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Healing Hermione

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Unspeakable Artorius emerged from his superior's office with a confident stride. His colleagues were watching him with interest and he knew it. He also knew that he couldn't afford to show them the exhaustion he was feeling. Artorius was still very much the new guy; even after three years.

Artorius was a member of the 'Operations Branch' of the Department of Mysteries. It was the most reclusive and secretive part of an already reclusive and secretive organisation. Its members were looked on with suspicion by even their own colleagues in what was known as the 'Research Branch'. Operations specialized in taking out rising Dark Lords and dangerous creatures, gathering intelligence not readily available to the public and conducting experiments that were considered too dangerous for Research to attempt. They worked both within Britain's borders and overseas. Operations' motto was, appropriately, The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.

Operative Artorius had joined the unspeakables a year after the Second Blood War had ended. Most of the unspeakables had heard their leaders cursing Dumbledore's running of Hogwarts at one point or another as each year failed to produce the required standard for the Department. This lack of suitable recruits had meant that especially the Operatives' numbers had suffered. Some jealous tongues insisted that the Department had simply lowered its standards when they admitted Artorius, whoever he really was.

The entire Department of Mysteries was aware of the new screening measures that Minister Shacklebolt had demanded to prevent any more traitors like Rookwood spilling the Ministry's most closely guarded secrets to terrorists who would use them to harm the British people. They also knew that the only reason that Operations had been able to restart its missions abroad was that Artorius took most of those missions. Despite that there was a lot of mistrust for the one and only new recruit to come in after the war; the only new recruit Operations had had for nearly twenty years.

The minister may have insisted that new screening measures be implemented but those didn't include a full disclosure of everyone's identity to the rest of the Department. Researchers might feel comfortable sharing their identity with their fellows, but it was unthinkable that an Operative would share their identity with anyone, especially if they were a threat to budding Dark Lords across the globe. Thus the suspicion continued, carefully out of earshot of Director Croaker or Head of Operations Juvenal.

Those two high-ranked unspeakables were the only ones who knew Artorius' true identity and they did not take kindly to any member of the Department treating any other with the kind of naked suspicion that Artorius dealt with every day.

Artorius himself ignored the suspicion directed at him. He had faced much worse in his private life, not that the other unspeakables would know that. It didn't sit well with some of Artorius' colleagues that even their open distrust did nothing to unsettle the man. Even the idea that Artorius was a man was really speculation at best; glamours and other illusory charms could hide a lot about a person. Artorius himself was quiet, rarely speaking and preferring to watch; when he was at the Ministry that was. Juvenal kept his newest asset busy and Artorius was rarely even in the country.

He had just returned from another international mission and delivered his report to Juvenal. That news was likely to be all over the Department within the hour along with whatever details of his mission the Head of Operations chose to declassify. Artorius knew that the unspeakables had a more efficient gossip-network than even Hogwarts. Privately he thought this might be due to how much they were supposed to keep secret, even from each other. When your conversation topics were so rigorously curtailed, anything you could talk about became the only way to interact on a social level with your colleagues.

Artorius made it to the door of his office without anyone speaking to him, not that that was particularly unusual. He was grateful all the same. The mission had taken longer than he had expected and he could do with a moment to prepare himself for the fallout this would cause in his personal life. After he stepped through the door, Artorius summoned a small wooden tile from his desk. It was carved with a series of runes that wouldn't make any sense to anyone as they were. When that tile was placed into the appropriate spot on the doorjamb, however, it completed a set that would raise powerful privacy wards.

Artorius slotted the tile home and pushed a tendril of magic into the runes. He felt the wards go up and heaved a sigh of relief. His shoulders relaxed from the proud posture he had been displaying. His hands came up and pulled down the hood of his grey cloak to reveal long, shaggy black hair tied into a loose ponytail, a rugged, unshaven jaw and the most piercing green eyes that you could ever wish to see. Behind his privacy wards Operative Artorius briefly allowed himself to be Harry Potter once again.

Harry moved behind his desk and flopped down into the chair behind it. He ran his hand through his hair pulling it out of its ponytail. He grimaced as he did so. I'm going to have to get a haircut before I go see Ron and Hermione. She'll keep tutting at me all night otherwise. Harry groaned as another thought hit him: he still had to request leave for Ron and Hermione's wedding. He didn't doubt that it would be granted. His cover as a reclusive war hero worked most of the time, but even that would be put in jeopardy if he didn't show up for his two best friends' wedding.

After scribbling and sending a quick note to Juvenal containing his request and his reasoning behind why it should be granted Harry once again leant back in his chair. He allowed himself to feel a sense of homecoming for a moment and let his mind wander. When McGonagall had asked him in his fifth year what kind of career he wanted he would never have thought he would end up in the Department of Mysteries.

At the end of the war, Harry had insisted on taking McGonagall's offer of returning to Hogwarts. His friends had only been mildly surprised, assuming that he wanted to be closer to Ginny after a year away from her. While it was a perk of returning, Harry had a far more pressing reason: he didn't want people to just hand things to him that he hadn't earned. Kingsley had offered him a place in the Auror Academy even if he didn't take his N.E.W.T.s, but Harry had turned him down. He was determined to take his exams and make his way in the world the way he would have had to if he hadn't been famous. McGonagall had given him the Head Boy position as well as the Quidditch Captaincy for his final year and, predictably, Ron had pitched a fit. Harry had understood where his friend was coming from; he still remembered Ron's description of what he had seen in the Mirror of Erised back in first year. On the other hand, Harry felt that Ron shouldn't be having a go at him. Harry hadn't been the one to select himself for those positions after all.

In the end it took a screaming match between Ron and Hermione to get the redhead to come around. Harry had tried to be careful about not shoving his badges in Ron's face, but it was hardly the end of his Weasley woes.

At first their final year at Hogwarts had been almost idyllic. Sure, most of the student body spent as much time as they could gawking at the Young Heroes, but that wasn't really any different from Harry's standard Hogwarts experience. It took Hermione some time to adjust to it, but Ron took to the attention like a duck to water. Harry and Hermione were frequently thankful that their friend was willing to take the spotlight and answer the never-ending questions from everyone around them.

Harry had also resumed his relationship with Ginny. Again, in the beginning he felt like he was walking around on a cloud. That had changed with their first date in Hogsmeade. There were reporters everywhere. Harry had felt like a zoo animal, constantly on display. When they returned to the castle he had apologized to Ginny for the disaster of a date, but she had just smiled and told him that she had enjoyed her time with him. The next two dates had been just as bad. Harry had tried to sneak out and find some secluded spot to spend some time with Ginny but no matter what he did, the press managed to find them.

Harry had been absolutely furious that they were intruding so much on what he viewed as his private life. He had suggested to Ginny that they should stay in the castle and have a picnic in one of the empty classrooms or by the Forbidden Forest. Ginny had emphatically refused, saying she was not about to locked up because of some reporters. Harry had let himself be convinced to give Hogsmeade another try. He and Ginny had spent a week planning out how they would avoid the reporters. The Friday night before the Hogsmeade weekend Harry finally discovered the reason the press kept finding him.

It was Harry's turn to patrol the castle and he took his task seriously. The students had mostly learnt to confine their after-hours activities to nights when Harry wasn't patrolling. His secret was, of course, the Marauders' Map which allowed him to find students wandering the corridors faster than even Mrs. Norris. That particular night he spotted Ginny's name in a classroom near the Owlery. He knew he was going to let her off anyway, she was his girlfriend after all, but decided to go see what she was up to.

When he got to the room he knew she was in he opened the door carefully so as not to startle her yet. Inside he had seen Ginny bent over a piece of parchment writing furiously. He had snuck up behind her, curious to see what she was working on and intent on playfully suggesting that she needed to be 'punished'. Harry had imagined that they would snog for a bit before heading back to the Gryffindor Tower together.

When he had drawn level with her shoulder he had been surprised to see what looked like a letter to Barnabas Cuffe, the editor of the Daily Prophet. It wasn't until three paragraphs in that Harry had realised that Ginny wasn't writing the man a warning to stay away from them. Instead she had meticulously outlined the plans the two of them had come up with to evade the reporters that would surely be descending on Hogsmeade and how Cuffe's reporters could get around those plans.

"What the hell?!" he had exclaimed in shock. His forgotten goal of surprising his girlfriend succeeded magnificently as she let out an ear-piercing shriek and leapt to her feet, her hand already going for her wand.

"Harry! What on earth were you thinking, yelling in my ear like that?" she had gasped out, one hand on her chest as if to keep her heart from jumping out.

"Never mind that. Have you been telling the press where to find us this whole time?!" Harry had exclaimed incredulously, still trying to get his head around the idea. Ginny's guilty expression had only shone through for a brief moment before she had gathered herself and given him an imperious look.

"Yes, I have. If I left things up to you, we'd lose our place at the top of Witch Weekly's Most Popular Couple listing." she told him.

"I don't want us to be 'the most popular couple' according to some vapid list. Damn it, Gin. All I want is to be left alone to live my life in peace." Ginny had just given him a patronizing look.

"Of course you want to properly manage your fame, Harry. You're just being silly." she had told him. "I suppose it's not even your fault that you're so confused; you're a boy after all. Just let me handle this, Harry. You just focus on enjoying having me on your arm and I'll take care of the important stuff." The ensuing argument had been loud enough to draw several staff members to the commotion. The end result had been that Harry had ended the relationship and they both received detention and lost points.

Over the next several weeks Harry had once again been on the outs with Ron, who had taken his sister's side without hesitation. Hermione had understood Harry's position better, but had still hoped that he and Ginny would work it out. They never did.

Harry could somewhat understand why Hermione had thought that. Her relationship with Ron seemed to consist of an endless cycle of fighting, breaking up, making up and getting back together. It's fine for the two of them. They must enjoy the way their relationship works if they're getting married, but I hated the idea of having to fight like that for the rest of my life.Harry sighed as that thought brought him back to the present. I should probably get some paperwork done before I leave for the day. You never know when I'll be given another mission.

Harry straightened up, tied his hair back from his face again and looked over his desk. His eye fell on the pile of letters on his desk. Harry always cast a Mail Redirection Ward on himself when he went on a mission. He knew how bad his luck could be and an owl arriving at the wrong time would be a ridiculously stupid reason to die.

He shuffled through the letters idly until one caught his eye. It was a muggle paper envelope with just his name on the front. Harry's curiosity peaked as he tried to think of anyone in the muggle world who would be writing to him in a style that suggested only a passing familiarity with the magical world. Coming up blank he decided to take a look and find out. He scanned the envelope with multiple security spells before opening it, reminding himself that it wasn't paranoia if the threat was real. His spells came back clean and Harry carefully removed the letter inside. It was short and tearstained.

Harry

We know that you are overseas for business and may not receive this in time, but we hope that you do. Three days ago Hermione was hit with a dark curse. No one seems to know exactly what it was but it's slowly eating her magic and the healers are predicting that it will start on her body once her core runs out. They have told us that we should say our goodbyes and that they have given up hope. Please come home as soon as you can.

Helen

Harry felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Hermione's dying? How can Hermione be dying? Trying to pierce the numbness that had settled in his thoughts, Harry scanned Mrs. Granger's letter once again. It was dated two days ago. Two days since the Healers gave up hope. At that thought Harry's numb shock was replaced with frantic activity. He quickly locked up by replacing the 'privacy tile' with another one that would keep anyone not keyed in out of his office and carefully hung his grey cloak away before he apparated out with a louder than usual crack.

Harry appeared in the lobby of St. Mungo's and immediately strode over to the reception area. He almost cursed the three people in front of him out of his way, but managed to remind himself that Hermione would definitely chew him out for hurting people to get to her. That didn't stop him wanting to yank the receptionist over her desk when she went starry-eyed upon recognizing him. When she finally heard his question after three tries she did sober up and quietly gave him directions to the private ward where Hermione was being kept.

Harry raced up the stairs to the fourth floor and would have torn into the room like a whirlwind if he hadn't met a familiar figure in the hall.

"Harry? You made it..." Richard Granger looked surprised to see his daughter's friend.

"Mr. Granger? I'm not too late then? Hermione's still..." Harry trailed off unable to finish that thought. Mr. Granger's face was grim as he nodded.

"She-... she's still hanging on. She's sleeping for longer and longer periods of time." Tears were starting to run down the older man's face. "According to the Healers she'll sleep more and more until she simply won't wake up anymore." Harry could feel Mr. Granger's grief like a physical presence in the room. Unfortunately he had no idea what he could do to alleviate it.

"Can-... can I see her?" Harry asked. That didn't sound like my voice. By the ancients, but everything is wrong today. Mr. Granger heaved a shuddering sigh and nodded. He turned around and started walking towards one of the doors. Harry quickly followed, studying the man from behind. Mr. Granger looked like there were heavy weights attached to his limbs as he moved. Everything about the man seemed to be pointing down.

When they entered Hermione's room Harry saw Helen Granger sitting by her daughter's bedside while a gaggle of Healers looked on. Every pair of eyes in the room turned to the new arrivals. The Healers gasped in awe as they saw the Saviour enter the room. Mrs. Granger just gave him a sad, watery smile.

"I see you got my letter." she said softly as she stood up to make room for Harry. "Thank you for coming." Harry just numbly nodded. He couldn't imagine staying away once he had heard of Hermione's condition. Mrs. Granger gently guided him into the chair she had been sitting in.

Once Harry's eyes locked onto Hermione's face they didn't leave it again. He blindly reached out and took her hand. She looked too small, too frail, to be the spirited young woman he thought of as his best friend. Her cheeks were sunken and she looked like she hadn't eaten in days. There were bags under her eyes making her look tired even as she slept. Even her hair looked limp and lifeless.

Harry had no idea of how long he sat there. It wasn't until he felt a hand on his shoulder that he jolted back to reality. His head jerked up in surprise to find Mrs. Granger standing behind him, her eyes as fixed on Hermione's face as his had been a moment ago. He quickly stood while trying to apologize.

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Granger. I should have realised you would want to spend time with her." The words tumbled from his lips. Mrs. Granger had opened her mouth, but whatever she had been about to say was forgotten as Harry's stomach gave a loud growl. Her mouth closed into another sad smile.

"Have you even been home yet, Harry?" she asked him gently. Embarrassed, Harry shook his head. "Go get something to eat. You won't do Hermione any good if you fall over. Richard's just gone up for a spot of dinner as well. Why don't you join him?" Harry mumbled something that could have been both an apology and an acquiescence and turned to leave. At the door he hesitated and looked back. Mrs. Granger had already retaken her seat at Hermione's bedside and was looking at her daughter's face as if trying to memorize every bit of it. Feeling like he was intruding on something extremely private Harry hurried out of the room, closing the door behind him as quietly as possible.

Following the signs Harry made his way up to the fifth floor and the visitor's tearoom. He bought a sandwich from the girl behind the counter without even noticing her awed look. A quick scan of the room was all it took for Harry to find Mr. Granger. He made his way over and sat down across from the man. Mr. Granger looked up briefly to see who had joined him and nodded in recognition when he saw who it was before letting his eyes sink back to the cup of tea in his hands.

The two were quiet for a long while. Harry ate his sandwich and Mr. Granger stared at his tea. After he was done with his food Harry wanted to get a cup of tea and debated whether he should fetch Mr. Granger one as well; the one in his hands must be cold by now. I might as well. Even if he doesn't feel like drinking it, holding something warm might help. Decision made, Harry went over to the till and placed his order. When he came back he set the tea down in front of Mr. Granger who blinked in surprise.

"Thought you could use a new one." Harry said in answer to the man's blank stare. Mr. Granger looked down at his cold cup of tea with blank eyes. After a long moment he moved the cold cup out of the way and grabbed the hot one.

"Thanks." he muttered at Harry in a rough voice.

"You're welcome." Harry responded lifting his tea to his lips. Mr. Granger shook his head.

"No. I mean for everything. It-... it helps to know that there are people in this world that care for… my daughter. That's what we hoped for when we-... when we sent her to Hogwarts." Mr. Granger apparently couldn't quite bring himself to say Hermione's name.

"Hermione makes it easy for us, sir." Harry said softly. Silence fell heavily between the two men again. Mr. Granger seemed lost in thought to Harry though he was occasionally sipping his tea. Mr. Granger's words kept ringing in Harry's head. They threw up questions that were almost painful to consider. Where is everyone else? Where is Ron? His speculation ran in circles as he tried to figure out why no one else was there at Hermione's bed. Luna could be abroad somewhere, looking for a new creature. Neville should be at Hogwarts and might need to wait for classes to let out or even for curfew if he's on the patrol schedule tonight. Ginny is probably on the road with the Holyhead Harpies; I think that they had made it to the Europa League this year. She might need to wait for practice or some other responsibility to end. Ron… Harry had no idea where Ron could be. His friend had been signed by the Chudley Cannons as a reserve Keeper, but as far as Harry knew the Cannons' season was already over. Harry was reluctant to disturb his companion but the question was starting to drive him mad.

"Mr. Granger?" The man slowly raised his hollow gaze to meet Harry's. "Did Ron say when he would be back tonight?" The hollowness was filled with a burning hatred as soon as Harry said Ron's name.

"Don't mention that bastard's name around me!" Mr. Granger hissed out with surprising venom. Harry blinked in shock. Why on earth would the otherwise gentle and easygoing dentist have that kind of reaction to his future son-in-law's name?

Mr. Granger seemed to realise that he was piling his aggression on the wrong person and sighed, drawing his hand across his face. "I'm sorry about that, Harry. I just-" Mr. Granger trailed off as his jaw clenched shut and rage twisted his features. He had to take several deep breaths to calm himself. "That worthless, little shit left and told us he wasn't coming back."

Harry wanted to claim that Ron would never do that, that he was a loyal friend through thick and thin. His conscience wouldn't let him though. Harry remembered their fourth year and The Hunt. But they're engaged now. Ron wouldn't have gotten engaged if he wasn't prepared to stick by Hermione no matter what; would he? Even Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon stuck together when they were faced with what they considered problems. Eventually Harry managed to croak out "Why?"

Mr. Granger snorted in response.

"Said he wanted to remember her as she was, not as an invalid in a bed. If you ask me the bloody coward couldn't stand being here after he condemned my little girl to die." That made even less sense to Harry.

"I thought there was nothing anyone could do? Was it someone who was aiming for him? Did Ron fire off the curse by accident or something?" Harry was floundering as he tried to understand. Mr. Granger gusted out an angry sigh.

"No, though he might as well have." the dentist growled. "The second day Hermione was in here the Healers were getting desperate. One of the younger ones mentioned that Hermione's magic wasn't strong enough to help fight off the curse. He thought that she could make it if they performed a ritual of some sort to link her with someone who could help her by supplying the magic needed for some of their treatments to work." Mr. Granger fixed Harry with a gimlet eye as he continued.

"They found a ritual that would do the job. The downsides were that it was irreversible and that if the curse killed Hermione anyway, the person linked to her would die as well. Apparently it was invented by a pair of lovesick Romeo and Juliet style teens to force their families to accept the relationship. Still, it was the only chance we had. Every single one of her magical friends left that day and none of them have been back since."

"Which Healer?" As Harry had listened to the story, it felt like a balloon was slowly expanding inside his chest. If what Mr. Granger says is true then there is still a chance. I can still do something. Hermione's father was staring at him uncomprehendingly.

"Harry, are-... are you saying that you would-"

"Yes." Harry's answer was grimly resolute. There was no doubt in his mind that if there was even a sliver of a chance that he could do something to help Hermione he would. We've done more with less. I'll deal with our friends once Hermione's on the mend. Mr. Granger's shoulders shook once and a tear made its way out of his eye. "We can do that later, sir. Right now we need to find that Healer. Hermione needs us."

:-:-:-:-:

Damn it, man, get yourself under control. This is what you and Helen have been praying for. Harry's right. I can gawk at our fortune like a simpleton later. Richard Granger squared his shoulders and gave the man across from him a single nod. They got up without another word and Richard led the way back to the fourth floor. He shot a longing look at the door to his daughter's room before moving down a different corridor. Harry moved silently along behind him. Richard eventually stopped in front of a door with the name 'Rutherford Poke' stencilled on it in gold lettering. He raised his hand and hesitantly knocked.

"Come in." called a baritone voice from the other side. Richard opened the door and led the way in. Inside, behind a desk, sat a bear of a man with a mop of blond curls on his head. "Mr. Granger, has something happened?" the man asked in concern when he saw who had come in. The honest concern in his voice was something that Richard had heard from far too few people concerning his daughter recently.

"No, or rather nothing bad has happened." As he said that, Harry stepped out from behind him causing the Healer to gasp.

"Harry Potter. What an honour to meet you. Is there anything I can do for you, sir?" Richard was blown away by the man's sudden change in demeanour. Up until now he had been consistently and unfailingly professional. Confronted with someone Richard thought of as 'Hermione's friend from school', the Healer had turned into a nervous, obsequious wreck. Glancing to the side, Richard saw that Harry had undergone a metamorphosis of his own. Gone was the young man who had rushed into the hospital, desperate for news of his friend. Standing next to Richard was a man with an implacable, even regal expression on his face.

"Yes, Healer Poke. You apparently mentioned a ritual to, Mr. Granger that might help his daughter. Could you tell me about it?" Even Harry's voice had changed somewhat. It came across both laden with authority and entirely confident that everything would work out for the best simply because he would accept no other outcome. Healer Poke, however, started fidgeting.

"Ah, well, yes. The Rite of Binding. I'm afraid it is almost useless now." The man got out in a tremulous voice. Richard felt the small hope that had sprouted in his chest die a painful death. I can never tell Helen about this. It would kill her to know that we finally found someone who wanted to help Hermione, only for it to prove to be too late.

"Why is it almost useless?" Harry's tone hadn't wavered.

"Well, you see, the Rite binds two participants together at a magical level. This allows them to share their magic and there have even been recorded instances of participants sharing emotions. The depth of the bond would seem to vary per pair, but the ritual has been so rarely performed that we really don't have a reliable dataset from which to extrapolate the factors that might determine the strength of the bond and why-" Harry cleared his throat and gave the Healer a pointed look, causing the the large man to look like a reprimanded schoolboy.

"Ahem, the reason that the Rite would be useless now is that the amount of magic that would need to be poured into Ms. Granger's core is so great that it would likely kill the other participant and would almost certainly leave them a Squib at the very least. That is outside of the other risks: if the ritual goes wrong, both could die. If the ritual does work and Ms. Granger proves beyond saving, both would die. If the ritual works and Ms. Granger is saved, the stress may leave both participants Squibs. If everything goes well Ms. Granger and the other participant would be bound for life in a way that we still don't fully understand." Towards the end of his declaration the Healer started shooting commiserating glances at Richard.

"What would we need and when can we do the Rite?" For almost a full minute you could have heard a pin drop. Richard was having trouble breathing in any kind of regular pattern and he could feel tears burning his eyes.

"M-mr. Potter, we couldn't possibly risk… I mean… your importance to the magical world-"

"Enough!" Harry thundered cutting of Healer Poke's nervous ramblings. "This is not about what is important to the magical world, nor does the magical world get to decide what I do with my life. Hermione is my dearest friend. She is important to me and I will do whatever I can to help her." The Healer was trembling in his chair now and Richard thought that the man might be praying for the ground to swallow him up.

"But you'll die!" came the piteous cry from the Healer.

"Then so be it! I'm not all that scared of dying and I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I stood by and did nothing while Hermione wasted away. Now, how do we go about performing this Rite?" The Healer opened his mouth, probably to protest again, but ended up seeming to choke on his tongue. Richard glanced to his side to see if Harry had cursed Poke. As far as he could see Harry had managed to shut the man up with a glare rather than magic. In the privacy of his own mind Richard could admit that he was relieved to be standing beside that glare rather than facing it.

"The Rite of Binding requires that both participants enter into it without any interference." Healer Poke began, sounding close to tears and utterly defeated. "This means that you will have to leave your clothes, wands and personal effects outside the runic circle. Outside the Ritual Chamber would be even better. I have a diagram of the required circle and it can be drawn up within ninety minutes. The ritual doesn't call for any specific astronomical influences. Inside the circle, both participants must make an incision in their palms. They must press those incisions together and each speak the incantation: 'I give of myself, that we may be one'. Aside from that the standard restrictions apply." When the Healer stopped talking Richard held his breath though he couldn't articulate, even to himself, exactly why. Poke was slumped in his chair looking like he had aged two decades in as many minutes.

"I assume St. Mungo's has a Ritual Chamber?" Harry was the only one in the room who seemed utterly unaffected by the proceedings. Poke nodded. "How soon can the Chamber be prepared for the Rite?" Poke pulled a book towards him and opened it up. He spent a minute looking through it.

"The Rite could take place two hours from now." he admitted.

"Get the room set up." Harry didn't even wait for confirmation as he swept from the office. Richard found himself following without too much conscious consideration. He shuddered as he remembered that Hermione had once told him that the gods of classical Greece, Rome and Egypt had been powerful wizards and witches. Having seen Harry in action, Richard had to admit that if this young man had lived 3000 years ago, Zeus, Jupiter, Horus and the rest of them would have had some damn stiff competition.

Harry led them back to Hermione's room. As soon as the door closed behind them the persona of the implacable deity seemed to slip off his shoulders like an old coat. He turned to Richard, once again looking like that old school friend of Hermione's.

"If you don't mind, I'm going to meditate until they come get us. I think I could use it." he said sounding tired. Richard just nodded and moved over to join Helen by Hermione's bed. Once Harry was settled in and breathing regularly, his wife ran out of patience.

"Richard, what's going on? The both of you look like you just got conscripted." Richard took a deep breath and told Helen what had happened since Harry had joined him in the tearoom. He had to hold her back when she got up, determined to give Harry a hug.

"Leave him for now. He asked us to let him meditate and honouring that is the least we can do." Helen sat down reluctantly and grabbed Hermione's hand once again. The two parents remained silent as they tried not to get their hopes up. Years later, Richard would be unable to say whether the two hours passed in the blink of an eye or took an eternity to tick away. What he did remember was that Healer Poke returned along with another Healer who introduced herself as Healer Heather Pollingtonius, Director of St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. The old biddy tried to get Harry to reconsider the ritual; the Saviour should not risk his life so needlessly.

Richard was secretly grateful that Helen was getting to see what he had called Harry's 'Ancient God Persona'. Sure, laugh it off as hopelessly poetic until you see it for yourself and feel that presence. Harry proved to be utterly unmoved by the old Healer's pleas and simply demanded to know if the Ritual Chamber was ready. Eventually the Healers admitted, however reluctantly, that it was. They gave Harry and the Grangers a pair of undyed linen shifts.

"These will provide the least possible amount of interference in the Rite. If you wear these into the Chamber you will at least be able to preserve your modesty." Healer Poke told them. Harry conjured a screen in one corner of the room and went behind it to change. He refused to come out until the Grangers had changed Hermione. Richard thought that, if he understood it correctly at least, Harry would have to remove Hermione's shift in the Ritual Chamber but he was inexplicably pleased by the younger man's actions. It's the thought that counts I suppose. Harry is certainly going about this with Hermione first in his considerations and we can't ask for more than that.

When Harry Vanished the screen he joined Helen and Richard at the bed to wait for the Healers to escort them to the Ritual Chamber. Richard took the opportunity to ask Harry a question he had had for almost two hours now.

"Harry, can you tell us what the 'standard restrictions' are that Healer Poke was talking about?"

"Don't disturb the circle. Don't deviate from the script. Don't stop once you start." Harry looked up catching both Grangers' gazes with his. "Those are the basic laws when dealing with rituals and rites. They are a very finicky branch of magic and things can easily go wrong. Some of the worst atrocities in wizarding history are due to a ritual gone wrong; Atlantis for example." Richard felt like his heart had lodged in his throat. Harry seemed to notice and gave him a wan smile. "Don't worry. This will be a simple rite and it is highly unlikely that anything that drastic will happen." Richard felt uncomfortably aware that Harry hadn't said that nothing would go wrong. Before he could comment on the matter the door to the room opened and Healer Poke walked in.

"It's time." he said with an air of one announcing his own funeral. Harry and the Grangers got up and watched as Poke tapped the bed with his wand. It floated up off the floor and followed him out the door which widened itself to accommodate the bed easily. They followed Hermione's bed to a stairwell Richard hadn't noticed before. The group walked down the stairs until Richard was sure that they were underneath the hospital quite a ways. They stopped when they reached what looked like a waiting room hewn from the bedrock. At the far end was a dark archway with a vault like stone door. Poke set the bed down gently and turned to the small delegation that had followed.

"Only the participants in the Rite may continue on from here." Healer Poke began. "Mr. Potter, do you remember what you must do?" Harry nodded. Healer Poke knelt down next to Hermione's bed and pointed his wand at her. "Enervate." Hermione's eyelids fluttered and a moment later she gave a pained little groan.

"Ms. Granger, you are about to undertake the Rite of Binding. Do you remember the particulars?" Richard could see her nod weakly. Poke patted Hermione's arm and stood back up and looked at Harry. "Proceed whenever you are ready. There is an appropriate implement waiting for you in the middle of the circle."

Harry handed his wand to Richard and was about to turn back to Hermione when Helen grabbed him in a tight hug.

"No matter what happens, I can't thank you enough for what you are doing for my little girl." she said into his chest. After a slight hesitation on Harry's part Richard saw him return the hug. When he released her Helen gave him one final squeeze before opening her arms and letting him step away. The two Granger parents held each other as they watched Harry kneel down next to the bed and pull the covers away.

:-:-:-:-:

Okay, Hermione, here we go. This is just going to be another case of us kicking Chance in the odds. Harry slipped his arms under Hermione and lifted her up. He felt a rush of dismay as he realised just how light she was. He stood up and adjusted Hermione so he had a firm grip on her, gave her parents and Healer Poke one final nod and turned his steps toward the archway. When he had passed through it he heard the door shutting behind him. Harry stood still and waited to give his eyes time to adjust.

There were a few candles spread around the room. He could see a group concentrated around what looked like a stone table and moved over to it. He laid Hermione down on top the table and took a deep breath before removing his linen shift. He was unusually aware of the movement of the air across his skin. His hesitation before removing Hermione's shift was a lot more pronounced. I'm sorry Hermione. I hope you don't feel uncomfortable about this when you're healed but we're really low on options right now. Harry carefully removed Hermione's shift and tried to keep from lingering anywhere with his eyes or hands. She's your best friend and if ever there wasn't a time to be admiring her body, this is it! When they were both naked Harry once again lifted Hermione in his arms, desperately trying to ignore the feeling of her naked skin on his.

The light of the candles was just enough to allow Harry to pick his way across the lines of runes that formed the ritual circle. When he reached the centre he was barely able to make out something laying on the floor from the way the candlelight glinted off of it. He knelt down next to it and steadied Hermione against his chest. When he picked it up it turned out to be a dagger made of what looked like obsidian, though 'shard' might have been a better description for the half-formed lump of rock.

Harry took a moment to make sure that Hermione was in a comfortable position and to steady himself before he started. He dragged the rock-shard across the palm of his left hand making a cut that bled steadily. He took Hermione's right hand and made a similar cut along her palm. He placed the implement carefully on the ground next to him and grabbed Hermione's injured hand with his, making sure to press the two cuts together. He thought he felt her move against him, but in the semi-dark it was hard to be sure.

"I give of myself, that we may be one." Harry spoke in a clear voice. He looked down and waited for Hermione to complete the Rite. When he had sat there for several seconds without hearing anything he bent his head closer trying to look into her eyes without letting go of her hand. He was shocked and a little scared when he saw that her eyes were once again closed.

His conversation with Mr. Granger when he first arrived at the hospital flashed across his mind. Nonono, she can't be falling asleep for the last time. Not now. Not when we're so close. Harry shook Hermione's shoulders making sure that he didn't dislodge his grip on her hand. When she didn't respond Harry tried squeezing her injured hand. All the while he could feel the magic swirling about them. If they didn't finish the Rite soon it was going to become unstable and while they might not cause a second Atlantis, the results would not be pretty.

Harry was getting desperate when a mad plan occurred to him. If I do nothing we both die and this wouldn't be the first time our skins got saved by a poorly thought out scheme.

I wish that actually made me feel better about this. Harry gently opened Hermione's eyelids. He only got a glance of her eyes before they rolled back into her head, but it was enough. His training with the unspeakables had made him a Master Occlumens and Legillimens and an instant was all it took to enter Hermione's mind.

Hermione! Hermione, come back to me! He was feeling his way through the murk that her mind had become because of the curse. Hermione! He felt a stirring to one side and headed in that 'direction'. Hermione, please, you need to wake up! Harry, kept up his mental shouting as he searched for Hermione's consciousness. When he finally found it he realised he should have anticipated what her reaction would be. Thankfully he felt her mind struggle to give the command to her mouth and used his free hand to clamp her jaw shut.

No, Hermione! You're in the middle of a ritual. Don't say anything except: 'I give of myself, that we may be one'. It was difficult to keep the mental connection as he felt her struggling in the conscious world. Once he had finished his warning she stilled and for a moment he feared that her consciousness had fled again.

Rite of Binding? Even Hermione's thoughts sounded weak.

I'm not sure if I should be worried that she can't remember what Healer Poke said or impressed as hell that she figured out the Rite from just the incantation.

Harry? Hermione's muddled thought reminded Harry that he didn't have time to waste here.

Yes, it's me. Just complete the Rite, Hermione.

Why?

Because you need this. Because you'll die if we don't. Please, Hermione, finish the Rite. For a few heart-stopping moments it was still in Hermione's thoughts.

"I… give of… myself, that… we… may be… one." It was soft, so soft it was barely there, but she had said the words. As soon as she did Harry felt the magic swirling around them gain a purpose and cocoon them. He felt a draw on his own magic as the Rite tried to balance what they each had. Without another thought Harry threw his will behind his magic and started pushing it through the link they had established. As Harry encouraged his magic through the link he kept subconsciously repeating one thing. Heal her. Heal Hermione. Take away the Dark Magic that's hurting her. Heal Hermione.

Magic is a strange and wonderful phenomenon that not even wizards and witches fully understand. One thing that is known is that magic is driven by the intent of the practitioner. As Harry's magic poured into Hermione's body it had been given one directive: heal Hermione. As his magic filled Hermione, Harry could feel it encountering Dark magic that was attacking her body, not allowing it to heal. His will was brought to bear on these pockets like a tidal wave, washing them away.

Had anyone been able to observe the Rite they would have noticed that Hermione was slowly being encompassed by a golden glow. Everywhere that glow touched a black miasma rose from her body. Eventually, when the glow managed to cover her entire body, it flared brightly for a moment before disappearing with a loud clap that sent a rush of wind outwards. The candles extinguished and the lines of the circle were wiped away, leaving the two friends in the dark Ritual Chamber.

Harry was feeling light headed as he desperately clutched Hermione to his chest. He was breathing like he had just run a marathon at the Olympics. When he felt like he had won back some control over his limbs he gathered Hermione to him and carefully stood. His head spun at the movement and Harry braced himself, determined not to let Hermione fall. He completely ignored the markings that he could no longer see in the darkness as he walked out of the circle. As soon as he had taken his first unsteady step, Harry heard the door open with a grating sound. Too tired to care about modesty and all too aware that he might soon drop the girl in his arms Harry forced his steps towards the light streaming into the Chamber.

:-:-:-:-:

Outside the Chamber the Granger parents had waited anxiously with Healer Poke. It was as tense as any wait outside an operation theatre had ever been. They had not been reassured when Poke had started becoming restless and casting anxious glances at the sealed archway. He had tried to convince them that nothing was amiss when they asked if something was wrong, but his behaviour left Helen thinking that he was lying to keep them calm. When the door crunched open all three shot up like they were spring-loaded. For a long moment nothing seemed to be happening and then they saw something move.

Helen's eyes grew wide as she saw Harry shambling out of the darkness with Hermione clutched to his chest. Despite most of her attention being on her daughter a part of her couldn't help but notice the extensive scarring all over Harry's body and the tattoo of some kind of celtic knot on his right pectoral. He stumbled over to the bed that was still standing in the waiting room and somehow managed to kneel next to it and gently place Hermione on top of the mattress. As soon as he had withdrawn his arms Harry's eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed.

Poke was by their sides in a flash casting diagnostic charms. He scanned Harry first and frowned as he got the readings back. He then turned to Hermione and Helen felt a small amount of relief that Harry was apparently well enough that the Healer wasn't applying emergency treatment. That relief fled in the face of what she witnessed next. Poke cast the charms over Hermione and his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He cast more charms which didn't seem to reassure him at all. Suddenly the man launched into a frenzy of spells, casting faster than anything the Grangers had ever seen. Light after light raced around and through their daughter's body. Helen was starting to fear the worst when Poke abruptly stopped. Helen couldn't take the suspense any more.

"What's wrong, Healer Poke? Is Hermione going to make it?" The Healer looked up at the Grangers with an absolutely lost look in his eyes.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with your daughter. Her core is a little depleted, but has already started refilling and she is a little undernourished, but it's nothing that a few square meals won't fix." He shook his head in wonder as Helen felt her legs give way. Richard only barely managed to catch her. "This defies everything I know of Healing. The Rite was supposed to reinforce her core with Mr. Potter's magic permanently, not heal her beyond anything we've ever seen. I mean, even her scars are gone." Turning back to the two naked young people lying in front of him, Poke suddenly seemed to realise something and blushed before conjuring a stretcher and levitating Harry onto it. He then conjured a sheet over Harry and with a flick of his wand the covers of Hermione's bed rearranged themselves over her. He then tapped the bed and flicked his wand at the stretcher and both lifted into the air and started to follow him as he made to leave the room.

The two Granger parents followed along behind the floating furniture, neither entirely sure who was holding whom up. Helen thought she could see Hermione's colour improving with every step they took. She decided that, even if she didn't know how yet, she wanted to repay Harry Potter for what he had done for them; somehow, someday.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry woke up to sudden cold burning on his chest. He knew that sensation: Juvenal was calling him in for a new mission and he was to respond ASAP. Riddle might have objectively been a genius but he was helped unbelievably by the secrets Rookwood had passed on. He had taken Operations' communications method and twisted it to suit his purpose. None of which changes the fact that I need to get out of here soon.

Harry sent a pulse of magic out from his body which showed him the room around him almost like echolocation. When he had determined that he was alone, Harry sat up and looked around. He didn't recognize the room he was in. Memories of the night before slammed into his mind. He remembered Hermione had been cursed, rushing to the hospital, performing the Rite and… and nothing. Wait, no, I remember walking out of the Ritual Chamber and… did I collapse? Ancients, that's embarrassing.

With a grunt Harry swung his legs over the side of the bed and got up. He staggered the first step away from the bed and one of his hands shot up to his head while the other grabbed for the bed behind him as he felt suddenly dizzy. The dizzy spell passed and Harry started searching the room. He found his clothes on a chair and quickly changed into them but he couldn't find his wand anywhere. I think I gave it to Mr. Granger for safe-keeping. I'll just have to hope that he still has it.

Harry carefully looked out his door and when no one seemed to be looking back he slipped out and moved down the corridor. It didn't look familiar to him and at the end he took a turn based more on intuition than knowledge. Another turn brought him face to face with the main hallway down the fourth floor. Now that he knew where he was Harry moved forward more confidently and within minutes he was standing outside Hermione's room. He slipped in quietly and was surprised when he did so.

Inside there was a gaggle of Healers clustered around Hermione's bed. Off to one side stood Hermione's parents looking anxiously hopeful. Harry joined them as unobtrusively as he could. He realised he might have done that a little too well when they didn't even realise he was there.

"Mr. Granger?" he began quietly, but he never got any further. Both Granger parents whipped around when they heard his voice. Before Harry could get another word out he was grabbed in a powerful hug by Hermione's father.

"Thank you, Harry. Thank you." the man was murmuring over and over in a rough voice. Harry awkwardly patted him on the back. When Mr. Granger released him Harry had just enough time to see that all the Healers had stopped what they were doing and that they and Hermione were now watching the scene in front of them. The next thing he knew a teary-eyed Mrs. Granger had also pulled him in for a hug. He could almost swear he could feel Hermione's amusement at his discomfort with all the physical affection.

'Looks like someone neglected his personal grooming.'

knew she was going to give me flack for that. Harry's eyes widened as he realised that he hadn't actually heard Hermione's criticism outside of his head. As gently as he could he disentangled himself from Mrs. Granger and turned to the bed where Hermione was looking a little wide-eyed.

'Harry?' she asked tentatively. Harry threw up the occlumency shields that he had started developing during the war to keep Voldemort's Horcrux from forming a backdoor into his mind. It felt wrong to use them now to keep Hermione out, but until he was sure what this was he couldn't risk exposing the secrets he had sworn to protect with his life. Keeping eye-contact with his friend he moved over to her side. He never even noticed the way the Healers parted for him.

"Hey, Mi. How are you feeling?" he asked out loud, taking her hand in his.

"Harry," she whispered, "what did you do?" Not having any better answer for her Harry shrugged helplessly.

"I'm sorry, Mi, but the Rite was the last chance we had of getting you through this." he told her.

"Harry, the Rite doesn't explain how you managed to heal me. It wasn't designed for that." She pulled her hand out of his grasp and used it to pull her other sleeve up. "You even healed my scars. Harry, none of this makes any sense. What on earth did you do?" Harry couldn't answer; he was too busy goggling at the unblemished skin of her forearm. That's impossible. She still had that disgusting word carved into her arm last night. I'm sure of it; at least, I think I am. Almost in a trance he reached out and traced her skin. He felt a shiver running up her body which drew his eyes back to her face. Hermione was giving him an uncertain searching look.

"I-I have no idea what happened to cause this, Hermione." Harry said as honestly as he could. It was apparently the sign for the Healers to start asking him a thousand questions at once. Harry answered them as best he could until he felt his tattoo flair again. He held up his hands to quiet the wizards and witches in front of him.

"I am very sorry, but I'm going to have to cut this short for now. I received an emergency message from work this morning. I stayed and answered your questions to make sure that Hermione will be alright, but now you're starting to just satisfy your curiosity. I will return later, but I really must be going now." The Healers started protesting.

"Mr. Potter, you shouldn't be going anywhere. You were magically exhausted last night." one of them tried. Harry gave him a sardonic smile.

"I'm quite aware of that. Since it didn't stop you from interrogating me I think it's safe to assume I can at least go and ask what the emergency is, don't you?" The Healer had the grace to look abashed. Harry took the chance to turn to Hermione and press a kiss to her forehead. "I'll be back as soon as possible, I promise." She nodded her head at him and got a concentrated look on her face. Harry could feel something come up against his mental shields. Against his better judgement he lowered them.

'Harry?'

'Yes, Mi?'

'Harry! Were you shutting me out? I thought I was going crazy talking to myself.' He could feel Hermione taking control of her emotions. 'We are going to have to talk about this, Harry. I don't think I read anything about telepathy when I read up on the Rite.'

'I know, Mi. I really do need to go now, though. I think I know someone I can ask for a little help in diagnosing this. Can you keep it from the Healers for now?' Harry realised that he was picturing Juvenal and that Hermione could probably see him. He threw his occlumency barriers back up. Hermione could clearly feel that Harry had blocked off their connection again as she gave him a nod.

"Thank you, Harry. I've not said that yet and I think I'll be saying it for a while to come." Harry just smiled and nodded in understanding. He turned back to the Grangers and realised that everyone was once again staring at him. Harry ignored it for now and walked up to Hermione's parents.

"Mr. Granger, do you still have my wand?" he asked. Mr. Granger nodded while giving Harry a look that the younger man couldn't quite place. He reached into his blazer's inner pocket and drew out eleven inches of holly. He held the wand out to Harry.

"I think you should call me Richard, Harry."

"Yes, sir. I mean, Richard." Harry said feeling more than a little self-conscious. Mrs. Granger stepped in between the two men and grabbed Harry for a last hug.

"And I'm Helen, young man." she chided him playfully.

"Yes, umm, Helen." Eventually Harry made his way out of the room and down to the lobby. He paused for moment to focus on his destination and apparated without a sound. He reappeared in his office. Back sooner than I would have liked. Harry took his grey cloak from its peg and put it on. As he pulled the hood up the built-in charms cast his face in a perpetual shadow. He carefully unlocked his office and strode out. When Artorius got to Juvenal's office he knocked once and waited.

"Enter!" The young unspeakable opened the door and stepped inside closing it behind him. He walked up to his superior's desk.

"You rang?" Juvenal looked up.

"Don't be a smartarse, Artorius. I've your next assignment here." the man growled holding up a folder. Harry made no move to take it.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to turn this one down, Juvenal. I have a bit of a family emergency and a complication besides." Juvenal lowered the folder back to his desk.

"I'm aware of your family emergency. In fact I'd say the whole bloody ministry is, even if they don't know it pertains to you. You have my condolences."

"That will be unnecessary." Harry interrupted. "She will make a full recovery." It was quiet for a long moment in the office.

"I take it you aren't just being needlessly optimistic?" At Harry's nod, Juvenal continued. "Should I just assume that this miracle somehow ties into your complication then?"

"It does. In order to bolster her magical reserves enough to allow possible treatments to be effective I performed the Rite of Binding with her. The Rite had some unexpected consequences. She is currently healed of not only this most recent curse, but also the scars of past curses. The complication is that we have manifested telepathy. I can keep our minds separated through occlumency. Preliminary observations also suggest that distance may be a factor and that eye-contact isn't. The problem is that she is aware of the manifestation and experience tells me that I will not be able to keep her out forever. My focus will slip at some point. You will have to decide whether to read her into all my missions or to discharge me with all that that entails." After he had spoken his piece Harry sat quietly. He knew what it would mean if Juvenal decided that he was too much of a security risk, or that Hermione was. Harry would be Obliviated of his time with the unspeakables to preserve their secrets and turned out into the world with his cover story becoming the only history he would know.

Juvenal was quiet for a long time as he considered the options laid out before him. Harry knew that nothing he said or did would hurry the process along. Juvenal's ability to foresee the way events would play out could make Machiavelli drool with envy and was a large part of why he was the current Head of Operations.

"Do you believe she would be an asset to our Department?" Harry started at the unexpected question. He considered it, or rather, he considered Juvenal's reasons for asking it. Deciding it could go either way with the man in front of him, Harry made the decision to be as honest as he could.

"I think I can objectively say that she would. Her intellect is unmatched. She has quite similar experiences to mine as she was there for most of my youthful misadventures. I think she would prove to be an asset to either branch though her natural inclination might be more towards Research." Juvenal nodded and stayed silent for a while longer.

"Keep your occlumency shields up for now and bring her in for an interview as soon as you reasonably can. Between the support you could provide each other on the outside, her natural abilities and your recent... manifestation... I think it is high time we started trying to recruit the young lady." Harry nodded and made to stand up.

"One more thing, Artorius." Harry relaxed back into the chair and waited. "Are you sure you are turning down the investigation into the attack on a Ms. Hermione Granger?" Juvenal asked as he tapped the folder in front of him. "I would hate to think that we were letting a madman with an unknown arsenal run around unchecked."

Harry gaped at the figure in front of him before abruptly standing up and snatching the folder from the desk. As he turned around and marched out of the room he could hear Juvenal chuckling behind him. Prick.

Chapter Text

Not long after his conversation with Juvenal, Harry was back in St. Mungo's. This time he didn't stop at the reception but walked straight up to Hermione's room. He knocked on the door and it was opened by Mrs. Granger.

"Harry! You're back." she exclaimed as soon as she saw who the visitor was. "We were worried you would be kept until much later. They work you too hard at that ministry of yours." Harry smiled at her as he mentally reviewed his cover for his trips as a consultant at the Ministry. He stepped into the room and saw that the three Grangers were the only people there. Hermione straightened up and looked at him. Her expression told him that she was trying to talk telepathically to him. Harry quickly crossed the room and grabbed her in a hug.

"Not now. Later, I promise." He whispered in her ear before leaning back to look her over. "So are we sneaking out or have the Healers actually decided to let you go?" he asked at a normal volume.

"I've been released, thank you very much. Apparently you did such a good job of healing me that the Healers have run out of excuses to keep me here." Hermione said with a small smile. Her eyes let him know that she was willing to go along with him for now but that they would be discussing this at the earliest possible opportunity.

"Is this the girl that berated me whenever I complained that Madam Pomfrey wouldn't let me go?" Harry teased her. Hermione just stuck her tongue out in response.

"What about you? You seem to have escaped whatever that emergency project at the ministry was, looking none the worse for wear." she shot back playfully.

"Yeah, well, they wanted me to take on a project here in Britain. I was about to tell them to shove it when they dangled one hell of a carrot: a direct line into the investigation into what happened to you." Harry replied absently as he moved forward and picked up the duffel bag she had just zipped closed.

"Really?" Richard asked sounding very interested. "So you'll be able to keep us updated on the progress they're making in catching the bastard who did this to Hermione?" Harry gave the older man a serious look.

"I promise I will, sir." Richard nodded in response.

"Enough of that, you two. Today we are going to celebrate that Hermione is well again." Helen interrupted. "Harry, will you join us for dinner tonight?"

"I wouldn't want to intrude, ma'am." Harry responded shyly only to be met with a raised eyebrow and a stern look. "I mean: I wouldn't want to intrude, Helen."

"Better. Now, what makes you think that the person who saved Hermione's life should be anywhere but at the celebration that he succeeded?"

"Well, you're family and I would think that you want to be together for that."

"We will be together, you'll just be there too. I didn't invite you just to be polite, you know?" Harry opened his mouth to respond before closing it again when no decent argument occurred to him.

"On second thought I would love to join you for dinner tonight, Helen." Harry said smiling a little at his own capitulation. Helen just happily clapped her hands.

"Get used to that, son." Richard laughed while slinging an arm over Harry's shoulders. "Helen has a way of making people agree with her."

"I have met Hermione you know? Ooof." Harry's joking response was met with an elbow to the ribs from his best friend. "See?" he continued with a grin at Hermione who was trying her best to look put out with him and failing miserably due to the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Richard just laughed again and led his family and their guest out of the room and down the stairs. Once they were outside the building Harry couldn't contain his question anymore.

"How did you get here by the way? I can't imagine this place is easy to find if you're getting here by car."

"Ah, well, we didn't really. We got picked up by that Neville bloke with a... Transportation Key?"

"Portkey, Dad." Hermione corrected her father.

"Right, one of those. I was actually hoping that you could make one of those home. They aren't too pleasant, but I can't deny that they're quick."

"They're highly regulated, Dad. I don't know where Neville managed to get one, but we'd be breaking the law if we just made one." Hermione's tone was slightly apologetic to soothe her father's disappointed spirit. Technically, I'm authorised to make them, but I think that Juvenal would roast me alive if I started using them where they might require an explanation.

"Well, if you're looking for 'quick, but uncomfortable' then any magical transportation will do the trick, I'd say." Harry told Richard, getting a slight grin in return. "Since Hermione and I are still recovering from magical exhaustion I don't think that we should try side-along apparition, your house isn't hooked up to the floo network either, so I think that leaves us the Knight Bus." Hermione buried her face in her hands.

"Can't we just risk the apparition? I despise that contraption."

"Bruises or splinching? I know what I'm picking and it's the choice that doesn't land me in that building behind us."

"Fine." Hermione allowed grumpily.

"Will this night bus run during the day?" Helen asked worriedly.

"Knight Bus with a 'K', Mum. It'll run, unfortunately."

"I think that's quite enough trying to scare your father and me, young lady." Harry smiled at the family interaction. I wonder what it would have been like if Mum and Dad knew what I do for a living? Not much point to asking a question with that many hypotheticals I suppose. I should go see their graves again soon. Harry flicked his wrist to draw his wand from the holster attached to his forearm. He raised it and was instantly rewarded with a bang and the appearance of a lurid purple triple-decker that silenced the Grangers.

"'Ello, and welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand hand, step on board, and we can take you anywhere you want to go. My name is Stan Shunpike, and I will be your conductor this afternoon."

"Good afternoon, Stan. Four tickets to Crawley, please." Harry greeted the conductor, who still had his pimples. I'm starting to wonder if they're a fashion statement. That or he's never heard of diluted Bubotuber pus.

"Coo, 'Arry Potter!" Stan gasped before turning to the rest. "An' you're 'Ermione Granger!"

"Ah, yes. Nice to meet you, Mr. Shunpike." Hermione replied, as unfailingly polite as always. "Um, do we just get on?"

"Oh, course, course. On you get. We'll 'ave you where you need to be in two shakes of a krup's tail, we will." The Grangers boarded the bus while Harry paid Stan for the tickets. Tickets in hand Harry joined his best friend's family who were making themselves comfortable in a set of armchairs arranged in a semi-circle.

"You may want to hold on to something. The ride can be a little bumpy." Harry said with a smile at Hermione's parents while he flicked his wand to apply Sticking Charms to the legs of the chairs. Helen and Richard barely had time to grab a hold of the armrests before the Knight Bus shot off with a bang. Hermione looked grimly vindicated when she heard her mother scream in terror. Thankfully there weren't a lot of people taking the bus today and Harry and the Grangers were fourth in the queue. When Stan announced their arrival in Crawley Richard had to help Helen off the bus. She still flinched when she heard it depart again.

"I apologise, Hermione. You were quite right. That is an absolutely hellish device." Hermione just nodded but Harry could still see that light of satisfaction in her eyes. She still can't help but want to be right. Some things never change. Once they were inside the Granger's house, Richard took charge.

"Right. Everyone, we should get changed. Appropriate dress for a hospital visit is not appropriate dress for a nice restaurant."

"Where are we going?" Hermione asked sounding curious as she accepted her duffel from Harry.

"The Harwood Arms. I managed to get a reservation this morning when we heard that you could come home today." Hermione gasped and Harry saw her face light up.

"The Harwood Arms?! Oh, Dad, that's amazing!" She grabbed her father in a hug before rushing up the stairs. Harry could only stare at her retreating form in some bemusement. Hermione doesn't usually get this excited over having to dress up. This must be quite the restaurant.

"Harry, I thought that maybe you could borrow one of my suits and magic it to fit you." Richard offered.

"That's alright, s-... Richard. I have a suit. I'll just pop over to my place and change. I should be able to make it back here in half an hour, if that's alright with you." Richard looked surprised by something before he nodded.

"That's fine, Harry. The restaurant is up in Fulham so it'll take us about an hour to drive up there if the traffic's good and our reservation is for six o'clock. If you get here at any point in the next hour you'll be fine." Richard snorted as something occurred to him. "Actually, you'll probably be able to join me in trying to get the women to hurry up." Harry grinned at the man.

"I'll make sure to be here for that." Harry walked out of the house, focused on Grimmauld Place and disappeared without a sound. He reappeared in the entryway of the old house. It had changed significantly since his first visit. For one thing the peeling wallpaper was gone and the walls were painted a simple off-white. The mounted house elf heads had been removed by an elf Harry had borrowed from Headmistress McGonagall. Nobody had been able to remove the frame of Walburga Black's painting, but Harry had managed to get rid of the painting himself. He had been drunk and in a foul mood when the madwoman had started one of her rants and, by the simple expedient of conjuring a pair of swords, Harry had managed to cut the canvas out of the frame. He had tossed it in the fireplace and toasted to her slowly fading demands that he get her out of there. I really should find something else to hang in that frame.

Harry made his way up the stairs and entered the master bedroom which he had cleaned and now used for himself. It had less to do with the size of the bed in there than the strength of the wards some ancient Black had erected. From what I know of the family it shouldn't surprise me that they thought their own children might be a threat; they probably were a threat. Wouldn't make sense to sleep in a less defended room just because the most of that family was depressingly psychotic though. Thoughts for another time. I need a shower and then I'll get changed.

Like he had told Richard, it didn't take Harry more than half an hour to get changed. He considered whether or not to wear a tie and eventually took one along in the expanded inside pocket of his blazer, just in case. Checking that he had his muggle wallet on him, Harry focused on the house he had just left and apparated to the Grangers' garden. When he landed Harry did a quick check to make sure that no one had seen him appear out of nowhere. Satisfied that he had gone unnoticed, he made his way to the front door.

:-:-:-:-:

Richard was trying to read a book, but failing miserably. How are you supposed to read at a time like this anyway? Just yesterday we were looking into arrangements for our daughter's funeral and in a little while we'll be leaving for a celebration of her recovery that was supposed to be impossible even with magicRichard took a shuddering breath as he contemplated, not for the first time, how close he had come to losing his daughter. I am so, so happy that she made a friend at that school. Not going at all might have been better, but like Mother always said: a good friend will help if you ask him, a great friend does not need to be asked. A friend like that is worth a lot, maybe even enough to offset that whole sodding war that came with being a part of that world. And what does it say about Hermione that she could recognise that at age 17? Possibly even earlier?

The one thing that made Richard Granger a little uneasy was the way Harry looked at his little girl. I may not like it, but Hermione is still engaged to… that deserter. Harry should know better than to look at a taken woman like that. Then again as long as it's just looking... In all honesty Richard was feeling annoyed mostly because he didn't know which way to jump on this matter. On the one hand after the way Weasley had abandoned Hermione to her fate, Richard wouldn't like to see them continue as if nothing had happened. On the other he hoped that Harry hadn't done what he had for the wrong reasons. I don't think that he's going to hold it over Hermione, but I didn't think that Weasley would drop her like this either. Richard gave himself a shake. For now it's enough to focus on the fact that he saved Hermione's life. She's only just gotten out of the hospital, so it would be ridiculous for her to focus on her love life first thing.

Somehow that truth didn't quite manage to assuage Richard's worries. The ringing of the doorbell did manage to distract him. Who could that be? Richard put his book away and made his way to the front door. He opened it, prepared to tell their visitor to bugger off in the politest possible terms, and was surprised when he saw Harry standing there. The younger man was wearing a black suit that fit him like it was bespoke and a crisp white shirt with the top two buttons open.

"Harry! I was expecting you to just pop into the living room like Hermione always does."

"That's considered rather rude… Richard. You're supposed to give people the chance to turn you away if you're not welcome." Weasley certainly had an easier time calling me by my given name. I'm not sure how I should feel about that either.

"Well, you're certainly welcome here. Come in." When he had closed the door behind his guest Richard turned to Harry. "Should I be scolding Hermione for her rude behaviour since she always just pops in?" As he spoke, Richard led Harry into the family room and settled into his favourite chair. Harry slowly sank onto the couch across from him.

"That's up to you. I know Ron and his siblings just pop into the Burrow whenever, but if you've got some times that you don't want to be disturbed it might be useful to set up a way of communicating that." Richard scowled a little at the mention of his daughter's fiance, but didn't comment on it. I guess they both rely on that family for a lot of their information on how their world works. God, it must get annoying to feel like a child all the time, having to ask how basic things work.

"Do you know of a way to do that?"

"Most people would use wards that they can alter to deny some or all people access through apparition. It would take special permission to set those wards up on a house with no magicals living in it and you would need someone else to alter your wards if you feel like taking an evening off. Although maybe Hermione and I could figure out an interface that would allow you to alter the wards into certain preset configurations." Richard got the feeling that Harry was just thinking aloud with that last sentence, especially once he started muttering about technical details that Richard didn't have a hope of understanding. I didn't expect him to try and invent something as a solution. Guess it'll be down to us to figure something out or suffer a potentially embarrassing moment.

"Well, we'll just have to make do as best we can. Would you like a drink while we wait for the women?"

"Hm? Oh, no thank you."

"You're probably right. It wouldn't do to start drinking when we still have to drive to the restaurant in the first place." Silence fell between the two men and neither felt particularly compelled to break it. Richard noticed that Harry wasn't quite as comfortable as he appeared when they heard someone coming down the stairs. The younger man shot up out of his seat and his eyes locked on the door. And why does that disappointment on his face that it's Helen only make me more uncomfortable? Helen herself apparently had no such problems. A smile lit up her face as she took in the sight of her living room.

"Harry!" she exclaimed happily coming over to draw the young man into a hug. Taking a step she looked him over and nodded approvingly. "My, don't you look handsome? Don't you worry, Hermione will be down soon." Harry himself looked a little uncomfortable at Helen's familiarity. Helen pulled him down on the couch he had been sitting on and was happily asking him about his work at the Ministry for Magic as if she hadn't noticed a thing. As if she would have missed it. Harry answered her questions and slowly seemed to settle down. In the middle of Harry's tale about a particularly annoying diplomat he had encountered in the Congo, Richard's eyes were drawn past Harry and Helen to a movement at the door. There was Hermione a fond smile on her face as she looked at the pair on the couch. She looks at him the same way. That probably means that I am, in fact, reading this all wrong. If I wasn't she wouldn't be engaged to the deserter. Richard watched as Hermione came up behind her mother and her friend. She slipped her arms around Harry to give him a hug and this time Harry didn't twitch or even look surprised.

"You look amazing, Hermione." Harry said softly once he had gotten a look at her. Hermione smiled at him.

"You clean up rather well yourself. Or you would if you would do something about all that excess hair."

"Oh, leave him be, Hermione. I think it makes him look rakishly handsome." Helen interrupted. Hermione just rolled her eyes at her mother while Harry pretended that he wasn't being discussed by the two women on either side of him. Richard decided to help the poor boy out.

"We should probably get going if we're going to make it." Hermione and Helen nodded and apparently didn't see the grateful look Harry was shooting him. Richard gave him a wink in return. As everyone piled into the car, Richard was pleased to see that Harry was not surprised or confused in any way. I still remember when Weasley joined us driving somewhere for the first time. 'Does it fly?' Honestly. The drive up to Fulham passed pleasantly enough. They managed to find a place to park fairly quickly and were able to take an easy walk up to the restaurant. Richard had Helen on his arm and they were walking behind Harry who had Hermione on his arm. Hermione was telling Harry all about the Michelin starred pub.

Once they got to the restaurant they were quickly seated and placed their orders. It was the start of an evening filled with good food, good drink and pleasant conversation. Richard toasted to the friendship that had saved his little girl's life which produced another one of those looks that made him wonder what Harry's motivations really were. I think I'm the only one who's worried about that though. From the way Helen's acting I'd almost say she wants to either adopt him or wants him to be our son in law. Either way she seems determined to add him to the family. The evening didn't come to an end until Richard noticed that Hermione's head was leaning rather heavily on Harry's shoulder and she seemed to be dozing off.

"I think that it may be time to go home." he suggested. Harry nodded in agreement and gently shrugged his shoulder to get Hermione's attention.

"Hmwa? Sorry, Harry, I wasn't paying attention. Did you say something?"

"No. It's time to get you home though."

"Will you be staying with us, Hermione?" Helen asked. Hermione thought it over for a moment before shaking her head.

"I think it would be better if I went to my own apartment. I want to get back into the rhythm of things as soon as possible." Helen looked like she was ready to protest for a moment before her shoulders slumped a little.

"Alright, dear, but don't be afraid to call us or stop by if you need some help."

"I know, Mum." Helen kept up a steady stream of reassurances that they would be there for Hermione sprinkled with repeated questions of whether she was sure she wouldn't rather spend a few days at home while Richard paid for the dinner. Once they got outside Hermione announced that she would simply pop herself over to her apartment. I wonder if she's saying that just to get away from Helen's worrying? In the end Helen agreed that using magic to get home would allow Hermione to get to bed earlier which would be a good thing and Hermione agreed that Helen could visit the next day to check on her. With that settled Hermione and Harry, who had remained out of the mother-daughter debate, said their goodbyes before popping out of existence in an out of the way alley. The ride home was a lot more subdued than the journey out had been. In fact, the drive took place in silence until they were passing through Croydon.

"She's going to be alright, isn't she?" Helen asked worriedly. Richard took a quick moment to look at the woman next to him.

"I'm sure she'll be fine, love. The doctors said that she was medically better than ever and she's got the both of us and Harry looking out for her." Invoking the name of someone who was currently very much in Helen's good books for saving their daughter worked like a charm. Richard could see Helen's countenance brighten a bit as she considered that.

"You're right, Richard." she said, already sounding a little better, even if some of the worry was still there in her voice. "I think he's rather good for her, don't you?" I knew it: she wants him as part of the family and it sounds like she considers adoption the second choice. I just hope all this ends well.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry was carefully creeping along a dark passageway that looked like it had been hewn from the surrounding rock without a care for aesthetics. Hermione followed along behind him without a sound. She wasn't sure how she had come to be here but it felt imperative that she keep moving and following Harry was far preferable to exploring by herself. She felt a keen sense of foreboding about this place and had no desire to find out exactly why that was. After several minutes of walking Hermione thought she could see a light up ahead. She was about to tell Harry what she'd seen, but she noticed that he had already started walking faster and that his steps were surer. He must have seen it too. The light turned out to be coming from the mouth of the passageway; or more accurately, from the cavernous room that it opened out into. Hermione felt overawed that someone had taken the time to excavate a space that could put a cathedral to shame. The logistics of completing this project must have been awe inspiring even if they used magic.

There was no doubt in Hermione's mind that magic had been used in the creation of this chamber. The space was just a little too symmetrical to have been done by hand, or even with machinery. At the far end of the cavern Hermione could see a massive pair of doors that had a yellow shield with a black cross on it painted on them large enough to take up most of the two doors. It's large enough that I can clearly make it out at this distance; that's already saying something. On either side of the doors were uneven heaps of something she couldn't quite make out. As she looked over the cavernous space Hermione realised that Harry had already crossed halfway. He was moving quickly, but it was obvious that he was taking care to be quiet. I don't know what's going on here, but you're not leaving me here, Harry. As quickly and noiselessly as she could Hermione set off after Harry. There has to be a reason he's being so stealthy and I don't think I want to find out the hard way. As they got closer to the doors Hermione was struck by just how large they really were. They're easily larger than Hogwarts' main doors.The shock of realising just how large the doors were was nothing compared to the shock of identifying what the piles on either side of them were made of.

Those are bodies. Human bodies. Hermione could feel her stomach twisting at the sight. There are hundreds of people here. What is this place? What is Harry doing here? At least now I have a better idea of why we're being quiet. Hermione increased her speed in an effort to catch up to Harry so she could hiss a demand for answers in his ear. Harry himself was already at the doors and was doing something at the bottom of one of them when he seemed to slip through the solid wood. Hermione burst into the quietest sprint she could and almost tripped over her own feet when she reached the place where Harry had disappeared. This close to the bodies she could see a detail that had escaped her earlier. They all have my face. How is this possible? Horror snaked down her spine as she saw her own face staring back at her twisted in a hundred expressions of agony. Harry. He has to know what's going on here. He can't have come down here for no reason. Forcing herself to turn away from the grim scene around her, Hermione moved over to where Harry had disappeared and found a wicket gate. Slipping in through the door Hermione found herself in an entrance hall that was every bit as massive as the space outside had been. Set in the walls she could see roughly a dozen doors. By now Hermione was unsettled beyond caring who heard her and opened a door at random and simply ran as fast as she could in a desperate attempt to locate Harry.

On and on she ran taking turns without thinking. The same compulsion that had driven her to keep moving in the first passageway now seemed to be pushing her on through the maze like structure she found herself in. Hermione didn't understand the compulsion any more than she understood the rest of it, but she found that she couldn't tear herself free of it. Hermione's heart lodged in her throat when she burst through a door and found herself facing a room that reminded her of the Great Hall at Hogwarts. It wasn't nearly as overwhelmingly large as the entrance hall and the cavern had been but it was still large enough. Where the high table would be in the Great Hall there was a throne on a dais. Sitting in that throne was a gorgon and in front of her were four minotaurs carrying massive double headed battle-axes. Wait, something's off. These minotaurs don't have bull's heads, just the horns. Human bodies don't grow that large though. That gorgon seems to only have snake's tails for hair and Harry and I haven't become petrified, but her skin is greenish and scaly. Why won't this place make sense? Facing of against the five monsters was Harry and by the looks of it he had managed to annoy at least the gorgon.

"I will ask you one more time, intruder: who are you?" How do you not know one of the most famous beings in the magical world?

"I take it that means you refuse to surrender?" Harry asked as if he wasn't facing a threat to his life.

"Answer me!" Hermione could just see a dark smirk on Harry's face.

"I am called Artorius." You're what now?!

"The Hunter?!" How can she recognise that name but not know who Harry Potter is? Hermione barely had enough time to register the shock on the gorgon's face before Harry attacked with a flurry of curses. Most were aimed at the four minotaurs though a few flew towards the gorgon herself. Each and every one of those spells splashed ineffectually against the monsters' hides. "Hah! With the power we now have not even your spells can affect us. You will die here today, Hunter. Attack!"

The four minotaurs rushed forward as one with their axes raised over their heads. Harry crouched and pressed the tip of his wand to the floor of the hall before stabbing it forward like a rapier while crying out a guttural incantation that Hermione didn't recognise. A bristling wall of stalagmites shot out of the ground just in front of the charging minotaurs. Two of the monsters managed to fling themselves to the side and one managed to come to a stop before he ran headlong into the phalanx of rock spears. The fourth's headlong rush impaled him on the barrier Harry had created. As the axe dropped from his nerveless hands a flick of Harry's wand sent it careening into the minotaur that had managed to come to a halt. The axe embedded itself in the creature's chest with a meaty thunk. Hermione noticed that Harry was on the move in an effort to avoid getting flanked by the remaining two minotaurs. Hermione was looking for her own wand so she could jump in and even the odds, but for some reason she couldn't find it anywhere.

As she looked up Hermione saw a shadowy form detach itself from the ceiling and drop down towards Harry. As her eyes focused on this fresh threat she saw that it was a woman with large feathered wings for arms and talons to match instead of feet. A harpy! A small part of Hermione's mind noted that the harpy wasn't quite right either since it had no tail or beak and was mostly covered in skin. Somehow her hair has turned to feathers though. A far larger part of her was frozen in shock as she tried to get her voice to work and call out a warning. The fury's dive took her straight for Harry who seemed to sense the danger and tried to throw himself out of the way. A spray of blood shot up from Harry's shoulder as one of her talons tore into his flesh.

"Harry!" Harry whirled around as Hermione called out his name. His eyes were wide when he saw her there. Distracted by her presence he didn't see the minotaur behind him raise its axe and bring it swinging down onto his head.

"No!" Hermione shot straight up in bed crying out. What... a dream? But it seemed so real. Hermione felt a shiver run down her spine. Come on, get a grip. It was just a dream. Harry's fine and certainly not fighting with mythical creatures that aren't quite right. It was just a dream. As much as she tried to convince herself that nothing she had just seen was real, the coiling feeling in her gut that something was very wrong wouldn't leave her alone. After tossing and turning for several minutes with the feeling not abating even a little Hermione sat up and swung her legs out of bed. She pulled on her slippers and a dressing gown and grabbed her wand. Concentrating on Harry's home she apparated to Grimmauld Place. Hermione landed in the hallway and started making her way over to the stairs. I'll just take a quick peek inside his room. Harry won't even need to know that I came over.

"Hermione? What are you doing here? Is everything alright?" Hermione was unable to suppress a scream of fright and whirled around. Standing in the doorway of his kitchen was a very much alive and uninjured Harry Potter. He was wearing a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and a simple white t-shirt and was looking at her with concern. Hermione could see his wand in one hand and what looked like a glass of whisky in the other. "Hermione?" In a rush Hermione crossed the distance between them and threw her arms around him. She could feel Harry awkwardly trying to hug her back.

"I'm sorry, Harry. I just-... I had this nightmare and it seemed so real and you were hurt so badly and- and- and I just had to make sure." Hermione realised she was rambling but that feeling of wrongness hadn't completely dissipated yet.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Do I? What if Harry thinks I'm just a silly little girl for being so discombobulated over a dream? No, if anyone knows about frighteningly realistic dreams it'd be Harry. Without relinquishing the hug Hermione began talking.

"It's silly really. I dreamt that I was following you down a rocky passageway. We came to this enormous cavern with an equally huge pair of doors. There were piles of-… piles of dead bodies with-... they were all me." Hermione felt embarrassed by how small her voice had gotten. Come on, Granger. It was just a dream. It didn't really happen.

"Was there anything you remember about those doors? A particular detail?" Hermione drew back to look at Harry when she heard the tension in his voice.

"Harry?"

"Please, Hermione, answer the question."

"Y-yes. There was a painting of a yellow shield with a black cross on the doors, but what-..." Hermione trailed off when she saw Harry visibly pale.

"Shit." Hermione couldn't even bring herself to reprimand Harry for his language. "I thought it was just a nightmare when I saw you there. Shit." No. No, it wasn't real. It was a dream. I'm going to prove it. Before she could think about her course of action too much Hermione reached out and pulled the collar of Harry's t-shirt to one side. That's impossible. Hermione felt her entire body go cold as she stared at a scar that was shaped and placed exactly like the wound Harry had received in her dream.

"Hermione! Hermione, look at me!" Hermione looked up at Harry's worried face as he bent over her. When did I end up sitting on the ground? "Hermione, talk to me."

"Th-the corpses all had my face… it must have been a dream… but dreams don't give you scars. Why do you have a scar from something that happened in my dream?"

"I don't think it was your dream at all, Hermione. I think that you got sucked into my nightmare." Harry sounded apologetic, but somehow Hermione couldn't quite attach any meaning to it. His nightmare. Harry's nightmares have always been about things that actually happened to him. Hermione felt something on her lips before liquid filled her mouth and slipped down her throat. As soon as she had swallowed the last of it Hermione felt the coldness subside and she could think again. The first thing she noticed was that Harry was now holding an empty potion vial.

"A Calming Draught." he said, having apparently seen where she was looking.

"Harry, how did you get into a fight with what looked like a cross between humans and magical creatures?" Hermione asked in an almost dreamy tone. Harry sighed as he looked at her.

"Since we're both up, we might as well see about getting you some answers." Harry waved his wand at the staircase and a few moments later a pocket watch came flying down the stairs. Harry caught it and clicked it open. "Juvenal." Hermione looked at him oddly. Juvenal?

"This had better be fucking important at this time of night, Artorius." Hermione blinked in muted surprise at the grouchy voice that came out of her friend's watch.

"Hermione got drawn into one of my dreams tonight. She saw the Cult de Rais mission. Have you got time for that interview?" Mission? The watch was quiet for a moment.

"Well fuck." the voice gusted out. "Your office. Five minutes."

"Understood." Harry clicked his pocket watch closed and started waving his wand around Hermione. She absently recognised some of the spells as necessary to key someone into certain wards. When he was done Harry pulled Hermione up and held her close. "Let's go get you some answers." he said before apparating them out.

Chapter Text

Harry landed in his office still holding Hermione tightly. He helped her to one of the chairs in front of his desk and, once she was seated, went to put on his grey cloak. Harry watched as Hermione looked around his office with curiosity written plainly on her face. It shouldn't be a surprise that it would take more than a Calming Draught to tamp down Hermione's curiosity. Harry move back over to the desk and found Hermione's eyes fixed on him.

"Harry, are you an unspeakable?"

"You'll have your answers in a minute, I promise." Hermione blinked owlishly at him. I know it was necessary and that she was getting close to being in shock, but Hermione is a bit unnerving like this. Before things could get too uncomfortable for Harry there was a knock at the door. Harry put his hood up so that his face was obscured and walked over to the door. He opened it carefully and saw Juvenal standing on the other side holding a sheaf of parchment and looking impatient.

"Good. You're here." the man grunted as Harry opened the door wider to let him in. "Let's get this mess sorted then shall we?" He strode around Harry's desk and sat down in his chair while slamming the parchments on the desk. Harry closed the door and slotted the privacy tile into the doorjamb. When he turned back around he found Juvenal studying Hermione. "What did you give her?"

"A Calming Draught."

"That's fine. It won't impair her reasoning at any rate."

"It's not impaired my manners either. Would you like some?" Hermione broke in. Harry heard Juvenal snort in amusement.

"Hello, Ms. Granger. My name is Juvenal and I'm Artorius' superior here in the Department." Hermione turned to look at Harry.

"So you are an unspeakable." she said in an almost tonelessly calm voice.

"Yes, he is and as such he has taken oaths not to reveal anything he isn't given permission to reveal. That means your conversation is with me for now, Ms. Granger." Hermione turned back to Juvenal. "Let's start you off with a quick overview of the Department. It's divided into two branches: Research and Operations. We are sitting here right now because you have seen some of what Operations does. What we do must be kept under wraps to prevent public unrest, infiltration or degradation of our intelligence gathering efforts and to ensure the safety of our people. You may have noticed that Potter has been doing what should have been his best to keep you from finding out more than you should since this telepathy of yours manifested." For a moment Harry couldn't tell if the Calming Draught was still in effect as Hermione was wearing a focused expression that was so familiar that he wouldn't have guessed she was under any kind of influence if he had just walked in.

"In order to preserve our operational security I can see three options: first, you could join us and become an unspeakable. That would give you the security clearance required to know what Potter gets up to. Second, you can take the oaths of secrecy and not join us. Third, we Obliviate you of anything you have learnt about us in the past forty-eight hours." Hermione blinked in response to the blunt statement. "To be clear, we're not leaving here until we decide between at least the last two options. I understand that you may not be ready to switch careers and I won't ask you to make that decision now. You will however either commit to keeping our secrets or you will forget them."

"What good will Obliviating me do if I'm just going to find out about your organisation again from Harry's nightmares?"

"If you choose to be Obliviated, Potter would be considered a security risk and his employment here would be terminated. Since he has been an extremely valuable asset to us and has acted as decisively as we could reasonably expect in this situation we would set him up with evidence for the cover stories he's been using." Hermione frowned at this and looked over at Harry. The effects of the Calming Draught seem to be beginning to wear off.

"How valuable an asset are we talking about here?"

"Probably the single most important reason we even have any international relations right now. That whole Dark Lord fiasco left us a bit of a pariah, internationally speaking. Since Potter's started working here though requests have started pouring in for the services of 'Artorius the Hunter'. As with any case of helping a friend, the action creates a debt of gratitude."

"Why do you call Harry 'Artorius the Hunter'?"

"Artorius is the code name he was assigned upon joining the Department. The appellation was given to him by certain elements of society when they began to piece together that all his missions were the work of one man." Damn, he's being upfront. Usually Juvenal is a bit more circumspect in his dealings with people. Why is he being so blunt with Hermione of all people?Hermione seemed to be thinking things over for the moment. Juvenal looked as impassively patient as ever.

"What are your thoughts on the matter, Harry? It's your job we're talking about after all." Hermione asked at last.

"The job does come with some perks, like anonymity and being able to make a difference in the world, but I can find something else to do." Harry answered her. "You've seen a bit of what you would be asked to keep a secret tonight in our nightmare. You should make your decision based on whether you think you can handle those kinds of secrets without ever being allowed to tell anyone about them. I can tell you that they can get to be heavy at times." Hermione's look grew a little more calculating and she studied Harry with narrowed eyes. Finally she turned back to Juvenal.

"I'm not willing to commit to employment here just yet, but I'll take the oath to keep your secrets." she told him.

"Wonderful. I should have discussions with people under the influence of Calming Draughts more often. It's so refreshing to deal with someone who is thinking rationally and not have to tiptoe around emotions that are just getting in the way." Well, that explains the forthright attitude. "The oath is written out on here. Please read it and sign it with the Blood Quill whenever you're ready." Juvenal handed Hermione a piece of parchment with the secrecy oath on it and a familiar black quill. Harry couldn't completely quash the twinge of unease and disgust he still felt whenever he saw one of those things. Hermione read the document attentively and signed it when she was done.

"Excellent! Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Granger. Artorius, you are cleared to share information with Ms. Granger as you see fit. I would encourage the pair of you to try and determine the limits of your telepathy and also to keep it a secret for now. Given the recent attempt on Ms. Granger's life it seems wise to keep an ace up your sleeves, but it's up to you. Now if you don't mind I'm going to try and get some sleep. Have a good day." Juvenal stood up and collected his parchments before heading for the door, leaving Harry and Hermione together in the office. Once the door was closed behind Juvenal, Harry took off his hood and sat down next to Hermione, unwilling to have his desk between them for this conversation.

"Are you alright, Hermione?" Hermione's head came up and she nodded slowly, but Harry could see the shock and surprise starting to slowly come back into her eyes. "I'm sorry that you got drawn into this."

"I'm not. What I am is upset that you have been putting your life on the line ever since we left school though. How bad has it been?"

"What you saw tonight is a fairly good example."

"Oh, Harry." Hermione scooted her chair over and hugged him. They just sat like that for a few long moments, taking the time to settle themselves after the emotional upheaval they had experienced since Harry had come back from his most recent mission. "Harry?"

"Hmm?"

"Can we try our telepathy again? I have so many questions and I feel like sharing our thoughts would be the quickest way to get at least some answers." Harry nodded and lowered his occlumency shields.

'What did you want to know?' Harry's mind was flooded with a torrent of questions that he could barely distinguish from one another. 'Hermione, slow down!" As the questions slowed down, Harry started sending back answers. He started with how he had become an unspeakable. He showed Hermione how he had been approached by Juvenal about putting what Harry considered to be one of his few real talents, not dying in situations he had no right to survive, to good use. Like he had told Hermione the anonymity and the chance to help people the best way he knew how were what eventually drew him into this line of work.

Harry answered Hermione's questions about the nightmare she had seen. He showed her how the French government had requested aid in discovering the fate of several hundred children who had disappeared all over the continent. The cases were linked by several magical signatures that showed up in different combinations at different crime scenes. A team of French aurors had been investigating the disappearances and had traced those magical signatures, but the ministry had lost all contact with them somewhere in the Anjou region. When the ministry had started receiving their aurors back piece by piece in the post they had contacted Minister Shacklebolt to request that he send either Artorius the Hunter or Harry Potter. Harry took Hermione through the memories that had inspired his nightmare.

'Why did they kill all those children?' Hermione asked as they passed the piles of corpses that no longer looked at her with her own face, but rather showed her faces young enough that they wouldn't even have started Hogwarts yet if they were magical.

'They called themselves the Cult de Rais after Baron Gilles de Rais.' Harry explained, his sorrow and disgust colouring his thoughts. 'He was a muggle noble who worked his way to the uppermost echelons of power in the fifteenth century. He was eventually hanged when it came out that he had tortured and killed tens if not hundreds of children. This lot recognised something that no one else had in all the centuries since: even though he was a muggle the things he was doing smacked of actual Dark Magic rituals. They managed to find the grimoire that de Rais had been working from and replicated the rituals. The only difference is that where de Rais was a muggle and would only have met with limited success if any at all, this lot were witches and wizards.'

'I thought we were done with this when you defeated Voldemort.'

'Voldemort wasn't the only twisted soul in this world.' Harry showed Hermione the rest of the fight with the Cult and endured her worried scolding as she watched him do his best to close his wounds with his medical field kit.

'You need someone to keep you from running headlong into these things.' Hermione thought decisively

'I didn't run in headlong. They smelt me with those half-beast senses, you just saw that.' Harry could feel scepticism radiating from Hermione. 'Just out of curiosity what are you proposing?'

'If I join the unspeakables, I could go with you on these missions.'

'Hermione, you don't need to do that. I thought you were happy working in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?'

'It's not everything I had hoped for.' Hermione's thought was accompanied by a sense of exhaustion. The ministry had settled into its new identity and was once again resisting any changes beyond that. 'I joined the legal department so that I could get a deeper understanding of the laws of the land and know how to changed them but I can't pressure the Wizengamot to change them from a position as a law clerk. The only successes I've had have been the Universal Rights of Magicals Act and the Cruelty to Elves Act that you and Kingsley helped me introduce and pass. I would need to get elected to the Wizengamot if I want to be able to introduce and fight for bills by myself and the next election isn't for another three years. I was looking for a change of pace anyway, but I need to think some more on whether this is the right step to take or if I should be looking somewhere else.'

'Is that why you agreed to the oath rather than just having us Obliviated?'

'No.' Harry felt a wash of concern for him coming from Hermione. 'I agreed to this because of what you said. 'You should make your decision based on whether you think you can handle those kinds of secrets without ever being allowed to tell anyone about them. I can tell you that they can get to be heavy at times.' That's as close as I've ever heard you come to admitting that you were suffering, but you still wanted to keep doing this. How could I leave you alone in the face of that?' Harry felt humbled by Hermione's explanation and allowed some of that feeling to bleed over their link. He was rewarded with a pleased smile from Hermione.

"I think that's enough getting lost in each other's thoughts for now, don't you? We'll get enough chances to practice in the very near future anyway." Harry said out loud. Wow. I didn't realise how quiet it had been.

'I didn't either.' Hermione thought back. "I think that you may be right. It's… disorienting to be in two minds at once. What do you mean by 'chances to practice'?"

"I've been assigned the investigation into who cursed you and how they did it. Normally that would include an interview to get your testimony on the matter. Since it's the two of us we can be a little more… direct."

"You want to relive my memories of being cursed."

"Well, yes. We can wait for tomorrow though. I think we've had enough excitement for one day, not to mention it's probably fairly late and your mother is going to do her nut when she finds you passed out on the couch." Harry's voice had taken on a teasing note. Hermione over-exaggerated a wince.

"I don't suppose you could come home with me? If she finds you on the couch she isn't going to question why I'm still in bed."

"Somehow I don't believe you. Come on, I'll apparate you home."

"I can apparate myself, Harry." Harry could feel Hermione's indignation.

"Not until you get out from under the wards."

"Oh." A tendril of apology and understanding snaked back and forth across their mental link from each of them. Harry gently grabbed Hermione in a hug and apparated them both to Hermione's apartment. When they landed Hermione groaned out loud when she saw the clock on the wall.

"5 A.M. Harry, can I apply for asylum in in Grimmauld Place? Your joke about Mum might turn out to be more accurate than I thought."

"Wouldn't not being here just make it worse?" Harry asked in honest confusion. I'm not sure how parents think, but-...

"No, you're right. That would make Mum worry more and she'd probably insist I stay with them for a week if I do that." Harry just tried to push reassuring feelings across their mental link. "Thank you, Harry. I'm going to try and get a few more hours sleep if I can. I'll just have to take Mum's worrying." Hermione gave Harry a hug and they said goodnight before Harry apparated out. I hope you'll be okay, Hermione. I'll have to try and find a way to make sure you don't get sucked into my nightmares anymore.

:-:-:-:-:

"Hermione! Are you alright, sweetheart?" Helen exclaimed as she jumped up from where she had been sitting at the kitchen table. Hermione groaned as she heard her mother's voice before she had had a chance to really wake up.

"I'm fine, Mum. I just wasn't expecting to see you sitting in my kitchen."

"You were sleeping so deeply that I didn't want to wake you, sweetheart. Are you sure you'll be alright? If you're still that exhausted from your ordeal maybe you should come back home for a few days. We could pack a bag for you and I'll take care of you for a while."

"You don't have to do that, Mum. I'm sure I'll be alright. I just got caught up in a bad dream last night." And it wasn't even my own. Helen looked like she was ready to keep arguing but managed to keep from doing so.

"Well, since I'm here anyway I can at least make us brunch." was all she said. Hermione decided to just let her mother get on with it. I wonder what she would have thought if Harry had really stayed on the couch? Hermione felt grateful that her mother had at least chosen to start by putting a fresh pot of tea on the table. As she let the warmth from the drink and the smells of her mother making brunch seep into her body, Hermione slowly felt like she was being rejuvenated. By the time she had finished her first cup her mother was loading the table with warm bread rolls, croissants, fresh fruit and some ham and cheese.

"A petit dejeuner for brunch?"

"Were you expecting me to make you a Full English? This is so much healthier." The two women ate with minimal conversation for a while. "So what are you planning to do today, sweetheart? You will take it easy, won't you?" Hermione's first instinct was that she wanted to talk to Harry about their connection some more. That's not something I can say to Mum though. He did mention that we should get a start on the investigation; that would go down like a lead balloon here.

"I think I need to have a conversation with Ron." Helen's face became serious immediately.

"Will you be alright doing that?"

"I think so."

"Perhaps you should bring someone with you to mediate. I'm sure Harry would be happy to help."

"I'll probably stop by at Harry's afterwards, if only to let him know how it went." Helen only looked slightly mollified by that.

"I just worry about you, dear. You and Ronald already manage to argue like cats and dogs when the situation isn't quite this loaded."

"I know, Mum, but that doesn't mean that I'm in some kind of danger. Ron and I never got violent with each other." Helen's only response was to raise an eyebrow. "What?"

"Sweetheart, I've lost track of the number of times I've had to hear how the two of you have 'hexed' each other during your arguments. That's not exactly peaceful behaviour."

"Those are just hexes, Mum. They're not permanent."

"Neither are bruises. Would that make it okay to hit you?"

"It's not the same, Mum."

"Why?"

"Because physical violence isn't the same as hexing someone." Hermione felt an urge to cringe under her mother's disappointed look.

"Because physical violence is something only non-magicals would use?"

"No! It's different because... it just is, okay?" Even as she spoke the words, Hermione knew that they wouldn't convince the woman who had taught her logic.

"If you say so, Hermione. Just be careful." Helen's tone had turned decidedly cool. "Do let us know how everything goes." With that Helen stood up and walked out of the apartment. Damn it, Mum, I wasn't looking down on you. There really is a difference between physical violence and hexing. I wouldn't hit someone, but I know I've hexed people. I wouldn't do that for no reason. I wouldn't. Hermione wrenched herself from her darkening thoughts with a determined effort. Right, I need to shower and dress. Then I'll go see Ron.

By the time she was ready to leave Hermione had mostly shaken off the lingering feelings from her discussion with her mother. I'll prove that Ron and I can have a civil discussion for once. That'll show her. Focusing on the apparition point in Diagon Alley, Hermione popped out of her flat. Reappearing in the main wizarding thoroughfare Hermione set off with determined strides for Ron's flat. She was keyed into his wards and could have chosen to apparate directly into his home, but felt it would be inappropriate for the discussion they needed to have. She soon reached the old bakery that Ron lived over. Steeling herself for what was to come she rang the doorbell. Hermione was just considering ringing the bell for a second time when she heard stumbling noises behind the door. Finally! The door opened slowly to reveal a decidedly bleary looking Ron Weasley. Ugh. Judging by the smell he must have been up drinking half the night.Hermione resisted the urge to start berating him right there and then. I will not prove Mum right. She could see the exact moment that the realisation of what he was seeing hit Ron. His face paled as the blood drained out of it and his mouth started moving though it took a while before any sound came out of it.

"Hermione? Are you-? How-?" Instead of finishing a question Ron reached out a hand and poked her in the shoulder. When he felt the physical contact his hand recoiled like it had been burnt. "You're real?" he breathed out in disbelief.

"I am."

"How?"

"Perhaps we should discuss that somewhere that isn't the middle of Diagon Alley." Ron blinked once at Hermione's arch reply before he got the hint.

"Of course, come in." Hermione followed Ron up the flight of stairs directly behind the door and through another at the top of the staircase. The moment she stepped foot in Ron's flat her nose told her that Ron's standards of hygiene had dropped dramatically since he must have thought that she could no longer drop by unexpectedly. "Tea?"

"Please." Hermione watched in disapproval as Ron cast the Scouring Charm on a pair of cups and boiled water with another incantation. How can he stand to live like this? Once again she tamped down the urge to take Ron to task for his habits. In fact she kept quiet until Ron plonked the pair of cups on the table, sloshing the tea over the sides.

"So how are you still alive? Last time I saw you, you couldn't even sit up." Well that's a charming way to ask.

"Speaking of the last time you saw me, why did you stop coming? It really hurt that you would leave me like that." Ron fidgeted uncomfortably for a moment.

"There was nothing I could do to help and it hurt watching you become something you weren't." he eventually said to his cup of tea.

"So it had nothing to do with you being scared off by that ritual that could have given me a chance?" Ron's head shot up to look at her and he grimaced. He must have realised that that reaction would give him away.

"You're right. That was a big reason too." Say what?! I expected him to try and wriggle his way out of that for at least another fifteen or twenty minutes. "Some crackpot Healer made a suggestion that every other expert there agreed would be the equivalent of a double suicide. Your parents, perhaps understandably, wanted to listen to that madman and were constantly pressuring the rest of us to agree to a plan that would see us killed. If we had stayed there would have been a fight at your bedside. You and I may have had our arguments, but I didn't want that." Ron was looking at her with an almost calm, if rueful, look on his face. I don't think he's ever been as mature as this.

"So you just gave up on me." Ron's argument may have been understandable, but it hurt to be abandoned like that by your friends.

"I hardly think that you can lecture me for listening to learned authority." Ron answered with a touch of tired humour to his voice. Maybe not. What would I have done in that situation? I hope I would have done the same as Harry. I'm almost sure I would have.

"I think I've proven willing to ignore authority when one of my friends is in trouble, to say nothing of my fiance."

"You would want me to die with you for no reason other than 'we're going to be married'? Hermione, that's ridiculous; neither of us would be able to live a full and happy life that way."

"Of course not, you-" Hermione closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Don't turn this into a fight. You are proving that you are better than this. When she opened her eyes again, Hermione noticed that Ron was gaping at her. "I was actually trying to make the opposite point. Getting married means that we would promise to be there for each other no matter how difficult a situation we face. After you left I felt like you didn't attach the same weight to that promise that I did. How can I get married to someone who isn't going to take every chance to keep us together? How can I marry someone who has proven once again that his personal needs will always outweigh mine?" Ron was quiet for a long moment after that. He seems to be honestly considering it. Hah! See, Mum? We can have a calm and rational discussion about something.

"I suppose I can see your point. After all, how can I marry someone who would casually demand my death?" Ron was giving her a piercing look she had never seen from him before. Slowly both of them removed the golden bands from their right ring fingers. I considered that this might be a possibility when I came over here, but I still can't believe it. I'm not engaged anymore. Together Ron and Hermione placed the rings that had signified their engagement on the table between them. "I'll take them back to the store later." Ron said. I don't think Ron can quite believe it either."Can we at least still be friends? I would hate to lose you completely."

"I think so." Hermione said with a sad smile. "We've been through too much to let this stop us now. I would appreciate a little time to get used to being… single again though." Ron nodded in agreement. Hermione felt like they had said everything they had to and got up to leave. She made it to the door before Ron spoke up again.

"How did they cure you anyway?" Hermione turned around to find Ron with a small smile on his face. "I asked you when you got here and you still haven't answered; it's unlike you."

"Oh. That ritual actually worked to cure me completely." Ron blinked in surprise at that.

"It worked? Who are you bonded with?"

"Harry came back from his trip when Mum sent him a letter." Hermione caught the scowl on Ron's face. He managed to smooth out his features fairly quickly, but Hermione had read a wealth of jealousy, anger and pain in his expression the moment before he did.

"He performed the ritual as soon as he heard about it didn't he?" Hermione just nodded; they both knew their friend. "I guess it's for the best that we broke it off then. I can't imagine a marriage working if one person is bonded to the couple's best mate."

"I could have been bonded to you." Hermione pointed out.

"Hmph. Yeah, yeah, I guess we can't all be Harry Bleedin' Potter."

"No. I suppose not." Hermione could see something twist in Ron's face. He always did have a problem trying to compare himself to Harry. The difference was that this might just have been the first time she hadn't rushed to reassure him. "Goodbye, Ron." Hermione opened the door and walked out feeling like she was moving through water. There was something surreal about the first rational discussion she could remember having with Ron leading to their mutual decision that they shouldn't get married. That's a little depressing. Were we only deluding ourselves? It should take more than this to break an engagement, shouldn't it? An unwelcome answer came to Hermione as she asked herself this question. It should if the relationship is worth it. She thrust her thoughts down and away before the chill could take further hold. Harry. I need to talk to Harry. He'll be able to look at this without the emotions-... without most of the emotions involved.

Hermione started walking quickly to the apparition point. Her first plan was to head to Grimmauld Place to look for Harry there, but she couldn't shake the feeling that Harry would be at the Ministry. He did say that he would be working on my-... on the case today. It would make sense for him to go to work for that. I'll just check the Ministry first and then I can always go to Grimmauld. Having made her decision, Hermione apparated out before she spent too much time blocking the apparition point. She landed in the Ministry's atrium and quickly made her way past the security guard. There are some definite perks to being an employee here. Hermione shuddered at the thought of having to go through the visitor's centre and having to register what on earth she was doing here. She quickly made her way over to the lifts and rode down to the second floor while trying to ignore the inevitable staring. You'd think that people would have found something new to stare at after four years.

When the lift finally stopped at the second floor Hermione hurried off. Lost in her chuntering thoughts, she walked to her own desk mostly out of habit. She got there to find Auror Tom Proudfoot and a man in a grey cloak with a hood that obscured his face. 'Harry! Thank heavens I've found you!' The man in the grey cloak started a little at her mental shout.

'A little quieter perhaps, Hermione?'

'Sorry.' Harry's start drew Proudfoot's attention to Hermione's arrival.

"Hermione, you're back! I'm sorry about this. I don't know what Shack was thinking, giving your case to a grey-cloak instead of to us. This one wanted to have a look at your desk to see what you were working on."

"Standard operating procedure during investigations, Auror. I'm sure you do the same." Harry's reply was light and casual as if he couldn't hear the open mistrust in Proudfoot's voice. The auror meanwhile was giving Hermione a look that left her in no doubt about his opinion on this interloper in their Department.

"It's fine, Tom. I'm sure the nice man will put everything back the way he found it, won't you?" 'Though I'm a lot more interested in why you felt the need to go through my desk in the first place. Even if we didn't have this way of talking, surely you know that you could just ask?'

"I haven't actually gotten around to moving anything yet, Ms. Granger." 'It's mostly posturing and giving the Auror Department a reminder of who has jurisdiction in this case. It's best to clear these things up at the beginning of the process as it prevents misunderstandings later on. It also provides us with plausible deniability if people start wondering how I know so much about you.' Oblivious to their silent conversation, Proudfoot just huffed at the part he could hear.

"If you're sure, Hermione." Proudfoot seemed reluctant to leave. "This guy gives you any trouble and you just give us a shout. There's more than a few aurors that are taking this attack on our favourite law clerk rather personally."

"Thank you, Tom." Must they always treat me like a damn mascot?

'Probably.' Hermione could feel the understanding washing over their bond with Harry's reply. 'If it really bothers you that much, you could always give that shout and I can beat them up for you.' There was definitely some amusement mixed in with that message.

'Ha-ha, Potter. I don't think your investigation needs that kind of complication, does it?' Rather than answering mentally, Harry spoke up.

"Ms. Granger, my name is Artorius and I will be taking charge of the investigation into the attack on your person. Since you seem particular about the state of your desk, perhaps you could gather up any files you may have been working on recently and we can adjourn to my office for an interview." 'Which will allow us to talk a bit more freely and allow you to vent that agitation I can feel.' Hermione quickly gathered up the piles of parchment that contained her work from the past several months.

'Right, let's go.'

"If you have everything, Ms. Granger, please follow me." Harry turned and led the way out of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and back to the lifts. They journeyed down to level nine in silence. Harry seemed to have understood that some privacy might be needed before Hermione could unload everything that had happened so far today and didn't try to get a preview of what was bothering her. Hermione almost smiled in fond reminiscence when they entered the Department of Mysteries and found themselves in the room with the spinning doors. "Offices. Authorization: Artorius." The doors spun around as wildly as they had back in fifth year before settling down once again. The door straight ahead of them popped open and Harry started walking straight for it before Hermione could properly wonder about the enchantments that might make what she had just seen possible.

Harry led them through a warren of hallways until they reached a door that didn't seem any different from the others. When Harry opened it though, Hermione instantly recognised the office she had been in last night. She made her way over to Harry's desk and dropped the armload of parchment on top of it. As she did so she noticed a wooden tile flying past her head. As she followed it she saw Harry slot it into a spot on his doorjamb.

"There. That should ensure our privacy." As he spoke, Harry pulled back his hood. Seeing those expressive green eyes looking at her, Hermione couldn't contain herself any longer and threw her arms around him. Hermione could feel both Harry's arms coming around her to return the hug and his concern enveloping her through their link.

'Thank you, Harry. I really need a hug right now.' Rather than a verbal reply, she just felt acceptance and reassurance that whatever was bothering her, Harry would help her face it. Eventually Harry was the one to break the silence.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"How about I show you instead?" Hermione carefully gathered up her memory from that morning with her mother and pushed it across their bond. Once she had shown him everything up to her mother leaving Hermione asked out loud. "I was wondering if you could clarify it for me? The difference between physical violence and hexing, I mean. I know there is one but I couldn't properly explain it to Mum." Harry was giving her a slightly odd look.

"The difference is that hexes don't have a recoil."

"What?"

"When you punch someone, you feel it as well and if you're not careful you can hurt your hand pretty badly. Hexes aren't particularly energy intensive as a rule and don't usually incur any noticeable cost to the caster."

"That makes it sound like you agree with Mum." Worse, it makes it sound like I'm some kind of psychopath who only hurts people when it doesn't hurt me. When Harry was carefully quiet instead of answering Hermione knew that he at least partially agreed with her words and thoughts. "Well if you thought it was as bad as punching each other why didn't you ever say so?" Hermione's tone was accusatory but she didn't care.

"I didn't think that it was something that needed to be explained. You and Ron always fought and always got back together. I've never understood your relationship, but I thought that you did. Social interactions aren't my strong suit anyway." Harry's calmness made Hermione want to rant at him until he gave her the fight she had denied herself with Ron. Oh my god. I think it may be because of me.

'Personally, I think you're just stuck in a rut. One you should get out of, but that shouldn't be undoable for someone like you.'

"Stop spying on my thoughts, Harry."

"I can't if you insist on shouting them." Taking great care to not 'shout' her thoughts, Hermione tried to marshal herself. She didn't like this tendency to want to argue that she had apparently developed. Harry seemed perfectly willing to wait for her to sort herself out. When Hermione looked up she found him looking at her patiently. "Do you want to cover whatever happened with Ron to upset you?"

"I-… we-... the wedding's off."

"Huh?" Harry looked completely confused by Hermione's declaration.

"Ron and I talked today and- oh, just watch." Hermione sent her second uncomfortable memory of the day over the link with Harry. Once the memory had played out Harry sank into one of the chairs in his office.

"That… was quite the revelation." he said looking like he didn't know how to articulate what he was thinking and feeling. Hermione's assessment of Harry's body language turned out to be spot on and a moment later a torrent of emotions came coursing down their connection. There were no words involved, but Hermione tried to label what she was receiving anyway. There was 'I'm sorry for your pain', 'I'm glad that you're still friends', 'I feel better now that you two won't be fighting so much', 'I can't believe you two weren't fighting', 'I'm here for you' and many more.

'Thank you, Harry.'

'Are you ready to take a look at what you remember from the day you were attacked or would you like to take a moment?' Hermione considered that carefully.

'Can we take a moment first? I feel like a wrung out dishrag as it is and I need to get my breath back.' Hermione could feel Harry's acceptance. He walked over to a small kitchenette that had been installed to one side of his office and set about making two mugs of tea to give her some time to get her thoughts back in order. When he was done he came back and placed one of the mugs on the desk in front of her.

"Take your time, Hermione. It's more important that we do this right, than quickly." Hermione would have understood the unspoken words even if she didn't have a direct line into Harry's mind. We need to catch whoever did this before they strike again so we can't afford to screw up.

Chapter Text

Hermione was walking down the main street in Hogsmeade, enjoying a leisurely day of shopping. Just two years ago this would have been unthinkable as she would still be mobbed by grateful witches and wizards wanting to thank her for her part in ending the war. She had looked around Gladrags to get an idea of what was appropriate wizarding wear for a wedding and had come to the conclusion that she preferred what she had seen in the muggle world so far. After that she had spent some time happily browsing in Tomes and Scrolls, not because she wanted or needed a particular book, but just to see if there was anything that caught her interest. Her perusal of the books had been cut short by her growling stomach alerting her to the fact that it was lunch time.

That was how she came to be making her way to the Three Broomsticks for a bite to eat. All in all a good day. As Hermione stepped into the taproom of the Three Broomsticks she took a deep breath and savoured the smell of Madam Rosmerta's cooking. She spotted an empty table and made her way over, giving the smiling, blond landlady a wave of greeting. Madam Rosmerta bustled over.

"Good to see you, Ms. Granger. What'll it be?"

"Whatever it is you're cooking to get that amazing smell and a Gillywater please."

"Of course, dear." Hermione relaxed as Madam Rosmerta ducked back behind her bar and returned a moment later with the requested beverage. Hermione thanked her and took a contented sip. She took another look around the pub. It's been too long since I was here. I should get Ron to come along next time and maybe Harry if he's in the country long enough. Just as Hermione was taking a second sip she felt an indescribable pain erupt between her shoulder blades and screamed out as she collapsed. All of a sudden everyone and everything seemed out of focus. She couldn't tell who was standing over her because they were swirling masses of colour. She couldn't tell what they were saying since their voices sounded distorted. Eventually she felt herself being lifted off of whatever she was lying on and a sensation movement later she was lying on something soft. Hermione gasped as she came back to the here and now to find Harry looking at her with those concerned green eyes.

"Quite the memory." Hermione was gulping in air as her body reacted to the panic she had felt in the memory of her attack, so she just shot Harry a look. "Would you be willing to let me have it so I can view it in a pensieve?"

"You think that you can see something if we look at it from a third person perspective?"

"That too. Mostly it's because I don't want to see you end up like this every time I need to check something. It was a valuable experience to know what you felt, but I need to find some clues that we can treat a little more objectively."

"And what did you learn from what I felt?"

"It's unlikely that your Gillywater was poisoned given where the pain began and how acute it was, so I know that I'm looking for a curse. Given where it seems to have hit I know where to look for the person who cursed you. That will hopefully allow me to discover their identity either directly, or if they are hidden from view, through their wand which will have to be pointing at you. You didn't feel threatened, despite having some very good instincts. Even if I allow for four years of peace dulling them somewhat, I believe that you would have noticed someone paying an unusual amount of attention to you. That makes me think that the culprit was either very well hidden or came in after you did." Hermione was left gaping at her best friend who just gave her an understanding smile.

"Aside from what you felt I know that I didn't see anyone from the DMLE's wanted list, so we're probably dealing with a new actor or, like I said before, a well hidden one. I know that you weren't there to meet anyone which means that this attack was the result of someone taking advantage of the situation rather than luring you into a trap. Once I get that memory into a pensieve I'll be able to get a more complete list of everyone who was there and track them down to question them. If you refuse, I'll still know several of the ones I did see and Rosie would probably be able to tell me a few more. All in all, my initial conclusions are generally lining up and I have a place to start the investigation. That's more than some investigators are granted."

"You've really done this before, haven't you?"

"Not in Britain, but yes, I have." Hermione considered that statement for a moment.

"I don't mind letting you have my memory, certainly not if it will help you, but I never found the spell for removing one."

"Then it's a good thing you signed that confidentiality agreement isn't it?" No way! It's a sodding unspeakable secret? No wonder I could never find anything on it. Hermione paid rapt attention as Harry started teaching her how to draw a memory from your mind. When she was able to do it perfectly Harry let her draw out her own memory of the attack and place it in a pensieve he had in his office.

"Do you think that we could take it out sometime?" she asked as she watched her strand of memory float around in the rune-carved bowl.

"Not really. Pensieves are the Department's property, not individuals'. They're not supposed to leave the office."

"Wait. Professor Dumbledore had one though and he used it to show you his memories. Was he an unspeakable too or are there different rules for the Chief Warlock?"

"Neither. You have no idea how angry Croaker was when he found out about that. We couldn't do much more than confiscate the thing though, since Dumbledore's dead." Hermione needed a moment to absorb what she had just heard. I mean after the Hunt we all more or less accepted that he wasn't infallible, but I wasn't expecting this. "Right, I'm going to take a look. I'll see you in a bit."

"Hang on. I'm coming with you. I want to know who did this to me." Harry just nodded and touched the silvery mist with a finger. Hermione watched as he was sucked into the memory and quickly did the same. When they emerged nearly an hour later both were scowling in disappointment and frustration.

"Nothing! Not one bloody clue." Hermione seethed. They had watched the memory several times, but whoever had attacked her had done an impeccable job of hiding themselves. She looked over at Harry and saw that the disappointment was already making way for determination. Their bond allowed her to feel that their lack of success stung him too.

"Not quite. There was a small singe in the air for a moment after you were cursed. I would guess that someone cursed you through an invisibility cloak; whoever they are they would have to be rich and really desperate to get you if they were willing to ruin something that expensive. In fact the cost that implies probably means that you were specifically targeted. It's hardly the end of the investigation though. I'll head out to the Broomsticks and see what I can find."

"I'm coming with you."

"No, you're not."

"Harry, I can help."

"I know you could, but how often do you see an unspeakable with a tagalong? Or a victim investigating her own case? Whoever we're dealing with, they're dangerous and prepared and we don't need to help them by providing them with a chance to see that you and I are closer than a victim and investigator have any right to be." Harry's voice was stern as he spoke. "Besides, you'll know everything that happened next time I see you." Hermione wanted to argue, but she knew Harry had a point.

"Fine. I'll see you tonight then? It'll give us a chance to explore this bond like Juvenal asked us too. "

"If you want."

"I do, Harry. Your place or mine?"

"Why don't you come over to Grimmauld? I'll make you spaghetti carbonara."

"How could I refuse?" Hermione answered with a soft smile. Harry returned it and came over to pull her into a quick hug.

"We'll get this dirtbag, Hermione. I promise."

"I know, Harry."

"Come on. I'll take you back up to the DMLE and then you're going home to rest. You're still not fully healed until you've recovered the weight and magic you lost and running around, stressing yourself out is not the way to do that." Hermione allowed herself to be dragged upstairs while Harry fussed at her over their link.

'I'll be fine, Harry. I'm going to go home and rest like a good girl.'

'I'd not be as concerned if I didn't know what you got up to as a prefect and Head Girl.'

'Oi! Whose fault was all that?'

'I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about.'

'If I got into trouble it was because you dragged me into it!'

'I feel like I would remember something like that. You sure it wasn't just your natural curiosity that made you go looking for a giant, three-headed dog?'

'Of course I'm sure, you colossal prat!' Hermione thought at her friend fondly. She hadn't even realised that Harry's teasing was making her grin uncontrollably until they reached her desk.

"Hermione! You're okay? You must be if you're grinning like a loon." Tom Proudfoot was apparently keeping a careful eye on her.

"I'm fine, Tom. Just some fond memories from Hogwarts." 'Harry, stop it!' While she had been talking, Harry had been sending her some of those fond Hogwarts memories and she was having a hard time suppressing the urge to laugh out loud for no reason Tom would understand. 'Just go take care of business. I'll see you tonight.'

'Looking forward to it.' Harry gave the two DMLE employees a parting nod and walked away.

"How did it go?" Tom asked once Harry was out of earshot. "The grey-cloak didn't give you any trouble, did he?"

"It was fine, Tom. It was just a deposition."

"You were down there for quite a while, Hermione." Tom justified his interest.

"Must be down to you lot always griping about unreliable witnesses with incomplete testimonies." Hermione grinned at the auror.

"Think you could share that deposition over a cuppa?"

"Maybe. Not today though. I have to go home and rest; Healer's orders." An image of Harry in Healer's robes, looking at her sternly over a clipboard popped up in her mind and Hermione had to bite her lip to keep from bursting into giggles. I have to see if I can get him to dress up some time.

"Of course, Hermione. Your well-being comes first."

"Thanks, Tom. I should be back at work in a few days."

"We'll all look forward to it." Hermione waved at the man as she left the office. True to her word she went home and dropped on the couch. There. See, Harry? Resting. She decided that if she had the time she might as well use it to get started on some books she had been meaning to read, but not found the time for recently. She Summoned a book from one of the shelves. Three pages in Hermione was curled up on her couch, fast asleep.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione woke with a start, followed by a whimper. Her back was full of knots from the position she had fallen asleep in. What time is it? She cast a quick Chronometer Charm. Six?! If I don't hurry up, Harry's going to come bursting in here thinking something's wrong. Hermione shot up off the couch knocking her book to the floor. Looking down at herself she quickly cast a Wrinkle Removing Charm at her clothes. That's better. Now I'll be able to tell Harry that I spent the afternoon resting without looking like I overslept. Hermione turned her thoughts to the entryway at Grimmauld Place and with a concentration of magic and a soft pop she was gone from her own flat.

"Mmmm, that smells delicious, Harry!" She called out as soon as she landed. Hermione followed the delicious scent into the kitchen where Harry was standing at the stove.

"Hey, Hermione, you're just in- what happened?!"

"What?" Rather than answer, a slack-jawed Harry sent her an image over their link. For a moment Hermione could see herself with her hair flattened to her skull on one side and sticking up at every imaginable angle on the other. With an embarrassed squeak she fled into the hallway and started casting grooming charms at her hair. When she re-entered the kitchen her hair was as well behaved as she ever managed to get it without an industrial supply of Sleekeasy's and her face was glowing red as a tomato.

"I fell asleep on the couch." she blurted out before Harry could ask a question. He just held his hands up in surrender.

"Shall we sit down? Dinner's ready." It was an obvious change of subject that Hermione was eager to accept. Harry served her a healthy plate of pasta.

"Are you trying to feed me up?" Hermione asked as she eyed the small mountain in front of her.

"Yes." Harry replied, unabashed, as he poured a glass of water. "No wine tonight. I thought it would be a bad idea since 'rooting around in each other's thoughts' is on the agenda for later." Harry explained, placing her glass in front of her. "If you want something else to drink, just let me know."

"Water will be fine, Harry. Thank you for cooking dinner. I know you've had a busy day."

"One you want to know all about?"

"Yes, please!" When Harry just sat there and gave her a stern look Hermione rolled her eyes and demonstratively stuck a forkful of dinner in her mouth. 'I'm eating. Get on with it.'

"Alright, alright. No one at the Broomsticks told me anything we didn't already know from viewing your memory, though their testimony was more coloured by emotion and the passage of time. I managed to lift a partial spellprint from where you were sitting and turned it over to the boffins in Research. They're not holding out much hope that they'll be able to find anything since it's so degraded. We checked the file we got from the aurors, but apparently their man on the scene didn't find it or else didn't know to record it."

"So we've got nothing."

"Not nothing, but we could use more. I'm going to have to ask you to help me by making a list of the people who might want you dead, anyone who stands to gain something from getting rid of you or who you've gotten into an altercation with recently."

"Aside from the Death Eaters you mean?"

"Let's not rule anyone out just yet."

"Then it's going to be quite the list, Harry."

"I know." And your list would be even bigger wouldn't it? It's depressing to consider how many enemies we made before we even got out of our teens.

'A little. Both of us have been adding to our lists since then though, haven't we?'

"Yes, we have. Please don't eavesdrop on my thoughts like that, Harry."

"It wasn't on purpose." Harry defended himself. "And for the record: I'm fairly proud of some of the enemies I've made."

"I think I understand what you mean. Should we get to practicing then if you need it to keep out of my head?"

"If you're sure you don't want seconds." Hermione just glowered at her best friend.

"I'm not the prize goose at Christmas, Harry." He just grinned and sent the dirty dishes to the sink with a wave of his wand. Another flick and they started cleaning themselves.

"Come on then." Harry led the way up the stairs to the master bedroom and sat himself on the middle of the bed. "Given how disorienting this is likely to be I thought we might benefit from a cushioned surface." Hermione nodded in agreement and climbed onto the mattress to sit across from Harry with her legs crossed.

"Alright. How do you propose we do this?" she asked nervously.

"Start with the pleasant memories and work our way up to the worse ones?" Harry suggested. That makes sense.

"I think that might be a good idea, Harry. Do you want to go first?"

"First at what?" Harry asked her with a smile.

"Um, you take a look at my mind first." Hermione tried to brace herself for what was coming but had no idea what that might be.

Hermione was running up the garden path to her front door. Behind her she could hear her daddy calling for her to wait, but she was too excited to listen to him. She flung the front door open with a bang and charged into the hall.

"Mummy!Mummy!Mummy!" she screamed happily as she tore into the kitchen.

"Hermione? What on earth are you making that racket for?" Helen Granger asked her daughter from the stove where she was preparing a pot of tea.

"Mummy, look!" Hermione thrust the piece of paper she had been clutching to her chest out at her Mummy. Helen bent down to inspect the source of all the commotion. The piece of paper was the first test Hermione had ever received at school. In the top right-hand corner stood a proud 10/10 with a gold star. "Mrs. Wilshire said I was the smartest girl in the class." Hermione's good news bubbled out of her before she could stop it.

"Well, I'd say that Mrs. Wilshire was right. Well done, dear, I'm very proud of you." Mummy said with a huge smile on her face. Hermione felt a warm, pleasant feeling settle in her chest. Being smart is the best. People really like you when you're smart.

"I quite agree. That's why I suggest we go out to celebrate having the smartest five-year old girl in the world." came Daddy's deep voice from behind her.

"A birthday and a perfect test? Oh yes, we certainly must celebrate." Hermione felt like she had never been happier in her young life than when her mummy agreed with her daddy. They're so proud of me we're going to celebrate? I am going to make sure that I get a perfect score on every test from now on. "Where should we go?"

"I know a little place up in Fulham that should do quite nicely." Hermione missed the memory-filled look her parents gave each other over her head as she squealed with joy. That night Hermione wore a new dress that Mummy had picked out for her and she joined her parents at a big people restaurant. The food was the yummiest she had ever eaten and the people there were really nice. Everyone wished her a happy birthday and they even had a cake for her. Mummy and Daddy looked really pretty and they were smiling all night. On the way home Hermione tried to tell her parents exactly how happy she was and everything she had seen that night. The words got lost as she fell asleep still smiling wide enough to split her cheeks.

Hermione shook her head as she felt the cobwebs leave her mind. She opened her eyes and found herself sitting on Harry's bed at Grimmauld Place. Across from her was Harry Potter himself looking at her with twinkling eyes.

"Has anyone ever told you that you were an adorable five year-old?" he asked her with a current of barely suppressed laughter in his voice. Hermione could feel her cheeks burning at that comment.

"Shut up, Potter." she muttered looking away.

"Alright, alright. I really mean it though, Mi." The fond look in Harry's eyes made her feel a little better, but Harry seeing her as a five year-old was still… odd. My turn, Harry, and I know exactly what I want to look for.

Hermione was surrounded by darkness. She blinked her eyes in an effort to check that they were really open. Something's strange here. Suddenly a banging noise sounded right next to her ear.

"Up, Boy! Up!" a voice screeched through the darkness. There was a curt click and the darkness fell away in a blast of painful light. Hermione felt a talon-like hand grab her by the hair and haul her out of what turned out to be a cupboard under the stairs. "What are you waiting for, you ungrateful little brat? Get breakfast on the table before Vernon comes down." Hermione scurried into the kitchen; making Aunt Petunia wait was a bad idea. She gathered the ingredients required to make a full English breakfast and managed to place them on the counter next to the stove. Then she dragged the kitchen step over and started cooking breakfast. Her tummy rumbled at the sight and smell of so much food, but she knew that none of it was for her. Not unless Uncle Vernon or Dudley decided to leave her something and Dudley at least would eat until he burst before letting Hermione get a hold of something to eat. She barely managed to get the food on the table before her family came downstairs.

Uncle Vernon sat down at the table with a grunt and gave his breakfast a once-over. He indicated that he hadn't found anything that would earn Hermione an extra punishment with another grunt.

"Go get the post, freak." he added. Hermione rushed to obey the command, knowing that keeping Uncle Vernon waiting was an even worse idea than keeping Aunt Petunia waiting. She quickly gathered the post off of the doormat and ran back to neatly place it beside Uncle Vernon's plate.

"Why are there still dirty pans in my kitchen, freak? Clean up after yourself." Aunt Petunia snapped as soon as Hermione's hands had left the letters. Hermione nodded and hurried to do as she was told. While she was cleaning the kitchen she kept an ear on the discussion her relatives were having. The first few letters were met with grunts from Uncle Vernon while Aunt Petunia caught him up on any gossip he might have missed. Hermione wasn't sure how he would have missed anything unless he really wasn't listening to Aunt Petunia most of the time. The fourth letter didn't bring a grunt which peaked her interest.

"Of all the…"

"What is it, darling?"

"I have a letter from the council congratulating us on the freak's birthday and reminding us that we haven't enrolled him in school yet." I have a birthday? "I suppose those overpaid busybodies thought they were being cute sending it today."

"Today's my birthday?" Oops. Hermione knew she'd just broken one of the cardinal rules of the Dursley household: don't ask questions. She could see Uncle Vernon's face shifting rapidly through several shades of red until it had reached 'beetroot'.

"What was that, freak?" he hissed out. Hermione was torn. She might have a birthday and she didn't know if she'd get another chance to find out, but asking again was sure to result in punishment. In the end the temptation proved to be too much.

"I wanted to know if today's my birthday, sir." Hermione said as respectfully as she could.

"You mean you were gloating about your aunt and me having to spend more money on you, don't you you little shit? You thought it was funny that your aunt and I got that letter, didn't you?"

"No, sir. I was hoping that I might get a…" Hermione almost bit her tongue before she could finish that sentence. What on earth is wrong with me today?

"You wanted a what, freak?" Uncle Vernon's voice had gotten quiet as he asked the question. Uh-oh. Not good. "You were about to say that you wanted a present, hmm? That after all we've done for you, you want to take more money away from our Dudley?"

"N-no, sir."

"And now you're lying about like the no good little freak you are. Well, good news, shit stain: I've got a present for you." For such a large man, Uncle Vernon could move quickly when he wanted to. For the second time that morning Hermione was dragged into the hall by her hair. Once the kitchen door closed behind them Hermione felt herself being thrown into the wall. The impact left her seeing stars, which meant that she didn't see the first kick coming. It caught her in the stomach and lifted her bodily from the floor. She landed a few feet away and instantly curled into a ball to protect herself. Again and again she felt Uncle Vernon's shoe connect with her ribs, her legs and the arms covering her head.

"Who do you think you are, you miserable little freak?! Where do you get off demanding things from us when you should be thanking us that we didn't drown your skinny little carcass the day we found you on our doorstep?" Uncle Vernon's tirade was continually interrupted by his panting from the exertion of kicking Hermione. One of the kicks hit her in the upper arm and she heard and felt something snap. Pain shot through her arm and became unbearable with the next kick. Hermione screamed out in pain.

"What the fuck have I told you about making noise, freak?!" Uncle Vernon thundered. The kicks stopped for a few seconds, but Hermione didn't dare get her hopes up that her punishment was over. That sentiment was proven correct a few moments later when a line of pain opened up across her back. It was soon followed by a second and a third. His belt Hermione realised from a distance. She tried to roll away from the pain, but the blows seemed to be coming from all sides and her broken arm flopping around only added to the pain so eventually she just tried to protect her most vulnerable areas and ride out her beating.

Eventually Uncle Vernon ran out of energy and Hermione felt herself being dragged along by the collar. A moment later she was flung through the air again until she hit something and collapsed to the ground.

"You can just stay in there for the rest of your birthday and think of ways to repay us for taking you into our home, freak." Hermione looked up just in time to see the door to the cupboard slam shut. Trembling she tried to keep from crying out as the dark and quiet allowed her far too much time to feel the pain from her injuries. Don't cry. Don't make a sound. You'll just get another beating. Hermione repeated her mantra over and over until she fell unconscious from pain and hunger.

"Hermione!" a hand landed on her shoulder and she jerked away. She curled up like she had during the beating, though she noticed that it was easier to keep her broken arm to her chest. "Hermione. It's okay, you're safe. We're at Grimmauld Place. Do you remember?" Hermione carefully cracked open an eye and found a pair of concerned emeralds looking back at her.

"H-harry?"

"Yeah. Just take it easy. That memory really hit you hard." Hermione flinched at the unwelcome reminder of what she had just experienced.

"Not the memory; Uncle Vernon." she muttered. She could swear she heard Harry cursing under his breath.

"You are Hermione Granger. You are the daughter of Richard and Helen. You love to read and for your fifth birthday you went to the Harwood Arms with your parents." Hermione tried to make sense of what he was saying, but kept getting confused. For her fifth birthday she had gotten a beating from Uncle Vernon. "You don't have an Uncle Vernon, Hermione." I don't? "Focus on your parents. Keep them fixed firmly in your mind." Hermione struggled to bring up her parents' faces, but once she could see them clearly she felt the pain begin to fade away. Hermione remembered things she had done together with her parents; visits to the zoo, vacations in France and many, many hugs flashed across her mind. Slowly she uncurled a little though she could still feel an ache in her arm and back. When she looked around she found herself naturally focusing on Harry's worried face in front of her. "Hermione?"

"Harry? What just happened?" He breathed a sigh of relief.

"Something that occasionally happens to a beginner Legillimens: you lost your 'self'. How are you feeling?" The memory of what she had seen and experienced flashed across Hermione's mind again and a sob clawed its way out of her throat. A moment later she was bawling her eyes out as she tried to process the fear and pain she had felt. A pair of arms came around her, but this time they made her feel safe and she did her best to bury herself deeper into them.

When the tears had finally run their course, Hermione became aware of a hand rubbing gentle circles on her still aching back and a low voice murmuring reassurances in her ear. She tried to sit up and felt the arms give her some room without letting her go. Instinctively she still cradled her arm to her chest so it wouldn't move too much.

"Thank you, Harry."

"Anytime, Hermione. Is something wrong with your arm?"

"It still hurts from when it was broken."

"It wasn't broken. The pain is a left-over from your mind thinking it was."

"You mean it's psychosomatic?" Hermione asked. Harry nodded in response. "That makes sense I suppose." she muttered rubbing her arm in an effort to dissipate the soreness. It didn't really happen. I'm not really hurt. It didn't really happen. A sudden realisation caused Hermione to freeze up. It didn't really happen to me. Her head shot up to find Harry looking at her with bleak resignation.

"You know, I was hoping that you'd be distracted a little longer." Hermione ignored the comment that didn't quite come off as flippant and threw her arms around Harry. I am a horrible person. How could I not realise that that was happening to my best friend? "Because the pain is quite real, even if the injury isn't. It would keep anyone from thinking too closely on what they saw."

"That's not what I meant, Harry." Hermione said as she squeezed him a little tighter. "I'm supposed to be the clever one. I should have seen what you were going through without having to plunder your memories for it. I mean, looking back the signs were there. I'm sorry, Harry. I'm so, so sorry. I'll-" Hermione knew she was babbling but couldn't seem to stop it until Harry laid a finger across her lips.

"It's not your fault, Mi. You were a child and by the time I got to Hogwarts I had quite a bit of practice hiding it. Any signs you saw were mistakes I made in covering up what was happening and I got to be pretty good at fixing them." Hermione pulled Harry's finger away from her lips.

"I should still have noticed."

"How?"

"I-... I don't know." Harry just smiled at her with a kind of sad understanding in his eyes that made her heart break. "I just wish I had known so I could have done something."

"There was nothing you could do, Mi."

"You don't know that. We could have told Professor McGonagall or Dumbledore. They would have helped you." Harry shook his head.

"I wouldn't have trusted Minerva enough to tell her after the stone in first year and Umbridge in fifth year. As for Dumbledore: he already knew." No! He can't have. Albus Dumbledore wouldn't have condemned a child to that kind of abuse.

Hermione found herself in Dumbledore's office. Harry was sitting in a chair glaring at the man and looking like he had just been in a fight. Dumbledore was looking mournfully at his student.

"Five years ago you arrived at Hogwarts, Harry, safe and whole, as I had planned and intended. Well,... not quite whole. You had suffered. I knew you would when I left you on your aunt and uncle's doorstep. I knew I was condemning you to ten dark and difficult years." Hermione shook her head, trying to deny what she had seen even as Harry's bedroom came back into focus.

"He knew, Mi, but he felt the protection the blood wards offered me would be worth it. I would suffer, but I would be alive so I could die at the most appropriate time." Hermione tried to think of something to say to that but was coming up blank; an unusual experience for her. "I think that we should leave it here for now. Clearly this ability needs to be treated with more caution than we used today."

"No!" Hermione cried out only to blush when Harry cocked an eyebrow at her. "I mean: it's not how I would have chosen to find out, but I'm… relieved, I suppose, that I do know now. I want to be there for you Harry and I want you to know about me as well. I don't want to have to hide from each other." She could see Harry wasn't convinced. "Are there things you feel you need to hide from me?"

"Yes. Just like there are things I think I have no business knowing about you."

"Like what?" Hermione couldn't help the slightly arch note that had crept into her voice. Doesn't he trust me?

"Of course I trust you, Mi. I just don't need or want to know about certain things you and Ron did while you were engaged." Harry told her with an uncomfortable blush. Oh. Right.

"It's easy to forget how far this goes, isn't it?" she asked feeling a little sheepish.

"Yeah..." Hermione wouldn't have needed their new connection to know that Harry was thinking about what she had just seen; the tone of his voice told her more than enough. Sidling over so she was pressed against him she slipped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him down to the bed with her as she laid down.

"You are loved, Harry Potter. If I ever run into the bastard that made you feel anything else I'll-... I'll curse him until he's suffered like you have." She felt Harry's grip tighten on her body and felt the way the hurts of years ago still pained him in her mind. "I'll never let them hurt you again." she murmured as she slipped into sleep.

Chapter Text

Hermione squirmed as she tried to avoid waking up. The sunlight on her face was relentless though and she found herself surrendering to the start of the day with a groan. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes she sat up and froze. This is not my room. As she looked around memories of the night before came flooding back. Harry!

'You're awake. There's breakfast downstairs in the kitchen.'

'Already? I suppose you would be good at it.' There was no ill will behind Hermione's thought. It just occurred to her before she could stop it, just like she could feel the twinge of shame from Harry before he could shut their connection down.

Hermione tried to force her thoughts to calm down. The first one upon waking had been enough of a shout that Harry probably couldn't help but hear it; the other was a clear illustration of the downsides to having someone hear your unfiltered first response. She couldn't ignore the new awareness that filled her of her best friend's past either. She was going to have to be very careful to keep her thoughts on the matter as muted as she could. There would be time enough to fret and worry once she was beyond the distance their link could traverse. If I know Harry he would abhor the idea that I pitied him, whether I did or not. I didn't need his reaction to know that.

Hermione climbed out of the bed and headed down the stairs towards the kitchen. Not having any toiletries or clean clothes with her meant that Hermione couldn't run through her morning ablutions like she normally would anyway. She arrived in the kitchen to find breakfast already on the table. Hermione ignored it and went straight to Harry who was still standing at the stove. She slipped her arms around him from behind.

"I'm sorry, Harry."

"It's alright. I don't blame you." he said, but the link between them remained closed. Hermione heaved a sigh and tried to keep her disappointment from showing.

"You'll have to teach me how to keep you out as well. It's not fair that you're the only one who can block our connection." The connection opened up slightly and Harry tried to push feelings of reassurance towards her, but Hermione could tell that he was still uncomfortable with the idea that she now knew what she did.

"We'll probably have to get someone else involved since I'm not sure how having a backdoor into your mind will affect my ability to teach you occlumency."

"You have someone in mind?"

"Actually, the only person I can think of is Juvenal, but I'm not sure if you trust him enough to work with him." Hermione bit her lip as she imagined the faceless unspeakable she had met only once rooting around in her mind.

"I'll need to think about that a bit, Harry." He just nodded in quiet understanding and the two friends sat down at the table to eat. Hermione scrambled for a change of subject to get them past the awkwardness that had them in its grip. "So could you hear everything I was thinking as I woke up?"

"That depends on what you were thinking. If it was a panicked scream of my name then yes. If there was anything else then no."

"Interesting. I wonder what the possible causes could be."

"I'd start with distance." Harry suggested. "There could be any number of reasons, but that one's almost certainly one of them. We'll have to try contacting each other under as many different circumstances as possible to find out what the exact limits are." Hermione nodded along to Harry's theories. In the back of her mind she was already planning a few experiments so that she could get quantifiable data to help her analyse this new aspect of her life.

"What are your plans for today?" she asked Harry as she enjoyed the food he had put out for her.

"I want to talk to the auror who did such a shoddy job of investigating your crime scene and I think I need to conduct a few more interviews. I'll probably start with people who are usually suspected in these kinds of situations and I was toying with the idea of visiting as both myself and Artorius to see which one they talk to more." Harry mused.

"Wouldn't people get suspicious if two people show up asking them the same questions?"

"I doubt it. Most would probably assume that I'm hunting the person who hurt my best friend if it occurs to them to think at all."

"That's a rather dismal view of people's intelligence isn't it?"

"In my experience people don't pay a lot of attention. There are always exceptions, but most of them won't think twice about two people asking after a crime." I'm worried that Harry might be right. No one ever seemed to notice anything we got up to at Hogwarts either, though after last night I'm not sure whether that was ignorance or callous disinterest. "What are you going to do?" Harry's voice interrupted her thoughts.

"Hm? Oh, I hadn't really thought about it. I'm sure you would be against me doing anything strenuous."

"You would be right."

"I do need to go talk to my parents and tell them that I'm no longer engaged. I'll probably find a book to curl up with after that."

"Would you like me to come visit you afterwards? Let you know how my day went?"

"Please and thank you."

"You'll be at home?"

"Why don't you find out? Considering how easily I found you yesterday I think that this may be another of our new talents."

"Really? I'll have to try that then."

"Good. Now if you'll excuse me, I should really get home and get cleaned up." Hermione said as she stood from the table. "Bye, Harry. Thanks for breakfast and-... and for last night."

"Say 'hi' to your parents for me." Well, at least his smile looks a little more convincing than it did earlier this morning. Hermione apparated out of Harry's kitchen and straight into her own.

"Hermione!" Hermione's wand was out and pointing between her mother's eyes before she realised what was going on.

"Mum? What on earth are you doing here?" Hermione asked as she lowered her wand with a trembling hand.

"I just came over to check on you." Helen replied, her wide eyes still fixed on the length of vine that had looked ready to end her life just a moment ago. Hermione saw her mother shake herself and when the two women's eyes met Hermione was faced with a determination she recognised from her childhood. "I came over here this morning and found you missing and your bed not slept in. You are still recovering from an illness, Hermione. You shouldn't be gallivanting off to god knows where."

"I wasn't gallivanting!" Hermione protested indignantly. "I was at Harry's last night because he offered to make me dinner after I'd had a rough day and we simply fell asleep talking." Well, sort of. I'm not sure I want anyone to know about our shared thoughts just yet; not even Mum and Dad. It's still too new and I want some time to enjoy it together first.

"You fell asleep with Harry? In his bed?" And now she sounds… well, not as disapproving as I thought she would. Hermione nodded slowly as she tried to figure out what she was missing about her mother's reaction. "So? How was it?"

"Mum!"

"What? I know that it must be something you've dreamt of doing for a long time."

"Where on earth would you get that idea?"

"Well, you love him don't you?"

"No. Nonononono. It's bad enough that I have to put up with this from everyone in the magical world, I do not need this from you."

"Darling, it's obvious."

"What's obvious? Harry and I are just friends." Hermione's mother just gave her a maternal look that felt slightly patronising. "What?"

"You don't look at someone who is 'just a friend' like that, dear." Helen said in a voice that made Hermione feel all of five years old again. "I've never seen you look at anyone else like that, not even your fiance. If that's what the magical world has been seeing all these years it's less surprising that they've assumed there is something between the two of than that you haven't realised it yet yourselves."

"I don't have a fiance anymore." Hermione blurted out. I didn't particularly want to start our talk about my relationship with Ron ending like this, but I'll take anything to get off of this topic of Harry and I being in love. It's completely ridiculous and I don't understand why everyone feels the need to bring it up.

"Oh. I am sorry that things couldn't work out like you'd hoped, dear."

"But you're not particularly upset that our relationship is over, are you?" Her mother remained quiet and that was really enough of an answer. "Could you tell Dad for me? I don't think I want to be there for the I-told-you-so look that he's not going to be able to hide before I've seen it."

"Of course, dear. If I do that will you come over for dinner tonight? Your father and I would like to spend some time with you and see that you're alright. It's all well and good that miracles have become an everyday occurrence for you, but we still need some time to adjust to them."

"I-... alright, Mum."

"Thank you, dear."

"I may be a bit late though. Harry's promised to come by and give me an update on how the investigation into what happened is going." Hermione could have cursed herself when she saw her mother light up.

"Invite him along then. We'd be happy to have both of you." Hermione groaned at the enthusiasm in her mother's voice.

"Only if you give this idea of the two of us being secretly in love a rest."

"Secretly?"

"Mother!"

"Okay, okay; cross my heart."

"Alright then. I'll invite him." This will be a good test of our connection if nothing else.

"Excellent! I should probably go and get the groceries then." Well, this a rather different departure than yesterday's. Oh, that reminds me.

"Mum?" Helen paused as she was pulling her coat on and looked at her daughter. "I just wanted to say… I'm sorry about the way I acted yesterday. I talked it over with Harry and he helped me realise that my habit of hexing people I don't agree with is an extremely unattractive trait."

"Harry said that?"

"No, he just explained the difference between hexing and punching in a clear and concise manner. I came to the conclusion that it makes me a sociopath on my own."

"And what is this difference?"

"According to Harry it's the recoil. If you punch someone you notice what you've done while hexing doesn't leave nearly as much of an impression on the caster." Helen looked thoughtful for a moment before she slowly nodded.

"Your Harry's a smart man, dear. I hadn't quite looked at it like that. I'm also sure that he doesn't see you as a sociopath. You wouldn't be this upset if you were."

"Mother, you promised." Hermione groaned.

"Fine; fine. That was my last word on the matter for now."

"What an inspiring promise." Hermione's mood wasn't helped when her mother just hugged her with a large grin and pressed a kiss to her cheek.

"You rest up for today, darling. I'll expect you and Harry around six." When her mother had left Hermione flopped back onto the couch. How do I let myself get talked into these things? I understand that people might still be worried considering the fluctuations in my health over the past week, but that does not excuse torture by insinuation. Hermione briefly wondered if it was even worth showering and getting dressed if she was only going to be lying around the house all day. In the end her own standards of cleanliness wouldn't allow her to sit around in yesterday's clothes with her teeth unbrushed and her body unshowered. With a sigh Hermione hauled herself upright to get started on a day that was already halfway gone.

:-:-:-:-:

After Hermione had apparated out Harry slumped back in his chair. Damn, that was awkward. I never thought I would have awkward moments with Hermione.

I never thought that she would find out about the Dursleys either. Harry groaned and rubbed his face. On top of that, this promises to be a truly shit day of work. Hermione hadn't asked exactly whom Harry would be interviewing today. The people usually suspected in premeditated assault, murder or attempted murder: people with previous convictions, people the victim was in a dispute with and, most importantly perhaps, people the victim was close to. I'm going to have to interview Ron as a suspect. Harry had no real desire to treat his best mate as a murder suspect, but it would be grossly negligent not to follow up on the possibility that he was somehow involved in the attack on Hermione. I wonder who he would tell more to? The unspeakable investigating the assault that led to the end of his engagement or the best friend he blames for the same? I doubt he'll be forthcoming either way. would prefer to have anonymity on my side for this though.

Harry stood up despite his reluctance and apparated into his office. He quickly pulled on his grey cloak. I need to get this interview with Ron out of the way. I won't be able to focus on my job if I have that hanging over my head the whole time. Once he was sure he had everything Harry apparated out to Diagon Alley and made his way over to the Pat-A-Cake Bakery. He looked at the dark windows above it and wondered to himself what he would do if Ron wasn't home. Only one way to find out. Harry stepped up to the door and rang the bell. It was silent for a minute and Harry tried again. This time he could hear noises coming from inside. Okay. I can do this. I have to do this. When Ron blearily opened the door he found an unspeakable standing there regally.

"Mr. Weasley? I was hoping for a minute of your time."

"What does the Department of Mysteries want with me? If this is about that break in six years ago, then you should go talk to the Minister. I was told you lot wouldn't be coming after us for that."

"This isn't about any, ah, field trips you may have taken while at school. I am here to ask you some questions about the assault on Ms. Hermione Granger."

"Oh." Ron looked a little taken aback by that. "I thought the aurors would be handling that."

"The investigation was taken over by my Department once it became clear how dangerous the curse used on Ms. Granger may be. I must ask if we might go somewhere more private for this discussion. If you are uncomfortable with me entering your home, we could continue this at my office."

"No. No, it's fine. Come on in." Harry followed Ron who had turned around and started walking up the stairs. I'm glad to see that he has been able to adapt to living in peace again Harry thought as he closed Ron's door behind him and followed his oblivious friend's back up to his flat. "You want something to drink?" Ron asked once they reached the living room.

"No, thank you, Mr. Weasley." Harry looked around for somewhere they could sit and had to settle for leaning up against the counter. "I think it may be for the best if we get straight into it. When and how did you first learn of the attack on Ms. Granger?"

"Neville flooed me. He'd heard about it when he'd gone down to Hogsmeade for a new quill; something about one of his students ruining his old one with a spell gone wrong. Oh, Neville is Professor Longbottom up at Hogwarts by the way."

"So you were here at the time?"

"Yeah. I'd been sleeping off the Chudley Cannons' end of season party." That's not right. The Cannons' season ended weeks ago. Why would they have waited so long to hold their party? And wouldn't Hermione have accompanied him there?

"Can you tell me what you did after that?"

"I went straight down to St. Mungo's, didn't I? My fiancee had just been cursed."

"I assume that you signed in?"

"Yeah, the girl at the reception should be able to help you check that out. Convinced yet?"

"Of what, Mr. Weasley?"

"That I've got an alibi. I gave some serious thought to being an auror a few years back when me 'n Harry got out of school. I know what you're looking for."

"In that case there is something about your story I'd ask you to clarify. Was Ms. Granger present at this end of season party? It sounds like the sort of thing one takes one's fiancee to."

"No. It wasn't exactly the official party if you know what I mean. Just me and a few of the lads from the club. Hermione wouldn't have wanted to come along."

"And why wouldn't Ms. Granger have wanted to attend."

"It was in the Sopping Snitch." The strip club? Damn right Hermione wouldn't have come to that. I doubt she'd have been thrilled with the idea that you went either, mate.

"Ah. Should I just ask the girls if one of them remembers seeing you?"

"Not sure whether they would or not, but the whole thing was organised by our captain: Galvin Gudgeon. You can ask him. He'd probably remember who else was there too."

"I'll be sure to do that, Mr. Weasley. Just for the record though, did you attack your fiancee?" I'm sorry about this, mate, but I need to know for sure. Harry used some passive Legillimency as he waited for Ron's answer.

"Of course I bloody well didn't! Now, if that was everything, I think it's time for you to piss off." Ron snarled out as he glared at the man in front of him. Truth. Thank the ancients; I don't know what I would have done if he'd been lying.

"Quite. My apologies for accusing you, Mr. Weasley. I hope that you understand that I need to examine every possibility." Ron just glowered at him. "Good day, Mr. Weasley." Harry made his way back out into Diagon Alley with his heart hammering in his chest. I just accused my best mate of trying to kill our other best friend. Who does that? At least I know that he didn't do it. Harry gave himself a mental shake. Right. First things first. I need to go talk to Galvin Gudgeon to confirm Ron's alibi and then I'll go have a look and see what the aurors did find at the scene.

Checking out Ron's alibi didn't take much time at all. Despite his reputation as a piss-poor Seeker, Galvin Gudgeon was only too willing to talk about himself. In the course of his bragging Harry managed to discover that Ron really had been out at a strip club with Gudgeon, the two Beaters, the Groundskeeper and the bloke that sold Liquorice Allsorts and Fizzy Wizzy at the Cannons' home games. Not sure what choosing to hang out with that lot says about Ron, but at least he's well and truly off the suspect list. Feeling a lot better than when he'd started the day, Harry headed back to the Ministry. He took a moment to send Juvenal a memo telling him that he'd be by with a progress report at the end of the day and inquiring after the possibility of Occlumency lessons for Hermione, if she agreed to take them. Once the memo was winging its way to Juvenal's office Harry went up to the DMLE. He stopped just outside Director Gawain Robbards' door. He's not going to appreciate this but it's the fastest way to get the information I need and make sure it's reliable.

"Good afternoon, Madam." Harry addressed the secretary sitting outside. The woman could have looked like someone's sweet little nan, except for the sour expression on her face.

"Watchoo want then, grey-cloak?"

"I was wondering if you could tell me who the auror was that worked the crime scene for the attack on Ms. Hermione Granger?"

"No, I can't. Get lost." Harry sighed a little theatrically at the woman's intractability.

"Thank you anyway." he said and strolled past her, throwing open the door to the director's office. Gawain Robbards' head shot up from his paperwork as his door banged loudly against the wall of his office. A squawk of indignant rage sounded from outside and a moment later the secretary came stomping in.

" What are you bloomin' thinkin', grey-cloak?! You can't jolly well up and walk into the Director's office!" she seethed at Harry.

"I wouldn't have had to if you would have just given me the name of the auror who worked the case before I took over." Harry responded, taking care to make his voice sound eminently reasonable, as if this was an everyday occurrence and she was the one acting oddly.

"And why are you asking after one of my aurors, Mr. Unspeakable?" Robards asked.

"Because he's cocked up his handling of the crime scene he was assigned and I want to know what else he's missed."

"What makes you think one of my aurors was anything less than competent?"

"I found a partial spellprint of the curse used in the attack, but your records make no mention of any spellprint being lifted from the scene. Considering the fact that I was there nearly a week after the crime occurred I have to conclude that someone screwed the krup, Director." Harry could see the way Robbards' brow furrowed as he took in the news.

"I take it you're the one working Hermione's case?"

"I am." Robbards grunted once in what Harry assumed was acknowledgement.

"You'll have to get in line to talk to the man about his performance. He's not reported for duty today so I get him first." Harry raised an unseen eyebrow.

"He's either missed or withheld crucial evidence in an attack on one of our most prominent citizens and now he's disappeared?" he asked. Robbards winced at that summation. "I don't think I need to ask you to keep him here if he does report in, do I?"

"I'll make sure he doesn't leave." Robbards said in a taciturn voice.

"Sir! You can't be serious!" The secretary exclaimed. "Tom's been with us for the better part of two decades and you're going to take the word of this grey-cloak and treat him like the scum he fights?!"

"Ms. Trunchbull! Control yourself." Robbards snapped before turning back to Harry. "My apologies. You understand that this will raise some resentment among my people?" At that point Harry didn't give a damn about DMLE's collective feelings.

"Tom? Tom Proudfoot?"

"Um, yes. You've worked with him before?"

"He was trying to keep me from investigating Ms. Granger's desk yesterday!" And I never pegged it as more than territorial posturing. Damn it! "You should know that I will be advising Ms. Granger to stay away from this Department until we establish Auror Proudfoot's guilt or innocence. You should count on being without her talents for some time."

"You can't do that!" Ms. Trunchbull cried out.

"The final decision is of course, Ms. Granger's, but I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't warn her that Auror Proudfoot is currently my chief suspect in the investigation into her attack." Harry told the woman in an imperiously cold voice before turning back to Robbards. "I would be much obliged if you would have your people keep an eye out for Auror Proudfoot. If nothing else, I still want to have a word with him about his handling of evidence." With that Harry swept from the room.

A sharp "Ms. Trunchbull!" coming from behind him told him that the secretary had been firmly put on a leash for now. I'd better keep an eye on her. She's currently the most likely person to try and make contact with Proudfoot to warn him. In the meantime I'd better give Juvenal a heads up; this is starting to become a political matter and that's what he gets paid for.

Harry hurried down to the Department of Mysteries and didn't waste any time heading for his superior's office. He was vaguely aware of the other unspeakables he met on his route speculating about what had Operations' youngest member so agitated. Once Harry arrived at Juvenal's office he barely spared a moment to knock and hear the man call out "Enter!" before he strode into the office.

"We've got a problem."

"You know, Artorius, you've been bringing me a lot of problems recently. Why do I keep you around again?" Harry ignored Juvenal's snarking.

"It looks like our main suspect is an auror; Tom Proudfoot. He's the one that flubbed their investigation and he hasn't turned up for work today." Juvenal was quiet for a moment at that.

"Bugger." he said with feeling once he'd thought it over. "Do you have any other suspects?"

"I checked out Ron Weasley, but he has an alibi… at the Sopping Snitch." Juvenal snickered at that piece of information.

"You going to tell her?"

"I don't really want to, but there's every chance she'll find it sooner or later."

"Hmm, that does add a dimension to the problem that no one else would have. Which brings me to a point that I've become a little concerned about since your memo this afternoon. Does she not know occlumency?"

"No, she knows enough to keep most people out. The problem is that I can keep her out but she can't keep me out and it's going to create an imbalance in our relationship sooner or later."

"Somehow, that doesn't sound like my problem. Why should I teach her?"

"Because you're the one recruiting her and this will give you a chance to see what she's made of?"

"...fine. If your princess can get over her trust issues, I'll try and find some time to teach her." Juvenal grumbled. "Anything else that's going to give me an unnecessary headache?"

"Maybe. I need to know if you can spare anyone to help me keep an eye on a Ms. Trunchbull, secretary to the Director of the DMLE."

"And why's that?"

"She's very insistent that Tom couldn't possibly have done such a thing and quite put out with us for even considering him a suspect."

"Is she now?"

"Yes. Very insistent."

"Hmm, I'll review everyone's assignments and see if I can get you some help. You're on your own for tonight at least."

"I'll get on her as soon as I've checked in with Ms. Granger. Proudfoot was very concerned about me getting into her desk, so I want every case she's ever worked on with him."

"I'll leave you to it then." Harry accepted the dismissal and left to find his own office. He took the time to update his case file so he wouldn't forget anything he'd done today and when that was done he hung his grey cloak in the wardrobe and focused on his link with Hermione. Let's see if this locatory thing actually works. As he sat there, Harry increasingly got the urge to look for Hermione at her parents' house. That's not where I would have expected her to be, but then again, she's pretty eager to test the limits of our bond. Alright, off to the Grangers' it is. Harry focused his magic and popped out of his office in near silence.

He reappeared in a distinctly muggle suburban neighbourhood that he had become familiar with after the war. After a quick check to make sure that no one had seen him arrive Harry walked over to the Grangers' house. He rang the doorbell and heard the sound of running footsteps inside. Moments later the door was thrown open and Harry came face to face with an excited and relieved Hermione.

"Thank Maeve, you're here." she said as she grabbed his arm and dragged him inside. Harry heard the door shut behind him as he was dragged off into the downstairs toilet.

"Hermione, is everything alright?"

"Yes… maybe… sort of?"

"That certainly clears it up."

"Nobody likes a smartarse, Harry. There's nothing wrong, per se. I've just had it with my parents' being so quietly pleased that my engagement failed."

"Ah."

"Don't tell me that you're going to talk about how it's for the best that it ended too."

"Not quite. I'm just wondering why we're having this discussion in a toilet?"

"Oh, right. I wanted to ask you whether we should tell my parents about the results of the Rite?"

"Honestly, I don't mind them knowing, but I'd wait until at least after we've caught whoever is after you. There is a very real chance that they know legillimency and you know that muggles can't learn occlumency."

"You mean that this person could come after my parents?!"

"Maybe. I haven't been able to pin down a motive yet. It's something I wanted to talk to you about, actually."

"Well, we've got some privacy now."

"Alright. I need all the files of cases you worked on with Auror Proudfoot."

"Tom? Why?"

"He's the one who covered your crime scene and didn't record that spellprint for whatever reason. He also didn't show up to work today and nobody knows where he is." Hermione had paled as Harry spoke and now had a trembling hand in front of her mouth. "I told Robbards that I would be advising you to stay away from the office until we're sure about Proudfoot." Hermione was slowly shaking her head and Harry could see that her shoulders had started shaking.

"I can't-... this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen anymore. The war's over; we're supposed to be safe." she said in a small voice. Harry let out a sigh as he wrapped her in a hug.

"I don't know what to tell you, Mi. All I can do is promise that I won't rest until I catch the person after you." Hermione had slipped her arms around him and nodded weakly into his shoulder. They stayed like that for a while until Hermione gave herself a shake.

"Come on. You'd better go say hello to my parents or they'll do something to embarrass me; I'm sure of it."

"As my boss told me today: how is that my problem?" Harry asked in a teasing tone to try and lighten the mood.

"I'm making it your problem, Potter. Mum's expecting you to stay for dinner." Hermione retorted with a small smile starting to form on her lips.

"You'll have to catch me first, Granger!" he cried dramatically as he threw open the door and ran out. Hermione's parents looked up in surprise as their daughter and her best friend tore into the kitchen laughing like they were a pair of toddlers playing tag. Harry looked up to see where he was going and spotted the looks he was drawing. He skidded to a halt self-consciously. Hermione crashed into his back a moment later.

"Hah! Got you!" she crowed before realising the oddity of the game ending in a dead stop. "Harry is something the matter? Why did you-... oh."

"Hello, Harry." Helen said with a smile that threatened to split her face as she moved forward to grab him in a hug. "How are you doing?"

"I've been well, ma'am- I mean, Helen."

"Hmmm, nice save. You're just in time. I'll have dinner on the table in just a few minutes. Why don't the two of you sit down?" Harry looked at Hermione who gave him a weary smile. He shrugged in response and the two of them sat down together. Hermione's father sat down across from them.

"Good to see you again, Harry. I was wondering if there was anything that you could tell us about the investigation into who attacked Hermione?"

"Dad! Can't you let him eat before you start interrogating him?"

"I quite agree, Richard. Harry's only just gotten here." Helen came walking in from the kitchen carrying a tray with a roast on it and sat it in the middle of the table. "There's no need to forget about our hospitality just yet."

"I don't mind." Harry said quietly in an effort to help Richard out. "I did promise to-" He was cut of by a loud rumble from his stomach.

"There! Even your own body agrees that you should eat. It sounds like you didn't even have lunch." I didn't. I was too busy.

'Oh, Harry. You really do need to take better care of yourself.'

'And of my occlumency by the looks of it.'

'Don't you dare, mister. Not until I can do it too at least so you can feel what it's like from the other end.'

'I talked to Juvenal about that today actually. He's ready when you are.'

'You really know how to tempt a girl, Harry.' The grin on Hermione's face and the humour colouring her thoughts told Harry that she was actually happy that the option was there, even if she wasn't sure that she wanted to take it just yet.

"Dig in, you two." Helen's voice came drifting from the other side of the table. Harry blinked in surprise. He turned to find Helen grinning at them like a demented House Elf. A groan next to him told him that Hermione might know more. We can deal with that later. Harry was about to reach for the roast when he discovered that his plate was already piled high with delicious looking food.

"Thank you for the food, Helen. It looks delicious." Harry tucked in eagerly and discovered that the food was every bit as delicious as it looked. The meal passed fairly quietly but once the dishes had been cleared Richard once again turned to Harry.

"Now that you're fed: about that investigation?"

"There is a suspect, but after two days there is still precious little known as fact."

"Who's this suspect?"

"An auror; Tom Proudfoot. He was the one who examined the crime scene when Hermione was attacked, flubbed it, became unusually interested in the investigation once it shifted to another department and hasn't shown up to work today."

"That sounds circumstantial."

"It is. There isn't even speculation as to a motive yet."

"About that… I've read that most of these crimes are committed by someone the person knows."

"There is some data to suggest that, yes."

"Then I was wondering if it might not be prudent to-...um, sweetheart, why don't you go put on the kettle?" Hermione gave her suddenly guilty looking father a suspicious look.

"I think I'll do that right after the two of you finish your conversation."

"I just don't think that you'll like me asking this next question."

"Will I like it better if I don't know about it, or will you feel better if I don't know about it?"

"It would make me feel better, Hermione." Richard said, sounding unusually stern.

"If it makes you feel uncomfortable, perhaps you should reconsider whatever it is you're going to ask." Hermione was scowling defiantly at her father whose expression hardened before he turned back to Harry.

"I feel that it would be prudent to investigate whether her fiance, pardon, ex-fiance was involved."

"Dad!"

"Ron was cleared of suspicion earlier today, sir. He has an alibi that at least half a dozen people can confirm."

"Harry!"

"I understand that you needed to get that off your chest, sir, but do keep in mind that the investigation is still ongoing."

"You're right. I shouldn't have commented, but it's difficult to be patient and objective when it's your daughter. And it's 'Richard', Harry." Harry grinned a little abashedly. It's really hard to call them by their given names for some reason.

'Never mind that, Harry! What were you doing investigating Ron?! He's our best friend; he wouldn't have attacked me like that!'

'I had to investigate him too, Mi, for exactly the reason that your father just mentioned. You're likely to know the person who did this and the victim's partner is the culprit often enough that not investigating Ron would have made me look biased.'

'What did he have to say about being accused?'

'He wasn't happy.'

'Show me.'

'I'd rather not; certainly not at the dinner table.'

'Fine. What's his alibi?'

'Hermione, please, stop asking these questions.' The next thing Harry knew, he was reliving his interrogation of Ron. He realised that Hermione had called up the memory a little too late and was unable to block her out before she heard Ron's alibi.

'The Sopping Snitch?! Why that little weasel! I'm going to-'

'You're going to what? Dump him? Again?'

'Damn it, Harry! I have a right to be upset over this.'

'Yes, you do, but if you go and scream at him about it, there are going to be questions about how you know. You need at least some plausible deniability if you're going to confront him about it.'

'The hell I do!'

'It's in the contract you signed. I told you, Hermione, this can be a heavy burden.' Harry saw that Helen and Richard were looking very confused at the play of emotions on his and Hermione's faces. 'I think we should drop this for now. You're parents are going to realise that we can speak like this if we don't, not to mention it's a bit rude.' Hermione nodded slowly in response, but remained quiet.

"Hermione, are you alright?" Helen asked worriedly.

"Yes, Mum. I just-... I have a suspicion about what Ron's alibi might have been that I don't like."

"You think he had another woman?"

"Something like that."

"Hmph. I still say that you're well shot of him."

"I know, Mum. You've barely said anything else since you found out."

"Well, not nothing else."

"Mother!"

"Calm down, Hermione. Harry's going to think that there's something wrong with you carrying on like that."

'Harry, put your shields up, please.' Harry complied with his friend's request, though he did see that there had been a bit of a confrontation between the two Granger women that morning. I wonder if I should drop the shields after that stunt she just pulled? No, I don't need to borrow tension with the way this thing's turned out. I'll just ask about it another time. The image of Hermione glaring at her smirking mother made Harry decide that he didn't want or need to be a part of their argument.

"I think it's time that I went home. I have an early day tomorrow." Harry saw Richard open his mouth and nodded at the man to cut him off. "If I hear about the investigation turning up anything else, I'll let you know."

"Oh, Harry, are you sure you won't stay?" Helen asked.

"No, Helen, I think that should probably give you and your family some time." Harry said as he stood up. The Grangers followed him out into the hall. Richard shook his hand and thanked him for coming, Helen gave him the hug he was learning to expect from her and told him that he should stop by more often and that there was always a place for him at her table. Hermione folded her arms around him and whispered in his ear:

"Thanks for putting up with us, Harry." Harry just nodded into her shoulder and gave her an extra squeeze before trying to step back, but Hermione wasn't letting go just yet. "Can you ask Juvenal when I can stop by to see about those lessons?"

"I'll ask him tomorrow and let you know." This time when Harry stepped back he didn't meet any resistance. He gave the Grangers one last smile and wave before he apparated back to Grimmauld Place. When he landed in his own hall Harry let himself slump against the wall and let out a deep breath. Family is a wonderful thing but I think there are still some things about it that I don't understand. Shaking his head Harry made his way up to bed. I'll figure it out after I've had some rest.

Chapter Text

Hermione Granger walked into the Department of Mysteries feeling like a little girl. She was accompanied by a tall, silent unspeakable and the only thing she really knew about him was that he wasn't Harry. I'm sure that Harry must be out working the case and that they're not just trying to intimidate me. Her guide led her through the warren of corridors that connected the unspeakables' offices and finally stopped in front of one that looked no different than any other to Hermione. He knocked and from within came a call of "Enter!". The unspeakable took a step back and gestured to Hermione that she should enter. She tried to suppress the urge to gulp. As soon as she was in the office the door slammed shut behind her.

"Welcome, Ms. Granger." said another grey-cloaked figure sitting behind a desk. "Let's get straight into it shall we? I am Juvenal, and I should hope that you remember our last conversation."

"I do."

"Good. Now then, I have been asked to help you shore up your occlumency. Normally I would have told any operative to sod off if they made that request, but Artorius had good reasons, even if he might not know it."

"You want to have a look into one of our minds to learn more about the connection we have?"

"That's one of the reasons, yes. I also need to get your occlumency up to an Operative's level so that you can properly protect our secrets and in the meantime I get your insights into some of Artorius' behaviours. In short: this should be worth my time."

"Um, where is… Artorius?"

"I told him to take a day off. Thank Circe he had a personal project to work on; he can be a bit stubborn about coming into work and I don't need him here holding your hand for this or distracting you."

"I see." Hermione said while her mind was busily throwing up possible projects Harry could be working on. I can't believe that we've drifted so out of touch that I have no idea what he might be doing in his spare time.

"And I can't believe that you haven't picked it out of his thoughts yet." Hermione squeaked in surprise as Juvenal's voice joined her musings.

"What the hell?!"

"That wasn't nearly good enough, Ms. Granger. I had hoped for more when Artorius told me you were at least somewhat competent at occlumency." Hermione huffed in annoyance.

"You could have told me we were starting."

"Will your enemies tell you before they try to enter your mind? I think not. It does me no good to know what your mind is like for a few minutes when you're paying attention if it's wide open the rest of the day." Hermione just scowled at the man. "Alright, tell you what: prepare. In fifteen seconds I will once again attempt to enter your mind, but this time you will have this warning." Hermione took a second to absorb the warning and then started throwing up the strongest occlumency shields she could. "Here I come." Hermione felt something slam into her occlumency shields and she was reliving her trip down the trapdoor with Harry in first year, her flight on Buckbeak in third year, studying for the TriWizard Tournament in fourth year, Harry comforting her in sixth year and Harry comforting her in the tent on the hunt for the horcruxes.

"Well, that was an interesting view into your time together with Artorius; absolutely pathetic as mental defences go, but an interesting experience nonetheless." Hermione groaned as she regained control over her own memories and glared up at the man who was clearly mocking her. "You're in for a lot of hard work, girl."

"You mean you'll be tearing at my mind with magic for the foreseeable future?" she grouched.

"Of course not! What good would that do anyone? You should have grasped the fact that you are performing at an unacceptable level already, so it does no good to reinforce that lesson." Juvenal moved over to a pair of chairs that Hermione hadn't noticed before now. They were set up facing each other and Juvenal took a seat in one of them. "Well? Hurry up, girl. I do have other things I could be doing with my time." Hermione reluctantly took a seat across from the unspeakable. "This is going to be a chore if you're not going to cooperate you know. Tell you what, you stop acting like a petulant child and I'll give you a special treat at the end of today's session."

"Really? And what might that be? A chocolate frog?"

"Information on what Artorius is doing with his day off." Wait. Harry told this geezer what he'd be doing today, but not me?

"... I'll be holding you to that."

"Good. I'm going to start by guiding you through a meditative exercise designed to help you get a feel for your mind and the magic that flows through it. I will expect you to practice this every night and I shall test you at our next session." Hermione gave a determined nod and closed her eyes. The next three hours were exhausting, even though they never moved from the chairs. At the end of it Hermione felt like she wanted nothing more than her bed.

"I think that's enough for today." Juvenal said as he brought the session to a close. "I have freed up some time for you next week at the same time. Do not be late." It sounded like a dismissal, but Hermione wasn't ready to leave just yet.

"I believe you owe me something."

"It says something about you that you expect to be rewarded for acting like an adult." Juvenal said with that mocking tone he had used at the beginning of their lesson. "I did make a promise though, so I suppose it is partially my own fault. Artorius spent the day working on a ward control system for non-magical users."

"He what? Harry doesn't know a thing about wards or enchanting. How could he possibly attempt such a project?"

"Of course Artorius knows about wards. He'd be utterly useless to me if he didn't." Juvenal snapped with a reprimand clear in his voice. "Artorius has continued expanding his knowledge like any member of our Department."

"And he's learnt Runes?" Hermione asked trying to convey her contrition through her tone of voice.

"I believe he has a N.E.W.T. in Runes and an O.W.L. in Arithmancy now. Not to mention his Masteries."

"Masteries?!"

"Defence Against the Dark Arts, which you should know about already, Charms, which he achieved after only a year and a half with us and Transfiguration, which he will be awarded within the next few months according to his mentor. He's due to start on a Runes Mastery next; probably plans to use this project of his as part of it." Hermione's mind was reeling. I've spent the past three years doing what? Paperwork? And in the same period of time Harry's gotten an extra N.E.W.T., O.W.L. and a Mastery? Nearly two apparently?

"You said that all members of the Department do this?"

"Of course. We wouldn't be able to keep at the cutting edge of magic if we stopped trying to improve ourselves." A decision crystallized in an instant.

"What do I need to do to join?"

"We already have your CV. I imagine we can do your evaluations after your next session with me, if you're willing to stay a few hours longer." Hermione bit her lip in consideration for a moment, but really she had been sold on the idea once she realised the opportunities that would be offered her to expand her knowledge.

"I'll be more than willing."

"Excellent. I'll see you next week then." As she left the office, Hermione suddenly got the feeling that she had been played like a flute. I don't care. If a little manipulation is the price for getting to make learning my job, then so be it. Actually, I think I need to have a quick conversation with Mr. I'm-going-for-my-fourth-Mastery-and-never-said-a-word. Outside the office Hermione found an unspeakable waiting for her who gestured for her to follow and then started walking without looking back to see if she was following. Putting the bollocking she was going to give her best friend before congratulating him and hugging the stuffing out of him out of her mind for the time being Hermione hastened off behind her escort. She was shown out of the front door without ceremony and it was slammed shut behind her like Juvenal's had been. That lot need to work on their manners. Guess we can work on that once I get started on my first Mastery. For now I'll go have a word with the one unspeakable I know personally. A focused thought and an application of magic later Hermione found herself in the entry hall of Number 12 Grimmauld Place.

'Harry? Where are you?'

'Hermione! Done already? I'm up in the office.' Hermione climbed the stairs and made her way to a door she hadn't used since Harry had given her and Ron a tour of the house after he'd remodeled it. As she stepped inside she found Harry looking up from his desk. Even from where she was standing, Hermione could see that the parchment on the desk was covered with sketches of runic constructs.

"Hello, Hermione. How was your lesson?"

"Your boss is an absolute lout." Harry let out a guffaw at her answer.

"He's been called worse, I assure you. I've called him worse on occasion, come to that."

"Really?" Hermione asked sweetly.

"Oh yes. He's a fantastic teacher, as long as you can ignore the fact that he's an absolute bastard."

"You mean he's the kind of man who would hide the fact that he already achieved two Masteries, almost has a third in Transfiguration and will soon be studying for a fourth in Runes from his best friend?" Harry looked surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. "You rather forgot to mention that, Harry."

"Well, it's not come up." he defended, looking uncomfortable.

"Harry, I may not talk about our education as much as I used to, but I'm pretty sure I've mentioned learning something new in one of your fields at least once."

"Not since you've found out that I'm an unspeakable. Before I couldn't have explained how, why or from whom I was learning and you wouldn't have let it go without finding out everything."

"I-..." He does sort of have a point there.

'I do know you.'

"Harry, must you?"

"Listen to you broadcast your thoughts? Yes. At least until you figure out how to stop doing it."

"I've just spent three hours doing exactly that. I'm exhausted."

"Would you like to stay for dinner then? I could probably whip something up in fairly short order and you can interrogate me about my education."

"About your project too?"

"That too."

"Okay, then. What are we having?"

"Shepherd's pie?"

"Sounds wonderful. Can you cook and answer questions at the same time?"

"Something tells me that I'm not going to get a choice."

"Must be those braincells that got you all those fancy Masteries that you didn't tell me about."

"How long are you going to keep banging on about that?"

"Until I have as many as you do." As the two friends bantered they headed downstairs to the kitchen and Harry started pulling out the ingredients he would need.

"As many as I do? Does that mean you've decided on that change of pace?"

"I have my evaluations with Juvenal next week after my lesson with him."

"I'm sure you'll do well." Harry told her with a smile as he peeled the potatoes for the mash. "I have a feeling that you didn't find out about the tendency of unspeakables to collect multiple masteries by accident."

"Oddly enough, I had that same feeling. It's a good one to have though, isn't it? It means he's actively recruiting me."

"Probably. I'd advise against spending too much time trying to figure out how Juvenal's brain works though. The man is more devious than Salazar Slytherin himself."

"You sound like you admire that."

"It's a trait I've come to appreciate in my line of work."

"Can you tell me about another mission of yours?" Harry just shrugged.

"Sure. Dark wizard, dangerous magical creature or both?"

"Um, both?"

"Well, there was this one time I was called in by the Danish government to deal with a madman living up in Greenland. He had done the calculations and determined that it must be possible to make inferi of magical creatures. The idiot decided to try his method out on a dragon and when he succeeded it promptly turned on him and killed him leaving everyone else with the problem of a dragon lich on the loose. Do you have any idea how hard it is to kill something that's resistant to both magical and physical damage?" Hermione listened with rapt attention to a tale of hunting down ancient knowledge and a nearly unkillable creature. Harry talked while he cooked and even managed to supplement his story with snippets of memory when he could spare the attention. She was particularly impressed when he managed to end the tale with setting dinner on the table.

"I wonder what kind of missions I'll get?"

"Generally speaking they try to let you work your way up to the truly risky missions. You've decided that you definitely want to join Operations over Research then?"

"I'd never get to see you in Research."

"Don't be too sure about that. Every operative has a favourite researcher to go to for advice on something he's found, but can't explain. We're still the brawn of the operation."

"And you were hoping that you'd be able to come to me?"

"If you joined Research, I'd come to you. You need to look at what you want to do though." Hmm, I really wasn't the one who threw herself into danger during our adventures. That was for silly boys with more courage than survival instincts.

"You're sure that we'd still get to work together if I joined Research?"

"I'm sure. Hugin will probably be happy to see the back of me actually."

"Is Hugin your current favourite?"

"He's the only one that will talk to me. Most of the unspeakables are a little wary of outsiders and I've still not been entirely accepted."

"That's awful. Do they not trust you?"

"They remember Rookwood and they worry." I suppose that's a valid point, but really? Not trusting Harry? I can't even imagine that. The two friends passed the rest of the meal talking about Harry's experiences as a new recruit with the Department of Mysteries. By the time Harry sent the dishes to the sink to clean themselves, Hermione felt that she had a better understanding of what awaited her, should she pass Juvenal's evaluations. It won't be exactly the same as what Harry experienced; I'll have him there at least.

"So, I know about your missions and your Masteries; tell me about your project."

"Anyone ever tell you that you're nosy?"

"I prefer 'persistently curious'."

"You would. What did Juvenal tell you about my project?"

"That you're developing 'a ward control system for non-magical users'. Why did you choose that particular project?"

"I was talking with your dad about apparition etiquette and the idea came up. I thought that this way we could ward your parents' house and they'll be able to set the wards any way they like; if I can figure out a way for them to activate the various configurations at least." Hermione could only gape at her best friend for a moment before she jumped up and grabbed him in a hug.

"Thank you, Harry." she murmured into his neck before drawing back. "So why does your boss get to know about this before your best friend?" she asked him with a massive grin.

"Because my boss wanted to know why I needed permission to set up a ward scheme on a muggle house; permission that's been granted, by the way."

"So all we need to do is figure out one little hiccup in your scheme and my parents will have their very own wards?"

"I'd not call it a 'little hiccup', but otherwise correct."

"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go work on it now!" Hermione could feel herself just about vibrating with excitement, all traces of her earlier exhaustion gone. Harry smiled at her and led the way back up the stairs and to the office. The two friends worked happily into the night until they were too tired to do more and Hermione ended up staying the night again as she had been doing more and more frequently lately.

:-:-:-:-:

Unspeakable Operative Artorius made his way down Knockturn Alley wrapped in his grey cloak. Normally a stranger walking down Knockturn at twilight kept their wand out and moving. This stranger was one that the denizens of wizarding Britain wanted no truck with. If there was a way of identifying exactly who he was the entire alley would probably have cleared itself out in the space of two heartbeats. Under the hood of the grey cloak Harry Potter smirked to himself as he noticed the apprehension on the faces of those he passed. I wonder if they would be more worried if they knew I was Artorius the Hunter or Harry Potter? Probably better not to let them find out either way. Might spook my quarry if he knew I was coming here.

Two days ago a tip had come in to the Ministry: one of the layabouts in this alley that gave the aurors tips in exchange for a few galleons thought he'd spotted someone matching Tom Proudfoot's description visiting one of the stores. There, Garret and Croft's Forgotten Treasures. Garret and Croft's was supposedly a second hand store, though it was commonly accepted that 'second hand' and 'forgotten' essentially meant 'stolen'. I wonder what he was looking for? As far as I know they have a fairly varied and… changeable selection of goods. Proudfoot just had to be sighted at the one store that tells me precisely nothing about what he's thinking except that it's a store where an auror really shouldn't be shopping. If I had to bet though, I would say that it's the kind of place that might sell cheap invisibility cloaks.

Harry hesitated for a moment outside the storefront. Go in and confront or hide and see if Proudfoot comes calling? There's no real indication that he'll be back so it might be better to just get as much information from the storekeep as possible. Besides, I haven't terrorised a shady character in a while; this could be fun.

Harry calmly stepped into the store and moved unhurriedly up to the till. The storekeep was looking through a rather dogeared copy of Magefair. The man was so distracted by the centrefold that he never noticed the unspeakable bearing down on him until Harry was right in front of him.

"Here now, wha's an unspeakable doin' in my store?"

"Shopping."

"For wha'?"

"Information."

"Don't got none o' tha'."

"Don't be tiresome. You don't even know what I'm going to ask you yet."

"Don't matter. I en't got nothing to say and ye can't make me if you en't got proof I done summat wrong." The shopkeep looked stubborn as a bull and very sure of his rights.

"Do I look like an auror?"

"Huh?"

"Do I look like an auror?"

"Well, no. Called you an unspeakable, didn't I?"

"Quite right. If you're aware that I'm not an auror though, I'm at a loss to explain why you expect me to play by their rules."

"Wha's that supposed to mean?"

"Simple. Tell me what I want to know and I won't pump full to the gills with veritaserum and ask you to incriminate yourself; and no, the Wizengamot doesn't need to know. One of the perks of being me." The man's defiance bled out of him in an instant. "Now then, I'm looking for a man, an auror as it happens. He was spotted coming into your store. I don't know what name he gave you but we know him as Tom Proudfoot. About six feet, brown curling hair, blue eyes and a scar under his left eye. Seen anyone like that?"

"I-... I mighta done. Fella like that came in here few days ago. Didn't give me no name, but looked like you said."

"What was he looking for?"

"Was after me to tell 'im 'bout any wands I mighta bought or sold in the last month."

"Did you tell him anything?"

"Nah, he played by the rules. Would'n threaten me like you done."

"What a paragon. Did he inquire after a specific wand?"

" 'E mighta mentioned summat 'bout a core of rougarou hair."

"I want a copy of all your records on the matter." The shopkeep looked reluctant to comply. "Mab's wings, man. I know everything in here is probably stolen, and I don't give a damn; that's for the aurors to look into. I'm after our Mr. Proudfoot."

"You en't gonna try 'n arrest me for anythin' you see in my records?"

"Not unless it leads me to believe you tried to kill a friend of mine and you don't strike me as the murdering type."

"I en't."

"There's always the veritaserum option."

"Alrigh', alrigh'. I'm gettin' the damn records. You keep yer bloomin' potions where they are." The man bent down under his counter and came back up with a massive log book which he dropped between the two of them in an explosion of dust. He leafed through it quickly and managed to find the page detailing what Harry want to know within a few seconds. Somebody was curious about what Proudfoot was after. Harry leant over to get a better look and saw a list of wands with purchase and sale dates. A wave of his wand and he had an exact copy which he picked up and placed inside a pocket in his robe.

"Thank you for your excellent assistance." he told the man as he dropped a small purse with a few galleons in it on the counter. The shopkeep scrambled to pick it up.

"Yer givin' me money?"

"Payment, for services rendered." The purse disappeared so quickly the man might have vanished it.

"You unspeakables en't too bad. I know the aurors'd never even think of- oi! Tha's 'im! Tha's the man!" Harry followed the line of the man's finger stabbing forth and found himself looking at a shocked Tom Proudfoot who was just coming in the door. For half a second everyone froze and then Proudfoot whirled around and sprinted out the door. Harry was already moving after him. He burst out of the shady pawn shop and looked around. There was a disturbance in the crowd to his left, like someone was shoving his way through the mass of people there. Harry sprinted after it. He caught up to Proudfoot enough that he saw him duck around a corner. Harry piled on a burst of speed and threw himself around the corner, wand in hand. Spotting his quarry he sent out a pair of Stunners and Full Body Bind. Proudfoot managed to dodge away from the spells and into a pack of rough looking shoppers who stepped aside to reveal him again with a loud laugh. The exhorted him to run faster as one of them called out a bet that he would get away, mentioning the apparition point at the end of the street.

Cursing under his breath Harry realised that the auror was close to getting away. Judging by his desperate increase in speed, Proudfoot had realised it too. Shitshitshit. With those lugs in the way, I don't have a clear shot either. Despite the apparently hopeless situation Harry continued to chase after Proudfoot. As soon as he had passed the still cheering men he fired off a Piercing Curse which took Proudfoot in the left thigh three steps before where the apparition point was supposed to be. The auror cried out and stumbled to the ground. The pain should distract him enough that he won't risk apparating and with his leg injured he won't be able to outrun me anymore. Proudfoot appeared to have other ideas as he hauled himself up and made two desperate hops forward before hurling himself into the apparition point and disappearing. FuckShitBugger.

Harry jogged the final few yards to the apparition point and discovered that Proudfoot hadn't gotten away completely. Lying in the middle of the apparition point was a bloody, dismembered leg with a curse wound through it. He must have been really desperate to get away. Harry cast some preservation charms on the leg and picked it up before stepping fully into the apparition point and apparating back to his office. After he had deposited the leg in the morgue for safekeeping he sat down at his desk and pulled Proudfoot's personnel file towards him.

Tom Proudfoot; been a Senior Auror with the DMLE since the end of the war… spent most of the two decades before that working as an Auror, Second Class. Disappointing evals meant that he was never up for a promotion until the DMLE got decimated and his experience got him a Senior Auror job. There are several reprimands for shoddy case work. Seems a few of them came because Hermione warned Robbards that the suspect would walk on a technicality if the case went to court as it was. That finally gives me motive.

Why was he looking for wands in Knockturn Alley though? Harry pulled the list he had gotten from the shopkeep at Garret and Croft's. Let's see, that bloke mentioned that Proudfoot had asked after a wand with rougarou hair. Not a common wand core if I recall correctly. Harry scanned the list of wands for any matches and found two. Wait, no, it's one wand that they bought and sold twice. First bought by the store four years ago, possibly a Death Eater trying to hide his weapon? Sold two weeks before Hermione was attacked and bought again the day after. It should still be in the store then. Perhaps it would be worth setting up some surveillance, for all the good it will do. Their last surveillance, of Ms. Trunchbull, hadn't led anywhere and had to be canceled since it was taking up too much of the Department's resources. There simply weren't enough operatives after the recruitment drought they'd suffered for the past twenty years. In fact it's highly unlikely that Juvenal is going to assign even one person to help me if I want to stake out for anyone less than Proudfoot himself. I'd better head down and pick up the wand, just in case. Who knows, the boffins might be able to match it to the spellprint. A knock at the door distracted Harry from his thoughts.

"Enter!" When the door opened Harry was surprised to see Juvenal standing there. "Juvenal, is there something you need?"

"Not really. I'm simply here to offer you a chance to witness your girl's induction into our ranks. She passed her evals with flying colours."

"Never a doubt that she would. When are we doing this?"

"Right now. I had Goliath drop her off in my office." Harry stood up and walked around his desk. I can always go back in after the induction and get that wand.

"Let's go then. Have you decided on a codename?"

"Oh, you're going to love it."

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione was waiting nervously for the results of the tests the unspeakables had put her through. She had been left in Juvenal's office without a word and her nerves were starting to wear at her. She was straining her ears for any hint of someone approaching and as a result she nearly jumped out of her skin when the door flew open behind her without warning.

"Oh, come on, Juvenal. It's obvious. Everyone's going to be able to figure out that we know each other."

"Trust me, Artorius, that wouldn't have been difficult no matter what. You're just too familiar together." Harry's here! I wonder if that's good or bad? Hermione tried to get a read from his mind, but Harry was keeping their connection locked down for some reason. That's not good. He probably doesn't want to be the one to tell me that I failed. In her panic Hermione hadn't noticed that Juvenal had taken place behind his desk while Harry had taken a seat next to her.

"Ms. Hermione Granger, after a careful consideration of your mental, physical and psychological evaluations I would like to offer you a position as a researcher with the Department of Mysteries." Huh?

'Congratulations, Hermione. You're one of us if you accept the position.' Harry's voice in her head kickstarted Hermione's thoughts again.

"I passed?"

"Convincingly. If you wish to accept our offer I have a contract here for you to sign." Hermione took the piece of parchment Juvenal was holding out and read it through. When she got to the clauses detailing her wages and benefits she felt her eyes widen. That's a lot of money.

'Oh, they make you work for it.' After reading through the whole thing and not finding anything she hadn't expected Hermione took the quill she was expected to use and found a Blood Quill like the one she had used the night she had first found out about Harry's real job. As the sting subsided from the back of her hand she passed the contract back to Juvenal. Under his hood she could just make out that he was smiling.

"Welcome to the unspeakables, Guenevere." What?

'I told him it would be too obvious that we know each other with matching codenames like that.'

"If you're about to raise the same objections Artorius did, don't bother. Trust me that your body language will give you away long before you open your mouths." Hermione closed her mouth which she had opened to offer exactly that protest. "Good. Now why don't you try this on?" With a flick of Juvenal's wand a mannequin wearing a grey cloak marched forward and struck a pose before settling down. "Go on. It's yours if it fits, and given that we got your measurements during the fitness eval, it should." Hermione got up and slipped the cloak over her shoulders and pulled the hood up before turning to Harry and holding out her arms.

"How do I look?"

"Unrecognisable."

"That's the point, Artorius." Juvenal broke in. "Why don't you show Guenevere to her office? She's been assigned the one next to you: number 008." 'Don't tell me-'

'Uh-huh. Not sure if he's ever come into contact with the franchise though.'

'We are never telling Dad.'

'We can't, remember? Top secret government jobs aren't for blabbing to one's parents about.'

"Before we go, Juvenal, is Guenevere going to be joining me as a 'consultant to the Ministry'?"

"Unless she has a better idea. She'll also be marrying you."

"What?!" Hermione furiously clamped down on her occlumency as best she could as the memory of her mother insisting that there was something between her and Harry popped up.

"You heard me. When traveling on the job you will now be Arthur and Jennifer Grey. It allows you to use a new gadget the eggheads came up with: the Glamouring. They constantly cast a preset Glamour Charm on you so you can slip through a Disspelling checkpoint undetected. Research is still working out some of the kinks, but it's already a useful tool as is and being married gives your covers a good reason to be wearing a ring."

"I can't think of anything that would be a better cover off the top of my head, but I think I'm ready to see my office." 'Before I kill your boss.'

"In that case, I'll bid you good day. We're looking forward to the results of your work already, Guenevere." Harry and Hermione left Juvenal's office in silence and made their way through the halls to Harry's office. One door further down, Harry drew to a stop and turned to face Hermione.

"If the office has been assigned to you they'll have keyed it to you already. You're the only one who can open it right now." Hermione stepped past Harry and reached out for the doorknob. She felt a sense of occasion settle about her as she opened the door to her office for the first time. The inside looked like a blank version of Harry's office.

"It feels so empty."

"You're allowed to decorate as you please, though personal effects are strongly discouraged as they could allow visitors to figure out your identity. And don't worry, once you get into the workload this place'll feel full soon enough. Speaking of, you should probably hand in your resignation upstairs soon or you're going to have a lot more work than even you can handle." Harry moved into the office with her and showed her where the ward tiles were kept and how to use them as well as explaining what options were available from the Ministry for decorating; there weren't many. "We still have to keep under our budget and a lot of our funds go into our projects." Once he had shown her everything he could think of, Harry gave her a hug and told her he had to go.

"What? But it's already seven in the evening, or close enough to make no difference. Where could you possibly need to go?" Harry only hesitated for a moment.

"I think I may have found the wand that was used in your attack. I want to go pick it up."

"I'll come with you!"

"I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"I know, I know: unspeakables don't have tagalongs, but with this fancy new cloak, I'm not a tagalong anymore; I'm a colleague."

"Actually, I was going to say that you are getting a little too close to this case. You were the victim, Hermione. It's okay to let someone else take care of this for you."

"Harry, you're just going to pick up a wand. What could possibly go wrong?"

"That is a very long list." Harry said almost growling with frustration. "A list that does not need the addition of a rookie agent or the victim of the case coming along."

"Alright. Sorry I offered. I'll see you at Grimmauld Place?" Harry heaved a deep sigh.

"Yes. Please. We can go out to celebrate after I get home."

"Well, in that case you should get going. The longer you hang around here, the longer I have to wait for my dinner." Harry smiled and Hermione could tell from the way his head shifted that he had just closed his eyes to concentrate on where he was going. I need to time this just right… now! Just as Harry's magic focused around him for his apparition, Hermione reached out and caught his sleeve. She performed her own apparition so she wouldn't get splinched, but let Harry guide her to her destination. When they landed she couldn't keep a smug grin off her face. Leave me behind, will you? Hermione had just enough time to notice that they had landed in a large pool of congealed blood when she felt a wrench on her arm followed by a forceful impact of a stone wall on her back knocking the wind from her lungs and making her grin vanish.

"What the fuck do you think you're playing at, Guenevere?" hissed Harry's voice in her ear.

"I can help." Hermione was disgusted by how small her voice sounded. I am not some damsel in distress.

"Damsel in distress or not, your actions certainly prove that you're a rookie. You never endanger yourself or a mission to satisfy your personal feelings." He's really angry at me. I can't remember the last time Harry was angry at me. Hermione twisted away from the accusing stare she could feel coming from under the hood across from her and felt her jaw drop.

"Artorius, look." Behind Harry's back flames were colouring the night sky orange and, occasionally, purple and green. There are magically volatile substances caught up in that fire. Harry whirled around.

"Fuck. That's all we need." A vice-like grip closed on Hermione's arm and she felt herself getting dragged a few paces and then squeezed through a tight space. When breath filled her lungs again she was standing in the entry hall at Grimmauld Place. Slightly ahead of her a broad back was stalking into the kitchen.

"Wait! Harry, we need to go back. We can help!"

"We're not going back and I'll bloody well stun you if you try."

"So you're just going to leave whoever was in that building to die or at least have their life burnt out from under them?!"

"We are not firefighters and would just get in the way. That's without taking into account that that fire was almost exactly where the store was that I had tracked the wand to. I think it's safe to assume that the evidence is gone. You going back there puts you and everyone else at the scene at risk if the bastard decides to take a shot at you."

"You don't know that." Hermione said, sounding anything but sure.

"This afternoon I went to that shop because Proudfoot had been spotted going in there. The shopkeep told me that he'd been asking about wands, specifically with a rougarou hair core. I got a copy of his sales records for wands, but we were interrupted by Proudfoot himself coming into the store. I chased him through Knockturn and got him in the leg with a Piercer. He splinched himself apparating out and his leg is currently in the morgue. That same area being the target of an arson attack is more than I'm willing to chalk up to coincidence. You are not going back there." Harry's tone was flat and curt as he spoke telling Hermione that he was still angry with her. She felt a chill go down her spine as she remembered the blood they had landed in and realised that it probably belonged to Tom. I should stop thinking of him that way. This is the man who tried to kill me. She gave herself a little shake and looked across the table at where Harry was still fuming. That I can at least try to remedy.

"Harry? I'm sorry. I just-... I joined the unspeakables because I wanted to help you." Harry heaved a sigh and ran his hand through his hair which pulled his hood down. Hermione realised that her own hood was still up and quickly pulled it down too.

"I know, Hermione. Think you could start by not making my job harder than it objectively needs to be, though?"

"I'll try, Harry."

"Don't worry about it too much. There's a reason it's referred to as a 'rookie mistake'. No one expects you to be perfect right from the off and it wouldn't be fair or realistic if we did. You're going to have to trust that I know what I'm doing though, at least on this case." Hermione just nodded quietly. "Hermione, I'm not really angry with you. I'm upset with you because you put your life in danger and scared the living daylights out of me, but I'm not angry." 'Well, not anymore.' Along with the mental communication came a sense of tentative conciliation. She responded with her honest regret and eager acceptance of his olive branch. "Good. Then let's get changed. As I recall, we have a celebratory dinner to go to." Hermione grinned happily, confident that the storm had passed.

"Last one to get changed is a rotten bundimun!" she cried before popping away to her own flat. Despite the rocky start I think that this may be one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Chapter Text

Harry was catching up on his paperwork for Hermione's case when an interdepartmental memo came flying through the door. Curious, Harry unfolded it and read.

Unspeakable Artorius,
We have a report of a body brought into St. Mungo's suffering from symptoms that the Healers have identified as matching those of Ms. Granger during her stay. Will you be taking this as part of the same case? Please respond.
Director Robbards
Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

Harry read the memo again and tried to suppress his emotions on the matter. Another one. After seeing the way Hermione was targeted, I really didn't think I had a serial killer on my hands. I'd better go check it out. If it's a false alarm I can always pass it off to the DMLE later. Harry quickly scribbled a memo of his own that he would be heading over to the hospital now and sent it out the door before collecting his cloak and any gear he thought he might need and apparating out to St. Mungo's.

Harry landed in the reception area of the hospital and was oddly reminded of his mad dash in here nearly a month ago. He walked up to the reception desk and saw the witch behind it recoil away from him. What a difference a cloak makes.

"Good morning, Miss. I was hoping to speak to someone about a report they made to the aurors concerning a body that was brought in here. Do you know who I might talk to?"

"I-I'm not sure, sir. Healer Poke left instructions to send the aurors up if they came, but he never mentioned anything about, um,..."

"Unspeakables? That's alright. I know where his office is, so you'll be able to tell him that you didn't, in fact, send me anywhere." He quickly walked past the girl while she was still trying to work her way through his jocular comment. Guess that's one more thing I learnt from Albus: people are a lot more easily overrun by cheerful nonsense than out and out threats. Making his way up to the fourth floor Harry soon found the office belonging to the Healer who'd come up with the way to save Hermione. I really should figure out a way to thank him for that, now that I think about it. It'll have to wait though; business first. Harry knocked on the door and waited for the Healer to call out "Enter!". When Harry walked into the office Healer Poke looked up in surprise.

"Well now. I was expecting the aurors to show up sooner or later after I sent them that report, but I suppose you lot took the matter out of their hands?"

"We did. Are you the Healer who treated Ms. Granger?" Harry was a little surprised when Poke snorted in response to a question Harry had thought he knew the answer to.

"Everyone and no one was treating Ms. Granger; biggest pile of arse-covering I ever saw."

"Really?" Harry asked with a grin. He's much more fun when he doesn't know who I am.

"Ms. Granger is well known for being a kind and intelligent woman, but she's even more well known for being one of the people Harry Potter cares about most in this world. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell him that we'd failed to cure his friend."

"You believe he would respond poorly?"

"Honestly? I haven't the foggiest. Have you ever met the man?"

"I don't think I could say so, no." If I had I'd be in your mental ward for a rather severe condition or in a prison cell for tampering with the timestream.

"Let me tell you then: he's a damn intimidating man to be around and I'm not sure that he's even trying to be. I told him about a one-in-a-million shot at saving his friend and he never hesitated. I don't know that I could have been that certain of myself even if it had been my wife in there." Well, that's surprising. I think I need to have a talk with Hermione about marriage. It's clearly very different from what I thought it was.

No, that would be insensitive. Maybe I could talk to Helen instead? Focus, Potter! Case first, trying to understand what makes people so strange later.

"To be honest, that whole affair with Potter demanding to perform a ritual that had such a slim chance of success is the reason I'm talking to you now. Since it worked, the hospital can't really be seen to be punishing me, but for endangering the Saviour's life I'm stuck with the jobs no one else wants like talking to the authorities. I'm Healer Poke, in case you didn't read my door." In other words: introduce yourself, stranger.

"Artorius, with the Department of Mysteries. I'll try to make this as painless as possible. You claimed that you have a body showing the same symptoms as Ms. Granger did. Are we dealing with an unidentified victim or a corpse?"

"Both. The poor sod's dead as a doornail and we have no idea who he is. His body's too shriveled to get much of an ID and his face has been cut to ribbons besides. I've been searching our records, since he lost a leg in a splinching accident, but no matches so far." It couldn't be…

"Left leg?"

"Why yes. You know who we've got down in the morgue?"

"Possibly Auror Tom Proudfoot. I was pursuing him a few weeks ago and hit him in the leg with a Piercer. He splinched it off when he apparated out in something of a blind panic."

"Why was an unspeakable chasing an auror?"

"He's the lead suspect in the investigation into Ms. Granger's attack." Healer Poke sat quietly for a moment before he got up and pulled a file out of a cabinet behind him.

"I think you may need to revise that theory. We checked the spellprints on his body. The curse in question is slow acting and painful which makes it an unlikely choice for a suicide. More importantly: there are two distinct sets of spellprints on his body. One which we assume to be the curse itself, though it is badly degraded after all the time that's passed since it's application and then a plethora of other prints from someone who seems to have cast only diagnostic charms. Interestingly, while they were professionally cast there is no sign of any attempted healing spells. We checked his stomach contents and found no potions either."

"So you're implying that he was kept under observation, but not given any kind of medical help?"

"Well there were some basic nursing charms and we discovered that his last meal had been a serving of NutriPorridge, something we use here for patients who can no longer feed themselves."

"You couldn't match the spellprint to any of your employees?"

"It didn't match anyone currently on the medical staff."

"I didn't really expect it to considering that we suspect that the attacker may have used a second wand that they obtained through less than legal channels. Have you got a list of anyone with access to that Nutri-stuff?"

"Everyone has access. It's why we were looking for him in our records. We were hoping that he might have been in here recently."

"I'll need a list of everyone working here." Damn. So I may be looking for someone with Healer training as the link to the killer. There is also the possibility that they were coerced by whoever actually cast the curse. What Poke just described sounds a little too much like an experiment for comfort. Could they have been trying to understand how Hermione survived? If that's the case I suppose I should be glad that she's spending her time working in the depths of the Ministry in its most secure Department and at home when she's-... Hermione's not safe at home! Her flat's in a muggle building and there's a limit to how powerful her wards can be before they start affecting the people living around her. Shit! I need to get her somewhere safe, but where? Right now the only times I know for sure she's safe are when she's at work or with me behind the wards of Grimmauld Place.

Ancients' blood, but I'm an idiot. I'll have to get Hermione to move into Grimmauld with me until we catch this bastard. That is not going to be an easy sell. Harry was startled out of his thoughts by a massive stack of files landing on the desk in front of him.

"These are all our personnel files. I have no idea what you're hoping to find in there, but good luck with the slog ahead of you." Harry waved his wand at the pile and it shrunk and lightened until he could easily slip it into his pocket.

"Thank you. Is there any chance of seeing the body?"

"Sure. I've not got anything pressing that I need to be doing right now." Poke led Harry from his office and into one of the lifts. He placed his wand against a pad rather than press a button and the lift started to descend. When the doors opened the two men stepped out into a cool, dark hallway that was only lit by a soft glow every few yards. Harry followed Poke down the hallway to a heavy looking door and through to the room behind it. There he found several pods humming with magic. "These are Stasis Pods. As their rather uninspired name suggests they've been enchanted with strong preservation charms so we can keep the bodies from rotting and ponging up the place. This is the one you're looking for." Harry watched as Healer Poke opened the coffin-like contraption for him. I suppose that it could be him, but Poke wasn't joking when he mentioned that this bloke is nearly unidentifiable.

"How did he get here?"

"Excuse me?"

"You reported receiving a body; someone must have brought him."

"He was tossed through the floo actually. We had a full reception room too, so he scared the dickens out of a lot of people." Harry nodded to show that he'd heard while he bent over the body to inspect it.

"You're sure that it was the same curse?"

"As sure as we can be. This was what we predicted would happen to Ms. Granger."

"How did you predict this if you didn't know the curse?"

"We do have some experience with withering curses, Mr. Artorius. There are a lot of them and each and every one is the devil's own problem to cure. Even though we only have two partial spellprints we're pretty confident in our diagnosis. If it's not the same curse, it's damn close."

"Do you have those spellprints on record?"

"We should do. You think your people will have better luck?" Harry shrugged.

"They've got a third partial. Every little bit probably helps."

"You're not the one analysing them then?" Poke asked with a grin. Definitely more fun when he's not falling all over himself.

"Not a chance."

"We can stop by Admin when we head back up."

"That can be now. I don't think this bloke is going to tell me anything you haven't. Would you like his other leg?"

"You have it?!" Pole sounded shocked that the Department might be collecting body parts. Harry noticed that he gave the body a quick once over as he resealed the pod.

"He lost it while apparating away from me, remember? I took it in to see what the boffins could learn from it. Speaking of, if we send it over it'll probably come with one of them attached to it wanting to do some experiments of his own."

"We'd have to clear any tests with his next of kin, but assuming they agree it shouldn't be a problem."

"I'm sure whoever it turns out to be will pleased as punch about that and bitching about bureaucracy until the sun comes up." Poke guffawed out loud as he led them back to the lift. The two men spent the ride up happily abusing the red tape that they sometimes had to go through to help someone. When they got to the Administration Department they requested the appropriate files from the clerk while still trying to outdo each other with tales of bureaucratic incompetence.

"Looks like we're about to have someone try to take the prize." Harry muttered to Poke when he saw the clerk coming back empty handed.

"For Maeve's sake, Robson, don't tell me you can't find them." The clerk looked ready to cry.

"I double checked, Healer Poke. Both of the patient files are missing. They haven't been signed out but they aren't where they're supposed to be."

"Show me." Harry barked. The little man flinched and looked like he was about to object, but in the end he turned around and led the other two men into the file stacks.

"This is where the Granger file should be." he said indicating what looked like a shoebox on the third shelf of the stacks before pointing at another a few rows down. "Your John Smith should be over there. They're just not." Harry was already casting standard forensic spells all around him.

"Whoever did this, didn't use magic. That probably means that they knew where they had to look; they knew the system. My first instinct would be that this is the work of your anonymous Healer that left the spellprints on Proudfoot. Were those in his file as well?" Poke and the clerk nodded together. Fuck. How are these bastards always a step ahead of us? "Right. You, check every inch of this place to make sure that the files haven't simply been misplaced by some monumental cock up."

"Do you have any idea how long that will take?" the clerk sputtered as he leant away from Harry's jabbing finger.

"You prefer the idea that a murderer was able to walk in and out of here without you noticing?" Harry asked, but the trembling little man refused to be moved.

"You know, I'm really not looking forward to telling Harry Potter that his best friend's medical records have been misplaced." Poke broke in with faux-casualness. "I wonder who he'll blame? Especially once he finds out that the records that could identify her attacker were lost at the same time."

"Alright. Alright! I'll do it. Just don't mention anything to him yet, okay?"

"My lips are sealed." Harry promised in a dry tone. I don't really spend that much time talking to myself anyway. I should save these memories for a rainy day. Hermione's going to burst something laughing at the absurdity of all this.

"What are you going to do?" Poke asked Harry as they left Admin.

"I'm going to have the DMLE check out the alibis of everyone who works here. Proudfoot was one of theirs and they deserve to be a part of the investigation into his death."

"And it gets you out of spending your days here doing interviews?"

"Well, it's about time they made themselves useful. In the meantime I have to report in to my boss. Thanks for the help. You don't know how refreshing it is to have someone not lose their head when working with us."

"I can only imagine." Poke grinned as he shook Harry's hand. Harry left St. Mungo's feeling decidedly uneasy about this case. We really need to figure out who's doing this. If the only thing holding them back was their experiment, then they've got the results they were looking for and we could be up to our armpits in bodies like Proudfoot's.

What was that idiot even doing that he got himself cursed? Why incriminate himself the way he did? I'd better get a look at his home. It might have some clues to explain all this. Robbards and Juvenal first. Harry apparated into his office and immediately set off towards Juvenal's. He spared a brief look at Hermione's office when he passed it. I'll tell her later. This is one report that can't wait.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione was sending a series of illusory charms into a Thaumaturgic Separator, a detector which would record their imprints and allow her to work through the arithmantic formulae. She was supposed to be working through them to find the arithmantic relationship that described the effect of magic on the mind. My first project for my first Mastery. There was a sense of newness to the task that made it seem weighty and important that she did this. I wonder if Harry had this kind of feeling when he did his first project for his Charms Mastery? We have very different approaches to learning, but surely he must have felt this too? I'll ask him tonight.

Hermione was working in the Lab with another unspeakable codenamed Echo. Hermione was fairly sure that her colleague was female and a hard worker but hadn't asked about the project she was working on. If I recall correctly Harry said it was considered taboo in the Department since almost every project was classified and you would be forcing someone to turn you away.Hermione had just finished casting a Mirror Rorrim Charm into the detector when the door to the lab was flung open.

"Echo! Echo! You'll never guess what I just saw!"

"Morrighan's cloak, Jewel. Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"Sod your heart. It's your ears that should be interested. Oh. Hello." The newcomer had just realised that Echo wasn't the only one in the room.

"Sorry about that, Guenevere. This is Jewel and, as you could probably tell, she's rather excitable."

"Guenevere? Haephestos must really like you if he gave you a codename like that."

"Actually, Juvenal did my evals and gave me the name." Hermione said feeling a little awkward. Who knew that the unspeakables had a Lavender Brown in their ranks?

"Juvenal?! Oh, but then you must know what's going on!" Jewel squealed.

"Um, no? You just came bursting in here and Echo and I have been working for a while now."

"Oh, right. Doesn't matter. You're never going to guess what happened."

"You mentioned that, Jewel." Echo said sounding exasperated. I wonder how often she's barged in like this.

"Right. I just saw Artorius himself storming into Juvenal's office. Five minutes later the two of them are hurrying up to the lifts together. What do you think it means?"

"That you have an overactive imagination?" Echo answered tiredly. "Since when does Artorius 'storm' anywhere?"

"Well, he was walking faster than usual." She actually sounds petulant.

"You've observed Artorius enough to know how fast he normally walks?" Hermione couldn't help but ask. This certainly wasn't part of what Harry told me was going to happen.

"Oh, that's right. You probably haven't met him yet; or maybe you have. Artorius is Juvenal's go-to operative so he might have pulled him in for your evals." If she says something about a crumple-horned snorcack, I'm calling her out. I need to ask Luna if she's lost a cousin somewhere.

"I have met Artorius, but he wasn't there for my evals until the end."

"Scary bloke, isn't he?" Jewel asked cheerfully.

"Jewel, if you're not going to stay on topic this can wait until lunch. I don't know about Guenevere, but I can't put my work off much longer without consequences."

"Fine. Go back to your boring work. I'll just talk to Guenevere." Hermione got a strong impression that Echo was rolling her eyes.

"If she annoys you, use a Stinging Hex. It's what I do when I can't get her to shut up any other way." she threw over her shoulder as she went back to work.

"So? What do you think it means?" Jewel asked Hermione while almost bouncing in front of her.

"I don't know. Artorius has made some progress in his assignment and needs to enlist another Department?"

"Oooh. You're good at this. Let's see…" Jewel crossed her arms and hunched her shoulders as she appeared to be giving the matter some serious thought. "I've got it! Artorius wants to breed a manticore and a lethifold for his next assassination!"

"That seems… unlikely." Harry would never use a creature like a lethifold or manticore. It's simply too dangerous and unpredictable. Hermione wasn't going to try and deny to herself that her friend had carried out assassinations in his role as 'Juvenal's go to operative'. "Why don't you just ask them when they get back?"

"Are you mad?!" Oh right, that's rude down here. "Did you just miss me calling him scary? I mean Juvenal's bad enough, but Artorius as well? I've heard that he was sent to kill an undead dragon and rode it first because he thought it would be fun."

"What? No, he didn't."

"How would you know? Hm? Were you there?" Close enough that I might as well have been.

"You weren't there either." She pointed out instead.

"Hmph. Good point. But my story is more fun so it wins." Hermione was at a loss for a response to that statement. "Any-hoo, like I was saying: Artorius is super scary. I wonder what he's like in the sack? I mean it could be pretty exciting to- OUCH!" Jewel was rubbing her behind and positioned like she was glaring at Echo who was calmly putting her wand away.

"If you've got time to be spouting off nonsense like that you should go talk to Haephestos. Some of the other labs could probably use some cleaning."

"What? No, no, I'm busy. Very busy. Got to go." In a whirl of grey fabric the strange unspeakable was gone. Hermione was left blinking into the sudden silence.

"You shouldn't let her get started like that, dear. She's a brilliant researcher because her mind just won't work like it's supposed to, but most of the rest of us find it a bit much after about two minutes."

"I think I understand." Hermione said still feeling a little off balance.

"She does have a point though; those Operations boys are dangerous and something tells me that Artorius is the worst of the lot. I suspect he's as like to leave you as look at you. Remember that, Guenevere. That is not someone you want to take home to meet your parents." I think that my parents would disagree with you. Mum practically has me marrying him already.

"I'll remember, Echo. I think I'm just going to work through these calculations in the privacy of my office."

"Mm-hm. Good lass." Echo replied absently, already absorbed in her work again. Hermione clutched her read-outs to her chest and hurried through the corridors to her office. She briefly stopped outside the door and closed her eyes. Feels like Harry is still upstairs in the DMLE. I wonder what he's doing there? I'll talk to him when he gets back. Hermione slipped into her office and dropped the stack of parchment on her desk. Normally working through arithmantic formulae to determine the mechanics of magic interacting with the mind would have sounded more than a little appealing, but she was too worried to really focus. The problem is that I know exactly what Harry's assignment is; me. He's found something, that much I'm sure of. Getting Juvenal involved could be because they need to talk to Gawain about Tom. Somehow Hermione couldn't manage to convince herself that Harry would have good news when he made it back down to the Department.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry walked towards his office deep in thought. Juvenal and he had spoken to Director Robbards who had not been happy to hear that an auror who had been under suspicion of attacking Hermione Granger was now dead. I suppose Juvenal would have a similar response if one of us had been hunted despite being innocent. Robbards also hadn't been too happy that this case was still in the hands of the Department of Mysteries. He had tried to insist that the case be turned back over to the DMLE since it now involved the death of an auror, but Juvenal had pointed out that the circumstances of the case hadn't fundamentally changed and that there was still a dangerous person or group out there using an unknown curse. In the end it had taken a reminder that the people hunting this criminal would be in danger of being hit by said unknown curse before Robbards subsided. The disagreement had probably made him far more open to having his aurors conduct interviews at St. Mungo's than he might otherwise have been, since it allowed him at least some access to the case. Juvenal had been clear about what he expected from his operative the moment they were inside the Department though.

"Get this solved, Artorius, and do it fast. As it stands you were dangerously close to having this case suspended before Proudfoot turned up dead. If your new lead turns out to be a dead end, I'm going to start assigning you some missions in the meantime." Harry couldn't really blame Juvenal for his decision either. Much as I would like to keep working on this until Hermione is definitely safe again, there are other things that we need to take care of too. The least I can do is make sure that Hermione is protected in case I do get sent out.

Harry found himself outside Hermione's office and focused on their bond. He could feel the disquiet radiating from Hermione as she worked. Best get this over with as soon as possible. Harry knocked on the office door while at the same time sending out a soft call over their bond. He could feel Hermione's relief as she rushed over and threw open the door. He stepped inside before any of the questions she had bubbling inside of her could burst out and shut the door.

"Harry, I've been so worried. Is everything alright?"

"Not really. I need to talk to you about something."

"Of course." Hermione pulled Harry towards her kitchenette and pushed him down onto the couch she had put there. "I'll just make us some tea. Oh! Wait, I ran out this morning. Well, I'm sure I could run out and get some, or you could go next door and get your own and I-"
"Hermione!" Harry got up and took both her hands in his. "Calm down. We may have a problem, but we can take our time to work through a solution. It's not an emergency." He watched as Hermione took a deep breath and gave him a nod to show that she was back in control of her worries. They sat down on the couch together and Harry started explaining. "This morning I got a message from Director Robbards. St. Mungo's had sent him a report about an unidentified body that had suffered from the same curse you were hit with during the attack." Hermione gasped and one hand came up to cover her mouth.

"Do they know who?" she whispered.

"We believe that it was Tom Proudfoot."

"What?! Harry, I don't understand. Wasn't he the one using that curse?"

"The Healers think that he was captured by the real culprits and that they then put the curse on him to be able to observe its effects. There were indications of diagnostic charms being used on him, but no attempt to use healing magic."

"An experiment?"

"I think so."

"Harry, if they didn't try to heal him then Tom must have been the control case. There would be others where they did try to heal them to see what the effects were."

"Nothing's been reported yet, and considering that they chucked Proudfoot's body through the floo to send it to St. Mungo's I would imagine that we would find out fairly quickly if and when they do die. I think that the culprits probably sat on the body for a while after he died so that the spellprint of the original curse had a chance to deteriorate."

"So your problem is that you're back to square one."

"That's part of it. Hermione, if whoever did this got the information they needed, what's to stop them from coming after you again?" Hermione was quiet for a moment as she worked her way through the implications.

"You've thought of something, haven't you?" she guessed.

"You're safe while you're at work. It's your home that has me worried. How well warded is your flat?"

"Just anti-transport, fire-prevention and a Muggle Repelling Ward with an intent-based trigger. That was about all I could put up without shorting out every electrical device in the building."

"Can you understand why I would be worried about you sleeping under such light protection?"

"I suppose. What do you suggest? You can't keep watch over me all night. You need to sleep too."

"Actually, I was hoping to convince you to move into Grimmauld Place with me. Between the wards the Blacks put up and the Fidelius we recast after the war it would be as safe as I could make you." Once again Hermione sank into thought wearing a concentrated expression. Harry kept quiet, not wanting to accidentally say something that would kill his chances of convincing Hermione to agree to his request. I just really hope she'll listen. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to her. Once was bad enough. When Hermione's head came up, Harry held his breath in anticipation.

"If I do this I want to be sure that my parents are protected too." Hermione said in a tone that indicated she was not going to budge from her position. Harry just let out a sigh of relief.

"We can put up wards on their house tonight if it'll make you feel better. We would have to discuss exactly which ones they want though, since I haven't finished the interface yet." Hermione nodded in understanding.

"Tonight then. We can move my things after that."

"Why don't you come into my office when you're done for the day and we can go straight from here?"

"Alright, Harry." Still almost giddy with relief Harry leant forward and hugged his best friend, trying to convey how happy he was that she wasn't going to let her pride dictate her actions. He didn't notice Hermione's surprise radiating across their bond before she managed to hide it behind her improving occlumency barriers.

"I'll see you after work then." Harry said happily as he stood up. "I'll let you get back to what you were working on before I interrupted." Harry left Hermione's office and walked into his own where he let himself drop into his chair. Thank the ancients, that went about as well as it could have. Now I need to get to work and see if I can figure out who's behind all of this so Hermione will be completely safe. Harry sat up and pulled the St. Mungo's personnel files towards him. Let's if there's anyone in here who might be trying to hide something. It should keep me busy until that warrant for Proudfoot's place comes through.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione kept at her work for as long as she could, but the clock seemed to be moving unusually slowly. Arrgh! Why am I still working here when my parents could be in danger?!

No. Calm down. There is no reason to assume that Mum and Dad are being targeted yet. Harry will catch whoever did this and then we can get them the first muggle-adjustable wards in history. It was a reassurance that kept buying Hermione another thirty minutes of work before her worries would set in again. I just can't believe that Tom's dead. He was supposed to be the bad guy here. How could we have gotten it so wrong? The best we can do now is catch whoever's doing this.

Finally Hermione felt like she couldn't possibly get any more done and the clock had reached a point where she didn't feel too guilty leaving the rest of her work until tomorrow. She packed everything away and locked her office door before knocking on the next one over.

"Enter!" came Harry's distracted voice. Hermione opened the door to find him poring over a file with a pair of stacks on either side of him showing her that he must have been at this for a while. She closed the door and inserted Harry's privacy tile.

"Harry?"

"Huh? Oh, hey, Mi. Just give me a moment to finish this and we can get going."

"Sure. Would you like a cup of tea?" Harry's attention had shifted back to the work he was doing, but he grunted something that Hermione chose to take as 'Yes, please. Thank you for asking'. When she put the steaming beverage in front of him he looked at it in distraction for a moment before blinking up at her.

"Thanks." he said quietly as he picked up the cup and took a sip. Hermione clutched her own cup of tea and tried to keep from fidgeting. Eventually Harry put the file down and drained the last of his tea. "Alright, let's go then. I can read through the rest of it tomorrow."

"You don't have to hurry on my account.' Hermione offered, trying to mean it.

"It's fine. It was getting difficult to concentrate with your agitation wearing at me anyway. Besides, keeping your parents protected is important too. Are they going to be home yet?" Hermione felt caught off guard at that question and checked her watch.

"Um, they'll probably be another half an hour actually." she admitted sheepishly.

"Well, we can just scout your garden for suitable places to bury the wardstones." Harry said as if it had been the plan all along. Hermione pushed her gratitude that he was being so understanding down their link.

'It's fine, Mi. Trust me, I have a healthy respect for the value of family.' Hermione sensed that most of Harry's understanding of that value came from knowing what he didn't have, but decided not to bring it up. Harry had shared some more of his childhood with her by accident in his nightmares and it still made him uncomfortable to talk about it. "You should probably leave your cloak here and remember to pop into my office tomorrow." Harry said as he was hanging up his own cloak. Hermione realised that she hadn't taken hers off yet in her hurry to get to Harry and her parents. Probably for the best. We're not supposed to go wandering around without them on while we're working. It wouldn't do for the neighbours to see two unidentifiable people in grey cloaks snooping around Mum and Dad's garden either. Hermione hung her cloak next to Harry's and focused on her parents' house. A quick, uncomfortable sensation later she was standing in her parents garden. Harry appeared next to her with barely a whisper of sound a moment later. "Where would you start?" he asked her as he looked around.

"Um, probably by the crabapple. It's fairly central and the tree itself should help us anchor the stone." The two friends made their way slowly through the garden while discussing the more technical matters of erecting a wardscheme together. Hermione was making a list in her head of wards she was planning to recommend to her parents as they talked and had to admit that it put her flat's security to shame. Harry may have had a good point about moving in with him after all. It's just so strange that he's so comfortable doing this. Harry used to come to me for help on anything that was even remotely academic. I-... I think I miss that. This Harry doesn't need his nerdy best friend as a sidekick anymore; he's just so absolutely... competent? capable? self-reliant? All of that, I suppose. I just hope that there is still room in his life for me. Their inspection of the garden, and Hermione's depressing thoughts, were cut short by the sound of tires on pavement indicating that her parents had arrived home. Hermione rushed around the house and was in time to see her parents getting out of their car.

"Hermione? What are you doing here?" Helen asked in surprise.

"Hi, Mum. Harry and I need to talk to you about some home security measures."

"Harry's here too?"

"Hello, Helen; Richard." Harry called out from where he was just coming around the house at a far more sedate pace than Hermione had.

"Oh there you are Harry. Well, you two had better come in and tell us what's gotten so serious that you're here to talk about 'home security measures'." Hermione and Harry were ushered into the house and seated at a table with her dad while Mum put the kettle on.

"So what's got you two so worried? Is that psycho that attacked Hermione back?"

"Yes, actually." Harry said sounding grim. Hermione heard Mum gasp from the stove while Dad looked as serious as she'd ever seen him.

"And you think he'll come after us?"

"We don't know. They currently suspect that there are at least two people working together and I'm worried that they'll try to come after Hermione where she's vulnerable. Their most recent victim appears to have been killed in an experiment and they may have gotten the results they needed to try again."

"Who was the victim?"

"The main suspect." Hermione could tell that Dad was shocked at Harry's words even if he tried to cover for that quickly.

"Well, we did agree that all the evidence against him was circumstantial. Have they got any new leads?"

"Nothing overly promising. One of them was probably trained as a Healer and they're checking out every one of those they can lay their hands on. To be honest I'm not holding out much hope. These dirtbags have been a step ahead of us the whole time. We know that they were at the hospital today, stealing evidence that they may well have destroyed by now."

"What about Hermione?"

"I'm moving in with Harry later tonight. His home is one of the most heavily warded in the country." Hermione answered her father's question. She noticed that his relieved nod seemed to be aimed at Harry more than at her.

"What can we do?" Mum asked as she placed a tray with steaming mugs on the table.

"That's why we're here, Mum. We want to ward your house so that you can be protected from magical people trying to harm you."

"I thought we needed special permission for that?" Dad asked.

"We have it. I had hoped to finish figuring out a way for you to alter the wards yourselves before putting them up, but we're just going to have to make do without. The best we can do is tie a monitor into the wards so that one of us is alerted if something should happen to them." Hermione saw that Harry had surprised Dad. Well, he surprised me too when I learnt about his Masteries. In the end Mum and Dad agreed to let Harry and Hermione put up whatever they thought was best. Hermione breathed a sigh of relief once the two of them had worked out the best possible wards they could provide and Harry had apparated to the Ministry to get the necessary stones. No one's going to attack them while Harry's here; people are still too in awe of him to attack him openly like that. Once we leave we'll have the wards up and Mum and Dad will be safe. We're actually going to pull this off. My parents are going to be safe. She forced herself not to think of anyone else these murderers might be after. We can't prevent anything we don't know about. We're doing what we can here and now. I'll just have to trust that Harry will find them and stop them.

Chapter Text

Unspeakable Artorius was sitting on a roof under a disillusionment charm. For most people this would have been unusual, but Harry was more or less used to it, having done the same many times on different missions to get intelligence on possible targets. This time he was observing a dead man's house though and that was a first. Considering the fact that Auror Proudfoot had likely been captured and cursed there was a strong possibility that their culprits knew where his house was and may even be watching. If they're staying one step ahead of us at all times then they must be watching us somehow. Harry had been keeping an eye on the house and its surroundings for several hours now and had noticed nothing unusual. I'll have to go in pretty soon or abandon the search for today. It won't do any good to keep watch if I'm start staring rather than looking. Harry waited for another hour before he decided that the time had come to make a decision. Well, I didn't come all the way out here to stare at a house and not learn anything.

Harry used his broom to come down off of the roof and land silently in the street below. He shrunk it and slipped it into his pocket as he made his way across the street quickly and quietly. He circled around the house carefully. Looks like the back door is harder to see for a passerby. Guess I'll be using that in case it turns out that I need to use force to execute this warrant. Harry walked up to the back door and cast an Unlocking Charm at it. The door remained stubbornly closed so he Vanished the hinges instead and kicked it in. Harry caught the door with a Levitation Charm and lowered it quietly to the ground before he stepped into what looked like a rather dirty kitchen.

"Hominem Revelio." Harry whispered as his eyes tracked around for the tell tale collection of sparks that would indicate the presence of a person, but the house appeared to be empty. Harry quickly levitated the door into position and kept it there with a simple Sticking Charm. That should keep casually nosy neighbours from becoming a problem. Sure that he was alone in the house Harry started searching. In the kitchen Harry mostly found a few weeks worth of mould. Guess cleaning was low on his list of priorities even before they got him. The rest of the house appeared to be just as much of a disappointment until Harry opened what he had expected to be a broom cupboard. Not that it wasn't one, just that someone had converted it into a particularly cramped office space. The desk was a length of MDF stuck to the wall with a Permanent Sticking Charm. Harry could barely get the chair away from it to get a look at how Proudfoot would have seen it. He must have really wanted this office. Too bad about that massive puddle of dried blood on the floor. This must be where he apparated to after I pegged him in Knockturn.

There was a map of Hogsmeade on the wall with The Three Broomsticks marked out and surrounded by what Harry recognised as photos of the crime scene. He started scanning through the parchments on the desk and soon found a copy of the spellprint from the crime scene as well as the ones that must have been taken from Hermione's medical file. Seems he did lift it; and it's a good deal more complete than the one I found. These others should massively help the boffins too. I wonder how he got them? He was dead when the St. Mungo's copies were looted from their Admin Department so he must have gotten a look at Hermione's medical file while the case was still his. That would certainly explain why it was so sparse the one time I got my eyes on it.

Looks like he was trying to work through the spellprints by himself, but not one of these calculations matches another. There were what might be witness statements scattered around the desk as well. If this is how he worked all his cases then it's not surprising that he caught a few reprimands. There is no sense of order to any of this. Finally Harry found something that might be useful even without the extensive reconstruction work he was going to have to do on the auror's thought process. He was thumbing through a bound, title-less book and noticed that the handwritten entries were ordered by date. A diary? Please have written down what you were thinking, because for the life of me I can't figure it out from the mess you made.

March 26th
Terrible news. Hermione was attacked and is in St. Mungo's in critical condition. I convinced Robbards to give me her case. I'll make sure that whoever did this to her is going to pay. I made copies of my findings at the crime scene and took them home. This'll be the one that makes everyone see that they've been wrong about me. Hope Hermione makes it through.

April 1st
It almost seemed like a cruel joke at first, but everyone's saying that Hermione's been cured after all. The rumours say that Harry Potter did it, but I'm sure that it's just some simpletons assigning any miracle they can to the man. This is fantastic news though. Now Hermione will see what a competent investigator I am. I'll have to make sure that I get this solved quickly so I look really good.

All this because he wanted to look good?! It looks like he was certainly out to prove a point to Hermione if no one else.

April 2nd
Fucking politics! Fucking Minister! Fucking Merlin-cursed Grey-Cloaks! Shack was an auror! How can he do this to me? Oh well, doesn't matter. I pulled the spellprint from the case file along with the more promising witness statements. Let's see that hooded show off solve the case before me now. I can't believe Hermione was actually smiling after talking with the bastard. I need to get cracking on this thing.

This is starting to sound like more than just proving a point. He actually obstructed an investigation to impress Hermione.

April 4th
Working through these spellprints is sodding difficult. Where's a forensics nerd when you need one? No matter Hermione will be even more impressed with me when I figure this out without their help. Word on the street is that she's broken up with that Weasley git. Good riddance. Now there is nothing standing between us. Well, nothing except this bloody spellprint.

I'm definitely starting to worry about this bloke's sanity. I'll have to ask Hermione if she ever noticed any of this in their interactions.

April 9th
I've had it with this sodding print. I'm going to poke around Hogsmeade again after dark. Maybe being near the scene of the crime will give me some inspiration.

April 11th
I've finally managed to identify what looks like the signature frequencies of the wand; I think. Whoever cursed my Hermione is going down and I'll probably get a medal. I'd better get a damn medal considering how much time and effort I've put into this.

April 17th
I think I've cracked the print. Well, part of the print. I'm pretty sure that I've matched part of the signature frequencies to a wand with a core of rougarou hair. Makes sense that the bastard who did this would use an american wand with the hair of a degenerate werewolf. I'll go take a look around Knockturn later and see if there's any sleazebags that peddle wands.

That explains what he was doing in Knockturn then.

April 18th
I barely escaped with my life. Those hoodlums in Knockturn have no respect for the law. I wonder if Hermione will be more impressed with me now that I've risked life and limb to get the answers she needs. I'll give the rabble some time to settle down before I go back. Better go undercover this time. They don't like aurors in that hole. At least there was only one store selling any kind of wands. I could see it in the eyes of the degenerate that works there that he knows more than he's letting on. Just a little more pressure and he'll break. I know it.

Good to know that an idiot doesn't change its spots. What the hell was he thinking telling everyone that he's an auror down there? That's asking for a mugging if you don't have back up.

April 20th
Fucking grey-cloak! Where is that damn… Accio! Gotcha! I knew it would pay off to look the other way when I caught her smuggling. Bitch'll probably make me pay for the healing. Your discretion for mine. Stuck up little bimbo, nothing like Hermione… get to…

Looks like he was using a Dictaquill. There is no way that anyone would stop to write that last entry while missing a leg. Ah! There it is. So he must have had a stash of galleons here somewhere if his ramblings are to be believed. Harry searched the office again and noticed that there was a loose floorboard. He lifted it up and found a space under it that could have held a medium sized strongbox. I'll take the evidence in and have our 'forensics nerds' see what they can do with a fresh spellprint. Damn this idiot anyway for slowing us down. At least we have a good indication that our Healing accomplice is female. It would certainly explain how they knew to torch Garret and Croft's. That's more progress than I've had in a while.

Harry gathered up everything he could and shrunk it so he could carry it out. He searched through the rest of the house, but Proudfoot hadn't left anything else. Would've been a bit of a glut of evidence if he had I suppose. I was already lucky to find as much as I did. At least now we know why he was running around and getting in the way.

Harry apparated directly out of the house and into his office. He sent the copy of the spellprint off to Hugin with an explanation of where it had come from and then sent a memo to Juvenal that he knew what had happened to Proudfoot and should they go tell Robbards together? Finally he started unpacking his new evidence and trying to sort it into any kind of understandable pattern. He had started by spreading everything on out on the floor and trying to sort the evidence by type stacking photos, witness statements and forensics separately. He was just getting into the mass of rambling notes on loose pieces of scrap parchment when a knock came on his door.

"Enter!"

"Artorius, I got your-... what the hell is all this?" Harry was still sitting in the middle of a sprawling mass of parchment that he hadn't sorted out yet. His superior was standing in the doorway looking staggered at what he was seeing despite the shadow of his hood covering his face.

"This is what passes for a case file with our deceased Auror Proudfoot."

"I'll take your word for it. You said you knew what had happened?" Harry flicked his wand and the diary lifted off of his desk and floated over to Juvenal who snatched it out of the air.

"Start at the end of March." Harry told his boss before going back to trying to decipher Proudfoot's notes.

"That explains some things." Juvenal said a moment later. "You noticed the mention of a female Healer with a shady past?" Harry just shot his superior an exasperated look that he would never see. "Sorry. Of course you did. You worked it into your analysis yet?"

"I still need to physically sort out the files and go over the women again, but it's on the to-do list. Did you want to come along when I go tell Robbards that his auror is dead because he should have been sectioned, fired for incompetence or both?"

"That depends. Is that actually what you're planning on telling him?"

"I might use pretty words to tell him his idiot was an idiot."

"Your diplomacy is unmatched. If you can stay civil then I don't really feel a need to come up there with you. Try to make sure that Robbards doesn't request my presence, will you?"

"I'll do my best."

"Get going then. If you wait until you have this mess sorted out he'll be retired." As Juvenal left Harry was forced to concede that his boss had a point. Got to play nice with our cousins upstairs and all that. Harry took along Proudfoot's diary when he went up to the DMLE. If we're trying for diplomatic then it's probably best to just let Robbards read the source material. He can't really argue with that. When he got to Robbards' office he found the surly secretary stationed outside as usual.

"You 'ere to get another auror killed, grey-cloak?"

"Good evening. Is your Director in?" Harry answered as if she hadn't spoken.

"I s'pose ye'll just barge on in if I say 'no'."

"The thought had crossed my mind."

"I'll have a look see then. Wha'ssit this time?"

"We believe we've discovered some information on Auror Proudfoot's death and we wanted to share it with your Director." That had the old biddy moving. A moment later Harry was being waved into Director Robbards office to find the man sitting attentively behind his desk.

"What did you learn about Tom?" he asked without preamble.

"Only what he told us in his own words." Harry replied as he handed over the diary. Robbards started reading at the last entry and working his way back. Harry could see the moment the man found the last entry that was relevant to the current case. He placed the diary carefully on his desk and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

"He always felt it keenly that I was promoted and he was not." Robbards began seemingly out of nowhere. "We were classmates at the Academy and joined the force at the same time. He just could not get himself squared away though, even if he never ballsed anything up badly enough that he would be fired." Well, that's a lukewarm eulogy at best. This diplomacy thing is easier than it might have been.

"We've taken all the evidence Auror Proudfoot had, ah,... borrowed and we're going over it again. I'll let you know if we find anything else that might help identify the people who did this."

"Thank you. Your Department has certainly been upholding its promise to keep us in the loop." Harry just inclined his head and picked up the diary before he walked out of the office. He tried to hurry back down to his office without looking like he was doing so. When he got there he found a note from Hugin.

Artorius

This spellprint originated from a 10 inch, Swamp Mayhaw wand with a rougarou hair core. Still working on the curse itself. Let me know how far the idiot got and how long it took him. We've got a pool going.

Hugin

Harry dashed of a quick note with the requested information, marvelling at the ways his colleagues had found of amusing themselves before settling in to try and organise the mess on his floor again. I still have a lot of work ahead of me.

:-:-:-:-:

Days turned into weeks as Harry worked on his case. He was often tense and frustrated over his lack of progress. Thankfully Hermione was as good at getting him to relax and forget about work for a while as he was for her. They had needed each other as their respective projects failed to yield any significant results. Harry was also dealing with a sense of guilt for not having solved this matter yet. Hermione had fully moved into Grimmauld Place and sold her flat since having an extra house that she wasn't using was just a waste of money. She had decided that she would rather look for a new place when the people after her had finally been dealt with. A determination to see Hermione get her life back was the only thing that kept Harry motivated to keep looking into every fruitless lead.

So here he was, going over the St. Mungo's files for the umpteenth time. Over the past two months he had expanded them all to include notes from his personal investigations. Ever since he had learnt that there was a female Healer involved in smuggling he had tried to identify her. This is bloody frustrating. I don't even have any idea what they could be smuggling or if they're even doing it anymore. None of the Healers seem to have the kind of financial difficulties that would motivate them to break the law like that. With the number of times aurors are checked in, even just for routine checkups, it's impossible to identify one that he may have had specific contact with. His last six check ups all had him visiting a different Healer and four of them were female. Harry was putting aside the file for 'Greengrass' and picking up 'Greyson' when a memo slid through the door and landed on his desk. Putting the file down he read the memo which turned out to be a summons from Juvenal. Harry sighed and put down the file he had been about to review. Better go see what he wants. He walked over to Juvenal's office calmly and knocked.

"Enter!" Harry stepped into the office and saw Juvenal look up from behind his desk. "Good. You're here. Sit." Harry frowned as he heard the curt tones. That can only mean that he's about to tell me something I won't like. Harry sat there and simply waited for Juvenal to get to the point. "I hate to tell you this, Artorius, but I'm ordering you to suspend your current assignment." Shit. I knew it. It's been too long since I've made any progress. He did warn me that this could happen. "I've tried to give you as much time as I can since I know this one was personal for you. If something new comes up you can pick it up again, but I can't put off assigning you another mission any longer though."

"I understand, Juvenal. Where am I going?"

"Uganda, you leave tonight. They've been ignoring us for the past five years, but apparently a rampaging nundu has changed their minds. You're to go down there and help them take it out. This is your Glamouring." Harry took the relatively simple band that had fine tracery running all over it which he knew must be tiny runic constructs. "Don't keep it on for too long, it's pretty draining. One of the kinks research hasn't been able to straighten out yet; and be careful. I do not want to have to explain to Guenevere that you got yourself killed." Harry accepted the file that Juvenal was holding out to him and stood to leave. "Good hunting, Artorius." Harry gave a curt nod and made his way to his office. He dropped the file containing his mission briefing on his desk and began preparing for a nundu hunt. He wouldn't be the first unspeakable to be sent after a nundu and he wouldn't be the last. I should talk to Hermione before I go home to pack. Harry headed to the office next to his and found the door already opening as he approached. Hermione simply beckoned him inside and shut the door behind him.

"I've been feeling your agitation for the past fifteen minutes, Harry. What's happened?"

"I've been ordered to drop the investigation into the attack on you. Juvenal just gave me my next mission."

"I suppose it was inevitable." Hermione said though Harry could hear and feel her disappointment. "Will your next assignment be overseas?" Harry nodded.

"Africa. I'm being sent on a nundu hunt."

"What?! They can't do that to you! You've done nothing to earn such a death sentence!"

"Hermione, I'll be fine."

"This is no time to be irrationally confident, Harry. There is no recorded instance of a nundu being subdued by less than a hundred wizards."

"We don't exactly do public records, Mi." Even though she was still wearing her hood Harry felt confident that Hermione was gaping at him. "There is no way that we would be able to contain their population if it took a hundred wizards to kill each one. They're felines and they breed like the dickens if you don't stay on top of their population. This one's gone on a rampage and while it's not going to be easy, I'm not a herd of villagers that barely know any offensive curses."

"Are you sure you're going to be alright?"

"I promise."

"When do you leave?"

"Tonight."

"Then I'm done for the day. I'll come home and help you pack." Hermione said in a tone that brooked no argument. I think I'd actually like that. I've never had a send-off when I went out on a mission.

"See you in my office?"

"I'll be there in five minutes." Harry smiled and grabbed Hermione's hand for a quick squeeze. He quickly left to collect the last of the things he would need from his office so that when Hermione came in they could leave. Maybe we can have a quick dinner together. I'll need to get to my portkey on time so I doubt we could go out for a meal. He managed to find everything in short order and had a bag slung over his shoulder and was looking through the briefing while he waited for Hermione to get there.

When she arrived Hermione didn't say anything and just grabbed Harry in a tight hug. Harry slipped an arm around her in response and apparated them to Grimmauld Place. They landed in the kitchen and let go of each other for a moment. Harry took the chance to hang his bag off the back of a chair and slip his cloak off.

"My portkey leaves at nine. Shall I make us a quick dinner?"

"No. I'll do it." Hermione sounded determined as she strode into the kitchen rolling up her sleeves. Harry just cocked an eyebrow. There was reason Hermione generally took over the laundry or the cleaning while he did the cooking. Fifteen minutes later he was doubled over laughing as Hermione blinked at him from under a layer of what he suspected was meant to be batter for a Yorkshire Pudding. He stepped up to her and wiped some of the mixture off of her face.

"How about we do it together?"

"Only if you wipe that grin off your face." Hermione grumbled without heat.

"I can't. It's stuck." Harry's cheeky response got him a dollop of raw dough to the face. "This… means war!" He threatened playfully. It took another twenty minutes for the two unspeakables to calm down and by then the kitchen was absolutely covered in splattered food and they were even more so. Both of them were grinning like mad though.

"Why is it that I always end up in the kinds of situations that even a five-year-old would find immature when I'm with you?" Hermione asked as she wrung something that might have been a tomato sauce out of her hair.

"You're the older one. You should know better." Harry answered while wagging a finger that was sending dollops of sour cream flying with every forward movement. "Shall we cheat with the cleaning and just have some sandwiches?"

"Actually I think we lost the bread pretty early on. Why don't we order Chinese?"

"Because the delivery boy can't find us under the Fidelius?"

"I'll go pick up the take-away, you prat. You just make sure you pack everything. I'll never forgive you if you get killed because you forgot your soap and that beast smells you coming a mile away." Harry could feel how much effort it was costing his best friend to be lighthearted about this.

"Okay, deal." He flicked his wand at her to clean her up first.

"Thanks, but I'm still going to need a shower tonight. I'll have dinner here in a bit." Hermione waved as she apparated out to wherever she was going to pick up their food. Harry looked around the kitchen and with a sweeping wave of his wand had everything cleaned up and the mess vanished. Guess I'd better make sure I haven't missed anything in the go bag. By the time Hermione got back with a pair of steaming cartons Harry was toying with the Glamouring between his fingers. Dinner was increasingly quiet as Hermione couldn't manage to keep her worries from leaking out over their link. Harry in turn was struck by the idea that he was leaving someone to go on this mission. That's a new one. I've never really had that before. When the moment for Harry's departure finally came he was caught in an almighty hug from Hermione.

"Please, just come back to me in one piece, Harry." she murmured.

"I will. I'll be back before you know it." Giving her one last squeeze Harry stepped back and slipped the Glamouring onto his finger. He tried to give Hermione a reassuring smile and apparated out to the portkey terminal.

:-:-:-:-:

The days dragged by without Harry there. Hermione had never really missed him like she did now when he had been overseas. Before I didn't know what kind of idiotically dangerous missions he was taking on. Now I can't help but wonder if he's alright. It doesn't help that our bond doesn't have an intercontinental reach so I have no way of knowing if anything's gone wrong.

Even the work she was doing for her Mastery wasn't captivating her like it had. I wonder if this is a result of the bond. I could almost swear that the world is less colourful without Harry here acting like a complete child the moment he thinks I'm getting too serious. Such thoughts usually put a wistful smile on her face for a short time. She had even tried to recreate the feeling at home, but it just wasn't the same without Harry egging her on with that impish grin of his. It's been nearly two weeks already. How long does killing a nundu take? It should take at least this long; right?

Hermione was back in the lab today, recording spellprints of some more obscure charms. Maybe these will give me the breakthrough I need on this project. She was just finishing up when the door to the lab flew open with a bang.

"Echo! Echo, you will not sodding believe it!" Jewel screamed as she came charging in. She stopped in the middle of the lab and looked around for the other unspeakable.

"Echo's not here today, Jewel." Hermione said gently.

"Oh." Jewel looked around one more time before walking out again and closing the door behind her. Guess she just wanted to talk to-

"Guenevere! Guenevere, you will not sodding believe it!" Jewel screamed as she slammed the door open a second time. What?

"Um, Jewel? You didn't have to burst in here twice you know?"

"But I didn't want you to feel left out!" Jewel exclaimed brightly. "We need to think of a nickname for your nickname though. Your codename is just too long to yell out when there's some exciting news." Hermione was once again lost for a response to this particular colleague. Eventually she settled for:

"What is your exciting news then?"

"Oh! I almost forgot. Artorius is back. He looked-..."

"He's back?!" Hermione felt like a ray of sunlight was filling her up. She scrambled to collect her read-outs and stuffed them unceremoniously in her robes as she ran for the door, leaving a distinctly wrong-footed Jewel standing there staring after her. Hermione barely thought about where she was going. Her feet were carrying her wherever they wanted to as her mind repeated He's back! Harry's still alive and he's back! over and over. She was just coming into view of Juvenal's office when she saw his door open and a pair of familiar figures step out.

'Harry!' Her mental cry gave Harry just enough of a warning to brace himself before she launched herself at him and grabbed him in a happy hug. She hadn't expected to hear him grunt in pain and quickly let him go when she heard it.

"Are you hurt? What happened?"

"I'm fine, Guenevere. Just a little sore, but that should be gone in a few days." His arms came around her and Hermione felt herself melting into that embrace despite her worry over what might be wrong with him.

"And you two thought that the names were going to be a dead giveaway." Juvenal muttered from the side causing the two of them to slip apart. "Make sure you visit Medical and get anything you need to have that scratch treated, Artorius. I don't like the idea of relying on Healers we don't know."

"Yes, sir." Harry started walking off towards their on site medical wing; a prerequisite with the amount of volatile experiments that were being carried out simultaneously. Hermione hurried to catch up with him and grabbed his hand.

'How did it go? Tell me everything.'

'It went fine. Would you like a nundu-skin coat for your birthday?'

'Wouldn't that raise some eyebrows?'

'Probably. I guess I'll just have to imagine the looks on everyone's faces and leave it here with the rest of the carcass so the potions boys can play with it.' Hermione was simultaneously overjoyed to hear something that silly and incredibly tempted to swat Harry in the shoulder. The only thing stopping her was that she didn't know where he was injured.

'So, how were you hurt?'

'One of it's claws caught me in the death throes and that last breath almost instantly infected the scratch it caused.'

'What on earth were you standing next to it for when it was going into its death throes?'

'There was an idiot who had decided to try and poke the corpse with a spear and I had to get him out of there.'

'Why didn't you just let him get hit then?'

'Because Ministers are worth more when they're alive and grateful to be so.' Hermione almost came to a stop as she tried to imagine a Minister for Magic attacking a thrashing nundu with a spear.

'Idiot.' she growled disdainfully, causing Harry to guffaw with laughter.

'He probably thought it would make a good photo for his next campaign. Now hush; we're here.' Harry led the way into the hospital wing and greeted the on duty Healer. The Healer inspected him with a quick wave of her wand and inspected a file before she stalked off muttering to herself. When she came back she shoved a pot into Harry's hands.

"Apply generously twice daily and come see me when it's empty. I'll decide if you need to continue the treatment then." she told him crisply. "And what's wrong with you?" she demanded as she turned to Hermione.

"Oh, um, nothing. I'm just accompanying Artorius." Harry took advantage of the Healer's shocked silence to grab Hermione's hand pull her out of the hospital.

'Are you busy, or can you skive off?'

'You say things like that and then pretend you're not a bad influence?'

'I'm not. You still have to say 'yes'.' This time Hermione did swat his shoulder to no great effect.

'I'm not skiving. I'm coming with you to make sure you follow the Healer's orders.'

'You tell such a bald faced lie and then tell me I'm the bad influence?'

'Oh, shut it you.' The two friends happily made their way to their offices and apparated home from there. That night Hermione carefully applied the salve Harry had been given to the long scratch across his ribs before they went out to dinner. Joy radiated across their bond until they both fell asleep with smiles on their faces, happy to be able to feel each other again.

Chapter Text

"That's my final word on the matter, Guenevere. If you can't demonstrate any progress to me by next week, I'm pulling the project." Haephestos boomed across his desk. No! I've never failed before. I just need a little more time. "Try not to take it too hard. Most of our projects don't actually pan out and this one in particular has had us stumped for decades. I dusted it off for you because Juvenal was convinced you might be able to pull off the impossible. We'll just assign you to something else, never worry."

"Yes, sir." Hermione managed to get out. The barrel-chested unspeakable who was her superior waved her out and Hermione headed back to her office. I've been working on this project for months now. What was I expecting? Infinite patience?

No. I'm not giving up. Not yet. Harry hasn't failed yet and I'll be damned if he gets another mastery before I get mine.

She spent the rest of the day working through every esoteric approach to her equations that she could think of. Nothing worked, much to her frustration, but Hermione refused to give up. It wasn't until her stomach rumbled that she realised how late it was. Ten?! Oh and Harry just got cleared by Medical yesterday! We were supposed to celebrate. I have to be the worst roommate in history. I just hope that Harry will understand like he usually does. Hermione made quick work of packing everything away and hanging up her grey cloak before apparating home.

As soon as Hermione arrived at Grimmauld she felt the exhaustion slam into her body. Even as she staggered a little to regain her balance she couldn't help a slightly grim smile that made its way onto her face. It's still a better kind of exhausted than knowing that you've worked yourself to the bone and the scumbags still got off because no one seems able to put an end to the corruption in the government. She made her way into the kitchen and found a note stuck to the fridge.

Hermione,
I left some dinner in the oven for you under a warming charm. Hope you get home in time for it not to be breakfast.
Harry

Hermione checked the oven and found a plate with mashed potatoes and stew. Wow. Thank you, Harry. That must have taken a long time to make, and you're still recovering from that injury too. Hermione set the plate on the table and got herself a glass of wine to go with it. As she ate she decided that she should make a point of getting home earlier. It really isn't any fun to eat by myself and maybe Harry could have had an idea for how I can continue my research from here.

Hermione froze with the fork halfway to her mouth. That's it! Harry's been in so many extraordinary situations, he must know of a way to help me get my work back on track. Energised by her sudden realisation, Hermione started shoveling food into her mouth at a rate that would have earnt Ron a scolding back at Hogwarts. After polishing off her meal, Hermione hurried up the stairs towards Harry's office.

"Harry?" Hermione opened the door and poked her head in. What she saw made her feel both a tender warmth in her heart and a sinking feeling of concern in her stomach. Harry had apparently fallen asleep at his desk. Oh Harry. What could you possibly have been working on that made you exhaust yourself like this? You should have been resting instead. She walked over to the desk and took a look at the parchment scattered all over it. These are all related to the investigation into the attack on me. I thought it had been relegated to the cold case files until something new came up. What are you doing with the files?

Hermione was about to wake Harry and ask him exactly that, or possibly just tell him to go to bed so he could get a good night's sleep when something occurred to her. What I need is another way of looking at my problems. I know Harry well enough that I think I can predict what he'll tell me if he's awake, but maybe that's not what I need. Maybe what I need is Harry's subconscious making associations. Hermione was caught by a realisation for the second time that night. This one, however, came with a caveat. Is it really okay for me to just slip into his head uninvited?

It should be fine. He said that we needed to practice making contact under different circumstances to really test the connection, didn't he? I'm just combining two research objectives.Hermione cast her eyes about the room for somewhere she could comfortably sit. Her eyes landed on the large leather chair Harry had placed in the corner. With a swish and flick of her wand, Hermione levitated the chair over to Harry and sat down in it. She closed her eyes and focused inwards.

Hermione felt around her mind for the connection to Harry that was becoming a familiar and integral part of her life. Latching on to it she followed it to Harry's mind. She felt it engulf her with its usual welcoming warmth and drifted along his memories. She could feel Harry's mind throwing up various memories or possibly dreams, but most of the flashes she saw were too brief to attach any real meaning to. After drifting along on Harry's thoughts for a while she noticed that every so often one of those flashes of memory would be dumped behind a wall in Harry's mind.

Curiosity overcame her as she became increasingly aware of the process. It's like he's practicing occlumency while he's sleeping. Hermione knew that occlumency barriers weakened during sleep when the practitioner's thoughts were less structured and more uninhibited. She also knew that Harry was possibly the only person in the world who could realistically claim to have any practice using the art during his sleep.

Eventually the curiosity became too much and Hermione found herself approaching the wall. She reached out and found it less solid than she had imagined. At least he hasn't started defying that particular law of magic yet. Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by Harry's unconscious mind Hermione pushed at the barrier. It took a lot of effort but she broke through. Damn, I would hate to have tried that while he was awake and focused. As she emerged on the other side of the barrier, Hermione felt herself being overtaken by the now familiar sensation of unfamiliar sensations that accompanied dropping into one of Harry's memories.

Hermione found herself in what looked like the taproom of a pub, though there was something distinctly not British about the place. The walls were whitewashed above their dark wood paneling as opposed to covered with some hideously patterned wallpaper. The people sitting at the rickety wooden tables looked hard, weathered and distinctly foreign. There was a landlord behind the bar polishing a beer stein. Where on earth are we, Harry?

Looking around she was struck with a sense of something being wrong. I can't see Harry anywhere. This is his memory though, he has to be here. Hermione followed the sensations she was feeling from Harry to find the place where they were strongest. She arrived at a table with two people sitting at it: a man and a woman. One of them must be Harry under a glamour. As she got closer Hermione could clearly tell that the two were flirting. If this turns out to be nothing more than a memory of you getting distracted on one of your missions, Harry, I am going to be very disappointed.

Hermione watched the couple get closer and closer until the woman grabbed the man's hand and pulled him up the stairs with a wave to the landlord who just grunted in response. The man she thought was Harry had a distracted look on his face. Hermione followed them up the stairs and watched them enter a room and lock the door behind them. The way the hallway began to fade confirmed that Harry was in that room and no longer able to observe what was happening outside the door.

Hermione stepped through the locked door like it wasn't there. And in a way it isn't. Inside the room Hermione saw something that had her thoroughly confused. The woman looked very different than she had downstairs. Her hair had changed from a dirty blond to inky black and her eyes had turned orange. I don't remember what colour they were in the taproom but I get the feeling that orange would have been noticed. The other thing that caught her attention was that Harry was breathing heavily and had a look in his eyes that she couldn't quite identify.

"Come, darling. I wish to see what you really look like. I showed you mine; now show me yours." The woman had a lilting voice that was just filled with innuendo and promise. To Hermione's surprise Harry drew his wand and pointed it at himself. The glamour flickered and died leaving Harry standing there wearing the features that Hermione knew so well. What the hell?! What's that bitch done to you, Harry? You would never blow your cover like this if you had a reason to have it up in the first place. The woman meanwhile was inspecting the man before her. "I must say, I didn't expect you to be this… delicious under that glamourI'm really looking forward to this now. Empty your pockets."

"Yes, Meridiana." So the bitch's name is Meridiana. Meanwhile, Harry started pulling various objects from obviously space expanded pockets. Hermione was horrified to see him put down his wand first. She couldn't tell what most of the things Harry was producing were or what they might be used for. She didn't see anything unusual until Harry pulled out what looked like a prism made of wood. It had runes carved on every available surface. When Harry pulled it out of his pocket the woman in front of him hissed like an angry animal.

"Get that away from me!" Harry obediently flung it across the room. "So you were sent here to capture me then? At least you are worth feeding on. The last one they sent was so unappetizing that I simply killed him." Hermione shuddered at the calm way the woman spoke of killing people and of feeding on Harry. Calm down, Hermione. You know Harry's still alive. You couldn't be inside his memory if he weren't. He'll get out of this somehow. When Harry finished pulling things from his pockets the woman spoke up again. "Good boy. You deserve a… reward."

The woman stepped up to Harry and started kissing him deeply and passionately. Hermione was surprised to see Harry respond just as eagerly. She could see their hands roving over each other's bodies, could hear the sounds of pleasure emanating from both of them; couldn't bring herself to look away. In the back of her mind, Hermione could hear her mother's voice. "You don't look at someone who is 'just a friend' like that, dear." For the first time, Hermione could admit to herself that her mother might have a point. As she watched the two people in front of her tear at each other's clothes, a part of her couldn't stop wishing that she was in that room with Harry instead of the woman with the orange eyes. Hermione could feel a burning heat rising in her body as the two people in front of her showed more and more skin. Good heavens, but Harry has a wonderful body. All those sinewy muscles… even his scars…

"Take me to bed. All the pleasure you give me tonight I shall return. You should thank me for making your demise so pleasant."

"Thank you, Meridiana." Harry mumbled.

"Good boy. Remember, your only concern is to give me as much pleasure as you can."

"Yes, Meridiana." Meridiana laid herself back on the bed with an inhuman grace and Harry followed her willingly. He started placing kisses all over her body. His hands explored with renewed fervor and for just a moment Hermione thought she saw a shimmer around them through the haze of her own lust. She was almost immediately distracted by Meridiana's cries increasingly dramatically in pitch and volume.

"Yes! Yes! Stars and stones, Yes! More!" she screamed while nearly flailing under Harry's touch. Harry himself seemed utterly unaffected by the woman's cries and simply kept kissing down her body. When he reached the junction of her legs he kissed up one thigh and then the other before diving for her sopping, quivering hole, his hands still playing with the rest of her body. Meridiana's cries became wordless screams of pleasure as her hands clawed at Harry's hair and tried to pull him further into her. Hermione absently noticed that her own hands were no longer by her sides. Instead they had started rubbing, squeezing and pulling at her body as she felt nothing except lust at the scene in front of her. Hermione gasped and panted along until Meridiana screamed her release. She only took a few short breaths to recover.

"More. Get inside me."

"Yes, Meridiana." As Harry shifted up to bring himself in position, Hermione got a good look at his cock. Definitely a nice body. Hermione heard Meridiana gasp in pleasure as Harry thrust into her. The gasps soon became increasingly loud cries of pleasure again. This time Hermione thought she could see the same shimmer she had seen around Harry's hands around his whole body.

"Yesyesyesyes!" In response to Meridiana's cries Harry brought two thumbs down on her clit. Meridiana's eyes shot open and her body arched off the bed as her cries devolved into a single high-pitched keen that stretched on and on. When the sound gave out so did the woman's body. She collapsed on the bed apparently unconscious. With the woman's collapse Hermione felt most of her lust disappear as if it had never been. What… what happened? In front of her Harry scrambled up from where he had been kneeling between Meridiana's legs. Hermione could see the look of shock and horror on his face as he stumbled back, but it was soon replaced with a burning determination. He lunged for his wand and with a flick the wooden prism came sailing through the air.

On the bed Meridiana let out a soft moan. Hermione watched as panic spread across Harry's features and he threw himself across the room and slammed the piece of wood down on Meridiana's chest. The woman's orange eyes flew wide open and her mouth opened in a silent scream. Hermione was sure that this was no scream of pleasure as she saw nothing but fear and loathing on Meridiana's face. The wooden prism began to glow with an unearthly light and Hermione could see the air around it distorting. Meridiana's scream finally became audible as her form got sucked into the piece of wood that Hermione couldn't see anymore due to its brightness.

Both the scream and light cut off abruptly and all that was left in the room was a panting, naked Harry, his heavy breathing the only sound in an otherwise equally heavy silence.

"Oh Harry. How do you keep getting into these situations?"

'Hermione?'

'EEK!' If Hermione had been in her physical body she'd have jumped right out of her chair. As it was she jumped right out of Harry's mind and found herself hitting the back of the chair she was sitting in in Harry's office. Hermione was panting heavily and the wetness she could feel between her legs told her that she had gotten more immersed in the memory than she had meant to. Opening her eyes, Hermione saw a distressed looking Harry Potter.

"Hermione, what did you do?"

"I-… I just wanted to-… I was hoping to talk to you about some things at work that I've been stuck with. When I saw that you were sleeping I thought that your subconscious might be able to come up with something that I'd missed."

"How much did you see?"

"Not much?" Hermione winced at the betrayed look on Harry's face. "I'm sorry, Harry. I didn't know what I was going to see."

"What, did, you, see?" Harry asked carefully enunciating each word.

"You and a woman named Meridiana, um… having intercourse." Harry's face looked like his worst fears had been confirmed.

"You weren't supposed to see that."

"I really am sorry, Harry." She watched as he took a steadying breath. "Who was she?" Hermione almost flinched when Harry fixed her with a heavy look. He was quiet for a long time and when he did speak it was so softly that Hermione had to strain to listen.

"She was one of the most difficult missions I've ever had."

"But how was she able to draw you in like that?"

"She was a succubus."

"Wait. You broke a succubus' charm?! By making her orgasm?!" Hermione could feel the disbelief washing over her in waves. I've never even heard of someone breaking a succubus' charm at all, never mind by beating them at their own game. I wonder just how good Harry is in bed?

'It was only because she told me that my only concern was to give her as much pleasure as I could. I had no idea what I was doing; I'd never done anything like that before. Under her thrall I just didn't really have any choice.' Hermione could feel a burning heat in her cheeks this time as she realised that Harry had been able to hear her speculation. She tried to clamp down on her occlumency to keep Harry from hearing the ideas pumping around her mind about what Harry might be capable of if he'd figured something like that out during his first try.

"Sorry, Harry. You weren't meant to hear that." Harry just grunted. "You know it's not really something you should be embarrassed about. I've known a lot of aurors who would tell this story every day if it had happened to them."

"They'd brag about screwing up so badly that they almost got killed?"

"I was thinking it would be more along the lines of screwing a succubus so well that they broke her charm."

"Wouldn't have been able to do that if she hadn't caught me first."

"Harry, anyone would have been caught. It's the escape that's impressive."

"I wasn't supposed to get caught. The whole reason I was put on the mission was because I can resist a veela's allure and we were hoping it would carry over to succubi."

"So your hypothesis didn't pan out." Harry gave a sharp humorless bark of laughter.

"You could say that." A silence fell between them and Hermione could feel her thoughts drifting back to what she had seen. She checked her occlumency shields and tried to reinforce them some more, which kept Harry out, but didn't stop her own mind from reliving what she had experienced. Soon the pressure became too much to bear and Hermione jumped up.

"Um, I think I just had an idea for how to continue my research. Thanks, Harry." she called over her shoulder as she fled from the room. Hermione didn't slow down until she was safely ensconced in her own room behind a door saturated with locking and privacy spells. She collapsed onto her bed, her hands already roving over her body as she relived Harry's memory; only this time she was in the bed with him. She could just imagine what it would be like to have those magic hands touching her everywhere as she stared into those gorgeous green eyes. It didn't take her long before she could feel her core clenching around her fingers and she was screaming out Harry's name. As she lay panting on sheets drenched with her own sweat and juices Hermione felt her afterglow being disturbed by an unwelcome thought. That would be so much better if Harry was in here with me.

Nononono. I made that mistake once before.

Ron never made a succubus orgasm so hard that she lost consciousness.

Come on, Granger. You know how this works: you're just lusting after what you can't have and building it up in your mind. Control yourself. The last thing you and Harry need is you complicating matters with these silly feelings. After all he's done for me it would be wrong to start lusting after him like one of his fangirls; wouldn't it?

It's just because of the moment. Tomorrow I'll be back to normal. I just need to remember what I learnt from being with Ron.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione sat at her desk desperately trying to keep her mind focused on her work. Damn it, I should have never looked through Harry's mind. In just three days Hermione's world had been turned upside down as she had struggled to place her feelings for Harry. She was still struggling with parts of what she was feeling, but at least she had a name for it. I'm in love with my best friend; again. What does that say about me? I only broke off the engagement with Ron a few months ago. How can I already be in love with Harry?

Well, he did save my life at great risk to his own and has gone out of his way to protect me ever since.

But that's just what Harry does. It's one of the things that makes him so amazing. So why have I only started noticing that he's also amazingly attractive just recently? Over the past three days Hermione's libido had gone into overdrive and she found herself constantly picturing her best friend naked on a bed; or in her chair, or on the couch, or in the kitchen cooking dinner. Morrighan's cloak, I'm out of control. I can't think about Harry for more than a minute without picturing him naked… and sweating, his hands everywhere while I-... Stop this! Hermione got up from her desk and poured herself a glass of water from the kitchenette sink. She drank it as if it might quench a very different thirst.

The worst part of this is our connection. If I get too close to Harry then he'll feel what I'm feeling and know what I'm thinking. For the past three days Hermione had been avoiding her best friend as much as possible and keeping their connection blocked as much as she could with her occlumency. She had even apparated out a few times when she had seen him coming towards her. The first night she had gone to visit her parents who had immediately picked up on her preoccupation. She had managed to get out of telling them exactly what was bothering her. I doubt they would have been much help anyway. Mum wouldn't see it as a problem in the first place and Dad would probably just tell me that he thinks Harry is an improvement over Ron. Given the distance she had been able to put between herself and the memories of that relationship Hermione could see why her parents might think that, but she still wasn't sure when it had all gone wrong. I know that Ron and I loved each other at some point. That's probably what's really scary about all of this: what if I make the same mistakes with Harry that I did with Ron? Things are still awkward between us and I don't want to have that with Harry too. It would mean losing both of my best friends.

Not that I'm not frightfully close to doing that anyway. These days Hermione apparated straight into her bedroom and only snuck out for something to eat once she was sure Harry was asleep. She was grateful that Harry was kind enough to leave dinner waiting for her under a warming charm every night, even if it did make it harder to suppress thoughts of what a wonderful man he was. Right now she was simply trying to bull her way through her calculations again in the hope that she would see something she had missed the last few times she had done them. Oh, what's the use? I can't concentrate anyway. With a sigh Hermione packed away her things and hung up her cloak. I'll take a walk around somewhere so Harry has a chance to make and eat dinner. Maybe Hogsmeade? No, that's-... I'm not ready for that. Hogwarts is a possibility though. I wonder if Minerva would allow me to sit in the Library for a little while? I did some of my best thinking there when it really mattered. Decision made Hermione focused on her destination and after a second of discomfort found herself facing a pair of winged boars.

"Excuse me, could you tell Headmistress McGonagall that Hermione Granger is here, please?" A minute later one of the boars opened it's mouth wide.

"Hermione, this is an unexpected pleasure. Hagrid is coming down to let you in." Minerva's voice sounded out. The stone maw closed again and Hermione stood nervously waiting for her largest friend to show up. When he did Hermione could spot him beaming from a hundred yards off.

"'Ermione!" He called out happily. "Jus' a sec 'n I'll have yeh in here." As soon as he had the gates open Hermione was dragged into a bone-crushing hug. "'S good ter see yeh. Can't tell yeh how happy we was to hear yeh'd be okay when yeh was in the hospital. Never seen the like o' the party Rosie had down in the Broomsticks."

"Thanks Hagrid. Should we go see Minerva?" Hermione managed to wheeze out.

"O' course. She'll be right happy to see yeh too." Hagrid said as he put Hermione down on the ground. Hermione took the time to catch up with her old friend as they walked up to the Headmistress's office, but declined his offer to meet with Grawp who was apparently out tending the Forbidden Forest. Hagrid left Hermione at the gargoyle statue that hid the entrance to Minerva's office with the password and a quick goodbye, since he had duties to attend to. "Chelmondiston Charge. Yeh should stop by for tea some time, 'Ermione. Bring 'Arry and Ron with yeh; it'll be just like old times." With a wave Hagrid trundled off down the corridor before Hermione had decided how to react to that. I suppose we'll just have to see if Harry, Ron and I can ever get around to being in a room together without it being awkward again first. Hermione climbed the revolving staircase and knocked on the door.

"Enter." She opened the door to find a smiling Minerva McGonagall on the other side. "Hermione, what brings you back to Hogwarts, my dear?" Minerva asked as she came around her desk to give Hermione a hug.

"Hello, Minerva. To be honest I was looking for somewhere to clear my mind and get some perspective and Hogwarts just came to mind."

"Well, you are more than welcome here. Would you care to share your problem?"

"I, um, that is-... it's a bit personal."

"I understand, dear, but I'm not sure how I can help if you are uncomfortable speaking of this matter."

"I was rather hoping that you might allow me to spend some time in the Library. It-... it's just somewhere I always went to work out the problems we faced while we still attended here and I'm hoping it might do the same for me now."

"Of course you may spend some time in the Library. I was about to head down to the Great Hall for dinner. Would you care to join me?"

"No. There'll be dinner waiting for me when I get home." Hermione could see that Minerva was almost bursting with questions from that statement. She was immensely grateful that her old professor chose not to ask them. I wouldn't be surprised if she guessed that it was due to this 'personal matter'. I suppose that it is at that. Minerva accompanied Hermione down to the Library and Hermione found herself having to talk about her new job as a 'consultant' at the Ministry. Just about the only thing she was honest about was that she was now working with Harry. The two women shared another hug as they said their goodbyes and Hermione promised that she would try to be out of the Library when dinner ended. She wasn't quite sure what to make of Minerva's parting comment.

"I'm sure that you remember some ways to move about unseen with all that trouble you got into with Harry. I swear, the two of you could have given his parents a run for their money between the trouble you got into and the responsibility you showed when it was called for." Hermione walked into the library with her head bent in troubled thought. As the first whiff of stale parchment made itself known she felt something unclench just ever so slightly. I've missed this place. Hermione walked between the bookcases and allowed her hand to trail along the spines of the books, silently greeting her old friends. As she walked she mulled over her problem in her mind. Twenty minutes later she could only conclude that this situation was unlikely to remain in any kind of equilibrium for long. Everything else seemed to be a whirling spiral of if I tell Harry then our relationship might turn as awkward as mine and Ron's is now and if I don't tell him I'm just as likely to get that result. Hermione kept walking until she found the table that had always been 'hers' while she was a student. It was a bit of a shock to find someone sitting there already.

"Hermione! Minerva told me you were here. I hope you don't mind that I came here but you've become as difficult to find as Harry and I haven't seen you in a long time." Hermione accepted Professor Neville Longbottom's hug of greeting while trying to kick her mind into gear again.

"It's good to see you again, Neville." she responded with a small smile after giving herself a quick mental shake. "How are you doing? How's Hannah?"

"She thinks she's the size of a hippogriff, but the way she smiles is just..." Neville trailed off with a shrug and a beaming smile of his own on his face. "And how are you? I heard that you had been miraculously cured by Harry and then dropped off the face of the earth with him." Why does that sound like we eloped. No! Bad Hermione. I am not going there.

"I suppose that's an accurate description. I'm working with Harry as a consultant to the Ministry now and they keep us pretty busy."

"Telling the Ministry how they should be running themselves? I can't think of two people I'd rather have in that position. Got your next revolutionary laws written up yet?"

"Not quite. I'm still figuring out some of the nuances of the job." I really haven't had time to work on anything recently. Maybe Harry and I could-... no! Neville nodded understandingly, unaware of Hermione's inner turmoil.

"I know I had that feeling for my first year on the job and I can't imagine that they're that different." When Hermione raised a questioning eyebrow Neville gave her a grin. "Are you going to try to convince me that riding herd on the bureaucrats is very different from dealing with rowdy students?" Hermione briefly pictured Jewel's behaviour in her mind when he said that and snickered. "See? I knew it."

"Yes, yes, oh wise professor. Very impressive. If you are here does that mean that I should find somewhere to hide from your 'rowdy students'? Minerva did ask me to leave the Library before the end of dinner."

"Then we probably should get going. I would offer you the comfort of our staff room, but I imagine that you didn't come here to have the entire staff swarming you. How about a walk around the lake like you and Harry used to do instead?" Stop mentioning Harry! It's not helping.

"Sure. Just no going to talk to Grawp." Now it was Neville's turn to snicker. The two old friends left the Library and made their way outside through a maze of secret passages, not necessarily because they were avoiding the students, but just because they could. As they walked together around the Black Lake neither Neville nor Hermione felt the need to break the silence of the night. It's good to spend some time with a friend, especially now that I can't help but feel awkward around Harry and Ron. "You know, Neville, I don't think I've thanked you for managing to get a portkey for my parents while I was in the hospital, so: thank you."

"You're welcome, Hermione. It was the least I could do." And the one who did all he could was Harry. Hermione tried to shake that though and noticed that Neville was giving her a shrewd look that seemed very different to her from how he had always been a school. "You've been wondering about why I didn't perform the ritual haven't you?" he asked. Hermione gave an uncomfortable shrug.

"Not really. You and I were never as close as I was to Ron and Harry and if Ron wouldn't do it as my fiance then I don't think I have any right to expect you to risk your life like that."

"If it had been just my life, then I might have. As it stands though I have Hannah and soon my child to take care of. No matter if the ritual had worked or not I would have lost my marriage; you can't be bound to one woman for life and married to another. While a successful ritual might have taken longer to get me there, the effect would have been the same. I have experienced growing up without parents and I will not do that to my own child." Harry grew up without his parents too.

"Does that mean you think that if Harry had a child he wouldn't have helped me?" Neville snorted with laughter.

"Hermione, unless the two of you are getting married I'm not holding my breath for Harry's children to come into this world. Hannah's told me about how scared the girls at school were to face off against you for Harry's heart."

"I know those rumours, Neville. They've never been more than that." Hermione said testily. Neville just shrugged, completely unconcerned.

"I know that there was never anything between you two, but if Hannah's right you had Harry's heart and he only went out with Ginny because you told him it was okay." Could that be true? It would make matters so much easier if it was. Except... how often were rumours about Harry actually right? And if they're wrong again-... aargh! This isn't helping me at all! "You know, it would explain something. I don't think Harry felt any hesitation in helping you, even if he probably should have."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Neville turned a serious look on Hermione. He really looks like a professor now.

"What do you think would have happened if he'd failed and died?" Neville asked her. "The masses of witches and wizards who adore him for ending the war would have blamed his death on you. They would try to do what they could to erase anything you've accomplished from their sights. You know Malfoy and Nott are still trying to get your laws repealed. If you and Harry had died they would have easily been able to get enough support to completely destroy your legacy. Harry pulled through for you as usual, but there was a lot of risk that I don't think he considered." I hadn't thought about that at all either. "Of course, knowing Harry, if he had thought about it he would probably have gone ahead with the ritual anyway." Neville admitted with a slightly rueful grin.

"I suppose you're right." Hermione said, barely aware of the words leaving her mouth as she tried to sort through what Neville had said. "I should probably get going, Neville. I still need to get home." And Harry will have finished dinner by now anyway; I hope.

"Of course, Hermione. You should stop by more often." Neville said giving her another gentle hug.

"I'll try, Neville." Hermione waved over her shoulder as she turned her steps towards the front gates and the edge of the wards. As she got closer she felt a reluctance well up inside of her. Isn't there some other errand that I need to run? Maybe I should go back into work? No. I might as well get home so I can listen for when Harry goes to bed. She checked that her occlumency shields were firmly in place and apparated into her room at Grimmauld. Maybe I should find somewhere else to stay? It wasn't the first time the thought had occurred to her in her quest to hide from Harry; the problem was finding a suitable answer. My parents would only be marginally better in that Harry wouldn't always be there, but Mum and Dad can make right pests of themselves when they want to know something. A rented flat or a muggle one isn't safe enough until we know that whoever attacked me won't do so again. That was the whole point of coming here. Being an unspeakable pays well but I don't have enough saved up to buy my own place yet, even with the sale of my flat going through. I'd need a stand-alone house if I wanted any chance at warding it as much as I'd need to to keep everyone off my back. Hermione was startled out of her thoughts by a loud knock on the door.

"Hermione, open up. I know you're in there." She cursed under her breath as she heard Harry's voice drifting through the door. Her first instinct was to apparate out, but she quickly discovered that there was an anti-apparition ward up. Harry must have changed the wards when he realised I was home. I'm not likely to have any luck with any other form of magical transport either then. That leaves only one option.

"Go away, Harry." Hermione called out as she pulled her pillow in front of her chest like a shield.

"Hermione, please, whatever I did wrong, let me make it right." Hermione hugged her pillow a little tighter and clamped down on her occlumency barriers. The pain she could hear in Harry's voice was tearing at her heart. "Mi?" I can't face him. I can't let him feel what he does to me. "Mi, I'm not leaving until you talk to me about what's bothering you."

"I can't!" Hermione called through the door.

"Why not?" There was no anger in his voice, just sadness.

"Because… I don't want to ruin our friendship."

"You won't."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Hermione, we're bound together. If you'd stop blocking me out you'd feel that I honestly don't think there's anything you could say that would ruin our friendship."

"It's the bond that's the problem!" It was quiet for a moment on the other side of the door.

"I'm sorry, Hermione. It was the only way to help you."

"I know, Harry and believe me, I am grateful. I just have some thoughts running through my head right now that I don't want you to see and the only way to make sure of that is to stay away from you."

"You want us to stay away from each other?" Harry asked, almost in disbelief. Hermione couldn't find an answer. I don't know. I don't want Harry to find out about these feelings, but the idea of him leaving- Hermione felt a cold shiver shoot down her spine. What do I do? Hermione hadn't realised that she had been sitting in silence with Harry drawing his own conclusions on the other side of the door until he spoke up again. "... I'll ask Juvenal for a new assignment tomorrow. That should keep me gone."

"No!"

"Hermione, I can't do both. I can't stay here and avoid you." There was finally a trace of annoyance in Harry's voice. I really thought I'd have more time before Harry forced the situation. What do I do? Hermione gnawed at her lower lip as she tried to look at her problem from every angle.

I have to tell him. I can't let him put his life in danger because of my insecurities. Hermione got up and walked to the door. She took the doorknob with a feeling of dread and opened the door. On the other side she found Harry looking torn between worry, aggravation and confusion. She had trouble looking him in the eyes as she turned to the side and gestured that he should come in. Harry walked in and sat on Hermione's bed looking at her expectantly. Hermione fidgeted with the hem of her jumper as she tried to find a way to discuss this that wouldn't be unbearably awkward.

"Do you remember when we decided that there were certain things that we didn't need to know about each other?" Harry nodded, but his face had turned slightly apprehensive. "Well, I've been having uncontrollable feelings in that area about... someone."

"Ah." Harry seemed to be processing that information. "Can you tell me who?"

"No!" Harry gave her a searching look at her shout which caused her to blush furiously. Please tell me he's not figured it out yet!

"Hermione," Harry spoke up with trepidation, "I'm probably going to find out sooner or later if the feelings really are that intense."

"Huh? What do you mean?" This was not the response Hermione had expected.

"Your dreams, Hermione. If your feelings for this bloke are really that intense then there is a good chance I'll get sucked into a dream about him sooner or later." Shit! I hadn't even considered that. Am I doomed to make an idiot of myself in front of the man I love? "I can't tell you what the best choice here is, but I can see two and neither of them are all that fun. You can keep our connection blocked off as much as possible and hope for the chance that I never get pulled into your dreams or we can have it out now and deal with any resulting awkwardness as best we can." You're right: I don't like either of those options.

Okay, Granger; analysis. What are the chances I can suppress our connection until these feelings wear off? I'm already exhausted after only three days. Add in the chances that Harry finds out without me there to explain matters. He'd just know one day; I might not even get a warning.

If this is going to dash our relationship to bits though it would give me some more time with him if I let fate choose when Harry finds out. The thought sent another cold shiver down Hermione's spine. Harry and fate; there's a worrying combination. In the end there was only one thing for it. If I tell him here and now, I may be able to do some damage control.

"H-harry?" Harry had been sitting quietly on Hermione's bed, letting her come to her own conclusion in her own time. When she spoke he looked up. "Can you promise me that you won't think less of me, no matter what I tell you?"

"You're not lusting after Malfoy are you?" Hermione could tell that Harry was trying to help her past the awkwardness but the tension she was feeling was too great to be dispersed so easily. Harry seemed to realise that too and turned as serious as Hermione had ever seen him. "I promise, Hermione." Okay, I can do this. I can.

"Well, it started when I saw your memory of your mission with Meridiana." Hermione could see that she had taken Harry by surprise with her words, but now that she had started she couldn't stop the words spilling forth. "When I went to bed that night, it was all I could think about. I think about it at work, I think about it when I'm visiting Mum and Dad, I think about it when I'm eating. The problem is… well, it's that I-... I want you to-... I want you!" Surprise had turned to shock on Harry's face. "I want you to do to me what you did to that succubus. I want to have that with you."

"No!" Harry leapt to his feet as his shock morphed to horror. Hermione felt her heart breaking at Harry's words. I should have known. Harry would never look at me like that. "Hermione, I could never do that to you. You-… you're-… gaagh!" Hermione heard Harry's frustrated growl a moment before her mental shields were barrelled through like they weren't even there. Her mind was flooded with scenes of Harry with Meridiana as well as several other women. All of them were clearly tagged with the same emotion: duty. Each one of them was a target in a part of a mission. Only Meridiana was tagged slightly differently. With those images Hermione could also feel 'enemy' and 'danger'. The flood of images shifted abruptly and Hermione saw herself. The attached emotions also shifted viscerally. Harry expressed being near Hermione with images rather than words. She felt how Harry equated seeing her again after a long time with a warm fire and a mug of hot chocolate after coming in from a cold night or the first breath after a deep dive under water. Time spent with her was a warm summer day with just enough of a breeze to be perfect Quidditch weather. I wonder how I compare with flying? Hermione had barely formed the thought when she felt a certainty flood her that if Harry was ever given a choice between never flying or never seeing her again that his Firebolt would be on a pyre before the day was out.

"Harry?" She managed tremulously.

"I could never treat you like that, Hermione. You are too important." Hermione could feel a warmth suffusing her entire body. Her heart started beating faster and she felt an urge to split her cheeks smiling to somehow express her boundless joy. A heartbeat later she realised that this feeling was coming from Harry and that he had labled it simply: 'Hermione'.

Hermione herself had a different name for it. For a moment she simply stood and marveled at being able to feel Harry's love for her. With a cry that was half laugh, half sob and born of more emotions than she could readily name Hermione threw herself at Harry. She felt him catch her in a strong hug. Before either of them could over think what she was about to do, she stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his in a happy, desperate kiss. As their lips made contact Hermione was already pushing her own feelings over the bond as well as her understanding of his and the place of sex in a loving relationship as she saw it. She could feel Harry struggling to understand and accept these radically new ideas and backed of a little. She wasn't ready to release him from her hug just yet, but she was determined to contain herself until she knew that Harry was ready to be a part anything they might do. Slowly, bit by bit, she could feel Harry starting to understand what she was trying to tell him. She also felt how much of his acceptance was founded on his unshakeable trust in her. It was a humbling experience as well as an exhilarating one.

By the time they might have noticed that their emotions were continually reinforcing each other they were too far gone to stop themselves. Conscious thought took a backseat as they got lost in each other's desires. Without a word they fell backwards onto Hermione's bed as a shimmer of magic began to surround Harry's hands.

Chapter Text

Hermione woke up with a pair of arms wrapped around her and a glow suffusing every fiber of her being. She burrowed a little deeper into the body next to her as memories of last night came back to her. Wow. That was absolutely amazing. I didn't know that sex could be that good.

'I'm inclined to agree.' Hermione looked up with a grin at hearing her lover's thoughts.

"Good morning, Harry." she purred out before pressing a kiss to his lips. She pulled back before she could get too carried away. Noticing the way her body was already reacting Hermione checked Harry's hands. Yep, shimmering. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"That shimmer of magic around your hands and the effect that it produces in me?"

"Oh." Harry seemed a little embarrassed. "Um, apparently while I was... under Meridiana's thrall I associated 'feeling good' with my Patronus Charm. I took memories of when I felt good, wrapped those feelings in magic and tried to push them out to her. I still don't know how I got that to work." Hmmm, I think that I might want to research that; a lot.

"I'll have to figure out how to do that too. I don't think it's fair that you're the only one who can do that."

"What do you mean?"

"I want to make you feel as good as you do me. In fact, do we need to be at work any time soon?" A moment later a set of misty numbers was floating over her head as Harry cast a Chronometer Charm. "Ah, I was afraid of that." The happiness filling her up meant that it was difficult to hit the proper note of disappointment. "Guess we'll have to reschedule for lunch and dinner then." she added impishly earning herself a light swat to the backside for her teasing which unleashed the laughter that was bubbling inside.

"I'll get breakfast started." Harry told her with another kiss before swinging his legs out over the side of the bed. "You can have the shower first." Hermione had to restrain herself from dragging him back down with her and managed to get up herself. Good heavens, I don't think I've ever been stretched so deliciously Hermione thought to herself as she felt aware of her body in a way she hadn't since her first time with Ron. She almost danced into the shower and turned on the hot water. As she stepped under the water she started humming and by the time she was toweling off she was actually singing. She got dressed quickly and hurried downstairs to find that Harry had outdone himself and the kitchen was filled with delicious smells. Hermione found him already sitting at the table with a cup of tea and a plate of breakfast in front of him and cheerfully ignored all the open chairs around the table to simply plop herself down in his lap for another kiss. When they separated this time she stole a piece of toast from his plate.

Breakfast took a bit longer than normal, but Hermione didn't think she'd ever enjoyed the meal more. Even having to do the cleaning while Harry hurried upstairs to get ready for the day as well didn't put a dent in her mood. They apparated into work at the same time even if they each landed in their own office. They both reached for their bond at the same time, still giddy about being together in a way that was new to their relationship.

Hermione pulled the parchments she'd been working on last night towards her without really looking at them; she was really far more preoccupied with when she could get to see Harry again. So it was that when she looked down at her work she had to blink away the equations she thought she saw to realise that she had gone a different route on them. I know that what I just saw is in there though. It would make perfect sense; if I just… Hermione pulled a fresh piece of parchment and started working at the idea her mistaken first look had given her. Despite her teasing words to Harry earlier that morning she worked straight through lunch as the work absorbed her in a way it hadn't since the days when she had first started. When a knock came on her door Hermione would have ignored it if not for the mental call.

'Harry! Come in.' She allowed herself a moment to admire the way he moved as he entered and closed her door behind him.

"I just wanted to ask if you want me to bring you some dinner?" he asked her.

"No!" she exclaimed. 'I'm not missing dinner with you.' The happiness she could feel coming from Harry made her feel proud that she could do that for him with so small a gesture and determined to provide that happiness as often as she could. "Let me just clear this stuff away."

"How did it go today? You felt really focused on your work."

"I think I'm getting close to a breakthrough on this. At this point it's just a case of finding one spellprint that will tie all these equations together." Hermione felt Harry combing through her memories and understanding of her project while she packed her work away carefully. She could feel that most of her work didn't make sense to him but he could follow along with the general gist of things.

"Why haven't you tried the Imperius or the Fidelius yet?" he asked her curiously after a while. Hermione froze in the middle of what she was doing. The Imperius and the Fidelius? "Well, it's just that one of them affects everyone's mind and the other is very specific to one person at a time, both affect the mind… I mean I get that they might not be considered illusory charms but-" Harry never got any further as his head was yanked forwards for a searing kiss.

"You wonderful man! That could be just the breakthrough I need! I know the Fidelius, but I've never cast the Imperius. Could we make a quick stop by the lab before we go home?" She felt Harry's acquiescence before he could even say the words and started pulling him towards the lab. When they got there she saw that Echo was still working and ignored it for now.

"Okay. Cast through here." Hermione instructed as she placed Harry in front of the Thaumaturgic Separator.

"Imperio." Hermione checked the read-out and nodded.

"One more, please. Just to be sure." Harry complied and Hermione found herself with a second read-out which was almost identical to the first. "Excellent." She took care of casting the Fidelius herself. Gathering up her new data Hermione turned to Harry with a beaming smile. 'Okay, we can go now.' She was practically skipping along next to him as they made their way back to her office. I was right.

'Right about what?'

'Oh, that you would have a way to help my research move on because of all the nonsense you're always caught up in.'

'Nonsense?'

'You know what I mean. And I was right. Examining the Imperius Curse and the Fidelius Charm alongside a broad sample of illusory charms has never been done before.'

'So you saw all this coming a mile away.'

'Well, except for the bit where you shagging me rotten gave me a much needed mental reboot. Speaking of which, I think I may need a top-up.' The two unspeakables grinned at each other and raced the rest of the way back to her office and their home.

:-:-:-:-:

"Unbelievable." Haephestos murmured for the seventeenth time since Hermione had joined him in his office. On his desk in front of him were her final calculations. After working through the fiendishly complex equations from the spells Harry had suggested Hermione had found the common link between all the spells that she theorised was the formula for the interaction between magic and the mind. Thanks to the inclusion of two such different spells I was able to correct for the commonalities between the various illusory charms. Thank you, Harry Potter. She watched as her superior trailed stubby fingers across the equations in wonder. "What you've done here, Guenevere, will shape magical research for years to come. You know I can't promise you publication under your own name though you certainly deserve it and I will petition Croaker for it, but I can promise you that generations of unspeakables to come will know what you've done and honour you for it."

"I understand, sir. Thank you."

"I have your next assignment here, though it may be a bit tame in comparison to what you've just accomplished. If there's ever something you want to research, you just let me know though. I'd say you've earnt at least one free run with this result."

"I will think it over, sir." Hermione said as she accepted the folder her superior had prepared. With a quick nod she made her way out of Haephestos' office, leaving him to stare at the work she had brought him some more.

Hermione made her way to her lab while reading the file she had been given. 'An analysis of the declining strength of the brother wand effect as it spreads across a greater number of cores taken from the single source to produce an algorithm with predictive abilities'. That would have been more useful a few years ago. Oh well, I can at least figure it out for the next generation. I guess I'll need to requisition quite a number of wands to get reliable samples. Maybe Harry can get a hold of Voldemort's old wand. It might be one of a very few pairs out there. Maybe I can use my own wand to identify the source of the core? I wonder if there might be something in the spellprint? Maybe that's just the last project still knocking around in my head. Hermione walked into the lab still muttering to herself and didn't notice her colleague trying to get her attention.

"Guenevere!"

"Huh? Oh, Echo, I'm sorry. I was off in my own little world there. Was there something you needed?"

"Not needed as such. I was hoping for a conversation though." Hermione couldn't help but notice that the witch wasn't her usual brusque self.

"Sure. I haven't started on this yet and there's no real hurry."

"It's just… I've been watching you and Artorius and I'm a little worried that you two might be getting too close. Believe that I speak from experience when I say that you can't trust operatives. They just take what they want and move on to the next girl."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Echo, but believe me when I tell you that Artorius is not like that."

"Guenevere, you don't know him. That's the whole point of being an operative: no one knows anything about you!"

"Actually, I've known Artorius since before I even knew the Department existed."

"What?"

"He and I have always been… close. Didn't you notice that our codenames match? I mean our covers, should we need them, are even married."

"Now that you mention it…" Echo shook herself. "But he's an operative! Does Croaker know abut this? Does Juvenal?!"

"Of course they do."

"And they didn't obliviate you?" Hermione shook her head. "Are-... are you really sure about Artorius, Guenevere?"

"Trust me, Artorius is an absolutely wonderful man and you don't have to worry about the two of us getting too close. I seriously doubt he and I could get any closer if we tried and so far it's something I wouldn't trade for the world." Echo gave a rather shaky nod as she turned back to her work. It was quiet for a long several minutes as Hermione tried out various spells to find the one that would give her the clearest and quickest identification of her wand's core.

"Guenevere?"

"Yes, Echo?"

"I'm sorry about what I said. If you're really sure he's as wonderful as all that… well, I'll trust your judgement."

"Thanks, Echo. You should know that I'm not the only one who thinks so; my parents absolutely adore him. Oh, that reminds me, we've not had dinner with them for a while. It's just been so busy… I really should get something organised." Hermione was mostly murmuring to herself at the end of her statement, but Echo had apparently heard her anyway.

"I'm happy for you, dear." she said softly before turning back to her own experiments.

That evening Hermione floated the idea for dinner with her parents to Harry and he agreed that they could go, though there was one thing he wanted clarified.

"Are we supposed to tell them that we're, um,..."

"Sleeping together? We could. If you prefer we could also take some time to figure out where we stand for ourselves before we say anything." Harry thought it over for a moment.

"When did you want to go visit them?"

"I was thinking we could go this weekend." Harry nodded as if something had been confirmed.

"Hermione, will you go out with me on Friday?" Hermione caught on to what Harry was really saying almost immediately.

"I would love that, Harry." she told him with a smile before she kissed him thoroughly.

In the end their date went well, despite some nervousness about it being a date, but all their planning around Hermione's parents proved to be utterly useless. They had barely stepped through the door when Helen dragged Hermione upstairs for a conversation. They came back down with Hermione blushing like an English tea rose and Helen smirking like the cat that got the cream. She walked straight over to Harry and drew him into a tight hug.

"Welcome to the family! I've already told Hermione, but you really should have said something. We could have done something special. No matter, we can do that another time. Oh, I'm just so happy for both of you." Feeling a little overwhelmed, Harry turned to Hermione for help.

"She just knew, Harry. I don't know how, but she did." Helen snorted in response to Hermione's defence.

"Please, dear. You come walking in here glowing like the morning sun and you expect me not to assume that you two finally caught up to the rest of us in figuring out what's what?"

"What's what what?" Richard Granger wanted to know.

"These two finally realising that they're not 'just friends'."

"Oh." Richard looked a little taken aback for a moment before shaking his head. "It was inevitable I suppose."

"Would you two stop acting like all this was written in the stars and we were the only ones too thick to see it?"

"Well, since you've stopped acting like that's not the case I don't see why not." Helen teased her daughter cheerfully.

"Harry, remind me why I wanted to spend time with my parents again?"

:-:-:-:-:

The months passed blissfully for the new couple as they settled into their lives together. Harry was kept in the country as the international crises seemed to be slipping into a lull while there was a rumour of some Death Eater sympathisers getting organised back home. Harry had tracked down every lead he could find on the supposed terrorist cell, but each and every one led to a dead end, usually because a nosy neighbour had gotten angry or drunk or both before calling in a tip. His presence also helped Hermione to work on her own project as he had, in fact, managed to get a hold of Voldemort's old wand, promising Minister Shacklebolt that it would be returned once he had finished with it.

Hermione's work was progressing a lot faster than on her first project and she often commented to Harry that Haephestos hadn't been exaggerating when he'd told her that this project couldn't match up to her first for complexity.

What held their attention far more was their budding relationship and the way it allowed them to rely more fully on their bond. Being able to read each other's first reactions to everything caused a few arguments, but also made the compromises more meaningful since they could feel what the other was giving up and why. Hermione also found that she was constantly reminded of Harry's almost alien way of dealing with emotions and tried her best to show him how she dealt with them without being overbearing about it. It took more effort than she would have hoped, but it wasn't enough that she would want to lose her relationship with him for anything. The attack that had started their bond had almost drifted out of their minds until it suddenly resurfaced in late November.

"Mum would really like to have us over for Christmas but I'm not sure how practically she's thinking." Hermione was saying. "I know for a fact that they have their house quite thoroughly organised for two people living there. I just don't know how to tell her that without setting off a guilt trip to get me to agree to come over anyway."

"Why don't you just invite them over to our place for the holidays? We have more than enough room and being magical, thinking practically is a secondary concern." Harry answered her with a grin as he poked fun at one of her pet peeves about magicals. Hermione hardly noticed.

"Oh, Artorius, could we really?"

"Well, yes. What did you think was stopping us?" By now the rest of the unspeakables were getting used to seeing the fearsome Operative Artorius hugged in the corridors by his partner and, according to some of the rumours, his wife. It had also made him more approachable for the rest of the Department when they saw a bit of humanity in him past his reputation.

"Um, Artorius?" Harry looked up from the hug with his girlfriend to find a giant of man standing there like he was about to scuff his feet on the floor. "Juvenal wanted to see right away."

"Thank you, Goliath. Sorry, love. Duty calls."

"Oh just go see what the old grouch wants already." Hermione told him playfully causing a snort of amusement from the man still standing next to them. "I'm done for the day so I'm going to head home. See you there?"

"Of course." Harry turned to walk to his superior's office and found Goliath scrambling out of the way in front of him. Harry refrained from commenting and just continued on his way. When Harry knocked on the door Juvenal's usual call of "Enter!" sounded tense.

"Ah, Artorius. Get in here and take a seat. I have an emergency mission for you."

:-:-:-:-:

'Hermione!' Harry's mental call was sent out the moment he landed in the hallway.

'I'm in the study, Harry. Why do you feel so agitated?' Rather than responding Harry made his way up the stairs and into the study.

"Juvenal gave me my next assignment. I'm to go to Sweden and investigate a suspicious assault. A wizard was cursed in broad daylight. The curse is eating away his magic and his body is expected to be next. He's in a hospital, screaming in pain."

"And you and Juvenal think that this may have something to do with the attack on me."

"Yes."

"Well, it does sound similar. I know I can't stop you, but please be careful, Harry. I can't perform that ritual again to save you." Hermione tried to inject some levity into her admonition, but it fell flat.

"I know, love. I'll be careful." Harry assured her, reinforcing his promise with a stream of emotions over their bond.

"When do you leave?" Hermione asked.

"Tonight."

"Then you had better get to our room, Operative Artorius." 'I intend to make use of the time we have left before you leave.'

:-:-:-:-:

At Arlanda International Portkey Station the customs wizard cast a bored eye over the passport in front of him and then compared it to the man in front of him. A quick wave of his wand sent a Disspelling Charm at the unremarkable looking Mr. Arthur Grey. Satisfied that the man hadn't cast a glamour on himself the customs wizard handed him his passport back.

"Välkommen til Sverige, herr Grey." The man accepted the passport with a polite nod and moved on. He left the terminal and found the Magibussarna service into Stockholm.

"Trollholmen." He told the conductor who nodded and managed to communicate that the trip would cost a galleon and one sickle. Arthur Grey paid the fare and settled down at the back of the bus. At least this ride is smoother than the Knight Bus he thought to himselfWhen they arrived at Stockholm's magical quarter the Englishman got off and headed in what he hoped was the direction of his hotel. He thankfully managed to find it quickly and the staff's excellent command of the English language meant that he was soon checked in to his room.

The moment he closed the door behind him Arthur Grey started casting security spells and wards. Only once he was sure that no one would be monitoring the goings on inside without him knowing did he remove what looked like a simple wedding band. As the ring left his finger the image of Arthur Grey flickered and resolved into Harry Potter. These Glamourings really are a wonderful invention. It's too bad that the eggheads haven't figured out how to minimise the required input for a continually replenishing enchantment. I don't like having to choose between possibly being spotted or possibly passing out if the draw on my magic becomes too much.

Putting the ring down, Harry made quick work of unpacking what he would need for his mission. A quick meditation to recover and focus my magic as much as possible and then I'll head out to talk to the Healers at the Eirs Magiska Sjukhus.

An hour later Arthur Grey left the hotel and made his way deeper into Trollholmen. He arrived at the hospital in short order and showed a British Ministry of Magic identification at the reception before asking after the case of a man who had been hit with a magic eating curse. He was collected by a Healer only a few minutes later.

"Good evening, herr Grey. I am Healer Wikström."

"A pleasure to meet you, Healer." Grey replied as he shook the man's hand.

"I understand you have some interest in the case of Lukas Henriksson?"

"Possibly. We believe we had a similar case in Britain. The victim's magic was 'eaten' for lack of a better word. We are all grateful that she managed to make a full recovery but we are worried by the lack of knowledge we have on the curse that did this."

"If your patient recovered then it is not the same curse."

"How can you be so sure?"

"No one survives Nidhogg's Hunger."

"This curse has been used here more often?" Grey asked with surprise colouring his voice.

"Not for two thousand years or more. It is a legend from the days when the Asgeir ruled the North, both magical and not."

"And yet you have been able to diagnose your patient with its effects."

"The diagnosis was made by a colleague with a certain… fascination for these sorts of legends." the Healer said, his tone making clear what he thought of the matter.

"You were unable to convince your superiors of your diagnosis?" Grey asked in a commiserating fashion.

"I had no diagnosis to give, herr Grey. This was not our best guess, it was our only one."

"I see. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Is there any possibility that I might speak with your patient?"

"You may speak to him as much as you wish; I doubt he'll answer though. Lukas Henriksson died seven hours ago." Damn. That's unfortunate. At least I have a possible name for the curse."Out of professional curiosity, herr Grey, how was the patient in your country cured?"

"A friend undertook the Rite of Binding with her to strengthen her magical core. As I understand it things didn't go as expected. Our Healers are still working on the how and why of the matter as far as I know. I'm afraid the matter is a bit beyond me, but if you contact St. Mungo's they may be able to provide more information."

"I believe I may do that." Healer Wikström said as he seemed to be looking into the distance at something Grey couldn't see. He's as much of an academic as Hermione is. "I will bid you good day, herr Grey. I must return to my patients."

"A good day to you too, Healer Wikström." Grey left the hospital and hurried back to his hotel; he had a letter to write.

:-:-:-:-:

Dear Guinevere,
I've found the victim; or rather, I've found his grave. He succumbed to the curse far more quickly than what happened in St. Mungo's. The Healers here did have a name for what ailed their patient though. They referred to a legendary curse, used by the Asgeir when they ruled Scandinavia. See if you can find anything on 'Nidhogg's Hunger'. I'm going to check the immigration records on this end and see if I can find any familiar names.

I hope you are well and I miss you something awful. I am not whole without you.

All my love,
Artorious

Hermione re-read the letter for the umpteenth time. 'I am not whole without you.' I feel it too, Harry. I've gotten so used to having you around and in my head that it just feels wrong to not have you here. The bed feels cold and I feel perpetually alone.

Juvenal had been pleased with Harry's progress and the hunt for her attacker climbed in priority. The woman I was a year ago would have been pleased with that and pushing for more. Today I don't care as long as Harry comes home safe.

Hermione was a bit ashamed of that thought. She knew that the longer this psychopath remained at large, the more people could get hurt. And yet the faceless masses seem less important when it's Harry out there actively hunting this monster. Hermione forced herself to put the letter down and dragged her attention back to the ancient, untitled tome in front of her. Ever since Harry's breakthrough the entire Research Branch had been working on finding and analysing this curse. At the rate we're going though I shouldn't be surprised if Harry somehow discovers a cure before we've even worked out the incantation.

Damn it, Granger, FOCUS! With a mental shake Hermione went back to deciphering the ancient Futhark the book was written in.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry tried to suppress his growing anticipation as he crept closer to the wooden cabin ahead. He was making his way through three feet of snow and couldn't afford to screw up because he was overeager. If I set off a trap or give away my position this dirtbag could get away. So Harry moved slowly, under a Notice-me-not Charm, and scanned every step for traps and wards before he moved forward and then covering his tracks. He had found out from the immigration records that this particular cabin had been reserved by a Vincent Crabbe. Quite the achievement for someone who was immolated by Fiendfyre during the Battle of Hogwarts. The logical conclusion was that there was an Englishman here who did not want to be found. It matches what we know so far. Hermione was specifically targeted after the perpetrator found out she was in Hogsmeade. That means a local or someone she knows and either would certainly know at least some of the casualty list. It's on the bloody monument for crying out loud.

Once he was in range, Harry started putting up anti-transportation wards. He wove the magic together slowly in case the person in the cabin was sensitive to changes in the flow of magic around them or had some manner of alarm set up. This was first and foremost a capture mission. There are a lot of questions I want to ask this bastard.

Once he had the wards up, and no one had come charging out looking for intruders, Harry continued his way on to the building. The curtains were drawn across the windows, preventing Harry from looking inside.

"Hominem Revelio." Harry's spell detected one person inside. Right, don't get cocky. This person has already proven that they know spells the rest of the world has forgotten. There could still be more than one person if there was a concealing charm in whatever grimoire they were using somewhere. That means that the strategy is 'overkill'.

Harry drew a phial of potion from his pocket and palmed it in his off hand. The phial was a clever find by the eggheads in Research. A thin layer of glass separated the top and bottom half of the phial. The two halves had been filled with a pair of potions that reacted… energetically when they came into contact with each other. Throw the phial at a hard surface so that it was damaged and it became a magical flashbang grenade. This should keep any undetected hostiles off balance long enough to take out the bait and find them. If he's alone, well, no harm in being careful. Harry cast a quick Silencing Charm on his ears and took a deep breath.

"Bombarda!" The wooden door exploded inward. Among the flying shrapnel was a small glass phial. A moment later the hut was filled with a blinding light and a thunderous noise.

The moment Harry felt the flashbang's shockwave hit him he Disspelled his Silencing Charm and charged through the wreckage of the door. He saw a body slumped against the wall and fired off a Full Body Bind. Dropping to one knee he scanned the rest of the room. Seeing no one, Harry took a moment to cast a Disarming Jinx and a few more binding charms at his prisoner. Once was sure that the man wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry he went through the rest of the cabin systematically to make sure that he wouldn't get a nasty surprise to the back while he worked the bastard over; he found no one.

Convinced that there weren't any imminent threats, Harry made his way back to the first room. Standing over his prisoner he nudged the man's head back with the toe of his boot. Well, well, well. Theodore Nott. That's not who I was expecting. Harry quickly cast Repairing Charms at what was left of a pair of chairs and levitated the still unconscious man into one. Harry made sure that Nott was tied to the chair before he cast a Reviving Charm. A small part of him revelled in the pained groan that issued from his captive's lips.

"Evening, Theo." Nott's head shot up, causing him to grimace in pain. "Oh dear. That looked like it hurt. Maybe you should refrain from making any sudden moves."

"Who are you?" Nott slurred out. Harry sighed and backhanded the man across his face getting a whimpering half-sob in response.

"You should probably refrain from asking questions too. You're here to answer them."

"You think I'll tell you anything?"

"Well, not voluntarily, no. Lucky for me there are a few ways around that non-issue." Nott paled as he understood what his captor was saying. "Normally, I would use Veritaserum. It's effective, reliable and humane. You and your little friends, however, made the rather significant mistake of attacking the woman I love, so 'humane' feels more like a downside."

"The woman you-... wait! You mean Granger? I didn't think anyone gave a damn about that bitch except for… Potter!" Nott's eyes shone with his realisation. "Morgana's might, Potter. You actually had me worried for a moment there." There was a mocking note to Nott's voice. Harry lowered his hood since his identity had been uncovered anyway.

"And you're not worried anymore?"

"Please. As if you have it in you to actually torture someone." Nott scoffed. Harry just gave a chilling smile.

"Legillimens." There was absolutely no subtlety or gentleness to Harry's probe. He tore through Nott's Occlumency shields without a care for what he left in the wake of his attack. Memory after memory passed before him and Harry stored them all in his own mind to relay them back to the Department. One of the first memories he found was the attack on Lukas Henriksson. The memory also revealed that Nott had been acting on another's orders when he committed his crime. Harry hunted through the rest of the man's memories for the person who had given that order. He was vaguely aware of Nott screaming uncontrollably. When he found the memory he was looking for Harry immersed himself in it to gather as much information as possible.

He found himself in a wood paneled study. Expensive was his first thought, though it was quickly corrected to showy. Whoever lives here wants their visitors impressed with their wealth and status.

"We need to lure that mudblood back into the open." a voice was saying. Harry noticed a pair of wingback armchairs sitting in front of a fire. They had gilt frames and what looked like black velvet upholstery. Definitely showy. With an ease born of long practice with Hermione, Harry shifted his perspective so he could see the occupants of the chairs. Nott and Malfoy. Now this is more along the lines of what I expected. Nott might never have shown any initiative, but Malfoy usually showed more than was good for him. "The curse should have killed her, it was killing her. One of my informants at the hospital told me that there was one visitor aside from her family present when she was cured: Potter. She has since become as elusive as he is. I would theorise because she is with him, wherever he is hiding. We need to know if Potter's really found a cure and where he's hiding. I want you to discover that for us."

"You want me to hunt Potter? The man who killed the Dark Lord?" Nott asked aghast.

"Not at any risk to yourself, I assure you. If I know Potter, he'll be searching for the culprit himself no matter what the aurors are doing. All we need to do is create a similar situation elsewhere to draw him out."

"If he's searching for the culprit, you should be the one to dance with the dragon."

"I will be here to finish Granger off once we have confirmation of whether or not he knows of a cure… unless you would prefer to hang that target on your own back?" Nott was quiet for a few seconds after Malfoy had laid his rather obvious trap.

"What do you need me to do and how is it not going to blow up in my face?"

"Leave the country and cast Nidhogg's Hunger on someone, it doesn't matter who. Potter will come running and, in drawing him out of Britain, you will have already decimated his resources. Simply use the same procedure I did with Granger and, as you've seen, you will not be caught." As Malfoy spoke he flicked his wand and a silvery cloak floated over to Nott who took it admiringly. That looks new. He must have fired through another one to get Hermione. He's really sinking some serious coin into this if he's buying an invisibility cloak per attack.

"What do I do once I've got Potter's attention?" Nott asked as he stuffed the cloak into a pocket.

"Inform me that he's there and make sure that he does not find you. Your message will be the signal for the rest of us to move on Granger. If Potter leaves the country there, send a warning and return to us. We will hold Granger at usual location for an interrogation and some… entertainment. You may as well meet us there." These bastards want to hurt Hermione? Over my dead body.

"You've thought all this out, haven't you? Had you chosen where I should go as well?"

"Personally, the irony of reintroducing this curse to its homeland appeals to me, but you may go wherever you like."

"You are too generous." Despite Nott's sarcasm he had obviously followed Malfoy's instructions to the letter. Harry pulled out of the memory and tore at Nott's mind for the next pieces of information he needed. Where this 'usual location' was and whether any messages had been sent back.

The location turned out to be a muggle warehouse, hidden with magic that Nott and Malfoy's little group used for activities that they didn't want connected to their own homes. Nott's ravaged mind also revealed that he hadn't sent any messages back since he hadn't realised Harry was in the country. It was the last scrap of information Harry managed to retrieve before he found himself standing in an empty void. Confused, he searched for any sign of Nott's mind, but found nothing.

Harry drew back out of his captive's mind to find him with his head hanging down, his chin touching his chest. Harry wrenched Nott's head up by the hair and found vacant, unseeing eyes set in a slack-jawed face. A string of drool was leaking from one corner of his mouth and a trickle of blood had come out of his left nostril. Bugger. I didn't think he'd give out that quickly. Harry tried Legillimency again and once again found an empty nothingness. There's nothing more to be learnt here.

Returning to his own awareness, Harry started casting Repairing Charms. He carefully restored the room and unbound Nott. The moment it was free the body slumped limply in the chair. Harry vanished all the food he could find, took down his wards and performed one final check of the house. Finding nothing, he apparated out. The muggles will find him and by the time they do it will look like he got snowed in and starved to death; probably because he will starve to death. With any luck the muggles will think that he was some kind of religious zealot fasting to prove a point.

Harry returned to his hotel and checked out. With Nott gone, there was nothing to be gained by staying. Juvenal can deal with the politics of telling the Swedes what happened to their perpetrator. Right now, I need to take out the rest of these idiots before they can lay a hand on Hermione. That night Arthur Grey took a portkey back to England.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione's head shot up from the ancient tome she was poring over. The bracelet on her left wrist had suddenly turned burning hot. Mum! Dad! She didn't hesitate and barely took a moment to clear away her work and charm her cloak a different colour before apparating out. Hermione arrived at her parents' house to find the wards flaring under the strain of a magical assault. About thirty feet to her right stood a pair in hooded, black robes with curses streaming from their wands. Hermione's own focus was up in a flash but before she could get a spell off something struck her in the back and the world went dark.

When Hermione came to she could feel that she was sitting in a chair. Cords dug into the flesh of her wrists, chest and ankles. The feeling of scratchy cloth against her face and the darkness that still engulfed her when she opened her eyes told her that there was a hood covering her face. She could hear indistinct voices. Deep. Probably male and in the next room over.

Harry's going to be so disappointed in me. What was I thinking charging in like that? Now I'm a captive and I have no idea if my parents are even alive.

No. I can't think like that. Come on, Hermione, you've seen all those missions of Harry's. Think. What can I do? I'm still alive so they must have a plan for me. Interrogation or ransom? People who know I'm an unspeakable and want to get the Department's secrets? Someone who knows I'm close to Harry and is trying to use me to get to him? That last thought made a frightening amount of sense to Hermione. I don't know anything yet, but if they are after Harry it will be my turn to defend him. The resolution to protect Harry calmed Hermione down and let her focus on trying to gather more information. The indistinct voices were getting louder until they were cut off by a sharp "Quiet!". Hermione felt the hood being roughly yanked off of her head and blinked as she was blinded by the sudden light.

"Hello, mudblood. Did you miss me?" That voice sounds familiar. Hermione blinked sight back into her eyes and hissed in fury when she saw who had caught her.

"Malfoy." The blonde smirked at her. Feeling superior are we? "Morrighan's cloak, this is embarrassing; caught by a ferret. Harry's never going to let me live this down." The smirk on Malfoy's face twisted into a sneer.

"Don't worry, mudblood. That won't be an issue by the time Potter gets back from Sweden." What?! How does he know where Harry is? "Oh? Did you not know? Or did you not expect me to know?" The smug satisfaction was back in full force on the former Slytherin. "The Malfoy name is still respected, mudblood; not that you'd understand something like that. There are still those who vie for my favour. Witches and wizards like the one that told me that whenever Potter disappears a Mr. Arthur Grey leaves the country. Or the Swedish bureaucrat who let me know that Mr. Grey had landed in his country." So we still have a vermin problem at the Ministry.

"I'll be sure to let Kingsley know that he has a leak. He'll be eager to plug it."

"If you were to survive, I'm sure you would." Malfoy mocked. "In the meantime, we have some questions; questions you are going to answer."

"How to undo whatever it is that you did to your hair?" There were guffaws of laughter from the other wizards present.

"Crucio." Hermione screamed as the Torture Curse sent pain tearing through her nerves. When it lifted only seconds later she found herself panting as she hung limply against her bonds. "I hardly think that you should be commenting on anyone's hair, do you?" Cruel glee radiated from Malfoy's voice. "That was just a little taste of what awaits you should you not cooperate. Now, how did you survive Nidhogg's Hunger?"

"How do you know that name?"

"Crucio." This time when the curse was lifted Hermione could taste blood in her mouth and feel the spit, tears and mucus covering her face. "I'm asking the questions here, mudblood. However, it would be shame if you didn't understand how much danger you're in, so I'll explain." You never could resist bragging, you ponce. "I was the one who found the spell in one of the grimoires the Dark Lord left behind at Malfoy Manor."

"Were you the one that cursed me as well?"

"Of course; though there were a lot of us who wanted the pleasure." I'll just bet there were. "Of course, I'll probably give one of the others a chance once we don't need you anymore."

"And when will that be?"

"Soon enough. Now tell me how you survived or we'll reapply the curse and let Greengrass analyse what happens." Hermione could see the statuesque blonde standing quietly at the back of the group, watching her with cold grey eyes. What do I do? If they discover that it was a one-off and that Harry's magic is now bound to mine, I'll be under that curse faster than you can say 'Quidditch' and by extension, so will Harry. If I don't tell them anything we'll be in the exact same danger. Partial truth it is.

"Harry cured me." Hermione bit out, not having to feign her disgust at having to do so.

"Hah, I knew it! How?"

"I don't know. I wasn't exactly lucid when he did it."

"And you expect me to believe that in all the months since you never once asked him?"

"Some kind of ritual was all he would tell me." Malfoy gave her a considering look.

"If he wouldn't share it with you then it was likely Dark. I look forward to asking him about it when he gets here."

"What makes you think that he's going to come here?" A vicious smile spread on Malfoy's lips.

"Oh, you'll love this, mudblood. Potter's in Sweden right now looking for the person who cast Nidhogg's Hunger. Nott's an idiot and a coward. Potter will eventually find him and Nott will agree to tell Potter whatever he asks for to save his own stinking hide. His pride won't last more than a day, if it even keeps his mouth shut for an hour. Nott will then have a fatal accident, courtesy of a Swedish auror with a gambling problem, before the matter ever comes to trial so we probably won't even be charged with anything due to lack of evidence." There were smirks all around now. They're probably just relieved that it wasn't them that had to play bait.

"Among other things, Nott will tell Potter that he sent a message back here that was the signal for your capture. He will even tell Potter exactly where we are. When Nott has his accident, Potter will realise that the aurors can't do anything without proof or we will gut him and the government in the Wizengamot. True to form the Saviour will come charging in and meet his doom at our wands and traps." I have to stay alive no matter what they do to me. If I'm alive, I'll be able to warn Harry.

'Warn me about what?'

'Harry?'

'I'm here, Hermione. What's happened?' Hermione's relief was overwhelming. It might be faint, but it was without a doubt the touch of her lover's mind.

'Harry, you have to be careful! Malfoy's setting a trap for you. He's the one behind all this.' Hermione pushed her memories of the past half an hour or so across their link so Harry would know not to come near them.

'Nice try, love, but I've just apparated in. Keep him talking. Malfoy doesn't know that I know anything about wards, but it's still going to take me some time to break them down without setting off alarms.'

'Harry, it's too risky!'

'When's that ever stopped us? Now, distract him and I'll have you out of there in twenty minutes tops.' Hermione mentally cursed up a storm, knowing that Harry would at least be made aware of her displeasure. The sycophantic laughter around her was just dying down so Hermione took her chance.

"But why, Malfoy? You have to know that if it comes out that you killed us you're going to be fed to a dementor."

"It's a risk we have to take." Malfoy growled out. "You and Potter are destroying our world and no one else is willing to stand against you."

"And here I was thinking you just wanted revenge."

"More the fool you. Alone, neither of you is a threat. Potter doesn't give a damn about politics without you and no one gives a damn about you without him. That Universal Rights of Magicals bill would never have passed if Potter hadn't stood at your side to ask for votes. Your bill criminalising Cruelty to Elves would have been laughed off the floor if it hadn't been Potter presenting it. Something had to be done before you brought the world our ancestors built down around our ears!" Malfoy's chest was heaving and his cheeks were stained with angry red blotches as he screamed the last sentence in Hermione's face. He seemed to realise that he had lost his composure and turned away from Hermione with his fists clenched by his side. When he faced her again his expression was as cold as she'd ever seen it.

"Neither of you ever appreciated the value of subtlety, but you have an absolutely uncanny luck. I mean to see it run out today." Hermione felt something hard being pressed into her palm. She recognised the object the moment her fingers closed around it. My wand! A moment later the bindings around her wrists were vanished and a warm hand caressed them.

'The wards were almost insultingly weak.' Harry's voice sounded in her head. 'I'm happy you're alright, love.' She could feel the relief and tenderness in his thoughts.

'I'm happy to see you too, love. What's the plan?'

'I'll attack as a distraction while you vanish your bonds. I'd like the next part of the plan to be you getting out of here, but since I hate surprises during a fight: just hit them hard and don't take any risks.'

'Alright. I love you.'

'And I you.'

"Are you even paying attention, mudblood?!" Malfoy screamed, reminding her that she and Harry were not alone. "You should be grateful, you little cunt! My face is the last thing you'll ever see and that's more than you deserve."

"Funny. I was thinking something similar." a pleasant baritone said from behind Hermione. A flash of red streaked over her shoulder and ensured that the expression of shock on Malfoy's face would never get a chance to change. Hermione felt the warm spray of Malfoy's blood and some of his more vital organs hitting her in the face. She resolutely ignored it in favour of vanishing her bonds. It didn't take long, but when she looked up there were two more bodies collapsed on the floor in pools of spreading blood. She could see several people sprinting for cover while three others were dueling what looked like twenty square feet of empty space.

Hermione's wand came up and she tagged one of the duelers with a full body bind. His limbs snapping to side caused him to overbalance and land on his face with a crunch that could be heard over the sounds of the battle. His comrades froze in surprise for only a moment, but it was enough as a ribbon of liquid silver snaked forward and sliced them both in half as if they were made of soft butter. Hermione barely had a moment to notice the geysering bottom halves collapsing before a stone dome erupted around their remaining opponents. She noticed a grim looking Harry Potter fading back into view as he approached the dome.

"Should I break it so you can curse them?"

"No need." Harry replied, his voice brimming with cold fury. Despite knowing that none of it was directed at her, Hermione couldn't suppress a shiver. "I put this thing up around them. Since I left the anti-transport wards up they are currently caught like rats in a trap." As soon as he'd spoken Hermione heard explosions coming from inside the dome.

'They must be able to hear us. Maybe we should talk like this, Harry.'

'When they're being so obliging?' Hermione looked at Harry in surprise for a moment before his plan filtered through to her. 'If you're opposed to this, I won't.' Hermione didn't need to ask why Harry felt the need to do this; she could feel his reasons and his doubts as if they were her own. She weighed it all and found it easier to come to a decision than she had expected.

'Do it.' Harry nodded his understanding and placed the tip of his wand against the dome, which was starting to crack. He snarled out the guttural incantation Hermione had first heard when she had seen his Cult de Rais mission in their shared dream and a moment later the blasts from inside stopped. A slice of the dome crumbled into the sudden silence. Through the opening Hermione could see long lances of stone criss-crossing the entire inside of her captors' last prison. The silence emanating from inside told her what she couldn't see. They never stood a chance.

'No, they didn't. Would they have given you one?'

'...no. Does that make what we did right?'

'It doesn't. Do you think that they would have stopped with us?'

'...no.'

'And that does make a difference.' Harry came over and pressed a soft kiss to Hermione's lips. "Thank you for having trouble with this. I've gotten used to taking lives and I don't like it."

"I didn't exactly stop you."

"No, but you questioned whether this was the right thing to do."

"And that's enough?"

"It is for me." Hermione considered that and rose up on her tiptoes to return the kiss she'd just received.

"Okay then." They stood hugging for moment longer before Harry drew back.

"I'll portkey the live one to a holding cell. His interrogation can wait until after we've made sure that your parents are alright."

"Thank you, love." Hermione said with feeling. As the adrenaline was draining out of her system the trembling in her muscles as a result of the Cruciatus exposure was becoming more pronounced. She was actually grateful when Harry slipped an arm around her while he waved his wand to take down the remaining wards. Once he was finished he dropped a small brass ring onto the chest of their now wild-eyed captive and watched him disappear in a swirl of colour before apparating the two of them away to check on her parents.

The two unspeakables landed in the Grangers' back garden. Hermione almost collapsed as her muscles couldn't quite manage to correct her landing but Harry's arms kept her upright. He helped her to the back door and knocked heavily on it. They had to wait a short while before the door was opened and Helen Granger peeked outside curiously. She let out an ear-splitting scream at what she saw.

"Hermione! Baby, what happened?! Where did all that blood come from? Who is this?" As her mother rattled off a string of questions Hermione looked at herself and Harry. He was wearing his unspeakable robes and they were both still covered with Draco Malfoy's blood. Harry seemed to have realised the same thing she had.

"Oh, um, whoops?" The sheepish voice actually seemed to knock Mum out of her hysteria a little bit. Hermione decided to jump in before all the screaming brought the neighbours running.

"None of the blood's ours, Mum. Are you and Dad alright?"

"Of course we are, dear. Why wouldn't we be?"

"It's a long story and one I will tell to you in its entirety once we have Hermione somewhere comfortable." Harry interrupted. Hermione could see the realisation of who was under the hood hit her mother like a physical force.

"Of course, come in." Mum was fussing over them as they stepped into the kitchen. The familiar surroundings and knowing that Mum and Dad weren't hurt were draining the last of the adrenaline from Hermione's system. She could still hear her mother interrogating Harry though. "Are you sure she's alright? I thought she said she wasn't injured?"

"Actually, she said that the blood's not ours and it isn't. Hermione was magically tortured though." Hermione felt another pair of arms come around her and heard her mother's sobs in her ear. "She'll be alright, Helen. There wasn't any permanent damage done and the people who did this won't be trying it again." Hermione felt herself being lifted into arms she recognised as Harry's and laid her head in the crook of his neck as she felt herself sinking into darkness.

The next morning Hermione woke in her bed in her parents' house with a groan. I feel bloody awful.

'I'm not surprised. That's what the Cruciatus is supposed to accomplish. Is it safe to let your mother come upstairs yet?' Despite the teasing words Hermione could clearly feel the worry in Harry's thoughts.

'Give me a minute. I doubt that Mum's entrance is going to be quiet.' Hermione just laid there for a minute trying to gather strength for the prospect of being well and truly mothered. 'How much do my parents know?'

'Not that we're secret agents or that we can communicate telepathically, but pretty much everything else.'

'Can we tell them about this now that Malfoy is a pile of meat?'

'You realise that it will still put our secret at risk?'

'I do. I don't want to lie to them about it though.'

'Then we can tell them as soon as you're ready.'

'Thank you, Harry. Do you think you can come pick me up?' It was quiet for a moment before Hermione heard footsteps on the landing outside her door. It opened quietly to reveal her boyfriend in normal clothes. He smiled at seeing her awake and came over to press a soft kiss to her lips.

"Hey there, sleeping beauty."

"After last night? I doubt it."

"To me you are never less."

"Cheeseball." Harry just grinned at her.

"Ready to face the parents?" Hermione grimaced.

"How bad is it?"

"Well, I had to explain the concept of the Cruciatus and it upset them. They seemed rather pleased that the blood belonged to the guy who did it." Harry paused for a moment. "Your mum can be downright bloodthirsty, you know that? Anyway, I think I have them convinced that you won't suffer any lasting harm and that the only medicine for the Cruciatus is time. I'm not sure we're going to get you out from under your mum's eye any time soon though."

"That's about what I expected. Can you cast some charms to make me presentable? We can have a long shower together when I'm sure my parents aren't going to burst in on us." Harry smiled at her and started waving his wand as Hermione felt the dirt and grime leaving her and her clothes straightening themselves out.

'You say things like that and then accuse me of being reckless.' Harry thought at her in a transparent attempt at levity.

'I'm being careful!'

'You're being naughty.'

'Is that a complaint?' Harry just grinned down at her and pressed a kiss to her lips again.

"Not at all. Can you walk?" It turned out that Hermione needed Harry's support to keep her balance as she shuffled down the stairs. In the kitchen he was forced out of the way by a pair of extremely worried parents who had to fuss over every inch of her before they were satisfied. In the end Harry came to her rescue by reminding them that Hermione would be better of sitting and would perhaps benefit from a warm beverage. The result was that a few minutes later Hermione was sitting on the living room couch leaning her head on Harry's shoulder and clutching a hot cup of tea. She gave her boyfriend a nudge and caught his gaze. Her question would have been clear even without their bond and Harry nodded in response.

"Mum, Dad, Harry and I have something to tell you and it may sound unbelievable."


 

The End