Fear. True fear—fear of torture, fear of death. It left a sour aroma in the air, one that could only be recognized by those that had become familiar with its vile, neverending presence. It was stagnant and thick and rotten and metallic all at the same time—like decay and sweat and blood and war.
After two years of working for the Ministry of Magic, Hermione Granger knew it well, yet still, it made her stomach churn. Only in the North Corridor had she ever felt it fester in the atmosphere around her; it was the place where fear was born and bred, where it came to thrive and where it often died too.
Behind the brass door, the Minister toyed with his prey.
It was in front of the door that a scarred Auror loitered, stiffly watching Hermione's each and every step as he had been trained to do. His hands were clasped in front of him and his wand was ready for the draw, because the Ministry no longer existed to protect the people. It existed to protect itself.
His beady eyes followed her as she approached him with reluctant intent.
"State your business," he growled.
"The Minister has requested my presence in the Red Chamber."
The Auror licked his thin, cracked lips. "Oh, he has, has he now?"
"Yes. I received the summons four minutes ago." She proffered him the parchment that had landed atop her desk, prompting her for a late evening of unexpected misery.
"You could've plagiarized that," he said before retrieving a rolled parchment from his inner pocket. Unfurling it, he grunted, "Name?"
"Right, and I'm Voldemort himself. Give me your wand, Hermione Granger."
Begrudgingly, she held out her beloved wand—her only sanctuary in the house of horrors that the Ministry of Magic had become. She was always prepared to fight, always prepared to flee, but without her wand, she was helpless—a mere fly in the Minister's web of boundless power.
"Hm, always thought you'd be taller. Reckon the folks at the Prophet want to make their heroes look important, though, don't they?"
As the Auror returned her wand, she held in a sigh of relief. Knowing what was to come next, she tucked it in her robes and held out her clammy hand, preparing for the inevitable pain.
She had been through the ritual many times before.
Then, without so much as a warning, the man pressed his wand to her outstretched palm, his gaze boring into her for the entire long process, daring her to make a fatal mistake. Hermione steadied herself. She could not afford to show any consternation.
"Don't flinch or else I'll hafta do it all over again."
That much, she knew, for she had made that misstep once before.
Smoke swirled into the empty air and a hiss snuck past her gritted teeth, for the telltale burn was melting through her soft flesh and the meat that lined her bones. The agony seemed to last an age.
Once the Auror finally gave her a confirming nod, she quietly studied the marred skin. Yet again, she had been branded with the serpentine Mark of the Red Chamber.
Its labyrinthian design matched the inlay upon the brass door.
"First time in the chamber?"
"Then you understand how the mark works. I wouldn't keep him waiting if I were you."
Hermione plastered on a tight smile. "Of course not."
Inconveniencing the Minister was an infraction to be paid in blood. Eager to avoid such a fate, Hermione approached the entrance of shimmering brass and pressed her palm to its very center. In an impressive feat of magical engineering, the intricate inlay glowed molten red.
The searing burn was hauntingly familiar.
"Like dragon's fire, innit?"
Hermione ignored the Auror, though the sentiment was far from incorrect. The door noiselessly rose upward rather than shrieking the way that metal on stone always did, and as she prepared herself for what was to come, her heart began to race.
Her eyes shuttered as she stepped inside.
"Ah! Miss Granger! I've been expecting you," the Minister purred. His baritone voice echoed throughout the chamber, suffocating Hermione with his miserable yet grand existence. "I believe you know my guest."
Those six words sucked the air from her lungs. The slam of the brass door sounded behind her—a subtle reminder that the magic was imperfect after all, or perhaps, it was meant to be loud, meant to intimidate. Slowly, trepidatiously, she opened her eyes.
How instant regret could be.
Her vision betrayed her as tears threatened to fall, but she knew she had to stay composed—for Neville, for Harry, for the cause, she had to stay composed. Straightening herself, she cleared her throat and looked from her suspended comrade to the man casting the spell. He wore a smirk.
"I thought you might want to join us for a little reunion, as it is my understanding that you two fought together in the war." The Minister, seated upon his dais, fingered his yew wand. His long, dark locks fell in front of his glinting blue irises that were so unlike Voldemort's slits of red, so nonindicative of evil. In fact, they looked more like the eyes of Albus Dumbledore himself.
They might have been beautiful if the glaze of megalomania did not cloud them so.
"Yes," she whispered, "we did."
"And he fought bravely, I presume?"
"Y-yes, Your Excellency. He fought very bravely."
"Given his decorated background, I thought he must have. First Order of Merlin, granted with the title of Auror without so much as passing a single N.E.W.T. The history books certainly hold him in high regard—Ethel Grisby's Modern History of Wizards, Rita Skeeter's The Tall Tale of the Final Battle. Mr. Longbottom seemed quite the hero—which is precisely why I was so disappointed when my Aurors discovered him with this." From inside his robes of satin black, the Minister withdrew a bloodstained scroll. "Do you know what this is, Miss Granger?"
Hermione shook her head, careful not to glance above him, for if she had to look at Neville, she might have lost her feigned equanimity.
"No, Your Excellency. I do not."
"A forgivable lack of knowledge on your behalf. My most loyal servants would not know what this is, for they would have no interest in it." The Minister held up the scroll and gave it a dramatic shake. "This is a map—a map only I am to have in possession. To obtain it, Mr. Longbottom would have to have been inside of my office, which is, as you know, highly forbidden in and of itself." He tucked the scroll back inside of his robes. "Perhaps, had he merely entered—entered and not touched anything—I could have entertained the idea of sending him to prison, possibly only Azkaban if his story sufficed... Ahh, but unfortunately, he stole something very important from me, and because of that, there must be consequences."
Never had silence been so deafening. Still, Neville floated above, his body contorted inhumanely as he rotated in a macabre display for two.
"You're rather quiet, Miss Granger. Surely, you do not disagree with my assessment?"
Harry had told her she would have to hurt her friends. Somehow, she never imagined it would be Neville.
"I—" she faltered. "Ahem, no, Your Excellency. You're quite right. There must be consequences—n-naturally."
The Minister stepped down from his dais, stalking towards her like the apex predator that he was. His breath was hot on her skin. "And what of the severity of these consequences? Have you any suggestions?"
Blood pounded in her ears. By the torchlight, she could see Neville's shadow upon the stone floor—the same stone floor that had been stained with the organs of dozens of Order members before him. She had to choose her words meticulously, for if she didn't, his fate would be quick to follow those whose rebellious efforts had already failed.
"He would be a valuable asset," she said, carefully, "if you allowed him to rehabilitate. He was courageous during the war, and his work as an Auror only helped him hone his magic... If he—if he worked for you, I'm sure that he would be an effective and loyal follower."
The Minister backed away from her and craned his neck. If Hermione did not know any better, she might have thought he was considering her proposal.
"Perhaps, I did not give you the necessary details. The map that he stole is no ordinary map, Miss Granger. It is a map of Stafhelm—a detailed map, including all of the entrances, the exits, the cells." He appraised her for a moment. "You see, I have reason to believe that Mr. Longbottom was trying to help Harry Potter escape."
"Escape from Stafhlem? It cannot be done, Your Excellency. You've said so yourself."
"You are right," he said, his tone bored, "it cannot be done, but if anyone were to try, is Mr. Longbottom not a prime candidate? He has a history of heroics, he resigned from his position as an Auror as soon as I became Minister, and in the past, he was associated not only with Harry Potter, but also with Ginevra Weasley and Xenophilius Lovegood. Now I know these were once your friends, Miss Granger, so please forgive me when I say that traitors keep the company of traitors. Some, such as yourself, can be rehabilitated. Others—" He looked up at Neville's suspended form. "—cannot."
He snapped his fingers.
Neville, his eyes darting to and fro with terror, collapsed onto the stone floor in a symphony of breaking bones. He was still immobile, but his mouth was ajar as he silently attempted to scream, desperate to be freed from the infamous room—desperate for Hermione to save him.
Blood filled the mortar crevices of the cobblestone.
"Yes, prison simply will not do," the Minister said, softly. He circled Neville, occasionally stopping to press the toe of his boot to the rebel's quivering gut, testing his humanity as he often did with his victims. "The guards in Azkaban are too weak—too kind to the prisoners. Even with the Dementors reinstated, there are too few to issue the Dementor's Kiss quickly enough. No... We won't waste our resources on traitorous thieves. Swine of this sort—" He stepped on Neville's face, earning an agonized wince. "—deserve death."
Capital punishment. Hermione felt like the room was closing in on her as she tried to process the dreaded proclamation. The collapse of Neville could mean the final collapse of the Order of the Phoenix, for their numbers were already far too few.
"Protect the Order, Hermione. Whatever it takes, you must protect the Order."
She could not fail Harry. She could not fail the Order of the Phoenix.
"Excuse me, Your Excellency, but what about a different type of rehabilitation?"
The Minister removed his boot from Neville's contusing face. The dark leather was stained crimson, and as Neville's head slumped sideways, a tooth clattered to the floor.
"W-well, there are other methods, aren't there?" Hermione stammered, trying to shake her disquietude as she examined her friend's mangled nose and bleeding ears. "I-in fact, you've already started one of them."
The Minister's mouth stretched into a mischievous grin. "Torture."
Betrayal tasted bitter, but it was a flavor Hermione knew well.
"It has worked before, Y-Your Excellency. It could work again. As I said, he would be a valuable asset, not only for ranks within the Ministry but also as a sign to any other rebels. It will—it will dampen their spirits, losing someone like Neville."
"Surely his death would dampen their spirits as well, then?"
"E-excuse me, sir, but if I may... I—I know most of the Order, personally. It would embarrass them—affect them more, if they saw someone like him working for the Ministry again. If he—if he dies a hero... Well, that will only encourage them. They would want to retaliate."
The Minister narrowed his eyes. "They would be willing to risk death?"
"They—they don't have much sense, the rebels. Everything is about their—their warped sense of honor."
"And you suspect that this sense of honor may become trouble for me?"
"Y-yes, that is my fear, Your Excellency—rebels causing more difficulty for you and your—your noble cause."
He stiffened, a slight tell that few were astute enough to notice, yet Hermione always did. What he was about to say—it would be a test.
"Do you think he may have learned his lesson already? Perhaps this little meeting has shown him where his loyalties should lie." The Minister squatted beside Neville and drew a line in the blood upon his bruised cheek. Shining garnet in color, it was the evidence of internal bleeding.
Hermione had seen blood like that before—but only in battle.
When Harry Potter told her she would have to do many things she did not want to do, she did not know that would include having her friends tortured.
"Stay strong, Hermione. The Order depends on you."
Harry's words echoed in her brain like a mantra, a dystopian tattoo that reminded her that everything she did was for the greater good. Toeing the line between black and white, Hermione Granger would swim in grey, and it was what she did in grey that would save them all.
She had to pass the test.
"No," she choked out. The word barely sounded like her own. "His will is strong. It will take days—maybe weeks."
"Like his parents."
"Like his parents."
The Minister chuckled, clearly delighted by the disturbing comparison. "This idea of yours, Miss Granger—it may be one of the best I've heard all month." His knuckles went white with anticipation as he pressed his wand to Neville's temple. "If it works as well as I believe that it might, you may be in for a promotion."
Then, he whispered the incantation that Hermione loathed even more than that of the Killing Curse.
Neville's teeth, crimson with his own blood, ground together as the curse wracked his entire body. The charm suppressed his screams, and in a way, it was even more terrible than if she could hear the din of his misery.
"Imperio!" the Minister shouted, maniacally. "Oh, Miss Granger, I do have to thank you for your recommendation. This is quite the treat."
With the inflection of the final word, he gave his wand an abrupt jerk—then another—and another.
Neville appeared to be beating his own head against the floor, but the pained expression on his red and black face told Hermione a story she already knew: She had experienced it herself. She had seen it happen to nine others. She was complicit.
If she was protecting the Order, how was it that she felt like a traitor?
The Minister barked a gleeful laugh, and while she expected him to cry out another Unforgivable Curse, he slashed the air with his wand and shrieked something else instead—a word she did not know.
Alas, she did not need to know it to recognize it.
Twelve years prior, Antonin Dolohov had cast the very same curse upon her.
"You seem surprised to see this magic," the Minister noted, his gaze trained on Hermione rather than Neville's widening eyes. "You know it well."
Trembling, Hermione nodded. "Y-yes, Your Excellency. In the Battle of the D-Department of Mysteries, your—your father used it."
She gulped. "Yes, sir. On me."
"I can't say that I'm surprised. It has been a family favorite for many centuries." As he looked at Neville, he seemed wistful. "The effects are long-lasting if the victim lives. The scars, both inside and out, serve as a reminder of power—power of the caster, the loss of their own. For many years to come, they ache, sometimes burn even—though I am sure you know that already."
He trailed the tip of his wand across Neville's cheekbone, only to push it sadistically into the swelling around his eyes. If Neville was reacting, he was too deformed for it to show.
"You still experience pain, don't you? Each time you step into the Department of Mysteries, each and every day that you perform your daily tasks, you see my father's face. You feel the wrath of his wand, over and over again."
Hermione said nothing.
"Ah yes, you do. He's claimed you forever, and just as that pain follows you, it will follow Mr. Longbottom—that is, of course, if he survives."
"Neville is strong," she replied, thickly. "He will survive."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "We will see."
Hermione knew not what the next wordless curse was, but it was callous and unmerciful and she found herself wanting to vomit as the Minister danced around with sickening jubilance. Neville's head quaked and he frothed at the mouth, scarlet bubbles dribbling down his violently purple neck and heaving chest. The more his state worsened, the more joyous the Minister became.
If Hermione did not intervene, he would die or be driven to madness.
"He's a pure-blood, you know!" she cried out.
The Minister halted and raised a single bushy brow. "Pure-blood, you say? How rare."
"To add even more value to your ranks," she continued. "Voldemort himself was willing to find a place for him."
"I do not care what Tom Riddle was willing to do," he spat. "Might I remind you that you and I share one thing in common, Miss Granger. Neither of us are pure-bloods, and we are both much more valuable than many of the purest families left in our world." He turned back to Neville. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more work to do."
Hermione took a shaky breath. She was not sure how else to conciliate.
"After all, if I am to accept him into my ranks, he must have learned his lesson. You said it yourself, did you not?"
She had, and if she did not stand by her word, she would sign his death warrant—as well as hers, and that of the cause. There was a chance that he would survive. No matter how little, there was a chance.
Again, Neville beat his own forehead against the stone floor, but this time, with much more force. Hermione recognized the change in him as the robotic movement of an Imperius victim turned to the uncontrolled chaos of a seizure, and though she desperately wanted to step in, she knew that she could not.
"No matter what happens, you have to do what they say."
The seizing stopped.
Frowning, the Minister approached Neville, only to toe his mutilated face as he had nearly twenty minutes earlier. His eyes may have been swollen shut, but behind those bruised lids, Hermione knew that they were lifeless—glassy pits of mortality like those of Luna and Arthur and Ron.
All her friends were dead or dying.
"Pity. You made him sound like he would have been quite the asset."
Shocked and struck by grief, Hermione watched helplessly as the Minister took Neville's wand and tucked it inside of his robes. It was yet another trophy to add to his ever-growing collection, another showpiece to keep his followers in line. Unlike wands from lesser wizards, it was a trophy that might even turn the tides of some allegiances.
In less than a day, Neville had been demoted from a hero of the Order to a corpse in the Red Chamber.
"Clean up this mess," the Minister commanded. "He's to be taken to the fourth floor for incineration. I don't want his friends to think they've earned the right to bury their dead."
Her solemnity would have to wait, for the fate of the Order rested on her frail shoulders yet again.
It took all of her strength to bow and murmur the words that sent a chill down her own spine.
"Yes, Your Excellency."
Author's Note: Updated note. This is the finalized version of this chapter and this is now my main WIP. You can expect regular updates. Feedback is welcome!
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