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Out of Ashes

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“Minister, you cannot be serious!” Hermione Granger startled at how shrill her voice rang through the room. Kingsley Shacklebolt had called her to his office to discuss a new and, according to his own words, exciting opportunity. While Hermione refrained from criticizing authority figures, calling this delusional suggestion an opportunity indicated that the minster had been hexed. Maybe confounded? He didn’t seem confused otherwise.

“Of course!”

“How did…who decided this?”

“No one. Remember when you suggested the ministry should apply some of that Muggles scientific method to its operations?”

“Yes, but I fail to see how—”

“It’s randomized!”

Hermione’s eyebrows rose. “What?”

“Such a decision would have been difficult, given the sensitive nature of the topic, and most people wouldn’t volunteer for such an assignment, not to mention that they’d usually consider them either a reward or a punishment, but your idea about that Muggle method, it solved all our problems.” His dark eyes shone with excitement.

“I’m not sure I follow,” Hermione said.

“No one is keen on mentoring the pureblood families who have stood by…Voldemort, and as I said, they’d see it as a reprimand if I were to tell them their services are needed here.”

“Understandably so,” Hermione grumbled.

“Yes, so we randomized these assignments. The Department of Finance and Prevention of Finagles developed a spell for it. No one chose this, so no one can complain.” He cleared his throat at Hermione’s blank stare. “Well, I understand your reluctance, but this is a tremendous opportunity for you.”

“How is being assigned Narcissa Malfoy’s mentor an opportunity?” Hermione struggled to keep her voice even.

“Black. Narcissa Black. Her divorce was finalized a few months ago.”

“I don’t see how that changes anything. She played host to Voldemort and she let her…” Hermione’s jaw tightened, and her hands clenched in her lap.

“I know, but she has changed. Healer Trunblood’s assessment of her work and attitude during the first year of her community service at St. Mungo’s is full of praises. There was no conflict, and she has a surprisingly tender bedside manner. Who’d have thought.” Shacklebolt laughed.

“If things ran so smoothly at St. Mungo’s, why doesn’t she finish her community service there?”

“All Voldemort sympathizers who were sentenced to community service may choose from several different departments, and they also decide if they wish to work with two or four departments over their two-year community service sentence.”

“How nice,” Hermione muttered.

“We need to reintegrate them into the community, so it makes sense to offer a semblance of choice…free will is important.”

Hermione dropped her head and inhaled sharply. She’d joined the newly created Department for the Integration of Muggle-born Witches and Wizards after finishing her NEWTS in an accelerated owl-post program that was offered to everyone who’d missed the seventh year due to the war.

She’d figured education and interaction would help, ease the distance between the two communities and make the integration of Muggle-borns and their families easier. Hermione wanted to promote tolerance and openness, preventing another festering of hatred and division. This fit well with the studies she’d read about how contact with unfamiliar groups lowered negative attitudes toward that population since one could no longer rely on stereotypes. She wanted to help and felt her background and experiences offered a unique perspective on this. But now this had all turned around on her.

Hermione still had nightmares. They’d lessened, but everything remained so close. They were only a few months away from the second anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts. How was she going to do this? Face the steely blue-eyed witch whose gaze had locked on her when Bellatrix had straddled her and… She’d let her sister torture… Hermione swallowed hard and her hand found her arm, covering the hateful words etched into her skin. She didn’t understand back then, nor could she explain now what had drawn her gaze to Narcissa, who had stood there, rigid, never shifting, expressionless, yet her eyes…

“Hermione, are you still listening?” Shacklebolt asked, concern coloring the deep timbre of his voice.

“I’m sorry, minster,” Hermione said and shook her head.

“Kingsley,” he said. “I’m asking too much of you. Your history is…complicated and—”

Hermione released a humorless chuckle. “That’s one way of putting it.” She cleared her throat. “What exactly would this entail? I must admit I have paid little attention to this program.”

“I understand. Let me walk you through, here” he handed her a sepia colored parchment scroll. “This contains information on the entire schedule and your role. We can set up a first meeting between you two and you can decide, after, if…if you are willing to do this. I still believe this will be a splendid opportunity for you, but I’ll leave it up to you. You may reject this assignment without consequences.”

“Thank you, Kingsley. I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” he said and watched her exit his office.

***

“Salazar’s snakes,” Narcissa Black slumped back against her chair, the piece of parchment she’d just read still clasped in her hand. “Out of all the people in the ministry. I should have chosen another Department,” she grumbled into the empty study of Malfoy manor.

While the divorce from Lucius had been finalized not too long ago, with him in Azkaban and Draco’s completing his internship at the Wizengamot, she’d remained at the manor. She’d planned to stay here until her community service ended. By then, Lucius would be back from Azkaban and she didn’t relish sharing a house with him.

Despite her original plan, she contemplated leaving the manor earlier, but she hadn’t decided where to live instead, even though her London townhouse seemed the only logical option. The Black estate stirred memories she’d rather not revisit, and the same held true for her current domicile. Narcissa hadn’t set foot into the drawing room since that night, since she’d stood by and watched, allowing her sister to torture a child.

She closed her eyes and heaved a heavy sigh, refusing to go there, not during the day at least, given that her subconscious dragged her there most nights. Out of all the things she’d experienced during both wars, that moment, and the fearful, wide brown eyes pleading with her was seared into her memory, etched into her mind like those Muggle metal sculptures she’d seen in the windows of Muggle art stores.

Even with most of her hours spent at St. Mungo’s or visiting her son and his delightful fiancée Astoria, this place continued to haunt her. Rightfully so, and while she was drowning in guilt, self-flagellation wasn’t in her nature. Something had to change.

The memory of having the Dark Lord live with them for months, his rancid stench all around, soaking up the chill his presence injected into any room, along with his sibilant voice drenched in hatred and self-grandeur, still sent shivers of fear down her spine. Shallow breaths bled from her lips while pictures of the last several years coursed through her mind and sweat pooled at her lower back as her vision blurred. This is why she didn’t revisit that time; the flood of images and emotions left her dizzy and she wished, not for the first time, the power to occlude her own mind from herself. There were potions, but…

Narcissa gritted her teeth. Working with Muggle-borns would not only show broader society that she’d changed and aid in paving her way out of her current pariah status, it also seemed the right place to try to make amends, to atone for the hateful thoughts and ideas that she’d held for most of her life.

As if this wasn’t hard enough, now she was assigned Hermione Granger as her mentor, and Shacklebot insisted on meeting them for a cup of tea to sort out any potential issues. What issues? That she stood by motionless during what were undoubtedly the worst eight minutes of Ms. Granger’s life? That the girl’s screams had frozen her solid onto the ground? That she still heard those cries in her dreams most nights? That Ms. Granger, likely and rightfully, abhorred her mentee? Those issues? Yes, let’s have a cup of tea. That should solve it.

***

“English Breakfast?” Kingsley offered to fill both witches’ cups with his red polka-dotted enchanted tea pot.

“Yes, please,” Narcissa said, her voice ringing as cold and collected as Hermione remembered, and she suppressed a shudder. The blonde witch sat prim and proper, with a straight back inches away from the backrest of her chair. Her long hair up in a traditional chignon bun with no strand out of place, while her surely expensive and finely tailored forest green robes gave her a sophisticated and intimidating appearance.

“Sure, thank you,” Hermione rushed out, sticking her hands under her lap while her gaze flickered across the room. Did the minister always have such a comfortable sitting room or is this something Kingsley had magicked for their meeting?

“You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you both were able to join me. Now, let’s get to business. Ms. Black, I’ve told Ms. Granger about your excellent tenure at St. Mungo’s and that we’re happy you’ve chosen the new Muggle-born Department for your second year of community service.”

Narcissa stayed silent, as unmoving as ever.

“Right,” Hermione said. “So, uh…why did you… you must admit, it’s an unexpected choice for you to pick the IMWW Department.”

Narcissa gazed at Hermione stoically and Hermione had to force herself to hold her gaze. Her azure eyes shone almost gray today, and they lacked the disdain she’d remembered. Or Narcissa had gotten better at hiding it? Now that her side had lost, again, and she needed to play nice? Oh, if Harry only hadn’t insisted on testifying on her behalf. Sodding bleeding heart.

“It might appear to be an odd choice, given my…history with Muggle-borns, but I already know all there is to know about our community. I… The prospect of learning more about Muggles and their struggles to adjust to our world seemed beneficial.”

“Beneficial for what?” Hermione shot back, not trusting a benign motive from a Malfoy, Black. Whatever. She had to refrain from rolling her eyes at herself.

“Nothing nefarious. I’m interested in…expanding my horizons,” Narcissa said and narrowed her eyes. “Even though I am sure you’ll find that hard to imagine.”

“Now, now, ladies. Let’s suspend all…suspicion and hard feelings. The past is over and done with, correct? We need to move on,” Kingsley said and drank a sip from his tea, choking the moment both witches glared at him.

“Minister, you will find that some pasts are incredibly active and stubborn specters clawing their talons into your flesh,” Narcissa said and her gaze flashed to Hermione before returning to her own teacup.

“How morbid,” Kingsley said. “But I suppose it makes sense, given the history between the two of you.” He sighed. “Ms. Black, do you wish to complete your community service in a different Department?”

“No,” the blonde witch said curtly.

“I see. Do you object to Ms. Granger as your mentor?”

“No,” Narcissa said. “Maybe you should address this question to Ms. Granger?”

Hermione raised her chin. “Why? Do you think I can’t handle you?”

“No, my dear. Of course not. But I’m loath to force my presence on you. I…I do not wish to cause you pain.”

“Right. Unlike your sister,” Hermione spat.

Narcissa flinched for a second before raising her head and holding Hermione’s gaze. “That is correct.”

Hermione didn’t react.

“Ms. Granger, I want to—”

“No. Don’t. Don’t say it,” Hermione ground out.

“Maybe this really isn’t such a good idea. I’ll ask the FPF Department to re-do their spell and find another match for you, Ms. Black,” Kingsley said.

Both witched ignored him while holding eye contact.

Hermione wasn’t sure what Black was up to, but she’d figure it out. There was no way she was into this to learn about Muggle-borns and their struggle. To expand her horizons? Please. She’d delighted in her disdain for Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards. No, she was up to something, and she was just too Slytherin to show her cards, but Hermione would bide her time and watch her before exposing her for all to see. People didn’t change, not like this.

“It’s fine, minister. There’s no need for it. Since Ms. Black doesn’t object to this assignment, we will make it work.”

Narcissa narrowed her eyes. “I agree.”

Hermione offered a grim nod to both Kingsley and Narcissa and rose. “I’m afraid I have another appointment. If you excuse me. I’ll owl you my new schedule. We can meet on Monday morning in my office here at the ministry and go over the plan for the week. Let’s say at nine?”

“That sounds acceptable,” Narcissa said.

“Excellent,” Kingsley said and rose. “Thank you, both.”

***

On Sunday, Hermione met with Harry and Ron at Andromeda’s house. She had wanted to discuss her recent assignment with them, but Harry had a playdate with his godson, so they met at Andromeda’s place. Tonks was out on a task but had said she’d try to join them later. Hermione hesitated at first, not sure about mentioning Narcissa in the presence of her older sister, but her desire to talk about this won.

Harry grinned and bounced a squealing Teddy on his lap when Andromeda handed them all tea and cake.

“It’s so good to see you three together again. I love having you over,” she said smiling and took a sip of tea.

“Thanks for having us,” Hermione said.

“What did you wanna talk about?” Ron mumbled between bites of his cake.

Hermione frowned at him.

“What?”

Harry laughed. “You could finish chewing first. I’m sure your mother taught you that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ron waved them off. “You sounded frazzled.”

“I sent you an owl. How do you sound frazzled in a letter?” Hermione asked.

“I dunno,” Ron said and shrugged his shoulders. “You just did.”

“Do you need me to give you some time to talk alone?” Andromeda asked.

“No, thank you. I mean, you might want to leave on your own once you realize what this is about, and that’s of course up to you and all, but your opinion on this will be more accurate and—”

“Hermione, breathe,” Harry said while both Andromeda and Ron stared unblinkingly at her.

She ducked her head and folded her hands on her lap. This was harder than she’d expected. They were her best friends, and Andromeda had become almost like a favorite aunt to them since the war ended, yet…talking about this meant they’d bring up the drawing room, and she didn’t… “Have you heard of the community program for Voldemort sympathizers?”

They all nodded but remained silent.

“Kingsley said the FPF Department randomly selected me to be Narcissa M…uh, Black’s mentor for a year.”

“What?” Ron said and coughed, almost choking on his cake.

“I’m glad her divorce went through,” Harry said, blowing raspberries at a giggling Teddy.

“Mate, that’s all you gotta say?” Ron asked.

“Well, I am. She was unhappy, and, you do remember she saved my life and helped us beat Voldemort. Without her—”

“Yes, yes,” Hermione said while Ron rolled his eyes.

“I take it you’re not comfortable with this assignment?” Andromeda asked.

“Yes, no. She’s up to something.”

Andromeda leaned forward in her chair. “What do you mean?”

“I asked her why she’d choose to work with Muggle-borns. She said she wants to broaden her horizons. Can you believe that? What does she care about them? She hates Muggles and—”

“That’s not true,” Andromeda said.

“What?” Hermione asked.

“Or at least I have my doubts. We were raised to hate them, or to look down on Muggles. Our parents were even more extreme than the Malfoys when it came to blood purity. My sisters and I usually repeated what they wanted to hear because that’s how you stayed out of trouble. Narcissa was always very tender and kind-hearted with an innate curiosity for everything.”

“You are talking about Lucius Malfoy’s wife, right?” Ron asked.

“Ex-wife,” Hermione corrected without taking her gaze of Andromeda.

“They, Bella and Narcissa, eventually accepted my parents’ ideas, but if…she worked at St. Mungo’s for a year, and if she now chooses to work to help Muggle-borns, she must have changed her views.”

“What if it’s all a trick?” Hermione asked.

“For what?” Ron chuckled which earned him a dark look from Hermione. “Oy. Stop glaring at me. I don’t like anyone with the last name Malfoy, and divorce or not, she’ll always be a Malfoy to me. I’m not gonna trust them either, but what scheme could she have that requires her to help Muggle-borns? Is she gonna hex the bread warmer?”

“Toaster,” Harry and Hermione corrected at the same time.

“That’s hardly the point,” Ron said.

“He’s right,” Harry said. “She’s changed for the better.”

“That’s because you always see the best in people!” Hermione snapped and rose before pacing behind the couch.

“Was that an insult?” Harry muttered to Ron who shoved another piece of cake in his mouth.

“If you’re that uncomfortable being her mentor, I am sure you can ask for a different assignment,” Andromeda said.

“Kingsley offered me an out already,” Hermione said, still pacing.

“Why didn’t you take it?” Harry asked, trying to prevent Teddy from tearing out more of his hair.

“What? With her right there? Caving because I’m scared of a pureblood? No, thank you,” Hermione huffed.

“You’re being surprisingly irrational,” Harry said before Teddy knocked his glasses off his face. “No, Teddy, be careful.”

“I’m the irrational one here? I’m pointing out that Narcissa Black might be up to something and you’re all dismissing me?”

“It’s understandable that you have…issues with Narcissa, given what happened to you at Malfoy manor,” Andromeda started.

“It’s not about that.” Hermione sighed and plopped back on the couch. “I…I just don’t trust her, and how could I be a mentor to someone I don’t trust? Won’t this backfire?”

“It could, which is why I suggested you ask for a different assignment. However, it could also be a chance to deal with your past. You could look at this as an opportunity and try to work on your…”

“Biases? Kingsley said something similar,” Hermione grumbled.

“You could try it. See how things are between you and then decide.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

“No one should force this on you. If you’re not comfortable, don’t do it,” Harry said.

“Comfort is overrated,” Ron said, grabbing the last slice of cake form the plate.

Both Hermione and Harry stared at him.

“What?”

“You’re saying comfort is overrated?” Hermione laughed. “That’s rich.”

“Hey! I’m not talking about a warm bed or food. You’re always ready to learn stuff, and you keep telling us to be open and not judge things right away,” he said. “Give it a try, Ronald, you might like it!”

“I don’t sound like that,” Hermione said but couldn’t hold back a laugh.

“Comfort is for the intellectually lazy,” Harry added.

“Stop it,” Hermione said and threw a pillow at Ron.

“Hey! He said that.”

“Yes, but he’s holding Teddy,” Hermione said and grinned at her friends. She was glad she talked to them about this. Maybe they were right. Maybe she was overreacting, and it might be worthwhile to solve the riddle of one Narcissa Black and her new and benevolent outlook on life.

***

Monday came too early, and having overslept, Hermione was running late to her meeting with Narcissa. As she’d both suspected and feared, the other witch was waiting outside her office. She stood tall, as put together as always, and with an air of calm confidence around her that frazzled Hermione’s nerves even more.

“I apologize, Ms. Black,” Hermione rushed out. “I overslept,” she added, feeling her cheeks heat up.

“No worries, Ms. Granger. It happens to the best of us.” She stepped to the side to allow Hermione to open her office. “Long night?”

Hermione almost dropped her bag. “Huh? What?”

“Did you have long night?” Narcissa followed Hermione and gazed at her expectantly.

“Uh, no. We…we had visited An…a friend yesterday for tea. Did you have a pleasant weekend?” Hermione asked, her voice squeaking. What was going on? She couldn’t let Narcissa rattle her like this.

“It was acceptable.”

Silence spread and neither witch shifted a muscle until Hermione cleared her throat. “Please, sit down.” She gestured toward the seat in front of her desk and rushed to sit down in her chair. Once she sat down, several memos zoomed in, trying to get her attention. Hermione cast a quick arresto momentum on them.

“Thank you,” Narcissa said, a slight smile tugging at her lips.

“They are usually not that aggressive.”

“Don’t mind me. Attend to your messages. It might be important.”

“That’s fine. They’d also screech if they’re urgent,” Hermione said.

“Efficient,” Narcissa said. “Have you thought some more about being assigned my mentor at the IMWW Department?”

“I have. I…I’m not going to lie. This isn’t easy for me. Our history is difficult and…” Hermione said, biting her lower lip.

“I understand, but I didn’t choose this either,” Narcissa said.

“But you did?”

“I chose the Department because I owe certain debts and they are best paid in this manner, but I didn’t choose you as my mentor,” Narcissa said, and Hermione heard the silent ‘and I never would have chosen you’ hang in the air. Not that she’d have chosen Narcissa, but she still felt a slight sting at the perceived rejection.

“All right. I do wish to make this work, or at least, let’s see if we can work together. Join me on my case tomorrow and we’ll call it a trial run. After we’re done, we revisit this conversation and see if we want to continue. That is, if that is what you prefer?”

“I am still here, Ms. Granger, aren’t I?”

Hermione blinked rapidly at being exposed twice to a semi-smile in a short amount of time. She’d never expected the former Malfoy matriarch capable of smiling, or at least, of smiling with anything but disdain.

“True. OK, let me write down the address for tomorrow. It’s a new family that I haven’t met yet. The Richards. They have twin girls and one of them received a Hogwarts letter. We will meet with them and talk, see if they have questions, how they’re adjusting, and if we can be of service,” Hermione said before handing a piece of parchment to Narcissa.

“Thank you. That sounds like a decent proposal.”

“As opposed to an indecent one?” Hermione said and her eyes widened the moment the words she’d just uttered registered with her brain. Why would she say something like that?

Narcissa laughed. “And people say you’re the strait-laced good girl of the Golden Trio.”

“I don’t…I apologize. I don’t know what came over me,” Hermione stuttered.

“No need,” Narcissa said and rose. “What time will we meet tomorrow?”

“Ten. Is that all right?”

“Of course. I shall see you tomorrow, Ms. Granger. Have a lovely day.”

“You, too,” Hermione said and the moment Narcissa left her office, she dropped her head against her desk with a resounding thud.