It was as Harry Potter fell that a single, brilliant and gleaming idea struck Voldemort. The battle, the struggle, all the stumbling blocks this boy had placed in his path . . . .
This war Potter had come so achingly close to winning . . . .
They all pointed to one simple, yet startling conclusion that Voldemort had not wanted to admit, but was clearly undeniable.
Harry Potter had been a formidable wizard in his own right. If he'd managed to get the boy under his sway when he'd tried, he might've had the Wizarding World in his clutches that much sooner.
Lifting his gaze from the fallen young wizard, Voldemort surveyed the battle still raging around him. Potter's followers knew they had lost, yet they kept fighting. Wasted efforts, but commendable, nonetheless.
This world was his, now. And he wanted more like Harry Potter to help him hold his rule for decades to come. His attention touched on each combatant as he turned in a slow circle.
He could simply seek out those like Potter, born from the blending of pure and muddied blood. However, locating them and swaying them to his will seemed an arduous task that would do nothing more than distract him from sculpting the Wizarding world according to his design.
But there was another way to secure his impending reign.
In order to have more wizards like Harry Potter, he would have to recreate the means by which Potter had come to be. Scooped up by him and trained from early on, as he perhaps should have done with Potter, rather than trying to end him. Taught to revere their Dark Lord and serve him without question.
The first step, of course, was for such a being to have a powerful Muggle-born witch for a mother, a pure-blood for a father . . . .
Yes. This idea was so brilliant and clear that there was a strange sort of bliss to it.
He turned his gaze back to one witch, in particular—still in the thick of the fray. Still standing while her comrades fell in droves.
An experiment would be necessary, of course.
But first, he needed to organize his new empire. He needed his reign clear, and his power base stabilized before there was anything to be kept secure.
He watched in a strange sort of calm as she dropped Antonin Dolohov with stunningly well-timed Petrificus Totalus, leaving her to face off against Thorfinn Rowle.
With a tired sigh—she should've killed her opponent, silly girl—Voldemort took aim. The witch never saw his petrification spell coming.
As she fell, Thorfinn looked toward the caster. "My Lord," he said through clenched teeth, "I had her!"
"I know you did, Thorfinn." Voldemort made his way to them. He slipped the wand from the girl's fingers, snapping it in two—Bellatrix's wand, pity—before hurling the counter spell to unlock Dolohov's body with an almost careless flourish.
"Do not harm her. I want all the Mudbloods gathered up—as unharmed as you can manage, if you would."
Thorfinn had a bad feeling about the gleam in the Dark Lord's eyes. He didn't like it, even as he hoisted the petrified girl up and tossed her—somewhat gently, as their Lord's command was clear—over his shoulder.
As Antonin climbed to his feet, he exchanged a confused glance with Thorfinn. He was admittedly relieved he wasn't being forced to kill her, but the Dark Lord had a plan in mind . . . .
And that concerned him deeply.
Eight Months Later
Thorfinn and Antonin gaped at the Dark Lord . . . . Surely there had been something they'd misunderstood in what he was asking of them—well, not asking, because the Dark Lord didn't ask for anything, he demanded it. Regardless, they each felt certain they could not have heard their Lord's orders correctly; they just couldn't have.
"Both of us?" The younger wizard asked, his brow furrowing.
Voldemort gave a bored nod.
Thorfinn winced, as though trying to wrap his brain around this mission was giving him a headache. Not that Antonin could very much say he blamed the other man.
"I don't believe this is a two-person task, My Lord," Antonin said, shaking his head. "I could see to this, myself."
With a painful-seeming turn of his head, Thorfinn pinned Antonin with a glare. "Tell me you're joking! We're being ordered to wed that vile little bitch, and all you can think is about is that you won't have her all to yourself?"
"This is not about me, or you, or even her. This is about overkill and the Dark Lord's forces being shorted by not one, but two of his followers while this is carried out."
Nodding, Thorfinn frowned thoughtfully as he crossed his legs at the ankles and leaned back in his seat, his arms folded across his chest. "Really? Because I thought the problem was that you can't keep your wand tucked away when it comes to her."
"Enough." Voldemort was irked by their petulant behavior. Of course, Thorfinn was young and headstrong, and overly confident. Antonin harbored some bizarre fascination for the girl. The rationale of each side only proved they could not understand why they were both required for this.
"I care not for your feelings on the matter, nor your petty squabbling," the serpentine wizard said in a low, scathing voice.
At his tone, both men snapped their attention to their Lord. They immediately bowed their heads and uttered apologies.
"You are not the only ones receiving such an order. Each of my inner circle is participating in this experiment. I can, and will trust no one else with such a task. The formal, binding rite of marriage is required, as Ministry research has shown that children born to witches or wizards out of wedlock turn out as squibs."*
They both looked thunderstruck by that tidbit of information. To think, the previous Ministry's regimes had never thought to actually investigate the matter, simply writing off squib births as some form of birth defect.
But Voldemort was nothing if not thorough. He'd needed the assurance that his experiment would produce no useless outcomes.
Heaving a weighted sigh, Voldemort tapped a long, bony finger against his jaw. "This Mudblood is special. She is the last remnant of Harry Potter's preciousD.A. And, during her incarceration, she has gained herself something of a reputation for being . . . feisty."
Thorfinn's brows shot up at the word choice, but he kept his mouth shut.
"She is an exception. That is why I require two," Voldemort said, his voice hissing out through tightly clenched teeth. " I want her ground down."
Antonin lifted the scroll, perusing it once more to see the terms of this marriage. Farce or not, sharing her or not, she would be his in some measure, and he couldn't quite seem to think around that notion.
Holding in an annoyed groan that would only show his age, he was sure, Thorfinn dropped his gaze to the floor. There was no getting out of this, and he doubted this was going to be nearly as fun as he once imagined having Hermione Granger at his mercy might be.
Hermione grinned viciously from behind the bars of her cell door as the Auror assigned to her limped away to check what damage her squarely leveled kick might've done to his bits.
Gripping her hands around the cold iron, she shouted after him, "Maybe next time you'll listen when I say don't touch me!"
The only answer she received was the door to the solitary confinement wing slamming shut. Sighing, she turned away, taking a deep breath of the musty air in her familiar little cage.
Kicking up one of the loose stones from the floor, she grabbed it and went back to the veritable novel she'd been etching into the wall. Really, it was the only way to keep sane. She could hear the others, sometimes, talking to themselves, pacing, singing softly.
Not Hermione Granger. She spent her days writing her account of the Second Wizarding War, and everything that had led up to it. From the day she'd met Harry Potter to the present, she was determined to get down everydetail.
It helped her keep track of the passage of time, and gave her busy work for her mind and hands. She sat on her knees on the cold, unforgiving stone floor and continued her tale.
It also helped to realize that Voldemort, for whatever warped purpose he might have in mind, was keeping her and the other surviving Muggle-borns unharmed. Containing them all on floor off-limits to the Dementors, and Aurors who threatened, but never laid a hand on them, other than to push them about from time to time—a theory Hermione had personally tested every chance she got—were a glaringly clear indication of that.
Honestly, she might even consider her incarceration pleasant, if not for the occasional sounds of her prison-mates slowly going mad from the monotony, and the mindless blending of one day into the next.
She was pretty sure something like eight months had passed since they'd been dragged from Hogwarts and thrown in here, but she could be off by a few weeks. She was certain some days she'd forgotten to mark.
The door to the solitary wing opened, but Hermione ignored the sound. She was far too busy writing about the day she'd learned of the Order of the Phoenix. She supposed she always did question if her knowledge of the Order's existence had inspired her to create Dumbledore's Army . . . it was certainly plausible.
"On your feet, Granger."
"I've already had my very refreshing, ice-cold hosing down today, thanks very much," she said, not bothering to even glance over her shoulder.
Her cell door opened, and Hermione turned, her expression severe. The loss of all her friends, the darkened fate of the Wizarding World, the terror of whatever Voldemort had planned for her and those like her . . . . She'd wept and screamed and raged for all of that months ago.
By the end of her seventh week of captivity, there was nothing left accept her anger. Her life as she'd known it was over, she might as well be dead. That there was a clear effort to keep her alive, however, only emboldened her.
Every encounter with the Aurors had become a dare for them to kill her. And not one of them had taken the bait.
"Go away," she said, her chestnut eyes narrowing lethally. There was a certain satisfaction simmering through her at how the wizard backpedaled a step at her tone.
He shook his head, trying for a brave front, which would be easier, was he permitted to hex the little bitch. But knowing what awful fate awaited if any of them damaged one of the Dark Lord's special prisoners was not worth the moments of glee he would feel hitting her with a Cruciatus curse.
"Can't. You've got a visitor. Now move."
Huh. Surprise. That was something she hadn't felt in a long while.
Brows shooting up, she dropped her makeshift writing implement and climbed to her feet.
Careful to avoid anything that might seem like intended bodily contact, the Auror turned and led her from her cell. Down the long row of similar cages and out the door of the solitary confinement wing they went.
As Hermione walked, she looked into the other cells, confirming something she thought she'd noticed while being led back from her forcible and unpleasant washing a short time earlier. It wasn't her imagination . . . .
Some of the cells were, indeed, empty.
She puzzled over where her fellow prisoners might've been taken for such a long period of time as the Auror guided her through a strangely less dank and depressing corridor she'd never seen before. The solid wooden doors lining the otherwise blank walls made think that perhaps these were offices or quarters for the Aurors—or both.
Maybe there was finally an answer to be had about their mysterious incarceration.
He pushed open the last door along the left wall and ushered her inside.
She stepped into the pleasantly decorated office, her battered bare feet soothed by the unexpected cushion of plush carpet beneath them. Hermione felt vaguely as though she was in one of those spy dramas her mum and dad used to watch—with the villain in the giant chair turned away from the hero, so the audience could only guess who it was.
But the chair was not faced away from her, and she already knew the villain of her story. He sat right there, staring back at her, beady-eyed, a grin twisting his thin, ugly lips.
"Hermione Granger," he said, his tone syrupy sweet.
The unexpected nicety in his voice unsettled her, kicking of something in the pit of her stomach that—like surprise—she'd not felt in quite some time. Fear.
But she refused to let him see that she was scared. He'd taken everything else from her, she would not give him her last shred of dignity, too.
Tilting her chin defiantly, she held his gaze steadily as she said, "Tom Riddle." That simmering satisfaction returned at the bite of anger that crossed his snaky face, tempering her fear somewhat
Ever the mindful and masterful manipulator, however, Voldemort got his palatable irritation with her in check, keeping that smarmy grin in place. "You do realize, Hermione, that the last people to call me by that name are all dead."
"Aren't they lucky, then?"
"I see talk of your rebellious attitude rings true," he said his voice thoughtful, now; he found her spirited nature quite amusing. She wished for death—if not for her unwitting position as would-be mother of his future first lieutenant, he might have acquiesced.
"What is it you want with me, anyway, Tom?"
"I want to offer you a gift." With a flick of his wand, a package upon the desk before him rose up and floated across the room to hover before her. "Open it, I assure you it won't bite," he assured her when she hesitated to take it.
Her gaze cold as it held his—needless to say, a gift from Voldemort was the last thing she expected—she snatched the parcel from the air in a swift, angry motion. Tearing through the surprisingly pretty giftwrap, she pulled off the top of the box.
Hermione's brow furrowed as she set the down the package in the nearest chair and pulled out the dress robes. The lovely gown of black silk and lace was possibly the most confusing item she could've expected to find in there.
"What is this?"
Her very obvious shock delighted him. "Dear little Mudblood, it's your wedding dress."
She dropped it to the floor, immediately wiping her hands on her tatty, beyond-threadbare prison gown. "I don't . . . I'm not . . . . What are you talking about?!"
Voldemort stood, the slenderness of his form making him seem even more towering as he rounded the desk to loom over her. He caught her chin in his bony fingers and forced her to look up at him.
"Don't you understand, Hermione?" He flashed that disturbing grin at her, once more. "You're to be married today."
Hermione's stomach dropped straight to her feet and her eyes shot wide. She very much did not understand.
Wrenching her chin from his unforgiving grip, she backpedaled a few steps. "Married to whom?"
"Not to worry, dear. You will meet your grooms when we reach the Ministry."
She was so flustered that the pluralized word escaped her notice. "I'm not leaving! I would sooner kiss a Dementor than go anywhere with you."
Voldemort actually laughed. The ugly sound was a full, boisterous chuckle that sent a chill down her spine and raised goosebumps on her arms.
"Hermione Granger, you are the brightest witch of your age, so what do you think it means when I tell you that you have no rights?"
Her responding look as all he needed. Those chestnut eyes were still wide, but now her jaw gaped a little, and she forced a very audible gulp down her throat.
She understood now—yes, he was positive—that was obvious. She grasped that he could do anything he wished to her, and there was nothing anyone could, or would do, stop him. The little witch's continued silence pleased him.
"You will dress, now, or I will do it for you, and I assure you, I will take effort to be so very unkind about it, that you will wish I would grant you the mercy of death."
He swept from the room—she found it odd that he allowed her the courtesy of privacy for this—the door slamming shut behind him. But then, she was already well aware, there was nothing in this room which would help her escape, and the Aurors had realized months ago to remove anything with which she, or the other protected prisoners could harm themselves.
This was what had happened to the missing Muggle-borns? They'd been dragged from their cells and forced into wedlock? To whom, and for what purpose?
Her mind flooded with childhood fairytales of young maidens married off to monsters to maintain peace, or cement some deal. Was that what this was? Voldemort was using them as bargaining chips of some sort?
Frowning, she bit hard into her bottom lip as her gaze fell on her unfortunately beautiful dress robes. The last thing she wanted was to put them on, but the alternative of Voldemort putting her in a body bind and doing it for her was not something she wished to think about.
She didn't want to give him any more excuses to make skin contact with her.
Whoever he was marrying her off to, she was going to make their life a living hell—maybe they'd be so kind as to kill her.
Hermione stripped off her familiar old prison gown and let it fall to the floor. As she bent to reach for the dress robes, she noticed from the corner of her eye that there was something more in the unwanted gift box.
Tipping the corner of the box to upend it, a second tumble of black lace and satin fell out. She picked up the satin first—surprisingly sensible satin slippers that were likely to cushion the soles of her tormented feet as much as the carpet. A shockingly thoughtful part of her present.
But then, she turned her gaze to the bundle of lace. As she scooped them up, she swallowed hard. A ball of icy fear formed in the pit of her stomach as she examined the barely-there black lace undergarments. Clearly selected by a man, and clearly intended to make her more aesthetically appealing to her intended on her wedding night.
She closed her eyes tight and tried to quell a sudden fit of trembling. Inhaling and deep, and exhaling slow, she gave a stern shake of her head and slipped on the bra and knickers that were all form and no function—the knickers could be mistaken for a decorative eye patch, and the bra for wisp-thin doilies strung together by fanciful ribbons. No matter, she told herself as she stepped into the slippers and finally pulled on her dress robes, which, rather disturbingly, fit her like a glove.
No panicking, Hermione, she thought, her internal voice far steadier than she felt. She would not give Voldemort the satisfaction. She'd already decided he was not going to take away her last shred of dignity, and she was determined to see that through.
She squared her shoulders and started for the door, strangely aware in her new, clean and pretty attire that she had no idea if her face might be smudged with dirt from her cell, despite her recent hosing-down. Her hair probably looked like a rat's nest—it had gotten impossibly long during her incarceration, and it was hardly as though she had the luxury of a hairbrush.
Oh, well, maybe her future husband would be terrified by the wild, golden brown tangle that probably looked more like a lion's mane than hair and change his mind.
Silly as that thought was, it was also comforting.
But then, as she opened the door, she was hit squarely in the face with a Tergeo charm.
Blinking and coughing out a surprised breath at the sudden kick of the cleaning spell, she gave her head a shake. She was turned by her shoulders during that moment of distraction and felt hands tugging through her hair.
She'd been turned to face the impatient-looking, snaky Dark wizard, the he seemed quietly amused by her discomfort as she tried to glance over her shoulder. Honestly, it wasn't as though she'd forgotten Voldemort's reputation for pettiness, despite his grand designs, so she supposed there was no point in being shocked that he enjoyed her visible irritation with her predicament.
"Quit your moaning," the nasty old wretch who oversaw the solitary confinement wing snapped as she unhappily tugged a brush through the messy locks. Hermione would never forget that miserable witch's voice; she could be heard at all hours, imagining aloud all the terrible things she wanted to do to the wing's prisoners.
Even now, Hermione was painfully aware of the muttering going on behind her back. The woman who'd just told her not to moan was griping and moaning under her breath. Each tug of the brush was accompanied by a quietly snarled threat of what she would do to the girl standing before her, if only the Dark Lord would allow it.
And she was not even trying to be kind of careful about her task. The sharp tugs and yanks at Hermione's scalp made her eyes water and the tip of her nose sting.
After what seemed an unbearable amount of time—yet probably not nearly as long as it had felt, Hermione was aware—Voldemort finally held up a pale, skeletal hand. "Enough fussing."
"Of course, My Lord," the old bitch said in a placating tone as she bowed and stepped back.
"Come along, now. We are expected," he said, turning away.
He shot one hand back, roughly clamping it over Hermione's wrist to tug her along. She couldn't help herself—using the cover of the unexpected pull to jam her heel against the elder witch's shin.
A pained gasp met her ears, bringing a smile to her lips as she continued along the corridor with her megalomaniacal chaperone. Glancing over her shoulder just before they turned the corner to exit the solitary confinement wing, altogether, she noticed the embittered old creature had crumbled.
God, Hermione hoped she broke a bone with that kick.
"Sometimes, I consider it a travesty that you were not born a pure-blood," he said in a mildly shocked tone, shaking his head as he led her through the horrible institution.
"You and half of Wizarding Britain," she replied through lightly clenched teeth. She might see the compliment in the statement, if not for the overwhelmingly insulting notion that housed it.
They continued the rest of the way in silence. She tried hard to ignore the occasionally brushes of cold and sorrow that flitted through her whenever they past a patrolling Dementor, though, the sting of Voldemort's tight, bony grasp on her wrist was a marvelous distraction.
To the Warden's office, she was dragged along. Through the door, and past the desk of a man who she swore must be the product of Kreacher bedding a female troll.
"My Lord," he said with a bow of his head as he opened an ancient and cracked ledger in front of him. With a wave of his wand, he turned the pages, before lifting his quill in gnarled fingers to make a notation. "Hermione Granger . . . . Won't be sorry to see this one go."
Voldemort did not join the man-creature in his chuckling. "I gathered. Her reputation quite precedes her."
The fearsome Dark Lord's bored tone almost made Hermione laugh. Apparently, even he could get irritated with lame jokes from wizards desperate to ingratiate themselves.
Though, she was certain that had more to do with the lame joke, and less the ingratiating wizards. There was almost nothing he seemed to like more than people groveling for his attention, after all.
That, and she was pretty sure this increasingly dire and very real predicament from which she could not escape might have caused her to go a touch loopy.
Voldemort activated the Floo in the hearth, stepping through He yanked Hermione so hard to follow that she stumbled across the threshold between the linked fireplaces. She managed to stop herself from colliding with him by a hair's breadth.
The luxurious office she found herself in could only be the office of the Minister of Magic. But the dark, twisted feel of that luxury told her one thing—the creature tugging her on hurried footfalls through the room had taken that post for himself.
Not that she was much surprised—why waste time pulling a puppet's strings when puppets could fail you.
As they barreled out the door and along through the main floor of the Ministry, everyone who saw the serpentine wizard coming their way backpedaled and bowed their heads. Some went the extra mile and gave deep, sweeping gestures of fealty.
No one seemed to care, or even pay mind, to the witch he was dragging behind him. She could only guess this wasn't the first such spectacle they'd witnessed.
If they weren't in such a rush, she might have the presence of mind to roll her eyes. She also refused to pay too much attention to her surroundings; Hermione was certain she did not want to note the changes Voldemort's reign had brought to the Ministry's once bright and gleaming interior.
It wasn't long before she recognized the path along which he pulled her. She was being taken to the Wizengamot chamber.
The reality of her situation settled on her once again, making it difficult for her to breath. The well-fitted dress suddenly strangling and confining; every other sound died away as her own footfalls and the beat of her heart pounded in her ears. She could feel the weight of the air pressing against her skin.
Two wizards stationed outside the chambers opened the doors for them. She was startled, but oddly relieved to see that there was no audience for this travesty.
Yet, at the front of the chamber, she spied a familiar head of pale-blond hair.
She gave a start as she met the familiar grey eyes of Draco Malfoy. He mirrored her reaction at the sight of her, immediately shaking his head.
His eyes wide, he pointed to himself and mouthed the word witness. Then, he nodded to one side of the chamber.
As they reached the center of the floor, Voldemort finally relinquished his grip on her wrist. "Do not move," he said as left her to move unto the dais and continued on, seating himself at the Minister's bench.
Clasping her hands tight to keep herself from fidgeting, she finally made herself look to place in the grand chamber Draco had indicated. Thorfinn Rowle and Antonin Dolohov stared back at her.
She couldn't stop the startled gasp that choked out of her as she backpedaled, nearly stumbling over her own two feet.
Antonin Dolohov—the man she'd had nightmares about chasing her through the Hall of Prophecy, the man whose mysterious attack spell had nearly taken her life at sixteen years old—winced at her reaction. Odd, but it could not register on her, just now.
Thorfinn, who'd been an absolute menace to her during her first year and his seventh, who she last remembered tossing her over his shoulder to bring her to Azkaban, scowled unpleasantly. Raking a hand through his long, golden hair, he shook his head.
"We're not any happier about this than you are, Princess."
Hermione tried to control her breathing, tried not to panic as she thought back. She'd been so sure she'd misheard Voldemort, so she'd written of that one word that shouldn't have been pluralized, yet had been.
Not to worry, dear. You will meet your grooms when we reach the Ministry.
Blinking hard to keep tears of shock and rage and, yes, even fright, in her eyes where they bloody well belonged, she turned her gaze on Voldemort as she fought to breathe. That smarmy grin from earlier had returned to twist his lips, and she realized . . . .
This was the reaction he'd wanted to see from her.
* personal assertion, not necessarily canon, as there is no mention of out-of-wedlock births to be found (you'd figure if anyone would be a bastard, it would be Voldie, but even his parents were hitched [despite the less-than-favorable circumstances of said hitching]).