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A Question of Value

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The owl arrives on a Thursday morning in late April. Hermione is in Dover with Harry and Ron when she sees the unfamiliar brown owl. The boys are bathing in the river near their campsite. She can hear them splashing and catches brief snorts of laughter occasionally. The laughter never lasts on. She doesn’t have to be with them to know that Harry looks guilty and Ron runs his fingers through his hair when they realize they’re laughing. She’s seen it often enough in the last nine months, after all.

When she sees the bird approach, she’s instantly on guard. They don’t receive communication in the traditional sense of the word now, not since their search began. There is a reason she spent most of last June studying advanced Charms texts to learn how to conceal them, to protect them, and to make them untraceable. The very fact that an owl has found them, somehow, worries her.

The bird gets closer and she points her wand at it, ready to strike if necessary. For a brief moment, she considers killing it just in case it’s a danger, but, in the end, she can’t bring herself to do so. It offers her its foot, and she sees her name written neatly across the scroll of parchment tied precisely with a small blue ribbon. Before she takes it, she casts several charms to ensure that it’s not cursed, hexed, or some sort of portkey.

Once she’s certain it’s safe, she takes the scroll and unrolls it to read. The letter is brief, the handwriting firm and leaning slightly to the right, and the signature shocking.

Miss Granger,

Please meet me in the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, tonight at ten. Come alone and do not tell anyone about our meeting.

Cordially,

Percy I. Weasley

The very idea that Percy Weasley has sent her an owl is surprising enough, though she must admit that he’s one of the few who could probably manage to break the charms she’s cast, but the mention of a meeting and her going alone is ridiculously dramatic. It sounds as if he’s read too many spy novels, which she knows isn’t possible since he’s not the type. However, the fact that he spoke so sparsely and got straight to the point, something she doesn’t often associate with him, makes her take the owl more seriously.

Before she can analyze it much further, the boys return from their bath. She hears them on the path and quickly sends the owl on its way with a hastily scrawled ‘Yes’ on a corner of the parchment she received. The letter from Percy is rolled up and hidden before Harry and Ron reach her. By the time they stumble into the clearing, she has a map out and is going over their route for the day.

*****

Hermione doesn’t like to lie to the boys. She doesn’t like lying, in general, at all, but especially not to Harry and Ron. She spends the entire day as they make their way up the coastline worrying about the letter that seems to be burning a hole in the pocket of her denims. She tries to focus because this search is important. Their latest research has shown that Voldemort was in the Dover area in 1955 and signs point to one of the horcruxes being left here.

The problem is that they still have no idea what he used as horcruxes so it makes the search tedious and time consuming. There is no easy way to just look for the locket, as they did when this search first began, so it is hours of charms and research and trying to locate all sources of magic in a huge area. It has been months of this. One step forward and five steps back.

It took them two months to find the locket. Destroying it came at a price, though. Ron’s left hand was burned and deformed after. He has use of his fingers but can’t make a fist and flying a broom is now difficult for him. It was four months before they found Hufflepuff’s Cup. She now walks with a limp, dragging her right foot slightly, but it was a necessary price to pay for destroying another horcruxes. Ron has adapted as has she. It just slows them down, which frustrates her, but she’s faster now than she was immediately after.

When they find the next one, she knows Harry will insist on destroying it. She and Ron have talked about it and are ready, of course. They’ll stun him, if necessary, and Ron will hold it. She isn’t sure if Harry needs Ron more than he needs her, but Ron insists it’s the other way around. If one of them dies while destroying a horcruxes or is injured, he refuses to let it be her choice. He still flinches when he sees her misshapen foot. Not because it bothers him, but because he didn’t fight her enough when she forced them to let her destroy it. They won’t take that chance with Harry, though, as he’s far more important than either of them.

There are two more horcruxes out here. None of their research can pinpoint what items Voldemort used. They have a list of possibilities but the days keep getting longer and there aren’t any results so it’s becoming hopeless. She has to keep focused, though. The boys need her optimism or they’ll give up. There are some nights when they collapse around a campfire and Harry just paces and scares them with thoughts of seeking out Voldemort and rushing in to face him. He stares at her leg and Ron’s hand and she sees how dangerous it’s becoming. If they can’t find something soon, he’s going to snap.

She worries about these things all day, every day. Today is worse because she knows she’ll have to lie to them or they’ll not let her go alone. She begins to hate Percy for forcing herself into this situation. Who does he think he is to owl out of the blue, to break the wards she has over their location, and to make her lie to her best friends? If she didn’t think it was important, she’d ignore it and forget all about it.

Percy isn’t part of this, though, and that intrigues her. He hasn’t been in contact with his family since the Christmas before Dumbledore’s death. He ignored the invitation to Bill and Fleur’s wedding, didn’t go to the hospital when Bill was injured or, later, when George was injured during an attack on Diagon Alley. He works at the Ministry and doesn’t seem at all affected by the war that is raging on outside its walls.

Ron thinks he’s a traitor, that he’s probably kissing Voldemort’s arse and a Death Eater, but Hermione doesn’t know. Ron’s angry and has never much liked Percy so it’s easy for him to believe the worst. She doesn’t know Percy well enough to decide what side he’d choose beyond his own. She’s scared to meet him alone, though, because she’s not sure that Ron is wrong. However, her curiosity always gets the better of her so she knows that she’ll be there tonight.

*****

Harry and Ron don’t believe her. She sees it in their accusing glares and scowls, in the way Ron clenches his good hand, and in the way Harry taps his foot impatiently. They let her go, though, and, for that, she loves them. When she returns, she’ll apologize and give some excuse of being a girl and needing time to herself. Anytime she mentions ‘being a girl’, they suddenly find many other things interesting.

She Apparates and finds herself near a greenhouse. It’s dark and the air is thick with the scent of flowers. She shivers as she scans the silent gardens, the trees taking on a different life in the shadows of the night. It seems that she’s alone, which makes her wonder if this was some sort of trap. She grips her wand tightly and stays alert as she slowly makes her way to the greenhouse.

When she gets closer, she can see a pale light through the windows. It flickers like candles and she sees a shape silhouetted against the glass. Hermione reaches the door and pushes it open, hearing it squeak to break the calm silence that is giving her goosebumps. Her steps sound heavy as she walks inside, her gaze scanning the greenhouse for the person who caused the silhouette.

“Are you alone?”

The voice breaks the quiet and she turns quickly to find Percy Weasley standing behind her. Her heart races as she realizes that he could have killed her without her even being aware. So focused on what she could see that she didn’t even think about looking behind her. Her hand shakes as she holds her wand and she nods. “Yes.”

She can’t see him well in the shadows. The candlelight casts a pale glow on the immediate area of the greenhouse, but the walls are shaded. He steps forward and she takes a step back. It looks like Percy. His curly hair is disheveled, though, and his spectacles are barely balanced on the end of his nose. His tie is crooked and his robes aren’t buttoned. She remembers Percy with his neat robes and tidy clothes, always anal and perfect with not a single thing out of place. This man is rumpled and different than the boy she remembers.

“Good,” he says simply before he closes the door to the greenhouse. She hears him whisper something in Latin but can’t hear enough to identify the charm. She’s more scared now, she realizes, because this man isn’t familiar. For some foolish reason, she thought he’d be the same as he’d been when he was Head Boy but now she’s trapped, apparently, with an untidy man and no one knows where she is.

“Why did you owl me?” she demands to know. She refuses to tremble in fear over anyone, but especially not Percy bloody Weasley. She’s faced Death Eaters and survived. She’s helped destroy two horcruxes and survived. Surely she can deal with this situation easily enough.

He looks at her, then, and it’s like he’s finally noticed she’s there. His gaze is odd, as if his mind is a million other places, and he’s trying to focus on one thing. He walks closer to the table where the candles are, and she notices the dark circles beneath his eyes and how his freckles stand out against his pale skin. There is ink on his jaw and his lips are chapped and look bloody, possibly from being bitten.

“I don’t know,” he mutters as he looks from her to a stack of parchment near the candles. “This is wrong. I shouldn’t have, yet I did. I wonder why. No, I can’t.”

Perhaps he’s crazy now? She’s read about people who hear voices and speak to them as if they’re real. She looks from him to the parchments to the candles. One has burned down halfway and she watches the wax drip slowly until it pools on the workbench. If he becomes dangerous, she’ll break the glass, she decides before she looks at him again.

“You owled me, Percy. What did you want?” Her voice is firm and demanding answers. Ron calls it her ‘Head Girl’ voice, though she’ll never know now. Hogwarts is closed and won’t reopen until this war is over. She’ll be too old then, if she even survives. Her beliefs that this war might be over soon have faded with the passing days.

He fumbles with the pages and runs his fingers through his hair. He bites his lip and then looks at her. “I can’t be here,” he insists in a quietly forceful voice that makes her pay attention. It’s low and makes her shudder for some reason.

“Then I’m leaving,” she says simply. She is tired and her foot hurts and it’s been a long day full of stress and worry. She doesn’t have time or energy for whatever games he’s playing.

“If they knew I was here---” Percy trails off, not needing to specify who ‘they’ is or what would happen if ‘they’ found out.

She stops in the process of turning and looks at him. Her gaze immediately goes to his arm. The thick black robe keeps her from seeing but he notices and snorts rudely.

“Is that what you think?” he asks sharply. He removes his robe, letting it fall to the dirty floor of the greenhouse, and his ink-stained fingers unbutton the cuff of his shirt. He rolls the white cotton up until she can see the bare skin of his forearm. “You’re like all of them. I thought you’d listen.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think, Percy,” she tells him quietly. “I’ve seen people that I lived beside nearly every day for six years on the other end of a wand aimed at me. Trust isn’t something I give casually, not anymore.”

“I made promises, Miss Granger. I don’t take such things likely,” he says firmly. “I will do whatever is necessary to stay in the Ministry’s good graces and I will gather all information that I find useful. He may be gone now, but the promise lives on.”

She stares at him a moment before she sighs. “Dumbledore.”

He nods once, curtly, before he pushes his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. “Last spring, I was told to contact you privately should I find anything specific in my research,” he tells her in a voice barely above a whisper. She feels sorry, suddenly, for the man who is hated by his family for fulfilling a promise and for the awareness that his entire life must be like what is happening now: clandestine, secretive, whispers, shadows, and suspicion.

“Wait. Me?” She blinks at him and nervously fiddles with the hem of her T-shirt. She isn’t sure why it bothers her that arrangements were made prior to Dumbledore’s death but it does. Her mind quickly runs through her knowledge and comes up with no answers. Why was Percy given her name if Dumbledore didn’t know he was going to die?

“Do follow along, Miss Granger,” he snaps as he frowns at her. “I found something recently. It makes no sense, but it meets the guidelines of what I was told to be looking for so I gathered information. It’s extremely dangerous meeting with you, though, so I had to wait until I knew it was safe.”

“Are they watching you?”

“No, I’m simply paranoid for no reason other than boredom.”

She bites her tongue to keep from snapping back at him. It’s obvious he’s tired and probably as stressed as she is, after all. “Do they know?”

“I don’t know what they know,” he admits with a shrug. “I have no contact with my family and my days are spent at work or at my flat. I imagine they’re quite unimpressed with me or my petty existence. However, I have worked my up in the Ministry and have made contact with some powerful people so I’m not expendable as long as they think they may need me. If they sense that I am, in fact, not neutral, my body will be left somewhere public, I have no doubt.”

The simple matter-of-fact way he speaks tells her a lot. Like her and the boys, the thought of death is always close by. Will this be their last sunrise? Last sunset? Last day alive? Those thoughts are with her every day, from the moment she wakes until she falls asleep in her sleeping bag beneath different sky. It’s not living. It’s serving a purpose, carrying out a vital mission, helping to, hopefully, save the world, but it’s not a life.

“What did you find?” she asks finally when he doesn’t volunteer anymore information. He is staring at her again as if he’s trying to see her, and she shifts nervously until he looks away.

“I shouldn’t have owled,” he mutters as he scowls at the parchment. “I didn’t plan to but then I did and it was too late. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it’s important.”

She’s tired of his refusal to answer and steps forward to grab the parchment. His fingers grip her wrist tightly as he moves faster than she thought possible. Her eyes meet his, dark brown clashing with pale blue, and his hold tightens momentarily as their breathing breaks the silence.

“You’re searching for something,” he says in that quiet voice. “Aren’t you?”

She considers lying, but she’s used up her lying quota for the day. Instead, she doesn’t say anything and simply nods.

“That…I think…I’m not sure but it might be something you need,” he tells her softly. The lenses of his spectacles are smudged and he has an eyelash that’s fallen onto his cheek. “I found it when I was investigating some of the files in the Minister’s private vault. With permission, of course.”

She glances down to look at the parchment, fully aware that he’s still holding her wrist and has swayed closer somehow. Her eyes widen when she finds herself reading an account of Tom Riddle being observed in Winchester during the late sixties. There were scribbles in bad penmanship that mentioned a dead witch and a stolen vanity set that was rumored to have belonged to Rowena Ravenclaw herself. Riddle had disappeared around the cathedral, it seemed, and the aurors had closed the file.

“This---” She looks up and finds his face close enough that she can feel his breath on her cheek. Two fingers cover her lips and he shakes his head.

“No,” he says firmly. “Don’t tell me anything. I can’t promise that they’d not get it from me, should the occasion arise.”

“All right,” she whispers against his fingers. She tastes ink on her tongue, recognizing it all too well, and stares at him as the air in the greenhouse seems to change.

“I want you to obliviate me,” he murmurs in that forceful tone. Before she can object, he raises her arm and points her wand towards him. “Please, Miss Granger.”

She gulps and wonders why he won’t call her Hermione when he did so easily when they were younger. She wants to tell him to do so, to demand that he use her proper name, but something in his eyes keeps her quiet. Perhaps she can’t be Hermione to him, not with him living as he is now.

He releases her wrist and she looks at the parchment she’s taken from him. She folds it and puts it into the pocket of her jeans before she squares her shoulders and moves her wand into position. They’re still far too close and she can feel the rough wood of the workbench against her ribs as she moves to stand straighter.

“Thank you, Percy,” she says before she focuses on the charm. “Obliviate.”

His eyes lose focus for a moment before they clear. She has only removed the memory of the parchment and what it says. If he is fulfilling a promise to Dumbledore, she trusts that the former headmaster knew that Percy would have access to information they might need, as was proven by the parchment he’d given her tonight.

He blinks at her as he gets his bearings. She realizes that he won't know why he's there and panicks. Before she can stop herself, she leans forward and brushes her lips against his. When she realizes what she’s done, she pulls back and flushes. “I’m sorry,” she stammers as she takes a step away.

She isn’t entirely sure what happens next. It’s too fast and she doesn’t have time to take a full breath before his lips are pressed against hers hard. His hands are everywhere and she’s pushed back against the workbench as his body moves against hers. She shouldn’t do this, she knows. It’s far too complicated and he’s obviously not thinking clearly. This person kissing her isn’t anal and tidy Percy Weasley. This man is desperate and rough, taking what she’s not even certain she wants to give.

He’s strong and forceful in a way that makes her body warm even as her mind protests. She parts her lips to tell him they shouldn’t, but his tongue is there and then he’s kissing her with a hunger she’s never experienced before. Resistance is futile, she knows, so, instead, she kisses him back.

For the first time in months, she feels alive. Her skin is on fire and her heart is racing. He pushes her shirt up above her belly, and his fingertips slide against her warm skin as he trails them up her ribs until he reaches her breasts. She doesn’t know what to do, has never been in this sort of situation before, but she tries to rely on extinct. Her time with Viktor never went beyond a few kisses and shy touches. There is nothing shy about this, however, and she whimpers when his fingers caress her breast through the worn cotton of her bra.

She moves her hands along his back and slides them beneath his shirt. She can feel his skin now and finds him hot and sticky with sweat. He kisses her neck and sucks her skin, his teeth nibbling as she moans softly. He’s pushed her bra up to free her breasts and his hands are squeezing them lightly. She stares at a potted plant as she makes noises she didn’t think were possible. When his lips close around her nipple and his tongue lashes out, her head falls back as she arches forward. He sucks gently, which is a contrast to the roughness of his touch as he unzips her trousers and grips her arse.

It’s too much. She needs to say no, to stop it before there’s no going back, but she can’t find the words. His fingers move against the damp cotton of her knickers and rub her, back and forth and back and forth as he moves his mouth to the other breast. Her hand is in his hair and she’s rocking against his hand. Everything feels different. Her skin is sweaty and doesn’t feel like it fits right, and there’s an energy in the air that’s confusing her at the same time it intrigues her.

He raises his head and looks at her. His glasses are askew and there’s a gleam in his eyes that makes her shudder. He doesn’t say anything but she knows he’s asking. Without thinking, she nods once. He growls softly and then he’s kissing her again, hard and rough, and his hands are pushing her knickers and jeans down. She feels the wood of the workbench beneath her as he raises her up. She knocks one of the candles over and listens to the hiss of the wax as it spills.

She turns her head and blows out the flame as he struggles to remove her shoes. There’s a pause when her shoe falls and she knows he’s seen her foot. She flushes and stares at the flickering candle, knowing exactly what he sees. Warped skin, twisted and swollen from the painful spell that destroyed that bloody cup. Her small toe is gone and the rest of her foot is misshapen. His fingers brush against the scarred skin gently and then his lips are on her thigh and time seems to cease again.

Her jeans and knickers are on the floor and he’s between her legs. She looks down to see him staring at her and then he lowers his head. His tongue is on her and she gasps as he licks and laps until she’s writhing on the workbench. His fingers feel large when they enter her, and she whimpers in discomfort as she stretches around them. He moves his hand fast, pushing them inside her as he flicks his tongue against her until she’s rolling her hips for more.

She can’t breathe. It’s like all the oxygen has been taken from the room. His touch is rough again, any gentleness dissipating as she moves against him. There’s an odd feeling in her belly that she recognizes from when she’s touched herself and, soon, the world tilts and she falls. She sees spots and shakes as her body quivers. It’s never felt like that when she’s done it. Percy is suddenly over her, kneeling on the workbench, and she tries to stop trembling to focus but can’t.

It hurts when he thrusts inside her, but not as bad as she’s feared after hearing stories in her dorm. She whines and cringes as he sinks deep into her, and bites her lip at the slight pain as he pushes all the way through. He’s not gentle, and, in a way, she’s glad. The hurt fades as he begins to move, in and out with deep thrusts that have their skin slapping together. He bites her breast and holds her hips so tight she knows she’ll have bruises.

After the initial discomfort, it starts to feel good. She moves her hands beneath his shirt and scratches his back hard enough to hurt. He bucks forward and drives her hard against the wooden table. Hermione looks at him and watches his face, memorizing every detail of her first time. It’s not what she dreamed of, he’s not the person she usually cast in the role, but she knows now that reality isn’t like dreams. It’s real and they’re alive and, sometimes, that’s all that matters.

It’s over soon after it begins. He spills inside her, his hips jerking as her muscles instinctively squeeze him, and he groans against the sweat-slick skin on her neck. She’s sore and tense, feeling as if something was missing, and isn’t sure if that’s all it is. He shifts and kisses her, bruising her lips as his hand moves between them. His thumb rubs her, his fingers twisting the sensitive nub of flesh that makes her body rock against him. She moans into his kiss when she finds release, trembling beneath him as he keeps moving in and out.

When he pulls out, she feels like she needs to pee. She’s wet and sore despite it feeling good after the pain faded. She glances down to look at him, to see what he’d been pushing inside her, and thinks it’s rather ugly. It’s limp and she flinches when she notices a faint trace of blood mixed in the fluids that cover him. His hair around it is darker than that on his head and curlier, and she notices freckles on his lower belly that disappear into the curls.

He notices her looking and stares for a moment before he reaches for a hand towel that’s lying on the workbench. He cleans it with a whispered charm and then wipes himself off, alternating between looking at what he’s doing and looking at her. When he’s done, he uses a charm to clean it again and then hands it to her silently.

She takes it and considers just doing a cleaning charm on herself, wondering why he didn’t, and then she realizes she’s not sure if that would work well on such intimate parts of the body. Until she does more research, she decides to just use the towel. It feels rough against her sensitive areas, but she manages to wipe away most of the evidence of what they just did.

“I’m sorry,” he says finally after long moments of silence.

“I didn’t say no,” she points out softly as she slides off the workbench and picks up her jeans and knickers. She gets dressed mechanically, not having to think while doing such a routine activity. One foot then the other, pull them up, zip and button.

“I didn’t give you a chance,” he murmurs in a tone that sounds torn between guilt and satisfaction.

Her foot hurts, which is common at night, and she has trouble putting her shoe back on. She is frustrated at various things by the time she does and snaps, “I didn’t need one. I’m not a child, Percy.”

“No, you’re not.” This time, his voice is soft and has traces of sadness, which make her look up at him. She’s only eighteen and feels decades older. She’s always been old for her age but the last year has forced her to grow up overnight. When she looks at him, she realizes that he sees her in a way few others ever have. He reaches out and brushes her hair off of her face. “You’re okay?”

He says it in a way that almost doesn’t sound like a question. She nods. “I’m fine,” she says, and her words are sincere. She’s sore and her skin still feels awkward, but she’ll be okay. She’s tougher than she looks, after all.

He accepts her words and drops his hand. She watches him pick up his robe and put it on, watches his long fingers elegantly fasten his necktie, and traces of the prissy Head Boy she once knew are finally visible as his stressful mission is complete. When he finishes, he looks at her. He hesitates a moment and then leans down to brush a gentle kiss against her swollen and torn lips.

“I need to go,” he tells her simply. He catches her gaze and almost smiles. “Take care of him, Miss Granger.”

When most people tell her that, they are thinking about Harry, the Savior, the one who will defeat Voldemort. She knows as she looks at Percy that Harry is the furthest thing from his mind. She thinks of Ron who hates Percy and curses him whenever his name is mentioned and wonders if he’ll ever know what Percy has gone through to help their cause. “I will,” she promises.

Percy removes his wand from his pocket and the alert suspicious nature slowly comes back as he prepares to reenter the real world. “Good-bye, Miss Granger. I assume there was a reason we met so I‘ll be in touch should I find anything else useful,” he tells her formally even as his gaze moves over her in a way that is far more intimate. “I trust that I have given you everything that you need this evening.”

With a slight bow, he walks away. She reaches up and traces her finger over the bite he left on her neck as she watches him leave. “Yes, you have,” she whispers softly, meaning far more than just the parchment safely put away in her pocket.

End