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Of Wrath and Flame by JMilz

Format: Novel
Chapters: 6
Word Count: 22,387
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Mild violence, Strong violence, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Horror/Dark, Romance, Action/Adventure, AU
Characters: Hermione, Draco
Pairings:

First Published: 05/24/2020
Last Chapter: 09/29/2020
Last Updated: 09/30/2020

Summary:

A new Dark wizard has risen to power, and with Ron Weasley dead and Harry Potter in prison, Hermione Granger is the Wizarding World’s last hope. However, it is only when she forms a peculiar alliance with Draco Malfoy that she hatches her impossible plan.



Chapter 1: The Red Chamber
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Fear. True fearfear of torture, fear of death. It left a sour aroma in the air, one that could only be recognized by those that had become familiar with its vile, neverending presence. It was stagnant and thick and rotten and metallic all at the same timelike decay and sweat and blood and war.

 

After two years of working for the Ministry of Magic, Hermione Granger knew it well, yet still, it made her stomach churn. Only in the North Corridor had she ever felt it fester in the atmosphere around her; it was the place where fear was born and bred, where it came to thrive and where it often died too. 

 

Behind the brass door, the Minister toyed with his prey.

 

It was in front of the door that a scarred Auror loitered, stiffly watching Hermione's each and every step as he had been trained to do. His hands were clasped in front of him and his wand was ready for the draw, because the Ministry no longer existed to protect the people. It existed to protect itself.

 

His beady eyes followed her as she approached him with reluctant intent.

 

"State your business," he growled.

 

"The Minister has requested my presence in the Red Chamber."

 

The Auror licked his thin, cracked lips. "Oh, he has, has he now?"

 

"Yes. I received the summons four minutes ago." She proffered him the parchment that had landed atop her desk, prompting her for a late evening of unexpected misery.

 

"You could've plagiarized that," he said before retrieving a rolled parchment from his inner pocket. Unfurling it, he grunted, "Name?"

 

"Hermione Granger."

 

"Right, and I'm Voldemort himself. Give me your wand, Hermione Granger."

 

Begrudgingly, she held out her beloved wandher only sanctuary in the house of horrors that the Ministry of Magic had become. She was always prepared to fight, always prepared to flee, but without her wand, she was helplessa mere fly in the Minister's web of boundless power.

 

"Hm, always thought you'd be taller. Reckon the folks at the Prophet want to make their heroes look important, though, don't they?"

 

As the Auror returned her wand, she held in a sigh of relief. Knowing what was to come next, she tucked it in her robes and held out her clammy hand, preparing for the inevitable pain.

 

She had been through the ritual many times before.

 

Then, without so much as a warning, the man pressed his wand to her outstretched palm, his gaze boring into her for the entire long process, daring her to make a fatal mistake. Hermione steadied herself. She could not afford to show any consternation.

 

"Don't flinch or else I'll hafta do it all over again."

 

That much, she knew, for she had made that misstep once before.

 

Smoke swirled into the empty air and a hiss snuck past her gritted teeth, for the telltale burn was melting through her soft flesh and the meat that lined her bones. The agony seemed to last an age.

 

Once the Auror finally gave her a confirming nod, she quietly studied the marred skin. Yet again, she had been branded with the serpentine Mark of the Red Chamber. 

 

Its labyrinthian design matched the inlay upon the brass door. 

 

"First time in the chamber?" 

 

"Hardly." 

 

"Then you understand how the mark works. I wouldn't keep him waiting if I were you."

 

Hermione plastered on a tight smile. "Of course not."

 

Inconveniencing the Minister was an infraction to be paid in blood. Eager to avoid such a fate, Hermione approached the entrance of shimmering brass and pressed her palm to its very center. In an impressive feat of magical engineering, the intricate inlay glowed molten red.

 

The searing burn was hauntingly familiar.

 

"Like dragon's fire, innit?"

 

Hermione ignored the Auror, though the sentiment was far from incorrect. The door noiselessly rose upward rather than shrieking the way that metal on stone always did, and as she prepared herself for what was to come, her heart began to race.

 

Her eyes shuttered as she stepped inside.

 

"Ah! Miss Granger! I've been expecting you," the Minister purred. His baritone voice echoed throughout the chamber, suffocating Hermione with his miserable yet grand existence. "I believe you know my guest."

 

Those six words sucked the air from her lungs. The slam of the brass door sounded behind hera subtle reminder that the magic was imperfect after all, or perhaps, it was meant to be loud, meant to intimidate. Slowly, trepidatiously, she opened her eyes.

 

How instant regret could be.

 

"Neville."

 

Her vision betrayed her as tears threatened to fall, but she knew she had to stay composedfor Neville, for Harry, for the cause, she had to stay composed. Straightening herself, she cleared her throat and looked from her suspended comrade to the man casting the spell. He wore a smirk.

 

"I thought you might want to join us for a little reunion, as it is my understanding that you two fought together in the war." The Minister, seated upon his dais, fingered his yew wand. His long, dark locks fell in front of his glinting blue irises that were so unlike Voldemort's slits of red, so nonindicative of evil. In fact, they looked more like the eyes of Albus Dumbledore himself.

 

They might have been beautiful if the glaze of megalomania did not cloud them so.

 

"Yes," she whispered, "we did."

 

"And he fought bravely, I presume?"

 

"Y-yes, Your Excellency. He fought very bravely."

 

"Given his decorated background, I thought he must have. First Order of Merlin, granted with the title of Auror without so much as passing a single N.E.W.T. The history books certainly hold him in high regardEthel Grisby's Modern History of Wizards, Rita Skeeter's The Tall Tale of the Final Battle. Mr. Longbottom seemed quite the herowhich is precisely why I was so disappointed when my Aurors discovered him with this." From inside his robes of satin black, the Minister withdrew a bloodstained scroll. "Do you know what this is, Miss Granger?"

 

Hermione shook her head, careful not to glance above him, for if she had to look at Neville, she might have lost her feigned equanimity.

 

"No, Your Excellency. I do not."

 

"A forgivable lack of knowledge on your behalf. My most loyal servants would not know what this is, for they would have no interest in it." The Minister held up the scroll and gave it a dramatic shake. "This is a mapa map only I am to have in possession. To obtain it, Mr. Longbottom would have to have been inside of my office, which is, as you know, highly forbidden in and of itself." He tucked the scroll back inside of his robes. "Perhaps, had he merely enteredentered and not touched anythingI could have entertained the idea of sending him to prison, possibly only Azkaban if his story sufficed... Ahh, but unfortunately, he stole something very important from me, and because of that, there must be consequences."

 

Never had silence been so deafening. Still, Neville floated above, his body contorted inhumanely as he rotated in a macabre display for two.

 

"You're rather quiet, Miss Granger. Surely, you do not disagree with my assessment?"

 

Harry had told her she would have to hurt her friends. Somehow, she never imagined it would be Neville.

 

"I—" she faltered. "Ahem, no, Your Excellency. You're quite right. There must be consequencesn-naturally."

 

The Minister stepped down from his dais, stalking towards her like the apex predator that he was. His breath was hot on her skin. "And what of the severity of these consequences? Have you any suggestions?" 

 

Blood pounded in her ears. By the torchlight, she could see Neville's shadow upon the stone floorthe same stone floor that had been stained with the organs of dozens of Order members before him. She had to choose her words meticulously, for if she didn't, his fate would be quick to follow those whose rebellious efforts had already failed.

 

"He would be a valuable asset," she said, carefully, "if you allowed him to rehabilitate. He was courageous during the war, and his work as an Auror only helped him hone his magic... If heif he worked for you, I'm sure that he would be an effective and loyal follower."

 

The Minister backed away from her and craned his neck. If Hermione did not know any better, she might have thought he was considering her proposal.

 

"Perhaps, I did not give you the necessary details. The map that he stole is no ordinary map, Miss Granger. It is a map of Stafhelma detailed map, including all of the entrances, the exits, the cells." He appraised her for a moment. "You see, I have reason to believe that Mr. Longbottom was trying to help Harry Potter escape."

 

"Escape from Stafhlem? It cannot be done, Your Excellency. You've said so yourself."

 

"You are right," he said, his tone bored, "it cannot be done, but if anyone were to try, is Mr. Longbottom not a prime candidate? He has a history of heroics, he resigned from his position as an Auror as soon as I became Minister, and in the past, he was associated not only with Harry Potter, but also with Ginevra Weasley and Xenophilius Lovegood. Now I know these were once your friends, Miss Granger, so please forgive me when I say that traitors keep the company of traitors. Some, such as yourself, can be rehabilitated. Others" He looked up at Neville's suspended form. "cannot."

 

He snapped his fingers.

 

Neville, his eyes darting to and fro with terror, collapsed onto the stone floor in a symphony of breaking bones. He was still immobile, but his mouth was ajar as he silently attempted to scream, desperate to be freed from the infamous roomdesperate for Hermione to save him.

 

Blood filled the mortar crevices of the cobblestone.

 

"Yes, prison simply will not do," the Minister said, softly. He circled Neville, occasionally stopping to press the toe of his boot to the rebel's quivering gut, testing his humanity as he often did with his victims. "The guards in Azkaban are too weaktoo kind to the prisoners. Even with the Dementors reinstated, there are too few to issue the Dementor's Kiss quickly enough. No... We won't waste our resources on traitorous thieves. Swine of this sort" He stepped on Neville's face, earning an agonized wince. "deserve death."

 

Capital punishment. Hermione felt like the room was closing in on her as she tried to process the dreaded proclamation. The collapse of Neville could mean the final collapse of the Order of the Phoenix, for their numbers were already far too few.

 

"Protect the Order, Hermione. Whatever it takes, you must protect the Order."

 

She could not fail Harry. She could not fail the Order of the Phoenix.

 

"Excuse me, Your Excellency, but what about a different type of rehabilitation?"

 

The Minister removed his boot from Neville's contusing face. The dark leather was stained crimson, and as Neville's head slumped sideways, a tooth clattered to the floor.

 

"Elaborate."

 

"W-well, there are other methods, aren't there?" Hermione stammered, trying to shake her disquietude as she examined her friend's mangled nose and bleeding ears. "I-in fact, you've already started one of them."

 

The Minister's mouth stretched into a mischievous grin. "Torture."

 

Betrayal tasted bitter, but it was a flavor Hermione knew well.

 

"It has worked before, Y-Your Excellency. It could work again. As I said, he would be a valuable asset, not only for ranks within the Ministry but also as a sign to any other rebels. It willit will dampen their spirits, losing someone like Neville."

 

"Surely his death would dampen their spirits as well, then?"

 

"E-excuse me, sir, but if I may... II know most of the Order, personally. It would embarrass themaffect them more, if they saw someone like him working for the Ministry again. If heif he dies a hero... Well, that will only encourage them. They would want to retaliate."

 

The Minister narrowed his eyes. "They would be willing to risk death?"

 

"Theythey don't have much sense, the rebels. Everything is about theirtheir warped sense of honor." 

 

"And you suspect that this sense of honor may become trouble for me?"

 

"Y-yes, that is my fear, Your Excellencyrebels causing more difficulty for you and youryour noble cause."

 

He stiffened, a slight tell that few were astute enough to notice, yet Hermione always did. What he was about to sayit would be a test.

 

"Do you think he may have learned his lesson already? Perhaps this little meeting has shown him where his loyalties should lie." The Minister squatted beside Neville and drew a line in the blood upon his bruised cheek. Shining garnet in color, it was the evidence of internal bleeding.

 

Hermione had seen blood like that beforebut only in battle.

 

When Harry Potter told her she would have to do many things she did not want to do, she did not know that would include having her friends tortured.

 

"Stay strong, Hermione. The Order depends on you."

 

Harry's words echoed in her brain like a mantra, a dystopian tattoo that reminded her that everything she did was for the greater good. Toeing the line between black and white, Hermione Granger would swim in grey, and it was what she did in grey that would save them all.

 

She had to pass the test.

 

"No," she choked out. The word barely sounded like her own. "His will is strong. It will take daysmaybe weeks."

 

"Like his parents."

 

Hermione swallowed. 

 

"Like his parents."

 

The Minister chuckled, clearly delighted by the disturbing comparison. "This idea of yours, Miss Grangerit may be one of the best I've heard all month." His knuckles went white with anticipation as he pressed his wand to Neville's temple. "If it works as well as I believe that it might, you may be in for a promotion."

 

Then, he whispered the incantation that Hermione loathed even more than that of the Killing Curse.

 

"Crucio."

 

Neville's teeth, crimson with his own blood, ground together as the curse wracked his entire body. The charm suppressed his screams, and in a way, it was even more terrible than if she could hear the din of his misery.

 

"Imperio!" the Minister shouted, maniacally. "Oh, Miss Granger, I do have to thank you for your recommendation. This is quite the treat."

 

With the inflection of the final word, he gave his wand an abrupt jerkthen anotherand another.

 

Neville appeared to be beating his own head against the floor, but the pained expression on his red and black face told Hermione a story she already knew: She had experienced it herself. She had seen it happen to nine others. She was complicit.

 

If she was protecting the Order, how was it that she felt like a traitor?

 

The Minister barked a gleeful laugh, and while she expected him to cry out another Unforgivable Curse, he slashed the air with his wand and shrieked something else insteada word she did not know.

 

Alas, she did not need to know it to recognize it.

 

Twelve years prior, Antonin Dolohov had cast the very same curse upon her.

 

"You seem surprised to see this magic," the Minister noted, his gaze trained on Hermione rather than Neville's widening eyes. "You know it well."

 

Trembling, Hermione nodded. "Y-yes, Your Excellency. In the Battle of the D-Department of Mysteries, youryour father used it."

 

"On you."

 

She gulped. "Yes, sir. On me."

 

"I can't say that I'm surprised. It has been a family favorite for many centuries." As he looked at Neville, he seemed wistful. "The effects are long-lasting if the victim lives. The scars, both inside and out, serve as a reminder of powerpower of the caster, the loss of their own. For many years to come, they ache, sometimes burn eventhough I am sure you know that already."

 

He trailed the tip of his wand across Neville's cheekbone, only to push it sadistically into the swelling around his eyes. If Neville was reacting, he was too deformed for it to show.

 

"You still experience pain, don't you? Each time you step into the Department of Mysteries, each and every day that you perform your daily tasks, you see my father's face. You feel the wrath of his wand, over and over again."

 

Hermione said nothing.

 

"Ah yes, you do. He's claimed you forever, and just as that pain follows you, it will follow Mr. Longbottomthat is, of course, if he survives."

 

"Neville is strong," she replied, thickly. "He will survive."

 

The corner of his mouth twitched. "We will see."

 

Hermione knew not what the next wordless curse was, but it was callous and unmerciful and she found herself wanting to vomit as the Minister danced around with sickening jubilance. Neville's head quaked and he frothed at the mouth, scarlet bubbles dribbling down his violently purple neck and heaving chest. The more his state worsened, the more joyous the Minister became.

 

If Hermione did not intervene, he would die or be driven to madness.

 

"He's a pure-blood, you know!" she cried out.

 

The Minister halted and raised a single bushy brow. "Pure-blood, you say? How rare."

 

"To add even more value to your ranks," she continued. "Voldemort himself was willing to find a place for him."

 

"I do not care what Tom Riddle was willing to do," he spat. "Might I remind you that you and I share one thing in common, Miss Granger. Neither of us are pure-bloods, and we are both much more valuable than many of the purest families left in our world." He turned back to Neville. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more work to do."

 

Hermione took a shaky breath. She was not sure how else to conciliate.

 

"After all, if I am to accept him into my ranks, he must have learned his lesson. You said it yourself, did you not?"

 

She had, and if she did not stand by her word, she would sign his death warrantas well as hers, and that of the cause. There was a chance that he would survive. No matter how little, there was a chance.

 

"Imperio!"

 

Again, Neville beat his own forehead against the stone floor, but this time, with much more force. Hermione recognized the change in him as the robotic movement of an Imperius victim turned to the uncontrolled chaos of a seizure, and though she desperately wanted to step in, she knew that she could not.

 

"No matter what happens, you have to do what they say."

 

The seizing stopped.

 

Frowning, the Minister approached Neville, only to toe his mutilated face as he had nearly twenty minutes earlier. His eyes may have been swollen shut, but behind those bruised lids, Hermione knew that they were lifelessglassy pits of mortality like those of Luna and Arthur and Ron.

 

All her friends were dead or dying.

 

"Pity. You made him sound like he would have been quite the asset."

 

Shocked and struck by grief, Hermione watched helplessly as the Minister took Neville's wand and tucked it inside of his robes. It was yet another trophy to add to his ever-growing collection, another showpiece to keep his followers in line. Unlike wands from lesser wizards, it was a trophy that might even turn the tides of some allegiances.

 

In less than a day, Neville had been demoted from a hero of the Order to a corpse in the Red Chamber.

 

"Clean up this mess," the Minister commanded. "He's to be taken to the fourth floor for incineration. I don't want his friends to think they've earned the right to bury their dead."

 

Her solemnity would have to wait, for the fate of the Order rested on her frail shoulders yet again.

 

It took all of her strength to bow and murmur the words that sent a chill down her own spine. 

 

"Yes, Your Excellency."

 


Author's Note: Updated note. This is the finalized version of this chapter and this is now my main WIP. You can expect regular updates. Feedback is welcome!



Chapter 2: To Flee by Night
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The post-curfew silence was foreboding. Led only by the light of the waning moon, Hermione followed the familiar path of cobblestone, her wand clutched tightly in her hand and the hood of her emerald robes pulled over her head. Still, she could feel the ashes of Neville Longbottom fluttering hotly against her cheeks. Still, his burning flesh stung her nose.

 

Once upon a time, he had been a simple boy searching for a toadand her very first true friend.

 

She shed a tear and quickly wiped it away, for there was no time to dwell on the fallen. The Order of the Phoenix was soon to see a paradigm shift of epic proportions, and with such a shift, more responsibility would inevitably be thrust upon her. There were, after all, many that were known to be Neville's close associates, and it was those few that would have to disappear. Hermione, who was the only one that the Minister for Magic trusted, would be forced to do the work that they once did, but she would have to do it in the shadows, in the dead of night and in the privacy of her Ministry-appointed home.

 

Already, she had far too much to accomplish, yet surrendering was not an option.

 

"Promise me you'll stay strong for Ginny and my mum, for Harryandand for the rest of them. You have to stay strong, no matter how hard it gets, Hermione. They need you."

 

Promises were to go unbroken, even if they were to the dead.

 

With the weight of the earth on her shoulders, Hermione Granger would ford onward, for Ronald, for Harry, for witches and wizards everywhere. The Order of the Phoenix was crumbling, and even if she was surrounded by the rubble of the departed and the imprisoned, she would be the beacon of light that the cause needed. Some said she was already, but she did not believe itnot when there were so many left. At the Rook House, there was Xenophilius and Charlie. At the Burrow, there was Bill, George, Pomona, and Molly. Then, there were the Order's many Unplottable havens, including Grimmauld Place and a half dozen others. In each and every one of them, the flames of the Order of the Phoenix burned on, hidden in the penumbra of the wicked world.

 

Nevertheless, there were the unavoidable sacrifices of rebellion as well. For some to survive, there were many that would not live to see the future for which they had fought. Neville Longbottom, while it was a crass rumination, was just another of those sacrificesa knight removed from the chessboard of the game that was defeating the Ministry of Magic. The Order was a cornucopia of love and Neville knew that he died fighting for that love, just as he swore he was willing to dojust as they had all sworn. It was the only bit of solace that Hermione could find.

 

Sadly, there was one woman that would find no solace in it at all.

 

The evening had stretched long and despite her exhaustion, Hermione had the daunting task of bearing bad news. To other members of the Order, it would come in the form of her Patronus, but for the blonde witch that was closest to Neville, it would have to come from her lips. After all, the woman needed to go into hidingand she needed to go immediately.

 

Hermione suspected she would take an immense amount of convincing.

 

It was as she pondered this that she approached the main intersection of the street, the intersection where the alleys of Diagon and Knockturn met and where the guards were notorious for harassing late-night undesirables. Unsurprisingly, two were standing by Gringotts, their wands glowing and their stances wide with self-importance. Hermione tucked her own wand into her robes, knowing quite well that they may hex her if they saw her carrying it.

 

As she drew nearer, their brows began to furrow.

 

"Ay! Ay, you!" said the larger of the two men. "What're you doin' out pas' curfew?"

 

Hermione sighed and held up her empty hands. Their wand-light was blinding.

 

"I'm an Unspeakable with the Department of Mysteries. By the Decree of Exemption for Ministry of Magic Employees, I'm permitted to be outside of my home at any time, even if it's after curfew."

 

He snorted. "An Unspeakable, eh?"

 

"Yes, an Unspeakable."

 

Hermione's vision was failing her, yet it was just good enough to take in his features. One of his eyes was scarred and milky and seemed to be in a constant state of motion, almost as though it had a will all its own. She tried not to stare, but with his spellwork illuminating his twisted face, it glowed like a grotesque, wet opal.

 

Guards were scarcely the Ministry's finest.

 

"Hmph. I'm gonna need more than that if you plan on stayin' out o' Azkaban tonight, love. What's your name?"

 

"Hermione Granger. I'm sure you've heard of me."

 

"'ermione Granger," the man repeated, brandishing his shining wand. He did not seem fazed by his partner's doubtful cackle. "And what in Merlin's name would a Minister's pet like Granger be doin' out at half ten?"

 

"I have work to do. And can you dim it down a bit?" she complained. "I can barely see!"

 

"Yeah, well, my eyes ain't too keen, love, and I need to be gettin' a good look atchya if you're claimin' to be 'ermione Granger..." The keys on his belt jangled as he waddled closer. Hermione had dropped her gaze to the cobblestone at her feet, so to her, there were only the stars of semi-blindness and his heavy, black boots. They halted all too near. "Well, I'll be damned... You bloody well could be 'er, couldn't you? Nigel, she look like 'ermione Granger t'you?"

 

The second guard, an unnaturally skinny man with a wooden leg, did not leave his post.

 

"Could be. Even so, what's she doin' out here at this hour? And it could be an imposter too, couldn't it? 'ow we know she ain't usin' Polyjuice Potion?"

 

The larger guard jabbed his wand beneath her chin, forcing her to look up at him with disdain. "That's a good point, Nigel. 'ow do we know you ain't usin' Polyjuice?"

 

"While I can assure you I'm not," Hermione sneered, "I highly encourage you to follow the protocol for verifying that."

 

"Ah, right." Perspiration was dewing upon the guard's wrinkled forehead. "Ermgo on, then. But keep it slow! No funny business."

 

"And don't forget you're outnumbered 'ere," Nigel added. "One wrong move and I'll turn your brains to jelly."

 

Hermione was quite confident that she would win a duel against both of them, but she was not looking for a confrontation, so with one hand still in the air, she slowly reached into her robes to retrieve her wand. The guard's meaty grip on his own tightened.

 

"Here you are. Vine and unicorn hair, eleven inchesjust as it should be."

 

"Donchoo get smart with us," warned Nigel. His peg leg clinked loudly against the street rock as he approached her. "We'll tell you what that wand is and what it should bloody be. And when it comes back that you're a nasty lit'le liar"

 

"Nigel," the first guard muttered. In his hand was a leaf of parchment. "She checks out."

 

"She still ain't told us 'er reason for bein' 'ere though, and according to 'er lit'le exemption, if a reason don't suit us, we can hold anyone, Ministry employee or not." Nigel leaned in so close to her that she felt his hot breath. "Dunno 'bout you, Gambol, but Miss Granger 'ere seems to be actin' rather funny to me."

 

"Nigel, think about who she bloody is! D'you really want to burn 'er broom?"

 

"It's 'cause of who she is that I want to burn 'er broom. While some folks seem to forget about 'er past, I remember that she used to be a good friend of 'arry Potter and all those Lovegood and Weasley mates of his." He smirked, exposing his rotting, stinking teeth. "So, Granger, what exactly is your business in Diagon Alley tonight? Meetin' anyone interesting?"

 

Hermione clenched her jaw. "Considering that information is solely for the Department of Mysteries and the Minister for Magic, I can't say I'm inclined to tell youunless you would like me to inform His Excellency that you asked a Level Three Unspeakable to divulge confidential information?"

 

Nigel's eyes widened in horror.

 

"That's what I thought," Hermione snarled. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have someplace to be."

 

The two guards did not utter another word. How ironic it was that they had just granted passage to the most treasonous witch in all of Great Britain.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The state of the world was etched into the boards covering the shop windows. Bored guards had scratched their names into the wood, blatantly ignoring the signs on all of the closed businesses that kindly requested that nobody trespassed. There were some that had not gone under during the new Minister for Magic's reign, but they were the struggling minoritythe brutish few that chose to lose Galleons rather than their dignity.

 

Hermione wished them well as she passed them by.

 

There were only two places in Diagon Alley that seemed to be thriving: the first was obviously Gringotts, for they were the only establishment able to fund the Minister's endeavors. The second, surprisingly, was the Leaky Cauldron.

 

While the inn's usual patronage was banned from twilight libations, it still was able to generate gold by becoming the stomping grounds of the Ministry's loathsome subordinates. From Aurors to informants, the grimiest of the Minister's hirelings gathered to chug firewhisky and spit curses at the landlady and the defenseless waitress. While the landlady could take care of herself, the poor waitress was a squib, and those that visited often knew she could be commonly found missing her entire head of hair or trying to serve drinks with backward knees.

 

As Hermione opened the door, she somberly discovered the most recent spell the woman endured.

 

"Hullo love," she drawled tiredly, scratching at one of many rather nasty boils. "Good to see ye again."

 

"Good to see you too, Laurel, though I do wish the circumstances were better." Hermione gave the woman's bony hand a squeeze. "I hope that's the worst they've done this evening."

 

Laurel pushed her curly bronze locks behind her ear and shook her head. "The big 'en in the corner over therehe pinned me to the rafters earlier. Must've been half an hour I was stuck up there, twiddlin' me thumbs."

 

"Oh, that foul"

 

"Hermione Granger!"

 

Alarmed, Hermione turned on her heel to see who the ringing voice belonged to. It was, to her dismay, a man she recognized, but not one she had any desire to see.

 

"Jonathan," she said, forcing a bitter smile, "what a pleasant surprise."

 

"Funny, you don't make it sound like it's pleasant at all." His jade eyes trailed in Laurel's direction. "This one's had a bit of a rough evening, but I hope she hasn't got you pitying her! She's got it pretty good for being...well, what she is."

 

"It isn't pity as much as it is disgust." Hermione craned her neck. "The Minister for Magic has been more than clear about his stance on service squibs, yet here is a group of Level One and Level Two Ministry employees tormenting one for their own amusement. As your superior, what am I supposed to make of that, Jonathan? Am I to let it go?"

 

The wizard smirked. "The Minister's stance is that he approves of their existence, not that he deems them worthy of our respect. Might I remind you, Miss Granger, that while you are my superior, we are both her superiorand that has nothing to do with rank." After pausing for a small sip of whiskey he glanced at Laurel once more. "You ought to get back to your work, squib. I suspect my colleagues are still thirsty."

 

"Y-yes, M-Mr. Bragwit."

 

Hermione leered at the Auror as Laurel scurried towards the howling group at the bar. They mocked and shouted at her, while some went as far as throwing drinks at her and charming her skirt to fly upward in an embarrassing show for them all. Barbarism had become the way of the Wizarding World, and Hermione could hardly stand it.

 

"So, Miss Granger, now that your little friend is entertaining my team, might I ask what brings you here?"

 

"The landlady," Hermione said, stiffly.

 

"Ah, the landlady," Jonathan repeated. He took another sip of his drink. "And what business do you have with her?"

 

"That's confidential."

 

"Oh, but we all know what that means, don't we? Fascinating how you judge us for having a bit of fun with the squib but here you are, the Dealer of Death herself." He calmly swirled the aromatic spirit in his glass. "Another pound of flesh for one of those projects the Minister has you working on, is it? I mean, it only makes sense. After what her little boyfriend did, I can't imagine it serves us well to keep her alive."

 

"As I said," Hermione answered through gritted teeth, "my business with her is confidential. If you really want to know more, you'll need to earn another level in rank."

 

"Pfft! I wasn't asking for more information. Everyone knows that business with you or Zabini ends in someone going missing. Why or how may be a mystery, but mysteries are your department, not mine."

 

"You're right. They are my department." Hermione tried to ignore a shriek of cruel laughter from across the room. "Anyway, the Minister won't be too pleased if I delay much longer. Have you seen her around? The landlady, I mean."

 

"In back. I'll have someone go fetch her."

 

"That won't be"

 

"Carvin! Go get the landlady!"

 

A brawny woman downed the contents of her flagon and belched. Her face was as red as her robes. "The landlady? Whatchoo want to see 'er for?"

 

"Miss Granger here has some business with her," Jonathan said boredly. "It's all a bit over your head, my friend. It's better if you just go get her and spare us the questions."

 

She looked from Hermione to Jonathan a few times before finally deciding to waddle towards the back. After a moment, she returned, dragging Hannah Abbott by the arm.

 

"The force won't be necessary!" Hermione exclaimed. "Ahem. She wouldn't dare try anythingnot with me."

 

"A spitfire, this one!" Carvin laughed. "I don't think I'd dare try anything with 'er around!"

 

With malice in her eyes, Hannah wrenched her arm away from the muscular woman's loosening grip. If Hermione had known Bragwit was going to send one of his minions after her, she would not have told him who she was looking for.

 

Her old friends had been losing trust in her for some time, and as she saw Hannah for the first time in months, she understood why.

 

"Miss Abbott."

 

"Granger. What brings you here?"

 

"Business." She looked around the busy inn. "Private business."

 

"Come to kill me, have you?" Hannah spat.

 

"We can discuss my intentions once we're alone."

 

"Good. These animals are the last people I'd want to see on my deathbed, anyway." Her attention lingered on Jonathan. "Follow me, my room's just up the stairs there."

 

Glancing to and fro, Hermione followed Hannah up the stairs and slipped into a room at the very end of the corridor. Quickly, the blonde witch cast a Muffling Charm.

 

"I can't say I expected you."

 

"I can't say I want to be here," Hermione said, honestly, "but it's important. You have to leave. Now."

 

"Leave? II don't understand. Why would I leave?"

 

"Some questions are going to be asked at the Ministry and it's best that you disappear. There's a sort of house, well it's more of a cottage, but it's in the countrysidefar from here, in Ireland. You'll meet Hagrid there"

 

"Slow down," Hannah insisted. She took Hermione by the hands. "Hermione, what is going on?"

 

"I already told you. Something came up at the Ministry and if you don't leave right now, you could be in danger. Grave danger. Hannah, you have to trust me. You have to go."

 

"You're not making any sense! What came up at the Ministry? What did I do that is putting me in so much danger? I run their bloody pub! I see them every day!"

 

"It'sit's nothing you did, per se... I'll explain everything to you once we're at the house, but for now, you need to trust me. It's for your safetyand for the safety of the Order."

 

Realization filled the blonde's lines of dubiety. Mortified, she backed away, her hands slipping from Hermione's.

 

"Wait. Where is Neville?"

 

"We'll discuss him once you're safe," Hermione said, quickly. "For now, I need you to trust me and give me your ruddy hands again because I have an illegal Portkey out of here and it's set to go off any minute now"

 

"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me where he is!"

 

"IHannah, please understand... II didn't have a choice"

 

"Didn't have a choice!" the Hufflepuff scoffed. "Just like you didn't have a choice with Luna or Padma or Ron?"

 

"Hannah!" Hermione breathed, mortified by the depth of her friend's accusation. "They wereRon was... Look, I know you're upset and you have every right to be, but the Portkey is set to go off in" She checked her watch. "two minutes! Whether you like it or not, they'll come for you if you stay here, and I know you're mad at me right now, but I care about you too much to let you die so please, just come with me now and I'll tell you everything once we get there."

 

"I'd rather die than be anywhere near you."

 

She sounded all too serious.

 

"Hannah"

 

"No, Hermione. You don't get to do this. You don't get to storm into my inn and tell me where I should go without so much as telling me why or what happened or where Neville is or how"

 

"Hannah, I'm sorry, but I really don't have time for this."

 

"And I don't have"

 

"Petrificus Totalus!"

 

Hannah froze. Her snarling mouth immediately shut and her arms clapped down by her sides. Stiffly, she fell to the ground, though her eyes were still very much able to move.

 

"I'm sorry," Hermione apologized, sinking down to grab her friend's shoulder. "I had to."

 

She tucked her wand in her pocket and retrieved a crumpled piece of parchment from inside of her robes. Within seconds, the pull of the Portkey sent the two of them whirling away to Ireland.



Chapter 3: Hickaby Cottage
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East Hulltow was a remote village. Located deep in the Irish countryside, where the grass grew emerald and sheep grazed beneath the moon, it hugged a lone hill just north of the Bellakip River and just south of Old Head Beach. There was a single small market and a dirty tavern, and it was past these scarcely visited places that a backroad led to only three more buildings: a farmhouse, a barn, and a tiny cottage made of stone and thatch. Alas, to most, there were only two buildings. In the third, one of Hermione's oldest friends resided in secret, concealed by magic and protected by his own sheer brawn.

 

Unfortunately, the wards deterred Portkeys from guiding anyone inside, and thusly, the Unspeakable landed in a pile of muck.

 

"Ugh."

 

Aching joints, knotted stomach. Her ears were ringing too. Vague surroundings spun around her for several seconds, but even in her haze, she knew that her companion was of the utmost importance. Through the spots of black and the navy semidarkness, she found her relief: A statuelike Hannah Abbott was lying beside her, indubitably even more furious and flummoxed than she was before. Unsure that she could yet trust the woman, Hermione ignored her cramping muscles, found her legs, and drew her wand.

 

"Mobilicorpus!"

 

Hannah's form levitated. In the black air of midnight, she was a rigid phantom.

 

Thunder roared overhead just then, urging Hermione onward. Weaving around the baaing sheep and endless pools of mud, she slowed only to glance beside her at Hannah. The spell propelled the girl through the threatening atmosphere.

 

Of course, the weather was hardly Hermione's main concern. As soon as she released Hannah from the curse, she would likely attack anyone that stood between her and Neville Longbottom.

 

Regrettably, there was no Neville Longbottom left.

 

Rain began to pour and with wet locks clinging to her face, Hermione finally saw the cottage in the far distance, bathed in starlight and burping smoke as Hagrid's hut once did. She let out a sigh of relief and forded on, Hannah still at her side. In the cottage, she would find a warm bed to sleep in, which was, after a miserable day, exactly what she needed.

 

Sadly, longing for sleep did not promise it. Hermione knew that nobody would rest well that nightnot once Hannah learned of her late paramour's mortal end. After all, the death of Ronald Weasley tormented her still, and unlike Hannah, she had the uncommon privilege of saying goodbye.

 

Ministry raids had driven most couples apart.

 

Neville and Seamus Finnigan were sent to camp in Epping Forest while Hannah stayed at the Leaky Cauldron and Alicia Spinnet healed Cruciatus victims at St. Mungo's. Bill and Fleur lived separately too, despite the recent birth of their daughter. Some of the more involved professors even left Hogwarts to volunteer at Grimmauld Place, the Burrow, and the other Unplottable houses all around Britain and Ireland, breaking away from their commitment to the school. For the cause, they had all chosen endless loneliness and an uncertain future.

 

But there was none lonelier than Hagrid.

 

With her myriad of responsibilities, Hermione was not even sure when she had last heard from her childhood professor, let alone visited him in the East Hulltow cottage. She recalled snow upon the peak of Croagh Patrick.

 

According to her memo from earlier that day, it was the eleventh of July.

 

Poor Hagrid had been on his own, isolated from all but his beloved Bowtruckle, for at least five months.

 

She felt a pang of guilt as she raised her knuckles to the mossy, rot-stained door.

 

"Twice, once, thrice, twice. Twice, once, thrice, twice," she reminded herself.

 

Each of the many Order houses had their own unique knock meant to be used by welcome visitors. Few members of the Order knew them all, but as Hermione visited each and every one of them, she had memorized them perfectly.

 

Knock-knock, knock, knock-knock-knock, knock-knock.

 

She was quite certain that she had done it correctly. However, time bred doubt. After a few moments, she was growing concerned, so she prepared to rap on the door again, but before she could, it opened, and she was faced with the tip of a familiar pink umbrella.

 

"Hagrid! It's me, Hermione!"

 

"Awfully late fer a trip to Ireland, 'ermione."

 

"My business tends to run late quite often," Hermione pointed out. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to warn you ahead of time, but it's been a very long day and I have a lot of loose ends that need tying up, so if you wouldn't mind"

 

"Now, you jus' wait a minute! You ain' goin' nowhere til yeh prove who you are!" Hagrid barked.

 

The wild look in his eyes was not foreign to her. Many times before, she had seen it in the irises of her friendsa darkness that only isolation could create.

 

"Iall right, sureermRon and I once bought you a copy of Beasts of Beltane for Christmas... Harry and I helped your hippogriff, Buckbeak, escape execution... Your best friend in school was an Acromantula named Aragogandand Fluffy! Fluffy can only be put to sleep with music"

 

"Wellwell, that all may be true, butbut you could've learnt that, couldn' yeh have?" He jabbed her with the umbrella. "What was the name o' my dragon in yer firs' year?"

 

"Norbert," she said, matter-of-factly. "I was there when he hatched from an egg. Now, lower your weapon, please."

 

Apparently, her proof did not suffice. Hagrid pressed his lips together, almost like he was trying to decide whether or not an enemy could know such things.

 

"II brought company," she added.

 

"Comp'ny? Who?"

 

Hermione gestured Hannah, who was floating helplessly beside her. If it had not been for the flush of color in the blonde's complexion, she could have been dead.

 

Hagrid's large hand flexed around the handle of his unlikely armament and the blackness of fear faded into leaden confusion.

 

"Izzat Hannah Abbott?"

 

"Yes, unfortunately," said Hermione. "I just fetched her from the Leaky Cauldron."

 

"Well, what's wrong with 'er? Ministry tossers get to 'er, did they?"

 

"If you consider me a Ministry tosser, then I suppose so." Hermione noted the furrowing of Hagrid's brow and elucidated, "I cursed her. If you'll let us inside, I'll explain everything."

 

Hagrid seemed skeptical, but lowered his umbrella, nonetheless. "Yeah, all righ'. Come on in...but lock the door behind yeh! There's a lad that comes through to check on the sheep and I swear he's been peekin' in the windas!"

 

"That's impossible, Hagrid. Muggles can't see Unplottable places."

 

"Unplot'able 'r not, that Muggle knows somethin' ain' quite right 'bout 'is land an' ain't no tellin' when he'll catch me comin' 'r goin'! He's always skulkin' about..."

 

"You shouldn't be coming or going at all! You're supposed to stay put."

 

"Yeah, well, I've gotta eat, don' I? The place might've been stocked up for someone o' normal size, but if yeh haven't noticed, I'm a bit above the average."

 

It had occurred to Hermione that the cottage may not be the best fit for him, but he was far too large to be seen somewhere as public as Grimmauld Place. Still, she should have had the sense to make some amendments. As he made his way down the narrow corridor, his broad shoulders brushed the eggshell walls, highlighting several holes where his frame had obviously busted through, and it was this image that made her realize just how little planning the Order had done for him.

 

The portraits that once hung were gone, likely more collateral damage from his incredible breadth.

 

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I'll send someone out with more necessities. I don't know how soon it'll be, but"

 

"Ah, don' worry 'bout it, 'ermione. I bin gettin' by jus' fine." He stopped in front of a wide doorway and gestured it with a jerk of his head. "If yeh jus' want to leave 'er on the sofa there, I'll get some tea started..."

 

With a nod, Hermione gently guided Hannah onto the old floral loveseat. Upon seeing the witch's legs hang over the armrest, she realized that it had probably gone unused for the duration of Hagrid's stay. It was quite obviously far too miniscule for her longtime friend.

 

Saddened by her own lack of forethought, she gave Hannah's frozen hand a squeeze and left her alone in the olive green sitting room. Just steps away was the kitchen, from which she could hear the clanking of dishes that she, relievedly, knew to be of fair size. The last time she had visited, she noticed the teacups were actually bowls that Hagrid had molded handles for with Piece-Together Putty, a rather clever invention of George's that the Order usually used for mending wands.

 

Hermione was pleased to see that he was holding the very same handled bowls in his gargantuan hands. They were burgundy with tiny yellow daisies, the type of dishes she might have expected her parents to buy when she was many years younger. She was desperate to know such innocence again. Lamentably, she never would.

 

"She doin' all righ'?" Hagrid asked, chasing away her thoughts and closing one of the mangled cupboard doors. "Ain' nothin' too serious, I hope?"

 

"Ermyes and no, really. It's serious butbut she'll be okay."

 

She pulled out one of the oversized chairs and did her best to get comfortable, yet the tabletop nearly reached her nose and the chair itself was hard and misshapen. Still, she smiled politely.

 

"So," Hagrid began, pausing only to pick up the whistling kettle, "why'd yeh curse 'er, anyway?"

 

"Circumstances called for it. It was for her own good."

 

"For 'er own good?" Hagrid repeated. "What in Merlin's name was goin' on fer that to be fer 'er own good?"

 

"Well, if I hadn't, she'd be swarmed by Aurors by morning. This seemed the preferable alternative."

 

He poured the flowered teacups full of boiling hot water, skepticism not only written in his expression but also in his stature. "If that's the case, I'd agree with yeh, but wha' would they wan' with 'er, a lit'le thing like Hannah Abbott? 'asn't 'urt a fly, that girl!"

 

"Well, maybe she hasn't, but association matters, Hagrid. It matters a lot."

 

"Association? Association to who? Surely, they don' know she's with the Order!"

 

"No! Of course not, butbut herher relationship" Hermione's voice cracked. "Oh God, Hagrid, II don't know how long it's been since we've had a day this bad. The last time must've been when Ron died oror when they took Harry away..."

 

"Oh, c'mon now, it can't be that bad," Hagrid reassured her. More clanking came from where he was standing, but Hermione could not bare to look at him long enough to know the source. "The only way it could've been is if we lost you, and beings yer sittin' right 'ere, we're in pretty good shape, I'd say."

 

"You don't understand! Wewe tried something today. A plan. And it went abysmally wrong. And now everything is all backwards andand terrible andand I don't know how how much longer the Order has left after this. Itit could drive people to join the Ministry, Hagrid. It's that bad."

 

Her humanity was showing again. Too long, she had quieted its roar.

 

"'old on a minute there, 'ermione. Yer gettin' a bit ahead o' me with all this..." The ground rumbled as he crossed the room and set a cup of steeping tea in front of her. "What exactly 'appened today an' what's it got ter do with Hannah?"

 

"I'm sorry. It's just...there's so much toto think about—so much to explain... II don't really know where to begin."

 

"Well, I ain' goin' nowhere, so why don' yeh take a deep breath now an' start slow, yeah?"

 

He blew on his tea and leaned against the table, which shifted in protest of his immense weight. He was usually such a comfort, but at that moment, Hermione only felt shame.

 

Uncontrollably, she trembled.

 

"Ermyeah. Yeah, all right. I ermwell...I suppose it started two days ago. N-Neville abandoned his post in the forest andand he went to the Rook House. Hehe had an idea. It was...a bit mad, but if we managed it, it would've changed the tides of the war. We might've won, Hagrid. It could've been over."

 

"Sounds promisin'."

 

"It was. At least...it seemed that way. I thinkI think that we were all a bit blinded by thethe reward of it all, so maybe we didn't weigh out the risks... We were careless, andand Nevillehe paid for it."

 

"Well, two days ain' a lot o' time to make a big decision now, is it? An' Nevillehe volunteered?"

 

"No, it's not a lot of time," Hermione said, heatedly, "and he did volunteer but it was a big enough decision the whole Order should have been involved. I asked butbut McGonagall and Charlie said time was of the essence. I didn't argue with them, and I should've. I should've told them it was too dangerous."

 

"Doubt it would've made much difference if yeh did, 'ermione. When McGonagall and Charlie got an idea, it seems to 'appen no matter what anyone else say." Hagrid dumped all too much sugar into his cup and stirred it, loudly clinking the edges of the ceramic with a bent spoon that was far too tiny for his beefy fingers. "So what was it, anyway? This big plan o' theirs?"

 

Hermione snorted, realizing how insane it sounded as she mulled over the words in her head.

 

"Breaking into Dolohov's office."

 

Hagrid choked on his tea. "What?"

 

"I'm aware it's stupid."

 

"It's more than stupid! It'sit's reckless! It's madness!"

 

"I know!" Hermione sobbed. "We never should've allowed it butwell, honestly, the Minister had a very full schedule and we've been talking about it for ages. All the Aurors were supposed to be on a raid in Bannockburn. It seemed like good timing! It justit just wasn't."

 

"It was never gonna be good timin'!" Hagrid boomed. "A risk like that? And all over that bloody map, I reckon! The one that the entire Order decided wasn' worth chasin' after?"

 

"That decision was before they took Harry! We've been talking about ways to get that map ever since they hauled him off, so when Neville offered, it—" She sniffled. "It made sense. I'm tired of watching my friends disappear. I'm tired of having to go to work every day and wonder if I'll see one of them there being dragged into a courtroom or worse. McGonagall, and CharlieI think they just saw a way out andand maybe we all put too much faith in it. Maybe we shouldn't have, butbut that's the way we learned to win wars. The sorts of things Harry and Dumbledore swore on: courage, heroics, the usual nonsense we end up turning to when everything else seems too difficult... Maybe those sorts of things just don't have a place in our strategy. Seems it's all just rubbish, anyway..."

 

"Rubbish? It's far from rubbish! Look at Harry"

 

"Harry's in prison, Hagrid. And if courage paid the way we pretend it does, Ron wouldn't be dead."

 

The indigo in Hagrid's face calmed to its natural shade and he reached out to pat her hand with one of his enormous own.

 

"Yeh know, Ron wouldn' like ter hear yeh talk like that..."

 

"Ron's not here," Hermione said, darkly. "He's gone."

 

"He ain' gone. Yeh still got 'im in here," Hagrid said, softly. He pointed at the center of her chest. "And he wouldn' want yeh to give up. So we'll go get Neville. Just like we'll get 'arry. And then all together, we'll go after that sorry excuse fer a Minister and we'll teach that slimy"

 

"Hagrid?"

 

"coward of a"

 

"Hagrid."

 

"evil—"

 

"NEVILLE'S DEAD, HAGRID!"

 

The rant died on his tongue.
 

"No! No, it can't be... Not Neville..."

 

"It true, Hagrid. He's dead. The Minister killed him himself." Hermione hugged herself as she relived the horrific scene of which she was forced to bear witness.

 

"Butbut why wouldn' they take 'im to Stafhelm? Like Harry! Like Arthur! It doesn' make any sense!"

 

"Because he's not Harry and he's not Arthur," she whispered, wiping her eyes. "As soon as they caught him with the map, they took him awaytoto the Red Chamber."

 

He gasped. "But that'sthat's where..."

 

"I know what it is! I've been there myself many times, if you don't remember!"

 

"I'ermione, I'm sorry"

 

"He made me watch, Hagrid. He made me watch and heand II didn't stop it. I just...stood there. I didn't do a ruddy thing to make it stop."

 

"Well, yeh couldn' 'ave, could you've? It would've put yeh both in danger!"

 

"I know," Hermione sniffled. "That's why I didn't but II still wish I would've. Because now, he's gone. He's gone and it was all for nothing!"

 

She kicked the leg of the table, but only managed to hurt her toe.

 

"It wasn' fer nothin', 'ermione," Hagrid said. "It was to helpto help all of us. So what it if it didn' work? Neville was fightin' for us, and now we gotta do right by 'im. That means we keep tryin'. No matter what, we 'avetokeeptryin'."

 

"II guess. Actually...thatermthat brings me to my next point..."

 

"And what's that?"

 

"I'm warning you, you won't like it."

 

Hagrid frowned. "All righ'... What is it?"

 

"Well...map or not, we have to get into Stafhelm. That meansthat means we have to go back to the old planthe original one."

 

"You don' mean..."

 

"Yes, the one we've all been avoiding. It's time to get Harry back, even if it means involving people we don't necessarily care for."

 

"But we don' even know if we can trust 'im!" Hagrid exclaimed. "That boy's a menace! Always 'as bin and always will be! If it weren't fer him"

 

"I know what he is and what's he done, Hagrid. You forget you're talking to a Muggle-born." At last, she took her first drink of tea, but it was just as bitter as Hagrid's tea had always been. She fought the urge to crinkle her nose. "He was going to pick a side eventually. We're just making him pick sooner than he expected."

 

Hagrid sighed and shook his head. "There's gotta be some other way. We 'aven't thought of somethin'."

 

"Not to be rude, Hagrid, but I'm not sure we have thought of anything," she snapped, though she instantly regretted it. "I'm sorry, I didn't meanit's just that a lot's been put on me recently, and I've thought about this nearly every second of every day for months now... I talked to Charlie and McGonagall...and they agreed with me. We all decided this was going to be our next best option if Neville failedwhich he did."

 

"And if it doesn' work? If you end up in Stafhelm too?"

 

"It's the only chance we've got," Hermione said, firmly. "After all, we're down two members now, and you're going to be quite busy with Hannah, so it might as well be three. Plus, we don't have anyone at the Leaky Cauldron anymore and that loses us a lot of insight on what the Aurors are doing."

 

"Well, what abou' Laurel?"

 

"As if she'll speak to me after what happened today! You forget that every time one of you disappears by my hand, the rest of the world thinks I murdered you."

 

Being the Minister's Dealer of Death was exhausting. Not only had she gained insurmountable notoriety among neutral parties and the noncompliant, but she also had troves of paperwork forced upon heras well as the Minister's scrutiny.

 

"Almos' forgot abou' that..." Hagrid glanced at the opening to the hall. "Hannah gonna be 'ere for good, then?"

 

Hermione nodded. "For the foreseeable future, at least. As far as the world's currently concerned, she's gone for good."

 

"Aye, aye, Dealer of Death an' all that rubbish."

 

"I hate the name, but it comes with the territory. Speaking of which, I guess I better go tell her... The sooner I have that conversation, the sooner I can procure my Portkey for the morning."

 

"Morning? That soon?"

 

Hermione gave him a forlorn smile. "The world can't wait for me to rest, Hagridas much as I wish that it could."

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Back in the sitting room, Hannah Abbott lay motionless. She would have seemed a corpse if her eyes did not pinball about with each movement that Hermione made around her, but Hermione knew that the woman was lying in wait. Prepared for the worst, the Dealer of Death knelt beside her friend and released her from the undeserving curse.

 

Immediately, Hannah lunged for her.

 

"Incarcerous!"

 

Struggling against her newly acquired bindings, the blonde shrieked and bared her teeth.

 

"How dare you"

 

"I'm sorry, Hannah, but you have to listen to me! Nevillehe's"

 

"Dead, thanks to you!" the bound woman cried. "You evil, lying, self-righteous"

 

"Things don't always go as planned, Hannah! If this was in my control, do you think that I would've allowed it? D'you think I would've just let something like this happen?" Tears were streaming down Hermione's cheeks. She missed Neville. She missed Ron. She missed Luna and Arthur and Harry and when all was right with the worldbut mostly, she missed when she was not the enemy. "If I could've saved Neville, on Ronald's grave, I would've. But if we want to win this war, sacrifices will be made, and I'm sorry, Hannah, but Neville was apparently just meant to be one of them."

 

Hannah's teal eyes flashed with rage.

 

"I'm sorry, I"

 

"Shut up, Granger, and take my wand before you release me because I swear if I can get my hands on it, I'll kill you."

 

Under normal circumstances, the Hufflepuff would not stand a chance in a duel against Hermione. Alas, the circumstances were far from normal.

 

"I didn't mean for it to come out that way, but if you want to make this more difficult than it needs to be, we can," Hermione spat. Effortlessly, she snatched the wand from inside Hannah's disheveled robes. She waved it in front of her with a smirk. "That's why I'll be leaving it with Hagrid until I leave in the morning."

 

Hannah was seething.

 

"On that note, welcome to Hickaby Cottage." Hermione tucked the confiscated wand into her robes. "I know it's small, but I hope you start to like it here. Hagrid will really like the company and it'll give you somewhere to clear your head through...well, all of this." She raised her eyebrows. "Get as comfortable as you can. I recommend you stop with the struggling or else you'll just be sore tomorrow."

 

Then, despite her colleague's livid screeches, she stepped out of the sitting room and stumbled through the darkness to the spare room across the hall. There, she withdrew her own wand and wiped away the remainder of her tears.

 

Somewhere in the depths of her heart, there was a joyful memory. There had to be.

 

She closed her eyes.

 

Suddenly, she was by the sea. The air was crisp with salt and the wind was whipping her hair in every direction. Somebody squeezed her hand. The fingers were familiar and calloused from spending months on the lam, from spending months running from the world as it was.

 

They had nearly escaped. Back then, she was so disillusioned that she thought they had.

 

If she could focus on that moment, and not everything that followed, surely she could manage to

 

"Expecto Patronum!"

 

Her otter emerged, though it did not seem as jubilant as usual. The memory, as lovely as it was, could never be as happy as she wanted it to be. Perhaps, it was because it was useless.

 

"Go to the Rook," she instructed. "Tell the cat that I'm in need of arrangements. Tell the cat that I need to go to the dragon's lair."

 


Author's Note: Very sorry for the holdup on this one. I promise the next will be out sooner. I accidentally saved the wrong draft copy and the software I was using doesn't save previous copies (I sure learned my lesson!) I spent ages trying to get the draft to its original glory and I'm not sure it's quite what I remembered it being, but I hope you all enjoy, nonetheless!

With that being said, I'm looking for a beta reader! With this chapter excluded, I update often, so I need someone that is able to check it out quickly. I also need that person to be a perfectionist - because I am. I imagine it should be someone fairly experienced, as I'm looking for improvements in dialogue, flow, and to have an eye for ugly word repetition.

 

On that note! Join my Discord! Every month we pick new reads (we do two Dramiones a month, as well as other ships and non-romance). Plus we talk Harry Potter, life, fanfic writing. Join the fun! :) You'll need to remove the spaces and put it in your URL bar:

 

https://discord.gg/JnY7RGN



Chapter 4: The Dragon's Lair
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Malfoy Manor was in an unthinkable state of disarray. The grounds, once featuring perfectly groomed wisteria and meticulously shaped topiaries, were now overgrown and riddled with the mottling of disease. No longer did white peacocks reside there. No longer did the fairy lights glow. It was a testament to the state of things; even the Malfoys, despite all of their wealth and influence, were not immune to the Ministry's new breed of sadism.

 

Their home was once one of the most protected private estates in Britain. Thusly, before the inauguration of the new Minister for Magic, it would not have been possible for somebody to land in the courtyard by means of an everyday Portkeyespecially an unscheduled one. Alas, standards had shifted, and this became more and more obvious to Hermione as she stood there with a dirty, old trainer in her hand. She dropped it and considered how odd it felt to be there. There was no one escorting her. There was no destroying the wards. It seemed too easy, yet there she was.

 

The Malfoys were stripped not only of their status, but of their sense of security too.

 

Hermione, though she was not allowed a vote, had been there when the new regulations were announcedthe regulations that would rock the very foundation of pure-blood aristocracy. Like it was at most important legislative ceremonies, the presence of all Ministry staff was mandatory. She remembered the squeaking voice of Elizabeth Macmillan.

 

"Today, with an overwhelming majority, we have passed several amendments to an existing set of laws, the Code of Magical Domiciles. Notable changes to the code include the following: Dangerous magical creatures are hereby banned, even if the owners of the estate were previously approved for licensure via the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures; nextly, all residents must remove protective enchantments that may deter officials from entering a place of residence at any time..."  

 

Due to the family's entanglement in anti-Ministry affairs, the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had taken it upon himself to witness the removal of their manor's infamous layers of spellwork.

 

When asked to report this event, he had said, "Narcissa Malfoy was compliant, but unfriendly."

 

The measure had been taken mere days after Lucius Malfoy's funeral, an affair that was celebrated in the newspaper as "a day of triumph" and "a great win for the Ministry." For months, the former Death Eater had been campaigning against the Minister for Magic, an act that was once discouraged but entirely legal. However, the British Wizarding World was under new management, and the Dolohov heir wanted to ensure that everyone knew it.

 

The repentance of the Malfoy family had only ended in bloodshed. 

 

Lucius Malfoy's trial was one of the most widely spectated events in Ministry history, as well as one of the longest. For fourteen hours, he was interrogated by the Wizengamot, a group that was largely former Death Eaters and the power-hungry politicians that would stop at nothing to keep their position. Rita Skeeter wrote a verbose article speculating that all would end well for Lucius, mostly due to his known association with a large number of the Wizengamot's members. She was, as usual, quite wrong.

 

The Malfoys had been some of the first to abandon the Dark Lord during the Battle of Hogwarts. Unlike their colleagues, they had also avoided Azkaban.

 

Naturally, there was envy among those that had not been so lucky.

 

"Given his recent charges and his colorful history as a branded Death Eater and servant to the Dark Lord Voldemort, we sentence Lucius Malfoy, son of Abraxas Malfoy, to immediate death."

 

Dolores Umbridge, who had overseen the trial alongside Rodolphus Lestrange, let out one of her sickening giggles after reading the decision aloud. Hermione was forced to attend as per the Minister himself. She had not wanted to go to the trial, and after hearing Narcissa's bone-chilling screams, she was reminded why. 

 

It was the last time that she had seen the woman.

 

That was, until she knocked on the grand mahogany entrance to Malfoy Manor. When the door swung open to reveal the lady of the house, Hermione nearly gasped.

 

Upon Narcissa's cheek was an opalescent scar that shimmered beneath the soft sunrays. She puckered at the sight of a Ministry employee on her doorstep, but Hermione hardly noticed. The scar was far too distracting, a staunch interruption to the pure-blood's classical beauty and otherwise flawless skin.

 

Hermione had only seen marks of such depth on the face of Bill Weasley.

 

"Mrs. Malfoy! II thought" Hermione cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, it's...it's lovely to see you."

 

"Sadly, Miss Granger, I cannot say the same for youthough I suspect you're used to that, considering your...position."

 

Narcissa folded her frail arms across her chest. Never had she been a particularly large woman, but Hermione could not help but notice how much her frame had diminished over the course of the last year. 

 

"I am. More than used to it, actually." Hermione tried to peek inside of the manor, but Narcissa shifted to block her view.

 

"Well, your reputation proceeds you, doesn't it?" the older woman hissed. "Not many earn an Order of Merlin only to murder all of their friends."

 

"Mrs. Malfoy, I"

 

"What exactly brings you here today, Mudblood? Surely, the Minister hasn't sent you to do more Auror work?"

 

"Auror work? No, no, I'm not here for anything like that... I was justdoes Draco happen to be here?"

 

A pregnant pause filled the humid, summer air. Something feral lit up in Narcissa Malfoy's crystalline eyes, something that made Hermione preemptively reach for her wand.

 

"You're here for my son?" Her tone was deadly.

 

"To speak to him, yes," Hermione answered. "He and I"

 

"If it's Draco you want, I'm afraid we'll be at a bit of a impasse, Miss Granger."

 

"Mrs. Malfoy, I'm afraid you misunderstand"

 

"Do I?" Narcissa breathed. "After what you people did to my husband"

 

"Mother, it's all right."

 

The silky voice could only belong to Draco Malfoy himself. From behind Narcissa, he emerged, his pewter eyes lined with violet semicircles and his strong cheekbones protruding from sunken features. Hermione recalled him once looking just as translucent and thin in school. It had been their sixth year.

 

If Narcissa Malfoy looked poorly, Draco was rapping on the door of Death.

 

"Granger here has come to collect an old debt. Haven't you, Granger?"

 

Hermione glanced from him to his mother. The skepticism in Narcissa's expression confirmed that she would be daft to let go of her wand prematurely. She strengthened her grip.

 

"That's right," she said, still studying the both of them. "A personal debt. The Ministry has no idea I'm here."

 

Narcissa craned her neck, almost as though she expected someone to lunge at her from behind Hermione. Perhaps, she had good reason to feel paranoid. The Malfoys, after all, had had quite a challenging year. 

 

"And why haven't I heard of this debt?"

 

"As she said, it was personal," Malfoy intervened, lightly touching Narcissa's shoulder. "I'll be fine, Mother. Truly."

 

For a long moment, the woman loitered there, her lips pressed firmly together with uncertainty. While Hermione was growing impatient, she was understanding too. After all, Narcissa Malfoy had only one person left in the shambles of her once luxurious lifeand that person was Draco.

 

"If you hurt my son, you will not leave this place alive, Miss Granger. Do I make myself clear?"

 

Hermione nodded. "Quite."

 

Lingering suspicion notwithstanding, Narcissa stepped aside. 

 

"Thank you, Mrs. Malfoy. I'll try not to take too much of your family's time."

 

"Don't make promises you can't keep, Granger," Malfoy chided. "We both know you wouldn't be here if this favor was small."

 

The door clicked shut behind them, and Hermione could have sworn she heard Narcissa utter a spell that she knew to be illegal. Nevertheless, she decided it was best to leave her Ministry persona outside, so she simply gave Malfoy a tight smile and took in his state. He had not looked well at first, but the more she scrutinized him, the more disheveled he appeared. His neck-high robes hung loosely on his frame and his irises were glazed from restlessness.

 

The Malfoys were in a bad way.

 

Hermione hoped this would be advantageous to her cause.

 

"Malfoy. You look well."

 

"Another lie," he scoffed.

 

Hermione could feel Narcissa's eyes boring a hole into the back of her head.

 

"Don't worry yourself, Mother. How about you have some tea and I'll join you in the dining room once our business is finished." Hermione heard the clacking of Narcissa's heels as Malfoy gestured the hallwaya wide extension of the grand foyer that she had crossed only once before. "Come, Granger. We can speak in my study."

 

She did not remember him having a study but she was unsurprised that he did. Deciding that it was unimportant, she accepted the invitation and followed him.

 

The inside of Malfoy Manor, in spite of its troubling history, was always a sight to behold. The art and artifacts lining the hall were probably worth tens of millions of Galleons, and she suspected the rarer finds were in the more accessible wings of the place rather than the walkways between rooms. Part of her wished she could have stopped to appreciate them, but Malfoy's strides were long and fast. Her shoes squeaked against the floor of white marble in her efforts to keep up with hima noise that was apparently offputting to one of his ancestors, whose portrait mumbled, "What an awful, loud woman!"

 

The narrowing corridor was as long as those in Hogwarts Castle, and it was this note of extravagance that led her back to her former curiosity.

 

"I was surprised your mother answered the door. II thought..." She trailed off, suddenly realizing how rude she probably seemed. "Never mind."

 

"What? That it would be an elf?"

 

Hermione swallowed and jogged towards him again. He drew away from her so quickly with his impossible pace.

 

"Well...yes."

 

"You know as well as I do that servants would be ill-advised in our situation." They passed an open room with emerald walls and black crown molding. Apparently, it was not their destination, as he waved at an intersecting hall. "This way."

 

"Why would itoh. The monthly interrogations."

 

"Yes, the monthly interrogations," he sneered. "My mother and I may be following the law, but that doesn't mean I want Aurors in here plucking my elves out to ask them how I take my tea each morning. Go left here."

 

The manor had always seemed a bit mazelike, but Hermione had never taken the hallways so far before. The last time she had visited the place, she and Malfoy had been served lunch in a small room with a piano and several artifactsmost of which she believed to be well-aged heirlooms. Back then, the grave of his father was still fresh, his mother refused to leave her bedchamber, and the laws surrounding house-elves and squibs had not yet been amended.

 

The world had changed substantially in just a year.

 

After nearly fifteen minutes of walking, they finally reached a set of double-doors at the very end of the hall. Wordlessly, Malfoy opened them to reveal a room paneled from ceiling to floor in deep walnut, embroidered not with the usual evil artifacts and portraits of pure-bloods, but with bookshelves carved with gargoyles and crude imagery of violence.

 

Hermione knew there to be a library in the manor as well. Considering the study had nearly as many books as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, she could only imagine what the grander Malfoy collection looked like.

 

If they were successful in their endeavor, maybe she would one day admire it in person.

 

"Well, this is impressive, isn't it?"

 

"It was my father's. Mother wouldn't let anyone inside until just a few months ago." Malfoy shoved his hands deep into his pockets. "I suppose it's mine now, since she still refuses to come in here."

 

"Still?"

 

"If she had it her way, it'd be locked off forever," he retorted. "Only reason she didn't bury the bloody key is because the Ministry wanted our family records."

 

Hermione's blood ran cold.

 

"Wait... The Ministry asked for your records? And you gave them to them?"

 

Malfoy chuckled, darkly. "As you know, they can be very persuasive."

 

"Right..." Hermione wrung her hands. "There isn't anything about"

 

"What you did for me remains between us, Granger. You don't have to worry about a trail of parchment."

 

"Right, of course... Ermthanks... Andand look, I am sorry, Malfoyabout your father. It's a shame things ended the way they did."

 

A humorless half-smirk came and went. "Hmph. People die, Granger. You should know that better than anyone." He approached the black desk, an enormous leather-top bureau with carvings just as beautiful and crude as those adorning the bookcases. "Besides, it's the living that truly suffer these days, isn't it?"

 

Smoothing the front of his robes, he sat down in the desk's matching wingback chair.

 

"Maybe not for long," Hermione said, carefully. "Maybe things could go back to normaloror close to it, anyway."

 

"Ah, so you've come here with another one of your Order's grand schemes to fix things, have you? Should've expected as much." He wove his fingers behind his head, bemusedly. "Tell me, Granger, what price do I have to pay for this one? A leg? An arm? My right bollock?"

 

"No, none of those, hopefullyand your debt will be paid." She picked at her thumbnail, a bad nervous habit that she had had since she was in primary school. "It really is a good plan, Malfoy. If it works, it will change everything."

 

"Doubtful," he muttered.

 

"But you'll listen?"

 

"I don't have much of a choice, do I? No matter your business, you're still with the Ministry." 

 

Hermione frowned. "I prefer that you think of me as a member of the Order of the Phoenixand as aas a colleague."

 

"A colleague."

 

"Yes, Malfoy, a colleague. A colleague that's come to ask you to choose a side."

 

He snorted. "And which side is that?"

 

"I already told you I'm here on behalf of the Order." The bed of her thumbnail ached from all of her fiddling with it. "We need trainingtraining we aren't exactly equipped for, training I don't think anyone else is capable of...or willing to giving us."

 

"Training," he repeated. "Surely the brightest witch of her age can manage to do any magic that I can."

 

"No," Hermione said, quickly, "I can't. There is only so much I can learn from textbooks and thisthis type of magic is dangerous. I wouldn't dare learn it from anything other than a pair of practiced hands." 

 

"Dark Magic, then," he deduced, "but you've certainly learned how to use Unforgivables? I imagine the Ministry made it a requirement for someone in your position?"

 

"Unforgivables are unforgivable, but they aren't all that difficult, really. Not when your target is someone who deserves it." She thought back to lessons with the Carrows. "What I need isit exceeds that."

 

An inkling of fascination replaced his usual scowl. "Okay, Granger, you've played your game long enough. What exactly is it that you need help with?"

 

Hermione sighed. What she was about to ask of him was beyond anything she had ever asked of anyone before.

 

"When I tell you, do you swear not to repeat it?"

 

"You'll kill me if I do," he growled, "so I suppose yes, I swear not to repeat it."

 

"I mean it. What I'm asking you to doit couldit could help us win. But if anyone discovers what we're doing"

 

"I said I swear. Merlin, Granger, just get on with it." 

 

"This is serious, Malfoy. It's not just another"

 

"Just think about it, you rambling swot. If you didn't kill me first, what would I gain from telling the Minister or his thick little lackeys what you're doing? He'll kill me whether it's true or not."

 

"You're right. He will," Hermione said, sternly. "And he's going to keep killing everyone in his way until he has an army big enough to start killing Muggles too. The Order isn't prepared to let that happen."

 

"And you all plan on stopping him how?"

 

The nailbed of her thumb was bleeding. Apparently, she had been picking at it more than she realized. 

 

"Well, we're going to hurt them where it counts," she replied, wiping the blood on the sleeve of her robes, "something they can't recover from."

 

"And that is?"

 

Nervously, she admitted, "Stafhelm. We're going to break into it." 

 

He cackled loudly, just as she expected him to. For a moment, he almost looked healthy, with rosy cheeks and deep, ringing laughter that came from the depths of his obviously empty belly. If he weren't laughing at her, she might have been relieved to see a trace of his humanity.

 

"Oh, that's rich, Granger! Who knew you had a sense of humor?"

 

When she did not join him, he drew his pale brows together. What came next could determine the future of everyone in Britainmagical or not.

 

"Wait, you'reyou're serious? You really think you're going to break into Stafhelm?"

 

Slowly, she answered with a nod. 

 

"You're barking!" he exclaimed. "You and all of your little friends, if they agreed to this!"

 

"We're desperate," Hermione corrected him, "and nothing changes if nothing changes, Malfoy, so go on and blame us while you and your mother sit here and do absolutely nothing, but we're not going to settle for the world as it isand you shouldn't either."

 

"Excuse me, Granger, but my mother and I have sense. I'd rather settle for a world that I'm alive in than one where I'm not."

 

"So that's it, then? You're perfectly happy letting the Ministry get worse and worse until we're all either in prison, enslaved, or dead? That's low, Malfoy, even for you."

 

He rolled his eyes. "I'd like to see the Ministry go down just as much as you would, Granger, but if you try to break into Stafhelm, the only change you'll see is the number of living members of the Order. You'll go from barely any to bloody zero."

 

"Not if we do it right! With your help"

 

"My help? Granger, I don't think you're understanding me. I don't care what kind of debt I owe you. There is no way in hell I'm going to help you with this death wish of yours."

 

"No Malfoy, you're not understanding me. We need you. This plan doesn't work without you."

 

"Well, then you ought to thank me for taking it off the table," he scoffed. "When you wake up in the morning and you're still breathing, imagine I'm there saying 'you're welcome.'"

 

"Malfoy, please, just listen to me"

 

He stood and shook his head. "There's no use in begging, Granger. There's nothing you can do to get me to partake in your stupid scheme, so if you'd kindly take your leave, I'll be happy to absolve my debt when you come up with something reasonable."

 

He pushed in the chair and fixed the high collar of his robes. Hermione had saved her greatest bargaining tool for such a moment, so despairingly, she proffered it. Perhaps, with the right offering, he would come to his senses. 

 

"We'll protect your mother, you know!"

 

Visibly, he stiffened. "What?"

 

"Your motherwe can offer her Order protection," Hermione elaborated. "We have Unplottables all over Britainplaces she'll be safe, places the Ministry has no record of."

 

His attention was hers once more. She could feel her heart thudding against her chest wall as she analyzed the stakes of the rest of their conversation. One misstep, and the plan was foiled. One misstep, and the Ministry won.

 

"How do I know you aren't lying?"

 

Her nailbeds were particularly interesting again. "Do you really think I could kill all my friends, Draco?"

 

Astute as always, Malfoy wagged a finger at her. For once, it was not a gesture of the rude sort.

 

"You've been hiding them."

 

"Yes."

 

"And somehow none of them have been caught?"

 

"When the Order protects people, we protect them well, Malfoy." Hermione leveled her gaze on him. "That's what we can offer your motherand you. Protection with the full force of the Order of the Phoenix and all of its sitting members."

 

"And what makes me safer with your lot than here? We aren't breaking any laws."

 

Hermione gave him a sad smile. "But how long until you are? You have to pick a side, Draco. They're going to make you, eventually, and given your past, I imagine your prospects will be slim."

 

He seemed to consider it briefly, but then, with the second shake of his head, Hermione felt her insides lurch.

 

"I can't. My mother will never leave the manor anyway."

 

"But surely you could convince her! Malfoy, if she stays here"

 

"Staying here is what she wants. She won't leave this placenot to live in some hovel with a bunch of people that loathed her up until it benefited them not to." 

 

"Butbut the Ministry"

 

"My mother is not wanted and my name has been cleared. Unless you find some reason to turn us both in, we'll be safe as long as we mind our business." He sniffed. "Aligning with the Order is something our reputation can't afford right now."

 

"So you'll do nothing, then?" she asked, disbelievingly. "You'll stay here until the Minister finds some reason to kill the both of you?"

 

"I'll protect my family the best way I know how."

 

"Oh, please! You aren't protecting anyone! You're a coward! Just like you've always been!"

 

He barked a laugh. "I'd rather be a coward than mad."

 

Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off before she could get out so much as a word.

 

"You best be going, Granger. My mother will start snooping if she finds we've been gone too long."

 

"Fine, but I'll be back, you know," she said, coldly, "and I have a feeling that you'll be changing your mind when I do."

 

"Is that a threat?" 

 

"Consider it an educated assumption." Disgust lined the statement. "I suppose I should've known better than to put my faith in you, of all people. I'll lessen my expectations in the future."

 

"Good! Maybe next time we speak you'll have figured out what a rational expectation is."

 

Hermione glowered at him.

 

"If we speak again, Malfoy, you should just thank the stars that you're still alive."

 

And with that, she Disapparated.



Chapter 5: The Two Lives of Hermione Granger
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Hermione's bag slid off the tilted kitchen table and back into her lap. It was a weathered thing: made of oak and chipping grey paint, the thirdhand find was from a Muggle dump, summoned to the Rook House by a manic Xenophilius Lovegood right before a meeting. To distract herself from her racked nerves and the urge to pick at her nail beds, Hermione peeked beneath the table in hopes of charming it to normalcy. She had, naturally, tried to fix it before, but she had failed, and unsolved problems did not sit well with her.

 

"Planuso!"

 

The table groaned and shifted, snapping the six boards beneath its warping hind legs. Then, before she could resurface to admire her work, two large boots stepped into the room and approached her, followed by the squealing feet of one of the three mismatched chairs. Hermione always hated those chairs, and she knew Charlie did too.

 

"Sorry about that. Xenophilius is . . . well, he's a bit of a nuisance nowadays."

 

"What? Oh, Xenophilius, right." Hermione quickly emerged from her place beneath the table. She felt lightheaded, but whether it was from being upside-down or the sudden wave of stress, she wasn't sure. "Sorry, I was trying to fix it . . . It looks much better now, though, don't you think?"

 

Charlie knocked on the surface. "It does, actually . . . What spell did you use?"

 

"Just a simple Leveling Charm. It's a bit better than your everyday Lengthening Spell on the legs, especially if you've got something that isn't cooperating . . . I used to use it on Ron's plates when we were camping."

 

"Yeah, I'm familiar with it," he sniffed. "Tried it before, actuallyand about a half-dozen other spells . . . Watch, it'll go slanted again."

 

Hermione frowned as the table sagged once more, proving his point.

 

"I've never seen that happen before."

 

"Don't know what in Merlin's name is wrong with it, but even George's putty can't fix the damn thing. Every time I try molding it on there, it just sort of . . . melts."

 

Jiggling it, Hermione realized that, perhaps, the tilt was not the work of Muggles after all.

 

"You think it's been jinxed?"

 

"Not that I know of . . . but Xenophilius has been known for swinging his wand about . . . In more ways than one, unfortunately . . ." Charlie grimaced. "Anyway, enough about the silly problems around here. How'd your visit with Malfoy go?"

 

"Not well," Hermione admitted. "He said no."

 

"Of course he did. He's Malfoy."

 

"I know he's Malfoy. But we aren't twelve anymore so I thoughtI thought maybe . . . " She exhaled. "I thought maybe he'd agree to it, you know, with all things considered . . . "

 

"All you could do was try, Granger. No need to beat yourself up over it."

 

"I'm not . . . but honestly, I think if I went back"

 

Suddenly, the sound of shattering glass came from the adjacent room. It was the doing of a distressed manone whose sanity had long slipped through his fingers and into the void.

 

Charlie was unfazed by the everyday din.

 

"You were saying?"

 

"I was saying I think I should go back there. When I offered his mother the Order's protection . . . well, long story short, he was going to say yes. The only reason he didn't was because"

 

"Mocking me now, are you?" Xenophilius bellowed. "Well, I'll tell you something, Mr. Crumple-Horned Snorkack, you aren't as sneaky as you think you are!"

 

Charlie rubbed his temples. "Sorry, he's at the time of day where he starts getting agitated . . . Just ignore him . . ."

 

"It's fine," Hermione said, waving him off. "So what d'you think?"

 

"What do I think of you going back to the Malfoys'? I think it's bloody mad."

 

Considering the stakes, his reaction surprised her.

 

"What?"

 

"I said I think it's mad. We agreed to one meeting and that's what we meant. One." He brandished a stern index finger, patronizing her as he often did to those of lower rank. "And don't even give me that look, Hermione. McGonagall's with me on this. She's already said as much."

 

"I find that hard to believe," Hermione muttered.

 

"Frankly, I don't care what you believe. You're here to follow orders, and the order I'm giving you now is to move on."

 

"And what do you mean by move on?"

 

"I mean exactly that," he said, firmly. "Our main focus needs to be the overall goal now and nothing else. As you know, that means a lot of research on your end, so I need you to keep your head out of the clouds and start getting some solid information on that gateway of yoursinformation I prefer you keep away from Dolohov if you can help it. Bill and I will do what we can, but you're the only one with access to the Ministry records, so I'm afraid most of it is going to fall on you."

 

"Wait . . . the gateway? You're talking about ditching those ruddy shackles! You do know that won't necessarily help Harry?"

 

"Like I said, our main focus is the overall goal now. Without those shackles, Dolohov is no more powerful than Umbridge or Parkinson or any of the other morons that follow him. We get rid of the shackles, we take him prisoner, we don't put many of our own at risk. Simple as that."

 

"And what d'you propose we do when they come looking for him?"

 

"I didn't say it was the perfect plan, Hermione, and I know it's certainly not fast, but with our resources, it's the best we've got. Lestrange and Umbridge will have a row over who takes Dolohov's place, one will hopefully have the other killed, and then the whole thing collapses and we put in one of ours." He cringed as Xenophilius spat a curse at what was, seemingly, the loveseat. "We'll run into bumps along the way, but if we do it right, it'll work. As long as you figure out how to destroy the bloody things and as long as someone can nick them, we can turn this around and we can maybe, at some point, live the normal lives we've never quite had the chance to live."

 

Blood roiled hotly in Hermione's veins.

 

Harry, the man that had saved the entire Wizarding World, had very quickly gone from being their main concern to a complete nonpriority. One sour meeting with Malfoy, to her, was hardly a good reason to return to the botched mission from thirteen months earlierespecially since that mission ended in death.

 

She opened her mouth to say her piece, but was expectedly interrupted.

 

"Selashio!"

 

The tearing of upholstery echoed and Xenophilius cackled in delight, proudly clapping his hands together. Apparently, he had won his match with the loveseat.

 

"Sorry, but that is my cue to get his potion in him," Charlie declared, "so if you'll excuse me, I think I'll be bringing this to a close now."

 

"That's all, then?" Hermione asked, furiously. "That's where you're going to leave it?"

 

He did not even bother looking at her. Instead, he pushed in his chair and said, "Figure out how to destroy those shackles, yeah? And let me know when you do."

 

"But wait, what if I"

 

"Meeting is adjourned, Granger. Go home."

 

She was trembling with rage. Every reason she disagreed with him was tickling the tip of her tongue, urging her to yell at him, to scream at him, to tell him she was going to save Harry no matter what.

 

However, she had been desensitized to reprehensible ordersso she quieted her moral compass, and in spite of her better judgment, she Disapparated.

 

***

 

 

Everything was brown. The houses were brown, the foot trail was brown, even the grass was brown. Funded by the Ministry of Magic, the Farnfurn compound consisted of nearly thirty houses, all a mere single roomsans the grimy lavatoriesand disturbingly bare. No Muggle could find the place, and if an enemy were to try, they would not survive the consequences.

 

Hermione preferred her old tent.

 

She hiked up the trail, passing by the many clones that were marked with their residents' names: Clearwater, Midgen, Yaddle. Strangely, she was one of the most important people that dwelled there, and she knew they loathed her for it.

 

Their opinions meant little.

 

She ignored the curtains zipping shut as she made her way to the top of the highest hill, somehow both relieved and crestfallen. There, plastered on a house just as brown and just as small as the rest of them, was her surname.

 

Even though being a Muggle-born had its drawbacks, she had once taken pride in being a Granger. However, the more she had to see it emblazoned upon the side of that house, the less proud she was, and thusly, she had charmed the Vow to the Ministry off the knobless, lockless door.

 

It was a small act of defianceone that had gone wholly unnoticed, but one that brought a small smile to her face when she thought about it. Sadly, the smile never lasted long, because to open that door, she had to say the passphrase.

 

"Long live His Excellency."

 

By rather poor design, the words opened every door on the property; she had learned as much when she once said it too loudly, exposing her half-naked neighbor to a group of visiting goblins.

 

They had pointed and gasped, and then, they were sentenced to death for what Umbridge referred to as "a lewd act of gawking".

 

As Hermione pondered this cruel ruling, she stepped into her stark place of residence and turned to close the door. Before she could, however, it shut itself; the magic of the resetting enchantments pulsed through the air, sending a shiver down her spine and reminding her how utterly in control the Ministry was.

 

"Tsk, tsk, you are late! Tsk, tsk, you are late!"

 

She winced and waved her hand at the complaining grandfather clock. It vibrated upon the wall as it always did when she countered the annoying charm, scraping away the drab wall paint and grinding its own gears; the previous resident had been on probation and the Employee Housing Office had not yet removed the miserable thing. Somehow, they had plenty of time to remove the resident himself.

 

"Four late notices this month!" Dolores Umbridge had scolded at his trial. "You were warned of the terms of your probation, were you not?"

 

His stammering had then earned him a lifelong stay in Stafhelm. At least, that was what the paperwork claimed.

 

Being in the Minister's favor had its perks, and Hermione's narrow avoidance of probation was one of the few she proudly accepted.

 

Parkinson and Umbridge had tried to charge her with insubordination no less than fourteen times, and thanks to the Minister for Magic, all fourteen of her loyalty hearings had been promptly canceled. There was no doubt that the two women were of great importance, but neither of them were murderers.

 

Murderers, or rather, talented murderers, were in short supply, and the Minister would not part with those willing to kill on his behalf.

 

As Hermione pulled off her shoes, her stomach growled. She made a face, a bit disgusted with herself for thinking of food at the precise moment that she contemplated homicidebut it couldn't be helped. After all, she hadn't eaten all day.

 

Regrettably, she had not had time to visit the ration-keeper.

 

She scoured her small kitchenette for her only meal, hoping that she had saved a bit of pork from her most recent serving. Over time, her repetitive suppers had started bleeding together into a compilation of meat, bread, and peas.

 

After ripping open every cupboard, she only found the remainder of her weekly pumpernickel.

 

With a sigh, she seized it and crawled into bed, fully clothed and too exhausted to change. She had a strange relationship with that tiny, miserable bed. On one hand, it was lumpy and itchy and riddled with bugs. On the other hand, it was the only piece of furniture that the Ministry allowed her to havea lesson she learned the hard way when she transfigured a sock into an armchair. Parkinson motioned for her immediate eviction, but in the end, she just had to write a personal apology to the Minister.

 

She bit into the bread and coughed. It was ash between her teeth, and as the crumbs fell down her front, she thought of Wales.

 

"Haven't I told you not to eat in bed? You're getting crumbs everywhere!"

 

"Well, where else am I supposed to eat? It's raining outside."

 

"Oh, I don't know, Ron. Maybe the dining table? Honestly, if you had to camp the way Muggles do, you wouldn't survive a day."

 

How surreal it was that he was lost nowforever just a piece of her collage of haunting memories. Like her friends. Like her parents.

 

Like Harry.

 

Solemn and furious and unable to sleep, she threw the bread at the wall, peeled off her paper-thin blanket, and padded across the room to her lavatory. The stench of urine filled her nostrils, for no matter which spell she used, she could never seem to banish the smell for good. Still, she ignored it, just like she ignored the squeaking shower handles, the moths on the curtain, and the harsh chill of the frigid spray.

 

Fascinatedly, she watched the day's dirt swirl down the drain.

 

Cleanliness. Godliness. Rejuvenation.

 

The Dealer of Death may have followed Charlie's orders, but she was Hermione Grangerand Hermione Granger had some persuading to do.

 

 

***

 

 

Impostors. All of them. Deep underground, they loomed in the air, much like those that graced the London sky beyondyet different in every way. They glimmered around the faux moon, and by Hermione's preference, they encircled Venus's doppelganger.

 

The ivory planet was so close she could touch it.

 

As a teenager, she had been entranced by the Atmospheric Charm in the Great Hall, but in her later years, she had come to find it to be terribly inferior to what it represented. The thunder always sounded the same, the lightning never beared any consequences, and worst of all, the temperature never changed.

 

She missed the autumn twilight. She missed the forest in Wales. She missed campfires and hedgehogs and the sound of swaying leaves . . .

 

But most of all, she missed Ronald.

 

She would have sold her soul to wake up, just one more morning, to his loud snores. To scold him for stealing the blankets. To complain about him laying on her hair. To tell him "not tonight" for what felt like the hundredth time.

 

Unfortunately, grief would not fix the state of things, so she buried her emotions and signed her second memo of the day.

 

Dear Arvell,

I have reason to suspect that Narcissa Malfoy is in possession of a cursed tea set. It is my recommendation that the affected items are immediately retrieved and brought to the Department of Mysteries. Thank you.

 

Respectfully,

Hermione Granger

Department of Mysteries

 

It was a lie.

 

Draco Malfoy was not going to change his mind unless the status quo shifted, and Hermione was ensuring that it did.

 

That was, of course, if she could bring herself to send it in the first place.

 

Unlike most Ministry employees, Arvell Boot quite liked Hermione. He was, for a wizard, utterly ordinary, and it was this utter ordinariness that once made him an asset to the Pest Advisory Board. He had a passion for paperwork, a verve for verbiage, and most importantly, he was willing to do the parts of the job that his more important colleagues loathed. Those colleagues took advantage of this, and when they went to pass their work onto him, they often called it "giving it the Boot".

 

Strangely, the joke had worked in his favor.

 

When Evanegline Fawley was tortured to lunacy, they needed a quick replacement, and inexplicably, Dolores Umbridge's pick was Arvell.

 

Hermione had taken advantage of this a number of times.

 

When she needed Malfoy's case file, he gave it to her. When she wanted to find Parvati Patil, he helped her. Impressively, he had even managed to provide her with Umbridge and Parkinson's many notes in her own personal record.

 

Arvell Boot was willing to do her a favor for nothing in return. All she had to do was ask.

 

That should have compelled her to send it, but it didn't.

 

Instead, she kept rereading her own handwriting, almost as though the intention might change if she regurgitated the words enough. Suspect. Possession. Retrieved. It was the sort of message she would expect from the likes of the High Inquisitor, yet somehow, it had been penned by her own hand.

 

Immoral acts weren't so immoral if they were for the greater good.

 

Or were they?

 

The hesitation, she had convinced herself, did not come from her small soft spot for Draco Malfoy; she had no doubt that he could defeat every Auror in the department if his mind was set on it. It was the other member of his household for whom she worried: the frail woman that had once saved her best friend's life, the woman that had cleverly changed the tides of the war, the woman who was in every way an enigma Hermione never understood.

 

Narcissa Malfoy teetered on the edge of madness, and a mishandled inquiry could easily be the final, terrible push.

 

To betray a woman that had once had the courage to betray Voldemort himselfit seemed like an entirely new brand of treason. Perhaps the woman detested Muggle-borns. Perhaps she was haughty and ostentatious and even cruel. Alas, she was, above all, a heroine of the warone that paid a price uniquely her own.

 

The fine line between ethics and ferocity always did blur in times of trouble.

 

Forcing Narcissa Malfoy out of her thoughts, Hermione resigned herself and pressed her wand to the memo. The parchment neatly folded itself and lunged for the extra-wide letterbox, eager to start its magical journey to the second level.

 

Already, she had sent two memos, and both were lies. That left her with a much more daunting task.

 

Pretending.

 

To paint the portrait of her other self was always a gut-wrenching chore, and it was even worse when she was under the harsh scrutiny of a recent execution. Every time she claimed to kill one of her old friends, her superiors became suspicious, looking for a reason to believe she was anything other than the woman she said she was.

 

That woman went by many names.

 

Unspeakable. War heroine. Dealer of Death.

 

Together, they all translated to the thing she least wanted to be: a dedicated employee of the Ministry of Magic.

 

 

***

 

 

As the sun peeked through false clouds, Hermione cracked her knuckles and took in her surroundings. Open tomes. Scrap parchment. Colored ink. They were all subtle proof of her loyalty, so when the door finally opened, she continued the charade.

 

"You're early."

 

Hermione glanced at her watch. "You're not."

 

Smooth and haughty, the voice belonged to her fellow Unspeakable and longtime research partner: a schoolmate, an academic, a Slytherin. They had started working for the Ministry at the same time, endured the same excruciating lessons with Alecto and Amycus Carrow, and then, after nearly a year of researching under Senior Unspeakables, they were issued the same assignment.

 

He had been less than thrilled about it.

 

"Should she really even be on this case? Considering how close she was with the very man that put this stupid hole in the ground"

 

"Mr. Zabini, leave assignment decisions to me. If I had any reason to believe Miss Granger was unsuitable for this task, she would have been assigned to the Brain Room with the rest of your colleagues."

 

Their professional relationship had been strained ever since.

 

"I would've been here on time, but your friend Arvell Boot pulled me aside the second I walked into the building. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

 

"That depends. What did he have to say?" Hermione asked, evenly.

 

"Oh, you know, his usual weird song and dance," Blaise scoffed, adjusting his already-impeccable necktie. "'Arvell Boot, former member of the Pest Advisory Board, current Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and presently'"

 

"'at your service.' Yeah, I swear he practices that one in the mirror . . . Ahem. Anyway, did he have anything interesting to say?"

 

"I don't know, Granger," he sighed, dramatically pulling out his chair, "what exactly might Arvell Boot want to talk with me about for nearly forty-five minutes? Anything interesting come to mind?"

 

"Well, I don't know. You're the one that met with him."

 

"Oh, come off it! You ordered a raid on the bloody Malfoys! That's why you're here so early, isn't it? So you could make sure it made it to his desk before he got in!"

 

With a confident shrug, Hermione dipped her quill. "I was given information from a fairly reliable source. I simply took it to the party that's best suited to handle it. Now, if you have a problem with that"

 

"And who was this source, exactly?" Blaise demanded, crossing his arms. "And what did you do to them that would make them want to snitch?"

 

"Well, if you must know," she said, scribbling down something about doxy eggs, "it was Hannah Abbott. She told me on Friday."

 

"Hannah Abbott? That woman that you just fucking killed?"

 

Hermione groaned and put down her quill, making an inky mess all over her meaningless notes. "So you already know."

 

"Of course I already know! Everybody knows!" Blaise hissed. "Between that and the Malfoy raid, you're a bit of a hot topic in the Atriumand not in the good way."

 

"What're people saying?"

 

"Lots of things . . . Something about the Leaky Cauldron . . . You had an attitude with Jonathan Bragwit . . . Someone said something about a dragon? Half of it seemed like rubbish, really . . . But what I do know is that Parkinson was bloody livid."

 

Pansy Parkinson was the last person Hermione wanted involved.

 

"She was?"

 

"Nearly killed Belby trying to summon a stack of papers this morning, so she certainly wasn't happy about something." He tried rubbing the stress from his face. "Look Granger, I don't care what kind of messes you get yourself into outside of work. If you want to go around murdering your little friends to satiate your perversions, be my bloody guest, but when you start bringing attention to yourself here, that affects me, and then, we have a problem. Do you understand?"

 

Hermione leered at him. "The Minister killed her boyfriend. As soon as she found that out, all those Aurors she serves were going to end up hurt or worse."

 

"And you honestly thought Hannah Abbott could take on a dozen Aurors?"

 

"Those Aurors drink in her pub. It would've been all too easy to poison them."

 

"Oh, I have no doubt that's what you wrote in your report," he posited, dryly.

 

"Reason is always needed for a nontrial execution, so yes, I wrote it in my report. Now if you'll excuse me," Hermione said, hiding her useless notes, "I have work to do. If you need me, I'll be in the Pensieve Room."

 

"Did you collect a new memory?"

 

"No, I'm looking at the trial againmy memory."

 

"You mean the one we've examined at least twenty times?" Blaise bemoaned. "Do you really think you're going to find something new?"

 

"I'm being thorough," she snapped. "Maybe you should try it sometime."

 

He snorted.

 

"Great tip, Granger. Next time I kill an innkeeper and send Aurors to stage an unnecessary raid, I'll give it a go."


Author's Note: I do apologize for the lateness. My chronic illness has been acting up something fierce lately, so editing this took quite a long time as I've been very tired and dizzy. I rewrote it at least three times and edited it about 30+ times, so please do leave criticism so I can make any additional edits.

If you are interested in betaing this work, this is my First Edition, and I would love to continue upgrading it to a highly-edited Second Edition. I have edited things, of course, but several pairs of eyes are better than one. Harsh critiquing is helpful and encouraged.



Chapter 6: The Trial of Arthur Weasley
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Hermione sat down beside the ghost of her past. Thanks to numerous glamour charms and beautifying potions, her former reflection looked well-composed: professional enough to avoid later interrogation, but casual enough not to draw unwanted eyes. Hope had been hard to come by back then, always slipping through her fingers like loose sand on a windy day, yet somehow, she hadn't known she would be left with mere grains.

 

That was the trouble with hope. Even when there was too little of it, it could be blinding.

 

"You are bouncing like a bullfrog."

 

Viktor Krum's thick accent had never waned, despite living in England for several years. He was pointing at the grey leg that blurred with each movement, worry dancing in his dark pupils and hints of longing in his tone. Hermione's memory frowned and, as inconspicuously as possible, she pulled out her wand and pressed it to her thigh.

 

A small hiss escaped past her teeth and the bouncing stopped.

 

"Can't wait to see this traitor get the death sentence," someone muttered as they climbed the nearby stairs.

 

Knowing there would be no consequences, Hermione shot a jinx in the woman's direction. It passed right through her as well as through several tall hats before finally hitting the wall and dissipating into a cloud of white smoke. She had jinxed that same woman many a time, and it was just as cathartic as ever.

 

"That voman, she is rude."

 

Hermione watched her memory turn to Viktor, knowing well that she was offering a small smile and her hand. He took it and gave it a friendly squeezeone that some part of her wished she could have felt again.

 

"Stand!"

 

Everyone in the courtroom obeyed the barking Auror in unison, fixated on the Wizengamot members as they filled their seats accordingly. Corban Yaxley was last, and as soon as he found his place, the most important members made their dramatic entrance.

 

One was dressed in black like the rest of them. The other, in pink.

 

"Bow before the Chief Warlock!"

 

Hermione did not budge, opting instead to stare at her memory in disgust as she begrudgingly bowed. Following Ministry orders always made her feel sick, but somehow, it was worse to observe herself so many months later.

 

She was, after all, pledging fealty to evil.

 

The Chief Warlock, former Death Eater and known murderer, glared over the podium before lowering himself into the high-backed chair. At his left, Dolores Umbridge stood, her painted-pink lips pulled into a smirk.

 

"Be seated!"

 

Her memory let go of Viktor's hand and smoothed her robes to sit. Back then, she had barely noticed the concerned look that he had given her, but now, each time that she entered the memory, he was all she saw. How his brow furrowed. How his lip curled downward. How, as he reached out to pat her knee, he mouthed, "It is okay, Herm-own-ninny."

 

Forcing another smile, the memory took his hand once more.

 

"Bring forth the defense!"

 

As Umbridge leaned in to whisper to Lestrange, Hermione's former self scooted closer to Viktor. She remembered how warm he had been, how comforting he wasand how wrong she felt for thinking so.

 

"Psst!"

 

The memory whipped around, and so did Hermione. Blaise Zabini was making a crude hand gesture, clearly referencing her and Viktor and something very private that the two of them had never done. Eloise Midgen stifled a snicker with the back of her hand.

 

They were interrupted by the clinking of iron.

 

Manacled by the neck, ankles, and wrists, Arthur Weasley shuffled slowly behind two Aurors leading him into the courtroom. One was a tall, bulky woman that Hermione didn't recognize. The other caught her memory's attention and winked.

 

She loathed Jonathan Bragwit for many reasons, and that moment was towards the top of the list.

 

"Keep it moving, Weasley!"

 

Hermione didn't have to look at Arthur to know that he was examining the audience. In fact, she made a point not to, for the heinous scene never failed to make her stomach lurch.

 

"Where's my family?"

 

The bulky woman prodded Arthur's cheek with her wand. "We said to keep it moving!"

 

"Butbut my wife, my kids, they aren't herethey wouldn'twatch your wand, will you?"

 

"Move your arse and I'll move my wand."

 

"Well, you can threaten me all you like, but until I know my kids are safe"

 

"Weasley, don't make this harder than it has to be," Bragwit cut in. "Just a few more steps, yeah? Don't be stupid."

 

"Stupid? If it's stupid to want to know where my family is"

 

The woman leaned in and whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was, it made him fall silent.

 

"Arthur Weasley," Rodolphus growled, tapping his fingers menacingly against his podium. "How does it feel to be in chains?"

 

While the room's many former Death Eaters cackled at the inquiry, the more professional members of the Wizengamot seemed shocked by it. Umbridge sensed the tension.

 

"Ahem! Thank you, Rodolphus, I'm sure I can take it from here."

 

Yaxley and Macnair scowled.

 

Ignoring them, Umbridge marched towards Arthur, her pink heels clacking loudly and a wicked gleam in her eye. She was a predator of her own breed: While the Minister was all curses and claws, she was composed, thorough, and completely ruthless.

 

In the courtroom, there was nobody more dangerous.

 

"Mr. Weasley!" she began. "You are here before the Wizengamot today as you have been charged with multiple crimes, namely malicious theft, attempted destruction of Ministry property, and unlawful entrance to the Department of Mysteries. Do you understand?"

 

Arthur's chains rattled as he attempted to shift in the spotlit chair. "Wellwell, actually I"

 

"He understands," Rodolphus grunted.

 

An amphibian grin stretched across Umbridge's face.

 

"Very good. So, Mr. Weasley, how do you plead?"

 

Hermione glanced at her memory, who was clinging onto Viktor's forearm. While her past leg was still motionless, she noticed her own was bouncing more ceaselessly than ever.

 

"Well . . . considering I don't know anything about any of that, I suppose I plead not guilty."

 

The buzz that followed filled the room. Cameras flashed; gasps came from the audience; even the Wizengamot was perplexed by the news. Arthur Weasley, despite the overwhelming evidence against him, was claiming to be innocent.

 

Rita Skeeter seemed particularly enthused.

 

"Not guilty?" Umbridge repeated, appalled. "You're sure?"

 

"Of course I'm sure! Why would I admit to doing something I didn't do?"

 

Umbridge sighed.

 

"Very well. I suppose we'll be doing this the hard way then . . . Don't say I didn't warn you, Arthur. I never wish the worst for an old friend."

 

"An old friend?" Hermione echoed, crossing her arms. "Oh, bugger off you miserable, old toad!"

 

It was one of her more tame interjections.

 

Umbridge, not having heard the present Hermione, went on to ask, "Where were you on the twentieth of June, Mr. Weasley? Do you remember?"

 

"A-are you joking? II was here on the twentieth," Arthur replied, confusedly. "Dolores, you saw me. We had a glass of wine with Boris and my son!"

 

"Ah, we did, didn't we? But after that, Mr. Weasley: Where did you go after that?"

 

Hermione longingly watched Viktor whisper words of encouragement to her memory. She had been too distracted to hear him properly back then, and now that she couldn't recall what he had said, she wished that she'd listened more closely.

 

"Erwell . . . my son and I went to the fountain . . ."

 

"Yes, and?"

 

"And I remember . . . I remember that Abbish had a superb hat. Blue with all kinds of little spinning planets orbiting about. I really was quite taken with it . . . I meant to ask him where he got it, but I don't think that I did . . . You know, actually, maybe I did later in"

 

"Enough about Abbish's hat!" Umbridge barked. Almost instantly, she relaxed and forced a smile. "After the fountain, what did you do? You went somewhere, yes? Somewhere . . . notable?"

 

Arthur didn't respond.

 

"Well?" pressed Umbridge. "Where was it?"

 

He shook his head, sadly. "I haven't the foggiest, I'm afraid. I was standing there by the fountain, watching Jupiter move around Abbish's hat . . . It was quite dizzying, really . . . Next thing I knew, I was in a cell in Stafhelm."

 

Umbridge's nostrils flared.

 

"Clearly there is nothing illegal about watching Abbish's hat, so please try and think, Mr. Weasley. I would prefer not to resort to alternative methods of questioning you, but if I must, I will."

 

"And if you did, you'd find nothing! I don't remember anything after the fountain. I mean, I had gone quite heavy on the drink"

 

"Heavy on theexcuse me, Mr. Weasley, but you do understand what you stand accused of? These crimes are very severe, and if you are found guilty . . . Well, let's just say it will be quite a shame for your family . . . Though maybe not" She gestured the room at large. "Considering they do seem to be . . . absent?"

 

"Yes, well, I don't think that they chose to be absent."

 

She tilted her head, curiously. "And what do you mean by that?"

 

"Well, IermI thinkahemsurely, if they could've been here"

 

"So there's no reason that they may not want to support you today? No reason at all?"

 

Arthur whimpered.

 

"Pity . . ." She then turned on her heel, and sharply announced, "The prosecution calls Eloise Midgen to the floor!"

 

Hermione mirrored her memory in whipping around to watch Eloiseonce a sweet, quiet girlwalk down the stairs with nothing but bad intentions. Her unusually large feet sounded against the marble floor, and her shame must have been consuming her, for she was far too interested in her toes.

 

"Miss Midgen," Umbridge started, "can you please tell us what you recall from the evening of June twentieth?"

 

Eloise wrung her hands. Hermione wanted to wring her neck.

 

"W-well, I was in the Department of Mysteries toto ermto schedule some meetings for the erthe Minister," she lied. The only reason she ever visited that level was to flirt with Reginald Clearwater, the Head of the Department and a man old enough to be her grandfather. "That's when II saw . . . him."

 

"And who is him, dear?"

 

"ErM-Mr. Weasley. He wasermhe looked terrified, actually . . . Then I saw the shackles in his handsnot normal ones, not the ones we use . . . I wasn'tI didn't know what they were, butbut he acted strangelike he was doing something he wasn't meant to be doing . . ."

 

"These shackles: Can you describe them?" Umbridge asked, swiftly.

 

"They were made of . . . Itit appeared to be s-silver, but I can't be sure . . ."

 

"They appeared to be silver," Umbridge repeated, wagging her finger at the Wizengamot. "And what of the quality of this silver? Did they seem to be . . . goblin-made?"

 

"That's not allowed! She's putting things in her head!" Hermione shouted, all too aware that it would do no good.

 

"Well, I'm not a goblin, so I can't be sure"

 

"But if you had to guess?" Umbridge intervened. "If you had to put gold on it, would you say they were or they weren't?"

 

Hermione, still fuming, glanced at her memory. The grey figure was clenching her teeth, not even able to relax as Viktor stroked her knuckles with his thumb.

 

"I'd say they were," Eloise decided. "Ifif I had to guess, yeah, I wouldI would think that they were . . . Goblin-made, I mean."

 

"She wouldn't have said that if you hadn't led her on, you stupid, pink hag!" Hermione bellowed.

 

Nobody reacted.

 

"And after you saw him? What did he do?"

 

"Well hehe saw that I saw the shackles . . . and II don't think he was going to do much of anything but when hewhen he caught my eyes . . . that's when he" She kicked the floor. "He"

 

"He what?" Umbridge urged.

 

Eloise took a breath that was so loud Hermione heard it from her place among the audience. Many onlookers whispered to each other, wondering if the unlikely woman was about to seal the fate of Arthur Weasley.

 

Rita Skeeter noisily fumbled with some parchment, and several other reporters followed suit.

 

"Hehe pulled out his wand," Eloise said. "I thought he was going toto attack me, but he didn't. Instead hehe turned his wand on himself."

 

Umbridge bent to Eloise's level, her hands cuffed behind her back and false concern in the lines of her face.

 

"And he used which spell, dear?"

 

Eloise hesitated, and if Hermione didn't know better, she might have thought she was regretting her stance.

 

"Obliviate," she finally said. "He Obliviated himself."

 

At first, Umbridge seemed surprised, but within seconds, she had pieced the puzzle together.

 

"He Obliviated himself!" she announced. "Knowing good and well what he did for the rebels, he Obliviated himself for their cause. A slight against the Minister unlike any we've seen before." As murmurs ran rampant among the Wizengamot, she turned back to Eloise. "After that, Miss Midgen, what happened? Did he do anything else so disturbing? So treasonous?"

 

"Ermw-well, ReginaldII mean Mr. Clearwater"

 

"The Head of the Department of Mysteries? That Mr. Clearwater?"

 

"Y-yes, that's the one," Eloise confirmed. "H-he Stunned himMr. Clearwater Stunned Mr. Weasley, I mean. H-he didn't stand a chance, really. Mr. Clearwaterhehe's quite brilliant with a wand, you know . . ."

 

"And after he was Stunned? What happened then?"

 

Eloise shrugged. "Then the Aurors came . . . two of them took him away and another accompanied me back to Farnfurn."

 

The roar of public opinion had overtaken the court. Quills scratched. Death Eaters chuckled. Even Umbridge, who detested an unprofessional crowd, let out a girlish giggle.

 

Arthur Weasley was going to be put to death and the entire room knew it.

 

"I believe that will be all, Miss Midgen." As Eloise went back to her seat, Umbridge stepped out into the center of the room and circled Arthur. "I, myself, can confirm that Mr. Weasley did slip away from the party. However, the charges are great and our laws are very fair, so I do believe it is important we bring in an unbiased witness . . ."

 

Before she even finished the announcement, a raven-haired woman stood and began her descent from the fourth row.

 

"The prosecution calls Pansy Parkinson to the floor."

 

Pansy shouldered Rita Skeeter on her way to the center of the room, causing the older woman to spill ink down her front and emit a bone-chilling screech. Discreetly, Pansy flicked her wand at her side, and Rita was silenced.

 

"Thank you, High Inquisitor Umbridge," Pansy gushed. "As many of you know, I'm Pansy Parkinson. Head of Ministry Affairs, Hand of the Minister. But beyond titles, I want the best for both the Ministry and all of its employees, including Mr. Weasley."

 

Hermione scoffed.

 

"And because you want the best for him, you will give an honest account of what happened on the night of the crime?"

 

Pansy nodded. "Of course, High Inquisitor." With perfect posture, she continued. "As we all know, June twentieth was the annual gala in honor of our Minister's date of inauguration. To spare you all the unnecessary details, it was nearly eight o' clock and we had already done quite a lot of imbibing when the cake was finally being cut. Anybody that's worked here at the Ministry knows that our talented elves and squibs make the most divine white cake, so I was a little troubled when I noticed that Mr. Weasley didn't join us to eat it."

 

"You asked him to come get a piece, though, didn't you?" interrupted Umbridge. "Please correct me if I'm misremembering."

 

"No, High Inquisitor. Your memory serves you well. I did call to him, as I wouldn't want anyone to miss out on the entire staff's most favorite treat. On that note, let's hear it for the help's famous white cake, yes?"

 

Several audience members clapped. Hermione wanted to vomit.

 

"You are quite right about the cake, Miss Parkinson. It is scrumptiousbut let's get back to Mr. Weasley. Did he come along as you asked him to?"

 

"He said he would be just a moment, as he was feeling a bit hazy from the drink," Pansy explained. "I offered to get him a member of the healing staff, and he agreed, so I left him there by the fountain as I searched for Betsy Thornibrickle or Errus Hoffing. Unfortunately, by the time I came back with Betsy, Mr. Weasley was gone."

 

"And how much time had passed? Minutes? Hours?"

 

"I don't know precisely," Pansy replied. "Ten minutes, perhaps? It wasn't terribly long, but it was long enough for him to commit the crimes in the Atrium."

 

"So you're positive that he left the room? He wasn't just . . . somewhere else? By the buffet, maybe?"

 

"I'm positive that he left," Pansy said, dramatically, reaffirming Hermione's suspicion that her part was scripted. "I looked everywhere. He didn't come back either. Honestly, I was a little worried about him."

 

"He didn't come back," Umbridge emphasized to the audience. "Thank you, Miss Parkinson. I think that will be all."

 

Even though Umbridge was motioning at Pansy, she was addressing the audience.

 

As Pansy sauntered back to her seat, murmurs whirred and members of the Wizengamot shook their heads. Rita Skeeter didn't even bother cleaning up her acid green robes; instead, she wrote in a fury.

 

"The Wizengamot will now discuss this case." Rodolphus boomed. "Remain seated while we do."

 

Hermione watched her memory break the charm with an anxious jiggle of her leg. She remembered how she felt as the Wizengamot shuffled out back then. She remembered that deep down, she knew they'd already made a decision.

 

They were gone for a mere five minutes.

 

"Ahem! AHEM! The Wizengamot"

 

But before Umbridge could finish her thought, she was interrupted by the voice of someone much louder.

 

"Granger! GRANGER!"

 

Suddenly, Hermione was being pulled violently from her own memory. In the distance, she heard Umbridge say, ". . . and unlawful entrance to the Department of Mysteries . . . to capital punishment . . ."

 

Alas, she didn't hear the rest.

 

Into the present she spiraled, and it was as she reentered her body that she felt metal around her wrists.



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