Tomorrow Harry would be gone.
Hermione slid her hand into Ron's, under the table, and he gripped it with all his might, though he didn't know what was coming. She wanted to tell him. She wished she could tell him. Playing dumb would be harder than anything she'd ever done. It would be excruciating to watch Ron grieve when he realized that Harry had disappeared and that he did not have any idea how to find him. But Hermione knew it was the best way. The only way. She was the best secret keeper she knew, and Harry knew it too. And if it would protect him - all of them - then she would let Ron agonize.
There was no room for a third party in a Fidelius Charm.
"If it isn't finished before we leave here, you realize we'll have to go into hiding," Hermione had said, only a week ago. She and Harry had been in the corridor late at night, walking up to the telescopes for a bit of extra study. Or so Hermione had told Harry. They had rounded the corner and come to the tower stairs.
"Together," Harry had said immediately, glancing at her as if it had been understood all along and there was no need to bring it up.
He'd paused with his foot on the bottom stair. "What?"
"You're not coming with us."
He had given her a look of such righteous anger that she had nearly given up right there. He had always had the power to frighten her.
Hermione had reached out and gripped the banister. She had looked both ways to ensure that they were entirely alone. "Listen to me. This is for your protection -"
"We made Expecto Sacrificum for that."
"Yes. But you can't go back to the Dursleys'. You can't go to Sirius's - you can't go anywhere, Harry. You're a target. You know you are."
Harry had stood there, silent and furious, and stared at her.
"You'll go into hiding and you'll wait. I'm going to be your Secret Keeper. And I'm not going to tell anyone. Not even Ron."
Harry had gaped. "But you have to - he'll -"
"No. I want him protected too. And myself. I won't have a repeat of what happened before, and if Ron were to be the Secret Keeper… Harry, he's been taken once. I won't have him taken again. And if he is taken and they determine that he's participated in the Fidelius, they'll strip it off him and break his mind and kill him for what he knows."
"Then what about you?"
"I have better mental control. The day we leave here, Ron and I are both going back to the Burrow, and he's going to think you're coming with us. But after the Leaving Feast, you and I are going to wait for him to go to sleep, and then we'll perform the Fidelius Charm in secret. You'll leave Hogwarts straight away. You'll write a note to Ron saying that you're going to meet us - that you feel it's safer if we go separately. But you won't come. And when Ron and I get to the Burrow, we'll find another note from you, and it'll say that you're staying on your own, and that for all our sakes you couldn't warn us. And I'm going to pretend that I had no idea."
"And where should I go?"
"That's up to you. Tell me when you've decided, so that I can keep in touch with you… Harry?"
Harry had looked so pale and shaken that Hermione had been unsure how to proceed.
"What about everyone else?" he'd finally managed. "What about the Weasleys? Sirius and Remus? What about Ginny - where will she go?"
"She'll be with us."
"All of you at the Burrow? How is that safe? And how will everyone know where I am, if I'm needed? Don't I have to be there for Expecto Sacrificum? I can't just hide until it's over - it's me that's supposed to end it."
"I'm going to keep in contact with you. I'll keep you informed of everything the Order is doing. Sirius and Remus plan to keep moving around, and yes, we'll be at the Burrow."
"That's not safe enough."
"That's all there is. We can take care of ourselves."
"And I can't?"
"Please, Harry." Hermione had taken both his hands, shocked at how cold they were. "Let me do this. I'm the right person to do this, you know I am. It's going to be hard, it's going to be horrible, but it won't last forever, and this way, at the end, there's a chance we'll all still have each other. I can't lose you. I can't. I look at Sirius and Remus and I see what they've lost - what you've lost - and I can't let it happen again. You're part of my heart, Harry. Don't make me live my whole life wishing I could have done something. Just let me do it now, while there's a chance, and let me keep it quiet. You know I can. You know this is right. Because if it's you that has to end it, then you have to be alive to do it, and you won't live long once we leave here if you're not entirely protected. Please, please say yes. You have to say yes. If not for yourself, then for the people who love you and need you."
Harry had looked down at their hands, his eyes glassy. For a long time, he had not moved or spoken. And then - "Do you know how to do the charm?" he'd barely whispered.
Relief had flooded Hermione. He was much closer to agreeing, if he was asking that. "Yes. I've been studying it for months. I had a feeling we'd need it."
"How are you going to stop Ron from coming to find me and making a target of himself?"
"Tell him in your note, in no uncertain terms, that he's to do no such thing or he'll end up killing all of us including me. Make a point of that. And then leave the rest to me."
"Planned it all out, haven't you?"
"Then how… what am I supposed to…" Harry had looked up at her, clearly lost. "What am I supposed to do on my own? By myself?"
Hermione had choked and thrown her arms around him, holding him tight though he had hardly held her back. "Just be careful. I don't care what else you do. Just be careful." She had kissed his cheek and pulled away, trying not to cry and failing miserably.
"You should have told me this before," Harry had said croakily. "I hardly have any time left and I have to spend it all on the N.E.W.T.s."
"Forget the N.E.W.T.s." Hermione had laughed and sobbed together at the look of shock on his face. "Skive off your exams and play chess with Ron. I wish you could go out and play Quidditch."
"It's too unsafe."
Harry had stared away at the wall. "At least I don't have a wife and a child," he'd said in a strange, absent voice. "My dad was mad to take her, I'd never -" He had stopped short, and his cheeks had flushed dull red.
"He didn't take her," Hermione had said quietly. "She went on her own."
"I know. Never mind. Hermione… are you sure you -"
"More than sure."
"And our friends won't know this, no one's going to risk themselves to find me, you promise me that."
"I swear it."
Harry had nodded. And then immediately another cloud of anger had passed over his face and darkened his eyes. "No," he'd said grimly. "It doesn't matter if you're right - this is wrong. It doesn't matter how careful you are. They'll find you. All of you. And they'll -" He had choked on the next words. "They'll torture you," he'd managed, looking furious. Frightened. "They'll kill you to find me, and I won't leave you to that. I'm not going off and being safe and leaving you and the Weasleys to cover for me. I'm not."
"Harry…" Hermione's heart had plummeted. She had been so close. "It's as much to protect us as anything else - we need you alive. You're necessary - you know you are - just like your dad was, Harry, please - I know their bluff didn't work, but your dad knew it was necessary to hide, he knew he had to survive -"
"I didn't know him," Harry had said heatedly, "but I know why he went into hiding, Hermione, and it wasn't so he'd survive, it was so I would. I haven't got anyone to think of like that, I haven't got a wife and baby to protect, I'm free to fight like he wasn't, and I will fight, I won't stand back -"
"Oh Harry, we've been over this, you're not thinking straight, of course you'll fight. You've never stood back in your life, that's not the question, this isn't a matter of pride, if you die then he wins - listen to me -"
"I won't hide." And his voice had been as full of iron as it had ever been in all their friendship. "I won't leave. That's final."
"Please," Hermione had said desperately, knowing from his eyes that she had lost. "You have to, Harry, you have to."
But he had refused to consider it further, and after several more useless pleas, Hermione had all but given up. They couldn't keep talking about it in the corridor anyway. Someone would hear them and the option of using the Fidelius would be lost.
"Fine," she had said wearily. "I'll… I'll give you till the Leaving Feast to come up with a better idea. But if you can't, then you have to do this, because if you think I'm going to stand here and let you leave this school and walk out into the world without any sort of shield and get yourself killed right in front of my face, then you don't know me very well. I'll body bind you and make you do this, Harry. I'm not joking."
Harry had only set his mouth and shaken his head.
And that had been the end of it. Together they'd gone up to the Astronomy tower and looked up at the stars, neither of them speaking. Together they'd gone back to Gryffindor Tower to find Ron sleeping in a chair and snoring happily, Quidditch Times open across his stomach. Harry had stood over him for a moment with a look on his face that broke Hermione's heart, before he had turned and gone upstairs by himself.
And they would perform the Fidelius Charm tonight. He was still clearly furious with her, but he had not come up with a better idea, and the look on his face all afternoon had been so quietly, desperately sad that she knew he must have realized that it was his only option. He still hadn't told her where he planned to hide. Professor McGonagall had told him once that he was welcome to stay at Hogwarts as long as he needed, but when Hermione had suggested that to him, he'd only said that he wouldn't stay and jeopardize the school any longer.
She wondered where he would go.
Keeping hold of Ron's hand, Hermione glanced left, at Harry. He met her eyes with a look that said more than he could have spoken, and he swallowed so hard that she could see it. She wanted to tell him that it was all right. That he would make it - that she would make him make it. But to say anything at all was to reveal herself to Ron, who knew her far too well not to question her. She turned back to the high table.
"In my nearly seventy years at this school I have rarely seen such spirit in the face of adversity."
Hermione could hear Professor McGonagall now - the Headmistress's words had Dumbledore's ring to them. Hermione had never heard her sound so gentle. She studied the rest of her teachers' faces and saw the same gentleness in many of their eyes. Professor Vector, Professor Sprout, Professor Figg. People who had given her a whole new life and tested her in every possible way. Ways that, sometimes, they should not have tested her… Hermione searched for Snape but he was not in his chair and she wondered where he was. Perhaps he had been called to duty in the night, by Remus or Moody. Hermione wished he were there; strangely enough, she knew that she would miss him very much.
Professor McGonagall's eyes drifted to the Gryffindor table and traveled to where Harry, Ron and Hermione sat together. "I'm very proud of this seventh year class." Her voice was suspiciously scratchy. "Proud of your advancements and accomplishments, and proud of you for finishing. Though I will be very sorry to see you go."
A stifled, miserable noise made Hermione turn her head. From across the table, Ginny gazed unabashedly at Harry, her eyes full of tears as if she knew he was about to disappear, though she couldn't have known that. Several other Gryffindors glanced sympathetically at her and Hermione couldn't help but look at her too; Ginny's emotions were always oddly compelling. There was something so quietly grown-up about her these days that she almost seemed older than the rest of them, and Hermione wasn't too surprised to see that Harry was looking back at Ginny without apology. He had seemed newly conscious of her since nine days ago, when they had built Expecto Sacrificum. Not that his consciousness had come to anything. Not that it would have a chance to come to anything for a long, long time.
"I thank you for your hard work and for the gifts you have brought to this school. I wish you… safe and useful lives." Professor McGonagall looked to be working hard to keep her composure. She gripped her goblet in her hand and raised it high, her eyes shining. "Good luck to all of you."
Hermione was dimly surprised to see that Blaise Zabini was the first to stand. She would have expected him, and all the rest of the Slytherins, to stay seated throughout the toast. Perhaps she'd underestimated some of them. They were nearly all standing. So were many of the Ravenclaws. Some of the Hufflepuffs. A few of the younger Gryffindors. Hermione moved to stand, as well.
It all happened so fast that neither she nor anyone else could have prevented it. The standing students, like the parts of some terrible machine, moved with rapid precision to new positions in the hall, wands drawn, faces intent. Spells were hissed in overlapping succession, leaving Hermione dizzy and weak, unsure of what had been said.
Before she could even reach for her wand she felt her wrists bound. She didn't know how it had happened. She tried to speak and found that she was mute. Movement of any kind was nearly impossible - whatever they had done it was quick and it was total - there was no rustling in the hall, no sound of struggle. There were no screams, and the students in control did not speak or threaten. It was an elegant attack. Hermione could only move her neck a little, and her eyes, which she did frantically, taking in the scene in its frightening totality.
The students were frozen in their seats, hands, bodies and mouths clearly bound by some very serious magic. The younger attackers and most of the standing Hufflepuffs that Hermione could see stood guard at the lower sections of the House tables, where they oversaw the younger students. The older Slytherins and Ravenclaws had taken on the more difficult target areas. There was a student manning every teacher. A student on every student who might have posed a serious threat. Across the table, the tip of a wand was being held to Neville Longbottom's throat. Another student covered Parvati. Lavender. Seamus and Dean. Crabbe and Goyle and Millicent Bulstrode, along with two sixth year Slytherin boys, stood in a motionless row behind their hostages, blank-faced, as if awaiting further instructions.
A sixth year Slytherin girl had her wand to Ginny's temple, but Ginny did not even look afraid; her eyes were still on Harry, much as they had been just a moment ago. Her expression had barely changed, except that now she seemed to be watching his chest. Hermione could not turn to see it, but she knew, with a sickening thud of her gut, that someone must have had a wand on Harry. And one on Ron. She could hear both their breathing - heavy and ragged, voiceless and furious.
She felt the tip of a wand slide across her own throat and she swallowed the bile that threatened to rise. She did not know who her aggressor was - and then a quiet, mocking laugh over her head made Hermione wish she could bring back both her elbows with enough force to break Pansy Parkinson's legs.
"Hufflepuffs out first." The voice was Blaise Zabini's and he was on her left. At Ron's back. "Ravenclaws in a line behind them. Teachers next. And then the Gryffindors - Potter last."
Hermione wished she knew who was at Harry's back.
"To the doors."
To the doors - then they were being taken outside - but for what? Who was waiting?
You know who's waiting. Just like fifth year. Only this time we can't fight. And Dumbledore's not here to shut them out.
Hermione saw the captive Hufflepuffs rise, terror and the shock of betrayal written in their faces as they were led away by their own housemates. Her heart went out to the little ones, whose tears coursed down their cheeks as they were marched away to the doors of the Great Hall. She heard them leave. She realized with grim satisfaction that, in order to usher them outside, the attackers would have to give them back the use of their legs. But then again, she wondered how helpful it would really be to run when she had no hands to pull her wand and no voice to say her spells. Better to follow until she could make her way free. If she could make her way free. She began to concentrate on freeing her body from whatever spell it was under, but it was not Imperius, and didn't seem like it could be broken through sheer strength of will.
"Take the Ravenclaws."
The Ravenclaws were marched silently out by many of their fellows, looking appalled and horrified. Their own had turned on them and they had no voices to express how they felt about it, but their eyes were dark with fury and fear and loathing. Dim with tears. Hermione heard a harsh, faraway voice telling different students to go different ways, when they reached the doors. She had no idea what it meant.
One of them has to know a way to break this. One of them has to be able to do something about this.
But they filed out in a long, grim line, each looking as if he or she was working inwardly to break what could not be broken.
Snape. Hermione's heart soared. Snape isn't in here. He'll be able to stop this, if only he sees. And he'll see. No one could miss this.
"Gryffindors. Keep Potter at the back of the line."
Hermione's legs felt as if they'd suddenly thawed; they tingled and ached like they'd been asleep for hours. She stood on them, though it was painful, and turned left towards the doors.
Her blood went cold.
Professor Sinistra had her wand to the back of Harry's head. Harry's shoulders rose and fell rapidly as he was escorted out of his place in line and taken to stand behind Ron, who had shuffled into line behind Hermione.
As long as we three are close together, we'll be fine. As long as they don’t think to separate us, we'll be fine.
They were taken to the doors and more than once Hermione thought of running for it, but she knew it was no good to run. Not yet. The Gryffindors queued up at the doors, and one by one they were evaluated and sent one way or the other. Hermione watched and listened, baffled.
"Considine, Ashley. Right."
The little second year turned right. Into the castle - not towards the grounds - Hermione wondered what was happening.
"Hammond, Robert. Left."
The fifth year boy went left, towards the entrance stairs. So he was being taken outside. Hermione narrowed her eyes, trying to understand.
"Anderson, Craig. Right." A boy in Ginny's class disappeared.
"Robinson, Sharon. Left. Bumgardner, Emma." The Slytherin at the door snorted. "Right, unfortunately. Squire, Beth. Right. Sheehy, Kathleen. Right. Beam, Polly. Left."
They were all in Ginny's class. All of them girls Hermione knew well enough. And as the separation procedure began to make sense to her, Hermione began to feel so sick that she wondered if she would throw up.
Sharon Robinson's Muggle-born. Polly Beam's Muggle-born. And Robert Hammond… Robert Hammond is half-blood.
"Weasley, Ginny. Ri-"
"Left," called out Blaise, from behind them in the hall. "Send the Weasleys left with the rest of the rubbish."
Hermione watched Ginny disappear with her red head held high and her profile strangely unperturbed.
"Thomas, Dean. Left. Brown, Lavender. Left. Finnegan, Seamus. Left. Longbottom, Neville. Right."
Neville lifted his trembling chin, turned left, and marched out. The boy at the door tried to stop him.
"Let him go," Blaise called, sounding unconcerned. "His loss, and certainly not ours."
"Patil, Parvati. Right."
Parvati was shaking. But she turned left as well, and Hermione felt a surge of real love for her.
"Idiots," Blaise muttered.
"Granger, Hermione." The Slytherin boy was in fifth year. Or fourth. Hermione wasn't sure. But he was tall and he looked down at her with a smile of twisted pleasure, tapping his quill against a scroll of parchment. "Well. Look who's quiet, for once. And look who's going left."
Hermione stayed where she was. They were being sent left to die, she knew that. Separated for whatever slaughter waited on the lawns. Just as clearly, she knew that she was not going to die - not here, today. Not like this, not simply because of her blood. She hesitated, and she tried to work her mouth.
Her heart began to pound. She'd said it. Either she was breaking the spell, or it was wearing off.
Behind her, Ron stepped up so close that she could feel the whole of him against her back and she leaned against him for support, wrenching at her hands with all her mental might. She only needed her wand and her voice - and she had her voice.
"What are you waiting for?" Blaise shouted. "Do what you need to do, but send her out."
The Slytherin boy dropped his parchment and pulled his wand. He pointed it at Hermione's legs and muttered a spell that made her shout with pain. She buckled and fell back. Had Ron not been there, she would have crumpled.
"If you don't want it again, you'd better be on your way," snarled the boy. And beneath his snarl there was a rumbling noise that did not come from him. It seemed to be rising from the depths of the castle, deep and frightening.
"No." It was all Hermione was capable of saying, but she planned to say it until there was no fight left in her. The floor beneath her feet began to tremble slightly, as if an earthquake were beginning.
The boy narrowed his eyes at her. "Worse then," he said quietly, and pointed his wand at her stomach. But his fingers were shaking. He looked at them in confusion, and then around at the walls of the corridor, fear obvious in his eyes. The rumbling had grown too loud to ignore and the floor was really shaking now. Hermione leaned against Ron again, desperate to stay on her feet.
Shouting - loud, frantic shouting from the lawns made the boy's head turn. He peered down the corridor. "Zabini," he yelled worriedly. "Something's going on out here, you'd better -"
"You'd better bloody well send them out there. They're what's being waited for you total waste of - Sinistra, get them out of here -"
But Blaise's voice became a scream of pain. His scream was quickly followed by a roar from the boy in the corridor who had been sorting the students; he clutched his head and his eyes rolled; he curled in a ball on the ground and begged for mercy. Hermione watched in horror, and was about to run, when the painful screams were drowned out by a much more chilling noise - a noise like thousands of bones breaking together. It came from over their heads. Hermione whirled and so did Ron and Harry - Sinistra had turned as well, and taken two steps back into the Great Hall, her wand hand outstretched.
The enchanted ceiling was cracking. Splitting. Huge chunks of painted stone were falling from it, dropping to the floor like swirling bits of cloud, then smashing to the floor and flying into thousands of shards. Stone pummeled the tables, the teachers' chairs, the beautiful windows. And beneath the splitting dome, Blaise Zabini lay twitching, his mouth open in a silent scream.
An enormous slab of sky broke away from the ceiling. It tumbled fast - there was no time to stop it - and it crushed Zabini into the stone floor before Hermione had the sense to turn away. She gagged and pressed her mouth shut - she really was going to throw up -
"Hurry." Professor Sinistra had turned her wand on them, but, to Hermione's shock, the professor only set their hands free. "Hurry - they're deliberately destroying the hall from the outside - they didn't want anyone to have an opportunity to hide." She pushed Harry, who stood dumbstruck, towards the door. "Go!" she urged. "Go - you're needed, all of you. I'm right behind you."
They ran flat out towards the entrance doors. Hermione tried to process, as they raced for the entrance doors, what had just happened. Had Professor Sinistra cursed Zabini and his fellow? She must have. Had she been working both sides, like Snape? Perhaps. How many more secrets were there - when would they be shocked again - or would they ever see each other after this? Was this the end?
They paused at the front doors and glanced at each other for a split second that was an eternity. They pulled their wands.
Ron shoved the doors open.
Hermione saw several members of the Order already fighting - several students already freed and battling Death Eaters - a few younger students lying horribly still and quiet on the grass… And then the flashing white light of a curse came hurtling towards her and she spun to deflect it, forgetting everything but survival - survival - survival -
"Preoccuposis!" she shouted, her voice high-pitched and terrified - her heart beating so quickly that it was painful - she could hear Ron's raw shouts behind her, Ginny's distant and clinically chanted hexes, Harry's ironclad incantations. But she could not turn to see what they were warding off, because there was another curse coming at her and this one was brighter - faster - more frightening -
Hermione woke with a start, breathing hard. She sat up and hugged her knees, disoriented, and she looked around the room. She was in the front room of Lupin Lodge; a book lay tumbled on the floor and someone had put a blanket over her. Crookshanks was perched on the top of the sofa, staring down at her as if he knew to be worried. She must have fallen asleep while reading - there was no battle here. No Death Eaters, no crumbling school, no curses. She was all right. It was all over. She buried her face in her knees for a moment, amazed at how real it could seem, in sleep. She wondered if it would always be so vivid and imagined that it would. Those were not the sorts of memories that lost their color. Ever.