A/N: Chap 14 review responses are in my forums like normal. Thanks to everyone for reading. Also, please note I will not be posting next Saturday because of the holiday, so this will be the last post until after Christmas.
Chapter Fifteen: The Prodigal Son
The supplicant's plain white dress clung to Hermione's otherwise nude body like tissue, doing nothing to protect her from the cold, the wet of the grass where the Sabbat had forced her and Justine to prostrate themselves, or from any prying eyes that wanted to get a look at her body.
When the hooded witches called for one of their member to house Hermione and Justine until a final determination was made, she almost died of shock when one Dame stepped forward and revealed a head full of hair the exact same shade as Ginny Weasley's. "I'll take the girls in," Dame Molly Weasley announced.
Hermione had sudden visions of forced enslavement at the hands of the very witch who put the assassin after them in the first place, but neither she nor Justine dared to talk or complain—they had nowhere else to go. Hermione knew her parents had already left for Australia after liquidating all of their assets.
And so, with heads bowed, shivering from the cold and wet, the two penitents followed Molly Weasley out of the Circle of Stones until they left the ward line. Molly Weasley gave the two a long, appraising glance before clucking her tongue. "Those dresses do nothing for this unseasonably cold weather." She cast warming charms on both girls, and then grasping their hands, side-Apparated them to the back garden of a ramshackle home that looked like it was the centre of a rustic, 16th century farm.
"Come in, girls, come in. With three girls having passed through these walls I'm sure I have something somewhere that will fit you." She led the girls into the house and sat them down at a large, rustic table. Both found mugs of hot chocolate in their hands before they had a chance to even say "Thank you".
The witch disappeared further into the house before reappearing with a couple of thick, woollen nightgowns. "This will do for the night," Molly said. "We'll find you more clothes tomorrow."
"Thank you, Dame Molly," Hermione managed to say, though her tone was subdued.
Molly sat at across the table from them, studying them both. "It was a brave thing you did, girls, stopping that...that Muggle witch-hunter. A brave and difficult thing to go against one's parents."
"We couldn't let him keep hurting those girls," Justine whispered.
Molly smiled sadly at the taller girl—even at fifteen Justine was already taller than Molly was. "I saw you were both worried when I agreed to take you. If you must know, I agreed because Ginny wrote me and asked me to help you. Even then, I might have regardless. While I agreed with the Coven that you had no business attempting to poach Harry Potter, I would never have dreamed the Sabbat would order your…well, we'll just say it went much farther than I was comfortable with, to say the least. Regardless, I played a part; I bear responsibility for it. So, for the remainder of your schooling years, I want you both to know that I will act as your Dame should you need it. If the Sabbat votes to commute your sentences, as I think they will, then I will also invite you into our coven."
Hermione struggled to contain her relief, while Justine sniffed. "Thank you," the Hufflepuff said, fighting back tears. "I don't have anyone left."
"But you're not alone, dears," Molly said with a kindly smile. "You don't have to be alone again."
The following Sunday, the fireplace of the Headmaster's Office at Hogwarts flared green, and from the depths of the emerald flame stepped Hermione Granger. Before she had a chance to step aside, the fire flared again and two living projectiles shot from it right into her back, causing all three to tumble to the ground.
"Ouch," Hermione said weakly.
"Sorry." Harry and Luna spoke in a chorus.
They worked to untangle themselves, and when all three were standing, they saw Professor Albus Dumbledore standing in front of them smiling benignly. "Welcome back," he said genially. "Are you quite alright?"
"Fine, headmaster," Hermione said tersely.
"You'll be pleased to know that Miss Finch arrived this afternoon and is back safely in her dorm. Additionally, I understand congratulations are in order," the headmaster continued.
"Yes, thank you," Hermione said, again in her terse voice.
Harry and Luna said nothing, but Dumbledore peered intently at both. "I have a gift for you," he finally said. He reached into his robes and removed two glass phials. As Harry watched, the headmaster removed the cork, touched his wand to the silvery mist inside, and dragged it to Harry's temple.
Memories began to flood into his mind; so lost in them was he that he never saw Dumbledore do the same to Luna from the second. When both finally settled the memories, the Headmaster turned his back to the trio of students, and said, "Walk with me, children."
Given the late hour, it seemed odd to take a walk, but one simply didn't disobey the headmaster of Hogwarts. The castle halls when they reached them were dark, with only the occasional flicker of bluebell flame torches along the walls.
"You can speak freely," the headmaster said. "I have permanently disabled all the monitoring charms in the castle."
Hermione stuttered, but Luna said, "It has begun, Headmaster?"
"Yes, sadly," the ancient wizard said as he continued to walk through the castle. He moved in a slow, stately pace that Harry suspected was quite fast for him, and took his time to look at all the sleeping portraits.
"What's begun?" Harry asked.
"The attack on me, of course." Dumbledore paused and looked fondly at one particular portrait. "Destin DeMontoval, a rather lovely wizard from the Pyrenees. He snuck away from his bonded and spent several wonderful summers with me in the early 1800s."
Hermione stared in shock at the open acknowledgment of the headmaster's sexual orientation, but in his mind Harry suddenly made a connection he had never had before. "You're a member of Mum's order, aren't you?"
"Member? My dear boy, I was one of its instigators, even though both your mum and I knew what would be the end result." The ancient wizard chuckled and turned and studied Harry intently. "I was the one who showed your dear mother how to do the power rituals on you, my boy, based on the studies old Rowena Ravenclaw made. There is a reason why the Covens set Voldemort on your family. Voldemort represents the status quo—a known evil the Covens believed they can control, though it is foolish of them to do so. But you… you, my boy, represent the realization of an idea. That is far more dangerous than a mere dark lord."
He turned and started walking again, forcing the three teens to keep up.
"You and Morgan were lovers, weren't you?" Harry asked.
"It is not polite to kiss and tell, Harry," Dumbledore said with a smile. "Suffice it to say that we were very close. He was actually born in Boston and was eighteen during the American Civil War. He attended Hogwarts, and even as a student showed exceptional power and promise. Of course, I was already past my first century, but he was determined, powerful, and…well, I am not proud, but neither am I dishonest enough to deny that we were closer than should have been the case for a student and headmaster. Fortunately, my wives forgave my peculiarities, for which I was intensely grateful to them.
"When the Magical American war started, the American Sabbat summoned him home and ordered him bonded. He refused the three witches sent to him, and I do not blame him for doing so. Given the fight which was just then starting, the American Sabbat wanted him as a fighter, not a corpse, so rather than kill him, they Force-bonded him, held him in captivity until that bonding period ended, and then did so a second time immediately after."
"And he had a friend kill the witches," Harry finished.
"After which, he was labelled a Dark Lord. Thirty years later he assumed command of the rebel faction and led them to California, founding the Western Confederation of America."
"Was there ever any real negotiation with Morgan to get Harry back?" Hermione demanded.
"None at all—we both knew Harry had to return. Instead, I used the threat of Morgan to negotiate for his safety here, and for yours as well, Ms Granger."
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "So you're the reason we were forced to bond?"
"Not at all," Dumbledore said. "I'm the reason you were allowed to live. Despite your heroism in exposing Miss Finch's father, you flouted the orders of a Dark Coven dame. The bonding was the Sabbat's way of getting you together to make a larger target. I suspect that you will be facing at least one assassination attempt in the school this year, so be on your guard."
Harry realized they had paused in their walking again only when Dumbledore started forward once more. "You had to resign as Chief Warlock." It sounded like an accusation in his own ears.
"It was bound to happen eventually," Dumbledore said. "Nor has the Sabbat been idle since then. They have appointed an educational oversight coordinator here, though it smacks heavily of the Inquisition, especially given her actions."
"Her?" Luna asked.
"Dame Dolores Umbridge. I believe you know her." The old wizard gave Harry and Hermione both a dry smile. "Her first act was to terminate the services of Professor Lupin. Fortunately, Remus knew it was likely and was able to make other arrangements. She has been heavily auditing the Muggle Studies program, but fortunately that program is an ICW mandate."
"What else has she done?" Hermione asked in a small voice.
"She has already banned Quidditch," Dumbledore said. "Following the debacle last year, Hogwarts was not invited back to the ICW Junior League, and against that political embarrassment she, and behind her the Sabbat, have declared a Quidditch moratorium in the school this year."
Harry felt as if he'd been struck in the stomach. "This was the year Angelina would have been captain."
"Indeed, it was a singularly unpopular decision," Dumbledore said. "Several students protested quite vociferously before they were arrested by Sabbat Hit Witches for sedition. They have since been returned, but with scars."
"Oh my God," Hermione whispered.
"Sadly, I think your God is noticeably absent in the situation," the old wizard said. They finally came to a stop next to a large portrait of a knight on a white stallion, both of whom were sleeping. "This is the entrance to the married quarters. Interestingly enough, young Mr Longbottom just last week married Hannah Abbot. It is rather fortuitous, since you otherwise would have had to share a suite with a bonded pair of Slytherins. This way, you will be sharing a suite with friends."
He looked at all three of them for a moment before he leaned over, and in an intense but quite tone said, "Keep your heads low. It is imperative that you achieve your OWLs, Harry, more so even than your lovely young brides. Right now, if you are expelled, they will still your magic at best. But if you pass your OWLs, then given your married status, you will be a legal adult. If you were to bond twice more, you could found a new coven immediately. Your enemies will do all they can to prevent this. Remember that, keep your temper under control, and survive! The password is Solemn Vow."
With that, the old wizard turned and walked away.
"Wow," Hermione whispered.
"I know, Neville's married," Harry said.
Hermione slapped the back of his head. Luna frowned. "Why are you so violent?"
"Think of it like kicking a machine that's malfunctioning," Hermione said with a sweet smile.
"That would seem to me to make things worse," Luna said.
"For Merlin's sake, please stop!" Harry groused. He walked up to the sleeping portrait, knocked on it to wake the guardian up, and said, "Solemn Vow."
"Right, right," the old knight in the painting said. A moment later it opened to reveal a common room easily as large as the Gryffindor Room. Given the late hour, it should have been abandoned, but instead Neville Longbottom and his new wife occupied a loveseat by the banked fire that dominated one wall.
"You're here!" Neville said unnecessarily. "I was wondering when…Hermione? Why are you here?"
"The Sabbat thought one bond-mate wasn't enough," Harry said. He crossed the floor and shook his friend's hand. "And when did this happen?"
"Friday," Neville said, before yawning. "Sorry, been a long day. Got married, you know."
"Yeah, me too," Harry said.
"We'll talk more tomorrow," Hannah said. "Right now we all need to sleep. We have classes in the morning, and the Inquisitor has put new rules in place to make detention mandatory for any tardies. You do NOT want detention with Umbridge."
Hannah left her rooms with Neville first the next morning, stepping into the small reading and studying area between their rooms. The married wing of the castle had several luxuries the dorms did not have, and their shared mini-common areas were what she liked best.
She was not ready, however, for the sight of Luna Lov…no, Potter now, laying on the couch in a sleeping shift curled up in a thin blanket that was not enough to ward off the chill. Concerned, she walked over and gently shook the younger witch awake.
Luna's silver-blue eyes popped open. "Harry? Oh, hello, Mrs Longbottom."
Hannah felt her heart skip a beat at the name, grinning despite herself. However, she brought herself back to her original concern. "Luna, why are you sleeping out here?"
"There was only one bed," Luna said, as if that was obvious.
"So? Shouldn't you be in it?"
Luna shook her head, while her lower lip trembled. "Hermione is in it. They just bonded yesterday, you know. It was bad enough during the actual bonding, but now I…"
To Hannah's horror, Luna covered her face and started sobbing. Moments later the door to the Potter room opened and Harry walked out, fully dressed and flushed red. He saw and heard Luna and sighed bitterly before walking over.
Hannah gave up her place as Harry sat beside Luna. The younger girl shied away from his arm with an angry squeal, even while sobbing. Both doors opened to reveal both Neville on one side and Hermione on the other.
Hermione's face was also flushed, but her lips were pressed tightly together. "Good Morgana, not again," she said impatiently. "Harry, doesn't she ever stop crying?"
"Hermione, stop it!" Harry said.
"Being a little rough there, aren't you Hermione?" Neville echoed.
"I HATE HER!" Luna wailed. Hermione blinked before the combined assault.
"This wasn't my idea!" Hermione snapped angrily. "I didn't want to be some second fiddle with a criminal record to a stupid boy with a target on his back!"
"Wow, they definitely need love potions," Hannah said, eyes-wide at the vitriol she saw in the newly married triangle.
"Fake emotions aren't going to make anything better!" Hermione screamed.
The main door to the joined suites opened without a knock, and to everyone's shock Fred Weasley walked in with Angelina Johnson by his side. "Merlin's balls, what's all the racket in here?" Angelina shouted. And then with a wave, added, "Oh, hi Harry."
"Did everyone get married this summer?" Harry asked.
"Just your friends," Hannah said.
"What's that mean?" Hermione asked.
"We'll tell you later," Hannah said. "In the meantime, we need to get to classes. We'll talk tonight, okay? I mean it—get back here after dinner. We all need to talk."
Harry wandered into the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom prepared for Remus Lupin's absence. The Professor during their third and fourth years had been very popular, and the fact of his lycanthropy was an open secret.
What he wasn't prepared for, however, was to find Dame Dolores Umbridge herself standing at the chalkboard, her wand in her hand and a beatific smile on her face as she watched the Fifth Year boys walk in. Her beady, dark eyes latched onto Harry with a dreadful glee as her wet magic bubbled in her broad chest.
"Ahh, Mr Potter, how nice of you to finally join us. I trust your summer was enjoyable?"
Feeling as if a curse had been cast at his chest, Harry said, "Good morning, Dame Dolores. I'm afraid I don't remember my summer, but from what I've been told, it was stressful."
"A shame. Also, while in class you are to refer to me as Professor Umbridge. That is your only warning."
"Yes, Professor Umbridge, thank you," Harry said in his meekest tone before taking his seat.
"Since you missed the first few weeks of class, Mr Potter," Umbridge said, still wearing her sickening smile, "I will bring you up to date on the Ministry's new educational directives for this class. Your previous…instructor, was released because he did not properly represent the values and goals of this institution. That has been corrected, and going forward the curriculum in this class will adhere strictly to the Ministry Standard. I expect my students to be here promptly, and any deviations from my expectations will be dealt with harshly. Now, do you have any questions?"
"No, Professor Umbridge."
"Good. Open your books to chapter two and begin reading quietly. There will be a quiz at the end of class to ensure you have understood your material."
Harry sighed softly, opened the book which was purchased for him by Professor McGonagall, and started reading in silence. It was going to be a long year.
His other professors did not comment at all on his appearance, not even Sybil Trelawney.
Harry was surprised to find the Divination Teacher not only fully clad in a standard Hogwarts teacher robe with an actual tie, but she also appeared to be perfectly sober. She drafted him to assist in handing out crystal balls, and as she did so whispered, "Give them no excuses, Harry."
Harry nodded without speaking and finished the work. He had no visions that day in class, thank goodness.
Even more than the difference in DADA, however, was the difference in Potions. Professor Snape moved about the class stiffly, his face carefully neutral, and he did not raise his voice once, not even to Neville. Moreover, he kept glancing at a corner of the potions laboratory.
Curious, after class Harry also looked up and saw a sparkle of blue magic. In every class after that, he looked about the rooms and saw that same blue sparkle in each room. Now that he became aware of it, he started noticing the blue sparkles in most of the halls ways, and when he walked into the Great Hall, each table sparkled with the charms.
The other students stared at him openly at dinner, just as they had at lunch and breakfast. He said nothing as he made his way to the table. Moments later, Hermione joined him. "Where's Luna?" Hermione asked.
"I haven't seen her," Harry said with a sigh. "Where's Justine?"
"At the Hufflepuff table," Hermione said. "New rules—no inter-house mingling."
"Hermione, about Luna, would you please be nicer to her? You seem to forget she's only fourteen."
Hermione frowned as she took a serving of roast. "I can't help it, Harry. The girl is absolutely impossible!"
Harry leaned over as if to kiss her, and whispered, "There are listening charms everywhere." More loudly, he said, "She's not impossible, Hermione. She's just very…literal. She takes everything at face value, including things her father might have told her. But she is kind, and loving, and very smart. She deserves respect."
"I don't see how you could bond with her, Harry, I really don't," Hermione said. "I honestly think she's a little unhinged."
For the audience as much as for those around the table, he said, "I wish I could remember. I don't understand why they had to take so many of my memories."
"I'm sure they had their reasons," Hermione said. She rolled her eyes and added, "I'm just grateful they let me come back to school. We need to be perfect students, Harry. Especially you."
"I know. I will."
After Harry finished eating, he piled more food on his plate, hit it with a stasis charm, and shrunk it to fit into his pocket. Nearby, Neville stared at him as Hannah spoke, oblivious, with Deanna Thomas about the married wing. The spells he casually used were seventh year spells. Harry met the other boy's gaze and winked.
Before they could say anything, Ginny Weasley sat down across from Harry and Hermione. The younger girl looked awful—she had obviously lost weight and from the rings under her eyes had not been sleeping either. She winced when both Hermione and Jessica Rivers both scowled angrily at her, but did not leave.
"What do you want?" Hermione finally snapped.
Ginny rubbed the back of her neck and looked away from Hermione's demanding gaze. "I guess I…" She suddenly broke down in tears. "I'm sorry!" she sobbed.
Hermione's eyes bulged dangerously. "Sorry?" In her effort to whisper, the words came out almost as a growl. "SORRY?"
Ginny flinched as if struck and sobbed harder. "I didn't know!"
"What do you think would happen?" Deanna Thomas asked from further down the table—it was not a conversation they could keep private.
"I didn't know!" Ginny said again, crying so hard she started choking on her tears.
"Hermione, stop," Harry said tiredly. "Leave her alone. Her mum took you and Justine in for a week, remember?"
"What?" Hermione said, astounded. "Are you defending her now? She almost got me and Justine killed!"
"No, I did when I asked you to the International ball," Harry pointed out.
"No!" Hermione said. "There's a huge moral gap between making me a target," she turned and glared at Ginny, "and shooting at it!"
"Just the sort of mistake a normal thirteen year old girl might make," Harry said, so low now Hermione had to strain to hear it.
"I'm sorry," Ginny sobbed, clutching desperately at Hermione. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know, I promise I didn't. As soon as I realized, I warned you! I told you. Don't you remember?"
"Yes," Hermione said, grinding the word out.
"And Mum did take you in. I begged her, and she knew it was the right thing to do."
Harry shook his head and reached across the table to take Ginny's hand. His magic ran down the connection into her—her sobs ended abruptly as her eyes widened. "Harry?"
"I believe you didn't know what was happening," Harry said at last. "You were doing what you thought was your duty to your Dame. I hope you understand that Hermione is my bond mate now, as is Luna. I would be glad to be your friend, but nothing more than that."
Ginny's lips visually trembled, but she squeezed his hand and nodded. "Okay, Harry. I'm…I really am sorry. Thank you."
She stood and left the table, virtually running out of the Great Hall. Harry turned to the bristling Hermione and said, "Perfect students, remember?"
Author's Note: Very special thanks as always to Teufel1987, JR and Miles for beta reading. If there are any major faux-pas, they are entirely of my own doing.