry began to consider telling Dumbledore, but her thought about what Hermione would have to go through if the staff knew. Like she said, she would be treated gingerly, and before she knew it, the whole school would be in on it, and she would be, at best, a laughing stock.
"Professor McGonagall will escort you back to the Gryffindor common room," Dumbledore said, as Harry stood to depart from Dumbledore's office. "It is a new measure I am implementing. There will be a strict curfew for all students, and anyone needing to be in the corridor after hours must have full permission, and will have to be escorted by a member of staff. I will let the rest of the school know about these measures at breakfast tomorrow." He sighed. "I do not wish for any other student to be attacked as Miss Granger was." He escorted Harry to his office door.
As soon as he stepped out of Dumbledore's office, he was confronted by McGonagall.
"Potter," she said, sounding almost frightened. "Have you, by any chance, sworn an Unbreakable Vow to not share this secret of Hermione's?"
Harry considered McGonagall's pale, lined face, which showed genuine worry, even a little fear. Remembering what an Unbreakable Vow was (Ron had told Harry all about an incident in which Fred and George had tried to involve him in such a dangerous practice), and realising that the thought must have crossed McGonagall's mind, Harry gasped in shock. "Certainly not, Professor," he reassured her. "I didn't even know what they were until this summer. Ron told me..."
"Listen, Potter," McGonagall hissed, "I want to help Hermione as much as you do. But I can't, unless you tell me what is wrong with her."
"I can't," Harry said sadly.
McGonagall exhaled deeply. "For goodness sake, Potter," she snapped, "change the record!"
Harry ignored this. How could he betray Hermione? Again, the letter came to his mind. Please don't tell anyone else all of what happened... I am strong... But... was she?
Neither of them spoke until Harry and McGonagall reached the Fat Lady portrait in front of the Gryffindor common room. Harry was about to utter the password, when the professor spoke once more. "Potter, I urge you, tell someone, anyone, what happened to Miss Granger." She looked at him, almost pleadingly. "Please, at least think about it."
"I will." Harry had no intention of letting Hermione's secret out in the open; he just wanted McGonagall off his back.
He watched the stern professor walk off into the darkness of the corridor, and uttered the password: "Pygmy Puff."
The Fat Lady nodded sleepily and slid to the side, revealing Hermione, hunched up in the chair by the hearth in the Common Room, by the smouldering, dying embers of the fire, wrapped tightly in a scruffy, pale green housecoat, her bushy hair hanging limply in her face, which was hidden in her hands.
"Hermione," whispered Harry. "What are you doing down here?" He approached her quietly.
"I had a nightmare," she whispered. "I don't want to go back to sleep, Harry, so... please... just leave me alone..." She glanced up at him, her red, tear-stricken eyes full of fear.
Harry smiled weakly, kneeling down beside the chair. "Want to talk about it?" he asked, leaning on the arm of the chair.
Hermione's bushy head moved. "No..." she croaked. "I'll... be fine..."
"Listen," Harry whispered. "Dumbledore and McGonagall were talking to me earlier." He had to choose his words carefully. "Basically... they want to know what happened to you... they want to help you..."
Hermione looked up, and her eyes flashed. "What?" she shrilled, reaching up to grab Harry's shoulders, and shook him feebly. "No... please... Harry... you... you can't... you can't tell anyone..." She began to sob loudly.
"Ohh... Hermione..." Harry sighed, embracing her. "Please... please don't cry..."
Hermione pushed him away briskly. "You didn't say anything, did you?" she asked, bloodshot eyes full of horror.
Harry shook his head. "No..." he said. "They really wanted to know, Hermione... So perhaps you should tell them yourself."
Hermione started to weep again. "No..." she sniffed. "Nobody must know... if everyone knew... the shame would kill me."
"Come on, Hermione," Harry encouraged. "They only want to help you. They can straighten everything out. You know how understanding Dumbledore is. He will have Malfoy expelled within..."
Hermione flinched at the name. "Never... say that name around me," she hissed. "That name makes me feel sick... and those other two names..."
"Crabbe and Goyle?" asked Harry stupidly.
"SHUT UP!" screamed Hermione. "You're not helping me any, Harry, so just go to bed and leave me alone!"
Harry quickly stood up and backed away from Hermione as if she were a malfunctioning Muggle radiator. "All right!" he said. "Just... think about it, okay?"
But Hermione said no more.
Harry sighed. "Goodnight," he snorted, thumping up the stairs in frustration.
Once she knew Harry was gone, Hermione reached underneath her tatty dressing gown, and produced a bottle. She had visited Dumbledore's office that day; thankfully it had been deserted, as it had been a lot lately, and had managed to sneak in behind a housekeeper, thanks to Harry's Invisibility Cloak, which she had borrowed (damn, she could have given it back to him then!). She had procured a bottle of Old Ogden's Firewhisky from Dumbledore's modest drinks cabinet.
She took a large swig from the bottle. The liquid burned all the way down her gullet and into her stomach. It warmed her cold heart and numbed her pain, so she took another gulp.