The shriek tore through the air, and despite the festivity all around, it did distract a considerable number of people who instantly ran towards the source- the bathroom on the first floor. Harry, Tracy, Neville and Theo being some of them who raced as quickly as possible, only to bang open the door of the girl's bathroom at the first corridor, and there on the floor was-
Mutilated. Tortured. Dead.
"HERMIONE!" The words were the only ones that did not get lost inside his throat, as Harry Potter stood blankly, staring at the mutilated body of his first and ex-best friend, Hermione Granger.
A few hours earlier…
Snow was falling thickly upon the castle and its grounds. The pale blue Beauxbatons carriage looked like a large, chilly, frosted pumpkin next to the iced gingerbread house that was Hagrid's cabin, while the Durmstrang ship's portholes were glazed with ice, the rigging white with frost. The house-elves down in the kitchen were outdoing themselves with a series of rich, warming stews and savory puddings, and only Fleur Delacour seemed to be able to find anything to complain.
"It is too heavy, all zis Hogwarts food," they heard her saying grumpily as Harry and Daphne sat in the Great Hall behind her for lunch with Tracy and Astoria joining them. "I will not fit into my dress robes!"
"Oooh there's a tragedy," Tracy snapped as Fleur went out into the entrance hall. "She really thinks a lot of herself, that one, doesn't she?" Harry and Daphne gave each other a quick glance but said nothing.
"Tracy — who are you going to the ball with?" Harry asked, to which Tracy simply titled her head towards Theo who was having a discussion with Blaise. The last week had changed quite a lot in Hogwarts, as well as Magical Britain. By the most part, the change had been for the better.
Minerva Mcgonagall, upon becoming the Headmistress had hired a fellow Transfiguration Master, one Artemis Crackford, an ex-professor from Salem Academy in the states to come and teach at Hogwarts. Moody was doing a good enough job as DADA professor, so there was no point in changing it. Binns had been replaced with a young professor with high NEWTS in History of Magic—one Doris McDonald. The news of Professor Snape's death did not get any proper mention since he was already away from Hogwarts since the last couple of months, lying in a ward in Saint Mungo's. The entire Wizarding Britain had dissolved in a flurry of activity as the Ministry received a high influx of resumes from aspiring muggleborns who wanted a career with the Ministry. Wanting to move in with the rising tide, several other private firms and businesses too decided to adopt the new changes, finding it surprising that the new candidates might not have enough pure blood, but they were indeed hard working and diligent.
Back at Hogwarts, everyone was readying for the Yule Ball, which was supposed to be organized that very evening. Harry had done a very splendid job of asking Daphne to be his date, being as romantic in his way as he could. Daphne had blushed and accepted his request, making him stand up and kiss her in front of everyone, causing a lot of whistles and catcalls from the crowd. Fleur Delacour looked like someone had force-fed her a bad egg, but for some reason, she kept her grief to herself and did not cause any kind of scene.
Everyone in Hogwarts was in a festive mood. Everyone was busy talking about two things- one, what they expected from the Yule Ball, and two, who was taking whom. Neville was taking Ginny Weasley to the Ball, while the Weasley twins were taking the Gryffindor chasers—Angelina and Alicia. Draco Malfoy had asked Daphne's sister for the date, but the younger Greengrass had rejected him, and Malfoy had to turn to Parkinson instead.
For Hermione Granger, a lot had changed. Unlike everyone else, she had decided to stay in the library, reading her books instead. Since the start of the session, and especially after the break-up of the golden trio, Hermione had limited herself to the library, filling her life with books and knowledge. It was the only thing, which interested her anymore. Importantly, ever since Dumbledore had become Minister, things had changed a lot, and she found herself looking forward to finishing her NEWTS so that she could land up on a nice, Ministry job—preferably in the Care of magical creatures department and continue her efforts to promote S.P.E.W.
Spew…. Ron's voice came to her mind, almost drifting like waves in the air.
The poor boy had been possessed, and then had been reduced to a catatonic state, before the possessing spirit had decided to erase Ron's entire personality and his memories for good, reducing him to a vegetable-like state. Her best friend, Ron Weasley, was now a permanent member of the Saint Mungo's ward for permanent injuries.
She took a moment to ponder over it, wondering how so much had changed in so little time. The previous Christmas, she and Ron had been to Hogsmeade while Harry had joined them under his invisibility cloak. Now, only a year later, Ron was almost as good as dead. Harry had moved on with his life and his new girlfriend and Hermione was left all alone. While a part of her could not help but resent Harry for abandoning her, she knew that it wouldn't be fair. After all, hadn't she been the one who had resented it every time Harry had given a better performance in class than her? Hadn't she brought her petty ego between her friendship? Harry had simply gotten tired of it all and had moved on.
Perhaps I should try to apologize to him one last time…
Victor Krum had come to her and asked her to accompany him as his date, but Hermione had rejected his offer. In hindsight, it might not have been the best thing to do. After all, Victor was a champion and importantly, she could have enjoyed the Ball but no, she had put her foot on it and chosen to stay in the library and study. However, perhaps….
Harry would be at the Ball now, I garner…
Harry. Harry Potter.
Now though, he wasn't just that. He was the Lord Potter-Slytherin. Heir of Lord Black. He had the ear of the Minister—Albus Dumbledore. In one single session, he had freed Sirius and gotten Fudge removed only to get Dumbledore elected.
The best student in class. The most powerful wizard in school. The Triwizard Champion. The boy-who-lived.
Her best friend.
No. Her ex- best friend.
Maybe I should go and apologize to him…
She looked at the book opened in front of her. A strange revulsion hit her- these books were what had caused her to be filled with so much… so much…
Hermione sighed. Closing the book in hand, she slowly drew out of the empty Library room and slowly walked towards the Great Hall—, which had been transformed, into a huge ballroom for the night.
An area of lawn right in front of the castle had been transformed into a sort of grotto full of fairy lights — meaning hundreds of actual living fairies were sitting in the rosebushes that had been conjured there, and fluttering over the statues of what seemed to be Father Christmas and his reindeer. Hermione could see Professor Mcgonagall standing on one side of the antechamber, wearing dress robes of red tartan and had arranged a wreath of thistles around the brim of her hat.
The walls of the Hall had all been covered in sparkling silver frost, with hundreds of garlands of mistletoe and ivy crossing the starry black ceiling. The House tables had vanished; instead, there were about a hundred smaller, lantern-lit ones, each seating about a dozen people. She could see Ludo Bagman in robes of bright purple with large yellow stars, was clapping as enthusiastically as any of the students; and Madame Maxime, who had changed her usual uniform of black satin for a flowing gown of lavender silk, was busy talking to Professor Slughorn about something highly interesting. She could see Percy Weasley, ever the snob, talking pompously with others except when Barty Crouch called him over, while the Weasley twins were having a lot of fun with their respective dates—Angelina and Alicia. A part of her could not help but miss having fun, but she knew that it was not an option.
In the center of the raised platform, couples were dancing, holding each other close and enjoying themselves into the night. She could spot many familiar faces but there, almost in the center, dressed in impeccable black robes with green trimmings, was Harry. He looked very sharp tonight, Hermione observed. Her eyes darted towards the girl dancing with him elegantly- Daphne Greengrass, who wore a royal blue gown that complimented her eyes very nicely. Harry's arms were on her waist and she had her arms around his neck as they danced, and then they moved closer, kissing each other on the lips.
Hermione raised her hand to wave at Harry, but her mind told her that it was his right to enjoy the occasion. She could intervene between them on some other day, perhaps tomorrow or the day after. There was no hurry, after all. Sighing in contentment, she turned back to the doorway and took a step when-
Hermione turned back, only to see a smiling Neville walking towards her, Ginny Weasley on his arm. The other girl had been through a lot after what happened to her brother, but she seemed to hold on rather well. Neville looked pointedly at her school robes and asked, "Why aren't you enjoying the Ball? A lot of people actually thought that you had gone home for Christmas."
I wish I had gone home too.
"I just-I just wanted to talk to Harry about- well, just talk to him, you know." Hermione stammered all the way, not comfortable in speaking out her inner thoughts to someone else. Usually it was Harry (Ron did not have the emotional sense of a teaspoon) who gave her an ear to share such things and a shoulder to rest her head on. Now though….
Neville however, seemed to understand. "Should I, you know, call Harry or something?" He offered. Ginny cleared her throat rather loudly.
"Yes?" Neville asked.
"I think I need a drink. Do you need one, Hermione?" Ginny offered. Hermione just shook her head as Ginny went over to the bar to get a drink for herself, as Neville invited Hermione to sit beside him.
"She is still not comfortable about talking about Harry." He explained, "You know how Ron was possessed and had tried to fire the killing curse towards Harry and Greengrass and everything, and now Ron is-" he stopped suddenly as he realized who it was he was talking to, and instantly apologized. "I am sorry, Hermione, I didn't think and I-"
"It's okay, Neville." Hermione sighed sadly. "At least Harry is happy." She darted a glance towards her best friend who was happily kissing his girlfriend. Neville darted a glance towards them and remarked, "They are good for each other."
Hermione looked at him, surprised. "You know something?"
Neville nodded. "Her grandmother was Stephanie Greengrass nee Longbottom. We are cousins, though we never really knew each other well. She has been rather-" he hesitated, not sure what to say and what not, "- she didn't really have a happy friend circle, and even at Hogwarts, she stuck to her only friend, Davis."
"Yes. She has always had this… mask over her face, showing no emotion and pretending to be cold and cruel, when honestly, I think it is just a defense mechanism to prevent herself from getting emotionally hurt. Now, I see her laughing and having fun, just as Harry is having fun. They are good for each other."
Hermione had to agree, despite the odd feeling in her stomach.
"You sure I shouldn't call Harry? I am sure he would love to talk to you." Neville offered. Hermione shook her head. "No, its fine. I will see him later. See you, Neville."
Neville nodded at her and strode away towards the bar where Ginny was talking to Parvati Patil who had accompanied Justin Finch-fletchley to the Ball. Hermione simply walked out of the Great Hall, away from the lights, walking towards the library. She had just crossed the main corridor when-
Hermione spun back instantly, her sad black eyes meeting the bright brown eyes of one Ron Weasley, who was grinning at her, just as he always did.
"Ron-" the words died in her throat, as her mind registered who it was that was standing in front of her. "No, it can't be possible. Ron is- who are you?" Her eyes narrowed as she raised her wand.
"Who are you?"
"Hey Harry!" Neville called out, as Harry nodded back, "Enjoying the Ball?"
Harry just shrugged as he inclined his head towards Daphne. "She is a passable dancer, I guess,"—getting a kick on his shins from said girl.
"Oww." He muttered, causing Neville to smirk. "Bloody violent woman." He let Daphne go talk to her sister while he joined Neville at the bar. "What's up with you? Where is Ginny?"
"Gone to spend some time with her friends." Neville shrugged. "Besides, I had Hermione for company."
Harry raised his eyebrows. "Hermione? I didn't think she stayed for the Christmas holidays."
Neville looked a little uncertain before he replied. "She didn't seem well. Ron's fate has been quite hard on her." Harry' eyes steeled at the mention, before they softened, "What did she say?"
"Nothing much. She wanted to talk with you, but seeing you dance and all; she said that she would talk with you later."
Harry nodded understandably. A part of him couldn't help but feel that he had wronged his other best friend. While it was true that Hermione had a lot to do with Inferno Corp., it was also true that she did not want to destroy the Wizarding world like her successors at Inferno Corp. did. Besides, he thought, with the Ministry's new pro-muggleborn scheme, the chances of the birth of another Inferno Corp. was reduced significantly. While Hermione had become quite hard-hearted in the future, that had been more because of Ron's betrayal than anything else had.
Perhaps I have been too hard on her by abandoning her.
"Hey Neville? Where did she say she go?"
Neville looked surprised at his reaction, but then remembered that the two had after all, been best friends at one time. He smiled. "She went out of the hall, towards the main corridor, I think."
Harry smiled. "Thanks. I will see her now."
Neville seemed to debate something and then replied, "Hold on, I am coming too."
Harry looked at him skeptically. "Wouldn't Ginny be left alone?"
Neville looked at him sheepishly. "To be honest, Ginny kind of scares me, and my initial choice for the date was Hermione, but…." He blushed, "—she was kind of, unavailable, as you know."
Harry nodded. "I did not know you liked her."
Neville shrugged. "I fancied her for a while, but then realized that she was going to end up with either you or Ron. So, I decided to move on, but this year… with so much happening, I nearly forgot that I had a good chance with her."
"Anyway, let's go." Neville began to walk towards the oak doors, with Harry swiftly following behind.
"Let me go, whoever you are, just let me go…." Hermione begged, as she was dragged into the first-floor girl's corridor. Her body was tied in thick ropes. Her entire body was under some kind of petrifaction hex, as the person who was imposing as Ron Weasley dragged her across the floor.
"This is where it all started, isn't it Hermione?" Ron sneered, kicking her in the abdomen as she cried out in pain. "Remember how I used the levitation charm successfully for the first time? I guess I should thank you for that. After all, it was you who corrected me from Leviosaaa to Levioh-sa." He grinned as he waved his wand, levitating her upward by a few feet and then allowing her to fall on the ground with a great thud. The broken glasses on the floor cut into her skin as her blood oozed out, mixing with the water on the floor.
"Please..." Hermione begged. A part of her began to worry if this actually was Ron Weasley, and if so, why was he torturing her? "Yes... But why are you hurting me, Ron?"
"Me?" Ron's eyes went feral, as she glimpsed a rising madness in their depths. "Me hurt you? No-no-no-no no-no-no…, I did not hurt you. You. Hurt. Me." He punctuated his words as he sent cutting hexes towards her torso, tearing her dress and cutting into her skin. Then he strode towards her and gripped her hand tightly. "Remember how you punched Malfoy in the face? You always had a good right-hook." He grinned evilly as he whipped his wand and hurled bone-breakers at her arms, making her scream more and more.
"Ah, I think others aren't being able to hear you. Tell you what? Let me help you. Perhaps then, Harry will be able to come and save his Hermione…. Big bad Dark Lord Harry Potter come to save the day like always…. Nevertheless, you know what? He won't be able to save you this time…" He cast a Sonorous over her face as he ignited a tiny flame at the tip of his wand. His eyes glinted madly. "So scream!"
Harry and Neville crossed the main corridor only to climb up the stairs when they heard a sudden sound coming from behind one of the pillars. Harry quickly sidestepped and stood in front of a rather scantily clad Tracy and a shirtless Theo who seemed to have been quite immersed in their passions tonight.
"Harrrrry!" Tracy yelled, as she hid behind Theo, waving her wand and trying to conjure some robes for herself. Theo glared at the boy who only smirked back.
"What the hell, Potter? Shouldn't you be spending some time with your girlfriend instead of peeking into other's private matters?"
"Well Daphne has gone to meet her sister and- anyway I and Neville were going to see-" His remaining words left unsaid in his throat when a heart-wrenching scream stirred the air.
"HERMIONE!" Both Harry and Neville yelled out, recognizing the voice. They darted off instantly, swiftly followed by Tracy and Theo into the first-floor girl's bathroom. Finding it closed, Neville tried an unlocking charm, but it didn't work.
"Damn!" Cried Neville helplessly. Apparently, Harry had other ideas as he focused on his magic and punched through the door, creating a hole through it. He hit the door a second time with his open palm and it banged open.
The first thing that they saw was the bloody red water inundating the entire floor. With uncertain steps, the four entered into the bathroom. The cubicles were broken, with blood lining the walls and there in one side was-
Neville leapt forward, trying to get to the girl, who lay on the ground. Her entire dress was torn, her body mutilated, with one eye completely burnt off and blood was oozing out of her entire body. Neville pulled her over to her lap as he turned back to see a shell-shocked Harry Potter standing like a statue. "HARRY DO SOMETHING!"
His words seemed too bring him back as he lurched and fell on the ground, close to Neville. His hands shivered as he slowly led them towards the mutilated girl….
Hermione Granger was dead.
"Harry… Harry... Look there!" Tracy was saying. Harry glanced at the direction she was pointing. There on the wall, written with what he assumed to be Hermione's blood, were written the ominous words Harry had never expected to see."
MERRY CHRISTMAS, DARK LORD HARRY POTTER!
ENJOY YOUR GIFT!
### Hello everyone. I know I have had been away for a while now, my longest break so far, but there was a massive change in my work schedule and I wasn't finding any time to work on my stories. Although my work schedule hasn't quite changed, but I have managed to squirrel some time out of it so that I can continue updating my works. Hope you like the chapter.