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Midnight

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time
- The Dry Salvages, T. S. Eliot


Hermione had one second of pure panic. In it, she saw the end of hope, she saw the world vanish in ashes and carnage.

Then common sense reasserted itself, ironclad in three years of survival. She dragged Draco from the chair, marvelling at how someone who looked all angles and bones apparently had the density of lead. He thudded limply onto the ground: as long as he was upright, gravity would only speed the poison to his heart.

She felt his neck and found the stuttering pulse that beat on her fingers like rain, like something emptying away.

Her mind raced. He had only a handful of moments, and she held them, dice to fling and gamble and pray for luck.

She needed time; she needed to freeze the poison in his blood, to stop it cold-

And then she knew.

Of course she did. It was years ago now, years since Hermione had glanced in a mirror and met eyes as vast as a universe expanding into nothingness, and felt time stop. But she hadn’t forgotten. Not even close.

There were no basilisks in this house, slithering past the skeletons packed into the closets, but she didn’t need one. She’d had three years to pilfer the Hogwarts library, and she had devoured every book on healing she could find. She knew potions and charms, incantations and poultices.

And any healer worth their salt could see at once the use of the basilisk’s stare when reflected, refracted, diminished. It stopped time, stopped breath, blood – and disease. People had spent years trying to replicate it, hunting out the beast in dark and dangerous places. One wizard had succeeded.

There was only one small problem with the spell.

It needed power. If you didn’t have enough magic, it hurt.

And it was the only chance she had.

Hermione raised her wand, and traced the complex, looping lines of the charm. Pressure gathered with each motion, oppressive and ominous as the air beneath a gathering storm. Her wand began to glow, and she inhaled the smell of liquefying varnish.

She could see the rash spreading up his neck...

A last twist of her wrist – she gasped out the incantation.

Magic ripped through the air.

Draco jolted. A stream of orange light poured from her wand to his heart. His limbs stiffened, fingers pointed, feet warped into strange shapes as the spell took hold.

Sudden pain burned up her arm and through her body, an agony so sharp that her legs gave way.

She mustn’t drop her wand...

Hermione gasped for breath that felt like fire in her lungs. Only her determination to keep him alive stopped her from giving in, from folding around the pain and weeping. She could see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing but endure in a body that was boiling blood and shattered bones and muscles cramping into barbed-wire knots-

It vanished. She sagged forward, trembling. The coppery taste of blood flooded her mouth - she’d bitten her tongue. Hermione shakily spat onto the floor. One more bit of blood in Grimmauld Place wouldn’t make much difference.

She couldn’t stand. Every muscle was still quivering with the aftershocks of pain as her body tried to forget and failed miserably. Instead, she crawled over to Draco, the inches between them stretching like miles.

Tentatively, Hermione prodded him. He was stone to her touch, smooth and chill and lifeless. His face was oddly peaceful, like that of a sleeping saint.

As if.

“Never again,” she informed him in a rough voice. “Even to shut you up, it’s not worth it.”

It felt odd not to hear Draco answer, as if she missed being insulted at every opportunity. Hermione rejected the thought she was starting to get used to him.

She’d stopped his death. Now she just had to figure out how to save his life.

X – X – X – X – X


He’s the perfect publicist.

So when the mirror on his wall screeches like an owl, jolting him from sleep, he doesn’t panic. He composes himself, blinking away dreams like a man who has no time for them.

His voice is silk-smooth and calm. “Blaise Zabini.”

Thin grey light is filtering through his curtains. Dawn has broken, and he wonders what else has. That’s the only reason for a call at this hour. Somewhere, there is something that they need him to fix.

“Minister, apologies for waking you.” A voice issues from the mirror, which ripples like the surface of a pond before a departmental logo forms in gold and black. Department of Defense.

“No need,” he says. “I assume you require my expertise.”

“Sir. There’s been an incident. Viktor Krum’s London home – something’s destroyed it.”

The man sounds edgy. There’s more to his story, enough to jitter the official’s nerves and merit a wake-up call.

“It was my understanding that Special Services personally oversaw the defences,” Blaise remarks.

Special Services. It’s such a clever term. He thought it up himself, and used to be pleased by the neat symmetry of it. To the ordinary citizen, it recalls shiny school trophies. It’s full of implications that worm into the mind and eat away suspicion and rebellion. Service. Dedication. A job to aspire to.

A pretty name that lies over the truth, as much cover as the masks its members wear. Even Blaise is not completely sure which Death Eaters fill its ranks. He’s wise enough not to ask.

“They did, sir. But there was an, uh, incursion onto the property. Around thirty minutes ago, a complete structural failure occurred.”

That’s interesting. Especially given the malicious nature of the spells there. “Isn’t the last line of resistance a manticore?”

“It was, sir. It appears to have been killed by the debris.” Suddenly the nerves in the man’s voice are understandable. If the rebels can kill a manticore, they’re clearly stepping up their activities.

“I see. Any press?”

“Not yet. But the Muggles have noticed, sir. Special Services are already dealing with their police.”

“Very well. Send a car to me for eight. If any journalists contact you, tell them I’ll be holding a press conference at-” Blaise glances at the clock and grimaces. Barely gone seven. “Nine thirty. If there are any questions, use the standard responses.”

“Sir.” Relief saturates that one word. Waves of silver swell across the mirror, erasing the logo as the call ends. It’s going to be a long day. He’s already piecing together his statement: he’s preparing to tell them what they want to hear.

There’s nothing Blaise Zabini can’t spin into a palatable truth like Rumplestiltskin spinning gold from straw. He knows how to use his beauty, which is just genetics, good genetics, and he knows how to use his charm, which is just breeding, good breeding.

His mother is so proud. Whichever of her husbands was his father – not that it matters, they all look the same now, mouldering skeletons in a coffin – he served her well.

She never mentions his girlfriends. There’s a conspiracy of silence between them. Just as he learned not to ask where his stepfathers went, she will wear her smug smile when each soft pretty girl vanishes, and speak of other matters. When he brings the next, they sit in her cream and gold parlour. The girls gawp at her diamonds. They stammer and blush as the butler serves them while his mother wears her gaudy jewellery like Cleopatra and doesn’t bother to be polite. She knows she will outlast them.

It makes it easier, not having to lie to her. She couldn’t bear the truth.

In that, she is like so many.

People want to believe him, and he wants to be believed, so it works out well for everyone. He’s made headlines. Blaise of publicity, they like to call him. They’re fond of him. They cling to his words. They wait on his flashing smile.

Because underneath, no matter how well he phrases it, no matter how pretty the speech, they know the truth.

It’s the Dark Lord’s voice that comes from his throat. It’s the Dark Lord’s words he laces with thank you and in the public interest. They cover the papers in pictures of him so that they do not have to fill the pages with another face, with the red red eyes that watch them all.

And they pretend that the reason he always wears those long sleeves is a fashionable affectation.

Even his mother, who speaks of her husbands as ‘lost’, as if she’s put them down somewhere (one in a deep quarry, one in a muddy swamp, he knows that much at least), will not look at his arm.

And here’s the real reason he wears those long sleeves. Not because he’s ashamed of his Dark Mark. Not because he doesn’t want to frighten people. Not because it makes it easier for them to lie to themselves.

But because he wears the truth under his sleeve like other people wear their heart on theirs.

He has no Dark Mark.

X – X – X – X – X


Incurable. The concept stood before her like an unscalable mountain.

But she had frozen the manticore poison in its tracks, so if it could be stopped, it could be healed. She just didn’t know how.

Hermione ground her teeth. She could almost hear Draco in her head, saying something flippant and irritating.

So let me get this straight, Granger. I managed to smuggle you into the most impenetrable prison in the wizarding world right under the Dark Lord’s nose, break into an infamous traitor’s house and save you from death by disgusting mutant, and you can’t even save my life?

“What do you want me to do?” she muttered. “Ask the manticore how to cure its disgusting mutant poison?”

And she thought: yes. Yes, exactly that.

X – X – X – X – X


Hermione locked Grimmauld Place with the strongest charms in her possession. She had nothing on her but her wand and the jewels that Draco had stolen from Viktor’s house.

The city rush hour was in full swing, but in the crowds she looked like any other commuter, if one in a rather large cloak. She squeezed through bodies, fighting back panic at so many people.

Wrestling her conscience, she coaxed a fat wad of notes from a cash point with a spell. She was careful to note the bank’s address, swearing she would pay it all back later. But she couldn’t access her old vault in Gringotts, and her Muggle account cards were with her parents, miles and oceans away.

She dived back into the crowd, purposeful as the city boys striding past with shiny shoes and leather briefcases. The tube station wasn’t far – her ill-gotten gains bought a travelcard, membership to the commuter club that crammed the rattling narrow trains. Hermione leapt off at Oxford Street. This early, the shops were quiet. She walked into one in her shabby robes and walked out looking like any Muggle girl in new jeans and a pink top. A hat covered most of her hair: a pair of cosmetic glasses completed her look.

She moved through London with perfect anonymity. No one looked twice at her. No one even looked once.

When she reached Diagon Alley, she swung her robe back on, the all-important money safe in a purse. The bricks melted away and when she stepped through, Hermione was startled to see it had not changed. Here, at least, a semblance of normal life continued.

She saw no one she recognised, but was careful to keep the brim of her hat low just in case.

At Gringotts, Hermione joined the queue of wizards waiting to change money. No one chattered. No one looked up from their feet. She began to realise the normality was a surface sheen, like a fresh coat of paint over rotten plaster.

The goblin did not so much as glance at her as she handed over half her money. The notes were whipped from her hands and a huge pile of coins pushed back. Hermione left relieved, but puzzled. The goblins were snatching away Muggle money as if it were worth more than Galleons.

Still, she had what she needed. Her heart hammered fretfully. No matter that she was older, that she had immense spells at her fingertips: nothing could quite erase the sinister memories of Knockturn Alley.

It twisted away, still crabbed and dingy. She strode in as if she belonged, and no one corrected her. Very few wizards were about: that was odd. Surely this place should have flourished under Voldemort. But there were a number of boarded up shops, and even her destination, Borgin and Burkes, had an air of decrepitude.

The door creaked when she entered. Artifacts crowded it, many covered in a thick layer of dust. Hermione browsed, noting with distaste what looked like a shrivelled head, a mummified cat, other things which had undoubtedly once been living.

“May I help?”

The unctuous voice belonged to a wizened old man. His monocle glimmered in the dim light.

She turned, icy as a princess. She tried to put something of Draco’s sneer into her voice. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. My business is sensitive.”

Unfazed, the old man raised an eyebrow. “And my time is expensive, madam.”

She smiled, and opened her purse to show him the Galleons, nestled beside her stack of Muggle currency. “I am aware of that.”

His eyes widened fractionally. “Then perhaps we can do business. What is it you seek, miss...”

“Pinksworth,” she said breezily. “Eliza Pinksworth.”

He frowned. “I am, ah, unfamiliar with that name.”

Hermione scowled at him as if he were Ron and had said something particularly witless. She put a shrill note into her voice designed to make bats cringe. “Pinksworth! The Yorkshire Pinksworths, ten generations of upstanding northern magic-”

“Ah, yes,” he said hastily. “The Yorkshire Pinksworths. Of course. I recall now.”

As the Pinksworths were entirely fictional, Hermione doubted that. But if money talked, hers was giving Terry Wogan a run for his money.

“I’m looking for a...” she lowered her voice. “Device.”

“Indeed,” he said. “The kind one cannot acquire elsewhere, I assume.”

She gave him a thin slice of a smile. “Correct.”

He nodded, then shambled over to the door to flip the sign to closed. A snick of the latch locked it – she heard him mumble a few spells, securing it against all but the most persistent invader.

“Perhaps you might like to come into the back room, and we can discuss your specific requirements,” he said, leading her through a faded curtain to a small private room. Symbols glowed as she crossed the threshold – warding spells which enabled complete privacy. Glass cabinets lined the walls, heaped with arcane objects of every kind.

“I’m looking for a Time Turner,” she said bluntly.

He began to clean his monocle with a handkerchief, fussing at imaginary dirt. “As I’m sure you know, the Ministry’s entire stock was destroyed-”

“Which would be very inconvenient if I wanted to borrow one from them,” she interrupted. “But instead, I would like to purchase one from you. Privately. Discreetly. Swiftly.”

“The penalties for possessing such things are severe,” he hedged. “The Great Lord is known to mete out the punishments personally. He has purged most of them from the world.”

She didn’t have to think too hard to understand why. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I have no intention of committing some sort of vigilante attack on the Great Lord in times when he was not so great.”

“Mmm.” He watched her closely. “He is known to send his spies to seek out any devices that might remain.”

She slid off her robes to show her unmarked arm. The wariness did not fade from his eyes.

“Come now, madam. That is hardly proof in these days of Imperius Curses and hostages.”

“What would be proof?” she demanded.

“A cup of tea,” he said. “Laced with truth.”

Hermione hesitated. But she needed the Time Turner. “On one condition.”

“Are you in a position to be making demands?”

She stared pointedly at his shabby clothing. “Are you?”

His lips drew into a narrow line. “Very well.”

“You can only ask me if I am working for the Dark Lord. Then you must give me the antidote.”

His shoulders relaxed. “I will respect your secrets, Miss Pinksworth. We all have them.”

He set out a pair of crystal glasses. Into one went Veritaserum, into the other the antidote. She drank the potion, shuddering at its overtly sweet taste. Her head felt light, as if she were not quite herself.

“Are you working for the Dark Lord?”

She looked him in his faded brown eyes. “No.”

The antidote was bitter on her tongue, but it washed the fuzziness away.

“Then we can negotiate,” he said. “I have such a device. A curio, but it may not be quite what you are looking for. It dates from the fifteenth century, and belonged to an earl’s daughter. Alas, as it was a gift from her father, he imposed strict limitations on it. It cannot be turned more than twenty four times. And I will not sell it – but you may borrow it for a sufficient fee.”

“That will do,” she said. “Though if I can’t buy it, I expect a reasonable discount.”

His expression of indignation was practiced. They began to haggle in earnest, and Hermione was surprised to find herself enjoying the process. At last they settled on a price.

She carefully began to count Galleons – and heard a delicate cough. She glanced up to see his frown.

“Now, Miss Pinksworth. My device is valuable. You have notes enough to pay me.”

She covered her confusion quickly. “If that’s what you wish...”

When had human currency become more valuable than Galleons? She didn’t understand, but handed over a sheaf of notes that made a creased smile break across his face. In return, he unlocked a cabinet and withdrew a tiny Time Turner, barely bigger than a fingernail.

“It must be back with a day, Miss Pinksworth,” he said, “or you will find there are unpleasant consequences.”

Hermione didn’t ask. He didn’t explain. She looped the silver chain over her neck, tucking the hourglass under her top.

“Good luck in your endeavours,” he said, and handed her a bag. She peered in to see candles, a hideous jade bottle shaped like a snake and a handful of other tat. “Should anyone ask why you came in, you will of course endorse my fine products.”

She understood perfectly. “Of course.”

As the shop door shut behind her, she had a curious sense of how topsy-turvy the world had become. Even a shop marinated in the Dark Arts operated in fear and stealth – even they were not safe from Voldemort’s long shadow.

X – X – X – X – X


He’s the perfect publicist. When they ask him why he won’t get the Mark, he’s got an answer gleaming on his teeth.

“I’m the friendly face of Government,” Blaise tells the politicos. “Let people wonder. For now, they think I have it, and it’s useful. One day – if the rebellion ever gets serious – we might need them to know I have no Mark. Think how that will reassure people.”

They nod, understanding the endless game of chess they play. He’s the white knight, the protector.

“If someone needs to get hold of me, Owls are just as efficient as burning agony,” he quips to the flunkies, who resent being ordered around. “And there’s usually just as much shit to clean up.” They laugh and envy his chutzpah.

“I don’t need to prove my loyalty,” he says coolly to the inner cadre. “I make them biddable. I make them forgive you. And I don’t do it for the money or the power. I do it because I want to.”

The questions keep coming, but he’s a wordsmith and he bats them away deftly. Outside the Ministry, no one knows. Inside it, no one knows the truth.

He’s the perfect publicist. He can sell anything.

Including his allegiance.

He doesn’t care for the Order, who are grimy tattered fugitives crouched in corners like rats. But nor does he care for the horrors enacted around him on a daily basis.

Once, he shut his eyes to such things. He convinced himself that the rumours were lies spun by bitter criminals who’d deserved what they got. He entered the Ministry, walked those clean, elegantly furnished corridors, and saw only the life of any bureaucracy. In the memos and the meetings, the coffee cups and contracts, there was nothing more sinister than boardroom games.

He used his gifts like the serpent he is: ambition and ability bought him attention, his way greased by his natural charm. He walked deeper into the corridors of power, and found grains of truth behind the gossip.

Nonetheless, it was exaggeration, Blaise told himself, formulated by angry people unable to be objective. His housemates died under the rebels’ hands, and he felt a surge of fury when he heard their names smeared that only convinced him further.

So he corrected the balance: he presented the Ministry’s side, and for his troubles was rewarded.

And at last he found himself at the heart of Government, and saw with his own eyes where the rumours began. He trod over spell-seared houses and ransacked rooms. He saw the broken bodies and the empty eyes and the blood-matted hair.

From such remnants was he asked to build a golden truth, to spin the glory of a golden age.

And because he was the perfect publicist, he worked his wandless magic.

He performed for the journalists and the cynics. With effortless wit and witless effort, he defended, lauded, excused the crimes committed in his name, in all their names. He suppressed his unease. He told himself that his doubts and his revulsion were misplaced.

And then one day, something changed. It was a day like any other. He was at a press conference, speaking fluently and warmly about Special Services’ valiant anti-terrorist operation which had captured a quartet of criminal masterminds.

(A single mother and three little boys, one clinging hard to his bloodstained teddy bear. Another had been huddled in her legs, and she’d been curled over him, shielding him to the last. Her courage had not made a whit of difference. Three little boys, who had the temerity to be only halfbloods.)

He fielded the questions as easily as ever. The glib phrases flew off his tongue: heedless of their own personal danger, incredible valour, comrades. And then came the one that changed his life, his mind, his loyalty, a quick answer to a bold journalist’s question.

For the greater good.

He heard himself say it. He saw them all scribbling it down. And he saw too the gates of Nurmengard, black and white in his textbook, with those words inscribed upon the iron.

And he remembered a day when one of his stepfathers (Which one? He doesn’t know) took him there as a lesson. “My mother died here,” he’d said as they stared up at the arch of the gates, rusting in the sun. “She sheltered a halfblood and Grindelwald found out. He was a monster, Blaise.”

Bored, he’d listened without understanding.

“If you rise high,” that faceless, long-dead man had said, “don’t do it by climbing on corpses.”

Of course, his mother had done just that. But Blaise had remembered those words when he was teased about his slutty mother (not more than once, not after he mastered his first curse), the black widow. He remembered them when the lavish birthday presents came, when he sat in her parlour.

They came back to haunt him as he told the world that it was for the greater good.

Blaise saw then that he had walked across a thousand Nurmengards in miniature, that the whole country might as well have those words carved into the landscape. He had become what he had loathed. He had lied to himself as surely as the public.

He still lies to the public. The truth is too dangerous to be spoken so openly. Leave such follies to the Order. He has a quieter way, one much more suited to a man who walks soft-footed and silently through the darkest places in the Ministry.

But lately, it is not enough. He can only save a few, and Blaise wants more than that. And he wonders, as he slips into the black Jaguar they’ve sent to collect him, whether this business at Krum’s is the work of the Order. Whether they are at last more than a ragtag militia. Whether it is time to help them.

He’s the perfect publicist. And he’s tired of it.

X – X – X – X – X


Hermione heard the sirens wailing as she crossed the heath, carrier bag in one hand, the other free to grab at her wand if she needed to. The dog walkers and rollerskating kids didn’t even look round, but the sound set her blood whirling.

Bishops’ Row was crowded. The blue lights of police cars spun silently. Onlookers ringed the rubble of Viktor’s house. She crouched down behind a car, watching the hubbub. She could see wizards scattered among the Muggles, wizards who wore masks that sent a chill through her.

They were simple – black, bisected by a silver bolt of lightning. She could not help but think of Harry, and to feel rage at whoever had thought to use his image so cruelly and so evocatively.

Whoever they were, their wands touched Muggle after Muggle. People drifted away from the scene, faces blank. The police officers slid back into their cars and drove away. Soon only the masked wizards remained, guarding the house. They had an air of expectation.

When a gleaming black car drew up, she realised why. Her breath caught at the sight of the man who stepped out. The years hadn’t changed Blaise Zabini much. He was still handsome, power billowing about him with the hem of his long robes. Two bodyguards flanked him, wands drawn.

It was the first time she had seen anyone from Hogwarts other than Draco. It made her feel queerly dizzy, as if it had not quite been real until now. Blaise Zabini. She recalled Draco saying he’s the pretty face on the ugly reality, mentioning that Pansy had dated him.

It occurred to her that if he worked for Voldemort, she might be forced to hurt him. To kill him.

She took a deep breath. It hurt, because she didn’t know if she could.

It was time to go. She didn’t want to stay any longer, or doubt would consume her. She drew out the tiny Time Turner from her jumper. It was gone nine. She spun it three times: the world melted away and when it reformed, Viktor Krum’s house still stood.

Hermione kept low behind the car. She didn’t have long to wait until she heard the persistent pat of footsteps – she peered under the car and saw her own feet, pacing beside Draco. She marked off the minutes, replaying their break-in.

She crept out, wiggling into the bushes after them. The wall was just as easy to scale a second time: she landed silently and made her way to the trade entrance behind the thick screen of foliage. An odd lump rose in her throat at the sight of Draco, so patently healthy. The cruel knowledge of what would come filled her like prophecy – she wanted to cry out, to warn them...

She bit back her cry, as she knew she must.

When they went in, she waited once more until they went upstairs and gave her the precious time she needed. Then she slipped inside, wanting the security of her wand in her hand, but knowing she could not alert them.

The statue of the manticore loomed over the entrance hall. Hermione approached it carefully. She had thought about what to do all morning, but she wasn’t sure if it would work.

She took out the jewels that Draco had stolen and held them up to its eye-level. Then she said, “I’ve come to claim my reward.”

This time, the manticore’s awakening was slow and silent. Colour stained the stone until it was a vast, breathing thing that stared at her with a kind of astonishment.

“You’ve come to claim your what?” it said in a surprisingly human voice. Its breath was horrendous.

She cleared her throat. “My reward. For returning these jewels. They were stolen from here.”

The manticore lurched forward. She had to force herself not to leap back as it sniffed the package in her hand. It frowned. “Those are my master’s jewels,” it acknowledged. “But I can smell that they are in the safe. And here. How is this possible?”

“I can’t say,” Hermione said staunchly. “But it is.”

It sniffed them again, then withdrew. It raised a vast paw and scratched its forehead. The sheer humanity of the gesture made her hesitate.

“This is irregular,” it muttered. “Most irregular. I smell another thief on these, so you did not take them...but they have not been taken. You knew of their loss, and I should devour all such villains...”

Her stomach was full of butterflies.

“Yet there has been no theft.” Its teeth clacked as it considered. “And I may not kill the innocent.”

Hermione waited, confident they would not be disturbed. And she would probably survive.

She was struck by the horrible thought that it might have devoured her right before Draco and herself came back down the stairs.

Its tail arched above its head like a spear. She gulped. It gazed down, eyes narrowed, then said, “I have decided.”

“Yes?” she quavered.

“I will not eat you today,” it announced. “You have returned my master’s property. I suppose you are due a boon.” Its mouth twisted on the word. “How much do you want, mortal?”

“Um, nothing actually,” she said. “Well, not money. I want you to answer a question.”

This seemed to confuse it. “A question? This isn’t going to be like the time the Sphinx tried to riddle with me, is it?” it said, suspicious. “It didn’t end well. And it was a stupid riddle.”

She had no idea what it was on about. “No. I want to know if there’s a cure for the poison in your tail.”

It looked as if she had asked something spectacularly brainless. “Of course there is!” it said indignantly. “What do you think we do when the kittens sting each other?”

“Kittens?”

“Our offspring,” it said. She was startled. All the books referred to them as ‘hellcats’. Imaging tiny manticores as kittens was disturbing. “Rough little things, they are. I certainly was,” it added happily.

She tried hard not to reflect on the fact that she would murder this creature within an hour. Telling herself that it had attacked them was small comfort: the reason why it had attacked was still in her hand.

“What is it?” she said.

It stuck out a freakishly long tongue. “Spit,” it said. “That’s where the saying comes from, you know. ‘A lick in time saves nine lives.’”

“Can...” She hesitated at the thought, then ploughed on grimly. “Can I have some?”

It looked taken aback. “What?”

“As my reward.”

“If you wish, mortal,” it said doubtfully. “It is unusual, but so is returning jewels before they have been stolen. Speaking of, leave them in that urn. I will replace them once I am sure the visitors upstairs have not taken anything.”

She obeyed.

“Where do you want it?” the manticore said.

She hadn’t thought about that. Hermione rummaged in the Borgin and Burkes bag: that disgusting snake bottle was there. It would do. And it was ghoulishly appropriate.

“In here,” she said.

It looked even more confused, but after she had popped the lid off, leaned over it and spat a horrible glob of something viscous and orange into the bottle.

“Will that do?” it said.

“Plenty.”

A floorboard creaked upstairs. She glanced up. She had no idea how much time had passed.

“I have to be on my way,” she said. “Thank you.”

It looked pleased. A smile spread across its face, baring a dental nightmare of caked, yellowed teeth. “It is good to meet an honest mortal. You are as rare as us, these days.” Then a scowl dropped over its features. “Stay that way.”

“Er, certainly,” she said, hoping it could only smell thieves who stole from this house. The cashpoint was haunting her. And so was the fact she was looking at a doomed creature.

She fled the house. Her mind was in turmoil – she ran away from what she knew would happen, from what she had already done. She had killed someone. And she couldn’t tell herself it was a monster, or that it had been self-defence, or even that it had been necessary.

It had thanked her. She would murder the manticore, and it had thanked her.

She cried then, in the safe noisy space of the tube. She had tried to do what was right, but it had still been wrong. And it hurt.

X – X – X – X – X


He was as she had left him. That was a relief.

She leant over Draco, and banged the jade bottle until saliva glooped out onto his wound. Gingerly, she smeared it over the rash. It didn’t fade, but she had expected that – it wouldn’t until she had cast the counterspell and taken him from stasis.

She gritted her teeth against the pain to come, and cast it with a soft whisper of animus.

Clear blue light shot from her wand. This time the pain was ice: it bit into her fingers first with the malice of frostbite, chewing deep into her bones. Tears sprang from her eyes, and froze on her cheeks with a delicate crunch. Everything was cold and heavy, the agony a slow pulse that moved like her sluggish heart. She trembled – strength drained from her and her wrist sagged-

Draco arched: he took a desperate breath, and his eyes opened wide. The rash faded like a bruise, from purple to blue to nothing at all.

She hunched over as the spell ended, trying to warm her throbbing fingers.

“Granger?” His voice was puzzled. “Granger, what did you do?”

Her teeth were chattering, her body refusing to believe it was warm. She couldn’t answer. Shivers wracked her. Every muscle was cramping up, turning her fingers into hooks, her spine into splintered metal.

“Granger…” He was there, prying her cold-locked arms apart, warm and surprisngly gentle and alive. “You’re like ice. You did something valiant, didn’t you?” Draco accused with the same inflection as most people would say moronic. “Bloody Gryffindors. Can’t you do anything without an eight-trumpet fanfare and a near-death experience?”

Hermione managed to glare at him.

“Hold on,” he said, and grabbed his wand. “Pyrolumos.”

A slow, gentle heat spread through her. It drove away the cold, leaving her with nothing worse than a headache and a case of chronic fatigue.

Hermione worked her jaw muscles, grimacing at the twinge there. “Thanks. That was nasty.”

“It looked it.” He gazed at her, grey eyes narrowed. “I could have sworn I was about to meet my maker.”

“Beelzebub will have to wait,” she told him. “You’re all better.”

“I can see that.” He prodded his chest with some bemusement. There was something close to respect in his face. “Granger, I have to ask...how in the name of Merlin’s ghastly green toes did you manage this?”

This was the bit he might not like. “Well. I Petrified you. Then I found a cure, which I applied. Then I unfroze you. And here we are.” She smiled brightly. “When should we contact the Order?”

“That can wait,” he said, holding up a hand. “Exactly what cure did you find for an incurable poison?”

She eyed him. He didn’t look like a man who believed in natural remedies. “Well...”

“Out with it,” he ordered, eyes glittering.

“It’s a saline solution,” she hedged. At his exasperated glare, she relented, and told him.

His scream echoed through Grimmauld Place.

“You rubbed what on my chest?”

“It saved your life,” she pointed out.

He sputtered. “Manticore spit? You rubbed monster mucus on me? Monster mucus?”

“Alive!” she shouted back. “Excuse me for not curing you with thousand-pound moisturiser, but monster mucus was all I had. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re not dead.”

He took a deep breath, cheeks flushed, then another. “I had noticed, actually,” he said with great dignity. “Death would be less shrill.” He paused, then shot her a wary look. “Thank you, Granger.”

She was startled. She mouthed for a moment before words returned to her. “You’d have done the same.”

Even if it was only because they were bound by an Unbreakable Vow.

His arched eyebrows said he thought the same. “Back to business, then. Where’s the coin?”

It was on the table, carelessly discarded when he’d collapsed. Hermione picked it up, feeling a pang at the familiarity of it, a piece of her own magic returned to her. She wondered how Viktor had acquired it.

“What will you tell them?” he asked.

It had to be something simple, somewhere crowded so they could hide.

The Protean charm was easy after so many years absorbing complex spells. The words burned into the coin, and as it changed, she thought of other identical coins, reforming, reshaping for the first time in three years. It was a call to arms – would anyone answer? Was anyone left?

Tomorrow’s date. And the location and time, as cryptic as she could make it: KX 9.75

The place where it had all begun. Where it might all begin again if they were lucky, if her friends were still brave.

Platform Nine and Three Quarters.

X – X – X – X – X


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