The post-curfew silence was foreboding. Led only by the light of the waning moon, Hermione followed the familiar path of cobblestone, her wand clutched tightly in her hand and the hood of her emerald robes pulled over her head. Still, she could feel the ashes of Neville Longbottom fluttering hotly against her cheeks. Still, his burning flesh stung her nose.
Once upon a time, he had been a simple boy searching for a toad—and her very first true friend.
She shed a tear and quickly wiped it away, for there was no time to dwell on the fallen. The Order of the Phoenix was soon to see a paradigm shift of epic proportions, and with such a shift, more responsibility would inevitably be thrust upon her. There were, after all, many that were known to be Neville's close associates, and it was those few that would have to disappear. Hermione, who was the only one that the Minister for Magic trusted, would be forced to do the work that they once did, but she would have to do it in the shadows, in the dead of night and in the privacy of her Ministry-appointed home.
Already, she had far too much to accomplish, yet surrendering was not an option.
"Promise me you'll stay strong for Ginny and my mum, for Harry—and—and for the rest of them. You have to stay strong, no matter how hard it gets, Hermione. They need you."
Promises were to go unbroken, even if they were to the dead.
With the weight of the earth on her shoulders, Hermione Granger would ford onward, for Ronald, for Harry, for witches and wizards everywhere. The Order of the Phoenix was crumbling, and even if she was surrounded by the rubble of the departed and the imprisoned, she would be the beacon of light that the cause needed. Some said she was already, but she did not believe it—not when there were so many left. At the Rook House, there was Xenophilius and Charlie. At the Burrow, there was Bill, George, Pomona, and Molly. Then, there were the Order's many Unplottable havens, including Grimmauld Place and a half dozen others. In each and every one of them, the flames of the Order of the Phoenix burned on, hidden in the penumbra of the wicked world.
Nevertheless, there were the unavoidable sacrifices of rebellion as well. For some to survive, there were many that would not live to see the future for which they had fought. Neville Longbottom, while it was a crass rumination, was just another of those sacrifices—a knight removed from the chessboard of the game that was defeating the Ministry of Magic. The Order was a cornucopia of love and Neville knew that he died fighting for that love, just as he swore he was willing to do—just as they had all sworn. It was the only bit of solace that Hermione could find.
Sadly, there was one woman that would find no solace in it at all.
The evening had stretched long and despite her exhaustion, Hermione had the daunting task of bearing bad news. To other members of the Order, it would come in the form of her Patronus, but for the blonde witch that was closest to Neville, it would have to come from her lips. After all, the woman needed to go into hiding—and she needed to go immediately.
Hermione suspected she would take an immense amount of convincing.
It was as she pondered this that she approached the main intersection of the street, the intersection where the alleys of Diagon and Knockturn met and where the guards were notorious for harassing late-night undesirables. Unsurprisingly, two were standing by Gringotts, their wands glowing and their stances wide with self-importance. Hermione tucked her own wand into her robes, knowing quite well that they may hex her if they saw her carrying it.
As she drew nearer, their brows began to furrow.
"Ay! Ay, you!" said the larger of the two men. "What're you doin' out pas' curfew?"
Hermione sighed and held up her empty hands. Their wand-light was blinding.
"I'm an Unspeakable with the Department of Mysteries. By the Decree of Exemption for Ministry of Magic Employees, I'm permitted to be outside of my home at any time, even if it's after curfew."
He snorted. "An Unspeakable, eh?"
"Yes, an Unspeakable."
Hermione's vision was failing her, yet it was just good enough to take in his features. One of his eyes was scarred and milky and seemed to be in a constant state of motion, almost as though it had a will all its own. She tried not to stare, but with his spellwork illuminating his twisted face, it glowed like a grotesque, wet opal.
Guards were scarcely the Ministry's finest.
"Hmph. I'm gonna need more than that if you plan on stayin' out o' Azkaban tonight, love. What's your name?"
"Hermione Granger. I'm sure you've heard of me."
"'ermione Granger," the man repeated, brandishing his shining wand. He did not seem fazed by his partner's doubtful cackle. "And what in Merlin's name would a Minister's pet like Granger be doin' out at half ten?"
"I have work to do. And can you dim it down a bit?" she complained. "I can barely see!"
"Yeah, well, my eyes ain't too keen, love, and I need to be gettin' a good look atchya if you're claimin' to be 'ermione Granger..." The keys on his belt jangled as he waddled closer. Hermione had dropped her gaze to the cobblestone at her feet, so to her, there were only the stars of semi-blindness and his heavy, black boots. They halted all too near. "Well, I'll be damned... You bloody well could be 'er, couldn't you? Nigel, she look like 'ermione Granger t'you?"
The second guard, an unnaturally skinny man with a wooden leg, did not leave his post.
"Could be. Even so, what's she doin' out here at this hour? And it could be an imposter too, couldn't it? 'ow we know she ain't usin' Polyjuice Potion?"
The larger guard jabbed his wand beneath her chin, forcing her to look up at him with disdain. "That's a good point, Nigel. 'ow do we know you ain't usin' Polyjuice?"
"While I can assure you I'm not," Hermione sneered, "I highly encourage you to follow the protocol for verifying that."
"Ah, right." Perspiration was dewing upon the guard's wrinkled forehead. "Erm—go on, then. But keep it slow! No funny business."
"And don't forget you're outnumbered 'ere," Nigel added. "One wrong move and I'll turn your brains to jelly."
Hermione was quite confident that she would win a duel against both of them, but she was not looking for a confrontation, so with one hand still in the air, she slowly reached into her robes to retrieve her wand. The guard's meaty grip on his own tightened.
"Here you are. Vine and unicorn hair, eleven inches—just as it should be."
"Donchoo get smart with us," warned Nigel. His peg leg clinked loudly against the street rock as he approached her. "We'll tell you what that wand is and what it should bloody be. And when it comes back that you're a nasty lit'le liar—"
"Nigel," the first guard muttered. In his hand was a leaf of parchment. "She checks out."
"She still ain't told us 'er reason for bein' 'ere though, and according to 'er lit'le exemption, if a reason don't suit us, we can hold anyone, Ministry employee or not." Nigel leaned in so close to her that she felt his hot breath. "Dunno 'bout you, Gambol, but Miss Granger 'ere seems to be actin' rather funny to me."
"Nigel, think about who she bloody is! D'you really want to burn 'er broom?"
"It's 'cause of who she is that I want to burn 'er broom. While some folks seem to forget about 'er past, I remember that she used to be a good friend of 'arry Potter and all those Lovegood and Weasley mates of his." He smirked, exposing his rotting, stinking teeth. "So, Granger, what exactly is your business in Diagon Alley tonight? Meetin' anyone interesting?"
Hermione clenched her jaw. "Considering that information is solely for the Department of Mysteries and the Minister for Magic, I can't say I'm inclined to tell you—unless you would like me to inform His Excellency that you asked a Level Three Unspeakable to divulge confidential information?"
Nigel's eyes widened in horror.
"That's what I thought," Hermione snarled. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have someplace to be."
The two guards did not utter another word. How ironic it was that they had just granted passage to the most treasonous witch in all of Great Britain.
The state of the world was etched into the boards covering the shop windows. Bored guards had scratched their names into the wood, blatantly ignoring the signs on all of the closed businesses that kindly requested that nobody trespassed. There were some that had not gone under during the new Minister for Magic's reign, but they were the struggling minority—the brutish few that chose to lose Galleons rather than their dignity.
Hermione wished them well as she passed them by.
There were only two places in Diagon Alley that seemed to be thriving: the first was obviously Gringotts, for they were the only establishment able to fund the Minister's endeavors. The second, surprisingly, was the Leaky Cauldron.
While the inn's usual patronage was banned from twilight libations, it still was able to generate gold by becoming the stomping grounds of the Ministry's loathsome subordinates. From Aurors to informants, the grimiest of the Minister's hirelings gathered to chug firewhisky and spit curses at the landlady and the defenseless waitress. While the landlady could take care of herself, the poor waitress was a squib, and those that visited often knew she could be commonly found missing her entire head of hair or trying to serve drinks with backward knees.
As Hermione opened the door, she somberly discovered the most recent spell the woman endured.
"Hullo love," she drawled tiredly, scratching at one of many rather nasty boils. "Good to see ye again."
"Good to see you too, Laurel, though I do wish the circumstances were better." Hermione gave the woman's bony hand a squeeze. "I hope that's the worst they've done this evening."
Laurel pushed her curly bronze locks behind her ear and shook her head. "The big 'en in the corner over there—he pinned me to the rafters earlier. Must've been half an hour I was stuck up there, twiddlin' me thumbs."
"Oh, that foul—"
Alarmed, Hermione turned on her heel to see who the ringing voice belonged to. It was, to her dismay, a man she recognized, but not one she had any desire to see.
"Jonathan," she said, forcing a bitter smile, "what a pleasant surprise."
"Funny, you don't make it sound like it's pleasant at all." His jade eyes trailed in Laurel's direction. "This one's had a bit of a rough evening, but I hope she hasn't got you pitying her! She's got it pretty good for being...well, what she is."
"It isn't pity as much as it is disgust." Hermione craned her neck. "The Minister for Magic has been more than clear about his stance on service squibs, yet here is a group of Level One and Level Two Ministry employees tormenting one for their own amusement. As your superior, what am I supposed to make of that, Jonathan? Am I to let it go?"
The wizard smirked. "The Minister's stance is that he approves of their existence, not that he deems them worthy of our respect. Might I remind you, Miss Granger, that while you are my superior, we are both her superior—and that has nothing to do with rank." After pausing for a small sip of whiskey he glanced at Laurel once more. "You ought to get back to your work, squib. I suspect my colleagues are still thirsty."
"Y-yes, M-Mr. Bragwit."
Hermione leered at the Auror as Laurel scurried towards the howling group at the bar. They mocked and shouted at her, while some went as far as throwing drinks at her and charming her skirt to fly upward in an embarrassing show for them all. Barbarism had become the way of the Wizarding World, and Hermione could hardly stand it.
"So, Miss Granger, now that your little friend is entertaining my team, might I ask what brings you here?"
"The landlady," Hermione said, stiffly.
"Ah, the landlady," Jonathan repeated. He took another sip of his drink. "And what business do you have with her?"
"Oh, but we all know what that means, don't we? Fascinating how you judge us for having a bit of fun with the squib but here you are, the Dealer of Death herself." He calmly swirled the aromatic spirit in his glass. "Another pound of flesh for one of those projects the Minister has you working on, is it? I mean, it only makes sense. After what her little boyfriend did, I can't imagine it serves us well to keep her alive."
"As I said," Hermione answered through gritted teeth, "my business with her is confidential. If you really want to know more, you'll need to earn another level in rank."
"Pfft! I wasn't asking for more information. Everyone knows that business with you or Zabini ends in someone going missing. Why or how may be a mystery, but mysteries are your department, not mine."
"You're right. They are my department." Hermione tried to ignore a shriek of cruel laughter from across the room. "Anyway, the Minister won't be too pleased if I delay much longer. Have you seen her around? The landlady, I mean."
"In back. I'll have someone go fetch her."
"That won't be—"
"Carvin! Go get the landlady!"
A brawny woman downed the contents of her flagon and belched. Her face was as red as her robes. "The landlady? Whatchoo want to see 'er for?"
"Miss Granger here has some business with her," Jonathan said boredly. "It's all a bit over your head, my friend. It's better if you just go get her and spare us the questions."
She looked from Hermione to Jonathan a few times before finally deciding to waddle towards the back. After a moment, she returned, dragging Hannah Abbott by the arm.
"The force won't be necessary!" Hermione exclaimed. "Ahem. She wouldn't dare try anything—not with me."
"A spitfire, this one!" Carvin laughed. "I don't think I'd dare try anything with 'er around!"
With malice in her eyes, Hannah wrenched her arm away from the muscular woman's loosening grip. If Hermione had known Bragwit was going to send one of his minions after her, she would not have told him who she was looking for.
Her old friends had been losing trust in her for some time, and as she saw Hannah for the first time in months, she understood why.
"Granger. What brings you here?"
"Business." She looked around the busy inn. "Private business."
"Come to kill me, have you?" Hannah spat.
"We can discuss my intentions once we're alone."
"Good. These animals are the last people I'd want to see on my deathbed, anyway." Her attention lingered on Jonathan. "Follow me, my room's just up the stairs there."
Glancing to and fro, Hermione followed Hannah up the stairs and slipped into a room at the very end of the corridor. Quickly, the blonde witch cast a Muffling Charm.
"I can't say I expected you."
"I can't say I want to be here," Hermione said, honestly, "but it's important. You have to leave. Now."
"Leave? I—I don't understand. Why would I leave?"
"Some questions are going to be asked at the Ministry and it's best that you disappear. There's a sort of house, well it's more of a cottage, but it's in the countryside—far from here, in Ireland. You'll meet Hagrid there—"
"Slow down," Hannah insisted. She took Hermione by the hands. "Hermione, what is going on?"
"I already told you. Something came up at the Ministry and if you don't leave right now, you could be in danger. Grave danger. Hannah, you have to trust me. You have to go."
"You're not making any sense! What came up at the Ministry? What did I do that is putting me in so much danger? I run their bloody pub! I see them every day!"
"It's—it's nothing you did, per se... I'll explain everything to you once we're at the house, but for now, you need to trust me. It's for your safety—and for the safety of the Order."
Realization filled the blonde's lines of dubiety. Mortified, she backed away, her hands slipping from Hermione's.
"Wait. Where is Neville?"
"We'll discuss him once you're safe," Hermione said, quickly. "For now, I need you to trust me and give me your ruddy hands again because I have an illegal Portkey out of here and it's set to go off any minute now—"
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me where he is!"
"I—Hannah, please understand... I—I didn't have a choice—"
"Didn't have a choice!" the Hufflepuff scoffed. "Just like you didn't have a choice with Luna or Padma or Ron?"
"Hannah!" Hermione breathed, mortified by the depth of her friend's accusation. "They were—Ron was... Look, I know you're upset and you have every right to be, but the Portkey is set to go off in—" She checked her watch. "—two minutes! Whether you like it or not, they'll come for you if you stay here, and I know you're mad at me right now, but I care about you too much to let you die so please, just come with me now and I'll tell you everything once we get there."
"I'd rather die than be anywhere near you."
She sounded all too serious.
"No, Hermione. You don't get to do this. You don't get to storm into my inn and tell me where I should go without so much as telling me why or what happened or where Neville is or how—"
"Hannah, I'm sorry, but I really don't have time for this."
"And I don't have—"
Hannah froze. Her snarling mouth immediately shut and her arms clapped down by her sides. Stiffly, she fell to the ground, though her eyes were still very much able to move.
"I'm sorry," Hermione apologized, sinking down to grab her friend's shoulder. "I had to."
She tucked her wand in her pocket and retrieved a crumpled piece of parchment from inside of her robes. Within seconds, the pull of the Portkey sent the two of them whirling away to Ireland.
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