Hermione sat cross-legged on the bed in the hospital wing, her back propped against the pillows. Harry slept in the bed next to her, still curled into Sirius' side.
She could practically feel the restlessness rolling off Sirius—Pettigrew, a man he had escaped prison to kill, was three floors above them in this castle, and she knew the only thing keeping him from finishing his task was the fact that Harry had reached for him and wanted him here.
He looked wholly uncomfortable in the hospital wing, and yet he also looked wholly unwilling to move from his godson.
She couldn't blame him on either count. He'd spent the past few months in a cave and was who-knows-where before that, and while his cave was furnished, she supposed it had been a long time since he'd been anywhere as normal and mundane as the hospital wing, with its white aesthetic, clean sheets and comfy mattresses.
And if Harry were clutching to her the way he was clutching to Sirius, she wouldn't want to move either.
Molly was pacing back and forth, wringing her hands, while Bill and Ron talked quietly in the chairs next to an empty bed. Lupin was in conversation with Madam Pomfrey.
Neville sat across from Hermione, looking as lost in his thoughts as she was.
It had been a horrific night.
First, there'd been the moment when Harry's name had disappeared from the map. She'd felt her stomach lurch and her brain go fuzzy, like she couldn't quite see or hear properly. Like she couldn't even move.
Lupin could though, and he raced to the judges' table to alert Professor Dumbledore. But before they could figure out what had happened, there had been the purple sparks—someone had won—and the professors who were patrolling the maze had moved in to pull the champions out.
How they'd somehow missed Harry disappearing, she'd never understand.
She remembered moving toward the judges' table, clutching Neville—she still wasn't certain if he'd pulled her up and dragged her there, or if she'd done it for him, or if they'd somehow managed to take turns pulling the other, pushing themselves past their worry for Harry—but then she was at the judges' table, listening as Dumbledore questioned the other champions.
Fleur had been the last to hear Harry—he'd immobilized something and then passed out of earshot.
Professor Moody and Professor McGonagall found the fallen graphorn, found the blood on its horns, and Hermione tried very hard not to think about where that could have connected with Harry, but there were no other signs of him—no signs of struggle, no signs of a fight with anything besides the graphorn. He was just gone.
It could have been minutes, it could have been hours, it could have been days—however long it was, it felt like an eternal agony. She'd dedicated this entire year to keeping Harry safe and she had failed miserably.
As she stood out there on that cold quidditch pitch, she could feel Neville's arm around her shoulders, could hear Remus offering reassuring words, but it all felt hollow, and all she felt was numb. She had failed.
She had failed Harry.
All she had ever wanted to do was keep him safe, but she hadn't been enough.
She'd gotten lost in her worst thoughts, and then felt absentmindedly for her wand, before she remembered she didn't have it. It was with Harry. Harry, who always figured out a way, Harry, who always knew exactly what to do when things seemed desperate—and then, like a beacon, she heard his voice. They all did.
"Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore."
And then Dumbledore was gone.
"It'll be all right," Mrs. Weasley declared, her face white. "Dumbledore's with him now, so he'll be safe."
Her voice was shaking, but she seemed so sure.
And then there was more waiting. Interminable waiting.
The night grew colder, and there was a buzzing from the crowd, most of whom were still sitting in the stands. Ludo Bagman disappeared, and then so did Karkaroff.
Viktor said something to her at some point—his expression pained, his eyes haunted. He'd believed Harry from the moment they'd told the other champions about Barty Crouch Jr. He'd also been determined to see nothing bad happen this night.
And then Professor McGonagall had gotten the message from Professor Dumbledore—Harry was back.
Relief replaced the terror she felt and for the first time that night, she let the tears flow. Harry was safe.
Professor McGonagall tried to make them all go to the hospital wing instead of to Harry. The other champions and Luna followed her orders, and Mrs. Weasley told Fred, George and Ginny in no uncertain terms to return to Gryffindor Tower—there'd be enough of a crowd in the hospital wing—and then tried to herd Hermione along with her, Bill and Ron, but Hermione had jerked out of her reach.
Mrs. Weasley had looked at her, shock evident on her face.
"Hermione, don't you want to see Harry?"
Of course she did, but there was no force on this earth that could make her sit around the hospital wing waiting for Harry to turn up when he was somewhere in the castle.
Wordlessly, she'd turned from Mrs. Weasley, looking for something, anything—she didn't know what, but she found it in Lupin.
He was staring at the map again, white-faced, his eyes hard.
"Let's go," he said, his voice strangely choked, stalking after Professor McGonagall and all of the other teachers and ministry officials who'd surrounded her. Hermione and Neville quickly complied, practically running to catch up with Remus' quick strides.
There was no conceivable way Hermione would have accepted going to the hospital wing to just wait but she was glad to have an adult in her corner who understood that she had to see Harry now.
He looked awful. His clothes were ripped and bloody, his face dirty, but the worst were his eyes—detached and lost and just… she'd run to him and hugged him, and the second she'd felt his arms around her and his breath tickling her neck and her hair, she'd felt right for the first time all night.
She hadn't even noticed the reason for Lupin's agitation when he looked at the map—Pettigrew—or the two bodies in the corner. All she'd seen was Harry.
But then she had seen Pettigrew. And then Dumbledore told them You-Know-Who was back. Harry had fought him—and not him as a wraith or a memory from a book, but as a wizard at full power.
Even as she'd felt the panic and the fear at what all this meant for their future, she couldn't help but marvel at Harry's talent—he'd fought You-Know-Who and lived… he really was a great wizard.
But now Harry was asleep, Dumbledore was gone and everyone else was left with questions. Remus had filled the others in on what they'd learned in Dumbledore's office, but no one knew much more than that.
Except Hermione had a sinking feeling she knew exactly how Harry was taken from the maze. There was no other reason for Winky to be there. And now she was dead.
Hermione had failed her, too.
She sighed, glancing back at Harry and Sirius—the way Sirius was watching his godson, the intensity of the love and affection he clearly felt for Harry made her look away, like she had spied on something private, something special for just the two of them… a proper family.
Mrs. Weasley was still pacing, but from the disconcerted look on her face, she had been watching them, too.
Hermione felt the bed springs beneath her shift as a restless Neville got up to pace over to the open window, gulping in fresh air.
It was going to be a long night.
Hermione heard the harsh whispers before she saw anything, and realized she had dozed off, still half-sitting in the bed. She opened her eyes—someone had thrown a blanket over her—and saw Remus, Madam Pomfrey and Mrs. Weasley conferring furiously.
"He's going to wake up the whole castle!" Mrs. Weasley whisper screamed.
"Don't they know this is a hospital wing?" Madam Pomfrey offered, affronted.
There was a loud clamoring and a slamming door, and then Fudge swept into the hospital wing, followed by Dolores Umbridge, Amelia Bones, Amos Diggory, Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape.
"Where's Dumbledore?" Fudge demanded, wheeling on Madam Pomfrey and Remus.
Madam Pomfrey looked perplexed. "He's not here," she said. "He was going to go meet you. But—"
"Well, he didn't come meet us, and I want to know what he's up to!" Fudge shouted, whirling around, looking for someone else to have answers.
"Keep your voice down!" Madam Pomfrey admonished. "This is a hospital wing and patients are trying to sleep."
But Fudge's eyes had settled on Sirius, who had risen from the bedside, half-standing in front of Harry.
Fudge raised a stubby finger at Sirius, his face blustery. "It's Sirius Black!" he yelled. "Arrest him!"
Hermione felt the alarm rise through her. Remus and Professor McGonagall glanced to each other, communicating something Hermione didn't understand, but which she believed to mean they'd help Sirius escape if need be.
Snape's eyes glittered meanly, as if he'd like to do nothing more than send Sirius back to Azkaban.
Madam Bones, however, raised one eyebrow.
"I will do no such thing, Minister," she said, "given what we've just heard."
"The man is still a fugitive, Amelia," Umbridge said in a cloying voice. "Surely, he should be apprehended until the Wizengamot decides what to do."
Amelia shot her an incredulous look. "Considering we've just seen Peter Pettigrew alive and well, and heard him admit to a plot to kidnap Harry Potter, and back up what Alastor Moody said about his own kidnapping—not to mention the tattoo of the dark mark on his arm—I surely think not," she replied, her distaste evident.
Hermione looked to Sirius and Harry. Sirius' face was blank, but to her surprise, Harry was now awake and listening to every word.
Her heart leapt at the hope in his eyes.
"Tell me, Mr. Black, do you have any tattoos on your arms?"
Sirius blinked, perhaps because he was not used to being called Mr. Black, perhaps because Madam Bones' question seemed so unusual, but with Harry prodding along to help, he raised his sleeves to show his bare forearms.
"Exactly as I thought," Madam Bones said, nodding to Harry.
"But that doesn't mean—"
"This man spent more than a decade in Azkaban for a crime he did not commit," Bones snapped. "My team is making arrangements to call the Wizengamot in session tomorrow to rectify this mistake."
She turned to Sirius. "Mr. Black," she said, "I know this must be small comfort to you considering all you've been through, but on behalf of this administration and the last, I apologize for what you've had to endure these past 13 years."
She gave him a considering glance and then added, "If I were you, I'd sue."
Hermione half expected Sirius to laugh, but he looked utterly perplexed—at her tone, at the words he was hearing, at the idea that his life wouldn't be a relentless misery for once.
"Sirius," Harry said, and that single word seemed to break through to him, because Sirius' face cleared and he looked down at Harry. Their eyes met, and the emotion they both felt was evident as they broke out into hesitant smiles.
Harry had never had a home or a family, and Sirius had gotten so used to hopelessness, but now they could somehow muddle through together. This had been a truly awful night but at least two good things had come out of it—Sirius was free and Harry would never have to go back to the Dursleys again.
"Well, he can't just roam around freely until the Wizengamot meets," Fudge protested.
"Why not?" Professor McGonagall asked dryly. "He's been roaming around for the past two years, hasn't he?"
"Besides," Professor McGonagall continued, "I'm quite certain that Albus will be happy to act as Sirius Black's custodian until the Wizengamot can meet tomorrow."
"As Chief Warlock, he's imminently capable of that role," Amelia Bones agreed.
Fudge seemed to remember his original ire. "Yes, and where is Dumbledore exactly?" he asked irritably, looking around again.
"I'm right here," Dumbledore's voice called out calmly from the doorway, and the crowd parted to allow him in. He was followed by the blonde man who had questioned Hermione along with Madam Bones at her hearing.
Dumbledore surveyed the crowd. "And Minerva is quite right, of course," he said. "I'm happy to take responsibility for Sirius and ensure he arrives at his Wizengamot hearing. Amelia, I trust you found your conversation with Peter Pettigrew enlightening?"
"Not quite," Professor McGonagall sniped.
Dumbledore looked to her, alarmed. "What happened?" he demanded. "And where is Alastor?"
"Moody is with Shacklebolt and Turner, helping to transfer Pettigrew," Bones explained. "Seems he didn't think the job would be done properly if not for him."
"And why shouldn't he think that," Professor McGonagall shouted, pointing a shaky finger at Fudge and Umbridge, "after what these two tried to pull!"
"Minerva?" Dumbledore questioned.
Professor McGonagall shot Fudge and Umbridge an angry, venomous look. "These two had the genius idea to invite a dementor up to your office—"
"As Minister, it's my decision if I wish to bring protection along when questioning a dangerous criminal for—"
"The moment that thing came in the room, it swooped down on Pettigrew and—"
"Was he kissed?" Dumbledore asked sharply.
Professor McGonagall's mouth was set in a grim line. "No," she said, "but only because Alastor was too quick for it."
Constant vigilance, Hermione thought, silently grateful for their paranoid professor.
"The situation was well in hand," Fudge protested grumpily.
Professor Dumbledore looked to Amelia Bones, who shook her head apologetically.
"I didn't arrive until after the questioning," she explained, "but Moody had the dementor situation well-sorted."
"In any case," Snape added, his voice low, looking at Dumbledore, "when the Minister questioned Pettigrew, he told quite a different tale than you told us. The veritaserum had already lost its effects, and the Minister would not allow me to administer more."
"Why not?" Harry piped up, outraged.
Umbridge gave him a condescending smile. "Veritaserum is not admissible in the court of law," she said, "so any evidence gathered with its use is void."
"Besides," Amelia added, her voice heavy, "wizards can learn to throw off the effects of veritaserum—it's one of the first things those in Voldemort's circle learn how to do."
She shot a contemplative glance at Snape as she said that.
"What did Pettigrew tell you?" Dumbledore asked evenly.
"Well, he admitted to being a Death Eater," Fudge said.
"He had to," Amos Diggory piped up, with an awkward glance at Snape, "after your Potions professor practically ripped off Pettigrew's arm to show us his tattoo."
Hermione frowned. She'd noticed Snape had looked at Pettigrew venomously earlier, but she had assumed that had to do with his age-old grudge against the marauders. But the look in his eye now, even just talking about Pettigrew—this felt like something more.
Fudge cleared his throat. "Pettigrew admitted he worked with Barty Crouch Jr. to kidnap Alastor Moody and Harry Potter. The pair of them cooked up a whole plot to get revenge on the boy," he said.
"And Voldemort?" Dumbledore asked.
Fudge blanched. "What about him?"
"What did Pettigrew tell you about Voldemort's return?" Dumbledore asked.
"Hem, hem," Umbridge interrupted. "As I informed you, Minister, Dumbledore and Potter have come up with this…story… about You-Know-Who's return. No doubt part of Dumbledore's plot against you."
Fudge looked satisfied with that answer, and shot Dumbledore a hard look.
"Now, see here, Dumbledore,—"
"You're honestly going to take the word of a traitorous weasel like Pettigrew over Albus Dumbledore?" Sirius snapped, his tone menacing, his eyes glittering.
Fudge puffed up his chest. "Well, it's that weasel's words that are getting you out of trouble," he shot back, "unless you're saying he's lying about that?"
Sirius narrowed his eyes at Fudge, and from the way Fudge's eyes widened and he stepped back, he was clearly still afraid of the myth that was Sirius Black.
"Besides," Fudge added, "why would Pettigrew tell us half the truth and then lie about the rest?"
"Perhaps because that's what Voldemort wanted him to do," Dumbledore reasoned.
On the surface, his tone seemed amiable, like this was an intellectual discussion in the classroom, but coupled with his self-assured stance and the commanding way he was looking at Fudge, it was clear he was anything but deadly serious.
"Voldemort will want to delay any action that we might take against him—and what better way to do that then to convince the Minister for Magic that he's not back?" Dumbledore asked.
At Fudge's thunderstruck look, Dumbledore added, "But I assure you, Cornelius, he is back."
Dumbledore relayed the whole story—the potion that returned Voldemort to his body, Harry and Dumbledore dueling him, how Voldemort fled.
Fudge's face was white and the room was filled with silence.
A loud crash behind her jolted Hermione—and everyone—as they swiveled toward the window, which was now closed.
"Sorry," Neville muttered, red-faced. "Hand slipped. You, er, know how clumsy I am."
Hermione eyed him closely. Something didn't seem right.
When everyone else turned away, he grinned at her, holding up the jar she'd given him earlier—he had caught Rita Skeeter!
The jolt seemed to awaken Fudge who just kept muttering, "Well, that's just… preposterous. You-Know-Who back? It's ridiculous, it's insane, it's…"
He looked helplessly toward Umbridge.
"With only the word of the man who's trying to steal the Minister's job and"—she looked to Harry—"his puppet—"
Harry looked outraged, but it was Dumbledore who spoke first.
"If I wanted your job, I would have had it decades ago, Cornelius," Dumbledore interrupted, his eyes hard, his voice full of conviction. He was a powerful force, and Hermione could not look away—no one could.
"Now is not the time for petty displays. Lord Voldemort has returned, and you can either become known as the most courageous Minister who ever lived or the one who did nothing to stop his second rise. You must send envoys to the giants, you must remove the dementors from Azkaban—"
"Are you mad?" Fudge screeched. "I'll be run out of office if I do that!"
"And what do you think they'll do if you allow Voldemort to regain support unchecked?" Dumbledore asked.
"There's no proof other than Dumbledore's word," Umbridge interrupted, sneering when she said Dumbledore's name.
"I showed you your proof on Pettigrew's arm," Snape snapped, pushing back his sleeve and showing a very large tattoo of the dark mark practically pulsating on his skin. "It's been getting clearer all year—it's why Karkaroff turned tail and ran tonight."
"We're not going to throw the wizarding world into chaos over a tattoo," Umbridge sniffed.
"It's not just a tattoo!" Harry snarled. "It's what Professor Dumbledore and I saw too! I saw him, I fought him! I—"
Umbridge raised her eyebrow incredulously. "You expect us to believe a 14-year-old boy dueled You-Know-Who and survived?" she asked condescendingly.
"Why not?" Hermione asked scathingly. "You've all got no problem believing he survived You-Know-Who when he was one."
Umbridge stared at Hermione like she was something stuck to the bottom of her shoe, but the blonde man who had walked in with Dumbledore cleared his throat.
"Yes, Baker?" Amelia Bones asked.
He looked around nervously.
"As you instructed, my team and I met Albus Dumbledore at the graveyard where this all took place," he said. "There were obvious signs of a fight, as well as a cauldron still filled with the remnants of a potion. We've taken it back to the Ministry to study it, but there was the distinct scent of dittany and lavender."
Snape looked up sharply. "Dittany and lavender picked at the summer solstice are basic ingredients in most rejuvenation potions," he said, shooting an acidic look at Umbridge.
Dumbledore fixed Fudge with a hard stare. "Lord Voldemort has returned," he repeated. "There is no time for inaction, no place for delay. If you will not do what needs to be done, then we must have a parting of the ways—and I will do what needs to be done."
Fudge's eyes widened. "Is that a threat?" he stuttered.
"The only person I threaten is Voldemort," Dumbledore answered, "and I would much rather work with you than against you on that."
Fudge gaped, opening and closing his mouth. "He just can't be…"
Hermione was reminded of Remus' words just earlier that day—how could it possibly have been the same day? Fudge would rather clutch to a familiar truth than embrace a new one. He'd already relented enough to believe in Sirius' innocence—but You-Know-Who's return seemed to be too much for him.
With one last lost look at Dumbledore, Fudge muttered, "Let's go," to Umbridge and left.
Everyone else was silent. Hermione surveyed Harry, who looked lost and defeated. She slid off her bed and onto his, reaching for his hand.
At her touch, he looked up, surprised, as if he hadn't expected anyone to be there.
"Amelia—" Dumbledore started to say, but she held up her hands and interrupted him.
"I know," she said, her voice resigned. "Let's see what happens when I interrogate Pettigrew. I may not be able to use veritaserum, but I know a bit more about interrogation than a former obliviator and a bureaucrat."
Amelia Bones moved closer to Dumbledore. "He might still come around, Albus," she whispered urgently. "Cornelius can be stubborn, but he's no Voldemort supporter. Give my team time to study the evidence from the graveyard, give me time to get a better confession out of Pettigrew—all isn't lost."
"Even so, Amelia, we cannot wait for Cornelius to have his hand held," he said.
Madam Bones nodded.
"I trust you'll—"
Madam Bones nodded again, and then she and Baker swept out of the room.
Dumbledore looked around. "Amos?" he asked.
Amos Diggory's face was red, his eyes still as shell-shocked as they'd been when he'd seen Barty Crouch Sr. dead in Dumbledore's office.
Hermione had never much liked him—his attitude toward Harry when they'd taken that portkey together had been enough to put her off him—but he was friends with Alastor Moody and Arthur Weasley. That had to count for something.
"Whatever you need, Albus," he said, and he and Molly—on Arthur's behalf—agreed to start looping in as many witches and wizards at the Ministry as they could.
"I can talk to the goblins," Bill added, "though they may take awhile."
Mrs. Weasley, tears in her eyes, wrapped Harry up in one last hug. She seemed reluctant to leave him, but Dumbledore had given her a task—and with one last considering glance at Sirius, she motioned for her sons to follow her and Amos out.
"I want to stay!" Ron practically shouted, looking to Harry. "I've got to stay with—"
"You can see Harry tomorrow!" Mrs. Weasley said forcefully. "He needs his rest anyway, and we've got to go back to Gryffindor Tower, see your siblings and—"
"What for?" Ron asked miserably, glancing again toward the bed where Harry, Hermione and Sirius were.
The tears had started leaking down Mrs. Weasley's face as she stared at Ron, red-faced. "Because You-Know-Who has returned and I'd like a moment with my children!" she cried.
Ron looked remorseful. Charlie and Percy weren't in the castle, but the rest of the Weasley kids were, and it wasn't unreasonable for Mrs. Weasley to want them all together for a moment.
Bill placed his arm on Ron's shoulder, as if to lead him out, but Ron had already resigned himself to it.
"Good night," Ron said, clearly not wanting to leave. But with a promise not to let on to the Gryffindors exactly what had happened here tonight until Dumbledore had a chance to address it, the Weasleys were gone.
Remus left to alert the old crowd—the Order of the Phoenix, she presumed—and Snape left for some unsaid task. Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore soon followed, whispering furiously. Madam Pomfrey busied herself with potions.
Neville hovered by the window—Hermione assumed he didn't want Rita to overhear Harry's next words—leaving Harry, Hermione and Sirius alone around Harry's bed.
"It's all my fault," Harry whispered.
"What?" Hermione asked, looking at him sharply.
"I knew," Harry said. "When I captured Pettigrew, I could've killed him, could've kept him from talking, but I thought… I thought he'd want to save his own skin. I thought he'd talk."
Harry let out a bitter laugh. "And he did," he said. "He lied to save his own skin. He said what he knew Fudge wanted to hear, what Voldemort wanted him to say—that Voldemort wasn't back. I should've known better."
He looked so lost, so angry with himself, and Hermione just wanted to make him feel better.
"You did the right thing, Harry," Hermione insisted. "If Pettigrew hadn't been alive, Fudge probably would've tried to make it sound like Sirius was in on it too. At least this way, Pettigrew cleared Sirius."
"She's right," Sirius added, his voice gravelly. "You heard Minerva. The dementor went straight for Pettigrew—likely on orders. Umbridge and Fudge didn't want him to talk. Umbridge knew what Dumbledore had said about Voldemort. She was looking to keep him from talking."
Sirius looked troubled. "I don't know what her motives are," he said, "but Fudge's are clear. Voldemort's return is a problem that requires a competent, decisive leader—and that's not him. Better to pretend it didn't happen, to pretend this is all some plot that Dumbledore hatched."
"Do you think Fudge will try to go easy on him?" Harry asked. "Because Pettigrew said what he wanted?"
"If he does, it won't be for long," Sirius said, his tone menacing.
Harry and Hermione exchanged a fearful glance.
"You're not… going to go breaking into Azkaban, are you?" Harry asked, clearly torn. He wanted justice too, but not at the expense of Sirius.
Thirteen years ago, Sirius had left Harry with Hagrid to go chasing revenge against Peter—and Harry's life had been all the worse for it.
Sirius looked down at Harry again, and the darkness in his eyes cleared a little. He ran a hand down the back of Harry's head, patting his shoulder.
"I promise I'll be around this time," he said, his voice gruff.
Harry nodded, and glanced down, a small smile on his face.
They both looked a little uncomfortable, so Hermione cleared her throat.
"So what happens now?" she asked. "Can the Ministry possibly just ignore this?"
Sirius considered that. "The lengths the Ministry will go through to ignore things are immeasurable," he said, "but we've got Dumbledore's word that he saw Voldemort—and Dumbledore's word will go a long way with a lot of wizards. You saw Bones tonight—she believed him, and so did Amos Diggory. The truth will come out eventually."
The door to the hospital wing opened, and Dumbledore appeared once again.
"Sirius? A word?" he asked, gesturing for Sirius to follow him out.
Sirius gripped Harry's shoulder one last time, promising to return as quickly as he could, and then he left.
Madam Pomfrey surveyed the three of them. She looked tired.
"You really should take another sleeping draught," she said, placing one by Harry's bedside.
With a rueful grin, she added, "But I know you won't. I'll give you until Sirius Black returns—and then your friends have to leave and you'll have to take your potion."
Madam Pomfrey sighed, sliding her hands over her face. "I'm going to go have a spot of tea."
Harry and Hermione glanced at each other as she went into her office and closed the door. They'd been in the hospital wing enough times to know what that meant. Madam Pomfrey was about to doze off.
Harry drummed his fingers on his sheet nervously. Hermione pulled her knees up, hugging her legs to her chest.
"What are you thinking?" she asked, eyeing him carefully.
"Eventually isn't good enough," Harry practically growled. "That'll give Voldemort plenty of time… to… to… well I don't know exactly what, but time to do anything isn't good."
"Dumbledore's trying to get the word out," Hermione pointed out. "The Weasleys and the Diggorys and Madam Bones are well connected."
"Still," Harry said, "there's got to be a better way to make everyone believe us now. If enough people believe Voldemort's back—won't that force Fudge to do something?"
Hermione's stomach lurched, and two memories drifted to the forefront of her mind: The first was Augusta Longbottom, perched on an armchair in the Ministry, telling her that it wasn't enough to just be smart—you had to know how to use it. The second was Remus Lupin in a dimly lit cave, explaining that sometimes in war you had to work with people who did despicable things.
"Harry," she said slowly, feeling the weight of her plan, "I think I know exactly how we can do that."
She bit her lip, glancing significantly in Neville's direction. Harry followed her gaze.
"Neville caught Rita," she whispered.
She watched Harry's eyes widen, as her meaning became clearer.
He had looked numb when they first arrived in the hospital wing, and defeated when they were discussing Pettigrew. But now, knowing that there was something he could do, some way that he could help, it was like he had gotten a second wind. He grinned.
With a quick glance toward Madam Pomfrey's office, Hermione motioned Neville over and pulled the privacy screen around Harry's bed. It wouldn't keep anyone from overhearing them, but it would at least hide Rita Skeeter from view.
Besides, she knew from experience that as long as they didn't start shouting, Madam Pomfrey was out for the night. And, hopefully, Sirius and Dumbledore wouldn't try to stop their plan if they walked in.
Hermione gestured to Neville's pocket.
"Let me see her," she said, and Neville handed over the jar.
Hermione held it up to her eye, inspecting it.
"I'm going to release you now," she said, "because we need to talk. But if you try to escape before we do, just know that Amelia Bones will be the first person I tell your secret to."
She uncapped the jar and the beetle flew out, transforming into an acid-tongued reporter. Rita crossed her arms and raised her eyebrow at Hermione, clearly expecting her to speak first.
"I assume you heard everything tonight," Hermione said.
"Quite a tale Dumbledore weaves," Rita Skeeter answered. "He should've gone into storytelling."
Hermione gave her a hard look. "It was the truth," she snapped.
"Or he really is trying to steal Fudge's job and inciting panic about You-Know-Who is just the way to do it," Rita said airily, with a quick glance toward Harry. "And Harry Potter—well, that boy just loves the attention, doesn't he?"
Hermione was consumed by the urge to slap her, but Harry's voice rang out, "You don't believe that."
Rita looked at Harry appraisingly. "And why's that? Because you're special? Because you're the Boy Who Lived?"
"Because if all I cared about was attention, I would've been your best friend all year," Harry said coldly.
Rita raised her eyebrow. "It doesn't matter what I believe," she said frostily. "It only matters what story will sell."
"Oh, but Rita," Hermione said sweetly, "you can sell just about anything and people will believe you."
She looked down at her fingers, which still bore scars from the hate mail she'd endured thanks to Rita's lies.
"I'm living proof of that, aren't I?" Hermione asked, holding up her hand for Rita to see.
Rita shifted, placing her hands on her hips. "Just what are you proposing?" she asked.
"The way I see it, you have three choices," Hermione explained. "One, you can print lies about Harry—and I'll report you to Madam Bones for being an unregistered animagus, and the only story you'll be telling is from a cell in Azkaban. Perhaps they'll place you next to Pettigrew. Two, you can refrain from ever writing anything ever again, and we'll keep your secret.
"Or," Hermione added, "you can write the story as it was told tonight—just the facts, exactly as Dumbledore laid them out earlier, exactly as Harry tells you now—and you'll have it printed in tomorrow's edition of The Daily Prophet."
Rita narrowed her eyes. "The Prophet will never go for it," she said. "It's not a story people want to hear."
"So The Prophet exists to tell people exactly what they want?" Hermione asked angrily. "And not the truth?"
Rita laughed, pinning Hermione with a condescending glare. "The Prophet exists to make money," she spat, "and it can't do that if people don't want to read it."
Hermione smiled. "Funny, I'm no expert, but I'd think any paper could make quite a lot of money off a sensational story like You-Know-Who's return," she said. "It's a bit more interesting than the goings on at a boarding school, which you've done well enough with."
"Besides, Rita," Neville pointed out, "you've made a career out of making Cornelius Fudge look like a blithering idiot. What's one more story?"
"If anyone can get The Prophet to run this story, it's you," Hermione added, appealing to her ego. "Though it would probably be easier sooner rather than later—before Fudge tries anything."
She knew one thing—they had to control the story before Fudge and Umbridge had time to do so. Right now, they were busy dealing with Pettigrew and Madam Bones, but if she gave them time, who knows what story they'd spew to The Daily Prophet?
Hermione walked over to the cupboard where she knew Madam Pomfrey kept a stack of loose parchment, an inkwell and a quill for students stuck in the hospital wing.
"So," she said, holding out the quill, "do we have a deal? Or is it early retirement for you?"
Rita glanced between the three Gryffindors, shooting them all a venomous look.
"I'd decide quickly if I were you, Rita," Harry added coolly. "You never know when Professor Dumbledore and Sirius will return—and they might not be as generous with you as we are."
She regarded Harry and then something in her eyes shifted, and Hermione knew even before Rita reached for the quill that she was going to tell the story of her lifetime.