"Harry, I cannot make up your mind for you, nor can I control your actions. All I can do is give you my thoughts from years of experience."
The Teacher always spoke slowly, his words clear and thoughtful. As Harry had not yet mastered the art of disguising his feelings, especially from the people who mattered to him the most, the anger on his face betrayed his thoughts. Sometimes, to Harry, it was just so irritating, the man in front of him being so calm about everything. It wasn't as if he had anyone to care about, anyone that might be in grave danger at this very moment.
The Teacher often reminded Harry of Albus Dumbledore: in his manner of speaking, his authority and yet his gentleness. Sometimes, if he looked hard enough, he could almost have believed it really was him in disguise. Tonight, however, there were other issues to crowd the mind and they were not pleasant.
"You don't understand!" Harry practically shouted. He hated it when his anger got the better of him, especially toward the Teacher. Sometimes, though, it just did.
"What don't I understand?" was the wholly calm reply he received.
Harry had to yell, he just couldn't contain himself any more. "You don't understand what it's like to know it's all your fault! My friends get hurt, my parents died and it's all because of me. Why? There's nothing special about me. I haven't done anything that anybody else couldn't do. Why do people care? Why do they even notice me? It would be better for them if they pretended they didn't even know me!" His shoulders slumped as he finished his speech. He had started out angry, but it was leading quickly toward dejection.
No, he thought, I'm not going to let this happen again. The Teacher always seemed to be able to see through him to what he was really feeling, and he was getting right tired of it. If he was going to provoke Harry, he was going to get it right back and ten times as much.
He took a shallow breath and spoke in a deadly low voice. "They might be dying right now and you don't think I should go to them?" His face pounded with anger. He almost didn't want to wait for a response. He wanted to storm out of the room and punch something.
"No?" Harry's voice was now just barely above a whisper. His hands shook with rage and suddenly he was having trouble piecing his thoughts together. "What do… what do you mean by saying no? I would give my life for them and they're depending on me. I… can't leave… I won't leave them… alone. Even though you seem bent on keeping me here."
"Harry, you know I can't keep you here. As I said before, I can't make you do anything. I just want you to think about what you're doing. Look at your past, look at the way Voldemort has handled you before. You may be able to keep them safe now, but you still haven't learned complete control over yourself. I won't be comfortable thinking that you can master yourself in his presence if you go now."
Harry's head seemed to suddenly clear. "I understand. I have to go now."
He slowly turned, almost expecting to hear the Teacher's voice or a hand on his shoulder pulling him back, but nothing came. It felt like an eternity had passed just to cross the room. As he opened the door, he glanced back over his shoulder. The man he knew and loved as the Teacher wasn't even looking at him, and he could be mistaken, but it looked like a tear shown at the end of his nose.
Harry couldn't go back. He wouldn't let himself. His anger seemed gone, but his determination was in full force as he shut the door behind him. It was time to go.
As he packed up his things he thought once again of the letter he had received from Hermione. He straightened up and stopped stuffing clothes in his bag. The letter. It was what had started all of this. He had it in his pocket even now. Every time he read it he felt torn, which was nothing new, he had to admit. It seemed that everything in his life always made him feel torn. Perhaps, he thought with a wry smile, that was the difficulty of living the life of Harry Potter.
He pulled it out once again and read it as he had done so many times. It was only two days old, but was already starting to get ragged around the edges. Still, the words were just as clear as ever.
Ron's gone. I don't know where he is. Nobody knows where he is. Everyone's looking: the Weasleys, Dumbledore, everyone from the Order. We just don't know what to do. Can you come back? I hate to ask, but can you come back? Please?
I don't know where you are, but I hope this reaches you soon.
I wish I did know where you are. I'm so worried and for once it's not about you — look at me trying to be funny at a time like this, somehow it just makes me want to cry even more.
Please? Can you come back? I don't know what to do and even if you don't either, at least I would know where you are. I would have someone to talk to, to be with. I just don't know if I can get through this without anyone, without you.
Love from, Hermione
Harry wiped his eyes. Every time he read it, his throat got tight and his eyes filled with hot tears. The thought of what could happen to Ron, and of Hermione in so much pain… he just had to go. Why couldn't the Teacher see that? He was the reason Harry had not left immediately after the letter first arrived. What was so important about staying here when his friends were in trouble? What could he do from here? Nothing, was the answer he kept giving himself, no matter what that little voice in the back of his mind said.
Had the Teacher ever been wrong, though? Even in all the time Harry had known him, he couldn't think of a single time the Teacher had ever been wrong. But he had to push that thought to the back of his mind, along with so many others. He was going, he had to, and he was leaving right now.
When Harry arrived in the common room of Gryffindor T ower, he found it completely empty, not even a book or homework parchment laying about. He did, however, find a scribbled note on the table in the middle of the room.
If you get back while I'm not here, go straight to Dumbledore's office. I'm going up there to see him and I think Professor McGonagall will be there as well. The password is "cookie cutter." Don't worry about me writing it down, you're the only one who can open this letter and read the words. For anybody else it just says, "Mind your own business!"
Please hurry, Hermione
Harry turned immediately around and ran back out through the portrait hole, the fat lady making snide comments all the way.
"Didn't you just come in? Making me open and shut all day long for nothing… honestly, students these days…"
Harry shot a hasty "Sorry!" over his shoulder and ran on through the corridors, hoping against hope that maybe they had found Ron and he was okay. He subconsciously promised to keep a closer eye on his friends from now on.
When he got to the Headmaster's wide stone door, he practically yelled, "Cookie cutter!" and the gargoyle turned away instantly. Harry jumped onto the stone steps as they rose upward, seemingly faster than normal. The thought ran through his head that maybe the stairs knew he was in a hurry. He didn't have long to dwell on it, however. Only a moment had passed before he was standing in front of the door to Dumbledore's office.
He raised his hand to knock on the dark wood and was surprised when it opened in front of him to reveal a girl with loads of long, curly, brown hair. She grabbed him around the neck and pulled him into a tight hug. At first he wasn't sure what to think. Had they found Ron? Harry lifted his eyes to Dumbledore and his heart sank. The older man's look remained grave.
"Hermione?" Harry asked, as quietly and gently as he could.
"Harry—" was all she said, and hugged him even tighter. He could feel her sobs now and it felt like barbed wire twisting around his heart. His stomach tightened and he clenched his jaw to hold back from screaming.
"Hermione, what happened? I've got to know."
She slowly released him and stepped back, though he kept his hands on her shoulders. The dark circles under her eyes contrasted with her pale skin and he wondered just how long she had been crying, cursing himself for not coming back sooner. He couldn't remember ever seeing her this upset before. Taking a ragged breath, she finally spoke, her voice unsteady and quiet.
"Harry, please don't be mad at me," she said, sounding like she could cry again at any moment. Her words came both fast and slow at the same time. "I didn't know what to do and I didn't know where you were. We're all so scared. What if… what if…Ron's…" A choke sounded in her throat and she burst into tears again. Harry stepped quickly to her and pulled her into his arms.
"Hermione, I would do anything for you and Ron and I'm certainly not mad at you." He felt her shake a little with a few heavier sobs and accepted it as a "Thanks, Harry."
He walked her over to a comfy looking sofa and sat her down, rocking her slowly. A tray suddenly appeared in the air and floated down next to them. It had tea and warm biscuits on it that filled the air with sweet smells.
Harry looked up as the tray appeared and saw Dumbledore standing on the other side of Hermione, his hand resting gently on her shoulder. He had yet to speak, and gathering strength from his caring expression, Harry quietly asked, "Professor? What happened?"
"From the little information we have, Harry, it appears that Mr. Weasley — although perhaps I may call him Ron? — has been taken by Death Eaters." He let out a small sigh and sat down opposite them, concern showing in every detail of his expression.
"While enjoying a nice spring day with some of his classmates, Ron apparently decided to go down to visit Hagrid. They were later observed by several students leaving his hut and walking into the Dark Forest. After that point, it is merely conjecture what happened."
Harry knew there must be more to it. His voice was quiet but firm as he met Dumbledore's eyes. "Sir, we all know that your conjectures are usually right. Can you tell me what you think?"
Harry thought he saw the faintest glimpse of a smile, but it was gone only a moment later. "I have been privy to information that Hagrid has recently added something particularly… shall we say, unique, to the forest population. He was probably taking Ron there to see and share in his newest interest. I believe some of Voldemort's Death Eaters were waiting there and attacked Hagrid and Ron. After leaving Hagrid for dead, they seem to have taken Ron with them."
Harry let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. He continued to hold Hermione close to him — his arms wrapped around her, wishing with all his strength that he could protect her from what she probably already knew.
"I believe that the Death Eaters somehow were aware of what was happening in the Forest and planned this attack ahead of time. This leads me to think that Hagrid was tricked by someone he doesn't know is a Death Eater or that they hired or tricked someone near him to find out about this." Dumbledore sighed. "I'm sorry to say that is all I know, Harry, and nothing has been heard since. I am sure you have many questions, not the least of which is 'why Ron?' My answer will probably not put your fears to rest. I do not believe they were attempting to lead any particular student into their trap. It appears to have been strictly random chance that Ron was the first one Hagrid took to show his new… friend. However, I could be wrong, life is very rarely random."
He shook his head heavily and looked them in the eyes. "In this case, I believe they were simply looking for a student to take and were probably overjoyed at their luck to end up with your best friend, Harry." Dumbledore paused and looked away. Harry thought he detected a trace of a mist in the man's eye and deciding that was okay, he turned his attention back to Hermione.
"Hey," he said gently, nudging her. "How are you?" His voice was deep and serious, and she seemed surprised by it.
Looking up from his shoulder, where her head had been pressed into his shirt, she shakily answered. "I'm doing a little better now that you're here." Her head sunk back and she didn't look like she was about to pry herself off of him. He knew she'd need more time before she could talk. For a brief moment the thought occurred to him how strange it felt to be the one doing the comforting. Somehow, it seemed like it was always the other way around. He turned again to Dumbledore, who was observing them with kind compassion in his tired eyes.
"What's…Who's out there trying to find him? Who's looking for him?" He suddenly felt his own emotions welling up and Hermione squeezed him knowingly. He had to ask, "Do… do Ron's mum and dad know?"
Dumbledore nodded his head, his face still utterly serious. "Mrs. Weasley is at home with her other children, including Charlie and Bill… and Ginny. Mr. Weasley has elected to join the search himself, contrary to concerns lifted by myself and others."
Harry looking at him, the question obvious on his face.
"Harry, I asked Mr. Weasley not go because we do not want to give Voldemort any more leverage then he already has, which is quite substantial. Sometimes emotional involvement can be a powerful ally," Dumbledore continued, while Harry thought there must be a double meaning there, "but if one is acting purely on emotion, without control, the results can be dangerous." He looked directly into Harry's eyes. "Do you understand?"
Harry could tell Dumbledore was looking right through him, like he was seeing into his mind. This time though, the piercing gaze didn't make him uncomfortable. On the contrary, he merely nodded his head, fully understanding that Dumbledore didn't want him chasing randomly after Ron. It did appear, however, that he had something in mind for Harry to do. He decided not to ask yet.
Dumbledore spoke again, in the voice of someone who had clearly spent years of his life breaking down, studying, and learning to understand the mind of a Dark Wizard. It was the voice of a wizened man but Harry could detect an undercurrent of power and the controlled confidence that comes with age. Dumbledore leaned back slightly and spoke in a far-away voice, almost as if he were talking to someone unseen in the room.
"Voldemort clearly got more than he was expecting this time. He will probably believe chance was in his favor. He may be right but that doesn't mean we have lost this round. It means our best opportunity to strike back is before he fully realizes the potential of the leverage he now has. We must be organized and have power and efficiency on our side." His eyes flicked back to Harry and Hermione. "And you two are going to help me."
Harry suddenly realized that Hermione had leaned away and was now sitting up very straight with a strangely determined look in her eye.
"What are we going to do?" she asked quietly but firmly.
"For now, I want you to leave it to me. I will notify you when I am ready to explain, but trust in me that you will both play a major role in rescuing Ron. Please get some rest tonight. Tomorrow I am going to call on you to exceed perhaps even the most remarkable feats you have already accomplished at this school. Professor McGonagall will summon you in the morning." He smiled at them, "Good evening."
With this clear signal from the Headmaster, Harry and Hermione rose and started toward the door. Before they'd gone two steps Harry stopped and turned around frantically. "Professor, what happened to Hagrid?"
"Hagrid has been taken to the hospital wing and is recovering under the care of Madam Pomfrey. You may visit him there."
With a brief look exchanged between them, Harry and Hermione ran to the door and down the magical staircase without waiting for it to carry them. Harry grabbed Hermione's hand and pulled her down the corridor toward the hospital wing.
"Harry, I didn't know!" she cried. "I didn't… I forgot to check on Hagrid after they told me Ron was gone. I'm so terrible. What if he's really hurt? I didn't even ask about him. Harry, what's wrong with me? You must think I'm so terrible!" She was crying again as Harry continued to lead the way, nearly dragging her behind him. He wasn't quite certain how to answer. It was Ron that was gone, after all, but how could she have completely forgotten about Hagrid?
Enough, he told himself, she's going to feel even worse if you say that. He stopped for a moment and held her hands together in front of him, looking her in the eye. "Hermione, Ron's our best friend and he's the one that's gone. You knew Hagrid was here and safe, even if he was hurt, and you knew that he'd be taken care of by Madam Pomfrey." Then in a softer voice he continued, "And you know that I could never think you're terrible." The corners of his mouth twitched a little and he gave her hands a quick squeeze. "Now, come on."
Madam Pomfrey jumped in her chair at the sudden banging on the hospital wing door. She strode quickly over and wasn't at all surprised to see Harry and Hermione standing there looking tired and worried but very determined. She let them in and gave them brief instructions to be careful around Hagrid and not to stay more than five minutes.
"He was very badly hurt and, given the number of potions he is taking, he may not even realize you're here." Her demeanor softened a little and she pointed toward two chairs next to his bed. "You should talk to him and encourage him. When they first brought him in, I wasn't sure he was going to make it. Giant's blood has some fascinating magical properties, though. It appears he will live but his recovery may take quite some time."
They walked quietly to the chairs and sat down, Harry still grasping Hermione's hand tightly in his. He struggled to hold back his emotions as he surveyed Hagrid's seemingly endless injuries. The hair on the right side of his head was plastered down, apparently from dried blood that had run underneath his massive bandage. His left arm was covered in white gauze from wrist to shoulder, and his right arm from elbow to shoulder. Harry noted with some discomfort that the furry coat hanging next to his bed was badly torn and missing one sleeve completely. Both his legs were hidden under the enormous blankets on the magically enlarged bed but two heavily bandaged feet were visible protruding out near the bottom.
"Hagrid?" Harry asked tentatively. The heavy breathing continued unaltered.
"It's Harry and Hermione. We just came from Dumbledore and he says we're going to rescue Ron tomorrow. And Madam Pomfrey says you're doing better." Harry started getting choked up again so Hermione took over.
"Hagrid, you've got to keep fighting. Without you we wouldn't have anyone to teach us about… well, Blast-Ended Skrewts and hippogriffs and Thestrals. Maybe we could even talk Dumbledore into letting you have a dragon again, now that things are… different." They were surprised by a small grunt like a laugh and realized that it came from Hagrid.
"Yeh'll do no such thing. It's gon' take me weeks to get better, maybe e'n months. An' what if I get 'urt again, then who'd take Norbert? You lot 'ave enough on yer minds as is. No sir, I won' be givin' yeh more to worry 'bout." Hagrid's reference to Norbert made them both remember that he was probably on some powerful potions. He didn't seem to remember that Norbert was living comfortably in a dragon colony in Romania.
They talked for a few more minutes until Madam Pomfrey came to get them and then set off together for Gryffindor Tower.
Harry held back for a moment when they reached the steps in the echoing front hall and looked out through the great doors onto the grounds.
"D'you want to go for a walk?" asked Harry. "It's just I don't really feel like talking to everyone right now." He looked down at his feet and kicked his shoe on the gleaming marble floor.
A sudden realization hit Hermione and understanding and compassion filled her heart.
"You do this a lot, don't you?" His quick glance up and the expression on his face answered her question, but contrasted with his words. "No… not really." His voice was muffled, his head was bent down so far into his shirt. He slowly turned to walk away but Hermione caught his arm and his eye and said, "I'm coming with you, neither of us can do this alone." His relief warmed his expression and the two exited the castle into the warm afternoon sunlight.
By the time the sky faded from blue to pink to a deep red, they had covered so many topics that Harry couldn't even remember where they'd begun. They had walked and talked their way around both the lake and the castle but mostly around the thing that was bothering them most. Finally choosing a spot hidden from view by large trees at the edge of the lake, they settled down on the ground. The embracing smells and soft thickness of the grass seemed to pull them down and Harry found himself lying there staring up at the branches and the fresh green leaves, torn between his surroundings and his feelings. It was a comforting place but the pain they both felt on the inside still burned with an inextinguishable heat.
Harry started a little as he felt Hermione lay her head on his shoulder and slide her arm across his chest. It took him by surprise as the realization dawned on him that he was lying next to the lake under the beautiful trees while a warm summer sunset played across the water, and one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen was lying next to him, on him.
No! he practically shouted inside his head. She's in as much pain as I am, maybe more, and I am not going to make it worse by being a guy right now. Get a hold of yourself, he thought. She's your best friend, well, besides Ron… Ron. He'd never felt so much clash of emotions before and it brought him back to reality with a forceful snap.
"Hermione?" he croaked, the tears beginning to run down his cheeks as he finally released what had been stuck in his chest all day. He could feel it uncoiling, unraveling inside him, a mix of fear, pain, and exhaustion. They sat close and held each other, each letting loose the pain in salty tears that stained their cheeks as they struggled for some small bit of mutual comfort.
When their tears were exhausted, they laid back on the cool green grass, each lost in his or her own thoughts. Hermione played carelessly with the frayed cuff of Harry's shirt and he picked at the grass. His heart ached but his words seemed to have run out, or he couldn't get them out. What would happen to Hagrid? Would they find Ron in time? Was Ron even still alive? Harry tortured himself slowly with his relentless thoughts. What did Dumbledore have in mind? And how were he and Hermione going to help?
He opened his eyes and was surprised to find Hermione leaning over him, looking right at his face. Her eyes were still red and he could still see the pain in her expression.
"Are you ready to go back?" she asked softly.
"No," he answered quietly and truthfully, "but I suppose we have to. When did it get so dark?" Had they really been out here that long?
"Harry, we have been out here that long." She looked at him patiently but clearly she didn't want to go back either. It would mean seeing all those people, so unconnected with them, and answering still more of their unending questions.
Harry was staring at her.
"What?" she asked.
His eyes narrowed. "Are you reading my mind or something?"
"It's just… well, that was… I was wondering how long we'd been out here, and then you answered my question, Hermione! Almost word for word."
"But you asked me!"
"No, I didn't! I was just thinking to myself."
Hermione's eyes widened. "But I swear I heard you say it."
"But I didn't, I didn't say it. How… can you hear my thoughts?"
"I don't know what that was, maybe we just happened to be thinking the same thing at the same time. Well, how else would you explain it then?"
"I don't know," he hesitated, "let's see if you can do it again."
She seemed to think about it for a moment and then slowly nodded her head. "We both need to concentrate on this really hard but I really don't think anything is going to happen."
Harry watched her close her eyes. Her brow furrowed in concentration and her hands clasped into fists. Wow, he thought, she's really pretty like that. No, you git! Stop it, what if she can hear you right now?!
"Harry?" She opened her eyes and looked up. "Were you doing it?"
"You mean, you couldn't hear me?" His face was glowing red and he was glad it was getting dark. "You didn't feel anything?"
"No, nothing. Are you okay? What were you thinking?"
"Er, nothing, just about the lake and the quiet and the grass."
Her look told him she didn't believe him but she let it go and picked herself up off the ground, brushing off some stray leaves and twigs.
"Let's go, then."
They walked slowly back up to the castle, lost again in their own thoughts. Harry had so many things running through his mind that he wasn't sure where one thought ended and another began.
When they reached the castle, the doors were closed and sealed. Harry knew that they closed by themselves before dinner each day as yet another protection against attack. There were so many things that had changed since Harry had started his first year. He remembered all too well the time in his second year when the school had almost been shut down because of the Basilisk. He remembered how Ginny was possessed by Tom Riddle and forced to let out the snake and how Riddle had almost killed her in the end. During that time the teachers had instituted rules for curfews and no students were allowed to walk the corridors without supervision. He supposed it had always been for the best, even if he had never particularly obeyed the rules. The memory flashed across his mind and he briefly wondered where Ginny was and what she was doing. He hoped she was giving some well needed comfort to her family. That would be just like her — strong in a time of trial, forsaking her own needs for those of others.
The doors opened to his touch, having been taught to recognize certain students and obey their commands. He held the door open wide for Hermione and then stepped in behind her. He stopped for a moment and watched the door close again behind him. He knew there were only a handful of students the doors recognized and he recalled the day he had been told about this added protection for the school. There had been little ceremony when he, the Head Boy and Girl, and the prefects had been led into the entrance hall by Professor McGonagall. There, Dumbledore had been waiting for them and performed the spells necessary for the doors to recognize each one of them and obey their commands. They had all taken turns making certain the spell worked for them individually.
Harry remembered being surprised that the doors seemed to know what he wanted without his having to ask. They seemed to obey his thoughts rather than his actions. At the time it had seemed fascinating and he wondered if it would ever really be useful. Still, he felt it was good to know Dumbledore trusted him so much. Of course, he knew exactly why it was being done. If any of them were likely to need in or out in an emergency, it would almost surely be him.
Stumbling back into the present, Harry noticed the grateful smile Hermione sent him and he shot her a questioning look which she seemed to understand.
"Thanks for holding the door for me. If I had gone out there by myself — not that I would, Harry, I see that look on your face — but if I had gone out there by myself, I would have had to wait for someone to come and open the door for me and it could have taken so long and then no one would know where I was and people might start worrying. So anyway, thanks." She looked at him a little awkwardly. "And besides, it's very gentlemanly of you to hold the door for a lady."
They walked hand in hand into the Great Hall and found it nearly deserted but with plenty of food still on the tables. They ate together almost silently, each too uncomfortable and exhausted to do anything but scoop up small spoonfuls of peas and mashed potatoes. Then they trod the well known path back to Gryffindor Tower, finding it, too, almost empty. Harry still had trouble believing that so many students either weren't allowed back to school or didn't want to come back. After the Ministry had finally acknowledged the return of Voldemort, most students had still returned for the next school year. Given the sharp increase in Death Eater attacks the previous summer, there were many who did not come back in Harry's seventh year.
As the portrait hole swung shut behind them, Harry wondered once again what they were going to do the next day. Dumbledore had only said they were going to save Ron and that he and Hermione were going to do their part, but what exactly was that part going to be? Harry was learning to trust Dumbledore almost as much as he trusted Ron and Hermione, but he couldn't shake the gut-wrenching fear that they would be too late, or that they would be captured themselves and only make matters worse. Even after witnessing the incredibly powerful magic of Dumbledore, he still knew that Voldemort would stop at nothing to get to him.
He was shaken out of his reverie by a sudden tight hug from Hermione. He knew she was just as upset has he was, if not more, and he returned the squeeze. That familiar pain came to his throat and his eyes began to water. His mind reeled. Can't control yourself at all, can you? he questioned himself. She's going to think you're losing it. Of course she might be right…
"Harry?" She pulled back and looked at him with what looked like understanding on her face. "It's okay to let it out sometimes. You've been through so much, no one's going to think anything of it if you let it out once in a while."
She smiled just a little and Harry noticed the tears on her own face. He wiped one away with the tip of his thumb and looked into her eyes, trying to find his voice.
"We're going to get Ron back. We're going to do it tomorrow. We're all going to be fine, including Ron, and then we're going to spend some time together, just us or maybe with his family. It's going to be fine."
Harry knew he was saying the words for himself and for her. He needed to hear it as much as she needed to believe it. He had escaped so many tight spots with Voldemort that he knew, one day, it wouldn't work out so well. He just hoped that day wasn't tomorrow.
As he lay in bed that night, his mind wandered carelessly over the day, pausing when it replayed the scene by the lake. What had come over him? Harry had never had a closer friend than Hermione, except Ron, and he certainly never had those types of thoughts about her before. Well, not really. He had had dreams about her before, where they were doing things that friends wouldn't normally do. But the more he thought about that, the more he realized that in his dreams it had always just been a girl, sometimes with bushy brown hair, sometimes straight, sometimes blonde, and even sometimes red.
He pushed those thoughts out of his mind and went back to the lake again. Had Hermione felt the same way? They'd never touched like that before. And then there was that connection. She had actually heard and answered a question that only existed in his mind, but how was that possible? Today she seemed so vulnerable and Harry couldn't help but feel protective of her — from holding her while she cried to never letting her out of his sight. What was going on with them? Almost as if on cue, a small voice in his mind said she was still just his friend and that today had been perhaps one of the most difficult days of her life. It had been important for Harry just to be there.
Suddenly he realized that he loved her, the love of a friend whom he would never let down. He had always known that he would give his life for Hermione and now he knew why. This was the love of family, a love which he had always longed to know and only now realized he had. With just one lingering question, he slipped quietly out of bed and trod down to the common room with a parchment pad and quill. As he wrote, he realized how loud the scratching of the quill was but decided he had to continue anyway — this was too important.
A little while later and back in his comfortable four-poster bed, he closed his eyes and fell asleep almost immediately, feeling strangely content.
When Harry woke in the morning, the day past seemed like a dream. It was still hazy and he had to struggle to remember the extraordinary feelings that had carried him through so many ups and downs. The one thing that burned bright and hot in his mind though, was that today was the day. They were going to rescue Ron.
After cleaning up and a quick breakfast in the common room — courtesy of Dobby — Harry sat quietly and tried to clear his mind by looking at the grounds out the window. It almost didn't seem true. How could they have taken Ron? Harry would gladly have taken his place but he knew that wouldn't help today. The thought crossed his mind again, wondering if they were too late. He shook his head and forced himself to think clearly. Voldemort had been lucky this time, there was no question, but he had only had Ron a few days and perhaps that hadn't been enough time for him to come up with a clever plan. Ultimately, Voldemort wanted Harry, so he would certainly have to keep Ron alive to convince Harry to show up. But what kind of trap would it be?
Then an idea came to him. It was so simple, and finally a good use for his training.
Settling in by the window, Harry closed his eyes and began slowly to relax his body, just as the Teacher had instructed. First his feet, then his legs, next his chest, his hands, and finally his neck and face. He forcefully swept all thoughts out of his mind and concentrated on Ron, and only Ron. The room around him slowly faded. He could feel his heartbeat slowing and his breathing coming in long, consistent breaths. He continued to focus his mind on Ron and after a few minutes of silence, something happened, like a magnifying glass sliding into place. Ron's face was clearly visible.
Slightly surprised by his success, he forced himself to stay calm. He could see that Ron looked terrible. His eyes were closed, his hair disheveled, and what was clearly a large bruise on his left temple stood out, a painful purple color.
Continuing to focus all his energy on Ron, his field of vision began to expand outward. Soon he could see the chair Ron was chained to, then the room around him came into focus. It felt like he was stepping into the space. The walls surrounded him and he began to look freely around. The floor was solid rock, as were the walls and ceiling. It really almost appeared that this room had been carved out of solid rock, but clearly not by any ordinary tools. All the surfaces were perfectly flat and even. There wasn't a single tool mark or gouge or chip to be seen. It was, all-in-all, rather amazing. He saw a single stone door and noted that it was directly across from the chair and its captive.
Moving back to Ron, Harry realized that the only furniture in the room was the chair that Ron was chained to and about a dozen candles burning in sconces evenly hung around the room. Leaning toward Ron, Harry cast every atom of his being into what he was about to do — he opened his mouth and out came a strangled whisper… "Ron, we're coming to get you."
Harry could feel his body beginning to ache and his mind drawing back to the present. As he fell away, he saw Ron lift his head slightly and open one eye. A single tear ran down his nose and he screwed up his strength just enough to say, "Harry… hurry." His head fell forward again just as he and the room disappeared from sight.
Harry felt his arm being shaken and blearily opened his eyes. Hermione's face swam into view looking tired and worried. Her thoughts were evident in her expression. Would they get to Ron in time?
"Harry, it's time. Professor McGonagall is here."
"Mr. Potter." At the sound of that voice, Harry sat up straight, very much awake.
"The Headmaster has asked me to retrieve you and Miss Granger. He would like to see the both of you in his office as soon as you are ready." She paused and her look softened just a fraction. "Although perhaps you need a few minutes more? It seems Miss Granger has been letting you sleep for the last two hours in this chair."
"We're ready," they replied, glancing at each other.
"Very well, if you will come with me." They followed her out through the portrait hole and down the long corridor. Harry turned to Hermione. "You let me sleep for two hours? I'd been sleeping for two hours?" His voice was quiet and from the look on his face she could tell there was more to what had just happened than she knew.
"Well, you looked dog tired, Harry." The question of why was clearly written in her expression.
Seeming to understand what she wasn't asking, he just replied without looking at her. "I didn't sleep well last night, and this morning…" He looked down at the floor. "I don't think we should talk about it right now." In a mumble to himself, he added, "I reckon you'll hear soon enough."
"Harry, we're going to be okay, aren't we?" Her voice shook with fear.
"Yeah, we're going to be all right… and Ron knows we're coming."
She looked at him with unaffected surprise. "What… How?"
Professor McGonagall slowed down incrementally and cast a brief look at Harry, her expression calculating but otherwise inscrutable.
Harry whispered cryptically back to Hermione, his eyes focused on the door they were approaching at the corridor's end, "You'll know in a few minutes. Maybe you'll understand it better than I do." His last words spoken mostly to himself, he tried to keep his mind on the present and away from Hermione's penetrating stare.
At last they reached the great stone gargoyles and stepped inside. Before Harry knew what had happened, they stood before Dumbledore's desk and Professor McGonagall had left the room with a curt nod to the Headmaster and a worried glance at both of them.
"Please, sit down." Dumbledore motioned to the chairs in front of his desk, his eyes surveying their faces, and, Harry thought, probably their minds as well. "I hope you have had a good night's rest." He peered at them, apparently expecting a response.
Harry spoke softly that he actually had slept the whole night, much to his surprise. He gave a nervous little laugh. Hermione merely gave a small nod and looked curiously at Harry. He just said easily, "I'll tell you about it later." After a few moments of silence they turned back to Dumbledore, who was studying them intently.
Then, apparently finished with his observation, Dumbledore cleared his throat and began. "I have spoken with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley regarding what is about to take place. They have granted their permission for me, for us rather, to continue with my plan, contingent upon the safety of both of you. I have given my word to them and now I give it to you as well. No harm will befall you during this undertaking."
Having given his word, Dumbledore sat back in his chair and smiled pleasantly at them. Harry and Hermione glanced at each other, then expressed their lack of understanding with a chorused, "What?"
Dumbledore leaned all the way forward and held Harry with a penetrating and suddenly serious gaze. "Harry, was this morning the first time you have successfully applied your training?"
Harry looked a bit embarrassed and only replied with a small, "Yes."
"And what did you see?" The question was so simple, yet so complex, that Harry didn't know where to begin. He had never told Hermione or Ron or anybody about studying with the Teacher. They only knew that he was gone for one, two, or sometimes even three days at a time and would always come back looking completely knackered. It usually took a day or two for him to recover and he had never said a word to them about where he went or what he did while he was gone.
Of course Ron and Hermione had speculated about his absence, sometimes thinking he was out fighting with the Order, but then he was just as frustrated as they were about not being allowed to join until they were out of school. Other times they thought he was getting special instruction, or helping do research, or volunteering for magical testing. Harry had never said a word to them. When they brought it up, he would cleverly change the subject, or ignore their questions outright. Sometimes he just gave them a look that said not to ask. It hurt Harry to not tell the truth, especially to them, but he knew it was necessary to keep his secret. This secret could mean the difference between life and death, for others, as well as himself.
Now here, sitting in front of Dumbledore, Harry finally had the opportunity to reveal some of what he had learned. He felt a brief moment of relief, cast immediately away by the memory of Ron, alone and in pain. Forcing himself to push it aside, as he was now used to doing, he began to explain everything he had seen in the room, from the stone walls to the door, the candles to the chair, and finally to Ron. As he described the bruises and cuts and the pain Ron had so clearly been in, Hermione finally broke down, her small sobs wrenching at his heart. He wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her, but he forced himself to continue. Dumbledore had to know everything.
Harry's voice seemed to catch in his throat as he got to the part about the words he had spoken and what Ron had managed to say in return. He tried to control his anger at the anguish and helplessness he had felt, and he repeated several times that he was ready to do anything to find Ron. When his tale was finished, he pried his hands off the arms of the chair, not realizing he had been so focused on explaining that his knuckles had started to hurt. The morning was almost like a dream to him now, it seemed so long past. But the urgency of the situation was still at hand, in his mind and in the minds of Hermione and Dumbledore as well. Rubbing his knuckles gingerly, he stared at the floor, too overcome to even look up. He was therefore surprised when he felt his strength increase at the touch of Hermione's hand on his arm. He lifted his eyes to Dumbledore, who nodded slowly at him. Harry knew it was time, and steeling his voice, he asked the question that was burning in his mind.
"What are we going to do?"
Hermione looked up determinedly and slipped her hand into his. He grasped it tightly, lacing his fingers into hers, and was surprised once again to feel his energy notch slightly higher.
"Harry, the reason I can assure you of your safety, as well as Miss Granger's — or perhaps I may call you Hermione—?" he nodded at Hermione, "—is because neither of you will be leaving this office."
Harry expression hardened. "We're not leaving this office? What… what are you on about? What are you going to have us do, wish him back?" Harry knew the sarcasm wasn't going to help anything but he had to strike out at someone. Instantly he was sorry he hadn't controlled himself, and he looked down at his feet again. "I'm sorry."
"That's quite all right. You see, Harry, I need your help here. Your closeness with your friends will make all the difference in the world." He paused and clasped his hands together on his desk as if about to give a highly interesting lecture.
"As we have discussed many times, you have some very special gifts, some of which you have been developing with the Teacher for some time now. Others you may only now begin to notice. And, as you do not have any living wizard relatives, I do not believe it would be out of place for me to say that you have accepted and embraced the entire Weasley family, as well as this young woman next to you, as a loving, surrogate family. I believe the reverse to be true as well." At this, Hermione blushed a little but held Harry's questioning gaze and nodded a little as if to acknowledge this truth.
"Furthermore, as you have proven this morning, you have developed bonds with them that are clearly very special and allow you to use rare types of magic with them. I have observed you more closely than you know and I can assure you that the bonds you share with your friends are unique. Your love and friendship and passion are rooted in the deepest magic and are nearly unbreakable. You have been very lucky to find two, or I may even say three, such people in your life. In all of my years, I have never witnessed such a connection. You will likely find this becoming more and more important as you continue your studies with the Teacher. Alas, this is a subject we must defer for another time." Harry wondered for a moment what he had meant about a third person but was interrupted when Dumbledore continued.
"Now, are either of you familiar with the type of magic called Mens Mentis Expositus?"
Harry searched the deepest corners of his mind but no bells rang and he shook his head. Even Hermione did not seem to recognize it. She looked at Dumbledore with the same open curiosity as Harry.
"It is not taught at Hogwarts for the simple reason that it is rarely used anymore. Once upon a time, before Apparation was discovered and fireplaces enabled travel by Floo Powder, wizards needed ways to communicate with each other. Now, mind you, this magic was not easy, and was used mostly by witches and wizards to communicate with each other when researching and testing new magic, when travel was inconvenient. It is a way of connecting minds and senses together and sharing them. The way it works is this: an individual can open his or her mind to another and allow that person to see, hear, and feel everything they feel. To you it may sound similar to Legilimency, and while quite different from the magic used for Legilimency, it is similar in its opening of the mind. It is, however, more controlled in its execution. The main difference between the two is the selected opening of the mind versus the forced opening of the mind in Legilimency. Do you understand so far?"
Harry pondered what had been said, not sure he was grasping it but not wanting to lose the train of thought. He simply nodded in acknowledgement.
"Good, and it appears that Hermione has the grasp of it as well." Hermione had a wide smile on her face like the dawning of comprehension. Harry suspected that, as usual, she was a good few steps ahead of him in her application of this new idea.
Dumbledore continued, "Harry, my plan is to have you use the same magic you used this morning to find Ron and then allow Hermione and myself access to it by allowing us into your mind. I know how difficult and extraordinary the effort required will be, both for your finding Ron and for allowing another person into your mind, therefore I am proposing that first you accommodate Hermione, and then Hermione will receive me. This has some added benefits as well; for example, you will not have to bear the burden of hosting two minds at once. Also, because of the powerful magical bonds between yourself and Hermione, she will be able to give you her strength to keep the connection open to Ron. If all goes well, I will, with the assistance of Fawkes, remove Ron from his captors and bring him safely back here."
Harry leaned back in his chair trying to grasp the situation. Was this really possible? If he could even get to Ron again, how was Dumbledore going to get him out? Could they really chain their minds together? Could it be done safely? In Harry's experience, there always seemed to be some element of danger and he wasn't certain how to handle this. Sitting in Dumbledore's comfortable office, using his mind and borrowing Hermione's magic just seemed a little far-fetched. Harry grasped at the sides of his head, trying to keep it from coming apart. Then he chanced a look at Hermione and was surprised to see her sitting bolt upright in her chair, a far-away look in her eyes.
While he was watching, she suddenly shook herself back to the present and cautiously asked "But, sir, how are you going to get him? I mean, he could be anywhere, and you're going to just waltz in, collect Ron, and leave, with no one caring a bit? It just doesn't seem possible." She gave a disbelieving laugh and looked over at Harry as if he ought to be thinking the same thing. Before Harry could say anything, Dumbledore spoke again. The smile on his face and the glint in his eye said just as much as his words.
"I do not think it will be as difficult as you believe. I am well aware of the capabilities of the Death Eaters and Fawkes has proven himself quite useful in situations like this — I owe my life to him on more than one occasion." Dumbledore seemed far off for a moment, but then, glancing at the two of them, he asked his final question. "Are you ready?"
Harry wondered briefly what it would feel like to have Hermione in his head and felt a tinge of heat in his neck at some of the thoughts he'd had lately. He sighed internally and stood up. "I'm ready." Hermione followed suit and Dumbledore led them to one of his more comfortable sofas. Several thick pillows twirled out of mid-air and landed gently on the last seat.
"Harry, I will ask you to sit here, facing these pillows. You may use them for support if you need." When he continued, an innocent smile spread across his face, making Harry suspicious of what was coming next. He was answered soon enough.
"Hermione, I will ask you to sit directly behind Harry. If today you were only going to be a guest in his mind, then no physical contact would be necessary. However, as he will be depending on every ounce of your magic as well has his own, I will ask you to hold tight around him with your whole body, as if your life depended on it." Seeing Dumbledore's face fall, Harry could tell that he had not meant to say it quite that way and had clearly realized that Ron's life did, in fact, depend on it.
Dumbledore spoke in a soft, serious tone now. "This may be asking more of you both than you can handle, but you must try, you must." The fire came back to his eyes and he directed himself toward Hermione.
"Hermione, I am confident that you will be able to perform the spell to enter Harry's mind, not only because you are one of the most talented witches at this school but also because of the special bond between the two of you — the same bond that should allow Harry to locate Ron again. The incantation you will use is Memoria Acies and I suggest you attempt it before we go any further. If you manage to be successful on the first try, along with being very impressed, I will likely follow momentarily behind and enter your own mind. You will both need to concentrate on the person who is your mind's guest for them to be allowed in."
Hermione smiled apologetically at Harry, who gave a tentative smile back and nodded for her to continue. He relaxed his mind and body and after a few moments a soft voice behind him said, "Memoria Acies". He felt her presence slowly engaging in his mind. He could almost feel her softness and he had never known how gentle she could truly be until now. It was as if she was removing her shoes before entering and it was one of the sweetest sensations he'd ever felt.
"Hermione," he thought, "are you there? I don't know if I can talk to you like this."
"Hi, Harry," came her soft voice inside his head. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine. It's actually quite cozy with you in here." He felt his cheeks turn red hot and decided he'd better qualify that comment a bit. "I mean… it's nice, it's not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. Er… how are things on your end?" He couldn't see her but he could almost feel her blushing. He mentally kicked himself for being so open.
"It's okay. I can feel my own body and mind but also yours. It's weird. I'm seeing what you're looking at and what you're touching but in a sort of indirect way. It's not painful and it doesn't seem hard at all." She giggled a little bit in his mind and said, "I think Dumbledore is waiting for us to get these things all worked out before he enters my mind. There's the potential for a lot of embarrassment here, so keep your mind clean, Harry!"
"Oh, all right," he laughed, "I guess I'm ready, you can let him in now."
After a few moments of silence, Harry felt as if another door had been opened somewhere far away. It felt like a light breeze blowing through his mind. Dumbledore's calm voice told them they were doing very well and then asked if they were ready to proceed. After a few deep breaths, Harry gave his assent, and then Hermione gave hers.
"Hermione," Dumbledore's voice was gentle but firm, "you will need to touch Harry now because he's going to need your strength. I will come back in a few moments as I need to go collect Fawkes." The invisible door closed quietly and it was just Harry and Hermione again in his head.
"Harry, are you ready?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"All right, just let me get my legs up here." There was a pause as she very un-gracefully tried to climb up on the sofa. Harry felt her legs slide by him and then her arms around his chest and her head laid upon his shoulder. He handed her one of the pillows off the top of the stack to support her back and hoped that his neck wasn't getting too red. There was a dull thudding in his head and heat was spreading rapidly into his cheeks. He wasn't used to being touched, much less held, and it made his insides shift around.
"Okay, I'm done. Tell me if I squeeze too hard. I don't want to hurt you."
"It's fine. You know, I can already feel your strength. It's very different from mine, but… helpful, in a way. Trying to find Ron this morning was absolutely exhausting but with your help, it might not be as bad. Don't expect to come out of this easily though. If it takes very long for Dumbledore to collect Ron, we might run out of energy. That's what happened this morning, I was already losing my grip by the time… by the time Ron… talked."
"Harry, that was a very brave thing you did, and I'm positive it made him feel better. He knows we're coming for him."
Suddenly Harry sensed that Dumbledore was back but there was someone else, too.
"Fawkes is with me. You will probably sense his presence as soothing and comforting. I will most likely stay with you the entire time but Fawkes may come and go as he assists me. Are you ready, Harry?"
Harry's voice was strong and clear in his mind. "I'm ready." He felt Hermione give him a quick squeeze and he began to slowly prepare his mind as he had practiced so many times with the Teacher. Dumbledore and Hermione were silent and Harry could only feel her rhythmic breathing against his back. It was really quite comforting.
He began as he had only a few hours before, relaxing his body slowly from foot to head, consciously releasing the tension in each muscle as he went. When he felt his body perfectly under control, he focused his energy to clear his mind and center it completely on Ron. The silence in the room slowly began to fade and there was only himself and Hermione. Their very lives seemed as one and Harry felt strength like he had never felt before. It hardly seemed like any time had passed before his vision slowly began to lighten into a mild orange color. Harry forced himself to focus even harder and suddenly, just as in the morning, Ron's face appeared under the red hair. Harry felt a shudder run up his spine as Hermione moved her head slightly on his shoulder and the room came into full view. It was just as Harry remembered it from earlier but when he saw Ron, his breath caught and he forced himself to control his emotion. Ron looked different somehow. His face was more drawn, his skin paler; he seemed to be draining before their very eyes.
A quiet voice spoke far back in Harry's mind. "Hermione, I will not leave you but my presence may seem far away. Be careful to keep your mind open to me." Harry felt the air pressure change slightly and knew that Dumbledore had gone from his office. He felt him continue to speak, a little closer this time.
"Harry, keep your mind completely focused on Ron. I will follow your vision to find him. Use Hermione's strength to compliment your own and it will be easier for you. I will tell you when I have reached him. Now, I would like you to go to the door and open it. It may take some effort but you should be able to open it. Locks do not mean anything to this type of magic. I will wait for you to open it. Be patient and use Hermione's energy to help you."
Another voice spoke softly, both in his mind and behind his back. "Harry, I'm here. Go ahead and do it."
Harry felt himself move to the door and his hand was upon it. He pressed but nothing happened. He stepped back and drew his eyes around the frame, seeing himself reach out and turn the handle.
Suddenly he was in the corridor. His heart was racing and his breathing erratic, he was getting tired. It was suddenly becoming too much to continue on his own and he needed to ask for help.
"Hermione, help!" He knew his voice was desperate but he also knew he couldn't break the connection with Ron. As if a weight had been lifted from his chest, he felt Hermione scoot right up against him. He could feel her heartbeat racing and her fast breathing and suddenly he knew he could do it. The corridor was lit only by torches about every thirty paces but he could see clearly, as if he were carrying the light himself. He moved rapidly down it, not seeming to walk but just to travel. He paused by a door on his left but passed it by, somehow knowing it led nowhere.
Finally reaching the end of the corridor, he reached out to touch the door and it sprang open. He stepped carefully through it into a large, very well appointed room. It felt like hitting a brick wall. Massive, heavy tapestries draped the walls and windows. The furniture was dark and obviously antique. The room felt as if it had a presence of its own, an ominous pressure that forbade any to enter. A large fire burned in an enormous fireplace at the end of the room, casting dancing shadows everywhere and only increasing the eerie feeling in Harry's gut. It seemed somehow familiar but he knew he'd never been there before. It almost felt like… Malfoy! The name stung in his thoughts. He felt a shiver of cold run down his body and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Panic started to spread through him but a calm voice broke through it all.
Dumbledore. He felt two arms grip his chest, holding him tight. Hermione.
Dumbledore's voice was strong and powerful, "Harry, you don't need to go any farther. Turn back and stay with Ron, I will be there shortly." Harry wanted to protest. Dumbledore could get hurt, he thought, there was almost no place as dangerous as Malfoy Manor. But he also knew that the Death Eaters, even Voldemort, would not dare stand up to Dumbledore yet. He turned and started back down the long hall. It seemed like no time at all before he reached the door back to Ron's cell.
His energy was draining, and with a tremendous effort he opened the door and stepped back into the room. The sight completely arrested his mind and body — Ron looked almost dead. His head rested down on his chest and his skin glowed a pale white in the candlelight.
"Ron?" Harry's voice croaked. "Ron?" He was starting to feel the panic come back and his body began to shake. "C'mon, Ron, stay with us. I've got Hermione with me and Dumbledore is on his way right now."
Harry reached out and slowly touched the skin on Ron's face. It was ice cold. He could feel the tears welling up inside him and, strangely, in his mind as well, almost as if… Hermione were crying, too. He tried to listen for breath and he wanted to shake Ron and yell at him to wake up but he knew it wouldn't work. He just knew Ron was dead.
He felt himself slowly put his real hands on Hermione's hands and the next words out of his mouth shocked him more than anything he'd ever said.
"Ron, you can't leave us. We love you."
It seemed to resonate off the walls of the room and reflect in his very mind. He didn't know if he'd said it to Hermione or Ron, or both of them. It felt like time could have shattered at that moment.
He wrapped his arms around Ron, knowing that not even Dumbledore would try and remove him. But the moment his hands touched Ron, he felt himself being drawn away, descending back into his own mind. Blackness filled him completely. He felt a few tears on his cheeks but then knew no more.
Author's Notes and Disclaimer:
This story was started in February 2005, before the arrival of book six (and ultimately book seven) in the great Harry Potter series. By the time the book came out, my plot line had progressed beyond what could be easily amended to account for the events of that book. I would have liked to stay as true to the canon as possible but I felt that because this is fan fiction, I might be forgiven in making my split from the series at the end of book five. I cannot account for character attributes, spells and other small tidbits from the later canon that may show up here and there, without admitting some guilt in using them because they're either necessary, or so enjoyable I couldn't pass them up.
Now of course, this just wouldn't be complete without a thousand thanks to the brilliant J.K. Rowling, who in creating the Harry Potter universe could never have possibly known the joy and inspiration she would create in so many people. She has crafted a world into which we can escape in dreams; that takes us away from reality, if only for a short time, and into something bigger than ourselves. I, like so many others, have borrowed her characters for only a little while and I hope done justice to them. I mean no harm in using them here and would like to note that the entire contents of this work exist purely for the joy of the author and reader, with no intention of any copyright or other infringement.