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Reflections (or No More Than A Memory) by Winterrose

Format: Novella
Chapters: 23
Word Count: 43,833
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature

Genres: Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, Lucius, Voldemort, Draco, Fred, Ginny
Pairings: Draco/Hermione

First Published: 05/24/2005
Last Chapter: 07/25/2006
Last Updated: 03/07/2007

Summary:


Hermione finds out that she was adopted, and a letter from her birth-father turns out to be something else completely. An arranged marriage to Draco Malfoy wasn't exactly what she wanted for her birthday, and how is the mysterious project her father worked on before his murder vital to the war against Voldemort? Written pre-HBP. Over 40,000 reads! Many thanks to ilovekc for the banner. :)


Chapter 1: Changes
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"My dear sons…"

Hermione paused with her quill held above the paper. How should she say this? It had only happened hours ago. How she had survived with no more than a few scratches…at least her sons were alive, still safely growing in her womb. At least she had that to be thankful for.

"…you deserve to know. I hope that we will be reading this together sometime in the future when you are old enough to understand. If not, I want you to understand that I loved you very, very much, and so did your father."

It had only been a few hours ago. It would not be long before the news would hit the wizarding world. Voldemort was gone, and this time it was for good. Then the celebrations would begin.

Celebrations. Hermione's mouth twisted in bitterness. Never mind the price that had been paid. Oh, for most people the price had been paid by people they didn't know personally, and were only barely aware of, so they could celebrate without any reservation. As for herself, she sat at a writing desk in a spare bedroom in Grimmauld Place, her only company her grief and her twin unborn children. Most of the others were in St. Mungo's as either patients or guests; anyone besides her that wasn't was dead.

The only way she could think of to fill the slow hours was to write a letter to her sons, explaining what had happened. They needed to know, and it wouldn't hurt her to dwell on a few good memories. Bittersweet now, yes, but still good.

"You need to know the circumstances surrounding your birth, and what happened to your father.

Well, it really began during my seventh year at Hogwarts. Now, first of all, you must understand that your father and I did not always get along. Well, in the interest of accuracy, we hated each other's guts…."


…………

"Mudblood," Hermione heard Draco Malfoy mutter as he passed her in the halls of Hogwarts.

"Git," she muttered in response as she continued on her walk towards Dumbledore's office.

'Some things never do change,' Hermione thought to herself. It was a comforting thought. Lots of things had changed in her sixth year and the summer following. During the last school year the Death Eaters that had been captured at the end of her fifth year in the Department of Mysteries had escaped from Azkaban. A little later in the year, Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, fled from office and was now nowhere to be found. Apparently some detective work had revealed that Lucius Malfoy had tipped him off to the location where Sirius Black would encounter Peter Pettigrew in exchange for the location where the Ministry had stashed the Longbottoms in the effort to protect the families of the Ministry's Aurors. While Fudge was not a Death Eater, he had participated in illegal actions that had ended up with Malfoy successfully framing Black, and then pacifying the Wizarding community by allowing them to capture some of the more hotheaded Death Eaters while Malfoy got off free himself.

The results of this was that now Sirius Black had been exonerated, though posthumously, Harry had turned out to be the legal heir of the Black estate as dictated in his godfather's will, Madame Bones was now the new Minister of Magic, and the Malfoy name did not carry the prestige that it once had. All positive changes in Hermione's mind.

Another change was that near the end of the year, Ron had finally asked her out. She had been more hesitant than she thought she would have been though. They had a good friendship, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to risk that. What if things didn't work out, could they still be friends? But she had started going out with him in the last month or so of the school year, and had seen each other occasionally throughout the summer.

One thing she had worried about is how their dating would affect Harry. He had become more…introspective…since his godfather's death. And then he told her and Ron about the prophecy. How Harry managed to carry that particular burden, Hermione did not know. He did seem happy, however, for her and Ron and had started dating Ginny himself. Hermione had almost had to push him into that one, though. She had argued that there was no reason for him to stop living before he was dead, especially when that death might not happen anytime soon. Harry had finally given in, but only after he told Ginny about his prophecy and she had told him that she still wanted to date him.

Hermione smiled to herself; Ginny was good for Harry. He needed someone to brighten his day, a cheerful smile to get him to stop thinking about the load he carried.

There had been one more thing that had changed during the summer. Her parents told her that she had been adopted. Apparently her mother had found her in a janitor's closet at a train station in London when her parents were returning from their honeymoon. Her mother could not explain her sudden urge to look into the closet, or why they could not find the closet again when they tried to show authorities where they had found her. They had decided to try everything they could to keep her as soon as they laid eyes on her in a basket with a letter pinned to her blanket, but they could not explain why they instinctively hid the letter from the authorities.

The whole matter reeked of magic to Hermione. She knew, as soon as they had finished the story the day before she had gone back to Hogwarts, that there was a strong possibility that she was not muggleborn as she had thought for years. Her parents, of course, were still her parents no matter who was genetically responsible for bringing her into the world.

Before putting her on the train they had given her the letter they had found with her, telling her not to open it until her eighteenth birthday. For some reason, she had had absolutely no desire to open it early. When her birthday came…. Hermione ducked into an alcove to pluck the letter from her book bag and read it again.

Dearest Daughter,

First of all I want to tell you that I love you, as did your dear departed mother. I don't expect you to understand what I have done when you first read this, but I hope that you will come to understand--and perhaps even forgive--my actions. I know my death will come soon, and will have occurred if you are reading this, and I don't want to leave you without any explanation.

I know that you will be angry with me--and you have a right to be--but I hope that this will eventually result in your contentment and perhaps the well being of others as well. I know that my actions will most probably cause you pain, but that is the only course that will get you to the place you need to be and may be the salvation of another as well. I just want you to know that it was not my intent to cause you pain, and I would bear it for you if I could. As far as that topic is concerned, I put as many safeguards in as I possible could. Feigning madness can be particularly useful in some instances.

When you read this on your eighteenth birthday on September 19th, please show this to Albus Dumbledore. He will tell you of the situation further. He will explain as much as I have told him, but there things that I will not commit to writing here or to the ears of any other--even Dumbledore--and there are doors only your voice will open, and explanations only your eyes will see.

With Love,
Your Father



Hermione sighed, putting the letter back into her bag. It was odd that the parchment felt much heavier than its size accounted for. He had not even given her his name. And the letter made very little sense. What he was asking her forgiveness for was not apparently clear. For abandoning her perhaps? But if the letter was to be believed, he was dead, and she couldn't really blame him for not being there if he was dead. She guessed that he had died shortly before or after her parents had found her, and either he or an associate of his had arranged for her to be 'discovered' and had used a good dose of magic to make sure she was found by someone willing to raise her. Which meant that it had probably been dangerous for her to be known as the daughter of her birth parents, and her 'abandonment' had been a measure designed to keep her safe. She guessed that it probably had something to do with the war with Voldemort, and if she had been in some sort of danger as a baby, her father had been fighting on the correct side.

As a safety precaution, after her final class of the day she had showed the letter to Professor McGonagall first less than fifteen minutes ago instead of taking in directly to Dumbledore as the letter instructed. McGonagall's reaction, however, had been somewhat disconcerting. The stern but fair and practically unflappable Transfiguration professor had turned almost dead white and, thrusting the letter back at Hermione, had told her to take it to Professor Dumbledore at once.

So, Hermione found herself standing before the gargoyle that guarded the stairway to Dumbledore's office. "Gumdrops," she said, as McGonagall had instructed, and the staircase revealed itself. Hermione climbed up, and entered the study to find Dumbledore himself pacing the floor. "Professor? Do you have a few minutes?" she asked.

Dumbledore stopped pacing, and looked up. "Yes, of course Miss Granger. Please have a seat," he said, gesturing to a chair in front of his desk, taking his own chair behind the desk. After they both sat down he asked, "Now, what brings you here today?"

Why did the aged professor sound like he was inquiring if there was a Death Eater loose in his school? "Professor McGonagall sent me…there's something you need to have a look at," she said, digging the letter out of her bag and handing it to him.

When the letter passed into his hands it lengthened, the bottom of the sheet growing to fall behind his desk, and the sound of paper falling continuing until Hermione thought that the one-paged-letter had grown to at least several parchment rolls. Dumbledore still held the top of the parchment and began to read. After a few seconds he lowered it, shaking his head.

"I should have guessed, I should have known…I shouldn't be surprised that it's you…" he muttered to himself, not meeting her eyes.

"Is there something wrong Professor? And what is that parchment anyway?" Hermione asked, wondering what the heck was going on.

Dumbledore sighed, finally meeting her eyes. "I can't tell you everything right now Hermione. I have to inform the official in charge of your father's estate so he can get the…legalities…of your situation dealt with."

"What legalities? Like an inheritance or something? What situation? You sound like there's some sort of disaster incoming or something," Hermione said. This whole matter was getting only less clear.

"Well…your inheritance will be part of it. If I seem…hesitant…it's because there is also an arrangement that was made in your name. At best, you will find it…distasteful…and it will also be dangerous. More than that I can't tell you right now, however."

An arrangement she would find distasteful? The ambiguity of that description itself put Hermione on her guard. She would probably have nightmares about what that could be until that official got there to give her the details. "Could you at least tell me who this mysterious father of mine was and what happened to him?" she asked.

Dumbledore sighed again, "I suppose so, but I would not advise telling anyone else about this. His name was Lord Morpheus Alys of Bulgaria, you were born Lady Annora Alys. Your mother died of natural causes shortly after your birth. Your father was working with the Order before his death, we presume at the hands of a Death Eater. He was a genius, the type with thought patterns so quick that those that did not know him well thought him eccentric, those that knew him better thought him mad, and a select few that he bothered to explain anything to were often baffled at the speed and complexity of the few of his concepts that they did manage to understand."

At least that had been something that resembled an explanation. So, she was a Lady. Strange, she didn't feel any different than when she had thought that she was just an ordinary muggleborn witch. "What can you tell me about my family?" she asked.

"Well, the Alys' are one of the oldest, perhaps the oldest, pureblood line in Bulgaria, and you are the last of that line. You are heir to an estate in Bulgaria--extensive grounds and a castle--as well as a fortune greater than any in England."

"Huh…I'm richer than Malfoy and I didn't even know it," she muttered to herself. He would probably turn green once this got out. It would be a nice finger in his eye. "Why can't I tell anyone about this?" Hermione asked.

"Let's just say that you might want advanced warning of the…terms…before this gets spread very far," Dumbledore said.

Hermione nodded. Well, she could tell Harry and Ron anyway. They knew how to keep their mouth's shut. "Well, if there's nothing else that you can tell me, I should probably let you get back to work," Hermione said.

Dumbledore nodded. "Of course Hermione. I will, however, need to keep this for the present," he said, gesturing at the parchment.

Hermione got up from her chair, and as she rounded the corner she heard one of the portraits on the wall loudly say, "Well, what are you so downcast about? Didn't you want this to be entrusted to someone reliable enough to pull off something this delicate?"

As Hermione went down the stairs, she could still hear the portraits arguing with each other.

Chapter 2: Lady Alys
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"…so don't go spreading this around," Hermione finished. She sat with Harry, Ron, and Ginny in the Gryffindor common room after everyone else had gone to bed. Well, it was a Friday night so they didn't need to be up early the next morning.

"Huh," Ron said, "didn't know that I was dating a Lady. Well, considering that I didn't find out until after I started dating you, no one can say that I'm doing it for money."

"True," Hermione said with a weak smile, "and apparently, I'm even richer than Malfoy."

"I bet that he won't be calling you a…you know, after this gets out," Ginny said laughingly.

"But you look like a cat that's just woken up to find herself in a pen with a dozen pit-bulls," Harry said. "Why?"

"Well, Dumbledore said something about an arrangement that I wouldn't like. I can't help but wonder if there's some sort of terms attached to my father's will or something. The way he was acting, it has to be something serious," she answered.

Ron and Ginny sobered. "You have any idea what?" Ron asked.

Hermione shook her head.

"Maybe you have to go live in Bulgaria or something," Ginny said hesitantly.

"It sounded a little more serious than that."

"Well," Harry said slowly, "just as long as it's not an arranged marriage or something like that."

"Oh, that's a pleasant thought," Ron muttered. "Hermione could be engaged to someone horrible like Malfoy and not even know it."

Hermione shuddered. Her father had been working with the Order, so he wouldn't give her to the son of a Death Eater, or not knowingly anyway. Or would he? What if, contrary to what Dumbledore believed, her father had actually been insane? There would be no telling then. It was not a comforting thought.

"I don't want to speculate. All we'd accomplish would be giving each other nightmares until I find out what is really going on, and I can't figure that out until that official gets here." Hermione sighed, and looked up at the clock. "Maybe we should just get to bed."

Harry and Ginny left to their respective dorms first. While Hermione was finishing gathering up the homework she had completed while waiting for everyone else to go to bed, Ron paused to give her a goodnight kiss before heading up to bed himself. Kissing was as far as the two of them had gotten, but tonight they couldn't even do that. For some reason, Ron's lips didn't quite make contact with her lips. The third time they tried they felt something almost physically push them apart from each other. Hermione knew that the fear she now saw in Ron's eyes was a reflection of her own fear. Neither of them even wanted to think about what this might mean.
…………….

"…and the fact that we were engaged, that our father's had arranged a marriage, came as just as much of a surprise to me as it was to him, and it was not a pleasant surprise. Actually, the fact that his father was on the run and mine was already dead is probably what saved us both a murder trial…."

………………


Draco Malfoy walked the halls early the next morning. He hadn't slept well, and had figured that talking an early morning walk was going to do him as much good as lying around in bed.

Maybe she was dead. With any luck at all, she was dead. He knew that years ago his father had used arranging a marriage as a cover--to prevent the inbreeding of Purebloods by combining blood lines from another nation--to find out what Dumbledore found so interesting about Lord Alys on Voldemort's orders. But his father had not been successful in his mission; the lunatic had managed to hide his secrets in spite of anything his father could do. What made it worse was that a marriage had been arranged, and the thing was legal. Assuming that Annora Alys still lived. Some of the terms in the agreement had been more constraining than optimal, so there had been an attempt to kidnap her on her way to England with her nanny after the death of Lord Alys. The nanny had been found and disposed of, but the baby girl and the original contract were still decidedly missing.

If she wasn't dead…his father had been quite clear about the course of action if that was the situation. Draco would have to marry the girl, there really was no way out of that anyway short of breaking his wand and going to live with the Muggles, and then he would go to the estate in Bulgaria and carry out his own investigation of what the cracked aristocrat had been doing. His father had been vague on what exactly he was looking for, but Draco had the distinct impression that it was something Lord Voldemort considered of importance and the Death Eater that completed the task successfully would be quite generously rewarded.

Oh, Draco was not a Death Eater…yet. You had to graduate first. In truth, he would rather have just leaned back on his family fortune and let someone else do the dirty work. He did support the ideals Lord Voldemort held to--supreme power rather than a bureaucracy running things with only Purebloods at the head, wizards or witches not of Pureblood in their proper subordinate status, and Muggles and non-humans in positions that would make even the Mudbloods look like overlords--but that didn't mean that he necessarily wanted to risk his neck fighting Aurors for that vision.

He was, however, intelligent enough to realize that he didn't have a choice in the matter. Sons were expected to follow in their father's footsteps, and in this case that meant that if Draco Malfoy did not join the Death Eaters upon his graduation he would be disowned and stripped of all his wealth. Deprived of everything that made him better than anyone else. To him, life wasn't worth living if he couldn't be better than practically everyone else, so he had already agreed that upon graduation he would join the Death Eaters.

Draco wandered out the doors of the school, and the chilly fall air brought him back to thinking about the situation at hand, and the reason he had not slept well last night. The spells had been put into place so the engagement would take effect on Lady Alys' eighteenth birthday, which had been yesterday. If she were alive, no matter what name she had been using for the past seventeen years, he would find out soon. He had wondered if she had been adopted and was living under another name right under his nose; one of his classmates perhaps. In his nightmares she had turned out to be alive, and someone he could not abide. For a while, he had wondered if Loony Lovegood might be it--Lord Alys certainly had been crazy so there was no reason why his daughter might not be as well--but Draco had been relieved to remember that given the date of Lady Alys' birth, she would have to be in his own year, and not in the one below. It had been one less thing to worry about, but there were plenty of other girls he would rather not get stuck with, like….

The sound of footsteps broke his train of thought, and almost instinctively Draco ducked behind a particularly large boulder so he could hear if anything interesting was being said, but still avoid being seen.

"…and I was surprised at the speed you were able to come Mr. Schmidt," Dumbledore's voice said.

"I have been awaiting this quite anxiously Professor," the other voice…Schmidt…said. "I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Lady Alys was not only alive, but in good health and doing well in your fine educational institution."

"Yes, she has been doing well here. I should warn you, however, that she won't be…pleased…with her arranged marriage. They don't exactly get along," Dumbledore said.

"How many youngsters do?" Schmidt chuckled. "Anyway, I would like to meet her as soon as possible, if you have no objections Headmaster."

"Oh, I don't have any objections to that at all. At this hour, she'll probably be in the Great Hall having breakfast. I'll send Minerva in to bring her to my study, we can talk there."

The voices trailed off, and Draco stood up and began running for the nearest entrance to Hogwarts that would not involve crossing the Dumbledore's path. He had to get to the Great Hall and see who McGonagall summoned. Dang it, why did the girl have to be alive?

When he got to the doors into the Great Hall he saw McGonagall leaving through the same doors with Hermione Granger in tow. As they passed him, McGonagall gave him a brief, searching look. Draco turned dead white as they passed, the truth dawning on him. 'Merlin, it's GRANGER! Even Loony would be better than this!' he thought as he turned around and practically fled towards the marginal privacy the dungeons offered. He never saw Potter watching him as he left.


Chapter 3: A Decision
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"I'm engaged to MALFOY!?!" Hermione shrieked, knocking over the chair she occupied across from Dumbledore's desk as she stood up in alarm.

Somewhat numb, she only barely heard Schmidt mutter, "I see you weren't exaggerating Professor."

Dumbledore shook his head. "If anything, it was an understatement."

"But…but…I don't love him. I don't even like him. We aren't even capable of exchanging more than two words without some sort of insult at least implied!" Hermione protested to the executor of her father's estate.

"That doesn't change the fact that this arrangement is still legal and binding," Schmidt explained. "Not to mention the fact that love, as most people your age understand it, is something that is vastly overrated. Love is a conscious choice that two people make, agreeing to cohabitate and take care of each other regardless of what life chooses to throw at them and provide a stable environment in which to raise children, and not an emotion. You and Mr. Malfoy will learn to do this, because your only other option is to cohabitate but be at each other's throats for the rest of your lives. Do you really want a marriage based on emotion alone? Just look at divorce rates in nations where 'feelings' are understood as the basis of 'love' and marriage. It isn't pretty. Emotions burn out eventually, but commitments made by two people who make a conscious decision to have a mutually beneficial relationship and take care of each other endure."

"I don't want to have any kind of a relationship with that spoiled, conceited, self-absorbed ferret! Wait…children! I am not going to have kids with him! Isn't there some way out of this, any way at all?!" Hermione said.

"The only way to avoid the marriage, and the subsequent children," Schmidt explained, "is if one of you break your wand and go to live with the Muggles, or if one of you dies. Anything else simply won't work, the magic surrounding the contract…the document you showed Professor Dumbledore yesterday…is simply too strong; nothing else will void it. You could literally flee to China, lock yourself in a box, drug yourself with a sleeping potion that should make a giant sleep for a week, and you would still find yourself in a white dress standing before the alter on the day appointed for your wedding--which is a week after your graduation by the way."

Hermione felt like she had been kicked in the stomach. She could marry Malfoy, or she could break her wand--she knew that there was no way he would break his. The very thought of Draco Malfoy living life as a Muggle, working as a store clerk somewhere, was preposterous. She could marry a man that would very probably become a Death Eater, or she could give up the wizarding world forever. If the marriage had been the only factor involved, she would have snapped her wand right then, but there was more to this. Voldemort might come after her, either to kill her or use her as bait for Harry, and she would not be able to defend herself at all. Harry might try to save her, and Voldemort could kill him. Even if she married another wizard, like Ron, it would be some protection but she knew that she couldn't live in the wizarding world and not be a part of it. It would be like being a drug addict working in a factory that produced morphine. But if she married Malfoy and had his children…would they turn out like their father? Which scenario would break her heart the most?

Hermione started to cry almost uncontrollably. She only barely heard the Professor ask Schmidt to leave for a few minutes, to go settle in his room, while Dumbledore tried to calm her down a little. The graying, bushy-bearded man nodded and got up from his chair. After Schmidt left, Dumbledore righted her chair--otherwise she would have sat on the floor right where she was--and handed her a handkerchief.

After a few minutes, when she was able to speak again, Hermione asked, "Why did my father do this to me? Didn't he know what he was doing?!"

"You father never explained why he made this arrangement," Dumbledore answered slowly, "but he did say that he made sure that there were…safeguards…in the contract."

"What do they do, keep him from killing me or something?" she asked, bitterly. She had the feeling that Malfoy wouldn't be much happier about this…arrangement…than she was. Hermione wasn't sure if it would be past him or not to try to kill her to avoid the marriage.

"Actually yes, among other things. Some of them were already in effect, some came into effect only yesterday. For example, had either of you tried to kill the other or tried to do something that would caused permanent physical harm, you would not have been able to perform that action. Now, however, you can't jinx each other or otherwise cause less serious physical harm while you could before. It also guards against any…infidelity on either of your parts."

Well, at least Malfoy couldn't abuse her. And this also explained why Ron couldn't kiss her last night, the engagement had already gone into effect and she wasn't allowed to kiss anyone other than her fiancé.

'Oh Merlin, Ron!' she thought numbly. How would he react to this?

Dumbledore interrupted her train of thought. "There's more to this situation than just the marriage, however. Your father was an expert on Old Magic, and was working on a project for the Order when he was killed. Right now all I can tell you is that his research is of the utmost importance, and could mean the difference between victory and defeat in the war against Voldemort. If you choose not to break your wand--you have a place in the contract to sign saying that you understand it and will honor it instead of breaking your wand--I would like you to continue your father's research. I myself am not sure exactly how far he got, but you are probably the only one capable of continuing his work."

"…there are doors only your voice will open, and explanations only your eyes will see," Hermione quoted. Her father could have hidden clues that only she would have access too.

Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, but keep in mind that it will be dangerous. I also want you to join the Order upon graduation. Your job will probably be one of the hardest, though. You will be doing your job right under the nose of a man that will almost certainly become a Death Eater."

"I understand," she whispered. And her father's project could be the difference between victory and defeat in the war against Voldemort. She knew what her decision was.

"Another thing is that there is one out where you will be allowed to divorce Malfoy. If he is caught in Death Eater activities and convicted, you may divorce him and get all assets--including complete custody of any children."

So there was a way out. Hermione knew that she would probably be the only wife of a Death Eater who was praying that her husband would be caught and shipped off to Azkaban. With a nod, she sealed her own fate, and the fates of those that would be affected by her actions.


Chapter 4: The Contract
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Hermione ate lunch by herself in Dumbledore's office. Dumbledore had gone to lunch in the Great Hall and to get Mr. Schmidt so they could read the contract after lunch. He also needed someone to find Malfoy, who would have to be there when it was read.

'If Malfoy has any idea what's going on, he's probably hiding somewhere,' Hermione thought taking another bite of her bread. She knew in her head that the bread was still warm from the oven and delicious, that her chicken was tender and juicy, and that the peas somehow tasted garden fresh even though they were no longer in season, but for some reason her food tasted like ashes. She made herself eat anyway, knowing that she needed to eat regardless of whether she wanted to or not, suspecting that in the following days, she would rather not. She'd better get use to it now.

The main reason she ate here instead of in the Great Hall like she normally did was because Hermione wasn't ready to face her friends yet. 'I wonder what that's going to be like. I can't exactly walk up to Ron and say, 'Sorry, I can't go out with you now. I'm engaged to Malfoy, we're getting married a week after graduation. Come around sometime, though, and visit me so I have some company aside from my kids and my Death Eater husband.' ' This whole mess wasn't something she was looking forward to explaining, to Ron or to anyone else. She wanted to be read the contract first, though, and find out exactly what she was facing before she tried explaining it to anyone else. Anyway, it was a good excuse to delay telling anyone about it, for a few hours at least.

She was just finishing--well, only half the food was gone from her plate but she didn't think she could stomach more than that--when the door opened to admit Dumbledore. "How are you doing Hermione?" he asked gently.

She shrugged. "I'd say that I'm going to live, but then this morning I would have said that I wouldn't marry Malfoy if he was the last man on earth, so I don't have a definite statement about anything at the moment."

Dumbledore smiled at her. "I just need to tell you that you are one of the bravest young women that I have ever had the privilege of knowing."

"Then why am I so afraid Professor?" Hermione asked. She was afraid. Afraid of everything that would be required for the marriage, afraid of her mysterious task that could mean victory or defeat for the Order, afraid that her parents would not agree with her decision not to go back to the muggle world to escape the marriage, afraid that her friends would focus their anger at the situation on her when she would need them the most. And then there was her deepest fear, the one she ignored whenever possible; the fear of failure. What if she wasn't up to the task? What if everyone else completed their tasks perfectly, and she was the one to screw things up when she most needed to succeed? There were more ways she could ruin everything than she wanted to think about, and most of them revolved around Malfoy. What if he was able to ruin whatever she was working on, or if he was able to steal it and gave it to Voldemort? Horror of horrors, what if she actually ever came to feel some kind of emotion for him and allowed it to cloud her judgment in a critical moment?

At least that last wasn’t likely. 'I'd sooner fall in love with a Blast-Ended Skrewt than Malfoy!' She was pretty sure that no matter what the contract said about how they were to treat each other, it would not say that she had to love him. Her heart was still decidedly her own.

"You are afraid because it is natural to be afraid, even in less stressful positions," Dumbledore explained. "Courage is not the inability or the decision not to feel fear, but rather the decision not to let it affect your other decisions. Courage is putting away your fear in order to do something that you deem more important than your fear."

Hermione nodded, but she sure didn't feel very brave at the moment. Queasy maybe. She pushed her plate away, and Dumbledore made it disappear with barely a flick of the wrist. "Then let's get the reading of that bloody thing over with. Where's Schmidt?"

"He's on his way here. We need a few more witnesses, so Professors Snape and McGonagall will also be present. McGonagall and Schmidt should be here shortly; Snape will show up whenever he finds Malfoy."

Hermione sighed. It was very probable that Malfoy actually was hiding. If he were, Snape would probably not be happy with Malfoy for wasting his time in finding him. "How far do you trust Schmidt?" she asked.

"He is not a member of the Order," Dumbledore answered, "but he was an former servant of your father's. He was not involved in your father's work, but was kept to the day-to-day running of the estate. He's very legal minded, detail oriented, and practical where his duties are concerned, but he means well and I think trustworthy of the tasks that have been delegated to his care. There is, however, no reason, if only for his own safety, that he be made aware of more than he already knows."

Hermione nodded. Scarcely minutes after that last comment, Schmidt walked up the stairs and into the office. Hermione finally got a good look at him--she had not paid much attention to his appearance while he was telling her that she was engaged to Malfoy. He was a shorter man just over middle-aged and was graying. His beard seemed bushy enough to make up for the man's receding hairline, he was dressed conservatively in grays, and his belly was just round enough to suggest that he did like to indulge occasionally--but only occasionally.

"Are you feeling better Lady Alys?" Schmidt asked carefully.

"A little…I…you can just call me Hermione," she said.

Schmidt smiled. "As you wish. I wasn't sure, so…formality first is usually the best option in situations until one is sure. Speaking about your name, though, you are permitted to keep the Christian name your foster parents gave you as a middle name. Legally, however, you will have to drop the name 'Granger.' Of course, people may still address you however you wish them to address you whether that would be 'Lady Alys,' 'Annora,' or 'Hermione.' During public social situations, however, I suggest that it would be most proper to use 'Lady Alys,' at least until you are married. Then it would be 'Lady Alys-Malfoy,'"

"Thanks for the clarification," she said dryly.

Apparently he didn't catch the sarcasm or chose to ignore it, because he then said, "Oh, your quite welcome. And I want to comment that your voice reminds me of your mother's voice. If I close my eyes, I could almost fancy it was her talking! You look, however, more like your father's side. A spitten image of your grandmother; I never met the woman myself, but you look exactly like the portrait of her that was made when she was a young woman."

Hermione didn't really know how to respond to that, and was saved from having to do so because McGonagall entered the room, followed a few minutes later by Snape who had Malfoy in tow. Malfoy looked very much like a fox that had discovered that he was caught in a trap, and was desperately trying to bite his own leg off in order to escape, at least until he noticed her already sitting there. At that point his face became a stoic mask, and he went without further protest to the chair Dumbledore pointed to and sat down.

After everyone else was seated, Schmidt cleared his throat. "Well, we'd better begin," he said, taking the contract Dumbledore handed to him and he started to read. "Section one. Lady Annora Alys and Mr. Draco Malfoy are hereby betrothed in accordance with Wizarding English and Bulgarian law, with the conditions following…."

There were a lot of conditions following. Section one spoke of the betrothal in general terms. Section two gave premarital, pre-engagement guidelines--neither of them could kill or cause lasting physical harm to the other, or engage in sexual relations. Not that Hermione had ever tried the last, but she suspected that had she tried she would have been prevented even though she did not even know of the existence of the contract. Section three, behavior guidelines for during engagement. Apparently there would be some sort of courtship that would be set up by her father or his representative--which would be Schmidt. Section four, the wedding that would take place within one week of their graduation. Section twelve had to do with heirs--there had to be two; one male to inherit her estate and family name, and one for Malfoy's. The first had to arrive within three years of their marriage and the second within two years of the first, but there were potions to ensure that a child would be born and that the sex was male. Section thirty-six held what Hermione had been waiting for, that she could divorce Malfoy if he was convicted of criminal activity such as, though not limited to, involvement with Voldemort or the Death Eaters. Malfoy's eye's popped at that one, apparently he had not known about that. By the time that they came to the last section--section forty-seven, topics left to the devices of the couple in question--there were not many topics left to the devices of the couple.

"…which concludes the witnessed reading of the contract. The only thing left is for the two of you to be given your copies, and to sign stating that you understand the contents of the contract and choose to accept it instead of breaking your wands," Schmidt finished, lowering the parchment to place the end of it on the desk where it waited for signatures.

Draco and Hermione eyed each other questioningly.

"Forget it," Hermione said to Malfoy, "I'm not breaking my wand. If you want to get out of this mess, break yours."

"I'll do nothing of the kind Gra…er, Lady Alys," Draco practically spat. "You know, some girls wouldn't think that I was that bad of a catch, and you're looking like you're staring into your own open grave!"

Hermione smiled, but there was no sweetness in her expression or her tone. "Was that before or after your daddy's little affiliation with his club of murderous hooligans became publicly known? Your family name has, shall we say deteriorated, after that little tidbit of information came out."

"And how do you think your friends will react to this once it becomes public? You'll be lucky if most of them so much as speak to you again!"

"You know what Malfoy," Hermione replied, "let it get public. The story can be on the front cover of the Daily Prophet for all I care! And do you know why? If it doesn't become public knowledge that this whole bloody thing was arranged people would think that I was actually spending time in your vicinity by choice!"

Malfoy's cheeks started to turn pink, and he opened his mouth for an angry retort, but Dumbledore spoke first.

"There is no point in arguing about this," the aged professor said gently. "Your choices, at present, are to either sign or for one of you to break your wand. Since both of you have stated your intentions of keeping your wands intact, that leaves only one option open to you."

Dumbledore offered a quill to them, and Hermione took it and signed "Lady Annora Hermione Alys" where Schmidt indicated. She then practically thrust the quill into Malfoy's face. He stared at it like it was a poisonous snake instead of a large feather that she held.

"Either sign, or save us both the trouble and break your wand right now," she said quietly.

He signed.



Chapter 5: Nightmares
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"Is there anything else?" Hermione asked Professor Dumbledore as he handed her a copy of the contract that she then stuffed into her book bag. It wasn't a signed copy with all the spells seeped into it like the original was, but Hermione intended to memorize the bloody thing. Dumbledore, Snape, and McGonagall had signed the original contract as witnesses, and Hermione didn't know of anything else that had to be done today.

"No, nothing else for now," Dumbledore confirmed.

Hermione nodded and left the office and started walking down the stairs, not really knowing where she was heading. Professor McGonagall stopped her before she had gotten halfway down. "Are you going to be all right Hermione?" the older woman asked.

Hermione took a deep breath. "Yes Professor, thank you. I just need to go find someplace to scream," she said, now knowing where she was headed.

Hermione continued walking down the stairs and into the halls. When she was almost halfway to her destination, she rounded a corner and almost bumped into Ginny.

"Hermione? What happened? Are you all right?" Ginny asked, concern evident on her face as she fell into step with her.

Hermione didn't answer right away. She was afraid that if she opened her mouth, she would loose it right then and there in the very public hallway. "I…I just want to be alone for a little while," she finally managed to say as she arrived at her destination. She needed a place that was private.

"Oh…ok," Ginny answered, standing back so Hermione could pass the same stretch of wall again.

Hermione needed a place where there were a lot of things she could break. Ginny left as Hermione walked past the wall for the final time before entering the door that appeared for her. She needed a place that was soundproof.

She entered the Room of Requirement. Instead of the room that was used for D.A. meetings, there was now a large kitchen with a table and chair, and cupboards filled with dishes and vases everywhere. The first thing Hermione did was scream. And she did it again, and again. She screamed until her throat was raw.

Then, Hermione walked up to one of the cupboards and withdrew a plate, and hurled it towards the wall where it broke and then fell to the floor in a thousand pieces with a crash. Her only way out of this mess was if Malfoy was convicted of being a Death Eater. Crash! It would not happen before the wedding, he probably couldn't join the Death Eaters before graduation and it would be unlikely that he would do so and then be caught within the week, so there was no way of getting out of marrying him. Crash! Which meant, according to the contract, that the relationship would have to be…consummated…on their wedding night. She would never be able to give that very special part of herself, for the very first time, to someone she loved that also loved her. Crash! The last war with Voldemort had lasted ten years, what if it was that long before Malfoy was caught? She would have to bear his children if that was the case. Crash! What if he was never caught at all, or managed to wriggle out of a conviction like his father had? Crash! Merlin, she was engaged to Malfoy! CRASH!

After Hermione had broken every dish and vase in sight, she repaired everything. She didn't want to accidentally get a shard of glass in her hide somewhere on top of everything else. She sunk into the chair, and began to cry. She cried until she had no tears or energy left, the only emotions she could feel were a dull pain and exhaustion.

Hermione decided that her vacation from reality was over, and got up and washed her face. She didn't want everyone to know what was going on yet, and if she started walking the halls looking like she had been crying, they would know that something was up. Then, she picked up her book bag and went into the hallway.

Hogwarts looked rather deserted, she thought, until she realized that it was suppertime and everyone was in the Great Hall eating. Knowing that she had absolutely no appetite, Hermione went directly to Gryffindor Tower, and then up to her room. She lied down, still fully clothed, and pulled the curtains around her bed. She just stared up at the canopy not having the energy to do anything, but still unable to sleep.
…………….

For Ron, it was like having the worst nightmare of your life, only to wake up and see it replayed before your very eyes. Literally.

"This doesn’t sound good," Ron said after his sister finished explaining about her encounter with Hermione that afternoon as they walked down a deserted hall, returning from supper. They had taken a less used route in order to avoid anyone overhearing their conversation.

"Especially since Hermione isn't the type of person to overreact to anything," Ginny agreed. "I wasn't sure if she was about to cry, scream, or strangle someone. Maybe it was all three."

After a few seconds, Harry said, "Did either of you see Malfoy's reaction when McGonagall got Hermione from breakfast this morning?"

"No…why?" Ginny asked carefully.

"He turned dead white and practically fled as they passed him. I could swear that McGonagall turned around to look at him for a moment. Normally anything that scares Malfoy, I like, but if it involves Hermione…" Harry trailed off.

"What, exactly, are you suggesting Harry?" Ron asked a little more gruffly than he intended to.

"Well…it's just that…. Merlin, I hope I'm wrong. Ron, I sure hope that you have absolutely no talent as far as predictions are concerned," Harry said fervently.

Ron had to bite back giving a response to that in order to swallow the bile that had somehow worked its way into his throat. He knew what Harry was referring to, though, and agreed wholeheartedly. He hadn't told Harry, however, about what had happened when he had tried to kiss Hermione, or his dream last night. He had seen Hermione in his dream, her face as white as the wedding dress she wore, walking towards the alter where Malfoy waited for her. He had woken up trying to scream from that one. The only reason he had not woken everyone in the House up was that his pillow had somehow gotten in front of his mouth while he tossed in his sleep, and muffled the sounds long enough for him to realize that he had been dreaming.

It had only been a dream. A nightmare. Worse than his normal nightmares that concerned spiders or Death Eaters, true, but still nothing more than a dream. At least he hoped that it was no more than a dream. But why had he not been able to kiss Hermione last night?

Ron looked over at Harry, who seemed to be waiting for some kind of a response, and nodded. He didn't trust his voice at the moment. Even the memory of that dream made it difficult for him to speak without his voice cracking.

When they got Gryffindor Tower, it looked like a normal Saturday night. Most of the students in the common room were playing games, though a few of the more studious ones were hard at work and either ignoring or glancing wistfully at the students that were playing games. But Hermione wasn't at her customary spot, scribbling out some essay like she usually was on Saturday nights.

Ginny asked Parvati if she knew where Hermione was, and it turned out that Hermione was in bed and had told anyone who asked after her that she had a headache. Ginny went up to 'see if she could get Hermione anything' and returned ten minutes later with Hermione and lots of textbooks. They went to go sit at Hermione's table, and it appeared that Hermione was explaining something that Ginny didn’t quite get.

"Well, that's one way of luring Hermione out into the open. Just pretend that you need help with your homework," Harry said, digging out homework of his own to work on until most of the other students left the common room. Whatever was going on, some privacy would be conducive to finding out anything about it.

Ron nodded, and followed suit. He couldn't concentrate, though, and kept reading the same paragraph in his Transfiguration textbook again and again without realizing it. Merlin, what was going on?

After everyone was finally gone, Ron and Harry waited a few minutes to make sure no one came back in before going to where Ginny and Hermione sat. "Hermione," Harry said, "we don't mean to pry, but could you please tell us what's going on?"

Hermione started to cry. After a few minutes, she was able to tell them what had happened.

After she was done, they all sat there in shocked silence. 'I'm just having another dream, and I am going to wake up any second,' Ron thought fervently. He pinched himself to try to reassure himself of that, but it hurt. 'Merlin, this can't be happening!' This wasn't how it was suppose to be. In stories, the good guy always got the girl. In stories, if the girl was forced into an engagement, there was always a way out: there was a legal loophole in the contract, someone got the bad guy before the wedding, or the hero rescued the woman he loved and ran off with her.

"Ron," Hermione finally said, breaking the silence, "I can't go out with you anymore. Even if that bloody contract allowed me to, it wouldn't be fair to you."

She had given up. Hermione didn't think that there was any hope left that she could somehow get out of this. Even crowds of Slytherins singing the mocking "Weasley is our King" at him while he failed to block another Quaffle didn't even come close to the sinking feeling he had now. He wanted to tell her that everything would be alright like it was in the stories one day, that he loved her and that they could still be together someday even if things looked as bad as they could get right now. But what if he was wrong? If he were wrong, that kind of reassurance would only hurt her more. "Isn't there any way out?" Ron asked desperately.

"Well, one," Hermione said slowly, "if he's convicted of criminal activities, 'including, but not limited to involvement with Voldemort, Death Eaters, or any other dark wizard or witch,' I can divorce him. But that's the only way out."

"And all things considered, that isn't that unlikely," Harry mused.

Hermione turned her head to fix Harry with a penetrating gaze. "Harry, I know what you're thinking, but stop it. Malfoy can't be your focus when you become an Auror. Any other Auror could deal with him, but you have your…other duty. Nothing, and I repeat nothing is more important than that. Promise me that you won't let Malfoy become your focus."

"But Hermione…" Harry protested.

"Promise me," she repeated, a little more firmly this time.

Finally, Harry sighed in defeat and nodded. "Alright, I promise."


Chapter 6: Headlines and a Ring
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The next Monday morning, Hermione walked to breakfast early, thinking. Yesterday had been 'meet the parents' day. First she, Malfoy, and Professor McGonagall had gone to her parent's house to explain the situation. It had gone better than she thought it would, mainly because, for some reason, Malfoy had decided to be…polite. To Muggles. Hermione couldn't quite understand that.

"Either he's still in shock, or McGonagall threatened to ban him from Quidditch if he wasn't," Hermione muttered to herself.

"What was that?"

Hermione blinked in surprised and turned around to find Parvati walking a few steps behind her. "Nothing," Hermione said, and continued walking.

After that, she had gone to meet his mother. The snooty, blond woman covered her surprise well. If Hermione hadn't known better, she would have thought that someone Narcissa Malfoy thought of as a 'Mudblood' turned out not only to be a Pureblood richer than she, but also engaged to her son, every day. The woman had smiled, served tea, and made small talk. Hermione had made her mind up right then and there to spend as little time as possible in Narcissa Malfoy's company; she preferred snakes to act like snakes.

They hadn't seen his father for obvious reasons. If the man ever did come within Hermione's range of sight, the very least she would be trying for would be to cause him serious injury. Come to think of it, though, Draco might even help her with that. He didn't seem any happier about this arrangement than she was.

"Did you and Ron have a fight or something?" Parvati asked.

"Why do you ask that?" Hermione sighed. This whole bloody thing was going to come out sooner or later, and she wasn't looking forward to when it did.

"Oh, because Ginny keeps looking at you like you're going to explode, Harry looks like he's going to hex someone, Ron's depressed, and you look like your mother cursed you with her dying breath," Parvati answered with manufactured mildness.

"Let's just say that I now have the bragging rights on the worst day ever," Hermione said, sitting down at the Gryffindor table and helping herself to some breakfast.

"Ron really cares about you, you know," Parvati said gently, taking a seat across from her.

"I know," Hermione sighed as an owl delivered her copy of the Daily Prophet. She placed a few knuts into the bag on its leg, and the owl flew off leaving her to her breakfast and paper. There were a few more students coming in, now, but she was the first one to be delivered a paper.

Hermione unrolled the paper. "Oh, bloody hell," she said as soon as she saw what was on the front page. Someone had been very cute.

"What is it?" Parvati asked.

Hermione held the paper so no one else could see it, and read as quickly as she could. As she finished reading the article, she started hearing starts and exclamations from the few other students that also took the paper, and the startled sounds spread.

She couldn't stand to be in the Great Hall another minute. Hermione stuck a few bananas in her bag to eat--she was hungry--and got up, almost bumping into Harry.

"Where are you going Hermione?" Harry asked.

"To either find someplace to scream or else to strangle my majordomo, whichever I can manage to do before class the easiest," she said a good deal more calmly than she felt. "Read the morning paper," she said, giving him her paper--the one with her picture on the front page and a headline that read "Missing Heiress Found: Marriage Contracts Apparently Good for Something (locating heiresses namely)."
…………..

"I don't want to talk about it," Hermione announced to the Gryffindor table that had grown deadly quite when they noticed her approaching at dinner. She sat down beside Ginny, and started eating mechanically. Gradually, conversation restarted with everyone giving her as much privacy as possible. She was grateful for that.

It hadn't taken long for what was printed in the paper to spread throughout the school. That she was an heiress and a lady, that she was engaged to Malfoy because of an arranged marriage. Of course, every house took it a little differently, and a little listening from the bathroom stalls gave Hermione a good idea of what everyone was saying.

The Ravenclaws didn't think it was too bad. After all, she was inheriting a vast fortune, and just imagine all the things she could do with that. She could afford the most rare books, the most extraordinary magical items. Her title would allow her to champion any cause she thought worthy; though they did admit that having a father-in-law that was a Death Eater would be disconcerting.

The Hufflepuffs were a little more sympathetic. As far as they were concerned, no amount of money or prestige could mitigate being married to someone one hated; and Hermione and Draco most definitely did hate each other.

The Slytherins, in general, thought that it was a mutually beneficial deal all around. Malfoy gained by marrying into a family of high status with an unsullied reputation, which could soften the blow his own family reputation had undergone with the revelation that his father was a Death Eater and some status of his own could be regained. Hermione gained obviously from her inheritance and the revelation of her real status in the wizarding world, and her marriage provided her with a means to perpetuate her bloodline--which was her right and duty as the last of her line. For such obvious gains, the two of them could learn to live peaceably together, never mind that their pre-engagement hobbies had included finding ways to make the other miserable. The only thing they really seemed regretful about was that they had lost their chance to make a 'good impression' on a potentially influential person.

Hermione's own house members, the Gryffindors, weren't happy at all. Once it became clear that Hermione didn't have a choice in the matter, confusion turned into sadness and anger. Some of them, the other girls especially, looked like they would offer their shoulder for her to cry on. The rest, well, Hermione suspected that Draco would not leave his common room unaccompanied anytime soon if he was planning on keeping all of his limbs intact.

There were, of course, exceptions to the rule. Pansy Parkinson had been blubbering off and on all day--even in class! It was starting to get on Hermione's nerves, not that she had a lot of nerves left for anyone to get on. But she knew that she had to keep going, there was nothing else she could do.

After she finished eating, Hermione got up and went to the currently abandoned Divination classroom, where she had been instructed to meet Schmidt. They still had to set up a 'courtship schedule.' She sighed, knowing that Malfoy would be there too.

But when she got there, the room was dark. Hermione left the door open so she could walk to the candles on the other side of the room to light them, but the door slammed shut behind her. She reached for her wand, but it slipped out of her fingers and landed on the floor. 'Rats, this is all I need,' Hermione thought, getting down on her hands and knees to feel around on the floor for her wand.

She continued to feel around, but her hands rested on something round and smooth, and it began to glow. Hermione had just realized that she held a crystal ball when it started to glow. She stared at it for a long minute before she heard a voice whisper, 'beware of he who comes after you to this place,' and then the crystal ball went dark again. Hermione still gazed at the ball, not knowing what to make of it. This was the first time she had ever seen or heard something in a crystal ball, but she didn’t need any particular warning to beware of Malfoy. That went without saying.

"Hello, anyone here yet?" she heard from the doorway, and the tip of a wand lit up to reveal Mr. Schmidt.

"Yeah," Hermione answered, "but I dropped my wand."

Schmidt obligingly brightened the light on the end of his, and went to light the candles while Hermione found her wand, which had been lying three feet behind her. After she picked it up, she turned around to address Schmidt.

"Why did you give that interview to the Daily Prophet?" she asked. There had been a few quotes from him in there, so who else could have given it?

"To get things out in the open as soon as possible," Schmidt answered.

"Why? I didn't want everything to be out in the open yet! I know that I said that it could be in the Daily Prophet, but I wanted a little time for the shock to wear off first!"

"Simply put, a fast cut heals more quickly than a slow one does," he explained. "You could drag things out, but that wouldn't help you. You aren't good enough of an actress to hide that something was going on, and your friends would only grow more and more confused, and angrier at you. By the time you finally would have told them, most of them would have made up their own reasons why you were being distant and moody. Not only could their suppositions of what they though was happening could have hurt you, but when the truth came out they would be angry at you for hiding it from them, and a good many of them could have abandoned you. This way, getting it all in the open at once--and I did make sure that you had already told your close friends, they appeared as miserable as you--no one has any time to make up any of their own suppositions. You will also notice, assuming that you read the article completely, that I made sure that it was noted that it was an arranged marriage. No fault of your own in other words for the sake of your relationships with people who do not appreciate Mr. Malfoy."

"In other words, everyone I know and like," Hermione muttered before speaking louder. "But that was still my decision Schmidt, not yours."

"But it was for the best…."

Hermione interrupted, "I don't care. If you have advice, I will listen, but I am not a child any longer and I will not be treated like one. I won't have you making my decisions behind my back."

Schmidt was saved having to respond by Malfoy stumbling through the door. He blinked once or twice, his eyes adjusting to the dim lighting, before coming over and handing her a small box.

"Here," Malfoy said, "I believe that you're required to wear this."

Hermione opened the box, wiping a little more dust off of the lid, and took out the ring that it housed. The gold ring held a rather large diamond, surrounded by smaller emeralds. The pattern was elegant enough not to be considered truly bulky; if the ring had come from any hands other than Malfoy's, she would have thought it beautiful. Then she noticed that there were snakes in the design on the band leading up to the arrangement of jewels, but what surprised her was that there were two snakes twined around a pole like the symbol Muggle medical personal used. It confused her a little. "Who picked this out?" she wondered out loud.

"Your father actually," Schmidt said.

Hermione frowned at nothing in particular, and placed the ring on her finger. The ring must have had magical qualities, because it shrunk to accommodate the size of her finger. "Fine," she said, "then let's get on with it."

After about ten minutes worth of arguing with each other, Hermione and Malfoy revised and finally agreed upon the schedule Schmidt had drawn up for the courtship. They would meet once a week and go on a walk with Schmidt trailing behind them to 'chaperone.'

'Like we need a chaperone,' Hermione thought to herself. 'We won't need one for the usual purposes, and that contract will keep Malfoy and I from killing each other, so Schmidt's only real use will be to make sure that the date actually happens!'


Chapter 7: Conversations
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………………
Even when your father and I began courting, we still weren't getting along. We were, however, more honest with each other than I suspected we would be. Brutally honest in fact…

………………….

"I hate you Malfoy," Draco heard Hermione say as they walked along the path that lead towards Hogsmeade.

"I've noticed," he replied, dryly. "And it's 'Draco,' Hermione. We're suppose to be practicing calling each other by our first names, remember?"

At least that was what Schmidt had asked them to do today. According to the balding man that was walking far enough away that he could clearly see them, though not hear them unless they raised their voices, a couple that had been engaged for well over a month should be on a first-name basis with each other.

"Fine," Hermione said, "I hate you Draco."

"In case you haven't noticed," he said, drawing his cloak tighter around him in effort to shut out the chilly air, "I'm not enjoying this any more than you are." And that was the untarnished truth. There were some parts of the engagement that he especially hated, like the fact that he couldn't even look at another girl, or at least in that way, without getting a blinding headache. It hadn't been something that was easy to get use to. At least the headache would fade as soon as he looked away. Still, training himself to look girls in the eyes instead of paying more attention to their curves wasn't easy to do.

'At least Hermione isn't hard to look at,' Draco thought to himself. If his fiancée was the only girl he could look at, well, he made sure to get an eyeful at every available opportunity. Right now she was dressed in jeans and a sweater with her Hogwarts cloak over it, but he had a good imagination and was quite willing to use it to try to figure out what her modest attire hid.

"You could have fooled me," Hermione said, glaring at him. She had noticed what he had been doing.

"There's nothing in the contract that says that I can't look," Draco said defensively. He just couldn't touch unless she was willing.

"Well, enjoy your eyeful," she bit, "because that's all you're going to get."

He didn't really expect to get more than that, most of the time anyway. "We'll have a hard time fulfilling section twelve with just an eyeful," he said wryly. A little more than that was necessary to provide the mandatory heirs.

Hermione turned a little pale. "I have three years, and section thirty-six," she answered.

Of course, thirty-six, the section that gave the conditions under which she could divorce him. Well, he simply couldn't let himself get caught in that case. His course was already set there, and he suspected that she knew that as well as he did.

"Fine, so you hate me," he said. "Why?"

She looked at him like he had just asked her why water was wet. "You want the complete list? I'm afraid Hogwarts would run out of parchment if I tried to write that out."

"Just the top few items on your list will do for now," he answered, not knowing why he had asked in the first place.

"Fine," Hermione said. "You think that you're better than everyone else, but the standards you use to come up with that conclusion--which I disagree with by the way--you don't apply universally."

"What?"

"Think about it. You think that you are better than other people because you are richer and have a 'better' bloodline than they do. Not only are your standards illogical--where someone is born is no fault or virtue of their own!--you don't apply them when you would come out on the bad end of the deal. My family is older than yours, and thus 'better,' and I am richer than you. According to your logic, that would make me 'better' than you, but you don't treat me that way. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that you are insecure and use your bloodline and fortune to put on a front that you use to bolster your self-esteem."

"That's rich. You do exactly the same thing," he replied.

"I do not!"

"Oh yes, you do. Except with you, it's book-smarts instead of money or bloodline. You have to be the best in your classes…all of them. And you are…"

"That's different," Hermione interrupted. "I got to be the best by merit! And I don't shove the fact that I'm smart into everyone's faces!"

"No, it's not that different at all," Draco continued, "and I imagine that you'd be devastated if someone smarter than you got transferred here from another school. Being smart is just something you use to bolster your self-esteem. And by the way, you do shove it in everyone's faces. If I had a knut for every time I've seen you practically dancing with eagerness with your hand in the air when you knew an answer no one else did, I'd be richer than you if I had started out as a pauper."

Hermione bristled like a cat that had been rubbed the wrong way. "That doesn’t change the fact that you fear loosing your status more than anything else."

"That doesn't change the fact that you fear failure more than anything else," he bit back.

They went the rest of the way in silence. They weren't married yet, so there was no reason to continue to bicker like they were, for now anyway.
……………………….

For Hermione, the year was going by entirely too fast. Before she knew it, there was sufficient snowfall for Schmidt to agree that staying indoors was acceptable. So they found themselves playing chess in the common room of the guest quarters, where Schmidt was presently staying, every week instead of going on walks. One evening in February, they lost track of the time.

"It's your move," Draco said.

Hermione nodded, considering the chessboard. The two of them were the only ones in the room--well, the only ones still awake. Schmidt snored softly from a large chair near the crackling fire. Finally, she moved a piece.

"Your turn," Hermione said.

While still staring at the chessboard he said, "You know, my mother is starting to make wedding arrangements. If there's anything special that you want, you might want to talk to her about it soon."

Hermione sighed. "All right. If I don't, she'll probably have several hundred people there, and no one that I know."

"You want a smaller wedding?" he asked.

"Yes. Why, any objections?" The way Hermione saw things there was no reason to make this whole deal any bigger of a farce than it already was.

"Oh, no objections," Draco said grinning for a second before returning to frowning at the chessboard.

"What's so funny?" she asked before she could stop herself. Had she just possibly ascribed the human aspect of humor to this creature?

"Oh," he said, "I was just thinking that we'd better have few enough guests that everyone can watch each other without too much trouble. Otherwise everyone will be absolutely certain that someone could have had the opportunity to poison the punch."

In spite of herself, Hermione giggled. The mental image of Moody sniffing suspiciously at the punch was just to real not to. Draco glanced up at her curiously before making his move, and Hermione saw only one move she could counter with.

"It's a stalemate," she said after she moved her piece, and then leaned back in her chair to stretch a little.

Draco nodded, also leaning back into his chair. "Yeah. Say, we've never finished a game before. I wonder what time…."

Hermione's eyes wandered up to the clock above the mantelpiece. It was almost midnight. "Oh dear," she said. It was past time for even Prefects to be out in the hallways. And she and Draco couldn't exactly stay in the guest quarters either.

"Well," Draco said, getting up, "I guess that I'd better walk you to your dorm then."

"How…" Hermione trailed off as she saw what Draco was pulling out of his book bag. Apparently Harry wasn't the only student with an invisibility cloak.

"Got it for my last birthday," he said. "You coming?"

"Ummm…" Hermione said, thinking.

"Well, look at it this way," Draco said. "While my reputation might benefit from you staying out of your dorm all night, yours wouldn't."

And he was right. Hermione didn't want to be starting any more rumors than might already be floating around. "Not to mention the fact that you would like your hide to remain in one piece, and it isn't a good idea to push Harry and Ron any further than absolutely necessary," she said, walking over so he could drape the cloak around her.

"That too."

After they left the guest common room and had been walking a while Hermione whispered, "Why did you have this thing on hand tonight?"

"I was going to sneak into the restricted section," he whispered back. She stiffened a little. "Like you've never done that," he whispered again.

As a matter of fact, she had, and recently. Which was why she had stiffened. She had discovered that on the band of her ring, the back part that normally hid in the fold between her palm and finger, was a gray dot that turned green once a month. A little research told her that the ring was one that was designed to reveal when she was fertile--when the dot turned green--and then could monitor any resulting pregnancy. The dot would turn blue if it was a boy, pink for a girl, red if medical attention was needed, and black if the baby died. . If the ring were a family heirloom of an ancient house, which it probably was, it would also serve some importance in the wedding ceremony. It hit too close to a subject Hermione didn't want to think about.

After they got near to her dorm she thanked Draco, got out from under the cloak, and walked over to the picture of the fat lady. Wondering if Draco had stayed to listen, Hermione gave the password. "Malfoy is a git," she said, and the fat lady sleepily waved at her before letting her in. It had been Ron's turn to choose the password that week. Apparently Ron had been tired when he thought it up; he usually used more…creative…language to describe Malfoy.

As she walked toward the stairs up to her room, she heard a voice. "You were sure gone a while."

Hermione turned around to see Ron sitting in a chair near the fire, watching her with a betrayed look in his eyes. "I just got caught up in a good chess game," she answered.

"Uh huh."

"Really, I did," Hermione said, taking the chair across from Ron. "As if that's never happened to you."

"You're not falling for him," Ron said. Hermione wasn't quite sure if that was a statement, or a question.

"No, I'm not falling for him; him or anyone else," she said.

"Um, Hermione," Ron started, looking distinctively uncomfortable, "we don't really need to talk about this now…"

"Yes, Ron, we do," Hermione sighed, "and now is as good as a time as any. I can't love him for the obvious reason that falling in love with a Death Eater is not a good idea, and I can't fall in love with anyone else either."

"I wasn't aware," Ron deadpanned, "that a contract could control your emotions as well as your actions."

"It can't control my emotions, but that doesn't mean that it would be fair to the other person or myself. There's no sense making oneself more miserable than absolutely necessary over something one can't have," she said, her gaze never leaving Ron's eyes.

"But he'll get caught by the Aurors, and you can divorce him then! We…you can do whatever you want then. You can't give up," Ron said fervently.

"And how long would that take? The last war lasted ten years," she said bitterly, "and even then, some of the Death Eaters got off free. This isn't some bedtime story, and even in stories not all of the endings are good or happy."

After a few seconds of silence, Ron spoke up again. "I'd wait for you."

"I know you would," Hermione started, "but please don't. I can't offer you anything guaranteed, not to mention that one or both of us could be dead before this war is over."

Ron looked at her in amazement. "How can you be so cold?" he asked.

"I just can't get much use out of a heart that's broken. You try it," she snapped before she could stop herself.

Ron looked like she had slapped him. "I have," he growled, "and you are right, it doesn't work very well." After a few moments of awkward silence, with obvious strain in his voice, he asked, "Hermione, there's just one thing that I have to know; do you feel anything more than friendship for me? Anything at all?"

It took her a few seconds before she could get her voice to work again. "No Ron. You are one of the dearest friends that I have ever had, or probably ever will have. I can't begin to describe what you mean to me, but as a friend. I suppose that our relationship could have…changed…into something deeper given some time and attention, but it never fully had the opportunity. I don't think that it ever will now." And that was the pure truth.

Hermione left the common room and Ron, who had his face in his hands, and went up to her dorm to get ready for bed. She managed to keep the tears back until she got into her bed, and then fell asleep crying.


Chapter 8: Preparations
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"You seem to have forgotten to put my parents on the invitation list."

Draco supposed that he was should be helping to plan the wedding, but he preferred staying out of the line of fire. His mother and Hermione stared at each other from across the table in the guest common room like two strange cats that had discovered they were trapped in the same room. Their words were perfectly polite, but the way they said them suggested that the planning of this wedding was some sort of a duel.

"Uh, dear," his mother said, "that would be a little difficult, considering that they've passed away."

"Fine," Hermione said, "my foster parents then."

"But dear, weren't you raised by Muggles?" The way his mother said that made it sound like Hermione had been raised by wolves.

'Come to think of it, though, that's how the upper part of wizarding society sees things,' Draco thought.

"Yes I was," Hermione said with a smile. Well, maybe it wasn't quite a smile, it was closer to baring her teeth. "And they are coming to the wedding."

His mother mirrored Hermione's smile. "Well, I suppose if you insist there's no reason not to let them come."

"I do insist," Hermione said rolling up the parchment of names of people his mother intended to invite. "And there's too many people listed here. What are there, five hundred names?"

"Six hundred."

Hermione nodded, and gave the list to him. "Draco, will you please cross out the names that you can't put a face to? We can cut down further and add a few names of my own after that."

"Exactly," his mother asked, "how far are you planning on cutting the guest list down? All the way down to three hundred? And just who are you planning on inviting dear?"

"I was thinking more like thirty," Hermione deadpanned. "And I was planning on inviting some friends of my like, oh say, the Weasleys."

His mother looked like she had just swallowed her tongue. When she got her voice back, she said, "Thirty?! And you want to invite the Weasleys! Having muggles there will be bad enough, even if they did raise you, but the Weasleys just aren't fit for polite society, even if they are Purebloods!"

"In case you haven't noticed Narcissa," Hermione said, "I prefer the society of people that are polite to the company of 'polite society.' There is quite a difference between the two groups."

Draco had to admit that that was the truth, as far as Hermione saw things anyway. Hermione would treat other Purebloods, half-bloods, Mudbloods--even Muggles and near-intelligent creatures!--as equals even though she was the superior by a several rungs at least. It was something that, try as he might, he couldn't understand. A superior should act like a superior, that's just the way things were supposed to work. Maybe her habits that she had formed when she had thought that she was a Mudblood just died hard. Maybe she was modest.

Modesty. The only definition of that word Draco recognized said that modesty was a trait to assume when it was profitable to do so. But he could not see how Hermione being modest could work towards her benefit. Maybe he was just missing something. If nothing else, that girl confused him. What he really couldn't understand, though, was why she also fascinated him.

'Merlin, who are most of these people?' Draco thought crossing out yet another name. Come to think of it, his mother did keep files of people she considered fit for invitations to social gatherings. She had probably just pulled that folder out for this list. His suspicions were confirmed when he noticed a few names of people that he knew would not be attending, given that they were known Death Eaters and on the run at the moment. As it was, he knew that this would be one wedding where the enemies of the bride sat on one side, with the enemies of the groom on the other side. Literally.

"…but Pansy Parkinson would make a lovely maid-of-honor! She's quite well-bred and…"

Hermione interrupted, "While that may be, it doesn't change the fact that I will be asking Ginny Weasley. Besides, I don't want a maid-of-honor that will be blubbering throughout the entire ceremony."

Draco just sat back and continued to mark names off the list, quite content that he wasn't being called on for anything, while Hermione and his mother continued to bicker. He did, however, make a mental note that they needed to go house shopping before the wedding so they'd have a place to stay. Draco had the feeling that if he and Hermione had to live in the Malfoy Manor with his mother for any length of time, his wife and his mother just might kill each other. And that could be bad for several reasons.
………………….

And then, after graduation, I joined the Order of the Phoenix and your father joined the Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Yes, at one time your father was a Death Eater, and there's no denying that.

…………………………


Hermione held her hands out before the fireplace, warming them. It wasn't cold exactly, not in June, but she was chilly anyway. She stood with other candidates in Grimmauld Place; there were inductions to the Order of the Phoenix tonight, the night before her wedding.

She could hardly believe that it had come so quickly. Hermione knew that she probably was the only seventh-year in Hogwarts that had enjoyed the arrival of N.E.W.T.s; they had distracted her from thinking about her upcoming wedding. Everything was in place for the wedding now. She had managed to shrink the guest list to fifty, with half being guests of her own. The small chapel she had chosen was ready, waiting for tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

"Hermione, are you all right?"

Hermione turned around to see Angelina Johnson there. Angelina had come straight from work, St. Mungo's where she was an apprentice Healer, and was still wearing her green robes.

"Yes Angelina, I'm just thinking," she said, removing her hands from the fire to smooth a wrinkle out of her dress. Her dress was goose-gray, but of fine, comfortable cloth. It was more expensive than it looked. Mr. Schmidt had taken care of the legalities of her inheritance, and Hermione was now in possession of her bank accounts and properties, though she had yet to see the estate in Bulgaria--which had turned out to be located rather close to Viktor Krum's estate. Even the purchase of a house, a furnished estate really, had not even put a noticeable dent in her bank account at Gringotts. The house was a little dark, but Hermione thought a little redecorating would make it more livable; at least until she found out, after the purchase, that Professor Snape lived next door. Well, she would redecorate anyway, and Snape only lived in his house during the summer. As for the summer, well, as she had told Draco, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'

"Aren't we all," Harry said from beside her, shutting his book while keeping his finger in it as a bookmark so he could talk to her. Hermione noticed that the title of the book was "Legilimency and Occlumency: The Theories of and Commentaries on." She remembered him telling her about that book before; it was the one Dumbledore had given him to study in preparation and supplementation for his Occlumency lessons. It looked like Harry was practically on the last page. "Even Fred and George look serious tonight!" Harry continued.

Hermione had to smile at that; the Weasley twins did look serious. After all this time, they had finally managed to convince Dumbledore that they had 'grown up' enough to join and, despite the eagerness they had shown to get into the Order, they now looked as serious as a mortician. Hermione lost her smile, thinking that the gravity of what they were doing was finally sinking in.

They weren't the only ones there, waiting to be initiated into the Order. Ron was sitting on the couch with Neville beside him, Katie Bell was standing beside Angelina, and Lee Jordan and Alicia Spinnet, who had started dating, sat on the other couch quietly talking. Hermione knew that there were others being approached, or who would be approached at a later time, but that was all there was for right now.

Current Order members filed into the dining room, and Dumbledore came over to address them before going in himself. "I am very happy to see that you all have chosen to be here tonight," he started, "however, there is a chance that a few of you may not yet be ready. For your initiation, after a few current members have declared it appropriate that you be candidates, you will be given Veritaserum--a truth serum--and be asked a few questions to help determine your readiness to join. Assuming all goes well, as it probably will, you will be asked to take a seat beside your new mentor. And no, Mr. Weasley, no one will be assigned to anyone they are closely related too. Should someone not make it, their memories of this event will be erased, and they will go back to life as normal."

After Dumbledore had left, Fred spoke. "I wonder which one of us he was referring too."

"Whichever works," Lee said with a small grin.

"Just as long as I don't get stuck with Snape," Harry said, "I'll be happy."

Neville's mouth dropped open. "Snape is a member of the Order?"

"Oh yes," Hermione deadpanned, "he's our Death Eater spy in residence. And I wouldn't worry about getting stuck with him if I were you Harry. If anyone does, considering the circumstances, it'll be me." The advice of a former Death Eater would be an asset to what she had to accomplish. For the other initiates, it would be easier; they wouldn't be in the almost constant company of a servant of Voldemort. They wouldn't have to hide everything they were up to from someone that lived, ate, and slept with them. Snape could help her figure out how to do that probably better than any other Order member could.

That comment squelched conversation. Aside from a few audible gulps and the crackling fire, it was silent. They all knew that she was marrying a Death Eater tomorrow. Some of them were even invited. Hermione was grateful that they were coming, too. She needed to be reminded, as she walked down the isle, of what she and others with her were fighting for. Their faces would remind her of the people that, if she carried things off right, would no longer be in almost constant danger.

Finally, the door to the dining room opened, and Lupin stepped out. "Mr. Harry James Potter," he called. Harry nodded, and walked into the dining room, shutting the door behind him.

After some minutes had passed, Lupin came and called out again. "Lady Annora Hermione Alys."

'Well, that's me.' Hermione sighed, thinking that this was the last night the "Malfoy" wouldn't be tacked onto the end of all of that. She took deep breath, and walked into the dining room.

The room was decently lit, magically Hermione suspected, and Order members sat around the long table. Here and there was an empty seat, beside people Hermione suspected were future mentors. Harry sat by Dumbledore's side, which was not surprising, and there were two empty chairs in a row beside him.

Dumbledore beckoned, and Hermione walked up and sat down at a stool by the chair the aged headmaster sat in at the head of the table. This whole thing felt something like the sorting her first year, but she was given a cup instead of a hat this time.

"Is there any established member here that will affirm that this applicant to the Order of the Phoenix opposes Voldemort and is of good character?" Dumbledore asked. After Mrs. Weasley and Lupin spoke for her, Hermione drank the Veritaserum. She felt somewhat dazed when Dumbledore asked, "Do you oppose Voldemort, and why?"

"I do oppose him. He's…wrong, evil," she answered, "and any person that does not stand in the way of evil, especially when given the opportunity to do so, is committing evil as well. I am willing to do whatever I can to see that he is stopped."

“What is your greatest desire?” Dumbledore asked next.

She still felt dizzy, but she answered, "For me, my friends, and everyone else, or as many of us as humanly possible, to live in freedom from any evil person."

“What is your greatest fear, and why?”

"Failure, especially failure in my tasks here. In my life I have had little but success, and every success seems right and natural. Failure is something foreign, ghastly, to me. The reason I am more afraid of failure in this venture is because I have realized that I am not the only one affected by my mistakes now. Here, if I make a mistake, others may be hurt or even die if I do something wrong."

“What is the greatest power you pursue?”

"I would settle for being the mistress of my own house. However, resources I have recently acquired might help me to help others. I desire influence only for what I could do for others, and I desire absolute power not at all. No one can rule absolutely without disregarding the rights of others; absolute power is not something any mortal should ever have."

“What is your greatest regret?”

"The price I know I must pay for my duty to be accomplished. I may never know what it is like to love and be loved in a marriage relationship, and I may never have the home that some of you are fighting for. I won't even be able to ever completely relax in the home that I will have. I may have gold, yes, but gold is lifeless and cold." The mental fogginess lifted, and Hermione blinked a few times and looked around the room.

"Is there anyone," Dumbledore asked, "that wishes to dispute this applicant's admission into the Order?"

No one said a word. Mrs. Weasley was crying openly, and a few of the other women looked like they might follow her example. Most of the others had their eyes glued to the table, or stared at nothing. But no one said anything.

"Then, Lady Alys," Dumbledore said, "I declare you a member of the Order of the Phoenix; you are sealed to us now. Take a seat, the one by Harry please. Professor Snape will be your mentor, but he is unable to attend tonight given that the Death Eaters are holding a similar ceremony right now."

Hermione nodded and sat down, only half surprised by the icy fingers of dread that had clamped around her heart. Well, she knew what her fiancé was doing tonight. And she shivered.
………………..

He did not scream. Draco had heard some of the others scream, during the mental searching or when they received the dark mark. But he did not scream. He had endured the mental searching while the Dark Lord rummaged around in his head; Draco knew that he could hide nothing from him and didn't even try. Now….

Now Draco kneeled, prostrate before Lord Voldemort in a room lit only enough that only the silhouettes of figures dressed in black robes were visible. Now the sleeve of the robe on his right arm was pushed up to his elbow, and on his forearm where there had once been only unblemished skin stood the Dark Mark, black and painful. But he had not screamed.

"You are sealed to us now," Lord Voldemort's voice rasped as he motioned for Draco to take a place among the other Death Eaters.

He did not scream, but Draco still shivered.



Chapter 9: The Wedding
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'Just breath in, and breath out. Put one foot in front of the other,' Hermione thought as the doors opened for her. Just the same, the blood drained from her face as she started walking toward where Draco waited for her at the alter. She walked alone, instead of with her father, who was sitting in the front pew with her mother. Hermione had agreed to 'a marriage ceremony appropriate for the only surviving heirs of two ancient houses' to keep Narcissa from going insane because of the small size of the wedding, and that meant that she would have to walk this stretch of isle alone. Of course, Narcissa hadn't read the contract, so she didn't know that this particular ceremony was what was required anyway. However, Hermione wasn't going to tell her that, and apparently Draco had not told his mother either.

She was halfway there now. Up at the front stood Draco Malfoy--dressed in forest green robes worked in silver thread--waiting for her, and the ministry official that would conduct the ceremony. Hermione let her gaze waver over to the people sitting on her side, and it snapped back to looking ahead of her when she noticed Ron and Harry looking back at her. She was afraid that if she looked into Ron's eyes right now, she might try to turn around and run. Of course, she knew that she couldn't, so it wouldn't work. If nothing else, she would keep a little dignity.

After what seemed like forever, or else half of a second, Hermione got to where she was suppose to be. She handed her bouquet of white roses--Hermione had thought that white was appropriate because it was the color of mourning in some countries--to Ginny, who was dressed in a muted blue dress. Then the official began to speak.

"We are gathered here today before these witnesses to join Mr. Draco Malfoy and Lady Annora Alys in matrimony, in accordance with wizarding law. This joining of the two ancient houses of Malfoy and Alys has been prearranged by contract. Will the witnesses of the reading of said contract, in the absence of Lord Alys and Lucius Malfoy…"--Hermione could swear that the official mumbled 'at least I hope he's absent,'--"…please stand to give testimony that this arrangement was made with all legality and is binding."

Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape stood up for a second, and then seated themselves. The official continued. "While the contract binds you to what it binds you, only your integrity will hold you to your vows. Do you, Draco Malfoy, take Annora Alys as your lawfully wedded wife from this day forward? Will you tend her as you tend your own flesh in all circumstances be they good or bad, protect her from harm as if defending your own life, provide her future children with a stable home, and embrace with your heart, mind, and body only her so long as both of you live?"

"I so swear," Draco answered. His voice and manner were steady, but it was the steadiness of a man that was only collected because what he was mentally comparing this experience too had been much worse.

"Do you, Annora Alys, take Draco Malfoy as your lawfully wedded husband from this day forward? Will you tend him as you tend your own flesh in all circumstances be they good or bad, protect him from harm as if defending your own life, provide his future children with a stable home, and embrace with your heart, mind, and body only him so long as both of you live?"

"I so swear," Hermione managed to answer.

The official nodded. "In our world, the giving of rings has long been a tradition. In arranged marriages, such as this one, they serve an additional purpose. Will the bride and groom now join hands with the thumb of your right hand resting on the ring of the other person?" After she and Draco did as they were told, the official said, "In arranged marriages, there was once a problem with the assassination of one of the spouses, so this custom was installed to rectify this situation. Should your integrity not hold you, should the contract be destroyed so it will not hold you, blood may yet hold you." As the official spoke, Hermione felt something prick here thumb, and a drop of her blood made contact with Draco's ring. Instead of smearing it, however, the blood drew into a thin red stripe around his wedding band. Hermione looked at her ring, and could tell that the diamond and the surrounding emeralds had now turned red, as if they were rubies. Rubies the color of fresh blood.

"As blood is life," the official said, "so are you now bound. Neither of you may take the life of the other, or be involved knowingly in that taking in any way. In this manner is the Old Magic invoked, and the bond made. Should either of you, in violation of the Old Magic, knowingly contribute the death of the other, the blood will stand witness against the transgressor. That person shall have their magical powers transferred to the nearest innocent individual, and then death will take the transgressor."

Hermione blinked in confusion; this sounded eerily like what had happened when Voldemort had tried to kill Harry the first time. But there was not time to contemplate that thought right now.

"I now pronounce you husband and wife. May you not regret this day, instead finding happiness in each other. May you bear heirs; children that will give you joy. May you find love to bless this union, and solace in each other during the storms of this world," the official finished.

Hermione and Draco inclined their heads toward the official, who bowed at the waist to them. Then Hermione took Draco's arm, and the newly wedded couple walked down the isle together. Belatedly, Hermione noticed that she had married a Death Eater, and she hadn't trembled at all.
…………..

"I'm almost surprised that there hasn't been any duels yet," Draco said, as he danced with Hermione at the reception that followed the ceremony.

"That's because my side is just waiting for the potion that was in the punch to kick in," Hermione answered.

Draco couldn't stop a small smile from forming. "So I should assume that your side has already taken the antidote?"

"Naturally."

After a while, when things were winding down, Draco noticed Hermione's parents beckoning to them from the hallway. "I think your parents want to talk to us," he said.

Hermione followed his gaze, and nodded looking somewhat nervous. "Look Draco, I haven't told them much, but I'm pretending not to be miserable. Please don't do anything to ruin that image," she asked imploringly.

Draco blinked in surprise; this was the first time she had asked him for something. Keeping her parents in the dark about the state of things was clearly important to her. It was an area of vulnerability for her. "Alright," he answered. Her eyes were so big, so brown.

They walked over to where her parents were, and then a little farther into the hall so they would have comparative privacy.

"Well," Mrs. Granger said, "that was an…odd wedding dear, but it was still lovely."

"Thanks Mom," Hermione said, giving her foster-mother a hug.

"And by the way," Mr. Granger said, "who was that old fellow that was down here before the reception examining the refreshments? He said that you said he could do it, Hermione."

"Oh, that's just Moody," Hermione answered with a smile, "and he just tends to be a little paranoid. And I did tell him he could test the refreshments if it would make him any happier."

"Yes, well," Mr. Granger said, his face loosing its light expression. "On to business then. We know that this isn't something either of you would have chosen, and there appears to be…tension between the two groups here today, but…. Hermione, your mother and I just want you to be as happy as you possibly can. No matter what, you are still our daughter, and we love you very much. It doesn't matter what happens, it doesn't matter what you do, you will still have our love, and I just want you to know that. You've turned into a beautiful young woman, both in form and in spirit, and we are proud to be a part of your life."

For the first time that day, Draco saw tears in Hermione's eyes as she hugged her parents. After a few moments, Mr. Granger continued. "Draco, just one thing; I want you to take good care of my little girl."

Draco nodded as he shook Mr. Granger's hand. "Yes sir, I will."
……………………

'Well, it's over now,' Hermione thought as she got into the shower and turned the hot water on. And it was over; the marriage had been consummated, just as the contract demanded. After leaving the wedding, they had gone to their house and did what they had to do. She had told Draco just to get it over with, but he had been, well, gentle with her. And he had told her that she was beautiful, he had even sounded like he had meant exactly that.

She hadn't expected that. Hermione didn't know what she had been expecting really, but it hadn't been that. She hadn't felt any sort of burn or anything on his arms, but she knew that the Dark Mark was there somewhere. He was a Death Eater. Why would a Death Eater be gentle with anyone, even if she were his wife? And there was also the fact that he had been polite to her parents at the wedding.

Well, Hermione knew that she and her husband were now connected in some way that she couldn't explain, whether they wanted to be or not.

Sighing, Hermione turned off the water and started drying off. Standing in the shower wouldn't bring her any closer to the answer to her questions, and there were some things water could not wash away.

After getting into a nightgown and robe, she walked over to the medicine cabinet. She had stocked it earlier that week, she knew it was here somewhere…. Finally, she saw the correct label, and removed a bottle of sleeping potion. She knew that she would never go to sleep tonight on her own.

After taking the recommended dose, she walked out of the bathroom. Draco sat in bed, dressed in pajamas, with a book in his hands. Suddenly she felt very tired, and started leaning against the wall.

"Hermione, are you all right?" Draco asked.

"I just took a sleeping potion…" was all she was able to say before she fell into a deep, restful sleep.
…………

Draco managed to freeze Hermione in midair before she hit the floor. Making a mental note to remind her to get a slower acting sleeping potion in the morning, he floated her into the bed, unfroze her, removed her robe, and then covered his wife up with blankets. Then he got into bed, but instead of turning out the lights right away he just sat there, watching Hermione sleep. He hadn't been lying earlier when he had told her that she was beautiful. She was the most exquisite creature he had every laid eyes on.

He had been ordered to be kind to his wife, and to watch in case she let anything slip, but he wanted to treat Hermione well anyway and not just because she might let her guard down if he was kind to her. Truth be told, Draco felt guilty, even though he told himself continually that this situation wasn't his fault. She hadn't wanted this, any of it. Even her vast fortune and the new prestige and title she had gained did not seem adequate compensation, in her eyes, for being married to him.

That did bother Draco. She had what he had always considered most important in life, and would give it up in a millisecond if that would mean that she could make her own choice as far as her marriage was concerned. Hermione considered what she wanted in a marriage to be more valuable than money or prestige. Meaning that there was something that she wanted that couldn't be purchased with either of those things. It wasn't a concept that he was use to, but it did prove that there were some desirable things that couldn't be bought. 'Though, come to think of it, there's truth in that. There are some things that you just can't buy,' he thought to himself, 'and Hermione already has one of them that I never could get.'

Simply put, assuming that what Hermione's foster-father had said was true, she was loved unconditionally. Draco knew that he had never had that with his own father; his father's love or approval had always been conditional. Draco had always been expected to behave in a certain way, and had known that there were some actions--like if he had married a mudblood or refused to join the Death Eaters--that would result in his father disowning and disinheriting him faster than you could say 'Merlin's beard.' So, he had always behaved in an acceptable manner, and had always been a dutiful son.

Maybe he just wanted too much. People approved or disapproved of you based on your station and actions. It was too much to hope that someone would ever give him more than he had earned. That wasn't how things worked; yet, it was the way things worked between Hermione and her foster-parents.

Sighing, he continued to watch Hermione as she slept. Well, whatever the situation between Hermione and her foster-father, Draco knew that he had not been lying when he had promised to take care of her. He would. He couldn't really explain it, but he knew that he and his wife were connected in some way. Hermione was…special, and not just because she was wealthy or had prestige. She deserved to live, and Draco would do everything he could to ensure that. Of course, that would involve getting her through whatever the Dark Lord wanted with her alive. And after that, she would have to live peacefully under the new order that would be put into place once England, and then the world, was conquered. Also, assuming that contract couldn't be overridden, she would have to remain his wife, but even throwing that in Draco thought that it was better than death.

He waved his wand and turned out the lights. Maybe someday Hermione wouldn't hate him. Draco kept hold of that thought as he went to sleep.



Chapter 10: A Chance
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"Before I knew it, your father and I had been married for a couple months. Your father got a job at the Ministry in the foreign relations office, and I spent most of my time while he was away studying materials Dumbledore gave me--most of them involved either the Old Magic or fighting--, redecorating, and visiting with my friends. I didn't have to housework really, because we had a few house elves from my estate in Bulgaria.

Our days were pretty predictable. Your father would go to work, and I would go about my activities. When he came home we would have dinner together. If we both had the evening off, we might play chess but more often we just read or did work. Of course, one or both of us might leave at any time, but neither of us ever asked any questions. He knew that I was in the Order of the Phoenix and that I had business, and I knew that he was a Death Eater and went when he was summoned."


Hermione smiled slightly, pausing in her writing. Most women, when their husbands were out late at night, suspected another woman was to blame. She had never had to worry about that, though. She had known exactly what her husband was doing; running around with murderous hooligans spreading chaos and mayhem. Or learning to do it at least. She continued writing.

"It was about September when I got the hint that your father really didn't like what he had gotten into. And then, I decided to do something about it…."
………………

With hands that were still trembling, Draco turned the water on, leaving a red imprint on the faucet handle. Merlin, what had he done? He heard soft footfalls outside the bathroom door. "It's just me Mother," he said as the figure of a woman walked into the open doorway.

"Draco? What are you doing here this time of the night…" his mother said, and then trailed off as she saw what he was doing.

"Well, I can't exactly wash this off at home; she might still be awake," he said turning the water on a little hotter. He didn't really need the water hotter--the blood was coming off at the previous temperature--but even so, his hands did not feel clean.

"I suppose not," his mother said, pulling her robe around her a little tighter as if she had suddenly gotten a chill. "Who was it?"

"No one I knew," he answered gruffly. Did that really matter, though? Wasn't killing, killing whether you knew the person or not? But once you pledged to Voldemort, you did as he said without balking. Anyone that balked died, and Draco did not want to die. Death was never pretty.

He shook his head, trying to put the mental images of that night out of his head. He had not struck the killing blow; he had helped, but he had not been the one to finally kill the man in the end. He held onto that thought, as tenuous as it was, while he continued to wash his hands not even noticing that the last spot of blood was now gone from them.

"You know," his mother started, "your father was also disturbed the first night he came home to wash the blood off his hands. It's natural to be uneasy at first, but after a while it didn't bother him."

He nodded, not sure if he had an answer for that. In his head, Draco knew that his father had killed before, but this was the first time that the thought really hit home. The man had gotten use to this! Finally noticing that his hands were clean, he started cleaning the blood from his wand, and then used his wand to remove the blood from his mask and robes. That particular spell had been one of the first he had been taught upon joining the Death Eaters. Merlin, he didn't want to get jaded enough that this no longer bothered him! What kind of a damned creature would he be then? But there was no way out.

When everything was clean, he put his mask in a pocket and changed his robes' color to a non-descriptive brown before leaving to apparate to his own home. When he got there, all the lights were out, so he used his wand to illuminate his way. He could not manage, however, to keep his wand steady; his hands still trembled.

After changing into his pajamas, Draco turned the light on his wand down to a soft glow as he went into the bedroom so it wouldn't wake Hermione. She was lying in the bed--apparently sound asleep--in a summer nightgown. It was a warm night, so only one sheet draped her distinctively feminine curves, her breasts slowly rising and falling as she breathed in and out. A strap of her nightgown had fallen down to reveal a pale shoulder, and her hair was everywhere--as usual--framing her face. She was beautiful. It was like being in the presence of an angel.

And it only made him feel even dirtier. He would wager everything he had, down to the last knut, that she would never have to wash blood off of her hands. The only way it would be even remotely possible was if she had to kill in the last defense of her life, or in the defense of the life of someone she cared deeply about. However, her hands remained lily-white while his…. He shouldn't even be allowed in the presence of such a creature. He might as well be staring at the moon, wishing to touch and be worthy of it, as far as Hermione was beyond his reach.

Sighing, Draco put the light of his wand out and got into bed, careful not to disturb Hermione as she slept. She must have felt something, though, because she muttered and rolled around, an arm coming to rest against his chest. But then her breathing resumed its pattern; she still slept. Draco was glad of that, because had she not been asleep, she would have felt him still shaking.
…………………

"He came home shaking like a leaf," Hermione said to the other Order members gathered around the table of Grimmauld Place's dining room the next evening.

"Not surprising," Snape said from beside her. Her mentor had actually proved himself useful, and for some reason was not so forbidding toward her as he had been during school. However, his attitude toward Harry hadn't changed. Snape continued, "The newbies are…broken in. They spend the first few months learning dark spells before they are sent out on field missions. At first they are sent on comparatively easy missions where they help run a target into the ground, but a senior Death Eater strikes the killing blow…the first few times. This is where young Malfoy currently is. After that, striking the killing blow is…well…a rite of passage. The last of a batch to achieve this rite of passage is severely punished. The only way around it is if the person distinguishes himself in another field enough that he isn't sent on missions normally. More to the point, however, was that last night was one of the milk runs. I didn't know about it, however, until I overheard the report about it."

"But we're all here," Arthur Weasley said after doing a quick headcount, "so who got killed?"

"A Ministry clerk that worked in the Magical Beasts department. Apparently he was refusing to provide information about something or rather. Anyway, he hasn't been reported missing yet. When he doesn't show up for work for a few days, someone will probably go to check on him and find the body. I don't know why they neglected to leave the Dark Mark and rearranged things to make it look like a suicide, " Snape said.

Hermione shivered, her mind only half concentrating on what was being said for the rest of the meeting, and said nothing. She was thinking too hard to comment on anything. When Snape had told her that the first thing she needed to learn to do was how to pretend to be asleep she had wondered why, but now she knew. It was a window to how Draco would behave when he thought that he didn't have to try to hide anything.

Most of the time he just watched her sleep, and through her eyelashes she had seen that he watched her face more than he watched the rest of her. Last night when the light in his wand seemed to shake, it had struck her as an anomaly that had needed to be investigated. So, after he had lain down, she had put an arm over him to see if he was shaking. It had been a while before he had stopped shaking.

'Well, I suppose that participating in a murder would shake anybody up,' Hermione thought to herself. It was one anomaly solved. But then why did she have the feeling that her husband did not want to be involved in that kind of activity? It couldn't be wishful thinking on her part, or could it? 'Admit it Hermione, you don't hate him,' that little annoying voice in her head said. 'Fine, I don't hate him, but I can't say that I love him either!' she mentally answered herself.

'Ok sister, but let's just say that your intuition is correct for a moment. What are you going to do to help your husband get out of the mess he's gotten himself into?' That thought came almost out of the blue, and Hermione didn't know how to answer it. Assuming that she wanted to do something, what could she do? She still had to be practical, though, in case she was wrong. This was something she couldn't afford to be mistaken about.

'Next question, if you can do something to help him and he turns against Voldemort, he won't be sent to prison as a Death Eater. You could never divorce him. Could you live with that?' Hermione wished that voice in her head would just shut up. If she could do something, that would be one possible result of her action. In addition to that, though, she knew that trying to give Draco a chance would be the right thing to do.

Of course, Hermione knew that her whole internal debate was only valid if she could find a way to help Draco. The only way anyone could betray Voldemort was if he was an Occlumens, and no one could get good enough in one session to hide the fact that he was receiving Occlumency lessons. There was no way that her husband could get Occlumency lessons without Voldemort finding out about it.

Well, she would think more about this later. Sighing, Hermione returned her full attention to the meeting only to realize that it was just finishing. She got up and went into the living room. Noticing a stack of books that Harry had left on the coffee table before the meeting, Hermione took a closer look at them, reflexively noting their titles. She saw that Harry's Occlumency book was included in the stack, and an idea hit her like a meteor striking the surface of the planet. This just might work!

Hermione picked up the book and turned around, noticing Harry standing behind her. "Harry," she asked, faking nonchalance, "do you mind if I borrow this book?"


Chapter 11: The Apprentice
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Draco came home from work a few days later to find that Hermione and dinner were not waiting in the dining room as usual. One of their house elves told him, "My lady ordered dinner served an hour later than usual. If Master wishes to find my lady, she is in the laboratory."

Wishing that Hermione's first order to the house elves had been something other than if his orders ever contradicted hers, to obey hers without punishing themselves for disobeying his, Draco started for the laboratory. He was hungry, and if he were going to get anything to eat he would have to ask Hermione to rescind her order not to serve dinner yet.

Then it occurred to him to wonder what Hermione was brewing in the laboratory. She never closely inquired about his activities, and he never asked about hers, but if she wanted to hide something from him she would have done it while he wasn't home. Ordering dinner to be late was almost certainly an invitation for him to go down to the lab. Well, he would just have to ask her about what she wasn't hiding from him.

Draco walked into the basement, and opened the door that led into the laboratory. When they had moved in, it had reminded him of the potions laboratory at Hogwarts, minus Snape lurking there. Hermione had put more lights in and cleaned it up so it didn't look as dark or dreary. His wife stood by one of the counters with a cauldron bubbling before her, a book by her elbow, and potion ingredients scattered over the rest of the counter. She turned around to look at him when he walked into the room.

"Hello Draco," she said, "I'll be at a stopping point for tonight in another hour or so, and we'll have dinner then."

"Ok…um, what are you working on Hermione?" Draco said walking over to where she stood to peer at the open book to see what recipe she was following. Then he noticed the chapter title. 'Fertility Potions! What the…? I thought that she didn't want kids, or mine anyway, and there's still time until we have to have the kids the contract demands.'

"No, it's not exactly a fertility potion that I'm working on," Hermione said, answering his unspoken question. "The only thing it really does is ensuring that if a child is conceived, it will be a boy. It stays in effect for two and a half years, or until a successful birth has occurred. I just like to be prepared for any circumstance."

Draco nodded, finding the recipe in the book. Well, assuming things stayed as they were, their first child would have to be on his way by that time. He started reading through the recipe. 'Hmmm, it takes about two months to make. Oh, what's this bookmark for?' Draco thought to himself.

Hermione saw him fingering the bookmark. "Leave it on the page it's on," she said, "and if you're going to stay here make yourself useful and hand me the powered hen's teeth. It's in the cabinet behind you."

Draco nodded, carefully hiding that he had flagged the page by the bookmark just in case it was something important, before turning around to start rummaging through the cabinet. He would come back to the lab later that night and see if she removed the bookmark to a different page.
………………

"It was a copy of "Legilimency and Occlumency: The Theories of and Commentaries on," Master," Draco said, kneeling before Lord Voldemort as he gave his report in the house that the Death Eaters used as a base of operations. This information he knew that he couldn't hide from the Dark Lord, so reporting it was the only thing he could do.

Draco had gone back to the laboratory that night to get another look at that potions book. Hermione had removed the bookmark to the page she was working on, so he had flipped through the book trying to find the page he had flagged. Then he had noticed that there was something wrong with the page numbers. There were two page 1143s, two page 254s. The book repeated itself, as if the printer had mistakenly put two copies of the same book in one cover.

Draco had known that something was up, and about two hours later, he had finally found out what it was. There were two books in one cover; one a perfectly ordinary potions book, the other the most through commentary on Occlumency and Legilimency. The meaning was obvious; Hermione had started or shortly would be starting Occlumency and Legilimency lesions. The contract did not forbid breaking into each other's minds, well, so long as they didn't do anything to hurt each other.

"Then the question seems to be," Lord Voldemort said, appearing to be thinking out loud, "is if she is taking the lessons to defend herself from you, or so she can get information from you. In the first case, it would be a threat Dumbledore could not ignore, and in the second, an opportunity he could not ignore. This must be a recent development, though, as my spy has yet to report this." After a few moments, he spoke louder. "Are you faithful to me, young Malfoy?" he asked.

"Yes Master. I will serve you in whatever way you require me to," Draco answered. To answer in any other way was instant death.

"Then stand and follow me."

Draco did as he was told, and followed his master through the house to the basement where a potions laboratory had been set up. 'Merlin, this place looks just like the potions dungeon at Hogwarts! The only thing that's missing is Professor Snape! Oh, nope, this place has that too,' Draco thought to himself. Indeed, there was Professor Snape, who had stopped stirring whatever he was brewing to bow to Voldemort. 'He must be the spy Lord Voldemort mentioned just now.' Draco had suspected that Snape, the potions master and his father's friend, was a Death Eater for a long time, but this was the first undeniable proof he had ever seen.

"Severus," the Dark Lord said, "I have brought you an apprentice."

Draco's eyes widened in surprise, but he still managed a bow for the man that was once again his instructor. Because Snape was a spy, he had to know Occlumency in order to hide what he was from Dumbledore. Which in turn meant, Draco knew, was that he was going to learn Occlumency himself!
…………………….

"Are you aware, my lady, of the possible consequences of what you have done?" Snape asked Hermione in a neutral tone.

Hermione sat in the dining room of Grimmauld Place with Snape, Dumbledore, and Harry. Snape had told Dumbledore that Voldemort had ordered him to give Draco Occlumency lessons, and then Dumbledore had called them to a special meeting. And she had admitted to planting that book where Draco could find it, and that getting Draco Occlumency lessons had been her aim in doing it. "Yes, I was aware of the possible consequences when I made my decision. I analyzed them before doing anything irreversible to make sure that it was worth the risk."

Snape looked at her questioningly, and Harry still looked shocked. Dumbledore merely raised an eyebrow and said, "And your conclusions were…?"

Hermione took a deep breath, and then explained. "I knew that whatever Voldemort suspected, the only response he could make would be to have someone give Draco Occlumency lessons. He needs someone that can stay close to me to find out about whatever it was that my father was doing, and it might be impossible to replace Draco so Voldemort wouldn't kill Draco. The only uncertainty lies in what Draco decides to do with his opportunity.

"The first possibility is that he uses Occlumency and Legilimency to hide his mind from mine, or he attacks my mind. I would have to learn Occlumency myself to counter this, but that isn't impossible to manage. In effect, nothing would change," she said, and the three men nodded.

"The second possibility," Hermione continued, "is that he learns those arts, and pretends to betray Voldemort in order to act as a spy for him. The way to deal with this would be to keep him isolated from our operations, and have him give his reports to one person only. I would suggest that he give them to you, Dumbledore. He can't overpower you, and you are the one most likely to be able to see through a charade. You will just have to see if his reports match what you are getting from the Professor. In this scenario, you may be able to feed him misinformation you want Voldemort to act on, and the benefits outweigh the risks."

"The third possibility is that he does turn against Voldemort. He's smart enough to know that he can't run, so he'll offer his services as a spy. I know that we already have the services of a skilled spy," Hermione said, nodding at Snape, "but two people will hear more than one. If one spy is discovered, we will know immediately because their reports will not match, and possibly we will be able to avoid a disaster created from making a decision from misinformation Voldemort would try to feed us."

Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, well put Hermione. But you made this decision without telling or consulting anyone. Apparently you thought you had the right to make this choice yourself, why?"

"Because I'm the one that will be most effected by the consequences," she answered. "If Draco makes the right decision, I can't divorce him. Well, I suppose one of us could still die, but if not, I'd be stuck with him for the rest of my life. That was a choice only I could make Professor."

"And you'd be willing to do that?" Harry asked, looking perplexed. "You'd be willing to stay married to Malfoy for the rest of your life?"

Hermione took a deep breath and then answered, "Yes, but if--and only if--he makes the right decision about this."

After a few seconds of silence, Snape started chuckling, which then turned into outright laughter. Hermione and Harry stared at him, and then glanced at each other, wondering if the man had gone insane. They had never seen anything even approaching humor coming from Snape before this.

Even Dumbledore looked at least mildly surprised. "Severus…?" he asked, apparently not quite sure how to continue.

When Snape stopped laughing, he looked at Hermione with newfound respect. "My lady, I must admit that I didn't think you capable of being this sneaky. Do you realize what you have just done? The Dark Lord is use to tricking others to do as he wills, but you have just tricked him into giving your husband the tool Draco will need should he decide to betray him! Maybe it's appropriate that Draco has been assigned to be my apprentice; I may end up teaching him more of my arts than originally intended. My lady, you are either absolutely brilliant, or positively insane, to come up with something like this."

Hermione stared. This was probably the best complement Snape had ever given to anyone. "Er…thank you Professor. I probably should say, though, that often the only difference between brilliance and insanity is whether you get the result you wanted or not."


Chapter 12: Mrs. Weasley's Clock
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Time passed, and before I knew it, it was Easter. Your father and I had become proficient in Occlumency by that time, but he wasn't fully confident yet. He wanted to test it first, to make sure before he tried to betray Voldemort that he could do it successfully.

In the meantime, the war wasn't pretty. We didn't have any losses from the Order at the time, a few injuries, yes, but nothing too serious. Most of the victims were chosen more on the basis of terrorizing the wizarding community. It was getting bad enough that even the muggles knew that something was up. Your father, however, wasn't a part of that really because Snape kept him in his laboratory to help him even after they were done with the Occlumency lessons for the day.

The relationship your father and I had at the time was a strange one. He had fallen in love with me, but knew that he couldn't say anything until he could hide the memories of that from Voldemort. I had fallen in love with him, but I wasn't willing to admit it to myself or to anyone else until I had some reason to believe that your father had turned against Voldemort. The effect of this was that I pretended to dislike him and he pretended to be indifferent to me. I felt like I had aged five or ten years in a matter of months. Sometimes waiting is the hardest thing you have to do.

After Snape had told me that your father was good enough to betray Voldemort now, the waiting became almost unbearable. In compensation for this, I spent more time with my friends. When I went to visit the Weasleys one night, it was Easter actually, I had no idea about what was going to happen….


…………………

Hermione sat at the Weasley's kitchen table one evening playing cards with Ginny, who was home for Easter break, and Fleur Delacour, who was now engaged to Bill and working at the Ministry in the Portkey office. The twins, Bill, and Ron--who finally seemed to be content with just being her friend again--were playing a somewhat noisier game at the other end of the table. Mrs. Weasley was taking cookies out of the oven, warning everyone not to take any until they had cooled a little.

Mr. Weasley was at work, so he wasn't there at the moment. So was Harry, otherwise he would have been there. Most of the Ministry workers were putting in a lot of overtime these days, even on Easter. Percy wasn't there either, but that was because he was still being a git. Still, everyone present was having a good time at the Burrow.

"Accio cookie," Bill demanded, and Hermione just couldn't help herself. Just a flick of her wand and a whispered spell sent Fleur--who let out a startled squeak--sliding down the bench and right into Bill, almost knocking them both onto the floor. "Wait, wait, that's not what I meant!" Bill protested, and then he noticed the freshly baked sugar cookie sitting in front of him.

Hermione couldn't keep her face straight any longer, and burst out laughing.

"What…HERMIONE!" Bill exclaimed, before he and then everyone else joined her, laughing so hard that they were almost in tears. Even Fleur, whose cheeks now matched her fiancé's hair, couldn't help but join in.

"I wish that I had thought of that first!" George exclaimed once he had managed to get his breath back.

"Enough George," Mrs. Weasley warned, but she was still smiling. "Now would you be a dear and go out to the root cellar and get some potatoes? I'm sure your father will want more than cookies when he comes back from work."

George nodded amiably, and sauntered out the door.

Everyone else returned to their activities, but George didn't come back right away. Frowning, Hermione looked up at Mrs. Weasleys clock, and her mouth went dry. "Mrs. Weasley, do you see what time it is?" All conversation stopped as everyone else turned to look at the clock, and their wands were all held at ready in a heartbeat. Everyone present in the Burrow was now in Mortal Peril.
………

Draco gritted his teeth to avoid saying anything as someone yelled Hermione's name, and her laughter rang out through the darkness. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. And her presence here could put her in danger.

Draco was with twenty other Death Eaters outside the Weasleys' house, waiting for his father's signal to begin the attack. He didn't want to be here, he didn't want to kill anybody. In fact, Draco was planning on going to Dumbledore as soon as he knew that he could successfully hide his memories from the dark lord. He just had to find an opportunity to test it; he had to try to hide something punishable, but not punishable by death, and then see if it worked.

His father had come into the laboratory and insisted that Snape allow him to go on the strike mission tonight, seeing that Draco hadn't fulfilled his 'rite of passage' yet. Snape had been surprised--he hadn't known about the strike mission--but allowed him to go without protest. Apparently the dark lord had decided to have it done on the spur of the moment.

"Well, this certainly complicates things. We still need that girl alive, not to mention that you can't get involved in anything that might even injure her," his father said from beside him.

A door to the house opened and shut as a redheaded figure went out towards the shed, and then descended into a root cellar.

"A little luck, anyway," his father said. "Draco, you and Goyle go finish off the straggler in the root cellar. Everyone else, use non-fatal spells only on the occupants of the house. There's a brunette in there that our master wants alive, and he would punish her accidental death much worse than he would punish our inability to kill anyone." Then, his father cast a spell that would keep anyone within a mile from disapparating.

Everyone was trapped now, including himself.
……………..

George rummaged around in the root cellar, and found the bag of potatoes. Out of pure instinct, he put the potatoes down and extinguished the light coming from his wand as he opened the door and looked around. There were black shapes moving towards the house. 'What! Dementors! No wait, these have white faces…Death Eaters!' he thought to himself. Just as he was about to scream a warning, spells started to fly. His family knew, but why hadn't they disapparated by now? Trying it himself, and failing, he knew the answer. The Death Eaters had cast a spell so they couldn't; they were trapped. And he could see that his family was outnumbered two to one, at least.

This was bad, really, really bad. And the only thing he could think of to do was to get behind the anti-disapparation spell's radius of effect and get help before everyone died. George got out of the cellar only to notice that he had even more to worry about. Two Death Eaters were walking his way. Grasping his wand tightly and casting a few defensive spells in his path, George ran into the trees. He had to get help. He heard his mother scream, and if possible, he ran even faster. He had to get help.
………………….

Draco and Goyle came to a place where two paths split from the one they were on. Draco went on the right one, with Goyle taking the left. 'Well,' Draco thought as he ran, 'if I find him first, I'll give him a few quick misses. He should be getting close to the border where he could disapparate. If Goyle finds him first, well, it's just Goyle. Anyone should be able to handle that clumsy oaf.'

Draco kept running for a few minutes without seeing anything, and then he noticed that the path was going the other way now as if it was just circling. Soon enough, he came to find Goyle waving at him, his posture that of obvious triumph. And then he saw the body.

"Malfoy, Malfoy I got him!" Goyle said, practically dancing around. "I missed with one spell and it hit this log, no wait, I meant to down this log, and it hit him and then I got him with an old fashioned Avada Kedavra!"

Draco risked a little light to see who it was; it was one of the twins. He sighed, relieved that it hadn't been Ron. Hermione would have been more than grief-stricken had it been Ron. Not that he didn't regret the death of…he couldn't tell if it was Fred or George in this light…but some deaths hurt more than others did. And then he saw his opportunity. "Well done my friend," Draco said, clapping Goyle on the back, and then extracting his memories of the last few minutes. He then modified the memory to make it look like he had killed, and then placed it in his own mind. Goyle was only left with the memory of running through the trees, and then Draco added one where Goyle had stumbled into Draco, who had gotten to the prey first.

"Quite sorry Goyle," Draco said, "maybe you'll get yours next time." Assuming this worked, now he only had his wife to worry about. After making sure she was all right, he could finally betray Voldemort by offering his services to Dumbledore. He did realize that he would be betraying his father as well, but he had chosen his wife over his father. He couldn't be loyal to them both, and he had come to the realization that he did not want to be like his father any longer. He looked down at the body again for a second. Maybe someday all of this killing would stop.

Before leaving that spot, Draco waved his wand. "Morsemordre," he said, sending the green, glowing image of the Dark Man into the night sky.
……………………

"We have to leave, now!" Hermione screamed at Bill, who was the stand-in leader, now that Mrs. Weasley was out cold.

"But George is still out there!" Fred responded.

"We're not leaving without George!" Ginny insisted.

Although they could not disapparate, Fleur had changed the clock into a Portkey. All they had to do was touch it, and have Fleur activate it, and they could all leave. What made Hermione want to hurry, however, was the little fact that the Death Eaters were now starting to climb through the new gaps in the wall.

Hermione glanced back at the clock, and noticed that George's picture had now gone dark. He had to be dead then. "He's gone! Everyone get around the clock!" she yelled.

Finally, everyone got around the clock--Bill had to levitate his mother over--and Fleur activated the Portkey. Only when the all landed safely in the living room of Grimmauld Place did Hermione stop to consider what they could have thought that she had meant when she had said that George was gone.

Well, they realized it now. Hermione moved Mrs. Weasley to a sofa to check to make sure that she was all right, while the rest of the Weasley clan stared at the darkened picture as if hypnotized, obviously in shock.


Chapter 13: New Creatures
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Draco paced in the bedroom, waiting for Hermione to get back home. He had gotten home only an hour ago. Finishing up hadn't taken long.

He and Goyle had returned to find that everyone in the house had escaped. When they reported back to Voldemort, their only saving grace was that it would have been a worse disaster had Hermione been killed, or if they had had losses of their own. Draco had been congratulated as the only one that had managed to get a kill, though he had also been ordered to, "find a way to keep that woman out of the way, or better yet, in Bulgaria."

Draco couldn't stop a smile of triumph from coming to his lips. The dark lord had searched his mind, and had not found anything out of place. The fact that Draco had stolen Goyle's memory, as well as his kill, remained hidden. Had anything been amiss, Draco knew that instead of loosing his 'newbie' status, he would have been punished even worse than Goyle had been for being the last without a kill.

Draco hadn't regretted Goyle's screams. Goyle had killed another human, and had practically been dancing a jig after he had done it. What Goyle deserved was a life sentence in Azkaban. Now that he thought about it, though, maybe it was wrong for him to think that way. The two of them were in roughly the same situation, the only difference was that Draco had a way out but Goyle did not. Still, he wasn't sure that if Goyle had also been given a way out that he would have taken it. He didn't think that Goyle had the necessary intelligence or temperament to learn Occlumency, so Goyle's only chance was running as far as he could. And he obviously hadn't done that. At any rate, Draco knew that he was responsible for his own decisions only.

Finally, he heard soft footsteps in the hallway and Hermione walked through the bedroom door. Her hair was a little messier than normal, and her posture and face showed exhaustion, but other than that she looked all right. "Hermione, are you ok?" he asked.

"As ok as I will be right now," she answered, walking towards the drawer where she kept her nightgowns.

Well, that wasn't exactly an answer, but he continued. "Hermione, look, I need to know what the best way to get in touch with Dumbledore is."

Draco knew that he now had Hermione's full and complete attention. She turned around and fixed him with a piercing gaze. "Why?" she asked.

He took a deep breath, and explained. "I know that you're a member of the Order of the Phoenix, so you'd know how to get in touch with Dumbledore. You know that I'm a Death Eater but…Hermione, I want out. I don't want to be a part of something that causes so much death and suffering. I know that I can't run, but…I've been getting Occlumency lessons. I can be a spy, and the dark lord won't know. I can hide it from him now. I just have to get in touch with Dumbledore so I can…." Draco trailed off as Hermione walked right up to him, and pulled him to sit beside her on the bed.

"You mean that exactly, don't you," she said quietly. After a few moments, she spoke again. "Try tomorrow at any time, he should be in his office at Hogwarts. The password is 'licorice,' and I would advise wearing your invisibility cloak until you are in his office. Dumbledore should be there, and Harry might be there too."

Draco frowned. "Potter? He wouldn't believe me."

"Harry believes in second chances, as does Dumbledore," Hermione answered.

"And you?" Draco dared to ask. He had to know.

Instead of answering, she asked her own question. "Were you there tonight?"

He had no need to ask what she meant. "Yes," he said, then explaining what had happened. After he finished, he asked, "How are they?"

"Mrs. Weasley is in St. Mungo's, but she'll be ok in a few days, physically at least. Her husband is with her right now, and everyone else is safe, but…" she trailed off with tears in her eyes.

But he had to know. "Hermione," Draco asked, "will you give me a second chance?"

"There's another reason you want another chance beside what you've told me already. What is it?" She looked like she needed the answer to her question as much as he needed the answer to his. Hermione was looking into his eyes as if she was hoping to find that answer, any answer, written on the pupils of his eyes.

"Hermione…I…." 'Merlin, how am I going to say this!' "Look, I don't really know what it is that they want with you, but they can't get it! I mean, what if you get hurt or even…. I'm not going to let it happen, I can't let it happen. You're the most beautiful creature in the world, and not just on the outside but on the inside too. When you're with me I feel like everything's perfect even when I know it isn't, and I don't care what I have to do to keep you whole and happy--I'll do anything you want me to. Hermione, I'm in love with you…."

Draco would have continued, but Hermione had thrown her arms around him and was kissing him. He guessed that the answer to his question was a 'yes.' After a few minutes, he noticed that they were leaning into the pillows, and still had not stopped kissing. And things were getting a little more heated.

"Hermione," he said, pulling away and sitting up again, "we really shouldn't. I mean, you've had a rough night, and I shouldn't take advantage of this situation…."

Hermione smiled at him through the tears in her eyes. "Not only do I believe in second chances also," she said, "I'm in love with you too. Draco, I planted that Occlumency book where I thought you'd find it. I wasn't taking the lessons at the time; I just wanted Voldemort to think I was so he'd have to let you get lessons. It was the only way I could help you."

She had done what?! Draco just stared at his wife, and after a few moments shut his mouth when he noticed that it was hanging open. Hermione had tricked the most feared, evil wizard in the world into giving him the only tool he could use to betray him. What was more, Draco knew, was that she had done it while he had still been a Death Eater with no plan to get out of it.

"But…but, I didn't deserve for you to do that for me…" he tried to say, but Hermione interrupted him.

"Draco, forgiveness and love aren't things that can be earned by definition of what they are; they are given. No one deserves forgiveness, and if they did, there would be nothing to forgive. Love must be given freely, expecting nothing in return, to really be love. I chose to forgive you, and I chose to love you."

Draco was stunned. He didn't think that anyone had ever felt that way about him before, and he didn't have the words to describe how wonderful it felt. "Well," he finally said, "thanks for explaining it that way."

"Hold me, please," she asked. And he did, all night.

Had Hermione checked the dot on the back of her ring that night, she would have noticed that it had turned green.
………………..

"Well, it was what I was waiting for," Dumbledore said a few minutes after Malfoy had left the office the following day. He was leaning back in his chair, and looked somewhat tired.

'No, he doesn't exactly look tired,' Harry decided, 'he looks…old.' And the Professor was old. And he had been giving Harry additional responsibilities and roles in the Order. Now, Harry was the secret-keeper for Grimmauld Place. It was a lot to handle, especially in addition to his Auror training, which was conducted in an expedited way itself. But he did what he had to do. 'It's almost like Dumbledore is training me to take over the Order, almost as if he doesn't expect to survive this war.'

Harry hoped that he wouldn't be called on to lead the Order anytime soon, he didn't know if he'd be up to it. No one but Dumbledore knew, but shutting Voldemort out of his head was gradually becoming more difficult. It was like whatever connection joined them was growing stronger, and according to Dumbledore, the only certain way to stop it was if one of them died. Overall, it wasn't a pleasant picture. "What you were waiting for?" he asked out loud.

"I needed Draco to make his decision before they went to Bulgaria to get this sorted out. They can go now," the aged professor said.

"But Dumbledore," Harry protested, "how can you be sure you can trust him?"

Dumbledore's eyes sparkled behind his spectacles. "Trust, Harry, is always an act of faith. There is no guarantee that young Malfoy has truly changed his allegiance, or even if everything he said was true that he won't change his mind later."

Harry didn't like the sound of that. "But you still seem confident that he has changed, why?"

"There is at least one thing that he was not lying about," the aged professor said. "He truly does love Hermione, and though neither of them have informed me of it, she also loves him."

"What? How…?" Harry asked, not really knowing how to phrase the question. He could imagine Draco loving Hermione, as unlikely as that seemed. She was a lovely young woman, both in form and in soul, and any man would have to be as dense as a rock not to realize that. He guessed that practically any man could fall for Hermione. What he did not understand was how Hermione could love Draco. She had hated him almost the whole time she had known him. In fact, the first indication that Harry had seen that she had even liked her husband was when she had pulled her trick to get Draco Occlumency lessons. That had told him that she thought that Draco was possibly redeemable, and that she was willing to stay married to him. He had thought that Hermione had done it mainly for her ideals--that everyone deserved a second chance--and perhaps that she liked her husband well enough to tolerate being married to him, but love?

"Let me show you something Harry," Dumbledore said, digging through a drawer. He finally pulled a scroll out and started to unroll it carefully.

"What is this?" Harry asked. He could barely make out what it said at the top, and pieces of the paper were missing as if eaten away by acid. In places the words were fading and some of the edges of the long parchment were more jagged than they should have been.

"It's their marriage contract."

"But it looks like it's falling apart!" Harry said.

"It looks that way because it is falling apart," Dumbledore said. After a few seconds, he explained further. "You see Harry, Hermione's father didn't just use only regular spells to ensure that this contract would be followed to the letter. Oh, he used normal spells for the legal aspects of it, but for the rest, he used a good infusion of Old Magic. You see, in how it tells them to treat each other, it describes how two people in love treat each other. The only way this contract would decompose was if it was no longer needed. Thus, since it is decomposing, it means that they are fulfilling the meaning behind all the conditions and terms and they love each other. Now I don't suspect that the contract will turn to dust any time soon, because there are parts that have not yet been fulfilled that will remain until they are fulfilled. However, I would not mention this to anyone else, even Hermione. The very fact that Voldemort believes that this contract is what is binding Draco from doing anything to hurt Hermione is probably the only thing that will be protecting them in the near future. "

Harry nodded, reading over a section that looked like it had only recently begun to rip apart, and as he was able to piece what that section was about together, his mouth dropped open. "I suppose then, that if a particular section was being ripped up, it meant that they had fulfilled the terms there?"

"Well, yes, of course."

"Well then," Harry said, not quite sure if he should believe what his eyes were telling him, "take a look at section twelve Professor." This could only mean one thing.

Dumbledore obligingly looked to where Harry was pointing, and his eyebrows rose halfway up his forehead. "Oh my," was all that the professor said.


Chapter 14: News
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George Weasley's death was not the only death in that period of time. Scarcely three days had gone by after your father went to see Dumbledore, Dumbledore died in his sleep by natural causes, age namely.

Hermione dipped her quill into the ink again, and continued to write.

It was a great blow to the Order. Dumbledore had been the only leader they had ever known, and even though he had trained Harry to fill his place, the transition of new leadership with not exactly smooth as far as a few people were concerned….

…………………………….

Hermione sighed. She had had just about enough of this. Fortunately Snape and Harry had kept enough decorum not to start arguing in the middle of the meeting with everyone else there. Now though, with everyone but the three of them out of the dining room, they were both keeping their tempers on a leash only a thread thick.

"And what makes you so certain about this Potter? If you are wrong about something of this magnitude, it could doom the whole Order," Snape said ominously.

"We have to do what is necessary; optimal does not exist in this situation," Harry started. "The first reason I think we should send Hermione and Draco to Bulgaria as soon as possible is because with Dumbledore gone, Voldemort will be stepping up his war efforts. If his concentration is on Bulgaria, less people will die. Secondly it's better that this be dealt with sooner rather than later considering Hermione's condition…."

Hermione sat straight up in her chair. "What condition Harry?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well, you know…" he trailed off noticing her blank expression. "Oh, I suppose you don't know then. Well…um…." Harry looked decidedly uncomfortable.

Then it hit her. Hurriedly, Hermione turned over her hand so she could get a look at her ring. The spot was not gray like normal, or even green. It was blue; there were two blue spots. "Oh…I see what you mean," she said weakly. 'Two boys. Twin boys. Merlin, I'm pregnant! Wait a minute….' "Harry, how in the world did you know before I did?"

"Um…" Harry said, looking quite awkward. "Hermione, I won't ask any questions if you don't."

Snape, who had obviously figured out what was going on, looked at least mildly surprised, and amused. "Well," he said, "no one can say that your husband wastes any time."

Hermione glared at him.

"Uh, well, back to the topic," Harry said, "if we wait until the baby is born, you'd probably have to leave him here while you went to Bulgaria and hope Voldemort didn't find a way to kidnap him so he could force you do what he wanted. If we don't wait for the baby to be born, it won't be long before you'll find moving around…difficult Hermione."

Hermione nodded duly. "Oh, there's twins by the way," she said. This could really complicate things, and that worried her. She didn't particularly mind putting herself in a dangerous position, but now she would be putting her children's lives at risk as well as her own life. And she felt like dancing around the dining room. The babies would be beautiful; she knew they would be. Hermione didn't know if she would be laughing or crying when the shock faded.

"Well, it's settled then," Harry said. "As soon as you can manage, you'll be going to Bulgaria. The only clue Dumbledore gave me about what your father was working on was that it involved time, and maybe something that would affect or bring about immortality. You just have to get to it before Voldemort does so you can harness or destroy it. We just have to find a place in Bulgaria to stage from, I'm sure your place will be watched."

"Viktor Krum lives near my estate," Hermione said, "and he'll probably let you use his place."

Harry nodded. "Well, if there's no more objections, that's settled then," he said, getting up and leaving the room.

There were no objections. Snape still looked too amused to offer any. "Stop that," Hermione said, "if you go out there with a half-smile on your face, everyone will assume that you've gone mad."

"Oh, I was just considering what your husband will say when he finds out about what he's done to his lady."

Hermione snorted. "And just what did you do to your lady?" popped out of her mouth. She didn't know where that had come from, but from the way Snape's expression immediately sobered, she knew that she had touched a nerve.

"Who told you about that? Why would your remind me about…" Snape said, trailing off.

"No one did…I don't know where that came from. I'm sorry, I didn't know that anything had happened…and don't feel that you have to tell me either. I doubt it involved me," Hermione said, getting up to leave.

Snape's expression relaxed a little. "Well, you're wrong about that. It did involve you," he started.

Hermione frowned, confused, but didn't say anything instead sitting back down.

After a few moments, Snape started speaking again. "Her name was Dorcas, Dorcas Meadowes. She wasn't a Pureblood, though, so we had to keep things hidden. If my father had found out…. Actually, my father was the reason I learned Occlumency in the first place. I knew from the time I was a teenager that I would have to learn to hide my thoughts, any weakness from the man, so I taught myself Occlumency. At any rate, I joined the Death Eaters after graduation, and she joined the Order. Neither of us told the other about it, though.

"One day, she told me that she would be going to Bulgaria for a while. She had a job there. I later found out that she had been assigned to be your nanny. When your father was murdered…we still don't know exactly what happened…she took you and the contract, and got to England. The Death Eaters, however, were close on her tail and were keeping a spell that prevented her from disapparating. Dorcas hid you in a train station, though she did set spells ensuring you would be found and taken in by someone, and ran far away as she could manage. Then she Obliviated her own memory, so she couldn't lead us to you. She didn't remember anything, anything at all.

Snape was silent for a few moments before he continued. "I was a part of the group that captured her. And I knew that I couldn't do anything to save her. The dark lord killed her himself when it was clear that there was no information left for her to give him. The only thing that kept me from deciding to die with her was the fact that I knew the only way I could honor her memory was to betray my current master, and continue her fight for her."

And he had done exactly that. "I see," Hermione said softly. Things made a little more sense now. It was no wonder Dumbledore had never told them why he trusted Snape, the story behind that was a private matter. It also explained why Snape had seemed to take a…personal interest…in what she was dealing with. He was going to see whatever quest Dorcas had saved her for completed. And he probably saw Draco as a younger version of himself, someone that had severely messed up but unlike him had corrected the mistake soon enough that he might still have a chance of saving the woman he loved.

"Thank you for telling me, things are…clearer…now," Hermione said, getting out of her chair. She exchanged a look with the potions professor, both of them understanding that she would never tell anyone about this.
…………………

'One of first things a spy must learn how to do is reinterpret the facts to his best advantage,' Draco thought to himself. And that was exactly what he was busy doing.

"You got your lady wife to agree to go to Bulgaria, so soon? First that old fool dies, and now this happens. It's has been a fortunate week, in spite of the way it started," Voldemort was saying. "This news pleases me. Exactly how did you manage it so soon?"

Draco allowed himself a small smile, his head bowed as he knelt before Voldemort. "When she came back home after the attack, she was vulnerable," Draco said, adding the mental image of Hermione crying should Voldemort decide to bore into his head. "I also noticed that she was fertile at that time--her wedding band turns green in a spot when she is--and I took advantage of the situation." He had noticed no such thing, but Hermione had shown him her ring when she had told him that she was pregnant, so he decided to use it in his fabrication. He had been shocked by the news; it was wonderful, but the twins had a bad sense of timing. Still, with luck, maybe he and his wife could raise their children in a world free of Voldemort. "I knew that a pregnancy would at the least make her more careful about putting herself into potentially dangerous situations; that it would keep her out of the way. At best, she would decide to get this Bulgaria business over with before the twins arrive so you can't arrange for a kidnapping and then hold that over her head."

After a few moments, Voldemort ordered him to stand. "If only my other servants showed the problem solving and…initiative…that you do. You are much like your father in that concern. The only thing that troubles me about your solution is that your loyalty to me could be…compromised by the production of your sons."

"My loyalty to you remains as strong as it always was, my lord, and it will continue that way," Draco answered. "While I will admit that I would prefer her to live long enough to give birth to my heirs, I recognize that that isn't my decision. I can't even be a part of that decision, due to the nature of that contract. It is possible, though, that Lord Alys sealed his secrets to his blood rather than just his daughter. Should reentry to his laboratory, or wherever he did his work, be desired his grandsons might be able to perform that task as well as his daughter could. This could be useful if his work was something that had to be renewed every so often. I do recognize, however, that speculation of this type is probably worthless until we know the complete nature of the project."

Voldemort nodded, "Yes my servant, and finding about that is now your task." After a few moments of considering, he added, "And should you complete this task successfully, I will allow your lady wife to live long enough to give birth to your heirs, provided of course that she is able to behave herself during the time she is under our care. And you will be promoted to the position directly behind your father, third-in-command in effect."

"Thank you my lord," Draco said, only partially faking the stunned sound in his voice. That kind of advancement in the ranks was rare at his age.

After the dark lord left the laboratory, Draco turned around to see Snape standing there.

"Well, you aren't third in command yet," Snape said, "so go check on the venom we have brewing." His tone lacked disgruntlement, and the look Snape gave him was congratulatory.

Draco had overheard Voldemort telling his father that he had only instructed Snape to teach him enough Occlumency that Hermione would be unable to penetrate his mind, still leaving it open enough that he could still get in himself. But Snape had done better than that, Draco knew he could hide his thoughts from even Voldemort, and he knew that Snape would not do something like this by mistake. The only conclusion Draco could come up with was that Snape had done this on purpose, and he had done it in order to make it possible for Draco to betray the dark lord. Snape had to be a spy for the Order of the Phoenix too, nothing else made sense.

Snape had been with him when that was overheard, so he knew that Draco knew. Neither of them ever said anything about it, but Draco knew that he was Snape's apprentice in truth.

And that wasn't a bad thing.


Chapter 15: Pictures
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"It was not long before your father and I found ourselves on our way to Bulgaria. There were, however, a few loose ends to tie up before we could leave. First of all, there was an unofficial inquiry into how so many of us survived the attack at the Burrow; Death Eaters don't normally leave survivors. I answered this with the fact that Lucius was very probably leading the assault, and told the Ministry official that I was carrying Lucius' grandchildren as per what my marriage contract demanded, and in this case blood appeared to be a little thicker than water so the attack was modified so I wouldn't get killed. The official took the story--I couldn't tell him the real reason behind everything--and that was the end of that. The official didn't know about the timing the contract demanded for you two to arrive. I did not know, at the time, that in the Malfoy family blood is not always thicker than water.

In the meantime, your father joined the Order. Harry didn't think that there was any reason not to let him come to meetings, so your father started attending the meetings as well.

In a matter of weeks, your father got sent by his department head to Bulgaria to 'learn the local culture, etc. in preparation for later duties,' as a cover for what Voldemort wanted him to do. Most likely Voldemort had planned ahead to trick or force your father's boss to do this, but I don't know the details at this point.

We traveled by Portkey to Bulgaria, and I got my first look at my family estate…."

…………………

"It looks like something I've seen in a muggle vampire movie," Hermione said, peering out of the carriage window. It wasn't an estate; it was a castle. It wasn't as big as Hogwarts, but it still loomed in a cloudy sky that promised rain. It appeared that this particular castle had been constructed with defense in mind, as a wall surrounded it and the windows of the castle itself were narrow as if designed for arrow-slits rather than letting sunshine in. It did lack a moat, but for the obvious reason that the castle had been built on high ground, and every side but the north side of the grounds ended as the side of a steep cliff that only a few trees dared to cling too. Hermione wondered if the side of the cliff had once existed further from the walls of the castle, or if it had been built that way and erosion had been prevented through magical means.

"Well, I can assure you that there are no vampires present there my lady," Schmidt said from the driver's seat of the carriage. "The only staff that has been there since your father's death has been myself, and the family house-elves."

Hermione nodded, pulling the drape across the window to shut out the rain that was beginning to fall. Crookshanks, her cat, stirred in her lap as she moved and then dozed back off to sleep when she had finished closing the drapes. Her husband, who was sitting across from her, closed the drapes on the other side and returned to his seat, looking lost in thought. When Draco had asked her why she was bringing her cat along, she informed him of a certain rat. If Wormtail was around, Crookshanks would know.

The one thing that Hermione knew for certain was that Voldemort would be watching her activities. He wanted her to find whatever it was that he wanted, and then force her to lead him to it. She had to figure out what her father had been working on, and then neutralize it before Voldemort got there. She knew that Voldemort would be using more than Draco to watch her. For all she knew, he could have spread magical devices that monitored her every move throughout her castle. Which meant that she and Draco had to pretend that nothing had changed between them. She had to behave as if she thought he was a Death Eater, and he had to behave like she meant little or nothing to him but still look like he was trying to keep an eye on her.

That might be the hard part. The last few weeks had been wonderful, possibly the happiest of her life. The man that she had fallen in love with--though she still couldn't explain how that had happened--was in love with her. Behind closed doors, they had been behaving like, well, newlyweds. And now they couldn't show any affection towards each other, even when they believed they were in private. Hermione's knowledge, though, that if they did Voldemort might find out and figure out that her husband had changed…. Draco would be killed, if he were lucky. That was sufficient motivation for her to treat him like an enemy she had to put up with. She didn't want to loose him. Not now. She needed him; their sons would need him.

Hermione remembered their conversation before they had left their home that morning. "All will be well, my love," he had told her, "and someday this dark time will all be no more than a memory."

No more than a memory. Hermione allowed herself a contented sigh as she stroked Crookshanks, lost in her thoughts, and then was suddenly jarred as the carriage stopped. Hermione and Draco remained in their seats, but Crookshanks flew across the carriage and into Draco's lap. The large cat shook himself, and glared accusingly at her.

"Sorry Crookshanks," she whispered, putting the cat back into her arms. "But we can't apparate here anymore than we could apparate in Hogwarts, so we have to use a carriage." The castle had some of the same protections Hogwarts did.

"We're here. Welcome home my lady," Schmidt said as he opened the carriage door, and then helped her out of the carriage.

Hermione walked through massive wooden doors, still stroking Crookshanks, and into the castle closely followed by Draco and then Schmidt as three house-elves quickly left to take care of the baggage and carriage. From behind columns, furniture, and stairs peered more faces--house-elves trying to get a look at their new mistress.

Hermione had found out what had happened at Hogwarts when she had spent so much time knitting hats for the house-elves. Dobby might enjoy his wardrobe, but none of the others had wanted their freedom. From that experience she had learned that she had to get her own house-elves to want freedom before she could give it to them. It would take time, and right now she had Voldemort to worry about, so the house-elves would have to wait for the time being. Maybe she could hire Dobby, though, and they could see how much he enjoyed his freedom, and they might come to want theirs. It was a thought, but something she could dwell on at another time.

Right now, she looked around the castle. It reminded her enough of Hogwarts to feel like home, but it felt so…empty. Like no children had laughed in this place for decades. Well, that might change soon. Her pregnancy hadn't progressed enough to be showing--if it weren't for her ring, she might be just starting to suspect that she could be pregnant--but she intended to give birth to healthy boys that would laugh in this place.

"…or would you prefer to dine in the informal dining room?" Schmidt's voice said.

Hermione's mind jerked back to the present. "What was that again?" she asked.

"Would you like to have supper in the parlor of the suite we prepared for your arrival, or would you prefer to eat in the informal dining room?" Schmidt asked her.

"Which way do I have to climb the fewest steps?" Hermione sighed, looking at the staircase. At least the stairs here didn't appear to change.

"Oh yes, my lady's delicate condition; you must be tired. I'll have your dinner served in your parlor then. It's this way, on the first floor up," Schmidt said, starting to climb the staircase.

Hermione had to practically bite her tongue to keep back an angry retort. 'My delicate condition indeed! It doesn't take any energy to apparate to a Portkey and then sit like a bump on a log in a carriage! I'm not tired.' She simply wanted to eat and then go to bed, and that had nothing whatsoever to do with the little fact that she was pregnant.

Possibly noticing her mood, Draco kept his silence, merely looking at the pictures they were passing. They all seemed to be family portraits, and most of them were looking at her and Draco inquisitively.

"Here's something that might interest you, Lady Hermione," Schmidt said, pausing where the family portraits ended. "Here's a picture of your parents, and one of your grandparents beside it."

Hermione walked to where Schmidt was standing, and looked up. "Yes, she vas to be an Alys--she looks exactly like me," a mirror image of herself said, looking down at her from a portrait. Hermione's breath caught in her throat--that had to be her grandmother.

"A logical conclusion. I deduced it really," a wizard said from the next picture over. He didn't look much older than thirty, but had the regal posture of a learned man that made him seem older as well as perhaps a bit crazy. Her father.

"You deduced it, and I foretold it," laughed the blond witch that shared the portrait with him. It sounded exactly like her own voice; that was her mother then.

"She foretold it?" Hermione said to herself, but Schmidt answered her.

"You mother was quite talented in reading the future, while your father thought in logical patterns. I've heard from your former teachers that you tend to take more after your father than your mother, which isn't really surprising. Reading the future is often a talent that tends to skip a generation or two."

Hermione nodded. It was certain that she had no talent in divination. In fact, she had only seen anything in a crystal ball once, and that had said…. Wait a minute. She was supposed to beware of the person that came into the room, and Schmidt and then Draco had then entered. Because she could trust her husband, unless someone else had come into the room without her knowing, that meant….

They entered the suite to find a hot meal spread out on the table already. As Schmidt was leaving, Hermione asked him a question. "You know, I don't think that I've ever asked you what your first name was, Mr. Schmidt."

"It's Benedict my lady, and you may address me however you choose," he said before closing the door behind him.


Chapter 16: Nothing Yet
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"I heard from Viktor Krum, and he says that we can stage whatever we like from his house. His family will be traveling all summer anyway, though he will be there some of the time," Harry said, addressing the other Order members present at Grimmauld Place.

It was late May now, almost time for the school year to end. Which meant that not all the members from Hogwarts were present at this particular meeting; Snape was the only teacher there. Harry usually found it difficult to get along with Snape, who was scowling in his chair, under normal circumstances, but since Hermione had left it had gotten a little harder.

"Well, that's one problem solved," Kingsley said. "Also, any Auror may move between countries--such as Bulgaria--legally, so that only leaves how we can get the rest of the Order there if needed."

"That won't beee a probleem," Fleur said. She had just joined the Order, and her position in the Portkey office might turn out to be a real asset. "In travel bylaws, Bulgaria allows high governmeent officials, as well as the 'eads of ancient houses to invite and eenteertain foreign guests without the normally required traveel documents. It is little used, because of the small numbeer of officials and nobles that would qualify--perhaps a dozen would--but Hermione does qualify. Wee would simply need 'er to give the Bulgarian governmeent a document listing our names within a weeek of our departure."

Harry thought that her English had really improved.

"But will the Bulgarian government believe that Hermione's idea of 'entertainment' is playing 'who-can-catch-the-most-Death Eaters'?" Fred piped in.

Everyone laughed a little more than the joke was worth. To see Fred making any joke was good. George's death had been hard on the whole Weasley family, but it had been the hardest on Fred. For everyone else, it had been as if a piece of them were missing; for Fred, a half of him was missing. Fred used humor as a shield, and not even Snape attempted to deflate it.

Harry wondered, though, if he should not have told Ron who was responsible for George's death. Ron knew better than to blab to anyone that Goyle had been the one to kill George. If he did, Draco would be found out to be a spy, and perhaps Snape as well. The two spies were just too valuable of a resource to loose. The truth had just come out when Ron was telling him about the explanation Hermione had given to the Ministry official.

Hermione's revelation that she was pregnant had practically sent Ron into a nervous breakdown. He had kept saying that Hermione still had time left, and he didn’t understand why she had done it. When Harry had asked him how he knew how much time Hermione had before heirs had to arrive, Ron reluctantly admitted to reading the copy of her contract that he had found while looking in Hermione's backpack for her Charms notes. He had said that afterwards, he wished that he hadn't read it.

So Harry had told Ron what he could, minus the part about the original contract decomposing and why. Ron had accepted that Draco had betrayed Voldemort, and that he loved Hermione--apparently Ron thought that anyone with the brains of a Flobberworm and the heart of a Boggart would love her, and Draco did fit into that category--, but he did not accept that Hermione loved her husband.

Considering that at the time Ron was still trying to accept the fact that one of his brothers was dead, Harry hadn't pushed the issue.

"Is there anything else? Anything new Professor?" Harry asked.

"Yes actually, and thank you for finally asking," Snape said, just as sarcastic as ever. "I've found out what that little rat fiend has been up to. He's been recruiting dark creatures to help the Death Eaters fight. It's not just giants and dementors anymore. Now there are also acromantulas, chimaeras, graphorns, lethifolds, manticores, and even a nundu. These creatures are currently being transported from their habitats to an isolated place somewhere in eastern Europe. When things are ready, they will be transported to England or elsewhere and will be loosed on the populations--both magic and muggle populations."

"Overwhelming the Ministry within weeks, and forcing the population to submit to Voldemort as the only way to make the creatures stop rampaging," Harry finished, his throat suddenly dry. Most of the faces in the room had gone white, and it was no wonder. The most benign of those creatures were probably the acromantulas, the giant spiders. The nundu, however, had breath capable of killing entire villages and the creature itself had yet to be subdued by less than a hundred wizards working in unison.

It was no wonder that Voldemort had not been working more on chipping away at the Order. Why bother with the Order when there was nothing they could do to stop him? The attacks that the Death Eaters had been carrying out had been little more than field practice or entertainment. It was just something to pass the time, something to start getting the wizarding community frightened. It also explained the murder of the Ministry employee that had worked in the magical creatures office, and why the Death Eaters had made it look like a suicide. The unfortunate wizard had either refused to supply information about magical beasts Voldemort wanted to locate, or he had supplied the information and then had been disposed of after he was no longer needed.

"How long might we have Severus?" Kingsley asked.

"Just until he finds whatever it is that he wants in Bulgaria, then the attacks will begin. I, myself, have been training to handle the dementors," Snape answered.

"Which means that he must be stopped, preferably before he gets what he wants in Bulgaria. Our only chance is some sort of direct confrontation before he is able to loose the creatures on the world. Even if we only get rid of some of the Death Eaters, that will diminish his ability to have creature handlers," Harry said, thinking out loud.

"Handlers can be replaced, given time," Snape said slowly, "what we will be wanting is a way to capture or kill him. It strikes me that this Bulgaria business could be our salvation; it's the only place that we know he will be. Let's just pray that Hermione finds out what she needs to before he gets tired of waiting and decides to loose his new army on the world."

Harry hated to admit it, but Snape was right. Ron was looking at the table, grimacing. He knew. The time when Harry had to kill or be killed was coming closer.

"Is there any word from Hermione? Any developments at all?" Tonks asked.

"None," Harry answered, forcing himself not to show that he was now having trouble with his head again. It was becoming more frequent nowadays. Now, his mind tried to merge with Voldemort's--or Voldemort's mind was trying to merge with his--even when Voldemort wasn't feeling particularly violent. Harry was now starting to push his Occlumency skills close to their limits. It was disturbing.

This whole thing had to be over soon, and for more than one reason.
…………………….

Hermione sat in her father's old laboratory/study, pouring over books and notes. The room itself was dusty, as if the house-elves hadn't been able to get in to clean since her father's death. A few inquires revealed that they hadn't been able too. No one had been able to enter this room since her father's death. Her voice, however, had opened the door. While she was present, anyone could enter or leave the room as they pleased, but once Hermione left the room locked itself again. It was a door only her voice could open, just as the letter on her marriage contract had predicted there would be.

There were also explanations only her eyes could see. Hermione could read her father's notes quite clearly, but apparently no one else could. The other night Draco had been down to the study to 'check on her,' and he could only barely tell that anything was written on the pages at all.

Hermione sighed, picking up another page to read.

The question, then, seems to be, "What is immortality?" Is it merely putting off the effects of age and disease that would be capable of killing a person? If so, would the person truly be considered immortal if they were killed in an accident? For my purposes, immortality will be defined as the inability to experience death by any conventional means.

But everyone experiences death sooner or later, due to the effects of the Old Magic. Everyone violates the principals of the Old Magic--Justice namely--and so experience the consequential decaying effects of time. Therefore, the only way to be immortal is to be totally and completely just, and it is not in human nature to do so. Only a few magical creatures--such as unicorns-- meet this requirement, and they perish eventually themselves because they do it out of nature rather than having the freewill that humans and a few other species have.

Once immortality is achieved, only an immortal can kill another immortal. Transgression against Justice brings death, and only love is as strong as death.


The passages made very little sense. Had her father been working on something that would bring about immortality? If so, why? Who, exactly, had he been planning to make immortal? Maybe her father had really been mad; just another researcher that sought knowledge without a thought about what that knowledge could do if someone applied it.

The only thing that she had found that really made sense was a note on the top of a page that said that her mother had predicted that her daughter and a Draco Malfoy would fall in love with each other. It explained why her father had made that marriage contract. Why not if they were going to fall in love anyway?

Sipping slowly at her pumpkin juice, hoping that her tiredness would go away, Hermione looked up at the clock. 'Merlin, it's only eight and I'm already exhausted!' she thought, deciding that she would wrap it up for the night. If she didn't get a good night of sleep, she wouldn't be worth much in the morning, and there was more material for her to go through.

There were a lot of people depending on her.


Chapter 17: Answers
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It was mid-July before I had everything pieced together. Once I did, I flew to Viktor's house, and used a mirror communication device to speak to Harry, and told him to come right away and have the rest of the Order ready to leave at a moment's notice.

It had only been yesterday, but it seemed like years ago to her. So much could happen in the space of a day or so. Hermione continued writing.

First I met Harry at Viktor's house to explain the situation….

………………………

"So what does why Voldemort survived trying to kill me have to do with things now?" Harry asked, confused.

"It has everything to do with it Harry," Hermione said, trying to figure out how to put this. Right now, the two of them sat alone in Viktor's study. They had checked for spy devices quite thoroughly, and had found none, so they could talk here. Viktor himself was sitting by the window, looking out into the pouring rain, far enough away that he could not hear what they said. "It's how this whole thing started."

"Come again?" Harry asked.

"You've mentioned that your mother said something to Voldemort before he killed her. Did she make some sort of a deal with him for your life?" she asked.

"Yes…she asked him to kill her instead of me," Harry said slowly.

Hermione nodded. "That's what I thought. You see, when she did that, she was making a contract with Voldemort; if he killed her, he would have to let you live. You see, the Old Magic backs contracts, even verbal ones, if someone is willing to give their life in exchange for what they want. By killing your mother, Voldemort 'agreed ' to the contract she offered, and then he immediately violated it by trying to kill you. The Old Magic protected you from the full effects of his curse, and he should have died then and there."

"Should have? Why should he have, and why didn't he then?" Harry asked.

"Do you remember my marriage ceremony?" she asked, and then continued when Harry nodded. "That was a contract, of a sort. We agreed not to kill each other, and gave a little of our blood to the other's ring as a guarantee of this contract. At the time, Draco and I did not love each other, but we did love ourselves. It's love that makes the contract binding, and giving that little bit of ourselves to the other connected us in a sense. Not strongly, but enough so that should one of us violate that promise, that person would die and their power would transfer to someone else. That is what happened to you, sort of. The power transfer began, but stopped at some point because the Old Magic could not complete the transition because Voldemort was not fully guilty of breaking the contract."

"Yes he was," Harry said, his knuckles growing white because he was clenching the end of the table. "He killed my mother, and then tried to kill me anyway."

"Yes, Harry, but let me continue," Hermione went on. "Innocence, itself, can be given as well as genuine to the person possessing it. When Voldemort was doing all of his immortality experiments, he took and ingested the blood of creatures that were innocent. In magic, blood--the very essence of life itself--bears witness to guilt or innocence. Because the blood was taken by Voldemort--from unicorns unless I miss my guess--instead of given to him, it did not have its full effect and carries a curse with it."

"So Voldemort can only live a half-life, whatever that means," he said sullenly, but then took a look at the wicked smile that was growing on her face, and leaned back in his chair to reassess the situation.

"Oh, it stopped him from dying--and I'll get to how he would have done that in a minute--but he is now living a half-life. Harry, he is continually guilty of a violation of the main tenet of the Old Magic, and yet innocent at the same time. He can't die, or at least by anything other than what he almost did die from. Harry, Voldemort has been immortal--something he has been pursuing for his whole life--because he's caught in that cycle of innocence and guilt, and he doesn't even know it."

Harry's mouth dropped open. When he was able to speak again, he asked, "I know that that's ironic, but why are you smiling if he can't be killed?"

"Harry, when he later took your blood to help him become, well, reborn, he didn't just make the bond that he already had with you stronger. He drew you into the cycle along with him, so you're immortal too."

"Great, just great," Harry said weakly. "Does that explain why the connection is getting stronger though? It's getting harder and harder to keep our minds separate."

"Oh, well, it does make sense," Hermione said, thinking. "I suspect that that's because no more than one person should be able to share exactly the same, um, spiritual imprint of guilt and innocence if you will. If one of you doesn't die, you may become mentally absorbed into each other. The creature that would result would be both of you, and neither of you at the same time, and insane I'd bet."

That wasn't exactly what Harry wanted to hear, but it was probably the truth. 'That's just what the world needs,' he thought, 'an immortal, insane, and unusually powerful creature running around. Well, it explains the part of my prophecy that says that neither of us can live while the other survives; this kind of connection and living-death isn't what I would call living.'

"But wait a minute," he said, thinking. "You said that he couldn't be killed by anything but what he almost died from, meaning the Old Magic. What's that about?"

"According to my father's notes," Hermione said, "when someone violates the Old Magic, instead of them dieing slowly throughout their lives--as happens with normal people as they age--their debts are called due immediately. It opens a portal outside time to when all such debts are called due, and their soul is sucked into it. The blood Voldemort had taken prevented it, or at least, prevented that particular portal from swallowing him. What my father was actually doing was constructing a, well, bigger portal that would be sufficient to swallow Voldemort; one that would be strong enough to see through his manufactured 'innocence.' Harry, my father was never working on a way to give immortality, but a way to kill someone in spite of it. That portal is hidden, and I've found the entrance that leads to it. It's a trap for Voldemort, it's the only place in the world that he can be killed."

Harry sat back, thinking. "Which means," he said, "that it's also the only place in the world that I can be killed."

Hermione turned white. "Oh, that too I suppose," she said quietly.
…………………

Hermione and Harry rode their brooms to the castle, and went it through the front door, their cloaks dripping rainwater everywhere. Hermione was just putting her broom in the broom/cloak closet when Draco and Schmidt saw them.

"I've been looking for you. You shouldn't be riding in the rain, especially not in your condition. You could catch your death of cold," her husband said, with what sounded like some genuine concern.

Hermione gave him a frosty smile. Merlin, she loved that man. He was concerned, and it had been very difficult for him to accept the fact that he could not keep her out of danger in this situation. The only way they really communicated was tracing words in each other's palms under the covers at night. No one could hear that, and even if there were a spy device in their room, it would have to be monitoring under the covers to catch the movement. That had been her idea, actually. The precaution probably would have made even Moody proud, and Hermione thought that she was rather clearheaded for a pregnant woman.

Her 'condition' was now showing a little, though not to the point where she was having too much trouble moving around. At least the nausea was starting to go away. "I wasn't out long. I was just escorting a guest of mine in," she said, removing her cloak to hang it up, then drying the rest of her clothes off with a simple spell.

Draco and Schmidt's heads whipped around to look at Harry as he removed the hood of his cloak.

"Potter," Draco said, his voice portraying just a little surprise and animosity.

"Malfoy," Harry replied neutrally, his green eyes regarding Draco as if were some kind of a snake.

"Uh, my lady," Schmidt said carefully, "if you are expecting any guests of distinction enough to be escorted in, please allow me the honor of that responsibility especially if the weather is bad."

"I'll remember your offer in the future," Hermione replied. She and Draco behaved as if Schmidt was a Death Eater, just in case he actually was one. They didn't want to take any unnecessary chances, so they did nothing that would contradict anything Draco was telling Voldemort around the dark robed man.

Motioning for Harry to follow her, Hermione went to the lab. Inside the lab, Hermione knew, Crookshanks was keeping a certain silver-footed rat caged up in a mouse hole. Everything she and Harry were about to say had been scripted to bring Voldemort and his Death Eaters there, and they wanted Wormtail to hear.

"Shut the door behind you Harry," Hermione said, "and come over here. It's behind this stack of boxes. Took me practically forever to find it."

A minute later Harry was beside her. They moved the boxes out of the way, careful not to put any on top of Crookshanks or in front of the mouse hole he was guarding. Occasionally the cat would put his paw into the hole, digging around, not quite catching the squeaking rat. Hermione hoped that Wormtail had picked up a few scratches at least, though.

In the meantime, Harry ignored the fact that his parents' betrayer lay just within reach and Hermione ignored the extendable ears that had gone underneath the door, as well as the listening device her husband had placed in the room. If all three spies gave Voldemort the same report, he would believe it.

"I don't see anything," Harry said, staring at what would look like a blank wall to him.

"You wouldn't, I'll open it," she said, putting her palm against cool stone, and the section of wall evaporated revealing a dark passage.

"What's that…oh, a mirror," Harry said, lighting the passage with his wand. It was a mirror that did not reflect his image.

Hermione nodded. "I haven't actually been inside. Some of my father's notes indicate that there may be traps there. They're probably designed not to injure me, but I'm not sure that I'll be able to destroy my father's project by myself." There really were traps there.

"I'll get some of the Order here, then, to help. It should be a couple days, though, before we can make it," Harry said. They both knew that they would be ready to go tomorrow night.

"That should be alright…" Hermione trailed off, noticing a bowl she hadn't seen when she had looked in there before.

"What's a Pensive doing here?" Harry asked, abandoning their script. That was all right, though, since they had already said everything they had wanted everyone to hear.

"I don't know," Hermione said, reaching in to pick it up, and then carefully carrying the bowl to the desk. It wasn't full of silvery liquid by any means, no more than a few memories were contained there. And there was the end of a wand in it as well. After removing the broken wood, she started leaning over the Pensive, only barely hearing Harry asking if she was sure she should look.


Chapter 18: An Outburst
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Hermione wiped tears from her face, careful not to get them on the parchment she was writing on.

I wonder if things would have been different had I not looked. I wonder if your father would still be here if I had not looked. That decision set in motion events that would cause your father's death, though I wonder if he would have died some other way had I left the Pensive alone.

For better or for worse, I will never know. I do know, however, that it will be a question that I will carry with me to my grave.


…………………….

Lord Alys sighed, placing an empty Pensive in the entrance where it wouldn't be easily visible. Schmidt entered the room, and her father put on a thoughtful expression before turning around to look at him.

"My lord?" Schmidt said.

"Well, it's finished, for all that's worth," her father said, staring at the open passageway. "Pity I'll have to destroy it now."

"Destroy it?" Schmidt asked, plainly aghast.

Speaking absently as if he hadn't heard his servant, her father continued. "Too dangerous, too dangerous. Dumbledore has me convinced now. My project cannot bring my departed wife back to life. It might have saved her if I had had it finished on time, but it cannot bring her back to me."

"What about your daughter my lord? Wouldn't this keep her from leaving you in the first place? Imagine it, both you and she could live without fearing parting," Schmidt said, trying to convince him.

"I have imagined it, and…" her father trailed off, shaking his head. "No, no, I won't do that to my little Annora. I'm not naive enough to believe that I will be the only person in her life, the only one that she would fear parting from. She will have friends, and her own family that she will not want to part from. If she becomes immortal and people find out, they will want to be her friends only to gain immortality themselves. People will use her, and some of them will be people who should not be given such a gift; there will be people that will misuse such a gift. Of course, arranging her marriage prevents someone marrying her purely for that reason, but still…. Immortality is not something any human should have. For some reason, humans have the predictable habit of choosing what is the worst for them."

"I am sorry that you feel that way my lord," Schmidt deadpanned, looking like he was drawing something from his sleeve slowly.

Her father turned back toward the cave, and his face lost its muddled expression, though his voice did not change. "It's good that I took the precaution, though, of sealing this passage and my project to my blood. Only I, or one of my descendents will be able to come into this place," he said, drawing his wand and putting it to his head as if scratching it absently.

"AVADA KEDAVRA!" Schmidt shouted.

Just before the green light hit her father, he had withdrawn a silvery substance from his head. As he fell forward, his wand fell into the doorway that closed, and the slivery substance dripped into the Pensive as the wand snapped in the door.


………….

Hermione jerked up, gasping. "He knew, he knew!" Her father had known exactly who was going to kill him and when. Somehow, he had known, and had placed his last memory here where she would find it. Her father's murderer had been living under her roof all this time, enjoying her father's house in her absence, just waiting for her to come and unravel the mystery of immortality. And her blood boiled.

"Hermione, are you all right?" Harry asked.

Hermione knew that there was concern in his voice, but her mind did not completely register it. She had never been angrier in her entire life. Almost of its own volition, though she knew that she was controlling it in her rage, a gust of wind blew open the door into the lab. Schmidt came flying, still holding extendable ears, into the lab amidst the whirlwind of parchments.

"YOU KILLED HIM! YOU KILLED MY FATHER!" she shrieked at Schmidt.

Schmidt reached for his wand, but Harry was faster. "Expelliarmus!" Harry shouted, and Schmidt's wand flew from his hands. "Hermione, stop it!" he then yelled at her, but the whirlwind did not stop.

Hermione wasn't quite sure what she did, but her curse and Harry's hit Schmidt at the same time. The black robed man that had been running at them flew into the cavern between them. There were screams as Hermione backed away from the entrance, which then slammed shut.

Suddenly noticing what she had done, Hermione burst into tears, and the whirlwind stopped. "I saw it," she said, sobbing in Harry's arms without really knowing how she had gotten there. "I saw him, he killed my father, and I saw it Harry."

A few minutes later, she was still sobbing when Draco walked into the doorway and surveyed the damage. "What in Merlin's name happened here?" he asked, and then he noticed that she was sobbing in Harry's arms. Perhaps no one but her could tell, but Draco looked hurt. He wanted to hold her so badly, but he knew that he couldn't, not yet.

Harry let her go to pick up Crookshanks, and then handed her the cat to hold. "I'd better be going," he told her softly.

Why had he sounded relieved? Oh yes, it was because she hadn't given away anything important. Hermione felt so relieved herself that she nearly started sobbing again. Merlin, she hated this emotional tangle that was such an unfortunate part of pregnancy. "I'm going to bed," she announced, taking her cat and heading upstairs.

"Well?" she heard her husband ask Harry as he went and got his cloak and broom.

"Let's just say that you have to hire another steward; Schmidt won't be working for you anymore," Harry answered.
…………………….


"… And I don't know happened to that man Schmidt, my lord," Draco said, finishing his report. He and another knelt before the dark lord in the house that Voldemort used as his base in this part of Europe.

Voldemort leaned back in his chair, his fingers steeped. "Pity. Schmidt served me well. And your report?" he then asked the other man.

"The same, except for one thing my lord," the man said, a silver hand clutching his other arm as if he wasn't sure that it was attached properly. "I hate that cat."

"You would," the dark lord chuckled. After a few minutes, he continued as if thinking out loud. "So, Potter and his pitiful following will try to deprive me of my prize within a few days. We go tomorrow night, and will beat them to it. Once I have conquered death, nothing else will stand in my way. Is death, after all, not the one thing that no one has ever completely conquered? Even if others do not fear my creatures, even if they do not fear my power, they will fear me for that. All will despair."


Chapter 19: Bargaining
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'Sometimes waiting is the hardest part.' Hermione sighed, sitting at the desk in her father's study, pretending to read the parchment she held. Everything was ready, though, so there was nothing useful that she could do.

She had instructed her house-elves to hide or otherwise preserve their lives when the Death Eaters came, and she had locked Crookshanks in a room upstairs. Hermione didn't want any of them to get hurt trying to prevent something she wanted to happen anyway. Her main worry, though, was that she had no way to protect what she most wanted to protect. Her husband would be there, in his Death Eater garb, and she would carry their children with her as she walked into danger herself. 'I know that people will get hurt tonight, but Merlin, anything but my husband and my babies,' she thought, gently rubbing her belly.

Other preparations had been made too. Fawkes, whom Harry had inherited from Dumbledore, was perched in a nook near the entrance to the castle where he would be unseen. The phoenix would fly to Krum's place where the Order was now assembled when the Death Eaters entered the castle. Harry would give the Death Eaters a little head start, and then the Order would come and begin to fight the Death Eaters. Only a few Order members, Angelina and Fleur, would not be involved in the fighting. They would come a little after the others had left; Angelina to tend the injured and Fleur to make Portkeys to transport them back to England and St. Mungo's if needed.

Tonight, it would be over, one way or the other. All she could do was wait.

After what seemed like forever, Hermione heard people entering the castle as the front door creaked open. It was almost a relief, but it was still a terror.
………………


Lord Voldemort walked into the castle, followed by most of his Death Eaters. Ordinarily, he would not have brought them to something this important, but there was a chance that Potter would show up early and he didn't want his back undefended just in case the immortality process left him vulnerable for a few moments. Not to mention the fact that the traps might require a little cannon fodder, he did have a few servants that he considered disposable. He had only left a couple with the creatures he had gathered, enough to keep them from rampaging before he gave the orders to do so. Soon, they would start rampaging and killing. Soon, everything would be his.

Life was good, but immortality would be even better, which was why he was here tonight.

Young Malfoy was waiting for them, appropriately garbed for the occasion as a Death Eater, and he led them into the castle. The room they were led to was a mess; there were papers everywhere as if a whirlwind had gone through. At the desk sat a young woman, a young woman that turned white, let out a startled scream, and jumped out of her chair as they went into the room.

"Don't even think about it," Voldemort said as the girl reached for her wand. "Imperio!" he said, silently commanding the girl to lead him to what he wanted to find.

The girl took two steps, and then quite annoyingly, stopped in her tracks, curled up into a fetal position on the floor, and refused to move. He increased the strength of his attack, and the girl started shaking but she still refused to move.

This was beginning to become inconvenient. He stopped his attack, and the girl began gasping for breath in between sobs. After wiping her eyes, the girl looked at the back of her ring, seemingly calmed by whatever it was that she saw. Then he got an idea.

"You should be aware, girl," Voldemort said, "that while I need you alive at the moment, I have no reason for your sons to live."

He got the reaction that he was hoping for. "No, please! You can have anything you want, but just don't hurt my babies!" she pleaded.

He was getting a really bad sense of déjà vu. "I won't…so long as you show me the way to your father's project," he said.

The girl was silent for a moment. "If I show you the way, you will not do anything to harm my babies?" she asked.

"Correct, but you must also truthfully answer any questions I might have, and perform any other actions required to get me to and to operate your father's project," Voldemort said. He had the distinct feeling that he was writing a contract somehow.

"I don't know everything about the passageway or what it leads to. I am only able to answer and perform actions to the best of my ability," she said.

"Fine, but then you must agree not to try to escape your captor," he said. This bargain, counter bargain was beginning to become tedious.

Finally, the girl nodded. "It is agreed then," she said.

Voldemort nodded, and Wormtail and young Malfoy hauled the girl to her feet. They did not let go of her when she was up. But he had one question before they started. "What would happen if either of us violated that agreement we just made?" he asked.

She was probably the only witch, that did not serve him, that dared to look at his eyes in years. "If you violate that contract, there would be a repeat performance of what happened when you tried to kill Harry the first time. If I violate it, you would be free to kill my children without penalty of any sort."
…………….

Hermione walked, with her guards on either side of her, to the wall and placed her palm in the proper place. The stone was cool to her touch at first, but then evaporated. A Death Eater entered, lighting the cavern with his wand.

"There's a mirror that doesn't reflect anything, and some stairs," the Death Eater reported. It sounded like Lucius Malfoy to her.

'I have my beloved father-in-law, Voldemort's right-hand man in front of me, and the silver-handed traitor Wormtail on the other hand. Maybe something nasty will happen,' Hermione thought to herself.

As they passed the mirror, something nasty did happen. Wormtail brushed against the mirror as they were walking past it, but a silvery substance stuck to him, and refused to let him go. Draco noticed what was going on and pulled her out of Wormtail's grip, to the other side of the passage.

"Master!" Wormtail called out, struggling against the silvery substance that was now spreading to cover the rest of his body, pulling him into the mirror. Hermione watched, aghast, as Voldemort tried a few spells but was not able to keep Wormtail from being absorbed into the mirror.

Instead of reflecting anything, the mirror now held the two-dimensional image of Wormtail, his Death-Eater's mask gone, soundlessly shrieking and pounding on the surface of his new prison. On the top of the mirror, clear for everyone to see, was written "The Traitor" with other crimes listed under that heading.

"What was that? Is there a way to get him out of there that you know of?" Voldemort asked her.

Hermione thought she knew what that mirror was, now. "I didn't know it before this, but I think that it's one of my father's failed experiments. It didn't turn out right, so he decided to do something he considered useful with it. When thought activated, it will draw a…transgressor…into it, and commit what my father described in his writings as 'the worst irony possible' for that particular person. I don't know of a way to get someone out of it."

And ironic it was. A man that had hidden from friend and foe for years was now distinctly visible to anyone that looked in his direction, and with his crimes clearly listed. He had betrayed friends to their deaths, now he was unable to have any human contact or die himself. He had framed another friend for his actions dooming Sirius to years of imprisonment and mental torture, and he was now imprisoned in a place that offered no mental stimulation of any kind. It would only be a matter of time before Wormtail went mad.

Hermione swallowed the bile that had risen in her throat, wondering if she had the stomach for justice or not.

"And did you activate this knowingly?" Voldemort asked quietly.

"No," she answered simply. He couldn't kill her, but there were lots of nasty things short of that that he could do. "And I didn't do that either," she added as Lucius stepped backwards and disappeared down the passageway as the stairs he was standing on turned into a slide into the darkness.
……………….

Everyone in Krums' study turned around at the sound of tapping on the window. Harry walked over, and opened the window to let Fawkes in. The phoenix flew in and perched on Harry's arm as he closed the window against the pouring rain.

"Everyone get ready, we leave in fifteen minutes," Harry announced, and everyone began gathering brooms and cloaks. He sat down, stroking Fawkes. This was it, the war would be won or lost tonight.

"Harry, are you ok?"

He looked up to see Ginny there, sitting down on the couch beside him. "I'd be better if you were staying with Fleur and Angelina," he answered her. She was so beautiful. If she were in as much safety as he could put her in, he would feel so much better.

"I appreciate the offer Harry," she said, "and I know that you just want to keep me safe, but…. I don't have an excuse. I'm not a Healer like Angelina, and I'm not trained to create Portkeys like Fleur, so I don't have a reason to stay behind the frontlines. I mean, look at Hermione. She's with child, and in what may be the most dangerous position of all. I'm not staying behind Harry."

"How about this reason? I'm in love with you, and I don't want anything to happen to you," he said.

She smiled at him. "Nice try, and I always like to hear that by the way, but no dice."

"Well then," he said, "you're going to force me to fight dirty." He turned his body around so only his back shielded his motions from everyone in the rest of the room as he withdrew a small box from his pocket. He wondered if he should have done this a month ago, he wondered if he should be waiting to see if they both survived this night. But he had started, and there wasn't any going back. "Ginny," he asked, opening the box to reveal a diamond ring, "will you marry me?"

Ginny's eyes got big, and started glistening with tears. Then, she threw her arms around him and kissed him. "Yes Harry, I will," she whispered.

"Then will you stay behind?"

"'Course not," she said, pulling away from him a little to give him one of her mock glowering looks. "I will, however, stay near the end of the column, and that's the best you'll get."

"That's where you were going to be anyway," Harry deadpanned. Aurors went in first, followed by anyone with real experience fighting, who were then followed by anyone that lacked a lot of experience fighting.

"True," she admitted.

"And you do realize that this is kind of dependent on me surviving tonight," he said.

"Don't talk like that Harry," she said quietly, "you'll survive. You have to, and will, because I love you."


Chapter 20: In the Darkness
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The man that had been known as Schmidt wandered in the darkness. He did not clearly remember being sent down here, he did not clearly remember his hands trying to find purchase only to grasp the piece of wand that he now held. He did not know that Potter's stun spell and whatever Hermione had done had collided, stunning only parts of his brain until he no longer knew what exactly he was doing.

The only thing that he knew for certain was that he had been banished to this dark place, and that he was a creature of the dark that preyed upon those unfortunate enough to cross his path.

The man perked up suddenly, hearing voices. He backed up, waiting. It wasn't many breaths before an intruder came tumbling down, as he had, into this place. Well, he couldn't have that. This was his place, and the other would just have to go back to where he came from.

"Who's there? What's there?" the other said, blinding light coming from the tip of his wand.

Light! He was a creature of darkness, so he couldn't have that. The other had to die.

Several seconds later, the scene had changed. The man that did not know his name no longer breathed in his darkness, now he was a rather grisly, dismembered mess. The intruder was now buried under a pile of stone, unable to move or call out, but still alive. The once complete darkness of the cave no longer existed, as one of the walls had been blown out in an explosion. Now lightning occasionally interrupted the darkness, and rain fell into the cavern.

The sky knew the events of this night, and it wept.
…………….

They all heard the explosion.

"From now on, ladies first," Voldemort deadpanned. He did not sound happy.

Hermione gulped, nodded, and used her wand to illuminate the passageway. With Draco still holding on to her other arm, she cautiously stepped on the slide, which then turned back into steps again. When she saw what was at the bottom of the steps, she became suddenly glad that she had not eaten her dinner that night.

Practically in the middle of the passageway was the body of a black-robed man, or the bottom half of it rather. Whatever had caused the explosion had taken off the top half of it, and one side of the wall of the cave. Hermione gulped, not knowing if this was what was left of Lucius, or Schmidt.

"We keep going, nothing can be done here," Voldemort said from behind them.

Hermione nodded, and continued walking. The mirror and the stairs were not the only traps that had been set, and she obediently led Voldemort and the rest of the Death Eaters around them, or disabled the traps.

Most mutinously, and undetected, another 'Death Eater' left notes the color of the rocks that detailed how to get around the traps.
…………………..

Goyle wandered in the back of the crowd of Death Eaters, feeling useless. This entire time, he had yet to manage a kill or do anything even mildly significant. He had done nothing to distinguish himself in Voldemort's service.

Sighing, he leaned back against the cave wall, his hand coming to rest against the rocks. 'Wait a minute, this doesn't feel like rocks,' he thought, picking up the object. It turned out to be a piece of paper, detailing how to get around the latest trap.

Most of the other Death Eaters would have brought this to the dark lord's attention right away, but not Goyle. He was ambitious. Instead, Goyle slipped away from the rest of the group, looking for more parchments. 'If there are directions,' he thought, 'there must be someone coming to follow them. If I can find the other parchments, the other people will fall into the traps!'

Following this brilliant deduction, most other Death Eaters would have warned everyone else that they were going to have company, but not Goyle. He was ambitious. 'I'll stop them single-handedly, and get all the credit for myself. I'll finally be useful,' he thought.

Following this decision, most other Death Eaters would have changed the wording on the parchments he did manage to find in case someone stopped him, but not Goyle.

He never thought of it.
………………….

It was some time before they got there. Voldemort found himself in a large cavern, and the only thing it contained was an archway covered with a shimmering veil. "What now?" he asked the girl, who was inspecting the archway as if reading something engraved in the sparkling stone.

"It says here that the only ones that can enter here are one of the blood of the maker of this--which would be me--and anyone bound to me seeking what lies inside may enter. It does not specify that the seeker and the one bound to me have to be the same person," the girl replied.

Well, that meant that he couldn't take many in with him. It was a calculated risk, taking anyone at all, but the girl had to come. She had agreed only to lead him, answer questions, and not to try to escape. If the process made him vulnerable for any amount of time, well, she could still try to kill him.

He had not come this far only to take that kind of a risk, and the only other person that could enter had to be bound to her in some way. Perhaps the archway would consider marriage binding enough. He needed at least one ally.

"Fine girl, you go in first, and I'll be next. And you," Voldemort said, pointing at Malfoy, "will follow me in."

The girl took a deep breath, and walked through. The veil did not part or go to one side, but rather absorbed her almost as the mirror had absorbed Wormtail earlier that evening. It occurred to Voldemort to wonder if that mirror had been a failed attempt at producing this, but it didn't matter right now. He walked through, closely followed by Malfoy, and was surprised at what he saw.

He now stood on a flat surface of nothing, seemingly suspended in the night sky. But these stars did not twinkle. There was nothing but the stars, the girl, Malfoy, and himself visible. The archway had gone, leaving no apparent way out of this place. Malfoy's mask crumbled away revealing his face, but the girl did not react, instead staring into the darkness.

"What is this place?" Voldemort asked, addressing no one in particular, but then he was answered.

"Mr. Riddle I presume, allow me to introduce myself," a disembodied voice said. The girl smiled, obviously recognizing the voice. Well, he had never heard it. "I am, or rather I was, Lord Alys. By the time you hear this, you will have probably already had me murdered…"

It had to be some kind of a recording; the man was dead!

"...but just because you had me killed does not necessarily mean that I am unwilling to leave you with an explanation, being the generous soul that I am. You are probably wondering where you are, and why I have arranged for you to be here."


Chapter 21: Old Magic
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"You see," the voice of that man continued, "there are actually three dimensions of, well, reality. The first is rather rigid, inflexible. This is the reality that what we refer to as Muggles operate under. To some extent, the wizarding world is also bound to this reality. The third is what exists in the afterlife, and is not really bound by what we call space and time.

"It's the second reality, however, that interests me. This reality can be changed by those born with the ability to stand partially in that reality, and partially in the first reality. When someone performs ordinary, everyday magic, the first and second realities intersect. But built into all three dimensions is what some refer to as the Old Magic. Yes, the kind of Magic you consider beneath your notice, Mr. Riddle, is the underlying principal of all that exists."

Voldemort listened carefully, quite aware that there was nothing else that could be done right now, hoping that the man would say something that he could use. He had decided that this was not a way to gain immortality, but some sort of a trap instead. But there had to be a way out.

"There are some places," the voice continued, "that are, well, portals from one of these dimensions to the other. You may be aware of the archway in the English Ministry of Magic's Department of Mysteries. This archway leads directly into the third dimension; quite one-way I'm afraid. You might also know of the Room of Requirement in Hogwarts. That place is an intersection between the first and second reality, and wizards can enter and exit as they will. This place that you now find yourself in is the closest I could manage to make as a cross between those other portals, or in other words, the closest I could come to the thin layer of the Old Magic that lies between and inside all three dimensions.

"I know that about this time, you're probably wondering when I'm going to say something that you can use. The fact is, though, that there is no way out until your counterpart arrives. My dear wife told me years ago, thanks to her wonderful foretelling ability, that you would violate the tenet of the Old Magic by trying to kill a child that was under its protection, and yet live.

"I found this astounding, until I realized that it was indeed possible. When the Old Magic is violated, a portal is created that leads directly to a certain part of the third dimension. Some Muggles know about this place, surprisingly, and refer to it as hell. What I designed this place for was to, ah, provide a more direct portal to this part of the third dimension.

"This place right here is a place of judgment, and no lie can be told and nothing stolen will be of benefit to the thief. When your counterpart, the child you once tried to kill, comes the bond between the two of you will be broken. The debt you created when you tried to kill him will come due, and the two of you will face each other for which of you leaves the place alive, and which doesn't. Once the Old Magic is satisfied, the doorway back will open again; but the victor of that fight will no longer be immortal."

'No longer immortal? Wait a minute!' Voldemort thought, the realization finally kicking in. "I suppose that Potter is on his way here right now?" he said coldly, and the girl nodded.

"Just one more thing," the voice said. "In my study of you, I have noticed that you use complicated schemes to bring about what you want when something simpler would work. I came to the conclusion that you enjoy being recognized for your 'brilliance.'

"Tell me, Mr. Riddle, how does it feel to be outsmarted by a dead man?"
………………………


Harry and the rest of the order entered the castle, and went to the laboratory. It was as Harry remembered leaving it last night, with papers still scattered everywhere. The doorway to the passageway still stood open. He remembered Hermione saying that once opened, it would not close again until she had gone across it again.

"All right let's…" Harry trailed off, noticing the mirror and what it held. His parents' betrayer was now imprisoned, pounding on the other side of the glass. Harry located Snape's note.

"Don't touch the mirror, just in case, and keep going down the stairs. I'm going to see if Hermione will let me keep her new wall decoration when this is over."

Yep, this sounded like Snape. Perhaps especially since Wormtail had been his enemy both in school, and then also in recent times. The man would probably frame the mirror, given half a chance, and hang it in his living room.

After warning everyone not to touch the mirror, Harry moved on, down the stairs. Thinking that he heard something, he motioned for everyone to be quite, taking only the first three others with him. A light shown a little down the tunnel, and a single Death Eater seemed to be searching around for something. 'That's odd, what would one be doing alone? And why is there a draft in here?' he thought. At Harry's nod, four stun spells hit the Death Eater.

The Death Eater fell to the ground with a thump, and Harry walked to where he had dropped and knelt down. There were papers in the man's hand, notes the color of rock. "He was gathering up the notes," Harry said.

"He must have changed them around, so now we'll have to do the opposite of what they say once we are able to match the note with the obstacle," Moody said, glowering.

"Ordinarily I would worry about that," Harry said, removing the Death Eater's mask, "but let's see who this is first."

"It's Goyle," growled Ron, who was clenching his wand so tightly that it shook.

"Which is good, because he isn't smart enough to figure out to change the messages. As hard as we hit him, he'll be out for quite a while. We should keep moving," Harry said.

"But he killed my brother!" Ron protested.

"True, but he wouldn't remember it. We still keep moving," Harry said, looking over the notes. "Hmm…the note on the top of the stack says, 'Never mine the mess, keep going.'"

Then Harry noticed the mess the note was referring to, and everyone passed that particular point as quickly as possible, careful not to slip on the rocks that were now wet, and not just with rain.
……………………

Lucius Malfoy lay in the pile of rocks near the new hole from the cave to the outside world, unable to move, unable to speak, barely conscious. He knew that he was dying, strength and life slowly seeping from him, but he wasn't dead yet. He could still hear, and he could still come to conclusions.

The problem with that, was, that he heard little but the rain for a long time. Finally, he heard voices, but they did not belong to anyone that would try to save him. It was Potter, and from his words, they had captured that clumsy oaf Goyle. And there was something about messages. But then he heard something that he did not expect to hear.

"But he killed my brother!" It sounded like one of the Weasley boys. Odd, Goyle hadn't killed anyone.

"True, but he wouldn't remember it. We still keep moving," Potter said.

Soon, it became quiet again, leaving him alone with his thoughts again. It didn't make any sense, only one Weasley had died and his son Draco--not Goyle--had been the one to kill him. Why would…?

The conclusion was obvious. Draco hadn't killed the Weasley boy. Goyle had, and then Draco had modified the memories with his new skills to steal the kill. If the train of thought had stopped there, it wouldn't have bothered Lucius. He probably would have done the same thing.

What worried him was how Potter knew about it, and from the fact that Potter knew, Lucius could only draw one painful conclusion. His son was a traitor. Draco had betrayed his blood, his heritage, and for what? Had Potter promised him exemption from any charges, or fame maybe? Worse, had Draco done it for something as sentimental as the love of his wife? Did it even matter? But there were more conclusions he could draw.

How could Draco have gotten good enough at Occlumency to fool the dark lord into thinking that he was loyal? Severus had been instructed only to teach him enough to defend against that girl, and Lucius didn't think that Draco had become overly advanced on accident. This could only mean that Severus was also a traitor.

His friend, and his son were both traitors.

'No,' he thought, silently gathering strength, willing himself to continue to live if only for a little while.'Severus is not my friend, Draco is not my son. I refuse to call traitors by those names.'

'Not my son.'

………………

Harry's scar hurt again. He leaned against the wall of the cave, pretending that nothing was wrong, while Krum helped Kingsley deactivate the latest trap. And this time, he couldn't hold on completely.

"I've had enough of this! Girl, I may not be able to kill you, but…. Malfoy, kill her, right now!' he said, staring at the young witch.

Malfoy got his wand out, aimed it at the girl, but for some reason no words came from his throat and the muscles of his arm clenched, refusing to move. A minute later, Malfoy seemed to give up. "I can't master," Malfoy finally gasped, as if this was the first breath he had taken the whole time.

Voldemort growled, "Don't tell me that that bloody contract that lunatic had your father sign is still in effect even here!"

Malfoy said nothing, the girl also choosing to keep her silence. Well, he had ordered them not to tell him.

"Harry? Harry, are you ok?"


Harry jerked back to himself, noticing Lupin looking at him. "Oh, I'm…I'm fine," he answered.

Lupin didn't look like he believed him, but nodded anyway. "They've got those stone gargoyles moved, so we can go on now."

Harry nodded, and started walking again. 'Merlin, that was a close one. Good thing Voldemort didn't know that that contract has turned to dust. If he had known, Draco would be dead for refusing to kill Hermione.'

It was not long before they got into a large cavern, and met up with the Death Eaters. In only seconds, spells permeated the air in all sorts of colors. However, the Order members had the shelter of the doorway into the cavern while the Death Eaters had nothing to duck behind. And Harry knew that he would have to run through all of that in order to get to that archway. He didn't know how long it would be safe to wait. On command, half of the others that were currently in a position to fire off spells made shields for Harry as he ran and then dove into the archway.


Chapter 22: Victories, Such as They Are
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Harry was absorbed into the curtain, and found himself sliding on something smooth. Scrambling up to his feet, he noticed that he was in a dark place, lit only by unblinking stars, yet the other three people that stood there were quite visible. This place of semi-darkness had no shadows.

Harry drew his wand, turning around to face the tall, serpent man that had plagued the lives of so many for so long.

"Stay out of this Malfoy," Voldemort rasped, "this is my fight."

"Hermione, likewise," Harry said, calmly, not knowing if he was about to die or not.

"You know that your wand will do no good against me Potter, put it away and use the girl's wand," Voldemort said, drawing his own wand.

"Then why don't you pick up Malfoy's and use that? No Tom, the wand chooses the wizard, and we will face each other with our own wands," Harry answered. He did not know why that sounded right, but it did.

At once, they both shot spells at each other--Harry used something non-lethal and simple while Voldemort used the killing curse--and like last time, the light from the wands intersected, a bead forming between them. Like last time the phoenix song begun, sweet and awesome, and with all of his might Harry pushed the bead of light into Voldemort's wand. Careful not to break the connection, Harry watched as screams of pain and ghostly images began to protrude from Voldemort's wand. And then the stars started falling.

First, light seemed to project from his own body, from Hermione and even Draco. The couple seemed to wrap their own light around themselves like a cocoon, though with a beam that flowed back to Harry. The stars fell down to the surface of whatever he stood on, seemingly entwining him with their own light. Then he noticed that some of the stars had voices, voices he knew--his father, his mother, Sirius--, while others worked silently. But no lights surrounded Voldemort, only the voices of the murdered that cried out for justice surrounded him. Then Harry realized what was happening.

Love was the only thing as strong as death, and people that he loved, that loved him, were keeping him from death--the darkness that was now descending around him. Hermione and Draco were keeping each other from it in their cocoon, and still were managing to help him. Others were reaching out to him from the first and third dimensions, the voiceless and the voiced, knowingly or unknowingly, helping him while no one helped Voldemort. Harry doubted that Voldemort was capable of loving anyone, and knew that no one really loved him. But that was only half of the story.

Voldemort's wand continued to expel shouts of pain, and shadows of the dead. His wand was standing against him in this place of judgment. "It's the wand that chooses the wizard," Harry remembered Mr. Ollivanders saying, "it is not always clear why." Well, Harry knew why the wands had chosen him and Voldemort. It had been so this would take place, so Voldemort could finally be defeated.

The darkness descended, like a terrible haze. As it swallowed a screaming Voldemort, Harry felt like something had been wrenched from inside him through the connection the wands still held. His scar was freezing, like ice.

Gradually, the darkness and the lights faded, leaving the three who remained, and the wand of the one that did not, in a shimmering glow.

It was over.

It was done.

It was finished, finally.
………………..

Draco held his wife tightly, fearing to let go of her more than he had ever feared anything in his life. Hermione was his life…no, she was more than that. She was the reason his life meant anything. And he wasn't going to let her go, let the darkness carry her off. It could take him if it needed to take someone, but it couldn't take her.

Light surrounded them, shutting out the darkness, and he kept holding on. It wasn't long before he heard the screams. He dared to look, just in time to see Voldemort swallowed by the dark. Gradually, both the light and the darkness faded, and the place took on the same appearance that it had had when they had entered. Now, Voldemort was gone and Potter still stood, bent over as if exhausted. But what was important was that Hermione was still in his arms, that she was safe.

Hermione untangled her arms from around him just long enough to check her ring, and then looked back up at him, smiling, twining her arms around his neck. "It's over Draco. It's over, and we're all fine," she said, her eyes lighting up like the stars that now once again resided in the darkness, above and below them.

Draco knew that he would walk through fire for the look she was giving him now, and consider it a bargain. "Just like I told you before. All is well, my love, and now this dark time will become no more than a memory."

He was kissing her when he heard someone clear his throat, and Draco suddenly remembered that they weren't alone. They stopped and turned around to see Harry standing there with the image of a doorway behind him.

"Now I'm all for happy endings just as much as the next person, but maybe we should get out of here while we still can," Harry said, his point emphasized by the fact that the doorway was now being streaked by colors as if it was trying to destroy itself.

Suddenly aware that the dangerous part wasn't necessarily over yet, Draco said, "Hermione, Harry and I will go out first. There still may be fighting going on out there."

Harry nodded, picked up Voldemort's wand and stuck it behind his belt, and then the two men went through the gateway, closely followed by Hermione. They got out, wands drawn, to find no spells whizzing through the air--it was over at this end too. Everyone in black robes, save Snape, was sitting or lying on the floor quite obviously bound. No one wore masks, as those had been removed. Order members moved among those that were on the ground, those injured from both sides as well as the Death Eaters, tending wounds or checking bonds.

As they exited, everyone turned around to look, and complete silence fell upon the whole group. They lowered their wands, realizing that there was no threat, and Harry announced, "Voldemort's dead."

As if punctuating his remark, the archway crumbled to dust, seeming dematerialized by the lights that now surrounded it. The Order members broke out into cheers, though some of them burst into tears or silently expressed their relief. The Death Eaters looked close to disbelieving, faces twisted in anger, shock, or fear. They knew that there would be no leniency for them.

"Another traitor!" Bellatrix Lestrange shouted, glaring at Snape and Draco.

"Well, what did you expect?" Snape asked her, sneering. "You've already declared me to be a traitor, and you knew that he was my apprentice. What else would I teach him but treason?"

Draco would have laughed at that, but he had to step out of the way to avoid being trampled by Ginny Weasley. The redhead threw her arms around Potter, and kissed him.

"You were right," Harry said to Ginny after a minute. "I survived, and it was because you loved me." The redhead looked a little confused, but after promising to explain later, Harry began marshaling his troops.

Angelina and Fleur were there, so they started moving the injured to St. Mungo's. After that, the Death Eaters were moved to confinement cells at the Ministry and most of the Aurors went with them to be guards. Before Kingsley left, he mentioned wistfully that it was now time to write reports.

"I suppose that I have to help with that?" Harry asked.

"Probably," Draco piped in. "Someone has to explain how an association not necessarily a part of the Ministry caught a majority of the Death Eaters when Voldemort tried to gain immortality because of a trap set by a dead wizard that would pull Voldemort directly into death itself. Oh, and you should probably recommend that an international effort to return the creatures that make up that yet unused army to their natural habitats."

"That sounds like fun," Harry deadpanned. But after a moment of reflection, he said, "Though come to think of it, the day's turned out pretty well. Can't say that I have anything to complain about really."

"Oh, and one more thing," Ginny said with an evil grin. "We need to start planning our wedding."

After some congratulations, Harry seemed to think that he was forgetting something. There were few people left, and Snape had just returned with the Portkey for another trip.

"You're forgetting Goyle," Ron reminded everyone.

As they left the now deserted cavern, Harry related what had happened to Draco. "…so we just left him there. He'll probably still be out though."

After a moment, Draco asked, "And did any of you see any sign of Schmidt?" Hermione had informed him about what had happened the previous night.

"Well…we're not sure," Harry answered. "There was that one body, but we aren't sure if it was him or…."

………………..

"…Lucius."

Hearing his name, Lucius opened his eyes to peer between the rocks at the shapes that were now before him. Between the pile of stones he was buried in on the far side of the tunnel and the blown out side of the cavern were figures that were moving carefully along to avoid the mess he remembered would be there. His vision was blurry enough that he could only see the color of their robes. Only two of the shapes wore black robes, while the rest wore lighter colors. And their speech was relaxed, so there were no prisoners in that group.

He knew what had happened. Somehow, Potter and his minions had won. There was no other explanation; there were no spies among the Order unless you counted Snape, so these people were working together on the Order's side. Which meant that the two black robed figures were spies for the Order, and there were only two people that they could be. Two of them, and Lucius knew that he could only have his revenge on one.

Absently, he picked the first figure, walking behind a man and in front of a female figure. It didn't matter to him which of the two it was. 'Not my friend,' Lucius thought, 'not my son. Traitors.'

With a roar more characteristic of a long forgotten demon than a man, Lucius Malfoy rose from the place of his burial and, with of the last of his strength, delivered a magical blow to the traitor. The explosion of red light hit the traitor, who then flew out of the opening into the night where the sharp rocks of the cliff waited. He knew that the rainwater would mix with blood that night.

Then, Lucius died, a woman's scream echoing in his ears.
………………..

Hermione was still screaming and crying when someone helped her to her feet. Someone kept hold of her arm above her elbow, whether to support her or keep her from jumping she didn't know. The blast had knocked her backwards into someone--she didn't know or care who it was. And her ring had become scorching hot for a moment. All that mattered….

It couldn't be. It just couldn't be. To walk past the gateway to hell itself and get back all right, only now…. But she knew that it was, she had seen it. She had seen Draco get hit with that curse, and if that didn't kill him all the way, the rocks were sure to finish it.

Hermione heard the other voices. She didn't know if they were addressing her or not, and she didn't care. She only heard enough to be able to tell that it had been Lucius that had killed her husband, and that he was dead now. It wasn't fair! It just wasn't fair. She and Draco had come so far, so far. They had endured so much, gotten through so much, only now…. And she knew that there was nothing she could do about it; there was no way to bring him back.

She felt someone force her clenched hand open. "The babies are all right, they're fine," a voice said. Hermione calmed a little bit, merely sobbing now, realizing that in the back of her mind she had also feared loosing her children from the blast that had killed her husband. She had not lost everything, she had her sons--her ring had protected them--but she had lost the man she loved more than anything else in the world.

"Snape…just, just get her out of here," someone said. The voices were a little clearer now, she thought that maybe it had been Harry.

It was only seconds before Snape, who she just realized had been holding her arm, activated the Portkey and she found herself back in Grimmauld Place. He walked her to a spare bedroom--one that Harry or the Weasleys weren't using--and sat her down on the bed.

"Hermione," he asked, "do you want company, or would you prefer to be left alone?"

There was no one who would know how she felt right then that she knew of, with perhaps the exception of Snape himself. Draco had been murdered by his own father just when they thought that things were over, but Hermione had to remember that Dorcas had died probably not even remembering Severus. That still had to weigh heavily on Snape, as she knew Draco's death would weigh heavily on her. But she wanted to be alone.

"I…I want to be alone," she managed to say.

Snape nodded and left the room, and Hermione was left alone with her thoughts. She cried for a good while, she didn't know how long. Her time with Draco, their time with each other was no more than a memory now.

No more than a memory.

Getting an idea, Hermione wiped the tears from her eyes and started gathering parchment and found a quill and ink. It was no more than a memory, but she would preserve that memory for her sons.

Hermione dipped her quill into the ink, and began to write.


Chapter 23: Bittersweet endings
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"How is she?" Harry asked when Snape returned with the last Portkey. Only he, Ron, and Krum remained as Goyle had been taken to the Ministry with the other Portkey.

"She's in the spare room at your house, crying," Snape said. For perhaps the first time, he was addressing Harry without any discernible trace of sarcasm or malice. He sounded tired. No, worse than tired, as if he was reliving an old nightmare of his own.

"She really did love him then," Ron said, looking out into the growing darkness of the night. Rain was still falling, turning the dirt that covered the floor of the cavern into mud.

Harry nodded duly. Ron had been more than reluctant to accept that particular truth, but apparently he believed it now.

"Should someone be vaching her?" Krum asked.

"No," Snape said. "Alone, she is free to mourn and rage as she wishes, as she needs to. Besides, she isn't going to do anything…desperate. She would only do that if she believed that she had nothing else to live for, and Hermione still has her sons. She knows that Draco would have wanted them to live and be loved, so she will live for that if for nothing else."

Why did it sound like the man was speaking from personal experience? Harry sighed, leaning back against the wall of the cave. He felt like a failure. He had done everything he possibly could, he had defeated Voldemort, only for one of the people that meant the most to him to be hurt in the deepest way she could be hurt. Hurt because a father had killed his only son.

It didn't make any sense. It wasn't fair. There was supposed to be a happy ending after Voldemort died, not another widow and more fatherless children.

'Well,' Harry had to admit to himself, 'maybe not widowed and fatherless for long.' He looked up at Ron and Krum, suspecting that either of them would be more than happy to fulfill the role of the man in Hermione's life. Once she recovered from Draco's death, of course. Right now, the two of them were staring out into the darkness.

"Hermione will be wanting a proper funeral. We should be looking for the body," Ron finally said.

Krum nodded. "I'll go get ve brooms, and then ve can start searching," he said before starting up the stairs.

………………………..

"With Love,
Your Mother"


Hermione put her quill down, studying what she had written. After she was sure that the ink was completely dry, she gathered up the pages that contained so many memories and tears. She sealed them in an envelope, and looked up at the clock. She had spent no more than a few hours on her activity, and she did not really feel much better than she had when she started. It was late, time to go to bed now, but she knew that she would only lie there awake staring at the ceiling for hours no matter how exhausted she was. She was contemplating going to bed anyway when she heard someone knock on her door.

"Hermione, are you decent? It's Ron, I need to see you for a second," she heard.

"Coming," she replied, getting out of the chair to go to the door. At any rate, this could be something she could use to postpone going to bed. When she opened to the door Ron was there, smiling. That was puzzling; he knew that she was in no mood for felicitations to say the least.

"Hermione, I found something of yours," he said, "and in better condition than I expected to find it."

She swung the door open wider to reveal another man standing beside Ron. His robes were still covered in dried mud and blood, though they had been cut off around one arm where a clean bandage had been applied. There was another bandage around his temple, but there was no mistaking the blond hair that stuck out around it; there was no mistaking his gray eyes. There was no mistaking his face.

Hermione made a noise in her throat that was half sob, half giggle, unable to speak. She didn't notice Ron remove himself to elsewhere; the only person she saw was her husband. Alive.

"Hermione," Draco said tentatively.

She flung her arms around him, loosening her grip when he grunted. Maybe his ribs were a little bruised. He put his good arm around her and, holding her as tightly as he dared, kissed her.

………….

Ron walked outside, strolling slowly from the light of one lamppost into another. He looked up to see shooting stars--shooting stars that were clearly visible in spite of the fact that the sky was cloudy and the lights of London normally drowned out such displays anyway. Apparently the fireworks were already beginning. Well, there would be more fireworks now, just not the kind that lit up the night sky for all to see.

They had looked, expecting only to find Draco's body, and that only if they were lucky. But he knew that Hermione would have wanted that, if only so she could have a proper funeral held. Ron had not expected to find Draco caught in the branches of a tree that clung to the wall of the cliff--unconscious, injured, but still alive.

A quick stop at St. Mungo's had been all that was necessary, quick enough that they would have been done before Hermione had received an owl to tell her that her husband was alive, and then they had gone to surprise her.

For the hours spent while he had been searching, Ron had been envisioning a future he had longed for so long. Hermione was free of her marriage, and Ron Weasley could be there as a friend to comfort her in her grief, and maybe be there as more than a friend after some time went by. And, of course, her sons would need a father. He would be more than happy to fulfill that role; he would love them as if they had been his own sons. Ron had always loved Hermione, and this was his golden opportunity to prove how much he cared for her. For a few glorious hours he had thought that all of his dreams could still come true. But that future had vanished when he realized that Draco was still breathing. After that, well…there was only one thing he could do.

It had been worth it though, if only to see the look on her face, knowing that he had helped put it there. It had been like…a flower bud opening in response to the sun to become the most beautiful blossom in the world, but happening in a fraction of a second. He had not been the total cause of it, but he knew that he would burn the world and use his soul for tinder if it would put that look on Hermione's face.

Ron kicked a pebble out of his pathway into the gutter as he walked, not really caring where he was going. Well, things were over now. The world had been saved, his best friend had defeated his nemesis and was alive, and the woman he loved was happy. He smiled to himself as a soft rain began to fall; he could live with that.

The End


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