Tuesday 18th June 1996
Ministry of Magic, Department of Mysteries
The shriek rattled Hermione's bones, chilled her blood, it was so fearful. Her brain froze her for a moment of sheer terror, but then Harry had her hand and was tugging, and Ginny was running away, and Neville was shooting bolts of light from spells she wasn't aware he could even do. 'Go Neville!' she wanted to shout, but it didn't seem in the spirit of things, and perhaps she was a little hysterical, for surely these weren't the thoughts one was supposed to have when one was running for their life?
She was now running for her life, it seemed her feet had picked up the slack where her brain had given up, and they were carrying her away from the battle. A part of her brain shrieked out that Ron and the others were back there, she needed to go back, but then a streak of red flashed past her and somehow she knew they were out. Harry had her firmly and they were powering through the aisles, the shelves collapsing into chaos behind them as the voices of Seers past rose in chorus.
She should have known it was a trap. It seemed so obvious now, looking back. And Harry! Harry promised her he was working on his Occlumency! She supposed it was a bit much to ask that he master a complex art of mind-magic in three or four months, even were he assisted by someone competent and not entirely terrifying (see: anybody but Professor Snape), but it seemed like a personal betrayal that he quite obviously hadn't even tried. Now, they were being chased through a secretive Ministry department by a bunch of zealots that would love nothing more than to dance over her corpse, where the best case scenario probably included a hasty Obliviate, and the worst was Lord Voldemort's conquering the world.
Her hands seemed to be throwing spells of their own accord. Logically she knew that in one part of her head she was doing it herself, but her awareness seemed disconnected somehow. She didn't deal well with great deals of emotion, she tended to cry, and it was a bad time to burst out in tears, so she ran instead. It was like she was two people, one of whom was this amazing warrior woman, throwing curses with ease, and the other was a panicky, distressed wreck who only wanted to be back home with a book. Her most rule-abiding self was scolding her without guilt, telling her that Azkaban waited, and she ran as much from that possibility as she did the very real fanatics on her heels.
Someone grabbed Harry, she wasn't certain who it was, but they fell quickly at the point of her wand. She kicked his hand as she passed and he didn't stir. The body was soon covered in dust and glass and splinters of wood, down for the count. She shouted back for Neville and their hands found each other, alternately dragging and being dragged until they slammed through a door and locked it behind them.
Hermione took what felt like her first breath of air since the fight had begun. Her senses, so overloaded before, were starting to calm. A ticking seemed to burrow into her brain, clicking along to her heartbeat, mesmerising her until she turned and faced the room full of clocks.
"Hermione!" someone yelped, and something tugged at her robes. She was pressed up against the door, listening to Malfoy strategise and the footsteps approaching. She looked at Harry, real terror in her face. Her mind replayed 'you can kill the others if necessary' over and over. "What do we do?" she asked, desperate for a lead.
"Well, we don't stand here waiting for them to find us, for a start," he said, and glanced around the room. The bell jar flickered beguilingly in its centre, the bird swimming up out of its egg once more. The clock's ticking seemed friendly, inviting, luring her in, and Hermione quite wanted to curl up here and stay forever. "Let's get away from this door."
They ran quietly, fleetfooted across the floor towards the other door. The room seemed to get longer the farther they ran, but Harry and Neville didn't appear to notice. Hermione did. The walls stretched like plastic, the floor seeming to change substance, a sticky tar-like goop claiming her shoes. The boys pulled ahead, not looking back, completely unaffected by the switch while she appeared to be running through quicksand.
There was something niggling at the back of her mind, clawing for attention. The grandfather clock near the exit seemed to be whispering to her, loathe to allow her exit. She very much wanted to keep running, launch herself out of the door and never come back, but at the same time, the light from the bell jar was so very seductive…
There was a thud from the back door, and then the sound of a man's shouting. Harry and Neville froze in place, looking back at her with wide eyes.
"Stand aside," a gruff voice said. "Alohomora!"
As one, the teenagers dived under desks. Hermione shuffled herself in, drawing her legs up to her chest until they would be invisible to any casual glance, but left her wand-hand free for casting. She didn't have much movement in it, so couldn't think to use any more complex spells, but a stupefy would be possible. She could see Harry curled up in a similar position just yards away, and the sole of Neville's shoes. They were a bit worn, she noticed. She'd have to warn him about that. She had to stifle a giggle at the thought, adrenalin making her lightheaded.
The two Death Eaters drew closer, the hems of their robes brushing the floor as they slinked through like hunting leopards. "They might've run straight through to the hall," said the gruff one, sending hope to Hermione's poor overtaxed heart.
"Check under the desks," the other directed. There was a beat of silence as one of them bent their knees.
"STUPEFY!" Harry yelled, the bolt of red light striking the nearest Death Eater. He wheeled backwards and fell, knocking a grandfather clock to the ground with him, its curlicued face smashing deafeningly against the hard stone floor. Hermione swung into action, crawling from her hiding space to get a better aim, only to stare straight up into merciless brown eyes. Her breath caught, their gazes clashing, his mask jiggling on his face as though he laughed.
He wasn't laughing, she realised, as the sound reached her ears. "Avada-"
Harry was there, around the man's legs, knocking the two of them sideways so that his spell went askew. In Hermione's head the ticking ratcheted up in volume, like angry clicking insects swarming her, dizzyingly loud in the absence of all other sound. Neville was causing a ruckus, disarming both men, but Hermione was on her feet now, staggering to one side until she had reached the bell jar. The little bird within seemed to look at her, swimming an extra loop for her benefit before being absorbed back into its shell. She blinked, and the image was gone.
The men were charging for the door for some reason, the Death Eater lunging at something on the floor. Hermione stopped, frozen, simply observing the scene through a curiously clouded head. It seemed the second she had taken this spot she had lost the ability to do all else. The clocks still murmured to her, soothing sounds now, like she had done something right. She liked that feeling, having pleased them, and it brought a smile to her face.
A flash of scarlet stung her eyes, sending her stumbling backwards, blind. Cool glass touched her neck and then it seemed to be raining. Sight returned in time for her to see the rain, beautiful golden droplets mixing with diamond-like glass. Mesmerised, she watched it fall, settling on her fingers and absorbing into the skin, setting facets of her flesh to glowing in the light. She felt it sprinkle her face, her hair wetted down by the odd glimmering substance, like some sort of sand, before disappearing.
And with it, she began to disappear, too.
Her fingers melted away into invisibility as she watched. It took a second for her to realize what was happening, and then even when she opened her mouth to scream the other boys were busy. The Death Eater struggled with the bell jar, which his head seemed to have acquired, and then they were running in fear and Hermione was left alone to watch the man teeter closer.
"No," she whispered, fear inflaming her nerves, trying to pull away from the cabinet, but stuck in place somehow. Glitter winked up at her sinisterly, coating her clothes, burrowing further to reach her skin as though it were alive. The man's eyes were suddenly on her, widened in absolute dread. She watched his head shrink and grow, and then he fell.
The jar smashed, the bird and the Death Eater freed, but the odd golden wind blew out into the room. The Death Eater's entire body was sucked up, reduced to a stunted child's figure with an ugly man's head, the opposite of what had happened when he had been ensconced within. Hermione could only stare, open-mouthed, as his fingers shrank further and his legs shrivelled beneath his robes.
The bird was returned to its egg, which rolled harmlessly away to hide under a table holding antique French carriage clocks.
The wind whirled and spun, perhaps looking for signs of life, only inches from Hermione. She was resigned now, staring into the dead eyes of Rabastan Lestrange, held open perhaps forever by the horror of his death. She looked up at the whirlwind just as it struck her where she hung, staked out like a sacrifice against the Time Chamber wall. She knew nothing more.
The Ministry was dark, empty enough that their presence went unnoticed. Moody slinked along one wall, Nymphadora along the other, providing cover for Kingsley, Remus and Sirius as they led the charge through the centre of the atrium. The waterfall shimmered gloriously in the sparse light, but no one paid any mind to it, instead heading determinedly for the lifts. Moody slipped in first, then Kingsley and the other men, with Dora bringing up the rear, her usually mischievous face set in the mask of her profession, wand held out in preparation for battle.
It was incongruously normal in spite of the strain, standing in the lift as it slid down through the levels of the Ministry. Sirius even tapped his foot, and Remus thought that maybe he would start to whistle if Moody hadn't shot him a black look, promising retribution if so much as a single note left his lips. Despite outside appearances, Remus could feel Sirius's muscles bunched tight with tension inches from his own, his jaw clenched. He was terrified on the inside, torturing himself with thoughts of what could be happening below them, of how they might be too late to help.
"The second that door opens," Moody growled, his one good eye fixed on the panel where numbers flickered and flashed as they continued their descent, "we separate. Tonks, go left. Black, right. Shacklebolt, you and I will take the furthest doors, and Lupin you can cover us." He used his magical eye to glare at each of them in turn, lingering for the longest on Sirius. "This is an extraction. Defense tactics only, no heroics. Get in, get the kids, get out."
Sirius shifted slightly, his eyes going dark as a scream echoed through the walls. It was the first indication that anything less than mundane was occurring anywhere in the building, and it set Remus' teeth on edge. Dora's wand twitched, her legs bending to prepare to launch herself out. The lift hit level nine.
"Reckless behaviour could get us all killed." Moody grunted as a reminder. It was a remark obviously tailored to Sirius, though Dora twitched as if absorbing the reprimand as her own. Remus touched Sirius' arm briefly, a gesture of comfort for himself and a warning for his friend. There was no time he felt better than going into battle with Padfoot at his back, but Sirius' protective instincts had a habit of overwhelming his good sense. If Harry was in danger…
The doors slid open, the witch's voice overhead chiming their destination pleasantly. Dora flew out, already shooting off curses in every direction as she lunged to the left. Kingsley ran through straight ahead, covering Moody behind him with a shield as Moody did the same for him. Remus' eyes met Sirius' cool grey orbs for a moment, reading the vengeful madness there. Something clenched in his gut, foreboding racking his body, and he wanted to shout, drag the man back, take him home where he would be safe.
The moment passed and they were out in the dizzying blackness, lit by the burning of the walls and the spellfire from the surrounding rooms. It was empty at first glance, Tonks' attacks apparently precautionary. His foot hit an obstruction and he glanced down to see a man, his silver mask askew, with legs bent in either direction from the influence of a jelly-legs jinx and a bootmark on his face. He stared up at the ceiling, seeing nothing, and it took a moment for recognition to kick in.
"Travers," Remus murmured, leaning down to check his pulse while continuing to survey the area for action. Fights continued on in the adjoining rooms as the Aurors and Sirius incapacitated those Death Eaters that had been left behind. He looked down at the man beneath him – a man who had undoubtedly killed numerous people, and tortured countless more. Remus' stomach twisted with shame when he realised that he thought the man's death no real loss.
He swept his fingers over the man's lids to close them and stood up to his full height. The entire interaction had taken less than a minute, and that was all the time it had taken for Nymphadora to return to him, her face pale. "Remus," she whispered, holding something in her hands. At first glance it appeared to be twigs, broken carelessly as someone walked across them, but the vine pattern on one curiously tapered tip suggested otherwise.
"Hermione?" He asked, meeting black eyes, fearing the worst.
"No sign of her, but there are two broken wands here. Hermione and at least one other are unarmed." She was trying to stay calm, unaffected, but her voice was too strained to carry it off.
Kingsley strode up to the two of them, cradling a limp form in his arms. "The Lovegood girl," he told them. "Stunned. I figure, leave her that way, then we can get her out without a fight." His teeth flashed in a grin.
"Some 'elp over 'ere!" Moody shouted, struggling out of a room, his limp more pronounced than usual due to the six-foot ginger he was toting along. "Need me wand arm free." Dora took the opposite side to her mentor and between them they lugged the boy over to the lift, his head rolling around on his shoulders, pitiful moans pouring from his lips. Kingsley joined them, lowering Luna to the marbled floor.
"Someone should stay with them," he said, looking down at the pile with his mouth set in a straight line.
"Ward 'em in until we know what we're dealing with," Moody offered instead, again prowling the chamber.
"Three of them are down," Nymphadora reported dutifully. "One in here, two in the Time Chamber." She wasn't going to look too closely at what 'down' entailed, not until the battle was over. "Two of the kids are unarmed, by my guess."
"Found the little one," Sirius' voice echoed, and all four Order members watched him haul little Ginny Weasley through an unidentified door. Remus couldn't tell exactly what was wrong with her, but she was hopping and wincing. Sirius guided her gently to the lift, settling her next to her brother.
"There's loads of them," she whispered, pain thrumming through her tone. "Malfoy, Lestrange… more that I didn't recognise. At least ten, maybe…" She gasped as agony rocked her, then spat out, "Harry, Neville and Hermione should be around somewhere. Neville has my wand…"
The five Order members exchanged looks. That meant there were still at least seven of them in the game, and three kids. As if on cue, a shout came from behind one of the doors marked by a blazing cross, and the aurors all kicked into action.
The door flew open at the power of their passage. Nymphadora shot off a stunning spell immediately, and Remus joined her once he caught sight of a target. Lucius Malfoy took the brunt of the curse, staggering backwards, freeing the boy he held captive to run. Remus charged the room, Sirius at his back, the two of them heading for the boys. Do not engage, Moody's voice said in his head. Get in, get the kids, get out.
A figure grabbed hold of Harry as he passed, but Neville stabbed him in the eye, sending him hurtling forward. With the heartbreakingly quick reflexes of a child who had once been a target for bullies, Harry span out of the man's arms and cut him down with a stupefy. The two boys raced up the stairs towards the exit, ignorant of further danger. Sirius changed directions the second that happened, hurtling upwards, tackling Dolohov to the floor as the man attempted to cast. Neville, the hapless victim of a dancing hex, teetered dangerously close to the lip of the stairs until Kingsley grabbed him, countering the hex smoothly and shoving him up towards the door.
Rookwood and Rodolphus descended on Kingsley with a vengeance. The two men were quick, but no better tactically than the auror, who began to thwart their attacks with the skill of a man who had worked his way to the heights of defensive magic. Too much was happening even for Remus to decipher; he heard Bellatrix' familiar cackle in the background, but he was fighting his own cloaked enemies; men he didn't recognize, but undoubtedly had fought before, for the men's magic had a familiar taste. Sirius flashed past, charging to the floor in protection of his cousin. Dolohov lay still, half hidden by the chairs surrounding the dais.
Kingsley's opponents fell and he ran to Moody's aid, who had fallen somewhere along the way. Remus used the cover of a strong shield to take up his position, pushing Neville, who had looked frozen in terror, towards the door. "Protect the others," Remus snapped, shoving again. The boy came to his senses, fear-filled eyes fixed on his old professor, before giving a nod and leaving the room at a clip. Something fell from his pocket and shattered on the ground, but Remus barely noticed, and if he spared a single thought to the occurrence it was probably something acidic about priorities and stealing from the Ministry.
His back to the door, Remus didn't see Dumbledore arrive, but he witnessed the result. Immediately his opponents fled, Moody and Kingsley's too. Malfoy, who had found his feet at some point, was taken down by a swift curse from the Headmaster, as well as Dolohov, who had begun to stir without any of their noticing.
Dora and Sirius both were too wrapped up in their attack on Bellatrix, dodging and weaving together in a dance that seemed perfectly choreographed. It stuck in Remus' mind, that dance, the graceful leaping and spinning through the lights that flashed purple, red, green. Sirius was laughing, the prick, a venomous grin on his face as he circled the archway, keeping it between himself and the woman at all times.
Dora backed off only to come back blazing, manoeuvring herself behind the other witch, sending curses her way until the Death Eater was swivelling between them in an attempt to keep up, shielding and casting with a mania-induced strength no one with sanity could ever hope to achieve.
Remus glanced back, suddenly wondering why Dumbledore wasn't intervening when he had done so for every other duel. The old man was stood watching, his face inscrutable but nonetheless riveted, eyes bouncing between Sirius and the archway with some sort of morbid fascination. It unnerved Remus, sent his skin crawling, suddenly remembering a warning he'd brushed off earlier in life – Remus, he doesn't do anything that doesn't benefit himself. He helps you because you're useful – the day you're no longer an asset, you become the target.
His head swung around to watch Sirius again, his breath catching in his throat at his grace, the grin on his handsome features. Bellatrix was getting angry, her magic going haywire, finding itself other targets as it disintegrated rocks and demolished stone benches, any way to release itself. Whips of it shot forward and backwards, injuring anything it could to assist in the fight, working with a cold sort of self-preservation.
Nobody else seemed to notice, but he did, because he was a magical creature attuned to the wild magicks. He saw the vibrations, therefore saw as it began to retreat back inside of her, building up for a grand finale. He was running before he could stop himself, almost flying up to the dais. Dora recognised what he was doing, some instinct preparing her for action.
They left the ground at the same time, colliding with Bellatrix and sending the lot of them rolling off the edge of the dais to hit the ground mercilessly hard. Bellatrix gasped for breath in his ear, but Dora's wand was already there. Remus' body pounded with fury, the memory of her wand lighting, green and sickly as she powered her Avada. He'd cut her off at the first syllable, but it wasn't enough for him, not when she had planned to kill Sirius, and would happily do it again.
Wide-eyed, the woman looked up at him and Dora, the two of them bent over her as human shields. "Going to kill me?" she asked in her childish voice, batting her eyelashes. Remus' hands were on her throat, Dora's wand against her chest, the two of them struggling together between the urge to kill and the wish to stay pure, not to dirty their souls with murder. She watched them fight the instinct, smiling up into the faces of her captors. She turned her head a quarter inch to stare into Remus' eyes. "I would have killed him, you know," she murmured, a soft, confiding tone. "And, you know what, little wolfie?" She beamed, her teeth darkened from her years without proper hygiene, distractingly decorated with blood spatter. "I would have enjoyed it, too."
"Enough!" Albus' voice broke the spell, and Dora cast a stunner directly into the dark witch's heart. Any good defense instructor would have scolded her, told her of the danger of that action, how a stunner to the heart could just as easily cause death as an Avada. Instead, to his shame, he looked up at her and nodded.
Remus let her go, his mind fogged, weak and disoriented. His first instinct was to turn his head in search, but he was right there in front of him, a couple of feet behind Moody and Dumbledore, whole and hearty and looking just like he always had. He was offered a hand up and Remus took it almost absently, ignoring everybody else, even Dumbledore's orders, to find his best friend.
"Good one, Moony," Sirius said lightly, though his face showed rightful apprehensiveness as he watched the werewolf approach.
"Don't you ever do that again, Padfoot," Remus scowled, reaching the other man's side and punching him hard in the shoulder. Sirius staggered, but turned his face up and laughed, the whole thing brightening his dour disposition beyond measure.
"Were you worried about me?" he coughed, backing up when Remus took a menacing step forward. "Oh, sweet Moony, I love you too."
Growls ripped through his throat but his next touch was tender, one finger to the man's cheek to check his face for injury. Sirius shook his head, strands of ebony hair dancing across his neck and shoulders. "You worry too much," he advised, before peering up into Remus' own green eyes. "Are you alright? You took quite a fall."
"Fine," Remus responded once satisfied that his friend was uninjured. He turned to scan the room, which was slowly emptying. The Aurors were securing the prisoners for transport to Azkaban, and Dumbledore had disappeared with Harry – the most unsurprising occurrence of the evening. He assumed the lot of them were headed back to Hogwarts, but something bugged Remus enough to keep him there. "Have you seen Hermione?" he asked, scanning the wreckage.
"Nah, mate. We sure she was here?" As was Sirius' way, his voice questioned Remus but his body was already joining in the search. He trusted Remus' judgement, which continued to be a novel experience, despite how long they had been close.
Remus led the way to the door, pushing through and surveying the area. "Dora found her wand," he muttered, searching the air for signs of the young woman. He followed her distinctive scent to an unmarked door which had been left cracked open, and he recognized it as the one Dora had found the wands in. The other team had swept through already, Remus could tell by the absence of any bodies, but the smell of Hermione lingered.
He took two steps inside, and stopped, frozen. He heard Sirius' voice outside, but didn't – couldn't – answer. "Merlin," he swore, as his mind shifted and pieces of a puzzle he hadn't known existed slipped into place with a click to match the ticking of the clocks that surrounded him. Dust glittered on the floor, distinctive golden frames littering the mess. A human-size shape, distinctively Hermione from the shape of the head, was silhouetted about two feet above the floor against the remains of a cabinet, the outline illustrated by a paste of yellowing sand.
He would never like gold the same way again.
Once he pulled himself together, he checked the place out and ascertained that the trail had indeed gone cold.
Slipping out of the room, he closed the door behind him as though to block out the truth. Sirius waited patiently by the lifts, though his foot was tapping again, and his eyes skated over every detail of the room. Now that the battle was over, Sirius was realising where he was – a highly classified area filled with secret Ministry projects and lots of fun, dangerous trinkets – and his curiosity must be killing him. Indeed, his fingers were curled into a fist to help hold back that pesky habit he had for touching things that didn't belong to him.
The entire image was endlessly endearing to Remus, and he didn't have the emotional fortitude to hold back a grin. "Good dog," he teased as they boarded the lift. Sirius barked softly on a smirk, winking at Remus. They were quiet for a moment, absorbing the events of the day and, for Remus, the consequences of his revelation.
"Will you remind Moody that I didn't do anything excessively stupid today, please?" Sirius asked in a low voice, suddenly serious. Remus looked over to see a mournful expression taking the place of a smile on his dear face. "I don't think I can handle being stuck in that house for much longer."
"He doesn't listen to me," Remus told him, trying not to sound resentful. Then, feeling guilty, he added, "I'll talk to Dumbledore, see what I can do." This only reminded him of the detached look on the old man's face as he watched Sirius come close to dying, though, and he fought back a shiver.
The doors swung open to a torrent of flashbulbs and an ocean of press. Remus stumbled, startled, and Sirius froze.
"Sirius Black!" A voice shouted, and a tiny man in a bowler hat shoved his way through to stand in front of them. Sirius flinched back at the appearance of the Minister, Remus automatically taking up a protective position. Fudge, ignoring this, pressed on. "We need to speak, privately," he muttered, entering the lift and pressing the door to close it, effectively locking them in together. "Immediately," he said, taking advantage of the men's shock. He didn't seem to be hexing, and he was without security, so Remus was inclined to be hopeful, but it seemed too much to ask after the night they had had.
"No, you don't!" Dora shrieked, tumbling in as the doors slid shut, Harry on her arm looking determined. Perhaps nobody had ever looked as beautiful as she did in that moment, an angel sent to save him as he stood in a lift, the only witness between an escaped convict (however wrongful his sentence was) and the man responsible for his misery. "I think we'll sit in on this, if you don't mind, Minister." She sniffed, suddenly looking haughty and regal. Her mother was eminently visible in her face and stature, even decorated as she was with blood and developing bruises. Remus sent Harry a questioning look, to which the boy just winked back cheekily. His face was flushed with excitement, practically radiating self-satisfaction. "Representatives of the family. Just to make sure it's all above board, you realise. We wouldn't want any more… misunderstandings."
Clearly rattled, Fudge nodded briskly. "Indeed, Miss Tonks. A wise idea… a very wise idea indeed."
Sirius and Remus, mashed against the wall of the lift, exchanged confused, wary looks, which Dora simply grinned at. "So long as we understand each other, sir," she replied jauntily. "Lead on!"