I walked through the remodeled atrium of the Ministry of Magic, nose buried in a book. I was so close to the end, hoping to get it over with before 8 a.m. when the work week would begin. My eyes darted back and forth on the final paragraph as I reached the lift that would take me down to the various sublevels. The book and the lift doors closed simultaneously, accompanied by my heavy sigh.
"A New Look at Magical Creatures in Case Law," a voice behind me read aloud. "Must not have been very good, to earn a sigh like that."
I glanced back to see who had spoken. Kingsley Shacklebolt gave me a bright smile, straightening his head from tilting it to read the spine of my book.
"Hello, Minister Shacklebolt," I greeted politely, kicking myself for being so lost in thought that I didn't notice the Minister of Magic himself. I was trying to be more professional as an adult, but I was still a bookworm at heart. "The book itself is perfectly fine," I explained. "It just doesn't contain any new information."
"Perhaps not for you and your bright mind," he complimented.
I smiled in return, but such compliments were becoming tiresome. In school, I had imagined graduating and finally being surrounded by adults who took things like research and knowledge seriously. Now that I was 19 and working in that "real world," it simply wasn't meeting my expectations. My coworkers at the ministry were just older versions of my classmates. And the average person was much like Harry and Ron, with many other things pulling their attention from learning.
People filed in and out of the lift on each floor, making progress slow, but finally I reached level 4, housing the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Shortly after the Battle of Hogwarts back in May, I'd begun advocacy work to help the disenfranchised house elves, and ended up lobbying for the rights of all kinds of magical creatures. In the five months since I'd joined the ministry, the office had doubled in size to handle the growing workload as more and more magical creatures sought legal recognition. It was the kind of work I'd felt passionate about ever since I met Dobby and realized how badly the wizarding world treated anyone less than human. At some level, I acknowledged the deeper motivation in my own mind--as a muggleborn, I had a lesser status too. Even now, after the fall of Voldemort, some wizards were still concerned with bloodlines.
Speak of the devil, I thought to myself, seeing a disturbingly familiar witch with blond and black hair. She stood with a hand on one hip as she spoke to an employee.
"Well, when will she be in?"
"That is, uh, she's not due for another minute or so, M-Madame Malfoy, ma'am," the worker stuttered, tugging at his collar. "Wait, there she is!"
Narcissa Malfoy, witness to my torture, turned the full force of her flinty gaze on me. I stiffened with half a breath caught in my throat.
"There you are," she said. "Finally. Do you have somewhere more private than this glorified hallway where we can speak?"
Her eyes were as cold as I remembered from that fateful night at Malfoy Manor. Determined to maintain a professional demeanor, I took a few breaths and focused on how good it felt to punch Draco in the face in third year.
"My office is at the end of the hall," I said, shooting for a polite tone but sounding more like a funeral director.
"Come, then," she commanded, striding away.
She's leading me to MY office! I clenched my fists but followed without protest. Better to stay calm and get this menace out of here as quickly as possible. I ignored the pitying looks from my coworkers as we went by.
When we reached my office, I stepped around her and tapped my wand on the door to unlock it, keeping more distance between us than was probably necessary. I followed her inside and sat in the rickety chair behind my desk. The department was a little underfunded, sure, but it wasn't a glorified hallway. As I watched Mrs. Malfoy sit down in the more comfortable visitor's chair and take a look around the room, I silently thanked my past self for keeping my office so tidy, unlike my book-infested apartment. I didn't need to give this aristocratic witch another thing to criticize.
"I need you to do some research for me," Mrs. Malfoy said without preamble.
"On magical creatures?" I asked, wondering why she would come to me.
"No. Using the... oh, whatever it's called. I was recently made aware that muggles have some sort of... nonmagical web of information?"
"The World Wide Web?" I supplied.
"Yes, precisely. It may prove useful for my work."
"So you came to me," I drawled, "because I'm the closest thing to a muggle you could think of?"
"You may be a mu--muggleborn, but at least you're not an idiot."
I tensed, the scar on my arm burning slightly when she nearly spoke the slur aloud. It hadn't faded like normal scars do, and I couldn't be sure if the lingering effects were psychosomatic or a curse. Gritting my teeth, I asked, "Is that supposed to be a compliment?"
"It's simply a fact. How much do you know about my work in the ministry, Ms. Granger?"
I tried to shrug, but my shoulders were too tense to really pull it off. "I know you joined the Department of Mysteries after the war." And I hope they're keeping a close eye on you, I added silently.
"Yes, and predictably the department requires that the details remain a mystery. But I can tell you my work as an Unspeakable involves... putting things right. If you agree to help me, I can share my classified files with you. It's only temporary, and you will be paid a bonus for your assistance."
I squirmed in my chair as she spoke. I was loathe to admit it, but I was hooked from the moment she said "classified files." My strong aversion to her couldn't overpower my curiosity for those mysteries housed somewhere below my feet. If advocacy hadn’t been the clear choice for me, I might have applied to work there.
"If I agree to help, what would that entail?" I asked, delaying my answer.
"Working with me, gathering information, and analyzing that information."
Her answer was too vague to be helpful. I shrugged, knowing Unspeakables couldn't just go explaining their secrets away. Though a small, fearful part of me twisted in resistance, I said, "Okay, I might be interested."
She nodded as if she'd expected that answer. "Excellent."
"There's just a small problem," I admitted. "Only muggles can use the Web."
She waved a pale hand dismissively. "Whatever regulations Weasley's department has about misusing muggle artifacts, I'm certain the ministry will make an exception."
I was dying to know what could possibly be that important, but I had to be honest about our limitations. "It's not that. We literally can't use it. You should have seen me trying to use my parents' new computer over the summer. It crashed and wouldn't start back up until I stepped away. In my muggle studies class they explained that magical fields seem to interfere with digital signals. Interestingly, analog signals are fine, which is why old-fashioned telephones work while--"
"So you're telling me it's impossible? You won't be able to assist me?" Mrs. Malfoy interrupted.
I cleared my throat, wishing I wouldn't slip so easily into info-sharing mode. "I can't help you directly. But my neighbor can. She's very technically savvy. She's practically a witch herself."
"Practically a witch? You mean she...?" Mrs. Malfoy rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Of course you would live near muggles. But even this project won't make it permissible for us to break the Statute of Secrecy."
I rolled my eyes. "Of course. I meant that I'll find a way to ask for her help without, you know, accidentally revealing the existence of all wizardkind."
Her lips quirked, then tightened as she looked at me very carefully. "You understand this is on a need to know basis? You won't be able to tell the golden boy and his ginger lapdog."
"That's my boyfriend you're speaking about," I snapped.
She raised an unimpressed eyebrow and continued as if I hadn't spoken. "You'll be alone with this secret until such a time as it becomes public knowledge, which may be never."
As I started to respond, she raised her wand. My fingers flew to my own wand. I held it between us, tip trembling in midair as her hand hovered mid-motion. I belatedly realized her wand wasn't pointed at me, and that it was extremely unlikely that she would attack me after asking for my help. Sighing, I leaned back in my chair, tapping my wand on my leg in annoyance--at her, for making me put up with her presence, and at myself for having such a hair trigger response.
"You're rather too quick with that vine wood, Ms. Granger. The war is over," she chastised me. Then a dark look crossed her face. Rather than explaining her change in expression, she tilted her wand and asked sarcastically, "May I?"
I nodded, making myself sheathe my wand. It had been returned to me after the war when all kinds of stolen objects were sorted and matched with their owners. Mrs. Malfoy gave her wand a little wave and a scroll appeared on my desk.
"This is a secrecy contract for you to sign," she told me, "but don't decide right now. Think on it. Only sign it if you're willing to keep its terms. And only if you're able to work with someone you... despise, clearly. If you are, then come to my office tomorrow in the Department of Mysteries. Minister Shacklebolt will make sure someone takes care of your magical creature work in your absence."
As much as I pride myself on my rationality, there are some things my gut decides for me, before I've even finished thinking. This was one of those times. I knew I was going to sign the contract. Now it was only a matter of reading it in its entirety so I could be sure of what I was getting into. I unrolled the scroll just enough to peek at the title: Magically Binding Oath of Secrecy, Level X, Project 404. "How many levels of secrecy are there?" I asked.
"Ten. Level X only grants access on a per-project basis," she replied, standing up and automatically smoothing down the velvet of her robes as she prepared to leave.
"I suppose I have to start somewhere," I murmured, wondering what other amazing secrets were at the other levels.
"For what it's worth..." She stood still for a moment, looking as if she had her own internal debate going on. "I hope you'll say yes. Good day to you."
With that, she was gone, leaving me with only a scroll and a load of questions. Her words slowly sank in. I was being offered clearance to know about a big secret. And Mrs. Malfoy was being quite civil, unlike her son. But I couldn't forget how deeply involved she'd been with my worst enemies. My subconscious still feared her, still reacted to her with memories of that dark manor, which was not somewhere I wanted to linger. I'd either have to get used to it, or reject this opportunity.
I looked at the paperwork on my desk, then back to the scroll. It was time to be honest with myself. Ever since we won the war, everyday life had lost its luster. I was proud of my advocacy work at the ministry, but it wasn't enough. Even books weren't as compelling anymore, though I hadn't confessed that to anyone and still read often. Something was missing from my life. Mrs. Malfoy was not a welcome presence, but I felt more curious about the future than I had in months.
My attention turned irresistibly to the contract. Using a simple charm, I unrolled the entire scroll in the air to estimate how long it would take me to read it. It lengthened to a metre, then two, then ten, faster and faster until my office was filling up with paper.
"Finite! Finite incantatem!" I exclaimed, but it was too late. Paper was strung all over me, my desk, and the floor to a depth a rowboat could float in.
The intimidated coworker from earlier came to my office and reared back when he saw the interior. "Whoa! I was going to ask what that Malfoy woman wanted, but... maybe I should come back later?"
Oh, you know, I wanted to tell him, only an amazing opportunity to dig into a mystery. Instead, I said, "It's just a mountain of paperwork, as per."
"Mondays," he said sympathetically, shaking his head. "Need a hand?"
I thanked him but declined, and he left me to my mess. I managed to get the entire scroll rolled up again, though not without first getting my arm tangled in it and upending a lamp. Then, worst of all, I had to set it aside until my lunch break and focus on the usual morning workload.
I tapped my foot, trying to get some of the nervous energy out of my legs as noon approached. I'd recovered enough focus to finish a great deal of work, but now that my lunch break was only minutes away, I couldn't wait any longer. I reached for the scroll and carefully unrolled it just a half metre at a time. The text was incredibly detailed, outlining all the different levels of clearance in the department, and a separate protocol for project-level clearance. It described common mistakes that could reveal information, at which point I had to pause my reading and think for a minute.
I was alright at keeping secrets. It took Harry and Ron ages to find out I was using a time turner in third year. But I was also a notorious know-it-all, a term I hated. Really I love telling people fascinating things they might not have heard about. It would be terribly hard to keep such things to myself if they were classified. I'd have to be cautious and learn to keep my mouth shut sometimes.
It's a good job I was such a quick reader, otherwise I'd never be able to finish the scroll. I kept going through my whole lunch hour and forgot to eat anything, so I ate the lunch I packed while finishing my afternoon work. Finally the end of the workday came, and at exactly 5pm I hurried out with the scroll in hand. Rather than heading straight home, however, I decided to stop by Minister Shacklebolt's office.
"Ms. Granger!" he greeted me as I knocked on his door frame. He kept an open-door policy, literally, except when he was in a meeting.
"Do you have minute, Minister?" I asked, fidgeting with the scroll.
"Certainly, come right in." He pushed some papers aside. "Heading home? I ought to as well, but the paperwork never stops."
"Well, I'll try not to take much of your time. I just wanted to ask you about an opportunity that crossed my desk this morning."
"Ah, Narcissa's project."
"You're familiar?" I asked, well aware that there were a lot of things going on at the ministry and he surely didn't know about all of them.
"Of course, I authorized her to bring you in on it. What's on your mind?"
"Do you think it's a good choice for me? I don't even know what it's about, but I'm supposed to make a decision."
"I think you'll find it an interesting challenge, though you can drop out at any time if it's not a good fit."
I relaxed a little. "That's reassuring. And Mrs. Malfoy is... settling in well here?"
He leaned forward and folded his hands on the desk. "You mean, is she reformed."
I winced, reluctant to admit I didn't trust the ministry's judgment. They evidently trusted her enough to let her work as an Unspeakable. But after what she'd done, what she'd let happen to me personally, I was far more skeptical.
He nodded without even needing to hear me confirm it. "She's doing good work. None of us can see what's in her heart, of course. It's wise to not let your guard down so easily. But I can tell you that she's been a model employee."
"That's all I need to know, thank you," I said quickly, feeling a little too nosy. "Just making sure this is all above board."
"A good precaution," he assured me, shaking my hand in farewell. I left for home feeling a little better about my decision.