"Blimey, we've already told you lot everything we know. For the last time - Hermione said she thought Madam Pomfrey had been murdered, and she thought she knew how to catch who did it, using Scabbers and a Supersensory Charm and 'Deeanay', but she wanted to test it first in an old classroom. Then a quill she'd given us started going on in her voice about if we were hearing this there was an emergency and we should go find the closest Professor and bring them back straight away. Naturally we tried to see what was going on in the classroom, but the door wouldn't budge, so we ran off looking, but everyone was already on their way to dinner so it took ages, and by the time we finally caught up to Professor McGonagall, convinced her, and got back, Dumbledore had already been there and it was all over!
"Professor McGonagall gave us the third degree afterward, but she wouldn't say anything, and they won't let anyone see her in the hospital wing. But Nurse Wainscott is being fierce rather than sad, so she must be alive - whereas Scabbers is still missing, dead for all I know." Ron scowled irritably and took an unnecessarily vigorous bite of potatoes. Throughout his friend's recitation, Harry had nodded along in confirmation.
"If we'd only been faster somehow, we might've...I don't know, helped," added Harry, looking pained.
"You're cracked, mate," opined Fred, cheerfully. George nodded.
"We couldn't get into the room, but we did get past the seal they put on that section of corridor," the other Twin added, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Whatever happened there, it broke Hogwarts - have you any idea how hard that is? You're probably lucky you were nowhere near it."
"I heard a rumor from...someone...that she made some amazing secret Transfiguration discovery," gushed Lavender, whose mood had improved markedly just after arriving for dinner, when Professor McGonagall had unexpectedly pulled her aside, returned her wand, and gently admonished her to keep a closer eye on it. "And supposedly Professor McGonagall was still trying to decide if it was safe...she probably tried to use it to do some sort of forbidden Muggle Deeanay thing and it exploded in her face!"
"Yes, but that's stupid. What really happened?" demanded Kevin. Most of the other Ravenclaws at the first-year end of the table seemed similarly skeptical, though Morag appeared to be keeping an open mind about Hermione being a safety hazard.
"Well, it's Lavender," noted Padma, not exactly disagreeing. "But I could tell Roger Davies knew something, so I asked him point-blank," she continued, in hushed tones. "He denied it at first, but eventually he gave in and admitted that he'd managed to sneak past the wards they put up around where it happened. He said there were signs it was some kind of spell duel - his theory is that Hermione was right about Madam Pomfrey being murdered, but whoever was responsible found out she was on his trail and ambushed her before she could find him, and she dueled him. They haven't confined us to our dorms though, so either he got away completely - which he couldn't, because the castle was still sealed - or she won."
"Oh, Merlin save me," interjected Morag, "if ye want tae worship someone, go tae the chapel, Patil. I'll grant Granger might have some tricks, but it's obvious Dumbledore did the fighting, if there was any tae be done. Now can we just eat in peace?"
"I will not," hissed Pansy. "Don't you see? Pomfrey and Granger are both mudbloods - the Chamber of Secrets must have been opened!" Draco opened his mouth to deliver some withering insult, but thought of a better idea and said something else entirely, his voice low but pitched to carry.
"Hold your tongue, Parkinson. If one suspected the Heir of Slytherin had come to Hogwarts this year - and I'm not saying I have any knowledge of such a thing - and had opened the Chamber of Secrets...but had not announced himself openly, tell me, what does the true student of Salazar's house do?" He paused a beat for her expression to become trapped between stupidity and affront, then continued before she could retort. "He pays attention, and he waits - quietly - to see if the Heir requests his aid."
Draco let himself show a quietly satisfied smile as Pansy scowled and some of the others around him began to look at him appraisingly. He wished he did know who'd apparently almost blown up the increasingly annoying mudblood, but other people thinking it might have been him was nearly as good. Plus, while he doubted the Heir was actually here - for starters, he wasn't sure Pomfrey had been a mudblood, he couldn't see how the Board of Governors would have allowed her to win the position if she had been - if he (or she, he allowed, reluctantly) was here, Draco's little speech should have made it clear he'd be happy to join forces, and also wasn't a complete idiot, unlike most.
Theodore Nott said nothing. Malfoy might have a real hand, but it was probably just bluff. Whereas he now had a very good idea what he was going to get out of the Granger girl with his leverage. Not just whatever Transfiguration secret she'd apparently stumbled across - which had been the strong contender until now - but also the truth of what had happened today. Though no one he'd talked to was sure how badly she'd been injured...it'd be damnable luck if she didn't live long enough for him to even get started on blackmailing her.
Tracey was only half-following the conversation. She didn't have remotely the status required to participate in a discussion of this level anyway, even if she did have something to contribute, which she didn't. The girl was distracted with her own conundrum, or maybe it was just a curiosity? She'd had a disquieting feeling all day, as if she was meant to be doing something really important but she somehow couldn't quite remember what it was. Forgetfulness was not a foreign sensation to Tracey by any means - she was an indifferent student at best, and despite sharing a dorm with girls completing the same assignments, they often managed to slip her mind. It was the feeling of importance that seemed out of place.
While we are near the topic of Ms. Davis' study habits - or more properly her lack thereof - a brief digression seems in order. It is worthy of note that if she had actually opened her History of Magic textbook recently, the scrap of parchment found within - with a note scrawled in a slightly neater version of her own handwriting - would, while not exactly explaining everything, have at the least given her a bit more to go on.
Alas, she had not, and remained vaguely uneasy - bereft of any support from students outside her House due to its unsavory reputation, and unwilling to ask for assistance from within due to its uncomfortable realities.
"All right, I think it's settled, then? As soon as they unseal the corridor, my group will move in and try to offer Mr. Filch a hand with the clean-up. If he actually agrees, remember to use spells only when absolutely necessary, and ask permission first, otherwise do it the way he wants. If he doesn't agree, we'll try to do what we can while he's not around - he's not likely to finish in less than a day on his own. Meanwhile, Parvati will check with her sister to find out if she knows what sort of things Hermione likes that might cheer her up - it's early in the year, so we might have to do a small collection to bulk up the Benevolence Fund first if it ends up being a book we need to owl-order. Neville's got plenty of experience by now, so after dinner his team will break into smaller groups and help search for Ron's rat, while as a backup Sally-Anne's group looks into maybe finding a replacement pet for him - anonymously, if you can manage it, but coordinate for Merlin's sake, we don't want him buried in animals. Sound good to everyone?"
A chorus of smiling, enthusiastic nods and other affirmatives greeted Cedric's efficient summation, and the group of early-year Hufflepuffs set about eating.
"Albus," Minerva murmured, when she could no longer stand the deliberately casual dinner conversation that had occupied them since finally making it to the Great Hall, "what are you going to say?"
"You know I prefer not to plan these things too closely, Minerva," Dumbledore replied affably. "I think nothing tonight, though. It will depend somewhat on what we can glean from Miss Granger, when she - hopefully soon - regains consciousness, and Hogwarts does relish a good rumour. In any event, I'm sure something appropriate will come to mind when the moment is at hand." He smiled beatifically as he bit into a sausage. Not for the first - or, she feared, the last - time, Minerva reconsidered a great many of her life choices, and wondered if the weather in Australia was really as nice as everyone said...
On the Headmaster's opposite side, Severus Snape said nothing, which in his own opinion, was developing into a troubling trend. After this latest development, he genuinely could not tell if he was simply being stupid, being successfully manipulated, slowly going mad, or, quite possibly, all three. It had been whispered that the Dark Lord had, on rare occasions, toyed with the sanity of those who had betrayed him, rather than destroying them outright…
Further down the table, Filius Flitwick absently cut his sausages into increasingly microscopic pieces, his eyes distant. After a fair amount of shameless kibitzing, Madam Wainscott had summarily ordered everyone out of the infirmary - otherwise he'd still be there, watching over one of his newest students. He'd somehow managed to fall short as her Head of House after less than a week of classes, but he was determined to remedy that. Now that it was abundantly apparent she had latent Gryffindor tendencies, he'd just have to make a point of checking in with her more regularly, having her run any plans and insights past him so he could point out any that didn't seem entirely sane.
At the far end, Quirinus Quirrell was nearly as quiet as the Charms and Potions Professors, excepting occasional stuttered apologies as he "nervously" spilled soup or knocked over a salt cellar, but these small touches were automatic now, leaving him alone with his thoughts. It was a pity the valuable distraction afforded by the hunt for the murderer had ended so soon - he hadn't learned nearly enough about the Stone's protections to dare an attempt yet. Equally disappointing that the murderer's identity hadn't been discovered until it was too late to make any use of him without risking exposure. But this new development had suggested some interesting options…
A large but rather gaunt and mistreated dog, hearing someone approach the door of the cell he was unhappily occupying, hurriedly shifted his form to that of a similarly gaunt and mistreated human. He hunched and shivered slightly under the renewed oppression of the Dementors' influence on the human aspect of his psyche.
After the DMLE official, flanked by three grizzled Aurors, spoke to him, he had to ask the woman - who wore a guarded but awkward expression - to repeat herself twice. The repetition was necessary, for his weary and abused mind refused at first to accept what she was saying as something that was conceivable, let alone something that had actually happened.
It wasn't entirely a happy thought - the vengeance he'd been sustaining himself on all these years had, after all, apparently been stolen from him - but nevertheless the notion of someone else getting Peter had not once formed while he'd suffered in this place. For a moment he considered asking to be left here until Pettigrew arrived, so he could "welcome" him, but he hadn't actually gone insane. Or not quite. He laughed, but there was no mirth in it.
In the hospital wing, Pauline Wainscott sat at a worktable, trying to concentrate on her non-emergency duties. It had been a rather tense few minutes - at one point she had actually been forced to curtly evict the various well-meaning but not Mediwitch-trained Professors who clearly didn't really think she was entirely up to snuff, despite Dumbledore's faith in her. But in the end, she'd been able to manage the worst of her patient's shocking injuries and stabilize her for the moment. Still, she'd need rest and replenishment before her system could withstand further healing magic without risking a permanent depletion of her body's capacity for recovery. There was little enough to be done now but wait, but she kept imagining she'd heard one of the separate alarm spells she had set to watch over the girl's heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, and general life force.
But no, there it was again - not one of her alarms, but a soft sound from the girl. She must be talking in her sleep, which was actually an encouraging sign. Pauline moved over to her bed.
"...nestly...enigmatic...rude." The girl's eyes fluttered open and she startled, half sitting up, then winced at the pain the sharp movement had no doubt produced.
"Easy, Miss Granger," the Healer said, easing her back down to the bed with gentle support on her shoulder and back. "You are safe, but you mustn't strain yourself." For a moment the girl looked relieved, but then her eyes narrowed.
"Madam Wainscott. I trust you used sufficient...ah...french toast and syrup on my wounds?" she asked, casually. Pauline cautiously revoked her own earlier sense of relief.
"Er...no…" she corrected, gently. "Some Blood-Slowing Charms, a Bone-Setter, and a Critical Restoration Spell...you'll need some more care, and a great deal of food, but you should be out of physical danger…" Now the girl's face relaxed, and she let herself sink back into the pillow.
"Good," she murmured. "Probably not dreaming. The pain was evidence, but still worth testing…" She closed her eyes, and for a moment Pauline thought she'd fallen back to sleep, but then her eyes opened again.
"Oh. Was there a rat by me, when I was found...or…"
"I don't think so, the Professors were saying something about a man who'd been hexed, but they didn't really explain, just that you'd been near or in a magical combat. You haven't shown any signs of latent curses, though if you can describe what hit you, it could help a great deal?" Again, the girl looked relieved.
"So a Full Body-Bind does block an Animagus transformation...that would've made things a lot easier, had I known...should've just asked Professor McGonagall without context," she said with a deep frown, apparently to herself. Then she seemed to realize she'd been asked a question. "Oh...spells, yes, of course you'd need to know. Let's see, a Disarming Charm, a Cruciatus Curse, a Full Body-Bind, a…well, I suppose a failed Memory Charm, then some sort of artillery spell that goes 'Bombarda Maxima' - though it didn't hit me directly - and another Disarming Charm. Oh, and a Stunning Spell and a Killing Curse hit a wall within a metre of me, but as far as I've read they don't have proximity-based side-effects, not that what I've read on the Unforgivable Curses was terribly detailed…" Pauline covered her gaping mouth with one hand as she belatedly processed everything her patient had been afflicted with - besides the Bombardment Curse that explained most of her injuries, if not how she'd survived it.
"Merlin's Beard," she gasped, and bolted to the supplies cabinet. She pulled two bottles and quickly but carefully poured a splash from each into an empty flask, swirled it, then rushed back to the girl's bed and brought it to her lips, holding it carefully so she could drink. But she turned her face to the side, avoiding the remedy.
"I can't sleep yet, if that's what-"
"It's not a sleeping draught, just a muscle relaxant, and something to promote nerve healing - both herbological, not proper potions, but you must take them as soon as possible, if I'd known a Cruciatus was involved I'd have risked waking you sooner, it never occurred to me someone might be so vile as to cast that on a child...please drink it…" The girl's eyes widened as she recognized Pauline's urgency, and she turned back, allowing the Healer to tip the liquid into her mouth. She made a face at the bitter flavour, but swallowed.
"I'm sorry," the first-year said, sounding genuinely contrite. "It's just, I have to speak to the Headmaster, that man I hexed is a fairly convincing liar, he's apparently decent at potions so he might have Veritaserum antidote, and I don't know what he's been telling them... How long was I out for?" The young woman blinked for a moment at this explanation, then glanced at her watch.
"Less than an hour. And the Headmaster asked to be notified immediately if you woke. But please, try to remain calm? Your system is very fragile right now - there are limits to how much stress the body can safely absorb, and Healing is no exception."
"I'll try. I don't think I have the energy to do otherwise, to be honest." Lines of pain in the girl's face smoothed as the concoction began to blunt the after-effects of the Cruciatus, as well as her body's other insults. Pauline withdrew her wand from its dedicated pocket in her apron.
Even when she'd finally managed to produce the spell in Defence, Professor Harbuckle had complained that she wasn't doing it properly, since she didn't use a memory, but an idea, and it wasn't even - in the Professor's opinion - a realistic idea. But it was the only thing that had ever worked for her, and it did work, so Pauline firmly imagined the world as it should be, every person free of disease, of injury, of infirmity, of pain, a world of perfect health, convinced herself - despite all evidence - that it would happen someday, and she would see it.
"Expecto Patronum!" A shining silver salamander burst from her wand, skittering across the air before her, and as usual, she couldn't help smiling at it. She hadn't tried to cast it since...since it happened, and under its soothing light, she now wished she'd been brave enough to try earlier. "Please inform Professor Dumbledore that Hermione Granger is awake and that he can talk to her...briefly." The salamander vanished in a puff of silver flame.
She'd added the trailing admonition on impulse. It was all well and good to know that in this room of the castle, even the Headmaster could not override a Healer's instructions, but she imagined it would be quite another to try to order around Albus Dumbledore to his face - he hadn't been present with the staff she'd gathered the temerity to evict earlier. But she knew Madam Pomfrey had been able to do it, somehow, even with him...she'd just have to live up to her example, should the need arise. Pauline turned back to her patient, and saw that she was propping herself up on her elbows, her eyes shining.
"While we're waiting, if you don't think it would be overly taxing for me just to watch and listen, I would like very much if you could explain the details of the spell you just cast?"
"Really, you should just be resting. I wouldn't even want you to be talking to the Headmaster if he hadn't insisted it was a matter of school safety," Pauline explained patiently. Ravenclaws, she thought.
"It's just that," the girl persisted, "a spell to send messages seems like something everyone should be taught. And it...felt?...like it was a broad variant of a Cheering Charm, which would make it even more useful in, you know, dire situations…"
Oh, so that was the problem.
"I know you've had a bad turn, and I can't imagine how frightening all this must've been for you, but really, you're safe now. Hogwarts is really very safe as a rule, nothing like this has happened in ages. It's best to trust the Professors to handle such things and just concentrate on your studies."
"Learning magic is part of my studies," the girl pointed out. "And while I'm sure you're right - I know logically it's wrong to extrapolate the rest of my time at Hogwarts based on one unlikely event - but emotionally I'd feel much better if I knew a way to directly call for help if, say, someone was trying to kill me. Again." Even in her apparent vehemence the first-year looked a bit uncertain, as if doubting the quality of her own argument, and Pauline soldiered on.
"I couldn't possibly...even if we skipped over it being a fifth-year spell, it took me ages to learn and I don't do it entirely right, and I'm not a Professor," insisted Madam Wainscott. "When you're well, you can ask Professor Quirrell. Now I must ask that you lie back and rest, you can't afford to get agitated right now."
"I'm not agitated, I'm just-" the girl paused and took a breath. "All right, maybe I was a bit agitated." She lowered herself to the pillow again, then frowned. "Wait. It's a Defence spell? I mean, Defence class is already a bit haphazard about what it includes, and effective communication is a good form of defence, but…"
"Well, yes. But sending messages with it is actually something the Headmaster showed me how to do when I came on here. Properly, it's only meant as a defence against Lethifolds and Dementors." Pauline shuddered, and the girl's frown deepened.
"I've seen a reference to Lethifolds, and from context I inferred they were pretty nasty. But I thought Dementors were the guards at Azkaban, that it was a profession, like Auror, or Unspeakable?"
"Oh heavens no," breathed Pauline. "That is, yes, they're tasked with guarding Azkaban, but they're about the Darkest creature we know of, including actual Dark wizards." Her patient lapsed into thoughtfulness. "Anyway, I should let you rest until the Headmaster-"
"What exactly do Dementors do...that makes such a Dark creature appropriate prison guards?" the girl interrupted, in a very quiet voice. Pauline remembered that the girl was muggleborn - she was probably quite wrongly but understandably worried about the man who'd cursed her, that he might somehow escape. Ordinarily describing such a thing to a young child wasn't something she'd even consider, let alone one who was already recovering from an ordeal. But in this unique case, if it might comfort her to know how perfect a prison Azkaban was…
She explained what Dementors were.
After Madam Wainscott's Patronus appeared at his shoulder and delivered its message, Albus excused himself from the Head Table and quickly made his way towards the hospital wing.
The dreadful tale that Mr. Pettigrew had told, under the influence of Veritaserum, was fantastical to say the least. That he could have been so misjudged by everyone, and so successfully framed Sirius Black for the Potters' betrayal seemed as shocking and unlikely as Sirius' apparent betrayal had been in the first place. But not quite. Not enough that - unlike then - he wouldn't thoroughly verify the facts of the matter. His account of the murder of Poppy Pomfrey did seem to match what little they knew, though. Pettigrew was already in the hands of the DMLE, Alastor had taken him personally, and was going to watch him unblinkingly - a half-literal expression, in the grizzled Auror's case - for a full day to ensure any hypothetical Veritaserum Antidote would have become ineffective, then dose him and question him again.
Alastor had immediately raised the possibility that the confession was false and part of some deeper plot to get Sirius Black released from Azkaban...there was nothing to say they couldn't both have been traitors, and one turned on the other when Voldemort fell, or that Voldemort was playing some very long game with the once-friends. But against the mere possibility an innocent man had spent a decade in Azkaban, Albus had lobbied heavily for Black to be taken into temporary protective custody outside the prison as a possible witness. Guarded at all times by a minimum of three veteran Aurors, of course, just in case. Nevertheless, Albus had already begun to marinate in a new mix of guilt and regret. Things had been so hectic right after Tom's 'miscalculation'...in some ways worse, as Death Eaters lashed out without leadership or aim. He'd known that Bartemius was cutting corners, sometimes forgoing trials altogether. And on some level, he hadn't wanted to hear Sirius explain why he'd betrayed their cause, his best friend, and his own godson. He'd never understood the lust for power, for dominance, that other Death Eaters had espoused, and to hear it from the lips of someone he'd trusted - again - wasn't something he was eager to experience.
But mostly, he'd simply been busy.
Just as now, when he'd been so busy with his delicate plans to try to contain Voldemort - to end Tom's sad story with the minimum of suffering to all involved - that he'd miscalculated, presumed Poppy's death was Riddle showing his hand, and moved to trap him in the castle with the eleven-year-old boy who was apparently the sole being with any hope of destroying him. Even while knowing that the Prophecy constrained Time but did not choose which of them would fall to the other. But despite his careful scrutiny, an Animagus transformation had been sufficient to evade his notice, and another student had nearly died because of his own blindness.
Still, if Peter's confessions were accurate, they would shortly have Tom's wand, and would have deprived him of his strongest tool and most secret ally in a single stroke. A stroke delivered not by himself, or Severus, or even a certain first-year Gryffindor, but rather a first-year Ravenclaw muggleborn. To say it was unexpected was putting it mildly. And yet...
Severus had, only yesterday, asked him if he knew anything of note about Hermione Granger. Which, aside from Minerva giving her closer Transfiguration supervision, he had not. But the Potions Master had said nothing further, which suggested he was suspicious about something but had not yet become certain enough to say. He had asked similar questions about a few other students and half the staff besides. As loyal as he judged Severus now to be, he was Slytherin to his bones, and the man would not risk tarnishing his self-image by sharing unfounded supposition that might turn out to be baseless. Of course beyond that, on a much deeper level, he had once been taught a harsh lesson indeed about sharing incomplete information.
When their prisoner had given his unwilling account of his encounter with Miss Granger, Alastor had predictably noted certain inconsistencies in the story, the failed Memory Charm, the weak Body-Bind - though the rest was plausible, if barely, as the actions of a particularly precocious first-year - and suggested immediately performing an impractical number of strenuous examinations of the girl that might've been life-threatening even if she wasn't recovering from serious injuries. Under normal circumstances, Severus ought to have made some dryly cutting remarks - his natural skepticism and scorn was an excellent check to Alastor's increasingly rampant paranoia - but he had again, said nothing. Perhaps it was worth pressing him on the matter, but he'd decide after speaking to the girl and forming his own opinions - and he had forbid any interrogations until after that point.
The old wizard paused a few spans from the hospital wing doors as he came upon a third-year Ravenclaw loitering in the corridor.
"Mr. Davies," he greeted him, curiously.
"Professor," returned the boy, in a respectful but cautious tone.
"I understand that Madam Wainscott has cleared the hospital wing, but if you have an actual medical need, you needn't wait outside…"
"Oh, no, sir. I just wanted to be here for Hermione, if she...I mean...I feel a little responsible." Albus raised an eyebrow, and the boy wilted a bit. "I...after Madam Pomfrey, I was just sure she wouldn't make a mistake like that, and some of the lower-years talked about alternative explanations. She just took it very seriously, she was really investigating, and I encouraged her. Is it true, Madam Pomfrey was murdered, and Hermione caught him?"
"What truly happened is still a matter of some debate, though I commend you - your loyalty and faith in Madam Pomfrey's professionalism is well-founded. As for your responsibility in the matter...did you know your Housemate was planning to confront a suspected murderer herself?" The boy shook his head.
"Merlin, no, I'd have told her to go to Professor Flitwick or yourself straight away." Albus nodded.
"And are you taking Divination this year?" Davies blinked at the non-sequitur, then again shook his head.
"No, sir. Arithmancy, Ancient Runes and Care of Magical Creatures."
"Well. If you had somehow been capable of reliably predicting today's events in advance, I dare say I would be justified in making you a co-Professor along with Professor Trelawney. As it is, I think you deserve no blame." The boy nodded, though he seemed unsatisfied with this absolution. "You still have a few minutes to get some dinner. I will ask Madam Wainscott to see that you are informed when Miss Granger is fit to receive visitors."
"Thank you, Headmaster," he said after a moment's hesitation, then headed off at a brisk walk. Albus had nearly reached the hospital wing entrance when he was brought up short again.
"-serious?!" The high-pitched shout had been audible even through the closed doors to the hospital wing. Raising an eyebrow, he entered and quietly closed the door behind him, adding a Sound-proofing Spell to them with a gesture. For the moment, he was unnoticed by the other occupants of the room.
The only patient was a small girl, struggling to support her sitting position with one hand as the other was occupied in violently shaking a finger at Madam Wainscott. The girl's face was red and her untamed brown hair danced in a mad cloud around her head, while the Healer frantically tried to calm her patient. A two-chime pattern was insistently repeating above the girl's bed, but it was largely drowned out by her continued shouting.
"Do you even realize how insane that is? There are dozens of laws, hundreds, that carry mandatory sentences in Azkaban, a lot not even for violent crimes - not that that would be an excuse anyway! For short sentences, you're just making them worse people when they get out than when they went in! For long ones, it's basically execution by extended torture. And then if that somehow isn't bad enough, if someone justifiably escapes, you can whistle up one of these things to EAT their SOUL - whatever that actually means?! Here I'd thought normal prisons were shamefully mismanaged, but apparently magic is better at everything, and you've managed to leapfrog them straight to concentration camps guarded by literal demons!"
"Please, Miss Granger, you must calm down, you'll do yourself permanent harm," begged Madam Wainscott, trying with only partial success to press the girl back down to the bed.
"Calm down?" Her expression was disbelieving. "The Ministry is evil. Wizards are evil. You can't just give people to things like that and not be evil, no matter what they've done, no matter how you rationalize it."
"You are not entirely wrong, Miss Granger," Albus said, mildly. The room fell silent as the remark settled heavily over everyone present. For her part, the Healer looked both aghast and relieved. The girl, meanwhile, was undergoing what he'd come to think of as Standard Reaction Number Two to meeting him in person for the first time, which involved a fair amount of stammering and avoiding eye contact. To her credit, her indignation was rapidly spurring her past that stage, though she seemed somewhat at a loss as to how to continue, opening and closing her mouth without managing to produce any words. "Pauline?" he asked, turning to the Healer.
"I-I'm sorry Headmaster, she asked about Dementors and I thought it would help, knowing how secure Azkaban was, that her attacker would never escape…" The girl on the bed made a brief choking noise.
"It would seem not, though it was an understandable notion under the circumstances. I presume by your resort to, ah, physical persuasion that employing additional spells or potions upon Miss Granger is contraindicated?" The girl had let herself fall back into the bed, but the Healer's hand was still on her shoulder - she hastily withdrew it while nodding emphatically.
"Yes, Headmaster, emergency use only...though she was nearly to the point that a Slumber Charm would've been worth the risk," she confirmed, casting a stern glance at her patient. It was lost upon the girl, however, who had closed her eyes and seemed to be deliberately taking a series of deep breaths, which had in turn quieted the monitoring charms.
"I will make an effort not to tire Miss Granger needlessly, but I do need to speak with her. Privately, I'm afraid." At the Healer's conflicted expression, he raised a palm in a conciliatory gesture. "I don't intend to move her, nor to ask you to leave your patient...I will use an ambient privacy charm, but make specific exclusions for your monitoring spells. Is that acceptable?" Pauline nodded.
"I suppose. But please, Headmaster, sir - I've given her what aid I can for the moment, but the assaults upon her included a Cruciatus Curse among other things - do try to make it short and avoid upsetting her...further...?" Albus' eyebrows rose, but he nodded. The young woman moved to a worktable and made a pretense of useful labor while she kept the bed constantly in her peripheral vision. Albus moved to the girl's bed and sat upon a stool beside it, conjured with a lazy wave of his hand.
He withdrew a wand of terrible power - the wizard made it a rule to remind himself of that every time he touched it - and turned it gently in a horizontal circle. The quiet sounds of the room around the bed faded away, and the room itself was obscured by a grey haze, until they seemed to be resting inside an opaque and sound-proof egg, which they were.
By this time the girl had finished her deep-breathing exercises and opened her eyes, though after a quick glance around, she seemed to be considering resuming them.
"You have nothing to fear from me, Miss Granger," he noted.
"I'm sorry, Headmaster. It's just...I'm having some anxiety-management issues, here." Her eyes seemed to be more calm, though still betraying a tumult of emotions beneath.
"I quite understand, Miss Granger. And please, the honorific is not necessary - Professor is sufficient, and preferred, if referring to me so would not cause you discomfort." She gave him a queer look.
"Alright. Professor. I...ugh. False urgency, right. Putting aside Azkaban, for the moment. The man who was found paralyzed near me - assuming he was a short, stocky, pointy-nosed, rat Animagus - admitted to me that he murdered Madam Pomfrey and made it look like an accident. I don't know what he's been telling you, but-" Albus raised a palm.
"The individual in question, one Peter Pettigrew, is indeed in custody, and has under Veritaserum divulged the details of that despicable act...among others. Your efforts in exposing him, while perhaps ill-advised, are much appreciated. Though there do remain a considerable number of questions about the affair…if you would care to relate events from your perspective, I hope it will clear matters up significantly?" The girl, who had visibly relaxed when he'd confirmed Pettigrew's status, now tensed and broke eye contact, rather too quickly for it to be simple reticence or shyness. Interesting.
"I'm sorry I didn't take it up with a Professor, sir. I know what I did was reckless and stupid. I did ask Professor Quirrell for hypothetical tactical advice, and I actually tried to talk to you about it at one point, but I didn't know how to get into your office, and then I talked myself out of it. It was just...the 'Seer's Hex' thing...I was sure no one would believe me without actual evidence - or worse, send me to St. Mungo's - and I didn't have any until I confronted him." Albus nodded.
"For future reference, any Professor can arrange a meeting with me, with sufficient reason, though typically students would do so through their Head of House. But in the interests of avoiding any similar missed opportunities for collaboration, the password to my office this year is 'chocolate frog'. I trust that you will keep this to yourself, and not abuse the privilege?" He gave her an amused smile as she nodded mutely. "As for your concerns about staff giving credence to your suspicions...I agree, it was an unfortunate situation. But I would urge you to make every effort to give us the benefit of the doubt, in the future?" The Ravenclaw looked conflicted.
"I...I would like to, Professor, but...you knew, didn't you? That it was murder? And you sealed him in with us. And then there's Azkaban, and house elves, for that matter. I'd been assuming everything in magical Britain was pretty much the same, deep down, only plus magic, but now it seems like there are some pretty serious ethical differences. And you admitted it was evil. I'm…" she swallowed heavily. Albus carefully considered his words.
"Wizards are not angels, Miss Granger, any more than muggles are. There is the capacity for great evil in us, as well as great good, and among any sufficiently large number of people you will find examples of both, with most falling somewhere between. I will note that things are not always as they appear, though in the case of Azkaban, I cannot truly claim otherwise. But do not mistake the presence of evil for surrender to it. Many people, myself included, actively oppose the Ministry's use of Dementors, but we do not yet outnumber the influence of those who support it. Regrettably, the average wizard is more concerned with what happens to those he feels to be like himself than...convicted criminals hundreds of miles away, who in his mind, knew what they risked when they broke the law. Can you truly say things are different among muggles?"
"I think the United Kingdom outlawed capital punishment twenty years ago, and we haven't tortured people for rather longer than that," the girl noted, pointedly. Albus nodded.
"And so we are quite behind the times, shamefully in this case. Perhaps you are right, that as a whole, wizards might make decisions that - given your upbringing - you would not expect, or support. But with rare exception, individually, Hogwarts' Professors are intelligent people of high character. If you perceive an injustice, or a wrong - and share it - we will give your concerns a fair hearing." The young girl's frown did not lighten, but she nodded.
"And locking a murderer in a boarding school with a bunch of children?" she asked. Albus had been hoping in his initial concession that she would not have noticed he hadn't addressed that part.
"Though I believe I had good reasons to act as I did, at this point I am regrettably not at liberty to explain them fully to you without ostensibly putting a great many people in even worse jeopardy. I will say that the protections for Hogwarts students are quite numerous, and many are exceedingly subtle - it was not as great a risk as you might imagine. But nevertheless, there was danger, and I deeply regret both the necessity, and the suffering it brought you."
"That's...I appreciate that, or I'm trying to, but that's...really not good enough?" The girl was trying to maintain a stern front, but the rise in her voice's pitch betrayed her uncertainty.
"Miss Granger, I fear you are experiencing a severe instance of what I believe muggles call 'culture shock'. The flexibility and power of magic supports a society in which certain levels of risk, that muggles might reasonably consider completely unacceptable, are simply everyday encounters. As I have said, it is not perfect by any means. But it is true to itself. Your impulse may be to withdraw from it, to give up your studies and live as a muggle. Or depending on what your parents learn of these events, they may attempt to withdraw you and prohibit you from returning. It has happened before. But magical Britain needs more people such as yourself, who can look at a criminal, or a house elf, and still see a feeling being, worthy of basic decency. People who can drag us by our broomsticks towards the fast-approaching third millennium. People who, even when they feel there is no authority they may turn to, will still try to do what is right, even at great personal risk." He could see from her face that she wasn't comfortable either with the implied compliments or the parallel he'd drawn.
"I just wanted to go to school," she said, after a moment. "It's all I've ever wanted. The past few years, I almost always had already read what the teachers were teaching, but there were still always things I could learn, and I can't help reading ahead, so I can understand. And magic...it's a whole new world, literally. But all these...important things...I just...I don't know if I can handle it." The Headmaster smiled kindly and patted her hand.
"An obvious mark of quality is rising to the occasion, when necessary. But there is no rush, young lady! You likely have a full century of life ahead of you, at least, and while you show great promise, you do not yet bear responsibility for the world's troubles. Ample time to learn, and later, when you've gained wisdom to match your knowledge, to act." This little bit of inspiration didn't seem to land well, as the girl's expression took on a sickly cast, and it seemed like she might begin to cry. But before he could begin to correct the matter, she shook her head sharply, then met his gaze evenly.
"I...have to tell you some things. Not just the murderer, but a lot more than that. I don't know if it's the right thing to do, but I can't say nothing." She hesitated and her eyes took on a haunted cast that no young child's should, but that he'd nevertheless seen more times than he cared to remember.
"'Help will always be given at Hogwarts, to those who ask for it'," he noted gently, quoting one of the Founders. The girl nodded.
"I hope so. There...might not be as much time as you think. But it would be silly not to at least ask first." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "Suppose I - believed - that Time had been changed, somehow, and I was...will be?...partially responsible. Would it be safe...or advisable, for me to tell you the details? If it lends any credence, I'm clear of the Conditional Obscuration on the relevant laws." Albus' eyebrows climbed skyward.
"Given that preface...I think you must, Miss Granger. If I decide it is knowledge I Ought Not to Know, I'm confident I can restore my own ignorance, and yours - if necessary, and if you consented, of course." The first-year stared at him for a moment, several emotions dueling for dominance on her face, though surprise was only faintly represented.
"I suppose if any Obliviation is ethically acceptable, a self-imposed one would qualify. But honestly, wizards seem far more free with that than they really ought to be." She shook her head and took a deep breath. "All right. I suppose it all started - in objective chronology if not my own episodic sort - during my first trip to Diagon Alley, with a book..."
A/N: I live! Apologies for the epic-length posting hiatus, you know how these things are. I do have one short chapter ready after this one, and then we'll see if I can get back on a regular posting schedule, but no guarantees other than yes, I will continue the story to its natural end, however long that takes.
Thanks to /u/HermioneGPEV for pointing out a confusing offset qualifier in Ch. 18!