Luna died in April.
Hermione felt terribly guilty. Luna had seemed so much better, more normal, that Hermione had stopped keeping such a careful eye on her. She'd been so busy lately that all she'd taken time to do in the past few weeks was talk friendly when they happened to pass in the corridors. Perhaps tease that the younger girl seemed very chipper the day after Hermione knew she'd had a date.
Hermione felt terribly guilty for another reason. Her last words to the girl had been unkind. Accusatory. Daphne had spoken to Hermione, not happy that Harry had stopped sleeping with her. Daphne had accused Hermione of keeping him to herself and not following the schedule the girls had agreed on, getting in her accusation before Hermione was able to lay the same charges against Daphne. When Hermione realized that Harry had been eating almost every meal with Luna and then had started to skip classes when she had a free period and then had started spending every night with her, she had very unjustly dumped her own stress and frustrations on the blonde. That was the last they'd spoken.
Looking back, Hermione recognized the warning signs. Someone had pulled Luna's new clothes out of her trunk but then left them all scattered on the floor rather than steal them. Madame Pomphrey had later been overheard complaining about the vicious prank someone had played; she'd had to treat electrical burns on an innocent Ravenclaw girl who'd done nothing but open a trunk.
After that, Luna's clothes had been left alone but her bed had been pranked with itching powder. Her homework disappeared if she took her eyes off it for even a moment. And she was disproportionately the target of mis-cast spells in Charms and dropped scoops of dragon dung in Herbology and drink spills at meals. None of the accidents were anything that could justify retribution, but they continued. And they were a warning sign.
Even Harry couldn't do anything about it. He'd shadowed Luna for a while, stopping a few "accidents" and swatting a few people as seemed appropriate, but Luna had stopped him. "You smite people, Harry. Schoolyard bullying doesn't merit smiting." She was right, Harry told Hermione after Luna's death, but letting them get away with it wasn't the answer, either. Hermione thought that Luna wasn't suited to be Harry's girlfriend if she wouldn't even stand up for herself. Hermione never even hinted at that thought to Harry.
After class the first Friday in April, Hermione had left the castle with Harry, planning to spend the long weekend at his soon-to-be-nameable house in London. He had invited Luna but she had a mountain of homework and a group project due. Most of it would be easy enough, especially as she would be redoing work that had already been done before being accidentally ruined, but it would take most of her time over the entire weekend. Hermione was just as glad. Luna would have been in the way.
Harry would drop every one of the wards on his house, then Hermione would recreate them. She had agreed, despite her current mild annoyance with him, because it would be good practice for her and because regardless of any temporary differences he was still her best friend. And, honestly, because he was paying her G500, apparently the going rate for a journeyman warder to do this amount of work. Converted to pounds sterling, that was quite good money for a weekend's work for a seventeen-year-old girl, especially for work that did not involve taking her clothes off. Although she had no intention of wasting the privacy. Her clothes would be coming off.
They'd returned early Tuesday morning, just in time for training. Hermione was disgruntled and took it out on Harry in training. "I can't sleep with you. I'm with Luna now and I won't go behind her back." Hermione didn't blame him, exactly, but she was frustrated and tired. Even without sex, she'd like to have slept with him but he wouldn't even do that. "I don't trust myself, honestly." That made her feel a little better. Not much.
They'd seen Daphne and Astoria at breakfast, but not Luna. When Luna wasn't seen at lunch and when she couldn't be found on the Marauders Map, Harry had hit the panic button and gotten the professors involved. Give them credit: Dumbledore and Flitwick immediately began a search once they realized that Luna was missing. She'd not been seen since Friday, but they'd assumed she was with Harry, who often disappeared for the weekend.
Luna's body was found in a closet late Tuesday afternoon. It appeared she'd been locked in Friday evening with no food or water or wand.
Dumbledore the Disappointed Grandfather made the announcement at dinner Wednesday. "If we ever find who committed this unconscionable act you can be assured they will be punished most severely. Hogwarts is the safest place in the world and we cannot have foolish pranks endangering that reputation."
Harry was right. Dumbledore was insane or senile. He could not be trusted around children, let alone in charge of them. Draco Malfoy went down a flight of stairs and the aurors were called in to investigate an attempted murder. Luna was murdered and Dumbledore didn't bother to look for her killers.
Harry was not in the Gryffindor common room after dinner. He had been walking with Hermione until all of a sudden she noticed he wasn't. He was grieving and he had mentioned that he didn't have any homework due, so she thought he might have gone to the Room of Requirement to let off steam by blowing up practice dummies. However, when he hadn't come to the common room by curfew she became suspicious and checked the Marauder's Map, then took off running for Ravenclaw Tower.
She was just in time to see Flitwick come through the ruins of the main entrance like a meteor. Literally like a meteor: he was covered in flames, hurtling through the air, preceded by a white arc of energy and trailing debris. Raising her strongest shield for what little good it would do, Hermione cautiously peeked into the common room to see Harry stomping back to the students he had tied up and left dangling from the high ceiling.
"You will tell me who locked Luna in that closet. You are the prefects of the house of oblivious nerds. It is your responsibility to watch out what happens in your house. You let an innocent girl be killed. That is your responsibility."
"We don't know anything, Potter! Do you think we can see everything that everybody does?"
"I don't care. It was your responsibility to see. Whether or not you know anything, I am going to punish you. Your only choice in the matter is whether you get to watch me punish her murderers, too."
Hermione should stop this, she knew she should.
Hermione pulled on Harry's cloak and stepped into a corner to watch his back.
Dumbledore himself had taken away her Prefect's badge. It wasn't her job to watch out for everyone else.
As it happened, Harry didn't even need to start breaking bones. Wandlessly summoning their wands and having his Patronus eat them did the trick. The oppressive feeling of magical power crushing everyone in the room surely helped to make up any recalcitrant minds.
The fifth year female prefect and her other two roommates were the "pranksters". Hermione was sure they were going to die in front of her.
Dumbledore arrived just too late to hear the confession. For all his age and senility, he was powerful and knew how to command a room. Hermione prepared to stun him from behind if needed.
"Mr Potter! Put down your wand and release those students immediately!"
"No. This one murdered Luna Lovegood and these other five didn't do anything to stop it. I'm making a citizen's arrest on — You, what's your name? — on Slaytor here, and the other two murderers."
"You have no authority to make an arrest and we will have to address your punishment for your destruction of school property, attacks on students, and assault of a professor. No matter how good your intentions I cannot condone vigilantism."
"Not even when the people in charge are corrupt or useless? Does that mean you're stopping the Order of–"
Dumbledore's cannon blast interrupted him. "You know that is never to be spoken of. Go up and wait outside my office while I determine whether anyone in this room, besides you, has performed criminal acts."
"They're all criminals, a confessed murderer and five more who let the murderers get away with it. I'm not going anywhere without them."
"I am the headmaster of this school. I am in charge. I am responsible for all students' safety. I–"
"And a bang-up job you're doing of it! Luna died because you didn't notice she was missing. I know about the monitors in the headmaster's office. Did you just ignore them? Then you found her body more than a day ago, and these six say no one has talked to any Ravenclaws to find out what happened. No one from the ministry has come to the castle. What were you planning on doing, covering it up so her murderers could regret what they did and become better people?
"I thought it was just the Death Eaters you covered for, Snape and Malfoy. But it's anyone who is really bad, isn't it? You let the innocent die and you cover for the killers. You're the biggest problem in this school, Dumbledore."
"How dare you! I've been keeping the world safe since your grandparents were children. If not for me–"
"Luna would be alive! If it weren't for you and your damned second chances, this bitch wouldn't think she could torment Luna until she died of it. Now get out of my way. I'm taking Slayer and the other two to the ministry to be properly arrested. I'll take care of the rest later."
"You will do no such thing. I am the headmaster of this school and I will determine what punishment, if any, is due. That includes your punishment, Mr Potter."
"Very well. Tell me, O Wonderful Headmaster of the Premier School in Britain, what have you done about the death of a student under your care? What are you going to do about her killers? What are you going to do about the staff who allowed the bullying to continue even though it was reported?
"You were a great man, Dumbledore, but your day is done. You're part of the problem now, not part of the solution. You're dying, anyway. Step down and write your memoirs while –"
Dumbledore flicked his wand up as Harry spoke. The binding spell didn't flash half the distance before Harry had brought up a shield…
… and then disarmed the headmaster.
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, the Most Powerful Wizard in the World, had been defeated by a schoolboy.
Hermione saw wide eyes peering from the staircases up to the dorm rooms. She had no idea whether the tale of this confrontation would be a good thing or a bad thing for Harry. Or for Dumbledore and the safety of the students at Hogwarts. There was nothing she could do about it, so there was no point to worrying about it now.
Luckily, the spell exchange had calmed Harry's temper before Hermione had to figure out how to stun him or even cast a cheering charm. "You attacked me, Dumbledore. You weren't getting your way, so you attacked me. You're lucky I give second chances. I don't give thirds."
Dumbledore couldn't let things be. "Mistakes have been made by all parties. Can you honestly say your hands are clean in this, Mr Potter? If you had not made a habit of leaving the castle, we would have been more alert to Miss Lovegood's disappearance. Furthermore, recall your attacks on Miss Lovegood's classmates earlier in this year. What role did you play in escalating tensions? This new-found vengefulness and intolerance of yours is both unbecoming and counterproductive."
Dumbledore was insane. There could be no other explanation. He was standing there, wandless, provoking the wizard who had disarmed him. All while wearing a look of supreme disappointment at how Harry had turned out.
Calm, Hermione projected with all the desperation-fueled power she could bring up. Calm. If there was anything to that book on mood-altering auras, now was the time to use it. She should have practiced it before. Calm. Harry could not afford to kill Dumbledore. He could not fight the entire ministry. Calm. Hermione wouldn't let him kill all of the Ravenclaw witnesses, not that he'd be likely to think of it himself. Calm.
Harry unclenched his teeth, uncoiled his muscles, and took a deep breath.
"What I want is for the Luna's three killers to be tried for murder. All the other responsible people – supposedly responsible people – who should have known and should have stopped it will be investigated and tried as accessories. That includes you, Dumbledore. I hold you personally responsible. And Flitwick, too. He wouldn't listen to me months ago when I told him there was a problem. He could have stopped this, too, but he didn't."
"That is not the way we do things, Mr Potter." Dumbledore held up his hand when Harry opened his mouth to object. "You are stating the expected outcome regardless of the results of the investigation. I will see to the investigation of any misdeeds, and then assign suitable punishment. This does include your own misdeeds, Mr Potter. I would hope that the consequences of your own mistakes has taught you the virtue of compassion toward others who have made mistakes. Surely you have not become so hard that you would deny others the chance to repent."
"Their mistake – their mistake and your mistake and Flitwick's mistake – killed an innocent girl. Why should they deserve compassion? And what made me this way? Look in the mirror, Dumbledore. It was all your doing. You put me with the Dursleys and you let me be attacked every year at school. You wanted a weapon? You got him."
Hermione felt a wrench at that declaration. Is that how Harry viewed Dumbledore's actions for the past five, fifteen years? Did Harry view her in the same light?
Calm, she projected again, seeing that Harry was getting angry again. Calm.
"Mistakes were made in your upbringing, Harry. Surely you can rise above your past."
"Expel the killers from Hogwarts. They will have until my eighteenth birthday to disappear. After that I might hunt them down. The other five prefects lose their badges. You immediately put someone else in charge of checking the student safety monitors. If you do not agree to this, then I will take whatever steps I think are necessary for my safety and my friends' safety. Whatever steps are necessary."
"I cannot agree to that, Harry. It would be condoning premeditated murder. The ministry will not stand for treating magical subjects in that fashion."
"It won't be a problem. For instance, if I take the magic away from everyone, students and teachers, that I think is guilty, they won't be part of the magical world any more and the ministry won't care what happens to a bunch of muggles."
Hermione was startled. Had Harry learned to do that? How had he learned? He must be bluffing.
If Hermione was startled, the still-trussed Ravenclaws were shocked and Dumbledore was horrified.
"I'm sure that won't be necessary. Such unconscionable measures should not even be joked about."
And then Hermione had to look closely at Harry. Was it possible he wasn't bluffing?
"Expel the killers. You will investigate to make sure you get everyone involved in locking Luna up to die. I won't hunt them. You turn the school safety monitors over to someone else to watch. Take away the prefect pins of all these prefects who didn't stop the bullying and didn't notice that Luna was missing. The other choice is that I make sure everyone knows what you're doing here. I'm sure the Quibbler would give me an entire issue. If I asked around the school to find other bullied students, you just know their parents would line up to talk to me."
"That should not be necessary, Mr. Potter. Your suggestions are acceptable. The only remaining issue is your punishment for the destruction and injuries you have caused tonight."
Calm, projected Hermione.
Hermione openly met Harry as he walked from the Ravenclaw tower to the Gryffindor tower. She had stayed in the Ravenclaw common room, exerting an unseen calming influence during the negotiations. She was amazed to find that she was able to affect emotions through a magical aura and she could hardly believe she could do it to Dumbledore, of all people … but results speak for themselves. Harry and Dumbledore had been on a collision course, fury and sanctimony reacting like sulfur and acid.
She would love to explore this possible new power, to test its limits, but the ethical considerations made her head swim. Her parents were medical professionals. They would know how to conduct challenging human experiments, or at least point her in the right direction. Either way, it could wait. Hermione was in the middle of a war.
"It's late, Harry. Come to bed. We'll talk about it tomorrow."
The next morning came very early. Hermione would have skipped practice but Harry grabbed her ankle and dragged her out of bed. "No slacking. I'll meet you downstairs in five minutes."
While showering together – desipite Harry's rejection of her just days before, and to have more time to talk rather than to "save water" – Hermione got Harry to talk about the previous night.
"I tried to get in politely but I couldn't figure out the riddle. The door knocker asked me who were the human commanders in the goblin rebellion of 1406. What kind of riddle is that anyway? That was just testing to see who could stay awake in Binns's class."
"It was a trick question. The goblin rebellion of 1406 was between two goblin factions."
"Whatever. I couldn't figure it out so I knocked on the door. Maybe I knocked a little too hard, since I kind of broke the door."
"Yes, I noticed. And the stone wall around it. You're lucky that part of the wall was not needed to hold the tower up."
"I was lucky, all the prefects were in the common room having some little meeting. I tied them up and chased everyone else back to the dorms. Flitwick came running in before I could ask the prefects anything."
"I came just in time to see Flitwick come flying out. How did you beat him? He was a duelist, a champion duelist. As good as you've gotten you shouldn't have been able to beat him."
"He was a champion, what, forty years ago? He's been a schoolteacher since before my parents were born. Or maybe it's that he's a duelist but I'm a fighter. He came in and yelled for me to stop and then got into a pose like this. Maybe that's great when you're waiting for the referee to say Start, but all I did was banish him out the door as hard as I could.
"If that's when you came in, you must've heard what the prefects said, and Dumbledore's and my argument, and the, uh, plea-bargain? Where were you? I didn't see you, and I was keeping alert in case anyone tried to blind side me. Oh, you got my cloak back from Astoria, right?"
"That's right. You probably got the harshest punishment for the killers that Dumbledore would accept. Well done. Especially well done considering that you escaped any punishment beyond paying to replace their wands and helping to power the charms when they rebuild the door. sniff I'm so proud. My little boy's all grown up and blackmailing the headmaster now."
"Ha ha. You're not as funny as you think you are. Eww. We sleep together. If I'm your little boy, eww. We're not purebloods, so we don't even have that excuse."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Let's talk about the amount of power you have. A banisher could possibly have sent Flitwick flying the way he did, but no reasonable amount of power behind it should have lit him on fire. You've been doing the power building exercises daily for almost seven months. That's well beyond the longest duration that was mentioned in the books. We're in uncharted waters now. I wish we had a way to objectively measure your power, as contrasted with your ability to use some spell to perform some task."
"After you clear out all the nepotism and injustice in the magical world you can look at becoming a scientist. A magical scientist. It shouldn't take you too long, right? Graduate at eighteen, clean up the world before you're nineteen – that'll give you a whole three months, plenty of time – then get a Muggle PhD by twenty-one and invent magical science by twenty-two. There you go, I've planned out your life for you."
"You're not as funny as you think you are, either. It may be a good idea, though. I'll think about it. But we're getting off-track again. Do you want to continue the power building exercises? Do you need to?"
"Maybe. I think so. Yes. I'm tired of hurting and being tired all the time but Voldemort is going to be really tough, we both know that. I need every edge I can get. If I can magically 'bulk up' so that I can levitate a house and drop it on him, that's what I'll do. I need you to stay tough, Coach. Don't be getting soft on me. Though I like your squeezably soft parts."
Hermione rolled her eyes at his waggling eyebrows. "I can see this conversation has gone past the point of no return. You can join me tonight if you want to. Please do. I'm not feeling amorous because I'm still grieving, but we can comfort each other."
Harry's mood dropped in an instant. "Me, too. I've been trying not to think about it but it's still there. I'll see you tonight, ten-ish."
Charms was cancelled that day. That was hardly surprising. Even magic couldn't heal overnight the injuries from being flung like a burning meteor into a stone wall.
A substitute Charms teacher came in on Friday. During the Sixth Year class, early in the day, he'd called Harry up to help demonstrate the power difference between verbalized and silent spells. He'd had Harry put up his strongest shield and fired a banisher. As expected, the spell splattered on the shield. The teacher then had Harry drop the shield and recast it silently.
He hadn't gotten the memo.
Harry's shield pulsed and reflected the much more powerful banisher back at the teacher. Charms classes were cancelled for the rest of the day. Flitwick was back in the classroom the next Monday, not much worse for the wear, and school continued as normal.
Harry limped in to training on the following Sunday morning. "Morning, Hermione. Let's do just power training, OK? There's no sense in doing combat training. I'd probably just get killed."
Hermione looked at him, concerned, but started the drills. They'd found that it was best to do the workout first and then talk about anything that needed talking about. If they did it the other way around the talking always ended up eating most of their allotted ninety minutes. Maybe this was for some reason other than because the workouts were so difficult and tiring and painful. Maybe.
Afterward, Harry gave his after-action report as usual. "I left yesterday after breakfast to go hunting." Hermione nodded. She understood his desire to get out of the castle. Academically it was a waste of time for them both. Socially, he had Hermione and the Greengrasses and a lot of pointing and whispering. The pointing and whispering had gotten worse after Harry had dropped Snape – "Dark Lord in training … attack an unconscious man … dark rituals to increase his power …" – and then much, much worse after Harry had invaded the Ravenclaw tower and defeated Flitwick and Dumbledore and forced three students to leave Hogwarts and five prefects to lose their positions.
Somebody better adjusted than Harry would have been badly affected, and not merely annoyed, by the almost universally negative opinion. Once again Hermione was faced with a dilemma. She wanted Harry to be happy and normal and well-adjusted, but that would interfere with his effectiveness in the war. The best she could think of was to leave him as he was for now and then to help him to become better adjusted after he won.
"I found some Death Eaters last night. And Voldemort, too."
Hermione gasped. She refrained from grasping him until she found out where he was hurt. "You're alive. That's the most important part. How bad was it?"
"Bad, but good, too. I killed a bunch of trainees or candidates or whatever they were. I think they were having a celebration for marking about six new Death Eaters."
"It would be called an initiation in a normal group. No doubt Voldemort calls it something else, something more impressive or frightening. Pardon me, Harry. Please continue."
"I'd been apparating around, looking for Dark Marks, when I felt a group of them not too far away. I flew in like I usually do and saw the group in the yard behind a house that looked like it had just been wrecked. Like I said, about six new and about four other Death Eaters. I also saw the women they had been celebrating with. There was nothing I could do for them. I was already disillusioned and so was my Firebolt, so I drifted close enough that I could take the energy of the Death Eaters.
"I think we've proven that Voldemort is using their power. I could feel it going from them to him when I got close enough.
"So I pulled everyone's power as hard and fast as I could. Everyone dropped, except Voldemort. I think I got some of his power or something. It hurt real bad. Voldemort screamed but then he shot an AK at me. I had already put up the strongest shield I could. His AK just stopped in the shield and then faded away. He yelled something – I think it was just yelling or swearing, not magic – and then shot some sort of jumping fireball. It bounced off my shield and then jumped from person to person. He killed all of his own people, and the women, too.
"We shot a few more spells at each other. I was mostly dodging on my Firebolt because he was using spells that I couldn't shield against, like fire in the air all around me to use up the oxygen. He finally got me when it looked like and sounded like he was shooting another AK but instead transfigured my shirt and pants into wood and then had it jammed into my side and leg. I don't know how he did it but it must've taken a lot of concentration because I was able to hit him at the same time, the first time I really got him. If he had an ordinary body I would have exploded his elbow and probably killed him. I don't know what it did to his fake body but it must have hurt because I heard him screaming when I apparated out.
"So I got back up to the castle and Dobby and Winky healed me as well as they could and I got a few hours' sleep. The end."
"I'm impressed more than I can say, Harry. Let me state that now in case I never have the chance to say it later."
"Thanks. You get most of the credit, you know. And let's hold off on the mutual admiration society until we actually beat Voldemort, not just get in a few shots and then run away."
Three aurors came for Harry at breakfast Monday morning a week later. The week had gone normally, with training before dawn, pointless classes, pointing and whispering in the corridors, group homework in the evening, and Hermione sleeping with Harry every other night. Astoria had shyly asked Harry to spend some private time with her one evening, but that was the only break in the routine. That, and Daphne's visible grumpiness for the rest of that evening.
Harry had missed the morning training after being gone all Sunday and Sunday night. Hermione was so relieved to see him come in and start to eat with a very healthy appetite that she didn't even yell at him for worrying her. And she didn't even notice three aurors enter the Great Hall.
"Harry Potter, you're under arrest for murder. Give us your wand and hold out your hands."
"Murder? Me? Who am I supposed to have murdered?"
"Severus Snape. Give us your wand."
Startled, Hermione took her eyes from the potential conflict to glance up to the Head Table. Snape was not there, though that was not unusual for a Monday morning. Harry was convinced that Snape was busy, weekend nights, doing Death Eater activities while pretending to be spying. Hermione had no information from which to form an opinion.
Dumbledore and McGonagall were sitting up at the Head Table, watching but not moving and not acting. Hermione looked too late to see whether Dumbledore reacted to the news of his pet Death Eater's having allegedly eaten death. Nevertheless, their inactivity gave Hermione information from which to form an opinion.
"You're aurors, right? Dark wizard catchers?"
"Of course. Any fool can see that. Stop asking stupid questions and come with us."
"So if you're dark wizard catchers, why do two of you have Voldemort's Mark on your arms?"
That set off a small bombshell of twittering, on top of the usual gasps from hearing the dread name.
Two of the aurors, the two Harry had pointed at, drew their wands, curses on their lips.
Aurors didn't spend an hour every day practicing to fight multiple, horrifically powerful opponents.
Aurors didn't cross wands with Voldemort and live to tell the tale.
Aurors didn't have the cheat Harry used, dropping the two without needing to draw his wand.
The third auror, a beat behind, pointed his wand at Harry. He looked rather foolish, a big, bad dark wizard catcher threatening a schoolboy who was sitting at the breakfast table and holding half a piece of toast in one hand and a forkful of ham in the other. "How did you do that?" he demanded, lowering his wand a bit.
"I'm the Chosen One. Don't you read the newspapers? Now what's this about Snape being dead? If it's true, there's going to be a party tonight."
Dumbledore and McGonagall were finally coming over to get more information or to interfere or to contain the damage. It never occurred to Hermione that either was coming to support Harry as he faced down the last of the aurors.
"Yes, please give me information you have about my Potions professor. He has been out of the castle since yesterday morning and I have heard nothing about his whereabouts."
While everyone's attention was on Dumbledore and Harry and the auror, Hermione sliced away the unconscious aurors' sleeves. Can you raise their Dark Marks? she asked Harry through her tried-and-true ventriloquism spell.
Whether by luck or by Harry playing with their magic, the two Marks appeared, black and malevolent, just as the two aurors woke up. Hermione gasped theatrically and pointed. "Look! They are Death Eaters!"
By the time the commotion ended, Harry and all three aurors had been whisked away to Dumbledore's office. McGonagall was throwing point deductions and detentions around like confetti to restore order.
Hermione didn't have any private time to talk to Harry until it was time to wake up and go to training. She'd slipped into his bed around midnight, but the poor boy hadn't even stirred.
"I found him, Voldemort, again, a little before dawn yesterday morning. I was just getting ready to call it a night and come back to school to do training with you when I felt some Dark Marks. It was him and Bellatrix and Snape and a couple of others inside a small house out in farmland. There were some detection wards up, but I just went through them. I didn't realize Voldemort was there or I'd have been more careful, but it looks like it doesn't matter. He didn't notice me coming in.
"Voldemort was mad at Snape. Something about me. Snape was supposed to do something to or about me, or maybe find out something about me. I never heard what; it was just 'greatly disappointed' this and 'you pleaded for more time' that.
"After he was done with his speech, he told Bellatrix to have fun with Snape. As soon as she started torturing him and he, Voldemort, sat back to enjoy the show, I attacked. By the way, I know you still worry about me. I didn't even think of sitting back myself to enjoy watching Snape be tortured. I don't think I'd have enjoyed it, but I'll never know because I didn't think of it, just attacked as soon as I could.
"I pulled on everyone as hard as I could, including Voldemort, the same as I did last week. It hurt even more and both he and I dropped. We were able to stand up at about the same time and he shot an AK as soon as he was able to, of course, and I shielded it again."
"You mentioned that before. I want to discuss it in more depth later. Please continue."
"OK. We shot a few more spells each. He's still too fast for me. I can't even move my arm as fast as he casts spells, but I got a few in and he didn't hit me at all. I had a Bubblehead Charm up, which was good because he did the all-around-fire-burning-the-oxygen trick again. He tried something new, conjuring about a hundred rats. I banished them all away and a bunch of them landed on the Death Eaters and started chewing on them. And then I pulled one side of the house down on Voldemort and sent a bunch of the rats into the spaces between the beams to keep him busy while I made sure none of the Death Eaters were waking up. When I checked the pile a minute later, he was gone.
"I made sure all of the Death Eaters were dead. You could say I murdered them, since the ones who were still alive were all unconscious and not able to fight back. The funny thing is, I didn't murder Snape. He was already dead, either from Bellatrix or Voldemort's spells or maybe from the rats chewing his face off. I looted the bodies for anything useful, but they didn't have much besides their wands and a little gold and portkeys to I don't know where. Snape had a bunch of potions but I wouldn't dream of taking them because I couldn't trust what they were. I found one vault key, but one of the rats ran away with it, I guess because it was shiny, and I wasn't fast enough to stop it. Little bastard.
"Then I cut off Bellatrix's head and brought it with me. I cut off Snape's head, too, just to make sure he was dead, but didn't bring it because no one could recognize it. Then I burned everything and came back here for breakfast. The end."
"You beat Voldemort. You beat him and made him run from the fight. Oh my God, Harry, I'm so proud of you!"
"Uh, thanks. I got lucky. When I pulled on his power, it was just luck that I got back up at the same time he did and that I was able to fight. I could have lost the whole war right there. I was stupid."
"Yes, you're right. Oh, I'm sorry. That didn't come out right. I suggest that we think about different scenarios and your best tactics in each. I'll think about how to set up training drills which will force you to think on your feet under pressure.
"Oh, but Harry! I'm so excited! We, you, could be close to winning!"
"That's something new. Usually I only get you excited when your clothes are off."
"Oh, you. Ah, I'm willing if you are."
"Hey! None of that. Work first, then play. That's what you've been harping on since September."
After the morning workout, shorter but more intense than usual, and shower, longer but more intense than usual, they resumed their discussion of recent events. Hermione's brain had not stopped chewing on the facts while she was otherwise occupied.
"Your report leaves several points needing clarification or meriting discussion. The first is your ability to stop the killing curse. Have you stopped the curse only immediately after drawing on his power, or some other times as well?"
"I stopped it dead just the two times, right after pulling on his power. All the other times I dodged. Oh, except for that first time right after he'd been resurrected and our wands locked up. The first time I stopped it, I didn't expect that to happen. I'd already dodged and was as surprised as Voldemort when the shield stopped it."
"I would be very interested in studying how you stop the unstoppable curse, though I would understand any reluctance on your part to be the guinea pig."
"Ha ha. Yah, I'd want to think twice before signing up for that. What's next on your numbered list, O Great Interrogator, or can it wait until after breakfast?"
"Next, O Great Procrastinator, is the way you always attack a group by yourself. I want to start going with you. You would have to carry me with you in apparation, but once we find them I can carry my weight in a fight. And in particular, if you find Voldemort and can drop him and all the Death Eaters, I can stay on my feet and attack Voldemort when he's down."
"Maybe. I don't like the idea of risking you, but you're usually right. We can talk about it later, figure out the safest and best way to do it. What's next, Miss Keeping-Me-from-My-Breakfast?"
"I hesitate to ask, but why did you take Bellatrix's head? I can think of several reasons, but no good reasons why you would take hers but not the others'."
"For the Longbottoms. I had Dobby mail it to Longbottom Manor. And don't worry, I remembered that we can't have any witnesses or any evidence leading back to us. I didn't use my name anywhere in the package and I told Dobby to use a disguise. If they guess it was me, that's OK, so long as no one can prove it. I expect either Neville's gran will be here today or tomorrow or Neville will be called home for a day. Maybe if we hurry to breakfast we'll see it happen."
Giving in to Harry's subtle hints, Hermione allowed him to walk her to breakfast, which he ate with an enthusiasm just short of "starving dog". "They pulled me away from all three meals yesterday for questioning and by evening I was more tired than hungry – I didn't sleep the night before, remember, and not much the night before that – and went to bed without asking Dobby to get me something."
"About that questioning… The only theory that fits the evidence is that Voldemort told his Death Eaters in DMLE to arrest you for murder. I can't think of any other way that you would have been identified as a killer just hours after the event, and especially given that you burned the bodies. If that is the reason, it could mean that Voldemort is afraid of you, or at least cautious. He's using his minions to deal with you rather than going after you himself."
"Mmmmaybe. I wouldn't read too much into it, Hermione. He might just be slowing me down for a little while, while he recruits more Death Eaters. I've killed about, ah, almost three dozen, or made him do it himself, fighting me. He can't have had that many to begin with, can he? There aren't that many wizards. Wizards and witches, I mean. If he'd had a thousand Death Eaters he'd have just walked in and taken over, no need to hide and run a terrorist campaign. Even a few hundred would do it, I think, what with the support for his pureblood agenda from a lot of the families. And remember that only a dozen or so showed up to his rebirth two years ago. Most likely Voldemort had just a few dozen Death Eaters and I've killed a few dozen Death Eaters."
"Intelligence is very sexy, Harry. Has anyone ever mentioned that?"
"I might have mentioned it to you, Cutie. But stay focused.
"There's one thing about this murder charge. Two things. First, nothing was ever settled with those aurors coming to arrest me. Sure, it must have been Voldemort who got that started, but the investigation has been started. It wasn't dropped when I spotted those two Death Eater aurors, it was just derailed while more and more ministry people came and all yelled at each other in Dumbledore's office. Someday they'll stop pointing fingers at each other and will start looking into that again.
"And that's the second thing. Even though I didn't murder Snape, I'd have a hard time proving it. I'm gone a lot of the weekends. Dumbledore and McGonagall know it even if they can't tell exactly when I go and where I go and when I come back. And everyone knows I'm powerful enough to beat Snape and Flitwick and Dumbledore. And I can't tell them what I'm doing and definitely can't risk Veritaserum. I've been killing a lot of people and that's still against the law."
"On your first point, perhaps no charges were ever properly entered. Those Death Eater aurors may have come unofficially but under pretense of proper authority to kidnap you under guise of arresting you. They might even have brought the non-Death Eater auror to kill and then claim that you did it while trying to escape."
"That's a good point. I guess I could owl the DMLE and ask if I've been formally charged. I hate to bring it up, in case I was and it's fallen through the cracks."
"You could ask Van Leuven to ask around quietly. On your second point, if you take me with you, you could have an alibi for your whereabouts on the weekend if you're ever questioned. I'd testify that we were spending time in your house, much more private and convenient than having to sneak around a school full of Nosey Parkers. And, ah." Hermione screwed up her courage. "If you wanted to make it even stronger, we could tell them that I'm your fiancée. I'm an adult in the magical world and I could demand that you, a minor, have me present when you are questioned."
"I don't know about that. I'm not rejecting you!" Harry yelled as Hermione's face collapsed. "I'm still sixteen. Can I even get engaged without the Dursleys allowing it? Sirius would have signed off on it, but he was a fugitive even before he was killed. I know the Dursleys would never do anything I want, even if it meant getting rid of me early.
"Besides that, you're a Muggleborn witch. Depending on who's talking to us, it might matter to them. If you say we're engaged, they might look at you like you're trying to steal the ancient, pureblood Potter name and it might make things worse."
Hermione felt rejected. Harry's reasons were good and logical and she worshipped at the altar of Reason, but it hurt. To keep the tears at bay, she asked, "Have you been keeping a list of who has been killed, Harry? It may come in useful, either after you've won the war or in helping you find other Death Eaters. Family members of known Death Eaters or guests at their houses might be more likely to be Death Eaters as well."
"No, I never thought of it. I don't even know who most of them are, or were. I'm not sure I could even find out who they were. When I looted the bodies this last time, I don't think any of them had anything saying who they were. No ID cards or anything. Not even monogrammed underwear." He smiled at the snort he startled out of his obviously sad friend. "I guess I could start cutting off their heads as trophies. I don't want to. Aside from the yuck factor, that would be a giant piece of evidence if anyone ever found my head collection."
"Yuck. You might take photographs. They would still be damaging evidence if found, but photographs would be easier to conceal and easier to destroy. And they wouldn't have the yuck factor, or not so much."
"That makes sense. I don't know if it will do any good, but if I can, I'll take pictures."
"Or I can take pictures if I'm with you. I already have a camera that works in a magical environment.
"Finally, perhaps you should have taken the portkeys the Death Eaters were carrying. It's a good bet the destinations were either a safe house or their own homes. Either way, you'd have a good chance of finding more Death Eaters if you took the portkey there."
"That sounds good, except that I don't know how to tell a portkey's destination without triggering it, and I really don't want to jump into a dangerous place without knowing what to expect. The other problem is that I don't know the trigger word to make them go. Even worse, if they were set on a timer and it pulled me with it when I didn't expect it."
"Those are good points. If we can think of a way to safely transport and store the portkeys, please grab them so we can study them from safety."
A masochistic part of Hermione made her ask, "Regarding alibis and fiancées, have you thought about making an arrangement with Daphne? She's seventeen, she obviously is compatible with you, and she's a pureblood."
Harry looked at her closely. "You're my best friend, Hermione. You always will be. I used to think about us being together, but you've hinted pretty strongly that you like girls, so I'm just enjoying the time we spend together, why-ever you want to be with a non-girl. Besides," he smiled, "I'd have trouble marrying you after you yelled that one time, 'Dammit, Potter, pay attention! If you don't stop thinking with your dick, I'll cut it off so you think about training instead of about your girlfriend.' I was so shocked I couldn't even yell, 'Language, Hermione!' "
Hermione smiled, which no doubt was his intention. "I don't know whether I should apologize for that. It was intended to be shocking. It focused your attention, which was what you needed that morning."
"I like Daphne. She's fun – you must know that; she told me that you and Stori always get stories out of her – and she's fun out of bed, too, just talking and being together. I don't know that that's enough for forever. We, she and I, never talk about the future and what she wants to do with her life or anything serious like that. If we had to get married, like if her contraceptives failed, I wouldn't hate it, but I don't think she'd be my first choice for a wife. And, ah, compared to you and Stori and, and Luna, she's, ah, not very smart. Not stupid, I don't mean to say that, but you three are, were, very, very smart. I really like that.
"Ah, don't tell her any of that, please. I think she's more serious about us than I am. I don't want to hurt her feelings if I'm right."
Hermione felt relieved. Hermione felt victorious. Hermione felt like a bitch. Daphne was her friend, too, and Hermione knew that she was more serious about her relationship with Harry than he realized. Schadenfreude at a friend's loss was not something Hermione condoned in anyone, least of all herself.
Over the next day or so, the gossip and staring changed again. The confrontation at Monday's breakfast was the first time that Harry had acknowledged the Chosen One label. Students had come up to him at the beginning of the school year to claim that they'd always supported him and knew he'd save them all. This had petered out rapidly in the face of his indifference. It would not be much of an overstatement to say he spoke to no one except Hermione throughout September and October.
The Harry gossip in the late autumn had focused on the mysterious accidents which befell Draco Malfoy and other bigots, along with a bit about his associating with Daphne.
Then Harry had openly killed Malfoy and hurt Luna's attackers. He'd defeated Flitwick and taken Dumbledore's wand. Dangerous Dark Lord Potter was the talk of the school.
Now, the thanks and heartfelt statements of support were back, stronger than before. "I always knew you were going to save us, Harry." "My parents wondered if you would come to meet them after you beat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. They'd be interested in joining the families. My sister starts Hogwarts next year." And from the new Minister's senior undersecretary, "Mr Potter, you may rest assured that after you do your duty for the preservation of our society, you will receive your just desserts."
Harry ignored them all.
"Haven't you been listening at all to what others are saying?" Daphne, arguably the most normal of their group, couldn't understand how he could reject every friendly gesture.
"No. Why would I? There are only three people whose opinions matter to me. None of the rest of those sheep are worth listening to." Harry, his attention on Daphne, didn't notice the shadow pass over Hermione's eyes when he voiced his opinion of the masses.
"Did you know Susan Bones is mad at me because I'm the la-di-da Chosen One but didn't save her aunt last summer? She looked me up to yell at me the other day. Of course, being a Hufflepuff, she had to have about ten friends backing her up. She said that if I know I'm the Chosen One I should have gone after Voldemort – she didn't say 'Voldemort' of course – earlier and saved her aunt. I was annoyed that they were wasting my time and blocking me in a corner so I couldn't leave, but I didn't want to hurt anyone so I set the stone in the walls and floor vibrating. One of the books Hermione had me read mentioned subsonics in psychological warfare. It works. I let her fuss at me for a while and everyone was getting nervous and fidgety. Then I yelled Boo and they all ran away."
All three girls laughed and Daphne observed, "What do you expect? Hufflepuffs." Hermione wasn't sure the smear was entirely deserved – Cedric Diggory had been no coward – but acknowledged that the Hufflepuff stereotype had some basis.
"It doesn't matter that everyone is trying to apologize or be my friend today. Tomorrow they'll be back to whispering or running away when I come near."
And sure enough, within a few days the latest gossip was about Harry's unbelievable power – "Just like You-Know-Who's!" – and how he must have sacrificed the blood of innocents to gain it – "Just like You-Know-Who!" The problem with thinking the worst of people was that they so often live down to your expectations.
Hermione and Harry went on with their lives and their plans despite the fickle winds. Harry was right; these sheep weren't worth paying attention to. A dog, to change metaphors, that growls at you, wants you to take care of it, and wants to curl up beside you, all in endless, quick, and unpredictable cycles, was not a dog to keep.
When Hermione thought about it, she was worried about becoming a seventeen-year-old bitter cynic. War does that to you.
But most of the problems didn't directly arise from the war with Riddle. It was their society as a whole that was making war on them.
And that was a thought she shied away from.
Daphne arrived at the last weekly meeting of April slightly late and with her Ice Queen mask firmly in place. She probably wasn't furious or frightened, Hermione thought, but rather mildly upset and thinking about something.
Harry frowned and moved to sit next to Daphne and provide a little physical comfort. He'd been getting much better about receiving and giving casual touches and generally better about behaving like a well-adjusted, normal teenager. Hermione mentally thanked Daphne every time she saw Harry take another step away from the abused boy who grew up in a cupboard. The good she'd done for Hermione's best friend more than made up for her taking Harry every other night and flaunting her very satisfying sex life.
Daphne waved Harry away before he could transfigure her chair into a love seat and join her. "Better not, Harry. I've just come from a meeting with my parents. They've heard rumors about 'what I've been getting up to at school'. They decided that I was in danger of becoming a loose woman and have arranged a marriage for me. My parents will allow me to continue at Hogwarts only so long as I do nothing to damage my fiancé's reputation – which means no appearance of impropriety. Which definitely means no alone time, Harry, and this is the last time I'll be seeing you except in public places. Even that I have to make sure is above reproach."
Hermione knew in the abstract that arranged marriages were not uncommon among pureblood families. She was surprised to find that teenage girls could be locked into unwanted marriages, though.
Astoria had morphed from shocked to angry while Hermione thought. "How could they! They've always promised to ask us before entering negotiations."
"Father did ask me about it over Solstice hols. It's the Morris family. Well thought of but not prominent enough to attract much attention. Philip is the only living wizard in the younger generation. He's almost thirty and hasn't found a bride yet. Mother said he's more interested in looks than anything else. Pardon the ego, but when he saw me he decided his search was over. Father asked what I thought of him. At the time I thought it was only Father trying to find me a husband, not that Philip had approached Father first.
"His family offered quite good terms for my hand. A good bride price, which Father will turn over to me as part of my dowry. So long as I don't cause any kind of scandal and bear heir-and-a-spare for both families and accompany Philip to fancy balls and such – Oh, what a burden! – I'll be able to continue my schooling and then get involved in something to keep me busy. The terms are quite liberal to me, considering."
"Four children, Daphne? At least four? There goes your figure." Astoria was clearly upset. She wasn't normally catty with her sister.
"What can I say, Astoria? Daddy obviously doesn't think a snake-hips like you can do it."
"Ahem. Let's keep it civil, ladies. Congratulations on your engagement, Daphne. When is the wedding? I'm sure Astoria would like to congratulate you, too, as soon as I un-silence you both."
Harry had been looking increasingly unhappy during the conversation. Hermione's assumption that he was upset about losing the "benefits" of his friends with benefits relationship was proved wrong when he asked, "Daphne, you haven't said how you feel about this. Do you want to break the engagement? Do you need me to help with it?"
"No! No, Harry, don't do anything. I want this, I do. I'll be marrying into a good, stable family. Well off, if not exactly rich. The Morrises are not exactly purebloods, as they regularly bring in half-bloods, just the same as the Greengrasses. Philip himself is considered a half-blood but our children will be purebloods. No, Hermione, that doesn't matter to me, but it does matter to society and I don't want to handicap my children.
"I've gotten most of the wildness out of my system, so I think I can be happy with Philip. And I've learned so much in the past six months, things that I'm sure will make Philip very happy." She licked her lips in a way that made Hermione want to smack her for teasing Harry when she was dumping him. "Oh, I shouldn't have done that, Harry. Force of habit. I do want this. I'm a little put out with my parents for arranging it without first asking me my wishes or even confronting me directly about the rumors, but overall it's a good match for both Philip and myself."
"Okay. So long as you're happy, I'm happy."
Harry didn't look happy. He had made his choice in March and she had been taken away from him. Tonight, regardless of what he might have wanted, he'd just had another choice taken away from him. His face had gone flat and he was quiet as the meeting's nominal purpose was abandoned for congratulations and wedding plans and speculation about who at Hogwarts might be next to become engaged. All three girls were startled to see he'd left. He shouldn't have been able to do so without disturbing Hermione's enhanced locking and privacy wards. The last they were sure he'd been with them was when Daphne congratulated Hermione. "Now you don't have to fight with me over who gets to spend the night with Harry." Everyone who wasn't Daphne blushed when she added, "Though you may have to watch out for Stori here. She's quite the clever one and you can bet she's thinking about it. Unless the two of you agree to share. She's small and could fit in the bed with you, hmm?"
Hermione held Astoria back before she headed off to the dungeons with her bodyguard and Hermione went to track down Harry. "You said you want to be a virgin bride."
"I did. I do. Go to him. I turn sixteen in less than six months. I may change my mind then. Tonight, you go to him."
That night, as Harry slept in her arms, Hermione was kept awake by the thoughts Daphne had put in her head. She'd never thought of Astoria that way. Daphne, yes, of course. Everyone who liked girls had those thoughts about Daphne. If the other girl had shown the slightest interest, Hermione would have jumped in head first. But Daphne hadn't shown the slightest interest and so it never occurred to her that they both could spend the night with Harry sometimes. If the two girls had agreed, she couldn't imagine Harry objecting. Wasn't it a standard boy's fantasy to be with two girls together? Or at least to be with two girls, even if the girls weren't together?
Now that Daphne had gotten her thinking about sharing, Hermione couldn't get the thought out of her head. Over the past few months it had become clear to her that she wasn't as gay as she'd thought she was. She didn't think she'd be satisfied with just a husband, but as part of a trio… She could see that working, if she could find the right partners.
Harry would be a wonderful partner. Capable, intelligent, hard working, and a thoughtful and attentive boyfriend. His pile of gold was nice, too, but more important than that, he found Hermione attractive. Others had complimented her looks at the Yule Ball during the Triwizard Tournament, but only after she'd spent three hours primping with expensive makeup and charms. Harry liked her every day.
For the other partner, Daphne would be wonderful, but only for casual fun. She was pure sex on wheels and some of her stories about what she and Harry got up to left Hermione envious of them both by turns. A night with Daphne would be worth failing tests in every class the next day. Longer term, though… Daphne was fun to spend time with but she was rather flighty and shallow. She didn't have any drive to reach the very peak to which her talents could take her. She didn't want to shake up society and fix its problems and leave the world a better place.
Hermione had a burning drive for justice.
Harry was disgusted with the incompetence and injustice and indifference of those in power. He was going to shake the world on its foundations if pointed the right way. He had already promised to help Hermione in any way he could.
Astoria wanted to be Minister for Magic and fix the world.
Astoria was as intelligent as Hermione. She was as driven. Less obsessive but just as energetic. Extremely competent in her areas of expertise. Cute as a button.
Hermione could easily picture spending the rest of her life with Harry and Astoria. She spent the entire night wondering whether she should broach the subject or whether she should leave well enough alone, at least until Harry had vanquished Voldemort and pulled Dumbledore's teeth.
Damn Daphne anyway!
Astoria wasn't at all interested in sharing.
Over the next six weeks Harry began hunting in earnest. He claimed that by around the time he'd taken the energy from half a dozen Death Eaters, he was able to sense a marked wizard if he was within a few miles. By the time he'd drained two dozen, the range was up to twenty or thirty miles. It meant a lot of apparating or flying, but it was possible to cover a large part of England or Scotland or Ireland in a night. He would go to classes (solely to maintain his cover as an innocent student), take a nap in the evening, disappear from the castle, and then return and join Hermione in her bed.
Even with all of his skills at getting around undetected, Hermione woke up every time he joined her. It was probably a survival skill, she speculated, for a young woman to wake when a man approached her in her sleep. It was useful for Harry's benefit, too. She checked the time every morning when he finally made it to bed and if it was too late they would skip training that day.
Hermione had had sex with Harry – made love, or at least made deep friendship between two people who thought the world of each other – enough times this year that she had come to quite enjoy it. Even if she had been gay at the end of the summer she definitely wasn't now. Girls were still nice but so was her time with her best friend. Nevertheless, she cut him off, with his grumbling acquiescence. He'd gone from no sex to a dozen times a week with Daphne to whatever he was doing with Luna to three or four times a week with Hermione to none. He had a huge amount of frustration that needed to be vented somehow and, look! Deserving targets.
Borrowing Daphne's idea, Hermione promised Harry some especially good sex after he killed all of the Death Eaters (except for Goyle Senior, if he could manage that) and "vanquished" Voldemort before the end of the school year.
The "especially good sex" would be a treat for Hermione as well. She deserved it for all her hard work in bringing Harry to the point that the end of the war was in sight.
She had approached the new female seventh-year Ravenclaw prefect a week before. It was in the library shortly before closing, of course. Where else would Hermione Granger and a Ravenclaw meet for a quiet conversation?
"Good evening, Miss Parsons. It's late and we're both busy, so I'll cut to the chase. I have a method of surveillance which tells me that you have broader tastes than most witches and wizards. A broader selection of special friends, shall we say." The Marauder's Map had not especially been designed to monitor who was hooking up with whom. After Hermione had added – with Harry's permission, of course – a few enhancements, it might as well have been.
"And? Are you going to try to blackmail me?"
"Not at all. I'm hardly in a position to criticize. I've come to you because I'm setting up a special night for a special friend and I need another woman to make it extra special. A woman with broad tastes. A woman who is discrete enough to have a night of fun and not shout it to Teen Witch Weekly. A woman who will not confuse a night of fun with a lifetime commitment."
"I'm listening. I have only until graduation to have fun – with a broad selection of special friends, as you put it – before I have to settle down and be respectable. Are you going to be a part of the night of fun? It's not a deal killer, but I have to tell you, you're not really my type."
"I know," Hermione smirked. "Your type, in both boys and girls, is short and slender with short hair. I told you, I have an excellent method of surveillance. To answer your question, yes, I had planned to be a participant."
The other girl pondered for a moment. "Potter, right? You supposedly were with Weasley earlier this year, but I haven't seen you so much as talk to him since practically the beginning of the year. You've spent a lot of time with the Greengrasses, but you mentioned 'broad tastes' several times so you're looking for a girl who likes both girls and boys. Potter's my type, all right, and I owe him for my prefect badge, so I'm up for a night of fun. Why should I go with you, though? What's to keep me from going straight to him with my short, slender special friend? He's a sixteen-year-old boy. Flash him some skin and he'll forget who he was with five minutes ago. Two girls flashing him? He'll forget he ever knew you."
"Are you so sure of yourself? You do know Daphne Greengrass? Aphrodite on Earth? Harry was with her for months. You'd have to flash some extraordinary skin to overwhelm his good judgment. But to answer your question, why you should go through me," and Hermione paralyzed Parsons just by pointing her finger.
It wasn't quite wandless magic. Hermione was able to cast only one spell wandlessly, the almost useless bluebell fire. However, she and Harry had accidentally discovered that if the tip of her wand was touching her hand she could cast some spells through her finger as if it were the wand. Not five minutes later they had rigged a wand holster on her right forearm and the odds of her surviving until her next birthday went up another tiny fraction.
Before releasing Parsons, Hermione gave the older girl the smile of a victorious lioness. "I don't have to be part of Harry's night. I would like to be, and you definitely are my type, but it's not a requirement. Ask me politely if you want me to step aside. Don't try to force it. Do you think Harry would have a powder puff for a best friend?"
"Very impressive. With skill like that, maybe you're my type after all, Granger."
Just before they were ejected as the library closed, they agreed to have Parsons bring her most special friend to talk to Hermione. She, too, was looking to end the year with a bang, and hooking Harry up with three girls had to be 50% better than hooking him up with two girls.
Hermione headed back to Gryffindor tower shaking her head. She should feel satisfied. Everything was set up, Harry would have a fun night, she would have a fun night, and she had even managed to impress Parsons.
So why did she feel like a pimp?
Back on the war front, working on winning the war rather than on motivating Harry to win the war, Astoria was working with Harry to identify probable Death Eaters and the locations of their family homes. The two spent enormous amounts of time together, even more than Hermione and Harry. Her schoolwork suffered, dropping from straight Os to straight As.
Old Hermione would have nagged her friend, colleague, and rival to focus on her schoolwork because it was the most important part of a student's life. New Hermione's work, along with Harry's, was also declining, to Es and even a few As. They all had higher priorities than homework designed with the average student in mind.
Astoria put it best one evening as she recounted the confrontational visit by her parents that afternoon. "McGonagall, Flitwick, and Vector had all held me after class to talk about my work and my grades. I had better ways to spend my time than being lectured or in detention because McGonagall thought that I had copied the worst part of Harry's attitude."
"Hah! As if you could copy me. There's only one of me, the genuine Harry Potter!"
"A fact that I'm sure the young witches of the world bitterly regret. You weren't openly defiant, were you, Astoria? I can't picture you actually acting like Harry." Hermione ignored Harry's harrumphed protests. He surely knew she was teasing. Mostly.
"I wasn't rude at all, nor defiant. I simply didn't agree with them that my schoolwork was a problem, that keeping my grades up was the most important thing in my life, nor that I should stop 'spending any time around Mr Potter because he's clearly having a most unfortunate influence on you, Miss Greengrass.' I did point out that collectively the professors had consumed almost two hours of my time in complaining that I wasn't putting enough time into homework. That made McGonagall very angry but it was not rude or defiant, merely observant.
"Then Slughorn and McGonagall called in my parents. They came in demanding to know why Hogwarts had allowed Harry Potter to declare war on the Greengrasses and ruin both of their daughters. That set the tone. To be fair to them, I'm sure they did not receive a full and unbiased account of my 'problems' in school, and I must admit that I have not kept them up to date as well as I ought. McGonagall made several statements regarding you being utterly out of control this year, that you have not declared war on my family because of course the professors would have stopped you, that you are exerting a very unfortunate influence on many formerly exemplary students, and that the professors are unable to stop you from fraternizing with me.
"My parents then threatened to pull me from school. McGonagall promised that Dumbledore is much more focused on school matters, now that Harry is preparing to lead the fight against You-Know-Who, and that Dumbledore will prevent him from unduly influencing any other students.
"I'm sure you noticed the contradictions and outright nonsense in what McGonagall told my parents. I'm rather disappointed that they apparently did not notice.
"I had to tread much more carefully with my parents because they have actual power over me. They could withdraw me from school or even force me into marriage with a man who could control my 'wildness'. They would do that only as a last resort, I believe, but my mother has a temper and often pushes my father to do what she wants.
"To summarize, I told my parents that you are, indeed, the Chosen One and that I have been helping you prepare to defeat You-Know-Who because none of the so-called responsible adults was lifting a finger and that I expect to benefit from having helped you. Ah, Harry, that was simply something I told my parents to mollify them and to appeal to their self-interest. Unfortunately, my parents, especially my father, are aware of the opposition of many of the old Houses and do not believe you can win. They want me to break off all contact with you.
"Harry, I need you to do something for me."
Despite the seriousness of the conversation, the girl who'd gone through almost four years in Slytherin House couldn't let that go by. "You should know by now not to make open-ended promises, Harry."
"Anything you need, I will do."
Her mischievous grin melted into the dopey smile that only Harry could bring out. Shaking her head sharply, Astoria got back on track. "I need you to break into my parents' house, steal their wands, and bring them to me. I would also like to borrow Hedwig tonight but I can use a school owl if she is not available."
Harry's assent readily given, Astoria told him how to find the house. She didn't bother telling him about any of the wards or other defenses. It would probably take longer for her to tell him what she knew than for him to go through them.
Harry sat next to Hermione at breakfast the next morning. She flashed him a big smile. To be sure, she had been smiling all morning.
"I got back to the castle very late – it took longer to go through the wards without destroying them than I'd expected; I'll tell you about that later – and I didn't want to wake you, so I just took a nap down in the common room. You didn't come down for practice this morning."
Hermione blushed around her smile.
"So I went to the girls' dorms to wake you up. You weren't in your bed, so I was worried that something had happened to you."
Hermione started to stammer out an excuse.
"So I got the Map and checked. I was a little surprised to see you in the Ravenclaw tower. And a little worried. Were the former prefects getting some revenge on my friend?"
Hermione was nervous. Surely he wouldn't blurt it out in public…? But then she checked and found he'd put up a silencing charm.
"But then I remembered the new features you'd put on the Map. That was amazing work, getting the 'busy' couples to blink like that. And then I discovered the 'history' feature, and now I have four questions. Three questions; I don't have to ask if you had a good night. First, did you get any sleep last night? And second, what did you do, expand the bed? I don't see how else all three of you could have fit in Parsons's bed.
"And third, did you use protection, Young Lady? Do I have to take you to the clinic to be tested?"
Before Hermione could come up with a suitable rejoinder, an adult couple came into the Great Hall and glanced at the Slytherin table before proceeding to the Head Table. They then escorted Astoria to the small room off the Great Hall. A little while later, Astoria asked Harry to join them.
"Mother and Father were quite incensed when they received my note at breakfast after having looked for their wands for an hour," Astoria reported to Hermione. "They were even more incensed when they realized that Snooty had not stopped your nor even alerted them that an intruder was entering."
"It's easy to stop elves. They all have one big weakness that makes it easy for a wizard to beat them. It's probably how wizards managed to enslave them all, centuries ago. I found it in one of the old Black books. And, no, I'm not going to tell anyone the secret, not even you, Hermione. Not until I've figured out a way to counter it. Dobby said he'll find some other elves to help me work on it, after. Sorry, Stori; I didn't mean to interrupt."
It was just like Harry, to tell half a story like that and leave her hanging. It was just like him, to hatch a wonderful plan like helping the elves but to refuse to tell her what it was.
"After I explained to my parents that I'd asked Harry to give a very small demonstration of his abilities, they relented a bit. They still do not believe that Harry can win, but are willing to give him, us, the benefit of the doubt.
As for my schoolwork, I pointed out that I am learning all of the material for not only this year but the next, but that my grades have dropped because I have better ways to spend my time than in writing essays on goblin wars or the development of the Cheering Charm. My father is requiring me to take OWLs this year instead of next. If the two of you can help me study, I would appreciate it. I am confident I will pass at least five courses, but must make the most of the limited time before the tests if I wish to do well."
Harry frowned. "You're already very busy, just like Hermione and me. I agree with you about not wasting time on pointless homework. Isn't panic studying for OWLs more wasted time? After I win and tell everyone that you were a big part of it, you shouldn't have to worry about your Hogwarts grades or even your father taking you out of school. You'll be able to write your own ticket."
"I agree, except for one potential problem: We don't know how long it will take you to defeat You-Know-Who. All will be well if you do it by June of this year. I would rather not take the gamble, if the only price is working a bit harder for a month."
Working around her increased school studies, Astoria came up with several ways to prevent more wizards from joining Voldemort. One that neither Hermione nor Harry had thought of was simple newspaper advertisements.
Attention Death Eater candidates: Before you take You-Know-Who's Mark, look into the life expectancy of a Death Eater these days. They've been dying in droves, sometimes in their family mansions behind layers of wards. We think You-Know-Who has been killing them through the Dark Mark for whatever reason goes through his evil, insane mind. Don't let this happen to you!
She had this translated into all the major European languages and then used Harry's money to run full-page advertisements for a solid month in every newspaper which would accept them.
It might have done some good. At any rate, Harry noticed it was more and more difficult to find anyone with a Dark Mark when he went out hunting.
Harry's patrols and raids had results other than the direct effect of reducing the number of Death Eaters on the British Isles and western Europe.
"Did you know that the students are talking about you in the Slytherin dorms?"
"That's not too surprising, I guess. What is it this month, my incredible good looks?"
"A reasonable guess, but no. There's a new You-Know-Who now, you know. Ah, that's more difficult to say than I would have thought. In any event, it's common knowledge that someone has been killing Death Eaters. Perhaps a third of the Slytherin students have lost a close relative. It's well over half of the students, if you include in-laws and second cousins. More Death Eaters have died in the past month than in all the years of You-Know-Who's first rise. This has their families very upset."
"My heart bleeds. The other side, and the Muggles, were doing all the dying for a long time. Let's see how they like it."
"I understand your perspective, Harry, even if I don't quite agree."
Hermione completely agreed with Harry and couldn't see how there would be much room for disagreement. As a despised mudblood, whose family still had essentially no rights under wizard law, her sympathy for bigoted purebloods exactly mirrored their sympathy for her. But she kept her mouth shut, having finally learned the lesson that not everyone's mind was open to being changed by her flawless command of facts and reason.
"But the point is, the families of Death Eaters are afraid. The fear is spreading to other pureblood families. The Slytherin students now speak in whispers of a different You-Know-Who who is after them. Where it affects you is that a large fraction of them think that you are the new You-Know-Who. 'You-Know-Who-Two', perhaps. They saw what you did to Snape in that duel and they know that you killed Draco Malfoy. They don't seem to recall that Snape had previously badly beaten you in a duel and that you were defending another pureblood from Malfoy. And thank you again for that, Harry."
Harry took her hand and smiled. "I'm glad I did. I'd have done it for any girl, but I'm glad I could rescue you."
"Ahem!" Hermione was suffering a saccharine overload from watching the two of them engrossed in each other's eyes. And she was frustrated because she was losing the undeclared competition. "Find a room, you two, or get it back on topic."
Later, away from Astoria, Hermione and Harry agreed to keeping on with the same approach. If the Death Eaters and their families and their fellow travelers were running scared, then Harry was on the right track.
"Astoria, I have a few concerns with our work. More precisely, I have concerns concerning Harry's training and life after he has won." Hermione no longer had any doubts that Harry was going to vanquish Voldemort. Whether or not he could beat the self-professed Dark Lord and all of his supporters in a straight-up battle — and Hermione wouldn't bet against even that — Harry was going to win the war. It was what came after that was less clear.
"I understand your concerns, Hermione, but I don't think it will be a problem. Harry and I will be able to cut back on the time we work together after the victory and he'll be able to resume training. Perhaps he won't train at the intensity which was the norm earlier this year, but I don't see him ever stopping training completely, and I have considered the resumption of my role as nemesis, pranking and inconvencing him in minor ways. He'll have to keep his edge, if nothing else. What are you concerned about, that Harry will go back to playing games and wasting time if you aren't pushing him? I'm sure he'll always listen to you. For that matter, he should have enough money to hire you as a full-time trainer if you think it's important."
"What? No, that's not it at all. My concerns are about you, Astoria, not Harry. Or rather, I'm concerned about Harry in combination with you. That's why I asked you to meet me alone tonight." This was unusual. Normally either Harry or Daphne joined Astoria and Hermione for the planning sessions. Not both at the same time because Daphne was required to avoid even the appearance of closeness to a man not her fiancé, but one or the other helped with ideas and information while Hermione and Astoria handled most of the details.
"Why ever would you be concerned about me? Or Harry with me? Assuming he wants to be with me after we've won. Oh, I hope he does, but we've never talked about it. But sometimes he'll look at me and I just melt and I think he does, too, but what if I'm just imagining it?"
The normally cool and confident Astoria Greengrass was blushing and babbling like the teenage girl she was, and a slightly insecure one at that. Hermione took this as a good sign.
"Don't be foolish. You've got him wrapped around your finger, Astoria. No, it's a bit too early to say that. Let's say, Harry is smitten with you, too. Once you start showing him any physical affection, he'll be wrapped around your finger. You'd have to do something singularly stupid to lose him." Hermione Granger, master trainer and manipulator-in-training, did not realize that she was giving advice on a topic she had no experience in.
"Therein lies my concern. Have you thought about what we're doing here? Have you realized what we're making? I hadn't realized it until Harry destroyed Narcissa Malfoy in her own home, through the wards, and did it without getting caught and without Dumbledore even realizing he'd left the castle. And then he did the same with Dolores Umbridge. And a dozen other Death Eaters in their homes. Harry is well on his way to becoming an unstoppable assassin.
"Now think about that from where I'm sitting, Astoria. You want to become Minister for Magic. You want to reform our society. You want your name to go down in history as the most effective Minister ever. What will you do when old conservatives block your every move? What will you do if their reasons are as base as protecting their graft and their privileges? You'll have an unstoppable assassin at your beck and call. What will you do?
"Astoria, I do not want to be a part of creating the next Dark Lady. What will you do?"
"Harry, I've been thinking." The three had continued to meet regularly to plan the war. Astoria had not spoken to Hermione again about that one conversation but no awkwardness had come up between them.
"No! I can't take any more. Please make it stop."
"Stop being a drama queen, Harry. Neither of us believes it. What were you thinking, Astoria?"
"We are working under the assumption that You-Know-Who is drawing power to sustain himself from the Dark Marks."
"Yes, of course. Harry's ability to draw power is suggestive if not conclusive."
"We also know there is a connection of some sort between your scar, Harry, and You-Know-Who. Harry told me about the headaches and visions one night, Hermione. I can't imagine he hasn't told you."
"Yes, of course. That doesn't sound like very enticing pillow talk. Harry, I need speak with you about your seduction technique."
"Can you keep your mind on task for five minutes? Harry, you have a bad effect on women. It seems that when they sleep with you they can't concentrate on anything else."
"Yes, I'm amazing that way. But now you can't stay on topic, and you're not even sleeping with me."
"Not without a ring on my finger. To return to the topic, do you suppose that You-Know-Who can draw power from Harry through his scar?"
"That's an ugly thought. Harry, can you feel anything?"
"No. I thought of the same thing a while ago. I couldn't feel anything and couldn't think of any way to test it or anything I could do about it, so I forgot about it."
"I came across this runic seal in this book you lent me, Harry." The Private, Family, and Secret Ward Schemes of Betelgeuse Black, Master Warder. Hermione felt more than a flicker of jealousy when she saw the book. She was supposed to be the beneficiary of Harry's library largess. She frowned, called herself a bitch, and returned her attention to the conversation.
"The only problem is that this spiritual essence blocking seal has seventeen runes and they all have to fit along your scar. I couldn't possibly carve them so small. Hermione, do you think you could do it?"
"Maybe. I'd have to practice. I'd have to get the finest-tipped metal quill we can find."
"There's another problem. I find our enemies through their Dark Marks. If we block off the connection from my scar, if that's how I'm doing it, then I won't be able to find them. Without that, we're dead in the water. We don't have any other good ways to fight this war. At best we'd be waging an insurgent campaign against a terrorist-slash-insurgent organization while hiding from the titular government. What?" Astoria was looking at Harry very oddly. "I've been doing a lot of reading on insurgencies and guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgencies. We, the nation, are in a classic terrorist campaign by a charismatic, amoral leader against a corrupt and incompetent government. The populace barely cares which side wins because they think one is as bad as the other."
"Power is attractive, Harry." Astoria's smile was neither her usual controlled version nor her occasional dopey version. "Intelligence is even more attractive."
"Ahem! Returning to the topic – and Astoria, I'd appreciate it if you would stop looking at Harry like a side of beefcake – I agree with your reasoning, Harry. Let me practice and we'll be ready to place the runic seal whenever we need to."
Hermione was unable to create runes small enough for this purpose. Daphne was. She had taken only three years of Ancient Runes, but that was enough to teach her the principles of carving runes. Much more importantly, she had been doing cross stitch and needlepoint for ten years and had fine muscle coordination better than anyone else's. Hermione shook her head in wonderment that Victorian-era women's busy-work actually served some purpose.
Now if only they had any idea whether Voldemort was drawing power from Harry or if the runic seal would do any good. Life was so messy sometimes, not letting you know if you were doing the right thing.
And with that thought in mind, Hermione dug into her book bag for her current philosophy reading. If there weren't a cosmic arbiter giving feedback on what was right and wrong then she would have to figure it out for herself.
By the first week in June, Harry had killed almost all of the Death Eaters he could find. He hadn't detected any Dark Marks in more than a week of apparating all over Britain and the continent. The only living Death Eater was Goyle Senior, who was in a drugged coma. The Draught of Living Death had been shockingly expensive but it let Harry keep his promise to the younger Goyle. Harry couldn't pull any energy from his Dark Mark and so the little gang of counter-revolutionaries assumed that Voldemort couldn't, either.
By the first week in June, Dumbledore had virtually disappeared. On his rare appearances in the school, he looked his age, the mere withered husk of an ancient man. A one-armed ancient man. Possibly Snape could have provided customized potions to keep Dumbledore healthy, but Snape had been dead for months.
By the first week in June, Harry was so horny he could probably destroy Voldemort simply by pointing his –. Hermione cut that mental image off abruptly. Bad thought! Bad thought!
By the first week in June, Harry was as ready as Hermione could make him. "I honestly can't think of anything else you can work on or improve that will help you against You-Know-Who. You've improved your fighting skills and power beyond anything reasonable. We've armed you enough to give you an edge."
"I still wish we knew what 'the power he knows not' is. If the prophecy is real-real and not just fake-real because Dumbledore and You-Know-Who believed it, then that has to be important. The only thing I can think of is that Hermione's cut me off until You-Know-Who is dead. I've never heard anything about him being interested in girls, but I can't believe that the power of the you-know-what is the power You-Know-Who knows not. And even if it is, it's pretty disturbing for Trelawney to mention it." Both girls made a moue. "Yah, sorry about putting the image in your heads."
"We need to deal with You-Know-Who as soon as possible. Harry is obviously going insane if his brain can come up with that thought."
"There's another reason, a real reason, to do this before school lets out," Astoria put in. "If Dumbledore's reputation has been keeping You-Know-Who away from the school, that won't last much longer. Even if Dumbledore doesn't die, he can't keep his decline secret much longer. I can easily see You-Know-Who attacking the school to either take hostages or kill the children of families who don't support him."
Hermione and Harry exchanged dark glances. "Or attack the Hogwarts Express or Platform 9 ¾. You're right. We need to get this done."
"The difficulty is in finding him. You still haven't had any success, have you, Harry?"
"No, of course not. Do you think I'd be sitting here if I'd gotten so much as a whiff?"
"Perhaps we could unseal the runes on your scar. We don't know that doing so will do any good, but then, we don't know for sure that the runes are doing any good."
"We do have one untapped resource. One person with a connection to You-Know-Who which you may be able to follow."
"Yah. Goyle. Astoria, I really don't want to wake him up if I don't have to. I promised Goyle – Greg Goyle, I mean, your bodyguard – that I'd keep his father alive if I could. I've already let down Crabbe. Goyle's done a great job, working for you, and I don't want to let him down, too."
Hermione frowned. "It may come to letting him down or forfeiting the war." Harry looked at her. "I'm not saying you should deliberately break your promise, Harry. I am saying we should consider using our only resource. We can take precautions, secure him physically and magically. We can even bring in his son to talk to him and perhaps persuade him to change sides, or at least help us. We can always put him back to sleep if he won't help and you can't follow the pull on his mark."
"Maybe. Do you remember how hard it was to get the Draught of Living Death in the first place? We need to get started on getting some right away if you think we'll need it. But the key point is that we're bumping up against my rules. I might break one if I have to, but I don't want to. They've kept me from the slippery slope this long."
"Think, Harry. We're this close to winning the war. We've pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, to borrow a phrase. This is a small thing, the risk – not the death, merely the risk – of one Death Eater to defeat his master. Isn't victory worth a compromise of your principles?"
Harry frowned at her, then disappeared. Hermione huffed, annoyed at him for running from a discussion.
"Well done, Hermione, very well done. You previously accused Harry of going dark and bullied him into writing a set of rules to prevent that from happening, and now you bully him to give them up when it's convenient for you. What's next on your agenda, binding his magic because he's so much more powerful than the norm?"
Hermione turned toward Astoria, annoyed that the girl would criticize her very logical efforts to win the war for all of them. Why couldn't anyone see – . And Hermione's indignation came crashing down. She had been bullying Harry, pushing him in the direction she was sure he needed to go.
For the first time, Hermione thought that Astoria might make a better wife for Harry than she herself would. Hermione was pushy. She always had been and likely always would be. Harry didn't need pushing, not any longer, and would probably grow tired of it. Resentful of it. Astoria had a much gentler touch, guiding rather than pushing. Hermione would remain his best friend, a much safer role that would not endanger what they had together.
"Excuse me. I have to go apologize. I'll find you later and we can continue planning."
That evening, after all three had done the minimal amount of homework needed to deprive the teachers of an excuse to give them detention, they met again to figure out how to find Riddle.
"I've sent Dobby out to find a potions shop which will sell him another vial of Draught of Living Death. It might take another large portion of your money, Harry."
"That's okay. Like you said, 'lives, fortunes, honor'. If I have to spend everything I have to be free of all this rot, it'll be worth it. Besides, I figure I can write a book after and make good money from the royalties. Collect any medals and rewards the ministry offers. Lecture tour, consulting, plushies and posters, milk it for what it's worth."
Hermione stared at Harry, slack-jawed. Beside her, Astoria was just as astonished, though more daintily so.
"So surprising that I'm thinking ahead like that. Yah, I know. But the Potter fortune wasn't that big to start with, and fifteen years of vault fees and property taxes and no income ate a lot of it – I got hit with tax bills in January from both the magical ministry and the county where the house is, the ruins of the house, I mean – and we've used a lot of it this year. The Black fortune was either looted or given to Volde–, er, You-Know-Who, sorry, Stori, so I got a rotted-out house in London, a rental property on Diagon Alley, and more debt than gold, especially after I dropped the Fidelius and the London government discovered there was a house there which hadn't had any taxes paid in years. I'm going to have to work for a living and the only real skill I have is hunting Death Eaters. I don't know anything else. I don't even know how to use a magical oven. I thought for a little while about burglarizing the homes of Death Eaters, but I've killed them all, so there's no point punishing their families any more. It would break my rules."
Harry was almost broke? Hermione was horrified. She had spent his gold like water, thinking he had a mountain of it.
"You could always marry into wealth." Astoria was looking down at her hands. No, she was looking at the bracelet Harry had bought her.
"Be a gigolo? No, I don't think so. I'd probably have to marry some eighty-year-old woman who smoked cigars. No, I want to earn my way, for my own self-respect. It shouldn't matter to me because they're idiots and liars and their opinions don't matter, but my relatives always told me that I was a worthless parasite and that my parents were drunkards and dole bludgers."
Hermione's eyes met Astoria's and she shook her head minutely. No, we don't kill them. Astoria's tightened eyes replied, Not yet.
"I just need to support myself to prove to myself that they were wrong. I figure that what I'm doing now is a big bit of earning my way," Harry continued, "so I should cash in on it the best I can."
"We're getting rather far afield. Harry, I'm glad you're planning ahead, but we have one major hurdle to overcome before you can start autographing your books."
"Right. I had another idea. What about asking the house elf network if they can tell us anything?"
"House elf network? What's that?"
"Don't all the house elves get together and pass gossip and help each other? That's what I heard. Stori, you've heard of it, right?"
Astoria's face was twisting strangely … until she burst out in a fit of giggles. "Harry, that's from Super Elf, a children's story. It was very popular with small children five or ten years ago, when I was a child. In real life, most elves are not given the freedom to find each other and gossip. Your relationship with Dobby is most unusual."
"That it is. That's because Dobby is the best elf in the world."
Dobby popped in and hugged Harry's leg. "And Mr Great Harry Potter Sir is the best master in the world!" he sobbed.
"Ahem! We're getting rather far afield again. Dobby, while you are here, do you know of any way we can enlist the elves to help find You-Know-Who?"
"I'm afraid not, Mr Harry's Grangy. Elves work and sleep and punish selves. No time for play."
"Thank you, Dobby. Focus, Hermione." Harry put a calming hand on her arm. He must have seen that she was about to explode at the injustice. "Volde– You-Know-Who today, bigotry tomorrow."
Dobby hugged Hermione's leg before popping out, presumably back to the quest for a powerful sleeping potion.
"If we can get back to work, I'm still not happy with waking up Goyle and using him as a Dark Lord Detector, but obviously I'm going along with the idea, letting my bonded elf go out looking for potions. We may not have a choice. The only other thing I thought of was challenging Volde– You-Know-Who –"
"Oh, just say it, Harry. The name won't kill me."
Harry smiled and took her hand. The move looked very natural, Hermione thought. She sighed at what might have been, then brought her thoughts back on track.
"I thought of challenging Voldemort to a duel. I don't like that. It would encourage him to cheat somehow, and I don't doubt that he's trickier than we are and can cheat better. It would also be just asking for trouble from the ministry or the Wizengamot."
"I agree. While it now appears to be common knowledge that you are the prophesied Chosen One, the laws regarding killing are still on the books, and I have no faith in the minister. It would not surprise me if he stabbed you in the back as soon as he didn't need you any more."
"So young and yet so cynical. Poor Stori, not the sweet, naive girl she ouch!"
"Astoria, do you have any ideas for guaranteeing that Harry won't be tried for killing Voldemort? More importantly, so he won't be tried for the deaths of the several dozen British Death Eaters he killed? I know that a few Wizengamot members have died recently," – Hermione squeezed Harry's other hand but didn't break the narrative – "but that other members are still seated but lost family members. I am not confident of the results of a trial if carried out according to the law."
"I'll ask my father. We should have thought of this earlier."
"You do that. Thanks, Stori. I'll send an owl to Mr Van Leuven, a fixer I've consulted with before. The only problem with him is, he's expensive and I don't know if I still have enough to buy a law."
Still looking for a way to find Voldemort, the three shot ideas back and forth for a while longer. As curfew approached, Hermione told Harry to go and find a way to keep himself busy for a few minutes. "And don't sneak back here and eavesdrop. No boys allowed!"
Harry gave both girls good-night hugs before winking and disappearing. "Drat him, anyway!" Hermione waved her wand around, knowing that the detection charms wouldn't reveal anything. "We'll just have to hope he's not still here.
"Astoria, your family has money. I don't want to spend your inheritance, but is it enough to buy a law or a pardon, not only for Harry but for us as well?"
"We should have more than enough liquid funds, unless there is well-funded opposition. The trick would be convincing my father to spend it. For another approach, I'm mindful of our conversation about me becoming a Dark Lady, but you have to admit that many of the more corrupt or dark-aligned Wizengamot members do not serve in the people's interest. An unstoppable assassin would make so many problems go away."
"That's exactly what I was worried about, Astoria! Do you see why I'm afraid of you with Harry to back you up?"
"I understand. But I hope that you understand that I had never even considered it until you brought it up." She smirked at Hermione's grimace of annoyance at herself. "Don't beat yourself up too badly. I'm sure it would have occurred to me at some point. You made a good point: it's better to think things through now, when I'm level-headed, than later, when I'm frustrated at the defeat of some cherished goal.
"You also don't need to worry about Harry, Hermione. He has done very well in sticking to his own rules. We, or I, might persuade him to assassinate a Wizengamot member, but I'm sure he'd do it only if it were the correct thing to do. I'm not at all worried about Harry becoming a loose cannon or a Dark Lord."
"No, that's not a concern. He has the power but not the desire. For now, he wants to be free, to have some fun, to learn things, and to have sex."
It was Astoria's turn to grimace. "I enjoyed listening to Daphne's stories. I do not need to be hearing about the sex life of my competitor!"
"I'm not your competition. You've won. Long-term, you'll be better for him than I will. Don't try to break apart our friendship and I'll gladly dance at your wedding."
The younger girl blinked. "Just like that? Not that I didn't want to win, but without competition, I won't do my best. Nor had I taken you for a quitter."
"Not 'just like that'. After you yelled at me earlier today, I had a revelation about myself, something I didn't like. I'll be Harry's friend forever, but I'll make a poor wife until I … until I grow up a bit." She tried to lighten the conversation a bit. "It might be different if you were a bit more open-minded…"
"No. That isn't going to happen. Harry – that is, whomever I agree to marry after he asks me – will be mine and mine alone."
"Relax. I was only teasing. Ah, well, it's getting late. I'm sure your bodyguard can get you back to your dorms. I'm heading up to ours. I'm going to spend some time with Harry before he is yours and yours alone."
Dobby managed to obtain another dose of Draught of Living Death. It was even more expensive than the earlier dose, consuming most of Harry's remaining gold.
And it was wasted money. As Harry accepted the vial late Saturday evening and prepared to take Hermione to the Shrieking Shack, where Goyle Senior was warehoused, he felt the presence of another Dark Mark. "It's close, Hermione. That way. Hogsmeade."
Harry grabbed Hermione in a one-armed hug, there was a brief spinning sensation, and they were in Hogsmeade, near the Hogwarts gates.
"What? How did–"
"Later. One Death Eater, coming this way. Draw your wand and disappear." Fitting action to words, Harry stepped to the side and faded.
A solitary figure made its way toward the gate. It was a shortish, dark-haired man, somewhat resembling Harry. She didn't get any farther than that before there was a flash from inches behind the alleged Death Eater, then Harry called her over.
A quick squeeze of apparition placed them inside the Shrieking Shack. "If he screams, no one will think anything of it."
Harry's body language stated that he was very much in command. Hermione bit down on her questions. They could wait, she didn't want to distract Harry when he was in the groove, and she especially didn't want him to bite her head off for distracting him while he was in the groove.
The captured Death Eater was a seventh-year student in Ravenclaw. Hermione shook her head. She had no idea how a member of the "smart" house could be so stupid as to take Voldemort's Mark when everyone knew that Death Eaters were dying in droves. "That's Marcus something. Bigby, maybe. I've never heard that he was a blood purist or anything similar."
"Okay. I'll try not to kill him. We'll find out why he took the Mark later."
"How can I help, Harry?"
"Start by getting ready to fight Voldemort. Is everything you need here? Dobby! Please bring us some snacks and water, stuff we can carry with us."
Hermione changed out of school robes and clothes and into a military combat uniform with lots of pockets, covered by a vest with more pockets and a small backpack holding more supplies. While she would be helping Harry fight as best she could, her primary role was pack mule, carrying portkeys and healing potions and anything else they could think of. Including box magazines for the shotgun she carried.
Harry had been busy with Busby, pressing his fingers and wand against his Dark Mark and frowning. "I can't get a read on Voldemort's direction. All I can think of is to do a summoning with the Mark and hope Voldemort comes to see why Barabbas was calling him. This is as good a time as any. Are you ready?"
"Almost." Hermione gave Harry a hug and a kiss. "I love you, Harry. Make sure you come through this."
"I love you, too, but…"
"I know. Astoria. She'll make you happy. You'll make her happy. You and I will be friends forever. And just keep one thing in mind before you have your Happily Ever After with Miss Too Adorable for Words: I cut you off only until Voldemort was defeated. I've got something extra special lined up for you for a victory party. I'm looking forward to it at least as much as you are. Make sure to win tonight."
"We'd better stop. If this were movie dialog, we'd know that one of us was going to die in the next few minutes." Harry smirked at her hmmph. "That's better. Stand next to me by the wall when I do the summoning. I don't know if Voldemort will come or how long he'll take or just where he'll appear, but I don't want us to be in each other's way when we attack. Wait! Put on my cloak first. Try not to shoot through it, but if you have to, you have to."
The plan, which they'd come up with just the day before, was for Harry to see if he could pull on Voldemort's power and render him helpless. Failing that, he'd smash at the monster's shields with his full magical force. Hermione would shoot steadily, to weaken the shield and to hurt him physically. It was a simple, straightforward plan with few things to go wrong.
With a final nod, Harry touched his finger to the student's Dark Mark. Belby, that was his name, screamed himself awake until Harry pulled his power out of him.
And with a loud crack, Voldemort was three feet away.
Hermione twitched the trigger by reflex.
Voldemort took the entire load of shot in the chest.
Voldemort dropped to the floor.
Hermione could see the floor through his chest.
Harry and Hermione stared at each other, jaws dropped, then looked back at Voldemort. He looked terrible. Aside from the large hole in his chest, he looked terrible. His skin was saggy and wrinkled, as if he had shrunk or his skin had grown. Besides that, he was emaciated and fragile-looking.
Harry cut off the body's head, arms, and legs, just to make sure. Most things, even magically constructed bodies, could not survive that. Hermione had been toughened by the increasingly realistic practices in the Room of Requirement, but it was hardly needed. Voldemort's body was human-shaped, but not even as man-like as the dummies all the way back in November.
Hermione had been casting what detection charms she could think of on the body. "I think this means the plan worked. He was being starved of magic and barely surviving."
"I think this means I was almost right. 'The power he knows not' was a horny girlfriend who wanted to get to a party."
"I would argue with that, but the evidence speaks for itself."
"Do you have the camera in your gear or is it back in the dorms? I want pictures in case his body disappears like they say it did when I was a baby."
"No, I didn't think of it. I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking ahead."
"No problem, Hermione. You did great, tonight and since September. Dobby! We won, Dobby. Please get Hermione's camera from her trunk. We'll have a few more things to do, but then we all take a break, have a party, whatever. Uh, what do house elves do as a reward for a job well done?"
"Elves clean, Mr Great Harry Potter Sir!"
"Uh… Right. Well, if that's what makes you happy, then you can clean whatever you want. You did a great job, Dobby. We couldn't have done this without you."
"Mr Great Harry Potter Sir is too kind. Dobby is so lucky!" The happy elf popped away and back.
"Harry, now that Voldemort is vanquished – by me, I might add – and you've set me to taking pictures for proof, you're going to answer some questions."
"Okay, shoot. Er, wait, bad thing to say to the girl who vanquished Voldemort with a shotgun. What do you want to know?"
"First of all, how do you get around and out of Hogwarts? It wasn't apparition, but it didn't feel quite like a portkey. And neither of those work within the Hogwarts wards anyway."
"It was a portkey, it just didn't feel like it to you because the trip was so short. Hogwarts's Headmaster can make portkeys that work inside the wards. I found a stash of charged but, ah, blank portkeys one night when I was going through Dumbledore's office. They were socks turned into portkeys but the destination not set. I guess Dumbledore made them up ahead of time in case he had to hand out a bunch in a hurry. So anyway, I stole a few. If I set the destination and then push power into them before using them, I can use them again later."
"Thank you for finally telling me how you did it, although your explanation raises more questions than it answers. I can guess at some of the answers, though. For instance, you were in the Headmaster's office either because you were snooping around for information he'd been keeping from you or because you were pranking him."
"Ah, both, actually. I went in to prank him, but while I was there decided to look around. I didn't find anything useful. Several journals I couldn't read and a pensieve I couldn't make work."
"We can finish the discussion later, Harry. Let's finish up here, then get back to the castle. Give me thirty minutes and then come find me for the party."
Belby was given the new dose of Draught of Living Death, Voldemort's body was photographed (including shots with Harry and Hermione posing dramatically) and then packed in plastic bags, and the one shotgun shell was picked up. "Ready? No, you aren't. Change back into your school uniform." If she had known how to develop the film herself, Hermione would have let him take those pictures of her changing clothes.
"Ready. Party time!"
Hermione was sitting near one of the outdoor flower gardens, taking in the sun and enjoying the warm Spring day, when she saw Harry escort Astoria to one of the cozy, two-person bench seats. He had separated her from her bodyguards and seemingly wanted a private chat. Hermione's sense of propriety warred with her curiosity, but she'd been in on this at the beginning and it was only fair she see the dénouement, so she discretely augmented her hearing and sank back into a shadow to enjoy the show.
"I really enjoyed this past year, Astoria. I like working with you, or against you. Whatever. Win or lose I had a good time, though of course winning was much more fun."
Astoria's tinkling laugh rippled over the garden. "Harry, when you're chatting up a young lady, you're not supposed to tell her that you enjoyed sleeping with her sister."
"Oh, of course. I'll tell Hermione that the next time she takes on someone as his life coach, she should mention that." The two shared a private smile.
"Harry, we've both benefitted from Hermione's plan. I'm well on the way to being ready to take on the incompetents in the Ministry. 'Minister Greengrass'. You'd better start practicing saying that with a smile."
"Yes, Ma'am. I mean, yes, Minister Greengrass."
"I'm not ready quite yet. After all, it won't be until October that I turn sixteen, the minimum legal age for many types of commitment. I need a bit more practice in plotting and manipulation and subjecting my enemies to a humiliating defeat. And of course I need a suitable opponent. An opponent who would be interested in a life-long adversarial relationship."
"Are you suggesting…?"
"I am. Harry, shall I ask my father to approach you to begin marriage negotiations?"
I do know Morse Code, but FFN converted the four dots (H) into three dots (S) and I got tired of wrestling with it before I managed to get four dots to display. If you don't know Morse Code or didn't notice where I used it, don't worry about it. (Except that now I've gotten it in your head and you can't help but look for where it is.)
Yes, Voldy's end was quick and easy. That's realistic, in my experience. If you train properly for a difficult and dangerous job and are just a little bit lucky in the execution, the training is more difficult than the job.
I left a lot of dangling plot threads and plot holes. This was purely intentional, to leave openings for a possible sequel. Not saying there ever will be one or when I'll write it, but the hooks are there and I have a few ideas for the plot.
Omake: Pet Draco
Hermione considered Malfoy as he stood there, ineffectually fuming. It came as something of a surprise to her to realize that he was actually sort of cute. Perhaps after Harry won she would take Malfoy as a pet, a useless but ornamental thing to have running around the house.
She'd have to have him neutered, of course. It would settle his disposition and make him more pleasant to keep around. She also really didn't want to have him humping her leg. And, worst case, if he wasn't "fixed" he might pass his obviously defective genes along if he could find someone who would allow him to share them with her. No, that would not do. Neutering her pet would be best for everyone.
Hermione was waiting for Harry when he came to the Room of Requirement for the daily workout.
"Morning, Hermione. Ready f–"
"Silence! Get on your knees while I give you your instructions."
Harry looked puzzled, but complied. Over the months, several of her training instructions hadn't made sense until afterward.
"Today's lesson is on discipline and obedience. You will speak only when spoken to, you will carry out my every command without delay, and you will address me as Mistress Hermione."
"What? Ouch!" Hermione had charmed her riding crop to deliver a sting up to six feet away.
"Silence! You are already breaking the rules." Hermione shrugged out of the school robes she'd worn to the Room. Harry's eyes bugged out at the black leather she was wearing – or barely wearing.
"It took me a while to realize that you weren't simply joking about dominatrix costumes but asking me to do something for you. It's not something I'd normally do, but you're my best friend, so I'll give you what you need."
The two made it to the Great Hall in time to eat breakfast with their classmates. As usual, their workout had left them both sweaty, sore, and drained. The workouts didn't usually leave Hermione with an enormous grin, and Harry was normally able to sit down for breakfast.
Omake: Malfoy Ghosts
Three ghostly shapes coalesced near Harry in the library when he was trying to work.
"Why did you kill us?" asked the one which had hair swirled into a rough, upward-pointing cone.
"What did we ever do to you?" asked the one which was squished flat.
The ghost without head or arms couldn't talk or even point accusingly, but it made several sharp movements which didn't get her point across but did emphasize that she'd died without any clothes.
Harry went for days with the three Whinging Wraiths following his every movement before he thought of selling tickets to Muggle-born students as a sideshow display of just how pathetic purebloods were. The humiliated ghosts departed on their own without needing to be exorcized.
Omake: Harry Peeper
A pair of ghostly shapes coalesced near Harry in the library.
"Oh, dammit, not again!"
"Son," the male-ish shape moaned, "we are so disappointed in you."
"Why? I'm fighting the man who killed you, I'm sleeping with three girls, and I'm even doing well in school. What more do you want?"
"You are breaking the family tradition. All of the Potters for centuries have used the family cloak to peep at girls. Why do you think you received that great gift? If it weren't for peeping, you'd never have been born. Your mother wasn't much to look at until sixth year, then wowzers. They popped out like nobody's business."
The female-ish shape swatted at the male-ish shape's head, then seemed frustrated when she couldn't make contact.
"And now you've even learned to turn invisible without the cloak. You owe it to the family tradition to sneak into the girls' shower rooms and look for the best possible bride. You had the one who had popped out the most, but you let her get away. I'm very disappointed in you."
"I hesitate to ask, but why did you take Bellatrix's head?"
"She was in Azkaban almost fifteen years but she was still a beautiful woman. Now I've got something to keep me occupied when you have a headache, and it's easier to store her head in my trunk than her whole body."