A/N: As it is debatable whether I will be able to post on Monday, I am posting this now.
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
This was Harry's final session with her until they returned from break. They were in the classroom, and though the Hogwarts Express had already left, Hermione had arranged for a Portkey back to the Burrow as soon as they were done. Ginny and Ron had not yet arrived; Hermione had asked Harry to come half an hour earlier. And they were alone in the classroom now, as Hermione flipped over the blackboard so that Harry could see the ritual circle she had spent the last several months working on.
"I'm going to tell you something that Dumbledore's been keeping from you for a long time," Hermione said, as Harry drank in the lines and runes. They were meaningless to him, but he was still fascinated by their intensity. "I know you never took ancient runes, and Hogwarts doesn't teach Alchemy beyond brewing potions. But first, let's start with the secret that's been kept from you for the past seventeen years."
She jabbed her finger at Harry's forehead.
"The reason your scar never fully healed, the reason it hurts when the Dark Lord's around, the reason you have a link to his head," she said, ticking each item off with a trace of each jagged point of his scar, "is because when the Dark Lord tried to kill you, the spell backfired. His soul was already so unstable from creating so many horcruxes that when struck, his soul split itself again and latched onto the nearest living thing—you."
She didn't give Harry a minute to register this, though she saw his jaw drop and his eyes widen in horror and understanding. She plowed on.
"Dumbledore's plan this entire time was for all of Voldemort's horcruxes to be destroyed so that he'll be mortal once more. And aside from Nagini, you are the last one. And until—no, unless that last bit of soul is killed—he can't die." She saw Harry's knees shake slightly, as though they might collapse underneath him, but he managed to hold himself steady. She gave him a very perturbed frown. "Really gives meaning to the phrase, 'Neither can live while the other survives', doesn't it?"
Harry swallowed. "So that's it? I have to die?"
"Are you willing to die?" Hermione asked curiously.
"No. Yes," Harry amended. "I mean, I don't want to die, obviously. But if it means killing him, I would."
Hermione laughed, causing Harry to give her a pained, disturbed sort of look. He clearly didn't think this was funny. She tapped the blackboard.
"It's not necessary. I've figured out a way to remove the bit of soul from you." She smiled. "It'll have to wait until I get the white Philosopher's Stone back, but I've come up with a ritual to break your link."
For a moment, she thought Harry might have stopped breathing.
And then he said, "Really?"
Hermione beamed at him. "Yes, really."
She traced one of the circles with a chalk-covered finger. "It's complicated, but I'll try to keep it simple. You'll stand here. You will be hit by the Killing Curse, which will cause your soul to leave your body—but it will be trapped in the greater circle, which will guide it back into your body. There will be an object within one of the smaller circles that will trap the Dark Lord's piece of soul within it, but your soul will return to your body unhindered."
"You found a way to… to avoid being killed by a Killing Curse?" Harry asked faintly. Hermione got the impression he had not quite followed her explanation, but had at least wrapped his head around its purpose.
"It's been tried before. I'm not the first." Hermione licked her lips. "It's not the same as what happened to you. This ritual isn't exactly a defense against the curse itself, and it requires an astronomical amount of energy to accomplish. It's not well known, and understandably, scarcely tested."
She saw Harry's apprehension morph into determination.
"Well, I guess I'd rather try this than walk up to Voldemort and politely ask him to kill me," he said casually.
"I quite agree."
The door opened, signaling Ron and Ginny's arrival. With a flick of Hermione's wand, the chalk vanished from the blackboard in a puff of dust. Harry, sensing that the discussion was over, turned away from the blackboard to find a seat on the floor. He crossed his legs, closed his eyes, turning his focus on the task of tapping into Riddle's mind. His two friends sat next to him without a moment's hesitation. They knew the routine by now. He had not once been caught, and Hermione had to color herself impressed to the point of giddiness. Her godson had truly come a long way. The odds of him being caught grew greater with each session, she knew, especially since Severus had reported that the Dark Lord was clearly feeling the effects.
Tom Riddle's temper had grown shorter than ever, and if there was one word with which to describe the Dark Lord, it was cranky. He had begun to suffer from constant headaches, and though he had brewed his own remedies before, he had begun to requisition Severus's services as a Potions Master to do it for him. It meant that Severus was absent more than ever, given he was only allowed to brew them under the watchful eye of Wormtail, but in a roundabout way, this had turned into an advantage for him. He spent more time in the Dark Lord's stronghold in a position to gather information simply because the Dark Lord had better things to do with his time than brew his own possets.
It was astonishing to Hermione how easily the Dark Lord's weak links were to exploit. He had no idea Harry was in his mind, filching information from his most private recesses. He was suffering from unexplained migraines, and it was affecting his judgment and general well-being. And because of both, Severus was excluded from suspicion of spying and given still all the more opportunity to spy for the Order.
The Dark Lord knew that they had information because they had acted upon it. It had also become clear to Hermione through Harry's observations that while he was suspicious of Severus and several other followers at first, he had done a few underhanded tests on how information was dispersed to try and rat out the traitor. When it became clear that none of them had ever had access to the information the Order was using, the Dark Lord had flown into a rage. Harry, Ron, and Ginny had collapsed into conniptions of laughter instead.
Harry had improved to the point where he could murmur what he was seeing as it was happening, and he did so now, his eyes closed in meditative concentration as he began tapping into the link.
"He's at Malfoy Manor," Harry said, his brow furrowing as he took in his surroundings through Tom Riddle's eyes. "He knows about the meeting. The one that Scrimgeour invited me to. He's discussing it with Rookwood."
Hermione frowned as she came to kneel beside him. "What are they saying?"
"Voldemort's asking about security measures. Rookwood says he doesn't know, because Scrimgeour's made changes that were never in place when he worked at the Department of Mysteries," Harry said, carefully enunciating every word. Ginny squeezed his hand, and Hermione saw him squeeze back. "He's thinking about how angry he is about his last few plans being foiled—the Diadem, the Philosopher's Stone, Charlie. He's wondering if his next plan will fail, too."
The Dark Lord was beginning to doubt himself? Hermione couldn't have been more pleased.
"What are those plans?" she pressed.
Harry's face scrunched up. "I don't know," he said after several moments. "He's put those under another layer of Occlumency. He's… he's determinedly trying not to think about those plans, actually. He's being paranoid. He thinks his last few plans failed because he was obsessing over them, and that they were somehow exploited that way. Right now, he's thinking about who would have the skill to do that without being detected."
"Who is he thinking of?" Hermione asked, her heart racing.
There was a moment's pause. "Snape," Harry said. "Snape's there, too. He's in the cellar with Wormtail, brewing. But he dismissed him almost immediately. Lucius Malfoy, because of his son, but he's ruled him out, too—he doesn't think Malfoy would have the courage to do that. Next he's thinking of Nott, but he hardly gave him a second thought. He doesn't think it's him." There was a pause. "He's just dismissed Rookwood, and he's… now he's plotting how he's going to kill me at the meeting. He's thinking of Malfoy. He's thinking that if Malfoy hasn't brought him the book, he's going to either kill him or force him to atone for failure, because he needs that book to make this work."
"Wonderful," Ginny said. There was slight sarcasm to her tone, but it wasn't enough to hide the pride in her voice. Harry smiled slightly at this.
"He knows Dumbledore's going to be there, too. And you," Harry said, his eyes still shut, but with a look of intense concentration upon his face. "He's thinking… that Dumbledore has something that he wants, and so do you. The top officials in every department at the Ministry is going to be there, so he's thinking that he's going to take us down in one fell swoop—oh!"
He suddenly clutched his head, and Hermione grabbed the front of his robes in alarm, pulling him up so that she could see his face. His eyes were rolling back, and for just a moment, Hermione thought she saw a flash of red—but then she heard Harry yell "Protego!" and was blasted back by the force of his spell. She slammed into the wall, Ginny was thrown back, and Ron was already scrambling to his feet and shaking his friend.
"Harry!" Harry's eyes fluttered, and Ron hit him across the face. Harry's eyes opened fully, and he gazed up at his best mate for a moment, not quite seeing. "Look at me!"
Harry's eyes cleared up a moment later, and he stared up at Ron in astonishment.
"He—he found me," he gasped, struggling to sit up.
Hermione pushed herself up, rubbing the back of her head from where it had collided with a desk. She grimaced, but a moment later, concern for herself was shoved aside and replaced with worry for Harry. "How?" she demanded.
"He heard my thoughts," Harry said, rubbing his forehead. "I normally don't stay around when he's being introspective, I forgot that's when I'm supposed to get out, and when he was thinking about taking the Ministry down—I thought of it in terms of 'us', but he thought it in terms of 'them'." He rubbed his scar with his forefinger, and groaned. "He did a double-take so fast, I didn't have time to react."
Ginny had turned white as sheet, and Hermione grasped her hand and helped her to her feet.
"That—but that means you can't do this, ever again," she said shakily. "Now that he knows you were there."
"No kidding," Harry said, before either Ron or Hermione could respond. "He just tried to turn it around on me. I barely managed to throw him out." He looked up at Hermione. "I'm not doing this again. You know I can't—"
"I know." At the lack of resistance, all three of them fell silent. Hermione twisted the ugly old ring around her finger, thinking. "It was good while it lasted. It was good to exploit while he was unaware. But now that he knows you've been there, it would be remiss of me to allow you to try again."
She gazed at Harry in the eye. "Are you sure you got him out?"
"I cut him off," Harry said firmly. "He's not getting back in, not without the mental equivalent of a battering ram."
"What about the meeting?" Ron said, finally releasing Harry's robes and letting him sit up. He looked shaky and frightened, but he was putting on an admirably brave face. "It's in two days. If You-Know-Who's going to be there, it's got to be cancelled. Or maybe they should put a trap in place, instead."
"Only if Malfoy got him the book he was looking for," Harry muttered, still rubbing his forehead. Ginny was hugging him tightly, but Harry looked more relieved by it than anything else.
Hermione was chewing on her thumb now, scrounging through her pockets for the object they were using as a Portkey. She handed Harry beat-up, broken Sneakoscope, and Ron and Ginny instantly grabbed hold of it as well.
"I'm going to go inform the Headmaster," she said, straightening. She tapped the Sneakoscope with her wand, and muttered, "Portus." It glowed blue for a moment, and then faded. "In the meantime, you will be returning to the Burrow as arranged."
"And the meeting?" Harry asked, looking apprehensive.
"I'll see what the Headmaster says."
Harry looked like he was about to press further, but then there was a sudden pop, and the three of them spun away. They vanished on the spot, and Hermione took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Intentionally or not, Draco Malfoy was at great risk of compromising her plans rather badly.
"What do you mean 'the meeting cannot be cancelled'?" Hermione asked testily. She was sitting in the Headmaster's office. Scrimgeour was present, along with Dumbledore, Percy Weasley, and two Aurors that Hermione was unfamiliar with.
"It's nearly impossible to schedule everyone in without conflict, and this has been scheduled for weeks. The Ministry cannot allow terrorists to dictate—" Percy began officiously, but Scrimgeour cut him off.
"I will increase security. There will be added measures," he added, folding his hands in his lap. "But we have no guarantee that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will show up, and if he does, this is the perfect opportunity to set a trap."
Hermione twisted her watch around her wrist, and then her fingers flew to Gaunt's ring instead. "It doesn't work like that. You can't simply arrest the Dark Lord. The Ministry doesn't have the skill or manpower at its disposal to do so—you're crippled by your unwillingness to sink to his level."
She felt rather than saw Dumbledore's gaze level at her, but ignored it. "If he attacks, he will have his followers with him," she saw quietly. "While you're busy trying to Stun and Disarm and generally incapacitate his followers, they will have no qualms about aiming Unforgivables at random. And then there is the Dark Lord himself. You're just begging to be massacred."
"So you're saying I should make the mistakes of my predecessors?" Scrimgeour asked, and there was an edge of hardness to his words that made it impossible for it to come off as polite inquiry.
"Teaching your Aurors to use Unforgivables likely won't help, either," Hermione said bluntly. "Aurors are trained to capture, not kill. That training can't be forgotten in the space of two days. Not to mention," she added, raising her voice ever so slightly to discourage the Minister from trying to interrupt her, "that it takes a certain kind of person to be able to use those curses. I would not encourage it among our law enforcement."
Percy Weasley looked as though he would rather be anywhere but here. Dumbledore was gazing at her with such sharp intensity that she had the impression he was x-raying her, even without Occlumency.
Scrimgeour merely held himself very still.
"So you're saying my Aurors are incapable of dealing with Death Eaters?" he asked quietly. Hermione could sense the offense in his tone. He assumed she was calling them incompetent. The two Aurors in the room took it as such as well, for they visibly bristled.
"I'm saying they're incapable of dealing with Death Eaters when you throw Voldemort into the mix," she said, using the name without compunction. Both Percy and both of the Aurors jumped. To Scrimgeour's credit, he did not. "His Death Eaters are thugs, and yes, your Aurors are trained and capable of handling them. They're only human, after all."
"Are you saying that You-Know-Who is not?"
Hermione pursed her lips.
"That's exactly what I'm saying, Minister," she enunciated clearly. "Not anymore."
Scrimgeour seemed to consider her for a long moment, and then rose to his feet.
"Well," he said at last, looking around the room, "I shall take your input into consideration, but I highly doubt the meeting will be cancelled." He gave her a nod. "You are welcome to exclude yourself if you so wish, though I sincerely hope you will not."
"Oh, I'll be there," Hermione said. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes were glinting with concealed anger. "Don't doubt it, Minister. I just think this is very foolish."
"If he misses attacking this meeting because we adjourned it early, he will not hesitate to attack any other meeting thereafter," Scrimgeour said, signaling to his assistant and accompanying aurors that it was time to leave. "Good day, Madam Snape. Headmaster," he added, giving Dumbledore a curt nod as he left the room.
The next day at the Burrow was extremely tense.
Molly knew there was something going on, though Hermione had not said a word, and she was almost certain Dumbledore had not either. But Molly Weasley was a perceptive woman, and she could tell when something was up. But she never asked outright, though Hermione could tell she was searching for some clue as to why Harry, Ginny, and Ron all looked equally worried and depressed.
Hermione barely spoke a word to anyone. She had not seen Severus since yesterday morning, and the only word she had from him was a terse scrawl on the band of their magically linked rings. They hardly ever used it, but they had created it just in case—and now the only thing Hermione knew was that all of the Death Eaters had relocated themselves at Malfoy Manor, and that something big was planned.
Less than five hours after the first message, a second one arrived:
The Dark Lord knows you have the book.
And then two hours after that, in a scrawl that was so spiky as to be alarming:
Where is Charlie?
Charlie? Hermione had not thought about Charlie in ages. He had been returned to the MacFusty Clan in the Hebrides Isles, where they were more than happy to half their half-tamed dragon back. But now Hermione stared blankly at the ring, whose message had already disappeared, and from who is seemed more information was not forthcoming.
Hermione knew he could not be talking about Charlie Weasley, and spent several minutes nervously fretting and pacing in the confines of the living room at Spinner's End. She was uncertain as to what to do. She had already begun withholding information from Dumbledore, though not quite as much as she suspected the old man was keeping from her, and she was not certain she wanted to let the Headmaster in on this bit of information. Yet, she had to find out for sure what had happened to Charlie, and if he was still at the Hebrides Isles.
The answer came to her almost immediately.
"Kreacher," she breathed in realization. She could ask Kreacher to—
There was a loud crack, and Kreacher appeared on the living room carpet. Hermione let out a tiny shriek of surprise.
"How did you get here?" she demanded.
"Mistress Mudblood called," Kreacher responded, giving her a sardonic bow.
"But—but I—we've never given you the Secret to here!"
"Mistress Mudblood called," Kreacher repeated, looking rather annoyed, though whether it was because Hermione was missing some subliminal message he was trying to get across or simply because he wanted her to get on with it, Hermione was not certain.
She straightened and quickly composed herself. She already knew House Elves possessed magical abilities humans didn't have. This must be one of them. She would inspect it more closely at a later date.
"I need a favor," she began.
"Is it for Master Malfoy?" Kreacher said, straightening up and looking eager.
Hermione hesitated. "I—no," she admitted.
Kreacher scowled. "For Master Black?" he asked, his brow furrowing as he went down the scale of priorities.
Hermione inwardly grimaced, but didn't show it.
"For young Master Black?"
It took Hermione a moment to realize that he was talking about Selenius, and shook her head again.
"For young Master Potter?"
"For me," she said, hoping that Kreacher's newfound loyalty stretched that far.
It did. Kreacher's scowl deepened and he looked far less enthusiastic at the prospect, but he gave her a stiff bow. "What does Mistress Mudblood require?"
Hermione took a deep, calming breath. She could do this. If Kreacher was willing to help her, then she could potentially have this under control without ever involving the Headmaster. Or worse, the Ministry.
"There's a Hebridean Dragon by the name of Charlie," Hermione began.
"The beast that stayed with the dirty half—"
"Yes, at Hogwarts," Hermione interrupted quickly, before Kreacher could call Hagrid something potentially awful.
"Is Mistress Mudblood looking for new Dragonhide boots?" Kreacher asked hopefully.
Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose.
"No, Mistress would like you to visit the MacFusty Clan in the Hebrides Isles and confirm that the dragon is still there," Hermione said firmly. "Without harming said dragon."
Kreacher bowed low.
"Kreacher will do as Mistress Mudblood asks," he croaked, and disappeared with a loud crack.