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My, well, hasn't it been a while. We'll skip the part where I suck and move onto the part where you guys are awesome.

So! Many, many thanks to the truly fabulous people who reviewed last time - thank you to Ardeel, yellowbuttermellow, DracoFall243, ILuvdraco999, CatGryffindor, KateRhodes, wrysgl, justme, Natalie, Hermione n Ron4ever, Mrs J Potter, ld_wolverine, arimun, MistyDreamer, Darcy Drake, FutureAggie09, SawyerSpalding, Lizayzay, meadowlarks cries, iscreamdraco, Dracoschica69, Anonymous, mel 31, Lynne, Sara_sj, AndThenTragedyStruck, pinks, Rayb008, WeasleyTwins, charliedrop12, hezja, theelderwand, AvadaKedavra1, Ashleigh, StMungosSassiana, Lara87, HP0247, moon0709, arimun, lyrical lioness, Billion, kerrylee, Kali and last but by no means least, the divine Darkangel016927. Thank you so so much for the lovely comments and your immense patience!
  As you may have guessed, I love hearing your thoughts and criticism is very welcome.

Author's Note: I have rewritten the end of Ch 10 following some great constructive criticism - thanks Lara87, justme_ and Lizayzay, it just wasn't right.

I hope you enjoy it!

Midnight


 

There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city -
But this is the nearest, in place and time
- Little Gidding, T. S. Eliot




  Beneath the night, London is all stark silhouettes and neon, the streetlights and billboards a technicolour echo of the constellations above. The river divides it like a lightless reflection of the Milky Way, a road to nowhere but the drowning deeps.

Squatting beside the banks of the Thames is the seat of Voldemort's power. Not the Ministry, which is merely the shining public face of his puppet Government, but a building that has been the pride of kings and the prison of queens. It has known the gallows and the block, the fire and the fury and the thunder, and its stones are stained with blood.

The Dark Lord holds court beneath the Tower of London like a vast spider poised upon its web. He knows well the power of symbols, he who hurled the Dark Mark high enough to block out heaven.

Those he summons must walk down the twisting steps, leaving behind the light and the truculent modern world. They pass the empty cells where men have screamed on racks and women known the brutal touch of blades under their nails. They pass the oubliettes, which are slimed over and filled with the sound of skittering rats.

Their eyes flick up as they pass under the iron portcullis, nervous of the wicked spikes. In the silence, their footsteps are too loud, a reminder of life in a place swollen with death. At the end of the narrow tunnel, he waits, calm, icy, his pale hands as still as marble on the arms of the throne.

It's the only brightness in the chamber, a great gold thing that is as potent a message as the hellish walk, raised upon a crude stone dais. Here are the rewards: treasure beyond measure, the fortune of an empire, a place on high.

And here is the danger: the monster within it, who has travelled so far from humanity that it has melted like candle wax from his face. There's an echo of the torturer's fires in his red eyes, his fingers as thin and cruel as pincers. Pain is his craft, and Voldemort has learned it well.

No one could fail to be afraid. In that, Blaise Zabini is no different.

He goes down into the underbelly of London, not knowing what he will find, not knowing if he is to be praised, or if (but no...) he has been uncovered. He takes his weapons, though few would recognise them as such: his able wit, his gilded tongue, his charisma.

They are all he has to fend off his gnawing doubts.

The day plays through his mind and Blaise unpicks it to the last detail - what else could he have done? When he confronted Macmillan in the archives, and control slid away from him like wet soap through his fingers, was there any other choice?

The Tower swallows him up. He descends, he remembers, and he fears.

~*~




Hermione couldn't sleep. That was hardly surprising. After today, it would have been peculiar if she had been able to brush aside the frantic chase, the sizzling spells of battle, the hope that had surged in her with terrible force.

Unfortunately, none of those moments kept her awake.

It was the memory of Draco's face, of how vulnerable he had looked, how human and broken and fragile. That unnerved her. She had been surprised by his pain, and that meant she had been fooled by him, by the reputation he used as shield and weapon alike.

It meant that of them both, though she was a fugitive, wanted, hunted, hated, she might not be the greater risk.

She lay in her bed, eyes open in the darkness, wondering what else she did not know about him. Though she did not realise, her fingers traced the lines of the Vow again and again until the gesture had the significance of a superstition.

At last, insomnia drove her downstairs, moving silently through the night as she had through Hogwarts. She trusted the darkness in a way she did not the light, one hand on the wall to guide her.

In the kitchen, Hermione filled the kettle from the wheezing tap. When she lit the hob, the small blue flame threw elongated shadows across the kitchen. It felt almost homely, and she sat in the gloom, listening to the water boil.

She made herself tea and sat at the table, warming her hands on the mug. It brought back bittersweet memories of Divination, which had been unable to foresee this brutal world. If the future was in the dregs, she did not care to look: she tipped them down the sink to fester in the drains.

As she crossed the floor, her foot caught a loose tile. Hermione tripped spectacularly, and crashed into the door. It rattled ominously, but held. She prayed she hadn't woken Draco, who was bound to have something annoying and entitled to say about have his sleep disrupted.

When she heard no noise from above, she counted herself lucky, and stole back upstairs.

She was halfway across the landing when she heard it: a creak, as if of a floorboard - and it was behind her, at the top of the stairs. Hermione froze - she raised her wand, listening intently. She said nothing, did nothing but waited in the dark as though she herself was only a shadow.

Silence.

She kept her breath soft and even, poised on upon a knife edge. Fear arced through her. What if she'd been seen coming back? She'd been so careful, but perhaps she had underestimated them, a dangerous, deadly thing to do...

Movement - she flung the spell with a silent cry of Petrificus Totalis! - light fizzled harmlessly into the wall, then a hand wrapped around her wrist, around the Vow and she heard an exasperated voice in her ear.

"Are you trying to kill me, Granger?"

The darkness was complete and nothing but his tight grip revealed he was close. "I'm not the one creeping round in the dark."

There was a pregnant pause, then Draco said dryly, "I beg to differ."

"I was getting a cup of tea," she said.

"Yes. That sounds perfectly rational. Except for the part where I thought someone had broken down the front door."

With her free hand, she groped about, trying to place him, mostly so she could kick him in the shins for frightening the life out of her. "I tripped."

"On what, the percussion section of an orchestra?"

"It wasn't that loud," she muttered, although it had been. "And even if it was, do you really think the Death Eaters are that incompetent?"

"It depends," he remarked. "One keeps hearing about declining standards and certainly some of the current-"

Her fingers found him: a warm, smooth solid mass.

He cut off. "Granger..."

That was his shoulder, collarbones a smooth ridge, and his ribs and a multitude of scars that contoured him and the T-shirt he was wearing was incredibly close-fitting, almost like a second-

His voice was strangled. "Granger, what the hell are you doing?"

...skin. He wasn't wearing a top, she realised with a kind of horror, and she should have taken her hand away, only she didn't. And he didn't let go of her wrist, either, and they just stood there in the dark with the silence spreading out like a blush.

"...I was working out where your shins were," she said faintly. "I was going to kick you."

"Oh," he said. He sounded distracted. Then he said, "All things considered, I'd rather you didn't."

"Well, I'd hate to be predictable," she said. She was babbling, and she wasn't sure why.

She felt him tense. He said, "Yes, I expect you would," and his voice was soft, bitter, and she realised he was thinking of her saying sometimes you're so predictable, of serrated words and rage.

Startled, not thinking, she flattened her palm against his chest, and said, "Draco," half plea, half peace offering.

She felt his heartbeat under her hand, thunder in flesh. And whether it was her words or her touch, she heard him take a harsh breath, and she looked up because it was instinct, to try and find an answer in his eyes. There was only the dark, and the memory of his name on her lips, and she wasn't sure it would be enough.

His hand tightened on her wrist - and she braced herself for angry words, for accusation.

The kiss came like a maelstrom - burning, bruising, a challenge and a duel. And she didn't even think about it, she didn't do anything but feel - it was his lips fierce on hers and his hair bristling under her fingers and the pressure of his hand splayed at the small of her back. His body was a barricade against her, insurmountable, hostile even in passion.

She felt her loneliness then - and his, felt the intensity of his touch.

It was madness; it crumbled some wall between them and bared her to him in a way that was dangerous and intimate, but she did not stop. Some part of her needed it. Some part of her - broken, wounded, three years in a haze of ghosts and war - needed him, for a second, for a minute, for the length of a kiss.

When they parted, she swayed back, her head a whirl of sensation. Everywhere he'd touched her held the memory of him: her back, her wrist, her lips.

She was shaken, she was frightened, her world trembling on its axis.

He did not say a word. The silence between them was unbearable, and so she tried to fill it. "Malfoy..."

When she felt the prod of a wand in her throat, she realised that her hands were empty; and while she had been startled and amazed and swept away by the riptides of a kiss, he had stripped her of every defence she had.

She was glad of the darkness then, her only ally in the empty night. At least he could not see her shame, her betrayal, how utterly used and foolish she felt.

His voice was acid, just a touch husky at the edges. "Granger, if all your foes are going to disarm you this easily, you might want to have a career rethink."

The flush seared her cheeks. "So it was another test."

"What else was it going to be?" His scorn was palpable. "No one will protect you. I won't-"

"You did," she said softly.

"Yes, and tomorrow I have to answer to the Dark Lord for it - for you, Granger, for you and your bloody heroics! You'll get us both killed if you don't start to-"

"What?" she interrupted. "To distrust everyone I meet? To spend all my time afraid and alone? That's what keeps Voldemort in power. I won't be like that."

"I think that damn Vow proves you're not alone."

"I might as well be," she said bitterly. "I want to trust you, Malfoy, but you make it so difficult."

And she thought then that he might be angry, that he might feel some inkling of the betrayal she felt. But instead, he pressed her wand into her hand, careful not to touch her, and his voice was quite calm.

"Granger, some days I wake up and don't trust myself. Maybe you should think about why that is."

He left her alone then to fumble her way to bed, a mess of turmoil. She was shaken, she was frightened, her world trembling on its axis. But not because she was afraid of him.

For a moment, she'd forgotten all he was, all she was, her control tossed away. They had been a boy and a girl meshed in a kiss, and she'd burned with it.

Hermione shut her bedroom door and leaned back against it, trying to stop the thought that was as inevitable as dawn, but the truth could not be so easily suppressed.

She hadn't wanted to stop.

~*~




The Tower is every bit as eerie as he has always been told.

Blaise has never seen the Dark Lord in his court, though of course he has seen the portraits which decorate the corridors of power, and he has felt the tension in the Ministry whenever the Wizengamot is called for another sham of a trial.

But he understands the value of appearances, and so he is careful not to shudder at the sound of rats. He does not look at the portcullis at he passes beneath it. He walks evenly, never faltering, shoulders back, head high, a man who is unshakable in his loyalty and his self-belief.

It is just as he has been warned. The Dark Lord is an amorphous shape hunched in the throne, like the black heart of a flame.

Beside Voldemort, Bellatrix is laden with pearls and rings and bracelets, the dangling diamonds nowhere near as glittering and hard as her eyes. Her hair is matted and disarrayed, an uneven frame for her wild beauty. In her hands, she turns a fingerbone, and her smile is sinister.

"Zabini." Voldemort surveys him, at ease in this place of shadows and suffering. "I am told you were instrumental in capturing a valuable prisoner."

He stands before them, aware of how very far it is back to the surface. "Yes, Great Lord. Ernie - Ernest Macmillan. I found him in the archives with powerful curses in his possession." He dares to meet those coal-hot eyes. "Great Lord, there is something else. I've kept quiet because I didn't think you'd want it known."

"Indeed." That word is as much warning as invitation.

"The coins from Dumbledore's Army are gone."

Voldemort hisses, the sound rattling through the air. "So. Macmillan is part of the Order."

"That ox?" Bellatrix spits, shrill. "He's nobody, no one, nothing!"

"Clearly, that is not the case," Voldemort says in a whisper as thin as a whip, "You are to be congratulated on your swift response, Minister."

"Thank you, Great Lord," Zabini answers, not daring to look away. He must be faultless, untarnished by even the faintest breath of suspicion. "It was only my duty."

"Yes, yes," Voldemort murmurs. "Finding traitors is but a duty, is it not, Bella?"

She flinches, and the bone in her fingers snaps. "Special Services will find Granger, my lord!"

So it's Granger they're searching for. Zabini's heart leaps fretfully, for now he begins to see the shape of the formidable mind behind the Order. It's common knowledge that Longbottom, Weasley and Brown are high in the organisation. But their leader has always been an unknown with tactical flair.

Hermione Granger has the intellect. Yet why show herself now, and so publicly?

"Too many people have heard about the fumbling debacle in Kings Cross," Voldemort says, and he bends down to take Bellatrix's chin in his fingers. She quivers under his touch, fear and rapture blazing from her face. "I will be most interested to hear what Draco has to say."

"My lord," she implored, giddy as a girl. "Half my forces are searching through the night. They will find her, or I will have the skin from them, one by one, to hang on my walls. And I shall question Macmillan myself, and peel his secrets off his bones if I have to. We will have her!"

There is an unsettling tension between them: Zabini feels as if he has intruded on a moment of intimacy, if one laced with the threat of pain.

"You will, Bellatrix, or I will have your skin, and everything within it," Voldemort murmurs, his fingers sliding down to her throat to encircle it, nails digging into her flesh.

"I have never failed you, my lord." She arches into his touch, fearless, a flush staining her cheeks. "I never will. I have been faithful, I have been true."

"So you have." Voldemort draws her close, her hands pressed to him as if he is a holy relic, his body hunched over her as if she will be swallowed into his shadow. "So you shall."

He releases her; she puddles to the floor in a clatter of jewellery, hands held out for a moment, and the adoration on her face quite naked.

"You see the sensitivity of the situation, Zabini," the Dark Lord says, sliding back onto his throne with sinuous ease. "But this little insurrection is not unexpected. I have made arrangements of various sorts for this very day, one of which will bear fruit tomorrow. I expect you to handle the resulting publicity with your usual aplomb. And one small adjustment. It must be made clear that the Order of the Phoenix are responsible."

Zabini blinks. For three years, it has been the practice never to mention their name, at his own suggestion. There's no such thing as bad publicity, after all, and the fewer people who know of a resistance, the fewer will try to join it. "Great Lord, I apologise if I misunderstand, but previous policy-"

"I want them named, and I want them blamed," Voldemort says, each word bitten out. "Let them see the price of their rebellion. Let them see it piled up on the front pages. That is all I ask, Minister. A small thing, yes, a very small thing. I am confident that we will soon have the Order, but I want the way prepared."

The future hangs over Zabini like a guillotine. Something terrible will happen, something he must spin and shape into bloody colour.

"Yes, Great Lord," he says. His hands tremble behind his back. "I shall make sure the truth is known."

His smile curls up like a dead leaf, a rotten, empty thing. "Be sure that you do, Zabini. Be very, very sure."

He backs away from them, his face a mask of composure. Inside, he is reduced to nerves and apprehension. Gruesome scenes of devastation pierce his mind, the memories of three years of the truth, three years of death.

The Dark Lord's promise accompanies him back to the starlight, a breath of the underworld rising up to choke him: I have made arrangements.

As he steps out into clean air, he can hear Big Ben tolling midnight. In the gasp between today and tomorrow, it sounds like a funeral bell.

~*~




Dawn woke Draco from smoky dreams of heat and pain. The scar across his heart ached, as it always did on cold mornings, but he ignored it and dressed quickly. It was time.

Once a month, every month, he flew into the sunrise. It was a routine he did not vary. Although later he would stand before his mad aunt and offer up judgment on whatever unfortunate had been arrested last night, now he was not a favoured pet, a feared killer, or a trapped man.

He was his parents' son, and that was all that mattered.

The sky was marbled with pink and gold. He opened his window onto it, and felt the winter wind on his face and on the tight skin of his newly healed arm.

He welcomed the bitter air: it blasted through him, blowing away the cobwebs of feelings he did not want to examine, the memories that were too troubling. There was only the cold, and the need to fight it off.

And as the ragged dark curtains fluttered like crow's wings, he darted through them on the Firebolt, out towards the rising sun, and the coast.

~*~




He knew well the treacherous winds of the North Sea, which stampeded through the sky like wild horses. Though they twisted and turned and dropped away with malicious speed, they could not hurl him from the sky. Below, the black churning sea was a mass of spray, flung high on the air to soak him through.

Sometimes, on other darker days, he was tempted to turn the broom and plummet into its depths, just because he could. Then, the uncaring waters seemed better than what he would return to.

Not today, though.

Today, it was different. He did not qualify why: he did not dare think too much on the future, for fear it would distort before him like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. He only knew that he soared, as if gravity could not hold him, and felt some dizzy thrill as he barrelled down the wild tunnels of the wind towards Azkaban,

The prison rose fang-like from the sea, a jagged fortress that the waves broke uselessly upon. He circled down to it, hair blown back from his face.

As he strode up the sea-slick steps, the taste of salt coated his lips like tears.

A trio of guards flanked the entrance, the first of many. Their armour was speckled with spray. They regarded him without fear or interest: one had his wand aimed at Draco's throat, the other at his own wand. The third handed over Veritaserum, which Draco knocked back without so much as a grimace. Standard procedure, these days.

"Name?" one said. The third guard aimed his wand at Draco's heart and barked, "Leglimens."

"Draco Malfoy," he answered. He gritted his teeth under the unpleasant sensation of the guard rifling through his thoughts.

"Position?"

"Special Services operative."

"Purpose."

"Visiting family."

The questions turned to the usual enquiries.

"Have you encountered any enemies of the state?"

"Yes," Draco said calmly, and entirely truthfully. "Hermione Granger. Wanted fugitive. Involved in a hit-and-run attack on Special Services yesterday."

He held foremost in his mind the images of the spells she had fired, of her remarkable vanishing act.

The guards were silent for a long time. At last, one said: "Incident confirmed. Any others?"

He had passed the first test. Good.

Draco looked him in the eyes with the gaze of an honest man, and said, "Not to my knowledge."

The other questions were standard and he evaded them easily, as he had for years. There were very few wizards who could penetrate the fog of half-truths and fiction that he presented as his memories. The Dark Lord, of course - always, and ever. Bellatrix, perhaps.

And the only person who didn't need magic to see through his lies.

"Detainee visited?"

"Narcissa Malfoy," he answered. "My mother."

"Very well." The wands lowered. The spells unwound like ropes. "Welcome to Azkaban, sir. You may leave your broom in the keep. You will be subject to security protocols. Be aware all personal items must be declared and examined. First-"

"-door on the left, mind the steps," Draco finished coolly. "Thank you. Glory to the Great Lord."

"Glory be," the guard said, and offered him a stiff nod.

As the gates opened with the wail of rusty hinges, he heard the noise of the inmates:a susurrus of moans and whispers and weeping, rising up over the crash of the sea. It was the sound of people drowning in something far colder and deeper than water.

And today, it could not touch him. Their despair rolled off him, turned back, denied. He went into Azkaban like a living man into the underworld, untarnished and bright, daring to hope, daring to dream.

~*~




The world contracted around her.

Hermione appeared in a dark corner of Leicester Square unnoticed. She had Apparated straight out of Grimmauld Place, not daring to leave via the door in case it was monitored.

She blended into the mass of tourists, glad of the cold that meant shewas anoynmous in her thick scarf and hat. The crowds carried her down to Covent Garden, into the piazza where street entertainers coaxed passers-by into watching a ludicrous panoply of acts. She slipped past a man juggling fire, looking for the glass doors to the Opera House.

She spotted them behind a brass band playing carols. Nearby, jarring in Muggle clothes, was Luna. Her hair was a shade of flame red that made her skin look white as apple flesh. Huge sunglasses covered her eyes, but the fact she was reading a newspaper upside down was quite a giveaway.

She glanced up as Hermione approached, and her smile was warm. "I wasn't sure you'd come," she said, folding up the tabloid. Their conversation was concealed by the merry music.

"Check it's me first," Hermione advised.

"I can tell it is," Luna said cheerfully. "The sunglasses are enchanted. Ernie made them for the Order. They can see right through magic. Do you like my disguise?"

"Very covert," she said dryly. "You found them, then."

Luna touched her fingers to the bangles on her wrist. No: to one bangle, thin and red among the gold and silver. "I had a way to get in touch. Neville..." Her voice faded a little, her smile wilting into something sadder, sweeter. "I don't think they're very happy with him, but he made a charm for me that would call him if I activated it."

She raised the sunglasses. Her eyes were as impenetrable as mist.

"I've told them about you, Hermione, and I think they believe me now."

"You think?" she echoed.

She frowned. "Their mouths were saying one thing and their eyes weren't saying anything at all. They've asked me to bring you to them, but I have to blind you."

Hermione stared at her. Luna looked vaguely troubled by the idea, but otherwise it was clear she meant it.

"Before I do that, I thought I should probably tell you something. They won't like me doing it, but I've spent a good deal of time doing things people wouldn't have liked if they'd known." Her gaze was direct. "I think they're frightened. Not all of them - not Neville, but the others. I think something is wrong in the Order. At first I thought a rogue banshee might be living under the floorboards, but I didn't hear any wailing, so it must be something else. Are you sure you want to go?"

Hermione didn't hesitate. No matter what was wrong in the Order of the Phoenix, she would not and could not turn away from them. All that remained of her old life was there.

"Yes."

Luna fumbled in her bag. She pulled out a bottle of water. "Then you need to drink this. It's an Elixir of Eternal Night. Don't worry, the name's an exaggeration. My father refused to let them advertise in The Quibbler because he said it was misrepresentation."

Given some of the more sensational pieces that The Quibbler had run, Hermione couldn't help but feel that Xenophilius Lovegood had chosen a rather peculiar point on which to take a stand for truth and justice. "Is The Quibbler still going?"

Luna blinked. "Oh. You don't know. He's in Azkaban. He claimed Bellatrix Lestrange was descended from harpies, and she didn't take it very well. Poor Daddy," she said softly. "He really believed it."

Feeling that she'd put her foot in it, Hermione patted her arm. "I'm so sorry, Luna."

"Imagine throwing an innocent man in prison because you can't accept that your prominent shoulder blades are residual wings." Luna sounded oddly cheery. "I used to feel terribly sad about it, Hermione, but then you came, and I feel like everything's going to change."

She was touched, and yet afraid of how much depended on her - on Draco.

"I guess we'd better make a start." She knocked back the elixir: it had a strong taste of aniseed, and burned a path down her throat. Seconds passed. "It doesn't seem to have-"

The world went black; she had a momentary panic, and swayed. Luna's hand closed around her arm, her grip firm. "It's all right."

"I can't see a thing." She tried not to sound nervous, but her voice wobbled.

This was entirely different from her exile in Hogwarts, where she knew every brick and flagstone. In crowded noisy carefree London, a conglomeration of chaos and technology and history, she was lost.

She felt Luna link arms with her. Slowly, they began to walk, no different from the hundreds of others dawdling through the capital.

"I won't let you fall," Luna said. "You kept me safe, Hermione. It's my turn now."

~*~




There's an air of refinement about Kensington, more than the gleaming shop facades and clean pavements. One can spot the glint of designer goods on passers-by, and the silence here is the kind purchased with inherited wealth.

The houses on his row are old but well-kept. They surround the private garden, uniform as soldiers on parade. The brick walls and elegant ironwork keep out riff-raff: the small key identifies Zabini as anything but. The gate protests as it opens, scraping on the morning air.

He slips into this secret garden at the heart of London. A charm renders him all but invisible, only his shadow showing on the ground.

Far from the Tower, he can allow himself to quake. He has slept badly, tormented by his own imagination. He slumps onto a bench, head in hands, and outside the surveillance spells in his home, lets the fear overtake him.

He trembles, his heart stuttering. Images flash piecemeal across his mind - the bone breaking in Bellatrix's hands, the white hands taut upon her throat, the Dark Lord's red red eyes.

He cannot be weak for long, but for now, he gives in.

It's cathartic; when he sits up, he is drained but ready.

 Blaise allows himself to think about what passed in the archives. He went there on a gamble, knowing that the Ministry would never again be so emptied of Special Services and their prying eyes.

The Order were rising, it seemed, as their very name promised - from ashes, searing through the world once more. And if ever he had to choose, he would need some token of his loyalty. And what better than the very same token of their loyalty - the coins from Dumbledore's Army.

So he crafted an impeccable alibi, and he went to the archives.

Blaise recalls how he went in to see the archivist turned to stone in his chair.

And then he drew his wand, careful: the information here was a weapon of immense proportions for anyone clever enough to use it.

He edged in, holding a barely visible shield before him.

"You have a choice," he called down the silent aisles. "You can surrender now, and I'll do my utmost to ensure you receive the minimum punishment. Or we can fight - and you will have tried to kill a member of the Ministry. Worse, you'll have failed."

As he expected, no answer came.

One by one, he checked the aisles. His quarry's bolthole shrank. The final aisle - nothing to the right-

His shield flashed as bright as lightning, but Zabini had closed his eyes. When he opened them, a figure ran clumsily down the aisles, half-blinded.

With a flick of his wand, the door slammed. A whisper sent lights cycling around the room: his opponent doused them with a Shroud of Night charm so strong that it took three tries before Zabini lit the room again - just in time to see a bookcase toppling towards him.

He dived. A falling scroll clipped his heel as the bookcase hit the ground in a mess of splintered wood and torn paper.

They traded shots - between shelves, through the aisles, a volley of magic that filled the air with light and sound. Blaise fended off expert charms, and sturdy if basic battle-magic.

Back and forth they went, triggering security spells that exploded around them: Blaise had time on his side, power on his side - and his opponent knew it too. His spells became more reckless, faster...

And then a moment of carelessness: he spotted his opponent's feet under an aisle. With a hiss of triumph, Blaise fired a spell across the floor that knocked him clean over: he demolished a bookcase on top of him for good measure. A cry, then a soft, fading moan, and nothing.

He staggered to his feet. Carefully, he levitated the debris off, wanting to know who'd fought so boldly.

His heart nearly stopped.

Macmillan. Stupid, gormless Ernie Macmillan, with scrolls under one arm.

Who was once part of Dumbledore's Army. Who was known to visit Luna Lovegood. Who must surely be part of the Order.

There was a clamour outside - people banging on the door. The room was a wreck, and the traces of battle everywhere.

He had known then how it would look. The very action he took to help the Order would alienate them from him: he couldn't save Ernie - there was no time and nowhere to hide him.

But he could get the coins. He could claim Ernie destroyed them.

It was the decision of a moment. The glass cabinet holding them was shattered. Blaise scooped up the coins and Transfigured them into paperclips. They clinked into his pocket. As the door shuddered under the impact of his would-be rescuers, he aimed his wand at Ernie's heart, not looking at his face.

Five seconds later, the door smashed open onto Blaise. Bleeding, robes torn, smeared with soot, he stood victorious over a treacherous enemy.

It was a perfect tableau. He is, after all, the perfect publicist.

And yet, he cannot salve his conscience. He escaped the Tower tonight. Macmillan will not.

The only reassurance he has is this: that he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a chain of dangling paperclips, tiny things, incongruent in this verdant garden. For these, Ernie Macmillan will pay with his life, his sanity, with a knowledge of pain so deep and abiding that it will consume him.

He goes to the empty flowerbeds, which wait for spring. Blaise too has waited for spring - for three years, for however long it takes. He digs deep, and hides the paperclips under the packed ground.

For these, he may fall. And he's afraid. Of course he is.

But for these, the Order may rise - high, higher, until the phoenix soars above the Tower, above the Dark Mark, until the sky is full of that which cannot, will not, dare not die.

~*~




The cell door screeched as the guard opened it. Draco stepped in, carrying a chair, and was locked in. Spells reactivated in a flash of blue light that dazzled him briefly.

When his vision cleared, she was stirring from her bedraggled nest of moth-eaten blankets. He smothered his horror at the sight of her: her face was raddled with bruises, the residue of Bellatrix's tender ministrations. Makeshift bandages covered her hands, and she moved as if she'd aged fifty years. And almost worse, they had cut off her hair, which she had always taken such pride in.

He wanted to hug her, to whisk her away from this hellhole. But if Bellatrix was taking a personal interest, they were probably being watched.

So instead he put down the chair, settled himself, and said, quite coolly, "Mother."

Stripped of her fine clothes and her expensive perfumes, she had not lost a whit of her dignity. Narcissa drew the blankets around her shoulders as if they were a mink pelt. "Draco. You look well."

The faintest trace of a smile gleamed upon her lips; she understood the game.

"Of course," he said. "Aunt Bella mentioned she came to speak to you."

She touched the bruise on her cheek. Her voice was tired. "Among other things."

He glanced around. The guard nodded at him and then left, a wad of Muggle money tucked into his pocket. Draco had bought a few precious moments alone with her.

He rose swiftly, keeping his voice low. "I can heal that."

"No."

He hesitated. "Mother?"

"Bella would see it as weakness, Draco. You know it," she pressed.

"Your hands-"

She tucked them into the blankets as if hiding them from view could make him forget. "Will be fine. I am not a china doll."

"She..." He could not bring himself to say it.

"She asked in more than words," she said. "I did not answer."

He sank to his knees in front of her, taking her poor battered hands with the greatest of care. "Mother, why? Tell her, and it will be over!"

"Oh, Draco," she said sadly. "I'm afraid that simply isn't true. I have spent my life waiting for it to be over, telling myself that this meeting, that task, that death would be the last. It never is."

He looked up at her. All his life, she had been a glittering peacock, her laughter froth and bubbles, a woman of effortless glamour and unquestioning love. Now, although hardship had eroded her beauty, it had revealed something far more durable: a character forged from steel.

"I don't understand why you did it," he said. "Thousands of children have been taken. Why try and hide that one?"

His mother had never cared much for anyone beyond his father and himself. He had seen the pictures of the little girl she swept from the panicking crowds: a mite of a thing with cloudy black hair. No one special.

Her lips twisted. "I had my reasons."

He knew what her next question would be before she asked. The hope in her face gave it away.

"Have you seen your father?"

"Yes," he lied, as he did every time. "He's alive and about as well as he can be. He sends his love."

It was his father who broke and confessed to Voldemort, as if by handing over the child he could absolve himself. Draco couldn't forgive him for betraying his mother so easily.

She gave a little gasp of pure joy.

"Bella said..." She stopped herself. "Never mind that. He's all right?"

"Yes."

Draco didn't know. Still he could not reconcile the man his father was with the man Draco had always thought him to be. He remembered the handsome patriarch who'd taken such pride in his lineage; who had been so ambitious, a man of calculation and cold decision. If his love had been hard to earn - for earned it was in his father's world of worth and wealth - it had also been constant.

But he had crumbled before Voldemort, revealing that those qualities were merely a thin veneer. Beneath it, it turned out the man who put a value on everything had put the highest value of all on his own life.

"Give him my love, Draco," she commanded as she did every time. "Tell him I forgive him. Tell him I know he only wanted the best for us." Tears glimmered in her eyes and she reached out to smooth his hair, as she had when he'd been a child. "Silly man. He didn't see we already had the best, the very best. I just wanted someone else to have a little of it too..."

"Is that why you did it?" he said, pouncing on her words with the swiftness of desperation.

She sighed. "Draco, no more."

"Mother...Mother, you must tell them why you did it, or they will execute you." His throat was raw. "I can't stop them!"

She gazed at him as if surprised. "I never expected you to. I know what will happen, and happen it will whether I confess or whether I keep my silence and the last bit of dignity left to me."

He fought to keep his composure, holding it only by a ragged edge. "You don't know that. He may have mercy."

"That is exactly what the Great Lord does not have," she corrected. There was a serenity in her eyes he could not grasp. He had not seen it since Voldemort's return, a peace as vast and implacable as snowfall. "But my death may satisfy him, enough that he will release your father..."

He struggled to grasp her words. "You can't trade your life for the - the hope that the Great Lord will release Father!" he choked out.

She was silent: she gazed at him as if seeing something new in her son. "You talk as if hope isn't worth having," she said softly.

"It isn't," he said. It wasn't hope that drove him to Hogwarts, and to Granger - it was desperation. It was the sure knowledge that his mother would not help herself, and that his father would help only himself, and that Voldemort would help no one at all.

That was not hope: it was the utter absence of hope, the certainty of darkness and loss.

"Oh, my darling," she said, her voice quivering. She smoothed his hair back. "It's worth everything."

"Even your life?" he bit out.

"Especially that. I want you to be free, Draco, to be happy and strong, like you were. But instead I've watched the world shrink into Voldemort's shadow - as Bella did, as Lucius did, as you are. I can't accept that world any longer. I can't watch anyone else forced to accept it."

Her gaze was like a knife in his heart.

"That's why I did what I did. I saw a little girl, and she looked like Bella - just like her, before she met Tom, before it all went bad. And I wanted to save her. To send her somewhere that had never heard of Voldemort, or the Dark Mark. I wanted one person to be free of him - just one. I failed to protect Bella, and your father, and most of all, you. He has destroyed our family. He has made us his fools and his butchers. I wanted one little girl to be safe - one family to escape, even if it couldn't be mine, even if I have to sit here and listen to my own son tell me that hope...that h-hope isn't worth h-having."

Her voice broke: she wept quietly, without fuss, faced turned from him.

Draco couldn't look at her. Head bowed, he stared at the floor of the cell.

When she spoke again, her voice was calm. "So you see, Draco, why I won't confess. It wouldn't save me, and the Dark Lord would feel he had won. I will keep my dignity. I will have that victory, at least. And I will love you and hope for you until the moment that I die."

He staggered from her cell: he told her that he loved her, and she smiled. But it did not pierce the leaden horror he felt.

Draco hadn't known it until that moment, but he had hoped. He had hoped he could save his mother, his family, that he could turn back time as King Canute had hoped he could turn back the tides.

But now it was in tatters. His mother would not stall for time: there were only ten days left until her execution. There was no chance that they could overthrow Voldemort in that time, and no other way to save her now.

The world was crashing down upon him. Nothing else mattered: nothing but a Vow, and the woman who would hold him to it.

~*~




Faithful as the Pole Star, Luna led Hermione through London. Along cobbles and smooth paving stones. Through ticket barriers, past a multitude of voices. She felt her stomach lurch as a lift launched them downwards: she minded the gap as she stepped onto a train. The stations went by, marked off by an automatic voice: Leicester Square, Holborn.

They changed at Holborn in a rush of voices and footsteps and machinery. Chancery Lane gave way to St Paul's, and there Luna led her out of the station and into icy air. They walked on down what felt endless streets; lefts, rights, disorientating turns that left Hermione with no idea where they were.

Then Luna stopped. The street was busy, full of the sounds of people and cars.

"When I tell you," Luna said in a low voice, "Take three steps forward. No more."

There was a sudden commotion - brakes screeching, shouts and gasps, a crunch...

"Now," Luna whispered, and Hermione moved.

The noise from outside cut off. Then a young man's voice said, "You're back. Is that..."

"Hermione Granger," Luna finished. "Are they waiting?"

"Yes. In the holding area. You'd better get down there. There's news. Not the good kind."

"Oh dear," murmured Luna. "Hermione, we're going to go down a spiral staircase. Go as slowly as you need to. And watch out for devils under the stairs."

"I can't watch out for anything," she pointed out.

"So you can't." Luna considered. "Well, I'll watch for you."

They crept down the stairs. Even with one hand on the rail, Hermione felt dizzy: she could not see the drop that coiled away in front of her, but that made it worse, somehow. The descent seemed to go on forever - then her foot hit flat ground, and again.

She heard voices distantly, but they turned away from them and walked some way. When she had to lower herself over a ledge, she landed on old tracks. Her feet clipped the rails from time to time: then Luna drew her off to one side and when a door shut behind her, she realised they had entered a room.

Something nudged the back of her knees. "Here, sit down," Luna said. "It's usually a bit of a shock when the potion wears off. Can I have the antidote, please?" she asked, and Hermione realised there were other people present.

A glass was placed in her hand. She drank it: her vision began to clear, first into greyness, then into grainy colours, and finally...

She gasped. There were three people looking at her. Luna was smiling. She was the only one.

Neville was sat behind a table, bottled potions in front of him. He was still short, but the weight had melted off him to leave muscle and scars. He watched her through a shaggy blond mop of hair. His wand was aimed at her, and that hurt.

But not as much as the sight of the third person in the room. He leaned against the concrete wall, tall and imposing, arms folded. That fiery hair was the same, and so were the freckles, but nothing else was: nothing could ever be the same again between them, because the third of their trio was missing, lost, and they were all that remained.

His blue eyes pierced through her. "Hello Hermione," Ron said, his voice a little rough. "Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix."

~*~




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