A/N:

Hellooooooo.

Here's the second to last chapter. Lots of things happening here, I really hope you like it. The last chapter is well on it's way, but you know how it goes… could be posted next week, or possibly next year. Things are about to get (un)real.

I will also say that there will be a chapter posted after the story is finished solely dedicated to answering and acknowledging the many great reviews I've received, because I truly am grateful and seriously read each one.

An aside:
I have finished the first chapter of a new story, not yet titled. It is a Harry Potter x Game of Thrones crossover and will be posted in a week. Please check it out if you're interested, it's completely different from this story.

Summary: AU. Years after his defeat of Voldemort, Harry Potter remains a willing and secret prisoner of the Ministry, but not all is what it seems. Harry has a plan, and the world will never be the same.

Onward!

The Prisoner's Cipher

Chapter Eight

"So if this should work, will you then end up with a full soul and I with only a half?"

It was simple math.

Harry had stopped his wand-work of readying the study for what Hermione had termed "the event," and merely looked at her with a quizzical and a completely undisguised, disgusted countenance.

She knew it couldn't possibly be this simple.

And yet, when she didn't have any answers with some form of proof of concept, what other question could she really ask?

It was a dangerous one to ask as well – delving both into topics Harry did not consciously tune her in to, as well as the simple travesty of possibly pushing Harry too far - A grievous and tricky line to toe.

Hermione waited with bated breath, raising her eyes to meet his.

His eyes had always, and would always, tell more than the rest of him ever would – and what she saw sent a terrifyingly redundant course of fear through her body.

Hermione, since fully comprehending Harry's chaotic state had been on continual state of fear the past three days in a way that she'd never felt before.

She knew fear – quite well – but this was a new brand. It left her completely and utterly on edge. It was similar to the feelings one gets when cornering a wild beast – the beast would try absolutely anything to escape. Now if one could imagine that beast cornering you with that same mindset….

Fear in its purest form.

Hermione had always conquered fear through knowledge - knowledge always shed light on a situation and allowed one to plan for the future. Planning for the future removes the unknown, the root cause of all fears.

But with Harry… you simply couldn't. Not enough to remove her fear in any large sense. He was too smart to let her have too much of a read on the situation and too chaotic on the inside to keep palpable patterns.

And they truly – truly - did need to do perform the event soon. Harry was wasting away to nothing. Upon her realization a few days ago, it had really dawned upon her the enormity of what was happening inside of him and what it meant.

She remembered when she first saw his iron control break in front of the veil, and then again after the memories, and the little – at then insignificant – instances during their lessons when he would just snap - random acts of strange cruelty or even what could be called empathy.

She saw himself wage war with himself, a hundred times over. It was a scary idea to her that he seemed to be scared of his own thoughts.

Her hand tightened around her wand, even though she knew she may as well not have one – deranged or not, he'd always been able to pull himself together in times of need.

She took a step backward as his eyes closed.

His eyes opened once more, the gale force swirls of emotions once present were now somewhat mollified, though still churning.

"It doesn't work like that. There aren't necessarily parts or factionsof a soul, but the states of it."

Hermione stared back with a blank expression, partly from confusion, partly from the abrupt departure of her previous thoughts.

Harry turned his back and once again began waving his hands, causing books upon books to stack themselves and levitate out of the room.

Hermione had still never seen another room but this one, except the small makeshift bathroom attached to it.

"Think of infinity."

Hermione's eyes narrowed, her logic nearly onto what Harry was about to say.

"Can you divide it?"

"Yes. Well, I mean you –"

Harry cut her off, "Can you add to it, or perhaps subtract from it?"

Hermione, a bit annoyed, "Same answer as before, but you wouldn't let me – "

"Stop saying words that contribute nothing" snapped Harry, turning around from his work amidst floating book piles, "we all know the answer, but what does it actually mean? Put it into context, then what?"

Hermione paused. How does one divide a soul? Partition it and add to it? Can you have more than one? These were thoughts she had sifted through before many times and a good answer, much like this time, had never come forth.

Harry replied, as though to her thoughts, "There's obviously no concrete answer but one can certainly postulate with a degree of accuracy."

"Think of when you add one to infinity… it's still infinity. A number plus another number that isn't zero should be what?"

Hermione replied without thinking, as she didn't need to, "A different number."

"Exactly," and Harry simply stared at her.

She stared back.

"So infinity's a concept, not a number… yes, I see your point."

"Precisely, so the soul is not an entity that cannot be quantified in any meaningful way – in the sense that you could never innumerate or describe it in a manner that, say, could make it be able to be sold in a marketplace."

Hermione did not let the hope she had within her heart reach her face, but it must have reached her eyes as Harry quickly replied, "The answer is yes, I believe so."

Hermione breathed out her reply in a quick-like fashion, realizing she'd been holding her breath, "So… I could be whole."

Harry didn't move, a strange expression in his eyes, "even though divided, yes."

"But why couldn't – "

"I was young, and the process that it happened with wasn't anything near as smooth as this."

They stared at each other a good while.

She could feel her mouth begin to speak even as a warning light flashed in his eyes, but her question had already slipped out, "I still don't see how I cou- "

Harry's posture relaxed but straightened – never a good sign.

"I – although under different circumstances – fought the same fight you are about to undertake."

Hermione did quite know what to say. "And…?"

Harry stood up, opening his arm slightly gesturing lightly towards himself, a showman's smile upon his face.

"I lost."

He sat back down and a heavy silence settled. Minutes passed by.

"But, you – "

"Look," Harry snapped, "you know yourself, had a loving mother and father to build it, formative years to strengthen and mold it, and a loving marriage to cement it."

He took an authoritative step towards her, his teeth were biting the inside of his lip in an almost contemplative manner.

"Now, did you truly just want me to say that out loud or are you actually close enough to severe mental retardation to not realize all this?"

Panic took a hold of her "No! No, I jus…" Hermione's heart lurched uncomfortably, "I wasn't asking about me, not me! I mean if you – like the memories showed, the memories…" she was mumbling but she couldn't stop herself "of the building between you and Dumble – "

Hermione didn't even see Harry move.

All she was aware of was her head backlashing with intense pain and her body cartwheeling backwards several feet. She looked up in shock and pain, the oozing taste of blood in her mouth as the ceiling spun slightly amidst the stars in her eyes.

Another spell shot-gunned her to the floor once more.

Harry suddenly appeared standing directly above her wand pointed at her throat. His eyes glowed with venom.

"Don't finish that statement" he snapped in a painfully venomous, yet hauntingly silent voice. With his hand he magically pulled her head up from the floor so she was facing directly at him, "and don't talk to me about Dumbledore."

She could tell he was going to say something more, but for some reason he stopped and merely stared her in the eyes with alarming intensity.

Two long moments passed before she registered a slight cracking sound and all went black.

. .

. &&&&&&&&& .

. .

"Listen."

Hermione sat up from the hard floor as Harry's face swam into her slowly clearing view. Her head was pounding, but Harry paid her no mind as he continued.

"Your soul will be under an enormous amount of duress, your entire being will be mixed up – broken - and it will be up to you to siphon and mold it to what you used to be… what you are."

Hermione nodded slowly, even as blood began to trickle out of her mouth. She didn't dare brush it away.

He continued talking. Every word annunciated with a strange slowness.

"You – unlike some - have had a childhood of relative stability, harsh times to flesh out and further define yourself, and then stability afterwards in your work and marriage to smooth and solidify yourself. Throughout the entirety of that path you had no undermining forms of corruption – in other words, second guessing – except for your initial and continual revulsion and hesitancy to kill."

Hermione's heart lurched as the truth of his words rung clear and true.

"But this is both normal and expected, do you know why?"

Hermione's brown eyes stared wide eyed, still held in his magical grip.

"Because it matches in line perfectly with whom you are – Hermione Granger does not kill. You are not a killer - your only form of corruption is in fact cleansing you. As such, from both this and your inner strength, it may be that you'll be able to reform and regroup yourself afterwards."

He looked quizzical.

"Perhaps not the same… definitely not the same. But stable. 'Stable' is the word I am looking for and maybe you shall find."

And he released his magical grip and her head unexpectedly hit hard upon the floor, she involuntarily let out a yelp.

But it did not stop the thought she had been thinking. She sat up as best she could and spoke without thinking, "Harry."

His suddenly stilled body was his only indication that he was listening.

"You… " she found herself nearly breathless, "you know me well enough to write my own runes… like you did yours… don't you."

He stared at her, and silence answered her question.

The answer was both shocking and jarringly open. It left her speechless. For someone to know her like that… especially Harry now… simply blew her mind.

She could even see him breathing harder, eyes roiling with emotion.

He walked past her without a word and bent down.

The books were all gone and he began inscribing the runes into the thick, dark wooden floor. With smooth strokes of his wand, laser-like fire lashed out like channeled water, and he began to produce runes that were crisp and of pinpoint precision. They were roughly the size of a small butterfly.

She wasn't expecting him to speak anymore, so his next words startled her, "I've always been able to - both you and Ron. You, Ron, and Dumbledore were the only friends I've ever had. I paid attention. It shouldn't be that surprising."

Hermione could not help but look at him – Harry – her Harry in a way she had yearned to do and feel for so many years.

Harry had stopped inscribing and was only looking at the floor, his chest visibly heaving up and down, "I highly suggest you stop looking at me like that… Hermione."

The power of a name.

She couldn't stop looking. There was no way. She wanted to crawl towards him – to talk, hold, to hug him, something.

With monumental effort she forced her gaze down, trying desperately to control her raging emotions.

When she looked up again he was smoothly cutting more runes into the deep wooden floor. The hot liquid flame coming from his wand emitted ebbing and flashing light that danced cryptically on Harry's face.

She watched him for a long while.

Harry suddenly looked at her, a strange glint in his eye.

"You do realize, that that ability is also why it was inanely easy to manipulate both you and Ron to do what I needed, right?"

She nodded tightly, the warmth that had possessed her now seeped away. A question came to mind.

"And if I hadn't been tricked into releasing the wards? What then?"

"I could have gotten out. The very first day, or the last. Any time I wanted, essentially. But this way was the best. I've left both confusion for the Ministry, an open slate for me to write with the public, and you here with me with the necessary boundaries and checkpoints to make sure you're doing what I want you to do."

Merlin.

Hermione simply stared and bit her lip a little harder.

"And – you forget - I turned myself in. I needed to be in a magically draining place. I was, and am losing, complete control of myself. It slowed the process in time for me to come up and fulfill what needed to be done to get me out of this living hell. It was a stabilizer."

Hermione once again reluctantly reflected on just how thorough he'd been. A sort of hopelessness took ahold of her but left her with a strange feeling of daring.

"You really don't seem evil to me." His eyes darted towards her but she continued, "despite whatever heinous acts you've committed, what I've translated, what I've learned - I sit here with you and that is what I see. What I feel."

Harry stared hard at her, but answered infinitely more calm that she could have ever expected, "Chaos is not truly marked by evil, but by extremes of both kinds."

Both of them sat contemplating those words, and only the small searing noise of Harry's rune inscribing could be heard.

Perhaps a half an hour passed by, as both of them were lost within their thoughts, Hermione simply sitting upon the floor she had been cast upon and Harry intensely making his precise incisions. They didn't speak a single word.

So when Harry did speak, Hermione's eyes snapped to him in complete surprise. But his eyes did not meet hers, his eyes were seeing nothing physical. They were looking in.

His words, when they came out, were almost a whisper and laced with unbridled emotion, "It's that which makes this completely unbearable."

She cast her eyes down in a desperate effort control herself, breathing hard.

A few minutes passed and she could hear his footsteps carry himself out of the room. All that was left was silence and her own laborious breathing. Small spirals of smoke billowed out from the newly cut runes, casting shadows much bigger than themselves upon the walls.

They danced.

She cried.

. .

. &&&&&&&&& .

. .

Harry Potter sat not fifty feet away from Hermione in his study. It had once been Dumbledore's. He sat perfectly still. Hunched over, head in his hands, his hair just barely covering his clenched, tight fingers.

The study was stark bare – there had once been a lively décor, full of the previous owner's tastes, his own, and theirs combined. Pictures, souvenirs, and other emotionally substantial objects had adorned the walls and various furniture.

There was now nothing.

In fact, if one had such intimate knowledge, they'd realize the room looked strikingly similar – down to the color, the solitary desk, paper, and quills – to the Holding Room that Harry had been prisoner to for so very long. This was not a coincidence.

It even served the same purposes, although it no longer had any palpable effectiveness, merely minimizing damage through strict and rigorous warding of the occupants own making.

Papers lay scattered everywhere, broken quills thrown aside. Only a hefty pile of papers grouped perfectly at the upper right corner of the desk, with enormous amounts of symbols written in an untidy scrawl, sat with a semblance of order. Two quills lay on top of it, with the finality of their job being done.

The quills silently shook back and forth, jolting unexpectedly every once in a while. The papers remained firm.

A dark wand, forgotten hours ago, slowly shook and rolled towards the edge of the desk, dropping with a sudden and harsh clattering upon the floor. It too, went unnoticed.

The small reverberations continued.

Tears pooled in the middle of the desk, as heaving sobs wracked Harry Potter without any sign of mercy.

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. &&&&&&&&& .

. .

If anything, they were beautiful - hauntingly so.

Harry had spent, quite literally, two days straight engraving the runes.

All across the elegant dark wooden floor, intricate and heart-wrenchingly precise runes formed seemingly endless arrays of interwoven circles. Smooth and diamond hard were the inscriptions, no frays or splinters of the rich mahogany could be seen, let alone imagined. Each rune wasn't more than a square inch, but if they were blown up many sizes, the precision and beauty of them would not be any lesser – such was the care taken in their making.

The room had been cleared - no books, no shelves, or desk - simply the masterpiece in front of and beneath her.

As a whole it was symmetrical.

It was an overwhelming presence, with its silent and acute vigil over the only room that she could occupy. One could simply get lost in the ridiculously perfect circles of runes, without even getting immersed within their meanings.

But, the thing was, she could. And even scarier – she could make sense of them. She carefully toed her way between the rune tracks. The Cipher that Harry had worked on for so many years, the one he had given her when he was still in the Holding Room, had been an autobiography.

This – her eyes swept once more across the thousands of runes – was no autobiography. The autobiography had told the story of his life – the why, the how. This was the what. What lay inscribed beneath her feet simply described Harry, written in a runic language completely derived from the life that made the entity it now described.

As much as she had created objects from thin air – a cup, a towel, a dove – this would do the same. Even more so, it would create a soul. His soul.

Or rather, "repair" his soul, as Harry had corrected her a variety of times. "Purge," he had said at one point.

It made sense.

There was, of course, the catch. She looked with trepidation at the farthest, outer-most circle, made of runes she did not know. Harry had very purposely not taught her these. But she knew their objective. They were, arguably, the most important.

While all the other rings described the being, the soul of her once best friend, this ring described what to do with it.

Specifically, it would cleave hers, leaving her with her part, and Harry with his that would be subjected to whatever he had inscribed into the runes they encircled.

It sounded crazy. It was crazy. He was crazy. She was crazy.

Not for the first time, Hermione closed her eyes, desperately trying to gain control of her nerves.

Today was the day.

Today was the culmination of all their hard work where they both would breath life into a branch of music never touched before. Today was the third day.

It made her unthinkably terrified.

She slowly unclenched her fists and took deep, long breaths.

But she would get through it.

"Of course you will."

Hermione nearly tripped in surprise, whirling around to see Harry only several feet from her. He had clearly been there for some time. Startled and taken off guard, she asked him the first thing that came to her mind.

"What were you doing?"

"Watching you think," he replied, silently padding to the other side of the room.

And as much as his answer disconcerted her, it was not that that unnerved her so completely – it was his expression. It carried an unexpectedly collected look about it. When he lifted his eyes he had an indecipherable gaze of emotion.

He stood placidly, at ease. Alert as always, naturally, but there was… there was a tranquility there she had never felt before.

She really, truly did not know how to take this.

"I – I…. so you think I will?" she replied.

"Sure," was the short quip, as he began tightening and tying the straps of his infamous grey battle cloak.

battle cloak…

But he did not allow her to continue that thought as he smoothly intervened, "aren't you going to ask me how I knew you were thinking that?"

Still, clamoring over her last thoughts, she managed to realize that perhaps she should have…

"I know I wasn't thinking out loud."

"No, you certainly weren't" he said with the same, pleasant countenance.

"Well, I know Leglimency needs eye contact, which you did not have."

"Also true."

They both stared at each other - Harry seeing things in her unknown to her, and she staring at him in a silent, awkward stupor.

"I don't get it," was all she managed to get out.

"I know," said Harry with a polite smile, "would you like me to tell you?"

"What – I mean, well, yes I guess so…." her mind raced, thinking of the variety of possibilities such as mirrors, spells, and more but found nothing. She was beginning to calm down, the odd ease in which he was carrying himself becoming familiar to her, if still unknown.

Harry took that moment to close the door with a gentle swing of his hand.

"It's nothing esoteric or obscure. It's not even magic. It's just that you always have the same stance and expression when you're priming yourself to face a situation where you find the odds against you. You tend to always ball your fists, with your arms very taut and the elbows locked at the 180 degree position – ah, and you always have this insanely erect stance too with your legs, kind of like this…"

And he proceeded to act it out.

He looked…

He looked utterly ridiculous.

"That's kind of the point, you do look ridiculous," his voice casually intoned in.

Her eyes narrowed as she realized what he had just said, but before she could reprimand him he cut in.

"Okay now that - I admit - was Leglimency – it's your fault for glaring at me, you should know this by now, truly. But still, the stance is a dead give-away. Dobby did the same thing."

What the fuck…

She was such an inane combination of flustered, offended, and confused that she truly had nothing to say.

"Water?" he asked politely?

"Um, no…"

"You're positive?"

"Yes…"

"Alright then, well," her heart soared to her mouth.

"Let's do this."

She nodded in silence. He had said it with such casual nonchalance. Something was off. She looked at him once more, searching.

And she noticed what she had never before. Lines and bags surrounded and bogged his eyes that she hadn't seen previously. His pupils, surrounded by that brilliant green were heavily dilated, dilat-ing in fact. Her eyes flicked to the rest of him – sure enough, he was thinner, paler. How had she not noticed?

She now realized that it wasn't just a certain calmness that his presence bore so heavily.

He was tired.

Really, really tired. Not once had she ever since the trial had she seen him look worn, not even during their first meeting in the holding room or any of the numerous ones after that.

But now…

"Yes, yes yes…" he said, "I am fading. Weakening. I cannot sleep, I cannot find any lasting nourishment – be it physical or no. I am, in every sense of the word but the physical - dying."

Silence. He walked further, not bothering to give any hint of his inner emotions.

The next words were a whisper, as though to himself, "so odd…" and he turned away from her, gazing lovingly over the runes he had so painstakingly engraved. He bent down every once in a while, touching them carefully and tenderly.

One particular rune, or set of runes seemed to catch his attention and he got down on one knee to better look at it. His face was of deep thought. Hermione simply watched him, unwilling to interrupt.

He smoothly sat down on the floor, grazing his hands over the runes until he suddenly looked up, beckoning Hermione over in a jarringly tender gesture.

"Come."

She walked over in something of a daze.

"Sit."

She did.

He stared at her, emerald eyes open and inviting.

"Now roll over."

Her eyes ballooned and she swelled with swift anger and stood up sharply, a retort upon her lips, but she was interrupted.

"Calm down, calm down…. " he said with faint smile, chuckling, "I'm only joking. Please, I really do want you to sit."

Hermione could barely even think she was so angry, but she remained standing.

Harry laughed silently, putting his hands upon his knees, wand held between both of his hands.

"I think you might actually, literally be fuming."

"Wouldn't you?" she snapped.

"I suppose so, " was his only reply, the smile fading away until it was just both of them her standing and he sitting there.

Minutes passed by.

She could not but help stare at the man – called legend by most – that was Harry Potter. He was in a surprisingly vulnerable position – sitting upon the floor, wand now lying idly on the floor, arms loose around his knees. His eyes were unfocused, merely staring. Only candlelight lit the room, and she was intimately aware of the shadows cast upon the floor and walls.

She felt the weight of their situation and rather unwillingly sensed her anger dissipate to essentially nothing.

How - how he had always held the ability to do that to her?

Fighting her pride, she sat down.

Harry did not immediately acknowledge her presence, but after a minute or so he looked at her.

"Hermione, " and he paused, "this is going to hurt."

She could feel her throat involuntarily constrict.

"This is really, really going to hurt. It's going to feel wrong, foreign, alien. But only at first. You will be surprised at how normal you feel so quickly, considering what will have happened. A soul can be created, or destroyed in a second. It cannot, however be made in any short period of time."

She merely stared at him.

"And that, above all, is your number one advantage. It is your only chance. Hermione?" he asked in search of confirmation.

"Yes… yes, I understand."

And she did.

"Do not be lax, do not forget. Constantly remind yourself of why you do what you do, tie it in with who you are and how you got there. When one's past and present are discontinuous – refuse to be in a continuum – with their future… problems arise, and this is the most extreme of such cases."

She nodded, touched that he was even giving some sort of advice, "thank you," she whispered. And they sat, not a yard apart, facing each other thinking indecipherable thoughts. Hermione's thoughts were a whirlwind of her time with Harry, from day one.

Harry shook his head, "I have kept myself leeched of magic in the past month. I need to do this while I still have some vestige of self control, I am the most lucid right now than I have been in years. It is strange, but not unwelcome. Although greater lucidity also means greater guilt – and I must confess that ignorance or blind anger is sometimes – almost always – the preferred option."

Hermione knew what she was hearing was terribly important, unsure of whether she wanted to hear this privy information or not.

"It is not, however, as though I ever have an option. There is never actually a choice."

He was whispering now.

"Not anymore."

Candlelight was the only movement for several long moments.

"Things are… no longer where they should be. Jumbled. Lost. I have been for some time."

Hermione stared at him intently.

"I do not know the state I am in right now," he said, as his fingers brushed the runes once more, as though they were the tether to his very existence.

And in almost every sense of the word, they were.

"And when this operation has finished, Hermione you must heed my words. Do you hear me?"

"Yes," she breathed heavily, attention rapt.

"Do not linger, do not be curious, do not care. Get. Out." And his finger pointed emphatically towards the door.

"It is locked now, but will be… opened by the time you are up. Of that I have no doubt" and his eyes glazed over for just the tiniest of seconds. He continued.

"There is nothing for you here – and truly, there never was. Things are going to happen that will be far, far, far out of your control and I can almost guarantee you that you will be consumed by it. When you wake up, Hermione…"

His eyes pinned hers with a fiery intensity.

"Run."

She gulped thickly.

He pointed to where they were sitting, and he knelt on one knee, his body posture tightening and quickly gaining acuteness.

His warning was over. She recognized the tonal change of his demeanor. It was time.

"We'll stay here."

She nodded. It made sense.

She knew what "here" was referring to - it was the epicenter of the great runic inscription – "the eye of the storm" as she called it. A rune-less circle of about a 6 feet diameter, sitting exactly in the middle of the runic labyrinth.

"This requires no fanfare. No fancy or ornate embellishments. This is not a ritual, it is a procedure. There is precision here. I've gone over it countless times, there is no need for the bone of my father, blood of some unborn enemy, or other such foolishness that involves some outrageous amount of variability. What lays all around us are runes, my runes, my truth. They will not lie to us. I know them, you know them and they are going to do what they have been ordained to do."

She nodded intently, she knew this. It was still reassuring to hear, none the less.

"All this requires is what it always does – a breath of your air, your life. And mine. Yours will go first. Put forth whatever time you need to prepare, I won't rush you. Simply focus on what you know, I know you can do this. As do you."

Hermione closed her eyes, pushing down whatever emotions she was able. His words had comforted her, she had heard the confidence in his voice of her abilities and his runes.

She took one last look at the room around her. Harry now sat upon his heels, posture relaxed and at ease. His grey battle robes pooled elegantly around him and his black wand was held by his two hands as though he was about to be knighted.

His eyes were closed. At peace.

It was a strange sight which brought even stranger feelings.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes once more, slowly, until the flickering candlelight turned into darkness.

Silence.

Her breathing became acutely aware to her, and memories of her muggle youth floated to her mind of when the doctor would listen to her breathing at check ups.

That had been so long ago.

Dr. Martin Shockle. She still remembered.

She remembered how she had wanted to giggle so badly upon hearing his last name, but her father sent her a stern look, effectively stopping her. His office always had this stuffed bear with the name "Sheron" on it. She never knew why.

Her breathing slowed even more.

She continued listening, her pulse now evident within her ears. Her breathing had become so familiar to her it was once again background, even in complete silence.

She could hear her life force in between those deep breaths and rhythmic beats – she could feel the oxygen flowing through her mouth, eddying within her lungs, and pumping triumphantly throughout her body giving her the beautiful, vibrant gift of life. She felt her face smile in raw appreciation.

Each breath bore with it the ability to make her and every other living being do the amazing, the spectacular, and the impossible. Today it would require her to do all three. And yet, she had accomplished so much already. Integrated herself into the wizarding world as one of the most established muggleborns in the wizarding society, graduated Hogwarts with flying honors, fought and survived a war she played a large part in, formed a loving marriage, and more.

The smile that played about her lips slowly diminished

And yet… and yet, that wasn't quite what she was facing here.

Today she would be magicking souls. Real and live souls. Her soul. Her accomplishments before were human accomplishments – marriage, grades, societal acceptance. A soul was on a whole different playing field. They weren't even remotely similar.

Her pulse quickened, and her breaths more laborious.

She would tear her soul open, using its balance and purity to perhaps bring Harry's solace and consistency.

Harry had initially compared it to the Muggle medical technique of a blood transfusion.

But this was no simple transfusion. Blood, fed by the oxygen her lungs pumped in and out of it, was a simple thing – an unthinking existence that did what it was supposed to. More could be made, it was her blood, but it was not special.

Not as special as a soul. A soul was above anything else… hers. Unique and fitting. Only one. It wasn't even a physical, but a metaphysical entity born at the same time as life, and crafted with time.

And she would be ripping it apart.

She swallowed thickly.

She had lost her left arm during one of the many battles during the war, and while it had been re-attached within minutes, she could still very distinctly remember the wrongness associated with the emptiness that occupied the space her arm should have.

She could only imagine what it would feel like to have her soul maimed and mangled.

Injuring… purposely injuring her soul.

It was simply wrong, even more wrong than when she first heard the idea from Harry's lips. It was worse now that she knew so much about it. So much worse…

She could feel her fingers trembling, her body and mind begging her not to go through with this crazed plan.

She had seen dementors feed on the souls of wizards and muggles alike and could readily identify with the fear she saw encompass the victims' entire body and visage. Hers would not be eaten, no, but it would be violated in the most sacred of senses.

A soul should not be touched!

She should not be doing this - some things are better off left alone, untouched by humans. Some things were not meant to be tinkered with…

She felt like a modern day Prometheus, and feared greatly what the Gods' punishment would be.

Souls are inhuman, godly creations, beyond the human casings they came in. But… but they were inevitably what made humans…. human. To mess with something so sacred, so inextricably intertwined with one's being, so purposely beyond human comprehension…

The consequences would be unthinkably severe! She only need think of Harry to confirm her latent fears.

Some. Things. Should. Not. Be. Touched.

Beads of sweat were now streaking down her forehead. Her entire body was screaming at her to listen to her senses and simply leave, get out of this situation by any means.

To die. Kill herself. Run?

Anything was better!

She was panicking and she knew it.

All the feelings and fears she had held bottled up had shot directly to her throat, severely affecting her ability to think, rationalize, let alone breath.

She thought of the war, the injuries. Harry's criminal trials. She thought of Voldemort, his eyes, his sneer. His laughter. The tightness in her throat threatened to expand and implode. She could barely perceive herself gasping for breath. She was coughing but couldn't hear it.

She suddenly thought of her mother. She thought of her father's first work promotion. She thought of her acceptance to Hogwarts. She thought of her favorite food. She thought of why she didn't like pretzels. Ron. His favorite food. Butterflies. Flowers. Rain. Light Rain. A cool light rain. Autumn breezes.

Her heart now fluttering in relief, and she opened her eyes, just barely.

To find Harry's looking right into them.

His right hand was held out, a cool, slightly pulsating wind blowing from it upon her forehead.

Slowly, slowly, she fully opened her eyes, filling them with the emerald green in front of her.

Comfort.

"Whenever you're ready."

She blinked.

Harry closed his eyes and once more resumed his close-lidded visual.

Moments of long silence filled with candlelight flickering passed. A few seconds passed where she feared her thoughts would once again bring her to the hellish demons her mind had succumbed to only a few minutes ago. But, she came to a strange and surprising revelation.

She was ready.

She could do this.

She would do this.

She grabbed her wand tightly, but still maintained a loose enough grip for dexterity. She put the tip just beyond her lips.

And as she inhaled deeply, she thought of the man in front of her. She thought of his eyes only a moment ago – the strong, silent warrior. The ever shining beacon of strength and salvation. The general. The boy. The murderer. The master conniver.

Two very conflicting views.

And yet… as contrasting as all these were. It made sense.

The Gradual Descent.

A continuum.

She knew what his soul had been subjected to. Not precisely, no. But enough. She knew what it had been, and she knew what it was now. As scary as he was, it simply made sense. The memories he had shown her in the pensive swam and mixed with her own and warmth filled her.

She smiled and opened her eyes.

Harry still sat there, placid and patient. The cautious and silent strength he always exuded as strong and potent as ever. To know this man possessed the love and will she knew him to have filled her with pride and devotion.

But she checked herself. What she said wasn't untrue. It just wasn't the entire truth. That part wasn't gone, she told herself, it was broken.

He was broken. His soul was adrift, in pieces, spinning around in unknown and traumatic metaphorical continental drifts. Collisions, crashes, explosions caused the hectic, unpredictable chaotic state Harry now existed in. There was no longer any overarching feeling or sense of direction for him, he had lost that battle long ago and could only reclaim it in rare moments.

Her eyes flicked to his hair, as characteristic as it had been from day one.

Such rare moments…

Such as now.

And how beautiful those moments were.

She would do this. For him. For her. She wanted her Harry back, and she was willing to do even this arcane deed to see him simply harbor the chance to come back. She knew – she knew – that Ron would want it as well. Every one did.

But one thing was for certain.

She did.

And with the self assurance of a person whose heart and intellect were well placed and poised with readiness, she closed her eyes and blew the softest of breaths.

. .

. &&&&&&&&& .

. .

It was at that moment that Harry's eyes opened with a light and ready expectedness. His sharp emerald eyes caught a delicate, translucent silver come from Hermione's finely pursed lips – it was a mist, roiling and churning to its inner crosswinds – and began to shape itself into what he had expected for some time – an otter.

He watched as it frolicked, playing in the air as though it were the sea – swimming, jumping, and pawing across the invisible water until it came upon the floor. It turned, seemingly making eye contact with him – its expression was expectant, curious, and playful.

Harry did not immediately acknowledge the small otter, but took another minute to observe. Then, with a patient air, gestured ever so slightly with his head towards a singular rune. No words were needed, the otter already knew anyhow and it bounded over to the rune.

The otter looked back at him one last time. Harry met its gaze with a stony and deep expression. The otter rolled on its back, pawing at its head, cleaning itself as if in preparation.

As it should be.

Suddenly it spun and took the final few steps and bounded into the rune – the lightning rune – and disappeared.

The runes – all of them – suddenly lit in a low silver glow.

Harry released a slow and steady sigh.

He could hear Hermione slump to the floor, unconscious, as he knew she would.

Her tiny hand fell just into the edges of his peripheral vision, fingers uncurling as her body succumbed to his runic manipulations. Her wand had fallen as well, and had rolled in a semicircle and was now caught within the curls of her hair, currently cushioning and framing her slow fall's resting place.

With a careful gesture he summoned her wand, taking care not to get it caught in her hair in the process.

He caught it and stared at it for a long while. He grabbed a portion of his robes and cleaned her wand. He was meticulous, and it soon looked as he knew it would have looked had she been at her home, her normal life, as it would be if he weren't in it.

He crawled over to her prostrate form, only a couple feet away and slipped her wand between her despondent and motionless fingers. With a very purposefully tender gesture he put his hand around hers, clasping her fingers around her wand, letting go only when he was sure the wand would not fall from her new grasp.

He backed away to his original spot, still staring at her. A few long moments passed.

His eyes looked away from her with a slow and assured turn, and he took a deep breath.

With absolutely no hesitation he closed his eyes, brought his wand tip up smoothly to his mouth, and blew softly.

Unlike Hermione, he did not know for sure what form would come from his mouth – or equivalently, his soul.

He had done this many times in lesser procedures, and each time a different creature came out – yet another of the dozens of signs of his inner chaotic turmoil.

So it was with closed eyes that his white misted creature bounded in after Hermione's otter. He needn't look for any sort of confirmation of its type, it would only bring more pain.

But had he looked, had he opened his eyes, even he might not have even been able to push down a surging glint of pride from blossoming in his emerald eyes upon seeing what did come forth from his mangled soul – Prongs.

Prongs, who had lied dormant for so many, many years, came bounding with inexorable majestic pride, loping elegantly out of his wand and careening gracefully after the otter, his long lost friend.

The runes flashed once more, this time much brighter and vibrant, but Harry made no note of it as his limp and unconscious form slumped to the floor.

. .

. &&&&&&&&& .

. .

Hermione woke up gasping for breath in dry, heaving coughs.

She couldn't see – not really – only spare images would stay with any sort of consistency within her massively confused mind. Spinning, blurring, turning, morphing… she was only aware she was moving all directions at once but her body wasn't moving at all.

She couldn't hear. She couldn't feel. Something was off. Something was wrong. Many things were wrong.

Was she in shock? She didn't know. She continued to be fed images of the room, her memories, and the shady projections of both of them combined in her mind.

Silence – silence - silence

But she could feel her body moving. She was writhing, twisting, shaking. Why? Why?

WHY?

Her breathing was something close to a panic attack but her mind just couldn't keep up with the chaos her body seemed to be possessed with, and she simply saw it all as a smooth, thick, dreamlike state. It was fluidic, and intensely viscous.

Minutes, hours of this state passed by. Perhaps seconds, she had no idea.

But then frames began to piece together in her mind to form a continuous stream of meaningful imagery.

She saw her room, dark.

She saw her body reeling as though repetitively being scalded with hot boiling oil. One moment her face was looking at the ceiling, another moment the walls, the next shaking violently upon the hard wooden floor.

At one point she saw Harry. Motionless. She saw Harry again. Motionless.

Her right arm was twitching uncontrollably, but she merely stared at it as if in wonder. A stupor.

Her mind was so lethargic, completely unable to process anything, as she watched in and with muted silence as her body contorted in some sort of pain that she currently had no sense of feeling at all of.

Which was good, because felt herself tighten and her entire body finally go still, she began an elongated, prolonged yawning position.

And screamed.

That was when her hearing senses came back.

She couldn't even control it, the very roots of her own being were coming out in an unearthly, horrific scream that tore the very rafters with its intensity. Her mouth simply gaped open as it came ravaging out with its terrible loudness. It simply just kept coming out, she had no control.

And then it stopped, and she became aware. Her mind had returned to her. It was at this moment she became acutely aware of EVERYTHING. Every little thing! This was when she felt the wrongness, the emptiness, the horror of what had happened and was currently reaping its gleeful destruction upon her soul.

Her mind went into immediate overload. And it was at this moment she felt.

She had never experienced so much pain. No other physical pain could compare. Indeed she could not even pinpoint a physical place where it did hurt, because she hurt. The sensory neurons were not the ones telling her of this pain, it was her telling of her pain. Her soul. Her soul had been scalded, burnt with sharp laser-like precision and the open incisions bled and bit in the open air.

Her soul had been riven. Her body and soul were currently experiencing the worse pain she had ever felt, by miles. Nothing, absolutely nothing was functioning, she was a shell, just barely existing. She felt her body and her mind begin to shut down, as the sheer pain overtook them both.

With monumental effort, probably taking many minutes, she made her first controlled mental process - her decision had been made.

The pain was completely unbearable.

Accept what's been given to you.

She began to slowly, inexorably move her eyelids down, to shut forever. She watched with an outsider's eye as the ceiling she had spent so much time staring at over the past few months became a thinner and thinner slit until it was nearly no more.

And so it was with great surprise that she saw a shadow cross the tiny slits that still left her eyes uncovered, and felt a heaviness upon her shoulder.

A muted but distinct voice pierced her darkness.

Faster than the closing, her eyes opened and were met by the most piercingly periwinkle blue eyes she had ever encountered.

It took her some time to realize that she'd seen them before. She knew them. With a newfound sense of urgency she begged her mind and eyes to simply focus, to turn the spinning, blurry scene in front of her to what she thought – she hoped and prayed – it would show her.

The blue eyes were the key, the pivot point to steady her inner chaos.

Minutes dragged by, finally the vision steadied, and the blurriness became sharp. Her intake of breath was violent and gasping.

"Welcome back, Hermione."

Albus Dumbledore knelt beside her.

Tears immediately began to swell and fall from her eyes, and she fumbled for both the phrasing and the motor skills to say something – anything…

"You too, Professor…" she gulped down a surge of hot emotion, "you too."

. .

. &&&&&&&&& .

. .