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So. It's been a while. I still suck: you guys are still amazing. Huge thanks to the wonderful people who commented last time round. Thank you: Kay, yellowbuttermellow, theelderwand, KateRhodes, applegreen, bewitched0902, FutureAggie09, Lizayzay, Ardeel, Iluvdraco999, katiefelton, arimun, pinks, ld_wolverine, *~dramionewouldbeproud~*, julia, MrsDracoKruspe, Val:D, jaceni, AddictedtoFF, spam up sam, StaticEcho19, Miss stephanie, GeorgiaRhianne, MitziiiSujheyyy, Katty_1818, SearchingForLuna, Dragonwood, Steen, :), Blue Biro, Aeana, ilooklikehermione, DefyingBoundaries, MyLittleHeartShapedBox, s, Chelli, MaddyJane, Pinguin, Were Lupin, Shawna, colourinstereo, obliviateyourbrain, maria, Cassie, laura, draco-crazy, Kristin, kimmikki13, Rlim, Joy, and finally, fantastically, Alexa.

I adore hearing what you think: all comments and criticisms are very welcome! Hope you enjoy....



Midnight

When the familiar scene is suddenly strange
Or the well known is what we have yet to learn
And two worlds meet, and intersect, and change

- T. S. Eliot, To Walter de la Mare


"Ron," Hermione said, and his name twisted from her lips like a plea. "Ron, is it really you?"

His smile was faint, crooked, sad. "I was about to ask the same thing."

"What happened to you?" she said in a voice that was cracked and trembling. "You were there – behind the desk – and then there was fire and you were gone."

Stubborn, against all logic, she had clung to the belief he had survived. In those first nights, as the Death Eaters plundered the castle, their mockery and cruelty soared over the weeping of the ghosts.

Come out, come out, wherever you are...

Their whispers echoed through the crawl spaces and the rafters, following her into even the deepest, darkest corners. They listed the dead, the dying, the captured in a joyful litany. She listened for her friends, and each name she knew drove into her like a knife.

But it was the names they did not speak that she clutched like rosary beads. Ron. Luna. Neville. Ginny. They lived, and that flimsy hope kept her moving from shadow to shadow.

She saw another person once, a glimpse of wild eyes, matted hair – they threw a curse as green as envy at her, and as alarms sounded around them, she fled.

One by one, we'll find you. Do you think you can escape? There's nowhere to go, nothing left but you and us.

She huddled between two walls, biting back sobs while they hung Michael Corner in the Great Hall. Every last sound reached her, amplified by the spells they drenched the air with. They knew how to use fear, these self-made monsters, knew how to make a production of death.

Part of her wanted to cover her ears, to pretend that it was not happening, but Hermione could not bring herself to do it. She owed Michael that: the only dignity she could give him. Forehead pressed to the stone, fists clenched, she endured.

His pleas shrilled out, punctuated by their ridicule. When they knotted the noose around his neck, she heard his frightened gasps. Her heart clattered like the chair upon the floor as they kicked it out from under him: and when she heard the screech of the rope tightening, her fingers tightened on her wand, and spells of pain and death and anger boiled on her tongue, tasting of blood, tasting of tears.

Then there was nothing but the rhythmic creak of hemp as his body swung back and forth like a pendulum, and the words that followed it, soft as a sigh.

You're next.

She had lived each day certain that it was her last. Even when it became clear that the Death Eaters had abandoned Hogwarts, she could not quite believe it. She kept to the darkness, which had protected her for so long, and each night she relived the battle because she had no choice.

But hope had not left her. The phoenix rose in the battle-scarred sky, fire upon fire. She waited, afraid that the Death Eaters had been right – all that remained of the old world was trapped in a moment of midnight.

No one came. But still she set the sky alight, night upon night, Ron's words echoing through her, saying plan for the worst, hope for the best, that old routine.

And at last, her hope had been rewarded. They had survived and she had found them.

Yet it was not what she had imagined: the concrete box of a room, the wand Neville pointed at her, the flickering lightbulb that dangled from the ceiling.

"I didn't mean to leave you." Ron scrubbed a hand through his hair. His voice was bitter. "I didn't have much choice in the end. They carried me out. Curse. Nasty one."

"Ron," Neville said, a note of caution in his voice. "We need to be sure."

He grimaced, but gave a curt nod. "I know the rules, Nev. I wrote the bloody things."

Neville turned an impassive face to her. "Hermione. Good to see you. Assuming it is you, of course."

"It is," Luna said mildly. She waggled the sunglasses that perched on her lurid red hair. "I checked."

A certain softness crept into his eyes when he looked at her. "We've been fooled before, Luna."

Hermione sighed. She had expected something of the sort after Borgin and Burkes. "What do you need?"

There was approval in the sliver of Neville's smile. And not so much as a quiver in the wand aimed at her. "We'd like to cast some spells on you, with your permission."

She hadn't expected a choice. "What if I refuse?"

Ron shifted. Despite the unease in his eyes, he did not look away. He'd grown into leadership as he'd grown into his lanky body and his words were gentle but implacable. "Then we'd need to question why that is."

Courtesy rather than a choice, then. A small difference between the Order and the Government – but a crucial one. "You won't need to," she said. "You have my permission."

She hadn't realised Ron was tense until his shoulders sagged. "Thank you, Hermione."

What followed would have seemed the height of paranoia in less turbulent times. Once again, Veritaserum burned down her throat. She endured a barrage of personal questions – moments she had shared with each of them, relived in exacting detail until her throat ached from a cruel combination of too much talking and too much swallowed grief.

They tested her arm for the Dark Mark. Various charms to dispel illusions were cast at her: she emerged from them unchanged, her skin tingling as if she'd walked through mist, and her head held high.

True to form, she passed every test with flying colours.

And then Neville said, mildly, "Almost done, Hermione. Are you working for the Dark Lord?"

"No," she said clearly.

"Are you working for any of his ministers or associates?"

The answer stuck on her tongue for a moment. Her mind stumbled, then the thought came quite clearly and rather irritably: she was in no way working for Draco Malfoy. With him, yes.

Draco, she knew, would not have hesitated. She did, but only for a breath.

"No," Hermione said, her voice cool and crisp. "Certainly not. Are you?"

Something odd happened then: Ron started, and his eyes flicked to the empty corner. He quickly schooled his face into the blank expression he'd worn throughout, but her curiosity was piqued.

Neville gave her a sharp look. "No, I'm not. Last question, Hermione. Will you join the Order of the Phoenix and do everything in your power to defeat the Dark Lord, even if it costs your life or the lives of those you love?"

"Yes," she said, and it seemed to her that the Vow heated on her wrist.

He sat back – and for the first time, lowered his wand. And then he grinned, a sweet familiar smile that made a dimple pop in his cheek. "Glad to have you back, Hermione." He rolled a small vial between his thumb and finger then handed it over with a rueful glance. "Sorry about the interrogation."

She took the antidote he offered, recognising that olive branches sometimes had strange shapes. "It's okay. You took a risk bringing me here."

"Well, you are qualified to judge," Ron said dryly. "Even we try to avoid taking on a dozen of Voldemort's finest in the middle of the rush hour."

"I didn't exactly plan it," she admitted, flushing.

The corners of his mouth turned up. "I guessed. How did you get away?"

She couldn't help but think of Malfoy, a blond blur in Kings Cross. "I was lucky," she said softly.

"Then you're a rare breed," a new voice said.

Hermione started: it echoed from the stone, cool and female. And when Ron's eyes cut to the corner again, she twigged. "That's a very good invisibility charm," she remarked. "Not even a shadow. I haven't seen anyone do that since-"

And as if the curtains drew back on a stage, the air parted as a young woman shrugged off a cloak. Her face was as unforgiving as the Dark Lord himself, the left side marred by a lattice of scars. A challenge lay in that unwavering stare. She had the poise of a leader, and the eyes of an executioner.

Only two things identified her: the fiery hair scraped into a long plait, and the long silvery cloak that she cradled as if it were a holy relic.

"Hermione," said Ron, with something of an edge to his voice, "Meet our fearless leader."

Ginny Weasley gave her a smile that was all ice and gleam, a match for her eyes. "-since Harry."

~*~


Waking crawls over him like the flies in his cell. There's pain, sharp and glassy, a prelude of what he is sure must come. There's darkness, thick as smog, in which he is lost. Ernie reaches out, hands tentative.

His fingertips find a right angle and climb it to rough mortar laid out in orderly lines that speak of bricks and confinement. He feels sick and scared and hopeless.

They have caught him. Oh please no (but yes) they have caught him.

There is a hot ball of pain where his left foot should be, the only heat he has. A groan squeezes between his clenched teeth when he moves – but he must, he can't stay still. The need to know his prison is intense.

Awkward, he sits – and his head cracks on the ceiling. The shock makes his stomach lurch and minutes pass while his ribs ache with the strain of holding back vomit.

Slowly, he feels his way round and the grim reality of his situation is revealed. The cell is too low to stand in, too small to stretch out in, too narrow to do anything but curl up and wait. A slimy patina coats the floor and now his fingers, reeking of damp and rotting things. The only exit is a grate, but beyond it are horrors which he can only imagine – which he cannot stop imagining.

They have taken everything from him. He is naked, and when he feels his head, he realises that they have shaved his hair off. Nothing remains but tufts and cuts. His wand is gone, of course. A fine trophy for Zabini.

The spells, so precious, are gone too. He has let them down – Luna, Neville, the Order, but most of all Susan, Susan twisting, turning, restless, burning. Nothing left of her soft smile, peeled back to chattering teeth and tension. Nothing of her soft hands, gnawed and red. Ernie knows he can't bring her back, but he'd thought he could settle for bringing her peace.

Guilt piles up on the pain and the fear: and he is buried beneath them, his harsh gasps so close to sobs, so close, but he won't let them hear him break.

When the voices come, slick whispers through the rusty grate, he clamps his hands over his ears and shivers. But they are cunning; wafts of magic carry their soft words through his scrunched fingers. He twists and turns but cannot escape as they tell him of pinching prying tearing things, of fires that spew black smoke and turn metal gold with heat.

And oh god, they're so tender, talking of torture as if it's a seduction. How thin the skin is in certain soft places, like tissue paper, layers to be peeled back one by one. How they'll draw the truth from him as if it's an infant, pulled shrieking from the bloodied cocoon of his body. How there will be nothing but him and them and all the time in the world...

Ernie clings on to sanity inside his stone coffin, clings onto thoughts of the world beyond, of sunshine and something better than this. The fear is savage in its intensity, a monster made of gruesome promises and the whirr of flies and the stench of decay.

They have taken everything. All he has left now is hope, and it doesn't seem like enough.

~*~


It had been said by wise men that money could buy a house, but not a home. The Malfoys had decided that this was obviously twaddle and set out to prove their point with a demonstration of profligacy that would have made Creosote look like a rank amateur.

From this rose Malfoy Manor: a masterpiece of architecture and landscaping. And one invisible upon the Wiltshire landscape, unless of course you had access to this most secret of gardens.

The thick mist that surrounded the estate was a new measure. It parted for him, recognising him as its own: tendrils of it twined about his feet like cats and muffled the crunch of gravel under his feet, but Draco strode through it unseeing, unhearing. His mind was back in Azkaban, struggling for hope, struggling to see a future that was more than pain and slaughter and ruin.

So it was that he came to the front doors. An emaciated house-elf opened them, quivering. Its shackles reflected back the warm gold light of the hallway. Blood was crusted on one shoulder around dark weals. Granger, he thought dimly, would have been furious. And somehow, that mattered.

"Where is the Great Lord?" said Draco coldly.

The elf pointed. Its eyes were two hollows, its fingers bone and skin as translucent as gauze.

The words slipped from him before he even knew it, gruff, grudging, unwanted. "Thank you."

And he wondered, as he left the creature trembling in his wake, why he'd said it.

~*~


Ginny circled her as if she couldn't keep still. It was the pacing of a predator: every time she passed behind her, Hemione had to struggle not to look round, not to seem on edge.

"It's good to see you," she offered, the back of her neck prickling.

"I'm sure it is." Her voice was quite cool. "It must have been a quiet three years in Hogwarts."

The implication made Hermione bridle. "Not exactly."

"And what drove you out of the castle, I wonder." Ginny paused. Her eyes were brown, bright, hard. "What changed?"

"Gin…" Ron said.

"You don't think we need answers?" said his sister, arching an eyebrow. "Doesn't it all seem a bit...convenient, Ron? We lose one of our most valuable people, and lo and behold, suddenly Hermione Granger pops out of the woodwork. Isn't it just too perfect?"

"She isn't working for Voldemort." He sounded weary, as if this was an old argument. "We've tested her – more than we have anyone else. It's Hermione. You know what she can do for morale-"

"I know she still hasn't answered my question. What changed, Hermione?" That incessant, slow prowl began again.

She had known this would be the difficult part. It was both the trump card and the joker in the pack. She could offer them something no one else could: someone at the heart of Voldemort's regime. And that meant, by its very nature (by his very nature, so deadly, so contrary, so broken…) that they would doubt her.

Hermione met Ron's eyes. "Do you remember telling me about the signal in the last battle?"

"The phoenix? But I – we...we looked. Once a month, someone went back...it was all we could afford..."

"I couldn't send it at first. Too dangerous." In those two words, a host of hidden horrors: the chair clattering on the floor as Michael died, the sound of footsteps hunting her, dodged curses, fleeing past crumpled bodies. "It was months before they left. And I was frightened. So when I did send it, it was always when the fires in the sky were brightest. You might not have seen it. Then one night..." She thought back, and the realisation of just how little time had passed startled a laugh from her because it seemed a land of once upon a time and far far away. "Last week, actually – that night, I sent it up when the sky was dark."

It was fire in her memory, emblazoned on the black canvas of the sky.

"And someone saw," she said. She hesitated, but they had to know. "A Death Eater."

Ron's eyes widened, but after a minute, he gave a slow nod, as if it made sense. Neville looked grim: Luna only listened, a faint smile playing about her mouth. She, for one, did not seem at all surprised.

"I know how it sounds," Hermione said, looking from face to face. "I thought it was a trap at first. But they want to see Voldemort overthrown too. They offered their help – their knowledge."

Ginny's voice was mocking, almost amused. "And I suppose they wanted nothing at all, this charitable Death Eater of yours."

"They wanted me to contact you," she said, quiet, honest. "They knew you'd never accept them if they tried to approach you. They knew they couldn't defeat him alone."

Fingers dug into her shoulders – she was spun, staggering, and Ginny thrust her face close, eyes blazing. "And you have given them exactly what they wanted," she said in a voice that was deadly soft. "What assurance do you have that you have not led our enemy right to our door?"

She stared back, unflinching. And then she bared her wrist, and she held it up so they could see. "I swear that I will fight the Dark Lord to the best and to the end of my ability," she said, and the Vow began to glow gold, like fire under her skin. "I swear that I will not betray you by word or thought or deed."

Ron whistled. "An Unbreakable Vow? That sounds pretty binding, Ginny."

"They swore it too?" Ginny said. At Hermione's nod, she released her, her face sharp and thoughtful. "Who was your Bonder?"

"Viktor."

She heard gasps. A slow, wolfish smile curved Ginny's mouth. "You got into Azkaban."

"Merlin's grubby girdle," breathed Ron, "Think of the possibilities."

"Who is it?" demanded Ginny.

Hermione only looked at her. Everything about Ginny unsettled her: the hardness in her face, the serrated edge to her questions, her restlessness. Somehow, she didn't think it would be wise to give her Draco's identity so easily.

That smile widened and took on a bitter twist as Ginny realised. "Did you promise them your silence?"

"No. But I've done enough today to prove that you can trust me. So before I give you my ally, before I endanger our best shot at overthrowing Voldemort, don't you think it's time you proved that I can trust you?"

The look on Ginny's face was a mix of disbelief and anger.

And Ron said, quietly, "Gin, she's right."

Then her shoulders slumped: she looked young, and tired. "She always is," she said, not without a little rancour. "All right, Hermione. You want a show of good faith, you can have it. Come on."

With that, she turned and left the room. Hermione glanced at Ron, unsure. "Where am I going?"

"Strategy meeting," he said. "Just Ginny and her most trusted people."

"And me," she said dryly, following him out onto the tracks.

He glanced back: his eyes were dark as ink in the dim light, but his voice was warm. "Like I said, her most trusted people."

~*~


Through a lens, the world seems smaller and simpler. It's a lie, of course, but Dennis has a certain fondness for lies. They will kill him eventually – the shakes are getting worse, and sometimes he can hardly breathe – but it's a fair price to pay.

The pictures from London Bridge are taking shape in his darkroom. Tomorrow Zabini will scan through them and select whichever is closest to the world he wants to convey.

But in the hidden alcove, there are other pictures developing, and these show the world as it truly is. The corridors and offices are sharply defined, an invaluable map of the Ministry.

He took them last time he visited, the camera small and unobtrusive in the buttonhole of his coat. The charms on it are complex, a piece of craftsmanship that has the hallmark of Ernie Macmillan's work.

Dennis passes him from time to time in the corridors. They do not look at one another. It's been three years since Ernie addressed a word to him, and their silence will endure as long as Voldemort does. It is the silence of a conspiracy, of dark secrets in this dark world.

When the doorbell shrills, he jumps. It's only been a fortnight since his last interview with Special Services. He seals the alcove and traipses upstairs, peeling off his gloves.

Blaise Zabini is at his door, austere in dark blue robes. Two bodyguards are leaning on a Government car, sharing a cigarette.

"My apologies for the intrusion," Zabini says. Something about his manner is a little odd, stilted.

Dennis gestures him in. The poky bedsit must seem a hovel to Zabini, who grew up in a series of stately homes, but he doesn't show even a flicker of disdain as he sits on the faded couch.

"This is an unexpected surprise, Minister," hints Dennis. His throat feels dry. It's been at least two hours since he's had Veritaserum, and despite the tightness in his chest, he needs it. "Can I get you a cup of tea?"

Beneath the impeccable clothes and impeccable manners, he looks tired. "That would be very much appreciated, actually."

Some of Dennis's panic fades once he's in the kitchen and the smell of tea is rising on the steam. He dashes a few drops of Veritaserum into his. Even though it's scalding hot, he can't stop himself from taking a couple of sips. His lips burn with heat and truth, and it soothes him.

When he takes the mugs back in, Zabini is composed, wearing a faint smile. "Thanks, Dennis. As I said, I apologise for turning up on your doorstep like a stray dog, but I'm afraid I'm here on urgent business."

"I have a private commission this afternoon."

Zabini waves a hand. "I'll compensate you. My orders come directly from the Great Lord."

He gulps down more tea. His heart feels like it's being squeezed in someone's hands. "Then I am at your service, Minister."

Zabini's eyes settle on The Daily Prophet, wedged under the leg of Dennis's rickety table. "Is that today's?"

"Yes."

To his bemusement, Zabini removes it. Tea sloshes onto the surface of the table, but he's unfolding the paper to display his own face, cool and handsome under the headline. BRAVE MINISTER FOILS TERRORIST, it declares before launching into a fawning recital of some nameless fool's capture. "I assume you've read this."

"Of course, Minister. Quite a feat. You must feel very proud."

His mouth twists. "I feel a number of things about this lamentable incident, Dennis, but proud is not one of them."

"Really?" blurts Dennis, startled.

It is in every way a triumph for Zabini. But the bitterness in his voice is real, and bizarre unless...

Unless he is not as sympathetic to the Government as everyone assumes. But it can't be so.

Zabini's face becomes a pleasant mask. "Of course. One of our own was working against us and we were slow to find him. We can only be grateful he was caught before he attempted anything more serious. As it is, he will be executed tonight. I need you to produce the publicity shots."

His stomach turns. But he cannot refuse. "I thought the Wizengamot's official photographer-"

"He will take the final shots, of course." Zabini sounds a touch husky. "But the Great Lord feels that the public should be reminded of just what the penalty for treachery is. Macmillan is to be questioned first."

Dennis can only stare at him. It's Ernie - he has been caught. The world tilts on its axis.

Everyone knows that Special Services question those they execute. But no one knows just what it entails. They only see the prisoners afterwards, shuddering, broken, embracing their execution as if it is a blessing.

He recovers his voice at last, a bare whisper. "You want me to..."

Zabini meets his eyes. His jaw is tense. No, Dennis realises, understanding now just what has been jarring him about the wizard since he arrived – Zabini is tense. "The Great Lord requires it."

He has no choice. That is apparent.

And as he realises just what he must do – what it means, his chest compresses as if he's being pressed under a mountain. The Order, Luna, him. Their survival hangs by the slender thread of Ernie's life and Ernie's silence. He must ensure it: but he doesn't think he can do it alone.

"What if he won't talk?" he croaks.

Zabini's eyes are dark as ink, full of pity. "I'm told that's very unlikely."

"Isn't there anyone else?"

"No one else who has your talent." He sounds genuinely regretful. "I'm sorry, Dennis, but your work on our other campaigns came to the attention of the Great Lord and he specifically requested you."

He passed a hand over his forehead, damp with sweat. The air seems too thin. "Very well, Minister. I'll go and get my equipment."

In the basement, he digs out a small cage. There is a mouse inside, cowering, its mind full of only one thing: the Order's headquarters. It will run all the way there, through the sewers and tubes. No one, after all, will notice anything strange about another mouse in London. He gives it his message and releases it into a crack in the wall. He wishes he could escape so easily.

There are no lies that can save him from this. He must face the truth, condensed down into the skin and bones of Ernie Macmillan. And if Ernie talks, those few, final words may kill them all: the irony strikes Dennis hard.

He thought it would be a lie that killed him, but the truth is just as sharp and savage.

~*~


The ballroom was the very picture of faded glory. The parquet floor gleamed, the wood smooth under his feet. The twin chandeliers sparkled above it, throwing a kaleidoscope of reflections onto the floor. It was beautiful and simple and sumptuous, like the house itself, and it felt bittersweet to walk there and know it was no longer his home.

The long bay windows along one side revealed the gardens. It had become overgrown, the topiary animals melted mutations of themselves. His mother would have hated that, as she would hate the dust on the mirrors that line the opposite wall.

But Voldemort cared nothing for dust or leaves or the loving details that made the manor house more than a box of possessions. He cared only that he owned it: and so it decayed like everything he touched.

At the far wall was a configuration of sofas and tables. Once, wealthy wizards had socialised, drunk brandy, played chess. Now it was a greater game spread upon the surfaces; orders for executions, half-drafted laws, proclamations and damnations alike. The chessboard was the country itself, and they were all pieces, all players, all pawns.

"Draco." His name was a caress on Bellatrix's tongue and vaguely creepy.

"Aunt Bella," he said, perfectly polite. He reached the sofa she lay along, languid, a dark stain on the white and gold of the ballroom.

She tilted her cheek for a kiss. She was fever-hot, as she always was. "You saw your mother."

"Yes."

"And have you persuaded her to speak?"

He dared show nothing but indifference. "No."

Bellatrix smiled, a jagged, ragged thing. "Then she will go to the fires. And I shall weep, Draco, weep for the sister I have lost, but oh, I will praise the Great Lord for the wonder he has made! The fire will make her beautiful, consume her lies and her folly and her soft stupid heart until there's nothing but truth and bones, truth and bones and ash." Her laughter ratcheted up the roof. "And you and I shall keep her, Draco, keep the very best of her forever, and the rest the flames shall have."

He felt sick at the thought. He showed nothing. "I believe the Great Lord wanted to me."

"Yes, yes, my darling. He's in the study." She shuddered. "What times we live in, what a man we follow!" Her lips parted: her voice was throaty and trembling and awed. "Glory be to the Great Lord!"

"Glory be," he echoed and left her.

The study door creaked as he entered. It was dimly lit, a place of dark-panelled walls and hulking furniture. The bookshelves were lined with old tomes in dozens of languages. At the heavy desk, Voldemort sat, a glass of viscous black liquid on one side and an hourglass, running down, on the other.

Draco could not take his eyes off the falling sand.

"Draco." Those red eyes pinned him. "Explain to me just how the Granger girl escaped."

He did, brisk and professional, just as he had been in his report. He already knew Croxley was in the Tower, quivering in an oubliette. If the Dark Lord chose to do the same to him, nothing he said now would alter that.

Voldemort nodded. And then he stood, and Draco's heart lurched. The fear trickled through him like poison as the Dark Lord said, "Now show me."

He knelt – and those fingers, as cold as the grave, pressed upon his forehead. He could not stop his quick breaths, his taut muscles.

"Leglimens," whispered the Dark Lord and the familiar pain crashed upon him. It was barbed wire and broken glass under his ribs, behind his eyes, arching his back, twisting slashing ripping agony that pried him open and pulled him apart. He knew it, and part of him welcomed it because pain was easy, pain wiped out the rest of the world.

Kings Cross replayed; and Draco concentrated on his hatred of Granger, her weakness, mingling old vitriol from schooldays with new memories, stitching his emotions together in a patchwork of lies. Funny, but the pain made it easier – shattered him apart again and again so that if the pieces fell back together differently, then even the Voldemort would struggle to notice.

But the Great Lord was not interested in Draco's thoughts – only in Granger, who he focused on again and again, from every angle. Her fierce eyes, her face, her fearlessness, her easy magic. Closer, closer, closer until Draco's mind was full of her...

When the pain ended, he was left gasping, covered in a sheen of sweat.

"So here is their leader at last," Voldemort murmured. "What has brought her out from the shadows?"

Draco did not answer. But he thought: Me.

The Dark Lord yanked his head back: those red eyes burned over him, savage and empty. "They have stepped up their activities. The Quidditch player's house. Macmillan. And her. Her."

He let go: he ran a finger over the hourglass lovingly.

"She is the one who has opposed me for so long," he mused. "No matter how many we kill, they spawn like cockroaches, this foolish little Order. And she is behind it all. A formidable mind. A formidable witch." He smiled. It was cold and ominous. "Not, however, as formidable as she might believe."

"My lord?" Draco said.

"They play games, the Order. Silly games. Dropping leaflets. Sabotaging traffic lights on Government routes. Did you ever wonder why they do such things, Draco?

"I assumed it was all they were capable of," he answered, unsure where this was going.

"So did we all, Draco. So did we all." He laughed. "It's time the world learned otherwise, don't you think? Hermione Granger wants it known that the Order of the Phoenix has returned – so be it."

~*~


King William Street was enormous. Hermione couldn't help but admire what the Order had done. She glimpsed barracks, with beds in neat lines. There was a makeshift library, filled with trestle tables and rickety mismatched bookshelves. A vast kitchen steamed off to one side. Most they merely passed by – but there was one room they had to walk though to reach the meeting.

The wards. At first Hermione didn't know what the noise was: an uneven rumble. It wasn't the trains – too high, too irregular. And then she saw the first patients, and she realised it was the moans of the wounded and the dying.

"Oh god," Hermione whispered as she saw the sea of faces and bed and crude partitions. "Oh god, there's so many..."

Tears glazed her vision, but she held them back.

"They've started using new spells," said Ron. He sounded drained. "We don't have cures. All we can do is make people comfortable."

She thought of Hogwarts, with its treasure trove of books, trampled and torn but still usable, still full of secrets and wonders. "I might be able to help," she said huskily. "I know spells – I had…I had the library. I can try."

His smile was worn: there was, though, a flicker of hope in it. "It's worth a shot."

And then someone called her name. She turned: and Professor Flitwick was advancing on her, dragging one leg, his face dazed. "Hermione Granger?" he said, though his voice was garbled, the words thick and slurred. His eyes shone with tears, with disbelief. "Is that you? My girl, have you come back to us?"

"It's me, Professor," she whispered.

He gave a cry of joy, and leapt forward to grab her hand and shake it vigorously. "Welcome back, Hermione. Your heart and your courage were sorely missed by us all. Why...to think you survived...after so long, you've found us again..."

And then she heard it: whispers beginning around her – her name passing from person to person.

"Filius, we need Hermione," said Ron, his voice gentle but firm.

"Of course, of course," he said. There was a kind of awe in his face when he looked at her, and it was disconcerting. He'd been her teacher: and now he looked at her the way people used to look at Harry. "Two of you, now, eh, and what's to say it won't be all three?"

"Where there's life, there's hope, right?" said Ron, as if he'd said it a thousand times before.

"Wise words, Weasley," said Flitwick and smiled.

"Yeah, they're yours," Ron said with a flash of his cheeky grin. "Come on, Hermione." As he led her away, his smile faded. "Told you you'd be good for morale." He sighed. "At least it'll make breaking the news easier."

"What news?" she said.

He led her into a room. A large table dominated it: there were a dozen or so people around it, with Ginny at the head. The door closed firmly behind them, shutting out even the cries of the injured.

"Welcome everyone," said Ginny, silencing all conversation. "You've probably all heard by now, so let's get to it. Ernie Macmillan has been captured. He knows our location. He was one of our best people. He was also one of the closest to our secrets. We need a plan and we need it quickly. Options?"

"That news," muttered Ron. His jaw was set. He raised his voice. "Newspapers are clear he's being held in the Tower. We could attempt a rescue."

"Too risky," said Ginny, flicking away the suggestion.

He gaped. "Too risky? It's Ernie. He's risked enough for us. If he dies it'll set back everything that happened in the last few days – Hermione's escape, the explosion at Krum's..."

"...which we took the credit for, but it wasn't us," interrupted Ginny.

"No, that was me," admitted Hermione. A dozen faces snapped to her.

"That was you?" said Ginny finally. "You've been busy. Ron, you know a rescue is out of the question. The Tower is heavily defended. We'd lose too many people even trying. Next?"

"Harry would have tried," said Ron, his voice very soft.

Ginny went white. Her hands gripped the table so tightly her knuckles pressed against her skin. "Do not use him against me," she said, the words bitten out. "Harry..." Her voice caught. "Harry would not have endangered the Order with his actions, which is what will happen if we send people to the Tower. If they are caught, we are finished."

"And what about Ernie?" said Neville. "If we don't send anyone, he's finished. Gin, we have blueprints for the Tower – there are ways in. A small group – three, say, with charms that will wipe their minds if they're caught..."

Ginny's jaw was set. The scars stood out on her face, a twisted mass of tissue. "Better his death than a dozen others," she said finally.

Who are you? thought Hermione, saddened. Is this what the war has made you? You came to the Ministry with us; you fought the Battle of Hogwarts. You'd never have left someone to die there.

"So what are we discussing, exactly?" said Ron. "Given that you won't condone a rescue."

"He will be tortured," Ginny said coolly. "There's no doubt about that. How much will he reveal? Luna, I understand you assisted him with a charm?"

"Yes. But it needs a wand." Luna's grey eyes were very steady. "They won't let him cast it. They're very cruel, that way."

"We have to evacuate," another wizard said. "There's no other way to be safe."

"Some of the wounded can't be moved," argued a woman. "We can't abandon them."

The discussion flowed, heated, charged, filled with fear and anger and need. Hermione listened, but it flowed over her. Then a knock came at the door.

"Sorry to interrupt," said the young wizard on the door. "We've had an emergency message."

"From who?" demanded Ginny.

"Dennis Creevey. He's been ordered to the Tower with Minister Zabini. He's to photograph a prisoner." The wizard swallowed. "Ernie Macmillan. He's asking for instructions."

"How the hell can we give him instructions from here?" demanded Neville.

Ginny smiled. It wasn't pleasant. "There is a way," she said. "So. It looks like we can keep our secrets, after all."

"You're going to ask Dennis to rescue him?" said Neville, startled. "With a Minister there?"

Her smile faded. "No," she said softly. "I'm going to ask Dennis to kill him."

~*~


The car crawls through the streets. As per usual, most pedestrians can beat the traffic at a brisk walk.

Neither he or Zabini talk. The buildings move by, and Dennis tries not to think of what he must do. The Order will contact him: they arranged a way, long ago, based on something they once saw. He never saw the woman who applied the spell – she was careful, clever, disguised by Polyjuice. He recognised her face only because he'd photographed the girl three weeks earlier.

So he waits.

They hit a persistent jam. It looks like the lights are down at the end of the street – cars are honking and revving while cyclists weave in and out with smug abandon. Dennis gazes out of the window: he sees the faded sign of Purge and Dowse, hiding St Mungos. It's a remnant of the old world. While Voldemort has filled it with new faces, he does not interfere with the patient work of the Healers.

"What's going on up there?" mutters Zabini.

"Signal problems," reports the driver. "Keeps 'appening in the City. Always near Government buildings. Work of saboteurs, if you ask me. "

"I didn't," Zabini says with unusual curtness.

~*~


Hermione left the meeting uneasy. Uproar had begun the minute Ginny had revealed her plan: it was still not done. Ron went with her, flushed and clearly angry.

"No use talking to her now," he said tautly. "The more people shout at her, the more stubborn she gets. We've got time. They aren't due to start on Ernie until this evening. Once she's calmer…maybe she'll listen."

Hermione sighed. "She's changed so much."

"We all have. But Ginny...losing Harry changed her. It damaged her, Hermione. When she first starting taking charge of the resistance, it seemed like a good thing. Like she had something to live for again. But then people kept dying and she got colder with every one." His eyes were distant. "I don't even recognise my little sister anymore."

"What about you?" she said quietly. "What do you do here?"

"Me?" He gave her a shy grin. "I set up our network. Turns out I've got a knack for strategy."

She thought of the chess games he'd always loved and couldn't be surprised. In that moment, he was the old Ron – her Ron, awkward and sweet. And it hurt, a little, looking at him and feeling the distance between them, that of time and secrets, all they'd lost. She wanted some of it back, at least.

And she trusted him.

"Ron," she said quietly. "I want you to know who my ally is."

He took one look at her face and pulled her into a side room. He shut the door: the layers of charms he put on it were enough to shut out an explosion. "Whoever it is, if they got you into Azkaban, they're pretty high up. And they must be serious, or they wouldn't have made a Vow like that."

She wished she could share his faith, that she could stop doubting Draco. "Promise me you won't tell anyone."

"I promise," he said at once. And then, as if it was commonplace, he cast a charm that reinforced his words. She had to smile: it was the same one she had used to discover just who had betrayed Dumbledore's Army to Uxbridge. "See? I tell anyone, I get a seriously nasty case of boils."

She closed her eyes, trying to screw up the courage.

"Hermione, how bad can it be?" he said. "It's not as if you've snuggled up to Bellatrix or Malfoy."

"Yes," she said.

"Yes...what?"

"Malfoy," she said and opened her eyes onto his shock. "It's Draco Malfoy."

"What?" he yelped. "You made an Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy, of all people? My dad was furious when one of my brothers tried that on me, and here you are tying yourself to the wizarding world's most wanted!"

She stood staunch in the face of his incredulity. "I know how it sounds."

"Hermione, it's...it's..." He scrubbed his hands through his hair, apparently at a loss for words. At last he sputtered, "...completely mental."

"I know," she answered.

The silence persisted: he only watched her, the shock fading into something softer, into a sorrow that she did not quite grasp. She'd expected him to be angry and full of vitriol. Instead, he was quieter than she remembered, as still and thoughtful as when he played chess.

At last he said, "Well, it's done. Merlin knows how Gin'll take it." He sighed. "I need to think about what we do with this. We've been trying to get someone close to Voldemort for months, but no one ever thought Malfoy...I mean, the things he's done. If even half of them are true, do we want an ally like him?"

"Do you have any other option?" Hermione asked.

His smile was grim and very tired. "I know that's a rhetorical question. No. Of course not. I don't like it – hell, I don't like him, but if that git Malfoy can end this pointless, hopeless, bloody war, then I can grit my teeth and bear it. Problem is, Ginny won't see it that way. She'll think we're betraying Harry and everything he fought for." Ron's voice roughened on his name. "Everything he lost."

Hermione tried to block out the memory of Harry, so still outside the walls of Hogwarts. It wasn't how she wanted to remember him. "And what about everyone else?" she said, as soft as he.

What about Viktor, wasting into bones and filth in Azkaban? What about the bruises shaped like hands on Luna's neck? She thought of the makeshift hospital outside where so many people were beyond help, chained to their addled minds as surely as the ghosts chained to Hogwarts.

So many people had lost so much. Grief rose in her throat, hot and painful.

"What about what they've lost?" she demanded. "Or isn't that enough?"

Ron blurred into a haze of tears. Merely seeing him brought her pain boiling to the surface; it struck home that there were two of them in this battle when there should be three.

She cuffed away the tears, but more fell, hot on her cheeks, and when Ron hugged her, she sank into him and wept as she had not in years. The smell of him, his warm embrace was all eerily familiar, but she no longer felt unassailable in his arms.

"I miss him," she said into his shoulder, voice raspy.

"I know," he said. "I miss him too."

Eyes sore, she drew back, composing herself. "Thank you, Ron. I didn't mean to cry all over you."

He gave her a wry grin. "C'mon, Hermione, you've made an Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy. I'd cry too if I were you. My shoulder is on offer whenever you need it."

She sighed. "You might regret saying that."

"Nah." He brushed at the damp spot her tears had left with mock-nonchalance. "I can handle it. I've got a tumble-drier."

She raised her eyebrows. "Don't tell me you're using Muggle technology!"

"I've been well-trained," he said, and, rather shyly, held up his left hand. He wore a thick silver ring, and with a jolt, Hermione realised what it meant.

"You're married?"

His eyes were anxious, searching her face as if he wasn't sure what he'd find. "Yeah. Last year."

"Who?" she demanded.

A blush stained his cheeks. "Lavender."

She wasn't sure what to feel: surprise was chief among her emotions, drowning out everything else. "Really? How did that happen? Should I be calling you Won-Won?"

He laughed. "No, please. And don't mention it to Lavender unless you really want to see her cringe." Affection softened his voice: the slant of his smile was a little dreamy, out of place amid the concrete and dust. "I always thought she was silly, you know, and it didn't end well at school – we were such kids, her and me. She managed to survive the last battle, and after Special Services took her parents she came to the Order."

"Did they-"

He shook his head once, smile draining away. "Avada Kedavra. State-sanctioned, for harbouring a fugitive. She wanted to fight. I didn't think she'd be any good, but Ginny disagreed. First time I took her on a raid, she saved my life. Took a curse to the shoulder doing it, and then had the balls to ask me if her make-up was smudged while she was lying there bleeding to death." Ron gave her a wry look. "After that, it was all a bit inevitable, really. I starting seeing her for who she was – not a fussy painted doll, but this fearless, selfless, incredible woman."

He was fingering the ring, turning it on his hand.

"Lucky for me," he added, "turned out I'd grown up a bit too, and she decided I wasn't as much of an immature prat as she'd thought. And with things the way they are, we didn't want to wait." He shrugged as if it was nothing, but Hermione could see his pride. "So I asked, and she said yes, and we tied the knot here."

"Congratulations," she said, and meant it. "I'm so glad you're happy."

She'd known, she realised, from the moment she'd seen Ron that things between them had changed. The war had blown apart their relationship before it had begun, before it was more than hormones and kisses. And she'd missed him fiercely – but she had missed her friend, not her boyfriend.

"I am, you know," he said ruefully. "I shouldn't be in the middle of a war, but then I think that today might be my last day with Lavender, so we live like it is. Every day it's not means that I get to love her for another day, and who wouldn't be happy about that?"

"As long as you don't start wearing matching necklaces," she said slyly.

Ron shuddered. "Not likely. The matching rings are far more tasteful. "

"Your family must be pleased," she said, as tactful as she could be. Better that than asking for the butcher's bill.

He knew what was couched in the careful question: the contentment faded from him. "What's left of them. There's me and Gin. Mum..." He swallowed hard. His eyes were very bright, the strain evident in his voice. "She tried to take on Bellatrix Lestrange in the last battle. She's been in Azkaban since. She's alive, I guess, but that's all we know. Dad wasn't the same after that. Wandered round in a daze. Him and Percy got caught in an explosion last year."

"Oh Ron," she said, her heart sinking. "I'm so sorry."

"Me too," he said tiredly. "Charlie keeps telling me that at least it was quick, that they never knew what hit them, but it doesn't make me feel any better. Bill and Fleur were caught two months ago – a botched raid on Gringotts."

"What happened?" she said.

His mouth was grim. "We don't know exactly, except that Special Services were waiting for them."

She gazed at him, slotting the facts into place. "Someone sold you out."

Ron gave a curt nod.

And she felt a chill squirm down her spine. The last refuge of the wizarding world was crumbling: there was nothing else but shadows and prison bars. And she knew now why so many spells laced this dank little room. It was all the secrecy they had left, and it still might not be enough.

There was a traitor in the Order.

~*~


The hourglass kept pouring. There was hardly any sand left in the top.

"What do you think is the greatest weakness of the Order of the Phoenix?"

"Aside from their incompetence, you mean?" said Draco. His nerves were jangling: something about the hourglass unnerved him. He kept thinking, for some reason, of Granger, of the way she'd frozen time for him. "Their numbers. There aren't enough of them."

"Numbers mean very little if you have the fire, the need. No, Draco, they are doomed by something far greater: they love. They are weak and soft and malleable. There's almost nothing they won't do for those they love." He chuckled low in his throat. "What a fine weapon it is. Love will destroy them in the end." His finger caressed the hourglass. "And in the beginning."

The last grains of sand fell. And in London, where the City's best photographer waited for the traffic to move, where the perfect publicist stared out the window, with a sound that rocked King William Street...

St Mungos exploded.

~*~


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