Chapter 2: Too High a Cost
Slowly, consciousness returned to Hermione Granger. She could tell it was early morning as she yawned and stretched. This was only confirmed by the time displayed by the clock on her nightstand: 6:30. There was no sound in the dorm the other girls must still be asleep.
Suddenly, the events of the night before came roaring back to Hermione in a torrent. Oh Merlin, Ron! The Philosopher's Stone! Oh good God, Harry!
To be perfectly honest, she had dreaded leaving him alone down in that chamber to face whatever was through the fire. But she knew she had a duty to help Ron too; he'd been unconscious and hadn't looked well at all. So she'd used that famous Wingardium Leviosa spell, the spell that had started the unusual friendship of their trio, and levitated Ron to the hospital wing, where Madame Pomfrey had immediately started fussing over him. Hermione had begged to stay with him, also wanting to wait for news on Harry, but the Mediwitch saw her exhaustion and was very firm that she had to go back to her dorm with a Dreamless Sleeping potion. Knowing a fight lost when she saw one, she had obeyed.
But, now her fear mounted like never before as she got up and dressed. She had to get to Ron and Harry, right this moment. Merlin, were they okay? Had Harry been a martyr and gotten himself killed? Please don't let that have happened, she thought desperately as she quietly left her dorm room and travelled downstairs to the common room.
And standing there was none other than a drained, exhausted-looking Minerva McGonagall. It looked as though she'd been waiting for her.
"Professor?" Hermione whispered in a fear-laden voice. "How did you know ..."
"I know how long those Dreamless Sleep potions last, Miss Granger." McGonagall said in a softer tone than she had ever used on her before. This only made Hermione more scared. "Come with me."
And Hermione didn't ask any questions as she followed her Head of House to the hospital wing. Something was wrong. The leaden feeling in her stomach told her so. The expression on McGonagall's face told her so. The way the woman walked, as though she had the weight of the entire world on her shoulders, told her so.
Soon enough, they reached the hospital wing doors. Minerva quietly opened them and led Hermione inside. "Albus?" she called softly. "Albus?"
"I'm here, Minerva." Albus Dumbledore spoke as he made his way to the two. "I knew you would come. Poppy doesn't like the fact that Mr. Weasley is out of bed, but he needs to know what's happened, as does Miss Granger."
"So ... Ron's okay then?" Hermione said barely audibly.
"Mr. Weasley sustained a concussion, but he is healing." Dumbledore laid a gentle hand on Hermione's shoulder. When she looked into his face, her stomach sank to the ground. He looked ... old. Very, very old. And very, very sad.
Her entire body seizing up and going numb, Hermione followed the adults on autopilot to Madame Pomfrey's office. Ron was there, looking white and shaken. Hermione ran to him and embraced him, tears already dripping down her face. He held her shakily, desperately. Because really, both of them already knew the truth.
They sat down in comfortable chairs, and they were silent for several minutes. But finally, the quiet was broken by Ron. "Wha ... what happened?" he croaked. "Where's Harry?"
"After you told me he had gone to save the Stone, Miss Granger," Dumbledore said gently, "I immediately went to find him. He was in the last chamber, fighting off Professor Quirrell."
"Quirrell?" Ron blurted out. "But I thought ..."
"No, Mr. Weasley. It was not Severus in that chamber." Dumbledore said quietly, and Ron snapped his mouth shut, a look of shame washing over his face which mirrored the one on Hermione's. "It was Quirrell. And Lord Voldemort was with him."
Hermione put her head in her hands, letting out a sob. "You-Know-Who?" she choked.
"Lord Voldemort," emphasized Dumbledore. "You must say his name. Anyway, when I got to the Chamber, Harry was using powerful magic to fight him off. It is a long story, but suffice it to say that his mother imbued him with a special power. It came from the night she sacrificed herself to save Harry. When he touched Professor Quirrell to try to fight him off, he weakened him considerably." Dumbledore didn't want to lie to the children, but at this moment he did not want to give them graphic details of how Quirrell's skin had burned.
"So what happened to him?" Hermione asked.
"I got there just in time to pull him off of Harry," Dumbledore replied, sighing deeply. "Lord Voldemort, having an extremely frail body to attach himself to, fled. Yes, that is how he came to be there. He had been possessing Professor Quirrell all year. And the professor in question is now dead. He cannot hurt anyone ever again."
"Bloody hell," Ron muttered, and Hermione privately agreed with his sentiment.
"Once I had retrieved Harry from the chamber, I brought him here, to the hospital wing," Dumbledore went on. "In his hand he had the Philosopher's Stone. It is now in my possession."
"Where the hell is Harry, then?" Ron suddenly shouted, the suspense too much for him. "You're telling us all this stuff, but you're not telling us what happened to our best mate! Where is he?"
Dumbledore looked at Ron in the eye then, as Minerva looked at Hermione. "Harry began running a high fever as soon as he arrived here," he said sadly. "Fortunately, he was unconscious and not in any pain. He was diagnosed by Madame Pomfrey with a case of severe magical exhaustion. That is when the body uses so much magic, it cannot handle it."
It felt like Hermione's entire body had stopped working. She saw, as though from far away, Ron jump out of his seat and bellow at Dumbledore, "WHERE THE BLOODY HELL IS HARRY? I WANT TO SEE HIM!"
"Mr. Weasley, you need to understand. Harry was very ill," Dumbledore said softly, exhaustion and sadness seeming to ooze from him. "Madame Pomfrey tried to bring his fever down, tried to bring his magical levels back up again, but his body had been through too much." He then turned his tearful gaze to Hermione as he delivered the final blow. "I'm afraid ... I'm afraid Harry didn't make it."
Hermione's shoulders shook with hysterical sobs as Ron screamed, "You're lying! You're lying! He's Harry, for Merlin's sake! Harry's immortal! I want to see him! NOW!"
And he ran pell-mell out of the room, Hermione following lethargically behind him, tears still streaming down her face. The only thought in her mind was: It's my fault. I left him down there. It's my fault. I left him down there to die. My best friend. I left my best friend to fight evil and die.
Neither Albus nor Minerva did anything to stop the two children from searching every bed in the wing until they found their Harry. They knew the truth needed to be faced. They had to see it with their own eyes.
And finally, they found him. Harry was lying on a bed, on his back. His eyes were closed; he looked incredibly peaceful. It was as though he was just sleeping.
"Harry," Hermione choked out, reaching out to touch his hand. It was stiff and unnaturally cold.
"Harry, c'mon, mate, we have Quidditch practice!" Ron hollered at the body. Usually, this pronouncement would have roused Harry immediately.
But when he just continued to lie there, the truth finally nailed itself into Ron. "No!" he shrieked as his knees gave out from under him, and he collapsed to the ground by Harry's bedside. "No, no, no! You can't be dead! You're only eleven for God's sake! Harry! Harry! With a gasp, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he fainted dead away.
Albus came running over, lifting the boy into his arms. "It will be okay, Mr. Weasley." He whispered as he carried him over to another bed. "You need to rest now."
But as Hermione sat there crying, still holding Harry's hand and looking into his sweet, angelic face, she didn't know how things could ever be okay again. For once in her life, she had had a friend, someone who had truly cared about her. Memories came swarming over her, memories of a boy who loved Quidditch, hated doing homework, and appreciated the friendships he had with a look of wide-eyed wonder on his face, memories of a boy who had screamed at them just yesterday, screamed that going down there and saving the Stone was the right thing to do.
"No, it wasn't. Nothing was worth the price of your life, Harry," Hermione wept as she leaned her head on Harry's chest. "Nothing." And she knew from that point on, her life would never be the same again.