Hermione's bag slid off the tilted kitchen table and back into her lap. It was a weathered thing: made of oak and chipping grey paint, the thirdhand find was from a Muggle dump, summoned to the Rook House by a manic Xenophilius Lovegood right before a meeting. To distract herself from her racked nerves and the urge to pick at her nail beds, Hermione peeked beneath the table in hopes of charming it to normalcy. She had, naturally, tried to fix it before, but she had failed, and unsolved problems did not sit well with her.
The table groaned and shifted, snapping the six boards beneath its warping hind legs. Then, before she could resurface to admire her work, two large boots stepped into the room and approached her, followed by the squealing feet of one of the three mismatched chairs. Hermione always hated those chairs, and she knew Charlie did too.
"Sorry about that. Xenophilius is . . . well, he's a bit of a nuisance nowadays."
"What? Oh, Xenophilius, right." Hermione quickly emerged from her place beneath the table. She felt lightheaded, but whether it was from being upside-down or the sudden wave of stress, she wasn't sure. "Sorry, I was trying to fix it . . . It looks much better now, though, don't you think?"
Charlie knocked on the surface. "It does, actually . . . What spell did you use?"
"Just a simple Leveling Charm. It's a bit better than your everyday Lengthening Spell on the legs, especially if you've got something that isn't cooperating . . . I used to use it on Ron's plates when we were camping."
"Yeah, I'm familiar with it," he sniffed. "Tried it before, actually—and about a half-dozen other spells . . . Watch, it'll go slanted again."
Hermione frowned as the table sagged once more, proving his point.
"I've never seen that happen before."
"Don't know what in Merlin's name is wrong with it, but even George's putty can't fix the damn thing. Every time I try molding it on there, it just sort of . . . melts."
Jiggling it, Hermione realized that, perhaps, the tilt was not the work of Muggles after all.
"You think it's been jinxed?"
"Not that I know of . . . but Xenophilius has been known for swinging his wand about . . . In more ways than one, unfortunately . . ." Charlie grimaced. "Anyway, enough about the silly problems around here. How'd your visit with Malfoy go?"
"Not well," Hermione admitted. "He said no."
"Of course he did. He's Malfoy."
"I know he's Malfoy. But we aren't twelve anymore so I thought—I thought maybe . . . " She exhaled. "I thought maybe he'd agree to it, you know, with all things considered . . . "
"All you could do was try, Granger. No need to beat yourself up over it."
"I'm not . . . but honestly, I think if I went back—"
Suddenly, the sound of shattering glass came from the adjacent room. It was the doing of a distressed man—one whose sanity had long slipped through his fingers and into the void.
Charlie was unfazed by the everyday din.
"You were saying?"
"I was saying I think I should go back there. When I offered his mother the Order's protection . . . well, long story short, he was going to say yes. The only reason he didn't was because—"
"Mocking me now, are you?" Xenophilius bellowed. "Well, I'll tell you something, Mr. Crumple-Horned Snorkack, you aren't as sneaky as you think you are!"
Charlie rubbed his temples. "Sorry, he's at the time of day where he starts getting agitated . . . Just ignore him . . ."
"It's fine," Hermione said, waving him off. "So what d'you think?"
"What do I think of you going back to the Malfoys'? I think it's bloody mad."
Considering the stakes, his reaction surprised her.
"I said I think it's mad. We agreed to one meeting and that's what we meant. One." He brandished a stern index finger, patronizing her as he often did to those of lower rank. "And don't even give me that look, Hermione. McGonagall's with me on this. She's already said as much."
"I find that hard to believe," Hermione muttered.
"Frankly, I don't care what you believe. You're here to follow orders, and the order I'm giving you now is to move on."
"And what do you mean by move on?"
"I mean exactly that," he said, firmly. "Our main focus needs to be the overall goal now and nothing else. As you know, that means a lot of research on your end, so I need you to keep your head out of the clouds and start getting some solid information on that gateway of yours—information I prefer you keep away from Dolohov if you can help it. Bill and I will do what we can, but you're the only one with access to the Ministry records, so I'm afraid most of it is going to fall on you."
"Wait . . . the gateway? You're talking about ditching those ruddy shackles! You do know that won't necessarily help Harry?"
"Like I said, our main focus is the overall goal now. Without those shackles, Dolohov is no more powerful than Umbridge or Parkinson or any of the other morons that follow him. We get rid of the shackles, we take him prisoner, we don't put many of our own at risk. Simple as that."
"And what d'you propose we do when they come looking for him?"
"I didn't say it was the perfect plan, Hermione, and I know it's certainly not fast, but with our resources, it's the best we've got. Lestrange and Umbridge will have a row over who takes Dolohov's place, one will hopefully have the other killed, and then the whole thing collapses and we put in one of ours." He cringed as Xenophilius spat a curse at what was, seemingly, the loveseat. "We'll run into bumps along the way, but if we do it right, it'll work. As long as you figure out how to destroy the bloody things and as long as someone can nick them, we can turn this around and we can maybe, at some point, live the normal lives we've never quite had the chance to live."
Blood roiled hotly in Hermione's veins.
Harry, the man that had saved the entire Wizarding World, had very quickly gone from being their main concern to a complete nonpriority. One sour meeting with Malfoy, to her, was hardly a good reason to return to the botched mission from thirteen months earlier—especially since that mission ended in death.
She opened her mouth to say her piece, but was expectedly interrupted.
The tearing of upholstery echoed and Xenophilius cackled in delight, proudly clapping his hands together. Apparently, he had won his match with the loveseat.
"Sorry, but that is my cue to get his potion in him," Charlie declared, "so if you'll excuse me, I think I'll be bringing this to a close now."
"That's all, then?" Hermione asked, furiously. "That's where you're going to leave it?"
He did not even bother looking at her. Instead, he pushed in his chair and said, "Figure out how to destroy those shackles, yeah? And let me know when you do."
"But wait, what if I—"
"Meeting is adjourned, Granger. Go home."
She was trembling with rage. Every reason she disagreed with him was tickling the tip of her tongue, urging her to yell at him, to scream at him, to tell him she was going to save Harry no matter what.
However, she had been desensitized to reprehensible orders—so she quieted her moral compass, and in spite of her better judgment, she Disapparated.
Everything was brown. The houses were brown, the foot trail was brown, even the grass was brown. Funded by the Ministry of Magic, the Farnfurn compound consisted of nearly thirty houses, all a mere single room—sans the grimy lavatories—and disturbingly bare. No Muggle could find the place, and if an enemy were to try, they would not survive the consequences.
Hermione preferred her old tent.
She hiked up the trail, passing by the many clones that were marked with their residents' names: Clearwater, Midgen, Yaddle. Strangely, she was one of the most important people that dwelled there, and she knew they loathed her for it.
Their opinions meant little.
She ignored the curtains zipping shut as she made her way to the top of the highest hill, somehow both relieved and crestfallen. There, plastered on a house just as brown and just as small as the rest of them, was her surname.
Even though being a Muggle-born had its drawbacks, she had once taken pride in being a Granger. However, the more she had to see it emblazoned upon the side of that house, the less proud she was, and thusly, she had charmed the Vow to the Ministry off the knobless, lockless door.
It was a small act of defiance—one that had gone wholly unnoticed, but one that brought a small smile to her face when she thought about it. Sadly, the smile never lasted long, because to open that door, she had to say the passphrase.
"Long live His Excellency."
By rather poor design, the words opened every door on the property; she had learned as much when she once said it too loudly, exposing her half-naked neighbor to a group of visiting goblins.
They had pointed and gasped, and then, they were sentenced to death for what Umbridge referred to as "a lewd act of gawking".
As Hermione pondered this cruel ruling, she stepped into her stark place of residence and turned to close the door. Before she could, however, it shut itself; the magic of the resetting enchantments pulsed through the air, sending a shiver down her spine and reminding her how utterly in control the Ministry was.
"Tsk, tsk, you are late! Tsk, tsk, you are late!"
She winced and waved her hand at the complaining grandfather clock. It vibrated upon the wall as it always did when she countered the annoying charm, scraping away the drab wall paint and grinding its own gears; the previous resident had been on probation and the Employee Housing Office had not yet removed the miserable thing. Somehow, they had plenty of time to remove the resident himself.
"Four late notices this month!" Dolores Umbridge had scolded at his trial. "You were warned of the terms of your probation, were you not?"
His stammering had then earned him a lifelong stay in Stafhelm. At least, that was what the paperwork claimed.
Being in the Minister's favor had its perks, and Hermione's narrow avoidance of probation was one of the few she proudly accepted.
Parkinson and Umbridge had tried to charge her with insubordination no less than fourteen times, and thanks to the Minister for Magic, all fourteen of her loyalty hearings had been promptly canceled. There was no doubt that the two women were of great importance, but neither of them were murderers.
Murderers, or rather, talented murderers, were in short supply, and the Minister would not part with those willing to kill on his behalf.
As Hermione pulled off her shoes, her stomach growled. She made a face, a bit disgusted with herself for thinking of food at the precise moment that she contemplated homicide—but it couldn't be helped. After all, she hadn't eaten all day.
Regrettably, she had not had time to visit the ration-keeper.
She scoured her small kitchenette for her only meal, hoping that she had saved a bit of pork from her most recent serving. Over time, her repetitive suppers had started bleeding together into a compilation of meat, bread, and peas.
After ripping open every cupboard, she only found the remainder of her weekly pumpernickel.
With a sigh, she seized it and crawled into bed, fully clothed and too exhausted to change. She had a strange relationship with that tiny, miserable bed. On one hand, it was lumpy and itchy and riddled with bugs. On the other hand, it was the only piece of furniture that the Ministry allowed her to have—a lesson she learned the hard way when she transfigured a sock into an armchair. Parkinson motioned for her immediate eviction, but in the end, she just had to write a personal apology to the Minister.
She bit into the bread and coughed. It was ash between her teeth, and as the crumbs fell down her front, she thought of Wales.
"Haven't I told you not to eat in bed? You're getting crumbs everywhere!"
"Well, where else am I supposed to eat? It's raining outside."
"Oh, I don't know, Ron. Maybe the dining table? Honestly, if you had to camp the way Muggles do, you wouldn't survive a day."
How surreal it was that he was lost now—forever just a piece of her collage of haunting memories. Like her friends. Like her parents.
Solemn and furious and unable to sleep, she threw the bread at the wall, peeled off her paper-thin blanket, and padded across the room to her lavatory. The stench of urine filled her nostrils, for no matter which spell she used, she could never seem to banish the smell for good. Still, she ignored it, just like she ignored the squeaking shower handles, the moths on the curtain, and the harsh chill of the frigid spray.
Fascinatedly, she watched the day's dirt swirl down the drain.
Cleanliness. Godliness. Rejuvenation.
The Dealer of Death may have followed Charlie's orders, but she was Hermione Granger—and Hermione Granger had some persuading to do.
Impostors. All of them. Deep underground, they loomed in the air, much like those that graced the London sky beyond—yet different in every way. They glimmered around the faux moon, and by Hermione's preference, they encircled Venus's doppelganger.
The ivory planet was so close she could touch it.
As a teenager, she had been entranced by the Atmospheric Charm in the Great Hall, but in her later years, she had come to find it to be terribly inferior to what it represented. The thunder always sounded the same, the lightning never beared any consequences, and worst of all, the temperature never changed.
She missed the autumn twilight. She missed the forest in Wales. She missed campfires and hedgehogs and the sound of swaying leaves . . .
But most of all, she missed Ronald.
She would have sold her soul to wake up, just one more morning, to his loud snores. To scold him for stealing the blankets. To complain about him laying on her hair. To tell him "not tonight" for what felt like the hundredth time.
Unfortunately, grief would not fix the state of things, so she buried her emotions and signed her second memo of the day.
I have reason to suspect that Narcissa Malfoy is in possession of a cursed tea set. It is my recommendation that the affected items are immediately retrieved and brought to the Department of Mysteries. Thank you.
Department of Mysteries
It was a lie.
Draco Malfoy was not going to change his mind unless the status quo shifted, and Hermione was ensuring that it did.
That was, of course, if she could bring herself to send it in the first place.
Unlike most Ministry employees, Arvell Boot quite liked Hermione. He was, for a wizard, utterly ordinary, and it was this utter ordinariness that once made him an asset to the Pest Advisory Board. He had a passion for paperwork, a verve for verbiage, and most importantly, he was willing to do the parts of the job that his more important colleagues loathed. Those colleagues took advantage of this, and when they went to pass their work onto him, they often called it "giving it the Boot".
Strangely, the joke had worked in his favor.
When Evanegline Fawley was tortured to lunacy, they needed a quick replacement, and inexplicably, Dolores Umbridge's pick was Arvell.
Hermione had taken advantage of this a number of times.
When she needed Malfoy's case file, he gave it to her. When she wanted to find Parvati Patil, he helped her. Impressively, he had even managed to provide her with Umbridge and Parkinson's many notes in her own personal record.
Arvell Boot was willing to do her a favor for nothing in return. All she had to do was ask.
That should have compelled her to send it, but it didn't.
Instead, she kept rereading her own handwriting, almost as though the intention might change if she regurgitated the words enough. Suspect. Possession. Retrieved. It was the sort of message she would expect from the likes of the High Inquisitor, yet somehow, it had been penned by her own hand.
Immoral acts weren't so immoral if they were for the greater good.
Or were they?
The hesitation, she had convinced herself, did not come from her small soft spot for Draco Malfoy; she had no doubt that he could defeat every Auror in the department if his mind was set on it. It was the other member of his household for whom she worried: the frail woman that had once saved her best friend's life, the woman that had cleverly changed the tides of the war, the woman who was in every way an enigma Hermione never understood.
Narcissa Malfoy teetered on the edge of madness, and a mishandled inquiry could easily be the final, terrible push.
To betray a woman that had once had the courage to betray Voldemort himself—it seemed like an entirely new brand of treason. Perhaps the woman detested Muggle-borns. Perhaps she was haughty and ostentatious and even cruel. Alas, she was, above all, a heroine of the war—one that paid a price uniquely her own.
The fine line between ethics and ferocity always did blur in times of trouble.
Forcing Narcissa Malfoy out of her thoughts, Hermione resigned herself and pressed her wand to the memo. The parchment neatly folded itself and lunged for the extra-wide letterbox, eager to start its magical journey to the second level.
Already, she had sent two memos, and both were lies. That left her with a much more daunting task.
To paint the portrait of her other self was always a gut-wrenching chore, and it was even worse when she was under the harsh scrutiny of a recent execution. Every time she claimed to kill one of her old friends, her superiors became suspicious, looking for a reason to believe she was anything other than the woman she said she was.
That woman went by many names.
Unspeakable. War heroine. Dealer of Death.
Together, they all translated to the thing she least wanted to be: a dedicated employee of the Ministry of Magic.
As the sun peeked through false clouds, Hermione cracked her knuckles and took in her surroundings. Open tomes. Scrap parchment. Colored ink. They were all subtle proof of her loyalty, so when the door finally opened, she continued the charade.
Hermione glanced at her watch. "You're not."
Smooth and haughty, the voice belonged to her fellow Unspeakable and longtime research partner: a schoolmate, an academic, a Slytherin. They had started working for the Ministry at the same time, endured the same excruciating lessons with Alecto and Amycus Carrow, and then, after nearly a year of researching under Senior Unspeakables, they were issued the same assignment.
He had been less than thrilled about it.
"Should she really even be on this case? Considering how close she was with the very man that put this stupid hole in the ground—"
"Mr. Zabini, leave assignment decisions to me. If I had any reason to believe Miss Granger was unsuitable for this task, she would have been assigned to the Brain Room with the rest of your colleagues."
Their professional relationship had been strained ever since.
"I would've been here on time, but your friend Arvell Boot pulled me aside the second I walked into the building. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
"That depends. What did he have to say?" Hermione asked, evenly.
"Oh, you know, his usual weird song and dance," Blaise scoffed, adjusting his already-impeccable necktie. "'Arvell Boot, former member of the Pest Advisory Board, current Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and presently—'"
"'—at your service.' Yeah, I swear he practices that one in the mirror . . . Ahem. Anyway, did he have anything interesting to say?"
"I don't know, Granger," he sighed, dramatically pulling out his chair, "what exactly might Arvell Boot want to talk with me about for nearly forty-five minutes? Anything interesting come to mind?"
"Well, I don't know. You're the one that met with him."
"Oh, come off it! You ordered a raid on the bloody Malfoys! That's why you're here so early, isn't it? So you could make sure it made it to his desk before he got in!"
With a confident shrug, Hermione dipped her quill. "I was given information from a fairly reliable source. I simply took it to the party that's best suited to handle it. Now, if you have a problem with that—"
"And who was this source, exactly?" Blaise demanded, crossing his arms. "And what did you do to them that would make them want to snitch?"
"Well, if you must know," she said, scribbling down something about doxy eggs, "it was Hannah Abbott. She told me on Friday."
"Hannah Abbott? That woman that you just fucking killed?"
Hermione groaned and put down her quill, making an inky mess all over her meaningless notes. "So you already know."
"Of course I already know! Everybody knows!" Blaise hissed. "Between that and the Malfoy raid, you're a bit of a hot topic in the Atrium—and not in the good way."
"What're people saying?"
"Lots of things . . . Something about the Leaky Cauldron . . . You had an attitude with Jonathan Bragwit . . . Someone said something about a dragon? Half of it seemed like rubbish, really . . . But what I do know is that Parkinson was bloody livid."
Pansy Parkinson was the last person Hermione wanted involved.
"Nearly killed Belby trying to summon a stack of papers this morning, so she certainly wasn't happy about something." He tried rubbing the stress from his face. "Look Granger, I don't care what kind of messes you get yourself into outside of work. If you want to go around murdering your little friends to satiate your perversions, be my bloody guest, but when you start bringing attention to yourself here, that affects me, and then, we have a problem. Do you understand?"
Hermione leered at him. "The Minister killed her boyfriend. As soon as she found that out, all those Aurors she serves were going to end up hurt or worse."
"And you honestly thought Hannah Abbott could take on a dozen Aurors?"
"Those Aurors drink in her pub. It would've been all too easy to poison them."
"Oh, I have no doubt that's what you wrote in your report," he posited, dryly.
"Reason is always needed for a nontrial execution, so yes, I wrote it in my report. Now if you'll excuse me," Hermione said, hiding her useless notes, "I have work to do. If you need me, I'll be in the Pensieve Room."
"Did you collect a new memory?"
"No, I'm looking at the trial again—my memory."
"You mean the one we've examined at least twenty times?" Blaise bemoaned. "Do you really think you're going to find something new?"
"I'm being thorough," she snapped. "Maybe you should try it sometime."
"Great tip, Granger. Next time I kill an innkeeper and send Aurors to stage an unnecessary raid, I'll give it a go."
Author's Note: I do apologize for the lateness. My chronic illness has been acting up something fierce lately, so editing this took quite a long time as I've been very tired and dizzy. I rewrote it at least three times and edited it about 30+ times, so please do leave criticism so I can make any additional edits.
If you are interested in betaing this work, this is my First Edition, and I would love to continue upgrading it to a highly-edited Second Edition. I have edited things, of course, but several pairs of eyes are better than one. Harsh critiquing is helpful and encouraged.
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