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Measure Of A Man

Chapter Text

 
One
The Journey Is The Destination

 

March 13, 2011


The quietest people have the loudest minds.

Hermione had always found the quote thought-provoking, not only because it was true, but also because she couldn't think of a more accurate statement to describe Theodore Nott.

He had never been loud—always reading and studying—which was something Hermione appreciated. As an adult, his pensive nature had transformed into the sort that frustrated most people, but never her. It kept Hermione alert, drew her attention, and constantly made her wonder what he was really thinking.

Some people were quiet because they had nothing happening in their minds, some had too much, but Theo's silence was neither. In fact, his squinty green eyes and purposefully understated presence reminded Hermione of yet another quote:

It takes one to know one.

And because she knew exactly what that look meant, she was well aware that Theo was scheming.

Hermione allowed it as she sorted through the tiny crumbs of clues she'd picked up over her last six years working for him—clues he'd inadvertently dropped that spoke of his intentions when he wouldn't. Whatever Theo wanted from her today was important to him. Personal.

She didn't like it one bit.

Theo didn't discuss anything remotely personal. Not with her or anyone else—at least not while they were at work. Pansy was the exception, but they had been lifelong friends. Hermione suspected that his strict division between work and play had been the only belief he hadn't shed after the war. Everything was business and had been since he'd spent his entire family's fortune buying and reviving the bankrupt hospital in a move that, while altruistic, had been far more lucrative than anyone had expected.

That had been eight years ago when Theodore Nott, Sr died during a prison break and he was left alone, desperate to atone for the sins of his father.

Anything that could make Theo, of all people, change the well-established status quo was certainly not an endeavour Hermione wanted to undertake. Instead, she watched him, her answer to his unasked question ready.

Theo's office was large with neutral walls, light wood floors, sparse furniture, and décor. The artificial lights gave the room an almost clinical glow. Even with Pansy's attempts at adding bits of masculine flair by way of artwork, rugs, and the black dragon-hide sofa in the designated sitting area across the room, it still wasn't particularly grand.

Hermione thought it was fitting for the sort of man Theo was.

Except for one thing: the children's dictionary all alone on the corner of his desk.

That didn't fit.

The man himself stood at the aforementioned bookshelf, skimming over the assortment of spines and pulling off a book here and there. Theo was almost as tall as Ron and handsome in a way that made it clear he was aware, but had never needed to use it for his benefit. He was too smart for that.

Honestly, Hermione had looked at him once or twice—she wasn't blind—and she might have subtly hinted at her interest. Ideally, Theo was her type now that she understood herself better. He had an odd sense of humour, was put together and astute, levelheaded but decisive, and had the bonus of being tall and extremely attractive. Theo, on the other hand, had never shown interest outside of friendship and that was it.

But it never stopped her from looking appreciatively.

As well as critically.

Dressed in fitted grey trousers and a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, Theo exuded a sort of tactical calm that masqueraded itself as stoic indifference. But Hermione knew better and waited patiently for him to remember that he wasn't dealing with his normal ilk.

"I'm quite busy, Theo."

He responded by bringing his selected books back to his desk before he sat down, opening the first with the ease of a man that didn't have a meeting with the hospital board in twenty-seven minutes—twenty of which he would need to debate with her on the topic of whatever he was scheming about. He didn't have a lot of time to spare, but flipped the page with unhurried confidence anyway.

With his eyes still on his book, he picked up his porcelain teacup and brought it to his lips, taking a light sip of the piping hot tea that she had brewed from her own collection before she turned up for the meeting that had spontaneously appeared on her magi-scheduler that morning.

Theo was a particular sort of man who took his tea—no matter the variety—steeped for exactly five minutes with no sugar because he wanted to enjoy the flavour.

Boring, but Hermione couldn't bring herself to judge anyone who appreciated the classics.

It was such a rare thing these days.

As he read, Hermione reached for the tin thermal and poured herself a cup as well before settling back in her chair, crossing her legs as the knees, and taking her first sip. The tea was a blend of peppermint and rosemary grown and prepared in her vegetable patch several months ago; a perfect remedy for the afternoon slump they both tended to suffer.

Hermione took a reviving inhale of steam from her cup before ending the purposeful silence.

"If you delay any longer, you'll be late. The board will not be pleased. I'm already late for a visit with my parents, and my mother won't be pleased either."

That wasn't exactly true, but he didn't need to know that.

Not that it mattered. Theo's silence held out another full minute; he never spoke too soon or too late, only at the precise moment he meant to. "As usual, your blend is excellent." His voice was even and firm, but there was something almost gentle in his tone that told her his compliment was sincere. He placed his teacup on the saucer and looked at her again before closing the book he had been reading and extending it to her. Hermione peered at the cover.

Neurological Diseases and their Effects on Wizards.

She didn't accept it.

"I've already read this." Even though it wasn't her area of expertise. "Twice."

Hermione started in Plant Poisoning after quitting the Ministry and finishing Healer Academy, but hadn't stayed long due to the popularity of Alternative Healing—a branch that didn't quite fit inside the walls of St. Mungo's, but one that was needed after the war with the sharp rise in mental health concerns and specialties that didn't quite fit.

Hermione typically worked with recovering potions addicts, long-term patients that had been revived, and the occasional terminal patient, slowing the progression of their disease. Her unique method of therapy was very involved and multi-layered, but also extremely effective, which was why she only accepted one patient at a time and was allowed to work primarily out of her home. Theo had so much faith in her methods and success rate that he allowed her to pick her own patients.

He opened his desk drawer and retrieved a folder. Carefully, he placed it next to the book as if it was supposed to explain everything. It, in fact, gave her no clues at all.

"Take a look. Tell me what you think." Then he went back to his tea, pouring himself more from the tumbler.

He must really enjoy it.

A cursory glance at the folder was enough to brush against the edge of her curiosity simply because it was completely blank, which didn't look like any other patient file Hermione had seen. Each file at St. Mungo's had at least basic information on the front so the Healers wouldn't forget their patients' names. Inside, all identifying information had been rendered illegible, which meant she didn't have the proper clearance.

So, there was a need for discretion.

Privacy.

Interesting.

Hermione had several immediate theories, but until she had more information, she wouldn't show any signs of interest.

Instead, she started from the beginning. By no means did she give it a detailed read, merely a cursory skim. Hermione noted the symptoms: drowsiness, auditory hallucinations, bouts of confusion and forgetfulness, increased pulse and sweating, and temporary motor control issues. Then she read the differential diagnoses: poison, dark magic, a slow-progressing curse? No specific curse was provided as there wasn't one diagnosis that fit the wildly varied symptoms. Hermione flipped the page to scour the notes from the magical scans and tests, but found only incohesive results.

She turned the page to the second opinion from a German Healer that was utterly useless and suggested the patient was experiencing the physical manifestation of stress.

Recommendation: Rest.

And the third from a Japanese Healer with a lazy diagnosis of brainpox, which made no sense.

Recommendation: Further testing.

Finally, the fourth, which was from an American Healer who, after what appeared to be the largest battery of tests Hermione had ever seen performed on one patient, ventured outside of the realm of dark magic and violence-caused afflictions and landed on a diagnosis that fit.

Dementia.

Or rather, a magical form of it that manipulated the nervous system, which—according to the book next to the patient's folder—only sped up the progression of the disease. The form this particular patient had was typically fatal within eight years in Muggles, and only due to complications.

But in wizards?

Three years.

Perhaps four or five if the patient underwent an intensive care regime that focused on…

Hermione froze as realisation wrapped around her. "No."

Theo nodded like he'd expected her answer, not saying anything until he finished his tea; the quiet clank of the cup coming into contact with the saucer echoed in the room. "I'm more than willing to bargain."

"Five years for an assignment, Theo?" She scoffed at the absurdity of the request he hadn't verbally made. "How important is this patient?"

"To their family? Very."

Not the answer she was looking for. Hermione, who refused to let him play on her compassion, fixed him with a hard glare, ready to ask the question that was almost burning her brain. "And to you?"

That he didn't answer.

No, wouldn't.

Ah, so at least in some capacity, it was personal.

Theo didn't have any living relatives, but he did have family. One of his own creation. And even though Hermione knew enough about Theo to pick up on the clues he let slip, she only knew a select few members of his family.

Pansy wasn't sick; the witch was currently on the hunt for the perfect clawfoot tub for Hermione's bathroom. Blaise was in Egypt closing the deal on a rare artefact for a buyer (the less she knew the better) while his fiancé Padma was hard at work at St. Mungo's. Daphne, who worked with Blaise, took on lighter tasks as she prepared for the birth of her child with her husband, Dean. Goyle had lived in America with his wife and children for years.

Lastly, according to Harry, Malfoy had been insufferable while making quite the splash as the leader of the Ministry's Terrorist Task Force—a role in which he ironically terrorised everyone in both the Auror office and the Department of Magical Law Enforcement about the ongoing investigation into the Death Eater's base of operations.

What was she missing?

There was always one thing she missed.

Theo leaned back in his chair, his elbow on the arm, forefinger and thumb on his chin, kneading as if contemplating a particularly difficult chess move. "They are willing to triple your salary."

He was toying with her. Hermione scoffed. "I'm not going to dignify that with a response."

"It's part of the contract," he explained with an easy wave of his hand, allowing himself a brief glimpse at the large, but decorative clock on the wall next to his door. "There are additional benefits provided with this opportunity to make the long-term assignment easier for you. You'd have the ability to set your own hours, your own staff of two private Healers at your disposal to provide in-home care around the clock, and I am to relieve you of your role as a floater staff member."

"None of that is appealing."

Hermione already set her own hours while on assignment as her patients often required more than potions and rest. She liked doing things her own way, which was one of the many reasons she preferred to work alone. She took time to get to know her patients as people, not as a collection of diagnoses and reasons why they'd ended up in her care in the first place, and customised her plans to each person's individual needs and goals. When she needed some help, she could readily find it in a book. More importantly, Hermione liked working as a floater because it offered variety and experience. It kept her sharp and allowed her to broaden her knowledge on other areas of Healing that she hadn't specialised in.

"It's an excellent offer."

She gave him a noncommittal shrug. "Be that as it may, I don't like walking into anything blind. You're asking for years of my career and won't tell me anything worthwhile to assist in making that decision, so forgive me for being wary."

"I've provided their file."

Hermione chuckled dryly. "You've provided the bare minimum thinking it would pique my interest. And I'll admit, I am intrigued, but more about your role in all this than anything else. It's not like you to extend yourself this far. However, it's not enough to tempt me into accepting the assignment."

"They are willing to allow you to add your own terms to the contract."

Hermione's inquisitiveness almost always outweighed her reluctance. "Who is it?"

"That I can't tell you unless you agree."

"And I won't agree without knowing their identity." Hermione allowed her counterpoint to linger and continued to savour her tea. And then, with the same glacial pace as Theo, she finished it and placed the cup on the saucer. "It appears we're at an impasse and you're going to be late."

He fixed her with a challenging look that she more than gladly returned. "The board can—and will—wait." While his response wasn't incorrect, his tone gave Hermione more evidence regarding the importance of their conversation.

She allowed her mind to process the task at hand, attempting to comb through the more nuanced details of Theo's life in her search for answers. But she didn't get very far because Theo was as intelligent and observant as he was private and stubborn.

Hermione had learned, when she came to work for him, that he only shared what he wanted to—or was legally obligated to divulge. And though he often spoke to Hermione in confidence, Theo hadn't opened up to her enough for her to formulate a substantial theory. So, she tucked her suspicions away and got to the heart of the matter. "I won't concede."

"You wouldn't be Hermione Granger if you did."

It wasn't the first time she'd heard those words in that context, but where there was usually an undertone of either disdain or mild annoyance, Theo's only conveyed his admiration. Had she been anyone else, his words might have softened her to the idea of this mystery patient.

But, like he said, she was Hermione Granger.

"My answer is still no." And because she wasn't heartless, she suggested, "Susan might be able to assist or maybe Padma or even Roger Davies." They were the other Healers in their more specialised field; all three would be excellent choices for a long-term assignment like this. There were others, as well, that were just as capable and would likely be interested in the terms of the contract.

"They asked for the best. I asked the best." Theo shrugged as if it was that simple.

"Is that flattery I detect?"

"Merely a factual statement."

As her final answer, Hermione shut the file and sat the book on top of it, using her finger to push it back across the desk. His eyes were narrowed as he looked down then back up at her. When he sighed, she knew he was ready to be honest.

Good.

"There's always been a human element to your care that Roger cannot emulate, which puts you higher in my regards, despite his various accomplishments and accolades. Padma is busy planning a wedding, and as our Werewolf Specialist, I need her here to deal with the influx of new bites. Susan…" He trailed off momentarily to find the correct word. "Susan is too sensitive for this assignment."

"Too sensitive for a terminal case?" Hermione raised an eyebrow. "We're Healers, Theo. Death is something we have to face every day." She stared at him hard, ready to go to war for a witch she considered a friend. "It's something that we all have already had to stare into the eyes of once. We know how to take care of ourselves and each other when we lose a patient. I don't think you're giving her enough credit."

He shook his head. "That's not what I meant at all, Hermione." Theo was attempting to simmer the flames of her infamously protective nature. "I simply meant the patient is testy and stubborn and I need someone with the right constitution to challenge them, as they have a tendency to run roughshod over people. Not in a callous manner, but… they have a strong personality. Susan… doesn't, but you do."

Hermione found herself even less persuaded. "Thank you for the backhanded compliment, but—"

"Would you say yes if I arranged a meeting?"

She considered his proposal, then him, and the fact that he was giving her a guarded expression that almost seemed a bit hopeful. Hermione sighed and took back the folder and book. "I'll meet with them, but I maintain the right to say no after." And she likely would.

"That's reasonable, but…" Theo trailed off, using his finger to straighten the quill lying on his desk. "Just… keep an open mind."

That didn't inspire any confidence in their tentative deal, but Hermione considered herself a reasonable person. Sensible. "I can do that." They didn't shake on it, nor were there any binding formalities to their agreement. Only a mutual understanding and a look passed between them, followed by a slight nod of their heads."When should I expect them?"

"I will arrange the date and time and coordinate with you regarding your preferred consultation time. Thank you for agreeing to meet with them."

Hermione gave him a look. "I'm not making any promises."

"Duly noted."

The discussion was over and Hermione thought that her business was completed and she was free to go, but Theo didn't stand to leave, even though he had a full ten minutes before his meeting with the board.

Apparently, their conversation wasn't over.

"The Ministry has sent over an informal offer for you to join the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. They want me to discuss it with you." Theo picked up his teacup and took a sip. "This is me discussing it with you."

Hermione coughed delicately into her fist in an attempt to stifle a laugh at his outright defiance.

It wasn't the first time they'd had this particular conversation, and the reason the Ministry hadn't sent their offer directly to her was because she would have torn it to shreds and moved along with her day without a second thought.

She'd gone on a sabbatical after her incident with every intention of eventually returning; honestly, quitting hadn't been planned. It was a spur of the moment situation where Hermione found herself thinking about going back for the first time. Suddenly, she felt suffocated by the crushing weight of anxiety and responsibility.

When Hermione caught her breath, she knew she couldn't go back.

Not like that.

Not when she wanted to recapture the love that she had for working hard and feeling like she was accomplishing something important—making a difference. Even one that was small. She just wanted to recapture the love for life she once had before getting caught up in the push and pull of Ministry politics. Returning to a life where she had to split herself in every direction requested and be complicit in creating the illusion of peace the Wizengamot wanted to show the people… it wasn't appealing.

It just left her feeling empty and used.

Which was what had prompted her to write her resignation letter, part of what made her decide to apply to the Healer Academy, and definitely what led to her approaching Theo with her request to join the department that had been created to help combat the wizarding world's post-war mental health crisis.

"I'll write back and tell them you declined."

"You could also tell them to stop offering."

"I think we both know that they won't, just like we both know that this is merely an opportunity for you to get your second wind."

"I've been here six years. I think I can safely say I won't go back."

Theo continued drinking his tea and never responded.

And because he still made no attempts to move, Hermione asked, "What else?" with just a hint of suspicion. There had to be something else, some subject touchier than his mystery patient and the Ministry's job offer. There was a reason he'd strategically left it for last.

"There is also the matter of the threatening letters we've received."

"Ah."

Thirteen years had passed since the final battle, and the wizarding world was still not at peace, still dealing with Death Eaters, and still ripe for change.

Hermione knew that revolutions never took place when people were content and cared for, but when they felt disenfranchised and vulnerable. The Death Eaters had kept that thought in mind and believed that killing the famous Boy-Who-Lived-Twice and his allies under the Ministry's watch would scare them into striking the match that sparked that revolution.

The threatening letters, however, weren't just sent to her, Harry, and Ron. They extended out to the Weasleys, Malfoys, Luna, Neville, and even Theo's created family—who were all considered blood traitors.

Or literal traitors, as far as the Malfoys were concerned.

Right after the war, the letters would have been more effective in scaring her.

Now, they were an irritant at best.

"How was it delivered?" Hermione ran her finger along the wooden arm of her chair.

The letters usually came by owl or messenger, always to the hospital. She had worked out a spell years ago that essentially made people as unplottable as their homes, but everyone knew where she worked; her abrupt exit from her Ministry position seven years ago had been…rather public.

"This one was delivered this morning by an Imperiused Muggle who had been bitten—"

"Greyback?"

"Yes, but the Muggle tested negative for Lycanthropy, like most of the others." Which was a relief, but with a full moon soon, that was likely to change. Padma's patient count had been steadily on the rise for more than the last year. "He walked into the hospital as if the wards didn't exist." Hermione blinked at Theo in confusion. That move was a sharp deviation from the norm. The letters had always been petty threats, but the added bitten Muggle and security breach felt like every bit of the warning it was.

We can find you, no matter how well you hide.

Before she could ask, he continued, "The Terrorism Task Force interviewed him, the Obliviators modified his memories to include the fact that he likes his steak rare, and someone from Muggle Relations sent him on his way with a gift card for a steak dinner."

Nice to know, but Hermione had other questions. "The security breach?"

"We're looking into it." And that was it. Likely, it was all he could tell her. "In the meantime, in light of the breach, the Ministry wants to assign you a security detail for your protection."

It wasn't the first time the offer had been made, and it wouldn't be the last.

Theo looked serious. "I think you should consider the offer. There's a werewolf that's been roaming loose since his prison escape three years ago. He's out of control and has taken a liking to you."

"I'm aware." The liking wasn't new, but Hermione kept that to herself. He was out there. Waiting.

"It would be wise for you to consider the protection."

Hermione picked up her beaded bag, the file, and the book off his desk—she would need it for the patient's meeting. "Did Harry put you up to this?"

He lifted one brow in response to her question. It told her everything she needed to know.

Yes.

She shook her head fondly, chuckling to herself. Harry had become quite meddlesome since becoming a father, but they were at a point in their lives where they'd been best friends longer than not. He was one of the people Hermione considered a part of herself because of how well he knew her. And vice versa. Harry must have known she wouldn't be very welcoming considering he had made the suggestion and tried to circumvent her.

Nice try.

"I'm not scared of Greyback."

"You should at least be cautious." Theo's warning seemed to come from a place of concern. "He's rabid and he'll continue to get worse until he gets a taste of what he wants." He gave her a meaningful look. "There's only one thing you can do with a diseased animal…"

Put them down.

"I am cautious." She settled back in her seat. More cautious than he knew. Every now and then, she could hear a wolf howling at the moon near her home… and there were no wolves in her area. She knew, but she also knew her wards were impenetrable. "Greyback or not, I think by now you both should know that I am my own security.

One corner of Theo's mouth quirked. "I figured you would say that, but I had to try for liability purposes and to be able to honestly tell Potter that I gave it a shot. That's all I wanted to discuss with you today." He shrugged a little and stood to prepare for the meeting that he was now late for. Summoning his jacket with a nonverbal spell and putting it on, he adjusted the collar and sleeves with great care. Theo picked up a small stack of folders—likely the hospital's fiscal budget for next year—and cleared his throat with his fist covering his mouth. "The tea…"

Hermione smirked because sometimes Theo's quiet nature made him appear aloof, but his little signals gave him away. They had been friends for a few years now, and he still wasn't used to asking for what he wanted… when it actually pertained to himself. "I'll send some by way of Pansy."

"Thank you."

Hermione rose from her chair and was halfway to his door when she remembered something. "Why do you have a children's dictionary on your desk?"

Theo almost ignored her, he did that sometimes when her questions were too personal, but then he sighed. "It's a gift for my godson." That was… interesting. Also odd because not once had he ever mentioned a godson, but not unexpected because it was Theo. The man had a methodology behind every action.

"Oh, how old?" Hermione tried not to sound as curious as she naturally was.

Theo looked at her as if to say nice try. "Five as of roughly two months ago."

Interesting. Albus' birthday was next week. If magical, they would likely be schoolmates. Why hadn't Theo mentioned him before? Actually, Hermione had a better question. "So, you bought him a dictionary?" she deadpanned with a straight face and a large helping of sarcasm. "For fun? And everyone says I have no imagination."

Hermione had never seen Theo look as awkward as he did right then. "He doesn't play much and he enjoys the pictures. It will be a useful gift to him as his reading skills and comprehension increase."

Sensible and practical, of course, but when she extracted both of those things from his statement, the only question that remained was simple in its essence, but deep and challenging in its answer:

What sort of child doesn't play?

 


 

March 14, 2011

The kind of peace found in nature was irreplaceable, which was why Hermione loved the location of her home.

She experienced every aspect of nature just stepping out of her door. Or even just looking out her window. A colourful sunset and slow sunrise. Endless greenery and life. Hermione could breathe in air so fresh it felt like she could live forever, and listen to rain so loud she could hardly hear herself think.

There was a silent, picturesque beauty that couldn't be duplicated.

Winters that should have been exclusively dark and desolate were light. Springs were promising and transformative. Summers were full of growth, life, and hard work. And autumns were crisp, yet refreshing enough to enjoy a hot tea while bundled in a blanket. Blending during the transition between seasons was even better.

Like now.

Winter had begun its slow march towards spring in a series of steps, both forward and backwards, that started with unseasonable warmth last week. The chill that had returned in the last few days didn't inspire the confidence Hermione needed to undo the cloches over her row of root plants.

Maybe next week.

She looked around at row after row of covered vegetation planted together in groups. Three sets of plants on each row on two aisles, separated by a cobblestone walkway that led to the small greenhouse, which was larger on the inside, thanks to the only magic she used on her garden. Around the perimeter of her vegetable patch there was a variety of flowering bushes, all mulched to keep them safe from the cold.

All was silent and well… except for the young chickens in their coop that were celebrating their first couple of days outside her bathtub. And so was she.

If someone had told Hermione seven years ago that she would be an ex-employee of the Ministry, she would have laughed in their face and deemed them mad before running off to her next meeting. Had another person told her that she'd have an extensive vegetable patch with chickens and live with no neighbors for kilometres… she would have argued with them that she would never ever leave her central London flat.

But she had and here she was.

Life had a way of adjusting her priorities while simultaneously crumbling all of her expectations about how her plans would turn out until it was nothing but dust. Ash.

It had been hard to see initially, but now she knew of the beauty in the breakdown. The joy found in discovering her true self and restoring her strength, courage, and determination. It had been necessary, but Hermione had cleared away the rot and negative decay of her old life in order to create the space needed for new growth.

And she had grown.

Was still growing.

Hermione turned when her wards notified her of both the end of her quiet time and the arrival of someone she hadn't expected.

Daphne Greengrass-Thomas.

She was dressed in layers due to the chill in the air, but not enough to hide the fact that she was five months pregnant and generally irritated with everyone. Hermione didn't blink twice when she stormed out the door armed with a fork and a pie. She thought even less about her mood when Daphne sat on the magical swing with a huff and began aggressively eating while it slowly brought her to Hermione's side.

Recognition dawned when the swing stopped and she actually looked at said pie.

It was rhubarb.

"I made that for Pi Day." The serrated glare Hermione received in return told her that she would be making another, which made her sigh with resignation. "Did you at least bring me a fork?"

As it turned out, Daphne did. Apparently she was in the mood to share both the food (that wasn't hers to begin with) and her feelings—the latter still more of a shock than the former.

In the years since Daphne had eloped with Dean in a move no one had seen coming, she had never been one to share her innermost thoughts and had a tendency to internalise everything. But then her entire world flipped upside down when she found out about her pregnancy and lost her sister within the same week. The combination had shaken her to the very core, and she'd emerged from the aftermath as someone more inclined to share.

Which was where Hermione came in.

Probably due to needing an outlet or at the direction of her therapist, sometimes she would show up and sit on Hermione's swing. Sometimes she talked. Sometimes they sat in silence. She never knew why Daphne sought refuge there, but she had never turned her away. Today, she wanted to talk.

"I went to visit my nephew."

"Oh?" Hermione replied in a detached manner as she forked a piece of pie. It had come out just right. "And how did that go?" Admittedly, she knew very little about Daphne's contention with the Malfoys—in particular, Narcissa—but knew very well it had to do with her nephew, Scorpius.

"It went so well that I'm here to keep myself from going back and yelling at every adult Malfoy. Even Draco." Hermione internally winced, but chewed while nodding along. "As it stands, it was either yelling or an emergency appointment with my therapist. You just happened to be home, and as the most sensible and least compromised by the situation, I figured I would come here. We'll sit here in silence, you'll say something wise, and the urge to yell will pass."

"Is that all I need to do?" Hermione smirked at the blonde witch. "I should try that when Harry's whinging about Malfoy."

Daphne rolled her eyes. "You can try, but I doubt it'll work." She looked around and chuckled. "Not even the level of zen you've achieved out here with your herb garden, chickens, and isolation can ease the friction between those two."

Hermione hummed in agreement. The swing took them slightly higher, feet farther from the earth. They continued sharing the pie that was still warm from the charms, though Daphne ate most of it. Silence wasn't unusual with her, but the energy Daphne gave off didn't mix with the serenity surrounding them.

"You should probably relax before you talk about it," Hermione said after chewing on a piece of baked rhubarb. "I'm no doula, but I'm certain your stress affects the baby."

"That's why I'm here. I think we all agree that your house is like a refuge." Which made sense because everyone ended up at her home at some given point of the day or week. Even Theo had been known to come sit in her conservatory for tea.

Hermione rolled her shoulders. "Well, seeking refuge is how I ended up out here anyway."

The two witches exchanged meaningful looks. It wasn't long before Daphne was ready to speak about what had upset her. "I know that child-rearing is one of the few aspects of pureblood culture that is exclusively matriarchal, but every time I see Scorpius' rigid routine, every time I see him bow, every time I see him withdraw, I want to shake some sense into Narcissa and tell Draco that enough is enough."

Wisely, she kept her mouth shut. Listened.

"I know he won't." Daphne sighed. "He can't. Not now with everything happening. He has security for all the reasons he should be as paranoid as he is, but I'd like it if he did."

Hermione wondered if she missed something because the pieces weren't fitting together. "If he did what exactly?"

"Take the first step."

 


 

March 15, 2011

In some ways, the war ended the night Voldemort fell.

But in other ways, it didn't. It merely changed dimensions.

History had taught Hermione that while the death of one man could start a war, it couldn't end a war. The best way to end a conflict was through absolute victory; for them to push to the finish without letting up and to never let the enemy hide and recover. That should have happened when several Death Eaters had escaped and scattered following the Battle of Hogwarts.

But it didn't.

The Ministry didn't have the power or the numbers to round up all of the Death Eaters. So many witches and wizards were dead or missing, tortured or traumatised, too young to understand the enormity of the task before them and the grit needed to push themselves through the hard time and prevail.

Harry included.

Shacklebolt, as Interim Minister, had tried to organise a mission to strike the final blow, but during the post-war chaos, the newly-reformed Wizengamot had quietly stripped the position of majority of its power by invoking an obscure, old law, which gave them power above all during times of civil unrest for up to ten years unless ended through a vote. Essentially, it turned the government into an oligarchy.

A few to rule the many.

Kingsley had reasoned with them to restore the power of the position, but the last Minister had been responsible for heinous war crimes, an actual puppet to a homicidal tyrant. So when a vote was called to repeal the law, the required two-thirds hadn't been in favour of restoring the Minister's power before the ten year deadline.

Not just yet.

The move truly wouldn't have been an issue had they learned from their history and not made the same mistakes as their predecessors, had they remembered how damaging it was to ignore a problem rather than face it head on. Instead of offering their support during Shacklebolt's attempts at capturing the escaped Death Eaters, they overruled everything he tried to do, offering only a small bandage to fix the gaping hole in their world and doing nothing to cauterise the wound.

It really shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone when, rather than drop the Interim from his title two years after the war, Kingsley Shacklebolt had announced that he was retiring.

Effective immediately.

News of his exit spread far and wide, and criticism of the Ministry had quickly followed. The Wizengamot had asked him to reconsider, but his mind was already made up. Disillusioned after their many rejections and tired after losing so many of his friends, Kingsley never answered any of the media's questions about the circumstances surrounding his retirement. He did answer Hermione on his final day, when she'd stood in his empty office next to Harry and asked about his future plans.

She'd expected something cliched like travelling or visiting his family.

What she got instead was: "I've always wanted to be a beekeeper."

To her surprise, Kingsley bought a small patch of land and did just that.

Their paths hadn't crossed again until Hermione began experiencing root problems for the first time soon after she'd expanded her vegetable patch. Neville had given her a book on the benefits of honey that had a note with an address and an appointment time tucked inside.

From the book, Hermione had learned just how little she knew about honey—namely, that it was a solution to her problem. From Kingsley, she'd found a willing supplier.

His farm wasn't very large, a nice walk away from his house. He had a total of nine hives: two were new since her last visit in March and a third needed a lot of rehab before the honey would be viable. Hermione always brought money for the jars of honey he provided, but he never took it, so she started bringing him vegetables instead. Bartering.

That day, she brought onions, broccoli, rhubarb, garlic, morel mushrooms, and not to forget, his favourite—liquorice wands. Together, they sat outside, enjoying both their sweets and the tepid humidity that preceded the storm rolling in from the south. Hermione could see the wooden hive boxes in his growing apiary that was protected from wildlife by various deterrent wards whose slight shimmer she could make out if she squinted.

She kept her jacket on, but not buttoned, while she relaxed in his comfortable outdoor chair and put her feet on the stool in front of her. Kingsley still wore his purple beekeeping coverall, but had his veil up so he could enjoy his sweets.

"The bees are quiet today." Kingsley broke the peaceful silence between them. "I think the storm coming will be a bad one. You should take precautions with your garden."

"I already have."

He nodded, still looking in the distance at his bees. "Good."

Silence fell once more and Hermione took the time to enjoy the breeze, watching as the trees swayed in the distance. She never intended to stay long, but always did because it was nice there and she was rarely in a rush to get moving.

Kingsley was the sort of wizard who knew his purpose. He was no longer Minister, but was still a fighter, a guide, and a pillar of strength. He had such a confident and calming presence about him. Even when they had been fighting for their lives, high off the ground when they'd escaped from the Dursley's home with Harry, she had never once worried about whether they were going to make it.

She just knew.

"I'm thinking of starting a garden for my bees." Kingsley looked at her as he quirked his brow inquisitively. "Any ideas?"

Hermione had several and was mentally creating a low maintenance medicinal herb garden, going so far as to determine the height, width, and placement of the planters boxes. "I read in a book that thyme, apple mint, oregano, echinacea, borage, chamomile, nasturtium, and a few others are good for keeping disease and other insects away from your bees. You'll need flowers, as well."

At the recommendation, her thoughts expanded.

"It would need to be large with plenty of pollen producing plants: annuals and perennials mixed in with the herbs." A brief look of confusion passed, which made her chuckle. He didn't know much about flowers. "Also, unless you have a love for gardening that I'm not privy to, it will need to be self-sufficient."

"I'd like that." Kingsley had a thoughtful look on his face, taking another bite of his liquorice wand. "I trust your judgment."

She felt honoured by his faith in her, and looked forward to helping him make his vision a reality, but she had limitations. "It's an extensive project. Far too large for a single person. I can ask Neville to help. He has several apprentices that would be interested in a project like this. For you."

There were still plenty of people out there who wanted to live in the world that he had proposed while he was Interim Minister, a world that the Wizengamot had rejected in favour of their own.

While Kingsley had been Interim, they had given him just enough support so no one could accuse them of outright neglecting the very real threat of Death Eaters after Voldemort's demise, but nothing more. And instead of snuffing out the enduring enemy of peace, the Wizengamot decided that the Ministry should focus its efforts on recovery and restoration in an attempt at getting things back to normal as soon as possible.

In theory, it had been a good idea. Society had been shattered into so many tiny fragments that it was hard to tell what it once had been—long before either war.

In practice, not so much.

They hadn't accounted for the societal changes brought about by war. It would truly take generations to fix the mess that had been made in such a short amount of time. They could pass as many laws as they wanted to assist with rebuilding, but they couldn't fix what the people had gone through.

Also, there had been the small, very true thing about those in the Wizengamot…

They weren't elected by the people they promised to protect, acquiring their seats in a variety of means, including inheritance. They were also human, flawed, and had a different incentive for governance. One that was ultimately based on a desire to rebuild their own lives and businesses under the guise of fixing society…

For their own greater good.

And that hadn't changed much over the years.

"How is Harry doing?" Kingsley gave her a meaningful look. Because Hermione knew one of his only regrets in quitting was leaving their friend behind. "He seemed stressed the last time he was here."

She took a bite of her liquorice wand and chewed. "He's… Harry." She smiled with a fond shake of her head. "Still trying to do the right thing against all odds." And they were stacked pretty high against him.

Hermione helped whenever she could, but ultimately, he had to work with what they'd given him. Which wasn't much: just an underfunded department of weary Aurors, a task to round up all the Death Eaters, and the responsibility to partner with the Terrorism Task Force whose leadership had been questionable at best until about a year and a half ago.

"How are his efforts with the Death Eaters?"

"About the same as ever," Hermione answered honestly. "But they've managed to get someone on the inside and there's a raid being planned, so I hope something pans out before Harry and Malfoy kill each other."

Kingsley made a small noise from the back of his throat, looking out in the distance at the approaching storm clouds. "I'm still trying to make sense of the reasoning behind that particular decision." As was she, but it wasn't her business. "However, Draco Malfoy did pass Auror training in France and was responsible for capturing Rookwood there and shutting down that particular terror cell. He crippled them."

Well, that was… true.

Hermione swallowed her candy. "It's the least he could do. He used to be one."

No judgment, just a statement of fact that Kingsley gave a contemplative hum to in response.

"From the accounts I've heard and the memories I've seen, it wasn't exactly by choice. It might have started that way, because of what happened to his father and the ruination of his family's name, but it definitely didn't end that way." He stared at his partly eaten liquorice wand, talking more to himself than her. "He had no idea what he was in for."

That she couldn't deny—the haunted and defeated look on his face when he'd hesitated to identify them at Malfoy Manor had stuck in her mind. Well, that was until the Cruciatus Curse smothered all those thoughts.

"I suspect it is quite lonely to be Draco Malfoy right now. Or at any point in his life. He's been fighting to save the future, to atone for his mistakes, but no one—not even you—can see beyond his past."

Which was a sobering thought. It humbled her and brought about a tightening in her chest and a queasy feeling in her belly.

Guilt.

In her defence, Hermione hadn't thought about it—or him—again until his trial.

She hadn't even seen him since, only heard about him in periodic whispers over the years as her circle grew to include some of his oldest and closest friends. It was only then that someone else—Pansy or Daphne—mentioned him by name. But they never said much, often, or around her. At least not on purpose. They were fiercely protective of him. Hermione had learned that the hard way early on with Daphne. And then more recently with Pansy. Even in the last three months, Theo would give her a disapproving look whenever she voiced an unfavourable opinion of Malfoy as it pertained to his new working relationship with Harry.

Which was something that had left her incredulously blinking when the news had broken.

The world hadn't decided if Draco Malfoy was a hero, villain, or a little of both.

In France, he had been viewed as an anti-hero of sorts. Not seen much in the public, but his actions spoke louder. They didn't know much about either Wizarding War—seeing it as a British problem until the threat of the Death Eaters knocked on their door six years after the war. It had been then, when Draco Malfoy, who had secretly become an Auror, single-handedly organised the French Ministry's fight against them, driving them back where they had come from.

News of his successes and the captures of high ranking Death Eaters reached her ears via the Prophet. And Harry. The media had initially been flummoxed, but then redemption stories started sprouting here and there in the subsequent years. Nothing memorable or even outside the shadow of his more famous mother, but when he returned last year in July and took over as the Head of the Terrorism Task Force, the media went wild.

And when they caught wind that, with Harry's promotion to Head of the Auror's office last month, the old enemies would now be working together… Harry hated the exposure that it brought almost as much as he hated working with Draco Malfoy, who he claimed was the bane of his existence.

Just like old times.

"Regardless," Kingsley's calm voice cut through the silence, "I would still pay good money to see their strategy meetings." And with another chuckle, he continued enjoying his candy.

Hermione scoffed. "I can safely say everyone likes Harry over Malfoy."

Kingsley gave her a look. "It's not his job to be liked, Hermione. It's his job to coordinate with Harry to put an end to the Death Eaters. It's not an easy job, even if he had the tools he needed, because while people respect him in public, they spit on his name in private. Perplexing, given the universal love for his mother. Furthermore, the enemy wants to personally make an example out of him and his family. Harry should be able to empathise. Their children receive the same threats."

With some hesitancy, she acknowledged that perhaps he might have a point.

However, at the same time, it sometimes amazed her that thirteen years later, they were still talking about Death Eaters.

It had a lot to do with the Wizengamot's inaction, and how it led to the Death Eaters managing to regroup, rallying behind the Lestrange brothers and other survivors of Voldemort's inner circle. Attacks and murders started again not long after the final battle, disorganised initially, but as time passed and they continued to evade capture or death, their confidence and recklessness had grown. Azkaban escapes became a common occurrence again once the Dementors had been banished.

The Ministry insisted they had full control of the situation and some people, desperate to believe in something after so much misery, believed them. And when the skirmishes between the partly inexperienced Aurors and the Death Eaters began to increase in both frequency and severity, the Ministry started suppressing the news. Just like before.

However, unlike before, the journalists were bolder.

And just when the cries of the people rose to a crescendo, all hell broke loose at Malfoy Manor on the first Christmas after the Battle of Hogwarts. Lucius Malfoy had just enough time to call in the Aurors before he died protecting his family. The ensuing battle had been such a deadly affair that once the dust settled and everyone retreated, everything stopped.

The weakened Death Eaters retreated and went into hiding. And again, the opportunity for the Aurors to give chase had come. Shacklebolt had begged the Wizengamot's permission to hunt them down and snuff them out once and for all, but was overruled in favour of keeping guard of the peace they had obtained in their victory.

It took one year after the battle at Malfoy Manor for the attacks to start again. That time, the Wizengamot finally decided to listen to Shacklebolt, who had already quit, and created a task force to investigate the whereabouts of Death Eaters and coordinate with the Auror Department to shut each of them down. The same task force Draco Malfoy now led.

In Hermione's opinion, the action came too late.

The Death Eaters were more organised than ever, their violence louder even in the silence. Their message of hate remained the same: they sought to continue Voldemort's mission of protecting the purity of blood from those deemed unworthy.

Bigotry was, after all, still the silent poison of the wizarding world.

But as the years passed, the Death Eaters had gotten smarter, shifting their missives to include anti-Ministry rhetoric, which drew interest from those who had been neutral during the war and still lost everything. Those that, despite the economic boom after the war and the restoration of society, no longer trusted the Ministry.

And there were plenty.

Time could heal some wounds, but not all. Memories were not so easily forgotten, even through the passage of time. Memories were unique; the more powerful they were, the harder they imprinted themselves on someone's souls. And the memories of the Ministry's past failings were etched next to the names of those they had lost, those who were broken, and those who were still struggling.

Kingsley cleared his throat. "A little bird told me that they offered you a position to lead the Investigation Department." It was still funny how much Kingsley knew about the going ons at the Ministry. Most times he knew more than she did. Hermione found herself interested to know the identity of his source. "It seems they are trying to fast track you up the Magical Law Enforcement ladder."

So that had been the position they were offering?

Hermione scoffed. "I never looked. I just declined." At that, Kingsley chuckled, shaking his head, humoured by the stubbornness he knew all too well. She rolled her eyes with a small smile on her face. "I was only just beginning to make the transition between the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures and into Magical Law Enforcement when I quit. Not only am I not qualified, I'm also not interested."

Kingsley side-eyed her in that way of his. "I'm fairly certain you're more qualified than anyone in that department. You don't need experience to lead, Hermione. I think the current state of the Ministry can attest to that."

"You could always go back to change that." She levelled him with a challenging look of her own as the suggestion she had only ever thought about in the privacy of her own mind was laid out before she could rein it back in. "There are people who still support you. I still support you. Harry does, too. You could restore order. Percy is looking up old laws that would restore power to the Minister. There's always a way."

Initially, he didn't respond, finishing the last bit of his liquorice quill. "I quite like my bees."

"Who says you can't have both?"

Kingsley considered her words. "What about you, Hermione?"

"What about me?"

"You would make an excellent Minister for Magic one day, should you ever decide to return. I've always thought that about you, and it has very little to do with your brilliance. It's always been about your moral code, your compassion, and your determination to make things right." He paused as if choosing his words wisely. "I understand your reasons for leaving, just as you have always been understanding of mine…"

She glanced at him sceptically. "I feel there is a 'but' coming."

Kingsley laughed to himself, shoulders shaking with humour. "Nothing ever gets past you, does it? Your observation skills are as keen as ever." He shook his head, as if answering his own question. "I do wonder if your hesitance to return has little to do with the powers that be and more to do with fear of… perhaps a second failure?"

When she said nothing in response, only stared out in the distance, listening, he reached over and tapped the arm of her chair with his large hand in an act of attempted comfort.

"It's okay to be afraid, Hermione. You know what isn't okay? Letting that fear stop you."

Hermione reflected on his words for several long minutes. "I don't consider my time at the Ministry—or even what happened that led me to quit—as any sort of failure. I have zero regrets, both about leaving or failing to return. I think what happened gave me the perspective I needed to sort my priorities and acknowledge the truth that I'm just as human as anyone else. It allowed me to set my own course and help people who need it along the way, which is what I do now at the hospital."

"Have you figured out where you're going yet?"

She thought about her current commitments, ruminating over the offer she hadn't humoured and the case Theo seemed so keen on her accepting. For the first time in longer than she could recall, Hermione had no idea where she was going.

"No, but if I'm lucky, maybe I'll know where I'm going when I get there."

 

Everything must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.
Mary Shelley