The Show That Never Ends
- Story Summary:
- The Sequel to The Paradigm of Uncertainty``January 25, 2008...five months later...
- Chapter Summary:
- The Sequel to
HARRY POTTER AND THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS
Chapter 5: Closer to Fine
I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There's more than one answer to this question
Pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.
--The Indigo Girls
...five weeks later...
Justin walked into the living room from the study, muttering under his breath, and went to the chair he'd been sitting in the night before. A stack of papers and owl posts was on the end table at its side and among them was a communication from his assistant that he found himself now needing quite badly. He began to rummage through the stack when a soft "shh" made him stop and straighten up.
Harry was sitting on a chaise lounge near the window with his legs stretched out. Hermione was sprawled out next to him, fast asleep. She had clearly been studying and had dozed off; her head was resting on his abdomen and one arm was draped languidly over his waist. Harry was reading, his book in one hand and the other arm circling her shoulders.
"Sorry," Justin said, tiptoeing closer. He smiled down at his roommate. "It's good she's getting some rest."
Harry nodded. "For what it's worth."
"When are the exams?"
"Next week." He sighed. "I wish I were allowed to talk to her about them. Warn her."
"That bad, huh?" Justin sat down in a nearby wing chair.
"That bad." He watched as Harry looked down at the top of Hermione's head, his expression tender. The fingers of one hand absently stroked her hair as she slumbered, her breathing slow and even.
Justin smiled. "Don't you get tired of it?"
Harry looked up. "Tired of what?"
Justin gestures towards them. "You know, the love thing."
He grinned. "Well...not so far." He frowned. "Haven't you ever been in love?"
"Nah. Just a reasonable facsimile."
"What about David?"
"Ah, the grand passion of my life. Yeah, that was intense. But it was such hard work."
"All relationships are hard work, Justin." They were speaking in low whispers so as not to disturb Hermione.
"Maybe, but I don't think you're supposed to have to spend three hours just working up the fortitude for one evening."
"Hmm. That does seem excessive."
"There was a lot of high drama, but no companionship. No real emotional connection. Not like what you have." He leaned forward as Harry slipped his fingers under his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He noticed for the first time the dark circles under his friend's eyes. "You look tired."
"She hasn't been sleeping well lately. Tossing and turning. Ergo, I haven't been sleeping very well. And, I'm worried about her exams. The I.D. final exams...well, they're intentionally brutal. It's not so much an exam as a grueling total body experience and I still have nightmares about mine from time to time. I want her to succeed and do well and have her new career but the little voice of Protective Man inside my head wants to keep her away from it."
"Ah, we wear many hats. Protective Man. Carrier of Plentiful Groceries. Supportive Partner Guy. He Who Brings the Car Around. Studly Lover-Boy..."
Harry snickered. "That's more your hat than mine, Big J."
"That's not what I've heard. And when I say 'heard' I do mean that literally."
Harry cleared his throat and changed the subject. "Well, the whole love thing is a big psych-out, if you ask me."
"I know. It becomes this trial-and-error-fest when you think maybe this time, you know..."
"And then it's like 'made you look!'" Harry laughed. Justin leaned back in his chair, cocking his head to look at Hermione's sleeping face. "Well, if I were you, Allegra would have put me off women forever."
"J, when were you ever on women?"
"You know what I mean."
Harry sighed. "Well, she almost did. It took some time before I could resume any kind of adult relationship. I'm glad I started out with Ginny. A friend, someone I could talk to and feel comfortable with. Then...Ronin."
"Yeah. What was that about?"
"Didn't you ever meet Ronin?"
"No." Justin leaned forward, intensely interested.
Harry shifted slightly, settling Hermione more securely against him. "She had this way of mesmerizing me. Her eyes were really large and so dark brown they were almost black, with thick lashes. You could just get lost in them. The first time I met her I felt like I'd been hit with a sledgehammer. She told me later that the minute I walked into her shop she zeroed in on me like a heat-seeking missile, and that's what I felt."
"Sheer lust, eh? I can respect that."
"No, that's not it. That was more like Allegra. Ronin was...passionate. Very artistic. Open with her feelings. Everything I'm not. She was also very mysterious, untouchable. Always an enigma, which is fascinating, at least for awhile. But it was no good, and I think we both knew it from the beginning. I knew I could never actually envision a life with her, and she was smart enough to know that my heart belonged to another, even though I didn't yet know it." He smoothed a stray lock of hair back from Hermione's forehead.
"Truth, Harry. Was it...this, I mean," he said, gesturing towards Hermione, "really that much of a surprise?"
He met Justin's gaze. "It was a huge surprise."
"I don't see how that's possible."
He lowered his eyes. "That first moment was...devastating. In the sense that you know your whole life is in shambles and you'll have to rebuild it." He hesitated and then looked up at Justin, who didn't dare say a word lest he disturb this revelatory spell Harry seemed to have talked himself into. "The first time I kissed her I felt a million things, all mixed up. But you know what I felt the most? Horror. The almost irresistible urge to push her away, run from the house and never come back again." Justin's brow creased and Harry answered his question before he could ask it. "You want to know why? I'll tell you. Because I knew that if I crossed that line, that would be it for me. I knew that if I let myself love her, I would love her utterly and completely. With her there could be no halfway, I would have to give her my whole self with nothing held back. I would have to love her so much that I would be at her mercy. She would be able to destroy me with a look, or a word, or crush me in a single moment. No one has ever had that kind of power over me, and the idea scared me."
"Not enough, it seems."
Harry looked up at him and smiled, seeming to come back from wherever he'd just gone. "I guess my wide streak of soppy romanticism outweighed my cowardice."
"Oh, piffle. You don't have a cowardly bone in your body."
Before Harry could respond, Hermione stirred and lifted her head, blinking. "Oh...did I fall asleep?"
Harry chuckled and ran a hand over her hair. "Yes, you did."
She squinted at him. "Were you talking about me? I thought I heard my name."
The two men exchanged a conspiratorial glance. "No, sweetheart. We weren't," Harry said, kissing her forehead.
Hermione was nervous. Very nervous. The anxiety fluttered around her midsection like a horde of small icy insects and ran its sharp fingernails around the inside of her skull.
Next to her, her friend and classmate Shay Daley was tapping her foot rapidly against the floor of the I.D. lecture theater. On her other side, Lloyd Llewelleyn felt like one mass of clenched muscle.
The trainees sat in the first few rows facing the podium, waiting to hear about their final exams, which would start sometime in the near future, they knew not exactly when. They'd all heard rumblings and rumors of what they entailed, but no one really knew. Hermione had to keep herself from feeling annoyed with Harry for refusing to even discuss the subject, for she knew he was forbidden to talk about it.
She wondered how many written exams there would be, or how many combat exams. Charm casting? Defensive spells? Physical hand-to-hand? No one knew.
Argo stepped in front of the table on the stage and cleared her throat. "Good morning, trainees. Congratulations on having successfully completed your training course. Now comes the hard part: passing the exams." She paused briefly for effect. "Historically, 40% of the incoming trainees do not make it past this point." A low murmur went through the audience as Hermione felt her stomach clench just a little bit more. "I am not saying that 40% do not pass. I am saying that 40% of the students aren't able to finish the exams. Of the 60% that do finish, one third of those will not pass." Hermione began wondering if she were really going to throw up or if it were just her imagination.
Argo began to walk slowly back and forth before them, her hands clasped behind her back. "The exams will begin tomorrow. They will continue for five days." She paused to let that sink in as the trainees sat in stunned silence. "You will not go home during those days. You will not stop. You will be allowed time for rest and short breaks. You will each go through this experience individually, not as a class. During the exams you will speak to no one save the test administrators, and you will experience your own battery of tests tailored to your abilities as assessed by us. You will go through one stage of testing and then move on to the next. You will have no foreknowledge of what what is to come or what subjects will be covered. The tests range from the purely academic to the practical to the intensely physical and everything in between. No safety fields. No pulling of punches. No backups and do-overs. No mercy." She stopped pacing and looked at them. "Believe me when I say that this will probably be the most grueling experience of your lives, and it's intended to be. The life of an agent is at times just as grueling, and we have to know who can take it. If you become an agent, we want you to live a long and productive life. The best way to insure that you do so is to eliminate now those of you with the least chance of survival in the field. It may sound ruthless but it's actually for your own protection."
She went around the table and sat down, picking up a sheet of paper before her as the trainees whispered to each other. "When we break from this meeting you will have until noon today to prepare yourselves and pack your gear. At noon you will report here for the examinations. You'll be given a list of what to bring, but let me touch on the important things. Bring a few changes of clothes, I recommend comfortable clothes that are easy to move in. Workout clothes are fine. Bring only the bare essentials in the way of toiletries...a toothbrush, for instance. You will have a place to store your supplies and we will tell you when you can go back there." She put down the piece of paper.
"I know this sounds intimidating, ladies and gentlemen. I wish I could reassure you that it will all be all right, but frankly if you can't hack it during the tests then we don't want you as an agent, it's just that simple. All of you have proven yourselves in class. Now it's time to see if you can do it when it's not pretend." She smiled at them. "Dismissed."
Harry came into the Cloister where Hermione was throwing things into her kitbag. She didn't turn when he came in. "Are you mad at me?" he said.
"I'm really trying not to be. Wanna help? Then sod off."
He sighed. "I was forbidden to talk about the exams to any trainee as you very well know."
"Of course. Sure." She was thrusting things into the bag with probably more force than was necessary.
"You can't expect me to break all the rules just for you."
"Just for me? Of course not. I'm only the woman you keep saying you love, why should I deserve any consideration whatsoever?"
"Oh, hang it," he said, anger creeping into his voice. "It would be grossly unfair and a wild conflict of interest for me to give you any special advantage. Frankly, it's childish to think I would."
Her shoulders sagged. "I know." She turned and faced him. "But...it's just so much worse than I ever imagined it would be and I'm really scared. I..." She hesitated. "Harry, I just thought of you as the only person I could really trust, and the one person who'd never hurt me....or let anyone else hurt me. But you couldn't even warn me."
"I'm not your father, Hermione. I'm not your guardian angel or your protector or your damned kindergarten teacher." He stepped closer. "I love you. That's why I'm marrying you. You're my best friend, and I respect you. If you want this career, if you accept being chosen, then you've got to do it on your own. As much as it might hurt me to watch you struggle or see you in pain, there's nothing I can do about it. Not just because they'd have me in front of a court martial, but because you don't need my help. I refuse to condescend to you by becoming a crutch. You'll do this on your own, because you can." He sighed. "I can't help you."
She sighed and looked up into his eyes. "You know, I wish I were as strong as you believe me to be."
"You are." He reached out and pulled her close, pressing his lips to the top of her head. She put her arms around his waist as her anger bled away, knowing that he was right. "You better hurry. You have to report at noon."
She tilted her face up and smiled at him. "Are you coming with me?"
He shook his head. "Nope. Not allowed. But you'll do fine, and I'll see you after you're done."
She blew air through her teeth. "Five days without Harry snugglies. That'll be loads of fun."
He grinned. "Believe me, it'll be the last thing on your mind. But here, take this with you." He grasped her face between his hands and kissed her, one of his deep and lengthy kisses that made her feel like she was floating away. He pulled back slightly and kissed the tip of her nose, then her forehead. He stepped back and ran his thumb over her cheek, smiling. "Good luck." He turned and walked out, leaving her standing there as if she'd forgotten what she was doing.
"Oh my," Hermione sighed weakly.
The class stood in the locker room, their bags over their shoulders, facing Argo and Lefty. They shifted from foot to foot in nervousness and looked around anxiously as if expecting to be jumped at any moment.
"Everyone stash your gear in a locker," Lefty said. "You'll be given periodic opportunities to return to it. I'd bring along a water bottle if I were you."
The class dispersed and for a moment the room was filled with the sound of clanging locker doors which subsided as they returned. Lefty stepped forward on his steel leg, leaning on his cane with his good hand. "All right, class. We've come a long way together and I'm proud of all of you. Now it's time to show us what you've learned." He straightened up. "Bubbles!" Each trainee's bubble appeared before them with the slight pop that always heralded their arrival. "Your bubble will lead you to your first examination. Good luck, and I will hope to see you in a few days."
...an indeterminate time later...
Hermione staggered down the hallway, her Bubble taking care not to get too far ahead of her. She wasn't sure in which direction she was headed and she didn't much care.
To her immense relief, the Bubble led her to the locker room. She sank down on the hard bench in front of her locker and opened it up, in search of clean clothes. The ones she was wearing were dirty and sweaty. Her last exam had been a written test about surveillance techniques and it had been difficult to concentrate through her blinding exhaustion and the smell of her clothing...the exam before that had been a grueling outdoor ropes course.
She nearly cried when she saw that inside the locker was a tray bearing an apple, an energy bar and a glass of juice. She had been taking these exams for what seemed like several years and had quickly learned the procedures. They gave you as much water as you wanted, but food only when they felt like it, and it was never enough. Gnawing hunger had soon become a familar companion, as had exhaustion. She had been allowed a total of ten hours of sleep in brief two-hour naps on a hard cot. She didn't know how many days it had been since she began. Time had lost all meaning. All her exams took place either indoors or during the dead of night, and the disorientation was distracting. She had a feeling she might be nearing the end, or at least she prayed she was. She didn't know how much longer she could go on.
She wolfed the food...no way to know when her bubble would bring her a voice ordering her to the next round...and quickly washed herself with a wet cloth. She stared at her face in the mirror, a stranger looking back at her. Her face seemed to have lost substance since she began. Dark circles lurked under her eyes, and several bruises and bloody lacerations marked her skin. She hadn't been injured seriously enough to require medical attention in any of her tests, for which she felt lucky, but there wasn't a part of her that wasn't sore.
Argo's description of the exams had been charitable at best. Hermione had decided days ago that she was in some kind of hell of her own making. Each progressive exam was more difficult, and each one seemed to target some area in which she had the least knowledge or experience. Her best subjects had not been represented in her assessment. It was as if they had a pipeline into her brain and were making her do just those things she dreaded the most.
She hadn't seen any of her fellow trainees since they'd reported for the tests. If Argo had been right, many of them had already washed out and were at home. A large part of her envied them. She imagined for a moment lying on the big soft couch in the living room before a blazing fire, snuggled into the safety and love of Harry's arms. Harry. She shut her eyes as two tears trickled down her cheeks. In her present circumstance the thought of him was so wonderful and remote that it hurt. It took all her force of will not to cry out "I quit!" and run out of headquarters and never come back, run home to people who would love her no matter if she were an agent or a waitress or a rubbish collector.
She sighed and drew herself up, digging deep for some reserve of strength that was nearly tapped dry. I can do this, she thought. If I can do this I can do anything.
"Granger," came the voice from the Bubble. Over these days it had become the voice of Death, the voice of the implacable They, the voice of her testers and tormentors. "Time to go."
She nodded and followed the Bubble out of the locker room, clutching her water bottle like a talisman. She was going down a hallway that didn't look familiar. She had absolutely no idea where in headquarters she was, she'd lost all sense of bearing...the I.D.'s constantly shifting corridors and spaces didn't help matters. It wasn't long before the Bubble stopped and winked out, indicating that she was there, wherever "there" was. It felt like a large space, but it was pitch black.
The lights came on, making her squint. She saw that she was standing in the middle of the gymnasium. The familiar space was slightly reassuring, though Merlin only knew what awaited her here. She turned and jumped a little as she saw the person standing behind her.
It was Harry. Her entire body cried out with joy at the sight of him. "Harry! What are you doing here? Did you come to give me a pep talk? I could use one."
She opened her arms to embrace him but he took a step back and held out his hand. She stopped short, frowning and confused, her tired brain unable to grasp why the man who regularly saw her naked would greet her with a handshake. For lack of anything better to do she stuck out her own hand and he shook it. "Dr. Granger," he said in an oddly formal voice. "Congratulations on having made it this far. My name is Major Potter, and welcome to your last exam."
Hermione backed away a little bit, her eyes narrowing, her relief at hearing that she was almost done overshadowed by her confusion at Harry's behavior. "Uh..." she began, her tone uncertain. "What's the exam?"
"Me. I'm the exam."
"I don't understand." She was in no mood for Sphinxlike riddles.
Harry stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes fixed on her, his voice and manner so alien and formal. "It's very simple. We fight. I win, you fail. You win, you pass."
She just stood there for a moment, her mouth hanging open. "Oh..."
"This examination will last exactly one hour. If at the end of that time I am still standing, you will fail and you may not reapply to training. This is it. Take me down and you pass. Fail, and you will never return." He began to walk in a slow circle around her. "Let there be no misunderstanding. I do not know you. I am not your teacher or your friend. I do not care if you pass, nor do I care about you in the slightest. I will do everything in my power to make your task as difficult as possible. Do not expect any leniency whatsoever, because you will get none from an enemy."
Hermione was shaken by his words, but it made a kind of warped sense. "Okay, but...promise not to throw in any Mage powers."
"I will promise nothing of the kind. You do not know what sorts of abilities an opponent will have. You may find yourself far outgunned. They will not care, and neither do I." He glanced up at the observation chamber. "Safety charms off," he called.
Hermione sighed. They'd been working without safety charms in Nix's physical combat classes for several months now, but...this was, for all intents and purposes, a fight to the death. "This is going to hurt, isn't it?"
She thought she saw him flinch a little bit, but then the same detached expression fell over his face again. "You are being tested for your ability to defend yourself in a high-stress situation. Pain is part of that process. If you can do it successfully here, then your chances of being killed in the field are reduced and that is all we care about. You will have to hurt me. I will have to hurt you. Nothing the infirmary can't fix in two minutes."
She nodded. It was the same story in combat training. She'd lost count of the black eyes, sprains, bruises, and even broken bones she'd sustained in training...but with the wonders of wizard medicine she always left training for the day feeling as healthy as she had upon arriving. "You know I can't beat you. You're bigger, stronger, and have more training. This isn't fair."
"It isn't supposed to be fair. If it were fair we'd flip a coin to pick the winner." He sighed. "And as for beating me, of course you won't. Not as long as you believe that you can't." He took a few steps closer to her. "Do you think that victory in a fight like this is about muscle mass? Think again. You don't fight here," he said, slapping one fist into his other palm. "You fight here." He pressed his finger to his forehead. "Now let's get started before I lapse into total Yodaspeak."
That tiny glimpse of Harry made her feel a little better. "All right. Let's go."
The spectators in the gallery watched in silence as the furious battle raged below. "Wow," Remus said quietly. "She's really letting him have it."
"She has to," Argo said. "She knows what we're testing here. It's not her right hook, it's her ability to disconnect from her emotions in a critical situation." They all winced as Hermione went sprawling on the floor.
Henry sighed. "This is killing him."
"He's a professional."
"He's also a human being being forced to beat up his future wife."
"She's giving as good as she's getting," Napoleon muttered. Hermione flipped back to her feet and advanced on him, planting her foot in rapid succession into his stomach then his jaw. He flew backwards and hit the floor, rolling backwards to his feet. Hermione armed blood from her upper lip, her face creased into a scowl. They saw her eyes flick up to the large clock that monitored the time left...twenty-five minutes. It probably felt like an eternity from where she was standing. Harry lunged at her before she could get her wand out, not that it would have done her much good. She'd tried a few spells in the beginning of the fight but his Mage-given ability to block or throw off most spells greatly decreased their effectiveness.
"Did he tell her this was her last exam?" Lefty asked.
"So she thinks she's almost done?"
Napoleon frowned. "What's left?"
Argo sighed. "Just the psych test." She glanced at Lefty. "I still don't know if I approve of your scenario."
"Trust me, it's appropriate."
"Is everything in place?"
"Ready and waiting."
Silence fell, punctuated by the grunts and cries from the gym below them. With five minutes left Harry showed no signs of tiring, but Hermione looked to be holding herself upright through sheer stubborness. Both of them were sweating but neither appeared ready to give up. A gash above her eye bled over the left side of Hermione's face, and one of Harry's eyes was already swelling.
They stood facing each other for a moment, bouncing on the balls of their feet and glaring. Harry darted forward and swing one fist at her. Hermione ducked, grabbed his arm and brought her knee up into his kidneys several times in rapid succession. He slipped by her, twisting her arm around her back, and flipped her over his hip. From the floor she swept her leg behind his shins and knocked him to the ground. She sprang up and they all saw her grit her teeth. She planted her foot on his lower leg, hooked her other foot under his ankle and threw herself to the ground, thrusting the foot that held his leg down towards the floor.
They all winced as they heard the bone break. Harry stifled a cry behind gritted teeth and pushed himself over onto his back as Hermione disengaged herself and scrambled away. He propped himself up on his elbows, his face white and damp. "Ooh...bloody hell," he said through clenched jaws.
Hermione said nothing. She collapsed to the floor and pulled her knees up to her chest. She just sat there in silence, her chin on her knees, as the remaining time wound down. Harry sank back against the floor, being careful not to move his leg.
The remaining five minutes of the exam ticked by with excruciating slowness. Hermione wrapped her arms around her legs and stared at him, unmindful of the blood trickling into her eyes. Harry lay quietly with his eyes shut tight, taking slow and even breaths. After some time had passed, he extended one of his hands blindly towards her. Hermione hesitated, but then reached out and grasped his fingers. They sat that way until the time ran out and the buzzer sounded, very loud in the empty gymnasium.
Napoleon opened the door to the temporary quarters and led Hermione inside. She shuffled along behind him, so exhausted she felt like her brain was floating somewhere above her head. "Sit down, luv."
She staggered to the couch and flopped down, its softness feeling like the arms of heaven. She put her hands over her face. "He'll be all right?"
"Of course. I saw him before I came to fetch you. They've got his leg mended already, he'll just have to go easy on it for a day or so." He sat on the edge of the couch. "Where'd you learn that move? I've never seen that before."
She gave him a wan smile. "Made it up."
He blew air through his teeth. "Wow. Scary."
A long, shaky breath rattled from her chest. "I can't believe I hurt him."
"Part of the test. He'd've done the same if he'd had the chance."
"Is it really over?" He nodded. "Did I pass?"
Napoleon grinned and patted her leg. "Just relax. Someone will be along to talk to you soon. The hard part's over. It's out of your hands."
He stood up to leave, but Hermione held him back. "If you see Harry tell him..." She started to say 'tell him I'm sorry' but that didn't seem quite honest. She'd done what was required of her. She regretted what it had involved, but she wasn't precisely sorry. "Just tell him I love him."
He squeezed her hand. "Will do."
She watched the door shut after him and lay back against the cushions, the tension and fatigue bleeding out of her body. The sound of Harry's leg breaking replayed itself over and over again in her head until she thought she'd run mad. His cry of pain and the feeling of it under her feet...she shuddered and got up, shaking her head as if hoping she could throw off the memory for good.
She rummaged in the pantry for some tea and found, to no great surprise, an ample supply of her favorite kind. She put on the hot water and went into the bedroom to take a shower.
She had gotten as far as freeing her hair from its bun when a large silver bubble appeared before her eyes. She stiffened at once, because it was the I.D. Bubble. The bubble that made announcements, that sounded warnings...the remote voice of the building itself.
For a fraction of a second she hoped that it was just an announcement or someone being paged, knowing she couldn't possibly be so lucky, and indeed she was not.
"WARNING. CODE GREEN. INTRUDER ALERT. ALL AGENTS TO SECURE POSITIONS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. INTRUDER ALERT. WARNING. CODE GREEN." That wasn't good. A code Green was a full-on invasion. She felt a momentary attack of panic, being all alone here in the temporary quarters with only an academic idea of what to do in this sort of crisis...but she would not allow herself the luxury of inaction.
She grabbed her wand, slipping it into its holster as she ran out of the room. "Cor, this gets the Worst Timing Ever award," she muttered. "Bubble!" Her own bubble appeared, managing to seem anxious. "Station 13," she barked. That was her assigned station in case of emergency.
"WARNING. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. CODE GREEN. INTRUDER ALERT. ALL AGENTS TO SECURE POSITIONS. STEALTH MODE INITIATED."
She passed shadowy figures in the halls, rushing here and there. The lights had been dimmed and all doors concealed in the automatic stealth mode. She could hear, far away, the sounds of a struggle. Shouted curses and cries...she stopped short and cocked her head, listening. Suddenly a figure in a dark robe darted by. Hermione watched it go past; it wasn't one of her colleagues. I.D. wizards didn't tend to wear hooded, floor-length robes to work. She looked back towards the distant rumble that had stopped her. It was coming from the right and she thought she heard familiar voices.
Suddenly the corridor shifted and she was much closer to the fracas. The blasts of light from wands bounded off the walls and cast ominous shadows. After only a moment's hesitation she ran towards the sound, ignoring her standing orders to report to Station 13 in the event of an emergency.
She heard a deep, booming voice that dripped with malice and made her run faster. The sound kept shifting further away, dancing out of reach. Hermione began to breathe hard, following her ears as best she could. Under a code green, the building's internal configuration would be even less stable than usual.
She rounded a corner just behind a major corridor shift and without warning staggered into an open space filled with chaos. It looked like the training center but she couldn't be sure. In a flash she saw it all. Dozens of agents, their black uniforms in disarray, knelt subdued on the floor in a corner guarded by menacing figures. Dark robes darted here and there fighting with agents still on their feet. A tall man stood near the front barking orders.
As she watched, more Circle wizards (for they could be nothing else) hauled in struggling agents from corridors. Her mind reeled. How had they infiltrated so fast? They must have had a man on the inside. Gotten Bubbles to help them locate key personnel.
The building shook as from an explosion and the torch lights all went out. The emergency flares immediately blazed to life near the ceiling line. Too stunned to move, Hermione was suddenly grabbed from behind and rudely thrown across the room. She felt herself slam through the huddled agents like a bowling ball through pins and before she could regain her bearing she was being dragged to her knees and manacled. She looked up just in time to see a woman in dark robes walk forward and throw something to the leader's feet...a gasp went up from the agents as they saw that it was Argo's bloody body. "Their leader," the woman said.
The tall man turned to the group of wizards and she saw with mounting horror that it was Lucius Malfoy. Immediately her mind filled with bright hate as she realized that Draco must have gotten him inside. Bloody Malfoy, I should have known better, she thought. He played us all with his big show of reform.
Hermione looked around the semicircle of agents, all disarmed and many seriously injured. She caught a glimpse of Napoleon's spiked head on the other side of the group...he was watching her intently. "Where's Potter?" Malfoy said to a wizard standing at his side.
"Unaccounted for. We found the werewolf, though. He died well."
Hermione choked back a sob at the thought of Lupin, their dear friend and mentor, executed so ignominiously. She could see a similar feeling on the faces of the agents near her. She averted her eyes when Malfoy's gaze swept past, not wishing to be recognized. If they found Harry they could use her against him.
Malfoy faced the group. "Who's the ranking officer here?" Hermione looked around. She didn't see any of the division heads present. They'd probably been hunted down first...her mind shied away from the thought of Harry being pursued and murdered. Think, Hermione, she told herself...but it seemed utterly hopeless. They were outnumbered at least three to one. Panic battered at the battened down hatches of her mind, but she'd gone into react mode. It had all happened so fast, how was that possible?
"I guess that'd be me, guv," said Napoleon.
"And your name, sir?"
"You don't need to know. I'm a lieutenant and Deputy Chief of CCO."
Malfoy's lips curled into a sneer. "So. You'll be the right-hand man of the illustrious Mr. Potter, then? How fortunate." He bounded forward and hauled Napoleon to his feet. "Where might we find your boss? He eludes us most efficiently."
"What makes you think I know?"
"You know something."
"Sorry, guv. You'll just have to kill me."
Malfoy shrugged. "All right." Then, casually as if he were swatting a fly, he pulled out a sword and lopped off Napoleon's head. It rolled across the floor and his body thumped to the floor, blood pooling around the neck.
Hermione shut her eyes tight and clamped her lips against the scream that rose in her throat like a living thing. Oh God, Napoleon...oh no no no, her brain yammered.
"Lucius!" a voice called from across the room. Everyone turned in time to see a group of Circle wizards enter...dragging Harry between them. The others began to clap and congratulate them. Harry looked infuriated as well as a little embarrassed. His expression tightened as he saw her kneeling there on the floor.
"Ah, Potter. How nice to see you."
"The pleasure's all yours, Lucius."
"I'm happy to inform you that I have every intention of killing you, however I will have to kill some of your agents first, so you can watch. The issue I am now facing is, how do I choose which ones?" He turned and looked over the group, walking before them like a drill sargeant. Hermione stared at the floor as he passed, praying he would...but he stopped just after he passed her and came back. He knelt on the floor before her and yanked her head up. Low chuckles rose from his throat. "Better and better." He jerked her to her feet. "Miss Granger, we are so honored to have in our midst a Hogwarts triple first! I daresay you're a trainee here, am I right?" He glanced at Harry. "How much pain would it give you, Potter, to watch me torture this woman? Or perhaps I shall have my way with her first. How would that be, eh?" Harry was speechless. "Intriguing. No, wait. Boring. I have a better idea."
He turned Hermione around to face the agents. "Some of these agents will die, Miss Granger."
"Dr. Granger," she growled.
"Very well. Some will die, Dr. Granger. How many, I think, shall be up to you. Your legendary intellect shall determine their fate." He turned to his wizards. "Do we fancy a bit of a challenge, my comrades?" They cheered. "Then we'll see if you can live up to your reputation." He took a step back, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the room. Thankfully, she could not see Harry's face. That would have been too much of a distraction. "I shall ask you questions of my own choosing. If you answer correctly, one agent shall live and come with us as a prisoner. If you answer incorrectly, one shall die. Agreed?"
She nodded, though she had her doubts that Lucius would actually follow through with these ridiculous rules...though he had an odd sense of honor about these things. Being a Circle prisoner was certainly no picnic, but it was better than being dead. At any rate, she had other ideas.
"Then shall we begin? All right. Question the first: what color are my knickers?"
Hermione's blood ran cold. How could she possibly know? "White?"
"Wrong. They're black. I'd have thought you could have predicted that." He stepped forward and before she could even see what he was doing another head was rolling across the floor. She shut her eyes and tried not to fixate on it. "Question the second: This chap here. What's his name?"
"Wrong. It's Roland." Another head went rolling. He was just going to keep asking her questions she couldn't possibly answer. I should never have agreed to this, she thought...not that there were a whole lot of other appealing options. "Question the third: how many other boys were in my dormitory at Hogwarts?"
"Four." Panic was making itself nice and comfortable in her gut. She was killing agents with each wrong answer.
"Sorry, three." Thwack.
"Can I ask a question?" she interrupted.
Lucius stopped, startled. "I suppose I can allow that." He stepped closer. "What is it?"
She smiled at him and brought her hands out before her, free of the manacles that she'd just picked. "Can you fly?" His mouth fell open but before he could react she had her wand pointed at him. "Wingardium Leviosa!" she cried, and nothing happened.
Lucius just stood there, grinning. Hermione, doused in shock, tried again with similar results.
"Very good, Dr. Granger," he said. Except that it wasn't his voice. The voice was that of...an American woman.
Lucius suddenly melted away as if he were wax. Hermione's eyes bulged out of their sockets as the entire room melted away. The agents, the blood, the Circle wizards...within seconds they were all gone.
Hermione stared at Argo, quite alive and well, standing where Lucius had just been. She gaped around at the training center, looking quite normal and not at all under attack. "Oh bloody hell," she breathed. "That was a test, wasn't it?"
The relief at the unreality of the whole experience was enough to make her lightheaded. She felt strong hands lead her to a bench and sit her down and then Harry's voice at her side and his arm around her as he sat next to her. "The last test. Really, this time."
She looked at him, blessedly unhurt, and then up at Napoleon, complete with his head. She reached out and grasped his hand. "Oh, thank God," she said.
Lupin crouched before her. "Every new agent must go through what we call a 'psych' test, in which they are made to face up to their worst fears and then...well, we see what they do. In your case, we forced you to confront a situation in which you didn't know the answers when it was really important." He smiled at her. "How did we do in assessing your fears?"
She laughed, a relieved laugh. "Oh, spot on."
"I must say, you couldn't have done better. You kept your head in a horribly stressful situation and managed to pull something we didn't even see coming. How did you sneak your wand in there?"
"Well, in the event of code Green all agents are to secure their wands in a concealed holster. Standard Operating Procedures Section 3.4 paragraph 2." She lifted her shirt and turned partly away so they could all see the slender nylon holster strapped to her back that would hold a wand snug against her spine and invisible under her clothing. "And...well, lockpicks are just something you shouldn't leave the house without. Right?" She pointed to the tiny slot on one of the sidestraps of the wand holster where she could secure a small lockpick. "I got Lucius in front of me along with most of his wizards, because they wanted to watch my face. Then I picked the lock on the manacles. Easy."
The others were looking at each other and exhaling in amazement. "I'd say she passed," Argo said.
"Oh yeah. Colors are flying all over the place," Napoleon added.
Argo stepped in front of her. "Please rise, Dr. Granger." She did so. "Hermione Granger, it is my pleasure to inform you that you have passed your final examinations and satisfied all requirements for admittance to the Division. I hereby grant you the rank of Lieutenant in the Federation Enforcement Corps, effective immediately, and confer upon you the status of fully accredited agent of the Intelligence Division. Welcome to the team." She shook Hermione's hand. "Of course, the formal graduation ceremony is next week, but you are official as of now. Congratulations."
Hermione grinned. "Thanks, Argo." She pumped her hand up and down with vigor. "Thanks ever so much!"
"You're welcome." Argo smiled back, bemused, and reclaimed her hand with difficulty. She turned and walked out of the room, leaving the others to celebrate.
Harry parked Hermione's car in the yard and turned off the ignition. He retrieved her bag from the back seat and went around to the passenger side where Hermione sat fast asleep. He bent and slipped an arm around her waist. "Come on now, love, we're home." She sleepily climbed out of the car, leaning against him.
"Can you walk?"
He looked down at her, shuffling along with most of her weight leaning on his arm. "Well, you're not gonna," he muttered. He slung her bag over his shoulder, bent and picked her up. She immediately relaxed against his shoulder, both arms around his neck.
Justin opened the door as Harry approached. Everyone was gathered in the foyer...they must have been waiting, Harry thought. "Well? How did it go?" Justin whispered.
"Oh my," Laura said, coming forward to put a hand on Hermione's shoulder. "She looks like hell."
"Well, she's been through hell. But she passed, no problem. I'm just going to take her upstairs." He shrugged the bag off his shoulder into George's hands and walked to the base of the stairs. Before he reached the first riser he rose a short distance off the ground and floated up gently, cradling the exhausted Hermione in his arms. Laura followed in a more conventional manner.
George handed her kitbag to Justin. "Here, unpack this and put the clothes in the laundry."
"What are you going to do?"
"What I always do. Cook a huge dinner for when she wakes up."
Harry lay Hermione on the bed and tugged off her shoes while Laura got a nightgown out of the closet. Hermione was limp as a rag doll as Harry sat her up and pulled off her dirty, sweaty clothing. Laura slipped the nightgown over her head and pulled back the covers. "She'll feel disgusting when she wakes up," she commented. "You think we should make her take a bath?"
He shook his head. "From what I remember of this experience, we should just let her sleep for a really long time."
Laura looked at him across the bed. "She did this for you, didn't she?"
He nodded, tucking the covers around her. She immediately curled around a pillow and turned on her side. Harry smoothed her hair back from her brow and sat on the edge of the bed next to her. "Yes, she did, except that she didn't know why I was so tired and beat up. Bless her, she didn't ask any questions. She just put me to bed and tucked me in and when I woke up she was there with tea and food and her kind words and her sweet face..." He trailed off with a sigh. "Great Powers, I must have been blind and deaf as well as colossally stupid."
Laura smiled. "We humans are a doltish lot. We want what we can't have, miss what's right in front of our noses and buy platform shoes on impulse when we know we'll never wear them more than once."
Harry nodded, chuckling, then looked up at Laura's face. "I don't think I ever thanked you, Laura...for being her friend during...well, you know..."
"No thanks necessary. I didn't do it for you, you know. In fact there were many days when I cursed you because I saw what it did to her every day. She's my friend, probably the best one I've ever had. She's seen me through enough nights of depression when I miss Sorry, I was just leveling the scales a little."
Harry stood up. "Well, we'd best let her sleep." He leaned down and kissed Hermione's cheek and then followed Laura out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
"So...she did all right at the tests?" Laura asked as they went down the stairs.
Harry smiled. "She did splendidly. She doesn't know this yet, but she'll be graduating at the top of her class."
"Look at you. So proud."
He flushed a little. "I suppose I am."
They went downstairs where they proceeded to annoy George at the stove by sneaking tastes and making off with his ingredients. The four present (and awake) household members finally wound up having an impromptu meal consisting of George's homemade bread and a huge assortment of sandwich fixings.
In the evening they scattered to their various activities. Harry meant to catch up on some work he'd been neglecting, but he couldn't concentrate. He finally gave in and mounted the stairs to the Cloister, where he found her soundly asleep curled on her side in the same position he'd left her.
Harry kicked off his shoes and lay down behind her on top of the covers. He slipped his arm around her and pulled her close, silently thankful that she'd come out of the exams unscathed. He lay there for a moment feeling her chest expand under his arm as she drew long and slow breaths until he fell asleep himself.
The first time Hermione woke up, she wouldn't have chosen to. Instead, she was jolted out of a sound sleep by quick movement behind her.
She sat up, looking around in disorientation. Harry was lying behind her with one arm draped over her waist, but he was not sleeping peacefully. He jerked and twitched, his head flopping from side to side. He was muttering something that she couldn't quite make out.
"Harry," she whispered, shaking his shoulder. "Honey, wake up. Harry!"
He didn't respond, but his movements grew more agitated. "Unh...mmph..." came the unintelligible words. "Ends..." She leaned closer, trying to hear what he was saying. "Never ends," he mumbled. "Ends, mmph...it never ends...never ends!" he suddenly cried, jerking almost to a sitting position. Hermione jumped back, startled. He didn't wake up, just lay back down and seemed to relax into a more quiet sleep.
Hermione released her held breath, uneasy. Harry was usually a quiet sleeper and rarely had noisy nightmares...and what he'd said seemed so eerie. It gave her the creeps, to be honest. She waited but he didn't move again. She felt the sleep creeping over her again and so she forced herself to relax and settle back amongst the pillows and the quilts. She snuggled close to Harry, feeling suddenly protective, and it was several minutes before she could sleep again.