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1. HERMIONE PURSUED
This story comes out of a set of most intriguing writing challenges on SQ, called collectively, Hermione's Inferno. The setting and most of the characters are Jo Rowling's. Thanks to her for letting us all bend them to our artistic needs.
Tip…tip…tip.... Her feet trotted along automatically, as her thick-heeled shoes beat out a vibrant tattoo on the narrow, wooden stairway. After six years at Hogwarts, the route from the library to the Great Hall did not need Hermione's conscious attention, and that was a good thing, for she had much to think about.
She considered her friend Harry, courageous Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived—who lived on and on, although he had put himself in harm's way so many times, trying to defeat the dark wizard Voldemort. Voldemort had killed his parents, and badly wanted to kill him. Harry had quit Hogwarts for good and was planning to head out for a final assault on that supreme villain. It was Harry's prophesied fate to be the only person in the entire Magicosm who had a chance of destroying him and scattering his minions.
Hermione would be with him, if she had anything to say about it, guarding his flank, armed with logic and reams of magical knowledge. She felt a bit short on courage in this role, but she knew at Harry's other side would be his best friend, Ron, and this thought raised her spirits her somewhat.
She thought about Ron Weasley—The Boy Who Loved—who loved her, not Lavender Brown, the girl he had snogged almost non-stop their entire sixth year. Hermione cared for him too; she knew that now. But it had taken the assassination of their Headmaster, the great Albus Dumbledore, to finally strip her soul of its petty jealousy, to make her recognize Ron's worth.
From the moment they first met, she'd written him off as a lanky, air-headed bumbler. She had cut him dead the first day she met him and continued to ignore his ideas throughout the years she knew him. She had been entirely deaf to his wicked sense of humor and blind to his talent for strategizing. She wondered now how she—for all her vaunted intelligence—had failed all that time to recognize the value of his calmness, his patience, his steadfast loyalty.
She was a different person now, she hoped. Dumbledore's death had changed her, had shocked her into realizing that time was precious, and that one should not waste it nursing wounded pride and an erudite self-image. Within herself, she forgave Ron his trysts with the amorous and clinging Lavender, though she couldn't quite bring herself to tell him so--yet. She consoled herself with the thought that their mindless groping was a kind of experiment--for Ron at least--a needed first foray into the world of sexual intimacy. He was such an innocent in that respect.
And she was touched at how it had enhanced his emotional range. During the funeral, he held her with practiced ease, smoothed her tousled hair with a gentle hand, kissed her eyes to stop the tears. She could ignore his comforting presence no longer. Ronald Weasley would be a priority on her list of studies from now on.
The least she could do was to make sure that he got back those oddments he'd left behind, that she'd gathered up from his room a few days before—a pack of assorted Dung Bombs and the twins' leftover Aging Potion among them. Then she'd tell him—and the world—that she cared for him as more than just a friend. But right now, duty called—that, and her growling tummy.
She turned the corner and dashed down wider stone steps towards the main floor.
She turned her head to glance at the wall as she flew down the great marble staircase. Were the portraits talking to her again? They had all wanted to hear details of the Death Eaters' invasion and Dumbledore's death back when she'd had no stomach for recounting those events. But now all those painted faces seemed wooden or bored or even asleep, although it was nearly noon. Perhaps they had gone into shock after the rape of Hogwarts had penetrated their collective conscious. She could hardly sleep herself for the nightmares those memories generated.
One dream in particular haunted her. It was Ron, writhing on the ground, in the throes of a Cruciatus curse, moaning “Hermiiione , help me. Make it stop, make it staaaaa--!” That scene itself was difficult enough to look at, even in sleep: the boy she was only just coming to care for wracked with muscular spasms, his body arced backwards, tense and quivering, like a drawn bow.
But then Ron's face would change suddenly into Dumbledore’s. It reminded her of Harry's description of his solitary witness of the Headmaster's death the night the Death Eaters invaded the school. She would watch as the aged professor, feeble and transfixed with fear, inched slowly backwards, wormlike, to cringe against a wall. In her dream, she too stood unable to move, as if immobilized herself by that Body-Bind the Headmaster had placed on Harry. But it was not Professor Snape approaching Dumbledore with wand raised to administer the Death Curse that made Albus Dumbledore cower like that. No, in her dream, grotesque gray shapes like zombies advanced on the once invincible Headmaster of Hogwarts, craning and clutching at him, giggling and grimacing, drooling and jerking...
She shook off the hated memory which had actually caused her to stop in her tracks.
She must get to the dining room, have a quick lunch, and get back to the library. Ron and Harry had agreed that she should stay behind at Hogwarts to find out all she could about Dark Magic, anything that might help them in their quest to rid the world of Voldemort and his evil network.
Mid-flight, she risked a glance to her left once again. This time she thought she saw a blur of a figure racing along next to her in a group photo of some humorless wizards in purple paisley robes. But the photo was pressed behind glass, so the figure was likely just her own reflection. Without further thought, she leaped off the final step and crossed the hallway. Her place was set at the end of the Gryffindor table—the only one in the whole room. All her schoolmates had gone on home, and most of the staff too.
She remembered the mob scene after Dumbledore’s funeral, students wanting to pay their last respects, weeping openly on each other’s shoulders or standing tearless and numb in line waiting to touch the bier, to lay a flower or other small memento on it, to whisper final words of thanks, regret, confession, with their parents trying to cut it short, to pull them away from this suddenly dangerous place, the one refuge they had thought safe from the Death Eaters’ predations. There had been few at the leaving banquet that night, all—even the remaining Slytherins—red-eyed, listening to Headmistress McGonagall's halting words of comfort. She had stopped short of saying the school would close, but Hermione knew the words were in her mind.
And now she sat alone in the big room, attended only by an all-consuming sense of purpose. She whispered to her plate: “Salad of greens, please, and consommé and some biscuits—and a small gillywater.”
The food did not immediately appear, as it used to. The house elves in the kitchen below her were still mourning their employer, and their magic had become rather hit-or-miss. The low point had come when she'd ordered liver and onions on Saturday night and got instead a dozen golf balls and two well-used leather uppers. Dobby, her favorite elf and Harry’s good friend, did what he could to console the other elves. But most of them had never had such a benevolent master before, and his loss left them bewildered and aimless. So their services—which Hermione was just as happy to do without, since she felt the oppression of their voluntary servitude more than most—were a bit erratic at present.
Now the meal appeared, complete and correct, and she dove into her salad. She was that hungry. The morning’s research had had promising results. There were some jinxes and hexes and evil-detection spells that would be useful if they ran into any of the Dark Lord’s minions in their quest to defeat Voldemort himself. She had promised to meet Harry and Ron at Bill and Fleur’s wedding. There they would make their final plans and she could tutor them on any additional spells she thought would be useful. None of them would be coming back to Hogwarts for their final year, so it was just as well that she was spending a little extra time here, the place that had made a real witch of her. It would be hard to leave.
After lunch she had to meet with Professor McGonagall. She would never have been allowed to just stay on indefinitely at the school without certain of the staff becoming suspicious of her intentions. So she’d volunteered to help the new Headmistress to clean up Dumbledore's office. It had been left in some disarray after the attack—though not by the Death Eaters themselves. After Aurors had rousted the last of the invaders, members of the Ministry of Magic, led by Minister Scrimgeour, had arrived and somehow foiled Dumbledore’s safeguards, passed the gargoyle unscathed, and pounded up the spiral staircase to his office. They ransacked the place, looking for clues to Dumbledore’s plans to eliminate the Dark Lord, but McGonagall, with Professors Sprout and Flitwick at her back, had driven them off before they discovered anything of importance. And Harry, who knew exactly what those plans were, had refused to cooperate, declaring himself Dumbledore’s man and no “poster-child,” as he called it, for the regime of the morally bankrupt Scrimgeour.
She started on her soup, which had a comforting steam of chicken and vegetable flavor rising above it. But as she bent over it, spoon poised, she gave a cry of terror. There was a face in the broth, staring up at her, like a reflection, but it was decidedly not her own.
Hermione, it said, quite plainly, the same voice she had heard on the stairway.
She dropped the spoon into the bowl with a clatter, spilling consomme all over the placemat.
Ouch-ch-ch-ch, said the face, quivering in the standing waves set up by the splash.
“Who are you?”
She peered into the bowl. As the agitation subsided, the face of a haggard, lank-haired man came clear. Sirius Black, Harry's godfather! Her heart leapt at the discovery. But she must be dreaming. Sirius was long dead, killed by his cousin, Bellatrix in a struggle with the Death Eaters at the Ministry the previous year. Hermione felt a brief spasm in her chest at the memory of his loss and winced. It reminded her of the grievous injury she'd sustained herself during the battle.
His face was likewise screwed up, as if in pain.
“Sirius, what--? Oh, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
Not at all. It was only the noise. Silver on china makes a rather sinus-clearing reverberation, even in the ectoplasmic ether.
“But what are you doing here? Should I try to owl Harry? He’s gone home—I mean to the Dursleys--”
No, it’s not a good idea for him, or anyone else, to know about this.
“Is it something to do with Voldemort?”
In a way, yes. But it’s more to do with Dumbledore.
He’s trapped, Hermione.
“What? You mean he’s not dead after all?”
Oh, he’s dead all right. I’d better explain. But it's a long story, and this isn’t the best place.
“I only have a few minutes to eat. Then I have to go to Dumbledore's—I mean McGonagall's office.”
“Why? Do you want to meet me there?”
Oh, no. Those stuffy old Heads would never let me share their picture frames. But while you’re there, you can retrieve something—something very important. It’s a kind of list.
I can’t go into it now, but there is a list of things Dumbledore left unfinished when he died. And it’s important that it shouldn't be destroyed or found by the wrong people. Do you think you can get it for me?
“Do you know where it is?”
No, but I’m betting that one of the old Heads will. Is there a mirror or a sparsely occupied picture frame in your bedroom?
“Yes, Lavender Brown left her wall mirror behind when her parents came to get her.”
Hermione thought back to that day. She couldn't hate Ron's first girlfriend, not any more. The poor girl had barely had time to pack the essentials with her mother sobbing and wringing her hands and her father looking all the while at his wristwatch. Lavender had missed the funeral altogether, and, wet-eyed, had given Hermione a small bouquet of dried flowers to lay on the Headmaster's tomb for her.
Good, said Sirius. Wall mirror, Sixth year girls’ dorm, Gryffindor Tower, say at five? And bring that list. And before she could object he disappeared down into the sediment at the bottom of the bowl.