Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. ~ Aesop
Hermione signs her name in the visitor’s logbook and glances at the warden of Azkaban. “Oh? How many, James?”
James Whistlethorpe slides a stack of files across the counter to her. “Aye, ma’am, three.”
She frowns as she studies the pile. “That’s three cases?”
Taken aback at the sheer volume of one of the files, she contemplates who the prisoner might be. It’s been three years since Voldemort’s demise; there are hardly any major felons left. Those whom the Dementors hadn’t finished off during their tenure at the isolated fortress, the final battle, time and madness had taken. Of course, there were former Death Eaters who hadn’t been accounted for after the smoke had cleared, but the wizarding world had focused on helping its remaining citizens rebuild their lives rather than ferreting out the individuals responsible for the disaster in the first place. At the time, Hermione thought it was too complacent of the Ministry, but even she had to admit that finding her parents in Australia had been her main priority once things had settled down.
Once she had located them and found that they were content to stay in Melbourne, Hermione returned to the UK and immediately began studying law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. At first, she and Ron had tried to make their relationship work. But with her coursework becoming heavier each term—due in no small part to taking parallel courses in both the Muggle world and at the Ministry of Magic—and her sporadic social life, they finally decided it just wasn’t meant to be, although they remained close friends. As of two months ago, she was in the beginning of her post-graduate degree, L.L.M. in Criminal Justice and Human Rights (having completed an accelerated undergraduate degree of LLB with Honours the year before), and was working as a probation officer as per the requirements of her chosen course. So far, it had been relatively easy, in that the crimes she’d assessed had been minor offenses.
That was all about to change.
Whistlethorpe grimaces as he separates the files. “These two are just repeat offenders.” He shoves them to the side. “This one?” He hefts a file overflowing with parchments and thick as his meaty neck. “This one will take you a better part of the afternoon.” He lets the file fall with a heavy thud on the counter.
Hermione nearly rolls her eyes at his dramatics. “Well, I hope not. I’m meeting Harry for lunch, and I don’t… want… to…” Her words trail off when she spots the name on the thick file.
Draco Lucius Malfoy
“Damn,” she mutters under her breath.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Miss Granger?”
She gives Whistlethorpe a wan smile. “I’m inclined to agree with you about the length of time I’ll need. Could you please send an owl to Harry with this message?” She scribbles hastily and folds the parchment in quarters, handing it over once she is finished.
“I’ll send this off straight away.”
Hermione scoops up the case files. “Thanks, James. Room four?”
He nods and moves around the counter to open the door that leads to the interrogation rooms.
As they traverse the corridor, Hermione glances over the two minor offenders’ cases and decides they can wait. She knows both Gordon and Malcolm, having defended them previously during her paralegal apprenticeship with Edward Fail Bradshaw & Waterson in London. EFB&W were a Muggle law firm, but they also employed a Muggle-born witch, Alexia Nicol, who mentored those in the wizarding world looking to be proficient in both Muggle and wizarding law. Alexia was cunning, shrewd, clever and relentless in pursuit of her goals—all typical for members (former and present) of Slytherin. She’d finished at Hogwarts just as Riddle was in his second year, and while Hermione was near overflowing with curiosity about him and his time at Hogwarts, she’s avoided asking questions, sensing that they would not be welcome for while Alexia was always cordial and professional, there seemed to be a line that Hermione was not encouraged to cross when it came to discussion of ‘that foul boy’. This was confirmed a month after she began her apprenticeship, when Alexia expressed her profound relief at the demise of Voldemort. That was all Hermione needed to be sure that asking about that time would reopen old wounds for Alexia, and she’s reluctant to do so since she likes Alexia (and her job). And while they’ll probably never be bosom friends, as she, Harry and Ron are, she hopes to maintain contact with Alexia once her apprenticeship is completed.
Hermione scans the files quickly while following Whistlethorpe down the passage. Apparently, Gordon and Malcolm have run afoul of both worlds. At the time of their initial assessment, the offenders hadn’t presented much of a threat—petty theft, a bit of burglary—so they were assigned to community payback in South London. After their three month term had been fulfilled, however, they had disappeared. Looking at the dates on their files, Hermione notes that they returned to the wizarding world… and were presently guests in Azkaban. She would need to contact Alexia after her risk assessment of the two to update her on their status.
She blinks, having lost herself in the recent past, unaware they’d arrived at the designated chamber. “Oh, sorry!” She enters and drops the case files on the table in the middle of the room.
“Which one will you be wantin’ first?”
She hesitates, chewing on the corner of her bottom lip and glancing at her watch. Her Criminal Evidence and Proof course starts at three p.m. and it’s now half-past eleven. Finally she says, “Malfoy, please.”
Whistlethorpe nods and leaves, and she sits in one of the chairs provided and opens Draco’s file. Most of it is already known to her, having experienced much of it first-hand, but a few infractions that she’d only speculated at before are here confirmed. During her evaluation, she hopes to determine just how much of a threat Draco truly is… to himself, to others, to wizarding society as a whole. Glancing at the Visitors Log in his file, she notices that he hasn’t had any personal visitors since his incarceration. Regardless of who he is, isolation for a person like Draco Malfoy—who was used to having attention focused on himself throughout most of his life—could be more damaging than one might first imagine. She’ll have to tread carefully in dealing with him, and the chain of events she’ll need to put in motion to ensure Malfoy’s compliance has her a bit concerned.
She is brought out of her musings by the scrape of the door opening and looks up. Draco freezes upon seeing her, his nostrils flaring, his eyes widening in something not quite fear, but also clearly uneasy with her presence. She tries a smile, hoping it will encourage him to at least enter the room, but with Whistlethorpe trying to shove him through the doorway, he’s clearly not having it.
“Go on, mate. Miss Granger’s not goin’ ta hurt ya,” Whistlethorpe grumbles, pushing Draco towards her. “Safe as houses, she is.”
“Unlikely,” she hears Draco mutter as he sits on the opposite side of the table.
His wrists are in shackles, a weighty chain connecting them and leading down to what she suspects are manacles around his ankles. Whistlethorpe grabs a loop of chain and starts to thread it through a U-ring on the table, when Hermione waves him away.
“I don’t think that’s necessary, do you?”
The warden hesitates. “Mr Malfoy doesn’t have a wand, Miss Granger, but he’s still right powerful.”
Hermione stares at Draco. “We’re not going to have any problems, are we, Malfoy?”
His eyes narrow, but he gives a barely perceptible nod. “I wouldn’t dream of causing Granger any grief.”
She snorts and turns away to pull her wand out. Back at Hogwarts, all Draco did was cause grief – to Harry, to her, to all of them. But Whistlethorpe doesn’t know that, so she says nothing to indicate that Draco’s words are less than truthful.
“All right then, Miss Granger. Have it your way.” Whistlethorpe produces a skeleton key and unlocks Draco’s cuffs, letting them and the chain fall to the floor. “If’n he gives you any lip, just send a Patronus.” He gives them one more suspicious look and leaves.
As the door closes behind him, Hermione props the thicker end of her wand on the table and murmurs, “Lumos.”
The soft blue light flares and then begins a gentle pulse. Since there is no natural light in Azkaban, this will keep the shadows to their corners and illuminate the room enough that she can read her documents. She gives Draco’s appearance a passing glance. He’s in standard Azkaban-issued prisoner garb—what were once black and white striped trousers and shirt are now tattered and grey. His hair, once slicked back, platinum and short, is now a dull honey blond, long enough to wave and brush the top of his shoulders. The light is not really conducive to determining his physical health, as it makes his face look emaciated. When she’s done with her inspection, she notices an insolent look on his face.
“Had your fill, then?”
She ignores the gibe and opens his file. After flipping through several parchments, she begins reading aloud.
“Draco Lucius Malfoy. Parole assessment to commence three years after incarceration. Sentenced to five years in Azkaban for crimes against the wizarding public at large, conspiracy with the Dark Lord, aiding and abetting co-conspirators, contributing to the delinquency of a house-elf…” She pauses and gives him a curious look.
His gaze, which had been focused on a spot behind her, shifts to her face. “Winky was a notorious lush. I provided her with some of father’s best rum so that she’d stay out of his study.”
“Because every time my father found her rifling through the bottles, he’d have a fit and become unreasonable. You’ve seen my father, Granger. What he was like, how he coped with His presence.” He shifts as if uncomfortable. “That last year, father had a lot of fits. Most of them because of…”
Hermione clears her throat. “Ah.” She bites her lip, wondering if Draco has any clue as to what’s going on in the wizarding world. “Have you received news from your family while you’ve been here?”
Draco’s eyes become clouded. “Mother was killed by the Dark Lord,” he says abruptly. “I’ve not heard from father.”
She closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. This was going to be painful. “Lucius was committed to the Janus Thickey Ward at Saint Mungo’s a few months after your trial.”
Draco’s mouth works as if he is holding back either a scream or a moan, then he drops his head and just shakes it. His hands are clenched in fists, his knuckles turning white. The pulsing light from Hermione’s wand starts to flicker.
“What?” he grinds out viciously. “I can’t control my magic; I have no wand, no focus!”
“The Ministry won’t even give you a starter wand if you can’t—”
“You’d leave me defenceless?”
She frowns. “Defenceless? The Death Eaters are no more, Malfoy. The Aurors captured the last of them almost two years ago. From whom would you expect an attack?”
“Everyone!” he snarls, gritting his teeth. “And you’re naïve if you think the Death Eaters are gone. You think they’re dead? Think again! Voldemort didn’t split his soul on a whim, he had proof it would work!”
What Malfoy is suggesting almost doesn’t bear rumination. Almost. That it’s possible the likes of Bellatrix Lestrange could reappear, even more demented and psychologically fractured than she was to begin with, makes Hermione want to retch. An involuntary shudder overcomes her and it’s several moments before she can shake off the foreboding feeling.
“I think Harry or the other Aurors would’ve found proof of their… re-emergence, if that were the case, don’t you?”
Draco’s lip curls into an ugly sneer. “Naïve and blind, then. Tell me, Granger, when have you ever wilfully ignored the truth, even if it wasn’t staring you in the face? You’re no better than Fudge.”
“Not. Even. Close,” she practically spits. “If what you say is true, then how are you still alive? Wouldn’t they all want to have a piece of the junior Death Eater that switched sides so many times he made Thebes during the Greek wars look like the epitome of loyalty?”
An unnerving smile takes up residence on Draco’s face as he leans forward. “I’m a survivalist. Meaning, I do what I need to in order to survive. At any cost.” He sits back and studies her. “I’m alive because I’ve been in here.” He waves his hands out to each side. “Death Eaters aren’t notoriously smart, granted, but they’re not stupid enough to risk being within a thousand kilometres of this place.”
“What do they have to fear from Azkaban if there aren’t any more Dementors?”
Draco tilts his head, his look incredulous. “You do realise that just because the Dementors aren’t welcome here they’ve not ceased to exist, right?”
She is affronted. “Of course. But what does that have to do with—”
“The memories are enough,” Draco says heatedly. “I often saw Aunt Bella startled by shadows. I never saw her cower before the Dark Lord, but if she came upon an unexpected mist or cool breeze, she would cringe and make herself as small as possible before slinking away. The memories associated with this place leave deep impressions in a person’s psyche, Granger. Because the Dementors didn’t kill anyone outright. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working.” He leans back and closes his eyes. “You’ll just exist as an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever. Lost.”
Another shudder of revulsion ripples through Hermione’s frame. “Are you saying that if you were released, then these supposed Death Eaters would materialise from their hiding places and... and what? Try to recruit you again?”
Draco opens his eyes and gives her a cold look. “Nothing so obvious. They’d bide their time, study me. Watch me. Learn my patterns before moving in.”
“You sound like Mad-Eye Moody.”
“He stayed alive as long as he did for a reason. Constant vigilance. I don’t plan to end up like him, though, so I’d appreciate being told everything that’ll happen from here on out.”
She’s torn between wanting to believe Malfoy and not wanting to give in to what she perceives as his paranoia. “If after my risk assessment I deem you a suitable candidate, you’ll be transferred to a half-way house for a period of four weeks.”
He goes rigid. “A halfway house? Why can’t I—”
“Malfoy Manor was appropriated by the Ministry once your father was sectioned,” she says quietly. “Unfortunately, I don’t know whether you’ll be able to return to it eventually or if you’ll need to find new accommodations. It’ll be one of the issues we’ll focus on once you’re released.”
“If I’m deemed suitable, that is.”
Hermione lays Malfoy’s file on the table and watches him closely. “Off the record, Malfoy. Do you want to leave here?”
That he doesn’t respond right away is enough of an answer.
“You could spend the remaining two years of your sentence here, or you could have it commuted to community pay-back. You could maybe even manage to regain all that your family has lost due to poor decisions in the past. Isn’t it worth the effort to go through this process and—”
He waves a hand at her. “Enough of your feel-good spiel, Granger. I get it. You want to emancipate everyone and everything.”
She arches a brow. “I hardly think Manticores need any such help.”
There’s a brief pause, then Malfoy snorts and she sees him almost grin. “No, I’d have to agree.”
She returns a small smile. “You’ll try, then?”
He gives her a dubious look, but nods. “With you as my princess in shining armour, how could I fail?”
Hermione doesn’t even want to consider the alternative.
In the London Borough of Lambeth, on Gipsy Hill Rd, there stands an old Victorian church that has been renovated and converted into extensive accommodations. This is where Luna Lovegood resides and operates Halfway There, a halfway house for those reintegrating into wizarding society, whether returning from previous incarceration or even addiction. To date, Luna has a 99% success rate with her clientele—the only exception being a Dökkálfar that was addicted to Dark Magic, who didn’t really want any intervention. He was quietly sent on his way.
Highland Tower, where the main residence is located, is comprised of individual flats, each boasting a unique theme geared towards the resident’s needs. The original double-wide door still hangs on restored hinges, almost putting the Hogwarts main entrance to shame. The entire dwelling is spacious, light and encourages a sense of serenity not often found elsewhere.
Hermione thinks that Malfoy will fit in nicely here, that it will afford him (hopefully) a feeling of safety until arrangements can be made to assess whether Malfoy Manor is inhabitable. She suspects that, with Narcissa Malfoy having died towards the end of the Final Battle and Lucius a current resident of the Janus Thickey Ward, the Malfoy home has fallen into disrepair. She’ll make inquiries directly through Minister Shacklebolt and avoid any unnecessary red tape.
Though Luna offers to give them a tour of the tower, both Hermione and Draco decline, citing exhaustion. Luna conjurers her Patronus and has it escort them up the stone staircase. They make their way behind the spectral hare as it bounds to and fro, leading them past what looks like the working original church clock, its gears, cogs and weights bare for all to see. They climb a narrow, wrought-iron spiral staircase to the top where it opens up into a terrace. The hare stops at an alcove door and vanishes.
The room inside is suited to Malfoy, or at least his Slytherin tastes, Hermione thinks. The walls are a seafoam green, the carpet beige and thick, and there is a natural stone hearth and a diamond-paned window. There’s also an en suite bath and loo, of which Hermione thinks Draco will definitely make copious use. The furniture is all of thick oak, including the chest at the end of the bed.
Draco studies the room intently, then checks the closets, window and any other nook he finds. It’s nothing less than what she’d expect, given his previous behaviour.
Hermione glances at her watch and realises she can still make it to her Criminological Theories class if she hurries. She hands Draco a packet of information. “You’ll report to Headmistress McGonagall and—”
“McGonagall?” Draco interrupts, his tone suspicious. “I can’t believe she’d allow me within twenty kilometres of Hogwarts.”
Hermione narrows her eyes. “If you’d prefer to be a till-clerk at the ASDA in Inverness, I can arrange for that instead.”
A decidedly panicked look blossoms on Draco’s face. “No, definitely not.” He places his meagre possessions on top of the chest at the end of the bed. “I’m just…” He sighs and rubs his face. “Never mind.”
She studies him closely for the first time since their meeting in the small cell in Azkaban. In the brighter light Draco appears gaunt, his face hollowed by time and circumstance. His hair is longer and messy, though it’s apparent he’s tried to curb the fraying strands into some semblance of order. The clothes provided for him hang on his thinner frame, though curiously he’s not complained about how shabby he appears. As he opens another closet and searches it thoroughly, she thinks perhaps that is the best proof of his state of mind: that he seems unconcerned with his appearance and more focused on his surroundings and those he allows near him.
“At least you’ll be allowed a certain amount of solitude working with the professor,” she says in an attempt to assuage him.
Draco pauses in his search. “Yes, that’s much better.” He nods to himself and continues his investigation of the small closet, rapping on floorboards and patting back panels.
“What are you looking for?”
“Traps, secret entrances, anything out of the ordinary.”
“I don’t think Luna hides anything more nefarious than Nargle nets in the house, Draco,” Hermione tentatively says. His suspicious behaviour has only increased from what she’d already observed during her assessment, and it’s starting to worry her.
He withdraws from the closet, his head and shoulders covered in dust. “What the hell are Nargles? No, I don’t want to know.” He sneezes and rubs his nose, leaving a trail of wet dust across his cheek. “And who in their right mind would let Lovegood operate a halfway house? Anything could get by her Obfuscate charms.”
“Luna Lovegood is one of the few witches alive that suffered at your family’s hands, Malfoy, and doesn’t bear a grudge. I’d say that was a precious commodity and worthy of something better than scorn.”
Draco has the grace to look uncomfortable. “That shouldn’t have happened,” he admits quietly. “Nothing was achieved by taking her. They should’ve known that Xenophilius would’ve been too distraught to be of any use.”
Hermione stares at him coldly. “I hope you realise it was much more than that.”
He waves an impatient hand at her. “Don’t lecture me about good and evil, Granger. Only in your own little world does such a line even exist! For those of us who came from a different life, a different background, we had no such luxury.” He gives her a hard look. “If we hadn’t taken Luna Lovegood, our lives would’ve been forfeit. The pure-blood lines continue because we knew when to obey and when to get the hell out.”
“You sound proud of that.”
“You should be too,” he says with a scoff. “Like it or not, Muggle-borns have a pure-blood ancestor that survived to continue their line. Your ancestor, whoever he or she might be, probably used nefarious means to make sure they weren’t caught by Muggles and torched at the stake. Now, are you going to quibble about what means they used to ensure their survival, or are you going to be grateful that they deigned to lower themselves to such methods so you’d eventually be born?”
Hands clenched, Hermione blows out a pent-up breath. Arguing with Malfoy is not what she wants to do. She wants a hot bath, a cup of tea and to sleep for twelve hours straight, but that isn’t going to happen either, since she’s missed her three o’clock class and will have to explain to her professor why she was absent. But first, she needs to get Malfoy settled.
He’s focused on something else now, testing the seal of the window in the room. His gaze skims the area outside until it zeros in on a grove of trees near the base of the tower. He freezes, his fingers curling on the window frame until it looks as if the wood will splinter under the pressure.
She doesn’t want to give in to his paranoia, honestly she doesn’t. But when what little colour he has left in his skin pales further, she hesitantly asks, “What do you see?”
He doesn’t move. “They know I’m out,” he whispers, his breath fogging the glass.
She slides behind him to follow his gaze, seeing nothing but the autumn wind moving through the multi-coloured leaves, scattering them to the four corners. “There’s several Protection Charms on the land here, Malfoy,” she reminds him. “They would be triggered if something was out there. I don’t see anything.”
He looks askance for a moment then returns his focus to the grove. “When do I get my wand?”
Hermione takes a step back and rolls her shoulders, hoping to shrug off the niggling feeling of being watched. She’s let Malfoy’s delusions influence her and now she has no one to blame but herself. “Before I take you to Hogwarts tomorrow, I’ll have three basic wands you can choose from.”
“Make sure one of them is hawthorn.”
“That’s not for me to decide, Malfoy. I don’t have any—”
“Hawthorn, Granger,” he reiterates harshly. “It affords me more… protection, than other woods.”
She sighs heavily. “I’ll tell the Ministry, but I can’t guarantee they’ll listen.”
He nods, still keeping a close watch on the grove, and says nothing more.
She collects her satchel, then pauses at the door. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be hectic.”
He doesn’t acknowledge her.
“He hasn’t slept,” Luna advises her the next morning. She pours steaming tea into a mug and hands it to Hermione. “He paced a lot, like he was being chased by Wrackspurts. They can be as bothersome as midges, but we haven’t had an infestation in months.”
Hermione takes a gratifying sip before withdrawing a leather pouch and placing it on the table. “He’s nervous,” she explains.
Hermione doesn’t really expect Luna to accept her answer as fact, but she doesn’t want to get into why Draco was walking the floors all night. At least, it’s not a reason she’s willing to consider at the moment. Just as she’s about to ask Luna if Draco is awake, he appears at the top of the narrow stairway.
Despite not having slept, Draco looks somewhat better—he’s clearly made use of the facilities and indulged in an overlong shower by the hints of red tinging his skin. His hair is drying, its wavy tendrils separate and tend to stick up. It gives him an oddly adorable affect. He’s donned dark blue trousers, a light blue dress shirt and a faded dark purple vest. Not at all the clothing he’s used to, Hermione thinks, but passing fair for the normal, everyday wizard on the street.
He spies the pouch on the table and gives her a pointed look. “Well?”
“They’re all hawthorn, actually,” she says with a bit of a huff. “They just have different cores.”
Luna unrolls the pouch and pulls out all three wands, touching them reverently. “Oh, I do like this one.” Her hand alights on the darkest of the three.
Draco makes his way to the table and studies them, letting his hand hover over each of them, before plucking the wand Luna held from her hands. “This one,” he says firmly.
“Are you sure?” Hermione asks. “You haven’t even—”
“Lumos,” he whispers, and the entire room fills with light.
“It makes sense that a Thestral hair core would respond to Draco,” Luna adds casually.
Hermione frowns. “Why?”
Luna and Draco glance at each other and then away. “I was the master of the Elder Wand for a brief time,” Draco says, becoming stiff. “When I disarmed Dumbledore.”
Having recalled Harry’s tale of that night on the Astronomy Tower, it’s not like a blow to the solar plexus, but it’s a near thing. Hermione immediately reconsiders whether allowing Malfoy access to this particular wand is a good idea, regardless of the fact that it’s been spelled to respond only to the most basic of non-lethal magic.
“Don’t even think about it,” Draco warns, as if reading her thoughts.
“It’s good for him to have that wand,” Luna concurs. “Dragon heartstring is too rigid and the unicorn hair doesn’t suit Draco anymore.”
“And you feel safe, letting Draco have this wand, while he’s staying here?”
Luna takes a deep sip of her tea as she looks at Draco over the lip of her mug. “He’s not on the offensive anymore. The wand will be good for defence.” She turns to Hermione. “Yes, I feel safe that he won’t change me into an Aquavirius Maggot.”
“Such a ringing endorsement,” Draco drawls, though there’s no rancour in his tone. He pockets the wand and turns to Hermione expectantly. “Now what?”
“To King’s Cross.”
Hermione catches Draco’s shudder, but it’s gone in almost the same moment. She doesn’t want to know why.
They board the Hogwarts Express as the only occupants. Draco’s left leg jumps constantly, as if he’s biding his time and waiting for some catastrophe. His gaze rarely strays from the passing view, though occasionally it darts to the other side of the train.
In an effort to draw him away from his constant vigilance, she asks if he wishes to visit his father before he begins actual work at Hogwarts, but he gives her no answer. She wants to tell him to snap out of it, that there’s no one following them. But it’s to no avail. He refuses to relax and the mounting tension is spilling over into her. When she tries to speak of visiting his father again, he turns and gives her a nasty glare.
“Father would have no idea I was even there. What would be the point?”
Peace of mind? Closure, perhaps? Any number of things, she thought. Neville still visited his parents every week, even though they cooed and drooled more than anything else. She’s on the verge of telling Draco he has no right to feel this way, after all that he’s put others through. But he returns his focus to the passing landscape.
In retrospect, Hermione knows first-hand what it’s like to lose a parent to madness, or worse, amnesia. The people you’ve looked up to all your life suddenly no longer acknowledging you as remotely important to them. She had debated long and hard with herself before she Obliviated her parents. Yes, it had ultimately saved their lives, but at what cost? They still resided in Melbourne and had no real memories of their only child, only the ones they’d built after she’d found them and introduced herself to them. It had taken several months for them to even accept the idea that they had a daughter, and Hermione had had to return home to start her schooling before they were completely convinced. So yes, she understood about having a parent alive, but in essence gone.
It’s late afternoon when they pull into Hogsmeade. The wind is more bitter and cruel in the Highlands, so Hermione pulls her cloak tighter around her, burying her nose in the scarf she knitted herself last winter. She looks to Malfoy to make sure he’s adequately covered, but he isn’t the least concerned with the breeze flapping his own cloak about as he scans the horizon more intently than before.
There’s a Thestral-drawn carriage waiting for them, so she gently takes his arm and leads him to it. Draco says not a word on the entire journey to the castle, but his body radiates near terror. It becomes so overwhelming that she withdraws her wand to have at the ready. Only when they arrive at the main entrance does Draco relax somewhat. It’s not yet the start of the school term so there are few people about, as evidenced by Professor McGonagall meeting them at the door.
“Good afternoon, Miss Granger,” McGonagall says pleasantly before turning to Draco. “Mr Malfoy.”
He startles as if he just realised they’d arrived. “Professor,” he says quietly with a nod.
McGonagall studies him with a tilt of her head, though she says nothing of what she’s thinking. She glances at Hermione with raised brows and Hermione can only shrug. She and Draco disembark and the carriage meanders off.
“My office, if you please,” McGonagall instructs and turns to head into the castle, clearly expecting them to follow.
“Just as pleasant as ever,” Draco mutters under his breath.
Hermione sends him a steely glare. “Be grateful she didn’t turn you into a newt!”
He rolls his eyes. “At least I’d be useful for potions ingredients.”
She can’t help the snort that escapes upon thinking of Draco Malfoy’s ‘eye of newt’ floating in a glass jar upon a shelf. After she composes herself, she sees a brief grin on his own face, but it’s gone in the next instant.
Malfoy frowns. “Are you saying that there haven’t been any Slytherins since—”
“Of course there have, Mr Malfoy. Don’t be daft.”
“So where have they been housed?”
McGonagall shifts in her seat. “Several mitigating factors are responsible, mind you, but the few Slytherins we’ve had were able to comfortably cohabitate with the Ravenclaws.”
Draco doesn’t even bother to hide his sneer. “Comfortably, you say?” He shakes his head. “Just how many are you averaging during the school year?”
“Last year, we had ten.”
It’s a sobering fact, to both Hermione and Draco. Ten where there had once been sixty or more. But even given the possible reasons why there might be so few Slytherins, that didn’t account for the dearth of all those students. Before Hermione can raise her own questions, Draco sits up straight and cracks his neck.
“What do you need me to do?”
McGonagall actually looks pleased at his renewed attention. “You have a wand, Mr Malfoy?” At his nod, she continues. “Then see what you can do to bring the Slytherin chambers back to life. The other areas, too, if you’re up to it.”
Draco is pensive, as if he doesn’t know what to do with the trust he’s been given, and by a professor he never liked, no less. He nods slowly. “I’ll see what I can accomplish.”
“Thank you,” McGonagall says and rises from her chair. “It’s late, much too late to start tonight. You have leave to explore the dungeons for a few hours, but I want to you to return before nine. Guest chambers have been made available for your use.”
Hermione follows Draco out and down the turret steps. As they curve around the Phoenix that still resides there, Draco comes to a halt and Hermione almost runs into him.
“What is it?” she asks, almost whispering.
“I don’t think you should come with me,” he says. His tone is far away, eerie and it sends chills up Hermione’s spine.
“That’s not an option,” she retorts with more bravado than she feels. “As your parole officer, it’s my responsibility to make sure you adhere to the limitations of your—”
“It’s not about that, Granger!” he grits out. “I’m saying it for your safety.”
She snorts and moves around him, whips out her wand and stomps down the steps without him. “I’ve ridden a dragon, hexed Professor Snape, been tortured by your insane aunt and carried a Horcrux. I think I can take care of myself.”
Draco rushes down the steps, catching up to her at the entrance to the dungeons. “You hexed Professor Snape? When?”
She smirks. “I set fire to his robes in our first year.”
“That was you?” He gives her an appraising look. “Well done, Granger.”
The feeling this scrap of praise evokes shouldn’t affect her like it does. She notches her chin up and ignores the fluttering in her stomach. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
Their rooms are in the Head Boy and Head Girl chambers nearest McGonagall’s office.
Hermione stares at the curtains surrounding her bed.
It’s half-past three in the morning, and still she hasn’t slept. She can’t rid her mind of the image of the Slytherin chambers. Wrecked beyond belief, as if seismic charges had been detonated within the underground caverns, pushing rock and debris everywhere. What hadn’t been destroyed was frozen in time, as if the students had just vacated the area, leaving all their personal effects strewn about. And the chill, the unearthly cold that permeated everything, like a Dementor lingering in the shadows, waiting for its next meal.
She swallows convulsively and squeezes her eyes shut, trying not to be sick. The limestone of the chambers had fairly oozed malevolent power. It’s a wonder Draco was able to withstand all that malice, but then, she thinks, maybe that’s because he’s used to it. It must seem no different than when the Dark Lord was staying at the manor. She almost feels sorry for Malfoy: to become used to such an omnipresent hatred that one doesn’t notice it in everyday life. But she knows better than to show any sort of pity. He would take it as a sign of weakness.
She turns to bury her head under her pillow when she hears a creaking of a door, a slight shuffle and then a clatter of noise as if items were dropped on the ground. She bolts out of bed and into the common room where she sees Draco fiddling with a bevy of objects surrounding him. A hearty fire is going and the flickering light makes his shadow appear menacing.
“What are you doing?” she hisses, making her way down the steps.
“Hand me that wire,” he says, pointing near her feet.
Without thought, she picks it up and gives it to him. She studies the things he’s gathered. “What is all this?” He’s wrapping the wire around the top of… “Is that a Sneak-O-Scope?”
“Found it in Filch’s secret stash,” Draco says with pride.
He pauses to give her a frown. “Just a few minutes ago, why?”
“Draco! You’ve already violated the terms of your parole!”
“Professor McGonagall said not to return to the dungeons after nine.” Hermione points to her watch. “It’s almost four a.m.!”
He waves her off and returns to his project, clearly not caring what she has to say. He snags a rather large piece of what looks like a broken mirror and fits it into the setting at the top of the Sneak-O-Scope.
Even though she wants to berate him further, Hermione can’t help but ask, “What are you doing?”
His tongue sticks out to the side as he finagles the mirror piece. “It’s part of Moody’s old Foe Glass.” Satisfied that it’s secure, he taps it with his wand and the contraption comes to life. “There!”
It’s hideous, ungainly, and Hermione has no idea what its purpose could possibly be, other than maybe a future Weasley product in bad taste. The snake-like body moves like a cobra, swaying back and forth, but then it vibrates and focuses on one of the windows, producing a high-pitched whine.
Draco immediately gets up and lets his contraption pull him to the window, where he peers out into the mist. “They’re closer,” he whispers.
Hermione wants to chuck a book at the back of his head, he’s making her so edgy. “Who?”
He looks over his shoulder at her. “Them. The ones I told you about.”
She joins him at the window, wipes away the condensation, and stares into the night. I don’t see anything, Malfoy!”
“They’re out there, though,” he says with conviction, nodding at his new device. “Moody used that glass to see how close his enemies were. If he could see the whites of their eyes, they were right behind him.”
Hermione studies the glass. “I see blurry images, Draco. Not people in masks and hoods.”
“That’s because they’re not after you.”
“No one’s after you, either!”
Draco turns off the device and leans in until his lips are nearly touching her ear. “Why do you think Slytherin numbers have been dwindling, hmm? They’re being hunted. And if they don’t join, they’re killed, or made to wish they’d died.”
It’s on the tip of her tongue to deny his accusations, but instead she challenges him. “Prove it.”
He gives her an incredulous look and shows her the thing he created. “I just did!”
She rubs her temples. “That’s not proof, Malfoy. That’s creative engineering at its craziest. No one, especially the Ministry, would accept that thing’s whizzing and buzzing as proof of Death Eater activity.”
“Fine,” he spits. “You want irrefutable proof?” He grabs her wrist and tugs. “Come on, then. Let’s go.”
She digs in her heels. “No.”
“But you wanted proof!” he sneers. “You want to see!”
He’s truly starting to frighten her now. “Stop it, Malfoy. I mean it. I don’t want to hex you.”
The fight drains out of him and he slumps against the wall, then slides down to collapse on the floor, dejection and defeat in every line of his body. “It’s only a matter of time, anyway.”
She joins him on the floor, both leaning against the diamond-pane window. “What’s only a matter of time?” she asks wearily.
He shifts and turns to press his forehead against the glass, eyes blinking slowly.
When he doesn’t answer, she thinks maybe she should ask him where he'd found all the other objects he’s gathered, but he seems more pensive than usual. Several times her mouth opens to fill the silence, but somehow she refrains. The silence stretches out like taffy.
She’s drawn out of her thoughts when Draco thumps his forehead against the pane, his eyes closed.
“Do you think there's anything... after?” he whispers.
His mouth thins, clearly exasperated. “After... death.”
Her eyes widen. She’s felt that Draco was on the verge of outright paranoid schizophrenia since the beginning, but this is something different. Something darker.
Recalling her long-ago conversation with Harry after the Final Battle, Hermione gives him a definite, “Yes.”
He turns to glare at her. “How are you so sure?”
“Harry told me what it was like,” she says quietly.
That seems to shake Draco to the core. “Ah, yes. Saint Potter. Of course he'd get the obscene cherubs and boring harp music. Guaranteed a spot in Elysium for all that he's had to endure, I suppose.”
She becomes defensive, as she always does where Harry is concerned. “He had a choice, not that you’d care. And he chose to return.”
Draco stares at her, incredulous. “You’re telling me Potter chose to return to this ghastly plane instead of kicking up his heels in paradise?” He shakes his head. “What an idiot.”
“That idiot saved your life several times.”
“Didn’t do him or me any favours,” Draco grouses. He points at her. “And don’t tell me I should be grateful; any more gratitude and I’ll choke on it.”
“Fine. Be your obnoxious, horrid self. I don’t care.”
“That’s not true. You’re paid to care, or at least paid to make sure I don’t cause any mischief on your watch.”
“Is that what you really think, Malfoy?” She regrets her sharp tone as he cringes and returns to his obsessive perusal of the grounds. Carefully, she places her hand on his forearm. “I do care, Draco, whether you believe me or not.”
He stares at her hand, but says nothing and doesn’t shake it off.
Hermione startles awake from where she’s still sitting on the floor. Her head aches abominably and she’s stiff in places she didn’t know she had. Watery light is filtering through the window and Draco is agitated.
“What is it?” she mumbles, rubbing her eyes.
He grabs his contraption and flips the switch, and immediately it begins screeching at such a high volume that Hermione thinks she’ll go deaf. Then it begins vibrating, its movement increasing to the point that it’s nearly impossible to hold, and Draco gets to his feet.
“Come on, I don’t think they’re willing to wait any longer!” He grabs her hand and tugs her to her feet.
“Wait, where are we going?” He’s practically dragging her through the chamber and out the door.
“We’ve got to warn McGonagall,” he says breathlessly. “Not sure how many there are, but I’m sure they’ve made some sort of encampment in the Forbidden Forest.”
Hermione tries to pull him to a halt, but it’s no use; he’s determined to get to the Headmistress’ office. “You can’t just tell her there are Death Eaters on the grounds! There are protective charms all over the place.”
He finally stops and stares at her. “Nothing is as powerful as the original magic, Granger. What was destroyed during the Final Battle was Founder’s Magic.” He nods to the ceiling. “These are strong enchantments, but they’re not as ancient.” He turns and continues on his way. “It might’ve been better if they’d rebuilt Hogwarts someplace else.”
Hermione is about to tell him why that would be impossible when they run into Professor McGonagall herself.
“You’re both up bright and early,” she says with an arched brow.
“Yes, sorry, we’re just—”
“There’s Death Eaters at the edge of the grounds, Professor,” Draco rushes.
The professor’s eyes widen. “Mr Malfoy, are you well?”
“What?” he snaps. “Why won’t any of you listen to me!”
“Miss Granger, what exactly is the—”
Draco snarls and aims his device down the steps. “They’re coming!” He doesn’t wait for them to make a decision and heads back down the staircase.
McGonagall stares at Hermione. “How long has he been like this?”
Hermione rubs her forehead. “Since he got out,” she sighs. She bites her lip. “We could look, Professor. If for no other reason than to settle his mind that there’s no one actually following him, hell-bent on his destruction.”
“Do you think that’s wise? To indulge him like that?”
“Considering all that he’s gone through in the past three years, I’m surprised he’s not worse, Professor.”
And for some unknown reason, Hermione is irritated with her former head of house. It also doesn’t help that Malfoy is out of sight now… and that uneasy, foreboding feeling is creeping up her spine at an alarming rate.
“I really think we should find Malfoy,” she whispers and draws her wand.
She doesn’t wait for McGonagall, just rushes off down the stairs and out of the castle, in the direction she thinks that Malfoy must have gone: the Forbidden Forest.
“Quiet,” Draco breathes into her ear before she has the chance to scream. When she nods in agreement, he lets go and gestures towards the east. “Over there. They’ve just killed a unicorn.”
She swallows thickly at what she sees. Three wraith-like figures bend low over the silvery body of the majestic animal, growling and slurping, and it’s a tremendous effort not to be sick all over Malfoy.
“I told you.”
She leans into him for support and closes her eyes, unable to watch any more. “I understand now,” she rasps. Oh, does she understand.
The Ministry had become more than complacent when it came to dealing with the fallout after the Final Battle. Convicting whomever they had on hand, preoccupied with trying to rebuild their fracture society, following the same route they’d followed the first time the Dark Lord was defeated.
“They won’t believe me,” Draco whispers, his jaw clenching. “They’ll say it’s all in my mind, or worse, that I just want attention. Maybe they’ll agree that there’s a threat and determine I’m not worth saving.”
Hermione grabs his hand and squeezes. “No, I won’t let that happen. You know I won’t.” She holds his gaze. “The Ministry will believe you.”
She’ll make sure they will.