After thoroughly investigating the Room of Requirement, Harry suggested that they sit down and have a quick meeting to discuss the new-found information. Dobby happily brought them two flasks of pumpkin juice before leaving. Harry then filled the twins in on the supposed prophecy and the request he made of Dumbledore concerning Sirius. After a moment of silence followed by a fury of questions from the twins, Harry deflected the conversation off of the life or death prophecy, back to finding Hermione's parents and Charlie. As for Tonks, they agreed that until they had more information, it was impossible to determine whether her disappearance was related to the others. Hermione strongly persisted that they should try to find out something about this Valley of the Mills, because there had to be a reason for Tonks going there.
Hermione also found several good books there about prophecies and accidental magic, including Artifacts of Magic, which covered how magic often leaves traces of itself on objects that it touches. She found that since confiding in Harry, her logical thinking had returned in spades. She loved Harry, but Professor Flitwick was right; she had to stop leaning on him to find what made her a Gryffindor and find it within herself. Hermione was always determined to help her friend achieve his potential, but now she needed to, not only to help him, but also to push herself, if they were to find her parents before the inevitable happened.
Sunday, after breakfast, Harry had noticed the upswing in what he called the "Old Hermione", but she waved off his smirk-filled comments as she tediously poured over the books she had found in the Room of Requirement the day before. Meanwhile, Fred and George had retreated to the boy's dorms to check whether there was any tea news to report. Tea news was their code word for anything gleamed from the extendible listening devices disguised as a goblet at the Order's Headquarters and a tea-cup in the staff lounge of the school. To their dismay, nothing new or interesting was being discussed.
Professor McGonagall had handed out time tables earlier in the day, which Hermione had scanned thoroughly noting the double Defense and double Potions slated for tomorrow. In less than one day, they would have to be ready for both Snape and Umbridge, followed by their first night of detention, which left Hermione wondering whether Harry would be able to cope and what the consequences might be if he couldn't.
The interference of lunch, then dinner along with the threat of a long day ahead meant that Hermione did not get a chance to finish her books, which resulted in a very moody departure to the girl's dorms. She wasn't trying to be distant with Harry, who had sat beside her at first to lend his support, but she needed to focus on some very complex theories. Eventually, Harry wandered off to chat with the twins, Neville, and Ron. Ginny came over to check on her, but immediately noted the "bookworm" at work, excusing herself to go chat with the others as well.
Hermione didn't foresee any trouble, upon arriving in the girl's dorms, of getting some quiet time. Lavender was already there, but still looked quite put off at the sight of Hermione, which suited her right proper. The first night back, Lavender and Parvati had descended upon her, desperate for gossip about what happened on the train. Hermione had satisfied their longing with details of the event, hoping to dispel the rumors and curb their sudden interest in her. Last night however, the pair descended upon her again, this time looking for gossip about her and Harry. When Lavender's persistence finally got the best of her, Hermione admitted they were seeing each other and that any details were none of their business, so they could just kindly bugger off. Since that moment, the pair hadn't spoken a word to her. Hermione finally laid her head down to rest, but found it nearly impossible to turn her mind off, leading to some very disturbing dreams.
Monday started off exactly as Hermione had predicted. After helping a couple of first years find their way to class, Hermione made her way to join Harry for the morning's Double Defense class. Professor Umbridge proved to be even worse than Lockhart, but in a purposely sinister way. Umbridge's idea of Defense class was from a theoretical level only. The use of magic in her classroom was, according to Umbridge, completely unnecessary; that the Ministry believed a theoretical knowledge would suffice. This led to several outbursts from fellow Gryffindors, including Dean Thomas, Ron, and even Neville; however, both Harry and Hermione sat quietly, earning incredulous looks from Ron. Professor Umbridge also seemed taken aback, as though she expected to at least earn a glance of Harry's famous temper when she stated, after a pointed statement from Ron, that You-Know-Who had not returned and that anyone who said so was a liar. Hermione knew that it had taken a lot of self-control from Harry, based by the vice his hand had become upon the desk.
Potions however, proved to be too much for Harry.
"Once again, Mr Potter, you have proven that fame isn't everything." sneered Snape, waving his wand over Harry's cauldron, vanishing the contents within. "No grade today, Potter, unless you count zero as a score."
"Please Harry," pleaded Hermione in his ear "don't say a thing. He's just angry still over the train."
Hermione watched as he packed away his things, hoping against hope. She quickly packed up her belongings, tucked away her cauldron after placing a vile at the edge of the desk, and ready to escort Harry to the door when she heard him speak.
"What's wrong Professor? Afraid I made a better potion than you?" asked Harry, his temper boiling over.
Hermione grasped the bridge of her nose with her left hand and sighed as she awaited the explosion. It felt as though the temperature dropped ten degrees in the room.
"Damn." muttered Ron behind her.
"WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME, POTTER?" roared Snape, his eyes flashing dangerously.
"So you can stopper death, but you cannot unstopper your ears then?" asked Harry defiantly.
"TEN POINTS FROM GRYFFINDOR AND ANOTHER WEEK'S DETENTION, POTTER!" roared Snape, sweeping around from behind his desk.
Hermione gripped Harry's right arm while Ron gripped his left, forcefully dragging him out of Snape's classroom before Harry could say another word. Once in the corridor, the door safely shut behind them, Hermione rounded on him.
"What the bloody hell were you thinking?" hissed Hermione.
Ron, noting Hermione's tone, quickly excused himself.
"He had no right –" started Harry but Hermione cut him off.
"Now you have another week's detention to deal with! Forgetting the bigger picture, are we?" hissed Hermione.
Harry bit his lower lip, looking very sheepishly at her. He closed his eyes then simply nodded. They ascended the stairs from the dungeons in silence, Harry likely too scared he might receive another lashing while Hermione was too angry to speak. He followed her as she headed to the library, but halted her short, suggesting they use the Room of Requirement instead. After a moment, she agreed and they headed for the seventh floor to spend their free period. When they reached the stretch of blank wall, Harry suggested that she practice opening the room, lest she needed to without him. Upon her third pass, the door appeared as it had before.
When they entered the room, she immediately noticed the subtle differences. For starters, there were far more books than before, a table full of empty parchment, pots of ink, and plenty of quills. The most noted difference sat nestled in the far left corner, which Harry pointed out first.
"What's that over there?" he asked, pointing to the corner.
There, sat perched on a stand, was a small violin, complete with bow and rosin. She froze as she stared at it; so similar and yet so different. Absentmindedly, she discarded her backpack then walked over and picked up the violin, running her hand over the scroll.
"Do you play?" asked Harry softly.
Hermione nodded slowly, unable to tear her gaze from the instrument. Her father had suggested that she take up the violin when she was a little girl. It had helped her to cope with years of schooling in the muggle world without friends. She had been an outcast and it had been her only friend; its soothing tones and the magical melodies she had played brought her peace in the darkest of times.
She felt Harry's hands on her shoulders as he whispered, "Play something for me".
She lifted the violin to her shoulder, Harry's hands leaving at once, placed the bow on the strings and wondered whether she would need to tune it first. She played a few chords, realizing that it was in perfect pitch, then closed her eyes and began to play a song that she hadn't played in years. The song filled her with peace once more; wiping away her fears and replacing them with hope. The song seemed to swell within her the longer she played, as she swayed to the tune. Hermione almost expected to see her own room at home when she opened her eyes once more as she finished the final chord. She turned to look at Harry, wondering what he thought of her playing. Harry was standing there, his mouth gaping and eyes wide in disbelief. She blushed slightly, about to ask what he thought when Harry spoke.
"That was the song that Fawkes hummed in Dumbledore's office!"
Hermione stood there, unable to speak, reflecting Harry's look of shock. Why would Fawkes have hummed that song; how would he have known, thought Hermione. Then again, Harry could be mistaken. It's not like the bird had hummed very long, according to his account of his meeting with Dumbledore. Harry must be mistaken.
Just as she had finished rationalizing the statement and was about to try to convince Harry, he gasped, looking past her at the corner. She spun around and there, perched on the stand where the violin had sat moments earlier, was Fawkes the phoenix. The great bird bowed its head low towards Hermione.
"I think he wants you to play again." whispered Harry.
To her amazement, Fawkes slowly nodded his head, as if to agree with Harry. She placed the violin back onto her shoulder, closed her eyes and began to play the song once more. As she played, Fawkes began to sing, his melody in perfect step and pitch with hers. The song filled the room, penetrating deep inside her soul, filling her with hope, courage, and love. It gave her the sensation that a warm blanket had been wrapped about her, engulfing her; protecting her. On and on she played, never wanting the music to end; the feeling of protection to cease. As though she was now following the phoenix's lead, they slowly came to an end on the same chord. She was afraid that the feeling of protection and safety would fade with the music however, as she lowered the violin, she felt Harry's arm around her shoulders; the sensation now harbored by his touch.
"Thank you, Fawkes." said Harry, bowing to the magnificent bird.
The great bird bowed again before lifting its beautiful head then, with a flash of fire and feathers, Fawkes disappeared, a single feather floating down towards them. Hermione placed the violin beneath her arm and snatched the feather out of the air. She studied the beauty of it before making to give it to Harry, who held up a hand in protest.
"That's for you. I already have one." he said, withdrawing his wand from inside his robes. "Phoenix core. A tail feather from Fawkes."
Harry began to hum the song he had just heard, closing his eyes for a moment, smiling slightly.
"Hermione, what's the name of that song?" asked Harry, opening his eyes and looking at her.
"It's an old folk song." replied Hermione. "Surely you've heard it before."
"Hermione, unless it was on the telly, it's highly unlikely I ever heard it at the Dursleys." said Harry flatly.
"Well, it's called The Skye Boat Song." said Hermione.
"You play it beautifully." said Harry, smiling.
"Thank you, Harry." said Hermione, returning his smile. "But how would you know if you've never heard it before." she said with a smirk.
Hermione placed the violin back onto its stand, wondering if would be there the next time they entered the room. She then placed the beautiful feather inside her robes, feeling the unnatural warmth it gave. Walking over to the largest table in the room, she picked up her discarded backpack, withdrawing several books and placing them upon its polished surface. Harry joined her as she took a seat, watching her sort through the books. She couldn't help but smile under his vigilant gaze. With so many issues and so many questions arising from Harry's meeting with Dumbledore, Hermione could have buried her head in books for weeks, looking for solutions. However, she knew that they didn't have weeks, so she decided to do something very out of character; she decided to put some faith in her gut and address the feeling that was burning in her chest.
"Harry, we need to discuss what's happening with us." said Hermione, staring into his eyes.
"Okay." said Harry calmly. "What would you like to discuss?"
"Harry, we've known each other for four years now and I know that we've only been a couple for a little over a month, but I mean it when I say, I love you." said Hermione, a tear falling from her right eye.
"I love you too, Hermione." said Harry, taking her hands in his. "Surely you must know this."
"I do." replied Hermione. "And I know that you said this so-called prophecy says that either you or Voldemort must die and I'm also aware that if you continue to help me find my parents –"
"That I'm going to have to face Voldemort again?" said Harry, finishing her statement. "Hermione, from the moment I said I would help you find them, I knew that I was going to face him again, even before I heard the prophecy."
"I CAN'T LOSE YOU!" wailed Hermione, throwing herself into his arms.
"You're not going to lose me, Hermione." replied Harry, rubbing her back to console her.
"Okay," sniffed Hermione, looking up at him "how do you plan to survive?"
"I – uh, well –" stuttered Harry under such a direct question.
"SEE! YOU HAVEN'T EVEN GIVEN IT A THOUGHT, HAVE YOU HARRY POTTER?" screamed Hermione, shoving herself away from him. "YOU JUST PLAN ON GOING AND FACING HIM, SAVING ALL OF US BY DOING SOMETHING SELFLESS LIKE A DAMN HEROIC FOOL!"
"I HAVE NO INTENTIONS ON DYING! NOT NOW THAT I HAVE SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR!" shouted Harry, before taking a moment to compose himself.
"I was ready to die in that graveyard." he said calmly. "There was nothing but small glimpses of happiness amongst a lifetime of misery for me up till that point. I regretted not dying there; not joining my parents, but then you sent that patronus and suddenly I had someone who needed me. Someone I cared for that, until that day, I thought would never care for me the way I secretly wanted her to."
Harry took Hermione's right hand in his and caressed the back of it with his lips. "Now, I'm ready to live. This past month I've had more happiness than misery, all because of you."
Hermione sobbed at his words however, it wasn't because of sorrow, but because of joy. He wanted to live! It was the only thing that she needed to hear. She quickly pulled herself together, rubbing her eyes with her sleeves.
"You okay?" asked Harry.
"I'm sorry, Harry. I just needed to hear you say that." sniffed Hermione.
Harry smiled before he kissed her softly, cupping her face with his hands. "I love you, Hermione Granger." he whispered.
"I love you too." whispered Hermione. "Now, how do you plan to survive?"
"Not sure." replied Harry. "What I am sure of, is that Voldemort won't make the same mistake twice."
"Does he know how you survived last time?" asked Hermione.
"I dunno." replied Harry simply.
"Well, we're just going to have to assume that he does and figure out some way for you to surprise him." said Hermione. "It seems he's in a bit of a habit of underestimating you. That underestimation could turn to paranoia and that's where we need to capitalize."
"Hermione, what happened in the graveyard was just luck. If it hadn't been for our wands sharing the same core –"
"And you believe that to be luck?" asked Hermione.
"I don't believe in fate, Hermione." said Harry frustratedly. "Not anymore."
"Neither do I." replied Hermione. "I don't think it was luck either though, that you and Voldemort happen to have wands that share a core. I think that your scar has something to do with it; matter of fact, I'm certain it does."
"The artifact Dumbledore spoke of." said Harry flatly.
"Exactly – Harry, I've been reading up about artifacts of magic," said Hermione, prodding a small leather-bound book with her index finger "but never has there been a case where an artifact was left on a person."
"So Dumbledore was wrong?" asked Harry hopefully.
"Not necessarily, Harry. You see, the killing curse is the most powerful of the unforgivable curses," began Hermione in her lecturing tone; rolling her eyes at Harry's smirk "and you're the only person in written history to have survived it. If any curse, hex, or jinx could leave an artifact of magic upon a person, it would be that one."
"So I have an artifact of Voldemort's magic in me?" asked Harry, shivering slightly.
"I believe so." replied Hermione. "It would explain why you speak parseltongue and why your scar burns when he is near. It may also explain your recent displays of wandless magic."
"But my scar hasn't burned in over a month; not even tingled." said Harry, looking anxious.
"Well, that's the problem. Artifacts don't just disappear, Harry. Over time, some objects eventually absorb the artifact. Special enchantments on goblin armor, for example, inbind that which makes – it – stronger.." said Hermione, trailing off at Harry's gaze.
"So you think my body is absorbing some of Voldemort's magic?" asked Harry, his eyes narrowing slightly, the brilliant green dimming.
"Not your body," replied Hermione hesitantly "but more like – your soul."
Harry closed his eyes and bit his lower lip, leaning back into his chair. She could tell his mind was hard at work, on what though, she wasn't sure. It was almost unnatural how his eyes seemed to change with his mood. She was worried whether an artifact of Voldemort's magic being absorbed by his soul would change him. Hermione place her books back into her bag, thinking that this discussion was probably over.
"Why now?" asked Harry, not opening his eyes. "Why would this happen now after all these years?"
"I dunno, Harry." said Hermione softly. "There's no real history to work from."
"Always more questions." said Harry, opening his eyes; allowing Hermione to see those brilliant green orbs again. "Then again, if some of his magic is being added to mine, allowing me to speak parseltongue and causing this 'wandless magic', there truly is a silver lining to every dark cloud."
Harry raised his hands, as though in surrender, before placing his right hand on the table. Hermione watched him closely, for his face was full of mischief. Her look of curiosity was immediately replaced by that of shock, as a quill at the end of the table flew across it to Harry's awaiting hand.
"HARRY!" shouted Hermione. "How did you do that?"
"Figured it out last night in my dorm." replied Harry, looking thoroughly delighted at her reaction. "I knocked over a goblet of pumpkin juice Dobby had brought me; the juice spilling all over my sheets and pillow. I was really tired, so it made me furious. I reached down to pick up the goblet and it flew into my hand. Once I realized what had happened, I laid the goblet back down and practiced for several hours until I was able to move the goblet. Only problem is, I cannot do it without getting angry."
Hermione sat there, trying to comprehend what Harry was telling her. Bursts of magic was one thing, but when she told him he needed to control it; she meant to try to stop it from occurring. Only great and powerful wizards, far more experienced than Harry, could control wandless magic. Was this then, the final confirmation of the existence of an artifact, thought Hermione.
"Help him learn how to channel it and he will be able to crush anyone that tries to hurt us or our parents!" said that tiny voice in the back of her mind.
"Hermione?" said Harry, snapping his fingers in front of her face.
Hermione jerked, as if in a trance, lost in her thoughts. She was shocked to still be sitting in the Room of Requirement with Harry. He was sitting there looking at her, extremely concerned.
"I didn't mean to scare you." said Harry, apologetically.
"Y-You didn't." said Hermione. "So you can perform a summoning charm without a wand?"
"Not exactly." replied Harry, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's kinda like I feel it in my hand and suddenly waves of energy race over my skin; pulling the thing I'm imagining to me."
"What else can you do?" asked Hermione, trying not to sound too anxious.
"That's it right now." said Harry. "All I've tried so far is retrieving things."
"I wonder if you could produce a shield charm?" asked Hermione, thinking hard. "That could be really useful."
"I guess that's something we can try later." replied Harry, smiling broadly. "Right now, we need to discuss Draco before we head to dinner."
"What about Draco?" spat Hermione.
"Well, the little git should be hunting you down soon for more juicy tidbits about me, right?" asked Harry, causing Hermione to snarl. "We need to decide what we can feed him that will benefit us."
"Well, he knows you went to see Dumbledore, so we could work off that." suggested Hermione.
"Yeah, but it needs to be something to thoroughly stir the cauldron; something so –"
Harry trailed off; a triumphant grin showing across his face. Hermione arched an eyebrow at this, knowing it meant trouble.
"You'll tell him I'm desperately searching for information about the Valley of the Mills!" exclaimed Harry, clasping his hands together.
Hermione's brow furrowed immediately. "Harry, what are you thinking? That information came from the Order! If Snape was to inform Dumbledore that you were looking for the Valley of the Mills, he would think that Sirius somehow told you!"
"Oh – yeah, didn't think of that." replied Harry, scratching his head; his grin fading.
"I do understand your objective though and it's a good idea, but we need to do it in a way that won't place anyone in danger." said Hermione, her mind going a kilometer a minute.
"Hang on!" said Harry, his eyes bright. "If you're correct, then Dumbledore already knows or will soon know that we know about Charlie's disappearance!"
"You're right!" said Hermione, slapping herself on the forehead. "How could I be so thick! I was so worried about not telling Draco anything damaging, I forgot about Snape being a spy!"
Suddenly, Harry scowled, his hands clenched into fists, his body visibly shaking. Hermione heard the table groan as if a heavy weight had been placed upon it, though no one was touching it. She was immediately concerned; he was scaring her.
"What's wrong, Harry?" asked Hermione timidly.
"Which also means," replied Harry through gritted teeth "if Snape is truly loyal to Dumbledore, that Dumbledore knows about your parents!"
"True," said Hermione quietly "if Snape is loyal to Dumbledore however, you've always doubted Snape's loyalty and now, so do I."
"Well, there's one way to find out." said Harry bitterly.
"How's that?" asked Hermione, her brow furrowing.
"When was the last time you heard from Krum?" asked Harry, to Hermione's surprise.
"Victor? I received a letter from him right before we left Grimmauld Place." replied Hermione, curiously.
"Excellent. You're next bit of intel for Draco is that, via a foreign correspondent, I now believe that Charlie is near a place called the Valley of the Mills." said Harry, a very shrewd look on his face. "This way, if word gets back to Dumbledore, he won't be able to blame Sirius for my knowledge, plus we'll know if the Order is aware of your correspondences. If they are, that means we may have another issue; a Weasley issue."
Hermione bit her lower lip as she pondered his statement, ignoring Harry's increasingly annoying smirk. She was uncertain what such a statement might have on Voldemort, however the effect on Dumbledore would be just short of earthshaking. If such was already suspected, the Headmaster would be beside himself in disbelief that Harry's foreign contact was as good as theirs. Of coarse, if Ron has been running his mouth, he would immediately assume Harry was using her connections with Victor. On the other hand, if Dumbledore knew it to be false, his reaction could be quite interesting or even alarming. It will also let them know how much Dumbledore tells the Order by the chatter in meetings to follow.
"Alright Hermione," said Harry "where did I mess up?"
"I'm not sure – I mean, are you sure you're ready for the fallout, no matter the reaction?" asked Hermione.
"Absolutely." said Harry firmly. "I'm so ready, in fact, that I almost can't wait for that foul git Malfoy to make his bid."
Hermione could see the years of dammed up frustration in his face. He was tired of the secrets; tired of being left in the dark. Now, knowing that his entire life had been a living hell, all because of a so-called prophecy, was hardening Harry. Since the meeting with Dumbledore, Hermione had noticed a subtle change in him. He was more focused; more determined; more willing to take risks and that was what scared her. What was worse, she wasn't sure; the reluctant Harry or the vengeful Harry.
"What will you do if you ever find out that Dumbledore knows about my parents abduction?" asked Hermione.
"I dunno yet." replied Harry simply. "What about you? What would you do?"
"As long as we're together, I wouldn't care if we ever returned to this castle." replied Hermione. "I want an education, but this isn't the only place to get it."
Harry quickly rose to his feet, alarming Hermione slightly, before extending his hand for her to join him. She stood, gathered up her things, and accepted his hand. Together, they walked towards the door that led to the seventh floor corridor. Harry stopped and checked the Marauder's Map, making sure the corridor was empty, before proceeding to open the door. Hermione glanced at the violin one more time, her heart swelling with song, as they left the Room of Requirement hand-in-hand.
They descended the staircases and had almost made it to the second floor when an unnaturally girlish "hem, hem" caused them to stop and turn around. Standing at the top of the steps was Professor Umbridge.
"Ms Granger – Mr Potter, where have you two been?" asked Professor Umbridge, in a sickeningly sweet tone.
"Studying." replied Harry calmly.
"But you weren't in the library." said Umbridge, a curious tone to her voice.
"We were in the Gryffindor common room." lied Hermione.
"Really? I asked Mr Weasley and he said that you weren't there." said Umbridge in a delicate tone that was full of venom.
"We were hunched down on the couch." replied Harry. "Ron probably didn't look too hard."
"Oh yes, the love birds." cooed Umbridge sweetly, making Hermione want to vomit. "Can I assume that you two are headed down for dinner?"
"Yes Professor." replied Harry calmly.
"Mr Potter," said Umbridge, taking a couple of steps down the staircase closer to them "just know that your attitude in my class today didn't fool me for one instant."
"What do you mean, Professor?" asked Harry calmly, gripping Hermione's hand tighter.
"You didn't say a thing today when I told the truth about You-Know-Who and yet you're the reason the Headmaster claims that he has returned." said Umbridge coldly, her girlish tone all but absent.
"You are entitled to your opinion, Professor." said Harry coldly. "The truth will come out in the end."
"Yes it will, Mr Potter, and when it does you will be expelled from this school." said Umbridge, a cold smile creasing her squat face.
Hermione made to say something but Harry squeezed her hand and she bit back her retort.
"By the time the truth does come out, Professor," said Harry, a dangerous smile curving his face "there may not be a school to be expelled from."
"Dumbledore has truly brainwashed you, Mr Potter, hasn't he." said Umbridge in an almost sympathetic tone.
"Good day, Professor." said Harry, smiling as he turned to leave; pausing momentarily. "By-the-way, I know it's been quite a while since you were a student here, so I am compelled to warn you to watch out for a false step on one of the staircases. Wouldn't want you to fall and injure yourself."
"How – thoughtful." replied Umbridge through gritted teeth. "Would you mind telling me where this step might be?"
"I said that I felt compelled to warn you, not tell you where it was." said Harry, smiling coldly.
With that, Harry and Hermione left a seething Umbridge standing on the staircase, watching them descend towards the Great Hall. Hermione wasn't sure if it was wise to start hostilities with the Ministry witch so soon however, she had to admit to herself that she desperately wanted to rip the toad's heart out.
Just as they reached the doors of the Great Hall, two figures grasped them on the shoulders from behind. Harry and Hermione, in one fluid motion, withdrew their wands, while rounding on their unknown adversaries.
"Easy mates!" said George, throwing his hands into the air.
"We come in peace!" said Fred, taking a step backwards.
"What the bloody hell were you two thinking?" hissed Harry.
"We could have hexed you!" said Hermione, a bit flustered.
"We wanted to catch you two." said Fred.
"Before you entered the Great Hall." said George.
"We have tea news." said the twins in unison.
Hermione looked around for signs of anything living or dead as they moved quietly away from the entrance to the Great Hall and into a dark offset. Harry quickly studied the Marauder's Map before giving the all clear to speak.
"So what's going on?" asked Hermione, feeling anxious.
"Tonks is back." replied Fred apprehensively.
"Did she find Charlie?" asked Harry in a hollow voice.
"Not sure." sighed George, looking at Fred darkly.
"She's in no condition to tell." said Fred.
Hermione covered her mouth, afraid to hear any more.
"She's still alive, isn't she?" asked Harry quietly.
"Barely." replied Fred.
"Someone allowed her to live is how Mad-Eye put it." said George.
"She's at St Mungo's now." said Fred.
"Did she say anything?" asked Harry calmly.
"Just keeps saying the same thing over and over." replied George.
"Charlie." said the twins in unison.
The buzz in the air when they entered the Great Hall was electric. Students at every table were huddled in groups, chatting loudly. Ron spotted Harry, Hermione, and the twins approaching the Gryffindor table and stood up excitedly, motioning for them to join his group.
"Special edition of the Daily Prophet!" he shouted. "Come on! You won't believe it until you read it!"
Harry felt no warmth at the sight of his old friend, yet he managed a smile as they joined the group. Dean, Ginny, Neville, and Ron were huddled around a copy of the Daily Prophet. They made room, pushing the paper towards Harry, as he and Hermione sat down, the twins taking seats next to Neville and Ginny. Harry could not remember ever seeing a special edition of the wizard paper before and wasn't too sure if he was prepared to read it's contents.
To his surprise the front of the paper was filled, almost entirely, with a large picture of a young man in regal apparel, smiling and laughing at someone unseen. Harry could almost hear Sirius' barking laugh as this younger version stared back at him. The headline made Harry's mouth gape as he read it; Ministry Calls For Immediate Exoneration Of Sirius Black! Harry was amazed and angered by how fast Dumbledore had accomplished such a great feat without lifting a single finger. His breathing became extremely shallow as he began to read the article below.
Ministry calls for immediate exoneration of Lord Sirius Black by the Wizengamot today in the case of the murders of thirteen muggles and wizard Peter Pettigrew. In addition to new evidence coming to light in the case of Sirius Black less than twenty-four hours prior, Peter Pettigrew, once thought to be murdered by Black, was caught in the Atrium at the Ministry yesterday, during Minister Fudge's monthly press conference while trying to steal said evidence.
Auror, Rufus Scrimgeour, made the capture, assisted by fellow Auror, Kingsley Shacklebolt. Shacklebolt severed an enchanted metal hand from Pettigrew during the scuffle. Amelia Bones, Head of the DMLE, stated that after careful examination of the enchanted hand, it was clear that the object was created by unknown dark magic. She also stated that during Pettigrew's interrogation, he admitted to the murder of the thirteen muggles and the betrayal of the Potters to You-Know-Who. Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, initially declined comment before releasing the following statement:
"It has never been clear as to why Sirius Black would have murdered thirteen muggles along with Peter Pettigrew those fourteen years ago. His conviction was based on the evidence we had at that time, which has now been found, in the light of new events, to be false. Furthermore, Lord Black always maintained his innocence up until his escape from Azkaban, which he will also be exonerated from due to special circumstances. I would now like to officially express my sincerest apologies to Lord Black and invite him back to London, so that we can welcome him back to the wizarding world and return to him the titles that he so rightfully deserves."
Minister Fudge also declined any comments as to whether this turn of events may prove any validity to the recent claims of Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, that You-Know-Who has returned. Albus Dumbledore has repeatedly claimed that Harry Potter witnessed You-Know-Who's return at the end of the Tri-Wizard Tournament and that Cedric Diggory, son of Mr & Mrs Amos Diggory, had been murdered by You-Know-Who.
Peter Pettigrew is slated to stand trial before the entire Wizengamot on Friday for thirteen counts of murder and treason as a confessed Death Eater. It's unknown at this time as to whether Harry Potter, son of James and Lily Potter, will be present at the trial.
Harry stared at the paper, flipping lightly through the rest. Page after page of interviews, not only from witnesses to Pettigrew's capture, but also from witches and wizards that knew Sirius and his parents years ago. Harry passed the paper to Hermione, who had been reading it over his shoulder. She immediately began to tear through the rest of the articles and he was sure that she would give him a complete briefing later.
Happiness did not fill Harry, as many gathered with him probably thought it should. Instead, anger with a mixture of bitterness was filling Harry. He knew why this was happening and that it should have happened many years before now. The years of hell at the hand of the Dursleys could have been completely avoided. Dumbledore claimed it was for his own protection and yet Grimmauld Place was somehow just as secure, if not more so. With Voldemort now fully returned to his body, Harry had stayed an entire month at Grimmauld Place without incident. Everything that Dumbledore had said and had stood for in Harry's mind was falling into question, as the once wise and grandfatherly figure he represented in his life was starting to crumble.
Food began to appear on the tables but Harry wasn't hungry. The day had been too long already and yet he still faced detention with Snape. Hermione, realizing what he was thinking, dipped food onto his plate and pushed it towards him. He looked at her and casually shook his head.
"You have to eat." said Hermione firmly. "This day isn't nearly over."
"I've faced worse on an empty stomach, Hermione. I'll be fine." said Harry, thinking of the days of near starvation while at the Dursleys.
"No you won't." insisted Hermione. "Nobody thinks clearly on an empty stomach. The last thing you need is another week of detention."
"Yeah mate, you've already infuriated the old bat enough today as it is." said Ron through a mouth full of smashed potatoes.
Grudgingly, Harry conceded to their demands and ate a small portion of shepherd's pie. He couldn't concentrate on anything but the fact that, just two years ago he had dreaded Sirius and had looked to Dumbledore for refuge. Now, those roles were reversing. Dumbledore was becoming as untrustworthy in his eyes as Voldemort, while Sirius was slowly gaining Harry's trust. The only thing keeping Harry from fully trusting Sirius was his question of how loyal to Dumbledore his godfather really was.
Suddenly, Harry smirked uncontrollably as the thought raced through his mind of Sirius shaking hands with an apprehensive Fudge, after receiving his pardon. He wondered if Sirius would be happier once he was a free man or would any lingering affects of Azkaban keep him moody and withdrawn. Harry also wondered if the offer to live with him was still open for discussion.
Professor McGonagall came strolling down the table looking sour, stopping behind the twins.
"Mr Potter, Weasley family, Ms Granger, and Mr Longbottom; your detention will begin immediately following dinner, which ends in fifteen minutes." said McGonagall briskly. "I will not allow these detentions to interfere with your studies, as most of you are preparing for O.W.L.s this year, so that is why they will be taking place so early in the evening. When you leave the Great Hall, please report to classroom three on the fifth floor."
Harry watched Professor McGonagall as she walked away, thinking hard about what had just transpired. The only time he remembered her taking such keen interest in a detention was when it interfered with a Quidditch match, not to mention that he had expected their detention to take place in the dungeons, not on the fifth floor. Harry glanced at Hermione, who was clearly lost in her own thoughts, before addressing the twins who had risen to leave.
"Where are you two going?" he asked. "In a hurry to get to detention?"
"Of coarse not." said Fred, smiling brightly.
"We just need to retrieve something from our dorm." said George, mirroring his brother's grin.
"Before we add to our tally." said Fred.
"Of joyous days we have spent in detention." said George.
"During our time here at school." said Fred.
Before Harry could reply, the twins quickly made their way out of the Great Hall.
"What was that about?" asked Hermione.
"No idea." replied Ron moodily.
"Is it time to go?" asked Luna, walking up behind Ron and Neville.
"I believe so." replied Neville miserably, standing up to leave.
Together, the six students made their way out of the Great Hall and up the staircases towards the fifth floor. Harry dreaded what aweful task Snape had planned for them, knowing that Snape would be livid over this recent turn of events.
Hermione felt Harry grasp her hand as they approached the third classroom on the fifth floor. She knew that he was preparing himself to remain calm under the impending onslaught. Fred and George were whispering as they caught up with the group, making Hermione feel very uneasy.
"I wonder if Lord Black will restart his singing career." mumbled Luna aloud.
"Pardon me?" asked Harry, whipping his head about to look at her.
"His singing career." repeated Luna. "It's a little known fact that Lord Black is really former singer, Stubby Boardman."
"Luna, I –" started Ron.
"Oh Luna, Sirius Black was never a singer." chuckled Hermione.
"How do you know?" asked Luna dreamily.
"Well – because, uh, well, I just know." replied Hermione, not certain how to explain her knowledge of Sirius.
"We'll explain later, Luna." said Harry.
"Oh why not explain now, Potter." said the deadly silkily voice of Professor Snape.
Hermione turned to see Snape standing in the doorway of the classroom, a look of danger about his eyes, his greasy black hair emphasizing his sallow skin. She could feel Harry's hand tighten in hers.
"I'm sure you're just dying to tell." he continued. "Already decided which room will be yours? I'm sure you'll be moving in so he can teach you exactly how to become even more like your pathetic excuse of a –"
"Professor Snape!" piped up Professor Flitwick, walking down the corridor.
Hermione hadn't even noticed the tiny professor until he spoke. She wondered if he was there to check on Luna.
"Professor Flitwick," said Snape silkily "what a pleasant surprise. I wasn't expecting to see you."
"That's obvious." said Flitwick sharply. "Professor Dumbledore has sent me to relieve you."
"Relieve me? What for?" asked Snape coldly.
"Professor Dumbledore requires your assistance in other matters." replied Flitwick. "Professor McGonagall was too busy so I volunteered to cover this detention."
"I see." said Snape coolly. "Well then, I will leave them to you."
Snape gave one final glare then quickly departed from the corridor, his robes billowing behind him. Hermione looked at Professor Flitwick and saw a look of triumph flicker across his face.
"Hurry up now." said Flitwick, clapping his hands together. "We must not linger, for there is much work to be done."
As they followed Professor Flitwick into the classroom, Hermione looked around as the torches lining the wall sprung to life. The room clearly hadn't been used for quite some time, for all she could see was dusty floors, grimy desks, and tattered tapestries.
"This room is one of five that you will be cleaning this week as part of your detention." said Professor Flitwick, waving a hand about the room. "In order for each night's detention to be completed you must have the brass beaming, the wood gleaming, the glass sparking like crystal, and the floors completely spotless."
Ron withdrew his wand, looking temporarily relieved.
"No magic, Mr Weasley." said Professor Flitwick, to Ron's utter horror.
"No magic." repeated Ron, looking at the tiny professor as though he was mental. "Even house elves get to use magic!"
"Yes, Mr Weasley, however, the house elves are not being punished, now are they." said Professor Flitwick in a very satisfied tone. "A few nights of work without magic won't kill you. I dare say it might do you some good. Help you to better appreciate your abilities."
"Being treated like a bloody house elf." mumbled Ron.
Hermione made to retort but Harry placed a hand on her shoulder to calm her. She gave him a scathing glance before easing up. Professor Flitwick waved his wand, causing buckets of soapy water and sponges to appear. They broke up into pairs and Hermione was sure that Harry was deliberately keeping her as far away from Ron as possible. It took nearly two hours to bring the room back to satisfactory condition. Hermione's arms were sore but it wasn't too extreme for her. She had done much cleaning while growing up in a muggle home and didn't really mind the bit of work. Harry was also showing little signs of fatigue, no doubt from his experience as being a slave for those worthless Dursleys. Ron, to Hermione's delight, looked thoroughly fatigued and in a right foul mood.
"Very good." said Professor Flitwick. "You are dismissed to go to your common rooms. I was however, under the impression that Mr Malfoy was supposed to have joined you tonight. I will have to speak to Professor Snape concerning his absence however, do not think that he has somehow gotten out of his punishment. I will make sure he is joining you tomorrow night and will make up for his absence."
There was an edge to Professor Flitwick's voice that made Hermione smile. As they excited the classroom, Professor McGonagall turned the far corner of the corridor and marched directly up to her and Harry.
Mr Potter and Ms Granger, please accompany me to my office." she said briskly. "The rest of you, please return to your common rooms."
The others looked at them with concern however, Harry winked at them as they walked away, easing their tense faces. Hermione looked to see his confidence falter as they followed Professor McGonagall to her office. He had no more an idea of why they were going than she did.
Upon entering the office, Professor McGonagall closed the door and cast a charm upon it. She then offered them a seat before taking a seat behind her desk, examining them closely.
"Are you both continuing to practice Occlumency?" asked McGonagall conversationally.
"Yes, Professor." said Hermione, staring her Head of House directly in the eyes.
"Excellent." replied McGonagall. "Now, Mr Potter, we need to discuss your godfather, Sirius. As you know, many things are going to change for Sirius. With the Ministry exonerating him, his status in and around the free wizarding world is dramatically improving, thus allowing him to certain new privileges."
Hermione could see Harry tensing slightly, gripping the arms of his chair harder.
"I could explain these changes in detail however, I have a better idea." said McGonagall, smiling softly.
"Hello Harry, hello Hermione." said Sirius, stepping out from inside an adjoining room.
Harry raced out of his chair and hugged Sirius tightly, catching everyone off guard. Sirius smiled, elated by Harry's response, patting him clumsily as Professor McGonagall sniffed. Hermione however, wasn't convinced.
"Listen," said Sirius, as Harry released him "we need to talk and Professor McGonagall arranged this so we could do so."
"I'll just leave then." said Hermione standing up, wanting to give Harry and Sirius some private time.
"Absolutely not." said Sirius. "Hermione, I wish for you to hear this too."
Startled but happy, Hermione sat back down as Harry returned to his seat and Sirius drew up a chair.
"Harry, I know that you had something to do with my sudden freedom." said Sirius, peering at Harry as though he was looking for signs of the truth.
"Surely you're not upset to be free, are you?" asked Harry hotly.
"Coarse not." replied Sirius. "However, it does concern me as to how you were able to help." Sirius stood back up and strolled around to stand between Harry and Hermione. "I may have served over twelve years in Azkaban however, my mind is still rather sharp, if I do say so myself. Even so, it doesn't take much to know that the evidence that found its way into the hands of the Daily Prophet, didn't do so of its own free will, nor did Peter just suddenly show up when he did." Sirius leaned in closer, gripping the back of their chairs. "One would have me believe that Peter was in possession of it all along, yet he didn't possess any wand all those years while pretending to be Ron's rat, did he. This only leaves one conclusion; one very disturbing conclusion." Sirius began to pace, staring at the window behind McGonagall's desk.
"So it was your wand – the evidence." said Harry, biting his lower lip.
"Yes." replied Sirius coldly.
"What do you plan to do?" asked Harry, concern lacing his voice.
"Right now, I think the best thing is to distance myself from the Order." said Sirius coldly. "I discreetly visited Gringots today after receiving my letter from the Wizengamot and re-established my status as head of the House of Black."
"If you quit the Order," said Hermione, glancing at Professor McGonagall "won't that raise too many questions? Couldn't you just tell them you're going away for a while to clear your head?"
"You're still the brightest witch I know, Hermione." replied Sirius smiling. "I plan on using my hatred of Grimmauld Place as a way to excuse myself to an undisclosed location. Dumbledore may not agree however, he cannot forbid me."
Hermione looked at Harry to see that he was staring at Professor McGonagall, a look of uncertainty on his face. Professor McGonagall however, simply smiled at his expressions.
"You have a question for me, Mr Potter?" asked McGonagall, raising her eyebrows slightly.
"Yes, Professor." replied Harry shrewdly. "Why are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" asked McGonagall.
"Taking interest in my Occlumency, our detention, and now arranging this secret meeting for me with Sirius. Why?" asked Harry.
"As Head of Gryffindor, I take interest in all the students in my house; in that way, you are no exception. As Deputy Headmistress, I take responsibility for all Hogwarts students, even Mr Malfoy." replied McGonagall. "You however, due to circumstances beyond your control, require some additional attention from time-to-time."
Hermione just smiled at Harry's frustration. She knew a political answer when she heard one. Professor McGonagall wasn't going to admit to any biased feelings for any student, no matter the circumstance. Sirius smiled at his godson's reaction to McGonagall's response as well; the mischievous old marauder was enjoying the interaction.
"Like I said, I will be leaving Grimmauld Place for this location." said Sirius, handing Harry and Hermione each a piece of folded paper. "Read the contents to yourself then toss them into the fireplace."
Hermione opened up the folded up piece of paper and read, "The residence of Lord Sirius Black can be found at No 3 Abbott Lane, Tolstoy, Isle of Mann."
"Venturing a bit." said Harry, standing up and tossing his into the fire.
"Believe it or not, I miss the smell of the sea." said Sirius, a strange look upon his face.
"So what's this bit in The Prophet about titles being returned to you and them referring to you as Lord?" asked Harry, eyebrows raised.
"Oh that." snorted Sirius. "I've told you before, my family is an Ancient and Noble family. With this comes titles depicting wealth and land ownership for the Head of the House of Black, which is me. I'm the last living male Black descendent. My titles were stripped from me when I went to Azkaban."
"How many titles do you have?" asked Harry.
"Oh, a number of useless ones." replied Sirius, thinking hard. "The only one that matters to me is, Godfather to Harry James Potter. That one I wanted back immediately."
Awkward silence momentarily filled the room, as Harry looked to emotional to speak.
"So who is your Secret Keeper?" asked Hermione, standing up and tossing hers into the fire as well; recognizing that it wasn't Sirius' handwriting and thinking it to be a good change of subject.
Sirius gave a bow to Professor McGonagall, whom smiled and nodded. Hermione could see a fair bit of flaws in having an Order member his Secret Keeper, but figured Sirius was displaying his trust in Professor McGonagall to her and Harry.
"How did you accomplish this so fast?" asked Harry. "I mean – Professor McGonagall has been here all day, hasn't she?"
"Its obvious, Harry, isn't it?" asked Hermione, more as a statement than a question. "Sirius obviously cast the spell, then turned over his Secret Keeper duties to Professor McGonagall the same way he –"
Hermione slapped her hands to her mouth, realizing what she was saying, cursing herself mentally for such a Hermione-ish blunder.
"The same way I turned over my Secret Keeper duties to Pettigrew for James and Lily." said Sirius solemnly, finishing her statement. "In theory Hermione, your idea was sound however, not accurate. You see, I just purchased the cottage today – from Professor McGonagall."
"What?" asked Harry incredulously.
"It was my family home, left to me after my father passed away." said Professor McGonagall. "I have no need for it any longer. The reason for the Fidelius charm was so that I might have somewhere to retreat to during the last wizarding war with You-Know-Who."
"What if you need it again?" asked Hermione.
"I have my cottage in Hogsmeade, but I'm sure Sirius wouldn't turn me away if I came calling for shelter." said McGonagall, glancing at Sirius.
"My lady, my door is always open to thee." said Sirius, sweeping into a low bow.
Professor McGonagall simply shook her head and chuckled.
"Now, I really must be off." said Sirius as he grasped Harry by the shoulders while looking at both him and Hermione. "You two now share the secret, which means that Hedwig can deliver messages to me. If you need me, write or tell Professor McGonagall. I want to hear from you, okay?" Harry and Hermione nodded. "Excellent. Stay safe and trust each other. Now off with you two."
Harry gave Sirius another hug, that seemed to be more genuine to Hermione, before taking her by the hand and turning to leave.
"Oh, one more thing, " said Sirius tossing Harry something wrapped in brown paper as he turned back "I picked one up for you in Diagon Alley when I purchased a new wand."
"They won't give you your old wand back?" asked Hermione incredulously, as Harry unwrapped the package.
"Don't want it back, Hermione." replied Sirius. "It represents my past and what I'm looking for, is a fresh start."
"A wand holster?" asked Harry, staring at the leather holster in his hands.
"It straps to your forearm; good for quick-access and concealment." replied Sirius, grinning broadly at Harry's response. "Thought it might be useful."
"Thanks." said Harry, smiling as he and Hermione left Professor McGonagall's office.
"I simply cannot stand not telling them that we're aware of Ms Granger's predicament with her parents." huffed McGonagall. "I feel as though we're acting like Dumbledore!" she snapped.
"We cannot force them to trust us, Minerva." said Sirius. "It can only be earned by allowing them to tell us when they're ready."
"What about your gift, Sirius?" questioned McGonagall. "Its only bound to encourage this Alliance of theirs. It sends the signal that you want them to fight."
"Let's see – they've already began to fight back and thanks to Harry, I'm a free man." recounted Sirius. "I'd say they're off to a smashing good start. And as far as encouragement goes, Harry has proven to need none; simply guidance. He's already committed himself mentally to the fight."
"They're just teenagers, Sirius." said McGonagall, sounding concerned.
"Harry's already faced and survived more than most adults, Minerva. If he surrounds himself with a good group, it only betters his chances." said Sirius. "When the day comes that he needs us, I hope he'll trust us enough to turn to us for help."