Chapter 10 : Santa's Little Helper
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Harry decided to return to the common room while the crowd cleared, lest he run up and crush Lupin in a jubilant hug. Scrimgeour had made no further interjections during the meeting, but had stalked out with a cold expression as soon as it was adjourned. Harry knew there would be repercussions from the Ministry for Scrimgeour's humiliation; rubbing their noses in it with a conspicuous celebration would only make things worse.
He was heading up the second flight of stairs when he heard someone shouting his name from below. "Hermione!" he shouted back; she was already at the landing of the marble staircase and heading up, pulling Viktor Krum along behind her. Harry instinctively glanced around for Ron, but there were no redheads to be found in the entrance hall.
Hermione dashed up the stairs, her eyes shining with pride. "Harry! Can you believe it?" She hugged him, smiling breathlessly. "He was wonderful! I've never seen Lupin using parliamentary procedure, he just trounced Scrimgeour at his own game!"
"I know! It was fantastic!" He had never felt so proud of Lupin either.
"And I have even more good news," she said as she stepped back. "Viktor wants to join the Order!"
Krum looked somewhat abashed as he reached the landing. "Hello again, Harry. I vas sorry I didn't find you at the vedding."
"Yeah, me too. That was a wild time."
"Do you think the Order vill accept me, Harry?" He looked anxious, almost pleading; there were very few former Durmstrang students in the Order.
Harry shook Viktor's hand, then pulled him into a quick hug. "It's done, Viktor. Welcome aboard."
The three of them lurked on the landing as small groups of sorcerors slowly poured out of the Great Hall, discussing their assignments or simply catching up with old friends. Eventually a brigade of Weasleys ambled into the entrance hall. One of them must have spotted Harry and Hermione, for the cluster of unmistakable red heads suddenly stopped and bobbed together, then separated mitotically into two smaller sets. Ron, Fred, and George clattered noisily up the stairs.
"We're heading up to the common room for old time's sake," said George.
"That, and we're all so hung over we need a bit of quiet," said Ron with a weak grin.
Harry smiled, but his heart wasn't in it; he was following Ginny's red ponytail as it departed through the oak front doors. "Sounds good!" he finally said. "We can have some sunflower seeds."
Fred gave them all dirty looks before he, too, broke down in a good-natured laugh. "The sad part is I can't even remember what I did to deserve it."
"I do," said George matter-of-factly. "I reckon Harry will have nightmares for years."
They spent a lazy hour in the common room, discussing the events of the day before. Harry didn't bring up his encounter with Ron behind the shed, and judging by Ron's warm, easy demeanor, there was no danger of Ron recalling it either. Harry glanced back and forth between Ron and Viktor many times, but never detected any animosity between them. He could understand why Viktor would be an expert at concealing his emotions, but Ron...he might run from them, but he couldn't hide them very well at all.
When the castle corridors no longer echoed with the commotion of many voices, they returned to the Great Hall to find a worn but happy Lupin stretched out on the staff table. "What a day! Fred, George, can either of you...let me see..." He rolled his legs off the table and let their momentum swing him upright, then reached for a long scroll covered with scribbles. He studied it a moment, checking off a few elements here and there. "Can you do Side-Along Apparition?"
"Of course," said Fred, his tone suggesting that Lupin was foolish to even ask such a thing. Harry watched closely; sure enough, Fred glanced at George questioningly and George responded with the barest of unconcerned shrugs. Harry shook his head, grinning, knowing that they would certainly be able to do it soon, though poor Ron might get Splinched a hundred different ways in the meantime.
Late that night, Harry awoke during a horrible nightmare. When he finally fought his way to consciousness, he couldn't remember anything about the dream, only that he'd been struggling. To his great surprise, his scar didn't hurt at all. He settled back into his pillow wondering if he'd only dreamed that he'd been having a nightmare, but then Ron let out a bloodcurdling howl that sent Harry scrambling out of bed for his wand.
Ron clawed his way upright, gasping for breath, but seconds later he regarded Harry with an utterly perplexed expression. "What in the name of Merlin are you looking at?" Before Harry could answer, the two of them jumped; a muffled scream was coming from the girls' side of Gryffindor Tower.
Harry and Ron bolted down to the common room in an instant and automatically launched up the stairs to the girls' dormitories, only to find themselves on a steep and slippery slope. Both of them swore vehemently, but to no avail; the stairs apparently considered boys more threatening than emergencies. Hermione's voice immediately sounded from above, firm and deep but with a quiver of fear. "Who's there?"
"It's okay, Hermione, it's us," called Ron. "You screamed."
"I had a bad dream," she called down. "I'm okay. I'm coming down." Ron and Harry knew what that meant; they rolled quickly off the landing lest Hermione plow into them like a Jamaican bobsled.
"I'm so sorry, I woke you both up?!" she said, appalled by the notion that she could have screamed so loudly.
Harry and Ron exchanged a glance. "Um, we were already up."
She frowned. "What were you--"
Another scream cut her off in mid-sentence, this one echoing through the open window of the common room.
The three of them ducked out the portrait hole. Sure enough, a cacophany of distant screams rolled through the halls from every direction. The Fat Lady, who would typically grumble at being pestered at such an hour, looked at them with wide eyes. "What could it be? Peeves?"
Harry shook his head, peering down the halls. "No idea." But for the terrified howls, the halls were completely peaceful, motionless. Harry had a rush of adrenaline going; he was all ready to charge off to the rescue, but there was absolutely no indication of the source of danger.
The screaming presently stopped, at least within their hearing, and all four of them gazed nervously at one another. "Maybe I should go ask the other portraits?" said the Fat Lady anxiously.
"Sure," said Harry. "I don't even know where to start looking."
Twenty minutes later, the Fat Lady called them back out of the common room. She was panting. "I've been to every portrait in the whole castle, even the Headmaster's office. No one's seen a thing! Not one thing; you're the only ones even out of bed. But there were screams from the dungeons to the North Tower."
"Group nightmare, you think?" said Ron. "Ever hear of such a thing, Hermione?" She shook her head.
Harry yawned. "Always something new, isn't it? I'm going back to bed."
The next morning, Harry, Ron, and Hermione trooped grumpily down the stairs, hoping that there would be breakfast even though school was not in session. The doors to the Great Hall were open and sure enough, there were a handful of people seated around an impressive buffet at the staff table. Professor McGonagall waved them in, and all three quickly noticed that everyone at the table appeared a bit haggard.
"Sleep well?" said Harry ruefully, helping himself to a piece of toast from a platter. He received a number of knowing looks.
"Did you three wake up, too?" said McGonagall. They all nodded, reaching for the coffee urn in unison. McGonagall turned to Lupin (who looked as if he'd simply been up all night) and scowled. "Well, then, it wasn't just the hold of the castle that was affected."
"What do you suppose...?" began Hermione, but she was interrupted by a jangling at the doors. Professor Trelawney flounced into the hall dramatically, the dark circles under her eyes magnified by her enormous glasses.
"I received a dire omen in the night," she said importantly as she approached the table.
McGonagall rolled her eyes. "Let me guess: a nightmare, around 3:00?"
"Woke you up, but you couldn't remember it?" said Hermione.
Trelawney's bangles and bracelets rang out again as she deflated from her haughty stance. "Well," she sniffed, "it appears that the omen was so important, it was manifest to us all."
"Indeed. What an honor for we non-Seers," said McGonagall drily, as she and Hermione glanced askance at one another.
Professor Sprout presently trooped into the Hall, a smudge of dirt on her cheek and even more under her nails, though her hands had a recently-washed look. "Morning, all," she said gruffly, seizing the entire plate of kippers. "Anyone mind? Only I'm starving, been up since three gardening."
"Nightmare woke you?" said Lupin dully; he knew the answer already.
It was the same as the rest of the castle's denizens trickled in for breakfast, with one exception. Ondossi blustered in as cheerful as a spaniel in a gamebird factory, then stopped abruptly at the row of grouchy faces. From behind her dark glasses, she scanned the group with knitted brows, her smile quickly disappearing. "Oh dear," she said.
"Do you have something to tell us?" said McGonagall, folding her arms.
"Oh, no," Ondossi said meekly. "It's just that I'm not fit for human company." She grinned feebly. "No worries." She turned on her heel and strode out of the Hall.
All eyes inexplicably turned to Harry, who shrugged. "How should I know?" he said defensively, though no one had said a word.
Hermione persuaded him to go to Ondossi's office right after breakfast. "You might as well start these 'lessons,' otherwise you're just wasting time sitting around here. And if you can find out what that was all about, then so much the better." Harry had glared at her, knowing that the latter was her real goal, but she was, as usual, correct on both counts. He promised to meet her in the library after he escaped the Spook.
Her door was propped open and she was tugging a battered wooden trunk. Without looking at Harry, she said, "Sure, some help would be nice."
"Wrong question," said Harry. "I was going to ask what you're doing."
"No you weren't," she said wryly. "The polite question was going to come first, that's your nature." She sat down heavily on the trunk. "Did you only come to pry, or are you ready for your first lesson?"
"Why don't YOU just tell me?" he asked crossly.
"Because I'm making a lame attempt to treat you with respect. If you'd prefer to be an open book, hotshot, that's fine too."
Harry leaned against the doorjamb and folded his arms. "You never answered my question, you know. About whether you ever say anything normal."
She sighed, her shoulders sagging. "I wouldn't know normal if it hit me in the face, Harry. So many things are clamoring for my attention at any given minute, I just speak to whatever seems most relevant. No time or patience to wade through the niceties. Close the door, will you?"
Harry came in, letting the door fall shut behind him as he took a chair. She picked up a thin white wand from her desk and pointed to a candle on the far side of the room, igniting it wordlessly, then took off her glasses.
"Those vignettes that come tumbling into you from people's minds, Harry--they're only the beginning. Within a few weeks, the people you've already opened will be easier and easier to reconnect with. Within a year, it'll happen every time you turn your head. There'll be times when the vision is so clear, you can't tell what's happened, what's happening, and what people wish would happen.
"That's why you have to learn Occlumency, Harry. They're not throwing themselves at you, you're barging into them, and in a heavy-handed way, too. It makes your soul feel guilty, to inflict people like that--that's why you feel so strange afterward. I like to think of it as a moment of atonement. Anyway, you have to learn to Occlude yourself, to keep your mind in your own head, not let it rip open every soft little underbelly that comes along like some kind of cognitive Grim Reaper.
"I became a recluse before I caught on to what was happening, which was probably just as well. Never exactly won any awards for playing well with others. I tried to be a hermit that first summer, but even out on the tundra, I could still hear the animals, the earth...you ever talk to field mice, Harry?" She didn't pause for a reply. "They're imbeciles. Wolves are better company, and they ate the mice too, bonus. But once winter came, I had to go back to Northpole--prey gets scarce in the winter and to a hungry wolf, if you're not Pack, you're Snack.
"Starting that winter, I lived in the steam tunnels below the university. Not a penny for food. I became the Spook, you know, the ghost in the tunnels, rather trite, actually. Slept all day when people were about, then read books in the library all night. Kind of a fairy-tale adventure, except for the rat-and-garbage diet, the filth, and of course, the matter of the hundred screaming voices in my head at any given time. Yeah."
Harry just stared. "Are you making this up?" he said at last.
She opened her arms. "If I'm lying, I'm flying."
"You were my age when this all happened? What about your parents?"
She scoffed. "You ever hear of a Spenard divorce?" Again, she obviously didn't expect an answer. "My father killed her early on--he'd wanted a boy. My...tribe, you'd call it, raised me."
Harry nodded. "You're an Eskimo!"
Her face screwed up with more disgust than when she'd mentioned the rat-and-garbage diet. "Yeah, that's me, my name's Nanook and I live in an igloo. GAH! I can't stand that word. I'm Inupiaq. My people were the first to touch the North American continent, crossing over the frozen ocean from Asia. Many that followed went south and became Outsiders to us, but my people stayed where we belonged, in the north with the tundra and taiga and glaciers. But that's a bigger story.
"So, yeah, I lived with my 'tribe,' went to school, started up with the magic, got removed from school and apprenticed to the afatkuq, the, uh, medicine man, I guess is the popular word. He really gave it his best shot, but I was tuunbaq...bad spirit magic. He finally gave up and sent me to Northpole--"
"Sent you!" Harry interrupted, surprised. "These are Muggles we're talking about? And they knew about the Wizard city?"
She tossed her head, amused. "Northpole was founded about 200 years ago. The Inupiat settled the land about 50,000 years ago. Yes, they knew about the city.
"You have to understand something, Harry. The distinction between Muggle and Wizard isn't as sharp in some places. There are other forms of magic and power in the world that wizards ignore. One of them is the Earth itself. It's outrageously subtle, hard to access, doesn't do anything flashy or immediate, in other words, boring. But it's there for anyone, Muggle or Wizard.
"The Land understands time in a different way from us. It takes 500 years for the Land to blink, and another 5000 to say, "Huh? Did somebody say something?" My people have been on the Land long enough for it to notice us, and we've never left so much as a scratch on it, which it appreciates. We've messed with the Sea a bit, taking its beloved creatures for food, but we've always thanked it profusely and it tolerates us. But the Land trusts my people and has become a friend, and shares its magic."
"With the medicine man--the shaman, then?" said Harry. "I've heard about these things, aboriginal cultures all over the world have them. It all sounds like superstition, but you're saying it's magic?"
"You're quick, hotshot! A different kind of magic, one that can take whole generations just to appear, but so much more...steadfast than this fly-by-night stuff that sorcerors use every day. But less showy. No big kabooms. Mostly."
"Anyway, I'm getting off topic again. Legilimency, yes. So there's me, around fourteen, with too much fast magic for the 'shaman' (I like that word better) to handle. He took me within sight of Northpole and told me to go in. I honestly tried, but it was horrible, nothing but noise and anger--my people couldn't tell I was in their thoughts, but the wizards could."
Harry nodded again; he'd seen the same thing on Privet Drive.
"So I turned tail and went out to the tundra, ate lots of berries, did the wolf thing...that was actually like a fairy tale, until winter. Then I had to go into town. After that, it was all cement and rat kabobs. But the cool thing about living inside walls and under basements is that you're inside the walls! You can go anywhere you can squeeze into. The Institute was built in the early 1900's. It even has electricity, just because it was such a novelty at the time. But wires and pipes are all hidden inside the walls, with some extra space for repairs--not like these solid stone castles."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," countered Harry with a knowing grin. "We have a few hidden passages here and there, you know."
"Well, of course you do! But I'm talking about REAL hidden passages, not the kind that someone built on purpose for sneaking around. These are the kind that show up accidentally, left only for plumbers or electricians, that no one maps or knows or even cares about because they don't go anywhere in particular. But they do, they go everywhere! Just not directly. And often there's a hot, nasty pipe you have to go under that roasts your rumpus.
"Anyway, that was how I got my Wizard training, by spooking around the Institute and reading books in the Library attic. Never was much for Charms or wand work, since I didn't have one. But I liked Potions and Herbology--I knew a lot about them already from the Inupiat. Plants are part of the Land's magic.
"Well, when I was sixteen or so, some control freak at the Institute got worked up enough over this unauthorized spook to do something about it, and they sent in the WIFs to get rid of me."
"Whiffs?" said Harry.
"Wizard Investigation Force. Police. 'Aurors,' you guys call them. They were quiet; it was the first time in two years that I'd been able to get within ten feet of another human being and not know every little detail about them. That was my first brush with Occlumency.
"The WIFs didn't know quite what to do with me, but this one nice lady talked her neighbors into renting me their shed in exchange for landscaping their property. I can do plants, as I mentioned. The house was on the edge of town, so it was just a dull roar. I found I could manage.
"Well, word got around that there was a Legilimagus in town, and I made up some potions that incorporated a little Inupiat magic, and pretty soon everyone on the block wanted me doing their gardening, too, so I started to earn some money and buy food, and even some things. I bought this wand when I was eighteen, it's birch."
She rolled the wand between her hands for a moment, smiling to herself, then looked up at Harry with a brief shudder. "Holy Smoke. I think that's the most words I've ever said in one sitting in my whole life. I don't think I'm going to tell you much more, Harry. I'm going to make you extract it from my head instead. You need the practice."
"Wait, though, before you stop...why did Dumbledore bring you here to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts? If you don't mind my saying so, it sounds like you don't know anything about it."
"Think so?" she said with cheery defiance. She flipped her wand to the ready, pointed it at the office door and said, "Expecto patronum." The door burst open and a small herd of silvery caribou bounded silently down the corridor. She raised her brows and gave him a smug smile. "That's just my showing-off Patronus. I make a walrus when I really need it. Big fat fella with tusks like your leg. Let's just say I've had some practical education in Defense, and leave it at that.
"Albus called on me soon after I moved into the shed. Well, not exactly--I never met the man, actually. He sent his representative. An angel," she said wistfully. "Helped me figure it all out--that I could limit what I heard by, well, limiting how I listened. Which is exactly what I plan to teach you, hotshot. Albus had his suspicions about you, you being so susceptible to Lord Voldemort's communication. He wanted me to train you if you turned out to be like me."
"Was Dumbledore a Legilimagus too?"
She frowned. "Oh, no. You have to have a certain...ruthlessness, for lack of a better word. Be willing to oppose the natural order of things to the point that you can actually do it, overstep the boundaries of your mind. I gather he was quite the Legilimens, with wand in hand, of course. But he seemed contented with people's words."
"I can see that. He guessed at a lot of things--usually bang to rights, too. But when he was wrong..." Harry felt his throat tighten and the threat of tears welling in his eyes.
"I know Albus was a good man. I couldn't believe it when Fawkes told me he was dead."
"You can talk to Fawkes?" said Harry, relieved to change the subject.
She shrugged. "Can anybody talk to him? But he gets his message across nonetheless, eh?" Harry nodded sagely. "You should speak to Hagrid, he knows a lot about Fawkes. A real naturalist, Hagrid, and a very quiet mind; I have to concentrate to read him at all, and that almost never happens. Grawpy, too, he's a peach. Gotta be a family thing, though--the Sasquatch giants we met came through loud and clear."
She stood up and reached for her dark glasses, in a way that strongly suggested that the conversation was over. "Now then, do you mind picking up the other side of this trunk?"
Harry stayed in his chair. "Where are you going?"
Abandoning both trunk and glasses, she scrutinized him coolly. "That's for me to know and you to find out. Read me if you can, hotshot." She opened her arms wide and made the slightest bow, as though initiating a formal duel.
Harry smirked and looked into her eyes, once again finding it hard to peer deeply because he was fascinated by their colorless surface. He flattened his lips, concentrating; he could remember how it felt to connect to someone's mind, but he still had no idea how to do it. She nodded, and words formed inside his head: Need a little jump start?
Harry felt a bit embarrassed, but nodded in return. "Hold up one finger," she said aloud. He did as he was told. Tap my forehead. Eyes on mine. He had to stretch his arm to reach her; she leaned back away from him as though the contact was a threat. He barely brushed her brow with a fingertip.
Despite the irritating glare of the windows high above the Hall, he was in a cheery mood from the wonderful progress with the giants the day before. He loved Hagrid and Grawpy, he reflected, even though he barely knew them; they were so genuine. And what a treat, to get out of bed and have breakfast served, like he was some kind of spillionaire! He stopped and gulped. Everyone at the table was in a foul mood. He skimmed unobtrusively over the consciousness of the gardener, the linguist, the hotshot, shearing off just the vanguard of their thoughts. They'd woken up screaming. They'd all had the same nightmare. His nightmare. "Oh, dear."
It was the stones of the castle. They didn't know him the way the tundra did. They didn't have any inclination to absorb his dreams, any more than they would soak up the pollutants that the local Muggles poured over them. They were loaded with magic; the thoughts he might inadvertently set loose in the castle would reflect and rebound from the stones until they struck something soft enough to stick. The stern one, she suspected where the nightmare had come from, but there was no point in explaining it. He couldn't live here. There was a nice forest on the grounds, it would do.
"Breathe, Harry." He opened his eyes, though he felt faint, did as he was told, then groaned.
"I just...was you, looking into...my own memory...of your dream." That was so fundamentally wrong it almost hurt to say it.
"I know. It'll get even more convoluted than that, the longer we know each other." She gave him another rascally grin. "But you did it, din'cha? You read that by your own will, even if you did get a little too caught up in it. Remember to stay in your body, hotshot."
Harry coughed. "I didn't do anything. It just happened. I touched your forehead and it just happened."
"Almost like magic!" she said, her voice drenched in sarcasm. "You're catching on, Harry. Other people need a wand, a spell...for you, it just happens. Simple as that. Making it not happen when you don't want it to, that's the trick. Grab the other side of the trunk, will ya?"
"Wait. Just wait a minute." Harry's stomach was twisting into knots. "I've been doing it all along, that's what you're saying?" She responded only by tapping her fingers impatiently on the trunk. "But it comes on whenever it wants, not when I want it to!"
She sniffed impatiently, then took hold of his wrist and brought his hand to her forehead again.
He was in the courtyard at number twelve, Grimmauld Place. He couldn't sleep; he was anxious about the upcoming meeting with the Sasquatch clans. Was someone shooting off fireworks? A red ball of flame, directly overhead, slowly growing larger. It was going to strike the house, the Dark Lord had found them, they were all going to die. He raised his wand, to explode or deflect it...no. It wasn't evil. A bird made of light, wings folded in a dive. Its feathers were of crimson flame, its chest burned brilliant gold. It was moving impossibly fast, like a falling star.
Every nook, every shadowy corner of the courtyard was aglow with red light. Too bright--he spun away. With his back to it, the red was tolerable again, but suddenly the gold erupted all of its own, so beautiful, but so painful. Then blindness; his eyes were dazzled, they needed to recover before they could process another image.
Someone else was there. This wasn't just the rebirth of a phoenix, it was a Bonding. He had read about this in the attic of the Institute library. One could identify a failed Bond easily, because the human's mind would be utterly empty, consumed by the magic of the creature. He cautiously opened his mind to the stranger's. It didn't quite work; the consciousness of the phoenix saturated the air, making it impossible to focus on the lesser being. He had to ask the old-fashioned way.
"Hello, falling star. Do you still own your heart?"
A man. The phoenix was overwhelming his mind, but he had a mind, an identity. He was young...he was unsettled by his nakedness! Harry couldn't help but laugh, it was charmingly naive, particularly since he couldn't see a thing after that golden light, and was facing the wrong way even if he could! "I guess so. Hee hee! Perhaps you'd like a fig leaf?" Oh, fiddlesticks, he thought, this was hardly the time for jokes. Give him something to cover himself; the young man should be celebrating, not bashfully hiding behind a broom. For that matter, this was no time to meet, there had been enough introductions for one night. "We'll meet again, in the light."
Harry was back in her office, feeling surprisingly abashed, rather like the time Moaning Myrtle had let herself into the tub while he was bathing. "I had no idea I was so charmingly naive," he said with as much chutzpah as he could muster, noting that at least he wasn't breathless or faint this time.
"You were!" she laughed. "It was so...innocent. Sweet."
That didn't help. Despite himself, Harry felt his face getting warm. "You know, I don't think anyone's ever described me as 'innocent' before. 'Guilty,' I get all the time, but innocent..."
She drummed her fingers on the trunk, then held out her other hand, palm up. Harry set his fingertips onto hers with some apprehension, but relaxed as the seconds passed and nothing pushed into his mind. They remained there, wordlessly, for some time, until she interlocked their fingers in a brief squeeze and pulled away.
"You getting it now, Harry?" she said. "There's no 'it.' 'It' is you, your magic, and you're always 'on.' The only reason you're not constantly flooded with people's thoughts is that this magic is barely starting to blossom. What we're doing will accelerate the process--in fact, if you touch someone else's forehead like that from this day on, you'll find yourself drowning in them. I've been Occluding you from all but a glimpse of my thoughts. I'll teach you how."
He nodded. "You know, this is a lot better than my last Occlumency lessons."
"Your last teacher had a long row to hoe, hotshot. Now pick up the trunk."
Hermione was alone in the library but for Madam Pince, who was sitting at her desk cataloguing some new acquisitions, glaring supiciously at Hermione every time she heard the rustle of a page being turned. Harry pictured Ron standing before this librarian and dog-earing a page as he had done in Godric's Hollow. It made his feet and hands tingle. Some things are better left unimagined.
"Harry!" Hermione said brightly. "It's lunchtime already! I was beginning to wonder if you'd be back."
"Yeah, I ended up helping her move."
Harry explained about the nightmare. "She wanted to sleep in the Forest until I told her about the centaurs. Then she asked if Professor Sprout might let her live in one of the greenhouses!"
Hermione made a face. "She'd be plant food! Why doesn't she just go let a room in Hogsmeade?"
"She's impoverished, Hermione. She calls it 'dirt floor poor.' She lives in someone's garden shed back in America."
Hermione looked nonplussed, then shrugged. "So where did she finally move?"
Harry looked down at the floor, grinning. "I took her out to the Shrieking Shack."
Hermione laughed. "Perfect! The legend lives on."
"What've you been up to?" said Harry, inspecting the open book on the table in front of Hermione.
She flipped back a few pages. "This is the Indicus Magi, it's an encyclopedia describing the specialists, if you will, in different magical fields. I thought I'd look up Legilimagi, but I got a bit distracted, there's some fascinating stuff in here. Anyway, I haven't read the whole section, but here it is, maybe you should just read it for yourself."
Harry leaned closer to the yellowed parchment, took in two sentences that were so dry it was like eating sawdust, and gave Hermione a winsome grin. "Maybe you can just sum it up for me on the way to lunch?"
"Honestly, Harry..." she said with a scoff, but relented, slamming the book shut (to the consternation of Madam Pince) and getting up from her chair.
"Legilimagi are uncommon," she said as they headed downstairs. "There's rarely more than one or two alive at any given time, which has led to speculation whether their magic is some sort of external force--you know, that bounces from person to person--or whether they tend to, ahem, annihilate one another, although there's simply no proof of that."
"Neither can live while the other survives," quoted Harry thoughtfully.
She rolled her eyes. "Voldemort's not a Legilimagus, Harry. We'd all be dead if he were. It's an incredible power, virtually limitless..." Her voice tightened with concern as it trailed off.
"Hermione?" said Harry in a subdued tone. "Does that scare you?"
She stopped, looking down at the floor between them, and took a moment to think before replying. "A little bit, I guess, Harry, but I know you're just...you. You wouldn't use it to do anything horrible. I'm more scared by all the implications that come with it--that you're going to change, to become more powerful, people will be scared of you even though you don't want them to be and don't deserve it..." She sighed, still staring at the floor. "Like I am now. You're right, Harry, I AM afraid, knowing you could be inside my head if I look you in the eye. I'm not sure at all that I want you in there. Even though I know you're still the same old Harry."
"You wouldn't want me in your bathtub either."
She giggled and looked up at him despite herself. "What?"
"Something Remus said--that having me in his mind made him feel he couldn't get much more naked. It's funny, a year ago if someone had said, 'Hey, I can step into your mind and look at your deepest secrets,' I would've steered clear of them too. I hated letting S--HIM do it, that was like torture, but at least he had a wand, I could see it coming. But now that I'm doing it, all I can see is how amazing it is, what a privilege, to see right to the core of someone...it's beautiful." He stopped, suddenly feeling self-conscious, but Hermione was gazing at him so warmly that he grinned in relief.
"Harry...it's nice to hear you speak of it that way." Her eyes suddenly widened in alarm and the warmth disappeared as she dropped her gaze back to the floor. "But I remember what you once said about your cousin Dudley, that it would be like diving in maggots to read his thoughts. Not everyone is beautiful at the core, Harry."
Harry studied her, frowning thoughtfully. "Or they think they're not beautiful." She bit the inside of her lip, and Harry knew he'd struck a nerve. "That's what scares you, isn't it? That I won't like the secrets you never share?"
Her eyes were suddenly brimming with tears. Harry's jaw fell, and he instinctively pulled her into a tight hug. He wasn't sure what to say. He had no idea what she was afraid he'd find out, but he couldn't imagine anything that would diminish her in his eyes. He settled for stroking her bushy hair (which was challenging enough, to avoid snagging or pulling it) until she composed herself.
"Harry, can you promise me something?" she finally whispered, pressing her head against his chest.
"If you ever get inside my mind...accidentally, or invited...don't look at my dreams."
He peered through the brown, fuzzy thicket of her hair with a quizzical expression. "Your dreams." He had to ponder that a moment; was that possible? He remembered Lupin's mind, that was his clearest experience so far. He could see the separate bits that made up the whole, though at the time he hadn't tried to pick and choose among them. Could he have avoided Remus's dream? It had an unreal hue and tone, unlike the crisp, solid memories. He chose to skip certain topics; why couldn't he skip dreams? "Yes. I can do that, Hermione. I might stumble into one, I suppose, but I can step right out if that happens. I'll promise that."
They resumed their descent. Harry was even able to make her laugh, describing the two memories Ondossi had shown him. "She calls me 'hotshot.' And I still don't know what a 'spillionaire' is--" Harry stopped abruptly as they rounded the bend to the landing above the entrance hall. Both of them gasped.
Dozens of people, bleeding and bandaged, were scattered around the hall below them. Madam Pomfrey was scuttling between people with a basket of potions and a determined expression. Harry and Hermione turned to one another as if to confirm that the other was seeing the same sight, then dashed down the last staircase together.
"Harry! Hermione!" Lupin had spotted them, and met them at the foot of the marble stairs. "I'm glad you're here. Help Madam Pomfrey, she's spread very thin and needs runners. I've got to leave to summon more help. The Floo Network is down and people are having to Apparate into Hogsmeade. Hagrid's got one carriage bringing in wounded. Once Pomfrey has this group taken care of, see if you can help Hagrid get some more thestrals harnessed."
He turned to the oak front doors when Harry seized his wrist. "Remus, first...what happened?"
Lupin turned his head but not his body, and closed his eyes with an expression of overwhelmed exhaustion. "Simultaneous attacks, Harry. London, Paris, Zurich, Madrid, probably more, but we've only confirmed those. Voldemort himself came to London. They've pretty much destroyed the Ministry of Magic."
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