Actions

Work Header

The Brightest Black

Chapter Text

BOOK 1: CHILDHOOD

 

The moon hung low over her head as Bellatrix Lestrange née Black moved down an ordinary looking muggle street. She grinned as anticipation filled her. She loved the minutes leading up to an attack. The world was so calm, and only she knew just how it was going to be disrupted.

How would she do it this time? The Cruciatus? Another form of torture perhaps? What about a dull knife and some well used ropes? Or should she just keep it quick and simple with the killing curse?

She let out a cruel chuckle at that idea. Keep it simple? Why should she, when she was just going to kill some dirty muggles and a mudblood? They didn't deserve simple. And it wasn't like they could do anything to stop her. Besides, her lord was busy this evening. He wouldn't need her before dawn.

A terrible grin twisted Bellatrix's features and turned her normally gorgeous face into something that was much more suited to what lay under it.

Oh, yes, torture it would be.

XXX

Bellatrix threw her head back and laughed when the muggle woman screamed in pain as blood blossomed from the new cut. It was almost orgasmic, what the sound of screams did to her. The man hadn't screamed enough. He'd given her some pleasure when he'd bitten his own tongue off, but not nearly enough. No, he'd only screamed once she'd begun on the woman. And once he could scream no more she'd turned back to him, made his wife watch as she cut him apart, one inch at a time.

Now, now it was time for the grand finale.

She levitated the now moaning woman and left the bedroom, leaving the man where he lay, turning the once white carpet a gorgeous crimson. She almost wished she had a camera, to capture the slow spread of blood. She'd have to remember for the future how much fun carpet was.

She entered the nursery down the hallway, casually sticking the woman to the wall. Then she threw up another silencing spell. No need to alert the authorities yet, she didn't want to rush.

Oh, no, she wanted the muggle woman to watch as the mudblood brat died slowly and painfully.

"HERMIONE! RUN!" The woman screamed as it registered on her pain-filled mind what was about to happen.

Bellatrix cackled, "You think your brat can run? From me?! Stupid bitch."

The mudblood couldn't run, but it did wake up. Bellatrix laughed as the brat shook its head and stood up in its crib, looking in confusion at the two women in the nursery.

"Ma-ma?"

Bellatrix laughed and then turned to cast another cruciatus curse on the woman. It would be so much better if the brat knew what was coming.

The woman screamed, her whole body locking up as she jerked in pain. The brat's jaw dropped and then it cried out, "NO!"

Bellatrix ignored it for a moment, letting the torture continue until the woman was barely conscious.

Then she turned her wand on the brat.

The young screams were like music to her ears. They were so well in tune with the mother's. Bellatrix stopped herself before she let it go on too long. She wanted the brat conscious when she started the cutting.

She pulled out her personal knife and slipped her wand in the front of her robes. The mother continued to scream as Bellatrix held the knife aloft and approached the crib. She grabbed the brat by its hair and yanked it out of the crib, watching its face twist with pain. She threw it on the floor, watching as it rolled and bounced until it was at its mother's feet.

Bellatrix threw back her head and cackled, then hurled herself on the baby and began her carving work. When she was finished everyone would know why the brat had died. After all, thou shalt not suffer a mudblood to live.

She had finished the arms and legs and was about to begin on the face when her Mark began to burn. Bellatrix hissed in pain and jerked up. She yanked her sleeve up and stared in shock as her Mark began to flicker and waver before slowly beginning to fade.

No…

Her lord…

Jerking away from the brat she dropped the knife and yanked out her wand. It was time to go. Her lord needed her. Something was wrong.

She pointed her wand at the ceiling and cast the Dark Mark. Then she looked at the barely conscious woman and smiled.

"Time to die."

She raised her wand.

"NO!"

Bellatrix twisted one thin eyebrow up as she glanced down at the brat. The mudblood was barely conscious, bleeding from cuts up and down its limbs, but there was something in its eyes…

She sneered, "No? You stupid little mudblood. No one tells Bellatrix no. Besides, you're next."

She raised her wand again, ignoring the brat.

Then pain struck her thigh, causing her to drop her wand and howl in pain. She glanced down and saw her knife clutched in the two-year olds small hands, the point digging into her thigh, just above the knee.

"NO!" the brat screamed again. A fire was burning bright in its brown eyes.

Bellatrix reached down and grabbed the brat's wrists in one hand and yanked the knife out of her thigh with the other.

"Alright then," she hissed, "you can be first."

She raised the knife up, the muggle woman screamed, "Hermione!" and then plunged it down, only to be stopped. It was as if an invisible hand had grabbed her wrist, stopping it from descending. She screamed once again in frustration and yanked her hand up, trying to jab it down again. Once again she was stopped. She saw red and yanked her hand up higher. Again and again she swung, screaming the entire time.

How DARE that mudblood stop her!

HOW DARE IT!

XXX

Sirius Black yawned and turned his motorcycle, letting it drift through a cloud. He hated these late night patrols, they so rarely led to results. Only good thing about tonight was that he would finish up over Godric's Hollow. He'd be able to stop in and have breakfast with James and Lily. Maybe even catch a nap in front of the fire with little Harry.

That thought made him smile, curling up in dog form with Harry was a great way to sleep. He glanced down at this watch as he emerged from the cloud. Just an hour until sunrise, he'd be in Godric's Hollow in thirty minutes if-

He glanced up and cursed, all thoughts of James and his family flying from his mind.

The Dark Mark had appeared directly in front of him, over a rather ordinary looking muggle home.

He aimed his bike at the ground and whipped out his wand to send a quick patronus back to headquarters. Looked like his nap would have to wait, hopefully he wasn't too late.

His bike had just hit the ground when he was off of it and running into the house. He didn't hear a thing, but that meant nothing. There could be silencing charm up.

He raised his wand and began to slowly move through the house. When he reached the master bedroom he had to stop himself from being sick. The man on the carpeted floor was in pieces, a look of agony on his face, just barely visible under all the bloody cuts.

Sirius knew who had done this. Only one death eater took this much pleasure and time when killing muggles. He ducked back out of the doorway and continued down the hallway. He reached a half open door and as soon as he reached out to push it open he heard the screams.

Screams of rage were echoed by screams of pure terror, and, underneath all of the screaming he thought he heard a young voice chanting, "No," over and over again.

There was a child in there.

Every nerve in his body screamed at him to go rushing in, but he couldn't do that. His cousin was in there, and she was almost as dangerous as Voldemort himself.

Cautiously, he pushed the door open a little farther, just enough for him to see the scene before him.

An unknown woman, likely the wife of the man he'd found, was stuck to the wall. She was covered in blood and she was screaming, a mindless terror in her eyes as they remained fixed at the floor below her.

On the floor…

A child, maybe a year older than little Harry, lay bleeding from numerous small cuts on their limbs, his cousin poised over the child, a silver knife glinting in her hand. As he watched she raised it and drove it down, only to be stopped by an invisible force. She let out a howl of frustration and raised her arm again. The look on the small child's face was one of defiance and pure hatred, but Sirius could see the weariness there, under it all. The child wouldn't hold out much longer. He glanced around, and saw his cousin's wand lying on the ground next to her.

Sirius turned off his brain, he had to act, fast.

A child's life depended on it.

"Accio Bellatrix's Wand!" Sirius shouted, shoving the door open and catching the wand in his left hand as it flew towards him.

Bellatrix whipped around, her cold eyes locking on his face. Sirius couldn't help himself, he shivered with a touch of fear. There wasn't an ounce of sanity left in her eyes. And what was left behind…

"YOU!" She screeched, leaping off the floor and diving at him, knife raised.

Sirius raised his wand, but he was too slow, still in shock over what his cousin had turned into. And then she was on him, the knife descending for his face. He dropped the two wands he was holding and just barely managed to catch her wrist. Stopping the knife a mere inch from his eye.

"Just die!" she said, twisting, trying to free her arm from his grasp. Her other hand came around, her fingers scrambling at his, her long nails scratching his skin, making blood well up, coating his hands in red.

Sirius bucked his hips and tried to get her off him, but all he succeeded in doing was rolling them across the floor. It was pure luck that had her knee impacting his hip and not somewhere more delicate as they fought for control over the knife. Sirius' breathing was coming fast, his only thoughts for the moment were on survival. He'd even forgotten about the small child and the woman pinned to the wall.

Luckily the child hadn't forgotten them.

"NO! STOP!"

The shout, in such a young determined voice, caused Sirius and his cousin to whip their heads around. The knife was currently resting against Sirius' throat, Bellatrix had both hands on it, trying to drive the point in. It was taking all of his strength to keep the point from drawing blood.

The sight before him almost made him drop his arms.

The child, a girl if he wasn't mistaken, was holding both of the dropped wands, one in each small hand. They were aimed directly at Bellatrix. As he watched the girl raised the wands up and begin swinging them at the woman, her small mouth opened up, as if to say something.

Sirius heard Bellatrix let out a hiss and then tense up, as if to leap at the child. Sirius tried to twist, to move her away from the little girl, but he wasn't fast enough. The little girl yelled something and then Bellatrix was flying off of him. She rose up and then slammed into the wall, making the entire house shudder and pictures fall from the wall. Sirius watched in shock before he felt something being pushed into his hand. He looked over to see the girl extending his wand towards him. Something unreadable in her eyes.

Quickly he took his wand and got his cousin stunned and tied up. The little girl calmly watched him as he did this. As soon as he was certain that Bellatrix was secure he unpinned the woman from the wall. The little girl was beside her in an instant.

"Mama!"

The woman's eyelids slowly opened. He watched as her eyes took a moment to focus on the girl.

"Hermione," she said in barely a whisper.

Sirius immediately began running a diagnostic spell, but he didn't have much hope. His healing skills were minimal and he could tell she was much too injured to move. But he couldn't just leave to go get help, what if another Death Eater came?

Merlin's Balls! Where was the rest of the Order?!

"Mama!" the girl sobbed, throwing herself on her mother's chest.

The woman winced, but carefully, and with great effort, brought her unbroken arm up to stroke her daughter's hair. She continued to stroke her daughter's head as the girl sobbed, but her eyes moved away, until they focused on Sirius.

"You-you saved her."

"I'm sorry I didn't come faster."

She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath.

"You have-have magic. Like her," her eyes flickered to the trussed up Bellatrix.

"Yes, I'm a wizard. I think your daughter is a witch. She did magic."

A ghost of a smile appeared on her face as she continued to stroke Hermione's hair. "We always knew she was special."

The girl, Hermione, grew quieter, her sobs coming further and further apart as they spoke. Sirius knew she must've passed out from exhaustion. She'd done a lot of magic for one so young. And she'd been tortured. He ran a quick diagnostic on the girl, but found no internal injuries. Just all the cuts on her limbs.

"I-I have a favor to ask."

Sirius raised his eyes and met the deep brown ones of the dying woman's.

"Raise my daughter. We-we have no family. She has no one. I don't know you," she closed her eyes and Sirius watched as a tear trickled out, creating a clean trail amid all the blood. "But you saved her. Is there some way to…"

Her voice drifted off, and Sirius could tell that it was taking all of her remaining strength to talk to him. He could guess what she was going to ask though.

"Is there some way for you to make me her guardian? Like a magical way? So no one can contest it?"

She nodded, just a fraction of an inch, and Sirius felt all the air rush out of his lungs. If he did this…

He looked over at his unconscious cousin, and then down at the exhausted little girl, lying on her dying mother's chest. He had to fight the urge to laugh hysterically. He thought the night would end with him curled up with Harry in front of the fire. Instead he was going to get himself a daughter. Make a muggleborn his daughter, and in such a way that no one could deny she was his. And he'd use a Black family ritual to do it.

His parents would be furious.

But that wasn't important.

Gently, he reached over and ran a finger over the small girl's face. Emotion swelled up inside of him and he felt a tear trickle down his own cheek.

"Yes, there's a way. And I'd be honored to raise and protect your daughter. She'll know nothing but love in my home and among my friends."

She smiled faintly, "Good."

He nodded, "Now, let me show you what we need to do."

XXX

Hermione's birth mother, Gertrude Granger, died a few minutes after the ritual was completed. Sirius held his new daughter in his arms as she cried the few tears she had left. He was still sitting there, rocking her gently, when Moody and the Prewett brothers arrived.

"Sirius Black! Put your hands where we can see them!" Gideon shouted, his wand pointed straight at Sirius.

Sirius' eyes widened in shock, "Gideon! What on earth?"

"You know what," Moody growled.

Sirius felt Hermione shiver with fear and clutch his robes tighter.

"No. I'm afraid I don't Moody. All I know is I was flying patrol, almost ran into a bloody Dark Mark, and then came inside to find my bloodsucking cousin trying to murder a little girl! And that was at least three hours ago! Where the hell have you been! I sent a patronus!"

"Hmph, that does appear to be Bellatrix Lestrange trussed up like a Christmas goose over there," Fabian commented.

Sirius was pleased to see that at least Fabian's wand wasn't pointed threateningly at him. It was instead focused on Bellatrix.

"And the, uh, mess in the other room is hours old. Say, what's that in your arms Sirius?" Gideon asked.

"Likely a weapon, drop it Black," Moody said.

Sirius began to rub Hermione's back in small circles as she began to tremble in fear. He knew she could feel all the wands pointed at them.

"She's a who, not a what, Gideon. And Moody, if you don't stop pointing that wand at my daughter I will personally make sure you can't ever hold a wand again," Sirius growled, letting some of his animagius form come out in his voice.

Moody stared at him for a moment. Sirius could see him weighing all sorts of things, finally he lowered his wand and stomped over, "You really don't know, do you?" he said as he scooped up Bellatrix's wand from the floor.

"Know what?" Sirius asked.

Gideon let out a small sigh and lowered his own wand. "The Potters were attacked last night. James and Lily are dead."

All the blood in Sirius' veins turned to ice water and then, just as quickly, his entire body was on fire as he saw red. He was on his feet, his wand in his hand and Hermione resting against his shoulder.

"I'll kill him! That little RAT! I'll-"

"Kill who? You-Know-Who? Too late for that. Harry killed him somehow. Even Dumbledore doesn't know how."

Sirius froze and looked over at Fabian, "Harry's alive?"

Fabian nodded, "So, you see, you don't need to go kill You-Know-Who."

"That wasn't who I was going to kill."

All three of the wizards frowned at him, "Then who were you going to kill?" Gideon asked.

"Peter Pettigrew. He was the Secret Keeper. I was supposed to be, but we switched, because I'm so obvious."

Moody snorted, "You would be obvious."

"But you can't go after Pettigrew," Fabian said. "You just said you have a daughter," he waved at Hermione, "and I'm sure that's a long story, but now you also have Harry to worry about. Let us go after Pettigrew. He doesn't know that we know he's a traitor."

"Mind if I verify your story, Black?" Moody asked.

"Sure, you must have veritaserum on you. Constant vigilance after all."

It took only a few minutes for Moody to confirm Sirius' story. By the time the veritaserum wore off Moody was grinning. Making the other three men in the room shiver in fear. Sirius never, ever wanted to see Moody grin like that ever again.

"I love a good traitor hunt. Now, let's get some more aurors in here and get the scene processed. Then you can go track down Harry, I'm sure Albus has him in a safe place, and we can go track down our rat of a traitor."

And so Sirius Black spent the next hour holding Hermione Black in his arms, answering questions, and trying to wrap his brain around in just how many ways his world had changed in the last few hours – in the good and the bad.

 

Chapter Text

                 Albus folded his hands and took a deep breath, “I’m sorry Sirius, but I cannot let Harry live with you.  There are wards erected to protect him.  Wards tied directly to his mother’s blood.  He’s only safe from the remaining Death Eaters if he remains with his aunt.”

                Sirius shifted Hermione in his arms and leaned forwards, a deadly solemnity in his eyes.  One the Headmaster had never seen before.  “And I’m sorry Albus, but he’s my godson.  Lily and James charged me with raising and keeping him safe if something happened.  He may be safe from Death Eaters with Petunia, but he will not be raised.  Rather he will raise himself.  I know Petunia.  I know the stories of her.  Hell, I even met her at the wedding.  She wants nothing to do with magic.  She may never actively hurt Harry, she may even think she is doing the best she can, but she will neglect him.  Just ask your pet of a Potions Master.  Snivellus grew up with her, he’ll confirm what I said.  If for no other reason than not wanting to see Lily’s child hurt.”

                “We can take precautions.  Set up someone to watch them and ensure that Harry is well cared for.  It has been done in the past.”

                “No, he’ll live with me and Hermione.  End of story.  James and Lily would turn in their graves if they knew their son was being raised in a less than healthy environment.”

                Albus quickly shifted gears.  “Sirius, you can’t be serious. What do you know about raising children?  You already have a daughter you barely know what to do with, and now you want a son too?”

                Sirius glanced down at the very serious little girl sitting in his lap.  She hadn’t spoken since that night, which worried him, but he knew her nightmares were becoming less frequent.  And she seemed to be actively studying the world around her, not moving through it in a daze as she had for the first week.  Right now she was staring curiously at Fawkes the phoenix, watching as he preened himself. 

                Fawkes looked up and over at the young girl, making her jump in surprise.  Sirius felt a smile tug at his lips, despite the turmoil of his emotions.  Hermione had only been in his life for two weeks, and yet it felt like she’d always been there.  He hoped he could help her get over what happened on Halloween.  He’d fail as a parent if he didn’t.  And he never suffered failure, unless he started out intending to fail.  Then it was alright.

                “Albus, I’m caring for Hermione quite well.  I sold my flat in London and bought a nice cottage near Ottery St. Catchpole.  There are quite a few wizarding families there with children.  The Weasleys even have a little boy the same age as Hermione and Harry.  My cousin, Andromeda, is only a floo call away and she’s been very helpful when I have questions.  And for anything she can’t handle I have Remus and his research skills.  Many new parents have started with less.”

                Albus opened his mouth to reply, and then paused, thinking.  After a moment he sighed, “There’s no changing your mind, is there?”

                “No, and you know I’ll take it to the courts if you won’t give me Harry’s location.”

                “My dear boy, I hope you know what you’re doing.  It’s against my better judgement, but I’ll tell you.  He’s at number 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging.  Try to pick him up by muggle means.”

                Sirius stood, shifting Hermione onto his hip.  She was old enough to walk, but stairs and stamina were still an issue, making travel a little complicated.

                “Thank you, Albus.  I’ll see you later.”

                “Goodbye, Sirius.” He stood and turned his once again twinkling gaze on Hermione.  “Goodbye, Miss Hermione, have fun with your new brother.”

                And then, much to Sirius’ surprise, Hermione whispered back, “Goodbye.”

                He wanted to dance with joy at her first word in two weeks, but resisted, barely.  He didn’t want to scare her.  With a last nod to Albus he left the Headmaster’s office, making his way out of the castle so he could apparate.

                A few minutes later he stood in his cousin’s small, cheery kitchen. 

                “Andromeda!  You home?” he called out.

                A young girl with neon green hair and purple eyes bounded into the room, “Uncle Sirius!  Mummy is in the garden, want me to get her?”

                Sirirus smiled down at his ‘niece’, “No, Dora, that’s fine.  I’ll go talk to her if you’ll keep an eye on Hermione for me.”

                “Sure!  We can go see my new dollhouse!  I got it for my birthday!”

                Sirius put Hermione down, who quickly found her hand grabbed by Dora.  Hermione immediately stiffened and stared down at the hand holding her own scarred one.  She hadn’t let anyone but Sirius touch her in two weeks, not even the doctors.  Sadly, they’d been unable to heal all the cuts on her limbs, the knife had been cursed to leave permeant scars. 

                “Oh, do you not want to hold my hand?  It’s okay.  I just hold hands so I don’t trip so much.  You see, I’m terribly clumsy.  Or so my Mummy says.”

                Dora started to remove her hand from Hermione’s, but was stopped.

                “Is okay,” Hermione whispered.

                Dora smiled brightly, “Good!  Then let’s go!”

                Sirius watched the two girls walk off, a lightness in his chest that had been missing over the past few weeks.  Maybe they would all be able to heal once he got Harry back.  But first he had to get Harry.

                It only took a moment to let Andromeda know that her 8-year-old daughter was playing with Hermione while he went with Remus to collect Harry.

                Thirty minutes later he had collected Remus from his home and they had boarded the Knight Bus for Little Whinging.  Neither of them knew enough about the area to apparate there, so the bus it was.

                The bus was fairly empty and the two of them found seats on the deserted third floor.  Remus sat on a squishy armchair across from Sirius, staring at him rather seriously.  Sirius could guess why – this was the first time the two of them had been alone since Halloween.

                “Well, are you going to spit it out?”

                Remus closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, “Do you have to be so blunt?”

                “I’m always blunt, you know that.  If I wasn’t I wouldn’t have nearly so many problems.”

                “True.  So, mind telling me why I wasn’t told the secret keeper changed?  Or even why I wasn’t considered before Peter?”

                “The Death Eaters would find you much too easy to break.”

                Remus frowned, “Excuse me?”

                “Exactly what I said.  All they’d have to do is keep you looked up over a full moon with an innocent child.  You’d either go insane or break.  Likely the former.  None of us could stomach that idea, so we distanced ourselves.  Hoped that would remove suspicion from you.  Keep you safe.”

                Remus looked sick at this, “Oh, Merlin.”

                Sirius leaned forwards and put a hand on Remus’ knee.  “I want you to know, it killed us, pretending like we didn’t trust you, but we had to.  And it’s not your fault either.  You didn’t choose to become a werewolf.  It was war, we did what we had to.”

                Remus chuckled sickly, “When in the world did you become so wise?”

                “Turns out James spoke the truth when he said becoming a parent changes you.  I have to be wise.  I have to stop and think.  What happens to Hermione and Harry if I don’t?  The law won’t let you be their guardian if I end up dead or in prison.”

                “What indeed?” Remus whispered.

                The two of them spent the rest of the bus ride in their own thoughts.  Wondering just what other changes had been wrought from those terrible events two weeks previously.

                XXX

                Petunia had just put the casserole in the oven for dinner when the doorbell rang.  Curious, she plastered a smile on her face and opened the door.

                It only took her a moment to realize that the two men standing at her door were freaks.  If there clothes hadn’t given them away she would’ve known from their faces.  They’d been at Lily’s wedding.  And she and Vernon had been the only two normal people there.

                “What do you want?” she spat out.

                The dark-haired one sneered at her, “What do you think we want Petunia?  Harry of course.”

                Her smile turned into a grimace, “Let me get him.”

                She started to slam the door in their faces, but he put a hand up, stopping her.  “You really don’t want to leave us standing on the front stoop.”

                She pursed her lips in frustration and then spun around.  She headed straight for the cupboard under the stairs.  Yanking it open she stepped back and gestured at the contents.

                “There, take him.  Just know if you change your mind I’m not taking him back again.”

                “You kept him in a CUPBOARD?” the dark-haired one exploded.

                She scoffed, ignoring the way her heart raced in fear at his expression.  “Where else would we keep a freak?”

                The dark-haired one’s fists were clenched as he took a threatening step towards her.  There was an insane fury in his eyes she’d never seen before.  She stumbled backwards as the other one put a hand up, stopping him.

                “Sirius, remember what you said on the bus.”

                That stopped the dark-haired one, Sirius, in his tracks.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.  When he opened his eyes again he still looked angry, but not on the verge of exploding. 

                Without a word or a glance at her he approached the cupboard and pulled out the young toddler, who was just now groggily waking up.   As soon as Sirius scooped the young boy into his arms and stood up the two men spun on their heels and quickly departed without another word.

                Petunia managed to shut and lock the front door before she collapsed, shaking, to the floor.  A moment later she began to laugh hysterically.  She’d never felt quite so afraid in her entire life. 

But it was worth it, if it got rid of the freak. 

                XXX

                The first meeting between Harry and Hermione did not go quite as Sirius had expected.  But, as Andromeda was quick to point out, there was a good ten months between the two in age.  A rather large gap when under the age of five. 

                They had stared at each other as if they were two alien species for a few minutes.  And then they had promptly ignored each other for their own toys.  What he didn’t realize at first was the instant acceptance that passed between them.  What he did notice was that as soon as Harry came to live with them, Hermione stopped having nightmares.

At least, that’s what he thought.  He learned differently on that first Christmas Eve, after staying up late to build Hermione her own dollhouse.

                He barely heard the muffled cry before it ceased.  Frowning in worry, he crept up the stairs of the cottage until he reached the small nursery that the two children currently shared.  The sight that lay before him had him smiling as tears threatened at his eyes. 

                Harry had climbed out of his own crib and was in Hermione’s toddler bed.  His little hand was wrapped in hers and he was almost humming. 

                What amazed Sirius the most about it was that he’d never found Harry outside of his crib in the morning.  The boy had to be using magic to climb back in, there was no other way.

                Maybe it was time to get rid of the crib, it obviously wasn’t doing its job.

                XXX

                The years slowly began to pass and Sirius slipped into the role of father for his two young charges.  Neither of them called him that though, he wouldn’t allow it, out of respect for their own fathers.  He was Padfoot to them.

                He managed to persuade Remus to tutor the two children when they turned five so he could go back and finish up auror training.  He loved staying home and raising Harry and Hermione, but he wanted to stop living off of his inheritance, it sat wrong with him.  Plus, he was no good at teaching young children.  Once Remus realized he was not being given charity, rather, he was performing a necessary duty, he agreed.  Before too long Remus was effectively running a one room schoolhouse made up of Harry, Hermione, the Weasleys, and Luna Lovegood.  Even the Weasley twins, a troublesome pair that took great pleasure in upsetting and pulling pranks on others, found themselves unable to pull one over on Remus Lupin.  They just couldn’t figure out how such a quiet, bookish man could spot and predict pranks so easily.

                This amused Sirius to no end.  He often teased Remus that it was all due to the Marauders that Fred and George Weasley learned some humility.  Remus admitted that he was more proud of how he taught Percy Weasley how to stay true to himself, while still relaxing.  Not that he was entirely successful, but over the two years he taught the straight-laced boy he saw him actually stop to consider, once or twice, if a rule was truly worth upholding.  Personally, Sirius thought the boy was a hopeless case, but what did he know?

                He also found it rather humorous when he caught Hermione teasing Harry about having found a girlfriend in Ginny Weasley.  Somehow he thought James and Lily would enjoy seeing their son in the midst of a young childhood romance.

                Before Sirius knew it ten years had gone by and he was sitting at the breakfast table watching two owls deliver Hogwarts letters.

                And then, even quicker, the two of them were off to school and he was alone in the cottage, with only himself for company.  Remus was still teaching Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasely, but he was now doing it at the Lovegoods’ house. 

                For the first year he kept himself busy during his off-time sorting through his inheritance.  It had been rather shocking to learn that as the last remaining member of the direct-male line holding the Black name he inherited the whole of the Black fortune, despite being disowned.  That amused him greatly, though he didn’t enjoy what it entailed. 

                Dealing with Kreacher and sorting through all of the items at Grimmauld Place was a nightmare.  After one too many fights with Kreacher over some dark object or another he finally threw up his hands in frustration.

                “Merlin’s Balls, Kreacher!  I am head of the Black Family now and if I want to torch everything here I can bloody well do so!  Now give me the twice-bedamned locket and let me get to work!”

                Kreacher stopped yanking on the chain of the locket and gazed up at Sirius, “Master means that?”

                Sirius frowned, “Means what?”

                “Master means to destroy the locket?”

                “Of course I do!  I mean to burn it with the rest of the garbage!”

                Kreacher stared “Here, Master.  Can I watch?  Will you do it now?”

                Sirius frowned in confusion, “I suppose.  Why is it so important?”

                Kreacher’s mouth opened to respond, but then he froze, obviously fighting himself.  Finally he blurted out in a rush, “Master Regulus be asking me.”

                That gave Sirius pause.  He stared at the locket carefully.  If Regulus had wanted it destroyed…and Regulus had been working for Lord Voldemort before he disappeared…

                Sirius’ heart gave a lurch and he had the sudden urge to be sick.  Regulus…his baby brother…

                He clenched his jaw as his blood began to boil in anger.  “Kreacher, I promise to destroy it, but I need to ask someone for help.  I’ll be right back.”

                Sirius drew his wand and sent a patronus to Albus.  He had a feeling that whatever this locket was, the Headmaster would want to see it.

                XXX

                Albus stared down at the melted lump of metal that had once been a horcrux.  It had been pure luck that they had found it.  With it destroyed, then Voldemort should lose his mortal tether and move on. 

                Should being the optimum word.

                Because he hadn’t.

                No, he’d possessed Quirrell and tried to steal the Philosopher’s Stone.  Albus groaned and put his head in his hands.

                It had been a long day.

                And he was getting too old for this.

                He’d rushed off to 12 Grimmauld Place as soon as he got the patronus.  Then, after destroying that, he’d received a message saying he was needed in London.  Upon arriving he’d gotten an incredibly bad feeling and instantly apparated to Hogsmeade.  He’d run past Hermione Black helping Ronald Weasley back through the trapdoor.  He’d gotten to Harry Potter just as the boy had passed out.  After mysteriously burning Quirell with his touch, when Albus knew for a fact that blood protection should not be active.  He’d witnessed Voldemort’s spirit fleeing his dying servant.

                He knew he wasn’t gone.

                And he knew he should be, since his remaining here meant one thing and one thing only.

                There were more horcruxes.

                Which had to be impossible.

                Right?

Chapter Text

Hermione Black sat on the Hogwarts Express watching her young red-headed neighbor with a curious expression on her face.

Ginny Weasley was probably the least studious person she knew, outside of Ronald Weasley, and yet she was willingly sitting here, writing in a diary.

Now, that alone wouldn't strike Hermione as odd, if it weren't for the fact that Ginny had ignored an invitation to play Exploding Snap with the boys in favor of writing in said diary. She never turned down a chance to do something with Harry. She hadn't since she was five years old. Something Hermione took great pleasure in teasing her brother about.

And that meant that there was something going on with that diary. She wondered if it had anything to do with that strange house elf. The one that had tried to tell Harry about a great danger, before Kreacher had shown up and dragged it away.

Then there had been the platform barrier, refusing to let them and a long line of wizards and witches in. That little issue had delayed the train for a good thirty minutes. Something very odd was going on and she was determined to find out what. Even if it took her all year.

Not that it would. She wasn't the brightest witch in her generation for nothing. She smiled at that thought. She knew her parents would be so proud of her. Padfoot told her that all the time. She didn't remember much of her parents. Actually, her only true memory of them was of THAT night. Mentally she flinched and shied away from that memory. Instead she focused her mind on the images she'd seen of her parents. The pictures Padfoot and Uncle Remus had collected from her parent's house. Pictures of a happy, normal couple enjoying time with their daughter.

BOOM!

A loud explosion from the boys on the floor drew Hermione out of her thoughts and back into the present. She found herself laughing at the sight of Ronald Weasley with no eyebrows.

As did everyone else, though Hermione noted that Ginny had a very hard time drawing her eyes away from the diary.

Oh, yes, there was something going on there. And she was going to find out what it was.

Or her name wasn't Hermione Granger Black.

XXX

It was almost two months into school when Hermione finally got a chance to get her hands on Ginny's diary. And even then it took some careful maneuvering.

She likely wouldn't have gone to so much trouble if she hadn't been so concerned. She'd known Ginny for almost as long as she'd known Harry and the girl was acting decidedly…off.

She never tagged along after the boys anymore, nor did she ever mention Quidditch. She was also not making friends with those in her own year. It was most decidedly odd and since none of the boys saw it as peculiar, it was up to her to figure out just what was going on. Even if that meant acting like a Slytherin.

Surreptitiously she glanced up from the essay she was writing to look at the girls' staircase. Ginny had gone up to bed a while ago, so any moment now...

A high-pitched scream came tearing down the staircase and through the common room, making everyone look up in surprise and worry.

A moment later a very irate Ginny Weasley came tearing down the stairs. Everyone stared at her in shock. Her once red hair was now a seasick green, which clashed terribly with her bright blue skin.

"FRED! GEORGE! I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!"

At these words the twins in question immediately jumped up and ran up the boys' staircase. Ginny was after them a moment later, murder in her eye. Hermione wasn't exactly surprised to see Percy following them, anger on his face. Nor was she surprised to see Ron, his mouth hanging open in shock, disbelief etched into his every feature.

Hermione slipped out of her seat and raced up to Ginny's dormitory in the momentary confusion. It was a good thing that she knew Ginny always took a shower at night. And she didn't even feel bad about laying the blame on the twins. She had stolen one of their potions, after all. Which meant they'd been meaning to use it on someone. She suspected it was meant for Percy or Ron, though she'd put her money on Percy.

It only took a moment to locate the diary inside of Ginny's school bag. Carefully she slipped it into her robes and left the room. She was back downstairs and continuing her essay before Professor McGonagall arrived.

The Professor disappeared up the boys' staircase and silence descended upon the common room as everyone strained their ears to hear what was said. But no one could hear a thing and after a few minutes the Professor came down again, ushering a very angry and upset Ginny in front of her. Behind her was Percy Weasley, a grim look on his face, and he had a hold of Fred and George by their ears. They were wincing in pain as they were dragged through the silent common room and out of the portrait hole.

As soon as the portrait closed the entire room erupted as everyone began gossiping about what had happened. Hermione tuned them out and rolled her eyes. Honestly, didn't they have anything better to do?

She started to get back to her essay, but had a sudden feeling that something wasn't quite right. Frowning a bit, she looked up. It only took her a moment to locate the sense of her unease. Harry and Ron were looking very serious as they whispered to each other and wrote on a piece of parchment. She wanted to get up and go over to ask what it was about, but she knew they wouldn't tell her. It had to be against the rules and they likely didn't have a good enough reason to get her to help them break rules.

She'd just have to wait and find out. After she dealt with the strange diary of course.

XXX

The next day Ginny was back to normal, though she appeared to be in a panic. Tearing her room apart and then accusing the twins of stealing her diary. They denied it, but she refused to believe them, even sneaking into their room to search.

In this atmosphere, Hermione found herself unable to examine the diary. Instead she kept her head down and tried to act like everything was normal. Though she noticed that Ron and Harry kept whispering and planning something. She theorized that they were planning revenge on the twins for Ginny, which she thought was silly, Ginny could take care of herself. Plus, wasn't two weeks of detention with Filch punishment enough for breaking into the girls' dorm and pranking their sister? Especially since they were actually kind of innocent in this case. Even if it was their potion.

A few days later, on Halloween, Ron and Harry disappeared for a few hours in the afternoon and Hermione found herself alone in the back corner of the library.

She glanced around to make sure she was alone before pulling out the diary. She flipped through it, only to find all of the pages were blank. Frowning, she picked up her quill and began to write.

Hello.

Then, as she watched, the ink soaked into the page and vanished. She lifted her quill to write again, but found herself frozen in shock as the ink reappeared.

Hello. I see you've found my diary. Who are you?

She stared at the words in horror. The diary was talking to her. And she couldn't see where it kept its brain. Every essence of her being screamed at her to put her quill down, grab the book, and take it straight to Headmaster Dumbledore. But as she watched in horror her hand moved and hovered over the page, quill poised to write.

She tried to pull it away, but found she couldn't. She felt her heart begin to race and panic surge through her. She had to write back, she just had to. And so she put the quill on the book and began to write.

I

She started, but then she froze, using all of her willpower to stop her arm. She didn't want to give this monstrosity her name. Names held power. Plus, hers would give away too much. She was a Black, but her first name didn't follow the family naming tradition.

Tradition.

That was the keyword. Maybe tradition could save her. She released her will and let the quill start over again.

I can hardly tell you who I am. We haven't been properly introduced.

She prayed that her Aunt Andromeda's old tales of pureblood manners were real enough to get her through whatever this was.

I beg your pardon. I didn't realize I was dealing with a properly trained young lady. I am Tom Marvolo Riddle. If you tell me your family name I can likely recognize it, as I know many of the old families. Surely that would count as an introduction.

I am Miss Black. Daughter of Sirius Black.

I'm afraid I don't know a Sirius Black, perhaps my diary has been lost for longer than I had imagined. Who were your grandparents?

Hermione sneered as she wrote the next words. She'd never in all her life called these terrible people her grandparents. But she had to answer. With something. Anything.

My paternal grandparents were Orion and Walburga Black.

Ah, I knew them well. They were a few years below me at Hogwarts. Very good traditional purebloods. Are you like them?

Hermione clenched her jaw so hard she thought she might lose a tooth as she wrote the next lie.

My father has always told me I was a proper Black. I never knew my grandfather, but Father says he would be proud of me. That I am a credit to the bloodline.

That is good to hear. I have another question. How do you feel about muggleborns?

Hermione stared at the book, her hand poised to write. She wanted to say the truth, to tell him she was technically a muggleborn. She had a powerful desire to tell this diary nothing but the truth. But she couldn't. No one knew she was trapped here, writing in a sentient diary. She should've taken it straight to the Headmaster. No wonder Ginny got trapped by it. She had to make the diary happy, she had to get it to release her. And so she put the quill down and let all her hatred for this particular word pour out of her. Let him assume it was for who the word referred to, not the actual word.

You mean mudbloods? They dirty the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. It's a shame how far we've fallen.

She could feel the scars on her limbs burning, taunting her. Telling her what a big, fat liar she truly was. Tears pricked her eyes and a sob hovered in her throat. She refused to listen to those words.

They weren't true.

They weren't!

Gasping, she dragged her eyes away from her cloth covered arms and back to the words appearing in the diary in front of her.

Then I have a task for you Miss Black. Please hand this diary off to a young mudblood or blood-traitor. If you could get it to a Ginny Weasley, that would be best. I have a task for her to complete, but she got free of my control. I'm assuming you found the diary in the trash.

Yes, I saw the little Weasel through it out and was curious. Like any good Slytherin I gather all the information I can. Can I not help you?

No, I fear that the help may prove fatal and I could never put a loyal daughter of the House of Black at risk. Now go, pass the diary on to a mudblood or blood traitor.

And with those words the compulsion to write was gone. Hermione threw the quill across the library and shoved her chair backwards, jumping out of it and pressing her back to the cool stone walls. Letting the chill cool her racing heart.

That had been HORRIBLE! Thank Merlin she had such a well-known pureblood name, or she'd likely have been put under mind control, like Ginny. Even now she could feel a compulsion to pass the diary off to someone. Immediately she thought of Headmaster Dumbledore and she felt the compulsion sing in happiness. It obviously viewed him as a blood traitor, so he was an acceptable person.

Her hands were shaking as she stuffed everything into her bag and raced through the hallways. She wasn't watching where she was going though and as she rounded a corner she plowed into someone. The two of them went tumbling and she got an elbow in her side as she felt her knee hit something soft, eliciting a pained yelp from the other person.

Hermione immediately rolled to the side, clutching her stomach. Gasping for breath, she sat up and looked at the other person.

It was Draco Malfoy and he was curled up on the floor, clutching the family jewels, his face twisted in pained anger.

"Black," he spat out.

She glared at him, "Malfoy."

He started to open his mouth to say more, but was stopped by someone pointedly clearing their throat.

"Good evening, Mr. Malfoy, Miss Black. May I enquire as to why the two of you are up here, on the floor, rather than heading for the Halloween feast?"

Hermione ignored the question, instead she dived for the book, the compulsion almost overpowering her now that her target was in her sights. She pulled herself to her feet, ignoring the pain in her side as she held out the book.

"Headmaster, this book. You have to take it."

The Headmaster stared at the book, no twinkle was evident in his piercing blue eyes. She waited, but he didn't reach out to take it.

The compulsion was pushing on her, she felt tears begin to pour down her face. "Headmaster, take it, please. It won't do anything if you don't write in it. Please!"

She stepped forwards, shoving the book into his hands.

As soon as he had taken the book, she released it, and the compulsion left her. Sobbing, she stumbled backwards and felt herself trip and begin to fall.

She landed, once again, on Draco Malfoy.

Before she could begin to move off of him, she felt him grab her wrist.

"Black, don't move. Just…please."

She froze, more out of shock at hearing Malfoy utter the word 'please' than anything else, but it only took a moment to realize that her elbow was poised to hit the exact same location that she had so recently hit with her knee. For a moment she thought about ignoring him and moving anyways. She figured that's what he would do. But that was why she didn't. She wasn't like him. Even if they were legally and magically second cousins through the Blacks.

"Here, let me help."

Headmaster Dumbledore slipped the book into his robes and then reached down, taking Hermione's hands and carefully pulling her off of Malfoy.

"Mr. Malfoy, do you need to visit the Hospital Wing?"

Malfoy cautiously pulled himself to his feet and took a tentative step. "No, sir. I'll be fine." His mouth curled into a sneer as he looked over at Hermione, "Just keep Black and her clumsy, thoughtless self away from me." He paused, and then added, insultingly, "Sir."

Before Hermione could do more than open her mouth he had disappeared around the corner and out of sight.

"Don't take his words to heart, Miss Black. Growing up a Malfoy isn't always easy."

She snorted, "Neither is going to school with one."

A hint of a smile appeared on the Headmaster's face, but he didn't respond to that. Instead he turned back towards his office, absently summoning a handkerchief and handing it to her, "Please follow me, Miss Black. I would like to know what you can tell me about this book."

She followed him, wiping the tears from her face, hopefully Malfoy would be so embarrassed about his crown jewels that he would never share the fact she had been crying.

XXX

Several hours later Albus Dumbledore sat, finally, alone in his office. One more horcrux was destroyed, nothing more than a pile of ashes, and yet he was sure they weren't finished yet.

This Horcrux was too common, too against everything Albus knew Tom to be. The man loved big, grandiose gestures. Why else would he turn a priceless heirloom into a horcrux? And then he made another one out of an old, muggle diary?

It didn't fit.

This one had to have a special purpose. It must've been meant to come back to Hogwarts and do something. And while Albus wasn't entirely sure what, he had his suspicions. Truly, Hermione Black was an amazing witch. Only she had noticed Ginny Weasley's odd behavior. And while writing in the diary herself hadn't been the soundest idea, it hadn't ended completely in disaster. She'd outsmarted Tom, letting him see what he expected to see. She'd even worked the final compulsion into helping her, knowing Tom would view him as a blood traitor.

As for sound ideas….

Albus sighed and leaned back in his chair, looking over at Fawkes, who was sleeping soundly. Perhaps sending Harry to the Dursleys hadn't been his best idea. He'd been so sure…

But if letting him grow up with Sirius gave him Hermione as a sister, then perhaps that had been the best choice. And, somehow, the blood protection was still active. He'd done research on that, and been unable to figure out why. Unless the Grangers had somehow been distantly related to the Evans Family. Since he was of the opinion that muggleborns were descended from squibs, it was a possibility. Though a very long shot. Unfortunately he didn't have the time to do some genealogy work and there was no easy spell or potion to do it for him.

He'd come so close, that long ago day, to breaking his oath to himself. He'd almost done something to Sirius. Made sure he couldn't take Harry, but that little girl, sitting there so trustingly….

Tears began to prickle at his eyes and he took a deep breath to steady himself. Hermione was not Ariana. Ariana was gone. Off on the next great adventure.

Hermione Black, sister of Harry Potter, daughter of Sirius Black, brightest witch of the century was here and she was moving forwards. Despite what had once happened to her. Despite the scars she hid under long sleeved robes.

And, if she could move forwards, so could he.

Besides, he had a task to complete. And there was no time like the present. Taking a deep breath to clear his mind, he popped a lemon drop into his mouth and walked over to his pensive. Time to see just what clues were hidden in the recesses of his mind.

 

Chapter Text

Hermione stared in horror down at the knife in her hands.  Slowly, painfully, it began to move.  She strained, fighting against it, tears streaming down her face.   

She couldn’t stop it. 

She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out.  Distantly she heard a high pitched, maniacal laugh.  The knife flashed as it moved.

                Blood began to appear, but the knife never slowed.  She continued to carefully and unwillingly carve her own arms.

                Words appeared, carved into her flesh, highlighted in crimson blood. 

                Mudblood.

                Worthless.

                Scum.

                Dirt.

                Filth.

                Garbage.

                She pulled, the knife slipped.  There was too much blood. 

Her wrist was just hanging there, dangling.  The laughter intensified, as if calling for an encore.

She woke up screaming.

XXX

                Harry jerked awake.

                Hermione.

                He jumped out of his bed, nearly tripping on the curtains.  He barely remembered to grab his wand before racing out of the room and down the stairs.  It had been years since this feeling had woken him. 

                What had caused her nightmare?

                He was across the common room in the blink of an eye.  And then he was racing up the stairs.  Halfway up he felt them change, turn into a slide. 

                He didn’t even think, he jumped, grabbing onto the handrail.  He began to pull himself by his hands.  He was almost to the top when the handrail suddenly became extremely slippery, as if someone had greased it. 

                He yelped as it slipped out of his grasp.  His arms flailed as he tried to balance himself on the steep slide.  He was losing the fight with gravity, slowly tilting backwards, milliseconds away from going down the stairs head first.

                And then someone caught the front of his pajamas.

                A rather skinny, but surprisingly strong arm began to pull him up.  Harry soon found himself collapsed, panting, on top of his rescuer.

                “Where do you hide all that weight?  Why are racing up the stairs?”

                Harry raised himself up on his arms and looked down at the small, freckled face below him.  She was staring up at him curiously.  He thought he even detected a faint blush in the darkness, though he couldn’t be sure.  Speaking of blushes…

                His face heated as he realized he was lying completely on top of her.  He quickly scrambled to his feet, grabbing her hand and helping pull her up.

                “Sorry, Gin.  Nightmare.  Why are you up?”

                She shrugged, “Couldn’t sleep.”  Then she moved to the side and pointed to a door down the hall.  “That’s Hermione’s room.  Go help your sister.  I’m going to go sit by the fire for a bit.”

                Harry smiled at her and patted her on the shoulder, Ginny was a great friend.  “Thanks, Gin.”

                He quietly slipped into the girls’ room.  Glancing around, he took in the room quickly.  It only took a moment to figure out which bed was Hermione’s.  Her bed was the only one with a collapsible bookcase at the foot of it, rather than a normal trunk. 

                Sometimes her love of books came in handy.

                He slipped open the curtain of her bed and found her sitting in the middle of her bed, panting.  Her fists were clenched in the blankets and her eyes were wide, staring blindly down at the scars running up and down her arms.  The scars spelling out so many terrible, disgusting words.

                She didn’t even move as he slipped onto the bed.  He moved until he was next to her, pulling one of her hands out of the blankets and wrapping it in his own.  Then he just sat there, holding her hand and humming the same tune he’d used ten years ago.  When he’d first been woken by her cries. 

                Slowly she came back to him.  Her breathing steadied out and slowly her shoulders relaxed.  He found himself wondering what had inspired this nightmare.  She hadn’t had one since before they came to Hogwarts. 

                Abruptly she let out a sob and turned, burying her head in his shoulder.  He raised his free hand and patted her shoulder, waiting for her to cry herself out.  Eventually her sobs turned into sniffles and hiccups.  He pulled her into a hug, keeping up the humming as he began to rub her back until she quieted completely.

                “Do you want to talk about it?”

                She nodded against his chest.  So he continued to hug her and hum for another few minutes, then she began to talk.

                She told him everything that had happened over the past two months.  About her suspicions about Ginny and the diary.  How she’d stolen a potion from the twins and pranked Ginny.  Just to steal the diary.  Then how she’d overestimated herself and written in the diary, rather than turning it in.  About how she’d been forced to continue writing in the diary, how she’d lied about her blood purity.

                Then she told him of the dream.

                He kept humming and rubbing her back as she talked.  When she was all talked out he just sat there for another minute, letting the words float away.  Leaving her empty, drained. 

                “You’re smart, ‘Mione,” he began.  “You know those words aren’t true.  You’re not worthless.  Not to any of us.  You’re the best sister a boy could have.  You’re an amazingly smart witch, you make Padfoot proud every day.  I’m sure he wishes I was more like you.  You’re a great friend.  Everybody loves you.”

                She hiccupped and raised her free hand, the one he wasn’t holding, to rub the tears off her face.  “Not everyone loves me.  Professor Snape thinks I’m a bratty know-it-all.  Malfoy can’t stand me.  None of the Slytherins can.”

                “Hermione, Snape only hates you because of Padfoot.  Same with Malfoy.  You’re stealing his inheritance just by existing.  As for the rest of the Slytherins, forget them.  They’re sheep, following the loudest windbag.”

                She giggled at that image. 

                “See?  You’ve also got a great sense of humor.”

                She pulled back and semi-mock glared at him, “People only say that about ugly girls.”

                He grinned at her, then reached up and pushed the hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear.  “Now you’re just fishing for compliments.  You know very well that you’re beautiful.  I’ve overheard the other girls complaining about how lucky you are to have such soft, wavy black hair.”  He made a face, “Not to mention I have to deal with overhearing boys comment on how lucky I am to have such a beautiful sister.”

                She giggled and rolled her eyes, “Now I know you’re lying.  I can see others envying my hair, but not my face.  Goodnight, Harry.”

                He smiled as she laid down and got comfortable, being careful not to let go of his hand. 

“Night, Mione.”

                He sat there, holding her hand and humming again until he heard her breathing change.  Then he continued to sit there for another few minutes before slowly untangling his fingers from hers. 

                He peeked out of the bed, being sure that no one else was awake.  Then he crept out of the room and to the stairs.  He had a suspicion that they would turn back into a slide as soon as he stepped back onto it.  So, rather than risking his neck, he sat down at the top of the stairs and then scooted forwards.    

                He was right.

                As soon as his bottom touched the top step the stairs turned into a slide and he found himself only moments later sitting on the floor of the common room.  Glancing around, he saw Ginny curled up on a sofa in front of the fire.  She had a blanket wrapped around her, only her small, paleface was sticking out of it.

                “Hey, Gin.”

                She looked up from where she’d been staring intently at the glowing coals.  “Is Hermione alright?  It’s been awhile since she’s had one, hasn’t it?”

                He stood up and headed over to sit next to her.  “Yes, she, uh, had a bad day and it brought everything back.”  He wondered if he should tell Ginny about everything he knew.  Hermione hadn’t said if the Headmaster had spoken to Ginny about the diary or not.

                “It was the diary, wasn’t it?”

                Well, now he knew that Ginny did indeed know.

                “Yes, she was forced to continue writing in it earlier today.  It made her think about the scars being written and...” he trailed off.  Not wanting to share Hermione’s nightmares without her permission.

                Ginny didn’t push though, she just nodded and turned back to stare at the fire.  They sat there for a few minutes and Harry began to get the niggling feeling that Ginny was quite possibly unable to sleep for the same reason Hermione had woken up.  She just didn’t have a brother that seemed to share an almost psychic link with her.

                So, before he thought about it too much, he reached over and found her hand under the blanket, holding it in his, then he began humming.  She jumped in surprise at his touch, turning from the fire to stare at him.  He just gave her a soft smile and continued to hum.  She studied his face and then closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the sofa.  As he watched her shoulders began to relax and her thumb began to move, stroking the back of his hand. 

                Harry’s heart gave a lurch and he felt his breath sped up.  After a few more minutes though Ginny became still and her breathing changed.  Harry thought about getting up, but he was so warm and comfortable in front of the fire.  He reached over with his free hand and shifted the blanket so it was covering both of them.  He then leaned his head back and let himself drift off. 

XXX

                Hermione woke up early, as she always did, but especially after a nightmare.  She really was glad she’d learned how to cast a silencing charm on her bed last year – just in case.    The sun was just barely peeking over the horizon when she slipped down the stairs to the common room.  She enjoyed being the first one up on Sunday morning.  Having the common room to herself was lovely. 

                This morning though, she wasn’t alone.  Her eyebrows disappeared into her hair as she gazed in shock at the sight before her.  Harry and Ginny lay sound asleep on a sofa in front of the fireplace, its contents nothing but glowing coals by this point.

                Harry was sitting up, but tilted to one side, his head resting in the corner where the armrest met the back.  Ginny was leaning against him, their hands were entwined on top of the blanket they were sharing.

                Oh, she was going to so love teasing him about this.  That is, once she made sure the two of them were safe from the Weasley boys.  She was pretty sure they would be fine with Harry and Ginny dating one day.  But not now.  Plus the twins would just love an excuse to prank Harry.

                She noisily cleared her throat, but the two of them continued sleeping.  She rolled her eyes and walked over to the couch.  She bent down and grabbed one edge of the blanket, then she ripped it off the two of them, noisily clearing her throat again. 

                “One more minute, Mione,” Harry mumbled sleepily.  His hand was blindly reaching around, searching for the blanket even as he burrowed deeper into the couch.

                She giggled.

                Ginny, on the other hand, woke up rather quickly.  As soon as the blanket came off her eyes opened and her fists came up.

                Hermione found that rather telling.

                “Hermione?  What are you…?” Ginny trailed off as the sleep disappeared from her eyes and she got a good look at where she was.

                “I figured you didn’t want your brothers to find you two like this.  Or, really, anyone.”

                Ginny’s eyes widened as she realized what would likely happen if it had been anyone else to find them.  She leapt to her feet and started to rush out of the common room, but at the foot of the staircase she stopped and turned around.

                “Hermione?”

                Hermione stopped folding up the blanket and looked over at the red-haired girl.

                “Yes, Ginny?”

                “Thank you, for…for everything.  For noticing and doing something.  It…it was terrible.”

                Hermione put the blanket down and crossed the room, she pulled Ginny into a hug.  “Don’t thank me.  That’s what friends are for.”

                Ginny sniffled, but said nothing, giving Hermione a quick squeeze and then pulling back.  She gave Hermione a teary smile and then rushed up the stairs. 

                Hermione watched Ginny disappear, and then she smiled sadly.  Until this moment only she and Harry had anything dark in their pasts.  She didn’t know exactly how bad the diary had been with Ginny, but if she had to guess, she’d say it was pretty bad.  Bad enough to make Harry use his nightmare cure. 

                Speaking of Harry…

                She walked back over to the couch and gazed down at her snoozing brother.  She really should leave him here for the others to find.  She really, really should.

                But then he shifted, his hand moving around, as if searching for something.  She reached out and took it.  He smiled in his sleep and then began to hum.  Tears pricked her eyes.

                She should leave him here, but, really, how could she?

                Sighing, she shifted her weight and then gave his arm a solid yank.  She barely let go and stepped out of the way in time to avoid being crushed under him as he came flying off the couch.  For half a second it was as if he was frozen in place.  One foot on the rug, the other in the air and his arms pin wheeling around him.  And then he hit the ground, rolled, and came back up with his wand in his hand.  Looked like he’d been practicing the moves Padfoot had been forcing them to learn the past few years. 

                Rolling her eyes, she grabbed the book she’d brought down with her and moved to sit in a big arm chair.  As she sat down she glanced over at Harry, who was now looking at her as he slowly lowered his wand and blinked the sleep from his eyes.  She raised her left eyebrow.

                “Remember last night?  Ginny?”

                She watched in amusement as he suddenly remembered why he was there, then his face turned a nice shade of pink before he got up and hurried out of the room.

                She just barely heard him mutter a quiet, “Thanks, Mione,” before he disappeared up the stairs.

                She giggled and opened her book to begin reading.  She loved Sunday mornings.

XXX

                Life returned to normal, or as normal as it could be at Hogwarts, after that.  Though she did notice that Ron and Harry continued to whisper to each other, quickly growing quiet when she drew near. 

                It wasn’t until after Christmas that she finally learned what they were planning.  And that was only because they finally decided that they needed her help.

                “You two do realize that the twins didn’t actually slip Ginny that potion?” she asked in exasperation after hearing their plan.

                Ron shrugged, “Well, yes, we know that now.  But they still need to have a good prank pulled on them.  Remember when they turned my teddy bear into a spider?”

                “Or made your hair become so charged with electricity it turned you into a puff ball?  You spent two days not being able to touch anyone.  You were practically in tears by the end of it.”

                She pursed her lips at that memory.  It hadn’t just been people.  She’d zapped herself every time she’d touched something metal.  Padfoot had transfigured all of the flatware into wood just so she could eat safely.  Mrs. Weasley had given the twins a good earful over that, but they hadn’t seemed too bothered by it.

                “Or when they put a basketful of snakes in Harry’s bed?”

                “Ron, you know that backfired.  They didn’t realize Harry could talk to them.  Mrs. Weasley was so happy we cleared up the mouse problem in her attic after that.  Even if they had a bad habit of curling up in the twins’ beds.  Personally, I think they deserved to find snakes as bedmates.”

                “Fine, that one doesn’t count.  But what about when they made every piece of homework you turned into Mr. Lupin crumble to ashes as soon as you let go of it?”

                “Or how about when they-”

                “Okay!  Okay!” She cut them off.  That homework destroying curse had been TERRIBLE.  “You may have a point.  They did make that potion, after all.  They meant to use it on someone.”

                “I knew you’d see that!  No one pulls the wool over your eyes!” Ron said.

                Hermione rolled her eyes at him.  He just snickered.

                “And it’s not like this is a terrible prank.  All it will really do is make them annoyed.  We just want to make them get a bit of their own medicine.”

                “I still don’t quite see why you need me.  Ron, you planned how to set the prank and Harry found the proper spells to make the potion semi-permanent.  Why do you need me?”

                The two boys grinned at her, which scared her a bit.  Usually they all ended up in trouble when they grinned like that.

                XXX

                The screams erupting from the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory made everyone stop what they were doing.  Many students dropped their quills, some even spilled their ink bottles.  It was late Sunday afternoon and most people were finishing up as much homework as they could before dinner.

                Not the twins though, they’d headed upstairs after lunch to work on some of their own experiments.  Sadly, for them at least, they’d failed to notice the charmed potion coating their safety goggles.

                To everyone else, it was quite entertaining.

                Fred Weasley was the lucky winner of the pink goggles.  Every part of himself, except the part covered by the goggles, including a thin strip of hair, turned a glowing, neon pink.

                George Weasley, on the other hand, had gotten neon green.  They really complimented each other.  And, for once, everyone knew which was which.

                Hermione was rather proud of that effect.  She’d enjoyed manipulating the color changing potion until it made things glow as well.  She planned to brew some more of it and use it to paint constellations on the curtains of her bed at Hogwarts, as well as her ceiling back home.  She’d had several minor nightmares since Halloween and thought the constellation Canis Major would help keep them at bay.

                The glow made it rather difficult for the twins to pull off unnoticed pranks.  The entire school found it hilarious, and the twins tried to work with it, but after a week everyone could tell it was beginning to wear on them.  They could no longer confuse people with their names, one of their favorite jokes.  Personally, Hermione thought this was a good learning experience for them.  They needed to develop some new jokes.  You had to keep jokes fresh if you wanted to make a name for yourself.

                After three weeks Harry snuck into the fourth year boys’ room and put the antidote in their shampoo.  When the twins got out of the shower and were back to normal and they were entirely confused.

                Ron snickered when the twins came down to breakfast looking like normal again.  They were rather jumpy, glancing around, as if afraid something else was about to happen.  She figured they were most disturbed by the fact that they were unable to identify the perpetrator. 

                “Really, Ron, try to be mature,” Hermione said as she buttered a piece of toast.

                “Ron, mature?  Hermione, you do realize if he acts mature you won’t have anyone to boss around,” Harry said.

                She lowered the toast and looked at her brother, “Oh, I think I could find a replacement.”

                “Like who?” Ron asked.

                Now, that was a good question.  Hermione glanced around the Great Hall until her eyes fell on the Slytherin table and Malfoy. 

                The boys followed her gaze, Harry began snickering and Ron’s face turned into one of abject horror.

                “Malfoy, you want to boss Malfoy around?!?” Ron asked.

                She shrugged, “I doubt anyone’s ever told him what to do.  It would be good for him.  Besides, he is my cousin.  I think I have a right to boss him around if necessary.”

                “Hermione.  He’s only your cousin through the adoption.  And even then he’s your second cousin.  Ron’s more related to him than you are, and they’re fourth cousins,” Harry said.

                “Because of the ritual my mother and Padfoot performed I do have Black blood in me Harry.”

                “Yes, but only a tiny bit.  Not enough to really affect your genetics.  Only your magic, which is why you have the Black hair.  Ron’s got more Black genes than you.  Though his magic is all Weasley, just look at his hair.”

                “Scary to think that my grandmother was a Black,” Ron muttered.

                Hermione opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by Neville.

                “What are genetics?”

                Ron, Harry, and Hermione looked at Neville in surprise.  They’d forgotten he was sitting there.  Neville was very adept at making himself disappear into the background. 

                “Didn’t you learn about genetics when you learned science?” Ron asked.

                Now Neville looked really confused, “Science?”

                “Oh dear…” Hermione murmured, “I guess Uncle Remus was right.  Neville, come with me to the library during break time.  I’ll explain everything.”

                Neville’s eyes widened in apprehension, “Uh, no, that’s okay.  I don’t need-”

                Ron cut him off, “Actually, you do mate, you really do.”

                Harry nodded in agreement and Neville realized he couldn’t stand up to all three of them.  Not when they were this determined.  He’d learned that lesson last year.  Though he would do his best not to make it easy for them.

                Hermione began planning out exactly how to teach Neville about genetics and the dangers of inbreeding.  Oh, this was going to be fun!

 

Chapter Text

                The months slipped by and before Hermione knew it the school year was over and she was once again ensconced in a compartment on the Hogwarts Express with some of her favorite people.           

And everything was back as it should be.

                Ginny was sitting cross-legged on the floor soundly stomping the boys in Exploding Snap, much to their annoyance.  Luna was watching them play, a look of mild puzzlement on her face, but that didn’t bother Hermione.  She knew Luna didn’t quite understand the point of playing card games.  And Hermione could relate, it seemed a rather silly way to spend the time.  Though she no longer felt the urge to discover just why her thoughts on the matter were so different from most peoples.

                Sometimes it was better to just accept something and move on, that’s what Aunt Andy always said at least. 

                Though Padfoot always rolled his eyes at that pronouncement.  She couldn’t quite figure out why, but she would.  It was on her list of mysteries.  Right up there with why her cousin Dora always blushed and hid from Uncle Remus.  Something she’d been doing for as long as Hermione could remember.  However, those two mysteries weren’t nearly as far up as the biggest mystery of all: Why had Bellatrix Lestrange née Black attacked her parents?

                Padfoot said there was no reason for it, that his cousin was just an insane psychopath.  But Hermione knew that didn’t explain everything.  She remembered that night.  It was etched into her brain, thanks to the nightmares, just as much as it was etched into her limbs.

                She unconsciously tugged at the sleeves of her robes, making sure they were pulled down far enough to cover her. 

                Bellatrix had known Hermione was a witch.  She’d known before Hermione had ever done anything to make her parents wonder. 

                She was sure of that.

                So just how had Bellatrix found out?

                The compartment door slide open and Hermione looked up from the book she’d been staring at, but not reading.  Draco Malfoy, flunked by his two goons, stood in the doorway.

                He slowly looked around the room before letting his eyes settle on the group sitting on the floor.  He sneered, “Sitting on the floor like a bunch of animals, I should’ve expected that.”

                Harry scowled and opened his mouth to respond, but Hermione beat him to it.

                “Really, Malfoy, you’d think you were raised in a barn.  Unable to recognize the only appropriate way to play a game of Exploding Snap without destroying the furniture.”

                “Yes, Wrackspurts truly hate destroyed furniture.  They get particularly vicious,” Luna said dreamily.

                Malfoy’s eyes narrowed, but he focused them on Hermione, ignoring Luna.  “Black, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.  I thought there were only boys in here.”

                “Why, you-!” Ginny began, jumping to her feet, reaching for her wand.  Ron, Harry, and Neville were right behind her.

                Hermione sighed and snapped her book closed before standing up.  She moved and pushed to the front of the little group, next to Harry, drawing her wand as she did so.  She crossed her arms and glared at Malfoy, standing at her tallest, which was at least two inches taller than him.  She’d started to hit her growth spurt already, and she didn’t think he’d grown an inch since they started at Hogwarts.

                “Draco Malfoy, how dare you offer such base insults.  Your mother would be ashamed if she heard you!” She began, just warming up.

                His hands clenched into fists, “Just what do you know about my mother, Black!”

                She sniffed, trying to channel her ‘inner Black’ as Aunt Andy called it.  Though it was hard, she wanted to burst out laughing at the pinched look on Malfoy’s face.  He looked just like he had after she’d accidently damaged his crown jewels.

                “Draco Malfoy, didn’t you pay attention to your studies?  I am a Black.  Your mother is a Black, no matter what her last name currently is.  She is the younger sister of my beloved Aunt Andromeda.  I likely know more about your mother than you do.  Including the fact that while she rarely insults a person, when she does, she makes sure that it is properly sharpened and aimed.  She does not just grab whatever ammunition she can find and begin lobbing it, hoping it will hit.  You really should have listened to her better.  You’re doing a terrible job of being a Slytherin.  At least when it comes to cunning.  You do fit the ambitious side, perhaps a bit too much.  You do know what happens to those with too much ambition and too little between their ears, right?”

                Malfoy’s jaw dropped.  He stared at her for a moment, his face turning a delightful shade of purple.  Then he snapped his mouth closed and whirled around, storming out of the compartment.  His two goons followed him, barely avoiding being caught in the slamming door.

                Silence reined in the compartment, everyone just stared at her as she went to go sit back down.

                After she was settled, Ron finally broke the silence.

                “Bloody hell, she was serious.”

                She looked up at him from her book, “Really, Ron, language.”

                Neville chuckled, “Guess she needed two boys to boss around.”

                Ginny giggled, “Poor Ron, looks like you weren’t bad enough to require her full attention.”

                Ron seemed to think on that for a moment, and then he broke into a grin, “That’s alright.  Harry, do you suppose my mother could make me a sweater in the exact same shade as Malfoy’s face just now?”

                “How will your mom know the color?”  Harry asked.

                “I have a beautiful purple paint that’s the right shade.  I could bring it over,” Luna said helpfully.

                Ron grinned at her, “Brilliant!  Think you could come over tomorrow?”

                Luna smiled a bit dreamily and looked out the window, “I think so, but I’ll need to make sure there are no nargles in the paint.  You know they like to crawl in there during the winter, then they forget to leave.”

                Ron chuckled, “That’s alright Luna, I’m pretty sure I saw a nargle or two on Malfoy’s face just now.”

                “Maybe that’s what he was trying to catch with his mouth,” Harry said.

                The entire compartment burst out laughing at that, even Hermione.  Her list of mysteries pushed to the back of her mind.  She was young, she’d have time to deal with them later.

XXX

                “Albus, are we right?  Is that it?”

                The old, brightly robed wizard said nothing.  He simply continued to reach forward.  Sirius frowned.

                “Albus?”

                The old wizard said nothing.  Rather, he picked up something from under the floor boards and held it up, looking at it.  A bad feeling formed in the pit of Sirius’ stomach. 

                He began to cross the room, wanting a closer look at whatever had entranced the Headmaster, half afraid of what he would see.

Albus was staring intently at the ugliest ring Sirius had ever seen.  There was a look of shock and recognition on the old wizard’s face. 

                “Albus, what is it?  Is it another Hogwarts artifact?”

                The wizard ignored him, staring fixedly at the ring as he began to slowly lower it toward his hand.

                Now, Sirius knew something was wrong.  And it had to be because of that ring.

                His training took over and he hit the ring out of Albus’ hand, making it fly across the room and hit a wall.  The two men stood frozen for a moment.  Both of them watching the ring bounce onto the floor and then roll across the room, until it settled against a warped floorboard.  Right next to a broken footstool.

                As soon as it stopped moving Albus let out a sob and collapsed.  As if he had no more strength inside of him.

                Sirius grabbed him under the arm and quickly summoned a chair, letting Albus sink into it.  He wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but he knew it was all because of the ring.  It had to be a horcrux, and a much nastier one than the others if it had affected the great Albus Dumbledore so strongly. 

                Once he was sure that Albus was not going to fall out of the chair he picked up the broken stool and transfigured it into a box.  Then he tore off part of his robes and picked up the ring, being careful not to touch it.  He stared at it for a moment, curious as to what curse lay on it.  He wasn’t a curse breaker though.  And, really, they didn’t need to break the curse to destroy it.  Fiendfyre consumed all magic it touched.  That’s why the only way to kill it was to cut off its ability to feed on the life and magic around it.  A very difficult thing to do.

                He dropped the ring into the box and then headed outside.

                He cleared a patch of ground of all vegetation, and then put the box down.  A moment later a piercing wail emerged from the dancing flames and Sirius found himself Grinning.

                One more horcrux down.  That was three destroyed, and Albus didn’t think there were more than six or seven.  So they were halfway there.  Hopefully they could get rid of all of them before Voldemort returned and Harry was forced to fulfill the prophecy. 

                He wanted Harry to have a normal life.  He knew that’s what James and Lily would want.  And even though he didn’t know Gertrude and Dan Granger, he was sure they’d want their daughter to have a normal life.  To spend her teen years with only studies and boys, or girls, to worry about. 

                He set his jaw and waved his wand, extinguishing the fiendfyre.  Sometimes he wondered if he’d done a good job of raising those two.  He was sure their parents could have done a better job than him.  That thought kept him up at nights.  He couldn’t count the number of times he’d found himself unable to sleep.  Too worried he was screwing up their lives.  It didn’t matter what Andy or Remus told him.  They didn’t know how many times he’d almost let his temper get the better of him.  They didn’t know how tempted he’d been in the first few years to just go, leave, drop the kids off with Andy and disappear for a few weeks.

                It was so hard being a parent.  Especially when you never planned or wanted to be one.

Only the fact that he knew he was doing a better job than Petunia, or whomever Hermione would’ve been given to, settled him down.  Hermione would most likely have fallen into the system.

                He’d double-checked when he and Remus had gone back to the house.  They’d collected jewelry and photos to give Hermione, so she’d have pieces of her parents.  He’d even gone through their finances, with Remus’ help, and gotten the money organized for Hermione.  Gertrude Granger had spoken the truth, there had been no one else to take Hermione.

                It still gave him chills, thinking of how easily Gertrude had whispered her part of the binding spell.  How she’d given control of her daughter to a man she’d just met, the cousin of her murderer.

                He didn’t think he could’ve done it if he’d been in the same situation.

                But, then, he’d never really been a good man.  That had been James’ job.  James had been the hero, the one everyone looked up to.  He’d been the good cop to Sirius’ bad cop.  Hell, Sirius had always known that.  It was why he’d had no problem telling Snivellus to go to the Shrieking Shack.  He’d figured that was the only way to show him that dark wasn’t good.  He’d wanted to scare Snivellus straight, make him realize just how dangerous and evil dark things were. 

                More than any of his friends, Sirius knew the allure of darkness.  He was a Black.  The Black family magic coursed through his veins.  He was strongly attracted to darkness.  But he also knew just where that road led.

                It led to insanity like Bellatrix, misery like Narcissa, or death like Regulus.

                Snivellus hadn’t known.  He hadn’t known the power of family magics.  Or how they were passed on.  Sirius didn’t really know Snape’s family history, he’d never cared very much, but he had known he was a half-blood.  And that he hadn’t inherited the Prince magic.  Which meant he’d created his own. 

                And so he’d been able to change that magic, make it different.  Unfortunately, Sirius had been rather stupid.  Sending a fellow fifteen year old out to play with a werewolf on the full moon was not the way to scare him straight.  As James had quickly pointed out before going to save Snape.

                Good cop, bad cop. 

They would’ve made a hell of an auror team. 

                Sighing, he shoke his head to remove thoughts of the past and chase away the tears prickling at his eyes.  Looking down, he kicked at the ashes searching for the remnants of the ring.

                His toe hit something and he rolled it out of the ashes.  A misshapen, melted lump of metal lay on the ground.  The shiny, dark stone nestled inside of the metal.  Curious, he bent over and picked it up.  The stone had some sort of carving on it, but part of it was covered up by the metal.

                “I apologize, Sirius.”

                He looked up and saw the Headmaster standing in the doorway of the rundown cottage.  He looked older than Sirius had ever seen him.  As if he had lost all of the life in him.

                “Don’t apologize, Albus.  There was a curse on the ring.  I’m just glad you asked me to accompany me.  Don’t go searching for anymore without us, alright?”

                Albus sighed and closed the distance between them, looking down at the metal covered stone in Sirius’ hand. 

                “I’ll do my best, but I make no promises.”

                “That’s all anyone can do,” Sirius said, absently dropping the rock in the Headmaster’s outstretched hand.

                “I’m going to head home.  The kids should be back from the Weasley’s soon.  And Remus is coming over for dinner.  Let me know when you have another lead.”

                “Alright, goodbye, Sirius.”

                Sirius nodded and turned on his heels, appearing at the gate to his cottage a moment later.  A smile ghosted across his features as he took in the sight before him.  Who’d have ever thought he’d live in such a picture perfect place? 

                Strong, ancient oaks cast shade upon the plaster and timber house.  A gravel path lead from the garden gate up to the well-polished door.  Sturdy window boxes, overflowing with a colorful array of flowers sat under each of the windows.  Birdsong drifted through the air, harmonizing with the summer breeze rustling through the trees.

                He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the location relax him, forcing away the memories of the past.  He wasn’t the bad cop anymore, he wasn’t the black sheep of the Black family.  No longer trapped with magic that kept taunting him, teasing him, tempting him to follow the family path.

                He was head of the family, capable of steering the family away from its dark roots.  Hermione wouldn’t grow up fighting the urges her magic gave her, not like he did.  She’d-

                “My dear cousin, if I was my lovely sister you would be dead.”

                Sirius jerked and tensed.  He didn’t think as he whipped his wand out of his sleeve and turned to face the speaker. 

                Standing there, in all her glory, was the last person he’d ever expected to see at his doorstop.

                “Narcissa.”

                She nodded coolly at him, “Sirius.”

                They stood there, eyeing each other - he couldn’t help but size his cousin up.  He hadn’t spoken to Narcissa in years.  Just glimpses of her on the Hogwarts Platform.  She was looking very good.  It was almost as if she hadn’t aged.  Her hair was perfectly coiled on her head, with just a few tendrils hanging artfully around her face, making her appear less threatening than he knew she truly was. 

                Narcissa was more dangerous than Bellatrix.  If for no other reason than that she had full control of her sanity.

                She arched one delicate eyebrow, “Well?”

                 He rolled his eyes, “Fishing for compliments?  You’re family.  I don’t have to compliment you.”

                He saw the tiniest trace of surprise on her face, “So, I’m family?  I would’ve thought you’d have disowned me.”

                He deliberately turned his back on her and opened the gate.  He glanced back over his shoulder at her.  “I’m not you, Cissy.” He enjoyed the way a scowl flickered on her face at the use of her old childhood nickname.  But she didn’t correct him.  That told him she wanted something.  Best to find out what.  “Now, would you like a cup of tea?  I’m sure you had a reason for coming here.”

                She nodded and moved to follow him, “That would be acceptable.”

                He held his hand up to stop her, “One question first – Do you mean anyone in this house harm?  Answer honestly, because if you lie and try to enter…  Well, let’s just say you won’t like the consequences.”

                She eyed the gate for a moment, something unreadable in her expression.  Eventually she shook her head, “No, I mean no one any harm.  Unless they hurt my son.”

                He nodded and turned again to head towards the cottage, he heard her follow after him immediately. 

                They chatted very pleasantly on the weather as they got settled in the sitting room and waited for Kreacher to bring them some tea.  Narcissa had looked a bit surprised to see the old house elf so happily serving Sirius.  Little did she know just what he had done to finally earn Kreacher’s respect.

                He thought she might just be horrified.

                The only question was whether she’d be horrified about the horcruxes or about part of old Moldy Voldy being destroyed.

                Once they both had steaming cups of tea in their hands he ended the small talk.

                “So, Cissy, what’s your true reason for coming here?  I know you want something.”

“What gave it away this time?”

“You hate the name Cissy.”

                She took a sip of her tea and looked at him over the top of the cup.  Studying him, judging him.  He knew those eyes well.

                When she put the cup delicately on the saucer, not clinking the china at all, she finally spoke.

                “Blunt as always I see.”

                “There’s a reason I was sorted into Gryffindor.”

                “Then how do you know the family trade so well?”

                “Survival.”

                She smirked, “Then maybe you’ll view this as survival also.”

                “Oh?”

                “I’d like to propose a betrothal agreement between Hermione Black and Draco Malfoy.”

                He nearly dropped his tea in shock.

                “WHAT?!?”

                “Exactly that.  I think Miss Black would be good for Draco.  She may not be a true pureblood, but she is the heir to the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black.  She’s also strong enough to not let Draco always get his way.  Both magically and mentally.  Oh, don’t look surprised I know this, Lucius is a School Governor, the class lists were easy to obtain.  She’s also very strong of character, a necessary skill when dealing with a Malfoy.  What happened on the train a few weeks ago was a work of art.  He can’t stop talking about her.  He’s actually stopped complaining about Harry Potter for once.  I must say his father is relieved.  So relieved that I think it will be almost no work to persuade him that this match is of his own choosing.  Besides, they’re only thirteen, so I have years to convince him if need be.”

                He just gapped at her, for once at a complete loss for words.

                She smiled, “Now, since they are both the last heirs to such great houses we could not discard either house.  I propose making them complete equals and setting the groundwork to merge the houses upon their inheriting.  They would retain their birth names and all children would be named Black-Malfoy.  Since Miss Black is adopted there are no worries about them being second cousins, which is a relief.  And the family magic for both houses is on the dark side, so it should merge well.  It will be interesting to see which hair color wins out, or if it ends up somewhere in-between.”

                His brain was in such shock he could only respond to the least important point in the entire conversation.

                “You know I’ve been changing the Black Family Magic.  It’s a slow process, but it’s changed.  Less suited for dark magic.”

                “I know, I’ve felt it.  But you won’t change it completely, because you were raised with it.  The draw of dark magic is too strong within you to eliminate it entirely.  As for our grandchildren.  They’ll be the ones to establish what strengths the new Black-Malfoy Family Magic has.”  She smiled.  “This is a huge weight off my shoulders, I’ve been worried about Draco.  He’s a Malfoy, and Malfoys have always been attracted by power.  I don’t want him to take the same path as his father.”  Her smile turned brittle, “Do you know what it feels like to not be enough for your spouse?  I’m a competent witch, but I’m not powerful enough to be what Lucius craves.  I don’t want that life for Draco.  I know what happened the night you adopted her.  She’s powerful, and she’s clever.  The right kind of clever.  She’ll keep my son happy and alive.”

                He held up a hand, “Wait.  I didn’t agree to the betrothal.”

                She looked at him speculatively, “But you will.”

                He stared at her, and threw his head back and laughed.  He couldn’t help it.  Did she really think he would agree to a betrothal between her son and Hermione?  Especially when all of the benefits seemed to be for Draco Malfoy?  Did she think he was that stupid?

                She let out a small huff, he almost didn’t catch it. 

                “What, Cissy, didn’t expect that reaction?”

                She glared at him, “I thought you’d grown up.”

                He leaned back, draping an arm over the back of the couch and resting his teacup on his knee.  “Oh, Cissy, I have grown up.  If I hadn’t I would’ve hexed you for suggesting such a thing and then proceeded to throw you out of my house.  That is, if I’d even let you in my house in the first place.”

                She slammed her cup and saucer down on the table in front of her, Sirius had to resist a wince.  Kreacher would be terribly unhappy if that cup broke. 

                “I should’ve known better than to try and reason with you,” she said standing and looking down her aristocratic nose at him.

                He snorted, “Oh, sit back down Cissy.  I said I wouldn’t agree to a betrothal.  I didn’t say I wouldn’t speak with you.”

                She didn’t move, so he quirked an eyebrow at her, taunting her.  Daring her to just leave without knowing what he planned to say.

                Neither of them moved for a full minute, but, finally, she gave in.  She sat down and carefully picked up her tea cup, taking a delicate sip.  Never once removing her eyes from his face.

                He grinned at her.  “Now, Cissy, you know I never really disliked you.  Andy is the best of the three of you, but you aren’t half bad.  And I know Andy has been missing you.” His smile dimmed a bit, “Just like I miss Regulus.”

                She gave a small start of surprise at his admission and eyed him curiously, but said nothing.

                “Now, I don’t believe in arranged marriages.  I want Hermione to be happy, and I believe she’s smart enough to decide what makes her happy on her own.  Personally I’ve always figured she’d end up with Ronald Weasley.  She and Harry are always with him, the three have been inseparable ever since they were four years old.  But I’m her father, and she’s thirteen, we don’t exactly discuss things like that, so I could be wrong.  Now, I heard about what happened on the train.  I also heard about their little tumble in front of the Headmaster.  Your son quite shocked Hermione by saying ‘Please.’  Maybe that’s why the train incident occurred, she saw a possibility there.  My daughter takes great pleasure in fixing things.  She enjoys projects, and must see your son as one.  That does not make a marriage.”

                “Draco saying ‘please’ shocked her?”

                “Oh, yes, your son does not really get along with my children.  I believe the rivalry started because Draco was rather put out that Harry preferred being friends with Ronald Weasley over him.  Can’t really blame Harry though.  Ron’s not the brightest boy sometimes, but he’s a good friend, he’d do anything for those he cares about.  He’s also a mastermind when it comes to chess.  Don’t know how when he’s so blind to other things,” he mused.

                “So you think a betrothal and eventual marriage would go poorly.”

                He shrugged, “Possibly, but then, things may change.  Which is why I want to propose something.”

                “Go on.”

                “I believe the Black Family has been estranged enough.  If you make up with Andy, and she finds it acceptable, we’ll start socializing with you.  Putting the two of them into contact outside of school.  If, as you suspect, they’ll do well together, then things will happen naturally.  And nothing will stand in Hermione’s way if she decides she wants something.  She’s rather stubborn that way.  But, on the other hand, if it is as I suspect, and they are like oil and water, things will remain as they are.  She may encourage him to be a better person if she repeats the incident on the train, even if she despises him.  So, either way, you win.”

                Her eyes narrowed, “True, it does help me quite a bit.  What do you get out of it?”

                He looked away from her, gazing out the open window at the tree dancing in the breeze outside.  “I get to see two siblings make up.  It’s too late for Regulus and me.  Don’t make the same mistake.  Ted Tonks is a great man.  Very fun and powerful.  He comes at things sideways.  Something our world desperately lives if we are to move forward.  And you should meet their daughter, your niece.  She’s a delight.  She and Regulus would’ve gotten along splendidly.”

                “And what about Bella?”

                “She’s in Azkaban.  And I hope she rots there for what she did.  Have you ever seen Hermione’s arms or legs?”   

                Narcissa shook her head.

                “That’s another reason I can’t see Hermione ever getting with your son.  What your sister did… It was terrible.  It served no purpose.  She tortured a two-year old.  A baby.  I just can’t see Hermione ending up with the nephew of the woman that did that to her.  Especially when all she has to do is push up her sleeve to see the scars.  Not to mention the fact that you and your husband pleaded for Bellatrix to get a lighter sentence.”

                “She remembers it?”

                “In her nightmares.”

                “And there’s no way to remove the scars?”

                “Bellatrix used a cursed blade.  They were barely able to heal the cuts.  The scars are charmed, they’ve grown with Hermione.  Every time she grows taller the scars grow bigger.  I haven’t looked at them closely in years, but I think they’ve also gotten clearer, easier to read.”

                “What do you mean, easier to read?”

                “Bellatrix,” he spat, “wrote disgusting, filthy words all over my daughter. Words that haunt her nightmares and hang over her everywhere she goes.  Ever since she learned to read at the age of three she’s been half-convinced those words are true.  Doesn’t matter what anyone else says.”

                A tense silence filled the room, only broken by the rustling of the leaves outside the window.  After a few minutes Narcissa quietly put her cup down and stood.

                “I’ll think about it.  If I agree I’ll pay a visit to Andromeda and send all of you invites to Draco’s birthday party.  It’s next week.”

                “When is his birthday?”

                “His birthday was June 5th, but since he’s always in school we hold a party a month later on July 5th.  It will be semi-formal.”

                Sirius nodded and looked back out the window. 

               “Oh, and Cissy?”

               He heard her pause, “Yes?”

               “If they end up together - which I highly doubt - I will be testing them for any spells or potions.  Do you understand?  If you do anything to take away my daughter’s free will, anything at all, I will make you wish you’d never been born.  That’s part of the deal.  Also, your son won’t be able to touch the Black fortune.  I’ll ensure that until a child is born Harry Potter or Nymphadora Tonks will be the heirs.”

               She didn’t say a thing, but after a moment he heard her robes rustle as she left the room.  He didn’t even spare her a glance, he was no longer in the present.  His thoughts were once again on the past.  Wondering just what would have happened if he’d tried harder with Regulus.  Just what would have happened if he’d been there for his brother?  Supporting him, like Hermione and Harry supported each other.  He’d kept Albus safe on the horcrux hunt, maybe he could’ve kept Regulus safe.

                So many mistakes in his past. 

                So many ghosts.

                Sometimes he wondered how he was still sane.

Chapter Text

               The fire roared – making Hermione look up from her book.  Out stepped her Aunt Andy, a thunderous look on her face.  She didn’t even glance at Hermione as she stormed out of the room and down the hallway.  A moment later a loud slam resonated through the house, making it shudder.

                Now, that was curious.  Hermione couldn’t think of the last time she’d seen her aunt this angry.  And she was obviously angry at Padfoot.  Just what had her dad done?

                Quietly she put her book down and slipped to the doorway of the sitting room.  Cautiously she glanced out into the hall, but saw no one.  Distantly she could hear raised voices coming from Padfoot’s study down the hallway.

                She moved slowly and quietly until she was standing outside the closed door.  She could almost make out what her aunt was saying.  She glanced around quickly to make sure no one was nearby, then she laid down on the floor, pressing her ear to the crack under the door. 

                “-the HELL do you think you’re doing!  I almost had a heart attack when I opened the door!  I TOLD you not to meddle!  That it wasn’t your business!  Some things-”

                “Andy, calm down, I didn’t meddle.”  Padfoot said soothingly.  Hermione could picture him holding his arms in defense.

                “Then how do you explain my sister showing up?!?  She was asking to mend things!  Wanting to repair the family!  You, Sirius Orion Black, are the head of this family!  You’re the only one that could get her to back down after ignoring me for two decades!”

                “Why don’t you sit down and let me explain?  I swear I didn’t meddle.  Not really.  I didn’t think she’d do it.”

                Aunt Andy scoffed, “And just what is she trying to do?  Get a piece of the Black pie for her son?”

                The room was silent, Hermione really wished she could see her dad’s face.  Then there was a shocked gasp, which she assumed came from her aunt. 

                “She is?  Isn’t she?  She wants to make amends, try to get you to leave something to Draco one day!”

                Padfoot gave a harsh bark of laughter, “If only.  No, she wants more than that.  Apparently she’s got it into her head that Hermione and Draco would make a good match.  They could merge the two families.  She thinks Hermione would be good for Draco.  She’s likely right.  Though I don’t think Draco would be good for Hermione.”

                Hermione stopped listening, the words she’d just heard racing through her head.  She jumped up and stumbled down the hallway, covering her mouth with her hand.  Trying not to be sick. 

               Her. 

               And Draco Malfoy. 

               A match.

               Was Narcissa Malfoy insane!?!

               How could she ever think that Hermione could marry the son of a Death Eater?  The son of the man that had bribed enough people to turn Bellatrix Lestrange’s sentence from a kiss to life imprisonment.  An action that had likely been prompted by Narcissa Malfoy?  The proud nephew of that same witch who had murdered her parents?  A boy that thought mudblood was a more acceptable term than muggleborn?

                She made it to her bathroom and shut the door.  Shaking, she leaned back against it and slowly slipped to the floor.  Was this because she’d insulted and corrected Malfoy on the train?  Had she been so nasty she’d impressed a Death Eater?  Did they think she really was the person she’d pretended to be in the diary?  That she was a ‘good’ Black?  That she was like Bellatrix Lestrange?

                At that thought she scrambled across the floor and barely got the lid of the toilet up before she was vomiting.  Even when there was nothing else to come out she kept heaving, tears prickled her eyes, her nose closed up, making it hard to breathe.  Memories raced through her mind, every painful moment of sitting at that table.  Pretending she was just like Bellatrix Lestrange.  Losing control, being forced to do something that went against everything she was. 

                Tears were coursing freely down her face and a sob cut through her.  She slipped backwards, and wiped her face on her sleeves.  When she pulled back she stared down at her right arm.  Thin, opaque fabric smeared with snot and tears covered her it. 

                She idly began tracing the largest word, Mudblood.  She couldn’t see it, but she knew it was there, knew exactly what it looked like.  She knew where one side of the M went down farther than the other.  Or how the two O’s were smushed together, sharing one deep, bone revealing cut.  The scars had remained unchanging her entire life.  They’d grown with her.  Padfoot said it was because of the curse on the knife.

                She wanted to be angry at Padfoot for not throwing Narcissa Malfoy out, for allowing that woman to believe there was a chance.  But she couldn’t be.  Hermione loved her dad, she trusted him.  She knew he’d never force her to do anything.  She’d heard him, he’d said he didn’t think Malfoy was good for her.  He wouldn’t let anything happen to her.  He’d saved her, he’d taken her in, loved her - raised her as his own. 

                He’d learned how to braid just so he could help her keep her hair out of the way.  He’d taught her how to tie her shoes after she’d burst out crying - unable to understand why it was so easy for Ron and Harry to do it, while she struggled.  He’d patiently taught her how to use a broom, spending hours of his day, while Harry raced around them, shouting encouragements. 

                Padfoot had given her a home.

                He’d given her Harry.

                He wasn’t going to take that all away by giving her to Malfoy.

                She kept repeating that thought, over and over again.  Eventually her breathing calmed down and returned to normal.  She shakily stood up and went to the sink.

                She looked in the mirror and couldn’t help but wince.

                She looked a fright.  Tears and snot covered her face.  There was even what looked like vomit on her chin.  Her black hair was plastered to her head with sweat.  Her mouth tasted like she’d licked the toilet rather than vomited into it.

                If Narcissa Malfoy could see her now she’d think twice about a marriage.  Not that she seemed to care about looks, Hermione wasn’t much to look at on a good day.  But at least she was clean.  Maybe-

                A knock sounded on the bathroom door, cutting off her thoughts.

                She opened her mouth, but only a squeak came out.  She stopped, cleared her throat, and tried again.

                “Yes?”

                “Hermione?  Can I come in?”

                She felt some of the tension leave her at the sound of Harry’s voice. 

                Harry was here.

                She opened the bathroom door and her brother slipped inside.  He was sweaty and looked very wind-blown.  She assumed he’d been off flying at the Weasley’s, one of his favorite pastimes.

                He shut the door behind himself and then turned to her and pulled her into a hug.  He was a little shorter than her, but it still felt like he was the one enveloping her.  The tight knot in her stomach began slowly unwinding.  Harry was here.  Padfoot loved her.  Narcissa Malfoy wasn’t going to get her way.  Even if Padfoot was making some concessions. 

                She knew he had to be behind Mrs. Malfoy making up with Aunt Andy.  Now that she was calming down, she could think clearly.  He knew she would never consent to marry Malfoy.  And he would never force her.  But he was smart, he knew Narcissa Malfoy wouldn’t give up.  So he wanted to use it, make Aunt Andy happy.  Hermione knew the two of them had gotten along as children.  Before Hogwarts.  Before Uncle Ted. 

Before Voldemort.

                He was likely hoping to change Mrs. Malfoy’s mind as well.  Which meant Hermione was going to come into contact with Malfoy outside of school, at family events.  So everyone could see just how much they all hated each other.  How wrong a marriage was.

                She smiled, Padfoot was so smart sometimes.

                Sensing that she’d relaxed, Harry pulled back.  He looked at her, a lopsided smile on his face as he reached over for a tissue. 

                When he held it out she took it and began wiping her face off, “Thank you, Harry.”

                “You know you never have to thank me, ‘Mione.  I’m your brother and your friend.  You know I’ll always be here for you.  Like you’re there for me.”

                She shot him a fond look before dropping the tissue in the trash.

                He ran a hand through his hair, “Do you want to tell me what that was about?  I know it wasn’t a nightmare.”

                “Yeah, let me get cleaned up and then we’ll go for a walk and I’ll tell you.”

                Hermione could dimly hear Padfoot and Aunt Andy talking in the study when they walked past a few minutes later, but she didn’t stop to listen.  She’d find out soon enough what Padfoot had planned.  Though she was fairly sure she’d figured out most of it already.

                The day was a warm one.  The sun was shining down, basking the world in its golden glow, making darkness seem like an impossible thing.  She closed her eyes as they walked and tilted her head up, letting the sunlight wash her face, chasing away the last few traces of her tears.

                Just being outside, in the sun, with Harry at her side, made her feel free.  Nothing truly bad could happen in the daylight.  Ghosts and monsters only came out at night.

                “There you two are.  Hermione, are you alright?”

                She gave a start and opened her eyes, blinking.  Ron and Ginny were walking down the path towards them, their brooms over their shoulders. 

                “Harry ran off so quickly, we were worried,” Ginny said.

                She smiled at them, feeling pleased they looked so concerned.  Sometimes she forgot that she had more people than Harry and Padfoot.  Ron had been her friend almost as long as Harry had been her brother.  And Ginny was a wonderful person, a kindred spirit in more ways than one.  And not just because of their shared experiences with the diary. “I’m alright now, I just got some disturbing news.”

                “Want to talk about it?” Ginny asked.

                Hermione nodded.

                “How about we go sit by the stream then?  Luna’s likely there feeding the fish right now,” Ron said.

                That sounded like an excellent idea, so the four of them wound their way down the path, until they reached the turnoff for the Lovegoods and the small stream that twisted its way through the woods.  As they walked the two boys and Ginny began discussing Quidditch and if it was likely that Wood would host tryouts this year.  Both Ron and Ginny hoped that he would, since they wanted to try out, but Harry didn’t have much hope.  Wood thought they had a good team, and didn’t like rocking the boat.  Both Weasley siblings thought it was terribly unfair that Harry hadn’t needed to try out.  All he’d had to do was stop Malfoy from breaking Neville’s personal property, while instead breaking half a dozen school rules.

                Padfoot had been rather proud of Harry, though he’d tried to hide it by scolding him.  Hermione sometimes wondered just how much their dad had changed after he’d taken them in.  Some of the stories Uncle Remus or Aunt Andy shared showed a very different Sirius Black than the one she knew and loved.

                Hermione tuned out the Quidditch talk after a bit.  It wasn’t really her thing.  She just soaked in the peaceful English countryside, letting it wash away any lingering worries.  She’d tell her friends about Mrs. Malfoy’s plan.  Between them they should be able to convince her.  And, if it came down to it, they’d tell Malfoy.  She smiled as she pictured the look of horror that would appear on his face at the idea of marrying her.  He’d never actually called her a mudblood.  She thought it might be due to the fact that if he named her as one it would mean he was related to one.  But it might also be because he didn’t view her as one, since she had been raised as a witch.  She really didn’t know.

                She stopped in her tracks, a terrible, horrible idea appearing in her head.  Could she do something that terrible?  Would it be terrible?

                What if she went along with Mrs. Malfoy?  Paid attention to Malfoy, continued what she’d been doing on the train?  Bothering him, torturing him, bossing him around.  Giving him a taste of his own medicine.  He’d never agree to a marriage then.  He’d hate her.

                She frowned and started walking again.  The other three hadn’t even noticed that she’d stopped.  But what if he didn’t hate her?  What if he liked being treated like that?  She’d heard once that some people craved being ordered around.  She couldn’t understand it, but then, she didn’t really understand the point of Quidditch either.

                Maybe….

                Maybe if he did like that, then she would have to reject him, break his heart.  But wouldn’t that be worse?  Could she knowingly set out to break someone’s heart? 

                She shook her head, she was being ridiculous.  She was overthinking things.  How would she be treating Malfoy if she didn’t know about Narcissa Malfoy’s plans?  Maybe she should try for that.  Pretend she never got the information, and just wait and see. 

                Yes, that might be good.  She wouldn’t give away then that she’d been eavesdropping.  What was Ron always saying about chess?  Something about analyzing all of the possibilities and then planning accordingly.  That wasn’t really Hermione’s thing.  She preferred making a plan and sticking to it, no matter what.

                Maybe that’s why he always won at chess.

                “Hey, Luna!  How’re the fish?”

                Hermione pulled herself out of her thoughts as the boy in question called out to the blonde girl sitting on a boulder on the edge of the stream, a fishing rod in her hands, bare feet dangling in the water that slowly wove its way through the overhanging trees.

                “They’re very hungry today,” she gestured to an empty basket next to her, “they’ve eaten almost everything I brought.”

                “Probably because it’s been so dry this summer.  The stream is lower than normal,” Hermione said.

                Luna seemed to consider that while everyone found places to rest.  Hermione plopped herself under a shady maple tree.  She found it to be rather interesting that Ginny and Harry sat down next to each other on a log that jutted out into the stream.  They were rather close together, and there was a tinge of pink on Ginny’s cheeks every time Harry’s shoulder brushed against hers.

                Oh, she was going to tease him about that. 

                But then when Ginny bent over to take off her shoes and socks she started to lose her balance.  Harry reached out immediately.  One of his hands caught hers and the other grabbed her shoulders.  As soon as Ginny was safely settled again they broke apart, and Harry was beet red.

                On second thought, maybe she wouldn’t tease him. 

                At least, not yet.  She’d wait until she had some more ammunition.

                 Ron looked around and seemed to decide there were no good seats left.  He wandered over to the boulder where Luna was sitting and leaned against it, staring down at the water, a curious expression on his face. 

                “Do you see a gillypup?  Father said there were sightings a few counties over,” Luna asked.

                Ron shook his head, “No, I’m just thinking…”

                “Uh oh, we better watch out!” Ginny exclaimed.

                “Yeah, Ron, you know what happened the last time you were thinking,” Harry said.

                “Those poor, poor firsties.  I think you scarred them for life,” Hermione added, fighting a grin.

                Luna giggled, while Ron just made a loud, “Hmph!” but refused to rise to the bait.

                “I was just trying to think of a way for Luna to make a fish feeder, you know, like those bird feeders Mrs. Tonks has.  Then she would know they’d never go hungry.  Even when she’s at Hogwarts.”

                Hermione nibbled at her lip, “Let me do a bit of research.  There might be a way…”

                They sat there in silence, just enjoying the weather.  Hermione knew they were curious what her disturbing news was, but they weren’t going to push her.  She was grateful, her skin still crawled every time she thought of marrying Draco Malfoy.

                After a bit Luna pulled her line from the water, revealing a strange little contraption at the end of it.  It looked a bit like an upside down Christmas tree.  Ron took the rod and held it for her while she began decorating it with the last few pieces of food in her basket. 

                Personally, Hermione found it a little silly to feed fish in a wild stream, but she always put it in the same category as Quidditch or Gobstones.  Even the silliest things were entertaining sometimes.  Why, even she had been known to play a game of Exploding Snap every once in a while.  And there were worse hobbies than sitting by the water on a gorgeous summer day, feeding fish.

                Like bullying.

                She scowled.  Maybe she could use this opportunity to break Malfoy of his terrible hobbies.  Surely the Malfoys wouldn’t want their son to start being nice to people.  Especially muggleborns and blood traitors.

                Yes, that was a real possibility.  She could keep acting like she normally would, with the end goal of making Malfoy a decent human being.  He might not even be a bad person to be acquainted with in the future if she did that. 

                Though she would never, ever marry him.

                Not if he was the last man on Earth.

               Now, time to share what she had learned and deducted with the others. 

               It was going to be a long year.

XXX

                Sirius pinched the top of his nose and took a deep breath.  “So, let me get this straight.  You believe there is a horcrux here at Hogwarts.  You think he hid it here when he applied for a job.  But, you have no idea where it could be.”

                “That’s right.”

                “Albus, do you understand how bloody big this castle is?  It took us Marauder’s a full year to properly map it out.  And we’d already been almost everywhere in the castle by then!”

                “Really, Albus.  Isn’t there some way you can locate it through the wards?”

                Albus gave Remus Lupin a sad smile.  “I already tried using the wards.  They can’t detect anything.”  He held up a hand to stop whatever Remus had opened his mouth to say.  “That does not mean it isn’t here.  There are ways to conceal things, even from the wards.  Now, can either of you think of a place where he could hide a horcrux?”

                Remus grew very thoughtful, a small frown marring his forehead. 

                Sirius knew that look.  An idea was forming for his friend, he just needed time for it grow.  He pasted a thoughtful expression on his own face and fixed his eyes on one of the spinning, metal devices on the Headmaster’s desk.

                He really had no idea where You-Know-Who would hide a horcrux.  He’d only found the locket because of Kreacher.  And even that had been pure luck.  Complete, ridiculous luck.

                He had a sudden idea.

                “Albus, have you asked a house elf?”

                The Headmaster looked at him in disbelief.  “You really think Voldemort would use a house elf to hide the horcrux?  I know Kreacher helped you find one, but that was pure luck.”

                “No, he’s right Albus.  You asked us here because you said we know Hogwarts best.  But we don’t.  Not really.”

                “And we know we’re looking for something belonging to one of the Founders.  We know he has the Hufflepuff cup.  And while the Ravenclaw diadem is missing, I wouldn’t put it past that sneaky bastard to find it.  The sword of Gryffindor has been missing for almost as long as the diadem, but it’s said that only a true Gryffindor can find.  So, that one might be safe, but I wouldn’t count on it.  If we ask, they might have seen one of them,” Sirius said.

                Albus looked at the two of them for a moment, considering what they had said, weighing their arguments in his mind.  He nodded his head, “I do believe that’s a good idea.  And we certainly do not have enough ideas that we can be wasting the few good ones.  Floppy!”

                A little house elf with the most enormous ears Sirius had ever seen appeared.

                “Headmaster be wanting Floppy?” squeaked the elf.

                “Ah, yes, Floppy.  I was wondering if you, or any other house elf here, had seen one of these two things.”  Albus waved his wand and created illusions of the sword, cup and diadem.

                Sirius stared at the diadem in confusion.  He wondered just how Albus knew what that looked like.  The cup he had seen in a memory, but not the diadem.  And the sword was quite visible in a tapestry in the Gryffindor Common Room.

                Remus leaned over and whispered, “There’s a statue of Rowena Ravenclaw in the Ravenclaw Tower, she’s wearing the diadem in it.”

                 He looked at his friend in surprise, “And how do you know that?”

                Remus grinned wolfishly and gave him a wink, “Krissi Pratchett thought I was rather smart.  She wanted to show me her book collection.”

                Sirius let out a long whistle, “And you called me a dirty dog!”

                A throat was very pointedly and purposefully cleared, causing the two men to look over at the Headmaster.  And for an instant Sirius felt like he was back in school.

                Albus was almost, but not quite, glaring at them over the top of his half-moon spectacles.  “Are you two quite done discussing past rule breaking in my presence?”

                When neither of them said anything Albus smiled, a twinkle reappearing in his gaze.

                “It seems that Floppy has seen the diadem somewhere in the school.  Something about a Come and Go Room.  He’s gone off in search of it.  When he brings it here we can destroy it.”

                “As soon as that’s done I need to leave.  We’re expected at the Malfoy’s at 3 o’clock sharp,” Sirius said.

                Albus’ eyebrows rose until they rested up near his hairline, “You are expected at the Malfoy’s?  Should I make sure the aurors are on call?”

                Remus let out a snort of laughter, “That might not be a bad idea.”

                “Hey!  I can behave like a gentleman when I want to!  In fact, I had Narcissa Malfoy over for tea just this last week.  No wands were drawn.  In fact, I’d say my mother would’ve found the entire conversation rather disappointing.”

                Albus leaned back in his chair, resting his hands upon his stomach.  “And why was Mrs. Malfoy having tea with you?  As far as I know, she and you have very different political beliefs.”

                “And marriage beliefs,” Sirius said.  “She is of the opinion that Hermione and her son would make a good match.  I refused.”

                “That does not explain the invite to her house.”

                “Oh, just wait.  He’s getting to that,” Remus put in, rolling his eyes at what he considered foolishness.

                “I just wanted Cissy and Andy to make up,” Sirius said defensively.  “Cissy isn’t all bad, she knows when love is more important.  I may have refused to arrange a marriage, but I did agree to accept it if that’s what the children wanted.”

                “Ah, so you agreed to have them come into contact more if Mrs. Malfoy made amends with her sister.”  There was a knowing twinkle in Albus’ eyes as he clarified this.

                “Yes, family is important.”

                “Too, true.  It does show just how much Mrs. Malfoy loves her son.  She is willing to do whatever is necessary to get a wife for Draco Malfoy that will, ultimately, make him a better person.”

                “But, the question is, Professor, does Draco Malfoy make Hermione a better person?”  Remus said quietly.

                “No,” Sirius snapped, “he doesn’t.”

                “Sirius, my boy, they are only thirteen.  Right now that may be true, but will it always be?”

                Sirius was spared from answering by the return of Floppy, holding a gorgeous diadem in his hands.  Albus thanked the house elf and then the three men took a little field trip outside. 

                It was time to have another little bonfire.

Chapter Text

               Hermione self-consciously tugged on her sleeves, making sure they sat right, as she followed Harry into a large sitting room.  She had to suppress a gasp at what she saw.  She didn’t think she’d ever been in a room so covered in history.  The paintings on the silk covered walls had to be hundreds of years old.  She almost didn’t want to touch the furniture, sure that the oils on her skin couldn’t be good for the ancient pieces.

                But they were nothing compared to the ceiling.  She tilted her head up and took in the gilded paint forming elegant designs.  And in the center of the ceiling, was a gorgeous painting of a golden-haired woman reading under a handsome oak tree.  A silver-haired man stood nearby, watching her.  The emotion on his face was so real.  As she watched he started to take a step towards the woman, but then paused, frozen in indecision. 

                She wanted to keep watching, find out if he said something.  If they had a happy ending.  But she was called back to reality by a rather cold, if outraged, voice calling her name.

                “Black!  Potter!  What the hell are you doing here?!?  I KNOW I didn’t invite you to my birthday party.”

                Hermione pulled her eyes away from the ceiling and focused on the short, angry blonde.  He was dressed in impeccably tailored robes, his hair as immaculate as always.  Sadly, his appearance was marred by the sneer carved under his cold, steely eyes.

                Hermione looked over at Harry, expecting to see him angry.  But he surprised her, there was a slightly bored expression on his face and she could see a hint of amusement in his eyes.  He really was going to go along with her plan. 

                He was amazing.

                “Of course you didn’t invite us, Malfoy.  Your mother did.”  Harry turned away from a sputtering Malfoy and grabbed two glasses of pumpkin juice off the sideboard.  Walking back, he handed one to Hermione.  She took it carefully, being sure not to spill any, while shooting Harry a grateful smile, thankful to have something to do with her hands.

                “Why would Mrs. Malfoy invite the likes of you?” Pansy Parkinson said, disgust and disbelief evident in her voice.

                “Why, Parkinson, don’t you know that Malfoy and I are family?  It’s only natural we get invited to each other’s parties.  In fact, we left my father, Sirius Black, in a pleasant conversation with your father and Mr. Malfoy about the corruption running rampant in the Ministry, ” Hermione said, before taking a delicate sip of the juice.

                Malfoy seemed to have recovered from his shock.  He crossed his arms and glared.  “You’ve never been invited before.”

                “Well, no.  But then your mother’s never gone out of her way to make amends before,” Harry stated plopping himself rather inelegantly on a very delicate and ancient looking chaise.

                Hermione wanted to be outraged at his treatment of such a priceless antique, but the indignation on Malfoy’s face was worth any destruction of ancient furniture.

                “POTTER!  Just what do you think you’re doing!?!?” Malfoy screamed, his face turning a gorgeous shade of purple as the rest of the Slytherins looked on with mixed expressions of horror and disbelief.

                “Why, I’m making myself at home.  When Hermione and I arrived your mother did tell us to make ourselves at home.  Since we’re all family.  Or at least you and Hermione are.  You do know the two of you are second cousins, right?”

                Malfoy opened his mouth to reply, but seemed to find himself at a loss for words.  She assumed it was because he was at a rather pivotal crossroads.  Did he stay true to his hatred of her and Harry and thus go against his mother?  Or did he stay true to his mother and ignore his feud with the two of them?  She almost felt sorry for him, since she had gone through a rather similar dilemma just the week before. 

                Almost.

                But not quite. 

                She remembered too much how he’d tried to get Hagrid in trouble about the dragon their first year.  Or how he’d run off screaming in the Forbidden Forest, leaving Harry to fend for himself during detention.  Not to mention all the times he’d made nasty comments about her or other non-Slytherins.  Nope, she didn’t feel sorry for him at all.

                While Malfoy was deciding how to respond, and the rest of the Slytherins were holding their breath in anticipation of what could occur, she decided to find herself a seat.

                She found a rather comfortable armchair near the chaise.  It was situated in such a way that she could keep an eye on anyone trying to sneak up on Harry, while he could do the same for her.  Unlike him, she sat down very gracefully, crossing her legs at the ankles and angling to the side so she looked very ladylike.

                This seemed to annoy Parkinson to no end, judging by the expression on her pug-like face.

                Really, did they think just because she was raised by Sirius Black she’d have no manners?  Her Dad had impeccable manners, he just chose to ignore them all.  And he’d decided that she and Harry should also have the same option.  He was of the opinion that to properly break the rules one must first learn them.  Harry seemed to think along the same lines, though she preferred to follow them when they suited her.  And, honestly, weekly etiquette lessons with Padfoot and Aunt Andy hadn’t always been fun, but they had been educational. 

                She took a sip of her juice and tried to raise one eyebrow at Parkinson, but didn’t quite succeed.  She just didn’t have the muscle control.  She supposed she looked a little odd raising both eyebrows, but Parkinson could deal with a little oddness in her life.  It built character.

                And Merlin knew she didn’t have much of one.

                “This is my birthday and I would prefer to spend the day with people I actually like,” Malfoy finally said, drawing everyone’s attention back to him.

                “We aren’t stopping you,” Hermione stated.

                Malfoy’s jaw clenched, she could almost hear his teeth grinding from here.  She smiled at him.

                He stomped his foot and crossed his arms, scowling at her.

                Now this was getting to be too much, she had to bite the inside of her cheeks to stop from laughing.  She could see Harry, out of the corner of her eye, attempting to cover a snort of laughter with a cough.

                This only seemed to enrage Malfoy more.  Really, he needed to learn to control his temper.  It would get the better of him one day.

                He stormed over, stopping directly in front of her.

                “Leave.  Now.”

                She looked up at him.

                “Really, Malfoy.  We only just got here.  You really aren’t showcasing the Malfoy manners I hear so much about.”

                His eyes narrowed, “Manners are earned.  Only the right sort get to see ours.”

                “Oh, not this again, Malfoy.  Didn’t we have a conversation about the right sort during our first year?” Harry asked.

                Malfoy looked over his shoulder at Harry, “Shut up, Potter.  You wouldn’t even be here if you weren’t a Black family charity case.  You’re nothing but a worthless orphan.”

                Harry’s entire body tensed and his eyes narrowed, Hermione could tell that comment was a bit too much for him to ignore.  She quickly stood up, drawing their attention back to her.  Harry blowing up in anger wasn’t part of the plan.  At least not for today.  They didn’t want Mrs. Malfoy to stop making amends with Aunt Andy.  And that would happen if they got themselves thrown out.

                “Really, Malfoy.  You’re showing your ignorance.  While Harry may not have as much wealth as your family, he’s far from a charity case.  And didn’t we have a discussion about your Slytherin traits just a few weeks ago?  You’re still showing a decided lack of cunning.  Don’t you all agree?”

                She addressed her final question to the room at large.  Most of them looked away, unwilling to answer, but a couple were sporting small smirks.  Apparently Slytherin House wasn’t quite as unified as it liked to pretend.  Only Parkinson was looking just as angry and insulted as Malfoy.  Why wasn’t Narcissa Malfoy arranging a marriage between the two of them?  They were certainly on the same wavelength.

                “Black, will you just shut up?  I have to listen to you enough at Hogwarts.  I don’t need to do it in my own home.  At my own birthday party,” Malfoy snarled.

                She crossed her arms and stared him down, being careful not to let her sleeves slide up.  “No, Draco Malfoy, I will not shut up.  I was, as your cousin, invited here.  You just insulted my brother, after we were welcomed and told to make ourselves at home by your mother.  I have a right to defend myself and him.  And if you can’t see that than you’re even more hopeless than I thought.”

                “He’s not your brother.  He’s a bloody half-blood Potter.  You’re a Black.”

                “What does that have to do with it?”

                “I think, ‘Mione, that he’s stating I’m beneath you and thus can’t be your brother,” Harry said helpfully.  “I would like to say that he seems to be pointedly ignoring the fact that you’re a muggleborn.  But he wants to use my blood status against me.” He was still very tense, but was trying to look relaxed.  He wasn’t quite successful, but she was glad he was trying.

                “She’s not a muggleborn!  She’s a Black!” Malfoy snarled, whipping around to face Harry.

                Harry, with great force of will she noticed, slowly stood up.  She knew he had to be still burning with anger from that comment about his orphaned status.  The two boys were the same height and looked ready to spring on each other at any moment.

                “Malfoy, I don’t think you understand the definition of muggleborn.”

                “What, do you think I’m stupid, Potter?  A muggleborn is just a nicer word for a mudblood.  She’s not a mudblood.  She’s a Black, and at worst she’s a blood traitor.”  He sneered, “She was magically adopted by a pureblood, so that makes her one.  I know my family tree, stop acting like I don’t.”

                Hermione’s jaw dropped. 

                Malfoy had the most twisted sense of logic.  She didn’t quite understand how his brain worked.  And almost everyone else in the room seemed to be of the same opinion.  Crabbe and Goyle were watching with their usual dim, accepting expressions and Parkinson was nodding along with what Malfoy said.  But no one else was.

                “Uh, no, no it doesn’t,” Harry managed to get out after he picked his jaw up off the floor.

                Malfoy crossed his arms and tilted his head up in defiance, “Of course it does.”

                The room seemed to be waiting with baited breath as Hermione got control of her own shock and gave her own response.

                “Malfoy, the technical definition of a muggle born is someone born to two muggles.  Both of my parents were muggles.  Sirius Black did not give birth to me.  He adopted me.  Magically.  With permission from my birth mother.  That makes me a Black AND a muggleborn.  Or, as you so offensively put it, a mudblood.”

                Malfoy’s shoulders tensed and he turned just enough so he could keep an eye on both her and Harry.  “There is no way to be both a mudblood and a Black.  It’s impossible.”

                Anger rose inside of her, pushing out her shock and disbelief at his reasoning skills.  How could he be so dense?  His mother was an extremely intelligent, if misguided, woman and his father was no slouch in the mental department.  Though his political goals were just a ‘bit’ twisted.  Just what was wrong with Draco Malfoy?

                “You honestly believe that?” Harry asked.

                Malfoy drew himself up to his full height and tried to look down his nose at Harry.  It wasn’t quite successful as they were the exact same height.

                “Would I say it if I didn’t believe it?”

                Hermione opened her mouth to respond, but was beaten to the punch by a rather weedy boy known as Theodore Nott.

                “Yes.”

                Malfoy shot a glare over at his fellow Slytherin.  “Theo, you’re not helping.”

                Nott grinned, “Yes, I am.  I’m helping you dig that rather deep hole you seem determined to fall into.”

                Snickers erupted around the room and Hermione felt her lips twitch, especially after she got a good look at Parkinson’s face.  The poor girl looked like she’d bitten into a lemon.

                “Maybe I should’ve gotten you a dictionary for your birthday,” Hermione said, moving to go stand next to Harry.  Partly so they could support each other, but also so they were closer to the door.  She had a feeling this conversation was going to end very soon.  And when it finished they’d be much better off in the adults’ room.  “You seem to be failing to understand that you, Draco Malfoy, are related to me, Hermione Granger Black, a muggleborn.  And there’s no way you can twist the logic to change that fact.”

                The entire room could hear Malfoy’s teeth grinding.  For a moment she thought he was going to respond rather violently.  He had no wand visible, but his fists were clenched and he did have Crabbe and Goyle on his side.  The two mini-mountains had moved up to flank their blonde master.

                But Malfoy surprised her, showing a modicum of self-control she’d never witnessed before.

                “Fine,” he spat out, “you, Black, have done the impossible.  Enjoy the party.”  With that he turned on his heel and swept out of the room.  Crabbe and Goyle almost falling over themselves in their attempt to stay with him. 

                Parkinson gave a delicate little sniff, “I believe the air in here has become rather stale.  I’m going to the garden.” She followed Malfoy out of the room.

                About half the room left, but Hermione found herself rather startled at the number of people that stayed.  Most of them went back to talking in their own little groups, but Theodore Nott and a girl, Tracey Davis, wandered over and sat on the couch that was part of the sitting area that Hermione and Harry had claimed.  Harry and Hermione shared a glance and then sat back down.  Harry once again looking like an uncaring wastrel, while she made sure to sit like a proper lady.  Dora always said that once you picked a mask, you had to stick with it.  Part of her auror training.

                Nott grinned at them, “Are you two sure you’re in the right house at Hogwarts?”

                “Theo, of course they are.  Who else but a Gryffindor would be brave enough to confront a snake in its den?” Davis said, giving Harry a happy smile.

                “True, but they rather skillfully manipulated Draco.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him chased out of his own room before.  And I’ve known him since we were both in nappies.”

                “Who in the world says nappies?” Harry asked.

                Davis rolled her eyes, “Theo, obviously.  He’s a bit stuck in the past.  I blame his father.”

                Nott grinned and leaned back on the couch, getting comfortable. “I blame my father for everything.  Makes life easier that way.”

                No one had a response to that.  Hermione didn’t know enough about either of them to offer up her own comment.  All she knew was that Nott had lost his mother as a young child and that his father was a Death Eater.  Though he had claimed the Imperius, just like Lucius Malfoy.  As for Davis, she was a half-blood.  Both of her parents were wizarding folks, but her father had been a muggleborn.  One of the few to ever get into Slytherin. 

                “Is what you said earlier true?” Davis asked, curiosity on her face. 

                “Hermione, did we say anything that wasn’t true today?”  Harry asked.

                “No, Harry, we’ve been entirely truthful today.  I’m not quite sure how,” Hermione answered.

                “Hm, must be because the truth is just too good not to use.”

                “Yes, Padfoot always did say the best ammunition is coated in truths.  They’re so much harder to ignore and disprove than lies.”

                “Who’s Padfoot?” Nott asked.

                At the same time Davis said, “So Mrs. Malfoy is trying to repair the bridges burned by the previous generation.  Excuse me, I simply must go speak with Daphne.”  She stood up and walked over to another group of teenagers.

                “Padfoot is our dad, Sirius Black,” Hermione answered Nott.  Apparently Davis liked gossip - she filed that away for the future.  It might come in handy.

                The conversation with Nott didn’t really go anywhere after that.  He said something about some Quidditch team and the next thing she knew the two boys were discussing the strategy involved in league games.  Nott was convinced that the Chasers were more important, since the League winner was determined by point total, but Harry was the opposite opinion.  He said that a Seeker had to be good enough to know when to catch the snitch.  When he started giving a second by second replay of his thought process during a game with Hufflepuff last year she gave up and completely tuned them out. 

                They didn’t even notice when she stood up and got another glass of pumpkin juice.  As she took a sip she glanced around the room.  There was no one here she was particularly interested in talking to, so she wandered over to the window.

                She almost laughed at the sight in the garden.  Malfoy was storming around, waving his hands angrily and ranting, likely about her and Harry.  Every one that had followed him out of the room was also there, but only Parkinson seemed to be paying any attention to him. 

                Blaise Zabini said something and Malfoy whipped around to reply and almost tripped over his own feet.  Hermione had to suppress a giggle.  He actually looked a little cute when he was angry.

                She stiffened at that thought.  There was no way she had just considered Malfoy to be cute.  He-he was MALFOY.  Beloved nephew of a mass-murderer.  Spoiled son of a Death Eater.  A Slytherin Bully.

                She wasn’t trying to anger him to make him look cute.  She was trying to make one of two things occur.  Either he would get so angry at her he would retaliate and/or end up hating her so much he would never consent to a marriage.  Or she would make him see reason and his parents would freak out and decide she wasn’t ‘worthy’ enough for him.  Either way, she would never accept him.  So either outcome was fine with her.

That was it.

                His looks, cute or not, did not matter one bit. 

Besides, he was much too short.

XXX

                The rest of the summer passed rather pleasantly and, most importantly, uneventfully.  The Malfoy’s were sent an invitation for Harry’s birthday party, but only Mrs. Malfoy came.  She made excuses for her husband and son, but no one really believed them.  She seemed rather put out that Draco wasn’t with her.

                Hermione couldn’t really blame her.  But then, Mrs. Malfoy was going about this all wrong.  Not that there was really a right way to go about it.  But she could at least try.

                A week before school was to start Hermione flooed over to the Tonks’ house.  She was meeting Dora so the two of them could go do a little shopping in London.  Hermione wasn’t big on clothes or makeup, but Dora needed to do some research so she could effectively blend in.  And she’d promised Hermione they could visit the Southbank Book Market afterwards.  The majority of books there were on muggle topics, but Hermione had found several ancient tomes that held valuable information.

                “Aunt Andy?  Dora?” she called out when she emerged into the cheerful little kitchen.

                “Hermione?  I’m in the sitting room,” she heard Aunt Andy call out.

                Upon entering the tastefully decorated little room she found Aunt Dora sitting having a mid-morning cup of tea with none other than Narcissa Malfoy.  Judging by the happy, light atmosphere Padfoot’s plan of reconciliation was coming along nicely.  She couldn’t help but wonder though, what would happen if Voldemort did return, as Headmaster Dumbledore had suggested he would back during her first year.  Would Mrs. Malfoy stick with her husband, the Death Eater?  Or would she change sides?

                If she was a betting person, she’d put ten to one odds on the former.

                “Good morning, Aunt Andy, Mrs. Malfoy,” she said politely, giving Mrs. Malfoy a polite nod before going to hug her aunt.

                “Nymphadora had to run a report into the office.  She didn’t trust an owl.  If you want to have a seat I’ll fix you up a cup of tea while you wait.” 

                Hermione had no time to respond before Aunt Andy was bustling out of the room to fetch another cup.  Leaving her with no choice but to sit and smile politely at Mrs. Malfoy.

                “It’s nice to see you again, Miss Black.  Are you enjoying your summer?”

                “It’s nice to see you as well, Mrs. Malfoy.” And that was a bald-faced lie.  She had no desire what-so-ever to see this woman or her son again.  As far as she was concerned they were a necessary evil, nothing more.

                Aunt Andy returned at that moment and began fixing a cup of tea for Hermione, no sugar and just a drop of milk. 

                “Cissy and I were just discussing antiques.  Did you know she has the most gorgeous antique serving platter?  It was originally a silver shield, made back in the 8th century.”

                Hermione frowned at that, “Why would someone make a shield out of silver?  I would think it wouldn’t be very strong.”

                “It was meant to be used during a magical duel,” Mrs. Malfoy answered her.

                “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of duelists using shields.  Knives, yes, but not shields.  Do you know of a book that talks about it?”  She halfway doubted there was a book.  It was likely just a serving platter made to look like a shield and given an interesting, if fictional, history.

                “True, most duelists carried knives.  But there were a few that preferred a more defensive style.  I can’t think of a book, but I will take a look in the Malfoy library.  I’m sure there is one.  If I can I shall send it to you if you would like.”

                Hermione blinked at that, Mrs. Malfoy seemed almost desperate to earn her approval.  She really didn’t see how she was making this woman so happy.  All she’d ever done was insult her son and steal his inheritance.  Oh, maybe that was it?  But, no.  Even if she had never been adopted Padfoot would’ve accepted Aunt Andy back into the family, thus making Dora in line to inherit.  Maybe Mrs. Malfoy did honestly believe Hermione was the best thing for her son.

                And wasn’t that a scary thought?

                “That would be lovely, thank you,” she smiled politely and took a sip of her tea.

                “Cissy, maybe you can send a photo of it as well?  That would be a lovely gift for Hermione’s birthday.  She’s always interested in antiques.  Especially rare and unique items.” 

                Hermione felt herself turn a bit pink at her aunt’s words.  Honestly, she didn’t need her hobbies shared with this woman.  Having her appreciate antiques had to be a plus in Mrs. Malfoy’s book. 

                “And when is your birthday, Miss Black?”

                “My birthday is next month, on the nineteenth.  I’ll be turning fourteen.”

                That made her almost a year older than Draco Malfoy, maybe Mrs. Malfoy was of the old opinion that the woman had to be younger?  No, that was a silly thought.  She had to know that Hermione was older.  It had been well publicized that she’d been two years old when she’d been orphaned.

                “I shall be sure to mark it on my calendar.  A family member’s birthday must always be celebrated appropriately.”

                Hermione murmured a ‘Thank you’ and finished the last of her tea.  The conversation turned to talk of some old Black family heirlooms that Padfoot had rescued from 12 Grimmauld Place before selling it. 

                After about ten minutes Dora returned and Hermione quite happily made her escape. 

Chapter Text

                Third year started with Malfoy visiting them, once again, in their compartment on the Hogwarts Express.

                Interestingly, he decided to leave as soon as Hermione asked how his mother was.  She might’ve mentioned having tea with her at their Aunt Andy’s house.  The rest of the train ride went very smoothly. 

                As did the first few weeks of school.  She enjoyed her new electives.  She’d wanted to take all of them, but Padfoot had forbidden it.  So she’d ended up taking Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, and Muggle Studies - very curious to learn more about her heritage.  She heard there was almost an incident over a hippogriff in the first Care of Magical Creatures Class, but Harry had been standing close and watching Malfoy. 

As soon as Malfoy had insulted the creature Harry had grabbed him and yanked him out of the way.  A moment later Hagrid had pulled the hippogriff away.  Malfoy had complained, threatening to tell his father, only to be interrupted by Nott laughing and pointing out that every witness there could prove Malfoy had insulted the hippogriff after being told not to.  He had quickly shut up after that and resorted to scowling and muttering about back-stabbing house mates.  Everyone except Parkinson ignored him.

On Hermione’s birthday she awoke to the normal assortment of candies and books from her friends and family.  One gift was rather unique though.  She received a book entitled ‘Ancient and Noble Dueling Practices’ from the Malfoys.  Accompanying it was a series of photographs depicting quite a few ancient and rare antiques.  The attached note stated:

                Miss Black,

We would like to offer you our best wishes upon this anniversary of your birth.  We apologize for failing to acknowledge all of your previous birthdays.  To make up for this please look at the enclosed photographs and select an object you would like.  Some we have acquired over the past decade, others I liberated from the vault I inherited upon Bellatrix Lestrange’s very deserved incarceration.  We have great faith that you will ensure that whatever item you so choose is well taken care of for future generations.

                                                                                                                                                Respectfully,

                                                                                                                                                Mr. and Mrs. Lucius Malfoy

                The handwriting was very feminine and elegant, obviously written entirely by Mrs. Malfoy.  Hermione wondered idly if Mr. Malfoy knew anything about the marriage plans.  Though he’d have to be an idiot not to realize something was going on after this past summer.  As for the extravagant gift, she could only assume that Mrs. Malfoy was so willing to part with a treasure because she was sure that her marriage plans would come through, thus bringing the item back to the family. 

                Every item was gorgeous and on the back of each photograph was its name, as well as a description.  She really liked the idea of asking for the shield, but the old Hufflepuff cup was also intriguing.  After some thinking she was still unable to decide, so she gathered up the photos and went to pay Uncle Remus a visit, as he was their current Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

                He’d listened to her explanation, read the note, and then began flipping through the photos.  Upon reaching the cup he’d frozen, his eyes going wide and his hands starting to shake.

                “Uncle Remus, are you alright?”

                He mutely nodded, but didn’t look at her, his eyes remaining fixed on the picture.

                “Um, Uncle Remus, is something wrong with the cup?  I was thinking about asking for it, but I also like the-”

                He cut her off, “Ask for the cup.  You can’t keep it.  I can’t tell you why, but we’ll make it up to you.”

                She frowned at him, “What do you mean I can’t keep it?  It’s a gift.  Mrs. Malfoy may be attempting to attach strings to it, but I know that and refuse to let them sway me.”

                “No, Hermione, it’s not that.  I can’t explain now, but I can in a few years, when you’re older.  You just have to trust me.”

                His tired, scarred face was staring at her earnestly as he clutched the picture of the cup in his hand.  She wanted to give in and promise not to ask, but she had to know.  Even though she trusted him with her life, something told her knowing why was terribly important.

                “Uncle Remus, tell me.  I do trust you, but I won’t ask for the cup if you don’t tell me why I have to give it up.”

                “Hermione…”

                She crossed her arms and set her jaw, “Tell me.”

                He sighed, he knew just how stubborn she could be.  “Follow me.”

                He stood up and cast a patronus.  Hermione watched the wolf bound off before following him out of his office.  The two of them walked without speaking until they reached the gargoyle that guarded the Headmaster’s office.  The photo was clenched quite tightly in his fist the entire time.

                At the top of the stairs he rapped sharply on the door, and almost instantly the door swung open of its own accord.  She could only assume the Headmaster had some method of identifying those that knocked.

Professor Dumbledore was sitting at his desk, which was covered with parchment.  Hermione caught the words on a few before he tidied them up.  Something about a court case, a house elf, and murder.

                She couldn’t imagine how a house elf was involved in a murder, unless it was foiling one.  The poor creatures couldn’t even fathom hurting their masters.  Even when being tortured and abused.  It rather sickened her, and it was one of the things on her ever growing list to deal with.  But for now, she had other problems.  Tackling the house elf issue would have to wait until she had some political power.

                “Remus, Miss Black, what brings you to my office this afternoon?”

                Uncle Remus said nothing, merely handing the Headmaster the photograph.  Hermione hadn’t thought that anything could surprise the great Albus Dumbledore, but the expression on his face as he looked at the picture was indubitably one of surprise.

                “And how did you come by this most extraordinary photograph?”

                “It was offered to me as a gift, sir.” She pulled out the note and handed it over. 

                Professor Dumbledore’s lips twitched a bit as he read it.  From his response she assumed he knew about Narcissa Malfoy’s plans to marry her to Malfoy heir.  Why had Padfoot told the Headmaster, but not her?  Was he worried she would be upset?  Granted, she HAD been upset, but that was no reason to keep secrets.

                “A generous offer,” he stated, handing the note back to Hermione.  “Would you two be seated?  I assume there is more to be said?”

                “I asked that Hermione request the cup.  I also told her that we would be unable to let her keep it.  She demanded to know why,” Uncle Remus explained, taking a seat in one of the comfortable chairs positioned in front of the desk.

                Hermione joined him, being sure to arrange her robes so they wouldn’t wrinkle overly much.  She didn’t want to give Parkinson or Malfoy any ammunition if they encountered each other later. 

                “Miss Black, is there any way I could persuade you to accept a future explanation?  It is truly important.”

                “No, sir.  If you or Padfoot think it best I’m willing to accept a partial explanation, but I want something,” she tilted her head stared at the Headmaster, meeting his eyes and trying to convey just how serious she was.  She’d helped stop Voldemort with Harry their first year and stopped that diary from hurting Ginny.  She deserved some sort of explanation for them taking a gift away from her.

                Plus, it was always better to know things yourself.  The world was a dangerous place and lacking knowledge could get you killed.  Or imprisoned.  Such as what almost happened to Padfoot when everyone thought he was the secret keeper.

                Professor Dumbledore’s mouth quirked in a small smile as he stared at her, “I can see you do.  Well, I am alright with giving you an explanation if Sirius agrees.  Remus, I’m assuming you called him?”

                “Yes, he should be here soon.”

                And, as if summoned, a knock sounded on the door.  It swung open a second later to reveal Padfoot, dressed in his auror robes, his hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck.  Hermione smiled at the sight.  Her dad really was an amazing auror, but she didn’t get to see him in uniform very often. 

                “Good afternoon,” he said to Remus and Professor Dumbledore before turning to her and holding his arms open.  She jumped up and ran over to give him a hug. 

                Harry would be jealous when he learned she saw Padfoot.

                He held her tight for a moment then pulled back and looked her up and down, “Beautiful as always I see.  Now, what did you do this time?  Find another evil diary?  Saved your brother from his well-earned marauding tendencies?”

                She rolled her eyes at his comments.  As if she was beautiful or making her brother toe the line.  She usually helped him in his rule breaking if it was for a good cause, otherwise she just ignored it.

                “Actually, Sirius, she was offered a rather special cup, for a birthday present,” Remus answered for her.

                Padfoot’s eyebrows shot up, “Really?  And just who is offering it?”

                “Narcissa Malfoy,” Dumbledore answered.

                “That’s not quite as surprising as it should be, given the circumstances.  I don’t see why you insisted upon summoning me for this,” Sirius said.

                Dumbledore’s eyes began twinkling, “She’s refusing to ask for the cup if we don’t give her a reason why.”

                “Oh.”

                Padfoot looked back down at her, and she could see him weighing things in his mind.  He had to be alright with telling her something, otherwise he would’ve said no immediately.  It was just a question of how much.

                After a moment he seemed to come to a decision. 

                “Hermione, what I tell you, I don’t want you repeating to anyone.”

                “Not even Harry and Ron?”

                He thought for a moment.  “Yes, you can tell them, but try to wait until the information is necessary.”  He glanced up at Dumbledore, “It’s actually a good idea, to tell her this.  In case something happens.”

                “Sirius…”

                “Remus, you know nothing is certain.  It’s better to be prepared.”

                Uncle Remus closed his mouth at that.  Hermione wondered just what was so important about the cup.  But they’d already agreed to tell her, so she said nothing.

                “Miss Black,” Dumbledore said, drawing her attention to him. “Do you agree to keep this a secret, until it becomes necessary to share it?”

                She nodded, “Yes, sir.”

                “Alright, then here’s the deal,” Padfoot started, staring at her intently. “Back during your first year I found a locket.  Something was wrong with it, so I brought it to Albus.  We discovered it was dark object, created by Lord Voldemort.  He’d tied himself to it, so he couldn’t die.  We destroyed it, but later that same day you, Harry, and Ron had your little adventure with the Philosopher’s Stone.  Due to this we knew the locket couldn’t be the only item.  I contacted Remus and the three of us began doing research.  We’ve destroyed a ring, a diadem, the diary and the locket I mentioned.  You yourself gave us the diary that was also one.  Tom Riddle was Lord Voldemort’s birth name.  Using clues we’ve found we believe there are one or two more.  And that the cup you’ve been offered is one, possibly the last one.”

                “So, if the cup is the last one, Lord Voldemort will be unable to return and Harry will be safe?”

                Padfoot nodded, “Exactly.”

                She looked over at Professor Dumbledore, “Sir, may I borrow a quill and parchment?  I believe I have a letter to send.”

                He smiled at her and handed over the necessary materials.

                As she wrote she heard Padfoot whisper to Uncle Remus, “Isn’t she amazing?  I did a good job, didn’t I?”

                Uncle Remus’ response was so quiet she almost didn’t hear it over the sound of her quill scratching on the parchment.

                “You?  I give all the credit to Andy and myself.  If you’d had your way the only thing in her would’ve been pranks.”              

                “Lies!” Padfoot said rather loudly, causing her to look at him as Dumbledore chuckled.

                Uncle Remus just grinned, “Prove it.”

                Padfoot opened his mouth to answer, and then paused, a thoughtful expression appearing on his face.  After a moment he seemed to give up, unable to think of a specific instance.

                She giggled and went back to writing the letter.

XXX

                After receiving the cup she visited the Headmaster and he was kind enough to let her watch while he burned it.  She found the scream to be rather disturbing.  It made her determined to find out exactly what these objects were.  Even if the adults, in their infinite wisdom, did not want to tell her.  While they hoped the cup was the last one, she knew there was no guarantee.  And if Voldemort came back, Harry would be in danger.

                She couldn’t lose any more family.

                The weeks slipped by and before she knew it they were at Christmas.  She had a lovely holiday and didn’t even let the New Year’s Eve party at the Malfoys’ destroy her holiday cheer.  And, while it was hard keeping her polite, pureblood mask in place for several hours, annoying Malfoy almost made it worth it.  He still seemed unable to figure out why his mother kept throwing them together.  She assumed he’d figure it out in the next year or so. 

                The rest of the year passed without incident, though she noticed Malfoy seemed to spend a lot less time bullying others and a lot more time studying.  She supposed she was the reason for that.  Maybe you could train a Malfoy.  She wasn’t even that surprised when he came in second in their year, only beaten by her - though Ron and Harry were a bit flabbergasted.  The Ravenclaws were rather angry about that.  Apparently they thought they held the monopoly on brains.  Luna did a wonderful job reenacting the whining that went on in Ravenclaw Tower among the third years, much to everyone’s amusement.

                That summer Padfoot took them on a holiday to the French Riviera during the first week of July.  She was just so upset they missed Malfoy’s birthday party. 

Not. 

She heard from Aunt Andy that Mrs. Malfoy had been rather disappointed.  She even managed to get Malfoy to come to Harry’s party.  But she couldn’t make him participate.  He spent the entire party perched on a chair, arms crossed, a sneer etched into his face.  Every time Hermione looked at him he was staring resolutely straight ahead, ignoring the festivities.  But several times she felt eyes on her, piercing her. 

Padfoot got them tickets to the Quidditch World Cup, during which a group of Death Eaters began torturing the poor muggle campground owners.  Hermione was sure that Lucius Malfoy was among the participants, but he escaped, though Theodore Nott’s father was caught.  Along with a few others, due to the quick reaction time of Padfoot and a few fellow Ministry workers.

Hermione watched from the tree line with Harry and their friends as Alice Longbottom quite gleefully trussed up Macnair like a Christmas Goose. 

“Neville, your mum is awesome,” Ron whispered.

Neville grinned happily, “Isn’t she?”

Between the excitement at the World Cup and all the whispers about something special going on at Hogwarts, Hermione didn’t have much time to worry about Malfoy.  She wondered if the Death Eaters appearing meant that Voldemort hadn’t been destroyed and if he was coming back.

Or maybe he had been destroyed, and this was one last hurrah.  If so, the ones that got caught must be regretting it.

Padfoot seemed to have the same idea, he warned both her and Harry to be very careful that year and not get into any trouble. 

As soon as Dumbledore told them about the Triwizard Tournament Hermione disappeared to the library to do some research on both the tournament and the other two schools.  Satisfied that she knew what was coming, she settled into the year.

Their new DADA Professor, Alastor Moody, was rather good.  Though she’d had a panic attack after he’d put the Imperius on her.  She’d ended up excused from the rest of the day and spent it reading in the Infirmary.  When she looked back later, she was a little sad that she’d missed Harry fighting off the Imperius. He’d earned Gryffindor quite a number of points that day.

She was disappointed Uncle Remus hadn’t stayed for a second year, but he’d only signed a one year contract, mentioning something about a curse and not wanting to tempt trouble. 

She couldn’t really blame him after what had happened to Quirrell and Lockhart.  One dead, the other now in Azkaban after trying to obliviate Madam Pince when she brought some discrepancies in his books up to him.  Signing up for only a year was probably a good idea, though she couldn’t see Uncle Remus sticking Lord Voldemort on the back of his head or attacking fellow staff members.

Still, better safe than sorry.

Cedric Diggory was selected as the Hogwarts Champion and Hermione was very happy to cheer him on during the first task, where he came in with a solid second. 

In November, they heard about the Yule Ball.  This seemed to go to everybody’s heads and there wasn’t a sane person left in all of Gryffindor Tower over the age of twelve.  She spent many hours hiding in the library, until she inevitably got fed up with Krum and his giggling flock of fangirls.  Then she’d sequester herself in a deserted classroom, practicing spells and reading books.  Sometimes Neville, Harry and Ron would join her, other times Luna and Ginny would wander in, asking her questions about something or other.  Ginny usually wanted help with homework, while Luna tended to prefer book recommendations.  Hermione really couldn’t understand how Luna reached certain conclusions, but there was no arguing the fact that of everyone at Hogwarts, only she could really challenge Hermione when it came to academics - excepting certain Slytherins she preferred to ignore.

                One Saturday afternoon, after fleeing the library in annoyance, she spent a pleasant few hours debating growing techniques for the sopophorous plant with Neville.  Eventually though, he left to go send a letter to his mother, leaving Hermione in beautiful silence.

                A silence quickly destroyed by Draco Malfoy.

                “BLACK!”

                She looked up from her book as the door to her hidden sanctuary slammed open, banging loudly on the stone wall. 

                Malfoy stood in the doorway, his face flushed in anger.  His usually pristine robes were a bit rumpled and his hair was looking almost as windblown as Harry’s. 

                He stormed across the room and slammed a letter down in front of her.

                “Explain!”

                She glanced at the letter.  Most of it was what was usually found in a letter.  News about home and questions about school.  But it was the last paragraph that she assumed he was referring to.

                She scanned it quickly and then looked up at the furious boy in front of her.  She tried to raise one eyebrow, but only felt mildly successful.

                She really needed to work on that.

                “Your mother seems to be of the opinion that we go to the Yule Ball together.  I have done nothing to encourage her to think this, so I can only suppose it was your doing.”

                His jaw clenched and his scowl deepened.  “I did NOT do anything of the sort!  Besides, I already asked Pansy!”

                She shrugged, “Then what’s the problem?  You have no wish to go with me, and I have no wish to go with you.  Just write your mother and tell her that we have already procured dates, so there would be no point in asking me.”

                “We have procured dates?  And just whom are you going with?  Potter?” He threw his head back and let out a hard, cruel laugh. 

                She crossed her arms defensively, “And just what is wrong with me going with my brother?”

                “Nothing!  After all, who else would take you?”

                She stood up so fast her chair fell backwards.  Her wand was in her hand and shoved right under his nose.

                He held his hands up defensively and took a step backwards, his eyes focused on the tip of her wand.  “What?  I didn’t mean anything by it!  What boy would be brave enough to risk taking out the sister of the Boy-Who-Lived?”

                She eyed him carefully, she didn’t for one minute believe that was what he meant.  Still, calling him a liar would just cause more trouble than it was worth.  She took a deep breath and slipped her wand back in her sleeve.

                He sneered at her and lowered his hands. 

                “Besides, who would take a buck-toothed, know-it-all mudblood like you?”

                She didn’t even think, she rounded the desk and headed straight for him – her wand entirely forgotten.  She wanted the pleasure of wiping that sneer off with her own bare hands.  He caught one look at her face and ran, nearly tripping over his robes.  Tears burned at her eyes and her throat closed up, trapping a sob, as he disappeared out of the classroom. 

                How DARE he!

                Merlin castrate Draco Malfoy!

                She turned and shoved her desk, sending it flying across the room.  She didn’t even care about the library book that slid off, sliding across the floor until it banged into a wall.

                The sound the desk made as it hit the fallen chair and crashed to the floor made her blood sing. 

                Destruction.

                That was the answer.

                She shoved more desks, smiling as they banged and crashed into each other, tears pouring from her face. 

                She ended her tantrum by slamming the door closed, letting the bang ring through the room and wash over her soul.  Calming her, freeing her from the anger.

                Taking a deep breath she leaned against the wall and looked around the destroyed classroom – taking in the fallen desks, scattered parchment, and beautiful chaos.

                She smiled, looking over her work, half wishing Malfoy was lying, bleeding, amid all the destruction.

                That thought drew her up short.

                It scared her, just how much the thought of Draco Malfoy lying damaged among all the destruction made her feel pleased. 

Her magic sung at the thought of causing harm to another human being - of seeking retribution.

Padfoot had warned her of this.  Back when she was seven and had made Ron cry after he made a comment about her teeth.  He’d explained about family magic, and how it affected you.  Made you crave things that didn’t fit your personality.  How it made some things easier, but others harder.

He’d brought Harry in then, telling them both about their family magics and what came with them.  The Potters had always been strong in defense, always desiring to protect those they cared about.  The Blacks had always been about vengeance and purity.  Padfoot had tried to change the Black magic, and he had succeeded, to a point.  But he had still been raised a Black, and his life had shaped him.  He craved vengeance for those he had lost.  And she, to a degree, did also.

It was why she’d been able to learn so many hexes and their defenses so easily, while she’d struggled with Charms.  Being forced to practice simple things for hours on end, things that came so easily to Ron. 

But never once before had she felt the other effects.  She’d never before been so angry or hurt in her life.  Not when it couldn’t be tied back to a nightmare about that long ago night, when Padfoot adopted her.

                She tried to figure out why.  It wasn’t anything new for Malfoy to insult her.  He’d called her buck-toothed many times during their time at Hogwarts.  Usually it was accompanied by some comment about her lack of care for her appearance.  She’d also seen him mocking her attempts to answer questions enough times for it to cause nothing more than an eye roll.

                So it had to be the mudblood word.

                And that was when it hit her.

                He’d never, not once, called her a mudblood before.  He’d always treated her and Harry with a distant sort of respect, even while he insulted and attempted to humiliate them.  He’d never once tried to label them as beneath him.

                But now he had.

                She wanted to figure out just what he meant by that.  Had he finally realized just what his mother was trying to do?  Was he attempting to distance himself from her this way?

                Or had his opinion changed?  Had he always thought of them this way? 

                That thought made her heart hurt, and she wasn’t quite sure why.

                She slid down to the floor, wrapping her arms around herself, idly running her fingers over the raised scars under her robes.  

She didn’t have to look to know what they said.

                Mudblood.

                Filth.

                Dirt.

                Those three words kept circling in her mind, occasionally accompanied by the sneering face of Draco Malfoy.

                So caught up in her thoughts, she didn’t even notice the door beside her slowly open.

                She gasped when a face appeared in front of hers.  A sharp, sallow face with the kindest set of eyes she’d ever witnessed, sitting under a pair of bushy, black eyebrows.

                “Are you alright?” His voice was so deep and calming, his accent coating his words. 

                She’d never heard him speak before.

                She just stared at him, unable to do more than stare into his eyes.

                He pulled out his wand and gave a small wave, a crisp handkerchief appeared.  He took it and dabbed at her face, wiping the tears away.

                She sniffed and reached up to take it from him, a little embarrassed.  Their fingers brushed and her heart gave a lurch.  She felt her face go up in flames.

                “Th-thank you.” She dried the tears from her face and wiped her nose.  “I’m okay now.  You don’t have to stay.”

                “I vas looking for you.”

                She clenched the handkerchief and looked up at him in surprise.

                “You were?”

                “Yes.  I look for you in the library.  And try to find courage, but you did not stay.  So today I vent to find you.  I see the ferret boy and then found you – I followed the noise.”  He gestured at the disaster behind him.

                He smiled, transforming his face from its normal grumpy appearance to something much more friendly, and, perhaps, even handsome.

                “Courage?” she asked.  Somewhat stupidly in her opinion.

                He took a deep breath, “Vould you like to go to the ball?  Vith me?”

                She froze and stared at him in shock for half a moment, and then a smile burst across her face.

                “I would love to!”

                He smiled and she felt as if she was floating on air. 

                Take that Draco Malfoy, she thought, someone does want to go with me.  And he’s not my brother.

Chapter Text

                In the first week of December Ron visited Hermione in her hiding spot, looking rather nervous.  He kept running his hand through his hair and clearing his throat, but saying nothing.

                After a few minutes of this she rolled her eyes in annoyance and set down her quill.  “Alright, Ron, what’s got you so nervous?”

                He cleared his throat again and looked down, “Well, you see.  Harry and I got to talking and we realized we all need dates for the Yule Ball.  So he asked Ginny, just as friends of course.  I was gonna ask Luna, since she can’t go if someone doesn’t ask her, but I found her right after Neville asked her.  He figured I was gonna go with you.” He shrugged, “Dunno why he thought it.  But it seems like a good idea, you and me.  What with us being friends and all.  So, do you wanna go with me to the Ball?”

                She bit her lip and tried to think how to respond.  It wasn’t the best way to be asked, but then, Ron had never been very eloquent.  Part of his charm, she supposed.  Still, he was almost as much of a brother to her as Harry, so why did Neville think they would go together?  That needed to be added to her list.  All she needed were more marriage plans floating around out there.  Besides, everyone who knew Ron could tell he was sweet on Luna, even if all he ever did was help her make strange fish feeders and agree with her nargle comments.  It was more than most did.  And if she didn’t have a date she would go with Ron, just as friends, because it would be fun to hang out with him.  But the thing was, she did have a date.  She just hoped Ron would take it well.

                “Ron, I’m sorry, I already have a date.  Viktor Krum asked me last week.  Sorry I didn’t say anything, I still have trouble believing it happened.”

                Ron’s head jerked up so he could see her, just as his jaw dropped to the floor.  He stared at her for a moment.  A myriad number of emotions flying across his face.  She was half afraid he’d blow up at her in anger.  He’d obviously felt bad about asking her now, knowing she wasn’t his first choice and that she would know that. 

                “Hermione!  That’s wicked!  Do you think you could get his autograph for me?” he exclaimed, once he finally settled on how he felt.

                She rolled her eyes, “Honestly, Ron.  Are you ever going to grow up?”

                He grinned, “Not if I can help it!”

XXX

                On Christmas morning Hermione opened her gifts, pointedly ignoring her roommates squeals as they tore into their own presents.  Honestly.  Why did they have to room with their year-mates?  She’d much prefer sharing a room with Ginny over the gossip twins.  Ginny appreciated quiet and solitude, unlike some people.

                From Aunt Andy she’d received a set of earrings, charmed to stay on her ears until she removed them herself.  A wonderful things since she saw pierced ears as a form of body mutilation.  Not that she had anything against people that did it, she just never could.  Call it a hang-up.  Of course the earrings matched her dress robes perfectly.  Someone had been snooping.  Or bribing Dora to get information.  Really, an auror should be above such simple bribes as homemade biscuits and caramel.

                Mrs. Weasley sent her a sweater, like always, but this one was a gorgeous lavender, unlike the previous blue ones.  The change of color was much appreciated, but she was always happy to get a sweater, no matter the color.  She absently wondered if Ron’s was again maroon, or if he too had gotten a better color.  There was also a tin filled with homemade biscuits and fudge.

                She pulled out a biscuit and took a bite as she opened Luna’s gift.  It was a box of Honeydukes’ chocolate.  Each piece looked like a little magical animal, and they moved like them.  There was even what she could only assume to be a crumple horned snorkack.  As she nibbled on the biscuit she watched the Thestral spread its wings and shake its head, looking around to see what was going on. 

                Ginny gave her a little day planner for the next year, and Ron complimented her gift by giving Hermione a self-inking travel quill.  It could be stuck to any notebook and was only removable my pressing a painted circle on the shaft of the quill.  She stuck the quill on the cover of the planner and set them nearby, on top of her school bag.

                Harry had apparently wandered out into the muggle world and brought her back an assortment of muggle novels.  Most were non-fiction, historical or science based.  But there were a few fiction books that he’d thought looked interesting.  She set them aside to organize and find places for on her bookshelf later.

                Uncle Remus sent her a recently published tome from America.  It was written by a muggleborn in America - she refused to use the term no-Maj-born, she was English and she’d use proper words, thank you very much.  The book took many scientific ideas from muggles and spoke about how they could be applied to improve magic.  She was quite interested in reading it. 

                Padfoot sent her a lovely letter stating that she could name any five books she wanted and he’d owl order them for her.  Half her mind was already thinking about what books to order when she opened the gift from Mrs. Malfoy.

                Mrs. Malfoy had been sending her gifts ever since the summer after second year.  First had been the cup, then at Christmas she’d received a white gold necklace and bracelet set.  Which, incidentally, matched the earrings Aunt Andy had sent her this year.  Hermione had the odd feeling that Mrs. Malfoy had converted Aunt Andy to her side.  Quite a few things had changed since that shouting match she’d overheard on that long ago summer day.

                This year for her birthday she’d received a new school bag.  One that expanded to twice its visual size, allowing her to easily carry all of her books and school things.  That bag had planted an idea in her mind, but she wanted to wait until summer to begin work on it. If the bag doubled in space, and space was ultimately infinite, could she create a bag capable of holding an infinite amount of mass?  She really loved Uncle Remus for teaching them about science.  Applying it to magic created so many new possibilities.

                The gift from Mrs. Malfoy, was, surprisingly, a book.  She flipped it around to look at the cover.  It was blank, just a simple silver star upon a black leather background.  The spine contained nothing.  Carefully, a bit leery after the diary incident, she opened the cover.  Sitting there was a letter with Mrs. Malfoy’s soft, feminine writing upon it.  She unfolded it and began to read.

Miss Black,

                I would like to wish you a Happy Christmas.  Except for your fourteenth birthday gift, I have attempted to find new gifts, ones that I felt suited you and your needs and interests.  But for this Christmas I decided to take a step to the side.  This tome is an ancient one, it has been copied many times, but upon the death of the owner the copy always disappears. 

                You are holding the original. 

                Andromeda lost her copy upon her being burned off the family tree.  She received a copy magically upon Sirius reinstating her.  I still have mine, but was left the original upon the death of Sirius’ mother.  This book may only be held by female Blacks, through magic or marriage.  The original is typically held by the wife of the current Head of the Black House if the Head is a male.  Or by the Head if they be female.  Now that you are fifteen and a young woman I feel that you are ready for this tome.  If my cousin ever marries it is your decision as to whether to keep this tome or give it to his wife until you inherit.  If not, she will merely receive a copy.

                Contained within are a number of spells and potions to help a woman.  Many have been adapted and shared with the world at large.  We are not selfish.  But, still, many are not necessary for survival, so we hoard them and use them to set ourselves above others.  Each holder of the original tome is free to add more or share pieces with the world at large.  All I ask is that you consider all angles before releasing a spell or a potion.  Once released, it can never be made captive again. 

                I believe that the men of the Black line hold a similar tome.  Within it lies such information as the ritual Sirius used to adopt you.  I’m sure he no longer held the book at that time, but he had seen it at one point.  I know for a fact that many old wizarding families contain similar books.  The Malfoy one I hold contains many of the same spells and potions as the tome I give to you.  I have shared others that I thought would help the Black family in the future, as was my right as the holder of two tomes. 

                As you have been universally accepted as the heir to the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black I have made the assumption that the adoption ritual is within many of the male tomes.  Rather amusing that while women control the magic of childbirth, men have chosen to control magical adoption.  If you ask, I’m sure Sirius would share the ritual with you, allowing you to enter it in the female tome.  The decision is yours.

                The tome offers many things.  There are spells to make your husband uninterested in you, as well as ones to increase his libido as age wears him down.  If you do not understand my meaning, speak to Andromeda, she will explain.  Many of the spells and potions are far more pleasant.  There’s a potion to calm unruly locks and another that removes stretch marks.  There are a few more potions that you may find interesting.  I personally endorse the one that makes your teeth better fit your jaw.  I used it myself when I was twelve and snuck in to look at my older sister’s tome.  As there is a rather significant event occurring tonight I saw fit to brew this potion for you.  I will understand if you choose to ignore it and either brew it yourself or not use it.  Just know that I have ears in many places, so I know how my son refers to you.  You may thank his behavior for why I have decided to gift you this tome before you are seventeen.  I’m sure you can agree that he needs a lesson in manners, sadly he is much like his father and myself.  He only learns the hard way.

                I know you are rather intelligent.  I’m sure you can see my purpose in speaking with you and gifting you things.  I am beginning to believe though, that Sirius was right.  Still, I refuse to give up hope, for sometimes hope is all we have.  Remember that.  I have a feeling that darkness awaits us all in the future.  I see us standing against this darkness, but only at great sacrifice.  I am prepared to sacrifice the beliefs of my childhood.  The prejudices that have sculpted my life.  In fact, I threw them out the window when I approached Sirius back in the summer of your thirteenth year.  I am also prepared to sacrifice myself for those I love.

                I see the same strength in you.  Perhaps that is why I put such words down on paper.  For if my worst nightmares are true, then I know that you, and mayhap your brother, will do the right thing.  For even in the darkest of nights, a star will shine. 

                Happy Christmas

                Narcissa Malfoy

P.S. I enclosed another potion, a cream.  I have marked the page in the tome.  I do not know if it will work, or if you will chose to use it.  I but give you the option.

                Hermione stared at the letter for a long time, rereading it several times.  She scowled at the line about teeth, but couldn’t quite dredge up any anger.  While the words weren’t entirely clear, it was quite obvious that Narcissa Malfoy was baring parts of her soul.  Sharing things she would never likely share again.

                The fact that no mention was made of Bellatrix Lestrange made Hermione pause.  It only took her a moment to realize why.  Narcissa made no mention of those that were no longer Blacks.  And Padfoot had taken great pleasure in burning her off the family tree before filing the proper forms to remove her permanently from the family.  She and Harry had later caught him having a bonfire in the yard, with the entire tapestry as the centerpiece.  He’d been cackling with such glee she’d almost gone to floo call Uncle Remus out of concern.

                Bellatrix no longer had a copy of this book, and she never would again.  By not mentioning her Narcissa was throwing her sister out, focusing on Andromeda, and looking to the future.  Quite the opposite of what she’d done all those years ago during Bellatrix’s trial.  It made Hermione wonder just what exactly Narcissa had seen in her after that encounter with Malfoy on the train. 

                It obviously wasn’t cruelty or sadism.  Maybe she wasn’t cut from the same cloth as her murderous sister.  Perhaps she truly loved her family most and when offered the chance to re-embrace one sister she was able to leave behind the rotten, poisonous one.

                Or, perhaps she was just a great liar.

                But that didn’t ring true in Hermione’s soul.  It didn’t seem right.  Something deeper was going on in Narcissa’s head.  Something she’d only hinted at, during the end of that odd letter.

                Still, it gave her much to think about.  Things she needed to think about later.  She glanced at the enchanted clock on the wall that served as everyone’s alarm clock on school days.  It was getting rather late.  She should go round up Ginny and go wish the boys a Happy Christmas.  She’d have to return soon enough to prepare for the ball.

                She glanced over at the final, unwrapped package that had to contain the two potions.  She would need to look up the cream, but she thought it would be alright to use the teeth fixing one.  She was getting rather tired of being called buck-toothed. 

XXX

                That afternoon, she declined a snowball fight with the others and instead returned to her room.  She wanted to spend some time looking through the tome.  She looked up the teeth fixing one first, entitled Dente Motus.  The name made her a bit nervous, but the description seemed safe enough.  As did all of the ingredients.  In fact it was so simple she wondered why no one else had ever figured it out.  Or maybe they had, and the purebloods kept it in their families, letting muggleborns think the only option was to shrink their teeth with a spell.  Something she’d never wanted to try, for fear of messing it up. 

                It was the other potion, the cream, which made her nervous.  She’d lost count of the number of creams, salves, and glamour spells they’d tried.  None of them had really done the job.  A few made the scars dimmer, but they were still there.

                Still there and entirely readable.  Taunting her.  Reminding her. 

                So it was with a great deal of skepticism that she opened the cream and looked at it.  It was an innocent looking white, making her feel sure that it wouldn’t work, it looked too pure and innocent to do what it said it did.  Looking at the tome she could see that it wasn’t quite complete.  She would need to add three drops of blood to the cream and mix it completely.  That also made her hesitate, blood use in magic was typically dark and rather fickle.  Under the ingredients there was even a small warning stating that regular use of the potion caused it to be less effective, as well as potentially harmful.

                She wasn’t quite sure what would be worse – finding it didn’t work at all, or finding that it did work.  The idea of hiding her scars, only to go back to seeing them every day almost made her throw the cream in the rubbish bin.  But, she didn’t.  Even if she didn’t try it tonight, she might try it in the future.  It was good to have options.

                Options brought choices and choices were what made you who you are.

                That’s what Uncle Remus always said.

                What he never said, but that she implicitly understood, was that others’ choices could also make you who you are.  After all, would she be the same person if Bellatrix had not attacked her birth family?  Or if her birth mother hadn’t asked Padfoot to adopt her?

                No, she wouldn’t.

                She set the two potions from Narcissa on the bathroom counter and set to work on her appearance.  There was a handy little spell in the tome, one she thought she’d heard Lavender Brown use a time or two, which calmed any frizz in her hair.  Making it much easier to put up.  She twisted it into an elegant bun with several loose tendrils, then set it with another spell.  To finish, she clipped a blue and gold butterfly into her hair.

                Once that was finished she picked up the Dente Motus.  The potion was an odd, see through, blue green color.   When she uncapped it she was assaulted with the scent of mint, with an undercurrent of honey.  It was rather peculiar as the ingredients did not list any mint or honey.  Still, she followed the directions and took a swallow, swishing it around for two minutes and then spitting it into the sink.  Immediately she felt her mouth tingle, and a distant sort of grinding sound raced up her jaw, making her wince.  She squeezed her eyes shut at the sensation and pressed her hands over her ears, trying to lessen the resulting buzz.

                After a few moments, the sound disappeared, but her mouth still felt all sensitive and tingly.  She opened her eyes and looked in the mirror.  Leaning in, she smiled and then gasped.  Her two front teeth were much smaller, complimenting her other teeth, rather than towering over them.  And all of them were straight.  No longer was there that weird overlap on her bottom teeth, or that gap on the left side on the top.  Her teeth were also lightened, looking whiter than they normally did.

                She pulled back from the mirror and smiled again, tilting her head in different directions to see the effect.  A very smug sense of satisfaction rushed through her. 

                “What, Malfoy?  Are you and your little slimy Slytherins unable to use your favorite insult?  Oh, I’m so sorry!  I didn’t realize that my appearance was so important to you!  If you’d like, I could make your teeth look like mine did.  Just take a step closer.”

                She mimed punching herself in the mirror, pretending her reflection was really Draco Malfoy.  She giggled at her own silliness.  As she cleaned up the tooth repair potion she wondered what Viktor would think of her repaired smile.  Obviously her buck teeth hadn’t bothered him, or he wouldn’t have asked her out.  But she still hoped he liked the new look.

                She wandered back into her room to find it still empty, her roommates were off somewhere, but she knew they’d be back soon.  And she’d prefer to be ready before that.  So she didn’t have to fight them for counter space in the bathroom.  And she still had makeup to apply.

                With that in mind, she went back into her room and pulled the shimmery blue dress robes out of her wardrobe.  They were so soft and floaty, she had hated having to alter them to make the sleeves long enough to conceal her arms.  But she did not want to reveal her scars to the world at the Yule Ball.

                In fact she didn’t want to reveal them at all.

                She pulled on the robes and went back into the bathroom, using the mirror there to pull them into place, adjusting them to sit right on her shoulders.  Luckily her torso was unscarred, so she hadn’t needed to adjust the neckline.

                Thinking of her scars made her glance down at the innocent looking cream sitting next to the now empty potion bottle. 

                She didn’t think it would work, but she might as well try it.

                She opened her toiletries bag and pulled out a sewing needle.  A quick spell and it was sterilized.  She bit her lip and held her left hand over the cream.  A quick jab and it was done.  She squeezed, allowing the blood to swell to the surface - then she titled her hand and let three quick drops fall on the white cream.  She popped the abused finger into her mouth and ran back into her room, grabbing a glass stirrer from her potions kit before returning and mixing the blood into the cream.  It quickly changed color until it matched her skin tone perfectly.

                She pulled her finger out of her mouth and checked it - the bleeding had stopped.  Nervous, she carefully rolled up her left sleeve and tentatively grabbed a bit of the cream to rub on the ‘Mudblood’ scar on her left forearm. 

                The scar disappeared. 

                She stared at it, holding her breath, waiting for the curse to break free and show the scar.  Like it had on the last potion they had tried, when she was nine.  She almost passed out from lack of air before she accepted that it wasn’t going to happen.

                Her heart began racing.  She rolled up her other sleeve and grabbed some more of the cream.  She covered the word ‘Filth’. 

                Gone.

                Invisible.

                She couldn’t see it.

                She started hyperventilating, tears pricking her eyes as her hands began to shake.  She almost tore her dress robes as she raced to pull them off. 

                Somehow they didn’t tear though, and she let them pool on the floor, all of her focus on the little tub of cream.  She began rubbing more onto her arms and legs.  Covering every little raised white line that had ever taunted her.

                And, just for good measure, she covered the scar on the top of her foot from when she was eight and learning to climb trees barefoot with Luna and Ginny.

                Then she carefully moved the tub to the side, only the fact it was a cream and not a liquid stopped it form spilling everywhere, her hands were shaking so badly.  She pulled herself up to stand on the counter, grabbing the wall to hold herself up – so her entire body was visible in the bathroom mirror. 

                She sobbed.

                A great, heart wrenching, breath stealing sob. 

                It was quickly followed by a second one, catching in her throat and making her gasp for breath.  Her vision blurred and her nose clogged up, blood rushed in her ears as her entire being focused on the clean, smooth skin lying before her.

                It was overwhelming, seeing what her body would’ve looked like if Bellatrix Lestrange née Black hadn’t come calling on that Halloween night.

                Even through the tears pouring out she could tell that she looked as beautiful as Harry was always saying she was.  And, more than that, she looked normal. 

                She looked normal.

                She WAS normal.

                Even if it was only for tonight.

                The tome had said the potion stopped working with regular use - as your body became immune.  But, if she saved it for once or twice a year…

                And it would work for twenty-four hours or until she washed it off. 

                She carefully ran her hands over her smooth, clear skin. 

                She scrambled off the counter and grabbed a tissue to wipe her face, taking deep breaths to calm herself down and regain control.

                If it was only for tonight, she was going to make sure she made the most of it. 

                She had a dress robe to re-alter.

XXX

                The boys were sitting in the Common Room when she came down.  At first they didn’t notice her, they were too busy chatting with each other, but then something made them look up.  Ron’s jaw dropped and his eyes bugged out.  Harry’s response wasn’t quite so extreme, but then, he’d always hid his feelings better than Ron or her.

                “Blimey, Hermione.  Krum is one lucky bloke.” Ron got out after he found his tongue again.

                She smiled at them, “I used a Christmas present.”

                She gave a little twirl, “Well, Harry?”

                He stood up and came over to give her a delicate hug, “I’ve always said you were beautiful, ‘Mione.  But tonight you’ll put every witch in Hogwarts to shame.”

                “And every bloke will regret the fact he didn’t ask you,” Ron added.  Coming to join her and Harry. 

                She smiled, “That’s nice of you two.  I heard Ginny telling Chiye to hurry.  So your dates should be down soon.  I’m going to head down first.  Viktor said we can’t be late and I’m not sure how fast I’ll walk in these shoes.”  She gestured to the sparkling heels barely visible under the edge of her dress robes.  She couldn’t help but extend one foot and raise the hem to show it off, but her eyes weren’t on the shoes.  They were focused on the clear, perfect skin of her leg.  She had to take a deep breath to keep her composure and not mess up her makeup.

                After leaving the boys to wait for their dates she tried to leave the common room, but she found herself stopped several times by people wanting to offer her compliments.  Most were students too young to go to the Yule Ball, but a few were older, just waiting for their date to descend. 

                Eventually she emerged from behind the portrait and made her way slowly and carefully through the castle. 

                Every time she passed any sort of reflective surface she stopped to check herself.  Making sure that the scars were still hidden and that her hair was still perfect. 

                After what seemed like hours she reached the Entrance Hall.  There were quite a few students waiting there for their dates from different houses or schools.  Her eyes scanned the crowd as she descended the stairs, looking for Viktor, but she didn’t see him first.

                She saw Draco Malfoy.

                For a single heartbeat her eyes locked with his and her breath caught.  She felt herself sinking into a silver lake.  Shock swirled around her, mixed with something she couldn’t name.  She was drowning, sinking into the depths, losing herself.

                And then it was gone.

                As one they looked away, breaking contact.  Leaving her feeling oddly empty and rather confused.

                She took a deep breath and smiled, forcing the moment out of her brain and continuing her search for Viktor.  She wouldn’t allow thoughts of Malfoy to ruin her evening.  She found Viktor by a gargoyle on the east side of the hall.  He smiled as she walked up, appreciation and happiness lighting his features up.  Making him seem truly handsome. 

                “Hermione, you look beautiful,” he said, though he said her name as Hermy-own.  She couldn’t help but giggle at that.

                He looked confused at her giggle, “I do not think that is vorth a giggle.”

                She giggled harder, she couldn’t help it.  She didn’t think she’d ever had anyone mispronounce her name in just that way before.  And it was just so relaxing and normal to have her name mispronounced.  She couldn’t even explain why.  It just was.

                “Viktor, dear, vat did you do to your poor date?” The gorgeous Beauxbatons’ champion, Fleur Delacour asked.  She was eyeing him rather suspiciously.

                “I svear!  I did nothing!” He protested. 

                Hermione took a deep breath to calm the giggles and came to her date’s rescue.

                “He’s right, he did nothing except say my name wrong.  Viktor, it’s Her-my-oh-nee,” she corrected him.

                Fleur raised an eyebrow in disbelief, but turned away from them to focus on her date, who was approaching them all with an awestruck expression on his face.

                “Herm-own-ninny.”

                She giggled again, “Not quite, but it’s close enough.  And you look very dashing yourself.”  She looked him up and down.  He was in a well-fitted set of red dress robes, trimmed with fur.  He looked every inch the professional Quidditch player.

                And he’d chosen to go with her.  Over all the girls in the school that would do anything to be with him, he picked her.

                She could never remember later what the two of them spoke about as they waited for Professor McGonagall to line them up.  Her heart was singing and her face was hurting from smiling so much, but the she couldn’t even imagine losing the smile.  She was just too happy.

                She felt like she was floating as she took Viktor’s arm.  They were right behind Fleur and her date, but she barely even noticed them. 

                She certainly didn’t notice all the girls glaring at her as they walked past, though Ginny told her all about them later.  How there were accusations of love potions and glamours being whispered among the less civilized students. 

                But she heard all of that later.  At the time, all of her focus was on Viktor and how he made her feel all happy and light-headed.  During dinner she spent a great deal of time talking about her travels with Padfoot and Harry during their many summers.  When Fleur overheard her saying they went to France she joined in the conversation.  Leaving her date to stare at her worshipfully and fail to get half the food inside of his mouth.

                She was having such a wonderful time that before she knew it dinner was over, the tables were moved, and she was floating across the dance floor in Viktor’s arms.  She didn’t know for how long they danced, but eventually the Weird Sisters set down their instruments to take a break and everyone began leaving the dance floor in search of refreshment. 

                Viktor led her back to their table and then went to fetch them something cool to drink.  She was joined by Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang, but neither of them seemed to be interested in talking to her.  They were busy whispering to each other as they held hands and ignored everyone else in the room.  They really were an adorable couple.

                Viktor had barely returned and sat down when Parkinson strolled up – Malfoy on her arm.  Parkinson looked – Hermione hated to admit it – elegant in an iridescent set of golden dress robes.  And Malfoy…

                Well, she hadn’t been able to see anything but his face before.  But now she could see he was wearing an impeccably tailored set of navy blue dress robes.  Just a few shades darker than her own. 

                She absently wondered if Narcissa had made that happen, or if the color choice was pure happenstance.

                Parkinson sneered and looked Hermione up and down, “You must be exhausted after casting so many glamours on yourself.  What did it take, twenty?”

                Hermione clenched her fists and opened her mouth to make a retort, but was beaten by Viktor.

                “Vy do you say that?  She is alvys beautiful.  In fact, she is the most gorgeous girl here tonight.”

                Parkinson rolled her eyes, “Her? The most beautiful?  How do you ever catch a snitch if your eyesight is so bad?  Black is NOT the most beautiful girl here, far from it.”

                “Vy, my dear, you are so right!” A smooth, melodic voice cut in.  Hermione looked over to see Fleur Delacour glide up, her date on her arm.

                Parkinson looked utterly flabbergasted for a moment, “I am?”

                “Vy of course!  I am zee most beautiful girl here.  I can understand your error zo, since Miz Black iz a close zecond.”  Fleur shot Hermione a friendly smile as she spoke.  Hermione couldn’t help but feel gratitude for the part-veela girl.

                Parkinson sniffed and turned to Malfoy, “Draco, I don’t know what is going on here.  But I blame the Weasley twins.  That’s the only way anyone could think that Black was beautiful.”

                 Hermione expected Malfoy to make a snarky agreement, but was a little startled when, rather than reply, he simply grabbed Parkinson by the arm and pulled her away.  But not before casting her a rather peculiar look.

                “I think the ferret boy has had a shock,” Viktor stated, watching the two Slytherins disappear into the Entrance Hall.  Likely heading out to the gardens.

                “Ooo, iz zair a tale to tell?” Fleur asked, completely ignoring her date as he stared dumbly at her - a smile floating hazily on his features.

                “There is.  It involves family drama, teenage emotions, and too many prejudices to count.  I really don’t feel like spoiling the night with the telling of it.  Maybe at a later date.”

                Fleur looked extremely interested at that, “Well, if zair is a tale, I want to ‘ear it.  If not while I am here at ‘Ogwarts, then per’aps zis summer.  I am zinking of staying in England for a year.  Zee boys ‘ere are quite lovely.”  She shot a fond look over at her admiring date.

                Hermione smiled, she wasn’t quite sure if she liked the French girl, but she didn’t seem like a bad person.  “Then I shall send you an owl and ask you over for tea this summer.”

                “I would like zat.  Now, pardon us.  Zee night is getting no younger.”

                She nodded at them and then led her date through the crowded Great Hall and outside.  Hermione sat with Viktor, sipping her drink and talking about nothing in particular until the music started back up. 

                And then they were back on the dance floor.  She lost track of the number of songs, but eventually the music came to an end and she realized the night was over.  Viktor walked her up to Gryffindor Tower and when they were almost there she stopped him, not wanting to show him the exact location.  She didn’t think her house mates would approve.

                They were in a deserted corridor, the only light came from a torch flickering a ways down the hallway.

                “Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said, looking up at him.

                He smiled and reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ears, “No, thank you for a vunderful night.” His hand moved until it was resting against her cheek – cradling her face.  His head moved closer, “May I kiss you?”

                Her eyes went wide and her breath was caught in her throat.  She couldn’t find enough air to answer, so she merely nodded. 

                He leaned closer and she closed her eyes, focusing on the feeling of his lips brushing hers.

                It was lovely.  So sweet and everything she’d thought a first kiss would be - the few times she’d discussed it with Ginny and Luna.  Luna’s idea that it would be as soft as a fairy’s wings was an apt description.

                He drew back, his hand slipping down until it held hers, rather than cradling her cheek.

                “Vas that your first kiss?”

                She nodded, still at a loss for words.  An extremely rare occurrence.

                He smiled down at her, his eyes were filled with such a sweet fondness that she couldn’t look away.  She didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look at her quite that way before.

                “Hermione, vould you like to go to Hogsmeade with me?  I am told that is what you do here on dates.”

                Her heart swelled – he actually wanted to spend more time with her!  And on another date!  Not just friends!

                She managed to find her voice, but her words came out rather high-pitched and rushed.  “Yes, I would like that.”

                He grinned from ear to ear and leaned down to kiss her again. 

                The second kiss led to a third, which led to a fourth, which led to a – well, she wasn’t quite sure what number.  Her brain seemed to shut down entirely after the fourth one.  But, she knew it had eventually ended, because she’d felt like she was floating on air when she walked back to her room.

                The others were already asleep when she returned, she had no clue what time it was, nor did she care. 

The world was a wonderful, magical place.

Chapter Text

                She was wrong. 

                The world was a terrible, horrible place.

                And it was all thanks to that nasty woman – Rita Skeeter.

                It was a few days after Christmas that the first article came out.  It was fairly innocuous.  Just giving details about the Triwizard Champions and their dates to the Yule Ball.  That it spent a little longer discussing Hermione and the fact that she was the foster sister of Harry Potter wasn’t that unusual.  The Daily Prophet loved to say anything they could about Harry, as Padfoot had kept him secluded from the press before Hogwarts. 

                But then two days later an article came out about Hagrid being a half-giant.  That had necessitated a visit to their old family friend and a great long conversation on just why Skeeter was a nasty no-nothing woman who spoke nothing but lies. 

And how they felt about Skeeter – most of those feelings were not too pleasant.

                Hermione then picked up that nasty article and proceeded to reread it – in her most ridiculous, posh pureblood voice.  All the while, interjecting her own thoughts and opinions in her own voice. 

                “-used his mysterious influence over the headmaster to secure the additional post of Care of Magical Creatures teacher – Honestly!  Mysterious influence?  Is she so lacking in the upper stories that she didn’t think to remember you were cleared of all charges after the discovery of the diary?  That you had been wrongfully expelled and thus have a right to carry a wand once more?”  She rolled her eyes and continued reading.

                Ron, Ginny and Harry snickered at the ‘upper stories’ comment.  Luna just smiled, while Hagrid watched with tears in his eyes.

                “An alarmingly-large and ferocious-looking man.” She looked Hagrid up and down.  “You are rather large, but I would not say alarmingly so.  And as for the ferociousness – Fang is more ferocious than you are Hagrid – no offence.  We’ve known you since before we could talk and I have never – not once – felt afraid of you.”

                The others nodded in agreement. 

                By the time she finished dissecting the article Hagrid was looking much more like his normal, cheerful self. 

Then the others began giving their own thoughts on the matter.  And in the middle of Luna going on about how Hagrid was the only teacher she knew of that reads the Quibbler – which of course made him a very intelligent and well-read adult – Professor Dumbledore showed up, a stack of letters in one hand and a box of what looked to be some sort of muggle sweet.

                He didn’t seem all that surprised to see them

                A few minutes later and Ron, Ginny and Harry had begun theatrically reading out the letters.  And there were dozens of them, all positive, and all from ex-students that remembered him with pleasure.

                Hagrid was openly crying by the time they finished, but there was a smile under his bushy beard and his eyes were sparkling with happiness.  They proceeded to say their goodbyes, giving Hagrid the biggest hugs they could, and then left the two adults to talk.

As they headed back up to the castle Hermione added one more thing to her ever growing list of questions – How did Rita Skeeter find out about Hagrid’s parentage?

                XXX

                It was a week into the new term that the third article was in the paper.  It was in the Sunday morning paper and Hermione was one of the last people to hear about it.  She’d been up late the night before, finishing the homework she’d neglected after spending all of Saturday with Viktor in Hogsmeade. 

                She finally crawled out of bed about eleven and headed on down to the Great Hall for food.  The silence that descended upon that large room when she entered was the first sign that something wasn’t quite right.  The whispers that quickly broke the silence were the second sign.

                Terribly confused, she made her way to the Gryffindor table and took an empty seat next to Harry and across from Ginny.

                “Why is everyone staring at me?” she hissed at Harry.

                He had just taken a rather large bite of a sandwich and so didn’t answer her.  Instead, he pulled a newspaper out of the bag at his feet and handed it to her.

                It must have been a slow news day for the Daily Prophet, because right there, on the front page was an article that made the blood drain from Hermione’s face.

Black-Malfoy Merger?

                Never before have two ancient and powerful families married in such a way that both sets of family magic were still active and capable of being passed on to any offspring.

                In 1583 Fractul Dawglen proposed the idea that two ancient families with strongly entrenched familial magic would destroy each other if they tried to merge.  This information ended the betrothal agreement between Glacier Selwyn and Ginerva Prewett in 1701 upon the death of Ginerva’s older brother – making her the only remaining heir to the family.

                This would later be contested by Quigly Ollivander in 1834 with the idea that the two familial magics would merge.  Creating a new familial magic, likely one even stronger than the two previous ones.  It should be pointed out that Q. Ollivander never put this theory to the test.  His wife gave up her ability to pass on her own family magic upon their marriage.

                This is important because Lucius Malfoy and his wife, Narcissa Malfoy née Black, have proposed a betrothal between their only son, Draco Malfoy, and the current heir to the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black.  The current heir is none other than Hermione Black, the magically adopted daughter of Sirius Black and foster sister of Harry Potter, The-Boy-Who-Lived. 

                Now, no formal betrothal form has been filed as of this writing, but it is certainly only a matter of time.  Two years ago the two families mended broken bridges and began associating once again in the same circles.  This culminated in the Yule Ball that was held at Hogwarts this year.

                Draco Malfoy, being a dutiful son, did as his parents requested and asked Hermione Black to the event.  Seeing as they are nearly betrothed. 

                But, as you know from reading my previous articles, that Hermione Black went with Viktor Krum.  Was this due to burgeoning teenage rebellion?  Is she, like so many teenagers before her, attempting to defy her family’s wishes?  Or is there something more? 

                Checking the records, one can see that Miss Black is the top of her year, with only one other student in the past century having higher marks than her, and even then only in certain subjects.  Does she subscribe to Dawglen’s theory?  Is she trying to protect her familial magic?  Magic she only gained from her magical adoption?  A magical adoption that is not found anywhere but ancient family tomes?  Does she, an adoptee, even understand the importance of familial magic?  Can she understand? 

                The situation is certainly unprecedented.  Never before has a magical adoptee been the heir to a family.  Especially to one with such a rich and ancient history.  Could this be a dangerous situation?  There is no knowing what spells and potions are held by the ancient Black Family.

                Whatever the case may be with Miss Black, it is certain that Mr. Draco Malfoy is fully on board with the merger.  Like a proper, dutiful son.  It was quite obvious that he had eyes for only Miss Black during the Yule Ball, even neglecting his own date.

                “Pansy Parkinson, his date, was very upset with him,” an anonymous Slytherin student confided.  “He couldn’t take his eyes off her, he even got a bit green when she was dancing with Krum.”

                And that raises another question, outside of the familial magic.  Would the Malfoy Family still be following their family motto if this merger takes place?  It may be rather crass to ask, dear reader, but what, exactly, is the blood status of Hermione Granger Black?

                Hermione’s hands were clenched so tightly on the newspaper by the time she finished reading the article.  She was shaking with rage.  Ignoring the hand Harry had put on her shoulder to comfort her.  She didn’t even notice the fact that he had started to hum, though Ginny had.

                “Where’s Malfoy?” She bit out between clenched teeth.  She didn’t see him sitting over at the Slytherin table.

                “I haven’t seen him,” Harry answered her.

                “No clue,” Ginny said.

                Ron hastily swallowed his own food and cleared his throat, “I heard he’s been hiding out somewhere in the castle.  On one of the higher floors.”

                Her eyes narrowed, “Right.” She stood up, “I’m going to go find him.”

                “Want us to come?” Harry asked.

                She shook her head, “No, I think he’ll be more receptive if it’s just me.”

                Ron snorted, “Malfoy?  Receptive?  Not bloody likely.”

                Hermione ignored him and wrapped a ham sandwich up in a napkin; then started to walk right back out of the hall.  She was almost at the end of the Gryffindor table when a thought occurred to her.

                She rounded the table and backtracked a bit until she was behind the Weasley twins.  They turned to look at her.

                “You two want to earn some money?”

                Their eyes lit up and she knew she had them, even if they quickly schooled their faces to look bored and disinterested.

                “Possibly, if you-“

                “-make it worth it.”

                She leaned down until only they could hear her, “Oh, I can make it worth it.  Follow me if you’re interested.”  When she pulled back they were eyeing her speculatively.  She didn’t wait for a response - simply spinning on her heel and leaving the Great Hall, ignoring all of the curious whispers that trailed behind her. 

                She had to wait less than a minute for the twins to follow her out.  She led them up the stairs to an empty classroom.  She shut the door and turned to face them, crossing her arms.

                “Alright, two things.  None of that twin-speak.  It stopped being amusing almost a decade ago and if I’m paying, you really don’t want to annoy me.”  Her eyes narrowed at them, “Or did you enjoy glowing in the dark?”

                It might not have been the smartest time to reveal that she was one of the ones behind that prank, but she needed some fast leverage.  She wanted to find Malfoy and figure out just what he had to do with this article and then do damage control.  And she needed to do it quickly.  Sleeping so late and having no one wake her was not helping things.  Fixing this would necessitate a letter to Padfoot and possibly a meeting.  The insinuation that she couldn’t understand familial magic could lead to some very dark things.  Including a forced sterilization under the old laws, unless she was sworn into a marriage or a betrothal where her magic was locked, unable to be passed on.  Standard procedure in old pureblood weddings.  But not something she wanted to do.  And that was her choice.  While the wizarding world was very gender equal – magic compensating for the fact that male bodies were typically stronger than female bodies – there were still some old prejudices floating around.  Mainly from when women were more likely to die in childbirth or interactions with muggles before the statute of secrecy.  Magic wasn’t a miracle worker after all, just a wonderful tool.

                She was going to KILL Rita Skeeter for putting this thought into people’s heads.

                Just the thought had her magic singing in happiness, imagining the pain it could cause on someone that had hurt a member of the Black family.  Skeeter was messing with the wrong witch.

                She focused her attention back on twins only to see them watching her with a mixture of awe and terror.  And that’s when she realized that she was letting her magic get away from her, it was trying to escape and act out.  The desks in the room were vibrating and her hair was stirring, as if a breeze was ruffling it.

                She took a deep breath and released it slowly.  Feeling her magic calm itself as she let air escape from her lungs.  If she wasn’t careful Skeeter would have more ammunition.

                “Well, do you agree?”

                “You were behind that potion two years ago?” One of the twins - she idly dubbed him Fred - asked.

                “I was behind the fact that it glowed.”

                The other, George she supposed, spoke, “We’d like to make that adaptation part of the pay.  There are possibilities there.”

                “That’s acceptable.”

                “Good, now what do you need?”  George asked.

                “I need whatever it is the two of you use to find people in the castle.”

                They were very good actors.  They looked extremely confused at what she had just said.  So she promptly crossed her arms and stared at them, dividing her time between each of them.  She did her best to emulate Mrs. Weasley, one of the only people on this planet that had a chance of putting fear into these two’s hearts. 

                She must’ve done a good job because the two of them began to squirm.  Like they had after Mrs. Weasley had found them attempting to insert gobstones into her blueberry pie.

                The one she named Fred was the one to break, “What makes you think we have something like that?”

                She ignored the question.  Did they honestly think she was stupid and hadn’t realized they had something like that after three and a half years at Hogwarts with them?  And almost half a decade of school before that?  She knew these two almost as well as she knew Ron and Ginny.  Despite her best efforts to the contrary.

                “I’m offering the adaptation to the color changing potion, eighty galleons, and my assistance in the creation of any magical product as long as it has no permanent effects.”

                Their eyes lit up and they turned away from her, to look at each other.  She sometimes wondered if they had an innate ability to use legilimency on each other.  It would certainly explain a lot of things.

                It took them a couple minutes of looking at each other and communicating silently to make up their mind, but they finally did. 

                “We shall agree-“

                “If you up the fee-“

                She glared at them, “Didn’t I say no twinspeak?  And now you’re doing rhymes, too?”

                “You can’t mess-“

                “With the classics.”

                She rolled her eyes, “Fine, I’ll help with two products.”

                “Three.”

                “Two and I’ll up it to ninety galleons.”

                “Deal.”

                She walked out of the classroom with a grubby piece of parchment in her pocket – one she was pretty sure the twins had deliberately kept from her.  They knew what name Sirius Black went by to his children.  And they were smart enough to realize that James Potter and Remus Lupin were two of the other names there.  But she’d deal with that later. 

                Right now she had a little ferret to find.

                Draco Malfoy was hiding in a deserted classroom on the sixth floor.  Not too far from her old hiding place before Christmas. 

                She should have realized that was a possible hiding place, since hiding so close to her own hiding spot was a good way to trick her.  She’d underestimated him.  If she wasn’t careful she’d underestimate him at an important moment.  And that could prove disastrous.

XXX

                Draco Malfoy, heir to the House of Malfoy, proud son of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, was extremely conflicted.

                He’d gone to bed the night before sure in the fact that he could do anything.  That he was an unstoppable force.  As long as he kept a healthy distance between himself and the bane of his existence – Hermione Black.

                But now…

                He balled his hands into fists and slammed them down on the desk he’d been sitting at. 

                DAMN that woman!  Who did she think she was?  Saying such things?  Implying he actually WANTED to marry his own bloody cousin?  Yes, he was a dutiful son, but not THAT dutiful!

                True, he couldn’t keep his eyes off of Black during the Yule Ball, but most of that was due to shock.  How had she changed her appearance so much?  And she’d even discarded her normally prudish robes!  And somehow scored a date with one of the most famous Quidditch players in the world.  Making her not only the envy of every academic at Hogwarts, but every beauty and fame chaser, too.

                Was there nothing she couldn’t do?

                He let out a mirthless chuckle at his own question.

                Probably not. 

                Hence her being the bane of his existence.  Especially since his mother had gotten it into her head that they belonged together.  He couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured it out until he got the letter about the Yule Ball.  Looking back, he knew that Black had to know about it.  She knew everything.  He’d been the only one in the dark.  Being laughed at. 

                He hated being laughed at.

                He rolled his eyes at his own thoughts and rested his forehead on the desk – taking a deep breath.

                He knew lots of things about Black.  Like the fact her favorite spot was the library, she hated seeing people hurt or taken advantage of, and she was utterly ruthless when seeking justice or revenge.  Two things he sometimes wondered if she mixed up in her head.

                And that meant his days were numbered, because she’d likely kill him over what was printed in that bloody article – which was why he was currently hiding.

                There was no way she’d think to look for him in the empty classroom next to her own hiding spot.  So he hopefully had time to formulate a way to salvage the situation.  He knew that nasty woman was an illegal animagus.  Pansy had told him about helping with the Hagrid article. 

                His eyes narrowed.

                Pansy.

                She had to be the one that told Skeeter about him staring at Black at the Yule Ball.  She must still be upset he kept them apart, stopping Pansy from digging her own grave.  Honestly, did she think she could win a fight against Black?  And, if she did manage to win somehow than there was still Potter to contend with.  And the Weasleys.  They may be completely repulsive and uncouth, but there were a lot of them, and they weren’t exactly known for being wimps.  Oh, and he couldn’t forget about Loony Lovegood – possibly the scariest of them all.

                No, messing with Black too much was not a smart idea. 

                At least for now.

                Maybe in a few years, when his father gave him his own copy of the Malfoy Tome he’d have a chance.

                But even then he wouldn’t hold his breath, since she’d likely receive a copy of the Black Tome.  And though the Malfoys could be nasty, the Blacks had always been nastier.  And while Sirius Black had been the ‘white’ sheep of the Black family – according to his mother – he was the scariest auror in the British Isles.  And quite possibly all of Europe. 

                And Draco knew, from an overheard conversation between Potter and the Weasel that they had regular training sessions over the summer.  Learning all sorts of advanced shields and charms.  Spells specifically created to combat every spell and trick he learned from his father.

                It really wasn’t fair.

                But then, didn’t his father always say that life wasn’t fair?  You just had to make sure the odds fell in your favor. 

                He scowled down at the newspaper. 

                He was failing miserably at that.  And he really, really wanted to blame Black for that.  Or even Potter.  Hell, he’d even blame the Weasel.

                Blaming them was so much easier than blaming his so-called friend, Pansy.  Or even his mother.  He loved his mother.  She was an amazing woman and he’d do anything to make her happy – short of disobeying his father.  And as for Pansy…

                Well, needless to say he didn’t think she was truly his friend.  Not if she was willing to give away his secrets without even trying to blackmail him first.  That was terribly stupid.  He’d told her about his mother’s plans in confidence.  She had to know that there was no one else he would tell.  And he wasn’t stupid enough to believe that it was one of Black’s friends that spilled the beans.  The whole lot of them were as loyal as Hufflepuffs.  They were too noble to turn on a friend.

                Something Pansy clearly wasn’t.

                He would deal with her.

                But, first, he needed to solve this.  Because if Skeeter kept pushing than Black could end up with her family magic locked.  Or, he felt slightly queasy at the thought, completely sterilized.  He knew quite a few people that would be happy to see the Black family, or its magic, die out. 

                And, if that happened, he knew he wouldn’t survive until graduation. 

                He definitely needed to stop wasting time and figure out a plan.  Before Hermione Black figured out where he was.  He probably had a few hours.

XXX

                Narcissa made a fist of her trembling hand and carefully rapped it against the sturdy oak door.  The knock echoed down the marble corridor, causing several portraits to glance over at her in curiosity. 

                No one ever dared to enter Lucius Malfoy’s study.  His sanctum. 

                Not even his wife.

                But, today, she was not in the mood to play the dutiful wife.  Nor was she the loving mother she spent most of the time displaying to the world.  No, today she was the vengeful Slytherin who had once ruled the House of Snakes with an iron fist.  The one who had dared to break the old rules and forbid the torture of younger students – just because they lacked the knowledge yet to defend themselves.  She’d even personally shown a seventh year boy exactly why forcing his attentions on a girl was a bad idea.  Even if she’d only been a fifth year at the time.

                That was what had caught Lucius’ attention.  And caused him to spend three years pursuing her. 

                Power.

                It was all the Malfoys seemed to understand.

                True, she wasn’t powerful enough to completely satisfy her husband.  She’d learned that too late.  But that didn’t stop her from loving him.

                And it was certainly not going to stop her from reminding him right now just exactly who was the more powerful one in their relationship.

                She’d spent the last year and a half laying the groundwork for a relationship between her son and niece.  She’d had to find ways to push them together despite their hatred.  She’d even finally gotten her son to realize what was happening, though she’d had to be painfully overt.  He’d reacted exactly the way she had expected him to.  Though his use of the word mudblood was not desired, she thought she could deal with it.  She’d been quite happy to hear from Severus that Draco couldn’t keep his eyes off of the future scion of House Black all night.  And that said scion had been pointedly ignoring him. 

                She wasn’t a fool.  She knew Sirius was right and that her son wasn’t good enough for Hermione Black.  But she also knew that he COULD be.  If given time.  And the right circumstances.  She couldn’t let him become his father.

                And now that terribly nasty woman was trying to ruin it all.

                And destroy the Black Family while she was at it.

                The door in front of her swung open and Narcissa stepped inside – ignoring the surprised look on her husband’s face.  

                “To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence, my dear?”

                She stepped inside and gently closed the door, letting the click of the lock echo throughout the cavernous room.  The soft rugs and leather-bound books doing little to soak up the sound. 

                She locked eyes with her husband and strolled across the room, keeping her face calm.  But he knew her too well.  She could see the realization in his eyes that something wasn’t right.

                “Love?” he asked.

                In reply she dropped the paper in front of him and crossed her arms, tapping her manicured fingers against her velvet covered forearms. 

                He looked down at the paper for a moment, and then looked up at her in confusion.

                “I read the paper when I broke my fast this morning.  I don’t see how this article truly pertains to us.  There is no truth to it and, besides, Draco is presented in a rather pleasing manner.

                She arched one delicate eyebrow and looked down her nose at him.  He almost squirmed in his seat like an errant school boy.

                “I see.”

                “Now, Love, I know you’ve been mending bridges, but I told you, it will never work.  I’ve seen the two interact, there is no potential relationship there.  Nor will there be, not with the way the world is.  So what does it matter if drivel such as this is printed?”

                Anger coursed through her, even stronger than before.  She wanted to smack her husband.  Did he not understand the beauty of a true plan?  Didn’t he comprehend that nothing was impossible with the right people pulling the strings?  Couldn’t he grasp the fact that if the world wouldn’t allow it, you changed the world?

                Of course not.  He’d thought slipping a cursed diary into a little girl’s cauldron was the epitome of planning.  He’d been terribly disappointed when nothing bad had happened at Hogwarts.

                If only he’d read his son’s letters.  Then he’d have heard of that little encounter Draco had with Hermione Black’s elbow, Dumbledore, and a small black book.

                But, no, he was too ‘busy’ to bother reading every letter. 

                And now he was too disinterested to do anything about this article.

                It was time to remind him just why he’d been attracted to her in the first place.

                She uncrossed her arms and leaned forwards, resting her hands on his desk and making sure to give him a good view of her cleavage before she forced him to meet her eyes.

                She saw a sliver a fear in them mixed with some confusion, but, even more so, she saw lust and love.  Two of the most powerful emotions.  She hadn’t been powerful enough to stop her husband from stupidly following the Dark Lord.  But his love for her, as well as his lust, gave her an edge the Dark Lord would never have.  One he could never even comprehend.  And he wasn’t here to combat it with the physical presence of his own power. 

                Lucius gulped as his eyes flipped down to her chest and then back up.

                He knew he was about to get a lesson, and it had been a long time since she’d given him one of those.

                She smirked, “Now, love, I don’t think you quite understand…”

Chapter Text

             Hermione stopped outside of the classroom where Draco Malfoy was hiding and took a deep breath.  Yes, she was angry, and a lot of that was directed at Malfoy.  She’d been angry at him for months, something she knew wasn’t particularly healthy, but you couldn’t always reason with your emotions. 

             Especially when a Malfoy was involved.

             She knew that despite the fact that he was hiding, he couldn’t be the one behind the article.  And while he and his family hadn’t been attacked like she had, they hadn't been painted in an entirely positive light.  And the Malfoys would never willingly put themselves in the paper unless it was entirely positive.

             But that didn’t mean he had nothing to do with it.  She was positive Skeeter had found out about it through him or one of his fellow Slytherins.  Her friends would never betray her.  Besides, they’d known for years about Narcissa's plans.  Malfoy had only figured it out a couple months ago.

             And just what had Skeeter meant about him being unable to keep his eyes off of her?  There was no way Draco Malfoy had spent the evening watching her, not unless his mother somehow spiked him with love potion.

             And that didn’t quite seem like Narcissa’s style.

             She was more likely to lead the two of them in circles until they lost themselves so thoroughly that they actually believed what she wanted them to believe.  Something she was sure Malfoy would fall for, but Hermione wouldn’t.

             Or at least she didn’t think she would.  It would be rather stupid to underestimate Narcissa Malfoy. After all, she had managed to somehow get Aunt Andy to forgive her - a feat worthy of an Order of Merlin.  And something rather at odds with the world's view of Narcissa Malfoy. 

             But this wasn't about Narcissa and her plans.  Not really.  This was about finding out who told Skeeter, how Skeeter was in the castle in the first place - everyone knew Dumbledore forbid all press entry except during actual organized events - and doing damage control.  

             Because she was sure Skeeter was even now discovering new, even more lurid details to sell papers with.

             And that meant she had to open this door and deal with Malfoy - without killing him.  She straightened up and took a deep breath; girding herself for the encounter.

             As ready as she would ever be she grasped the ancient iron doorknob and turned it.  

             She found Malfoy sitting at an old, beat-up wooden desk.  His head was in his hands and he looked rather lost.  She'd never seen such a vulnerable expression on him before.  He was always smirking or sneering.  Occasionally she or Harry got him to show anger, but it was always the anger of a young child - red-faced and petulant - no true substance behind it.

             The house elves kept the door hinges well-greased, he didn't even notice that he was no longer alone.  

             Padfoot would eat him for lunch in a summer training session.

             “Malfoy, how did she learn about your mother's plans?”

             His head snapped up at her words.  For a single heartbeat their eyes met and she felt like she could see into his very soul.

             She thought he looked terrified.  

             But that couldn't be right.

             Malfoys were scared of nothing.  They were too proud to see their own mistakes and weaknesses.

             But then the moment was gone.  A wall fell into place over his eyes.  Blocking her out, unless she wanted to use the legillimancy she'd only ever read about.

             He stood up, his face returning to its normal sneer.  

             She crossed her arms, making sure her right hand was resting on her wand under her sleeve.

             Always wearing long sleeves did have some advantages.

             “I didn't talk to Skeeter.”

             “Then how did she find out?  And don't you dare say it was one of my friends.  They wouldn't do this.”

             “Are you sure?”

             “Of course I'm sure!”

             “Your dad and his friends were sure about Pettigrew, too.”

             She felt her calm, ladylike mask start to slip at his mention of Padfoot and Pettigrew.  She knew the betrayal of a friend had hurt Padfoot deeply, especially as it had led to the death of another friend.  The level of that betrayal was nowhere near what was happening now with the article.  If her dad's enemies used the article they could make her life miserable for a while, possibly even for forever.  But they couldn't kill her or those she loved.

             “Pettigrew was always a sniveling rat!  Following the power.  My friends aren't like that!  They aren't going to betray me and end up in Azkaban!  Besides this isn't about that.”

             He rolled his eyes at her, and chose to ignore her last sentence, “I bet if I went back time your dad would say the same thing you just did.  No one ever expects a betrayal. Honestly, you Gryffindors are too trusting.”

             “We may be trusting, but at least we learn!  We don't keep following a system of beliefs that's slowly killing us and our chance for a future!”

             “What's that supposed to mean?”

             “You and your family's belief in blood purity!  As if continually marrying your cousins was a good thing!”

             He looked at her like she was insane, “What does blood purity have to do with cousins?”

             “What does it have to do with it?  Everything!  Honestly!  Didn't you learn ANYTHING before you came to Hogwarts?”

             “Of course I did!  I had excellent tutors in all subjects!  I even know you're named after a character in that famous muggle play – The Winter’s Tale.  So don't even try saying I wasn't taught anything non-magical.”

             That made her pause.  Malfoy had read Shakespeare? Had he really studied muggle fiction?

             He snickered as he looked at her surprised face and leaned back against the scarred wooden desk, casually crossing his arms.

             “Did you lose your train of thought Black? Didn't expect me to study anything muggle?  Did you know that before the Statute of Secrecy we Malfoys were heavily involved in muggle politics?  Muggle rulers hung on our every word. They trusted us.  And we manipulated them, like proper Slytherins.”

             “And now you are manipulated.”

             He jerked upright, laughter gone from his face.  

             “What do you mean by that?”

             “What do I mean?  Honestly.  Did we get so far off topic that you forgot why I hunted you down?  The fact that someone got you to tell them your mother's plans?  And then they told that nasty Skeeter woman?  And now you're hiding in an empty classroom.  I just spent a good chunk of my yearly allowance and who knows how many hours of work to find you.  And it wasn't so we could fight, fun as that is.”

             His lips twitched, but he stayed as rigid as before.  Tension evident in every part of his body.  She almost regretted bringing them back on topic.  As angry as he made her, she'd enjoyed arguing with him.  Maybe it was because he actually seemed to learn something from their arguments.  Or maybe it was because it was fun making him lose his composure.  

             When he stomped his foot his hair moved a bit.  So if she got him angry enough he began to not look so untouchable.

             Because he wasn't untouchable.  

             If he ever took his bullying up the next stage.  Became like his aunt.  She would prove just how not untouchable he was.

             “I didn't tell her and no one manipulated me.  I pissed Pansy off and she betrayed my trust.  She also wants revenge on you.  She hates your guts.”

             “You told Pansy about Narcissa's plans?”  As soon as she spoke she realized her slip.  Something about that letter at Christmas had changed how she thought of Narcissa Malfoy.

             Luckily he didn't notice how she referred to his mother.

             “Of course I told Pansy!  She's my friend!”

             “Obviously not.  Friends don’t betray each other.”

             “Shut it, Black.”

             “I won't!  Not after what you just said about my dad and his friends!  Not after what your 'friend' just did!”

             She felt her IQ begin to drop as anger coursed through her veins.  That was the only reason she could think of later to explain why she made the gesture she did.

             He looked at her with shock and disgust.  “Seriously?  We're arguing about the betrayal of friends and the possible implications of that article and you used air quotes!?!?  Just how immature are you?”

             “And you stomping your foot isn't immature?”

             “I haven't stomped my foot!  You're the only immature one here!”

             “You haven't - but you will.  You always do.”

             “No, I-“

             He froze, as he suddenly realized he had one leg raised and was seconds from stomping his foot.  His face was awash with such shock and incredulity that she lost it.

             All her anger slipped away and she burst out laughing.  

             He just looked so ridiculous with his corduroy clad leg bent, one expensive leather shoe hovering in mid-air.  One of his cashmere covered arms was raised, his hand in a fist, ready to emphasize the upcoming stomp.  His mouth was hanging open and his eyes were wide with shock and incredulity at himself.

             She laughed.  She laughed so hard she had trouble standing and fell against a nearby desk.  Propping herself up with one hand to stop from falling completely.

             She laughed harder as he smoothed his face of emotion and slowly put his foot down, while lowering his arm.  He then reached down and adjusted his trouser leg, so it sat properly on top of his shoe.

             Once again sure that he looked presentable he looked up at her and spoke.

             "I did not stomp my foot."

             She took a deep breath and tried to regain control of her laughter.  "No, but-" a chuckle escaped her, "you were this close." She held up her hand and showed just how close he had been.

             He scowled, but ignored her reply.

             "Now, how about we get back to why you really came here?  Once you are finished cackling like a mad hyena."

             It was hard, but she managed to ignore the insult.  He was actually correct, in a way, they did need to deal with why she came here.

             "So, you told Parkinson, and she told Skeeter.  Do you know how she told Skeeter?  Between this article and the one on Hagrid I'm sure Skeeter was in the castle - despite Dumbledore forbidding her entrance."

             He crossed his arms, "I have no idea how Skeeter got in or how Pansy talked to her."

             She opened her mouth to ask a question, but he continued speaking.

             "But, I'm willing to find out."  He scowled, "I don't take betrayal lightly.  No matter her reasons.  I told her my mother's plans in strict confidence.  And she knew that."

             "So, you're willing to help?"

             "Yes, but that does NOT mean I will go along with my mother's plans," he stated.

             She smiled a bit at that, "Good, because I have no desire to go along with her plans either.  I don't know who I want to marry one day, if I even want to marry, but I do know it won't be you."

             "Same."

             They stood there for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts of how to deal with the article's ramifications.  Hermione wasn't quite sure if Malfoy would be able to find out how Skeeter was in the castle, but she knew he had more chance than she did.  Since that nasty woman was talking to Slytherins, not Gryffindors.

             Besides, stopping Skeeter would only end the possibility of more, possibly even worse articles.  It would not deal with the ramifications of this article.

             She needed to send a letter to Padfoot.  Or even floo call him if McGonagall would let her.  

             "Let me know if you find out anything. I usually study-"

             "In the room next door, I know.  Still don't know how you found where I was so quickly."

             She thought of the old parchment tucked into her pocket and smiled enigmatically, "That's for me to know.  Not you."

             He rolled his eyes at her, "Fine, Black, keep your bloody secrets.  Are we finished?"

             She thought for a moment, "Actually, no.  Revenge on Parkinson."

             "I'll handle it.  She betrayed me, not you.  Though I won't say anything if she begins to glow."

             Hermione had been idly staring at a broken bookshelf crowded with what looked like old arithmancy textbooks.  Her head jerked up and she met his eyes.

             "How did you-"

             "Honestly, Black, who else could it be?  You, Potter, and Weasley are the only three with enough brains, guts, and ingenuity to pull off a prank on those two marauding doppelgangers."

             "Why did you never say anything?  I'm sure you would've enjoyed giving us away."

             He shrugged, "They deserved it.  Plus, knowledge, once shared, can never be unshared."

             His words were so similar to what his mother had written in that letter at Christmas that Hermione felt a bit off kilter.  She sometimes forgot that Malfoy and Narcissa were related.  He was just so transparent compared to his mother.

             She choose to abandon that subject.  She didn’t much care for feeling off-kilter.

             Besides, she’d just told the twins who had made them glow for so long.  So the secret was worth nothing, not something she was willing to enlighten Malfoy on.  Let him find out later, if he ever tried to use it against her.

             “So, if you’re going to handle Parkinson, I need to owl my dad.  I’m sure there are people out there that would love to use the article and the questions it raises against us.”

             She looked pointedly at him.

             He raised up his hands in defense, “Don’t look at me!  You may be a mu-“

             She whipped out her wand and had it trained on him before he finished the first syllable.

             He gulped, “-uggleborn, but you’re still family.  Malfoys don’t attack family.  We may ignore, scream at, insult or disown them, but we don’t attack them.”

             “The Blacks aren’t quite so loyal to blood.”
              “Yes, but I’m a Malfoy, not a Black.  And you’re adopted.  You have a lot less Black in you than I do.  I think that means we can agree to follow different rules.”

             She stared at him for a moment.  Wondering at the ramifications of this agreement.  Could she agree not to attack him? Not attack someone with whom she shared so many disagreements and bad memories? Someone who had called her a vile mudblood?

             Despite her laughter and the easy conversation that had come after, she was still angry at him.  Still unwilling to forgive him for what he had said.  But the other, more rational part of her knew that she needed him.  And that continuing to fight with him would only impede things.

             “I think I can agree with a few caveats.”

             “Name them.”

             “Never call me a mudblood again.  To my face or behind my back.”

             He thought for a moment, looking past her to stare at a rusted iron candelabra on the wall.  “May I call others that?”

             “Only if you want to face my wrath.”

             He met her eyes and smirked, “So, basically, no using that word at all.”

             “Yes.”

             “I can try.  What else?”

             “Never, ever, bring up your aunt around me.”

             He frowned, “Aunt Andromeda?  I thought you liked her.”

             “No, the other one.”

             He looked confused for a moment, and then his eyes widened as he realized who she meant.

             “HER?  I’ve never even met that woman!  And glad of it!  The gossip I’ve overheard…” he shuddered.

             She stared at him in astonishment.

             He actually looked rather disgusted and a bit fearful at the mention of Bellatrix Lestrange.

             Had she been wrong about him being the beloved nephew?  That thought made her draw up short.  She’d already been surprised once before by Malfoy’s knowledge of Shakespeare.  Had she been reading him wrong for so many years?  Was she wrong about more things?

             No, she couldn’t be.  She’d seen him bully those first years.  Seen him slipping dangerous ingredients into Gryffindor potions when Snape wasn’t looking.  Watched him sneer at Harry and her every time they came near each other, muttering insults and crude jokes to his cronies.

             After all, not everyone was all bad.  She’d just failed to realize that he was a fully formed person, with good and bad parts.  So now, the discovery of his good parts, was shocking her. 

             She felt a bit like her world had been turned on its side.  If she’d been wrong about Malfoy, what else was she wrong about?

             She didn’t really care to consider that thought.

           Not now.

           She put her wand away and took few steps forward.  "Mutual vows of fealty work for you?  You do know what they are, right?"

           He sneered at her, "What, do you think I'm an ignoramus?  Of course I do."  He stuck out his hand towards her, giving her a challenging look.

           She met his eyes and held out her own hand.  He grasped it firmly and she began to speak.

           "I, Hermione Granger Black, swear to the Malfoy rule of not attacking family, as pertains to Draco Lucius Malfoy, so long as he does not use the term 'mudblood' or mention Bellatrix Lestrange around me."

           His grip on her hand strengthened. She noticed he had callouses on his hand, where each finger met the palm of his hand Harry, Ron, and Ginny all had calluses in the same spot from so much time spent gripping broomsticks. For some reason that detail soothed her, made her feel a bit better about agreeing to this ceasefire.

             “I, Draco Lucius Malfoy, swear to the Malfoy rule of not attacking family, as pertains to my cousin through adoption, Hermione Granger Black, so long as she never supports my mother’s wish to marry us.”

             She looked at him in surprise, he merely shrugged. 

             Oh, well, she didn’t really mind his caveat.  Since she had no interest in marrying him anyways.

             “I accept this sworn oath.”

             “I accept this sworn oath.”

             As soon as the last syllable was out of his mouth a current of electricity went between their clasped hands.  Sealing the agreement, ensuring that each would know if it was broken by the other.  As soon as the shock ended they pulled their hands apart.  Hermione quickly tugged down her sleeve, it had risen up enough to show a sharply carved ‘h’.  Malfoy didn’t even seem to notice, he was gazing out the window, a thoughtful expression on his face.

             “I’ll be going now, Malfoy.  Let me know what you find out.”

             He nodded absently, and she didn’t wait for a verbal reply.  She needed to find out if Padfoot had seen the article and what he was doing to stop it from creating a situation they didn’t want.

             Time was of the essence, and she’d wasted too much of it with Malfoy.

XXX

             Narcissa stretched rather lazily before reaching over to lift her robes off the floor.  She was sore in places that she’d forgotten could be sore.  It had been much too long since they’d done this.  Something she needed to remedy.

             A quiet murmur and her robes were transfigured into a lovely silken house robe.  She slipped it on, and kicked the rest of her clothing into a pile. 

             The house elves could deal with it later.

             She tied the robe closed and glanced over at Lucius.  He was standing at his desk, which he had raised so he could write easily while standing.  She wasn’t really surprised at that.  She wouldn’t want to sit down either if she was him.

             Her lips curled up at the corners.  It hadn’t taken very long for her to get him to understand just why it was in his best interest to use his connections to put a stop to anyone that might try to use Skeeter’s article against Hermione Black.  He really was a fast learner, and fairly good at seeing how things could be useful.

             His issue lay in being unable to truly appreciate just how quickly things could change.  Or in seeing just how important one small, seemingly inconsequential detail could be.

             He thought big, never realizing that it was the small things that truly mattered.

             She’d read once that you must never give an order that you know won’t be followed.  The same was true in politics.  You must never enact a policy that you know won’t be supported.  Lucius knew this, and he always did well when using this rule.

             But he failed to realize that the rule was flexible.  That if a policy won’t be supported, you don’t change the policy or abandon it.  Rather, you slowly, one small detail at a time, change the mindset so that such a policy would be supported.

             She walked over and rose onto her tiptoes to give him a kiss on the check.  Her hand wrapped around him, resting on his hip, right above the swell of his backside.  He didn’t stop writing the letter he was working on, but his breath gave a little hitch.  She could tell he was wondering if she was going to remind him just what they had done.

             She chose not to.  He didn’t need a reminder right now.  Maybe tonight she’d remind him, and then reward him for all his hard work.

             Her heart quickened at the thought. 

             Oh, yes, it had been much too long since they’d done this.

             His free hand came up to stroke her check as he kept scribbling away on the parchment.

             She leaned into his hand for a moment, taking comfort in it.  Sure in the knowledge that he would always support her.  Just as she supported him.  Then she pulled back, pressing a small kiss to his hand and headed out of the room.  Leaving him standing there at his desk, scribbling away in nothing but his pants and the robe he’d thrown over himself.

             An hour later she was bathed and once again properly dressed.  She didn’t have floo-access to the Black cottage, so she headed out of the manor and walked a bit up the lane, until she felt the anti-apparition wards drop.

             A moment later she stood at the gate of that quaint, ivy-covered cottage her cousin now called home.

             As soon as she put her hand on the front garden gate she felt the wards catch her, holding her and checking her identity.  She held her breath, hoping Sirius hadn’t changed them after he saw the article.  He had to know she’d had nothing to do with it.

             Grudgingly, the wards slipped away from her, releasing her and allowing her to open the gate.  She quickly walked up the gravel pathway. 

             Surprisingly, it wasn’t the house-elf waiting for her in the open doorway.  Rather, it was her sister.

             “Ah, there you are Cissy, we were wondering when you’d show up,” Andromeda said in a very matter of fact tone.

             She continued to stand in the doorway, not moving aside to let Narcissa in.

             “Andromeda, I’m sure you know that I had nothing to do with that article.”

             “Yes, but what about your husband?  I’m sure he doesn’t like the idea of his son and heir marrying an adopted muggleborn.”

             Narcissa could see her point.  No one really knew that in every area except for the Dark Lord she ran the Malfoy family.  She’d been very careful to keep that fact hidden.  It was safer.

             “He believes it has as much possibility of occurring as Sirius does.  He has no interest in anyone even thinking it’s a possibility.”

             Andromeda’s eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms across her green woolen robes.

             “How can you be sure?”

             “Because when I left he was writing a number of letters to ensure that this article caused nothing to happen that could endanger the Black Family.  He knows the family is important to me.  And he loves me, so he will ensure that my family is protected.”

             “Even if that means helping Sirius Black and his adopted muggleborn daughter?”

             “Yes.”

             The two sisters stared at each other, judging each other.  Calculating each other in a way they had never done before.  Narcissa always forgot that Andromeda had also been a Slytherin.  And that she’d been quite a powerful one before she’d revealed her true thoughts.  No one had ever suspected that she’d been in love with a muggleborn Hufflepuff.

             Not until the two of them had run off and eloped.

             Even Bellatrix had been fooled, and she was not someone that was easily tricked.  She lived and breathed deception and distrust. 

             It made Narcissa wonder if Andromeda had really forgiven her.  If they were really putting the past behind them.  Or if it was nothing but an act.

             That thought made her a bit sad, but it wasn’t something she had time to dwell on.  Not now.

             “I suppose you know your husband quite well.”

             “As well as you know yours,” Narcissa responded.

             “Point,” Andromeda took a step back, holding the door open.  “Come in then, if Lucius is taking measures the others should know of it.  We don’t want to be tripping over each other.”

             Narcissa followed her sister into the cozy little entryway and divested herself of her winter cloak.  Hanging it on a rather simple peg on the wall.  She knew she should feel disgust at the simplicity evident in the cottage, but the warmth and love contained in the place stopped her.  It was just such a comfortable place, like a well-worn jumper.

             Nothing like the stark perfection of Malfoy Manor.

             Or the dark ornateness found at Grimmauld Place.

             She was led, not to the sitting room she’d sat in for tea with Sirius so long ago.  Rather, they went to a cozy little kitchen in the back of the house.  A fire crackled cheerfully in the kitchen hearth and a number of people sat around a gleaming wooden table.  Solid mugs of tea scattered among plates of biscuits. 

             She instantly felt like an unwelcome invader.

             She recognized Arthur and Molly Weasley, sitting together.  Dressed in their well-worn, simple robes.  There was also a man that she vaguely recognized as Xenophilius Lovegood.  His robes were made of velvet and silk, but so wrinkled that she had the strong urge to cast a few charms on them.  To see such nice fabric treated so shabbily…

             At the table was also a scarred man in patched, but meticulously ironed, robes.  She’d only spoken briefly to Remus Lupin at a few events, but she knew him to be a quietly intelligent man.  She’d heard that he’d been the one to teach Hermione and Harry before they began at Hogwarts.

             And, of course, there sat Sirius.  His long hair was hanging loose around his face, and his robes were clean, but beginning to become wrinkled.  Likely because her cousin was incapable of sitting up straight.

             “Cissy, good of you to come by,” Sirius said as Arthur Weasley stood up to pull her up a chair.

             The next hour was a long one for Narcissa.  She spent the time navigating this unfamiliar group, getting them to believe that Lucius really was helping them.  Then there was more discussion on what else needed to be done. 

             Lovegood offered to publish an article denying what Skeeter wrote, but she’d been able to persuade him that this wasn’t a good idea.  It had helped that Lupin and Andromeda had been on her side.  The Quibbler wasn’t known for printing truths, so anything published there would automatically be assumed to be false.

             “I have an idea,” Arthur Weasley said quietly after they had persuaded Lovegood that only the Daily Prophet could publish a believable article recanting what Skeeter wrote.

             “What is it, Arthur?” Sirius asked.

             “How about a series of articles on all of the myths, fables, and beliefs associated with family magic?  After all, it’s something that’s never truly been studied.  Not on a whole.  Each family has studied their own.  But all of the theories about it are unproven and untested.  If we show just how many beliefs there are, it will lend less weight to what Skeeter is sharing.  Especially if she starts publishing more pointed articles.”

             “And we know she’s going to do that, that woman hates my guts for denying her access to Harry for all of these years,” Sirius said with a scowl.

             Narcissa wasn’t surprised to hear the reason why Skeeter had made such a pointed attack against the Black family.  She’d never forgive anyone that stopped her from getting a story. 

             “And denying details on what happened to Hermione didn’t help either,” Lupin added.

             “That woman is just vile!” Molly Weasley spat.

             Narcissa never could’ve have believed it was possible, but she found herself agreeing with Molly Weasley née Prewett.  Skeeter needed to go down, and fast.  Before she did any damage they couldn’t fix.

             “I think that’s a very intelligent idea.  If we inundate the public with all of the contradicting information on family magic, there will be more room to maneuver to protect Hermione and her inheritance,” Narcissa said.

             “I hate to say it, but my cousin has hit the dragon on the nose.  We need to prove that family magic is extremely complicated and that what holds true for one family does not hold true for all.  So that no one can prove that you don’t understand your family magic, except for your own family.  And, as such only those of us with Black Family Magic can judge Hermione’s understanding of it.”  Sirius looked pointedly at Narcissa, and then at Andromeda.  “And, I can assume, dear cousins, that we all agree that Hermione understands our magic as well as we do.  Am I right?”

             “Sirius, do you even have to ask?” Andromeda said.

             “Asking makes future misunderstandings less likely,” he said.

             “Point.  Then, yes, I fully support that Hermione knows her magic as well as we do.  Cissy?”

             Narcissa couldn’t help it, she smiled, “Do you really think I’d be pushing for Hermione to marry Draco and not bind her magic if I didn’t think she had a full understanding of it?”

             Sirius chuckled, “Point.  Though I am curious why you put no weight in that nonsense about old family magic being dangerous when married to unbound family magic.”

             “Because the binding of half the family magic has only been happening since Hogwarts was established.  There are some debates on why it began, but I do know that pureblood families married each other without incident before that.  Even when everyone for several generations on both sides was pure or half-blooded.  I’m pretty sure Draco and Hermione would be completely fine if my romantic goals for them become true.”

             “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Narcissa is right,” Molly Weasley said.  Naricssa was a bit shocked at how informally the woman referred to her, but then, the Prewetts had never really been known for following social norms.

             Molly Weasley pulled out her wand and gave it a flick, “Genus Potestatem

             Everyone in the room began to glow.

             Narcissa gasped in shock when she realized that she was the only person in the room that glowed silver.

             She was the only one that hadn’t bound their family magic, ensuring that it could never be passed on.

             Molly Weasley née Prewett, the last member of a long and illustrious pureblood family, wife of Arthur Weasely, the head of another old and powerful, if not successful, family, had never bound her magic.

             The implications of this were unimaginable.  She’d been so sure that her theory was right.  That any children Draco and Hermione had would be fine, but she hadn’t been expecting proof.  There were seven Weasley children.  And they were all acknowledged to be successful and powerful in a wide variety of areas.

             “That explains the twins then,” Lupin stated.

             “I have the theory that family magic was bound to keep families pure.  So that they wouldn’t change.  It creates less rebellion if everyone has the same inclinations,” Lovegood pondered.

             “Didn’t work with me,” Sirius put in.

             “Don’t fool yourself cousin, you’re a Black to the bone.  You just directed it differently,” Andromeda stated.

             “Point,” Lupin said.

             Narcissa didn’t think she really wanted to know why they kept saying ‘point’.  She was sure it was something important to them, but she couldn’t see much use for it.  You couldn’t keep score on life, if you did you’d go insane when things went badly.  Or you’d become over confident when things went well.  Either way, you’d end up losing – possibly permanently.

             A tapping drew their eyes to the frosty kitchen window.  A snowy white owl sat perched there, a letter tied to its leg.

             Sirius sighed, “I wondered when Hermione would send a letter.”

             Narcissa had to stop herself from smirking after hearing the contents.  She couldn’t believe that Hermione and Draco were working together to get revenge on Pansy Parkinson and stop Skeeter from digging up more dirt.

             Glad to see that this whole mess was good for something.

             Now she’d just have to adjust her plans accordingly.

Chapter Text

                Draco pulled himself further into the dark niche created by a well-placed statue of a big-nosed warlock.  He could hear footsteps coming closer, he knew Pansy must be on her way to meet with Skeeter.  She’d made the mistake of telling him that Skeeter used some sort of small animagus form to enter Hogwarts and that they liked to meet in the old potions storeroom in the dungeons. Tonight he'd overheard her telling Daphne that she would be late to the library, she'd said she had to talk to someone.

                He’d quite purposefully not mentioned That Skeeter was an animagus to Black.  He didn’t want it to become common knowledge, and he was sure she’d tell all her friends.  And one of them would tell a responsible adult, and then he’d lose his chance to catch that nasty woman.  Because someone would think to put up an anti-animagus ward rather than trap her. 

                He supposed that there wasn't already an animagus ward because this was a school and some seventh year transfiguration students liked to try working on it.  Not to mention McGonagall and her cat trick.

No, it was better if only he knew until he caught her.

                He’d meant what he said, once something was shared, it can’t be unshared.  He’d made the mistake of trusting Pansy not to share his secrets.  She’d failed him.  He was pretending he didn’t know at the moment, keeping her close. 

                But once he caught Skeeter…

                Well, let’s just say Pansy was going to rue the day she betrayed him.

                He felt a pang of pain at the thought.  He'd really liked Pansy.  He could hold real conversations with her, unlike Crabbe and Goyle.  And she always had interesting comments about other students.  

                His father would probably tell him to keep her close, don't let her know he didn't trust her, and then use her.  But he couldn't stomach the thought.  Maybe he had too much of his mother in him, but he disliked the idea of even pretending to forgive a betrayer.  

                No, Pansy had destroyed their friendship.  And he refused to forgive her.

                She walked right past him, her stride confident.  She didn't even look around as she slipped into the old storeroom just down the hall from his hiding place.

                The door shut with a small click and he cautiously moved closer so he could hear what was said.

                "Miss Parkinson, so lovely to see you again.  Any more delightful tidbits for me?"

                "Why did you portray Draco that way?  He had no interest in going to the Yule Ball with Black.  You were supposed to write an article on how stupid and ridiculous arranged marriages are!  And imply it would be dangerous for all parties involved.  Not directly attack Black and paint Draco as a dutifully lovesick lapdog!"

                "Why, Miss Parkinson, what do you care if I attacked Black?  I thought you hated her?"

                "I do!  But what you insinuated... Don't you understand what they could do to her?!?"

                "So?"

                "So!?!  So?!?  It's atrocious!  It's one thing to willingly lock your magic, but quite another to have the choice taken from you!"

                "I don't quite see the difference.  After all, every pureblood girl does it.  And quite a few half-bloods."

                "Of course you wouldn't! Your parents are mudbloods!   You're almost one yourself!  What would you understand about family magic?"

                "Be careful, Miss Parkinson.  The quill is mightier than the wand."

                Draco slipped his hand inside his open robes, finding the pocket he had sewn there.  He didn't think Skeeter would attack Pansy, but he wanted to be prepared.

                Obviously, Pansy hadn't meant to betray him.  She'd just been too stupid to understand the ramifications of her actions.  He felt a brief pang of jealousy for Black and her group of friends. Potter and the Weasels may not have been the smartest, but they were at least intelligent enough to bring plans to Black or Lovegood before they acted on their own.

                Luckily Crabbe and Goyle never had ideas.

                Now he had to team up with Black to clean up this mess Pansy made.  His father was probably already on a warpath at the Daily Prophet.

                And his mother...

                She was likely already picking out wedding colors. 

                Obviously it wasn't Pansy being quoted in the article.  He wondered who it was.  He needed to find that out.

                "True, but I can use words just as well as you Skeeter.  One letter to my father and you'll be in terrible trouble for being an illegal animagus.  Not to mention all of the future spying possibilities you'll miss out on."

                "Now, Miss Parkinson, I'm sure we can come to an arrangement.  There's no need to reveal that."

                "There's no need if you stop this nonsense and recant this article."

                "Is that the only deal you'll take?"

                "Yes."

                "Fine, I'll recant the article and find other things to sell papers.  Now, did you bring me any information?"

                "Yes, it turns out Zabini's mother is on the look out for a new husband.  And she still has a current one.  Blaise said..."

                Draco tuned her out and moved back to the statue of the warlock.  He didn't believe Skeeter.  And that meant he had to catch her. 

                He pulled out a sturdy glass jar he'd just charmed today.  She had to be a very small animagus to get into the dungeons undetected.  So he was guessing some kind of insect or a rodent. 

                Unless she was a giant rat she'd fit in the jar.  

                Merlin, Pansy was possibly a bigger idiot than the Weasels if she believed Skeeter would give in so easily.  She had to have something up her sleeve.  Perhaps some dirt on Pansy's father.  Maybe he even knew Skeeter was an illegal animagus and it was more useful to keep the secret than keep his daughter happy.

                He knew all about parents picking others over you.  

                His father had missed his eleventh birthday, the last one he had at home, to meet with Fudge for dinner.  His mother had been livid.

                But his mother was now doing it too.  Honestly, did she really think Black deserved him?  He freely admitted she was a talented witch, and she was a Black more than a mud-.  His thoughts froze, he wondered if thinking the word counted.

                Better to be safe than sorry.

                She was more of a Black than a muggleborn, but that didn't mean it was acceptable for a Malfoy to marry her.   After all, their motto was Tourjours Pur.  Always Pure.

                And marrying a muggleborn adopted into a pureblood family had to be against that.

                The door began to open and Draco pushed himself back into the niche.  Pansy was sure to leave-

                "Oh, Miss Parkinson.  One more thing."

                "Yes?"

                "Obliviate!"

                Draco couldn't help it.  He gasped in shock and almost dropped the jar. 

                He hadn't been expecting that tactic.

                The dungeon was filled with such silence for a moment that it was if all sound had been obliviated with that spell.

                And then the small sound of insect wings cut through. 

                Years of playing quidditch was the only thing that saved Draco's plan.

                He didn't even think.  

                His feet moved forwards and his hand snapped forwards, closing around the small, buzzing beetle.  A second later and it was in the jar, the lid screwed tight.

                He was, after all, the second best seeker at Hogwarts.  Only Potter had ever beaten him to the snitch, and he'd spent all summer practicing to fix that, only to have quidditch canceled.

                But catching Skeeter after she just mind-raped his friend, albeit his well-meaning but idiotic friend, more than made up for it.

                "Draco?  What are you doing?  And why are we here?"

                He slipped the jar into his bag and turned to look at Pansy, standing in the doorway.  

                This was going to complicate things.  He'd planned to keep Skeeter trapped for awhile.  Make sure she understood things.  Then take her to Black and work out the rest of the details.

                But now...

                It all depended on how much Pansy had lost.  Because if it was more than this past conversation he couldn't let her go without help.  She might have stupidly betrayed him, but she'd done it with good intentions.  And he didn't have enough friends he could throw them away.  Even if he was extremely angry at her right now.

                He sighed, so mich for getting that Transfiguration paper written before curfew.

                "Pansy, what's the last thing you remember?"

                "I don't...." She frowned, wrinkling up her pug-like nose.  

                "What's your last CLEAR memory?"

                "I think... Yes, that's it.  I was walking back from visiting Heidi on the Durmstrang ship.  I was borrowing some of her makeup for the ball.  Then I saw...something.  I don't know what.  Everything after that is hazy.  What day is it?"

                Draco said a word that would terribly upset his mother. 

                Skeeter had apparently tried to erase all knowledge of her animagus form, but she'd failed to understand just how much Pansy would dwell on a problem or a new piece of information. Which meant she'd erased over three weeks worth of memories.

                Did he have to be surrounded by idiots?  It was as if the only competent person that was part of his life was Black.  And wasn't that a terrible thought?

                "Draco, what's going on?"

                Pansy was beginning to look more scared than confused and he felt a pang of pity for his well-meaning - if incompetent - friend.  It wasn't her fault she wasn't as clever as she thought she was.  

                Not everyone could be him.

                "The Yule Ball was three weeks ago."

                Her jaw dropped, "THREE WEEKS?  What in Merlin's Beard did you do!?!"

                "I didn't do a bloody thing.  But I'm about to."

                He settled his bag more carefully on his shoulder and then grabbed her wrist.  Luckily she was still in a state of shock, so she failed to fight or protest as he dragged her out of the dungeon and off to possibly the only other competent person in the entire castle.

                Merlin, he hated the fact that that person was Black.

                But at least she was better than Potter.

                He shoved open the old classroom's door and stopped in his tracks, Pansy letting out a small squeak as she ran into him.

                Black wasn't alone this time.  

                The entire bloody Ottery St. Catchpole group was here. Plus Longbottom.

                The Weaselette was sitting with Lovegood, working on what looked like an essay.  Potter was reading some old book and taking notes.  The Weasel was next to him, and he was poking at what was likely supposed to be a dancing quill - it looked more like it was having a seizure.

                And Black was sitting with her face to the door.  For some reason it struck him as particularly interesting that her tongue was sticking out and she appeared to be in deep thought.  She was looking over an essay, Longbottom's he was guessing, from the fact that the boy was watching her with a worried expression.

                He took all of this in with a single glance.  Since as soon as Pansy squeaked they all looked up.  Potter and Black drew their wands as they did so.  

                It was a little spooky how quickly those wands were trained on him.

                Apparently he'd heard correctly about their training sessions with Sirius Black.

                Black started to lower her wand when she saw it was him, but froze when he stepped into the room, revealing Pansy behind him.

                "Why is she with you?"

                He phrased his next words very carefully.

                "Because circumstances have changed and I think WE need to reevaluate the situation."

                She caught the emphasis he put on the word 'we' and relaxed a bit, though she didn't lower her wand.

                Nor did Potter.

                He let go of Pansy's wrist and pulled his bag open.  He grabbed the jar and then walked over to the desk in front of Black.  Ignoring the wands trained on him, he plunked the jar down, enjoying the way the beetle skittered around rather angrily.

                Black eyed the jar skeptically.

                "Are you implying this beetle is Skeeter?"

                "Not implying, I know it is.  She transformed right after she obliviated the past few weeks from Pansy's memory."

                Black eyes flew away from the beetle and landed on Pansy, measuring her, before moving to meet his eyes.

                "Are you saying she has no idea she betrayed you?"

                Pansy let out a quite audible gasp.

                "Yes, and I want it fixed.  It's hard to be angry at someone that doesn't remember what they did to make you angry."

                A snicker cut through the room and he threw a glare over at the Weasel.  He wasn't in the mood to be laughed at.

                "I betrayed Draco? But... I would never!" Pansy said, a hint of panic in her voice.  "Black!  This has to all be your fault!  What did you do?!?"

                "Hermione didn't do anything.  You're the one that told Rita Skeeter about Mrs. Malfoys marriage plans and helped her write this nasty article."  The Weaselette dug around in her bag and pulled out a folded piece of newspaper, which she then stuck rather forcefully in Pansy's face.

                And while Draco liked Pansy more than any Weasel, he took a great deal of pleasure in the look on Pansy's face as she narrowly avoided having the paper hit her nose. 

                Pansy snatched the paper and began to silently read it.

                “Malfoy, is this really Skeeter?”

                He turned back to look at Black.  “Yes, just look at the markings around the eyes.”

                The Gryffindors and Lovegood crowded around the jar, checking out the markings. After a moment, Black pulled out of the circle and came up to him.

                “How did you find out she was an animagus?”

                “I was in an unused part of the dungeon, eavesdropping on Pansy and Skeeter, when Skeeter obliviated Pansy, then a beetle flew past.  Not many beetles in the dungeon - alive that is - so I snagged her.”

                “And you just happened to be carrying an unbreakable jar with you?”

                He shrugged, “I was prepared for all possibilities.”

                “So what else did you come prepared with?”

                He opened his mouth, then realized he had no clue what else he could’ve been prepared to find.  He’d been completely certain she was an animagus, so had failed to think of other methods she could have used to sneak into Hogwarts.  He really needed to plan ahead better when dealing with Black.  She wasn’t like his friends, she didn’t take him at his word.

                “Do you really need to know?”

                “No, but I think you lied to me yesterday when you said you didn’t know how she came into the castle.”

                “Information, once shared, can’t be unshared,” he took refuge in one of his father’s favorite sayings.

                “Oh, don’t give me that.  You were going to tell me eventually anyway.  It wouldn't have hurt you to share it yesterday.  We were supposed to be working on this together."

                "No, you tasked me with stopping Skeeter.  Far as I can tell you aren't working on anything."

                She tried to raise one eyebrow at him, but the other one tagged along for part of the way, ruining the effect.

                "Draco Lucius Malfoy I am NOT doing nothing!"  She gestured at a massive stack of books near where she had been sitting. "I've been ignoring my schoolwork and doing research on family magic.  Preparing a defense in case the worst occurs.  Padfoot is working with our family friends on his end to stop it, but nothing is certain.  Besides, I'm not a Slytherin, it's not like I could easily spy on Parkinson to catch Skeeter."

                She had a point.  And heaven knew, if her magic was bound and the Black family line ended his mother would be impossible to live with.  Which would make his father grumpy, and that would mean he'd see him even less.  Maybe it was in his best interest to let her do her research.

                Not that he'd tell her that.  

                "Okay, fine, I could do a better job of catching Skeeter.  I did that.  Now what?  I'm not letting her getting away with attacking Pansy."

                "I thought you were angry at Pansy for betraying you.  You seemed pretty sure yesterday you wouldn't forgive her."

                He sighed, "Apparently she was more of an idiot than a traitor.  She expected Skeeter to write a different article.  She was actually demanding Skeeter recant the article - which is why she's like this."

                He made a gesture at Pansy, who looked to be almost finished with the article.  She seemed completely appalled at it's contents.

                "I find that hard to believe.  You weren't portrayed that negatively in there."

                "I think you're misunderstanding what part she took umbrage with."

                "Oh Merlin!" Pansy exclaimed, her hands tightening on the paper, crumpling it up.  She looked over at Black, her face full of disbelief. "I did this?  Black, I'm so sorry!  What...what she's implying...what they could do to you...the loss of choice..."

                The room hung silent for a moment, Black looked totally lost for words.

                "Blimey.  I've seen it all now," the Weasel exclaimed.

                "Everyone has a limit.  No one is pure evil," Lovegood remarked.

                Draco found those words to be very true, but didn't quite like what they implied.

                "I'd say Voldemort is pure evil," Potter said.  

                "Point," the Weaselette said.

                "I'd say Skeeter may not be pure evil, but she is rather close. It takes something pretty nasty to delete part of someone, just to sell more newspapers." Longbottom said, making Draco look at him in surprise.  He rarely heard the boy speak.  It was said he hated talking, which is why he preffered plants to people.  Or at least Slytherins said that. Maybe he was different when Slytherins weren't around.

                "So what do we do now?  We can't keep Skeeter in a jar forever," Potter asked.

                "Aw, but I've always wanted a pet.  And if it's an evil one I won't mind when the twins do things to it," the Weasel said.

                That drew some snickers and smiles.  Even Draco felt himself smile.  The idea of letting the doppelgangers loose on Skeeter....

                Sadly, that wasn't really an option.

                "I think we need to go to a teacher.  We can't let Parkinson live without her memories.  And none of us know enough about mind magic to help her," Black stated.

                "I suppose you think we should go to Dumbledore?" Draco asked.

                She shook her head, her hair moving in such a way that he found himself staring at it.  Watching how it trailed over he shoulder and fell across her face.  She absently pushed it back behind her ear.

                "No, Dumbledore is a great man, but he tends to like to keep things like this quiet.  And we don't need quiet.  We need Skeeter prosecuted and her articles called into doubt.  So no one can use any information she's gathered as evidence.  I think we should go to Snape."

                His eyes flew to meet hers in surprise.  Her usually soft brown eyes were as hard as stone.  He remembered what he'd once thought about Black confusing justice and revenge.  

                He almost felt sorry for Skeeter.  She'd attacked the wrong person.

                "What! Snape?" Potter exclaimed.

                "Harry, I know he hates you, but he loves his little snakes.  I'm sure you can see that.  Once he learns someone snuck into Hogwarts and hurt one of his own..."

                Black trailed off as everyone stared at her in shock.  

                "Blimey, Hermione.  I'm glad we're on the same side."

                For once, Draco found himself agreeing with the Weasel.  He hadn't even thought of going to Professor Snape.

                But now that she'd said something it sounded ridiculously obvious.  

                Hadn't his father told him to go to Professor Snape if he ever had a problem and didn't have time to send an owl home?

                "I shouldn't go with you.  Snape hates my guts since I look like my father and not my mother," Potter said.

                Draco sensed an interesting story there, but didn't ask, he could look into it later, once he dealt with more important things.  He might even be able to ask Black, if she was in an amiable mood and it wasn't a huge secret.  And if it was a huge secret...

                Well, then he'd definitely have to find it out.

                "You're right, Harry.  I think I should go with, and Neville too.  Snape pays a lot less attention to him than any of the rest of us."  Black grabbed the jar and slipped in her own bag. Draco wanted to protest, but didn't have an good enough reason that wouldn't lead to a pointless, time wasting argument.

                The Weaselette spoke, "Are you sure it's smart to go, 'Mione?  Doesn't he hate you almost as much as Harry? Because of Padfoot?"

                Now he really wanted to hear that story.

                "Yes, but I'm intimately involved with this situation.  I doubt Snape knew about Mrs. Malfoy's matrimonial ambitions for Malfoy and me.  Also, I want to know what he decides to do, I don't want to hear about it second-hand."

                "Don't you trust me to tell it accurately?"  Longbottom asked.

                Black flushed, "Well, yes, but..."

                "But Hermione likes primary sources.  It helps her make sense of the world.  Not that it really ever makes sense," Lovegood answered.  Cutting Black off.

                Draco had no idea what primary sources were, but he assumed it meant hearing information from the original source.  

                "Are we going to go see Professor Snape now?  It's not getting any earlier and I'd like to be able to spend part of tonight studying," Draco said, trying to get them moving.  Since Black had Skeeter he couldn't just leave.

                "Point," Black said, "Let's go."

                The four of them left the room, leaving the Weasels, Lovegood and Potter behind.

                "Why did you say 'point' back there? The Weaselette said it earlier, too," Draco asked Black as they made their way down a spiral staircase.  Longbottom was walking behind them with Pansy, who still looked incredibly shocked and out of it.

                "Really, Malfoy, the Weaselette?" she said.

                He shrugged, "You hang out with two people with the same last name and I have to get creative.  I'm certainly not going to call her Ginny.  I barely know her."

                "Okay, point."

                "There you go again."

                "Oh, sorry, it's just a thing we do in our family." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a strange reddish coin. "We carry these coins.  They can be set to track certain things.  Uncle Remus got the idea from the Hogwarts House points system.  We used them in lessons to keep track of behavior and right answers and such.  It's a complicated bit of magic, but it tracks when you say 'point' and who you're referring to.  The adults even started doing it.  We have a chart at home that is kept magically updated.  It also adds new names, so you're now on it.  We reset it on Christmas. And the winner gets an extra Christmas gift from everyone else.  We did more when we were younger."

                He felt a little odd knowing his name was on something in her home, but the entire idea was interesting.  It suited his sense of competition.  He casually jumped over one of the trick steps, she followed him.

                "So shouldn't I have gotten a point for catching Skeeter?"

                "Point."

                He grinned at that, and noticed that she smiled a bit too.

                This was getting weird.

                "Ah!"

                He jumped and turned around to see Longbottom holding Pansy's arm.  Stopping her from falling on her face as her foot passed right through the now disappeared step.

                She looked even more shaken than before.  He started to come back up the steps.

                "You alright, Pans?"

                She reached out and gripped Longbottom's arm with both of her hands and shifted so that she was now standing on her own two feet.

                "I-I'm fine.  Let's just go."

                And for the first time in his life, Draco deliberately decided not to punish Pansy for stupidly betraying him.  She'd been punished enough.

                They continued on their way to Professor Snape's office with no more conversation.  He thought about asking Black why Snape hated her dad so much, but he had a feeling it wasn't the right time.

                Interestingly, Pansy held onto Longbottom's arm until Black knocked very sharply on Professor Snape's door.

                And, even more interestingly, Longbottom didn't seem to mind at all. 

 

Chapter Text

        "Let me speak," Malfoy hissed right before the door opened and revealed their hook-nosed potions professor.

        The scowl on his face softened a bit when he realized that Parkinson and Malfoy were part of the little group in front of him.

        "May I help you?" his words were entirely directed at Malfoy.

        Hermione was completely fine with letting Malfoy do the talking.  He would get much better results.  She was only here to make sure the accurate flow of information continued.  Neville was her backup.

        He wasn't as fast at spellcasting as Harry or Ron, but he had much better control over his temper.

        If he even had a temper, she'd never witnessed it.

        It was an added bonus that Neville was one of the few people Snape ignored in class.  She figured it likely had to do with how protective Mrs. Longbottom was of her only child.  If Snape treated Neville like he did anyone else, than Hogwarts would soon be in need of a new Potions Master.

        "Sir, Pansy was attacked," Malfoy started to say.

        Snape’s eyes flashed over to Hermione, their gaze accusing.

        "And you managed to get her attacker to come with you willingly?  I'm quite impressed Mr. Malfoy."

        "No, sir.  It wasn't Black.  In fact, when Black found out it was her idea to come see you first."

        "Oh?"

        "Yes, sir.  It was Rita Skeeter.  She obliviated Pansy."

        Snape's piercing gaze studied Parkinson, "And do you have proof of this fact?  Accusing a famous reporter of such a deed... It could prove quite difficult to prove.  Especially as she has been forbidden access to Hogwarts."

        Malfoy's eyes flickered to Hermione and he gave her a small nod.  She took that as a sign that she could bring out the proof. She slipped her hand in her bag and pulled out the jar.  The beetle inside was scurrying around rather angrily.  Skeeter knew what was coming.

        She held up the jar so Snape could see its contents clearly in the torchlight. "Sir, Malfoy managed to catch Skeeter right after she transformed for a quick getaway."

        Something flickered in Snape's eyes, if she hadn't been staring directly at him, she would've missed it. She just wasn't sure what it was.

        He looked once again at Parkinson, making her shift backwards so she was slightly behind Neville. 

        "Miss Parkinson, were you obliviated?"

        She nodded, very subdued.  Hermione could only assume losing your memory and learning you betrayed one of your best friends left an impact.

        She lowered the jar and absently tugged on the sleeve of the arm holding the jar.  She knew all about how one event could change everything.

        Snape stepped backwards, holding his office door wide open.  "Get in here."

        The four of them moved inside and stood awkwardly by the door as Snape strode over to his desk.  He pulled put a few pieces of parchment and began scribbling a short message on three of them.  

        "Mitsy."

        A floppy-eared house elf appeared in the room; dressed in a Hogwarts tea towel

        "Yes, sir?"

        He handed her the sheets of parchment.  "Make sure these go to Roy Parkinson, whomever is currently head auror on duty, and Albus Dumbledore.  In that order and as quickly as possible."

        Mitsy took the sheets of parchment and bowed low, "Yes, sir."

        As soon as the elf popped out he turned his attention back to the four of them.  His scowl deepened as he realized all four of them were still standing in the         doorway.

        "You may sit," he pointed at the table and chairs sitting over in a corner of the simple office.  Hermione moved to take a seat and found herself stuck sitting next to Malfoy, since Parkinson was still unwilling to let go of Neville.

        Of all of her friends, Neville was the only one that had never had any negative confrontations with Malfoy or Parkinson.  He was a wealthy pureblood like them, and usually kept to himself.  Hermione believed she would've been in the same category as Neville if she hadn't had Harry for a brother.  

        And even that might not have been a big deal if Malfoy hadn't met them on the train and demanded that Harry be his friend, not Ron's.  Since Ron wasn't the 'right sort' of pureblood. 

        Honestly.

        Snape seated himself at his desk and resumed the grading she assumed they had interrupted. Silence sat heavy on the room, none of them were willing to break it.

        She set the jar on the table next to an ancient looking tea set and then adjusted her sleeves.  She noticed Malfoy give her an odd look as she did so.

        She ignored him and stared at the now utterly dejected beetle moping in the jar. 

        Now that a competent adult had been informed, Skeeter knew that her chances of escape where utterly nil.

        She didn't know how long they all sat there, Snape didn't appear to like clocks, but it was long enough for the elegantly engraved teapot to stop steaming. 

        There was obviously a story behind the tea set.  The carvings looked to be some sort of house crest, but she didn't recognize it.  That might've been because the pot was so scarred and scrapped up.  Or perhaps it was the last heirloom of a long deceased noble house.  She knew Snape had grown up in the muggle world, but had known about magic his entire life.  He'd told Harry's mother all about Hogwarts.  She'd learned that during the few times Uncle Remus had told them stories of the past.  Padfoot rarely spoke about Snape or Harry's mum.

        A heavy knock sounded on the door, making her jump.  She wasn't the only one.  Malfoy had been thinking so hard that he almost fell off his chair.  Only her own surprise stopped her from snickering at him.

        "Come in," Snape said as he stood up and moved around his desk, his cloak billowing behind him.

        The door opened to reveal Professor Dumbledore, and quite a few people behind him.  She didn't think she’d ever seen the Headmaster annoyed before.

        "Severus, you summoned the aurors?  I take it that there is a good reason?  Your note only said there was an emergency and to come quickly."

        "Yes.  One of my students was attacked."

        Dumbledore's eyes flickered over to the group seated around the simple table.

        "No, surprisingly, it was not Miss Black or her friends.  It was an adult.  A well-known adult entered the castle without your permission to discover secrets and then attacked Pansy Parkinson in order to keep her own secrets.  She obliviated my student."  He practically spat out the last sentence.  And Hermione realized that the emotion she had seen before was anger.  Snape was utterly furious.  But that he'd hid it so well...

        And she'd always thought that he was extremely easy to read.  Did he normally not try and hide his emotions? Or was his apparent hatred of Harry and her just a facade?  Was there more to the Hogwarts bat than she had thought?

        Maybe she needed to push for more stories from Padfoot and Uncle Remus.

        "Can you move please Headmaster?  We would like to hear this," a familiar gravelly voice said from out in the hallway.

        Professor Dumbledore let out a small breath and cleared his face of annoyance before stepping into the office and then moving off to the side.

        Quite a few people followed him in.  There were four aurors and a man in elegant hunter green robes.  She recognized him as being Mr. Parkinson.  He was one of the few people Padfoot didn't mind speaking with at Malfoy hosted events.

        She wasn't too surprised to see who the aurors were.  Padfoot and Alice Longbottom spent more of the school year working than they did sleeping.  With them was Dora, though Hermione knew better than to call her that in public now that she was an auror.  The last person was a woman that she had never met, but assumed was Auror Evelyn Whistledown, Padfoot's regular partner.

        Auror Whistledown was a petite woman with a head of uncontrollable, bushy brown curls that were cut extremely short.  Hermione felt a pang of sympathy for her, she'd hate to have hair like that.

        Mrs. Longbottom looked over Neville before lingering on Parkinson's hands holding her son's arm.  Once she was certain he was fine she became extremely business-like.

        "So, Miss Pansy Parkinson was obliviated?" She asked, "Do you have proof of who did it?"

        Hermione spoke up, "It was Rita Skeeter.  Draco Malfoy managed to capture her right after she did it."

        Everyone looked at Malfoy.  He shrugged, "She made the mistake of turning into something about the same size as a snitch right before she flew past my hiding place.  I'm not a seeker for nothing."

        Padfoot chuckled, "Never underestimate a quidditch player."

        Quite a few people seemed rather surprised that he had just laughed at something a Malfoy had said.

        Padfoot looked around at them, "What?  He's family and he did a good job."

        "So am I," Dora said, "but you didn't hear me laughing."

        "But you're also not a quidditch player," Padfoot stated.

        "Point," Hermione said, earning herself a glare from Dora.

        "Can we please stop this nonsense?  My daughter was attacked and I'd like to get her some help.  And also get the culprit punished," Mr. Parkinson said with frustration.

       "I second that," Snape said coolly.

        And so they shared their story.  Malfoy told most of it, with Hermione filling in back story and Parkinson sharing the little bit she remembered from the past few weeks.

        Dora was the one keeping notes, but she noticed that Auror Whistledown kept her eyes firmly fixed on each speaker.  Hermione assumed that a memory of these interviews would be logged and stored for use in any further investigations or in court.  When they were finished Dora and Auror Whistledown took the Parkinsons to St. Mungos.

        Parkinson was very reluctant to let go of Neville, but he promised to meet her when she came back if she wanted to.  

        This exchange was very interesting to Mr. Parkinson and Mrs. Longbottom.  Hermione also found it interesting.  She wasn't sure what it would come to, or even if it would come to anything.  Parkinson might be back to her previous self once she regained her memories. If she was able to recover them.  It had been less than 24 hours though, so the chances were good.  Especially since she hadn't yet slept.

        It depended on just how much power Skeeter put into the spell.

        "Mr. Malfoy, would you be willing to log your memory of this evening with the aurors?  You as well Hermione, Neville," Mrs. Longbottom asked.

        "If one of my parents are present, then yes," Malfoy said.

        "Of course," Padfoot said, "I'll send Cissy an owl.  It will likely be tomorrow night.  Hermione, Neville?  Do you want to do it now?  Or with Draco tomorrow?"

        "I think tomorrow is best," Professor Dumbledore said.  "It will be easier to arrange transport to and from the school."

        "Sounds good to me, does that work for you, Alice?" Padfoot said.

        "That will be fine," she looked around.  "I believe we're all done here."

        "Actually, I think I want to see where they caught Skeeter.  Just for my own knowledge.  Draco, would you mind showing me where it all happened?"

        Malfoy looked taken aback at being asked to show his cousin around.

        "Um, alright.  It's on the other side of the dungeon."

        Padfoot clapped his hands and moved to the door, "Then let's get going.  It must be past curfew."

        Hermione watched her dad and her- wait, what did she call Draco Malfoy now?  He wasn't exactly her enemy.  He hadn't apologized for calling her a mudblood either, he'd only sworn not to do it again.  So they weren't friends.  And he wasn't just a simple classmate.  They had worked together to solve this issues, so maybe ally would work?

        That seemed the safest word to define their relationship.  For now.

        "Then I'll escort these two on up to Gryffindor Tower.  Make sure no overzealous prefect gets them in trouble," Mrs. Longbottom said.

        Neither Snape nor Professor Dumbledore disagreed.  Hermione could just bet that the Headmaster was about to have words with his potions professor.  She was just glad that he had acted just as she had predicted.  Especially since he was apparently not quite what he seemed.

        She followed Neville and his mother through the castle.  The two of them were speaking quietly as they walked in front of her.  Likely catching up since Neville had not gone home for Christmas.

        Her thoughts drifted back to Draco Malfoy.  He was really confusing her lately.  Back before Christmas he'd called her a mudblood and acted worse than he ever had before. But just yesterday he'd been hiding in fear from her. And then he had agreed to help her solve the Skeeter mess.  Granted, he had a stake in it too, but still.

        Had her old, anger-fueled plans to change him really come to something?  Because she couldn't imagine the Draco Malfoy of a year ago working with her for anything.

        Nor could she picture him coming to her first after his friend was just attacked.

        He had changed, and she wasn't quite sure how she felt about that.

XXX

        "Albus, don't you dare try to say I shouldn't have called the aurors.  One of MY students was attacked.  And not just attacked.  Her mind was raped.  Part of her inner-self was taken.  Three weeks is a long time when you aren't yet fifteen."

        Albus closed his mouth, his mind racing as he tried to think of the words that would convince Severus that calling the aurors before notifying the headmaster - even in circumstances such as these - was not what you did.

        Sadly, he couldn't think of an argument that was strong enough.  So be gave in.

        Maybe he was getting old, if he kept bumping heads with past students that were able to resist his persuasion techniques.

        Granted, many of them had done things he had failed with. Like Sirius discovering Voldemort's horcruxes.  Or the success of raising Harry himself, rather than letting him grow up with his muggle relatives.  He really needed to look into why the blood wards were still working.  Once this tournament business was finished with.

        "Alright, Severus, I won't say you shouldn't have called for the aurors.  I simply wish that you had informed me before doing so.  Such as in the note you sent to me," Albus gave Severus the best disappointed look he could manage.

        Severus rolled his eyes at him, "Albus, I'm not your student anymore.  And I thought you would be glad that Skeeter was caught.  So there will be no more articles threatening the happiness of your precious Potter's family."

        The Headmaster smiled a bit at that, his eyes twinkling.  "Oh, I believe Narcissa Malfoy had the situation well in hand.  Today I received an anonymous petition for the Wizengamot to change some laws regarding magical adoptions and family magic.  There were pitifully few signatures.  I suspect the Malfoys were behind that.  As a former compatriot of Lucius Malfoy I assume you have been in contact with him about this?"

        Severus moved to go sit down at his desk, pulling out clean parchment and dipping his quill in the inkwell.  

        "Yes, and that reminds me, I should inform Lucius of the events that occurred this evening.  As his son was a prominent participant."

        Albus' smile deepened as Severus pointedly focused all of his attention on the letter.  He likely thought he'd have more of a fight on his hands for calling the aurors.  But Albus knew when to wage battles and when to back down gracefully.  

        "Then I shall leave you to it.  I believe Floppy will have my evening snack ready by now.  I do hope tonight is lemon cream pie.  It's been awhile since they made it down in the kitchens.  Not very English I suppose."

        "Goodnight, Albus.  I will see you at breakfast," the potions master said, never looking up from his letter.

        Albus let himself out and began to whistle as he made his way through the castle.

        He may not have wanted the aurors in Hogwarts, but he supposed things had worked out for the best.  And he needed to keep an eye on young M

XXX

        Narcissa was enjoying a glass of wine as she soaked in the tub.  She felt extremely satisfied and relaxed, even if her muscles were sorer than they'd been in ages.

        She really should thank Skeeter.  That article had helped rekindle the physical side of her marriage.  And in such a delightful way, too.

        She lifted her leg up and wiggled her toes in the thin layer pale blue bubbles resting on the water; letting out a small moan as she stretched her leg.

        Just that morning an anonymous petition had begun circling.  It wanted to recommend a law for all magically adopted children to be evaluated by the Wizengamot, in order to determine if they could fully grasp the enormity of what they had been adopted into.  

        Lucuis had been happy to inform her that it had only gained seven of the required hundred signatures.  And he was sure one of those seven had proposed it.  

        Her money was on Monix Selwyn or Kevan Nott.  

        Nott had been a Death Eater and seemed quite certain any damage he could do to an auror or their family would balance out pleading the Imperius if the Dark Lord returned.

        And Selwyn blamed Sirius for his son getting sent to Azkaban on muggle baiting and torture charges.

        Too bad they had failed to realize that the Malfoys were aligning themselves with the current Black Family Patriarch.  

        No one ever did any research anymore.

        If the Dark Lord had done his research he never would have attacked Lily Potter nee Evans.  

        Lily Potter had been a muggleborn, and a young one at that.  Her family magic wasn't set yet.  Likely why young Harry looked so much like his father, despite the fact that his mother had not bound her magic.  No muggleborn ever did.

        If the Dark Lord had done his research he would have known that Lily Potter had always been extremely protective of those she loved.  Her defense of Snape through the years had been proof of that.

        Narcissa was positive that Lily Potter's desire to protect those she loved had fueled whatever had protected Harry from the killing curse.  

        She wasn't entirely sure, but she assumed that protection lasted still, to some degree.  There had been no attacks on Harry as a child, despite several being planned.  And there had never been an explanation for why the plans didn't work or even finish getting planned.

        She was working on a lot of assumptions here, but the only person that might know details wasn't exactly her friend, or even ally.  And even if she was, he likely wouldn't tell her.  Albus Dumbledore liked his secrets.

        She tilted her head back and drained her wine glass. She wanted another one, but she'd already been in the bath for an hour.  Lucius had to be done with his paperwork soon.  And she was feeling once again up for another round.

        Settled, she set the glass down and stood up.  The silky bubbles slowly sliding off her.  

        She reached up and touched a small button.  The water disappeared from the tub and then the entire thing shifted. By the time it was done she was standing in a luxurious shower; a multitude of jets aimed to continue the relaxation the tub had started.

        She had just finished rinsing and was wrapping a towel around herself when there was a knock on the door.

        "Love, may I come in?  I've just had a letter from Severus Snape.  I believe you need to hear it."

        Snape had sent a letter?  There must have been a development at Hogwarts.  He'd been the recipient of one of the many owls that had flown out yesterday.  He was their most trustworthy adult contact there.

        "You may, I'm almost finished."

        She moved over to her mirror and began applying moisturizer as he entered.  

        In the mirror she could see him give her an appreciative gaze, but he didn't let her near-nudity distract him. 

        He had always been very dedicated.

        "Apparently the letter Hermione Black sent yesterday spoke the truth.  Our son has an alliance with her and managed to capture Rita Skeeter in her animagus form this evening.  This was after Skeeter obliviated Pansy Parkinson of most of her memory of the past few weeks.  While this is rather unfortunate for Miss Parkinson, and Severus is quite angry about it, I see this as a moment of good fortune for us.  The aurors have taken Skeeter into custody and charges have been laid against her for trespassing, illegal use of spells, and attacking a minor.  The last one will be particularly hard to beat since Roy Parkinson has almost as many connections as I do and he isn’t too happy about his daughter being hurt.  Apparently Miss Parkinson is a bit of a mess at the moment.  Something about her latching onto Neville Longbottom of all people."

        She finished moisturizing and picked up her hairbrush. The Longbottom heir and Pansy Parkinson?  Fostering that little relationship would be a good move.  Salintra Parkinson would be just as happy to have her daughter marry a Longbottom as a Malfoy.  Both houses were extremely old and well-respected.  And the Parkinsons had remained neutral in the last war, though they held many of the old beliefs.

        "So there will be no more articles."

        "I've exchanged letters with Sirius Black, we're going to try and sue her for slander.  I'm positive the Daily Prophet won't touch her with a ten-foot pole after this mess.  And no other publication carries as much weight."

        She looked up and met his eyes in the mirror, "I forgot to mention this last night, but the Quibbler is about to inundate the market with articles on family magic.  All of them will contradict each other."

        He smiled and moved over to stand behind her.  As she brushed out her damp hair he leaned over and kissed her bare shoulder.

        "You, my love, are remarkable.  Two days and it seems that you're going to get this entire situation cleaned up.  You even got our son to work with Miss Black.  Maybe I misspoke yesterday when I said a marriage was impossible."

        She set her brush down and turned.

        "Don't worry, I forgive you.  In fact, I may just reward you for admitting your mistake."

        He smiled, his love for her shining clearly in his eyes. 

        "I'm looking forward to it."

 

Chapter Text

            Hermione didn't see Malfoy at all the next day until she and Neville met up with him in the Entrance Hall that evening; where Snape was waiting to escort them to the Ministry.  

            A friendly auror, Frella Muntra, collected their memories for the records and then went through the memories with them, letting them explain their thought process at pivotal moments.

            The three of them were finished and safely back at Hogwarts before curfew and Malfoy hadn't spoken a word to either of them the entire trip.  He had asked Snape when Parkinson would be back, but that had yielded no true answer.  Apparently she would be back when she was back.

            The week passed as most weeks do, and Hermione had a pleasant walk around the lake with Viktor on Saturday.  And if her lips were a little swollen that evening, her friends were nice enough to not say anything, though Ron and Ginny sent her knowing smirks.  She made sure to remember to return the favor later.  

            It was partway through the next week that Parkinson returned.  And that evening she followed Neville into the empty classroom, sitting beside him to work on an essay.  No one said anything about it, and she didn't speak to anyone.  Just quietly did her work and left when Neville did.  This became a rather normal thing, which puzzled most people to no end.  At first Hermione thought it was odd, since it had been Malfoy that had caught Skeeter, but then she remembered that Malfoy had only been there because Parkinson had betrayed him.

            She likely wasn't feeling very comfortable or safe around him, and from what Hermione had read about regaining obliviated memories, feeling safe and comfortable was paramount.  There was only so much magic could do with the mind.

            The weeks passed and Parkinson continued to join them whenever Neville was there.  Malfoy even tagged along once, but left in a huff after some ridiculous argument he got into with Ron.  She hadn't bothered paying attention to it since no wands were drawn.

            By the time the second task occurred Hermione no longer found it odd to see Parkinson sitting next to Neville, studying but not speaking a word to anyone if she possibly could.

            Hermione didn't really enjoy being stuck asleep under an icy lake for over an hour, but she quite enjoyed being what Viktor would miss most.  She rarely saw him during the school week, but quite enjoyed spending part of the weekend with him. 

            Even if it did cut into study time.

            Another thing that cut into study time was the twins demanding her assistance during the Easter holiday.  It took four days to help them fix the snags in a potion they’d come up with.  She still couldn’t believe they’d thought powdered doxie wings were the right ingredient.

            It was around this time that the results of Skeeter’s trial were shared.  That nasty woman got five years in Azkaban and then another five years of probations afterwards.  There was also mention made of an unbreakable bracelet that prevented her from changing into her animagus form.

            Hermione wasn’t quite sure if being locked up for five years was proper punishment for erasing part of someone’s mind.  But she was fairly certain that Skeeter would never be taken seriously again.  So the chances of someone trying to force Hermione to lock her magic were practically nonexistent.

            Potions classes also changed after "The Great Bug Catch" as Luna dubbed it.  Snape would still sneer at Harry and her, but rarely said anything to them.  She thought it might be because she had helped Parkinson and Malfoy, but she was rapidly deciding there was a lot more to Snape than met the eye.  So it could be something she didn't have enough information to even consider.  Neville now sat with Parkinson, leaving Greengrass to partner with Hermione as Neville had always been her partner.

            Greengrass wasn't exactly the friendliest person, but she held up her end and the two of them always turned in potions that earned high marks. 

            Time moved onward and before she realized it the year was almost over and the third task was upon them.  She gave Viktor quite a few good luck kisses, but fully supported Cedric Diggory during the task.

            That night the entire castle was lit up like a Christmas tree and no house elf got any real work done.

            Exams were done and Hogwarts had won the Triwazard Tournament.

            The Hufflepuffs threw a party that was so loud and exciting that it drew all of the other houses down into the cellar.  When curfew arrived the teachers half-heartedly tried to send everyone to bed, but gave up after the twins got Hermione to help them make everyone's hair glow a nice Hufflepuff yellow.  

            No one was sleeping when their head looked like a miniature sun.

            Hermione had started the evening with Harry and Ginny, but the two of them had slipped off at one point, their hands intertwined.  Considering the fact that Ron and Luna were busy doing some rather outrageously ridiculous dances with a large group of celebrants she could just imagine that she’d have lots of alone time to read this summer.

            She wandered through the crowded Hogwarts halls.  Teachers were wandering about, keeping an eye on things.  Even the ghosts were helping out, all of them terribly glad that their place of haunting had won the tournament. 

            Every once in a while as she wandered she could hear a distant explosion, causing a ghost to come racing by in search of a teacher.  She could only assume that the twins were to blame.

            It was just after a particularly loud double explosion that Nearly-Headless Nick sped past, carefully holding his head, with Professor Sprout on his heels when she found Parkinson and Neville. 

            The two of them were holding bottles of butterbeer and standing off to the side of the Hufflepuff common room. 

            “I don’t think there will be anything quite like this at Hogwarts ever again,” Neville commented to her when she approached them.

            “Not until the next time Hogwarts wins the Triwizard Tournament at least,” Hermione answered.

            Neville shook his head and gestured at the mini-sun it had become, "No, they won’t have the Weasely Twins.  It just won’t be the same.”

            Hermione grinned, “But maybe the twins will be parents, and their children will be here.”

            Parkinson visibly shuddered at that and Neville grimaced, “Don’t you dare say those two will have children.  The world’s already in enough danger as it is.”

            She giggled.  She honestly could not imagine either of the twins settling down to become parents.

            They lapsed into silence for a moment, their eyes drifting over the mass of excited, celebratory students.  Hermione watched a pair of boys fall backwards as their cards exploded; making the girls they were playing with giggle madly.

            She smiled at that, she didn't really care for games, but she enjoyed watching others play them sometimes.

            Parkinson suddenly straightened up sharply, drawing Hermione's attention.  The Slytherin girl's eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared.

            Before Neville or Hermione could say a word she stormed off, over to a Hufflepuff girl that looked to be about their age, though Hermione didn't recognize her.

            "Don't eat that!" Parkinson snapped.

            The girl jumped, dropping the candied apple she'd been about to take a bite of.  Neville frowned and walked over to pick it up.

            "Hey, this is-"

            Parkinson ignored him, all of her attention on the now trembling girl.

            "You idiot! Didn't your mother teach you not to eat any apple you can't see the color of?  And you're not a first year!  You should know the house elves only make candied apples at Halloween!"

            The girl's lips trembled, "What-what's wrong with apples?"

            Hermione suddenly realized what was wrong.

            "What!?! What's wrong with apples?!?  Are you a mud-". Pansy stopped and took a deep breath.  Visibly getting control of herself. "You're muggleborn, aren't you?  Did your prefects never warn you?"

            "W-w-warn me?  About apples?"

            "Yes."

            The girl shook her head and a small crowd was beginning to appear.  Including a couple of horrified Hufflepuff prefects. 

            "This isn't really an apple," Neville said.  He pulled out a small gardening knife and cut into the apple.  Then he pulled back part of the red candy.  The revealed fruit was not red, green, yellow, or any normal apple color.  Rather, it was an unnatural golden color.  If Neville hadn't easily cut into it she would've thought it was made of metal.

            There were quite a few gasps from the onlookers, but a number of them merely looked confused.  

            "Who gave this to you?" Parkinson asked.

            Tears were now falling down the girl's face. "I-I don't remember his name.  He-he's a Gryffindor," she sniffed and wiped the tears off her face, "in my year."

            Something drew Hermione's eye and she saw a handsome boy in Gryffindor colors start to hurry out of the Hufflepuff common room.

            He was holding a metal tray spotted with bits of red candy.

            She knew his name.  She knew every Gryffindors' name.

            "Mclaggen!"

            He gave her a panicked look over his shoulder and broke into a run, shoving people out of the way. 

            She didn't even think.  Her wand was in her hand and a spell was crossing her lips before he had taken more than two steps.  

            He fell to the floor, the tray making a terrible clang that echoed through the now silent common room.  His legs were locked together and his face was a mix of shock and disbelief. 

            She'd never dealt with him, but she knew he was terribly arrogant.  Likely he'd never even thought it was possible that he'd be caught.

            "I didn't know!  A couple Slytherins threatened me!  They made me pass them out!" He claimed as Parkinson advanced on him.

            "Oh, and who were these Slytherins?" Parkinson's voice had dropped to a quiet, deadly tone.  Her face was more animated than Hermione had seen it in months.  

            Since the Yule Ball.

            This was the Pansy Parkinson she had known for four years.  Except this time her nastiness was not targeted at an innocent.  

            "Did he hand out more?" A seventh-year Ravenclaw girl gasped. Hermione realized it was the Head Girl, Selena Carlson.

            "Hey!  Stephanie!  What's wrong with you?"  Hermione saw a blonde girl with a dopey expression on her face swaying in the crowd, a stick with an apple core on it lay at her feet.  Her brunette friend was looking at her with worry, a half-eaten candy apple in her hand.

            This got the Head Girl moving.

            "Who ate a candied apple?" she called out.  "We need to get them to the hospital wing."  When no one moved she raised two fingers to her mouth and let out a sharp whistle.  Making everyone jump and look at her.  Except for Parkinson, who kept her eyes and wand focused on Mclaggen. "NOW!  Anyone with a candy apple!  Get them to Madam Pomfrey!  Jacobs!"  She pointed at a curly haired Hufflepuff prefect, "Go find a professor, now!"

            Jacobs took off running, his curls flopping on his head.

            Seven more girls were found with candy apples.  Carlson got another couple of prefects to escort them to Madam Pomfrey, they were all in various stages of overdose.  One girl was so pliant she couldn't even stand.

            Hermione was utterly disgusted.

            She went to go stand next to Parkinson, who now had planted one of her feet on his chest to keep him from getting any ideas.

            Hermione took some pleasure in noting that Parkinson was wearing some sort of ankle boot with a very narrow, painful looking heel.

            Mclaggen shifted and then winced as Parkinson's boot dug more deeply into his chest.  

            Hermione still held her wand, and she kept her wrist relaxed, ready to aim it at anyone if they got any ideas.  She hadn't heard if Mclaggen had named any Slytherins, but if he had and it was true, she didn't want any of them to interfere.  

            Just then Professor Sprout came bustling in, her face red from running and she was covered in some sort of purple powder that looked a bit like soot.  Hermione began to wonder if it had really been the twins that set off the latest explosion.  It had done a wonderful job of drawing the attention of all the teachers and ghosts.

            It only took a moment for Professor Sprout to take in the boy pinned to the floor by Pansy and the shining gold apple in Neville's hand.  

            Her face grew thunderous.  Their normally jovial professor was almost unrecognizable.

            "Cormac Mclaggen, just WHERE did you get vetitus?  And WHAT were you planning?!?"

            Parkinson hurriedly jumped back as Professor Sprout reached down and grabbed Mclaggen's ear and yanked him to his feet.

            "They gave it to me!"

            "They?"

            "B-B-Barrow and Montague!" he yelped, trying to look at the floor.

            "Really." A cold voice said from behind Professor Sprout. Snape had arrived with McGonagall and Dumbledore.   

            "Y-yes, sir!  I just had to hand them out!"

            Snape opened his mouth to say something, but the Headmaster spoke first.

            "I do believe we should take this somewhere else.  Prefects, please see that everyone gets to bed.  Miss Carlson, please find Mr. Roberts and the two of you can oversee the prefects."  He looked over at Hermione, "Miss Black, if you could please stop the glowing.  The celebration is now over."

            She nodded and pulled out a small bottle of potion.  She uncorked it and poured the antidote for the glowing into it. Instantly everyone's hair returned to normal.  Snape was eyeing the potion curiously as she carefully slipped it back into her robes.  She didn't want him taking it to sample.  The twins would kill her if someone else got their hands on the protean potion they developed with her.  Especially since they went to such trouble to get it into the school's shampoo supply.

            The Hufflepuff common room quickly emptied as prefects got people moving, but Hermione wasn’t part of that.  Once again she was led to a professor’s office with Neville and Parkinson.  But this time they found themselves sitting at a table with a sullen Mclaggen as they waited on the aurors to arrive.  Professors Sprout and Snape had had a very insistent whispered conversation with Dumbledore, but at the end of it he agreed to summon them.  And then only Professor Dumbledore was left in the office as the others went to help the other heads of houses track down the Slytherins accused of involvement.

            While they waited, Professor Dumbledore approached them.  He had his hands folded and resting under his beard as he approached their table.  He completely ignored the plae-faced and sulking form of Mclaggen.  He also spared Parkinson only a glance.

            “Miss Black, Mr. Longbottom, I see you two are taking after your parents these days.  Righting wrongs and capturing wrongdoers.”

            Hermione almost replied, but Neville beat her to it.

            “Oh, no, Professor.  It wasn’t all us.  It was Pansy that noticed the oddity of the candied apple.  I merely cut it open, proving that she was true.  Then Hermione noticed Mclaggen with the empty tray covered with candy bits.  Then Pansy kept an eye on him while our Head Girl took over.”

            The Headmaster’s lips quirked up at the edges and a twinkle appeared in his eyes as he turned to focus them on Parkinson.

            “Ah, so it is Miss Parkinson we truly have to thank for this?”

            Hermione nodded, “Yes, sir.  No one else in the entire room thought the candy apples were odd.”

            “Indeed.”

            Parkinson suddenly sat up in her chair, making Mclaggen shoot her a terrified glance and clutch his chest, where her heel had pressed earlier.

            “Sir, why didn’t the mud- muggleborns know about the Forbidden Fruit?  My mother taught me before I ever left the house to visit a friend.”  There was a very intense look in Parkinson’s eyes and Hermione could tell that she was planning something.

            “Yes, Headmaster, even us boys learn about vetitus before we leave the home.  My mother also gave me a long list of dangerous things,” Neville said.

            Hermione found it amusing that Neville used the proper name for the fruit, while Parkinson used the common one.  Even she would never call it vetitus outside of potions or herbology.  Just the words forbidden fruit and all the dangers it implied were too ingrained in her.  Uncle Remus had taught all of them about it when they were children.  It was terribly unfair to muggleborns if they didn’t know things like this.

            “I’m afraid many things get overlooked when we bring muggleborns into our world.  Vetitus is such a dangerous plant, especially with the scent the blossoms put out that it’s only taught in NEWTs level Herbology.  And essence of Vetitus is only used in potions taught in NEWTs level Potions; such as Veritaserum and Amortentia.  There is just so much to teach, we hope they learn things from their friends and prefects,” Dumbledore looked a bit sad at this.

            Parkinson suddenly stood up, “Well, sir, I think it’s wrong.  Part of why muggleborns are disliked by many is because they seem ignorant of our customs here in the magical world.  Like Skeeter, she had no idea what her words could accomplish.  Or those girls tonight.  None of them were NEWT level students.  They were vulnerable,” Pain flashed across Pansy’s eyes at this moment and Hermione instantly knew why the girl was taking up the cause of a group she’d scorned for so long. “And, sir, they’re only vulnerable because you let them be so.  You bring them into our world and then just drop them.  You let them sink or swim, never realizing the danger this brings to all of us.  Something has to be done.  And if you won’t do it, sir.  Then I’ll speak to my father and we will.”

Hermione was impressed.  Even Mclaggen had stopped feeling sorry for himself enough to look at Pansy with a bit of awe in his expression.

            “And how do you plan to do that Miss Parkinson?  We’re forbidden from introducing muggleborns to our world before the summer of their eleventh year.  Outside of unusual circumstances of course,” he gestured at Hermione.

            Pansy’s eyes narrowed, “Forbidden?”

            “Yes, there’s an old piece of legislation from when the Statute was created.  It was to prevent a young muggleborn from unthinkingly telling all their friends about our world.  I’ve tried to have it revoked, but there is some rather heavy opposition to it.”

            Pansy’s eyes narrowed and she was thinking.  Hermione was also doing some thinking of her own.  She had an idea who would like to keep muggleborns ignorant.  It made them easier to hate.  And easier to defeat.

            But that didn’t mean there weren’t other options.

            “Professor Dumbledore, what about a pamphlet with some basic rules and knowledge?  It could go out with the letters?  Then a short seminar the first weekend after school starts.  Make it mandatory for everyone, and go over safety issues, such as the Forbidden Fruit, in great detail.  Offer a few more seminars on cultural things, but don’t make them required.  And don’t state it’s just for muggleborns, some half-bloods and purebloods don’t learn everything at home,” Hermione suggested. 

            Dumbledore thought about this for a moment.  “And who would teach these seminars?  All of our professors could easily handle the safety issues.  But the cultural customs are a bit more complex.  I’m afraid none of our professors are experts.”

            Neville shrugged, “Then bring in an expert.  Like my grandmother.”

            “Neville, we don’t want to scare them.  Your grandmother is terrifying,” Hermione stated.  “My Aunt Andy, Andromeda Black, would be a good choice.  Or Narcissa Malfoy.  They could even do it together.  Both of them grew up with the culture and both are aware of what’s truly important in it.  And Aunt Andy married a muggleborn, so she has a good idea of what needs to be taught.”

            “I do believe you three have the right idea.  I will think on it and find a suitable person to create a pamphlet and conduct the seminar.  Now, I do believe I hear the aurors.”

            Hermione wondered if Dumbledore had some secret connection to the castle because she didn’t hear a thing, and yet the aurors appeared in the doorway a moment later.  There was a much larger group this time.  There were six aurors, including Padfoot, Dora, and Mrs. Longbottom. 

            Padfoot took in the group at the table and then looked over at Dora and Mrs. Longbottom.

            “See, I told you.”

            Dora rolled her eyes, “Point.”

            And, despite the seriousness of what had occurred that night and the sullen faced Mclaggen sitting next to her, Hermione couldn’t help but smile.  Her dad was never going to grow up.

Chapter Text

            A pounding made the door shake as Harry called out, "C'mon, 'Mione!  We're going to be late!"

            Hermione shot a glare at the door and refused to respond.  They were not going to be late.  And, besides, it would be a nightmare getting there on time.  She was sure Mr. Diggory had invited every wizard and witch in all of the British Isles to celebrate his son winning the tournament.  

            It would also be the last time she got to see Viktor as he would be playing Quidditch for the test of the summer, and then she would be at Hogwarts. 

            She wasn't sure if she wanted to use more of the scar cream so she could wear short summer robes, or if she should wear her more standard robes.  The ones Aunt Andy had designed and charmed for her. 

            "Hermione!"

            "Hold your hippogriffs, Harry!  We're not going to be late!" she shouted back, never turning her eyes away from the two robes lying across her bed.

            After a moment she decided that much as she liked Viktor, this party wasn't worth one of the rare uses of the cream.  She didn't know how many times she could use it before it stopped working.  

            Better to save it.

            Her mind decided, it only took two minutes to throw on her robes, adjust them correctly, then slip on her ankle boots.  The heels on them gave her just enough height to be able to look Harry in the eyes, even if he was still a bit taller than her.

            The pounding started again on the door and she stormed across her room, opening it so fast that Harry almost fell forwards.

            "Honestly!  What do you care if we're late or on time?!?"

            "Ron heard that Cedric Diggory is going to arrange a pickup Quidditch game.  I'm sure he'll be one of the seekers.  I want to be the other one."

            She rolled her eyes, "You're the youngest seeker in a century.  You've never lost a game in your life.  Do you really think you won't be?"

            "But Diggory's girlfriend is Cho Chang, and she's the-"

            "Ravenclaw seeker, I know."

            "And then Viktor Krum will also be there.  And he played in the World Cup!  Malfoy is also supposed to be there, and he’s also a seeker! I need to be there early if I want to play.  You know I'm terrible at the other positions."

            "Harry, you're not terrible.  Ron's just a great keeper, no one scores against him.  Except Ginny, and she only manages half the time."

            "And what if I end up on a different team than Ron?  We need to get there early."

            Hermione sighed and rolled her eyes, but went to grab her little knit bag.  If she got bored she could keep working on expanding it inside.  So far she had been able to manipulate the size extension charm, but had been unable to make it infinite without losing everything she put inside. 

            Maybe a locater spell...

            "Here 'Mione."

            She looked with semi-distaste at the broom Harry was holding out for her.  It was a very nice, safe broom.  But that didn't mean she enjoyed being on it.

            But they didn't have much choice.  They couldn't apparate and the floo network would be overloaded with people from farther away. And there was no way Harry would walk when he could fly.  There were no muggle houses between them and the Diggory's.  

            Padfoot had to work today so would miss most of the party, so they couldn't side-apparate with him either.  He wouldn’t arrive until dinner was being served.

            The flight took about ten minutes and Hermione was quite happy to set her feet on solid ground once more.

            As soon as they hit the ground Harry was off; his piercing green eyes searching the slowly growing crowd for any sign of Cedric Diggory.

            Hermione rolled her eyes and headed over to where she saw Mrs. Weasley.  She'd know where her broomstick could be stored.  She had no plans to play any Quidditch.

            "Now, Ginny, I don't want you to ruin your nice robes playing Quidditch today.  Leave it to the-"

            Ginny's arms were crossed and her expression was furious.  "Mum, if you say 'leave it to the boys' one more time I shall scream.  I am just as good as any of them.  And I brought robes to change into if I'm able to play.  So you can't say I'm going to ruin them."

            "Mum, she's fine.  Let Ginny play if she wants to.  She's an amazing flyer." Bill Weasley said.

            Hermione felt like she was intruding upon an argument that she had heard too many times before.  Mrs. Weasley just couldn't seem to understand that her one and only daughter was just as much 'one of the boys' as any of her sons.

            Mrs. Weasley threw up her hands in frustration and surrender, "Fine!  Play Quidditch!  But if you ruin your new robes...."

            "Don't worry, Mum.  I won't," Ginny promised, dropping her arms and smiling as she hurried off in the same direction Harry had taken.  

            "Oh, Hermione, nice to see you."

            Mrs. Weasley had noticed Hermione standing nearby.

            "Hello, Mrs. Weasley.  I don't mean to intrude, just want to know where to put this."  She held up her broomstick.

            Mrs. Weasley smiled, "I'll just take it for you.  Go and enjoy the party."  She gestured towards a distant figure on a broomstick, “I believe Ron is that way.”

            Hermione handed off the broom and Mrs. Weasley bustled away, leaving Hermione standing there with Bill.  She was a little confused as to why Mrs. Weasley thought she’d be looking for Ron.

            "Sorry about that, Hermione.  Mum has been in a tizzy ever since Percy's boss ended up in St. Mungos last week after a heart attack.  Percy has been working 16 hour days to cover the closure of the tournament and Mum is worried he's not taking care of himself.  So she's trying to mother hen us."

            Hermione smiled, "I'd believe that was the reason if I hadn't heard that same argument between them a million times over the years."

            He grinned at her, "Point."

            She nodded her head in acknowledgement and scanned the crowd to see who else she knew there.  Fun as Bill was they weren't very close.  

            "Hermione!  It ez zo lovely to zee a familiar face!"

            Hermione turned around to find the lovely Fleur Delacour dressed in a gauzy set of lavender robes.

            "Fleur, How are you?  We haven't spoken since-"

            "Zee end of zee second task.  You were a bit tied up with Viktor."

            Hermione felt her cheeks heat up at that. Especially with a Weasley nearby.   What one Weasley knew, they all knew.  A dangerous thing when she was spending quite a few days this summer working with the twins to fulfill her bargain with them.

            Fleur laughed, the sound tinkling like little bells.  "I forget, how young you are.  Now," her eyes moved past Hermione to look at Bill, "who ez this?"

            Hermione moved aside to introduce them and as she did so she realized that she'd need to find someone else to speak with.  The looks the two were exchanging were positively criminal.

            They barely even noticed when she said she was off to find Luna.  Really, she doubted the Lovegoods were here.  At least not yet.  They rarely came to events on time, at least when punctuality wasn’t an issue.

            She moved off through the crowd, seeing many people she recognized, but no one she wanted to engage in conversation.  After a bit she found herself on the edge of the garden.  She could see a group of people in the field nearby holding broomsticks.  She couldn't make out any details, but it looked like one of them was Viktor.  She found herself a place to sit under a massive oak tree and began working on the theoretical issues involved in creating infinite space inside a container in such a way that she could always locate an item placed within the space.  Her mind raced while the distant hum of conversation merged with the shouts and yells of the Quidditch players.

            Time passed, the sun shifted in the sky, and Hermione felt at peace with herself as she worked through problems.  

            She'd converse with others and be social later, when dinner was served.  This was a much better way to spend a beautiful, sunny day.

XXX

                Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, Supreme Mugwump, Grand Sorcerer, and Headmaster of Hogwarts could think of quite a few ways he would rather spend a beautiful summer day than the task that now lay ahead of him.

                He’d never, not once, during his entire tenure expelled a student.

                He had spent many hours considering it in the past, but, ultimately, he had decided that expulsion would push most wizards and witches further into the darkness. 

                People like Hagrid were the exception, not the rule.

                It was for this reason that he had let Sirius escape true punishment for almost killing Severus. 

                He’d known that expelling Sirius and revealing Remus to be a werewolf would only bring misery and darkness.  He had failed to realize that the lack of punishment had only pushed Severus further into the darkness he’d been skirting.

                It was one of the few times he could honestly claim that his decision was not the truly right one.  Though he wasn’t sure there was a right decision in this case.

                Because Severus entering the darkness had brought about the death of the Potters.  But did Albus know that Severus would have turned away from evil earlier if his bullies had been punished?  Or would something else, something even worse, have happened?

                Would Voldemort have attacked the Longbottoms?  Would Alice and Neville now lie beside Frank?  Would the world now be under Voldemort’s power?  He had chosen to mark Harry as his equal.  Was anyone else capable of being his equal?

                Albus shook his head and reached out to pick up his eagle feather quill.  He twirled it in his fingers, wondering how many mistakes he had made over the years.  Mistakes that had caused him to slowly lose the control he’d always prided himself in having. 

            He’d failed when the Potters chose Pettigrew to be the Secret Keeper.  He’d failed when he’d allowed Sirius to take Harry away from his blood relatives.  He’d only been saved by pure chance.  Albus still wasn’t sure how the blood wards were still active.  Even now he had Arabella Figg doing some genealogy for him to discover Lily Potter née Evans’ ancestors.  The reason had to lie there, but as of yet he had no proof.

            He’d failed so many times, but he had failed because he wasn’t a god.  He was merely a man.  A man that made mistakes.  A man that, most importantly, understood that people always had a choice.

            Sirius had chosen to play a deadly trick on Severus.  He’d chosen to tease and bully Severus for years.  He’d chosen to let Peter Pettigrew be the Secret Keeper for the Potters.  He’d chosen to raise two children he had no true responsibility for.  He’d chosen to become an auror and save as many people as he could.

                He had chosen to change and redeem himself.  He’d chosen to become a better person.

                Severus had chosen to turn away from his childhood friend.  He’d chosen to make new, darker friends.  He’d chosen to take the Dark Mark.  He’d chosen to tell Voldemort the prophecy.  He’d chosen to betray Voldemort to save his childhood friend.  He’d chosen to swear to protect his friend’s orphaned son.

                He had also chosen to change and redeem himself.  He’d become, if not a better person, a person that did better things.

                And Albus’ refusal to expel any student had given them this chance.

                And that was why he had stood firm in front of the Wizengamot and refused to expel Cormac Mclaggen. 

                Robeus Barrow and Graham Montague had been outside of his control.  They were both of age and had completed their NEWTs.  They had made choices that would bring them great consequences. 

                But it was not the same with Cormac.  He was only fifteen and had been persuaded through a mixture of blackmail, lies, and bribery to pass out the vitius.  He had believed they were regular apples.  That the candy coating contained a minor love potion.  A much less grevious crime than giving out vitius.

                Barrow and Montague had not truly believed that Cormac would give them away.  They hadn’t thought he’d willingly submit his memories and take Veritaserum.

                More fools they.

                And so Albus had argued to give Cormac a chance.  He’d refused to expel the boy.  And if he didn’t expel him, they couldn’t send him to Azkaban. 

                There was no forgiveness for giving pure, raw vitius to someone. 

                It not only made the mind highly susceptible, but it also created dependency.  The dreams brought on by the use of vitius were supposed to be some of the most beautiful things on this world.

                The girls that had eaten the fruit were in for a long, slow and painful recovery.  Pomona only had one vitius tree, but she was considering sending it away until the girls fully recovered.  Especially as one of them would be taking NEWT level Herbology.

                Still, he’d argued, determined to give Cormac the same chance he’d given so many other students.

                Surprisingly, he had found help in an unexpected place.

                Roy Parkinson and Lucius Malfoy had stood up and pled for clemency for the boy.  Stating that he should have a chance to change before losing all of his chances at a future.

                Augusta Longbottom had demanded a way to prove the boy changed.  To show a way to make the boy change.

                And then, Sirius Black, who had never once spoken in the Wizengamot after claiming his family’s seat, stood and addressed the assemblage; offering a solution that was deemed acceptable.

                Still, it pained Albus to sign the document before him. 

                He was not expelling Cormac Mclaggen, he was merely suspending him from Hogwarts for a year. 

                In that time the boy would work five days a week at St. Mungos, doing volunteer work.  During the remaining two days he would be at the Ministry of Magic, under the supervision of an auror.  What the auror would be making him do was yet to be decided.  But there had been a gleam in Sirius’ eye that made Albus sure that he had something in mind.

                After a year, the boy’s situation would once again be evaluated.  If he had changed he would be allowed to return to Hogwarts and take his NEWT classes. 

            If he hadn’t changed, he would be expelled.

            All Albus had to do was sign the suspension form lying before him.  That was it.  One small signature and Cormac Mclaggen would have a chance to change.  A chance to make better choices.

            Letting out a heavy sigh he dipped the eagle quill in his inkpot and signed the form.

            Hopefully he was right this time.  And this wasn’t one more mistake.

XXX

                Summer sped by for Hermione.  She spent most of it alone, though that had been true for many summers. 

                Ron, Ginny, and Harry were almost always on their broomsticks, soaring through the air, throwing balls around and ending their days windswept and dusty.

                Luna would be around for days, feeding her fish, before randomly disappearing for a week or so with her father.  The two of them off on some strange adventure that only made sense to them.  Whenever she returned Ron would abandon his broomstick for a few days, and spend time sitting by the creek, idly building some sort of fish feeder.

                Harry and Ginny would be very hard to find during these few days; earning much teasing from the twins. 

                Hermione bit her tongue, after all, they’d said nothing after her long walks with Viktor.

                She visited Neville once, only to find Pansy there.  The two of them were out in his private greenhouse.  He was up to his elbows in soil and she was sitting on a chair nearby, working on summer homework. 

            Hermione still wasn’t sure what was going on between the two of them. 

            They didn’t act like Ron and Luna or Harry and Ginny.  There were no side glances, goofy smiles, or embarrassed blushes.  Merely a quiet peacefulness that felt like it had been there forever. 

            It was even present at Malfoy’s birthday party.

            Neville was invited this year, but he and Pansy spent most of the time near each other. 

            Hermione found herself wondering if Narcissa was trying to pair Pansy off with Neville, so that Hermione would have no competition for Malfoy.  A rather smart move, except that Hermione had no interest at all in Malfoy. 

            Even if he had gotten taller.

            Malfoy spoke some with Pansy, there was something different between them.  From what Hermione could see the trust and camaraderie that had once existed was strained, possibly even broken. 

            There was something sad in Malfoy’s grey eyes as he watched Pansy and Neville together.

            It made Hermione wonder.

            At Harry’s birthday Malfoy actually participated somewhat.  When Ron proposed a pickup game of Quidditch Malfoy even volunteered to play a seeker.  When he discovered they didn’t have enough people to play with seekers he chose to play chaser, on the opposite team from Harry.

            Hermione sat the game out with Luna.  The two of them watched a bit, but mostly Hermione got Luna interested in helping her solve the issue of locating something once it was placed in an infinite space.

            She wasn’t quite sure who won the Quidditch game, as all of the players looked happy at the end, but she had figured out the last few issues with her bag.  Luna just looked at things in a way that Hermione couldn’t, saving Hermione hours of work.

            She also spent a bit of time working with the twins and helping them develop a few more potions that they’d found themselves unable to complete for one reason or another.

            By the end of the summer they were offering her a share in future profits if she continued to assist them.  When she’d asked them how they were planning to fund more projects they sat her down and explained their business plan.  Including how Cedric Diggory had been so impressed with what they did at the celebration after the Triwizard Tournament that he’d offered to help fund them with his winnings for a share of future profits.

            She’d agreed with the promise that she had the rights to use anything they worked on together, as long as she let them sell it.

            Before she knew it there was nip in the evening air and they were once again packing up their trunks.  Their Hogwarts letters had appeared, and with them shiny prefect badges for Hermione and Neville.  Ron and Harry had been a bit disappointed, but had ultimately decided that no prefect duties meant more free time.

            The ride back to Hogwarts was uneventful.  Malfoy did show up, but he merely visited with Pansy some before leaving. 

            Ron entertained himself during Malfoy’s visit by making faces at Crabbe and Goyle, trying to see if they had any expression besides ‘stupid’, making Ginny snicker and Hermione roll her eyes.

            The year proved to be a hard one, but Hermione had suspected that it would be.  Their OWLs were at the end of the year. 

            Professor Moody had returned to retirement at the end of the previous year.  He’d been replaced by a French witch, Professor Roux.  She knew the material well, but was a bit flighty and easily angered, causing her to rival Snape in numbers of detentions given.

            Her detentions were never bad, though.  She was usually over her anger by then and so spent the time teaching more spells and defensive maneuvers.  Hermione tagged along after Harry got detention once and found herself in the midst of a great lesson on recognizing an opponent’s intentions through their body movements.

            By mid-November Professor Roux was no longer holding detentions.  Rather, she was conducting advanced defense classes to an ever growing number of upper-level students.

            Aunt Andy and Narcissa came to the school on quite a few weekends and gave seminars on magical culture and customs.  A few were mandatory for all students, but they covered things related to dangers only found in the magical world. 

            Hermione took note of every face that seemed a bit too unhappy with this change in the curriculum.  Most of them were Slytherin boys, but she saw one or two Ravenclaws that didn’t look too pleased.

            Christmas came and went, Hermione loved spending time once again with Padfoot.  He was a bit more serious over the holiday season than he had been in the summer.  Hermione knew that sometimes his position as an auror caused him to feel down.  He never said anything to her or Harry, but they could see the stress it put on him. 

            The years it added to his face. 

            That didn’t stop Harry from telling Professor McGonagall that he planned to be an auror after he finished school.  Hermione on the other hand, wasn’t sure yet what she wanted.  She had a list, an ever growing list, of things to work on.  But she wasn’t yet sure how best to accomplish this list.  She thought being the Minister of Magic might do it, but she couldn’t list that as her career choice.  To state her final intentions now would only give others the chance to put walls in her way.

            So she said she wanted to enter the ministry and work with people.  Do something that made the wizarding world a better place.  But she wanted to continue as many classes as possible at NEWT level, to keep her options open.

            As the snow disappeared and a new, sweet warmth appeared in the air she buckled down and devoted herself to studying.  Once again she claimed that long-deserted classroom as her place of study.  Her friends joined her sometimes, but none of them had the same desire to study that she did. 

            Towards the end of April they had a Hogsmeade day and all of her friends slipped off to refill their candy stashes, but Hermione took herself off to her classroom. 

            She had studying to do, candy could wait.

            Plus, she was certain that they had separated into couples so they could quietly snog down deserted alleys. 

            Well, except for Neville and Pansy.  They didn’t seem to be that interested in snogging.  At least she’d never caught them in a broom cupboard, like she’d caught Harry and Ginny once.

            Merlin, had that been embarrassing.

            She was deep into revising when the she felt the air shift as the door swung open.

            Her wand was in her hand and aimed at the door before she’d even looked up.

            “Black, really?  I thought we’d gotten past aiming wands at each other.”

            Malfoy’s characteristic drawl had her rolling her eyes as she lowered her wand.

            “Malfoy, what are you doing here?”

            He held up his overflowing bag, “I need to study.  The first and second years have decided that since it’s a Hogsmeade weekend they can play the loudest games possible in the common room.”

            “Then why don’t you study in the library?  Madam Pince never allows noise.”

            He strolled over and deposited his bag on a desk a few feet away from her.

            “She’s a bit put out at me.  Caught Crabbe eating some sort of cream pie near her precious books, and of course blames me for it.  Honestly, as if I can control what he stuffs his face with.”

            “What makes you think you’re welcome here?”

            “Pansy comes here and I’m Pansy’s friend.  Plus, you’re my cousin.  Right?” he flashed her a smile that made her breath catch.

            He settled himself into a chair and began pulling out his study materials. 

            She watched him for a moment before giving herself a shake and rolling her eyes. 

            Just what was she staring at?  He was Draco Lucius Malfoy.  Her cousin.  The boy that had once called her a mudblood.  He did NOT have a breath-catching smile.

            No, simply not.

            “Fine, stay then.”

            “I planned on it.”

            She scowled and slipped her wand back into her sleeve before picking up her quill.  Then she purposefully ignored him and returned to revising.

            She was in the middle of memorizing just what were the thirty-six uses of beetle wings when it hit her.  Her breath caught and her quill dropped to the table as her entire body shook.

            Harry.

            She had to get to Harry.

            Something was wrong.

            Something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Chapter Text

            The sudden sound of a desk being shoved across the floor made Draco's hand slip; creating a huge splotch of ink in the middle of the transfiguration notes he'd been writing.

            He scowled and looked up, opening his mouth to yell at Black.

            But as soon as he saw her he knew something was terribly, horribly wrong.

            There was such a look of pure, unbridled terror on her face.  Before he could ask what was wrong she was on her feet and racing out of the classroom, her wand appearing in her hand as she flew past him.

            He didn't stop to think about it. 

            He followed her.

            Though as he slipped through the doorway and lifted his robes to accommodate his longer stride he found himself wondering what his life had come to, chasing Black through the corridors of Hogwarts. 

            If he hadn't had such long legs he didn't think he could have kept up with her.  She was moving so fast, her hair had fallen out of its usual bun, trailing behind her like a long, shimmery cape.

            "Black!  Stop!  What's going on?!?"

            She ignored him as she tore through an archway, racing down a circular staircase.

            They were on the other side of the castle, somewhere on the fifth floor, when Black let out a pained gasp and fell to the ground, clutching her left forearm.

            He skidded to a halt and fell to his knees beside her.  He felt her wand digging into his knee, but he ignored it.

            "Black?  What's wrong?  What's going on?"  He reached out, hands shaking, trying to see if she was injured.  

            She didn't respond, her face frighteningly pale under her tangled curtain of hair.

            "Black?  BLACK!"

            Still no response, he moved her right hand and looked at her arm, but everything looked normal on her black sleeve.

            He was very confused, and her refusal to answer made him wonder about her sanity.  Though, much as Black annoyed him, he'd always thought she had a sound mind.

            Her lips moved and he barely heard her whisper, "Drown, please drown," repeatedly.

            He started to push her sleeve up, to see what was wrong.

            Her right hand was suddenly gripping his wrist and she was shoving herself away from him.  He looked up at her, meeting her soft brown eyes with his own steely grey ones.

            She gasped, her eyes wide with fear, viewing something he couldn’t.

            “Black?”

            Her breathing quickened and her hands began shaking as she felt around on the floor, searching for her wand. 

            He moved his knee and handed it to her, but didn’t let go as she took it.

            “Black, answer me!”

            She just tugged on the wand, as if trying to pull a cranky mandrake out of its pot. 

            “Hermione!” He gave in and used her given name.  It twisted across his tongue in a rather unsettling way.

            She jerked and looked up at him, meeting his eyes once again; but this time she actually saw him.

            “He’s back.”

            “What do you mean?  Who’s back?”

            She just yanked her wand out of his hand and hopped to her feet.  There was a panicked, yet fierce note in her voice as she spoke, “He’s got Harry and he’s back.  We need to go, NOW.”

            She took off running, but this time she headed up.

            Draco was still just as confused as before, but that didn’t stop him from following Black.  He wanted, no, he needed, to find out what was going on.

XXX

            Harry’s vision swam in front of him as he watched the horrible figure emerge from the cauldron before him.  Rain coated his glasses, making the figure nothing more than a pale blob, but he still knew who it was.

            He knew exactly who it was.

            And he was terrified.

            His heart was beating like a drum in his chest and there was a rushing in his ears as a cold voice said, “Robe me.”

            “Yes, master.  Of course.”

            The strange man that had snatched Harry from the alley he’d been snogging Ginny in carefully picked up the black robes with his one remaining hand.  He then slipped them over his master’s head, grinning madly the entire time.  Ignoring the blood seeping from his stump.

            Ginny…he hoped she was alright.  He’d last seen her bobbing ponytail as he’d followed her towards the street. 

            Please, please let her be alright.

            “Barty, hold out your arm,” Voldemort said as the robes fell into place.

            The strange man, Barty, held out his left arm.  Voldemort pushed up the sleeve, revealing the twisting snake and skull that made up the Dark Mark.  Harry had only ever seen it in old newspaper clippings Padfoot kept stuffed in a box in the attic.

            “It is back,” he said softly, “they will all have noticed it…and now, we shall see…now we shall know…”

            He pressed his long white forefinger to the brand on Barty’s arm.

            Harry’s scar immediately erupted with pain.  He gasped and pushed back at the pain.  Using the mind exercises Professor Roux had taught them during a ‘detention’.  Instantly the pain lessoned, but his head began to swim.  He knew it had to do with the blood loss.  He could feel his wrist dangling strangely as blood mixed with rainwater at his feet.

            Barty had cut him deeply when taking blood.  Too deeply.

            He’d felt his mind link up with Hermione’s.  He’d felt her presence.  He knew it.  He’d been with her too many times over the years, when her dreams took her to places he couldn’t truly understand.  Never once had he been on the receiving end, not really.  Maybe during the incident with the Philosopher’s Stone, but he’d been in too much pain to know what was going on.

            Hermione had seen what he had seen. 

            She was smart enough to figure it out.  To see the angel next to him; the regularly placed stones.  She’d know it was a cemetery.

            Maybe…maybe they could find him.

            Dimly he realized Voldmort was speaking.  Something about a house up on a hill, but he couldn’t pay attention. 

            He felt cold.

            So cold.

            His cheek began to sting and he heard the distant sound of a slap; he rolled his head to the side, too tired to look up.  From the corner of his eye he could see the blood red eyes of Voldemort blazing down at him.

            “Harry Potter! Pay attention!”

            Harry couldn’t help it, he snorted in laughter, jostling his arm and making him gasp as the blood began to flow even faster.

            “What…”

            Voldemort grabbed Harry’s arm and held it up so he could see it in the dim glow of Barty’s wand.  Harry felt the world grow dark as pain overcome him.  Briefly he felt Hermione brush him, and together they looked into the angry red eyes of a man everyone thought was dead.  And then, sweet, warm darkness swallowed him up.

XXX

            Black skidded to a halt outside a portrait of a fat lady. 

            “Codswallop.”

            The portrait sent Draco a strange look, but swung open to reveal a cheerful little common room.  For half a moment he felt a little envious of the Gryffindors.  Being up so high, able to look out over the grounds…

            His thoughts were abruptly stopped as Hermione grabbed his arm and yanked him through the portrait hole.

            She pulled him through the common room, earning quite a few glances from the first and second years there, but none of them dared to question two prefects - even if one of them was in the wrong house.

            She pulled him up a spiral staircase and into a comfortable room outfitted with five beds.  He stood awkwardly in the doorway, wondering just how much his world had changed that Hermione Black had pulled him into Gryffindor Tower.

            That she seemed to be relying on him for help.

            She dug around in two trunks and came out holding two broomsticks.  One was a Nimbus 2000 and looked well-used, the other was a fairly new Firebolt.

            “Both brooms have beaten you to the snitch, they’re fast.  Just what we need,” she said as she panted, trying to catch her breath.

            “Wait, brooms, isn’t Potter in Hogsmeade?”

            “No, didn’t you-” she froze and her eyes glazed over again, but only for a moment.

            “Black?”

            She gave her head a shake, worry filling her face as she handed him the brooms before sweeping her hair back into a ponytail.  “Look, Malfoy, I will do this alone, but I need help and there’s no time to deal with adult politics.  No one would believe me anyway.  Harry was taken, by a Death Eater.  Voldemort is back.”

            Draco shook his head in disbelief, “No, he’s gone.  Father assured me.”

            “Your father was mistaken.  He tied himself to this world.  I can’t explain how, but he did it.  He’s not gone, and he won’t be until we figure out what was missed.”

            “That makes no sense!”

            She gave a snort of frustration and yanked the Firebolt out of his hand.  “Look, Malfoy, I don’t have time to explain.  Harry is DYING.  Now, I know you’re not evil.  Maybe I thought that once, but I know you better now.  I also know your mother and I can’t see her wanting Harry Potter, The-Boy-Who-Lived, to die.  Even if it means directly confronting Lord Voldemort.  So, are you going to help me or not?”

            Draco felt torn.  Black was family, and he’d always been told that you did everything for family.  Potter was her family, much as the prat annoyed him.  And that meant Potter was his family, too.  In a way he didn’t really want to think about.

            His mother would tell him to go. 

            But his father…

            He didn’t know what his father would want.

            And He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…the Dark Lord…to stand against him….

            He couldn’t.

            He couldn’t do it.

            He wasn’t a hero.

            He thrust the Nimbus into her hands, “I-I’m sorry.  I can’t.”

            She closed her eyes, hiding whatever was shining there, and took a deep breath, “Fine.  Go find Dumbledore.  Tell him what happened.”

            She opened her eyes and met his.  Her eyes were no longer soft - they glittered with a sharp starkness. “Can you do that?”

            He gulped and nodded, unable to find words to speak that wouldn’t reveal how wrong he knew his decision was.  She grabbed a belt out of one of trunks and transfigured it into a harness, then she fixed the Nimbus to her back.  He watched as she moved to the window and pushed it open.  She stood there for half a second, frozen, and he felt the sudden urge to call out, to stop her.

            But then she was gone, racing off on Harry Potter’s Firebolt.

            Draco turned and ran back out of Gryffindor Tower.

XXX

            Ginny’s lungs were screaming as she sprinted up the road between Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. 

            Stupid, stupid adults!

            No one had believed her when she said Harry had disappeared.  They’d assumed she had fought with her boyfriend and he’d gone off on his own or headed back to Hogwarts.

            But they didn’t know Harry like she did.  He wouldn’t do that.  Not that they’d fought.  No, they’d been doing the exact opposite.

            And then she hadn’t been able to find Ron or Luna.  They were likely off sitting by some bubbling brook looking for Nargles or Squadges or some such nonsense.  And Neville and Pansy had already left to go back to Hogwarts.

            Professor Dumbledore would believe her.  Merlin, even Snape would believe her!  They knew that there were still people out there that wanted to harm Harry.

            She rounded a bend in the road and caught sight of a figure on a broom right above her, racing off to the south. 

            She knew broomsticks, and she knew how people rode them.

            “HERMIONE!!!”

            The broom slowed and turned, coming closer until Hermione made a clumsy landing next to her.

            “Ginny!  Harry, he’s been-“

            “I know!”

            Ginny reached over and unhooked Ron’s Nimbus from Hermione’s back.  She threw her leg over it and looked at the older girl.

            "I assume you know where he is?  You two and your weird sensing thing?”

            Hermione gave a quick nod and then pushed off the ground.  Ginny was in the air an instant after her.  Luckily Padfoot had spent so many hours tutoring Hermione on flying, because flying over the Scottish countryside, staying low enough to avoid muggles, was extremely difficult.

            Ginny’s hands were completely numb by the time the landscape became softer, the hills more rolling.  Not too long after that the clouds moved in and soon they were battling their way through piercing needles of icy rain.

            Hermione never wavered.

            It was as if some invisible compass directed her onwards.  And Ginny supposed that was true.  Harry had told her some about the weird connection between himself and his foster sister.  How he’d always known when Hermione was having flashbacks or nightmares, ever since they were young.  Hermione had only experienced it when Harry had been attacked by Quirrell; before Ginny had started at Hogwarts.

            Whatever it was only occurred when one was in danger or great pain.  And for Hermione to sense Harry so clearly…

            Ginny was terrified of what they would find.

            Not too much later Hermione took a sudden dive downwards.  Ginny followed, spiraling to slow her descent, mildly surprised when Hermione did the same. 

            The two girls hit the muddy ground and went sprawling, their frozen limbs refusing to function.  They laid there for a moment, and then Hermione managed to unclasp her broom and cast a warming charm over the two of them.

            “There, the trace should let them know where we are,” Hermione said.

            Ginny snorted and pulled her own stiff fingers off of the Nimbus.  “Are you so sure they’re looking for us?”

            “Yes, I sent Malfoy to tell Dumbledore.”

            Ginny looked over at Hermione in surprise and rolled over, pushing herself up onto all fours in preparation of putting weight on her frozen feet.

            “You really think Malfoy would tell Dumbledore?  It was likely Death Eater scum that took Harry.”

            Hermione pushed herself into a sitting position and looked at Ginny, “Malfoy is family, even if we end up on different sides.  If he says he'll do something, he'll do it. And it wasn’t just Death Eater scum.  It’s Voldemort.  He’s back."  

            Ginny was halfway onto her feet when Hermione spoke.  She toppled back to the ground in shock.

            “He-he’s BACK?!?”

            Hermione nodded grimly, “And he’s not too far away.  I can feel Harry close by.  We need to hurry.”

            “But the adults...”

            Hermione stood up, holding onto a nearby tree.  “I don’t think we have time to wait for them.  Harry feels very, very weak.  I don’t know what they’ve done to him.  But it’s-“

            She abruptly fell to the ground and began writhing in pain, her hands clasped over her mouth to stop from screaming.

            That didn’t stop Ginny from hearing distant screams over the constant pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves.

            She shoved herself to her feet and yanked out her wand - eyes scanning the trees around them.  There was nothing she could do to stop Hermione's pain.  When the screaming stopped and Hermione was lying still beside the two broomsticks Ginny reached down and grabbed her friend’s arm, pulling her to her feet.

            “Hermione.  Block him.  Put up your shields.  I know Professor Roux taught occlumancy during ‘detention’.  We’re here.  You don’t need the connection to find him.  And I can’t have you falling to the ground every time they torture him.”

            Tears mingled with rain on Hermione’s face, “But…he’ll be alone.”

            Ginny gave the older girl a rough shake, “Hermione Granger Black, wake up!  He’s not alone!  He knows we’re coming, doesn’t he?”

            Hermione took a deep, shuddery breath and nodded.

            “Good, now let’s go.”

            Ginny grabbed the Firebolt this time, and handed the Nimbus to Hermione before moving through the small copse of trees, towards where the scream had originated from.

            It was slow going, neither of them wanted to create a light, for fear of being seen.

            A couple times Hermione gave sharp gasp, just before the screams started again.  After the first time Ginny took her friend’s hand, offering what little comfort she could as they made their way over tree roots.  

            Abruptly the trees came to an end.  Dimly they could make out a low stone wall before them, an small wrought iron gate illuminated by a group of glowing wands not more than twenty feet from them.  

            The two girls crouched down and moved to the wall, peering through the gate.

            There were a number of robed and masked people encircling a tall, thin figure.

            It was a high, cold voice that spoke, cutting through the sound of the rain.

            "That hurt, didn’t it Harry?  You don’t want me to do that again, do you?"

            There was a pause, but no one spoke over the sound of the rain.

            “You are but a boy that has had pure luck on his side.  Taken so easily off the streets of Hogsmeade.  Weakened so much by a simple cut.  Now, I asked you whether you want me to do that again.” Voldemort said more softly this time.  His voice just barely heard from Ginny’s hiding place.  “Answer me!  Imperio!"

            They stood their frozen, waiting for Harry to respond.  Not sure what they would do, but knowing they needed the Death Eaters to be in confusion if they were to have a chance of rescuing Harry.

            Abruptly a rough, familiar voice yell out, "I won’t!"

            “You won’t?  Why, Harry, obedience is a virtue, and I must teach you it before you die.  Perhaps some more pain?”

            Ginny winced and gripped her wand tightly in one hand, her broom in the other.  She looked over at Hermione to see her mounting her own broom, still in a crouch.

            “We are not playing hide-and-seek, Harry.”

            Hide-and-seek?  Harry must have run and hid.

            She glanced over at the older girl and locked eyes with Hermione.  The two of them then pushed off the ground and rose slowly.  They had no time to make a plan, all they could do was their best to delay events until help arrived.  If Hermione was right in her belief that Malfoy would tell Dumbledore. 

            Soon as they were in the air they froze, hovering ten feet in the air.

            “Expelliarmus!”

            “Avada Kedavra!”

            The entire graveyard lit up as two streams of light poured from Harry and Lord Voldemort's wands.  One red and one green. They met in the middle and a narrow beam of golden light connected the two wands. 

            As Ginny watched, frozen, Harry and Voldemort were lifted off the ground.  They floated away from the gravestones and landed in a grassy area even farther form where Ginny and Hermione were hovering.

            The Death Eaters began shouting and hurrying to follow – to reform the circle.

            Ginny made out a great shape slithering along the ground and felt her skin crawl.

            As the two girls watched the light changed, becoming a web that formed a dome over the two combatants.

            The Death Eaters took a step forwards, towards Harry, and Ginny raised her wand, but Voldemort's voice stopped them.

            "No!  The boy is mine!"

            Ginny glanced over at Hermione to see her staring intently at what was occurring.  Distantly they heard whispers, but could make nothing out.  Ginny urged her broom up higher and forwards, Hermione following her.

            When they were almost directly above the Death Eaters Ginny leaned over to whisper to Hermione.

            “When this, whatever it is, ends, I’ll swoop down and grab him.  Can you cover us?”

            Hermione nodded, her hands bone white on her wand.

            Ginny settled her gaze on the golden dome, looking for any sign that it would break.  Through the shimmery curtain of light she could make out additional figures.  There was more than just Harry and Voldemort in their now, but she had no idea how they had gotten there.  Nor could she do anything about it.  She wasn’t the most studious witch, but even she knew if it looked like a shield, it was probably a shield.

            Then there was a yell of, “NOW!” and the dome of light broke.  There was a rush of something towards Voldemort, but Ginny paid it no mind.  She aimed the Firebolt downwards and pushed it to go as fast as it could.  She narrowed her eyes as the wind bit at her face.  Her entire focus was on her target, sure in the knowledge that Hermione would do all she could to shield her.  She almost crashed into Harry, but at the last possible moment she leveled out, reaching down with her right hand. 

            There was a loud ‘SMACK’ as their hands collided, she felt the impact through her bones.  With a great heave she yanked him upwards.  Her muscles screamed in pain as he hung from her arm.  But then, far enough up, she leveled out.  Harry took the chance to swing himself up on the broom behind her.  His hands were shaking as they wrapped themselves around her waist.  His wand jabbing her in the stomach.

            All the while she heard spells fizzle and crash against the shield Hermione had erected around them.  She glanced over to see Hermione beside them, casting spells and throwing up shields as needed.  A jet of green light caught Ginny’s eye and she rolled to the side.  Harry clung tightly to her, both of then using every trick in their quidditch bag to stay on the broom.

            “Let’s go!”  Ginny shouted.

            The three of them raced away from the graveyard, not entirely sure where they were flying, but knowing they had to get away. 

            Ginny could tell that Hermione was beginning to fall behind them, her lack of ease with a broom, as well as her spell-casting, was causing her to slow down. 

            “Hermione!  She needs help!” Harry shouted in her ear.

            Ginny felt Harry unwrap his right arm from around her waist and twist to look behind them.

            “Stupefy!” he called out.

            Another jet of green light came streaming past them and Ginny made a few erratic swerves, dodging more streams of red and green lights, as well as a nasty looking orange one.

            Hermione let out a sudden scream, and Ginny spun her head around, almost stopping in mid-air, to see Hermione let go of the broom and clutch her side in pain.  In response her broom tilted and she plummeted towards the ground.

            “HERMIONE!!!”

            Ginny didn’t know if it was her scream or Harry’s that clashed with the sudden sound of thunder booming in the distance.

            She yanked on the broom and headed straight down, praying that she could reach Hermione in time. 

            She pushed down on the broom handle, pulling herself as close to the broomstick as possible, Harry’s weight was pushing against her, urging her down, but also holding her back, their robes catching the wind.  Both of them were urging the faithful Firebolt to just go a little bit faster.  Ginny’s heart was in her throat as she pulled beside Hermione, who was bent in two, screaming silently and clawing at her stomach.  She reached out one hand to grab the front of the Nimbus, but her hand slipped on the wet wood.  She reached out again and only succeeded in pushing Hermione farther away.  She cursed under her breath and pushed harder.  There was almost no time left.

            Suddenly her broom gave a lurch and Harry was no longer behind her.  She felt herself being pushed backwards as he threw himself at Hermione. 

            Miraculously he landed on the back of the broom, immediately reaching around and pulling the broom level just before it hit the ground.  A moment later they tumbled off, Harry holding onto Hermione’s writhing form as they rolled across the ground.

            Ginny pulled herself out of her own dive just in time, her toes brushing the grass.

            She quickly landed on the ground, keeping a hand on her wand and looking around for any Death Eaters.  They were now on the other side of the copse of trees, about where she and Hermione had first landed not too long ago.

            Harry was crouched over a thrashing Hermione, the two of them were rapidly pulling her robes out of the way.  Trying to reach where the spell had affected.  Ginny wanted to help, but she refused to lower her guard.  The Death Eaters were still out there, and they’d have seen them fall.

            CRACK.

            She jumped and spun around, raising her wand, a spell on the tip of her tongue.

            But it was never cast.

            The aurors had arrived.

Chapter Text

           She turned to cast a spell, twisting on her broom.  Abruptly her world was filled with orange and then pain - so much pain. She screamed as her skin felt like it burst into invisible flames.  As if a million ants were biting her at once.  

           She dropped her wand and began ripping at her robes.  Oblivious to the fact that she was now plummeting towards the ground.  There was nothing in her world but the burning, itching skin. 

           Arms wrapped around her, pushing her into the broom, trapping her hands.  She shrieked louder and threw herself against the arms, trying to break free.  She had to reach her skin.  Only then could she put out the flames.

           She was rolling across the ground, the arms still around her.  She shrieked and tried to push them out of the way.  

           It burned.  

           It burned so bad.

           The hands moved out of her way and then started helping her.  Within moments her own hands were on her bare skin and she was scratching, cooling the burn with her sharp nails, heedless of the wet warmth that was soon coating her fingers.

           But it wasn't enough.  She scratched harder, trying to find peace.

           Someone grabbed her wrists and pulled them away.  Before she could do much more than scream in anger and pain red light filled her vision and darkness took her, dousing the flames.

XXX

           A bolt of lightning lit up the sky, showing one of the two brooms plummeting towards the ground, the other racing behind it.  Lucius cast, his spell hitting another in mid-air, stopping whatever it was from hitting the Black girl.  

           A Malfoy never hurt family, even family by marriage.

           A few moments later a loud crack was heard and quickly followed by a dozen more cracks.

           "Aurors!  Stop casting!  Get out of here," The Dark Lord hissed.  "I will call you later.  They must not believe I'm back.  There must be no proof. Not yet."

           Lucius breathed a silent sigh of relief, praying that one of the aurors caught Hermione Black before she hit the ground.  He could do nothing for her, not without putting his son and wife in danger.  Even aiming to miss or hit other spells with his own had been chancy.

           One day he may have to choose between his son and his wife's cousin, but not today.  Not with the shock of finding the Dark Lord still alive and in a new physical body still coursing through him.

           He had to think this through, make a plan.

           And, much as he feared the Dark Lord, he had to live with Narcissa.

           She would slaughter him if he ever hurt anyone she cared about.  Not that he blamed her, or that he ever planned to hurt his wife in any way.  He loved her dearly and he wanted, no, needed, to speak with her about what had occurred today before he did anything. When he'd first joined the Dark Lord he'd been single, and being a Death Eater did not facilitate family life. Though he'd never considered leaving, even after Draco was born.

           It simply wasn't a possibility.

           But the world was different now.  He had a wife and son, ties to families and people that had been on the opposite side in the last war.  Before the Dark Lord had been defeated by a simple babe.  He could be defeated again.  Hadn't three school children just succeeded in defying him? 

           Maybe he wasn't as powerful as Lucius had always thought him to be.

           Just as he was about to apparate out he heard the Dark Lord hiss, "Barty, stay and deal with them.  Cover us, escape if you can, but make them believe it was just you."

           "Yes, master."

           There was such worship and love in Barty Crouch Jr's voice that Lucius wanted to vomit into his Death Eater mask.  He had never understood those that saw the Dark Lord that way.

           Serve the power, yes, but worship it?

           Never.

           And he only loved three people in this world: Narcissa, Draco, and himself.  The Dark Lord was worthy of his respect, but not his love.

           With that thought in mind he apparated out.  He took a couple random jumps to places in the countryside; removing his Death Eater ensemble as he went.  On the third jump he landed in Knockturn Alley.  From there he walked to the entrance of Gringotts before apparating home.  

           He never used to be so careful apparating away from the Dark Lord, but the aurors had become a lot more competent since Sirius Black and Alice Longbottom became section leaders.  

           The mansion was quiet when he arrived, but that meant nothing.  Narcissa was rarely loud and the house elves were always silent.  

           He found her in her private sitting room.  The room was dark, not even a fire was lit.  As soon as he entered she spoke, never looking at him.  Her gaze was focused on the window and the dark, wet countryside beyond it.

           "Draco owled me.  Is it true?"

           "Yes."

           "What happened?"

           "Apparently Crouch Sr. was an imbecile.  He exchanged his dying wife for his Death Eater son.  The dementors never even noticed.  He kept him locked up under the Imperius Curse."

           "Then, last summer, when Crouch Sr. had a heart attack..."

           "Crouch Jr. escaped.  He chased down rumors and found the Dark Lord.  He took care of him, and then when the time was right, he kidnapped Harry Potter off the streets of Hogsmeade.  An old ritual, one I'm sure was in one of the Slytherin tomes, was used to give the Dark Lord a new form.  I've never seen the ritual before, but he used his father's bones, Crouch Junior's hand, and Harry Potter's blood.  Junior is a fanatic and he almost killed Potter when he took the blood. The Dark Lord forced a blood replenishing potion down Potter's throat and bound the wound after the boy dropped into unconsciousness.  After that he spent a long time taunting and torturing Potter before using the Imperius to force Potter to duel.  After the mockery of a duel he tried to use the Imperius again to make Potter answer a question, but the boy resisted."  This last bit was said with wonder, and Narcissa finally looked away from the window, her eyes narrowing as she made out her husband's expression in the dark.

           "He resisted?"

           "Yes, quite strongly.  Refused to say if he wanted to be tortured or not again."

           "And then?"

           "The boy ran and hid.  The Dark Lord chased him down and cast Avada Kadavra.  Potter jumped out of hiding and cast Expelliarmus.  After that.... The spells collided in the air and forged some sort of bond between the two wands.  Potter won the battle of the wands, he pushed something from his wand to the Dark Lord's.  After that things came out of the Dark Lord's wand.  I couldn't make out what they were, there was some sort of golden cage-like dome over the two of them. But they looked like people."

           "People?"

           "So it seemed, perhaps we will learn more from Draco later. I doubt the Dark Lord will share the information."

           Narcissa purses her lips, "True, he likes his secrets.  And Hermione may tell Draco, however it is unlikely; as he refused to accompany her on the rescue of Potter.  Though he did agree to inform Dumbledore of what had happened, before owling us."

           Lucius stiffened at the idea of his son directly defying the Dark Lord.  Images of Draco being overwhelmed and out-dueled.  His son being captured and tortured.  They flashed across his eyes and his heartbeat quickened in fear.

           But, no, it hadn't happened.  Draco had refused.  But he'd still sent a letter home.  Informing them of what had happened. He'd even informed Dumbledore.  He was in the middle, able to go both ways.  Ties to both sides.

           And Lucius would do his best to keep Draco there until they knew which side would win.  He couldn't let his son be hurt.  He needed to step up Draco's training this summer.  Maybe he could hire someone.  Perhaps the current Defense teacher would like some summer employment.  He’d heard she was very good.

           He took a deep breath and continued his accounts of the afternoon and evening.

           "After a few moments the dome disappeared and the forms raced at the Dark Lord.  Potter reached his hand up and the Weasley girl came swooping down like a Valkyrie.  She clasped his hand and pulled him up behind her.  They flew away, with Hermione Black providing covering fire.  Then the aurors arrived and the Dark Lord told us to leave, that he wanted no proof of his return.  He made Junior stay and take the blame."

           "He plans to undermine the government then.  For Dumbledore will believe Potter.  But Fudge won't.  He'll see Potter as a mere confused boy and Junior as a madman.  He'll be afraid of what the Dark Lord's return means."

           "So it seems."

           She turned away from him and looked back out the window, "All my work, all my plans..."

           Lucius crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Narcissa, feeling her lean back into his strength.

           "Not all is lost, Love.  Once again the Dark Lord was defied a full victory by three children.  I believe he is not as powerful as I once thought."

           She turned and looked up at him, her eyes a beacon of light in the darkness.

           "Are you saying you'll turn from him?  Put your family first?"

           Lucius stared down into the eyes of the woman he loved most in the world and looked inside himself.

           Always he had felt an emptiness inside of himself.  His father had told him it was the Malfoy curse.  This feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy, despite the knowledge that they were anything but.

           He had once sought glory, believing himself to be fighting for the protection of his legacy and all his family held dear.  He'd truly believed that muggleborns and muggles would be the downfall of their society, and he still did to a degree, but waging this war against them was not the right way.  

           A war of words, of knowledge, perhaps.  But not of spells, not of death.  Death always occured on both sides.

           What had happened last year at Hogwarts had shocked him to his core.  First the use of such a beautiful, ancient tradition as locking your magic for the one you love being used as a potential threat against a child.  Not that he'd seen it that way at first, but Narcissa had shown him what it really meant.  Men almost never locked their magic; he'd never truly considered the significance of it.  It had always just been the way it was, he'd never had reason to think about what it meant.  What a woman gave up when she did it.

           Then there had been the vitius at the tournament celebration.  That it had been boys from such old and well-established magical families behind the attack...

           They should have known better.  What they did served no purpose.  It was complete cruelty that did nothing to further any goals.  And simple cruelty against muggles, who were no better than animals, was one thing, but mudbloods had magic.  If nothing else that earned them a quick, clean death.

           And while Lucius knew he was not a good man - he'd done many cruel acts to fellow magical people - but they had always served a purpose.

           He'd slipped that diary to the Weasley girl to undermine Dumbledore.  He'd been sure in the knowledge at the time that he was the worst possible man to be running Hogwarts.  Something he still felt, but he knew now that they also needed Dumbledore.  The man served a purpose.  His death in such a place of power would mean the Dark Lord would win.  As long as he lived the future was still uncertain.

           Dumbledore was now trying to solve one of the problems made evident by the vitius incident; by using Narcissa and her sister to educate the victims, so they could protect themselves, but this was just a temporary fix.  The real cure was needed on the other side.  To find out why those boys thought they could just hand out one of the most protected substances in magical Britain like they were chocolate frogs.

           It never would have happened when he was back in school; back then there were rules, codes of conduct, subtlety. 

           Mayhap it had changed because of the war, but the foolishness of men like Dumbledore could-

           "Lucius?"

           His thoughts were cut short as he remembered the question his wife had first asked him.

           "I-I don't know if I will turn from him, but I will put our family first.  Whichever side that requires me to be on."

           She smiled a bit.  Just a small, sad twist of her lips.

           "I suppose that's all I can ask for."

           He didn't reply with words.  Instead he reached out and pulled her close to him, nestling her head in the crook of his neck.

           He didn't yet knew what the return of the Dark Lord meant for his family, but he would do his best to bring them through this unscathed.  

           It was all he could do.

XXX

           Harry sat patiently as the healer fitted a sling for his left arm.  It had been easy to heal the damage, and Voldemort had already given him a blood replenishet.  But magic couldn't solve all problems.  Crouch Jr had sliced quite a few important tendons in his haste to secure blood of the enemy for his master.  

           "Now, you need to keep the sling on at all times.  And when you sleep switch to the soft brace.  We don't want you twisting in your sleep and doing more damage.  I want you to go visit Madam Pomfrey once a week.  You should be able to take this off in 4-6 weeks," the healer said, pulling back and observing her handiwork.

           "Yes, ma'am.  Good thing I'm right-handed.  OWLs are in about three weeks."

           She smiled, "I wouldn't worry about that.  If necessary St. Mungos can issue a medical excuse and you can take your exams when you're fit."

           "That's what's going to happen to Hermione, isn't it?"

           She stood up and began tidying up her things.  "I'm not your sister's healer, Mr. Potter.  I've specialized in bones and tendons.  Miss Black was hit by a curse."

           Harry could tell she was suddenly uncomfortable.  He'd been in St. Mungos for hours now, and no one would tell him about Hermione or let him see her.  But he knew it was bad.  He'd barely been able to focus after she'd been hit.  It had taken all of his force of will to stay in his own body until he got her onto the ground.  

           She scratched her own skin badly enough to draw blood.  He'd been with her then.  The burning...

           It had been a relief when someone knocked her unconscious.  He himself had passed out from the sudden release from the pain.  Even now he could feel her, distantly, in the back of his mind.  Whatever they were doing to her, she was still in severe pain.

           "Now, you just wait here.  Mr. Black will come and fetch you after he’s filled out your release forms."

           "Thank you."

           Harry watched her leave the small examining room he was occupying.  In an attempt to distract himself from the fate of his sister he looked around the room, trying to find something to hold his attention.  Sadly, the most interesting thing was a glass jar full of cotton swabs.  The rest of the room was nothing but white walls and off-white cabinets.  He was seated on the centerpiece - an examining table painted in more white.

           He glanced at the floor and began to count tiles.  Anything to keep his mind occupied and off of the events that had just occurred.  Off of the pain he could feel coming from Hermione.  He had just reached thirty-one when the distant sound of shouting drew his attention.

           Curious, he slipped off the table and over to the door.  As soon as he cracked it open the voices became crystal clear.  

           "HOW DARE YOU CALL MY DAUGHTER A LIAR!" Mrs. Weasley's thunderous voice rang through the hospital.

           "M-Mrs. Weasley, you have to admit, it's highly irregular.  It's been a decade and a half.  Besides, only Crouch Jr was found at the-"

           "Fudge!  We told you!  As soon as we popped in there were numerous people apparating away!"  Padfoot declared.

           "And Crouch Jr. declares he was the only one.  He was distraught, saying he failed.  We checked his wand, he cast that curse at Miss Black.  As well as quite a few other nasty ones."

           "So, you'll believe a madman over my daughter?" Harry didn't think he'd ever heard Mr. Weasley sound so angry.  Well, except for when the twins tried to make Ron swear an unbreakable vow.

           "Your daughter is only fourteen!  She's only a little girl.  And she'd just flown halfway across the British Isles!  She made a mistake.  You-Know-Who isn't back.  He CAN'T be back," Minister Fudge protested.

           Harry saw red.  He'd already been growing angry, but this attitude...He yanked the door open and stormed into the hallway, following the conversation to its source.

           "Minister, there was evidence of more than one person in that graveyard.  Surely you must admit that Barty Crouch Jr wasn't working alone," Dumbledore's said soothingly.

           "It was raining!  And there were a dozen aurors there!  Not to mention the children!  Of course there was evidence of more than one person!"  Fudge blustered.

           Harry found the half-open door, through which the voices were originating. He shoved the door, letting it bang against the wall and draw everyone's attention.  

           He already knew the Minister, Padfoot, Dumbledore, and the Weasleys were there.  There was also Mrs. Longbottom and a lion-haired man that Harry recognized as Padfoot's boss: Rufus Scrimgeour, Head of the Aurors.

           "So, will you call me a liar, too?” he asked.  “Voldemort was there, as well as at least a dozen Death Eaters."

           "Now, Mr. Potter, let's not be hasty.  You were injured, mistakes are made in the heat of the moment one man can become many," Fudge countered.

           "Heat of the moment?  Heat of the moment?!?  There was no heat when I watched Barty Crouch Jr. drop a baby-shaped creature in a cauldron containing bone of the father, flesh of the servant, and blood of the enemy!  There was only cold, stark fear as I watched Lord Voldemort rise from that cauldron!  Naked as the day he was born with glowing red eyes, a snake's nose, and bone white skin.  He's back!  Ginny isn't lying," he practically spat the last three words.

           "Now, Mr. Potter, you were injured and lost a lot of blood.  You were just seeing things.  There is no such ritual."

           Padfoot snorted, "No such ritual?  That's a load of hippogriff dung, Minister.  Lord Voldemort was the last heir to both Slytherin and the Gaunts.  He likely has family tomes full of things that no one knows about."

           Fudge sniffed, "Family tomes should be made illegal.  All that knowledge, trapped, available to only a few."

           "Oh, really?  So you would give up your own family tome?" Mrs. Longbottom asked, raising a delicate eyebrow.

           Fudge puffed up his chest, "I have no idea what you mean.  I'm a half-blood.  My grandfather was a muggleborn.  We can’t have a family tome."

           "And your grandmother was the half-blood daughter of a Malfoy," Mrs. Longbottom snapped back.

           Scrimgeour cleared his throat, "Could we get back on track?  Minister, it’s my opinion that Crouch Jr is not sane enough to orchestrate this evening by himself.  Whether it was You-Know-Who or not isn't important at this point."

           "I'm sure you see the logic in that, Minister," Dumbledore said mildly.

           "No, I don't.  I refuse to believe that there is another former death eater running about in hiding!  It's not possible!"

           "Fudge!  Get your head out of the sand!  There are quite a few former death eaters running around!  And now that Voldemort is back they're going to restart the war!  Undoing all the work we've done over the past fourteen years!"  Padfoot snarled.

           "No," Fudge shook his head, "if I declare that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back, just on the words of three children, I'll be the laughing stock of Britain!  No one will believe-"

           "Then get a proper recording auror in here!  Take my memory!  Take Ginny's!  I'll even take Vertiserum!  He’s back!"  Harry shouted.

           "No, can't do that.  I'm sure you believe you saw him.  Likely some nightmare from your childhood.  All that blood loss.  As for Miss Weasley, she was exhausted.  So much stress to fly from Hogwarts to Little Hangleton.  Maybe we could trust Miss Black, but not after that curse.  She’s out of her mind with pain.  No, it simply can't be done."

           "Fudge!  Stop making excuses to avoid the truth!  Just wait!  He'll make his move and then-"

           "Mr. Black, please stop speaking to me in such a manner.  I am your Minister and you will address me properly."

           "Argghhh!!!! That's it!"  Padfoot ripped off his outer robe and threw it at the shocked Minister.  "I'm done!  I try telling the truth and you slander me, my children, my friend's children, and everything the aurors stand for!"

           Fudge's mouth opened and closed, like a beached fish.

           "Same," Mrs. Longbottom said, pulling off her own outer robe.  She didn't throw it.  Rather, she folded it neatly and handed it to Scrimgeor. 

           "But-but, you can't!" Fudge gasped.

           "Actually, Minister, they can.  Thank you for costing me my two best aurors.  Three total if I'm right in assuming that Tonks will follow her cousin," Scrimgeor looked at Padfoot and Mrs. Longbottom, "If you two ever change your minds, let me know.  Don't know who’s capable of being my replacement one day without you."

           "Kingsley is a good man.  Lots of initiative," Padfoot said.

           "No!  You can't leave!  You two are aurors!  What else can you?" The Minister’s voice was high-pitched and held a note a panic.

           Padfoot and Mrs. Longbottom shared a look before Padfoot let out a bark of laughter and Mrs. Longbottom twisted her lips into the facsimile of a smile.

           Professor Dumbledore rested his hands on his stomach and rolled back on his heels, taking in everyone in the room, "My dear Minister, I think you've failed to realize that Alice and Sirius never really needed to work.  Also, I do believe I'm in need of a new Defense teacher for next year.  As Ms. Roux has expressed interest in returning to France.”

           Harry looked away from the Minister in time to see Mr. and Mrs. Weasley share a weighted look before Mrs. Weasley gave a small nod and spoke.

           "So, you still maintain that our daughter is lying?"

           Fudge pursed his lips in rage, "Of course she's lying!  Or mistaken! Or both!"

           Mr. Weasley let out a small sigh, "Then I must also tender my resignation.  I cannot work for a man that cares so little about the truth."

           Once again Fudge was left gaping like a fish.

           Padfoot arched a brow at Mrs. Longbottom, giving her a look that Harry had seen Hermione trying to emulate for hours in front of a mirror.

           She gave a sharp nod and walked out of the room.  Padfoot followed, wrapping an arm around Harry's shoulders and moving him through the doorway and down the hall.

           "Let's go look in on Hermione.  Then get you back to school.  I don't think it's a good idea for you to see her like this, but I know you won't leave until you do."

           "But, Padfoot, what about Voldemort?  And your job?  What are we going to do?"

           The older man stopped and pulled Harry into an alcove, where a few wheelchairs and IV holders were stored.  He put both hands on Harry's shoulders and looked into his eyes.  They were almost level and Harry was struck with the sudden realization he was almost at the same age the Marauders had been when everything fell apart.

           "Harry, I know you're wrapped up in all of this.  I know I can't tell you to stay out.  Even if I did you would get drawn back in.  He won't rest until you're dead.  As for my job, don't worry about it.  I was an auror at first because it seemed like the thing to do when the world was descending into darkness.  I was still in training during the last war, and I chose to continue it after the war ended because I wanted to make the world a better place for you and Hermione.  And, no matter what happens, I will continue to do my best to make the world a better place.  I'm fairly sure I can find quite a few useful things to do.  As for Voldemort, we can't do much at the moment.  I need you to return to Hogwarts, finish your OWLs.  Hopefully you'll have your sister back by then, but if not, we'll deal with that later.  I just-" he stopped and took a ragged breath, tears beginning to leak from his eyes.  "I just need you to stay vigilant and study hard.  No matter what.  When you come home I'm going to up your training.  Bring out a few tricks I was planning to save until next year.  But I need you to keep your head down and go back to Hogwarts for now.  Can you do that?"

           Harry nodded stiffly, his mind racing with questions, but his mouth unable to voice them.

           Padfoot took a deep breath and pulled back before wiping his eyes." Alright, let's go see your sister."

           He once again wrapped his arm around Harry's shoulder and the two of them continued on their way to the magical elevator.  

           A few floors and a short walk later they stood outside a rather simple looking door.  Neither of them moved to open it.  Harry felt as if a weight was pushing him back.

           He'd seen what Hermione had done to her own skin.  He'd been with her, feeling the pain, before the satisfaction of scratching had calmed the flames.  Even now he could sense her on the other side.

           No, he had to go in and see her.  Hermione would visit him.

           He reached out and turned the knob.  

           It was a small, private room; but a curtain was still drawn around the bed.

           Tentatively he moved forwards until he came to a gap in the curtain. He could feel Padfoot behind him, ready to be his support.  He took a deep breath and shoved the curtain aside.

           The sight before him brought tears to his eyes.  

           He'd expected the worst, but he hadn't expected this.

           She was asleep, but even in sleep she was in misery.  For her hands, tied to the safety rails on the bed, were curled into claws as they tried to reach the bandages around her middle.  Her face was scrunched up in pain.  

           It was as if the very sight of her snapped something in him and all the shock, fear, and pain of the past twenty-four hours hit him at once.  He let out a sob and immediately felt himself be turned and enveloped in a hug.  

           "It will be alright, Harry.  They have Crouch Jr's wand.  They'll find the spell that did this and they'll reverse it.  They will.  Don't worry, they'll do it."

           And, much as Harry wanted to believe his dad, he couldn't help but hear the uncertainty and fear in the older man's voice.

Chapter Text

          Harry stepped out of the fireplace and into the Headmaster's office, doing a quick hop step so as not to fall.  Floo was not his preferred method of travel, but it was fast. Ginny was sound asleep in one of the chairs, her head resting on Dumbledore's desk.  She was still in the robes she'd been wearing when he took her to Hogsmeade yesterday.  Now they were wrinkled and covered in mud.  Professor Dumbledore emerged from the fireplace as soon as Harry moved out of the way.

          "Harry, why don't you take a seat?  I have a few questions for you."

          Harry took the remaining empty chair next to Ginny and watched as the Headmaster waved his wand and tapped the fireplace, supposedly shutting down the floo.

          Dumbledore silently walked over to his office chair and sat down, he gave the sleeping Ginny a sad smile before reaching out and tapping her shoulder gently.  She jerked awake, her wand clenched in her fist.

          "Oh, you're back!  How's Hermione?  They wouldn't tell me anything.  Did the Minister believe you?  He called me a silly girl!  Says Lord Voldemort isn't really back!  That I didn't know what I was talking about!  Told me to go back to school and go to bed like a good little girl!  He even patted me on the head!" Her voice was heavily laden with disgust in the last bit.

          "Um..." Harry didn't quite know where to start.  Especially as just the thought of Hermione and her situation brought angry, guilt-ridden tears to his eyes.  It was his fault she'd gotten injured.  He'd wanted her to come.  If it wasn't for that connection she'd be safe in Hogwarts, not tied to a hospital bed, in terrible pain.  When he reached out he could distantly feel her – silently screaming and wanting to scratch her skin off.  Even while asleep

          "Miss Weasley, I am afraid that Miss Black was hit with a terrible hex or curse.  One the healers have never seen before.  They're doing their best to cure her, but it may be awhile before she is fully recovered.  As for Cornelius, he is choosing to ignore the truth.  So I will have to take matters into my own hands.  Even Scrimgeour, the head of the aurors, believes that Barty Crouch Jr was not working alone."  He looked at her over the top of his half-moon spectacles, "Does that satisfy your questions?"

          Ginny grew pale nodded before reaching over to grasp Harry's hand, giving it a squeeze.  He smiled weakly at her and returned the squeeze, before looking back at the Headmaster.

          "You wanted to speak to me, sir?"

          "Yes, I want you to tell me about this bond between you and Hermione Black.  For example, what does it do?  How long has it been there?"

          Harry shrugged, "It's always been there, for as long as I can remember.  If one of us is terribly upset or in unbearable pain the other one can feel it, too.  Sometimes we can even see what the other is seeing.  We also know exactly where the person in pain is.  That's how Hermione found me.  We can dampen it somewhat with occlumancy.  I can feel her right now, the curse isn't letting her rest."

          Dumbledore steepled his fingers and looked thoughtful for a moment.  When he spoke again his voice contained an emotion that Harry couldn't quite place, but it felt like regret.

          "I know exactly what binds the two of you.  Now, please hold any questions until the end.  Back on that Halloween night when you and Hermione were orphaned I took several hours to perform a ritual with you after Hagrid pulled you from the rubble.  At the time I believed Sirius had betrayed your family, so I planned to send you to your muggle aunt's house.  I knew you would need protection as there were still Death Eaters on the loose.  So I cast a ward on your very blood, it was tied to the protections your mother cast on you as she died.  The ones that let you survive the killing curse.  What this meant was as long as you shared a home with a relative of your mother's you would be safe.  A very necessary thing when your only relatives are muggles.  Blood wards are tricky things, they not only require a blood relation, but also some emotion between the two people.  Any emotion will do.  Even hate, though that would afford only the most basic of protections.  The best emotion is, of course, love.  When Sirius took you from your aunt I assumed the wards were useless, but Professor Quirrell's reaction to touching you in your first year showed they were still quite active.  Your mother is not related to the Blacks as far as I know, so I was very confused.  I eventually asked a squib friend of mine to try and dig into your mother's genealogy.  It took her some time, but she found an ancestor of your mother's about four generations back that had no history.  He just appeared one day as an apprentice to a goldsmith in Bath. There are no records of his parents or his family.  He married the goldsmith's only daughter and took her family's name, as that was the name of the shop.  Setting a young squib up with a good life in the muggle world was done quite often by many wizarding families after the Statute of Secrecy.  Leading me and my friend, Arabella, to believe this man was a squib.  Now here's where Arabella got creative.  She went back down the line and traced where his other three children ended up.  It turns out that the youngest daughter is Miss Black's ancestress, while the second son is yours.  So, you and your sister actually do share blood; likely the smallest amount possible that the blood wards will recognize.”

          Dumbledore's lips quirked into a smile.  "Incidentally, that common ancestor was a redhead and clearly from a Pureblood family wealthy enough to get them such a prime apprenticeship.  Leading me to believe that he was a Prewett by birth, though a Weasley is also a possibility.  They are the only two Wizarding families that carry red hair with their magic.  Either way, you two," he gestured at Ginny and Harry, "are also distantly related.  Extremely distantly."

          Harry looked over at Ginny in surprise, she was turning a bit red in the face. 

          "That's uh, interesting..."

          Dumbledore chuckled, "Don't worry about it.  But it would explain your mother's family magic, and how it saved you.  The Prewett's have always been protective, the Weasley's are also known for their dedication, and after several generations of it lying dormant either family magic would have become quite powerful with your mother's capacity to love.  And that affected the blood wards.  As you and Miss Black share blood, as well as love, the blood wards blossomed and mutated into something that was more than just protection.  It forged a link between you two."

          "Sir," Ginny began, "why don't more people use blood wards, if they're so powerful?  Parents would never worry about their children if they did."

          "A very good question, Miss Weasley.  It is because a blood ward can only be established through a sacrifice.  And a willing one at that.  Lily Potter willingly gave her life to protect Harry.  This action lingered on him.  Eventually it would have faded, but I caught it in time, using wards to tie her sacrifice permanently to Harry's blood."

          Harry remembered something Hermione had said once, "Sir, aren't wards made from runes?  How did you tie them to me?"

          Dumbledore sighed and his lips quirked a bit, "Harry, roll up a sleeve.  He rose and pulled out his wand.

          Harry bared his right arm with Ginny's assistance and held it out. 

          The Headmaster tapped his forearm with his wand and whispered a strange spell under his breath.  It didn't sound like it was based in Latin, rather, it sounded older, more primitive.  Instantly runes appeared all up and down his arms. 

          "They were quite a bit smaller when I put them there, but they grew with you."

          Harry stared at his arms in amazement.  A chain of runes started on the back of his hand and moved up his arm, loosely encircling it until it disappeared under his robes.

          "It continues, forming a loop over your collarbones and then down the other arm.

          Harry peaked into the sling and indeed saw runes on the back of his left hand, disappearing under the bandage, "How did I never know they were there?"

          "I hid them under a very obscure spell.  I didn't exactly want everyone to know what protections you carried.  Even though Lord Voldemort has now taken your blood - negating many of the protections - I would still like to keep the runes hidden.  It is better if he is unable to learn the exact extent of the wards.”

          Harry absently nodded as he couldn't take his eyes off the runes tattooed up and down his arm.

          They were beautiful.

          And now that he knew they were there, he could feel them, just like he could feel Hermione.  But they weren't filled with pain; rather, he got a sense of love and peace from them. 

          Getting an idea, he carefully reached out with his mind and gathered up the feelings, then he brought it to his bond with Hermione.  Slowly, carefully he began feeding her the pleasant emotions.  Almost instantly he felt her pain lessen.  It was still there, but more distant.  She stopped fighting whatever they were using to keep her unconscious. 

          Tentatively, he stopped feeding her the emotions from the runes.  

          She didn't wake back up.

          He could feel the curse trying to get at her, but the wards were protecting her mind.  Holding the curse off and letting her rest.  She wasn't cured, but she wasn't in pain. 

          He let out a sigh of relief.

          "Harry, can I cover them again?"

          He jumped and looked up, away from the chain on his arm.  

          "Sir, I just...the runes, I can feel them.  Like I feel Hermione.  I sent them to her, just now.  And, she's resting.  She's not in pain.  The wards are protecting her mind from the curse. Will that stop if you cover the runes?"

          "I don't know, but we can see," the Professor sounded intrigued by this information.  "If I cover them and she is no longer protected I will take the spell off."

          He rested the tip of his wand on Harry's arm and spoke those strange words again. 

          Instantly the runes disappeared.  But this time Harry knew they were there.  He could still feel them, distantly, and they continued to protect Hermione's mind.

          "Harry?  Is she still safe?" 

          Harry opened his eyes and looked into Ginny's bright brown ones.  

          "Yes, now I know the runes are there, I can feel them through the spell."

          Dumbledore smiled and moved to sit behind his desk once again.  "That is good to hear, my boy.  Now, do either of you have any questions for me?  I am sure you are both exhausted."

          Harry stood up and awkwardly tried to pull his sleeve down, Ginny immediately stood and moved to help him.  As soon as her red hair filled his vision he thought of one more question.

          "Sir, what about Padfoot, Mrs. Longbottom, and Mr. Weasley?  What will they do now they quit the Ministry?"

          Ginny's head jerked up, shock on her face.

          "Dad quit?!?  Why???"

          "Miss Weasley, your parents were not happy with how the Minister treated you.  Your father decided that he could not work for such a man."

          "But...but...my mom doesn't work!  What will my parents do?!?"  There was a trace of panic in her voice and Harry was instantly reminded of something he often forgot.

          The Weasley's were quite poor.  Most of their food they grew themselves.  When they were younger this had caused a few misunderstandings between Ron and Harry, especially whenever Harry got a new broom.  But, as they grew, it became less of an issue.  Ron slept over enough that he knew of Hermione's nightmares.  He saw how Padfoot and Mooney got around Halloween.  He realized that Harry and Hermione treasured his mum's homemade sweaters just as much as anything new Padfoot bought them.

          Harry had been so worried about Padfoot and Hermione he hadn't considered what Mr. Weasley's quitting would mean for the Weasleys.

          "Miss Weasley, I wouldn't worry overmuch.  There have been several ideas tossed around by your parents.  Concentrate instead on the last month here at school."  He focused his piercing blue eyes on Harry, "Especially you, my boy.  I fear the Ministry may try to distract you from your OWLs.  Don't let them.”  He slipped his wand away and rubbed his hands together,  “Now, why don't you two go catch a nap before lunch?  I'm sure you're exhausted."

          Harry nodded and took Ginny's hand.  The two of them bid the Headmaster goodbye and slipped down the spiral staircase.  

          Somehow Harry wasn't surprised to find their friends waiting for them at the bottom, even Pansy.  He was a bit surprised to see the Weasley twins with them, and Fred was holding a grubby piece of parchment in his hands.  Something about it struck a memory in the back of Harry's head.

          Ron crossed the hallway in two giant strides and took Ginny into his arms, "I'm so glad you're safe!  When no one could find you I feared the worst."

          Ginny's arms flailed as Ron squeezed her, but she was soon rescued by the twins.

          Not that it was much of a rescue, as they proceeded to check over every inch of her, including holding her arms out and bending them like she was their toy.  When George tried to look up her nose she lost it.

          "Fred! George!  I'm fine!!!" Her voice rang through the corridor as she shoved them away.  Fred went flying, but managed not to fall.  Unfortunately for George, he somehow tripped over Harry's foot, earning him a nice crash to the floor.  

          Harry didn't feel at all sorry.

          Not that he was saying he did it intentionally.

          "Where's Hermione?  We never saw her on the map," Neville said, ignoring the exaggerated moaning and groaning of the twins.

          "Map?  What map?"  Harry asked, choosing to ignore the question about Hermione.  He didn't want to talk about her.  Not when he could feel her there, barely restful.  The curse hovering outside the wards, waiting to attack.  He wondered if the wards would work if it had been Voldemort that cast the curse.

          Likely not, as he had used Harry's blood, thus evading the protection.

          "The Maurader's Map," Luna said. "Hermoine got it off the twins.  When we found her stuff they nicked it back."

          "Hey!  We're not keeping it!  We don't steal from our business partners!" George protested, standing up and rubbing his posterior.  

          "Yeah, mate, where is she?  What happened?  No one seems to be saying anything," Ron asked.

          "Draco knows something, but he's not sharing.  Never seen him quite so shaken before," Pansy added.

          Harry looked around the group, it still felt odd to have Pansy tagging along all of the time now.  Especially as no one could quite determine her role in their group of friends.  

          He gave his head a shake, why was he thinking about this?  It wasn’t important that Pansy didn’t fit in.  At least not right now.  She was Neville’s…something.  And Neville was his friend.  End of story.

          Ginny seemed to sense Harry's to talk about things.  "Let's go to our classroom, I don't think we should discuss this in a hallway outside the Headmaster's office."

          They all walked to the classroom Hermione had claimed the year before.  On the way Ron asked about Harry's arm, but he deflected by asking how they realized something was wrong.

          "Oh, when we got back we found Hermione's things in her classroom," he said, glaring at a couple Slytherin firsties that bumped into Harry’s left arm, making him wince in pain.  "Knew immediately that she wouldn't leave her bag, so we grabbed her things and headed back to Gryffindor Tower.  Ran into the twins, when they heard she was missing they admitted she had the Maurader's Map; that they'd had it for years.  Even though they knew it should rightfully go to you or 'Mione."

          "Ah," Harry said.  It was interesting that Hermione had obtained the map, but had never told any of them.  Why was she keeping secrets? 

          “Luna found it in her things and we began combing the castle for you three.  When we couldn’t find you we went to Professor McGonagall.  She told us the Headmaster was already dealing with it and to go back to our common rooms.  We slipped Pansy and Luna into Gryffindor Tower and watched the map until we saw you return.  Ginny returned hours ago, but never moved.”

          “She fell asleep,” Harry said, slipping behind a tapestry and taking the secret passage up to the correct floor.

          Once they were in the classroom and everyone was settled Harry took a deep breath and began recounting what had happened to him the day before.  When he recounted the scene with the cauldron - including who came out of it - everyone gasped.

          Pansy looked truly terrified, though the others weren't much better.

          Harry thought he heard her whisper, "My father..." but he couldn't be quite sure.

          "So, he's back.  Does he have Hermione?  Is that what you won't say?"  Ron asked.

          Harry shook his head and looked down, running his right hand over the top of his left, picturing the runes that were lying there, invisible under that ancient spell.  His mother was still with him, through those runes, she would help him protect Hermione.  Guilt wracked him and he clenched his fist.

          She wouldn't be cursed if he hadn't been stupid enough to be kidnapped.

          "Let us finish.  No questions, please," Ginny said, shooting Ron a glare.

          There were no more interruptions, though Neville looked sick after hearing the name of the man that had kidnapped Harry and sliced his arm open.

          When Harry told about the conversation between Fudge and the others the twins and Ron bristled with anger.

          "Do you think-"

          "Definitely, we can-"

          Ginny glared at the twins, shutting them up.

          Harry hesitated before explaining the blood wards.  Did he trust Pansy?  The others, definitely.  He'd known all of them since childhood, even Neville.  But Pansy had always been part of a different group - best friends with Malfoy.  She was the daughter of a possible Death Eater and definitely a Death Eater supporter.

          "Want me to go?" Pansy asked.

          Harry jumped and everyone looked at her.

          She shrugged, "I'm a Slytherin, my parents never stood against You-Know-Who.  You're justified in hesitating to trust me."

          "I trust her," Neville said quietly.  Meeting Harry's eyes with his own.

          "Nev-" Pansy started.

          "No, I mean it, Pansy.  You're not the same person you used to be.  You may end up on the opposite side in this coming war, but you won't betray my trust.  I know that."

          A ghost of a smile appeared on the Slytherin girl's face, "Not everyone is as honorable as you."

          "You're not honorable, you're loyal," he said, resting one of his hands on top of hers.

          Harry got the uncomfortable feeling that he was witnessing something very private.

          "And what's to say my loyalty won't be divided?  I love my parents.  Draco is still my friend."

          Neville gave her hand a squeeze, "You're intelligent, you'll find a way."

          She snorted, "You're much too optimistic for a boy that just learned one of his father's murderers is free and kidnapping people off the streets of Hogsmeade."

          Neville shrugged, "Mum always says that I'm her light in the darkness.  It's what I do."

          Pansy smiled and put her other hand on top of his.  Harry looked away then, locking eyes with Luna.

          She gave a sad, half smile, “You trust Neville.  He trusts Pansy.  Do you trust his judgement?”

          That was an easy question to answer, “Yes.”

          Her smile lightened, “Then tell us what Dumbledore said about the connection between you and Hermione.”

          “How did you-” he started, before changing his mind.  Hermione cared about authority, she would never assume that Dumbledore had been withholding information.  Luna would.

          “Well, that explains a lot,” Ron said, after the explanation.

          “You said it sounded like an ancient language?” Neville asked.

          “Yeah, something that felt very rich and primitive, at complete odds with our Latin-based spells,” Harry answered.

          “Do you suppose-”

          “-he used Pictish?”

          Luna’s head snapped up and she pulled her wand out at the twins’ words, “Father interviewed an old researcher from Raasay, an island in Scotland.  His work was interesting, but Father didn’t think it was a good fit, so we never published it.  The man said ancient Pictish wizards and witches would tattoo powerful runes on their body.  Then they would conceal them so their enemies wouldn't know what protections they had.  I decided to experiment."  She pulled up her robes and tapped her ankle with her wand and whispered something that sounded eerily familiar to what the Headmaster had said.

          On her ankle appeared a triangle, with a circle and a line inside of it.

          Luna lifted her leg up for everyone to see, "The Deathly Hallows, father doesn't know I have it."

          Ron's eyes widened, his eyes were glued on his girlfriend's ankle.

          "You tattooed a fairy tale symbol on your body.  Why am I not surprised?" Pansy said.

          Harry almost smiled at that, but it sounded so like what Hermione would say that he was instantly reminded of their current situation.  

          As if he could really forget.

          "Any great tips on terrible itching curses, Luna?"

          She shook her head sadly as she tapped her ankle again and hid the tattoo.

          "So, Hermione is in St. Mungos under a terrible curse.  You-Know-Who is back, and Harry is unable to play quidditch.  Could this year end on a worse note?"  Ron said morosely, once again capable of thought.

          Before anyone could reply the door swung open, revealing Draco Malfoy, flanked by his two walking mini-mountains.  Everyone stood up, Harry put his uninjured hand in his pocket and gripped his wand. 

          "What do you want, Malfoy?" Ginny said coldly.

          Malfoy was slow to answer.  He looked around the room, taking in everyone's expressions.  His own was quite haggard.  He appeared to have not slept all night and his usually pristine robes looked rumpled.  

          "I heard Potter was back.  Where's Black?"

          Ron bristled, "What do you care?  You refused to go with her."

          Malfoy winced, "Someone had to tell Dumbledore."

          "So, you let my sister.  Who you've never seen on a broom, fly off by herself?  When she told you it was Voldemort that kidnapped me?"

          "Harry..." Ginny started.

          Harry didn't know why he was suddenly so angry at Malfoy.  He knew that Malfoy couldn't have done any more to save Hermione than he or Ginny had.  He knew too, that if Malfoy had come to rescue Harry he would have signed his own parents’ death warrants.  For Harry was under no illusions about Lucius Malfoy's allegiances. 

          Even if his wife seemed to be taking a different path.

          But he was angry, he was tired, his arm was beginning to grow sore, and he could feel the curse hanging over Hermione like a storm cloud over the lake.

          Frankly, he just didn't care.

          "No, Ginny.  Just look at Malfoy!  He knows he was in the wrong!  He didn't know 'Mione would fly over you.  He knowingly allowed my sister to fly off on a solo rescue mission!"

          Malfoy's hands clenched into fists at his side, but he made no move to draw his wand.  "I summoned help.  What else was I supposed to do?!?  It's the Dark Lord!  You know of my family's history!  I have to protect my parents!"

          "Isn't Hermione your family, too?" Ron shot back.

          "Yes!  And that's why I told someone that she was flying off to play hero!  Now where is she?"

          "Draco, Hermione was badly cursed.  They're keeping her asleep until they find a counter-curse," Pansy said, taking a step away from Neville and towards Draco.

          Draco grew very pale, Harry noticed that the mountains seemed to show a bit of true surprise. 

          "She was hit with something that causes constant, painful itching.  She scratches until she cuts her skin open.  Harry saw her.  They have her tied to a bed, even in sleep she’s trying to scratch her skin bloody," Neville stated.  Taking a step to resume his place next to Pansy.  She cast him a grateful look and took his hand.

          Harry opened his mouth to say more, but never got a chance.  Malfoy spun on his heel and disappeared.  The mini-mountains wavered, looking at Pansy.  She cast them a shooing motion and they turned and hurried after their master.

          "When news of this breaks, some will believe Harry.  It won't be safe for any Slytherin on their own," Pansy explained.  "Gregory and Vincent may be a bit slow, but they know their roles.  They assume as a girl I need more protections than Draco does.  They haven't quite realized that since I'm friends with all of you I should be safe."

          "No one is safe."  Luna slipped her wand back into her robes and headed towards the door.  Her dreamy voice slipped away for a moment, becoming a bit bossy, "Now, Harry, Ginny, go get some rest.  We'll save you some lunch.  Fred, George, make sure they get to Gryffindor Tower safely."

          "Yes, ma'am!" They said with a pair of sloppy salutes.

          As Harry allowed himself to be steered out of the door by Fred he heard Pansy say, "I guess someone has to play mother hen until we get Hermione back."

          "It's interesting to emulate someone.  You always learn something new," Luna responded, her dreamy tone back once again.

          "Don't worry, mate.  You'll have your bossy, know-it-all sister back soon enough," Fred said, taking his hands off Harry's shoulders and allowing him to walk on his own.  "Also, you should probably keep this."  He handed over the Maurader's Map.  "I trust you know how to use it?"

          Harry nodded and slipped the map into his robes.  Of course he knew how to use it.  

          He was Prongs' son after all.

XXX

          He felt as if he was in a daze as he wandered the halls of Hogwarts.  He barely noticed the growing amount of glares that were shot his way as the day went on.  The people that tried to speak to him might as well have been ghosts.  

          He felt like a failure.

          No, he didn't just feel like a failure.

          He was a failure.

         Twice over now.

          Fear had gripped him and he'd let it take over.  He'd done what he was taught, he'd kept himself and his family safe.  

          He'd informed the Headmaster before Hermione Black had been gone for ten minutes.  He'd spilled the entire tale, and then pleaded with the man not to tell the aurors who was the informant.

          Dumbledore had agreed, on the condition that Draco always do his best to keep bringing information.  He, of course, had agreed.

          If the Dark Lord really was back, no one would be safe. Because who could say how it would end?

          Better to make no true enemies.  He knew the odds now.  He'd seen how fast Potter was with a wand.  He was being trained by the best auror in the business and had an amazing group of friends at his side.

          Friends that would die for him.

          Like Hermione Black, the scariest witch on the planet - outside of possibly his mother.

          Friends that had raced off to rescue him with a moment's thought.  Friends that had succeeded in rescuing him from the Dark Lord.

          No, this war was not certain.  And hopefully it would be over before he finished school and had to declare himself for a side.

          His mother had written him back during the night, after he’d told her what happened.  She’d been vague, but her meanings had been clear to him. 

          His father had been wherever the Dark Lord was yesterday.  His father had been there when Hermione Black had been cursed.  Had his father been the one to do it?  Malfoys don’t hurt their own.  His father had taught him that.  Had his father broken their family beliefs?  Did he believe he was doing the right thing?

          Sanctimonia Vincet Semper

          Latin wasn’t English, nothing translated perfectly.  He knew that his father and grandfather had translated it as ‘Purity Will Always Conquer’.  They had used this as proof, of a sort, that muggleborns were worthless next to purebloods. 

          After he made the vow with Black he’d gotten curious about muggleborns and his family ancestry.  Their crest contained the same Latin phrase going back for hundreds of years.  However, he found a letter from about two hundred years ago, that translated it differently.  This great-great-great-uncle of his had determined that the first Malfoy patriarch had meant it to mean ‘Holiness Always Prevails’. 

          He could somewhat see how it had been corrupted.  Holiness could mean someone with a spiritually pure quality.  And, as far as Draco could think, love and devotion to family was the purest, most decent quality there was.

          As for prevailing verse conquering…

          He’d never wanted to conquer.  Not really.  He just wanted people to love him like Black and Potter were loved by their friends.

          He’d even lost Pansy to them.

          Family was all he had.

          And he’d failed to protect one of the few family members he had.

          A tightening grew in his chest and it began to grow hard to breath.

          Outside.  He had to get outside.

          He looked up, he was in a deserted corridor on the first floor.  He could hear Vincent and Gregory behind him. 

          He sped up and raced down a staircase.  His friendly bodyguards rushed to keep up with him. 

          And then he was outside.  The sky was a blaze of reds and oranges as the sun disappeared over the mountains.

          He took a deep shuddering breath, sucking in the cold, crisp air, and looked up at the sky.

          Sanctimonia Vincet Semper

          No matter what.  He would prevail.

          And he’d make sure his family did too.

          First, he needed to find that counter-curse.  

          He wouldn't fail a third time.

Chapter Text

Draco slammed the book in front of him closed in disgust.  

Useless.

Utterly, impossibly useless.

It was certainly true that itching hexes and curses were quite common, but every one he found wore off after - at most - a day.

Hermione Black had been cursed a week ago.

It wasn't like he could go home and quiz his father.  It was the middle of May, he had exams starting in a week.

And he'd already tried to write his mother about it.  She'd told him that things were being handled, and he needed to focus on school and staying safe.

He scoffed.

Safe, what was safe?

The Daily Prophet had released an article explaining that Barty Crouch Jr had escaped Azkaban with the help of his parents, and he's then escaped his father's control and come after Harry Potter with the insane idea that killing the boy would bring back the Dark Lord.  That aurors had arrived and rescued Harry Potter and two other Hogwarts students, one who had been cursed badly by Crouch Jr.

There was no mention of the Dark Lord returning.

Everyone was sitting fat and happy, at least outside of Hogwarts.

Inside - inside it was different.

Potter had shared his story.  The news that two famous aurors had quit was not widespread; the Minister hiding it as best he could.  But every student knew it.  Dumbledore had announced at dinner that Harry Potter was speaking the truth.  He'd even shared the news of Hermione Black's status, though he'd hidden the details.

The school had divided into three categories fairly quickly.

He didn't think those that were trying to remain neutral would last for long.  Not once He made himself known.

"Interesting choice of books.  I do not remember seeing skin-based hexes on the OWLs."

Draco jumped and looked up to find his head of house staring down at him, black eyes glittering.

He was screwed.

Professor Snape was a Death Eater.

"Well, um, I was curious..."

PLUNK!

A thick black tome with peeling lettering on its dark leather cover landed in front of him on top of the book he'd closed earlier in disgust.

"Return it to Madam Pince when you are finished.  She knows you have my permission.  As does the tome."

Professor Snape spun on his heel and swept down and aisle, his black cloak billowing behind him.

Draco didn't think he'd ever been so confused in his life.

Tentatively, afraid of what he might find, he shifted the books around until the ancient tome was resting on the table in front of him.

While the cover was illegible he could make out an ornate letter 'P' and what looked like an 'r' next to it.

He carefully opened the tome and began moving through it.  There was no title page inside.  Merely a long list of initials with two years next to them.  Most of the initials ended with a P, but the last one was quite different.

 

S.S. 1977 -

 

He began to suspect what he was holding.  And it rather terrified him, the implications of it. 

He didn't know how long it took him to find the page he was looking for, but eventually he did find it.

It was the handwriting on the page that made him pause, thoughts coiling in his mind, just under the surface.

He saw that handwriting written on the board in every potions lesson he'd ever had.

The description given for the curse was extremely detailed and horrific.  He felt bile rise in his throat as the description merged with what he had heard of Black's situation.

And there, listed at the bottom of the page, was a recipe for a potion.

The cure.

And it took three weeks to brew.

She could be driven insane by then.  But what other option was there?

It would be easy for him to obtain the ingredients.  His potions kit contained quite a bit more than the standard student package.  He liked having options, and Snape never searched his Slytherins too much.

As he copied down the recipe for the cure he ran through places in the school where he could brew it.  

Anywhere in the dungeons was out.  He couldn't risk anyone realizing what he was doing.

His mind was still contemplating this question as he packed up his bag and left the library, handing the tome to a suspicious Madam Pince as he went.

Where could he go to in the castle where no one else went? 

He didn't think of where he was going, his feet taking him where they wanted.  He always thought best while moving.

He was dimly aware of Gregory and Vincent following him; he'd almost forgotten they'd been in the library with him. 

He'd made sure to frisk them to ensure they couldn't eat in there and get him banned for a week again.

He was somewhere up high in the school, looking around and wishing he had his own privste potions lab when Vincent let out a shout of surprise.

Draco's head jerked up, his hand going for his wand.

"That-that door!  It just showed up!"

Draco scowled and relaxed, "Vince, it's a magical castle.  Rooms move around all the time."

"Not like that," Vincent argued, "it just sort of...shimmered."

Draco rolled his eyes. Honestly!  He saw doors pop around all the time.  Once he'd even watched one slide down the wall whenever anyone got too close. "Oh, fine.  Greg, go open it."

Gregory loyally trooped over to the door and yanked it open.  When nothing happened Draco came close enough to see in.

It was a potions lab.

Outfitted with everything he'd need to cure Black.  

He turned to leave.  "Just a normal room.  Let's go."

About ten feet down the corridor he turned and looked back.  The door was gone.

He grinned.  If it was there when he came back later he knew exactly where to brew the potion. 

He'd just have to find a way to keep Vince and Greg from realizing who he was brewing for.

Not the hardest task, but even they weren't complete idiots.

XXX

"Harry, mate, you awake?"

Harry groaned and looked up from the map he'd been studying.  "Yeah, give me a minute."

"You know if we go down without you Ginny will chew our ears off," Neville said.

Harry rolled his eyes and quietly tapped the map, "Mischief Managed."

"Harry!"  The bed curtains were shoved out of the way to reveal Ron and Neville staring down at him.

They took in the dark shadows under Harry's eyes and the map lying spread out in front of him.

"Did you even sleep?" Neville asked.

Harry sat up and rolled off the other side of the bed.  He pulled off his wrist brace.  "Of course I slept.  Just woke up early.  Thought to check the map."

Ron groaned, "You were spying on Malfoy again."

Harry began to get dressed, "He's up to something.  Who wakes up at 5:00 am by choice?"

"An overachiever who is cramming for their OWLs?" Neville asked.

Harry shot him a glare, "He's not an overachiever.  Hermione is the best in our year."

"And Malfoy is the only one that even comes close to meeting her grades," Neville countered.

Harry ignored that.  He grabbed his bag and stuffed his map and cloak into it. 

"Our last exam is tomorrow.  Today is Defense and you can't study alone for that, not really.  And tomorrow is History, who cares about that?"

Ron handed Harry his sling, "Mate, you know if Hermione was here she'd be cramming.  Stop thinking about Malfoy and focus on your own exams.  You need to do well.  Think what she will say when she comes back if she learns you were slacking on your exams because you were stalking Malfoy."

"If she comes back," Harry muttered quietly under his breath.

The truth was, he was beginning to give up hope.  It had been a month now since the graveyard and they'd made no progress in curing her.  He could feel the wards weakening from the constant stress, and his inability to sleep for long wasn't helping them.

Silently he followed his friends to the common room, where they met up with Ginny before heading down to breakfast.  Ginny kept shooting Harry worried glances, but said nothing.  

Malfoy appeared near the end of breakfast, and Harry wished he'd been able to have the map out.  Malfoy kept disappearing on it, somewhere on the seventh floor and Harry was determined to figure out what he was up to.  He trusted Malfoy as far as he could throw him.  The more he thought about it, the more he was sure that Malfoy would follow in his father's footsteps.

It just made sense.

People followed their families.  Padfoot was the exception, not the rule.

After breakfast they lined up outside the Great Hall as they got it ready for the exams.  Harry watched as Pansy approached Malfoy and tried to talk to him, but the pale-haired boy appeared distracted.  As Harry studied him he saw dark shadows on the Slytherin boy's face that mirrored his own.

What was he up to?

The question plagued him throughout his exam.  Luckily he could answer all of the exam questions in his sleep.  Questions like 'What are the differences between a wolf and a werewolf?' were practically a joke to him.

When he finished he set down his quill and looked around.  Everyone else was still working so be looked up to the front of the room.  He found himself staring curiously at a plump witch in pink robes, a large bow in her hair.  

He didn't think she'd been there during any of the other exams.  

She was standing off to the side, not walking among the students, a clipboard in her hands.  When she glanced over at him her brows lowered in a frown and she wrote something on the clipboard.

He felt an instant spur of disgust.  This woman reminded him of Neville's toad.  And much as he liked Trevor, the same qualities that made a good toad did not make a good person.

The toad woman continued to scan the Great Hall until time ended and the students were released.  Occasionally she wrote things down, but Harry got the feeling that she wrote the most whenever she looked at him.

It reminded him of what Professor Dumbledore had said about the ministry and them being determined to discredit him.  So far they'd done quite a bit in the newspaper, but the gossip mill was spinning in the opposite direction.  Many wondering how the Harry Potter, the adopted son of one of the greatest aurors of this century would suddenly start hallucinating the rebirth of his parent's murderer.  

Crouch Jr. escaping custody last week while being transported to Azkaban had only fed the rumors that he hadn't been working alone.

Harry couldn't help but grin at the image of Fudge wringing his hands and trying to fight rumors when he didn't even have solid evidence to counter them.  

With those thoughts in mind he quickly left the Great Hall and took himself off to their classroom to kill time until lunch.

Ron, Neville, and Pansy met up with him there.  At Pansy's request the four of them ran through the spells they were fairly sure would be on the practical exam before heading down to lunch.  

Lunch went quickly and before Harry knew it he was in a line outside the Great Hall, waiting for his name to be called.

Four students were being tested at a time, when Harry was called in he saw Pansy and the Patil twins.  Malfoy had already finished.  

Somehow he wasn't surprised to see the toad woman standing next to the wizard overseeing Harry's exam.

"Mr. Potter, let's start with a shield charm."

"Hem hem."

The wizard scowled at the toad. "Yes?"

The toad pursed her lips and gestured at Harry's sling, "I but wonder, why are you making him take this exam.  He is obviously injured."

The wizard's bushy eyebrows moved up his forehead and he looked at Harry, "Mr. Potter, does the sling prevent you from performing any spells?"

"No, sir.  I'm right-handed."  He raised his right arm, showing his wand at the ready.

The wizard nodded, "Very good.  A shield charm, please."

The test proceeded silently after that, but the toad kept scowling and writing things on her clipboard.  Every time the quill would scratch across the parchment the testing wizard would scowl and shoot her an evil look.

"Very good, Mr. Potter.  You may go."

Harry turned to leave, but was stopped by the toad woman.

"Mr. Potter, I hope you understand that cheating on your OWLs disqualifies them.”

Harry froze and turned to stare at the toad with shock and disbelief.  "Excuse me?"

She gestured at his left arm.

"What are you implying, Miss Umbridge?" the testing wizard asked.

She looked down at her clipboard, "His performance, obviously.  He performed all spells with a hundred percent accuracy.  That simply isn't possible."

Harry gaped at her, "Are you saying that just because I knew the material, I cheated?"

"What other reason is there?" the toad asked.

"He mastered the material,” the wizard stated.

She put on a simpering smile, "Why, Mr. Clarington, you know as well as I do that no one ever masters all of the spells perfectly.  The test is designed to not allow that."

"How do you think I cheated?!?"  Harry growled, anger rising up inside him.

She shrugged, "That will have to be investigated, but until then I will have to put a hold on your exams."

Harry saw red.

"No."

She looked at him in amusement, "No?  And what do you plan to do about it?  Unless you can prove you didn't cheat?"

"I can."

Harry reached up and removed his sling.  He tentatively moved his wrist around.  He was supposed to keep it on until he visited St. Mungos on Saturday, but he'd rather reinjure it than let this toad woman and the ministry win.

Sure that it wouldn't suffer without the sling he removed his outer robes and rolled up his shirt sleeves to reveal bare forearms.

"I either cheated by having help in my sling, as you implied, or by getting my hands on the exact spells I’d be asked to perform.  Either way I can prove I know Defense by now casting any defensive spell you tell me.  Minus the unforgivables, of course."

He didn't put it past this woman to try to make him break the law.

"Miss Umbridge, this is highly irregular," Mr. Clarington argued.

The evil little toad smiled, "He has offered.  Let him prove his honesty.  Start with the alternates."

Harry bared scowled before taking a deep breath and ignoring everything but the wand in his hand and Mr. Clarington's voice calling out spells and describing scenarios that would require him to use a certain spell.

The toads face began to sour the longer it went on.  Harry found himself very grateful for Padfoot's summer training.  Between that and his own natural strength in defense he was more than prepared.  Finally Mr. Clarington's voice stopped.

Harry looked up to see a furious Miss Umbridge, her sausage like fingers gripping the clipboard tightly in frustrated anger.

"Does that satisfy you, Miss Umbridge?  A number of those are NEWT level spells," Mr. Clarington said.

It took a moment for the toad to get her composure, but it didn't really surprise him when she said, "The ministry will still need to investigate."

"This is hogwash!  Wait until my father hears about this!"

Harry's head snapped around to see Pansy standing nearby, hands on her hips and a scowl on her pug-like face.

Miss Umbridge stared at Pansy in confusion, "Excuse me, who are you?"

"Pansy Parkinson, and I know quite well that the ministry has never once involved itself in possible cheating on OWL or NEWT exams before.  Also, he just cast TRIPLE the amount of spells we had to," she gestured at herself and the Patil twins, “and he didn’t fail at any of them!”

"Miss Parkinson?  As in Roy Parkinson's daughter?"

"Yes," Pansy stated firmly, glaring back at the toad.

"If you still think I'm cheating, why don't you make me duel someone you trust.  Perhaps yourself?"  Harry asked.

The toad's eyes were glued on Pansy, "No, Mr. Potter, that won't be necessary.  I am convinced you weren't cheating."

"If that's settled, you four may leave.  Send in the next four," Mr. Clarington stated.

Harry grabbed his sling and robes before storming out of there.  Was Fudge so desperate to prove Harry a liar that he'd try to falsely accuse him of cheating?  And why defense?  Surely they knew he would do well in that subject.  He was a Potter and he'd been raised by Sirius Black.

"They likely knew you'd do well, and hoped that no one would believe it could be done without cheating.  Bloody idiots," Pansy said as they left the Great Hall.  Proving, once again, that she was some sort of mind reader.

The students waiting outside were very antsy after the long delay.  Ron tried to ask Harry what had happened, but he didn’t want to distract his friend so told him he'd explain afterwards.

Pansy went off to find Neville, so Harry slipped into a bathroom and pulled out the map.  As soon as he began searching it he found Malfoy passing nearby, likely heading upwards.  

He didn't even think about it.  He could worry about Fudge and Umbridge later.  This was his chance to find out what the ferret was up to.  

He stuffed the map in his bag, threw the cloak over himself, and raced to catch up with Malfoy.

XXX

The hairs on the back of Draco's neck prickled and he whipped around, pulling out his wand.

The corridor behind him was empty.

Was he just being overly sensitive?  The potion would be ready tomorrow.  Then he just had to figure out a way to get it to Hermione without getting his actions outed.

He continued on his way to the Special Room.  He couldn't believe his luck at finding it.  It had everything he needed and disappeared when he didn't need it. 

He walked past the correct spot a few times and then opened the door as soon as it appeared.

He walked into the room, but he immediately realized something was wrong when the door didn't swing closed right behind him.

He swung around to see the door standing open.  Then, as he watched, it resumed closing. 

He scowled. Someone had followed him.  

He didn't waste time thinking, he reached out and found his hand grasping delicate, silky fabric.  He yanked and then stumbled backwards as he found no resistance.

He landed rather unceremoniously on his rear, his right hand clutching his wand, his left holding an invisibility cloak.

And standing over him, wand in hand and a scowl on his face, was Potter.

"What are you up to, Malfoy?"

Draco scowled and started to get to his feet, only to be stopped by sparks shooting out of Potter's wand.

"Stay right there."

Potter looked around the room, taking in the bubbling cauldron and the neatly organized potion materials.  But Draco didn't dare move from his spot.  

Potter looked like he'd enjoy nothing more than destroying something.  And Draco preferred to stay in one piece, thank you very much.

His scan of the room complete, Potter looked down at Draco.

"What's the potion?"

There was no point in lying.  He opened his mouth to say it was a cure for Hermione, but nothing came out.

Bloody hell.

Stupid Family Tome.  Snape had only given Draco permission to see it.  That also meant only he could handle the potion until he got it to the right person.

"Well? I'm waiting.  And I'm not really in the mood to deal with anymore nonsense today."

Oh well, all he could do was try and see how much he could share.

"It's a potion."

Potter rolled his eyes, "I may wear glasses, but I'm not THAT blind.  Of course it's a bloody potion!  What does it do?"

"It's family magic."

Potter's eyebrows rose.  Draco was relieved to see he didn't try to raise only one eyebrow, like Black kept trying and failing to do.

"Malfoy family?"

Draco shook his head.

"Can you share the family?"

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out, he shook his head.

Potter groaned, "Alright, is it going to hurt, injure, or kill anyone?"

Draco shook his head.

"Do you plan to give it to someone?"

Draco nodded.

"Can you say who?"

Again, nothing would come out, he cursed.  And then desperately looked around the room.  If he could just get Potter to realize the potion would save his sister!

He looked down and got an idea.  Against his better judgement he dropped his wand.  Potter took a step back in surprise.  

"Pay attention," Draco said, "and name the opposites.  Got it?"

Potter nodded.

"His."

"Hers?"

"Close."

"Her."

"Yes.  Your."

"My."

"You."

"I."

"Make it a short vowel."

"Okay."

Then Draco shifted his robes to reveal his trouser clad leg and pointed to his knee.

Potter frowned and moved his lips, obviously trying to work through the clues.

It didn't take him too long.

"Hermione.  It's a cure for Hermione..." The last bit was said in almost a whisper and Draco watched in shock as Potter dropped his wand and slumped to the ground, tears appearing in his emerald eyes.

Draco picked up his own wand and slipped it into his robes, but didn't say anything.  Instead he stood up and moved to the potion.  Checking it against the instructions, making sure it would be ready for the unicorn tail at 5:00pm.

"Draco..."

The pain-laden whisper made him jump.  He looked over to see Potter still sitting there.  He looked terrible.  His hair was lank and there were huge shadows under eyes rimmed-red by tears.

"Yes?"

"Will it be ready by Saturday?  She's weakening."

He tried to say yes, but it wouldn't come.  Stupid tome.

"Am I a Malfoy?"

Potter stared at him for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed, he laughed so hard he fell over.

Draco shifted from foot to foot for a moment before deciding to just ignore Potter.  He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with a hysterical person.  

Eventually the Gryffindor managed to get control of himself.  And pulled himself back up to a sitting position, but not standing up.

"Saturday I have an appointment for my arm at St. Mungos.  Wear this," he held up the invisibility cloak Draco had left on the floor, "and give her the potion.  I'm assuming only you have permission to touch it?"

"We can test that.  Come over here."

Potter scrambled to his feet and stuffed the cloak into his bag.  Draco couldn't help but wince at such rough treatment of such a rare item.

As they had predicted, Potter was unable to touch it.

"Well, I guess that means you have to come with.  Luckily I'm going on the Knight Bus."

"I suppose I have to if we want certain things fixed."

Harry frowned thoughtfully, "Malfoy, why are you doing this for her?  I know what I said before, but we both know you couldn't have done anything Ginny or I didn't do.  You can’t feel any guilt for not going with her."

"She's family.  Malfoys stick by their family."

"That's not everything.  You two are barely related.  You're more closely related to Ron.  She's not even a Malfoy."

Draco shrugged, "My mother likes her."

"That's not everything," he repeated.

"Yes, it is," Draco turned away from Potter and began carefully braiding the three unicorn hairs together.

Potter grabbed his arm and yanked him around, Draco almost dropped the hairs.

The Gryffindor was about an inch shorter than him and Draco found a pair of emerald green eyes blazing up at him.

"You have feelings for my sister, don't you?  You support your mother's plan."

Draco jerked his arm free and stepped back, laying the hairs back on his cutting board.

"No, I don't.  She and I vowed to treat each other as family.  I promised to never call her that derogatory term of a muggleborn or mention her parents' killer.  She swore to never support my mother's plan."

Those piercing eyes studied him, "But you didn't swear not to support it.  And a regular vow doesn't have to last forever.  It just informs the swearers if the vow is broken.  You ensured that if she ever had feelings for you, you would know."

"I didn't need to swear!  I never want to marry your sister!  I could never marry a woman like her!"

Potter took a step closer, "A woman like her?  What's that supposed to mean?  A woman that can outsmart you?  One that's more dangerous than you'll ever be?  If that's how you feel, maybe you need to take a look at yourself.  And at your own parents."

"What's that supposed to mean, Potter?!?"

Potter searched his face and then threw his head back and let out a bark of laughter, "You don't know, do you? Honestly, how can she think you're a match for Hermione?  Who do you think is in charge of your parents' marriage?"

That was easy, "My father, obviously."

Potter rolled his eyes and stepped back, "Take another look.  You're seeing what they want you to see.  I'll meet you in Hermione's classroom at 9:00am on Saturday.  Good luck on History tomorrow."

Draco had no response as Potter left the room.

What did he mean, 'Take another look'?  His father was in charge.  They lived in his father's house.  His father was heavily involved in politics, his mother only left the house for social calls.  His mother never interfered in his father's business.  Right?

Doubts settled on his shoulders, but he pushed them away and turned back to braiding the unicorn hair.  

Potter was just saying things.  That was all. 

Chapter Text

Draco quickly turned and pressed himself to the wall, narrowly missing a mediwitch racing by, her arms heavily laden with potions.

Trying to maneuver through a crowded hospital while invisible was much harder than he thought it would be.

How in Merlin's name did Potter use this in Hogwarts?

It didn't help that he'd had to ride the lift up to the proper floor.  And it took about ten minutes before someone selected the floor he wanted.  Why did so many people want to go to the tea room?

Once again he wished he could just hand the potion to Potter to administer.  

But, no, stupid, bloody family tome.

Why had Snape even shared it with him?  There were only two possibilities, and neither of them filled him with comfort.  Either the Dark Lord had a sinister plan for getting Potter's sister cured, or Snape was not quite as loyal as the Dark Lord believed.

He carefully moved around a corner and scanned the small waiting room with the mediwitch station.  

Ah, there.

Behind the desk was a map of the floor, with names written on each room.  H. Black was in room 412.

He moved down the hallway, upon reaching Black's room he found the door slightly ajar.

He leaned forward and pressed his ear to the crack.  He could hear nothing, so he assumed it was empty.  

He looked around to make sure no one was nearby before slowly pressing on the door.  When the gap was big enough he slipped in, pulling the cloak tight around himself.  

All he needed now was for it to catch on the door latch.

The room was empty except for a curtained off area, where he assumed Black was.  

He slowly closed the door, making sure to leave it the way he found it.

Silently he crossed the room and peaked through the curtains.

He had to be in the wrong room.  There was no way that this skeletal figure was Hermione Black.  

He glanced at a clipboard hanging on the end of the bed.

It was her.

Her hair had been cropped short, close to her head.  And her face was sickeningly pale.  It kept contorting into a pained frown before relaxing. Her hands were tied to the bedrails and as he watched they curled into claws and shook the bed as they reached for her bandage clad abdomen.  After a few seconds she relaxed again.

Draco felt sick.

Potter hadn't been lying when he said she was weakening. If the potion had taken any longer to brew it would have been too late.  

His hands were shaking as he approached the bed.  

Her tossing and turning had pushed the thin hospital blankets to the floor.  She was clad in a pair of hospital pants and a too big button up nightshirt that had been cropped at the bottom of her ribcage.  Bandages soaked in some sort of sickly orange potion were wrapped around her waist.  

Only her small, pale face was visible.  They’d put gloves on her tense, claw-like hands

Her extremely prudish modesty was preserved.

He looked around the room and saw a chart with times and names listed.  It looked like he had a good thirty minutes before they came to check on her.

He took a deep breath and slipped the cloak off before opening his small satchel bag and pulling out his supplies.

The potion had to be directly applied to where the curse had hit, and then it took ten minutes to set.

That meant he had twenty minutes to get those bandages safely off and wash away the orange potion.

He took a deep breath and got to work.

He pulled out a pair of scissors and began cutting through the bandages.  It was slow going.  He had to pause every time he felt her tense, since she always moved afterwards.

During one of those times he looked up at her face and was struck with the sudden realization that Black was rather delicate and petite.  Her presence, her modest robes, and long black hair always made her seem bigger.

It didn't help that he remembered her being taller than him when they were younger.  But he was now taller than Potter, and he knew Potter was taller than his sister.

How could such a powerfully dangerous person be so fragile looking?  How could she be made so helpless?

He shook his head and got back to work.  

It took about five minutes to get the bandage pulled back to reveal a thick layer of orange goop.

He grabbed the bowl he'd brought and filled it with water from his wand, then he began carefully washing away the goop, soaking the bed in the process.

He gagged and almost vomited when he got a good look at her skin.

From right under her navel to about three inches above it her skin was covered in angry-looking red bumps, interspaced with long, half-scabbed over cuts.  So many cuts that he could swear he saw her innards.  He wasn't a mediwizard, but even he could tell the cuts were self-inflicted.

Had Snape invented this curse?  Or had he just found it in his family tome and shared it?  Was it in more family tomes?

No, it couldn't be.  Sirius Black had control of the Black tome.  If he had the spell and cure he'd have healed her already.

Once the last of the goop was washed off she began moving more violently. 

He began to grow worried that someone would hear and come in.  

He rushed to grab the potion he'd made; almost dropping it as he pulled out the cork.  His breath quickened as she made the bed shake.

"Silencio," he hissed.

He aimed the spell at the bed, and thankfully it worked.  

He hurriedly began applying the potion all over the affected area, and quite a bit of the clear skin around it.  

He wasn't taking any chances. 

The more potion he put on her, the more frustrated she grew.  Her face was contorted in pain and her hands were clawing at the air in an attempt to reach her stomach.  

Abruptly her eyes opened.  A silent scream emerged from her and he took a step backwards in fear.

He glanced at a clock on the wall and saw he had twelve minutes.

His eyes raced over Black's stomach, avoiding her silently screaming face as he tried to spot any place that wasn't covered in blue liquid.  

Once certain he hadn't missed a spot he began stuffing everything back in his satchel.  

He stood there, satchel over his shoulder and invisibility cloak in his hands, unable to move from the fear that he had done the exact opposite of what he had intended.

There was no way this potion was helping her.  She was in such pain...

His heart gave a lurch.

A fool!

He'd been a fool to trust Snape!

Her struggles grew more violent, the bed began to move silently across the floor.  Her body was so tense that at times she was barely touching the mattress.

He'd failed, again.

He was dead.

Potter would kill him.

Blood rushed to his head and then he began to hyperventilate. 

Air!  He couldn't get enough air!

He staggered and grabbed the curtain, ripping it from the ceiling.  The pop, pop, pop of it coming lose was barely audible through the blood rushing through his head.

He hung there, holding on to the broken curtain, air failing him, and watched Hermione silently scream and flail.

And then, just when he thought it could get no worse, it all stopped.

Hermione Black went completely slack, her soft brown eyes staring blindly at him.  As he watched the blue potion began to disappear as it was slowly sucked into her skin.  

When it was all gone only pale, flawless skin remained.

Distantly he heard footsteps and shouting coming towards him.

He didn't think, he let go of the curtain and stumbled away, grabbing the cloak off the floor and throwing it on.

Just as the last bit of him was hidden Potter came flying through the door.

"Hermione!"

He yanked back the remnants of the curtains around the bed and then gasped.  Sirius Black, and their old Defense professor, Remus Lupin, were right behind Potter.

Draco didn't stick around to see if the potion had worked or not. 

He needed air.

He rushed out, being careful to dodge the pair of mediwitches rushing towards Black’s room.

He needed to get out of there, and fast. 

If they found him and she was cured the Dark Lord would murder him and his parents.  If she was dead, Potter would kill him.

Either way, he was screwed if he stuck around.

He didn’t even wait for the lift this time, instead he just pushed the buttons and jumped on – making a wizened little old witch frown in confusion at the lift buttons.

He just made it out of the hospital on the heels of a young couple holding a sleeping infant.  He hurried down the muggle street, dodging pedestrians the entire way, until he reached an alleyway.  Ducking inside he leaned back against the brick wall and took deep, shuddering breathes.

The air stunk of garbage and rank water, but he didn't care.  

He was outside.

He couldn't change what he'd just done.  Either he'd failed or he'd succeeded.  Either way, he'd done his duty. He needed to get back to school before he was missed.  His parents' lives depended on it. 

He pulled off the cloak and stuffed it in his bag.  He was very thankful he’d decided not to wear robes today.  He’d thought they’d make moving under the cloak more difficult, so he’d dressed in a pair of linen slacks and a well-tailored cotton button-up.

He pulled out his comb and ran it through his hair, changing it enough that he wouldn’t be instantly recognizable as Draco Malfoy.

Then he took off walking. 

He wanted to be far away from St. Mungos before he summoned the Knight Bus, just in case aurors came asking questions.
After about twenty minutes of walking he found himself at one of the many entrances to Hyde Park.  Clouds were rolling in and more people were leaving the park than were entering it.

He didn't mind a little wet, so he crossed the street and entered the park.  The lack of traffic lights and noisy motor vehicles made it a much safer place to walk through.

Just as he was passing the Serpentine water began to leak from the sky.  He quickened his steps, moving along the gravel path as quickly as he could without actually running.

His shoes were not made to run in.

He was thoroughly soaked by the time he left the park.

Honestly, he was grateful for the rain.  The streets were rather empty, and it didn't take too much walking to find a deserted one. Nor did he have to deal with any muggles.  

He glanced around and made sure there were no muggles peeking out of windows or sitting in one of their odd motor vehicles.  Certain the area was empty he pulled out his wand and stuck it out into the street.

BANG!

He ignored whatever Stan Shunpike was spouting, he'd already heard it earlier, not that anyone but him and Potter knew that. 

"Hog's Head, Hogsmeade," he said as he pushed some coins into the bumbling boy's hands.

"Hey!  Dontcha want yer change?"

Draco shook his head and pushed his way to the back staircase.

There were quite a few wizards and witches on the bus, but he moved past them quickly, keeping his head down.

Hopefully no one would realize that this sodden, robeless boy was the heir to the Malfoy family.

Another blessing the rain had brought him.

He found a plush armchair on the third floor with its back to the other passengers.  He curled himself into it and stared out the rain spotted window as the English landscapes raced past.

Now that he wasn't moving his hands began to shake.  He tightened them into fists and pulled them close to his torso.

He really, really hoped the potion disappearing meant it had worked. And worked in the way he wanted it to.

Otherwise, he was dead.

However, the scariest thought of all, one he kept trying to push to the back of his mind, was that he wasn't sure if he wanted the potion to be the cure because it meant he got to live, or because it meant Hermione Black got to live.

He closed his eyes and all he could see her sunken, pale face screaming in silent pain.

He gasped and opened his eyes again.

What was wrong with him?

XXX

She was floating.  Looking around she could see a golden wall surrounding her.  Warmth emanated from it and she smiled.

She knew that warmth.  It had been protecting her for a very long time.  She closed her eyes and could hear a distant humming.

Yea, it was Harry.  He was with her.

She was safe.

There was no time in this warm cage, only peace and love.

Until the wall began to fall.

A jolt of pain flashed through her, she gasped and opened her eyes.

Everything looked fine.  She closed her eyes again.

Floating.

Until it happened again.

And again.

Slowly the pain grew stronger and longer.  

With her eyes open she could see the wall thinning, weakening.

Harry.

And then the wall was gone, and pain was all she knew.

She screamed as flames raced over her, searing her flesh.

She struggled, trying to reach the flames, to put them out, but something was restraining her.

She opened her eyes and screamed at the sight before her.

A blue inferno was pouring out of a pale-scaled dragon.  She screamed and fought, trying to escape the fire she knew was going to burn her to a crisp.

Blue light seared her eyes and she squeezed them shut, fighting as hard as she could to escape.

But then…

The pain was gone.

Sweet coolness flowed over her, coating her skin and smothering the flames.

She went limp.

Her eyes opened to reveal a body coated in blue flames that did not burn.  As she watched the dragon disappeared, its job was done.

She smiled and relaxed, closing her eyes as she heard a distant voice call her name.

Harry, he was here.

He’d take the place of the dragon that saved her.

XXX

Narcissa looked up from her cup of tea to watch the flames in the fireplace turn a brilliant green.

“Narcissa.”

She placed the cup on a saucer and approached the dark-haired man’s head.

“Severus.”

He tilted his head back painfully to look at her.  She pulled up a stool and took a seat, so he wouldn’t pull out his back.

“I told you that I shared the cure, as you requested.”

She nodded, “Yes, and that was almost three weeks ago.  Is the potion finished?”

“Draco is nowhere to be found and Mr. Potter had an appointment at St. Mungos today.”

Her eyes narrowed, “And no one but Draco had permission to use the potion?”

Severus’ lips quirked, “Aside from you, only he knows there is a cure to the curse.  You never did tell me how you knew there was one.  Or that I would be willing to share it.”

Her own lips twisted in response, “I know you, Severus.  My sisters and I have always had a talent for reading people.  You’d never create a potentially deadly spell without giving it a cure.  You’re too careful and detailed to give up control of one of your own creations.”

“You do know that if the Dark Lord learns of this he will not be pleased.”

She studied the black eyes glittering in the fire’s glow.  She couldn’t have read this man incorrectly.  He had agreed to do as she asked with very little persuasion.

No, she was right.

“I also know that I won’t tell him.  Nor will you.”

His dark gazed pierced hers, and she felt him push at her mind.  She smiled, and let him see what she suspected.

As soon as he had seen it he yanked himself out.

“You’re rather astute for a society housewife.”

She arched one delicate eyebrow at him, “No one ever sees a snake in the grass.”

“Rather poetic.”

“Indeed.”

She stood up and smoothed out her robes, signaling the conversation was over, “Send me an owl if Draco fails to return to Hogwarts.  Otherwise, I shall see you another time.”

His head tilted in response and then he was gone, leaving her alone

She moved over and stood in front of the window, staring out at the wet countryside.  She’d worried for years that something was going to happen.  She’d heard about the Dark Lord’s attack on Hogwarts during Draco’s first year.  She’d known he wasn’t dead, but she’d hoped…

Oh, she had hoped she’d have more time.  Time to show Draco that true power did not lie in the arms of a madman.  That he didn’t have to blindly follow in his father’s footsteps.  Time to show Lucius that the future was more important than the past.

At least she’d had enough time to make her husband see some reason.  Even if he had failed to tell her about Hermione being cursed.  She knew, ultimately, that he’d always put his own flesh and blood first.  She just hadn’t been sure if he knew that.

Malfoys stood by their family. 

But Blacks got even.

And she may have married a Malfoy, but she was born a Black.

She was going to find out who hit her future daughter-in-law with Ardens Prurigine, and then she was going to curse them with it.  She was going to curse them with it and watch as they tried to rip their own insides apart to stop the itching.

She smiled at her own reflection in the rain-coated window.

Oh, yes, she would enjoy that sight very much.

Chapter Text

The Slytherin common room was a bit on the subdued side.  Almost all of the exams were finished, but seventh years still had a week left for their NEWT exams and they were threatening to curse anyone that interrupted their study time.

Draco was entertaining himself by reading a practically ancient tome on spell invention.  It was very obscure, but he was beginning to see how one went about creating spells.

It certainly wasn't easy, but it was distracting.

He was ensconced in one of the armchairs near the fireplace as the seventh years were using almost all of tables.  Gregory and Vincent were nearby, sitting on a couch and imitating the mountains he knew people called them.

He didn't know how they could sit and do nothing for hours.

They were a bit put out with him, since he'd disappeared on them all day yesterday.

But he couldn't exactly tell them what he'd been up to.

Currently no one at Hogwarts had heard about Black or Potter.  Though it had been noted that the-boy-who-lived was missing.

Draco hoped that was because Black had woken up.  And not for other, more tragic reasons.

"Draco."

He looked up to see Pansy standing in front of him, a small, happy smile on her face.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tracy Davis watching them, so he affected his most bored expression, "Yes?"

"I thought you'd like to know, Hermione has been cured."

The quiet murmur that had pervaded the sitting area quickly disappeared.  Draco could feel multiple pairs of eyes on them

Some friendly, others curious, but most were actively judging him.

Morgana take Pansy!  Why did she have to tell him this in public?

He kept looking bored, "So?"

She stared silently at him, her eyes wide in disbelief.

"So? So?!!  What do you mean, so?!?"  Her voice got louder and higher pitched with each word, drawing even more eyes.

"Just that.  Why should I care?"

It took a second, her staring at him, and then he saw a spark of realization in her eyes before it was quickly smothered.

Bless her.

She crossed her arms and frowned, "You don't care that your cousin is healed?  That she isn't going to die?"

He shrugged and closed his book, keeping his finger in to mark his spot.  "She's only my cousin through adoption.  We're barely related."

"Draco Lucius Malfoy!  That is a terrible thing to say!"

He scoffed, "What?  You start hanging out with Potter and Pals and you get to judge me now?"

"You're a Malfoy!  You are all about taking care of family!"

"I repeat, she's barely family.  She's adopted."

"Then you wanted her dead?"

He shrugged, "I couldn't care either way."

Her face turned red and she spun on her heel.  He watched as she disappeared down the passageway leading to the girls' dormitory.  

As soon as she was out of sight he opened his book back up and began reading.  Or, rather, pretending to read.  Inside of his head he was dancing with joy and he felt practically weak with relief that she was alright.

It had worked.

Snape hadn't tricked him.

He crossed his legs and propped the book against his knee, trying to hide the tremor his hands were betraying.

A scrapping of a chair against the stone floor made him look up.

"Interesting conversation."

Theo Nott said this as he planted himself firmly in the hunter green armchair.  He had moved it so close that their knees were practically touching.

Draco let out an audible sigh and closed his book once more, giving Theo a bored expression.

"What do you want?"

Theo shrugged, "Not much."

"Then why don't you move away?"

Theo smirked, "Now, why would I do that?"

"We aren't friends.  Nor are we enemies.  You have no reason to be speaking with me."

"Yet."

Now Draco was intrigued and confused.  What was Theo playing at?  His dad was as much a Death Eater as Draco's father.  Was there some kind of junior Death Eater group he’d been ignorant about?

Had his acting just gotten him an invitation?

Bloody hell.

He tightened his hands on his book, trying to hide the fact they were still trembling a bit.

"Explain."

"You know, they say the apple doesn't fall from far from the tree."

Draco gave him a look he'd seen his father use quite often on the Minister when the silly man wouldn't get to the point.

Theo chuckled at that, "Amazing, you look just like him.  But consider this, what happens when the tree is on a hill?  Where does the apple go?"

"Is there a point to this?"

"Yes, now answer the question."

Draco rolled his eyes, "Obviously the apple rolls down the hill."

"And far away from the tree that gave it birth."

"Trees don't give birth."

"You know what I mean."

Draco gestured to the book in his lap, after making sure he was no longer trembling.  "Get on with it, Theo.  I'm busy."

"Draco, how long have we known each other?"

"I don't know.  Forever?  I seem to remember you destroying my third birthday cake by flying into it on MY new toy broom."

"Exactly."  He leaned in and dropped his voice so low that Draco had to lean in to hear him.  "We've never been friends, but I'm fairly certain I know you.  And that means I know when you're lying."

A sliver of fear ran down Draco's spine.

"Now, I will admit, you're good, very good.  If I hadn't been paying such close attention I never would have noticed.  Even then, it took me remembering when we got caught breaking into my uncle’s secret room at my ninth birthday party.”  His eyes pierced Draco, “I know the truth.  You're glad Hermione Black is cured."

Draco closely studied the bony face of his old classmate.  True, he'd known Theo for as long as he could remember.  Their fathers moved in the same circles and were Death Eaters together.

Draco just wanted to escape the coming storm with his life and his family intact.  

What did Theo want?  And why was he confronting him here, in the middle of the Slytherin common room?

"That's an interesting idea."

Theo flashed him a smirk, "It's not an idea."  He pulled back and looked around the common room.  No one was staring at them, but they were earning a few looks from most of their housemates. 

He leaned in again, "We're both the sons of rather prominent Death Eaters, us speaking is not odd or unusual.  As long as we part amiably.  So I'm going to stand up and walk away, happy as can be.  You should drop that pinched look and return to your book."

Theo started to stand up, but Draco stopped him by grabbing his wrist. 

"What will you do with that information?"

The other boy smiled, "Nothing.  Just thought you should know that you're not the only apple in this snakepit."  He pulled his wrist free, "Now, excuse me.  I believe Tracy is trying to get my attention."

Draco watched Theo put the chair back where it belonged and amble off.  The boy had gained so many inches - without gaining a single pound - that he seemed to sway as he walked across the room to the settee Tracy and Daphne.  It reminded Draco of a tree in the wind.

And that thought just brought his mind back to what Theo had said about apple trees and hills.  Theo had never been one to be cryptic, not that this was the most cryptic conversation they could have.

Just what was his old playmate up to? 

Shoving the encounter out of his mind he returned to reading his book.  

XXX

Hermione stared idly at the clouds floating past the open window.

Her brain had so many thoughts, but it took too much energy to bring them up.  

For the first time in her life, she didn't want to think.  She didn't want to figure things out and discover what treasures the world held.

All she wanted to do was lie there and relish in the lack of pain.

She wasn’t floating.  The stiff cotton sheets rubbed against her face whenever she moved her head.  Contrasting with the soft flannel that made up her pajamas.  She could feel cool air coming through one of the small air tunnels in the ceiling, air was flowing over her skin, tickling the short hair covering her skull.

She didn’t want to think about her hair.

The clouds were so much nicer.

Soft and fluffy, with little wispy bits poking out.

None of the clouds had recognizable shapes.  

Yesterday they had.

She'd seen a toad chasing an owl across the window.  That had made her smile.  It reminded her of Neville and his toad.  Neville was a great friend.

So was Pansy.

She hoped they were happy together, whatever their relationship was.

Would she ever find anyone like that?

Harry and Ginny had each other.  That girl hadn’t even hesitated when it came to rescuing Harry.  In fact-

She cut off her own thoughts.  She didn’t want to go down that road, not right now.

Better to think of Ron and Luna.  They were so sweet together.  Whenever he got overprotective she easily pushed him back, but even Luna couldn’t deny that she needed someone that wasn’t quite as nice as she was.

When he found out her classmates were taking her things…

Hermione smiled at the reminder. 

Ravenclaw Tower was far more terrified now of Ron than they’d ever been of Fred and George.

"Hey, 'Mione, you awake?"

Her smile widened and she turned her head to see Harry standing in the doorway.  

"Sort of."

He smiled back, "At least you're answering me now."

She felt sadness overwhelm her at his words.  She didn't remember much of the past month.  Just pain, and then a familiar comfort, followed by more pain that only ended when her world became nothing but blue flames.

The healers had told her the flames likely represented whatever had cured her.  They assumed it was a potion applied directly to her skin since her bandage had been removed, as well as their anti-itching cream.  But they weren't sure.

They also couldn’t explain the dragon she’d seen.

Who had cured her?

As soon as she thought the question, she pushed it aside.  It didn't matter right now, she'd figure things out later, when she felt better.  There was time.

She had all summer.

"Was the past month hard?"

He shrugged and took a seat next to her bed, "In some ways, yes.  Luna kept trying to impersonate you."

She giggled at that, "I would've loved to see that."

"Maybe you can, I'm sure she'd be happy to keep doing it. Something about it expanding her mind to see things from your eyes."

She looked back over at the clouds floating past, "I feel like I'm seeing things from her eyes.  It’s rather freeing.  When will I see her?"

"Dumbledore could only get permission for me to leave school early from the Board of Governors.  They finish in about a week and a half. You should be home by then."

"Oh, I hope so."

She felt him reach out and take her hand.  He gave it a squeeze and she returned it.

“Hermione, about that night.  I-“

She cut him off, “Later.”

“But-“

She rolled her head back to look at him.

“Harry, please.  I can barely move.  If I start thinking, I won’t stop.  Later.  When I’m on my feet.  When I’m moving, walking, running.  Tell me what you need to then.  But, please.  Not right now.”

Tears were pricking at the corners of her eyes as she spoke the last few words.  She couldn’t do it.  She couldn’t think about anything.

Not yet.

Not until she could use the loo without assistance.

Not until she could raise her hand enough to use her wand.

Not now.

“Please,” she repeated.

He nodded, and squeezed her hand.

She squeezed back, but she knew he barely felt it.

She was so tired.

XXX

Draco opened his eyes and reached up, stretching.

Merlin did it feel good to be back home, in his own bed. The silk sheets whispered across his skin and he couldn’t help but groan in pleasure as he moved against them.

Honestly, why couldn’t Hogwarts supply more than just cotton sheets?

He’d discovered ever since he’d started school that the first morning back home was always the best.  You never truly appreciated what you had until you went without it.

He just lay there, luxuriating in the lazy comfort that summer brought, until a knock interrupted the sweet silence.

He frowned.  The house elves never knocked, and his parents rarely came to his room.

“Yes?”

“Are you decent?”

His frown deepened, the voice sounded extremely familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“Um, sort of.”

“Explain.”

He glanced down at himself.  True, the sheets were covering him, but he rarely wore much to bed.  Not when he could help it.

An odd feeling on the back of his neck made him reach over to his nightstand and grab his wand, pointing it at the door.

“The sheets are over me…”

The door burst open and Draco jerked backwards and raised his wand.

Something flew towards him.

Protego!”

As he shouted the spell he rolled to the side, but he ended up getting tangled in his sheets and fell off the bed in a tangle of limbs and sheets.

A clear, tinkling laugh cut through the room, and Draco felt himself go red as he suddenly realized why he recognized the voice.

He pulled his legs free and then stood up, being sure to keep the sheet wrapped tightly around him.

Professor Alianore Roux, his defense teacher from the previous year, stood in the doorway with her wand in hand.

She looked him up and down and smiled, “I must say, your reflexes and instincts are quite good.  But as for your coordination…”

He scowled, “Professor, may I ask what you are doing here?”

“Oh, didn’t your father inform you?  He has hired me to tutor you in defense this summer.  I intend to return to France at the end of the summer.”

Draco couldn’t help but stare at her, “What?”

“Your training.  You’re running a bit late today, but I will excuse it as it is your first morning home.  Starting tomorrow I expect you to be dressed and ready for lessons by seven sharp.    We’ll be practicing until dinner six days a week.  Your father is giving me a great deal of coin to ensure that you can take care of yourself.”  She grinned at him, “And I make sure I earn my coin.  I want you to wear old, comfortable clothes.  Now,” she looked him up and down, “get dressed and grab a light breakfast.  I plan to put you through your paces, and find out just how much you really know.”

“But…but you saw me all year.  You know how much I know.”

She shook her head, her scarlet hair whipping about her as if in an invisible wind.  “No, I saw how much you know of the fifth year curriculum.  Not how much you know.  Feel free to use anything non-lethal today, understood?”

He nodded mutely, trying to wrap his brain around what was about to happen.  He’d expected to spend this summer much like all the previous ones.  That meant lots of alone, quiet time.  Time he wanted to use to work on spell invention and adaptation. 

But instead, it looked like he was about to spend all day, every day learning how to fight and defend himself.

The only good side was that if he did well, he might just survive the war.  And if he survived, he could make his family survived.

She disappeared, closing the door behind her.  He stared at the door for a moment before giving himself a quick shake and dropping the sheet. 

There was no doubt in his mind that if he took too long getting ready she would storm right back in.

Then she might just use something more dangerous than sparks.

And wasn’t that a scary thought?

XXX

Hermione took a deep breath and let go of the bar Padfoot had attached to the wall in the sitting room.  Her legs held firm.

She took a deep breath and relaxed, just standing there.

Yesterday she had managed ten minutes before her stomach had grown tired.  Whatever had cured her had also managed to remove every single abdominal muscle - or at least weaken them so much that she couldn’t do much at all.

She’d never realized just how many everyday activities required the use of those muscles. 

When she’d first gotten home she couldn’t even stand up from the toilet without help.

That had been almost two weeks ago.

Now she just needed someone to help her into the room and then shut the door.  She could pull herself up using the bathroom counter.

"We’re going to start with the pelvic tilt today."

She looked away from her feet and up at her physical therapist.

"Alright.”

Franklin Tonks was someone Hermione had only heard about.  She knew her Uncle Ted had a muggle brother, but had never had a reason to meet the man.

That was, until the magical world had failed her. 

St. Mungos had just told her to take it slow.  That she would get her strength back.  They could regrow bones and heal ligaments, but they couldn’t strengthen muscles with magic.  Maybe she’d add that to her list.  She’d have to think about it later.

When Aunt Andy had realized Hermione couldn't even sit up on her own she had been infuriated at St. Mungos.  She'd immediately contacted her brother-in-law, and he'd agreed to help.

Mr. Frank - he'd insisted she call him Frank, but she couldn't quite manage to be that informal with an adult - rolled a big rubber ball over and put it on the end of what he called a yoga mat. 

“I want you to put your feet on the ball today, rather than the floor.  If you can take my hand,” he held out his arm, “we’ll get you settled on the yoga mat.

She nodded and did as he said.  She'd do everything he told her if it got her back to normal.

XXX

Draco hit the ground and rolled, being careful to keep his wand from breaking.  He was on his feet again a moment later, his wand pointed at the evil red-haired witch that had just turned where he was standing into nothing more than scorched earth.

"You could have killed me with that!"

She laughed, "No, silly boy, you're much too fast to be hit like that.  Good job on the drop and roll.  You didn't trip on your robes this time."

He grimaced.  The first three dozen times he'd tried to recover from a drop and roll he'd eaten dirt because he'd forgotten he was wearing robes.

Honestly, robes were the stupidest things to fight in.

XXX

Harry spun and dodged the spell, spinning out of his outer robe as he went.  As soon as it was off he transfigured it into a piece of wood and sent it flying.

Tonks ducked, but just as it was about fly over her head he transfigured it back.

The robe fell and covered her.  She began to pull it off, but he was faster.

"Incarserous!"

Ropes appeared and twisted around her, holding the robe in place and trapping her arms to her body.  She teetered there for a moment, trying to keep her balance.  But the lack of sight plus the ropes holding her legs together dropped her.

As he watched she grew thinner and began to wiggle her way out of the mess of robe and ropes. 

"Petrificus Totalus!"

She immediately stopped moving and he grinned.  It was the first time he'd managed to beat her.

"Good work, Harry.  Now, let's get her untangled and go through the fight,” Mooney said, waving his wand and releasing the ropes holding Tonks.

Harry groaned, he hated going back through a fight.  He knew he'd made countless mistakes, even if he had won in the end.

XXX

Hermione aimed her wand at the training dummy. 

It exploded without her saying a word.  Just a nice, silent Expulso.  She grinned and looked over at Mrs. Longbottom.

"Very good, dear.  Now, Pansy, your turn."

Hermione moved out of the way for her friend and took a seat on the bench against the wall.  She'd been awake for over a month now, but she still tired easily.  Uncle Remus thought it was the spell that made her so weak, which explained why she could recover in what was a remarkably short time according to Mr. Frank.  Still, she spent the majority of her time sitting or lying down.  If she didn’t have all of her private projects, not to mention OWLs, she would have gone insane from inactivity.

She watched as her friends attempted to cast their own silent spells.

It took Pansy a few tries, but she made the dummy explode as well.  Luna was up next and she got it on her first try.  Ron took a bit longer.  It was only scorched on his first few tries.

"This really was a marvelous idea, wasn't it?" Pansy said, taking a seat next to Hermione after she had succeeded.

Hermione looked around the small classroom that somewhat resembled a muggle shooting gallery.  It really had been a great idea. 

"Yes, I heard Padfoot say he's gotten twenty new letters from prospective students around the world.  It's very hard to find a place like this that isn't run by the government."

"Very true, I'm surprised no one else has tried this before.  Also, love the name, The Marauders’' Academy: Dueling and Defense.  Nice of Mrs. Longbottom and Mr. Weasley to go along with that name."

Hermione shrugged, "Mrs. Longbottom and Padfoot are the two funding this and she thought it was rather fitting.  After all, two of the main instructors were the original marauders, and their star pupil is the son of another.   Plus, she said Neville's dad would have found the name entertaining."

"My father finds it rather fitting," Luna said as he joined them.  "He says that the unexpected method is always the best."

"Luna, your father is a genius.  Padfoot says he's the one that came up with this idea.  Back when Uncle Remus finished teaching at Hogwarts."  As Hermione said this she scooted over so Luna could sit on her other side.

"So, have they found someone to teach dueling?" Pansy asked.

Hermione giggled, "Apparently Professor Roux hasn't left for France yet.  Padfoot's been exchanging letters with her for the past month, trying to get her to come by for an interview.  I found a half-written one on his desk..." She giggled harder, "It's almost like he's courting her."

Hermione knew the two had never met, but she could see Professor Roux fitting right in with Padfoot and the other adults.

A loud bang rang through the small room.  Hermione jumped and looked up to see a small crater where the dummy was supposed to regrow from.

"I do believe we need to work on your control.  I would prefer to not replace the equipment before we’ve even opened our doors to the public.” There was just a hint of a scolding in Mrs. Longbottom’s voice, and that made Ginny flush a light pink.

"My sister is bloody dangerous," Ron said as he approached and took Luna's hand.  He pulled her up, then he promptly stole her seat.

She stood there, looking at him expectantly.

He grinned and pulled her back down to sit on his lap.

She shifted and got comfortable before replying, "She's a good match for Harry."

"Who's a good match for Harry?"  Ginny asked.

Hermione glanced up to see Neville waiting while his mother replaced the training dummy.

"You, of course.  Who else could come close to matching him on the dueling field?"  Pansy stated.

Ginny rolled her eyes, "Hermione of course."

Hermione snorted, "With the way I am now?  I doubt I could even beat Lockhart in a duel."

"You'll get stronger.  Every day you have more strength and stamina.  Besides, no one knows more spells and tricks than you do," Ron said.

"Yes, but I teach all of those tricks and spells to Harry as soon as I learn about them," she pointed out.  "And Harry thinks much better on his feet than I do."

"Point."

Hermione shot Luna a grin, that girl knew reality.

Well, she knew reality where it counted.  And for the rest they could depend on Ron to – hopefully - use his head and common sense.

“Hmph, when do you start your OWLs, ‘Mione?” Ron asked, cuddling Luna on his lap.

“Next week.  I have to travel up to Hogwarts for a week and they’ll give me the exams there.  It’s going to be rather odd to be the only student in the school.”

“I’ll bet, but at least you’ll have them done before classes start,” Pansy put in.

“Point,” Hermione answered, grinning at the Slytherin girl.  It was truly amazing how much this girl had changed in a year and a half.  Still, Hermione wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.

"Are you all ready to go another round?"

She looked up to see Mrs. Longbottom studying them, Neville by her side.  A dummy was regrowing down the lane behind them.

Hermione grinned and stood up, "Yes, please."

"Alright, be silent, but this time I want you to disarm it."

Mrs. Longbottom gave a wave of her wand and a stick appeared in the dummy's hand.

Hermione readied her wand and aimed it at the dummy.  

Time to get back to work - after all - summer wouldn’t last forever.

Chapter Text

"You're very determined."

Sirius smirked, "I never give up."

She smirked back, "And I never surrender."

He leaned back in his brand new office chair, it still had a stiffness to it he was determined to get rid of.

"Yet you finally agreed to an interview."

"I agreed to an interview.  Who's to say I'm not the one interviewing you?"

Sirius gave a small bark of laughter.  He'd sent Alianore Roux an offer to teach after hearing Harry tell about his DaDA experience of the past year.  How the basic occlumency he and Hermione had learned in the 'detentions' had helped them when Harry was kidnapped.  How even now it was letting them work with and control their blood ward bond.

Anyone that could teach Harry to order his mind had to be an excellent teacher.

Not to mention all of her dueling awards.

"I never said I was interviewing you.  I decided to hire you after talking to Albus Dumbledore and my own children."

She scoffed, "Oh, really?"

"Really.  Harry knows defense and Hermione knows education.  Their words, combined with Albus' recommendation was enough."

She eyed him suspiciously. 

"You were one of the best aurors.  Only Alastor Moody outnumbered you on successful cases, but you were catching up, and still had many years to surpass him - if you hadn't resigned.  I've only ever taught children or dueled in monitored duels.  I plan to return to dueling.  Not teaching defense."

He opened a file in front of him and held up the contract inside.

"Dueling and teaching don't need to conflict each other. And I never planned to have you teach defense.  Remus has that under control, with my cousin, Tonks, assisting him.  Besides, this is an academy, not a school.  You can set your own times and even locations for classes.  You want to go to a dueling competition in Brazil?  Make it mandatory for everyone to participate.  Give them bonus points if they last longer than you.  Challenge them, do what you would like.  And, of course, these dueling field trips would be funded by the students' tuition.  Take a look."

She took the contract from him and began reading.

While she studied the contract, he studied her.  

She wasn't very big, that was for certain.  And her scarlet hair gave her a wild look that likely would terrify students if they angered her.  

And from her letters, he was fairly sure she'd fit right in here at the Marauder’s Academy.  

He still had trouble believing it was falling into place so well.  Especially since it had come from Xeno when they were all a bit sloshed.  

With Alice and him funding things and acting as co-directors, Remus and Tonks organizing the defense curriculum, and Arthur managing the actual academy, they were doing well.  They just needed an experienced dueler to handle the dueling side.

He heard Miss Roux gasp and he grinned.  She must have just seen the salary.

It was amazing what students were willing to pay to learn dueling and defense.  Not that they wouldn't offer some free basic classes.  It was good for taxes.  Not to mention that he thought everyone had a right to learn the basics of defending themselves against Death Eaters.  Also, it was a great way to train and recruit Order members.  Oh, and host Order meetings right under the nose of the Ministry - like they planned on doing later this afternoon.

"This can't be real."

He quirked an eyebrow at her, "It is.  And you'll see there's a bonus for every current student of yours that earns a medal in a competition.  Your classes will range from two to seven students.  Organize them how you like.  Also, in case you didn't see, you get a yearly bonus based on your student evaluations.  And you may use our facilities for your own purposes outside of normal class hours.”

He could tell she was trying to take it all in.  She was rather cute when shocked.

That thought made him pause.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd viewed anyone, male or female, as attractive.  Not that he was a monk, but pretty much anyone would do.

Hence why he normally stuck to Alice.  She had no interest in anything beyond satisfying needs.  She'd buried her heart when she buried Frank.  And his relationship with Remus had died back before James did.  They were just too different in their lifestyle choices.

"I may also get an assistant?"

He focused back in on the French witch across from him, "Yes, though, if you look at 7-B you'll see that your salary is decreased a bit - as are your bonuses - if you take on one."

"But I can choose who I would like?"

"Yes, they are your assistant.  And as long as they follow the basic contract we supply you may do as you wish with them."

She reached out and plucked a quill off his desk.  He watched in mild amusement as she dipped it in the ink and signed.

No hesitation.

She deserved to be a marauder. 

XXX

As soon as they were on the Hogwarts Express Hermione got to work.  

She'd spent all summer not thinking about tomorrow.  Just focusing on the present and regaining her strength.  

There was nothing she could do about Voldemort being back, or the smear campaign the Daily Prophet was running on Harry and, to a lesser extent, her and Ginny.  

Even the Daily Prophet wasn't stupid enough to think they could make three people look insane.

Her lack of true power hadn't stopped her from musing.  Or strengthening herself by working on something productive.

"Alright, we need a plan for this year.  Especially since we aren't all in the same house," she looked at Pansy and Luna as she said this. 

"Let me guess, you already have one," Ron said.

"Of course she already has a plan, she's just trying to make it sound like we have any input to be polite," Pansy said.

Hermione shot the Slytherin a scowl and then pulled a small drawstring pouch out of the knapsack Narcissa had given her years ago.

"I came up with this last summer, with some input from Luna.  This summer, while I was stuck in a sedentary position, I made more of them."  She opened it and pulled out another stack of the little pouches and passed one to everyone.  "There is no limit to what you can put in this.  The space is infinite.  I got the patent for it, and the twins are going to sell them for me, after the war, in their small 'Sirius Section'.  Along with the shield hats and such."

Ginny groaned, "Oh, Merlin, did they really go with that name?"

Harry chuckled, "Padfoot's head is going to get even bigger."

"As if that was possible.  Mum says if Padfoot's ego was any bigger he wouldn't fit in your house."

They all laughed at Neville's words.  One of Padfoot’s charms, but also a major fault, was his confidence.

"As I was saying," Hermione said pointedly when the laughter died down, "I made bags for everyone.  To retrieve something, picture the object in your head and reach your hand in.  You'll find it easily.  If you all picture a black notebook and reach in."

When they all had the notebooks in hand Hermione continued her explanation.

"All of these have an adapted protean charm on them.  I worked it out with the twins.  They also have two.  The main point of the notebook is communication."  She pulled out her travel planner and unsnapped the quill from it.  Then she opened her notebook and wrote:

Marauders unite!

Luna giggled as she grabbed the quill she always kept behind her ear and wrote.

Moon!

She passed the quill to Ron.

He groaned and wrote, in very small letters.

King

Luna smiled and kissed him on the check, before whispering something in his ear.  His face turned redder than his hair.

Gred and Forge!

Ginny laughed and swiped the quill from Hermione.

Ginger!

"Really?  That's original," Pansy said as she plucked the quill from Ginny's fingers and wrote in her own notebook.

Snake

"And yours is?"

Pansy rolled her eyes and ignored Ginny, passing the quill to Neville.

He stared at the notebook, thinking.

Harry took the quill from Ron and wrote the nickname that, according to Padfoot, his father had given him.

Prongslet

Neville smiled and then wrote.

Grass

Hermione frowned, "Why grass?  I get it's a plant, but it's not a very special one."

"Grass may not be special, but it's everywhere.  And it just doesn't go away.  Plus, snakes can hid in it."  

He looked at Pansy as he said that last bit, she smiled and gave him a hug.

"So, 'Mione, do you have a nickname?  In case anyone finds one of our books?" Harry asked.

"How about chessmaster?  Since she manages our lives like we were but pawns?" Ron asked.

Ginny snorted, "No, you’re the chessmaster here.  Has anyone ever beaten you at it?"

Ron puffed out his chest, "Never!"

They all chuckled at that.

Hermione hadn't really considered codenames for the notebooks, and she called herself a half a dozen names in her head for not thinking that.  But she didn't really want to immortalize any of those.

She tried to think of something fitting.  But there was nothing.

She was Hermione.

That was it.  Nothing else.

"What about phoenix?"

Hermione looked at Neville in surprise, "What?"

He shrugged, "You were a muggleborn named Hermione Granger, and then you almost died.  You became Hermione Black, heir to an ancient wizarding house.  You were reborn."

"That's putting almost too much though into it, Nev," Ron said.

Hermione ignored Ron and considered it.  No one but Harry and the healers knew about the blue flames and the dragon she'd seen when she was healed.  

Those flames hadn't hurt her, they'd healed her.  Restored her.  She had been reborn.

Twice, if Neville's words were taken as fact.

She decided to go with it. 

She took her quill back and wrote it in the notebook.

Phoenix

Neville shot Ron a grin, making the redhead grumble as Luna placed a consoling hand on his arm.

Hermione stuck her quill back on the planner and put it away.  

"Now, if we ever need to clear it, just tell it 'Mischief has begun."

Harry snorted in laughter, "Now you're just ripping off our parents."

She shrugged, "Don't fix what isn't broken."

"Point," Pansy and Ginny said together.  

Harry shot his girlfriend an annoyed look while everyone else laughed.

"Okay, back on target, please," Hermione said.  "If you put your hand in the pouch and think of a galleon you'll find a fake.  I charmed these with a protean charm.  They're for emergencies and short notice.  Watch."

She tapped her fake galleon and the numbers changed.

Several people yelped as their galleons heated up in their hands.

"Bloody hell, 'Mione!  Warn us next time!" Ron exclaimed. 

She frowned, “I had to make sure you could feel them through clothes.  But look at the serial code.  I set it as a date and time.  We can do words, too.  But that might arouse suspicion if anyone found them."

"You really thought this through," Neville stated. 

She shrugged, "I was already ready for my OWLs, and getting us outfitted and safe is more important than achieving the highest scores."

They all stared at her.

"Who are you, and what have you done with my sister?" Harry asked.

"Harry got kidnapped, Voldemort is back, and I almost died.  School can wait.  Besides, I'm not worried about passing.  Professor McGonagall let me sign up for all the NEWT level classes I wanted.  She knows I'll get the required scores."

The continued to stare at her. 

She sighed and put her notebook and false galleon back in her pouch, then dropped it in her satchel bag.  

"I'm going to the bathroom, get over it while I'm gone, please."

She stood up and left the compartment in complete silence.  Honestly, they should know that bad things changed you.  

Especially Pansy and Harry.  

XXX

Draco sighed and looked out the windows.  He hated the train rides to and from Hogwarts, they were always so boring.

Usually he’d wander the carriages and find students to bother, but he just hadn’t wanted to after the meeting in the Prefect’s carriage.

All he could think about was Black sitting there, next to Longbottom.  With her new, short hair she looked painfully sharp and severe in her black prudish robes.

Nothing at all like the tortured soul he’d seen in the hospital.

Or the fiery, impassioned girl that was determined to save her brother.

As soon as the meeting was finished she’d disappeared with Longbottom and Pansy to the back of the train.  The last carriage had been claimed by Potter and Pals back during the first year.

He’d always been able to find them there.  He’d always stopped by - every train ride.  At first to taunt Potter about refusing his friendship.  Later to interrupt and annoy them.  The last two visits had been to wish Pansy a lovely holiday.

He had no reason to visit now.

He couldn’t, in good conscience go try and torment Black and Potter.  Not after all that had occurred.  He had no reason to seek out Pansy, he’d see her at dinner.  Last year he could get away with it, but this year…

He didn’t want to think of the possible consequences of that.  Life was getting too complicated.

Tracy giggled at something Daphne said.

Blaise did an impression and Theo snickered.

Vince burped and popped another handful of sweets in his mouth.

Greg quickly followed suit.

Draco ground his teeth and stood up.

"Draco, is something wrong?" Daphne asked, concern in her voice.

"Nothing, just need the loo," he said as politely as he could manage.  

"Have fun!" Theo called out.

"But not too much fun!" Blaise said as the two boys cackled like hyenas.

Draco rolled his eyes and left.  Honestly, it was as if everyone had lost their minds over the summer.  At least he'd been productive.  Even if his irrational animosity towards red-heads was now tripled. 

Professor Roux was a bloody menace.

He was so busy scowling at memories of all his painful training sessions that he wasn't paying attention to his surroundings.

One moment he was reaching out for the door to the loo, the next his arms were full.

He froze.

He looked down at the top of a head covered in short, black frizzy hair.

She tried to step backwards, out of his arms, but her feet hit the small raised lip between the corridor and the bathroom.

She started to fall, he reached out to grab her. 

He failed.

They landed in a pile of bony arms and legs on the floor of the bathroom.

He gulped and looked down to see a pair of soft, brown eyes looking up at him.

“I, uh, apologize,” he muttered.  He felt his face heat up as he realized that there was something decidedly soft pressing against his chest.

“Um, my balance, it’s not what it was,” she whispered as her eyes grew wide with…something.

They continued to stare at each other until Draco realized that part of him was beginning to move.

He jerked backwards and ended up banging his head on the door frame as his face went up in flames.

“Bloody hell!” he hissed, grabbing his head.

That woke her up.

“Malfoy?  Are you alright?” Her voice was full of concern as she moved across the small floor to reach out to touch his head.

He looked at her eyes and saw concern, and bile rose up in his throat.  He’d failed her.  True, he’d saved her, but that didn’t wash away his past failure.

He looked away, his eyes catching on her pale calf, poking out of her black school robes.

He gasped.

Words.

There were words carved into her skin.

She jerked back at his gasp, thinking she’d done something to injure him, but it only took a moment for her to realize he was staring at something.

She followed his gaze and froze. 

They were as still as two statues.

He took in the words revealed there.

Mudblood.

Filth.

Scum.

He wanted to vomit.

He knew now why she always wore such prudish robes.

His aunt must have carved those words into her flesh.

How could she even stand to be in the same family as her?  With the woman that had murdered her parents and carved up her flesh?

How could she show him, Bellatrix’s nephew, any concern?

A sound from further down the corridor drove the questions from his mind as she scrambled away from him, covering her scars.

“Hermione…” he croaked.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been planning to say, but he knew he had to say something.

She didn’t respond, he watched from the floor as she tried to get to her feet, but her movements were rough and uncoordinated.  She tripped on her robes and fell on top of him.

He tried to help her get off of him, but she resisted.

“Let me go!” she hissed.

“I’m try-” he was cut off, as for the second time in his lifetime, her knee connected with his family jewels.

He groaned and clutched his aching parts as she untangled herself and struggled to her feet before hurrying out of the loo.

Once she was gone and he could move again he pulled himself to his knees and slid the door shut, locking it, before slumping back to the floor.

Unbidden, the image of her pale calf carved up like her stomach had been, came to his mind.

His breathing increased and he tried to force it back.  But it wouldn’t go.

He saw his aunt, a women he’d only seen in old photographs, carving up a young Hermione Black.

Bile rose in his throat once more and he began to shake.

Chapter Text

Hermione raced through the train, her blood pounding in her ears, her eyes seeing nothing.

Her scars.

He’d seen her scars.

Her friends knew she had them, but only Harry had ever seen them.

Why hadn’t she worn long socks?  That’s what she usually did. 

But today…today it had been so warm, and it was still hard to bend over…

She was a bloody idiot!!!

She slid open the last door on the train and found herself with nowhere left to go.  Just a small, metal platform with thin, spindly bars around it.  Her hands were shaking as she walked out and slid the door shut behind her.

While it was warm, the air carried a sharpness that hinted at the cold to come.  She gripped the thin bars, feeling the sharp metal press into her skin and took a deep breath.

Draco Malfoy had seen her scars.  His pale face had been pinched with horror and disgust.  And she didn’t blame him.  Who could blame anyone for thinking that?

She was disgusting.  Her body, her skin, and - to some - even her blood, were parts to be reviled. 

Hermione Granger Black gave her head a shake and took a deep breath, letting her eyes rest on the tracks appearing out from underneath the back of the train.

She felt Harry reach out through their link, checking on her.  She let him know she was alright, that she needed to be alone, then she shut it down.

Sometimes she just wanted to be alone, ruminating on the hand life had dealt her.

She was being foolish.  She knew that.

But she also knew she had to accept the truth.  Her body was garbage.  But her mind and her magic…

She gave a fierce grin and let out a bark of laughter.  She could control those parts of her.  No one could take away her magic or stop her from using her mind.

No one.

XXX

"That's enough," Remus said softly.

The old man sighed as the room grew instantly quiet.  He looked at the room over his half-moon spectacles.  

Somehow, his own Order meeting had been derailed.  He'd wanted to talk about recruitment first, but Sirius had exploded. The room was still echoing from his heavily weighted question:

"How, in Merlin's name, did we miss a bloody horcrux?!?  I thought you said we got them all!"

The room had fallen into silence broken after a few minutes by Alastor commenting, "Of course the maniac has horcruxes."

After that, the questions had been endless, until now.  Until Remus' soft, but commanding voice had broken through.

"A horcrux is essentially an anchor created through murder, tying Voldemort to this world.  We thought we had destroyed them all, but we obviously missed one," the werewolf continued once he was certain he had everyone’s attention.

"Obviously," Sirius put in, complete with an eye roll.

Alice smacked him, "Behave."

Sirius shot his business partner and friend a scowl as he rubbed the back of his head.

"I was mistaken.  He must have made the sixth one.  There was no evidence for it, but it is the only possibility.  I shall return to my research, but, until then, we need to focus on regaining control of the situation," Albus said, trying to get the meeting back on track.

"Like that's likely," Tonks snorted, "the Minister has his head so far up his-"

"Nymphadora Tonks!  Nice girls don't say things like that!" Molly interjected.

Remus and Sirius snorted in laughter as Tonks turned her attention to the woman that had given birth to her best friend.

"Mrs. Weasley, have I EVER given you the idea I was a nice girl?"

Molly opened her mouth to reply, but Bill cut her off, "Mum, there's no point.  Besides, what Tonks was saying is true.  The minister's nose has turned quite brown."

Laughter filled the room at that.  Tonks tried to aim a kick at Bill, but was stopped by Remus touching her knee with his hand.

The girl turned a shade of pink to match her hair.  And it only got worse when Remus suddenly realized just where and who he was touching.

Albus watched a very dangerous smirk appear on Sirius' face.

Children.

He was surrounded by children.

And wasn't that lovely?

He smiled and felt his eyes begin to twinkle.

"Now," he began, drawing everyone's attention, "we can do nothing about Fudge and the Ministry at the moment.  We can, however, begin work on foiling Voldemort's plans and recruiting more members."  He looked at Alice and Sirius, "Your academy here was a splendid idea.  Sirius, try and find new, trustworthy members while Alice is at Hogwarts this year.  Alastor," the retired auror focused both of his eyes on his old friend, "I trust you've set up a schedule?"

Alastor nodded.

"Could you go over it?  Then we teachers need to hurry back to Hogwarts before the train gets in."

The retired auror pulled himself to his feet.  As he began to go over schedules for training and guarding the prophecy, Albus watched his Order.

All of them, so young.  So passionate.  So ready to defend their loved ones.

He hoped that none of them had to die, though he knew that was a foolish hope.

No one could escape death.

Not even Tom Riddle.

XXX

Draco didn't know how long he was in the loo.  People kept knocking, telling him to hurry, but he ignored them all.

How could Hermione Black stand to call Sirius Black her father?  How could she be on such good terms with his mother and Aunt Andormeda?  How could she speak with him?  Show concern?  Trust him?  Swear a vow with him?

She...

She was amazing.

That was the only conclusion he could reach. 

How could his mother even think they could marry?  She couldn't marry the nephew of the woman that did that to her.  The son of a woman that looked so much like her evil sister.

Just to be able to interact regularly with those related to Bellatrix Lestrange... 

And not just interact.  He knew she loved her adopted father.  He still remembered her growing so upset back during their argument in fourth year.

And fourth year...

He now knew why she'd been so furious at him calling her a mu-.

He gave his head a shake.  No, couldn't think that word, just in case.

He would not break their oath.  He wasn't a liar.

When he had called her the not nice term for a muggleborn, she'd been furious.  No, not just furious.  Looking back, he could now recognize the pain in her eyes.

He'd called her one of the words his aunt had carved into his flesh.

He felt sick again, but there was nothing else to come up.

If that was what Death Eaters did - carve up little girls - he wanted nothing to do with it.

He wasn't his aunt.

And, with a feeling of failure, he acknowledged that he wasn’t his father either.

He didn't know who he was, but at least he knew who he wasn't.

Maybe that was all he could know.

Another knock sounded on the door, this one softer.

"Draco?"

Pansy.

"Theo came and got me.  We're almost at Hogsmeade Station."

He didn't say anything, he didn't think his throat would work. 

He felt so dirty.

"I know something happened.  I saw Hermione, she finally came back not twenty minutes ago.  Now it's your turn, you need to come out."

He pulled himself to his feet.  They almost buckled after hours on the floor.

"Draco?"

Tears sprang to his eyes.  Pansy.  His most loyal friend, he'd been a fool to ever believe she would betray him.

A fool.

He took a deep breath and wiped his face, trying to regain control.

"Please, Draco.  I know we've grown apart recently, but I'm still your friend."

His breath caught in his throat.

"Draco..." There was a hint of warning in her voice.

He reached for the latch, but couldn't quite manage to turn it.

"Draco Lucius Malfoy get your pointy self out here right now!  I have no problem with blasting off this door!"

He couldn't help it, a half-broken laugh tumbled out of his throat.

There was the Pansy he knew and loved.  This was the Pansy he’d shared every little secret with since he was seven years old and found her crying at her own birthday party; upset that Barrow had called her a pasty pug and told her that she should have been drowned at birth.

"Draco!  I hear you laughing at me!  Get out here!  Right now!"

His laugh continued, turning into a quiet snicker as he managed to get the door open.

As soon as she saw him her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.

His snickering abruptly stopped and he flushed in shame.  He must look a mess.

"Oh, Draco..."

And then, for the first time since that article came out, she hugged him.

"Pansy..." He croaked.

"Oh, shut it.  I know you're sorry.  We were stupid back then. Now," she pushed him back into the loo, "let's get you cleaned up.  Can't have the Malfoy Prince looking messier than Harry.  It just wouldn't be right."

He chuckled and sat on the closed toilet; letting her pull combs and such out of a drawstring pouch that looked much too small to contain so many beauty products.  It was almost as if the entire Skeeter incident had never occurred.  He felt his shoulders lower as tension left him.

She began fussing over his appearance and his mind filled with thoughts of another witch.

He hoped someone was fussing over her.

She deserved it.

XXX

Harry watched Hermione disappear up to the girls' dorm.  He'd thought she'd been doing so well since the graveyard. She'd had only one nightmare, and as soon as he got there she had calmed down.

And then Malfoy had to go muck things up again.

He'd been right not to tell Hermione who had brewed the cure and administered it.  If she reacted this badly to Malfoy seeing her old scars, how would she fee to learn he had seen her at her weakest point yet?  After refusing to come help her?

No.

It was better she not know.

"Hey, mate, you ready for bed?"

Harry gave himself a shake and smiled up at his best friend.  "Sure," he glanced around the common room, "Nev go up already?"

"Where were you?  He said he was going up almost five minutes ago.  Had to help a first year figure out the shower controls."

Harry shrugged and stood up, "Somewhere."

As the two of them climbed the stairs up a disturbance began to grow ahead of them.  

Harry frowned when he saw a crowd of boys outside of their room.  A room from where several people were yelling.

"THAT'S MY BED!"

"No, you great IDIOT!  That's Harry's bed!"

"I've always had the bed by the window!!!"

"Yeah!  Before you got SUSPENDED!!!!"

The little first year boys peeking through the crowd at the door gasped at that.  Harry couldn't blame them.  It wasn't every day that someone got suspended from Hogwarts.

But, that did answer just who was trying to steal his bed.

He tapped a fifth year boy on the shoulder and cleared his throat.  The boy turned with a glare, but as soon as he saw it was Harry he leapt out of the way.

The rest of the Gryffindors quickly did the same.  Quite a few of them, especially a couple seventh years, looked quite gleeful at the possibilities that might occur.

"Why-!  You little shirt-"

BOOM!!! 

He jumped and yanked out his wand, pushing a younger boy out of the way so he could reach the dorm room.

The room was filled with smoke, but even through it Harry could see that it was a disaster.  Soot coated everything, including the three boys that were standing there, wands drawn.

Harry's trunk had been slid across the floor and was lying on its side.  Quite far away from his normal bed.  Luckily the lock Padfoot had put on it hadn't broken open.

Dean's trunk hadn't faired so well.  It was up on one end and had vomited clothes and books across the floor.

Granted, it looked like Mclaggen's trunk had been attacked by a dragon. 

Seamus had his wand out and was studying the burnt trunk quite proudly.  Dean was next to him, a furious expression on his face as he shouted, "Don't you point your wand at him!!"

And, indeed, Mclaggen had his wand out and aimed at Seamus.

How in the world had they not heard this from the common room?

Ron looked at the rather overwhelmed seventh-year prefect standing just inside the door.

"Criston, you're really dumping Mclaggen on us?"

He shrugged weakly, "He is a sixth year still..."

"What is going on?"

Harry looked back to see Neville pushing his way into the room, flashing his prefect badge at anyone that wouldn't move.

"Mclaggen tried to take Harry's bed!"  Dean shouted.

"It's MY bed!" Mclaggen shouted back.

"He also tried to call Dean a shirt-lifter!"  Seamus roared at the same time.

Dean looked over at his best mate, "Well, it is kind of true..."

Neville looked over at Criston, "You're not going to handle this?"

The older boy made a very non-committal half-shrug, causing Neville to roll his eyes.

"Alright, guess it's me.  Criston, at least go be useful and go get Professor McGonagall."

The older, lanky boy rushed off as Neville first directed his attention to the audience.

"Phelps, you there?"

"I'm in the back.  Want me to send them all off to bed?"

"Thank Merlin, you have some sense.  Yes, please.  Everyone, go to bed.  First-years, see Phelps if you need any more help."

There were quite a few grumbles and groans as the fifth-year prefect ushered them all off the landing and up or down to their dorm rooms.  Neville watched long enough to be sure they were all leaving before focusing back on his three angry roommates. 

"Mclaggen, where was your trunk when you came in?"

Mclaggen pointed at the end of Harry's bed, "Right there!  Just as it always was in my old room!"

"Liar!" Seamus shouted!  "He blasted it out of the way and hit Dean's trunk!"

Neville looked at Seamus, "Did you see that?"

"Yes!"  Seamus shouted.

"Liar!" Mclaggen yelled.

"You know," Harry interjected, "there's an easy way to check this."

All four of them looked at him.  Only Neville looked remotely calm.

"How?" Ron asked from his post by the door.

"We'll just ask the house elves when Professor Mcgonagall gets here."

Mclaggen's jaw dropped at hearing this idea.  Seamus smirked, while Neville nodded in agreement at this plan.

It was only Dean that spoke, "What's a house elf?"

"A house elf, Mr. Thomas is a magical being that takes great pride in work.  Think of the muggle fairy tale 'The Elves and the Shoemaker," Professor Mcgonagall said from the doorway.

She was in a tartan houserobe and her hair was braided and slung over one shoulder.  Criston was hovering behind her, looking very uncomfortable.

She surveyed the room before stating quite firmly, "Wands away."

Harry watched as Seamus and Dean reluctantly put their wands away.  Interestingly, Mclaggen didn't even hesitate.  His wand was away and he was practically standing at attentionr before the words had fully left her mouth.

It was then that Harry remembered just where Mclaggen had spent the last year.  He'd been firmly under the thumb of Padfoot and Mrs. Longbottom at the Ministry.

And from the little bit he remembered hearing, the older boy had become a much better person during it all.  So why had he attacked Harry's trunk?  Unless it had all been an act.   He didn't like choosing sides, but he'd always trust Dean and Seamus over Cormac Mclaggen.

"Floppy!" Professor Mcgonagall stated quite firmly once no wands were in view.

A small being with enormous ears popped into the room. "Mistress be wanting Floppy?" he squeaked.

"Yes, I was wondering if you could find the elf who originally brought the trunks to this room and then help them restore the room to exactly as it was before the students found it.  They seem to have made a mess."

Floppy's eyes grew almost as big as his ears as he took in the dorm room.  "Yes, Mistress.  They be messy boys.  We will fix it."

He immediately popped out.  A moment later he returned with another house elf.  It took the pair of them less than five minutes to restore the room.  Harry noticed that Mclaggen's trunk - at the end of a bed that had certainly never been Harry's - still looked a bit singed around the edges. 

"Now," Mcgonagall said when the house elves left, "find your trunk, that's your bed.  It is entirely too late, so I shall speak with you three," she pointed at Mclaggen, Dean, and Seamus, "before breakfast.  Be in my office at seven.  And, Mr. Longbottom," she focused her piercing gaze on him, "good work on taking control of the situation."

Neville gave a small, pleased smile as he turned a bit pink, "It’s my duty."

"Quite right.  Now, go to bed boys.  Sixth year may not have big exams at the end, but it will be no walk in the park."

She swept out of the room, giving Criston a pointed glare that sent him scurrying up the stairs to his room.  When the landing was clear Ron swung the door shut, then lazily leaned against it.  He crossed his arms and focused his eyes on the older boy.

“You know, Mclaggen,” he drawled, “it wasn’t really smart to alienate your roommates of the next two years.  Getting in an argument about a bed is one thing, but blasting a trunk?  Or using slurs?  Don’t you remember what got you in trouble in the first place?”

Mclaggen stared mulishly at the floor, but said nothing.

“Ron…”  Harry started before he was interrupted by Neville.

“No, Harry, this needs to be said.  Now, so there are no more incidents.”  He walked across the room until he was standing directly in front of Mclaggen.  The older boy refused to look up, but Neville waited him out.  The silence in the room grew thick as Ron, Dean, Seamus, and Harry all watched Neville essentially stare down Cormac Mclaggen.  Harry could distantly hear the boys in the other parts of Gryffindor Tower getting ready.

After what seemed like hours, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, Mclaggen looked up.  He had to tilt his head back a fraction of an inch so he could meet Neville’s eyes.

“What?” he bit out.

“You need to understand that we aren’t your old classmates.  We’re not going to let you bully us around.  None of us will stand for it.  And if I catch you pulling any of your old stunts I’ll have you in the Headmaster’s office faster than you can say golden apple.  Got it?”

You could practically hear Mclaggen’s teeth grinding as he glared daggers at the other boy. 

“Fine.”

He whirled on his feet and stomped over to his trunk to get his night things.  When he disappeared into the bathroom Harry glanced around the room at his friends.

“This is going to be a lovely year, isn’t it?”  Neville stated as soon as the bathroom door slammed shut.

“Oh, yeah, just peachy.  How long do you think it will take for one of the girls to hex him?”  Ron asked.

 “Hey, Seamus, I bet you a butterbeer that Hermione hexes him by lunch,” Dean said.

“You’re on!  I don’t think he’ll make it through breakfast!” Seamus said as he put his arm around Dean’s shoulders and steered him towards their part of the dorm room.

Harry snorted in laughter and began getting ready for bed.  Personally, he thought they were both wrong.  Hermione wasn’t one for hexing people in the hallways.  If he didn’t think he’d be taking his life in his hands making such a bet, he’d place his money on Ginny.  Especially once she heard what had occurred this evening.  While she had no problem blasting his things or yelling at him, she took offense when anyone besides Hermione did it.

His girlfriend was a bit possessive.  Not that he minded.  He rather liked how focused she was on him.  Especially when he got her somewhere dark and private.

As he climbed into bed he tentatively reached out to Hermione.  He sighed at what he found. 

She was still blocking him.

She’d been doing that off and on all summer.  At first he thought it was because she was trying to master the bond, but now he had the feeling that his sister was distancing herself from him.  He thought it might be because she knew how easily the bond had overwhelmed her, but, deep inside, he wondered if she just didn’t want to be so intimately connected to someone who had come so close to death.  He knew that was unfair to think, but he couldn’t help himself.  He’d been the one that found Padfoot passed out in his office, firewhiskey on his breath, and tears on his face after it had come out that Regulus Black had died a hero. 

Losing a loved one changed people.  So it only stood to reason that almost losing one did the same thing.

He’d almost lost Hermione, until he’d received help from one of the last people he’d expected it from.  And she’d almost lost him, until one of the people he loved most had swooped from the air, like a flaming angel, and saved him.

Saved him, after his parents had spoken to him.

After they’d told him how much they loved him, how proud they were of him.

He felt a sob well up in his throat and he quickly pulled his wand out from under his pillow and cast a silencing spell on his bed before he let it come out.  It was torn from him in a ragged breathe as the tears began to pour down his face.

He cried for his parents, who had died when they weren’t much older than he was now.  He cried for Padfoot, the only father he’d ever known.  The man who had lost almost everyone he ever loved.  He also cried for Neville, who had also lost a parent, but had become someone that looked beyond house colors.  Someone that knew the new lion in their den was more threatening than any of the snakes down in the basement.  He cried for his sister, a girl who had lost her birth parents the same night he lost his.  A girl that, unlike him, actively remembered losing them.  And, most surprising of all, he cried for a little green snake that was too afraid to fly, but had no problem risking it all to save a lioness that had caused him nothing but headaches for years. 

A snake that had sent him back his cloak, along with a note telling him to never, ever, tell anyone what he had done.

All of this came out of him while he stood outside of Hermione’s mental gates, willing her to let him in.

Chapter Text

"Harry James Potter, if you offer to go hex Malfoy one more time I will turn your Firebolt into a pile of kindling," she bit out through gritted teeth.

Honestly.

Her brother held his hands up in surrender as Ron and Neville snickered.  

“Woah, ‘Mione!  I was just trying to help…”

She shot a glare at him and then quite pointedly focused on the text in front of her.  They had free periods to study, not to gossip about Slytherin boys that were obviously up to something out of character.

They had been at school for over a month now and things were not going as Hermione had imagined they would. She'd been sure that Malfoy would go back on their oath, or at least threaten to.  He'd tell the school about her scars, or he'd hold them over her head.

And, telling the world would, as surely as a curse, hurt her.

But he'd done nothing.

He'd done less than nothing.  He was doing any and everything he could to ensure they never encountered each other.  He'd even turned around and walked in the opposite direction so as to not cross paths with her.

It made her feel disgusting.

The fact that he couldn’t even pretend to treat her like he used to…

It hurt, it really did.

And the worst part was that she couldn’t even explain WHY it upset her so much.

She hadn’t told anyone that Malfoy had seen her scars – not even Harry.  All he knew was that she got terribly upset every time she saw Malfoy.  To the point where she was beginning to struggle in Potions.  Snape had even asked her after class the week before if everything was alright.

“Hey, ‘Mione…”

She raised her head just enough to glare at her brother, “What?”

“If I can’t hex Malfoy, could you at least tell me WHY I can’t hex him?”

She pursed her lips, “No.  Now, can we change the subject?”

She shifted in her seat and picked up her quill.  If she didn't get this essay done and done well Snape might just write a letter home to Padfoot.  She still couldn't wrap her mind around the fact he'd asked how she was.

"What about hexing Mclaggen?" Ron asked as she put quill to parchment.

She froze and glared up at her freckle-faced friend.  Her hand turned white as she squeezed the poor, innocent quill.

"What," she bit out, "do you think?"

"I think you really don't care either way?" he said hopefully.

"Neville."

"Yes?" Her fellow prefect asked innocently.

"Can you please explain to these two knuckleheads just WHY we can't hex our fellow classmates?"

"Hermione, Mclaggen isn't a fellow classmate, he's an invader.  I don't know why our parents approved him to return to Hogwarts," Harry protested.

She rolled her eyes, "Has he broken any school rules?  Done anything illegal?  Put any of us in danger?"

"Well..." 

"I think..."

"No, he hasn't," Neville stated.

"But, Nev, what about-"

"Ron, that's over.  Dean and Seamus let that situation escalate and all three of them have served their detentions.  All he does now is send Harry and I dirty looks."

"I heard him complaining to Criston about sharing a room with a pair of shirt-lifters!  You know he was talking about Dean and Seamus!"

She had been trying to focus on the potions text in front of her, but at these words Hermione found her attention drawn back to the boys.

"He said WHAT?"

Ron looked at her earnestly, "He called them a pair of shirt-lifters and implied some other things."

"And Criston said nothing?" She knew he was a worthless prefect, but to not report a slur...

"Of course he said nothing.  He's a worthless prefect," Neville stated - echoing her thoughts.  "He only got the badge because the rest of his class is even worse."

She grew quiet as Harry nodded in agreement.  The current Gryffindor seventh-years were rather lacking.  Well, at least on the boys' side.  The girls' were much better than her own roommates.  If only she'd been born a month earlier she could have roomed with Katie Bell rather than Lavender Brown.

Katie didn't have a penchant for giggling.

"Well," she started, "I will certainly keep an eye on him, but as long as he toes the line there will be no hexing.  We don't need more enemies than we already have."

Ron grumbled about that, but the other two boys said nothing as they all returned to their studying.

XXX

Draco felt Pansy tense up next to him as soon as she unfolded her copy of the Daily Prophet.  Personally, he didn't care to read the rubbish that they had taken to publishing lately.  Not that they hadn't been publishing rubbish for years - but it had at least usually been entertaining. Now it was just downright embarrassingly awful.

He put down his cup of tea and turned to read over Pansy's shoulder.

He rolled his eyes.  

Did they not hire fact checkers at the Daily Prophet?

"You know, I've never even met a muggle, but I'm fairly certain that their teaching methods are as good as, if not better than ours."

Pansy shot him a look, one delicate eyebrow going up, "Why would you say that?"

He shrugged, "I got bored once when mother took me to visit her sister.  My uncle," his nose wrinkled a bit at the word, "keeps one of those muggle automobiles around - since he still has connections to the muggle world - and I took a look at it.  There are so many knobs and dials that you must need a great education to understand them.  Not to mention that thing they call an 'engine' that makes it run.  I've never seen anything so incomprehensible. And I was told that in some places muggles as young as fifteen can use them competently.  And-" he remembered to add as he knew they had an audience by now, "-muggles are certainly no smarter than us.  Ergo, they have good teaching methods."

"Draco, your brain works in mysterious ways," Daphne Greengrass stated from her spot across the table.

"I didn't realize you had an uncle with muggle connections," Theo said with surprise.

Tracy smacked his shoulder, "Theodore Knott!  Do you not listen to me?  Narcissa Malfoy's oldest sister married a muggleborn. Andromeda Tonks née Black was burned off the family tree for that.  But the two sisters mended bridges several years ago."

Theo's angular face twisted in disbelief, "Really?  I don't remember hearing that."

Draco snickered when Theo threw him a wink and Tracy promptly began scolding him for not ever paying attention to her.  Daphne gazed on her two friends with mild amusement as Draco looked back down at Pansy.

She had an extremely calculating look on her face.

He suddenly felt worried for the staff at the Daily Prophet.  No one got away with attacking her family.  

That thought made him look up and over the head of Daphne.  His gaze searched until it found a familiar head of black hair.  She was facing away from him, but he could clearly see the newspaper in her shaking hands. 

And, for the first time in weeks, when he thought her name he didn’t see her helpless in the hospital.  No, he saw her angrily defending her family when he dared to insult them.

His breath caught in his throat and he was seconds away from standing up and…and…

He froze.

And what?

What could he do?

“Draco?”

He blinked and turned to look back down at Pansy, “Yes?”

“Would you mind helping me?  I believe I have a few letters to write.”

He blinked again, and it suddenly hit him that he could do something.

“I believe we have an empty class right now.  Would you like assistance now?”

She rolled her eyes at his polite speech, but stood up anyway.  As soon as he was on his own feet she grabbed his wrist and practically dragged him out of the Great Hall.

Before he crossed the threshold he thought he saw a small sliver of smoke curling up out of the newspaper in Hermione’s hands.

XXX

Hermione's hands were shaking in anger by the time she put the paper down.  How dare they!  

It wasn't enough for them to attack Harry's sanity or her and Ginny's competence.  No, now they were attacking their parents!

Saying that those who can't do, teach.

Ergo, Mrs. Longbottom, Dora, and Padfoot were only teaching now because they could no longer handle being aurors!  

They'd even dug up the werewolf registry and publically outed Uncle Remus!!!

And what they were saying and implying about Mr. Weasley!

Anger burned within her, fueled by her magic.  How DARE they attack what was hers?!?  

She was seconds away from igniting the entire paper on fire wandlessly when Luna walked over and snatched it from her hands.  

Hermione twisted on the bench to glare at her blonde friend.  Instantly a soft feeling of warmth rolled off of Luna, calming her anger.  Cooling it, making it truly dangerous.

Luna's usually soft, doe-like eyes became as hard as crystal while she read the article.  When she reached the end she folded the paper neatly into a hat and then placed it on her head.

Hermione could only assume that the Ravenclaw had known that folding it in such a manner would make the headline say: Ministry a Scam!  Rather than: Ministry Reveals Marauder's Academy a Scam!

Ginny snickered, "Well done, Luna!"

Luna smiled sweetly, though her eyes were still as hard as diamond.  She leaned over and kissed Ron on the cheek before looking over at Hermione.

"I think you write beautifully.  And there are so many delightful facts out there."

A slow smile slipped across Hermione's face as she understood just what Luna wanted.  

They wanted to print lies?  Well she'd drown them in truth.

XXX

It took about a week of research to obtain all of the information she needed.  She sent a few owls to Mr. Frank and he'd happily found the muggle research papers she requested.  The Hogwarts library had held the rest of the information she had required.

Now, sitting in front of her were about two dozen clearly written and well-researched articles on the Marauder’s Academy.  She knew the Daily Prophet would never agree to publish it, but they weren't the only publication in the world.  Each copy of the article had been tailored for a different publication.  

She hadn't wanted to, but she'd asked Padfoot to send her the family seal.  The Black family may have died down to only two carrying the name, but their name was almost legend throughout the wizarding world.

The seal would get her letter opened.  

Her introduction letter would get her article read.

The information contained within the article would get it published.

She was even given permission for the articles to be translated into any language as needed. 

For years she'd been making a list of things she wanted to deal with.  Well, apparently the future was here and it was time to get started on that list.

XXX

Rita had not been having a very good few years.  She’d always told herself that everything was forgivable if it was done in pursuit of a story.  Unfortunately, the government didn’t agree with her. 

It hadn’t helped that she’d - somewhat - inadvertently attacked the Blacks.  That family wasn’t known for being forgiving, or accepting of attacks gracefully.

She was realistic enough to admit that she’d overestimated her own abilities.   

The only positive thing – in her mind – was that they had decided to punish her legally rather than personally. 

It meant she was alive.

It also meant that she was in the very small low-security ward at Azkaban.  Dementors stayed away from there during the daytime; only roaming the corridors at night.  She also had access to a small library - one that always carried a wide variety of newspapers.

Granted, the newspapers were almost always quite old by the time they received them.  They received every newspaper for almost an entire month all at once.

Why, just an hour before she’d read a Daily Prophet article from almost three weeks ago, on the tenth of October, that had made her snicker in anticipation.  Her replacement at the Daily Prophet – an upstart little witch if there ever was one – had sought to succeed where Rita had failed.

She’d attacked the Blacks.

Since finishing that delightfully terrible article she’d been scanning newer papers.  She passed over countless articles destroying Harry Potter, attacking Albus Dumbledore, and declaring it to be impossible that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had returned.

There had been nothing in the Daily Prophet.  Though she had found it interesting that no reporter wrote more than one negative article about anyone related to the Blacks before disappearing from the paper entirely.  Including that little upstart witch.

She’d had to turn to a stack of Canadian papers.  The Circadian Leaf wasn’t what she had ever considered an interesting paper.  They were much too nice about things, not to mention they had a terrible fondness for fact-checking.  Something she never allowed to get in the way of a good story.

Likely why they always refused to carry any of her work.

She didn’t even have to open the paper to read the article.  It, along with a massive moving photograph of the teaching staff dominated the entire front page.  Down at the bottom she could see that it continued on page A3. 

“All right everyone!  Pack it up!  Supper then bed!  Dementors will be here in an hour!”

The harsh voice of Auror Silvan cut through her thoughts.  She hurriedly stuck the paper inside of her prison robes and joined the handful of other low-security prisoners on their way to the small cafeteria.

Less than an hour later her stomach was filled with watery stew and she was locked inside of her small cell. 

A sharp, narrow beam of light poked through the bars on the door and she held the paper up to it.  She slowly read every word.  By the time she finished the first page a grin was twisting her face and it was all she could do to contain her excitement as she flipped to page A3. 

That girl could write!  If she could do something so deliciously wicked as this article, while passing the Circadian Leaf’s fact-checkers…

She didn’t feel so bad now about underestimating the brat and her potential bridegroom.  Who knew a Gryffindor could think so deviously?

By the end of the second page her grin had turned into a sharp wild laugh.  One that hid from her ears the sounds of stones crumbling, people screaming, and doors being blown off their hinges.

That is, until that narrow beam of light became much larger as her own door exploded.

Chapter Text

As soon as the manor was empty Narcissa was grabbing a handful of floo powder and stepping into the fire.
Seconds later she stepped gracefully into the lobby of the Maurauder's Academy.  A young black-haired wizard looked up from some paperwork he was doing at the front desk.

"May I help you?"

She didn't recognize him, and he spoke with an accent - Japanese if she were to hazard a guess.

"Yes, you must be Ms. Roux's assistant.  I'm Narcissa Malfoy and I must see Mr. Black immediately."

The young man frowned, "He's in a meeting with the rest of the staff at the moment.  Would you care to-"

She cut him off, "Everyone is together?  Excellent."

She'd taken a mere two strides toward the corridor leading to Sirius' office when she walked smack into an invisible wall.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Malfoy, but I cannot let you go back there."

She pivoted gracefully and stared into the dark brown eyes of the boy.

"I'm sorry.  Did you say you can't LET me?"

He took a defensive stance and aimed his wand at her.

"I may look young, but I graduated from Mahoutokoro almost a decade ago.  I've got almost as many dueling medals as Alianore.  You may have heard of me.  Mamoru Tachiki.  So, yes, I won't let you."

Actually, she had heard of him.  

She had, of course, done a thorough background check when Lucius had expressed interest in hiring Alianore Roux to tutor Draco. 

"If you say so.  Now," she reached a hand up to her throat, "I'm afraid that I simply must intrude on Dumbledore's little army meeting."  She cast a wandless Sonorus, a spell she had perfected during her reign as the Queen of Slytherin.  It only took a split second to determine what would get the fastest response without giving away any key information.

"ALIANORE ROUX!  IF YOU DON'T GET SIRIUS OUT HERE RIGHT NOW I SHALL BE FORCED TO MAKE YOUR BROTHER A WIDOWER!"

Tachiki blinked at her in surprise, so she sent him a sweet smile as she canceled the spell.  While Mahoutokoro and Beauxbatons were both lovely schools, neither of them contained a snake pit.

She wasn't surprised to find that it took less than a minute for Ms. Roux to drag a grouchy looking Sirius out to the lobby.  There was quite a crowd following them.  Including Albus Dumbledore and - she smiled - Xeno Lovegood.  Just the men she wanted to speak with.

"Mrs. Malfoy, here's your worthless cousin.  Now please don't harm my brother-in-law.  Zackarie is very protective of those he considers his."

"Alianore, you can't mean to tell me you think I would lose?"  His dark gaze looked Narcissa up and down, taking in her elegant robes, perfectly coiffed hair, and priceless jewelry.

To Narcissa's annoyance Sirius snickered at that.  "Mamoru, that's my cousin you're speaking to.  While she is no pushover with her wand, she only draws it as a last resort.  The rest of us poor sods are the ones used to do her dirty work.  Just look how she got Alinaore to drag me out here."

Alianore glared over at Sirius, either unaware or uncaring that she still held his wrist in her grip.  "Mamoru, remember how I spent the summer tutoring someone?  It was her son.  Trust me, she may not look like much, but I think she'd give you a run for your money on the dueling field."

Tachiki looked her over once more, but she ignored him and focused on Dumbledore.

"Headmaster, the information I'm about to divulge can't be used to stop it from happening.  I'm not a spy.  I'm just trying to do damage control.  If you act, I will be revealed as I was one of only a small handful that was at the meeting, but did not go directly on the mission.  And," her voice filled with steel, "if you reveal me you shall regret it."

She met the old wizard's piercing blue eyes and opened her mind as soon as she saw him nod in agreement.

When he moved into her mind, she pushed into his. 

He froze.

-You listen to me old man.  I'm not on your side and I'm certainly not your tool.  Not like any of these people or Severus. I don't give a fig for your 'greater good'.  I'll do whatever is necessary to keep my family alive.  Understand?  And you know what my family is like when we're crossed.

-I wondered.  You were always a true Slytherin.

-And you are but a snake wearing a lion's skin.

-Possibly.  Perhaps we sort too soon.

-Perhaps.  Now, listen.  He's breaking his followers out of Azkaban tonight.  You can't stop it.  And keep Sirius from storming after Pettigrew or Bellatrix, vengence can wait.  Get Lovegood to put together some articles.  I'll ensure they're published around the world.  These articles, combined with what Hermione Black got published two days ago...

-Don't worry, I see the merit.

-Good.

Before that word had even had time to ring through the Headmaster's skull she pulled back out and shut her mental gate.  Then she filled the front of her mind with thoughts and images related to tea parties, galas, and shopping.

"I believe that will be all."  She looked over at her niece, standing next to the werewolf.  "Nymphadora, please tell your mother I must cancel our weekly tea.  Unfortunately, I'll no longer be able to make it."

The pink-haired ex-auror rolled her eyes at the name, but didn't protest.  "I can do that."

"Thank you.  And, Sirius, I still have the same plans and intentions.  But let’s put the wedding planning on hold until this mess is cleaned up."

He copied Nymphadora's gesture, "They're not going to get married."

She smirked, "Would you like to place a wager on that?"

That got him to laugh, "How about this:  You're right, and I'll pay for the honeymoon.  I'm right, and you fund and organize an orphanage or something similar for orphaned witches and wizards without magical family to take them in."

She stepped through the spot where the invisible wall had been and held out her hand to him.  

"Deal."

XXX

Rita was intelligent enough to go along willingly with the Death Eater in the black robe and terrifying mask.  She heard a few of the prisoners in neighboring cells refuse, and the green light that quickly followed.

She was no martyr.

Besides, the very people that had put her here were not supporters of You-Know-Who.  Well, there was Lucius Malfoy, but he was a realist.  Roy Parkinson had leanings, but she had never heard any rumor of him being a Death Eater.  

Being a reporter and keeping her secrets to herself had caused her to learn occlumency.  Enough that is, to lock up her fondness for her muggle grandparents.  As well as her distaste for all that blood purity nonsense.

While she stood with the other escapees in a large ballroom she carefully wrapped up all of her most revealing secrets and locked them up tight behind layers of pointless gossip and a healthy dose of anger at those that locked her up.  As well as an earnest desire to live, no matter what that required.

She knew people.

You-Know-Who wasn't detail-oriented or patient enough to sift through all of that nonsense to find it as long as she convinced him her anger was genuine.

As long as he believed her to be who she appeared to be.

"Ah, thank you Lucius for the kind use of your home," a cold, high-pitched voice said, cutting through the still air.

"It was an honor, my lord."

Her gaze found Lucius Malfoy and tagged any and all emotional cues to study later.

If she wanted to survive she had to know everything.

She listened carefully as He moved through the filthy mass of people.  She cataloged the names that earned praise and those that became new followers.  She even tagged the names and faces of two poor souls that did not pass his examination.

Green light burst through the hall as they were disposed of.

It was obvious there were only two options: the Mark or die.

Like that was much of a choice in her mind.

He came to her after praising the black-haired witch next to her for being one of his most loyal followers.  It was all Rita could do to not roll her eyes at the nonsense that made up their conversation.

And she had written nonsense for a living.

But even she knew Hermione Granger Black as a two-year-old had been strong enough to hold off Bellatrix Lestrange née Black.  At least for long enough for Sirius Black to arrive.

Rita released a slow breath and stood tall as He stepped in front of her.  She met his cold snake-like eyes with her own piercing ones.  Her eyes became mere windows as he forced himself into her mind.

She feigned ignorance of occlumancy as he roamed through her life.

He saw her drive for praise and acknowledgement.  Her parents that were too wrapped up in each other to even tell her she had done well.  Even when she became the first person to gain an O in History of Magic since Binns had died.

He saw that the love and fear the quill brought her from the public gave her a sense of self.

And, he of course saw her anger and frustration at being locked up.  How she knew she had overplayed her hand, and that she had learned her limits.

He blinked and the connection ended.

"I have a use for you."

She bowed her head in willing acceptance, "Yes, my lord."

"Narcissa," he hissed.

Narcissa Malfoy glided through the sea of people as if it was dance floor.  It drove Rita mad at how effortless the woman made everything look.  Even when they were both teenagers Narcissa had excelled at everything she touched.  Most of world had forgotten just how dangerous Narcissa could be, but Rita hadn't.  She still remembered how the older girl had looked as she had ‘convinced’ Kevan Nott that sexually harassing Sophia Greengrass was one of the worst things he could ever do.

Narcissa came to an elegant stop next to her sister.

"Yes, my lord?"

"Care for your sister and the reporter.  When that is done, see to the other writer.  The one with a fondness for obliviation.  I want them ready when I call on them."

“Yes, my lord.”

"My lord, please!  I can serve you now!"  Bellatrix Lestrange cried as the Dark Lord turned to move to the next group.

He stopped moving, but did not turn back to look at her, "Bellatrix, you are no use to me now.  Regain your strength.  Then we shall talk."

"Yes, master," she whispered almost tearfully.

Rita did her best to not look at either sister as she was lead up to a handsome guest room.

There Narcissa saw to her sister while Rita waited patiently against the wall.  All it had taken was one look from the mistress of the house for Rita to know that Dark Lord's acceptance or not, her life still hung by a thread..  

Rita found herself shifting from foot to foot as the two sisters spoke quietly on the bed.  She carefully logged every word the women said that she could make out.

"...a blood traitor!"

"...alone..."

"...faith in..."

"Please...."

"Toujours pur!"

The last phrase was spoken so loudly by Bellatrix Lestrange that Rita had no issue hearing it.  Narcissa quickly hushed her sister and gestured to the waiting Rita.

After that their words became so quiet that she couldn't make out any of it.  Bored, she pulled out the copy of Circadian Leaf she'd obtained in Azkaban and began rereading Hermione Black's article.

The Marauder’s Academy: Pedagogy Trumps Tradition

The title of this article may confuse most of you.  As wizards and witches we use many words that appear foreign to muggleborns/no-maj-borns upon first entering the magical world.  It only makes sense that the same would be true in reverse.  After all, what use do we magical folk have for airplanes, telephones, computers and the internet?

Yet, there are many words that we should share with muggles that we don't.  Pedagogy is one of these words.

Pedagogy is, essentially, the science of education.  Science is what muggles use in place of magic.  It is based on logic and the rules of it allow muggles to fly, live underwater, and converse from great distances without magic.  Pedagogy is based on years and years of logically performed studies charting the educational growth of countless students.  Educators then take that research and develop scientifically proven methods and strategies to impart knowledge upon new generations.

A teacher in the muggle world must study for an additional four years after finishing their basic education.  They study pedagogy by reading years of accumulated research papers, as well as going into classrooms and observing experienced instructors.  

Rita still found it hard to believe there was a science for teaching.  She wanted to find out if there was one for reporting.  Maybe, if she survived this, it would give her an edge.

Compare that to most of our great magical schools.  All you must have to teach at one is a passing score on the appropriate NEWT exam.  

The Marauder’s Academy, based in London, England uses pedagogy to plan lessons and ensure that all students gain the education they are paying for.  Mr. Arthur Weasley is in charge of administration and research, as he has spent years studying how the muggle and magical worlds differ.  Previously he was head of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office in the British Ministry of Magic.  Last May he resigned from his position after the Minister of Magic declared that Mr. Weasley's daughter was a liar and addled.

Mr. Sirius Black, Mrs. Alice Longbottom, and Ms. Nymphadora Tonks resigned at the same time after their family members were also maligned unjustly.  For those not in Europe you must know that Mr. Black and Mrs. Longbottom were two of the most successful aurors in British history.  They are only topped by Clydog Gwent in the 1500s, Elaina Prewett in the 1700s, and the recently retired Alastor Moody.

The incident causing this mass resignation was the kidnapping of Mr. Black's godson, Harry Potter, by Bartimus Crouch Jr.  Mr. Potter was rescued by Ginerva Weasley and myself, Hermione Black. (See page A7 for the public accounting of this event)

During this rescue mission we witnessed the rebirth of mass murderer and terrorist Tom Riddle, aka Lord Voldemort.

Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic for Wizarding Britain, refused to accept our memories or statements.  He declared that we, students only a year or so away from our majority, were not only untrustworthy, but possibly insane.  This, despite numerous aurors logging in their reports that all evidence pointed to more people than just Crouch involved in the kidnapping and attempted murder of Harry Potter.

Now, this same ministry, is trying to discredit (see page A4 for Marigold Watson's dissection of the ill-researched article in question) the private academy that the four abruptly unemployed wizards and witches - joined by ex-Hogwarts' defense professors Remus Lupin (a registered werewolf) and Alianore Roux (a world-class dueler) - opened.

The Marauder’s Academy uses-


"Let's go."

Rita jerked with surprise to see Narcissa Malfoy standing before her with her wand out. Abruptly the smile Miss Black's words had created disappeared as she remembered she was not still safely in her low-security cell at Azkaban.

No, now she was back in the middle of the snake pit; once again under the thumb of Narcissa Malfoy.   And this time, Narcissa didn't seem too interested in protecting her. 

She really, really should have written the article Pansy Parkinson had wanted her to.

XXX

Narcissa led Rita Skeeter down corridor after corridor until she was in front of one of the few humble rooms in the manor.

She opened the door and gestured for the reporter to precede her.

He room was dark, but all it took was a flick of her wand to light the fire.  And then a simple swish and any conversation would be private.

"Rita Skeeter, you are either very brave or very stupid to show yourself in my home."

"Trust me, I'm not here by choice."

"Point."

Rita looked confused, "What?"

Narcissa smirked and moved closer.  She was very glad Andromeda had given her one of the point coins---.  It was going to come in very handy.

"Never mind."

The platinum haired witch looked very lost and confused.  Completely overwhelmed.

Narcissa didn't buy it for a minute.

She saw a bit of paper sticking out of Rita's robes and summoned it. "Ah, the Circadian Leaf.  A very well-respected paper.  I didn't peg you as a fan of theirs."

Rita scowled and glared at her old housemate.  Narcissa smirked and met her gaze.  As soon as eye contact was made, Narcissa pounced.

"Legilimens!"

Rita gasped as Narcissa walked her way through so much gossip and narcissism that she wanted to be sick.  Finally, she found the anger and humiliation Rita still felt at being captured by Draco.  Then, to the evident surprise of Rita, she pushed past it.

Only then did she find a chest with seven locks.  She pried at them trying to force her way in.

She only got one partially open – enough to see an old woman comforting a sobbing Rita – before she was forcefully thrown out.  The mental strength carried over to the physical world and the two former Slytherins found themselves thrown to the floor - panting.  Narcissa smiled, barely able to contain her pleasure.

"Are-are you going to give me away?"

There.  There was the real fear.

"No," she said simply as she stood up and dusted off her robes.  "In fact, I'm quite pleased.  You may be a twisted, narcissistic bitch, but you have a strong sense of self-preservation.  I find that very useful.”

“Useful for what?”

“Why, Rita darling, don’t you know by now that I never share my plans unless-“

“Unless it suits you.  How could I forgot?” She spit out the last sentence, and Narcissa knew exactly what the other woman was thinking of.  Not that they needed to bring that up, the past was the past.  And that incident had no repercussions on present events.

“I simply don’t know.  Just keep being yourself.  Stay alive, do what he tells you, and stay out of trouble.  Trust me if you want to survive this.  Now, I shall see you in the morning.”

Rita hadn’t moved from her spot on the floor when Narcissa reached the door and turned around, “Oh, and one more thing.”

“What?”

“I wouldn’t bother trying to turn into a beetle.  The manor is warded so that only those with Malfoy blood may use an animagus form.”

“That’s illegal!” Rita hissed.

She arched one delicate eyebrow, “So?”

The reporter had no answer to that.  Narcissa spun on her heels and walked out.  She quickly threw up an alarm spell - as well as a simple lock - before going off to find that idiot Gilderoy Lockhart.

Truly, there was no rest for the wicked.  Especially on Halloween.

Chapter Text

Hermione rubbed at her eyes and grimaced.  She was so tired, she knew she must look like a raccoon.  That was rather fitting, as it was Halloween - when muggles dressed up as anything but themselves.  And, despite her upbringing and inherited Black magic, she was a muggleborn.

She had dropped Astronomy and History of Magic, but she still had an extremely heavy course load.  Combine that with losing almost an entire week of studying as she wrote her article on the Marauder’s Academy and she was terribly behind.

She would have skipped the Halloween Feast, but she and Harry had always done something fun together on Halloween.  It helped keep the memories at bay, according to Padfoot.

Even now she knew she should stop and go to bed.  She looked around the empty common room and sighed at the piles of candy wrappers, spilled food, and disarrayed furniture.  The elves had to be itching to get in here and tidy up, but they prided themselves on never being seen unless called.  She was only making their job more difficult by staying up past midnight.

She looked down at the book in front of her: Ancient Runes of Storytelling.  When would she need to read or write stories in runes?  She planned to help keep Harry out of Voldemort's clutches and then set about changing the wizarding world.  Not be a writer.

She groaned and set down her quill before shutting the book.

She was so tired.

Not that she really wanted to sleep, she had a feeling that tonight would be a nightmare night.  

But she could at least vacate the common room and let the elves work.

A cold draft suddenly hit the back of her neck and she grabbed her wand and spun on her seat.

She blinked in tired confusion at the two people standing in the portrait hole.

"Padfoot?  Professor?"

"Hermione, I should have known you'd be awake," Padfoot said softly.

"I shall go get, Harry.  Though I don't believe-"

Padfoot cut the Headmaster off, "It doesn't matter what you believe, Albus.  I am Harry's guardian until he is seventeen.  And Hermione is of age."

Albus Dumbledore's brow wrinkled in a small frown for an instant before smoothing out.  With a small nod he headed off to the boys' dormitory.  Curious, and a little afraid, Hermione lowered her mental wall for the first time in almost two weeks.

Surprisingly, she found Harry awake.  She caught an image of a strange corridor before it disappeared as he realized she was there.

He could do no more than ascertain that she was alright before he heard the Headmaster opening his door.

She blinked and drew her mind back to herself.

"Harry was awake," she said.

"I'm not surprised.  There's a reason I always kept you busy and exhausted when you were younger," he said as he pulled out a chair and took a seat at the table next to her.

"Are you going to tell me why you're here?  I assume it has something to do with Voldemort."

He glanced over at the boys' staircase, "When Harry gets here.  You know, this room hasn't changed at all."

She watched his eyes skim over the cozy red and gold common room.  His eyes locked onto a small table near the fire with four comfortable seats for a moment and a flash of pain crossed his face.

"Did you really think it would change?  We still have the same Headmaster and Head of House."

"No, I suppose not," he said softly as Dumbledore and Harry emerged from the staircase.

When the four of them were seated together Dumbledore spoke, "I would like to state that I do not agree with this course, but I have been over ruled."  

Hermione glanced between the two men, taking in their hard stares and the blatant disapproval in the headmaster's cold blue eyes.

"Voldemort did something that made him very happy," Harry said with no emotion.  "What was it?"

Hermione stared at Harry in surprise and reached out through their link.  Images of him waking up as an image of a long corridor morphed into pure, sick pleasure.

She broke out to see Padfoot looking at Harry in confusion, but it was the look on the Headmaster's face that drew her attention.

He looked as if he'd just discovered something terrible.  As soon as he realized she was looking at him he schooled his features, adopting his previous expression.

"Azkaban was attacked and all of the prisoners either died or escaped with Voldemort."

A rushing filled Hermione's ears as Padfoot's words raced through her head.

Azkaban.  Escape.  Prisoners.

Bellatrix - she was free.

Her parents' killer.  The woman who had permanently engraved Hermione's flesh with sadistic gusto.

Images filled her head.  Images from every nightmare she'd ever had.  

Blood, so much blood.  The room around her was drenched with it.  A cackling laugh swept over her, accompanied by the sounds of her mother's terrified screams.

She felt her mouth open as a knife descended downwards.  The edge glinted as it caught the light.

"NO!!!" She screamed.  But, this time, she wasn't alone.  A warmth surrounded her and she realized she was no longer alone.

Another figure appeared.

Harry.

As she watched he stuck his wand out and shouted, "Stupefy!"

Bellatrix flew across the room from the force of the spell. Her knife bouncing harmlessly on the carpet.  Hermione stared at her limp form in shock before looking up at Harry.

He reached a hand out to help her up.  "I won't let her touch you again.  I promise," he said softly as she tentatively reached for his hand.

As skin met skin she felt a rush of warmth.  The wall she had so carefully put up lowered completely as she stood up.

Once she was on her feet he pulled her into a hug.  She breathed in deeply and closed her eyes, feeling safe as his familiar smell enveloped her.

 After a while she opened her eyes to see she was once again back in the Gryffindor common room.  The red walls were no longer reminiscent of blood.  When she pulled away from Harry she saw Padfoot standing beside them, concern etched into every line on his face.

Interestingly, the Headmaster hadn't moved at all.

"Hermione?" Padfoot asked.

"I-I'm alright now.  I should have seen this coming.  Of course he'd want his followers out."

"We all should have seen this coming, Miss Black."

She looked at Professor Dumbledore, "How do we know it happened?  It had to have been done tonight."

Padfoot quirked an eyebrow at Dumbledore.  "We....have sources.  Several of them.  More importantly at the moment we know that the Ministry intends to not report this in the Daily Prophet.  The public needs to know."

"You want Hermione to write another article," Harry stated accusingly.

"No," Padoot said quickly.  "Xeno and Andy wrote an article.  We just want Hermione to look it over and agree to put her name on it.  With her previous article..." he trailed off.

Hermione took a deep breath and collected her thoughts.  After the waking nightmare and the strengthening of her link with Harry she felt filled with energy.  She likely still looked like a raccoon, but she no longer felt tired.  She'd likely crash in an hour, but until then, she'd do what she could.

She sat back down at the table, "Well, let me see it.  I need to go quickly if we want it in the morning papers.  Owls can only fly so fast."

"I have arranged several international portkeys to speed up the process," the Headmaster stated.

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes at that.  Despite him protesting telling her or asking for her assistance, he'd known she would help.  Was there anything Albus Dumbledore didn't know?

XXX

Draco watched as owl after owl landed in front of Pansy.  Until a few days ago he hadn't realized that there quite so many English newspapers in the world.  Sure, he supposed every English speaking country must have one, but quite a few of the non-English speaking countries did as well.  Even if some of those were actually a mixture of English and the local language.

A large barn owl dropped a paper and Draco quickly snagged it out of mid-air before it could drop into the pitch of pumpkin juice.  He glanced at the paper.  The Daily Gold, of course, only an American owl would be so rude as to just drop the paper and run.

Another owl - this was a nice-sized tufted owl - landed in front of him rather than Pansy and dropped its paper on his yet un-buttered toast.

How long are you going to keep getting all these papers?" he asked as he shooed the tufted owl away and picked up the paper.  He shook breadcrumbs off of it and watched as Pansy carefully folded the Tagalog Times and slipped it into her small drawstring bag.

"Most of the papers required a month long subscription to deliver internationally," she said primly.

He rolled his eyes and unrolled the paper in his hands.  It was The Fae Chronicles, an Irish paper he hadn't even realized existed until four days ago when the bloody owl dropped it into his tea.  The Irish owls seemed to have something against him personally.  

Pansy gasped next to him and he looked over at her in confusion.  "What?"

She pointed at the paper in his hands.  He looked back at it and felt his blood run cold.

Impossible Prison? Apparently Not.

Last night, an anonymous source informed me of a prison break from Azkaban.  While the culprit has not been positively identified, the list of survivors makes the identity clear to me.  Every prisoner was either freed or killed.  Of those slain, none bore the Dark Mark on their left arm.  This comes straight from the British Auror report written and filed by Kingsley Shacklebolt at 12:24am.

Of those that escaped, only five were not incarcerated for deeds done while following He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's orders.  Of those five are two who were imprisoned for murder and torture, one who was quite loud in his hatred of muggleborns until being imprisoned for poisoning his third wife, and two rather famous writers with a penchant for lying and obliviation.  So, who knows what these two writers really think on the muggleborn situation.

Here are the facts my readers:

  1. Harry Potter was kidnapped and claimed to see the Dark Lord rise again.
  2. I saw You-Know-Who with my own eyes before being grievously injured.  As did Ginerva Weasley.
  3. The aurors reported evidence of multiple people, despite the British Minister of Magic saying there was no one but Barty Crouch Jr at the scene.
  4. The British Ministry of Magic and the main British newspaper, The Daily Prophet, have gone out of their way to discount our testimonies.  The testimonies they refused to take.
  5. Every confirmed follower of the Dark Lord Voldemort has just violently escaped from prison, leaving dozens dead in the process.

With these facts before you, I can only hope that you come to the same conclusion that I have.

Lord Voldemort has returned and he's not a merciful man.  If he even is still a man.  His eyes are now red, his voice is impossibly high-pitched, and his nose has become more snake-like than human.

Fellow Wizards and Witches of the world, be on your guard, for he won't stop at just attacking Azkaban.  He will not be content with conquering England.  He won't stop until we make him.  So, spread the word, look at the facts, and open your eyes to your own conclusions.

"Your girlfriend really knows how to write.”

Draco jerked in surprise at Theo’s words and hit his teacup with the paper.  He stood up quickly as lukewarm tea spilled across the table and onto his lap.

“Bloody hell, Theo!  She’s not my girlfriend!  She’s my cousin!  By adoption!”

Theo snickered and Draco threw the paper in the other boy’s face before grabbing his bag.  Was he TRYING to get Draco killed?  

“Pansy, I’ll see you in Charms,” he said curtly before storming out. 

Anger and frustration coursed through him as he made his way upstairs to the nearest bathroom.  He took great pleasure in stomping his feet and growling at any student he passed that was idiotic enough to look at him. 

When he reached the restroom he stormed into a stall and slammed the door.  His hand was shaking in anger as he drew his wand.

Bloody hell!

There was no way he could safely aim a cleaning charm.

He threw his bag on the stall floor and angrily tore off his robe.  Then came his trousers.  His left foot got caught in the leg and he fell down, barely catching himself with his hands and almost breaking his wand in the process.

He muttered some choice words and quickly divested himself of his trousers before standing back up.  He took a deep breath and removed his pants, the tea had turned them into a sodden mess. 

Rather than risk a cleaning spell near himself he grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and used his wand to pour water on it, letting the excess run into the toilet bowl.  After that he cast cleaning spells on his clothing as he air-dried.  By the time he finished he had calmed down enough that his hands no longer shook.

He couldn't even say why he was so angry.  It wasn't like Theo was the first person to call Hermione Black his girlfriend or fiancée.  It had occurred quite often after that article Skeeter published.

One good thing about the resurrection of the Dark Lord was that everyone assumed his mother had changed her mind about getting them married.

But he knew better. Whichever side won, if the two of them were alive his mother would do her best to make them break their vow and marry each other.  He certainly did not get his stubbornness from his father.

His father…

Draco stopped halfway through putting his trousers back on as his hands clenched into fists.  He had to stop himself from smashing his fist into the wall of the stall.

He knew what his father was.  He'd always suspected that he had lied about being under the Imperius.  Being given a tutor in dueling and defense right after the rumored resurrection had cinched it.  

That meant his father had helped with the breakout from Azkaban.  He had helped people like Rita Skeeter and Bellatrix Lestrange escape.  Draco wasn't a fool, he knew what writers Hermione had been alluding to in her article.  He suspected that if he hadn't angrily thrown the paper at Theo he would have found a list of names.

Skeeter had hurt his best friend and driven a wedge in their friendship that had only been recently repaired.  Draco never forgave anyone easily.  He'd only forgiven Pansy for sharing his secrets because she hadn't meant to.  Plus, losing weeks of your life, even if only temporarily, was punishment enough in his mind.

Lestrange was family, but she had not held that sacred. So he wouldn't hold it sacred either.  Hermione may not have been family when she was carved up like a side of meat, but Sirius Black had been.

Besides, Draco really didn't want to be family with someone that carved up little girls for fun.

Certain in that thought, he finished getting dressed and left the stall.  He took a look at himself in the mirror and grimaced.

He looked a downright mess.  His hair was out of place and his robes were wrinkled from the spells to eliminate the tea.

He pulled a quill out of his bag and transfigured it into a comb.  Once his hair was tidy he did his best to fix his clothing before storming back out of the loo.  A quick casting of Tempus told him he would be late for Charms unless he managed to apparate inside of Hogwarts.

Not bloody likely.

He grumbled as he made his way to a nearby staircase and headed up.  Between the third and fourth floors he realized he was not going to make it to Charms at all.

He'd gotten his foot stuck in the bloody staircase.

"Bloody Hell!!!"  He screamed in frustration.

"Malfoy?"

He whirled to face the foot of the stairs as best he could, with his wand out.  All he needed now was for someone that hated him to find him...

There, standing at the bottom of the stairs was probably the last person on the entire planet he wanted to see.

Still, his eyes drank in the sight of her.  She looked positively exhausted, as if someone had wrung her dry. Her dark hair hung limp on her head.  None of the bounce or life it had been showing as it grew out.  Her eyes were ringed with shadows that only highlighted the pain and anger there.  

And her robes...

Unlike her brother, Hermione Black had always dressed as a pureblood witch should.  Her ties were straight, her shirts were crisp, and her robes spotless.

Today she looked like she had slept in her clothes - after wearing them all day yesterday.

"Don't you have class?" He found himself snapping at her.

Her eyes narrowed, but she just shrugged lightly.  "Don't you?"

"Theo, the bloody git, spilled tea on me at breakfast.  I was TRYING to get to Charms after repairing the damage when I stepped here!"  He jabbed his finger downwards at the offending step.

She cocked her head and frowned, "You were going to Charms?  You do realize you are almost on the fifth floor?"

He froze and stared at her in shock as his brain did some quick calculations.

Less than a minute later he was once again swearing.  This time cursing the founders of Hogwarts and their penchant for trick staircases, as well as hidden entrances.  

He'd forgotten the third floor on this staircase was accessed by a hidden doorway.

"Well, come on then, let's get you out of here."  She was smiling as she spoke.  As if it was an everyday occurrence for her to rescue boys from staircases and their own stupidity.

Actually, considering her friends, it likely was.

She aimed her wand at the ceiling and as he watched a rope came down and hung over his head.  There was a large knot at the end and he stared at it in confusion.

"Well, what are you waiting for?  Grab the rope and pull yourself out. I'm sure you can't wait to get away."

He had started to follow her directions but froze upon hearing the last sentence.

"What do you mean I can't wait to get away?"

Her smile slipped into a small frown, "Just what I said.  You've done your best to stay as far from me as possible in the past few months."

Something lurched inside of him as her smile disappeared.  It so distracted him that it took a moment for her words to register.  And then another minute before he had deciphered the emotions present in her voice.

By that time she had snapped, "Put the rope back up when you’re free," and turned on her heel - disappearing out of the stairwell.

He stared after her for half a heartbeat and then reached up and grabbed the rope.  It took all of his strength to pull himself out of the step.  It really didn’t want to let go.

Once he was free he took off running, heading back down the stairs, Charms class was utterly forgotten.

He reached the corridor and looked frantically around.  He cursed under his breath as he saw her disappear around a corner at the far end of the corridor.  He was a bloody idiot.  He’d thought staying away was best, after all, he was the nephew of the woman that carved her up, as well as the son of a Death Eater.  He hadn’t stopped to think that actively avoiding someone after learning one of their darkest secrets – and he was a hundred percent positive those scars were her biggest secret – would make her feel worse. 

He had to explain.  She was logical.  She’d understand why he’d done it, though he didn’t know why she cared.  Merlin, he didn’t know why he cared.

He skidded around the corner and saw her stop at the foot of another stairwell and look back at him.

He picked up his pace and ran towards her.  As he watched her eyes widened before she spun around and raced up the stairs.

“Circe!  Show some bloody Gryffindor courage, Hermione!” he hissed as he tried to lengthen his stride.  He dare not yell after her.  All he needed was a curious professor to poke their head out and see him – a Death Eater’s son – chasing after Hermione Black.

It just wouldn’t look good.

When he reached the stairwell he just caught a glimpse of her robes as she ran past the entrance to the fifth floor and continued upwards.  He took the steps two at a time, his breath ragged as he tried to keep pace with Hermione’s speed. 

She’d obviously finished recovering from the curse if she could once again run him ragged through the halls.  Even if she looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks.

When she reached the seventh floor she could go no longer continue her trek upwards.  He followed her into the corridor, slowly closing the gap between them as exhaustion finally began to slow her speed.

When he saw her looking around fearfully for a place to hide, he almost stopped.  He didn’t want her to be afraid of him. 

But, no, she wasn’t thinking clearly.  He’d made a magical promise to never hurt her.  She’d know if he intended to break it.  And she may be a muggleborn, but she was raised in the magical world.  She knew this.

Ergo, she wasn’t thinking rationally.

That thought did make him slow down at just the worse possible moment.  As she ran down a section of the hall that he was rather familiar with a door appeared in the wall.  She wrenched it open and threw herself inside.

He cursed and sped up, leaping towards the doorway, hand outstretched.

Time seemed to slow down as he watched her yank the door shut just as his hand got between the door and the doorframe.

Sadly, the small voice in the back of his head that pointed out rather coldly just how much he deserved this for chasing someone down against their will was not loud enough to mask the sound of bones crunching.

Chapter Text

Hermione froze as soon as she saw the pale fingers slip between the door and its resting spot.  But it was too late, the door was too heavy and reinforced and it had gained a momentum of its own.  

A loud crunch filled the air and she winced and gasped at the realization of what had occurred.  Whatever haze had been clouding her mind cleared instantly as she felt her promise with Malfoy twinge.  She'd hurt him.  It had been unintentional, but it had happened.

"Malfoy!" 

She shoved her shoulder against the door and pushed it outwards, wincing as Malfoy's mangled hand was immediately yanked back.  He sat there on the floor, his hand cradled against his chest and his face twisted in silent pain.

She saw blood dribbling down his face from where he'd obviously bitten his lip.

She knelt down, "Malfoy?  We need to go to the hospital wing."  When he didn't respond she tried again.  "Malfoy?  Malfoy!"  

He didn't respond and she began to panic.  Instantly she felt Harry in her mind.  When he realized it wasn't her that was injured he sent a memory of him hugging and humming to her; instantly she felt the panic slip away.  Her mind began to clear and she took a deep breath.  What would Narcissa do?

 Well, she knew what Narcissa would do first; she never called him Malfoy.

"Draco!"

At his given name he looked up at her and she gasped.  His eyes were dilated and filled with tears.

"Hermione?" he whispered.

"Draco, I'm so sorry!  Can you stand?"

"It hurts," he whined.

"I know, we need to see Madam Pomfrey."

He didn't move so she pleaded with him, "Please, Draco, I can't fix it.  I don't know the spells."

"You always know the spells."  His tone was such that he sounded utterly lost and confused, not to mention in pain.

"We're only sixth-years.  Medical spells are beyond-NEWT level charms and transfiguration." 
"Oh," he said dazedly as he allowed her to get a hold on his good arm and pull him to feet.  She didn't dare cast a spell on his arm to immobilize it.  She just didn't know if it would do more harm.  

She got his good arm slung around her shoulder and began helping him back to the staircase they'd just run up. He wobbled on his feet as he had to lean down to effectively keep his arm around her shoulders.  He was, somehow, a good head taller than her now.

When had that happened?

 She felt him rub his head against the top of hers as they reached the staircase.

She froze, "Malfoy, what are you doing?"

He ignored her and kept doing it. "So soft," she heard him murmur.

She hurriedly began moving again.  This was very un-Malfoy like behavior and that worried her.  That worried her a lot.  She cursed under her breath for not studying more books on healing and medicine.  Everything she’d read had been about her own healing process, not broken bones or shock.

Going down the stairs was difficult as he seemed to be having trouble keeping his balance.  She was also sure that his insistence on rubbing against her like a cat was doing nothing to help.

Somehow they made it to the correct floor without him falling or passing out.  There was a near moment when he slipped on a step and jostled his arm.  His good arm tightened around her shoulders and she felt herself pressed firmly against his side.  She gasped and felt warmth flood her face that she pointedly ignored as he regained his footing before they continued on.

"You're so brave," he said softly as she led him out of the stairwell.  "How did you survive it? I-" he gasped as his hand moved a bit.

"Survive what?" she asked.  Hoping that this more rational question was a good sign.  At least he'd stop rubbing her head.

"Everything."

His good hand pulled up her sleeve and a bit of one scar showed before she yanked it down again.

"Don't!!!" She hissed.  She almost tossed him off of her.

"Sorry," he said softly before resuming to rub his head against her hair.  "Bad day to talk about that.  I-I didn't know."

She stopped and looked up at him, forcing his cheek to leave her hair.  Part of her felt bereft at the sudden loss of contact.

"Didn't know what?"

"Azkaban."

Her eyes met his.  They were so dilated they were almost pure black, with just a hint of silver.  It reminded her a bit of the moon, right as it began to grow full again.

"Don't lie to protect your family."

He shook his head and her skin tingled where his chin brushed against her forehead.

"That person isn't family.  You are."

Thoughts tumbled through her mind at his words.  She couldn't make heads or tails of them.  She was so exhausted, so stressed, and now completely confused.

Thankfully, she was saved a response by a door opening nearby.

She looked up to see Professor Snape entering the corridor, a case of empty potion bottles floating along behind him.

He froze for half an instant upon sight of them.  And then things were a rush of motion.  He was demanding answers, she was trying to satisfy, but Malfoy kept saying odd things and also refusing to let go of her.  She didn't dare get physical or use magic on him as his hand had swollen to be almost the same size as Hagrid's.

This led to her sitting on a hospital bed, still tucked under his arm, as Madam Pomfrey began working on his hand.  Snape was standing nearby and eyeing them speculatively.  She really didn't like the look in his eyes.  It reminded her of Naricssa Malfoy.  Though she knew the two couldn't be in cahoots.  

Could they?

No, there was no way.  Snape and Padfoot hated each other terribly.  Part of why Mrs. Longbottom had taken the DADA position, not Padfoot.  There was no way Snape would involve himself in matrimonial plans for Padfoot's daughter.

No way.

Unless…

No, even Snape wouldn’t stoop to arranging marriages that would anger his old school rival.

"There you go, Mr. Malfoy.  You're all healed.  Just treat it carefully for the next twenty-four hours as the bones finish hardening.  I'll give you a sling to wear.  Also, drink this."

She pushed a potion into his hands.

Hermione felt more than saw Malfoy look up at the Potions Master.  She didn't blame him, he'd already taken a potion for pain and another to reduce swelling.

"Drink up, Mr. Malfoy.  It's just some vitamins to help your body recover from shock," Snape drawled.  He was eyeing Draco's good hand, which was curved around Hermione's upper arm.

Draco held out the potion to Hermione and she rolled her eyes, but opened it for him.  He used his good hand to drink it, which pulled her closer against him.  She tried to stifle a blush.

Her day was just getting odder and odder.  She supposed it was rather fitting that the day after Bellatrix Lestrange escaped Azkaban was not a normal one.  At least she was no longer wandering the halls in a half-daze like before.  She felt Harry check on her once more, she showed him she was fine and then sent him an image of her lecturing him on not studying properly.  He laughed and disappeared.  

They may not be able to use the blood ward link for actual speaking, but they had enough shared memories and experiences to make images a feasible mode of communication.

"Now it's your turn, dear."

Hermione blinked up at the mediwitch in surprise.

"My turn?"

"Yes, you are obviously exhausted, dehydrated, and malnourished.  And from the tension around your eyes I think a good calming draught may also be in order."

Madam Pomfrey bustled off before Hermione could respond.

She watched the woman go before spinning to look up at Malfoy.  His features were schooled in innocence, but she didn't believe him for one moment.  He'd done his best to keep her in Madam Pomfrey's sights the entire time his hand was healed.

"You..." she started as her eyes narrowed.

"Family keeps each other safe.  Even from ourselves," he whispered into her ear. 

"Family, again?  I'm adopted!  Your mother is trying to marry us, for Merlin’s sake!" she hissed in response, trying to pull away.

His fingers tightened on her arm, keeping her trapped against his side.  She tried to jab him with her elbow, but he carefully moved his recently injured appendage into her only target area. 

She ground her teeth in frustration.  Even she wasn’t sadistic enough to hit recently healed bone.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Snape deliberately look away and walk over to Madam Pomfrey, where she was pulling potions out of a cabinet.  Maybe he was in cahoots with Narcissa.  She'd have to do some research.  Maybe they were in school together.

"I'm family with my mother and she calls you and Sirius Black family.  Ergo, that makes you family to me.  Besides," he added, "I made a promise."

She scowled.  That promise did not include taking care of each other!  It was to stop them from hurting each other!  Besides, he'd just spent the past two months avoiding her! Why had he chased her?  

She opened her mouth to ask that very question, but the return of Madam Pomfrey with several potions made her hold her tongue.  

While she drank them Professor Snape took his leave, but not before a pointed look at Malfoy and instructions to come to his office after dinner.

Hermione finally divested herself of Malfoy's arm when he had to put on the sling.  She rushed out of the room, but ahe wasn't fast enough.

He cornered her at the top of another stairwell. Once again he got too close to her, using his body to block her possible movements.  She got her wand out and pointed it at his face.

"What do you think you're doing?!?" she hissed.

"I need you to listen to me."

She glared, "And what if I don't want to listen?"

"You have to listen, please."

Shock coursed through her at his words, as well as the earnest expression on his face.

"What?  A please? And no demands?  No telling me you'll make me listen?"

He shook his head.

"I don't believe it."

"But-"

"No!  I don't care if we're family!  I don't care about a bloody promise we made two years ago!  And I don't care if you didn't know about Azkaban!  I can bet your parents knew!  Oh, yes, I can see you agree with that statement!" And, truly, she could see it on his face.  He knew Voldemort was being helped by one, if not both, of his parents.

"Oh, did you think I didn't know your mother's pleas in court kept my parents' murderer from receiving the kiss?  After all, she only brutally tortured and killed two muggles."  She practically spat out the last sentence.  Rage was filling her as she looked up into grey eyes that now looked remarkably similar to a crazed set she saw in her nightmares.

"No! I-"

She was done.  She didn't want to hear it.  She didn't care anymore that she'd crushed his hand.  He'd chased her through Hogwarts. She'd taken him to the hospital wing, where he had proceeded to restrain her and use his injury and shock to stop her from fighting back.

But now she was fine.  She was fine and she was going to-

"Miss Black, there you are."

Malfoy gulped audibly as Hermione turned to look at the mediwitch who had just approached.

"I didn’t give you the calming draught, yet."

Hermione stared at the small vial in Madam Pomfrey's hand and tried to make sense of the words.  But it was hard, rage was still boiling up inside her, demanding vengeance against those that had hurt her and hers. 

She felt Malfoy reach out and take her hand in his, slowly lowering it and moving her wand away from his neck.

Madam Pomfrey looked between the two of them before shaking her head sadly.  "Now, Miss Black, you will put that wand away at once and drink this potion.  Otherwise I shall be forced to find the nearest professor."

At the word professor something clicked in Hermione's head and she realized just what was going on inside of her.

Her magic was in turmoil.  Demanding vengeance against a target she couldn't reach.  It only cared that Malfoy was Bellatrix's nephew and that there was the possibility it would upset her to lose him.  

But her magic wasn't all of her.  And her brain didn't want to kill or injure him.  He'd never actually harmed her.  She knew that.  And, if she thought on it, she realized she'd know if he ever planned to do so.

She took a deep breath and tried to calm her magic down.  It took some effort, but once she got it mildly contained she realized that Harry was mentally poking her, trying to find out if she okay.

She sent him a quick image of the stream by Luna's house as she turned and looked back up at Malfoy.

It was the look in his eyes and on his face that let her regain full control of her magic.

His face was full of fear, but under that, was an emotion she couldn't quite identify.

Scratch that, she likely could identify it, but she really didn't want to.  It complicated things too much.

She looked down at his pale hand enveloping her own and felt something inside of her jerk.  For a moment her hand tightened on her wand. 

"Miss Black?"

She cursed and jerked away from Malfoy, trying to ignore how nice his hand had felt on hers. With one smooth motion she turned, grabbed the potion, and downed it.

Instantly she felt all of her emotions drain away as a bone deep weariness settled over her.  She felt her eyes flutter closed and her ability to stay upright disappeared.

Her last thought before darkness overtook her was that Malfoy had very fast reflexes.

Chapter Text

Draco barely got his good arm moving fast enough to stop Hermione from hitting her head on the stone floor.  He grunted and slowly lowered her the rest of the way to the ground.  Once she was safe from smashing her skull in he glared up at Madam Pomfrey, "Did you know that would happen?"

She shook her head as she drew her wand, "Miss Black was clearly exhausted.  Only the power of her emotions, fueled by her magic, was keeping her awake.  And, no, Mr. Malfoy, I did not realize she was quite that far gone.  Otherwise I would have made it impossible for her to leave the Hospital Wing.  Now, please move and I shall levitate her to a bed."

Draco moved back and watched as Hermione was magically lifted off the floor, her robes were hanging at an odd angle, exposing her sock-clad calves.  He reached out and yanked the robes down, covering her up.

Madam Pomfrey began to float Hermione away and he made to stand up and follow.  In doing so something clattered across the floor.  He looked down and saw her wand lying there.  It looked like a mere stick of wood, utterly harmless.  Nothing at all like the deadly weapon he knew it to be.

He reached down and picked it up with his left hand.  He shivered as the wand acknowledged him and then promptly discarded him as unworthy.  

He gave it a small flick, "Lumos."

Light appeared just fine, but it was not very bright.  He frowned and focused, trying to increase the light, but all it did was flicker.

Apparently the wand was as temperamental as its mistress.

"Malfoy, what are you doing?"

He jerked and guiltily lowered the wand.

"Potter, why aren't you in class?"

"I asked you a question first."

Draco shrugged and tried to look innocent.  He'd not talked to Potter since their Knight Bus ride to St. Mungos. "I was curious, that's all.  Here, it's your sister's."

Harry frowned but reached out and took the wand.  "And to answer, Defense is finished.  I have a free class and came looking for Hermione."

"She's in the hospital wing."

"Wait, what?!?" Potter looked up from the wand, his eyes going wide.  "But, she wasn't the one that was injured!"

Draco rolled his eyes - not even questioning how Potter knew what had happened, he already knew those two had some strange connection - and gestured towards his right arm in the sling.  "I was the one that was injured.  She just collapsed from exhaustion.  You really need to take better care of your sister.  I didn't save her from death's door just to let her destroy her own health."

Potter scowled, "You want to blame me for her exhaustion?  Do you realize how bloody stubborn she is?  I told her to sleep in after she got the news last night.  Instead she rewrites that entire article and then collapses at the table in exhaustion!  Ginny swore she was asleep in bed when we came down to breakfast."

"Apparently not, as she found me on a staircase just as the first class was starting."  And, because his hand still felt wrong, not to mention some leftover dizziness from being in so much pain, he released a jab he hadn't uttered in years.  As soon as it was out of his mouth he regretted it, there was no reason for the nasty words.  He didn’t want to be like that anymore.  Besides, Pansy was going to kill him.  That is, if Hermione didn't recover and get to him first.  "Apparently your girlfriend is too stupid to realize when someone is faking.  Not surprising, as she is related to Weasel."

Instantly Potter's hands clenched into fists and a thunderous expression filled his face.

Reflexively, Draco took a step backwards in fear.  He knew he couldn't move fast enough with his left hand to draw his wand, and forget casting a spell - he was pants at casting off-hand everything but the most basic spells.

Forget Pansy and Hermione, Potter might just kill him.

"You," Potter spat, "are a supreme git.  And here I thought you'd changed."

Draco's jaw dropped, "Changed?"

"Yes, changed.  I actually was beginning to like and respect you after you saved Hermione.  Then you did something to upset her on the train ride to Hogwarts and now you're insulting my girlfriend just for laughs.  Maybe the apple doesn't fall as far from the tree as I thought it did."

Draco frowned at Potter's use of the apple tree expression.  Memories of Theo's conversation with him last year resurfaced, along with the fact that he really didn't want to be like his father anymore.  Besides, he hadn't meant to upset her on the train.  

He deflated at the memory of her face before she ran from him in a panic.  Sometimes he wished...

No, it didn't matter what he wished.  He had reality to contend with.  And right now reality was comprised of a horrifically angry Harry Potter.  

"Well?  Not going to defend yourself?"

Draco cocked his head to the side and studied Potter.  The boy had once been his arch-nemesis.  All because he'd refused to give up being friends with the Weasel.  Now, Draco knew what an idiot he'd been back then.  If Potter had demanded he give up being friends with Pansy....

Well, let's just say things wouldn't have been pretty.

"I'm sorry, Potter.  I shouldn't have said that.  And as for the train...well, if Hermione hasn't told you what happened, then I won't either.  But just know that it was all an accident, and she knows this.  I just reacted in the wrong manner.  I got injured trying to apologize and explain to her."

Potter's eyebrows shot up, "You called her Hermione."

Draco rolled his eyes, "Of course you'd focus on that.  Yes, I did.  She's family, besides, I risked my safety to save her life.  Calling her Black just doesn't fit anymore."

Potter relaxed somewhat, and Draco was pleased to see that his eyes no longer sparkled like sharp emeralds, though his hair still seemed to spark with each small movement.

"Is this a trick?"

Draco shook his head, "No trick, Potter.  I spoke without thinking.  I'm not exactly thinking clearly at the moment."

Silence stretched between them as Potter internally debated his words.  That was, until a group of third-years passed by them, heading up the stairs and shooting curious glances.  

That woke Potter up, he gave his head a shake, "Whatever, I'm going to go check on Hermione.  Just stop doing things you need to apologize for."

Draco watched Potter walk away.  He walked just like Sirius Black.  Both of them moved with a grace that any panther would envy.  You just had to watch them move to know that it would be perilous to cross them.  He suddenly felt very glad that his mother had mended bridges with her family.  If he'd continued to act towards them as he had throughout their first two years at Hogwarts...

Well, he might just look a bit like Mad-Eye Moody.  That is, if he was still capable of breathing.

As soon as the Gryffindor was out of sight he felt his muscles relax as he lost the tension and hyper-awareness he'd been feeling ever since Hermione had drawn her wand on him.  Strangely, a part of him felt empty, and he didn't even know why.

XXX

Narcissa had her wand trained on the door before the latch had even finished turning.  It was a terrible feeling to once again not feel safe in your own home.  Not that they had had a choice.  When the Dark Lord requested something you obeyed, or you died.

And Lucius was still too much under that man's thrall to disobey him over using his house as a headquarters.

She relaxed once he door opened fully to reveal her husband.  A moment later she was on her feet and rushing over to the door, taking him into her arms and pushing the door shut with her foot.

He was shaking and his skin was ghostly pale.

A quick flick of her wand and a muttered spell put locks on the door that would take a good fifteen minutes to dismantle - giving them plenty of warning.

He buried his face in her hair as he continued to shake.  She rubbed his back, trying her best to comfort him.  There really wasn't much she could do, at least when it came to this.  Especially as she knew it was partly her fault.  But, much as she loved her husband, her son was more important.

After a time the shaking subsided and he took a deep breath.

"He blames me for not controlling the Ministry enough.  He wanted no one to know of the breakout as there is no one possible to blame for it."

She pulled back and looked at him with somewhat genuine surprise.  "He truly thought that no one would notice the largest prison break in magical history?  Many of the human guards there have family and friends that would enquire after them."

Lucius rolled his eyes, "He planned to release something about a potions mix-up that poisoned the food, killing everyone."

"And when someone saw one of the convicts alive and well?  Never mind, forget that question.  Of course they would never live to tell the tale."

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before painfully reaching up to undo the top button on his robes.  She gently brushed his hands away and took over. 

"Do you want me to draw up a bath?"  She brushed his sweat-damp hair out of his face once his robes were undone.

He nodded slowly and painfully, "Please.  He almost went too far.  Skeeter had to help me up the stairs after the meeting ended."

Narcissa's eyes rose at that, but inwardly she was pleased.  Apparently her old classmate thought she was almost as scary as the Dark Lord if she was doing things like that.  "Did anyone see her?"

"Just Lockhart, and he's keeping his head down.  He won't give away information for an uncertain reward."

She helped him to the bathroom and turned the knobs to fill the tub.  He was right about Lockhart.  That man had quickly seen just what being in the Dark Lord's inner circle entailed, and it was obvious he wanted no part in it.  So far only Bella had escaped the Dark Lord's wrath, though Lucius had fared the worst by far.

The loss of that old diary had truly enraged the old megalomaniac.  It made Narcissa wonder just what it had been.  She had never before seen such towering rage from the monster.  After he had calmed a bit he had declared that perhaps his ranks needed some new, fresh blood.

The very thought filled Narcissa with fear.  Only over her dead body would she let Draco become a Death Eater.

Sadly, that was a distinct possibility, as she was no match against the Dark Lord.  Nor was Lucius.

"Oh, love, this is magnificent,” Lucius said as he slipped into the bubble filled water, a look of intense pleasure on his face.

That gave Narcissa a splendid idea.

She flicked her wand at the bathroom door, using the same spells she'd used on the bedroom door.  She felt her magic sing as she locked her husband up so that no one could touch him.  Not even the Dark Lord could enter easily. 

She'd always excelled at locking up what was hers.

And the naked man in the tub was, at least for the moment, entirely hers.

With that thought she removed her own robes and slipped into the large tub next to him.

He let out a moan of appreciation as skin met skin and she smiled.

Yes, he was all hers.

XXX

Hermione, to her annoyance, felt better than she had in months upon awaking in the Hospital Wing on the second day of November.  She'd endured a lecture on self-care from the mediwitch, as well as admonishments from Harry and a letter from Padfoot that would have been a howler if he had anything but pure hatred for those things.

Uncle Remus had told her once about the regular howlers he had received from his mother while at Hogwarts.  Apparently they’d gotten so bad that McGonagall had begun routing all owls directed at Padfoot through her office.

Sadly, her renewed health had not stopped the nightmares from returning.  They were mild compared to what she had once suffered, but they were relentless.  After the fourth night in a row Harry leant her the invisibility cloak and she took to sleeping in his bed.  She would sneak up to his room once everyone was asleep and let him hum her to sleep.

Only there did the nightmares stay away.

Neville and Ron said nothing about this, they both knew of her nightmares.  Ron had even witnessed a few as they were growing up.  Dean and Seamus slept like the dead, she didn't think an attacking dragon would wake them.

But Mclaggen worried her.  More than once she'd caught him watching her with eyes that were impossible to read.  They didn't make her feel dirty, but they did make her feel like she'd done something incredibly wrong.  Improbable, as it was he that had done terrible things.

So, despite all sorts of horrific things occurring in the world, her life at Hogwarts returned to a semblance of normality, except for one thing.

Draco Malfoy.

She was at a loss to understand exactly why he had stopped avoiding her.  She didn't remember much after Padfoot had told her about Bellatrix Lestrange's escape.  Everything was rather hazy, making her unsure what memories were real and which were figments of her imagination.

She knew she had edited Mr. Lovegood's article quite a bit.  She also knew she had gone to bed, but been unable to sleep, so she had cast an illusion on her bed and wandered the halls of Hogwarts.

She was sure that she hadn't been wandering for too long when she had found Malfoy.

After that things got very hazy.  There had been running, a broken hand, hair nuzzling (She was positive that was her imagination.), Professor Snape acting oddly, and her coming within inches of giving into the bloodlust her magic had created.

Thank Merlin that Madam Pomfrey had arrived when she did.

Now, well rested and thinking clearly she didn't want to hurt Malfoy at all.  In fact, she felt the oddest urge to protect him, though she didn't know from what.  The only thing even remotely threatening in his life at the moment was her.

And she wasn't going to reach a point where she lost control again.  She hated the lost memories and the feelings that lingered.  It reminded her terrifyingly of when she’d pictured Malfoy's broken and bloody body in the carnage of her empty classroom.

At that thought she looked up and over at where she had imagined him lying.  It was hard to picture as the desks were now arranged neatly, not thrown about, as they had been.

It was almost the end of November now.  Almost two years ago he’d confronted her about Narcissa and her wedding plans.  Almost two years since he’d called her a mudblood.

And now he was keeping silent about her scars, chasing her through corridors, ensuring she acquired medical attention, and – most oddly – giving her the most peculiar smiles whenever she happened to look at him.

How had things changed so quickly?

They were by no means anywhere close to following Narcissa Malfoy’s plans, but they were a lot closer than she’d ever thought they would be.

And Hermione was rather sure that almost every moment of their growing alliance had been orchestrated by Draco Malfoy’s mother.

That woman was bloody dangerous.

A soft knock sounded on the doorframe and she looked up to see the object of her thoughts in the doorway.  Oddly enough, he looked rather hesitant and- Her thoughts paused, unsure of what word to use to describe what else she saw on his face.

His rather handsome face, to be exact.

When had he become so handsome?  Was he always this way?  Had she just been blind?

No.  She wasn’t blind.

“Yes?”

“Can we talk?”

She eyed him curiously and tried to lift one eyebrow.  She was sad to note that she didn’t quite manage it, as her right eyebrow tagged along for part of the ride with her left one.

She really needed to practice more in front of a mirror before using that expression.

“About what?”

“What happened on the train.”

She felt her entire body tense up, “Drop it, Malfoy.”

He held his hands up in surrender, “Alright, but can I explain why I was avoiding you afterwards?”

Part of her clamored to know, but the rest of her asked why she should care.  He’d been disgusted by her, shocked at the vile words carved into her flesh like runes on a stone.  Why did he need to explain?  Was this going to be some half-assed apology?  Likely.

“No.”

“Hermione, please, I need to-“

She stood up suddenly and pulled out her wand.  She didn’t aim it at him, but his eyes still widened at the sight.

“Drop it, Malfoy.  I don’t discuss anything about THAT.  With ANYONE, understand?  And don’t call me Hermione, I didn’t give you permission.”

His eyes flashed before he spoke, “May I please call you Hermione?”

“No.”

His silver eyes flashed again, but a little differently.  They almost looked…hurt.  But that couldn’t be right.

“Why not?  You may call me Draco, we are family.”

She scoffed, “If you haven’t forgotten, there’s a war starting out there.  We’re on different sides, we can’t exactly act chummy with each other by using first names.”

His lips twisted into a wry smile, “Point.”

“Malfoy…”

“Fine, Black.  I won’t call you Hermione, at least in public.  But I’m not going to stop thinking it.”

Frustration bubbled up inside of her, but she stomped it down, she was NOT going to lose control around Draco Malfoy.  Not again.

“What is with you?  Why are you so determined to call me Hermione?”

“Can I explain about what happened after the train?”

“No!”

He shrugged, “Then I guess I can’t answer your question.”

“Arrgghh!  Get out!”

She aimed her wand at him and he stared at it for a moment before slowly backing out of the room.  Once he was out of sight she lowered her wand and almost sagged in relief.  She could barely stand to look at her limbs when she washed at the moment.  There was no way she was going to discuss ANYTHING about them right now.

She jerked in surprise when she heard him say from down the corridor, “Have a good day, Black.”

She groaned at the way he said her name and fell back into her chair.  Bloody hell.  Just what had gotten into him?

Rolling her eyes in annoyance at boys and all the nonsense they created, she pulled the book she’d been reading off the desk and into her lap.

Her finger moved over the page until she found where she had left off -is a distinct creation.  No two are equivalent, nevertheless, links can be fashioned amongst wands when…

Chapter Text

The bed shifted and Sirius looked over to see his bedmate sitting up and stretching. He took a moment to appreciate her muscular curves. For a moment he wished for dark red hair to curtain those delicious shoulder blades, but then he shook his head. No, that was dangerous thinking. He had an arrangement with Alice. Besides, he really didn't want a potentially serious girlfriend.

"It's nearly time to go pick up the children."

He smiled and sat up, "They won't be children much longer. Hermione is already seventeen and the others will quickly follow."

Alice scoffed as she bent over and picked up her clothes. "They will always be children in my mind, no matter how old they get."

His smile widened, "So, when Neville marries Pansy Parkinson and gives you grandchildren it will be a case of children begetting children?"

She shuddered as she slipped into her pants, "Don't say such things. I'm much too young to be a grandmother."

"You also married your childhood sweetheart and almost immediately popped out a kid. If he takes after you then of course you'll be a young grandmother."

Sirius slipped into his own clothes as he spoke, there was no time to dawdle. With Death Eaters on the loose he wanted to be at the platform before the train got in.

"And you'll be a young grandfather. I just bet Harry and Ginny will take after their parents and start early. You know part of why Molly never sealed her magic at her wedding was because it was too late. She already had a bun in her oven."

He rolled his eyes, "I know that. And much as I adore Molly and Arthur I don't really want to think about them playing between the sheets."

She snickered and walked over to the mirror to tidy her short brown hair as he buttoned up his woolen robes.

"Point."

"Thanks, partner. Now, do you want to arrange another meeting before Christmas vacation is up? I'm sure we'll be able to find a few private moments."

She set the comb down and draped her own winter cloak around her shoulders. "No, this is the last time."

He froze and looked at her in shock, "What?"

"I said, this is the last time. You almost said the wrong name and I know you were picturing a different face."

"Alice..."

"No, don't apologize. You know I sometimes do the same. Now," she held up her well-manicured hand to forestall any comments from him, "I want your Christmas gift to me to be you asking her on a real date. According to Tonks she can't keep her eyes off of you."

"But-" He floundered, trying to come up with a reason not to do this. He was comfortable, and he had bigger worries right now. He didn't need a real relationship. The friends with benefits thing had worked for almost ten years now. "She-she's almost a decade younger than me!"

Alice rolled her eyes and picked up a comb and set to work tidying his hair and tying it at the nape of his neck.

"Sirius, she's only seven years younger and didn't you just tell Remus two months ago that age wasn't important?"

"That-that's different!"

She pulled back and gave him a piercing gaze. "It is? How?"

He couldn't think of an answer she would accept, so he took a different path, "I have two children! Children that are almost grown! I could end up with another child that is the same age as my grandchildren!"

"Sirius Orion Black, that is a lousy excuse. You're just afraid to let someone in. And it may have torn me apart to lose Frank, but I never regretted a single moment with him. And if I could go back I would change nothing. Understand?"

He nodded mutely.

"Good, now I want you to ask her tomorrow. If you don't I shall enlist Andromeda's help. Got it?"

His eyes widened at the thought of his cousin combining forces with one of his best friends.

It was bloody terrifying.

"Fine, I'll ask her."

She smiled at that and slipped her sturdy dragonhide boots on before leaving the room.

He watched her go and let out a sigh of resignation.

But, even as he slipped on his own boots and followed her out he was thinking of and discarding every restaurant in Wizarding Britain.

If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right.

XXX

Hermione felt the train begin to slow down. Annoyed at the bad timing, she carefully put away the old tomb on wandlore she'd been reading. She knew about the connection between Harry and Voldemort's wand - Olivander had informed them that Harry's wand had a brother during their first year.

She just had to determine WHY Harry's holly and phoenix feather wand had chosen him. What had drawn the twin core to Harry?

Sadly, the tomes she had been studying were rather skimpy on details. Typically brother wands went to two people with similar personalities or family magic.

She knew for a fact that there was no connection between Harry and Tom Riddle in either category.

But there had to be a reason. There just HAD to be.

"Hey, 'Mione, you coming?"

She shoved aside thoughts of wands and links, she'd continue her research at home.

"Yes, let's go."

She grabbed their bags and followed Harry off, allowing him to maneuver their trunks. As they walked past the loo she heard retching and looked in to see Crabbe worshiping the porcelain god.

She couldn't help but let her lips twist into a sneer. Likely he'd indulged in too many sweets. Couldn't have happened to a nicer Slytherin.

She delibrately stopped herself from wondering why Crabbe was without his Malfoy overlord.  She'd spent the past month doing her best to avoid him.  She wasn't going to break that by thinking of him now.

Not when she had weeks before she had to see him again.

XXX

Lucius watched the Hogwarts express chug cheerfully up to the station. Every time he saw it he was thrown back to his own school years.

He missed those years. Life had been simple, nothing was life or death. Now...now he truly feared for his family.

Luckily the Dark Lord was off somewhere, he would be gone for a week. That meant there was still a week before Lucius lost his son.

And he knew he would lose him, even if Draco didn't get marked until he was seventeen. The Dark Lord was just too powerful. What he wanted, he took. And Malfoys were too easily taken.

If he wanted Draco, then Lucius didn't think he'd be able to stop it from happening.

The train screeched to a halt and the crowded station became flooded with cheerful students a moment later. All of them were bundled up against the cold, wearing scarves and hats that demonstrated their House loyalties for all to see.

It wasn't hard to find Potter and his friends. It was easy to see the small herd of Gryffindors infiltrated by one Slytherin and one Ravenclaw.

He watched as his wife's cousin and the other parents approach. Roy Parkinson offered a polite handshake to Sirius Black and Lucius found himself wanting to break into hysterical laughter.

There, on the platform was a peaceful exchange between two people with very different ideals.

If the Dark Lord had his way such an exchange would never occur again. Black would be dead and Roy would be pulled off the fence and become a Death Eater.

"Father? Where is mother?"

Lucius was surprised, but quite glad that he didn't show it as he turned to look at the best thing in his life.

"Merry Christmas, Draco. And your mother shall be joining us at the restaurant. I needed to speak with you first."

That, and Bellatrix had been left in charge with the Dark Lord's disappearance. She didn't trust them at all, apparently Narcissa's mending of fences with Andromeda had essentially made her a blood-traitor in Bellatrix's eyes.

They were only able to go to the restaurant together because it would raise red flags if they didn't.

The Malfoys always went out to eat after picking up Draco from the station.

The Crabbes had agreed to have an early dinner at the restaurant so as to keep an eye on the Malfoys. At Bellatrix's rather deadly insistence.

Lucius looked over to see Norman Crabbe looking for his son. Hopefully Vincent Crabbe had taken the bait and eaten those puking pasties he'd been sent. Honestly, that boy was an idiot if he thought any girl would send him sweets. Luckily, the Crabbes were known for being loyal, not intelligent.

"Do you have your trunk?"

"Right here," Draco said, pointing to the dark green school trunk at his feet.

"Dobby," Lucius said.

Immediately the terrified little house elf popped into view. Lucius scowled, he hated the disgusting creatures, even if they were useful.

"Yes, master?"

"Take Draco's trunk to the house and get it unpacked. Also," he added as an afterthought, "I forbid you from listening to anyone without Malfoy blood - aside from Narcissa. The same goes for the other elves."

The thought of Bellatrix being forced to make her own tea made him want to snicker like a schoolboy. Salazar, he hated that woman.

"Yes, master," the elf said with a bow so low his nose touched the floor. After that he popped out, taking the trunk with him.

"Father, why did-"

"Later, Draco, we need to depart immediately."

Draco frowned, but reached out to take the arm that Lucius extended to him.

A moment later they were in a deserted forest. One of the places Lucius commonly used as an apparition spot to throw off aurors.

Draco looked around in confusion, but before he could say anything, Lucius began to speak.

"Listen, Draco, we don't have much time. I'm sure you know by now that I lied about being under the imperius?"

Draco audibly gulped, but nodded.

"That is true, but it is also true that I never had a choice. Not a real one. Now, I've spoken to you some about the Malfoy family magic, but I didn't plan to share this part until you were seventeen."

Now the boy looked frightened, "Then why are you telling me now? What's happened?"

"You know what happened. Your mother's chosen bride for you has been in the thick of it all. What you don't know is that our house has been occupied, hence our rushed conversation here."

His son grew deathly pale, "They-They're in our HOUSE?"

"Yes."

Draco gaped at him for a moment before saying a handful of words that tore Lucius apart.

"You can't be my father."

It took a moment for Lucius to gather enough air to speak. And by the time he had his son's eyes had turned as hard as the cursed silver blade Bellatrix carried next to her wand.

"Draco, please, you need to-"

"No! I won't!" Draco stomped his foot as he spoke, bringing back fond memories of him demanding more sweets during previous Christmases.

"You have no choice! And I don't have time for your childish antics! If you don't hear this, you could die!"

"You're lying!"

"No," Lucius said coldly, trying to get through to his son.

Draco's jaw clenched and he looked around the clearing, as if he could find an escape route.

Lucius actually felt quite proud. He never could have defied his father when he was Draco's age, he'd been too fearful of the man.

"You can't apparate yet. I know you're doing well in your Saturday classes, but you can only apparate to where you can see. We're not leaving until I talk. Even if it gets me a session under the cruciatus by your aunt."

"Bellatrix Lestrange is NOT my aunt," Draco bit out.

That told Lucius a lot. Quite a lot.

"Fine, she's not your aunt. But the truth stands that we shall not be leaving here until I speak."

Draco glared, but said nothing.

Lucius gave a sharp nod, "Alright, as you know, Malfoy magic tends to be about subtle management through any means necessary - typically potions and charms. We use this to protect what is ours and keep the family strong. What you don't know is the price we pay."

Draco opened his mouth to speak, but Lucius held up a hand, "No, let me finish. The price is that it does not matter how powerful we become as a family or as an individual we always crave to follow someone more powerful. It does not matter what kind of power. Sadly, I was introduced to the Dark Lord before I noticed your mother."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that my magic, the part that makes me a Malfoy, attached me to the first truly powerful person I admired. And, I was raised by my father to be an upstanding pureblood. Of course I admired the Dark Lord when I met him. My father admired him as well. It is virtually impossible for me to say no to him. Maybe if you or your mother were in danger I could, but that is not certain. I've looked and no Malfoy has broken the chain that tied them to their master. That is part of why Narcissa wanted you married to a witch that did not seal her magic. She hopes to eliminate the forced bond and all the misery it brings."

Draco's face had grown horrified the more Lucius had spoken, but, at a certain point it became thoughtful.

"Are you saying I need to admire them to form this bond?"

"Correct."

"But, I don't admire the Dark Lord. He disgusts me. And I'm not going to our home if he is there."

Lucius grimaced, "I'm afraid you have no choice."

Draco's eyes narrowed and his wand appeared in his hand. Lucius couldn't help but feel proud of his son.

"What, are you going to bind me and drag me there?"

"No."

"Then what?"

"Draco, they have your mother. That's why only I met you at the station. Margery Crabbe is keeping an eye on her at the restaurant. We're only allowed to go to keep up appearances. I sent your friend – Vincent – puking pasties so I could slip away from his father."

Lucius could see the gears churning as Draco tried to think of a solution. He looked so much like his mother that it almost hurt to look at him.

When had Draco grown up?

"Can't we rescue her? Go in, wands drawn?"

He shuddered and shook his head, "No, I can't betray him like this – with forethought. Besides, I'm sure Margery is not the only one there. Bella will spare no effort when it comes to following the Dark Lord's orders."

"I don't believe you."

"Will you believe it when I tell you that if we don't go immediately your mother may die? I'm sure Norman has located and cured his son by now. Even he is not completely incompetent."

Draco stared at him intensely before looking down at the dead leaves under their feet. "Fine, but I refuse to take the mark."

"He won't ask until you are seventeen. Your mother will have figured out a solution by then." Lucius reached out and put his hand on Draco's shoulder. The boy tensed, but did not move away.

"Draco, I know we never talk about emotions, but I want you to know that I am a Malfoy. Family always comes first. Understand?"

Those silver eyes, so like his own, bored into him, judging him. Lucius tried to show every bit of love and pride he had for the boy that his love with Narcissa had created.

"Even against the chain you claim no Malfoy has ever broken? A chain you suspect will ensnare me, tying me to a man that thinks murdering and torturing people is an acceptable activity?"

Pain twisted in Lucius' chest and he whispered, "I don't know."

Before Draco could reply, they apparated out. Only a slight disturbance in the fallen leaves showed that anyone had been in the clearing at all.

Chapter Text

Hermione smiled and murmured a quiet "Thank you," as Kreacher set a bowl of beef stew in front of her.  To his credit, he didn't even glare at her anymore when she did that.

She'd figure out one day just how to break the house elves' dangerous dependency on a bond to a wizard or witch.

Just one more section on her long list of things to accomplish.  Right up there with the law allowing discrimination against werewolves and other magical beings.

"Did you two have any plans for the holidays?"  Padfoot asked as he grabbed a hunk of crusty bread and dipped it in his stew.

Harry shrugged, "Just homework, flying, and spending time with you."

"About that..."

Hermione looked up in concern as Padfoot trailed off, a note of uncertainty in his voice.

"Padfoot? What is it?" she asked.

He glanced at her then looked over at Harry, "We've strengthened the wards around all of our houses, but they only cover the house and small gardens.  There's nowhere for you to fly outside safely."

Hermione looked over at Harry to see his eyes darken in sadness, but he merely said, "I understand."
While she had never enjoyed flying, she felt sorry for Harry, Ron and Ginny.  The three of them loved being in the air and she rather thought it was their method of stress relief.

"Alianore and Remus have magically enlarged the gymnasium at the academy, so you can fly there when no class is using it, but I know it's not the same."

Harry smiled a bit, "That's alright, Padfoot.  Safety comes first."

Padfoot looked at her, "What about you, Hermione?"

"Essentially the same as Harry, just change quidditch to private research."

He arched a brow at her, she envied him the muscle control it took to do that, "Are you going to share what you're researching?"

She shook her head, "Not yet.  Nothing is conclusive yet.  I do need to make a run to Flourish and Blotts if that can be arranged."

He smiled, "We're already planning a group outing to Diagon Alley next Tuesday."

"Perfect."

XXX

Draco jumped as a board creaked and whirled around, wand flying into his hand.

No one was there, the hallway was as empty as it usually was.

Perhaps a house elf had accidently made a noise while cleaning?  Or the old manor was settling?

He spun back around and continued on his way to his room, but did not put away his wand.

The manor had always made him feel happy, safe and loved.  Curse HIM for destroying that.  The knowledge that every spare room was occupied by Death Eaters made him want to run away and forget his parents.  They had gotten themselves into this by joining HIM during the first war.  They didn't have to drag him into it.

A breeze tickled the back of his neck and he once more spun around.

A wild-eyed, dark-maned witch stood about twenty feet away from him.

Her features were so similar to his mother's that he sharply inhaled in shock.

She grinned, revealing teeth that almost looked too sharp to be human in the flickering candlelight.

As he watched she slowly opened the door she was standing in front of.

"Goodnight, dear nephew," she practically hissed before stepping inside and shutting the door.

He stared at the shut door for a half a second before he turned and ran the rest of the way to his room.

XXX

Hermione bit her lip to stop from laughing st the shocked expression on Ron's face.  He obviously had not expected his pumpkin juice to explode in his face.

Apparently the newest potion was a success.

Harry and Ginny laughed out loud as Ron tried to use a napkin to mop up the orange juice now dripping off his face and into his porridge.

Ginny laughed so hard she began to cough, Hermione almost wanted to strangle the girl for not thinking, but where was the fun of that?

As soon as Ginny's lips touched her own juice it exploded in her face.

That made Ron laugh.

Harry stared at his own glass carefully before slowly touching the juice with his finger.  It immediately exploded upwards like a geyser.

Hermione did the same and watched with pride as her own juice exploded.

The best way to prank someone was to prank yourself.  Then you weren't easily identified.

"What in the-"

Mrs. Weasley's annoyed voice cut through the laughter as she surveyed the now juice covered kitchen table.

Instantly she stormed over to the fireplace, stuck some powder in and began berating Fred and George in their own apartment.

Hermione grinned, she had deliberately set their fireplace to allow Mrs. Weasley unlimited access when she'd stopped by yesterday.

If they were going to take the credit for all of the inventions - something she was perfectly fine with - they could also take the blame.

By the time Fred and George were properly scolded Hermione had used magic to clean up the mess and everyone had their laughter under control. 

Sadly, Mrs. Weasley was smart enough to throw out the entire pitcher of pumpkin juice before anyone else could become an unwitting test subject.

XXX

Draco silently slipped into the library and whispered, "Homo Revulus." 

No one was there.

He breathed a sigh of relief and moved towards the shelves, not putting his wand away.

Just in case.

Mother had told him that Greyback was due at the manor any day now and that was not someone Draco wanted to meet while helpless.

It took a bit of time to locate his father's hidden books, but he eventually found them.  Spells on dark magic and the few protections against them.

He planned to spend the holidays memorizing every single word in these books.  A very easy task as he'd so far managed to spend the last four days locked in his room with Dobby bringing him food.

He slipped the five books into his bag and moved towards the exit.

He froze when he heard the knob turn.

Panicking, he raised his wand and retreated into shadows as he put his back to a bookcase.

Surprisingly, a golden-haired man appeared in the doorway, his face was in shadow, but he was humming to himself.  His arms were laden with writing supplies, causing him to gently kick the door closed with his foot.

Draco silently watched as the man set everything down on a table in front of the massive granite fireplace.  He spent an inordinate amount of time arranging things in a very precise way.  Once finished he carefully sat down, sweeping his robe in an artful manner as he did so.

The movement was extremely familiar and Draco frowned as he tried to remember where he had seen it before.

He didn't get to think long as the man pulled out a glass ball, tapped it with his wand, and then set it to hover over the table.  The light cast from it illuminated his features.

"Professor Lockhart?"  Draco asked in surprise, before he could catch himself.

Lockhart jumped about a foot in the air and almost fell out of his chair.

"Oh!  Dear me, where did you come from?"

Draco smirked, apparently working for Him had not increased the fool's abilities.

"I was here the entire time."

"Ah, well then.  You look very familiar.  Do I know you?" Lockhart said as he squinted into the dark shadows Draco was standing in.

"I believe you were my Defense teacher during my second year.  Before you tried to obliviate the Hogwarts librarian.  You also happen to be staying in my house."

"Ah! Draco Malfoy!  Slytherin, always sitting with Gregory Goyle, Vincent Crabbe, and Pansy Parkinson.  You enjoyed pantomiming in my classes if I remember correctly, though you pretended to hate it."

Draco gaped, "How-"

"My dear boy, I have not survived and succeeded as I have by failing to notice anything and everything about people.  Granted, I overstepped myself and panicked about Madam Pince.  She is a terrifying woman."

"Point," Draco said without thinking.

Lockhart frowned, "Why do you say that?  Your mother did the same thing when she showed me to a room here."

She had?  Just what was his mother doing?  There was no way playing that game had become a habit for her, like it had for him.  Granted, he didn't have a coin, so it only worked when he was around Lovegood, a Weasley, Potter, or Hermione.

"It's nothing, just something I've picked up by accident as Pansy has started hanging out with my cousin."

"If that is so, perhaps you can explain it to me in more detail when I am not quite so busy," he gestured to the piles of parchment laid out in front of him.

Draco grew curious and approached, "What are you doing?"

"The Dark Lord determined that while I am fairly useless at all spells except for obliviate, he knows I am quite talented at writing and public relations.  Currently, as I intend to keep on breathing as long as I can, I am writing his biography."

Draco's brows shot up, "His biography?  Is it real?"

"Well," Lockhart said with a brilliant, if slightly mischievous grin, "it's as real as any of my other books."

XXX

Hermione picked up her quill and wrote:

--Forge, do you still have my book on signatures?  The one I leant you over the summer?

While she waited for a reply she picked her notes back up and read over what she had put together so far.  There had to be some sort of magical link between Harry and Voldemort.  A link established before Harry's blood was used to create a new body for the evil git.  She just needed to discover the link and eliminate it.  

--Hey, Phoenix, I do.  Want me to hand it over to Prongslet tonight?  I heard he'll be flying with King and Ginger while the rest of us are in the meeting.

She grimaced.  Stupid Order of the Phoenix meeting.  She was sure they were boring, but her desire to know everything meant that she wished she could be at one.  Sadly, despite her being of age Padfoot had decreed she could not join until things grew dire or she graduated from Hogwarts.

At least he made sure to tell Harry and her anything that related to them.

--Yes, please.  Thank you.

--No problem.  See you on Christmas Eve.  Oh, and Gred says you're forbidden from entering our apartment anymore.

She giggled, as if that would stop her from messing with his floo settings.  She'd just have to be sneakier about it.  Maybe she’d ‘borrow’ Harry’s cloak.

--If you say so.

--We do!

She rolled her eyes at the size of the exclamation mark.  They did not appreciate their mother nearly enough.  Why, everyone knew her scoldings came from the heart.  Plus, they built character.

She closed her communication notebook and started to go back over her notes.

She would figure this out.  Even if she had to sneak into Knockturn Alley to find the correct books.

XXX

"Here, what do you think of this?"

Draco took the parchment from Lockhart and began to read:

Upon the discovery of her unwanted pregnancy, Merope Gaunt went to her dear father for assistance.  When he learned just what the dastardly muggle had done to his sweet, innocent daughter he flew into a towering rage and stormed the muggle home, wand out.  His son, Morfin Gaunt joined him as they gained justice for their beloved family member.

Unfortunately, when the Ministry found out they took the side of the brutish muggle. The Gaunts were taken off to Azkaban and Merope was left all alone.

Heavily pregnant and badly weakened from her ordeal, she sought help in Wizarding London.  There she was spit upon and cheated out of what few things left to her.

Cursing those that had done this to her she tried to apparate home, but in her injured state she made a mistake.

Badly splinched she found herself on a muggle street.  Out of her mind with pain and going into labor she knew another apparation would kill her unborn son.

She crawled to a nearby doorway, there she pounded and screamed until an idiotic muggle woman opened the door.  She was just in time to witness the birth and hear Merope Gaunt's last words.

"Bless my father, Marvolo, for killing Tom Riddle."

Left with a newborn babe and a dead mother the woman did what any moronic muggle lacking in imagination would do.

She sent the babe to an orphanage and informed them that his mother had named him in her last breath.

What name?

Why, Tom Marvolo Riddle.

Or, as you know him, Lord Voldemort.

Draco's eyebrows were practically one with his hairline as he finished reading.

"How much of this is verified fact?"

"Oh..." Lockhart thought for a moment, "the names?  And her brother and father did go to Azkaban.  Just for different reasons.  And at different times.

“Does he really expect no one to dig up the truth?”

Lockhart flashed him a smile, “My dear boy, the winning side only speaks the truth.  Did you not know that?  And, if this ever becomes published it will be accepted as truth.  Mark my words.”

“If it’s published?  Don’t you want Him to win?”

Lockhart made a tutting noise, “You really must become better at reading people if you mean to succeed in life.  And the Dark Lord saw into my mind, he knows this, so do not think I am telling you a great secret.  I don’t really care who wins in this war.  As long as I am alive at the end of it.  After all, either I am the great man who wrote the biography of our great leader - perhaps even in charge of public relations – or I am a hapless writer that fearfully did as I was told to avoid dying like many of the poor people in my prison wing.  After all, it is quite well-known by now that I am only good at obliviating people.”

Draco shook his head in disbelief, “You are a piece of work.”

“Here, take a seat,” Lockhart gestured at one of the other chairs at the table.

Draco eyed the chair for a moment, hesitant to sit and let his guard down.  He did not trust Lockhart as far as he could throw the man.  And he doubted he could throw him far, he’d somehow managed to actually gain weight while in Azkaban.

Likely from diehard fangirls sending him baked goods.

“Here, I can see you do not trust me, take my wand.”

Draco eyed the piece of wood like it was a snake, but reached out and took it anyway.  He grimaced as soon as it touched his hand.  It feel almost oily.

“Ah, yes, using one kind of spell too often does tend to warp a wand.  Now, will you sit?  I feel like I must impart some wisdom to you.”

“Wisdom?” Draco asked as he hesitantly sat down.

“Indeed.  I was a Ravenclaw you know.  I live and breathe wisdom.  It just so happens that often my wisdom falls on ears that are unready for such things.  Take Harry Potter, his inability to listen to me on managing fame pushed him into such a position that the Ministry and Daily Prophet were able to convince people that he is quite unwell in the head.”

“Potter isn’t insane,” Draco bit out, anger bubbling up inside of him.

“Oh, of course not!  It is just that he, with the help of his guardian, stayed so far out of the public eye that the public did not know him.  If the public does not feel like they know you then it shall be easy for them to turn against you.  Why, even now I have some witches so convinced that I am a pleasant and affable man that they wrote daily letters to the Ministry asking for me to be released from my unjust imprisonment.”

A part of Draco was revolted at the buffoon’s words, but he couldn’t stop himself from being impressed all the same.

“Is that how you managed to spend three and a half years in Azkaban without losing an ounce?”

“Of course.  The wizard in charge of my prison wing is a huge fan of mine.  Plus, he never liked Madam Pince.  Now, where I’m going with this is that public image is half the battle.  Your public image with the Death Eaters is rather good.  You’re a Slytherin and a pureblood.  Your father is a loyal Death Eater, one of the best.  Your mother is a loving and loyal wife.  You have an aunt who is considered to be one of His most loyal followers.  You, my boy, are sitting pretty.”

“Your point?”

Lockhart flashed him the smile that had appeared on every single one of his books.

“My point is that, if you want to keep on sitting pretty, you’ll denounce the rest of your family as fast as you can.”

“The rest?” Draco asked, even though he knew exactly who the Dark Lord was referencing.

“Why, your aunt: Andromeda Black, your cousins: Sirius Black, Nymphadora Tonks, and, of course,” he paused for dramatic effect, “Hermione Black.”

XXX

Draco glared at the plate in front of him, as if the veal piccata had done something to anger him.  He refused to look at the man sitting across from him.

Absolutely refused.

In fact, he might just dance with joy if one of Hagrid’s horrific blast-ended skrewts appeared on that monster’s lap.

He was the reason the Dark Lord was back.  He was also the reason that Hermione had almost died.  Draco had overheard him lamenting the fact to Theo’s dad that the ‘Black Brat’ had managed to survive.  Especially as her articles were beginning to enrage the Dark Lord.

Barty Crouch Junior could go burn in hell.

A large silver platter hovered along the outside of his vision before settling in front of his mother.  She delicately took another piece of veal even as he was choking down a bite.

How could she eat?  He’d barely been managing to eat when hidden in his own room.  It was utterly impossible now; seated at the massive dining room table with every nasty inhabitant of Malfoy Manor.

He caught a flash of gold and watched as Lockhart – far, far down the table – threw his head back and laughed at something Rita Skeeter said. 

His fists clenched as rage threatened to overcome him.  That woman!  In his house!  He wanted to squish her like the nasty bug she was.  It didn’t surprise him to see her getting along with Lockhart.

After their ‘discussion’ in the library earlier Draco had stormed out, only to be stopped by his mother before being forced to socialize with Greg, Vince, and Theo.  He’d been unable to sneak off to his room and stash the books from the library as apparently the Dark Lord was expected after dinner. 

And he wanted to meet the sons of his most loyal followers.

That thought turned the small bit of veal in his mouth to ash.  He felt like the disillusioned bag over his shoulder was pressing down on his chest, smothering him, but he dare not adjust it.  If his parents knew he was reading those books, no matter the purpose…

“Ah, I see I am early.  Or, perhaps, you are just disobedient,” a cold voice hissed.  The sound sent shivers of fear down Draco’s spine as he looked up.

There, standing in the doorway was the most pathetic excuse for a human being he had ever seen.  Blood red eyes blazed out of a face that more closely resembled a snake than a humans.  Bone white skin appeared to be almost blinding over robes so dark as to put his own Hogwarts robes to shame.

Lord Voldemort.

The source of all his misery.

Those cold eyes scanned the room and Draco looked down in apparent shame and modesty before they reached him.

There was no way he was letting that man in his mind.

He knew occlumancy, thanks to Professor Roux, but he didn’t trust his abilities enough to put them to the ultimate test.

His father stood up, “We are finished, my lord.  We were merely awaiting your presence.”

The Dark Lord silently swept across the room until he stood at the head of the table, only a few spots away from Draco.  He gave a wave of his wand and an ornate throne appeared.  

He sat and looked around the table, Draco made sure to avoid his eyes.  But he couldn’t help but shudder as he watched a great snake make its way up the throne until a large part of its bulk was draped – almost lovingly – around the Dark Lord.

“I believe I see new faces, are any of them seventeen yet?”

Mr. Nott spoke and Draco felt Theo stiffen beside him, “My boy, Theodore, will be seventeen in February.”

“My lord, Gregory will be seventeen in April, and he is eager to take the mark.”  To Draco, his old friend looked anything but eager.  He looked terrified.

“Draco will be seventeen at the beginning of June, my lord,” he heard his own father say.  Draco’s blood ran cold at the thought of his seventeenth birthday.

He wasn’t coming home.  He already knew that.  It didn’t matter what happened, he wasn’t becoming a murderer.  Or a torturer of little children.

“Vincent is already seventeen, my lord,” Mr. Crabbe said.

The Dark Lord’s mouth twisted into something that was likely meant to be a smile.

“Ah, good, Vincent, come here,” he pointed to a spot next to his throne.

Draco watched in mute horror as one of his oldest friends walked over to the Dark Lord. 

What followed would haunt his nightmares for weeks.

The Dark Lord locked eyes with Vince and his friend screamed and fell to his knees.  Crouch jumped to his feet and ran over.  He pulled back the sleeve of Vince’s left arm.  The Dark Lord raised his wand and hissed something before pressing it to Vince’s flesh.

The screaming grew worse.

And all Draco could do was sit there and watch.

He felt pain and looked down to see that his hands had curled into fists and his nails had cut into his skin.

Blood leaked from a few of the cuts and his mind was thrown back to St. Mungos.  Hermione had hurt herself because of these people.  She’d carved up the few parts of her skin that his aunt hadn’t.

And now he was doing it too.

“Draco Malfoy.”

He started and looked up, realizing the screaming had stopped.

“Yes, my lord?” he managed to say, despite the sudden lack of air in his lungs.

“I saw things - in your friend here - disturbing things.  I saw that you worked with Potter and his nasty little mudblood sister.”

Draco had to bite his lip to stop himself from yelling out that Hermione was NOT a mudblood.  His vow twinged, but didn’t break.  It was clever enough to not trigger on that.

“It-it was convenient, my lord,” he got out.

“I don’t think so.  In fact, I believe you need to prove your loyalty.  Right now.”

“My lord, please, he’s too young.  He’s only sixteen.”

Father’s words seemed like they came from far away.  Blood was rushing through Draco’s ears and his breath was coming fast.  He felt his wand digging into his wrist, ready to jump into his hand with the movement Professor Roux had taught him.

“Lucius, he is old enough.  I was doing much more than he at the age of sixteen.  Draco, come here.”

He felt his mother stiffen next to him, but Draco paid her no heed.  Here he was, once again faced with a choice.  Last time he had taken the coward’s way out.

He had refused to help Hermione.

He’d let her go off on her own.  She’d almost died because of him.  Because he was afraid of what might happen to himself.

But now he knew what would happen if he followed this snake-man. 

His father was broken. 

Chained to a man that he had once admired.  A man that had taken his home and turned it into a place it was never meant to be.

His mother…

Draco didn’t know what to think of her.  Potter’s words from last spring echoed in his ears, but he had trouble believing it.  Especially when his mother sat there so passively.

Potter’s words from a month ago rang in his head, “I thought you had changed.”

Had he changed?  Could he do nothing and allow himself to be branded like cattle?  Become a murderer?  A torturer? 

He wasn’t foolish enough to believe he could escape if he refused.  He couldn’t fight off all the Death Eaters in the room.  He didn’t even think Potter or Hermione could do that.

But, he knew he would rather die than become like those around him.  Something inside of him roared in agreement.  And he knew he could never follow the same path as his father.

It was inconceivable.

Carefully he stood up, watching as every pair of eyes in the room followed his smallest movements.  His head turned to the left and his eyes met Theo’s.

He was surprised at what he saw there.  And that was likely the only reason he said what he did.

“Theo, what happens to apples on a hill?”

The entire room seemed to tense at that question, but Theo smiled, “They roll.”

Draco looked back at the Dark- No, he would never be one of his minions.  He looked at Lord Voldemort, but was careful not to meet the monster’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, but I must refuse your grand offer.  You see, I’ve just never fancied being branded like a cow.”

Lord Voldemort’s face grew flabbergasted for a moment, but it quickly smoothed out into an expression of scorn.

“I see.  Well, if you don’t want to be branded like one, you can die like one.  Avada Kedavra!”

Chapter Text

For half a heartbeat relief pooled in Narcissa’s stomach as Draco refused to take the Dark Mark.

It had worked.

It had bloody well worked.

He didn’t admire the Dark Lord.  He wouldn’t chain himself to a man that would only bring him misery, heartbreak, and likely death.

Too bad she hadn’t expected the marking to occur this early, though she had at least been semi-prepared for it.  Hence her order to Dobby about the serving platter and its placement on the table.

Once those thoughts had flitted through her mind, she burst into action.  The Dark Lord was speaking, but she paid him no mind, she knew what spell he was going to cast.  Not that it truly mattered, not with goblin-forged items.

She leapt forwards, she could feel Draco and Lucius reaching out, trying to stop her, but she was faster.  She had to be faster if this was going to work.

Her hand grabbed the veal covered platter and yanked it up. Pieces of meat flew everywhere, she stored the memory of a piece hitting Bellatrix in the middle of her forehead.  Andy would love to see that bit.

She did it.

Green light crashed into the silver platter and bounced off again.

She almost shouted for joy when she saw she’d gotten the angle right.  Crouch dropped to the ground, as dead as he had claimed to be over a decade ago.   It wasn’t as satisfying as torturing him to death, but it would work.  He wouldn’t harm anyone else that belonged to her ever again.

Chaos erupted and spells began flying everywhere.  She flipped the platter and pressed the small lever she’d found on it years ago.  Instantly the handles moved and changed.  She slipped her left arm through them, wearing the platter like the shield it was made to be over a thousand years before.

Nothing lasted quite like goblin-forged items.

She felt a surge of relief as she realized that Lucius stood beside her, casting spells at his previous cohorts.

Apparently love was strong enough to break chains.

She kept backing up with Lucius beside her.  She could hear Draco and his classmate, Theodore, casting spells not far behind her.  She couldn’t look, but she knew they just had to go another few feet and they would be out.  She could cast a few locking charms on the door, give them enough time to reach the floo in the drawing room.

Almost there.

It would work.

It had to work.

A scream erupted next to her and she saw Lucius go down, his skin was bubbling and steam was coming out of every orifice.

She froze as it took all of her willpower to stamp down the Black bloodlust that threatened to consume her.  Lucius was HERS.  How DARE they kill him?  She'd given her heart and years of her life for this man.  She'd been prepared for him to be unable to fight free.  Been prepared to misplace or lock him up until Voldemort died.

She hadn't been prepared for him to die.  Couldn't even imagine a world without him in it.

She blocked one spell and let her eyes scan the crowd of death eaters around her dining room table.  Many of them were still staring in confused shock, not quite able to grasp what was occurring.  But there was one exception - Bella.

Her bitch of a sister was laughing as she watched Lucius' body grow still.

For just a second Narcissa gave in to the desire for revenge.  She fired a nasty hair-strangling curse and then cursed as Bella jumped out of the way at the last moment.

And that moment of weakness was all it took for her to miss blocking a spell.

Draco screamed behind her, but she couldn’t turn to look, she raised the shield and blocked a killing curse.  She sent a silent prayer to whatever deity was watching that Draco was hit with nothing life threatening.

Out.

They had to get out NOW.

They couldn’t apparate.  No one could apparate into or out of the manor.  Not even family.  Only a-

She was a bloody idiot.

If she had only-

No, no time for that.

“DOBBY!”

The house elf appeared, he looked terrified, but she noticed that spells just bounced off of a shield he had erected around himself.

“Yes, mistress?”

“Get the boys out of here!  Black Cottage!  Now!  Then-then guard him!  Understand?  Don’t let ANYONE hurt Draco!”

The elf’s eyes widened but he nodded, quickly, his ears flapping.  She moved and blocked a killing curse that had been heading straight for Theo.  Shot from his own father’s wand if she wasn’t mistaken.

“NOW!” she screamed at Dobby.

He moved faster than she thought any creature could move.

She heard her sister let out of a cry of frustration as a loud pop signaled the disappearance of Draco and his classmate.

Narcissa raised her shield and wand as she moved into a fighting stance.  She spared a brief glance at Lucius and had to stamp down the immediate urge to cry. 

He’d known the risks.  They both had.

But she knew he’d be glad Draco was safe.

After all, Draco was the best thing to ever happen to either of them.

“Do you honestly believe you can win against us all?” the cold voice of the Dark Lord asked.

She refused to answer him.  She didn’t plan to win. 

She planned to survive.

And then she would get her revenge.

XXX

Lucius' heart stopped as soon as he heard Draco refuse to take the mark.

He should have known.  Draco had told him, but Lucuis had made him come anyways.  

He'd failed.  He'd failed as a patriarch, a father, and a husband.

Green light was shooting from the Dark Lord's wand and Lucius gasped in shock as he watched his wife leap between the spell and their son.  He reached out, trying to stop here, part of him realizing that Draco's movements were mirroring his own.

Something in his brain clicked as soon as Narcissa raised the platter, the one he knew she loved to set out every time they had visitors.

She'd planned this.  Or, she had at least suspected what might happen.

He felt his love for her well up inside of him, making it hard to breath.

He watched as, in slow motion, Rodolphus pointed his wand at Draco, sending a flash of bright red light.  Too red to be a stunner.

Something snapped inside of him.

He roared and yanked out his wand.  The spell came naturally, he'd long since mastered many basic spells without words.

The red light hit the shield and exploded into pieces.  

He moved as one with his wife, following her lead, helping move Draco and his classmate behind them.

Spells flew all around.  Lucius dodged any killing curse Narcissa did not block with her shield.  Everything else hit his shield.

Until something didn't.

He saw it happening.

Bellatrix had always been fast with her wand.  He easily blocked her first spell, but the second one hit the same spot on his shield.  He felt the spell begin to weaken.

He could do nothing as the third spell hit the shield mere seconds after the second.

It broke through.

He screamed as his blood boiled away.  For half a moment his heart pumped vacuum, it was the worst pain imaginable and then, mercifully, it was over.

Everything was over.

XXX

Draco froze as he watched his father go down screaming in pain.  Steam rose from his body, a pale pink that left no doubt to what liquid it had originated from.

A moment later what felt like knives sliced into his legs, he fell, screaming as blood began pouring from his wounds.

So much blood.

His blood.

He felt himself grow faint but hung on.  Theo knelt beside him, "Draco!"

Draco tried to smile and make a joke, but all that came out was a pained sob.

He almost retched when a moment later Dobby grabbed his wrist and popped them away.

Draco tried to yell out.  His mother!  She was still there!  Nothing but pained moans came from his throat.  Moans that were ignored.

He heard shouting and then a moment later a familiar face appeared before his.

Hermione.

Then she was gone and someone was yanking off his trousers.  He screamed as his wounds were bumped.

When he stopped screaming another face loomed over him.

Snape.

He had his wand out and was muttering.

Instantly something cold poured over Draco's legs and he felt the pain lessen.

He heard Hermione say something and, his last thought before blessed darkness took him was that he was lucky to have her in his life.

XXX

Hermione turned to the next page of her book and nibbled on her bottom lip.  She wished the author would get to the point.  All he kept saying was something about the most foulest of creations.  Why wouldn't he just SAY what was so foul?

She reached out to pick up her teacup and took a gentle sip.  The house was so quiet.  She knew Kreacher was here with her, but that did nothing to make the house feel loud.

She took another sip and then shouted as three figures appeared on the rug in front of the fireplace.  Her tea spilled all over the book, but she didn't even notice.

Instantly Kreacher was there.  Even faster then she pulled out her wand.

"Black!  Help!"

She realized with surprise that one of the three beings was Theodore Nott.

"Please!  It's Draco!  I can't stop the bleeding!"

That made her spring into action.  She was on her feet and rushing over even as she shouted at Kreacher.

"Go to the Mauarader's Academy!  Get anyone that can stop the bleeding, NOW!"

She almost gagged when she got Draco's trousers off.  His legs and hips were covered in long, shallow cuts.  Blood stull poured from them, but it appeared to be slowing.  Likely as he was running out of blood.

She jumped up and raced over to Padfoot's desk, where she yanked out the bottom drawer and began pawing through his supply of potions.  She grabbed a blood replenishing potion and ran back to Draco.

She held it to his mouth and said, "Drink."

Miraculously, he did so.

Just as the blood was once again picking up speed Kreacher reappeared.  Snape and Whistledown were with him.

Hermione stumbled backwards out of their way.  As she moved she bumped into Theo.  He grabbed her shoulders to stop her from falling.

"What happened?" she heard herself ask as she watched whatever spell Snape was uttering close Draco's wounds.

Whistledown was currently digging through Padfoot's potions, pulling out quite a few that Hermione didn't recognize.  Once again she cursed her lack of knowledge in healing.  At least she’d learn most of the associated potions next year, but that was no use now.

"Draco refused to take the mark."

Her heart did a double thump.

"He refused?"

"Yes."

"Where are his parents?"

"Lucius Malfoy is dead.  Narcissa Malfoy...I don't know.  She sent us away and stayed behind, fighting."

A million thoughts and memories moved through Hermione's brain as she tried to decided what to do.

In the end, it was an easy decision; the rage she felt bubbling under the surface helped make it so.

They’d hurt Draco, she’d sworn to treat him like family.  That meant Narcissa was family, as she knew Draco loved his mother.

And no one, absolutely no one, was going to get away with hurting her family.

XXX

Harry nearly fell out of the air when his pocket began to burn.  He dropped the quaffle and quickly followed it to the ground.  Ginny and Ron were right behind him.

As soon as all three of them landed they pulled out their coins.  Fear stabbed at Harry's heart when he saw the short message: Black Kitchen NOW!

He took off running for the academy's lobby.  Ron and Ginny were right behind him.  As the sprinted past the classroom being used for the Order meeting Fred and George slipped out and joined them.

Less than two minutes later all five of them were piling out of the floo and into the kitchen of the Black Cottage with wands drawn.

They found Neville already there, and a very irate Pansy next to him.  Hermione was pacing back and forth, muttering to herself - always a bad sign in Harry's book.

Surprisingly, Theodore Nott was seated at the table.  He looked very pale and withdrawn, but there was a determined set to his shoulders.

Luna popped from the fireplace before Harry could even ask what was going on.

"I assume you don't plan to rely on the Order?"  Fred asked.

"Of course she isn't.  They'll take five hours just to decide whether to stage a rescue or not.  They were still arguing about whether to come heal Draco Malfoy or not when we left.  Fools didn’t even realize Snape had taken matters into his own hands," George said.

"Point," Fred said.

Hermione stopped and turned to them, "Lucius Malfoy is dead, Draco was badly injured, and Narcissa is currently alone in the Malfoy dining room with several dozen Death Eaters and nothing but a wand, her wits, and a thousand year old shield I am very glad I did not request as a birthday gift over three years ago."

“So, you want us to risk our lives by entering a building with several dozen Death Eaters, possibly including You-Know-Who, all to rescue one person?  With the hope that the Order will learn what we’re doing and come reinforce us?” Ron asked.

Hermione glared at him, “You don’t have to come along.  But she’s family and I’m going.  I won’t let Draco lose both of his parents in the same night if I can help it.”

Harry nodded in agreement, “Ron, if you don’t want-“

Ron cut him off sharply, “Shove it you two.  I’m not arguing, just clarifying.  We all need to perfectly understand what we’re getting into.  Now,” he said calmly, looking at everyone, “how do we get to Malfoy Manor?"

"Kreacher," Hermione said firmly.

Instantly the old elf popped into the room.

"Yes, mistress?"

"Did you check on Narcissa Malfoy née Black?"

The elf bobbed his head, "Mistress Malfoy be fighting.  I could not enter the room."

"I figured as much.  After Dobby got Draco and Theo out they must have warded against house elves.  But you could enter the sitting room?"

The elf nodded.

"Very well, everyone, fighting clothes.  One minute and Kreacher will pop us in groups to the sitting room.  Then he's going to inform the Order just where we've gone.  Speak now if you don’t want to join."

She looked around the room, but no one spoke, so she nodded and began buttoning up her outer robe.

Harry was in his flying robes, and they worked well for fighting so he took a moment to do some of the stretches Tonks had taught him.

He stopped when Fred pulled open a drawstring bag and began handing out burgundy colored hats.

"Shield hats," he explained, "Not as good as the real spell, but an extra layer of protection."

Hermione set one her head and then looked around at them all, "Ready?"

Nine heads nodded back, including Harry's.

"Alright, let's go get Narcissa and force the Order to stop talking and start acting."

George opened his mouth to likely say something smart, but Fred elbowed him and he closed it again.

"Kreacher, please take us in, as many as possible," Hermione said politely.

Kreacher nodded and grabbed her arm, along with Nott's. They disappeared, a moment later and Kreacher was back.  He grabbed Fred and George, then Neville and Pansy.  Next went Luna and Ginny.

As soon as Kreacher returned once more he grabbed Ron and Harry's arms, but before they could disappear the kitchen door opened to reveal their potion's professor.

Harry offered him a quick salute just as they vanished.

Maybe Kreacher wouldn't need to inform the Order after all.  That is, if Snape was really on their side.

XXX

The entire meeting had become pandemonium.  Half of the members were shouting and arguing about the fact that "Young Master Malfoy" was terribly injured and at the home of Harry Potter.  Mad-Eye was the largest protestor against sending help.  He just KNEW it had to be a trap.

Severus rolled his eyes at the idea, even as he stalked across the room, grabbed the only other competent potioneer in the room, and then honed in on Kreacher.

"Take us to Draco. Now."

The smart elf didn't argue.

As soon as Severus saw Draco he got to work.  It had been years since he had used this spell, but it still came readily to his tongue.

Sometimes he wondered just what he was doing with his life.  When had he gone from creating dark spells to curing them?

He knew he saw part of himself in the Malfoy boy: a Slytherin, trapped in a terrible situation, and with a mysterious and unexplainable interest in a muggleborn.  And Mr. Malfoy could deny it all he wanted, but Severus knew what denial looked like.

A muggleborn that was so much like his old friend it hurt to watch her hand go up in class.  Even if she hadn't been Sirius Black's adopted daughter he likely would have treated her abominably.

Too many memories.

And now he knew just how much it was in his interest to keep her alive, because she would die to keep Harry alive.  Plus, she was also Lily’s blood.  Close enough family to keep the blood wards protecting Harry active.

The only thing he had left in his life was keeping Harry alive.

If Harry was alive, then Lily still lived on.

And, maybe, if he kept going with that Weasley girl there would one day be another red-haired, green-eyed Lily walking the halls of Hogwarts.  Driving teachers to distraction and lecturing students until they became better people.

Severus planned to stop teaching long before that happened.  He didn't think he could survive another student that reminded him of her and all of his failures.

With that thought the last cut sealed itself. 

He sat back on his heels and watched Whistledown pour potions down the unconscious boy's throat.

A mousy woman, but one of the few people he knew in the Order that had actually come close to his score in NEWTS level Potions.

He looked around the room and realized that the three humans were alone with a pathetic looking house elf who had a very determined air about him.

"Where did Mr. Nott and Miss Black go?" he asked.

The elf swallowed in fear but set his jaw determinedly.

Severus felt a reluctant sense of admiration for the sad creature.  Not many could stand up to his glares.

"Master Malfoy's friends be going to the kitchen."

Severus stood up and then paused, he looked down at the elf.

"Master Malfoy?  What about Lucius Malfoy?"

The elf gulped again.

"He be gone.  Master Draco be Master Malfoy now."

Severus felt a pang of sadness for his old classmate and compatriot.  Lucius hadn't been a good man, but Severus had always understood him.

"And Mrs. Malfoy?"

"In trouble.  Big trouble."

For an instant Severus felt relief, after all, she knew his secrets.  If she was dead only Albus would know.  But in that same instant he realized just where Hermione Black had gone.

That mysterious and unexplainable interest went both ways.  She was not going to let Draco's mother die.

He uttered a curse and hurried to the kitchen.

Luckily it was in a very logical spot for this size of a cottage.

He opened the door just in time to see Harry Potter salute him before Kreacher popped him and the youngest Weasley boy away.

Rage ran through Severus; was the boy determined to get himself killed?  And he would have thought Hermione Black was too sensible to run off into a manor full of Death Eaters with only a handful of wizards and witches.

He should have known better.  

No Gryffindor was sensible.

He stormed over to the fireplace, threw in some floo powder and shouted, "Marauder’s Academy!"

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Narcissa blew a strand of hair out of her face and did a quick side step to avoid one spell while she raised her left arm and blocked another with the shield.

She didn't know how much longer she could do this.

She'd almost made it out of the dining room when someone - likely the Dark Lord - had thrown up an invisible wall over the entrance.  She could break it down if she could focus on it, but that wasn't really an option when spells from almost two dozen wands kept flying at her.

And then there was that bloody snake.

She'd had to put her back to a wall to stop it from sneaking up on her.  She didn't know what it was, but she would bet her life it had a deadly poison in its fangs.  She ducked and felt bits of plaster hit the back of her neck.

Bloody hell, maybe she wouldn't survive this.  

Maybe she really wouldn't have to wait long to see Lucius again.  She was disappointed not to be able to get revenge, but at least Draco was safe and had strong enough ties to Hermione that there were now others that would do what they could to keep him alive.  Maybe they would even retroactively get revenge for her.

BANG!

She threw herself to the side as the wall behind her exploded.

The entire room grew quiet and no spells flew for a moment as everyone cranes their heads to see through the smoke and dust.

That was a mistake.

Narcissa let out an almost maniacal laugh as almost a dozen spells flew out of the hall. 

Each one hit their target.

She hurriedly rolled to her feet and began firing spells.  She wasn't going to waste time seeing the identity of her rescuers.  That could happen later.  When she was safe and back with her son.

XXX

Hermione couldn't help but laugh at the expressions of shock and cries of dismay from the Death Eaters as ten stunners dropped just as many of their number.

It was an easy spell to block, but only if you saw it coming.

She moved forwards, a step behind Harry as she fired more spells.  She watched as Goyle screamed, giant, oozing boils covering his face.

A flash of silver caught her attention and she turned her head a bit to see a very haggard Narcissa Malfoy raise a gleaming silver shield to block a bright green spell.

Likely a killing curse.

She found her attention taken with the shield.  She'd seen it before.  It took a moment, but she remembered.

The pictures from her third year when Narcissa had offered her choice of ancient magical objects.

Hermione was very glad she hadn't taken the shield.  It was quite possibly the only reason Draco’s mother had survived by herself here in the time it took for Hermione and her friends to arrive.

Something tugged on her wand, but she managed to hold onto it.  She whirled around and saw her old Defense teacher - Gilderoy Lockhart - casting rather weak disarming spells in every direction.

He was earning quite a few glares from his own side.  Hermione used the distraction to cast a full body bind on Crabbe.  He landed on a chair so hard that it snapped under his weight.

She saw movement and noticed a gigantic snake weaving its way through the feet of the fighters.

It was heading right for Harry.

She saw red and leaped back into the fight, aiming an expulso at the thing.

She missed and the floor under the snake exploded, sending the nasty creature flying into the air where it became tangled in the chandelier.

"POTTER!" A high, cold voice hissed, cutting through the sound of spells firing and voices crying out spells.

A dark figure was striding towards Harry, wand drawn, Hermione tried to rush forwards, but was too far away.

Harry dropped screaming, his body wracked with pain.

Hermione felt it.  She wanted to scream too, but she stamped it down.

She looked around quickly, and then sent another explosion spell at the beautifully painted ceiling.  A small part of her winced at the destruction of something so priceless, but she’d do anything to try and keep Harry safe.  Screams erupted as the second floor of the manor came crashing down on the Death Eaters.

Instantly she felt Harry's pain end.

But, before the dust had cleared it started again.  She cast a bubble charm on her head and ran through the dust, homing in on Harry and his screams.

A heartbeat later she felt the air change.  She hadn't even noticed the Malfoy wards, but she did notice their absence.

Almost two dozen wizards and witches popped into the room, wands drawn.

A figure in bright purple, with a long silver beard appeared between Harry and Voldemort.  Effectively ending Harry's pain.

She had almost reached Harry when a voice spoke.  A voice she knew as well as her own.  After all, she'd heard it often enough in her nightmares.

"Hello, brat.  Time to finish what I started."

She turned and looked into the wild, insane eyes of her parents' murderer.

Instantly all thoughts of Harry disappeared as her magic rushed forwards, demanding revenge.  And, against her earlier promise, she let it take over.

Some things were worth losing control over.

XXX

Harry tried not to scream as pain wracked his body.  He could feel Hermione coming, he just had to hold on for one more minute.

He thrashed and felt his leg hit something sharp.  It cut through the pain from the spell, made him capable of opening his eyes.

He saw Voldemort standing over him, red eyes gleaming in triumph and then his view was blocked by robes of bright purple, covered in silver stars that danced before his eyes as the cruciatius spell was abruptly ended.

"Hello, Tom," Dumbledore said, his voice as pleasant as it ever was.

"Dumbledore," Voldemort spat, "here to rescue your little hero?  If only I had known cleaning house would bring you out.  I would have done it long ago."

"Tom, Tom, Tom, you really have that much faith in your abilities?"

Harry struggled to his feet, his muscles screamed at him, but he ignored them.  This wasn't the first time he'd been in pain.

Something warm trickled down his leg and he looked down to see a sharp piece of metal from the chandelier lying nearby, coated in his blood.

"I think, old man, that you overestimate yourself!"  A spell went flying from Voldemort's wand as he spoke.

Harry gasped as Dumbledore casually raised a broken piece of wood, blocking the spell.

He quickly sent something back, and Voldemort raised a quick spell.

A scream of rage washed through the room and Harry felt his link with Hermione blaze white hot.  He turned to look and saw Hermione engaged in a duel with someone that had to be Bellatrix Lestrange.  She looked too much like Aunt Andy to be anyone else.  He began to move towards her but stopped when his attention was brought back to the two wizards dueling in front of him.

"You are growing slow," Voldemort hissed as he easily dodged a spell.

"I think not."

Harry watched as Voldemort's eyes widened in shock as his feet went out from under him.

Dumbledore had transfigured the floor into ice.

"The problem, Tom, is that you are predictable."

Voldemort screamed in rage and looked at Harry as he struggled to his feet.

Harry's eyes locked with those blazing red ones and then his world once again erupted into pain.

Someone was digging through his mind, grabbing memories and yanking on them.  Dragging out every little moment of his life.

He screamed in rage and tried to push back, but his occlumency skills were no match.

He felt his mouth move and his voice came out, but he wasn't the one speaking.

"Freeze, old man.  Or the boy dies."

"Tom, you are making a mistake."

Distantly, as if through a long tunnel, Harry heard numerous cracks of apparition around them

"My only mistake was caused by underestimating the power of prophecy.  I will not make it again," Harry's mouth said.

"You are very blind, Tom, if you believe that is your only mistake."

"No, you are blind, old man."

Then, Harry saw it.  

No, he didn't see it.  He was it.  Purple robes flickered in front of his eyes as he slid along the ground.

He felt his jaws open wide and then he darted forwards, his fangs dug into soft flesh as his master urged him on.

NO!

Harry screamed internally and yanked at himself.  No!  That wasn't him.

For a moment, he floundered, lost in a place that was not a place.  He wasn't alone.  He knew that.  But he also knew he was the only real one there.  The others were too small and terribly twisted.  One of them was latched onto his leg, attempting to climb up it.  He screamed as he felt the nothingness around his not-self help the creature by pulling him down, trying to make him forever lost.

Like the sun among the clouds he saw a gold and red strand appear before his out-stretched not-hand.

He grabbed at it, pulling as he felt the not-place drag at him.  He reached out with his other not-hand and pulled harder.  The small, terribly twisted creature holding onto his leg cried out and tightened its grip.  Instantly he felt himself pulled backwards as the gold and red strand began to slip out of his grasp.

He shouted in frustration and fear as he began to kick his legs, attempting to force the nasty thing off of his not-leg.

The others were drawn by the commotion, they were coming towards him.  He began to kick harder and felt the creature began to lose its hold.  He redoubled his efforts and began to move his entire body around in sharp, jerking motions.  It was all he could do to hold onto the strand.

And then, with one mighty heave to the side, the creature went flying off.  It instantly latched onto another creature – the long skinny one.

Before he could see what they would do he turned his attention back to the strand and began climbing out of the dark not-place.

It felt like forever, and yet part of him knew it was no time at all before he was encased in warmth and back in his body.  Back in the ruined remains of the Malfoy dining room.

Screams and spells erupted all around him.  He saw Dumbledore standing frozen in shock as a massive snake slithered away from him and towards Voldemort.

"You are dead, old man.  Finished."

"The snake," the dying headmaster gasped.

Voldemort laughed, "Indeed. Nagini is a queen of snakes.  And I am the heir of Slytherin.  What she does, I do."

Dumbledore raised his wand towards Voldemort.  His entire body was shaking, but the hand held steady.  But, before a spell could emerge his knees gave out and the wand flew out of his hand.

Once Dumbledore was down Voldemort turned his attention to Harry.  

"I see, Potter, that you escaped your own mind.  Perhaps you are stronger than I expected.  But it is no matter, you are as dead as your precious Headmaster."

The world slowed down as Harry watched that pale hand aim a wand at him.  He tried to move, but his muscles were sluggish from the torture, all of the adrenaline gone from his system after being in that odd, not-place.

His breath caught and his eyes widened as green light began to emerge.

A million images flashed before him.  Padfoot, teaching him how to hold a broom.  Moony, telling him stories of his parents.  Hermione poking and prodding him, telling him that he would never be alone.  Ron declaring that there was no way he was going after the philosopher's stone alone. And, there, Ginny, coming from the sky like a fiery angel.  Rescuing him when he thought he was done for.

He thought of the pain rescuing him had brought on everyone.   On how it had almost killed Hermione.  On how Draco Malfoy had actually rescued her.

 It was his fault he'd been captured by Crouch.  His fault Hermione had almost died.  

His fault Dumbledore had just died.  Harry had been too slow to escape Voldemort's spells.  Too slow to yank out of his mental grasp.

Panic and fear swept through his link with Hermione and he realized he had also left her facing Bellatrix alone.  

Alone with the woman that haunted his sister's nightmares.

He dropped his wand and lowered his head.

Maybe, just maybe, everyone would be better off without him.

XXX

Hermione lost herself.  Spells flew from her wand as words flew from her mouth.  She laughed at the look of shock and dismay on Bellatrix's face.  She heard herself say, "I stopped you as a babe.  I'll kill you as an adult!"

She pushed forwards, driving her torturer away – cackling in delight as the witch fell backwards and dropped her wand.  

Hermione raised her wand and opened her mouth to utter a particularly nasty spell she'd found in her Black Tome.

Bellatrix scrambled at her waist, and, before Hermione could utter a word, a knife appeared.

Not just a knife.

The knife.

Hermione froze, her muscles locked up and she began to hyperventilate.

Now Bellatrix laughed as she scrambled to her feet.

Memories and nightmares flashed before Hermione's eyes as she found herself frozen. 

A part of her screamed out for help, but she was alone.

Panicking, she called up any memory she could.  There, a dragon came flying out of the darkness.  Its pale scales gleamed as fire flew from its mouth.  Part of her melted and she began throwing lines out, searching, crying desperately in need.

Hermione dropped to her knees and let out a sob as Bellatrix rose above her.  The knife clutched clearly in her elegant hand, her wand once more in the other.

She tried to scream, but no air came.  

She felt light-headed, locked out of her own body.

And then, in a single heartbeat, everything came back.

For an instant she saw Harry grab one of her thrown lines and then he was gone and it was only Bellatrix above her.  Bellatrix with murder and madness in her eyes.  Hermione felt instantly sick as she realized she had likely looked the same a moment before.

Her stomach heaved and before she could even blink she was being violently ill on Bellatrix's feet.

The woman shrieked and stumbled backwards, forgetting to cast a spell.  Hermione stamped down on her own physical misery and threw one of the only silent spells she could at the woman.

She didn't get a chance to see if the wand or knife left Bellatrix's hands.  Her stomach roiled and her throat contracted as she fell forwards, vomiting once more.

A shriek of terror filled her ears as she dry heaved, but her eyes were squeezed tight; her body ignoring her commands. 

By the time she got her body under control and looked up Bellatrix was gone, Narcissa was striding over.  Her wand out and her shield covered in soot, but looking completely undamaged from the number of spells that had hit it.

Gone was the perfectly dressed and coiffed woman Hermione had known for years.  In her place was someone that could be a reincarnation of Boudicca.  

She felt very grateful that this woman was on her side.

"Hermione, are you hurt?"

Hermione shook her head, "No, just-just flashbacks.  And, the Black magic, I lost control."

"Understandable.  It's hard to maintain control.  Now-"

She was cut off as a dozen aurors, led by Kingsley Shacklebolt, apparated into the dining room.

Hermione yanked herself to her feet and yelled, "NO!" as one auror pointed his wand at Narcissa.

He eyed her dubiously, but backed down and turned his attention to Crabbe Sr.

That was when the tide began to turn.

Several more Death Eaters followed Bellatrix and apparated out, though that idiot - Lockhart - kept throwing random and weak disarming spells everywhere.

Just as an actual wand flew his way she threw a stunning charm at him.  He collapsed in a tangle of limbs and she began to look for another target when shouts of shock and rage filled the ruined room.  

She turned and saw Albus Dumbledore, greatest wizard of all, and the only man Voldemort ever feared, fall unmoving to the ground.

And then she saw Harry.  Kneeling on the ground by Voldemort's feet.  Looking even worse than she had felt when she was in front of Bellatrix.

Panic filled her and she began to run, but she was too slow.  Too tired from her previous ordeal. She screamed as Voldemort's wand pointed downwards at Harry.  

And then she did something incredibly stupid.

She apparated.

 

Chapter Text

Sirius felt cold as he saw the wand descend towards Harry.  But he did not freeze, he raised his own wand and began to cast the spell to place a wall between Harry and Voldemort.

That was all the distraction that was needed.

A massive man who appeared to be half wolf tore himself out of the rubble that had buried him, he roared as he leapt at Sirius, his hands curved into claws that only accented the sharp, jagged nails at the tip of each finger.

Sirius screamed as teeth dug into his shoulder and wolf-like claws tore at him.  He fell to the ground, sharp bits of rubble digging into his front as his back was ripped apart.

His world was filled with pain and blood as he tried to throw and kick his attacker off.  He could feel his body growing weak when the man's weight was abruptly yanked off, taking a chunk of his shoulder with him.

He screamed again and his vision grew hazy as he thrashed around.  The last thing he saw before blessed darkness took him was Voldemort screaming in rage as Harry disappeared.

XXX

Severus paced back and forth in the small Black Cottage library.  Emotions battled inside of him.

He hated this.

The Dark Lord had told him to do nothing to reveal his true allegiance, to stay out of any direct confrontations between the Order and Death Eaters.

And Dumbledore had agreed with it.

He hated feeling helpless, it brought up memories he preferred to ignore.

Draco lay silent and under the effects of a dreamless sleep potion in Potter's room upstairs.  Whistledown had helped him with the boy before running off to join the battle now raging at Malfoy Manor.

He glanced at the clock on the mantle and cursed.  It wasn't even ten.  How had an evening filled with an Order meeting and then, later, a pleasant nightcap with Minerva turned into this insanity?

Why couldn't Draco have taken the bloody mark?  Severus would have helped him get away later.  Obviously Draco had been spending too much time with idiotic Gryffindors.

A muffled shout rang through the silent cottage.  

Severus whipped out his wand and stalked out of the library.  The shout had not come from upstairs.

A door slammed open, banging against the wall and making Severus wince internally.  He hated loud noises, his father had always been noisy and clumsy at his worst moments.

"Snape! Help!"

The plea came as he rounded the corner and entered the small, cozy entry way.

In the door stood Harry Potter and Hermione Black.  They were covered in plaster dust and soot.  

Also, blood.

They were covered in blood.

"Please!" Potter cried, bringing Miss Black closer.  "She splinched herself.  Twice!"

Severus took two steps forward and without a word helped Potter lower Miss Black to the floor.

Then he got to work.  

He hadn't helped save her last summer just to let her die now.

He had always considered himself to be a very precise man; and he did not appreciate having his work undone.

At all.

XXX

Harry followed every order Snape directed at him without comment and with as little delay as his exhausted body would allow.

He still couldn't believe he was alive.  

One moment he'd closed his eyes and lowered his head, the next he was being grabbed and squeezed by the force of apparation.

And then there had been so much blood.  At first he had been sure that whomever had saved him was dead.  Until he'd heard her whisper his name and reach out to his mind.

They'd been right outside the front gates to the cottage.  He'd supported her inside, grateful now for the extra wards that had prevented flying at home.  He knew they would keep out anyone the blood wards didn’t.  At least long enough for them to get away.

He wanted to ask why Snape had been there, rather than fighting at Malfoy Manor, but he was too grateful to the potions professor.

"Stand back."

Harry jerked out of the way, being careful not to drop the potions he was carrying.

Snape used his wand to levitate Hermione up the stairs and into-

Harry frowned in confusion.  Why were they going in his bedroom?

"Sir, what-"

"Draco is in here already.  I prefer to keep my patients together.  Now," the coldness in Snape's voice sent a shiver down Harry's spine, "tell me what has occurred at Malfoy Manor that would send you two back here."

Harry opened his mouth, and then closed it again as he watched Snape continue working on Hermione.  What did he say?  That their rescue mission had turned into a full-on battle?  That his own inexperience and confusion in the heat of his first battle had gotten Dumbledore killed?

How he'd seen no sign of any of his friends for too long to count?  That he didn't even know who was alive or dead?

"Well, Mr. Potter, who is winning?"

Harry weaved on his feet, suddenly feeling light-headed.  He looked at Draco and Hermione lying on his bed, wrapped up in bandages with a-

He frowned and tilted his head to the side.

He didn't recognize that house elf.

"Who are you?" he asked it, trying to put off answering Snape's question.

The elf's large eyes grew even bigger, "Mister Potter be talking to me?" 

Harry started to nod, but began to feel nauseous with the movement, so he instead said, "Yes."

"Dobby be honored Mister Potter be addressing him.  Mr. Potter is indeed a great wizard.  Indeed. I be Dobby, personal house elf for Master Malfoy." He gestured to the softly snoring Draco in Harry's spot on the bed.

Harry opened his mouth to say something inane, but was cut off by the sharp clearing of a throat.

Snape now had his arms crossed, with the fingers of one hand tapping in annoyance and his left eyebrow arched in such a way that made Harry wonder if Snape was somehow related to Aunt Andy.

"I don't know."

Snape's tone grew even frostier, "You don't know what?"

"Who is winning?  I-I was being attacked by Voldemort."

Snape gave an almost invisible shudder when Harry said the name, but did not interrupt.

"He was torturing me when Dumbledore appeared.  The two of them fought.  Dumbledore was winning when Voldemort entered my mind.  Something odd happened and Dumbledore was bitten by Voldemort's snake."

He stopped, hoping that was enough.

It was.

"Albus is dead."

Harry nodded and looked down.

There was a ruffle of fabric and then the sound of glass being set on wood.

"Mr. Potter."

Harry looked up.

"When the alarm sounds give Mr. Malfoy the shimmering blue potion. Ten minutes after that apply this cream," he held up a small tub of something, "to the wounds on Miss Black.  I'll be back."

He turned and whirled out of the room, his cloak billowing around him like enormous black wings.

Harry groaned when the door closed and slumped down his bed, being careful not to jostle Hermione or Malfoy.  Suddenly even more exhausted than he had been before.

He felt his eyes drifting closed, but he just had enough thought to whisper, "Dobby, please wake me when the alarm goes off."

"Yes, Mister Harry Potter, sir."

And - for the first time in months - he didn't dream of a strange corridor and shelves full of glass orbs.

XXX

Narcissa gasped in surprise, along with most of the people in the dining room, as Hermione appeared between the Dark Lord and Harry Potter.  Before she could draw a second breath the two of them were gone.

"No!  Don't you dare die Sirius!  You promised me dinner, damn-it!"

At her cousin's name she turned to find a red-haired woman crouched low over a man that looked as if he had been turned into raw meat.

Anger filled her and her eyes scanned the area around to find Fenrir Greyback, his left arm hanging limply at one side, facing down that Japanese wizard she had encountered at the Marauder’s Academy.  Mamoru Tachiki was his name, she remembered, before she let her anger guide her movements.

Draco and Hermione were safe, Lucius was dead, and she could see Andromeda and Nymohadora fighting not too far away.

She could allow herself a bit of freedom. And she had never approved of hurting children.  

Greyback bared his teeth in an expression that was far from a smile.

"Should have known never to trust a bitch," he snarled as his superior reflexes let him dodge one of Tachiki's spells.

She grit her teeth, "Tachiki, remember when we just met?"

He glanced at her, his face looking confused for a moment, and then recognition appeared.

"Ah, yes," he gasped as he dodged a chunk of rock Greyback threw.

"Do that, behind him," she stated.

"Done."

She pushed forwards, raising her shield to block any debris and fired spell after spell from her wand.  Most were simple things that even a first-year could do.  She was exhausted and she knew anything more complex was beyond her abilities at the moment.  But Greyback didn't know that and he kept dodging and laughing, taunting her.  

That was, until he hit the wall.

He had just leapt out of the way of an incoming trip-jinx when his entire meaty body slammed into the invisible wall.  The air rushed out of his lungs and he crashed to the ground.  She wasted no time in applying a full body bind and trussing him up like a Christmas goose.

When he was secure she let her arms drop and stood there panting as she looked around her once lovely dining room.  

There were a few pockets of resistance, but the Dark Lord was gone, as were most of his followers.  The entire ceiling, a brilliant magical masterpiece painted by the Jean Vasquez back in the 1700s was gone.  She mourned its loss even as she looked around, searching for her husband’s body.

She found him, laid out next to a frizzy haired woman she thought was Auror Whistledown - Sirius' old partner.  Several more people were nearby, lying in unnatural positions.  Most were unrecognizable under the curses that had killed them and the dust from the ceiling.  She wondered who they were, but didn’t dwell on it.  She’d find out soon enough.

Lucius' skin was painted red with the blood that had returned to liquid form.  When she reached out touch him she instantly jerked her hand backwards.  His chest was soft, as if it had turned into jelly.  She felt a sob well up inside of her, but she stomped it down.  The time for tears was later.  After she had committed fratricide.

"Cissy, I'm so sorry."

A thin, but strong arm wrapped itself around Narcissa.  She leaned into it, taking comfort from her older sister.  If she closed her eyes the years disappeared and they were once again standing on Platform 9 3/4.  About to be separated for the first time in their lives.  She'd been in tears then, terrified of spending months with only Bella for company.

Little had she known then just how separated they would become.

She pulled back took a deep breath to steady herself, "I knew the dangers.  As did he.  I know he didn't mind dying if it kept Draco alive.  Now I just have to make sure his sacrifice wasn't in vain."

"Speaking of sacrifice..." 

Narcissa looked to where Andy was pointing and watched Neville Longbottom gather an unnaturally pale Pansy Parkinson into his arms and stride quickly to his mother.  The three of them apparated out and Narcissa felt cold, she had seen Hermione and Harry earlier, but it hadn't registered on her that all of the children were there.  

Or that they shouldn't be.

"Andy, why were the children here?"

Andy looked away, her cheeks flushing red, "The Order was arguing.  They couldn't even decide whether to heal Draco or not - Oh!  Don't worry!  Severus and Evelyn went and helped him before anyone could stop them."

Narcissa relaxed and then stiffened once more, "Evelyn?  As in Evelyn Whistledown?"

Andy nodded sadly and looked down at the dead woman lying beside Lucius.  Narcissa sent a prayer of gratitude to the woman.  She had never actually spoken to the woman, but she would never forget her.

"Yes, and not long after they left the Weasley twins ran off.  I didn't think anything of it until Severus came back and broke up the arguments by stating that the children had run off to rescue you.  Even with that declaration a couple tried to argue against chasing after "idiotic" children.  Sirius and Alice shut them up rather quickly, though Dung did desert us on the way here. By the time we got the wards down and arrived it was too late to get the children out.  We just had to go with it."

"I-I need to go check on Draco," Narcissa got out.  She was trying to process this new information.  She'd planned to get Draco so tied in with Hermione, Harry, and their friends that he would be safe.  She hadn't expected to find herself so drawn into it.  To know that a group of young wizards and witches - including four Weasleys - would put their lives on the line to rescue her.

It was rather remarkable and it left her feeling unworthy.  Would she ever risk her life for anyone but Draco and, maybe, Hermione?  Possibly for Lucius, but that was a moot point now.

"Here, let me apparate you to Black Cottage.  That's likely where Hermione took Harry, as well.  The wards there are almost impenetrable.  You look as if you're about to fall over.  Then I'll go check on the others.

"Thank you," Narcissa whispered as she took Andy's arm with her wand hand.  She kept her left wrapped through the shield.  Nothing on this planet could convince her to part with it.

As soon as they arrived she shoved open the gate and ran up the walk.  The cottage was almost eerily silent as she raced inside.  None of the warmth and love she had felt on her earlier visits.  Panic began to grip her.

Why was it so quiet?  Where was Severus?

She hissed, "Dobby!"

Instantly the elf popped before her, his eyes wide with fear and his little hands shaking.

"Mistress?"

"Draco!  Where is Draco?" She whispered, fearing what might happen if she was too loud.

"Master Malfoy be asleep, upstairs.  Master Snape healed him.  But he be taking potions in," the elf tilted his head and thought for a moment, "twenty-one minutes and thirty-seven seconds."

Relief coursed through her, though she still had to see him herself.

She raced up the stairs and opened the only door with light shining under it.

There.

There was the warmth and love.

Encircling the small room in which Harry, Hermione, and Draco lay sleeping on a bed much too small for three people. 

Dobby popped back into the room and took up a spot on the bed, at Draco's feet, but his gaze moved between the three children.  No, she couldn't call them children.  Not after the events of the night.

Maybe the Dark Lord had been right about one thing - new blood was needed.  But, she thought with a smile that might even have sent a shiver down Bellatrix's spine, he'd been sorely mistaken in thinking that the new blood was going to follow him.

No, she didn't think these three - and their other friends - would follow anyone.  At least not with the same blinding trust their elders had shown.

She drew up a chair and settled into it, laying the shield across her lap, but keeping her wand in hand.

"Dobby, tell me when potions must be administered.  Don't wake any of them."

"Yes, mistress."

She settled in for a long night, but she knew the morning would arrive soon enough.

It always did.

Chapter Text

BOOK 2: ADULTHOOD

Rita stared at the bin in front of her and wrinkled her nose.  The stench of rotting garbage was sunk into the very stones around her.  There had been some sort of wizarding lodging here since the Romans had place the first stone thousands of years ago, possibly even before that.  But the stones were not what drew her attention.  Rather, it was the fresh pile of discarded newspapers just barely poking out from under the lid.

This was not what she had signed up for.

Well, she supposed she hadn't really signed up.  More like she'd been pressed into service.

And what was her reward?  Her life? Glory? Fame?  She didn't know anymore.

When Narcissa had told her to just be herself she'd been confused.  She'd been told the wards wouldn't let her transform and snoop.  But then she'd decided to test them...

She'd been numb, disturbed by what she witnessed every day.  Memories had attempted to escape her locked chest. 

So she'd thought the pain of trying to transform and having it blocked would wake her up, keep her focused, keep her alive.

Yet when she had started to slip into her alternate form no pain had come.  Rather she'd found herself once more looking at the world through insect eyes.

Either Narcissa had tweaked the wards or she knew a lot more about Rita's heritage than anyone else did.  Or Narcissa had lied about the wards, a distinct possibility.

Whatever it was, the transformation had awoken something inside and she had once more found herself glad to be alive.  She had set about ensuring that, no matter what happened, she would remain so.  It hadn't been hard to sneak into the attic of the manor and procure any and all raw materials she needed.  Aside from that, she'd been given a camera and magical film to take 'normal' shots of Death Eaters for the book Gilderoy was writing.  Then all she had to do was slip some of the film into her homemade cameras and hide them around the manor - ready to be activated with a simple spell.

There had been no flash when she used them in the dining room, but the room had been brightly lit enough that things were still alright.  

After she had escaped the battle she'd sent Narcissa a quick owl with the location of the cameras.

It didn't hurt to play both sides.

Which brought her back to why she was standing in front of a rubbish bin, outside one of the most exclusive wizarding hotels in Europe, and preparing to go digging through it.

Stupid things were charmed against summoning spells.  Supposed to keep the riffraff out.

She did not appreciate that her current situation in life put her on the same rung as riffraff.

Nearly gagging she pulled on a pair of thick gloves and began digging.  Luckily she didn't have to go far to find a copy of the Daily Prophet.  After another few minutes and several papers in languages that she couldn't read she found copies of the Daily Gold, the Fae Chronicles, and the Circadian Leaf.

That was enough.  

She stuffed them in her bag and apparated away.

She landed in a deserted bit of French forest.  Headless of her already ruined robes she dropped to the ground and pulled out the papers, spreading them out so she could see all of the front covers.  

The Daily Gold, Circadian Leaf, and Daily Prophet were all from this morning, but the Fae Chronicles was marked as a special edition and had come out yesterday afternoon - about twelve hours after the battle.

There, right under the headline, were her pictures, and below that an article with Hermione Black's name on it.  She took a moment to examine the pictures, they weren't great, but they definitely showed the chaos of battle.  The largest image was of Hermione Black forcing Bellatrix Lestrange backwards, her head thrown back in laughter, showcasing the characteristic Black madness.

Terrifying.

And to think, Rita had once written terrible things about the girl.  She'd made a bigger mistake than she’d thought.  Hopefully continuing to passively spy and send pictures of any clashes would rebuild that bridge a bit.

Rolling her eyes at her own hopefulness she picked up the Fae Chronicles and began to read.

 

MALFOY MANOR IN RUINS!

On the eve of December 20th a moment occurred that shook the entire British Isles.  A battle began on our fair isle that lead to the death of about two dozen people, with about three dozen more injured.

How did such a thing occur you ask?  Why Tom Riddle, aka Lord Voldemort, attempted to swell his ranks with new, young blood.

Vincent Crabbe, a seventeen-year-old student in his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was pushed by his father to accept the Dark Mark (See p. A4 for a description of the process).  As the Mark was being administered Riddle saw something in the boy's mind that led him to require that Draco Malfoy, a sixteen-year-old student in his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, also take the Mark.

This is when the battle began.

Draco Malfoy said he would rather die than take the Mark.  Riddle attempted to end the Malfoy heir's existence on this planet, but was foiled by Narcissa Malfoy, Draco's mother.  Together, the two of them, along with Lucius Malfoy, Draco's father, and Theodore Nott, a fellow classmate of Draco's, tried to escape.

In the process Lucius Malfoy was slain and Draco Malfoy was badly injured by a dark curse.  In a moment of inspiration, Narcissa Malfoy called Dobby, their house elf.  Dobby grabbed the two boys and got them away, but was unable to come back and rescue Narcissa Malfoy.

Here is where some of you readers may feel that I overstepped my bounds.  For I refused to wait for others to rescue my cousin.  Bellatrix Lestrange née Black may have murdered my parents, but Narcissa Malfoy née Black has been nothing but lovely to me over the years.  And her son, Draco Malfoy, is a friend of mine.

I cannot allow one of my friends to lose a parent if it is within my power to do something about it.  There is a reason the Hogwarts Sorting Hat put me in Gryffindor.

I, along with my foster brother and our friends, entered Malfoy Manor with the help of Kreacher, our family house elf.  We stormed the dining room where Narcissa Malfoy was outnumbered and backed into a corner.

Within fifteen minutes we were joined by our parents and their friends.

Only then did the British Ministry of Magic act, and it took a false tip-off for the higher-ups to give the go ahead.

Yes, we lied to the government.

But we don't care.  Our lie forced the government to wake up and realize that Tom Riddle has returned.  Our lie resulted in the death of a dozen Death Eaters and the capture/recapture of quite a few more. (See page A4 for a full list of deaths and captures) It also enabled the capturing of these pictures.  If you look at the one below the article you will see Tom Riddle in his role as Dark Lord attempting to kill another child.  A murder I prevented with illegal appariation.

I will gladly stand before the Wizengamot and admit to the crime of lying and apparation without a license, for all it shall result in is a fine.  Did you know that most crimes only require the payment of a fine?  How is this fair?  With the exception of direct murder, assault (magical or physical), and torture, anyone can pay the fine and escape time in Azkaban.  Yes, even if our actions indirectly led to the deaths of others.  There is no such thing as manslaughter (See page B2 for more on manslaughter) in the wizarding world.  This ensures that the wealthy old families stay free, while those less fortunate do time.  But that is of little import at the moment.  Right now it is life or death.

Tom Riddle has fled the British Isles with his remaining followers.  Will you give him succor?  Will you house a man that tries to kill children for refusing him?  Will you feed and clothe a monster?  Are you no better than him?

Well, are you?

 

The article ended there and Rita looked down at the image taking up the rest of the page.  She was amazed her camera had managed to capture it. And at such a pivotal few seconds.

There was the Dark Lord, looking as if he was on the verge of winning it all, his wand pointed down at Harry Potter.  Green light began to emerge from the wand and then, before it could even leave the tip Hermione Black appeared, her face full of insane determination as she grabbed her brother and disappeared.

The look on the Dark Lord's face right before the picture restarted was priceless.  Rita was very glad it had taken her a good ten hours to catch up to him.  She'd managed to escape the punishment he'd dealt out to everyone he could reach.

Oh, and she'd also managed to sneak off a letter listing the locations of all of her hidden cameras.

She supposed she could have let herself be captured by the Ministry, but then she wouldn't be here, in the middle of it all.  When this was finished she planned to write the true memoirs of Tom Riddle, even if she was doing it from a cell in Azkaban.  She'd make certain her name went down in history, that years from now people would know her

She was going to take the monster and make him a mere man.

But to do that, she had to survive.

She quickly scanned the other foreign papers, seeing if they had anything different.  When they didn't she sadly incinerated the lot.  Merely keeping the Daily Prophet and its lies.  That could be called memoir research, but not the ones containing Miss Black's words.

No, the Dark Lord would not be happy to see that article or the pictures.  There was no way she was going to tell him.

No way in hell.

Rather she'd bring him the paper filled with so much hot air she was surprised it hadn't burst into flames on its own.

Even the headline made her roll her eyes.

 

FAKE TIPOFF KILLS AURORS

Yesterday evening Sirius Black arrived at the Ministry auror office with a ransom note declaring that the Malfoys had kidnapped his children - Hermione Granger Black and Harry James Potter - and demanded that their son inherit the Black fortune.  Mr. Black then declared that he was going to get them back with or without the help of his former co-workers (See page C7 on why Mr. Black left the aurors).

The aurors tried to detain him, but through trickery they were misled.  They were forced to go after him to prevent damage to the Malfoy family without being able to verify anything.

Upon arrival the aurors were ambushed and found themselves quite out-numbered.  It is currently unclear on what was happening, but we are sure that Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, was behind it.

As of this moment, he is considered to be among the dead, but Madam Umbridge, an Undersecretary to Minister Fudge, told us, "No stone shall go uncovered to discover how such a tragedy occurred.  All bodies will be verified before a full list of deaths is released."

We do know that ten aurors and a dozen civilians are currently at St. Mungos.  No list has been released, but it is rumored that Sirius Black is there.  The whereabouts of Harry Potter and Hermione Black, as well as the Malfoys, is currently unknown. (See page D6 on how the families are related)

 

Rita had to stop reading there, the sun had begun to sink and she still needed to find some food.  Spending so long merely retrieving a newspaper would not be acceptable; and she really didn't want to be the target of anyone's frustration.  

No, she liked not being tortured.

With a sigh she slipped the paper into her robes, cast a quick glamour, and made the short walk into the nearby village.

As she walked she couldn't help but tear apart the article in the Daily Prophet.  They must have hired an amateur to replace her.  Granted, the paper had come out before the articles with pictures in the other papers.  Still, they hadn't even mentioned a RUMOR of the Dark Lord being back.  They were going to be completely discredited when the other newspapers circled through England, and she knew they would.  Too many people had overseas connections that would be clipping out that article and sending it, or writing letters.  Though, if she was Hermione Black and had the wealth of the Blacks behind her she would just straight up order a copy of one of the papers for every wizarding family in the British Isles.

She shook her head and sighed, if she was a Black she wouldn't be in this mess.

She reached the French village and looked around.  She'd been here just yesterday, not that the villagers knew that.  Her skill with obliviation had gotten her this task.  The Dark Lord knew she wouldn't cause a scene by attacking anyone - thereby giving away his location - and she'd entered the muggle world many times over her life.  Either for research on a story or when she was younger and visited her muggle grandparents. Only Severus Snape had as much knowledge of the muggle world as she did, and he was stuck in Hogwarts, dealing with idiot Ministry officials. 

She sighed and quickly went about pilfering food and obliviating anyone that caught her.  After an hour she had enough to feed everyone for the next two days.

Right before she apparated back to the bunker in the Alps she let out a small sigh, schooled her features, and locked everything away behind petty thoughts and mindless gossip.

Survival first, glory would have to wait.

Chapter Text

Snow began to fall and coat the dark ground with a pure white blanket, but Draco paid it no mind.

His thoughts were as far away from the small garden as they possibly could be.  

Every time he closed his eyes he was back in the dining room at Malfoy Manor.  Sometimes he was once again speaking with Lord Voldemort.  Other times he was watching his father fall, doing something he had thought he could never do - defying his master.

Had his father's words about the Malfoy magic been real?  Had there ever been a chain?  Or was it a lie passed down through the generations?  Keeping Malfoys in line.

"Why, father?  Why change now?" he whispered into the soft silence.

"Draco?"

He looked up to see his mother standing in the gated entrance.  The cheerful lights of the cottage causing her to glow like the angel he had once thought her to be.

That had been a lie.

In the few days he'd been stuck in bed it had been quite easy for him to realize she had been prepared for that fight.  That shield in front of her - disguised as a serving platter.  Even her placement at the table - putting herself between him and Lord Voldemort.  She had reacted so quickly to his defiance, as if she had predicted it.

Potter had been right: his mother was much more than she pretended to be.

That's why he had been avoiding her since he first woke up several days ago to the sound of Hermione arguing with Mr. Lovegood.

That had been surprise, just as much as the sight of Potter lying across the foot of the bed.  Not that it had really registered as a surprise until later, when the potions wore off and his brain cleared.  At first it had seemed right to see her beside him propped up on pillows, her arm and shoulder bandaged up.  He’d drifted back to sleep to the sound of her demanding word changes and arguments over the proper tone.  When he’d awoken again he’d heard his mother speaking to Snape about potions, their conversation was accompanied by Hermione’s even breathing next to him.  He’d pretended to still be asleep, his brain clear enough to remember why he was in a bed that was not his own, his heart and soul unwilling to tip the scale he was lying on and show him everything his defiance had caused.

He’d been avoiding her ever since.  As well as almost everyone else.  At least Potter and Hermione never seemed to want him to speak when he was around them.

But, he supposed that avoiding his mother today was not a kind thing to do.  It was Christmas Eve, after all.

When he made no response she crossed the fresh snow and sat down on the bench next to him. Idly brushing the snow away with her hand, her wand still secured in her robes - as it would be for several weeks.

"You've been avoiding me."

He shrugged.  She would need to explain more before he would decide whether to actually respond to her or not.

"You have questions, I'm assuming."

Still he said nothing.

Surprisingly, she chuckled.

"You are most certainly the son of Lucius and myself.  Both of us were much too stubborn to see the truth for far too long."

He looked at her and cocked an eyebrow, she smiled in response and then let out a long sigh.

"Alright, interrupt me when you have questions.  Otherwise, I will try to explain why you feel so betrayed.  As a Black I was almost like royalty in Slytherin House at Hogwarts.  When I entered Slytherin House I already had two older sisters in it.  Bellatrix was four years older than me, but due to our birth months she was five years ahead of me in school.  Andromeda was only two years ahead of me and before Hogwarts the two of us were inseparable.  Until they finished school I was practically invisible, just the baby sister of two much more visible witches.  I adapted to this and, when Bellatrix graduated, I began making it work for me, using my invisibility, but prominent family name, to make small changes in the house.  To take apart some of the 'traditions' that an old prefect had started about twenty years before I entered.  Andromeda graduated and then eloped with Ted right before my sixth year.  Lucius also graduated that year, so he only knew my name, not me personally.  He was supposed to marry Andromeda, before she ran off and followed her heart.  In my last two years at Hogwarts I took over and ruled the House with an iron fist - though only those in my year truly knew it.  I discovered that keeping up appearances and working from the shadows tended to net more results than being in the limelight."

She stopped and let out a small sigh, "And that was when I made my first mistake."

He couldn't help but ask, "What did you do?"

"I found myself engaged to your father and I chose to hide my true nature.  He despised me.  He had wanted a strong, confident wife, not the china doll I projected to the world.  There's a reason we were married for so long before you were born.  He-"

"Mother!  I understand!" He protested, nothing could make him willing to hear about his parents' sexual lives.  He preferred to believe he was hatched from an egg.

She snickered, "Alright, but by the time I did get him to come around and accept me, he had already given his allegiance to the Dark Lord.  That was when I snapped and let my true personality show.  For, you see, I knew that the Dark Lord was born Tom Riddle.  My father knew him in school and loved to wax poetic about him.  The Dark Lord was the prefect - Tom Riddle - that had started the despicable practices in Slytherin House.  The ones that truly ruined the House's reputation.  I hated that man.  I still do.  It's why I started working years ago to ensure you would never follow him like your father did."

He reeled under this knowledge, "That's why you wanted me to get engaged to Hermione.  So I wouldn't admire him like Father!"

He couldn't believe it.  She hadn't just planned out this evening.  She'd planned out his life.

"That's part of the reason, yes.  But I also know you are very like your father.  You want to be surrounded by strong, confident people.  Even as the weak look to you for guidance, you crave the attentions of those that are your equals, or, even those above you.  Do you remember when you bumped into Hermione during your second year and she kneed you in the middle of a Hogwarts corridor?  Then Dumbledore found you?  You wrote me about it."

Draco winced as he remembered, "Yes."

"She had just accidently gotten her hands on something your father slipped to Ginerva Weasley.  A dark object that had once belonged to the Dark Lord.  I don't know much about it, but I do know that it spoke with the Dark Lord's voice.  From the way he reacted upon learning of its destruction...I can make a few guesses, though I find some to be truly unbelievable.   At the time I only knew it was evil and intricate.  And that it was a sign, I knew, deep within my soul that he would come back.  I was at loss of what to do to protect you, that is, until you came home and spent almost an hour ranting at me about 'Hermione Black and her bloody inability to mind her own business.'  Frankly, I'm quite grateful she can't mind her own business.  Otherwise I would already be lying next to your father right now."

"You've been planning for this moment since I was twelve!?!"

He couldn't believe it.  Planning ahead so far...with so many variables...

It was inconceivable.

"Draco, I've been planning for your future since the day you were born.  I regret to say that I let my own blood prejudices shape your younger years, as much as my inability to deny you anything.  After the Dark Lord fell I was giddy with the thought that Lucius was now all mine.  The Dark Lord may have chained Lucius to him with power, but I had chained him with love.  A love I returned in equal measure.” She grew silent for a moment and he looked over to see her fingers clenched into fists, wrinkling her robes.  “A wise, if rather foolish man, used to say that love was the most powerful force in the world.  Your father proved that to be true."

"He said nothing could break the chain formed by our family magic.  How did you know love would?"

She smiled sadly and reached up, cupping his cheek with her hand for a moment before pulling back.

"I didn't know.  I was prepared for both possibilities, but I could only hope your father could break the chain.  I've spent many years researching family magic.  Malfoy family magic is built around subtlety, but, more than any other family, it is focused on protecting itself, no matter what.  When you were in danger, the future of the family was in danger.  Between that, and the love that binds the three of us together, it was enough.  He did what no Malfoy has ever done before - he broke a chain formed in the idiocy of youth."

His fists clenched and he looked up, watching snow dance through the moonlight.

"Idiocy of youth.  What if I follow his path?  I don't admire Lord Voldemort," his mother visibly shuddered at the name, but he continued on, “but what if I admire the wrong man? If history repeats itself? "

"Draco, it doesn't have to be a man you admire."

Her words slipped out into the cold air, dancing among the snowflakes before landing on him like an avalanche.

"Hermione," he whispered.

It made sense.  He'd admired her just a little bit ever since she'd leapt out that window to go rescue her brother.  His respect for her had only grown over the following months.  Especially after he had seen her scars - had known what she lived with every day.  He admired her and she was a powerful witch. He’d even put himself at risk to rescue her.  Put his entire family at risk.

He had chained himself without even realizing it was a possibility.

Something clicked, deep down in his magic.  He could feel a line, one that had been there for a long time, but he had only just noticed.  It ran away from him and back into the cottage.

At first, relief flooded through him.  Hermione would never grow dark.  She would never torture children or force him to kill.  Of all the people he knew he could be chained to, Hermione was the best.  

She would never use it against him.

When the relief faded, anger began to boil up. His mother had set this up.  She had manipulated him as much as his grandfather had manipulated his father.

"You planned this."

"Yes."

There was no apology in her voice.

He wanted to ask why, but he already knew.  

He stood up and straightened his robes, "You couldn't have planned everything.  You didn't know I would-" he stopped, a thought appearing.

"You did know!  You had Snape show me how to cure Hermione!"

He stared at her, shock leaving him gaping down at her pinched and tired face.

"Yes, though it was always your choice.  You never had to brew the potion.  You didn't have to save her."

His head reeled.  It was too much.

He turned and ran.

XXX

"You are much too quiet, what's on your mind?"

Hermione nibbled on her lip and looked over at Padfoot.  Just the sight of him made her want to crawl up and cry.

His hair had been cut by the healers, which only seemed to highlight the fresh, red scars crisscrossing his skin.  

He looked like Uncle Remus now.

Hermione had heard Padfoot joking about that, when he was still at St. Mungos.

She didn’t know how they could joke when all she wanted to do was cry.

Padfoot was scarred, like her.

Except he couldn't hide them.  And it was her fault.  She'd been the one to lead the charge into Malfoy Manor.  She was the reason the Order had come.  

The reason Dumbledore, Whistledown, and several others were dead.

The reason Pansy was in a coma and Theo was in physical therapy.  It was her fault Ron now sported a nasty cursed scar across his chest - he claimed the spell actually only hit him after bouncing off a silver goblet.  

She shuddered to think what it would have done if it was a direct hit.

Luna had been hit in the head with a small fireball.  She'd only suffered minimal burns, but now parts of her scalp refused to grow hair.

All because they trusted her enough to follow her.

She could've gotten them all killed.

She and Harry had been moments from dying.  She had allowed herself to lose control.  First to the Black bloodlust, and then to her own fear.

She was weak.

"Hermione Granger Black."

She jumped and looked back up at Padfoot.  It was hard to meet his eyes, what with him lying face down on the lounge as his back was still tender.

"I can see the wheels turning in your head.  And I'll tell you the same thing I told Harry: Look at the guilt, accept the guilt, and then put it away.  Once you've done that, look back at the situation again.  I won't tell you what you'll see, but I know what I see."

Her fingers tightened in her robes, but she didn't look away.  He was right, she couldn't let the guilt consume her, it would do no good.

"What do you see," she asked.

"I see my daughter, a young woman brave and honorable enough to stage a rescue mission to save our cousin.  I also see a young woman clever enough to force the Order to action and, through the manipulation of public opinion, force the Ministry to get involved.  Make them realize Voldemort truly is back."

"You lied to the Ministry at first.  You showed that fake ransom note."

He chuckled, "That was Andy's idea, I'll admit, but it got them moving.  It was your articles that made them accept what they saw.  Made it so that when the aurors that came returned to the Ministry with the news they were believed.  Also," he looked at her seriously, "Cissy wouldn't be alive right now if you hadn't taken action."

"But so many people died..."

She looked away again and watched the light from the fire dance across the rug.  

"Yes, but we also killed or captured a lot of death eaters.  This is a war, Hermione, people are going to die.  We just have to do our best to lower the numbers and make every person count."

Her fists clenched and she felt her nails dig into her skin.  The sharp pain calmed her, bringing her attention back to the present.  She took a deep breath and slowly released it.  As she did so she uncurled her hands.

Little half-moons decorated her skin, reminding her of the full moon outside.

It was the first full moon Padfoot had been unable to keep Uncle Remus company.  The last full moon for which Whistledown had brewed Wolfsbane for him.

No.

She pushed the thoughts back and made herself continue to focus on breathing.

She was so focused that it took a soft hand touching her own to bring her back.

She looked up, blinking in confusion until she realized the woman crouched before her on the rug was no other than Narcissa Malfoy.

"Hermione, I think Sirius and I need to talk with you some more on the Black magic.  If you feel up to it at the moment."

She was instantly reminded of losing control, of coming within seconds of killing Bellatrix.

The thought sickened her, but she did not throw up.

"How do I control the bloodlust?  I don't-" she paused and swallowed, "I don't want to lose control again."

"Find an anchor," they said together, causing Hermione to crack a small smile at the expressions on their faces.

She doubted they thought the same thought often, even if their goals in life were remarkably similar at this point in time.

"I used to use James, Remus, and," he scowled, "the rat.  That's why I almost lost control when I found out James had died because we'd been betrayed.  A rather wise, if neurotic, wizard pointed out that I had other responsibilities at that point.  I turned you and Harry into my anchors."

"I used to use Andromeda, when we were in school.  Then she ran off and I was adrift for a bit.  Luckily nothing truly terrible happened.  When Lucius and I grew close and fell in love he was my anchor, but Draco has taken his spot.  A very good thing as I don't think I'd be sane right now if Lucius had been my only anchor."

Hermione couldn't help but scowl, "Why wasn't I told this before?"

Sirius sighed and reached up to scratch absently at a puckered, pink scar.

Narcissa looked pointedly at him, "Yes, why wasn't she told?  I know I was told before I even started Hogwarts.  As were you."

He looked away from them, "At first I thought she'd escaped the bloodlust, though I did warn her that the Black magic could try and force her to do things.  When I began to suspect otherwise I realized Harry was her anchor.  As he was going nowhere and they also had the blood wards tying them together I figured it was a moot point.  I was wrong.  Apparently a brother is not a strong enough emotional anchor when faced with the murderer of your parents and the one that carved words into your skin."

"Apparently not," Narcissa said coolly, arching a delicate brow at Padfoot.  Hermione envied her that ability.

He very pointedly did not look at her, instead focusing on the crackling fire.

Feeling suddenly uncomfortable at the idea of emotional anchors Hermione cast about for another topic.  The quietness of the cottage quickly gave her one.

"Where is everyone else?"

Narcissa turned her attention back on Hermione, "Draco reacted poorly to our discussion and ran off into the woods.  I saw Harry chase after them and as I am currently as magically gifted as a first-year I sent Nymphadora and Alianore off after them.  Kreacher and Dobby are currently arguing in the kitchen over who gets to prepare breakfast tomorrow.  I cast a silencing charm on the room as they are getting quiet noisy."

"Do you think we should break up the fight," Hermione asked.

Padfoot snorted, "Don't even think about meddling in elf business.  They're both older than you and can figure it out, I'm sure."

"Yes, besides, they won't be working together forever.  I'm think Draco and I will find a new place to live once I'm back to full strength."

"No, you two are not going out to live alone.  I just bet Draco is now almost tied with Harry on Voldemort's 'Must Kill List.”

"I agree," Hermione said after Padfoot finished.

Narcissa's eyes narrowed dangerously, "Are you two trying to forbid me?"

Hermione and Padfoot gaped at her for a moment, then Padfoot rolled his eyes, “Really, Cissy?  Do you honestly think we’re so thick we don’t realize that you actually want to keep staying here?  After all, won’t having Hermione and Draco under the same roof make things easier for you?  Unless you’ve given up on your plan to see them wed?” Hermione made a face at that, but she surprisingly felt none of the old revulsion at the idea.

Narcissa sighed as the annoyance left her face, “Can’t you at least let me pretend to be sneaky?”

“Nope!  Now, are you really planning to find a different house?”

Narcissa gave a sharp shake of her head, her eyes promising retribution for ruining her attempt at being subtle.

Hermione couldn't help it, she snickered, and when she heard Padfoot do the same she only laughed harder.  A moment later Narcissa joined in, and all the tension left the cozy room.  Hermione felt more at ease than she had in days.

XXX

He was somewhere in the woods, by a small frozen creek.  The air was filled with a stillness that could only be found in a winter night.  Not even his harsh breathing could truly break it.

He plopped down on a small boulder, trying to catch his breath.  Something sharp dug into his thigh and he reached under to find a rough rope.

Pulling in it did nothing.  Using the light of the moon he traced the rope down to the creek, where it disappeared through the ice.

"It's a fish feeder."

He jumped and spun, almost falling off the boulder.  His wand pointed at the speaker, even though his magic claimed the speaker was no threat.

"Potter."

"Draco.  Mind if I sit?"  He gestured to the empty spot on the rock.

Draco shook his head and shifted to allow Pot- no, Harry, more room.  Might as well call him by his first name.  He had almost died saving Draco's mother.  If that didn't eliminate their childhood animosity, he wasn't sure what would.

Neither of them spoke for several moments.  Draco couldn't help but wonder how and why Harry had followed him.  The other boy seemed to know this.

"I overheard you and your mother in the garden."

"So, you followed me in case you had to play hero?  Make sure I did nothing stupid?"  Draco asked bitterly.

"No."

"Then why?"

Harry was silent, so Draco looked over at him curiously.  There was a small frown on the other boy's brow and a pensive look in the eyes that twinkled like emeralds in the winter moonlight.  Draco found himself wishing the person next to him had eyes like polished mahogany instead.

"How much do you know about the magic in other families?"

"Not much."

"Okay, well, I'll try to explain as I go along.  The Potter magic has always tended towards defense, with the greatest weakness being arrogance and overconfidence.  As well as trouble with more subtle things.  Things Malfoys have always excelled at."

Draco knew that if he had heard this years ago he would have gloated.  Now he just nodded and commented, "But you are far from arrogant and overconfident.  Besides, you do fairly well in potions when Snape leaves you alone."

Harry chuckled, "Part of that is due to Hermione.  But you're right.  I don't suffer from the same flaws as my father and grandfather.  In part because my mother was Muggle-born and so did not bind her magic when she got married.  This meant her new family magic mixed with my father's.  It was her family magic, her capacity to love, that saved me that night.  She gave her life to save me.  And my father gave his to save her.  These sacrifices, combined with the fact that their blood and magic runs through me, allowed Dumbledore to cast blood wards on me."

Harry rolled up one sleeve and tapped his arm with his wand, whispering a strange word.

Runes appeared - runes far outside of Draco's ability to translate.

"Dumbledore hid them, but Luna found the spell to reveal them.  She taught it to me.  They stay active as long as I share a home with someone of my mother's blood."

"They're still active," Draco said, stating the obvious.

Harry chuckled, "Very active.  They've actually morphed into more of a bond than originally intended.  I don't think Dumbledore ever expected that.  We're able to track each other and speak without words.  In highly emotional times we can even see through each other's eyes."

"That's how you two do it."

Draco was shocked, stunned even.  He'd always wondered how Hermione had known Voldemort was back or how to find Harry last May.  

"Yes, that's also how I found you tonight.  I can feel you through ny bond with her, now that I know you're there.  Thinking back, I feel like I knew you were tied in with us ever since I followed you to that strange, disappearing potions room last June.  It's likely why I trusted you so easily to save her.  I never loan out my cloak.  Not even Hermione has used it without me."

It also explained why Draco had felt so hurt when Harry accused him of not changing.  Or, maybe that was just his imagination.  From his father's disgust at Voldemort he was reasonably certain that the bond did not create emotions, even if it needed admiration to form.

"You know, you have to tell Hermione, once you wrap your mind around this.  She deserves to know.  Especially because it will not be pretty if she learns at the wrong moment."

Draco frowned, "What do you mean it won't be pretty?"

"Black family magic.  Hermione's is diluted a bit as she was old enough when she was adopted to bring in some of her own magic, but with her experiences it almost makes it worse.  She doesn't take well to learning that something – or someone – she considers hers is put in danger.  And with this bond you become - partly - her responsibility."

"You mean she could run off and do something stupid.  Like she did when you were kidnapped."

"Yes.  It's also likely why your mother manipulated you and everyone else.  Blacks will do anything to protect what is theirs, or so Padfoot says.  And you are her most prized possession.  Though I doubt she views you as a possession any more than Hermione views me as one."

"What about Sirius Black?  He's not known for being possessive."

"Oh, yes he is.  It's just that as a former Gryffindor most people mistake it for recklessness.  When my parents were killed he almost went out of his head with the desire for vengeance.  But he had Hermione already when he learned.  And a young toddler he had just rescued and adopted ranked higher than my parents on his list of 'possessions'.  He was satisfied with letting Moody take care of it."

"And the Prewett brothers," Draco said, remembering his father explaining why they had found a soulless Peter Pettigrew in Azkaban.  

Blowing up the last two male heirs of an old wizarding family had been unforgivable.  Not to mention the rat's part in betraying the Potters.

"Yes, and the Prewett brothers."

Draco sighed, "I'll talk to Hermione.  Tomorrow, after Christmas dinner.  You two just got Sirius Black back from St. Mungos.  You should be spending time with him."

Pot-, no, Harry rested a hand on Draco's shoulder.  "You should just call him Padfoot.  You're family after all."

Draco opened his mouth to argue, but then snapped it closed when he realized there was a lump in his throat.

Family.

Family was important.  Family was all he had.  His friends were out of his reach right now.  Pansy was still under a stasis charm as they attempted to break the curse on her and Theo was living with the Tonks as he learned to live with his own injuries.  Injuries Draco felt were his fault. He was too afraid to see if Theo blamed him.  After all, Draco had been the one to defy Lord Voldemort.

And yet all he had received were scars.  Scars that were easily covered by the trousers he always wore.  Guilt wracked through him and his eyes began to burn.

His father, Headmaster Dumbledore, and several others were dead because of him.  His fault, it was all his fault.

Cold fingers grasped his and Draco gasped as there was suddenly a faint presence in his mind.

He tensed and looked over at Harry.

"You think you're the only one that feels guilty?" Harry shook his head, "We all feel it.  I almost let Voldemort kill me because of it.  But, do you know what Padfoot told me when I visited him in St. Mungos?"

"What?" Draco croaked out.

"Guilt is a teacher, accept it, learn from it, and then put it in a box.  Once you do that, you can look back at the situation properly."

"Did," he stopped and cleared his throat, "did you do that?"

Harry nodded, "Yes."

"What did you find?"

A grim smile appeared, giving Harry an almost sinister look in the moonlight.

"What did I find?  I found that the only truly guilty one is Voldemort.  Not you, not me, and not Hermione.  I intend to make sure he pays for his crimes.  Now, Draco, will you help me?”

Harry took his hand off of Draco’s - breaking the mental connection - and instead offered it in a handshake.

He stared at it for a single heartbeat, but, really it wasn’t a choice.  He reached out and shook the Gryffindor’s hand firmly.

“Of course.”

The two young men smiled at each other, though Draco felt no happiness behind his own smile.  More of a comforting security.

A branch cracked and Draco's heart stopped even as he released Harry's hand and drew his wand.

The full moon filtered through the trees, showing two witches standing there.  One had long red hair, the other short and pink.

"Wotcher, boys!  Happy Christmas!"  Tonks said happily, while her companion scoffed.

"Draco, Harry, nice reflexes, but you're both still dead.  What possessed you two to go running outside of the wards?"

Draco groaned, why must red-heads take such delight in torturing him with their existence?

"Sorry, I saw Draco run off and didn't think," Harry apologized as he stowed his wand and hopped off the rock.

Draco kept his out and clambered off the rock - he didn't trust Alianore Roux not to give him an impromptu 'test' after he'd been so stupid.

"Luckily Narcissa came inside and told us you'd run off.  I left a perfectly good glass of mulled wine to chase after you nitwits," Alianore grumbled as they all began walking back to Black Cottage.

"Point," Tonks said, "Draco, you should know your mother is still magically exhausted.  She can't go running after you.  Not when she can only cast the simplest of spells."

Guilt rushed through Draco and he felt his cheeks heat up.  The truth was, he hadn't been thinking.  

So much for being a perfect Slytherin, he was acting much more like a Gryffindor lately.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

Alianore let out a delicate snort and fell back a bit so she could clap him on the shoulder, "Don't feel guilty, just think first! Alright?  Plans can ensure victory, even against the greatest of odds.  Besides, you're a Slytherin.  Plans should be the most important thing to you."

"Point," slipped out of his mouth before he even thought about it.  Earning a chuckle from the three people walking with him.

Draco felt his lips twist into his own rueful smile as he stepped onto a well-trod path.

Perhaps he wasn't quite as alone as he'd believed he was.

Chapter Text

The next day dawned bright and sunny, but still impossibly cold.  Despite herself, Hermione couldn't help but feel a thrill of excitement when she realized the snow had stuck and that it was a white Christmas.

There were gifts piled at the foot of her bed, but she didn't feel like opening them alone, so she gathered them into her bag and crossed the hall to the room Harry and Draco were sharing.  They had put Narcissa up in the small guest room.  Tonks and Alianore had slept on cots in the sitting room, though Hermione assumed the two of them were long gone by now.  Helping Uncle Remus recover from the transformation.  Padfoot usually handled it, but with his injuries it was all he could do to climb the stairs to his bedroom in the evening.  They'd built a special room in the Marauder’s Academy just for him.  She'd hopefully see them all later at the Burrow.

A quiet knock on the boys' door got Harry shouting out, "Come on in!  We're decent!"

She entered and instantly felt warmth and happiness spread through her, mixing with the thrill of excitement from earlier.  The room was virtually unchanged from before Draco joined Harry.  Though the bed had been magically transformed so that the canopy had become an upper bunk for Draco.

There just wasn't room for two individual beds.

Hence why Draco had climbed down and was sitting cross-legged at the foot of Harry's bed as the two of them opened the presents that had been left for them overnight.

Harry was near the head, propped up against his pillow, so she plopped herself in the middle and began pulling gifts out of her bag.

She noticed that most of Draco's gifts were wrapped in the snitch bedecked paper Padfoot had bought, though there was one wrapped in Mrs. Weasley's home-charmed paper.  The Ws kept rolling around to form Ms, which Hermione thought was a nice touch.

"Happy Christmas," she said as he tore into her own Weasley gift.  A lovely jumper of- 

She paused and stared at it in surprise and a bit of shock.

It was BLACK!  And it had flames on the front, with what looked like an egg resting among them.

"What the..."

"I'm going to guess one of the Weasley's let slip to her our nicknames," Harry said ruefully as he held up a midnight blue jumper with a pair of antlers on the front.

"That doesn't explain mine.  Or why I even have one."

And, indeed, Draco was holding up his own Weasley jumper.  This one was Slytherin green (Which shocked Hermione quite a bit!) and had a silver dragon.

Mrs. Weasley had never knit such elaborate sweaters before.  And the wool was a much higher quality than normal. 

"There's a note," she said, pointing to small piece of parchment that had fallen onto Draco's lap.

He picked it up and scanned it, his eyebrows rising up his forehead as he did so.

"She's apologizing, says she has only been working on it for the past two days and that if it's a bit rough around the edges, she'll ensure the next one isn't."

Harry chuckled, "I guess you're part of the family now, we better get you a coin."

Hermione nodded and jumped off the bed.  When she came back a few moments later Draco was still looking stunned and a bit overwhelmed, but he had put the jumper on over his borrowed pajamas.

His room had been above the dining room at Malfoy Manor.  Not much of his wardrobe had survived the blast Hermione had sent at the ceiling.  So he was borrowing Harry's things until they could safely make a trip to Diagon Alley.

It's not like the Malfoy vaults had been touched.  And while Draco couldn't access them by himself until June, Lucius Malfoy had acted very intelligently and made Narcissa the executer of his estate if he should die before Draco could inherit.

"Here, Draco,"

He reached up to take the coin and then froze, "You-you called me by my given name."

Something in his voice made her heart flutter, but she stomped it down.

"You're living in my home.  Plus, you're family.  Calling you Malfoy just seems silly now."

His smile made her breath catch and she found herself easily returning it.

A cough from Harry brought their attention to him.

"Look what I just found."

He was holding up an ancient leather tome.  Potter was pressed into the leather and painted Gryffindor red.

"How...didn't Padfoot say be couldn't find it?"  Hermione asked, gazing at it in wonder.  After recieving hers they had attempted to find the Potter one, with no luck.  Copies may be magically delivered to all qualifying family members, but the originals had to be physically passed down.

"There's a note," Draco said, leaning across Hermione and pulling a scrap of parchment out of the plain brown wrapping paper.

His shoulder brushed against Hermione's chest and she felt her skin tingle where they made contact.  She felt uncomfortably warm and she scooted back a bit.

"Personal space, please." She managed to get out in a flat voice.

Draco flushed a pale pink but merely nodded as he sat up straight and read the note aloud.

Mr. Potter,

I managed to collect this from the old fool's belongings before the Ministry arrived.  He never managed to open it as he has no Potter blood in his veins.  I am unsure where the matriarchal tome is, but as it is meant to be used by non-Potter wives I can only assume the secrets were stolen.  Guard this well, and use it to stay alive.

S.S.

"Will wonders never cease?  If I was any older I might have a heart attack," Harry said in wonder as he took the note.

"That is most certainly Professor Snape's handwriting," Draco stated as he pulled out the only present left not wrapped in Padfoot's snitch paper.

It looked like a book and Hermione had a strong suspicion of what it was.

"Why do you think Dumbledore had the Potter Tome?  Shouldn't he have given it to Padfoot to pass onto Harry?"  Hermione asked absently, pulling out a gift and opening it to find more animated animal chocolates from Luna.  She sighed.  That girl could be creative, but she tended to latch onto whatever she thought was a good idea.

Hermione rather thought she'd be getting this chocolate until the day she died.  All because she said she'd liked it.

"Dumbledore may have been a Gryffindor, but he was almost as Slytherin as my mother," Draco said absently as he ran his hands over the green leather cover of his own family tome.

"Point," Harry said, before popping a bit of Mrs. Weasley's fudge in his mouth.

Hermione rolled her eyes and dug out another gift just as a knock sounded on the door.

"It's open!"  Harry called out.

Padfoot pushed it open and leaned against the doorframe, being careful not to strain his re-growing back muscles.

She frowned, "Padfoot, are you going to do the physical therapy like I suggested?  Once your muscles are regrown?"

He winced, "And a Happy Christmas to you too.  But, yes, I have an appointment with Frank Tonks the day you lot head back to Hogwarts.  He did a good job with you, and he's helped Theo Nott quite a bit, even if they've only met twice so far.  Andy says it's done quite a bit to improve the poor boy's mood."

Something made Hermione turn and look at Draco as Padfoot spoke.  The expression on his face tugged at her heartstrings and she reached out to touch his shoulder.  He jumped, but didn't pull away.  Instead he stared at her hand for a moment before taking a deep breath and reaching up to pat it in thanks.

Something inside of Hermione shifted in that moment.

She couldn't explain it, not even if she had pulled out a dictionary. 

XXX

Draco stepped neatly from the fireplace and instantly found himself in another world.

The Black Cottage had been remarkably different from Malfoy Manor, but it had still contained a layer of gentility.  It was tastefully decorated and all of furniture was of a high quality.

The Burrow was the exact opposite.

The rug under his feet was faded and threadbare.  The sofa was one of the most hideous things he had ever seen, though he had to admit it looked remarkably comfortable. 

Or, at least, Weasley looked incredibly comfortable there with Lovegood cuddled up next to him.

A sliver of guilt stabbed through Draco as he studied his two classmates as they greeted Harry and Hermione.

Weasley was extremely pale and Draco noticed he only moved his arms.  He'd been hit with some sort of nasty curse across the torso.  Likely wouldn't be alive if luck hadn't been on his side.

Lovegood was running one of her small hands through Weasley's hair.  Her own was cropped close and mostly hidden under a blue knitted cap.  One that looked to be handmade.  He looked down at the dragon sweater he wore and then back at the cap.  The cap had to be a gift from Mrs. Weasley.

Of course she'd knit Lovegood a cap to hid her injuries.

Injuries sustained from rescuing his mother.  A rescue only required because he'd defied the Dark Lord.

He felt guilt rise up, trying to swamp him, but he stamped it down.  He'd spent a long time last night thinking, and Harry's words, the one's Padfoot had given him, rang true.

There was no one to blame but Lord Voldemort.  And Draco was going to anything and everything in his power to help Harry – and Hermione – take that monster down.

"Oi'! Malfoy!  Do you plan to stand there all night?"

Weasley's words drew Draco back to the present.  He pasted on a smirk and spit out a comeback that came naturally after so many years of trading taunts back and forth.  An instant too late he felt himself wince as he realized now likely wasn't the time to act in such a manner.

"I don't know, Weasley, do you plan to lie there all night?"

An awkward silence descended on the sitting room for half a heartbeat before Weasley threw his head back and laughed.

"If it keeps me from doing any work, of course!"

Weasley's comment made the others relax and laugh.  The room filled with a comforting cheeriness.  Very similar to what he had felt that morning, as he'd opened gifts on Harry's bed.

The fire roared just then and his Aunt Andromeda stepped through.

Draco's heart stopped, he knew who was coming next.

And, sure enough, there he was.

Theo was dressed in rather simple robes that looked as if they had been altered to fit him.  His hair was neatly combed and he looked almost exactly like he had before.

That is, except for the black glove over his right hand.  Draco knew there was no flesh incased in that glove.

It was merely a metal hand that Theo was still learning to use and control.  

Draco's mouth was too dry to form words as he looked as his old childhood friend.  Searching his bony face for any sign of blame.  After all, Theo hadn't been about to be forced to get a mark.  It was Draco's words that had led to-

"Well, Draco, we sure rolled a long way, did we not?"

The lopsided smile on Theo's face released the tension in Draco's body just as much as the words did.

He smiled back and approached his friend, giving him a half-hug.  "Happy Christmas, Theo."

Theo returned the hug, "Happy Christmas, Draco."

They pulled away from each other and Draco realized everyone was staring at them.  He arched an eyebrow, "Is something the matter?"

"No, we're just all happy to see you two smile," Lovegood stated, giving him a small smile.

"Point."

Everyone spoke at once, except for Theo, who just looked confused.  Draco found himself grinning and pushing all negative thoughts away.

"Theo, let's go see if there's some butterbeer and I'll explain what sort of insanity I rolled you into."

That elicited chuckles from everyone as Draco led his fellow Slytherin out of the room.

XXX

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur, Draco could feel everyone forcing themselves to push all negative thoughts away and enjoy the day.  

Bill Weasley was gifted a lovely box of Honeydukes chocolate for winning in 'Points'.  All of his siblings declared it wasn't fair.  They were positive that Fleur Delacour had helped him cheat.  She was, after all, his fiancée.  Buty she insisted she only gave him points when he was correct.  It wasn't her fault he was often correct.

Draco wisely stayed out of the argument.  He noticed the other non-Weasleys did the same.  The argument lasted all through dinner and was only stopped during pudding by Bill splitting his chocolate with all of his siblings.  From the knowing glances Draco could only assume this was what happened whenever a Weasley won.

He shook his head in puzzlement, he didn't understand large families.

It was a bit of a shock to his system when he was heading to the toilet and overheard his mother speaking with Aunt Andromeda and Mrs. Weasley.  His mother's voice was full of sorrow, and the other women could be heard murmuring words of comfort.  He'd felt like an interloper, pressing his ear to the door, so he'd walked away.

If his father had died in service to Lord Voldemort, rather than defying him, would anyone have comforted her?

Somehow, he couldn't see it.

When he'd returned to the sitting room he found Theo engaged in a game of wizarding chess with Weasley.  Hermione was engaged in a discussion on space verse time with Lovegood.  He absently noticed a notebook in front of the girls, one they occasionally wrote in.  Harry was sitting before the fire with the Weaslette, helping her clean and care for her broomstick.

He stood awkwardly in the doorway, not quite sure who to approach.  He had just made up his mind to go and watch the chess game when he caught a new voice coming from the kitchen.

Snape.

Curious he slipped back out into the corridor and we to stand outside the entryway to the small, almost-cramped kitchen.

It looked even more cramped with the chair that had been transfigured so that Padfoot could sit comfortably, without placing strain on his back.  Every legal adult was there, even his mother.  She was once again her collected, regal self.  No sign of the earlier weakness he'd heard through the door.

Snape was pacing back and forth in front of fire, agitation visible in every movement.

He had stumbled upon what had to be an Order meeting.  One his mother had been invited to.

He really had rolled a long way from where had started.

"Well, Snape, what's happening at Hogwarts?"  Mr. Weasley asked.

Snape grimaced, "The bloody Ministry is crawling all over the place.  Trying to find proof Dumbledore was behind what happened at Malfoy Manor.  They're trying to get all their aurors tested for confundous charms.  So far St. Mungos is being smart and reporting the truth.  Doesn't stop Fudge.  I heard from Pomfrey that Shacklebolt's been test six times in the past few days.  They're insane. I managed to remove anything important from the Headmaster's personal quarters and office before the officials arrived.  McGonagall is acting headmistress, and that may be all she can be for a while.  The board of governors is decimated.  Most were from old pureblood families that are now on the run.   Or a few were Order members that didn't make it.  You need at least seven members to install a new headmaster, we have three.  And one," he glared at Padfoot, "is too injured to even attend meetings."

Padfoot grimaced, but said nothing.  Draco knew he'd barely managed to make the trip to the Burrow.  It would be a bit before his muscles regrew.  Greyback had taken a massive chunk out of his shoulder.

"Severus, play nice," his mother admonished.  

"Indeed," Mrs. Weasley stated, eyeing the potions master suspiciously.  "We know you're a double agent.  Albus vouched for you before, and Narcissa does now.  Doesn't mean the rest of us trust you." 

Snape glared at the woman, but pushed on, "The Dark Lord has fled the British Isles with his few remaining Death Eaters.  I've been ordered to lie low and be ready at a moment's notice.  For what, I know not.  But I suspect it won't be pretty.  He shares one thing in common with the Ministry, and that is their anger at how quickly Miss Black got an article out after the battle."  He aimed a glare at Padfoot, and then Mother, "She should have been healing, not writing."

Mr. Lovegood cleared his throat, "I wrote the rough draft and read it to her.  She suggested changes and I did all the work.  We did not risk her health."

"Indeed."

Snape did not appear to believe him, and Draco understood why.  He'd been woken up to Hermione demanding the quill, wanting to do the writing herself.  For a moment he'd thought he'd still been dreaming.  It had been a wonderful, if confusing dream where Hermione kept telling him to be safe every time he took a bite of an apple.  But when he'd finished the apple she’d smiled and taken the core, transfiguring it into a shield.  After that she had demanded his quill and he'd been protesting that he didn't have one.  Thinking on it now, he wondered if it had anything to do with the link he'd unknowingly formed with her.

Luckily he hadn't said anything embarrassing when Mr. Lovegood had proven he'd been the one to give his daughter her stubbornness and refused to let Hermione do her own writing.

Mr. Lovegood opened his mouth to supposedly reiterate the fact that he had kept Hermione safe, but Draco saw a very tired Professor Lupin kick him under the table and shake his head.

He'd always thought the werewolf was a smart one.

"Do we know what the current international opinion is on You-Know-Who?" Fred (or George, Draco certainly couldn't tell them apart).  Draco frowned.  The Weasley twins were holding a notebook that looked remarkably similar to the one he'd seen lying between Hermione and Lovegood.

Something began to prickle at his mind.  A mystery he thought it would be in his best interests to uncover.

A dark-haired Asian man Draco didn't know answered, "He's certainly got no allies in Japan.  His talk of blood status reminds too many of things that nearly led us to ruin back during Grindlewald's time.  We're trying to rebuild ourselves, look to the future, not fall prey to mistakes of the past."

"He's got a few people in France that support him, but they do so very quietly.  Public opinion is with Harry and Hermione.  They love her articles.  My grandmother's been saving every one in a scrapbook.  Says she's witnessing history in the making," Alianore said.

Mr. Weasley spoke up, "Most of our international students are quite disgusted nothing's been done about You-Know-Who already.  I had a number of them come to me after the Battle of Malfoy Manor and offer their services in any way they can.  I think the cincher was the idea of child soldiers.  On both sides.  Those pictures Narcissa managed to get of the battle really opened some eyes."

"How did you manage to get pictures?" Tonks asked curiously.

His mother smiled one her Slytherin smiles (How had he never realized before what those smiles truly hid?) and simply stated, "I simply, oh, what was that phrase you used Arthur?  Bugged the room?"

Draco frowned, when he heard the word 'bug' he thought of-

He inwardly groaned and rolled his eyes.  Of course his mother had somehow managed to enlist Rita Skeeter.  Hadn't they been in the same year at Hogwarts?  Or were they a year apart?  Whatever, it was all the same in the end.

And with Lockhart recaptured that meant Skeeter would likely continue Voldemort’s 'memoirs', meaning she would be out of most fights and free to pursue all sorts of information.

It did make him wonder where the cameras had been hidden, though.

He heard his name and instantly focused back in on the conversation.

"-Draco and Theodore.  There will have to be some changes made in Slytherin if they are to be safe," Snape was saying.

"I believe they're in the sitting room," Aunt Andromeda said.  "Want me to get them?"

"No, I shall get them myself."

Draco turned and hurried down back into the sitting room.  He earned curious glances from the others as he quickly took a seat on the sofa next to Ron and tried to look like he'd been there all evening.

Snape entered a moment later, "Mr. Malfoy, Mr. Nott, foll-"

"Don't call me that," Theo practically snapped.

The room lost its cheeriness and began to feel a bit cold.

"Excuse me?" Snape practically hissed.

Draco saw trepidation in his old friend's eyes, but he still raised his chin and met the Potion Master's eyes, "Don't call me Mr. Nott.  That's the name of the man that tried to murder me."

The two Slytherins stared at each other and the entire room held their breath.  Finally, Snape nodded, "Very well.  Mr. Malfoy, Theodore, follow me."

He turned and swept out of the room, his cloak billowing behind him.

Draco scrambled to his feet and followed, Theo right beside him.

Snape led them upstairs and they entered a small room that had obviously once belonged to one of the older boys, but had been sort of repurposed as a guest room.  Draco guessed the pictures of dangerous looking dragons had been permanently stuck there.  Either that, or Mrs. Weasley couldn't stand to tear them down.

The more he thought on the little he'd seen of the woman over the past few days, the more he thought it was the latter option.

Snape pointed at the small, neatly made bed, "Sit."

He studied their faces for a moment and then let out a small sigh and pulled out the rickety desk chair and took a seat.  It wobbled dangerously, but held firm.

"I suspect, that the Hogwarts you return to shall be different from the one you left.  In your own dormitory you'll find Vincent Crabbe gone.  He's currently in Azkaban awaiting trial.  There's a very good chance he'll merely be suspended for a year, like Cormac Mclaggen was.  He performed no dark curses with his wand and had family pressure.  Between this and the fact that Gregory Goyle has disappeared, along with his entire family, means that your dormitory will only contain the two of you and Blaise Zabini.  I understand that you, Theodore, are good friends with him, but I want you to be careful.  The Zabini family's loyalties have always remained with those that will grant them the most rewards.  I want you two to watch your words around him, understand?"

Draco nodded, and could see Theo nodding beside him.

"Now, Mr. Malfoy, if you could go, I need to speak with Theodore.  Unless you have a question?"

The Potions Master stared at him, his black eyes glittering dangerously, and Draco shook his head and stood up.

As soon as he was out of the door he pressed his ear to it, but all he heard was a faint buzzing.

Annoyed, he turned to go back downstairs, but was stopped as his arm was grabbed, and, before he could even make a move for his wand he was yanked inside of another bedroom.  

He stumbled as he was practically thrown into the room.  Somehow he managed to right himself and pull out his wand as he spun around.  Inwardly he thought that Alianore would be quite proud of this complicated movement.

Still, she'd likely say he was dead.

Because, standing there, behind a silently closed door, was Hermione.  Gone was the look of happy enjoyment she'd had all morning and afternoon.  In its place was a very determined look that sent a tingle down his spine.

And he didn't think that tingle was fear, either.

Still, the words out of her mouth surprised him.

"Well, Draco, what did Snape want?"

Chapter Text

Hermione frowned and looked up as Snape led Draco and Theo out of the sitting room.  Just what did he want to speak about?

She closed her journal and reattached her brand new traveling quill to it.  She jerked her head at the door and Luna nodded.  As soon as the three Slytherins were gone she moved over to the sofa and settled herself next to Ron while Hermione made her way out of the room.

She silently crept up the stairs, wincing as newly healed skin stretched with each step.  

Being splinched on the back of the thigh was a terrible place.  The muscle had knit back together nicely, but the skin pulled whenever she went up steps, despite the cream Snape had left for her.  She'd also been splinched on the left shoulder, but that didn't impede movement as much while it healed.  

The door to Charlie's old room was closed and she pressed her ear to it, but only heard buzzing.  She frowned and grumbled under breath.

"Stupid bloody Slytherins.  Using spells I can't identify.  What's wrong with normal silencing spells?"

Annoyed, she slipped into Bill's old room across the hall and closed the door most of the way.  Maybe they'd say something when the door opened.

She didn't have to wait long before Draco slipped out.  She watched as he put his own ear to the door before frowning in annoyance.

She couldn't help but smile at that expression, and she couldn't really say why.

She silently swung the door farther open and reached out, snagging Draco and yanking him into the room before quietly shutting the door again.  With a few flicks of her wand and whispered spells the door was locked and the room was under a silencing spell.

She was surprised to note that her typical locking spell felt stronger than normal.

Curious, but with other things on her mind, she set that thought aside for later and turned around tp look at Draco, who now stood in a modified classic dueling stance, his wand aimed at her.  Gone was the spoiled little boy she used to know, or even the confused and rather bumbling teen he'd been but a few weeks before.

No, now he looked calm and confident.  His pale hair - in bad need of a haircut - fell across his aristocratic brow, slightly covering one glittering silver eye.

Her stomach did a flip as she met his gaze.  She tried to push the feeling away, but unlike before, it refused to go far even as she got down to business.

"Well, Draco.  What did Snape want?"

He studied her for half a second, then relaxed and slipped his wand back up his sleeve.  She watched the way his wrist twisted and noticed with interest that he used the same method as Alianore Roux.  

"You really should have been in Ravenclaw."

Her brows lowered in annoyance, "Draco..."

That made him smirk, "He was just giving Theo and me some warnings about Hogwarts and Slytherin House.  Theo and I rather publically declared which side we're on and a number of people will take issue with that."

She studied him, taking in the tenseness at the corners of his mouth, even as his posture was relaxed.

"Is it really safe for you two there?"

He shrugged and looked away, inspecting a poster of the Weird Sisters.  

"As safe as it was for Pansy, I suppose."

"Pansy's family has always been on the fence.  Yours wasn't."

He shrugged again and went over to the window, looking out at the snow covered English countryside.  "Point.  But we also have Snape as head of house.  He's playing both sides.  He can't allow anything permeant to happen to either side on his watch. Besides, I know he's really against Lord Voldemort."

She frowned, while she'd never much cared for Snape, she was sure he was on their side, not that she had proof.  It was just all the things she'd heard about Harry's mother and Snape from Uncle Remus.  She didn't have all the information yet, but she had sketched out a rough outline.  She guessed Snape had never expected his new master to go kill his old childhood friend - even if they were on the outs.

"How do you know for sure?"

He looked over his shoulder at her, then quickly looked back out at the snow, she saw his fists clench on the window sill.

Draco's next words came out in a single breath - almost.

"Hesawmeresearchingandgaveme-" he paused, nothing escaping his mouth for a moment, then he took a deep breath.  "I was given a thing.  It had a cure.  Harry found me preparing last May.  He slipped me into St. Mungos and-"

But she wasn't listening anymore.

A cure.

St. Mungos.

The silver dragon.

Dragon.

Draco.

Draco had snuck into St. Mungos, risking his life and his family's lives, to cure her.  To save her life.  And Snape had given him the tools to do so.  She was guessing from a family tome.

Her mind flashed back to that old, battered tea set and its fading monogram in Snape's office.

Snape wasn't an old wizarding family name, but his father had been muggle.  His mother wouldn't have tied her magic.  And tomes followed the family magic, not the name.

His mother must have been the last of her line.  Making Snape the holder of the tomes.

And he'd lent the tome to Draco.

So he could cure her.

So he could risk everything to save her life.

The idea rocked her world.  She felt everything twist and turn.  

She'd risked everything to save his mother, never expecting him to do the same, never knowing that he had already risked everything.

Risked everything and never told a soul.  She was even guessing he'd told Harry never to tell.  And Harry was honorable enough to keep that trust.

She realized Draco was still speaking, even as she struggled to form words

"-that's why I avoided you after the train.  How could I hurt you by being around?  I was the nephew of the woman that tortured you and killed your parents.  A constant reminder of-"

Hermione felt her promise with him twinge, as he spoke about that nasty woman without actually naming her.  She’d almost forgotten about their long ago promise.  She quickly cut him off.  "Tonks is her niece.  Aunt Andy is almost her doppelganger.  Padfoot has the same hair.  Merlin, I have the same hair!  Of all of us, you look the least like her!  All you have is her aristocratic nose!  How-how could you think avoiding me was the way to go!?!"

He swung back around to face her.  His mouth was hanging open, cut off in mid-sentence and his face was flushed red.  His eyes glittered, looking like the small silver earrings Padfoot had given her for her birthday last year.  He snapped his mouth shut and swallowed nervously, "Um, well, that's why I went chasing after you that day my hand was broken.  I realized just how idiotic my avoiding you was and, um, well..."

He stopped talking and looked down.

She sighed and fought the urge to roll her eyes.  

Honestly.

"Let me get this straight.  You risked everything to heal me after refusing to go with me to save Harry.  You learned of my scars and set about avoiding me so as not to cause me pain.  Then you realized that avoiding me was a mistake and, in trying to rectify it, you got your hand broken.  After chasing me through t halls of Hogwarts.  THEN you basically signed your own death warrant by defying the Dark Lord and refusing to get the mark.  The mark he tried to give you after seeing something in Crabbe's mind that made him doubt your potential loyalty.  I'm guessing now it's about your previous actions towards me. Yes," she said as his face grew surprised, "I heard about what actually occured during the Death Eater meeting from your mother.  Didn't you read the article I wrote?"

He nodded.

She shook her head in disbelief even as she scrabbled for purchase in this new, shifting world.

"Why?  What changed?  Just two years ago you called me a mudblood!"

He shrugged and looked down at his feet for a moment before straightening his shoulders and taking a deep breath. Then he looked up and met her eyes, she felt herself sinking into those shimmering, silver depths.

"I changed.  I don't know how.  I don't know why.  But I went from disliking you to respecting you.  Somewhere even that changed.  I think it started when I watched you jump out that window.  But I didn't truly realize it until you were helping me to the hospital wing when my hand was broken.  I respect you, I like you, I can't help but admire you.  Your blood doesn't matter.  Hell, nothing matters but that I view you as a friend, even if it's one-sided.  Though I don't think so anymore.  Not after the last five days.  And with what my mother told me last night...well, I think we're stuck with each other in some form or another."

"Wait, what did your mother say last night?"

He stared blankly at her for a moment, then his skin - somehow - grew even redder.

"Oh, um, I didn't mention that?"

She shook her head.

He leaned back against the window and buried his face in his hands.  She noticed his nails were also getting a little long and needed a good file.  That and his hair were the only signs of grief she could see him displaying about his father.  Maybe there would be more at the funeral, but that wouldn't occur until the Ministry released the bodies.

"I learned some of this when my father picked me up from Kings Cross back at the beginning of break.  I had no clue it had already occurred, until my mother told me last night.  But apparently the Malfoy magic curse is that we always crave more power.  To the point where we willingly, and possibly unknowingly, tie ourselves to someone powerful.  This can be magical or mental power.  Doesn't matter as long as we respect and admire them.  Like I respect and admire you."

She stared at him, once again in shock, her brain attempting to make sense of the words she had just heard.

"You-you're tied to me?!?!"

He simply nodded, not removing his hands from his face.

"From what I know, it's mostly one sided.  I can't ever hurt or defy you, except in extreme cases. Like-like with my father.  And Voldemort."

"Your father.  He was tied to Voldemort?”

Draco nodded, and lowered his hands, "Yes."

"But the tie broke when Voldemort tried to kill you."

Draco nodded again, looking miserable.

"What-what does this tie entail?"

He shrugged, "I don't know exactly.  Everyone has been rather vague on it.  But I think it's different for everyone.  I know Harry found me last night through his connection to you.  And your connection to me."

Hermione let that sink in, then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting her mind clear.

There was her link to Harry, strongly held in place, connecting their souls together.  But, when she looked around now she found a fainter chain, one barely visible in her mind, but much thicker the farther she followed it.

A moment later she was in a new place, in a mind that was not Harry's.  It was, in fact, quite different from her brother’s.

For a moment she saw herself out of his eyes.  Her view was filtered through his mind and so she saw - to a degree - his own view of her.

She was beautiful.  Her hair was lying in ebony waves around her shoulders, almost sparking with power.  Her brown eyes glittered with emotion and her stance spoke of self-confidence and pride in her abilities.  Even her conservative robes did nothing to lesson his appreciation of her figure.

She yanked back in shock.  Breaking her connection to his eyes, but still staying in his mind.  She was unable to comprehend the idea that someone as good-looking as Draco would see her as beautiful.

This-this is unbelievable…”

His mind gave a shudder, then relaxed.

You're speaking in my mind.

You can hear me?  Harry and I can only use images.

Her inner Ravenclaw began to take over, and she pushed back her uneasy feelings, trying to accept this new development.  It wasn't like her life had ever been normal.  And she had likely read his view of her wrong.  Perhaps it was just teenage thing she’d read about in that muggle medicine book.  What was it? Hormones?  Yes, that was it. He couldn’t really think she was beautiful.  Not after seeing her scars.  

I wonder how far away this works.

How about you go upstairs and I go down?  Later we can floo back to your cottage at different times and check again.

She pulled back along the link, noticing it looked a bit like a chain, and that her end was now thicker and more visible.

When she opened her eyes her gaze immediately met Draco's.

"I don't think my father could do that."

She shuddered, "Harry had Voldemort in his mind for a bit. It was very unpleasant.  I think your father would have mentioned if that was part of his chain.  In fact..."

Thoughts tumbled through her mind, trying to find a place, but just making her normally tidy mind messy and disorganized.  

Thoughts of chains, links, minds, connecting, and, finally, anchors whipped through.  She remembered the work she had done on wands and the description Harry had given her of his time in Voldemort's head.  The confession of his previously haunted dreams, and how they had stopped just five days ago, after haunting him almost every night for the past few months.  Something she was still annoyed about, as he had never shared this information with her.

She needed to do some research.

And she didn't think the Hogwarts library would contain what she needed.  The Malfoy library might, but the Ministry had the entire estate locked down as they did their 'investigation'.

And there was no way anyone would let her go to Knockturn Alley right now.  Not after her recent article and the part she had played in the Malfoy Manor Battle.

No.  She needed help.  And that meant having a real meeting.

"Change of plans.  You go upstairs.  Ron's room is on the top floor.  It's messy with Chudley Cannon posters on the wall.  We'll test the link and then I'll bring the others upstairs.  I think it’s time to pool resources and figure some things out.  We’ll continue our talk on chains later.  You’re one of us now, I might as well equip you."

He frowned in puzzlement, but before he could reply she hurried out of the room, taking down her spells as she went.

A small part of her mind wondered if the strength of the locking spells was because she had already somehow suspected that Draco was tied to her.  After all, if he was tied to her that meant he was partly hers.

And she protected what was hers.

No matter what.

XXX

Draco watched Hermione run out of the room and felt a bit of Deja vu.  How many times now had he watched her run off now?

Still, this time was different.  He knew she was coming back.

Also, he could feel her there, at the end of the chain.  The weight was like a magical reminder of the agreement he'd made with Harry to stop Voldemort.  A comfort, knowing that there were others out there, guarding his back as he guarded theirs.  That he wasn't alone like his father had been.

As he left the bedroom the door across the hall opened and Snape emerged.  He looked down his hooked nose at Draco and let out a small sound that was almost a sigh.

"Mr. Malfoy, you've got a good friend in Theodore."

Then he was gone, disappearing down the stairs in a swirl of black.  Draco watched him disappear around the corner at the landing then entered the small bedroom to see Theo still sitting on the bed, an indescribable expression on his face.

Draco tested out the link with Hermione and sent a quick thought her way.

Need to talk to Theo.  Then will go up.

Her response was instantaneous.

Okay.  Bring him up with you.

Draco sat down next to his old friend and found himself wondering when they had stopped being close.  The two of them had been almost inseparable growing up. They had always done everything together.  There wasn’t a day that went by that Draco didn’t remember seeing Theo or sharing letters with him.

Well, not a day went by until a week before Draco’s eighth birthday, when Theo’s mother had died.

Draco still remembered Theo coming to his party.  Theo breaking out into tears when he’d seen Draco receiving a hug from his mother.  Theo angrily grabbing his gift and storming over to the floo before it could be opened.  The sound of his best friend flooing away.

They hadn’t spoken a word to each other again until they found each other sharing the Slytherin dorm.  They’d pretended they’d never been friends.  That they’d only moved in the same circles.  Draco had Pansy, Vince and Greg.  Theo had Tracey, Daphne and Blaise.

But, now, here they were, once more together.  No one else around.

Theo’s friends were safe and still his friends.  Tracey, Daphne and Blaise off with their families, not connected at all to the battle that had occurred so recently.

Draco’s were spread to the wind.  Vince was in Ministry custody, about to go to trial, perhaps even be expelled from Hogwarts and locked up in Azkaban.  Greg was Merlin knew where, grabbed by his parents and taken along as they fled after Voldemort.  Pansy was trapped in her own mind, under a curse Draco knew had a cure, but that did not lessen the danger of it.

Skilled Mind-Healers were entering her mind every hour, obliterating nightmares even as they threatened to drive her insane.  He supposed that he should send Skeeter a thank you note, her previous attack on Pansy and the necessary work to fix it was making the current process easier.  But they still didn't know how she would be when the last nightmare was destroyed.

Pushing thoughts of Pansy out of his head he broke the silence.

"Snape says I'm lucky to have you as a friend."

Theo held up his arm and stared at the metal hand he had covered in a black leather glove.  He twisted the hand this way and that, looking at every angle.  Finally, he spoke.

"You know, I used to be jealous of you.  Still am."

Draco felt uncomfortable.  Of course Theo was jealous. He'd lost his mother at a young age, Draco still had his. Theo's father had tried to kill him, Draco's had died for him.  Draco had two hands, Theo only one.

Draco would be jealous, too.  Hadn't he been jealous of Harry and all his friends?

"I don't blame you."

Theo snorted, "Of course you don't.  We're too alike not to understand each other.  You did get my apple conversation, after all."

Now it was Draco's turn to snort, "You weren't exactly subtle.  I wondered if you were really a Slytherin after that conversation."

"Hey!" Theo bumped his shoulder roughly against Draco, "I didn't know how much those Gryffindors had rubbed off on you!  I had to tone down the subtlety!"

Draco bumped him back, "Liar."

"Fine, be that way," Theo said in a tone that made the past decade disappear.  For a moment the two of them were once again six years old and arguing over which toys would join their army in the epic battle they were orchestrating.

Draco smiled, "So, are we actual friends again?  Or do we go back to how we treated each other at Hogwarts?"

Theo shook his head and turned it enough to look at Draco, "We can't go back to that.  Not after all of this."  He waved his metal hand around the room, taking in the decor that was nothing at all like they had grown up with.

"Point," Draco said automatically.

Draco.  Change of plans.  Ron can't move.  Come down and we'll test later.

Alright.

"That whole point thing is really odd."

Draco snorted, "I thought so too at first, but it's grown on me.  Now, do you want to share what Snape said?  Or should we head back downstairs?"

"Basics is that Snape is going to spend a lot of time with me this semester.  Trying to get me to see the 'error' of my ways."

Draco's eyebrows rose, "Really?  Why couldn't he say that in front of me?"

Theo shrugged and looked away, "Dunno."

Draco instantly backed off, afraid to ruin this new start to a friendship.  "Alright, well, let's go on down."

"Why the rush?" Theo asked even as he stood up and followed Draco.

"Hermione said something about a meeting and getting us equipped."

"Equipped?  With what?"

"No idea, but it's sure to be good."

“Point,” Theo said, making Draco laugh.  Theo had always caught on quickly.

Chapter Text

As soon as Draco and Theo stepped into the sitting room the door swung shut and several spells shot out of Hermione's wand as she spoke.

"Now that we're all here - minus Fred, who is keeping an eye on the Order and Neville, who is at home.  And they both have their journals open - we can get down to business."

Weasley sighed, "And here I was hoping to just enjoy Christmas."

The Weaselette snorted, "Grow up big brother, the war won't pause just so you can enjoy your pudding."

Weasley threw a pillow at her, but she easily caught it, “Hmm, maybe I should be the Gryffindor Keeper.”

Hermione rolled her eyes at this, “Grow up you two.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison, making everyone laugh, though the two youngest Weasleys glared at each other instead.

"From what Snape said the Ministry is working overtime to regain control of things," George said, trying to draw everyone back on topic.  And Draco was fairly certain it was George, since Hermione had said Fred was in the kitchen.  "They're crawling all over Hogwarts, sending their aurors in for mental and magical health checks, and refusing to release bodies."

Weasley frowned, "Have you talked to Percy recently?  Did he say anything at the meeting?"

George shook his head, "No, that git is trying to walk a narrow line.  He's refusing to release anything that isn't currently public knowledge.  He did say something about emergency procedures available if the Board of Governors can't instate a new headmaster or headmistress, but clammed up after that."

Hermione interjected, "We'll worry about that later, or let the Order deal with it.  I had a breakthrough when speaking with Draco earlier about the oddities of his family magic.  Now," she took a deep breath and hurrying on before anyone could ask what oddities were part of Draco’s family magic, "I was told by Dumbledore, Padfoot, and Uncle Remus not to reveal this unless I thought it absolutely necessary.  Well, now I believe it is necessary.  Several years ago I learned - quite by accident - that Voldemort had anchored himself to this world in some dark manner.  I haven't been able to find a name for the anchors, but I know he had to give part of himself to make them because-"

"Horcruxes," George said grimly.  "They're called horcruxes.  The Order was arguing about them a few months ago, so Fred and I did some research down on Knockturn Alley.  Creating one involves deliberate murder and splitting your soul.  Then you put the soul in an object.  Apparently Voldemort had five, but he planned on six. That way he would have seven soul pieces if you count his original body and all six objects.”

"Or a living being," Hermione stated.

George frowned, "No, the books said nothing about living beings."

Draco noticed that Luna was hastily scribbling in a journal very similar to the one Hermione had earlier.  Were they a communication device?

"Fred asks what being you think has a horcrux," Luna said, not looking up.

"The snake," Hermione answered, "it explains why Voldemort was able to control it so directly when it killed Dumbledore."

Harry gasped and everyone turned to look at him.

"Mate, what's wrong?" Ron asked, looking concerned.

"The not-place... The twisted creatures... I saw the pieces of Voldemort's soul!  There was one attached to me!!!"

His eyes were beginning to fill with panic and Hermione immediately jumped up and ran to hug him, Draco could hear her humming and, curious, he closed his eyes and followed the chain to Hermione, from there he traced another link to Harry.  It was hard going, but when he got there he was immediately surrounded by pleasant images of the two Gryffindors' childhood together.  Getting an idea he threw up one of his own memories of Harry, of the boy denying Draco's friendship and staying true to the Weasleys.

He felt Harry's surprise at a new presence in his mind, but he relaxed almost immediately and then Draco felt Hermione pull out.  He quickly followed her and, on the way back to his own mind, he heard her whisper, Thank you, but please stay out of Harry’s mind unless invited.  Especially if I’m there.

A minor wave of shame and hurt swept over Draco, along with a touch of anger, but he pushed it down.  She was right, though he hated to admit it.  He shouldn’t go poking his nose in private places unless invited.

When his eyes opened again he saw that Hermione was no longer hugging Harry, rather, the Weaselette was there, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head tucked under his chin. Hermione was, instead, standing over near him, if he reached out he could touch her shoulder.  He had the sudden urge to do so, and his arm was raised halfway before he realized what he was doing.  He quickly lowered his arm, hoping no one had noticed.

"No, Harry, I don't think you're a horcrux anymore," Hermione said firmly.  "I think, from what you told me and the sudden change in dreams, that for that single instant you were merged so tightly with Voldemort and the snake that you were practically one being.  The deliberate death of Dumbledore, which the snake and three Voldemort soul pieces fully supported, acted as the chance for a soul to split.  But, this time, with the help of the blood wards connecting us, you managed to detach your soul from the horcrux.  You sent it towards the snake instead. Or so I’m assuming from your description, though you could have sent it back to Voldemort himself.”

Everyone stared at her, the room was entirely silent except for the sound of the fire crackling in the grate.  Draco was trying to wrap his mind around all of the information that had just come his way.

“So, we kill the snake and Voldemort can die?” Ginny asked.

“Unless he’s made another horcrux,” George answered.

Harry shook his head, “I-I don’t think he made another horcrux.  Before, when I had part of him inside of me, I kept having dreams of a long corridor and a room of glass orbs.  It felt more like he wanted information, rather than immortality.”

“You were dreaming of the Hall of Prophecy,” George said.  “The Order has been guarding it for months now.  Apparently there’s a prophecy about you and old no-nose.  He’s only heard part of it and wants the rest.  Problem is, only two people can retrieve it, and one of them is in this room.”

Hermione’s eyes lit up, “Who wants to sneak into the Ministry?”

Ron groaned, “Can’t I heal from our last adventure before we start a new one?”

“Indeed,” Draco found himself saying.  Not that he would classify what happened five days ago as an ‘adventure’.

Hermione frowned, “No, we need that prophecy and we need to get it before we get sent back to Hogwarts.  I suggest tonight.  Very few will be working today and most of them will be off at Hogwarts leaving no stone unturned,” she rolled her eyes at the last bit, and Draco couldn’t blame her.  Honestly, the Ministry was proving to be even more stupid than he thought possible.

“Well, if we do that I have to go, obviously,” Harry said.

Ron frowned, “You shouldn’t bring more than two or three others in with you I think.  Everyone else can be standing by with their coins, ready to rush in as backup.  I’ll run interference with the older generation.  Think I’ll need support though.”

“I’ll stay with you.  I’m not much use till I learn to use this properly.” Theo held up his right hand, the black leather gleaming in the firelight.

“Neville is out,” said Luna.  “He doesn’t think he can concentrate properly until Pansy wakes up.”

“Harry isn’t leaving my sight,” the Weaselette said firmly.”

“I’ll go with,” said George, “Fred can be backup.”

“Fred disagrees,” said Luna, “says it’s your turn to play backup.”

George frowned and thought.

“Hmm, maybe he’s right.  He did play wingman last time we were at the Twisting Wands…”

Hermione rolled her eyes again and Draco couldn’t help but wonder how many times the Weasleys had caused her to do so.  He wondered if he’d ever be the one to make her roll her eyes.  The idea gave him a warm fuzzy feeling that left him rather confused.

“I’ll also go with,” Hermione said.  “We can easily floo there, but we need a good excuse for not being home.  The Order meeting can’t last forever.”

“Quidditch,” Luna said.

Everyone turned to stare at her.  She shrugged, “Go play quidditch at the Academy.  The four of you can slip out, run to the Department of Mysteries, and come back.  Theo and Ron can stay here and play chess.”

Hermione frowned, “Luna, you and I never play quidditch.”

She smiled, “Yes, but we can pretend, and they’ll assume we mean to sneak in and raid the Academy library.  Alianore caught me in there last week.  Before the battle.”

“That actually might work,” Harry said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.  There was no more panic in his face, now it was filled with purpose.

“So, Ginny, Hermione, George - or Fred - and Harry will sneak in.  Theo and I will stay here and play chess, keeping an eye on the floo.  Luna, Fred - or George - and Draco will provide backup.  Sounds like a solid backbone of a plan,” Weasley said, looking thoughtful.

“Um, I think we’re forgetting something,” the Weaselette said.

Everyone looked at her.

“What?” Weasley asked.

“Are you sure?” Hermione said.

“Sounded like everything to me,” George said.

Now the Weaselette rolled her eyes.  “Honestly.  All of us have been friends since we were practically in nappies.  We know we’re all in this together.  But Malfoy and No- Theodore are new.  Harry made a conscious choice and offer to Pansy to join us.  Aren’t we going to actually ask them if they want to be part of this?  Instead of assuming?”

Draco suddenly had every pair of eyes trained on him for a moment, before they slid over to Theo and then back again.

“Well?” George said.  “Do you want to join us in our continued defiance of the Ministry and all Death Eaters?”

Draco looked over at Theo, noticing a mirrored look of surprise, glad he wasn’t the only one that didn’t expect to actually be asked to join their group.

“What are you, anyways?”  Theo asked.

“Indeed, I thought you were just friends, not anything organized,” Draco added.

George chuckled, “Well, we are friends, but thanks to Hermione I think we can call ourselves a little club now, though we have no official name.  Personally, Fred and I like the New Marauders.”

“Speaking of organized…” Hermione grabbed a drawstring bag that looked eerily similar to the one Pansy had been carrying around all last term.

She reached in and pulled out two more drawstring bags, two journals, and two galleons. “I made extras, since you just never know.  Here,” she handed one of each item to Draco, then gave the others to Theo. “The coin can be used to communicate it in emergencies.  It heats up when used, so be careful.  The books are all connected, we can chat with each other that way, using call signs.  The bags are truly bottomless.  Just put your hand in and think of what you want.  As long as it’s in there it will come to your hand.  The opening expands for larger items.”

“Like so,” the Weaselette said, she pulled her own drawstring bag off her belt and reached in to pull out her broomstick.

Draco held up the bag, his eyes wide in amazement, “You actually made a truly bottomless bag?”

“Yes, she did, and Fred and I have the full rights to sell them, as well as the twin journals once the war ends,” George said proudly.

“But the ones they sell will only connect with one to three other journals.  These ones connect with any journal I tell them to,” Hermione said, a trace of pride in her voice and a glimmer in her eyes that made her entire face shine.

“You need call signs,” Luna stated.  “I think Dragon is good for Draco, and as for Theodore I think-”

“Apple,” Theo said firmly.

“Apple?” Harry asked curiously.

Theo met Draco’s gaze, a steely coldness visible that had never before shown itself, “Yes, Apple.”

“Very well, Apple for Theodore.  Does Dragon work for you, Draco?” Hermione asked.

Draco shrugged, not really caring, “It’s fine.”

“Alright, I think it’s fitting,” she sent a glare at Harry and Draco saw the other boy turn a bit red and look away.  Obviously realizing that Hermione had finally learned what her vision in St. Mungos meant.

“Now that’s settled, let’s get to planning,” Weasley said.  “It’s nearly seven and you can’t play quidditch too late.  Apple, you’re with me, we’ll keep a journal open, feel free to write if help is needed.  We can round up the Order if it’s absolutely necessary.  Gred, Phoenix, Prongslet and Ginger will sneak in and steal the prophecy.  Use the cloak to make sure the way is clear before everyone moves in.  And Gred will come supplied with some of your new products, right?”

He looked at George, who nodded, “Of course.”

“Moon, Forge, and Dragon, you keep a journal open and wait at the Academy.  Make enough noise no one realizes there isn’t a real quidditch game going on.  Grass will, of course, be sitting this one out due to Snake’s condition.  Sound good?”

Everyone nodded, though Draco heard the Weaselette mutter under her breath, “Ron really relishes being King…”

“I heard that!” Weasley said, trying to throw another pillow at the Weaselette, but finding that Hermione had put all of them out of his reach.  He settled for sticking his tongue out at her before getting back to business.  “Now, let’s see about working out any details.  I think-”

Draco tuned the red-head out.  He may regret it later, but he would just do whatever Luna (When had he stopped thinking of her as Lovegood?  And why?) told him to do.  Really, he just wanted to support Harry and Hermione in their goal to rid the world of snake-face.  Details didn’t matter.

He just wanted revenge for his father’s magical chaining and death.

He found it interesting that while Hermione had instigated the raid on the Ministry, it was Weasley who was planning the details.  

And Harry was doing nothing but nodding along and occasionally sharing details from his dream visions.

This group really wasn’t what he had ever imagined it to be - and he had imagined it quite a lot.  Especially after Pansy joined them.

And now he was a part of it.

A scary thought, but one that left him with a comfortably warm feeling in his chest, soothing the pain and guilt he still felt over his father’s death and Pansy and Theo’s injuries.

He was part of it.

An idea formed in his head.

Hermione, we need to share that we can communicate.

But, do you really want them knowing your weakness?

He couldn’t help but laugh, drawing everyone’s eyes and making respond out loud.

“Hermione, I’m chained to you.  How is that a weakness?”

Her soft brown eyes met his and she blinked owlishly for a moment.  Then she laughed herself, “Point.”

Everyone looked terribly confused.

“Care to explain what’s going on?” Weasley asked.

It was Harry that spoke, “Malfoy family magic forces you to magically chain yourself to someone powerful that you admire.  Draco is chained to Hermione.  I’m guessing they’ve found a benefit of it.”

Hermione’s chuckles drifted away, “Yes.  We can speak mind to mind.  Similar to my connection with Harry, but also different.”

“Wait, you can talk to Potter in your head?  And now Draco?  How is that fair?!?”  Theo exclaimed.

“It’s not,” the Weaslette said.

Really, he needed to not call her that.  It wasn’t particularly flattering and he’d already stopped calling her brother Weasel.  And she certainly ranked higher on his list than her brother.

“It’s a long and complicated story.  At least for Harry and Hermione.  I’ll explain it while they’re on the mission, “ Weasley said.

Theo nodded as Weasley turned his attention back to Draco.

“So, if you two can speak mind-to-mind that means we must adjust things accordingly.”

And he went off again, changing things up.  Draco sighed and found a chair to sit in.  He wondered if anything would actually faze this group.

Because it sure didn’t seem like it.

And he knew that couldn’t be real.  Everyone had a limit on how much ‘weirdness’ they could take.  And when this group reached it’s limit...he really hoped he lived through that - because it would not be pretty.

Chapter Text

Hermione closed her eyes and followed the line to Harry's mind, looking out of his eyes. An empty atrium lay before him, even the fountain lay silent in the darkness.

"All clear, let's go."

Ginny and Fred grabbed floo powder and disappeared through the flames. She grabbed her own powder, but paused before throwing it in. Her eyes went to Draco and she found herself wondering just when he had become so appealing to look at.

She soaked in his appearance and said, "I'll stay in contact."

The other three nodded and a faint smile appeared on Draco's face. Hermione wasn't sure if it was the magical chain or something else, but his smile made her feel extra secure, knowing he was here to play backup.

She felt her own lips twist upwards in response as she threw the powder in and said, "Ministry of Magic Atrium."

A heartbeat later she was once again with Fred and Ginny. A quick check showed her Harry was by the lifts and that no one was around.

"Move out, lifts are clear."

They moved, their wands out and at the ready. She sent a quick thought to Draco.

Lifts and Atrium clear. Moving down.

Got it.

Harry went down first, under the invisibility cloak. She waited nervously with Fred and Ginny, her hand growing sweatier the longer it took for a response.

Finally, she felt him send her an image of an empty corridor.

She reached out and pushed the button.

They began to descend.

Silence reigned in the small lift. They'd agreed to speak only when absolutely necessary. Made it easier to hear someone else. Voldemort may be on the run, but they didn't know if he still had someone watching the Department of Mysteries. Also, the Order had a guard outside. Fred thought it was Alianore's assistant, Tachiki, but he wasn't sure. Moody occasionally (and randomly) secretly observed the watches. And his eye could see through Harry's cloak.

If Moody was there…

Well, Hermione had some rather convincing arguments planned, but Moody was hard to get a handle on.

Too bloody paranoid.

The lift doors opened and the three of them moved out, Fred in the lead. Ron's hope was that if someone attacked they would see Fred as the biggest threat and focus on him. Allowing Ginny and Hermione to take the attacker down.

Not a bad plan in Hermione's mind. But then, there was a reason Ron was unbeatable in chess. He didn't have much use for research or book learning like she did, but he certainly knew how to analyze a situation.

Harry sent her an image of an empty corridor. She looked at it and then sent back another image of the corridor, this time with Tachiki standing at the end, on the left, just past a glowing green light.

It was the most logical place for a defensive dueler like him to stand.

A moment later a shout erupted and darkness enveloped the entire floor.

Harry must have used the entire package of Peruvian Instant Darkness that the twins had given him.

She ran forwards and listened closely. She could feel Harry ahead and off to her left a bit.

There.

A rustle of cloth as a wind started up.

Tachiki had to be trying to clear out the darkness.

She slid forwards, feeling her thigh protest as she stretched her new skin as far as it would go. Reaching out, her left hand closed on silk.

None of them were wearing silk.

A spell flashed through her mind and red light, just barely visible, flew out of her wand. It only had to travel about six inches and it hit her target.

Instantly she felt the weight at the end of the silk fall.

She froze, listening in the darkness. When there was no more sound she let go of the silk and reached into her pocket. She tossed some of the powder there into the air and watched as the darkness begin to swirl before her eyes.

When it cleared, she gasped in shock.

It was not Tachiki lying before her. Rather there was a man she knew she had seen around the Ministry, but didn't know the name of him. He had an invisibility cloak lying beside him. She reached down and rolled up the left sleeve to reveal a Dark Mark.

"Tachiki is here," Ginny said.

Hermione looked over to see both redheads standing over the prone and half-invisible form of Tachiki.

"We need to hurry," Harry said.

"But first…" Fred conjured ropes and tied up the Death Eater. Making sure to leave his left forearm and the Mark there exposed for all to see.

Ginny took the time to cover Tachiki back up and pull him around the corner with the help of Harry.

Hermione sent Draco a thought.

Tachiki knocked out. A Death Eater was here, but we neutralized him.

She tried to send an image of the Death Eaters face, but found it impossible. Apparently, she could only send word to Draco and images to Harry. That wasn't going to make things easy.

Understood. All clear here. King and Apple say Order meeting is over, but everyone is socializing.

Right. We're going in.

They moved into the Department of Mysteries and found themselves in a small circular room full of unmarked doors. As soon as Ginny let the hall door close the room began to spin.

When it came to a stop Hermione looked around in dismay.

"This isn't good. Harry, any idea which door?"

He shook his head, "No clue."

She didn't even think about it, she sent a thought back to Draco in the Marauder's Academy.

There's an issue. We're in a circular room with lots of unmarked doors and it spins when a door closes.

Draco got back to her very quickly.

Moon says to hold your wand up, pointed at the ceiling and state the words, "Hall of Prophecy." Then turn in a circle three times and jump.

She frowned, but did it, feeling very silly as the others watched it

Immediately a door blazed with an intense blue glow. Harry grabbed the knob and turned. Lying on the other side was a room full of high shelves and glass orbs.

"This is it," Harry said, moving forward quickly, his wand held out.

Hermione followed as she sent Draco a quick thank you.

Easy work. Moon says she read about it in one of her mother's old journals.

Tell her thank you.

Already done.

Harry walked firmly down the aisles, the rest of them followed him. After a minute or two he stopped and stared at a single orb. She saw his name, next to some question marks, on a scrap of paper attached to the orb.

After a deep breath Harry reached out and took the orb. He slipped it into his drawstring bag.

"Let's get out of here," Hermione said.

Harry slipped the cloak around his shoulders, but left his head uncovered. "We need to hurry, Tachiki should wake up soon. I'll scout ahead once we get out."

They moved quickly, somewhat abandoning the stealth they had used so far.

Got the item. Does Moon know the words to get out?

She says to try, "Department Exit."

Will do.

As soon as they were back in the circular room Hermione closed the door and held on while the room began to spin. When it came to a stop she pointed her wand at the ceiling and said, "Department Exit," before spinning around three times and jumping.

Nothing happened.

That wasn't it.

Try lift?

She repeated the process, saying, "Lift," instead.

Again, nothing happened.

"That's not working. We need to try something else," Fred said.

He quickly opened a door, behind was an eerie room with a single archway covered with a curtain.

"Not that one," Fred said as he quickly burned an X into the wood of the door and then closed it.

Once the room had stopped spinning he did it again.

They saw a room full of time-turners and another with odd looking brains floating in a green goo. One room was filled with mirrors of all shapes and sizes, while the last room they saw was nothing but inky darkness that seemed to spill out and wash over them.

Instantly Hermione felt her muscles go limp. Why were they doing this? What was the point?

The prophecy didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

Her parents were dead. The murderess escaped, and she wasn't strong enough to get revenge.

She wasn't even strong enough to keep those she cared about safe.

She sank to her knees, her eyes focused - unseeing - on the swirling darkness before her.

This is pointless.

She wrapped her arms around herself and fell over, curling into a ball, all the energy sapped out of her body.

She couldn't keep herself sane, how could she keep anyone safe? She was ugly and pathetic. Anchorless in a world that hated her very blood.

Hermione? What's wrong?

The voice was from far away; it was too much energy to respond. She felt her eyes drifting shut.

Hermione! Don't you dare!

A presence pushed on her mind, shaking her, but she ducked down further. Too tired to even push them away.

Go away…

No! Get up Hermione! We need you! They need you! Harry needs you!

Harry…

Yes! Harry needs you! Reach out! Find him!

She was so very tired, but the voice was so relentless she felt herself reaching out, tiredly pulling herself down a line until she reached her destination.

Harry.

Screams.

Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry

Something scratched at her mind, a distant voice, brought back from under all of her own nightmares, from when the two of them had clung to each other, doing their best to keep the nightmares at bay.

HERMIONE! RUN!

Mama?

Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead-

Hermione! It's not real! Think-think of something happy! A patronus! I can cast one! I know you can too!

Not Harry! Please . . . have mercy . . . have mercy . . . Not Harry! Not Harry! Please- I'll do anything-

Happy? What was happy? All she could hear was screams. Her mother's screams. Lily Potter's screams. And now…

Lily, take Harry and go! It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off -

Harry…

She had to help Harry.

She threw herself back down the line, returning to her own mind. But the screams followed her, chased her, echoing through her own mind.

Hermione! Please! We're coming as quickly as we can, but you have to stay strong! Please! You have to- No, wait…

She gasped as she was very suddenly not alone.

Draco.

She felt him, in her head, looking out of her eyes, the chain between them burning brighter than the line she had followed to Harry.

As she watched the chain moved and shifted, twirling in her mind until it came to rest around her, forming a sort of cage, the chain bars shining brilliant in the darkness.

Her eyes grew wide, the darkness pressing in as she began to feel trapped.

"NO!"

She screamed it, inside and out, panicking.

Hermione, grab the chain! Please!

Screams filled her mind, her line to Harry growing taut as the danger they were in increased. Her hand began to loosen, her wand slipping through lax fingers.

Merlin damn it, Hermione! Grab the chain or so help me I will come over there and MAKE you!

Like before, the voice was too strong to resist.

She reached out and touched the chain.

Silence.

Utter and complete silence.

She took a deep breath as panic began to leave her.

Her arms grew steady as her breathing returned to normal. The chain softened in her grip and then sung around, encircling her. But she didn't feel trapped. Instead she felt safe, protected.

Her grip tightened on it and she instantly knew what Padfoot and Narcissa had meant about an anchor.

Draco had risked practically everything to save her. Before that he had sworn to never hurt her, even promising to stop using a slur. He had kept that promise. That oath of fealty he had sworn, just as she had kept hers to him. Maybe he wasn't the same sort of anchor as Narcissa and Padfoot had, she felt no love for him, but she did trust him. He not only knew one of her darkest secrets, but he had seen it and was not disgusted with her. And, even now, when she had been floating lost in a sea of misery, he had called her back, reminded her of what she fought for, what kept her going. Reminded her that she was no longer a helpless baby in a crib.

That even when she had been that baby, she had fought. Fought for those she loved and what they shared.

The chain his family magic had formed between them was merely a more permanent version of the bond they'd already been creating. She'd risked everything to save his mother, before she'd even known everything.

NO!

She screamed it again, an image of a knife being frozen in mid-air.

No!

She wasn't helpless. She had never been helpless.

Also, she knew what happiness was.

She called up one of her favorite memories. There was Padfoot, sitting on a broom, with her in front of him. As he slowly took her higher and higher, keeping her safe as she faced her biggest fear. Her fear of failure, of being unable to do something well.

He'd helped her conquer that long ago.

"Expecto Patronum!"

A huge silver dog erupted from her wand and bounded through the small, circular room. It herded the darkness away from her friends and brother.

More silver creatures emerged as soon as life came back to the others. A silver stag ran with the dog, as Padfoot and Prongs had once run together so long ago. Now they were joined by a horse, racing neck and neck with the stag, while a crow swooped and soared above them all, herding the last bit of darkness back into the room.

Fred slammed the door shut, as Hermione just barely managed to burn a mark on it before the room began to once again spin.

When it stopped they all stared at each other, skin pale and sweaty, nightmares still visible in their eyes.

Hermione let out a small scream and spun around when a door opened on its own.

Standing there, wand raised and an expression on his face that she would never forget was her anchor. With Luna and George right behind him. All of them accompanied by a patronus.

George's raven swooped over to the crow and the two of them spun in the air together before disappearing. Luna's hare bounded around the room once before disappearing, along with the stag and horse, leaving Draco's patronus quite visible.

The little fox put his nose up in the air, as if sniffing for darkness. Once sure it was all gone it looked at her dog before they disappeared together.

Words were unnecessary.

The seven of them hurried out of the Department of Mysteries and back up and out of the Ministry. They only stopped long enough to ascertain that Tachiki and the Death Eater were unmoved before leaving.

It wasn't until they were tossing floo powder into the Atrium fireplaces that Hermione realized her fingers were interlaced with Draco's, and they had been since they shut the Department door.

Unwilling to let go, she pulled him into the fireplace with her, wrapping her arms around him as they tumbled through the sooty floo world and onto the solid oak floor of the Academy.

XXX

Draco's heart was thumping wildly as he fell onto the floor, his hand still intertwined with Hermione's.

He still didn't know how they had gotten down to the Department of Mysteries in time. He'd spent the entire run in his own mind, trying to help Hermione as Luna guided his physical body.

And cursing the fact that he couldn't contact Harry's mind unless Hermione was already there. Or they were physically touching. Such as when they had spoken beside the small creek.

Because he had tried. Oh, how he had tried.

How could seeing Hermione being attacked just now scared him more than Voldemort casting the death curse at him?

Was it the chain?

Or something else?

No.

It couldn't be something else. She was his cousin.

Just his cousin.

Keeping that thought in mind he pulled himself to his feet, helping her do the same.

She still refused to release his hand.

Curious and confused he reached out, but it wasn't just with words, like with Harry, skin-to-skin contact made it stronger.

He was with her in a small cage, one that looked to be formed of chains. In her mind, she was sitting on the ground, one hand wrapped around a chain.

Hermione?

She looked up at him, a wealth of emotions came towards him at once.

Anger.

Hurt.

Fear.

And something else, something pleasant.

Draco. Why are you here?

He moved and sat beside her, not touching.

You wouldn't let go of my hand.

She looked at her hand gripping the chain of the cage. Slowly she pried her fingers off of it. As soon as she did so he felt a distance grow between them.

He was still there, in her mind, but he could no longer feel her; only hear her.

That better?

No.

He reached out and took her hand. Instantly things grew sharper, clearer.

The cage shifted a bit, becoming less cage-like.

Did you want to talk?

She nodded and opened her mouth, then closed it again and sighed.

A thought came to him, born of her telling him to not go in Harry's mind. Was she unhappy about their chain? Did she only accept it because of duty?

Are you upset?

She didn't look at him.

About what?

About me being chained to you.

I don't know. I was alright with it, and I should still be. Our connection saved me from the inky darkness. But...I don't know. Our relationship has changed so much in so little time.

Would you feel better if I took up bullying younger students again?

NO!

She looked at him then and froze. Then she let out a rueful chuckle.

You were joking.

Yes, I can't go back to how I was. I think about bullying someone and I see Vincent being pressured to take the Mark. I see my father forced to work for a cause he no longer believed in. They're all the same, just on different scales.

You've grown wise.

No. I'm just actually learning from my experiences.

That's what wisdom is.

If you say so.

I do.

He chuckled.

Well, if you say so, it must be true.

She smiled back at him.

See, you're learning.

He smiled back and gave her hand a squeeze. Yes, he was learning. He just hoped it wasn't too late.

XXX

Harry sucked in huge breaths of air and reached out. He snagged Ginny's hand and pulled her close to him. They clung to each other.

His mother. He'd heard his mother.

And his father.

Both of his parents offering their lives for his. His mother being given a choice.

No wonder the blood wards Dumbledore had created were so powerful.

He didn't know if that inky darkness would have killed their soul, like a Dementor could, but he was glad they hadn't found out.

He owed Draco one.

He tilted his head down and rubbed his face over Ginny's soft hair. She squeezed him tighter.

"I was eleven again. Trapped in that diary. Then-then I was fourteen. Listening to you being tortured by Voldemort."

"I heard my parents die."

She let out a half-crazed laugh.

"Okay, you win."

"It's not a contest."

"I know."

He gave her a tight squeeze and then pulled back. Looking around he saw Fred sitting on the floor, George gripping his shoulder tightly and whispering. Luna was waving her wand around, eliminating any soot residue and cleaning up the evidence of their 'adventure'.

Hermione and Draco drew his attention. Their hands were interlinked and there was a somewhat vacant expression in both of their eyes.

He had the odd premonition that Narcissa Malfoy was going to get what she wanted. Something was drawing his sister to his old school rival. Something he wasn't a part of anymore.

He tried to reach out, but he couldn't reach her. He could see her, sitting in a glowing cage made of chains that looked fairly similar to a crib, which struck him as rather odd.

He released Ginny and walked over, reaching up, he took Hermione's other hand.

Instantly he was there beside her, in the cage.

Draco was on the other side. They both looked at him.

He was, like normal, unable to speak, so he sent her an image of the glass orb and a sense of urgency.

Hermione nodded and Harry saw Draco give her hand a squeeze.

They said something to each other, but he couldn't hear them.

He and Hermione just didn't have the same connection.

He pulled his hand out of hers and was once more in the lobby of the Academy.

He reached into his drawstring bag and pulled out the prophecy, "Let'