Malfoy Manor was in an unthinkable state of disarray. The grounds, once featuring perfectly groomed wisteria and meticulously shaped topiaries, were now overgrown and riddled with the mottling of disease. No longer did white peacocks reside there. No longer did the fairy lights glow. It was a testament to the state of things; even the Malfoys, despite all of their wealth and influence, were not immune to the Ministry's new breed of sadism.
Their home was once one of the most protected private estates in Britain. Thusly, before the inauguration of the new Minister for Magic, it would not have been possible for somebody to land in the courtyard by means of an everyday Portkey—especially an unscheduled one. Alas, standards had shifted, and this became more and more obvious to Hermione as she stood there with a dirty, old trainer in her hand. She dropped it and considered how odd it felt to be there. There was no one escorting her. There was no destroying the wards. It seemed too easy, yet there she was.
The Malfoys were stripped not only of their status, but of their sense of security too.
Hermione, though she was not allowed a vote, had been there when the new regulations were announced—the regulations that would rock the very foundation of pure-blood aristocracy. Like it was at most important legislative ceremonies, the presence of all Ministry staff was mandatory. She remembered the squeaking voice of Elizabeth Macmillan.
"Today, with an overwhelming majority, we have passed several amendments to an existing set of laws, the Code of Magical Domiciles. Notable changes to the code include the following: Dangerous magical creatures are hereby banned, even if the owners of the estate were previously approved for licensure via the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures; nextly, all residents must remove protective enchantments that may deter officials from entering a place of residence at any time..."
Due to the family's entanglement in anti-Ministry affairs, the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had taken it upon himself to witness the removal of their manor's infamous layers of spellwork.
When asked to report this event, he had said, "Narcissa Malfoy was compliant, but unfriendly."
The measure had been taken mere days after Lucius Malfoy's funeral, an affair that was celebrated in the newspaper as "a day of triumph" and "a great win for the Ministry." For months, the former Death Eater had been campaigning against the Minister for Magic, an act that was once discouraged but entirely legal. However, the British Wizarding World was under new management, and the Dolohov heir wanted to ensure that everyone knew it.
The repentance of the Malfoy family had only ended in bloodshed.
Lucius Malfoy's trial was one of the most widely spectated events in Ministry history, as well as one of the longest. For fourteen hours, he was interrogated by the Wizengamot, a group that was largely former Death Eaters and the power-hungry politicians that would stop at nothing to keep their position. Rita Skeeter wrote a verbose article speculating that all would end well for Lucius, mostly due to his known association with a large number of the Wizengamot's members. She was, as usual, quite wrong.
The Malfoys had been some of the first to abandon the Dark Lord during the Battle of Hogwarts. Unlike their colleagues, they had also avoided Azkaban.
Naturally, there was envy among those that had not been so lucky.
"Given his recent charges and his colorful history as a branded Death Eater and servant to the Dark Lord Voldemort, we sentence Lucius Malfoy, son of Abraxas Malfoy, to immediate death."
Dolores Umbridge, who had overseen the trial alongside Rodolphus Lestrange, let out one of her sickening giggles after reading the decision aloud. Hermione was forced to attend as per the Minister himself. She had not wanted to go to the trial, and after hearing Narcissa's bone-chilling screams, she was reminded why.
It was the last time that she had seen the woman.
That was, until she knocked on the grand mahogany entrance to Malfoy Manor. When the door swung open to reveal the lady of the house, Hermione nearly gasped.
Upon Narcissa's cheek was an opalescent scar that shimmered beneath the soft sunrays. She puckered at the sight of a Ministry employee on her doorstep, but Hermione hardly noticed. The scar was far too distracting, a staunch interruption to the pure-blood's classical beauty and otherwise flawless skin.
Hermione had only seen marks of such depth on the face of Bill Weasley.
"Mrs. Malfoy! I—I thought—" Hermione cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, it's...it's lovely to see you."
"Sadly, Miss Granger, I cannot say the same for you—though I suspect you're used to that, considering your...position."
Narcissa folded her frail arms across her chest. Never had she been a particularly large woman, but Hermione could not help but notice how much her frame had diminished over the course of the last year.
"I am. More than used to it, actually." Hermione tried to peek inside of the manor, but Narcissa shifted to block her view.
"Well, your reputation proceeds you, doesn't it?" the older woman hissed. "Not many earn an Order of Merlin only to murder all of their friends."
"Mrs. Malfoy, I—"
"What exactly brings you here today, Mudblood? Surely, the Minister hasn't sent you to do more Auror work?"
"Auror work—? No, no, I'm not here for anything like that... I was just—does Draco happen to be here?"
A pregnant pause filled the humid, summer air. Something feral lit up in Narcissa Malfoy's crystalline eyes, something that made Hermione preemptively reach for her wand.
"You're here for my son?" Her tone was deadly.
"To speak to him, yes," Hermione answered. "He and I—"
"If it's Draco you want, I'm afraid we'll be at a bit of a impasse, Miss Granger."
"Mrs. Malfoy, I'm afraid you misunderstand—"
"Do I?" Narcissa breathed. "After what you people did to my husband—"
"Mother, it's all right."
The silky voice could only belong to Draco Malfoy himself. From behind Narcissa, he emerged, his pewter eyes lined with violet semicircles and his strong cheekbones protruding from sunken features. Hermione recalled him once looking just as translucent and thin in school. It had been their sixth year.
If Narcissa Malfoy looked poorly, Draco was rapping on the door of Death.
"Granger here has come to collect an old debt. Haven't you, Granger?"
Hermione glanced from him to his mother. The skepticism in Narcissa's expression confirmed that she would be daft to let go of her wand prematurely. She strengthened her grip.
"That's right," she said, still studying the both of them. "A personal debt. The Ministry has no idea I'm here."
Narcissa craned her neck, almost as though she expected someone to lunge at her from behind Hermione. Perhaps, she had good reason to feel paranoid. The Malfoys, after all, had had quite a challenging year.
"And why haven't I heard of this debt?"
"As she said, it was personal," Malfoy intervened, lightly touching Narcissa's shoulder. "I'll be fine, Mother. Truly."
For a long moment, the woman loitered there, her lips pressed firmly together with uncertainty. While Hermione was growing impatient, she was understanding too. After all, Narcissa Malfoy had only one person left in the shambles of her once luxurious life—and that person was Draco.
"If you hurt my son, you will not leave this place alive, Miss Granger. Do I make myself clear?"
Hermione nodded. "Quite."
Lingering suspicion notwithstanding, Narcissa stepped aside.
"Thank you, Mrs. Malfoy. I'll try not to take too much of your family's time."
"Don't make promises you can't keep, Granger," Malfoy chided. "We both know you wouldn't be here if this favor was small."
The door clicked shut behind them, and Hermione could have sworn she heard Narcissa utter a spell that she knew to be illegal. Nevertheless, she decided it was best to leave her Ministry persona outside, so she simply gave Malfoy a tight smile and took in his state. He had not looked well at first, but the more she scrutinized him, the more disheveled he appeared. His neck-high robes hung loosely on his frame and his irises were glazed from restlessness.
The Malfoys were in a bad way.
Hermione hoped this would be advantageous to her cause.
"Malfoy. You look well."
"Another lie," he scoffed.
Hermione could feel Narcissa's eyes boring a hole into the back of her head.
"Don't worry yourself, Mother. How about you have some tea and I'll join you in the dining room once our business is finished." Hermione heard the clacking of Narcissa's heels as Malfoy gestured the hallway, a wide extension of the grand foyer that she had crossed only once before. "Come, Granger. We can speak in my study."
She did not remember him having a study but she was unsurprised that he did. Deciding that it was unimportant, she accepted the invitation and followed him.
The inside of Malfoy Manor, in spite of its troubling history, was always a sight to behold. The art and artifacts lining the hall were probably worth tens of millions of Galleons, and she suspected the rarer finds were in the more accessible wings of the place rather than the walkways between rooms. Part of her wished she could have stopped to appreciate them, but Malfoy's strides were long and fast. Her shoes squeaked against the floor of white marble in her efforts to keep up with him—a noise that was apparently offputting to one of his ancestors, whose portrait mumbled, "What an awful, loud woman!"
The narrowing corridor was as long as those in Hogwarts Castle, and it was this note of extravagance that led her back to her former curiosity.
"I was surprised your mother answered the door. I—I thought..." She trailed off, suddenly realizing how rude she probably seemed. "Never mind."
"What? That it would be an elf?"
Hermione swallowed and jogged towards him again. He drew away from her so quickly with his impossible pace.
"You know as well as I do that servants would be ill-advised in our situation." They passed an open room with emerald walls and black crown molding. Apparently, it was not their destination, as he waved at an intersecting hall. "This way."
"Why would it—oh. The monthly interrogations."
"Yes, the monthly interrogations," he sneered. "My mother and I may be following the law, but that doesn't mean I want Aurors in here plucking my elves out to ask them how I take my tea each morning. Go left here."
The manor had always seemed a bit mazelike, but Hermione had never taken the hallways so far before. The last time she had visited the place, she and Malfoy had been served lunch in a small room with a piano and several artifacts—most of which she believed to be well-aged heirlooms. Back then, the grave of his father was still fresh, his mother refused to leave her bedchamber, and the laws surrounding house-elves and squibs had not yet been amended.
The world had changed substantially in just a year.
After nearly fifteen minutes of walking, they finally reached a set of double-doors at the very end of the hall. Wordlessly, Malfoy opened them to reveal a room paneled from ceiling to floor in deep walnut, embroidered not with the usual evil artifacts and portraits of pure-bloods, but with bookshelves carved with gargoyles and crude imagery of violence.
Hermione knew there to be a library in the manor as well. Considering the study had nearly as many books as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, she could only imagine what the grander Malfoy collection looked like.
If they were successful in their endeavor, maybe she would one day admire it in person.
"Well, this is impressive, isn't it?"
"It was my father's. Mother wouldn't let anyone inside until just a few months ago." Malfoy shoved his hands deep into his pockets. "I suppose it's mine now, since she still refuses to come in here."
"If she had it her way, it'd be locked off forever," he retorted. "Only reason she didn't bury the bloody key is because the Ministry wanted our family records."
Hermione's blood ran cold.
"Wait... The Ministry asked for your records? And you gave them to them?"
Malfoy chuckled, darkly. "As you know, they can be very persuasive."
"Right..." Hermione wrung her hands. "There isn't anything about—"
"What you did for me remains between us, Granger. You don't have to worry about a trail of parchment."
"Right, of course... Erm—thanks... And—and look, I am sorry, Malfoy—about your father. It's a shame things ended the way they did."
A humorless half-smirk came and went. "Hmph. People die, Granger. You should know that better than anyone." He approached the black desk, an enormous leather-top bureau with carvings just as beautiful and crude as those adorning the bookcases. "Besides, it's the living that truly suffer these days, isn't it?"
Smoothing the front of his robes, he sat down in the desk's matching wingback chair.
"Maybe not for long," Hermione said, carefully. "Maybe things could go back to normal—or—or close to it, anyway."
"Ah, so you've come here with another one of your Order's grand schemes to fix things, have you? Should've expected as much." He wove his fingers behind his head, bemusedly. "Tell me, Granger, what price do I have to pay for this one? A leg? An arm? My right bollock?"
"No, none of those, hopefully—and your debt will be paid." She picked at her thumbnail, a bad nervous habit that she had had since she was in primary school. "It really is a good plan, Malfoy. If it works, it will change everything."
"Doubtful," he muttered.
"But you'll listen?"
"I don't have much of a choice, do I? No matter your business, you're still with the Ministry."
Hermione frowned. "I prefer that you think of me as a member of the Order of the Phoenix—and as a—as a colleague."
"Yes, Malfoy, a colleague. A colleague that's come to ask you to choose a side."
He snorted. "And which side is that?"
"I already told you I'm here on behalf of the Order." The bed of her thumbnail ached from all of her fiddling with it. "We need training—training we aren't exactly equipped for, training I don't think anyone else is capable of...or willing to giving us."
"Training," he repeated. "Surely the brightest witch of her age can manage to do any magic that I can."
"No," Hermione said, quickly, "I can't. There is only so much I can learn from textbooks and this—this type of magic is dangerous. I wouldn't dare learn it from anything other than a pair of practiced hands."
"Dark Magic, then," he deduced, "but you've certainly learned how to use Unforgivables? I imagine the Ministry made it a requirement for someone in your position?"
"Unforgivables are unforgivable, but they aren't all that difficult, really. Not when your target is someone who deserves it." She thought back to lessons with the Carrows. "What I need is—it exceeds that."
An inkling of fascination replaced his usual scowl. "Okay, Granger, you've played your game long enough. What exactly is it that you need help with?"
Hermione sighed. What she was about to ask of him was beyond anything she had ever asked of anyone before.
"When I tell you, do you swear not to repeat it?"
"You'll kill me if I do," he growled, "so I suppose yes, I swear not to repeat it."
"I mean it. What I'm asking you to do—it could—it could help us win. But if anyone discovers what we're doing—"
"I said I swear. Merlin, Granger, just get on with it."
"This is serious, Malfoy. It's not just another—"
"Just think about it, you rambling swot. If you didn't kill me first, what would I gain from telling the Minister or his thick little lackeys what you're doing? He'll kill me whether it's true or not."
"You're right. He will," Hermione said, sternly. "And he's going to keep killing everyone in his way until he has an army big enough to start killing Muggles too. The Order isn't prepared to let that happen."
"And you all plan on stopping him how?"
The nailbed of her thumb was bleeding. Apparently, she had been picking at it more than she realized.
"Well, we're going to hurt them where it counts," she replied, wiping the blood on the sleeve of her robes, "something they can't recover from."
"And that is?"
Nervously, she admitted, "Stafhelm. We're going to break into it."
He cackled loudly, just as she expected him to. For a moment, he almost looked healthy, with rosy cheeks and deep, ringing laughter that came from the depths of his obviously empty belly. If he weren't laughing at her, she might have been relieved to see a trace of his humanity.
"Oh, that's rich, Granger! Who knew you had a sense of humor?"
When she did not join him, he drew his pale brows together. What came next could determine the future of everyone in Britain—magical or not.
"Wait, you're—you're serious? You really think you're going to break into Stafhelm?"
Slowly, she answered with a nod.
"You're barking!" he exclaimed. "You and all of your little friends, if they agreed to this!"
"We're desperate," Hermione corrected him, "and nothing changes if nothing changes, Malfoy, so go on and blame us while you and your mother sit here and do absolutely nothing, but we're not going to settle for the world as it is—and you shouldn't either."
"Excuse me, Granger, but my mother and I have sense. I'd rather settle for a world that I'm alive in than one where I'm not."
"So that's it, then? You're perfectly happy letting the Ministry get worse and worse until we're all either in prison, enslaved, or dead? That's low, Malfoy, even for you."
He rolled his eyes. "I'd like to see the Ministry go down just as much as you would, Granger, but if you try to break into Stafhelm, the only change you'll see is the number of living members of the Order. You'll go from barely any to bloody zero."
"Not if we do it right! With your help—"
"My help? Granger, I don't think you're understanding me. I don't care what kind of debt I owe you. There is no way in hell I'm going to help you with this death wish of yours."
"No Malfoy, you're not understanding me. We need you. This plan doesn't work without you."
"Well, then you ought to thank me for taking it off the table," he scoffed. "When you wake up in the morning and you're still breathing, imagine I'm there saying 'you're welcome.'"
"Malfoy, please, just listen to me—"
He stood and shook his head. "There's no use in begging, Granger. There's nothing you can do to get me to partake in your stupid scheme, so if you'd kindly take your leave, I'll be happy to absolve my debt when you come up with something reasonable."
He pushed in the chair and fixed the high collar of his robes. Hermione had saved her greatest bargaining tool for such a moment, so despairingly, she proffered it. Perhaps, with the right offering, he would come to his senses.
"We'll protect your mother, you know!"
Visibly, he stiffened. "What?"
"Your mother—we can offer her Order protection," Hermione elaborated. "We have Unplottables all over Britain—places she'll be safe, places the Ministry has no record of."
His attention was hers once more. She could feel her heart thudding against her chest wall as she analyzed the stakes of the rest of their conversation. One misstep, and the plan was foiled. One misstep, and the Ministry won.
"How do I know you aren't lying?"
Her nailbeds were particularly interesting again. "Do you really think I could kill all my friends, Draco?"
Astute as always, Malfoy wagged a finger at her. For once, it was not a gesture of the rude sort.
"You've been hiding them."
"And somehow none of them have been caught?"
"When the Order protects people, we protect them well, Malfoy." Hermione leveled her gaze on him. "That's what we can offer your mother—and you. Protection with the full force of the Order of the Phoenix and all of its sitting members."
"And what makes me safer with your lot than here? We aren't breaking any laws."
Hermione gave him a sad smile. "But how long until you are? You have to pick a side, Draco. They're going to make you, eventually, and given your past, I imagine your prospects will be slim."
He seemed to consider it briefly, but then, with the second shake of his head, Hermione felt her insides lurch.
"I can't. My mother will never leave the manor anyway."
"But surely you could convince her! Malfoy, if she stays here—"
"Staying here is what she wants. She won't leave this place—not to live in some hovel with a bunch of people that loathed her up until it benefited them not to."
"But—but the Ministry—"
"My mother is not wanted and my name has been cleared. Unless you find some reason to turn us both in, we'll be safe as long as we mind our business." He sniffed. "Aligning with the Order is something our reputation can't afford right now."
"So you'll do nothing, then?" she asked, disbelievingly. "You'll stay here until the Minister finds some reason to kill the both of you?"
"I'll protect my family the best way I know how."
"Oh, please! You aren't protecting anyone! You're a coward! Just like you've always been!"
He barked a laugh. "I'd rather be a coward than mad."
Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off before she could get out so much as a word.
"You best be going, Granger. My mother will start snooping if she finds we've been gone too long."
"Fine, but I'll be back, you know," she said, coldly, "and I have a feeling that you'll be changing your mind when I do."
"Is that a threat?"
"Consider it an educated assumption." Disgust lined the statement. "I suppose I should've known better than to put my faith in you, of all people. I'll lessen my expectations in the future."
"Good! Maybe next time we speak you'll have figured out what a rational expectation is."
Hermione glowered at him.
"If we speak again, Malfoy, you should just thank the stars that you're still alive."
And with that, she Disapparated.
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