Disclaimer: All Rowling, all the time. Except when it's not. Then it's mine.

And A/N: Well... at least it didn't take me a year this time. Now it only took me five months. Improvement! Yay!

Truthfully, though, I am planning on becoming more consistent with this series. While I have college on my plate now, I also don't have any other fanfiction stories interfering with the time I could be working on this one. And I really, really want to finish this one, so. It has become my top priority and that should become apparent with the more I post. Really. It should.

As for this chapter in particular, I introduce yet again a new, but familiar character who is going to become quickly important mainly due to the fact that he's hot. *grins* There's also some Ministry suspicon, Malfoy finally letting us know what the hell happened on the morning of October seventh, and possibly someone attacking Hermione in her flat. You never know.

IF THERE ARE ANY ERRORS IN CONSISTENCY, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. For example, as a wonderful reviewer pointed out to me earlier, I said that Besteria was homeschooled in one chapter only to say she was a Durmstrang student in another. As it is, she's officially been turned into a Durmstrang graduate, but... if there's anything else like that, please tell me. With these breaks between updating, sometimes I lose the finer details, but I will happily go back and fix or make up for them. Thank you!

Feedback, as always, is welcomed heartily. If you have any theories on what could happen next, feel free to share as well. We're all Nancy Drews here! Or at least we are if we're blond. Which, sadly, I'm not. Damn.



Believe me, Natalie, listen Natalie
This is your last chance...
-Believe Me Natalie, The Killers

Believe Me - October Sixteenth

The sound of the Minister's voice flooded Hermione's flat.

"We are all aware that in desperate times, desperate measures must be taken," Scrimgeour recited through the radio that sat on her nightstand. "But with what we face now, in this moment of tragedy, we must take clear and concise steps towards justice. We must remain vigilant in this search for the truth. The murders of Division One Aurors Sullivan Rayner and Devon Besteria will be solved and their perpetrator will be rightfully dealt with."

Hermione sighed and tugged on a sweater. Ever since broadcasting Malfoy's case the day before, Minister Scrimgeour had been a roll, emphasized with redundancy and assurances of redemption. Somewhere in the Ministry, Hermione knew, Percy was standing behind him all the while, whispering the rise in popularity numbers the more Scrimgeour talked to the public. That was the only explanation for why the man kept showing up on her radio.

"The accused, as we all know," Scrimgeour went on, voice grave, "is Draco Malfoy. The last of his family, the name Malfoy was tarnished from the start of the First War and its dark reign only continues with him. As of now, he is in custody for the crime and..." There was a significant pause here. "While I am aware, my fellow people, that we would all sleep easier at night if this wizard was behind bars in Azkaban permanently, we must allow the evidence to decide. And if it decides Draco Malfoy is guilty, the only choice left then is his punishment..."

Tying her hair up, Hermione peered at the radio and considered seriously turning the damn thing off. It was a thought she had been entertaining all morning, but at the same time... it was enticing, listening to Scrimgeour. For one thing, it was his verbal skills that had made him so popular in office to begin with, it being something about the way he wove his words together that revealed him to be such a formidable opponent or, in his case, a sure leader.

For another, it was what he said now, hitting so close to home, that kept Hermione intrigued.

"We will rise against this atrocity," Scrimgeour said. "Together, as one, myself and Division Three Auror Hermione Granger leading the way, our time of promised peace will return to us come November seventh and we shall make sure it stays that way."

Ironically, she realized, the more he talked of assurance and promises, the more she was found herself not believing a damn word he said.

Relenting, she slipped on a necklace -- the gold one Ron had given her two Christmases ago -- and then flicked her wrist. With a smooth click, the radio was shut off and Scrimgeour's voice was muted, her flat ebbing away into the silence of the morning. Though even with him gone, his echo remained; Hermione heard it in her head even as she moved out of her bedroom, passing the wall dedicated to the timeline of October seventh, and towards the door. Magic words popped up like road signs. They whispered back and forth before fading into the next set as she kept moving forward.

Desperate, he said. Tragedy. Hermione grabbed her knapsack, collecting her notes on the case. Justice. Truth. Accused. Evidence. Guilty. Punishment. She checked to make sure she had an apple and the latest Daily Prophet before pulling on her jacket. Atrocity. Together. Peace. Then she opened her door and prepared to step out.

But before she left, Hermione felt the inside lining of her jacket pocket. The long, elongated shape of her wand brushed her fingers from beneath the thin fabric and another little voice appeared at the back of her mind.

Something told her she was going to need it that day.


On the morning of October seventh, Draco Malfoy was framed.

"Tell me again," Hermione said, sitting across from him. "One more time." She brought out her notes, already committed to everything he had relayed to her, and held her pen ready for any changes. "Just to be sure."

Malfoy arched an eyebrow. "Checking my story for inconsistencies, Granger?"

And because it was already the middle of October and she was at a point where she was questioning her own government, Hermione merely nodded her head. "Yes."

There was a small pause in the interrogation room before Hermione glanced up and noticed Malfoy was smirking at her. Then he shrugged, almost amused by her, and told the tale again.

On the morning of October seventh, Malfoy entered the alleyway located behind Borgin and Burke's. Almost immediately, he was confronted by Rayner and Besteria. After having already encountered them previously, their reasoning as to why they were there was already known-- they wanted him to join their route down south to what was formerly known as Death Eater headquarters and be a part of the Reunion that would allegedly bring their Master back to life. It was at his Aunt Bellatrix's urging that Rayner and Besteria invite Malfoy along and neither of them wanted to go without him.

Malfoy, however, declined, like he had already done before. He ignored Rayner's following comments of cowardice and Besteria's attempts to make him reconsider. Then, after taking only two steps to move around them and enter the back of the shop, everything went dark. Malfoy was knocked to the ground, kicked against the wall, and proceeded to swing in and out of consciousness. He faintly recalled hearing the commotion, the shouts of spells and the painful warmth against his skin when the Killing Curse was cast. When he finally came to, able to see again, Malfoy was arrested by three Aurors, a camera going off in his face while Scrimgeour stood off to the side. Rayner and Besteria's lifeless, bloodied bodies also lay on the ground.

"What time did you enter the alleyway?" Hermione asked.

A wrinkle of thought folded into smooth, pale lines on Malfoy's forehead. "About 9:30 in the morning."

"What time did Rayner and Besteria confront you?"

"Only about three minutes later." He shrugged. "9:33, I suppose."

"What time were you blinded and knocked to the ground?"

Again, Malfoy shrugged, growing impatient. Still, he replied, "Just minutes after that. 9:37, if you'd like."

"Do you know what time it was when you came to?"

He shook his head. But the Minister and Skeeter were already there, judging by the photographer, so Hermione knew that it must've been around 10:30.

"Did you recognize the Aurors apprehending you?"

"No," Malfoy said, shaking his head once more. "I was still rather nonplussed."

Nodding, Hermione scribbled this all down. She bit on the tip-end of her pen when reaching a pause in her questions, scanning over everything she had written and rewritten about the morning. Then she asked, "Did you see Percy at the scene?"

Malfoy scoffed. "Bloody hell, if there had been a Weasley there, I would've surely noticed it." He smirked and leaned back in his seat, shaking his head for another time. "No. All I saw was your Minister."

Another silence seized the interrogation room. Hermione penned at her notes, forcing herself to memorize the details. Though it was still just Malfoy's account, he had been the one to give her the words and, in comparison to Scrimgeour's voice on the radio, she was more willing to believe him all the same. It wasn't far-fetched or doubtful, yet still continued to be shrouded in unknown. Not to mention, on a personal level, Hermione had no idea what to make of the whole thing...

Not that it was her job to have an opinion on it. Simply her job to ask the questions.

Hermione chewed on that thought for a second longer before dropping the notepad back to the tabletop. "And tell me this again," she said, rubbing her forehead. "The last mission appointed by the Ministry was for Rayner and Besteria to track Lestrange. Which they did, but instead of returning to the Ministry with their findings, they..."

"Stayed with my aunt, yes," Malfoy finished. He rolled his eyes. "Aunt Bellatrix, I gather, is as much of a leader in what remains of the Death Eaters as the group can get without getting too bloodthirsty. They probably reported to her on any other drifters they might've found before it was agreed that the time for their Reunion--" And the blond rolled his eyes again. "--was close."

"So Rayner and Besteria decide not to go back to the Ministry, instead keeping with their true colors of Death Eaters..." She tilted her head. "Except?"

"My aunt wants me." And at the mere thought, a white sheet of disgust fell down Malfoy's face. He shifted in his chair and shrugged stiffly. "She knows I'm alive and free and walking around the streets of England-- or was, as it is." He tried to smirk, but the gesture looked pained. "And-- I don't know, being the last of her family that is living and sane probably warranted some idea in her head that says she owns me. So she sent Rayner and Besteria back here, one last time, to find and bring me to her. Which, clearly, was unsuccessful and so... here we are."

Hermione transcribed each word, even how uncomfortable Malfoy seemed to be. It wasn't often the former Slytherin was, after all, so she reasoned it deserved to be noted.

"And..." She hesitated, finding herself trekking in black waters before realizing that she was far beyond being afraid of the dark. "How many times did Rayner and Besteria try to convince you before the morning of October seventh?"

Though perhaps it was her reluctance that caused Malfoy to raise his eyebrow again. "Is that really relevant?"

No, said a voice in her head. "Yes," was what flew out of her mouth.

Malfoy studied her for a moment and then relaxed by a degree. "Only once," he said. "The night when Devon came to my flat." He chuckled a bit emptily. "Smart move, too. Rayner and I never got along."

But Hermione moved right past his comment, a knot of some sort tightening in her gut. She wrote down the last of his words and sighed quietly at her work. She knew this point would come eventually-- that drawn line that would remind her, quite bluntly, what it was that she was doing, what she was hearing, what she was actually putting to paper. Everything in the past week was reduced to a lie and now she was sitting there, facing what a horrible feeling in her stomach said was the truth. What Hermione didn't know now, though, was what the hell she was supposed to do about it.

Hermione was stranded in no-man's land; behind her was the safe, placating waters of the Ministry while in front of her was the guarded Malfoy, stuck behind bars with an unfair chord. The next step she took would be a big one, but... who was she to decide which way to go? Who was she to know what to believe?

"Do you believe me?"

Hermione snapped out of her thoughts. Her gaze refocused on Malfoy, blue eyes intensely resting on her. "What?"

Withdrawn of either sarcasm or defeat, something bristled in the air when Malfoy straightened in his chair and leaned forward. The table that sat between them did not feel like so much then, pressing his palms against its top. "You're here again, Granger," he said. "And you're asking me again and you're writing all of it down again. So does that mean that you believe me?"

"Believe what?" Hermione's throat felt raw with the words. "That you were framed by the Ministry? That you didn't kill Rayner and Besteria? That they were, in fact, Death Eaters all along?" By the time she took breath, her voice was too enflamed to add, Or that I have absolutely no hope of proving any of this in a sane court?

Malfoy flinched, almost hearing the silent inquiry anyway. "All of it."

"Why would you ask me that?"

A flicker of impatience drew back into Malfoy's gaze and Hermione almost felt better once seeing it. "Well, I'm merely going by your initial bollocks, Granger," he remarked. "For one month, you're the only person I have who is willing to listen. If that's the case, then, wouldn't it be better to know that you believe in what you hear?"

His words from just days before slapped Hermione's memory. I'm not afraid of telling you the truth, Granger, he had said. I simply know that you won't believe me.

Then rushed in the sound of Scrimgeour, playing like he did on the radio. We will rise against this atrocity. Together, as one, myself and Division Three Auror Hermione Granger leading the way, our time of promised peace will return to us come November seventh and we shall make sure it stays that way.

Two voices coming at her from either end. Who was she to believe in only one of them?

Her silence was enough to push Malfoy off the edge of what was left of his tolerance. He scoffed, accusing, regaining her attention by the glare of his blue eyes. "You don't believe a damn word I say, do you?"

Hermione gritted a sigh. "It does not matter what I believe," she said, mechanical. "You seem to be the only one who knows the truth, who is willing to tell it. That is what matters."

"Oh, for Merlin's sake." Malfoy's upper lip flinched into a snarl and Hermione was surprised to find that she recoiled at its presence. "For once in your life, Granger, do you think you could just say something without making it sound like you're reading from a bloody textbook?"

And then her frustration hit a new height, one that had her feeling like she was being strangled. Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose in order to stop herself from suddenly screaming. "You know what, Malfoy?" She looked at him. "I'm pretty much on the brink of no longer trusting my own government, going so far as to accuse them of a serious crime, and it's all thanks to the bloke who once made me cry back in Hogwarts because he called me a Mudblood. Call me naive, but all of this is not sitting with me rather well at the moment, and I don't know if or when it will be, so could you, for once in your life, stop being an arse for a second and just let me do my job? Stop asking me what or what I don't believe in, only to get angry when I honestly don't know. Right now, I don't know anything except that I want to know the truth. And, when it comes to the truth, what I believe in does not matter."

As soon as the words were out, she looked back down at her notes. She did not give Malfoy another moment to respond or even to react -- let alone any time for her neck to convince her that there were two hands around it. She picked up her pen and asked, "Who was the last person you saw before being confronted by Rayner and Besteria?"

But there was a silence on his end that lasted longer than expected, Hermione slowly glancing back up at him. "I met an old friend in Knockturn Alley, at the back of a bar just down the street from Borgin and Burke's," Malfoy replied, vague. "They're in the bodyguard business these days and... having already been approached once on the matter of my aunt wanting me, I knew it was just a matter of time before it happened again. So I went to make a request for his services."

"Who?" Though Hermione already had an idea of the name, she needed to hear him say it. "Who was it, Malfoy?"

Malfoy cocked his head. His lips twitched up into what Hermione could only call a ghost of a smirk. "Blaise Zabini."

Plot twist. Raising an eyebrow at the familiarity, Hermione managed to bite down on every other curiosity running through her brain in order to ask, "And at what time was this meeting?"

"Nine in the morning," he said. He chuckled dryly. "Just a half hour before..."

Hermione wrote down the information, pausing when she reached the end as she was not too sure how to weigh his words. Usually when someone drifted off from a sentence, it was with despondence or reminiscence -- with Malfoy, though, he seemed to be dripping with finality even while without closure. It wasn't anything Hermione could properly respond to.

After a moment, she nodded and closed her notepad, gathering her stuff and standing from her seat. "All right," she said, pulling the strap of her knapsack onto her shoulder. "I'm off to pay him a visit then."

Malfoy blinked, surprised. "What? No!" He watched as she met the exit. "Granger, don't bloody--"

"He was the last person you saw before everything happened," Hermione interrupted firmly. She fished into her bag, pulling out a red apple and the Daily Prophet, and handed each to him. "He might have something to say on the matter."

Grudgingly, Malfoy took the items from her hands. "Fine," he muttered. "Just try not to arrest him."

With a snort, Hermione knocked on the steel door and waited the two seconds it took for Gus the guard to open it for her. She had one foot over the threshold when Malfoy's voice stopped her.

"And you're wrong, you know."

And because it was not often someone said that to her, Hermione looked at him. "What?"

"It does matter what you believe, Granger." Malfoy turned his head and met her gaze. "It matters to me."


There was a stretch of industrialization beyond Knockturn Alley. Complete with abandoned warehouses and decaying factories, it belonged to those who roamed the dark Knockturn. Suspicious shop owners and customers alike set up in the rotting buildings, along with the potential criminal here and there. It was generally known as a place to lay low but still stay close to home.

It also held Blaise Zabini's last known location.

Walking down the cobblestone street, Hermione knew she was not alone in the dusk even though she saw no one else around. Eyes watched her as she steered quietly to a small warehouse just a few steps outside of Knockturn; she could've worn all black and gray and still she would've stood out, so Hermione merely tightened her trench coat against the bristling wind and trudged on. Her wand remained tucked in her inside pocket. She lined it with the tip of her finger as she came upon the building.

A smooth ramp led up to the entrance -- two steel doors with a broken handle -- while the face of the home was strewn with torn rags and cracked glass. A single lamp flickered above Hermione as she made her way to the door and she glanced up at it, feeling all too much like she was in a black-and-white movie of some sort. Godric knew she was going back in time again, seeing another old classmate of hers. Another Slytherin, no less.

She wondered if Blaise would be as dramatically different as Malfoy had been when she brought her first up to the door and pounded twice.

There was a rustle of movement from inside. Gaining again the sudden sense that she was being watched, Hermione smiled wryly at no one and held up both her hands. "I come in peace."

A moment came and went. Then the door opened and Blaise came into full view. He leaned against the frame, crossing his arms over his bare chest as a pair of sweat pants hung casually on his hipbones. Familiar dark eyes belonging to the Spanish twenty-five year old swept over her before a grin emerged.

"Hermione Granger, as I live and breathe and then some." He exchanged a glance between her two raised hands. "Are you here to arrest me?"

Hermione dropped her arms. "Are you suggesting that you've done something illegal?"

"Who? Me?" Blaise lightly scoffed. "You know me better than that."

Blaise Zabini was, in fact, very illegal to begin with. Though many Slytherins lost the limelight when Malfoy left Hogwarts at the end of sixth year (proving that he had been the head of the snake after all, like Ron had always insisted), Blaise was still a popular name up through graduation. Joining the Order and training to be an Auror, Hermione would come across him and his family every now and then, spurned with the common curiosity back then of whether or not they were affiliated with the Dark Lord.

But when the Final Battle came, Blaise and his born-bridal mother weren't involved. In fact, from what Hermione read when searching for his whereabouts, he hadn't even been in the country at the time. And Ms. Zabini was currently on her eleventh husband somewhere in Cancun.

That, however, did not make Blaise innocent. Hermione didn't know when he decided to become a hired mercenary, but he had certainly been cited numerous times for suspicious behavior tied into his chosen profession since returning to England. While none of the accusations ever held up enough to make an arrest, the Ministry still kept watch, just to be sure.

It was enough to explain, in case she ever had to, why she was standing in front of the half-naked man right then, and also little enough to let Hermione know that she could go to him.

She rolled her eyes. "You're still being tracked, Blaise. The fact that you make more money in a week than I will in a year is still something that causes eyebrows to shoot up in the Ministry. Life is still unfair in that respect and you still suck." Then she took a breath and lowered her voice. "But, that's not why I'm here."

Blaise chuckled. "I had a feeling I'd be seeing you, what with you being famous on the radio now... though I never reckoned you'd venture into my territory."

"What were you expecting?" Hermione returned. "Some poorly disguised Aurors following you into Knockturn one day, seizing you as you purchased some latest illegal product, reading your rights and then dragging your arse back to the Ministry for interrogation, despite the issue we seem to have when it comes to keeping you there?"

He took a pause of consideration before nodding politely. "Something like that, yes."

Hermione shrugged. "Hate to disappoint, but I'm working alone on this."

"So what do you need me for?"

"You were the last person to see Malfoy before he allegedly murdered Rayner and Besteria," she said. "That makes you kind of important in my investigation right now."

"What would you like to know?"

Much to her surprise, something other than inquiries about their breakfast spent together rose into Hermione's mouth. It was like her curiosity took advantage of her agenda, spinning it in a way that changed, quite rapidly, everything. "Did you know Sullivan Rayner or Devon Besteria?"

The smile Blaise had been wearing fell like a light switch being flicked off. "Sure," he said. "Knew of them, at least."

"Never personally?" Hermione asked, unable to stop herself. "You were never introduced? By Malfoy? By someone else?"

It was a simple enough question to shut the whole thing down. Lips tightening into a straight line, Blaise shook his head, eyes almost growing darker as they stared right past her. "It's often not in a government official's best interests to fraternize socially with those considered suspicious. Can't say I really enjoy it myself either."

Before Hermione could open her mouth again, he dropped his arms from his chest and took an inch back, one hand finding the door. "Speaking of which, as much as I would love to be important to you, it's really also not in your best interests to talk to me about anything other than my meeting with Malfoy that morning, all details of which can be given by him. Now, I wouldn't want you to getting in trouble with your friendly, neighborhood Scrimgeour, so if you'll excuse me--"

He started to close the door on her and Hermione felt her breath catch her in throat. There was a split-second decision to be made and she took it without another thought. Whether that pushed her in the direction of believing Malfoy or her Ministry, she would not admit until much, much later.

She brought her fist up again and held the door open. Pulling right up into Blaise's face, she caught his gaze and hissed, "Rayner and Besteria were also undercover Death Eaters. Malfoy knows it, I know it, and I'm pretty sure that Scrimgeour knows it. Now if you know it as well, then let me in. But if you don't, I was never here."

Silence came in sharp and heavy. Blaise's eyes were wide for a breath of a second and then he grinned again-- but it was strained and cracked with hesitance. "You definitely have been spending time with Malfoy lately," he remarked. "And so what do you need me for, Hermione?"

"I may be working alone on this one," Hermione said. "But that doesn't mean I couldn't use your help."

This time, it was Blaise's turn to make a split-second decision. It lasted a second and then he sighed, pulling the door back open. "Blimey," he muttered. "I always knew one day a woman would come and do this to my life. Merlin knows I never thought it was going to be you."

He stepped back and gestured for her to enter. "Believe me," Hermione said as she followed him in, door shutting behind her. "Neither did I."


"On the morning of October seventh, Draco Malfoy was framed."

A glass of whiskey to his lips, Blaise paused before he took a sip. "Yeah," he said, leaning against the steel platform that served as his kitchen table. "I know."

As though a popped balloon, Hermione felt all the air rush out of her. She let her knapsack slip from her shoulder, clanging against the cool floor, dull crash wrinkling throughout the dark home. Broken factory windows toyed with what was left of the day, shadows reaching in and stretching along the floors, touching her toes and taunting her with ghosts. If she had any sense, she would've sat down, but as it were, Hermione was suddenly zapped back to life.

Something that, she noticed, had been happening a lot when around Slytherins.

"Okay-- you-- what do-- I--" Closing her eyes, Hermione blindly reached down and fumbled with her bag. She pulled out her notepad and swallowed hard. So many things were running through her head, she had no idea where to start... "Give me a moment."

When she looked again, Blaise was grinning against the brim of his drink. "You haven't changed."

"Yes, because you knew me so well back in Hogwarts to take note of that." The sarcasm, while unexpected, was strangely comforting, and Hermione cleared her throat. She flipped open her notepad and found the words to bring her voice back. "Tell me about Rayner and Besteria."

"Other than... what Malfoy told you?" Blaise shrugged, bronze shoulders rippling slowly upward. "Both attended Durmstrang, finished hellishly early. Summer before our sixth year, they joined up with the Ministry to train as Aurors. By the time we were graduating, they were busy getting awarded for being the youngest Division Ones." He took another swig from his whiskey, adding on his exhale, "Oh, and they were Death Eaters."

Hermione snapped more to attention than she already was. Her skin seemed to buzz at the very statement. "How do you know?"

He shrugged again. "Well, how did anyone know back then?"

"Neither of them had Dark Marks," Hermione inserted. "They would've never made it through training if they had."

With a scoff, Blaise set his drink down on the table. "You come to me with knowledge only to reveal naivety," he muttered, shaking his head. "First of all, there are so many ways to conceal the Dark Mark, the list would make you dizzy. Secondly, I wasn't referring to the Dark Mark when I asked you how anyone knew back then... because honestly, when it came to Rayner and Besteria and where their allegiance lied, no one knew back then."

Confusion swept over Hermione like a chill brought on from the outdoors. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, Malfoy didn't share everything with you, eh?" Amusement brewed beneath his tone, as though he were enjoying having the upperhand. Slytherins. "Well, that's understandable. Poor bloke's cursed with that name of his and all he's been trying to do for these past years is get out from under it, including everything that went with it. Not to mention, being in love with Devon and all certainly warrants his judgment to be a bit clouded..."

If Hermione's knapsack hadn't already been on the floor, she would've dropped it then. "I-In love?" She had not known it was possible. "He was in love with Besteria?"

Even in the dimming light, she could see Blaise's eyes twinkle wickedly. "Jealous?"

Rather than take the bait, contrary as it were -- hadn't it just been two days ago that Hermione was trying to convince Delilah that she wasn't dating Malfoy? -- Hermione rolled her eyes and turned back to her notepad. "What do you mean that no one knew where their allegiance was?"

"Exactly that." Blaise lifted his glass back up and took a tepid sip. "I know you, being the golden girl that you've always been, may find this hard to believe, but sifting out Death Eaters wasn't always easy as the Aurors who've killed them have claimed. Sure, at Hogwarts, it was easy to tell the bad eggs from the good thanks to our House divisions-- as redundant as it is, yes, nearly all Slytherins were up for the Dark Lord's reign. But as to those outside of school, of our Pureblood society? Even outside of England? You never really knew."


Probably in anticipation of that, Blaise drew in a long swallow of his whiskey. "Rayner and Besteria were Durmstrang students, out of our league. They were Purebloods, sure, but they were... superior. Better than the aspiring Slytherin who was hoping Daddy would put in a good word." He shook his head, clearly annoyed. "You wouldn't think that being a part of a murderous cult in search of world domination would be based so much upon social status, but that certainly was how it came across. Everyone wanted to be in the Master's favor... and Rayner and Besteria quickly earned it the summer before our sixth year."

Hermione paused in her hurried writing, glancing up. "Just after they had graduated?"

"Mhm." Blaise stirred his glass, dipping one finger in to touch an ice cube. "It happened like it had when Voldemort was just coming into power and he noticed, what... Bellatrix Lestrange from afar, the way Fenrir Greyback had that special thing about him? The Dark Lord was interested and the two came highly recommended. For those first two months, the clan was all in a fuss over their latest recruits. Infatuated, if you will."

"But then?"

He hesitated. "Then they joined the Ministry. They started to train as Aurors. They started to gain the attention from the good guys." He sighed and drew his hand away from his drink, opting instead to down the rest in one gulp. When he returned for air, he added, "And no one really knew what the fuck had exactly happened to bring all that on."

Hermione looked up again, brows knitted together with confusion. "They were good guys?" she echoed. "But... they were bad guys?"

Or maybe they weren't bad guys after all. The hope that rose in Hermione's chest at the thought was far too superficial than she was comfortable with, and it was quickly all dissolved away by a harsh snort from Blaise. "Rayner and Besteria were Death Eaters, Hermione," he said again. "They were also Aurors."

"But--" All sense of argument faded before it had even arrived by the look on Blaise's face. She nodded, a little defeated. "No one knew where their allegiance lied."

"Precisely." Blaise shrugged. "One minute, they're about to become the Master's newest recruits. The next, they're making Division One Aurors at a phenomenal age. After that, they're feeding Death Eaters critical information, assisting in getting more guys into the Ministry, schools, hospitals. Then they're fighting against Lord Voldemort in the Final Battle." He must've noticed the disparaging feeling rising into Hermione's eyes, as he added, "That was always the case with undercover work, of course. But..."

His trailing off did nothing to help her. "But what?"

"It always seemed a little deeper when it came to those two," Blaise admitted, voice low. "They were loved by the Ministry, but they were trusted by the Dark Lord. Sounds good to whoever they're actually working for, but... sounds suicidal as well."

Hermione felt cold again. It was as though his words had given her goosebumps. "They didn't commit suicide, however," she carefully said. "They were murdered. Whether it was because they were caught before they were ready or just stumbled upon after they were already out, I don't know. But, from what he's told me, Malfoy was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Thoughtfully, Blaise nodded. "True. But not quite." He pointed a finger at her. "He was framed. There was some unseen orchestration involved in that morning that you're trying so hard to dig up."

Still unnerved, Hermione dismissed his comment with a shake of her head. "Speaking of which," she said, steering the conversation in a different direction. "What were you doing, Blaise, on the morning of October seventh?"

Blaise dropped his hand, only to cross his arms over his chest. It was a defensive maneuver coordinated quite casually that seemed to be a favorite of his-- Hermione took note of this for future reference. "The way you word that inquiry," he soon remarked, "makes it almost sound like you see me as a suspect?"

Hermione shrugged. "It's plausible. You were the last to see Malfoy before his arrest."

"Correction." He lifted his chin. "Rayner and Besteria were the last to see him."

"Yes, but them being dead makes it fall back to you, I'm afraid."

Quietly, Blaise scoffed. Then he relinquished the hold on his chest and even took a step towards her, head slightly tilted to the side. "I didn't kill Sullivan and Devon only to pin it on Malfoy, if that's what you're wondering."

Admittedly, it was interesting that he referred to the victims by their first names, yet not his old Housemate. Also admittedly, the way a certain blade of light from outside fell on the man when he came an inch closer to her, casting a golden hue on his bare flesh and each muscle that pulsed beneath it, was almost enough for Hermione to declare him innocent forever and always. She cleared her throat and forced her gaze to stay with his.

"That's funny," she said, cocking her head too. "Because I was only wondering what you were doing that morning."

He was quiet for a moment before chuckling. "All right. I can entertain." He tipped his head back, collecting his thoughts, and said, "I met Malfoy in a bar in Knockturn Alley at about nine. We had crossed paths a few times since the both of us returned to the country, but this was the first time we had actually sat down and talked. We exchanged bland pleasantries before he told me that he was being threatened by his aunt. He asked if I could assist him if and when the situation turned violent."

And violent it indeed turned into. Hermione transcribed his words, underlining specifically the hour they had met. Nine in the morning -- only thirty minutes before Malfoy would walk into the alleyway behind Borgin and Burke's and run into his current fate. It confirmed what he had already told her, but still... some bodyguard Blaise had turned out to be...


"Did you accept?" She knew that even asking the question could elicit him shutting down on her again. After all, she was still with the Ministry at the end of the day and he was still a bloody mercenary who continued to be illegal and yet make more money than her. Damn Slytherins.

But Blaise was quiet for what felt like eternity. Either the shadows drawn in through the windows were playing more tricks or he was spending a great deal of time studying Hermione, in a fashion that she was not too familiar with. Malfoy often examined her, but usually it was out of derision or, in some moments, awed curiosity-- not to mention, she could possibly be the last decent female he could see for a very long time. How Blaise kept his gaze trained on her, though, was alarming. The feeling she gained reminded her somewhat of when she had decided, watching Malfoy from across a table, that she was going to take his case head on, in spite of who he was.

Perhaps she was something similar to Blaise, the man throwing one glance over his shoulder to where he had left his whiskey glass on the table before speaking again. "In order for me to answer that question, I have to explain a little more than I ever have with someone who has license to arrest me." He looked at her again with intensity and offered nothing more.

Hermione felt a little like laughing. "Was that your way of asking me to keep your secret?"

Considering this, Blaise nodded. "Sure."

"God damn Slytherins..." She tugged her fingers through her hair and shrugged. "I have to write down what you say, but I'm only interested in what is pertinent to this murder case. How's that?"

If there was any lasting reluctance on his part, Blaise certainly didn't show it. "Works for me," he said and grinned, as though excited to share his bad self with a girl. "I'm a hired mercenary. I specialize in tracking people who don't often want to be found and keeping people safe from those tracking them. I've dabbled in assassinations, but I've never been really up with the contract killer stuff. Though I will appropriately defend myself and my client if necessary."

It certainly was a testament to something that his confession barely sparked an ounce of concern in Hermione, let alone some need to rush to the Ministry and tell on him. She blamed it on Malfoy, not to mention some of the darker times she had spent with Ron and Harry.

"So Malfoy came to you to ask for your services," Hermione supplied. "He requested that... you protect him from his aunt?"

Blaise seemed to wince at the quiet insult against masculinity. "Not exactly," he said. "He requested that I keep tabs on his Aunt Bellatrix, watch to see if she were planning something that involved him... and that, if she came anywhere close to where he was, I intervene and get him the hell out of there."

"Oh." Hermione wrote down his words, returning to what she had thought before-- some bodyguard he had turned out to be. "So you did accept his request for your services?"

"Yes... and no." When he didn't immediately add anything else, Hermione shot him an impatient look. "When it comes to that morning in the bar, all I gave him was the suggestion that he quietly leave the country and as soon as possible."

"So you didn't accept?" When he said nothing again, she had to shake her head, incredulous. "Whatever happened to Slytherin loyalty? It wasn't always confined in my House, if you remember."

Instead of answering her, Blaise smirked. "You're irritated that I didn't attach myself to the bloke? That I didn't jump at the opportunity to go down in flames with the poor bastard like you've gone and done?"

Hermione sighed, glaring at him. "Why did you say no?"

Sarcasm withdrawn, Blaise shrugged a little meekly. "That's the thing," he said quietly. "I didn't say no. I accepted. I agreed to help him, free of charge even, and I've never done that. But... by the time I was ready to put things to paper, he changed his mind. He requested and then rescinded all in the span of... nearly thirty minutes, I suppose. Seeing as how no contract had been made, there wasn't anything I could do about it. He had gone before I could even ask him what had happened."

It was as though he was telling her about how Rayner and Besteria were potential Death Eaters one minute and then training to be Aurors the next. Two sides of the coin that was flipped far too quickly for anyone to see. "He went for you for help and then took it back?"

"Sounds exactly like him, doesn't it?" Blaise chuckled wryly. "Damn Malfoy... never could get over his bloody pride, no matter what form it was in."

Hermione frowned, finding that she was unnerved again. Malfoy's behavior before the crime certainly wasn't ranked as very important, but it brought on so many questions all the same. She felt like she had been lied to by him again, tricked once more, only the reason this time around was strikingly incomprehensible. Why would he ask for help only to walk away from it?

She shook her head, forcing herself to stay on point. "What happened next? After Malfoy left?"

"Nothing," Blaise said. "I finished my drink, came back here. Come evening time, I find a Prophet on my doorstep with breaking news and spend the next five minutes reading Skeeter's article as I watch him get hauled off to Azkaban."

Hermione wrote this down and quickly felt that there was nothing more she could ask him. Her body felt drained while the rest of her was still charged with information, only more fed now with what he had told her. Anything else she thought up of, though, she could always come back to him with; she knew for sure where he lived now, after all, and holding his so-called secret could possibly grant her a second meeting if need be. Maybe he'd be without a shirt again too.

"Well." Hermione shut her notepad and slipped it back into bag. "I think I'm done for the moment. If there's anything more--"

"I'll be around," Blaise assured, grinning knowingly. Hermione nodded and picked up her knapsack, turning towards the exit when he added, "Could I ask you something, however? Am I allowed even though I'm not the interrogator?"

She turned back to him, pushing the strap further onto her shoulder. "Sure."

"Why did you come to me, Hermione?"

While the words were different, the message was almost the same. Blaise sounded exactly like Malfoy had when asking her if she believed him and the rush of similarity almost made her dizzy.

"You were with Malfoy that morning," Hermione said. "I had to see if you knew anything that could be important."

"Yes, but..." He took a step towards her. "Why did you mention Rayner and Besteria? You may have considered that I would know them with my past correlations, but... you offered up a whole lot on the spot. I'm simply wondering why you chose to give it to me."

Hermione argued with herself for what she thought to be minutes, though it was more like seconds. Honestly, she was starting to grow quite tired. "I had a feeling that you would know what I know, what I wanted to know," she said, voice quiet. "I... had to see if I could share it with someone, anyone. I... had to tell someone."

"That Malfoy was framed? That Rayner and Besteria were Death Eaters?"

Feeling like she was sixteen, Hermione lowered her head and scuffed her toe against the cold floor. "Mhm." She sighed. "I can't... I can't deal with it all on my own. I know I have to, because really... who is going to believe me that is on my side to begin with? Who could possibly help me, yeah? But... I just had to let someone know that I knew. True or not, hopeless or not, I had to talk to someone about it, if not just to assure myself that I'm not completely off my rocker."

"You are completely off your rocker," Blaise remarked, but he wasn't grinning like she expected when Hermione looked back up at him.


"Because, ultimately, you're saying that you can't sleep at night while knowing that an innocent man is being accused of a crime he didn't commit," he said. "You're saying that Malfoy is innocent."

"He may very well be."

"Of this, sure." Blaise peered at her. "But what of the other things he has done in the past? Do they not condemn him just as much?"

An immediate image of her old headmaster Dumbledore came to Hermione's mind. It was enough to silence her for much too long of a moment.

Reproachfully, Blaise shook his head. "Careful, Hermione," he warned. "If your allegiance to what you believe in stays up in the air for too long, you could end up like Rayner and Besteria yourself."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" she demanded, hastily offended.

Just as severe, Blaise snapped, "It means you are trekking into dangerous waters and, while I know you are aware of that, I don't think you understand just how deep it is going to get if you continue."

Hermione flinched, but swallowed hard. "I've been through worse."

"As we all have," Blaise returned. "But this is going to become a bit more than just a fight. Fights back in our day lasted minutes, seconds even. This is going to be drawn out. This is going to last, as soon as you make it loud. Whether you're for or against this, it isn't going to be over with the verdict. There's going to be more that follows after it's done, as opposed to a fight that ends with a dead, murderous bastard." He paused significantly. "And I'm not talking about the one your Potter conquered, either."

A cold sweat swept into the room and Hermione knew that she had overstayed her welcome. Goosebumps again trailing over her skin, she turned back towards the exit, meeting the door. But when her fingers touched the handle, she had to chuckle, a realization coming to her brain.

"Are you, by any chance, in your own weird Slytherin way, offering your services?" She looked at him. "Professionally, I mean."

Blaise grinned. "As a matter of fact, I am. I am an excellent bodyguard, particularly to damsels accusing their government of conspiracy." His smile turned devilish. "I make no promises as to my professional credibility, however."

Hermione snorted. Naturally. Instead of replying, she shook her head and asked, "You said that there was a list of a ways to conceal a Dark Mark. How do you suppose Rayner and Besteria went about it so that their true identities were kept for nearly seven years?"

Blaise shrugged. "Why are you asking me? I'm just an innocent citizen." He bowed his head, still smiling when glancing back up at her. "Besides... I'm not the one with the bodies."


The skies were black by the time Hermione got to St. Mungo's.

Though the rest of the hospital was alive with minor injuries and expecting mothers, the basement was as dark and bone-chilling as ever. Hermione was shivering even before meeting the double doors that led into the morgue, and she wasn't about to try to figure out why. There were more important matters on her mind, after all, no matter how much her body kept fighting to take precedence.

It got a major lead, however, when Hermione went to pull on the doors only for them to not budge. Her face wrinkled in surprise at this phenomenon, staring at the handles as though they had betrayed her some way, before the realization dawned. Of course. It had to be after eleven or so. While St. Mungo's stayed up all night in case of emergency, the coroner wasn't needed through dawn unless absolutely necessary. The morgue was closed.

Hermione dropped her arm, feeling rapidly defeated. "Who knew Jasper had a life outside of this place," she murmured grudgingly. Then she tightened her coat around her and gave into her body's demands to finally return to her flat and try to sleep through the next month.

But her mind was still stubbornly at work by the time she was on her floor. A short stretch of hallway panned from the stairwell that connected the building, including the upper and lower levels that belonged to Harry and Ron. A grand window sat on the opposite end, just a few feet from her door, and she noticed even from the distance that it was cracked opened; usually this would've reminded her more of her two best friends and how they always stressed her to keep the thing locked, but instead Hermione saw it as a sign.

Before entering her flat, she ripped out a page from her notepad and held it against the wall. She brought out her pen again and thought on her words for a moment before picking what was most direct.

Coroner Jasper, she wrote. If you found a mark of any sort on either Rayner and Besteria, contact me immediately. And I'm not talking about something from birth. Auror Hermione.

It was a little risky, but it would certainly get his attention. And Jasper seemed odd enough to enjoy the possibility of a good conspiracy theory.

Hermione folded the note up and charmed it so that it could only be read by the coroner himself. Then she went to the opened window, pushed it out a little more, and whistled for Hedwig; the white owl hung around the building by default, at an age now where she preferred to stay closer to home rather than follow Harry around on his Auror travels around the world.

It took two minutes for the bird to appear, blinking blearily at Hermione. She must've woken the poor thing up. "Sorry, Hedwig, but it's a bit urgent," she apologized, handing her the letter. "Take this to Coroner Jasper. There's only one in this city."

Hedwig hooted dismissively and took flight. She was gone with Hermione's note before she had a chance to reconsider sending the thing at all.

Sighing, Hermione shut the window. She turned to the entrance of her flat and waved her hand, unlocking the door. She pushed it open, a rush of gratefulness meeting her limbs as she did as if thanking her for finally getting home, and that was when she heard the sound of Scrimgeour's voice.

It had been a very long time since Hermione had felt her blood turn to ice. No matter how many times she experienced it, though, it always stopped her pulse in mid-beat.

She stopped dead in her door's threshold. Her entire apartment was black with shadows, the blinds of her windows turned down so that barely any outside city glow streamed through. The only light that spilled in now came from the corridor, casting her out from behind as though a spotlight. Looking down at the floor, Hermione saw her shadow stretch as far as it could go before disappearing into darkness. It was a very foreboding observation.

Then the echo of her Minister's voice rippled through the air again and all of her instincts sharply returned to her.

"We are all aware that in desperate times, desperate measures must be taken," Scrimgeour said. "But with what we face now, in this moment of tragedy, we must take clear and concise steps towards justice. We must remain vigilant in this search for the truth. The murders of Division One Aurors Sullivan Rayner and Devon Besteria will be solved and their perpetrator will be rightfully dealt with."

Hermione recognized the words almost like she had said them herself. Scrimgeour was on her radio again, his broadcast from earlier that day apparently being repeated in case anyone hadn't bothered to listen. Somewhere in the distance of her flat, he spoke again of what she had already heard that morning.

An ounce of relief settled into Hermione's gut until memory jarred her every nerve back to alert. She had turned off her radio before leaving that day. She was sure of it.

She was also sure that someone more than just the voice of her Minister was with her in her flat at the moment.

Carefully, Hermione reached into the inside of her jacket and pulled out her wand. She didn't bother trying her lights-- something in her knew that they wouldn't work, so she instead muttered a near silent, "Lumos," and watched as a soft silver glow appeared from the tip of her wand.

Keeping her door opened in case she had to make a run for it, Hermione took a slow step forward. Her light offered little to see, but it was still enough for her to make out that her place had been ransacked. Pictures and papers were tossed across the floor, blouses and plates littering the ground. Her desk chair was overturned, one of the legs snapped in half, while the cushions of her couch had been ripped. Not one of her belongings seemed to go untouched.

Hermione took another inch forward. Her light caught the far wall and she saw that the timeline she had created for the morning of October seventh had been pulled down. Her notes were somewhere in the mess, most likely, but there was something else... Hermione could see something drawn onto the space where the timeline had sat.

"The accused, as we all know, is Draco Malfoy," Scrimgeour's voice trudged on. "The last of his family, the name Malfoy was tarnished from the start of the First War and its dark reign only continues with him. As of now, he is in custody for the crime and, while I am aware, my fellow people, that we would all sleep easier at night if this wizard was behind bars in Azkaban permanently, we must allow the evidence to decide. And if it decides Draco Malfoy is guilty, the only choice left then is his punishment..."

Hermione took one more step closer and brought her arm up a little higher. Her light fell along the back wall and the letters slowly became clear. They were red and looked freshly made.

Curiosity killed.

"His punishment-- his punishment-- his punishment--" The Minister's words came again and again, and for a second Hermione thought the echo was only in her head. "--punishment-- punishment-- punishment-- punishment--"

Then she turned and dodged just in time to miss someone's shouted, "Sectumsempra!"

She met the floor just as the curse sliced into her back wall, and lost her wand. It rolled away, throwing light and shadow in every direction. One flash caught the figure of her intruder and Hermione lunged. She dug one good hit into their stomach with her left fist, another to their face with her right; something cracked beneath her second punch and they screamed in pain. Blood splattered onto Hermione's skin and the prowler kicked her off of them.

Pain resonated from her gut down to her back as she fell against the ground. The wind was knocked out of her and she could no longer breathe. When she jumped back up, the room was spinning.

Then something large and heavy came straight at her. There was a pain from her head, sharp and deafening, before all went black.

The sound of the Minister's voice carried Hermione into oblivion.

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