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 12: Dead
Did a large procession wave their torches
as my head fell in the basket
And was everybody dancing on my casket?
Now it's over, I'm dead and I haven't done anything
that I want or I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do.
--They Might Be Giants
Theo's response hung in the air, her tone implacable. Hermione waited for some righteous rage to overtake her, but none came. She'd known what the response would be, being right wasn't a surprise to her. She felt only weary confusion. "You can't, or you won't?" she asked.
"It's all the same."
Hermione sat down again. Every part of her body felt sore, suffused with weariness and saturated with despair. "Then he'll die," she whispered. She could feel the black hole yawning beneath her at the prospect that after all this, she might still lose him.
Theo hunkered down in front of her, looking up at her with sympathetic eyes. "Hermione, I want you to listen to me. All right?" Hermione managed to nod. "It isn't that I want Harry to die. Quite the opposite, I assure you. But the power of the Guardianship is like holding a loaded gun to my own head every day of my life. I have to be very, very careful." She hesitated, and when she spoke again her voice was firm and resigned. "I cannot interfere in the affairs of the mortal beings entrusted to my care. It is the ultimate betrayal of the trust the Eternals placed in me when they chose me."
"They didn't make that rule."
"No, I did. I had to. I have to make a lot of rules for myself, and I have to follow them. Rule Number One is, no meddling with people's lives."
"Like the Prime Directive," Napoleon muttered.
Hermione shook her head. "You already meddled."
"Only because the Eternals asked me to. I had to at least try to clean up their mess. I tried."
"That's not the point. The point is, it's none of my business. I can't go around curing people with problems, even magical problems. It's none of my affair anymore."
"So you wash your hands of it and go on, is that it?"
"That about sums it up, yes."
Hermione drew a deep, shaky breath. "I just don't understand any of it. This two month disparity, and his psychosis, and the bloody fake body that no one seems to remember..." She would have gone on but Theo suddenly put a hand on her arm. Hermione met the Guardian's eyes, expecting more sympathetic explanations, but instead saw there keen interest.
Theo's voice was sharp again. "What fake body?"
"Mistress, I apologize for any..."
"Just get out. And don't call me Mistress, makes me sound like a ruddy dominatrix." Allegra watched the Circle wizard scuttle out backwards, practically falling all over himself still apologizing. She shook her head. "Bloody underlings," she muttered. The bowing, obsequious minions came in handy when you needed someone's ass hustled from here to Stratford but they didn't offer much in the way of conversation. She turned and then jumped, a small yelp of surprise escaping her. There was a woman sitting in her desk chair who hadn't been there two seconds ago.
"Hard to get good minions nowadays, isn't it?" the woman said. She spoke with an American accent, her words delivered in a casual, friendly manner.
Allegra gaped at her, the sheer cheek of this intruder rendering her speechless. "Who the hell are you?" she finally managed. The wind had left her usually full sails. She'd never had to deal with odd women who suddenly materialized inside her heavily guarded private office and acted like they owned the place.
The woman just smiled serenely. "You know who I am."
"No, I don't! I haven't the..." She trailed off. Did she? "But you look...sorta familiar."
"I imagine so." She just sat there with that same Mona Lisa look on her face. She looked a little older than Allegra herself, maybe mid- 30's, with a ruddy complexion and unremarkable chestnut hair waving to her shoulders. She wore jeans and a sleeveless shell top that revealed incongruously muscular upper arms. Allegra was surprised by her own uneasiness. Under normal circumstances if she found a strange woman sitting in her own desk chair she would have gotten out her wand and the interloper would be flying across the room before she could get out a single syllable. Why this was different...she couldn't say, except that she felt the instinctive urge to defer and be a good girl, something she usually avoided on general principles.
Allegra sank into one of the chairs facing her desk, her knees all at once feeling a bit unsteady. "Are you...you're...you're her, aren't you?" She had no idea what she meant by this question, but yet it made perfect sense to her.
The strange woman seemed to understand. "Yes, I'm her." She leaned back in Allegra's chair and kicked her feet up on the desk. Allegra noted with some detached amusement that she was wearing bright yellow Chuck Taylor basketball sneakers, of the old-fashioned hi-top variety.
It's her, Allegra's mind repeated. It's her. Who exactly 'her' was, she couldn't have articulated, and yet she knew it on some deeper, more primitive level. "What do you want?"
"Just to ask you if you've been up to anything you oughn't have been."
"Regarding your ex."
The woman didn't crack a smile at this tiny bon mot. "Harry Potter," she said, without irony.
"Oh. Him," Allegra said in a small voice.
"Yes. Anything going on there as of late?"
"Uh...can you give me a little more to go on?"
"You know, anything Eeeeevil? That is your speciality, after all. Kidnapping, brainwashing, certain phony dead bodies sent to certain good guys?"
Allegra smiled slightly. "Heard about that. Stupid move logistically, but creative. Had to admire the artistry, if not the execution. But not my handiwork. I'd like to think of myself as better than sending gag gifts to Hermione's doorstep."
"I thought you hated Hermione."
"When did I say that?"
"Well, I thought it was tacitly implied when you tried to kill her."
"Nah. It was nothing personal. I rather like Hermione, actually. She's got...what's the word? I dunno. Moxie."
"She did beat you, though, didn't she?"
"I hold no grudges. It was gutsy, what she did. I can't say that spending a month in temporal limbo was on my to-do list for that day, but hey, I'm in a risky business." Allegra smiled to herself. "I think Hermione Granger is a self-righteous, mousy-faced little tagalong...but she's got a fire in her belly that most people don't even suspect. Why are we talking about this?"
The stranger shrugged. "You started it. Sounds like you have some Hermione-related issues to work through. What...sour grapes? Plain old envy?"
Allegra laughed. "Everyone always lines up to foist their romantic notions on me. They can't wait to believe I still carry some sort of torch for Harry or that I'm gunning for his sweetie." She shook her head. "It's not personal. It's business."
The woman nodded. "So who's this Master of yours?"
Allegra sobered. So that's what this was about. "Why don't you ask
"Well, no one's ever seen him."
"Somehow I can't see that being a problem. Not for you."
The stranger lowered her feet to the ground and leaned forward over the desk. Her air of casual joviality was evaporating quickly. She folded her hands and fixed Allegra with a steady gaze. Allegra felt like a naughty schoolgirl called onto the carpet by the schoolmarm. Time to assume the position. "Ordinarily, you'd be right. But there's something about this...Master. And who the heck calls themselves the Master, anyway? Bit of a premature boast, isn't it?" She shrugged. "Whoever he is, he's not normal."
"No, you're right about that."
"I can't see him. Not quite. Not all the way. It's...disturbing. Very few things in this world are capable of hiding from me. I want to know what I'm being prevented from seeing, and by whom."
"Then why are you here? Surely you didn't think I could help you with that. Or if I could, that I'd be so inclined."
"No. What makes me curious is this. You're aware of certain...upheavals over in the opposing camp these past few months."
"I keep my ear to the ground, yeah."
"That ex of yours has had a few health problems."
"You mean he's out of his gourd."
The woman's lips thinned. "And that means nothing to you at all?"
Allegra hesitated. "I didn't say that."
"And yet you haven't taken advantage of the situation."
"Who says I haven't?"
"You haven't." There was no arguing with her. "What I want to know is why not? From an outsider's perspective it might seem like the perfect time to make a move."
"Yes, it might," Allegra said, thoughtful. She had raised this exact
argument with the Master time and again.
"He wouldn't hear of it, would he?" the stranger said. "This Master whom you obey, though I can't imagine why. Surely you need no one to give you orders."
"True enough. If you knew him you'd understand."
The stranger was now regarding her with a calculating expression. "Yes, I imagine so." She stood up. "Well, thank you, Allegra. You've provided me with many answers."
"But I haven't told you anything."
"Believe me, you've told me more than you realize." She started to leave the room, then turned around and pointed a scolding finger at her. "You...be good, now."
"You say that as if you think I'll actually do it."
"Which, in your mind, makes me a fool or an idiot. I assure you, I'm neither. But I will be watching you. Bear that in mind." And she was gone, without fanfare or announcement.
Allegra stared at the hole in the air where the strange woman had been a mere blink ago. Goddamn, she mused. Some days it seems like everyone's mission in life is just to make my existence a little more surreal than it already is.
She shut her eyes. Christ, I need a vacation.
Hermione was standing at North's side, peering over his shoulder as he sat at one of several hundred stations all around a huge chamber that he had called the "sitroom," which she had learned was short for "situations room" and not, as Napoleon had suggested, just a name for a big room where Guardians did nothing but sit. Each station had several panels of glass set at various heights and angles for viewing. They seemed to obey thought commands, no one spoke to them or operated any controls. North had taken over the station of the guardian assigned to watch duty and was rapidly scanning through a tangled jumble of images that Hermione's brain couldn't follow.
The rear door banged open and Theo entered, walking like she had a purpose. "Anything?" she said, coming to join Hermione at North's shoulder.
North just pointed at a few still images he'd fixed up on one of his
screens. Hermione couldn't tell what they represented but they seemed
to have meaning to Theo. "I'd call that a big yes," North said.
"Okay," Hermione said. "Someone want to clue in the poor mortals?"
Theo peered at the still images, thunderclouds gathering at her brows. "Is this the extent of the incursion?" she said to North as if Hermione had not spoken at all.
"Uncertain. Give me a few more minutes. I'm still running the correlations."
"Have Miryam help you." Theo finally turned to Hermione and Napoleon. "Come on, you two. We have a lot to talk about." They left the room and walked in the direction of Theo's office. Hermione was starting to get a feel for the layout of this place, but she suspected that the layout wasn't entirely static...something she was used to from the I.D. "Just paid a visit to your friend Allegra," Theo said conversationally.
"Allegra isn't my friend."
"Nor mine, but you gotta admire a woman who isn't afraid of an all-
Theo hesitated. "Let's sit down and talk about it." She said no more as they proceeded through the corridors. Hermione became aware they weren't heading for Theo's office. In a few moments she was proven correct when Theo led them through a revolving door into a small garden enclosed on all sides by other corridors and walls. "This is my private garden," she said, motioning Hermione onto a curved wooden bench. Napoleon sat at her side and Theo sat down on the grass before them, folding her legs yoga-style and steepling her fingers under her nose. She shut her eyes for a moment, appearing to gather her thoughts. Finally she looked up at them.
"What is it?" Hermione said.
"I'm afraid Harry is in a good deal more trouble than we had originally suspected."
Hermione gripped the edge of the bench a little tighter but strove to keep her face composed. "Please enlighten me, Theo. In what way could it possibly be worse? Don't keep us in suspense."
"There was something that didn't add up," Theo said, her eyes darting back and forth as she laid out her thoughts. "The time lag on Harry's return, his psychotic behavior...and then you tell me of this fake body sent to you at the I.D."
"Which you didn't know about."
"That's the part that bothers me the most. You see...we monitor everything that happens, everywhere. We have no record of such an incident that you describe. Do you know what this means? It means someone has been tampering with the Domain's monitoring systems. That's serious business. North is trying to determine how much information we're missing, and what it might reveal. I think someone was trying to cover up what was done to Harry after I tried to send him back to you."
"What was done to him? By whom?" As soon as the words left her mouth
Hermione knew. "The Master. Allegra's Master."
Theo shook her head. "That was my first thought as well. I've known for some time that this Master of hers isn't quite...normal. I can't really see him, watch him. He's got access to things he shouldn't." She met Hermione's eyes. "Do you know what I'm telling you?"
Hermione took a breath. "You said...the Eternals were always in balance. Light and Dark. If you and the guardians are here...who's sitting on the other side of the chessboard?"
Theo regarded both of them in turn. Her gaze was unusually devoid of irony. "What I'm about to tell you isn't something I normally share," she said, "even with friends who think they know me well." Hermione nodded. Theo stood up and walked slowly back and forth, watching the ground as she spoke.
"Harry and I have something in common," she said. "We've both been betrayed by someone we loved." Hermione said nothing. After a moment's hesitation, Theo continued. "When I first came to the Guardianship, I would have lost my mind if it hadn't been for Seth. He was my assistant, North's predecessor. He was very experienced, I was the fourth Guardian he'd seen come to the office in need of his guidance. He helped me adjust to my new responsibilities and taught me about my new powers." She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. "I guess it was inevitable."
"You fell in love," Hermione said.
Theo smiled, but there was no humor in it. "Like the ravings of a second-rate romance novelist. It was predictable, it was melodramatic, and it was absolutely real. Seth and I had something I hadn't thought existed outside lite-rock radio stations." She paused in her restless pacing and looked up at the sky. "He made me feel...well, I don't have to explain it to you, do I, Hermione?" Hermione shook her head. "He said he'd never felt like a real person until he met me, that he'd been the associate Guardian so long and had lived such a long life that he'd forgotten how to feel alive, and I reminded him."
Hermione leaned forward, intensely interested. "But he was deceiving
"No, that's just it. He wasn't. Seth was a good man, one of the best I've ever known." Her face was somber, but Hermione could see the pain lurking right below the surface of her features. "What happened to him wasn't his fault. If anyone was to blame for it, it was me. I didn't see it. I didn't know until it was too late...that he'd been targeted. For conversion."
Napoleon frowned. "I'm guessing you don't mean conversion to the
She snorted. "No." Theo ran a hand through her hair. "My army, the Guardian army...the enemy we face is the army of the Dark Eternals. They are called the Legion..."
"For they are many," Hermione murmured.
"Yes, they are many indeed. They are as many as we are, and they have their own place like the Domain which they call the Stronghold. Their leader, my opposite number...for millennia it had no face, no name. A formless intelligence blocking our every attempt to maintain order and balance. It seems now, from what we've pieced together, as if the Dark Eternals realized that their lack of a real leader for their troops was a liability. So they decided to get one of their own. A being like the Guardian who could rally the Legion army, inspire them, direct them more efficiently." She turned to face them. "My...well, I guess what you'd call my arch-nemesis now has a face. The face of my Seth." She pinched the bridge of her nose with two fingers. "It wasn't his fault," she repeated. "Once they target you for conversion, it's all over but the shouting. He was compromised while away on a mission I'd asked him to supervise personally. He was separated from his companions and taken to the Stronghold, where they made him into one of them. They destroyed what was good in him and turned him into a servant of darkness."
Her words fell from her lips like dead things, with no expression or emotion behind them. Hermione felt enormous pity for her in spite of herself.
"They were smart in choosing him, the Dark Eternals. He knows me, he knows my methods, he knows my staff. The damage he has done cannot be overstated." She sighed and drew Herself up. "But that's not the point right now. The point is that I now believe that Allegra's Master, whoever the heck he is, is getting his power and his protection directly from Seth."
Hermione nodded, having already figured that part herself. "What does
this have to do with Harry?"
Theo resumed her pacing. "When I sent Harry back to Earth after I erased his memory, something else happened. He was intercepted...by Seth. North's still trying to determine how exactly this was hidden from us, but it looks now as if Harry was taken to the Stronghold instead of rejoining his timestream as I'd intended. Seth knew Harry was here, there's very little that escapes his notice. If he also found out that Harry's mental state had been severely compromised he probably couldn't resist the opportunity to do a little tinkering of his own. The idea of having a Mage on his payroll was just too tempting." She stopped and took a seat on Hermione's other side. "The behavior you're seeing in Harry, the psychosis, the cruelty, the blackness...you're seeing Seth in him. That's his genius, you see. He doesn't just turn people all evil. He plants the seeds of their own darkness into their hearts and then lets them do all the work. Harry's psyche was already dangerously fragmented because of the patch-up job I had to pull on him. Seth used that, as well as the incipient insanity that the Eternals caused. Gave him a lot to work with."
"What about the fake body?"
Theo thought a moment. "There's no question that he sent it, but as to his reasons...we may never know exactly what happened there. My best guess is that at some point Seth decided he was happy enough with Harry's progress to keep him for good, so he sent the body to keep all you meddling kids from continuing your search...knowing Seth, it probably seemed like a pretty good joke, too. But when it didn't fool you, he had to make a decision. He had to decide whether to keep Harry and risk your investigation turning up evidence of his activities or those of his human operatives, or to cut his losses, send Harry back, and see how much damage he could do while he crashed and burned."
"Honestly, it doesn't seem like it would have been all that risky to
"Agreed. That's why I think something else must have happened. Personally, I think it was Harry. I think he resisted and became more trouble than he was worth, so Seth sent him back much as I'd tried to do...with no memory of what had happened to him."
"Why the two month delay?"
"Achieving the kind of exact arrival time I had intended for Harry isn't as easy as snapping your fingers. It's a delicate operation, Seth probably didn't care to take the time and effort. He wasn't as concerned about maintaining Harry's mental integrity as I was. Heck, the resulting confusion and anxiety it caused was probably just fine with him. Come to think of it, he may have even sent him back two months later intentionally. Well, we'll never know." "But you can help him now, right?" Hermione said, her voice eager. "Now that you know Harry's sick because of what Seth did...you can do something about it, right? We lowly mortals might not be your business, but surely Seth's activities are very much your business." Theo held her gaze for a long moment, then opened her mouth to speak. Hermione held up a hand to stop her. "No, wait, allow me. It's not that simple, right? Nothing is ever that simple around here, is it?"
"The thing that concerns me right now is that Seth managed to hide his activities from me for so long. He's altered my monitoring systems, he's taken people from right out from under my nose, he's hidden things from my guardians and from me. Do you take my meaning?"
"He must have people on the inside," Napoleon said.
Hermione nodded, a cynical half-smile curling her lips. "He's compromised your security, and if you help Harry, Seth will know that you're on to him. He'll pull his people out and you'll never know what happened."
Theo stood up, and in her posture Hermione could almost see the weight of her office bearing down on her shoulders. "I see both of you appreciate the difficulty of my position."
"I appreciate nothing," Hermione said, her tone cold. "I don't care about your security. I refuse to sacrifice the man that I love on the altar of your bloody security."
Theo turned to face her. Her face was implacable and she appeared unimpressed. "I admire your candor, Hermione, I really do, but save your dramatic pronouncements. I've heard it all before. You probably think me unsympathetic and uncaring. I do have sympathy for your situation, but I would remind you that I lost the only man *I'd* ever loved to this war I'm waging...and I didn't even get the closure of his death. He was taken from me a little bit at a time, and I still have to see his face and hear his voice and know that he exists now only to bring me down." Theo's voice never rose, never wavered, never cracked...but there was a deadness behind her eyes as she spoke of Seth, a forced blankness of expression that Hermione recognized for what it was: a smokescreen to mask a great depth of sadness and despair.
Hermione pushed away her uncertainty. Harry needed her to be strong
and she'd be damned before she'd let him down. "I'm sorry for your
loss," she said, "but if you won't help Harry you'll have another
Incredibly, Theo smiled. "Allegra said you had moxie. She was right. But if you decide to be my enemy then that will be your misfortune, not mine." She sighed. "I don't think we ought to talk about this any more just now."
Hermione stood up. "We haven't *talked* about it at all! Helping Harry is the only reason I sought you out, and I'm no closer to knowing how to do that than when I first met you."
"I've told you everything I can. You know all you need to know," Theo said, not looking at them, "and all that I intend to tell you. I cannot help you any further. It's up to you." And with that, she was gone.
Hermione and Napoleon sat there paralyzed, staring into space. For
some moments no one spoke.
"What am I going to do, Napoleon?" she finally said. "Tell me what I'm doing wrong here."
"You're not doing anything wrong," he said. "You're doing the best you can."
"And if my best isn't good enough?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "What then? If I did my best and he dies...how will I live with myself?"
Napoleon didn't reply. How could he? she thought. There is no right answer to that question.
Laura turned from the observation window, her stomach rolling. The
skin of her face felt like it was stretched tight over her bones.
"Thanks for letting me see him," she said. "I know this place is top-
secret or something."
"Exceptions can be made," Sirius said, putting an arm around her narrow shoulders.
"He's very bad, isn't he?"
Sirius hesitated. "Yes, he's bad."
Laura sat down on a battered couch where she suspected Sirius had been spending what little sack-time he could manage to grab. "They've been gone a whole day now. There hasn't been any word?"
"No. Honestly, I'm worried about them. I would have thought Hermione
would have kept in better touch with us. We know they were planning on
visiting the caves at Lasceaux. We don't even know if they ever made
it there. They could be anywhere by now. I wish I knew if they'd
found the Guardian."
"If Hermione isn't reporting in then she has a good reason."
"I know. I just...what I really want is to be out there with her, helping her. Instead I'm just sitting here watching him deterioriate and I hate it, I hate not contributing." His frustration crept into his voice, roughening it around the edges. He didn't look so good. His skin was the color of cottage cheese and darkened by stubble, his normally well-kept hair was oily and disheveled. His clothes looked slept-in. Laura knew he hadn't left Harry's side since coming here shortly after his godson's confinement.
"But you are contributing," she said. "Sirius, it's only because she knows you're here that Hermione could stand to leave him. You think she'd entrust his care to just anyone? She can go out and do what she has to do for Harry because he still has you here."
Sirius managed a tired smile. "Maybe you're right. Still, I wish I could take a more active role."
"We all do. How do you think we all feel, all Harry's friends? All we
can do is sit at home and stare at walls and wait for someone to owl us
with news. Talk about feeling helpless. Then there's Hermione to
worry about, too. We might lose them both." Her mind quailed at the
Sirius wandered back to the observation window. "I promised Lily and James I would take care of him, if anything should happen," he murmured. "I already failed them for thirteen years."
"I think being in Azkaban exempts you from promise-keeping."
"No, it just makes it worse. Even after I was out I couldn't do nearly as much for him as I wanted to." He sighed. "James and Lily trusted me with their son, and look what he's come to now."
"All right, enough with the wallowing, already," Laura scolded him. "He's in trouble, sure. It's not the first time, it won't be the last. Look, let's keep a little optimism here, can we?"
Sirius smiled vaguely. "He won't give up, at least. Not while he has any strength left."
"I only wish we knew what was going on inside his head."
Inside, deep inside where he was, Harry Potter was waging a war that
would not stop against a tireless foe who wore his own face...and he
While his conscious mind slept the stone sleep of the sedated, his unconscious fought mightily against the enemy inside itself, throwing up barriers and summoning champions to keep the encroaching darkness at bay.
He found himself in a vast castle of stone and timber. Some rooms blazed with light, others were dark and stale with cobwebs. The passages stretched on into infinity, and some of the doors were barred against him. He wandered through the corridors and chambers, searching for something, he knew not what. He was paced at every turn by a shadowy fiend who bided his time and then leapt at him to drive him away from the warm, light-filled rooms further into the cold dimness. If he was driven far enough into that darkness, he'd never return and the fiend would be all that was left of him.
Harry walked across a courtyard, the damp grass left wetness on his cuffs. "Hermione?" he called out. She had just been here a moment before, he was sure of it. Where had she gone? Hermione would know what to do. She'd open one of her books and tell him what to do, if he could only find her. "Hermione!" he called again.
*She isn't here,* said the shadow.
"She is here!"
*She's gone away. She left you here alone.*
"No! She's always with me. Even when she's far away she's always with
me." He stopped in the middle of the courtyard. "Hermione!" he cried,
his voice echoing against the stone walls all around.
"Harry!" came a sudden reply. His heart leapt as she ran into the courtyard, dressed in her old Hogwarts school robes and looking very young. "There you are," she said, hurrying to join him.
Sweet relief flooded him. "I couldn't find you," he said.
"Well, I'm here now. Everything will be okay. Just relax. Go to sleep. I'll take care of everything." She raised a hand and stroked it down his cheek.
"But I...I can't go to sleep..."
"You should. You look tired. Aren't you tired?"
He was. So exhausted, all at once. Her hand stroking his cheek was so soothing...lulling him into a daze...her eyes seemed to grow larger, he could drown in them. "Yes..."
"Then sleep. It'll all be over if you just relax." Harry felt himself falling towards her, falling into her eyes. "Relax...relax..." she repeated, her voice low and soothing, her hand so soft on his face.
Harry brought up his fist and punched himself in the nose as hard as he could. He staggered back a step, things coming back into the vague and misty focus they'd had before. "You're not Hermione," he said.
Hermione's face twisted then, the illusion of her flesh melting and running like soft taffy, remolding its own features until he was staring at himself. His own face, but...different. Darker, twisted. His eyes shone with malevolent intelligence and purpose. "You can't win," he said. Harry fought disorientation at hearing his own voice spoken back to him. "You can't fight me, I'm you."
"You're not me. You're my worst nightmare of me."
"Nightmares have power...and you're getting weaker by the second." The other him brandished a long glittering sword at him. "You'll never make it."
Harry screwed his eyes shut and held out his hands. "Expecto patronum!" he cried before he was even aware he was about to do so. He waited for the burst of energy to flow through him but nothing happened. His doppelganger's low laughter came to him then, and when he opened his eyes the hateful spectre was standing there unfazed.
"I'm no dementor, Harry. You can't banish me with happy thoughts. I * am* your happy thoughts, and your sad thoughts, and all your other thoughts. I am your true thoughts, the things you think but don't say. I am your liberator. All you have to do is step aside, and you'll be free. You can sense how much power is in this body. I know how to use it. If you let me, I can do great things."
The other Harry was slowly advancing on him, sword raised. Harry backed up before his advance. "No. You'll do whatever you want. You won't care who you hurt." His own voice sounded weak and uncertain. He stumbled and sat down hard, the menacing shape before him looming like a stone god.
Harry2 grinned and raised the sword. "You're not wrong."
Before he could strike, a figure ran out from the shadows with a mighty cry of rage. It tackled Harry2 to the ground. As Harry watched, amazed, the newcomer scrambled to his feet and made as if to grab the sword but before he could, Harry2 dissolved into vapor and vanished. The newcomer straightened up. "Yeah! And stay out!" he said, drawing himself up. The voice...so familiar. The stranger turned then and and walked towards Harry, his indistinct form solidifying as he drew near.
Harry's mouth dropped open at the sight of him. "Ron?"
Ron grinned. "All right then, Harry?"
"Yeah, but...where did you...I don't..."
"You called, I came."
"I...I called? Where did you come from?"
Ron leaned forward and tapped Harry's forehead. "Here, of course. Where I always am. You needed a little help, so hey presto!" He shuddered a little. "Right creepy, that guy is. What say we get the hell out of here?"
Hermione stood shin-deep in the water near the shore of a medium-sized lake out in the Domain's extensive gardens, skipping rocks. A large pile of perfect rocks for skipping sat on the grass nearby next to Napoleon, perched cross-legged on a large rock and watching. She'd been skipping rocks for a good fifteen minutes now, not saying much of anything. She was thinking, he knew. The rock-skipping was just something to occupy her hands while she pondered their situation.
Abruptly, she turned to face him. "All right," she said. "I know what
I have to do."
His eyebrows shot up. "You do?"
"Yes. Actually, Theo told me what to do."
"Really. I must have dozed off or something."
Hermione smiled, a grim little smile. "No, she didn't say it outright." She picked up another rock and tossed it underhand. It skipped five times and sank. "I keep thinking about something she said back in the coffeeshop, about how no one finds her unless she lets them." She shrugged. "So why did she let us find her? If she really and truly didn't want to help, she could have just kept us away."
"But Terk and Tax..."
"Didn't do a thing," Hermione finished. "I asked a few discreet questions of some of the guardians while we were in the sitroom. Turns out that the person who did Terk and Tax's orientation when they joined the network wasn't Theo at all, but a regular guardian named Nam Dietzbader. Terk and Tax never met Theo until that day in the coffeeshop."
"No, wait a minute, they remembered her..." He stopped short, then chuckled. "She made them remember it that way, didn't she? She sort of...inserted herself into their memories so they'd lead us to her."
"Yes, she did. She arranged this whole thing, Napoleon. We're only here because she wanted us here."
"What does it mean?"
"She wants to help Harry, I'm sure of it. The only reason she told us that story about Seth is so we'd know she has human feelings and that she knows the pain of losing someone you love. She's been trying to tell me what to do without saying it out loud."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense!"
"Remember what she said about the Eternals, and about balance? Everything is balance around here. She can't go around fixing problems because it draws too much power and attention towards her. It makes people indebted to her, and she's all about being detached. She has to be, to do her job well."
"Right you are. How does that help us, exactly?"
"Don't you get it? She *wants* to help Harry. She's just looking for a reason. She needs me to give her an excuse to help him, something that can justify it." An odd light came into her eyes then, an expression that made Napoleon squirm a little. "She can't just help him. She needs to get something in return."
"Are you saying you're going to offer her a *trade* for Harry's life?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying." She tossed another rock. This one skipped seven times.
"What do we have to trade with?"
She turned towards him then, that same cold light in her eyes. "I'll make her an offer she can't refuse."
Harry and Ron walked through the endless corridors, the torches lighting as they approached and driving back the shadows. Ron was looking about; Harry tried to avoid seeing too much. "Blimey, Harry, the inside of your head looks an awful lot like Hogwarts."
"Yeah. Behold my transparent symbolism." He looked up at his old friend. "Damn, it's good to see you, Ron," he said, his voice catching a little.
Ron grinned and clapped a hand to his shoulder. "Thanks, mate. But you know you're not really seeing me, right? I'm just another barrier your brain conjured up to help you resist."
"I know. Still...it's bloody good to see you."
"Too bad Hermione isn't here. It'd be like old times. Of course if she were you two would probably just start snogging and I'd have to pretend to be very interested in this wall, or something."
Harry chuckled. "I guess if you live here inside my head you've seen about enough of that, haven't you?"
"I've seen plenty more than just that." He winked at him. "I've seen all of your secret Hermione-related fantasies. Even the one about the Astronomy tower and the..."
Harry harrumphed loudly. "So what's it like being dead, anyway?"
Ron laughed out loud. "I get it. Change the subject, all right, you're the boss." He sobered. "So...what's my job here? What do you want me to do? How can I help you, Harry?"
"Just...stay here with me. Keep me talking. I need to hang on as long as I can before *he* comes back."
"He'll keep coming back, you know. Unless someone out there can find a way to get rid of him."
"She'll fix it. She fixes everything." He glanced up at Ron and couldn't stop himself from asking, even though he knew the answer would be meaningless. "Do you feel we betrayed you?" he said. "Are you...upset?"
Ron stopped walking and turned to face him. "Do you love her?" he asked, very simply.
"Then where's the bad?" He shrugged and kept walking. Harry matched his pace, relieved. "Now, the fact that you shagged my sister is another question entirely..."
When North showed them into Theo's office the Guardian wasn't visible,
but her large desk chair was turned away from the desk towards the
window behind it. Hermione didn't prevaricate. "I'm here about the
trade we discussed," she said.
The chair slowly swiveled around. Theo was sitting in it, but she looked different. She wasn't wearing civilian clothing. Her chestnut hair was swept up and bound in a bun at the crown of her head. She was clad all in black, a high-necked tunic with a long robe. Around her neck hung an ornate medallion on a deep purple ribbon...the badge of her office, Hermione guessed. These must be her work clothes. Hermione felt her resolve withering a little. Dressed like this and wearing the mantle of the Guardianship like an invisible shield, Theo looked even less like someone to be trifled with. "What trade is that?" she said now. "I don't recall having had such a discussion with you."
"You know damn well you did. You've been telling me what to do since I
got here, I just didn't put it all together until you told us about
Theo stood up, slowly. "Do you come before the Guardian with a proposition?" she asked, her tone formal.
Hermione straightened up. So this is how we play it, she thought. "Yes, I do," she said.
North stood at Theo's side, his hands clasped behind his back. Hermione felt Napoleon move up to stand at her side as well. "What is it that you want?" Theo asked.
"I want Harry Potter restored to normal health. I want the damage done to his mind reversed."
"Your request is in direct conflict with the Guardian's policy of noninterference," Theo said, her eyes still oddly shuttered. "What do you offer as compensation?"
Hermione set her jaw. "I offer my own life. Take me instead of him." She felt Napoleon stiffen next to her, but surely he could not be surprised.
Theo nodded. "A noble, if predictable gesture. But I'm afraid it's unsatisfactory."
For a moment Hermione was at a loss. "Unsatisfactory? In what way?"
"You're willing to die to save this man?"
"You're offering to trade your life for his?"
Theo sat back down. "Then you're unclear on the concept. For a trade to work, one presupposes that whatever is being offered in trade has some value."
Napoleon's mouth dropped open. "Are you implying her life has no
"Not to her, it doesn't. She can make this offer so easily because if he dies, she feels her life would be over anyway. Right?"
Hermione sat down hard. Theo was right. Offering herself as a sacrifice had seemed so natural, so logical. Why? At the very least it meant she didn't have to obsess over what it would be like to try and go on without Harry. "Then...I have nothing to offer you," she whispered. She raised her head and looked into Theo's eyes. "What is it that you want from me?"
"It's not what I want that matters." She stood up and went to the Wall where the many observation glasses were mounted. She waved a hand and each of them dissolved to a different scene. Hermione rose and slowly approached the Wall, her entire body tensing as she realized that in every glass she was seeing Harry dying. Her mind locked up as her eyes took in the sight of him thrashing on the table, of blood coming from his ears and nose, of his body going limp, of Sukesh pronouncing him dead. Dozens of scenes, each a little different. In a few of them she saw herself holding him in her arms as he died. A scream tried to roar up her throat but was too large to escape, so she just chuffed out a few gasping breaths. Theo grasped her by the shoulders and turned her away. "This is what's supposed to happen, Hermione. In every timeline, no matter what you do, no matter what you find, he dies! This is his time!"
"No!" Hermione cried. "If your bloody Eternals hadn't taken him none
of this would have happened! If you and Seth hadn't messed up his mind
so badly he would be fine!"
"You're right," Theo said. "I am fighting a war that never ends, a war in which the innocent die. If I help Harry now, I lose a chance to influct some real strategic damage on Seth. He'll win this round against me and that can't happen."
"I'll make it worth your while."
"What can you possibly offer me?"
"You tell me." Theo just stared at her. "Yes, that's correct. You must have something in mind, or else you wouldn't have brought me here in the first place. So tell me, what is it that I can give you? If my life isn't any good to you, what is?"
Theo waved her hand and the glasses went dark again, to Hermione's immense relief...it was hard to concentrate with those images just over her shoulder. She returned to her place behind her desk. "No, I won't take your life, Hermione. I'm not a god, I don't hold the keys to life and death up here. That power is in my hands, but it should not be wielded." She sat down. "I am going to cure Harry."
Hermione sank into one of the office chairs, unable to speak. She hadn't quite realized just how tense and anxious she'd been until she heard those words. "Thank you," she whispered.
"Don't thank me just yet. You're right, I need a reason to do it. So I will accept a trade from you."
"Anything. Take anything you want."
"What if I told you I would take not your life but his?" Theo asked, nodding to Napoleon.
Hermione's stomach twisted into a knot. "Is that...is that what you're asking for?"
"What if it was?"
Hermione looked up at Napoleon, who just looked back at her with a steady gaze. He appeared neither startled nor afraid. "That's not mine to offer," Hermione said.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that."
"No," Hermione said again. "This is between me and you. Leave
Napoleon out of it."
"Very well." Hermione got the distinct impression that she'd only brought him into it at all to test Hermione's resolve. "In that case, here is what I will do: I will cure Harry. His mind will be restored to normal functioning. I will eradicate all of Seth's influence, and tidy up my own as well. He will not remember being with the Eternals, but he will remember what has happened since his return to you. That, I can't help."
"And what must I give you?"
"From you, Hermione, I will take a portion of your lifespan. Some period of time off the life you would have lived."
Hermione felt quite as thought she'd been suckerpunched. "How long?" she croaked.
"You will never know. Perhaps days, perhaps decades." Theo folded her hands on her desktop. "In most ways, your life will be just as it would have been. You will live normally, with Harry at your side. You will have your career and your adventures and whatever else you choose to pursue. You will have no foreknowledge of your own death, and you will not know when to expect it...but when it comes, you will know that it came too soon. How much too soon, that you will not know."
Hermione stared, horrified. Offering her life in exchange for his had seemed only the natural thing to do...but this, this was so much worse. It was brilliant, in its way. Diabolically cruel. A real sacrifice. Give me not what you don't want, but part of what you want most. Hearing Theo's offer clarified something else inside her own mind...that she had largely resigned herself to never seeing Harry again. She'd thought that the Guardian would either take her life in exchange for his, in which case she'd never see him again, or that her offer would be refused and Harry would die, in which case she'd never see him again. Theo's terms threw this assumption into murky disarray. He would live, and she would live...but for how long?
"Don't do it," Napoleon hissed, his face pale.
"I have no choice," she said.
"But, Hermione...time off your life, maybe years...it's different. It's..."
"Worse, yes. And that isn't even the worst part." She met Theo's eyes. "The worst part is that I'll never be able to tell anyone, will I?"
"Correct," said Theo. "You will promise me not to tell anyone, except Harry. I will allow you to tell him."
Hermione smiled bitterly. "A generous offer, considering you know damned well that there's no force on earth that could get me to tell him."
"Why not?" Napoleon exclaimed. "He ought to know what you..."
"No," Hermione cut him off, firmly. "He can never, ever know. If he
knew what I gave up to save him he'd never be able to live with
himself. It would eat away at him, it would poison us."
"It'll poison you anyway, Hermione. You can't carry this around alone for the rest of your life."
"Yes, I can."
"Well, at least I'll know, and I'll..."
Hermione cut him off. "No, you won't know." She turned to him and took him by the hand, her expression softening a little. "I couldn't have done this without your support, Napoleon...but you won't remember what I'm about to do. She won't let you remember. I'm supposed to be alone in this." She looked at Theo. "Right?"
Theo nodded. "He'll remember being here, but not what you did."
Napoleon shook his head, his expression hard. "This isn't right. It's too much."
She met his eyes. "Too much for what? For you? Not for me. I will do what I have to do."
"Yes, for him." She took a step closer to him and put one hand on his face, which was now clouding over with confused anger. "I'm sorry this is hard for you, but you know there's nothing I wouldn't do for him. He would do the same for me, and more." Napoleon nodded, looking deep into her eyes.
"All right, just...let me remember this. Let me be there to share that burden with you."
She shook her head. "No, it's up to me. It has to come from me. I was ready to die for him. Now we'll see if I've got the stones to live for him."
Napoleon shook his head, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. "He'll never know how lucky he is," he whispered.
Hermione managed a smile. She stepped away from Napoleon and faced the Guardian. "I accept your terms."
Theo didn't look happy or triumphant at hearing this, only resigned. "Very well." She cocked her head and regarded her across the desk. "You know, you're quite an extraordinary person, Hermione. I should like to know you better. I only hope that what you think you want is the proper course. Never forget that our arrangement may have consequences you don't anticipate. Even I can't see everything."
"When will you...will we..."
"There's no time like the present."
"What, now?" Napoleon said. Theo just looked at him. "Give her a little time to prepare..."
"I'll have the rest of my life to prepare," Hermione said, the grim
realization of the future she could now look forward to coloring her
tone. "Best do it now, before I lose my nerve."
"Just let me do one thing first," Napoleon said.
"What's th..." was as far as Hermione got before he grasped her by the upper arms and kissed her soundly on the mouth. After a moment's stunned hesitation, Hermione relaxed and let him kiss her. She would spend considerable time in the future pondering the degree to which she kissed back. After a few moments they separated and Hermione faced Theo once again.
"Anything else?" the Guardian said, a slight quirk in one of her eyebrows. No one spoke. "All right, then. Let's get this over with."
Sukesh glanced into the observation cell where Harry lay, still
strapped to the table. His patient was sliding ever deeper into a
comatose state from which Sukesh feared he could never be roused whole.
Two days since Hermione had left them, and still no word. He had
serious doubts about how much longer Harry could hang on.
He dropped his eyes back to Harry's medical chart, noting his current pulse rate, blood pressure, and magical ascendency readouts. He glanced back up at Harry and nearly fell off his stool, jerking sideways with a squawk of surprise.
Inside the cell were four people. Two he knew, two were strangers.
Hermione sat on one side of Harry's table, Napoleon standing behind her. Leaning over Harry's head was a woman in severe black clothing, and at her shoulder stood a hawk-faced man with an expressionless face. The woman had her hands on either side of Harry's head.
Sukesh scrambled to his feet and darted to the glass, pressing his hands to it. Hermione glanced up at him and shook her head once, sharply, her message clear: don't interfere. So he watched. Nothing seemed to be happening at first, then he saw with widening eyes tendrils of dark red energy flowing out of Harry's head and up the strange woman's arms, where they disappeared into her flesh.
"Sirius," he croaked. He cleared his throat and spoke again.
Sirius snapped awake and launched himself off the couch at roughly the speed of sound. "WhatwhatWHAT?" he screeched.
"You better come see this."
Theo straightened up. Hermione barely saw her. She was staring
fixedly at Harry's face, composed now in peaceful sleep. "It's done,"
Hermione dragged her eyes away from Harry and looked up just in time to see a faint red glow fade from Theo's eyes. "He's okay now?"
The Guardian nodded, her head slowly swiveling to face Hermione. "I
advise you, Hermione, not to seek me out again."
"Good luck." She leaned closer for a moment. "Just remember, Hermione...it's all in your head." She and North vanished without further comment, before Hermione could even begin to wonder what the heck that had meant.
Napoleon cleared his throat. "Blimey. That was anticlimactic."
The door burst open and Sukesh and Sirius rushed in. "Hermione!" Sirius cried. "Where did you...how did..."
She held up a hand. "Don't. Not right now. Give me a minute." She glanced at Napoleon, who shooed the two men out of the chamber, both of them protesting all the way. He closed the door behind him, leaving Hermione alone in this awful chamber...alone but for an unconscious man she'd been willing to die to save.
She laid one hand on Harry's forehead, her other hand holding one of
his. She sat that way for some moments, ignoring the people now
gathering at the window into Harry's cell. She saw only him. She did
not question whether he was, in fact, cured. What little she knew of
the Guardian (and she did not fool herself that she knew anything other
than an infinitesimal amount) told her that she would not go back on
such an arrangement. Harry was safe now.
She felt her chin trembling and tried to hold it back, then wondered why she should. She had been holding it back for days and days, perhaps for weeks. Worrying about him, wondering if he'd be all right. Come to think of it, she'd been worrying about him and wondering if he'd be all right for about sixteen years, and she was exhausted.
So she laid her head on his chest and wept. She wept for all he'd been through and all that she knew was still ahead of him, and she wept for herself and the horrible uncertainty that she now had to look forward to for the rest of her life. Most of all she wept for them both, and this love they'd felt so fortunate to find, this wonderful, terrible, all-consuming feeling that she sometimes wished she could escape.
When Hermione came out of Harry's cell, quite a crowd had gathered.
Sukesh, Sirius, Lupin, Argo, Napoleon...half of the I.D. medical staff,
it seemed. They were all staring at her. No one seemed to know how to
broach the question, so she saved them the trouble.
"He'll be fine now," she said. "Sukesh, if you check, I think you'll find no traces of the other personality."
"I've already checked," Sukesh said. "He appears normal."
She nodded. "He's just sleeping now."
Sirius came forward, his face alight with relief. "Hermione, you did it! How did you..."
"That woman we saw...was that..."
"Yes. The Guardian. But I'm sure you won't remember seeing her for very much longer. None of you will." She cleared her throat, wishing there were a few less people here. "Sirius...I need a favor from you."
"Stay here with Harry. Make sure he wakes up all right."
"Well, you'll be here, and..."
She went on as if he hadn't spoken. "When he wakes up...tell him he's okay, and not to worry about anything." The tone in her voice was starting to inspire concerned expressions in the others. "I want you to tell him that I had to go away for awhile."
The silence that greeted this statement was deafening. Their shocked eyes, my God their eyes. "Go away?" Sirius said, like he wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly.
"That's right." She met Sirius's eyes. "Please take care of him for me." She turned and walked quickly out of the room, fleeing from their eyes.
She didn't stop walking. "Come with me back to my office," she said. "We'll talk there."
A few moments later he followed her into her office. "All right, explain this to me," he said. "You're...what, you're leaving?"
She got out her briefcase. "Yes."
"As soon as possible." She was pawing through the papers on her desk and putting some in the case while tossing others into the dustbin.
"Is there...something unfinished here?"
"No, it's all over."
"Will you *stop?*" he exclaimed, yanking the briefcase away from her. "Tell me what's going on here!"
She sat down heavily, wondering if she could possibly explain. "Sirius...I need some time alone. To think things over."
He slowly sank into one of the chairs opposite her desk. "Hermione, my God...are you leaving him?"
"No!" she said, emphatic. "No, I'm...taking a temporary leave of absence."
"Well, forgive me if I say this doesn't seem like the best time for
that! He'll wake up any minute and he'll really need you!"
"I know. That's why I have to leave right now, Sirius. If he wakes up and I look into those eyes of his I won't be able to stand to leave, and it's very important that I do. I can't explain, not completely, and I don't expect you to understand."
"Good, because I don't! How can you leave him at a time like this?" Anger was now creeping into Sirius' voice. Hermione knew that fond as he was of her, Sirius' first personal loyalty was to Harry.
She looked directly at him, hoping she could be clear...or at least, clear enough. "Sirius, please don't question me. You have no idea, * no* idea what I just gave up to save his life. I did it willingly, and without hesitation...but I don't know if I could do it again. I need some time alone to think about what it means for me, and for us."
"But...Harry will need..."
"I'm sorry, but at this moment I can't think about what Harry needs. I've been thinking about nothing but what Harry needs for the last sixteen years of my life. This may come as a shock to all of you but not everything in my life is about Harry. This is about *me.* For once in my adult life, right now I have to think about what *I* need."
"And what you need is to leave."
"For the time being." She stared at her hands. "I've got some things to work through, in my own head. I've got to think about the things I want, for my own life...apart from Harry. I owe it to him, and more importantly I owe it to myself." She smiled at him. "I will understand if you're very angry with me for this."
He shook his head. "Oddly enough, I'm not. I think I understand." He still looked puzzled, but Hermione appreciated the gesture more than she could say.
"Good. Then I can trust you to give Harry another message for me."
"I want you to tell him that I don't know when I'll be back, but I will try not to be gone too long. Tell him..." She put on her cloak, gathering her emotional resolve. "Please tell him that I love him very, very much. Tell him that frequently, he may need reminding. He'll have many questions, and you won't have any good answers for him. Do what you can to reassure him, but please ask him not to try and contact me while I'm away." She smiled weakly. "This is harder for me than you can imagine, but I will do what I must."
"As you always have." She walked past him then. Sirius didn't move, but just as she reached the door he spoke again. "So...you'll be completely out of contact, then?"
She hesitated, and when she answered she didn't turn around. "If an emergency arises and you absolutely must, you can contact me by stealth owl. I trust that won't become necessary." She left Sirius in her office and walked off down the hallway. The temptation to return just for a moment to Harry and kiss him goodbye or whisper in his ear was very strong, but she resisted. She followed her Bubble to the security checkpoint and left the building. She managed to hold in her tears until she'd reached her car.
She did not set foot inside the I.D. again for quite some time.