Disclaimer: Not mine.

Harry wrenched Hermione into an unused classroom, ignoring her grunt of pain as he strained the sore muscles of her arm. "Harry," Hermione spat, "what are you doing?"

Harry grimaced. "Did you hear what he said?" Harry asked.

Hermione shook her head. "Hear what? Harry, what are you…"

"He put Ron's name in the cup!" Harry spat.

Hermione stiffened.

"Who?" She asked coldly, dangerously.


"What? No! That makes no sense!" Hermione said as she paced the room. "No, he couldn't… wait. No. It does. It makes perfect sense." An edge of hysteria crept into her voice. Harry cocked his head to the side and gestured for her to continue. Hermione didn't notice as she paced back and forth, working things out in her mind. "Of course. Yes." She drew out the last syllable so long that Harry wasn't sure if he was listening in English or Parselsmouth. "That… how could he… damn him." Hermione growled. "It's all about inspiration, heroics with him. He beat Grindewald, he's growing his own hero. Here you are, and there was Ron, and yet… oh, of course, yes… Harry is very heroic, but heroic isn't enough, is it? Magic… you are only as strong as what you know, of course. The three of us, yes... heroic, but something was wrong. Something didn't fit." Hermione kept pacing as her half-vocalized thoughts spilled out her lips. "Each year, we were tested, yes… a crucible, forging steel from waste iron, matching potential. The Stone, we all passed. The Chamber of Secrets, yes, we passed, Ron didn't. Sirius, oh Sirius, but… something… oh. Yes. Ron failed. And so that… that… he saw that you weren't falling farther behind, following Ron's path of… of course. But the Patronus… and me… so he decided to play a final test. Do or die. But Ron failed. And now? That motherfucker!" Hermione screamed.

"Hermione, Hermione!" Harry interrupted. Her pacing rant was so familiar, her cursing rage so unfamiliar that it was comforting and amusing in a way that didn't reflect the subject. Harry couldn't help but let a little of his odd cheer into his voice. "Mind filling in your non-genius friend?"

Hermione didn't take the bait. She twirled around and stomped up to Harry, grabbing his shoulders with both hands. She growled, taking Harry aback. "Dumbledore," Hermione said, "put Ron's name in the cup because Ron was, for all of his good traits, an ignoramus lacking a single mote of academic ambition. More importantly, Dumbledore thought that you were becoming a lazy arse just like him." Harry blinked at the accusation, but Hermione continued before he could interrupt. "It makes sense now – why would he rely on a bunch of pre-teens to save the school? Why? Because he was, and still is, grooming us to be his soldiers against Voldemort! Every year he tested us, making sure that he was forging what he wanted!"

Harry froze. "And Ron…"

"Failed." Hermione said with grave finality.

"Fuck!" Harry screamed, "I'll fucking kill him!" He started to turn to storm off. Hermione stopped him by shaking his shoulders sharply.

"Harry!" Hermione shouted, "Stop!" Harry froze. "Listen to yourself, think! What are you going to do, storm off and get your arse handed to you by the only man that Voldemort fears? What then? What if you fail? He'll just obliviate you, and me, and we'll be exactly where we used to be. And what if you succeed, will that bring back Ron? No! You'll be sent to Azkaban – nobody will believe you!"

"It's worth it!" Harry growled, trying to shake her grip.

"No!" Hermione sobbed, "Don't do this Harry! Don't you leave me Harry James Potter! Don't you dare leave me too!"

The desperation in her voice poured frigid waters onto Harry's anger. He hissed, the escaping steam of his smothered rage deflating him. Gently, he pulled Hermione close and let her tears wet his shoulder.

Dumbledore would die for this. That Harry swore.

Time passed, as it always has. True to his words, Moody kept Harry and Hermione too exhausted to do more than their class work, but their fellow students forgave the pair's reticent behavior. If anybody noticed that the two were walking closer together than ever before or how their hands would naturally drift together, nobody said a word. The fact that the DADA professor would ambush the pair on a semi-regular basis – and occasionally lose – did nothing to encourage rumors about their relationship.

McGonagall was thrilled with Harry's newfound dedication to his coursework, and Dumbledore couldn't help but feel a great deal of pride in the boy's ability to focus through the traumatic events. He missed the look of rage that flickered across Harry and Hermione's faces when he told Harry this.

Moody did not.

Hermione walked with Harry to the carriages that lead to the Hogwarts Express. Harry was carrying Hedwig's empty cage, the snowy owl perched on his shoulder. Hermione's trunk floated behind the two. A light dusting of snow covered the ground, the December air crisp.

"Harry," Hermione said softly, "I'm sorry…"

"Don't be," Harry replied. "Look, you need this. Go. Tell your parents how much you love them. I'll be fine."


"I'll be fine," Harry reiterated. He noticed that they'd reached the carriages. "You're coming back for the ball, right? So I'll be fine." Hermione stared into his eyes, searching for something. A curious tightness formed in Harry's throat. He looked away and coughed, trying to dislodge it. He missed Hermione's soft frown. "Look, just… don't forget to write, okay? That's why I'm sending you with Hedwig, right?"

"Yeah," Hermione said. She reached out and pulled Harry into a warm embrace. "I'll be back before you know it, nagging you to finish your holiday workload."

Harry snorted. "I can hardly wait," he deadpanned. He grimaced. "Although it's a faint hope that Moody'll let up now that I don't have you watching my back."

"I am sorry about that," Hermione giggled into his shoulder.

"Sure you are," Harry said with a chuckle. He released Hermione from his embrace. "Time to go," he said, gently pushing her towards the carriage.

With one last squeeze, Hermione turned and climbed into the carriage. Harry tried to ignore the burning in his eyes as the skeletal winged horses pulled away. He was glad that Hermione missed the single sob that escaped as he realized just how alone he felt.

Hermione frowned as the carriage left Harry behind. She had not.

"Do you understand what I have asked of you?" Voldemort said to Wormtail as he pressed a vial of potion into Peter's silver hand. "Did you obtain the item?" Peter nodded, pulling out a small envelope.

"Yes master, I do, but I do not understand…" he trailed off, realizing how much pain he was asking for by admitting his doubts.

Voldemort turned, his robes flowing majestically about him. The vials of blood and other items provided by his loyal follower at Hogwarts had worked wonderfully for the resurrection ritual on all hallows day, restoring him to the beauty of his youth. Wormtail cowered. "Of course you don't. There is good reason for my silence, reason which you of all people should understand."

"Master?" Peter asked, clueless.

"Surely you know that one must be ever… vigilant against the possibility of betrayal." Voldemort hissed.

"Master, I would never betray you!" Wormtail cried, cowering.

"Do you truly believe that you could conceal the Life Debt you feel you owe from me?" Voldemort asked.

"Master, I… I mean I would never let such a thing cause me to fail you!" Wormtail said in a blind panic.

"Perhaps," Voldemort said with finality. "Perhaps not. It is best not to risk such things, don't you agree?"

"I… I don't understand. I mean… if I did feel I owed the brat a Life Debt… I mean… ah…"

"Cease your dithering, Peter. If I were to punish you for such things, I would have done so." He smiled, and it was a horrific thing. "Do you think me so ignoble that I would forget your loyalty? That you gave of your own flesh to revive me? Have no worries, I will not be the reason your Debt is paid."

"Master?" Wormtail asked. "I thought you intended to slay Potter…"

Voldemort's smile widened. "No, Peter, by my hand the Boy-Who-Lived shall be vanquished. Young Harry… he shall live." He hissed in sinister laughter at the positively flummoxed look on Wormtail's face. "Ah, Peter, even your general cluelessness serves me, if only to lighten my spirits." His face hardened. "Now go, and prepare a warm Yuletide gift for the Grangers."

Wormtail nodded, preparing to scurry off.

"And Peter," Voldemort said with an undercurrent of whimsy. Wormtail braced for the pain. "Do remember to sign the card."

Nodding, Wormtail fled the Riddle Manor before his master could find reason to punish his hesitation.

Hermione hugged her parents tightly after she left the Hogwart's Express. Her father looked down on her, concerned at how desperately she clung to him. "Sweetheart?"

She looked up at her parents. "Mummy, Daddy? I… I need to tell you something," she whispered, staring in the direction of Hogwarts.

The Grangers were silent the entire drive back. They had a lot to ponder, and what their daughter told them made their blood run cold. The length of the journey didn't really register as they reached their home and somberly made their way to the door. Hermione's father unlocked the door, pulling it open. The last thing he ever saw was a handsome man with silver-blond hair pointing a wand at him. "Filthy muggles. Avada Kedavra!"

Feminine screams pierced the air before green light silenced them forever.