A Difficult Decision

“Here, Hermione, you should sit down.”

Several hours later, Hermione moved to the chair Remus Lupin had just vacated, arms wrapped tightly around herself. Harry had just left the hospital wing with Hagrid and Professor McGonagall. She felt awful, her body unhurt, but her spirit broken. They had failed. Not only had they allowed Malfoy and the Death Eaters to run rampant around the castle, Dumbledore had died in the process. She couldn’t help but think that if she and Luna had stopped Snape down in the dungeons, if they had realized that he had Stunned Professor Flitwick, if they had gone after him, Dumbledore would still be…

Mrs. Weasley and Fleur were sitting by a still-unconscious Bill, holding hands. Tonks was still glaring over at Remus after a tearful and startling confession of love. Ron stared at his hands, his freckled face mirroring her own devastation.

The doors to the hospital wing burst open and Hermione jumped, startled, as Remus, Ron, Ginny, and Tonks all whipped around, their hands flying to their wands.

Blaise strode inside, his night robe billowing open, revealing his green-striped pajamas. His eyes were frantic as he scanned the beds lined along the walls, stopping when they fell on the group of wizards gathered around Bill. Hermione jumped out of her chair and hurried over to him.

“I’m okay,” she said, grabbing his shoulders, “I’m fine.”

She only got a brief look at the relief on his face before he pulled her into him, his arms wrapping tightly around her waist, face buried in her shoulder. Hermione hugged him back, glad for the comfort and warmth she felt when she was with him. For the tiniest of moments she was back in their bubble — nothing could touch her there.

“I knew you would be involved somehow,” the attempted teasing in Blaise’s words was marred by the shakiness of his voice. He sniffed as he pulled back, his arms still loosely wrapped around her, and she could see a distinct shine in his eyes. “Someone said the castle was under attack, and then that Dumbledore had…”

“He died,” she whispered, tears spilling down her face again as the guilt rushed back in.

Blaise’s eyes widened, “What happened?”

Hermione wiped her face, glancing back at the group of D.A. and Order members. Remus and Tonks had relaxed once they realized Blaise was here for Hermione, but Ron and Ginny were still eyeing him suspiciously.

She pulled Blaise away from the group, to an empty bed closer to the doors. They both perched themselves on the edge, their backs to the others.

Hermione took a deep breath, unsure of how to explain. There was so much that had happened, and large parts of the story that she couldn’t tell him. She had to skip over Harry and the Horcruxes, Dumbledore giving him lessons, Harry’s suspicion of Malfoy and his subsequent stalking, the Order of the Phoenix being in the castle to protect the students because of Dumbledore’s absence. For a moment, she felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information she just couldn’t say.

Blaise rested his hand along her cheek, his thumb brushing under her eye, catching her stray tears. He didn’t speak, but she knew what he was doing — he was telling her that it was okay, that she didn’t have to share it all.

“We-we heard the castle was under attack too,” she lied, “So a group of us went to help.”

Blaise nodded, and there was only the tiniest hint of exasperation on his face at her Gryffindor antics.

“There was so much going on, I don’t really know how it happened but…” Hermione paused and took another breath. Her last words came out as a whisper, “Harry said that Malfoy tried to kill Dumbledore. But when he couldn’t do it…Snape did.”

The shock on Blaise’s face was real — his eyes were wide and his jaw slack. “Snape?

Hermione nodded, more tears spilling down her cheeks. Blaise’s face became stony and he pulled her back into him, his arms a shield. His hands rubbed up and down her back, trying to soothe her as she sobbed into his chest. Long after her tears had dried, leaving her drained and dehydrated, he still held her close.

“Er, Mr. Zabini,” a mild voice said from behind them. Both Hermione and Blaise turned to see Remus, who looked tired and worn. He was trying to seem alright, but Hermione could see the seams, could see that he was still falling apart. “Perhaps you could escort Hermione to bed? She’s done wonderfully, but I think she might be helped by a bit of rest.”

Blaise looked startled at being addressed by their old Defense teacher, but he nodded solemnly, “Will do, Professor.”

He helped Hermione back to her feet and pulled her towards the door. They wound their way through the dark castle, Blaise’s long fingers laced through Hermione’s. She stuck close to him, her mind in a fog of fear and sadness. Blaise turned up a staircase, cursing softly under his breath as it chose that precise moment to move.

They held onto the bannister as the staircase shifted from one landing to another, and when they got to the top, Blaise turned and pushed open a tapestry to their right, which revealed a corridor that wound back in the direction he had been trying to go.

“Where are we going?” Hermione asked, realizing she hadn’t been paying attention in the slightest, content to be pulled along.

“Gryffindor Tower,” Blaise said as they stepped into a larger hallway full of sleeping portraits.

Hermione bit her lip. Nothing sounded less appealing than having to go through the Gryffindor common room, where she was sure the entire House had congregated upon hearing the news. Even if the common room was deserted, there were Lavender and Parvati to consider, who would no doubt harass her for details of what had happened.

“Do we have to?” she asked.

Blaise looked down at her, considering. “I suppose not.”

With that, he pulled her in the other direction, turning a corner and wrenching open the door to the nearest classroom. It was dark, but Blaise tapped the nearest torch with his wand and it sprang alight, the other torches following its lead and lighting the room.

He waved his wand wordlessly again, and pulled Hermione further inside, leaving the door half open. Moments later, a bundle of cloth zoomed into the room and into his hands.

“Here,” he said, passing the bundle to her. She realized it was her pajamas — the flowered nightgown and black hair bonnet that she had tossed haphazardly out of her trunk earlier in the rush to find her D.A. coin.

She looked up to thank him, but Blaise had already turned away, his back to her resolutely as he waved his wand again, desks and chairs sliding around.

Blushing slightly, Hermione turned around and changed quickly, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to check that Blaise wasn’t looking, which he wasn’t. By the time she was fully clothed, bonnet pinned under her arm as she attempted to twist her hair into four passable plaits, Blaise had moved the desks around to create enough space for the pallet of blankets and pillows he had Conjured.

He came over to her, taking her half-braided plait from her hands, his fingers knocking against hers. Hermione moved to her last section of hair and began braiding it down as he finished the third. As she wound the ends of her hair around each other, Blaise carefully pulled the bonnet out from under her arm, holding it ready until she finished.

“There,” he said, sliding it over her head and then adjusting it so the band didn’t cut across her forehead.

“Thanks,” Hermione said quietly.

Together they burrowed under the blankets, Hermione sliding close enough to Blaise that she could rest her head on his chest and push her bare feet against his legs. He winced slightly, but didn’t say anything about her cold toes, instead holding her tighter and kissing her forehead.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he told her.

Hermione bit her lip. She wasn’t okay. She had almost been killed in her second battle in two years, against people who would be happy to see her dead. Dumbledore, the man who was supposed to guide them in the war ahead, who was supposed to have all of the answers, was gone. She had known, from the moment Harry had said it, that her life was about to change. The decisions she had left unmade, the responsibilities she had been trying to ignore, they were all here now. She knew what she had to do, and now that it was time she wouldn’t hesitate. But she was scared.

Rather than say all of this, she took a deep breath, allowing herself instead to stay in this moment of calm with Blaise. The world was scary and would soon have her in its clutches, but for now it was just within these four walls, in Blaise’s arms, warm and comforting.

Hermione woke with a start the next morning. Shouts and bangs echoed in her mind, falling stone and flashes of green light making her heart race. There was movement next to her and she started before realizing that it was only Blaise, shifting in his sleep.

She pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked down at him. He was lying on his back, head turned towards the windows on the wall to their right, where the morning sun began to shine softly through the glass, lighting his peaceful face. One hand rested under his cheek, while the other reached back to her — it had been resting against her arm before, but now that she was sitting up, his fingers grazed against her hip.

She felt a surge of guilt as she watched him, sleep smoothing out the lines of his face and reminding her how young he was, how young they all were. The night before had made it clear how dangerous things were now; not even someone as powerful and wise as Dumbledore was safe. Hermione had made a choice, as scary as it was, to fight back against the terrifying forces rallying against people like her, but she had done it with full context and an idea of what that meant, even in uncertainty. She had been fine with that, when it was just her. But now, looking down at the boy she loved, she realized how much danger he would be in now, without having made the same sort of choice.

She buried her face in her hands, trying to push down the emotions that threatened to spill over. She heard the faintest sound of movement beside her, and the hand near her hip moved up her back.

“Are you alright?” Blaise’s voice was quiet and sleepy.

Hermione shook her head vigorously. “I made a mistake,” she said, her voice muffled by her hands.

She could feel Blaise shift again, and lifted her head to see that he was pushing himself up. His hand slid from her back to her shoulder. “I’m sure you did all you could last night…”

But Hermione shook her head again, finally looking back at Blaise’s face to see that it was full of concern for her. “That’s not what I meant,” she whispered, “I shouldn’t have let us go this far.”

Blaise’s mouth popped open in surprise, his eyebrows rising, “Why do you say that?”

“I’ve put you in so much danger.” She saw Blaise’s face twist in disbelief, saw that he was about to protest, but she stopped him, placing her hand over his mouth. His breath was warm against her fingertips. “I know you don’t believe in all this — in Harry — but that doesn’t matter. Even ignoring that I’m his best friend, the fact that people know you’re with a Muggle-born puts a target on your back.”

She could feel Blaise’s frustration. He rolled his eyes, “You didn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to do.”

“But—”

His eyes turned fierce, and he reached up to take her hand from his mouth, “I knew the decision I was making when I took your hand in the entrance hall.”

Hermione was speechless for a moment. She didn’t know how she had expected this conversation to go. Was she trying to break up with him? Was he not letting her?

“I don’t know if I’m coming back to Hogwarts next year,” she said, her voice quiet. “I haven’t talked to Harry yet, but Dumbledore—” her voice cracked on the name and she stopped herself.

“He needs your help right?” Blaise asked. “I had a feeling, after last night.”

Hermione couldn’t feel relieved at his guess, not when there was still more to say. “I don’t know how long it will take, but we can’t be in contact,” she said. “Nothing’s planned yet but it won’t be safe for us to have owls following us…”

His hand tightened around hers as he ducked his head down to make sure she would look him in the eyes. “Do what you have to do,” he said quietly, “I don’t care how long it takes. I’ll be here.”

Hermione saw the determination in his eyes, the resolution in his clenched jaw, and her already shaky resolve broke. He rested his forehead against hers and her eyes fluttered shut. Cinnamon and cloves washed over her as she inhaled, warmth rushing to the surface of her skin. Blaise’s nose brushed against hers and she felt his arm tighten around her. She found herself tilting her head up, desperate to meet his waiting lips.

Hermione was in her dormitory, changing out of her dress robes and into a pair of jeans and t-shirt for the train. The funeral had been beautiful, though she had cried through most of it, Blaise’s arm around her as she blew her nose into his handkerchief. And Harry had finally told them what she had already guessed — he would not be returning to Hogwarts, not when there were four more Horcruxes to find. This, of course, meant that she and Ron would be going with him, even if he had seemed puzzlingly surprised by that fact.

Even before Harry’s decision, Hermione had been preparing, going to the library to see if she could find any information on the mysterious R.A.B. person who had stolen the locket Horcrux before Harry and Dumbledore could get to it, and looking up protective spells and other difficult spellwork they might find useful in the days to come.

As she pulled her head through the head of her shirt, her eyes fell on the book sitting on the edge of her bed next to Crookshanks’ empty carrier. The title jumped out at her in bright yellow letters, Modifying Memories: A Wizard’s Guide to Creating the Oblivious, and she felt her throat constrict slightly.

“I’m headed to the train,” Lavender said, breaking Hermione out of her thoughts.

“Have a wonderful summer,” Hermione said as Lavender hugged her tightly before adjusting her bag on her shoulder, “And send my best to Parvati.” She and her sister Padma had been pulled out of school the morning after Dumbledore’s murder, but Lavender had been writing her every day since.

“I will,” said Lavender, “And good luck with everything.”

Hermione pursed her lips and nodded. Even if the girl didn’t know anything about what Hermione was doing, it felt to Hermione like the best send off she could give her. As Lavender left, she turned back to her trunk, looking through it one final time to make sure she had everything. Most of these things would end up left in her room at home. She looked through her books, making sure they were properly organized. Would any of these help in their quest to find the rest of Voldemort’s Horcruxes? And if they found them, how would they destroy them?

A thought came to Hermione like a bolt of lightning. She straightened up, pulling her wand from her pocket. She went to her window and pushed it open, letting in the summer heat.

She cleared her throat, hoping this would work. “Accio Horcrux Books.”

It took a moment, but soon she could see them in the distance, and then they were flying through the window and into her arms. There were all old and bound in worn leather, the topmost book titled Secrets of the Darkest Art. Hurrying away from the window before she could start to feel guilty about stealing books, Hermione packed them in her trunk and slammed the lid shut, a sense of heaviness falling over her.

She collected Crookshanks, who had been lounging in a patch of sunlight by another window, and guided him into his carrier before grabbing her things, leaving her trunk to be transported to the train, and making her way down to the common room.

Harry and Ron were waiting for her by the portrait hole.

“Ready then?” Harry asked, his face determined as Ginny walked by them and out into the larger castle without a word. Hermione raised an eyebrow at him, but he pretended not to notice.

Ron took a deep breath, his eyes taking in the common room one last time. “Let’s go.”

The three of them made their way through the castle in silence, no doubt all deep in thought, reminiscing about their time at Hogwarts. Hermione didn’t realize how much the castle had meant to her, how it had molded and cared for her in her introduction to the magical world. She felt the weight of what had to come next, the uncertainty of the future.

Blaise was waiting for them in the entrance hall, his bag slung across his chest, holding Adonis in his cage in one hand. He nodded to Harry and Ron silently, lacing his fingers through Hermione’s as they stepped out into the sun, where the thestral-drawn carriages sat just out front.

The four of them piled into a carriage, Harry and Ron sitting across from Hermione and Blaise. Blaise kept his hand around Hermione’s the entire way, his knee pressed against hers. It was a little awkward — Harry and Ron had accepted Hermione’s relationship, but it didn’t mean they knew how (or wanted) to interact with Blaise, and Blaise seemed only to care about her, barely acknowledging that they were even there. A lump began to rise in Hermione’s throat as they rolled through the gate, away from the castle.

They found a train compartment together, and after stowing their things, Hermione sat near the window, pulling her book from her bag. Blaise sat next to her, opening The History of a Historian by Bathilda Bagshot. As Hermione opened her book to the first chapter, “Obliviate and it’s Variations,” she turned her back to the window, leaning back against the glass as she bent her leg up on the bench, which Blaise used as an armrest.

“I get it now,” she heard Ron whisper as the train pulled out of the station, and she glanced up briefly to see him looking pointedly at Blaise’s book. Harry grunted in assent.

Harry and Ron spent their time chatting about Quidditch and Bill and Fleur’s upcoming wedding, while Hermione and Blaise read. Eventually, Hermione shifted so that her shoulder leaned against the window, both of her feet on the ground. Blaise gave up reading, shutting his book before resting his head on Hermione’s other shoulder, eyes fluttering shut.

“I, er, broke up with Ginny,” Harry said, once it was clear Blaise was asleep.

What?” Ron exclaimed. Hermione looked up from her book.

Harry squirmed uncomfortably as he looked at Ron. “It’s not because I wanted to. I just didn’t want her to be in danger because of me.” He glanced at Blaise as he said it, and then to Hermione.

She tore her eyes from him, turning to stare out of the window at the passing hills. She understood why Harry did what he did, though she wasn’t sure how much of a difference it would make as long as Ginny belonged to a family full of Order members. She suddenly felt very aware of Blaise’s head on her shoulder, her eyes stinging as she remembered how these were their last few hours together. She couldn’t help but worry that her actions were endangering him, no matter what he said.

The sun had already set by the time they pulled into Platform 9 and ¾. Blaise had woken up from his nap an hour before, the four of them sharing the mound of sweets Harry had bought from the trolley lady for finality’s sake.

Harry and Ron filed out of the compartment first as the train pulled to a stop, dragging their things out onto the platform. Blaise helped Hermione with her trunk and together they followed her friends. Hermione took a steadying breath as she stepped out into the cooling night. Students spilled out onto the platform, making their way to their parents or the barrier between platforms 9 and 10, ready to go home after a long and stressful year at school.

Hermione and Blaise followed Harry and Ron to the barrier, but slowed to a stop off to the side, allowing a couple of seventh years to pass them by. Harry and Ron stopped too, but further ahead, turning away from them.

Hermione looked up at Blaise, whose jaw clenched briefly before he sniffed and looked away, his dark eyes shining. Hermione could feel her own emotions bubbling up to the surface, and in an effort to stymie them, she dove into her bag.

“I have something for you,” she said quickly, rummaging through one of the pockets until her fingers came into contact with the envelope she was searching for. She pulled it out gently and passed it to Blaise, their fingers brushing against each other as he took it from her.

He eyed her curiously before flipping the envelope open and pulling out a short stack of photographs.

“Colin took those of us at the last Quidditch match,” she said quietly, rising up on her toes slightly so that she could see the top picture. The two of them were sitting in the Quidditch stands, Blaise’s arm around her. They were supposed to be watching the game, but their eyes kept drifting off to each other, smiles spreading across their faces every time their eyes met. “He gave them to me some time ago, it just took me awhile to get the chance to make copies…”

She watched Blaise’s face as he flipped to the next one, of him laughing, holding the Ravenclaw flag out of Hermione’s persistent reach. He bit his lip, his face contorting slightly as he turned to the next one: Hermione standing as she watched the match, Blaise holding her hand and watching her. Tears filled Hermione’s eyes.

“I have something for you too,” he said, sliding the photographs back into the envelope and tucking it into his cloak. He reached into his bag and pulled out a thin black box.

Hermione opened it after he passed it to her, gasping softly at the sight of the necklace, a gold chain holding a red stone the size of a Galleon.

“I have one just like it,” he said, tugging on the chain around his neck, pulling an identical stone out from under the collar of his shirt, “They’re connected — they’ll let us know when the other is safe.”

Hermione was fully crying now as she lifted the chain from the box. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Blaise smiled, wiping a stray tear from his own face, “Because you don’t have to worry about me purposely running into danger.”

He took the necklace from her hands and made her turn around so that he could fasten it around her neck. Hermione sniffed as she held her hair up, Blaise’s fingers brushing against the back of her neck. The stone rested on her chest, warm against her skin.

Hermione wiped her tears as she turned back around to face him. She could see that Blaise was struggling to stay stoic, and she raised her hand up, resting it against his cheek.

“Goodbye Blaise,” she whispered.

He slid his hand into her hair and kissed her lips gently, savoring the last moments they had. Hermione tried to commit this moment to memory, the steadiness of his hands, the softness of his lips, the warmth of their bubble, now thinning and ready to burst.

“Bye, Hermione,” Blaise murmured as he pulled away. His hands slipped from her hair, down her shoulder, and to her hand. He gave it a quick squeeze before letting go and stepping back.

Hermione bit her lip before turning away. Harry and Ron shifted awkwardly as she caught up with them, ready to journey with them into the unknown.

Epilogue