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Midnight by SpankingHalo

Format: Novel
Chapters: 12
Word Count: 63,316
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme, Spoilers

Genres: Horror/Dark, Action/Adventure, AU
Characters: Hermione, Bellatrix, Narcissa, Blaise (M), Draco, Luna, Krum, OtherCanon
Pairings: Draco/Hermione

First Published: 09/15/2009
Last Chapter: 10/03/2011
Last Updated: 10/03/2011

Summary:


















Banner created by the fabulous lilmisblack

Three years after Voldemort won the war, Hermione Granger is a fugitive concealed in the ruins of Hogwarts. For three years, she has sent up signals for the Order, and hoped for an answer. And at last, her wish is granted - by the last person she wants to see... 01/10/2010 - Updated with Ch Twelve.


Chapter 1: A Dead Geranium
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Midnight

Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.
- T.S. Eliot, Rhapsody on a Windy Night



She slipped out like a ghost, silent and insubstantial and caught in limbo.

Lightless, she went through the dark in careful steps. The wind whistling through the cracks in the mortar disguised any sound of her presence: even three years after they had lost the war, she was still careful. You could never be too careful.

Hogwarts had fallen into ruin in that time. What battle magic had not destroyed, nature had reclaimed. Vast, uninhibited creepers clutched the walls and sprawled across the multitude of floors. Scorch marks were erased by the night only to reappear with the first trickle of light, graffiti of a hellish, indelible nature.

From a distance, it must have appeared a wreck – a haven fallen into gothic decay, teetering towers and crumbling walls. The Forbidden Forest had crept out to consume it, so Hogwarts rose from the dense foliage like the hand of a drowning man, slowly faltering.

Inside was little better. There were certain places where she did not go, rooms so deformed by layer upon layer of spells that they were nothing more than death-traps, savage reflections of the people who had fought in them. Katie Bell’s voice screamed endlessly in one, the ephemeral imprint of a girl long dead.

It had been her home; now it was her refuge, and she had learned to navigate its treacherous paths.

For months after the last battle, she had shivered in the secret spaces between the walls while Voldemort and the Death Eaters ransacked Hogwarts. One by one, her hiding places had been revealed or destroyed as she fled before them, the shrieks of others less lucky, less clever, echoing in her ears. For months she hadn’t seen sunlight, lost in shades of grey as her eyes grew used to darkness.

At last, they left. She remained, the last living thing left in all of Hogwarts.

Hermione Granger, the ghost in the walls.

~*~



She took her usual path, squeezing past the toppled pillars of the east hallway, clinging to the cracked masonry of a staircase as it swung out over the long fall down to the ground floor. The last few risers were gone; she made the jump easily, although her heart still hammered every time, fearful the stones would dissolve under her.

On the landing, she took a brief detour into her old Muggle Studies classroom. Here too the vegetation had conquered all, but the trees that had burst up through the floor were hung with apples. Small, shrivelled, sour, they were at least food. She tossed a few into her makeshift bag, an old robe she had stitched together with judicious spells, and went on.

She passed the place where Ginny had lost the fingers of her left hand to a hex as sharp as a blade, carefully ignoring the dark patch on the flagstones. At the next corridor, she leapt from stone to stone as if playing hopscotch.

At last she came to the steps of the Astronomy Tower. Slowly she began to climb.

Every night she made the same pilgrimage. Every night, she walked the battlefield again because of a promise, because some part of her still hoped beyond reason.

So, following her fairytale, she climbed the steps to the tallest tower, unsure if she was beauty or the beast, either way imprisoned.

Shafts of moonlight struck her as she reached the top, inhaling the cool night air. Around her, weird lights rose, curling and unfurling like flowers, yellow and blue and orange creating a great, strange garden of fire. The sky around Hogwarts was always lit now, more residue from the spells left by the war which reacted with oddly beautiful alchemy.

The roof was long gone, blasted away in a careless spell by Bellatrix Lestrange. She could not forget those wild eyes, those parted, dark lips, smudged and shining as if Bellatrix had smeared them with poison.

No books to help you now, little girl, she had whispered, moving like a panther. Nothing but you and me and our magic.

She’d had a voice then. Her name had been more than an echo in her own head. Hermione Granger had been someone quite different and she could still not quite grasp how she had diminished, shrunk down until she was slight as mist, the ghost in the walls.

Wrong, she said, shrill but defiant. I have a brain as well.

Oooh, so sharp, so sharp! Bellatrix sneered. Better be careful you don’t cut yourself-

Her wand flicked so fast Hermione could only react with instinct; her shield flashed red as the bolt of purple light rebounded from it.

Bellatrix only smiled her terrible, beautiful smile. So, Mudblood-

Hermione!
Lupin roared – he sprang onto the tower, soot-smeared and dishevelled, flinging a quick succession of spells at Bellatrix. His next words were fired at Hermione. Go! Run!

Yes, run! Bellatrix mocked, countering his magic with languid gestures, body as sinuous as a snake. It’s over now – the Boy Who Lived is nothing, nothing, nothing, and the Dark Lord has all that he deserves!

Including you?
Lupin said softly. If you think you are anything more than a weapon to him, Bellatrix, you are much mistaken.

Her screech was thin and feral – she turned back to him with the ferocity of a wounded animal. You are wrong!

Hermione was forgotten, a toy tossed aside as Bellatrix aimed all her energies at Lupin. She wanted to stay and help, but one look from him said he would not tolerate it, and obedience to authority was deep in her bones. She would only be in the way, leverage if Bellatrix thought to use her.

Nor did she have the battle skills to help. Light flew about them in a dizzying display, until they were lit by gold and green and red, until the walls shattered about them. She didn’t even know some of the spells, although the Unforgivable Curses she knew far too intimately.

The tower rocked. Hermione was thrown to her knees, dust raining down on her. Knowing she could not stay, she could not let Lupin risk so much for nothing, she crept to the stairs and went down, wand at the ready, the curses she had memorised so arduously on her lips.

She had left him, and he had died.

Hermione could not forgive herself for that. Each night, she returned, and remembered anew, ached anew, hated anew.

But she didn’t come back for him. She came back for another friend.

George said there’s a way, Ron had said. He said the Order knew this might happen...they planned for the worst, hoped for the best, that old routine. They have a signal. Use it, and one of them – us now, I suppose – will find you.

It had been a lull in the fighting, the two of them crammed behind a desk, She remembered how pale he seemed, blood livid on his cheek and arm. He’d roused a shadow of his old cheeky grin for her.

They won’t need to, she’d vowed. We’ll make it – Harry’s still alive-

His smile faded. Hermione...you saw what happened to him.

He’s alive!
she insisted. We can rescue him. We have to. As long as he’s alive, it isn’t over. The Boy Who Lived.

I hope you’re right,
he’d said quietly, seeming infinitely older. She saw his grief then, raw on his face, as if he was fighting not to break apart. Hermione...I...

Whatever he was about to say was destroyed by the explosion that turned the desk into powder and threw them both backwards. A curtain of fire separated them, and then she was trying to fight a manticore - one battle disintegrated into another until it was a mad rush through the castle – walls and flames and wind and monsters.

And the place where the war had ended for her.

The library. Him.

It had ended, but she could not forget the words Ron had said. She clung to them. Some part of her wanted to believe that even in a world subsumed so completely by Voldemort and his endless, starving ambition, the Order survived.

So she raised her wand, as she did every night, and sent up the spell-

Only...

She hesitated. She always sent it up when the midnight lights were at their brightest, trusting a casual observer would think her signal part of the show. But lately, the thought had begun to niggle at her: what if no one could see it? What if she had hidden it so well she was all but invisible, even to the eyes that wanted to see her?

So that night, she waited until the lights were dim, muted – and then, ignoring her fear, she whispered the spell.

Light rose into the sky to join the flames simmering there; but this unfolded itself into the outline of a bird and blazed for a moment, white on the indigo sky.

If any of the Order remained...if they looked at the right moment...

She had cast the spell hundreds of times. No one had come. Logic said she should give up. But she would not. Even as every night whittled down the probability further, she defied statistics and she defied the ruined world she stood in, and hoped.

She stood there a moment longer, then as it always did, the memory of Bellatrix Lestrange drove her back down the stairs, back into the walls.

~*~



She never went out in daylight. Sometimes she lingered until sunrise, but once the light had become more white than grey, the sky hinting at blue, she departed. It was too much to see what remained of Hogwarts. Night hid the worst of its wounds; daylight revealed them cruelly.

But she did roam freely after dark. And midnight always found her in the same place, the only place she had been unable to leave to the intruding flora and magical debris.

In the library, it was almost as if nothing had changed. The silence here was safe and authorised, that of a sacred space, not the hollow hush of a morgue. The scent of old books and resin was comforting, the few splintered shelves carefully repaired by her. She knew its nooks and niches, walked its narrow aisles with surety.

Voldemort, she was sure, could not have plundered all of Hogwarts’ secrets. Oh, he had left the library in a mess, books thrown on the floor, spines bent and trodden upon, fingermarks on the pages, but she doubted he’d read anything. Worlds to conquer, after all, people to oppress.

It was her finest weapon: knowledge. In three years, she had absorbed spell after spell, truth after truth. Not knowing what waited for her if she ever left, everything was relevant. Everything mattered.

She told herself that she would leave, as soon as she was ready. But Hermione knew that if she left, it was unlikely she would return, so she gobbled down words like a glutton. One more day, she told herself every day, and then I will be prepared.

Just one more day.

Then there would be no more running. So she had to be prepared, had to be ready, had to have a knowledge so vast that she would never abandon anyone again, that she would never hear anyone die while she still had words and truth and magic.

Book after book, night after night. Fierce and determined as any warrior, she honed her weapons. Soon. Soon she would be ready.

She went to the restricted section, as she did most nights, and dug out the tome she was partway through. It was an awkward weight in her arms, the parchment rough on her fingers-

“You don’t change, do you?” The voice was cool and contemptuous and unmistakable. “World’s in crisis, the Dark Lord’s running the show, and you’re still looking for revelation in the library.”

The book slid from her frozen hands, thudding onto the floor. Hermione turned, fear cold in her spine.

The moonlight turned him to a monochrome angel, bones angular and bare as ivory beneath the silver light, hair pale, half his face masked in shadow. His wand gleamed at one hip; a hooked knife at the other, and neither was as deadly as the smile on his lips. The Dark Mark was stark on his arm.

Somehow, she found the courage to meet those eyes, turned to liquid in the gloom, amused and empty.

“That was always your mistake,” he said softly, and stepped towards her in a lazy saunter. “Being so-”

Hermione snatched for her wand – he moved, a blur, and the impact of his fist on her wrist sent the wand clattering amidst the shelves.

“-predictable,” he said without missing a beat, and his stare cut like a blade. “Careless, Mudblood. Very, very careless.”

He was right. Damn him. He was right, and she was afraid, because they had found her at last.

In the gloom, Draco Malfoy’s smile curved like a scythe.

And far away, she heard a clock strike midnight.

~*~

Thanks for reading! This is my first Harry Potter fic, so any feedback is very much appreciated, and criticism is always welcome. Anonymous reviews are enabled.




Chapter 2: Supplication
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Midnight

Here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star
- T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

The clock struck midnight, and her heart struck with it.

One. Hermione was tensed, her body resonating with the low, slow toll of the bell that swung in the depths of the dungeons even though it was cracked, the clapper gone. She did not know what magic made it sound, made it say: it is over again, the death of another day is upon you.

But she knew what it meant.

She scanned the floor for her wand; this was her opportunity. She would need to seize it.

Four...

“Nothing to say?” Draco said, voice rich with mockery. “That’s unlike you.”

The seventh chime rolled out. Nearly, nearly...

There it was! She could see the tip of her wand beneath a bookshelf. She would have to evade Draco, but she had the element of surprise on her side.

And the past, of course, hovering like a mist upon the place, close and cold and all-consuming. That was hers too, intimate as a lover.

Before he followed her glance, Hermione met his eyes. Her voice was rusty with disuse, but fearless, and she prided herself on that.

“I thought I’d let them say it for me,” she said.

Eleven...

Bemusement flashed over his face, the question framed on his lips: who?

Twelve, carrying midnight with it.

And suddenly a great cacophony filled the air – screams, shouts, gasps and wails and moans - as the dead of Hogwarts swarmed from the stones where their blood had been spilled. Outside, pale forms flickered like fireflies, fighting a dead war with their dead hands.

Colin Creevey ran into the library, a white shimmering figure, eyes vast with terror. Draco swung around at the movement, and she moved, diving for her wand.

He realised his mistake and snatched for her, but she was too quick.

It was there, in her hand, and she whipped around, the spell silent, as all her spells had been silent since the end of the war.

Expelliarmus!

His wand snapped out of his hand, launching like a javelin through the ghost of Colin.

Accio wand! she thought, all her will aimed at it. It shot into her hand with satisfying speed.

She expected rage from him, and was already running the first syllables of a blistering hex through her head, but Draco was motionless, distracted. It took her a moment to realise what he was staring at.

She had seen the ghosts so many times that they were part of the backdrop. But to Draco, they were new and ghastly.

Colin backed away, mewling, his voice a thin keen against the whirlwind of sound. “Expelli-“

He jerked as a hex hit him. Hermione counted off the twitches, one, two, pause, a third, as familiar with the rhythms of his tragedy as if it were a nursery rhyme. The liquid that splattered the ground was thick and cherry-red – she knew if she touched it, there would be nothing there, but for a few minutes, the library was daubed with blood, disfigured.

“See what you did?” she heard herself hissing, the words rolling out with the ferocity of steam before she even knew they were there. “See what you did to us?”

Colin slumped against the desk, shaking. He raised a hand to some invisible assailant. “Please...please, don’t...”

Draco’s face was like marble, frozen and unreadable. But he did not look away.

Colin raised his head, and said in a small, weak voice, “Will it hurt? The curse?”

If he had ever received an answer, it was lost as surely as he was. Colin shuddered and toppled forward, mouth slack, hand curled like a dead spider.

His shade dissipated into the floor, the bloodstains fading with it.

Slowly, the other voices across the castle died away. One by one, Hogwarts’ dead sank back into its stones, pinned like butterflies, waiting for midnight. Whatever magic kept them there, it was a spell so cruel, so ruthless, she could only think it was Voldemort's work. Who else would not be satisifed with mere murder - who else would need to chain the dead?

Her eyes burned with tears she refused to shed.

“Predictable, am I?” Hermione said, her voice hoarse.

Draco turned slowly. She could have sworn his eyes were dazed, but then his usual smirk drove any emotion from him - before he remembered where his wand was.

“Every night, they rise again,” she spat, advancing on him. “And they die again, because that’s all you and your foul Death-Eaters left them. They have no release. They have no respite. You tell me I’m predictable, well, here’s the world you created! It runs like clockwork – you can tell the time by the dead you left here! That’s the world you want, isn’t it, so predictable. You rule and we die and our ghosts scream in a world where no one hears them.”

Not one whit of his arrogance had faded. She could have killed him there and then – a silent wish, a flash of green, but she didn’t. She was better than that.

“You know nothing about what I want,” he said coolly. “And don’t tell me you know anything about the world either. You’ve been cowering in Hogwarts.”

That stung. Her fingers gripped the wands so tightly she felt every ridge of the wood. “Forgive me for not handing myself over to Voldemort for a quick death.”

 “Oh, it wouldn’t have been quick. It wasn’t for any of the others.”

She grimly ignored the bait - although part of her hungered for news, even bad news so the uncertainty would be over. Her voice was harsh, the words like bullets. “How did you find me?"

A lazy, crooked smile. "A little bird told me. Well. A big, fiery bird. Not exactly the height of subtlety, Mudblood."

She cursed her luck. "What do you want?”

His eyes swept her in a languid examination. “You, alas.”

“Me?” She gave a brittle laugh. “If you think I’m going to let you drag me back to your master like the dog you are-”

“Tempting as that thought is, I have no intention of handing you over to the Dark Lord.”

“What?” He appeared to be serious; no trace of a smile, his gaze steady on her. But even if she’d drowned him in Veritaserum, Hermione wouldn’t have trusted his word. The mark livid on his arm was warning enough. “I doubt that.”

“I thought you might. So I brought you something. A token of my good faith, I suppose.” She hated those bored, clipped tones, the insouciant way he stood there, as if it was all so amusing.

He drew something from his clothes; it was a moment before she recognised it. A tiny, slouched figure, scowling in the way she knew so well. But it wasn’t moving like most magical figurines, which was strange.

It was Viktor Krum. But...

“Where’s his hand?” she said, puzzled.

“Missing.”

“And it doesn’t move. Why have you brought me a broken toy? Even for you, this is pathetic.”

“I don’t think most people would consider this a toy.” Draco held it carefully, as if it might fall to bits. “This is a Homonculus Charm.”

Horror slowly spread over her. The staid sentences she had read leapt to life, suddenly chilling, the truth before her in grotesque shape.

A representation of a person...a curse of devastating proportion which few wizards have the ability to perform...actions enacted on the homunculus are replicated on the target...

Her breath felt fast in her chest. “You mean...his hand...”

“Gone,” Draco said flatly.

“Why did you bring me this? As a lesson?”

Oh, Viktor...what must it be to know that they can break you piece by piece; that as long as the charm exists, you cannot die, cannot know mercy, cannot even move unless they will it so.

“No. Like I said, as a token of good faith. I thought you might trust me if I showed you that the killing and the torture and all those things you find so disagreeable are strictly business.”

She realised he was holding it out.

“Strictly business,” she said through gritted teeth. “Do you think that makes it all right?”

He shrugged. “We all do what we must to survive.”

She took him in a with a savage glare; the high quality clothes, his unblemished skin, the thick silver ring on his finger, untouched by suffering in even the flimsiest of ways. “Yes, I can imagine how tough it is to survive. I mean, there’s always the danger that you’ll be crushed by the weight of your own wealth.”

“My father abandoned the Dark Lord when he stumbled the first time,” Draco said. “Do you think the Dark Lord forgets? Do you think he forgives those who failed him?” For the first time, she saw hints of emotion – his fists clenched, a bitter twist to his mouth. “He needed my father to bring him to power. Now that he has it, he doesn’t need him at all. You don’t know what the Dark Lord has become since he defeated Potter.”

“He was already a monster,” she snapped. “I saw what he did to Harry. And the others – all of them, I’ve lived with what he did here.”

“Hogwarts was just the start,” Draco said shortly. “It’s worse now. My mother...”

He stopped; how white he was, the smudges under his eyes dark as blackberry stains.

Then he said in a listless voice, “I need your help, Granger. I need you to find the Order, if there’s anything left of them.”

She was beginning to believe. She couldn’t take her eyes from the figure of Krum, couldn’t stop the insidious echo of Draco’s voice: It’s worse now.

“What do you think the Order can do?” she said.

He took a breath. She saw how grim his face was, how subtly older he looked. The child was gone, the man in his place no less arrogant, no less cold, but perhaps a little wiser. He tossed her the figure – she fumbled for it, terrified it would shatter on the floor. And she knew in that moment that this was not altruism: Draco had decided that he would be better off without the Dark Lord. It wasn’t valour or glory that drove him – it was ambition and the need to survive.

His voice was firm. “Kill the Dark Lord.”

At her astounded look, he flashed a grin, savage and bright and ironic. “How about it, Mudblood? Fancy saving the world again?”

“Don’t call me that,” she said sharply. “That’s what got us into this mess.”

His smile faded. He watched her, measuring, analysing. “Very well. Granger.”

“I still don’t know if I can trust you,” she said, fingers cupping the figurine of Viktor. “And I have to be able to. I can’t take that risk.”

He cocked his head. “What do you need?”

She didn’t want to do it, but knew it was necessary. “Two things. I want to show you Hogwarts.”

She needed him to see what had happened here. And she needed to see if he could show remorse, if there was anything human left in him. If not...if not, how could she trust him? If he put no value on life, she could not hand him hers when carelessness or arrogance might end it.

And too, all that dwelt here would be part of him: she would not be the only one who knew the dead of Hogwarts, a living breathing memorial to them. They would not be abandoned then, would not play out their nightmare scenes in solitude.

He raised an eyebrow. “Peculiar. I can’t imagine why, but if you must show me the old slum, I suppose I can bear it. What’s the second?”

She looked straight at him. “An Unbreakable Vow.”

~*~

Thanks for reading - comments adored!




Chapter 3: A Farther Room
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Midnight

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot



There was silence: brief, sanctified, he caught within it like an insect trapped in amber.

And then Draco laughed, and the sound was jagged and bright.

“Are you mad?”

“No,” Hermione said levelly, though when the nights had been at their darkest and coldest, her mind so sluggish with hunger and fear that her thoughts trickled like blood, she had wondered. “Just sceptical about your intentions.”

All the mirth wilted in his face. His voice was soft, calm, emotionless. “What exactly do you think I have planned for you?”

“I don’t know,” she said, keeping her wand pointed firmly at him. She had to fight to keep her eyes from drifting to the knife hung at his waist. “Maybe you’re trustworthy. And maybe this is just a way to make me leave without a fight so you can package me up for the Dark Lord.”

“Do you think you’re that dangerous?”

“No, I think you’re that lazy.”

That hit him; his mouth tightened. “If I wanted to give you to the Dark Lord, I’d have done it by now.”

His fingers brushed the Dark Mark; she found herself fascinated by it, curving with sinister grace on his arm.

“Just one touch,” he whispered, and his eyes were dark as the empty reaches of space. She could have sworn it was longing in his voice. “That’s how close he is.”

His fingers slid over the mark, tracing it, slow, idle, lingering. It was quite the creepiest thing she had seen that night, which was saying something.

“Do you think you could stop stroking yourself like that?” she suggested acidly. “If you want, I can leave you alone with your...thoughts.”

He took a ragged breath. The expression on his face reminded her of something. It took a moment before she realised what it was – the memory seemed like a golden dream of someone else’s life, of before.

Ron had looked the same way whenever Fleur was close. Half-dreamy, half-hungry, a look of obsession.

 Or addiction.

“Frightened?” he said.

“More repelled.” She surveyed him closely, marking new details. There were scars on the pale inside of his arms – raised crescents, marching over his skin like the phases of the moon. Dark shadows lined his eyesockets; his lips were bitten. “Exactly what do you do for You-Know-Who, Malfoy?”

His face smoothed out, blank as an eggshell. “Whatever he asks. Same as everyone else.”

“And what does he ask?” she said, hushed, prying for knowledge.

The silence bristled.

Everything,” he said, and she heard in that word desperation and admiration, felt the things he did not say like shadows cast upon them.

And then he gave a soft, tired laugh; turned his face so that the darkness concealed it, and said with something more akin to his familiar scorn, “Just like you.”

She took the hint, and slid back into the safety of insults. Whatever she had glimpsed unsettled her deeply. She had lived so long with the tormented dead that she had forgotten the immediacy of pain – she had forgotten what it meant to live in malice and terror that was new, unpredictable, ever-changing. Her grief was known and mapped, her fears as well-travelled as her paths through Hogwarts.

“I’m asking for an Unbreakable Vow. Betray me, and the worst that’ll happen is you’ll die. Betray You-Know-Who...I get the feeling it isn’t death you’re worried about.”

His cheek twitched. “Nice to see you haven’t forgotten how to be sanctimonious. But you obviously have forgotten that we need a Bonder.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said quietly. “Does that mean you agree?”

He gave a small shudder. “I agree,” he said, as if the words hurt him.

“Good.” She let out a breath. “Can you visit prisoners?”

His eyes flickered, uncertain. “Yes.”

She uncurled her hand. In it lay the tiny figure of Viktor Krum. “Then we have a Bonder.”

“We can’t free him.”

Part of her protested. The part of her that had seen war, that had begun to see beyond the here and now, accepted it grimly. “But we can help him. And in return, he’ll help us.”

His eyes narrowed. “What do you have in mind?”

She spoke, the knowledge pouring out of her. It seemed to her that she had waited for this, that all the words and the silent spells had been keyed to this moment when she stepped from between the walls and faced the world once more.

He listened, and he argued, and they amended and debated, as cool and impersonal as any two people doing business. Their voices echoed about Hogwarts, and only later did it occur to her that it was the first time that the living had spoken there for three years.

And it seemed somehow apt that they spoke of rescue and daring in this place that had seen so much of it, right to the last.

~*~



“Where are we going?” he said, following the wavering light of her spell. It darted like a firefly before them, illuminating walls missing bricks like teeth, rotting tapestries that dangled from mere threads.

“I told you I’d show you Hogwarts,” she said, skimming through the darkness with ease. Behind her, she could hear him, clumsy and fumbling. She knew the worn steps and the missing flagstones; she wove through the intruding plants where he fought and sputtered.

“This isn’t Hogwarts,” he said. She heard a metallic scrape; then a series of thuds. When she glanced back, she saw he had hacked through the plants with his knife – he held it as if it were an extension of his arm, as pale and gleaming as his hair. "This is a tomb."

Stood there, he seemed savage, more than the spoilt brat she had once known.

“Why do you carry that thing?” she asked. “You have a wand.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Which you are holding,” he pointed out. “Are you planning on giving it back?”

“Not yet.”

“Then you can understand why I have the knife.” He spun it lightly in his palms; it glittered like frost. “Everyone needs back-up.”

She supposed that was true. But not many people could find comfort in the edge of a blade.

What sort of world was it where he expected to be deprived of his magic? And then she thought of his scars, and the Dark Mark he bore, and understood that it was a world where Voldemort ruled.

“What’s it like out there?” she said, unable to stop the question.

Hogwarts had delineated her life for three years. She knew nothing of the world bar what she could see from its walls – shadows, lights in the sky, amorphous shapes. And now that she had to leave it, she was frightened of what she might find.

“Changed,” he said slowly. “The Dark Lord controls everything. Even the Muggles are his now, though most of them don’t know it. He keeps them frightened and that keeps them obedient. In the wizarding world, anyone with sense keeps quiet. The ones that didn’t are dead or fled, or screaming in a cell. I thought it would be better when he ruled. I thought we’d be great again.”

“Surprise,” she whispered, scrambling down crumbling spiral stairs. “You elect a tyrant, he runs a tyranny.”

He didn’t answer. The only sound was his breath and his steps.

~*~



When she came to the bottom, she nearly stumbled from sheer surprise. A short passage twisted away like a madman's smile.

It opened out into a small room, barely bigger than a prison cell. The walls were lined with mirrors, dark as lead in the gloom. A dark sheet hung over something tall and wide at the end of the room.

Her light darted in before her, multiplying until it streamed away into the distance, until the room seemed vast as a cathedral, echoing out into forever.

Hermione stopped as she saw her reflection for the first time in months, startled. She didn’t realise how wiry she had become, her hair lank and unwashed, her arms tautly muscled from climbing every day. Her face seemed strange; shorn of its puppy fat, it had a stern cast, her brows straight, her mouth determined, its prettiness transmuted into something more enduring.

She looked like someone who knew how to fight, and that reassured her.

Draco bumped into her. “Granger, did you come here to stare at yourself? I thought I was the vain one in this enterprise.”

She started, but recovered quickly. “No. You’re the annoying one.”

“Actually, I’m fairly sure I’m the heroic one,” he countered, and preened a little in the mirrors. Suddenly she was surrounded by images of Malfoy, flashing his outrageous smile. Beside him, she was ordinary, dull as a sparrow. “Betraying my dark master and all.”

Despite his flippancy, there was a huskiness in his voice when he spoke of Voldemort. It frightened her.

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” she asked, cool.

“You’re obviously not,” he said. “Why are we here?”

She walked over to the covered shape and with a sharp tug, pulled the sheet away.

The gold frame of the mirror was bent and twisted in places; the phrase across the top was broken away, the remainder smeared with dirt and ash. A spiderweb of cracks ran out across the glass; beneath it, the surface moved strangely, as if it were water swirling. She was careful to stand to one side, unable to see her own reflection.

“I hear you get seven years bad luck for that kind of damage,” Draco remarked. “Very careless, Granger. Hasn’t the world suffered enough without you frivolously breaking mirrors?”

“This happened in the battle,” she said. “I want you to look in it.”

His face was wary. “What is it?”

“It was the Mirror of Erised. It showed you your heart’s desire. And then...the spells changed it. The battle broke it, same as everything else.”

“What does it show you now?” he said, eyeing it with suspicion.

“The cost of receiving that desire,” she answered, and cursed herself at the tremor in her voice. Images burned themselves onto her mind, fragmented by the shattered glass. She had looked, and she had seen the grim future. She could still not reconcile herself to it. “So you’d better decide if you really want to stop Voldemort. Maybe this will help.”

She stayed only long enough to see him step in front of the mirror, jaw set, showing no fear. Then she walked out, not stopping. Not at his gasp, not at the sound of metal on glass, not at the high sobs of a woman; not even at the hard thud that might have been him falling to his knees. She did not stop. She did not look back. She left him to his personal, private future, and hoped it was better than hers had been.

~*~



She sat on the bottom steps and waited, his wand in her hand. No matter what he thought, she had left him in there without a weapon. Now she would see whether he really knew how to fight.

His shadow crept over her, weightless warning. She glanced up. He was breathing hard.

“I’ve seen enough,” he said, sounding bored and indolent. “Give me my wand.”

His face gave away nothing, his voice even less. But she had to trust him until they could get to Viktor. If she didn’t, she might as well crawl back into the walls, stumble back into her half-life, her after-life, and drift like a dream through the broken castle once more until she too was a relic in the stones, crying out for release in the midnight hour.

Although fear was a knot in her heart, she gave it back.

Draco settled it in his hand, then his mask shattered – she saw something raw and primal, something anguished as he raised the wand-

She flinched back as spells that tasted of fear filled her mouth...

He turned and screamed a hex that scorched the air. Rays of red light shot into the room of mirrors, and deafening crashes erupted until the air seemed full of the sound of breaking, until the world was crashing down about them.

Clouds of dust drifted from the doorway. She shoved past him, and stopped on the threshold.

Every mirror in the room was reduced to powder. And at the end, only a misshapen golden frame remained of the Mirror of Erised.

“The cost doesn’t matter,” Draco said in a voice like steel. “He has my family. And I’m telling you now, he’ll pay. No one but him.”

His fingers closed around her arm, bruising. He didn’t look at her, or at the destroyed room; he was already turning, ruin in his wake. And she drawn after him, a little aghast at what she had begun, at what she had to end one way or another.

“We’re going,” he said. “I’m sick of ghosts.”

As she followed him up the steps, struggling to keep up, she felt a surge of fear. So it was happening. She would leave – not alone, not even in the company of a friend, but with the enemy of her enemy, because he was all she had. They were tied together now, one way or another, and it seemed to her that she left something behind in the room of mirrors – some brief reflection, caught in the walls forever with all the others, the last piece of the girl who had been safe in Hogwarts.

“Wait...” she called.

He paused but didn’t turn, his back a fortress.

“I want to say goodbye,” she said.

His laughter was brittle. “Granger, I think the last three years have demonstrated that you’re incapable of it. You chose – you chose – to live with ghosts, to spend your every bloody night with them. You carry your damn dead under your skin, and nothing will change that. You cling to them. It makes you weak.”

“It makes me human,” she hissed.

He whipped around; his face was terrible in the half-light, as beautiful and as ferocious as a god of war. “And it’ll get you killed.”

The silence hung in the air like an accusation.

Then he said, “I’m leaving. Whether you come with me is up to you.”

He needed her, she knew that, but his expression was unyielding. He would do it. He would leave her here; he would chase down the Dark Lord because whatever he had seen in the mirror had decided him once and for all. And ultimately, she was sure, he would fail because his only back-up was a knife, his heart divided into two ragged pieces between Voldemort and his family.

He had lived in a nightmare world for three years. It had moulded and defined him.

She had been left untouched. She had learned unfettered, and most importantly – singing out like a wolf in her heart – she still believed.

She could save the world. She believed it.

Hermione had to wonder what he believed. But she knew that he would not tell her, that whatever it was lay in powder at the bottom of the descent.

“Let’s go,” she said, and believed. It felt good. Terrifying, but good.

~*~


Chapter 4: Each In His Prison
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AN: So I've just dicscovered you can put in notes. I know, I know, I'm a little slow. But I wanted to say an enormous, heartfelt thank you to the lovely people who have reviewed and favourited and given the fic a go - thank you Mrs_J_Potter, Darker Side of Happy, Dani, mikalily, CatGryffindor, Michelle, Shelby, the_elder_wand, jadelouise, Xx3picJourn3yxX, lilylvr, jaceni, alleycat, BehindTheMask, cupidstunt, Danceinggirl109, Darkness_Never_Leaves, DRACOS_GAL_1994, dragoness97, Looney_luna_lovegood, mia1991, neski, pearlwriter, Rainy_Monday, Red_Rose_for_love, and last but by no means least, Tetys20 . Thank you so much!

Midnight

We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of a key, each confirms a prison
- The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot


Dawn moved across the sky like a spider, a creeping, stealthy thing. It spun a web of ghostly light over Hogwarts, until the dark bulk of the castle was a monstrous fly dying in its midst.

It was the first time in three years that she had not fled the sunlight, and she could not help but feel naked, bared to the world under its unforgiving glare. Even in the thin half-light, she fought an urge to find some shadowed corner, some patch of concealment in which lay at least the illusion of safety.

Her heart was hammering, fear oozing from her pores to lie damp in her palms and trickle down her back. There was no more hiding. There was no more time to prepare, only this: the slant of his back, proud and straight as he led the way, the thud of his feet on the flagstones an echo of her heart, the long groan of the doors to the Great Hall as he heaved against the rotten wood.

He threw a vexed glance over his straining shoulder. “Granger, despite my rippling muscles, I could use some help here. In case you’ve noticed, these damn doors aren’t opening themselves.”

The words jolted her. She fumbled for her wand, then said, “Stand back,” wondering why he hadn’t done the same.

“I wouldn’t,” he advised. “My father told me all about the charms he put on these doors. Just in case anyone was left, you know.”

Her arm dropped.

He blinked, and the flash of surprise was hidden as quickly as it had appeared. “Or perhaps you didn’t. Don’t tell me you haven’t even been outside in three years.”

“Considering what the castle’s become, I didn’t think wandering about in the grounds was a good idea,” she said, but some part of her felt small, almost ashamed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Draco said. “I’ve always thought the carnivorous spiders lent the place a certain ambience. An ambience of gruesome death and some disturbingly symbolic sticky stuff, admittedly, but given that you’ve spent the last three years shacked up with people whose conversational skills are restricted to shrieks of agony, it might make a nice change.”

She stared at him. “Was that a joke?”

“Could be,” he said dryly.

“Then it was in incredibly bad taste,” she said frostily.

“So is standing there while I dislocate my shoulder trying to get out of here.” There was an edge of malice to his smile. “I’ll mind my manners if you mind yours.”

She flushed. There was something incredibly irritating about being lectured on her conduct by Draco Malfoy, a man who’d always thought the most significant aspect of common courtesy was the fact it was indeed so dreadfully common.

“Do you think you could mind your mouth as well?” she said shortly, but tucked her wand away and went to lend her weight to the door. Teeth gritted, she stood beside him, pushing until at last with a screech no less human than the cries of midnight, the wood gave way.

It flung open so fast she stumbled and hit the floor in an ungainly heap.

When she got up, he was poised and smug as a cat, his balance as impeccable as his clothes.

“Falling at my feet?” he said brightly. “It’s a little soon for that, Granger. I haven’t saved the world yet.”

She bit back her reply: save yourself first, worry about the world later.

Because there in the burgeoning light, he seemed softer, younger, all blurred edges and pale shades. Only the lurid stain of the Dark Mark on his arm destroyed the image: she saw again the dreaminess in his eyes when he spoke of Voldemort, sharp contrast to his scars and his bitter words.

It seemed to her that she could not afford to pry at his weaknesses. Not yet, not until he could not betray her.

“Then we’d better get on it with it,” she snapped.

~*~

There is no silence in the cells. They lie there, the tortured and the dying and the captured, some still and some in the same endless motion as the sea, tidal in the rhythms of their pain. Even though the darkness is complete and all-consuming, he knows he is not alone because he hears them.

The sound of flesh on stone, scraping. The clink of chains. Footsteps are thunder on the steps, the roaring monster of their human storm. He has heard countless prayers whispered up to the unforgiving air, and he listens to them, a fallen god as they are all fallen here. In his mind, he answers, and so creates dialogue and with it the illusion that he is not alone, that none of them are alone in a terrible, self-made stony hell.

Please let them come for someone else today, they say.

Today or tomorrow or ten years from now, it makes no difference. You are here: they have already come for you.

Let me be brave, they say.

Wish for something better. Wish to be a coward, wish to be double-faced as a coin, wish to be one of the few they make their own if you break in the right, sweet way. It will be easier.

Let me die, they say. They all say it eventually.

And he says back to them: yes, now hush and dream of tender hands, and slip away like time, like breath, like hope.

Sometimes, amidst the small noises – breath and sobs and fingernails on metal – he hears something far greater. He hears the cessation of sound, a small sacred moment of silence.

He knows then that they have heard him, and escaped the only way they can. He blesses them, and then he forgets them because it is the only gift he can give them: he will not hold even their memory prisoner. In that, at least, he can deny his jailers.

Each day, in his cell, he lies motionless, unchained, endlessly forgetting. In a world of people waiting, for death or pain or mercy if they’re fool enough to believe that, he waits for nothing. He forgets and he dreams and he no longer even knows how to put a name to himself.

He does not know that in the blackness, it is him they pray to: he has forgotten even that.

They cling to his image as a talisman. They deify him, the fallen god, and whisper the name he had once: The Boy Who Lived.

~*~

The castle was surrounded by a thick wall of vegetation. Draco had hacked a tunnel through it to get in, and as she crawled through the cylindrical green space, she tried to ignore the insistent thought that it might close about them, tangle and strangle them before they could leave. At several points, she had to stop, jammed in the narrow passage while in front of her he cursed and hacked away at vines that were trying to reclaim their space.

At last they were free. She gasped as she came out into bright morning sunlight; it struck her eyes like a white knife, and the pain was instant and immense. Tears streamed down her face as she blinked, hoping her vision would adjust soon.

She had seen some light – she knew the tricks and shadows of moonlight, the warning glimmer of dawn, but sunlight was as strange to her as peace. It seemed an enemy then, vast and burning and ruthless, stripping her of all her secrecy. She fought it, and hated.

“Wait...” she said, irrationally afraid he would leave without her.

“Thank god we’re out.” He turned; his face was a blur, but she heard the sneer in his voice, slick as oil. “Don’t tell me you’re crying for that grotty hellhole!”

Rage surged up in her; her reaction came from somewhere deep inside, some fretful, wounded place that laid the golden days of Hogwarts over its creaking ruin like a shroud; that recalled fires and laughter and peaceful days of sunshine beside the lake.

“I-”

“It isn’t worth it.” He cut across her, callous. She paid no attention to the bitterness in his voice. “I’d have burned it to the ground myself if the Dark Lord hadn’t done the job for-”

She kicked out and heard a satisfying thud as her foot connected with his shin.

And then things moved so fast she could barely keep track – a scraping sound, her feet knocked from under her so she fell to her knees, a hand yanking her hair, and suddenly, a prick of pain at her throat.

She gazed up at Draco, her neck at such an awkward angle that she could barely breathe. The sun was directly above him, and it threw a narrow white line about his silhouette. He was reduced to a black form, his fingers digging into her scalp, the hand that held the knife at her throat absolutely steady.

A cold, calm little thought seeped through her panic.

He went for the knife.

Even when he had the choice, he went for the knife instead of his wand. That’s what I’m dealing with. That’s who he is. Murder before magic, weapons before words.

His voice was soft and slow. “You seem to have forgotten a few things, Granger. I’m one of the Dark Lord’s chosen few. You should treat me with a bit of respect.”

“You should earn it,” she hissed back. Ideas unfolded like chess moves; small steps, a sacrifice, large gains. Where his body was, a quick calculation of angles and space. The freedom of her hands, and the occupancy of his. How much he needed her. How much he underestimated her. How skilled he was.

Move after move, until she saw the path she needed.

She jerked her head forward; his reaction was so fast she didn’t even have time to feel relief – the knife was whipped away because he didn’t want her dead (not here, not now, not yet, whispered her mind); her elbow went up and out as her hair tore from her scalp, and landed right in his groin.

She heard a groan, and he folded like a sheet.

Hermione scrambled to her feet, brushing her eyes clear. She turned, ready to kick the knife from his hand, but he was otherwise engaged.

He was shaking; a strange noise came from him, husky and repetitive, and it was a moment before she realised it was laughter.

When he raised his face to her, it was equal parts agony and amusement.

“You bitch,” he gasped. She fancied there was a note of surprise in it. “You Mudblood bitch-”

She drew herself up, ignoring her stinging scalp. She could afford to lose some hair. She could not afford to lose this skirmish. “I guess I’m not the only one who’s forgotten a few things, Malfoy. I’m not as helpless as you think. I survived the war.”

Those grey eyes were narrowed, giving nothing away. “Because I let you. Or had you forgotten that part?”

She could not forget. Three years ago, he had shown one swift flash of mercy. It had brought them here, now. It was a fragile thread from which to spin this mad enterprise, but it was there.

“No,” she answered softly. “I hadn’t forgotten.”

“Oh. Good. Because I don't think I'll ever forget the screaming agony I'm in.”

She eyed him as he cautiously got up, looking a little green around the edges. Shame curled in her stomach. How had she expected him to react? She’d seen already how he had changed – Voldemort had honed his violence, until Draco himself seemed a weapon. It hadn’t been her smartest moment.

“Sorry,” she offered.

“Tell it to the children I’m never going to have,” he muttered. “I’m not the enemy here, Granger.”

“Try to behave less like it then,” she said, but with little anger.

He looked like he wanted to say something in response, but she wasn’t the only one trying to regain some control because he only offered her a cool stare, then produced his wand and said, “Accio Firebolt!”

It came zipping through the air; a chill went through her at the sight of it. “Is that...”

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said curtly, settling onto it. “It’s not as if Potter’s going to be playing Quidditch any time soon. If it helps, he’d probably get a warm glow from knowing I’m using it to thwart the Dark Lord.”

“Is that your trophy?” she said coldly. Hermione suspected that if Harry had known Draco had annexed his broom, he’d get a red mist rather than a warm glow.

Draco gave her a long, hard look before he said in an empty voice, “It was the Dark Lord’s gift. A reminder, if you want, that I’ve failed him too.”

The colour leached from her face. She had forgotten that Voldemort had tasked Draco with killing Dumbledore.

“There must be another way,” she said, a touch desperately. “Thestrals?”

Draco’s look was contemptuous. “Granger, there’s hardly a wizard left in the country who can’t see those revolting beasts. Look, just get on the broom. It’s this or you can make your own way through the Forbidden Forest with whatever fluffy, demented mutations that imbecile Hagrid left there.”

It was no choice at all. Reluctant, she sat behind him and gingerly put her arms around his waist.

“This is not how I thought saving the world would start,” she muttered at his back.

“This is almost exactly how I thought the world would end,” Draco replied as the broom rose into the air. “Don’t get any ideas, Granger. Your hands had better not move.”

She nearly choked, but then the broom shot forward and the wind ripped away any answer she might have had.

~*~

It was a long, cold flight. The bright light burned her eyes, and so after a while, she kept her head bowed against his back, shielding her vision as best she could. The rags and tags of her clothes were little protection against the icy wind; the warmth charms she whispered took the worst of it away.

Hogwarts shrank into the distance; she did not look back.

Below them, the world seemed markedly unchanged. The fields were a patchwork quilt of green and gold, stitched together by fences and roads. Clouds skimmed by; flocks of birds wheeled in vast, amorphous shapes.

Then she began to see changes.

A bridge broken in two as if a giant’s fist had smashed down onto the middle of it. An entire street of a village reduced to rubble. As the roads became more prominent, the settlements more thickly clustered, she realised where they were heading. It was inevitable, she supposed.

London loomed before them, immense, complex. Gothic buildings squatted next to high-rise glass confectionary, an architect’s tale of Cinderella and her Ugly Sisters. Lights speckled the city; the river was a blue ribbon winding through it.

She felt the vibrations in his body as Draco muttered a series of spells. Some she recognised – defences sank over them, shields: he fumbled for something in his clothes, raised it to his lips and then passed it back to her.

The gleam of Felix Felicis was unmistakable. She had to hand it to him, he had come prepared. Hermione gulped down the last of the potion, and handed back the empty vial.

Almost at once, they began to descend, swooping down into the very centre of the city. Even knowing how much magic protected them, she felt vulnerable. But no one so much as looked up as they circled over the busy streets. She recognised Canary Wharf, glittering in the distance; the scent of the Thames reached her.

They landed in a dingy alley, unseen. Draco tucked the broom under his arm, and said, “We can Apparate from here.”

“Where are we going?” she asked, quiet.

He gave her a brilliant smile; his eyes were distant as the moon and just as barren. “Home.”

He had caught her before she could register what that meant; he turned, and pressure bore down on her like stone, as if she were being buried alive, air squeezed from her-

They reappeared on a familiar doorstep, and she only had a second to gasp in air before she heard a familiar voice, sleek and cold and purring, whispering, “What a pretty present you’ve brought me, darling.”

She raised her eyes to the tall, terrible figure before her, the knowledge of betrayal almost painful. Those dark lips were parted, her tongue flicking over them with sensuous promise. Her eyes were vicious as knives.

Bellatrix Lestrange.

~*~

Thank you so much for reading! I would love to hear what you thought.

Chapter 5: Sparrows In The Gutter
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AN: Enormous and heartfelt thanks to the lovely people who read & reviewed last time: thank you Dani, the_elder_wand, CatGryffindor, Lara87 and the awesome OctoberCat19. You are wonderful!

All comments & criticism very welcome.

Midnight

And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands
- Preludes, T.S. Eliot



The world slowed until time was thick and glutinous. Felix burned in the back of her throat, in the pit of her stomach, and her body obeyed it thoughtlessly. Her legs folded; she prostrated herself upon the steps of 12 Grimmauld Place as if Bellatrix Lestrange was a goddess.

“Dark Lady,” she breathed, as if overawed by her mere presence. Felix crafted the words for her. “Is it truly you?”

Bellatrix’s laughter was smoke and promises. “You train your pets so well, Draco.”

In Hermione’s mind, the future stretched out taut as a tightrope, and she edged along it, knowing that to misstep would be fatal.

Lay still, oh lay still and submit. Be a coward, and bore her; safety is tedium, is fear, is submission absolute.

She reached out a hand to the hem of Bellatrix’s robes. The scent of gardenias wafted from them, oddly feminine for a woman so strong and so cruel. There was no need to fake her tremors. “Great Lady...”

“Show some respect,” snarled Draco, and kicked her hand away. It only stung, but she clutched her fingers to her chest as if it had been mortal. “You do not touch the Dark Lord’s chosen ones.”

She kept her head down, hunched in upon herself. She could not stop the humiliation that swept her as she quivered at their feet, but with luck coating her tongue and teeth like honey, it was the wisest course of action. She had to be anyone but herself. Hermione Granger was valuable; she needed to be worthless.

“Sorry...” she whispered, careful to keep her voice high and girlish. “So sorry...”

Nails dug into her scalp, a languid caress. “How obedient she is,” Bellatrix murmured. “Where did you find this one, Draco?”

“Quaking on a street corner, covered in glamours and charms. Not much ability, you understand, but she used it to market herself.” He snorted. “Her mother’s gone and her father doesn’t care. Same old song. Whatever she earns goes on potions that make it all better.”

“Pure?”

“Hardly.” He oozed contempt. “Mudblood. Practically a Squib. Good enough to practice on.”

She dared not think what that might mean.

Bellatrix leaned over her; Hermione felt the darkness close in with the oppressive scent of gardenias, and something sharper, wilder beneath. The sickly-sweet of blood, perhaps, of rotting things. She slid a hand along Hermione’s spine as if she examined a dog.

“The Dark Lord praises your little experiments,” Bellatrix mused. “Perhaps I should try for myself. Broken things are so...beautiful. Those shiny pieces, warm in your hands, all warm and wet and still...”

“Eventually,” remarked Draco.

“I could break her,” Bellatrix said reflectively, and her fingers fluttered like rain on the back of Hermione’s neck, then closed about it. “I could make even this drab little insect beautiful. She’d shine in the end, like they all do, shine and be silent and hollow as him...red and white, that’s what beauty is, my darling, red and white and broken things...”

Her grip was a choker on the back of Hermione’s neck, spreading and squeezing.

She knew what to do; she turned, slow and sluggish, let her mouth hang, her face empty of anything except adoration. She prayed that three years and luck were enough of a mask to fool Bellatrix Lestrange.

That face had not changed; she saw echoes of Draco in the scornful droop of her lips, the arctic edge of her beauty which even madness could not obliterate. Only the eyes were different, dark and cryptic as a tomb, empty of anything human.

Behind her, Draco was staring with something close to disbelief.

“Great Mistress...” she whispered, and tilted back her head so that her neck was as stretched and bared as her nerves. She offered herself, a scrawny sacrifice on the altar of his home. “Make me beautiful, please.”

Bellatrix drew back as if repelled, and the morning light replaced her. “So obedient,” she said with a sneer in her voice. “So dull. I thought you had better taste, Draco.”

“I do,” he said, his composure recovered. “But the Great Lord demands, and I gladly obey him.”

The mere mention of Voldemort was enough to soften her; something stirred in her eyes, dreamy. “As you should. Your father never learned to bend his stubborn neck. I warned Cissy...”

“My father is a fool,” he said, words that had the sound of rote to them.

“And your mother is a fool for him,” Bellatrix answered swiftly. “Make her see reason. She angers the Great Lord, Draco, and only his mercy has saved her so far.”

Hermione had to admire his control. He did not so much as twitch. “Maybe you should talk to her, Aunt Bella.”

“I have talked. She stares and she cries and she screams prettily if I tell her to, but she will not answer me...her love for me is not what it was.”

He swallowed. All else was stillness and silence.

“I see,” he said softly.

“Make her see,” Bellatrix snapped. “The Great Lord sent me to tell you that his patience grows thin. They have a fortnight to tell him what they know, and then he will send them the way of all the other traitors. And they will deserve it!”

Her cloak whirled about her – perfume billowed from its voluminous folds, flowers and death, and Bellatrix was gone in a swish of magic.

Hermione let out a breath she didn’t know had been trapped in her throat. The cold of the stone steps sank into her, or maybe it was shock: she stared at Draco, who was the same listless grey as the city smog.

“She tortured her own sister?” she said.

His voice was husky. “I didn’t know.”

She felt a stab of unexpected pity for him. It was quickly overriden by other concerns. “Did you know she’d be here?”

“No. But she doesn’t believe in warnings.”

“Looks like it runs in the family!” she pointed out. “If she’d recognised me-”

“She didn’t.”

“Because of the Felix,” she threw back at him.

His smile was vicious and, she felt, designed to annoy her. “I make my own luck.”

“And when it runs out?” she said tautly.

His mockery faded; he looked her at her with an emotion close to puzzlement, as if the harsh light revealed something in her that he had not suspected. “That’s why you’re here.”

~*~



Inside, the house was much as she remembered. The grime was thicker, dust shifting in clouds under her feet, but other sets of footprints showed that Grimmauld Place had not been abandoned after the Order left. She felt a strange sense of duality stepping through it, as the Hermione of now and the Hermione of then met and meshed in its walls.

She knew it had never meant anything other than pain to Sirius, but she had good memories of this place. Harry and Ron bantering; the Weasley twins concocting their endless pranks, comfortable meals with the Order full of hope and plans.

Everything and nothing had changed.

Draco moved in front of her, spells lighting up the place one by one. With a touch here, a whisper there, he threw back the shadows. It did not reassure her. Adrenaline thrummed in her veins, driven by uncertainty.

She waited, and when she judged he had relaxed a little, said, “Tell me about these experiments.”

He froze. Then said in a cool voice, “No.”

“Is that what you do?” she pressed on, relentless. “Pick out girls and give them hope, then hand them over to You-Know-Who? Were there others like me?”

The face he turned to her was blank as an eggshell. “No - they were quieter. Do you practice being a shrew, or does it just come naturally?”

“Don’t try and fob me off with insults. What happened to all your ‘little pets’?”

He was close suddenly, and she was startled by the heat of his body, mere promise of the fury that filled his eyes. “What do you think happened, Granger? What do you want to hear?”

“The truth.”

“Here’s the truth, then, and I hope it’s music to your bloody ears. They died. One by one by one they died, and they died so the Dark Lord could see how loyal I am. That’s how he measures our loyalty – in blood, in bones, in the people we sacrifice to him. And if I can’t find a way to save my family, he’ll ask me to sacrifice them too.”

The silence was immense. Inches away, she saw him suddenly with the same duality as herself; he was a killer and a threat, and a boy stood alone in a world of dust, his only luck a drug in his veins.

His whisper had the intensity of a curse.

“And I might just do it.”

He left her stood in the middle of the corridor, suddenly glad of the glimmering lights and all that they held back.

One by one by one they died.

~*~



In the thunder of the club, they love her. These are the things she knows: the beat and her body and the wonders that no one else believes.

She dreams of mermaids in the sea as her hips curl like breaking waves; she knows their language, knows their siren songs too. Her head is full of Crumpled Hornsnacks and cheap beer; her arms are loaded with bracelets that jangle as she dances. She’s silver and cream, long hair and long legs that shimmer in the dim lights.

The Jack O’Lanterns grin down at her, filled with captive fairies that shine until they die. No less grotesque are the grins of her customers, who flick Galleons onto the stage as she sways. Whatever is bitten behind their teeth, it’s nothing of starshine or wishes or wings.

In the bawdy atmosphere of Magic Touch, even her name is an asset.

Lovegood.

It doesn’t take much skill, what she does. The dancing isn’t so bad – it’s all curves and angles, like Fibonacci spirals. Hips and hands and shoulders, she trusts her own motion as she trusts her belief. The music is part of her now, familiar as the place where her mother used to be. She doesn’t mind much – there’s even a kind of peace in it, in losing herself in the rhythm.

As for the rest, when the music stops, leaving dark rooms and urgent whispers, well, there’s rhythm there too, and when it gets too bad, she drifts deep inside herself. She stops feeling, and instead she reflects on all the wonderful things that are still out there, hiding, hardly-known. Tarnished Junebugs and Schrodinger Cats and pots of gold sparkling at the end of the rainbow.

Summer sun and friends and coins that send you secret messages of hope.

There’s one coin that never leaves her, hanging in the spot above her heart. She waits for it to burn again, waits for the things that are strange and true. While she waits, she occupies herself. There are meetings in corners, disguised as trysts; she squirrels away information and sends it where it’s useful, inscribed on the inside of the gaudy jewellery she flings to her favoured few. Safe places, safe people; she fights as best she can, and keeps them safe while the music drowns out the world.

One day the coin will burn again. The message will change. And Luna will go to join them, because she loves them still, and because they are the cornerstone of her dizzying, imagined world, the unbelievable and the fantastic:

Jabberwockys and Vampire Bunnies and we can still win.

She dances in the glow of dying creatures, her hair a stream of silver, and she takes their money and she takes their time, and when she’s ready, she’ll take her leave, because these are the things she knows: the beat and her body and the wonders that no one else believes.

~*~



A host of noises came from the kitchen – bangs, clatters, the unmistakable sound of glass on glass. When she ventured in, Draco was methodically searching the cupboards. She caught glimpses of arcane objects within them. Instead of tins or mugs or plates, the Black kitchen was crammed with magical paraphernalia.

A yellowed skull leaned against a heap of half-burned wax candles; Boomslang skin was unmistakable next to jars of what looked like insects preserved in chemicals. Herbs and spices were surprisingly innocuous, but the hanks of hair that hung on hooks like clumps of basil were anything but.

Ingredients were lined up on the table. She recognised the Sopophorous Bean, the pale petals of asphodel, and silvery-green leaves that looked like wormwood. Over the hearth, a small cauldron was already heating.

“What are you looking for?” she said.

He didn’t look up. His voice was curt but civil. “Valerian root. I spent an entire week organising these cupboards when I moved in, only to have Aunt Bella-”

“You live here?” she squeaked. “But I thought your family had a manor house...”

He stilled. “Had. Past tense. Voldemort seized the house when he seized my parents. Grimmauld Place was the consolation prize. I’m the only male of the Black family left. They don’t tend to live long.”

“If they’re all like you, I can see why,” she noted.

To her surprise, instead of annoying him, her comment earned her a quick, brilliant smile. “There’s no one like me, Granger. Ah...”

He pulled out a cluster of shrunken roots. When he laid them on the table next to the other ingredients, she had a sudden, vivid flashback of sixth year and that first lesson in Slughorn’s class.

“You’re making a Draught of Living Death,” she said slowly.

He didn’t look up from chopping the roots, fast and efficient. “Took you a while.”

“Why?”

And then he did look up: his eyes were hard and grey as slate. “I want that Vow. I want you to stop questioning my every move. I want you to stop poking and prying and meddling in things that are none of your damn business.”

“You’ve killed people! That’s my business. You want Voldemort gone so people will stop dying-”

“No, I want him gone so my family will stop dying,” he snapped. “The rest of the world can burn.”

“It already has,” she said softly, and they stared at one another while the knife rattled on the table, his eyes familiar in their contempt. Yet he himself was a stranger, the distance between them more than the table and the tiles: she could not comprehend how he could care so little, how his world could be nothing more than the nucleus of his parents and himself.

Her mind was crowded with people, as her life had been crowded with ghosts in Hogwarts. She thought of Harry, of course, and of Ron and Ginny and Luna and Neville, beyond them the ranks of the DA, forever seventeen in her memories, some missing, some forgotten. Beyond them were her classmates and her housemates; her own family, safe at least, but distant as the stars through her own devices, the Weasleys and the teachers, the house elves, the goblins, the likeable and the repellent. All people. All important.

Suddenly he swore, and she saw specks of blood on the table, dribbling from the hand he had clutched against his chest.

She moved quickly, whipping out her wand. “Give me your hand.”

There was a moment when she thought he’d refuse, though she couldn’t comprehend why. Then he held out his maimed hand, and she saw how deeply the knife had scored into the tips of his fingers.

“It’s fixable,” she said. “You’re lucky.”

His smile was mirthless. “For now.”

As she healed him, he didn’t flinch. His flesh knitted smoothly; she was quite proud of her handiwork.

If only she had known these spells earlier. It might have made a difference.

He wriggled his fingers then went to wash off the blood. She expected something – thanks, a nod – but all he did was turn back to the table to examine the roots.

“They’re clean,” he announced. “I can still use them.”

“Aren’t you going to thank me?”

He gave her a startled look, and she realised it hadn’t even occurred to him. “What for? I could have done the job myself, Granger, you just got there first.”

She didn’t know what to say, then words came to her in a blistering torrent. “You ungrateful, arrogant, unethical toad!”

“Don’t hold back,” he said, sounding amused. “Tell me what you really think.”

“I think you don’t have a shred of courtesy in you! I don’t expect you to behave like a saint, Malfoy – let’s face it, there’s mould under rocks with more moral fibre than you – but if you want my help, you can treat me like a human being, not like one of your endless parade of slaves.” The bitterness bit deep. “Or pets.”

His eyes were narrow and glittering. “All this because I didn’t fall at your feet and vomit gratitude?”

She struggled for control. It came to her with air; deep forced breaths that gave her at least the illusion of calm. “I need some sign that there’s a person inside you, Malfoy, because it’s not looking good. Right now, I don’t believe you want the Dark Lord gone. I think this is just another diversion for you. And for all I know, I might just be another of your little pets. Another experiment.”

“And if I say please and thank you and good day, how are you, Miss Granger, you’ll be miraculously convinced that the pit of evil festering inside me has vanished?”

“No. But I might be convinced that you can care about a cause enough to fight for it.”

“I know how to fight. Which, for the record, is where I have some reservations about you. Oh, you care about this cause, Granger, like you cared about your silly petition for house-elves. But I’m just not convinced that you care enough. I’d kill for my family, and I’d kill to be free. Would you?”

The challenge dangled before her like a noose.

She looked back at him, this boy who knew what it meant to drive home the knife, to whisper the curse, to be left victorious and breathing and alone in a space which had held two and had room for only one. Could she be like him?

No. Never.

But could she kill...? It was a different question. And the answer frightened her.

“I...don’t know,” she said finally.

He nodded, as if it was what he had expected. “That’s why you need me, Granger. So don’t think you’re doing this to help me out. You get something too. You get to keep your conscience.”

She had to swallow hard to free her throat of the lump there.

~*~



The message is nonsense to anyone who doesn’t know their secrets.

Second star to the right, straight on till morning.

It takes Luna long hours to etch in such tiny truths. She does it between dances, lying on her stomach on her uncomfortable bed with her wand moving in increments. The coin around her neck dangles over the edge, turning and gleaming in the dim light.

It hides another message that she whispers into the etchings. No one can reach it unless they know the key, and only her sacred few do.

“Clear out Chapel Weston. A Death Eater has caught its Secret-Keeper.”

The Death Eater in question breathed that into her ear, weight pressing her flat to the wall. He paid his price, and now he has paid hers; the door slams shut, and she is theirs for a given value of time. Such dances are intensely private, conducted behind locked doors because she is known to be loyal. After all, her father is withering away in the deep, silent parts of Azkaban. Voldemort holds her to ransom.

None of them understand that all they have done is ensure that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain by his downfall.

So they come into her arms, and hide their smiles at the turn of the lock (for its key is only a word), and they think her as easy to open, empty and pleasure-filled, treasure-filled as Ali Baba’s cave. She takes care to cultivate such folly, telling them of wonders and nonsense, and when they need her to laugh, she thinks of her friends, and it comes easily.

They lay their hands on her like explorers planting a flag into some uncharted, exotic territory, and thinking her conquered, never look for danger.

When she plucks her wand from its hiding place (counterfeit, not quite as good as her first wand which they confiscated because we protect our loyal subjects so well you’ll never need magic again, sweet little Luna), they’re so surprised.

Imperio, she whispers, and her will is always greater than theirs. She’s known pain at the bottom of a pit, and it ended. She’s seen a war lost, and she survived. And she will not be broken.

She’s always gentle with them, because there’s no need for violence.

So they pay her price, and she pays theirs, and then she etches what remains into her bracelets.

“There are Immolating Fireflies there too,” she whispers to the bracelet. “They’re only native to Chapel Weston and Atlantis, so I think it’d be nice if you could save them too.”

Her message completed, she seals off the spell. Now no one can find it unless they know the secret: that if you run your finger over the words and whisper I believe in fairies, and clap your hands three times, you’ll hear her voice, speaking of modern miracles. Using Muggle fairytales to hide their secrets seems a neat sort of balance to her.

And tonight, when Ernie Macmillan squeezes into the crowd, she’ll wend her way to him, distributing touches and glances on her way like confetti. She’ll toss him a bracelet, one of a multitude spinning in the air and only he and she will know that this one will keep a few more people from Azkaban, or from lurking just out of sight.

She slips the bangle back onto her wrist.

And then as she does each day, she practices her sleight of hand: Luna the rebel vanishes under make-up, stowed beneath corsets and veils and exotica. No one knows that her wand has replaced a bone in her corset. No one knows that she has Transfigured the coin around her neck into costume jewellery.

Finished, she reaches under her bed and draws out a dog-eared copy of The Quibbler, which is ridiculous enough to have survived the censors.

She thumbs through and reads about mermaids off the coast of Scotland and gremlins in Durmstrang’s attics, and a dreamy smile curves over her mouth, because the wonder’s gleaming on her wrist: we can still win.

~*~


 
Draco made the potion in silence. She had to admire his deftness: the natural ability he’d had in school had been honed into artistry. At last the Draught of Living Death was ready, clear as water and smelling of myrrh and mildew.

Hermione couldn’t help but feel uneasy, even though they had discussed it in Hogwarts. “You’re sure this is the only way I can get into Azkaban?”

“Certain. They’ve put up all kinds of extra defences now. Polyjuice Potion and Animagi are useless. No one alive can pass through unless they’re tested and approved by the Dark Lord. He doesn’t want an escape.” His lip curled into a sneer. “As if Potter was even capable of it.”

“Have you seen him?” she said.

“Of course. Everyone goes to see The Boy Who Lived To Regret It.” He filled a cup from the cauldron. “Here.”

She didn’t want to ask the next question, but could not stop herself. “Do they...do they hurt him?”

He watched her for a long time, and she knew what he thought: weak. In the shimmering fumes from the cauldron, his face was obscured, blurs and ripples. “It’s not as if there’s any point. He’s beyond this world.”

Her shoulders sagged with relief.

“He’d be better off dead,” Draco added matter-of-factly. “At least he’d be a martyr then. He certainly managed to act the part when he was compos mentis. Now he’s mental compost, he might as well get the lamenting hordes he wanted.”

“Harry wasn’t like that,” she snapped.

Draco only raised his eyebrows in answer. “You got to see the Boy Wonder, Granger. The rest of us saw the Boy Wan-”

“Oh, shut up!” She slammed her hand on the table. “Let’s get on with this. Give me the potion.”

“You know, it’s a tad unflattering that you’d rather be comatose and mostly dead than finish a conversation with me,” he remarked. “But you’ll have to hold off. If I throw you into my toolkit, it’ll probably break a few bones, and I’m still feeling tender from the last time I annoyed you.”

He went out for a few moments and came back with what looked like a black briefcase. He opened it onto a disturbing row of silver implements encased in foam. Draco murmured a series of spells that she recognised as increasingly complicated unlocking charms. When he finished, he lifted up the foam to reveal a narrow black space dropping away.

“There’s a ladder fixed into the wall,” he said. “Climb in.”

She felt intensely nervous at the thought of voluntary incarcerating herself in anything belonging to Draco Malfoy. But this was the last time she would need to trust him without any security, she reminded herself. After this, an Unbreakable Vow would tie them together.

“Do I need to take the potion?” she muttered as she scrambled in.

“Yes. Azkaban’s wards will detect anything living. Technically, you’ll be dead. You enjoy the rest: I’ll enjoy the silence.”

It was only a short climb down to the floor, which was made of stone. Lumos showed her a surprisingly cosy room: there was a chair and some books, and even a garish rug on the floor.

Draco floated the potion down to her. Despite the fact it was steaming, the cup was ice-cold. She settled herself into the chair as comfortably as possible, then extinguished her spell.

She raised the potion to her lips, and drank.

It slid through her like ice, settling in her stomach and spreading outwards. She felt old and slow as a glacier; her thoughts dribbled to a halt, and there only darkness and cold and...and...

Nothing.

~*~



Far away, a clock was striking. The sound seemed to drag at her, pulling her from oblivion. She rose through layers of grey as if she swam some strange and fathomless ocean.

She stood in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and she was not alone.

“So you came back to us,” said Cho Chang, her arms wrapped about herself. The fatal gash across her throat was livid, beaded with blood like a ruby necklace. “We knew you would.”

“You’re one of us.” Michael Corner spoke in a strangled hiss; his feet twitched as they dangled in the air. The Death Eaters had strung him up by a noose in front of the House banners; he was straight as the sword that the Slytherin snake curled so lovingly about. “You always were.”

“You betrayed us,” a new voice said, one she didn’t recognise. The dead crowded in on her, missing eyes and broken limbs and ghastly wounds.

“...leaving us...”

“Malfoy is one of them.”

“He’ll betray you. It’s in his blood, breeding and betrayal...”

“Didn’t you hear them screaming in Grimmauld Place? All those girls, left in the cellars to die after he took the sunlight and the warmth and the hope from them. They break their nails trying to claw the locks of the doors, and they chew on their lips because there’s nothing else, and we can hear them screaming in the bowels of the house...”

She turned around, trying to find the speakers. Insidious, their words twined about her like wire.

“And you’ll come back to us too, dear girl, if you don’t stop.”

She whirled and found herself face to face with Lupin, kind and creased. His eyes seemed sad, hollow, and a stain spread wide over his heart. It was the only colour in his greyed form, crimson as a rose.

“You’ll be red and white and broken, and he’ll think you beautiful, because he only knows how to destroy. Go now, be safe. Leave this mad enterprise. Live. Remember us.”

But the others overrode him, their cries surrounding her. “Avenge us.”

They took up the call like a mantra.

Revenge...revenge...revenge...

~*~




“Granger!”

She stirred, a moan escaping her. Someone was shaking her. Breathing was hard, stifled...

She opened her eyes onto Draco, and realised it was his hand over her mouth. The light from his wand threw spooky shadows across his face, and for a moment the words resounded through her: it’s in his blood, breeding and betrayal…

It had been a dream. A horrific dream, but nothing more.

"Sleeping Mediocrity awakes," he said lightly, and drew back his hand. "For a moment there - a horrifying, deeply upsetting moment, I might add - I thought I was going to have to wake you with a kiss."

She sat up, feeling groggy. In a way, the banter was comforting. It was familiar when everything else was new and unknown. In an uncertain world, she could rely on Draco to be an enormous prat. "Well, it would have worked."

He looked taken aback. "Would it?"

"I can't think of a more traumatic way to wake up, but yes, the horror probably would have dragged me out of an enchanted coma," she said dryly.

"I think you mean the ecstasy," he informed her loftily.

"No...I mean-" She got to her feet, and the thin grayish shaft of light coming through the hatch was a sharp reminder of just where she was. Her calm vanished. "Are we here?"

“Yes,” he said. “Ready to inextricably tie yourself to me?”

They had done it. They were past the guards.

The thought sent shivers through her. “Not really,” she said. “But let’s get on with it.”

It was the first step in this mad enterprise: it would bind them together until the end, until victory or betrayal, or the relentless grip of death. Just her, and Draco, and an Unbreakable Vow.

~*~



Thank you for reading! I'd love to know what you thought.


Chapter 6: Beauty In Terror
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Huge thank yous to the fantastic people who reviewed and favourited last time. Thanks Dani, Ardeel, the_elder_wand, darker_side_of_happy, Rayb008m, CatGryffindor, Sara_Sj, AnotherWeasley13, cullen8, dreamdancer7, kimmikki13, Liljsweetie, Octobercat19, Oneirik, pinkandblack123, pinky, tomsgirl8586, Wil_Blake, and finally, fabulously, xRhymesxWithxWitch.

Midnight

I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition
- T.S. Eliot, Gerontion




The water dripped onto the stone like a heartbeat. Nothing else disturbed the silence: even the wind was noiseless, slipping through the bars to flutter across his clothes.

Viktor Krum lay like an effigy upon the stone ledge, atrophying inside his own skin. His arms were crossed upon his chest, the stump of his hand blackened and encrusted with dirt.

Hermione could hardly reconcile this still figure to the boy she had known once. She drifted towards him, seeking something she could recognise. His face was slack, his eyes empty of any animation. Dirt begrimed him: she had almost vomited at the smell when she first climbed into the cell, a foul mix of ordure and sweat and the sickly-sweet reek of rotting meat.

On a shelf in the opposite wall, they had left Viktor’s wand in a display of arrogance that infuriated her.

“How could they leave him like this?” she said, her voice trembling. “How long has he been here?”

“Not as long as some,” Draco said. He moved to set his back to the door, wand and knife at his side. “I suspect Krum would think himself lucky, if he can still think at all.”

She touched her wand to some of the ghastly wounds that covered Viktor, anger fuelling the healing spells that she laid upon him. Bruises shrank and cuts were reduced to mere seams as she worked. “What did they hope to gain?”

“Gain?”

Draco gave a soft laugh. She turned to glance at him, and saw his smile was as sharp as his weapons.

“You still don’t understand, do you?” he said. “This isn’t about gain, Granger. This is about loss. It doesn’t just matter to the Dark Lord that he’s won – it matters that everyone else understands exactly what they’ve lost and how deeply they have failed. That’s where he finds his pleasure – in your pain, in the dark shattered pieces of yourself that’s all that remains when the despair has consumed you.”

She wanted to say stop, to say please, but she needed to understand just what it was she fought: even now, her mind was coldly analysing his words, his expression, picking apart the strain in his voice. A thought nagged at her, something she should understand about him...

“He’ll be as personal and intimate and slow as your first lover, Granger. He’ll harrow you, body and mind and magic, and when there’s nothing left but tatters, he’ll leave you to decay in the darkness and mourn what you once were.”

“Viktor...” she croaked.

“Not him. Not yet.” Something close to respect might have glimmered in his face. “They cut off his Snitch hand and he still wouldn’t break. Pity. He’s only prolonging the agony.”

“Not anymore,” Hermione said, and turned away from him because she couldn’t bear to see his face at that moment.

She clutched the homunculus tightly. Then she touched her wand to its forehead and whispered, “Wake.”

Gold light flowed over the figure and sank into it. Her eyes, though, were on the man, caged so long in his own flesh.

Viktor blinked, and then he gasped for air, and the sound was harsh as a curse.

He sat up slowly, and she felt unexpectedly nervous, unsure of what might have passed in all these long years. When his dark eyes met hers, she felt the shock of recognition – that old intensity, as he stared like a man whose world had ceased turning.

“Hermione?” he said in wonder, accent fainter than she remembered. “No. It cannot be.”

“It is,” she said, her throat suddenly thick with tears.

“Or it’s Polyjuice Potion,” he said flatly, getting to his feet. “I have heard of such tricks before.”

She approached him: he was taller than she recalled, glaring down his nose at her with a stubbornness Hermione recognised very well. His lips were badly bitten, his arms covered in marks, and he was rigid as stone when she touched his face as she had once before, long ago, before a kiss in Hogwarts.

“No tricks,” she said, and she held out her wand. “Take it. It’s mine. Check.”

His face didn’t soften a whit, but he pointed the wand at her and cast a number of spells that clung to her skin like mist. She knew them: truth spells, charms of revelation, and last, he said quietly, Leglimens, and sent her back to the only place now free of the war: her memories.

She stood beside the lake in Hogwarts, as exposed under sunlight as he was. Beyond them, she could see two figures walking – themselves, as teenagers, playing clumsy courtship games.

“So it is you,” he said, and the faintest of smiles touched his mouth. “Hermy-own-ninny. I thought-”

He cut off. She could not help but see his injuries beneath the unyielding light: old scars, the uneven line of his nose which had clearly been broken, his missing hand. There was very little of him to cast a shadow, and what remained was all bones and bruises. Regret surged over her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, stumbling over her guilt. “I hid in Hogwarts...I was so afraid...”

“Why are you apologising to me?” he demanded, and his face was open and startled, all his wariness gone. “Do you think I blame you for any of this?”

“If I’d left sooner...”

He shrugged. “If this and if that. If you had come sooner, you might be dead.” He paused. “They said you were dead.”

She gathered herself. “Wishful thinking.”

He was as grave as she remembered. “It will not be wishful thinking if you continue to keep company with Malfoy. He is dangerous.”

“Yes,” she said steadily. “But not to me.”

“He is a monster,” Viktor said, and a stream of Bulgarian followed, none of it sounding flattering. “You cannot trust him-”

“I know,” she said. “Which is why I’m making him swear an Unbreakable Vow. And I want you to be our Bonder.”

His silence was profound.

“You are mad,” he said at last. “Typical English girl, lovely, but mad like all the English. It is the tea. It stews your mind.”

She half-smiled. “Maybe. But someone has to stand up and fight.”

“There are better allies.” He hesitated, then took her hand, fumbling a little. His fingers were rough, but gentle. “In my house in London...they searched it, I know, but they will not have found anything. My trophies...there is a gold cup. Look on its base. There is a present from an old not-quite-friend that will help you. I kept it from them, even from him when he took my hand.”

“How?” she said.

He smiled, but it was full of secrets and sadness. “Better not to ask, my poor mad Hermione. You will have far greater worries when you have a serpent clutched to your heart. The Dark Lord will be the least of your dangers.”

Before she could answer, he ended the spell: the sun vanished, and there was only the three of them in the stone cell, pressed between past and future with nowhere else to go.

~*~



Night in the city is chaotic and fractured. It’s all dazzle and edges – light glancing from passing cars, streetlights mirrored endlessly in the shiny glass of high-rise buildings, headlights and neon and the cherry-red glow of cigarettes.

In it, a man can lose himself.

And Ernie Macmillan does more often than not. He loses himself and so he loses anyone who might be following him.

The brief flash of magic is lost in the London lights; a whisper is nothing amidst the bored chatter of city slickers, the laughter like gunshots, the blare of horns and the distant rattle of the tube. He might as well be invisible, a suit and a briefcase better camouflage than a flask of Polyjuice Potion. His spells are things of subterfuge – cast in the electric haze of the city, no more noticeable than a leaflet trampled underfoot.

He relies on being ordinary. He keeps his head down, gets on with it, works and works with the tenacity of a bulldog. A fistful of good exams got him that job in the Ministry, in the Department of Magical Communications and he’s careful to appear more stupid than he is.

He works long hours, and they think it’s because he’s slow. If anyone remembers that he was part of Dumbledore’s Army, they look at his stolid expression and his fumbled spells, and his meticulous but dull projects, and put it down to hormones or peer pressure or hunger for power.

He’ll never be promoted, of course – the Death Eaters take no chances. Once every few months, they dose him with Veritaserum and quiz him. Have you seen these fugitives? Are you loyal to the Dark Lord? Have you performed any illegal magic?

The lies trip from his tongue easily, because he never knows they’re lies until afterwards.

It’s Luna’s work, as charming and graceful as she is. He’s always had a knack for charms, and he designed this one, but casting it on himself was too risky. It temporarily wipes out his dangerous memories – in those moments of oblivion, he’s cowed and loyal, a testament to Voldemort’s power.

He thinks, sometimes, of how careful her hands were. She laid him down on her bed, the door locked, her time bought, and as the charms sank into his skin, her hair streamed over one shoulder like a great silver river that carried him away. In the dim room, she was the only brightness, her eyes vast and dreamy and kind.

“Isn’t it strange?” she murmured when it was done. “All these years, and you still need magic to forget what’s right.”

“I need magic to remember too,” he muttered glumly.

She smiled, and even that had an otherworldly quality to it, as if she floated between reality and whatever fantasy place she hid herself in. “Oh, I don’t think that part’s magic. That’s just friendship.”

So when they come for him, he casts the spell silently, and empties out like a vein. When they are done, and he has lost nothing more than his dignity (strange how much he used to think that mattered), he goes home. Until he sees the bracelet beside his bed, he remembers nothing.

And then he is himself again: Ernie Macmillan, who has set aside his pride because he refused to set aside his morals and who still knows how hard you have to work for anything that is worth having.

~*~



Hermione sat on the dank stone floor, opposite Draco. Viktor settled himself between them, expression blank.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Don’t thank me,” Viktor said shortly. “I don’t think it is it a good thing, this Vow. I think it will only protect you for a time, until he cannot resist the call of the Dark Lord. If I could keep you safe-”

“You can’t,” Draco snapped. “Don’t you think it will be a touch obvious if you escape in my presence? I might as well paint a dotted line on my abdomen and write open this end on myself.”

Viktor’s eyes were too old. She felt, for a second, just what he had lost down in the dark. “I know I must stay. I am no fool. I must wait for freedom, and hope.”

“Then if you’ll hurry up and make the Vow,” Draco said, “we’ll let you get on with the wait. Even I can’t stay here forever before one of the guards comes to check my progress.”

Draco leaned forward and grasped Hermione’s right hand with his. With a mirthless smile, Viktor poised his wand over them.

“Do you, Draco Malfoy, swear that you will fight against the Dark Lord to the best and the end of your ability?” Hermione said, her voice quavering a little.

The magic licked around their hands like a chain. It threw a demonic light upon their faces, and Draco seemed less human than ever, as much flame as flesh.

“I do,” he said.

“And do you swear that you will not betray me by word or thought or deed?”

“I do,” he said, but the words lingered on his lips as if drawn out.

The magic drew tighter about them, and she felt it as a tangible weight upon her.

Then he spoke and said, “And do you, Hermione Granger, swear that you will fight the Dark Lord to the best and to the end of your ability?”

Startled, she gazed at him across their joined hands. He only looked back, eyebrows raised.

“I do,” she said, stung. The flame lashed about them like a whip.

“And do you swear that you will not betray me by word or thought or deed?”

Thoroughly insulted, Hermione glared at him, and dug her fingernails into his skin for good measure. “I do.”

The Vow flared bright, and bit deep in her hand like a striking snake. She could not help but think of Viktor’s words: when you have a serpent clutched to your heart...

The light vanished.

“It’s done,” Draco said, sounding bored. “Now can we get on with saving the world?”

~*~



Ernie walks into the dingy block of flats where he lives, as he does every day. The door squeals on cue, and the stairs are a long slog because the lifts are broken. His feet echo in the cold stairwell, the only other sound the keys jingling in his hand.

Inside his flat – apart from grimy white wallpaper and a dog-eared sofa and furniture scavenged from other people’s leavings – there’s a stamp album. He fills it with fastidious care, careful to let slip about it in conversation so that they laugh at his stupid Muggle habit.

And tonight, he clutches his briefcase and flicks through it to a certain page which is really no different from any other page, except for this: when he touches the torn green stamp, the world whirls around him as the Portkey takes him away.

He lands in a museum, a human one full of shoes. It’s closed for the day, but it wouldn’t matter if it was open, because he’s in the storerooms, crouched in a musty corner. He recovers quickly, and hurries down the aisles: he opens a draw, and another Portkey whips him into the between place, where he’s neither here nor there, real and unreal all at once.

Each time he lands in a muddle of items: a tip in Cambridge where he scratches in the muck for a crumpled picture frame. An old library full of books in a collector’s house, where a dry tome about tort law flings him into a Scottish antique store. He travels the country in a breathless rush – lamp, chair, button, Aberystwyth to Hull to Cornwall – until at last, he touches the last Portkey in this carefully laid trail, and emerges in an empty side street.

He brushes himself off, legs a little unsteady from a hard landing. The Polyjuice Potion is a foul brown potion in a grubby bottle, looking for all the world like a piece of litter. He gulps it down, and stifles his groans as his body contorts and twists. When it’s over, he tosses the bottle back onto the floor and makes his way to the main street, another man in a suit going somewhere in a hurry.

King William Street is busy: bars overflow with city boys and the city girls with high heels and shiny hair. He winds through them, unnoticeable.

The corporate offices are closed. But one of them has a blue plaque on its wall, commemorating a tube station that everyone thinks is abandoned.

King William Street
City Terminus
1890-1990


Everyone except the select few.

He pauses and brings out a mobile phone, flicking it open as if it’s ringing. The gold disc ornamenting the handset is a little flashy, to be sure, but no one notices anything unusual as he pauses by the wall, chatting away in that overloud, brassy voice that used to be his, before he learned the value of silence.

He works hard at his disguise. He’s certain no one has followed him, but certainty isn’t enough anymore. The details are important.

Details like the hyphen between the dates on the plaque. It isn’t in relief: instead, it is a slot, like the kind you might find in a fruit machine.

Carefully, his thumb levers out the gold circle: a Galleon, a match to the one that Luna carries. As he rambles on about stocks and shares and the changing market, he switches the phone to his other hand: the coin goes into the slot, and the spells activate.

Across the road, the pedestrian light malfunctions. The traffic jolts forward – people are shouting angrily at one another in a storm of what are you doing and are you fucking blind and you could have killed me, you twat.

As heads turn to the commotion, and horns join the shouting, the bricks behind him part and Ernie Macmillan slips into the narrow passageway that leads down to King William Street station and the headquarters of the Order.

~*~



It was harder to leave than she thought.

“You must go,” Viktor said, and gave her an awkward one-armed hug that only made her realise how much she had missed human touch. “I will be fine, Hermy-own-ninny.”

That old nickname made her smile, and Draco roll his eyes.

“Do you have to reactivate the charm?” she said softly. “Can’t you do anything?”

The coldness was back in Draco’s face. “Anything I do puts us at risk. The best disguise is no disguise at all. Do you think Krum’s such a fragile flower that he can’t take a little more pain? He’s got another hand and two feet to lose before the situation’s desperate.”

“He is right,” Viktor said gruffly. “About the disguise. The situation is already desperate, but you cannot spare me. His kind despise mercy, and they would be quick to see any such magic. I will endure.”

She swallowed. She had fled once before, and left a man to die. She was very afraid that she was doing it again, and it hurt like hell. “I’ll come back.”

His glance was intense, and full of a heat she did not grasp. “I am certain of it.”

“Get back into the case,” Draco said. “There’s another draught on the table. Take it.”

She did not obey. “While you do what, exactly?”

He met her eyes levelly, and he was beautiful and sinister as an angel of death. “Disguise us.”

“No...” she said, understanding just what that meant.

“Hermione, go,” Viktor said. “Please.”

“No,” she said. “Not this. Not now.”

“Do you have a better suggestion?” Draco said icily.

She was silent: the vast library of her memory was open to her, and she searched it with determination. She had not spent three years immersed in study to fight with cruelty and violence; she was better than that, they were better than that.

He moved – and she stopped him, the answer bright in her mind.

“A screaming charm, and a numbing charm,” she said calmly. “And then you do what you have to. I can make sure no one sees a trace of the charms. Viktor won’t feel a thing, but they’ll think he did.”

Draco looked at her as if she was an animal that had performed an interesting trick. “That could work,” he mused. “Better sit down, Krum. You’re about to have the terrifying experience of screaming while Granger works her magic on you.”

“Not on him,” she said. “On the homunculus charm.”

“That is dangerous magic,” Viktor commented.

She flashed him a smile that, had she but known it, was a mirror image’s of Draco’s: cool, arrogant, sure. “I’m a dangerous witch.”

She could not understand his unsettled expression.

~*~



The disused tube is full of noise. Above it, the Northern line trundles by. And within it, the Order bides its time and gathers its force.

The wizard at the entrance checks Ernie thoroughly. He’s young and battle-weary already. The familiar marks of magic are on his face – a scorch mark from an unwary spell, a few round scars like raindrops on his cheek.

“Business?” he says when the inspection is done.

“I have an urgent message,” Ernie answers. The bracelet is tucked in his suit, quite safe. The Death Eaters think Magic Touch is just a seedy habit, that Luna’s a schoolboy crush he ogles every week. She gives her bracelets to her favourites, everyone knows that, and her favourites are as often Death Eaters as they are ordinary men and women.

“Go on through,” the boy says.

He climbs down the spiral staircase, careful not to slip on the dust. They leave most of the entrance in a state of decay, just in case a human should stumble in by error. No one has, yet, but you never know.

Down in the main tunnel, King William Street is a hive of activity. There are desks set up against the walls, and crude partitions made from old screens and hastily erected curtains. The station is office and hospital all in one – St Mungos is just an abattoir for Voldemort now – and beneath the human city, the last magical sanctuary thrives.

“Ernie!” Neville clasps his hand briefly and grins. He’s tough and hard as granite these days, but his charm endured. “Anything?”

“From Luna,” he says, passing over the bracelet. It’s copper, which is an emergency. Gold is for gossip, green for good news, silver for a defeat. Black is for a death. He’s carried too many of those.

Neville runs his fingers over the words on the inside, then claps his hands three times and announces to all and sundry that he believes in fairies. A few people grin, because even now they know how important it is to laugh.

Luna’s voice fills the air, soft and beseeching, and there’s a matching softness in Neville’s eyes as he listens.

Clear out Chapel Weston. A Death Eater has caught its Secret-Keeper. There are Immolating Fireflies there. They’re only native to Chapel Weston and Atlantis, so I think it’d be nice if you could save them too.

They move into action. Ernie is so used to it now that he hardly realises people look at him with a certain awe as Neville roars orders and musters people while Ernie lists spells and supplies they need, putting his methodical mind to use. At last he’s done: part of him wants to draw his wand and charge into battle with the others, but he knows that no one else can do what he does. No one else can plod and dissemble and sit in the enemy’s heart as he can.

It’s hard work, long work, but he’s used to that. As Neville vanishes to the surface with his chosen few, Ernie goes down to the hospital, where so many lie, too many. He heals until he is exhausted, pulling back increments of humanity with each spell.

Some will never recover. Susan Bones gibbers at her lamp, her hair a birds-nest no matter how often it's combed. Professor Flitwick limps from bed to bed, advising as best he can in his garbled voice, because a curse deformed his mouth and left him unable to cast a spell properly.

When Neville returns, left side of his face streaked with blood, he gives Ernie a little nod. Then the people of Chapel Weston pour down the steps after him, silent and shocked, but alive. Some are weeping. Others only drift in like ghosts. They are haunted, and no words seem to stir them.

“How many?” Ernie asks.

Neville is dropping in a chair, his shoulders slumped. “Five,” he tells the ground.

Ernie glances around. “And forty three saved,” he says quietly.

“Five lost,” Neville repeats grimly. He lifts his head, and his eyes are full of fire. “Not good enough. They had new spells this time. The things they did...god, the screams, the way they screamed...”

He shudders.

“Where are they getting them?” Ernie mutters.

Neville gives him a long look. “We need to find out.”

A tube rattles overhead, the last of the night. Ernie leaves in its wake, sliding back out into the city and melting away. He is as methodical in his return as he was in leaving – a different path of Portkeys takes him back to his dingy flat, where he waits for the Polyjuice to wear off and puts on the TV to drown out his gasps of pain.

Tomorrow, he’ll start to hunt down the spells and their maker, tracing them like a bloodhound. It will take time, but he’s used to that. He won’t give up. That’s in his blood, his pure blood that got him that job and will get him revenge too, if he’s patient.

And he is. He waited for the end of the world: and now he will wait for its rebirth, which is he is sure must come.

~*~



She woke again in the small room, air cold in her lungs. This time, Hermione could not recall any dreams of the dead, and she was glad. She climbed up the ladder, emerging in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place once more.

Draco glanced up. She seemed to feel the vow like an old burn on her wrist, then the sensation was gone.

The silence was unnerving. He was making another potion: this one she recognised as the start of a felix brew.

“Making your own luck again?” she said.

“As ever,” he said. There was tension in his hands as he diced and chopped, wrung juice from ingredients. “Tell me, Granger, do you trust me now?”

She wanted to say yes, she should have been able to say yes, but instead she found herself reflecting upon the Vow he had sworn and wondering where the loopholes were in it, where there was a crack wide enough to slide a knife into her back.

Her hesitation was answer enough. His mouth took on a bitter curl.

“Astounding,” he said. “I’ve bound myself to you to the point where I will actually spontaneously combust if I betray you, and you’re still sceptical. They may gossip about the fires in the Malfoy loins, but it’s strictly a metaphor.”

“A disturbing metaphor.”

Draco looked amused. “I do believe the thought of my loins has disturbed many a woman,” he agreed. “But don’t worry, Granger, you’re not my type.”

“And what is your type, Malfoy?” she challenged. “Girls who don’t fight back? The kind you can lock in a cellar and leave to rot?”

The shock blazed in his face for only an instant, but it was enough: later she could not erase it from her mind, the O of his mouth, the mask shed and the truth beneath it more terrible than she could have imagined.

And then it was gone – he was closed, bristling with hostility.

“What’s yours, Granger?” he fired back. “Quidditch players with muscles where their brains should be?”

The attack took her completely off-guard. “What’s Viktor got to do with this?”

He slammed down the chopping knife so hard that the table rattled. “You nearly endangered everything we’re doing for that Bulgarian oaf.”

“You would have tortured him-”

“I would have done whatever was necessary to keep us safe!”

“You just don’t understand, do you?” she said with exactly the same coldness that he had spoken with in Azkaban. “If we destroy Voldemort with his own methods, we’re nothing but shadows of him. And once we’ll kill for the sake of appearances or for safety, how long before we kill for the hell of it, how long before it stops mattering, how long before the difference between us and him is nothing but a name?”

“You don’t understand how powerful he is.” His fingers were crunched into fists: his violence was barely restrained, perhaps by nothing but a vow and a burn on his wrist. “We will have to kill him. There’s no other way.”

“There’s Harry,” she whispered.

He snorted. “Potter? You want to use Potter as your weapon of mass destruction? Granger, if you want a Drooling Champion, then Potter’s your half-wit. If you want a Duelling Champion, well, I’m just not sure that a catatonic vegetable will cut the mustard.”

“But he will frighten Voldemort,” she said very calmly. “Even the rumour of Harry...”

“And how do you plan to spread these rumours? I’m not exactly at the hub of high society anymore, and you’re a wanted fugitive. Between us, we could fight crime, but writing fiction is beyond me. And Rita Skeeter is just a mouthpiece for the Dark Lord these days.”

She smiled. “Viktor gave me a clue to some allies.”

He stared, then it clicked. “Ah. A little tête-à-tête where I couldn’t hear.”

“We need to break into his house in London.”

His smile was teeth and tension. “If we’re going to do it, we had better make it look like a random attack. We’ll have to vandalise the place. Torching it’s the best way to eliminate our tracks.”

She gave him a level look. “You just want to burn his house down.”

“Business before pleasure,” he said brightly. “And what a pleasure it’ll be.”

She could not help but to think of the other words, of Draco saying that’s where he finds his pleasure – in your pain, in the dark shattered pieces of yourself that’s all that remains when the despair has consumed you.

“Will it?” she said, mild. “And if I burned your house down, what would I find in the ruins?”

His smile vanished. His eyes were watchful, secretive. And when he spoke, his voice was hard and sleek and vicious. “Nothing living, Granger. Nothing but flesh and bones.”

Now she knew. She recoiled from him, beginning to understand what Viktor had said to her, what he had meant when he said the Dark Lord is the least of your dangers.

He smiled, as if he knew what she was thinking. “Don’t worry, Granger. As I said, you’re not my type.”

His words chilled her. But the Vow was warm on her wrist, and she had no other choice. Nothing but this: to fight the Dark Lord to the best and to the end of her ability, with a serpent clutched to her heart.

~*~



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Chapter 7: Savagely Still
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Midnight

Footsteps shuffled on the stair
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out into fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still




The knock on her door came in the middle of the night. It might have been surprise on Draco's face as Hermione opened it fully-dressed, one finger holding her place in a book. Her body clock was still attuned to darkness, and in it she found a peace and a privacy that could not be maintained beneath the harsh searchlight of the sun.

He recovered his composure almost instantly. “We’re going to Krum’s,” he said.

The Unbreakable Vow was a warm reminder on her wrist. It seemed to heat whenever he came near, or perhaps that was her imagination.

“Where have you been?”

He smiled tightly. It was meaningless flash and dazzle, nothing pleasant behind it. “It would be a little suspicious if I didn’t keep up the day job, Granger.”

“It’s gone two,” she said. “You left hours ago.”

“Busy day,” he said shortly. “The resistance have been making a nuisance of themselves.”

She stared at him. “There’s a resistance?”

“Of course there’s a resistance. It’s about as effective as a three-legged kitten, but every now and then they hobble into action.” He rubbed a hand through his hair. “The Order of the Phoenix are probably behind it, if they’re anywhere. The Dark Lord has been trying to destroy them for years.”

It brought a small smile to her lips. “That must get up his nose.”

“Somewhere a bit more painful, I suspect,” he murmured, acid in the words.

She felt a sort of pride at that, and a kinship with them. “Do you know who runs it?”

The dim light made his eyes dark as ink, dark as blood. His smile had a sudden, cruel slant. “I know who I’ve killed, Granger. Parvati Patil might have been braver than her sister, but she wasn’t smart enough to dodge a knife in her heart. Slughorn put up a good fight – better than I thought the old fraud was capable of, but-”

“Stop it,” she said, but he was relentless.

She stepped back: he advanced, closing the space between them until the creaky wooden flooring was their chessboard, move for move, he clearing the people from her memory like a master sweeping the pieces off in relentless conquest.

“-but he still died weeping, died like a coward. There was Clearwater, bled right out after Sectumsempra took off her hand, Davies, that oaf – FiendFyre, screamed like a banshee.”

His voice was soft, his eyes were angry, and she saw the echoes of murder in them.

“There’ve been so many of them, Granger, so many of your little friends who sneered at me and thought they were so much better. They’re all the same under Avada Kedavra, though, all green with envy, green and dead.”

She was nearly to the wall now, the Vow scorching on her wrist, and the candle threw shifting orange lights onto his face. She saw his savagery, saw the shadows pooling all about him like a cloak, and then under it, she saw something else.

Loss.

“Why do you hate them so much?” she said, voice steady, forcing the appearance of calm: she let his anger break on her as uselessly as waves broke on rock. She made herself clinical, analytical, and did not think of the names he had said or the suffering they had endured.

Trembling and narrow as the candle flame itself, he stared at her while she waited.

Draco turned away with a suddenness that made spells spring to her lips. She let them die on her tongue, let the silence spin out until it was tense and hollow and opening up like the night sky to subsume them: they two were not enough to fill it.

He said, “Because they killed my friends.”

And the silence was broken. The space was packed with other ghosts, new ones that she had never considered when the dead of Hogwarts wept in the midnight hour.

“People thought Flint was a moron, you know,” he said with what she might have called affection in someone else. “And he could be. But when they ambushed us, I thought he’d run and he didn’t. It wasn’t his damn fight, but he stayed and he stood with us even though he’s always been rubbish at combat magic and we all knew it. His spells just bounced off the walls. He couldn’t have hurt a fly.”

His breath sawed on the air. Draco began to pace like a caged panther, from shadow to shadow, hunched shoulders, hooked hands, urgency.

“Longbottom’s curse took him in the stomach. He just folded over. He shouldn’t have been there! They had no right.”

She stirred, but didn’t know what to say. It had not occurred to her that he valued his friends in the same way that she did. It had not occurred to her that he could feel as she did, she realised, and shame burned as deeply as the Vow.

“Pansy...I thought it was bad when she lost her leg. I went to see her afterwards, and she was crying. I thought it was because of the pain.” He laughed: it was a soft, surprised sound. “She was crying because the blast had burned off her hair, and she had a date with Zabini that week. When I told her how – how stupid that was, she just gave me one of her looks, and said Daddy will buy me a replacement for the leg, but where am I going to find a good wig before Friday? She was...she was unstoppable. I didn’t think anything could touch her after that. And then – and then this pathetic little spell killed her. A bee sting. How did they know she was allergic to bees? Who assassinates someone with a bloody bee?”

His words summoned them: she stood shoulder to shoulder with the enemy dead, and understood that there were no rights or wrong at the graveside, nothing but dirt piling onto wood.

Hermione felt his restlessness, his grief, and most of all, she felt his humanity then, as she had not before.

 So she said, “I’m sorry.”

Draco froze. His lips drew back into a snarl, and he spat, “Don’t lie to me!”

She opened her mouth to argue. But there was no point. He was full of rage, full of the dead, battle-weary in a way she was not. It wouldn’t help matters.

Instead she said, “You do know that we need the resistance if we’re going to overthrow Voldemort.”

His eyes were fixed on her, unreadable and still. “In case you’ve forgotten, Granger, that’s why I chose you as my business partner. I know we need them. But don’t expect me to like it. Don’t expect me to forget what they’ve done.”

“I don’t,” she said quietly. “And I won’t forget what you’ve done either.”

Perhaps the reminder reassured him – perhaps it was easy for him to be the cold, ruthless henchman, she thought as the mask slid over his face. Easier to forget, easier not to feel.

“I never thought you would,” he said. “Be ready in ten minutes – there’s a taxi coming.”

The door slammed behind him: the candle went out, and Hermione was left in the dark.

~*~



The camera snaps like a machine gun. Light flashes and pops: on London Bridge, the model shimmies against the background he’s chosen so carefully, tossing her hair, baring a bone-white smile.

The Thames is iridescent as oil behind her while the Houses of Parliament glow gold. It is a simple and patriotic image, exactly what he was commissioned for. Even in the middle of the night, the river is busy. Night owls tumble out of the clubs, chattering and clattering while black cabs swoop by in a swoosh of sound.

“Beautiful!” he enthuses, gesturing her to move over a little. She already knows her best angles, and he is merely catching them as a net traps butterflies.

“Now, wave the wand...” The witch points and twirls it with the same languid grace as she does everything else. “Aim at Big Ben, great, great. Okay, now let’s see if we can get you in the London Eye.”

She shuffles across. No one spares more than a passing glance. It’s just another weird sight in the capital. No one but the three of them is interested in what he’s doing.

“Arms up, the robe’s hiding those beautiful wrists...”

She obeys him, compliant, complicit as he takes picture after picture of the latest propaganda campaign for the Dark Lord and never shows the fact he feels sick to his stomach.

At last, the shoot is done. Dennis takes a quick swig from the bottle of water at his feet, and packs away the camera as gently as if it was his brother’s ashes he held in his hands. In a way, it is.

It’s all he has left of Colin now. That and the memories, which aren’t enough.

He never had much interest in pictures, not the way his big brother did. He doesn’t have the same gift for seeing a moment that should be preserved, and capturing it before it vanishes into obscurity. But that’s okay. He doesn’t need those things: the Ministry directs him, and he responds.

So he pins down the world as they’d like it seen, and sometimes he can even believe it.

“Creevey.”

Zabini strolls over, smooth in black robes with a sky-blue trim that is becoming the latest trend. Zabini started it, of course. He always does. Zabini doesn't follow fashion - fashion follows him. His instincts are impeccable and Dennis admires that: it makes his job much easier.

“Mr Zabini,” he says with a brief nod, picking up his bag.

“Have you got everything you need?”

“Yeah. Now it’s just some time with the spells to fix it all up. Has the slogan changed at all?”

Dennis can see the model watching them wistfully. Apparently she doesn’t care that Zabini’s girlfriends have a way of disappearing.

“No change,” Zabini confirms. “I’ve got another campaign I need you to start on as soon as. When are you free?”

Dennis shrugs the bag onto his shoulder. It’s a comfortable weight. “I’m booked up until May. What’s it for?”

“We’re updating the anti-terrorist campaign.”

Dennis looks at him, startled. Zabini’s eyes gleam with secret amusement. “Why?”

“The Government is concerned that people do not understand the magnitude of the threat. They want something with a little more impact. I believe I have just the idea they need.”

“Ah.” Zabini’s moving up in the world then, if they’re letting him create the campaign as well as deliver it. “Has the PR minister signed it off?”

Zabini’s grin is decidedly smug. “I certainly have.”

Dennis raises his eyebrows, and sketches a mock-bow. “Congratulations, Minister.”

Others so high in the Dark Lord’s hierarchy would take it as a slight. Zabini only chuckles. He claps Dennis on the back.

“Listen Dennis,” he says. “This campaign has to be a success. I need the best – I need you. Cancel those other bookings for me and you won’t regret it.”

“My other clients won’t be pleased,” he hedges.

“I’m a Minister,” Zabini says quietly. “I can make sure your parents are moved somewhere more comfortable. No one lives long in Azkaban. I could get them to a secure facility.”

Hope chokes him. He stares up at Zabini’s calm face. “Why would you help me?”

Zabini shrugs. “It’s a business deal, Dennis. We both benefit. Now, are you free tomorrow?”

Zabini’s the perfect publicist. He knows how to deliver news with a spin and a smile. Whatever this campaign is, it’ll be big. Career-making. And with Zabini's protection – his trust – Dennis can worm his way further into the heart of the Ministry. To the places and the people that no one else will see.

To the secrets that the Order need.

“Of course,” he says, and shakes Zabini’s hand heartily. “You won’t regret this.”

Not yet, anyway.

~*~



Behind Viktor Krum’s London house, the sky was beginning to lighten.

Cold, Hermione suppressed another shiver, but didn’t dare try even the smallest of warming charms. Too many wizards lived here: they might trigger an alarm.

Bishops’ Row was a byword for luxury and wealth, discreetly placed in the middle of Hampstead. Houses and mansions sprawled along its length, as different from the crabbed terraces of the inner city as tigers were from house cats. Brick walls and elegantly shaped iron gates shielded the inhabitants from unnecessary attention: thick screens of bushes and trees disguised their distaste as mere love of greenery.

It was in the middle of one of those bushes that she and Draco were crouched, her muscles aching. The taxi had dropped them a long walk away at Draco’s request. They had hiked through the bitter night, not speaking, and wormed their way into the shrubbery.

They were dressed – there was no other phrase for it – like ninjas. Robes would be entirely impractical for breaking and entering, especially on a house as well-defended as this one. She’d had to borrow his clothes, which were a little too big, but the trousers had hordes of pockets into which she’d stuffed anything she thought they might need and were the requisite black for nefarious deeds and general sneakiness.

Closer to the wall where the soil was thinner, the foliage fell away, revealing a narrow passage. It was here that Draco stopped. Quickly, he began to scramble up the high brick wall, finding finger and footholds in the crumbling mortar. At the top, he paused and glanced down.

“I’ll go over and unlock the spells on the gate,” he said. “Stay here.”

“There’s-” she began.

“Just do as I say!” he hissed. “I won’t be long.”

He vanished over the wall. She heard the light thud of his landing. With a roll of her eyes, Harmione followed him. Compared to Hogwarts, the wall was easy. She carefully edged over the wicked spikes cemented into the top, then swung down.

She landed behind him.

Draco whipped round, wand aimed at her throat.

“As I was trying to tell you,” Hermione said slowly and patiently. “There’s no need. I didn’t spend all of the last three years in the library.”

He gave her a sudden dizzying smile. “You’re just full of surprises, Granger.”

“Wish I could say the same,” she said. “But I think we both know what you’re full of. Did you assume I couldn’t scale the wall because you’re a chauvinist or just because I’m not Draco Malfoy?”

Draco looked startled, and then made a sound that might have been laughter or indignation. “A bit of both, actually. Most people I work with don’t like to get their hands dirty.”

She had to give him credit for his honesty. “I’m not most people.”

His eyes narrowed. “So I see. Any chance you can pick locks as well?”

“No.”

“Pity."

Draco led her through the garden. A far cry from the carefully landscaped grounds of the other houses on the street, this place had a lushness and wildness that appealed to her. Trees formed small dells, hidden from view. Flowers bloomed out of season in a riot of colours: white roses burst in the most unexpected places and she wondered what they meant to Viktor.

They passed the impressive front door and went around to a smaller trade entrance. Here, the path was worn.

“Does someone still live here?” she asked.

“The Ministry owns it now,” Draco said. “They seize the estate of anyone sent to Azkaban. Though of course, officially, Krum’s taking a career break, so they can’t do anything with his possessions except lock them up until they decide to dispose of him. But they check on it every month or so to make sure nothing’s gone. Which means this is going to be the entrance with the least nasty spells on it – killing your own is bad PR. Even Zabini would find that one hard to sell.”

“Blaise Zabini? What’s he got to do with anything?”

“He’s the pretty face on the ugly reality,” Draco said dryly. With a flourish and a murmur, he wiped one spell from the door. “And in demand.”

She let him work in silence. One by one, he stripped the layers of magic away. Some vanished with little more than a breath of air. Others spat sparks. One he dissolved with a potion.

At one point, he stepped back to let her unwind a particularly tricky sealing spell. It was a sign of respect she hadn’t expected, and when she untangled it after several minutes, he said, “Not bad. A bit slow, but not bad.”

“I’d like to see you do better,” she said, stung.

He nudged her out of the way, and produced something that looked like a lockpick. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch me excel.” The lock changed colour; a high whistle, like that of a kettle boiling, emitted from it. “Like now, for instance.”

There was a sharp click. Draco carefully turned the handle and the door swung open.

“We’re in,” he said with great satisfaction.

~*~



He has a portfolio, of course, full of public figures with porcelain smiles and empty eyes. It's a passport, of a sort. It labels him safe, approved, broken.

But he has another. It's hidden under a loose floorboard, and if the Death Eaters found it, even Zabini couldn't sweettalk him out of a grisly death.

The leather is a faded maroon, edged with gold. There is no Gryffindor house anymore, except here, in the pages where he keeps them all. Forbidden faces look out. There's Ron Weasley, squinting at a chessboard with an air of concentration, scribbling on a scroll and dripping ink all over his fingers. Hermione Granger is buried in a book, or a cause. The Quidditch team are streaking across the sky, meteoric and doomed.

And Harry. Harry Potter leaps out from every page. He is caught in a thousand expressions, a still life study of heroism. The pictures would be worth a fortune on the black market, where Harry has become an icon of the golden days.

To Dennis, he is a fallen idol and a sign of the times. He remembers when he thought Harry Potter was invincible, and he remembers when he learned otherwise.

Harry Potter couldn't save Colin. He couldn't even save himself.

In his studio flat, Dennis develops his photographs from the shoot. He magnifies them, capturing the girl's features in relentless detail.

Shelley Bates, he writes on the back. Model. Government supporter. Minimal magical skills. Interest in Blaise Zabini (same old, same old). Susceptible to Imperius. Notting Hill address. No known ministry contacts. Sample included. Conclusion: use limited, disguise only.

The photo goes into an envelope. With it goes a few strands of her hair that he plucked while rearranging a pose. He takes out a particular pen, filled with Oblivion Ink, and writes on an address.

This in turn will go into a post box, where unwitting Muggles will sort it and send it on to a destination that they will not remember ten seconds later.

He has sent on stacks of them. Images of the rich, the famous, the infamous. They thought he was taking their picture: instead, Dennis has taken their identity.

All the while, he sips tea liberally laced with Veritaserum.

It's a poison, yes, and it's dangerous, but he drinks a little every day. Like the Ministry, he too is immune to the truth. If he gets these strange palaptations every so often, if his fingers go numb sometimes, it's a small price to pay.

Because when they question him, as they do everyone, he looks them in their empty eyes, and he matches their porcelain smiles, and he lies his head off.

It's not much. It's not safe. But it feels like victory, and in this graceless age, he needs it more than ever.

~*~



The house was eerily silent. Between them, they disabled several more protective spells, but nothing that she wouldn’t have expected to see in any empty wizarding home.

In the large rooms, full of air and light, she felt conspicuous. And, for the first time, like a thief.

Pieces of art hung on the walls. It had the feel of a show home, swept clean and kept ready for visitors. There were two suits of armour at the bottom of the stairs that she stripped the Locomotor charms from. A massive crystal chandelier glittered in the atrium, poised at the join of four beams, throwing dozens of shards of light onto the most hideous statue Hermione had ever seen.

Why Viktor had decided a sculpture of a manticore would brighten up his entrance hall, she had no idea, but it sat in the centre of it like a warning.

“Which room did he say it was in?” Draco asked, picking up a vase to looked at something on the bottom. “I’ll say this for the Bulgarian boor, he has good taste. Or enough money to fake it.”

“Wherever the trophies are.” She glanced into room after room, all equally beautiful and functional. And hollow. She could feel nothing of Viktor in the house, in the lovely and impersonal artworks or the spartan furnishings. “Anything?”

“Kitchen and living room this side,” Draco reported. “There’s a safe hidden in the fireplace, but no sign of trophies. Maybe he just wasn’t as good at Quidditch as the papers say.”

“Ha ha,” she muttered. “Let’s try upstairs.”

He followed her up the massive curving staircase, all white marble and sinuous curls. It must have cost a fortune. It hurt to think of Viktor trapped still in that filthy cell, never able to play Quidditch again.

The stairs opened onto a narrow wood-panelled landing. She took one side: Draco took the other and they began testing and unlocking doors.

“Here!”

She hurried over. The room was small and dark and poky, yet she knew at once it was Viktor’s. There was a broom in a glass case above the headboard of the bed, which was a gigantic four poster that seemed oversized in the space. There was a picture of her – of them - beside the bed.

She picked it up, oddly touched: her fifteen year old self seemed a world away now, smiling brightly in her Yule robes. She had felt beautiful that night, adored. Everything had been glittering and full of promise. Everything had been different.

Hermione set it back, hands shaking.

The trophies lined the walls, carefully set on thick shelves. She walked closer, looking for the gold one he had promised was there. There were dozens: cups, plates, weirdly shaped figurines, bowls. She scanned them from top to bottom – then she saw it.

It was one of the smallest, barely bigger than her hand. She reached for it-

“Careful!” Draco knocked her hand away, voice sharp. “Think first, Granger. Do you play hopscotch on minefields in your spare time?”

She flushed, feeling stupid. She raised her wand and began to scan the cup for spells. Fortunately, nothing showed up. With a sour glance, Draco did the same, obviously not convinced.

“Nothing,” he announced. Then he frowned. “Except...a Protean charm?”

She knew then what Viktor had sent to her get. Hermione picked up the cup. And it was there, taped to the base, just as he had promised it would be.

A gold Galleon.

Sudden hot tears pricked her eyes. She could not help but remember the DA, and those days spent in the Room of Requirement, which had been such a sanctuary. Their faces floated through her mind, mixed with the bright flares of spellwork, and the sounds of cheers and laughter.

“What on earth is that?” Draco demanded. “Are you so hard up for cash that Krum’s letting you raid his piggy bank?”

“It’s a way to contact the Order,” she said, clutching it tight. “All the DA had them.”

He was silent. Then he said, “So that’s how you did it. I never could figure it out. Clever.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” she said, and she turned to him.

Draco didn’t flinch, he didn’t move as she pushed back the sleeve of his black jumper to bare the Dark Mark, leering out from his skin.

“I just adapted it,” Hermione said softly.

He was quiet, looking at the place where her fingers met his flesh with a kind of bemusement, and she found herself wondering how long it had been since anyone had touched him with any intent other than violence.

His eyes flicked up to hers. Her breath caught in her throat, and there was a strange, charged moment where she felt fear and wonder and confusion - and panic.

Hermione let go of him as if he was contagious.

Draco shoved down his sleeve, and said brusquely, “We’ve got what we came for. Let’s get out of here.”

~*~



“One minute,” Draco said when they reached the entrance hall. He disappeared off into one of the side rooms, and curious, she followed him.

He was crouched by a massive stone fireplace, groping in the hearth with a focus that confused her. Hermione edged closer - when she saw the gleam of the lockpick between his fingers, and the stout black safe fitted inside the fireplace, outrage filled her.

“I thought I was the one raiding Krum’s piggy-bank,” she snapped. “What on earth are you doing?”

He glanced back briefly. “If we’re going to blame this on Muggle thieves, we need to take something. Ah!”

Without a sound, the thick metal door swung open. He quickly leafed through the contents (as if he’d done this before, her mind supplied with distaste) and took out a number of small packages, and what looked like a jewellery case. All of it vanished into various pockets and pouches. He left the safe open, and got to his feet with the lithe confidence of a cat.

Back in the entrance hall, Draco picked what looked like metal charms out of his pocket. He laid them out on the floor, then said aimed at them with more care than usual and said “Engorgio!”

The objects expanded like balloons, and Hermione saw they were cans of petrol.

She knew it was necessary, but she still felt a pang of sorrow as he began to shake them over the beautiful art, the fine furniture, the relics and the antiques. The overpowering reek of gasoline fumes filled the air: she covered her mouth with her sleeve.

He was methodical, moving in a circle around the entrance hall. Soon anything flammable gleamed with a rainbow layer of petrol. She kept close to the door, well clear of the pools gathering on the floor.

When the last can was empty, he tossed it into the corner with a clatter. Then he took out his wand.

Hermione coughed politely.

Draco looked over, a touch of irritation in their eyes.

“Muggles don’t tend to light their fires with wands,” she said, and produced a box of matches.

Draco looked at them curiously. “Is this some sort of joke?”

“Watch and learn,” she informed him, and struck the match. It flared with a hiss.

“Handy,” he remarked, “for barbarians.”

He picked it out of her fingers, and tossed it onto the petrol-soaked hall. With a great gasp, flames burst into life-

And they heard a roar, like rocks falling, like the world crashing down.

The statue of the manticore, that ugly, huge statue, was suddenly filled with colour and life – and rage.

Vandals!” it roared. Too-human eyes glared – she was pinned under them, agape. “You dare defile Government property?”

It reared back onto tawny legs – it was huge, towering over them, a mismatched monster with a black, whipping scorpion’s tail that had a wickedly barbed sting. The lion’s body was mangy; and that too human face was ravaged and filled with fury. It snarled, revealing fangs caked in what looked like old blood.

“Oh...sod,” Draco said feelingly beside her. “Granger, run!”

She didn’t need to be told twice. They turned as one and sprinted for the door.

It slammed shut. She hit it hard, tugging at the handle. It wouldn’t open. She whipped out her wand, shouting every unlocking spell she could think of. Behind them, the manticore laughed – a sound broken and triumphant - and the fire crackled.

“You try!” she shouted, ducking out of the way. Smoke was belching from the flames – she quickly ripped a strip from her top and covered her nose and mouth.

Draco took out the lockpick and inserted it into the lock-

There was a flash of light, and he flinched back, shaking his fingers. With a sad little crunch, the pick dropped to the floor, misshapen and useless.

She had to hand it to him: he didn’t panic. Grey eyes met hers, steel and command in his stare. “I’ll distract it,” he said. “We need to separate. As long as we stay together, we’re vulnerable. These things are fast, but they don’t think much.”

“Vandals and thieves,” the manticore cried behind them, too close, too loud. “I smell the state's jewels in your pocket, little rat boy.”

They turned back to face it. Hermione hoped Draco had some experience of fighting manticores – she had only ever had a brief brush with one, in the battle for Hogwarts, and her strongest charms had slid off it like water.

“I don’t think you’re in a position to be name-calling,” Draco said with remarkable self-possession. “Those in glass houses – or indeed, gigantic mutant bodies – shouldn’t throw stones. But I’m prepared to put aside your rudeness and let you go in peace.”

A ripple of something – rage, loathing, or perhaps a emotion so inhuman she could not identify it – passed over its face. “You will let me go?” it said, disbelieving.

Hermione slid sideways, back towards the burning hall. Adrenaline flooded her veins like electricity: every sense she had worked with new clarity, new urgency.

“Indeed,” Draco agreed. “Never let it be said I am not merciful.”

Its strange green eyes narrowed. “Never let it be said that I am. You talk and talk and talk, rat boy, but I can smell your fear.”

“I think you’re confusing fear with my extraordinarily expensive aftershave,” Draco informed it. He never looked at her, never took his gaze from the manticore. She was almost behind it, but the smoke was thicker here, stinging her eyes.

“Let’s find out,” it whispered, and suddenly it moved, nothing but a blur of gold and black.

Its tail lashed out with horrific force – Draco leapt over it, cat-quick, and the panelling behind him cracked, spewing dust and splinters.

Charms wouldn’t work. She glanced up – and saw the chandelier, and past that, the massive beams of the roof.

“Draco!” she shouted, and pointed.

He glanced over – that massive tail swept him off his feet and flung him like a ragdoll into the banister. He hit it hard, and did not move. Her blood ran cold.

The manticore gave a exultant howl, and turned to her. It scuttled at her with a speed that seemed incongruous on so huge and grotesque a beast. Claws sliced the air – in reflex, she flung up a Protego charm that crumpled under its touch and if she hadn’t ducked behind a suit of armour, she would have been dead.

One massive paw dashed it aside – she was trapped, fire at her back, the manticore blocking her escape. Its eyes gleamed with satisfaction. The tail raised, bowed over its head like a spear poised to strike.

She felt the terror of death, the deep and ferocious desperation of life, and for the first time, an Unforgiveable Curse rose in her throat like poison. It seemed for a peculiar moment that they were equal, she and it – weapons chosen, the only end the death of one of them.

And Draco dragged himself up, clinging to the banister like a lifeline. He drew his wand, face grim and determined.

“Hey, ugly!” he shouted.

It paused – it glanced around.

Draco gave it a beatific smile. And he said, in a voice that was barely audible above the voracious flames, “Reducto.”

For a moment, she thought nothing had happened. The manticore’s face split in a grin-

A glass piece fell like a tear: it shattered on the ground.

And with a mighty groan, the chandelier plummeted onto its head. The air was full of glittering glass and metal.

Hermione leapt back, but even so, shards grazed by her, leaving a thousand tiny cuts. She didn’t feel any of them. She was already sprinting back across the hall.

“Can you walk?” she gasped out.

"I think I could lurch," Draco said with a grimace. "The chandelier was a good call. And my execution was excellent. It’s the world’s largest pincushion.”

“You did it wrong,” she informed him. “We need to get to the door.”

“I did not do it wrong. Dropping a chandelier on your foe is a classic move. Not to mention aesthetically pleasing,” he added, but his voice was a little shaky.

He took her offered support without complaint, and she noticed he was favouring his left leg. His face was a shade of grey that didn’t bode well. She half-dragged him to the door and positioned him under the lintel.

“Don’t move,” she ordered.

With a rattle of broken glass, the manticore shook off the broken chandelier as easily as if it were feathers, parting the clouds of smoke. Its head turned slowly: it saw them, and its mouth spread into a gruesome grin.

“Ah,” Draco said. “Or there is the infinitesimal possibility I was mistaken.”

“Really?” she said. Before it could attack, she aimed at the roof, and at the join of the four beams, now obscured. She prayed her aim was accurate. “Reducto!”

The spell flew from her with the force of a missile. The beams snapped with a vast crack: the manticore roared in victory – and several tons of roofing crashed onto it as she huddled back into the doorway, throwing up the strongest protective spells she had.

Debris bounced from her shield in red flashes. She felt her magic waver – and another spell overlaid hers. Draco, looking like death warmed up, was holding his wand in an unsteady hand. At last it was over.

“Granger,” he said hoarsely into the utter silence that followed, “that was almost impressive.”

~*~



With its death, the manticore’s spells were broken. The door creaked open, and they left behind a heap of smouldering rubble. Sirens wailed in the distance – the Ministry would not be far behind, so they apparated into a nearby park, and from there, across the city in random jumps until they could be sure no one had pursued them.

Only then did she feel the burns on her back and calves, notice the dozens of cuts and the grime that coated her.

But if she was in poor condition, Draco was far worse.

His breathing was shallow. When they staggered into Grimmuald Place, he was almost limp in her grip.

“Sit,” she ordered him. He toppled into a chair. “What happened?”

He raised a mordant grin. His voice was husky and faint. “The inevitable, Granger.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” she said briskly. “There’s not much I can’t heal.”

His eyes met hers. And then, slowly, as if every movement hurt, he stripped off the black jumper, and the black T-shirt underneath. She had no time to be embarrassed – her eyes were on the ugly purple rash, livid on his ice-pale skin, spreading across his shoulder from a small, oh, almost insignificant puncture wound.

Her heart froze. She knew what that was. She knew what it meant.

“It stung me,” he said. “Nothing heals manticore venom. It’s over, Hermione.”

“No...” she said, but he was right. He was right, and this couldn’t be happening.

“You know,” Draco said. “You weren’t nearly as insufferable as I thought you would be.”

And then, with boneless grace, and the sort of impeccable timing that had made the Malfoys famous, he fainted dead away.

~*~



Thanks so much for reading: comments adored!


Chapter 8: The Unattended Moment
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Midnight

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time
- The Dry Salvages, T. S. Eliot


Hermione had one second of pure panic. In it, she saw the end of hope, she saw the world vanish in ashes and carnage.

Then common sense reasserted itself, ironclad in three years of survival. She dragged Draco from the chair, marvelling at how someone who looked all angles and bones apparently had the density of lead. He thudded limply onto the ground: as long as he was upright, gravity would only speed the poison to his heart.

She felt his neck and found the stuttering pulse that beat on her fingers like rain, like something emptying away.

Her mind raced. He had only a handful of moments, and she held them, dice to fling and gamble and pray for luck.

She needed time; she needed to freeze the poison in his blood, to stop it cold-

And then she knew.

Of course she did. It was years ago now, years since Hermione had glanced in a mirror and met eyes as vast as a universe expanding into nothingness, and felt time stop. But she hadn’t forgotten. Not even close.

There were no basilisks in this house, slithering past the skeletons packed into the closets, but she didn’t need one. She’d had three years to pilfer the Hogwarts library, and she had devoured every book on healing she could find. She knew potions and charms, incantations and poultices.

And any healer worth their salt could see at once the use of the basilisk’s stare when reflected, refracted, diminished. It stopped time, stopped breath, blood – and disease. People had spent years trying to replicate it, hunting out the beast in dark and dangerous places. One wizard had succeeded.

There was only one small problem with the spell.

It needed power. If you didn’t have enough magic, it hurt.

And it was the only chance she had.

Hermione raised her wand, and traced the complex, looping lines of the charm. Pressure gathered with each motion, oppressive and ominous as the air beneath a gathering storm. Her wand began to glow, and she inhaled the smell of liquefying varnish.

She could see the rash spreading up his neck...

A last twist of her wrist – she gasped out the incantation.

Magic ripped through the air.

Draco jolted. A stream of orange light poured from her wand to his heart. His limbs stiffened, fingers pointed, feet warped into strange shapes as the spell took hold.

Sudden pain burned up her arm and through her body, an agony so sharp that her legs gave way.

She mustn’t drop her wand...

Hermione gasped for breath that felt like fire in her lungs. Only her determination to keep him alive stopped her from giving in, from folding around the pain and weeping. She could see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing but endure in a body that was boiling blood and shattered bones and muscles cramping into barbed-wire knots-

It vanished. She sagged forward, trembling. The coppery taste of blood flooded her mouth - she’d bitten her tongue. Hermione shakily spat onto the floor. One more bit of blood in Grimmauld Place wouldn’t make much difference.

She couldn’t stand. Every muscle was still quivering with the aftershocks of pain as her body tried to forget and failed miserably. Instead, she crawled over to Draco, the inches between them stretching like miles.

Tentatively, Hermione prodded him. He was stone to her touch, smooth and chill and lifeless. His face was oddly peaceful, like that of a sleeping saint.

As if.

“Never again,” she informed him in a rough voice. “Even to shut you up, it’s not worth it.”

It felt odd not to hear Draco answer, as if she missed being insulted at every opportunity. Hermione rejected the thought she was starting to get used to him.

She’d stopped his death. Now she just had to figure out how to save his life.

X – X – X – X – X


He’s the perfect publicist.

So when the mirror on his wall screeches like an owl, jolting him from sleep, he doesn’t panic. He composes himself, blinking away dreams like a man who has no time for them.

His voice is silk-smooth and calm. “Blaise Zabini.”

Thin grey light is filtering through his curtains. Dawn has broken, and he wonders what else has. That’s the only reason for a call at this hour. Somewhere, there is something that they need him to fix.

“Minister, apologies for waking you.” A voice issues from the mirror, which ripples like the surface of a pond before a departmental logo forms in gold and black. Department of Defense.

“No need,” he says. “I assume you require my expertise.”

“Sir. There’s been an incident. Viktor Krum’s London home – something’s destroyed it.”

The man sounds edgy. There’s more to his story, enough to jitter the official’s nerves and merit a wake-up call.

“It was my understanding that Special Services personally oversaw the defences,” Blaise remarks.

Special Services. It’s such a clever term. He thought it up himself, and used to be pleased by the neat symmetry of it. To the ordinary citizen, it recalls shiny school trophies. It’s full of implications that worm into the mind and eat away suspicion and rebellion. Service. Dedication. A job to aspire to.

A pretty name that lies over the truth, as much cover as the masks its members wear. Even Blaise is not completely sure which Death Eaters fill its ranks. He’s wise enough not to ask.

“They did, sir. But there was an, uh, incursion onto the property. Around thirty minutes ago, a complete structural failure occurred.”

That’s interesting. Especially given the malicious nature of the spells there. “Isn’t the last line of resistance a manticore?”

“It was, sir. It appears to have been killed by the debris.” Suddenly the nerves in the man’s voice are understandable. If the rebels can kill a manticore, they’re clearly stepping up their activities.

“I see. Any press?”

“Not yet. But the Muggles have noticed, sir. Special Services are already dealing with their police.”

“Very well. Send a car to me for eight. If any journalists contact you, tell them I’ll be holding a press conference at-” Blaise glances at the clock and grimaces. Barely gone seven. “Nine thirty. If there are any questions, use the standard responses.”

“Sir.” Relief saturates that one word. Waves of silver swell across the mirror, erasing the logo as the call ends. It’s going to be a long day. He’s already piecing together his statement: he’s preparing to tell them what they want to hear.

There’s nothing Blaise Zabini can’t spin into a palatable truth like Rumplestiltskin spinning gold from straw. He knows how to use his beauty, which is just genetics, good genetics, and he knows how to use his charm, which is just breeding, good breeding.

His mother is so proud. Whichever of her husbands was his father – not that it matters, they all look the same now, mouldering skeletons in a coffin – he served her well.

She never mentions his girlfriends. There’s a conspiracy of silence between them. Just as he learned not to ask where his stepfathers went, she will wear her smug smile when each soft pretty girl vanishes, and speak of other matters. When he brings the next, they sit in her cream and gold parlour. The girls gawp at her diamonds. They stammer and blush as the butler serves them while his mother wears her gaudy jewellery like Cleopatra and doesn’t bother to be polite. She knows she will outlast them.

It makes it easier, not having to lie to her. She couldn’t bear the truth.

In that, she is like so many.

People want to believe him, and he wants to be believed, so it works out well for everyone. He’s made headlines. Blaise of publicity, they like to call him. They’re fond of him. They cling to his words. They wait on his flashing smile.

Because underneath, no matter how well he phrases it, no matter how pretty the speech, they know the truth.

It’s the Dark Lord’s voice that comes from his throat. It’s the Dark Lord’s words he laces with thank you and in the public interest. They cover the papers in pictures of him so that they do not have to fill the pages with another face, with the red red eyes that watch them all.

And they pretend that the reason he always wears those long sleeves is a fashionable affectation.

Even his mother, who speaks of her husbands as ‘lost’, as if she’s put them down somewhere (one in a deep quarry, one in a muddy swamp, he knows that much at least), will not look at his arm.

And here’s the real reason he wears those long sleeves. Not because he’s ashamed of his Dark Mark. Not because he doesn’t want to frighten people. Not because it makes it easier for them to lie to themselves.

But because he wears the truth under his sleeve like other people wear their heart on theirs.

He has no Dark Mark.

X – X – X – X – X


Incurable. The concept stood before her like an unscalable mountain.

But she had frozen the manticore poison in its tracks, so if it could be stopped, it could be healed. She just didn’t know how.

Hermione ground her teeth. She could almost hear Draco in her head, saying something flippant and irritating.

So let me get this straight, Granger. I managed to smuggle you into the most impenetrable prison in the wizarding world right under the Dark Lord’s nose, break into an infamous traitor’s house and save you from death by disgusting mutant, and you can’t even save my life?

“What do you want me to do?” she muttered. “Ask the manticore how to cure its disgusting mutant poison?”

And she thought: yes. Yes, exactly that.

X – X – X – X – X


Hermione locked Grimmauld Place with the strongest charms in her possession. She had nothing on her but her wand and the jewels that Draco had stolen from Viktor’s house.

The city rush hour was in full swing, but in the crowds she looked like any other commuter, if one in a rather large cloak. She squeezed through bodies, fighting back panic at so many people.

Wrestling her conscience, she coaxed a fat wad of notes from a cash point with a spell. She was careful to note the bank’s address, swearing she would pay it all back later. But she couldn’t access her old vault in Gringotts, and her Muggle account cards were with her parents, miles and oceans away.

She dived back into the crowd, purposeful as the city boys striding past with shiny shoes and leather briefcases. The tube station wasn’t far – her ill-gotten gains bought a travelcard, membership to the commuter club that crammed the rattling narrow trains. Hermione leapt off at Oxford Street. This early, the shops were quiet. She walked into one in her shabby robes and walked out looking like any Muggle girl in new jeans and a pink top. A hat covered most of her hair: a pair of cosmetic glasses completed her look.

She moved through London with perfect anonymity. No one looked twice at her. No one even looked once.

When she reached Diagon Alley, she swung her robe back on, the all-important money safe in a purse. The bricks melted away and when she stepped through, Hermione was startled to see it had not changed. Here, at least, a semblance of normal life continued.

She saw no one she recognised, but was careful to keep the brim of her hat low just in case.

At Gringotts, Hermione joined the queue of wizards waiting to change money. No one chattered. No one looked up from their feet. She began to realise the normality was a surface sheen, like a fresh coat of paint over rotten plaster.

The goblin did not so much as glance at her as she handed over half her money. The notes were whipped from her hands and a huge pile of coins pushed back. Hermione left relieved, but puzzled. The goblins were snatching away Muggle money as if it were worth more than Galleons.

Still, she had what she needed. Her heart hammered fretfully. No matter that she was older, that she had immense spells at her fingertips: nothing could quite erase the sinister memories of Knockturn Alley.

It twisted away, still crabbed and dingy. She strode in as if she belonged, and no one corrected her. Very few wizards were about: that was odd. Surely this place should have flourished under Voldemort. But there were a number of boarded up shops, and even her destination, Borgin and Burkes, had an air of decrepitude.

The door creaked when she entered. Artifacts crowded it, many covered in a thick layer of dust. Hermione browsed, noting with distaste what looked like a shrivelled head, a mummified cat, other things which had undoubtedly once been living.

“May I help?”

The unctuous voice belonged to a wizened old man. His monocle glimmered in the dim light.

She turned, icy as a princess. She tried to put something of Draco’s sneer into her voice. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. My business is sensitive.”

Unfazed, the old man raised an eyebrow. “And my time is expensive, madam.”

She smiled, and opened her purse to show him the Galleons, nestled beside her stack of Muggle currency. “I am aware of that.”

His eyes widened fractionally. “Then perhaps we can do business. What is it you seek, miss...”

“Pinksworth,” she said breezily. “Eliza Pinksworth.”

He frowned. “I am, ah, unfamiliar with that name.”

Hermione scowled at him as if he were Ron and had said something particularly witless. She put a shrill note into her voice designed to make bats cringe. “Pinksworth! The Yorkshire Pinksworths, ten generations of upstanding northern magic-”

“Ah, yes,” he said hastily. “The Yorkshire Pinksworths. Of course. I recall now.”

As the Pinksworths were entirely fictional, Hermione doubted that. But if money talked, hers was giving Terry Wogan a run for his money.

“I’m looking for a...” she lowered her voice. “Device.”

“Indeed,” he said. “The kind one cannot acquire elsewhere, I assume.”

She gave him a thin slice of a smile. “Correct.”

He nodded, then shambled over to the door to flip the sign to closed. A snick of the latch locked it – she heard him mumble a few spells, securing it against all but the most persistent invader.

“Perhaps you might like to come into the back room, and we can discuss your specific requirements,” he said, leading her through a faded curtain to a small private room. Symbols glowed as she crossed the threshold – warding spells which enabled complete privacy. Glass cabinets lined the walls, heaped with arcane objects of every kind.

“I’m looking for a Time Turner,” she said bluntly.

He began to clean his monocle with a handkerchief, fussing at imaginary dirt. “As I’m sure you know, the Ministry’s entire stock was destroyed-”

“Which would be very inconvenient if I wanted to borrow one from them,” she interrupted. “But instead, I would like to purchase one from you. Privately. Discreetly. Swiftly.”

“The penalties for possessing such things are severe,” he hedged. “The Great Lord is known to mete out the punishments personally. He has purged most of them from the world.”

She didn’t have to think too hard to understand why. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I have no intention of committing some sort of vigilante attack on the Great Lord in times when he was not so great.”

“Mmm.” He watched her closely. “He is known to send his spies to seek out any devices that might remain.”

She slid off her robes to show her unmarked arm. The wariness did not fade from his eyes.

“Come now, madam. That is hardly proof in these days of Imperius Curses and hostages.”

“What would be proof?” she demanded.

“A cup of tea,” he said. “Laced with truth.”

Hermione hesitated. But she needed the Time Turner. “On one condition.”

“Are you in a position to be making demands?”

She stared pointedly at his shabby clothing. “Are you?”

His lips drew into a narrow line. “Very well.”

“You can only ask me if I am working for the Dark Lord. Then you must give me the antidote.”

His shoulders relaxed. “I will respect your secrets, Miss Pinksworth. We all have them.”

He set out a pair of crystal glasses. Into one went Veritaserum, into the other the antidote. She drank the potion, shuddering at its overtly sweet taste. Her head felt light, as if she were not quite herself.

“Are you working for the Dark Lord?”

She looked him in his faded brown eyes. “No.”

The antidote was bitter on her tongue, but it washed the fuzziness away.

“Then we can negotiate,” he said. “I have such a device. A curio, but it may not be quite what you are looking for. It dates from the fifteenth century, and belonged to an earl’s daughter. Alas, as it was a gift from her father, he imposed strict limitations on it. It cannot be turned more than twenty four times. And I will not sell it – but you may borrow it for a sufficient fee.”

“That will do,” she said. “Though if I can’t buy it, I expect a reasonable discount.”

His expression of indignation was practiced. They began to haggle in earnest, and Hermione was surprised to find herself enjoying the process. At last they settled on a price.

She carefully began to count Galleons – and heard a delicate cough. She glanced up to see his frown.

“Now, Miss Pinksworth. My device is valuable. You have notes enough to pay me.”

She covered her confusion quickly. “If that’s what you wish...”

When had human currency become more valuable than Galleons? She didn’t understand, but handed over a sheaf of notes that made a creased smile break across his face. In return, he unlocked a cabinet and withdrew a tiny Time Turner, barely bigger than a fingernail.

“It must be back with a day, Miss Pinksworth,” he said, “or you will find there are unpleasant consequences.”

Hermione didn’t ask. He didn’t explain. She looped the silver chain over her neck, tucking the hourglass under her top.

“Good luck in your endeavours,” he said, and handed her a bag. She peered in to see candles, a hideous jade bottle shaped like a snake and a handful of other tat. “Should anyone ask why you came in, you will of course endorse my fine products.”

She understood perfectly. “Of course.”

As the shop door shut behind her, she had a curious sense of how topsy-turvy the world had become. Even a shop marinated in the Dark Arts operated in fear and stealth – even they were not safe from Voldemort’s long shadow.

X – X – X – X – X


He’s the perfect publicist. When they ask him why he won’t get the Mark, he’s got an answer gleaming on his teeth.

“I’m the friendly face of Government,” Blaise tells the politicos. “Let people wonder. For now, they think I have it, and it’s useful. One day – if the rebellion ever gets serious – we might need them to know I have no Mark. Think how that will reassure people.”

They nod, understanding the endless game of chess they play. He’s the white knight, the protector.

“If someone needs to get hold of me, Owls are just as efficient as burning agony,” he quips to the flunkies, who resent being ordered around. “And there’s usually just as much shit to clean up.” They laugh and envy his chutzpah.

“I don’t need to prove my loyalty,” he says coolly to the inner cadre. “I make them biddable. I make them forgive you. And I don’t do it for the money or the power. I do it because I want to.”

The questions keep coming, but he’s a wordsmith and he bats them away deftly. Outside the Ministry, no one knows. Inside it, no one knows the truth.

He’s the perfect publicist. He can sell anything.

Including his allegiance.

He doesn’t care for the Order, who are grimy tattered fugitives crouched in corners like rats. But nor does he care for the horrors enacted around him on a daily basis.

Once, he shut his eyes to such things. He convinced himself that the rumours were lies spun by bitter criminals who’d deserved what they got. He entered the Ministry, walked those clean, elegantly furnished corridors, and saw only the life of any bureaucracy. In the memos and the meetings, the coffee cups and contracts, there was nothing more sinister than boardroom games.

He used his gifts like the serpent he is: ambition and ability bought him attention, his way greased by his natural charm. He walked deeper into the corridors of power, and found grains of truth behind the gossip.

Nonetheless, it was exaggeration, Blaise told himself, formulated by angry people unable to be objective. His housemates died under the rebels’ hands, and he felt a surge of fury when he heard their names smeared that only convinced him further.

So he corrected the balance: he presented the Ministry’s side, and for his troubles was rewarded.

And at last he found himself at the heart of Government, and saw with his own eyes where the rumours began. He trod over spell-seared houses and ransacked rooms. He saw the broken bodies and the empty eyes and the blood-matted hair.

From such remnants was he asked to build a golden truth, to spin the glory of a golden age.

And because he was the perfect publicist, he worked his wandless magic.

He performed for the journalists and the cynics. With effortless wit and witless effort, he defended, lauded, excused the crimes committed in his name, in all their names. He suppressed his unease. He told himself that his doubts and his revulsion were misplaced.

And then one day, something changed. It was a day like any other. He was at a press conference, speaking fluently and warmly about Special Services’ valiant anti-terrorist operation which had captured a quartet of criminal masterminds.

(A single mother and three little boys, one clinging hard to his bloodstained teddy bear. Another had been huddled in her legs, and she’d been curled over him, shielding him to the last. Her courage had not made a whit of difference. Three little boys, who had the temerity to be only halfbloods.)

He fielded the questions as easily as ever. The glib phrases flew off his tongue: heedless of their own personal danger, incredible valour, comrades. And then came the one that changed his life, his mind, his loyalty, a quick answer to a bold journalist’s question.

For the greater good.

He heard himself say it. He saw them all scribbling it down. And he saw too the gates of Nurmengard, black and white in his textbook, with those words inscribed upon the iron.

And he remembered a day when one of his stepfathers (Which one? He doesn’t know) took him there as a lesson. “My mother died here,” he’d said as they stared up at the arch of the gates, rusting in the sun. “She sheltered a halfblood and Grindelwald found out. He was a monster, Blaise.”

Bored, he’d listened without understanding.

“If you rise high,” that faceless, long-dead man had said, “don’t do it by climbing on corpses.”

Of course, his mother had done just that. But Blaise had remembered those words when he was teased about his slutty mother (not more than once, not after he mastered his first curse), the black widow. He remembered them when the lavish birthday presents came, when he sat in her parlour.

They came back to haunt him as he told the world that it was for the greater good.

Blaise saw then that he had walked across a thousand Nurmengards in miniature, that the whole country might as well have those words carved into the landscape. He had become what he had loathed. He had lied to himself as surely as the public.

He still lies to the public. The truth is too dangerous to be spoken so openly. Leave such follies to the Order. He has a quieter way, one much more suited to a man who walks soft-footed and silently through the darkest places in the Ministry.

But lately, it is not enough. He can only save a few, and Blaise wants more than that. And he wonders, as he slips into the black Jaguar they’ve sent to collect him, whether this business at Krum’s is the work of the Order. Whether they are at last more than a ragtag militia. Whether it is time to help them.

He’s the perfect publicist. And he’s tired of it.

X – X – X – X – X


Hermione heard the sirens wailing as she crossed the heath, carrier bag in one hand, the other free to grab at her wand if she needed to. The dog walkers and rollerskating kids didn’t even look round, but the sound set her blood whirling.

Bishops’ Row was crowded. The blue lights of police cars spun silently. Onlookers ringed the rubble of Viktor’s house. She crouched down behind a car, watching the hubbub. She could see wizards scattered among the Muggles, wizards who wore masks that sent a chill through her.

They were simple – black, bisected by a silver bolt of lightning. She could not help but think of Harry, and to feel rage at whoever had thought to use his image so cruelly and so evocatively.

Whoever they were, their wands touched Muggle after Muggle. People drifted away from the scene, faces blank. The police officers slid back into their cars and drove away. Soon only the masked wizards remained, guarding the house. They had an air of expectation.

When a gleaming black car drew up, she realised why. Her breath caught at the sight of the man who stepped out. The years hadn’t changed Blaise Zabini much. He was still handsome, power billowing about him with the hem of his long robes. Two bodyguards flanked him, wands drawn.

It was the first time she had seen anyone from Hogwarts other than Draco. It made her feel queerly dizzy, as if it had not quite been real until now. Blaise Zabini. She recalled Draco saying he’s the pretty face on the ugly reality, mentioning that Pansy had dated him.

It occurred to her that if he worked for Voldemort, she might be forced to hurt him. To kill him.

She took a deep breath. It hurt, because she didn’t know if she could.

It was time to go. She didn’t want to stay any longer, or doubt would consume her. She drew out the tiny Time Turner from her jumper. It was gone nine. She spun it three times: the world melted away and when it reformed, Viktor Krum’s house still stood.

Hermione kept low behind the car. She didn’t have long to wait until she heard the persistent pat of footsteps – she peered under the car and saw her own feet, pacing beside Draco. She marked off the minutes, replaying their break-in.

She crept out, wiggling into the bushes after them. The wall was just as easy to scale a second time: she landed silently and made her way to the trade entrance behind the thick screen of foliage. An odd lump rose in her throat at the sight of Draco, so patently healthy. The cruel knowledge of what would come filled her like prophecy – she wanted to cry out, to warn them...

She bit back her cry, as she knew she must.

When they went in, she waited once more until they went upstairs and gave her the precious time she needed. Then she slipped inside, wanting the security of her wand in her hand, but knowing she could not alert them.

The statue of the manticore loomed over the entrance hall. Hermione approached it carefully. She had thought about what to do all morning, but she wasn’t sure if it would work.

She took out the jewels that Draco had stolen and held them up to its eye-level. Then she said, “I’ve come to claim my reward.”

This time, the manticore’s awakening was slow and silent. Colour stained the stone until it was a vast, breathing thing that stared at her with a kind of astonishment.

“You’ve come to claim your what?” it said in a surprisingly human voice. Its breath was horrendous.

She cleared her throat. “My reward. For returning these jewels. They were stolen from here.”

The manticore lurched forward. She had to force herself not to leap back as it sniffed the package in her hand. It frowned. “Those are my master’s jewels,” it acknowledged. “But I can smell that they are in the safe. And here. How is this possible?”

“I can’t say,” Hermione said staunchly. “But it is.”

It sniffed them again, then withdrew. It raised a vast paw and scratched its forehead. The sheer humanity of the gesture made her hesitate.

“This is irregular,” it muttered. “Most irregular. I smell another thief on these, so you did not take them...but they have not been taken. You knew of their loss, and I should devour all such villains...”

Her stomach was full of butterflies.

“Yet there has been no theft.” Its teeth clacked as it considered. “And I may not kill the innocent.”

Hermione waited, confident they would not be disturbed. And she would probably survive.

She was struck by the horrible thought that it might have devoured her right before Draco and herself came back down the stairs.

Its tail arched above its head like a spear. She gulped. It gazed down, eyes narrowed, then said, “I have decided.”

“Yes?” she quavered.

“I will not eat you today,” it announced. “You have returned my master’s property. I suppose you are due a boon.” Its mouth twisted on the word. “How much do you want, mortal?”

“Um, nothing actually,” she said. “Well, not money. I want you to answer a question.”

This seemed to confuse it. “A question? This isn’t going to be like the time the Sphinx tried to riddle with me, is it?” it said, suspicious. “It didn’t end well. And it was a stupid riddle.”

She had no idea what it was on about. “No. I want to know if there’s a cure for the poison in your tail.”

It looked as if she had asked something spectacularly brainless. “Of course there is!” it said indignantly. “What do you think we do when the kittens sting each other?”

“Kittens?”

“Our offspring,” it said. She was startled. All the books referred to them as ‘hellcats’. Imaging tiny manticores as kittens was disturbing. “Rough little things, they are. I certainly was,” it added happily.

She tried hard not to reflect on the fact that she would murder this creature within an hour. Telling herself that it had attacked them was small comfort: the reason why it had attacked was still in her hand.

“What is it?” she said.

It stuck out a freakishly long tongue. “Spit,” it said. “That’s where the saying comes from, you know. ‘A lick in time saves nine lives.’”

“Can...” She hesitated at the thought, then ploughed on grimly. “Can I have some?”

It looked taken aback. “What?”

“As my reward.”

“If you wish, mortal,” it said doubtfully. “It is unusual, but so is returning jewels before they have been stolen. Speaking of, leave them in that urn. I will replace them once I am sure the visitors upstairs have not taken anything.”

She obeyed.

“Where do you want it?” the manticore said.

She hadn’t thought about that. Hermione rummaged in the Borgin and Burkes bag: that disgusting snake bottle was there. It would do. And it was ghoulishly appropriate.

“In here,” she said.

It looked even more confused, but after she had popped the lid off, leaned over it and spat a horrible glob of something viscous and orange into the bottle.

“Will that do?” it said.

“Plenty.”

A floorboard creaked upstairs. She glanced up. She had no idea how much time had passed.

“I have to be on my way,” she said. “Thank you.”

It looked pleased. A smile spread across its face, baring a dental nightmare of caked, yellowed teeth. “It is good to meet an honest mortal. You are as rare as us, these days.” Then a scowl dropped over its features. “Stay that way.”

“Er, certainly,” she said, hoping it could only smell thieves who stole from this house. The cashpoint was haunting her. And so was the fact she was looking at a doomed creature.

She fled the house. Her mind was in turmoil – she ran away from what she knew would happen, from what she had already done. She had killed someone. And she couldn’t tell herself it was a monster, or that it had been self-defence, or even that it had been necessary.

It had thanked her. She would murder the manticore, and it had thanked her.

She cried then, in the safe noisy space of the tube. She had tried to do what was right, but it had still been wrong. And it hurt.

X – X – X – X – X


He was as she had left him. That was a relief.

She leant over Draco, and banged the jade bottle until saliva glooped out onto his wound. Gingerly, she smeared it over the rash. It didn’t fade, but she had expected that – it wouldn’t until she had cast the counterspell and taken him from stasis.

She gritted her teeth against the pain to come, and cast it with a soft whisper of animus.

Clear blue light shot from her wand. This time the pain was ice: it bit into her fingers first with the malice of frostbite, chewing deep into her bones. Tears sprang from her eyes, and froze on her cheeks with a delicate crunch. Everything was cold and heavy, the agony a slow pulse that moved like her sluggish heart. She trembled – strength drained from her and her wrist sagged-

Draco arched: he took a desperate breath, and his eyes opened wide. The rash faded like a bruise, from purple to blue to nothing at all.

She hunched over as the spell ended, trying to warm her throbbing fingers.

“Granger?” His voice was puzzled. “Granger, what did you do?”

Her teeth were chattering, her body refusing to believe it was warm. She couldn’t answer. Shivers wracked her. Every muscle was cramping up, turning her fingers into hooks, her spine into splintered metal.

“Granger…” He was there, prying her cold-locked arms apart, warm and surprisngly gentle and alive. “You’re like ice. You did something valiant, didn’t you?” Draco accused with the same inflection as most people would say moronic. “Bloody Gryffindors. Can’t you do anything without an eight-trumpet fanfare and a near-death experience?”

Hermione managed to glare at him.

“Hold on,” he said, and grabbed his wand. “Pyrolumos.”

A slow, gentle heat spread through her. It drove away the cold, leaving her with nothing worse than a headache and a case of chronic fatigue.

Hermione worked her jaw muscles, grimacing at the twinge there. “Thanks. That was nasty.”

“It looked it.” He gazed at her, grey eyes narrowed. “I could have sworn I was about to meet my maker.”

“Beelzebub will have to wait,” she told him. “You’re all better.”

“I can see that.” He prodded his chest with some bemusement. There was something close to respect in his face. “Granger, I have to ask...how in the name of Merlin’s ghastly green toes did you manage this?”

This was the bit he might not like. “Well. I Petrified you. Then I found a cure, which I applied. Then I unfroze you. And here we are.” She smiled brightly. “When should we contact the Order?”

“That can wait,” he said, holding up a hand. “Exactly what cure did you find for an incurable poison?”

She eyed him. He didn’t look like a man who believed in natural remedies. “Well...”

“Out with it,” he ordered, eyes glittering.

“It’s a saline solution,” she hedged. At his exasperated glare, she relented, and told him.

His scream echoed through Grimmauld Place.

“You rubbed what on my chest?”

“It saved your life,” she pointed out.

He sputtered. “Manticore spit? You rubbed monster mucus on me? Monster mucus?”

“Alive!” she shouted back. “Excuse me for not curing you with thousand-pound moisturiser, but monster mucus was all I had. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re not dead.”

He took a deep breath, cheeks flushed, then another. “I had noticed, actually,” he said with great dignity. “Death would be less shrill.” He paused, then shot her a wary look. “Thank you, Granger.”

She was startled. She mouthed for a moment before words returned to her. “You’d have done the same.”

Even if it was only because they were bound by an Unbreakable Vow.

His arched eyebrows said he thought the same. “Back to business, then. Where’s the coin?”

It was on the table, carelessly discarded when he’d collapsed. Hermione picked it up, feeling a pang at the familiarity of it, a piece of her own magic returned to her. She wondered how Viktor had acquired it.

“What will you tell them?” he asked.

It had to be something simple, somewhere crowded so they could hide.

The Protean charm was easy after so many years absorbing complex spells. The words burned into the coin, and as it changed, she thought of other identical coins, reforming, reshaping for the first time in three years. It was a call to arms – would anyone answer? Was anyone left?

Tomorrow’s date. And the location and time, as cryptic as she could make it: KX 9.75

The place where it had all begun. Where it might all begin again if they were lucky, if her friends were still brave.

Platform Nine and Three Quarters.

X – X – X – X – X


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Chapter 9: Lost Sea Voices
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Huge thanks and awe to the lovely people who reviewed and favourited last time. If I haven't answered yet, please bear with me! I am going through all the reviews, I'm just a little swamped by my job (you work retail, Christmas lasts for three months.)

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Midnight

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
- T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday




Magic changes the world, one piece at a time. It is an art and a science, a blessing and a curse. It can be vast, outrageous, a force to throw back death and unwind time. Or it can be minute, delicate, moving through the world as lightly as a dandelion seed on the breeze.

One by one, gold Galleons transformed. Her magic whispered through the world, changing a piece here, a piece there, sending out ripples like the first sign of a tsunami on the horizon: at the centre of it all, Hermione Granger.

~*~




In Ernie Macmillan’s flat, his mobile phone is shoved down the side of the sofa with crumbs and decades of accumulated grime. It’s as safe there as it would be in Gringotts – safer, now that Special Services can rummage through the vaults on a whim.

His coin is fixed into the handset, a shiny gold circle that looks like decoration to the untrained eye. As Hermione’s spell takes hold, the plastic around it heats and groans: the message on the Galleon’s edge forms unnoticed.

Ernie is asleep in the narrow bed with the broken springs. He won’t need the phone until tomorrow evening, when he goes back to the Order with his latest news.

Too late.

~*~




Hermione had seen some horrible things in her time, but nothing compared to this.

“Well, don’t stand there gawping,” Draco said. “Did you think I didn’t know how to cook?”

Hermione eyed the bowl with trepidation. She still thought that. The odour that rose up on the steam reminded her of her father’s compost heap in a particularly hot summer.

“It’s...surprising,” she managed.

Draco had thrown together the ghastly stew from the collection of out-of-date and unappealing items lurking in the cupboards. When she had suggested – tactfully – that they could order a takeaway, he’d pronounced it too risky.

He sat down in front of his own bowl. “I’m extremely capable,” he informed her, and to her great astonishment, gulped down a mouthful of his creation and didn’t drop dead.

“Of what, poisoning me?” She prodded the stew gingerly. Something white and sinewy bobbed up from the depths and vanished again.

His spoon clattered down. “Granger, I spent my formative years being fed some of the finest foods known to man. I have an extremely refined palate. Do you really think I don’t know what good food tastes like?”

“And you think it tastes like this?” she said, fishing out something that looked like- “Is that a snake’s head?”

“Boomslang is very piquant,” he protested.

“Its horrible dead eyes are piquant at me right now,” she pointed out with a shudder.

“Ha ha,” Draco snapped. “You haven’t even tried it yet, Granger. I suffered having mucus rubbed on me without a squeak-”

“You were comatose,” she said levelly.

He waved a hand. “Details, details. Either way, would it kill you to give me the benefit of the doubt?”

It was a distinct possibility. But she held her tongue, because despite the petulant twist of his mouth and the way he scowled at his plate, there had been a note in his voice that puzzled her. Draco had sounded...wounded.

He’d laboured over it for hours, she realised. It hadn’t come easy, like the potions: he’d chopped and peeled and seasoned and created because he didn’t have any servants to do it for him. If it was her, she’d probably be a bit miffed too.

“I suppose you can’t judge a book by its cover,” she muttered, and took a spoonful.

It was every bit as horrendous as it smelt. Something splintered as she chewed. Hermione forced herself to swallow it. Be diplomatic, she told herself. Maybe you can bond over this.

“Well?” Draco demanded.

“It’s not too bad,” she said, trying to convince herself as much as him.

Draco looked absurdly pleased. A smug smile flashed across his face. For a moment he might have been the audacious boy she had known at Hogwarts, eyes bright, the years of war and endurance wiped from his face. Time unravelled there between them, back to schooldays and small cares.

“Face it, a house elf couldn’t have done better,” he proclaimed.

“Yes, clearly I should have been campaigning to chain you in the kitchen instead of emancipating them,” she said around another horrific mouthful. “My mistake.”

Conversation was replaced by the clink of spoon on bowl as she forced down the entirety of the meal. Whether she could keep it down would be another matter. At last, it had gone. Stomach roiling, she took a drink of the cloudy water that was all the taps had provided.

“Where is Kreacher, anyway?” she said.

His smile snapped off. He only looked at her: what little amity had existed between them twisted away like curls of smoke. “Do you really want to know?”

Oh god, not more. “Voldemort...he must have had some use for house elves.”

“Yes.” That one word was harsh and cold.

It hadn’t occurred to her to worry about the house elves; after all, they prided themselves on their invisibility, and neither cajoling nor time had been able to change that. To think that their absence had a far more eerie reason...

“Tell me,” she said.

Draco was tense, watching her as if she was some sort of volatile spell. “The same happened to them as to the rest of us. Some fought. Some surrendered. Some lived. Some died. I’m not going to give you the gory details so you can torment yourself with them.”

She let out a breath. “I wanted things to be better for them,” she said bleakly.

“You still do, don’t you?” Draco asked, icy.

She met his eyes. They were the cool grey of gunmetal, weaponry of a shrewder sort. She thrust back her grief with anger, with purpose, with the vow they would not – could not – break.

“I haven’t given up,” she said, reaching into her pocket to finger the Galleon there. “I won’t.”

“Your persistence always was astounding. And irritating.” Then Draco pushed away his plate, and said dryly, “Which is why I couldn’t resist testing it. How on earth did you manage to choke that down, Granger?”

She stared at him, and he raised his eyebrows, smile curling up into pure mockery.

“You...” she sputtered. Words failed her, but only momentarily. “Why?”

His smirk faded into something more contemplative. “Like I said, a test.”

“Of what, my ability to resist torture?” She wasn’t sure if it was rage making her stomach tie itself into red-hot knots or just the sheer gastronomic horror of his cooking. “Don’t play pointless games with me, Malfoy.”

“Games...maybe. Pointless?” He slid the word through the air like a knife. “I made a little bet with myself, Granger. I wanted to know if you’d lie to me.”

“You are every bit as vile as that sorry excuse for a meal!” she snapped.

His eyelids dropped: he had the soft, sleepy look of a tiger stretching in the sun. She felt oddly betrayed: as if by trying to be kind, by feeling a hint of pity, she had proven herself besmirched. It had been a lie of compassion, but she didn’t even want to try and explain that.

“Maybe,” he acknowledged. “But don’t you want to know whether I won or lost?”

She hesitated.

In that instant, his glance flicked up – it was pure silver, briefly dazzling. She hated him a little, then, hated him for being rich and cruel and tied to her – and worst, right.

“I lost,” he said. “I thought the truth would matter more than my feelings. You surprised me again.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” she said levelly.

“Who said I was disappointed?” His teeth bared in something not quite a smile. “Lying is a useful skill, Granger, and you had me fooled for a moment. And I’m very, very good at finding the truth.” There was a silkiness to the words, a thread of danger that made something small and scared echo in her heart. “Almost as good as the Great Lord.”

“Really?” she said, hiding her discomfort under bravado. “Then why you don’t you tell me what I’m thinking right now?”

“Something along the lines of ‘ghastly, unprincipled wanker’, I imagine.”

“Close,” she said, the bench scraping on the tiles as she got to her feet “You missed out ‘spoilt’ and ‘overrated’.”

“No, I just know those two aren’t true,” he called after her, sounding amused. But he let her go, wise enough (perhaps) to know that he had pushed it too far.

~*~




  Under the floorboards, with the photo album and the stash of Veritaserum, Dennis Creevey’s coin leaves a round scorchmark on the wood as it changes. It’s tarnished and black, the kind of currency that would be turned away at any reputable retailer. Powder collects around it as the letters on the rim reform.

He never looks at it. Colin learned to fight because of that stupid coin: they both did. It’s an archive of failure – of Harry’s reckless grin, and people laughing as they practiced battle spells without the slightest idea of what war would mean. In its round edges are an echo of Colin’s smile when he produced his Patronus, which was worthless in the end because no amount of happy memories could stop a killing curse.

Hours spent learning, and all of them meaningless because their enemies chose not to fight: they chose to kill.

And when he comes in that night after an event, photographing the famous and the would-be famous, he’ll flick through his album, and drink down the truth, which is bitter, but he won’t look at the coin. He never does. Tonight is no exception.

~*~




The candles hid most of the decay in her ragtag room. Under the soft pools of golden light, the shabby drapes were swathes of shadow, vast wings spreading about her. The splintered four-poster regained some of its majesty, the varnished wood reflecting back the light like will o’ the wisps.

Hermione was trying to comb through a dusty spellbook she had found on the half-empty bookshelves. It was handwritten by someone clearly in a hurry to capture their ideas. Spells crisscrossed like crazy paving, sloping across the pages at strange angles. Inkblots and other stains obscured the letters; she was beginning to doubt the sanity of the author.

For that matter, she was beginning to doubt the sanity of the reader.

What was she doing here? Vow or no Vow, did she really need an ally like Draco Malfoy? Everything about him spoke of a man who’d been living on the edge for so long that the fall ceased to frighten him.

And that was dangerous: his need to always push, test, pry her apart as if she were an oyster tight-lipped about some pearl of knowledge. How quickly – how easily – he chose violence as an answer. Most dangerous of all, the sudden hints of vulnerability in his otherwise icy exterior, gleaming like hairline fractures in glass. Hermione wasn’t sure that he could not be broken in the right hands (long white fingered hands like spiders, strangler’s hands, made for pain and precision).

As if to remind her that such thoughts were futile, her wrist itched. She rubbed at it irritably.

“Granger.”

She glanced up. He was a stark outline in the doorway, reduced to velvet and the gleam of bones by candlelight.

“Don’t you knock?”

“Not in my own house,” Draco informed her. “I won’t be joining you tomorrow.”

Hermione was pleased with her reaction. Her heart skipped like a stone over water, but she only shut the book gently, a finger marking her place. “That’s probably for the best. One look at you and anyone who’d dared to turn up would run screaming.”

“Quite.” He paused. “I’m going to the Ministry. You should know...they have some of those Galleons in the archives.”

Fear spilled like mercury into her stomach. “You didn’t mention that.”

“It’s probably irrelevant. They’re shoved in cabinets with the other-“ He seemed to catch himself: she wondered what he’d been going to say. “-relics. Unless you’re very unlucky, no one will notice a thing. But all the same, I’ll keep an eye out for any uproar.”

“And then what?” she said levelly. “You can’t exactly come charging to my aid.”

“No. That would be idiotic in the extreme. If there’s trouble, you’re on your own,” he agreed, flashing his membership to the self-preservation society once again. “But I might be able to warn you. Maybe delay them.”

She nodded. “Don’t expose yourself.”

“Wouldn’t dare. The awe of women and envy of men would be overwhelming.”

Hermione sighed, but part of her recognised a line when she was handed it – and from Draco, as close to an apology as she was going to get. “Yes, I’m sure they’d be astonished that a level beneath the subatomic exists.”

His smile was a brief glimmer. “Very clever. Now listen, Granger, Kings Cross is patrolled by Special Services.”

“Are those the wizards with the lightning-bolt masks?”

“Yes.” He sounded startled. “When did you run into them?”

“When I was getting your cure,” she said. “They didn’t see me.”

“Good. All of them are loyal to the Great Lord. They’re handpicked, and they know the darkest magic there is. There’s only two assigned to Kings Cross, but they’ll be Transfigured.”

“What am I looking for?”

He paused. She fancied there was a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “Pigeons.”

“Pigeons,” she repeated flatly. “Who suggested that?”

“Zabini. The bloody thing are everywhere, after all. Apparently they’re reviewing it after some of the real birds got a little, uh, amorous with Avery.”

A snort escaped her.

“Just make sure you don’t use any magic in the station,” Draco cautioned. “And don’t feed the buggers – it only encourages them.”

An idea struck her. “Do you have any Draught of Living Death left?”

“There’s a few drops left.”

Hermione smiled. “Perfect.”

~*~




Tonight, the skies are thick with stars. In her mind, the constellations gleam, a purer, whiter light than the crude lanterns that hang all around the club. Luna is carried on the music, a swirl of chords and arpeggios and words that mean nothing for all their beautiful noise.

The singer’s voice is a rasp, singing the blues in a black world. Her eyes are empty, as if she emptied her soul into the songs long ago and now nothing is left but a husky old echo. Luna likes to think that the sound drifted through the peeling paint and the cigarette smoke, out into the night and up, up to the stars, carrying the singer with it.

After all, in a world of full of dragons and gargoyles and night-blooming jasmine, anything could be possible. Even escape.

She tried to comfort the girl once, years ago, when her voice was pure as a nightingale’s, and the bruises on her face were still fresh.

“I can’t bear it,” she’d said through a burble of tears. “We’re nothing to them.”

“That’s not true, you know,” she said gravely, sitting down beside the singer. “If we were nothing, we’d be nothing – shadows in the corner, dust under their feet. They take great care to keep us small, so that they can make themselves huge, like children making shadow animals.”

She had lifted her hands before the lantern, and on the wall, a dragon reared and spread its wings, her fingers quick and clever and briefly dangerous.

“Sometimes,” she added, “I think they must be very frightened.”

“They’re monsters,” the girl had whispered.

“Oh yes, that too,” Luna agreed. “But every monster can be killed. You just have to know how. Even the Eastern Flesh-Eating Wasp can die if you’ve coated a sword with enough basil. They all die, eventually. There’s only one creature that keeps coming back.”

A faint line furrowed between the girl’s brow. Luna flexed her fingers. The dragon crumpled into a flower, which became a fish, which became a bird, rising high – a phoenix in the shadows.

It was not enough. The singer found her own way out, at the bottom of a bottle. It glazes her smile, which is fixed on for the customers, and keeps her voice thick and rich and slow.

But Luna, who can soar in even the thickest, coldest shadows, is more patient. She knows that the night can hide more than dark deeds. She knows that all things turn – tides, time, planets, screws, even worms. Until then, she carries her home in her memories, and around her neck as a Transfigured Galleon.

So the singer’s throat issues words which no longer hold any meaning to her, like a shell holding the sound of the ocean, and Luna dances for the stars she cannot reach, in silent tribute. She does not see the leering audience as she glides over the stages. She moves as if for a lover, flushed skin and rippling body and lips parted to receive a kiss or give a blessing.

Her allure is timeless: no matter how much they pay, they cannot own her.

And so it is a night like any other: she dances, briefly unafraid in a world full of fear. Men call out, and she can’t hear them above her own heartbeat which tells her she lives, she lives and she hopes. The rhythm has her, and she simply is while the music plays, nothing more than motion and grace.

And then it happens.

There’s sudden heat at her throat. Her jewellery is burning hot, the metal starting to glow. She stumbles: someone jeers, and she gasps in a breath of stale smoke. This is real.

Her elaborate costume jewellery is folding back into its original form. Luna spins, one arm lowering: they whistle, they catcall, and she slides her bangles into her fingers. They spin through the air, twinkling, as she flings them out into the gaping grins, the hungry eyes.

And her other hand is quick and clever – she pulls the clip from her hair and it whirls about her in a great silvery cloud as they howl their approval, concealing her neck and shoulders. Another turn, airborne bracelets drawing their eyes away from her.

She breaks the clasp of the necklace and it slips into her corset, a prickling, searing shape between her breasts.

The last bracelets spin lazily into the crowd. She wants to leave then, to find out what is on the coin, but she cannot afford to arouse even a whiff of suspicion.

So she prowls down into their midst, floating from face to face in a waft of perfume, a touch here and a caress there. Kisses fall upon her like brands, wet, dry, hot, her mouth, her hand, her thigh. She lets them pet her, grope her, possess her for a moment so that the mystery is dissipated, so that she is reduced to something tawdry.

The music stops. Applause crashes about her with the coins that rain upon the stage. They’ve smelt her, tasted her, rolled in her like a bed.

Her name is a snarl in their throats, a promise or an insult: Lovegood.

 But that is only half of her identity.

 The noise fades as she makes her way backstage, pain scalding her skin, breathless from more than exertion. In her small room, she shuts the door and pulls out the coin. It is only warm now, though it has left blisters bubbling on her skin. She turns it, and reads. Her astute Ravenclaw mind deciphers it easily.

If she goes to Kings Cross, she cannot return: she is a prisoner here, or so they’d like to think, and they do not let her beyond the confines of the club.

Footsteps creak on the landing. She slips the Galleon inside the dog-eared pages of The Quibbler. There is a creak as the door opens – no need to knock, such courtesies are for paying customers. The owner of Magic Touch shepherds in a wizard whose smile is all teeth. His eyes are bright and ravenous, and when he grabs her his fingers pinch her skin as if bruises will prove her owns her.

Luna is pliant in his arms, uncaring now. She makes herself small, so he can fill her room like a shadow monster – it doesn’t matter, she knows there is no substance to him. She drifts away, leaving her body behind like a chrysalis. There are stars beyond his empty eyes, skies in the shadows of the furniture.

No more. It is the last time she will sleep on the broken springs, the last time she will be owned. Tomorrow is waiting, full of promise and wonder that no one else believes.

For years she has played their game. She has been a dancer. A little girl with no wand. A political hostage. A thing to be bought and used. Lovegood.

They never call her by name. And so they have forgotten that she’s Luna, named for the moon, who is secret and ephemeral – and who can turn the tide.

~*~




Hermione slept lightly and uneasily. What dreams she had were fragmented horrors. In them, she scrambled through the white tiled corridors of Kings Cross, pushing through a horde of commuters as impassable as a wall of thorns: dark, shapeless things pursued her, screeching her name. The machines bleeped and the trains trundled by, and they closed in on her.

A clawed hand sank into her shoulder and a blast of fetid breath burned her face-

She woke with a cry, gasping into the cold night air.

Her nerves were further jarred when the door crashed open as Draco shouldered in wearing nothing but black shorts and berserker fury. His hair was mussed, and he had the knife in one hand and his wand in the other blazing white fire. His eyes were ferocious.

“Granger-”

He skidded to a halt. A plethora of emotions crossed his face, savagery, bemusement, a mask of composure.

“I was expecting to see hordes of ravaging maniacs,” he remarked.

Hermione swallowed. “Bad dreams.”

She was too aware that she was in nothing but the sheet, and right now, it felt about as substantial as a cobweb. The shadows that yawned between them could have held anything: a thousand words neither said, prophecies of tomorrow, broken promises. What they did not hold enough of was distance.

“What sort?” he demanded, unexpectedly tense.

His chest was heaving. He’d gained muscle that gleamed under the network of scars that laced his skin. She couldn’t stop staring, mute with horror at the sheer amount of damage that had been done to him: long clean scars, huge jagged tears, small round burns, dents and gouges that had reshaped the very architecture of his bones.

She had not noticed them before. The manticore sting had absorbed all her attention, and the later the petrification spell would have faded them into nothing. Now she could notice nothing else.

“What happened to you?” she said slowly.

“What?” He blinked then looked down at himself as if he hadn’t seen his own body before. “I work for the Dark Lord, Granger. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. Well. Possibly a park run by Hagrid. But – it’s just part of the job. Now stop quibbling over nothing and tell me what was in your dreams.”

“About what you might expect, considering I’m going to paint a giant target on my back tomorrow. Getting caught, getting tortured, getting killed.” She tried to keep her tone light. It didn’t work.

“You didn’t see the Dark Lord?”

“No.” The implication struck her. “He can invade my dreams?”

“If he wants. But if he wasn’t there, you’re safe.” He relaxed, fractionally.

“What if I didn’t see him?”

“He’s inside your subconscious. You can’t avoid knowing he’s there. Trust me.” The way he said it left her no doubt that Draco had personal experience. He turned to go.

“Malfoy?”

He glanced back.

“I could try and heal those scars,” she offered softly.

Something stirred in his face: astonishment, perhaps, a sort of longing. Then it was gone. “That’s a flimsy excuse to get close to me, Granger,” he remarked, and doused the light on his wand. “I happen to think my scars add a bit of character.”

Hermione cursed his pride. “If you don’t mind that character being Jack the Ripper,” she commented.

His laugh was empty of mirth – the jagged sound sent cold chills through her.

The door clicked shut. Disturbed, she lay away for too long unable to get the memory of him from her mind. When at last she tumbled into weary sleep, it was deep and dreamless, and gray as his eyes.

~*~




It was a city like no other, London, a great grimy convergence of time and space and humanity.

Before she had found her magic – or rather, her magic had found her – Hermione had come there on school trips and family days out. She had been awed by the rushing tides of people that swept from sight to sight, pumped through the city by the underground like blood through veins.

This, then, was the city’s heart, old and battered but beating still. Kings Cross was heaving in the morning rush. The aroma of coffee and aftershave wafted from the crowds to mingle with the smog. She took a free newspaper from the vendors thrusting them at anyone who held still long enough and slipped through the glass doors.

Part of her wanted to turn back and run. Her logical mind churned out worst-case scenarios in an endless carousel: no one would come, the Death Eaters would come, she wouldn’t recognise whoever came…

And deep in her mind, in a place she hardly dared examine, was a terrible thought.

What if he had betrayed her?

She rubbed at her wrist, searching for the Vow as someone else might search for a pulse. It was there. Draco could not reveal her so easily.

In the main atrium, people stared up at the black boards, puzzling out their destinations. Rucksacks and briefcases littered the floor. She drifted among them, watching.

There. Pigeons hopped along the floor, fearless in their quest for food. She settled down on a bench and feigned reading her newspaper. It didn’t take long to weed out Special Services. Where the other birds scattered from people, they merely sat still and followed the Muggles with bright beady eyes, though they pecked at the scraps people dropped.

She marked the fat black bird and the little scraggy brown one. Then she bought a pasty from the stand and ate half, nonchalant. It was rich and meaty and the perfect antithesis to Draco’s dire dinner, golden flakes crumbling to the floor.

Birds shuffled closer. Nothing to see here, nothing at all.

She took a water bottle from her bag. The newspaper shielded her from their view – she dosed the other half of the pasty with the Draught of Living Death.

Then she stood, brushing away crumbs, and as if she was just another litterbug, dropped the pasty right in front of Special Services. She paused by a ticket booth to watch her ruse play out.

Pigeons charged the pasty – but the two Transfigured birds were quicker, angry calls vibrating in their throats.

Hermione had gambled they would be in no better condition than Draco: that hunger would outweigh caution, for once. She was right. They fought a brief, nasty fight for the food, and won.

The pair tore shreds off. One swallowed – its eyes glazed, and with a little flump of feathers, the big black bird toppled onto its back, feet sticking in the air. The scraggy one swayed, wings fluttering, and followed suit.

That was a good start.

She checked the clocks along the platform. Half nine. Fifteen minutes to go.

Hermione pulled her hat lower and slouched past them to a transport official. Her voice was shrill and strident, Eliza Pinksworth’s righteous anger. “I want to complain,” she announced.

The man blinked. “How can I help you, madam?”

“The state of this station is absolutely disgusting!” she snapped. “How on earth can you think it’s acceptable to have dead vermin just lying on the floor? There are children here, sir, children!”

“Vermin?”

She pointed at the unconscious birds with a dramatic flourish. Other pigeons had partaken of her poisoned pasty, so there was quite a heap of them in the centre of the floor. “Those...those winged rats!”

The man followed her accusing finger, then began to call quick commands into his radio. He paused for a moment. “We’ll get rid of them at once, ma’am. I’ve just asked for an extermintor. My apologies. If you move into the other part of the station, it’s, um...”

“Devoid of animal corpses?” she said icily.

He nodded, looking distinctly harangued. Satisfied she’d got rid of Special Services, Hermione strode away. She ducked into the train toilets – off came her hat, down came her hair, on went a pair of cheap glasses. She slid her jacket into her bag, pulled her top lower, and slapped on enough make-up for a circus audition.

Her stomach had begun to churn. Five minutes. Just enough time to get to Platform Nine and Three Quarters.

She hurried along the station, head down, and ducked through the brick tunnel. The wall was up ahead. Everything seemed unreal and distant, except for the unstoppable pound of her heart.

She didn’t stop. She didn’t hesitate. It was now or never.

The bricks parted like mist: the sounds of Kings Cross vanished. And afraid of what she would see, who she would see, Hermione looked up.

The walls were rank with mould and damp. The rails were overgrown, pulled up in places as if to prove that there was no return to the old ways, the old days. Only air filled the space where the Hogwarts Express should have been.

“I hoped someone would come.”

The voice was wistful, and very calm.

Hermione whipped around.

She gazed at the young woman who waited in the centre of the dilapidated platform. She’d spoken as if she knew her, but although something about her was familiar, Hermione could not place her. She was remarkably beautiful, the timeless, effortless sort of beauty that could not be imitated or replicated.

Her robe was formal, long enough to pool at her feet of the kind one might wear to an expensive ball. It was the deep indigo of midnight, threaded through with silver embroidery. And it almost exactly matched the bruises smeared on the woman’s cheek, and finger-shaped upon her neck.

Then the woman’s eyes met hers. They were a pale gray, with a depth and a serenity that was absolutely unshakable.

And Hermione knew her.

“Luna,” she said, and her voice cracked. “Oh my god, Luna.”

~*~




“Zabini.” His name is a sneer on Goyle’s lips. He lumbers into the office as if he owns it. Oversized and brutish amid the plush green carpet and dark-panelled walls, he is almost absurd. But Blaise has known Goyle long enough to realise that only an idiot would mistake his lack of intellect for a lack of malice.

His answering smile is as pure and deadly as arsenic. “Greg. How are you?”

That lightning-bolt mask dangles from his pudgy hand. It was inevitable that Goyle would join Special Services. His hunger for vengeance is as hot as the Fiendfyre that killed Crabbe. There’s a certain savagery to his grin. “Dangerous. Same as always. Minister.”

“You don’t sound impressed.”

His fingers tighten on the mask. “Is that why you turned down our offer? Not impressive enough for you?”

Hardly. “I felt my skills were best used serving the Great Lord elsewhere,” he answers smoothly. “Special Services requires a certain flair with the High Arts that I just don’t have.”

It is imprudent to call them the Dark Arts in the corridors of power. Blaise coined that phrase too. It was his first assignment at the Ministry.

Goyle grunts, placated. “You did all right at school.”

“I worked hard.” It’s only a small lie. “I don’t have your natural talent. I’ve always been much better at finding out who to know rather than what to know.”

“Yeah. I suppose.” A gormless grin appears. “Turns out you’re the one to know these days. Lady Bellatrix sent me. She’s got a project for you.”

“I see. Do you have a remit?”

Goyle produced a scroll from inside his robe. It is warm from his body, and tinged with a faint foul odour. Blaise recognises Bellatrix Lestrange’s curling script. He spreads it on the table.

“You want to execute Fleur Delacour. By shutting her in a room with her husband, who you intend to starve for a several weeks first.” Distaste turns his stomach. “And you want me to make this public knowledge.”

“Fitting, yeah?” Goyle says, viciousness hard on the words. “Lady Bellatrix thought it up. It’s our new mo...modest...” The tribulations of modus operandi defeat him. “Way of working. She wants to call it lovestruck.”

The publicist in him winces. The human in him rages. “A good starting point. Let me mull it over. Such an ambitious campaign will take some planning.”

His chuckle is sinister. “Plenty of time, Zabini. Weasley ain’t hungry enough yet.”

He pities Fleur Delacour. It was he who fed the newspapers the story of her capture, picking out the pictures carefully – a witch in a drug-addled fury that the discerning public would take for murderous rage. Her fabled allure means that she is kept in the deepest parts of Azkaban, where she cannot tempt lovelorn fools to free her.

“Of course. If you’ve got a few minutes, Greg, I’d like to send Lady Bellatrix some initial ideas.”

Goyle nods and slumps into a chair. He lets Blaise write, gazing down at his mask, mouth hanging open a little. The sound of quill scratching on parchment permeates the room.

There’s a light tap on the door: before he can reply, it opens and Draco Malfoy saunters in.

Goyle tenses. Their old friendship has been eroded by Malfoy’s meteoric rise into power.

“Minister,” Malfoy says with his usual cool insolence, tipping him a cheeky salute. “I hear congratulations are in order. How is the view from the top?”

Blaise's unease grows. Goyle is dangerous, yes, but Malfoy is deadly. No one knows quite what it is Draco does for Voldemort, or why he has survived his father’s incompetence and his mother’s desperate treachery. But he is untouchable, above such fripperies as masks.

“Scenic,” he answers. “Seems like I haven’t seen you in a while, Malfoy.”

He leaned on the doorframe, relaxed as if he were in his own home. “I’ve been on a special assignment for the Great Lord.”

His venom is slick, easy, finding its target in Goyle, who flushes burgundy. “I ain’t heard anything about a special assignment.”

Malfoy yawns. “Only his most trusted companions knew.”

A shadow falls over Blaise as Goyle rises from his chair. “You want to watch your mouth, Draco. I serve the Dark Lord, same as you. The only difference is that my daddy ain’t locked up in Azkaban.”

Something ugly flashes in Malfoy’s eyes. “No. Your father’s too busy fucking Maisie Nott.”

Goyle roars, and hurls his mask to the floor. The sound is soaked into the wooden walls, and the expensive carpets muffle his feet as he charges Malfoy, tugging at his wand. In the corridor past his office, heads pop out from various doorways, wearing identical expressions of alarm.

Draco doesn’t flinch. His eyes flick to Blaise, and he gives a little amused smile as if to say that they both know men of refinement would never stoop to fisticuffs.

His wand moves so fast that Blaise never sees it, only the arrow of blue light that pierces Goyle.

Goyle staggers: then he convulses, blue light flickering around his body like pulses of electricity. As he topples to the floor, his hands reach out as if for mercy.

Over his spasming body, Blaise and Draco watch one another.

“Lady Bellatrix will probably want him back in one piece,” he remarks.

Draco shrugs. “He’s in one piece.”

“One functioning piece,” he suggests as Goyle goes limp.

His smile glitters. “He’ll function perfectly well as a rug.”

At the far end of the hallway, dark-robed figures appear, holding wands and wearing masks. They sprint towards his office, and he feels a frisson of terror, as if it’s him they’ve come for.

“Don’t worry, gentlemen,” Draco says coolly. “Goyle and I had a small-”

One of them steps forward with a small bow. “Mr Malfoy, Minister Zabini, there’s a situation.” For a moment, the mask turns to Goyle. “A different situation. We’ve had word from the archives. The spoils from the Order of the Phoenix were due to be valued today. The auctioneer was in the middle of examining them when all of the Galleons taken from members of ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ changed.”

Malfoy straightens. His voice is almost a purr of satisfaction. “Really.”

“Sir. Yes. We’re trying to decode the message. Looks like today’s date, but the rest is as yet unknown. Minister, Lady Bellatrix thinks it must be a former member. There are only three unaccounted for.”

“Weasley, Granger and Smith,” Malfoy says softly. He licks his lips, eyes bright as stars.

“Lady Bellatrix asks that you prepare the necessary information, Minister. Special Services will launch our operation as soon as we have the position of the fugitive.”

“I’ll join you, Croxley,” Malfoy announces. He’s rubbing his wrist as if it itches. “You may need someone who knows their habits.”

The Special Services wizard pauses for only a moment. “As you say.”

A ball of bright light zips down the hallway. It floats in front of the wizards, then the cruel, delighted voice of Bellatix Lestrange issues from it. “Kings Cross, Platform Nine and Three Quarters. Bring them to me!”

In moments, his office is empty. Blaise is left dazed, despair spreading through every fibre. He cannot see a way out. He can only see over the river Thames, from his shiny new office that feels so like a cell.

~*~




“It is you, isn’t it, Hermione?” Luna peered at her, a half-smile on her face. “I see you’re not as dead we thought. Or if you were, you got better.”

Luna’s familiar oddity made her want to laugh, to scream with joy because there was one part of her old life returned to her.

“I hid in Hogwarts,” she said. “I thought the Order would come looking for me. Then...” She thought about telling Luna the truth – all of it – but she knew nothing about what had happened in the previous three years. Draco was a secret best kept, for now. “I decided to come looking for them instead. Are they – is everyone...” She faltered. “Who’s left, Luna?” Hermione asked finally, fear a knot in her throat. “Who survived?”

“Oh, several people,” Luna said brightly. “This is very nice, Hermione, but before we talk any more, I need to just make sure you aren’t a Death Eater, or a Doppelganger, or a djinni masquerading as you. And you should really do the same, because I could be anyone.”

She swallowed, feeling embarrassed. Draco, she was sure, would have been disgusted. “Of course.”

After several minutes of truth spells and tests, Luna put away her wand with a nod.

Then she said very quietly, “You know, until I had friends, I didn’t really know what it was like to miss them. It’s quite strange. I feel like a Nargle has stolen my heart, and all my blood just keeps echoing round the space.”

She looked for a moment so lost, so young, that Hermione hugged her. Luna froze, as if she wasn’t sure what to do, then tentatively put her arms around Hermione and patted her.

“There, there,” Luna murmured. “It’s all right.”

Hermione swallowed a giggle as she let her go. “I’m fine, Luna. I just – I missed you too. And the others. Do you know how I can contact the Order?”

“I think so,” she said thoughtfully. “But it’s likely to be quite tricky. Let me see...if I take us to Ernie’s-”

Sudden pain lanced through Hermione’s wrist. It felt like a burn, looping around in a pattern that was terribly familiar. It followed the lines of the Vow – and its intensity grew, and grew, until her scattered mind could draw only one conclusion.

The impossible had happened.

Draco had betrayed her.

~*~





Thanks for reading: comments adored!


Chapter 10: His Soul Stretched Tight
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As the queue closes on the 20th, this is the last part prior to Christmas. This went into the queue on December 1st, so if you reviewed / favourited after then, I will have missed you in the thanks below; apologies.

Thank you to the lovely people who commented & favourited last tme round: justme, Dani, Elderwind, Jessica, Mrs J Potter, CatGryffindor, Sara_sj, Darcy Drake, Olivia, isetfiretopeople, Rayb008, ld_wolverine, Iluvdraco999, Ardeel, Kate Rhodes, meadowlarks_cries, arimun, Autumn Hope, belladonna_nightshade, BitterIrony, comeone359, copiopterix, EmLis, Kaleyna, kimmy_kubb123, LostInTheDarkAndLikesIt, meganann07, No1HarryPotterfan,roti, Shaz4Him, silvermage2000, silver_faery33, and the tremendous twilighter.

Dedication: For Lara, without whose comments this would have been a very different chapter.

A very merry Christmas to you all, and happy holidays!

Midnight

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock
- Rhapsody On A Windy Night, T.S. Eliot




They tore through the winter morning like meteors, dark blurs that marred the horizon, as deadly and uncaring as if they’d tumbled from the cold immense emptiness of space. The city glimmered below, a metal toytown full of puppets and prisoners.

And one person who was neither.

When he thought of Hermione - no, Granger – it evoked a great rush of feelings that rose around him like briars, thorny, complex and tangling. The war had changed her in ways he had not expected, but then it had changed him too. It had changed them all.

The war had made him what he was, shaped him with its horror and its relentless regime. Some days, days when he woke from dreams as thick and dark and choking as fog, he had thought of defiance, and somehow, of her. Because though she did not know it, and would not, she had shaped him too.

It had been only a moment in the shrieking babble, in Hogwart’s last battle, but Hermione Granger had forced him to choose and left an impression upon him like her handprint on his heart.

Draco could not say whether he had become better for her intervention, only that he was different. And as he spiralled down to the world he needed to change, he could not help but think of her and the library, and that long ago choice.

~*~




Ernie hears the commotion from his desk. It pervades the ambient noises of the office: quills scratching, memos swishing through the air, murmured conversations of stationery and supplies. Footsteps fall like rain upon the carpet outside. There is the distant sound of Bellatrix Lestrange’s mad laughter, which fades into nothing.

But he doesn’t look up. He knows better. Instead he goes on writing in his patient childish script, stolid, stupid – and listening. Whispers reach him as others with less to fear and less to lose gather.

...one of Dumbledore’s Army...

I thought they were all accounted for?


Heads turn his way. He writes, the scrape, scrape, scrape of his quill as rhythmic as his breath. Involved in his careful report about Owl speed, he is nothing, no one, pitiful as a day-old kitten. Mouth a little open, eyes vacant, Ernie ensures he is only a picture of dull conformity.

Apparently not. Might be Longbottom. Heard he’s not in Scotland anymore. His parents are still in St Mungos.

Any idiot knows that’s a trap waiting to be sprung. Even an idiot like Longbottom. Nah. Could be Smith. Who’d’a thought that snotty brat would have turned out to be a blood traitor?

I heard Smith was in France.

Well, I heard he was caught trying to cross the Welsh border and dismembered.


His report grows. Knots of people form and disband, carrying away news like the strands of a web.

What about Weasley? You know what they say...

Nah. After what happened to Arthur? And his son – what’s his name, the pen-pusher...


Percy, Ernie thinks, the word a soundless shape he bites back. He cannot even name the dead, let alone mourn them. They are ashes in his mouth, ashes in the ground.

Percy?

Yes. That’s the one. Bossy little prat. And they’ve still got the mother, haven’t they? Nah, any of the kids that are left won’t be causing trouble. They wouldn’t dare.

Well, who is it then?

Eh, who knows? Won’t be long before they’re caught though. I hear the whole of Special Services is out scouring the streets.

All of them?

Every last one. Whoever it is, they want ‘em bad.


It’s what he’s waited to hear. The opportunity he has sought so assiduously opens out before him like curtains drawing back: the stage is set, and now he has only to play his part.

Ernie doesn’t get up, he doesn’t stop writing; he tunes out the gossip, and while the office trembles with the news that spreads in whispers soft and persistent as moth wings, he grounds himself in work. Same as always, hard work, which matters so much – which will carry him out into the empty halls, unassuming and unwatched, to deliver his report.

And if he takes a little longer returning, then who will notice on a day like this?

~*~




It was funny, how the memories stayed with Draco so clearly. He’d managed to forget a million other details – the colour of a girl’s eyes, the taste of Butterbeer, the sharpness and the heat of pain, how to sleep as if there was nothing to fear – but he could never erase that day, the last battle.

Everyone had seen Potter overthrown outside the walls. There had been only the soft thud of his body crumpling senseless to the ground, glasses askew on his nose, and then a vast, terrible silence. Everything seemed to stop: heart, breath, hope.

Bellatrix’s screech of delight shattered it. “Kneel before the Dark Lord!” she cried. “There’s your hero, your little boy who lived, nothing but a crippled child.”

Voldemort smiled his cold, mirthless smile. He drew back his sleeve, and the Dark Mark was livid on his cloud-white skin. Those thin, spidery fingers pressed to it: Draco felt the answering pain bite deep into his arm.

Beside him, Draco’s father knelt, slowly, as if he could not be sure the ground would support him. “The Dark Lord,” he said in a voice that sounded strangled.

Around him, the Death Eaters knelt, and the ripples echoed, exultant, bemused, muted and loud, whispers and shouts. The Dark Lord.

Draco gazed across their bent heads. It did not seem real. Potter, ignorant, stupid, pompous Potter, could not be so still. Potter was never still. But that was the lightning bolt on his forehead, that was unmistakably his wand beside his limp hand.

And he had done this. He had let them in, some small part of him convinced that it would not end this way, because it was Potter, the short-sighted saviour, the mussed messiah, the Boy Who Always, Always Lived.

He started when a hand closed around his wrist, and looked down, dazed, to see his mother’s pale face taut with fear. Kneel, she mouthed.

He obeyed her, as he always did, sinking into the sea of subordinates. He whispered “The Dark Lord,” with the rest, head bowed to the grass.

“You see how easy it is,” Voldemort crooned, his amplified voice reverberating across the grounds. “You need only kneel, and I will be merciful.”

He heard cries. Draco looked up.

Potter dangled in the air, spread-eagled, eyes open but unseeing. With a lazy twist of his wand, Voldemort broke his arms: first the left, then the right. The gristly sound was one Draco hoped never to hear again.

“Resist,” Voldemort said softly, gentle as a seducer, “and you will find out just how little mercy I truly possess.”

Bellatrix stood, teeth bared. “Kneel!” she screamed.

“No.” Her voice was broken and raw, but Ginny Weasley forced her way through the crowd to face down the Dark Lord. Tears streaked down her face. Grief turned her prettiness into a grotesque mask, into something quivering and unrestrained. “You haven’t won. We won’t give in to you.”

She raised her wand, arm steady.

Expelliarmus,” she snarled, as if using Potter’s spell could keep her from Potter’s fate.

Voldemort deflected it with barely a twitch. And he flung back a curse, a jet of red that hit Ginny in the chest and sent her staggering backwards.

But as if she’d called them to action, other voices joined hers – her family, her friends, all the optimists and fools. Magic filled the air with light and pain and the sharp scent of ozone: the Death Eaters rose like a sea of ink, and Draco found himself caught in the tide, with no choice left but to fight.

From the outset, it was a rout. The Order refused to cast the Unforgivable Curses, and too many of them were young and half-trained and hesitant.

He wheeled through duel after duel, Dark Mark burning on his skin, knocking down people as if they were skittles. A hundred faces passed before him, but he could not remember a single one, only the colour of his curses: red, blue, orange, silver.

But never green. Not the green of luck, of envy, of his house, not ever the green of death.

As he tore through the castle, friends and enemies alike were left behind. Bellatrix swirled by, giggling, hair black and cloudy around a face radiant in triumph, stark contrast to the bodies so mangled by her curses. He saw his mother, briefly, weeping in a corner, a child in her lap and her mask cast aside.

He did not see his father. No one did.

Later, that would be remarked upon.

Battle drew him onwards. He did not feel his aches, his burns, his cuts and bruises. He did not recognise the halls or the classrooms. Like a man enchanted, he went on, not thinking, not feeling, only obeying. Dimly, he was aware that that the struggle was ending, that people were kneeling, lying, dying in the rubble.

Someone ordered him to search for survivors. He went, one of many scouring the halls. Shouts and screams punctuated the eerie silence as the Death Eaters winkled out the last few from their boltholes.

And then the roar of battle died away. He blinked, and for the first time since the moment when the world stopped and the war started, he was aware that he lived, breathed, moved.

Draco wandered into the library, inhaling the smell of paper and of wood varnish. Someone had left a book open, and he thumbed the page over to find himself looking at the formula for Felix.

Too late for manufactured luck now.

He turned away and began to check through the library, the pad of his feet the only noise.

Almost the only noise.

He heard a rustle. Draco spun, peering into the dark narrow lines of bookcases. A breath – and he dodged as a red flash of light streaked past him. Draco rolled and came up with a hiss of Expelliarmus!

A wand cartwheeled through the air. And then a body collided with him: a fist clipped his jaw with more emotion than strength, and Draco fought a swift, savage fight that ended with his opponent beneath him, his wand at her throat.

Granger.

Her face was smeared with blood, lips parted as breath after breath sawed through her. Anger was fierce in her eyes, and if she was afraid, the only sign of it was her pallor.

“Malfoy,” she spat, his name recognition and condemnation alike.

Everything he had not allowed himself to think or to feel crashed down upon him. It was all real, horribly real and intimate.

It was Hermione Granger looking down his wand. Granger, who was so smug, so righteous, so wickedly clever. He had seen her waving her hand in class, bent over books in here, blushing at Krum at the Yule Ball and almost beautiful in her fairytale robes. She’d punched him, sneered at him, and despised him.

And he despised her too. She was everything he had been taught to hate.

“Go on then,” she said, voice hard. “Get on with it. Be a good little Death Eater and make Daddy proud.”

His mind filled with the knowledge of everything he had done to make his father proud. His arm was tattooed with his father’s damn pride. The halls were strewn with corpses, the castle a ruin because he’d thought so much of his father’s pride.

Yes. He hated her. But that was no longer a good enough reason to kill her.

He stepped back. She scrambled to her feet, wary.

“Go,” he said. “Get out. Run, before I change my mind.”

Her eyes widened, and she stared at him.

“Run, you stupid Mudblood!” he snarled.

She flinched back, and then she ran, as he had said. If she thanked him, he did not hear it. Draco had already turned back to the main halls, back to the spoils of a glorious victory. Back to his family. Back to the Dark Lord, and the world he’d shaken to pieces as casually as if it were a snowglobe.

~*~




Three years later, he was back in the same position. Granger pinned beneath him, though she didn’t know it, and the Dark Lord waiting in the flush of victory.

Pressed to the Firebolt, Draco kept pace with the rest of Special Services as they whipped through the clouds. Kings Cross was not far, and he had only one chance to warn her. One dangerous chance.

He took a breath that tasted like rain: and then he thought of betrayal. It came easy – it was in his nature, after all, the serpent, stamped on his arm. And part of him wanted it badly, wanted to know the Dark Lord’s mercy. He’d seen so little of it.

There was, then, a kind of comfort in the thought of handing her over, of how she would fold into tears and despair as the white strangler’s hands stroked her hair and Voldemort’s smile bared like a blade above her bowed head. He would sleep empty of invasion or dread that night, knowing that the Dark Lord was elsewhere, meticulously and lovingly prying her apart, piece by piece, fracture by fracture.

The Vow began to burn. The frost-laden air was a balm on it.

He thought of his home, and his mother and father dancing in the living room to old ballads. In the hall, the fire would blaze, and he’d never know its burn. Unlike Granger, whimpering in the corner of a filthy cell while metal heated and glowed and sizzled on her skin.

The pain was intense now, spreading up his shoulder until he had to fight to keep hold of the broom.

Granger as she had been before Bellatrix – vapid, dull, broken.

And then his mind sheered away from it, throwing up another image: Granger challenging him, unafraid, relentless. Her rage when he’d tricked her into eating that hideous dinner, her words as cutting as her glare.

And oddly, he thought of her waking from nightmares, of how she’d seemed so small in the four-poster bed, flushed and with her hair fanned over her shoulder and the sheet draped over the curve of her hip. He’d been unnerved by that glimpse of her vulnerability, and even more unprepared for her pity, for the shock in her eyes when she’d looked at him and seen the scars of three years loyal service.

He didn’t want her pity. He wanted...

He wanted to stop thinking of her.

The wizard ahead signalled they were to descend, and Draco realised the Vow was still burning on his wrist – too late now if she hadn’t realised. Far too late.

And he felt, briefly, as if he’d stepped back three years – as if he was still shouting run, you stupid Mudblood, and hoping she had heard.

~*~




“...if we take the Portkey paths, it should be safe...” Luna was murmuring, thoughtful.

“We have to go,” Hermione interrupted, the Vow like fire on her wrist. “Now.”

Those grey eyes snapped to her, clearing like fog. Whatever Luna saw in her face was enough: she wasted no time. “They...they've found us.”

“Yes,” she confirmed, her mind whirring through possibilities. In Hogwarts, she always knew her escape route. Here, she had no such luxury. “Come on.”

They hurried towards the exit. To her surprise, Luna shrugged from the long robe as they went: beneath, she had on black robes, practical enough to pass as an ill-fitting wrap dress. A small bag was her only other adornment.

Hermione looked back only once. Her treacherous memory populated Platform Nine and Three-Quarters with the rowdy living, with the steam of the train, with the past.

But nothing remained of those days: there was only the indigo robe, shed like a discarded chrysalis.

“Somewhere crowded would be best,” Luna remarked quietly. “If it’s Special Services, they’ll have brooms, so I think it’d be wise if we kept out of the open...”

They burst out into the station. As Hermione gazed through the milling people, she saw the answer: somewhere dark and packed and labyrinthine.

“This way,” she gasped, and sprinted through Kings Cross, Luna close on her heels. A couple of people running down the platforms were hardly anything new; a businessman was jogging in the opposite direction, looking faintly panicked.

The Vow was tightening, as if someone had wound hot wire around her skin. Her fear climbed with the pain until every sense was crystal-clear.

They dodged the crowds, nipped under the stone archway and there it was – the gleaming sign that marked the entrance to the Underground.

She yanked out her travelcard and a wedge of notes. “Take this,” she told Luna as they clattered down the stairs. “Meet me at Covent Garden tomorrow, same time, outside the opera house. Piccadilly line, buy a ticket. Get Muggle clothes.”

Behind them, she heard a terrible noise: people screamed, and then a vast wind buffeted them down the final steps. Hermione staggered and nearly fell, but Luna pulled her upright, her blond hair blown about her face in disarray.

People glanced up, mild alarm on their faces. There were always odd sights and sounds in the capital.

“Freak wind,” a tourist called from the top of the steps. “Someone got blown onto the tracks.”

And that was it: life resumed, oblivious to the danger that had come in on the very currents of the air.

Luna’s gaze was direct, that bruise on her throat clear reminder of the least Hermione could expect if they were caught. “They’re here, then. What about you?”

Hermione swallowed. “I’ll leave a different way. I just want to make sure they don’t follow you. Don’t worry, I won’t do anything...”

Valiant was the word that came to mind, carried on the low snarl of Malfoy’s voice.

“...stupid,” she finished.

“If they catch you, I’m afraid you’ll live for quite a long time. Whereas if they catch me...I’m very uninteresting.”

The calmness with which she said it astounded Hermione: then she saw the tears glimmering at the corners of Luna’s eyes. She thought of Malfoy Manor, and of that girl they’d brought forth from the darkness, who’d said nothing of her pain, who’d only endured.

“No,” she said fiercely. “You know more than I do about the Order. It’s logic, that’s all.”

Luna looked away. Her smile had a watery quality to it. “The Hat put you in the right house,” she said softly.

“Go,” Hermione said, and pushed her towards the gates where commuters were filing through. People streamed past her: she watched as Luna slipped the ticket into the gates. The crowds swallowed her, and she was safe. As safe as she could – and would – be.

She turned back to the station. She wished she’d brought Felix with her, because she’d never needed it more. Around her, the human world seemed ponderous and oblivious, and she slipped through them with ease.

It was a simple plan. It was a dangerous one. And her timing had to be perfect.

As she came back to the main station, she saw them. Dark, flitting shapes that prowled among the Muggles, lit only by that silver streak of lightning. People staggered in the wind of their passing, newspapers flapping, faces set against the strange winter weather.

She put her back to the wall. She drew her wand, low at her side. And she watched, she waited, and the anger grew with her fear until the two were indivisible.

For all they had done, for all they would do, she loathed them. For the bruises lacing Luna’s throat like a necklace, for Viktor pinned in his own body like a butterfly on a collector’s board, even for Burke in his tatty clothes.

And yes, for the scars on Draco, which had chipped away at his flesh as they had chipped away at his humanity, which had led him to betray her so effortlessly. And for herself: for three years of ghosts dying in the midnight hour, for the fear and the anguish and the terrible future reflected in a mirror blown to dust.

Special Services paused: they gathered together like crows hovering over carrion, six or eight or ten of them discussing what to do. Among them was a shock of blond hair that she recognised with bitter distaste. Damn him.

She struck, the spell launching like a lightning bolt from her lips.

Expulso!”

It blew them apart in a shockwave of air.

Wizards spun wildly in all directions, clinging to brooms, wheeling out of control. The glass roof quivered dangerously as it was hit by bodies and magic. Muggles screamed – Special Services were visible, and there was uproar as people saw them, unsure whether it was a stunt or a trick or the impossible materialising before their eyes.

“There!” came a shout – a masked wizard righted himself, face turned to her. His wand rose – and for a precious moment, she froze before instinct kicked in.

She turned as if to shield herself, but a fraction too late...

He was hit by a dark blur – no, by Malfoy! - and his aim skewed for an instant, only a second - but it was enough.

Green light fizzled uselessly into the bricks where she’d stood as Hermione Apparated.

~*~




“It was her!” Croxley snarled, murder in his eyes. “Granger. If you hadn’t knocked me...”

Draco cut him off with a jab of his wand. His heart was like thunder in his chest. He wanted to kill Granger for such a showy, stupid stunt. What on earth had possessed her?

Unfortunately, that would have to wait. He had bigger problems. “You’d have killed her, you imbecile.”

“Imbecile?” sputtered the wizard.

Draco leaned in, his voice soft as silk. “Hermione Granger. Potter’s little friend. No one’s seen her for three years, just like no one’s seen the head of the Order. Now tell me, Croxley, who do you think’s been running all these thorough, clever campaigns against the government?”

The wizard’s breath was hollow inside his mask. “You think...”

“I suspect. Either way, Granger is no use to us dead. Living, she’s the answer to all our problems – or she’s bait. Dead...well, maybe you'd like to tell the Great Lord why you couldn’t have used one of a dozen curses to incapacitate her.”

There was silence. Croxley's eyes shifted under the mask. Below them, the others were subduing the Muggles, wiping memories, restoring order until they moved through like cattle once more.

“I didn’t see you cursing her, Malfoy,” Croxley breathed at last. “Or do you have a soft spot for your old school chums?”

He laughed. Croxley shifted away from him at the sound, as if unnerved. “I don’t know, Croxley. Why don’t you ask Davies? Or Clearwater? Or maybe Weasley? I’m sure they can tell you just how soft I am. I want Granger alive. I want her secrets. All of them. I want the damn Order!”

Truth, every word of it. Even Draco could not separate the rage and the hope that filled him at the thought. His wrist was burning under his sleeve, the pain a goad that turned his temper deadly.

The wizard hissed. “Very well, Malfoy. I’ll be sure to include your – actions – in my report.”

Draco smiled. It was a knife-edge smile, designed to cut. “You do that, Croxley. And I’ll make sure I return the favour when I report to the Great Lord.”

Croxley flinched. Both of them knew that Voldemort despised carelessness. Under his careful hands, prisoners rarely died from their interrogation. Usually they wished for death, of course - begged for it, sobbed and screeched and gasped for it, but their wish was not granted until the Dark Lord saw fit.

To have nearly killed so valuable a prisoner…

It was an effective deterrent; a life of murmured questions, wound about with pain as fine as filigree, a life of cuts and burns and gouges sculpted with terrible vision. What remained after – flayed and shivering and bloodied – was, his aunt had breathed in his ear, nothing less than art.

“Perhaps...I might omit certain facts,” Croxley mumbled.

Another member of Special Services joined them. “Sirs. We’ve traced her down, but...”

“But?” Draco enquired.

“She’s Apparated again. We’ve managed to track five jumps so far, but she’ll be long gone by now.” Frustration laced his voice; Draco felt an odd pride at Granger’s competence. “There was nothing on the platform but a robe. A woman’s, we think, but there’s nothing to identify it.”

“Could be Granger’s,” he said. “Take it back to the Ministry. In the meantime, I want patrols out on all the main routes, and anywhere we’ve caught rebel activity before. Every man you can spare.”

The wizard glanced at Croxley, as if unsure who was in charge. “Uh...”

“As he says,” Croxley said in a heavy voice.

Draco waited until the wizard had left them. “I think it’s best if you’re absolutely truthful in your report, Croxley. After all – we wouldn’t want the Great Lord to think you have anything to hide.” He raised his eyebrows. “I certainly don’t.”

He heard the wizard’s low groan of despair. But there were too many eyes who would have seen him cannon into Croxley; too many people who might ask questions, who might wonder what it was he had to hide. Better to hide nothing and slide the blame away like a casino dealer stacking the hand.

He did not think of the man’s face under that mask. He did not think of what awaited Croxley in the Ministry.

Instead, he thought of Granger, skipping like a stone across London, free and unfettered and out of her sodding mind. Why on earth hadn’t she just run? She could have been killed, and that would have been the end of any chance they had.

She’d been protecting someone then – she’d succeeded. That robe had belonged to an Order member. She’d sheltered them in a sickening display of compassion, selflessness and utter lunacy.

Now the whole wizarding world knew that Hermione Granger was alive and well. Bloody brilliant.

There was nothing else to do but join the wizards searching for her. Draco swept back into the winter morning, another dark smear upon the sky.

She was out there. Somewhere, in the depths of London, no longer invisible – no longer his secret.

~*~




He trundles down the halls of power, eyes down. He is slow, his progress as unstoppable as a glacier. As more important wizards pass, Ernie setps aside, mumbling the right phrases, hardly noticed. His report is rolled neatly in his hand, safe passage.

The archives are enormous. All his reports are stored somewhere in here. Usually, Special Services guard them fiercely. Now, there is only a junior official sitting at the desk. He glances at Ernie as he closes the door and dismisses him.

First mistake.

“Incoming report,” Ernie announces in his stolid tones. “Owl speed, version three. The Minister wanted it urgently.”

The official rolls his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure. Let’s have a look...”

He unrolls it, checking for the stamps and signatures. As his head bows over the paper, Ernie is quick: his wand whips from his pocket, and he whispers, “Duro.”

There is the sound of stone groaning. Before his eyes, the wizard atrophies. His heart becomes granite; his veins are mica, his eyes the smooth round curve of marble. He is nothing but a statue where a man was.

The next door is securely locked, but for a man as skilled with charms as Ernie is, that’s hardly an issue. It took eight months of quiet work before he found out the six spells which seal it: another four months before he had the countercharms down pat.

He casts them one by one. Any of his colleagues would be astonished to see his easy magic, the focus sharpening his face. The door opens soundlessly onto a treasure trove.

Here is every spell one could imagine. In better times, dark magic was shut away in the Department of Mysteries. Now such spells are stacked among the household charms and party tricks as if there is no difference.

He scans the catalogue, looking for the three ghastly incantations Neville spoke of. New spells, shoved in among the old and familiar, made to hurt.

There. He pulls out the first, scanning through. His stomach turns at the description of just how one inverts the body of one’s enemy, but he searches it through it for the counterspell. Yes, it’s there, thank Merlin, with a list of effective potions and salves for the wounds.

He can feel time pressing in on him with claustrophobic intensity. The second spell takes him an inordinately long time to find: his palms are sweaty as he pulls it out. The anatomical descriptions are horribly exact, but the charm that releases the curse is just as exact. He memorises it.

The third spell is at the very back of the archive. He glances back at the door, pulse racing. But the Order need the answers only he can provide. There are wounded in King William Street who lie untreated, twisting in the throes of curses that potions and incantations cannot touch.

His hand closes on it. As he unrolls the scroll, he hears something at the periphery of his hearing – a creak, slow and ominous.

Someone else has come into the archives.

His breath is shallow and rapid, his fingers taut about the manuscript. Ernie sneaks to the end of the aisle, as far from the door as he can get. Then, careful, he tests his weight on the shelving

It holds. Shelf by shelf, step by cautious step, he climbs it. Through the gap between the top shelf and the books below it, he can make out the threshold, and the figure there, wand drawn, advancing.

Blaise Zabini.

~*~




At sunset, Draco left the search. He’d scoured every inch of the city, and found nothing of Granger. That was, he supposed, a relief.

He sent a spell winging to Bellatrix, carried on a twist of air. She was close to Westminster, organising the search in a frenzy of fury and desperation.

“Draco,” she said, his name like the lash of a whip. “I hope you have had better luck than these fools.”

“Aunt Bella,” he said coolly. “I’ve had no luck, I’m afraid.”

She chuckled, a low throaty sound. “Are you, Draco? You don’t sound afraid...but then, you’re not much like your father, are you?”

“No,” he said curtly. “Have you found anything?”

“These incompetents can tell me where she’s been, oh, every dusty dirty shitty city place she’s been, but no one knows where she is!” Her hiss rattled down the magical link between them. “And now you disappoint me too, Draco. So sad, so sad...I want the girl – Potter’s pwetty girlie, I’ll make her talk and sing and scream.” She breathed in, a slick sound of joy. “We’ll break her together, the Dark Lord and I, and when there’s nothing left of her but gore and heat, the Order will fall too.”

Draco felt nauseous. But that was just about par for the course in any conversation with Bellatrix.

“Quite,” he said. “Happy hunting, Aunt Bella.”

“The hunt is fine,” she said dreamily, “but it’s the kill that tastes so sweet...”

Draco ended the spell with a shudder. He flew back to Grimmauld Place, certain that he would arrive to find Granger already there, demanding to know where he’d been.

But the house was empty.

He ignored the unease that swarmed up through his veins. Instead, Draco began to prepare potions, chopping ingredients with ruthless efficiency. Herb-scented steam filled the kitchen; stalks and pips and skins piled up.

Five o’clock. No sign of her. He brewed, stirred, filtered.

Six o’clock, and he found himself pacing around the table. Grimly, he sat down to write his report. The scroll filled up with his incisive script. He threw Croxley to the lions without a qualm.

When he looked up, it was gone eight o’clock. And Granger wasn’t back.

He bottled the potions, cleaned out the cauldron and wrapped up his report. He walked through every room in the house, even the bedroom he’d given her, unable to sit still. There was little indication of her presence here: an indent on a pillow, an empty bowl in the kitchen, a set of footprints trailing through the dust.

His nerves grew tauter and tauter. Where on earth was she?

When his fireplace burst into flames, and a head appeared, Draco nearly decapitated a member of Special Services. That would have been unwise, to say the least.

“Mister Malfoy,” it said gruffly. “There has been an arrest. Lady Bellatrix requires your presence tomorrow.”

It was gone before he could answer, leaving nothing but embers, and his hopes crumbling into ashes.

She’d been caught. It was over.

~*~




Again and again, Hermione Apparated. She went to every tourist spot she could think of, ignoring the startled gasps, the disbelieving glances as she appeared and vanished in the space between two heartbeats.

Nelson’s Column, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Camden Market, travelling as if her life depended on it, which wasn’t so far from the truth. Her life, and dozens of others. For half an hour, she Apparated until she was shaking with exhaustion. When she appeared at Piccadilly Circus, she wound into the crowd and let them carry her for a while, borne on a sea of language and wonder and ennui.

Eventually, she left the main streets and filtered down the back roads, crammed with boutiques and restaurants. She paused for a cup of tea, anonymous in the back of a café. Then she ventured back out, keeping an eye out for figures in the sky. When she glimpsed them in the distance, she would swing into the nearest shop and wait it out. She dared not use her magic.

So she whittled away time, drifting from place to place with elusive whimsy. Only long after darkness had fallen did Hermione dare to slip back out into the pandemonium of the city, darting between pools of fluorescent light, her features recast by the shadows.

She felt unnerved and revealed in the tube, but Special Services were nowhere to be seen. She stood close to the doors, ready to bolt if she needed to, nearly dizzy from tiredness. When her stop came, she stumbled off, glad to be back in darkness and the safety it offered.

She could not risk Apparating into Grimmauld Place. Instead, as it bulged between the buildings either side, she strolled up as if she was a casual observer. She edged up the steps, eyes scanning the skies. The handle turned beneath her hands, and though she was tensed for cries, for disaster, it did not come.

She slipped inside, surprised at how safe it felt.

~*~




Hermione paused at the kitchen door. Draco was sat at the table, head in his hands.

“Draco?” she said, bemused.

He looked up. The look on his face was on of absolute incredulity. “Granger?” Incredulity became anger. “Where the bloody hell have you been?”

“Hiding,” she said. “You might not have noticed, but I’m a wanted fugitive.”

“Yes, strangely enough I had noticed after you decided to reveal yourself to the entire Ministry,” he snapped back. “What were you thinking?”

“That I’d been betrayed. That I was on my own,” she said, and all the anger swelled up like a wave. She could not put aside that terrible moment when the earth under her feet had dropped away, launching her into freefall, into the surety of his treachery.

Outrage flashed on his face. “I saved your life!”

“When you said you’d warn me, I didn’t think that was what you meant!” She stared at him. “And just how did you sidestep the Vow, Malfoy? What did you have to do to activate it?”

His mouth drew tight. And she had her answer.

“You considered it, didn’t you?” she whispered. “You thought about handing me over to him.”

His face was emotionless, as if she didn’t matter – as if none of it mattered. “Of course.”

She wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled. But another part of her was frightened by that confession: if even the Vow would not stop him, just how close had he come to tossing away her allegiance and her life. What could Voldemort do that was terrible enough to make him consider it?

“Would you do it?” she challenged, needing to know, needing the answer. “Would you give me to him?”

She saw his mask ripple: then it smoothed into that arrogant smirk that had to be some sort of family trademark. “If the price was right. Can you say the same?”

It was a flippant answer, meant to drive her away. She saw that: and it stoked her fury. But she didn’t show it – no, she’d play him at his own game. If he wanted to pretend and dissemble, then so could she.

She had to know. One way or the other, she had to be sure. Because if death didn’t frighten him – then what was to stop him betraying her?

“Sometimes, Malfoy,” she said in a bored, smug tone that she knew was absolutely guaranteed to enrage him, “you’re so predictable.”

His eyes were thick and dark as thunderclouds. “Am I, Granger,” he said softly. “Am I now?”

“You play these endless games,” she said. “Everything is just another chance to prove me inferior, to show me I haven’t got the stomach for this. But do you really think I don’t understand what this entails? I know people will die. I know...I know I will have a hand in that. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, or find it easy!”

“And you think I do?” His eyes glittered. His voice was rising. “Do you think I like what I do, Granger, that I kill because it’s fun?”

“No.” She looked at him, gaze steady. “I think you kill because you need to.”

“You have no idea what I need, Granger,” he said in a voice scraped raw. “You think you can read me like I’m one of your bloody books, like you can learn me. You have no idea who I am!”

She saw the intent in his face before he moved: a fusion of anger and ferocity and something she could not fathom at all, some dark stirring mystery. And he was all motion, her mind able only to process details – his sudden closeness, the heat of his body, the hands he slammed either side of her head.

“No damn idea,” he snarled, and the distance between them was shrinking, shrinking, as if he wanted to subsume her completely. And suddenly she saw the emotion he was holding back, and it pierced through her like an echo.

Anguish.

She saw: and he knew it, and he jolted away as if her compassion was repellent.

Hermione was left trembling, feeling as if she’d been hauled back from a precipice, from some teetering great height from which she could fall or fly and she didn’t know which. There was heat in her cheeks, the wall a much needed support.

The silence was charged. She reached out, but he didn’t see it. And she said, “Draco-”

He moved so quickly she was defenceless, unprepared: she only saw the flash of light, and heard his voice, rasping, tying to mask pain with fury. “Silencio!

And the words of comfort were snatched away as if he couldn’t bear to hear them. She was stunned: the pettiness of it, denying her voice as if he could deny her, and himself, and the fractures he bore across his heart.

With a silent counterspell, she broke the curse, struggling with her anger. His expression was full of contempt, of his old familiar haughtiness.

“How dare you!” she said. “Do you think you can silence me because you’re afraid of what you might hear?”

He laughed, and the sound had jagged edges. “You mean you didn’t see it coming? Maybe I’m not as predictable as you thought, Mudblood.”

The epithet landed between them like a grenade.

“Wrong,” she snapped, and thrust herself forward. She had the satisfaction of seeing him step back, as if she was a threat. “You’re exactly as much of a bastard as I’ve come to expect.”

His eyes were flat as mirrors, giving her nothing of himself. “I think you’ll find my lineage is impeccable.”

“Yes, that long history of intermarriage and incest has created quite the pillar of society!”

“Don’t you dare insult my family,” he hissed, fingers jabbing at her as if he wished he was holding his wand.

His sleeve slid back and she saw what his warning to her at Kings Cross had cost him.

All the anger was snatched from her. An immense, blistered burn looped around his wrist like a Celtic knot, following the lines of the Vow. Angry red mixed with small blisters, with raw flesh. It must have been agony.

She met his eyes. There was shock there: she hadn’t been supposed to see.

And although she knew that those thoughts of betrayal must have been real enough to trigger the Vow, she knew too that he must have borne that pain long enough for her to feel it.

And, too, Hermione knew that he had thought of betrayal – and turned away.

“I can heal that, if you’ll let me,” she offered.

He eyed her. Then begrudgingly, he nodded.

Polite as strangers, they sat opposite one another at the table. Draco bared his arm, and she cast her spells, and they did not talk about all that had preceded it. In silence, she healed the burn which was proof of his betrayal and proof of her deliverance until it was nothing but another set of scars on his body.

When it was done, she said quietly, “I’m sorry. I should have trusted you.”

His smile was crooked, but his eyes were dark and unfathomable. His voice, when he spoke, was laden with regret. “Don’t be sorry, Granger.” He drew back his sleeve further, and she saw the Dark Mark.

“I carry this too,” he said softly. “I’ll wear them both until the day I die. The only question is which will kill me first.”

He left her in the dim kitchen then, unable to forget those words. They had the ring of prophecy.

~*~




Thank you for reading! Comments adored - make my Christmas :)


Chapter 11: The World's End
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My, well, hasn't it been a while. We'll skip the part where I suck and move onto the part where you guys are awesome.

So! Many, many thanks to the truly fabulous people who reviewed last time - thank you to Ardeel, yellowbuttermellow, DracoFall243, ILuvdraco999, CatGryffindor, KateRhodes, wrysgl, justme, Natalie, Hermione n Ron4ever, Mrs J Potter, ld_wolverine, arimun, MistyDreamer, Darcy Drake, FutureAggie09, SawyerSpalding, Lizayzay, meadowlarks cries, iscreamdraco, Dracoschica69, Anonymous, mel 31, Lynne, Sara_sj, AndThenTragedyStruck, pinks, Rayb008, WeasleyTwins, charliedrop12, hezja, theelderwand, AvadaKedavra1, Ashleigh, StMungosSassiana, Lara87, HP0247, moon0709, arimun, lyrical lioness, Billion, kerrylee, Kali and last but by no means least, the divine Darkangel016927. Thank you so so much for the lovely comments and your immense patience!
  As you may have guessed, I love hearing your thoughts and criticism is very welcome.

Author's Note: I have rewritten the end of Ch 10 following some great constructive criticism - thanks Lara87, justme_ and Lizayzay, it just wasn't right.

I hope you enjoy it!

Midnight


 

There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city -
But this is the nearest, in place and time
- Little Gidding, T. S. Eliot




  Beneath the night, London is all stark silhouettes and neon, the streetlights and billboards a technicolour echo of the constellations above. The river divides it like a lightless reflection of the Milky Way, a road to nowhere but the drowning deeps.

Squatting beside the banks of the Thames is the seat of Voldemort's power. Not the Ministry, which is merely the shining public face of his puppet Government, but a building that has been the pride of kings and the prison of queens. It has known the gallows and the block, the fire and the fury and the thunder, and its stones are stained with blood.

The Dark Lord holds court beneath the Tower of London like a vast spider poised upon its web. He knows well the power of symbols, he who hurled the Dark Mark high enough to block out heaven.

Those he summons must walk down the twisting steps, leaving behind the light and the truculent modern world. They pass the empty cells where men have screamed on racks and women known the brutal touch of blades under their nails. They pass the oubliettes, which are slimed over and filled with the sound of skittering rats.

Their eyes flick up as they pass under the iron portcullis, nervous of the wicked spikes. In the silence, their footsteps are too loud, a reminder of life in a place swollen with death. At the end of the narrow tunnel, he waits, calm, icy, his pale hands as still as marble on the arms of the throne.

It's the only brightness in the chamber, a great gold thing that is as potent a message as the hellish walk, raised upon a crude stone dais. Here are the rewards: treasure beyond measure, the fortune of an empire, a place on high.

And here is the danger: the monster within it, who has travelled so far from humanity that it has melted like candle wax from his face. There's an echo of the torturer's fires in his red eyes, his fingers as thin and cruel as pincers. Pain is his craft, and Voldemort has learned it well.

No one could fail to be afraid. In that, Blaise Zabini is no different.

He goes down into the underbelly of London, not knowing what he will find, not knowing if he is to be praised, or if (but no...) he has been uncovered. He takes his weapons, though few would recognise them as such: his able wit, his gilded tongue, his charisma.

They are all he has to fend off his gnawing doubts.

The day plays through his mind and Blaise unpicks it to the last detail - what else could he have done? When he confronted Macmillan in the archives, and control slid away from him like wet soap through his fingers, was there any other choice?

The Tower swallows him up. He descends, he remembers, and he fears.

~*~




Hermione couldn't sleep. That was hardly surprising. After today, it would have been peculiar if she had been able to brush aside the frantic chase, the sizzling spells of battle, the hope that had surged in her with terrible force.

Unfortunately, none of those moments kept her awake.

It was the memory of Draco's face, of how vulnerable he had looked, how human and broken and fragile. That unnerved her. She had been surprised by his pain, and that meant she had been fooled by him, by the reputation he used as shield and weapon alike.

It meant that of them both, though she was a fugitive, wanted, hunted, hated, she might not be the greater risk.

She lay in her bed, eyes open in the darkness, wondering what else she did not know about him. Though she did not realise, her fingers traced the lines of the Vow again and again until the gesture had the significance of a superstition.

At last, insomnia drove her downstairs, moving silently through the night as she had through Hogwarts. She trusted the darkness in a way she did not the light, one hand on the wall to guide her.

In the kitchen, Hermione filled the kettle from the wheezing tap. When she lit the hob, the small blue flame threw elongated shadows across the kitchen. It felt almost homely, and she sat in the gloom, listening to the water boil.

She made herself tea and sat at the table, warming her hands on the mug. It brought back bittersweet memories of Divination, which had been unable to foresee this brutal world. If the future was in the dregs, she did not care to look: she tipped them down the sink to fester in the drains.

As she crossed the floor, her foot caught a loose tile. Hermione tripped spectacularly, and crashed into the door. It rattled ominously, but held. She prayed she hadn't woken Draco, who was bound to have something annoying and entitled to say about have his sleep disrupted.

When she heard no noise from above, she counted herself lucky, and stole back upstairs.

She was halfway across the landing when she heard it: a creak, as if of a floorboard - and it was behind her, at the top of the stairs. Hermione froze - she raised her wand, listening intently. She said nothing, did nothing but waited in the dark as though she herself was only a shadow.

Silence.

She kept her breath soft and even, poised on upon a knife edge. Fear arced through her. What if she'd been seen coming back? She'd been so careful, but perhaps she had underestimated them, a dangerous, deadly thing to do...

Movement - she flung the spell with a silent cry of Petrificus Totalis! - light fizzled harmlessly into the wall, then a hand wrapped around her wrist, around the Vow and she heard an exasperated voice in her ear.

"Are you trying to kill me, Granger?"

The darkness was complete and nothing but his tight grip revealed he was close. "I'm not the one creeping round in the dark."

There was a pregnant pause, then Draco said dryly, "I beg to differ."

"I was getting a cup of tea," she said.

"Yes. That sounds perfectly rational. Except for the part where I thought someone had broken down the front door."

With her free hand, she groped about, trying to place him, mostly so she could kick him in the shins for frightening the life out of her. "I tripped."

"On what, the percussion section of an orchestra?"

"It wasn't that loud," she muttered, although it had been. "And even if it was, do you really think the Death Eaters are that incompetent?"

"It depends," he remarked. "One keeps hearing about declining standards and certainly some of the current-"

Her fingers found him: a warm, smooth solid mass.

He cut off. "Granger..."

That was his shoulder, collarbones a smooth ridge, and his ribs and a multitude of scars that contoured him and the T-shirt he was wearing was incredibly close-fitting, almost like a second-

His voice was strangled. "Granger, what the hell are you doing?"

...skin. He wasn't wearing a top, she realised with a kind of horror, and she should have taken her hand away, only she didn't. And he didn't let go of her wrist, either, and they just stood there in the dark with the silence spreading out like a blush.

"...I was working out where your shins were," she said faintly. "I was going to kick you."

"Oh," he said. He sounded distracted. Then he said, "All things considered, I'd rather you didn't."

"Well, I'd hate to be predictable," she said. She was babbling, and she wasn't sure why.

She felt him tense. He said, "Yes, I expect you would," and his voice was soft, bitter, and she realised he was thinking of her saying sometimes you're so predictable, of serrated words and rage.

Startled, not thinking, she flattened her palm against his chest, and said, "Draco," half plea, half peace offering.

She felt his heartbeat under her hand, thunder in flesh. And whether it was her words or her touch, she heard him take a harsh breath, and she looked up because it was instinct, to try and find an answer in his eyes. There was only the dark, and the memory of his name on her lips, and she wasn't sure it would be enough.

His hand tightened on her wrist - and she braced herself for angry words, for accusation.

The kiss came like a maelstrom - burning, bruising, a challenge and a duel. And she didn't even think about it, she didn't do anything but feel - it was his lips fierce on hers and his hair bristling under her fingers and the pressure of his hand splayed at the small of her back. His body was a barricade against her, insurmountable, hostile even in passion.

She felt her loneliness then - and his, felt the intensity of his touch.

It was madness; it crumbled some wall between them and bared her to him in a way that was dangerous and intimate, but she did not stop. Some part of her needed it. Some part of her - broken, wounded, three years in a haze of ghosts and war - needed him, for a second, for a minute, for the length of a kiss.

When they parted, she swayed back, her head a whirl of sensation. Everywhere he'd touched her held the memory of him: her back, her wrist, her lips.

She was shaken, she was frightened, her world trembling on its axis.

He did not say a word. The silence between them was unbearable, and so she tried to fill it. "Malfoy..."

When she felt the prod of a wand in her throat, she realised that her hands were empty; and while she had been startled and amazed and swept away by the riptides of a kiss, he had stripped her of every defence she had.

She was glad of the darkness then, her only ally in the empty night. At least he could not see her shame, her betrayal, how utterly used and foolish she felt.

His voice was acid, just a touch husky at the edges. "Granger, if all your foes are going to disarm you this easily, you might want to have a career rethink."

The flush seared her cheeks. "So it was another test."

"What else was it going to be?" His scorn was palpable. "No one will protect you. I won't-"

"You did," she said softly.

"Yes, and tomorrow I have to answer to the Dark Lord for it - for you, Granger, for you and your bloody heroics! You'll get us both killed if you don't start to-"

"What?" she interrupted. "To distrust everyone I meet? To spend all my time afraid and alone? That's what keeps Voldemort in power. I won't be like that."

"I think that damn Vow proves you're not alone."

"I might as well be," she said bitterly. "I want to trust you, Malfoy, but you make it so difficult."

And she thought then that he might be angry, that he might feel some inkling of the betrayal she felt. But instead, he pressed her wand into her hand, careful not to touch her, and his voice was quite calm.

"Granger, some days I wake up and don't trust myself. Maybe you should think about why that is."

He left her alone then to fumble her way to bed, a mess of turmoil. She was shaken, she was frightened, her world trembling on its axis. But not because she was afraid of him.

For a moment, she'd forgotten all he was, all she was, her control tossed away. They had been a boy and a girl meshed in a kiss, and she'd burned with it.

Hermione shut her bedroom door and leaned back against it, trying to stop the thought that was as inevitable as dawn, but the truth could not be so easily suppressed.

She hadn't wanted to stop.

~*~




The Tower is every bit as eerie as he has always been told.

Blaise has never seen the Dark Lord in his court, though of course he has seen the portraits which decorate the corridors of power, and he has felt the tension in the Ministry whenever the Wizengamot is called for another sham of a trial.

But he understands the value of appearances, and so he is careful not to shudder at the sound of rats. He does not look at the portcullis at he passes beneath it. He walks evenly, never faltering, shoulders back, head high, a man who is unshakable in his loyalty and his self-belief.

It is just as he has been warned. The Dark Lord is an amorphous shape hunched in the throne, like the black heart of a flame.

Beside Voldemort, Bellatrix is laden with pearls and rings and bracelets, the dangling diamonds nowhere near as glittering and hard as her eyes. Her hair is matted and disarrayed, an uneven frame for her wild beauty. In her hands, she turns a fingerbone, and her smile is sinister.

"Zabini." Voldemort surveys him, at ease in this place of shadows and suffering. "I am told you were instrumental in capturing a valuable prisoner."

He stands before them, aware of how very far it is back to the surface. "Yes, Great Lord. Ernie - Ernest Macmillan. I found him in the archives with powerful curses in his possession." He dares to meet those coal-hot eyes. "Great Lord, there is something else. I've kept quiet because I didn't think you'd want it known."

"Indeed." That word is as much warning as invitation.

"The coins from Dumbledore's Army are gone."

Voldemort hisses, the sound rattling through the air. "So. Macmillan is part of the Order."

"That ox?" Bellatrix spits, shrill. "He's nobody, no one, nothing!"

"Clearly, that is not the case," Voldemort says in a whisper as thin as a whip, "You are to be congratulated on your swift response, Minister."

"Thank you, Great Lord," Zabini answers, not daring to look away. He must be faultless, untarnished by even the faintest breath of suspicion. "It was only my duty."

"Yes, yes," Voldemort murmurs. "Finding traitors is but a duty, is it not, Bella?"

She flinches, and the bone in her fingers snaps. "Special Services will find Granger, my lord!"

So it's Granger they're searching for. Zabini's heart leaps fretfully, for now he begins to see the shape of the formidable mind behind the Order. It's common knowledge that Longbottom, Weasley and Brown are high in the organisation. But their leader has always been an unknown with tactical flair.

Hermione Granger has the intellect. Yet why show herself now, and so publicly?

"Too many people have heard about the fumbling debacle in Kings Cross," Voldemort says, and he bends down to take Bellatrix's chin in his fingers. She quivers under his touch, fear and rapture blazing from her face. "I will be most interested to hear what Draco has to say."

"My lord," she implored, giddy as a girl. "Half my forces are searching through the night. They will find her, or I will have the skin from them, one by one, to hang on my walls. And I shall question Macmillan myself, and peel his secrets off his bones if I have to. We will have her!"

There is an unsettling tension between them: Zabini feels as if he has intruded on a moment of intimacy, if one laced with the threat of pain.

"You will, Bellatrix, or I will have your skin, and everything within it," Voldemort murmurs, his fingers sliding down to her throat to encircle it, nails digging into her flesh.

"I have never failed you, my lord." She arches into his touch, fearless, a flush staining her cheeks. "I never will. I have been faithful, I have been true."

"So you have." Voldemort draws her close, her hands pressed to him as if he is a holy relic, his body hunched over her as if she will be swallowed into his shadow. "So you shall."

He releases her; she puddles to the floor in a clatter of jewellery, hands held out for a moment, and the adoration on her face quite naked.

"You see the sensitivity of the situation, Zabini," the Dark Lord says, sliding back onto his throne with sinuous ease. "But this little insurrection is not unexpected. I have made arrangements of various sorts for this very day, one of which will bear fruit tomorrow. I expect you to handle the resulting publicity with your usual aplomb. And one small adjustment. It must be made clear that the Order of the Phoenix are responsible."

Zabini blinks. For three years, it has been the practice never to mention their name, at his own suggestion. There's no such thing as bad publicity, after all, and the fewer people who know of a resistance, the fewer will try to join it. "Great Lord, I apologise if I misunderstand, but previous policy-"

"I want them named, and I want them blamed," Voldemort says, each word bitten out. "Let them see the price of their rebellion. Let them see it piled up on the front pages. That is all I ask, Minister. A small thing, yes, a very small thing. I am confident that we will soon have the Order, but I want the way prepared."

The future hangs over Zabini like a guillotine. Something terrible will happen, something he must spin and shape into bloody colour.

"Yes, Great Lord," he says. His hands tremble behind his back. "I shall make sure the truth is known."

His smile curls up like a dead leaf, a rotten, empty thing. "Be sure that you do, Zabini. Be very, very sure."

He backs away from them, his face a mask of composure. Inside, he is reduced to nerves and apprehension. Gruesome scenes of devastation pierce his mind, the memories of three years of the truth, three years of death.

The Dark Lord's promise accompanies him back to the starlight, a breath of the underworld rising up to choke him: I have made arrangements.

As he steps out into clean air, he can hear Big Ben tolling midnight. In the gasp between today and tomorrow, it sounds like a funeral bell.

~*~




Dawn woke Draco from smoky dreams of heat and pain. The scar across his heart ached, as it always did on cold mornings, but he ignored it and dressed quickly. It was time.

Once a month, every month, he flew into the sunrise. It was a routine he did not vary. Although later he would stand before his mad aunt and offer up judgment on whatever unfortunate had been arrested last night, now he was not a favoured pet, a feared killer, or a trapped man.

He was his parents' son, and that was all that mattered.

The sky was marbled with pink and gold. He opened his window onto it, and felt the winter wind on his face and on the tight skin of his newly healed arm.

He welcomed the bitter air: it blasted through him, blowing away the cobwebs of feelings he did not want to examine, the memories that were too troubling. There was only the cold, and the need to fight it off.

And as the ragged dark curtains fluttered like crow's wings, he darted through them on the Firebolt, out towards the rising sun, and the coast.

~*~




He knew well the treacherous winds of the North Sea, which stampeded through the sky like wild horses. Though they twisted and turned and dropped away with malicious speed, they could not hurl him from the sky. Below, the black churning sea was a mass of spray, flung high on the air to soak him through.

Sometimes, on other darker days, he was tempted to turn the broom and plummet into its depths, just because he could. Then, the uncaring waters seemed better than what he would return to.

Not today, though.

Today, it was different. He did not qualify why: he did not dare think too much on the future, for fear it would distort before him like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. He only knew that he soared, as if gravity could not hold him, and felt some dizzy thrill as he barrelled down the wild tunnels of the wind towards Azkaban,

The prison rose fang-like from the sea, a jagged fortress that the waves broke uselessly upon. He circled down to it, hair blown back from his face.

As he strode up the sea-slick steps, the taste of salt coated his lips like tears.

A trio of guards flanked the entrance, the first of many. Their armour was speckled with spray. They regarded him without fear or interest: one had his wand aimed at Draco's throat, the other at his own wand. The third handed over Veritaserum, which Draco knocked back without so much as a grimace. Standard procedure, these days.

"Name?" one said. The third guard aimed his wand at Draco's heart and barked, "Leglimens."

"Draco Malfoy," he answered. He gritted his teeth under the unpleasant sensation of the guard rifling through his thoughts.

"Position?"

"Special Services operative."

"Purpose."

"Visiting family."

The questions turned to the usual enquiries.

"Have you encountered any enemies of the state?"

"Yes," Draco said calmly, and entirely truthfully. "Hermione Granger. Wanted fugitive. Involved in a hit-and-run attack on Special Services yesterday."

He held foremost in his mind the images of the spells she had fired, of her remarkable vanishing act.

The guards were silent for a long time. At last, one said: "Incident confirmed. Any others?"

He had passed the first test. Good.

Draco looked him in the eyes with the gaze of an honest man, and said, "Not to my knowledge."

The other questions were standard and he evaded them easily, as he had for years. There were very few wizards who could penetrate the fog of half-truths and fiction that he presented as his memories. The Dark Lord, of course - always, and ever. Bellatrix, perhaps.

And the only person who didn't need magic to see through his lies.

"Detainee visited?"

"Narcissa Malfoy," he answered. "My mother."

"Very well." The wands lowered. The spells unwound like ropes. "Welcome to Azkaban, sir. You may leave your broom in the keep. You will be subject to security protocols. Be aware all personal items must be declared and examined. First-"

"-door on the left, mind the steps," Draco finished coolly. "Thank you. Glory to the Great Lord."

"Glory be," the guard said, and offered him a stiff nod.

As the gates opened with the wail of rusty hinges, he heard the noise of the inmates:a susurrus of moans and whispers and weeping, rising up over the crash of the sea. It was the sound of people drowning in something far colder and deeper than water.

And today, it could not touch him. Their despair rolled off him, turned back, denied. He went into Azkaban like a living man into the underworld, untarnished and bright, daring to hope, daring to dream.

~*~




The world contracted around her.

Hermione appeared in a dark corner of Leicester Square unnoticed. She had Apparated straight out of Grimmauld Place, not daring to leave via the door in case it was monitored.

She blended into the mass of tourists, glad of the cold that meant shewas anoynmous in her thick scarf and hat. The crowds carried her down to Covent Garden, into the piazza where street entertainers coaxed passers-by into watching a ludicrous panoply of acts. She slipped past a man juggling fire, looking for the glass doors to the Opera House.

She spotted them behind a brass band playing carols. Nearby, jarring in Muggle clothes, was Luna. Her hair was a shade of flame red that made her skin look white as apple flesh. Huge sunglasses covered her eyes, but the fact she was reading a newspaper upside down was quite a giveaway.

She glanced up as Hermione approached, and her smile was warm. "I wasn't sure you'd come," she said, folding up the tabloid. Their conversation was concealed by the merry music.

"Check it's me first," Hermione advised.

"I can tell it is," Luna said cheerfully. "The sunglasses are enchanted. Ernie made them for the Order. They can see right through magic. Do you like my disguise?"

"Very covert," she said dryly. "You found them, then."

Luna touched her fingers to the bangles on her wrist. No: to one bangle, thin and red among the gold and silver. "I had a way to get in touch. Neville..." Her voice faded a little, her smile wilting into something sadder, sweeter. "I don't think they're very happy with him, but he made a charm for me that would call him if I activated it."

She raised the sunglasses. Her eyes were as impenetrable as mist.

"I've told them about you, Hermione, and I think they believe me now."

"You think?" she echoed.

She frowned. "Their mouths were saying one thing and their eyes weren't saying anything at all. They've asked me to bring you to them, but I have to blind you."

Hermione stared at her. Luna looked vaguely troubled by the idea, but otherwise it was clear she meant it.

"Before I do that, I thought I should probably tell you something. They won't like me doing it, but I've spent a good deal of time doing things people wouldn't have liked if they'd known." Her gaze was direct. "I think they're frightened. Not all of them - not Neville, but the others. I think something is wrong in the Order. At first I thought a rogue banshee might be living under the floorboards, but I didn't hear any wailing, so it must be something else. Are you sure you want to go?"

Hermione didn't hesitate. No matter what was wrong in the Order of the Phoenix, she would not and could not turn away from them. All that remained of her old life was there.

"Yes."

Luna fumbled in her bag. She pulled out a bottle of water. "Then you need to drink this. It's an Elixir of Eternal Night. Don't worry, the name's an exaggeration. My father refused to let them advertise in The Quibbler because he said it was misrepresentation."

Given some of the more sensational pieces that The Quibbler had run, Hermione couldn't help but feel that Xenophilius Lovegood had chosen a rather peculiar point on which to take a stand for truth and justice. "Is The Quibbler still going?"

Luna blinked. "Oh. You don't know. He's in Azkaban. He claimed Bellatrix Lestrange was descended from harpies, and she didn't take it very well. Poor Daddy," she said softly. "He really believed it."

Feeling that she'd put her foot in it, Hermione patted her arm. "I'm so sorry, Luna."

"Imagine throwing an innocent man in prison because you can't accept that your prominent shoulder blades are residual wings." Luna sounded oddly cheery. "I used to feel terribly sad about it, Hermione, but then you came, and I feel like everything's going to change."

She was touched, and yet afraid of how much depended on her - on Draco.

"I guess we'd better make a start." She knocked back the elixir: it had a strong taste of aniseed, and burned a path down her throat. Seconds passed. "It doesn't seem to have-"

The world went black; she had a momentary panic, and swayed. Luna's hand closed around her arm, her grip firm. "It's all right."

"I can't see a thing." She tried not to sound nervous, but her voice wobbled.

This was entirely different from her exile in Hogwarts, where she knew every brick and flagstone. In crowded noisy carefree London, a conglomeration of chaos and technology and history, she was lost.

She felt Luna link arms with her. Slowly, they began to walk, no different from the hundreds of others dawdling through the capital.

"I won't let you fall," Luna said. "You kept me safe, Hermione. It's my turn now."

~*~




There's an air of refinement about Kensington, more than the gleaming shop facades and clean pavements. One can spot the glint of designer goods on passers-by, and the silence here is the kind purchased with inherited wealth.

The houses on his row are old but well-kept. They surround the private garden, uniform as soldiers on parade. The brick walls and elegant ironwork keep out riff-raff: the small key identifies Zabini as anything but. The gate protests as it opens, scraping on the morning air.

He slips into this secret garden at the heart of London. A charm renders him all but invisible, only his shadow showing on the ground.

Far from the Tower, he can allow himself to quake. He has slept badly, tormented by his own imagination. He slumps onto a bench, head in hands, and outside the surveillance spells in his home, lets the fear overtake him.

He trembles, his heart stuttering. Images flash piecemeal across his mind - the bone breaking in Bellatrix's hands, the white hands taut upon her throat, the Dark Lord's red red eyes.

He cannot be weak for long, but for now, he gives in.

It's cathartic; when he sits up, he is drained but ready.

 Blaise allows himself to think about what passed in the archives. He went there on a gamble, knowing that the Ministry would never again be so emptied of Special Services and their prying eyes.

The Order were rising, it seemed, as their very name promised - from ashes, searing through the world once more. And if ever he had to choose, he would need some token of his loyalty. And what better than the very same token of their loyalty - the coins from Dumbledore's Army.

So he crafted an impeccable alibi, and he went to the archives.

Blaise recalls how he went in to see the archivist turned to stone in his chair.

And then he drew his wand, careful: the information here was a weapon of immense proportions for anyone clever enough to use it.

He edged in, holding a barely visible shield before him.

"You have a choice," he called down the silent aisles. "You can surrender now, and I'll do my utmost to ensure you receive the minimum punishment. Or we can fight - and you will have tried to kill a member of the Ministry. Worse, you'll have failed."

As he expected, no answer came.

One by one, he checked the aisles. His quarry's bolthole shrank. The final aisle - nothing to the right-

His shield flashed as bright as lightning, but Zabini had closed his eyes. When he opened them, a figure ran clumsily down the aisles, half-blinded.

With a flick of his wand, the door slammed. A whisper sent lights cycling around the room: his opponent doused them with a Shroud of Night charm so strong that it took three tries before Zabini lit the room again - just in time to see a bookcase toppling towards him.

He dived. A falling scroll clipped his heel as the bookcase hit the ground in a mess of splintered wood and torn paper.

They traded shots - between shelves, through the aisles, a volley of magic that filled the air with light and sound. Blaise fended off expert charms, and sturdy if basic battle-magic.

Back and forth they went, triggering security spells that exploded around them: Blaise had time on his side, power on his side - and his opponent knew it too. His spells became more reckless, faster...

And then a moment of carelessness: he spotted his opponent's feet under an aisle. With a hiss of triumph, Blaise fired a spell across the floor that knocked him clean over: he demolished a bookcase on top of him for good measure. A cry, then a soft, fading moan, and nothing.

He staggered to his feet. Carefully, he levitated the debris off, wanting to know who'd fought so boldly.

His heart nearly stopped.

Macmillan. Stupid, gormless Ernie Macmillan, with scrolls under one arm.

Who was once part of Dumbledore's Army. Who was known to visit Luna Lovegood. Who must surely be part of the Order.

There was a clamour outside - people banging on the door. The room was a wreck, and the traces of battle everywhere.

He had known then how it would look. The very action he took to help the Order would alienate them from him: he couldn't save Ernie - there was no time and nowhere to hide him.

But he could get the coins. He could claim Ernie destroyed them.

It was the decision of a moment. The glass cabinet holding them was shattered. Blaise scooped up the coins and Transfigured them into paperclips. They clinked into his pocket. As the door shuddered under the impact of his would-be rescuers, he aimed his wand at Ernie's heart, not looking at his face.

Five seconds later, the door smashed open onto Blaise. Bleeding, robes torn, smeared with soot, he stood victorious over a treacherous enemy.

It was a perfect tableau. He is, after all, the perfect publicist.

And yet, he cannot salve his conscience. He escaped the Tower tonight. Macmillan will not.

The only reassurance he has is this: that he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a chain of dangling paperclips, tiny things, incongruent in this verdant garden. For these, Ernie Macmillan will pay with his life, his sanity, with a knowledge of pain so deep and abiding that it will consume him.

He goes to the empty flowerbeds, which wait for spring. Blaise too has waited for spring - for three years, for however long it takes. He digs deep, and hides the paperclips under the packed ground.

For these, he may fall. And he's afraid. Of course he is.

But for these, the Order may rise - high, higher, until the phoenix soars above the Tower, above the Dark Mark, until the sky is full of that which cannot, will not, dare not die.

~*~




The cell door screeched as the guard opened it. Draco stepped in, carrying a chair, and was locked in. Spells reactivated in a flash of blue light that dazzled him briefly.

When his vision cleared, she was stirring from her bedraggled nest of moth-eaten blankets. He smothered his horror at the sight of her: her face was raddled with bruises, the residue of Bellatrix's tender ministrations. Makeshift bandages covered her hands, and she moved as if she'd aged fifty years. And almost worse, they had cut off her hair, which she had always taken such pride in.

He wanted to hug her, to whisk her away from this hellhole. But if Bellatrix was taking a personal interest, they were probably being watched.

So instead he put down the chair, settled himself, and said, quite coolly, "Mother."

Stripped of her fine clothes and her expensive perfumes, she had not lost a whit of her dignity. Narcissa drew the blankets around her shoulders as if they were a mink pelt. "Draco. You look well."

The faintest trace of a smile gleamed upon her lips; she understood the game.

"Of course," he said. "Aunt Bella mentioned she came to speak to you."

She touched the bruise on her cheek. Her voice was tired. "Among other things."

He glanced around. The guard nodded at him and then left, a wad of Muggle money tucked into his pocket. Draco had bought a few precious moments alone with her.

He rose swiftly, keeping his voice low. "I can heal that."

"No."

He hesitated. "Mother?"

"Bella would see it as weakness, Draco. You know it," she pressed.

"Your hands-"

She tucked them into the blankets as if hiding them from view could make him forget. "Will be fine. I am not a china doll."

"She..." He could not bring himself to say it.

"She asked in more than words," she said. "I did not answer."

He sank to his knees in front of her, taking her poor battered hands with the greatest of care. "Mother, why? Tell her, and it will be over!"

"Oh, Draco," she said sadly. "I'm afraid that simply isn't true. I have spent my life waiting for it to be over, telling myself that this meeting, that task, that death would be the last. It never is."

He looked up at her. All his life, she had been a glittering peacock, her laughter froth and bubbles, a woman of effortless glamour and unquestioning love. Now, although hardship had eroded her beauty, it had revealed something far more durable: a character forged from steel.

"I don't understand why you did it," he said. "Thousands of children have been taken. Why try and hide that one?"

His mother had never cared much for anyone beyond his father and himself. He had seen the pictures of the little girl she swept from the panicking crowds: a mite of a thing with cloudy black hair. No one special.

Her lips twisted. "I had my reasons."

He knew what her next question would be before she asked. The hope in her face gave it away.

"Have you seen your father?"

"Yes," he lied, as he did every time. "He's alive and about as well as he can be. He sends his love."

It was his father who broke and confessed to Voldemort, as if by handing over the child he could absolve himself. Draco couldn't forgive him for betraying his mother so easily.

She gave a little gasp of pure joy.

"Bella said..." She stopped herself. "Never mind that. He's all right?"

"Yes."

Draco didn't know. Still he could not reconcile the man his father was with the man Draco had always thought him to be. He remembered the handsome patriarch who'd taken such pride in his lineage; who had been so ambitious, a man of calculation and cold decision. If his love had been hard to earn - for earned it was in his father's world of worth and wealth - it had also been constant.

But he had crumbled before Voldemort, revealing that those qualities were merely a thin veneer. Beneath it, it turned out the man who put a value on everything had put the highest value of all on his own life.

"Give him my love, Draco," she commanded as she did every time. "Tell him I forgive him. Tell him I know he only wanted the best for us." Tears glimmered in her eyes and she reached out to smooth his hair, as she had when he'd been a child. "Silly man. He didn't see we already had the best, the very best. I just wanted someone else to have a little of it too..."

"Is that why you did it?" he said, pouncing on her words with the swiftness of desperation.

She sighed. "Draco, no more."

"Mother...Mother, you must tell them why you did it, or they will execute you." His throat was raw. "I can't stop them!"

She gazed at him as if surprised. "I never expected you to. I know what will happen, and happen it will whether I confess or whether I keep my silence and the last bit of dignity left to me."

He fought to keep his composure, holding it only by a ragged edge. "You don't know that. He may have mercy."

"That is exactly what the Great Lord does not have," she corrected. There was a serenity in her eyes he could not grasp. He had not seen it since Voldemort's return, a peace as vast and implacable as snowfall. "But my death may satisfy him, enough that he will release your father..."

He struggled to grasp her words. "You can't trade your life for the - the hope that the Great Lord will release Father!" he choked out.

She was silent: she gazed at him as if seeing something new in her son. "You talk as if hope isn't worth having," she said softly.

"It isn't," he said. It wasn't hope that drove him to Hogwarts, and to Granger - it was desperation. It was the sure knowledge that his mother would not help herself, and that his father would help only himself, and that Voldemort would help no one at all.

That was not hope: it was the utter absence of hope, the certainty of darkness and loss.

"Oh, my darling," she said, her voice quivering. She smoothed his hair back. "It's worth everything."

"Even your life?" he bit out.

"Especially that. I want you to be free, Draco, to be happy and strong, like you were. But instead I've watched the world shrink into Voldemort's shadow - as Bella did, as Lucius did, as you are. I can't accept that world any longer. I can't watch anyone else forced to accept it."

Her gaze was like a knife in his heart.

"That's why I did what I did. I saw a little girl, and she looked like Bella - just like her, before she met Tom, before it all went bad. And I wanted to save her. To send her somewhere that had never heard of Voldemort, or the Dark Mark. I wanted one person to be free of him - just one. I failed to protect Bella, and your father, and most of all, you. He has destroyed our family. He has made us his fools and his butchers. I wanted one little girl to be safe - one family to escape, even if it couldn't be mine, even if I have to sit here and listen to my own son tell me that hope...that h-hope isn't worth h-having."

Her voice broke: she wept quietly, without fuss, faced turned from him.

Draco couldn't look at her. Head bowed, he stared at the floor of the cell.

When she spoke again, her voice was calm. "So you see, Draco, why I won't confess. It wouldn't save me, and the Dark Lord would feel he had won. I will keep my dignity. I will have that victory, at least. And I will love you and hope for you until the moment that I die."

He staggered from her cell: he told her that he loved her, and she smiled. But it did not pierce the leaden horror he felt.

Draco hadn't known it until that moment, but he had hoped. He had hoped he could save his mother, his family, that he could turn back time as King Canute had hoped he could turn back the tides.

But now it was in tatters. His mother would not stall for time: there were only ten days left until her execution. There was no chance that they could overthrow Voldemort in that time, and no other way to save her now.

The world was crashing down upon him. Nothing else mattered: nothing but a Vow, and the woman who would hold him to it.

~*~




Faithful as the Pole Star, Luna led Hermione through London. Along cobbles and smooth paving stones. Through ticket barriers, past a multitude of voices. She felt her stomach lurch as a lift launched them downwards: she minded the gap as she stepped onto a train. The stations went by, marked off by an automatic voice: Leicester Square, Holborn.

They changed at Holborn in a rush of voices and footsteps and machinery. Chancery Lane gave way to St Paul's, and there Luna led her out of the station and into icy air. They walked on down what felt endless streets; lefts, rights, disorientating turns that left Hermione with no idea where they were.

Then Luna stopped. The street was busy, full of the sounds of people and cars.

"When I tell you," Luna said in a low voice, "Take three steps forward. No more."

There was a sudden commotion - brakes screeching, shouts and gasps, a crunch...

"Now," Luna whispered, and Hermione moved.

The noise from outside cut off. Then a young man's voice said, "You're back. Is that..."

"Hermione Granger," Luna finished. "Are they waiting?"

"Yes. In the holding area. You'd better get down there. There's news. Not the good kind."

"Oh dear," murmured Luna. "Hermione, we're going to go down a spiral staircase. Go as slowly as you need to. And watch out for devils under the stairs."

"I can't watch out for anything," she pointed out.

"So you can't." Luna considered. "Well, I'll watch for you."

They crept down the stairs. Even with one hand on the rail, Hermione felt dizzy: she could not see the drop that coiled away in front of her, but that made it worse, somehow. The descent seemed to go on forever - then her foot hit flat ground, and again.

She heard voices distantly, but they turned away from them and walked some way. When she had to lower herself over a ledge, she landed on old tracks. Her feet clipped the rails from time to time: then Luna drew her off to one side and when a door shut behind her, she realised they had entered a room.

Something nudged the back of her knees. "Here, sit down," Luna said. "It's usually a bit of a shock when the potion wears off. Can I have the antidote, please?" she asked, and Hermione realised there were other people present.

A glass was placed in her hand. She drank it: her vision began to clear, first into greyness, then into grainy colours, and finally...

She gasped. There were three people looking at her. Luna was smiling. She was the only one.

Neville was sat behind a table, bottled potions in front of him. He was still short, but the weight had melted off him to leave muscle and scars. He watched her through a shaggy blond mop of hair. His wand was aimed at her, and that hurt.

But not as much as the sight of the third person in the room. He leaned against the concrete wall, tall and imposing, arms folded. That fiery hair was the same, and so were the freckles, but nothing else was: nothing could ever be the same again between them, because the third of their trio was missing, lost, and they were all that remained.

His blue eyes pierced through her. "Hello Hermione," Ron said, his voice a little rough. "Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix."

~*~




Thanks for reading! Comments adored.


Chapter 12: Change
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So. It's been a while. I still suck: you guys are still amazing. Huge thanks to the wonderful people who commented last time round. Thank you: Kay, yellowbuttermellow, theelderwand, KateRhodes, applegreen, bewitched0902, FutureAggie09, Lizayzay, Ardeel, Iluvdraco999, katiefelton, arimun, pinks, ld_wolverine, *~dramionewouldbeproud~*, julia, MrsDracoKruspe, Val:D, jaceni, AddictedtoFF, spam up sam, StaticEcho19, Miss stephanie, GeorgiaRhianne, MitziiiSujheyyy, Katty_1818, SearchingForLuna, Dragonwood, Steen, :), Blue Biro, Aeana, ilooklikehermione, DefyingBoundaries, MyLittleHeartShapedBox, s, Chelli, MaddyJane, Pinguin, Were Lupin, Shawna, colourinstereo, obliviateyourbrain, maria, Cassie, laura, draco-crazy, Kristin, kimmikki13, Rlim, Joy, and finally, fantastically, Alexa.

I adore hearing what you think: all comments and criticisms are very welcome! Hope you enjoy....



Midnight

When the familiar scene is suddenly strange
Or the well known is what we have yet to learn
And two worlds meet, and intersect, and change

- T. S. Eliot, To Walter de la Mare


"Ron," Hermione said, and his name twisted from her lips like a plea. "Ron, is it really you?"

His smile was faint, crooked, sad. "I was about to ask the same thing."

"What happened to you?" she said in a voice that was cracked and trembling. "You were there – behind the desk – and then there was fire and you were gone."

Stubborn, against all logic, she had clung to the belief he had survived. In those first nights, as the Death Eaters plundered the castle, their mockery and cruelty soared over the weeping of the ghosts.

Come out, come out, wherever you are...

Their whispers echoed through the crawl spaces and the rafters, following her into even the deepest, darkest corners. They listed the dead, the dying, the captured in a joyful litany. She listened for her friends, and each name she knew drove into her like a knife.

But it was the names they did not speak that she clutched like rosary beads. Ron. Luna. Neville. Ginny. They lived, and that flimsy hope kept her moving from shadow to shadow.

She saw another person once, a glimpse of wild eyes, matted hair – they threw a curse as green as envy at her, and as alarms sounded around them, she fled.

One by one, we'll find you. Do you think you can escape? There's nowhere to go, nothing left but you and us.

She huddled between two walls, biting back sobs while they hung Michael Corner in the Great Hall. Every last sound reached her, amplified by the spells they drenched the air with. They knew how to use fear, these self-made monsters, knew how to make a production of death.

Part of her wanted to cover her ears, to pretend that it was not happening, but Hermione could not bring herself to do it. She owed Michael that: the only dignity she could give him. Forehead pressed to the stone, fists clenched, she endured.

His pleas shrilled out, punctuated by their ridicule. When they knotted the noose around his neck, she heard his frightened gasps. Her heart clattered like the chair upon the floor as they kicked it out from under him: and when she heard the screech of the rope tightening, her fingers tightened on her wand, and spells of pain and death and anger boiled on her tongue, tasting of blood, tasting of tears.

Then there was nothing but the rhythmic creak of hemp as his body swung back and forth like a pendulum, and the words that followed it, soft as a sigh.

You're next.

She had lived each day certain that it was her last. Even when it became clear that the Death Eaters had abandoned Hogwarts, she could not quite believe it. She kept to the darkness, which had protected her for so long, and each night she relived the battle because she had no choice.

But hope had not left her. The phoenix rose in the battle-scarred sky, fire upon fire. She waited, afraid that the Death Eaters had been right – all that remained of the old world was trapped in a moment of midnight.

No one came. But still she set the sky alight, night upon night, Ron's words echoing through her, saying plan for the worst, hope for the best, that old routine.

And at last, her hope had been rewarded. They had survived and she had found them.

Yet it was not what she had imagined: the concrete box of a room, the wand Neville pointed at her, the flickering lightbulb that dangled from the ceiling.

"I didn't mean to leave you." Ron scrubbed a hand through his hair. His voice was bitter. "I didn't have much choice in the end. They carried me out. Curse. Nasty one."

"Ron," Neville said, a note of caution in his voice. "We need to be sure."

He grimaced, but gave a curt nod. "I know the rules, Nev. I wrote the bloody things."

Neville turned an impassive face to her. "Hermione. Good to see you. Assuming it is you, of course."

"It is," Luna said mildly. She waggled the sunglasses that perched on her lurid red hair. "I checked."

A certain softness crept into his eyes when he looked at her. "We've been fooled before, Luna."

Hermione sighed. She had expected something of the sort after Borgin and Burkes. "What do you need?"

There was approval in the sliver of Neville's smile. And not so much as a quiver in the wand aimed at her. "We'd like to cast some spells on you, with your permission."

She hadn't expected a choice. "What if I refuse?"

Ron shifted. Despite the unease in his eyes, he did not look away. He'd grown into leadership as he'd grown into his lanky body and his words were gentle but implacable. "Then we'd need to question why that is."

Courtesy rather than a choice, then. A small difference between the Order and the Government – but a crucial one. "You won't need to," she said. "You have my permission."

She hadn't realised Ron was tense until his shoulders sagged. "Thank you, Hermione."

What followed would have seemed the height of paranoia in less turbulent times. Once again, Veritaserum burned down her throat. She endured a barrage of personal questions – moments she had shared with each of them, relived in exacting detail until her throat ached from a cruel combination of too much talking and too much swallowed grief.

They tested her arm for the Dark Mark. Various charms to dispel illusions were cast at her: she emerged from them unchanged, her skin tingling as if she'd walked through mist, and her head held high.

True to form, she passed every test with flying colours.

And then Neville said, mildly, "Almost done, Hermione. Are you working for the Dark Lord?"

"No," she said clearly.

"Are you working for any of his ministers or associates?"

The answer stuck on her tongue for a moment. Her mind stumbled, then the thought came quite clearly and rather irritably: she was in no way working for Draco Malfoy. With him, yes.

Draco, she knew, would not have hesitated. She did, but only for a breath.

"No," Hermione said, her voice cool and crisp. "Certainly not. Are you?"

Something odd happened then: Ron started, and his eyes flicked to the empty corner. He quickly schooled his face into the blank expression he'd worn throughout, but her curiosity was piqued.

Neville gave her a sharp look. "No, I'm not. Last question, Hermione. Will you join the Order of the Phoenix and do everything in your power to defeat the Dark Lord, even if it costs your life or the lives of those you love?"

"Yes," she said, and it seemed to her that the Vow heated on her wrist.

He sat back – and for the first time, lowered his wand. And then he grinned, a sweet familiar smile that made a dimple pop in his cheek. "Glad to have you back, Hermione." He rolled a small vial between his thumb and finger then handed it over with a rueful glance. "Sorry about the interrogation."

She took the antidote he offered, recognising that olive branches sometimes had strange shapes. "It's okay. You took a risk bringing me here."

"Well, you are qualified to judge," Ron said dryly. "Even we try to avoid taking on a dozen of Voldemort's finest in the middle of the rush hour."

"I didn't exactly plan it," she admitted, flushing.

The corners of his mouth turned up. "I guessed. How did you get away?"

She couldn't help but think of Malfoy, a blond blur in Kings Cross. "I was lucky," she said softly.

"Then you're a rare breed," a new voice said.

Hermione started: it echoed from the stone, cool and female. And when Ron's eyes cut to the corner again, she twigged. "That's a very good invisibility charm," she remarked. "Not even a shadow. I haven't seen anyone do that since-"

And as if the curtains drew back on a stage, the air parted as a young woman shrugged off a cloak. Her face was as unforgiving as the Dark Lord himself, the left side marred by a lattice of scars. A challenge lay in that unwavering stare. She had the poise of a leader, and the eyes of an executioner.

Only two things identified her: the fiery hair scraped into a long plait, and the long silvery cloak that she cradled as if it were a holy relic.

"Hermione," said Ron, with something of an edge to his voice, "Meet our fearless leader."

Ginny Weasley gave her a smile that was all ice and gleam, a match for her eyes. "-since Harry."

~*~


Waking crawls over him like the flies in his cell. There's pain, sharp and glassy, a prelude of what he is sure must come. There's darkness, thick as smog, in which he is lost. Ernie reaches out, hands tentative.

His fingertips find a right angle and climb it to rough mortar laid out in orderly lines that speak of bricks and confinement. He feels sick and scared and hopeless.

They have caught him. Oh please no (but yes) they have caught him.

There is a hot ball of pain where his left foot should be, the only heat he has. A groan squeezes between his clenched teeth when he moves – but he must, he can't stay still. The need to know his prison is intense.

Awkward, he sits – and his head cracks on the ceiling. The shock makes his stomach lurch and minutes pass while his ribs ache with the strain of holding back vomit.

Slowly, he feels his way round and the grim reality of his situation is revealed. The cell is too low to stand in, too small to stretch out in, too narrow to do anything but curl up and wait. A slimy patina coats the floor and now his fingers, reeking of damp and rotting things. The only exit is a grate, but beyond it are horrors which he can only imagine – which he cannot stop imagining.

They have taken everything from him. He is naked, and when he feels his head, he realises that they have shaved his hair off. Nothing remains but tufts and cuts. His wand is gone, of course. A fine trophy for Zabini.

The spells, so precious, are gone too. He has let them down – Luna, Neville, the Order, but most of all Susan, Susan twisting, turning, restless, burning. Nothing left of her soft smile, peeled back to chattering teeth and tension. Nothing of her soft hands, gnawed and red. Ernie knows he can't bring her back, but he'd thought he could settle for bringing her peace.

Guilt piles up on the pain and the fear: and he is buried beneath them, his harsh gasps so close to sobs, so close, but he won't let them hear him break.

When the voices come, slick whispers through the rusty grate, he clamps his hands over his ears and shivers. But they are cunning; wafts of magic carry their soft words through his scrunched fingers. He twists and turns but cannot escape as they tell him of pinching prying tearing things, of fires that spew black smoke and turn metal gold with heat.

And oh god, they're so tender, talking of torture as if it's a seduction. How thin the skin is in certain soft places, like tissue paper, layers to be peeled back one by one. How they'll draw the truth from him as if it's an infant, pulled shrieking from the bloodied cocoon of his body. How there will be nothing but him and them and all the time in the world...

Ernie clings on to sanity inside his stone coffin, clings onto thoughts of the world beyond, of sunshine and something better than this. The fear is savage in its intensity, a monster made of gruesome promises and the whirr of flies and the stench of decay.

They have taken everything. All he has left now is hope, and it doesn't seem like enough.

~*~


It had been said by wise men that money could buy a house, but not a home. The Malfoys had decided that this was obviously twaddle and set out to prove their point with a demonstration of profligacy that would have made Creosote look like a rank amateur.

From this rose Malfoy Manor: a masterpiece of architecture and landscaping. And one invisible upon the Wiltshire landscape, unless of course you had access to this most secret of gardens.

The thick mist that surrounded the estate was a new measure. It parted for him, recognising him as its own: tendrils of it twined about his feet like cats and muffled the crunch of gravel under his feet, but Draco strode through it unseeing, unhearing. His mind was back in Azkaban, struggling for hope, struggling to see a future that was more than pain and slaughter and ruin.

So it was that he came to the front doors. An emaciated house-elf opened them, quivering. Its shackles reflected back the warm gold light of the hallway. Blood was crusted on one shoulder around dark weals. Granger, he thought dimly, would have been furious. And somehow, that mattered.

"Where is the Great Lord?" said Draco coldly.

The elf pointed. Its eyes were two hollows, its fingers bone and skin as translucent as gauze.

The words slipped from him before he even knew it, gruff, grudging, unwanted. "Thank you."

And he wondered, as he left the creature trembling in his wake, why he'd said it.

~*~


Ginny circled her as if she couldn't keep still. It was the pacing of a predator: every time she passed behind her, Hemione had to struggle not to look round, not to seem on edge.

"It's good to see you," she offered, the back of her neck prickling.

"I'm sure it is." Her voice was quite cool. "It must have been a quiet three years in Hogwarts."

The implication made Hermione bridle. "Not exactly."

"And what drove you out of the castle, I wonder." Ginny paused. Her eyes were brown, bright, hard. "What changed?"

"Gin…" Ron said.

"You don't think we need answers?" said his sister, arching an eyebrow. "Doesn't it all seem a bit...convenient, Ron? We lose one of our most valuable people, and lo and behold, suddenly Hermione Granger pops out of the woodwork. Isn't it just too perfect?"

"She isn't working for Voldemort." He sounded weary, as if this was an old argument. "We've tested her – more than we have anyone else. It's Hermione. You know what she can do for morale-"

"I know she still hasn't answered my question. What changed, Hermione?" That incessant, slow prowl began again.

She had known this would be the difficult part. It was both the trump card and the joker in the pack. She could offer them something no one else could: someone at the heart of Voldemort's regime. And that meant, by its very nature (by his very nature, so deadly, so contrary, so broken…) that they would doubt her.

Hermione met Ron's eyes. "Do you remember telling me about the signal in the last battle?"

"The phoenix? But I – we...we looked. Once a month, someone went back...it was all we could afford..."

"I couldn't send it at first. Too dangerous." In those two words, a host of hidden horrors: the chair clattering on the floor as Michael died, the sound of footsteps hunting her, dodged curses, fleeing past crumpled bodies. "It was months before they left. And I was frightened. So when I did send it, it was always when the fires in the sky were brightest. You might not have seen it. Then one night..." She thought back, and the realisation of just how little time had passed startled a laugh from her because it seemed a land of once upon a time and far far away. "Last week, actually – that night, I sent it up when the sky was dark."

It was fire in her memory, emblazoned on the black canvas of the sky.

"And someone saw," she said. She hesitated, but they had to know. "A Death Eater."

Ron's eyes widened, but after a minute, he gave a slow nod, as if it made sense. Neville looked grim: Luna only listened, a faint smile playing about her mouth. She, for one, did not seem at all surprised.

"I know how it sounds," Hermione said, looking from face to face. "I thought it was a trap at first. But they want to see Voldemort overthrown too. They offered their help – their knowledge."

Ginny's voice was mocking, almost amused. "And I suppose they wanted nothing at all, this charitable Death Eater of yours."

"They wanted me to contact you," she said, quiet, honest. "They knew you'd never accept them if they tried to approach you. They knew they couldn't defeat him alone."

Fingers dug into her shoulders – she was spun, staggering, and Ginny thrust her face close, eyes blazing. "And you have given them exactly what they wanted," she said in a voice that was deadly soft. "What assurance do you have that you have not led our enemy right to our door?"

She stared back, unflinching. And then she bared her wrist, and she held it up so they could see. "I swear that I will fight the Dark Lord to the best and to the end of my ability," she said, and the Vow began to glow gold, like fire under her skin. "I swear that I will not betray you by word or thought or deed."

Ron whistled. "An Unbreakable Vow? That sounds pretty binding, Ginny."

"They swore it too?" Ginny said. At Hermione's nod, she released her, her face sharp and thoughtful. "Who was your Bonder?"

"Viktor."

She heard gasps. A slow, wolfish smile curved Ginny's mouth. "You got into Azkaban."

"Merlin's grubby girdle," breathed Ron, "Think of the possibilities."

"Who is it?" demanded Ginny.

Hermione only looked at her. Everything about Ginny unsettled her: the hardness in her face, the serrated edge to her questions, her restlessness. Somehow, she didn't think it would be wise to give her Draco's identity so easily.

That smile widened and took on a bitter twist as Ginny realised. "Did you promise them your silence?"

"No. But I've done enough today to prove that you can trust me. So before I give you my ally, before I endanger our best shot at overthrowing Voldemort, don't you think it's time you proved that I can trust you?"

The look on Ginny's face was a mix of disbelief and anger.

And Ron said, quietly, "Gin, she's right."

Then her shoulders slumped: she looked young, and tired. "She always is," she said, not without a little rancour. "All right, Hermione. You want a show of good faith, you can have it. Come on."

With that, she turned and left the room. Hermione glanced at Ron, unsure. "Where am I going?"

"Strategy meeting," he said. "Just Ginny and her most trusted people."

"And me," she said dryly, following him out onto the tracks.

He glanced back: his eyes were dark as ink in the dim light, but his voice was warm. "Like I said, her most trusted people."

~*~


Through a lens, the world seems smaller and simpler. It's a lie, of course, but Dennis has a certain fondness for lies. They will kill him eventually – the shakes are getting worse, and sometimes he can hardly breathe – but it's a fair price to pay.

The pictures from London Bridge are taking shape in his darkroom. Tomorrow Zabini will scan through them and select whichever is closest to the world he wants to convey.

But in the hidden alcove, there are other pictures developing, and these show the world as it truly is. The corridors and offices are sharply defined, an invaluable map of the Ministry.

He took them last time he visited, the camera small and unobtrusive in the buttonhole of his coat. The charms on it are complex, a piece of craftsmanship that has the hallmark of Ernie Macmillan's work.

Dennis passes him from time to time in the corridors. They do not look at one another. It's been three years since Ernie addressed a word to him, and their silence will endure as long as Voldemort does. It is the silence of a conspiracy, of dark secrets in this dark world.

When the doorbell shrills, he jumps. It's only been a fortnight since his last interview with Special Services. He seals the alcove and traipses upstairs, peeling off his gloves.

Blaise Zabini is at his door, austere in dark blue robes. Two bodyguards are leaning on a Government car, sharing a cigarette.

"My apologies for the intrusion," Zabini says. Something about his manner is a little odd, stilted.

Dennis gestures him in. The poky bedsit must seem a hovel to Zabini, who grew up in a series of stately homes, but he doesn't show even a flicker of disdain as he sits on the faded couch.

"This is an unexpected surprise, Minister," hints Dennis. His throat feels dry. It's been at least two hours since he's had Veritaserum, and despite the tightness in his chest, he needs it. "Can I get you a cup of tea?"

Beneath the impeccable clothes and impeccable manners, he looks tired. "That would be very much appreciated, actually."

Some of Dennis's panic fades once he's in the kitchen and the smell of tea is rising on the steam. He dashes a few drops of Veritaserum into his. Even though it's scalding hot, he can't stop himself from taking a couple of sips. His lips burn with heat and truth, and it soothes him.

When he takes the mugs back in, Zabini is composed, wearing a faint smile. "Thanks, Dennis. As I said, I apologise for turning up on your doorstep like a stray dog, but I'm afraid I'm here on urgent business."

"I have a private commission this afternoon."

Zabini waves a hand. "I'll compensate you. My orders come directly from the Great Lord."

He gulps down more tea. His heart feels like it's being squeezed in someone's hands. "Then I am at your service, Minister."

Zabini's eyes settle on The Daily Prophet, wedged under the leg of Dennis's rickety table. "Is that today's?"

"Yes."

To his bemusement, Zabini removes it. Tea sloshes onto the surface of the table, but he's unfolding the paper to display his own face, cool and handsome under the headline. BRAVE MINISTER FOILS TERRORIST, it declares before launching into a fawning recital of some nameless fool's capture. "I assume you've read this."

"Of course, Minister. Quite a feat. You must feel very proud."

His mouth twists. "I feel a number of things about this lamentable incident, Dennis, but proud is not one of them."

"Really?" blurts Dennis, startled.

It is in every way a triumph for Zabini. But the bitterness in his voice is real, and bizarre unless...

Unless he is not as sympathetic to the Government as everyone assumes. But it can't be so.

Zabini's face becomes a pleasant mask. "Of course. One of our own was working against us and we were slow to find him. We can only be grateful he was caught before he attempted anything more serious. As it is, he will be executed tonight. I need you to produce the publicity shots."

His stomach turns. But he cannot refuse. "I thought the Wizengamot's official photographer-"

"He will take the final shots, of course." Zabini sounds a touch husky. "But the Great Lord feels that the public should be reminded of just what the penalty for treachery is. Macmillan is to be questioned first."

Dennis can only stare at him. It's Ernie - he has been caught. The world tilts on its axis.

Everyone knows that Special Services question those they execute. But no one knows just what it entails. They only see the prisoners afterwards, shuddering, broken, embracing their execution as if it is a blessing.

He recovers his voice at last, a bare whisper. "You want me to..."

Zabini meets his eyes. His jaw is tense. No, Dennis realises, understanding now just what has been jarring him about the wizard since he arrived – Zabini is tense. "The Great Lord requires it."

He has no choice. That is apparent.

And as he realises just what he must do – what it means, his chest compresses as if he's being pressed under a mountain. The Order, Luna, him. Their survival hangs by the slender thread of Ernie's life and Ernie's silence. He must ensure it: but he doesn't think he can do it alone.

"What if he won't talk?" he croaks.

Zabini's eyes are dark as ink, full of pity. "I'm told that's very unlikely."

"Isn't there anyone else?"

"No one else who has your talent." He sounds genuinely regretful. "I'm sorry, Dennis, but your work on our other campaigns came to the attention of the Great Lord and he specifically requested you."

He passed a hand over his forehead, damp with sweat. The air seems too thin. "Very well, Minister. I'll go and get my equipment."

In the basement, he digs out a small cage. There is a mouse inside, cowering, its mind full of only one thing: the Order's headquarters. It will run all the way there, through the sewers and tubes. No one, after all, will notice anything strange about another mouse in London. He gives it his message and releases it into a crack in the wall. He wishes he could escape so easily.

There are no lies that can save him from this. He must face the truth, condensed down into the skin and bones of Ernie Macmillan. And if Ernie talks, those few, final words may kill them all: the irony strikes Dennis hard.

He thought it would be a lie that killed him, but the truth is just as sharp and savage.

~*~


The ballroom was the very picture of faded glory. The parquet floor gleamed, the wood smooth under his feet. The twin chandeliers sparkled above it, throwing a kaleidoscope of reflections onto the floor. It was beautiful and simple and sumptuous, like the house itself, and it felt bittersweet to walk there and know it was no longer his home.

The long bay windows along one side revealed the gardens. It had become overgrown, the topiary animals melted mutations of themselves. His mother would have hated that, as she would hate the dust on the mirrors that line the opposite wall.

But Voldemort cared nothing for dust or leaves or the loving details that made the manor house more than a box of possessions. He cared only that he owned it: and so it decayed like everything he touched.

At the far wall was a configuration of sofas and tables. Once, wealthy wizards had socialised, drunk brandy, played chess. Now it was a greater game spread upon the surfaces; orders for executions, half-drafted laws, proclamations and damnations alike. The chessboard was the country itself, and they were all pieces, all players, all pawns.

"Draco." His name was a caress on Bellatrix's tongue and vaguely creepy.

"Aunt Bella," he said, perfectly polite. He reached the sofa she lay along, languid, a dark stain on the white and gold of the ballroom.

She tilted her cheek for a kiss. She was fever-hot, as she always was. "You saw your mother."

"Yes."

"And have you persuaded her to speak?"

He dared show nothing but indifference. "No."

Bellatrix smiled, a jagged, ragged thing. "Then she will go to the fires. And I shall weep, Draco, weep for the sister I have lost, but oh, I will praise the Great Lord for the wonder he has made! The fire will make her beautiful, consume her lies and her folly and her soft stupid heart until there's nothing but truth and bones, truth and bones and ash." Her laughter ratcheted up the roof. "And you and I shall keep her, Draco, keep the very best of her forever, and the rest the flames shall have."

He felt sick at the thought. He showed nothing. "I believe the Great Lord wanted to me."

"Yes, yes, my darling. He's in the study." She shuddered. "What times we live in, what a man we follow!" Her lips parted: her voice was throaty and trembling and awed. "Glory be to the Great Lord!"

"Glory be," he echoed and left her.

The study door creaked as he entered. It was dimly lit, a place of dark-panelled walls and hulking furniture. The bookshelves were lined with old tomes in dozens of languages. At the heavy desk, Voldemort sat, a glass of viscous black liquid on one side and an hourglass, running down, on the other.

Draco could not take his eyes off the falling sand.

"Draco." Those red eyes pinned him. "Explain to me just how the Granger girl escaped."

He did, brisk and professional, just as he had been in his report. He already knew Croxley was in the Tower, quivering in an oubliette. If the Dark Lord chose to do the same to him, nothing he said now would alter that.

Voldemort nodded. And then he stood, and Draco's heart lurched. The fear trickled through him like poison as the Dark Lord said, "Now show me."

He knelt – and those fingers, as cold as the grave, pressed upon his forehead. He could not stop his quick breaths, his taut muscles.

"Leglimens," whispered the Dark Lord and the familiar pain crashed upon him. It was barbed wire and broken glass under his ribs, behind his eyes, arching his back, twisting slashing ripping agony that pried him open and pulled him apart. He knew it, and part of him welcomed it because pain was easy, pain wiped out the rest of the world.

Kings Cross replayed; and Draco concentrated on his hatred of Granger, her weakness, mingling old vitriol from schooldays with new memories, stitching his emotions together in a patchwork of lies. Funny, but the pain made it easier – shattered him apart again and again so that if the pieces fell back together differently, then even the Voldemort would struggle to notice.

But the Great Lord was not interested in Draco's thoughts – only in Granger, who he focused on again and again, from every angle. Her fierce eyes, her face, her fearlessness, her easy magic. Closer, closer, closer until Draco's mind was full of her...

When the pain ended, he was left gasping, covered in a sheen of sweat.

"So here is their leader at last," Voldemort murmured. "What has brought her out from the shadows?"

Draco did not answer. But he thought: Me.

The Dark Lord yanked his head back: those red eyes burned over him, savage and empty. "They have stepped up their activities. The Quidditch player's house. Macmillan. And her. Her."

He let go: he ran a finger over the hourglass lovingly.

"She is the one who has opposed me for so long," he mused. "No matter how many we kill, they spawn like cockroaches, this foolish little Order. And she is behind it all. A formidable mind. A formidable witch." He smiled. It was cold and ominous. "Not, however, as formidable as she might believe."

"My lord?" Draco said.

"They play games, the Order. Silly games. Dropping leaflets. Sabotaging traffic lights on Government routes. Did you ever wonder why they do such things, Draco?

"I assumed it was all they were capable of," he answered, unsure where this was going.

"So did we all, Draco. So did we all." He laughed. "It's time the world learned otherwise, don't you think? Hermione Granger wants it known that the Order of the Phoenix has returned – so be it."

~*~


King William Street was enormous. Hermione couldn't help but admire what the Order had done. She glimpsed barracks, with beds in neat lines. There was a makeshift library, filled with trestle tables and rickety mismatched bookshelves. A vast kitchen steamed off to one side. Most they merely passed by – but there was one room they had to walk though to reach the meeting.

The wards. At first Hermione didn't know what the noise was: an uneven rumble. It wasn't the trains – too high, too irregular. And then she saw the first patients, and she realised it was the moans of the wounded and the dying.

"Oh god," Hermione whispered as she saw the sea of faces and bed and crude partitions. "Oh god, there's so many..."

Tears glazed her vision, but she held them back.

"They've started using new spells," said Ron. He sounded drained. "We don't have cures. All we can do is make people comfortable."

She thought of Hogwarts, with its treasure trove of books, trampled and torn but still usable, still full of secrets and wonders. "I might be able to help," she said huskily. "I know spells – I had…I had the library. I can try."

His smile was worn: there was, though, a flicker of hope in it. "It's worth a shot."

And then someone called her name. She turned: and Professor Flitwick was advancing on her, dragging one leg, his face dazed. "Hermione Granger?" he said, though his voice was garbled, the words thick and slurred. His eyes shone with tears, with disbelief. "Is that you? My girl, have you come back to us?"

"It's me, Professor," she whispered.

He gave a cry of joy, and leapt forward to grab her hand and shake it vigorously. "Welcome back, Hermione. Your heart and your courage were sorely missed by us all. Why...to think you survived...after so long, you've found us again..."

And then she heard it: whispers beginning around her – her name passing from person to person.

"Filius, we need Hermione," said Ron, his voice gentle but firm.

"Of course, of course," he said. There was a kind of awe in his face when he looked at her, and it was disconcerting. He'd been her teacher: and now he looked at her the way people used to look at Harry. "Two of you, now, eh, and what's to say it won't be all three?"

"Where there's life, there's hope, right?" said Ron, as if he'd said it a thousand times before.

"Wise words, Weasley," said Flitwick and smiled.

"Yeah, they're yours," Ron said with a flash of his cheeky grin. "Come on, Hermione." As he led her away, his smile faded. "Told you you'd be good for morale." He sighed. "At least it'll make breaking the news easier."

"What news?" she said.

He led her into a room. A large table dominated it: there were a dozen or so people around it, with Ginny at the head. The door closed firmly behind them, shutting out even the cries of the injured.

"Welcome everyone," said Ginny, silencing all conversation. "You've probably all heard by now, so let's get to it. Ernie Macmillan has been captured. He knows our location. He was one of our best people. He was also one of the closest to our secrets. We need a plan and we need it quickly. Options?"

"That news," muttered Ron. His jaw was set. He raised his voice. "Newspapers are clear he's being held in the Tower. We could attempt a rescue."

"Too risky," said Ginny, flicking away the suggestion.

He gaped. "Too risky? It's Ernie. He's risked enough for us. If he dies it'll set back everything that happened in the last few days – Hermione's escape, the explosion at Krum's..."

"...which we took the credit for, but it wasn't us," interrupted Ginny.

"No, that was me," admitted Hermione. A dozen faces snapped to her.

"That was you?" said Ginny finally. "You've been busy. Ron, you know a rescue is out of the question. The Tower is heavily defended. We'd lose too many people even trying. Next?"

"Harry would have tried," said Ron, his voice very soft.

Ginny went white. Her hands gripped the table so tightly her knuckles pressed against her skin. "Do not use him against me," she said, the words bitten out. "Harry..." Her voice caught. "Harry would not have endangered the Order with his actions, which is what will happen if we send people to the Tower. If they are caught, we are finished."

"And what about Ernie?" said Neville. "If we don't send anyone, he's finished. Gin, we have blueprints for the Tower – there are ways in. A small group – three, say, with charms that will wipe their minds if they're caught..."

Ginny's jaw was set. The scars stood out on her face, a twisted mass of tissue. "Better his death than a dozen others," she said finally.

Who are you? thought Hermione, saddened. Is this what the war has made you? You came to the Ministry with us; you fought the Battle of Hogwarts. You'd never have left someone to die there.

"So what are we discussing, exactly?" said Ron. "Given that you won't condone a rescue."

"He will be tortured," Ginny said coolly. "There's no doubt about that. How much will he reveal? Luna, I understand you assisted him with a charm?"

"Yes. But it needs a wand." Luna's grey eyes were very steady. "They won't let him cast it. They're very cruel, that way."

"We have to evacuate," another wizard said. "There's no other way to be safe."

"Some of the wounded can't be moved," argued a woman. "We can't abandon them."

The discussion flowed, heated, charged, filled with fear and anger and need. Hermione listened, but it flowed over her. Then a knock came at the door.

"Sorry to interrupt," said the young wizard on the door. "We've had an emergency message."

"From who?" demanded Ginny.

"Dennis Creevey. He's been ordered to the Tower with Minister Zabini. He's to photograph a prisoner." The wizard swallowed. "Ernie Macmillan. He's asking for instructions."

"How the hell can we give him instructions from here?" demanded Neville.

Ginny smiled. It wasn't pleasant. "There is a way," she said. "So. It looks like we can keep our secrets, after all."

"You're going to ask Dennis to rescue him?" said Neville, startled. "With a Minister there?"

Her smile faded. "No," she said softly. "I'm going to ask Dennis to kill him."

~*~


The car crawls through the streets. As per usual, most pedestrians can beat the traffic at a brisk walk.

Neither he or Zabini talk. The buildings move by, and Dennis tries not to think of what he must do. The Order will contact him: they arranged a way, long ago, based on something they once saw. He never saw the woman who applied the spell – she was careful, clever, disguised by Polyjuice. He recognised her face only because he'd photographed the girl three weeks earlier.

So he waits.

They hit a persistent jam. It looks like the lights are down at the end of the street – cars are honking and revving while cyclists weave in and out with smug abandon. Dennis gazes out of the window: he sees the faded sign of Purge and Dowse, hiding St Mungos. It's a remnant of the old world. While Voldemort has filled it with new faces, he does not interfere with the patient work of the Healers.

"What's going on up there?" mutters Zabini.

"Signal problems," reports the driver. "Keeps 'appening in the City. Always near Government buildings. Work of saboteurs, if you ask me. "

"I didn't," Zabini says with unusual curtness.

~*~


Hermione left the meeting uneasy. Uproar had begun the minute Ginny had revealed her plan: it was still not done. Ron went with her, flushed and clearly angry.

"No use talking to her now," he said tautly. "The more people shout at her, the more stubborn she gets. We've got time. They aren't due to start on Ernie until this evening. Once she's calmer…maybe she'll listen."

Hermione sighed. "She's changed so much."

"We all have. But Ginny...losing Harry changed her. It damaged her, Hermione. When she first starting taking charge of the resistance, it seemed like a good thing. Like she had something to live for again. But then people kept dying and she got colder with every one." His eyes were distant. "I don't even recognise my little sister anymore."

"What about you?" she said quietly. "What do you do here?"

"Me?" He gave her a shy grin. "I set up our network. Turns out I've got a knack for strategy."

She thought of the chess games he'd always loved and couldn't be surprised. In that moment, he was the old Ron – her Ron, awkward and sweet. And it hurt, a little, looking at him and feeling the distance between them, that of time and secrets, all they'd lost. She wanted some of it back, at least.

And she trusted him.

"Ron," she said quietly. "I want you to know who my ally is."

He took one look at her face and pulled her into a side room. He shut the door: the layers of charms he put on it were enough to shut out an explosion. "Whoever it is, if they got you into Azkaban, they're pretty high up. And they must be serious, or they wouldn't have made a Vow like that."

She wished she could share his faith, that she could stop doubting Draco. "Promise me you won't tell anyone."

"I promise," he said at once. And then, as if it was commonplace, he cast a charm that reinforced his words. She had to smile: it was the same one she had used to discover just who had betrayed Dumbledore's Army to Uxbridge. "See? I tell anyone, I get a seriously nasty case of boils."

She closed her eyes, trying to screw up the courage.

"Hermione, how bad can it be?" he said. "It's not as if you've snuggled up to Bellatrix or Malfoy."

"Yes," she said.

"Yes...what?"

"Malfoy," she said and opened her eyes onto his shock. "It's Draco Malfoy."

"What?" he yelped. "You made an Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy, of all people? My dad was furious when one of my brothers tried that on me, and here you are tying yourself to the wizarding world's most wanted!"

She stood staunch in the face of his incredulity. "I know how it sounds."

"Hermione, it's...it's..." He scrubbed his hands through his hair, apparently at a loss for words. At last he sputtered, "...completely mental."

"I know," she answered.

The silence persisted: he only watched her, the shock fading into something softer, into a sorrow that she did not quite grasp. She'd expected him to be angry and full of vitriol. Instead, he was quieter than she remembered, as still and thoughtful as when he played chess.

At last he said, "Well, it's done. Merlin knows how Gin'll take it." He sighed. "I need to think about what we do with this. We've been trying to get someone close to Voldemort for months, but no one ever thought Malfoy...I mean, the things he's done. If even half of them are true, do we want an ally like him?"

"Do you have any other option?" Hermione asked.

His smile was grim and very tired. "I know that's a rhetorical question. No. Of course not. I don't like it – hell, I don't like him, but if that git Malfoy can end this pointless, hopeless, bloody war, then I can grit my teeth and bear it. Problem is, Ginny won't see it that way. She'll think we're betraying Harry and everything he fought for." Ron's voice roughened on his name. "Everything he lost."

Hermione tried to block out the memory of Harry, so still outside the walls of Hogwarts. It wasn't how she wanted to remember him. "And what about everyone else?" she said, as soft as he.

What about Viktor, wasting into bones and filth in Azkaban? What about the bruises shaped like hands on Luna's neck? She thought of the makeshift hospital outside where so many people were beyond help, chained to their addled minds as surely as the ghosts chained to Hogwarts.

So many people had lost so much. Grief rose in her throat, hot and painful.

"What about what they've lost?" she demanded. "Or isn't that enough?"

Ron blurred into a haze of tears. Merely seeing him brought her pain boiling to the surface; it struck home that there were two of them in this battle when there should be three.

She cuffed away the tears, but more fell, hot on her cheeks, and when Ron hugged her, she sank into him and wept as she had not in years. The smell of him, his warm embrace was all eerily familiar, but she no longer felt unassailable in his arms.

"I miss him," she said into his shoulder, voice raspy.

"I know," he said. "I miss him too."

Eyes sore, she drew back, composing herself. "Thank you, Ron. I didn't mean to cry all over you."

He gave her a wry grin. "C'mon, Hermione, you've made an Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy. I'd cry too if I were you. My shoulder is on offer whenever you need it."

She sighed. "You might regret saying that."

"Nah." He brushed at the damp spot her tears had left with mock-nonchalance. "I can handle it. I've got a tumble-drier."

She raised her eyebrows. "Don't tell me you're using Muggle technology!"

"I've been well-trained," he said, and, rather shyly, held up his left hand. He wore a thick silver ring, and with a jolt, Hermione realised what it meant.

"You're married?"

His eyes were anxious, searching her face as if he wasn't sure what he'd find. "Yeah. Last year."

"Who?" she demanded.

A blush stained his cheeks. "Lavender."

She wasn't sure what to feel: surprise was chief among her emotions, drowning out everything else. "Really? How did that happen? Should I be calling you Won-Won?"

He laughed. "No, please. And don't mention it to Lavender unless you really want to see her cringe." Affection softened his voice: the slant of his smile was a little dreamy, out of place amid the concrete and dust. "I always thought she was silly, you know, and it didn't end well at school – we were such kids, her and me. She managed to survive the last battle, and after Special Services took her parents she came to the Order."

"Did they-"

He shook his head once, smile draining away. "Avada Kedavra. State-sanctioned, for harbouring a fugitive. She wanted to fight. I didn't think she'd be any good, but Ginny disagreed. First time I took her on a raid, she saved my life. Took a curse to the shoulder doing it, and then had the balls to ask me if her make-up was smudged while she was lying there bleeding to death." Ron gave her a wry look. "After that, it was all a bit inevitable, really. I starting seeing her for who she was – not a fussy painted doll, but this fearless, selfless, incredible woman."

He was fingering the ring, turning it on his hand.

"Lucky for me," he added, "turned out I'd grown up a bit too, and she decided I wasn't as much of an immature prat as she'd thought. And with things the way they are, we didn't want to wait." He shrugged as if it was nothing, but Hermione could see his pride. "So I asked, and she said yes, and we tied the knot here."

"Congratulations," she said, and meant it. "I'm so glad you're happy."

She'd known, she realised, from the moment she'd seen Ron that things between them had changed. The war had blown apart their relationship before it had begun, before it was more than hormones and kisses. And she'd missed him fiercely – but she had missed her friend, not her boyfriend.

"I am, you know," he said ruefully. "I shouldn't be in the middle of a war, but then I think that today might be my last day with Lavender, so we live like it is. Every day it's not means that I get to love her for another day, and who wouldn't be happy about that?"

"As long as you don't start wearing matching necklaces," she said slyly.

Ron shuddered. "Not likely. The matching rings are far more tasteful. "

"Your family must be pleased," she said, as tactful as she could be. Better that than asking for the butcher's bill.

He knew what was couched in the careful question: the contentment faded from him. "What's left of them. There's me and Gin. Mum..." He swallowed hard. His eyes were very bright, the strain evident in his voice. "She tried to take on Bellatrix Lestrange in the last battle. She's been in Azkaban since. She's alive, I guess, but that's all we know. Dad wasn't the same after that. Wandered round in a daze. Him and Percy got caught in an explosion last year."

"Oh Ron," she said, her heart sinking. "I'm so sorry."

"Me too," he said tiredly. "Charlie keeps telling me that at least it was quick, that they never knew what hit them, but it doesn't make me feel any better. Bill and Fleur were caught two months ago – a botched raid on Gringotts."

"What happened?" she said.

His mouth was grim. "We don't know exactly, except that Special Services were waiting for them."

She gazed at him, slotting the facts into place. "Someone sold you out."

Ron gave a curt nod.

And she felt a chill squirm down her spine. The last refuge of the wizarding world was crumbling: there was nothing else but shadows and prison bars. And she knew now why so many spells laced this dank little room. It was all the secrecy they had left, and it still might not be enough.

There was a traitor in the Order.

~*~


The hourglass kept pouring. There was hardly any sand left in the top.

"What do you think is the greatest weakness of the Order of the Phoenix?"

"Aside from their incompetence, you mean?" said Draco. His nerves were jangling: something about the hourglass unnerved him. He kept thinking, for some reason, of Granger, of the way she'd frozen time for him. "Their numbers. There aren't enough of them."

"Numbers mean very little if you have the fire, the need. No, Draco, they are doomed by something far greater: they love. They are weak and soft and malleable. There's almost nothing they won't do for those they love." He chuckled low in his throat. "What a fine weapon it is. Love will destroy them in the end." His finger caressed the hourglass. "And in the beginning."

The last grains of sand fell. And in London, where the City's best photographer waited for the traffic to move, where the perfect publicist stared out the window, with a sound that rocked King William Street...

St Mungos exploded.

~*~


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