The leaky cell was a downgrade from the summerhouse that Jeremy Preachwell had grown so accustomed to. He wiped the dewdrops from his forehead as the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement stared him down, desperate for more answers than Jeremy was willing to give. There was no way that Potter could know about Irina Petrov; at least, that's what he hoped.
"You're in love with her, aren't you?"
Jeremy's heart thudded in his chest. Even if Potter knew of his past with the Russian witch, he could never know that she was at the estate that day. She was the only one to slip away unnoticed, and if he had to spend ten lifetimes in Azkaban so she could walk free, he would.
With trepidation, he asked, "In love with who?"
"Bulstrode!" Potter approached him, squinting. His emerald eyes were those of a madman, bright and filled with certainty. "You're scared for her. Scared she'll be staying here for good."
The wizard wasn't sure he heard him right. The other Auror, Durden, appeared to be just as surprised as he was by Potter's allegation. Nevertheless, it was the out that he needed, so instead of arguing like he so deeply wanted to, he stammered, "Y-yes! Yes, exactly. I would m-miss her very much. Very much, indeed."
The words were hard to manage. He most certainly would not miss Geraldine Bulstrode.
Potter nodded, seemingly accepting of his answer. Still, Jeremy held his breath. If he were to give himself away, his sweet Irina could pay the price.
"Azkaban isn't what it used to be," the Man-Who-Lived said, airily, turning away from Jeremy to pace the cell. His demeanor suggested he was itching to leave, like he had some other business to tend to. "The Minister passed legislation a few years ago allowing inmates to have visitors."
"Sir?" Jeremy was not quite sure what the Auror was implying.
"I'm willing to make a bargain with you," Potter conceded. "If you tell me what I need to know, I can make sure you see her twice a week. Supervised, of course, but it's better than nothing."
Visiting Bulstrode was out of the question. There was, however, a witch that he would very much like to see—a witch that was not in Azkaban at all.
"You know you won't ever see her in here, Jeremy," Potter continued, seeming to think it was a warning. In a way, it was, but not for the reason that he assumed. "You'll only hear her screams."
Jeremy was silent as he considered exactly what was being said to him. If he avoided Azkaban, it would be the end of the life he knew—the life he had been trying so hopelessly to escape. The offer could not be real. It had to be a trick.
"Well? What d'you say? Information for visitation rights—and your freedom."
Freedom. The word sounded foreign. As he mouthed it to himself, it left a strange taste on his tongue. Years had passed since he knew what it was like to be free, and the very concept was hard to grasp. Servitude had become his livelihood, and even as he watched the estate burn to the ground, Geraldine Bulstrode was on his mind. Potter seemed to think it was love. It was, however, quite the opposite. He feared her, and fear only bred loathing. Living a life without Vitaly Petrov or Geraldine Bulstrode had not seemed possible for so long, but now that it was within reach, he knew he had to seize the opportunity.
Perhaps, if he were lucky enough, he could find Irina and make her remember. Perhaps, they could finally have the wedding they planned.
"Fine, I'll tell you what I know."
"A brilliant decision!" Potter clapped him on the back. "One you won't regret, I'm sure. Azkaban's no place for someone like yourself."
Jeremy was not sure what he meant by that, but he decided it was best to play along. "Yes, well, if I had it my way, she wouldn't be here either."
How easy it was to lie to someone he did not fear.
"Right, right." The Auror frowned. If Jeremy didn't know better, he may have thought Potter pitied him. "Well, I suppose it's best you start from the beginning. Tell me everything—from the time you started working with her 'til now. The more I know, the more I can help the both of you."
Jeremy knew that there would be no help for Geraldine Bulstrode. He only hoped that his own deal was genuine.
"Well, Geraldine has a background in the Dark Arts, or her family does, anyway. I'm sure you know as much."
"The whole Wizarding world does, I'd think," Potter said, coldly.
"Sure, I suppose that's fair." It was more than fair. The Bulstrodes had a long history of dabbling with Dark magic. "Well, it was important to her to carry on—I dunno—some sort of legacy? No idea what drove her to do it, but I loved the girl, so I would've done anything for her." Technically, it was not a lie. Potter was simply too dumb to know he was speaking of two different women. "By the time I found out exactly what I had signed up for, Vitaly Petrov—the Russian—was already working closely with her. He threatened me. Pushed her to keep me in the lower ranks. I never actually saw them do—well, whatever it was that they were doing."
"Teaching Dark magic to young witches and wizards—underage witches and wizards, mind you."
"Erm—right. Yeah, well, I never saw any of that going on. Heard whispers of it, and often had to follow 'em on their missions—usually trips to Hogsmeade," Jeremy went on. This, also, was true. "They'd leave me at the Three Broomsticks while they went around the city. When we weren't there, we were at the summerhouse in Cornwall. It was just me, Geraldine, and Petrov at first, but eventually, Travers and Rowle came into the picture."
"So she helped them escape from Azkaban," Potter concluded.
"I guess so. I wasn't there."
Potter bobbed his head. He was soaking up every word. Strangely enough, he did not carry a quill and parchment for notes.
"Should I keep going?" Jeremy asked, unsure how many details the Auror really needed.
"Alright. Er—well, there was a brief period when we stopped going to the village. A lot of closed-door meetings—"
"You attended these meetings?" Potter interjected.
Jeremy shook his head. "No."
The dark-haired wizard narrowed his eyes. "So despite your relationship with Bulstrode, she kept you in the dark?"
"Well, there wasn't much of a relationship, per se."
"She never returned your feelings," Potter said. "She just used you."
Jeremy winced, thinking of Irina Petrov and her willingness to curse him. "Rub it in, why don't you?" He cleared his throat. "I guess you could put it that way, though. Eventually, they all started going to Hogsmeade again. Travers and Rowle too. They didn't leave me at the pub anymore, though. I was sent to the city instead—Ullapool, mostly, occasionally Inverness. I was to pick hairs off of toilet seats and from the floors at hair salons. It was my job to keep a steady supply of Polyjuice Potion and they were better off as Muggles. That was the routine for a long time, anyway. Stealing pubic hair and making Polyjuice. Barely remembered what Iri—Geraldine—looked like. She was always someone else. They all were."
Part of him preferred it when things were that way. At least, when Irina was a Muggle girl he'd never met, he did not have to look in her vacant, heartbreaking eyes.
"Did any others ever join you? Students that they had been teaching maybe?"
"Just one, and not for long," Jeremy admitted. This was some of the only valuable information he had. "Valeria Twinn. She came to the house with her father once, but she left and never came back."
"Valeria Twinn," Potter repeated. "I must say I find that a bit strange. I've received a number of reports from worried parents, so she certainly wasn't the only recruit attempt."
"I don't know anything about the others. All I know is she's the only one that ever came into the house."
The Auror's gaze was fixed on him, like he was looking for a nervous tic. "You're sure?"
"Like I said, I was always in the lower ranks," Jeremy asserted through gritted teeth.
Potter stood there for a moment, pondering everything that he had told him. Peppered shouts from Petrov's cell could be heard, and for a brief second, Jeremy was grateful that Vox wasn't his interrogator.
"Is that why they asked you to kidnap Nott? Your expendability?"
"Suppose so." Jeremy thought it would be better to ignore the crass choice of words. "I don't ask questions. I just do as I'm told."
"Why Theodore Nott, though? What did he do?"
Jeremy met his eyes. "All I know is that the Notts had something Geraldine wanted. I went for his wife, but she wasn't there, so I took him instead. We thought the wife might give it up once we had him, but we didn't have time to send any owls. Your team set the place on fire just hours after I brought him in."
"What did she want? Do you know what it was?"
Jeremy shrugged. "Some vase, I guess."
Flash! Flash! Flash!
Draco Malfoy saw spots every time he blinked. The last time he had so many cameras on him was nearly twenty years ago, just after his trial. Back then, he had emerged triumphant. He was not so sure that history would repeat itself.
His cottage had once been a quiet place. Very few knew of his residency there, making it the perfect safe haven as he approached his mid-forties. After Rita Skeeter's article, that all changed. Curious witches and wizards nearly beat his door down, and when he dared to inch open one of the curtains, he was blinded by the media frenzy.
He and Hermione had spent an entire year snogging all over the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and not a soul caught them. Wise from their many years in the spotlight, they were cautious this time. Apparently, it wasn't enough.
If he was being bombarded, he could only imagine what Hermione was going through. When they were seen together as teenagers, judgment ran deep, but it seemed to be much worse for her. Back then, starstruck reporters spun their speculative tales of young romance—a couple defying the odds. Her friends thought little of it. They were simply two enemies forced together by a concerned professor, or so she told them. His family was quick to threaten the reporters, so they stepped down, one by one.
There were always the articles that everyone questioned, though. Most notably was the one that urged his mother to send him many a letter—the same one that had Hermione tearing up over the opinions of Ginny Weasley.
Studying together was not quite the same after the Daily Prophet released the photograph of their evening in the Hog's Head. The two of them read over their notes in silence, only exchanging words when they were stuck. It was probably the most civil that they had ever been.
Suddenly, he heard a sniff.
Alarmed, he looked up at the bushy-headed Muggle-born. Usually, he would have let her just cry. He may have even found it a bit funny. Something was different between them, though.
"What are you sobbing about? Get an Exceeds Expectations on your last essay?" The words felt forced. Before, it would have been easy to insult her.
"No," she breathed, wiping her eyes. "I'm fine."
Draco had spent enough time with Pansy Parkinson to know that "I'm fine" meant quite the opposite, so he pressed. "Just tell me. We won't get much done unless you spit it out."
"Well if you must know," she started, setting her quill down on her book, "Ginny and I had a bit of a disagreement."
"About what? She find out you used to have a thing for Potter?"
"No!" Granger's face flushed. "Harry and I—we aren't—he's like my brother. And it had nothing to do with Harry. It had to do with—" She stopped, as though she weren't sure she should finish her sentence. "—with you, actually."
"With me? What about me?"
While he could only assume it was about the article, his curiosity had gotten the best of him. What was it that Ginny Wesley suspected? No matter what he might say to the ginger's face, she was not stupid enough to believe the mad musings of Daily Prophet reporters.
"She thought that we were—I don't know—friends, I suppose?" Granger's face crumpled in a way that told him she was not being forthright. "She thought I'd gone mad."
"And what did you tell her?"
She cleared her throat. "I told her the truth. I was drunk, and she ought to come with me next time so it doesn't happen again."
It was this painful memory that put one terrible thought in Draco's head. Hermione, wherever she was, was being told that she could never see him again. If the opinions of Ginny Weasley and the rest of her friends drove them apart before, it could happen again. The cameras and his mother's livid Floo messages meant nothing, but the thought of losing Hermione for a second time left him feeling sick.
As usual, the only person that was willing to talk had little to say. After sending Duncan and Durden back with one of the Portkeys, Harry Potter and Rowan Vox were storming down the dark corridors of Azkaban, quietly discussing everything they learned. Their only saving grace was the undying love of a man that knew next to nothing.
"Preachwell's in love with her," Harry explained, "so I don't know if he knows more and he's protecting her, but I really don't think so. He was the resident Polyjuice brewer and hair collector. Sounds like the biggest job he ever had was kidnapping Nott."
"We could get the Legilimens," Vox suggested. "It's the only way we can know he's not lying."
"You know how Moretti gets when we ask her to come in," Harry said, quite certain that his only Legilimens might quit if he made her talk to Jeremy Preachwell, of all people. "We'll ask for her presence at Bulstrode and Petrov's trial. Don't bother her 'til then."
"Petrov?" Vox frowned. "That the Russian?"
"If you believe Preachwell, then yes."
"Any reason not to?"
"Would be pointless to lie about." Harry shrugged. "I think we'll find out more when we talk to Nott. For now, we have a name. We need to get Travers's escape out to the public so they know to watch out for him. After that, we need to contact the Twinn family to see what exactly happened and why they went to the summerhouse that day. They're a good family from what I understand, so Bulstrode might've—wait, is that—? No, it couldn't be..."
Vikram and a guard that Harry didn't recognize were chuckling by a cell, pointing at an inmate that had not been there when they walked by earlier. The man had torn blue sweatpants and red hair that greyed in patches, a pattern that was all too familiar. As Harry got closer, he realized that his eyes had not deceived him. The prisoner was, in fact, Ron Weasley.
"He's in for treason. Gonna be in for at leas' four years," the pale guard said. "Ten Sickles says so."
"I give it two," Vikram replied, jingling a handful of pocket change. "Potter and his wife will make sure he gets as little time as possible, scheming dunder—"
"Ron!" Harry shouted, hurrying towards the cell. "Ron! What're you doing in here?"
"Harry!" The redhead wrapped his hands around the bars, out of breath. "Thank Merlin you're here! You gotta get me outta here, mate. He—he's got her under the Imperius Curse! I tried to tell 'em but they wouldn't listen to me! She's in danger, Harry! Serious danger. I tried to help, but—"
"Ron, slow down," Harry said, frazzled. "Who is under the Imperius Curse?"
Vikram and the other guard began to snigger. Harry shot them a glare.
"Oi, go do your rounds," Vox growled.
The guards did not seem pleased, but did as they were told. An Auror of Vox's caliber could have them fired with just one owl, and they knew it.
"Why do you think she's under the Imperius?" Harry asked. "You talked to her?"
"Oh, I talked to her," Ron spat. His hands were shaking and his breath stunk of booze. Clearly, he had been drinking. "That whole Malfoy thing—she didn't want to do it. I know she didn't!"
"What whole Malfoy thing? That lunch they had awhile ago?"
Harry knew that Ron was mad about the lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, but he had no idea that it was still a sore spot. Draco Malfoy may have been capable of the Imperius Curse when they were young, but in his older age, the man had grown beyond such things. In some ways, Harry would consider Draco a friend. If he avoided his own bias, he might even say that Malfoy was saner than Ron.
"What? No!" Ron exclaimed, distressed. "Did you not see the Prophet today?"
"We were a bit busy bringing in Geraldine Bulstrode and dueling Death Eaters," Vox muttered, leaning against the wall.
"Yeah, well if you hadn't been, you would've seen the prat snogging my wife!"
Harry cocked an eyebrow. "Malfoy? Draco Malfoy? And Hermione?"
"Yes, Malfoy!" Ron shouted. "Like I said, he's cursed her! Had his grimy paws all over her, he did!"
That was when Harry started piecing it all together. Hermione's stories not adding up, her coming and going at all times of the night, her generally giddy demeanor. He had met many people under the Imperius Curse. Draco Malfoy, just as he thought, had not cursed her at all. Hermione was having an affair, and she was having it willingly.
"This is serious business, Weasley." Vox gave him a grave look. "Life in Azkaban shit. You got any proof Malfoy did this?"
"Just talk to her! It's all the proof you'll need!" Ron's eyes were glistening and desperate. "Harry, you'll be able to tell. You have to sit down with her. You'll see. She's not acting right. Not herself. You'll be able to see it, Harry. I know you will. Please. Please, just talk to her."
Harry pressed his lips together. "Hang on. Ron, what did you do to get in here?"
The guards had said he was brought in on treason charges. Whatever he had done, he had done it to somebody important, and the sinking feeling in Harry's stomach told him that it was Hermione.
Ron closed his eyes and mumbled something incoherent.
"I put her in a Full Body-Bind!" he cried. "I had to! To—to help her!"
Harry rubbed his temples. Hermione's affair with Malfoy was shocking, but he knew it was far from the Imperius Curse. Ginny had been right the whole time. Their houseguest was up to no good.
"You know what this means, right? You're facing serious time in here, Ron. And I can't get you out of this one. Neither can she, not that I'm sure she'd want to after what you did."
"It's worth it," Ron whispered. "She's worth it."
Harry decided to keep one pressing thought to himself. Hermione was, in all honesty, not worth it.
Glimmering vials were strewn across an old cherry desk. Each was marked with a number and a name, and as Gianna Moretti painstakingly delved into each memory, she tucked them away with the coinciding case files. Memory interpretation took up most of her time, though it was not what she was hired to do. After all, Aurors did not play much of a role in trials. They did, however, have to build cases.
She was writing her notes for the Wizengamot when she heard a tap on the window. Frowning, she craned her neck to peek over the many files blocking her view. Just outside the window, a familiar owl hovered, a letter tied to its leg.
"Figlio di puttana!" she swore, getting to her feet. It was only a short march to the window, and it was not long before she was waving the bird inside, no matter how reluctant she was to do so. "Come on in, you!"
The tawny owl hooted and held out its leg. Gianna untied the envelope and opened it, knowing quite well what it was going to say.
It seems that Lenore Thomas, the Head of the Department of Mysteries, has been missing for a few days. Since no one has been able to get in contact with her, I decided that it was imperative to talk to the last person that saw her. Interestingly enough, that was the Minister for Magic.
I don't believe her story, and I need you to come into the office to see what she really knows. Come prepared.
See you soon,
Gianna frowned. She was not sure how she felt about using Legilimency on the Minister for Magic, especially without the approval of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Nevertheless, Humphries had the authority to ask it of her, and she was not one to ignore orders, even if she disagreed with them.
"Thanks, Windfeather," she said, unscrewing the top of a nearby jar of owl treats. The owl giddily accepted the offering that she had plucked out and flew away.
With a final sigh, she closed the window and turned to her fireplace. The Minister for Magic's memories awaited.
Author's Note: A user brought Irina's last name to my attention. I will be working in the feminized version later in the story, so please don't think I forgot about it!
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