Put a disclaimer here.
Put a disclaimer here.
sigh Simon says put a disclaimer here.
Harry Potter and other recognized persons, places, and things are not mine.
Author's note: This story takes place during Hermione's sixth year at Hogwarts, but events are slightly AU before the story begins and then get more AU as it progresses. I wouldn't think it necessary to say that a fanfic is AU, but I have gotten a lot of complaints lately about events that do not follow canon.
"Harry, I've been doing some thinking." Hermione had not seen Harry over the summer and yesterday had been too busy with performing both her prefect duties and Ron's on the train and at the Welcoming Feast. She was glad he'd come down early this morning so she could have a quiet word.
"Gee, there's a surprise. What was it today, the E equals MC squared of magic or thinking up a way to stomp Voldemort into a greasy stain?"
"Uh, Hermione, that was a joke."
"I'm serious, Harry. We, the decent, non-prejudiced part of the magical world, need to defeat not only Voldemort but his Death Eaters, as well as his unmarked followers. Changing the political and social structure which gives rise to Dark Lords is a longer-term goal but no less important."
"Er, that sounds like a tall order. Can I just work on the first part and let someone else take the rest?"
"I'm glad you asked. Would you be interested in training to fight? This would be something like last year's DA. Rather, the mirror image of the DA, with the difference being that I and perhaps others would be training you rather than you training everyone else."
Harry frowned. "Do you think you'd be able to train me enough? And do you think it's the right thing to do? Dumbledore told me last night – he called me up after the feast, did you notice? – he told me that he'll be giving me special lessons. But they'll be up in his office, so it can't be super-powered spells or fighting practice. But Dumbledore has to have the right plan, right? Although he's never taught me anything more than anyone else gets or had anyone else teach me. Except for Snape and his Occlumency 'lessons', and you know how well that worked. And last night he said the key to defeating Voldemort is to understand him. It doesn't make sense, but it's Dumbledore, you know? He has to have a plan, right?"
"Regardless of any other special lessons you might receive, spell-casting practice can only help you, Harry. I suggest we discuss long-term plans later. For now, are you willing to train to fight? I will keep up and work with you to the best of my ability but we both know that, in terms of power and practical application, you far exceed my skills. Most of my assistance will be as coach."
"Whatever you think best, Hermione. You've always been the brains of our group." The two exchanged warm smiles. Best friends forever.
Hermione was pleased to see Harry drag himself to the seventh floor five minutes before the designated start time despite the beastly hour and despite the argument with the Weasleys which lasted until she and the Seventh Year prefects came down to the common room to break it up. She didn't really know a hex to remove his bits and store them in a jar, but she had no intention of telling him that. Nor that she would never use it on him even if she did know one. From a simple biological perspective the wizarding world needed Harry to have children. Many children, ideally by many mothers. Hermione hypothesized that inbreeding had led to the spread of an undesirable mutation within the magical population, a mutation which made people unable to use deductive logic or other critical thinking. She wasn't sure how to test her hypothesis, though news from America of improvements in DNA sequencing gave one possible approach. But that was for the future.
"Good morning, Harry. I hope you're ready for an hour of pain." Hermione had read up on coaching and training and motivational speaking. She'd decided that pushing him until he collapsed would be the best approach to start with. She wasn't worried that Harry would drop out after the first day. He'd promised to do everything she told him for at least two weeks and he would never break a promise to her, even if he didn't think she'd hex his bits into a jar.
"For future reference, think of 'Hermione's Combat Training Room' if you want to use the Room when I'm not here." She led Harry into a large room with dummies and targets all around. "I have bonded with Winky and am having her stay inside to keep the Room locked in this configuration when we're not here. Yes, we'll talk about that later." She needed Winky and the elf had refused to be shamed by being a mere hireling. Compromising on her moral stance regarding slavery had been one of Hermione's more difficult decisions. However, if she was going to train Harry to fight to kill, her sacrifice was tiny by comparison. And it made Winky so happy, though the properly-trained little elf almost immediately started nagging her new mistress to marry into a pureblood family.
Winky went off to do whatever house elves did when their mistresses did not need them while Harry and Hermione did a few warmup exercises to knock the dust off their wands after a magic-free summer and then went down to the middle of the targets and dummies and began power blasting. The plan was for them to tire themselves out and then work on precise control of whatever power they had left. One book said this was the most effective way, outside of forbidden rituals, to increase power and control at the same time. Most wizards didn't put themselves through this because it was too much work and too much pain for something most didn't need. But of course most wizards didn't have a kill-or-be-killed relationship with a Dark Lord.
Although she was focusing on her own efforts, Hermione couldn't help but note that Harry's blasting spells were knocking large chunks out of his dummies while her own were merely digging little divots. Focusing her attention more intensely, Hermione concentrated on precision in her wand movements and verbalization and pushed every bit of intent she could out her wand. The result was … a slightly larger divot. Frowning, she continued for another few minutes before she simply didn't have the magical strength for another blasting hex.
After Harry collapsed a few minutes later — he'd done ten minutes of full-power spells followed by ten minutes of ever-weaker precision hexes — Hermione began the second portion of the day's training. Looking on the bright side, she'd always expected that Harry would be carrying the heavy load. It was encouraging to see just how heavy a load he could carry.
"Each day as you stretch, cool down, and refill your magical reserves, I plan to review theory, discuss tactics, go over pertinent history, and so on. I know you don't much care for lessons other than practical, hands-on casting, but it is important. Also, because you promised me only one hour for training each morning, if you want less lecture you'll have to build up your magical reserves so you can use more of the hour casting spells." Harry gave her a weak smile, all he was capable of at the moment.
"Today I will outline my reasons for training you to defeat Voldemort. This is a discussion, not a lecture, so feel free to ask questions at any time. After you catch your breath, of course.
"If you look back at everything I've seen and everything you've told me about your life, you will see a few unifying themes. An obvious one is Voldemort, of course. But even more important is Dumbledore. He left you with the Dursleys, ensuring that you would grow up not only ignorant of your heritage but unloved and abused and he sends you back there every summer.
"I'm sorry, Harry. I don't mean to offend or hurt you, but this needs to be said. And be warned, it may get worse.
"Dumbledore allows Snape — and, yes, I omitted 'Professor' — to be an unprofessional bastard. And, yes, I know what I said and I know what you're about to say, so don't bother saying 'Language, Hermione!' Any other accurate term I could have chosen would have been harsher. And of course he's especially biased against you. Dumbledore and McGonagall never do anything to reign Snape in. The same goes for the abuse you take from other students, especially Malfoy. Dumbledore didn't make any announcement on your behalf when most of the school thought you were a cheater in the Triwizard Tournament. Neither Dumbledore nor McGonagall did a single thing to rein in Umbridge's reign of terror last year, nor even do or say anything about the lies printed in the Daily Prophet."
Harry didn't look very pleased to hear his life dissected but he wasn't arguing with her.
"Combine this with his knowledge of the prophecy since before you were born and his failure to provide any extra training for the past five years – and, no, those so-called Occlumency lessons last Winter don't count – and the only conclusion I can draw is that Dumbledore does not expect you to beat Voldemort by skill. Instead, he's toughening you up. He thinks you need to kill Voldemort and somehow being tough enough to keep going when the whole world is against you is a key to it. If that analysis is correct, I don't know how he expects you to succeed. If that analysis is incorrect, I don't know why he isn't teaching you the skills you'll need to win. Either way, for now I'll assume he has a plan and will give you special instruction before long. The other alternative is that Dumbledore is incompetent. I don't think that he's simply incompetent, because of his enviable record of accomplishments, but it's possible that he's gone senile.
"If it comes down to demanding lessons from Dumbledore, you do have one powerful advantage: If the prophecy is true, then they need you much more than you need them. If you use that wisely, you should be able to get a great many concessions this year.
"As for my reasons for helping you, an important one is, of course, our friendship." Harry smiled through the pain of an abdominal cramp and held a hand on her arm. She noticed but didn't mention the grubby sweat stain he left. "But just as importantly, I am now officially a target of the Death Eaters. Thanks to the articles in the Prophet, it's well known that I, Hermione Granger, fought Death Eaters last June. Now I'm more than that Muggleborn girl who does well in classes and is Harry Potter's friend. Now I'm the only Muggleborn who fought the Death Eaters, as the Prophet so kindly emphasized.
"Daddy and Mum were furious when they found out, of course. They withdrew me from Hogwarts and we travelled to the States to look at schooling there. That's why I wasn't able to contact you all summer, although from what Ron and Ginny told me it wouldn't have made any difference if I had been here because Dumbledore isolated you again.
"But then, after we found a school and an apartment and friends, the Ministry and Dumbledore reached out and hauled me back. Even after I'm an adult by their laws I can't leave Hogwarts. Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic are as big a threat to me as Voldemort and his Death Eaters ever were. Voldemort and his followers are a more immediate threat, however, and so we should focus on them."
"And finally, I'm taking the time to coach you, and got your promise to work with me, because, frankly, you lack the motivation and self-discipline to do it on your own. I will attempt to focus your motivation and I will discipline you as I deem necessary."
Hermione's voice caught in her throat and both teens blushed bright red at her last words.
"Ahem. I think that's enough for today. Let's decamp to the dorm and get ready for breakfast."
Training continued daily at the crack of pre-dawn. Hermione focused on training Harry to fight hard, fight fast, and fight dirty. That was his greatest need at the moment and that would have the fastest pay-off for time spent. She was training him to survive an ambush, whether by a group of Death Eaters or here in Hogwarts by the Slytherin quidditch team. Not that there was much difference between those groups, which took her right back to Dumbledore's ineffectuality and the reason she was getting up well before dawn every day to prepare training plans and to coach Harry.
"Keep going with the bone breakers, Harry." As was the case every day, Hermione could keep up the attack spells less than a quarter as long as Harry could. She still put in the effort every morning, but it was increasingly obvious that her primary role was as coach, not fighter. It was in any event convenient that Harry could outlast her so dramatically: she had time to catch her breath and get a drink of water before he started getting tired and needing encouragement. "Move it, Potter! You can squeeze out another dozen, and dodge to the side after each one. Push as hard as you can. See if you can make those bones explode." The Room of Requirement was very accommodating in providing training materials. Case in point, it gave Harry an unlimited number of pig carcasses to slice, batter, and explode. Hermione reflected that soon she should ask it to provide human corpses, or realistic facsimiles, so Harry would not be disturbed when he had to slice off an opponent's head.
Dolohov had opened Hermione's eyes. Four months ago she would have vigorously worked to keep Harry from using anything harsher than a stunner. She had bought thoroughly into the commonly blatted wisdom about mercy to your enemies, not sinking to their level, allowing them a chance to redeem themselves.
Last June, she had seen the hate in Dolohov's eyes, heard it in his words, felt it when her torso was sliced almost in half. Give him a second chance? He'd use it only to take another shot at her. No, when it came to Death Eaters, just kill them all and let their souls find their proper place. Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet. Arnaud-Amaury might not be the best role model for a teenage girl, but this was war.
"Good, Harry! Now another dozen, and this time control the power so they just break the bone. Don't explode the bones and you don't want them to break through the skin."
The physical and magical portion of every day's training varied: speed in getting a curse out, memorizing chains of spells, pinpoint accuracy, shielding, dodging, dodging and shooting at the same time, hitting a moving target, shielding in one direction while attacking in another. The list was endless, but every day included power, power, power. It was clear even from the beginning that Harry was a powerhouse. Who knew? Maybe "the power he knows not" was sheer battering force, simplistic though that interpretation was.
The "schoolwork" portion of the training was just as varied. Learning to identify spells by color or speed or a fragment of the incantation. Learning the best shield for different spells and the best "cracker" for each shield. The history of Voldemort's first rise, his tactics, and the biographies and styles of his Death Eaters. Politics and finance and wizarding culture as they affected Voldemort's second rise.
Hermione had to make up the training regimen from scratch. Flourish and Blotts didn't carry many duelling manuals and the Hogwarts library had none. The few which Hermione had found all concentrated on the rules of the arena and a handful of tricks useless in a life-or-death fight. Flitwick had been no use, telling her that Dumbledore had made it clear that there were to be no more duelling clubs and no duelling training in school. The mess that Lockhart and Snape had made four years ago had poisoned that well. The only somewhat useful thing Flitwick had to offer was the observation that most of the education in duelling came from apprenticeships or the school of hard knocks. Hermione deduced that skilled duellists didn't write useful books partly because the market was too small to make the book royalties worth the effort of writing a book and partly to avoid giving an edge to potential opponents. Auror, hit wizard, and magical soldier manuals either didn't exist or were not available for sale to ordinary magical subjects, or at least not to filthy mudbloods.
Hermione was sure there is a better way to learn all this. Auror training supposedly took three years, but that probably included on-the-job training or rookie year or whatever they called it. It seemed implausible that the ministry was willing to pay trainees to go to school for three years before getting the first day's real work out of them. On the other hand, this was the Ministry of Magic. Now that she thought about it, it seemed quite likely that tax money collected from everyone would be used to pay young purebloods from the right families for three years. On the other, other hand, a nation would fall to invaders if it took months or years to train magical soldiers for combat.
Harry got up to the training room on time every morning. He performed all of the drills with no more than a few good-natured complaints, and he was attentive during the lecture after the workout. And every day as they walked back to the dorms he'd say some variant of, "Thank you so much, Hermione. You're the only one in the world who's helping me." Even if her own safety weren't on the line, Harry's sincere appreciation would make all this worthwhile.
But that was of course the point of all this. Her own safety was on the line. She had tried to run away, then once she was dragged back she set out to turn Harry into the sword and shield which would keep her safe. Hermione felt guilty about accepting Harry's thanks and redoubled her efforts to train him up to his potential. She was already reaching the point of diminishing returns in increasing her own power level. She would continue to train every day — she hurt all the time but she would accept that because she was the reason that Harry was going through the same thing — but she wasn't going to be able to defeat Death Eaters by herself.
"Hermione, I've been thinking."
"I'm glad to hear it, though you owe me royalties for stealing my line."
"Half of your job as my coach is to keep me motivated, right? The other half, doing the research and putting together the training schedule, you're doing great. I couldn't ask for a better coach. But the motivation, don't you think you could work a little harder on that?"
Hermione felt the tiny frisson of resentment that came every time her efforts were questioned or criticized but she tamped it down with the ease of long experience. Besides, she was making this up as she went and Harry could well have a legitimate criticism or suggestion. "What did you have in mind? I'm doing the best that I can but I'm as new at this as you are."
"I think that it would be easier to get up to the training room so early every morning if I had something to look forward to. Like, say, a pretty girl in a bikini."
"Boys! Purely for the sake of discussion, whom did you have in mind? Oh. Well, thank you, Harry. I do appreciate the compliment but I don't think it's a good idea. I don't want to lead you on when I can't really see us together that way. This time last year, certainly, but since this past summer I, ah…. Let's just say you're too boyish for my present tastes. That's in addition to the hazard of distraction when you are casting full-power, destructive spells." Despite her dismissive words, Hermione was very flattered at Harry's praise. She felt she was being nothing but honest with herself when she rated her figure as "adequate" and her face as "mostly not too bad". Despite the impression she had made at last year's Yule Ball, she didn't have a line of Hogwarts boys asking her out. That was one reason she had been so glad to make a friend, a special friend, so quickly over the summer. It had done her self-esteem a world of good and helped her to deal with all the stress of the past year.
"Aw, does that mean you won't even consider my idea for a dominatrix outfit when you're cracking the whip? Ouch! Really, that's a good point about distraction. At this morning's practice, near the end of my first set, you were all sweaty and your clothes were sticking to you and, ah, did you notice I completely exploded that one pig? Problem was, it was the wrong pig. I saw your wet, sweaty, sticky shirt and really blasted. We're just lucky I hit another pig and not Winky or my foot."
Harry was blushing bright. Fortunately, he didn't see her blushing as well. She could only think, Thank God I wore a bra this morning.
"So, do you think you could wear a sweatshirt on top of your T-shirt? Or else go all in and wear the bikini. Either is okay with me."
Life at Hogwarts continued as expected. In terms of classwork, NEWT classes weren't much harder for Hermione than OWL-level classes. She'd brewed a NEWT-level potion when she was thirteen, after all, and over the course of the previous year had built an encyclopedic knowledge of curses, hexes, and shields. The amount of homework, however, was daunting even for her. And, to her dismay, Hermione began to find that her ability to perform the more advanced spells didn't come near to matching her theoretical knowledge. Her practical skills were easily within the NEWT range, but not up in the "phenomenal" range she'd dreamed of. Nor even enough to stand by Harry in a fight.
What was different this year from last was the behavior of certain members of the student body, with "certain members" being a pretty euphemism for "children of Death Eaters". About half of the older Slytherin boys, in particular, swaggered around the school like they owned the place. Mudblood became the most common word used by certain students. "Now that the Dark Lord has returned, Mudbloods will learn their place." Dumbledore did nothing to stop them, of course. Nor did any of the teachers, so long as the harassment didn't take place right under their noses and they could pretend they hadn't heard anything.
"Move, stupid firsties! Don't you know to get out of the way of your betters?" Malfoy had been more full of himself than usual all year, even more so than his classmates. More full of himself than he should have been, considering that his father had been arrested in Death Eater garb a few months before. Today, he and Lump1 and Lump2 were marching side-by-side down the hallway, leaving no room for anyone to fit by.
Hermione's glare, honed by a year as a prefect in an unruly house, caused Lump1 to shift aside before he would have plowed into her. Lump1 bumped into Malfoy, who bumped into Lump2, who sent a firstie flying.
"Mister Crabbe! What are you doing, bullying a younger student like that? Five points from Slytherin." Hermione knew that taking points from a Slytherin was pointless, as Snape would reverse deductions by any other house's prefects, but she was showing the younger students how it was supposed to work.
"Oh, yah? Well, I'm taking ten points from you for being an uppity Mudblood, Gra–" Whatever Malfoy had been about to say was lost as a stinging hex came out of nowhere to hit him on the mouth. The next few moments had a flurry of the nearly-invisible hex peppering the three bullies until they retreated in disorder.
Hermione took Harry to task in the break after the next class. "Harry, I appreciate the back-up earlier today, but you should hide your skills until you need them. Today, Malfoy was just being his usual ass self. It wasn't important enough to let the secret out. Ah, you have kept our training quiet, haven't you?"
"Yah, I've kept it quiet. Who would I tell? Ron and Ginny cut me off again over the summer. From what you say, it was Dumbledore's orders, but you know? I don't care. They came with me last June, so if they ever really need help I'll help them, but they're not my friends anymore. I don't really trust them any more. Neville's been avoiding me, I don't know why. And Luna … ah, have you noticed, she's, ah, loonier than she used to be? I tried telling Flitwick, but he blew me off. He said that if there was a serious problem, as head of house he'd know. I was thinking of writing a letter to her father, but everyone says he's crazier than she is. I don't know what to do. I want to help her or at least see if she needs help, but I don't know how. Anyway, I can't tell her anything private. Who knows what she'd do with it?"
"I'll see if I can think of something to do for Luna, Harry. Neville sometimes talks to me, though he's even shyer than he used to be. I'll ask him – gently! – if he's upset with you.
"But aside from a lack of anyone to tell, do you agree that you need to keep your training secret and that you should not reveal your new abilities?"
"Yes, Hermione. I mean, Yes, Coach. But don't worry. Before I plinked the pinheads, I disillusioned myself, then shot from behind a suit of armor. No one saw me."
Satisfied, Hermione let it drop. "Excellent, Harry. That's all I ask. Shall we get started on homework? It's still an hour until dinner." Homework for the Nastily Exhausting courses was piling up already. With Harry's quidditch captaincy, her correspondence courses in history and creative writing, her prefect duties, and, of course, their extra training, they were busy every waking minute of every long day. Hermione thought seriously about turning in her prefect's badge, especially when waking up very early after an evening patrol, but for now the privileges were worth the time and effort the position required.
Malfoy continued his aggressive idiocy. An article in the Prophet explained it: one of Fudge's last acts before being removed from office was to lead the trial of the Death Eaters who'd been caught in the ministry last June. They'd spent barely a week in Azkaban and were now walking around free. It had been determined by Fudge, in his role as interrogator, that there was nothing to charge them with but trespassing, and if the adults were charged, then so must the students and Dumbledore's Order be. A clear majority of the Wizengamot – notably including several members whom Hermione recognized as having Death Eaters in their families – agreed to the dismissal of all charges against the eleven who'd been in custody. Strangely, even those who'd escaped from Azkaban had all charges dismissed. Why this hadn't been mentioned months ago was anyone's guess. Corruption on top of incompetence, was Hermione's guess.
Harry wasn't happy when he saw the article. Nor was he surprised. "We already talked about not using stunners when I'm fighting more than one enemy. I think we need to plan on never using stunners even against only one. And you had already figured that you wanted to look at reforming the ministry and everything after I beat Voldemort. Do you still want to do that, or is this too much? Do you want to just leave after? Or even, do you want to leave now? Leave all these idiots to Voldemort? I would go with you if you wanted. Except for you, I don't have anything keeping me here."
"Oh, Harry, I do love you, too. If only… But I can't leave. I told you at the beginning of the school year but perhaps I didn't make it clear. I can't leave Hogwarts. Dumbledore told me that the magical world needs you to have ties to us – to them – but that due to 'mistakes' you had lost all of your ties. He 'regretted the necessity', but 'sacrifices must be made' for the 'greater good' to give you ties to Wizarding Britain. He then took some of my blood and set wards. I can be away from the school only about eight hours at a time before my blood starts to heat. The train ride up was just barely inside the limit."
Harry's lips were a white line. "Tell me, Hermione. What is a Dark Lord? And are we sure Voldemort is the Dark Lord I'm supposed to kill?"
Hermione could have pointed out that, to her knowledge, Dumbledore did not delight in torturing people. But the psychological tortures he had condoned had damaged Harry as much as any Cruciatus curse. Dumbledore professed to be working for the good of all, but that might not be a distinction, either. Who knows what Voldemort's – Tom Riddle's – goal had been before he went insane and started killing people? Dumbledore, by contrast, was insane in his refusal to allow killing. His lofty-minded ideals led to more deaths and suffering.
"I don't think Dumbledore is evil. I don't think he is."
"I didn't say evil, Hermione. The prophecy mentioned a Dark Lord. If we believe it and the old fraud didn't just pull it from a bottle of sherry, then the words 'Dark Lord' must be important."
"I'll research that, Harry. It's possible there is a specific meaning. None of this, however, affects your training. Voldemort has tried to kill you at least six times and is unlikely to stop. You have to be ready for him and his followers."
"Maybe. I'm sorry, Hermione. It's my fault you're trapped here. In the middle of summer I got fed up and left Number 4, Privation Drive. When my 'minders' caught up to me – and it didn't take long because they had tracking charms on me – when they caught me I wasn't able to fight them because I was so hungry and because they took my wand after I'd used it to defend myself from Vernon the week before – Dumbledore's orders, they said, because I have to 'keep a low profile and not draw attention'.
"When they brought me to Dumbledore and he was 'so disappointed in you, Harry', I lost it. I yelled at him that I had no friends and no family and no reason to stay where someone's trying to kill me and no one looking out for me and why the hell should I stay and fight for all these assholes?" Hermione pulled a face. "You have to understand, I hadn't eaten in four days, and had a couple broken ribs because the Dursleys had been worse than before because of Dumbledore's idiots threatening them right when I got off the train in June, and everyone abandoned me, and then they stunned me and kidnapped me and Dumbledore tried to lay a guilt trip on me."
"Oh, Harry… I was one of your friends and I abandoned you, too."
"I'm not blaming you. You're my best friend, always have been, always will be. You tried to get away to save your life and I'll never blame you for that. If you had asked me, I'd have told you to do it. But you couldn't ask. Owls were blocked, post was blocked, and my minders were monitoring the telephone. Hey, want to hear something funny? Dudley got himself a girlfriend last year at school. He spent the whole summer on the telephone, talking long distance. Vernon had to pay the charges and the Order of the Phoenix jailers had to listen to it.
"So anyway, I don't blame you. I do blame the Weasleys, Ron and Ginny, I mean. They have their own owls and Bill was one of my guards. They could have gotten a message to me if they'd wanted to. But Dumbledore told them not to, so they didn't even try. They admitted it on the train when they came to find me and tried to act like everything was normal. Dobby was the only one who talked to me. He's the only reason I'm still alive now. He got me food after the Dursleys stopped feeding me and locked me in and I couldn't get out because those idiots took my wand. He wanted to bond with me and I couldn't tell him No. That's why I was glad to see that you had bonded with Winky, because then you couldn't yell at me for it."
Hermione gave Harry a shove on the shoulder, then hugged him. "What are we going to do, Harry?"
"I don't know. One thing at a time, I guess. Why are you asking me? You're the brains of this operation."
"You're right, of course. I am, aren't I? Not only the brains but the beauty, though I'll admit the competition was hardly fierce in either arena."
"Watch it, you, or your head won't fit through the door. Even without that bush you carry around on your head."
Hermione shoved Harry again. "You're one to talk. What's with this wind-tousled look? You have showered since the last time you flew, haven't you?
"Back on topic, you keep up with your training. I'll think about long-term strategy for getting us both free. You'll need to keep yourself alive and I'll need you to keep me alive. And as you say, one thing at a time."
As before, Draco Malfoy continued with his bloodline-based insults. Hermione couldn't honestly say he was worse to her than to, say, Muggleborn firsties, but he was certainly worse than he had been for the past five years.
"Be careful, Mudblood. If you don't watch your back, maybe you'll never leave Hogwarts."
In other circumstances, Malfoy's verbal sniping would have been no more annoying than it had been for the previous five years. That is to say, intolerable, but forced by the Hogwarts adults to be tolerated.
In these circumstances, with Hermione's best friend knowing that she could not leave Hogwarts and that she was targeted by Death Eaters and forced to "sacrifice for the greater good" by the nominal good guys, Malfoy's verbal sniping was not tolerated.
Dumbledore spoke to the student body at dinner the next day. It was a command performance, with attendance at the dinner mandatory for all students and staff.
"Yesterday, as I am sure you all know, Draco Malfoy was injured in an anonymous, cowardly, and almost fatal attack."
It was a given that almost everyone knew that Malfoy had been thrown down several flights of stairs even though no one had actually seen anything. It must have been deliberate, whether a suicide attempt by himself or an act on somebody else's part, because that staircase had anti-tripping charms because of its height and potential for serious accidents. Half a dozen aurors had questioned any student who had been anywhere near the event or might know something about it or might have had a motive to perpetrate it. That notably included Harry, who had been interrogated no fewer than three times in the past twenty-four hours.
"I must emphasize again that we will not abide any attacks at all, let alone those of such a serious nature." Dumbledore talked over Harry's snort. "We must maintain Hogwarts's reputation as the safest place in Britain." Here he had to stop for a moment. The mocking laughter came from more than just the one student. Fixing a fierce glare on Harry, Dumbledore continued. "I offer leniency to the culprit or culprits if they turn themselves in now. Otherwise, I will have no choice but to expel whoever attempted to murder Mister Malfoy as soon as he is identified. And never doubt, whoever you are, that I will find you." There was no derisive, teenage laughter after this statement, possibly because the headmaster looked truly angry.
Hermione thought that Harry looked as if he wanted to say something. Surreptitiously elbowing him in the ribs, she fixed him with her fiercest glare and shook her head minutely. Harry subsided.
In the Room of Requirement the next morning, Hermione braced Harry.
"We have to work on your emotional control, Harry. What you did to Malfoy – and I know it must have been you because it couldn't have been anyone else – could have gotten you arrested. Or worse, expelled." Hermione gave Harry a moment to smile at the reference. "Seriously, Harry, I do appreciate your standing up for me, but it's too risky. You're lucky the aurors didn't realize you'd done it and arrest you. We need you to kill real threats like Lucius, not pests like Draco."
"It wasn't just luck with the aurors. You know how you had me reading up on Occlumency and Legilimency in all my free time?"
"Yes, I recognize your sarcasm, Harry. Do you mean to say that you've managed to become an occlumens?"
"No, it looks like Slime Master Snape has permanently damaged my mind so I can't learn it. Instead, I invented another way to shield my mind. I just build myself up so I really, really hate whoever's trying to read my mind. All-consuming hate."
"That's quite clever. I can see how the overwhelming emotion would cloud your thoughts."
"Right, that's pretty much what the Legilimency book said. I think the aurors were surprised that I hated them so much, but tough. They shouldn't have been trying to read my mind without permission. And if they report that I'm emotionally disturbed, I don't care. I spent all last year with people thinking that and I don't care what they think anymore."
"Very good, Harry, but let's return to the topic. As I said, you need to work on controlling your emotions. The good news is that your new training will not add to your morning or evening routine. The bad news is how you'll be doing it. I want you to smile and speak politely to Malfoy whenever he insults you or me. Respond to physical or magical attacks, certainly, but so long as it's only words, you are to be polite and cheerful. Another bit of good news is that this will certainly drive him up the wall."
Hermione thought that this discipline would not be hard for Harry to learn. Re-learn, rather. Over the past few weeks he'd told her about his childhood. He'd been forced to act and speak politely and submissively to the Dursleys no matter how they insulted him and his parents. He'd be building up aggravation that would have to be vented, but that's why their training room had practice dummies.
As expected, Harry picked up the "new" discipline very quickly. By the second day, his cheerful demeanor was uncrackable.
"Hey, Scarhead! I'm talking to you!"
As expected, Harry's outward indifference to childish taunts drove Malfoy crazy very quickly.
"Oh, you must pardon me, Malfoy. I didn't notice you. But now that you're here, I have a gift for you."
Malfoy looked at the brightly-colored paperback book Harry handed him. "Snappy Put-Downs for Dummies? What is this Muggle garbage?"
"Your insults are pathetic and repetitive. You clearly aren't smart enough to make up new insults on your own, so I'm helping you to expand your repertoire. It's the least I can do for my slightly slow cousin."
Point for Harry. Malfoy's mouth was working soundlessly. Hermione winked at her friend as they continued on their way.
Harry had arrived late to training one Sunday morning after a couple of weeks and he did poorly in the drills. Hermione wasn't surprised. Dumbledore had finally started special training for the designated vanquisher of the Dark Lord. It must have run very late last night, as Harry hadn't returned to the dorms by midnight, when Hermione finally packed up and headed up from the common room. And today, for the first time, he did worse than he had the day before. Much worse.
"Dumbledore had me up in his office most of the night," Harry told her after she'd called a halt to the brutal beat-down. He had done terribly. He was obviously tired before he started and couldn't focus. To his credit, he hadn't given up even when he couldn't stand, couldn't see, and had to hold his wand in his left hand. Winky was able to perform some basic healing, as all elves were, but her services had rarely been needed. Today she needed to patch up dozens of burns and cuts while Hermione undid the handful of minor hexes still affecting Harry. "He said he'd be teaching me to beat Voldemort — Sounds like a great idea, right? Dumbledore finally teaching me something useful? — except he didn't say 'beat' or 'kill' or even 'vanquish'. He said 'overcome'. And all he did was show me a memory from a hundred years ago, about Voldemort's – Riddle's – family. And then talk about the memory and his family and his mother. And talk, and talk. When I asked how a memory of Voldemort's uncle and grandfather was going to help me in a fight against him and his Death Eaters, Dumbledore said that understanding Riddle was more important than fighting him. I'm supposed to understand what made Riddle turn out the way he did, understand all the hardships in his life. And he kept talking and talking. I think he was trying to wear me down into sympathizing with Riddle. He's lost it, Hermione, he really has.
"There's another thing. His hand is rotting, have you noticed? He keeps a glamour on it, so unless you're close or around for a while, you don't see it. He tried to tell me it was just an accident but I could see the dark magic on it. I wonder if that's rotting his brain or if his brain was already rotting."
The revelations about Dumbledore's hand and possible senility changed nothing for Hermione's plans and goals. She'd expected to be training Harry by herself with no help from the Hogwarts staff. If anything, this year the teachers had destroyed the last remnants of automatic respect for authority which had managed to survive five years of life and education at Hogwarts. Flitwick was unwilling to go against foolish orders from the headmaster. Sprout had made a few derogatory comments to her Hufflepuffs about Harry's penchant for "causing" trouble and advised them to keep their distance. (Something similar explained Neville keeping his distance. His grandmother had in effect grounded him over the summer and browbeaten him about how "That Potter" would be the death of him.) "You don't want to end up like poor Cedric Diggory." Even McGonagall had rebuked Hermione for thinking she knew better than the adults when it came to Harry's education. That had been the single most devastating blow. Harry had complained a few times over the years that McGonagall was useless as a head of house and even as an allegedly responsible adult when it came to problems and danger to the students in her charge, but Hermione had not seen it first-hand since first year. The elderly witch's resolute words, firm control of the classroom, and no-nonsense attitude had impressed and inspired Hermione for years, but when push came to shove McGonagall was unwilling to exert herself for the students in her care unless it supported whatever game Dumbledore was playing. And now Dumbledore, the ultimate authority in the school and the leading light of Wizarding Britain, was no better.
There was nothing for it but to continue with the plan. By the beginning of October, after four weeks of Hermione's training program, Harry was doing very well. Very well. In terms of spell power and speed and accuracy, Hermione had to constantly update the schedule for increasing the challenge level. Harry was constantly exceeding even her most optimistic projections.
Events one afternoon made clear just how much her friend had advanced. Hermione came to a hallway intersection in which Snape stood berating Harry while McGonagall looked on and Madame Pomphrey tended to what appeared to be the entire Slytherin quidditch team and a few other Slytherin upperclassman.
"I told you, they all ambushed me from three directions. All I did was defend myself and make sure they couldn't keep attacking me since no professors were showing up to stop them. I used stunners at first but they kept waking up the ones I got. That's when I started using bludgeoners and hitting them with stuff from the hallway. Professor McGonagall, how do I file a complaint against a staff member? Snape here must have been watching from close by because he showed up just when I was winning and he tried to curse me from behind just before you showed up. He's done this before so I think he must be working with the Slytherin students to set me up."
"That's enough out of you, Mr Potter. Do you expect me to believe that ten students took you by surprise and nevertheless you beat them all? Furthermore, your allegations against, and disrespect towards, Professor Snape are not tolerable. In all my years teaching I have never heard the like. After you have completed Professor Snape's detentions you will be serving a few more with me."
Hermione saw, heard, and learned. Harry's training would have to be increased. She understood the lesson that McGonagall and Snape were teaching today.
Hogwarts was a microcosm of the British wizarding world. It wasn't enough to beat his opponents in a fight. He had to beat the corrupt leadership. At the least, he had to escape their notice when he fought to defend himself.
Over the next few weeks, Hermione ruthlessly added to Harry's workload. The morning sessions started a half hour earlier and Hermione added more supplemental reading to the practical exercises. She rotated in the new subjects as she was able to develop lesson plans. Hedwig was kept busy, bringing both magical and mundane books up from England.
"Today we are going to learn the disillusionment charm, the notice-me-not charm, and related spells for covering up sound and smell. You will have one hour to learn them all, and then I am going to hunt you for the rest of this morning's session. Trust me, you do not want me to find you."
Stealth was most important, both for avoiding attacks and for avoiding detention afterward. Hermione assigned Harry the exercise of going through the castle without being noticed. She did the exercise along with him. This was one of the skills where having massive amounts of power to channel didn't help.
One evening while he was walking around practicing practical invisibility, Harry came across Crabbe and Goyle standing like rather odoriferous gargoyles in the middle of a hallway, blocking out a twenty-foot section for Malfoy to have a private conversation with Daphne Greengrass. More out of idle curiosity – nosiness – than anything else, as Harry admitted to Hermione when he told her about it, he eased his way past Goyle – the boy was large but even so he should not have been able to fill a ten foot wide corridor so thoroughly – and eavesdropped.
"… told you, Draco, you had your chance. I even gave you a second chance because you're cute and you begged. You just aren't good enough. Sorry, but there it is. You don't know how to treat a lady in public and you don't know how to show her a good time in private. I've only got until we graduate to be wild and have a good time and I'm going to make the most of it."
Harry hadn't stayed to listen to any more of the conversation. "It was kind of fun, picking up gossip stuff firsthand like that, but it was too disgusting to listen to. I mean, sex with Malfoy? No one should be that desperate, especially not Greengrass. She could get anyone she wants. Maybe she was drunk, that would explain it. But it was almost worth it, hearing that Malfoy was no good."
Hermione nodded along with everything Harry said but her private thoughts were completely at odds with her outward expression. Daphne Greengrass certainly was attractive enough to have her pick of the boys. Not only boys. And, Harry's objections aside, Draco was very attractive, too. From a "beautiful people" perspective, it made sense that the two would get together. It was funny, though, that his private performance was so bad. She'd giggled when Harry relayed that part of the conversation. Typical. The spoiled brat thought that attitude and family connections, rather than talent and effort, were enough to get one through any situation. That only worked when biased potions professors or other authority figures tilted the field. But the thought of Snape providing biased refereeing while Draco and Daphne were having private time was quite disgusting enough, thank you. Hermione pulled her thoughts back to the day's training.
Once Harry had mastered concealing or disguising his presence by magic – in under two days! – Hermione showed him a few simple, non-magical disguise techniques. A quick change of clothing to throw off lookers wasn't useful in the castle, with all the students wearing the same robes. Altering his posture and gait, on the other hand, was enough by itself to keep many people from noticing that the Boy Who Had Just Walked By was the Boy Who Lived.
He started going to class and remaining undetected or unrecognized until the teacher asked if anyone knew where he was. That backfired when Snape gave him a detention for being late to class even though the door had been closed since class started. McGonagall, of course, was fully into her role as unbiased Deputy Headmistress and declined to overturn the detention even after Harry came to her as a student in her house and explained that he could not have been late. Not only didn't she help, she told him that his attitude this year made it very difficult to listen sympathetically to his complaints about anyone else's actions.
"Why do you even try asking McGonagall to stand up for you? I don't know what's changed, but she clearly has it in for you this year." Hermione had waited up until Harry was done with Snape's detention. They always ran very late and were often designed to be emotionally damaging when they weren't physically damaging. Harry might need help or at least the chance to vent.
"I know why. I never told you? It started at the beginning of the year, when she told me that Dumbledore had told her that I was mouthy and uncooperative and that she wouldn't tolerate it. Then in my first detention with her, back in September after the Slytherin quidditch team ambushed me, she fussed at me about my responsibilities as the Chosen One and how I'm supposed to be responsible and respectable and a role model for everyone because they're all counting on me. You can guess how well I took that."
"I can. Did you burst into a profane diatribe or did you angrily but politely inform her of the flaws in her reasoning?"
"I wish I'd been thinking clearly enough enough to do that. I swore at her, swore at the wizarding world, and told her that I was thinking of leaving and letting Voldemort have them all. That was before I knew you were trapped here. Then, when she yelled at me about my attitude and language, I yelled back that she's not my mother and isn't even a very good head of house and never does anything for us Gryffindors or stands up for us."
"Now I understand her attitude. I suppose I don't have to tell you that you should have kept your temper? I certainly won't criticize you for feeling very put upon by all of society, but anger prevents clear thought and displays of temper never impress anyone, or at any rate not people you need to influence."
"Yes, Coach. You're probably right, though you've got to admit that losing my temper at most of these people won't hurt me any because they've got it in for me no matter what I do or else they're useless no matter what I do."
"There is something to what you say, but there is no sense in unnecessarily causing yourself trouble. Do try to keep your temper, at least around the professors. But you haven't answered my original question. Why do you continue to bring complaints to McGonagall when it is clear she won't do anything about them?"
"I'm rubbing in her face that she's not doing her job. I don't think she can do her job, all of her jobs, but I don't care. If she can't or won't do them all then she needs to let go one of them."
Hermione frowned. She wasn't happy with Harry's solution, she wasn't happy with McGonagall or any of the other leaders of the school or of society, and she wasn't happy with being forced, at age 16, to take an adult role in fixing the problems the adults had allowed to grow. She was tired. Maybe she'd be less disspirited in the morning.
The morning after Snape's "tardiness" detention, Hermione told Harry he could let people see him again and that it was time for the next topic. "Today you'll be learning a sheaf of spells to augment your senses and another sheaf for detecting various types of things. I will be testing you this morning on your ability to detect traps. You'll be using the other spells throughout the day."
Closely monitoring the world around him, both physically and magically, would prevent ambushes like the one he had been caught in. The fact that he had fought his way out was less important than the fact that he had been caught in the first place.
Enchanted devices were the usual means of spotting magical traps, locating potentially threatening people, and detecting magic. None of these devices were available to the two students, unless they stole Dumbledore's glasses. Hermione gave it some serious thought but gave it up as too risky.
Aside from lack of availability, enchanted devices had the drawback of limiting the user to the capabilities of their devices. They also could be lost or destroyed. This might not matter to a tomb raider because she could always put off a raid until the object was replaced. It would be a fatal weakness in a wizard who was expecting to be ambushed at any time.
After Harry learned the charms to detect people and active magic and started using them between classes, he complained that there were so many people and so much magic between classes that the spells were useless and gave him a headache. Coach Granger came to the forefront and pushed Hermione the Friend aside. "Stop your whining, Potter. Are you going to let yourself be killed just to avoid a headache? All you have to do is practice enough that you can get a feel for how many people are in different places. The same goes for detecting magic. Practice until you can tell the difference between ambient magic, old spells, and fresh spells. Then learn to ignore what you don't need to watch out for." Hermione spoke from experience, albeit experience only a couple weeks old. She was struggling to keep just far enough ahead of Harry that she had new things to teach and could answer his questions.
Hermione had wanted to add some practical psychology to the studies, but she quickly found that her lack of talent in it prevented her from practicing or teaching it. The books on reading body language and subtly manipulating people might as well have been written in Sanskrit for all the help they were. She gave him the books and suggested he read them if he could find the time.
Results were good. Very good, though not as outrageously good as Harry's increase in power and fighting ability. Hermione was teaching everything she could think of which would help Harry defeat Voldemort and survive the wizarding world. Of course, it had been barely over a month so far, but it seemed a bit of attention and praise worked wonders. Hermione could kick herself. She'd been going the nagging route for the past five years.
"Harry, I've been thinking."
"Why do I have a chill running down my back?" Harry was smiling, but the bags under his eyes suggested he was concerned about another expansion of his training schedule.
"It's because you're much more clever than you let on. But don't worry, Harry. I know you're already working as hard as you can. I won't add to your load if I can avoid it. No, what I've been thinking about are the legal ramifications of defending yourself against an attack. If I understand the law correctly, it is entirely illegal in wizarding Britain to deliberately kill another magical human. According to the what I was able to find in the library, if you kill someone, even in self-defense, you are to be tried before the Wizengamot, where you are expected to explain your actions and then throw yourself on the mercy of the court."
That applied only to magical humans, of course. Muggle and non-human deaths were penalized only by a small administrative fine unless there were special circumstances. Hermione didn't allow herself to be side-tracked for this conversation.
"Harry, considering the number of Death Eaters in power or who bribed those in power, I don't think we can expect any justice if you fight back in an attack and are seen.
"You've been working on getting around and not being seen, and that's good, but I don't think it's enough. If you are attacked, the odds are simply too high that there will be a witness or that the aurors will respond just in time to arrest you after you've killed the attackers or even that any surviving Death Eaters will claim that you were the aggressor. In any of those scenarios I'm afraid you will not be believed because of ministry corruption."
"So what is your suggestion, Hermione? I know you wouldn't bring up a problem unless you had an idea of how to solve it."
"Harry, I would like you to copy this letter and send it via Hedwig. For the best response, it should be written by your hand. I'm afraid you'll need to include fifty galleons as well. Mr Van Leuven is the closest I've been able to find to a barrister. Apparently the magical world, or at least magical Britain, doesn't have barristers. I was surprised at first, but it makes sense. Veritaserum allows the court to determine the truth and therefore clever prosecution and clever defense tricks are not needed."
"That's if the minister isn't playing games at the trial and preventing the suspect from defending himself, or letting the suspect go because he had a good excuse – which means, bribed the minister."
"Just so. More cynically than the idealistic picture I just presented, we are not a nation of laws. We are ruled at the whim of the minister and the Wizengamot, not by the rule of law, and so how would a barrister, a man of the law, work in this system?
"Nevertheless, we have a few specialists in working with the Ministry. They are something like a cross between solicitors and lobbyists. Mr Van Leuven is willing to give you his best estimate of how the ministry will react if you kill Death Eaters under various circumstances. He will also provide a few suggestions for how you can legally minimize the likelihood of punishment."
Harry frowned. "I'll do what you suggest, but I don't know what good it will do. Like we just said, the law changes whenever the minister says so. The only thing that saved me at my trial a year ago was Bones arguing with Fudge. And I think she only did that because of politics or to settle a grudge with Umbitch, not for me and not for justice."
Hermione sighed. "You're quite likely right. I do think this is worth trying, however, and it's worth the money. Oh, I'm sorry, Harry. I don't mean to be cavalier with your money, but you have a vault full of gold, you said."
They had an unexpected hurdle to overcome before they could ask Mr Van Leuven for his opinion: Harry and Hermione combined did not have enough cash on hand for his fee. Harry wrote to Mrs. Weasley, asking for the return of his vault key. Her reply parchment was conspicuously lacking in attached metal objects and told him in an excessively motherly way that he didn't need the key, that he had enough money, and that if he had already used all the pocket money she had gotten for him before the school year then it was proof that he was irresponsible with money and could not be trusted with the key to his vault.
Harry was not pleased.
He sent another letter to Mrs. Weasley, firmly stating that it was his vault, his key, and his responsibility. She had no legal grounds to keep his key from them and precious little moral grounds, either. Her next response was worse than the first one, bordering on deliberately offensive. "Harry, dear, you are being extremely childish in insisting that I give you something you do not need and could not use even if you had it. You are showing me that Albus Dumbledore was right when he asked me to hold on to your key for you. I know I didn't raise any of my children to be so headstrong and unwilling to listen to adults."
Harry was a little more than "not pleased". He discussed options with Hermione. "She probably means well. She's treating me like she treats her own children, and I don't mean anything good when I say that. Maybe she hasn't noticed, but I'm not her child and she didn't raise me. And all of her own kids moved away as soon as they could. So what should we do? I could probably get to The Burrow and either sneak the key out or have a big argument with whoever's there and make them give it to me. I don't like either of those, especially not an argument. I've been training to kill people at the least threat. I might blow her head off if she starts yelling and waving her arms like she always does."
"I agree, with all of that. Don't forget, Bill, the curse breaker, put wards on The Burrow when they moved back after Sirius– after Sirius died. Aside from Mrs Weasley being home almost all the time, there may well be some very subtle alarm which would bring people running if you went in quietly. I can't see that ending well.
"What about Dobby? As he is bonded to you, he should be able to retrieve your property, shouldn't he?"
Alas, that idea didn't pan out. "I'se sorry, Mr Harry Potter Sir, but the Weezy house be blocked against elves. Weezy's Big Mama not want elves in The Burden."
The next idea, a letter to Gringotts asking them to change the keys and send Harry a new one, also failed. "As a minor, you have no standing to request changes to any of your vaults. Consult with your guardian and request that he contact us if he agrees that a lock change is necessary. You have no one but yourself to blame for allowing your key to fall into untrustworthy hands."
They'd expected that answer, actually. For all their rebellions and standoffishness, the goblins were just as much a part of the wizarding world as were the wizards themselves. The entire system worked without any checks on misuse of power and hardly any legal recourse for wronged parties. The goblins were just as much a part of the problem as was the Wizengamot.
Finally, just as Harry was getting ready to make a clandestine trip to The Burrow and let the chips fall where they may, Hermione suggested getting the twins involved. "They like you, Harry, and they owe you a favor and we've seen that they don't care for their mother's swaddling. If they can't or won't find your key for you, then you can risk getting it yourself."
The twins came through for them. "Harry, mate, we're sorry about our mother keeping what's yours. For what it's worth, your key was in the cup on the kitchen windowsill along with all the loose keys and other little stuff. We hope this means she hasn't been using it. Hugs and kisses to our favorite investor, F and G."
Van Leuven's response came a week after Harry sent him the letter and payment. As expected, the laws and political climate – Death Eaters on the Wizengamot, Umbridge still in the ministry, and bags of money still finding their way into the pockets of various ministry officials – made it very risky for Harry or his associates to kill Death Eaters no matter the circumstances. That was not welcome news, obviously, but it was good to get professional confirmation of what they suspected.
At the next morning's training session, Hermione brought up the problem again. She had not slept all night, tossing and turning and wrestling with her conscience, and it showed. "Harry, I have in mind a new direction to take your training. It is problematic in that the training itself will be skirting or breaking laws, and the intended use of the training is definitely illegal and quite likely immoral as well."
"Oh, now you definitely have to tell me all about it." Harry was mostly recovered from the morning's exertions. His magical and physical endurance were continuing to improve dramatically, so the all-out effort portion of each morning's training now lasted over twice as long as when they started, not so many weeks ago, and at a level that dwarfed his already-impressive starting point.
"We've been training you to defend yourself – defend yourself lethally – in a fight, particularly when you are attacked unexpectedly. Even if you win such a fight, you are likely to be arrested and convicted and jailed, so you lose even if you win. We have to find a way for you to win the larger fight, not merely the spell-casting portion of the fight.
"This suggests that you need to fight where there are no witnesses and no evidence that you were involved. You need to make sure none of your opponents escapes to tell the tale.
"This suggests that you need to fight at a time and place of your choosing, not theirs. We are no longer talking about responding to ambushes, but rather of ambushing your enemies. You see why I was wrestling with this conclusion."
"I do. You're talking about cold-blooded assassination and murder. And I can't argue with you." Harry pondered the new idea for a few moments. "I'll need to learn how to break into warded houses. How to find where somebody lives or some other way to find him. Tracking charms, bribing people in the floo office, whatever. Concealing my magical signature. Traps, how to make them, how to detect them, how to avoid them. What else? I'm guessing you already have lesson plans written?"
Hermione smiled. It was wonderful to see how clever Harry was, now that he had cast off the lazy dullard persona he'd worn for five years. She truly admired and loved him. If only… But at least he could be the brother she never had. "I do indeed, Harry. Enough to get started tomorrow, at any rate. We can develop the goals and the lesson plans together."
Training in breaking and entering progressed as rapidly as all of of Harry's other training this year. By the third week in October it was time for a quiz.
"Harry, I have a challenge for you to overcome. You'll like this."
The challenge was to break into Snape's quarters in Hogwarts and prank him somehow. Hermione suggested the prank not be lethal but didn't provide any other guidelines.
It took Harry three days to report success. He had been very cautious, expecting the "reformed" Death Eater to have very dangerous traps on his door or elsewhere.
"I found out that Snape's fireplace has a floo connection. I don't know if all the teachers have that or just Snape so he can go to his Death Eater parties. I can check some of the other teachers' rooms if you care. Anyway, I had planned on itching powder in all his robes but when I found the fireplace I thought of something better. Next time he lights a fire and sticks his head in, five gallons of petrol will dump on him."
"Harry! I said non-lethal pranks. What part of burning to death is not lethal?"
"Oh, relax. It's just Snape. He probably wouldn't burn to death, probably, and even if he does, it's just Snape."
"I don't care about Snape! Not much, at any rate. I'm concerned about you, you fool! If a teacher is murdered in the school, there'll be an investigation. I doubt you'd be able to withstand that, especially if they suspect you, and more especially if they're determined to make a scapegoat of you."
"Oh, all right. I'll go back in and replace the petrol with water. But you're taking all the fun out of this."
Harry managed the second – or was it third? – break-in of the hated teacher's quarters without being caught. Amazingly, he even made a crude wards and traps map. There were, indeed, lethal traps in Snape's quarters. Hermione made a note to think of ways to use that information against Snape.
Looking at the ward map, Hermione shook her head. It simply wasn't reasonable that Harry had learned to make his way through traps and other wards so quickly. Ward breakers went through apprenticeships or on the job training for a year or more before being minimally qualified, and their mortality rate was very high for the first few years.
"I do the spells for detecting wards or for disrupting them, and I just pump power into them. If I push hard enough the wards or runes or whatever just stop working until I let go. Or I can cast the disrupting charm on the master rune or the power rune while suppressing the others and then the whole thing falls apart."
"That's amazing. I'll have to research it. Can I borrow Hedwig for another trip to the bookstore? And you had better not ever tell Bill Weasley what you can do. He'd likely be most put out with you."
Harry's next challenge was to make his way up to the Gryffindor girls' dorms. During evening study hours. Without being caught and without setting off the normal anti-boys alarm or the many different detection wards Hermione had layered all up the stairway. Hermione would have made the challenge more fun for him by setting Harry to liberating a pair of her panties but she didn't want him to get the wrong idea about her interest in him. Instead, she told Harry to exchange all of Lavender and Parvati's clothing. That should be exciting enough to keep a teenage boy interested without actually harming the other girls or giving him any wrong ideas.
Harry managed it that very evening. Hermione couldn't believe it. She'd been watching the staircase and she had Harry's cloak in her book bag, but the alarms hadn't so much as chirped and she hadn't seen even a shimmer go toward the stairs.
When she asked Harry how he'd done it, he'd only laid his finger along his nose and said, "Magic." Then the cheeky bastard winked and handed her a pair of panties. Her own panties. Her laciest pair!
Dumbledore had continued Harry's special training every other week since the middle of September. Harry grumbled to Hermione that it was a total waste of a Saturday night. The memories didn't teach him anything useful and when Harry asked question on practical topics, in an effort to get some value for his time, Dumbledore avoided answering with the deftness that only a century of avoiding questions could bring. And in the last session, Dumbledore told Harry that he had to persuade Slughorn to give up a secret memory that was "essential to the fight". That was the final straw. Harry told Hermione he wasn't going to waste his time anymore.
"Yes, Headmaster?" Harry continued to fill his plate. "I hope you don't mind if I eat while you talk. Your deputy already detained me on the way to breakfast, almost making me miss my meal. A meal that I'm paying for, I remind you."
"Mr Potter, I summoned you to my office last night for another of your special study sessions. What is your excuse for not obeying the summons?"
"I already told you last time I wasn't going to go to them anymore. They're a waste of time and I've got too much to do already. NEWT studies are so time-consuming, you know." Harry said this through a mouth full of sausage. Anyone who had ever eaten with Ron Weasley knew just how annoying it was.
"Mr Potter, it is not your place to say what is appropriate for your education. You will report to my office tonight immediately after the dinner meal."
"I made my course selections last summer, Headmaster. I don't recall selecting 'special private lessons' as one of them."
"Mr Potter, I must insist. You know as well as I why you need this special instruction. You will come to my office tonight or I will be forced to have you brought there."
"No. Are you really threatening to kidnap me? In front of all these witnesses? Your special studies have nothing to do with the Hogwarts classes I selected and am paying for and they are even taking time away from the classes I'm taking."
The conversation continued a few more minutes but it may as well not have. Neither party was giving an inch and "You do know there's a word for old men who want to be alone with teenage boys late at night, don't you?" did nothing to promote harmony, understanding, or compromise. Eventually Harry stood up and headed to class along with most of the audience.
"I don't know what to tell you, Harry." Hermione was chewing her lower lip as they walked together. "I'm sure that there was a better way to handle that confrontation but aside from not calling Dumbledore a pederast I don't know what you should have done. Interpersonal relations and politicking are not my forte. I'll see if I can find a book or maybe a person to work with you."
"Thanks. I'm going to hide somewhere tonight so the old man can't find me. I'll be at training at 5:30 like usual if I can, but no promises."
As it happened, Dumbledore ambushed Harry at dinner that evening, striking before Harry had expected it.
Harry didn't make it to morning training, nor to breakfast, nor to his morning class. "The old man kept me in his office past the time we start in the morning, then escorted me to Gryffindor tower and told me he didn't expect anyone to see me outside the tower all morning." Harry told Hermione at lunch. "Before making me watch those stupid memories, he spent three hours telling me that he was the one to decide how to fight Voldemort and he was the only one with the experience and wisdom to make decisions and I am not able to make any decisions because I've never made any before so that means I don't have the experience to make decisions."
"That doesn't make any sense. How are you supposed to learn to make decisions if he never lets you make any?"
"Tell me about it. I thought of that, too, but not until too late and Dumbledore went to the next thing. He's my guardian and he cares so much for me that he can't bear to see me misbehave. It's like I told you before, Hermione. He's lost it. I think you're probably right, he probably isn't evil, he doesn't want to destroy people just because he can. But I think I'm probably right, too. If he was evil, how would he be treating me differently?"
The headmaster's special study sessions were not the only educational dark cloud in their sixth year. DADA classes had been getting worse and worse. Snape had all but abandoned lectures in favor of constant matches in the dueling pit. That is, he was arranging matches to ensure that Gryffindors and other unfavored students were injured every class.
Except for Harry. Between native ability and daily practice much more intensive than DADA duels, he breezed through every match with insulting ease. It infuriated Snape.
"I'm sure our Chosen One is feeling even more full of himself than usual,"Snape sneered after Harry had defeated two pairs of opponents in a row and had made it look easy. "Let us see how he can do against a real threat, not one of you pathetic dunderheads."
It was a massacre. Snape attacked without the duel having been formally started. He used many dirty tricks and dark spells which had been explicitly forbidden since the first class of the year. The power behind his curses was greater than Harry had had to deal with before, even in the training room. He even lobbed a large potion bottle toward Harry. When it exploded, it spread a corrosive mist which had Harry screaming and tearing at his eyes.
Two days later, after he had been released from the hospital wing, Hermione led Harry to the Great Hall by the hand. She told herself it was so she could guide him around obstacles that his newly-recovered eyes might not see, but the fact was she needed touch to reassure herself that he was healthy and with her again.
Harry confirmed with Hermione, "You'll be including all that in the morning training, right?"
Hermione nodded. Harry would be trained to defend himself against, and to use, every dirty trick in the book. She wondered if it would be safe to ask Moody for ideas or if he would just run and tell Dumbledore.
And speaking of Dumbledore, Hermione wondered whether it was coincidence that Snape had attacked Harry in the first DADA class after Harry had publicly insulted Dumbledore and defied him regarding the special training. It was already clear that Dumbledore was not as light as portrayed, but what could he think to accomplish? Could it be simple retribution? Hermione said nothing to Harry because she had nothing firm to go on, only suspicions. But she kept it in mind.
She also kept in mind Harry's question: assuming Dumbledore wasn't evil, what would he be doing differently if he were? It bothered her that the list of differences was almost empty.
Author's Note: If you've read my other stories, you'll notice a change in style. While I prefer a stripped-down story, more of a sketch than a finished oil painting, it seems that editors and agents do not. As a consequence I am practicing fleshing out stories. This one, for instance, is going to come to about 50k words, whereas I would normally have taken about 6k to cover all of the main points, or even 3k to cover the essentials and hint at the rest. If you've read any of my other stories, please let me know what you think of the difference.