"Sweet Salazar," Draco groaned, and promptly deposited his most recent meal in the ornamental vase her mother had kept on the dining room table for as long as Hermione could remember. She stared at him in disbelief, her rage of only seconds ago forgotten. This had to have been one of their shortest Apparitions since they'd begun this crazy journey, and he chose this time to throw up? In one of the ugliest vases known to man?

"Delayed Apparition Sickness," Lucius explained, watching as his son retched violently. "It can sometimes strike after multiple Apparitions in too close a time frame."

His explanation was concise, informative, and completely detached. Did the man not realize that his son was in distress?

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Hermione exclaimed, and pushed through the group of statue-like wizards to stand beside Draco. Nose wrinkled, she let her hand hover over him for a moment before allowing it to rest on the small of his back as he remained bent over at the waist. When his stomach settled, he took in great gulps of air.

It was strange, she thought, to see his shoulders tremble. To see him in a weakened state. Draco, apparently, didn't care for it either and took a step away from her, effectively removing her hand from where it had been resting on his back. The strength of the sting she felt at his rejection surprised her. They'd been friendly for several months as they'd worked on restoring Hogwarts, but they hadn't been particularly close. For him to be uncomfortable with her touch was reasonable, though she could admit that it pricked her pride, especially since he'd made a point of holding her, comforting her, in Moaning Myrtle's lavatory.

He stood quietly for a moment, obviously still fighting the effects of the apparition sickness. When he turned to face her, she saw his sheepish expression and realized that he hadn't rejected her, he'd merely fallen victim to misplaced male pride.

Well. She hadn't let Harry or Ron get away with that sort of thing, and she had no intention of making an exception for Draco. Threading her arm through his and tugging him back to the group, she faced Dumbledore and her fears head on.

"What next?" she demanded. "We've seen me sleep. We've seen my parents eat. Are we really here now to watch my parents do crossword puzzles?"

Because, in fact, that was exactly what Mr and Mrs Granger were doing. They were seated on the comfortable living room furniture, Mr Granger in his recliner and Mrs Granger on a love seat, both with pencils poised over their puzzles.

"I believe your mother is attempting a Sudoku puzzle," Lucius corrected her, and she gaggled for a brief moment, wondering when the sheltered pure blood had become familiar with the mathematical game. "What? Sudoku provides an excellent mental distraction when one is attempting to clear one's mind."

Hermione's jaw dropped as she pictured Lucius scrambling to get in a quick game of Sudoku before being called to face Voldemort. Blinking to rid herself of the unsettling image, she turned back to Dumbledore. "Well?" she pressed.

She told herself that it wasn't fear that kept her from looking at her parents. Or guilt. No, she was just frustrated and impatient. That was why her eyes were resolutely fixed on Dumbledore instead of on the image of her peaceful parents experiencing yet another peaceful evening in their home. From the quick glance she'd had of them, she could tell that they were a few years older than they'd been in the vision of them in the kitchen. Her fifth year, at least. Maybe sixth?

This wouldn't do. This wouldn't do at all. Forcing her thoughts away from her parents, she poked a finger in Dumbledore's ethereal robes. "Well?" she repeated. But Dumbledore didn't even have the courtesy to look at her. Instead, he was staring at a point over her shoulder.

Towards her parents.

With a sigh of defeat, Hermione turned to follow his gaze.

"Again?" she asked. Because, just as he'd appeared in her childhood bedroom and in the Granger's kitchen, a slightly younger Dumbledore was now standing behind the couch, his wand trained on the Grangers.

"What on earth are you—" Hermione started to ask, and then stopped when she recognized the wand movements and incantation.

"An Imperius Curse?" she gasped, and then frowned. No, Imperius Curse wasn't quite accurate. There were other movements, other words, that were strangely familiar, and yet…

"A modified Imperiused Memory," she breathed, impressed despite herself.

"A most simplistic way of putting it, but yes," Dumbledore agreed, and if he looked a little smug, Hermione thought that he might actually be justified. She'd never seen anything like the spell he was performing, which most likely meant that he'd developed it himself.

That would also explain, she thought grimly, why he hadn't been brought up on charges for what was obviously a mind-tampering spell. If he'd designed it himself, the Ministry wouldn't recognize the spell as anything Dark.

"But what were you hoping to accomplish?" Hermione asked. "Or were my parents just Muggles on whom to experiment?"

"Oh, not hardly," Dumbledore said, cheerfully ignoring her insult. "No, my purpose in placing them under that spell was entirely to protect them."

She raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" she inquired, though what she really wanted to do was to leave the living room, the house, the bloody neighbourhood even, and never return.

"Yes. You see, I was given to understand," and here he made a slight nod in Severus' direction, "that your parents were on Voldemort's list. In order to give them a fighting chance, I made it impossible for them to be Imperiused or otherwise manipulated by memory charms." And he looked so pleased with himself that Hermione didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "It was drawing close to the end of your sixth year, you see, and I knew that you and young Harry and Ronald were about to embark on a dangerous mission." Looking down at his arm, as if to remind them of the black curse that had killed him, he said, "I knew they would move higher up Voldemort's list as soon as you made your move. Protecting your parents was one of the last things I did before Harry and I set about retrieving that loathsome Horcrux."

Sure enough, the left arm of the Dumbledore placing the spell on her parents hung loosely at his side, the blackened fingertips contrasting with his cheerful robes.

"You made them resistant to mind-altering spells," Hermione said slowly, frowning. "That can't be right! I—" She stopped abruptly. She hadn't talked about it in over a year, not since Harry had caught her crying one night shortly after the Final Battle.

"You what?" Dumbledore asked, curious, and she realized that it was possible that he didn't know what she'd done. Or tried to do. After all, he'd been dead at the time. Still, that seemed like a poor excuse for what she now expected had led to, or at least directly contributed to, her parents' deaths.

"I removed their memories of me," Hermione said, her voice brittle. "And planted the desire for them to move to Australia."

It was Dumbledore's turn to blink in astonishment. "My dear," he said, and then stopped. "I rather wish I'd thought of that," he admitted.

"But it worked!" Hermione insisted. "I was certain that it worked! I researched, and practiced, and they acted as if it worked!"

"Yes," Dumbledore said, absently stroking his beard. "They would have."

Hermione threw her hands in the air. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Part of the spell was designed so that the Grangers would appear to have succumbed to any spell placed on them," Lucius surmised. "And, no, Miss Granger, I had nothing to do with this debacle. It merely stands to reason."

He was right. If Death Eaters thought that they had successfully Legilimized the Grangers, they might let them go instead of killing them.

"So when I thought I was removing their memories of me and planting the desire to move to Australia…" Hermione's voice trailed off.

"You took their memories?" Severus asked.

Hermione bit her lip and then nodded. There had been no censure in the question, merely a desire to understand the situation.

"I had no choice," she said desperately, the need to defend herself nearly choking her. "I was going on the run with Harry and Ron and I couldn't protect them and I knew that Voldemort would try to get information out of them and—"

"Breathe, Miss Granger," Lucius said, and Hermione realized that her chest was aching, as if she weren't getting nearly the oxygen that she required. When she'd taken a few shaky breaths, he continued. "It was a viable plan," he said, "and it might well have worked."

"Except it didn't," she said bitterly. "I assumed that the memory charm failed; that it lost potency after they reached Australia. I thought that they must have returned, and that was when…" She stopped, unable to speak the words.

They'd been close. So close to victory. As best as she could determine, it had happened the day before the Final Battle. Word hadn't reached her until several days later, what with the chaos of the destruction of Hogwarts. But the Ministry Owl had eventually found her, delivering a scroll with the news that her parents' home had been burned to the ground, with her parents inside. Suspected Death Eater activity was never proven.

It had been easy to keep it quiet, Hermione remembered. She'd been grateful at the time—she had been happy not to have to deal with the newspaper articles, the well-meaning but insensitive advice, the pitying looks. But now she wondered. She wondered if carrying the burden alone had really been the right decision. She'd told Harry eventually, and she suspected that he had told Ron, but it had never become a topic for casual conversation. When she was regularly invited to the Burrow for holidays and special occasions, it was never mentioned that she had no other place, aside from Hogwarts, to go.

Would she have recovered from the pain, loss, and guilt more quickly if her parents' deaths had been public knowledge? It was impossible to tell. She only knew that she was still haunted by her decisions, dogged with guilt that she had caused their untimely deaths.

Only she hadn't, had she? Not really. At least, not in the manner that she'd assumed.

Because her spell should have worked. Would have worked, if Dumbledore hadn't gotten to them first. If her spell hadn't been properly cast, they wouldn't have appeared to be under its influence, and they most certainly had appeared to have been affected. She shivered, remembering the vacant, malleable look in their eyes. Never, never would she perform such a spell again, she knew. At least, never on someone that she loved. To exert that sort of control over another human being, even though it was for their safety, was wrong on a moral level that she couldn't begin to put into words.

And now it turned out that she hadn't actually done anything of the sort. Her desperate plans had been for naught, and her parents had come to a bad end because of it.

"Did they know?" she asked suddenly, a new thought occurring to her. She grasped Dumbledore's arm, in supplication this time rather than reluctant acceptance of being transported to a new memory. "Did they know what I tried to do?"

"No," Dumbledore replied immediately. "I made certain that your parents would remember nothing of anyone trying to influence them."

Her sigh of relief was so strong that her entire body sagged. If they'd known… She couldn't bear the thought of her parents knowing what she had tried to do. That it would be their last memory of her.

"Sit down, Miss Granger," Lucius urged, and Hermione found herself being led to the floral patterned wing back chair that had always been hers. It was only when she sat that she realized that her legs were trembling and that she was breathing with difficulty. Lucius and Severus stood stiffly and formally, and Hermione realized that they were just as uncomfortable with her show of emotion as she was. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Draco standing beside the chair. To her relief, he wasn't looking at her, merely standing at her side.

Providing the exact same support that she had given him only moments earlier when he'd been ill.

She considered moving out from under his hand, as he had done. Allowing him to see her weakness, to know her secrets, was more difficult than she had anticipated. She felt a flash of sympathy for him, understanding why he hadn't been able to accept her touch earlier.

And yet he offered it to her.

When the initial urge to squirm out from under his hand passed, she felt her breathing slow and her trembling subside. Perhaps the price of honesty wasn't too high to pay?

Her meandering thoughts were interrupted when her father tossed down his pencil and crossword puzzle in celebration. "Ha!" he exclaimed, checking his watch. "Forty-seven minutes!" With a sly expression on his face, he leaned toward Mrs Granger. "How's that puzzle coming for you?"

"Oh, shut it, you," she snapped, and Hermione couldn't help laughing at her mother's mostly good-natured ire. Hermione had inherited her competitive nature from her mother, and her father had enjoyed taking the mickey out of them whenever they were forced to admit their shortcomings. "Numbers are evil," she insisted. "So simple, and yet so challenging." Tossing aside her puzzle, she took a sip of tea and grimaced at the tepid temperature.

"Let me refresh that, love," Mr Granger said, and planted a soft kiss on his wife's head before gathering her tea cup and disappearing into the kitchen.

"You know, if Hermione were here to help, we'd both have been done twenty minutes ago," Mrs Granger called after him.

"Too true," he agreed, ambling back into the living room and placing the tea cup on the table. He settled back into his chair and took a bite of the biscuit he'd brought with him from the kitchen. "She's always been good with vocabulary," he said. "And last break when she showed me some of that Arithmanwhatever I couldn't make heads nor tails of it. Evil numbers, indeed."

"Now you're just humouring me," Mrs Granger chided. When he looked up at her, a guilty expression on his face, she only laughed. "I didn't say you should stop."

Brushing the last of the biscuit crumbs from his jumper, he joined Mrs Granger on the loveseat and placed his arm on the back of the couch.

"Do you think she's safe?" he asked, and Hermione's heart clenched at the lost tone of his voice. Mrs Granger's delayed reaction gave her the impression that this was not the first time they'd had this particular conversation, and her heart clenched a little more. Draco's hold on her shoulder loosened as he smoothed his hand back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and she realized that she was strong enough to witness the conversation between her parents, even though it was guaranteed to break her heart in fresh and horrible ways.

"Oh, Matthew," she said, laughing unsteadily and grasping his hand in hers. "No one is ever safe."

They were silent for a few moments. When Mr Granger broke the silence, it was to say, "They're heading for war, you know."

Mrs Granger nodded as if this was no very great surprise to her, and Hermione gasped. They'd known? How had they known? She'd been so careful to downplay the upheaval of the Wizarding world! Yes, she'd kept her parents informed in a general sense, but she'd never even hinted that she was in any real danger. She'd dismissed her adventures with Harry as typical school age tomfoolery and skimmed over the worst of her injuries, especially the curse Dolohov had given her in the Department of Mysteries. She shivered, unconsciously running her hand over the hidden diagonal line of raised scar tissue. Draco placed his other hand on her opposite shoulder and began to rub.

"She doesn't want us to know, but it's clear from the tone of her letters that she's worried," Mrs Granger agreed.

Again, they sat in silence, sipping tea, preoccupied with their own thoughts.

"It's serious," Mr Granger said. "I don't know how I know, but…" He shrugged helplessly. "There's something about the situation that reminds me of the stories my grandfather used to tell. About the days before World War II. And Hermione is in the thick of it."

Mrs Granger closed her eyes. "What would you have her do, Matthew? Turn her back on what she knows is worth fighting for? That's not who we raised her to be," she said, but her voice cracked before she could finish, and a tear rolled down her cheek unchecked.

"I know!" Mr Granger stood, sending crossword puzzle books scattering, and paced the length of the room, coming within inches of Severus and Lucius. The two men stood frozen, as if unwilling to intrude on the man's turmoil.

"I wish that we could take her place," Mrs Granger whispered. "I'd give anything. From the moment she was born, I knew that I'd sacrifice my life if she needed me to." Smiling through her tears, she said, "It's not even a decision. But I don't see how we can help her. Matthew," she said, staring up at her husband, "What are we going to do?"

"We're going to stay right here," he said firmly, shunting aside his earlier agitation and reclaiming his seat beside her. Gathering her in his arms, he said, "We're going to be right here, where she knows she can find us. We're going to be her safe place, no matter where she is, no matter what monsters she's fighting. And if she brings the battle here, we'll protect her to the death."

And then they were crying in each other's arms, and Draco was kneeling in front of Hermione, holding her as she sobbed.

Her tears weren't for the reminder of her loss, she realized. Her parents had known. They'd known she was in danger, and they'd pledged their lives to help her. Their deaths might not have accomplished anything in the grand scheme of the war, but they hadn't died blind, not knowing what their sacrifice was for. They'd decided that she was worth it, and they'd given their lives willingly and knowingly.

She hated crying, normally, but this time, it was as if the tears themselves bore the guilt she'd been carrying for nineteen months. It flowed out of her, and it was the most purifying, purging experience of her life.

Her parents might not have understood, but they'd known.

And the tears wouldn't stop, but she didn't care. Draco's nightshirt was soaked, but she really didn't care. She felt a momentary prickle of unease at losing control so spectacularly in front of Lucius and Severus, but before the self-consciousness could take root, she realized that there were two more sets of hands on her back, and that there was no judgement in the touch, only concern.

And before she could think about that too much, the swirl of Apparition once again surrounded them. She opened her eyes for one last look at her parents and held on for all she was worth.



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Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

Thanks, as always, to The Above and Beyond Team of Miss M and Miss B.

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