The Standard Disclaimer applies.
Dumbledore's funeral had just gotten over and Harry was heading back to his dorm to grab his trunk when Ron and Hermione caught up with him.
"What do we do now?" said Ron.
"I don't know about you Ron, but I won't be coming back next year," said Harry in a brisk no-nonsense tone.
"You're going after the Horcruxes then? Ron and I will be coming with you," announced Hermione.
"No you won't. I'm doing this on my own," answered Harry.
"What? No, we're coming with you and that's that, I'm not taking no for an answer," said Hermione.
"It's not your decision to make Hermione, I don't want you and Ron with me," said Harry as he turned on his heel and walked away.
Hermione came running after him leaving a befuddled Ron behind.
"Harry, Harry, wait up. You can't just leave. At least talk about it," she said.
"Nope, nothing to talk about, I don't need you and more importantly I don't want you to come with me," said Harry.
"You don't want us around. Why not?" she asked.
"I really don't think there's any point in discussing this Hermione, why don't you just go back to Ron," said Harry.
"No, we're talking about this, why don't you want me and Ron to come with you? You'll need our help," she insisted as she struggled to keep up with Harry's pace.
"Yes, I'll need help, I know that but...okay, let's start with Ron - tell me Hermione, how exactly do you think Ron would be of help?" asked Harry stopping and whirling around to face her.
She squeaked as she came to a sudden stop."Well, he's your best friend and..." she started.
"Best friend right, that's a great qualification for hunting horcruxes. Ron can barely get through a quidditch game without falling apart, and you want me to take him with me. Why?" he asked as he stared at Hermione. "Hermione, do you think I'm going to be staying in 5 star hotels? What happens when the going gets rough? Can you imagine Ron's reaction if he has to miss a few meals? He'll go running back to his mother as fast as he can, that's what's going to happen. No, I definitely don't need him around. He'll be of absolutely no help. Not unless I run into another giant chess board anyway."
"What about me? Why don't you want me around? I could help you?" she said.
"Like you helped me this year? Tell me Hermione, how many times this year did I tell you I thought Malfoy was a Death eater and was up to something? How many times did you tell me I was being paranoid, how many times did you tell me to just work on Slughorn instead?" asked Harry.
Hermione found it hard to meet Harry's gaze. He was absolutely right about her behavior that past year. Why hadn't she listened to him? What had made her so sure that he could not possibly be right? She had no idea."What do you want me to say Harry? I was wrong and I'm sorry," she said.
"Sorry doesn't cut it, Hermione, Dumbledore's dead," he said.
"And I'm sorrier than you can imagine about that. You've got to let me make it up to you, let me at least come with you," she pleaded.
"No Hermione. No...just...No," he said.
"But we've always done everything together, we've been best friends since first year, I can't just abandon you now," she said.
"Friends, right," Harry said with a snort of utter disdain.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" she asked. She felt absolutely indignant at his snort. How could he dismiss six years of friendship like that. She was utterly utterly shocked.
"Nothing, forget I ever mentioned it," he said. He looked extremely uncomfortable for a brief moment and then his gaze hardened again.
"No, why did you scoff like that when I said we've been friends since first year," she pressed.
"I really don't want to get into it Hermione, and trust me, you don't want me to get into it either," he stated.
"What are you talking about Harry; you can't just say something like that and expect me to let it go," said Hermione.
Harry took a deep breath and steeled himself for what he knew was going to be a tough conversation. "Okay fine, you asked for it. You know I've been thinking about this all year, ever since we became friends you've always been there for me, without fail. Even when Ron abandoned me during the Triwizard Tournament, you never wavered; you were always there, always the perfect friend, until this year. I kept wondering what I had done to make you change this much; I kept wondering why you had suddenly decided to act like you hated me? Why were you so hell bent on arguing with me about inconsequential things like some notes in a potions book? The Hermione I knew would have been overjoyed that I had finally found a way to do better in class, she would have been the first to borrow the book and learn all the tips and tricks for herself, She would never have treated me the way you've been doing all year."
"Harry, you know I'm sorry about..." she started.
"Save it Hermione," interrupted Harry. "Let me finish then you can talk. The thing is, for me at least your personality changed drastically this year. Your sudden obsession with Ron, jinxing McLaggen during a tryout, your total disregard of all of my concerns, none of this made any sense to me. What could have made you change so much? I even asked Pomfrey whether that curse that Dolohov hit you with could have caused brain damage.
"Brain damage..." she whispered in a horrified tone.
"No, it didn't cause any permanent damage; you can relax about that, anyhow like I was saying you just didn't make any sense this year at all. At least until I came across this book in the library. It described something and suddenly everything made a certain amount of sense."
"What was it?" she asked, almost dreading to hear the answer.
"Do you remember first year Hermione? Do you remember when we actually became friends?"
"Of course, it's not like I'm ever going to forget that you saved me from a troll," she said.
"Yes, the troll," he shook his head as he remembered the incident. "The funny thing is...before that troll, you weren't really interested in being my friend were you? At least you didn't act like it."
He turned to her and looking more serious then he ever had before he asked - "Tell me Hermione, have you ever bothered to read up on life debts?"
Hermione was confused, what did life debts have to do with...well, anything. "No, I know Dumbledore mentioned them to you once, he said Pettigrew owed you a life debt. I thought that just meant that he owed you his life."
"The thing is, I thought the same thing until I came across them in a book. Life Debts are a bit more than that Hermione; they're just one of those things that everyone knows so they don't bother to teach you anything about them in school. When a wizard saves another wizards life, it creates a magical bond between them, that magical bond will force you to repay the debt one way or another. Your own magic will force you to repay the bond. Now the strength of the bond can vary according to several factors, one of them being how dangerous the situation is to the person doing the saving. With me so far?" he asked.
He stared at her until he gave him a tentative nod. "So Hermione, exactly how dangerous do you think it is for an eleven year old to jump on a fully grown trolls back?"
"So you're saying I owe you a life debt?" asked Hermione in a horrified tone.
"Owed, not owe Hermione, I'm sawing you OWED me a life debt, a particularly strong one I would imagine. Now most wizards in that situation would take some steps to repay that debt, they would decide on some form of restitution and that would be that. The problem is that we didn't know about the debts did we, and Ron's too thick to think about telling us about them."
"Wouldn't I have owed Ron a life debt as well then?" she asked.
"I don't think so, for one he never came near the troll so he wasn't in any danger, but more importantly he was the reason you were there in the first place, not to mention the fact that he was only there because I dragged him along to search for you."
"Why didn't the teachers say anything?" she demanded.
"You lied to them about why we were in the bathroom remember. It probably didn't occur to them that I had gone there looking to warn you about the troll, and lets face it Hermione - when it comes to telling muggleborns like you or muggle raised children like me about the wizarding world, this school has never really bothered have they? They have a muggle studies class for the pure bloods so that they can learn about muggles, but when did they ever have a class to tell the muggleborn about how things really are in the wizarding world? Anyway, so the situation was that you owed me a life debt and weren't doing anything to repay me right? How could you, when you didn't even know anything about it. At that point your own magic forced you into repaying the debt."
Hermione's head was swimming in pure and utter disbelief. No, this could not be true. She would have known she owed him a life debt. Wouldn't she? "Forced me, but how?"
"What do you think I desperately needed back in first year Hermione? I never had any friends growing up, thanks to my cousin. I was hoping to have friends once I came to Hogwarts, but everyone treated me like the Boy Who Lived not just Harry. Even Ron, the first thing he did was to ask to look at my scar, like I'm some kind of freak show. Somehow your magic must have sensed that I needed a friend and that's just what it made you. Your own magic forced you to become the perfect friend for me. As you can imagine, that probably changed your personality quite a bit," stated Harry.
"They can do that?" whispered Hermione, shocked beyond belief. "But I can't be the only one who owes you a life debt, what about Ginny? You saved her from the Basilisk."
"And this year when I was lonely and found myself attracted to her, she was suddenly attracted to me as well wasn't she? Why do you think I broke up with her, you think I want to be with someone who's only with me because they owe me?" asked Harry.
"No Harry, you know that's not true, Ginny's always had a crush on you," she said.
"She was a kid who had a crush on the Boy-Who-Lived Hermione. She never knew the real me, and once she did she got over her crush pretty quickly didn't she? She was happily dating other people before I got interested in her."
"Even if that was what happened, and I'm not sure it is; that doesn't explain our problems this year? After all, if what you say is true then I still owe you the debt right?"
"No, Hermione, you don't. Remember the Department of Mysteries. For the first time you were put in a life threatening situation purely because of something I did. You nearly died because of me Hermione; at that point I think your magic finally called the debt paid in full. After that your personality started reverting back to what it would have been without the life debt influencing you."
"That doesn't make sense Harry; I've been there with you in tons of dangerous situations every single year at Hogwarts."
"In how many of those were you hurt purely because of something I did? Back in first year we got through the traps without any trouble, the only real danger was Quirrel and I faced him on my own. In second year, sure you were petrified, but I wasn't the one to send you down that corridor where you met the basilisk. In third year, you were in danger from the dementors, but it was me who saved us. And in fourth year, you were never in any danger at all. No, the one and only time I've put you in serious life threatening danger was last year at the DOM."
"I still don't believe it," she said, hoping that if she said it with enough conviction it would turn out to be true.
"Think about it Hermione, it explains everything, it explains our sudden friendship, it explains why you've been distancing yourself from me this year, and hell it might even explain your sudden obsession with Ron."
"Ron? How does it explain me and Ron?"
"Do you remember why you were in that toilet in the first place? Ron passed a hurtful comment and you spent the entire day in a bathroom crying. The thing is, in the entire time I've known you; you've never been that sensitive. Hell Malfoy's said a lot worse things to you over the years and you've shrugged them all off. So why did Ron upset you so much? The only thing I can think of is that you probably had a little school girl crush on Ron even back then. Under normal circumstances you'd have probably outgrown it as must school girls do, you most definitely would have gotten over it once you got to know Ron better, but when the life debt started changing your personality it probably just suppressed that crush. Then once the debt was paid all those old feelings came back didn't they? How else would you explain why you're suddenly attracted to Ron."
"How can you say that Harry, Ron's always been our friend?"
"Right Hermione Right, he's been our friend, you've never been even remotely interested in him romantically before this year, and the Hermione I knew was much too smart to ever be interested in Ron."
"Why? What's wrong with him?"
"What's wrong with him? Really? How about the fact that he has absolutely no regard for your feelings? How about that? You made it clear you were interested in him yet he had no problem snogging Lavender in front of you. Or maybe it's the fact that he finds it funny when you get hurt. Remember back at the burrow when you got a black eye from the twins punching telescope? You were in pain, and he was trying not to laugh. What do you have in common with him anyway? Apart from school, what do you have in common? Can you think of anything?"
"There you go then, even you can't think of anything," he stopped for a second as a thought suddenly hit him. "Huh," he exclaimed. "You know, it just occurred to me that I might be totally wrong about everything I said earlier. It's actually perfectly possible that both of us owed Ron a life debt. He did knock out the troll after all. It certainly explains why I've put up with him all of these years. Anyone else would have dumped him after the way he acted during the tournament. It's funny how easily I forgave him for that." He paused for a second thinking furiously. "But...do I still owe him? I don't think so. Even if saving Ginny wasn't enough, I did save his life after he was poisoned. That should definitely be enough to repay the debt. You, on the other hand...have you ever thought that maybe your attraction to him is just a way for you to repay the debt?"
Hermione's mind was reeling from too many revelations. Her and Ron...Harry...life debts...all of those thoughts were bouncing around in her head. She forced her mind to clear and focus on the immediate problem. "Wait, wait, wait. That still doesn't mean I can't come with you. This is me Harry, according to you I'm no longer being forced by a life debt right? And I'm telling you that I want to help you find the horcruxes?"
"Why Hermione? Feeling guilty about Dumbledore's death? Feeling sorry about the way you treated me all year? Want to make amends? Just stop all right. You're just emotional right now because of Dumbledore. Take some time, wait till you're not so emotional and think things through. If you truly examine your feelings once you're calm, you'll come to the same conclusion that I have."
"And what is that?" she asked.
"You're free now Hermione. You don't owe me anything. You certainly don't need to give up on your schooling and go off on a wild goose chase with me. Think about it, examine your feelings and you'll realize that you probably don't even like me all that much, forget about being friends. There is absolutely no reason for you to fight Voldemort with me," he said.
"It's not only your fight Harry, Voldemort and the purebloods will probably come after me and people like me anyway…"
"And you're a 16...sorry 17 year old girl. No sane culture anywhere in the world would expect you to fight terrorists. Any reasonably advanced nation in the world expects you to be at least 18 before you can join an army..."
Hermione interrupted - "No, the British army lets you join at 16."
Harry glared at her and continued as if she had not spoken - "and then they at least give you some basic training before they send you off to face the enemy. What training has Hogwarts given you Hermione? Which of our teachers taught you how to fight against Death Eaters? Did Quirrell? Lockhart? Umbridge? Lupin was our one decent teacher and he taught you how to defeat a boggart. Expect many boggarts to be fighting alongside Voldemort?"
"You still can't do this on your own, you'll still need help," she begged.
"Yes, just not from you and Ron," said Harry. "If I were you Hermione I'd take my parents and leave the country. You certainly don't owe the wizards here anything. Why would you fight to save a culture where you're looked down upon because your great grandparents weren't wizards? I have to because a stupid prophecy made before I was even born means that Voldemort will never stop coming after me, but what's your reason? All you need to do is disappear and you'll be perfectly safe."
"I still want to help you," she said.
"And I don't want your help. After this year I'm not even sure I can trust you anymore," said Harry.
"How can you say that Harry..." said a teary Hermione. No, this could not be happening. Harry could not be saying these things to her. No, this was all just a bad dream.
"Who killed Dumbledore, Hermione?" barked Harry.
"What does that have to do with anything...?"
"Snape! Snape killed Dumbledore. How many times did I warn Dumbledore about Snape? Each time I did he'd tell me he had the utmost confidence in Snape. Well he's dead now. That's what comes from trusting the wrong people, Hermione. Look at my parents, the least I can do is to learn from their example; they trusted the wrong friend and wound up betrayed and murdered. I'm sorry Hermione, but trust is a luxury I can no longer afford, and when there's even the slightest doubt, there's no way I'm going to trust that person."
"How can you doubt me? How can you doubt Ron?"
"Well I'm not going to rehash your behavior this year again, I'm sure you know by know why I can't trust you, as for Ron, he already betrayed me once back in fourth year. And I'm not just talking about the way he acted once my name came out of the goblet. I don't think I ever told you this, did I? Ron knew about the dragons before I did. His brother was one of the handlers and Ron knew...he bloody well knew about the dragons and he never told me. . He never told me that I was about to face a bloody dragon Hermione. I forgave him then, but the stakes are a bit higher now. Unfortunately there is absolutely no way I can trust him now."
"I don't know what to say Harry, I really don't..." she said.
"Well the one bright spot is that you really don't have to say anything. Once we leave school, I doubt we'll ever have to see each other again. So this is goodbye Hermione. I hope you take my advice and get away. I really do. Take your parents, go somewhere safe and have a nice life. Hopefully it'll be a safe uneventful one."
"But what will you do? Who are you going to get to help you?"
"I'll do what I have to do. Nothing more, nothing less. And the rest of it is my problem. Please don't concern yourself with it anymore," with that Harry strode away leaving Hermione behind, heading forth to face his future alone.