Warning: certain chapters contain sexuality, drug use, violence, disturbing imagery.
Can McGonagall Keep Our Children Safe?
In the aftermath of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore's shocking murder on school grounds, writes Hieronymus Twit, Special Correspondent (for the latest on the Ministry's investigation, see page 3), many Hogwarts parents are demanding answers...
Hermione tosses the copy of the Daily Prophet to the floor with a disgusted snort, evoking a glare of surprise from Hedwig, who is perched atop the dresser that the three of them are sharing. "Can you blame me, girl?" Hermione asks the owl. "Poor Professor McGonagall."
Out in the roseate morning light that splashes over Privet Drive, Ron and Harry stretch, preparing for their jog. Ron had to be all but tackled the first morning when he attempted to go out in bright orange Cannons sweats—the Seeker madly dodging Bludgers and zipping through the letters of the team name—and so both are wearing Dudley's cast-off Smeltings gear. Harry's shirt and bottoms still look elephantine, though he no longer has to roll the cuffs twice for length. Ron's, on the other hand, must be older; they fit him quite, quite well, far better than they could ever have fit either Harry or Dudley, and Hermione is surprised at the feelings that this observation sparks in her.
For the first few days she joined them jogging about Little Whinging, but at this point their legs are too long for her to keep up and still allow for them to get in a good run. Hermione, therefore, has been staying back and enjoying a bit of quiet before the days' start, doing some light reading—the Prophet can certainly be called light—and handling any correspondence. Later in the day, once Harry's uncle has disappeared and his aunt has set the boys to work in the garden (Hermione's boys, of course—never Dudley, heaven forbid), Hermione will watch an exercise video that she borrowed from her mother—kickboxing, which Hermione is quite certain her mother has never done in her life—and will work up a gratifying sweat imagining battering the various members of the Dursley clan as she strives to prepare herself for what she knows will be a long, uncertain and all-too-literal battle ahead.
When did Ron's shoulders get so broad? When did his back develop all of those muscles? When did his…?
The two boys stride off up Privet Drive, their shadows long beside them.
Hermione shivers, and peeks about, trying to spot their minder. She hopes that it is someone fit, like Kingsley Shacklebolt or Tonks, and not Elphias Dodge. The last time he tried to follow them under an Invisibility Cloak, he nearly had a heart attack.
A tap on the window brings her once again back to the cramped little room that they have been sharing for the past week or so. An owl—Ron's Pig—is fluttering against the window. She Transfigures her camp bed back into a desk so that she can reach across and open the pane, allowing the silly thing to zip in and deposit a letter in her lap before flitting up to Hedwig's cage to molest the more dignified bird.
Addressed to Hermione.
A single sheet. No enclosure.
Hermione sighs. Every time that Ginny's name has come up, every time that a letter has come from the Burrow, Harry has got this look of pained expectation on his face that simply breaks Hermione's heart. She has some idea of what happened at the headmaster's funeral—she and Ron watched them talking to each other, both looking oh-so-civilized and oh-so-mature, and ever since then Harry has been fairly obvious in the way that he has refused to discuss his girlfriend. Clearly, he has gone all stupid and called things off, or put them on hold, or set her free, or some other Harry-like, infuriatingly self-sacrificing thing, and Ginny, the silly girl, has gone along with it.
Not a word spoken between them on the train back. Hermione was never so happy to listen to Luna prattle on, even when the subject turned to love—or Love—and Hermione watched Ginny and Harry and Ron's faces all reflect the same stomach-churning anxiety and pain that she herself was struggling through.
His tears in her hair at the funeral. His arms around her shoulder. His warmth. His Ron scent.
And yet that is the only moment since the headmaster's death when he has been himself to her. His eyes have been dark and shuttered and old...
Hermione is not used to feeling younger than Ron and Harry. But for the past week, for all that she has remained the task master, the source of information, the boys—her boys, her men—have gone about preparing for their quest with a singleness of intent that Hermione has only ever seen in them when they were preparing for a Quidditch match.
Hedwig hoots at Pigwidgeon in disgust, and Hermione shakes her head.
It isn't time to moon. Or snog. Harry and Ginny know that, for all that it's clear that they're going about the whole thing wrong.
She slides her finger through the wax of Ginny's seal. Perhaps she's sent a message for Harry. That would be good.
The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole, Devon
Well, Fleur and Bill made it back down today, which is wonderful news, since it means I'm not stuck alone with Mum day after day after day. Dad's back to working insane hours, just like last year, since the whole Ministry is flopping about like some huge Flobberworm, terrified of where the Death Eaters are going to attack next. The Order has met too—the whole lot of them trooping into the kitchen of the Burrow after supper, and I was sent up to my room as if I were still six, but George slipped me a pair of Extendable Ears that I threaded through the floorboards and into the room, and so I got to hear every word of... Well, I'm not going to tell you what I heard, for two reasons: first of all, it wouldn't be safe to talk about those things in a letter—Ha! See! I'm not so rash and impetuous after all! Also, for once I'm the one who knows things and other people don't and perhaps they can see how they like it. So there.
Also, it was bloody boring. But don't tell other people that.
News I can share: business on Diagon Alley is still down, but the twins' mail-order business is absolutely booming. Literally. The night of the meeting, they spent the night. They were working on a huge order of Shield Hats, and George fell asleep in the middle of casting one of the charms and blew the window out. Mum made him and Fred put it back, which seems only fair.
Also, Fleur and Bill have set a new date, now that he seems to have made it through the full moon. When Mum asked Phlegm what it had been like, Phlegm got this really disgusting look on her face and Mum got all blushy and fluttery. And Bill winked at me. WINKED. I wanted to vomit. Sort of.
Anyhow, the Great Day. It's set for August 15—and it's going to be at the Burrow. The funny thing is that Bill was the one who was pushing to have it in France, but apparently her family want to have it here, Merlin knows why, and Mum and Fleur both insisted. So I've been slaving away in the garden, weeding and pruning and warring with the gnomes who seem to find the whole thing incredibly funny. Neville came over. He was quite attentive. So there. helpful.
Luna's been by too. Odd as always, but very sweet. She's been staring at me a lot. I think I may have Nargles in my hair or something.
Her dad wants her to write a report for his rag about that night, you know, when DumProfe the headmaster died. I think it's great, because she actually knows and cares about the truth of what happened, unlike all of those gits at the Daily Profit (yes, Hermione, I know how to spell—that was a joke).
So... that gives me an excuse to ask... When are you going to be here? YOU HAVE TO BE HERE FOR THE WEDDING. I'm hoping you can be here before. To talk with Luna for her article.
Besides, I miss everyone you.
Hermione sighs and folds the letter again before getting up to head off to take a shower.
Everyone misses you too, she thinks.
On her way back from the bathroom, Hermione is surprised to find Dudley Dursley standing in his doorway, smirking and trying to look either sexy or tough and failing miserably in either case. "So," he says, his beady eyes glittering, "three of you?"
"Yes, Dudley," Hermione says as politely as she can manage, though one week has already taught her that something loathsome is coming. Dudley can't seem to open his mouth without saying something horrid. "There are three of us." She manages to swallow a suspiciously Weasley-like voice that mutters, Well spotted.
Dudley's smirk broadens to a smarmy grin. "So what's it, you know, like? Are they both your boytoys, or do you all, you know, share?"
"Of course not!" Hermione snaps. She should have seen this coming.
"Yeah, well, I always knew Harry was kinda, you know, light in the loafers. Kept moaning on and on about his girlfriend summer before last, some gaylord name of Cedric."
Hermione can feel her blood pressure rising. It is by an extreme act of will that she manages not to grab her wand and hex the baboon to pieces. "In the first place," she says, "it wouldn't make any difference what sex Harry preferred. He's more of a man than you'll ever be."
Dudley simply snorts like the pig he is.
"At the age of eleven, Harry Potter faced Voldemort, the Dark wizard who murdered his parents, when Voldemort wanted just two things: to steal something that Harry was protecting and to kill Harry. Harry was alone and unprotected. He didn't back down. When he was twelve, he killed a sixty-foot-long snake with eyes that could have turned him to stone in order to rescue Ron's sister—she's his girlfriend, by the way, and she's barely five feet tall, but if you ever dare to threaten him, I promise you she will make you wish you'd never been born into this sterile little backwater. When he was thirteen he rescued his godfather when a Dementor was about to suck the soul out of his body—you know all about Dementors, don't you, Dudley?" She notes with some pleasure that one massive hand flies to Dudley's mouth. "When he was fourteen, he flew circles around a flame-breathing dragon and faced down Voldemort again, when an older wizard named Cedric Diggory was killed. Harry watched him die. And brought Cedric's dead body back for his parents. So it's no wonder that he had a nightmare or two. When he was fifteen, he defended you from a pair of Dementors, though why in heaven's name he did that, I have no idea. And last year, he survived an attack by several hundred Inferi—revivified corpses, quite horrific. He's the bravest, kindest friend anyone could ever want. Just as Ron is the most loyal friend anyone could ever want. So yes, Dudley, there are three of us sharing one tiny room because your family aren't gracious enough to offer us the guest bedroom even though it's unoccupied. I've risked my life for them, and they've risked their lives for me, and we'll do it again soon enough, and who do you have that you can say that about, Dudley?"
Harry's cousin stands there stock still, his eyes wide, his mouth covered.
Hermione feels a surge of perverse pride course through her. She has managed to silence Dudley without violence, without magic, without even a threat. "What I want to know," she continues, her arms crossed before her, "is just what memory the Dementors could possibly have dredged up in that thing you call a mind. Was it the time you got thirty-six presents instead of thirty-eight? Or did you bruise a knuckle punching some eight-year-old? Or did you twist your ankle stomping on the stairs over Harry's head while he was locked in the bloody cupboard?" Hermione shivers, trying to control her rage; it is just as well that Ron isn't here, since he would have teased her mercilessly for swearing, even as he congratulated her for laying into Dudley so effectively.
"Made some toys fly to me," Dudley says through his fingers, his face slack. "Dad thrashed me, and Mummy was screaming the whole time. Only time they ever did that."
"Made...?" Hermione blinks, trying to reorder her thoughts, to integrate this new datum. "You... picked up—?"
"No. Made 'em fly. 'Cross the room. Mum called me a freak and said I knew how freaks were treated and Dad just..." Dudley blinks and stares down at his hands.
"Dudley... How old...?"
"Dunno. Maybe five. Six."
Good lord, Hermione thinks with a shudder. "And... and has anything like that ever happened again, Dudley?"
The huge boy looks around nervously, shrugs, and lowers his voice to a hiss. "Yeah. Coupla times. My first year at Smeltings? Nurse tried to put me on a diet, but no matter what they put on my plate, when I got to the table it was always steak and kidney pie or fish and chips, double helpings. Things like that. Never here though, and don't tell no one!" He grimaces, his heavy cheeks quivering, and suddenly an impression strikes Hermione: Dudley, much older, even heavier, with his father's blonde walrus mustache....
"Dudley," she asks, matching his whisper, "does the name Slughorn mean anything to you?"
"'S my middle name, isn't it?" he answers, thin eyebrows screwed together. "It's like a family name. My dad's mum's last name before she married Grandad, I think."
Hermione stifles an urge to giggle. Of course... "Oh," she says. "Yes."
"It's all pointless if I can't shut my mind to him," Harry mutters.
They are sitting in the cramped room; the midmorning sun floods in through the window. Harry is flipping through a book on Wizarding genealogy that Professor Lupin brought from Grimmauld Place—the endless search for RAB. Ron is playing solitaire with a set of cards left over from Divination. The owls are dozing. The lawn has been watered, Hermione has had her fill of imagining kicking Vernon and Dudley Dursley in all sorts of unlikely and unpleasant places, and they are having their morning 'study' period.
"Perhaps Occlumency isn't the answer," Hermione says, not for the first time.
"We'd better hope not," Harry says. "Professor Dumbledore already told me I'd never be any good at it."
"Well," Ron says, prodding at one pile of cards with his wand, "I've always found the best defense is a good offense. Maybe you should try going at it the other way."
"What," Harry laughs humorlessly, "when he tries to take over my mind, start tossing chess pieces at him?"
Hermione finds herself staring at Ron, who is slack-faced, still flummoxed by his card game. "No, Harry. I think Ron means something else. Do you remember, when Prof... When Snape was using Legilimency on you, how you got him out?"
Without looking from the Who's Who, Harry purses his lips. "I... I don't know. I ended up looking up at a bunch of thoughts... They must have been his."
"Legilimency, Harry!" Hermione gasps, "Maybe that's the answer!" The noise disturbs Pigwidgeon, who manages to let out an excited, high-pitched hoot without waking— no doubt dreaming of some unexpected praise after a difficult and dangerous mission.
The boys look up, not at Hermione but at the little owl. "Ginny sent a letter?" Ron asks.
"Well, yes," Hermione says, off-footed. "It came while you were running."
Harry looks back down at his book, but Hermione can tell that he has stopped reading.
"Anything, you know, interesting?" Ron continues to play his cards.
"Well," Hermione says, looking back and forth between the two of them, "Bill and Fleur's wedding has been reset to August fifteenth. Will we... Do you think we'll be able—?"
"We'll be there," Harry says, his face still in the book. "We'll stay here until I turn seventeen and the blood protection runs out. I promised Dumbledore."
Heavens, thinks Hermione, a whole month here. How will we stand it?
Ron nods and begins gathering up the cards and shuffling. "Right. And then we go to Grimmauld Place, and start looking for Horcruxes. And work on Legilime-whatsis, maybe."
Legilimency, Hermione thinks with an annoyed smile. "Well, I was hoping perhaps that we might go to the Burrow," Hermione says quietly. She might as well have yelled. Both boys look up, their eyes wide with very different hungers. "It... it might be our last chance. For quite a while. I think it's only fair to your mother, Ron, that we spend some time before we disappear to... wherever it is we're going to go."
"I don't think..." Harry starts, but his heart doesn't seem to be in it and he runs out of momentum before he can share just what it is that he might think. Stupid, brave boy!
"She's right, Harry. It'll give us a chance to check in with everyone. I'm sure the whole Order will be trooping in and out, right?" Ron asks. Hermione nods. "It'll give us a chance to, you know, say goodbye. To everyone."
Hermione has to squelch an overpowering urge to run over and kiss Ron. He's been so skittish since the funeral—since that night when Draco let the Death Eaters into the castle—and she doesn't think that he will take it terribly kindly. Nonetheless, she is sorely tempted.
Harry looks at Ron and then Hermione before turning to the wall. "Okay. Okay. We'll go to the Burrow. After my birthday."
Ron nods, and Hermione nods with him. He begins to lay out his cards in a different formation.
"Did she…" Harry says, very hesitantly, "did she say anything else?"
"Luna's writing an article for TheQuibbler about the night that… Dumbledore died. She wants to interview us. George and Fred blew out a window at the Burrow," Hermione answers, a smile finding her lips that—for the first time in days—is neither forced nor tempered. "And she says she misses... everyone." Which is true enough: Ginny did write that, even if she scratched it out.
Harry sighs deeply and flips open his book again.
Hermione stands and then stops. If Harry were Ginny, Hermione would go over and hug her at this point, and Ginny would yell and rail about the stupidity of boys, and Hermione would agree, and they'd both have a good cry. But she can't do that with Harry. In the first place, he never cries—she's only seen tears in his eyes twice, once after Cedric's death, and the other at the headmaster's funeral. Even after Sirius died, as angry and sad as he was, Harry's eyes remained dry. Beyond that, hugging Harry would not help the situation. He can barely stand to be touched under the best of circumstances—one more thing for which to thank the Dursleys—and Hermione doesn't think Ron would be terribly comfortable either.
Instead she walks over to where Ron is dealing out what is now very clearly a Tarot reading. "What rubbish!" she mutters before she can think of anything nicer to say.
Ron smirks up at her, then back down at the cards. "Hey, I figure it can't be any less entertaining than losing at solitaire. And since neither of you is willing to play chess with me—not that it's much fun thrashing you, mind—I thought I might as well try this. Let's tell Harry's fortune."
"Let me think," Harry says, still looking down at Nature's Nobility, "I'm going to have a time of terrible conflict, and then I'll have to fight a nasty man with a face like a viper."
Hermione winces, but Ron laughs. "Yeah, well, the Inner Eye doesn't need to be very sharp to see that coming." He turns over the first card. "King of Wands. Huh. That's you all right. Excitable and show-off-y." Harry throws a dirty sock at Ron, which he catches and tosses back. "Let's see: three more cards: Lovers in the middle... Then on either side, the Empress and the High Priestess... Huh. Then... Two of Swords... Five of..." Ron is not grinning. He has his game face on—the same one he wears when he's a few moves short of checkmate or he's in front of the goals playing Quidditch and he's not afraid. He uncovers the rest of the pattern and then stares down at it. He looks up at Hermione, and then back down at the cards before releasing a long whistle. "Well... You're going to have a great love affair. Or maybe two, but I don't get that... And have a couple of kids who will grow up to be idiot bloody Gryffindors just like us, poor sods. And you'll win a great victory and be very happy. Either that... or you'll go on a long journey and all of your friends will be very sad."
"No death by a stampeding herd of Nifflers?" Harry says, not smiling. "Professor Trelawney would be so disappointed."
"Yeah." Ron shakes himself and gathers up the cards, putting them away.
"What," Hermione asks, "not going to cast your own?"
"Nah," Ron says, "It's bollocks, just for laughs. Though mind, Harry, I don't want to see those two kids of yours any time soon, right?"
Harry gives them a look of such open pain that even Ron can't mistake it.
Another tap at the window breaks the silence. It's a school owl this time, and they can hear Aunt Petunia shouting at it from the front lawn. Hermione lets it in and takes its three envelopes, and then it flies back off—though not before daintily decorating the Dursleys' shrubbery.
"School letters," Hermione says, surprised to see them so soon. She hands the boys theirs. Silently, together, they open the letters and begin to read. "Ah, they're delaying the start of the school year until November fifteenth, to implement some new security measures. Perhaps that will stop the Prophet from saying such horrible things about Professor..." As she begins to crumple the envelope in her anger, Hermione notices that it's not empty. "Oh." She reaches in. A shiny, gold badge with the letters HG embossed on it. My initials, she thinks, stupidly. She finds herself beginning to cry.
"Congratulations, Hermione!" Harry says, and his smile is genuine and warm, which makes Hermione cry harder.
"Th-thanks, H-harry... Wh-what about y-you?"
He shakes his head, but the smile is just as broad. "Who'd make me Head Boy? Can you name a school rule I haven't broken?"
They both laugh. Ron doesn't join them.
He is sitting, slumped. In his open hand is a badge that matches Hermione's.
"Oh! Ron!" Hermione cries out, and this time she cannot stop herself—she throws her arms around him.
"Good on you, Ron!" says Harry, clapping their stunned friend on the shoulder.
"But... But... we..." stammers Ron. "We're... not going back."
"Well," sniffles Hermione, still holding Ron tightly, "perhaps we'll have finished with this whole mess by November."
"Sure," Harry says, still smiling, though she can tell that he doesn't really believe it. His eyes flash and he reaches under his bed. "Hey! Ron! There's something I've been meaning to tell you. Even if we do go back, I don't think I should be Quidditch Captain any more—I know how to play Seeker, but you know the game loads better than I do. Besides, the team were ready to kill me all last year." He comes up from under the expanded bed that the two boys share with another pin, this one emblazoned with the letters QC. When Ron just stares at it, Harry pins it to his collar; Hermione plucks the Head Boy badge out of his limp hand and pins it on the other side.
Together they pull him to a standing position. "Come on, Ron," Hermione says, maneuvering him over to the mirror on the wall. "Take a look at yourself." Ron straightens up and gawks at his own image in the mirror. He catches her eye; she grins at him moistly and he grins goofily back. Then he glances shyly at Harry.
"Let's see: House Cup, Quidditch Cup, Head Boy, Quidditch Captain. Ron," says their friend, a huge smile on his face, "you look good."