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Extinction

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I walked through the remodeled atrium of the Ministry of Magic, nose buried in a book. I was so close to the end, hoping to get it over with before 8 a.m. when the work week would begin. My eyes darted back and forth on the final paragraph as I reached the lift that would take me down to the various sublevels. The book and the lift doors closed simultaneously, accompanied by my heavy sigh.

"A New Look at Magical Creatures in Case Law," a voice behind me read aloud. "Must not have been very good, to earn a sigh like that."

I glanced back to see who had spoken. Kingsley Shacklebolt gave me a bright smile, straightening his head from tilting it to read the spine of my book.

"Hello, Minister Shacklebolt," I greeted politely, kicking myself for being so lost in thought that I didn't notice the Minister of Magic himself. I was trying to be more professional as an adult, but I was still a bookworm at heart. "The book itself is perfectly fine," I explained. "It just doesn't contain any new information."

"Perhaps not for you and your bright mind," he complimented.

I smiled in return, but such compliments were becoming tiresome. In school, I had imagined graduating and finally being surrounded by adults who took things like research and knowledge seriously. Now that I was 19 and working in that "real world," it simply wasn't meeting my expectations. My coworkers at the ministry were just older versions of my classmates. And the average person was much like Harry and Ron, with many other things pulling their attention from learning.

People filed in and out of the lift on each floor, making progress slow, but finally I reached level 4, housing the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Shortly after the Battle of Hogwarts back in May, I'd begun advocacy work to help the disenfranchised house elves, and ended up lobbying for the rights of all kinds of magical creatures. In the five months since I'd joined the ministry, the office had doubled in size to handle the growing workload as more and more magical creatures sought legal recognition. It was the kind of work I'd felt passionate about ever since I met Dobby and realized how badly the wizarding world treated anyone less than human. At some level, I acknowledged the deeper motivation in my own mind--as a muggleborn, I had a lesser status too. Even now, after the fall of Voldemort, some wizards were still concerned with bloodlines.

Speak of the devil, I thought to myself, seeing a disturbingly familiar witch with blond and black hair. She stood with a hand on one hip as she spoke to an employee.

"Well, when will she be in?"

"That is, uh, she's not due for another minute or so, M-Madame Malfoy, ma'am," the worker stuttered, tugging at his collar. "Wait, there she is!"

Narcissa Malfoy, witness to my torture, turned the full force of her flinty gaze on me. I stiffened with half a breath caught in my throat.

"There you are," she said. "Finally. Do you have somewhere more private than this glorified hallway where we can speak?"

Her eyes were as cold as I remembered from that fateful night at Malfoy Manor. Determined to maintain a professional demeanor, I took a few breaths and focused on how good it felt to punch Draco in the face in third year.

"My office is at the end of the hall," I said, shooting for a polite tone but sounding more like a funeral director.

"Come, then," she commanded, striding away.

She's leading me to MY office! I clenched my fists but followed without protest. Better to stay calm and get this menace out of here as quickly as possible. I ignored the pitying looks from my coworkers as we went by.

When we reached my office, I stepped around her and tapped my wand on the door to unlock it, keeping more distance between us than was probably necessary. I followed her inside and sat in the rickety chair behind my desk. The department was a little underfunded, sure, but it wasn't a glorified hallway. As I watched Mrs. Malfoy sit down in the more comfortable visitor's chair and take a look around the room, I silently thanked my past self for keeping my office so tidy, unlike my book-infested apartment. I didn't need to give this aristocratic witch another thing to criticize.

"I need you to do some research for me," Mrs. Malfoy said without preamble.

"On magical creatures?" I asked, wondering why she would come to me.

"No. Using the... oh, whatever it's called. I was recently made aware that muggles have some sort of... nonmagical web of information?"

"The World Wide Web?" I supplied.

"Yes, precisely. It may prove useful for my work."

"So you came to me," I drawled, "because I'm the closest thing to a muggle you could think of?"

"You may be a mu--muggleborn, but at least you're not an idiot."

I tensed, the scar on my arm burning slightly when she nearly spoke the slur aloud. It hadn't faded like normal scars do, and I couldn't be sure if the lingering effects were psychosomatic or a curse. Gritting my teeth, I asked, "Is that supposed to be a compliment?"

"It's simply a fact. How much do you know about my work in the ministry, Ms. Granger?"

I tried to shrug, but my shoulders were too tense to really pull it off. "I know you joined the Department of Mysteries after the war." And I hope they're keeping a close eye on you, I added silently.

"Yes, and predictably the department requires that the details remain a mystery. But I can tell you my work as an Unspeakable involves... putting things right. If you agree to help me, I can share my classified files with you. It's only temporary, and you will be paid a bonus for your assistance."

I squirmed in my chair as she spoke. I was loathe to admit it, but I was hooked from the moment she said "classified files." My strong aversion to her couldn't overpower my curiosity for those mysteries housed somewhere below my feet. If advocacy hadn’t been the clear choice for me, I might have applied to work there.

"If I agree to help, what would that entail?" I asked, delaying my answer.

"Working with me, gathering information, and analyzing that information."

Her answer was too vague to be helpful. I shrugged, knowing Unspeakables couldn't just go explaining their secrets away. Though a small, fearful part of me twisted in resistance, I said, "Okay, I might be interested."

She nodded as if she'd expected that answer. "Excellent."

"There's just a small problem," I admitted. "Only muggles can use the Web."

She waved a pale hand dismissively. "Whatever regulations Weasley's department has about misusing muggle artifacts, I'm certain the ministry will make an exception."

I was dying to know what could possibly be that important, but I had to be honest about our limitations. "It's not that. We literally can't use it. You should have seen me trying to use my parents' new computer over the summer. It crashed and wouldn't start back up until I stepped away. In my muggle studies class they explained that magical fields seem to interfere with digital signals. Interestingly, analog signals are fine, which is why old-fashioned telephones work while--"

"So you're telling me it's impossible? You won't be able to assist me?" Mrs. Malfoy interrupted.

I cleared my throat, wishing I wouldn't slip so easily into info-sharing mode. "I can't help you directly. But my neighbor can. She's very technically savvy. She's practically a witch herself."

"Practically a witch? You mean she...?" Mrs. Malfoy rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Of course you would live near muggles. But even this project won't make it permissible for us to break the Statute of Secrecy."

I rolled my eyes. "Of course. I meant that I'll find a way to ask for her help without, you know, accidentally revealing the existence of all wizardkind."

Her lips quirked, then tightened as she looked at me very carefully. "You understand this is on a need to know basis? You won't be able to tell the golden boy and his ginger lapdog."

"That's my boyfriend you're speaking about," I snapped.

She raised an unimpressed eyebrow and continued as if I hadn't spoken. "You'll be alone with this secret until such a time as it becomes public knowledge, which may be never."

As I started to respond, she raised her wand. My fingers flew to my own wand. I held it between us, tip trembling in midair as her hand hovered mid-motion. I belatedly realized her wand wasn't pointed at me, and that it was extremely unlikely that she would attack me after asking for my help. Sighing, I leaned back in my chair, tapping my wand on my leg in annoyance--at her, for making me put up with her presence, and at myself for having such a hair trigger response.

"You're rather too quick with that vine wood, Ms. Granger. The war is over," she chastised me. Then a dark look crossed her face. Rather than explaining her change in expression, she tilted her wand and asked sarcastically, "May I?"

I nodded, making myself sheathe my wand. It had been returned to me after the war when all kinds of stolen objects were sorted and matched with their owners. Mrs. Malfoy gave her wand a little wave and a scroll appeared on my desk.

"This is a secrecy contract for you to sign," she told me, "but don't decide right now. Think on it. Only sign it if you're willing to keep its terms. And only if you're able to work with someone you... despise, clearly. If you are, then come to my office tomorrow in the Department of Mysteries. Minister Shacklebolt will make sure someone takes care of your magical creature work in your absence."

As much as I pride myself on my rationality, there are some things my gut decides for me, before I've even finished thinking. This was one of those times. I knew I was going to sign the contract. Now it was only a matter of reading it in its entirety so I could be sure of what I was getting into. I unrolled the scroll just enough to peek at the title: Magically Binding Oath of Secrecy, Level X, Project 404. "How many levels of secrecy are there?" I asked.

"Ten. Level X only grants access on a per-project basis," she replied, standing up and automatically smoothing down the velvet of her robes as she prepared to leave.

"I suppose I have to start somewhere," I murmured, wondering what other amazing secrets were at the other levels.

"For what it's worth..." She stood still for a moment, looking as if she had her own internal debate going on. "I hope you'll say yes. Good day to you."

With that, she was gone, leaving me with only a scroll and a load of questions. Her words slowly sank in. I was being offered clearance to know about a big secret. And Mrs. Malfoy was being quite civil, unlike her son. But I couldn't forget how deeply involved she'd been with my worst enemies. My subconscious still feared her, still reacted to her with memories of that dark manor, which was not somewhere I wanted to linger. I'd either have to get used to it, or reject this opportunity.

I looked at the paperwork on my desk, then back to the scroll. It was time to be honest with myself. Ever since we won the war, everyday life had lost its luster. I was proud of my advocacy work at the ministry, but it wasn't enough. Even books weren't as compelling anymore, though I hadn't confessed that to anyone and still read often. Something was missing from my life. Mrs. Malfoy was not a welcome presence, but I felt more curious about the future than I had in months.

My attention turned irresistibly to the contract. Using a simple charm, I unrolled the entire scroll in the air to estimate how long it would take me to read it. It lengthened to a metre, then two, then ten, faster and faster until my office was filling up with paper.

"Finite! Finite incantatem!" I exclaimed, but it was too late. Paper was strung all over me, my desk, and the floor to a depth a rowboat could float in.

The intimidated coworker from earlier came to my office and reared back when he saw the interior. "Whoa! I was going to ask what that Malfoy woman wanted, but... maybe I should come back later?"

Oh, you know, I wanted to tell him, only an amazing opportunity to dig into a mystery. Instead, I said, "It's just a mountain of paperwork, as per."

"Mondays," he said sympathetically, shaking his head. "Need a hand?"

I thanked him but declined, and he left me to my mess. I managed to get the entire scroll rolled up again, though not without first getting my arm tangled in it and upending a lamp. Then, worst of all, I had to set it aside until my lunch break and focus on the usual morning workload.

***

I tapped my foot, trying to get some of the nervous energy out of my legs as noon approached. I'd recovered enough focus to finish a great deal of work, but now that my lunch break was only minutes away, I couldn't wait any longer. I reached for the scroll and carefully unrolled it just a half metre at a time. The text was incredibly detailed, outlining all the different levels of clearance in the department, and a separate protocol for project-level clearance. It described common mistakes that could reveal information, at which point I had to pause my reading and think for a minute.

I was alright at keeping secrets. It took Harry and Ron ages to find out I was using a time turner in third year. But I was also a notorious know-it-all, a term I hated. Really I love telling people fascinating things they might not have heard about. It would be terribly hard to keep such things to myself if they were classified. I'd have to be cautious and learn to keep my mouth shut sometimes.

It's a good job I was such a quick reader, otherwise I'd never be able to finish the scroll. I kept going through my whole lunch hour and forgot to eat anything, so I ate the lunch I packed while finishing my afternoon work. Finally the end of the workday came, and at exactly 5pm I hurried out with the scroll in hand. Rather than heading straight home, however, I decided to stop by Minister Shacklebolt's office.

"Ms. Granger!" he greeted me as I knocked on his door frame. He kept an open-door policy, literally, except when he was in a meeting.

"Do you have minute, Minister?" I asked, fidgeting with the scroll.

"Certainly, come right in." He pushed some papers aside. "Heading home? I ought to as well, but the paperwork never stops."

"Well, I'll try not to take much of your time. I just wanted to ask you about an opportunity that crossed my desk this morning."

"Ah, Narcissa's project."

"You're familiar?" I asked, well aware that there were a lot of things going on at the ministry and he surely didn't know about all of them.

"Of course, I authorized her to bring you in on it. What's on your mind?"

"Do you think it's a good choice for me? I don't even know what it's about, but I'm supposed to make a decision."

"I think you'll find it an interesting challenge, though you can drop out at any time if it's not a good fit."

I relaxed a little. "That's reassuring. And Mrs. Malfoy is... settling in well here?"

He leaned forward and folded his hands on the desk. "You mean, is she reformed."

I winced, reluctant to admit I didn't trust the ministry's judgment. They evidently trusted her enough to let her work as an Unspeakable. But after what she'd done, what she'd let happen to me personally, I was far more skeptical.

He nodded without even needing to hear me confirm it. "She's doing good work. None of us can see what's in her heart, of course. It's wise to not let your guard down so easily. But I can tell you that she's been a model employee."

"That's all I need to know, thank you," I said quickly, feeling a little too nosy. "Just making sure this is all above board."

"A good precaution," he assured me, shaking my hand in farewell. I left for home feeling a little better about my decision.

Chapter Text

With a mug of mint tea in hand, I settled into one of two armchairs in the corner of my apartment, close to a woodstove with a cozy fire burning. The apartment was tiny, a single room with few amenities, but it was all I needed—and all I could afford on ministry paychecks. It was the fourth one I'd rented over the last several months, as I kept getting too restless to settle in one place. This apartment had lasted longer than most.

An hour later, a loud knock on the door interrupted my reading. I sighed but put on a smile as I stood up and threw the door open.

"Hey, beautiful," Ron greeted me with a big hug.

"Hey," I said, squeezing his shoulders before stepping back to my chair.

"Thought I'd swing by and see if you want to go out."

"Sorry, I need to finish reading this by tomorrow," I replied, gesturing to the deceptively small scroll on my chair.

"Won't take long will it? I could read with you for a spell and then we could go." He crossed over to the stacks of books in another corner of the room and picked one out. "You need to get some bookshelves in your bachelor pad."

It was a bit of a running joke between us, as if I were the bachelor. He still lived at the Burrow while working as an auror with Harry, plus a part-time job at a quidditch shop whenever he wasn't on assignment. Ever since we'd begun our normal lives, he'd become determined to save up money, for what I don't know, but perhaps compensating for years of feeling like he never had enough.

"I'm afraid this will take me all night," I said, pulling out a few metres of paper from the scroll to demonstrate.

"Blimey, Hermione, is that for work?"

"Unfortunately, yes. And you'll never believe who gave it to me: Narcissa Malfoy!"

"Why am I not surprised. She gave you an inhuman amount of stuff to read because she wants to torture you." He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Bloody Malfoys."

I think I was supposed to laugh, but the comment about torture was too spot on. I remembered her eyes again, watching me suffer without a flicker of emotion, then felt the memory morph into how her eyes looked today, guarded but not hateful. "I don't know," I found myself saying. "She came to me for help and was—well, mostly respectful."

"So she respectfully gave you this never-ending scroll to read. Right," Ron retorted, staring at the lines and lines of text.

"I'm only considering it because it's for a good cause," I half-lied, rolling it back up before he could read any of it. There was no specific rule against telling him what it was, but I'd so recently read an entire section on the wisdom of keeping one's security clearance to oneself. At this rate, I'd become as paranoid as Alastor Moody. Maybe I'd tell Ron about it at some point, but for now I wanted to err on the side of being overcautious. And I didn't want him to know that I wasn't happy with my life as it was. He'd take it personally.

"I'll join you for a while anyway, keep you company," Ron offered, settling down in the other armchair with Quidditch Through the Ages. I sat back down in my chair, pleased that he'd learned not to bug me to go out. I got quite mad at him a few times when he kept bothering me while I was trying to study, but perhaps he's finally figured out that he can enjoy quiet time with me too.

I smiled to myself as I read the next part of the scroll. Then I frowned. Ron was muttering words under his breath. I remembered with dismay that he'd never learned to read silently. I did my best to ignore the whispered facts about bludgers and badgers and whatnot, but I was relieved when about fifteen minutes later he stood and stretched.

"That's all I can take of that," he groaned, replacing his book on top of the neatly sorted pile he'd taken it from. I'd put it back in its place later. "Do you want anything before I go? A drink?"

"I'm alright, thanks for coming by. Maybe I'll have more time tomorrow." I took a sip of the tea I'd forgotten about, still half full.

After he let himself out, I felt a little guilty. Truth be told, I didn't spend much time with him even when I wasn't bogged down with work. We hung out maybe every week. I'm sure he wanted more, but I needed a lot of time to myself, plus I was afraid to encourage him too much. Some of our friends were already getting married to the people they'd dated in school. I couldn't even fathom doing that.

***

The next morning, I got to work thirty minutes early. So I was a little excited; I couldn't help it. The atrium was nearly empty, and I was alone on the lift on my way down to the Department of Mysteries. My mood darkened as I reflected on the last time I went down there. It was one of the worst nights of my life—but also one of the most fascinating.

I entered level nine clutching the signed scroll and my satchel, soon facing that round room of unlabeled doors. I belatedly realized Mrs. Malfoy hadn't given me any instructions on where to go from here. The brain room? The room with the archway? I certainly hoped not.

"I need Mrs. Malfoy's office," I said aloud. Nothing happened. When I reached for a random door to see if I could find the right one by chance, the room spun around and sent me sprawling to the floor. I stood shakily when it stopped moving, feeling sick and disoriented.

"That's different. Wonderful first day on the job," I groaned.

To my relief, the door in front of me opened—disappeared , really—and Mrs. Malfoy strode out to greet me. The door rematerialized behind her.

"Good morning, Ms. Granger. I wasn't expecting you so soon, but the room told me you'd arrived and we might as well get started. I trust you've signed the agreement?"

"The room told you? I mean, good morning to you too. Yes, here it is," I replied, holding it out for her to inspect. Rather than opening it, she tossed the scroll into the air where it disintegrated until my signature was all that remained. The swirls of ink burned golden for a moment, then drifted apart and disappeared.

"The room will know you now, and you can come and go without that dreadful spinning. Come along. We have much to discuss."

I followed her through the disappearing door and into a tiny office. I was almost disappointed by how normal it looked. There was a desk with a small picture of her son in one corner and a stack of parchment in the middle. The only mysterious thing about the room was the spiky potted plant in one corner, which wasn't any kind of muggle or magical plant I'd ever seen before.

"Keep a goodly distance from the Venus Fly-Shredder," Mrs. Malfoy advised as I drifted closer to have a look. I took a big step away from it. She elaborated, "He does a marvelous job of destroying documents, but he gets a bit grouchy when the workload is too light. Have a seat here."

I sank into one of two visitors chairs across from her, wondering who in the world would want to visit her. I glanced behind me where the door had been as I set my satchel down. "How does this place work?" I asked. "It spins before I even touch anything, the doors come and go... it makes no sense." I reached back to touch the smooth wall. Not even a seam remained.

"I wondered the same thing when I started this job," Mrs. Malfoy replied, eyes lighting up. "None of the rooms are physically connected; it's all magic. If you manage to open any of the doors, they'll lead you right back to the Room of Doors. It even notifies us of intruders. It's quite an elaborate spell. The designer won't talk to me about it, but I've poked around a little."

"Did they use a Mobius equation? That would explain the doubling back," I surmised, pleased to finally be talking with someone curious about the inner workings of spells.

"They do for some parts at least, but the core functionality uses a Horn of Gabriel equation."

"Oh, of course, because of the additional dimensions involved. Wow," I breathed, humming as I settled back in my chair. "That setup is quite a change from the last time I... er, visited."

"After a serious breach a few years ago—I believe you know which breach I'm talking about—they increased security here."

I looked down at my hands in my lap. "Understandable." Remembering our foolhardy attempt to rescue Sirius brought me back down to earth, where she was my enemy. Or former enemy. Either way, not a person with whom I should enjoy discussions.

Mrs. Malfoy pulled a file out from the stack on her desk and slid it across the surface with her fingertips. "Here's the Project 404 file. This is your last chance to turn back. I won't be responsible for any nightmares it brings you."

"Nightmares?" I repeated skeptically, opening the file without hesitation and scanning the first page. I took a deep breath as my eyes flitted across phrases like "uncontained dementors," "vast hordes," and "unknown destination."

"After the final battle," I whispered, "where did they go?" I read further, seeing some things I knew—they no longer guarded Azkaban, and disappeared after Voldemort was killed—and some things I did not. Researchers had followed the dementors south, but no one had ascertained their intentions.

"This is only one of many research projects that could benefit from that muggle invention, but it's the one I deem the most urgent. Frankly, I'm horrified by how long it took the ministry to start worrying about dementors. They’re not loyal to anyone, and they can permanently damage psyches even without administering the kiss."

Harry, Ron, and I knew better than most what a threat dementors were. "It's very concerning," I agreed. "So there was an investigation?"

"Yes, and it won't take long to catch up," she informed me. "That file you're holding is everything we have on them. They asked me to think of safer ways to gather intel after two researchers went missing. Since apparently muggles can sense dementors and write to each other inside the Web, I thought there's a chance we can find records of close encounters."

"That's a creative leap not many people would make," I said, tilting my head. "Especially people who think so little of muggles."

"I'm capable of thinking beyond my prejudices," Mrs. Malfoy retorted.

"Sure," I replied, not really believing it. "Dementors, then. Tell me about the researchers."

"The first went out right after the war ended, tracking their trail when it was still hot. Or cold, as it were. The recent signs made them easy to follow. For several days he sent regular reports, which are included in that file." She nodded to the collection in my hands. "But the reports stopped, and we still haven't heard from him.

"The second went out to search for him and finish the work. She too sent messages for a while before dropping out of contact. That's when I started working here and became involved in the project. Their venture sounded very risky to me, and I wanted to look for alternative tracking methods and better protections.

"But a third researcher insisted on going as well; he was the woman's husband, and he couldn't give up on her. I suggested he drop portkeys at regular intervals, like breadcrumbs. In this way, his trail would be clear and he would never be far from instant escape, even if he couldn't safely apparate." She looked down. "It didn't save him—he managed to reach one, but it was during a dementor's kiss. He's at St. Mungo's now, unresponsive."

By the time she finished recounting what had happened, I had drawn my feet up off the floor from subconscious fear. Dementors looked menacing, yes, but that wasn't what scared me about them. It was the way they couldn't be explained, defying natural laws, seemingly indestructible. They were a threat I couldn't quantify.

I took a deep breath. "As long as you don't ask me to go on one of those ill-fated expeditions, I'll do my best to help."

"Sending researchers to certain doom is not on my agenda for the day," she replied testily. "That's exactly why I brought you in."

At that reminder, my problem-solving instincts kicked in. My brain churned through what I'd just learned. I pulled a quill and some parchment out of my satchel and started writing. "Let's think, muggles can detect dementors in a few ways. Cold, fog, a low emotional state... We'll need to search for those words... for synonyms and related terms..." I jotted down as many as I could quickly think of. "And it all needs to be disguised so the request won't make my neighbor suspicious."

"How will she put the Web into a format we can read?" Mrs. Malfoy asked. "Can it be transferred to parchment?"

"Yes, you can print things out from a computer, but it's not possible or necessary for us to read all of it," I replied. "There must be tens of thousands of public posts. It'll have to be an automatic search. Phoebe—my neighbor—she knows how to do that."

"Automatic. Hmm," she said, stroking her lower lip thoughtfully. "That really does sound reminiscent of witchcraft. This neighbor of yours may be better than your average muggle."

"How do you know what muggles are like if you avoid them?" I asked, rolling my eyes.

"I take a look at how idiotic the average wizard is, then subtract magic," she replied. "What remains is... unimpressive, to say the least."

I narrowed my eyes. "Muggles are more than just magic-less wizards. They've invented all kinds of things we can't even imagine. Maybe you'll change your tune when we go see Phoebe."

"You assume you'll be accompanying me?" Mrs. Malfoy asked.

"Of course," I declared. "She's my neighbor. You'll make the request seem more legitimate, but she doesn't know you. And you're not exactly experienced with muggles." And I was hooked; I couldn't let someone work on this problem without me.

She pursed her lips. "I suppose you may be of some assistance. Will you tell me what a comm-pewter is?"

"Computer," I corrected, but my smug look faded when I realized I didn't know how to explain. "It's a machine that... er, honestly I haven't learned too much about them. Not being able to use one is a bit of a buzz-kill. But they're the devices muggles use to access the Web. A bit like fireplaces connecting you to the floo network, I suppose."

"And how will you explain to her why you can't use a computer yourself?" she asked.

"I've already had to explain," I said, embarrassment warming my face. "I told her I have an implant that stops seizures but emits some unfortunate electromagnetic radiation. Nonlethal, of course."

Mrs. Malfoy let out a low chuckle, losing her usual haughty expression. With that mask gone, she could even be beautiful, I supposed, if she weren't so horrid on the inside.

"It's not that far-fetched, you know," I said, defending myself.

"Way to think on your feet, Ms. Granger. You'll need that in this line of work."

I bit my lip. "For however long this lasts."

"You might be surprised."

I shook my head. True, I hadn't given a second thought to my usual work from the moment I woke up this morning. But I knew the department could handle my absence—my temporary absence. I was the only one who would keep pushing for more rights for magical creatures.

"What approach shall we take with your muggle friend?" Mrs. Malfoy asked, returning to the subject at hand.

I looked down at my notes. "Of course," I murmured, seeing an obvious cover story. "Let's tell her we're studying the affect of local weather patterns on depression, doing some exploratory research to see if there's any correlation worth investigating." Seeing her look of encouragement, I continued. "We can't afford a professional research team, because we're just a small nonprofit devoted to..." I lifted my hand in the air as if I could find a mission statement there. "...emotional well-being, an important part of human health that is too often neglected."

I finished ad libbing and came back to reality. Mrs. Malfoy was resting her chin on her hand, looking surprised and pleased.

"Well done. I've never quite believed the hype around you, but perhaps I should have brought you in on this sooner."

"Oh, bother," I said, trying not to feel too proud. "Anyone could have thought of that research problem."

"In mere moments? And inventing an entire fictitious organization to support it?"

"If they applied themselves, yes," I insisted. "When should we speak with her?"

"The sooner the better. Is she at work right now?"

"She works from home. I can call her and see if she's free."

"There are telephones in that bumbling fool Weasley's office," she suggested, nose wrinkling in distaste.

"Then let's go," I said, excited to move forward on the project despite seeing she still held a negative opinion of Ron's family.

The Room of Doors stayed reassuringly still as we walked through, my flats making hardly a sound while Mrs. Malfoy's heels clicked on the dark, polished floor. I looked down, eyes drawn to her purposeful stride. I couldn't stand wearing such high heels myself—utterly impractical and uncomfortable to boot—but she wore them well and it only added to her grace. I scowled at myself for noticing.

It was also impossible not to notice the way everyone else refused to look at her. As we rode up to level 2 in the crowded lift, other employees pressed themselves against the walls to keep away from her. She stared straight ahead with her chin up, not acknowledging anyone around us. And for my part, people looked at me like I'd grown a second head, as if silently asking me, "Why in heavens name are you accompanying Narcissa Malfoy?" I couldn't stand it.

As we walked through the Auror Headquarters, people stared with outright hostility. I couldn't spot Ron or Harry anywhere, but they were often out in the field. Once we made it past there, I kept peeking at Mrs. Malfoy out of the corner of my eye, wondering if people's attitudes bothered her. From what I could see, she didn't give a damn.

When we entered the office for the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts division, Mr. Weasley leaped to his feet looking ready for a fight.

"You!" he growled, face red with barely contained fury.

"Really, Arthur, there's no need for all that," Mrs. Malfoy said, seating herself in the chair across from him without invitation. I reached for another visitor's chair and perched on its edge, uneasy.

Mr. Weasley unclenched his fists but remained standing. "What are you after, Malfoy?"

"Let's be civil. It's in both of our interests to work together."

"Civil? One of my sons is dead because of you and your kind."

Her lips thinned as she pressed them together. "I did not participate in that event."

"Regardless," he said, "you... you're still... still..."

"Complicit?" she finished for him. If anything, that made him even angrier; his face had a purple tint now. Supplementing his vocabulary wouldn't win her any favors. "Yes," she continued, "and I can't turn over a new leaf without the support of good men like you."

My jaw tightened as I heard unpleasant subtleties in her speech, standing in stark contrast to the genuine praise she'd given me only minutes ago. Her respectful tone toward Mr. Weasley wasn't sincere; it was an attempt to placate him so he would cooperate.

"Hermione," Mr. Weasley said, turning to me. "Is there something I can do for you?" He had evidently decided to ignore Mrs. Malfoy.

"I'm sorry, perhaps I should have come here alone," I said. "We only need to use one of your telephones for a moment, then we'll leave you be."

"We?" he asked, looking between us. "You're working with her?" No one spoke a for long moment until he sighed. "Of course you can use my telephones. Is this a 'keep your enemies closer' kind of thing?"

"Don't worry, I can handle it."

"Alright, I suppose," he said, still uncertain but at least willing to help me. I stood up as he crossed over to a nearby chest of drawers and pulled one out, revealing five different phones from as many different decades. "Here are the muggle artifacts. Just don't misuse them!" He paused. "That was a joke."

I gave him a weak smile but couldn't muster a laugh.

He tried to explain, "Because this is the office for... oh, nevermind. Just lift the dongle thingy and turn the whachamacallit."

I approached the drawer and stared at the rotary phone, hoping I remembered how to use it correctly. I felt Mrs. Malfoy come up behind me to watch as I picked up the receiver and dialed with satisfying clacking and whirling sounds.

"May I listen?" she murmured as I waited for the call to go through. I nodded and she leaned closer, holding her ear near mine. I tried very hard not to lean away from her too obviously, distracting myself so much that I nearly forgot what I was calling for when my neighbor picked up the phone.

"Hello?" Phoebe's voice echoed in my ear.

"What?" I asked.

"Who is this?"

"It's Hermione," I said, refocusing. I had to hold the earpiece at a distance a moment later when she squealed my name.

"HerMIONE! You never CALL! Thanks again for helping me move in. When are you going to accept my dinner invitation?"

"I know, I know, I'll get back to you on that. I was wondering, are you free right now, or sometime today?"

"Well, I'm working," she replied, "but I can definitely make time for you. Why?"

"I have a proposal for you."

"Ooh, I like the sound of that."

I blushed and glanced nervously at Mrs. Malfoy, who raised an eyebrow. "Nothing like... uh, I actually want to come over to talk to you about some contract work, just a single job that shouldn't take long. My boss would like to come as well."

"Ohhh. I see. Well, you know I can definitely use the work. Gimme at least ten minutes to put myself together for this meeting and then you can come anytime."

I glanced at the clock on the office wall and whispered with Mrs. Malfoy to confirm a time. "Great, We'll be there at 10 o'clock."

As I hung up and closed the drawer of telephones, Mr. Weasley cleared his throat and said, "Speaking of proposals—how are things with Ronald?"

I felt my face pale at the implication. Did he know something I didn't? "Nothing new," I responded, watching him for further clues. "Just living the good life."

"Good, good," he said, nodding too much. "That's good. Reminds me of my early days with Molly. Anyhow, it's so wonderful having you in our lives. Ginny always wanted another sister."

I was starting to feel sick. Was Ron really planning to propose?

"Yes, so wonderful," I echoed, looking behind me at the door. "Sorry, I've got to go work on my work. You know how work is." I backed out of the room so quickly that I didn't hear his farewell.

Mrs. Malfoy caught up with me without seeming to hurry. "Nervous about getting married?"

"I'm not getting married," I said through clenched teeth.

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "His father seemed to think it was a given. Are you planning to break up with the boy or string him along indefinitely?"

"I'm planning to focus on my job, and you need to stay out of my business."

She lifted one shoulder in a polite shrug. "Just making conversation."

I held in my scoff of disbelief. She was pushing my buttons on purpose. String him along? Ron knew my priority was with my career in the ministry. He was focused on his career too. Or was he saving up money for a ring? And for raising a family? I groaned internally.

I paid no attention as we took the lift to the atrium until I nearly ran into Mrs. Malfoy when she stopped walking.

"Are you quite all right, Ms. Granger? I've never been to your neighborhood, so you'll need to apparate us both there, but I have no intention of getting splinched today."

I ran a hand through my hair to calm my nerves. Apparition was something I did well, something I understood. Feeling more confident, I led the way toward an apparition point, telling her, "The safest destination is my apartment." Then again, I didn't really want her to see how messy my apartment was, so I added, "I also know of a good alley where we can arrive without notice."

"I may actually prefer your home, Ms. Granger. It sounds more private, and less... public."

"Those two traits do generally have an inverse relationship," I muttered. She made "public" sound like a euphemism for "full of dirty muggles."

"One more thing," she said, holding up a finger as a signal to wait. She slipped her heavy wizarding robe off her shoulders, draping it over her arm. "This should be more appropriate for our audience, right?" Underneath, she wore a surprisingly normal-looking dress with a scoop neck, made of some light gray material that looked so soft I almost wanted to touch it.

Seeing me admiring it, she revealed, "It's made of baby unicorn hair."

Did I say I wanted to touch it? I definitely never wanted to, because it was worn by the most despicable woman in the world. I looked away from the awful dress and marched onward—wearing faux-leather shoes, I might add, that not even an ordinary cow had died for.

"That was a joke."

I froze and turned around to look at her.

She was smirking, an expression I knew well from her son. "You should have seen the look on your face. You Gryffindors will believe anything."

I tried to hold onto my anger, but now that I knew it was groundless, it slipped away. Instead I surprised both Mrs. Malfoy and myself by letting out a single laugh.

"Okay, you got me," I admitted, shrugging out of my own robe and self-consciously smoothing out a few wrinkles in my dark red sweater—Gryffindor indeed—and black slacks. I offered my arm. "Ready to go?"

She stepped closer and held my elbow with the ease of long practice being escorted by gentlemen. "Honestly, baby unicorns?" she muttered, bemused. "The things you must think of me."

I shook my head, trying not think about her at all, and disapparated.

Chapter Text

We arrived at my apartment with a small pop, startling Crookshanks out of a nap. He stretched his back, digging his claws into the arm of my favorite chair, and stood up with an irritated look on his face.

"Sorry, Crooks," I apologized, gathering him in my arms and snuggling him. "Where were you last night? Stalking around the courtyard?" He ignored my question and peeked over my shoulder at Mrs. Malfoy. I tightened my grip, afraid he might attack her like he attacked Peter Pettigrew.

Mrs. Malfoy was oblivious to the whole interaction. She hung her robe alongside several others on my coat rack and made a beeline for the stacks of books that were overrunning the room. "You have quite a collection," she said, brushing her fingers along the spines. I stared as she slid a book out of the middle of a stack to skim a few pages, then levitated the stack to put it back in exactly the same place. She pulled out another book and brushed a hand reverently across the front before opening it. A minute passed like that, as if she'd completely forgotten why we were here. Right then, I saw a lot of myself in her, and I couldn't quite put my finger on how I felt about that. Crookshanks hopped out of my slackened arms and toppled the tallest stack in the room.

"Crookshanks, no!" I cried, reaching out too late to stop the cascade of books across the wooden floor.

Mrs. Malfoy jerked at the noise, then watched my huge cat push one of the fallen books toward her with his squashed nose. He lay down upon it, looking at her expectantly.

"What in the world!" she exclaimed, reaching out for the book. It had seemed like he wanted her to read it, but now he wouldn't budge. "Perhaps if I pay the toll first," she surmised, giving his ears a hearty scratch and brushing his long coat. That must've done the trick. He stood up and settled down nearby instead, leaving the book free for her to pick up.

"May I borrow this?" she asked, holding it up for me to see. It was one of my books that speculated on possible sources of magic. It wasn't rare or dear to me, so I had no reason to decline.

I gestured for her to take it, not trusting my voice. I was dumbfounded by the exchange. My cat was a traitor and Mrs. Malfoy was in my apartment rooting through my books. All of a sudden it was too much.

"Let's go. Phoebe is expecting us," I said, chucking my robe on the chair and opening the door.

"Right, of course," she said, hurrying over and banishing the book to some other place, perhaps her own library.

I tapped my wand on my sweater to remove the cat hair Crookshanks had so generously shed on my clothes, then hid it away. Mrs. Malfoy followed me out of my apartment and down the hall. I had a first floor room, which Crookshanks loved since he could come and go through the window, so it didn't take long to leave the building and cross over to the east side of the courtyard where Phoebe lived. There were four buildings around the quad, in various states of disrepair.

"You really live here?" she asked, eying our surroundings with distaste.

"Not all of us can afford mansions," I replied, trying not to be offended. Every apartment in these crummy buildings held more warmth and joy than all the rooms in her fancy house.

"With your status among us, you could live practically anywhere you want," she told me. "You're a war hero."

"I want to earn what I have," I retorted. "But I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand that."

She shook her head. "I think you underestimate the value of what you did for people. Stopping a powerful wiz—ah, murderer—isn't a trivial matter. You have earned so much more than what you ask for." She had to limit herself to muggle terms when we reached Phoebe's building where regular people were coming and going. She shied away from them whenever they got too close, which seemed a bit excessive to me.

I held the door open for her, figuring she wouldn't want to touch it. "I don't want to be paid back for doing the right thing. It cheapens it."

"How does that cheapen it? Don't you think people would feel good knowing they gave something back in return? Wouldn't you want to do something nice for someone who saved you?"

I frowned, unable to see any flaws in her argument, but still convinced that my way was more noble. We fell silent as we reached Phoebe's door.

"I had intended to go over our cover story on the way here," Mrs. Malfoy said quietly. "But I must admit I got rather sidetracked."

"We'll be fine," I assured her. "Phoebe is brilliant at what she does, but she never notices when I fib."

She nodded once, checked that her wand was concealed at her side, and knocked quietly on the door.

Phoebe opened the door with a big smile. "Come in, come in. Now stop right there!" The petite young woman shifted like a rockslide to block my path. "Okay, sit here, just don't get near my computer. I have a lot of programs running and I don't want you to mess them up." She gave me a good-natured glare and added, "Again."

Before I knew it, she had crammed Mrs. Malfoy and I together into her tiny couch, stuffed a mug of tea in each of our hands, and sat upon a kitchen chair in front of us.

"There," she said, looking satisfied. "What can I do for you?"

I smiled as I saw Mrs. Malfoy struggling to regain her poise after that whirlwind. I had the advantage here, accustomed to Phoebe's bossy and energetic welcomes.

"Thank you for agreeing to see us, Miss...?" the prim and proper witch began, trying to sit up straight in the sagging couch.

"It's just Phoebe," my neighbor replied.

"Very well, Phoebe. My name is Narcissa Malfoy. I assist in the management of a small non-profit organization," she explained, launching into our cover story. I listened to her repeat the tale I'd concocted, lying so convincingly that I wondered if she ever told the truth about anything. I watched her for any sign of deception, but her elegant gestures matched every expression, and her lips quirked with a smile at all the right moments.

"And you're working on this project too, Hermione?" Phoebe asked, looking at me.

I'd been staring too long and lost track of the conversation. Luckily, I could play back what my ears had just heard, after a fashion.

"Yes," I said with only a moment's delay. "It's something fulfilling to do with my free time."

"As if the work you do for minorities isn't fulfilling enough," she said, laughing. I'd previously told her the muggle-safe version of what I did at the ministry.

"And as if I have any free time," I joked with her, hiding my discomfort. My work really should've been fulfilling, but it didn't stimulate my mind enough.

"I swear, you workaholics put us all to shame. But I'm totally on board with this. If you think this non-profit is legit, Hermione, I'm in."

"Excellent," Mrs. Malfoy said, reminding me of yesterday when I'd voiced my interest. This time, sitting right next to her, I could feel her relief by the way her body relaxed, leg pressing against mine. Now there's one true thing I know about her, I thought to myself. She's deeply invested in this project. She must be up to something. I tore my eyes away from her again when Phoebe got down to business.

"Okay, Narcissa—can I call you Narcissa? I'm not big on last names. Who wants to be tied to their asshole family forever?"

"I can relate," Mrs. Malfoy replied dryly, making me snort in amusement at the unexpected comment.

Phoebe grinned. "A kindred spirit. Anyway, I can do this for you pretty quickly. How far back in time do you want me to search?"

"Just this year is fine," I said and handed her my parchment with our keywords. "Here's a list of words to search for."

"Wow, you have some fancy paper. Okay, only posts within 1998, that's a reasonable time range. I'm sure you've already tried a search engine, but even Google's new PageRank algorithm can only do so much, right? So I'll write a script to scrape Usenet and other common message boards and chatrooms for posts with your keywords. After that, I can compare..."

Mrs. Malfoy sipped her tea, nodding blankly as she listened. I took a sip of mine as well, trying to follow along but having no better luck understanding. Phoebe described in detail how she would analyze the results and give us a table of word frequencies with correlations, but all the strange words—Usenet and scraping and what the hell was a Google?—had my mind in a jumble.

"Will you be able to print the results for us?" Mrs. Malfoy asked, remembering the word I'd used for it earlier. "I'm afraid I'm not especially good with computers."

"Sure, no problem. I have some clients who barely know how to turn the damn things on!" Phoebe shook her head. "Unbelievable. But yeah, I'll print it for you. Do you need anything else, or is that my only deliverable?"

I added a crucial point. "Can you put the results on a map of Great Britain? We're especially concerned with how weather in local regions affects people's moods."

"A map?" Phoebe repeated, scratching her head. "Well, maybe. If I can uncover people's IP addresses and try to trace them..." She mumbled quietly, deep in thought, then resurfaced. "Surely some of them can be mapped. It's tricky, but lucky for you I'm awesome."

Mrs. Malfoy tried to hide a smile at that. "How do you charge your clients, Phoebe?"

"Depends. I charge long jobs by the hour. But a simple job like this would be fixed-rate. Let's say fifty pounds total."

"Nonsense. Your services are quite important to our venture. One hundred pounds," Mrs. Malfoy declared.

"It's for a good cause. Sixty," Phoebe countered.

I snorted with laughter. "This negotiation is completely backwards." Not only that, but I'm sure the pureblood witch beside me had no idea how many pounds this kind of work was worth.

She looked at me, as if realizing this as well. "What do you recommend, Ms. Granger?"

"Seventy?" I compromised. Admittedly, I had no idea either.

Phoebe clapped her hands. "Sold! I'll have everything for you by tomorrow."

"That quickly?" Mrs. Malfoy asked.

"Unless something goes terribly wrong, sure. The data-mining itself won't take long at all. I've got a high-speed connection, not one of those 56K modems anymore. Making the data presentable is the time-consuming part."

"We'll let you get to it, then," Mrs. Malfoy said, trying again to sit up as the end of our meeting approached. "Your payment will be ready when we return tomorrow."

"Let me get you my business card so you'll have my contact info if you need it," Phoebe said, taking our teacups and walking away in search of her cards.

I stood up, using the arm of the couch to push myself up from its depths. Without my weight, Mrs. Malfoy's side sagged down even further. She struggled to get out of the couch until I had pity on her and reached out my hand to help her to her feet. She was lighter than I expected, and I ended up pulling her against me quite by accident.

"Um," I said, heart racing as we stood chest to chest. I hadn't realized how nice she smelled, like some unknown spice.

"Hmm," she replied, frozen in place with her hand on my waist. Without her heels, she would've been almost exactly my height. Quite a change from always reaching up to hug Ron, or dance with Krum back in the day.

I took a hasty step back. My throat was too dry to speak, even if I had thought of something appropriate to say. Being close to her felt very different from seeing her at a safe distance.

Phoebe rescued us from the awkward moment. "Aha!" she exclaimed. "Found one!" She rushed back over to us and handed a slightly rumpled business card to Mrs. Malfoy, who snapped out of her reverie in time to accept it graciously.

"Thank you, Phoebe," she said. "Same time tomorrow?"

"See you then," my neighbor agreed. "Feel free to come by sooner, Hermione."

I waved and walked out with Mrs. Malfoy, keeping my limbs close to me so I wouldn't brush against her.

When we were out of earshot of anyone in the hall, I tried to break the ice. "You were pretty convincing back there. I couldn't tell you were lying, even though I knew you were."

"The key to selling a lie," she confided, "is to convince yourself it's true."

"I suppose I should be glad you're lying for our side now."

"Perhaps we would find it easier to work together if your idea of 'sides' were a little more nuanced," she replied. Without waiting for me to respond, she asked, "Shall we reconvene here tomorrow at ten?"

My brow furrowed. "Aren't we both going back to the ministry now?"

"Yes, but until we have those results, the project is on hold. We can return to our respective jobs."

"Right," I said. "Separately. Oh, my satchel is still in your office. And I wanted to read that project file."

"I'll send a messenger. Good day." She slipped into a hidden nook by a stairway and vanished, back to the ministry presumably.

Her abrupt departure left me feeling off balance. Not wanting to think about her a moment longer, I walked straight back to my apartment, threw my robe back on, and apparated to the ministry. Before I knew it, I was back at my desk faced with the same mundane questions I faced every day. I summoned a file I'd been sifting through yesterday, looking for systemic problems in recent legal cases where magical creatures had lost.

Lethargy overtook me as soon as I started reading, even though only a minute ago I'd been fine. I leaned on my desk, supporting myself with my elbows, trying hard to focus. My mind refused to cooperate, flailing like an animal in a trap. I kept thinking about the dementors, wondering where they were going and whether they were capable of making plans.

"Hermione Granger?"

I jumped in my chair, looking up at the door. A wizard I didn't recognize held out my satchel and a flower. Herbology wasn't my strong suit, but it seemed to be a daffodil.

"Delivery from Narcissa Malfoy, of all people," he announced, holding out both items as if they were contaminated.

"Thank—thank you," I said, twirling the daffodil in my fingers as he tipped his hat and left. I'd completely forgotten to expect the messenger, but the flower was doubly unexpected. Was it a symbol of something? I knew flowers had meanings, but I hadn't the faintest clue about this one. I lifted it to my nose and sniffed it.

The moment I did so, the flower transformed into a file—the Project 404 file. When I set it down, it turned back into a daffodil. A smile spread across my face. Clever witch. She sent a classified file in style. I bit my lip and looked between it and the file I had been reading. Once again, I had to put my work first and set aside the thing I was more interested in. If this became a daily struggle, I might not last long.

***

I entirely skipped lunch in order to finish work an hour early, a common practice among ministry workers without public-facing jobs. I was looking forward to another nice evening reading the project file by the fire, but before leaving the ministry I went up a few floors to go see Neville Longbottom. The entire DA had stayed in touch after the war, so I knew he worked as an auror now. I found him at his desk at the headquarters, filling out a report.

"Neville, how are you doing?" I asked as I approached him.

"Good, Hermione! Just got back from a weird encounter with a witch who kept threatening to turn everybody into toads. Way to live up to a stereotype, eh? Almost got me, too!"

His hands caught my eye as he set his quill down. "Almost?" I asked, pointing to his fingers, which had noticeable webbing between them.

"Oh, drat!" he exclaimed. "The spell must've grazed me. I should go get this fixed. Wait, did you need something?"

"Nothing important," I replied and showed him the flower. "Just a quick question, do daffodils have a meaning?"

"They do!" Neville replied eagerly. "A lot of meanings, in fact. Most often it's stuff like 'regard' and 'new beginnings.' There's some more obscure ones too, like 'female ambition' and of course 'vanity.' I don't have to tell you the story of Narcissus."

I tensed. "Excuse me?"

"Narcissus is the genus of daffodils. From the Greek myth?"

"Right, I know the one," I said, relaxing again as the surprise faded. The flower was Narcissa Malfoy's namesake. It made perfect sense that she chose it, even if only for that reason. But she seemed like the type to have layers of meaning in everything she did. So which was it, new beginnings? How banal. Female ambition, perhaps.

"Thanks for the information," I said, giving him a smile. "Good luck with your toad problem, and best wishes to Hannah and the baby." I really was quite happy for him. He deserved good things after everything he'd been through.

"Good to see you. Let's have another DA meetup soon and catch up," he replied, waving as he hurried off to find someone who could make his hands 100% human again. I chuckled and left for home.

***

When I arrived at my apartment, I was greeted by a scream and a clatter.

"Hermione, you scared me! What are you doing here?!" Ron asked, clutching his chest. "Trying to give me a heart attack?"

"What am I doing here?" I asked, trying not to feel angry that he was in my home without asking.

"I mean, so early. I wanted to surprise you."

"Looks like I surprised you instead," I said, looking down at a pan of lasagna that he'd dropped on the floor by his feet. Luckily it had landed bottom-side down. He picked it back up and carried it to the woodstove.

"I'm making you dinner," he explained, setting the pan on the hot cast iron and adjusting the temperature with a hint of magic.

"That's nice of you," I said, feeling my stomach turning to lead. Not because of his cooking—he was alright with a few recipes, actually, after getting some lessons from his mum. But the dinner, the surprise, the hints Mr. Weasley dropped... it added up.

With the food cooking, Ron turned to me, took my robe to hang it up, and seemed like he was about to give me a "welcome home" kiss. I hugged him and kept my face turned away, feeling like a terrible girlfriend. This was not the easy, comfortable relationship I'd signed up for, but it was also quite reasonable for Ron to expect things to move forward.

"You feel tense," he observed. "What's up?

"I'm sorry," I apologized, searching for an explanation. "I spent the morning with Narcissa and I'm a bit wound up right now."

"Malfoy again? She needs to leave you the hell alone." He spotted the flower in my hand. "What's this? Do you have a secret admirer I should worry about?"

I blushed. "It's from Narcissa, not an admirer."

"Why would that hag give you a pretty flower?" he asked in disbelief.

"She's not a hag. And it's for work."

"First endless scrolls, now flowers. Well, let's have a seat and open the wine I brought. I don't want to hear about her all night, even if you and her are working together."

"You and she," I automatically corrected, wondering when I started thinking of her as Narcissa instead of Mrs. Malfoy. It was the flower's fault, really. Now that I associated her with it, her given name came to mind first. And Phoebe's fault, too. I decided to keep calling her by her last name in person, to avoid being too familiar.

I cleared my mind and sat across from Ron at my small kitchen table. He'd pulled it away from the wall and covered it with a red tablecloth and two candles. He poured wine into two pretty goblets—he really came prepared. I only took the slightest of sips from mine, though. I didn't much like the way alcohol affected my brain.

"How was your day?" I asked, attempting to bring a sense of normalcy to the evening.

"Pretty boring. We had to escort an Azkaban prisoner to St. Mungo's. He was docile as a lamb. Crazy, too. Kept muttering to himself."

"Being locked away for so long with dementors can have that effect," I said. Narcissa was right to worry about them. I suppose the ministry hoped if they ignored the problem, it would go away. But things are rarely that easy.

"Even with them gone, that island gives me the creeps," Ron revealed, then proceeded to tell me the long, drawn-out story of today's prisoner transfer.

"We planned on flying there from the closest apparition point, because we could make good time and the weather was..."

I nodded, trying to listen as the minutes went by. The daffodil lay on the table next to my plate. I fidgeted with it while he continued.

"...but as it turned out, you can't fly there directly. Unplottable islands, I tell ya." He shook his head. "So instead..."

I resisted the urge to smack my forehead. He'd spent ten minutes telling me about the reasoning for a plan that they didn't end up following. But I couldn't tell him to skip ahead—I'd tried that before. His memory is apparently much more dependent on chronological order than mine. It was a relief when dinner finished cooking, so I had something else to occupy me.

"How are the house elves and other creatures doing?" he asked when he eventually finished his story.

"Still struggling," I replied, cutting a noodle into tiny ribbons. "They keep getting the short end of the stick in business deals."

"Wizards—" Ron started with a mouth full of lasagna, then remembered his manners and swallowed first. He wasn't completely hopeless. "Wizards need to stop taking advantage of them."

"They ought to," I agreed. "But they have no incentive to. And you know courts, they always interpret contracts to the letter. As they rightly should! It's just so much for newcomers to learn." I stroked my chin. "Hmm. Maybe I should offer lessons for magical creatures, a whole series on contract law. It's a fascinating topic."

"Can't say I see how," Ron replied.

My work had seemed lifeless this afternoon, but on hearing that, a little bit of the old spark came back. "Contracts are the lifeblood of the economy, you know. Two parties agreeing to a net-positive exchange of value—it keeps the world turning. Trade helps prevent war, because why fight and risk destroying everything when you could trade for what you want?"

He stared blankly for a moment before shrugging and saying, "That's my Hermione, making the world a better place."

My fist clenched on my fork. That's all he got out of it? His Hermione, doing what she does? Maybe I wasn't explaining well enough.

"Do you see?" I asked, gesturing with an outstretched hand. "If people can agree on things, and trust each other to keep their agreements, that's the foundation for... society itself, really! I can see how the details would be boring, all the case law and technicalities, but do you see how it all works together to let us live and work in peace? Contracts might be one of humanity's greatest inventions."

He held my hand, stopping its increasingly agitated motions. "Gosh, Hermione. I guess so. You sound really sure, anyway. There is something I like about it. I mean, about people agreeing on things that are, er, positive."

"Net-positive. A win-win outcome."

"Right," he confirmed, getting out of his chair and reaching into his pocket.

Oh, no, I thought. Though I'd known all day that this might happen, I hadn't mentally prepared myself at all.

"Hermione..." he began, then turned as a knock sounded on my door.

I leaped out of my chair and threw the door open, not caring who might be there. I'd have welcomed a vacuum cleaner salesman if it meant I could get out of this situation.

"Hey, Hermione," Phoebe said, waving a piece of paper. "Thought you might like a sneak preview of my results."

"Phoebe! It is so good to see you!" I said, ushering her into my apartment. I caught Ron putting a small ring box back into his pocket.

She stopped just inside the door when she spotted Ron and our candlelit dinner. "Oh, shit. I've interrupted you. I'm sorry, I would've called first, but I don't have your number."

"Wait, don't go," I said, catching her arm before she could leave. "My boyfriend and I were almost done eating. You could join us for dessert."

She stepped back. "Your boyfriend. Right. I don't want to intrude. It can wait until tomorrow."

I couldn't stop her from darting back out the door, leaving me alone with Ron again. I squared my shoulders, getting ready to face the music, then heard Ron clearing the table.

"Is dinner over?" I asked, turning to face him.

"Apparently," he mumbled, looking almost sick. He mangled a sheet of the plastic wrap I'd once shown him how to use, covering the leftover lasagna and putting it in my mini fridge. "I should go, I'm sure you want to hear about those results."

I couldn't believe my good luck. He was about to pop the question, but he must've lost his nerve. Maybe everything could just stay like it was. A second later, my guilt came flooding back. He shouldn't have to stay in limbo.

"Ron," I said, tugging at a lose thread on my sleeve, "I should—"

"It's been a long day. Maybe I'll turn in early," he said, charming the plates to wash themselves and taking away the goblets and candles and tablecloth. "Have a good night, Hermione. I'll see you... sometime."

He disapparated loudly, leaving me with my head hanging. Again I thought of how perfectly justified he was in wanting to get married like Harry and Ginny and all the other couples we knew. Why couldn't I just follow that script? Maybe I'd warm up to the idea over time.

I picked up the daffodil from the table, gazing at it for a moment before sniffing it to turn it back into the project file. I opened it to the beginning and started pacing, but there wasn't enough room to think. My feet led me out the door and down the hall, where I escaped into the courtyard with a sigh and tucked the file under my arm. The evening air felt cool and refreshing. Crookshanks saw me and trotted over, weaving around my ankles and flopping onto his side.

"Hey, big guy," I said, feeling my tension slipping away. I stroked him for a few moments, then wandered away and started reading the compiled reports of the three researchers.

Each of them started out a similar way, everything going fine. Dementors weren't that hard to track, apparently, but they moved quickly. The researchers had followed the trail south from Hogwarts through the Scottish highlands, avoiding areas with muggles in case they needed to openly use magic to fight dementors. Right up to the end of each report, nothing seemed amiss. Knowing that they subsequently vanished—or worse—made their innocent observations about ridgelines and green scenery seem ominous. How did they not see any sign of what was coming for them?

I shivered, looking up from the last page of the file and realizing night had fallen around me. I hurried back to my apartment and locked the door behind me, then had to laugh at myself for getting spooked for no reason. Tomorrow I'd see whatever Phoebe had for us, and Narcissa and I would figure out where the dementors had gone, and then my life would go back to normal. That was all I wanted.

Chapter Text

Wednesday morning went by much faster than usual as I worked on the contract law lessons I'd thought of last night. I came up for air around nine thirty and decided to get going before I lost track of time for good. I left my robe in my office and headed out, reaching Phoebe's apartment a little early.

Her eyes lit up when she saw me, then her face fell. "Oh, hey, Hermione. Come in," she said, leaving the door open and turning away. I stepped inside and closed it behind me, settling on the couch again. Phoebe stood silently in her kitchenette area, filling a tea kettle.

I cleared my throat. "Sorry for being here so early."

"It's no problem, I have everything ready except the tea," she replied, voice flat.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

She sighed, leaning against the counter and crossing her arms. "No, I just, I dunno. I get a little ahead of myself sometimes."

That didn't really explain anything, but I nodded anyway. As the silence stretched between us, I regretted not waiting until ten. She brought her tea set over and filled two of the three cups.

"How was dinner with your boyfriend?" she asked, stirring sugar into her tea.

"It was more than I bargained for," I said, deciding to confide in her. "He almost proposed. You rescued me."

She stared at me. "Okay, back up. Until last night, I didn't think you would have a boyfriend, and now you're telling me it's that serious?"

"Why didn't you think I'd have a boyfriend?" I asked, a bit miffed.

"It's not what you're thinking. Anyone would be lucky to be with you. You're so smart, and kind, and curious, and pretty." She took a hasty sip from her steaming teacup and winced. "Ow. Oops."

"I'm not all that good at picking up on things," I told her, "but I have noticed you seem to, er... like me. I didn't mean to lead you on or anything."

She gave me a shy smile and rubbed the back of her neck. "I'm so daft. I thought you fancied women."

"What made you think so?"

"Little things. I don't know. Maybe it was wishful thinking."

I shrugged, giving her a sheepish grin. "Sorry to disappoint."

"Oh yeah? Then what's up with you and Narcissa?" she said, dragging out the witch's name.

"How do you mean?"

"You couldn't keep your eyes off her."

"I what?!" I exclaimed, almost spilling my tea. "No. No, we were both looking at her. She was speaking. I was listening attentively."

"Mmhmm," Phoebe said. "Very attentively."

My mouth hung open. "Are you having a laugh?"

"I have pretty good gaydar, Hermione."

I scowled. "Well, I think you need to recalibrate it to reduce false positives, because specificity has a profound effect on the probability of—"

The door resonated with a firm knock. Phoebe jumped up to get the door while I held my breath.

"Welcome back!" Phoebe greeted Narcissa, more like her usual self now that we'd talked a little. "We were just talking about y—"

"About conditional probability," I interrupted.

"Right," Phoebe said, giving me a mischievous smile. "Anyway, come on in."

"Thank you, Phoebe." Narcissa strode in wearing a black skirt and a silky, green blouse—a response to my burgundy yesterday? I let my breath out as she sat beside me.

Phoebe sat back down and winked at me, making me self-conscious about my reaction. My neighbor didn't know the history between us. She didn't know how I felt. I had to keep a close eye on the witch because she couldn't be trusted.

"Good morning, Ms. Granger," Narcissa greeted me with a tight smile.

"Good morning, Mrs. Malfoy," I replied, noticing slight puffiness around her eyes, as if she'd been crying or hadn't slept well. I looked away, afraid to seem like I was staring. I couldn't not pay attention to her, though; the couch had us pressed against each other's sides.

"I have the analysis and the map you wanted," Phoebe said, getting straight to the point. She handed us a small stack of papers, then poured a third cup of tea. Narcissa accepted the cup with a nod, but her attention was riveted on the map that topped the stack. I peered at it as well, seeing the outline of Great Britain with a mess of dots across it.

Phoebe leaned closer and tugged on the paper right beneath it. "There are a few maps at different zoom levels. Check out the patterns on these next two. I think your research will have some solid stuff to investigate."

We looked at the second map, showing the northern half of the island. I quickly located the unmarked area of Scotland where Hogwarts was situated. There were scattered dots all over the map, but heading south from Hogwarts was a disjointed swath of dots making a clear path. The third map showed the southern half of Britain, and the clusters of dots led all the way down into Wales.

Narcissa and I finished absorbing the map at the same moment. She shuffled through the next few maps until she found one zoomed in on Wales. The endpoint of the dots covered a small village called Groesffordd.

My face paled. A village infested with dementors? I tensed, wanting to jump up immediately and send help, but Narcissa rested a hand on my knee like a signal to settle down. My leg twitched involuntarily, making her pull back.

"Tell me about these dots. What do they represent, exactly?" she asked, staying focused.

Phoebe explained, "Those are the locations, whenever I could extract them, from posts with more than one of your keywords. You know, people saying things like 'Anyone else always feel so depressed on these chilly days?' I thought there might be some kind of pattern you could find, but I never expected such a clear line. Could a weather phenomenon cause that?"

"We'll have to investigate to find out," Narcissa replied, lifting her eyes from the map. "I can already tell this data will be extremely helpful to us, Phoebe. I can't thank you enough." She stood up, having less trouble with my weight still on the couch, and shook Phoebe's hand.

My neighbor looked startled. "Leaving already?"

"I'm afraid I have a busy day ahead," Narcissa replied. She reached into the pocket of her skirt for a folded up envelope. "Here's a cheque with the amount we agreed upon. Just in case you think of something else or have trouble with the cheque, here's my card." Narcissa handed Phoebe an honest-to-goodness muggle business card with her name, a telephone number, and a made-up logo. I wondered where she got it until I remembered the ministry had an entire department for hiding magical activity from muggles. It followed that they would have some kind of business front that could provide such props.

"I guess I should go too," I said with an apologetic smile, trying to get up from the deep couch. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was bewitched. "Thanks for the tea. And the talk, before."

She grinned and helped me up, leaning in to whisper in my ear, "You gonna think about what I said?"

"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled, waving her off. Her closeness didn't bother me at all, but I didn't want to be reminded of her baseless impressions. She just chuckled in response.

We repeated a few polite farewells and left Phoebe's apartment. This time, Narcissa didn't hurry on ahead.

"This is very concerning," she said, keeping her voice low as we passed muggles here and there in the hall.

"Everyone in that town is in danger," I agreed, balling my fists with worry. We went out into the quad where I'd been reading last night and stood under a half-dead tree. Some well-intentioned landscaper must not have realized how much shade these buildings cast.

"And it's surely a muggle village. The poor things won't understand what's happening to them."

"That's a bit patronizing," I objected. "They may not be able to see dementors, but muggles aren't that oblivious. If their whole village is suddenly cold and half-mad with despair, they would realize something is very wrong."

"It's November," she replied. "Cold wouldn't be so alarming, and people often get depressed in the wintertime. But you're aware of that. You're only bristling because you think that I think muggles are inferior."

"Don't you?" I asked, bristling indeed.

She looked into the distance. "My opinion on the matter is irrelevant."

"No, it's not," I argued. "Do you think a muggle's life is worth as much as a wizard's life?"

"I think killing them is wrong," she replied, meeting my eyes again. "I don't share the Dark Lord's utter disdain for them."

"Do you think they deserve our protection from magical dangers?" I persisted, facing her more fully. Her dodgy answers were stoking my temper.

"Magical dangers are just as much a part of life as natural dangers. Does everyone deserve protection from all threats? How could that possibly be accomplished?" she countered, blue eyes flaring.

"How about the unnatural danger of Death Eaters murdering them? You wouldn't do it yourself, but did you ever lift a finger to stop them?" My body burned with anger. I tried to keep my voice down, minding our surroundings.

"Are we still speaking in hypotheticals?" she asked, tensing up. I was getting under her skin, and it fueled me.

"None of this is hypothetical," I said, my point coming home. "You have no idea how damaging your attitude is. When this kind of prejudice is held by people in power and institutionalized, it enables cruel-minded and violent people to excuse their own behavior." I was shaking now, punctuating my words with my finger. "They'll expect to get away with more serious crimes against low-status victims, because they know society won't judge them as harshly!"

I was way too close to her by the time I finished ranting, but I refused to back down, as did she. So we stood glaring at each other, inches apart, while I wondered who would break first.

Neither, it seemed. She seized my elbow and pulled me across the quad. I was still itching for a fight, and I wrestled myself out of her grasp without caring whether I hurt her in the process. We marched in silence to a maintenance area, where huge air conditioners would block us from view as we disapparated, separately but simultaneously.

"We need to inform Minister Kingsley of our results," Narcissa said when we appeared in the atrium.

Has she lost her mind? I wondered. It was like she'd left our entire argument behind. I had to jog to keep up as she hurried toward the lifts.

"He's the one who will decide what to do about this situation," she continued.

I realized it would be childish to start our fight back up, so I nodded, the issue dropped but not forgotten. We reached the Minister's office in no time, but he was meeting with someone. I settled into one of the chairs outside his office while Narcissa stayed standing and tapped her foot. I got the impression she wasn't used to being kept waiting.

I reached for the stack of paper in her hand, wanting to look at the data while we waited.

She snatched her hand away reflexively and scowled, then relented, "I suppose I'm hogging the papers. Geminio." She flicked her wand, duplicating them, and handed me the originals rather than the temporary copies.

We both read silently, not exactly back to the way we were, but at least civil enough for polite company again.

The data supported the conclusions we'd drawn from the maps. There was a spike in the number of "posts" with our keywords shortly after the Battle of Hogwarts, and it dropped back down shortly thereafter. The time range was long enough for the dementors to reach Wales, judging by the speeds I'd witnessed in the past.

"It all adds up," I said, eyes still scanning the numbers and graphs Phoebe had supplied.

"Yes," Narcissa murmured. "The Hogwarts-to-Wales path is the strongest pattern I've found. There tend to be greater concentrations further north, which doesn't surprise me, but those dots are more random."

Minister Kingsley's door opened and he let someone out, then saw us waiting and waved for us to come in.

"How's the research going, ladies?" he asked as we all sat down in his office. "Any breakthroughs?"

"Yes, we have a map of their probable path," I said as Narcissa handed him the most striking map. "It seems to end in a Welsh village called, er... I'm going to mangle it."

"Groesffordd," Narcissa said, enunciating carefully. I was impressed; those double letters and whatnot tended to trip me up. She added, "We suspect they may have settled there, and that the villagers' safety is in danger."

Kingsley frowned and held the map close to his eyes to examine it. "How recent is this data?"

"Within this year," Narcissa told him. "We know they left from the battlefield at Hogwarts, which is near one end of that path."

He set the map down on his desk. "What makes you think this is a path? They may have dispersed along this entire line, dividing their number across every village to have a large supply of emotions to feed on. A huge concentration of dementors is unlikely."

I swallowed. He could be right, which might be even worse. "Maybe. We only just received this data," I said, "so we haven't considered every possibility yet."

"We can't send another researcher out alone," Narcissa said, the words bursting out of her.

"We haven't gotten that far yet, Narcissa," Kingsley said calmly. "Your department provides intelligence, not policy decisions."

She straightened up, smoothing the worry from her face. "Then I ask that you keep it in mind when the time comes. We've lost one on my watch already, and two prior."

"They volunteered knowing the risks. If we have to send three more, or a dozen, or a hundred, we will. Assessing the dementor threat is a top priority, which you made abundantly clear last time you visited my office."

Narcissa's cheeks pinked and she looked down. I could hardly believe my eyes—she seemed too proper to ever be embarrassed about anything. Something about this issue kept making her overreact. Or perhaps it was a perfectly appropriate level of reaction, and the rest of us had our heads in the sand.

"Good work seeking out this data," he said, nodding to both of us. "We have a clear idea of their range now, of where to look for them. We won't be following blindly like before."

She bit her lip, clearly wanting to say more but holding back.

"Can I see the rest of those papers?" Kingsley asked. Narcissa wordlessly handed him her stack, the temporary copies.

"Is there anything else you need, Minister?" I asked.

"Not for now. Your research is done, but if you're curious, I'll keep you informed about the upcoming mission as it goes on."

He bid us farewell and we left his office. I felt suddenly empty. The mystery that had grabbed my attention for the past few days—was it really so brief?—was out of my hands. I clutched the stack of papers to my chest.

"May I?" Narcissa asked tentatively, holding her hand out.

I was reluctant to part with the papers, but I knew she was the primary researcher and really ought to have them. I handed them over. "Is this what it's always like?" I asked.

"What..." Her voice trailed off. "Yes, I think I know what you mean. We deliver our findings, and now we can only wait and see what happens." She closed her eyes and opened them slowly. "It's how this works."

"It's intolerable," I groused. "How do you just let go of a project like that?"

We reached the lift, and she pressed the number nine for her level. I didn't press mine. She didn't answer the whole way down, even as other people got on and off, and I thought she'd dismissed the question.

"I don't know," she said finally, facing me. "Let me know if you find a way." She stepped backwards into the dimly lit Department of Mysteries. Her eyes looked haunted as she pressed the button for my floor and let the doors close between us.

***

I threw myself into my work for the rest of the day, hoping to completely forget about everything. But it seemed like something irreversible had happened, like a veil had lifted to reveal that I was standing on a vast, featureless plain.

"I can keep going," I muttered to myself, reading the same paragraph over and over without really comprehending it. "I love learning things. I love my work. I have a good life. There's nothing wrong with my life."

It was close to the end of the day. I only had to make it through a few more minutes before I could go home and—what, exactly? Read more books until someday I die of old age? What if my life felt hollow without a fight, a purpose? What if I was truly at my best when faced with threats?

"Dammit, Granger, don't even think about it," I chastised myself, gathering my things to go home. Instead, I ended up back in front of Minister Kingsley's office, directed by some deeper impulse.

I needed action, I finally admitted. I needed to go out there, to think my way out of trouble again. I couldn't leave the dementor problem for someone else to deal with. I knocked hard on the door.

Kingsley opened the door enough to look out. "Your timing is un—"

"Minister, I've got to go on whatever mission you're planning."

"Ms. Granger..."

"Please hear me out. I've dealt with these things before. I have valuable skills and knowledge that could serve the mission. I can help protect whomever you're sending—"

"Ms. Granger!" he exclaimed, opening the door all the way. "I was trying to say, your timing is uncanny. My top team of aurors already requested you."

I looked into his office and saw my best friends sitting inside. Harry gave a little wave, and Ron offered a wavering smile. I sat between them, speechless and so glad to see them both that I didn't think twice about the fourth chair beside Harry, waiting for an occupant.

Chapter Text

"I was just telling these two," Kingsley began, sitting behind his desk, "that I've discussed the issue with some strategists and decided it's best to send in a small team with fighting experience. You'll start tomorrow morning where the last researcher left off and sweep through the rest of the range into Wales, rooting out any dementors along the way. But before I go on, we should wait for the last team member."

Another team member? I looked around in confusion. Ron was scowling.

Harry looked worriedly at me. "You're not going to like this."

"It can't be worse than facing dementors," I replied. "Who is it?"

"Well, it's someone with a... history, who isn't exactly a friend..."

"Spit it out, Harry," I said impatiently, not noticing someone entering the office until I heard a voice I'd come to know well this week.

"Mr. Potter is trying to say that I will be accompanying you," Narcissa Malfoy announced, closing the door behind her.

I shot to my feet, knocking my chair over. "Absolutely not!"

"Right on, Hermione," Ron agreed.

Narcissa looked quite startled. "We were working together just this morning! I thought we had made progress past this kind of hostility."

I stepped further away from her. "Progress?! I've learned to tolerate you. There's no way I'd trust you out in the field. Minister, what is she doing here?"

Narcissa looked down her nose at me. "Didn't you ask me not to send you on an ill-fated expedition? Now you're volunteering, and rejecting my help?"

I glared at her, then looked back at Kingsley for an explanation.

"She's essential to the mission," Kingsley responded.

Ron objected, "Essential to whose side? She's been in league with dark wizards for most of her life!"

"By all means, continue to dredge up my past," Narcissa said, bending down to right my chair. I would've thought such an action was beneath her, something only a servant would do. "Please, sit."

I wouldn't sit until she removed her hands from the back of my chair. She sighed and moved away to sit down by Harry.

"She saved me, guys," Harry said. "She lied to Voldemort himself."

"She only did it to find Draco, not because she cared if you lived," I accused. "It's easy to jump a sinking ship."

"Please hold onto your thoughts for now," Narcissa said to me. "You and I can air our grievances after this meeting."

My jaw clenched but I nodded.

"If we're done with that," Kingsley said, clearing his throat, "I'll explain the details. We still have the portkey the last researcher used to escape, which will bring you back to where he was. At night, you'll make camp, protected by magic. Narcissa, would you tell us about your ward?"

She nodded. "As you know, our last researcher made it back just moments too late, and he's in no state to tell us what he might have seen or learned in his last moments. But I noticed he was wearing his pyjamas. I surmised he must have been attacked at night, possibly while asleep and unable to react quickly. Since then, I have been working day and night to develop a dementor ward, so that whoever ventures out next will be protected in that vulnerable state."

"Why can't you teach us the spell for it and stay behind?" I asked.

"I wish I could," Narcissa responded. "I'm not keen on going out there, to say the least. Unfortunately, I've run out of time to develop my ideas. The only working prototype I have is very complicated and dependent on a skill that takes time to master. And I doubt any of you could do it."

Harry and I objected at the same time.

"I created a corporeal patronus when I was only 13!"

"I was top of my class and I've created my own spells before!"

Narcissa held up her hand to request silence. "It involves the Dark Arts."

Our trio recoiled, and none of us said anything more. If her ward failed, she'd be in as much danger as we were, so we could at least count on her to do it right. But the idea of dark magic protecting us unsettled me. Then again, I thought, is it still dark magic if it's beneficial? I would have to press her for details on the ward if I wanted to understand it better.

"With her assistance," Kingsley said, "your team will have a better chance of avoiding danger. In addition, a large force of aurors will be on call, ready to deploy to your location in minutes to repel dementors and evacuate muggle villagers if need be. You can signal for them with these." He handed each of us an ordinary-looking wristwatch, then instructed us, "Turn the adjustment dial backwards three hours to send the signal, and the watch will revert to the correct time. You can do it more than once, of course, since there may be multiple occasions when you'll need help."

"How will they get to our location?" I wondered.

"That's the more intriguing feature of these watches. The researcher who invented them told me they're a sort of mobile portkey destination. The aurors will arrive at the location of whichever watch sent the signal."

"How about that," I said, examining at the small watch in amazement.

Then he handed me a blank piece of parchment. "Ms. Granger, I'm putting you in charge of writing reports of your progress at least daily. This parchment is enchanted so that whatever you write on it will appear in our records overnight. I'll be reading them religiously. On the back, you can see messages from the ministry: additional instructions, updates, confirmation messages, and so forth. Any questions so far?"

For the next hour we discussed what our pace should be, what we would need to bring, and what we should do in various scenarios. I was thrilled at the level of planning going into it. Our past escapades were so spontaneous and haphazard. Maybe with better plans we wouldn't get into such deep trouble. When we'd finished hashing out the details, we filed out of Kingsley's office, half of us with growling stomachs, overdue for dinner.

"Let's go get some food together, enjoy our last evening in civilization," Harry suggested, throwing his arms over Ron and my shoulders. "Does the Three Broomsticks sound good?"

"Definitely," Ron agreed. "You're coming, right, Hermione?"

I looked at the witch walking into the lift ahead of us. "I'll join you before long. Mrs. Malfoy and I have some unfinished business."

Her shoulders stiffened at my words, and she turned to glance back at me. "We can speak in my office."

"Said the spider to the fly!" Ron grumbled as we joined her in the lift.

Harry gave him a little shove, then said to me, "We'll save a seat for you, Hermione."

The two boys got off at the atrium, while Narcissa and I rode in silence down one more level. We walked through the Department of Mysteries to her office, which was now in a state of disarray I knew well. Pieces of parchment and open books littered her desk, just like mine when I was in the middle of researching something.

As we sat down, she made a feeble attempt at organizing the mess, then gave up with a sigh. "I must say, your outburst was most unexpected. We've been working together for days."

I looked down, not sure how to express my thoughts.

"You said you don't trust me in the field," she prompted. "What is it exactly that you think I'll do? Lead you into a trap? Betray you to the dementors?"

"I don't know what you'll do," I replied, finding my voice. "That's the problem. Right now, playing nice with the ministry is in your interest. But what about when the chips are down and we're in danger? Will you abandon us to save your own skin?"

"How do I know that you won't abandon me because I'm not worth saving?" she retorted. "Ever since the Battle of Hogwarts, I've been trying to help. Haven't I earned a little trust?"

"Aren't you listening? Anyone can do the right thing when it benefits them. What really counts, what really shows your true colors, is when you do the right thing even when it could cost you everything."

She drummed her fingers on the desk. "Is there nothing I can do to convince you I mean well?"

I replied, "I'm sorry, but no. I can't see or measure your true intentions."

She chewed on her lip, unfocused eyes drifting across all the scattered papers. "What if... I give you a guarantee? A promise that I will do you no harm in any situation?"

"You did me no harm when your sister was carving into my arm," I said, voice biting.

A pained expression flitted across her face so quickly I almost didn't catch it. "Then, a promise that I will not let you come to harm?"

"If you're willing to make that promise, we could write it down and sign it," I said. "I would trust a magical contract." It wasn't as foolproof as an Unbreakable Vow, since it only produced mild discomfort if we were in danger of breaking its terms, but the entire court system would be alerted if either of us breached it.

"And the consideration? In order to be an enforceable contract, you would need to give me something in return," she replied.

"True," I said, grinning involuntarily when I realized she knew the legal nuances. "What do you want?"

"Your eternal servitude," she replied.

I snorted, then narrowed my eyes. "A joke?"

"You catch on fast." She leaned back in the chair and smoothed the fabric of her robe over her thighs. "What do I want? I don't know. How about... is the same thing in return too much to ask?"

"Won't that create a paradox?" I asked. "What if I'm in danger, and you put yourself at risk to help me, but then I have to help you because now you're in danger?"

"We might even rupture the fabric of space-time," she drawled, clearly not concerned with the possibility. She rooted around on her desk until she found a blank piece of parchment. She took a quill and wrote in large, elegant script across the top, Contract for the Prevention of Harm. Then smaller beneath that, I, Narcissa Malfoy née Black, swear that I shall let no harm come to Hermione Granger.

"You have beautiful handwriting," I told her, unable to stop myself from admiring it. Her capital letters were almost a work of art. I took the quill and scrawled a line below it with the names reversed. I, Hermione Granger, swear that I shall let no harm come to Narcissa Malfoy née Black.

She asked, "What shall be our time limit?"

I tapped the quill against my lips in thought. "Should it last until we return from our mission?"

"Very good," she agreed, watching as I inscribed the next line: This contract shall remain in effect until both parties return to London.

She took the parchment back to look it over, nodded, and drew a line at the bottom upon which she signed her name. She gave it back to me and I did the same. Once both of our signatures marked it, the parchment hummed with activated magic.

"There," she declared. "Are you happy now?"

"It'll suffice," I said, definitely not happy but at least somewhat confident she wouldn't choose to become a disreputable contract-breaker. No one would ever trust her or do business with her again.

"Can you bring that to the record keepers for us? I have some more work to do in the lab before tomorrow."

I ignored the absurd temptation to ask if I could join her, to see what she was working on and perhaps get a glimpse of her ward research. Why would I want to spend any more time with her than necessary? I shouldn't miss out on dinner with Harry and Ron.

"Sure thing. I'll see you in the morning," I said, reaching out for a handshake.

She slid her hand into mine and squeezed it. "I'm glad we could come to terms."

My thumb drifted across her skin, soft like she'd never been outdoors a day in her life. Afraid of holding on too long, I let go too fast. I glanced back as I left her office and saw her look away, the dim wall sconces illuminating her profile. My heart pounded in my chest, but I wasn't angry with her, nor was I afraid of her anymore. I retreated into the cool, dark Room of Doors where my thoughts cleared. I had places to go and preparations of my own to complete.

After depositing the contract in the after-hours box in the record-keeping offices, I hurried to the Three Broomsticks. By the time I got there, a party was in full swing. I was surprised and delighted to see most of the DA there to see us off. Ron and Harry had told them our cover story, that we were taking time off to go backpacking in the British countryside. Only Ginny knew that it was a mission, thanks to marriage privileges. She stayed by Harry's side all night, sensing that it would be dangerous despite not knowing the details. Ron sat by me for much of the night too, though I mostly chatted with others. Things were awkward between us since his near-proposal yesterday, even though he didn't realize I knew about it. I hoped he would get back to his old self soon.

***

The next morning was the coldest day we'd had so far that autumn. I packed a hiking backpack full of muggle camping supplies, to help keep up our image as thru-hikers. Hidden in various magical pockets of the backpack were our real supplies: an enchanted tent supplied by the ministry, a ton of food, firewood, a hefty supply of chocolate, medical supplies and potions, and anything else that could come in handy.

After leaving Crookshanks with Phoebe—he adored her and vice versa, so I knew he was in good hands—I apparated to the Ministry atrium, our appointed meeting place. The sun hadn't even risen, so no one was there for work yet.

No one except Narcissa, sitting on the edge of the remodeled fountain. She looked like she'd just stepped out of a muggle hiking magazine, wearing a well-insulated red coat and brand new cargo pants, something I never thought she would wear.

"You're early," she said.

"So are you," I replied. I reached down and snapped the price tag off her pants. "You're supposed to remove this. Annnd remove this." I had to pull the size sticker off too.

"Shall I remove the pants as well?" she asked sarcastically, sounding a little defensive.

My throat went dry as I imagined that. "Only if you really want people to stare."

She raised one eyebrow and didn't respond, but I saw a blush creeping up her neck.

I swallowed nervously. "The tags are no big deal. You look good. Really good. I mean, your disguise is very effective." I closed my mouth to stop the flow of words and plopped down on another side of the fountain.

Whatever I said must've done the trick. She gave me an amused smile and leaned back on her hands, looking up at the ceiling. I relaxed too as we watched the golden patterns swirl around, something I walked beneath every day but rarely noticed.

Harry arrived right on time with a pop, and Ron only a moment later through the floo network.

"Morning, Hermione! What's this? Are you sitting near her without yelling?" Harry greeted me, playfully punching my shoulder.

"I can be civil," I said, pretending to be offended.

"Malfoy must've put you under the imperius curse," Ron joked. "Tell me something only you would know."

"I know you're both asses," I replied, laughing.

Narcissa had her more typical haughty expression now, and I wondered if it was because of the teasing or because she didn't feel as comfortable around Harry and Ron. She held up a sealed bag with a rusty farm implement in it.

"This is the portkey. Are we ready to go?" she asked.

We all gathered round and reached into the bag, touching the farm tool together. Our little group got yanked away with a sickening sensation that made me wish we could've apparated.

***

We landed unceremoniously on a hill in the middle of Britain. A patchwork of green fields stretched out all around us. There wasn't a dementor in sight, just crows drifting overhead and cattle browsing in the distance. After living in London for so long, it was a jarring but very welcome view.

Some navigational spells helped us pinpoint our location and get our bearings, then we started south at a steady pace. We had at least two hundred miles to go, which could take over a week if we were thorough. Ron and Harry took the lead, reminiscing about a past auror mission. I wasn't far behind them, and Narcissa trailed after us. For such a serious mission, it had a strangely lighthearted beginning.

From our vantage we could see there weren't any muggle villages nearby to investigate, so we made good time. Our path followed a ridgeline with an ancient walking trail worn into it, which struck me as slightly odd given the way dementors glide across the ground and don't need to follow trails.

Partway through the morning, Ron settled in beside me and held my hand. "Isn't it nice to get out and spend time together like this?" he asked.

"Definitely," I agreed, admiring the landscape of rolling hills and centuries-old blackthorn hedgerows. It was nearly a holiday, except I was always on alert, watching every distant shadow for signs of dementors.

After lunching at midday, we pushed onward. Ron started talking my ear off about Ginny's most recent quidditch game. I was pleased to hear her team won, and I enjoyed hearing about the great moves she made, but he was giving me a play-by-play of the entire game. I tried to divert him a few times, reminding him that quidditch isn't really my cup of tea, but he kept saying that the best part was coming next.

That had been going on for far too long when Narcissa came up beside me and asked, "Mr. Weasley, may I borrow her for a while?" She gave him a trademark Malfoy look, as if daring him to decline.

"I suppose," he said, sounding reluctant. "I mean, it's up to Hermione."

"There's no shortage of time to talk," I assured him, hanging back with Narcissa. I was going to keep a short following distance from the boys, but she grasped my arm to slow me down.

"I don't know how you endure that incessant noise," she muttered.

"It's not noise," I said, automatically defending him. "He's excited about his sister's game."

"And pays no attention to the level of excitement in his audience," she pointed out.

I admitted, "He... does tend to do that, like the other night at dinner." I grimaced, remembering how unpleasant that had been. We'd talked at each other instead of with each other. "You know, maybe I made the same mistake he did, babbling about something that bores him. But he had literally no opinion on contract law!" I said, exasperated.

Narcissa's eyebrows rose. "How could that be? He engages in trade every day, yet has no opinion on the contracts that form its basis?"

"Exactly!" I exclaimed. "I couldn't believe it either."

"I was being facetious, Ms. Granger. It's completely normal for someone to use a system without caring about how it works. I wasn't even there and I can confirm you were babbling."

My face fell. "Oh." I clammed up as I remembered she was an enemy—an enemy on a leash, but still not someone to go confiding in. We came over another rise and found a wide creek at the bottom, cutting across the path. Narcissa cast a simple keep-dry spell on her lower body, and I followed suit.

"It's not hopeless," she said, wading into the water. "If you keep your interests to yourself, and filter his talking to grasp the key points, you can learn to live with each other."

Learn to live with each other? She made it sound like accepting a chronic disease. "I don't want that to be my life."

"It sounds to me like you're already living that way."

Not ready to consider what I should do about that, I trudged across the slippery river rocks and stared ahead as Ron lost his footing. He landed in the frigid water with a huge splash and a screech. Laughing, Ron pulled Harry down when he tried to help. I smiled at their antics. "Anyway, thanks for interrupting a boring conversation. You can leave me alone now if you want."

"I had a bit of an ulterior motive," she replied. At my disapproving face, she said, "Oh, don't give me that look. Ulterior motives are not inherently malicious. I wanted to brainstorm with you."

"Really?" I asked, excitement spiking despite myself. "What about?"

"How to permanently neutralize dementors," she stated. "If that's even possible."

"A cheerful subject matter, then," I joked. I shook my boots to get off the excess water droplets when we reached the other side of the creek. "Let's think of what we know so far. Positive emotions feed them, but also repel them in patronus form."

"And they ally with powerful dark wizards," she added, absently tapping each of her fingers on her thumb.

"So they respond to emotions and... power when it suits them?" I reasoned. "Where do they come from? They can multiply, I know. Perhaps by absorbing souls or misery. But how did they come to exist in the first place?"

"They could be a type of ghost, so miserable that they try to suck out everyone's happiness," Narcissa conjectured. "Or perhaps they're a manifestation of negative emotions?"

"Like the opposite of a patronus," I replied, then shuddered. "Just imagine if dark wizards could cast dementors."

"I wouldn't be terribly surprised," Narcissa muttered, hands clenching. "But it hasn't been done, to my knowledge."

"And patronuses fade, while dementors linger. What holds them together?"

"Magic? Patterns of energy?" she asked, looking deep in thought now.

We bounced ideas back and forth for the rest of the afternoon, sometimes falling silent and simply walking in each other's company. I was enjoying our conversation so much that I didn't notice how tired my legs were until the sun was low in the sky. We stopped to have dinner and set up camp under a huge oak, one of the few trees standing alone in the fields.

"I need to make the ward first," Narcissa told us. "No fire or tent yet, and you three need to go some distance away from me. The other side of this hill would be good."

"Why can't we stay and watch you do it?" I asked.

"I can't do it with you nearby," she replied. "I need to focus on subtle things."

"It's getting bloody cold out," Ron complained. "You better hurry so we can make that fire."

"You're a wizard, Mr. Weasley. Coldness is an easy problem to solve," she reminded him. When we didn't get going right away, she waved her hands at us. "Go on, the sooner you go, the sooner I can finish this up."

We left reluctantly. Once out of her sight, I conjured a warm flame for Harry, Ron, and I to huddle around, glaring in Narcissa's general direction. For the first time that day, I was irritated with her.

"Can't focus with us nearby?" I scoffed. "Utter baloney. Why won't she let us watch?"

"I'm inclined to believe her. What if having us around throws her off?" Harry said.

"I'm with Hermione," Ron said. "Queen Malfoy wants to be the only one who can do it."

I nodded. "If we have to rely on her to keep us safe while we sleep, she has too much power."

"She said she doesn't want to be here," Harry argued. "Teaching us to do it ourselves would be in her best interest, so if she's not doing that, there must be a good reason. Like how it's dark magic. Maybe it would harm us."

"She could still tell us about it instead of shutting us out," I replied. "I don't like it. I don't like it at all."

"You just don't like not knowing how to do something," Harry teased. "And you're fishing for reasons to not like Mrs. Malfoy."

"I don't have to fish. There are plenty of reasons not to like her. And for your information, now that we've settled some things, we're getting along just fine," I said.

"I'll say you're getting along. You seemed quite happy with her this afternoon," Ron grumbled. "All afternoon."

I smiled, remembering how much more animated her face looked when she was involved in an interesting topic. "We had a stimulating discussion about the nature of dementors."

"A discussion about dementors?" Ron asked, shoulders hunching. "How can that be 'stimulating' for hours and hours?"

He was jealous, I realized. Narcissa had stolen me away for half the day, while he had wanted to enjoy it with me. "You and I can walk together in the morning," I said, trying to placate him, but his expression didn't change. Maybe it wasn't just about time. I wasn't sure how to reassure him.

"It's done," Narcissa called to us from the top of the hill.

"Finally," Ron grumbled, leading the way back to our campsite.

When we reached it, we saw a thin circle scratched around the area, about eight metres across, but no other visible sign of the ward.

"What happens if we scuff this line?" I asked.

"Nothing at all," Narcissa replied. "That's merely a reminder of its bounds. You should also keep in mind that it's a curve, not a box, so your head might be exposed when you're near the edges. The peak is here." She reached up as high as she could and touched a point in the air. I couldn't see a single thing where she was pointing, no matter how hard I looked. It didn't help that the exposed skin at her waist kept catching my eye until she put her arm down.

In no time, the family-sized tent was standing, bigger on the inside of course, with a small kitchen and curtained washroom toward the back. Close to the door were two bunk beds on the left and two on the right. We set it up a little off-center within the ward to make room for a modest campfire. We each found a rock to roll up to the fire and sit on, enjoying the warmth after a chilly day. It was especially nice to get off my feet; I took off my hiking boots with relish.

"Isn't this a great, authentic muggle hiking experience?" Ron said cheerfully, using accio to summon marshmallows from his backpack, then piercing one on a stick.

"Aside from all the magic, sure," Harry replied, chuckling and taking a marshmallow.

"Honestly, Ronald, let's have a real dinner before stuffing ourselves with sweets," I scolded, taking out some food I'd wrapped in aluminum foil. While it cooked on the fire, I quickly jotted down a summary of our easy day on the parchment Minister Kingsley had given me.

Shortly after dinner and s'mores, Narcissa excused herself. "I'm going to catch up on my sleep. Good night to you all." She lifted the tent flap and disappeared inside. I'd have to wait until tomorrow to interrogate her about the ward.

"It's been a slow start, but I'm glad we haven't seen any dementors yet," Harry said, tossing a clod of grass into the fire. It made sparks that drifted up the column of smoke into the sky.

I nodded in agreement. This was the first day in a long time that I hadn't known what would be happening. No routine, no predictable office. It was unsettling, and I was glad for the time to adjust, no matter how eager I was for a challenge.

I got tired before long and wandered into the tent. Narcissa was sound asleep on the lower left bunk, dark and light hair splayed out across the pillow. I got ready for bed feeling half asleep already, then gravitated toward the side of tent Narcissa had chosen. I climbed to the top bunk and closed my eyes, memories of the day flashing through my mind. The countryside, the creek... Narcissa's wit, her keen observations, her eyes alight with interest, the curves hidden under her coat. Too drowsy to question anything, I drifted off to the soothing sound of her breathing below me.

Chapter Text

I woke before sunrise to the sound of Ron snoring loudly and Harry snoring less loudly. Narcissa's bed was made, and she was nowhere to be seen. I brewed mint tea and unpacked some food for breakfast in case anyone got hungry. Then I got dressed and took my tea outside, where I found Narcissa sitting by the cold ashes of the fire, sipping her own cup of tea.

"You're up early," she said, much like her greeting yesterday.

"So are you," I replied. It was cold, but pleasantly so with my hands wrapped around a warm mug. Together we watched the sun peek over the horizon, turning the wispy clouds pink and purple until their color faded to white. Our silence felt relaxed, comfortable. I wouldn't mind if all our mornings were like this.

A little later, we heard Harry and Ron wake up and make a terrible racket with pots and pans. Narcissa went back into the tent and her disapproving voice reached my ears, saying, "Salazar's snake, you boys are as hopeless as Draco."

I chuckled. Ron could cook some things, but his skill went way down whenever he and Harry tried to coordinate. When I finished my tea and went inside, I saw both of them sitting meekly in the kitchen area while Narcissa fried eggs on the tiny stove and directed a batch of pancake batter to stir itself. I joined them, digging in when the food was done.

"This is pretty good for being probably poisoned," Ron said once we were eating.

Harry grinned. "I think what he means to say is thank you, Mrs. Malfoy."

"Yes, thank you," I agreed.

"Our glorious defenders need to keep their energy up," she replied. "Just don't make me clean up after you as well."

After breakfast, Harry volunteered to clean while I followed Narcissa outside to see her take down the ward.

"Will you tell me how it works?" I asked, watching her point her wand at the peak of the invisible dome and trace a line down one edge.

She didn't respond, busy walking counterclockwise around the entire circle. "That should do it," she said to herself, putting her wand away. "What did you say?"

"How does it work?" I asked again.

She answered, "If you must know, it forms a barrier through which dementors and their effects cannot pass. It also conceals our magical and emotional signals by redirecting them down into the earth where they can disperse undetected, so the dementors will not be drawn to us."

"Okay," I said, pausing to digest that information. "That's what it does, but how does it do it? Is there an incantation? Do you need runes or a potion or something?"

"There are several incantations, but mostly it requires supreme focus. No runes or potions."

I caught her upper arm before she could go back into the tent. "I want to understand. Can you show me how to do it?"

"Can you accept that there's a part of it you shouldn't dare to do?" she countered.

I stepped closer, determined. "Oh, I dare."

"Well." She swallowed, making delicate muscles tighten under the skin of her neck, where a flush was spreading. "You're quite persuasive, but I believe it's more prudent to decline."

"Is that so?" I asked absently, starting to feel quite flustered. My coat felt too warm and constricting. I released her arm as my palm started to sweat. I hadn't felt like this since my crush on Viktor, and that could not be what was happening now. Maybe I was having a nervous breakdown. "I, um... then we should get going."

I took a few breaths of the cold morning air before ducking back into the tent, hoping she wouldn't follow too soon. I needed to get a grip. Had she noticed my reaction? I couldn't even remember what expression was on her face, too concerned with what she might've seen on mine.

I returned a few things to my backpack, trying to get my thoughts back in order, then turned and saw Ron holding out his hand with an inviting smile.

"Ready to go?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, taking his hand and letting go once I was standing, realizing too late that he had wanted to keep holding hands. Harry left the tent just ahead of us, and I followed Ron out. Narcissa was standing by the trail with her arms crossed, staring into space.

"You're missing something, Mrs. Malfoy," Harry said, holding out her backpack.

"Excuse me?" she asked, eyes meeting mine first, then Harry's. "Oh, right. Thank you, Mr. Potter."

I packed the tent away, and we started on day two of our mission. I caught myself wondering if we should have found transportation straight to the village where Narcissa and I thought the dementors had settled. But who knows what kind of trouble we would've landed in, and what we might miss along the way.

"I was thinking, Hermione," Ron said after a while. "D'you reckon we should practice casting our patronuses? I'm still not that great at it."

"Mine needs work too. That sounds like a great idea," I replied, feeling pleased that he had productive things on his mind. I looked at the fields around us to make sure there were no muggle ranchers or farmers nearby who could see us casting spells. "Let's have a go, then."

He cast a fairly good silvery wisp on his first try, while I got nothing.

"Dammit," I grumbled, repeating the incantation but having trouble getting into the right mindset. I thought back to the day I got my new job at the ministry and managed to summon a faint mist.

"Keep trying, Hermione," Ron encouraged me. "What memories did you use when we practiced in the DA?"

I thought about it. It was mostly memories of the three of us at Hogwarts. Celebrations, reuniting, discovering things. But the memories were getting older and less vivid. We'd been through hell since then. I picked my favorite and focused hard on it, then remembered that my usual book-concentration wasn't quite the way to do it. I needed to use my heart, not my mind.

I finally sank into the happy memory enough for my otter patronus to appear. He swam around in the air, playful and sleek. I grinned, feeling genuine rather than remembered happiness now. "Look at him go! Hey, little guy."

As we continued casting patronuses and trying to keep them active longer, I started to feel nervous. What if we were diluting our memories' power by using them over and over again? The fear grew until it was all I could feel. What if we tired ourselves out and then dementors attacked? What if we were overrun with only half our fighting strength? I wasn't the only one who sensed something wrong. Ron was white as a sheet, eyes darting to and fro. I looked around, terrified that the dementors had already sneaked up on us.

"Expecto patronum!" I shouted, doing my best to sink back into my happy memory. I couldn't summon my otter, but I got a fairly substantial silvery shield to appear.

Then I examined my surroundings more carefully. It was broad daylight, with no sign of any dementors. Why was I still quaking with fear?

"A fair attempt, Ms. Granger," Narcissa said, walking up to us. She lifted her hand to my shield, stirring up smoky tendrils. "Not bad for being under a fear spell. Finite." She swished her wand.

Just like that, the fear lifted. My jaw went slack.

"You cursed us?!" Ron exclaimed.

"Nothing so serious. It was merely a hex," Narcissa corrected. "It's much more useful to practice under realistic conditions. Incidentally, learning how to sense when you're under the influence of a spell is another practical skill to develop."

"I can't believe your nerve! A fear curse?" he said angrily. She didn't bother to correct him again. "You used dark magic on us!"

"I'm a dark witch," she replied icily.

"Ron," I said, putting my hand on his arm. "She has a point. It's better to practice when we're afraid."

"She could've at least warned us! Jeez," he complained. "Now I feel all slimy and wrong."

"So you're back to normal," she said, looking down her nose at him.

"Sod off, Malfoy," he snarled.

Harry noticed our commotion and walked up. "Cool it, guys. Look, there's a village in the distance. I bet we could reach it by lunchtime and take a break there."

I checked our direction, picturing the map in my mind. "It's not directly between us and the rest of the markings. It might not even be worth checking out."

"How far out of our way is it?" Ron asked. "They might have a bakery. Mm, fresh bread."

I noticed Narcissa's eyebrows drawn together and asked her, "What is it? Do you think we should skip it?"

"It's cold out," she said, "but there's no smoke."

I looked at the distant rooftops. "Sure, but muggles have other heat sources. Electric heaters, gas heaters, and whatnot."

"I suppose I'm a little out of date," Narcissa conceded. "It's probably nothing."

I frowned, now starting to agree with her initial worry. "On the other hand, I don't see any sign of electric wires. And propane and kerosene would need to be delivered, but this place is so remote.

Narcissa looked at me with a mix of confusion and amusement. "You must be the most contrary witch I've ever met. I swear you could be the advocate for both sides in court."

Ron jumped in as if to assert how well he knew me. "You should hear her when she's working hard on something. She has entire conversations with herself."

"A hallmark of an active mind," Narcissa commented.

I blushed under her attention and tugged Ron away so we could walk on our own again. He's the person I was supposed to be focused on. There was still some time left before lunch, so I wanted to try to continue our pleasant morning. We started talking about the unique challenges faced by remote villages, though his comments were mostly jokes and mine were attempts at turning his jokes into plausible observations. The important thing was, we were smiling and laughing like we used to, rather than boring each other.

***

It was a little past midday by the time we reached the village, and all our stomachs were growling—except for Narcissa, whose stomach must've been too polite to growl. It was an older village, still very much lacking modern amenities. There wasn't a car in sight on the single dirt road, but there was a rhythmic thunking sound coming from somewhere.

Aside from that noise, the muggle village seemed abandoned. Many of the houses were getting overgrown with ivy. It had crossed the line from rustic to unkempt. The only sign of life we saw was a goat, which ran away from us like it was wild. Uneasiness grew in my gut.

"Let's find that bakery I've been dreaming of," Ron said, continuing down the street. We got closer to the strange thunking sound, then spotted a man chopping wood, surrounded by an enormous pile of split pieces.

"Finally!" I said in relief. I hadn't consciously acknowledged it until that moment, but I'd been afraid the entire village got wiped out by dementors.

"Excuse me, sir," Harry said, approaching the man from the side so he wouldn't startle him. The man didn't look at him, but stopped chopping. "We're hikers passing through, and we wondered if there are any places to buy fresh food in this village."

"In the morning, I chop wood," the man replied, lifting his axe again and continuing to chop.

"Sorry to interrupt," Harry apologized. "Though you might be due for a break. It's past noon now."

The man stopped again and looked up at the sun. "In the afternoon, I weed the garden." He walked around to the back of the nearest house and out of sight without another word.

"This isn't right," Narcissa murmured.

"Must be a simpleton," Ron said. "Let's keep looking."

We passed several houses with the doors hanging open. I looked at them with worry; that wasn't a good sign. I let my fingers brush my wand, stashed in my coat sleeve for quick access if necessary. We reached a building with some vague grocery symbol on a shingle hanging over the door. Since it looked like a shop, we pushed open the door and filed through, trying not to knock into anything with our backpacks.

Inside was a small general store, full of cobwebs and dust. It was just as cold inside as outside. Bags on the lower shelves were torn open and spilling their contents everywhere, with rat poop collecting in the corners. A man stood behind the counter near the door, washing its surface with an old rag.

"Hello," Harry greeted him, taking the lead again. "We'd like to buy some food."

"I don't want any of his food, Harry," Ron whispered. I nodded in agreement. Narcissa was examining the muggle shopkeeper, oblivious to the filth under her fancy hiking boots.

"What can I do for you?" the shopkeeper said, not looking up.

"Er, do you know of anywhere we can buy fresh food?" Harry asked.

"What can I do for you?" he said again, rag circling endlessly on the counter. The back of my neck prickled. I looked down at his hand and saw his nails had grown inches past his fingertips.

"Food?" Harry asked, trying a simpler query.

The man repeated, "What can I do for you?" He looked up from his continuous washing just enough for us to catch a glimpse of his eyes, glassy and unseeing, like there was nothing behind them anymore.

Ron and Harry backed away, and Narcissa stepped in front of me.

"What's wrong with him?" Ron asked, voice quivering.

Narcissa approached the counter and reached out to touch the man's heavily bearded chin and lift his head. With her other hand on her wand, she incanted, "Legilimens." A second later, she gasped and her entire body stiffened, trembling as she stared at him. A low groan came from her throat like it had been torn out.

"Narcissa!" I cried, lunging forward. I had no idea what to do for her, but I had to do something. I pushed myself between her and the man behind the counter and held her face in my hands.

"Hermione, be careful," Harry warned.

"Snap out of it," I commanded, ignoring Harry. "Look away from him. Come on, come on! Narcissa, look at me!"

Narcissa's head tilted down, then her eyes broke free from their stare and slid over to look into my eyes. In the split second before she squeezed them shut, I felt a terrible emptiness brush the edge of my consciousness. I wrapped my arms around her to keep her upright as her body sagged against me. I hoped whatever had just happened didn't permanently damage her intriguing mind.

"Let's get out of here," Harry urged us, reaching out to take her weight for me.

I shook my head, realizing that it was strange for me to be this concerned about Narcissa but unwilling to let her go. She was still conscious, just utterly spent. I helped her walk outside, into the bright, reassuring sunlight. She tilted her face up as if soaking in its rays.

"I wish I hadn't done that," she whispered, bringing a hand up to her temple.

"You shouldn't have," Ron replied. "You can't just go around mind-reading muggles. It's wrong, and probably illegal."

"Why did you?" I asked, letting her support more of her own weight as she recovered.

"I had to know," she said, shivering beside me. "I had to be sure of what happened here. The dementors did come through this village, ravenous after losing the battle. That man's soul is gone. There's nothing left, just memories of horror, coldness... a void..."

My breath stilled and my stomach tied itself into a knot as the implications sank in. I'd been so relieved to see people here that I didn't even think they might all be empty shells. That was far, far worse.

We wandered around the village a little longer, looking for more signs of people. But we stopped peeking in open houses when we found a skeleton sitting in an armchair, like someone simply sat down and never stood up again. There were several more villagers outdoors doing mindless labor. They didn't acknowledge our presence at all. I wanted to leave, to get away from this disturbing place that would probably haunt us. On the other hand, I also felt a sort of duty to witness this, to remember what happened to these people.

"How is this possible?" Ron asked. "Why don't they just lie around until they die?"

"The brain and body can keep going even without the soul," Harry answered, sounding like he was remembering something he'd heard before.

"Quite right," Narcissa agreed, most of her strength regained. "They still function, eating and drinking and whatnot. But they aren't really alive anymore. They can't do anything beyond following instincts and habits."

"We should signal for help," Harry said. "The other aurors can do a more thorough sweep of the village, then do what they can to make everyone's lives peaceful and easy until the end."

"You would make these villagers continue like this indefinitely?" Narcissa asked, voice sharp. "They call it a 'fate worse than death' for a reason."

"What would you do?" he replied. "Murder them all?"

"Murder? They're no longer truly alive, Mr. Potter. It would be a mercy."

"We don't know what they would've wanted us to do," Harry objected. "What if there's some way to recover?"

"Your optimism and moral righteousness are admirable but misplaced," she replied in the harshest voice I'd heard from her yet. I wasn't sure what to think.

He frowned and shook his head. "The ministry will take care of them. I'm going to find somewhere out of sight and activate my watch."

"The situation isn't urgent enough to warrant an emergency response," Narcissa said. "Ms. Granger can notify them in her daily report."

"She's right, Harry," Ron said. "We don't want to cry wolf and have our coworkers come running when there's no danger." Then he grumbled, "Can't believe I just agreed with that cold-hearted witch."

Harry nodded stiffly and starting walking back through the village toward our path onward.

Ron hurried to catch up with him, calling, "Wait, what about stopping for lunch? Harry!"

"I can't believe he still has an appetite after that," I muttered.

"We should try to eat anyway," Narcissa advised. "We do have the whole afternoon ahead of us. And miles to go before we sleep."

I thought that sounded like something from Robert Frost, but I couldn't picture Narcissa reading muggle poetry. I set my backpack down for a moment to pull out some snacks. The two of us trailed behind, eating food that felt like sawdust in my mouth.

"Ms. Granger," she said suddenly, "if a dementor ever... if I ever..." She swallowed hard and shook herself. "Never mind, I won't ask you to—never mind."

If she knew me better, she would've known you can't just say "never mind" and expect me to drop something. But she'd said enough for me to figure it out, given the context. She wanted to be killed if a dementor ever took her soul. It worried her so much that she nearly asked me. But something stopped her—a desire to spare me that kind of burden? I didn't think I would be capable of killing her, if it ever came to that. Murder would splinter my soul. It would corrupt me. But maybe it really wasn't murder to kill someone who had requested it as a mercy, especially someone who had already departed from their body.

Narcissa drew me from my thoughts, saying, "Thank you for helping me break out of the legilimency spell; I was well out of my depth. I suppose I should be glad we made our contract."

"What?" I didn't know what she meant at first. "Oh, right. That contract." Helping her had been the only thing on my mind when it looked like she was suffering, which made me worry I was letting my guard down too much. "You're welcome."

She inclined her head and gave me a faint smile. Now I wished I could read minds.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Now that I think of it, how were you able to put a fear hex on me? Isn't that harming me?"

"Evidently not," she said. "Perhaps because it was only a temporary illusion. Or because I did it for your benefit, without malice. At least no malice toward you."

"I should've included Ron in that contract," I said dryly, turning her words over in my head. Was it her intentions or the lack of damage that made it harmless? If I accidentally hurt her, would that violate the contract? "Maybe we need to clarify the terms," I mumbled.

Her lip curled. "I will not swear to protect Weasley as well."

"No, no, I was thinking about how vague it is. I mean, we could break it by accident. Or what if there's nothing we can do to stop something bad from happening?"

"Shall we create an addendum?" she asked.

"I think it's a good idea," I said, twisting to get a quill and a scrap of parchment out of my backpack. "What shall it say? How about adding 'to the best of my ability' to each of our statements?"

"Agreed. And then, 'Accidental or permitted harm to one another does not constitute a violation'."

I considered her phrasing. "Permitted harm" allowed for a mercy killing, which still didn't sit well with me, but I hadn't rejected the possibility yet.

"Okay." I wrote the additions on the parchment and inscribed the proper title to magically connect it to our original contract. Then we both signed it, activating the changes with a shimmery hum. The new text would appear on our old parchment somewhere in the records department.

A silence fell between us as we each got lost in thought. Eventually we caught up with Harry and Ron, but no one spoke. The village had lowered our spirits too much to have any companionable conversations.

As the rest of our second afternoon passed, my thoughts kept returning to dark magic and the meaning of harm. Ever since I learned about the magical world, the Dark Arts had been a forbidden thing, a corrupting thing only practiced by bad people. I wanted to know whether it was fundamentally different from light magic. And in order to do that, I couldn't reject it out of hand every time it crossed my path; I would have to analyze it. Narcissa's ward came to mind again. Something beneficial like that could be my first attempt at examining dark magic. Tonight, I would take a peek.

Chapter Text

When we stopped just after sundown to set up camp, I was determined to watch Narcissa set up the ward. I didn't have the nerve to ask her about it again, since our talk that morning left me feeling so unsettled. Instead, when she sent us away to stand behind another hill, I decided to sneak back and watch. Ron encouraged me, while Harry worried I'd mess something up.

I left my backpack with them and walked in a low crouch to the top of the hill, then dropped to my stomach so she wouldn't see my silhouette against the sky. Narcissa paced around looking aimless, wand hanging loosely in her hand. I couldn't tell what she was doing, but there was plenty of cover for sneaking closer. I darted from one clump of brush to another and managed to approach her without notice.

At this distance I could see her eyes were closed, and her skin had a grayish pallor. Had she looked this sickly when we were walking, and I hadn't noticed? Periodically she would take a few gasping breaths and press a hand to her heart, mumbling something. I was torn about whether to interrupt, not sure if this was normal or if she needed help. After a minute of this, she stopped pacing. I was well hidden behind a shrub, but she turned her head until she was facing right in my direction. Could she see me with her eyes closed?

Her eyes snapped open as she swished her wand and snarled, "Levicorpus!"

"AHHH!" I screamed, yanked into the air by my foot until I was dangling upside-down.

She looked just as surprised as I was. "Ms. Granger! I thought you were that idiot boy."

Ron came running over the hill. "Hermione! If she hurt you I swear..." Harry was close behind, and both had their wands drawn.

"Do give me some credit," she said to them coldly. "If I wanted to hurt her, I would do so silently."

We both knew the contract wouldn't allow that, but her confidence sent a shiver down my spine that wasn't entirely unpleasant. Still, I did not like being airborne, especially with all the blood rushing to my head as I hung there.

"What are you doing to her?" Ron asked. "Put her down!"

"She defied my request for isolation while I make the ward. I had every right to retaliate," Narcissa answered and glared up at me. "You have no idea how difficult this is. I literally cannot do it with anyone nearby, and it's exhausting to try." Despite her anger, she set me down so gently I felt like a feather. "Go. Just go. Get out of my sight."

I scrambled back up the hill with Ron and Harry close behind. We reached the spot where I'd left my backpack and sat on the cold ground. Crossing my arms over my knees, I buried my face in the crook of my elbow. I felt like a paranoid ingrate who had been rightly scolded.

"Don't let her make you feel too bad, Hermione," Ron said, patting my back. "She was with our enemies for years. It'll take more than a few months of good behavior to earn trust."

Harry, who had mostly supported Narcissa so far, agreed. "We've been tricked before. A little caution makes sense."

"Yeah," I mumbled into my knee. "I know you're both right. My head says to be careful. But it's getting harder to do that with her here with us literally all the time. One minute I'm fine with her, but the next... Maybe I'm overcompensating. It's not right to keep yanking her around."

"She was the one yanking you around in the air just now," Ron pointed out. "She's got a mean streak."

Was it mean, or totally justified? Unwilling to talk about it anymore, I lifted my head and pulled out the enchanted parchment to write our daily report. I wanted to get it done so that it wouldn't be hanging over my head all night. But remembering the village and the shopkeeper's empty eyes made my mood even worse.

I was feeling quite gloomy by the time Narcissa called us to say she was done. No one seemed interested in making another campfire. Once the tent was up, we all went inside and ate dinner in the kitchen area. The meal was tense. Narcissa would glare every time someone tried to include her in the conversation. When I asked for the pepper, she slammed it on the table in front of me. How long would this last?

"Today turned out pretty bad," Ron said, cleaning our dishes with a charm. "I could use a drink. Anyone want to crack open the firewhisky I brought?"

"I'll join you, mate. I could use a drink myself," Harry said, resting his elbows on the table. "Hermione? Mrs. Malfoy?" We both shook our heads.

"Ms. Granger, may I have a word?" Narcissa asked, standing up. "Outside?"

"Maybe I should come too, to make sure she doesn't hex you again," Ron muttered as he dug around for the firewhisky in his backpack.

"I'll be fine, Ron," I assured him, hiding how nervous I felt.

Narcissa threw her coat on and marched outside without looking back to see if I was coming. Knowing she wouldn't appreciate it if I dilly-dallied, I put on my coat and followed her.

I collided with her right outside the tent, where she faced away standing still as a statue. "Hey, what's—"

All of a sudden it became clear why she had stopped. The crescent moon had risen over the horizon, and in its light I could see at least a dozen dementors crossing the countryside, drifting in and out of sight through rising fog. Kingsley was right: not all of the dementors had gone to the Welsh town. Some still hunted across this entire range. They weren't headed directly for us, but I was sure they'd turn our way the moment they noticed us.

I spun around and lifted the edge of the door flap, yelling, "Harry! Ron! Dementors outside!" They came running out to stand beside me, and the three of us drew our wands.

"Mrs. Malfoy?" Harry prompted her, noticing she hadn't drawn hers.

"They won't see us," she responded faintly.

"How sure are you about that?" he challenged.

"I'm sure."

Her whispered answer didn't really inspire confidence. Harry and Ron stepped toward the edge of the ward, bracing themselves for a fight. My fingers tightened on my wand as we watched the nightmarish scene creep closer. The usual despair hadn't hit me yet, but it seemed to be affecting Narcissa. I reached out for her arm to offer a little comfort, then pulled back, second-guessing myself. She was probably still mad at me and might not appreciate the gesture.

The dementors came closer, their path taking them right by us. The edge of their supernatural fog closed in, but it couldn't penetrate the ward. It hit an unseen barrier, spreading over and around the dome like a stone in a stream. The dementors closest to us wandered along as if we weren't there. All I felt was a natural fear from seeing something dangerous, not the dread and misery they normally caused.

"I'll be damned," I murmured, pulling my eyes away to look up at the impressive ward. Its shape was exactly as Narcissa had described, though at the moment it felt a bit more claustrophobic than I'd imagined.

"It works. It really works," Ron said, mouth hanging open.

"Of course it works," Narcissa snapped, breaking out of her frozen state. "Did you think I would dare to be here if I hadn't tested it?"

"How the hell were you able to test it?" Harry asked, putting his wand away.

She eyed the three of us warily. "I suppose you're all authorized to know this, since it relates to the mission. Our department has several dementors in our research labs, far below ground."

"Ugh," Ron said, shuddering. "Remind me never to go back to the Department of Mysteries. There's just too much creepy stuff down there."

"And here I was looking forward to your visits," Narcissa replied, sarcasm coming easily to her even at a time like this. She never looked away from the dementors as they drifted away, out of sight.

"Don't act like it doesn't creep you out too," Ron shot back, heading toward the tent. "Just a second ago you looked like Hermione when the basilisk got her."

"I don't appreciate that comparison," she protested. "I knew we were safe, so I was content to observe them."

Ron shook his head. "Let's go, Harry. We're not needed here. And now I really need a drink."

When the two of them went back inside, I turned to Narcissa. "That's bullshit," I accused. "You weren't content; you were terrified."

She put her hands on her hips and walked away from me, going around the side of the tent.

I strode after her. "I hope you're not the type to stew angrily for days. I got enough of that from Ron in school."

"I'm not," she replied. "I prefer to cut straight to the heart of the matter and get it over with."

She conjured two cushions for us, setting them close together within the safety of the ward. "Have a seat." It sounded more like a command than an invitation. I sat down on one of the cushions, not wanting to pass up an opportunity to rest my tired feet, but she remained standing. I resisted the urge to fidget.

"Before the dementors interrupted us," she began, "I was intending to discuss the way you interrupted my work on the ward this evening. Since I've already told you I require isolation, I can only assume that you don't believe me. It's maddening, and insulting!"

"What am I supposed to think?" I asked, deciding to match her direct approach. "Who ever heard of a ward that you can only make alone? It seems like a power play, so you can have more influence on this trip. It makes me wonder what you're after."

Her lips thinned. "Let me be perfectly clear: I do not want to be here. I wouldn't admit it to just anyone, but dementors scare the living daylights out of me."

Apparently I wasn't just anyone. I couldn't help feeling a little flattered that she'd told me, though she hadn't done a very good job of hiding it. Even now her eyes were open a little too wide in fear, glinting eerily in the light of the moon.

"Despite my reluctance," she continued, "when the minister told me he was sending a tiny group out here, I couldn't leave them to their own devices. He asked if my research could help, but I knew the very best protection would require me to come along. That's what motivated my choice, not selfishness or whatever unsavory qualities you've misattributed to me. I would like nothing more than for you to do this damnable ward yourself so I can get back to my life! Forgive me for foolishly wanting to protect you from being corrupted by the Dark Arts!"

Her voice was equal parts venom and distress. By the end, I was starting to believe her. She was being a little inconsistent, but in an almost endearing way. If she really wanted me to do the ward, she would have taught me right away. Her desire to protect me was stronger than her desire to go home.

I fought to keep myself from smiling. "I think I understand. But I do want to learn how to cast the ward. Will you tell me about it? I'll decide if I want to risk using the Dark Arts."

She was quiet for a moment before sighing and nodding. "Fair enough. It might take a while to explain."

I shrugged. "We've got time."

She sat down on the other cushion, then chuckled to herself. "Would you believe me if I told you that your cat helped me with the most important part?"

Some of the gloom that had followed me since the village dispersed as I laughed. "It wouldn't be the first time. But how in the world did he manage that?"

"Ever since I realized the third researcher was attacked in his sleep, I've been working on a ward. But it kept failing whenever I fell asleep. It's more energy-intensive than most spells. So much so that I'd nearly given up on that approach. Then your cat gave me your book about possible sources of magic."

I nodded. "I remember that. He's half-kneazle, you know, and very smart, but I have no idea how he intuits things sometimes."

"Most of the book was complete garbage. Couldn't he have pointed me to something more specific?"

"If he had thumbs, I'm sure he would've turned it to the proper page," I responded.

Smiling at that, she continued, "Buried in the list of ridiculous to somewhat plausible guesses, I found one that worked. The theory stated that raw magic flows along underground routes called ley lines, like rivers, and it suffuses the space around it, like moisture in the ground and air. It makes sense, but it's difficult to prove."

"Did you find evidence?" I asked.

She nodded and looked down. "Some time ago, in the midst of some unfortunate situations, I noticed a certain spell has the side-effect of allowing you to sense magic. Not the active magic of spells like stupefy; you can already see that. I'm talking about sensing the raw magic that exists invisibly, all around us. We provide the focus and the intention."

I chewed the inside of my cheek as I thought about that. "I've always assumed magic comes from within us."

"Though that's another plausible theory, I'm convinced now that we're only full of magic because we soak it up from the earth. Please refrain from blabbing about it to the Daily Prophet, though. I'd like to keep this quiet until it's better understood."

"I'm not exactly the press's darling," I grumbled, remembering how much I hated Rita Skeeter. "I'll keep it to myself."

"Good. With that, then, I had the missing piece to sustain my ward no matter how indisposed I am. Theoretically, I can die and it will remain. The key is to detect the nearest branch of a ley line, then siphon a stream of it upward to form a geometric shape with certain properties, and direct the excess back down."

"That sounds like a very complex spell," I said, looking at her with a new appreciation. "A week ago, I never would've guessed you could pull that off, let alone invent the process."

"You thought I was just a run-of-the-mill evil housewife?" she asked with a wry grin. "It's an image I cultivate. Better to be underestimated."

"A lesson I have yet to learn," I said sheepishly. "Everyone who went to Hogwarts could see I'm a know-it-all."

"A reputation for excellence has its uses as well. My approach gave me the upper hand in some very dark days, but you've faced different challenges."

I searched her face as if her memories were written upon it, wondering if I would ever know what those dark days were like for her. They had shaped her, that was clear, and she had become stronger for it. She held my eyes for several seconds until I got too nervous, afraid I wouldn't be able to detect it if she used legilimency on me. I stared down at the ground. I felt like I was walking on a tightrope, wanting to be near her yet knowing I should stay away.

I pushed onward. "Tell me how to detect raw magic."

"Straight to the most dangerous part," Narcissa muttered. "Have you ever stood in a lit room at night and struggled to see out the window? Much like that, we're so full of magic that we can't see any outside ourselves. So I use a curse that suppresses magic, but it can also kill a person."

I leaned forward. "What?!"

"Magic is such an essential part of us that suppressing it causes all kinds of problems. This particular spell will slow down your heart and your breath until they stop altogether."

"That seems so extreme. Isn't there a less dangerous spell?"

She shook her head. "If there is, I haven't found it yet. This topic is relatively unstudied, since no one wants to test it and risk accidentally stopping their magic forever."

"But you risked it?" I asked, incredulous.

"Not... exactly, no. I noticed this effect a long time ago and I'd rather not reflect on the circumstances. The important thing is, the curse works very well, but I can only use it for about twenty seconds before I start to feel like I'm dying."

"And during that time, you can walk around sensing ley lines?" I asked, then felt horrible all over again. "Merlin's beard, you were suppressing your own life force to get that ward working tonight, and I made it even harder on you!"

"You can see why I may have been upset with you," Narcissa said mildly, doing nothing to lessen my guilt.

"I'm so sorry. I didn't know."

She bit her lip. "Perhaps I should have explained sooner, rather than treating you like a child who must be shielded."

Our eyes locked again, a mutual understanding and apology passing between us without any need for mind reading.

"What's the incantation?" I asked.

"Praefoco," she responded. "But it takes more than just saying it, as usual. You must focus on your intention to smother your energy, suppress it."

I nodded in understanding and repeated the incantation aloud to help me memorize it. "Praefoco." An anguished look crossed her face, prompting me to ask, "What's wrong?"

"It's... difficult to hear you say that. It may not be one of the Unforgivable Curses, but that's simply because few are aware of it besides my—besides me. And you, now. But you have so much more to lose than I do. Stifling someone's vital forces until they die is among the darkest and most corrupting of intentions."

"I see," I whispered. The naive little bubble I'd been in burst as the nature of this spell sank in. She was teaching me a slow alternative to avada kedavra, a spell whose very name gave me chillbumps. I needed to take this way more seriously. I remembered the lesson on the Unforgivable Curses in fourth year, and how disturbing it was to see them up close and personal. I didn't want to shy away again. This was my chance to get a better look at dark magic.

"Will you please do it to me?" I asked. "I need to know what it feels like."

She froze. "Excuse me?"

"Cast the spell so I can really understand," I said. As she started to shake her head, I reasoned, "If you're willing to do it to yourself, you should be willing to do it to me."

Reluctantly, she came closer and knelt on the grassy ground before me. "May I?" she asked, reaching out toward my heart.

"Go ahead," I replied, letting her touch the center of my chest just below my collarbone. I breathed in her scent, that spice I couldn't name mixed with something unknown. Under her hand, my heart pumped strong and much, much faster than usual. "You can't, uh, you can't use this spell at a distance?"

"I don't know, I haven't tried. Right now, my priority is making sure nothing goes wrong, so I'm doing exactly what I usually do. Are you ready? Maybe you should be lying down in case you start to feel weak. Tell me again why you're insisting on this?"

"Where's the dark witch who gladly hexed me this morning?" I asked with a half smile. "I just need to know. I need to understand what this spell does to a person. I'm ready."

"Praefoco," she murmured, then again, "Praefoco." Nothing happened. She squeezed her eyes shut and hunched over. "I'm not sure I can do it."

"I'm giving you permission," I said. "It won't break the contract."

"It's not about the fucking contract!" she exclaimed, pulling away and standing up. "I don't want to strangle your life force!"

I don't know if I was more astonished by her cursing or her reluctance. "Then don't think of it like that," I said, standing up as well and facing her down. "Think of it as... holding me in a sort of reverie."

Her face transformed, suddenly full of mischief. "Oh, I don't need a spell for that."

She wasn't wrong. I lost all coherent thought as she came close again and helped me lie on the soft grass, pressing her palm over my heart. She had a bit of Bellatrix in her right then, so sure of her power over people in more ways than one. It gave me some very mixed feelings.

"Praefoco," she said once more, and this time, it worked. At first it felt like humid heat pressing in around me, making it hard to breathe. The next sensation was coolness, more like being deep underwater. My magic strained against the pressure, then contracted until it simmered just under my skin. My pulse slowed, thudding like a drum in a death march. I lost track of how much time had passed, so wrapped up in the feeling of my energy fading. How could Narcissa concentrate on ley lines like this? As the edges of my vision blurred, I could feel the glow of magic within Narcissa, so bright, overwhelming some other sense I never knew I had. No wonder she couldn't work with us around; we'd blind her.

The pressure eased as she lifted the curse. "Slow, deep breaths," she instructed. "That was only ten seconds. You're okay."

I did my best to obey, though I couldn't help a few gasps. She helped me sit up, resting her hand on my knee as she watched to make sure I recovered. My body returned to normal quickly, while my mind took longer to catch up. My attention fixated on the warmth of her hand, hoping she wouldn't take it away.

Finally I gathered my thoughts enough to comment, "Can't say I enjoyed being under the curse. At least it wasn't painful."

She nodded. "It's unpleasant, but one can get used to the feeling. Did you see anything?"

"Yes!" I said, getting excited. "I saw you! Well, not seeing, exactly. I sensed the magic in you, so pure and bright that I couldn't see anything else."

She let out a laugh and stood up again, taking a few steps toward the tent. "It may have been bright, but it wasn't pure."

"Can you even see what your own magic looks like in that state?" I retorted, following her to the tent.

"Not really, but I've witnessed what other dark witches and wizards look like. Our magic is infected with streaks of... sharpness? Redness? It's difficult to describe. But it takes time to master this. I couldn't see clearly right away either."

I shook my head stubbornly, but she was probably right. I'd only been able to sense it for a moment, and the level of detail had been very low.

"It's getting late, and we need our rest," she said, glancing behind us to banish the cushions. "Come on."

We'd been outside much longer than I'd realized. In the tent, Harry and Ron were sound asleep. Harry was kneeling on the floor with his upper half on the lower bunk, snoring more than he usually did. Ron had made it all the way into his top bunk with his feet hanging off the edge, shoes still on. I pulled his shoes off, hoping the two of them didn't always drink their troubles away, then got ready for bed.

Our disturbing experiences today made their way into my sleep. Everyone I knew, turning to look at me with soulless eyes... dementors drifting by, making me think I'm safe behind the ward, then turning their hooded heads and coming after me.... The nightmares went on for hours, leaving me unable to wake up even when I realized I was dreaming. I could only hope tomorrow would be better.

Chapter Text

Narcissa and I had quiet morning tea together again, standing outside the tent beneath gray, heavy clouds. The temperature had dropped very low overnight, and the grasslands around us were covered in heavy frost that looked almost like a layer of snow. Though it was beautiful, I had trouble enjoying the sight. Between the frightening village yesterday and my horrid dreams overnight, I felt drained. I reached up to cover a yawn and felt a raindrop hit my head.

"Oh, just what we need," I grumbled as more raindrops started to fall.

Narcissa tilted her face up and let them splash on her cheeks. "You don't like the rain?"

"You do? It makes everything all wet and miserable," I complained as I cast a rain-repelling charm over my head.

She eased into my personal space to stand under it as well, heat collecting between us. "'The day is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary.' But it's nothing a drying spell can't fix."

"More Robert Frost?" I asked, feeling her closeness like an electric field.

"Ah, you caught that yesterday." The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled. "It's Longfellow this time."

"I'm a little surprised you would read their work, Mrs. Malfoy. They weren't wizards, were they?"

"Perhaps, perhaps not. Poems aren't so different from spells," she replied. "They each have their own magic."

"Careful, you'll make me start to think you're open-minded," I said, grinning. She narrowed her eyes at me, but the corners of her lips quirked in amusement. I looked away from her soft, expressive mouth and cleared my throat. "Speaking of having their own magic, why don't you cast your own repelling charm instead of crowding mine? Or go stand in the rain, since you like it so much."

"Am I crowding you? My apologies, I hate the cold," she said, stepping away. I caught her wrist and pulled her back toward me.

"I was kidding, you're fine," I told her, because it should be fine. I stood this close to Ginny and my other friends all the time. It was definitely fine. Or it would be, if I could just think about something other than Narcissa for half a damn second. "Oh, could I take a look at the maps Phoebe gave us?"

Narcissa pulled the stack of papers from an inner coat pocket and handed them to me. "Feel free to keep them for a while," she offered. "I've pored over them enough."

I shuffled the papers until I found one that showed our area, trying to guess how far we'd get today based on our progress the last two days. I frowned when I saw we'd probably reach a small cluster of dots in the afternoon.

"Did you see this? Looks like a town coming up later today," I said, worrying the edges of the page between my fingers.

Narcissa sighed and nodded. "With dementors still roaming around, we'll need to see how badly it's been impacted and what kind of protection they might need." Her face tightened in a grim expression, and I could almost hear the unspoken ending: if there's anyone left.

I didn't want to see another decimated population. But people had used the Web there after feeling dementors pass through, so at least some might be alive. Holding onto that hope, I tucked the papers into my pocket.

***

Once everyone was ready to start our third day, I handed out raincoats for us to wear, keeping up our cover as muggle backpackers.

"It never occurred to me to bring one of these," Harry said, fastening its snaps. "How much stuff did you pack?"

"A... lot of stuff," I admitted. "I might have overdone it a bit."

"Of course you overdid it. You're you," Ron said. "Your packing list would be shorter if you only wrote the things you're not bringing."

Harry snickered at that, and Narcissa bit back a smile. I shrugged good-naturedly, knowing it was true. I always over-prepared. I brought supplies for everybody because I couldn't count on anyone else to do so. But that had served us well on the run in seventh year, so I counted it among my strengths.

Though I would've liked to talk more with Narcissa, Ron walked next to me as we headed out along the ridgeline trail. I watched the older witch walking with Harry, wondering what they were talking about and trying to ignore my unreasonable jealousy. I should be happy to be spending time with my boyfriend.

I turned to him, determined to have a nice day despite the pouring rain. "Where were we?" I asked. "Casting patronuses? We should stay sharp, especially now that we're sure there are dementors in the area."

"Mrs. Malfoy made me lose my appetite for patronus practice yesterday," Ron said glumly. "Isn't that crazy? We're done with school, but we STILL have to deal with Malfoys bullying us."

"She cast that hex to help us practice, not to bully us," I defended. "Draco was a git, but Narcissa is—" My brain helpfully supplied words like protective, caring, clever, fascinating... I fought to reign it in before I got carried away with unwelcome thoughts. "—misunderstood. I'm trying to give her a chance, and you should too."

"Whatever, alright," Ron grumbled. "I guess we could talk about the nature of patronuses. Maybe they're, uh... made of something patronusy."

I hid a smile at his blatant attempt to copy Narcissa's and my "stimulating" dementor conversation. "Maybe they are," I said. "Or the opposite? Maybe they're not made of anything. They could be forces. What if the animals are just an illusion, a representation of an underlying field of effect?"

"Sure, yeah," Ron agreed. "It could be that."

Realizing I was being contrary again, I went back to his initial thought. "But if they are made of something, maybe it's our positive emotions physically altering the air into something that hurts dementors. Oh, and lethifolds too."

"Or it stinks really bad to them," Ron joked.

I snorted. "Sure, they run away because it stinks." I thought for a few moments, then said, "Actually, you may be on to something. When they breathe into those ghastly mouths of theirs, it's like they're sucking up the whole room. Maybe they really are smelling."

Ron imitated a dementor with a low and raspy voice, saying, "This happiness is the smelliest happiness I have ever smelled. Get away!"

I laughed with him while the gears turned in my brain. "It could be that patronuses overwhelm their senses and drive them away. Maybe the brightness helps too, but can they see light? They only have those pits for eyes... which reminds me of pit vipers. I wonder if they can sense body heat."

"That would be horribly creepy," Ron said, shuddering. "And since dementors are the most creepy things possible, I'm sure they really do have the pit viper thing."

I laughed. "The ontological argument for the properties of dementors! If a creepier dementor can be conceived of in the mind, it must also exist in reality, because that would be even creepier. Narcissa would get a kick out of that."

"Ha, yeah, the ontologal argument," Ron said, turning away.

"You haven't heard of it?" I realized. "It's a sort of funny philosophy, and I can explain it if you like." Then I saw the uncomfortable look on his face. "Oh, drat. I've done it again. I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what, Hermione? Assuming I know what ontoligal means? I should be flattered you think so highly of me," Ron replied, his voice sharpening.

"No, that's not... I'm sorry," I said again, clenching my fists in frustration. "I just have a hard time knowing which things are common knowledge and which things are specific to a certain field of study."

"It sure would be handy if you could know, so then you could talk about philosophy with Narcissa and just use common knowledge when you're talking to common people like me," Ron replied, hunching his shoulders and shedding rain.

I couldn't believe how quickly this conversation had gone downhill over something so minor. "Why do have to be so insecure? I misjudged where our fields of knowledge overlap. Nothing more."

"Insecure?" Ron yelled, making me cringe. "Yeah, I have my own fields of knowledge, but I can't even build up the slightest confidence in what I know because you're always so bloody arrogant! Always judging me and belittling me! Like you know more than everybody else, like if you picked up a broom you'd suddenly be a bloody expert in quidditch!"

"Where is this coming from? I don't judge you nearly as much as you think I do, Ron," I shot back. "When have I belittled you?"

"All the time!"

"Well, apparently I can't notice when I'm doing it, so how about you give me some examples so I can catch myself next time?"

He mimicked my voice, saying, "Actually, Ronald, your idea isn't the worst one ever! Wow, how surprising that you don't suck at everything!"

I flinched. "You're exaggerating! If I really say something like that, just stop me next time."

He let out a sigh, losing all of his steam. "I don't think it's as easy as stopping you. You'll still have that attitude, you'll just get better at hiding it."

Without any more hostility to steel myself against, my defensiveness was fading fast. I started to fear he was absolutely right. His mocking imitation was too familiar. Now that I thought about it, I did remember saying things like that to him. "Why haven't you said anything before?"

He shrugged, kicking a pebble down the muddy slope to our left. "I've tried to point it out, but it keeps getting worse. I feel like I'm always dreading the day you figure out I'm not smart enough for you."

"I don't..." My throat tightened. "I never meant to make you feel that way."

He still looked miserable. I crossed my arms over my chest, feeling like an ogre. I'd been hurting him without realizing it. I always thought I was good for him and Harry, keeping them on track and pushing them to apply themselves in school. But maybe I'd held them back all this time with an attitude I couldn't control.

***

I walked alone for the rest of the morning and sat by myself when we stopped to eat lunch, rejecting any attempts Narcissa and Harry made to talk to me. Ron walked far ahead, ignoring everyone. From time to time we saw ranchers in the distance, herding cattle in the diminishing rain. Not all of them noticed us, but a few waved in greeting, a promising sign that the town wasn't empty. By early afternoon, the clouds were clearing up and letting the sun through. Now, though, I wished the rain would continue, because it suited my mood. Harry pulled off the hood of his raincoat and slowed down to walk alongside me, refusing to stay away any longer.

"Tell me what happened, Hermione," he asked. "We heard you and Ron fighting. I know it was serious. Talk to me."

I looked over at him, seeing his face full of kindness. He'd always had such a big heart. Tears welled up in my eyes and I leaned against his side as we walked. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders, rubbing my arm.

"You shouldn't be nice to me," I said, sniffling. "I've probably been belittling you too."

"Belittling me how?" Harry asked.

"I'm arrogant," I explained. "I make people feel like I'm looking down on them. I make them feel stupid."

Harry shook his head. "You can't make somebody feel something, Hermione. Their feelings are their own."

"How can that possibly be true?" I asked. "Of course I can make people feel bad."

"Well, think of it this way," he said, scratching his head through his unruly hair. "Suppose you make a statement to Person A, and they aren't very confident, and they feel stupid if they don't understand. But then you make the same statement to Person B, who is really confident, and they don't feel stupid even when they don't understand. So yeah, it starts from what you say. But it's a two-way street."

I was quiet as I thought about that. The wisdom in his words rang true, even though he didn't have Dumbledore's poetic way of speaking. "If everyone reacts differently, how can I speak to Ro—er, Person A without those negative feelings coming up?"

"Blimey, Hermione, I don't know. Just listen, I guess. Try to hear what Person A really needs, underneath it all. It's too easy to get stuck just trying to think of what to say next instead of really listening, and then you'll just bowl them over."

I nodded thoughtfully. "I think I get stuck that way a lot." Between listening better and learning to catch my judgmental thoughts, maybe I could retrain my mind. I wondered, what did Harry really need? Then I smiled. Harry needed to help people. I'd known that for a long time. Sometimes it got him—and others—into trouble, a pretty dangerous hero complex, but it was also one of his best qualities.

"Thank you for the advice, Harry," I said, filling up with gratitude. "I really love you, I hope you know that. Ooh, that was super sappy, sorry."

"Uh oh, sap is flowing from the Granger tree," Harry teased, but I knew he was happy to hear it. "Love you too, Hermione. Do you want me to stay or leave you alone to think? Just as long as there's no brooding."

I laughed and pushed him. "Oh, come on. You're a professional brooder. You can't forbid me from doing it too. Let me think for a while and brood if I want to."

He gave me a lopsided grin, looking like his old boyish self. "Alright. I'm here if you need me. I hope you and Ron make up soon."

The words "me too" died in my throat as I watched him jog ahead to talk to Ron and give me space. Things were so much better when Ron and I were just friends. I wished we could hang out like old times, without him struggling to impress me. My eyes slid over to Narcissa, not far ahead of me. I was tempted to talk to her. If she was more like Person B, I wouldn't have to worry about putting her down, because she was even more arrogant than me. That thought was oddly heartening.

Before long, I decided to catch up with her, pulling off my unneeded raincoat and quick-drying it before stuffing it in my backpack. She heard my approach and turned to look at me with a concerned expression. I wasn't sure what to say until I remembered her attempts at speaking to me earlier.

"Hi, did you want to talk about something?" I asked. "I'm all ears now."

"Nothing in particular," she replied, packing her raincoat away as well. "You seemed upset about your argument. I would've conversed about anything if it would get that horrible look off your face."

My nose scrunched. "Horrible look? You have a knack for being nice and rude at the same time," I replied. "I'd rather not talk about it, though."

"I understand. If you change your mind, I can provide some honest feedback." She rolled her eyes. "Goodness knows I've had more than my fair share of fights."

Wanting to shift the attention away from my own life, I asked, "With your husband?"

"Yes... though it wasn't always that way. We used to make a good team, agreeing on what we needed to do to achieve our goals." She sounded wistful before she shook her head and continued, "I loved him, but that faded as I learned what kind of man he is."

"A cruel bastard?" I asked, voice harsh as I remembered about the possessed journal and his treatment of Dobby in second year.

She sniffed in contempt. "And vile, and neglectful, and short-sighted."

I raised my eyebrows, saying dryly, "That's quite a list. Did you prepare it in advance?"

"I've had years to come up with choice adjectives for him. Incompetent is another. If he were a better lieutenant, this recent war may well have gone the other way."

I tensed. "Did you want it to?"

After a long moment of silence, she said, "No, I lost heart in the cause after the first war." She tucked her hands into the pockets of her coat, fiddling with the soft fleece lining while seeming to summon the nerve to say more.

"Lucius and I had seen death, prison, and disappearances take away friends, even family," she said, looking over at me. "My family means everything to me, Ms. Granger. Everything. But where I saw the war as something of a lesson, a warning to reconsider, Lucius spent those years wishing the Dark Lord would rise again and finish what he started. For the first time, we seriously disagreed on how to proceed. And when the Dark Lord did return, weakened yet powerful enough to kill traitors, I knew I couldn't risk defiance."

I felt for her as she spoke, but I couldn't ignore what she'd done. "You kept helping him. You gave Voldemort refuge in your home while people were dying. Does your family outweigh them all?"

She stopped walking, making me halt in order to listen as she replied, "Absolutely. And if you would sacrifice someone—let alone family—to save others, that's a cold calculation. Colder than the heart of ice people accuse me of having. I protect my own."

My lip curled. "It isn't cold, I treat everyone equally. I don't decide who deserves to live, like you do. First your bloodline, then other purebloods, then other wizards, then muggles. Is that the order? Do you realize how racist, how loathsome that is?"

Her jaw tightened. "You left out the lowest category of all: mudbloods," she spat.

I hissed and clutched my arm as pain erupted in my scar, worse than it had since I first got it. "How dare you!"

The anger on her face vanished at my reaction. She shocked me again by grabbing my wrist and pushing my sleeve up. "This still pains you?" she asked, examining my scar with an inordinate amount of worry.

"What do you care?" I snapped. I bit back a sob as blood welled up in the letters. At least now I knew the pain wasn't all in my head.

"Bella must've cursed it," she murmured, her brow creasing as she looked at the hideous red letters. "I'm so sorry. I was trying to get you back for insulting me. I didn't know it would reopen this wound." Her warm fingertips hovered over the scar, then probed the skin around it.

I snatched my arm away, unnerved by the sensation her touch evoked. For a moment, it had even overpowered the lingering pain. "You expect me to believe you didn't mean what you said?"

She bowed her head and said with a sigh, "I used to think that way. It seems I still have some work to do, breaking out of old habits."

I'd seen firsthand how easily Narcissa could lie, but my gut told me her regret was genuine. I shouldn't have been so hard on her. I looked down at my scar, wincing as I saw it still bleeding.

"When we get back to civilization, you should see a cursebreaker," she said. "It's not good to leave that unhealed for so long. Will you let me try something?" She pulled her wand from her coat sleeve, the same place I liked to keep mine, and gestured toward my arm.

"What are you going to do?"

"A charm for making cursed books quiet down when they're misbehaving," she explained. At my raised eyebrows, she explained, "We have far too many of them at the manor. This spell comes in handy, and it might help a little."

"Alright, as long as you don't make it worse," I permitted, extending my arm to her.

She grasped my wrist lightly and said, "Sedo malum." The pain settled back down like a sleeping beast as we watched the bleeding stop. She looked up at me again. "Do you really think I was wrong to put my son first?" she asked. "Is it really so wrong that I wouldn't risk him suffering for my own treachery?"

"War requires sacrifice," I told her.

"Sacrifice without choice is murder," she responded.

I shifted in discomfort, no longer certain I was right. "Yes, but the alternative was a massacre!"

"I know," she said softly. "I don't deny it was tragic."

I was so prepared for another rebuttal that her response left me speechless. By unspoken agreement we started walking again, picking up the pace to catch up with Ron and Harry, who were nearly out of sight. I glanced at Narcissa out of the corner of my eye a few times, trying to read how she was feeling now. Though I still believed she'd participated in some terrible things, maybe some of her choices were justified.

"That's my second fight today," I said, sighing.

"It's my fault. I provoked you," she replied.

"No, I was horrible. You were sharing your life with me, and I questioned your ethics instead of just listening." I was frustrated with myself, since Harry had so recently advised me to listen better.

"If I wanted a passive audience, I'd find a rock to talk to," she replied.

"Then next time I push you, don't lash out," I told her, "and I'll try not to be such an insensitive dolt."

She nodded and frowned. "I normally enjoy arguments. I suppose I'm a little worn down. I thought house arrest would give Lucius a chance to improve, but he's gotten even more petulant."

I adjusted my backpack, relaxing a little as the stress between us dissipated. I'd forgotten about her husband's house arrest, though it was in the papers only a few months ago, after the War Trials. At the moment, there was no secure place to imprison wizards, with Azkaban no longer guarded by dementors. The ministry was still working on fortifying the place with wards so that wizards couldn't magically escape. In the meantime, some prisoners were being moved, some were put to death, and others were put under house arrest, closely monitored with all kinds of rules attached. Some thought that was too light a punishment.

I asked, "Does he mind that you're going to be gone for a week or two on this trip?"

"I wouldn't know," she replied. "I've been avoiding him. I wrote a note saying I was on holiday and left before he woke up." She rubbed a hand over her face. "I don't know why I'm telling you so much."

"If you've drifted that far apart, why are you still married?"

"Aren't you tired of hearing about me?" she asked. "Tell me why you're still with the Weasley boy."

"Ron is nothing like your husband," I said, resenting the parallel. "He's kind and good. It's easy to choose to stay with him. He loves me."

"Are you really choosing him, or just going along because you're accustomed to it?" she asked.

I quickly denied it. "I'm choosing, and I think you're projecting."

She didn't answer for several seconds, then said, "I think I can see the town over the next hill."

I opened my mouth to protest the transparent change of subject, then closed it. Her question resounded in my mind. Was it true? Was I just with him by default? I didn't want to continue that line of thought any more than she did.

As we got closer to the town, I saw electrical towers and phone lines connecting them to some distant grid, much more modern than the previous village. And to my relief, I spotted smoke rising from chimneys, a sure sign of life.

We reached the edge of town in the middle of the afternoon and found our way to one of its main streets. It looked much like any small town in Britain, just a little tackier. Several buildings had large eyes painted on them, and most doorways had a number of charms and wreaths over them. I stared at some of the more unsettling painted eyes while following the others into a lively pub. Some patrons laughed over drinks while others watched a football match, booing and cheering. A lot of them turned to stare when we walked in, but it was still a welcome contrast from entering the grimy, eerie general store. We found a booth, stuffed our backpacks under the table, and ordered some food.

While we waited, Harry said, "Maybe after eating we can talk to the locals. Our number one priority is determining whether dementors still threaten the town. We'll probably need to post aurors here as guards."

Ron suggested, "Let's talk to the bartender and see if he's heard about anything that sounds like it could be dementors."

"Don't be too obvious," Narcissa warned.

I thought for a moment. "How about this: we had another hiker friend who came through this area back in May. He came home utterly changed, like he'd seen something terrifying. We can ask if anyone knows what might've happened."

"Another great idea from Hermione," Ron said without looking at me. I scowled at his unpleasant tone.

A wary server brought our food to the table, and we didn't talk much while we ate. I got more and more uncomfortable with Ron sitting directly across from me. I wasn't ready to talk to him yet, especially if it turned into another argument. The moment I finished eating, I stood up.

"I'm going to look around the town a little," I said. "You three find out what you can here."

"Okay, don't stay away too long," Harry said.

I nodded and hurried outside. I let out a breath of relief when I reached the open air. Exploring a quaint town appealed to me much more than trying to deal with Ron. That could wait.

After crossing a few intersections, I reached another main street and turned onto it. The buildings changed from businesses to large houses, all adorned with fake charms and talismans. People were outside mulching small winter gardens, and some of them waved as I walked by while others looked cautious. Kids played in the street, and I enjoyed watching them for a moment. Seeing all this life did a lot to soothe the memory of yesterday's village.

Trying to stay out of the kids' kickball game, I passed close to a little boy sitting all by himself on the curb. He was playing with a vaguely familiar muggle device—a Gameboy. As I walked by, he frowned and turned the device over in his hands, then looked up at me with a strange expression and ran off. Before long, he was back with several friends, all holding their own Gameboys. They gathered around me and held up their toys. I thought they were showing them off, but one by one they backed away with wide eyes.

When it occurred to me that Gameboys were like miniature computers, I quickly realized what had happened. "It's nothing to be frightened of," I told the kids. "See, there's a medical device—"

It was no use. They ran away, disappearing into various houses and returning with their parents in tow.

"Mum," the original boy said, "she made the screen go blank!"

"Make way, settle down everyone," a deep voice said. One of the kids led a man in priestly robes toward me. He asked, "What's going on here?"

I laughed nervously as more and more adults gathered around. "As I tried to tell these kids, I have a brain implant that emits electromagnetic radiation. It stops my seizures and it's perfectly harmless, no need to worry."

But they did look worried. "Seizures?" one of them asked. "What kind of seizures? You convulse and writhe around?"

The boy tugged on his mother's sleeve. "Mum, I'm telling you, it's just like the bad nights! All our games stopped working!"

"Young lady," the priest said, "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I believe you're possessed."

"Excuse me?" I asked. "Who believes in possession anymore? That's preposterous."

"A year ago, I thought so too," the priest said gravely. "But this past spring, a terrible evil swept through our town and returns at its whim. Anyone unfortunate enough to be caught outside at night risks losing their minds to demons. I know it sounds mad. Invisible demons? I wouldn't have believed it if I couldn't feel it myself. The chill air, the dread, the screams in my subconscious..." He added pointedly, "The lights flicker and go out. Our technology fails us. We can't even call for help."

"I'm sorry," I said quietly. "That's simply awful. Surely there's a reasonable explanation." At least now I could see why the town was full of superstitious symbols. They were trying to ward off evil without having the slightest idea what dementors were.

"There are mysterious forces in this world," the priest asserted. "And one of them has taken hold of you. What causes your seizures is the same evil that afflicts our town. But don't fret, we can exorcise it."

"I'm not possessed," I objected, trying to back out of the small crowd. "Wouldn't I know if I were? If you would just—"

"Grab her," the priest commanded.

A burly man behind me grabbed me around the middle, pinning my arms to my sides.

"Let go!" I yelled, trying to twist out of his grasp. "Let me go!"

These people were unbelievable! I wondered if I should keep struggling or let them try their little exorcism and hope they'd let me go after that. While I deliberated over whether or not to defend myself, a skinnier man came up and grabbed my ankles, holding my legs under his arm. The two men carried me like a ladder down the street toward a small church, further from the pub where my friends were. What could I remember about exorcisms? They weren't so bad, right? Some scripture, some holy water...

"What's this?" the bigger man asked, shifting his grip around my arms. He patted the sleeve of my coat, feeling something in there.

Oh shit, my wand! Shit shit shit...

The priest came closer to investigate. "Have mercy on our souls," he whispered, grasping the end and tugging it free. "Is this what I think it is?"

There was no mistaking it for an ordinary stick. It was clearly crafted and he'd found it stashed in my sleeve like a weapon. I held back a groan of dismay.

"She's a witch," he realized, holding the wand like a snake that could bite him. "She's not just possessed, she's a sorceress!"

I started to protest, but the burly man clamped a huge hand over my mouth. My annoyance at letting myself get caught turned into fear as the crowd pressed in and swept us down the street. I needed to figure out a way to get my wand back and escape without hurting anybody. The church loomed closer, and I twisted to see what was going on around me. More people were joining the crowd. Some of them carried wood. Firewood.

I flailed wildly, catching my captors off guard. I'd been fairly docile so far, but terror flooded me now. I was well aware of what muggles used to do to witches. I screamed against the man's hand, screamed for Ron and Harry and screamed for Narcissa. I bucked and twisted, breaking one leg free and kicking it.

"Grab her!" the burly man yelled at the other, who was trying to regain control of my free leg. I got the other leg free and slammed both feet into the skinny man like a donkey. He fell backwards and gasped on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. Just as I was gathering my concentration for my first attempt at a wandless stupefy, something hit my head and everything went dark.

Chapter Text

When I came to, the first thing I sensed was the smell of gasoline. I could feel a gag over my mouth and ropes binding me so tightly I could hardly move. Then I opened my eyes, half expecting to see Bellatrix leering at me. Instead I saw a crowd of muggles, looking like a single-minded mass of angry, frightened faces. They'd built up a wood pile around my feet, surrounding the post I was tied to.

My thoughts came in bursts as my limbs went numb. They're really going to do it. They're going to burn me at the stake. I'll die unless I do something.

The priest stood near the front, and he came closer holding a box of matches. I writhed against the ropes as he opened the box, pulled one out, and tossed it on the wood pile.

"No more agents of evil will hurt my people," he declared.

My chest heaved, breath coming too slowly through the cloth blocking my mouth. My friends were back at the pub, and they had no idea I was in trouble. I couldn't reach the watch on my wrist to send a signal. The only thing I had left was my mind. Think, come on, think! My head felt woozy from being struck, and the smoke pouring over my face was making it worse.

I frantically considered all the books I'd read. What about that witch who loved getting burned? There was a spell that made fire tickle. Could I do it without a wand? I had to try. I let the sound of the incantation fill my mind and tried to cast it. But it didn't work. I tried again and again, desperation growing. Even as the heat from the fire singed the ends of my hair, I refused to give up. Maybe a simpler spell...

Suddenly a woman's voice rang out in the open air. "IMPERIO!"

I flinched, but it wasn't directed at me. Everybody gathered before me froze in place, looking like time had stopped. I froze too, shocked by the use of an Unforgivable Curse on muggles.

Narcissa Malfoy ran straight through the crowd, shoving motionless people out of the way without caring if they toppled over. She looked furious and fearsome, and I'd never been so relieved to see someone in my life.

"Diffindo," she growled, flicking her wand at the ropes holding me to the post. As she did, her command of the crowd slipped. Some of them broke free of the spell, yelling and throwing kindling at us. I gathered what remained of my strength and leaped away from the stake, rolling across the ground when I landed. The ropes had constricted my circulation so badly that I could barely get up. Kneeling and tearing the cloth from my mouth, I watched Narcissa stumble under the strain as she conjured fiendfyre. The flaming woodpile turned into an inferno that clawed across the ground to form a wall between us and the muggles, who were slowly escaping her control. I was afraid she'd hurt them, but the menacing barrier sizzled and spat without attacking.

"I can't keep this up. Run!" she yelled, perspiration beading up on her brow. She grabbed me around the waist to help me stand.

I staggered with her away from the fire, toward the nearest row of houses so we could get out of sight. The mob roared behind us, completely free of the Imperius Curse now. I could only hope the fiendfyre wasn't running loose too. We raced around the back corner of a large home and hid behind lines of hanging laundry, listening for sounds of pursuit. It seemed the cursed fire was keeping them at bay for now.

"A priest stole my wand," I told her. "Could you...?"

She summoned it with a quick accio, and something came flying into her hand, but it wasn't my wand. It was the shards that remained of it. I stared slack-jawed at the pieces on her outstretched palm. Though we both knew it was hopeless, she waved her wand in a failed attempt to repair it.

"My wand. My wand..." I mouthed, holding her wrist and slowly touching each piece. I kept waiting for the reality of it to sink in. The loss of my wand on top of everything else was incomprehensible.

"I'm sorry," she said, stuffing the shards in her pocket and backing away. "I need to banish the fiendfyre before it gets out of hand. Get ready to run back to your friends if the muggles come after us."

I nodded and rested against the wall of the house, taking this chance to recuperate.

Narcissa stepped around the corner to get a line of sight to the fire as she ended the spell. To my relief, the mob drifted away from the house, perhaps scared of further magic. With the need to hurry away less urgent than we'd thought, the dark witch leaned against the wall beside me, heavy with fatigue. She'd pulled off some extremely difficult magic to rescue me. On impulse, I pressed a kiss to her temple, feeling a moment of peace despite everything that had gone wrong.

"Narcissa," I said quietly, "you saved my life. Thank you."

Her eyes widened when I said her given name, then trailed down my face before she ducked her chin and muttered, "Next time, don't make me run so far. I do not run. Now I'm all sweaty and unseemly." She unzipped her coat and tugged at her collar to cool off.

"It's a good look on you," I said, trying to sound like I was joking as my gaze followed her hand. Was she really concerned about her appearance at a time like this? She must have no idea how attractive she was, with her cheeks pink from exertion, and the hollow of her throat glistening. I wet my lips unconsciously, which tasted like salt from where I'd kissed her. Groaning internally, I suppressed the sudden urge to taste more of her skin.

"See something you like?" she teased.

My head snapped up, entire body flushing with embarrassment. "I was only... it's not what you... I don't.... Definitely not." Her smirk grew as I stammered my denial. She knew exactly how attractive she was. I looked away, mortified. Get it together, Granger! I blamed Phoebe for putting thoughts in my head, plus heightened feelings from being in mortal peril, which I feared wasn't over.

Swallowing hard and forcing my thoughts back to our present situation, I asked, "How did you know I needed help?"

She touched the back of my hand as if to reassure me. "I didn't know, at first. It was just a nagging suspicion when a shifty muggle ran into the pub and left with a bunch of thugs. I didn't like the way they looked, especially with you still missing, so I hurried after them and saw that barbaric mob."

Nothing like some low-key prejudice to cool me down. "Gotta watch out for those muggles, always up to no good," I said, intending to call her out. Instead I clammed up, ashamed for not realizing what danger I was in until it was too late.

"Hermione!" Harry and Ron's voices rose up in the distance. "Hermione! Where are you?" It sounded like they were getting closer, heading straight toward the angry crowd.

The priest's voice rose up, yelling, "More sorcerers!"

"Stay back! We don't want to hurt you!" Ron hollered.

"Godric fucking Gryffindor!" Narcissa spewed, fist tightening on her wand. "I told them to stay at the pub!"

"Welcome to my life. They never listen," I grumbled as a jolt of worry went through me, despite knowing what capable aurors they were. Could they handle a mob like that? I grabbed her elbow and hurried in their direction.

Narcissa huffed, "I knew it, I knew you would enlist me to help your foolhardy friends."

"Unless you're busy with something more important," I snipped, leading the way through more hanging laundry. "And please, no more using dark magic against muggles. Especially not Unforgivables! No matter how shifty they look."

"Are you seriously protesting the very thing that saved you from those savages?" she asked, incredulous.

"Yes, seriously," I insisted, going faster as screaming reached my ears.

"What do you expect me to do, blow bubbles at them?"

I made a face at her, then jumped away from a shadow moving in my peripheral vision. It was just a large black dress flapping on one of the clotheslines. I glanced around, seeing more black clothes, and an idea formed.

"Okay," I conceded. "Maybe just a little bit of dark magic. And mist, not bubbles. How about we show them what dementors look like?"

***

Dressed from head to toe in flowing black garments, Narcissa and I peeked over a garden wall. Harry and Ron were side by side in the middle of the mob, loudly demanding to know what had happened to me. They stunned, repelled, or incarcerated anyone who came too close, causing the screams we'd heard, but they were so passive that the muggles were getting bolder by the moment.

"Can your fear hex cover the whole crowd like what you did earlier?" I whispered.

"I'm not sure," she replied. "I think that only worked because they had such a herd mentality."

"Well, get as many as you can. Hopefully the rest will feel afraid enough. On my signal, start—oh, shit! Do it NOW!"

The crowd swarmed Harry and Ron, overwhelming them with their sheer numbers. I saw that same burly man from before putting Ron in a headlock while Harry ducked down and tried to dive away. Beside me, Narcissa was swirling her wand through the air, conjuring layers of fog that quickly expanded and spread away from us. Once that was set in motion, she started casting fear hexes. Any guilt I felt about including the Dark Arts in my plan vanished when people started kicking Harry. Ron conjured a powerful jet of water to push the attackers away, but more took their place. It was absolutely insane to watch such skilled wizards unable to properly defend themselves. Their "nice" spells were only making things worse.

"Come on!" I said, adjusting my dementor costume and leading Narcissa out through a gate in the garden wall. Ensconced in a heavy gray haze, we did our best impression of the evil beings, stepping lightly to recreate the eerie way they glide. I felt a little silly wearing a stranger's miscellaneous laundry, but with the low visibility and the hex's influence, our disguises must've been quite frightening. The first muggle to see us screamed in terror, and like a chain reaction more screams followed until everyone was panicking.

"Demons! DEMONS! Get to your houses! Lock the doors and pray!" the priest yelled, his warning almost drowned out by the screeching crowd. To his credit, he directed other muggles to safety instead of fleeing right away.

With his attackers' attention diverted, Harry stood up straight and cast his stag patronus, joined by Ron's terrier. Their faces twisted in horror and disbelief as both silver creatures passed by us harmlessly. I stepped over the bound and unconscious muggles lying in a circle around where my two friends stood their ground. They raised their wands to try another attack.

"Your happinesssss is so ssssmelly," I hissed as I came closer.

Ron's expression slackened into confusion, then recognition. "Bloody hell! Hermione?!"

I grabbed him and whispered, "Play along. Narcissa, featherweight charm?"

She cast the charm on both men and grabbed Harry. We dragged them away, keeping up our threatening appearance so the last muggles witnessing our departure wouldn't rally. Once we were out of sight, all four of us ran back to the pub to retrieve our backpacks. News of all the commotion must've spread; no one was in there anymore. Narcissa and I pulled our disguises off and used them to cover the windows. Then we blocked the door, feeling safe to regroup here now that we could concentrate well enough to apparate away if any of the muggles dared to come back.

Ron hugged me tightly, setting aside our earlier argument for now. "Hermione, what happened? You look terrible." He let go as we all sat down at the same table as before, adding, "You smell like you rolled around in a bonfire."

I held my head in my hands. "Can we save the explanations for later? I'm still processing everything." Surrounded by friends, my adrenaline faded and left me feeling so, so weary. Narcissa leaned back and closed her eyes, probably feeling much the same way.

"I sent the emergency signal when our crowd control wasn't working," Harry told me, rubbing his stomach where he'd gotten kicked a few times. "The backup aurors will be here soon. They'll probably want to know what happened."

Narcissa's eyes flew open and she stood up, grabbing my arm. "Can we speak?" she asked, not giving me a chance to reply. I let her pull me away until we were just out of view in the back room of the pub. Then she cast muffliato, which she doubtless learned from Snape himself.

Despite the silencing spell, she spoke quietly. "Are you going to tell them about my Imperius Curse?"

Now I understood what this secrecy was about. I hadn't even thought about that. The punishment for using such spells was an automatic life sentence, so the aurors would be obligated to arrest her. My chest tightened as I imagined her wasting away in prison. I knew then that there was no chance I'd report her. She hadn't really harmed anyone, and she'd saved my life.

My silence must've lasted a little too long. She closed her eyes and swayed where she stood. I pulled her against me for support and felt her heart hammering wildly. She clutched my back, but her voice came out surprisingly smooth.

"I'll need to make sure someone watches out for Draco while I'm in prison, and prepare the estate to handle my absence. At least Azkaban no longer has dementors guarding it..."

"Narcissa, it's alright," I said hurriedly, feeling bad for causing needless distress. "I'm not going to tell anyone." Her grip tightened when I used her name again, sending heat straight through me. I gently pushed her away, trying to control my reactions.

"Wait, really?" she asked, searching my face for confirmation. "You're not going to be insufferably righteous about this?"

"Reporting you would be wrong. I promise I won't tell. I don't really approve of taking away someone's free will, but I think more people would've gotten hurt otherwise. What you did... it was pretty damn heroic."

All her breath came out in a rush. "Merlin, I think you took twenty years off my life and then added them back. At the time, I wasn't thinking ahead. I'm so accustomed to people throwing around those curses that I forgot Unforgivable is a legal term, not merely a moral judgment." She brushed a hand over her hair and let out another steadier breath.

"Understandable," I said, glad to see her calming down. "I suppose following the law again will take some getting used to. I'm amazed you would've been willing to submit to 'justice,' as it were." My eyes narrowed. Something about her initial reaction didn't sit right with me. "In fact, I can hardly believe it."

"And rightly so," she confessed, smiling slightly. "I would have gone into hiding, bringing Draco with me if I thought the fallout would affect him. I'd sooner give up my life than be locked up forever." Rather than looking guilty at being caught, she seemed almost proud of me for noticing.

I chewed on my lip, wrestling with that response. She'd deceived me at first, which stung. But after my reassurance, she told the truth, and that made me curious. I wanted to know what other layers she would peel away if she trusted me enough.

The tremendous noise of aurors arriving stole my attention. An unfamiliar voice apologized, "Sorry, mate! Hope we got here quick enough! What's going on, is everyone alright?"

I ventured out of the back room with Narcissa close behind. Over two dozen aurors were crowding the small pub.

"It's a long story, but we're okay," Harry told his coworkers. "There's a lot to explain. Hermione knows more than we do." He looked at me expectantly.

I was surprised he would let me take charge, but I seized the opportunity. "First thing's first. Pretty much the entire town saw us using magic, so we need Obliviators to erase the entire last hour of their memories. Don't start with me about the Statute of Secrecy; it was in self-defense. Be careful, these muggles are paranoid about magic. They're dangerous if you let them gang up on you. Just do the memory charms and get out quickly."

The majority of the aurors hurried out of the pub to get started. We all knew that memory erasure worked better when done as soon as possible, before too many new associations formed. But my main concern was making sure they erased that hour without looking closely at it. Way too many muggles had heard Narcissa's curse. I would do what I could, within reason, to keep it quiet.

To the remaining aurors, I said, "These people will also need protection from dementors, which apparently come at night from time to time. Do you want to hear the whole story right now, or can I write it down tonight?" I crossed my fingers, hoping that everyone in the ministry hated paperwork as much as my department did.

They exchanged looks and shrugged. One of them replied, "Later is good. Fewer reports to file. Just fill us in on anything else we need to know right now."

I relaxed, relieved that I wouldn't have to come up with an alternate story on the spot. Only then did I notice how intently Narcissa had been listening to that exchange. Our eyes met, and I knew she was aware of what I was doing. She reached for my hand under the table, giving it a squeeze.

With the main issues out of the way, there wasn't much else to say. Harry and Ron told their coworkers a few more things that they'd heard in the pub earlier while I was gone. I only half-listened, letting them take care of the rest. It wasn't long before the last aurors left to help the others and we were free to be on our way. We carried our backpacks outside and returned to the ridgeline trail in silence, leaving another troubling town behind.

***

Harry led our group through rolling fields that gradually darkened as the sun sank lower. He seemed to want to put a lot of distance behind us. The stars were coming out by the time we stopped to set up camp. Narcissa went down to an area hidden from sight by a hedgerow, and we waited for her to set up the ward. I wished I could go straight to bed and hide from tonight's inevitable questions. My earlier shame at getting caught consumed me now.

"Is she still keeping that ward all to herself?" Ron asked, breaking the silence.

I stared into space. My suspicions about her power play seemed ages old now. "No. She explained it."

After my short reply, he didn't try speaking again. I pulled out my daily report parchment and chewed on the end my quill as I struggled with what to write. I scribbled the most complete summary I could, leaving out the Imperius Curse by making it sound like Narcissa had blindsided the crowd, rescuing me before they could react. But I shouldn't have even needed rescuing.

After everything was set up, we all took turns showering and changing into pyjamas. When I left the washroom, everybody was outside. I breathed deep and prepared myself to explain what had happened. Harry and Ron still didn't know how close I'd come to getting killed. Telling my friends was a lot more intimidating than the dry, objective report I'd just written.

When I walked out of the tent, a fire roared before me. I reared back in fright, reaching for my wand to use aguamenti before remembering I no longer had it. My wand was irreparably broken. I felt its loss like a missing limb.

"Hermione, what's wrong now?" Harry asked, seeing my reaction.

Narcissa's eyes met mine from the other side of the fire. I couldn't see any pity there, only understanding and... a dare?

I squared my shoulders and stepped toward the fire, which was quite safe, contained within a ring of small stones. Everyone was sitting on rocks like on the first night, and someone had already placed a rock for me. I sat upon it and slowly, deliberately reached my hands out toward the fire to warm them. I let out a breath as the fear faded. The next time I looked at Narcissa, she gave me a small nod.

Feeling encouraged, I recounted the story of the muggles discovering what I was, seizing me, and nearly burning me alive. Narcissa listened carefully, and Ron and Harry only interrupted a few times for details or clarification. When I finished, the silence dug into me. I knew I'd been overpowered way too easily. I covered my face with my hands and asked, "How could I let this happen?"

"It's not your fault, Hermione," Harry told me. "No one should have to be paranoid all the time."

"They're the only ones to blame for what happened," Ron agreed, reaching out to hold my knee.

"I know it's not my fault," I snapped. They both looked taken aback, and Ron withdrew his hand. I apologized, "Sorry, I'm just—that's not what I'm worried about. I told Kingsley I could help protect whoever went on this mission! I've fought Death Eaters! Then I nearly get killed by muggles? I've never felt so humiliated in my life!"

My raised voice echoed around us, then faded into silence. My friends didn't know what to say. Even the crickets had stopped chirruping.

Narcissa spoke without looking up from the fire. "You weren't willing to escalate fast enough."

"Just like a Slytherin to blame the victim," Ron said angrily.

I held up my hand to quiet him and said to Narcissa, "Explain."

She looked at me with unsettling intensity. "When a Death Eater grabs you, you escalate the fight immediately because you're fully aware he intends to harm or even kill you. But the people in that town had a psychological advantage, because you weren't willing to hurt them. You saw them as innocent muggles, while they saw you as something dangerous, something other. So when they grabbed you and got more aggressive, you were always one step behind."

I stared at her, absorbing the revelation.

Harry declared, "There's nothing wrong with not wanting to hurt innocent people."

"Nothing wrong with it," Narcissa agreed, then countered, "until those 'innocent' people burn you at the stake."

"How could I have known they would react like that?" I asked. "What am I supposed to do? I can't just avoid muggles for the rest of my life, or assume they're all going to murder me. They're my friends and neighbors."

She reached into her pocket and extracted the shards of my wand a few pieces at a time. My heart sank all over again when I saw it, and Harry and Ron groaned in sympathy.

"Wasn't enough to just snap it," Ron grumbled. "They had to splinter it? We can't even spellotape that back together."

Harry met my eyes with a bit of guilt on his face. I knew he was thinking about the Elder Wand. If he'd kept it, it might've been able to repair my wand like it did his.

"You can choose a breaking point," Narcissa said, walking around the fire and crouching next to me. I held out my hands, suddenly longing to have the pieces back even though they were useless now. She poured the fragments into my palms and curled my fingers over them. "I recommend making this be the line no one can cross. Losing your wand impairs one of your most powerful weapons."

Her words struck a chord with me. I'd been hamstrung without my wand, and I hated feeling so helpless. "So if someone tries to grab me," I said, sitting up straighter, "whether they're obviously an enemy or not, I'll fight. I won't wait until they disarm me. Maybe I'll have to apologize for overreacting, but at least I won't be dead."

Narcissa smiled in approval, lessening the humiliation I'd felt, and crossed back to her side of the fire. I clenched my shattered wand in my fists, willing myself to take this lesson to heart.

"It's dangerous to be out here without a wand," Harry pointed out. "You should get a new one as soon as possible."

I nodded. "I'll apparate to Ollivander's in the morning and find a new one, claim it was a hiking accident." I felt a pang in my chest like I was betraying my old wand by looking for a new one so soon, but it had to be done.

"Tomorrow's Sunday," Ron reminded me. "Shops are closed over the weekend."

"Dammit. Okay, I'll wait until Monday, but we need to keep moving." I pulled out the maps and looked ahead. Luckily, there was a lot of empty space around us. "I think we won't reach any more settlements soon. Should be pretty uneventful."

Narcissa yawned at that, eyelids drooping. "I could use an uneventful day."

Harry looked uneasy. "We'll still have to be careful. Are you willing to keep going? Or do you want to apparate back home and stay safe over the weekend? We could figure out a way to fetch you later."

I was reluctant to part with my friends. "It's only one day, no need to go traveling back and forth. Besides, the minister told us not to risk breaking our cover unless absolutely necessary. I'll be okay if I don't go off alone again."

Ron's voice was hollow as he said, "You're braver than I would be right now. I can't believe I almost lost you today. I was such a prick earlier, yelling at you for something so petty."

"It wasn't petty," I responded. "You were right, and it needed to be said. I've had more than one wake-up call today." Ron shrugged and nodded, stirring the fire with a stick.

As the conversation died down, Narcissa stood up and covered another yawn. "Excuse me, I'm quite exhausted. Have a good night."

We all said our farewells. As she passed me, she rested a warm hand on my shoulder for a moment, then slipped away. Ron watched her disappear into the tent. When she was out of earshot, he looked at me. "I don't get her at all. What's her deal?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, yawning as well and hoping this was something I could answer quickly. I'd been through hell today, and it was catching up with me.

"You should've seen her this afternoon, Hermione. I wasn't really paying attention when she was glaring at some muggles, but when they all got up and left, she got super pale—and you know, she's already really pale, so I didn't even know that was possible. She was like, 'Oh no. Hermione?' and knocked over her wine glass—"

"She used my name?" I asked, for once not minding his play-by-play memory, eager to hear everything about her.

"Yeah," Ron confirmed, "and she ordered us to stay behind, like she's in charge, then had the nerve to say 'it's probably nothing' as she goes tearing out of there. Remember what we found last time she said that? Cause I sure do. So after we paid our tab, of course Harry and I tried to find out where she'd gone, hoping there wouldn't be more soulless muggles. Well, you know how that turned out." He scowled. "She'd already saved you, apparently. Don't get me wrong, I'm ridiculously glad she guessed you might be in trouble. I just don't get why she was so concerned. She walked right into danger even though she doesn't care about you like we do."

"It's because of our agreement," I told them, wondering how true that was. "We signed a magical contract to protect each other from harm, if possible."

"You and your contracts, I swear," Ron said, shaking his head. "Why would you agree to protect her?"

"It started because I didn't want her to let me get tortured again," I said quietly. "So I asked her to sign a contract. And we made it fair." Now I scowled, remembering that they hadn't given her a second thought when they reached the mob. It was all where's Hermione and what have you done with her and not a single word about Narcissa. It was no wonder she wanted it to go both ways. I could count on my friends, while she was alone out here.

"She lost her cool and ran after you... because she was legally obligated?" Harry asked. He'd been quiet so far, and now he rubbed his forehead like this was giving him a headache.

"Um, I think so." But, I wanted to add, she said my name. My first name. The kind of worry they'd described seemed more personal, somehow. Or maybe this was just wishful thinking, and I wasn't even sure what I was wishing for.

"What a class act," Ron muttered. "She helps people when she has to."

My hands clenched. "I'm afraid I've mischaracterized her. She cares enough to be here, helping us stay safe every night."

"If you say so," he replied, rubbing his eyes. "Boy, I'm getting tired too."

"Let's turn in," Harry said, standing up. "It's been a long day." He stepped closer and gave me a long hug. "It's still sinking in, but I'm so relieved you didn't die today."

"Me too," I replied, letting Ron give me a hug as well. I wondered if things were alright between us again. Maybe we'd fight less once I learned how to empathize better and really listen to what he needed. And to what I needed, even if I was afraid to hear it.

***

I woke up sweating in the middle of the night from anxious sleep. I kept struggling against taut ropes, seeing angry crowds and flames. I made a quick trip to the bathroom to wash my face, hoping the warm water would relax me enough to go back to sleep. As I returned to bed, I stopped in my tracks. Narcissa's bed was empty.

I slipped my feet into my boots and stepped outside, chillbumps tightening the bare skin on my arms. It was beautiful out there, a huge expanse of stars stretching overhead. The frigid air seemed to make them sparkle more. But my limbs were getting cold, so I quickly walked around the tent to find Narcissa. I found her bootprints in the frost, heading away, but she was nowhere in sight. I didn't dare follow without a wand, not with the possibility of dementors roaming. I shivered, breath clouding in the air, and returned to the warmth of the tent.

Inside, I stood by her empty bunk and tried to control my fear. She could surely take care of herself, wherever she was. But she was outside the ward, alone. I had no idea how long she'd been gone. I sat down at the foot of her bed, feeling warm sheets. Not long, then. I drew my feet up, wrapping my cold arms around my legs and resting my chin on my knees. Maybe I could wait right here until she got back, I thought to myself, lost in the haze of being half-asleep.

***

I woke again some time later to the sound of running water and soft footsteps. A warm weight settled onto the mattress and a familiar scent surrounded me. My heavy eyelids opened slowly to the sight of Narcissa sitting on the side of my bed.

"You're safe," I mumbled.

Keeping her voice down, she asked, "Is there a reason you're in my bunk, Ms. Granger?"

"What?" I'd forgotten where I was. "I was worried, sorry. I, um... just sat down to wait for you." Sleep pulled at me to come back, and my eyes refused to stay open.

"Oh. That—that's quite alright," she murmured. "I went for a short walk, no need to worry." I really meant to get up, but she stroked my arm until I started drifting off again. Then she climbed up to my bunk and let out a relaxed hum as she stretched out. I smiled sleepily, amused that she'd let me keep her bed, and burrowed into soft blankets that still smelled like her. One of these days I'd figure out what that enthralling scent was. In the meantime, I let it soothe me into more peaceful dreams.

Chapter Text

I stretched my arms overhead while I waited for my tea to steep, feeling amazingly refreshed. I thought I'd be dead tired after going through so much yesterday, but my brush with death made everything feel sharper, clearer. I threw on a knit cap and scarf and headed out of the tent with my tea, smiling affectionately as I passed Narcissa still sound asleep on my bed. No doubt she was tired from her nighttime walk. Now that I wasn't half asleep, I wondered if walking was really all she'd done. I didn't get the impression she was lying, just not telling the whole story, as usual.

But she's entitled to her privacy, I acknowledged, breathing in the fresh, cold air. If she wanted to hold back or reveal more, that was up to her. My gaze traveled along the nearby hedgerow dividing the boundless hills all around. Everything seemed more precious today, from the sparkling frost to the warm mug in my hands to the tenuous trust we'd built. I was lucky to be alive.

My tea was still too hot to drink, and I suddenly wondered if I could make it cool down. Though I'd be getting a new wand soon, I felt compelled to practice using magic without one. If I'd done that sooner in life, I might've been able to escape on my own yesterday.

I stared into my tea, muttering a cooling spell over and over and testing the temperature with my finger. Nothing was happening, so I tried something different. I thought about the raw magic within me, full of potential just waiting for me to channel it. I didn't have a wand, but I might be able to use another object. I focused on the mug itself now, trying to send the cooling spell through it.

It exploded, sending cracked porcelain flying in all directions. My jaw dropped. The handle was all that remained of the mug in my hand, and I threw it down when I realized it was freezing my skin. Blowing up the mug wasn't exactly my intention, but I had indeed cooled it. I hadn't done something like that since I was a little girl, when my magic was first starting to jump out in unexpected ways. Excited now, I picked up several small stones to try making them hover.

A little later, Narcissa came out of the tent and broke my concentration right as I cast a spell. The stone went rocketing straight up into the air, disappearing from view.

"What on earth are you doing?" Narcissa asked, carefully picking her way past the shards of my mug to sit hunched against the cold on the rock nearest to me. She looked like she'd just woken up, her eyes not fully open as she held her own cup of tea to her nose and breathed in the steam. For such a simple action, it was quite entrancing to watch.

"Um, wandless magic," I replied. "It's not going that well, but at least I'm making something happen. I'm going to keep working on it from now on."

"Hmm. Now there's a challenge. Even powerful witches struggle to do much without a wand." She fished an icy piece of my mug from the dirt and held it up. "I saw you make the stone fly, but what were you trying to accomplish with this?"

"I wanted to cool my tea down. I figured out how to channel coldness through the mug, but it exploded."

A pleased smile spread across her face. "How about that!"

I wrinkled my nose. "If this were a class, I'd be failing right now."

"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself. The very fact that you're inducing effects is an excellent beginning," she praised, filling me with pride. Then she shivered a little. "That said, I can't fathom why you would want colder tea." Quicker than I could react, she plucked the knit cap right off my head and put it on her own, smiling as she tugged it over her ears. "Much better. You won't be too cold, will you?"

Not with the warmth spreading through my chest. I bit back a smile and shook my head, thinking she looked even better in my hat than I did. "Adorable" was not a word I ever thought would apply to her. Trying not to get too distracted, I picked up another stone.

"I'm definitely going to treasure and protect my next wand, but I also don't want to be so totally dependent on it," I confided. "I want to be able to do things myself if I have to." I focused on channeling my magic through the stone. "Wingardium leviosa." It shot up only a few metres this time and floated back down like a leaf.

Narcissa reached out and let it settle onto her hand, eyes sparkling. "Better, Hermione. And a very inspiring attitude."

I gave her a dopey grin as an indescribable feeling filled me. Yes, everything was more precious today.

***

The hills weren't as boundless as I thought. Not long into our fourth morning of walking, our group crested a slope and saw a vast forest spread out ahead of us. It was filled with lush, dark green firs, but peppered with some trees whose leaves had fallen, leaving starkly beautiful branches.

Ron groaned in dismay. "I've had enough forests to last a lifetime. Do we really have to go this way?"

Harry scanned the horizon. "I think so, mate. There's trees everywhere. Going around it would take forever."

"Can't we please just summon our brooms and fly across to top of it?" Ron suggested.

Narcissa cocked an eyebrow, which looked a bit less severe with the knit cap on. "Wonderful idea, and we can hang colorful banners from our brooms advertising the presence of magic in the world."

"Sorry, Ron, she has a point," Harry said, shrugging. "There could be hunters and campers. Brooms aren't an option."

I looked across the treetops feeling some of the same trepidation, given our unhappy time in the Forest of Dean, but mostly eagerness. I still had wonderful memories of camping with my parents in forests like this.

"It won't be so bad now that we're not on the run and the world isn't falling apart," I said.

"There are still threats, though," Harry reminded me. "Not just dementors, either. Think of everything in the Great Forest. There could be hostile creatures, acromantulas, territorial centaurs, who knows. Let's keep our guard up."

Narcissa nodded in agreement. "And Hermione, remember to stay close to at least one of us at all times." My hand went to my coat sleeve as if my subconscious needed to confirm my wand was no longer there. I sighed, wishing Monday would come faster.

"Isn't that your hat, Hermione?" Ron asked, frowning at Narcissa.

She answered, "I stole it," at the same time that I said, "I'm lending it to her." We looked at each other and chuckled.

"No one will believe your story if you can't keep it straight," Ron huffed. "Just don't go taking any of my stuff."

"I'll keep my hands off everything but Hermione's clothes," Narcissa replied innocently, and I turned beet red. What was she playing at? Goodness gracious. Luckily, the innuendo seemed to go right over Ron's head, though Harry made a face, looking mostly amused.

The four of us entered the forest with Harry in the lead, pressing past the brambles that grew on the margins. Gradually the undergrowth thinned, and the trees were larger around. The ridge we'd been following continued in the forest, keeping us on somewhat higher ground. Our footsteps stirred up rich smells of old growth, bringing me back to the clear and invigorating mindset I'd had earlier.

Feeling ready to listen carefully, I settled in beside Ron, letting the other two walk a little ways ahead. I carried a pebble in my hand to keep practicing magic as we went, and I was determined to crack it.

"Harry misses Ginny quite a lot," Ron told me. "I'm lucky, since you're right here. This must be the most time we've spent together in months."

I nodded, turning the pebble over and squeezing it, struggling to hear his meaning before replying, "Yeah, between quidditch and field work, they're away from home so much. We're lucky to have more free time."

"They don't need luck, though," Ron said, a bit of longing in his voice. "They make time for each other. It's great to see him rush home when he knows Ginny is coming back."

I thought about that. Harry and Ginny had gotten married over the summer, seeing no reason to wait once the war was over. Since then, they'd been living together and being so sweet on each other that it made us all pretend to gag.

"I'm happy for them," I said finally. "It seems like they've built a good life together." With barely a sound, I whispered, "Diffindo." I'd only meant to crack it in two, but the pebble crumbled into powder. I looked down and let the dust cascade to the forest floor.

"We could build a good life too, Hermione," Ron said. "Just imagine if we could come home to the same place. We could make our own family and have a house full of laughter and fun."

I tried to cling to my good mood as it drained away. Nervousness filled me just like the evening he nearly proposed to me. This time, though, my thinking wasn't muddled by long months of monotony. He wanted to have a normal life, to be a devoted husband, to raise children with love. It was a beautiful dream. But it wasn't my dream.

"Ron," I croaked, throat tight. "Ron, I think we want different things."

He took a sharp breath, then joked, "You don't want laughter and fun?"

I chuckled hoarsely as tears trickled down my face. He was distressed; I knew him well enough to know when he was falling back on humor to cover his pain. "Laughter and fun is good. But... I don't want to settle down."

Ron held my hand between his as we walked. "You're halfway there already. You've got a good job at the ministry, and a place of your own."

"I can't even keep the same apartment for long," I replied. "I feel so restless. There's so much I want to see and do."

"You could have a home base, and go off on adventures," Ron suggested. "Harry and Ginny still have their own lives."

"They do," I agreed, but I realized now that I'd been waiting and hoping I'd feel ready, hoping I'd feel more for him over time. That wasn't fair to either of us. "I'm sorry, it's just... we don't have the same relationship they have. No matter what I do, I keep thinking of you as a friend."

Ron looked anguished as the truth sank in. His grip tightened on my hand, and he tried not to cry. I brought up my other hand to hold on as well, waiting for his response, whatever it would be.

"We're breaking up, then?" he asked. I nodded, and he took a deep, shuddering breath. "I was always so afraid this would happen. I think I knew."

"It took me this long to realize it," I replied. "You've been so caring and good to me."

His hands shook as he took them back and stuck them in his pockets. "I think I want to be alone right now."

I didn't bother to wipe my tears away as I let him walk on; more would replace them. I'd been feeling distant from him for a while now, but that didn't make this moment any easier. He'd been my friend much longer than he'd been my boyfriend, and I hated bringing him pain.

***

I trudged along in silence for the next few hours, as if today were a repeat of yesterday, while crumbling rocks for practice and stress relief. It irritated me that I couldn't walk alone. Ron had started talking with Harry further ahead, so I followed Narcissa. She was fiddling with something in her hands, though her body blocked my view of whatever it was. Maybe she was trying wandless magic too.

I was focusing so hard on my practice that at first I paid no mind to the diminishing light. I assumed it was the shade from the forest canopy. Then the temperature started dropping. The skin on my arms prickled as chilly fog trickled across the ground.

"Dementors," I whispered. They weren't close enough to see, but the signs were unmistakable.

Narcissa was by my side in an instant. She pulled me behind her back, shielding me but trembling so badly I thought she might fall apart.

"HARRY! RON!" I called out, getting no response. Though the two of them hadn't been that far ahead of us, the mist muffled everything and made it hard to see. "Make some red sparks," I told Narcissa.

She sent up a bright jet, but there was no response. A violent shudder went through her. "I should've told you to stay close to Harry," she groaned. Her face contorted with terror, eyes darting around wildly.

"Get a hold of yourself!" I tried to tell her, but my voice faltered. The same fear was spreading in me, summoning the wealth of awful memories I'd accumulated during the war. I saw students being cursed, Death Eaters swarming, the walls of Hogwarts crumbling. I saw Hagrid carrying Harry's seemingly lifeless body and felt that horrible, horrible sense of defeat.

I shook Narcissa's shoulder. "Cast a patronus." She merely shuddered again. "Block them out! Cast it!"

"I—I can't do it."

"What do you mean you can't?! Think of a happy memory!"

"I mean I can't!" she cried. "I'll be consumed!" A dark shadow drifted out of the fog toward us. Narcissa was frozen in place, and I wasn't much better off. I pulled her away from the dementor ahead, but two more dementors emerged behind us.

An obscure fact swam into my mind from a book I'd read. If a dark, unworthy wizard attempted to create a patronus, maggots would come out of his wand and consume him.

"You're worried about maggots? Are you kidding me? The dementors will consume our souls!" I yelled in her face. She snapped to attention, shocked as I ranted, "You're not as bloody dark as you think you are. Listen, you can do this!"

"I... can't..." Her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out.

"For goodness' sake," I growled, catching her. Her limp form in my arms triggered a fierce protectiveness. The dementors pressed closer as we sank to the ground, but I refused to let their corpse-like hands reach for her. I grabbed her wand and latched onto the first happy memory that came to mind—this morning, when Narcissa caught the floating pebble and everything felt so vibrant—then yelled, "Expecto patronum!"

My silver otter surged out of the borrowed wand, clawing at the nearest dementor. All three shadows drew back, repelled by the energetic creature. The fog lifted in the light of my patronus, and the air warmed. The dementors retreated through the trees, further and further until they were out of sight.

"Harry! Ron!" I hollered again. "Where are you?" One last chill went through me. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that Harry might've been unable to protect the two of them. Just as that worry started to creep in, Harry's stag bounded into view with the two young men close behind. Narcissa sat up slowly, holding her head in her hands.

"Hermione!" Harry exclaimed, collapsing onto his knees and embracing me. "I didn't know where you were! The fog messed up my sense of direction."

Ron hovered nearby, perhaps unsure about being close after our breakup. Harry held out his arm, and Ron joined our hug. I looked back at Narcissa sitting alone and held out my arm to her too. For a second I thought she'd refuse, but even her pride couldn't stop her from seeking comfort after that. She attached herself to my side and hid her face in my soft scarf, twining its free end around her shaking fingers. The four of us were a mess of bodies and backpacks, but we were unharmed.

It took a while for us to separate. I pulled out bars of chocolate for each of us, and we let it restore our spirits as we walked in a tight group along the trail. The dim light in the forest was natural now, sunlight dappling the leaves around us, deceptively peaceful.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you," I murmured to Narcissa, returning her wand to her.

"I'm sorry I fainted," she replied. "I thought if it ever came right down to it, I'd be able to get past my fears."

"Don't feel too bad," Harry said, hearing our quiet conversation. "I used to pass out every time dementors came close."

"And now he's the best at it," Ron added.

Harry shrugged and grinned. "You just need practice."

She nodded, but her mouth twisted a little and she looked away.

"I can't always summon my otter, but it worked this time," I said. "Harry's right, practice helps." Trying to cheer her up, I added, "You otter be a little less hard on yourself."

Narcissa glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, then slowly turned her head to give me a look of disbelief. "Was that a pun?" She tried to cover her growing smile with a disgusted expression. "It was absolutely dreadful."

Not at all discouraged, I went on. "Maybe you could learn to cast a patronus if you had the right mentor. I think de-mentor should match de-student."

Harry and Ron groaned, covering their ears.

"Salazar's snake, that was even worse!" Narcissa was shaking with suppressed laughter now.

With her mood improved, I quieted down while internally celebrating. She liked my puns! Harry and Ron hated them, so I restrained myself most of the time.

"Anyway, good job on making a corporeal patronus," Harry said, sounding impressed. "And with a borrowed wand."

"Perhaps it was easier because we both have a dragon heartstring core," Narcissa surmised.

"Maybe." I wondered for a moment how she knew what mine was. She must've seen it in the broken pieces and recognized the material. But I believed it was more than a shared core; the positive feelings in that memory were even stronger than I'd thought, and my need to keep her safe had overridden my fear. I'm not sure I'd ever felt that strongly about protecting someone before. I glanced over at Ron, remembering times when we'd helped each other out of trouble and wondering why I'd felt so different today.

He noticed me looking and said with some difficulty, "Can we talk for a minute?"

"Alright," I replied, wanting to know what was on his mind. We split off from the group for privacy but stayed close enough that fog couldn't separate us.

Ron rubbed the back of his neck. "I just wanted to say, I'm really glad you're alright, Hermione." He kicked a pine cone along as we walked. "When the dementors appeared, nothing else mattered. I was really worried about you. It didn't matter that weren't dating anymore. But you were in more danger because we were staying away from each other."

"That's not the only reason I drifted so far behind. I wasn't paying attention. I was practicing wandless magic and lost track of you and Harry."

"Oh." He looked a little relieved. "Alright, then. I had to let you know, though. That I'm still here for you, I mean, and we don't have to stay so far apart. I'm sure we'll be okay. It's gonna hurt for a while, but being your friend... isn't a bad thing."

I wrapped my arm around him, feeling lighter and freer knowing he was coming to terms with our breakup. "You've got a heart of gold, you know."

"Yeah, whatever," he said, ears turning red. He draped his arm over my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. We both let go and walked quietly together for a while, then drifted apart.

***

I spent the next hour or so trying various spells on pebbles and sticks, keeping an eye out for dementors. When my head started to hurt from focusing so much, I found myself looking at Narcissa more and more often. Eventually I trotted to catch up with her and talk, unable to stay away for long.

"Hey," I greeted.

"Hello," she replied, sounding less than thrilled. "Did you kiss and make up with Mr. Weasley? I saw you two upsetting each other yet again this morning."

"Um, not exactly."

"I don't like him," she told me.

I scowled at her, glancing around to make sure Ron and Harry were out of earshot. "Yes, I know. You think his entire family is trash, and it's not right."

"I don't like him as your boyfriend," she clarified, glaring.

Still raw from our breakup, I clenched my teeth. "Well, it's not up to you, is it."

She sighed. "A witch of your caliber should be with someone whose intellect and curiosity complement your own. Someone equally driven."

I tilted my head, disarmed by how sweet it was for her to say that. "Hmm. You could be talking about yourself."

"Me? With you? What—no, no, not at all! I meant a wizard."

"What are you on about?" Then it dawned on me. "Oh, no, I meant I could say the same of you! Because Lucius is just so... because you're brilliant, and... oh, bollocks. Forget it."

Her cheeks turned pink as I tried to clear up our misunderstanding, and a long, awkward silence stretched between us. I was astonished that such a thing would ever occur to her, even mistakenly. It was ludicrous. She was the mother of my childhood bully, the sister of my torturer, a hostess to Voldemort, and, to top it all off, married to a Death Eater. It was a miracle we could get along as well as we did.

After a minute, I admitted, "Well, I broke up with Ron this morning. So you can dislike him a little less now."

She bit her lip and didn't say anything.

"What, no smug reply?" I prompted. "No 'I told you so' or 'about time'? I know not to expect sympathy, but give me something."

Though she smiled as if she knew I was only half serious, her eyebrows drew together. "For the record, I would have offered sympathy at the campfire last night, but you made it quite clear you didn't want any."

"Yes, you helped tremendously," I assured her, grasping her forearm. "I really appreciated your insight, and how frank you were. I hope you'll keep that... forthrightness, or whatever the right word is."

"I believe the term is 'brutal honesty,'" she said, looking down.

"It wasn't brutal. It was exactly what I needed, exactly what I asked for." She still looked unsure, so I elbowed her. "And I know just who to owl if I ever need someone to tell me if I'm wearing an unflattering dress."

She snickered. "Very well, I will hereby become your very own forthright and non-brutally honest confidante."

"Don't forget to also be straightforward and impartial," I added.

"Shall I include a dash of candor as well?" she asked.

"Certainly," I said as we laughed together. "And what would you like in return? Is my eternal servitude still a hot commodity?"

"Could you lend me a bit of your bravery?" she asked, smiling almost shyly now.

I gazed at her, sensing something real beneath her light tone. "You can borrow as much as you need," I promised. Her eyes got a solemn, faraway look, then she swallowed and nodded to herself. I longed to know what she was thinking. At any given moment there seemed to be so much going on in her head. But she moved on to another topic.

"How is your wandless practice progressing?" she asked. "Any more exploding objects?"

A smile crept across my face. For now, I was content to let her thoughts remain a mystery. I picked up another stone from the ground and said firmly, "Diffindo." It crumbled to pieces. "That was supposed to split in half, but at least the stones aren't turning to powder anymore."

"Your control is improving already," she remarked. "Are you going to practice multiple spells, or master one at a time?"

"Multiple," I responded, launching into a conversation about wandless magic. Narcissa had some observations to share from her years among dark wizards, and I recalled examples from books I'd read. Along the way, I kept practicing whenever I wasn't so totally absorbed in our conversation that I forgot everything around me.

***

Before I knew it, the rest of the day had flown by. When we were ready to set up the ward and make camp, I sat down with Ron and Harry and pulled out my report parchment, quickly writing today's summary. No more dementors had found us, which we were all relieved about, though the daytime attack made me worry we were heading into more dangerous territory. What would be the best way to keep up a defense while walking?

I was still contemplating tactics when I sat by our usual campfire a little later. Not especially hungry yet, I kept absently breaking stones while the others ate dinner in the tent. Narcissa finished first and came outside, hesitating by the door flap.

"You look like you're busy thinking. Do you mind if I join you?" she asked. She wasn't wearing my hat anymore, but she still seemed softer somehow.

"Please do. I could probably spend the entire day with you and not mind," I told her, inwardly cringing with the fear that I was being too sentimental, and that she didn't enjoy our talks as much as I did.

Her eyebrows rose, and there was some surprise in her voice as she replied, "Likewise."

She sat down and let out a relaxed sigh, stretching her legs out by the fire. My self-doubt faded away as I watched her face glow in its light. The rich shadows accented her high cheekbones and her laugh lines, which, I realized with some sorrow, weren't as prominent as the worry lines on her brow. My eyes wandered to the soft curve of her ear, but strands of white-blond hair partially blocked my view.

"Which one is your natural hair color?" I wondered aloud.

She glanced up at the unexpected question. I was relieved she hadn't sensed my attention yet. It's not like I meant anything by it, I told myself. She was so beautiful, one couldn't help but notice. And feel physically drawn to her. And want to see her two-toned hair fanned across her back, slipping over the bare skin, silky beneath my fingers...

"Why do you ask?" Her query brought me back to reality, and I hurriedly corrected my imagination to include a pretty dress covering the rest of her.

"I don't know." I chewed the inside of my cheek, suppressing my other thoughts. "I'm just curious."

Her gaze returned to the fire. "You've seen enough of my relatives to guess which color is genetic. The blond is something I added to fit in with the Malfoys, after Draco was born." She was quiet for a moment. "He looks so much like his father. I suppose I wanted to share some resemblance."

"Did he take after you in other ways?"

"When he was very young, yes," she said, smiling as she reminisced. "Draco was terribly sweet, and never far from my side. We made up silly stories and rhymes. He'd hate it if I told you this, but he used to make clover flower necklaces for us to wear. I loved those more than jewelry."

I grinned, seeing it in my mind's eye, though it was hard to reconcile the bully I'd known with this sweet child she was describing. "Next time I run into him, I'll just picture him wearing flowers, and maybe I'll like him better," I said.

"I'm sorry he treated you unkindly in school. I wish I could put all the blame on his father, but it didn't help that I spoiled him. He was my first child, my only child."

"I'm probably a bit spoiled myself," I confessed. "I'm an only child too, so I know how it is when there are no siblings around to take on some of the attention. And the expectations."

She frowned. "Perhaps siblings would have been good for him. Lucius wanted more children, but Draco was all I needed. And I never dared to try again."

I wasn't sure what to say to that. "Never dared?"

"It was a difficult birth. We both nearly died," she said softly.

I held my breath, wanting to hear more but knowing this kind of memory might be difficult to share.

After a few moments, she spoke again. "The Healer told me he could probably only save one of us, and he asked me to choose. I asked him to save my baby boy, so he focused on Draco. I'd lost so much blood, I was nearly gone. I was ready to die, as long as I knew Draco would live." She looked at me with a certain ferocity. "I would make the same choice again and again, as long as it takes for him to survive and have a good life."

I admired that but realized I couldn't relate at all. There were no people I was really responsible for. I'd give a lot for my parents, and Harry and Ron, and my other close friends. Maybe I'd even die to save their lives. But we were all independent, and they would die to save lives too—especially Harry. None of them would want me to devote my entire life to their well being, and vice versa. A child was something else entirely.

"You must love him dearly," I said, feeling a little more empathy. "I'm sorry I was so critical the other day about you putting your family first. Maybe if I were a mother too, I'd understand better."

"Perhaps. Do you want children?" she asked.

I shook my head. "I've seen how much energy and attention it takes to raise a young child, and I'd rather keep my focus on the things I want to accomplish. Maybe I'm being selfish. I know I ought to want them. Being a mother is an accomplishment in and of itself."

"And it's not so bad once they're old enough to use the loo on their own," Narcissa joked. "In all seriousness, though, there's nothing wrong with not wanting children. Nothing at all. If you're worried about contributing to the future, there's more than one way to do so."

I nodded, reassured to hear that coming from her. Almost every mother I'd known—including my own—seemed to think it was a given that other women wanted to be mothers as well.

"I want to make discoveries," I said with growing confidence, "and cause changes that would benefit everyone, including magical creatures. Those are the kinds of marks I would make on the world if I could."

"I should very much like to see that," Narcissa replied. She looked like she wanted to say more, but Harry came outside carrying a plate of food.

"It's getting late. You should eat something, Hermione," he said, handing me the plate and sitting down with us.

When I smelled the food, my stomach growled. "Thanks, Harry. Maybe I'm hungrier than I thought. I've been lost in my head so much this evening." I took a small bite, then dug in.

"When are you leaving in the morning?" he asked.

"As early as possible. If I'm lucky, finding a replacement wand will be quick. I don't want to delay the start of our day any more than I have to."

"A little delay is fine," Harry said. "Don't rush into buying the wrong one. Remember, the wand chooses the wizard, or the witch, rather."

Narcissa twisted her mouth in a subtle way I'd come to recognize as a sign of slight disagreement, but she kept quiet. The more she opened up to me, the starker the contrast when she spoke little to the others. Maybe I'd underestimated how well we got along. Was it possible we were building a friendship? Despite everything, it was certainly starting to seem like it. I couldn't be fully honest with Phoebe, so it had been years since I last made a real friend. I'd forgotten how nice it felt, getting to know the other person, sharing hopes and memories, wanting to spend every moment together, wanting good things for each other—it was all so much better than I remembered.

Chapter Text

In the morning I ate a quick breakfast and got ready to go to Ollivander's as planned, but my boots were nowhere to be found. Though I didn't think I'd left them outside, that was the only place I hadn't searched yet. I poked my head out the door flap to look around without getting my socks cold and wet. Narcissa sat by the campfire ashes wearing my knit cap again, with my boots right beside her.

"You thief! I know I didn't leave those there," I said, shaking my finger with feigned anger.

She smiled, seeing right through it. "I didn't want you to leave before we could speak," she replied, bringing the boots over and helping me balance as I stuffed my feet into each one.

Without bothering to tie the laces yet, I clomped over to the firepit and sat down. "You know, regular people would just leave a note or something."

"Not regular Slytherins," she retorted.

I ducked my head, not doing a very good job of hiding my smile. "Okay, let's hear it. What's so important that we have to talk about it first thing in the morning?"

"This," she said, holding out an unfamiliar wand.

I hardly dared to hope it was for me, but I couldn't hold back my curiosity or my eager hand. "Whose wand is this?" I asked, sensing that old rush of magic as I grasped it, invigorating as my first wand. It was roughly carved with no designs aside from a few toolmarks to show which end to grip.

"It's yours," she said, "if you want it."

"I mean, whose was it?" I asked, trying not to get too attached yet. "I had to use Bellatrix's wand, and I hated it. This one hasn't done any terrible things, has it?"

Narcissa clasped her hands in her lap. "Definitely not. I know you were about to buy one anyway, but I wanted your new wand to be special. It's blackthorn, a powerful wood for warriors. I made it for you."

My jaw dropped. "You... you what?"

"Eleven inches. Pleasantly bendy. I took the core from your broken wand when the pieces were in my possession."

"You made a wand?" I asked, still shocked.

"I believe I already said that," she snarked, "and it took a great deal of effort to energize the wood and tune it, so I should very much like to know what you think. Please be honest. I won't be offended if you go on to Mr. Ollivander's shop. I know it's not beautiful; my knowledge of wandlore is quite adequate, but I'm bad at whittling."

"I don't need it to be fancy," I told her. "The important thing is whether it's a good match, and I think it is. It feels right." I decided to give it a test run, settling on a perfect idea. I picked up a pebble from the ground, much like the ones I'd been experimenting on yesterday. With a couple of whispered incantations, I transfigured it into a daffodil and gave it to Narcissa.

"A lovely flower for a lovely lady," I said, giving her my most charming smile.

She accepted the flower with a smile that rivaled mine. "You're too sweet." She brought it to her nose for a sniff, and it promptly turned back into a pebble. Startled, she dropped it and burst out laughing. I laughed along, tickled by her reaction.

"How did I not see that coming!" she exclaimed. "My own trick!"

I hummed, full of contentment. "You surprised me too. Thank you, I absolutely love it. How can I repay you?"

Her eyes shone. "I'm so pleased. And don't even think of repaying me. It was a gift."

Despite her words, I resolved to give her something nice in return someday, if I could think of any good ideas.

Narcissa stood as we heard Ron and Harry starting to move around in the tent. "One more thing," she said. "Could you avoid mentioning where you got the wand? I'm not requesting lies, only discretion."

"Alright," I agreed hesitantly, "but will you tell me why? And how it is that you know how to make wands? I have a million questions about this."

"Remind me when we're on the trail. I'll tell you whatever you'd like to know."

I nodded in acceptance and slipped my brand new wand into my sleeve, no longer feeling like part of me was missing, then followed her into the tent to have breakfast.

***

With yesterday's dementor attack still fresh in our memories, we stayed together as a group that fifth morning. Narcissa walked to my right, with Harry and Ron just ahead of us. The two of them were glad to see my new wand, and it never occurred to them that I might not have gotten it at Ollivander's as planned.

"What's it made of?" Harry said, admiring it as I held it up for him to see.

"Blackthorn. Good for warriors," I answered, hoping I could live up to its reputation.

"Interesting," he said. "That snatcher's wand I used was blackthorn, but it didn't really suit me."

"Perhaps you didn't go through enough difficult experiences with it. Blackthorn needs that to bond well," Narcissa said. "Hopefully Ms. Granger will have some trials of her own."

"I've already been through enough trials for one lifetime," I said. "We all have."

Ron frowned at Narcissa. "You want bad things to happen to her?"

She pursed her lips. "That's not exactly what I meant."

"Difficult stuff isn't the worst thing in the world," Harry said, siding with her. "Good can come out of it. Like how Ron hated running in auror training, but it made him faster."

Remembering last night, I added, "Or like a mother willing to suffer through the pain of childbirth."

Ron grumbled, "Suppose I can't argue with that. Doesn't mean I like it, though."

I nodded in agreement, twirling my new wand in my fingers. I didn't relish the idea of more pain and difficulty than necessary. Still, it was a little exciting to think of the wand's untapped potential. I turned to Narcissa, who gazed into the distance like she was a world away.

"Knut for your thoughts?" I asked.

She started and met my eyes without saying anything.

I nudged her. "Did you forget what you were thinking?"

"Of course not," she replied, looking away. "I'll keep my thoughts to myself until I can articulate them more clearly."

"Very well," I said, doing my best impersonation of a stuffy professor. "I'll need your thoughts in a three-foot-long essay in WLA format with no fewer than five references."

"That's not funny," she replied, chuckling under her breath anyway. "I had to relearn those standards this year for my research. I thought I was done with that sort of thing when I finished school."

Suddenly I was curious to know how old she was, but I knew it wasn't polite to ask a lady outright, so I took a playful approach. "How long ago was that, exactly?" I asked, giving her an innocent look. "Before or after Hogwarts was founded?"

"Well after 990," she shot back, "but before young people forgot about showing respect to their seniors."

"Seniors, psh," I dismissed, hiding the thrill that went through me when she quoted the exact year. "How much of a senior could you possibly be? You're clearly in your prime. Have you looked at yourself lately?"

"Have you been looking?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Er..." I'd only meant to goad her into revealing her age, but now I was stuck. Had I been looking? Just once or twice, and only a little bit. Like right now, how I only saw a little bit of her neck behind the collar of her coat, and her delicate wrists at the end of her sleeves, and the shape of—

"Eyes up here, Ms. Granger," she chided.

My head snapped up, face warming. Not again! "I..."

She wore a smug smile. "Goodness, don't look so guilty. I'm only teasing. It's entertaining to see you get so flustered."

I scowled at her and blurted out the first comeback that came to mind. "Well, two can play that game."

She leaned against me to speak softly in my ear, letting her breath tickle my skin. "Challenge accepted. Oh, and I'm forty-three. Next time, just ask."

Her closeness sent a shiver of desire down my spine. My steps faltered. Did I feel her lips brush my ear? That felt way too good.

"Narcissa one, Hermione zero," she added, striding away to walk by herself.

Merlin's beard, what had I just gotten myself into? My ploy to get her age had backfired. Now I was hot all over, my skin felt too sensitive, and there was a soft ache between my legs. I covered my mouth with my hand, unable to keep rationalizing or suppressing my reactions. I was unmistakably attracted to Narcissa Malfoy.

"This shouldn't be happening," I whispered, trying not to panic. What did it mean? Did I like women all this time? Was that why I couldn't feel more for Ron? Was that why sex felt like such a letdown the time I'd tried it with Viktor? He was attentive and did everything right, according to the books I'd read, but I didn't feel aroused and never bothered to try again. I simply took care of my own needs now. Why didn't I ever seriously question why?

I could hardly wrap my head around all the implications. But at the same time, I started to feel amazingly free, like a rubber band around me had snapped. The physical pull I'd been fighting all week—I could barely believe Narcissa walked into my office only seven days ago—wasn't anything to be afraid of. She didn't seem at all put off by my attraction; on the contrary, she seemed pleased by it, though I knew she wasn't available or interested.

I risked a glance at Narcissa as she walked along, lost in thought just like she'd been before we spoke. Maybe this little challenge would be fun, not stressful, if I didn't try to bottle everything up. I narrowed my eyes. It would be tough to win against someone so put-together, but backing down wasn't in my blood.

***

All thoughts of competition and introspection ended as the day rapidly went downhill before noon. I stopped mid-step with a tendril of dread curling in my gut and immediately drew my wand.

"Dementors," Harry warned, pointing toward an approaching mist. Ron was ready only a moment later, and Narcissa stood in the middle of us. With our trio together and armed, we would be well protected.

The dementors slid toward us between the trees. It was impossible to tell how many there were. I lost count after I got into the twenties, and the fog hid more. I shivered as the cold day worsened. Narcissa conjured a small fire and let it warm the air near us, a small but much appreciated gesture.

"What do you think?" Harry asked Ron. "Attack now or wait until they're closer?"

"Send yours out now," Ron replied. "It's the strongest. Hermione and I will defend us here in case they surround us like last time."

Harry put the plan into action by summoning his stag. The fear was pressing in on us already, but my new wand seemed almost eager to cast such a powerful spell. Ron's and my patronuses patrolled nearby, ready for anything.

Ron's worry was right: the mist encircled us, dementors splitting into two groups to attack us on either side like top predators. They tried to dredge up my awful memories of snatchers, capture, torture, but it felt like there was a light in me that they couldn't blot out. My otter and Ron's terrier forced the dementors away from us while Harry's stag rounded them up and sent them all running, retreating into the distance.

We started walking again through the forest, constantly looking over our shoulders. Narcissa stayed close to my side, her face drawn. The fog was slow to dissipate, and the cold slower still.

"I think we can be pretty sure this will keep happening," Harry said.

"They're probably not looking for us on purpose, just hunting," Ron surmised. "If we make ourselves a hard target, they'll keep moving on."

I finally caught myself in the act of judging him, surprised at how sensible he was being, so I made sure that didn't show in my voice as I said, "Smart thinking, Ron." He smiled at that, standing up a little straighter. I knew I shouldn't find it strange that he was coming up with good strategies; one of my strongest memories of our early friendship was when he won that brutal chess game.

"Alright," Harry said, "we did well this time, but let's make sure we're consistent about it. We'll keep up a rotating guard to be on constant lookout. We can switch every hour so our attention won't wander. Ron, Hermione, me, Narcissa. How does that sound?" Harry suggested. At our unenthusiastic response, he encouraged us, "We'll be able to rest tonight; we've just got to get through the day. Let's try to keep our spirits up. Got any more chocolate, Hermione?"

"Loads," I replied, digging a dozen bars out of my backpack and passing them out. "But let's pace ourselves so we don't get sick of it."

"Sick of chocolate?" Ron asked, taking one huge bite, and then another. "Neber gudda habben." I chuckled, knowing it was definitely gonna happen if he continued at that rate. He moved to the front of our group to take his position as our first lookout.

Narcissa snapped off a piece of chocolate and placed it in her mouth, just letting it melt. I imagined getting a taste of the chocolate on her tongue, and felt so warm at the thought that I didn't even bother unwrapping my bar. Not suppressing these feelings was much better.

"How are you holding up?" I asked her. "You didn't faint this time."

She took a deep breath. "It was a little less overwhelming with them at a distance."

"I wish I'd had a wand yesterday when this happened. They wouldn't have gotten so close," I said with regret, second-guessing my decision to wait a day. "I know urgently needing a wand during a friendly camping trip would seem strange, but would anyone really notice?"

"Possibly not. But you made the correct choice, by department standards. If you hadn't, I would have advised you to reconsider. I presume you read the entire secrecy agreement for this project?"

I sighed, knowing what she was getting at. "Yes, yes, no need to get all formal on me. I read the ridiculously long section on the subtle ways classified information gets leaked."

"And the warning that outside parties could be constantly gathering information on your activity?" she asked.

"I swear, your department is so paranoid." I kept my voice light, starting to sense that the formality was covering up how low her mood was from the dementors.

"'Keep a mystery classified until it's not a mystery' is our informal motto," she told me. There was no wry grin like I might've expected, just a slight lift of her eyebrows.

"Why not let everyone know about the mysteries?" I asked. "With more minds working on them, they might get solved faster."

"Some mysteries are too frightening for the public to know about. Some lead to something too powerful to fall into the wrong hands. Until we know for sure, better to play it safe."

"Hmph. It's a good fit for you. You've got to be the most secretive person I know."

"We must not share the same social circles." She got a pained expression, then frowned and looked down.

"We could, though," I said, trying to undo whatever just made her feel even worse. "You're getting to know my friends a bit, and I could meet some of yours, unless they all hate muggleborns."

Her mouth twisted. "They—there... aren't really any friends to speak of anymore. All the support we had from other pureblood families vanished when news spread that Lucius and I had abandoned the cause for Draco. They stopped inviting us over, canceled business deals, spread rumors about things we'd told them in confidence...." She let out a sardonic laugh. "And the irony is, everyone else in the world hates my family because we aided the Dark Lord for so long."

My heart ached at hearing that. It was doubly awful knowing that I'd been one of the people in the latter group, and I nearly missed out on getting to know her.

"Sorry I'm not very good company right now," she apologized.

"No, no," I said quickly. "I like your company regardless of your mood. I was thinking of how glad I am that you convinced me to give you a chance. And maybe you're not as alone as you think. What about reconnecting with Andromeda?" Narcissa sneered and turned her face away, making me backtrack hastily. "Nevermind, I know that's none of my business. I shouldn't have said anything."

She turned to look at me again, eyes shining with tears. "Dammit, I didn't mean to discourage you. I've spent a lifetime hiding how much I miss her. That's not an easy habit to break."

Tentatively, I brushed my hand against hers and asked, "Have you thought about visiting her and Teddy? It's not my place to say how she feels, but if you miss her, it might be worth trying."

She turned her palm toward me and laced our fingers together. "Someday. When I've turned over a new leaf. When I'm worthy of her."

Savoring our hand-holding but trying not to make a big deal about it, I shook my head and kept talking. "She's your sister. Don't you think family is worth everything to her, just like it is for you? Time won't hold still. Teddy will grow up without you."

Her brow furrowed. "Grow up? You're not talking about that muggleborn she ran away with?"

My face fell. "I'm so sorry, someone should've told you! Nymphadora and Remus had a baby, Teddy. He's almost seven months old. With his parents gone, Andromeda is raising him by herself, though she has all of us to help. He's got more honorary uncles and aunties than he can count."

Narcissa nodded, her face smooth and calm, but her hand heated up in mine, nearly sweating.

"Hey," I prompted gently. "Hiding again?" She bit her lip, one tear escaping. "You can let it out."

More tears trickled down her cheeks. "Andi has a grandson," she said, voice tight. "I never even got to know her daughter. We've lost so much time. So much..." She wiped her free hand over her face but couldn't stop crying. "Tell me about him, please?"

"Of course," I said, nearly crying myself out of sadness for her. "He's a beautiful little boy," I said. "I'll bet he gets that from your side of the family." The corners of her mouth lifted slightly. "He's a metamorphmagus like his mum, always changing this or that feature when he's happy or sad. He's really energetic, moving a lot now, but he doesn't crawl. He sits on his bum and scoots around—it's really funny to watch." She smiled at that. "I can't even remember all the cute things he does. Harry visits all the time. He could tell you more."

She let go of my hand and patted her cheeks dry, looking less forlorn now. "Do you think he would mind?"

"Would he mind," I scoffed, winking at her. I called to him, "Harry? Care to tell Narcissa about your godson?"

He turned and grinned, closing the short distance between us in the blink of an eye. "I'll do you one better." He reached into the mokeskin pouch he always wore around his neck and removed a small bundle that unfolded like an accordion to reveal dozens of photographs of Teddy. "This is him the day he first rolled over. And this is him when he blew a particularly big spit bubble. And this is him..."

Narcissa was absolutely delighted by all the pictures, while I snickered as he went on and on. By the time it was my turn to be the lookout, Narcissa was in a much better mood, and I left them talking together.

***

I spent the boring time on guard duty doing wandless practice, not wanting to get complacent. Then, near the end of my shift, I spotted more fog-hidden dementors crossing the trail in the distance. For a second I hoped they'd keep going by, but they turned our way. I cursed under my breath and called out, "Dementors, dead ahead."

"Poor choice of words, Hermione," Harry replied, and we all drew together. "Same tactics as last time?"

"No, they're coming in too fast. Make a wedge," Ron said, wand shaking in his hand as the dementors barreled toward us. Harry's stag took the lead, lowering its head and pawing the ground as if it could intimidate the dementors. My otter swam in the air behind its left flank. Ron couldn't get a true patronus to form this time, but he made a silver cloud by the stag's right flank that would be nearly as good. Narcissa lit a fire again, warming us with the flame and squeezing her eyes shut.

The dementors reached out for us as they passed by, inhuman forms towering over us, but they couldn't come close. Their momentum kept them streaming along as they parted around our patronuses. I felt like I was crouching behind a rock in an avalanche, teeth chattering as I resisted the cold and fear. It was almost exhilarating.

***

After several more hours of walking and two more attacks, I had the maps out, looking them over and wondering how far this dementor-infested forest stretched.

"I think we'll reach a town tomorrow morning," I announced, eyeballing the distances and making my best guess.

"I hate to say it, but there's no way anyone's still alive," Ron replied. "There's just too many bloody dementors out here."

"We'll still stop there and see what's needed," Harry said, looking back at us for a second while on lookout duty. "There could be people hiding out in a safe building. Dementors are powerful, but they can't go through walls."

"True," I said, putting the maps away. The next town was sure to be another terrible place, but I was eager for it anyway. At least it would be a change from these forest attacks, which I could tell were wearing Narcissa down.

"Thanks for making those fires," I said to her. "They really take the edge off the cold."

"Well, I didn't want to just stand around. I hate being so useless," Narcissa said, shoulders tense. "My thoughts keep slipping back to all my worst memories. I'm trying to focus on other things, but it's getting harder each time. I'm not cut out for this."

"No one is," I replied, shrugging and smiling. "Being under constant attack is stressful. You're doing okay, considering."

She waved her hand toward me. "Look at you. You're lit up, full of energy."

"No, I'm—huh." I stopped, realizing she was right. "I guess... at some point I started feeling, I don't know, like there's something in me that they can't touch. They still affect me, it's just not cutting as deep. Have you ever felt like that?"

"Hmm. Maybe. Not when something is threatening me; I confess I tend to just shut down. Fighting for myself is something I've never done. But it's different when someone I care for is depending on me." She thought a little longer, then concluded, "Yes I think I've felt it."

We walked quietly for a moment, then I remembered my million questions. "Hey, about my wand..." I gave her a sideways glance, a few things suddenly adding up, like when I'd seen her fiddling with something yesterday. "You claimed you went for a walk the other night, but now I'm wondering if it's related."

"I did go for a walk," she reaffirmed, checking to make sure Harry and Ron weren't listening. "...To find wand wood in the hedgerow. It took some time, but the bowtruckles were a dead giveaway."

"Why not just tell me what you were working on?" I asked.

"Until I tested it this morning, I wasn't sure if my efforts would be successful. I didn't want to get your hopes up only to disappoint you. This is only the second wand I've ever made. The first was mine." She held up her own wand for me to see. "When I lent Draco my old one, war had shut down all the shops, and I wanted to see if I could make use of what I'd learned."

"When did you learn wandlore?" I asked, too fascinated to stop asking question.

"Mr. Ollivander was in my basement for a year," she reminded me. "I learned a thing or two."

"Why would he be willing to teach you anything?" I asked, a little dubious.

"Nobody else wanted to tend to our prisoners, so the job fell to me, and I did it with as much kindness as I could without arousing suspicion. He began to share things with me. He even let me assist with making Mr. Pettigrew's new wand. I was hooked. I began buying wandlore books to study the fundamentals while he shared advanced concepts. We often debated about the merits of prefabricating wands or creating them for someone in particular. I like to think my curiosity was a welcome distraction from his situation, but the morbid truth may be that he feared he would die without getting to pass on his knowledge. You'd have to ask him to know for sure."

"I just might," I replied. "Have you spoken with him since then? Maybe he would take you on as an apprentice."

Her expression was grim. "Seeing me, when I was so closely associated with his tormentors, might only cause him distress. It's one thing to bond with someone in dire circumstances, but quite another to want to see them again afterward."

"I suppose so," I agreed. "But if not him, then maybe with another wandmaker?"

She tugged at her lower lip as she toyed with the idea. "Hmm, no. My current job is too good give up. I'd rather keep tinkering in my free time."

"I wish I liked my job that much," I confessed. "I have half a mind to transfer to your department whenever we get back. I'm just not sure there's anyone suitable to take my place doing magical creature advocacy."

"Really? I was under the impression you were passionate about your work," she responded. "Everyone at the ministry knows how hard you work at it."

"You have the right impression, I just feel... understimulated. I worked hard in school too, but with Harry and Ron there was always so much more excitement. I never knew what thing I learned might come in handy later. I mean, in first year I remembered something about Devil's Snare that ended up saving our lives. That'll make you pay attention in herbology no matter how dull it seems."

Looking amused, Narcissa replied, "I see what you mean. Well, my work doesn't normally involve as much excitement as you might hope. Most Unspeakables are researchers and intelligence analysts. There aren't many operatives." With a bit of irritation, she added, "At least, I think so. There's a lot they don't tell me."

"There's a lot you don't tell people, too," I reminded her. "Why didn't you want me to mention where I got my wand?"

"Mr. Ollivander was in my basement for a year," she repeated, waiting for me to grasp her meaning.

It only took me a moment. Ollivander was captured and tortured for his knowledge of wandlore. Voldemort was gone, but there were still cruel, power-hungry people in the world. Of course she would want to avoid such threats. She already told me days ago that she preferred to be underestimated. Now I could see that it was a protective measure, not merely a way to hold an advantage.

"I think I get it," I said, nodding.

"You know what I don't get?" Narcissa asked. "How you can talk so much about your interests, yet so little about your own life. I've heard about books you've read, but I'm only now hearing about your near-death in first year."

"I live with my life every day, so it's not as interesting to me as yours is," I replied. She just raised her eyebrows. "Oh. Right. I suppose it's the same for you. Well, there's a long story leading up to the Devil's Snare. That wasn't even the first time I could've been killed. See, there was this troll in the dungeons..."

She listened eagerly, sometimes clutching her heart in worry, sometimes laughing, as I started telling her stories of all the shenanigans our trio got into at Hogwarts. The dementors may have taken their toll on her, but I was pleased to see that I could still cheer her up.

***

That evening when Narcissa called out that she was done setting up the ward, she sounded strangely excited. She shifted from foot to foot as I took the tent out, then dragged me inside while Harry and Ron built a fire.

"I can't believe it took me this long to realize it," she said. She pulled out a chair to sit down in the kitchen area, then ignored it and started pacing. "Our camps are sometimes off the trail, sometimes closer to it. That threw me off."

"Realize what? What are you talking about?" I asked, smiling in amusement at her antics.

"We've been walking along a ley line this entire time!" she exclaimed with sweeping gestures toward the north and south. "This trail must've been made so long ago that nobody remembers why it's here. There's magic flowing right beneath our feet."

"Oh!" My mind raced to catch up. "So the dementors followed a ley line? Then they can sense magic. I had wondered why they would bother following a human trail, but this... this means something, doesn't it?"

She propped her hands on the table as she thought about it. "Are they feeding off the magic? I wonder if they followed the line instinctively or if there's a reason for it."

"Hmm. If there's a reason, it can't be good. We should tell Harry and Ron, since it affects our investigation," I said, waving toward the tent door.

"You can go tell them. This day has given me a lot to think about," she replied, sitting down at last.

I nodded and left her to her thoughts. Outside, the three of us cooked dinner over the fire while I explained Narcissa's realization and we considered what it could mean. When Harry asked how she was able to sense it, I told him it was classified, though in actuality I wasn't sure how much I was allowed to reveal.

I spent most of the evening talking with my friends, wishing Narcissa would come outside, but she stayed in the tent. When I went in to use the loo, I saw her reading a parchment, sitting on the lower bunk where I'd been sleeping since our switch. She looked up for a moment to smile at me.

"Coming to the fire soon?" I asked. She gave a noncommittal shrug, jotting a few notes down. At last I understood what Ron might have felt like whenever he wanted to spend time with me and I wanted to keep reading.

On my way back out, I was pleasantly surprised when Narcissa asked, "Would you like to hear something?" She patted the bed beside her and I sat down, looking at her curiously. She fiddled with the parchment, then set it aside and crossed her legs, turning toward me. "I have a poem I want to share with you."

"Go ahead," I invited. I was more into textbooks than poetry, but I liked hearing anything she thought was worth remembering.

She looked down, then began speaking to me softly, not at all like a public recital.

I wish to spare you from the pains of life,
To block each blow and shield you from each curse.
You'd suffer no more ills, or loss, or strife.
No duel would rout you, nor be too adverse.
If I could choose your luck, I'd make it good
and draw a kinder fate upon your palm.
If I could take away your fears, I would.
I'd banish every boggart, quell each qualm.
But I cannot—and should not—give such ease,
For hardship strengthens spirits as we heal.
Sloe berries sweeten only from a freeze,
And blackthorn wands require an ordeal.
So while a carefree life sounds best to some,
I care enough to let your troubles come.

Speechless, I let it sink in for a moment. "Wow," I breathed. "It's uncanny how fitting that is today. It's a sonnet, right? What is it called?"

She murmured, "I haven't given it a title yet. I only just finished jotting it down tonight after thinking about it whenever I was walking alone today."

"You wanted to articulate your thoughts better," I remembered in amazement, wondering how much of it was embellished and how much was what she really felt. "I didn't know you wrote poetry."

She nodded bashfully. "From time to time. It's nothing, a foolish hobby."

"Foolish hobby my arse," I responded, shaking my head. "You're a poet and a wandmaker? I can't believe it. All I can do is study well."

She laughed. "You make me sound so impressive, but I'm a rank amateur. You can do much more than study. You've already accomplished amazing feats, and you're what, less than half my age?"

Now it was my turn to feel bashful, but at the mention of our ages, my competitive spirit flared up. It's just a game, I reminded myself, hoping my next gesture wouldn't ruin our camaraderie. I rested my palm on her leg, letting my fingers spread over her thigh. She took a shaky breath, gazing at my hand, and her legs squeezed together ever so slightly. Then I echoed her words from earlier. "I'm nineteen. Next time, just ask."

She met my eyes, mouth falling open. "You..."

The door of the tent flipped open and Harry walked in. Narcissa leaped up from the bed, staring at me. I stayed still, not sure if I'd gone too far.

"Jumpy much?" Harry commented, laughing. He pulled pyjamas out of his backpack and left to change in the washroom.

When he was gone, Narcissa covered her pink cheeks with her hands. "I'm going to get you back for that," she threatened, then ruined her stern tone by laughing.

"Looks like we're tied one to one," I said, grinning and feeling proud that I'd managed to ruffle her feathers a bit. The thought of her retaliation was absolutely thrilling, and I could still feel the sensation of her thigh tensing under my hand.

What I didn't anticipate was how difficult it would be to fall asleep so soon after that. I knew this infatuation would fade eventually, so I tried to focus on the more important, lasting things that brought us closer today. But my head was swirling with thoughts of my newfound sexuality and my growing desire for Narcissa in particular. To make matters worse, she returned to her lower bunk tonight. Being back in my bed where she'd slept so recently had me tossing and turning, senses aflame. I must've fallen asleep eventually, but she even made her way into my dreams.

Chapter Text

Skin sliding over skin.

I lathered my hair with shampoo, hoping the cool morning shower would calm me down.

Soft touches, firm touches, friction and heat.

Sparse details of my dreams came back to me. Narcissa. My memory of them was fading fast, but my body remembered. It would be so easy to slip my hand down and take the edge off. I shook my head, too nervous. If I abandoned my usual vague fantasies and thought about her, I'm not sure I'd be able to look her in the eye without blushing. I let the soap and water wash away my sweat, my desire.

After toweling dry, I reached for my clothes on the counter where I usually set them. They weren't there; I must've forgotten them. Or maybe not. The stolen hat and boots flashed through my mind. She wouldn't, would she?I stepped into the main room of the tent, hoping I could grab another outfit without anyone seeing me in only a towel. Harry and Ron were dead asleep, but Narcissa was sitting awake and already dressed on the bottom bunk with a gray book, pretending to read.My outfit was neatly folded near the back edge of the bunk above her.

"Forget something?" she asked quietly, letting her gaze trail slowly down my body before coming back up to meet my eyes. I shivered under her attention and blushed from head to toe.So this was her payback.As I walked toward her, she set the book aside and leaned back on her hands, lazily watching me.

"Excuse me," I mumbled. She didn't move her legs out of the way. I had to stand right in front of her to reach the clothes, shyly clutching my towel with one arm while stretching the other across the top bunk. I took a step closer and froze when I felt my bare leg brush against her rough pants. I seized my clothes and took a few steps back, feeling my blood rush south, pulsing. I saw Narcissa's face just in time to catch her biting her lip as she lifted her eyes from the hem of my towel.

"Two to one, my favor." She looked way too pleased with herself. Her eyes kept flickering downward to my neck and shoulders. Was this really just to provoke me, or was it possible she actually wanted to see me like this?As I stood there, she taunted, "If it's ever too much for you, feel free to back down."

"I'm not backing down," I said defiantly, tucking my clothes under my arm. "I'm... plotting my revenge."

We narrowed our eyes at each other. I spun on my heel and marched back to the washroom. Safe in privacy, I leaned over the sink and gripped the counter, trying not to hyperventilate. Everything about her affected me in the worst way. In the best way. Groaning in frustration, I composed myself the best I could and got ready for our day.

***

Once we were on the trail, I was slowly able to relax. Ron was first on guard duty again, Harry walked beside me, and Narcissa gazed at the huge fir trees around us, lost in thought. The low sun painted their trunks golden and cast long shadows beside us. A few winter birds chirped overhead, giving me a feeling that all was well.

"Are you and Mrs. Malfoy having a spat?" Harry asked me.

"What?" I asked, startled from my peace. I glanced at Narcissa, who looked pensive, not angry. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, over breakfast you two looked like you were sizing each other up for a fight," he said.

I looked down, hoping I could come up with something close enough to the truth. I didn't know how to explain our game, and my attraction to women was such a new and tender discovery that I wasn't ready to talk about it yet.

"I thought you were getting along," he went on. "She hasn't been bullying you, has she? You don't have to handle it alone."

I couldn't help chuckling. "She's not bullying me, Harry. We're, um, having a friendly but spirited disagreement."

"Okay, that's a relief. I didn't want to think badly of her. She's growing on me a bit," Harry admitted. "Yesterday she seemed quite friendly when we were talking about Teddy. It might be nice to have her around for his birthdays."

I smiled. "I'm glad you're starting to like her more. She's really quite wonderful." I bit my cheek to stop myself from accidentally gushing about her.

Harry laughed. "What did she do to make you like her so much? Let me guess, she likes books too? Do you talk about ancient runes?"

"Well, she does like books." I remembered that day she'd been in my apartment, perusing the stacks. It was almost funny now how uncomfortable I'd been. "There's no talk of ancient runes, but we discuss other fascinating topics."

"So you've found a fellow intellectual," he said, nodding knowingly. "No wonder you've been glowing."

"I have not been glowing," I objected, embarrassed. I didn't think I'd been acting noticeably different.

"This is Hermione's brain," he said, holding up his clasped fists. "And this is Hermione's brain on fascinating topics." His hands burst apart, fingers wiggling.

I raised my own fist. "And this is a knuckle sandwich for you, if you don't shut your mouth."

He gave me a goofy grin, but it faded as he said, "I'm glad you're enjoying yourself, but you might want to dial it back a little around Ron. He's doing okay, mostly, but he seemed a little down yesterday when you were looking so happy. You only just broke up."

I looked over at Ron, feeling a little bad that I hadn't noticed his mood declining during the day. "I didn't mean to be insensitive."

"I'm sure the dementors didn't help," Harry responded. "And I'm not saying you should stifle your feelings. I don't know. I'll try to encourage him to think ahead to the future. And maybe you could always walk behind him to hide all that glowing."

"You're seeing things!" I insisted.

"Sure," he said, nudging me. "I'll get my glasses checked when we're home."

"You do that," I said firmly. "Speaking of which, how is house hunting going? Have you and Ginny found anything you like?"

"Yeah, we found some good options, and there's always Grimmauld Place. But I keep coming back to the idea of living in Godric's Hollow," he replied.

"Oh, yeah? To feel closer to your parents?" I asked.

He nodded and began telling me about their search for a place where they could feel at home, and how important it was to be close to their friends and family. We ended up chatting for a good hour until it was time for my turn to be lookout. Once I was alone, I started wondering how things would change when I got home. Would I start dating witches? Would my friends be supportive? Would Ginny feel weird around me? The wizarding world was fairly queer in more ways than one, so hopefully it would go over well. Muggles weren't nearly as accepting. I frowned when I remembered why Phoebe didn't use her last name anymore. After bonding over a long day of moving in, she'd told me her parents disowned her for liking girls. My parents wouldn't do that, right? Merlin, I hoped not. We'd only recently been reunited.

I put my hand down when I caught myself biting my nails. Fretting about it wouldn't do me any good. I tried to clear my thoughts with more wandless practice, attempting a few different kinds of spells and doing badly at every one. It was no longer a matter of struggling to make things happen; it was a matter of having too much magic trying to get out. Without using my wand, I needed tremendous focus and control to stop banished sticks from digging deep into the ground, or to stopaguamenti from flooding the trail. It wasn't easy, but it passed the time on guard duty and helped me let go of my worries.

***

When my shift was over, I fell back to walk beside Narcissa. Harry was the lookout now, but he still managed to keep up a conversation with Ron that caught my ear.

Ron laughed. "Come off it, Harry! Not her. And I'm not looking for other witches already."

"Alright, I'm just saying. There's a bit of an age gap, but Savage is good looking, isn't she?" Harry asked, grinning at Ron for a moment before facing forward to keep watching the forest.

"Yeah, she definitely is," Ron admitted. "But don't tell her I said that."

"Why not?"

"She's been an auror since I was in diapers! She prolly thinks of me like a kid. I bet she'd be uncomfortable."

Narcissa leaned toward me and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, "Do you think they would mind if I add my two sickles?"

I half-smiled and shrugged, unsure. Clasping her hands behind her back, she strode forward silently until she was right behind them. Harry caught sight of her first as he looked around, and Ron jumped at the sound of her clearing her throat. It was hard not to laugh at the panic on their faces.

"Mrs. Malfoy! Excuse me, I hope we weren't being disrespectful!" Harry apologized while Ron turned beet red.

"As someone with, shall we say, an inside perspective," Narcissa drawled, "I can tell you that older witches find it very flattering when a younger person finds them attractive."

"Kill me now," Ron groaned.

She continued, "There's no need to fear that woman's reaction if you ever feel inclined to politely compliment her."

Harry nodded like a bobblehead. "Yes, ma'am, thanks for the advice. Much appreciated. Right, Ron?"

Ron's hands covered his face, muffling his voice. "Sure. It isn't at all awkward talking about older witches with an older witch."

Harry glanced back and made a face when he saw my shoulders shaking with contained laughter. "What about you, Hermione, do you like older blokes? Besides Lockhart? He was so dreamy," he teased.

"You liked that fool?" Narcissa huffed.

"I thought he was smart!" I exclaimed, uncomfortable now that the focus was on me. "You can't blame me for being fooled. I was barely thirteen!"

"My, my," she said, grinning now. "So you've always had an eye for older wizards and witc—" She stopped mid-word as my eyes bugged out. "—um, ah... witch-charming frauds?"

I took a few calming breaths and said, "I don't intend to be so badly fooled again." I glanced at Ron, who was starting to look a bit pained at all this talk of romance and whom I liked. I slashed a hand across my throat to signal for her to be quiet.

She relented, letting Harry and Ron escape ahead of us. When we could speak privately again, she apologized, "I'm sorry, I presumed your friends knew of your interest in witches. May I ask why you haven't told them?"

"Er, I've only recently become aware of it."

Narcissa was silent for a moment. Appraising me. Interpreting. "How recently?"

I looked around as if I could find an escape route. "Well, compared to how old this forest is, everything is recent."

She raised her eyebrows. "So, you don't want to talk about it."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Noted." She didn't say anything more.

Suddenly inspired by what she'd told Harry and Ron, I decided to see if I could get a competition-worthy reaction with some compliments, though it took me several minutes of silent planning before I finally said, "When you walk by, everyone's heads turn."

She glanced over. "Excuse me?"

I met her eyes, hoping I wouldn't trip on the uneven ground. "You have such a smooth, alluring gait. It brings attention to all the right places."

"Of course. That's quite intentional," Narcissa replied.

This wasn't going well. I considered dropping the whole idea, but then she looked away with just a hint of color coming to her face.

Throat dry, I kept going. "No matter what you're wearing, if even a hint of a curve presses against the fabric, eyes will follow it, wondering how the remainder looks underneath..."I was second-guessing every word, but at least her eyes were on me again, wide with surprise and maybe a little bit of wonder. I finished, "...and wanting to see more, certain it will be just as absolutely delectable as the parts already visible."

"Where is this coming from? I..." She trailed off, voice unsteady. "You're exaggerating. Delectable. Really, come on, like I'm some dish you'd like to sample."

With all the bravery I could muster, I held her gaze and smirked, giving her a taste of her own medicine. Inside, I was having a meltdown at the thought ofsampling her. What would that be like? I could capture her mouth, then move lower to the bare skin of her belly, and lower still. Pages from the books I'd read came to mind, with descriptions and diagrams and terms like oral sex, which suddenly seemed like something I would very much like to try. Someday. Not with her. Don't even think of it, don't... Merlin, I bet it would be good.

Narcissa tugged at her coat and let out a shuddering breath. "Hermione Granger, if you keep looking at me like that, I swear even the birds will blush. You've tied our score two to two, alright?"

A rush of confidence overpowered my self-consciousness. I'd won this round! Not only that, but I could affect her much more than I'd previously thought. "Wow, 'politely compliment' was a good tip."

"It appears I've caused my own demise," she lamented, holding back a smile. "Did you mentally rehearse all of that when we were walking along?"

"Um, yes. Mostly."

She let out a lighthearted laugh. "I could see the gears turning, but I had no idea what they'd produce. I thought it might be another inane comment about how old the trees are."

"Inane? The timescale of forests should be awe-inspiring," I replied. "Just think of how long ago they were only seeds, tossed about in a pine cone that fell from some tree that grew even longer ago."

"I do like forests," she said agreeably. "I just haven't had many opportunities to learn how to appreciate them."

"Have you ever gone camping before?" I asked. "Before this, I mean?"

"No, it's not really something purebloods do."

"That's a shame," I said, lifting my eyes to the slanting branches overhead. "It's normally a nice experience, being out in nature, feeling connected to everything. You don't even need magic. Muggles camp without it all the time."

Narcissa wrinkled her nose. "Without being able to bathe?"

I rolled my eyes. "People can survive without bathing for a few days. Sponge baths will do just fine if needed, or you can bathe in a river if it's not too cold."

"That's preposterous. Do muggles want to go back to the Dark Ages?" she asked. When I tried to answer, she added, "That was a rhetorical question. It's clear they do."

We started arguing about the pros and cons of camping. I was certain I could get her to see the appeal of it, since I'd loved it so much when I was young. But before I could win the argument, Harry interrupted with a warning.

"Dementors."

Adept now at reacting to attacks, our group drew together and faced outward with our wands drawn, scanning the forest for signs of their speed and direction. That too-familiar feeling of dull horror returned.

"There," Harry said, pointing at fog further along.

We waited at the ready for the dementors to notice us, but they never came any closer. They raced across the trail ahead at top speed.

"It looks like they're... running away from something," Harry said.

"I don't want to meet whatever could scare a dementor," Ron replied, voice shaky. "Let's get out of here."

Just as I was thinking that sounded like a good idea, I caught sight of something bright and silver. A patronus shaped like a fat hog came trotting along, driving the dementors away at a leisurely pace. My mouth hung open as I stared at the comical animal snorting and snuffling around in the leaves every few steps.None of us spoke until both the patronus and the dementors were out of sight.

"Looks like we're in good company," Harry said, sheathing his wand.

"We must be getting close to the town. There could be a magical community there," I guessed, hope rising that the dementors hadn't wiped everyone out.

Ron rubbed his stomach. "Maybe this one will have a bakery."

We went around a curve in the trail and reached the edge of the forest. In the open area beyond, scores of buildings lined the streets of a small town. I squinted in the sun, too bright without the canopy shading us. Kids were playing a jumping game in the dirt lot between two houses. When they saw us, they stopped and waved. At the sight of them, I suddenly felt too tense to give them more than a smile while Harry and Ron waved back. Children just like these had exposed me as a witch in the previous town. When one of them left the game and ran into a nearby house calling for his mother, I broke out in a sweat.

Then Narcissa slipped her hand into mine. I jerked in surprise, but she didn't let go. She brought up her other hand and rubbed my arm, pressing firmly against the wand in my sleeve. What happened last time wouldn't happen again. That simple gesture helped me relax, and I squeezed her hand gratefully. She let go after only a few moments, but it was enough.

As we continued along, three middle-aged women came out of the nearest house and approached us with wide eyes. "Are you alright?" one of them asked.

"Sure, why wouldn't we be?" Harry replied.

She pointed in the direction we'd come from. "You were in the forest, where the dementors are. You've got to be careful out there."

"Oh!" Harry exclaimed. "Yes, we saw them, but a hog patronus chased them off. Whose was it?"

The woman frowned. "Not sure what you mean by 'patronus,' but you have our mayor, Sir Hoppens, to thank. His spirit animal has been keeping us safe for months now."

"And he never lets us forget it," another woman grumbled. My eyebrows drew together in concern at that.

"Hush, you're just stingy," the first woman said, smacking her friend, then turned back to us. "So you know about dementors too? I thought only our town got them. My relatives in Liverpool don't believe me when I tell them about it, but we can all feel it when they're nearby, clear as can be."

The third woman added, "My husband reckons he got real close one time when the dementors came to the lumber yard. Almost ended up like that poor sod Archie Taylor. So they put up another warning bell there. We've got bells all over now so Sir Hoppens knows where to send his guardian angel."

"I've told you, it's a spirit animal," the first woman argued.

Harry glanced back at Ron and me, looking nervous. These women were talking about dementors, but we'd heard enough to realize they might not be witches. We'd have to tread carefully.

"Er..." He hesitated. "We only heard some rumors about the dementors. My name is Harry Potter, by the way." He watched the women for a reaction, but they didn't seem to recognize his name at all. "Thanks for the info. We won't take any more of your time."

We said some polite goodbyes and walked further into town. The middle class houses we passed looked like their owners had fallen on hard times. They had cracked stucco and broken shutters, and cars were up on blocks by the curb.

"Are we going to look for this Hoppens guy?" Ron asked.

"I think we should, to hear what's going on from someone who knows more," I said. "Will we need to post aurors here too?"

"Yes, or they may evacuate the town," Harry replied. "There'll be some memory work to do too, since it sounds like Hoppens has been using magic in front of muggles."

"They won't arrest him for breaking the statute, will they?" Narcissa asked.

"Probably not, since he did it to protect them," Harry answered. "But we should still look into it."

We wandered further into the town where a row of small shops lined both sides of the street. Ron was overjoyed to see that one of them was a bakery.

"How about we stop for an early lunch here?" he asked, hands clasped in front of him. "Please?"

The smell of bread reached my nose, making my mouth water. We readily agreed to go inside and were met by a bright smile from the elderly lady behind the counter.

"Hello, dears! Not often we get visitors! How about some fresh rolls? Or soft pretzels?" she offered.

"A loaf of bread big enough for all of us, please," Ron requested. He dug around in his backpack until he came up with a handful of pounds, counting them with some difficulty. I was the only other person with muggle money close at hand, so we split the cost. The baker gave us a huge loaf, and we gathered around one of the tables in the bakery to unwrap it and tear off chunks to eat. It was so fresh it melted in my mouth, with a perfectly crisp crust.

"This is so delicious. No wonder you wanted to stop here," I said, humming in appreciation.

"It reminds me of my mum," Ron responded. "Comfort food, I guess. Out on missions, I miss her meals. Fresh bread, cheese, whatever vegetables are ripe in the garden..."

Narcissa looked at him with a surprising amount of fondness. "That sounds lovely, very much like my brunches with Draco. I believe I saw a sign for a cheesemaker's shop across the street. Hermione, could I borrow a little money? I'll find us something good and repay you later."

Her unusually kind attitude toward Ron sparked a rush of affection in me. I leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Absolutely. Tell them to keep the change," I told her, tucking some money into her coat pocket. Narcissa gave me an indulgent smile before leaving the bakery. I watched her through the window as she walked to the cheese shop, hoping nothing bad would happen to her while she was alone. My fingers rubbed together absently. The fleece inside her new coat had felt quite patchy. I vaguely remembered seeing her hands in her pockets a lot yesterday, but she'd really mangled the material. A nervous habit?

I turned back to have a little more bread while we waited. Ron and Harry were staring at me. "What?" I asked, brushing at my face in case there were crumbs.

"Mrs. Malfoy is acting like a decent person," Ron said. "Is she bewitched or something?"

"Don't be ridiculous," I replied. "You just haven't gotten a chance to see her sweet side."

They exchanged a look. Ron shrugged and went back to the bread, but Harry eyed me for a moment longer. I made a point of ignoring him, determined not to acknowledge anything strange about our interaction. The minutes crawled by with only a bit of smalltalk between us. Just as I turned to look out the window again, a man dressed as a butler entered the bakery.

"You are the other three hikers, I presume?" he asked. "The mayor has requested your presence at his mansion. You are invited to join Sir Hoppens for the midday meal."

"Thank you," Harry responded, answering for us. "We accept his invitation. Have you seen our... friend?"

The servant inclined his head. "The good master found her outside a shop and sent me to recover her companions."

The baker came out from behind the counter with a cloth-covered basket. "Mr. Biggleby, would you please bring these sweet rolls to Sir Hoppens? If he's having guests, I want to make sure he has plenty for the rest of the day."

The servant accepted the basket with a polite bow. He turned to leave the shop, looking back at us to say, "This way, if you please."

Ron wrapped our bread back up and packed it away, and we followed Biggleby out of the shop. I was getting the impression that Sir Hoppens might be a bit self-important, but I was still interested in meeting the man who had single-handedly kept almost everyone safe.

***

The mayor's mansion wasn't far from the bakery, and it was easy to spot. It was much taller and older than any of the surrounding buildings, but looked recently renovated. Biggleby let us through an elaborate gate, revealing a lush green yard of winter wheat that was completely at odds with the scraggly dirt yards of other houses we'd passed. Under the empty stare of stone gargoyles on the roof, we walked up to a pair of huge double doors.

"Come right in," Biggleby invited, holding one door open for us. "You can leave your outerwear here." His eyes were trained on our dirty clothes, making his meaning clear. I subtly stuck my wand under my t-shirt as we took off our backpacks, coats, and boots, leaving them hanging or stowed away by a bench in the foyer where Narcissa's things were sitting neatly.

"Very good." Biggleby waved for us to continue into the next room. "The cook should have the appetizers and drinks ready for you."

Harry went first into a large entrance hall with a grand staircase at the end. Statues were everywhere and portraits covered the walls, all depicting the same rather average-looking man. We passed through an entryway to the right, into a dining room with a table covered in delicacies. Golden goblets and candlesticks dotted the spaces between plates, and a jeweled chandelier hung overhead. I felt quite common and grubby in comparison. Harry sat down at one of the place settings, with Ron and I settling in on either side, fidgeting while we waited for our host to come in.

A booming voice reached our ears from a different hallway leading into the dining room. "That's all for the tour, Lady Malfoy, now let's not keep your companions waiting."

"The esteemed Sir Hoppens, plus guest," Biggleby announced, pulling out the chair at the head of the table.

Sir Hoppens came in from the hall, wearing wizard robes and more finery than I'd ever seen on one person. He was definitely the same man from the portraits and sculptures, but much, much heavier. Both of his huge, ring-encrusted hands were cradling a smaller hand as he pulled Narcissa along behind him into the dining room. Looking poised as usual, Narcissa scanned the room until she found my eyes and let her shoulders relax slightly. Perhaps she was more tense than she let on.

"He's even fatter than his patronus," Ron whispered. Harry and I shushed him.

"Welcome to my town!" Sir Hoppens greeted us. He let go of Narcissa's hand to pull out a chair for her beside him at the head of the table, then sat down. He flapped his hand at Biggleby. "Leave us. Tell the cook we are not to be disturbed until I ring for the next course."

"Yes, sir," Biggleby said, bowing. "Right away." He closed all the doors to the room as he left.

"Dig in!" Sir Hoppens said with a sweeping gesture across the table. "It's a rare treat to get visitors in this town, let alone fellow witches and wizards!"

The man was too loud for me, and everything in here was too fancy. I wished we were back in the bakery with that simple bread and whatever cheese Narcissa picked out for us. I started eating the soup appetizer without much enthusiasm.

He went on, mostly addressing Narcissa and ignoring the rest of us. "Imagine my surprise when one of my servants told me that backpackers had emerged from the forest. Who were they? How did they survive the dementors? I had to know, so I decided then and there to personally invite you for lunch. But it all became clear when I crossed paths with the exquisite Narcissa Malfoy. A member of such an esteemed magical family, here in my town! What an honor!"

The way he was leering at her made my blood boil. I instantly hated him.

"It's an honor to meet you too," Harry said. "We're very impressed by how you've protected the town."

Sir Hoppens focused on the three of us for the first time since coming in. "Wait, are you...? It can't be. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived! I read all about you in the paper. What has the Golden Trio been up to since defeating You-Know-Who?"

"Hermione advocates for magical creatures," Harry said. "Me and Ron are aurors now."

"Aurors! How interesting. There's no trouble in my town!" Hoppens exclaimed, turning red. "Except for the dementors, of course!" He slapped the table and laughed. "I only meant there's no trouble I can't handle. There's no need to stay here for long. I'm sure you're busy." He rang the bell beside his plate loudly.

Moments later, a cook came in from the kitchen behind another side door, pushing a trolley with various dishes on it. He placed them on the table before us, removing their lids with a flourish.

Hoppens clapped his hands. "Ah, our first and only course," he said, giving a significant look to the cook.

"Only? But sir..." the cook replied, pointing back at the kitchen.

"Yes, indeed, our only course. Ta ta," Hoppens said, flapping his hand again. He muttered under his breath as the cook left. "Talking back? The nerve!"

Right then, the door leading back to the entrance hall burst open, and a young woman in a maid uniform hurried in with a basket of apples and oranges. "Fresh fruit for your guests, Sir Hoppens. Sorry for the delay."

"Thank you, Miss Taylor." He accepted the basket from her and squeezed her bum, making her jump. I stood up and prepared to launch into a lecture while Harry and Ron objected loudly.

"Oy, that's—"

"You can't just grab—"

The young woman cut us off. "Please don't make a fuss. Sir, call for me if you need anything else." She fled the dining room through the rear hallway door. I sat back down, hating Sir Hoppens more every second.

Narcissa spoke up for the first time. "You must be quite rich to afford so many maids. The others upstairs were delightful too. How did you acquire such impressive wealth?" She leaned forward, gazing at him with blatant admiration, and I just knew he had a good view down her shirt. I looked down and realized I'd balled up the tablecloth in my fists. It was one thing for him to be interested in her; how could he not be? But to see her looking at him like that made me sick to my stomach. I was such a sucker, thinking our flirting was anything special.

"My servants are eager volunteers." Hoppens puffed his chest out under her attention. "I'm doing such a great service to the townspeople, you see, and they're terribly grateful for my protection. They've helped to restore my family fortune. I'm afraid I may have overindulged myself in their gifts of food a bit, but it would be rude to decline."

"Taylor," I said suddenly. "Was that woman with the fruit Archie Taylor's widow?"

"Well, he's not exactly dead," Hoppens grumbled. "Shame I couldn't save him from the dementors, but he was never right for her anyway."

Suspicions were creeping into my mind. What if he could've saved the man? Why didn't he want us to stay for long? Why did it look like the rest of the village was getting poorer while he got richer? Was he making everyone bend over backwards to serve their protector? He never lets us forget it, that woman told us on the street. If I'd felt sick before, it was nothing compared to how I felt now. So many things seemed strange, yet I had no evidence of wrongdoing.

Narcissa spoke again. "Casualties like Mr. Taylor are so inconvenient. Would you like to have a few aurors here as guards? I think you deserve to relax and enjoy your enormous fortune. Or are you skilled enough to handle all of this?" She leaned over her arms on the table, pushing her breasts together. My mouth hung open as I realized what was happening. Narcissa wasn't flirting because she liked him; she was up to something. Trying to get a confession? The sick feeling faded, replaced with fascination.

"I'm more than skilled enough to handle these pesky dementors," he boasted, staring right where she wanted him to. "What happened to that man was unfortunate, but it won't happen again."

"Ah, perhaps you weren't trying your best? I don't blame you," she cooed, running a thumb along the low collar of her shirt. "She's beautiful. With all your wealth and charm, I'm sure you can take care of a woman much better than he could."

The man shifted in his chair. "Yes, well, sometimes the effort it takes to protect someone like him is... ahem, too much. He neglected her, you see. Didn't appreciate what he had. She has a better life here with me."

"Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that," Ron said, throwing his fork down. "Did you really leave her husband to the dementors just to have her to yourself?"

Hoppens stood up and shook his finger at us. "You don't get to judge me! Where were you when the dementors came? Celebrating your 'victory'! Who protects these people day and night? ME! I'm a good man! I deserve to have her! I deserve good things!"

"A woman isn't a thing, you pig!" Ron yelled back, slamming his hands on the table. "She's not some prize that gets handed out to heroes!"

Damn right, I thought to myself, proud of him. He'd come so far since the days when he just wanted to take the prettiest girl to the Yule Ball.

Harry pulled his wand out under the table and started whispering a long, unfamiliar spell. From the incantation, I figured out it was an anti-disapparition jinx to cover the whole property. I was a little jealous of all the interesting spells aurors got to learn.

"We're gonna bring him in," Harry said to Ron and me under his breath. "Get ready."

I clutched my wand in my hand, mentally preparing myself in case this went badly. Surely the man wouldn't be dumb enough to try fighting the famous Golden Trio, plus guest.

Chapter Text

"You're under arrest for criminal negligence and abuse of power," Harry announced, pointing his wand at Hoppens, who braced himself. Harry warned him, "This is your chance to come quietly. Resisting will only hurt your defense at the trial."

The next few seconds stretched as we waited for Hoppens to surrender. His eyes glanced at the nearest door, then darted around to look at each of us as if he was weighing his options. The standoff ended with a clatter in the nearby kitchen, prompting Hoppens to raise his wand. Harry was the first of us to react, but he was too slow.

"Expelli—"

"Accio!" Hoppens yelled, summoning the table's entire contents, even the tablecloth. The white linen billowed in front of him, hiding him from sight while Harry's disarming spell made a pot of soup crash into a wall. When the cloth fell, Hoppens was backing away with Narcissa pulled against him like a too-small shield, one arm around her throat and his wand at her temple. "Don't make me hurt her!" He slowly stepped toward the door behind him. "Just let me go, and I'll let her go."

My eyes widened. I knew he was going to regret grabbing her. He could've fled from the room before we could stop him, but now she would tear him apart.

"You don't have to arrest me!" Hoppens ranted. "I'm nothing compared to You-Know-Who. I've spent my whole life behaving, I've saved this whole town, and for what? This is the thanks I get?!"

Narcissa stayed still, not struggling. Why wasn't she taking her own advice and escalating immediately? Muscles taut, I waited for her to make a move. Any second now.

Hoppens kept backing toward the door. The three of us threw disarming, stunning, and binding spells at him, which fizzled against his hastily cast protego.

Harry and Ron switched to stronger, more damaging spells to break through his defenses, but their aim was off because they were reluctant to hit his human shield. Hoppens managed to avoid the few that came close to striking him. I was losing faith that Narcissa would suddenly take him down with a well-placed hex, but I couldn't muster the will to try shooting harmful spells in her direction.

Hoppens escaped with her into the hallway and slammed the door shut, brass handle melting until it sealed the whole door in a layer of metal. We raced out the other door and hurried into the entrance hall, socks slipping on the smooth floor. I could hear Hoppens' footsteps pounding up an unseen staircase behind the right-hand wall. We charged up the grand staircase at the end of the room to get to the same floor, but before we could reach the top, over half a dozen suits of armor marched down from the upper landing. The enchanted empty suits swung their swords viciously at us. Harry ducked as one came too close to him.

"Confringo!" I yelled, blasting a dent in that suit and knocking it over. Harry and Ron took out two more, but the remaining suits of armor were forcing us back down the stairs. It was time to fight fire with fire. I tapped my wand on a nearby statue of Sir Hoppens, casting oppugno to make it attack. It charged forward and smashed a stony fist through the torso of the closest suit, then ripped the arm off another despite losing its head to a sword slash. I smiled with grim satisfaction and transfigured another statue. With the animated objects fighting each other, the three of us were able to scoot past them and up to the second floor. Then multiple screams echoed from somewhere in the mansion before being cut off. We stopped in our tracks.

"We should signal for the other aurors," Ron said.

"Already on it," Harry said, fingers twisting his watch dial.

I was glad neither of them let ego get in the way of asking for help. Hoppens already had a hostage, and if he was attacking defenseless muggles too, the situation was getting out of control. Though none of the screams had sounded like Narcissa, I was worried sick. If Hoppens so much as scratched her, I would give him hell.

Harry made a guess at the direction of the screams, leading the way onward. As we ran down the hall to the right, the carpet started sliding under our feet until we were running in place like rats in a wheel. I tried a sticking jinx to keep it still, but it didn't help. I looked around for some other way forward. Maybe we could run along the walls? While I was considering how to accomplish that, I noticed the chandeliers overhead, dotting the ceiling of the hallway. They were too far apart to grab and swing ourselves along, but a little magic could fix that. I concentrated hard to cast a stretching spell on all of them.

"Go on, use them like monkey bars," I told Harry and Ron. With their stronger arms, they made their way down the hall much more quickly than me. When they passed one of the rooms, the door exploded, flinging the two men against the opposite wall.

"No!" I screamed, struggling to move faster. I reached them moments later and leaned over to check their vitals, feeling strong heartbeats. I looked behind me, torn between searching for Narcissa or helping my friends recover. I felt a dull pressure in the back of my head, and our contract pushed itself to the forefront of my mind. Let no harm come... Best of my ability... The pressure worsened and I realized I was at risk of breaking the agreement if I lingered too long.

Harry lifted his head and struggled to sit up. "Don't lose track of him. We're right behind you."

He didn't have to tell me twice. I leaned against the busted doorframe and peeked around the edge to check for traps. Inside was an airy sitting room with huge plate glass windows. Multiple doors led to other rooms, and two french doors opened out onto a wide balcony. Hoppens was nowhere to be seen, but three maids were bound and gagged on the floor. Their cart of housekeeping supplies was overturned and leaking beside them, making the whole room reek of Lysol. They let out muffled screams when they saw the wand in my hand.

I took off one of their gags. "I'm here to help. Where did he go?" I asked, trying to keep my voice gentle so I wouldn't frighten her even more.

"The balcony," she whimpered. "What's happening? The ropes came out of nowhere!"

"Um, it's all bad dream," I told her as I raced out to the balcony. There was no time to stop and untie her.

I looked out across a huge back yard, trying to spot Hoppens. A shadow passed over me and I looked up just in time to dive away from a block of stone falling through the air. It smashed into the balcony where I'd been standing, the impact shattering the nearest windows. I stood up, wincing at the blood and bruises on my elbows. From now on, I'd leave athletic stuff to the quidditch players. But there was one good thing about the falling block: it revealed Hoppens' location. I looked up at the roof, seeing where a section of the parapet had been broken. There was no obvious way to get up there, but he must've done it somehow.

Harry and Ron came running through the sitting room, much to my relief. I'd rather not have to face Hoppens alone.

"He's on the roof!" I told them, thinking quickly. "Grab the maids' brooms!"

They stooped down to reach into the housekeeping cart, finding only mops.

"That'll have to do," I murmured as Ron handed one of them to me. I didn't know how real brooms were spelled to fly, so I went with something familiar. With a swish and flick, I incanted, "Wingardium leviosa." Only when the mop started rising did I remember how bad I was at flying. "Oh, boy," I grumbled, climbing on. Using my wand to aim it, I let the mop lift me upward toward the roof while my other hand strangled the handle. Ron and Harry enchanted their mops below me and quickly reached my level, grabbing my elbows to help me rise faster.

We continued four floors up to the roof on the unwieldy mops, only to be met by a hoard of stone gargoyles. They charged toward us and breathed out jets of flame. Ron and Harry reared back, but all of our mops caught fire. I tumbled down, hitting the gravelly roof, and the two of them landed nearby. I groaned, feeling a burn on my arm as I pushed myself up onto my knees.

Between the bodies of the grotesque gargoyles crowding around us, I caught a glimpse of Hoppens hurrying toward the far side of the roof. He was dragging Narcissa behind him by her hair, screaming at her about tricking him into saying too much. My fingers dug into the gravel, rage rising in me like a tidal wave. I surged to my feet and threw freezing spells at the nearest gargoyles. I broke through their ranks and ran toward Hoppens, whose eyes went wide.

"Stop! I'll blow up a house for every step you take, I swear it!" Hoppens yelled, pointing his wand over the edge of the roof behind him. "This is my town. They made me mayor. I can do what I want with it!" His arm was around Narcissa's neck again, and she was slumped over. I thought she was unconscious until I saw her eyes were open, staring blankly. Bloodstains streaked her side from being dragged over the rough roof.

"Let her go!" I screamed, straining to hold back my fury at how he'd treated her. "Please, do the right thing and surrender. I know you never meant to hurt anybody!" Regardless of whether I really believed that, it might throw him off and give me an opening.

"There's no way I'm letting you put me in prison. Don't come any closer, I'm not bluffing!" he shouted. He circled his wand and slashed it toward a house, making the roof blow off of it.

My hand reached out uselessly as if I could stop him, but I didn't dare take another step or he might do worse. I lifted my wand, wondering which spells were powerful enough to get past a shield charm without being severe enough to hurt Narcissa. Dammit, I needed time to think of attacks! I sought ideas desperately. Was there anything around me I could use?

Hoppens flung a series of disarming spells at me, and I managed to block them all. It frustrated him enough that he tugged Narcissa closer to the edge, letting her feet dangle over.

"Throw your wand down NOW, or she drops!" he threatened.

My heart jumped into my throat and I fell to my knees. She was in no state to survive a fall like that. My mind went into its highest gear; everything seemed to slow down around me. I felt the flames of the gargoyles burning closer. I heard Harry and Ron somewhere behind me struggling to fight them off. The aurors would arrive at any moment, and Hoppens would surely be pushed into making more desperate moves, and then it would be too late to protect everybody.

Doing exactly what I'd resolved never to do, I tossed my wand out of reach on the rooftop. "Okay, okay," I assured Hoppens. "Please, just don't hurt her."

He lowered his wand and pulled Narcissa back from the edge, thinking I was disarmed. But I hadn't been practicing wandless magic for nothing, and I'd never felt more focused in my life.

I pressed my hands to the roof and channeled my magic through it, letting it roar out of me and into the gravel. The entire area beneath Hoppens was transfigured into quicksand. Screaming, he sank down into it with Narcissa, disappearing from sight much faster than I'd intended. I snatched my wand back up and ran toward them, twisting away from a jet of gargoyle fire hissing overhead.

I knelt at the edge of the quicksand pit and plunged my arm into it, feeling nothing but slippery silt. How deep had I made the damn thing? She could suffocate down there! I cast a bubblehead charm on myself and slipped into the sludge head-first, groping around in the darkness. I sank deeper and deeper, berating myself for overestimating my control of wandless magic.

Finally my hands found a familiar boot. I followed it to Narcissa's ankle and held on tight, considering whether I could use ascendio like Harry did in the Triwizard Tournament to propel the two of us out of the pit. Then I remembered Hoppens was somewhere in here too. I didn't want to be responsible for his death, no matter how much I hated him. I could only think of one way to get us all out of there quickly enough.

I threw a blasting spell to my left to open a hole in whatever wall was there, hoping I hadn't gotten turned around and broken through the exterior of the house. My aim was true; the quicksand emptied into a third-floor room, the gritty torrent coating all of the fine rugs and furniture. I staggered to my feet and wiped my wand off on my filthy jeans, globs of wet sand dripping from my clothes. Narcissa was lying on her back nearby, and I was relieved beyond belief to see her breathing. Hoppens lay half-buried next to her, gasping and struggling to get up. When he spotted me, he raised his wand and reached for Narcissa again.

I whipped my wand at him first, throwing him into a wall, then sent a barrage of nonverbal spells at him. Without his human shield, there was no reason to hold back.

"You..." My fireball burned his expensive outer robes, making him scream and roll around. "...stay..." I slashed a cutting spell down his side where I'd seen blood on Narcissa."...away from her!" I slammed him into the wall again with enough force to knock him out and leave a streak on the wallpaper. He was burned and bloody, but none of it would kill him. I bound him and took his wand away, hoping the aurors would find us before he woke up. Fortunately, I could hear the faint sound of cheering coming from the roof. Our backup had arrived.

With the immediate threats taken care of, I crouched by Narcissa's side. She coughed a little and squinted through grimy eyelashes. More weight lifted from my shoulders with each sign of life. Even covered in sandy mud, she was a beautiful sight.

"Are you okay? Here, I'll clean your face. Hold your breath again for a second," I told her, helping her sit up and using aguamenti to send a gentle stream of water over her head. When the mud was gone from her face, her eyes were able to open properly, but her gaze was unfocused.

"Are you under a spell?" I asked.

"No, I'm alright," she said faintly.

"Are you hurt?"

She shook her head.

I cupped her cheek, wishing she would say more instead of sitting there, barely responding. Worry weighed on me again. Had he cursed her? I tried a few counter-curses, to no effect. Was the problem something more mundane, like a concussion?

"Hermione?" Harry called.

I heard his voice coming from above, but I couldn't see to the top of the pit from here. I started to stand so I could go talk to him, then settled back down. I didn't want to leave Narcissa alone right then.

"I'm okay, we're two floors below you!" I yelled.

I watched as one end of a rain gutter landed in the pit and transformed into a ladder. Harry and Ron climbed down and ran to me, followed by aurors who surrounded Hoppens.

"I see you took him out; nice work," Harry said. "The others helped us destroy the rest of the gargoyles." He tried to wipe a black scorch mark off his cheek but only succeeding in rubbing it around.

"Good, good," I replied, most of my attention still occupied. "I'm glad they got here quickly." I healed the worst of the scrapes on Narcissa's side, getting more and more disturbed by how docile she was.

"Me too, those things were downright scary," Ron said.

I nodded, not even listening anymore. Something wasn't right. "Guys, I'm going to find a room where the two of us can clean up. Could you give us some time?"

"Sure, of course," Harry said. "Take whatever time you need. We'll help the others deal with Hoppens and brief them on what happened until you're ready."

Ron grumbled, "This would've been so much easier if he'd given up in the first place."

"Can you stand?" I asked Narcissa.

"Yes," she said, letting me pull her up.

Without any of her usual grace, she walked alongside me in the hallway. My feet ached from running across rough gravel without my boots on, but I ignored the pain. I opened several doors until I found a guest room with an attached bathroom. It was dim and crowded inside, but it would do. I led her to a large clawfoot tub, both of us climbing over its edge. She stood there, meek as a lamb and nothing like the woman I'd come to know. I had no idea what was wrong or what I could do, so I focused on simple things.

"Okay, let's wash the rest of the mud off," I said to her, turning the faucet on. Knowing she hated being cold, I waited until the water was nice and hot before switching it to the showerhead. She stood under the stream, mechanically rubbing the mud off her arms and clothes. When the worst of it was gone, we switched places so I could wash off too. I never thought we'd be standing in a bathtub together and would've assumed I'd be uncomfortable, but it was purely to care for her.

"I'm gonna dry us off now." I reached for my wand, intending to cast a quick drying spell, then spotted some soft white towels folded on a shelf. Soft like fleece-lined pockets. Soft like my scarf when she clung to it after our first dementor attack. Going on instinct, I grabbed one of the huge towels and wrapped it around her, then took her hands and brushed them over the plush cloth.

"Narcissa, do you feel this? Please, please say something."

Her lips parted and she looked down at her hands. Her fingers started stroking the fabric. "Yes, I—I feel it, I feel...." She swayed a little and her eyes met mine, no longer unfocused. She slowly picked up another towel, wrapping it around me and pulling us together. Her hands stayed mostly still as she clutched my back, but I could feel her fingers keep moving, keep touching the towel.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You shouldn't have to deal with this. I usually catch myself before it happens."

"There's nothing to apologize for," I told her, a little lost. "Whatever happened, it's over."

She let go and sank down to sit in the tub, wrapping her arms around her knees. "I didn't do anything at all to help you," she whispered. "I'm not a warrior like you. I don't belong here. I'm such a sorry excuse for a witch."

"Don't talk about yourself like that," I said, mirroring her position and sitting as close as I could. "You're a wonderful, powerful witch."

"I should've stopped that bastard before he even left the dining room!" she said angrily. "All this mess, this damage, the roof on that house, someone could've been killed! But I just stood there feeling nothing, like it wasn't really me. I hate this! I hate still being under his influence. I was back at the manor all over again."

"At the manor?" I asked, then added, "It's okay if you'd rather not talk about it. But if you want to tell me, I'm listening."

"I want to," she said, then fell silent. One of her hands found mine, wandering over my skin, tracing my fingers. I waited patiently, feeling more connected to her than anyone else I'd ever known.

"Thirteen months," she murmured. "For thirteen months, the Dark Lord was living with us. When he was... in a temper, he was fond of cursing anyone who had disappointed him, so I never let him expect anything from me. I pretended that I was a bit daft, that I wasn't very good at magic. I made sure I was beneath his notice, just cleaning and bringing food. Whenever he tortured me over things my husband had or hadn't done, showing resistance was the surest way to prolong it."

My heart was breaking open as I listened to her. Whenever he tortured me, she said. Just how often did she have to go through that? Once was already too much. I slid my free hand up and held her elbow, supporting her arm as she continued touching my fingers, knuckles, palm, wrist.

She took a deep breath, voice getting raspy as she continued. "I learned to go limp and pretend I had nothing left, to look weaker than I was, to leave my body so crucio wouldn't hurt so much. When Sir Hoppens grabbed me today, all of that came rushing back. He's nothing but a lowlife, but I reacted the same way I always did."

When she finished, I was at a loss for words. I'd been listening so intently that I wasn't thinking at all about what I should say next.

"You are so courageous," I told her, struggling to speak. "Finding a way to survive such—such cruelty... not everyone could've done it. I—I appreciate how hard it might be to talk about it, to trust me with this."

She looked down. "Sorry. I mean, thank you, I just... didn't mean to burden you with my old pains. I've been holding it in, with nobody I could really confide in. Draco has enough troubles of his own. But now I feel like I'm always bringing you down. I should tell you about some good memories later."

"I've got enough optimism for both of us. Good or bad, I'm always willing to listen," I promised her. I couldn't say it wasn't a burden, because it did make my heart heavy, but I would gladly bear it with her.

"And you have me, should you ever need someone to talk to," she replied. "For any reason, anytime." Her face was regaining some of its color, reassuring me that she was doing better now.

"Anytime?" I asked, hoping to lift her spirits a little more. "How about when you're in a meeting at work? Or in the middle of the night when you're trying to sleep?"

"Anytime," she reiterated, starting to smile.

"Even when you're in the shower?" I joked.

"Especially when I'm in the shower," she teased back, climbing out of the tub. As I got out to stand beside her, she looked around the small room and said quietly, "This is actually one of the best places you could've brought me. Bathrooms are safe. They're somewhere I could always go to let everything out."

"I had no idea. I didn't know what to do," I said, a little of my worry from before coming back.

She stepped closer and relaxed against me, holding my shoulders. "You took care of me," she responded. "That helped more than you know."

As my arms tightened around her, I could feel her breathing in and out, slow and easy. She so deserved this moment of peace, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

***

When Narcissa and I finally ventured back out into the hallway of the mansion, we faced a whirlwind of activity. Hoppens had been relocated to a holding room at the ministry, but the aurors were still here in force, questioning witnesses and combing through the mansion for evidence. In addition to hearing Harry and Ron's stories, they wanted to talk to Narcissa and I in separate rooms to hear our accounts of how Hoppens had resisted arrest. I was ready to tell them to wait or talk to us together, but Narcissa readily left to testify alone. I watched her stride away with an investigator, feeling proud of her strength and awed by the vulnerable side she had shared with me.

As it turned out, I had a bit of explaining to do in regards to the wounds I'd inflicted on Hoppens. The auror who questioned me had this blown-back expression on his face.

"Don't you think you went a little overboard?" he asked, pausing his note-taking. "He didn't seriously injure anyone, but the burns you gave him will take days to heal. There are laws about how much force is considered excessive."

I set my jaw stubbornly. "After all those fire-breathing gargoyles we had to fight, you're worried about his burns? You haven't seen excessive. Do you have any idea how many deadly spells I know? He's lucky I didn't do worse after he tried to kill us—multiple times, I might add. I'm not sorry for defending lives!"

"Once you had compromised his defenses, why did you continue using violent spells rather than binding him according to protocol?"

Because he threatened Narcissa. Because protecting her was all I could think about. But I didn't say any of that. "I don't know the protocols; I'm not an auror," I retorted. "If you're trying to get me to incriminate myself, I should have a lawyer."

At the mention of a lawyer, he backed off and returned to his list of questions. I answered everything quickly, eager to get this over with. Before long, the investigator was escorting me out the front doors of the mansion while I settled my backpack on my shoulders and winced at how sore my feet were.

"Sorry about all this, by the way," I apologized, feeling a little bad that the backup team had to stay in town and clean up after us. "Looks like you've got even more work to do than last time."

"Last time?" he asked.

"Last time we signaled, I mean." At his confused look, I added, "I'm sure I saw you there."

"This isn't the first time? Figures. Well, you know classified projects. Memory wipes are a part of our debriefing protocol."

"For all of us?" I asked, fear spiking through me.

"No, no. Just anyone who isn't mission-critical, to keep things compartmentalized. You're one of the operatives, so you keep your memories. They would've told you if that weren't the case," he answered, reassuring me a little. "But let's get a move on. We've got an elaborate cover-up to work on, and I'm sure you have work of your own to do."

He pointed me in the direction of my friends. Harry, Ron, and Narcissa were already gathered in the yard, actually talking together. My spirits soared seeing all three of them getting along. Narcissa turned at the sound of approaching footsteps, eyes glancing over the departing investigator before settling on me. Her face stayed mostly neutral, but I was so emotionally in tune with her now that I could see the slight lift of her ears from a hidden smile. I couldn't help smiling in return.

"The hero of the day!" Harry exclaimed when he saw me. He clapped my back enthusiastically.

Ron joined in. "You were great! But Merlin's bollocks, Hermione, I almost panicked when I saw you toss your wand away. What were you thinking?!"

"Hoppens made an ultimatum," I explained as I settled in beside Narcissa.

"Well, he didn't know who he was messing with," Ron said, grinning. "I saw you make that quicksand without it. Bloody brilliant!"

"Very impressive bit of magic, that," Harry agreed.

"It almost went very badly," I pointed out. "Just the other day I was accidentally pulverizing rocks."

"Come on, we've seen you practicing constantly," Harry said. "It was a smart risk."

Before I could protest again, Narcissa pulled gently on my backpack strap and said, "You did well."

Feeling reassured, I let it go. "Okay, okay. Are you all as ready to get out of here as I am?"

There was a chorus of agreement, and we walked out through the iron gates, Harry and Ron just a few paces ahead of Narcissa and I. It took a little searching to find where the ley line trail reentered the woods, but soon we were on our way. A few hours still remained before the sun would go down, and its light brought out the warmer colors of the fallen autumn leaves. Walking together had become so familiar that it felt almost like coming home.

After setting up camp for the night, the four of us sat on logs around our campfire, eating the rest of the fresh loaf of bread with our dinner. We all cracked up as Harry and Ron recounted funny stories about some of the aurors we'd met today. I was particularly pleased to hear one about the man who had questioned me: he was once so caught up in eavesdropping on a crime ring that he backed into a table full of lit candles and burned a hole in the seat of his trousers. No wonder he'd given me such a hard time about the burns. Some of the situations were so hilariously unfortunate that Narcissa let out a very unladylike snort of laughter.

Our humor died down when shadows started drifting by in the dark forest. Another fleet of dementors, searching for easy prey. Though the ward protected us, seeing them was always unsettling.

"Did you guys know those aurors aren't going to remember helping us today?" I asked, still a little concerned about it.

Harry nodded. "Standard procedure on ops like this. You didn't know?"

I shook my head. "I had no idea. One of the aurors told me about it today. But he said the four of us will keep our memories of the mission. That's true, right?"

"Whoa, definitely true," Ron replied. "Don't worry."

"Oh, dear, you really got thrown in the deep end here," Narcissa said. "Normally there's an orientation session to explain all of this. The ministry only does pre-authorized memory wipes on wizards and witches. It's all voluntary and documented. Though for muggles, it's less regulated."

At the mention of muggles, I said, "Wait, Phoebe has data on the points we're following—"

"Which she has erased every trace of, now under the impression that she did some work for a stranger," Narcissa explained. "Our follow-up team is very thorough. Everything down to my name on the business card has been changed."

My mouth opened, then closed. I should've expected that. I thought I'd been good at keeping secrets with Dumbledore's Army, but this was next level.

"Sorry if that bothers you," she apologized.

"Well, it would be rather hypocritical of me if it did," I replied. "I altered my parents' memories to forget me and sent them to Australia during the worst part of the war."

"Excuse me, you did what?" she asked, looking appalled.

"Voldemort was hunting the three of us and anyone connected to us," I reminded her. "And Death Eaters were killing muggles at random. It was the best way I could think of to keep them safe. And if I didn't survive, at least they wouldn't be grieving."

Narcissa shook her head in disbelief. "They couldn't have agreed to that."

"It worked, didn't it? They're alive, which is more than I can say about other muggles."

"You made them forget you exist!" She actually sounded angry now.

"It's not like it was permanent!" I shot back."What was I supposed to do? If anyone had figured out who they were, they would've ended up in your basement too!"

"You didn't have to take away something so important!" Narcissa fumed. "Who would think to look for them in Australia?"

"Hey, lay off it!" Ron broke in. "Stop yelling at her."

Harry added, "You know how far the Death Eaters were willing to go to find us. Hermione had to make a tough call."

"You two are okay with this?" Narcissa demanded to know.

"Well, yeah," Ron said. "It was for a good reason." Harry nodded in agreement.

"My parents said they were glad to have me back," I told her.

Her jaw clenched. "If I found out someone had made me forget about a loved one, I would be enraged. And if my own child caused it, I... think I'd be frightened. It's really disturbing that you're capable of doing that to your own parents."

I clenched my fists and stood up. "It was upsetting enough to have to go through with it. Don't make me feel even worse."

"For fuck's sake, Hermione," she snapped, standing to face me, "if it was that upsetting, maybe your conscience was trying to tell you something about how unethical it is to betray their trust!"

"As if you're the authority on ethics in wartime," I spewed. "I don't need this kind of criticism from someone like you."

Her face tensed and darkened as my last words hung in the air between us. Harry and Ron looked from me to her and back again, speechless.

"People like me," she echoed. "And what about people like you? Always thinking you're above reproach, like you can do no wrong. You stubborn, self-righteous—"

"Careful," Ron interrupted. "Hermione punches Malfoys in the face when they deserve it."

Narcissa glanced down at my fists, then said, "She can't."

"Oh, she sure can—"

"She won't. The contract forbids it."

I glowered, knowing I'd never punch her but wishing I hadn't agreed to protect her. I nearly had to choose between her and my friends today because of the contract, and I didn't like that feeling. But I didn't bring it up, because it would only make things worse right now. She might think I only cared about the contract, not about her, which was the opposite of the truth.

"We're just going to have to agree to disagree," I said, trying to calm down. "My parents are okay now. It doesn't matter anymore."

"It matters," she said, her voice hard as steel. "If you were willing to do it to them, how do I know you haven't messed with my mind?"

My blood ran cold. "I wouldn't—that was in a desperate situation."

"We've been in some desperate situations. Do you swear you haven't done anything?"

"I swear," I whispered.

"That had better be true." She turned and disappeared into the tent without giving any indication of whether or not she really believed me. I stared at the point where she'd last been, anger and pain fighting for control.

"Hermione..." Harry began to speak, but I cut him off.

"Please don't say anything," I warned, feeling like I might break if he was either too kind or too harsh. The world had shifted under my feet. She was supposed to be the untrustworthy one, not me. No one else had ever questioned my actions like that. How dare she judge me for doing my best to keep the people I loved safe!

After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, I stalked away from the fire and into the tent. Narcissa had gone straight to bed; she lay with her back pressed against the canvas wall, wrapped in blankets. I swerved dangerously close to pain at seeing that and remembering the towels wrapped around us, the raw heart to heart. A small, quiet voice inside me whispered that she might be right, but I wasn't ready to hear it. I tore my eyes away from her, clinging to anger to keep myself from crying, and went through my bedtime routine on automatic, paying no attention to what I was doing until I was curled up in my bed. You need sleep, I told myself. Things will look better in the morning. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Put her out of your mind. Go to sleep.

Chapter Text

Things didn't feel better in the morning. Narcissa greeted me without warmth when I joined her outside, and the silence that followed was full of unsaid words. The sky turned from dark gray to melancholy blue, and the tree branches drooped overhead, shedding dew when the wind gusted. I shivered and pulled my coat tighter.

"I thought you liked to cut straight to the heart of things," I said, wishing she weren't still so angry, or upset, or disturbed, or a combination of all three. It was a little ridiculous; what did she expect me to do? I couldn't go back in time that far and make a different choice even I wanted to.

"We did, last night," she replied. "And all I found was a very childish unwillingness to do any kind of self-reflection. Or maybe that's only when the criticism is coming from someone like me."

I scuffed my boot in the dirt in frustration. "I know you don't approve of what I did, but you didn't have to be so melodramatic about it."

"Melodramatic?" She rubbed a hand over her face. "I exposed my most painful memories to you, and only hours later I found out you'd be willing to wipe them away like they're nothing if you thought I'd be better off. Of course I reacted strongly. I really ought to keep my distance."

"Why don't you, then?" I challenged, too hurt to respond to the rest of what she said. "In fact, maybe I should be the one keeping my distance. You're a legilimens. You might've been reading my mind this whole time so you could know exactly how to get on my good side."

Narcissa reared back, looking offended, then tilted her head and asked cautiously, "How good are you at occlumency?"

"What?" I asked, surprised by the question. "I don't... I don't know. I've only ever read about it."

"Salazar smite me," she muttered, hiding her face in her arms and letting out a stream of curses. When she raised her head again, she said, "If you had even a modicum of training, you would've known I have never attempted to invade your privacy like that. And now I need to ask you for a tremendous favor."

I ground my teeth. "I'm not exactly feeling charitable right now."

"It's for your own benefit, not just mine. Would you be willing to learn occlumency? It can help you resist memory spells of all kinds. I'm not a talented legilimens, but I could at least put you through some simple training."

Remembering how much Harry suffered in his training, I snapped. "Are you trying to punish me?"

"I'm trying to protect myself. I didn't realize you never bothered to learn how to properly guard your mind," she told me, crossing her arms. "You have no idea how rare it is for me to feel this close to someone. I'm afraid it's impairing my judgment. I've already told you more than I should have, and all I can do now is damage control."

"Getting to know each other isn't damage," I replied with a painful feeling in my chest.

"Hermione," she said, voice grim, "there are a lot of people who would prefer to see me behind bars or worse, and they might go through you to get to me."

I took a few slow breaths through my nose and thought about that. Guarding my mind hardly seemed necessary with Voldemort gone, but there were definitely people willing to invade my privacy to lash out at former Death Eaters and their allies. Even some of my mild-mannered coworkers complained about the light sentences of house arrests and a prison without dementors.

Narcissa ran a nervous hand through her hair. "If you're still thinking about working for the Department of Mysteries, this would give you a head start. They require occlumency training to at least an Official classification."

That was almost tempting enough. "What if I don't like the lessons? I don't want to suffer through them."

"I'll stop if you ask. If you're suffering, then I'm doing something wrong. All it takes is progressive overload, with time to rest, just like strengthening a muscle."

The prospect sounded much better if the lessons wouldn't be agonizing. I'd been a little curious about occlumency ever since Harry had to learn it, and always suspected I'd be better at it than he was. "Fine," I agreed, checking my watch and standing up. "You can teach me. How will this work?"

"I'll give you instructions now and then while we walk. Be ready to block me from your mind at any moment. For today, consider me your enemy," Narcissa told me, looking deadly serious as she followed me toward the tent.

"I don't want to think of you as an enemy anymore. That's..." My voice trailed off as she whispered the incantation and suddenly I was in my mind, my body seeming far away. This was nothing like the mental battles Harry had described to us. It felt like the curtains of my mind were parted with a clumsy but gentle touch. A bit of excitement bubbled up inside at the feeling of having her presence with me, trying to see my recent thoughts... like that time she was looking through the books in my apartment as if she belonged there...

Only moments later, I was aware of Narcissa's eyes locked onto mine and the real world surrounding me. I stumbled on flat ground as my mind and body reconnected.

"You did exactly the opposite of what I told you," she chastised me. "You're not supposed to welcome me in."

"Sorry."

"Don't apologize. Do it right next time."

"Sorry—oops. But you weren't attacking. Aren't you supposed to attack and make me defend myself?"

"Not every legilimens will come at you like a sledgehammer. You have to be prepared to fight off a subtle infiltration as well."

"You weren't very subtle." I held the door flap open for her before I could remember we still weren't on good terms.

"Like I said, I'm not especially good at it," she replied, sounding a little prickly as she entered the tent. "This is the best I can do to get you started. It's worlds better than a crash course with Bella."

"Crash coursh on whuh?" Ron asked with a mouth full of pancakes as he ate breakfast with Harry.

"On table manners," Narcissa replied, jinxing his mouth shut. Ron glared at her with his loaded fork in midair, unable to speak or eat.

"If you're in a bad mood, don't take it out on Ron," Harry protested.

I smacked her arm and removed the jinx as we sat down to eat with my friends, eyeing each other warily.

***

Soon our tense group started the seventh morning of our mission. Ron walked up front on guard duty again with Narcissa at a safe distance from him while Harry and I trailed behind. It was hard to remember everything I'd read about occlumency back in fifth year, but a few things came back. There were three typical strategies: the empty mind, the fortress, and the hall of mirrors. The last one was a more advanced way to do it, distracting an attacker with extraneous thoughts to hide the important ones. That seemed most suited to me, given how many thoughts were always buzzing around in my head.

It wasn't long before Narcissa looked over her shoulder to meet my eyes. When I felt her at the edges of my mind, I thought hard about the most boring essay I could remember writing. She tried to push past the essay, but I stayed focused and there were only more pages behind it. It was over quickly, and she nodded in approval before turning to face forward again. I tried not to watch her while we walked, but I was constantly wondering when her next training attack would come. The phrase progressive overload swam through my mind like a shark.

I sighed and said to Harry, "I wish Narcissa and I could go back to the way things were yesterday."

"Er..." he said. "Weren't you disagreeing over something yesterday too?"

I shook my head. "Not really, that was... well, it's serious today. She doesn't trust me. And she's giving me occlumency lessons, which pits us against each other even more."

Harry tensed, hand reflexively going to his scar before hiding the gesture by adjusting his glasses. "Wait, hold on. Are you sure that's a good idea? When did this start? Why?"

"Just this morning. I don't think it'll be as bad as your lessons were," I told him, then recounted our early morning conversation, voice catching as everything started to overwhelm me.

"You're really upset about this, aren't you," Harry said when I'd finished, sympathy showing clearly in his face. "Mrs. Malfoy was too hard on you at the campfire. She doesn't know what it was like to be in your shoes."

"What if she had a point, and I dismissed her out of hand?" I looked away, trying not to cry but failing. "We were doing so well. She was really opening up to me, Harry, and now she's pulling away."

He rested a comforting hand on my shoulder, staying quiet for a long moment as the forest thinned. We'd reached the end of it, and miles of fields stretched below us. A few highways crossed the landscape, which seemed out of place after being in back country so long. Another town waited in the distance, making me dread what we'd find there, especially with how bad yesterday had been. I glanced at Narcissa again and sighed sadly.

Harry let go and broke the silence. "Is there, um, something you want to tell me?"

"Hmm?" I asked, rubbing my running nose on the cuff of my sleeve. "What do you mean?"

"Boy, I wish Ginny was here. I'm not good at these things. The stuff you're saying, uh... it sounds like, on top of everything else, Mrs. Malfoy might be scared of you two having more than friendly feelings for each other. And don't tell me I'm seeing things again. I'm not oblivious."

That brought me up short. "No, no, you've got the wrong idea. Okay, so there may be a bit of attraction, but it's unrelated to our problems. We sort of started a flirting game after she realized I um... I'm... I think I might... like women." I cringed and closed my eyes, hoping he wouldn't react badly.

"That crush on McGonagall wasn't just a one-time thing, then?"

My mouth fell open. "Harry! I did not have a crush on our professor!"

"Whoa, okay. Sorry. It wasn't even me who thought so, it was Ginny. But it's okay, I mean, whoever you like doesn't make a difference to me."

My shoulders sagged with relief, though I muttered vague threats of turning Ginny's own favorite hex against her. Was she right about Professor McGonagall? The desire to impress her, eagerly awaiting her classes in particular, that pleasure I felt whenever she told me I did well—it was a little suspicious, though I'd never looked at it in this light before.

Harry nudged me from my thoughts. "So the way Mrs. Malfoy looks at you when you're not looking... that's part of the game too? Who's keeping score then?"

"She looks at me?" I asked, a little too eager. "Why haven't you mentioned it before?"

"I thought it was that kind of competitive checking out that girls do, but yesterday I caught on. I don't really buy your explanation of a game, though. Are there rules? How many points do you have to earn to win?"

"Um... I don't know."

"What's the reward for winning?"

"Well, we... haven't thought that far ahead?"

Narcissa turned to look at me again and I frantically tried to stop thinking about her and our competition. I pictured quidditch games instead. Brooms, flying around, scoring points... wait, wait! She caught a flash of my fear and pulled at it, revealing the last moments of my conversation with Harry. She retreated from my mind, eyes flaring before narrowing slyly. I swallowed hard as she walked toward me, my eyes irresistibly following the curve of her swaying hips. Was she doing that on purpose?

"If you're discussing what I think you are, the game is its own reward," she said, winking at me but keeping several feet between us. "Hermione, may I steal you away for a few moments?"

Harry stepped between us. "You'd better not torment her in these occlumency lessons. I'll be keeping an eye on you." He turned to me and said, "Hermione, if she pushes you too far, tell me. I've been talking with the other aurors and found out that Snape's lessons with me were downright abusive. Don't let him be your benchmark. Your teacher isn't supposed to shred your mind and make you feel horrible."

Narcissa's face paled as he spoke. "Mr. Potter, I'm... I'm terribly sorry you had to endure his abuse. That's the old style of training, and I know how cruel it can be. Please believe that I respect Hermione's mind far too much to do it that way."

Harry gave her a long look, the muscles in his jaw tightening, then nodded and walked ahead to give us some space.

"Alright," she said, "a few instructions before the next attempt. You blocked me last time, but this time I found one of your real thoughts."

"Did you get the kind of training Harry had?" I asked.

"Are you familiar with the fortress method?" she went on. "I recommend combining it with your current technique. Having strong mental walls will give you more time to prepare distractions and separate yourself from your emotions."

"Is that how you protect your mind? Or do you do it a different way?" I wondered.

Narcissa continued advising me about techniques without answering any of my personal questions. Over the next several hours, sometimes she instructed me and sometimes I chatted with Harry or Ron, only getting breaks during guard duty. I blocked the majority of her attacks, but it was getting increasingly difficult. She pushed harder for longer durations, constantly checking in to see how I was doing yet never letting me slack off. I was almost enjoying the mental combat, except I couldn't ignore the hollowness, the sense of something held back.

***

Though I was grateful that no dementors had attacked us so far today, I missed the forest. The open landscape seemed dull and uninteresting, the air less rich with smells. We crossed the highways I'd seen from our vantage point at the forest's margin, drawing ever nearer to the next town. I tried to prepare myself for finding more soulless people, knowing it was unlikely for another town to have a wizard protecting it—and taking advantage of it. There was no visible smoke, movement, or other signs of life. We all fell silent as we approached it, in fear or respect for its inhabitants.

We reached the end of one of the streets a couple hours before dark, looking around at properties that no one had taken care of for months. A pipe had burst open in one building, leaving a thin frozen pond across the street and several yards. Doors hung open on cars and houses, and I got chills as I wondered if people had left them open while trying to get away.

"Hello?" Harry yelled. He amplified his voice and yelled again, with no response. "Okay, guys. Let's search the town. We'll look in every building until we find people, to be sure whether the ministry needs to send a retrieval team right away or not."

I did some quick math. "Harry, there must be over a hundred buildings here. Even if we only take five minutes per house, it'll take us an hour just to do twenty. What if we do a random sample instead?"

"We can't miss anybody. How about we break into two groups? That would be..."

"An hour for every forty houses," I supplied. "We'll still have to set up camp by the time we're done."

He shrugged. "That's fine. It's worth a little time to be absolutely sure whether there are any survivors or people without souls here. We're the forward scouts; this is our responsibility."

I nodded in acceptance, hoping we'd find someone sooner rather than later.

"Stay alert," he reminded us. "Two of us can take the east side of town, and the other two the west. Holler and send up red sparks if you're in trouble, blue sparks if you find anyone. We'll rendezvous at the far end of this street."

Narcissa and I paired up and went down one side of the street while Harry and Ron went the other direction. It would've been faster if we could call for the backup aurors, but they were only for emergencies, and this town was long past that. It was tedious, tiresome work having to search everywhere, but Harry was right. This was what we were here for. We went building by building looking for bodies, leaving a temporary X on each front door when the house had been checked. My mood sank lower and lower. I couldn't count the number of rooms I glanced into, the number of empty beds I saw.

After checking yet another abandoned house, I paused in the living room, seeing a photograph of a daughter and two parents, like my family. Narcissa came downstairs from where she'd been checking rooms and stood behind me. My shoulders tensed as I imagined the judgment rolling off of her.

"You accused me of treating my parents' memories like they're nothing," I said. "But their lives were at stake. I told you, I agonized over that decision."

Far from helping, my words only seemed to provoke her. "What makes you think you have the right to decide for them?"

I turned to face her and struggled to find a way to describe my situation. "The magical world is my world, so it's my job to protect them. They're muggles; they don't stand a chance against wizards. They shouldn't have to deal with magical threats."

"You're talking about them like they're children, but they're full-grown adults," she said, gesturing at the parents in the photo. "You should've explained the situation and asked what they wanted to do."

"I couldn't have explained it well enough," I told her, trying to make her see it my way. "They aren't used to thinking about the threat of someone reading their minds or torturing them for information. They might've made the wrong choice and ended up getting killed."

"Choosing for them is just a few steps away from disregarding their free will," she replied.

My temper flared, then faded into fear. "No, it's not," I whispered.

"You might as well have put the Imperius Curse on them and ordered them to go away and forget about you."

"It's not the same," I insisted. "How can you even say that! And what's your problem, anyway? You've used that curse!"

"On strangers and enemies," she said. "Never on friends and family. I'd consider that a terrible breach of trust."

My heart thudded in my chest. "It's not the same," I repeated, brushing past her on my way to the door. "We—we have more houses to check." I was shaking so badly I almost rolled my ankle on the step down from the porch. The sun was setting behind clouds, and the dim light made everything look faded and gray. I went through the next house in a daze, telling myself I hadn't taken away their free will. It was for their own good, and that had to make it different. It had to. She was wrong.

Neither of us said another word as we finished searching the houses and made our way to the few commercial buildings remaining. In the first shop, the atmosphere felt less dreary. There weren't such stark signs of lifelessness, and the darkening sky made it feel like we were simply dropping by after business hours. We lit up our wands to look around, then moved on to the office building next door. I looked through each of the cubicles in the center of the large room while Narcissa checked the private offices around the perimeter.

"Hermione," she called to me. I crossed over to the corner office where she was standing by a wall, looking at a calendar. She pointed to the date and said, "Look, someone was crossing out the days until May 29th. Could you put that in your report tonight? It might not matter what day the dementors came through, but it... it might be nice on their gravestones, or a memorial, whatever the ministry places here for them."

I sighed sadly and nodded, thumbing through the following months until I got to November, the present day. The world hadn't stood still just because Voldemort was gone. Now, six months later, we were discovering how widespread the aftermath was. I realized what today's date was just before letting the pages fall back to the way they'd been.

"Today is Remembrance Day," I said, getting choked up. "We shouldn't be fighting."

"What does that mean? Are you alright?" Narcissa asked, touching my arm with the most tenderness I'd felt from her all day. It pushed me over the edge and I started to cry.

"It's when World War I ended, after millions of people had died. Do you know about that? They called it the war to end all wars." I turned toward her and said through my tears, "Then my grandpa fought in the next one. He never talked about it with my mum when she was growing up, but he told me stories when I was old enough to ask about it, before he died. He saw some horrible things. I think he would've been really heartbroken to know I had to fight in a war too." Speechless, Narcissa watched as I conjured two poppies for us, pinning one to each our coats. "Muggles wear these for our veterans. We missed the right time for it, but there's usually two minutes of silence to remember the dead, and the living they left behind."

Blinking back tears of her own, Narcissa nodded and bowed her head. We extinguished the light of our wands. My unsteady breaths were the only sound in the room as we waited in darkness. More than two minutes went by before either of us moved. Narcissa's hands found me, pulling me into an embrace.

"We shouldn't be fighting," I said again, fingers curling in her hair. "Today of all days."

"I don't want to fight," she responded. "And I don't want to stay away from you. I suppose... I'll have to accept that we disagree or else keep arguing forever. Maybe your parents could've lived without remembering their daughter, but I don't know what I would've become without the people I love. I'd rather die than lose those memories, and I won't let anyone tamper with them."

"I promise I'll never do that to you," I whispered in her ear. It felt so good to be holding her again, to be held by her. "Are we okay?" I could feel Narcissa's heart pounding as fast as mine.

"We're okay," she murmured. I nearly melted into a puddle when I felt her breath ghost over my lips as she leaned back. The mental line I'd drawn between friendship and attraction blurred dangerously. I would've walked over hot coals right then just to have her kiss me, to touch me and forget the competition, forget everything. Her hands skimmed down my sides before pulling away like I'd burned her.

She lit her wand and hurried out of the small room, and I followed suit. We finished searching the office, her eyes darting away from mine each time we crossed paths. On our way out through the building's narrow entry hall, Narcissa turned suddenly. "Legili—"

Caught off guard, I shoved her, desperate to keep her from seeing my feelings. She seized my coat as if I'd pushed her off a cliff, falling backwards and pulling me with her until she was caught between me and the wall, limbs tangled together. The heat that had built up between us spiked to a new level of intensity.

"Sorry, sorry," I apologized as we both tried to stand up straight, but my leg was embedded between her thighs, pressed too close to her center. Her hips rocked against me and we both froze. Pulse racing from a wave of arousal, I tried to untangle us delicately, only causing more friction. She bit down hard on my shoulder, muffling the sound that escaped her.

"Merlin," I gasped, wetness gathering. I wanted more of her, I wanted—

"Stay. Very. Still," Narcissa warned in a voice like velvet, slipping her arm down between us. I trembled with the effort it took to not move. Her hand eased my leg away, then slid back up my body to the zipper of my coat, fiddling with it like a present she couldn't wait to unwrap. "You're really testing me."

Not even sure what she meant by that, all I could say was, "I didn't mean to make you, um..."

"Just think of what you could do if you did mean to," she murmured.

My knees threatened to buckle at that. "Is it okay to move now?"

"Sorry, yes, whatever you need," she told me, letting a breath out. "Dammit, I shouldn't... I'm aware there's a bit of a power imbalance here. If I ever make you uncomfortable, I will absolutely back off."

"Which of us do you think is more powerful?" I asked, wordlessly making both of our wands flare brighter. "I think we're evenly matched."

She leaned her head back against the wall, deep breaths making her chest rise and fall hypnotically. "An experience imbalance, then," she amended.

"I bet you could help me catch up quickly," I replied, shocking myself with my own boldness.

She hummed and pulled me closer again, kissing the side of my neck and sucking lightly until my knees really did buckle. She chuckled against my skin before pushing me upright, hand in the center of my chest as she straightened her arm between us.

"Four things," she said after a moment of thought. "First, I know it was accidental, but for future reference I think it best if we avoid full body contact. I'm still married, Hermione. I have limits. Second, accident or not, it would be a crime not to award you a point after affecting me so strongly. Two to three, your advantage. Third, I recommend keeping your hair down to hide your neck. I may have left a mark."

"You said four things. That was only three," I pointed out, then realized she'd merely paused to gaze at my neck as I touched the tender skin there.

"Fourth," she continued, raising one eyebrow, "while that technique did effectively distract me from seeing your thoughts, you should stick to methods you can use in any situation. Legilimens."

Without warning, she was pushing into my mind again, and I scrambled to get my walls up. While she worked on getting past them, I imagined the forest as vividly as I could, filling my mind with those sights and sounds. By the time she broke through, there was nothing to see except peaceful trees.

"That's more like it. Excellent," she said after retreating. I glowed from her praise. "Let's stop until tomorrow. I think you've had enough for one day."

"Sounds good to me," I agreed, grateful that it was so easy to go back to normal after that... encounter. Or at least both of us were determined to seem normal.

We filed out through the door of the office building, the winter wind helping to cool down my body. The stars had come out while we were indoors, and I took a moment to gaze up at them. There were some nice things about leaving the heavy canopy of tree branches behind. Feeling no need to rush since we saw Harry and Ron weren't at the rendezvous point yet, we explored the remaining structures, which seemed far less ominous now that we were sure there were no suffering or soulless people in them. Whatever had happened here was long since over.

When we were done, I waited at our meeting place while Narcissa wandered off to find a good place to make the ward. Ron and Harry came down a side street several minutes later, trudging along wearily.

Ron dramatically collapsed in the overgrown grass on the side of the road. "Ugh!"

Harry laughed at him. "Get up, you lazy bum," he said, kicking Ron's boots in encouragement.

"So many stairs," Ron grumbled, rolling onto his back. "Why did there have to be so many stairs?"

I chuckled, going over to sit on the curb next to them. "I take it you didn't find anything?"

"Nothing," Harry confirmed. "You?"

"Nothing," I echoed. "Narcissa found a calendar that might show their last day, but no sign of anybody alive or dead."

"Isn't that kind of weird for a dementor attack?" Ron asked. "Maybe everybody escaped."

I shook my head. "All their cars are in their driveways. I doubt they could flee on foot." I waved to Narcissa as she came back and stood beside me.

"The ward is ready for us to make camp," she told us.

"What's with the flowers?" Ron asked, noticing the poppies on our coats.

"Is it the eleventh already?" Harry asked. "Muggles wear them today for people who died in wars. Can you make one for me too?"

"And me," Ron said, sitting up. "For Fred."

"If we were back in London," I said, conjuring one for each of them, "we could buy paper poppies and the money would go to charity. But it's still good to remember."

We walked together as Narcissa led us to where she'd set up the ward in a back alley. Once the tent was set up, we turned turns changing into our night clothes, re-pinning the poppies. We found enough broken pallets behind a shop to make a fire without needing to use the wood I'd packed. Harry and Ron went into a nearby deli and brought out four chairs for us. Nails and staples popped in the fire as I sat down and pulled out my report parchment. I idly checked the back for messages, then did a double take.

"Whoa, what do you guys think of this message from Kingsley?" I asked, reading it aloud: "'Be advised, reports coming in of several former Voldemort supporters disappearing from imprisonment. Timing and destination unknown, inside help possible.'"

"Oh, no," Narcissa whispered. "Did he say who's missing?"

"No, that's the whole message."

"Can you ask him about Lucius?" she asked, twisting her hands in worry.

I nodded and wrote her question down straightaway. I had to set aside my discomfort at another reminder that she was married. It shouldn't matter to me.

"I guess we'd better be careful," Harry said. "If they had help from inside the ministry, they might know our route. They could attack us to avenge Voldemort."

"As if we didn't have enough to worry about with the dementors," Ron complained.

Narcissa shook her head. "Of course you would jump to that conclusion. What if we're not the—ah, what if they're not the ones causing the trouble? Lucius isn't even allowed to have a wand." She tensed and muttered, "Salazar's snake, I've left him defenseless, guarded by people who hate him."

"The ministry would never do anything to him," Harry told her. "There are rules for how we treat prisoners, even Death Eaters."

"Yes, everyone who works at the ministry is a saint," Narcissa snipped. She ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed her neck, obviously not at all reassured.

Remembering all of her "choice adjectives" for Mr. Malfoy, I almost asked why she was so concerned about him. But as soon as the question formed in my mind, I realized that none of his faults would matter to her if he was in trouble. If she hadn't abandoned him by now, she never would. She'd repeatedly made it clear how devoted she was to her family. I'd really come to admire that quality, but it also made me ache a little for reasons I couldn't quite admit.

Pushing those thoughts aside, I wrote down a summary of what we'd found today. I checked the back periodically in case Kingsley happened to reply to the question, though I was fairly certain he'd left work by now and wouldn't see it until at least tomorrow morning. When I'd finished writing, I looked up and saw Harry and Ron chatting while Narcissa stared into the fire. She looked like she could use something to take her mind off her worry.

"Would you like to read with me in the tent?" I asked. "I've got several books you can choose from."

"Alright," she agreed, letting me lead the way into the tent. While I grabbed my backpack and started digging through one of its magical pockets, she sat down on her bunk and groaned, stretching her legs out across the floor. "How is it that I've gotten used to walking all day, but only a few hours in that town made my joints ache?"

"It's probably from all the twists and turns inside the houses," I guessed, pulling out books one by one. "Walking in a straight line is easier on your knees and ankles."

"Are yours aching too?"

"Not really."

"Ah, that's right. I forgot you were born yesterday. Just wait until you're my age."

"Not all of us were born before the Stone Age," I shot back, dumping a stack of books on her bed. I picked out one I'd already started and reached for the ladder to my bunk.

"Where do you think you're going?" she asked, shifting the books closer and reading their spines. "There's room to sit down here."

It was a little silly how giddy that made me. I grabbed my pillow and crawled onto the end of her bed, curling up around my book. She found one to read as well and leaned back at the other end. After a moment, she lifted her legs up and plopped her socked feet down right next to me.

"Oh, no," I said, both of us laughing as I tried to push them away. "No smelly feet beside me. Wait, are your socks mismatched?" I laughed harder, unable to imagine how someone known for wearing fancy clothes could let that happen.

"It's a fashion statement," she replied smoothly, pulling them off and throwing them under the bed. "Is that better?"

"I guess I can live with this," I said, smiling at her bare, dainty toes. Before I could second-guess myself, I started to knead her heel with one hand while opening my book to the last chapter I'd read.

"Can you live with knowing I've done some things I'm—I'm not proud of?" Narcissa asked, sighing as I worked on her tired muscles. "I've been giving you a hard time about your ethics, but you're right, I'm really not in a position to judge."

That was unexpected. I looked over at her, but she wouldn't meet my eyes. "Things I don't already know about?"

"Yes."

Chewing on my lip, I said, "I don't know. Will you tell me about them?"

"It's probably only a matter of time before you find out."

My hand stilled. "Could you make that sound a little more ominous?"

"Dead men tell no tales," she intoned, then gave me a weak smile. "Kidding. I haven't killed anybody. Though I might kill you if you stop that glorious foot rub."

Just as I started up again, Harry came into the tent and raised his eyebrows at me. He reached into Ron's backpack and pulled out a wizard's chess set, then headed back toward the door flap. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he said with a grin, leaving before I could come up with a response.

Narcissa snorted in amusement while I groaned and tried to hide behind my pillow. "I never should've told him about our competition," I lamented, not really meaning it. "Or rather, I never should've confirmed anything when he guessed something was going on."

"No need to hide it from him. He cares about you. You have good friends, Hermione," she said softly. "I hope I can count myself among them, despite everything."

Despite everything. Everything so far? Or whatever she hadn't told me yet? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, I decided. "You can," I told her.

With that, we both settled down to read, the last hours of the evening drifting by until we got sleepy and I returned to my bed. I'd pretty much never had someone who was interested in sitting there silently with me for so long, just reading. I could picture us doing this every evening, the perfect counterpart to our quiet mornings. But that was dangerous territory again. After our mission was over, we would be back in our separate homes with our separate routines. We were most of the way to Groesffordd now, the last town we'd have to investigate. As difficult as the trip had been so far, I almost didn't want it to end.

Chapter Text

It was only 2:30 in the morning, but I sat awake and somewhat delirious at the table in our tent, attempting to write a poem.

To Narcissa :
Thy captivating eyes are closed, delicate ears unhearing while asleep.
Rather than awaken the e and ramble, here ' s a poem to keep.

A great start, I thought to myself, humming in approval. I'd woken from a dream where I was back in my childhood home with my parents. Seeing their familiar faces again after the memory argument helped me feel for them, and poems were supposedly good ways to communicate feelings. If Narcissa wrote one in less than a day, it couldn't be that hard.

If without my permission someone changed my identity
and made me forget, I would want an apology.
I've forthwith seen how I lacked empathy
for my parents when I altered their memory.

Perfect. If you just write down your thoughts in a fancy way and make it rhyme, you've got a poem. I couldn't remember what "forthwith" meant, but it sounded poetic. I kept going.

Saving life is right, and I managed to save my parents,
but my method wronged them, despite my noble intents.
Alone with no aid, I attempted to hide them from evil,
and although my best effort was effective, twas also... weevil?

I pushed the small piece of parchment away when I couldn't think of anything else to rhyme with "evil." And none of it sounded right, but I couldn't figure out why. I inked my quill, blotted off the excess, and tried starting over on a fresh piece.

Dear Narcissa,
I've been too defensive against thy passionate temper
Which would be quite a pleasure to view, if directed at another.
But directed at me, my thoughts were obfuscated by inclement weather
which is a metaphor for being reluctant to admit any error.

I nodded, looking over my excellent work. Wait, shouldn't it have a rhythm? As I read over the lines, I realized they were all awkward and clunky. I pushed that parchment away too. I tried different opening lines but kept changing my mind about what to say.

Dear Narcissa, whose silver tongue tricked me into thinking poetry was so easy that I could
To Narcissa:
Ne'er again shall I be so cavalier with my
Thy insight has shown me both sides of
The importance of the memories of those I care about is

Nothing that I wrote sounded good enough. My eyes drooped as my quill scratched the page. I kept going through my tiredness, pushing away more and more crappy beginnings, determined to find the right words.

***

Distant sounds filtered into my mind. I'd been deep in another dream, but now I heard someone giggling. When I realized it was Narcissa, a peaceful warmth spread through me. My eyelids cracked open slowly, taking in my surroundings. My face was resting on my arms, and I was drooling. Very attractive. I hastily wiped my mouth on my sleeve and sat up, then gave a sleepy smile to the dark witch sitting across from me.

"Good morning. What's so funny?" I mumbled, casting muffliato so we could talk with just a quiet buzz that wouldn't wake Harry and Ron. My eyes widened when I realized she was reading my attempts at poetry. "Wait, you weren't supposed to see those!"

"Oh, no! They were addressed to me. I thought..." Narcissa clutched them to her chest as if afraid I would try to grab them out of her hands. "Please don't be upset that I read them. I need to tell you, I've been a little lacking in empathy too. I can hardly conceive of how difficult it was to protect your family all by yourself. Especially when they can't do any magic, or truly understand what's going on in the world. In our world, that is. I'm not accustomed to dealing with muggles."

I relaxed a little, feeling like we were actually seeing eye to eye now, not just setting our disagreement aside. "Looking back, I wish I'd done it a little differently. But I wasn't sure what else to do."

"You did everything you could think of to keep them safe," Narcissa said. "You tried to tell me that before, and I think now I understand your situation better. Still, I'm glad to see you're thinking about how they might've felt."

"Well, that's why I wanted to write a poem for you, but it all came out so horribly. You were laughing!"

She looked over the poems again. "No, no, this is—" She couldn't hold in her giggles. "—really touching. You made such a valiant effort on something that..."

"I suck at?" I finished for her.

"Something that isn't your strong suit," she corrected, setting the poems down and pointing at certain parts. "Judging by the self-referential metaphors and things like obfuscated by inclement weather."

"Hey, that's one of the best lines!" I protested.

"The lines about me were the best ones."

"Of course you would think so." I pulled the poems to my side of the table so she couldn't keep teasing me about them.

She leaned forward and touched my hand. "Wait, may I keep those?"

I made a face. "What for? They're awful."

"Blackmail," she replied with a wink.

"Oh?" I asked, grinning. "What'll you blackmail me into doing?"

"Hmm. I'm sure I could think of something. Maybe taking care of my paperwork." Her eyes burned as she looked at me. "Or taking care of me." She lightly stroked my middle finger. "I could make you dip your quill in my ink."

My hand pressed harder against the table as I imagined touching her so intimately. I gathered my nerve and slid the poems back to her, giving her my permission to do whatever she liked with them. Or with me. I wasn't sure which. "If you were trying to earn a point, you'll have to do better than that."

She leaned back in her chair. "Damn. My allure must be weakening."

"You're definitely still alluring," I assured her, standing up and pushing my chair in. "I've just gotten better at handling it." I put my writing materials away and started pulling some clothes from my backpack. I pointed a threatening finger at her. "I'm going to take a shower. You'd better not accio my clothes again."

"Oh? What makes you think I didn't tiptoe in and take them?" she asked. "You know, you've got a very cute birthmark on your left side."

"What?!" I twisted around and lifted my shirt enough to look, convinced there was some birthmark I'd never noticed before, but there was nothing there. I closed my eyes and sighed as she started snickering. "You're totally making this up," I accused. "You didn't come in when I was showering."

She smirked. "No, but I did get a nice glimpse just now."

"Slytherins," I grumbled as I walked into the washroom. But I glanced back in time to see her smiling softly at the bad poems cradled in her hands like precious things, and I felt that inner warmth again.

***

Our morning on the trail was a busy one, with occlumency lessons, conversations, and wandless practice taking up all my time. I'd moved on to vanishing spells and summoning spells now, though the latter made me have to dodge sticks zooming past my head on more than one occasion. I was getting better at keeping my mental barriers ready at any moment, and Narcissa was having more and more difficulty pushing past them. For her sake, I kept my daily report parchment in my pocket and checked it throughout the morning, waiting to hear back from Kingsley. While we were all sitting together eating a quick canned lunch, I saw a reply.

"Lucius isn't missing," I told her. His first name sounded strange coming out of my mouth.

"May I?" she asked. I handed it over so she could read the exact wording. Lucius Malfoy still secure, no signs of resistance. Guard doubled. Her shoulders sagged in relief. "I was worried for nothing. He's safe."

Ron kept his mouth shut, and Harry said, "I know what it's like to worry while away from home, so I guess I'm glad your husband is okay."

Narcissa looked surprised. "Thank you, Mr. Potter. Criminal or not, I'd hate it if anything happened to him."

I gritted my teeth and stabbed my fork at the ravioli I was eating. Harry saw me and frowned, so I tried to hide my unhappiness, but my poker face was nothing compared to Narcissa's.

"It sounds like you two are very loyal to each other," Harry commented, shooting me a significant look. "He's lucky to have someone who will love him no matter what."

Narcissa's brow furrowed as she frowned. I could see her trying to figure out what he was getting at, unaware that he was really talking to me now. Did Harry know how much it made my chest ache? Probably not. He was probably just trying to remind me not to get too attached to a married woman. He was probably right.

"Well... that is, he can always count on my support," Narcissa said, sounding like she was picking her words carefully, "though I hope you know I don't necessarily condone his actions."

"I'd be pretty worried if you did," Ron said.

All I could hear was always. I concentrated on eating, hoping this ache would get better, not worse, by the time we got home.

***

Harry joined me on the trail after lunch. I didn't want to talk to him. I wanted to stew in my jealousy for a while.

"So are there any witches you'd like to date when we get home?" he asked.

I couldn't even conceive of any answer but one. My eyes slid over to Narcissa.

"Any single witches?" Harry clarified.

"I get it, alright?!" I snapped. "I know I'm being unreasonable! You've made your point."

"Hey, I'm trying to watch out for you. Yesterday you insisted this whole thing was just harmless flirting, and I decided to take your word for it. But it's not harmless if you can't respect her marriage. You're only going to end up getting hurt. You might even mess up your friendship with her."

"I know," I replied. My voice came out in a whisper. "I'm in trouble, Harry. This is the worst crush I've ever had. I think about her all the time."

"Maybe you could stop thinking about her so much. It's like I told Ron after your breakup: try thinking about the future instead. If you like older women, I know of a good-looking auror," he said, grinning hopefully at me.

I snorted despite myself. "What are you, her matchmaker?"

"Do you like men too? Or is it just women? I know a bunch of single fellows."

"I'm not positive, but I think it's just women," I answered. "I could never figure out why I... um, that might be TMI. Let's stick to women until otherwise noted, okay?"

"Sure, sure. Let's see..."

I made an honest effort to listen as Harry tried to come up with a suggestion that I liked. Most of them were probably straight anyway. I never really appreciated until now how difficult it was for gay and bisexual people to find someone to date. It still felt a little strange to think of myself as one of them. I struggled to take Harry's advice and think of this like a problem to solve. But no matter how many women he described, I kept mentally comparing them to Narcissa and finding them lacking.

***

Trying not to think about her was like trying not to think about breathing. It kept happening anyway whether I noticed it or not. The cloudy afternoon drifted by in a sort of miserable bliss. Harry kept me engaged in conversations most of the time, but my occlumency training continued, and Narcissa frequently stole me away to share her thoughts or ask for my opinion on an idea for a research project. A few times, all she wanted was to walk silently together, and it started to seem like I wasn't the only one with a problem. She took any and every excuse to be near me. Harry's advice was impossible to follow. I didn't mind at all.

The day got dark early when stormclouds rolled in. With a few hours left until sunset, we put on our ponchos and kept walking. The rain started all at once, pouring down diagonally. We ended up needing magic just to keep from getting soaked and chilled. As we walked along, the hair on my arms stood up as if lightning would strike, but the accompanying dread told a different story.

Harry was on guard duty, but he didn't notice them any sooner than I did. "Dementors!" he exclaimed. "Somewhere. I don't know where. I can't see anything!"

We drew together in a tight knot, squinting through the driving rain as our patronuses patrolled around us. I could see vague forms of dementors much closer than they should've been. While the sunlight in the open countryside had kept them at bay, the storm seemed to spur them on. Harry's stag charged at them, pushing them back while others filled in the gaps. I had to send my otter further to help corral them away from us, with Ron's terrier as our last defense against the nearest dementors.

Working together, we drove them off, shaking from the fear and pervasive rain. Narcissa held a flame close to her chest and leaned against me as we pushed onward down the trail. I started to feel afraid for her. When this mission began, I'd been worried about how dependent we were on her to keep us safe at night. Now I worried about her relying on us in the daytime.

"Okay, draw your wand," I said.

She gave me a wary look. "What is this, a duel?"

"You're going to learn to cast a patronus."

"Oh, I don't know," she said, letting go of me. "I know it would be better if I could do it, but..." She sighed and pulled out her wand, holding it away from her body. "Alright. Tell me when."

"Whenever you're ready."

"Right." Her grip tightened but her arm didn't move.

"Are you still worried about maggots consuming you?" I asked. "Maybe we could find a counterspell for that."

Narcissa gave me a scathing look. "Don't be absurd. Those dementors blew my fear out of proportion." She cleared her throat. "Expecto patronum."

"Put some feeling into it," I coached. Through the rain, I spotted Harry listening curiously. "Are you focusing on a memory?"

"Expecto patronum!" Her brow furrowed in concentration. "Expecto patronum!" She tried several more times with no luck. I could tell the increasing tension and frustration were working against her.

"Relax," I said. "Think of times when you were happy."

She put her wand away. "This is useless."

I stumbled in a mud puddle when I saw how stony her face looked. I could only hope it wasn't from something I said. "Why do you think so?"

"It's just not possible. No Death Eater can do it. I never took the mark, but I might as well have, for all the horrible things I did nothing to prevent. I've been surrounded by evil for too long."

"You're wrong about that. Professor Snape could cast a patronus."

"Don't lie just to trick me into thinking I can do it," she snapped.

Offended, I snapped right back, "Don't accuse me of lying! It's true. Didn't you see the article in the Prophet after the war? He was secretly working against Voldemort."

Harry ventured closer, looking concerned by our raised voices.

"I saw it," Narcissa said coldly. "I have also personally seen him torture and murder people. Having a secret agenda doesn't negate that."

"It's not his secret agenda that let him do it," Harry said, falling in beside her. "It was love. I didn't tell the reporter about this because it's so personal, but he always loved Lily, my mother."

She looked uncertain. "That's not possible, he... Are you serious? She was a muggleborn. Lily Potter?" When he nodded in confirmation, she covered her mouth and looked away. "Salazar, could that be why his magic didn't look like the others'? I saw it, but I never understood why."

"His magic?" Harry asked.

I thought back, trying to remember what she'd told me about sensing magic with the praefoco curse. "His wasn't all streaked and infected?"

"It was somewhat, but not nearly as bad. He really—he really could do it?"

"He even used his patronus one time to help me during the war," Harry said, still looking a little confused. At some point maybe we'd tell him about the curse and its side effect, but until Narcissa told me otherwise, I'd keep it private.

She shook her head, shedding water droplets. "And the Dark Lord didn't have the slightest idea of his betrayal. It boggles the mind to think of what a skilled occlumens Severus was."

Harry shuddered at that. Professor Snape may have mastered occlumency, but he was a horrible teacher. I felt really fortunate that I was getting to learn how to do it at my own pace, with someone who always stopped the second she caught the edge of one of my real thoughts or memories.

"The point is," I said, trying to get back on track, "if he could do it, so can you. You've got plenty of love; I've seen it whenever you talk about Draco.Think of how he means the world to you. Remember happy times."

Narcissa bit her lip, eyes focused on some distant spot. "I'd like to think about this for a while, if you don't mind."

Harry and I walked a little ahead to give her space. I hoped she was starting to believe she could do it.

***

By evening, the storm had mostly passed, though the air still felt heavy with the threat of rain. Harry and Ron sat outside by the campfire while Narcissa and I read together again, sprawled on her bunk bed. I kept my hands to myself, with Harry's advice still on my mind, but one of her hands ended up in my hair, winding my locks around her fingers, fiddling absently while she read her book. I couldn't keep the smile off my face.

After a while, she let go and set her book down. "Do you mind if we talk for a bit?"

"What about?"

"There are some happy memories I'd like to share, if you're interested. I should warn you, they're about Draco. I know he doesn't really bring back good memories for you."

"That's alright, I'm all ears." I set my book on the floor and turned a little to face her better.

She smiled and started telling me stories from when Draco was young, painting a picture of a bright, curious boy I'd never really known. My favorite stories were about times he got into a little trouble, though I found it a unsettling how often they ended with Lucius finding out and Narcissa frowning.

"In first year," she told me, "he was extremely jealous of that Harry Potter boy for becoming a seeker so early. He came home for the summer determined to practice quidditch until he was way better than Potter."

I snickered at her dead-on impression of the arrogant way he said Harry's name.

"So we got him a quality broom, of course, and he flew around practicing all summer. The storm today reminded me of this: one day when there was a storm and he couldn't practice outside, I caught him flying around the house! Oh, he thought he was in big trouble. He apologized to me and went on and on about how sorry he was for risking our fragile valuables. But I surprised him." A smile spread across her face. "I cast a cushioning charm in the room, summoned one of our other brooms, and we flew around together playing catch with a quaffle, right there in the entrance hall."

I grinned, picturing the scene as she described it. "That sounds like a lot of fun."

"Mm. I admit, I quite enjoyed myself." Her expression turned pensive. "Lucius wasn't pleased when he got home. Perhaps I should've scolded Draco so his father wouldn't have to discipline him. But the way his face lit up when I offered to practice with him... I can't say I regret it."

I didn't say anything for a few moments. Her husband had spoiled another happy moment, and it was really starting to bug me. A week ago, she'd been telling me about how vile and neglectful he was, and I found it really hard to reconcile that with the support she'd voiced for him this morning.

I swallowed to wet my dry throat before I dared to ask, "Why don't you leave Lucius?"

Narcissa tilted her head as she looked at me, then she froze, eyes widening. The slightest smile appeared. "Why do you ask?"

I looked away nervously. "Um, for the same reason as last time I asked, but you never answered. It seems like you're not happy with him. Not that it's any of my business."

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, letting out a breath. "Right. Of course." When she looked at me again, the little smile was gone, and I felt like I should've said something different, but I wasn't sure what. She said quietly, "We've always been there for each other. No matter what kind of troubles we had at home, we always presented a united front in public. All the reporters hounding us, all the ministry officials trying to accuse us, it was all bearable because we had each other.Facing the world alone... that takes a kind of bravery I've never had."

"I think you're underestimating yourself," I said. "Isn't it worth facing your fear to have a chance at being happier? You deserve to enjoy life and reach for better things."

"You really believe that, don't you." The smile flickered back to life on her face. "Sometimes I imagine I'm brave enough to try. I imagine proudly facing crowds alone, not needing Lucius, though I'd lend my voice if he needed someone to speak for him. I imagine living in a place without so many bad memories from the war, where Draco could visit without the Dark Lord's shadow hanging over us."

"Hmm. Sounds like there's an optimist inside you trying to get out."

She waved dismissively, grinning. "I think there's an optimist in my bed trying to keep me from getting a good night's sleep."

I wished we could stay up talking more, but it really was getting late, at least for us early risers. As I stretched and started to get up, I felt Narcissa's hand on my wrist, pulling me toward her. Before I knew what was happening, she'd kissed my cheek. I smiled, delighted by the affectionate gesture. Then her eyes dropped to my mouth, and I couldn't let the moment pass. I closed the gap between us.

A small gasp escaped her as I brushed my lips against hers and kissed her softly. Her hand reached up to cup my cheek before I could pull away. Her lips caressed mine, every motion magnified as my nerves came alive.My heart soared, overflowing with tenderness. Her palm came to rest below my collarbone, and she pushed me back just enough to see my face.

Narcissa searched my eyes with an unreadable expression. "Goodnight, Hermione," she said quietly.

"I—um, goodnight?" I gave her a hesitant smile, and she returned it before settling into bed. It reassured me that everything was still okay. Though I climbed up to my bunk calmly, inside I was bursting with emotions I had no words for. What did that kiss mean? She wasn't upset, but she wasn't jumping for joy either. She seemed just as unsure as I was, and that was oddly comforting. I touched my lips as I lay staring at the ceiling, remembering every moment in case our first kiss was also our last. I really hoped it wasn't.

***

The next day, I was more worried about things being awkward between us, but our morning together was peaceful like always. Maybe our smiles were a little more shy. Maybe our gazes lingered a little bit longer. My heart fluttered with all of the unknowns as I stood beside her, enjoying the quiet sunrise.

Our ninth morning on the trail passed in a dazed blur. Narcissa shared more happy memories with me, as if focusing on them had suddenly opened a floodgate. And she asked about my family, curious to know what a dentist was and what my childhood was like before I knew I was a witch. I made an effort to talk with Ron and Harry some, knowing he'd be worried if I spent every moment with Narcissa, but I couldn't bring myself to be worried anymore. Everything seemed brighter and more beautiful.

In the early afternoon, we entered another forest, which I hoped would go on until the end. I walked by myself along the trail for a while, excited to be back among the trees. Besides my memories of camping, something about being among such huge lifeforms really spoke to me on a spiritual and intellectual level. I looked up and breathed deep, then slowed down to walk beside Narcissa, wanting to share this moment.

"Do you ever think about how interconnected everything is?" I asked.

"Hello to you too," she replied, smiling. "Yes, at times. What's on your mind?"

"I was just thinking about how we're walking along as if we're distinct from the things around us," I said. "Honestly, when you look closely, it's difficult to tell where one thing ends and the next begins. The sunlight heats us and triggers biological processes. We lose skin cells that go into the soil. Oxygen from the trees becomes part of our bodies, and our carbon dioxide becomes part of them."

Narcissa was quiet for a long time. I started to regret babbling about molecules with such wonder. She was going to laugh and tell me I read too many textbooks. Or if she didn't say so, she'd be thinking it.

"And imagine a cross-section of the forest with us in it," she said suddenly. "One showing every layer from the bottom up as a single system. Bedrock, ley line, soil, leaves, boot, sock, skin of your sole, muscle and bone. And so on. Magic throughout all of it."

My eyes were wide as they met hers, alight with something indescribable.

"You're sublime," she told me, touching my hand for a moment. "I might have to put this in a poem someday."

With a single word, she smoothed over all the craters others had left when they said bookworm like an insult. My scientific awe had inspired her. I didn't know what to do with that, so I walked alongside her quietly with sublime echoing in my ears.

***

The downside of the forest was the dementors within it. The open countryside was only a temporary respite, and we took it for granted. Here, the trees gave them enough shade to hide in, to wait for prey like us to come walking along.

Narcissa was on guard duty when the first signs appeared. At her warning, we drew together with our patronuses around us while the fog rolled in. The cold dropped so deep I thought my fingers might freeze to my wand. The sheer number of dementors was staggering, at least a hundred swarming through the trees until shadowy figures were all I could see in any direction. It was incredibly difficult to sustain my happy thoughts surrounded by such a menacing force, and they showed no signs of leaving.

"Push through," Ron yelled, his patronus losing its shape for several seconds before reforming. "Don't let them think they've trapped us!"

We started walking, drilling through the throng of dementors. Harry's stag tossed its head, threatening them with its sharp antlers. My otter swam in the air by their hooded heads, pushing them back. Ron's terrier ran around snapping at their cloaks. I heard Narcissa whispering the incantation, but I wasn't surprised when nothing happened. This was hardly a fair first test. All of us were struggling to maintain the spells.

It took only a minute or two to break free of the massed dementors, but it felt like much longer. At least they didn't follow us. Our patronuses got stronger as we put more distance between them and us. I took out bars of chocolate, and we ate it with abandon. Eventually we felt safe enough to let the spells fade for now.

"What are we doing?" Ron asked. "This is crazy. This is absolutely insane. There's more dementors the further we go! We all know the last town is going to be empty too. Why don't we just go home now?"

"I wish we would," Narcissa said, voice dull as she continued watching the forest.

I felt a similar despair pressing in on me, but I tried to resist it. "Ron, weren't you the one who said 'push through' a moment ago?" I asked.

"That was to keep us alive!" he exclaimed. "Now that we're out of that mess, I think 'turn back' would be a smarter strategy."

Harry made an effort to rally us. "We've got, what, only two or three days left before we reach the end? We can last a little longer."

I pulled out the map to show Ron. "Look, see how strange it is that the dots end in Groesffordd? We've got to see why they stopped there, or why they turned back without going any further."

He took the map and looked it over. "I haven't really gotten to look at this before," he muttered. "That is kinda weird I guess. Where are we right now?"

I pointed. "Somewhere thereabouts. We went south for a while, and now west."

"That gray line is the border, right?" he asked. "We'll be in another country soon. That's a little exciting. I've never been to Wales."

I smiled, pleased that he was looking on the bright side, though Narcissa still looked down. "Just think," I said, loud enough for her to hear. "When we get back from Wales, we'll have a whale of a tale to tell." Ron rolled his eyes. Narcissa only let out a quiet sniff. "We just have to hold in our wails of sorrow when dementors are around." There! I heard her chuckle. "Or maybe there won't be any more excitement after we cross the border, and we'll just get bored-er."

"Hermione!" Narcissa exclaimed, grinning as she glanced back for a second. "Why in the world do dementors bring out your sense of humor?"

"They don't," I objected. I barely stopped myself from announcing to everyone that I just wanted to make her happy. That might make Ron suspicious and get another warning from Harry. If I wasn't careful, I would turn into Hagrid, constantly saying I shouldn't have said that. Instead I told her, "I'm just trying to bring out some smiles."

"That's my job," Ron said. "You quote Hogwarts, a History and make everyone yawn."

Narcissa laughed at that. I was so happy to hear it that I didn't even mind the teasing. She slowed down to walk next to me and gave Ron a friendly push. "Go on, Mr. Weasley. It's your turn for guard duty. I'll keep Hermione occupied."

"And how exactly will you keep me occupied?" I whispered with a suggestive nudge.

"Let me count the ways." When no one was looking, she pulled me closer and blew in my ear. I shrieked and laughed, which made Harry and Ron look back at us in surprise. Grinning, we pointed the blame at each other.

***

A few hours later, I heard a high-pitched neighing in the distance. I listened to it curiously, wondering why there would be a horse out here. It sounded too young for anyone to be riding it, and forlorn like it had gotten lost or hurt. My heart went out to it as I listened to the echoing whinnies, impossible to ignore. I turned to walk in its direction, and Narcissa followed me before I even said a word. I called back to Harry and Ron, and they trailed behind.

As our group headed toward the distressed animal, the back of my neck prickled. My wand was in my hand without a second's hesitation. It took several more moments for me to find the reason: a telltale fog barely visible between all the trees ahead of us. I hated how familiar the signs were.

"Not again," Ron whispered.

I had a moment of doubt, wondering why I was walking into danger for an animal. But my conscience wouldn't let me leave it. The horse whinnied frantically, sounding almost human in its terror. My blood ran cold. "Dementors don't hurt animals, right? Sirius escaped Azkaban as a dog."

But even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew I couldn't count on that to be true. I sprinted forward, heedless of Harry calling for me to be careful. There was a time for planning and a time for haste. I ran into the dark fog, the heat of my exertion resisting its chill. My friends weren't that far behind, reassuring me with their presence. The horse was squealing now, but we were getting closer. Half blind in the unnaturally darkened forest, I tripped over a root and went tumbling down a gully.

I landed on my stomach within a ring of a dozen dementors, one of them bending down toward a creature who was only half horse. A tiny centaur, not even six years old, thrashed on the ground with one hind leg stuck in a hole. Her desperate eyes caught mine as the dementor began sucking out her soul, her other three legs still kicking feebly.

With the wind knocked out of me from my tumble, I could barely speak enough to summon a patronus. There wasn't much force behind the fine silver mist I created, but it was enough to drive the dementor away from the centaur and let her soul flow back into her.

Narcissa was closest behind and first to reach me. She gasped when she saw the young centaur, hand flying to her heart. "Expecto patronum!" she cried. A silver wisp emerged from her wand and hovered in the air. The ring of dementors drifted a little further away. Narcissa helped me stand up and we held each other, standing guard over the centaur.

"Your first patronus," I said in amazement.

"I did it," she whispered. She stared open-mouthed at the wisp as it faded. "I don't believe it. I did it."

Harry and Ron arrived last, their corporeal patronuses driving the dementors away entirely. Light returned to the forest as the dark fog lifted.

Narcissa let go of me and knelt by the centaur, who had fallen unconscious but still panted for air. Her fine, tawny coat was slicked with sweat. Hesitantly, Narcissa touched the leg that was stuck deep in the forest floor.

"It's broken," she said, moving her hand to smooth the girl's damp bangs from her forehead. Long-lashed eyes fluttered open as Narcissa spoke kindly to her. "You couldn't run, sweet girl, could you. It's alright, you're safe now. We'll mend your leg and help you get home."

I stood beside Narcissa and rested a hand on her back, adoring her kind heart, though I had to stop her from raising her wand. "The centaurs wouldn't like us using human magic to heal her," I said, knowing how particular they were from a few incidents I'd handled at work. "Let's go straight to her family."

At the word "family," the centaur started crying. "I want Papa," she bawled, a whinny escaping her.

"We'll find him," Narcissa said, maneuvering the centaur up onto her shoulders with a murmured, "Up we go!" Her backpack helped support the unwieldy horse half, and the girl held onto Narcissa's head for balance.

"I'd be happy to carry her," Harry offered while Ron snickered at the comical sight.

"Don't worry about it," Narcissa dismissed. "My backpack has a featherweight charm. She feels lighter than Draco did at her age." She stood up and tilted her head, trying to look back at the centaur. "Where's home, little one?"

"It's a secret," the girl replied, sniffling as her tears slowed. "No humans allowed."

"We won't tell anyone," Narcissa assured her.

"Humans are sneaky. You'll tell."

Narcissa pursed her lips, turning to look at me for guidance, but I didn't know what to do either.

"I'll make it so you won't know where we're going," the girl offered. She rubbed her hands together and clapped them over Narcissa's eyes, then pulled them away.

"Wait, I—I can't see," Narcissa said, voice shaky. "I'm not sure about this. You can reverse it, right?"

"Silly piebald," the little centaur said. The look on Narcissa's face was priceless. "Haven't you played No-Eyes Tag before? It goes away on its own, and I can take it right back, see?" The girl repeated her actions, leaving Narcissa blinking from suddenly restored sight. "Don't worry, I'll tell you where to go."

We all exchanged nervous looks. Could we trust a little girl to guide us safely? If it was the only way she would let us bring her home, I supposed it was worth trying. Blind witches and wizards could cast spells just as easily as sighted ones, so I knew we could defend ourselves.

"Alright, I'm willing," I volunteered, stepping closer. Her little hands pressed against my eyelids and everything went black. I felt unsteady without sight to orient me, but it wasn't so bad. Harry and Ron followed suit, and finally Narcissa again.

"Does she know humans can apparate?" Ron whispered to me. "Wherever she brings us, we can go back to it whenever we want."

"Shh," I hushed him. "We can keep the secret regardless."

"Are you doing alright?" Narcissa asked the girl. "How is your leg feeling?"

"Hurts a lot, but I'll be okay. Forward, march!" she ordered. Now that the dementors were gone, her spirits had risen quite a bit, despite the pain of a broken leg. I was impressed by her resilience.

We must have looked quite silly, walking through the forest without being able to see a thing. I'm pretty sure the girl led us in a few circles along the way. After several mishaps with branches that she didn't warn us about, we started walking all in a line, hands on shoulders. That worked out much better, since the girl could easily guide the one person leading. Sometimes she yelled at the top of her lungs, calling for her father. It seemed like we were walking for a long time, but at least it was in the right direction for our journey westward into Wales. I could feel the setting sun warming my face. Finally, I heard the subtle thump of hooves on earth.

"Stop, intruders!" a loud voice commanded. "Wait, Acacia? Your father has been looking everywhere for you!"

A horn sounded somewhere nearby, answered by a distant one. I heard more thudding hooves as centaurs gathered around us. We must've reached some kind of settlement. Whispers rose up, making me feel a bit afraid. Last time I walked into a herd of centaurs, they ended up attacking. But that had at least partly been my fault, and these voices didn't sound hostile.

"How did the humans find us?"

"Acacia must've led them."

"What happened to her?"

"Has someone gone to find Brin?"

We kept silent, waiting to find out what would happen to us. Then heavy hoofbeats galloped toward us and came skidding to a halt so close that my legs tensed to jump out of the way.

"Who are you, and why do you have my daughter?" a deep voice asked.

"Narcissa Malfoy, pleasure to meet you," Narcissa replied. "Your little girl got into a bit of trouble and needed help."

"Malfoy?" the centaur said with distaste, clearly familiar with the old noble family.

"I married a Malfoy and was born a Black, but I'm a mother most of all," Narcissa responded.

"Don't be mean, Papa! She's very kind, I like her," the girl squeaked.

To my great surprise, he burst out laughing, a rich sound from his belly. "Never thought I'd see the day!" he bellowed. "A pureblood human letting a centaur ride on her back! Is mercury going retrograde early?" The other centaurs laughed with him. Too nervous to join in, I just smiled with cautious amusement. Harry and Ron stayed quiet too. We were all a little out of our element.

Narcissa commented, "It really is difficult to maintain my superiority when this beast is literally above me."

I cringed at hearing her say that after such an impeccably polite introduction. We were surrounded by centaurs! Didn't she know how easily offended they were?

But Acacia's father laughed again. "Clear the air, aye? Good to get all that bad blood out in the open. You showed my daughter kindness, and that says more than words." He came around to each of us, touching our eyes and letting us see again. "My name is Brin, son of Arawn, widower of Cerys, and leader of this herd."

Now I was able to get a good look at him. Like his daughter, Brin's coat was brown with a hint of orange. Powerful muscles bunched under his skin, and he really was as big as he sounded, though he was older than I expected.

Narcissa told him, "I'm sorry to bring bad news, but your sweet girl has a broken leg and could use some comfort after the dementors nearly got her."

"Dementors!" Brin exclaimed, no longer sounding so good humored. He picked up his daughter from Narcissa's shoulders and held her tightly, careful of her leg. "This is not the time to wander so far from home, Acacia. You should know better."

"I can run faster than them," she said defiantly, then her face crumpled and she started crying. "But my hoof got caught in a hole. The dementors were all around! I was so scared. It was really really scary, Papa. Then the human with the curly mane saved me, and then the dementors were all gone."

Brin turned to me. "The stars have smiled on us. You and your herd may stay here tonight and travel through our lands with our permission. What is your name?"

"Hermione Granger," I responded. "And this is Ron Weasley and Harry Potter."

The centaur's eyebrows shot up at Harry's name, and he turned to look at him. "Harry Potter. You defeated a terrible evil. The centaurs at your final battle have spoken of you. What brings you here?"

"Er, we were just on a hiking trip," Harry said. "But apparently there are dementors in the area."

I held in a sigh at how unconvincing that was. "Do they often attack your herd?" I asked, hoping to distract the leader from questioning further.

A few other centaurs approached and rested their hands on Acacia's side while Brin told me, "They try, but alone we outrun them and together we make our circle. They've all but given up now."

"A circular spell of protection?" I asked, wondering if they'd somehow come up with something as good as our nightly ward.

"The herd circle," Brin replied. "Nothing can break through that. How do humans do it?"

When I realized I'd fallen into the superior mindset Narcissa had just joked about, I mentally kicked myself. Centaurs had ancient magic of their own, which must be very powerful when they circled up like wild horses do. Our dementor ward was new and little-tested in comparison.

"We cast a patronus spell to repel them," I told him, wishing the ward weren't classified so I could tell him about it. It would be fascinating to compare notes about how our different types of magic worked. Sadly, centaurs were notorious for keeping the particulars to themselves, and with good reason, after all these centuries of being pushed out of their lands by wizards and muggles alike.

The gathered centaurs took their hands away from Acacia, and her father set her down. To my shock, she started running and pranced in a circle around us. Her leg looked completely healed. Now I was really dying to know more about their magic.

"The sun has gone down," Brin said. "Have you eaten? You're welcome to join us for evening grazing."

"Thank you," Harry said. "We appreciate the hospitality, but, um..."

"We don't eat grass," Ron said.

The centaurs laughed a little, and Brin explained, "You can eat much of the same food we do. Follow me."

"Come on!" Acacia shouted, pulling on Narcissa's hand and mine. I watched Narcissa from the corner of my eye, fascinated by how comfortable she seemed with all of this. She glanced at me and winked, and I knew I'd been caught looking. I winked back, feeling like we had a shared secret that was all ours. Harry and Ron followed along, making silly faces whenever the little girl glanced back at them, which cracked her up. The Forbidden Forest herd had seemed so serious, but maybe they only seemed that way because we were always unwelcome. Spending one of our last nights here might actually be nice.

Chapter Text

Brin led our group through the centaur settlement, pointing as he spoke. "Latrines are just beyond that rise. The stallion huts are to our right over there, and there are the mare huts. When it's time to sleep, you can sort yourselves out and pick any sleeping spot you like. It might get crowded, but it will be warm. The huts in this area are for families."

I listened with half an ear while I surreptitiously jotted down our daily report, knowing I'd forget about it if I didn't do it right now.

"Here's our hut!" Acacia said, letting go of Narcissa's hand to run into one of them.

Brin smiled affectionately at her and told us, "If you need to find me during the night, that's where I'll be. But no harm will come to you here. You are our guests, and you are free to roam. Our sentries guard the acres around us all night."

Acacia came back out with a small spear. "This is mine. See? I can throw it just like a grown-up's spear." She threw it as hard as she could at a pine cone on a tree branch. It missed and knocked some thatch off the roof of a hut.

As she ran to get it, Brin called, "Be mindful of your targets and what's behind them!"

I finished the report and whispered to Narcissa, "I wonder why these huts are so basic. Why don't they build proper houses? They've got the hands and the minds to do it."

Her eyebrows drew together as she thought about that for a few moments. "Well, since they do have minds of their own, let's assume they have a reason, even if we can't understand it."

I winced, realizing I was looking down on them again. "Of course. I just really want to understand. There aren't any good books on their culture. The centaur liaison office is a joke. I have no idea how I can be a better advocate for them at work. The things they do don't make sense to me, like these huts. And how obsessed they are with astrology, of all things."

After another pause, Narcissa replied, "Witches and wizards are obsessed with quidditch. Imagine how we must look, betting on something so trivial." She shrugged one shoulder. "We might be among the most baffling of magical creatures."

I grinned in disbelief and asked, "How is it that you don't believe all the pureblood rhetoric?"

"How? With great difficulty," she answered, looking uncomfortable. "I used to believe it. For a long time. Too long."

I waited, thinking she might elaborate, but she got quiet and didn't say more.

We reached the eating area and set our backpacks down. Male and female centaurs gathered around a clearing with baskets and pots of food laid out on tables made from fallen trees, lit by lanterns with beeswax candles. No one actually ate at the tables; it was more like a buffet, with everyone bringing food back to wherever they wanted to sit or stand amongst the trees in groups or privately. There were breads made from nut flour, all kinds of mushrooms, omelets of wild bird eggs, and much more. Acacia and other foals ran around grabbing their favorite treats.

I wasn't an adventurous eater, so after socializing for a while I settled down with a bowl full of more or less familiar foods in a hidden nook between two huge tree roots. Narcissa was dismayed; she started bringing me little bits of everything and goading me into eating them.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she reminded me when I kept refusing a lumpy beige paste. "Have you liked what I've brought you so far?"

Grudgingly I admitted, "Except for that furry fungus thing, yes."

"Really? Oh, good! When we get home, I hope you'll let me take you to some of my favorite restaurants," she said. "There are so many dishes I think you'd like if you give them a chance."

My mind wove together a romantic scene of a candlelit dinner at a table for two. I shook my head to clear it away. I didn't know what things would be like when this mission was over.

"You can't always know what you'll think of something at first glance," she went on.

"I see," I said, narrowing my eyes. "You're still trying to get me to eat that beige stuff."

She offered her clay bowl like a sampler platter. "Try it. Just try it!"

I squirmed away every time she pushed the bowl closer, so she scooped a little onto her finger and held it out. I sighed and gave in, leaning forward to taste it. It could have easily been a silly, innocent gesture, but our eyes met as my lips closed around the end of her finger, and the way her pupils dilated with desire was neither silly nor innocent. I tasted hazelnuts, something I liked, and without thinking I bit down and curled my tongue around her fingertip.

"Oh," she whispered, leaning closer. "Is it good?"

Feeling mischievous, I licked the last bit of hazelnut off before letting go. Her own tongue came out to wet her lips, drawing my gaze. "I only got a little taste, but it was good," I said. All I could think about was capturing those lips. "Very good."

Narcissa eased away and watched me silently, a flush spreading down her neck. "Two to four," she said after a moment. "Still your lead." With the same finger, she scooped up another dollop of hazelnut paste. Even without silverware she somehow managed to look polite while eating it.

I was startled to find out our competition was still going on. When I kissed her last night, she didn't mention points. Maybe it hadn't affected her strongly enough. "I'm not sure how I managed to get ahead," I admitted. "I don't have that, um, elegant allure like you do."

She brushed her knuckles down the side of my face. "Do you have any idea how appealing you are?"

I smiled, remembering the Yule Ball when people started noticing me. "Maybe a little. Viktor Krum saw something in me. And Ron, of course."

"Any witch loving witch or wizard can see it," she insisted. "You've got a lot of options. If you give them even half the attention you give me, they won't be able to resist you."

A small seed of fear sprouted. It sounded like she was encouraging me to look for someone else. What if she liked the idea of flirting with me, but didn't actually want more?

I summoned my bravery and admitted, "I'd rather pay attention to you."

Narcissa leaned in again, mouth tantalizingly close, but she paused and rested her forehead against mine. "I don't know what I can offer you. I can't make any guarantees."

"I don't need guarantees," I said before I could wonder if that was really true. "I want to see where this goes."

She kissed me in response, fingers coming up to tangle themselves in my hair. Her lips felt silky and full and so, so wonderful. Mine were positively buzzing from all the sensations. I don't know how much time passed before we parted, but it wasn't enough.

"I really... shouldn't... drag you into my life," Narcissa whispered, dropping sweet kisses on my mouth as she spoke. "Everyone despises me."

"They don't know you." My hand came to rest below her collarbone where she'd touched me yesterday. I could feel her heart pounding somewhere under the surface.

"Not to mention I'm over twenty years older," she reminded me.

"And it looks so good on you."

She blushed and ducked her chin. "I'm just going to bring you trouble. I'm being selfish."

I couldn't help smiling. "Have you met my best friends? I'm used to trouble, believe me. Go ahead and be selfish."

"Hermione..." Her hands gripped my coat, then loosened. "We're not alone."

We put some space between us just in time to see Acacia spot us as she trotted by. "There you are!" she exclaimed. "Your friends are looking for you. It's time for stargazing. Come on out."

I stood and offered a hand to Narcissa. She grasped it delicately and let go as we went around the tree to stand at the edge of the clearing where everyone was gathering. Ron and Harry wandered in from the other side of the open space and waved when they saw us.

One by one, the lanterns went out in puffs of smoke. I could almost imagine we were on an exciting date together. I looked around in the dimming light, feeling safe despite all the unfamiliar centaurs around. Harry stood by a foal who was eagerly telling him much more than he wanted to know about an obscure constellation, though Harry was sweet enough to keep listening and nodding. Ron was over by a table of food, looking up at the sky and periodically sneaking handfuls of something crunchy.

"Your red-haired friend seems fond of those roasted grasshoppers," Brin commented, passing by us on his way to stand near Harry. I chuckled, certain that Ron didn't know what he was eating.

Soon all the lanterns had been extinguished, leaving the clearing pitch black. The moon hadn't risen yet, so the only light came from the stars. At first no one spoke, but before long the centaurs started talking to each other about various observations and guesses about what they might mean. The time crawled by. I yawned, losing interest in pretending to participate in divination. Then Brin spoke up, loud enough for everyone to hear.

"Harry Potter. We all know you're here for something greater than a walk in the woods."

I moved closer to Narcissa, feeling worried. Were they mad we'd lied?

"Sorry. I wish I could explain," Harry apologized.

Brin responded, "Knowing what you've already accomplished, I believe it must be important. I won't ask for the true reason, but I do ask that you listen, and listen well. This season we are living under a Saturn-Neptune Square. Though it may seem like a time of comfort and safety, that's only an illusion. Build up your defenses. Beware of overconfidence as Mars faces off with Jupiter. Danger will arise from those you thought were no threat, in places you believed were safe."

"Thank you for the advice, sir," Harry said after a moment. "We'll make sure we keep it in mind."

"'Sir,'" Brin repeated, chuckling. "A title my people don't use, though I appreciate your respect. That's all I have to say tonight. I'm going to put Acacia to bed, but I'll see you all here for the morning meal."

He lit a lantern, shielding it with his body so it wouldn't ruin anyone's night vision, and led his sleepy daughter back to their home. A few other centaurs left as well, but most lingered. In the faint light of retreating lanterns, I saw their eyes fixed on the stars. My friends and I drew together near the edge of the clearing.

"What do you guys think of what he said?" Harry asked.

"Beware," I whispered. "Beware, beware!" Ron snickered with me.

"Aren't you taking his warning seriously?" Narcissa asked. "This could be important."

"Oh, come on. He basically told us to be careful," I replied. "That's good advice no matter what shape Saturn makes with Neptune."

Harry wondered, "What if it has something to do with Voldemort's supporters escaping custody? We thought they weren't a threat anymore. I think we should take his warning to heart. Just because Trelawney told you you're terrible at divination doesn't mean it's all bogus. Just think of the prophecy about me."

I rolled my eyes. I didn't dismiss divination because I was bad at it; I dismissed it because none of it was demonstrably true. Even the prophecy about Harry could've been self-fulfilling. All I said was, "Alright, I'll watch out for unexpected surprises."

Harry sighed. "I'm going to bed. Ron, you coming?"

Ron yawned and nodded. The two of them cast dim lights with their wands, gathered their backpacks from the edge of the clearing, and wandered away in search of the stallion huts.

Then I yawned; it was contagious. "It's not that late, but maybe we should go to sleep too."

"I'd like to stay a little longer," Narcissa replied. As I turned to walk away, she added, "I meant with you. If you're not too tired."

I stayed. I would've stayed even if she'd just invited me to watch paint dry with her. To my delight, Narcissa shifted closer and leaned backwards against me. My arms slipped around her waist as if they belonged there.

"Didn't you make a rule against full body contact?" I asked, amazed that she would let me hold her like this.

"Only because of where it might lead," she explained. She tilted her head back and rested it on my shoulder, watching the stars overhead. "I should be able to control myself in public."

"Oh yeah? It's too dark to see anything," I pointed out. "And everybody is looking at the stars, not at us."

"They can hear," Narcissa replied, voice low and soft. She reached behind us and slipped her hands into my back pockets, pulling me closer. "There's no way you'd be silent if I could touch you the way I want to."

I stopped breathing, hands tensing against her stomach. A wave of heat rolled from the top to the bottom of my spine. I felt like we had two separate dialogues going at the same time. One with tender moments like during dinner, and one with comments like this one that set me on fire. I wanted to know exactly how she would touch me. I wanted anything she offered. I wanted her.

Thoughts unraveling, I mumbled. "Three to... wait, that's backwards. Um, four to... four to three?"

She chuckled, and my nerves went haywire sensing the ways our bodies brushed together. I was keenly aware of how my breasts pressed against her back, how her rear was nestled against my pelvis, how her warm neck was right next to mine. I couldn't see anything, but I could feel everything.

Feeling bold in the dark, I lowered my head and left a lingering kiss on the exposed skin of her throat, then nipped it in hopes of hearing another quiet oh.

"Oh, fuck," she whispered, back arching. One of her hands rose to grip the nape of my neck.

It was an even better reaction than I'd hoped for. Ever the overachiever, I bit harder in another spot and soothed it with my lips, relishing in the little moans of pleasure that escaped her. Her other hand was still in my pocket, tensing against my bum while she seemed unable to keep still.

"Hermione, we've got to—ah! Mmm. Okay, that's it." At my third bite, she twisted out of my arms and dragged me away from the clearing into the barely visible forest. "I withdraw from our challenge," she said as we walked, voice shaky. "It's done, you win. I don't want to compete anymore." Somewhere out there were the sentries guarding the herd, but right here, we were alone. I was convinced she was going to berate me for going too far.

"Let's cooperate instead. Pool our resources," she said, turning to face me.

Confused, I started to apologize, "I'm sorry formmm—"

Suddenly it was my turn to moan as she pushed me against a tree and kissed me hard, pouring passion into it, coaxing my mouth open with her soft lips. Her tongue slipped in just enough to lap at the front edge of mine, which lifted eagerly to meet it now that I knew she wasn't at all upset. I'd never really seen the appeal of french kissing until now. I wanted to taste her, to get ourselves mixed up in each other. Our tongues slid together in a sensual suggestion of more intimate touches.

Within moments, she'd unzipped my coat and slipped it off, leaving me in only a thin cotton shirt. I felt so overheated by then that the winter air couldn't even reach me. I tugged her coat off in return, breathing hard when she broke the kiss to hold me tightly. Her lips brushed over my ear, tongue leaving a wet trail on my skin. It cooled quickly and I shivered in pleasure.

"Oh you are definitely breaking your rule now," I said, unable to resist the opportunity to slide my hands under her shirt, feeling her stomach and the soft skin cushioning her ribs. I explored upward slowly until my fingertips slipped between her brassiere and her skin. When they brushed the undersides of her breasts, she gasped, leaning into my touch. "Is this okay?" I asked, trying not to get carried away. "What are your limits?"

"It's the usual contract. No sexual unions outside of marriage," she panted, sounding as if I should've known that. "I'm sorry we can't go further. Breaking the terms at this point would be foolish."

I pulled back a little in surprise. I hadn't given much thought to magical contracts for marriage, but that must be the norm in wizarding society. Lucius and the entire court system would know if we went too far.

She pulled back too and stilled. "Dammit, I'm reading too much into things, aren't I. It's only a little necking. I shouldn't have presumed you were interested in more. I don't even know if you've ever—alright, I'm really being too inappropriate, that's none of my business—"

"Narcissa!" I covered her mouth with my hand. "Leave the rambling to me. You're terrible at it. I'm concerned about your marriage, not your presumptions. Which... um, weren't wrong. For the record, I'm very very interested." I felt a smile emerge against my palm and I let go.

"So I was thinking," Narcissa said slyly, her voice alone bringing the spark of arousal back to life. "You know what they say about limitations inspiring creativity. Maybe there's a way to bend the rules a little, if you're up for it." She slid her hand down my abdomen and tucked her fingers into my waistband, thumb toying with the button of my pants.

I barely dared to breathe, nervous and excited in equal measure. "What did you have in mind?"

"I can't touch you," she told me, unfastening the button and slowly unzipping the fly. "But you can." She reached up to grasp my wrist and tug it downward, then guided my own hand into my underwear. "Are you comfortable with this? Can I leave you here to think of me and finish what I've started?"

"Oh, wow." My fingers found the slick curls between my legs. "That... won't be a problem."

"Excellent," she whispered, cupping my hand from outside my pants and adding pressure until I groaned, starting to rock. She pulled away slowly, trembling. "I've got to go. I'm really walking the line here, I can feel it. When you've finished... hmm... enjoying yourself on my behalf while I'm similarly occupied, will you get our backpacks and find us a place to sleep? I'll find you."

"Mhm," was the only response I could manage. With the state she was leaving me in, it wouldn't take long. As she picked up her coat and hurried away in the dark, I imagined what might've happened if she'd stayed. This would've been her hand pleasuring me, her fingers stroking my folds, her palm grinding against me.

A minute or two drifted by as I got closer and closer to the edge. My free hand rose up to my breast and caressed it, then pinched it. I imagined Narcissa sliding down my body and biting my nipple through my clothing. My hips rocked harder, fingers rubbing in fast circles. I remembered the feeling of her mouth on my skin, her body pushing closer. Every touch hinted at how much she desired me, and it spurred me on. When it finally hit me that similarly occupied meant she was somewhere nearby touching herself—and thinking of me? Merlin!—I came against my hand and let out a few whimpers despite my effort to stay quiet.

I rested there for a moment with my back against the tree, ears ringing. I wanted Narcissa more than ever, but for now I felt satisfied. Limitations inspire creativity indeed. I laughed a little as I realized I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face if someone ever said that to me again.

After using a little magic to clean up, I picked my way back through the forest feeling giddy. At least I had the presence of mind to grab our backpacks on the way. I set them down just inside the doorway of one of the mare huts that didn't have anyone in it yet. There was nothing in there except a thick layer of dried grasses. It was cold, too, but I kept my coat off anyway, remembering it would get crowded and warm. I lay on my back on a well-cushioned area near the wattle and daub wall, folding my arms behind my head like a pillow.

Only a few minutes later, Narcissa came in and tossed her coat on our backpacks. She lay down half on top of me without saying a word, sighing as she slipped a hand into my shirt to hold my bare side. Somehow, it felt like we'd never parted. And rather than feeling aroused by our closeness, I just felt comfortable. I wrapped my arm around her, not feeling any need to speak either.

As we drifted off, female centaurs came in one by one and picked sleeping spots around the hut. The more there were, the warmer the air became. The walls trapped their body heat so well that I felt downright cozy. I was nearly asleep and thought Narcissa was too until I heard her voice.

"Hermione, I cast a patronus."

"Mhm."

"Not a full one, but the fact remains... I didn't think I could do it at all."

"I knew you could."

Narcissa said nothing for a long time. Then, "Hermione?"

"Mhm?"

"Thank you for believing in me."

My breath caught in my throat. The feeling that arose was way too intense for words, so I simply held her closer.

***

I woke at my usual time in the morning and started to get up, but slender arms clung to me.

"Hold still," Narcissa murmured. "Reality will come barging in soon enough. Let me pretend for a moment that we've got all the time in the world."

I settled back down, realizing how true that was. We'd have precious little time to be this close with Harry and Ron around, and I still had no idea what to expect when we got home. Her words from last night returned to me. Breaking the terms at this point would be foolish. At this point.... Did that mean she wasn't willing to divorce him after so many years of marriage? I would never ask her to do it for my sake. I didn't know what I could offer her either. Little stolen moments like this might be all I could ever have.

A chill started to sink in. All the centaurs were already gone, leaving us without their warmth. I shivered and curled up with Narcissa, wanting to hide from the days ahead.

"Cold?" she asked. "I know what might warm you up." She pushed herself onto her hands and knees above me, hair tickling my face as she gave me a playful peck on the lips. My mood brightened.

"Fancy a roll in the hay?" I joked, brushing a few small pieces off her clothes. We heard hooves clopping outside, and Narcissa didn't have time to move before a female centaur came in.

"This is straw, human. Hay is for eating," the centaur said, setting down a heavy bale and spreading it over some of the bare spots. "And this hut is only for sleeping." She walked back out, and Narcissa hid her face against my shoulder as we burst into giggles.

"Busted," I said, still chuckling. "I never knew there was a difference."

"Hey, neither did I," Narcissa replied. "We should get up. Breakfast has probably started."

"Wait," I said as I stood up. "Was that a hay pun?"

"I admit nothing," she replied.

I followed her out of the hut and down the trail toward the clearing. "It was!" She kept walking, and I had to hurry to keep up. "You can't deny it, I heard it with my own ears. Narcissa Malfoy likes wordplay, and it's even lamer than mine."

"Okay, that's the last straw." She stopped in her tracks and turned to face me. I ran into her and gave her a huge grin, but she held a finger to my lips before I could say anything. "Don't breathe a word of this to anyone," she warned, eyes dancing with humor.

"I'll only tell Harry and Ron about it," I replied, pushing past her and walking into the clearing. "And my other friends. And all of our coworkers. And everyone else we know."

Narcissa pinched me lightly as we got bowls of food for breakfast. When she spotted Brin eating by a fallen tree, we went over to join him.

"Good morning," Brin greeted us. "I hope your lodgings were comfortable."

"Yes, thank you," I said, smiling as I sat down on the log. Narcissa sat by my side, crossing one leg over the other and leaning into me. "We both slept well," I added, enjoying the closeness until I spotted Harry and Ron arriving with some male centaurs. I got nervous that the two of them might notice something, but I couldn't bring myself to move away. They got bowls of food and trudged closer with their eyes half open.

"You look like zombies," I commented.

"Too early to be awake," Ron replied. "Too early to talk." He and Harry plopped down toward the end of the log and started eating.

"Is it too early to walk?" I asked. "We could get an early start."

Brin tapped his chin. "Am I correct in thinking you were heading west when you crossed our border? I can show you the easiest path into Wales."

Harry asked nervously, "What makes you think we're heading west?"

"Someone like you heads toward danger, not away from it," Brin replied.

Ron's face paled, making his freckles stand out. "What danger is that, exactly?"

"The Dead Place. Dementors come from there, and all the human villages nearby are empty. That's all I know. We don't venture that way anymore."

No one spoke for several moments.

Finally Narcissa said, "Perhaps we ought to put our hiking trip on hold and go take a look."

Brin let out a very horse-like snort of air. "Yes, your hiking trip." He was way too close to knowing all about our classified mission.

"So this is your land?" I said, trying to ease the tension. "I don't think we have you on our maps yet. If you like, I can mark the borders when I get back to work, to make sure no one accidentally encroaches on your territory."

"Absolutely not. What work involves mapping centaur territory?" he asked, looking at me with suspicion.

"I'm a project manager in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures." At least I could be honest about that.

He looked disgusted. "Regulation and control! Your ministry is still calling it that? And you wonder why we refuse to deal with you people."

I cringed. "Sorry, I filed a petition to remove that part, but there's so much red tape that everything takes forever."

"Hermione is new there, but she's made a lot of improvements," Narcissa said, patting my knee with a proud expression. She left her hand there, rubbing absently, and I couldn't help thinking of how much we looked like a couple right then. I glanced over at my friends, still afraid Harry would notice something. To my surprise, Ron was the one looking over at us like we were a puzzle he couldn't solve. I shot Narcissa a warning look, but she missed it as she continued talking. "She's been lobbying for rights and better protections under the law. The office has expanded so much thanks to her."

"Narcissa's being too generous," I said, blushing. "I'm just coordinating the human side of things. The elves are starting to stand up for themselves."

Brin's eyebrows went up. "That's good to hear."

Harry added, "My house elf Kreacher started a labor union after the war."

I nodded. "Most still want to be servants, but they're making changes and I'm doing my best to help. More and more of them aren't willing to be treated badly anymore."

Narcissa's fingers tensed on my knee. I glanced at her and touched the back of her hand in a silent question. As if only now realizing what she was doing, she pulled her hand away and tucked it safely in her own lap.

Brin trotted a few steps away. "Since you seem to be done with breakfast, go on and gather your things so we can go. I'm going to tell my herd that I'll be walking with you this morning. Hermione Granger, you can tell me all about the house elves as we walk."

***

Brin inadvertently led our group back to the ley line trail, telling us it was a well-traveled path into Wales. Harry and Ron stayed close behind while Brin walked beside Narcissa and me, seeming very keen to hear more. "So the elves are taking the initiative? What kinds of changes have they made?"

Encouraged by his curiosity about one of my favorite topics, I started babbling. "A lot of them have written service agreements now, with wages, days off, permission to freely marry and start their own families—I know, I know, I'm absolutely appalled that wasn't already the case—and more in the works. Though it took a while, they were inspired by a free elf named Dobby after Harry helped him get away from... um, his abusive... masters."

I risked a glance at Narcissa, who paled and started shaking so badly I thought she might faint. I told myself it was just Lucius and Draco. I told myself it wasn't her.

Ignoring the sinking feeling in my stomach, I kept talking. "Their agreements include the Kreacher Escape Clause, which lets them disobey an order if it would hurt them. They even started their very own Reconciliation Court, for settling grievances."

Brin shook his head with an expression somewhere between amazement and dismay. "That's unheard of. Wizards have never let another species gain so much ground."

"Then it's about time," I said.

He whinnied in agreement. "The precession of equinoxes is in Aquarius, after all. But I have difficulty understanding how this took so long. What kind of terrible species would take such advantage of another's desire to please?"

Narcissa crossed her arms over her chest and confessed, "A species like mine. Dobby was the Malfoys' house elf. I abused him."

My heart stopped.

She went on, sounding wretched as a prisoner on her way to the gallows. "I constantly mocked him. I... I threatened him. I let my husband order punishments—cruel punishments that I could've stopped, but I never did. And no matter how bad it got, I never freed him."

As she spoke, my fists tightened and I was so revolted that I found it hard to breathe. Harry had told us about the self-punishments in second year, and all the terrible things Dobby said about his masters. Merlin, how I wished she'd been unaware and uninvolved.

Brin bared his teeth at her, making me frightened of what he might do. "I should sound my horn and have the whole herd trample you right now, slaveholder scum. The elf Dobby deserves justice."

Narcissa grimaced and nodded. "He does. I'm already facing it. The house elves' idea of justice is a bit... different."

I gave her a sideways glance. "We only just started doing those trials. You really let them summon you to court and judge you?"

"I've been carrying this—this guilt around for so long, I had to do something," she said, avoiding my eyes. "I submitted my own name for a trial. The elves gave me a list of twenty-one orders to follow, which is... well, ironic isn't quite the right word. I must never own a house elf again. Whenever Dobby is mentioned, I must admit what I've done." She covered her face. "I must wear mismatched socks. Some of the rules don't make sense, but I follow them all."

"It makes sense," I whispered, feeling like I might be sick. "Dobby loved wearing all kinds of different colored socks." I'd thought Narcissa's mismatched socks were cute. I'd thought they were a silly mistake that she tried to pass off as something deliberate, but she outright lied to me. She was wearing them for Dobby and didn't even know enough about him to realize why.

Brin let out an angry snort. "You're lucky that wasn't a centaur trial. I don't think you would've survived."

"And just what good would that do?" Narcissa snapped. "I can't try to do better when I'm dead, now can I."

The two of them glared at each other, and I got even more worried that the conversation might devolve into violence. But Brin squared his shoulders and said, "If this was the elves' choice for you, I will accept it."

Narcissa turned toward me, still not making eye contact. "Hermione?" The longer I stayed silent, the more anxious she got, twisting her fingers and tugging on her hair. Finally she looked at me, blinking like she was trying to look at the sun.

All I could think about was Dobby ironing his fingers, slamming his head against furniture. She knew about it. She knew about it and she did nothing. And she lied! I'd kissed the mouth that withheld mercy from Dobby and lied to hide it from me. My stomach churned. I rushed off the trail and into the woods, falling to my knees as I dry heaved. Gentle hands held my shoulders. When I realized they were Narcissa's, I jerked away and stood up.

"Hermione..." She reached out again and let her hand fall, looking anguished.

"You know how strongly I feel about house elves," I said, fists so tight my fingernails started digging into my palms. "Why am I only hearing about this now?"

"I was too ashamed," she whispered. "I was afraid you would hate me. I hoped it could just stay in the past."

I shook with anger, at her and myself. "I should've asked you about him sooner, before I started to think you weren't such a lousy human being. The fact that you were ever capable of that is... is... monstrous!"

She flinched, and her pained expression turned fierce. "Oh, like you're some perfect angel of interspecies equality?" she shot back. "How long did it take you to realize you shouldn't force house elves to be free? You, the superior human, thinking you know what's best for them."

"That's not fair! I was just a kid back then!" My voice was getting too shrill, but I couldn't control it.

"And what about now? I saw how tense you were every time the big scary centaur got mad. I'm the one who's supposed to think they're savages."

"He was talking about trampling you! Centaurs attacked me and Harry once!"

"Talking being the operative word. And I'd bet money that you provoked them."

"Well..." I made myself refocus. "This isn't about me! Stop deflecting."

"No, this is about both of us." She pointed a finger at my heart, jabbing my chest. "You don't think you have the capacity to be like me? You don't think there's an ugly side to all of us that can turn monstrous in the right environment? I was raised to think cruelty to creatures was normal. An appropriate way to vent, so your family wouldn't have to endure it. No one ever taught me otherwise; I had to figure it out myself. You're mad that it took me so long? So am I. I have to live with myself. But you have a choice. You can walk away from me right now."

I glared at her, torn up inside. I wanted to push her away, ignore her until the mission was over, and never see her again. I wanted to find some way to forgive her. Indecision kept me from moving.

"Or... you can keep walking with me," Narcissa said hesitantly. "It won't be easy. It's a constant struggle, figuring out what's true and what's just prejudice or pureblood propaganda. We'd have to be painfully honest. And you'd have to accept my past." She swallowed hard. "I don't want to lose you, but it's your choice."

I pressed my hands to my head and groaned. "I don't—I'm not sure. I need to think about this. I need to think about what I should do."

She nodded, her face smoothing into a neutral mask. "Think about it, then."

"What else am I going to find out later?" I asked, doubt gnawing at me. "I feel like I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is there more you're not telling me?"

"More of what? I can't possibly tell you everything there is to know."

"That's not an answer," I said.

"I need an answer too!"

I waited for her to storm away, but she hugged herself and stood still. I needed room to think, but I didn't want to walk away either. We stayed there as if rooted to the spot. Brin approached us and gently pulled Narcissa away, back toward the trail. Harry and Ron found me and did the same. We walked along without speaking for several minutes.

"Did you hear all of that?" I asked my friends. I'd completely forgotten about them, too absorbed in my own reaction to what Narcissa had admitted.

"It was kind of hard not to," Ron replied, looking a little shell-shocked. "You guys are scary intense."

I looked ahead at Brin and Narcissa talking quietly. She looked like she was crying, and Brin wrapped his arm around her shoulders. My fists tightened again.

"I don't believe this! A magical creature is comforting her?" I hissed, still mad despite feeling awful from seeing her cry. "She's the exact type of person I've been fighting against ever since I started S.P.E.W."

"Well..." Harry said.

I turned on him. "Well what?!"

"Are you really fighting against people? I thought you're fighting for house elves to be treated better."

"It's the same thing!" I told him. "They get treated better when abusers and enablers get taken down."

Harry frowned, scratching his head. "Or when they change. It sounds to me like she realized what she'd done wrong, stopped doing it, and then turned herself in when she had a chance."

"Are you defending her?" I asked. "Why are you so okay with this? You were closer to Dobby than anyone else!"

"I'm not okay with it, but Hermione, none of this is a surprise, really. Maybe you wanted to think the best of her, but we already knew the Malfoys were cruel to Dobby." Harry looked down. "You know, he had a chance to get revenge when he rescued us from the manor, but he just disarmed Mrs. Malfoy. I think he would accept the house elves' decision too. What more do you want? A worse punishment?"

My anger dissolved into sadness. "I don't care about the court decision. I just really wanted her to be a good person. I wanted her to be innocent."

Harry's face darkened. "I felt like that when I found out Dumbledore had a whole questionable past I never knew about. But... I guess, maybe you can still be a good person even if you're not innocent of everything. Like maybe we're all standing on this line stretching from good to evil. And some people are closer to evil, and some closer to good. But you can always turn around and start walking the other way. And maybe, where you're standing doesn't matter so much as which direction you're facing."

"That's way too bloody deep," Ron said.

Harry's words echoed in my head, but they couldn't find anywhere to sink in. "You guys go on ahead," I whispered. I rubbed my hand over my face, then realized that was one of Narcissa's gestures. My breath hitched. Don't cry, I told myself. Don't cry. I walked alone for a long time, nursing my pain.

***

Hours later, Brin stopped walking with Narcissa and let her go on past him. He said goodbye to Harry and Ron as they passed, then waited there until I drew level with him.

"This is the edge of our territory," he said. "It's time for us to part ways, but I'm glad to hear of the progress you've made for magical creatures. If you ever come 'hiking' on this trail again, please visit. I have thoughts to share, if your ministry is open to hearing them."

"That would be great," I said sincerely. "I'm sorry about... all of this. We could've talked more."

"My time here was still well spent. Narcissa Malfoy spoke with me of many things, including your own work. She seems to hold you in great esteem. Farewell, Hermione Granger, and be careful in the lands ahead."

"Farewell," I echoed.

He turned in a circle to gallop back toward home. When he was gone, I craned my neck to look ahead on the trail and see how Narcissa was doing, then looked away, telling myself I didn't really care. She'd emotionally abused Dobby and let Lucius do worse, then hid it from me. If she was feeling bad right now, she deserved it.

I stewed in my unhappy thoughts through the afternoon, practicing wandless diffindo because I felt like breaking things. The trail behind me was littered with perfectly split sticks and halved rocks. I was getting good at it, but I couldn't even feel glad. I kept my occlumency walls up too, though I knew she wouldn't dare do a training attack right now. Or would she? I started biting my nails, unable to wrap my mind around the difference between how well I felt like I knew her and how little I actually knew about her.

***

Evening came without any dementor attacks, despite getting closer to our final destination. It made me uneasy. While we waited for Narcissa to set up the ward, I wrote a terse daily report, barely mentioning the centaurs to keep their privacy, then pulled out our maps. I used a little magic to pinpoint our location, seeing that we were right on track to reach Groesffordd tomorrow. The Dead Place. Dementors come from there.... I rested my head on my arms, feeling afraid and alone even with my friends there.

Once the tent was set up, we took turns taking showers, much-needed since we hadn't been able to shower at the centaur settlement. After my turn, I put my pyjamas on and left the washroom to go have dinner outside. My steps slowed as Narcissa passed me to take her shower, but I kept walking. Harry and Ron were sitting on conjured cushions by the campfire, blankets around their shoulders for extra warmth on such a cold night. They'd already raided my backpack for food and started eating.

I summoned the blanket from my bed and wrapped it around myself, then picked at my bland packaged food, remembering all the new and sometimes delicious flavors of the centaurs' food. I wouldn't have had such a rich experience if it weren't for Narcissa. How could one person be so wonderful and so horrible? Another wave of sadness rolled over me.

Ron came over and sat beside me, giving me a one-armed hug. "Hey, don't keep making yourself miserable. Personally, I don't know why you bother with her, but she's your friend now, isn't she?"

"I don't know. That was before I knew what she's done."

"I've done some pretty crappy things too. Do you remember when I left you and Harry when we were on the run?" His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed guiltily. "Sure, you were pissed, and you yelled, and... you know... attacked me, but you forgave me. The Hermione I know wouldn't ditch a friend who's trying to make up for doing something wrong. Why don't you just give Narcissa a few good punches and then forgive her too?"

"Merlin, no, I could never hit her!" I exclaimed, remembering how vulnerable she'd felt in my arms after our heart-to-heart in Hoppens' town. "Even without our contract. And I shouldn't have attacked you either."

"It's okay, I can take it," Ron said, shrugging.

I shifted uncomfortably. "It's not okay. I really shouldn't have done it."

Shame flooded me as I remembered what Narcissa said about everyone's capacity to be monstrous. I'd punched Ron as hard as I could, as many times as I could, until Harry stopped me. What if I had stayed with Ron and gotten married, and then hit him whenever he messed up or made me mad? Men abusing women was more common, but I knew from my legal research that it absolutely happened the other way around as well, and men rarely reported it. It was too accepted in society. Even I had fallen into that mindset, thinking it wasn't that bad to hit him because I knew he could "take it."

"I'm such a hypocrite," I mumbled, appalled. "Ron, I'm sorry, so so sorry! I'm never going to do that again."

Ron looked confounded. "What? That's not what... I wasn't trying to make you feel bad about that. I really don't mind. I deserved a few wallops for abandoning you guys."

"No, nobody deserves to be hit like that," I cried, feeling worse and worse. "And you weren't even in your right mind. You left under the influence of the locket!"

"You were near it for too long too, so let's just put it behind us, okay?" Ron said. He stood up and moved back to where he'd been sitting. "I was just trying to, I don't know, be comforting, but I royally screwed that up. Harry, can you bail me out here with some more wisdom? I swear you were channeling Dumbledore earlier."

Harry raised his hands. "I've got nothing, sorry."

"You're doing fine, Ron," I said, wiping my eyes. "I think I needed a wakeup call more than I needed comfort. I've been so pigheaded. I can't give up on her like this. She means too much to me."

Ron nodded, though he frowned a little. Harry looked thoughtful. Worried I'd said more than I should have, I asked Harry how Kreacher's union was doing, just to have something else to talk about.

A while later, Narcissa came out of the tent and paused, our eyes locking for a long moment. I held open my blanket for her. Relief washed over her features. She conjured a cushion right next to mine and burrowed into the warmth of my blanket. I held her against my side, convincing myself it wouldn't seem strange. Friends could huddle under blankets. Part of me didn't mind if the boys figured out something had changed between us, but I wanted to explain it to Ron in the least hurtful way possible.

"Are you done thinking?" Narcissa murmured.

"Mostly. We don't have to talk it out right now," I replied quietly. "The important thing is, I don't want to lose you either."

She let out a breath. Under the blanket, her hand found mine and held it, lacing our fingers together. "I hope I haven't interrupted your conversation. What were you talking about?"

"Um... house elves," Harry replied, looking awkward.

Narcissa bit her lip, then asked, "Could you tell me about Dobby? It seems I never really knew him."

Harry launched into the story of his first encounters with Dobby, which were frustrating for him at the time but funny looking back. Narcissa leaned her head on my shoulder, listening to everything. The fire crackled and popped, keeping the darkness around us at bay. I was still afraid of what we might find tomorrow, but I didn't feel so alone.

Chapter Text

On our last morning, I woke up sooner than usual, full of worries. Maybe we wouldn't find any clues about what the dementors were doing here. Maybe we'd find something horrible. Maybe they would overwhelm us and we'd never make it home. I tried to set aside those disturbing thoughts and got out of bed, making my mint tea and heading outside. Narcissa was standing with her wand out and her wisp of a patronus hovering in the air.

The light brightened as she saw me. "You're up early."

"So are you," I replied, missing this routine before it was even over. "Practicing?"

"I'm sure I'll need it today," Narcissa muttered, and the wisp faded away. She took a few steps toward me, coming to rest in my arms as they encircled her.

"Glad I'm not the only one worrying." I breathed deep and let out a sigh, knowing we would have to talk later. I resolved to handle it better than yesterday. No yelling. No sulking and refusing to speak to each other all day. That's what Ron and I used to do, and it wasn't how I wanted things to be with Narcissa.

As we held each other, I caught a whiff of the unknown spice I'd wondered about in the past. Narcissa's half-full tea mug sitting by the firepit gave me a clue. I pulled back enough to kiss her, feeling a thrill rush through me. There were hints of pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. Of course it wouldn't be one simple thing. I hummed in appreciation and felt her smile as we parted.

She commented, "Not a bad way to start the day."

"I've got it," I said triumphantly. "That enthralling scent—it's chai tea."

"Enthralling, hm?" Narcissa responded, smirking. "All this time I thought you were growing fond of me, you were actually infatuated with chai."

I laughed. "Or it's the other way around."

Her smirk widened into a genuine smile again. "I've grown rather fond of mint, myself."

***

After the sun rose, I sat at the table in the kitchen area, watching Narcissa stir pancake mix with the ease of long practice.

"It didn't cross my mind the first time you made these," I said, "but I wouldn't have expected you to know how to cook. Is it because you're not allowed to own a house elf anymore?"

"Not exactly." Her wand siphoned the batter over to a pan on the enchanted stovetop. "We haven't owned one for years anyway. Not since Dobby."

"Why not?" I asked, watching as Ron woke up and headed to the washroom.

Narcissa sighed, sounding unhappy as she reminisced. "Lucius came home raging about our elf defying him and demanded I go bid on a new one. That's when I reached my limit. When I married him, I got used to how he punished Dobby, and it worsened so gradually that I was numb to it. But exposing a new house elf to all of that... I couldn't bear it. Instead I learned to cook and clean so that we wouldn't need another one."

I felt surprised and a little heartened. "I know you had to reject a lot of your upbringing to do that."

She added under her breath, "Twenty-one years too late."

"Twenty-one? Isn't that the number of rules they gave you?"

"One for every year I was responsible for him, from the day I got married to the day he was freed."

I nodded in understanding, though a worry kept bothering me and I couldn't pinpoint what it was. Ron came back out of the washroom and joined us, holding his fork eagerly as Narcissa flipped a few pancakes onto four plates. Harry got out of bed too, putting his glasses on before he came over and sat at the table.

"Morning," he said. "Those pancakes look good, Mrs. Malfoy."

"No more of that, Harry," she replied, emphasizing his name. "We've been breaking bread together for, what, eleven days now? Call me Narcissa. You too, Ronald."

"Ugh, Ronald sounds like I'm being scolded. Just call me Ron." He drenched his plate in syrup before digging in. "Fankf for vhe pancakef."

This camaraderie was something I never expected when we began, but it was quite welcome. I volunteered to wash our dishes, scourgifying and rinsing them in the sink. Narcissa stood up and rested her hand on my hip while she reached past me to add the mixing bowl to the sink. I wished I could feel such ease with her right then.

"Alright there, Ron?" Harry asked.

I glanced back and saw Ron looking a little red-faced as he replied, "Yeah, just losing my mind. I'm gonna go outcheck and side the weather. I mean, go outside and... uh..." He picked up his backpack and wandered out of the tent.

Harry gave me a look. "You two are as subtle as Grawp."

I hunched my shoulders. "I need to tell him."

"What, tell him that you prefer people who are already married?" he said rather unkindly. I winced.

To my relief, Narcissa interjected, "Not happily married. But please keep that to yourself."

Harry looked uncertain, then nodded and ruffled his hair. "Okay. Let's just sort this out when we get home. Something tells me we'll have enough to deal with today."

"Why do you think we didn't see any dementors yesterday?" I wondered. "There were so many, and now none. What if we're walking into a trap?"

"We might be," Harry replied.

***

A somber mood followed us all morning. We passed through one of the empty villages Brin had mentioned, just a small one, hardly half an hour needed to check for bodies. It seemed most likely to me that everyone had lost their souls and wandered away to die in the cold. Would the dementors keep ranging further and further to sate their appetites? I could've shared my thoughts with Narcissa, but something kept me quiet.

Eventually she came up to me and nudged my shoulder with her own. "You seem distant."

"I'm worried," I said.

"I don't think that's all it is. Are you still upset from yesterday?"

I watched the leaves crunching under my feet until I was able to put my finger on what still bothered me. "You lied to me. And that's not even the first time."

"I'm sorry," she said, twisting her fingers.

"Sorry enough to stop doing it, or sorry I found out?"

"I hide from everyone. Stopping isn't easy. I believe that's common for Slytherins, though Brin seemed to think it's because I'm a Scorpio." She let out a little laugh at that, then asked, "Are you a Virgo?"

"Yes," I answered, surprised.

"Ah, the analyst. He guessed yours too, and told me it's unwise to let secrets build up between us. I've never known anything different, but I'd very much like to be honest about myself with you."

"Okay," I said. "And I'll do my best to hear you out."

"There's one more thing I should tell you, to get it out in the open. It's not that bad, but I'm worried you'll take it badly."

I braced myself for the worst. "I'm listening."

She took a deep breath before speaking. "I have a personal project, called New Leaf. Remember when I told you about how isolated I was after the war?" She waited for me to nod. "I made a plan to rebuild myself as an upstanding witch. I want to have people think well of me, to regain the influence I've lost. I want opportunities to repair some of the wrongs that I was involved in."

"Aren't those good goals?" I asked. "What's the problem?"

"We're getting closer to Groesffordd, and if we make it home alive—"

"When we make it home alive," I asserted.

"—we'll be in society again. You deserve to know what I had planned for you."

"Planned for me? What...?"

She sighed. "Improving my reputation involves earning goodwill and good opinions from respected witches and wizards. That's why I chose you to assist me with Project 404. Who better to vouch for me than one of the people who took down the Dark Lord? I planned to collaborate with you frequently so we could be seen working together at the ministry."

Comprehension came slowly. I remembered that day all eyes were on us when we went to ask Mr. Weasley to use his phones. I also remembered how she hid her disdain for him in order to get what she wanted. Is this what life would be like with her? Full of deceptions and half-truths that she may or may not tell me about later?

"So you're saying... asking me to help was just a ploy?"

She shook her head. "Please don't take it that way. I needed someone muggle-savvy to help with the project, and there was simply an additional reason to choose you in particular."

"And all of this?" I asked, waving at the forest around us. "Are you here to become some kind of hero?"

"Certainly not," she replied. "The plan was to be seen with you in public, where my peers could see us."

"Right," I said in my most level voice. "So now I know. You wanted me to improve your reputation."

Narcissa nodded, watching me with caution.

I continued, "Like networking. Which is no big deal. People do it all the time." But I could feel myself teetering on the brink of a much worse reaction. How could I trust a habitual liar? Insecurity made me afraid that she'd been getting close to me this entire time simply to move up the social ladder. Why else would someone so beautiful and sophisticated want to be with me? I struggled to keep down the surge of doubt, telling myself it was irrational. And I'd already decided not to yell or fight again today.

"So you understand?" she asked.

"I understand, it's—" I stopped, then started again as fear sank its teeth into me. "It's just, I was thinking, let's keep... this... to ourselves and spend time together alone, not in public."

Narcissa's face tightened. "My entire life is public. So is yours, for that matter. If you're not willing to be seen with me, I'm not sure how we can hide even something as innocent as a friendship or a professional relationship. I'm under constant scrutiny, and anyone important to me will be caught up in it one way or another. "

"If we can keep classified secrets, surely we can keep this private too."

She looked hurt. "Are you—" she started to ask, then shook her head, mumbled something to herself, and gave me a forced smile. "Maybe I'm being insensitive. Is this because you haven't come out of the closet yet? You don't want your friends and family wondering why you're spending so much time with a witch?"

I latched onto the excuse. "I'm not sure how they'll react. And really, we wouldn't want Lucius to wonder either, right?"

Narcissa gave me a half-hearted nod. "I'll keep an appropriate distance and follow your lead."

I wanted to tell her that's not what I wanted, but I was too afraid of her using me. If she visited my office with another project in hand, I would wonder if it was part of her plan. Keeping everything private was the only way I could be sure there was no ulterior motive. We kept walking side by side, but I felt even more distant. And I felt a dull sensation like turning down the heat of boiling water, worsening with every step. My backpack was getting heavier. I didn't think I was that fatigued. Narcissa halted abruptly, and I stopped a few paces later, wondering what was going on.

"Harry, Ron!" I called ahead. They turned and jogged back, and we all gathered round. Ron rubbed his arms, looking sullen.

"Do you feel that?" Narcissa asked.

"Yes, what is it?" Harry wondered.

"Nothing good," she replied, looking ahead of us with a face full of trepidation. "It's the same feeling I got when visiting Azkaban. I'd recognize it anywhere. Dementors are suppressing magic here. It's not bad yet, but it'll likely get worse the further we go."

I pulled out our maps and pinpointed where we were, then shivered. "We're very close. Groesffordd should be just over that rise. I wonder if Brin called this the Dead Place because of the low magic, or because of the empty villages around it."

"Or because we're clearly going to die here," Ron muttered.

Harry patted Ron's shoulder. "We'll do some recce and get out of here before you know it."

Narcissa disapparated nearly silently and reappeared a few metres to the right. "We're far enough away that there's plenty of magic to escape if need be. We can leave our backpacks here and hurry back at the first sign of trouble."

"But none of us should leave unless we're all safe," Harry said. "We're sticking together. Ready? Let's go." With our backpacks piled up behind us, Harry led the way up the low slope ahead with Ron at his side.

Fearful, I followed them. "You've got this, Granger," I whispered to myself. "This is just like in school. The three of us, walking into danger, no idea what we're getting into..."

Narcissa settled in beside me. "You forgot 'neglectful authority figures letting trouble run amok.'"

I frowned. "Our professors weren't neglectful."

"Oh? That old fool Albus nearly let your little trio perish on multiple occasions. Or am I misinformed?"

"He also did a lot to protect us. He just underestimated how unscrupulous you guys could be," I retorted.

"Excuse me? 'You guys'?" she repeated, looking a little irritated. "I'd rather not be lumped together with all of your enemies."

Ron glanced back. "Stuff it, both of you. All your twittering might get us caught."

I clenched my jaw and refocused.

Cautiously, the four of us sank lower to the ground and crested the hill, lying down while we looked beyond so no one would spot our silhouettes against the sky. I heard Narcissa gasp by my side before I could comprehend what I was seeing. The area ahead was surrounded by a high barrier made of cables strung taut between telephone poles that must've been uprooted and reburied as fence posts. Within its bounds was a large, low building that looked like it was made of the crushed remains of all the houses and businesses that once filled the small town. There was no one in sight.

Ron shook his head and gaped at the former town ahead. "What is this place?"

"The dementors magically expanded Azkaban over the years," I said, remembering a book I'd read about it. "So they must be capable of building things. What if this is a prison too?

"If it is, who's in it?" Narcissa wondered.

"One way to find out," Harry said, standing up.

I grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. "Are you mad? We can't just go running in there! The place is probably crawling with dementors, and our magic is weak."

"We have to find out what's inside somehow," he replied.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't go in," I said. "I just think we should plan ahead." I looked over at Ron. "Any thoughts on a strategy?"

Ron frowned, eyes scanning the fence and the building. "Yeah. Gimme a second." We waited while he thought about it. "Alright, here's what we should do. We've got to be careful, circling in from the outside like a spiral..."

We followed his plan, though the slow, deliberate pace just about drove Harry crazy. First, we took the time to test how far the low magic area extended in each direction, finding the quickest routes to return to full strength in case we ran into trouble. Harry cast his patronus, and I watched nervously as its strong light got dimmer the closer we got to the building.

We walked around the fence and waited to see if anyone noticed us. We found all of the gates and made extra openings where we could get through in an emergency.

Finally we circled the building, listening against the walls. There were no sounds from within, no windows, and only one door. Narcissa and I waited against the wall on one side of the metal door with Harry and Ron on the other side.

"Ready?" Harry asked, aiming his wand at the entrance. His patronus was barely visible now.

I glanced behind me at Narcissa, worried about how flimsy hers was with hardly any practice. "Stay close," I whispered.

"I'm with you," she replied, resting a hand on my back.

It was comforting, despite the doubt that wouldn't let me go. I swallowed hard and nodded to Harry.

He and Ron both fired confringo at the door, one aimed at the hinge side and the other at the lock. The door shook in place, then slowly teetered and fell down with a clatter.

"That blast is usually a lot more dramatic," Ron complained.

Harry leaned inside and yelled, "We're here under the authority of the ministry. If anyone's in there, announce yourself."

He waited, then led the way in. Narcissa and I went in behind him, with Ron bringing up the rear. The light streaming in from behind us only lit the first few metres of the corridor. The interior walls were made of the same conglomeration of concrete and brick as the outside was. It smelled damp and moldy. We all lit up our wands to see better in the dark interior, but even lumos was dim.

Harry stopped at an open doorway. "There's food in here."

The rest of us leaned in to look. There were rickety shelves lining the walls, full of nonperishable food. A preparation table stood in the middle of the room with over a hundred cracked and chipped bowls stacked on it.

Seeing nothing else remarkable in there, we moved on to the next doorway, a laundry room, then continued down the hall. I glanced longingly toward the light behind us as we walked further and further away from safety. We reached an intersection with one long hallway extending to the left and right, and a dark doorway straight ahead.

"Hello?" Harry called out with no response. "I guess this is the part where we split up and get taken out one by one."

"With my luck, I'd be the first to go," Ron added.

We stayed together as we crossed the long hall and looked through the nearest doorway. It was a wide, dank room with a low ceiling and metal nozzles coming down in several places.

"Showers," I realized.

"Okay, another room cleared," Harry said, moving on again. He was impatient, which perhaps was for the best. It was starting to seem like no threats were here, and once we were sure of that, there would be time to examine everything.

We went down the left side of the hallway, and that's when I first heard a noise we hadn't made.

"Shh," I said. The other three stopped moving. Faint whimpers reached my ears. The more I listened, the more voices I heard. Muttering, whispering, and keening. "There are people here. Lots of people."

Our wandlight gleamed on iron bars lining both sides of the hallway instead of walls. We walked between them uneasily. I could see the dim shapes of prisoners on either side, none of them reacting to our presence. The air was rank with the smell of human waste and body odor. We walked all the way to the end of the hall to make sure nothing would surprise us from that direction, then took a closer look at the prisoners behind the bars. Harry threw his light to the ceiling of the dark space on one side of the hall, and I almost wished he hadn't.

Scores of prisoners sat in a large cell together, clutching their knees to their chests, rocking back and forth, covering their eyes against the sudden brightness. I looked over their faces, seeing despair etched into every one. A man near us was lying curled up in a fetal position, making whimpering sounds that I gradually realized were words.

"They left us. We'll die. They left us. We'll die..."

"Ron and I saw people like this in Azkaban when we did a prisoner transfer," Harry whispered.

Narcissa muttered, "Long-term exposure to dementors."

"This is... this is really horrible," Ron said. "Are they even criminals?"

"Maybe, maybe not," I replied, feeling sick. "The dementors are on their own now. Who knows how they pick prisoners."

A group was huddled together in the back corner of the room. One of them straightened up for a moment, squinting at the light. He had such a small body, so small...

I gripped the bars. "There are kids in there!"

"What?!" Narcissa cried, running along the iron barrier until she found a gate. She blasted the lock off and raced into the room, weaving around bodies until she reached the group. "What are you waiting for?" she asked, looking back at us. "Help me get them out of here."

Harry started to say, "To where? I don't—"

"Anywhere but here," she hissed.

I went into the room hesitantly, watching where I stepped. Harry followed me while Ron kept watch in the hall. Most of the horrible smells were coming from a long pit on one side of the room that served as a crude toilet. The other side of the room had a trough of clean water, presumably for drinking. When I reached Narcissa, she was helping a boy sit up. His head lolled backward and his mouth hung open.

"What happened to you? Are your parents here too?" she asked him. Wordlessly, he pointed to the other side of the hallway. Narcissa's hands clenched on his clothing. "They don't keep you together?" He shook his head.

Harry crouched near a woman close by. "Can you hear me?" he asked.

"I hear screams. All the time. Is the screaming over?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think so," he said softly. "Can you tell me why you're here?"

"Why?" she muttered. "They took us. Cold hands, couldn't see anything. Cold hands dragged me away. Right out of our homes."

"Why did they drag you away?" he asked.

"No one knows."

They didn't seem soulless, but they'd been traumatized. Gradually, their faces started to look like I'd seen them somewhere. As Narcissa tried to get the weak children to stand up and follow her, I looked around at each person. Why were they familiar? Photographs flashed through my mind, pictures on the walls of vacant houses.

"Merlin's pants!" I exclaimed. "I think these are the people from the empty towns." My certainty grew as I kept looking. "This is where they all went. The dementors took them. Why would they take innocent people? Why..."

"To feed off their happiness," Narcissa answered, eyes icy with hatred. "A guaranteed food source, now that they don't have Azkaban."

"I wish I could kill every last one of those bloody things," Ron growled.

I clenched my fists, feeling a fair bit of the same hatred myself. Then it collapsed into a painful ache for everyone suffering around us. "Do you think they'll recover?"

"I don't know," Narcissa said, voice dropping to a whisper. "Bella never did."

Tears sprang to my eyes. I was so overwhelmed with compassion for these people that some of it spilled over into sympathy even for a murderous torturer like Bellatrix.

Harry wrapped his arms around the woman whom he'd spoken to, whispering, "We're gonna get you out of here." He went on to the next person and hugged him too. "It's okay, we're going to help."

My heart broke. Everyone in this place needed us. I held the prisoner closest to me, trying to let her feel how much we cared. Narcissa followed suit. We kept going around the room, embracing prisoners one by one, driven by a feeling that this was right, this was what they needed. Behind me, they started to stand up, looking a little less lost. They stopped shaking so much. Before long the prisoners were holding each other and murmuring words of comfort. Maybe it's over, they said. Maybe we're safe.

When everyone in the room was standing, our group led a train of people out of the prison and into the sunlight. Two of us walked in front, two in the back, all keeping an eye out for any nasty surprises. The prisoners looked up at the sky, tears streaming down their faces.

"We'll need all hands on deck to sort everyone out and bring them home," Harry said. "Let's get out of the low magic zone to make sure our watch portkeys will work."

I could barely believe we'd made it back out of the prison safely. Harry activated his watch and we waited for the backup aurors to arrive. Only a minute or two later, they popped into existence nearby, shocking the muggle prisoners.

"Aww, shite," one of the aurors said. "This is really bad, isn't it."

Harry quickly explained what was going on and told them to stay on guard. All of us were in agreement that this would end up being a trap somehow, and we didn't want the muggles to get caught up in it. While the aurors discussed what to do and where everyone should go, the four of us went back to the prison to bring out more people.

We helped the prisoners out of the cell across the hall, comforting them before leading them outside the same way. The boy Narcissa had spoken to found his parents among them, and the family embraced each other with silent tears. I looked away, not wanting to intrude on their private moment, but the brief glimpse was enough to make me feel like everything we'd gone through was worth it.

Once that half of the building was cleared, we went back in and continued down the other side of the back hallway, finding more iron bars, more cowering prisoners. The only difference was a locked door at the very end of the hall. As with the exterior door, we all stood next to it while Harry and Ron blasted it open, then filed through.

Inside was a long, narrow room of tiny prison cells, all empty with their barred doors hanging open. There wasn't really anything to hide behind, so it didn't take long to determine no one was there. Narcissa peered at the dried brown bloodstains on the walls and floors inside the isolation cells. I shivered and looked away.

At the end of the long room, there was a chair with thick wrist and ankle straps attached. We gathered around it, staring. The stains on the floor beneath it were worse than anywhere else. A set of shelves nearby held sharp metallic devices and pliers.

"Is this for torture?" Ron asked, voice tinged with the same horror I felt. "These dementors are demented."

Narcissa brushed her fingers along an empty shelf below the torture implements. She crouched down and touched the floor. "There's a large pile of ash here. I can't tell what it was," she said, then jerked her hand back. "Still hot on the inside."

I bent over to examine the ashes. "Maybe a day or two old, if it's anything like my woodstove."

Narcissa stood up and gave us all a dark look. "Something was burned not long before we arrived. That tells me two things: they realized we were getting close, and they had something to hide."

"Why turn tail and run?" Harry asked. "They could've trapped us in here and sucked our souls out, and then we'd never be able to tell anyone about what they're hiding."

"Maybe they knew other people would come after us," I said, putting things together. "Now that their location has been discovered, they can't stay here anymore."

Ron shrugged. "So that's it, then. They're gone. Everyone here is safe."

"'Safe' is a relative term," Narcissa said, looking uncertain. "The prisoners are still suffering."

"Narcissa's right," Harry agreed. It was jarring to hear him using her name. "We need to finish freeing them. I'm pretty sure my boss would say to leave them in here until we figure out the logistics, but he didn't see their faces when they felt the sun for the first time in... months, probably."

As we led the remaining prisoners out of the building, I couldn't relax. Too many questions were rolling around in my head. If the dementors were really gone, why was this place still low on magic? Who had been in the isolation cells? I looked around at the prisoners, seeing no signs of torture. Maybe some of them had been killed, but we didn't see any bodies.

By the time the building was empty, hundreds of prisoners were gathered outside. Two of the aurors went back to the ministry to work with the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee to develop a cover story while the rest stayed here to guard and care for the muggles. They hadn't eaten anything in over a day, since before the dementors left. A small team went into the prison to prepare food in the cracked bowls, and I helped shuttle the bowls outside to feed everyone. It took a while before I realized how long it had been since I last saw Narcissa.

I looked in the food prep room first, but she wasn't one of the people cooking. I glanced into the laundry room and the shower room, then turned left down the back hallway to start searching the large cells.

"Narcissa?" She wasn't in that side of the building, so I turned around to check the other end. "Narcissa?" I heard footsteps in the cell block where we'd seen bloodstains, but before I could call again, her voice reached my ears, whispering angrily to herself.

"I can't believe it. Death Eaters! What were they doing with them?"

My steps slowed to a quiet shuffle. The whispering continued.

"Can't fucking believe it. Morsmordre."

My blood ran cold. I leaned over far enough to see into one of the isolation cells. A faint Dark Mark shimmered in the air between Narcissa and the wall in front of her, snake rippling in the skull's mouth. What in Merlin's name was she doing? Her back was toward me, and I stayed silent as I watched the Mark disappear, not sure if I should be frightened. Voldemort created that spell. I'd only ever heard of Death Eaters using it, usually when someone had been murdered.

Narcissa spun around before I could hide and aimed her wand at me, then lowered it. "Hermione! You startled me."

I didn't say anything, trying to judge her tone. Guilty? Or just surprised?

She put her wand away. "Is it time to go?"

I squeezed my eyes shut. She was hiding something again! My earlier doubt overwhelmed me, heavy and unbearable. There was no way to know what really motivated her. If she wouldn't even tell me about the Death Eaters working with the dementors here, I would have to be the one to tell the ministry.

"Are you alright?" she said, stepping closer. "Come back outside with me. This place is too—hello?" The back of my neck prickled as she looked over my shoulder. Something sparked and hissed, and we peered into the shadows. "Is someone—"

A deep rumbling blocked out her voice, and the world exploded around us. Fragments of stone flew everywhere. The floor collapsed under my feet.

"No!" Narcissa cried, reaching for me.

I plunged down into the ground, rock battering me on all sides. All I could do was try to cover my head. The entire cell block caved in above us, and Narcissa screamed as the rest of the floor gave way under her. We slid in an avalanche of rubble down into the darkness beneath the prison.

***

My ears rang in the silence after the rocks settled. I started coughing as I lay there, hacking violently until I thought to pull my shirt up to cover my mouth. The collapsing stone had stirred up a ton of dust. It was pitch black down here, wherever we were.

I tugged my wand out of my sleeve—unbroken, thank goodness—and whispered, "Lumos." Light flashed and faded. All I saw in that split second was a rough passage leading deeper, and light reflecting on parallel metal lines. "Lumos," I said again, this time with no effect. The last trickle of magic was gone. I'd never really been afraid of the dark, but the lack of light was so complete that I felt like I was suffocating.

I closed my eyes and comforted myself with the memory of Acacia leading us through the forest. "We need to find a way out of here," I said, pushing rocks off of me so I could sit up. "Narcissa?" There was no reply. Voice wavering, I spoke louder. "Where are you? Can you hear me?!"

Panic seized me, and I flung the rest of the debris away. Using a boulder to keep my balance, I tried to stand up. I cried out and sat back down when my left foot refused to take my weight. Gritting my teeth, I took my boot off to feel my ankle. It was painful, swelling, and almost certainly broken.

"Narcissa!" I called, her name echoing on the walls. I crawled around with both hands outstretched to find the edges of all the rocks around me. Behind a large, rough piece, I felt something other than cool stone. It was a thick winter coat.

"Oh, no. No no no," I choked, pulling rocks away from Narcissa's body and trying not to bring down the rest of the pile on us. My knuckles ached as I scuffed them on jagged edges, careless of my own pain. Wracked with shivers, I labored for minutes until I found her head protected under a large slab of rock leaning against another. Hope warred with my fear as I touched her face, fingers trembling. When I felt warm breath on my palm, I sobbed in relief. She wasn't dead. Merlin, she wasn't dead!

As gently as I could, I lifted her head and shoulders and pulled her out from under the unstable rock pile, shuffling backward on my knees since I couldn't stand.The movement must've woken her. I heard a gasp and the rustling sound of her sitting up.

"Hermione?" A lot of the dust had settled, but she still coughed a bit. "Hermione?!"

"Here," I said, reaching out and following her arm until I found her hand. "I'm right here."

She wove her fingers between mine and held on tight. "How far did we fall?"

"Pretty far," I admitted. "Down a slope, thank goodness. A straight drop would've killed us."

"I'm not sure yet that being alive is a good thing," she muttered. "There's too little magic to dig ourselves out."

"No magic down here at all, I think. But we're in a tunnel with metal tracks leading down. We can follow it, maybe find a way out."

"A way out, deeper underground? What are the odds of that?" she asked, voice full of despair.

"Our odds are zero if we don't try," I said. "You can think it's hopeless if you want, as long as you help me hobble out of here."

"Hobble? What happened? Are you hurt?"

"Broke my ankle," I replied. "You're probably hurt worse than I am."

"I think I hit my head," she told me, "but not badly. There's only a small knot. Why do you think I'm worse off? You think I can't take a few hits? Let me see your ankle. Perhaps I have enough magic left to heal it a bit." After some fumbling in the dark, she touched the tip of her wand to my ankle and tried a simple healing spell. "Damn, nothing."

Though it didn't work, I was touched by her willingness to use her last reserves to help me. "Thank you. All I meant was that being buried has got to leave some bumps and bruises. I had to practically dig you out. You're lucky to even be alive."

She stayed silent for a minute, then stood and helped me get up as well. "Let's not tarry. The sooner we find a dead end, the sooner I'll get some relief from your relentless optimism."

I draped an arm over Narcissa for support. Her fingers tentatively brushed my wrist before gripping it to keep it steady on her shoulder. We started down the sloping passage, but every step was a struggle. I had to put a lot of weight on her each time I hopped with my good foot, but neither of us was physically strong. We stopped every few metres to catch our breath and rest for a second.

The complete blackness made it hard to estimate how much time was passing as we followed the tunnel in a downward spiral. I thought miserably of how worried Harry and Ron must be. Even if they knew exactly where to dig, there wasn't enough magic aboveground to move all the rock that had fallen. They'd have to give up and assume we were dead. I hated the thought of bringing them so much grief. Whenever my steps faltered, I let that motivate me to keep going. But our brief rests got longer and longer.My ankle hurt horribly even though I wasn't putting weight on it.

"Can we stop for a minute?" I gasped when I couldn't soldier through it anymore.

"Of course," Narcissa said, sitting down with me on the stone floor of the tunnel. Her hands touched my calf and followed it to my ankle. She hissed in sympathy. "It's really swollen. I hate having no magic. I wish I could do something for you."

"You're helping me limp along," I said. "If I weren't here, you might've already found a way out. I'm slowing you down."

"Nonsense. I would've given up already if it weren't for you," Narcissa replied, finding my forehead and feeling the clammy skin there.

"Now that's nonsense," I rasped. My tongue felt thick in my mouth. "I just wish we had water."

She let out a sardonic laugh. "We survived for years with the Dark Lord in power, but we'll die for lack of water."

"We're not going to die. And I wish you would stop calling him that."

"What?"

"The Dark Lord. Like he's still some kind of ruler."

"Old habit," she said, sighing. "I know what happens to those who dare to call him anything other than his chosen titles."

I nodded thoughtfully. "Classical conditioning."

"Conditioning?"

"You know, Pavlov's dogs?" At her silence, I elaborated. "A psychologist named Pavlov studied behavior by ringing a bell and giving dogs food. Over time, they associated the bell with the food, and they started to drool when he rang the bell, even when he stopped giving food."

"So if he had, say, cast crucio instead of giving food after the bell..." Her voice trailed off without stating the obvious. "Does the conditioning fade? Did your Pavlov have a name for that too?"

"He's not my Pavlov, he's a famous muggle scientist. And yes, the effect can fade. It's called extinction."

She shivered. "That's a bit unsettling. Like breaking my habits will obliterate me."

"Think of it like extinguishing a fire. It takes time for the coals to cool down, and they can flare up again if you feed them."

I listened to her breathing quietly in the dark, then she stood up.

"Let's keep searching for that dead end of yours."

"It's not my dead end."

We made painstakingly slow progress down the tunnel, hoping beyond hope that we'd find a way out. Or at least, I was hoping, and Narcissa was willing to humor me.

Then I sensed something. "Is that... light?"

"Not light. Magic," Narcissa answered.

Through the rock walls, we could feel magic streaming not so far away. I started to wonder if maybe magic was a type of radiation, able to pass through physical objects with even less resistance than gamma rays. It was easier and easier to detect the further we went down the tunnel. Finally I could sense it well enough to tell that two ley lines crossed ahead, making a bright nexus.

"With magic, we could apparate out of here," I said, panting and sweating but unwilling to take a break. I pulled my wand out and tried lumos again without effect.

"This close to ley lines, we ought to have enough magic already. Something is wrong," Narcissa replied.

The tunnel widened around us and we entered a vast cavern. Some kind of glowing fungus grew on the damp walls, revealing glistening stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The view ahead was partially blocked by fallen rock, but I could see a dark fog blanketing the floor of the cavern. The faint magic we'd been approaching emanated from the center.

Narcissa propped me against the tunnel wall. "Stay here. I'm going to scout ahead."

"Okay." I felt feverish. In our excitement about the magic, I'd pushed myself too much. My ankle was sending jets of fire through the nerves in my leg. I rested my head against the cool stone while Narcissa climbed up a pile of rubble. After a minute surveying the room, she crept back down silently and hurried back to me, shaking violently.

"I knew it was useless to hope. There's no way. No way."

"Calm down. What is it?"

"Dementors. A writhing mass of them, everywhere. They're... multiplying, slowly. Two heads, two torsos, extra arms splitting off from their shoulders... I've never seen.... They're drawn to the magic, but they're repelling it, damping it. Salazar, we're done for!"

"So we've got to get past them, go right to the source."

She flung her arm out in their direction. "We can't get past so many without magic! We should get away before they notice us. That would be worse than dying of thirst." Her eyes were wild, frantic with fear.

I held her cheek. "What is it about them that gets to you so badly? Everyone's afraid of them, but you..."

Something dangerous flashed across her face. "You didn't witness my sister's descent into madness. I've got the same blood. I've leaned over the edge of the abyss. I could break."

"You won't break. This is our only option," I insisted. "We'll sneak as far as we can, then run. I'll ignore my ankle. You have to help. You can't deliberately let me come to harm, remember?"

"Or can I? There's no magic," she retorted.

We stared at each other, both wide-eyed. Did the contract still apply while there was no magic? How could breaches be detected? I grabbed her, suddenly terrified that she would leave me. We might not survive the race to the center, but I certainly couldn't limp there by myself.

Her voice softened. "I didn't mean that. But I—I can't..."

"Come on," I pleaded. "Don't just choose the least terrible end. Take a risk for something better."

She groaned in protest but lifted my arm over her shoulders. I held on tight as we hobbled closer to the rock pile. We made slow progress, but I kept telling myself I could set aside my pain and run when the time came. We curved around the rubble, then stopped.

"Hermione, we can't go on like this. It's not going to work."

I couldn't accept that. "No, no, it has to. I don't want to die, we have to, we have to—"

"Listen. Let me go to the center and send back a healing spell so you can run. Do you trust me?" At my doubtful look, she let out a frustrated sigh. "Please. Please. After everything we've been through, can't you believe in me again? For just a moment, for just one more thing?"

It hit me then that there was more than one kind of trust, that it was possible to disbelieve someone while still believing in them. She could keep secrets and hide crucial information. She could lie to me about what she'd done in the past and what she planned to do. But we'd connected on some fundamental level, underneath all the details that could come and go. I could say yes to this one crucial question. Maybe that wasn't enough to build a life on, but it was enough to bet my life on.

Narcissa cupped my chin as I struggled to convince my hands to release their grip on her coat. She murmured, "You don't have to hold on so tightly. I won't go unless you tell me to. Do you trust that I won't leave you behind?"

"I do," I told her, closing my eyes as I started to cry. "Do you really think we can make it?"

With a bittersweet smile, she kissed me softly, then kissed the tears trailing down my cheek. "A little liquid courage," she said, voice breaking. When my hands opened, she turned, took a deep breath, and sprinted into the swarming mass of dementors.

I leaned around the rubble pile, staring in horror. Narcissa slipped between the distorted forms as too many corpse-like hands reached for her trying to grab hold. It was the longest minute of my life. I cringed each time they came too close to seizing her. My hand covered my mouth to keep from crying out when a dementor with nearly two full bodies blocked her path. She twirled around it as if she were ballroom dancing with nightmares. I lost sight of her among all the dark cloaks, then saw her again, even closer to our goal.

All the breath rushed out of me when she reached the ley lines. She'd made it. As their glow ensconced her, she turned and met my eyes, all of her attention on me despite the dementors closing in around her. She would never abandon me. I knew it in my bones. And I knew just as certainly that I was falling in love with her, falling hard despite everything―or because of everything.

The bright outline of her arm sent a spell my way. The pain in my ankle faded. My muscles tensed in readiness, and I ran the gauntlet as she had done. I only made it about halfway before I tripped. I'd been hobbling for so long that my body still tried to protect my ankle, and instead of catching myself, I went sprawling to the ground. The dementors eagerly sucked in the air and bent over me, lifting me up with icy fingers. My one consolation was that they hadn't reached Narcissa yet, moving sluggishly in the bright magic.

"Go!" I shrieked. "Get out while you can! Please!" In that moment, I would've given anything for her to survive. I caught one last glimpse of her with her eyes closed. The two-bodied dementor tilted my chin up, its flesh stinking like rotting meat, and it inhaled. My soul drifted out of me like a ghost, little by little.

This is it, I thought. No memories flashed before my eyes. Just a void, opening up and drawing me in.

Then Narcissa's voice rose over the din of hissing hooded figures. "Expecto patronum!"

The room brightened like the sun had broken through. The void let me go. A silver animal swam toward me, carving a path through the horde. My heart fluttered in question as I saw an otter just a little smaller than mine. It floated around my shoulders, insubstantial as air but glowing with warmth.

I staggered upright and took a few steps, then a few more. The dementors were drawn to my overflowing emotions, but they couldn't get close. The otter dived at them whenever they tried. With its protection, I reached the light without any resistance and collided with Narcissa, who threw her arms around me and buried her face in the crook of my neck. We were both trembling, both crying. Her otter drifted around us, belly up like he hadn't a care in the world. The raw magic surged through me, restoring my abilities. I cast my patronus more easily than ever, and our otters swam together in midair, charging at the nearest dementors. One by one the cloaked figures started to fade into nothingness.

"Narcissa..."

She lifted her head and tensed. "What's happening? What―how?"

"I don't know."

We watched the dementors approaching hungrily and dissolving whenever they got too close. I couldn't tell if it was our patronuses or the raw magic or just us causing it, but something powerful was happening. The sight was entrancing, like watching embers slowly die and go dark. We waited until the cavern was empty, every last one gone.

"I've had enough of this place," Narcissa said, voice raw. "Shall I bring us back?"

"More than enough. Let's go."

After a tense moment long enough to make me fear we were really trapped, we turned and disapparated.

End of Part 1

Chapter Text

Part 2

"This debriefing is being transcribed for our records." A ministry employee with a pretty but unfamiliar face sat down in the chair across from me. She set a long roll of parchment on the desk between us, along with a self-writing quill. "Today is November 15, 1998, and the time—" She glanced at the clock on the wall of the small interview room. "—is 20:35. Please state your name."

"Hermione Granger," I said with false confidence, wanting to impress her. Don't be ridiculous, I scolded myself. You don't have to act different just because she's attractive! At least I was self-aware enough to catch myself now. Besides, she wasn't beautiful to me in the way Narcissa was. I peered over at the parchment and saw with relief that the quill was writing everything down verbatim instead of adding embellishments like The pitiful young Granger wrung her hands, longing for her secret sweetheart being debriefed in the next room.

The woman also placed two sealed water bottles on the table, centered between us. When I picked one, she uncapped the other and sipped from it. It had the feeling of a formal ritual, and I quickly figured out its purpose was to assure me that the drinks weren't spiked with anything like veritaserum. I drank greedily from mine, still feeling like I might die of thirst.

Finally she reached out for a handshake and introduced herself. "Maria Edgecombe, intelligence officer, Department of Mysteries."

I leaned back. "Marietta's mum?" Her daughter's face was marred with the word sneak in acne scars because of me, though it wasn't my fault she decided to betray the DA.

She nodded once. Either she didn't hate me, or she was being very professional about it. "We'll begin with whatever happened between your last report and your arrival here, then fill in the details of the rest of your mission."

I blew out a long breath. "That's... a lot."

She didn't even bat an eye. "We've got time."

***

"How many isolation cells were there?"

"Um... maybe twelve?"

"Did it seem like all of them had been in use?"

"I suppose. None of them were clean."

"Were there any hairs or remains we could use to identify the former occupants?"

"I didn't exactly have time to search for tiny hairs in the middle of a prisonbreak and a cave-in."

"Noted. Did you observe anything while you were there?"

I paused, knowing it would reflect poorly on Narcissa if I revealed something that she wouldn't admit in her interview. But this was more important than either of us. I had to say something.

"It's possible there were Death Eaters at the prison before we got there."

"What evidence did you find?"

I reluctantly admitted, "Narcissa said something that made me think she saw signs." My protective instinct flared up and made me add, "But I might've misunderstood."

Edgecombe nodded and moved on. My fingers ached from how tightly they gripped my chair. I hoped I'd made the right choice.

***

"Do you know what triggered the collapse?"

"I think I heard a fuse being lit, like the whole place was rigged to blow."

"Are you referring to muggle explosives?"

"It's quite possible. The tunnel we were in had tracks like a mine shaft. Maybe they found explosives in there during construction and decided to plant them."

"At the time of the collapse, was there someone else in the cell block with you and Malfoy?"

I frowned. "I'm not sure. It was too dark to see. I don't think a Death Eater or dementor could sneak in without notice, unless there was a secret passage. Or maybe the fuse was on a timer, set to kill us and destroy evidence as a fail-safe."

"We would call that 'fail-secure' in this case," Edgecombe replied in a dry voice. It was the first time I'd caught a hint of personality from her.

"Because what could be more secure than blowing something to smithereens," I joked.

Her face remained stoic.

"Right," I said, uncomfortable again. "Um, by the way... I'm sorry about your daughter. Permanent scars might've been a bit harsh, in retrospect."

Now a hint of anger appeared. "I'm sorry my daughter got involved in your cause at all. She should've stayed out of it or stayed true to it."

I was so surprised by her answer that I couldn't think of a response.

"Let's continue," Edgecombe said, back to business.

***

"...and then Narcissa apparated both of us to my apartment."

"Do you know why Malfoy didn't simply apparate back to the surface?"

"She said she tried that and it didn't work, probably because there wasn't enough magic aboveground yet, but she panicked and brought us to the first safe place she could think of."

"And that was your apartment?" Edgecombe's voice was perfectly neutral, but I knew she must be wondering why.

"Um, apparently." I remembered the moment we arrived. I'd been upset that Narcissa hadn't brought us back to my friends, but at the same time it felt good to be back home, and even better to know that Narcissa felt safe there.

"What were your next actions upon arrival?"

"I sent a messenger patronus to Kingsley to say we were alive and ask for instructions." Narcissa had watched with curiosity, clearly unaware that patronuses could do that. I'd told her, My side used them to communicate during the war, and she replied, Ah. My... side... had its methods as well. "Kingsley sent back a patronus saying he would contact Harry and Ron. Then Hestia Jones from law enforcement arrived to bring us to the ministry for debriefing. So here we are. You know the rest."

"At what point did you obtain a bowl of oatmeal?"

I looked down at my now-empty bowl on the table. "Jones suggested bringing a snack because debriefings take forever. Narcissa made this for me." I didn't mention that I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I'd laughed when I realized all of my snacks were in my backpack, sitting somewhere on a hillside by the prison, and my laughter turned to hiccups and tears. Who can worry about snacks after all this? I asked. Narcissa reached out but didn't touch me while someone was watching. She patted the kitchen counter instead, telling me, Eating enough is important. It'll give you energy for all the other worries.

"Did you observe her adding any extra ingredients?"

"The only 'extra ingredients' were cinnamon and brown sugar," I replied angrily. My heart ached. Nobody knew her like I did. At my apartment, Jones had watched in disbelief as Narcissa went through my cabinets, found some oatmeal I rarely ate, and prepared a bowl for me. She even started putting the ingredients away until I asked, Aren't you having some too? She gave me a startled look, then made a bowl of her own. I wondered how often she took care of Lucius and Draco without remembering to take care of herself.

"Noted."

***

Hours and hours later, my debriefing was over. There were so many questions to answer, and so many details I couldn't supply. I'd had no time to recover after we got back, and now it was past midnight. To make matters worse, Edgecombe had tried to read my mind a few times, and resisting had tired me out even more. I rested my head on the table while I waited to be told I could go home.

Kingsley came in after only a few minutes. His smile and his usual purple clothes made the drab room seem much cheerier.

"Evening, Hermione. How are you feeling?" he asked, resting a hand on my shoulder. "You went through a harrowing experience in that cavern."

"I feel exhausted. Were you listening?" I asked, surprised that he already knew about it.

He nodded and pointed to my left. "Two-way wall. I've been switching between listening to you and listening to Narcissa all evening."

My head whipped around to look at the wall. It seemed completely ordinary. "Is she still here?"

"No, I've already spoken with her and sent her home. Her interviewer gave up not long ago. Apparently, even when she's cooperating with us, getting information from her is like pulling teeth."

I bristled at that. "You don't have to yank it out of her. Just ask nicely."

He laughed a little. "You misunderstand me. Her interviewer was polite, but Narcissa is simply very tight-lipped. Every question got the bare minimum answer. It would be funny if it weren't so important to get everyone's account."

"We could come back tomorrow and I could ask her questions. She doesn't mind talking to me."

Kingsley shook his head. "I can't allow that. Debriefing is separate for a reason, and our interviewers are highly trained. But I'm glad to hear she talks to you. I'm never quite sure of her intentions here, despite her good behavior. She's certainly not in it for the money. Could you let me know if you ever get the sense that Narcissa isn't loyal to us?"

My stomach clenched. "I won't spy on a friend." I felt bad enough already.

"I must've missed something," he said with surprise. "Weren't you at each other's throats when you left?"

The sudden memory of her throat against my lips made me blush. "We bonded during the mission."

"Then forget I asked," he dismissed. "I wouldn't ask you to betray a friend's trust; everyone in the Order knows how precious it is. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised you got closer. I've seen her research. She's got a brilliant mind, like you do."

I smiled as I thought about all our conversations on the trail. Her mind wasn't just brilliant; it was captivating, full of intriguing thoughts. With a worldview sometimes at odds with mine. My smile faded. Narcissa had shown how much she cared about me, but was that enough? How could I let myself start to love someone who was evidently still keeping secrets for Death Eaters? I ought to be cautious with her. I needed to guard my heart.

"Speaking of minds and trust," he said, leaning closer, "on her way out, Maria mentioned you resisted her legilimency. That's perfectly alright; she was simply surprised. Your file says you have no training. Should we update it? What's your level?"

"Um, I don't know what my level is. I've gotten some private training. What was Mrs. Edgecombe trying to do?"

"Some routine surface scanning to be sure she understood your descriptions. Ministry employees, even Unspeakables, aren't authorized to do anything really intrusive without a search warrant, I assure you."

"A search warrant... for a mind? Wow. So she's an Unspeakable? She said she's an intelligence officer. Is that the same thing? What work do they do?"

Kingsley chuckled. "Right, yes, it's a subcategory, and that varies. We could stay here all night asking and answering questions, but I'd much rather go home and get some rest. Wouldn't you?"

I nodded and stood up, stretching my limbs. I'd only gotten up a few times to use a small restroom at the end of the hall of interview rooms, and now my body felt stiff. The cave-in sure didn't help either. At least my ankle was holding up.

Kingsley walked with me past a security gate toward an Arrivals and Departures room where we could apparate freely. This entire night had been disorienting, especially since I didn't know exactly where we were. Now I was paying attention enough to notice a door labeled "Courtrooms" and figure out we were in a different wing of Level Ten. Kingsley and I went through a second security gate and reached the apparition area.

"Take the day off work," Kingsley said. "Come back on Tuesday once you've had a full day of rest, alright?"

"I will, thank you," I replied, grateful for the opportunity to finally get a shower and some rest.

***

Despite how tired I was, I could hardly sleep. I woke up repeatedly, confused when I couldn't hear anyone else sleeping peacefully nearby. I kept leaning over the edge of my bed as if I'd find Narcissa in her bunk below me. This was the longest we'd been apart from each other for nearly two weeks. Missing her was a physical sensation, strongest in the arm and hip where I'd leaned against her, hobbling through the darkness underground. I clutched my pillow and eventually fell into a deep sleep.

I slept all morning and afternoon, only waking when the sun started to go down. I was starving, but the long rest had brought back a bit of strength. I felt much better after retrieving Crookshanks from Phoebe―who went right back to flirting with me, having forgotten our recent conversations―and getting a pizza delivered.

I had just finished eating when there was a knock on my door. Wand drawn, I checked the peephole and saw Harry and Ron standing outside.

The moment I opened the door, they threw their arms around me. I cried and held onto both of them, none of us saying a word for a long time. They looked teary-eyed too when we finally let go. Harry brought my backpack inside and set it by the door. Rather than finding seats, the three of us sat down cross-legged right there on the floor. It made me feel like we were kids again.

I told them the whole story of Narcissa and I struggling to escape from underground, though I didn't mention how her patronus matched mine. Ron had only recently begun to suspect something. The depth of her feelings for me... it was too much to take in all at once.

"I wish we could've been there with you," Ron said.

"I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Those dementors..." I crossed my arms and shuddered. "How are the prisoners?"

"They're having a really hard time of it," Harry told me.

Ron explained, "The cover story is that there's this weird fungus that put them all in a coma for months. But I dunno how well it'll work."

Harry nodded. "We've been with them in their hometown all day, pretending to be medical workers bringing them home, but it's not as easy as telling a lie and leaving them there. Obliviating their months in prison doesn't get rid of the trauma. I think they'll need therapy groups."

I nodded in understanding, though I wondered aloud, "Why aren't the Magical Accidents and Catastrophes folks handling this?"

"They are, but all of the aurors who were there yesterday insisted on helping too. After seeing people come out of that kind of horrible situation, it's hard to hand it over to someone else. We're invested. Especially after losing one of our own."

"Someone died?" I asked.

"Alger Duggan didn't survive the collapse," Ron said sadly.

I shook my head, surprised and saddened though I didn't know the man. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Harry sighed. "Yeah, me too. First dead auror since the war ended. We're going to his funeral tomorrow."

"Should I...?"

Harry shook his head. "Only other aurors and his family will be there, but we can pass along your condolences."

Ron said, "Oh, speaking of family, I just remembered we're having a birthday dinner for Bill on the 29th. Are you coming? Mum asked me to make sure you know you're always welcome even though you and I aren't, you know..."

"I'd be happy to come," I answered, relieved to know that hadn't changed, though I couldn't help but wonder how they'd react if they found out I was falling for a woman whose family―both sides of it―had given us all so much grief.

We spent a little more time catching up, but before long Ron went home to the Burrow where Mrs. Weasley would have dinner ready. Harry went back to Grimmauld Place where he and Ginny were staying while deciding on a permanent home. I stayed alone in my apartment, which used to be enough for me.

***

I woke to my alarm in the morning and started my old routine automatically, but something was missing. Someone was missing. I made tea and settled down to read for a short while before breakfast, longing for Narcissa to join me. I didn't have any milk for cereal, so I opted for oatmeal instead, but it wasn't as good as the bowl she made. I took a shower and brushed my teeth, wishing she would surprise me with a prank.

Stop, just stop, I told myself. You're not going to make it through today if you keep thinking about her.

I put her out of my mind as best I could and headed for the door, determined to focus on work like I used to. Then my hand fell on an unfamiliar robe on the coat rack.

I lifted it off the hook, confused. Its cut was decidedly feminine, so I knew Harry or Ron hadn't left it here, and the material was a luxurious velvet. I got a vague recollection of Narcissa hanging up her robe the first time she was here, before we went to see Phoebe. It smelled like her, bringing me back to the moment I pulled her up from the couch and we stood too close together. I'd been so out of sorts and oblivious to what I was feeling. And Narcissa... she must've been just as flustered if she went straight back to the ministry so abruptly that she forgot her work robe.

Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I leaned on the wall by the door, holding her robe against me and trying not to cry. She should be here. We should be spending our mornings together, but that was impossible. She lived with Lucius, and I felt too conflicted about everything she kept hiding.

I reluctantly put the robe back and wore my own.

***

The ministry felt like a foreign country when I walked through the atrium. I'd been on the trail so long that it felt like part of me got left behind out there. Now the normalcy of being here with familiar people going about their daily business felt completely abnormal. The lift wasn't any more crowded than usual, but it felt like everyone was pressing in around me.

When it stopped on my floor, I stood slightly shielded by the wall while I subconsciously scanned the open office area. Then I realized what I was doing. There weren't any threats. I didn't have to look out for danger. I made myself walk straight to my office from there. By the time I was sitting down at my desk, a headache was forming. I stared at the pile of paperwork in my inbox, and it stared back at me.

Minutes passed. I couldn't make myself get started. The realizations that had driven me to volunteer for the mission were still true. I couldn't be happy with this job; I would lose the edge that kept me awake and interested.

I started daydreaming about applying to the Department of Mysteries. I could do experimental research with magic. I could go on another classified mission. I'd gotten a taste of how they operated, and it made me want more. But then the Magical Creatures department would languish. I couldn't bear to leave without knowing someone good would replace me.

Maybe one of my coworkers? No, none of them wanted to take the initiative. One of my friends? Luna came to mind for a moment, but I could never be sure whether her creatures were real or imaginary. Could I put up a job listing? No, that was HR's responsibility, and they'd hire some pencil-pusher.

I was the only one I trusted to do this job. I was stuck. I rested my head on my arms, feeling my new dream slipping away. Maybe it was foolish to want to transfer. I did important things right where I was. Maybe that was the lesson I was supposed to learn.

I dug into the pile, sorting it into urgent and nonurgent items. I read reports, started a to-do list, and sent memos about project improvements. If there was one thing I was good at, it was throwing myself into my work.

***

The rest of the week passed the same way.

Wake up, go to my office, slog through paperwork. Repeat.

As I worked, I felt myself shutting down, like the custodians in my mind had begun turning the lights off room by room.

***

I lay in bed on Monday morning after a long weekend of doing nothing. Each day it got harder to leave this warm cocoon where the hours could drift by.

Narcissa hadn't contacted me since the mission ended last Sunday.

To be fair, I hadn't contacted her either.

Part of me was terrified that she wouldn't respond. I kept remembering what she'd said when we were talking about Ollivander teaching her wandlore. It's one thing to bond with someone in dire circumstances, but quite another to want to see them again afterward. Maybe whatever we had was temporary, only possible in extremes, like superheated water that boils over the moment you disturb it.

The rest of me believed that I shouldn't see her again. I was falling for someone who would mess my life up with deception and shady activities. I'd already helped cover up an Unforgivable Curse. Now I was keeping the Dark Mark a secret too. She'd tried to warn me that getting involved with her was trouble, and I barrelled forward anyway. We'd been insulated from reality. Coming back to society felt like a slap to the face.

Honestly, there was no way we could ever make a relationship work. I'd either have to sneak around and lie to everyone I cared about, or tell them I was seeing a Death Eater's wife and risk driving them away. I wanted to be with someone I could bring home to my parents, someone who could come to gatherings with my friends. Someone who could be intimate with me, build an exciting future with me. I did want guarantees. But she couldn't give me that. I needed to move on. And I would. Any day now.

It got closer and closer to the time I ought to go to work. Pushing back the covers seemed like it would take too much effort. I felt sick just thinking about my job. I couldn't bring myself to move.

Then I heard quiet flapping and a thunk on my windowsill.

I was on my feet with my wand ready in seconds, staring at a handsome brown owl. I took a few tentative steps closer to open the window, not sure whose it was. It swooped inside silently and let me untie the tiny piece of parchment from its talon. It flapped back outside without waiting for a treat, and I unfolded the note. There was no signature, but I knew who it was from. If the elegant handwriting hadn't given it away, the fact that it was a poem would have.

Steam drifts from one mug.

Sunrise comes later each day

and the frost lingers.

I started crying while my mind struggled to catch up. I read each line again, pulling the words apart, analyzing the haiku's exact meaning, but my heart had already grasped it. Narcissa missed me. The loneliness of her words echoed around the hollow place in my chest.

Now that I was standing, I managed to get ready for work. But today I took her robe, wearing it like armor against how much it hurt to go through the day without her.

***

Another week passed. I wore her robe every day. I didn't write back.

***

There was a knock on my door late Sunday afternoon. I was reading an article in the Prophet about more of Voldemort's followers disappearing from custody. It was public knowledge now, and people were worried. The reporter managed to get a statement from a Death Eater's spouse, who claimed foul play because her husband would never have left her behind. No one believed her, but it sounded so much like something Narcissa would say that I couldn't dismiss it out of hand.

"Hermione?" Ginny called. She knocked again. "Everyone's at the party already except you."

I slouched down in my armchair. Bill's birthday on the 29th! I'd completely forgotten. And now I absolutely did not want to go to a big dinner surrounded by loud, happy people. Maybe if I stayed quiet, she would go away thinking I wasn't home.

She knocked louder. "Hermione, I know you're in there. I can see the light under the door."

Maybe if I stayed quiet even longer...

"I'm coming in, hope you're decent."

With a quick alohomora, Ginny unlocked the door. I was just starting to sit up straight when she came in and looked around at my messier-than-usual apartment. Her eyes found me with a disapproving scowl worthy of her mother.

"Hermione Jean Granger, what are you sitting around for? You need to get dressed. It's time to go! Get up get up get up!" Ginny picked up the kitchen hand towel from where I'd left it on the counter after half-heartedly sopping up a spill. She twisted it up and whipped it at me.

"Ah!" I shrieked, standing up as she whipped it again. "Ah! Hey! This isn't a locker room!"

"Well, someone needs to keep you from reading all day. It's not good for you."

"I like reading!"

"There's reading, and then there's depressed-reading. I can spot the difference," she said, picking up four half-empty mugs of chai tea from the side table and carrying them to the kitchen sink.

"Wait, I wanted to keep... those... never mind."

"Have you even showered?" she asked.

"It's the weekend," I said sheepishly.

"Merlin's gunky toenails! Come with me." Ginny dragged me into my small bathroom and pulled my sweatshirt off, which made me very nervous and acutely aware that she didn't know I liked women. "There, that's how it's done. Now take the rest of your clothes off and wash up."

It was hard to keep moping when I was in such a rush. I showered as quickly as I could and put on some comfortable clothes with my jean jacket for warmth. Ginny had been puttering around cleaning up, but once I was ready, she stepped closer and held my shoulders.

"Okay. You're not worried about seeing Ron again, right?"

I shook my head.

"I didn't think so. Harry said you were doing well after the breakup. If Ron's not the issue, we can go, yeah?"

"I don't have a present for Bill."

"He doesn't want any presents," Ginny replied. "He just wants good company."

Now that I was showered and dressed, it was easier to admit that seeing friends would probably be better than becoming a shut-in. I took a breath and set my shoulders, saying, "Okay, let's go."

***

When we apparated to the garden by the Burrow, Mr. Weasley was outside shoving a rooster into the family's chicken coop.

"Get in there, ya big lump!"

"Brawk!"

"I know it's not dark yet. But I'm not coming back out here during the party."

"Brawwwk!"

"Do you want a fox to come in?"

With a mad fluttering of feathers, Mr. Weasley got the rooster through and slid the hatch shut. Amused, I smiled for the first time all day.

"Ha!" he said with satisfaction, turning toward us. "Hermione, there you are! Dinner will be ready soon. Thanks for fetching her, Ginnykins."

I looked at the hatch. "You know, I'm sure muggle technology could close that automatically when it gets dark. With a light sensor, a switch, a motor..."

"Don't tell him that," Ginny whispered, elbowing me in the ribs.

"By golly, that's a great idea! Wow! Let me see what I can find in the shed." He ran off and started digging through stacks of toasters.

Ginny groaned. "Now he'll be in there all night! Come on."

Before long, I was in the kitchen being greeted by Harry, Angelina Johnson, and half a dozen redheads laughing and pushing each other to get to their seats around the extended dinner table. Fleur and Bill were already sitting with their heads close together as they spoke quietly. I looked away from the happy couple, then realized I ought to go over and greet Bill.

"Happy birthday," I said as cheerfully as I could.

"Thanks, Hermione!" he replied with a grin so wide his scars were barely noticeable. "Never get older, okay? It's all downhill after your mid-twenties."

"Zat's rubbish," Fleur said, patting his arm. "You get better with every year."

Narcissa was over forty and absolutely gorgeous, but I couldn't say so.

Fleur stood up and kissed my cheeks, making my face heat up. "Sit with us, 'Ermione," she invited. "Let Bill see your arm."

"My arm?"

"Do you think the scar is cursed?" Bill asked. "It may not be the work of Ancient Egyptians, but I bet I can break it. Narcissa Malfoy told me to ask you, if you can believe that. "

Hearing her name come out of his mouth left me dumbfounded. I had so many questions that I didn't know where to start. "What... how... when did you..."

Bill held up his hands in defense. "I know, I know. But she's not as bad as everyone thinks. She visits Dobby's grave every week to leave flowers."

"We chat in French sometimes, even zough her accent is 'orrible," Fleur said. "Last week she had a nightmare about ze time you were tortured. She is worried her sister cursed you."

I narrowed my eyes, pretty sure the nightmare was made up. "It's true. It bleeds whenever someone says the word aloud," I said. Which Narcissa knew because she'd called me a mudblood, but obviously she wouldn't want to admit that. Still, it was touching that she remembered about it and realized Bill could help.

I rolled up my sleeve. Bill muttered a spell and held his wand over the word carved in my arm. A complex pattern appeared above my skin.

"Yep, that's a nasty one. Hmm. Tell me if there's any pain." He tapped his wand on a specific point. "Nothing? Good, that's a good sign. It's not booby trapped. Okay, now this?" He tapped his wand again, and part of the pattern melted away like cotton candy in water.

"Still no pain," I said.

"No wands at the table!" Mrs. Weasley said. "Dinner is ready."

"One second, mum," Bill replied. He rubbed his chin, eyes tracing the magical designs. "Oh, I see. I'm gonna need to activate it. It'll hurt like hell. Ready?"

I braced myself. "It can't possibly hurt more than when I got it. Do it."

"Mudblood," he said. I clenched my fist, fighting the urge to scream in pain.

Mrs. Weasley yelled over her shoulder while grabbing a pot off the stove. "WILLIAM! We do NOT speak that way in this household!"

Bill ignored her and hurried to dispel the rest of the curse while blood was welling up in the letters. Agonizing heat and chills rolled through my body while I waited.

"There!" he declared, stopping the blood with a quick spell. The pain faded, and the letters looked like regular scars now, no longer angry and red. "You're one brave mudblood," he said deliberately.

The scar didn't flare up.

"You did it! Just like that," I said, amazed. "I can't believe it. Thank you. And please thank Nar―hrm... Mrs. Malfoy for me." How many more years would I have let that curse stay there if she hadn't pointed it out?

"Like ripping off a bandaid," Bill said. "Let's eat!"

Mrs. Weasley yelled out the back door for her husband, who came in a moment later with streaks of grease all over him. "Arthur!" she exclaimed, flicking him with her wand. "Scourgify! Scourgify! You're a mess! Why would you meddle with muggle contraptions in your nice party clothes?"

"Sorry, Mollywobbles," he said, looking apologetic.

"It's Hermione's fault," Ginny said helpfully.

Mrs. Weasley glared at me, and I gave her a sheepish smile. She waved her hand and smiled back, not really angry, then took the lids off all the serving dishes. The food was delicious as always, and the company really did help me feel cheerier. Charlie started talking with Bill and Fleur and me about his latest adventure relocating the last known dragons of a rare breed from the Three Gorges region in China. Ron was teasing Percy about an unfortunate haircut. There was an empty place setting for Fred beside George, who was laughing with his girlfriend Angelina and Ginny as they complained about how bad a recent prank product smelled. Harry sat on Ginny's other side, content to listen.

As we started on dessert, I wondered what it would be like if Narcissa were here. Would she sit beside me in awe as Charlie described endangered dragon nests on cliffs along the Yangtze River? Or would she constantly get into spats because the Malfoys and Weasleys had hated each other for decades? Who would I side with, the people who were like a second family to me, or a woman I couldn't even fully trust?

I excused myself to use the toilet and ended up leaning against the lavatory door for quite some time, unable to muster the will to go back to the table. I never thought falling in love would make me this miserable. Couldn't I have picked someone safe and predictable and honest? I groaned and opened the door, determined to enjoy the rest of the evening, and ran smack into Ron, Harry, and Ginny.

"We thought you'd fallen in," Ron said.

I gave him a weak smile. "Unlikely."

"What he means is," Harry jumped in, "we wanted to make sure you were okay."

"I think you're pining for someone," Ginny said. "You seem piney."

I shook my head. "That's not what piney means."

"Hermione isn't pining," Ron grumbled.

Harry bit his lips and looked away, knowing exactly who I was pining for. I swear, if he were any more obvious, he'd be whistling and scuffing his shoe on the floor.

"I'm stressed out. I can't stand my job anymore," I said. It wasn't a lie, really. My job was part of my unhappiness.

"Mhm," Ginny said skeptically, seeing right through me. "So who's out there breaking your heart? Someone at work?"

My eyes widened.

"Ooh, it is!" she squealed while I cursed my inability to keep a good poker face with my friends.

"Come off it, Gin," Harry said, trying to help me out.

She waved him away, too excited to stop. "Someone... in your department? No. Okay, let's take a different tack. Is he tall? Short? Handsome? Dark haired? Blond? Heavy? Skinny?"

"No one is breaking my heart. It's just me," I said, which was the truth. Narcissa had written to me. Now the ball was in my court, and I was clinging to it in indecision.

"Come onnn. Is he someone we know?" Ginny grinned and nudged me. "Or she?"

I tried to laugh. I really tried. But I was too nervous, and it came out all wrong.

"Holy shit," she gasped as Ron cringed. "It is a girl? Does she like you back? Please tell me she likes you back!"

My mouth opened and closed, and finally I stammered, "Y-yes, she likes me." No, no, it was too soon! My chest heaved as I started to hyperventilate. I wasn't ready! I hadn't read any books about coming out, or prepared any scripts of what I could say, or thought of how to explain myself.

"I knew it!" Ginny crowed, pumping her fist in the air. She turned and hollered down the hall. "I know you're there, George. Pay up."

George loped around the corner, fishing in his pocket and pulling out twenty sickles. "I gotta hand it to ya, Hermione, you're stealthy. Well done."

"You had a bet going?" Harry asked, angry for me. I was frozen in place, shaking. Ron looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole.

"It was only for ten sickles," Ginny said.

George gave her all twenty. "This is Fred's share too."

Just when I was starting to think Ginny had turned out to be the least sensitive friend ever, she reached out and held my hand, pouring the coins into it. "I'm investing in your next relationship, like a startup. Take this and use it to sweep her off her feet, whoever she is. Don't go with something cliche like flowers. Make it count." She gave me a tight hug, whispering, "And if she makes you unhappy, I'll kick her arse."

Ginny didn't let go for a long time. I stopped shaking as I realized she wasn't uncomfortable around me, even now that she knew I liked women. Eventually I remembered that it wasn't as big a deal in the wizarding world. I stayed there in her arms, clutching her and the sickles she'd invested in a relationship I'd half-decided not to pursue.

"That's better, isn't it?" She let go with a pat on my back.

"Thank you," I said, unsteady but no longer panicking.

George held up a deck of cards. "Now that we've got this sorted out, I was coming by to ask you all about a game of exploding snap."

"Are those your new hexploding prototype cards?" Ginny asked.

"Er... they... might be."

We unanimously voted against it, but followed him back to the kitchen and sat around playing with a normal exploding deck. We had to push the dirty dishes aside, which surprised me a little. Mrs. Weasley didn't usually let dishes sit around.

"Mum, do you wanna join us?" Bill asked.

"Not right now, pumpkin," she responded, sounding distracted. I spotted her reading a newspaper, circling things and hunting through the pages.

"It's Bill's birthday," I said quietly to Ginny. "What's keeping your mother that busy?"

"The Magical Symbols Game. You have to find them all hidden in the text. And do you see all these chess boards?" She pointed at them around the room, then said worriedly, "Mum plays games all day, some alone, some with friends by mail. I don't think she knows what to do with herself now that everyone has moved out except Dad and Ron."

"Hmm. Sounds like she needs something else to focus on. Where is Ron, anyway?"

Ginny frowned. "He was here. He must've slipped away." We exchanged a look.

"I should talk to him," I said. "If I can find him."

"Try the orchard," she suggested. "If he says anything rude, just hex him."

***

I went outside and found him out there in the dark orchard, batting a bludger into the air and waiting for it to come rocketing back toward him.

"Hey," I greeted.

"Hey." His voice was flat. Bam! He hit the bludger away again.

I tried to guess what the right thing to say was. "Um... I would've told you sooner if I'd known. I just figured it out recently. I mean, the fact that I'm―that is, I might be... gay." The word lesbian seemed way too scary for some reason.

The next time the bludger came back, he caught it and put in a box. He threw down the bat and started pacing without looking at me. "Okay, is something going on with you and Mrs. Malfoy? Narcissa. Whatever. I kept thinking I was just imagining it, because it couldn't be true. But she was really handsy, like all over you all the time by the end of our trip, which wouldn't be that bad except you two started making eyes at each other, and I still denied it, but now I'm finding out that maybe I wasn't going crazy."

"There is... was... something. You weren't imagining things," I confessed.

"And I encouraged you. Ugh! I'm such an idiot," he groaned, looking up at the sky. "Did you get together before or after we broke up? Why did you hide it from me?"

"After. Definitely after. I wouldn't do that to you. But she and I weren't even together really. It was so new, and... and uncertain. I didn't want to hurt you, and I just... I didn't know what to say. It might be over now anyway."

"Did I turn you off of blokes? Should I have been nicer? Or more aggressive?"

"No, Ron, it's nothing you did," I tried to reassure him. "It's something I needed time to realize. I'm still figuring it out."

"Some time, or some witch trying to seduce you?"

I shook my head. "It's not like that at all."

His face turned red as he held in whatever other words wanted to burst out. He picked up the bat and kicked the box with the bludger, letting it fly out again. Bam! "Can you please go now?" he asked. Bam!

I tensed. He said please, but the question sounded really harsh to my ears.

He turned and saw me still standing there. "To the house. Not... away forever."

I nodded and went back indoors, at least somewhat relieved. He'd improved a lot at coping with things and handling his temper. Asking to be alone was much better than yelling and being unkind. Still, I didn't feel like staying at the Burrow much longer that night. I said goodbye to everyone, gave Bill a hug and wished him happy birthday again, then apparated home.

***

On Thursday I sat at an outdoor table of a restaurant, reading a book while eating dinner. Every evening this week, I'd been window-shopping in Diagon Alley after work. It wasn't because I knew Narcissa patronized some of the shops there. I definitely wasn't hoping I'd be lucky enough to see her walk by. I told myself it was only because I didn't want to be alone in my apartment longer than necessary.

It was cold and dark outside, but I was used to that from our days on the trail. I glanced up from my book frequently―just to relax my eyes, of course―as steady crowds of people walked along the cobblestone street. It was the third of December, and the holiday season was upon us. Everyone was dressed warmly, looking cheerful, buying presents and discussing how much snow we might get.

Then I saw her. She strolled along speaking with a small group of wizards dressed in formal business robes. Narcissa Malfoy, in her element.

I forgot how to breathe. Her hair was pulled back, exposing her sharp nose and high cheekbones. The dress she wore was tailored to fit her perfectly, green and angular with silver trim that accentuated her figure. Her posture was proud, a noble walking among commoners. In a word, she looked unattainable, and nothing like the muddy-booted traveling companion I'd come to know.

But she didn't walk with her eyes straight ahead like she used to. Instead, she scanned her surroundings, a habit we'd both reinforced on the mission. And because of that, she noticed me sitting there.

I had a fleeting vision of Narcissa saying to her companions, Move along, we won't linger by an establishment that lets in this kind of riffraff. But I knew she wasn't like that anymore. Her feet carried her closer as if she couldn't help herself.

Narcissa walked just behind my chair, pretending to read the menu posted on the door. "What a beautiful sight for sore eyes. Do you mind if we sit nearby?"

Be cautious, my brain reminded me. "Please do," my mouth answered eagerly. Merlin, hearing her voice again sent my heart fluttering like a bird trapped behind a window. Did she just say I was beautiful? I wished my reply had been more eloquent. She moved away before anyone could notice our subtle exchange, respecting my request to keep our connection private. I appreciated it, despite how much I wanted to leap up and catch her hand to keep her near.

I couldn't suppress my happy smile as Narcissa sat down at a larger outdoor table facing me. There were only a few servers at the restaurant, and all of them hurried outside to add candles and set up enough chairs around the table. Then they stood at a distance, clearly not wanting to approach the dark witch. I watched them do a quick game of rock-paper-scissors before pushing the loser toward Narcissa.

"How can we help you, Malfoy?" the server asked through clenched teeth.

"Oh, please see to my guests first. I'll peruse your wine list," Narcissa replied as the group of businessmen sat down.

A gray-haired wizard beside her said with irritation, "This wasn't exactly what we had in mind for a business dinner. Look at this menu. Their appetizers are pub food! Beer-battered bouncing mushrooms? Hippogriff-style chicken wings?"

The server bowed, a vein popping on his temple. "I'm sure our chef would be happy to cook anything you request."

"In that case, I'll have slow-roasted―"

"Nonsense," Narcissa interrupted. "Stick to the menu, boys. It won't kill you."

I hid my amusement as her companions ordered greasy appetizers with exaggerated distaste. I was quite curious to know what this meeting was about, but once they were settled in, the telltale buzz of muffliato kept me from listening in. I kept reading my book, eyes straying to Narcissa every so often. She didn't appear to be watching me, but she took sips of her drink whenever I took sips of mine, and it gave away where her attention really was.

I caught bits and pieces of conversation between courses when they dropped the spell to speak to the servers.

"I'll have the flaky cod as well," one wizard said, trembling slightly. "Lady Malfoy, wouldn't you like to discuss these valuations somewhere warmer?"

Narcissa lifted her shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. "If the cold is too much for your delicate constitution, I could cast a flame for you."

He replied quickly, "No, no, I was asking for your sake, of course."

"How kind of you to shiver for my sake as well. Let's see Floo-Pow's balance sheet again. I hope that increase in Accounts Payable wasn't a short-sighted tactic to make your free galleon flow look higher for me."

"Of course, of course not. I'll find it, give me a moment." Red-faced, he dug around in a stack of papers while Narcissa watched coolly.

I was so absorbed in pretending not to be completely absorbed that I didn't see the server beside me until he spoke.

"Miss? Here's your bill. Anything for dessert?"

I looked over at my plate and realized I'd finished my dinner a while ago. "Um, let's see..." Something caught my eye on the menu. "Nothing for me, but would you mind bringing a hazelnut brownie to someone at the other table after their meal? Just don't say who sent it."

"Sure thing. Did one of those gentlemen catch your eye?"

I paid for my meal with my own bag of coins, but used two of Ginny's sickles for the brownie. Eighteen left. Make it count. "It's for Narcissa Malfoy."

"Oh." The server sneered in her direction. "Would you like to spit on it first?"

I glared at him. "That's uncalled for! And if I find out you've spat in any of her food, I'll notify the ministry that you're violating the Food, Beverage, and Potion Health Code."

"Whoa, whoa, okay, keep your voice down," the server replied, raising his hands in appeasement. "I was just joking, Miss Granger. Who doesn't fantasize about getting back at one of those people?"

I made myself speak calmly, knowing anger wouldn't help right then. "Don't forget we would've lost if she hadn't lied to Voldemort. And she's been nothing but polite tonight, hasn't she?"

"True," he grudgingly admitted. "I'll bring her the brownie for dessert."

"Thank you." I stared at my book, shaking my head. I'd been afraid Narcissa would use me to improve her reputation, but here I was leaping to her defense at the smallest slight. I was still afraid, though. Too afraid to stand behind her publicly.

But I loved seeing how delighted she was to receive the anonymous treat a little later. She caught my eye and winked when no one was looking. I hoped she remembered our dinner with the centaurs, getting me to try the hazelnut paste. When I couldn't justify tying up a table any longer, I left the restaurant and idly wandered down Diagon Alley. Then a flash of black and blond and green appeared to my right between two buildings, and I heard a playful whisper.

"Accio Hermione."

I stepped into the side alley and said with mock seriousness, "You can't summon people, you know."

"Apparently I can." With a sly grin, Narcissa drew me into a recessed area out of sight. "I told them I was leaving to use the ladies' room. I couldn't let you go."

Joy was trying to bubble up out of me, but I didn't say anything. I had an internal debate going about whether I should keep my distance. I was supposed to be trying to move on. This could never work, because... reasons.

"Did you get my letter?" she asked, biting her lip. Her eyes showed just a hint of hurt and confusion.

"Yes, sorry I haven't responded, I..." I had reasons. Didn't I? What were they? They seemed insubstantial right then. I'd been miserable for weeks, and now I felt weightless, full of light just from being near her again. I gave her the simplest answer. "I was afraid."

"Until you smiled at me today, I thought..." Narcissa shook her head. "It doesn't matter now." She leaned in slowly and gave me a brief, hesitant kiss that made me melt against her. "Thank you for my dessert."

"The hazelnuts reminded me of you." I held her close and smiled like an idiot. I couldn't help it. I was smitten.

"They certainly bring back memories." Her smoky voice sent a delicious shiver through me. She brushed her thumb across my lower lip before kissing me again, and I met her with the pent-up passion of seventeen days apart. After a few moments, we had to break apart to catch our breaths, but we quickly rejoined. Our lips moved together more slowly now, tongues staying mostly in place but sometimes meeting, testing each other, seeking a response. I belatedly realized her hands had found their way into my robes when I felt cold fingers against my stomach. I squealed in shock, and she laughed.

"Your hands are freezing!" I exclaimed. "Why haven't you used a heating spell?" But I knew why; she was toughing it out to make a point in that meeting. Before she could pull back, I pressed my hands over hers so my body heat would warm them. When our eyes met, the look on her face was tender, full of emotion. I looked away, feeling too exposed.

She freed one hand to cup my cheek and turned my face toward her. "Hey. Are you still with me?"

"I'm standing right here," I said, well aware that wasn't what she meant.

Her eyes shifted between mine, searching. "Would you like to keep seeing me? Or... is this just..."

My heart said yes. My brain told me this could only end in pain and trouble.

My heart won. "I'd love to, Narcissa."

She relaxed in relief and beamed at me, not a polite business dinner smile, but the kind of uncontrolled hundred-watt smile that made her eyes light up and crinkle at the corners. I'd say yes a thousand more times to see her so happy. I was doomed.

"I have some evenings available next week. How about Tuesday? Or Friday?" Narcissa asked, the words tumbling out of her. "I've been so busy with the... well, something I'm doing on my own. In another two weeks, I'll be completely free, but I'd rather not wait so long. What's your schedule like?"

"I don't know," I said, overwhelmed. "Pencil me in anywhere."

"Excellent, then―" Her voice broke off and she stiffened suddenly. "Budget buffing bluffs! What am I doing? I have to get back to my meeting!"

"Go, go!" I exclaimed, giving her a little push as she flashed me a guilty grin. "Tell them the ladies' room was out of order and you had to search for another."

"Plausible enough. I'll owl you soon, dear. Don't make me abduct you in a dark alley again to get an answer."

"Excuse me, I came willingly," I retorted. "But I'll write back. I promise."

She turned and apparated back to the restaurant, and I apparated home feeling breathless like I'd been in a whirlwind. She called me dear! I picked Crookshanks up and danced around with him, which he tolerated with an unenthused expression on his flat face.

"I'm going to see her again!" I told him.

Yes, I was doomed. Joyfully doomed.

 

Chapter Text

I leaped out of bed the morning after seeing Narcissa in Diagon Alley. Nothing could hold me down. I was in problem-solving mode, my favorite state of mind. I hated to think of how much time I'd wasted with negativity. Today was a day to move forward.

When I arrived at the ministry, there was a small crowd gathered in the atrium. Security was standing between them and the lifts, watching carefully while people shouted. One woman was standing on the edge of the fountain, using her wand to amplify her voice.

"How many are at large now? We don't know! Eight confirmed so far, but did the ministry tell us? No! The Daily Prophet's investigative journalists discovered the truth."

Two people in the crowd, probably the journalists, raised their hands to much applause.

The woman continued, "We demand to know how many Death Eaters and others like them are missing. What is the ministry doing about it? Nothing! Why don't we have more law enforcement searching our towns? They don't want us to panic, but we're not panicking. We're demanding action!"

The crowd cheered after each exclamation. I slipped by them, hoping Narcissa had gotten to work early, before these people gathered.

"We need real prisons for them. House arrest is not enough! Give them cells, give them the punishment and suffering they deserve. Finish warding Azkaban and put it back into service! Bring back the dementors if we must!"

People roared in agreement.

Security was careful to check my identity when I approached. I thanked them, glad a mob wouldn't be coming in and disrupting anyone's work. I knew the aurors must be working hard on finding all of Voldemort's followers, even if their work wasn't visible to the public. Unspeakables might be helping as well.

In the lift, I looked longingly at the button for level nine, the Department of Mysteries, then got off on my floor, starting to feel sick as usual. It was time to listen to that feeling and quit my job.

In my office, I started writing a list of potential replacements. Maybe I should stop being such a perfectionist―temporarily, anyway―and simply find someone good enough. A lot of my coworkers were competent, and several could cite obscure court decisions with an ease I envied.

But I believed that experience and knowledge of wizarding law weren't nearly as important as caring about magical creatures. Caring is what drove me to start S.P.E.W., study the legal issues, and expand the department. If I could find someone who cared, everything else would follow. Surely someone besides the magical creatures themselves would care enough to...

Hazelnuts. Centaurs. Brin.

I threw my quill down and smacked my forehead. Of course. How could I be so stupid? Here I was, a human, making all these decisions for magical creatures, thinking it was my job to speak for a minority I wasn't even part of. We should be listening to them, but the entire department didn't have any creatures besides humans in it.

I started writing a letter to Brin, asking him if he was willing to join the ministry and face the uphill battle of dealing with a bunch of humans who were sure to be prejudiced arseholes, whether accidentally or on purpose. There was no sugar-coating it. But he had a good enough sense of humor that it might work out okay.

***

Midmorning, an interoffice memo flew through my door and landed on my desk. I got these paper airplanes all the time and unfolded it without looking closely until I recognized the elegant penmanship. I sat up straight and smiled, thrilled to realize it was from Narcissa. Everything but the first line was garbled and unreadable.

To decrypt, use retexo while focusing on the item I stole. Use texo to encrypt.

She'd stolen my heart and my knit cap. I focused on the latter and tried the spell. The garbled lines resolved into more of her writing.

Shall I schedule you for Tuesday or Friday evening? I haven't forgotten your desire for privacy. We can meet anywhere you like.

p.s. If I don't hear from you today, remember I know where you live.

I laughed at her vaguely threatening postscript and penned my response.

I'd say both evenings, but you might get tired of me. How about Tuesday at my apartment? I'll think of somewhere in muggle London where we can go without being recognized.

After practicing texo and retexo until they were second nature, I sent the lavender airplane on its way and tapped my foot, getting zero work done in the few minutes it took to receive her confirmation.

Tuesday it is. Is there anything I ought to bring? Some wine for a nightcap?

p.s. The optimist in me would write your name across my entire schedule and hope for no unfortunate days when I must erase it.

Her sweet words made me dissolve into a puddle of happiness. I rested my head on my desk for several moments until Cedric's dad, Amos Diggory, came by my office and spotted me.

"Sleeping on the job, Miss Granger?" he asked, laughing.

I chuckled with him. "Just thinking. Do you need me for something?" I liked Mr. Diggory. He'd been kind to me ever since I joined the department. I knew Cedric's murder still weighed on him, but it seemed like his cheerful disposition had mostly returned over the years.

"There's a house elf, Deke, who wants to transfer homes, but her owner is refusing to free her, even with compensation. The owner is Vincent Crabbe Sr.," he explained, scowling. "He's been enjoying a life of luxury under house arrest and still has his house elf providing lavish meals even after his life serving Voldemort." His normally friendly face hardened as he spat Voldemort's name.

"Has Mr. Crabbe been abusive?" I asked.

"Deke said he hasn't, but..."

I frowned. "Then there's no grounds for lawful removal. We can't order him to free Deke unless he breaks one of the new regulations."

"But Deke's request sounded so desperate, I'm sure the man is doing something wrong. I just found out our Elf Protective Services team has been postponing an in-home visit for weeks. Apparently they're all too terrified to approach a Death Eater. I was thinking maybe you could go for them."

"That's way outside my purview..." I clutched Narcissa's memo in my hand, itching to reply.

"I know, I know. But I'll bet you're not scared. Maybe you could show that evil man a thing or two, get the truth out of him." Mr. Diggory did a few jabs and punches.

I'd never known a house elf to request a transfer for a petty reason. After a moment of thought, I knew I couldn't bear to decline the help Deke needed. "Okay, I'll go. When is the EPS visit scheduled for?"

"Monday afternoon, three o'clock."

"Got it," I said, adding it to my work schedule.

"Great!" he said with another few punches. "We'll see what he's hiding."

Another memo sailed in, right by Mr. Diggory's head as he left. I snatched it out of the air and decrypted it.

p.p.s. Please ignore my inner optimist. I must've accidentally eaten something that induces excessive sentimentality.

I smiled at Narcissa's humorous follow-up, though there seemed to be some genuine uncertainty behind it. I quickly wrote a reply.

Sorry for the delay, a coworker came in and found me dying of happiness. I had to be resuscitated. You only need to bring yourself when we meet. If you want wine, let me know what kind you like so I can keep some around for you. And please let me know what you accidentally ate, so I can feed it to you day and night to hear more of those heart-stopping sentiments.

Now it was my turn to bite my nails, wondering if that was "excessive." I just couldn't leave her thinking she was the only one feeling so strongly. Soon another memo came.

The most likely culprit is a certain brownie. Sent anonymously. Highly suspicious. Highly delicious also. You may feed them to me if you don't mind the accompanying increase in weight. Regarding wine, I'm supposed to enjoy dry, expensive varieties, but I prefer something sweet, like a riesling or moscato, whenever I can get away with it.

Tuesday can't come soon enough.

Sincerely Yours,
Narcissa

Getting back to work was difficult when all I wanted to do was daydream about what we could do on our first real date. I put her notes safely in an inner pocket, trying to put them out of mind for now.

***

By noon, I heard back from Brin about working here, and we owled back and forth once more to clarify a few points. Near the end of the workday, I went to Kingsley's office with the centaur's letters in one hand and my resignation letter in the other.

"Hello!" Kingsley greeted me. "Something on your mind? Close the door and have a seat."

"I'm quitting my job," I said excitedly, handing him my letter. "This is my two weeks' notice. I want to transfer to the Department of Mysteries."

"You're abandoning your advocacy work? That's a rather drastic decision." He accepted my letter and glanced over it, rubbing his chin. "Are you having trouble settling in after your recent trip? It'll take time to adjust to your regular life."

"I don't want a regular life anymore," I confided. "I've been feeling restless for a while now. The trip helped me see what I was missing."

He tilted his head. "Narcissa works in the Department of Mysteries. Was this transfer your idea, or hers?"

"Mine," I answered, hunching my shoulders. The plan was to be seen with you in public. "I doubt she even wants me there."

"Hmm. You do know you're not guaranteed a position in the department, right? You'll have to go through their application process, which can take time. Are you sure you want to quit before you know if they'll accept you?"

"Yes, I'm determined." No matter how I rationalized it, my gut had decided for me. Again.

Kingsley let out a cough that sounded suspiciously like stubborn, but there was laughter in his eyes. "Well, if I can't sway you, I might as well support your decision. You'll need to have your occlumency skills certified to at least an Official level. The ministry offers free lessons in the evenings. You'll also need to hunt around HR for Unspeakable job applications. The papers like to disappear mysteriously."

I grinned. "I'm sure I'll find them."

He drummed his fingers on his desk, seeming to consider something. "If you can work your way up to Top Secret clearance, I may have an additional role in mind for you."

"What kind of role?" I asked, curiosity sparked.

"Ask me again when you get that clearance. Anything else?"

I gave him Brin's letters. "I found someone who could be great at my job, but he might need special approval."

Kingsley squinted at the centaur's tight, neat handwriting and read the beginning of the first letter aloud. "This interests me, but I refuse to work underneath your ministry bureaucrats." From the second letter, he read, "Yes, 'independent contractor' sounds dignified enough. What would I do with a salary of gold? I will accept payment in... grass." Kingsley looked up at me, incredulous. "Grass? Who is this arrogant nitwit?"

"That last part was a joke," I said quickly. "He's a centaur. His name is Brin. I can mentor him until he's got a handle on everything we do here."

"A centaur?" Kingsley's eyes bugged out, then he laughed. "Helga Hufflepuff help me, the office will be in an uproar!" He pointed his finger and shook it in emphasis as he said, "And that's not a bad thing. If you think he'll be great, let's hire him."

"Yes!" I cheered.

"We'll start creature sensitivity training this week. Then in your last week, have Brin shadow you and gradually take over," Kingsley said, giving me a smile. "I know your department will be sorry to lose you, but you're sure going out with style."

***

I hurried over to Human Resources as everyone was leaving to go home for the weekend and managed to find one of those disappearing job applications. I also asked about where to go for occlumency lessons and received a brochure.

Occlumency Training Program, courtesy of DEPMYS

1700-1800 Monday through Friday. Open to all ministry employees seeking higher security clearances. Proceed to level nine with this brochure to grant entry.

Official: Room B1

Restricted: Room B2

Secret: Room B2.7

Top Secret: Room B3.14

I hurried down to the Department of Mysteries and let the brochure lead me to room B1, eager to find out how well Narcissa had trained me before our lessons tapered off.

In hindsight, I suspected she'd reached the limit of her abilities. The Official level occlumency test was way harder than anything she had tried on me. The instructor broke through my outer defenses without much trouble, and then he started searching through memories, trying to figure out which card I'd drawn from a tarot deck. I was sweating when it was over. The instructor was looking at me with frustration.

"Well, I don't know what to tell you. You successfully hid the card from me, but nothing in your head looks like it's supposed to! Inside the walls, you have to create a mental vault to keep your secrets in. That's the first step toward getting certified."

I shook my head. "I was taught that a vault is a terrible place to keep secrets. It's the first place someone will look."

He looked down his nose at me. "We're going to strengthen your defenses so they can't break in. You'll have several nested vaults, getting increasingly secure."

Over the course of Narcissa's training, she'd given me all kinds of advice, and his instructions didn't match up. I frowned and said, "But the first rule of occlumency is that there will always be a better legilimens. That's why it's better to disguise your secrets and hide them in plain sight. So even when they breach your defenses, they won't be able to find anything important."

"Well aren't you a know-it-all," he snapped. "That's not how we do things here. Are you going to follow our training program or not?"

I crossed my arms, feeling irritated. "Do I have to? I passed the test. Give me the certification so I can go to the next class."

"Fine," he grumbled. "But they'll tell you the same thing. You can't go through the whole program with the wrong technique."

He filled out a certificate with my information, then handed it to me and asked, "Who trained you, anyway? Only old pureblood families talk about occlumency like that."

"Well... a pureblood taught me a thing or two."

"Son of a bitch," he cursed, startling me. "They piss me off so much. They've all got secrets up the wazoo, but it's so hard to pin anything on them! Even their kids are trained in occlumency so you can't get at them that way."

"You'd violate a child's privacy to get dirt on their parents?" I asked.

"Of course. Those kids would be better off if their good-for-nothing parents were in prison."

Now I was pissed off. "Some of those parents really love their kids." Like Narcissa, who would raise hell if anyone tried to get between her and Draco. And even Lucius, who was harsh but undeniably tried to give Draco a good life, in his own way.

"Yeah, they love them so much that they indoctrinate them with propaganda."

I shook my head. "I don't like pureblood propaganda any more than you do, but I can't believe that separating families is the answer."

"Those families are ruining our society. You-Know-Who never would've gained power if there weren't so many nasty people out there raising even nastier kids."

I argued, "And who's supposed to decide how children should be raised? The ministry? So whoever's in power can dictate what the next generation believes? Just last year Voldemort's lackeys were in charge!"

The instructor huffed, but he didn't have a response for that.

I slammed the door on my way out of Room B1 and headed home, hoping the next level's instructor wouldn't be so hateful. I really wanted that Top Secret clearance.

***

I spent most of the weekend visiting Brin at the centaur settlement and arranging for one of their bonfires to be connected to the floo network. He had a lot of questions about what to expect at the ministry, and I was glad to hear his ideas for improvements.

I also filled out the DEPMYS job application, which contained a lot of essay questions and precious little information beyond a list of job titles.

  • Intelligence Officer
  • Intelligence Analyst
  • Physical Security Advisor
  • Metaphysical Security Advisor
  • Researcher
  • Strange Thing Poker
  • Auditor
  • Spell Detangler
  • Procurement Manager
  • Owl Post Surveillance Officer
  • Owl Pellet Disposal Technician
  • Other

It was possible to apply for multiple positions at the same time, which was good since I didn't even know what each job entailed. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't want to be an Owl Pellet Disposal Technician.

By Sunday evening, my application was done and Brin had plenty of reading material to get ready for his new job. I went to bed full of thoughts about the busy week ahead: occlumency lessons, and my date with Narcissa―which I was eagerly planning―and what was sure to be an unpleasant Elf Protective Services visit.

***

At lunchtime on Monday, I stopped by HR to submit my application. Impulsively, I decided to visit Narcissa for lunch in her office and tell her about it, too excited to worry about a negative reaction. The lift carried me down to the Department of Mysteries, which felt full of promise as I imagined coming here every day to uncover secrets and make discoveries.

The Room of Doors still seemed to remember me. It sensed my intentions, and a nameplate appeared on one of the doors. I knocked lightly.

"Come in."

The door vanished to reveal Narcissa at her desk examining several test tubes of a dark, wispy material and making notes. A salad lay neglected by her elbow. She jumped up and smiled widely when she saw me.

"To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"I thought we could spend our lunch hour together," I said. "Or does this spoil all the anticipation for our date?"

Narcissa shook her head. "It doesn't spoil anything. You just made my day."

That filled me with glee. "Then I'm glad I came here. What are you working on?"

"Come look," she said, eyes twinkling. She slid her chair back and waved for me to come closer.

I walked around her desk to peer at the test tubes. "What is this stuff?"

"That's classified, of course. But now that you're right where I want you..." Narcissa pushed me against her desk with a single hand to the center of my chest. Surprised, I sat down on top of all her papers when the backs of my thighs hit the edge. She stepped between my legs and captured my mouth in a searing kiss. I hummed, feeling a tingle all the way to the tips of my toes as she nibbled on my lower lip. She explored my mouth with an intensity that left me lightheaded. I returned the gesture the moment she gave me an opening, aroused and enraptured.

"It was a trap," I said when we broke apart for air. "You lured me over here."

Narcissa gave me a smug smile and waved toward the door. "If you want to flee to safety, this is your opportunity."

"Is someone going to walk in on us? How often do you get visitors?"

"That would be approximately... never. Last chance to escape."

I wrapped my legs around her waist and let my lips brush hers as I said, "I'll pass."

The space between us shrank to nothing. We kissed again and ended up snogging for so long that I had no idea how much time was passing. I was lost in the kind of desire that was completely foreign to me when my peers in school were pulling boys into dark corners. Our hands started to roam. I wanted more than her mouth on mine. I wanted skin, as much skin as I could find. Narcissa's robes left a good portion of her chest uncovered, and the dress beneath them made her cleavage look incredibly appealing. I lowered my mouth to the soft skin there. She groaned and held my head.

"Hermione, do you realize how badly I want to have you on my desk?"

"I'm already on your desk," I replied, being deliberately obtuse. I tugged the upper edge of her dress down with one finger and trailed wet kisses toward the delicate swell of her breast. "What more do you want?" I let out a squeak and tightened my legs when she gripped my bum.

"I want you," Narcissa purred. "Unclothed." She left a string of love bites across my collarbone. "Right here." Her hands slid around to the front of my thighs, thumbs pressing against extremely sensitive flesh near the apex. "Coming for me."

I gasped in pleasure. "Narcissa..." I could hardly keep myself from writhing against her hands. "That feels... so amazing. But we should―we should rein this in before we drive ourselves crazy."

Narcissa stopped where she was and rested her forehead on mine. "Salazar, I could really use some patience right now."

Patience? I didn't think patience would do much good. We'd always end up aching with need. "There's still time to eat lunch together."

"My appetite went in a very different direction the moment I saw you," she responded, then sighed and stepped back. "You're right, of course. At least one of us is thinking clearly."

"Well, somewhat clearly. I completely forgot what I was going to tell you. I applied to the Department of Mysteries today."

"Really?" Narcissa's face lit up as she sat down in her chair. "We could work together?"

"If they accept me, yes. I know it's not ideal, since you can't walk to my office in front of everyone and work publicly with me."

"Don't be an idiot. I scrapped that part of my plan the moment you started to mean something to me."

I let out a little laugh, relieved to hear her say that so bluntly. For the last fifteen minutes of the hour, we tried to calm down and eat our respective lunches. My body gradually stopped buzzing from all the excitement, and we had a good time laughing about how little the application revealed about the nature of the jobs in her department. By the end, we both agreed we should meet for lunch again sometime, with perhaps a bit less snogging.

***

On my way out of the office for the three o'clock EPS appointment, I glanced through the slim file we had on the Crabbe family. Mrs. Crabbe had died recently, and the cause of death was listed as grief. The commentary noted that she'd withered away after the loss of her son. I wondered if Mr. Crabbe was doing any better.

Their property was rather imposing, with a spiky fence around it and overgrown thorny shrubs all over their yard. The house sparkled with the magic of detection spells placed there by the ministry to monitor entry. Anyone coming or going would set off alarms unless they had been pre-approved. For this visit, I'd received an enchanted medallion that would grant access.

I knocked on the door, and after a long delay, knocked again. Finally, the door opened to reveal a house elf with sleepy, bloodshot eyes. She wore a potato sack that looked old but clean.

"So sorry, miss, Deke apologizes for her slowness. Is miss here to visit Master Crabbe?"

"Deke, who is it?" a low voice asked. Vincent Crabbe Sr. came down the dim hallway and saw me at the door. He looked like a bigger, meaner version of his son. "Oh. You're that mudblood." I tensed reflexively, but my scar was fine. Bill had done good work. Mr. Crabbe asked, "The hell do you want?"

In abuse investigations, it was important to never put the potential victim in greater danger for reporting trouble. Carefully, I said, "I'm with the Magical Creatures Department, here for a routine visit to see how your house elf is doing in light of the new regulations."

"I'm following your damned regulations," he groused. "Why can't you ministry people just leave me alone?"

Deke piped up, saying, "No need to trouble the Master. Deke is being treated well." She yawned so wide I thought her mouth would stay open forever.

I nodded and gave both of them a friendly smile. "All the same, I've got to do my job. I'll just ask your elf a few questions alone, fill out this form, and we'll be good to go. It won't take long at all."

Mr. Crabbe turned around and left us without another word. A door slammed.

"Master prefers to stay in his room," Deke explained. "Of course he knows Deke will offer his guest the best hospitality. Would miss like some tea and cake?"

"No, thank you. Let's just sit here and chat." I sat down on a bench by the door and pulled out my paperwork. "Are you receiving at least the minimum wage of one galleon and nine sickles a week?"

"Yes, Master pays this amount every week, but it is too much!"

"The labor union that represents you thinks you deserve more," I said, patting the elf's small shoulder. "It might go up by another sickle next month."

"Oh, no. Deke is ashamed of her poor service."

"You don't think you're being a good servant?"

"Terrible, terrible. Deke is too tired. Dropping, forgetting, breaking. Deke falls asleep and neglects her work! Terrible!"

"Do you have to be punished for that?" I asked, concerned.

"No, even worse! Master doesn't notice!" The elf started bawling, tears streaming out of her glassy eyes. "Master hardly eats and doesn't care when Deke forgets a meal. Terrible!"

"Oh." That didn't sound like abuse. It also didn't sound much like a lavish and luxurious lifestyle.

"All night, Deke can't sleep. All day, she can't serve Master. Too tired."

"Why can't you sleep?"

"Every night, it happens. Deke stays far away, but still she can't sleep. Too scary."

"What happens?"

She covered her mouth and shook her head.

I asked her, "Can you tell me what's so scary?"

"Master forbids it."

I chewed my lip in frustration. Something was clearly going on, but no matter how I phrased it, she couldn't tell me more. Finally I asked, "Isn't there any way I can find out what's happening?"

Deke hesitated, then suggested, "Miss could find out by sneaking, quiet. Deke will open the door if miss comes back at night."

"Will you or I be in danger?"

"No, miss."

"Alright. I'll come back at midnight, okay?" I offered. As the elf nodded in agreement, I hoped I wouldn't regret it. I wasn't even supposed to be doing this job, and I was pretty sure coming back in the middle of the night was violating a dozen different policies. But I never let the rules stop me from doing the right thing before, and I wasn't about to start now.

***

Back at the ministry, Mr. Diggory came to my office to ask how the visit went. I recounted everything except my highly questionable agreement to go back that night.

"Sounds like it must be some kind of disturbing Dark Arts ritual. We've got him," Mr. Diggory said, snapping his fingers. "With the elf's testimony of something so suspicious, we can bring Crabbe in. I'm sure they'll transfer him to a more fitting prison."

I frowned. "Why are you so eager for that? I'm not completely sure he's guilty of anything."

"We already know he's guilty! Of much worse things than scaring a house elf! He was there the night Cedric was murdered in cold blood! You know as well as I do that he never should've been allowed to go home in the first place. There's got to be a way to bring him to justice."

"I don't know..." A couple months ago, I might've agreed wholeheartedly. Now, his vision of justice seemed a little too skewed toward revenge. "I'm going to look into it a little more before making any accusations."

Mr. Diggory frowned and headed out of my office, saying, "Maybe you were the wrong person to help with this."

***

How did I get myself into these messes? I used to think Harry and Ron dragged me into everything, but some stuff was definitely my own damn fault. Now I was hiding in a Death Eater's mansion after dark, waiting for something unknown and trying not to fall asleep.

I shifted, leg cramping as I huddled under Harry's invisibility cloak―lent to me readily when I explained what I needed it for. The house was still. When Deke let me in half an hour ago, she told me Mr. Crabbe was asleep in bed, and the only thing I'd heard since then was the sound of snoring.

I must've fallen asleep. My head snapped up at the sound of a man's screams. Half-awake, I drew my wand and raced to the bedroom door, opening it without caring how much noise I made. Mr. Crabbe was in bed, rolling around and screaming bloody murder.

I stepped closer cautiously, wary of danger, but it was soon clear that he was deep in a nightmare. I let out my breath and clamped my hands over my ears to try to block out that awful sound.

"Vinny... not my Vinny. Leave him out of this," Mr. Crabbe groaned. "No, no, my Lord, I would never defy you. No..."

The screaming started again. I could almost picture Voldemort's impassive face as he tortured the man.

Vinny. That must be the Crabbe I had the misfortune of knowing in school when he was one of Draco's stupid henchmen. My mind vividly recalled him letting loose fiendfyre in the Room of Requirement and being overcome by it. The fear and outrage I felt from his efforts to kill us warred with the pity I couldn't help feeling as I listened to his father plead in his nightmare.

Part of me wanted to say, You shouldn't have become a Death Eater. You dragged your family into this violent and cruel way of life. You deserve this pain.

But that was not the better part of me.

I backed out of the bedroom, thoughts churning as my problem-solving mind tried to think of ways to stop his nightmares. A healer might be able to provide some potions or charms to help, but that was just treating the symptoms of a deeper problem.

"Deke?" I whispered, looking for the house elf in each dusty room and covering my ears with a wince each time the screaming resumed. "Deke?"

I found the elf in a kitchen pantry, the room furthest away from Mr. Crabbe's bedroom, with her hands over her own long ears. She made room for me to sit down beneath a shelf with her, and I curled up to fit under there where she felt safer.

"Is this why you asked to leave? And why you can't sleep?" I asked. She nodded. "How long does the screaming go on?"

"All night, miss."

"You could soundproof this room and stay here at night. Or I could do it for you."

"Oh, no, miss! Deke must always listen in case Master summons her."

"What if we talk to him and agree that at night you don't have to listen?"

She shook her head vehemently. "It is Deke's solemn duty. Even in sleep, Master's call must reach her ears."

"What about a soundproof room with a bell that's enchanted to ring if he calls for you?"

Deke thought about that. "Yes, then Deke could sleep and not neglect her duty."

It didn't take long to transfigure a spoon into a bell and enchant it. Soundproofing the pantry was harder, but I managed. Deke thanked me profusely until she fell asleep, completely exhausted. I smiled, covered her with the rags she used as a blanket, and sneaked back out of the house. Mr. Diggory wouldn't be happy about this outcome, but at least Deke's problem was easy to remedy.

***

Even though I'd been up late the night before, I didn't feel tired at work on Tuesday. I was too excited about my upcoming date with Narcissa.

A lavender paper airplane flew into my office just before the end of the day, and even before I opened it, I had a feeling it was from her. When I decrypted it, the sight of a few hastily written lines made me frown.

I'm so sorry for the short notice, but I need to postpone our date to Friday. Something came up that I hope to tell you all about soon. I'm dying to see you again.

Disappointment flooded me as I finished my last bit of work and trudged out of the ministry. I'd been dying to see her too.

Only a few moments after I got home, there was an urgent knock on my door. I checked to see who was out there and quickly let Harry inside.

"What is it? Is something wrong?"

"Andromeda and Narcissa are fighting. You've got to help me break it up," Harry said. "Come on, I'll apparate us back there."

"Wait, they've reunited?" I was surprised but let him take my arm. "I wish I could've been there to see that. When did they start talking again?"

"About three minutes ago. If you can call it talking." He brought us to the doorstep of Andromeda's house.

I pulled him away from the door. "Maybe Narcissa doesn't want me to be here. Do you really need my help just to stop an argument?"

He nodded vigorously right as the door shuddered like something had slammed into it.

I turned the handle and charged into the house with my wand ready, Harry right behind me. Andromeda stood at the far end of the foyer screaming at Narcissa and flinging spells and miscellaneous objects at her. Narcissa stood facing away from us by the door, firing a dazzling array of hexes and screaming right back. The entire foyer was littered with broken furniture, hats, coats, and other possessions.

"Over thirty years!" Andromeda was yelling. "No visits, no letters, not even an anonymous bouquet, and then I receive an apology now? The war has been over for months! You made me think you hated me!"

"I never hated you!" Red bolts zoomed back and forth.

"You sure as hell acted like it!"

"I had to fool everyone to keep attention away from you!" Slicing spells whipped across the room.

"Even yourself?" They both deflected nasty curses.

"You're the one who taught me how to make a lie convincing!"

The two women battled each other with a ferocity that would make most people turn and run. I ducked to avoid being struck and hurried toward the staircase where at least there would be a railing between me and all the chair legs being thrown around. Harry followed me to the staircase. We looked at each other and nodded, counting down from three.

"Protego!" we yelled, putting two strong shields up in the middle of the fight. Half a dozen spells stopped short.

"STAY OUT OF THIS, HARRY!" both sisters hollered in our direction. The violence stopped, but the fight went on.

"You abandoned me to run off with your boyfriend!" Narcissa accused.

"You still had Bella with you!"

"She went to pieces under all the pressure!"

"Don't put that on me. That was our parents' fault and you know it. And given how your son turned out, it looks like you followed right in their footsteps."

Narcissa recoiled and looked away. Andromeda covered her mouth, then hurried across the room and embraced her younger sister, holding tight like she'd never let go again. Harry and I watched with our mouths hanging open at the sudden turn of events. My heart swelled as the two witches whispered a stream of apologies to each other. Now I really felt like I was intruding on a private moment.

Andromeda stepped back and looked up at us. "Harry, please bring Teddy down to join us. Hermione..." Her eyes shimmered with tears. "How would you like to meet my long-lost sister?"

Narcissa glanced up, startled. "Hermione? When did you get here?"

"Sorry," Harry said on his way upstairs to Teddy's bedroom. "I brought her when I thought it was going to keep getting worse."

"I didn't mean to intrude," I apologized. "Is this what you wanted to do on your own?"

"No, no, you're fine. I just... spells were flying everywhere. If I'd known you were there, I would've been more careful with my aim."

"But you're perfectly willing to curse your sister?" I asked.

Narcissa smiled and rolled her eyes. "Please. As if I could ever get anything past her defenses."

Andromeda looked back and forth between us, then threw her arms up. "Cissy, what is going on? First Harry greets you like an old friend, and now Hermione too?"

Narcissa and I exchanged a glance. Neither of us had remembered to pretend we didn't know each other. She tried to backtrack.

"We worked together on a ministry project and developed a professional rapport." Her eyes flickered between me and her sister, and I could see how badly she wanted to open up. I was supposed to be the brave one, but here she was taking an enormous step forward. I wanted to support her more than anything. I walked down the stairs and took her hand.

"We're close now," I said.

Narcissa mouthed thank you. She was especially beautiful right then, looking at me through those long lashes, face flushed from all the fighting. Powerful and vulnerable.

"How close?" Andromeda asked, eyes narrowed.

"How close are we?" Narcissa murmured to me. Her eyes dropped to my lips as they parted to give my answer. Instead of speaking, I leaned in and gave her a kiss.

Andromeda looked absolutely astonished. "Goodness gracious! Our parents must be rolling in their graves. Two out of three children, running away with muggleborns. It's a travesty. I couldn't be more thrilled!"

Narcissa leaned toward her sister to whisper something. I turned away to give them privacy and saw Harry coming back downstairs carrying Teddy. He spotted us still holding hands and raised his eyebrows.

"Amamama!" Teddy exclaimed, lunging toward Andromeda.

"Hold your horses, there, buddy," Harry said, trying not to let the eight-month-old fall.

Teddy relaxed once he was in his grandmother's arms, then stared and stared at Narcissa with his big eyes, green like Professor Lupin's, though the rest of his face was all Tonks.

Narcissa looked like she didn't dare to breathe, an awestruck smile on her face. "Hello, Teddy," she said finally, speaking softly but not using baby talk. "I'm your great-aunt Narcissa. And I'm so happy to meet you."

Teddy kept staring at her, fascinated by the stranger. Then a color change rippled through his hair as it turned mostly black with a tuft of white-blond sticking out by his ear.

Narcissa laughed in delight. "Nice try. May I hold you?"

He buried his face in Andromeda's clothes but kept one eye trained on Narcissa.

"Bit of separation anxiety," Andromeda explained as the baby boy clung to her. "He'll grow out of it soon."

"I know how it is," Narcissa said, looking only a little disappointed. "It's alright."

Teddy reached out and touched the blond strands of hair hanging beside her face. He managed to grab a fistful of it and bring it to his mouth.

"Don't eat her hair," Andromeda admonished. "Come on, we have a lot of catching up to do. Let's all go relax in the parlor and talk."

"I suppose I have no choice," Narcissa said dryly as Teddy held onto her hair and pulled her along. She turned to me when I let my hand slip out of hers. "You don't want to stay?"

"I do, but I thought you might like to catch up with your sister alone."

"Apparently Andi invited Harry to be here as a neutral party. If I'd known that beforehand, I would've asked you to come too. She and I will have plenty of time to speak alone some other day."

"Alright, then," I agreed happily.

Harry held my arm. "Just a minute. I want to talk to Hermione."

Once the two Black sisters and Teddy were in the other room, Harry and I stood together whispering in the foyer.

"Andi knows about you and Narcissa now? How serious is this?" he asked.

"I don't know, but I didn't want to make Narcissa hide the truth from her sister."

"Do you love her?"

The question made me tremble. "Isn't it a little soon for that, Harry? I'm in love with her," I explained, voice quavering. "Enamoured. Completely bonkers for her. Like everything she touches turns to gold. Scientifically speaking, it'll probably fade between eighteen months and three years from now. But..."

"But?" he prompted.

"But choosing to be with her, loving her... I do seem to be hurtling in that direction. It's really frightening. What if I'm completely wrong about her, about everything?"

Harry looked at me for a long moment. "You never mentioned what her patronus was. Don't think I didn't notice that. It was an otter, wasn't it." He didn't even say it like a question.

My hands covered my head, hiding. "It was. But that can't just be a sign of love. Yours and Ginny's are different."

"Yeah, Ginny was a bit worried about what that might mean," he admitted. "But we came up with a guess. Look, my mum disliked my dad for years, and theirs matched. Snape couldn't be with her, and his was just like hers. Lupin pushed Tonks away at first, and hers became a wolf for him. What did they all have in common?"

I shrugged. "They had to struggle?"

He nodded. "Ginny and I never had to prove our love for each other. I think we always kind of knew we would end up together, even though we were too shy for years and saw other people and let a war get in the way."

"Proof of love... in the face of adversity," I said slowly, thinking.

He nodded. "That's what we think it means. Like a sign that there's something worth fighting for, if you feel the same. So what will you do?"

My eyebrows drew together as I thought about it. "I have a list of reasons why we can't have a real relationship. And considering the risks, compared with―"

"Hermione," Harry said, letting out a half-laugh, half-sigh. "You're the most brilliant witch I know, but you've got to stop letting your head get in the way of your heart."

I shifted uncomfortably. "My heart is the cause of all this trouble."

He shook his head and held my shoulders, guiding me toward the parlor. "Whatever you decide, I've got your back. And please decide soon so I can get Ginny off my back. She's pestering me to tell her the name of the girl you like."

"Narcissa's not just some girl."

"I know."

We entered the room and saw the two witches talking quietly as Harry and I had just been doing. I got the eerie feeling that the subject matter was the same.

When Narcissa saw me, she smiled and made room for me on the couch. I sat down and wrapped an arm around her. She kissed my cheek, then poked her tongue out at Teddy, who giggled and mimicked her. It was a wonderful feeling, being able to sit beside Narcissa openly, without having to disguise our affection. I wished I could be this open all the time.

Over the course of the evening, we talked all about recent years. Andromeda summoned some fine brandy from a cabinet and poured some for everyone but me, filling my glass with water at my request. Harry and I mostly listened while the two sisters talked and got increasingly tipsy, but we threw in extra details and stories now and then. Eventually Teddy had to go to bed and Harry went home, leaving just three of us there.

"It's been difficult, certainly," Andromeda said.

"And raising Teddy alone, I can't imagine!"

"Well, I've got a small army of caretakers. Harry especially has been a wonderful help. He's somewhat of a son to me now. Or a second husband."

Narcissa was trying not to smile. "Or in our family..."

"...both," Andromeda finished. She held up her glass and toasted, "Toujours pur."

"Toujours pur," Narcissa echoed. They drank, then burst out laughing for several minutes, occasionally mentioning names from their family tree and laughing harder.

"Ginny's a lucky one," Andromeda said once they'd calmed down and refilled their glasses. "If Harry weren't taken already, I would love to put him to good use in bed."

"I did not hear that," I mumbled.

Narcissa nodded, sipping from her glass. "He is a rather fine young man, isn't he. With a surprisingly muscular chest."

"I did not just hear that," I repeated.

"Cissy, you cougar! Have you been feeling up the entire golden trio?"

"No!" Narcissa gave me a sultry smile. "Just Hermione."

"Plus Harry's muscles?" I asked with a frown.

"That was ages ago. I was checking to see if he was dead," she replied, waving her glass nonchalantly. "He wasn't. And I certainly wasn't dead either, though I had more pressing things on my mind at the time."

I gritted my teeth, not enjoying the turn this conversation had taken.

Narcissa chuckled and leaned into me. "Are you jealous? There's no need." She pressed her hands to my tight jaw and kissed me―a little sloppily, but with enough warmth to make up for it―until I relaxed.

"Why shouldn't I be jealous?" I asked.

Narcissa rested her head on my chest, hands holding fistfuls of my clothing. Her breathing deepened. My heart felt almost painfully tender as I watched her fall asleep against me.

Andromeda's voice made me look up. "She never could hold her liquor. Always the baby in the family." Her gentle expression turned hard. "You'd better not hurt her."

"Same to you," I said, a bit miffed. "You were pretty brutal this evening."

"Please," she said, sounding exactly like Narcissa did earlier. "She's the better duelist, and neither of us really wanted to do damage. You don't know the Black sisters. We argue, we fight, we make up. Bottling everything up never did any good. Our disagreements just festered, like infected wounds. Venting was the healthiest thing."

I nodded, stroking Narcissa's hair as I listened. Maybe I shouldn't have avoided fighting on the last day of the mission. It was in the interest of getting along, a habit I'd picked up with Ron, but I ended up hiding my doubts, and she'd held herself back from saying something too. Yelling might've been better. And Merlin, she was gorgeous when she was angry. If I knew neither of us would leave after a fight, I'd love to let our passions loose.

Andromeda straightened up and set her glass down. "I hate to end this lovely evening, but it's getting late, and I know you both have work in the morning."

I shook Narcissa gently. "Dear." That didn't quite feel natural coming from me. "Darling." Too old-fashioned. I shook her again. "Sweetheart, it's time to go."

She pushed herself upright, looking bleary-eyed. "Andi, fireplace?"

"Of course. There's floo powder right there... on... the mantle." Andromeda trailed off as Narcissa leaned against me again, then sighed. "And she's fallen back to sleep. One of us should take her back to the manor, assuming she's added us to the list of authorized visitors. I could try, if you'll stay and listen for Teddy on the monitor."

"That's alright, I've got her," I said, reluctant to let go of Narcissa. I cast a featherweight charm on her sleeping form and stood up easily, carrying her toward the fireplace.

"Hopefully it'll work. Better than having to ring the doorbell and hope Lucius opens up for you." We both made a face at his name. "You know, they may have loved each other once, but I think you'll be a much better partner for her. The way you look at her..." She shook her head, tears coming to her eyes.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I miss my Ted."

Though Andromeda was technically a grandmother, she wasn't old, especially for a witch. Right then, all I could see was the young woman who had loved a man so much that she ran away with him, against everything she'd been taught to believe, then lost him to murder. My heart went out to her, and I bent over to kiss the top of her head. "That's from both of us," I said. "I'm sure she's sorry he was killed."

"There will be other nights to talk about all of this," Andromeda said, dabbing at her tears. "I have my sister back, and that's something. Goodnight, Hermione."

"Goodnight." I went to the hearth and threw a pinch of floo powder in the fire, then said nervously, "Malfoy manor."

***

I stepped out of the fireplace into the huge house, feeling very much like I didn't belong there. We were in a study full of furniture that looked more expensive than a month's rent for my apartment, Narcissa was passed out in my arms, and I didn't know where to go. At least no alarms had sounded.

Draco walked into the room with a handful of parchment, already speaking. "Mother, I have the estate paperwor―" He stopped short when he saw me. Quickly hiding his shock, he jerked his head and walked out.

When I realized he expected me to follow, I hurried after him. I hoped we wouldn't have to go through the room where I'd been tortured. Luckily we seemed to be on an upper floor, walking down a hallway lined with bedrooms. Now I hoped we wouldn't run into Lucius. My stomach dropped. What was I thinking, coming here? I absolutely could not put her to bed with him.

But Draco led me to a room whose double bed had only one pillow. He pulled back the covers, and I set Narcissa down gently, resisting the urge to brush her hair back and kiss her forehead. She turned onto her side with her arm hanging off the bed but otherwise didn't stir. I pulled her wand from her sleeve, setting it on the nightstand cluttered with parchment and everyday jewelry. On our way out I noticed an open wardrobe full of Narcissa's outfits, and familiar shoes lined up by the door. This wasn't just a guest room; she'd been staying in here. My heart felt light at the realization.

Once Draco and I were in the hall with the bedroom door shut behind us, he confronted me. "Granger. Care to tell me why my mother had to be carried home unconscious?"

"She's fine, she just had a little too much to drink at Andromeda's house."

If that surprised him, he didn't show it. "Too much in a drowning sorrows kind of way, or cheerful drinking?"

"The latter."

"Good. Hope there's enough room in that big fat head of yours to remember the way back to the fireplace." He turned on his heel and walked away, disappearing into another room.

I blinked. After hearing stories about him as a sweet little boy, for some reason I expected him to be more like that now. But he treated me about the same as usual. I was the one who had changed. I didn't feel any need to think of some witty comeback to his mild insult. Instead I wondered what his life was like now. Was he still living at home? In all our talking about the past, Narcissa never told me what he was currently doing.

Knowing I wouldn't be able to apparate from inside the mansion, I left by the fireplace to Diagon Alley and apparated home from there, mentally adding Draco to the pile of relationship issues. But somewhere along the line it stopped being a list of impossibilities and turned into a list of problems to solve.

 

 

Chapter Text

I flitted around my apartment on Friday evening, cleaning things I'd already cleaned and adjusting things I'd already organized, getting ready for Narcissa to arrive for our date. Then my telephone rang. I knew right away it was my mother, pretty much the only person who ever called.

I hurried over to my armchair and picked up the phone. "Hi, Mum. I'm busy and can't talk for long, sorry―"

"Hi, honey! Are you coming home for the winter holidays? You could join us for the last day of Hanukkah and stay through Yule and Christmas."

Narcissa would be here any minute. In fact, she was late, and I'd only ever known her to be early. I twisted the phone cord impatiently. "I can just apparate over there, Mum. How about I visit on―"

"Hermione," my mother said sadly. "Last winter we didn't even know we had a daughter. Please come be with us. It's only for five days. We won't make you go skiing."

I chewed on my lip. I'd been looking forward to spending more time with Narcissa once she finished whatever personal project was keeping her so busy. But spending five days there really wasn't asking that much.

"Okay," I agreed.

"Great! It'll be wonderful to have you here with us like old times! I'm making a date-nut apple cake, your favorite."

I wrinkled my nose. My absolute favorite kind was a chocolate cake full of sugar, but she'd never make one of those. Dates were supposedly better for your teeth.

"Speaking of dates," she went on, "what's got you busy on a Friday night? Is there someone new? When did you start seeing each other?"

Oh, boy. "Weeks ago, sort of."

There was a pause and some distant voices, then, "Your father wants to meet him, and so do I. Is it serious?"

I pressed a hand to my forehead. Harry had asked the same thing, and I still didn't know how to answer. I felt strongly for the dark witch despite my doubts, and serious enough to want to keep moving forward, but there was nowhere for us to go. When we'd talked about her leaving Lucius, she sounded so reluctant, so dependent on him. It would take a kind of bravery I've never had. I wished Narcissa could see herself as I saw her: courageous, and strong enough to not need anyone else. But if she couldn't, maybe...

Narcissa appeared in my apartment with a small pop, and my entire world refocused around her.

...maybe someday I could ask her to...

My mother's voice crackled in my ear again. "Hermione, are you still there? Can you hear me?"

"Yes, sorry, Mum. I've really got to go."

We said our goodbyes and I walked over to Narcissa. Happiness spread through me just from her presence.

"My apologies for barging in so rudely rather than knocking," she said, sounding irritated. She crossed the room to look out the window. "And for being late."

"Don't worry about it," I said. "In fact, you can come in here whenever you like. And I don't say that to just anyone." I'd never been a fan of people invading my space, but with her it was different. More often than not, I sort of wished she would pop in unexpectedly.

"I appreciate that." Narcissa gave me a grateful smile but soon started pacing around the room like a caged animal.

"What's going on, anyway?" I asked. "Why not come to my door?"

"I just lost them and didn't want to risk being spotted again."

"Just lost whom?" I asked.

"Two aurors. I'm being followed everywhere I go," she said angrily. "Fucking amateurs. They think we stayed out of Azkaban for so many years by being oblivious?"

It unsettled me to realize that we referred to her and Lucius. "Why are aurors following you?"

"I haven't got a bloody clue! I've been so good. I've done absolutely everything right and they're still investigating me! My office was searched last night. Bastards. They probably think I didn't notice, but I always know." Narcissa ran a hand through her long hair and blew out a breath. "Sorry for yelling. I'm not angry at you. It's simply discouraging to be trying so hard and still have the ministry looking over my shoulder."

I held her arm. "I'm sorry."

She reached into the pocket of the black peacoat she was wearing and pulled out a vial and a folded piece of parchment. "Can I trust you to keep this note and memory somewhere safe, where even a thorough search can't find them?"

"Can I look at them?"

"Only look if something happens to me. Or if you master occlumency. Keep your guard up. I keep thinking about Brin's warning."

"Nothing's going to happen to you," I said firmly, feeling distressed by the very thought of it. "But I'll do my best to keep this safe, I promise."

Narcissa tucked the vial and paper into my jeans pocket. "Thank you. Please find a good hiding place after I leave tonight."

I nodded, determined to keep my promise. Mentioning what I'd overheard about the Death Eaters was something I had to do for my own conscience during debriefing, but now she was entrusting me with a secret. I wouldn't betray that trust. I hugged Narcissa and rubbed her tense back. She sighed and relaxed against me.

"The aurors might not be suspicious of you in particular," I said, trying to be optimistic. "They might just be doubling down on security around everyone related to Death Eaters, because of all the escapes."

"Perhaps you're right. I shouldn't assume the worst." She stepped back and straightened her shoulders, looking much less anxious than when she arrived. "But it's maddening. How long will I have to live like this?"

"Maybe you could let them follow you and they'll lose interest," I suggested. "You said it yourself, you're not doing anything wrong. So there's no reason to sneak around."

"That's―" She paused. "You know, that never occurred to me."

"Are you serious?"

"I'm a Slytherin. I sneak around whether or not I've got anything to hide. It's a matter of principle."

"Narcissa," I said, exasperated but amused. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Go on a date with me," she responded, smiling and pulling a bouquet of daffodils out of another pocket. "Let's start this evening over again. Hello, it's wonderful to see you. I've really been looking forward to this."

I accepted the daffodils happily, feeling more like this was a real date now. Regard, new beginnings, and female ambition. "Me too. I think I've started to measure time by how long it'll be until I see you again." My face heated up with embarrassment at the admission, but her smile only grew.

"Are we going on foot, or apparating?" she asked.

"On foot, so to speak," I replied as I put the bouquet in water.

"Alright. It's starting to snow, so dress warmly." She put on the stolen knit cap, looking so cute in it that I couldn't stop grinning. I bundled up in a coat and scarf and led her out of my apartment.

***

"This is not on foot," Narcissa said, holding my arm in a death grip as I brought her to the top deck of a big, red double-decker bus. "How do you keep this thing from crashing without magic?" She whispered the last word.

"There are rules of the road that everyone follows," I told her. "For the most part."

"For the most part?!"

"Honestly, in a collision between us and a car, which do you think will win?"

"I don't want to think about collisions right now. Look at all of those automobbles!"

I snickered and put her in a window seat where we could see snow accumulating on the street below. "Traffic is normal. Try to enjoy London the way everyone else sees it."

Narcissa watched out the window and didn't say anything else for the rest of the ride, keeping her tight grip on me. When we got off at our destination, I was having trouble reading her mood. It made me nervous. I stood back and babbled as I gestured to my left and right.

"Okay, you have a choice of two options. I thought we could visit the Imperial War Museum and some World War II memorials around London, and I can tell you more about my grandfather. But then I realized that's probably boring and not at all romantic. So I also found a fancy muggle restaurant nearby where we could go and have a proper date, two ladies being wined and dined, more like what you're accustomed to I imagine. Which one would you like?"

"I should think my answer is obvious," Narcissa said.

I nodded, regretting the frightening bus ride. "The restaurant. I thought so. Let's―"

She grabbed my hand. "Hermione, I'm going on a date for the first time in years with a muggleborn witch the same age as my son. None of this is what I'm accustomed to. Bring me to the museum where I can learn about things that matter to you."

My heart felt warmer. I reached up to caress her cheek where tiny snowflakes were landing. "Well, then allow me to begin our tour with the closest attraction: Narcissa Malfoy, who matters to me very, very much." She smiled, eyes shining, and I gave her a tender kiss right there at the bus stop. Someone nearby whistled, and I blushed. "Sorry."

"No apology necessary. You may kiss me whenever you like."

"Even in front of people we know?"

"That's up to you. I don't mind if Lucius hears about it, and everyone who's known me long enough is aware I like both witches and wizards."

I looked down, wishing I felt that open. Someday the truth about us was bound to slip out, and I dreaded the reactions of everyone around me, even casual acquaintances. How would Mr. Diggory feel if he saw me with a woman who had served Cedric's murderer?

Narcissa held my head and pressed a kiss to my temple. "I'm sorry, I hope that didn't come across as pressure to come out before you're ready. Take all the time in the world if you need it. I've made my choice regardless."

"That sounds rather final," I said, wondering what she meant by that.

She gave me one of those little smiles I couldn't interpret and wordlessly linked our arms, staying close to my side.

After grabbing a bite to eat while we walked outdoors around the museum grounds, we ventured into the building. Whenever something reminded me of my grandfather, I told her about it, and she listened to even the littlest things. The level of interest Narcissa showed in a muggle war amazed me.

"Harry and Ron never understood why I was so interested in something boring like history," I told her. "To me it was never just facts in my textbooks. It's personal."

Narcissa shook her head. "I always believed any witch without generations of pureblood ancestors would have no sense of history. As if muggleborns simply sprang into existence with stolen magic. Now I feel rather naive."

"Just misinformed," I said.

We passed the entrance to the Holocaust exhibit, but I didn't approach it. I felt like we couldn't possibly address it with enough respect and sensitivity on a date. But it was important, and it mattered to me too. Someday we could come back here at a more appropriate time, and I'd tell her about my grandmother fleeing from Germany.

In another area, I pointed into a display case. "I think that's the kind of rifle Grandpa used."

Narcissa frowned. "This is what muggles use to kill each other? It's very large for only being able to do one thing. A wand seems much more practical."

"There are all kinds of guns. Some you can hide in your pocket, some so big they're carried on trains. The Germans had a huge railway gun."

"Germany was the country we fought against, were they not?" she asked.

"There were more countries involved, but yes, they were the bad guys." I chewed the inside of my cheek, knowing she hated that term and the sharp divisions it drew. "Actually, my grandfather has some German ancestry. He once told me a story of a time when he was out scouting. As he walked around a hedgerow, he came across a young German soldier who looked like he could've been his cousin. Same kind of face, hair, ears. They both knew it was kill or be killed, and my grandfather happened to be the one who got his rifle up first and fired."

Narcissa listened carefully and stayed quiet after I finished.

"It's short, but that story always stuck with me," I said, shrugging.

She nodded. "I can see why. It's a revealing moment. Soldiers on opposite sides aren't mindless tools. They're people. They might even see their own faces reflected in the enemy." Her face tightened in anger. "Which certainly didn't stop Barty Crouch from denying his son mercy when it mattered most. I swear, his hardline stance made everything ten times worse." She shook her head. "And there are still people like that in the ministry, who believe everyone who followed the Dark Lord is unimaginably horrible, inhuman."

I rubbed my thumb over the back of her hand, calming her as I confessed, "I have a bad habit of seeing things in black and white too. My mum always had to remind me that the Germans were ordinary people like us. They ended up in an extremist regime through a bunch of small choices, and we could make the same mistakes. 'Just like getting cavities,' she says. 'Decay comes from consistently poor oral hygiene, not from one mouthful of particularly evil sweets.'"

Narcissa chuckled. "Your mother sounds wise. I like her already."

I nodded silently, struck by the possibility that the two of them might get along well, as long as my mother wasn't too concerned about our age difference. Or my sexuality. I wasn't at all sure what my parents would think.

We took our time moving through the rest of the museum until closing time, then wandered down the cold street hand in hand, thinking separate thoughts together. Narcissa's eyes drifted toward shop windows as we passed them, sometimes pausing to look idly, but the snow got heavier and it wasn't long before she suggested we get out of the cold and return to my apartment.

***

Soon we were relaxing by a warm fire in my woodstove. For the first time, I questioned my furniture choices, wishing I had a couch so we could sit close together instead of in two armchairs. Narcissa sipped a glass of the wine I'd bought for her, slipping her shoes off and tucking her feet under her legs as we chatted for hours.

"So you know French?" I asked after telling her about Bill breaking my scar's curse.

"The Rosiers, my mother's family, were from France," she replied. "She tried to teach my sisters and I, but I'm still barely conversational."

"Fleur said your accent was 'orrible," I said, grinning as I imitated the quarter veela.

Narcissa laughed. "She told me. She's very blunt, but I appreciate that. I get tired of people holding back criticism behind polite smiles."

"I used to not like her much, but she grew on me," I said with a smile. "A little like you, I suppose." Then I smiled even more.

"What is it?"

I waved my hand at us and the fire. "I like this. You being here, it's nice." That wasn't at all adequate. I tried to explain better, feeling like I was learning to speak a new language. "It makes me happy. You just look so at home, even though I know my apartment must not seem like much to you."

"Well." She looked down. "You've made me feel very welcome."

When she looked up, a spark passed between us.

"And you found a tasty moscato," Narcissa told me, tracing the rim of her glass. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to try some? It's cool and sweet and very good."

"I'll see what it tastes like," I said, standing and reaching for her glass. She took my hand and pulled me down for a kiss. She tasted wonderfully sweet, something like grapes but wilder. I sucked on her lower lip, enjoying the small sound she made and the flavor on her skin, then relented for a moment.

Narcissa asked with a smirk, "Oh, did you intend to take a sip from my glass?"

"I keep falling for your traps." And I didn't mind one bit.

She drew me closer until I was sitting in her lap, lips locked in a more intense kiss. Our mouths melded together for minutes on end as we tried not to get too carried away, breaking only for oxygen and a few gasped words about how any moment now we'd find the will to separate. Finally, finally we managed to stand up, straightening each others' clothes with shaky hands.

"Merlin, apparently we cannot handle being alone anywhere," I said.

"We should give it another try next week," Narcissa replied, looking inordinately amused.

"Definitely." We stood in a tight embrace for several moments, reluctant to part, but it was getting late.

She let out a regretful sigh. "I'd better get back to the manor."

"Goodnight," I said, letting her slip away. "I wish you could stay."

Narcissa kissed my temple again and whispered, "Goodnight, dear. Have faith."

***

Diagon Alley was full of snow drifts and bustling crowds the next morning. Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes had a lot of new products for the holiday season, and there were so many people around the huge store that I could barely get by. A woman bumped into me with a quick apology on her way out with a bag full of joke items. I was shopping for more serious presents and had other stops to make. I dodged a few more people, then finally made it to the Owl Post Office, which was just as busy. I stood in the long queue, waiting to use their international services to send a birthday card to Charlie Weasley, who was out of the country again.

"Well, look who it is," a snide voice said.

I turned around to face Pansy Parkinson with my fingers curling toward the wand in my sleeve. "Hello," I said neutrally.

"Sending a letter to your boyfriend?"

"Why do you care?" I retorted.

"Or has Weasley finally realized mudbloods are garbage?" she taunted.

I ground my teeth together. "If you can't say anything nice, just keep your mouth shut. Ron and I aren't together anymore, but he'll always be my friend."

"He's single now?" Pansy asked. "Of course he is. That lanky, freckle-faced, red-headed..." I waited for the insult, but it never came. She trailed off and looked away with her arms crossed, done talking.

My eyebrows drew together. That was a little odd. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as we moved through the queue. She gazed sullenly at the crowds around us, eyes following families with children running around in excitement. I had the weirdest impulse to ask how her family was doing, but she still radiated hostility. So I didn't say another word and went on to spend the next few hours buying presents. I kept an eye out for a special gift for Narcissa, but it was tough when she could afford anything she wanted.

On my way to yet another shop, I heard a clattering sound and looked ahead, spotting the woman who bumped into me earlier. She must've slipped and dropped her bags, now trying to pick everything up off the icy ground. I went over to help, handing her items before they could get lost in the snow drifts around us.

"I appreciate the help," the woman said gratefully.

"You're quite welcome," I replied, giving the last few things to her.

I kept shopping, getting cold and tired. An hour later when I passed by a cafe, I spotted the woman again as she waved and beckoned to me. Deciding it would be nice to rest my feet and drink something warm, I went inside.

"Join me," the woman invited. "Let me buy you a cuppa, as a thank you for your help earlier."

I sat down with her. "Thanks, but I'm happy to buy my own―"

"Please, I insist. You're Hermione Granger, right? My daughter Cho went to school with you. I'm Chun Chang."

"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Chang," I said, shaking her hand. Once we both had some tea, she cast a spell around our table and everything around us went silent.

"This is our third encounter today," she told me. "It was all deliberate, to have more time on target. We have a connection now, enough that you approached me and easily agreed to have a drink together."

My mouth hung open, but she wasn't done.

"I know which shops you visited and everything you purchased today. I have a copy of the letter you sent in the mail." She placed documents on the table to prove it. "Two operatives have been tailing you, and I put an envelope in your pocket. All without being noticed."

"Wha―what?" I touched my coat pocket and felt a crinkle of paper.

"You could learn to do everything I described for important investigations. I'm the Director of the Department of Mysteries. This is an informal interview for your new position as an Unspeakable."

My confusion turned to excitement. "Merlin's beard! Really?"

Director Chang nodded with a friendly expression. "When your application came in, we nearly hired you on the spot. We knew your background check would be easy." We both smiled as she went on. "You're a war hero. You were a Gryffindor, a prefect, top of your class."

Suddenly I detected her mind infiltrating mine like oil in gears. It was hard to block something so smooth and pervasive. What was she looking for? Was this a test? I used all the occlumency skills I had while staying focused on reality.

She took a sip of her drink. "Then our operative saw you leave your apartment with Narcissa Malfoy."

My throat went dry. She slid a picture of Narcissa across the table and slipped into my thoughts through the spike in emotion. I couldn't hide the strength of my feelings, and Director Chang latched onto them in my mind.

"You followed me on a date?" I asked. The breach of privacy irritated me even though I'd technically given my consent by sending in my application.

"It seemed suspicious. We didn't know it was a date at first. I'm actually a little reassured that it's something so innocent. Don't worry, your romantic interest in her won't disqualify you. Narcissa has been vetted already, though she's still in a long probationary period. But I do want to know, where does your loyalty lie? With her, or with the ministry?"

I answered, "Neither. My loyalty is to doing the right thing, as I see it."

The pressure in my mind increased, then subsided. She smiled. "I like that answer. Open the envelope."

I did as instructed. Inside, I found a badge with my name, photo, and security clearance on it. It shimmered with magic.

"I'm offering you a position as an Intelligence Officer. I think you'd make a fine operative, if you want to specialize in field work. But you can shift roles easily depending on what suits you. Underneath all of the secrecy, you'll find we're a very informal organization."

I looked down at my security badge, heart racing. "I'm hired?"

"Effective immediately, unless you decline."

"I definitely accept, but I still need to finish up with my previous job."

"And you can. Your first official day with us will be Monday after the holidays, but in the meantime, several tradecraft manuals are waiting for you at home in case you want a head start―which I know you do. If you have any questions, visit me in my office." Director Chang reached out and we shook hands. "Welcome to DEPMYS. We'll be in touch."

I went home, dazed but extremely excited, and started reading those manuals in every moment of free time.

***

Brin's first few days at work were hectic and worse than I hoped. His arrival on Monday was the only thing that went right. I'd arranged for one of the herd's bonfires to be connected, and he came out of a fireplace right on time.

"Hello, Hermione Granger," he greeted me. "Your fool network isn't nearly as unpleasant as I expected."

"Good to see you," I said excitedly. "And it's 'floo,' by the way. Most people prefer it. I like to apparate to work. You can't apparate inside the ministry, except for this area here in the atrium. And here are the lifts. Our department is on level four."

"Did the name change paperwork go through?" he asked. "No more Regulation and Control?"

"It did, finally! Now we're just called the Magical Creatures Department."

We were about to step into a lift when the few people inside shuffled around to fill in the empty spaces. I frowned and walked with Brin to the next lift, where the same thing happened.

"It's too crowded," one wizard said to us. "Just use the stairs."

Brin shook his head. "I won't be able to walk back down. My knees don't bend that way."

"Then find an empty lift," the wizard replied.

"There's plenty of room," I said, temper flaring. "Just step to one side."

"There's a weight limit, you know. We might all go crashing down. You can't blame me for not wanting to let it get on board."

It took a second for the man's words to sink in.

Brin looked ready to explode. "IT?"

The wizard looked terrified. "He. He!"

Brin marched into the lift, making the man back up, then turned in a tight circle. The quivering wizard ended up sandwiched between the wall and the centaur's rear end, trying to look anywhere except at the horse-like butt right in front of him.

"Come along, Hermione Granger," Brin said, smiling slightly in satisfaction. "This human made room for us."

***

Every day, somebody pissed off Brin or me or both of us, even in our own department where everyone had gone through sensitivity training. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes overt. Brin persisted, using a combination of fury, education, and practical jokes that he roped me into.

"This report is too hard to read," one of our coworkers complained on Tuesday. "His handwriting is messy."

I glanced at the report. "That's my writing, sorry. Brin's is much neater."

"Oh." The woman left, grumbling, "Surprised that beast even knows how to write."

She subsequently received a series of interoffice memos describing the centaurs' long history of writing tomes of astronomical observations. Brin wrote the memos. I applied the jinx that made them multiply uncontrollably until her cubicle was stuffed full of paper airplanes.

***

Ron stopped by during lunch on Wednesday while Brin was out of the office. We hadn't really spoken since Bill's birthday, and I was happy to see him.

"Hey, Hermione," he said, sounding tentative but positive. "Got a minute?"

"Of course," I replied. "Sit with me."

He pulled the visitor's chair closer to my desk and leaned on his elbows. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry for being such a git the other day. I was feeling really down when I thought it was my fault for making you like girls instead of guys. Which I know is completely ridiculous. I knew even before Ginny told me so later with a well-placed smack to the head. I was just hurting, you know? But it's not about me. I'm sorry."

I reached out and rested a hand on his arm. "It's alright, I understand. You didn't even say anything too terrible. I'm sorry for not being more upfront about it. I wish I'd handled that entire situation better."

"I'm okay with it now, but..." Ron frowned. "Is it really over with you and... you know?"

I couldn't hold back my smile. "No, we've started dating secretly. Only Harry and Andromeda know so far."

He admitted, "Maybe... maybe I'm glad, now that I've had a little time to think about it. You seem different with her. Happier. I still want you to be happy."

I was completely floored by his support and smiled even more brightly. "You're the best, Ron. I want you to be happy too. You enjoying the single life? Or dating anyone?"

He drummed his fingers and looked nervous. "Er, yeah. By the way, you might get a zillion people asking you out now. Apparently nobody realized we broke up until my coworkers heard I went on a date."

"Thanks for the heads up," I said, not looking forward to that. "Who are you dating?"

"No one," he said quickly, then winced. "Not no one. Just someone. Uh..."

I gave him a look. "Just tell me. It can't be that bad."

He tugged at his collar, turning red, then looked up in relief at the sound of hoofbeats. "Brin! Congrats on the new job. Hope it's not too horrible. I've heard some rude comments that even I'm not dumb enough to make."

Brin replied, "Nothing a swift hoof to the forehead can't solve."

Ron laughed. "Well, lemme know if you want backup. Me and Harry are on your side. Those crazy reporters aren't harassing you, right?"

"No, they seem very focused on our friend Narcissa Malfoy," Brin replied.

"What?" I asked. "What reporters?"

"You know, the mob of people in the atrium after work yesterday. And the day before. You can't have missed it," Ron said.

I shook my head, distressed, hoping it wasn't those protestors from the other morning. "I didn't know. My occlumency lessons keep me here late. Is she okay?"

"She seems to have it under control," Brin said, but I wasn't reassured.

Ron stood up. "Lunch is over, I'd better get going."

"Wait, who are you dating?" I called after him. "Ron!" He jogged away and I shook my head, smiling. If I could date someone secretly, so could he.

***

That evening I had to see what was going on in the atrium. I left my office a little early so I'd have time before my occlumency lesson. When I got off the lift, there was a familiar head of black and blond hair in the middle of a yelling crowd.

I hurried closer, worried, then slowed down when I saw they weren't those protestors. I blended in, keeping an ear open to find out why they were gathering.

"...dividing assets evenly or..."

"...bringing shame to both your bloodlines! How dare you―"

"...over yet?"

Narcissa's calm, measured voice was the only one I could hear distinctly through the din of reporters. "No, the required waiting period was thirty days. The proceedings won't be over officially until tomorrow," she told them, navigating her way forward.

Another reporter demanded to know whether there was just cause.

"As I said yesterday, please withhold your speculation for now. I'll be happy to give you a more complete answer soon," she replied graciously. With subtle steps, she made her way to the edge of the crowd.

Then someone asked, "Which of you wanted the divorce?"

My lungs seized up. I felt like I'd hit a brick wall.

"No comment. Good day to you all." Narcissa reached one of the fireplaces and tossed a pinch of powder in, leaving in a puff of smoke and flame. The reporters grumbled and slowly dispersed. I stayed near the edge of the atrium, swaying where I stood.

Which of you wanted the divorce?

In some kind of trance, I went back to the lift and down to level nine for my lesson.

"She's leaving him," I mumbled in the dark hallway.

For the next hour of training, my mind was blank as I pushed myself to excel.

When I went home afterward, the news came crashing back into my consciousness. I changed out of my work clothes and stood still in the center of the room.

"She's leaving him," I said again.

Then, "Why hasn't she told me?"

Because she's still hiding things from me.

No. Because this is what she wanted to do on her own.

Thirty days.

I did the math and realized that she must've filed for divorce immediately after we got back from Groesffordd. While I was sinking into a funk, she used the momentum from our mission to make one of the biggest changes of her life.

I opened my window to let Crookshanks in from the cold courtyard. He wound around my ankles on the way to the food bowl. I crouched down at his side and pet him while he ignored me with single-minded focus on his kibbles.

"She's getting a divorce," I whispered. One of his ears turned backward to listen to my voice. "Do you think she did it for me?" The ear pointed toward his food again. "Yeah, no. Damn right she did it for herself." He finished eating and licked his chops, then started washing his paws and face. "Yeah, I should 'withhold my speculation for now.' I'll follow your lead and take a bath."

But it was all I could think about all night. It took forever to fall asleep, thoughts racing as I wondered what this meant for the future.

***

The next morning, a whooshing sound at the window interrupted my breakfast. I jumped up, heart racing. Narcissa's handsome owl was perched outside. I let the bird in and kept him inside in case I needed to reply, then opened the envelope he'd brought. My palms prickled with anticipation. A slow smile grew as I saw short lines in Narcissa's beautiful calligraphy.

Thursday, 17 December 1998

To Hermione, on the day my marriage is over:

Thank you for lending your bravery, dear.
I needed it every day each week
when I was alone and full of fear.

The fallout when purebloods divorce is severe
but worth it to leave something loveless and bleak,
so thank you for lending your bravery, dear.

I'm finally daring enough to appear
before the reporters demanding I speak
alone and showing no sign of my fear.

I'm reaching now for things that cheer,
not merely surviving, resigned and meek.
Thank you for lending your bravery, dear.

You reminded me of something I needed to hear
by being so certain that I could seek
a fresh start alone while still full of fear.

I hope this conveys how deep and sincere
my gratitude is for a gift so unique.
Thank you for lending your bravery, dear,
so I could stand alone and face my fear.

I read it again and again, absorbing every line and remembering the time I told her she may be underestimating herself, and the time even longer ago when she'd joked about borrowing a bit of my bravery. Is this what it was for? Was she thinking ahead to this decision even then?

The word alone kept repeating, and at first I felt terrible that I wasn't there for her. But by the end, I realized it wasn't a negative thing. It was triumphant. She was proud that she didn't have to depend on someone to get through this. She kept me out of it to prove something to herself, and I was so proud of her that I started sobbing and laughing all at once, covering my mouth and smiling and crying with my nose running and I was so, so happy for her. I tried to express that in my reply, poorly written but heartfelt, and gave it to her owl to carry home.

***

At work, Narcissa and I exchanged increasingly flirtatious memos agreeing to meet at my apartment tonight. Occlumency lessons could wait. I wanted to see her as soon as I could, to congratulate her in person and celebrate.

Finally it was time to go home, and I hurried down to the atrium. A crowd was there again, making me sigh when I realized Narcissa would be delayed. There were even more reporters than yesterday.

"Our sources say you were on holiday recently. Is that true?"

She nodded, smiling. "Yes, I was relaxing in preparation for this difficult time."

I snorted. Relaxing? What a load of crap.

Another reporter called for her attention. "Mrs. Malfoy! What's the reason for divorcing after so many years? Do you hate Lucius? What kinds of terrible things has he done?"

"Please, it's Miss Black now. Lucius and I have merely grown apart, and I want to start fresh."

"Does he have a secret lover? Do you?"

"Certainly not, don't be crass," Narcissa answered.

I tried not to frown at her dismissal of our relationship. She had the situation well in hand, continuing to smooth-talk the crowd. Over time I'd learned how she operated: lies came quickly and easily, but honesty was difficult for her. She had revealed truths about herself to me with hesitation, with long silences, with discomfort. She took off her mask for me, and that was something rare and precious.

It just wasn't quite enough to erase my doubts. As my tradecraft manuals advised, I needed to check my key assumptions.

Another reporter approached with a hairdo and rhinestone glasses I'd recognize anywhere. Rita Skeeter had papers in her hands and looked far too pleased with herself as she stalked toward the front of the crowd. I was right in her way with no way to avoid her.

When she spotted me, her toothy smile made her look like a shark. "Miss Granger!" she exclaimed loudly, making the reporters turn to look at us. "Isn't this an interesting day?"

"Skeeter," I greeted, gritting my teeth.

Using her wand to amplify her voice, she asked, "Are you aware that Mrs. Malfoy—I mean Miss Black—has been scheming for months, and that those schemes include you?" She tilted her wand toward me like a microphone, knowing we had everyone's attention now.

My stomach twisted, but I kept my voice neutral as I replied, "To which plans are you referring?"

She lifted her stack of parchment. "Project New Leaf. I've got the scoop on it, and you'll really want to hear more."

I struggled to hide my alarm. How did she know about that? I risked a glance at Narcissa, who let nothing show on her face except a slight widening of her eyes. If Skeeter revealed those plans here, Narcissa's efforts would be in vain. As unsettling as it was to learn that she intended to use people like me to improve her reputation, it wasn't fair to let that be the only impression people got of her.

I replied in my most scathing voice, "Honestly, scheming is such a loaded word, Ms. Skeeter. Narcissa has put a lot of thought into her efforts to reintegrate with society and make a positive impact. I'm happy to be included in assisting however I can. Don't try to ruin yet another person's life by casting her admirable goals in a bad light."

Skeeter blanched. "Why would you defend that woman? I thought..."

"People can change. Give it here," I said, holding out my hand.

Skeeter scowled under the judgment of the other reporters. With great reluctance, she held out the parchment.

I snatched it away, then held my hand out again. "And any copies?"

She huffed in annoyance and summoned more papers with a spell, handing them over as well.

I pushed her wand away and leaned close to whisper, "You know better than to mess with the people I care about, so I'll assume you didn't realize Narcissa is one of them. Fair warning: leave her the hell alone, or I'll tell everyone how you accomplish your scheming."

"But the Malfoys are a major news item!" she protested. When I crossed my arms, refusing to relent, she glared at me. "Fine. Bitch."

I flinched, not used to insults like that when I was normally so polite to people, but it was still my victory. I walked away with my head held high and apparated home.

Less than a minute later, Narcissa arrived and hurried over to hold my shoulder. "You stood up for me in public," she said, voice full of wonder.

I shoved the stack of parchment into her arms. "At least you didn't label it 'Project Manipulate Everybody.'"

"Excuse me?" She flicked her wand and unceremoniously destroyed the files. "We talked about this. You said you understood."

"I do understand."

"Then what's gotten into you?"

"The whole wizarding world is going to know I'm associated with you now," I said, shaking. "All of my friends fought against your side in the war. What if they shun me?"

"If your friends would shun you because you're more forgiving, maybe they're not worth keeping."

"How can you say that! You don't understand how lonely I was before Harry and Ron. Nobody wanted to be friends with a bossy know-it-all. Now I have more dear friends than I ever expected, some who are like family now. And it's hard for me to risk losing all of that for someone..."

"Someone like me." Her eyes swam with tears, and she cursed under her breath. "I knew it. I knew it, but I convinced myself you were just afraid of coming out. You're ashamed of me."

"No! I'm not ashamed of you, I just..."

"Don't want anyone to know about me?" Narcissa snapped. "I fail to see the difference."

"I vouched for you in front of an army of reporters. I told them you have good intentions," I said, hating what I was about to ask. "That's true, right? I'm not just being fooled?"

She stared at me. "I don't believe it. You still don't trust me. Why?"

I felt like all the air was being squeezed out of me. Too many seconds passed in strained silence. Then I asked, "Are you ever going to tell me why you were skulking around in that cell block?"

Her shoulders tensed. "What do you mean?"

"You cast a Dark Mark. Death Eaters do that after murders! Tell me, what am I supposed to think?"

She rubbed a hand down her face slowly. "Alright, I know that looks damning, but it was only to read some writing on the wall."

"What?"

"Death Eaters used to send coded messages to each other through their Dark Marks. Those messages can also be written down and deciphered using its shape. Naturally, I paid attention and learned how to read them as well. I don't have the tattoo, so I had to cast one for reference."

My eyebrows drew together as I thought about that. "What did the writing say?"

"That's classified now. Top Secret, Eyes Only."

I narrowed my eyes. "How convenient."

She narrowed hers. "Either you believe me or you don't. I've told you as much as I can."

"Did you report the Death Eaters working with the dementors there?"

Narcissa froze. "Wait, what did you hear? Why didn't you say something to me?"

"Why didn't you?" I retorted, fists clenching as my posture stiffened.

"Have you told anyone?"

I ignored her question. "And that was just hours after saying you wanted to be honest with me."

"Honest about myself," she growled, sending a surprisingly pleasant shiver through me. "This doesn't have anything to do with me."

"Nothing to do with you? You were a Death Eater's wife and you're still keeping secrets for them!"

"You have no idea." She was in my personal space now, looking deadly serious and attractive as hell. "Whom have you told?"

"Nobody knows about the Dark Mark. But I mentioned the Death Eaters to Edgecombe during my debriefing."

"Is that all?" Our faces were a hand's breadth apart. "No one else?"

"You can't intimidate me." My voice came out huskier than I intended. Merlin, she was full of heat and I was catching fire.

Narcissa noticed. Her blue eyes darkened as her pupils dilated. She drew her wand, pressing the tip to the underside of my jaw. I bared my neck defiantly, unafraid. She brushed her lips over my throat, then bit me and sucked hard, arousing me further.

Her voice in my ear nearly made my knees buckle. "So you're confident I won't hurt you, but you won't give me the benefit of the doubt about what happened in the cell block?"

"I was right there, and you didn't say a word about it."

"I was too alarmed. I hid it instinctively."

"You're always keeping secrets! It's infuriating!"

"Oh? And what was your first instinct when you realized you fancy women?" she asked rhetorically. She eased closer until my leg was between hers, daring me to make a move. I met her challenging gaze and gave her just enough friction to elicit a groan. "Damn it, Hermione, if this is what our fights will be like from now on, I might provoke you on purpose."

We held each other, passion stoked and waiting for a breath to make it blaze. "I don't know how to move past this," I said unhappily.

Narcissa sighed. "Listen. I know I'm not always honest. But I need you to believe me when it really matters." She covered her face for a few moments, then met my eyes again. "What do you believe most about me?"

Achingly, I remembered putting my life in her hands in the cavern. "I believe in what we have, the bond we've built. No matter what else turns out to be a lie, I believe in how you feel for me."

Narcissa's lips curved slightly. "'Doubt thou the stars are fire...'"

My brow furrowed. That sounded vaguely familiar. Shakespeare, maybe.

"We need a code phrase. When I say Hermione, most dear, what follows will be the truth. I'll stake everything we have upon it," she told me. "You'll have to choose whether or not you believe me. If not, we don't have any business being together. I refuse to keep my heart open to someone who won't trust me when I'm swearing so seriously. I'll only say this once. Are you ready?"

I steeled myself. "Okay."

"Hermione, most dear," Narcissa began, "the Death Eaters there―it's not what you think. I'm not covering up their wrongdoings. I want anyone responsible for that prison to die, frankly. But I'm no longer allowed to tell you more." She swallowed hard, grasped my hands, and asked. "Do you believe me?"

I stood on the edge of a precipice as our entire relationship hung in the balance. Did I believe her? If what she just said wasn't true, then everything else was a lie too. Our closeness, every time she'd revealed bits and pieces of herself, every time she'd demonstrated how much she cared for me, every intimate moment we'd shared, all of it. And I simply couldn't doubt that.

My pulse raced and my blood rushed in my ears, making everything sound far away. The words came straight from my heart into the air as I said, "I believe you."

Narcissa held still, thumbs pressing my palms as her fingers tightened. "Truly?"

"Yes, truly." I made my choice. There was no going back. If I was wrong, I might as well doubt everything else I'd ever believed in. I said again more firmly, "I believe you."

Narcissa took a shaky breath, eyes shining. It took me a moment to realize just how meaningful those three little words were for someone who constantly faced accusations and mistrust on all sides. She held my face in her hands and gave me a fierce kiss. One hand slipped around to the back of my head, scratching my scalp lightly in a way that sent tremors of pleasure down my spine. We broke apart when I heard a familiar sound of paws squeaking on my window.

"Damn it, Crookshanks. Sorry," I apologized. "It's his dinnertime. One second."

I let him in and closed the window again. He made a beeline for his food bowl. I turned to go back to Narcissa, but she wasn't standing where I left her.

I looked around the tiny apartment, bewildered, then felt two warm hands tug me backward onto my bed. I landed with a bounce beside Narcissa.

She chuckled low in her throat and climbed on top of me. "You should have seen your face."

I laughed at myself for being so caught off guard by her playful side. She nuzzled my neck and I soaked in the attention happily. "Are we... really doing this?"

She pressed a few wet kisses to my skin. "Evidently."

"Any illnesses I should know about?" I asked, because my parents had drilled it into me to always ask. "I'm clean."

Narcissa sat up and raised an eyebrow. "I'm 'clean,' as you phrased it, as well." She grinned. "And that's fortunate, because I want to touch you without anything between us."

My heart leaped into my throat as I admired the beautiful witch above me, straddling my hips. Her neck was flushed, her eyes alight, and her mouth had the sexiest, most inviting smile I'd ever seen. I felt so...

Her fingers raked down my abdomen eagerly. "Hmm. How would you like me to touch you? Is this your first time?"

...so overwhelmed. "N-no."

Her fingers stilled, holding my sides gently. "No, it's not? Or no, full stop?"

My mouth was dry. There was nothing stopping us now except my sudden nervousness. If not for her marriage, we probably would've done this during the mission. But something had changed since then.

"There I go making assumptions again," Narcissa said, seeing my hesitation. Now she looked nervous. She shifted off of me and lay by my side, stroking my jaw. "We don't have to jump into bed at the first opportunity. Or at all. Maybe you never wanted it to go this far. That's perfectly understandable, enjoying the chase, wanting what you can't have. I understand."

I gathered my nerve to speak, and what came out surprised me. "Narcissa, what did I tell you about rambling?"

A hint of humor returned to her voice. "Leave it to you, I'm terrible at it?"

"Exactly." I pushed myself up and kissed her. Without breaking contact, I sat on top of her, reversing our previous positions. My hands rested on the bed by her shoulders as I hovered over her. "I do want you. I want this. I slept with someone once, but..." I trailed off, at a loss for words.

"Talk to me. Tell me how you're feeling." Narcissa rubbed my thighs in encouragement, which only made me want her more.

My heart pounded so hard I thought it would burst out of my chest. "This is more than just sex, right? It means something to both of us?"

Her breath caught. She grabbed the front of my clothes and pulled me down until our mouths were nearly touching. "Absolutely. Never doubt it."

I kissed her again, feeling incredible as our mouths moved against each other, open and needy. Her hips rocked beneath me, and my core throbbed. The heat building between us was unbearable. We broke apart, gasping, and I practically tore my robe off, then tossed both of our wands onto the nightstand. Narcissa pushed herself upright and shrugged out of her robe, leaving it crumpled beneath her and revealing the silky green collared shirt she wore underneath. It was stretched taut over her breasts, making a small gap appear between two buttons. My fingers went straight to those buttons, unfastening them with a shaky eagerness.

"Conventionally," she drawled, watching my progress with a smile, "one proceeds from top to bottom, or the other way, but not from the middle."

"There was this gap," I said, as if that explained everything.

She laughed, making it much harder to continue, but I persisted and finally parted the front of her shirt, pushing it down her arms and throwing it behind me. Before I could proceed any further, she pulled my own shirt and sports bra off over my head in one motion. When my arms were free, my hands went immediately to the clasp of her lacy black brassiere, which made my mouth water it looked so good. I kissed her chest as I had done in her office, then let the brassiere fall away to reveal her gorgeous, full breasts. I held their weight in my palms and rubbed my thumbs over her nipples, watching with rapt attention as they tightened.

"They're not as perky as they used to be," Narcissa said, sounding almost apologetic.

"Hush, they're amazing. You're amazing," I told her. I took one in my mouth and circled her areola with my tongue.

"Ooh!" Her back arched, pressing her breast harder against my eager mouth. "Mmm..." Her fingers tangled themselves in my hair. It was addictive, seeing the effect I could have on her.

After lingering there for a while, my hands slid down her stomach to her skirt, and I made short work of it once I found the zipper. My pants came off just as quickly, leaving us in our underwear. Mine were lavender boyshorts, not the sexiest choice, but I didn't exactly know this was going to happen today.

Narcissa didn't seem to mind in the slightest, eyes trailing over my body with raw hunger. "May I?" she asked, curling her fingers around the hem of my underwear.

"Yes." I shivered with longing.

She tugged them down, tongue coming out to wet her lips as the tame curls between my legs were exposed. I pulled them off the rest of the way since it was easier for me to do it from my position. Then I pushed her back down to the bed. Narcissa covered her abdomen, looking a little self-conscious, but she smiled as I traced the edge of her black panties with my fingertip.

"May I?" I echoed.

"Yes."

She lifted her hips so I could slide her panties down her legs. I took my time with it, slowly revealing a patch of dark, neatly trimmed hair. I kissed my way down one leg, then found a sensitive spot behind her knees when my fingers brushed by. Once her panties were off, I brushed the backs of her knees again, watching her thighs tense and spread apart.

"Merlin," I breathed, suddenly realizing that she was completely nude now. Her body was stretched out before me like a work of art, slender but with more womanly curves than mine. I crawled over her legs to reach the hands still covering her belly. "Please, show me all of you."

Narcissa let me pull her hands away. There was a wide scar just above the path my finger had taken as I traced her panties. "The healer had to make an incision," she whispered. "Draco... there were complications..."

"You both nearly died. I remember."

My hand stroked her belly. I was awestruck at the thought of a tiny baby coming from this body, her body, both mother and son fighting to survive. Too choked up to speak, I lowered my head and pressed a tender kiss to her scar. I felt overwhelmed in a good way now, full of something that couldn't be anything other than love. And it was so big, so all-compassing that it extended beyond her to include Draco, because he was hers.

She trembled beneath me. In all likelihood, only her healer and her ex-husband had ever seen this scar. As confident as Narcissa was in many regards, I realized she was a little uneasy about this, and about any signs of age.

"You're beautiful," I told her, pressing another kiss right beside the first one. "You're a warrior. Absolutely beautiful." I covered her entire scar in kisses, then drifted lower. "And sexy." My hand slid slowly up her inner thigh until I reached her slick folds.

Narcissa gasped at my first touch. "Merlin, it's been too long. Keep going."

Her hips rocked as I rubbed my hand in circles, stirring her even deeper into arousal. Though I'd never done this with a woman before, her body was enough like mine that it wasn't hard to figure out. She was so wet it made my own desire spike, and I sank down until I could feel the skin of her thigh pressing against my center.

She held my arm. "Please, inside. I need to feel you."

Two of my fingers sank into her warmth, and I groaned at how unexpectedly wonderful it felt to be giving her pleasure. Her hips undulated against my hand as I started to stroke her. Every motion made her thigh rub against me more, and the sensations were exquisite. "How is this?" I asked.

"Mmmh. Mmm, this is good," she told me between ragged breaths. Feeling her chest heaving reminded me I had another hand, and I could make good use of it. Fingers splayed, I slid my palm down the center of her chest, over her belly, loving the feeling of her muscles tensing with each thrust of her hips against my fingers inside her. My hand went back up to her breast and massaged it. Just to see what would happen, I pinched her nipple.

"Salazar," Narcissa hissed. Her inner walls clenched tighter around my fingers, and she brought her hands up to my bare back. "Again."

I pinched a little harder and felt the nails of her left hand dig into my shoulder. Deciding I liked that feeling, I stretched out half on top of her until my head was level with her chest. I lowered my lips to her breast and bit it gently while pinching the other one, in time with my next stroke in her core.

"Fuck!" She was gasping now, skin covered in a sheen of perspiration, and her nails left fiery lines across one side of my back. Each scratch made me shudder with pleasure and grind against her more. The next time I pushed my fingers into her, I rubbed my thumb through her wetness and brushed it lightly over her clit.

"More," Narcissa told me frantically. "More pressure." With my firmer touch, her head tilted backward, pressing into the mattress. I couldn't resist her neck when it was exposed like that. I kissed her throat, nipping the skin lightly. "Bite. Bite hard." I bit. A moan burst out of her and she closed her eyes, movements getting more agitated. Watching her come undone beneath me was breathtaking and humbling. My eyes roved over her face, taking in every detail, every familiar line and curve, every hidden muscle that would quirk into expressions I was still learning to read. I kissed her, briefly so her rapid breaths could continue.

Narcissa's eyes opened and met my gaze. "Hermione." She whispered my name like an incantation. "Slower. Harder. Hermione..." Neither of us could look away.

A slight keening sound accompanied each motion now as she drove herself against me, matching my force equally. I don't think I'd ever kept eye contact with someone for this long before, and it felt incredibly intimate. Narcissa held her breath as she climaxed, and I could feel it wash over her. Multiple contractions squeezed my fingers, hips bucking with abandon, body rippling beneath me. All her breath escaped with a shudder. I slowed my strokes even further, in time with each squeeze of her muscles, bringing her down gently.

"Hermione," she breathed. Her hands slid from my back to my shoulders, then to my jaw. She kissed me deeply, then held me close with our foreheads pressed together. "I thought I was going to take the lead," she said, giving me a wicked grin. "I'm going to get you back for that."

I swallowed hard in anticipation. My own arousal had been simmering on the back burner while I focused on her, and now it was boiling over.

Narcissa rolled me onto my back and settled in between my legs. She let out a happy sigh as her hands slid up my torso to cup my small breasts. She lowered her head to one of them and flickered her tongue over my nipple. I gasped and squirmed under her, unused to so much stimulation. She smiled at my reaction and toned it down a little, pressing the flat of her tongue against my nipple instead, sucking gently. I moaned at how wonderful that felt, and she gave the other one the same attention.

"Talk to me," she invited, caressing my arms, my chest, my stomach. "Tell me what you like."

"I don't know," I said. "I like everything you do."

Narcissa chuckled lightly. The backs of her nails trailed from my stomach to my pelvis and left my muscles trembling like plucked strings. My whole body felt tense as my hips jerked, seeking contact. She pressed her hand against my belly. "Easy, now. Relax. You said you've had sex before?"

"Yes, to try it. But it didn't feel like this."

"Did you come?"

"No."

"Let's see what we can do about that." She brought her right hand down to knead my inner thigh, then moved closer and closer to my center. That's when I noticed the nails on just that one hand were trimmed short. She planned to have her fingers in me. The realization made me even wetter, but she kept teasing, not touching me where I wanted her. Finally I remembered to talk.

"Stop teasing," I said desperately. Merlin, she felt good. "I'm close already."

"From the way you were riding my leg, I don't doubt it." She dipped a finger into me, then added another and pumped gently. Her motions drove me further and further toward the edge, and it was getting harder to stay relaxed. Then she lowered her mouth. "May I?" she asked, breath ghosting over the most sensitive part of me.

My eyes went wide. "You want to..." I was too far gone to feel self-conscious about it. "Yes. Absolutely, yes."

She chuckled and gave me a lick that made me cry out, hips rising off the bed. "Oh, you're going to be noisy, are you?" she asked, sounding thrilled at the prospect. She licked again, then sucked, still moving her fingers inside. My voice sounded like a stranger's as she coaxed more cries from my lips. At first they were incoherent, then they turned into her name. I chanted it over and over, and before I knew what was happening an intense wave crashed over me.

"Narcissa!" My back arched and I clutched the bedspread, lost in the sensations.

Narcissa moved up my body to kiss me. I opened my eyes as she had done and saw her watching me with unexpected reverence. Her fingers massaged my inner walls, keeping the wave rolling until it had to subside. As my breath slowed, she kissed me again. Now I tasted myself on her lips, and it wasn't as strange as I would've expected. Our mouths moved together for a long time, slowly, leisurely, before parting.

"Time to debrief," Narcissa said, playful smile returning. We climbed off the bed for a moment to curl up under the covers. "The day is today, and the time is now. Our names have already been stated―mine quite loudly, I might add. How are you feeling?"

"Wonderful," I replied. "But didn't we already have a debriefing? I don't see my briefs anywhere." She snorted and gave me another kiss, then gasped when my hand slipped down to stroke her. "Looks like yours are missing too," I commented.

"This is quite serious," she said, not at all serious. "I think you need to investigate further."

We began again, cocooned in warmth and bliss.

Chapter Text

I first woke in the early hours of the morning. Narcissa was sleeping at the edge of the bed with her arm hanging off, just like the time I'd brought her to the manor. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back her eyes were half open and she smiled at me.

"Hello," she greeted, voice rough. "What time is it?"

"Only four," I replied, slipping back into to the warm blankets. "What are you doing all the way over there?"

She shifted away from the edge and curled up against my side. "Another old habit to break."

"From sleeping with Lucius?" I asked. In the dim light, it seemed easier to ask about difficult subjects. Part of me really didn't want to know about her marriage with him, but the rest of me wanted to know everything about her entire life.

"Mhm," she confirmed. "Don't get the wrong idea. There were no unwanted advances. But ever since Azkaban, he thrashes about in his sleep."

With morbid curiosity, I asked, "When is the last time you and he... never mind. That's none of my business."

Narcissa's hand trailed along my arm. "I don't mind telling you, but do you really want to know?"

No. Yes. "Yes."

"The evening before the Battle of Hogwarts," she said, voice hollow as she reminisced. "We hadn't been that close in years. With everything Lucius did for the Dark Lord, I felt revolted whenever I considered being intimate with him. But we needed each other that night. I was convinced Draco would die in the fighting. Lucius was terrified he'd lose both of us."

A tear trickled over the bridge of her nose, and I wiped it away with my thumb.

She smiled slightly. "I can't believe you're willing to listen to this. You used to get a pinched look on your face whenever I mentioned him."

I could feel my ears turning red. "I was jealous."

"But not now?"

"Now you're with me. You told me I don't need to be jealous. And neither do you, because I don't want anyone else."

Narcissa chewed on her lip. "I'm the last person you should be dating. You don't need to be trapped with me simply because I'm overly attached."

"Overly attached? Narcissa, I'm right there with you. I want us to be exclusive."

She sighed in relief. "That's good. I do not like sharing." With a raised eyebrow, she asked, "You're not going to make me sign a contract, are you?"

I shook my head. "We're just going to trust each other."

At that, Narcissa pulled me in for a fierce kiss that slowly softened. Then she burrowed closer, and we drifted back to sleep.

***

This time when I woke, everything was right with the world. Narcissa was still curled up against my side, utterly relaxed with her arm across my waist. Her breath came out in little puffs as she dreamed, eyes moving behind their lids. Seeing her like this felt like a privilege, a gift I hoped I'd never take for granted.

Crookshanks was pacing around the room, waiting to go outside for the day. He hopped onto the bed impatiently and lay down on my chest with his paws on my collarbone, purring up a storm. I happily stroked his thick fur, then watched Narcissa's eyes flutter open.

"Good morning, beautiful," she murmured. She scratched behind the half-kneazle's ears, and his eyes closed in euphoria. "And good morning to you, Hermione."

I laughed and smacked her arm as she winked at me sleepily, looking tired despite resting for most of the night.

Once Crookshanks was sure I was awake, he went to the window and pawed at the glass. I wandlessly opened it for him and shut it again only a little too hard.

"Mm, keeping up your practice?" Narcissa asked. "Talented and committed."

"Speaking of commitments, it's Friday," I said right as my alarm went off. I reached over Narcissa and deactivated it, then took advantage of the moment to kiss her. "We've only got an hour left before work," I added, starting to stand up.

Narcissa wrapped her arms around my waist and dragged me back toward the bed. "Stay here. Don't go."

Her smile was tempting, but I shook my head. "I can't miss my last day."

She tightened her arms. "Go in late, then."

"I've never been late to work," I said. "I want to be responsible."

"Responsible," Narcissa said, pretending to pout. "The only response I want is 'yes, darling, I would love nothing more than to stay in bed with you.'"

I snorted. "I don't sound like that."

"No, you're right. In actuality, you sound like this: Narcissa! Narcissa!" she cried in exaggerated breathy moans.

I tackled her to the mattress, embarrassed but laughing too hard to care. Which was a mistake, because now she had me pinned with her legs wrapped around me and her fingers drawing tantalizing circles on my skin and I supposed maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if I―

"No no no, I'm going to work on time," I insisted.

"Oh, well. I tried," she complained good-naturedly, hunting for her clothes in the bedcovers. "I should head over to the manor to get ready for work, keep everything looking normal."

"I don't mind anymore if people see us together," I said, doubts gone after our fight last night. "I'll learn to live with their reactions."

Narcissa gave me a pleased smile, then bit her lip. "It might be wiser to court each other publicly before making it obvious we're sleeping together. Just yesterday I told the press I don't have a secret lover."

"Alright, we can 'court' each other, milady," I replied, amused at how we'd switched places on privacy.

"Thank you, milady," she responded, gathering up her wrinkled robe. A silver pocket watch fell onto the bed, and I reached out to pick it up for her. Narcissa's hand shot out as if to stop me, then held still and let me look at it.

It was like the Weasley's clock, with much more morbid labels around the edge: fleeing, fighting, injured, dead, tortured, arrested, prison, and safe. With the kind of lives the Malfoys led, mortal peril must not be specific enough, I thought sadly. Lucius' hand was in the space between prison and safe. Draco's hand was fully on safe, and so was a third hand. Me. I nearly dropped it in surprise.

"When did you get this?" I asked, handing it over.

She blushed. "After our trip. Not seeing you every day was... difficult."

I swallowed a lump in my throat. "Same here."

"At home I have a grandfather clock like every other family has, but nowadays I'm away too often for it to be useful. I'm afraid something will happen to Lucius, too." She checked the hands before putting the watch away and added sheepishly, "That's why I haven't moved out yet. It's irrational, but I feel like as long as I'm still living there, he'll be safe. Don't you worry, though; he's staying in a separate wing of the house."

I nodded, doing my best to understand where she was coming from. I was more concerned about what Lucius might do if he got out, but I managed to feel a little bit of worry for his safety. It was possible that some of Voldemort's followers were only escaping reluctantly, feeling pressured or even coerced by the others. Maybe in my new job I could help with the investigation.

"Are you willing to spend another night away from home?" I asked. "I've got an hour of occlumency lessons after work, but I'm free after that."

Narcissa leaned in and hummed against my lips. "Hmm. What's in it for me?"

I gave her a slow kiss, full of promise. "Convinced yet?"

"To be honest, I was already hoping we'd get together tonight," Narcissa confessed with another kiss. "Now that my schedule is open, I intend to see you as often as you'll tolerate me."

"Tolerate? Narcissa, I always want to see you."

"Don't tell me that. You'll never be rid of me."

"That's the idea," I responded, working my way down to her neck. Her hands slid around to my rear and held me close. I tongued a bite mark I'd given her, and she shivered in my grasp.

"Call in sick," I said, only half joking. "Stay here so we can make love all day." The term slipped out by accident. I tried not to look too apprehensive.

"All day? I think you vastly overestimate our endurance." Narcissa's tone was dry, but her eyes twinkled. "And I shouldn't miss work. I'm responsible."

"We're altogether too responsible," I complained with a relieved smile of my own.

"I'll see you later. Give Brin my regards." Narcissa gave me one last kiss before disapparating.

***

My last morning at work flew by. Brin had slowly won over our coworkers, and most of the people who saw him on a daily basis were respectful now. A few were even friendly. I felt confident that it would keep getting better. After he left to spend his lunch break outdoors, I munched on a sandwich while idly reading the Daily Prophet. I choked when one of the articles caught my eye.

 

 

Another Death Eater at Large

LONDON, Dec 18 – Vincent Crabbe, Sr., 44, recently joined the ranks of Death Eaters who have escaped house arrest. His distraught house elf visited the placement agency yesterday, having lost hope that her last living master would return after a week with no sign of him. Ministry officials declined to make a statement...

I read the rest of the article, which went into detail about the man's crimes, then set it down and rubbed my eyes. I just visited Crabbe's house on Monday last week, only a few days before he disappeared. What did I miss? I should've realized he was hiding something, planning something.

Then I heard Narcissa's raised voice outside my office. I got up and peeked out into the hall. One of my coworkers was standing in her way while she held a small paper bag.

"Let me pass!"

"No way," he said. "What's in the bag, Malfoy?"

"The severed head of a house elf, what do you think? And it's Black. Now get out of my way before I―"

"Sweetheart," I interrupted, "is he giving you trouble?" I crossed my arms and leaned on the doorway.

Narcissa glanced at me with surprise that transformed into a smile. "Hello, dear." She took advantage of my coworker's confusion to push past him and approach me.

"Wait," he said. "Sweetheart? You... what?"

I took Narcissa's hand and brought her into my office, leaving the door open to prevent any salacious rumors.

"Ginny is gonna kill me," I muttered under my breath. "Now some guy knows about you, and she still doesn't know."

Narcissa told me quietly, "Thank you for stepping in. I shouldn't have snapped at him. Being under investigation has me on edge. I hate people suspecting me when I haven't done anything."

"'Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counter-accusations,'" I said, quoting a bit of CIA advice from my tradecraft manuals.

"I know." Narcissa pursed her lips, trying not to smile. "I should've claimed the bag has cookies in it and accused him of trying to steal them."

"What's actually in it?"

"Actually cookies." She handed me the bag.

"Ooh! Where did these come from?"

"Director Chang made them for all of us, for the holidays. I thought our newest Unspeakable should have some too."

I gave her a kiss and beamed at her. "You are so incredibly sweet. Thank you." I opened the bag, taking out a big chocolate chip cookie and handing another to her.

"I also got permission to give you an orientation," she said, taking a bite. "Do you want to come downstairs for the last... forty-five minutes of the break? Or we could do it after your occlumency lesson this evening."

"Let's go now!"

"Excellent. You can meet some of your new coworkers."

Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I walked beside her and gave a cheerful greeting to anyone who looked askance at me for accompanying the dark witch. The cookies we held must've made us quite an odd sight. I eagerly pressed the button for level nine.

Narcissa shook her head. "Goodness, we're not visiting a candy store. I don't have to tell you not to touch anything, right?" We stepped into the dark, torchlit hallway, alone now.

"Can I touch you?" I teased.

"By all means," she replied, voice low. She turned and slipped her hands into my robes. Grinning, I stepped closer. Then her hand came out and held up my security badge, which had just updated itself recently. "You'll need this. Oh my. Your clearance level is Secret? Someone must've given you a strong head start."

"Give that back!" I exclaimed, snatching it out of her hand. "And don't look so smug. It took me almost two weeks to pass the second test. You didn't teach me how to make a mental vault."

"Of course not. I taught you to keep secrets the best way I know how. And two weeks is exceptionally quick. But I knew you'd be good at it; you have a very well-organized mind. So let's start with that."

She picked a door and led us into the Brain Room, where several Unspeakables were working at desks. One of them was the man who'd given me my first occlumency test. He scowled when he spotted me with Narcissa, probably guessing which pureblood gave me private lessons.

Narcissa brought me to the desk of a studious-looking young man. "Mr. Higgs, have you got a moment to tell Hermione about your work in the Mind Division? She's brand new."

"Sure thing, Miss Black," he responded, standing up and holding out his hand. "Terrence Higgs, call me Terry."

"You used to be on the Slytherin quidditch team," I realized as we shook hands.

"Sure was. Seeker until I graduated and Malfoy took my place, bratty lil' runt," he said, ducking as Narcissa pretended to reach for her wand. "Honestly, neither of us stood a chance against Potter. Kid's got luck coming out of his arse."

"And skill," I insisted.

"Sure. But mostly luck. Anyways, as you might've guessed from that giant tank full o' brains over there, everything we do here revolves around the mind. Legilimency, memory, learning, intelligence analysis, you name it. I'm kinda new here, so they've got me churning through boring data and writing reports that nobody's gonna read."

"People read them, Terry," Narcissa assured him.

"Right before they use them as toilet paper, I'm sure," he replied. "What's your job, Hermione?"

"Intelligence officer," I said. "Maybe I'll be an operative. Or do research. I don't know. Can I do both?"

"Oh, definitely. Some projects have a lot of overlap. Here, let me show you the good stuff. You've got at least the lowest clearance, right?" Once he checked my badge, he ran over to someone else's desk and grabbed a paper to bring back to me. "This is how operatives format their reports."

I'd seen some reports like this about missing dementors in the Project 404 folder, but now I paid more attention to how it was written.

"Everything is connected to a project?" I asked.

"Yep. And every project falls under one of the five divisions: Mind, Time, Space, Love, and Death."

I nodded, remembering all the rooms I'd seen when we were trying to rescue Sirius here. Turning to Narcissa, I asked, "Can we see everything?"

"If we have time. How about Time next?"

We said goodbye to Terry and headed toward the door. Suddenly the back of my neck prickled and I could've sworn I felt... hatred pouring over us. My fingers touched my wand in my sleeve, but when I scanned my surroundings, everything was fine. Terry was walking away cheerfully. The people at their desks were all looking down at their work, not at us. I stared hard at my occlumency teacher, but he seemed oblivious. Someone else, then? Or had I imagined it?

"On second thought, let's skip that one," I said, a little freaked out and reluctant to return to the Hall of Prophecies. "Last time I was in there, Death Eaters attacked. Not really fond memories."

"Just as well. I keep wanting to touch the prophecies," Narcissa admitted, "but then I'd end up like Broderick Bode, believing I'm a teapot. That's the work of Project 418. Devious. Let's try the Space Division instead."

Her good humor was comforting, and I felt calmer in the Planet Room. As we walked between Mercury and Venus floating in the air, I said, "I liked Terry. He was nice for a Slytherin." Narcissa cleared her throat, and I winced. "Sorry, but most Slytherins were very unkind when I was in school."

"What can you expect when the other houses think we're evil? We learn to take care of our own and keep everyone else away."

"Are there other Slytherins down here?"

"Indeed. Chun Chang was a Slytherin. We're about to visit her. She's responsible for Project 403, all of the new security measures."

"But Cho was in Ravenclaw."

"Her mother is cleverer."

A voice ahead of us said, "Narcissa, you really think I'm clever?" Director Chang stood at the bottom of a stairway behind an open door in the dark wall.

"Of course not," Narcissa replied. "Just marginally less un-clever."

Chang laughed and led us upstairs into a hallway lined with offices. Each had a one-way window overlooking the Planet Room.

"Were you really in Slytherin?" I asked. "Wait, were you two friends at Hogwarts?"

Chang shook her head. "We weren't friends then. Narcissa can be quite prickly. I've only recently gotten a glimpse of her soft underbelly. Tell me, is her patronus a hedgehog?"

I snickered. Narcissa pursed her lips but didn't really seem to mind the teasing.

"It's true, though, I was in Slytherin for a while," Chang continued. "I came over as an exchange student from Hong Kong in fourth year and ended up staying. There are people from every house in this department, and I hope you'll keep an open mind. We try very hard to remain non-partisan. I've been the director under ministers ranging all over the political spectrum. Our job is to conduct research and deliver intelligence products, and we do it faithfully."

"Even under Voldemort?" I asked.

Chang frowned. "Those were exceptional circumstances. Some of us kept working. Others resisted." She knocked on a closed office door.

"Come in!"

Chang waved me inside and said, "Hermione, I believe you two already met in your debriefing, but this is my best friend Maria Edgecombe, a smart-mouthed Ravenclaw. She'll be your mentor once you're working here.

"You two are friends just like your daughters?" I asked, pleased by the realization.

"Cho and Marietta practically grew up together because of us," Edgecombe told me, coming over to shake my hand. "Nice to see you again, Granger. I've got your new robes, if you want them now instead of waiting."

I smiled. Edgecombe seemed warmer now that she didn't have to keep everything professional. "Sure, why not. What kind of work do you do?"

"I worked in the Department of Magical Transportation before getting forced into DEPMYS," Edgecombe told me. "I was developing an apparition map to regulate unlicensed apparition. Voldemort's stooges hoped they could use it to track people and sent me down here to develop the idea more fully. But I made sure my research was flawed until after the war ended. Then I started to like it here, so I got more involved and became an operative."

My eyes were wide with admiration as she handed me two gray robes. "Did you ever get the map working?"

"Somewhat. I've only figured out how to detect disapparation thus far, so I can see where people leave from but not where they're going. And it's horribly imprecise. All of this is part of Project 302, which is classified Secret, so don't breathe a word about it, Granger."

"Right," I said excitedly.

"Do you know how Unspeakable robes work?" she asked. When I shook my head, she lifted one and turned it inside out, then draped it over my shoulders and put the hood up. "They're reversible. Gray on the outside, invisible on the inside. Lasts about a year until the charm needs to be reapplied."

I looked down and grinned, seeing right through myself. With these robes, I wouldn't need to borrow Harry's invisibility cloak anymore. I took it off and put it back on with the gray side out. "This is really happening," I said. "I'm going to be an Unspeakable."

Narcissa reached out and held my hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze.

"I'll make you into the best operative we've got," Edgecombe declared. "And Space is the best division. We deal with everything in physical reality. I'll help show you around. Has Black brought you to the mail room yet? We've got thousands of randomly numbered mailboxes so assets can contact us anonymously."

Chang asked, "Where are you going, Maria? You said you're working through lunch."

"Come off it, Chun. I'm mentoring my mentee."

I couldn't stop smiling, enjoying my new coworkers and my new job before it had even begun.

***

The rest of my workday seemed lackluster after such an exciting tour, but my last day in the Magical Creatures Department was finally over, with a lot of heartfelt goodbyes. When I apparated home, Narcissa was already there, sitting with her legs crossed in one of my armchairs, absorbed in a book.

She looked up, startled. "Oh! Dammit, I was going to make dinner for you! But some mail arrived, and I set it down on the side table and spotted this book and completely forgot what I was doing."

I stood there silently for a moment, flabbergasted by how much better this felt than the time Ron surprised me with dinner before our trip. Then I saw her worried look as she started second-guessing herself.

"A woman after my own heart," I said, giving her a huge, happy smile as I hung up my robe and set my new gray robes on the other chair. "There's just one problem."

"What's that?"

I stepped closer, the air between us thrumming with potential energy. "You're in my chair."

With a mischievous smile, Narcissa lied, "Is that right? I had no idea."

"You knew exactly what you were doing." I leaned down and propped my hands on the arms of the chair. I felt almost powerful as her eyes darkened in response.

"If you want it back," she said, planting her feet on the floor, "you'll have to take it."

"I don't know, making you give it back would be too easy." I settled down on her lap, straddling her legs. My fingers sought out the hem of her shirt.

"Deja vu," she said, unbuttoning my pants. "Weren't we sitting like this just last Friday? I had a number of fantasies about that afterward."

"You have fantasies?" I asked, enthralled by the idea. "Like what?"

Narcissa blushed but seemed intrigued too. "You want to hear about them?" She tugged my pants and underwear down until she could get a hand between my legs. "Here's a simple one for starters. Imagine I'm already single but haven't told you yet. We're sitting here, snogging each other senseless. You want me so badly that you just can't help yourself. You start grinding against me, getting wetter and wetter." She rubbed my folds as she spoke, fingers gliding forward and back while my hips rolled slowly with her motions.

"You are pretty hard to resist," I agreed, thoroughly enjoying this unexpected glimpse of her private thoughts.

"You tell me you can't wait any more, and you need to feel me. I surprise you by doing exactly what you asked for. As I touch you, I reveal the truth. We're free to do whatever we like now." She slipped two fingers into me and began thrusting, leaving open-mouthed kisses on the hollow of my throat. I held onto her shoulders, meeting her motions with unbridled pleasure.

"It's not enough for you. You ask for another finger. I'm more than willing to oblige." She glanced up at me for confirmation, and I nodded enthusiastically. A third finger pushed in alongside the first two, and I tensed at the feeling of stretching, then groaned as my muscles relaxed to accommodate it. The heel of her palm rubbed against me with each thrust. Pressure was building, and her smoky voice curling in my ear made every touch even more potent.

"You're insatiable," she continued, "wanting me to keep going, faster and harder." My thighs burned with exertion as I moved faster, living out the fantasy with her. "I give you what you want and meet every desire. All I want is to bring you over the edge." That edge approached rapidly. I was sweating, wearing too many clothes for this but not caring in the slightest. Then the angle of her wrist changed, driving deeper. Her fingers curled and touched a spot inside that nearly made me climb out of my skin, flooded with pleasure as an intense orgasm pulsed through my body.

I leaned against her, recovering with my mouth pressed against the side of her neck, breathing in the scent that was uniquely hers underneath everything else. I could've stayed there all evening, savoring every moment, but eventually I sat up and asked, "How did you do that?"

Narcissa just gave me a satisfied look.

I declared, "My new mission is to find that spot on you and do the same."

"Mm, I look forward to it. Did you actually like hearing what I imagined?"

"It was erotic," I answered, kissing her deeply. "And your voice... Merlin. I'm all ears whenever you want to share more. You could tell me what you want me to do to you."

"Absolutely," she agreed, nibbling my ear. "How about dinner first?"

"But you didn't get to..."

"It'll balance out in the end. And I'll want you just as much later tonight, believe me." Her mouth worked its way around my ear, and dinner seemed quite unimportant compared to how badly I wanted to touch her.

The telephone ringing next to us made me jump in shock.

I stared at the phone, struggling to think.

"Are you going to answer that, or should I?" Narcissa asked, holding up her hand like a pretend receiver. "Hello, muggle. Sorry, Hermione is otherwise occupied right now, sitting on my lap while I try very hard not to have my way with her again."

"Do not say that!" I exclaimed, knowing who it must be. "Shhhhh."

She waited with bated breath while I hastily pulled my pants back up and picked up the phone.

"Hey, Mum."

Narcissa snorted and started shaking with laughter underneath me, which was not helping matters.

"Hi, sweetie. How has your week been? Are you going on a date again, or free to talk?"

"I'm free for a short time," I said, holding a finger to Narcissa's mouth to keep her quiet. She swiped her tongue along the side of my finger and I jerked it away.

"Narcissa," I hissed, covering the phone. "You're impossible!"

My mother asked, "You sure you're free? You sound distracted."

I answered her, "Just taking care of something. I can talk."

"I'd like you to take care of me," Narcissa purred in my other ear.

My nether regions clenched in desire. "Merlin's pants, if you don't stop that I'm going to―"

"I can hear you talking to someone," my mother said. "Is your new boyfriend there? That's why I'm calling. We got cut short last week, but I was trying to ask you if it's serious enough that you might be willing to bring him home to meet us."

Narcissa was finally silent, eyes wide as she listened to our conversation.

I was sure of my answer now. "Yes, it's serious."

"Could we all have dinner together on Monday?"

My stomach churned. "I'd have to ask h―how this person would feel about that."

"Should I wait, or...?"

I started to tell her I'd call her back, but Narcissa said, "Okay."

"Wait a moment, Mum." To Narcissa, I whispered, "You're okay with this?"

She looked uneasy but nodded. "I want to meet them."

My heart was racing as I told my mother, "Okay, then. My... um... we'll both come on Monday."

"Great, I look forward to it. Does he have any food allergies or..."

Discussing logistics was quite difficult without using any feminine pronouns, but I got through it without accidentally outing myself. I hung up the phone and looked at Narcissa, who was white as a sheet.

"Wait!" she said. "Pick it back up. Tell her I'm not available to come."

"What's wrong?"

She was breathing too fast and twisting her fingers. "I keep imagining how I'd react if Draco brought home someone like me. You're only nineteen! You're a teenager, and I'm... oh fuck, what am I thinking? They're going to hate me. They'll think I'm taking advantage of you!"

I was afraid too, but her reaction made me want to be brave and supportive. "They're not going to hate you. Listen: I'll come out to them alone first, then bring you for dinner. They'll overreact, they'll calm down, and once they get to know you, they'll love you. So it's going to be fine, alright?" I held her face and rubbed my thumbs over her cheeks.

Narcissa leaned into my touch, controlling her breathing better. "Alright. Don't cancel dinner. It just seems overwhelming right now. I've had hardly a day of rest since before our mission." Her eyes fluttered shut. "I'm so tired."

The exhaustion in her voice squeezed my heart. I pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth, then stood up and cast a featherweight charm. Hooking my arms under her legs, I carried her against my chest to the bathroom.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Taking care of you."

I set Narcissa on her feet and ended the charm, bending over to start a bubble bath. Then I undressed her, sometimes pausing to kiss the newly exposed skin. By the time she was nude, the tub was nearly full and I held her hand to help her climb in. The relaxed sigh as she sank into the hot water was music to my ears.

After giving her a towel to put behind her head, I left the room to find some candles, bringing them back and arranging them in the corners of the tub. With the overhead light off, the room was illuminated only by their warm, gentle flickering. Narcissa's face glowed in the candlelight, as beautiful as ever, tiredness and all.

I smiled and stroked her cheek. "Take as long as you like in here. I'll make dinner and bring you a plate. Do you need anything before I go?"

She caught my hand and kissed my palm, eyes shining with adoration. "This is perfect. Thank you."

Full of peaceful happiness, I made sure her wand and pocket watch were in reach before leaving the room, closing the door behind me in case she wanted privacy. The contentment stayed even while I cooked pasta, such an everyday thing that seemed more special because I would be sharing it with someone.

Once Narcissa had a plate of food, I took advantage of the free time to catch up on some housework. Then I remembered about Ginny, and quickly took out a quill and ink to start writing her a letter that seemed overdue now.

After the bath and dinner, it was surprisingly hard to convince Narcissa to let me continue doing nice things, but I was determined to help her relax after these weeks of stress. I gave her a massage as she lay face down in the center of my bed, silent aside from occasional soft groans whenever I found a knot in her muscles.

"Thank you," I said after a while.

"For what?"

"For being willing to meet my parents. I... I want everybody to know how important you are to me."

Narcissa caught my hand on her shoulder and turned her head to kiss my fingers. "I want to be part of your life. And vice versa." She breathed in suddenly and said, "Would you be willing to go to a holiday party with me tomorrow night? I assumed I'd be going alone this year. If you're really ready to be together publicly, I'd love to have you by my side."

"Okay," I agreed.

She cracked a smile. "I haven't even told you what to expect. What if it's a muggle-roasting party?"

"Is that even a thing? If you want me there, I'll come. Where are we going?"

***

Our first public appearance was at the Zabini's mansion, and it was not subtle. As we checked our coats at the door, I felt like I was walking into a snake's nest. A very opulent snake's nest. Apparently, only people with a high enough net worth received invitations. Purebloods and their high society friends milled around holding champagne flutes and tiny plates of hors d'oeuvres I couldn't name, in an entry hall so large it looked like a ballroom. The elegant woman on my arm looked much more at home.

Narcissa patted my hand and leaned in to whisper, "Don't worry, dear. Keep your chin up and no one will know you're nervous. Keep your guard up, too."

People started to notice us. Each expression went from calculated boredom to disbelief. Heads turned to track us as we sought out the hosts to say hello. Whispers erupted behind us, and I hoped my presence wouldn't cause too much hostility. Narcissa told me she was hoping to rekindle lost friendships and make business deals tonight.

A woman with a nasty expression on her face intercepted us. "Good evening, Narcissa. I'm surprised to see you here." She glanced over at me, and I was startled to feel her use legilimency. Her mind felt like claws digging into mine. Easy to resist, but unsettling.

"I hope you've been well," Narcissa replied. "Hermione, this is Viola Parkinson, Pansy's mother. Viola, have you met my date?"

"I have not," Parkinson replied, not even looking at me anymore. "What have you been doing with yourself all this time?"

"Oh, this and that..." Narcissa said, beginning a vague description of her work.

When I realized no one would outright address the elephant in the room, I tuned out the boring smalltalk. We moved on to greet a shifty-eyed man. He tried to read my mind too while carrying on a conversation like nothing was amiss. My ears perked up when I heard something I'd been meaning to ask about.

"And what is Draco up to these days?" the man wondered.

"He went on to study magical law, and he's excelling," Narcissa answered.

"I'm not surprised. He's a bright young man."

"Quite so. He's been staying at home to help with my divorce, and he made all the legal paperwork a hundred times easier. He'll make a fine lawyer someday."

"It'll be great to have another on our side."

"His focus is family law, not criminal law, so I'm afraid he wouldn't be much help to you," Narcissa replied. Her tone was polite, but I felt pretty sure she just insulted him by implying he was a criminal.

Similar brief conversations occurred with several more people, with all of them using legilimency―poorly―and none speaking to me directly.

"Narcissa," I hissed when we were alone. "Everyone here is out to get me!"

She raised an eyebrow. "Did someone hit you with a paranoia hex?"

"They're all trying to get into my head. What are they after?"

Narcissa laughed. "They're testing you, dear. You're new to these kinds of events. It's a bit of a hobby among these socialites, casually trying to dig up dirt on each other. This is why I wanted you to learn occlumency. The Dark Lord made legilimency fashionable―"

"Fashionable?"

"Yes. I'll bet none of them expected resistance from a pretty little Gryffindor like yourself. Are you coping alright?"

I shook off my surprise and nodded. "None of them are very good. But I'm glad I have more training under my belt. You wouldn't want all of them to know how much I want to go home and take that dress off of you."

Narcissa looked irresistible in her long, black evening gown. It had a wide sash at the waist that she'd charmed to match the red of my dress, the same one I'd worn to Bill and Fleur's wedding. I only owned a few dresses, and luckily this one had a festive color.

She gave me a sultry smile and let her eyes trail down my body. "The feeling is mutual."

I touched her chin. "Eyes up here."

Narcissa looked up at me through her long lashes. "Yes, dear."

I smiled, enjoying the feeling of being wanted. She was positively glowing from all the time we'd spent relaxing, reading and making love. Pampering her might just be my new favorite thing, especially since she returned my care in full.

She spotted someone over my shoulder and said, "Ah, here are our hosts."

The beautiful Mrs. Zabini and a man who must be her latest husband met us by a table with a veritable mountain of fruit on it. I looked around for Blaise, but didn't see him anywhere. I felt like I was the youngest person in the room.

"Lady Mal―Black!" Mrs. Zabini exclaimed, giving Narcissa a quick upper-body hug and an air kiss to each cheek. "So glad you could join us." The witch turned to me while still speaking to Narcissa. "And what a... distinct honor it is to meet your... plus one, here." We exchanged insincere smiles.

Narcissa said, "Your holiday parties are simply to die for. I wouldn't miss it."

Mrs. Zabini narrowed her eyes. "Yes, you're one of our most loyal friends."

Narcissa's nostrils flared, then her expression softened and she asked carefully, "Will we get to see your lovely daughter this evening?"

"My child insisted on dressing inappropriately and will not be joining us," Mrs. Zabini replied with gritted teeth.

"That's unfortunate," Narcissa said. "I ran into her at Twilfit and Tattings the other day when she was getting fitted for a breathtaking emerald gown. I hoped I might see the final result tonight. We spoke a little, you know. I would be proud to have raised such an intelligent and cultured individual."

I knew Narcissa well enough to know the compliments were sincere, but Mrs. Zabini turned red and looked down almost guiltily. I was definitely missing something.

When we finally parted to peruse the food tables, Narcissa muttered to me, "I hope that helped and didn't just make it worse."

Adding some shrimp to my plate, I said, "I'm pretty sure I didn't understand a word of that conversation. You made 'to die for' sound so ominous."

"Last year someone died of poison."

I froze with food halfway to my mouth.

Narcissa chuckled. "You're fine, the poisoning wasn't a surprise, really. But it's terribly inhospitable to allow a guest in your home to be murdered."

Still leery, I put the food back down. "What about that 'loyal' comment?"

"Criticising how I betrayed the Dark Lord for my son. That led me to mention her daughter, whom she has been pushing away."

"I didn't even know Blaise had a sister," I said, thinking back. The only Zabini I could remember was a Slytherin boy overly concerned with his appearance.

"She doesn't," Narcissa said pointedly.

It took me a moment. "Oh. Oh! I didn't realize. Blaise is... transgender?"

"Living proudly as a woman now," Narcissa confirmed. "As if a Zabini could ever be anything but proud. Which is why it's so disappointing to have Mrs. Zabini here with her bloody head in her arse." I snorted at her use of such coarse language here, then sobered again as she finished, "I hope if enough people express support, she'll come around."

"Hopefully so," I agreed, absorbing the new information. "Do you think... Do you think Draco will support you and me? Does he know yet?"

Narcissa's brow furrowed with worry. "He isn't thrilled. I had to explain some things, so he's known for a while. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all. He's your son."

We looked up at the sudden sound of someone ringing a glass. "Ladies and gentlemen, dinner will commence shortly."

Everyone started filing through double doors into the next room, which was nearly as large and filled with round tables set for a fancy meal. Narcissa led the way to a table with four other women seated at it, including Viola Parkinson. Just before we reached it, she turned to me and squeezed my hand.

"These are some of my old friends. Wish me luck?" she asked nervously.

"You can do this," I assured her. "No luck necessary. You're delightful company. Get reacquainted, and they'll wonder why they ever let you go."

She rolled her eyes, smiling. "You flatter me."

"I mean every word."

Taking a deep breath, Narcissa turned to the table and said, "Hello, again, Viola. May we join you?"

"Of course," Parkinson replied through bared teeth. The others didn't say a word.

"Hermione, these wonderful witches are Amy Avery, Bridget Travers, and Renee Rookwood."

I stiffened at hearing their last names. All three were the wives of Death Eaters. Coming here tonight suddenly seemed like a terrible idea. I fell back on manners to cover my discomfort, pulling out a chair for Narcissa. She looked at me fondly and pulled out a chair for me too before sitting down. The gesture made me feel better, a little less like a stand-in for Lucius.

"I can't believe I'm sitting at a table with one of these people," Parkinson muttered.

"With one of Harry Potter's friends?" I asked, trying to assume the best.

She sneered, "I meant with a mudb—ah!"

Narcissa smiled at Parkinson, who was wincing in pain. "So sorry, Viola. I was adjusting my seat and didn't realize your leg was there."

Their eyes locked. Parkinson knew Narcissa had done it on purpose. Narcissa knew she knew. And Parkinson knew she knew she knew... oh, bother. I stopped trying to keep up, sitting back to enjoy this battle of wills under the veneer of polite society.

"Of course," Parkinson acquiesced. "Silly me, I didn't mean to get in your way."

While servers came and delivered the first course, I leaned closer to Narcissa to speak privately. "Thank you, but you know my scar is fine now."

"That's entirely beside the point, dear," Narcissa murmured. "I will not tolerate that attitude anymore, especially when someone is insulting my... hm. Girlfriend? Lover?"

"The secret lover you supposedly don't have?" I asked with a wry smile.

"The one and only," she whispered back.

Amy Avery spoke up. "Okay, I'll bite. Why in the world are you here, Miss Granger? Is this some kind of game?"

Avery was the first person to truly address me, and I was so relieved that I invited her, "Please, call me Hermione. Narcissa and I are dating. We crossed paths and discovered some shared interests, became friends, and, well..."

Narcissa continued the cover story we'd concocted before our arrival. "After my divorce, Hermione confessed she had stronger feelings for me." We gave each other sappy smiles right on cue, and she finished, "Suddenly I saw her in a new light and realized I felt the same."

"Salazar, this is sickening," Parkinson said.

Avery tilted her head. "Sickeningly sweet, maybe."

Rookwood stroked her chin but didn't say anything.

"It won't last," Travers declared. "Gryffindors are so predictable. Brave but short-sighted. Before long she'll see who you really are and go running back to that Weasley boy. You'll have to beg Lucius to take you back, if he'll even touch you after you've been sullied by this filth. I can't believe you left him. Which of us will you betray next?"

Her harsh words made me grimace. Narcissa's face turned to stone and she stopped breathing. Whatever was going on in her head was not good.

Refusing to let this one comment ruin the evening, I rested a hand on her knee under the table and said, "Narcissa hasn't betrayed Lucius. She's constantly trying to protect him. Did you hear her say a single bad thing about him in the news? I've seen who she really is, and her love for her family is one of the things I love most about her."

Narcissa gripped my hand, palm sweating, the only outward sign of her emotions roiling inside.

Travers frowned. "That's... hm." She shifted, looking to the others for guidance, but they looked a little dumbfounded. "Well... what does Draco think of the divorce?"

Narcissa said tentatively, "He knows I was unhappy, and he hopes the future will be brighter. He's keeping his name to continue the Malfoy line, knowing how much it means to his father, but he's a mama's boy through and through." That earned some smiles, and she dared to ask, "Did I hear you have some new grandchildren? Twins?"

Somehow, the ice broke. Travers started gushing about the twins, which led to a flood of input about everyone's children and jobs and financial woes and wins. And Narcissa recovered from that low point so completely that she was laughing with them, bringing me into the conversation, and looking much more at ease.

People at the other tables noticed that she'd been welcomed back into the fold. A very well-dressed wizard came over and held Narcissa's shoulder. "Lady Black, I heard you're the majority shareholder of Floo-Pow now. My company does masonry work on fireplaces. I think a partnership would be mutually beneficial. Won't you come over and have a chat?"

"Will you be alright on your own for a while?" Narcissa asked me. When I nodded, she gave me a peck on the lips and said, "I'll be right over there. Don't let them give you any grief."

She followed the wizard over to a table full of businesspeople talking and looking over papers. Lots of gold changed hands along with their handshakes. I hoped Narcissa would leave tonight with everything she hoped for and more.

All of a sudden I realized I was alone with four haughty women staring at me. There had to be something non-controversial we could talk about. Then I remembered my mother once telling me that asking for someone's advice can endear them to you.

"I've been looking for the perfect Christmas present for Narcissa," I started. "Do you ladies have any suggestions?"

"Oh! Certainly. Let's see... jewelry is always a good idea," Avery said.

"A classic," Parkinson agreed. "I happen to know Narcissa likes gold best."

"You're mistaken," Rookwood jumped in. "She definitely prefers silver."

Parkinson shook her head. "No, no. Gold is more valuable per ounce, so she finds it superior."

"I distinctly remember her telling me silver is best because it goes well with her favorite color. Gold clashes."

I looked around at the women. "What's her favorite color?" It seemed like such a basic thing, something I should've known, and I felt jealous of their knowledge.

"Gray, like Draco's eyes," Avery said.

"No, the blue of her own eyes," Parkinson corrected.

"It's emerald green, of course," Travers declared.

"Black," Rookwood stated simply.

My lips parted, but I was too bewildered to say anything. Four women, four different answers. Three of them started arguing while Travers spoke to me.

"Get her a silver necklace. You can't go wrong with that. Just make sure it's expensive. I'm sure whatever pittance you make at your little ministry job isn't enough for anything really nice, but do your best."

"My little―" I broke off, fuming. "My little ministry job helped countless house elves achieve rights they've never had before!"

Travers rolled her eyes. "No wonder Lady Black is so overzealous about them nowadays, with you feeding her all that nonsense. House elves were doing just fine before you came along."

"Being vulnerable to abuse is not fine. And Narcissa changed without any help from me. If she were here right now she'd tell you just how bloody ignorant you are!"

"Not with that kind of language, she wouldn't!" Travers replied, aghast. "Lady Black never swears."

Never swears? I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it, that was just so absurd. A hand settled on my back as Narcissa returned to the table.

"Enjoying ourselves?" she asked. "It's nice to hear you laughing."

Rookwood spoke up, "Settle this for us, would you? Your favorite color is black, right?"

Narcissa took a sip of her wine, keeping a straight face as she said, "Brown. Like Hermione's eyes."

I laughed again, well aware she was lying just to mess with them, and she winked at me. None of them knew everything about Narcissa. Didn't she tell me she loved the flower necklaces Draco made as a little boy more than any jewelry? It occurred to me that she'd never once given me anything really expensive. Daffodils, a wand she crafted herself, poems, free cookies. She would most appreciate a thoughtful gift, not an expensive one. Or a thoughtful gesture...

I tuned in to the conversation again and realized the subject had shifted to husbands, and the mood was darkening.

"And hers is gone as well, without even a note to say goodbye," Avery was saying.

Parkinson observed, "Lucius must be one of the last Death Eaters in custody at this point."

Narcissa glanced down and checked her pocket watch compulsively. "Yes. It's killing me. I'm certain it's only a matter of time before he disappears too."

Rookwood bit her lips and looked away, fidgeting. I watched her in my peripheral vision, wondering if she might know something.

"I'm worried," Travers declared. "It's not like them at all."

Such sentiments still surprised me, and I couldn't hide it in time.

"Oh, don't look at me like that, you Potter acolyte," she sneered. "You think they're off somewhere killing muggles as per? Really. Who would go to all that trouble without the Dark Lord looking over our shoulders?"

All that trouble. My fists clenched, but then I noticed Rookwood had slipped away from the table without a word. She was following a man out of the room through a wide doorway.

"Please excuse me," I said. "I need to use the lavatory."

I went through the doorway and into a long hallway just in time to see the man step into a room and close the door behind him. Rookwood paused outside for a second before she moved on, looking at a few doors before finding an open one and slipping through. When I got closer, I heard the sound of water and realized the man was simply using the loo. Maybe she hadn't been following him.

I tried to look casual while passing the room she disappeared into. It was dark in there. Curiosity and suspicion drove me onward. I stopped at the edge of the doorway and tried to look in.

I jumped at the sound of a voice, thick with tears, asking, "Here to mock me?"

My eyes adjusted and I saw Renee Rookwood sitting on the floor with her legs drawn up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. I was too surprised to say anything.

"Don't just stand there. Go ahead and say what you're thinking," she taunted. "My husband is a Death Eater, evil and heartless and so forth. Of course he left me behind. It isn't a surprise."

My chest constricted as she started sobbing. I stepped into the room hesitantly and kneeled next to her.

"Everyone keeps saying that, but it's not true," Renee cried. "There's something wrong. The other wives in that room are the only ones who believe me. The investigators think I'm crazy. That Daily Prophet reporter made me sound paranoid and, and, and... naive for believing there was foul play."

I rested my hand on her shoulder, at a loss. "I'm... I'm sorry." Renee kept sobbing. I was probably the last person she wanted comfort from, but she was so upset, I couldn't just do nothing. I wrapped my arms around her and said again, "I'm sorry."

She pushed against me for a few seconds, then lost all tension and cried into my shoulder. I held her for a few minutes, rocking a little, wondering how in the world I'd ended up here with another Death Eater's wife in my arms.

Quiet footsteps came to the door, and I looked up to see Narcissa there. She squinted into the dark, and then her eyes softened. She pressed a hand to the doorframe and rested her head there, waiting quietly.

Renee was crying too hard to notice anything. "Is it so crazy," she asked, hiccuping, "to think he would never leave me? He loves me. I know he does. Is it foolish to believe he would never abandon me like that?"

A tear trickled down my face. I held Narcissa's gaze as I answered, "No. It's not foolish at all."

Renee gradually calmed down. She took steadier breaths and sat up straighter, wiping her eyes. "Thank you for saying that," she said with some effort. "Whether or not you really believe it." As she recovered, she stiffened and stood up awkwardly, putting some distance between us.

Narcissa took that opportunity to come in, casting lumos to light up the room. She reached out to Renee and said, "Let me see to your face before you come back to the table." She held the woman's chin and started casting small, delicate spells to fix her smudged makeup, murmuring, "You don't have to go through this alone. All of us are here for you. I'm here, whether or not you want me around."

"You betrayed the Dark Lord. We only pushed you out because we thought you'd turn your back on us too," Renee said.

"Never. We made our real friends in Slytherin," Narcissa replied, finishing the makeup. "He was never a friend to any of us."

Suddenly there was loud banging somewhere in the distance. Shouts and screams followed, making my heart race. Narcissa and I drew our wands from our dresses and stood back to back, looking up and down the hallway as people started fleeing out of the dining room.

"Move, now!" Narcissa shouted, leading the way into the hall and shielding Renee with her body while I ran alongside them, guarding our backs. We were deep in the interior of the mansion. I hoped we wouldn't need to fight our way out.

Other guests were following us, running awkwardly in their evening gowns and suits. The screaming had stopped, but everyone was still panicking. We reached an exterior door just as an announcement echoed through the mansion.

"Everyone, stay calm and proceed to the front hall. We're here under the authority of the ministry to investigate possible unlawful activity. There is no need for violence. If you see an auror, follow their instructions. No one may leave the building."

The door in front of us burst open and several aurors came in.

"Hermione?"

"Neville?"

"What are you doing here?"

The aurors beside him weren't interested in talking. They pushed our fleeing group back, herding us toward the main hall.

Neville walked next to me. "Are you here undercover or something?"

"I'm here for the party!" I replied, still riled up. "We were just having dinner. What's going on?"

"You heard the announcement, right? We're here to enforce the law and make sure no one is funding any illegal ventures."

"Illegal ventures?" Narcissa asked, tone mocking.

Another auror said, "You of all people should be familiar with the concept," and gave her a push into the main hall.

"Keep your hands off her," I growled.

"Don't make this worse, Miss Granger," he replied. "We know you're not with these people. Just wait a minute and we'll get permission for you to go home."

"I'm not going anywhere without Narcissa!"

He looked between us in confusion. "Suit yourself."

Someone took Neville away to work with a more unruly group. A few partygoers had been stunned when fleeing and had to be carried into the hall. One man had a bloody nose. Narcissa glared at everyone from the ministry, sinking into a foul mood. The room smelled of fear and sweat. Way too much time passed before someone came by and explained what would happen next.

An elderly woman approached us and said, "I'm from the ministry's accounting department, here to review all of the financial activity here tonight."

"That is completely unnecessary," Narcissa said angrily.

The accountant raised her eyebrows and shot back, "Excuse me, Unspeakable, but your own department informed us that large sums of money would be changing hands at this event."

"For private business deals! You have NO RIGHT to come in here and―"

"Do you see this warrant?" She took out a scroll and flicked it in the air to unroll it. "You bet your bum we have a right. You're all going to list every transaction you've made here tonight, and no one leaves until every knut is accounted for and proven legitimate."

"Let's see," Narcissa fumed, accepting a quill and parchment. "Five million galleons to my favorite crime rings, four million to..."

"Not helping your case," I said. I touched her shoulder and she quieted down, quill scratching the page with violent strokes. "Should I be worried?"

"Hermione, most dear, I'm not guilty," she told me, trembling slightly.

"I believe you," I replied when I recognized our code phrase. "I've got your back, okay?"

Her eyes roved over my face as if searching for doubt, then she let out a breath. "I believe you too."

For a while, that was enough to soothe her nerves. When the lists of transactions were done, a team of accountants worked in the corner of the room while everyone waited, speaking in tense, quiet voices. Aurors consulted with the accountants, getting preliminary findings and bringing people out of the room to speak to them individually.

The auror who had pushed Narcissa approached her again, and I had to stop myself from stepping between them. He didn't make a move to pull her away, just goaded her.

"Your totals are higher than the average person in here."

"Of course they are!" she snapped. "I haven't seen most of these people in months! I have several new business interests and a lot of catching up to do."

"I have a feeling you won't see these people again for a long time."

***

Narcissa was no longer responding to my touch. I tried again to calm her as minutes ticked by, but she'd gone deep to some place I couldn't reach. I was extremely worried about her. One by one, most guests were being dismissed as their lists of transactions were approved, while some were disarmed, chained up, and taken away. Finally, the pushy auror came up to Narcissa again, this time with her list in hand.

She stopped shaking, and that seemed somehow even worse. Before he opened his mouth, she said with deadly calm, "See? Squeaky clean."

He didn't hand the paper back right away. "We found what you're hiding. Do you want to cooperate with us and make a deal, or do this the hard way?"

She didn't even blink. "You're bluffing. Or someone has deceived you."

They glared at each other in a standoff until he balled up the paper and tossed it at her feet, walking away without another word.

Narcissa stooped over to pick up the paper and unfold it. There were checkmarks all down the list, and Approved was stamped at the bottom. Her fist tightened, crumpling it again.

"Come on, you're free to go," I said, hating what they'd put her through. "Let's get our coats."

"Take me to the manor," she said, shaking uncontrollably again. It felt like she was on the verge of a breakdown. "Now."

I summoned our coats on our way out the front doors. Then I wrapped my arms around her and apparated to the front gate of the manor. Last time I was here, snatchers led me through. This time, I led Narcissa through, mentally preparing to comfort her. I was not prepared for the rage that came next.

She tore away from me and slashed her wand through the air, blasting a hedge with a fireball. "Those motherfuckers! Raiding a holiday dinner? Rounding us up?!"

"Narcissa―"

"I'm sick of this! They want trouble? I'll GIVE them trouble!" She cast another fireball, and hedges on either side of us roared with flames.

"Stop it!" I cast aguamenti, but the fire was so hot that the water boiled away.

Narcissa's eyes met mine and they were wild, dangerous. They were Bellatrix's eyes, delighting in destroying things and being destroyed.

Lightning flashed out of her wand and made the metal gate erupt in sparks as pieces flew off. "If they're going to be suspicious no matter what I do, why keep myself on a leash? Why bother?!" She whipped her wand again and lightning struck a fountain, making its stone border explode into fragments.

"Narcissa!"

"Why not show them what I'm really capable of?!"

"Please, stop!"

"I could break, if that's what they want," Narcissa snarled. More lightning crackled, splitting the air. "I could break." I stood quietly, crying at the sight of her like this. Then she fell to her knees, dress billowing around her. The static electricity dissipated. I waited, afraid that what seemed like a mild raid to me had been the last straw for her.

"I have too much to lose," Narcissa whispered in the sudden calm. She looked around at the smoldering hedges, seeming more upset than angry now. "Damn it, look at this." She covered her face.

"Forget about it," I said, kneeling and embracing her. "It's nothing irreplaceable." She trembled with contained emotion, and I hoped for some way to help. "What can I do?"

She touched my cheek gently, as if she might break me by accident. "Come to bed," she requested. "If you're willing."

I understood. I understood that she needed an outlet for her energy, and I was willing. In her room in the manor, I sought to give her that release. She mostly spoke with her body, asking and demanding and pulling me against her. I listened and followed her body's guidance until she was screaming, then she turned that focused intensity onto me. When we were both gasping, spent, she pressed her face against my back and held me, legs intertwined with mine, one arm nestled between my breasts. Closer, closer, as if she couldn't stand for there to be any space between us.

Nightmares plagued me that night, full of dangerous undercurrents gaining strength around us, fueled by someone's raw hatred. In a half-awake state, my fears seemed so real. Build up your defenses, Brin saw in the stars. I would take every moment of peace we could get over this next week and hope it was enough to keep us from being torn apart by whatever was coming.

Chapter Text

Narcissa lent me some clothes in the morning and led the way downstairs.

"There's a chance Draco is already awake and hoping for breakfast," she said. "Are you alright with that?"

"Sure," I said, then blanched. "Last night, nobody... heard anything... right?"

"No, our bedrooms are soundproofed for peace and quiet."

Relieved, I followed her to the kitchen and paused in the doorway while she went in. Draco was sitting at a table by a large picture window, reading the Daily Prophet. The rising sun's light streamed in, making the room look brighter and more cheerful than anything I expected to see in the manor.

"Good morning, my sweet boy," Narcissa said.

"Morning, Mother," he greeted, turning a page.

He smiled as she kissed him on the forehead, and I saw it then, in the tenderness that passed between them. This was Draco as his mother knew him. Was this the first time I'd seen him actually smile without a smirk or smug look? I felt a rush of fondness.

Narcissa went to the stove and started preparing a pot of oatmeal while magically chopping fruit to add to it. She glanced at me and invited, "Have a seat."

Draco's head snapped up, shocked. The newspaper fell to the table.

I sat down at the other end and smiled, hoping this would go well. "Good morning. It's nice to see you."

Draco stared for several seconds, twisting and tugging at his fingers, then grimaced and said, "Disgusting. We'll have to set traps to catch whatever rats made a nest in your hair."

My high hopes fell immediately and my temper flared. I was making an effort to be friendly, and he wasn't even trying. "Nice bedhead yourself, Draco. Really does look like a cow licked you."

He shot back, "Yeah, it was your mum."

"My mum?"

Narcissa tried to cover a laugh with a cough. "Turnabout is fair play, Hermione."

I gave her a wounded look. "Are you two going to gang up on me?"

She levitated three bowls of oatmeal to the table and rested a reassuring hand on my shoulder before taking a seat. Through the window behind her, I could see the scorched earth in front of the house.

Draco followed my gaze, then looked down and stirred his oatmeal as he commented, "Our landscapers must be incompetent. We specifically told them to plant non-exploding hedges."

"Draco..."

"Again, Mother?"

"I was upset."

"Clearly. What happened?"

Narcissa shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it. I'm alright now."

I ate without speaking. It shouldn't have surprised me to learn that last night wasn't the first time she'd had this kind of reaction.

Draco turned on me. "What did you do?"

"Why do you think it's my fault?" I retorted.

"Mother doesn't want to talk about it in front of you."

Narcissa murmured, "Or at all."

"She had a rough night," I said irritably, "so just drop it."

"Gonna hit me again, Granger?"

"Of course not! We were kids then. I don't believe in hitting people over words anymore. I'll never do it again, unless you hit me first."

Draco sneered and said, "Shouldn't I get one shot, to settle the score?"

"Just try it," I dared.

"Nobody will be hitting anyone else," Narcissa said, voice full of frustration. "Am I raising two children?"

I winced. That hit too close to home. She wasn't the only one who felt a little insecure about our age difference. Everything I wanted to say would only prove her point: it's not fair, he started it.

"I'm sorry, Draco," I said, wishing I'd been more mature instead of falling back into old habits. "Can we start over?"

Draco stood up. "I wish I could restart the entire morning and not see you come downstairs with my mother." He abandoned his bowl and left the room.

"Shit. Shit." Narcissa pressed her hands to her face. "How is this going to work? All I wanted was for you two to get along. I don't know what I was expecting."

"I really am sorry," I said. "I'll try harder next time."

"Maybe there shouldn't be a next time," she said. My stomach churned, and for a second I thought she was ending things, but she went on to say, "If Draco doesn't want to see you, maybe he shouldn't have to."

Before I could object, an owl swooped by the window and left a letter on a little platform. Narcissa reached over to open a slot and retrieve it.

"It's for you," she said, reading the label on a howler. "From Ginevra Weasley."

Crap. Ginny was taking a page out of her mother's book. The red envelope flew into the air and folded into the shape of a mouth. "HERMIONE JEAN GRANGER! I CALLED YOU LAST NIGHT TO TALK ABOUT THAT LETTER, AND YOU NEVER ANSWERED!"

I covered my ears. Ginny had tried calling me? There was no telephone at Grimmauld Place; Walburga Black's portrait would throw a tantrum. Then I realized she and Harry were probably staying at the Burrow for the holidays.

"AT LEAST NOW I KNOW WHY. IS THIS NEWS ARTICLE REAL? DID YOU REALLY LET THAT WOMAN DRAG YOU TO A PARTY WITH A BUNCH OF NASTY DEATH EATER WANNABES? CALL ME, OR ELSE."

I sighed and resigned myself to calling her as soon as I got home. Narcissa took the newspaper Draco had been reading, and I leaned over to read it with her.

You'll Never Believe Who She's Dating

LONDON, Dec 20 - Last night Hermione Granger, 19, accompanied Narcissa Black (formerly Malfoy), 43, as her date for the Zabini's infamous annual holiday party. Yes, folks, you read that right. Our muggleborn war hero and a pureblood ex-wife of a Death Eater attended together. Some speculate that it was a publicity stunt, despite reports of hand-holding and a kiss. This obviously raises a lot of questions―Are they really romantically involved? How long has this been going on? Could Granger have a good influence on this cold-hearted dark witch, or is she being seduced into darkness? Our intrepid reporters are seeking the answers.

"Cold-hearted!" I exclaimed. "Are we even talking about the same person?! And 'seduced into darkness'? Honestly!"

Narcissa frowned, looking through the rest of the newspaper, hunting for something. "Miss Weasley is right. I shouldn't have dragged you into this."

Rubbing her arm, I asked, "Hey, what happened to wanting us to be part of each other's lives?"

"Perhaps I was being too optimistic. It may be better to keep these two halves of my life separate, instead of making you miserable and trying to force everyone to play nice."

"Please don't give up so easily. I'm not miserable. We just need to keep trying."

She continued searching through the newspaper. Eventually she threw it down. "Why is there no mention of the raid? It's newsworthy."

"Maybe the Quibbler has an article."

Narcissa's lip curled. "The Quibbler? That rag has nothing but conspiracy theories and pro-Potter propagand―" She cut herself off and cleared her throat. "At least Lovegood has scruples. I've been wracking my brain, and I can't for the life of me figure out how Ms. Skeeter found out about my personal project. I keep my papers encrypted and locked away. No one can even get indoors unnoticed with the house arrest ward; it's too sensitive. My best guess is that she somehow spied on me while I was outdoors, writing on the terrace."

"In the wintertime?"

"I was enjoying the snow. And I hate being cooped up."

"Well, Rita can turn into a beetle. That's how she's so good at snooping. She's an unregistered animagus," I confided, quickly sharing the story of discovering her secret and the deal I made with her.

Narcissa's eyes narrowed. "So she came buzzing around in beetle form, no doubt hoping for dirt on my divorce, and all of my papers were in plain view." She pounded her fist on the table. "How could I be so stupid?"

I put my hand over hers. "Who could have anticipated this?"

"Not this in particular, but... I don't know. I should've been more careful. Ms. Skeeter could've―" She took her hand away and stood up abruptly. "No use regretting it now. I have a few things to take care of. You can stay here if you like, though I don't know what time I'll be back."

"Where are you going?"

"Must I inform you of everything I do?" she snapped as she left the table.

Taken aback, I retorted, "Of course not. But you don't have to snap at me. I was just curious."

She stopped and turned, shoulders sinking. "You're right, that was uncalled for. I'm sorry."

I accepted her honest apology with a nod and didn't pry, though I still felt confused by her reaction. "I'm heading home. You can come over anytime, as always."

***

Back at my apartment, I let Crookshanks outside―much later than he liked―and sat down in my armchair, unsatisfied with the way our morning went downhill. And now I needed to survive a phone call with Ginny.

"WEASLEY RESIDENCE," Mr. Weasley answered after a few rings.

"Hi, it's Hermione. Is Ginny there?" I asked.

"WELL HELLO, HERMIONE! YES, GINNY'S HERE!"

"Remember you don't have to shout."

"Right, that's right. Of course," he said, speaking at a more reasonable volume. Mrs. Weasley yelled something to him. "Oh, oh right! We were going to owl you, but this is easier. Will you come celebrate the winter solstice with us on Tuesday? Bring your parents, too. We want to have a big Yule celebration from noon to midnight. It'll be the first really happy holidays in years."

"Of course, I'd love to come!" I said. "That's so kind. I'll find out if my parents are free and tell―"

There was a thunk and a wrenching sound, and Ginny's voice came on the line. "Bring her!" she demanded. I could hear her pulling the phone into her room and closing the door.

"What? What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Narcissa flipping Black. Bring her."

"Oh, no. She won't want to come. No no no."

"Yes. I need to see if she's treating you right. She has to agree. It's only fair after you apparently went to a Voldemort fanclub party with her."

"It wasn't like that. But your mum won't invite her anyway."

"Leave my mum to me. Be brave, Gryffindor. Ron is bringing his secret girlfriend. I thought his was terrible, but yours really takes the cake."

"Oh! Do you know who he's dating?"

"Obviously. He didn't stand a chance against my questioning."

"Will you tell me?"

"No way. It's my revenge on you for hiding this. I am going to kill Harry for not telling me."

My eyes closed as I let out a sigh.

More gently, Ginny said, "For the record, I'm glad he didn't break your trust. And knowing he approves is the only reason I'm not currently knocking on your door to come see if you've been drugged with a love potion."

"Please don't. I'm fine, Ginny. But this Yule idea is crazy."

"Hey, it won't be all bad. Your girlfriend's estranged, disowned, long-hated sister will be there too."

"Andromeda? They don't hate each other. Narcissa reunited with her."

"Great. She can hold the werewolf baby, who is teething now, by the way. He is the most adorable boy ever, I swear, but if you want to keep your fingers, keep them away from his mouth. Might want to pass the warning along to your darling Death Eater."

"She's not a Death Eater. Don't you think people would've noticed her tattoo by now?"

"What if she's something even worse? A stealth Death Eater! She could have a mark hidden anywhere!"

"She doesn't, I promise."

Ginny fell unnaturally silent, and too late I realized what that implied. "MIGHTY MERLIN ON A CHOCOLATE FROG CARD, HERMIONE!"

I cringed, holding the phone away from my ear.

Her voice dropped to a fierce whisper. "You're shagging her?! I don't know whether to be proud or horrified!" Then she laughed uproariously. "I would pay to see Malfoy's expression when he hears you're getting it on with his mum. Does he know?!"

"Yes, and I really want him to accept us, so please don't rub it in his face, Gin."

"I bet you've been rubbing something in her face, yeah? I can't believe you haven't told me about this! I'm your best friend! Okay, your third best friend. But dammit Hermione, you need to tell me these things! I need to give her my stamp of approval! Right on top of her Dark Mark."

"She doesn't have―"

"I am going to proceed as if she has one on her left buttock, and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise."

I smacked my forehead. "Merlin help me."

"I'll go scheme with Harry to get your totally-not-a-Death-Eater girlfriend invited to the solstice party. And Malfoy too, so I can watch that smirk get wiped off his face. I'll see you there, Hermione."

"Ginny, wait! There's no way―" The dial tone hummed. Draco would never agree to spend Yule with us, and I felt certain Narcissa wouldn't either. I decided not to pressure her about it, since she had already volunteered to meet my parents tomorrow for dinner. She could make her own choice whenever the invitation arrived.

***

Not long before dark, there was a knock on my door.

Opening it, I said, "Ginny, I told you, I haven't been drugged with―"

No one was there.

Immediately on alert with my wand in hand, I locked the door and stepped away from it.

Behind me, a voice said, "Locks won't do much good against magic."

I spun around, prepared to fight. It took me a moment to recognize Edgecombe's voice. She appeared out of nowhere as she took off her outer robe and reversed it to gray.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"Training you," she said. "I ought to start with an anti-apparition jinx. Good grief. This must be the only wizarding home in all of Europe without one. Literally anyone could pop in uninvited."

"Most of the people who know I live here are muggles."

"Your address is on file at the ministry. Guess again."

I agreed, "Alright, you've made your point. I'll get it done soon. What training are we doing?"

"Countersurveillance. Starting here. You've been reading your manuals right?" At my nod, she smiled. "Of course you have. What's the spell for detecting eavesdroppers? No, no. Show me."

Over the next thirty minutes, she taught me to do a sweep of my apartment to check for magical and regular surveillance, then made sure I knew how to apply enchantments to detect tampering and snooping.

"There are ways around anything if you're patient enough, but newbies don't get to learn those techniques," Edgecombe told me with a grin. "Grab your badge and your robe, gray side out. Let's go for a walk."

***

We apparated to Diagon Alley, where snow had been trampled into slushy puddles that were starting to refreeze as the sun went down.

"Bad weather can be useful if you think you're being followed," Edgecombe told me. "Rain and snow make it easier to spot people using disillusionment charms or invisibility cloaks. That's how Black spotted me after your museum date."

"You were the operative tailing us?" I asked. "Narcissa didn't mention spotting anyone."

"She didn't? You two left right after she looked straight at me in a window reflection. I almost didn't notice I'd been made."

"A reflection," I echoed in surprise. How much of that was really window shopping and how much was just Narcissa looking over our shoulders? I wished I hadn't suggested she ignore anyone tailing her. That seemed insensitive now. Her discomfort with being followed was probably why she overreacted to my innocent question this morning.

"I was invisible," Edgecombe told me, "but I think the snow blew around me unnaturally. She's got sharp eyes and years of practice evading the law. It's no wonder her auror detail keeps losing track of her. They have no idea where she is right now." She laughed.

That makes two of us, I thought to myself. But I smiled as if I knew more than they did. "I really wish they'd stop giving her a hard time. Is it because of the disappearances? I want to help with that case, or project."

Edgecombe bit the inside of her cheek. "Project 502, if I recall. I don't know much, but we're all sure someone on the inside is helping. People like her―known Voldemort followers―they're the obvious suspects, but there's not enough evidence against them. Internal investigations turned up nothing. I'll look into getting both of us on board."

"Thank you," I said, looking around uneasily as we entered Knockturn Alley. We passed stores selling creepy potions ingredients and shady wizards standing around.

"You look nervous. Good. Always trust your gut," Edgecombe said firmly. "Hide your fear, but keep your wand ready. This isn't a safe place to be, especially after dark."

Pointing out significant features, she gave me a long, thorough lesson about choke points, doubling back, deception, and paying attention. The things I'd read clicked into place as I saw real life examples, and I soaked up everything.

"Come join us for drinks at the Leaky Cauldron," Edgecombe invited later. "A few other Unspeakables will be there tonight. Chun of course, Saul too, probably not Lorelei, maybe a few others. I'll introduce you. We'll show you how to scan for exits, assess other patrons, identify active spells, and whatnot. Next time we can work on the other side of surveillance: how to follow someone without notice."

"Definitely," I agreed, already looking forward to it.

***

After enjoying butterbeer, laughter, and lessons, I got home well after midnight. I lit a single lamp in my dark apartment. Crookshanks wove around my ankles, and I realized Narcissa must've let him in or else he'd still be outside. She probably wasn't here anymore, but I couldn't stop myself from hoping.

And there she was, curled up asleep in bed, hugging my pillow.

I tiptoed into the bathroom and took a shower. When I came out in my towel, Narcissa was awake and came over to embrace me.

"I'm sorry," she said again, arms tightening. "Are you mad about this morning?"

"No, no," I quickly assured her when I realized she thought I'd stayed away on purpose. "I went out with Edgecombe for training. I forgave you the second you apologized. You're entitled to your privacy."

"And you're free to be curious. I might keep some things private, but you can always ask." Then Narcissa freely told me about her day, saying, "I saw our landscaper. He agreed to come over and hide the damage before anyone else could start wondering what happened. I also went to Holyhead to check on a vacation home that I kept in the divorce. With some work, it could become a secure place to write in privacy. No one outside the family knows about it. Perhaps I could show it to you sometime."

As she spoke, my hands rubbed over her back absently, feeling the warmth of her body through the thin cotton of borrowed pyjamas. Maybe it was silly to enjoy a simple hug so much when we'd already been more intimate, but it was just what we needed. Holding her reassured me that everything was alright between us despite our rough spots this morning.

***

"Good luck," Narcissa murmured the next day, giving me a kiss.

"Thanks," I said nervously. "I'll come back to bring you to dinner in a couple of hours, if all goes well." Crookshanks was in my arms, my suitcase was packed for five days back home, and I was ready as I'd ever be to come out to my parents.

I appeared with a quiet pop in my old bedroom, since I couldn't exactly land on the doorstep and have all the muggle neighbors see me. Dad came in first and grinned.

"Hey, kiddo!" he greeted, giving me a big hug. Crookshanks hopped out of my arms and sneaked away to inspect the house and reestablish his territory.

My mother rushed in and hugged me too. "Welcome home! Happy hanukkah."

"Happy hanukkah," I responded, genuinely glad to see them both. "What's that wonderful smell?"

"I'm baking some pumpkin pies to bring with us to the Burrow tomorrow. The Weasleys were so nice to invite us. Now, where is this new beau of yours?"

"Um... coming soon. There's something I want to tell you first."

My parents looked at each other. "Do we need to sit down for this?" my mother asked.

I sighed. "Probably."

We went to the living room, and they sat on the couch while I paced in front of the telly.

"Okay, so this may come as a surprise―"

My father asked, "Are you about to introduce us to a woman?"

Startled, I asked, "How did you..."

"There aren't that many things to talk about before meeting someone," he said, shrugging. "Besides, your first crush was on a cute receptionist at your mother's dental practice."

"What? I don't even remember that!" I said in astonishment.

"You're dating a woman, then?" my mother wondered, looking uncertain. "Do you still like men? Maybe you could still end up with a good husband."

"I... I don't think so, Mum."

"I don't understand, shouldn't you try to meet more men? Ronald and Viktor weren't suited to you, I could see that. But it's possible there's one out there for you."

I shook my head. "I've met enough people by now to be fairly sure about who I'm interested in. And I'm pretty stuck on this one woman now."

"Well, I understand," my father said. "You like women? I like women too. What's not to like?" He leaned over and gave Mum a peck on the lips. I grinned.

"Honey..." My mother shook her head but smiled a little. The smile faded rapidly, replaced by a pained look. A long moment went by in silence while she sometimes looked over at Dad and sometimes down at her hands. Eventually she said, "Hermione, I won't pretend I'm perfectly okay with this. I don't have anything against homosexuals, but I don't know how to feel when it's my own daughter. You can't get married or have your own children. I had such happy dreams for your future."

"I'm sorry, Mum." That wasn't what I meant to say. I didn't want to apologize for my feelings. "I'm happy with her. That's the important thing, right?"

She nodded slowly, and I could see her struggling with it, but it wasn't at all as bad as my worst fears. I felt almost guilty for ever worrying my parents might disown me like Phoebe's did.

We talked quietly together a little longer and had some family time, lighting the menorah as the stars came out, then finished up some preparations for dinner. With Dad's encouragement, I left to fetch Narcissa.

***

A few minutes later, we reappeared hand in hand. My parents were out of sight in the kitchen having a serious conversation. My mother was using her trying-not-to-cry voice. I pulled Narcissa into my room, nervous all over again.

"Let's hide in here and give them a moment to talk privately," I said.

Narcissa tugged on her fingers, nervous too. "Yes, because nothing says 'trust me with your daughter' like sneaking into her bedroom."

I wrinkled my nose. "Well, when you put it like that..."

"Did you mention my age?" she asked, starting to look around the room.

"Oh, crap," I whispered. "Maybe I should have. Sorry."

"No worries. Coming out is hard enough without this on top of it." She squeezed my hand, then let go and trailed her fingers along shelves of my old books, lingering on Hamlet.

"Have you read all of these?" Narcissa asked idly. I could tell she was trying to help me stay calm.

"Yes. When I was younger, my parents encouraged me to read Shakespeare and the Greek classics," I told her. "But I preferred nonfiction even back then."

We kept chatting quietly until my father called, "Hermione? Are you back yet?"

My throat went dry, heart pounding. Narcissa held my chin and gave me another encouraging kiss. I smiled with gratitude, and we walked into the living room where my parents joined us.

"Mum, Dad, this is Narcissa Black."

When they saw her, their jaws dropped.

"Good evening," Narcissa said politely, on her best behavior. "Thank you for inviting me to dinner. You have a very nice home."

Dad recovered first and stuck his hand out. "Doctor Gregory Granger."

Narcissa shook his hand. "Nice to meet you, Gregory. I brought some wine, which I hope you will both enjoy." She pulled an expensive-looking bottle of red wine out of nowhere and gave it to him.

"That's very nice of you." He glanced at my mum, who still looked dumbfounded, and introduced her too. "This is my wife, Doctor Hannah Granger."

"Nice to meet you as well, Hannah," Narcissa said while my mother shook her hand.

I was cringing inwardly at how stilted the conversation had been so far. Everything was "nice." In the awkward silence that followed, we all stood stiffly as if this were a formal business meeting.

Then my father spoke up again. "Well, I see Hermione has good taste in women."

This got my mother talking. "Excuse me, um, Narcissa," she apologized. "I'm... I didn't expect someone..."

"Older," Narcissa supplied with a smile. "I didn't expect to fall in love with someone so much younger, but here I am. Your daughter is a remarkable young woman."

I beamed at hearing that and sat down with her at one end of the couch. She kept her back perfectly straight, dressed to impress and looking out of place. Crookshanks finished inspecting the house and came running to join us. He stretched out across both our laps, happy as a clam. To my relief, Narcissa leaned back and relaxed, with one hand resting on my thigh and the other giving Crooks a hearty scratch.

"She sure is remarkable," my father agreed, sitting on the other end of the couch. "Very mature, too. Someone younger probably wouldn't suit her. How old are you, Narcissa?"

"Honey!" my mother scolded, taking the nearby lounge chair.

"Sorry. How young are you?"

"Honey!"

"Sorry."

Narcissa's shoulders shook with contained laughter. "Forty-three." Crookshanks was purring loudly under her attention. Surely my parents knew that his approval was a good sign.

"Well at least she's not older than we are," my mother mumbled. Both of them had established careers before having me, and now I was even more glad for that.

"And it shouldn't really surprise us," my father said.

Narcissa gave me a questioning look.

I sighed. "Apparently I had a crush on Mum's dental receptionist that I don't even remember."

Dad waved his hand. "You must've been four, five. She was in college. You gave her a sugar-free lollipop and asked her to marry you."

Narcissa burst out laughing, and I felt my ears turning red.

Dad told us, "The young lady was flattered, but politely declined."

"Well, of course she did," Narcissa said.

Affronted, I asked, "Why wouldn't she want to marry me?"

She raised an eyebrow. "It was sugar-free. Next time, use a real one."

A slow smile crept across my face. It was all in good fun, but the giddy feeling in my stomach was a sharp contrast to the trepidation I felt when Ron was going to propose.

"Narcissa," my father said, sounding more serious now. "I have to ask, what are your intentions with my daughter? Will you get married―or civil unioned, or whatever the closest thing is?"

"Dad, she and I haven't even talked about this! Won't you at least save the awkward questions for some other night?" I pleaded.

Narcissa surprised me by answering him readily. "To be honest, my decades-long marriage ended..." Please don't say four days ago. "...recently, and I'm nowhere near ready to think about doing it again. But this isn't temporary by any means. I intend to stay with Hermione for as long as she wants me." When I gave her a heartfelt smile, she smiled too and rubbed my leg affectionately.

My mother looked upset at the confirmation that marriage wasn't in the cards. Was she really that keen on seeing me follow the usual script? I didn't think all of that was a requirement for having a fulfilling relationship.

"Fair enough. But if you ever hurt her..." my father said, threatening words hanging in the air, "...she will fight back and win, so I highly recommend you don't."

"I promise you, I want nothing but good things for her," Narcissa replied.

"You'd better be telling this old dentist the tooth," he said, grinning as if that weren't a horrible stretch from the word truth.

Narcissa hid a smile and looked at me. "So that's where you get it from." With a calculating look, she told my father, "If I ever do hurt Hermione, it will be accidental."

Dad laughed out loud. "Well, I certainly can't brush off such solemn statements."

I groaned and shook my head. "Isn't it time for dinner yet?" I complained, secretly pleased that they were getting along.

My mother actually chuckled, seeming a little less apprehensive about this whole thing. "Narcissa, will you come help me in the kitchen so you don't have to listen to this clown?"

"I'd be happy to, Hannah."

Crookshanks grumpily hopped up from our laps to the back of the couch and lay there instead. Dad and I went to the dining room and set the table with the nice dishes from our display cabinet.

"I like her," he declared when we were done.

"You don't know everything yet," I admitted.

Narcissa and Mum came into the dining room with serving dishes. I helped carry more items, and soon we were all around the table eating.

Narcissa noticed the menorah in the window. "Are you Jewish?" she asked.

"My parents are dentists. Odds are good," I replied dryly. She just stared at me in confusion.

"Yes," Mum answered. "Through my late mother. We're not at all religious, but we keep a few traditions."

"That's lovely," Narcissa said. "Traditions help keep memories alive."

"They do," Mum agreed, looking pleased.

My father was frowning. "Hermione says there's more we don't know about you?"

Narcissa straightened up. "For starters, I have an eighteen-year-old son, Draco."

Dad looked at me. "Didn't a boy named Draco bully you in school?"

I nodded. "The same one. He's... mellowed a bit."

"My ex-husband is Lucius Malfoy," Narcissa continued.

Dad made a face. "That prick we met in Diagon Alley? Heck, I would've left him too."

Narcissa's face tightened, and she picked at her food. I reached out and held her free hand, wondering at her reaction.

Mum scolded Dad, "Honey, she didn't say who left whom. You need to be more sensitive." To Narcissa, she said gently, "Are you alright? I helped a dear friend through a divorce, so I know how difficult it can be, losing such a huge part of your life."

Sounding strained, Narcissa said, "No matter how proud I am that I finally left an unhappy marriage, it―it still feels a little bit like failure. I failed to keep my vows. What does that say about me?"

My thumb rubbed the back of her hand. I didn't realize she felt that way, and now I wished I'd thought to ask.

My mother frowned, thinking. "Well, don't we all have an implicit promise to love ourselves? When promises conflict, one must take precedence. I don't know about your situation at home, but is it possible that you needed to leave in order to stay true to yourself? To love yourself?"

"Love myself," Narcissa repeated slowly, as if the words were foreign.

"With a name like 'Narcissa', that should come easily," my father joked, then shut his mouth when he realized this wasn't the time.

"That's just my two cents," my mother said.

"I appreciate it," Narcissa replied, voice rough with the sincerity of her emotion. I felt even more kindly toward my mother now.

We continued eating in a silence that felt full but not uncomfortable. Gradually the moment passed, and we chatted about more neutral topics, eventually moving on to our dessert of date-nut apple cake and Dad's rambling about sugar's negative effects on our teeth.

"Say, Narcissa..." my father said.

I rolled my eyes. Here it comes. Every damn time we have a new visitor...

"...if you were forced to choose between using floss or a toothbrush for the rest of your life, which would you pick?"

I quickly mouthed floss to Narcissa, trying to prevent the inevitable.

She got a wicked grin and very deliberately said, "A toothbrush, correct?"

"Actually, it's floss!" my mother said, eagerly explaining, "Dental floss helps your gums stay healthy and removes that hard-to-reach plaque between your teeth. Do you know the proper technique? Curve it around the edge of your tooth and..."

Narcissa rested her chin on her hand and smiled in amusement, listening long after I'd gotten bored of hearing this for the thousandth time.

"Alright, that's it for dessert," my father said. "Time to remove all of that acid produced by our mouth bacteria!"

I went to the bathroom to use the sink with Narcissa following. She hugged me from behind while I brushed my teeth, and I grinned at her in the mirror through a mouthful of foam.

She commented, "I think your parents would die of shock if they knew I use magical mouthwash and don't brush like muggles do."

"Sorry you got a long lecture about dental hygiene," I said after spitting and rinsing.

She rested her chin on my shoulder. "I didn't mind, really. It's quite refreshing compared to the dinner conversations I'm used to. And I enjoyed seeing how alike you and your parents are."

I gave her an odd look, not seeing the resemblance. "How so?"

"They seem to have good hearts, and they love sharing knowledge, just like you."

I heard a sniffle by the doorway and I looked over, realizing my mother had overheard us. She had a packaged toothbrush in her hand and tears in her eyes. Narcissa quickly let go of me.

"Mum, what's wrong?"

"Nothing, it's just so nice to hear about what we have in common. We were delighted to find out you're a witch, of course, and a talented one at that, but... it also set you apart from us, and took you away. And then forgetting you... it's been a tough year."

"Oh, Mum!" I flung my arms around her and held on tight. "You and Dad are always part of me, no matter where I am. And I'm so sorry about your memories. I've realized what a terrible thing that was to do. If we're ever in that much danger again, I'll talk about it with you, I promise." Narcissa rested her hand on my back in support.

"Sweetie, you know we already forgave you. But that's still reassuring to hear." After parting from our long hug, my mother wiped her face on her sleeve and said, "Narcissa, this is for you." She offered one of the hundreds of Oral-B sample toothbrushes we had around the house.

Narcissa looked at it, wide-eyed. "Thank you, but I couldn't possibly accept such a precious gift."

My mum and I took one look at each other and started cracking up. Now she had tears of laughter in her eyes. She pressed the toothbrush into Narcissa's hand. "Please accept this incredibly precious toothbrush." More laughter spilled out. "I insist!"

By this point, Narcissa had realized her mistake, and she flushed in embarrassment until my mother left to get drinks ready for an evening of chatting. I tried to brush Narcissa's teeth for her since she'd never done it before, but as it turns out, it's extremely hard to brush for someone else, especially when you both start giggling uncontrollably. My mother came back and snapped a photo of us, and I laughed even harder knowing the picture would be ridiculous.

Just before I went to bed that night, Mum confessed to me that she was still struggling to accept my interest in women, but she liked Narcissa on a personal level. It wasn't perfect, but for me, it was enough.

***

As it turned out, Andromeda convinced Narcissa and Draco to come to Yule at the Burrow, refusing to miss their first opportunity to celebrate a holiday together. Narcissa wrote me a letter to make sure it was alright, asking if it would make me uncomfortable or cause trouble with my friends. Her optimism had returned after how well dinner with my parents went, and I felt hopeful too. I told her I'd love to have her there. At least six or so people wouldn't hex her on sight.

Chapter Text

 

When the winter solstice came on Tuesday, I apparated with my parents right at noon, landing just a little ways from the Weasleys' unwieldy house. While Mum tilted her head trying to figure out how it could stay upright, Harry and Ron ran over and gave me a big hug.

"Happy holidays!" they exclaimed.

"Happy holidays!" I replied, holding both of my best friends tightly. Some things never change, and I was so glad for that.

Andromeda and Teddy appeared moments later with Narcissa and Draco. Teddy let out a squeal when he saw Harry, who gladly held him while his grandmother snapped a few photographs of us huddled in a warm group. My parents already knew some things about everyone here, and the introductions went quickly with only one snag.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Granger," Draco greeted. He accepted my mother's outstretched hand, bowing and kissing it. "You are every bit as beautiful as your daughter."

My face contorted, somewhere between disbelief and horror. That's really how he was going to handle this? Flirting with my mother?

"What a gentleman!" Mum said, looking pleased. "You've really grown up since you and Hermione were in school together, haven't you."

Draco smirked at me, and I wished he would grow up a little more. Narcissa could barely hide her amusement.

***

Mr. Diggory showed up while we were still talking outside. His cheerful expression soured when he saw Narcissa, and it darkened further when he saw my arm linked with hers. I shuddered, remembering that awful sensation in the Brain Room, though he hadn't been down there.

"Amos!" Mr. Weasley came outside and gave his friend an enthusiastic handshake. "Glad to see you! Where's the missus? She won't be joining us for Yule?"

Mr. Diggory shrugged and smiled. "No, she's been quite busy with work recently, even over the holidays. She enjoys it, though. How's Molly?"

"In good health," Mr. Weasley said, frowning a little. "But not as happy at home anymore, I think." Then he spotted my parents. "Oh, look, it's the Grangers! Welcome, welcome. Say, could you two offer some muggle expertise? I'm trying to make an automatic chicken door, but I can't figure out how to attach the solar-powered calculator to the toaster."

My mother exchanged a glance with my father and said, "Ah... you might need to explain your thinking process."

The four of them went to the shed full of miscellaneous appliances. I hoped Mr. Diggory wouldn't have a bad influence on my parents.

As the rest of us approached the house, Mrs. Weasley came out and stood by the door like a bouncer. She looked sternly at Andromeda first. "Remember, you're responsible for her." She pointed a finger at Narcissa and addressed her next. "And you'd better behave yourself. No talking about blood status. No insults or foul language."

Narcissa nodded. I knew it must be irritating to have Mrs. Weasley setting rules for her like a child, but she held her tongue.

"And it should go without saying, but no curses or hexes in the house, especially around wee Teddy here. Don't let me see you threatening anyone. I'll take out another one of you if I have to."

I couldn't believe she'd mention killing Bellatrix right in front of Narcissa, who ground her teeth, staying silent. My hands clenched.

"That's her sister you're talking about," I said. "Have a little sensitivity."

"I'll say whatever I want," Mrs. Weasley retorted. "That torturing, murdering psychopath had to be put down. She tried to kill my daughter. I already lost a son in the war. Almost doesn't seem fair that Miss Black got to keep hers."

Narcissa had tolerated everything so far, but at that, she reached for her sleeve. The two witches whipped out their wands, crossed like blades between them. Andromeda held Teddy's head against her shoulder, making sure he couldn't see.

"If you even think the wrong way about my son..." Narcissa growled.

"That sounds suspiciously like the beginning of a threat," Mrs. Weasley warned.

"Mum," Ron chastised, "stop needling her. We're all here to celebrate."

Mrs. Weasley slowly put her wand away, eyeing Narcissa to make sure she followed suit, then nodded and marched inside.

I threw my arms around Ron and whispered, "Thank you."

"No big deal," he mumbled. "Wouldn't want to make the darkest day of the year any darker, yeah?"

Indoors, I heard an unpleasantly familiar voice. Pansy Parkinson sat in the kitchen with Mr. Lovegood, discussing rumored unicorn sightings.

I stopped in my tracks and turned to Draco. "Pansy is here too?"

"Don't look at me," he replied. "We broke up in law school."

"Draco!" Pansy exclaimed. "I didn't know you'd be here!" She hugged him, then Narcissa. "Good to see you!"

"Hello, darling," Narcissa said, pressing a maternal kiss to the top of her head. "Hope you've been doing well."

"I have." Pansy settled in beside Ron, who wrapped his arm around her waist.

My mouth hung open. "You're... are you..."

"Dating? Yeah, we are," Ron said carefully.

"She likes you? You?"

His jaw tensed. "Is it so hard to believe a girl would like me?"

I shook my head. "That's not what I meant! If it were literally anyone else, I'd be congratulating you. But her?"

Pansy scowled. "Says the person dating a Malfoy."

Mrs. Weasley glared at Draco and I standing together, then said to me, "So that's why you were seen with his mother. Don't worry, Hermione, I knew the Prophet was wrong. I've learned my lesson about believing sordid news articles. Not that dating him is much better..."

"I'm not dating Draco," I huffed. She let out a sigh of relief, then I clarified, "Narcissa and I really are together."

Mrs. Weasley fainted.

***

"Mum fainted?" Ginny asked, appalled. "And I missed it?"

"Toppled right over," Ron said with a goofy grin. "At least Mr. Lovegood caught her."

Luna giggled. Mrs. Weasley stood at the stove, stirring a pot of stew with more vigor than necessary and muttering to herself. To my dismay, Narcissa seemed downright cold from the moment Luna and Ginny came into the room chatting together. How long was Luna a prisoner under Malfoy manor? Four months? Anything was too long.

I grasped Narcissa's hand, trying to urge her to open up, and that's when I figured out what was wrong. I'd seen this carefully closed-off look on her face the first time we talked about Andromeda. Just like it did then, her hand held the truth, tense and burning.

I pulled her closer and whispered, "It's alright. You don't have to hide how much you care anymore."

Narcissa's breath caught in her throat. "Miss Lovegood," she began, voice tremulous, "I don't expect you to forgive me, but I want you to know how terribly, terribly―"

"I forgive you," Luna said.

"―sorry I am for..." Narcissa trailed off, stricken.

Luna looked between her and Draco with a curious expression. "I understand why you didn't free me. Voldemort would've hurt your family." Her silver eyes surveyed all the faces in the room. "You know, my father tried to hand over my friends to protect me. Pansy was willing to give Harry up to protect herself and everyone in the school. And we risked everyone's lives to protect Harry." Then she looked at Narcissa again. "I guess we all do odd things for the people we care about."

Narcissa's throat moved, but she didn't speak, too close to tears.

"Thank you for keeping us well fed," Luna added. "Maybe you can help Mrs. Weasley with dinner. I'm going to pick some onions in the garden." With that, she stepped lightly toward the back door, barefoot.

"Do you need shoes?" Narcissa choked out. "If there's ever anything I can do for you, just ask."

Luna shook her head. "I prefer not to wear shoes. My classmates helped me realize how nice it is to feel all of these textures under my toes."

Those of us who went to Hogwarts together exchanged glances, remembering it a little differently.

When Luna was gone, her father came up to Narcissa looking angry. "If she needs shoes, I'll give her shoes. Nothing you could ever do for her is enough to make things right. My Luna can't hold a grudge against anybody, but don't go thinking you're washed clean of everything."

Narcissa bowed her head and nodded, not denying any of it, and Mr. Lovegood left to go join the group in the shed. She had only a few seconds to compose herself before Ginny took her arm.

"So you're not a hundred percent evil," Ginny said. "Great. Will you come with me for a chat?"

***

When Ginny came back, most of us had migrated to the living room. I stopped biting my nails and asked, "Stamp of approval?"

"Narcissa is hiding something," she replied. "I don't like it."

Harry, Ron, and I looked away.

"Oh, so you three know what she's hiding? Why doesn't that make me feel better?"

"Well, she's an Unspeakable, Gin," I said cautiously. "Some of the things she does are classified."

"What, is this entire relationship a secret cover?"

"It's real," Harry said. "They're good together. You'll see."

"She says all the right things," Ginny agreed. "But she sets off all my big-fat-liar alarms."

"You're making her nervous," I defended.

Ginny crossed her arms. "I'm keeping an eye on her. You should too."

Narcissa wandered in, seeming lost in thought until Teddy tugged on her robes and asked for food in baby sign language. She scooped him up and brought him to the kitchen, trying to sneak a few raisins from a dish. Mrs. Weasley chased her away with a spatula.

Harry went over and gave a charming smile to his mother-in-law, who let him take some raisins. He brought them to Narcissa, and the two of them made silly zooming motions as they fed Teddy together.

"Definitely someone to watch out for," I said, grinning like an idiot. "Quite a threat."

"Okay, she's less than ninety percent evil," Ginny conceded.

***

Narcissa and I were sitting together on one of the couches when Bill and Fleur arrived later. They showered Teddy with kisses on his little cheeks. He'd gotten past his clingy phase and adored us all, struggling to walk around the room by bracing himself on everyone's knees.

Suddenly Narcissa reached up and grabbed onto someone's wrist behind her head. "Don't even think about it," she said.

"That's just scary. How did you know I was there?" George stood up from behind the couch, a toy spider dangling from his hand. Teddy shrieked with laughter.

"She has eyes in the back of her head," Draco said.

"Mothers," George grumbled, sitting down close to Angelina. "Dump her, Hermione. I need you to date someone more prankable."

Fleur looked in surprise at the two of us on the couch. "Oh, la vache! How did I not know zees? You are lovers?"

"We're dating," I said mildly, though we really were lovers. In every sense. I glanced at Narcissa and bit my lip as heat spread through me. My imagination started planning a middle-of-the-night rendezvous.

"No wonder she was so adamant about healing that curse," Bill said thoughtfully.

"Adorable! Simply adorable!" Fleur exclaimed, sitting down on Narcissa's other side. "We must go out for a double date next week, all four of us. We'll dine at L'Escargot!"

Narcissa's eyes lit up.

"Oh, no," I said.

"You won't have to eat snails," Narcissa said. "Please, mon amour?"

"French doesn't work on me."

"Please?" She kissed my cheek again and again. "Please? Please?"

Laughing now, I pulled her in for a kiss on the lips and said, "Yes, alright. But only because I have fond memories of trying new foods with you."

"As do I," she agreed.

Then we realized everyone was staring. Narcissa cleared her throat and straightened up, blushing. Draco made a face. Ginny looked a little more favorable. Harry held in laughter, and Andromeda hid her camera.

"Adorable!" Fleur declared again.

***

Mrs. Weasley didn't say another word about relationships, but it wasn't long before she called Ron and me into the kitchen and put us to work in a transparent attempt at bringing us back together. We just shook our heads and went along with it.

"Pansy isn't mocking you anymore, right?" I asked, trying to be supportive. As my friend, he deserved it, and he'd supported me too.

"Yeah, apparently she always liked me but felt jealous. She wanted a big family, but she was an only child, because her parents didn't want to 'dilute their fortune' with more than one heir." He looked down. "I know what it's like to feel jealous and lash out because of it."

I nodded slowly, kneading dough. "And she's studying magical law, like Draco?"

"She wants to be a big-time prosecutor," he said proudly. "And a power mum. Her parents had other plans, but now that she's eighteen, she can use her trust fund however she wants and they can't tell her what to do."

"Sounds like they put a lot of pressure on her," I said.

"Kinda makes me appreciate not having a zillion galleons," Ron said. "There's more important stuff, you know?"

Mrs. Weasley smiled at that as she took a ham out of the oven, and I agreed, "Definitely."

Raised voices in the living room caught my ear.

"They have to settle for you as their Chaser," Draco was saying.

"The Tornadoes are lucky to have me," Ginny spat. "You're just mad that you were never as good as Harry."

"Pot, meet kettle," Draco taunted. "You'll always be second fiddle to your famous Seeker husband. I bet you couldn't win in a game against him."

I hurried over, hoping to defuse their fight before he ended up with bat-bogeys bursting out of his nose.

Ginny jabbed his chest with her finger. "Oh, really? You're on. We're settling this on the quidditch pitch. Best two out of three." She pulled Harry toward the back door. "Come on, husband, you against me. George, Angelina, Ron, you with me?"
Harry exclaimed, "Wait a minute, you can't take all the good players!"

"Don't get your knickers in a twist, Potter," Draco said, following the ragtag group. "You're on my team, and I'm not about to let that little ginger win. I'll be Keeper and stop her from scoring."

"It still isn't fair," Harry said.

"Ginny!" Mrs. Weasley scolded. "Play fair! Poor Harry here needs more people on his side."

Ginny smiled. "To wipe his tears when I clobber him?"

There weren't enough people for a proper game, even after Pansy volunteered to be a Beater and Narcissa a Seeker―"No need to stare. It hasn't been that long since the last time I flew," she snipped―so we agreed that Beaters could act as Chasers too. But Mrs. Weasley wasn't satisfied.

"No, no, none of this will do," she said. "If all the Slytherins are on one team, the other will end up at St. Mungo's. I'll sort this out and be the referee."

Bill and Fleur offered to take over dinner preparations while Mrs. Weasley led us all to the orchard where their family had makeshift hoops. Along the way, she wrangled everyone into two teams of four, deliberately mixing them up.

"Alright, here's the roster," she announced. "Ginny's team has Narcissa, Pansy, and Ron. Harry's team has George, Angelina, and Draco."

"It's my team," Draco said. "I'm team captain."

"Yes, yes, you can think of yourself as the captain of Harry's team," Mrs. Weasley agreed without agreeing at all.

"May I be the commentator?" Luna asked. "I enjoyed it last time I had the chance."

"Go for it, Luna," Ginny called out. "Hermione, will you help keep score?"

My parents heard all the commotion and came over from the shed to see what a quidditch game was like. I quickly explained the rules to them while casting a few spells to make a scoreboard. Harry, Ron, and Ginny had their own brooms with them at the Burrow, while everyone else had to use the Weasleys' old, twiggy hand-me-down brooms.

Narcissa gave me a kiss before she joined the game. "For luck," she said, pulse thrumming in her neck from excitement. Then she gave me a heated look and kissed me again. "And that one was simply because I wanted to."

It was a tough, unusual game with such a limited number of players, but it worked out. Angelina faced off with Ginny, who scooped up the quaffle first. While flying, she made observations and gave helpful instructions to her team members. Ron's skills as a Keeper gave them another advantage. They quickly racked up points until Draco's team was struggling badly.

Using a sonorus charm, Luna announced, "Angelina takes back the quaffle and dodges a tree. This orchard looks so peaceful in the wintertime. If you look in the corner of your eye, you can see all of the nargles hiding in the mistletoe. I wonder if they hibernate."

While Luna speculated, I updated the score. Ginny's team was even further ahead.

"Any day now, Potter," Draco shouted, circling the hoops after a wild save. "Not getting rusty, are you?"

"Draco kicks the quaffle to a teammate," Luna continued. "Do you think he ever considered which position he really wanted, or was it all about competing with Harry? It's so good to see him being his own person. He really looks handsome protecting the goals, doesn't he? The umgubular slashkilters aren't pestering him anymore, and his shoulders have filled out nicely."

Draco stared at Luna in surprise and flew straight into an apple tree. He fell from its branches to the ground with a load of snow.

"Draco!" Pansy and Narcissa cried, flying down. I covered my mouth in fright, mentally reviewing the few healing spells I knew.

"Time out," Mrs. Weasley said, whistling between her fingers.

"I'm okay!" Draco's voice was muffled under the white drift. Pansy lifted him out and he pushed her away. "I said I'm okay!" He got back on his broom and flew up, shaking snow out of his hair.

Pansy huffed and looked over at Ron, who was scowling. She smiled and flew over to give him a kiss, whispering something in his ear. He looked happy again. Maybe a little jealousy worked well for them, though I didn't find it appealing.

"Oh, dear. That was all my fault," Luna said. "I do hope none of its branches were broken. Maybe we can sing a wassailing song later to help it grow."

"Aren't you worried about Draco?" I asked.

"The tree seems much more upset."

I smiled and shook my head, and the game went on.

It was getting dark and Ginny's team had a dangerous 140-point lead when Harry suddenly spotted the snitch and raced toward it. Draco pumped a fist in triumph, calling out encouragement.

Despite losing the advantage, Narcissa followed Harry closely. Pansy narrowed her eyes and got ready to smack a bludger at Harry, but Draco dove down and knocked into Pansy before she could swing. Unhindered, Harry zoomed after the energetic snitch.

"Disgraceful!" Narcissa taunted with a smile. "Malfoy helping Potter?"

Luna casually told me about the healing properties of apples instead of paying attention and completely missed the game's progress while the race for the snitch went on.

I pulled Luna's wand toward me and announced, "Ginny's team scores!" It was tied for a few moments. "And again, for a 160-point lead!"

It was too late. If Harry didn't get the snitch, Narcissa would. He grabbed it, winning 150 points but still losing the match. Ginny let out a victory cry and circled around to peck her husband's cheek in midair. Harry wasn't a sore loser, and he just smiled.

Draco punched Harry's shoulder lightly. "You'd better win the next two games. I don't like losing bets."

"Not today, though," Mrs. Weasley said. "It's too dark, and it's time for dinner."

Ron suggested, "Hey, let's light a bonfire and summon chairs so we can eat dinner out here." Harry, Narcissa, and I agreed, all four of us remembering our evenings on the trail.

***

Spirits were high from the game, and dinner was a lively affair that degenerated into a snowball fight between the same teams. Narcissa stayed out of it this time, sitting beside me with her meal. Her cheeks were flushed from flying around, and every time she looked at me I wanted to take her to bed.

I leaned over and touched her hand. "Any plans after this is over?"

"Aside from sleeping?" Narcissa asked with a teasing smile as my fingers stroked her palm. "I do have plans. With my lover."

"Is that right?"

"Mhm, half past midnight at her apartment," she said, smiling in satisfaction when I agreed with a nod. "And I can't possibly cancel."

"Your lover is a lucky woman," I said, thrilled that my interest was well received. Seduction wasn't exactly something I'd mastered.

"She spoils me," Narcissa responded. "I'm the lucky one."

Her eyes shone as she watched Draco and Harry ducking to avoid multiple snowballs George had bewitched to chase them. Ginny was building an ice fort with Angelina, and Pansy hid behind it throwing snowballs at Ron until he tackled her, both laughing. My parents doted on Teddy while Andromeda told him bedtime stories.

"This is good," Narcissa said. "Hermione, this is good. And it's making me think."

"What about?"

"Hosting a ball, on Christmas. Your family and friends as well as mine. A mixed gathering like this. Of course it would have to be outdoors since the manor is warded. But with the snow, it would be quite scenic."

For a moment, I couldn't think of what to say. Back on Sunday morning after Draco left the table, that idea would've been unfathomable. A little joy went a long way in encouraging her.

"Is that just asking for trouble?" she asked, uncertain. "It could end in disaster."

"Or it could work out well, like tonight," I said. "Are you worried about another raid?"

She tilted her head toward Harry and Ron. "If some aurors are attending, perhaps the rest won't be so suspicious."

"Hermione, are you done with your plate?" Mrs. Weasley asked, coming around to collect dishes. I nodded and gave it to her.

"May I help?" Narcissa asked.

"No," Mrs. Weasley barked, then added grudgingly, "You're my guest."

Narcissa bit her lip before saying, "You handled that quidditch game well. Did you know Rolanda Hooch is retiring soon? You could apply to be the new flying instructor at Hogwarts."

The suggestion surprised me, but it was a good one. Mrs. Weasley had helped her children learn to fly, and she did a good job refereeing the game tonight with a firm but caring hand, looking alight with energy the whole time.

Mrs. Weasley looked surprised too. "Really? I... well, I did quite enjoy myself. And it would be nice to be around kids again. And I have free time..." She trailed off as she carried our plates away, seriously considering the idea.

"That was really kind," I said quietly.

Narcissa grumbled a little before saying, "I know how it feels to have a child grow up and not need you so much anymore. Becoming an Unspeakable helped me out of depression after the war. Molly needs something too."

I gave her a smile. "Aww, bonding over being empty nesters."

"I will not bond with that woman," Narcissa snarled.

"Yes, yes. You'll just be incredibly thoughtful and suggest a fulfilling job to her. No bonding."

When Andromeda went around saying goodbyes, leaving early to put Teddy to bed, Mrs. Weasley didn't make Narcissa and Draco leave with them. It was definitely an improvement.

Everyone remaining went indoors to light the Yule log from last year's cinders and sing carols as the night wore on. Mr. Weasley poured an extra glass of whisky and set it on a table near George. Fred's loss was never far from our minds at these gatherings, but it didn't always have to be painful. Narcissa and I sat in a little corner together, and I was amused to realize that she couldn't sing. She got it sort of right, but off-key. I didn't have the heart to tell her, and loved the sound of it regardless.

The mood was so good that something was bound to bring it down. Once the fire was really roaring, several people pulled off sweaters and rolled up their sleeves, including Draco. Mr. Diggory got very still, staring at him. One by one, everyone's eyes landed on his exposed Dark Mark. It had faded a lot, but suddenly it seemed impossible not to notice, right there on his arm. When he looked up and saw so many people watching, his shoulders tensed.

Luna stepped closer. "Does it hurt?"

Draco held his arm against his side to hide the mark. "He's dead now. It doesn't sting or burn anymore."

"No," she replied, reaching out and touching his heart. "I meant here."

She watched him serenely, and he held her gaze, blinking too fast. His breathing got shaky, and I couldn't tell if he was angry or upset or something else entirely.

Pansy spoke up. "Let that hand drift lower, Loony, and a different part of him will be aching."

"Don't call her that," Draco snapped, surprising everyone. He turned away and marched toward the door.

"She made you uncomfortable!" Pansy said defensively. "I was just trying to lighten the mood."

He slammed the door behind him. After another awkward silence, Mr. Diggory stalked back outside toward the shed.

Mr. Weasley shrugged and followed, saying, "Guess we'll go clean up out there before we part ways." Mr. Lovegood gave Luna a sympathetic pat on the shoulder before joining him.

Luna drifted over to our quiet corner and said sadly, "I didn't mean to make Draco uncomfortable."

Narcissa reached out and grasped her fingers, giving them a little squeeze. "Pansy is no expert on how he feels. Trust your own judgment."

Tears gathering, Luna whispered, "My mother used to tell me that. Most people say I see things that aren't there." She wandered outside in the direction Draco had gone.

Midnight came before long, and the three wizards in the shed came back indoors talking excitedly about another wacky invention.

Mr. Lovegood said a few farewells, then looked around the room and frowned. "Where's Luna?"

"Outside with Draco," Pansy answered.

"She's with that Death Eater boy? Alone?!" Mr. Lovegood pointed an accusing finger at Narcissa. "You need to keep your son away from my daughter!"

"He wouldn't harm a hair on her head!" Narcissa hissed.

"Luna?" Mr. Lovegood called, walking back out the door. "Luna!"

We waited uneasily until Draco came back and sat in our corner, shoulders hunched. In one hand he held a bunch of twigs and dead grass.

"What have you got there?" Narcissa asked.

"Luna called it a winter bouquet," he mumbled, a hint of pink appearing on his pale cheeks. "She picked it for me." On closer inspection, I saw the artistry in the bouquet, the stark contrast of sharp sticks and soft seeds at the end of grass stalks.

"Let's go home," Narcissa suggested. "I believe I have the perfect vase for it." She turned to me, smiling softly, and we kissed. "I'll see you soon, dear. It started rough, but being here tonight has been a precious gift. My life is better with you in it."

I teared up and replied, "Same―same here."

Draco had looked away during our goodbye, but when he faced us again his expression seemed more thoughtful than grossed out, and the way he looked at his mother reminded me just how important she was to him.

As they left, suddenly I knew what her present should be, if Draco would agree to it. I needed to find a new way to relate to him, to show him that he had a place in my heart too. Maybe in a few days we could work together to make Christmas morning wonderful for Narcissa, because the greatest thing we had in common was loving her.

***

After bringing my parents home, we retired to our bedrooms. Moments later, I apparated to my apartment and waited for Narcissa to arrive. When she did, my heart was already racing from the excitement of sneaking here to see her.

"Well, hello," she greeted me, easing closer until I could feel the warmth radiating from her. She wasted no time in capturing my lips in a kiss. Her hands slid down my body, stripping me naked and caressing each curve along the way. "Mm. I've been looking forward to this all evening."

"Better than sleeping?"

"Much. Would you believe that I thought I'd lost interest in sex over the years?"

"No," I replied, a little breathless. I took her clothes off as we made our way to my bed, then slipped my hand between her legs, finding evidence of her desire. "You want this as much as I do."

Narcissa lay down and pulled me on top of her, sighing in pleasure as I trailed kisses down to her pelvis. "Imagine my surprise when you made your way into my thoughts and I started feeling decidedly... unsatisfied. And you had no idea what you did to me."

"I have a good idea now." We bantered back and forth until my mouth found the heat of her core. She let out a throaty moan and dug her fingers into my hair. I teased with light touches and coaxed her nerves to attention. My tongue revelled in her arousal, tangy and enticing. Her thighs tightened against my head, and I kneaded them with my hands while gently pushing back against the pressure. She couldn't help herself, hips responding to every swipe of my tongue, every brush of my lips or nose against her sensitive skin. It didn't take her long to come, writhing against me until the last aftershock faded.

Narcissa took her time with me after that, making it her mission to hear her name fall from my lips until I climaxed with my pulse roaring in my ears. Then we curled up together, content after being lavished with so much attention and unwilling to part just yet.

We talked quietly in bed about my plan to protect my apartment with an anti-apparition jinx and Narcissa's determination to host a ball. As I imagined it with her, I already knew it would be the perfect end to our holidays. Especially if I could make Christmas begin with Draco and I preparing breakfast in bed for Narcissa, without conflict.

***

"No, no," Draco said pointing at the frying pan. "You're doing this all wrong. She likes the yolks runny."

"If you know so much, why not do it yourself?" I huffed.

"I don't know how. Mother always cooks for me."

"What in the world are you eating at law school, then?"

"They have elves―paid elves, don't look at me like that, you bleeding heart."

"But you can't even cook eggs?"

"Father thought cooking was beneath us."

"Well, your mother learned how. And if it's not beneath her, then you're not too good for it either. Here, put these eggs on a plate, and I'll get you started with chopping fruit."

"Isn't there a spell for all this crap? Or are you making me do it the muggle way as payback?"

"You can only cast cooking spells if you know how they work. Here, this is how to slice mangoes. With all the cutting remarks you make, I'm sure you'll be a natural."

"Careful, Granger. That was nearly a compliment."

Soft laughter from the doorway made me look up. Narcissa was standing there in a silk robe, arms crossed and a bemused expression on her face.

Draco paused mid-slice. "How long were you..."

"Practically the whole time. What's going on?"

I explained, "We were going to bring you breakfast in bed."

"We're getting along for you, as a gift," Draco added, actually giving me a side hug. "Happy Christmas, Mother." Then he wiped his hands on my sleeve, getting fruit juice everywhere.

"Malfoy!" I growled.

"Yep, getting along great." He crossed the room to give Narcissa a hug.

Her mouth was hanging open. "This is my Christmas present?"

"It was Granger's idea," Draco grumbled. "She wanted us to bond."

"And Draco agreed to it," I said. "We both want you to be happy."

Tears trickled down Narcissa's face, and her smile was blinding. "I love it. Come here." She beckoned to me, and I came over to hug her too. I never in a million years thought I'd end up here, but there was nowhere I'd rather be.

We separated after several moments, and Draco held Narcissa's face in his hands, telling her, "Now go back to bed and relax so we can make this morning special, alright?"

She smiled and squeezed his wrists. "Alright, my sweet boy." When he let go, Narcissa gave me a brief kiss before turning to go back upstairs.

Once we were alone again, Draco looked embarrassed. "Please erase your memory of me being so lame."

"It's not lame, it's touching," I said, facing him so he could see how serious I was. "And if that's how you treat the people you love, you're going to make someone very happy someday, with a beautiful family of your own."

He went back to slicing fruit, and I waited for him to throw out a sarcastic comment, but he stayed silent, and we finished cooking breakfast.

***

The three of us spent the entire morning together. Narcissa asked to go for a stroll outdoors, and we wandered around the Malfoy property on a well-worn path. I listened with a smile while she and Draco reminisced about all the seasons they'd enjoyed here. Noisy springtimes when Lucius' albino peacocks made a ruckus, warm summers having classmates over to visit and swim in the pond, autumns before Hogwarts when Draco would beg the landscaper to leave leaf piles to jump in, and winters like this one full of snow and thoughtful walks. I wondered if the two of them realized how much it sounded like they were getting ready to say goodbye to this place. Not now, but someday soon.

My parents had asked me to come home for Christmas lunch and presents, but before I left, Narcissa brought us back to her room to receive our own gifts.

"Draco, this is for you," she said, handing him a small package. "Hermione, yours is here too, but I'd like to add to it a little more, if you're willing to wait until tomorrow to open it."

My present sat on a shelf, loosely covered in gift wrap that hadn't been spellotaped down yet. It was vaguely book-shaped, but "add to it" sounded like it was more unique than just a book. Maybe it had her own commentary in it? Or some poems?

Barely able to control my curiosity, I agreed, "I'll wait."

Draco finished tearing off his wrapping paper and opened a small, beautiful box to reveal two tiny silver cufflinks. For a second I wished I'd bought something silver and expensive after all.

"My cufflinks?" Draco asked. "I was wondering where they went."

"I've added an enchantment. The card underneath explains how it works," Narcissa said.

Draco smiled as he read the card. "A calming charm. They're perfect, Mother. Thank you."

They hugged each other tightly, and Narcissa rose onto her toes to kiss his cheek. "You've gotten too tall. I told you to stop growing," she said lightly, ruffling his hair.

And there was another thing I loved about her; she was so affectionate. I wished more people knew that. We held hands for a moment before parting ways, and I went home full of excitement for another opportunity to bring our worlds together this evening.

***

It all led to this. Guests gathered under an enormous tent, lit by floating lanterns and surrounded by the snowdrifts that blanketed the Malfoys' estate. The Weasleys stayed mostly apart from people like Mrs. Parkinson and Rookwood, but no one fought. And the classmates that Draco and I had each invited were actually participating in one of Narcissa's devious schemes: a dance that required them to switch partners periodically and mingle.

Draco flirted with my mum again tonight, asking her to dance and waltzing around the outdoor ballroom. I had an inkling of how he must feel now, which was surely his intention. It was hard not to glare every time our eyes met.

"Relax, dear," Narcissa said, sidling up next to me. "He has no ill intentions toward her. Besides, I believe he has his eye on someone else. Luna is looking quite lovely tonight." She cupped my cheek and rubbed her thumb over the corner of my mouth until I stopped scowling. "Didn't your mother ever tell you your face can get stuck that way?"

"That's just an old wives' tale," I retorted. "I'll scowl if I want to." But I was smiling by then, and I kissed the pad of her thumb.

"Old wives are sometimes right, you know," she said, pulling me into the crowd of dancers. "Your face may not get stuck, but a mean attitude becomes a habit. You see?"

"I think you just made up that deeper meaning," I accused. We started waltzing with some difficulty. Neither of us had much practice leading.

"Guilty as charged," she said with a laugh, and we circled around the room until we couldn't concentrate on the steps any longer.

On our way to get water, we chatted briefly with Neville, who was here with Hannah and the baby they'd adopted not long ago. Neville had grown up so much that it was hard to believe he used to be bullied, and I was pleased to hear he was sponsoring a new anti-bullying club at Hogwarts. A little further on, we passed by two wizards discussing finance with a tall, familiar woman that I suddenly recognized.

"Happy Christmas, Blaise," Narcissa greeted.

Blaise inclined her head with a bright smile. "Happy Christmas. Thank you for everything." Her voice was about the same as it used to be, but she spoke more softly. "Hello, Hermione."

"Hello," I replied, glad she didn't ignore me like other people at the Zabini's party. Blaise had always seemed less hateful than Draco and other Slytherins, though still arrogant.

Narcissa asked, "Did I hear something about a new bank?"

"Yes, I'm starting a bank to compete with Gringotts," Blaise said as if it were some minor thing. "It'll be small at first, of course, but prestigious. Do you want to be one of my first investors? Or a customer?"

"Perhaps," Narcissa said. "I'd like to hear about your business plan."

Blaise answered confidently, "As I was just telling these fine wizards, we'll have several types of accounts..."

I let the business talk wash over me while my mind wandered. Blaise looked dazzling in her emerald dress, and I was glad she'd gotten an opportunity to wear it after all. A million questions flew through my mind―Were there magical ways to alter bodies? Would she choose to do that? Had she already started transitioning? Did she feel different? But I couldn't think of any appropriate way to ask, and eventually realized it was none of my business. If I was curious, I could learn from books and people who chose to share that information freely.

As the conversation wound down, Blaise followed Narcissa and I to the refreshments table where Draco was standing with a few other classmates.

With a false stern look, Narcissa asked, "Shall I assume one of you spiked the punch and the rest are lookouts?"

"We would never!" Pansy exclaimed, hiding an empty bottle.

Narcissa smiled and shook her head, pouring herself a glass. "I can always count on my little Slytherins." She poured some water as well and sipped it experimentally before handing it to me.

We all talked awhile, and Narcissa made an effort to find things I had in common with them, though overall it felt like they were only tolerating my presence because of her. She knew an impressive amount about each of them, asking specific questions about their interests. Like Pansy and Blaise, all of them had goals of becoming hugely successful, famous or rich or powerful.

I laughed a little and said, "Don't any of you dream of―I don't know―a steady office job with good benefits?" They looked at me like I was crazy. Right. Cunning and ambition.

Goyle lumbered over to join us, looking upset, and leaned against Narcissa's side as he whispered something to her. She wrapped an arm halfway around him as she listened, then raised her head and looked across the dance floor. I followed her gaze and spotted a woman who must be his mother getting into an argument.

"I'll take care of it, darling." Narcissa swept away to go calm them.

Our little group was quiet for a moment until Pansy said, "Mrs. Malfoy is the best, isn't she."

I opened my mouth to correct her last name, then closed it when I saw everyone nodding in agreement.

"She talked to my mother for me," Blaise commented.

Theodore Nott said, "She let me stay here sometimes when my father was in prison."

Pansy added, "She let me look at their dark artefacts for my essay on vendor liability."

"She makes good snacks," Goyle grunted.

I rarely heard Malfoy used in a positive light, but now, with Draco's classmates gathered around, I realized that for many years Malfoy manor may have been a refuge for them. I could picture Narcissa caring for them all like her own children, listening to their troubles and offering unconditional support.

Nott gave me a once-over, appraising me. "She really likes you, so you must have some kind of redeeming quality."

I tried not to smile, thinking of how my friends saw it the other way around.

"You'd better be good to her," he warned.

"Always," I promised. My eyes drifted over the room, amazed that we'd built some kind of tentative peace. There were times when I thought there was too much strife in the past to possibly overcome it all.

Toward the end of the evening, my parents found me and asked to go home. They had fun, but we were a family of introverts. I was feeling a bit drained from all the socializing too and started saying my farewells to everyone. Narcissa and I parted with joyful smiles.

"Maybe we should do this every year," I said. "The ball was wonderful. I'm almost sorry to go."

"Do you prefer to unwind alone?" she asked. "Or would you like to come back and rest in my room so we can spend the night together?" Her eyes twinkled, but she specified, "Sleeping."

"That sounds lovely," I agreed.

I disapparated with my parents and chatted with them for a bit, then brought Crookshanks and all of my belongings back to my apartment. The time spent with my parents was nice, but it would be a relief to have my own space again. Concentrating carefully on my third apparition in a short time, I arrived near the gates of Malfoy manor. The ballroom tent was hard to see past rows of low, newly planted hedges, but my eyes automatically sought out Narcissa. She was enjoying a conversation until she abruptly pulled out her pocket watch. In an instant she was gone, racing out of the tent toward the manor.

Fear lanced my heart as I wondered why the watch had alerted her. I spied Draco still laughing with his friends. It must be about Lucius.

I hurried to the front door, staying out of sight to avoid drawing attention to whatever trouble was happening. Hopefully it was something minor, and the ball could still end peacefully.

When I got inside, Narcissa was nowhere in sight. I wandered toward the less familiar end of the main hallway until I reached what was presumably Lucius' wing of the house. An ornate door blocked me from going further, and it was locked. With a feeble alohomora that I knew wouldn't work, I turned around and headed away, thinking I could find a seat somewhere and wait in case Narcissa needed support.

I was halfway down the long hall when I heard the ornate door burst open, and Narcissa came out. I started thinking, no, no, not another raid, but it wasn't like last week. There was no screaming, no announcement, no order imposed. Just Narcissa dashing down the hall toward me, soot-blackened and frantic with an angry wizard close behind.

"Hermione!" she cried.

My wand was in my hand before I registered that the wizard was an auror, and I lowered it helplessly.

"Most dear..."

Merlin, I almost didn't want to hear this. It felt like the entire world was tilting on its axis.

"I didn't―I didn't do it!"

"Incarcerus!" The auror flicked his wand, and magical ropes twisted around Narcissa's ankles mid stride. She hit the floor hard and slid a few metres. "Expelliarmus!" Her wand flew out of her loosened grip. Gasping for breath, she gave up, spreading her hands out in surrender.

The auror caught up to her and pocketed her wand. "Narcissa Black, you're under arrest." He bound her wrists and gave her an abrupt pat-down, confiscating her pocket watch.

"What has she done?" I asked.

He ignored me and cast a few sensing spells on her, checking for hidden enchantments.

"Hey! What has she done?" I asked again, stepping toward him. I caught a whiff of foul-smelling smoke. "Was there a fire? Where is Lucius?"

"I can't disclose details of the crime," he said, pushing me back. He yanked Narcissa upright and loosened the rope around her ankles so she could hobble.

I looked at Narcissa, wondering why she wouldn't say more in her own defense. She let the auror's rough hands push her around to face the door, then started walking without any resistance as he escorted her away. There was that chilling blank look in her eyes again, just like when Hoppens grabbed her.

"Wait, wait!" I said desperately, following them down the hall. "You're traumatizing her!" I reached my hands out, then let them fall. I couldn't do anything to stop him without breaking the law. "She's not herself right now! Be gentle. Haven't you ever heard of 'innocent until proven guilty'? You ought to treat her better!"

"She's fine," he scoffed, giving Narcissa a little shake. "See? Not even a peep."

"No, she needs—wait, take me with you! Arrest me too if you have to, I don't care! I just need to make sure she recovers."

"You're one of Potter's friends, right? Here's some free advice: don't get involved with Voldemort's followers. Now shut it and stop interfering with this arrest."

"You can't arrest her unless you actually charge her with a crime!" I insisted, though I wasn't sure. Maybe they could, under certain circumstances. "This is highly irregular!"

He kept marching toward the double doors leading back outside where they could disapparate.

I stumbled along, shell-shocked, thoughts jumbled. What? One minute everything was fine, and the next, there was running and ropes and blank eyes and some kind of false charge? An intense feeling of wrongness washed over me. I fought the urge to stop him from leaving the building and vanishing to somewhere beyond my reach.

Just as they stepped outside, a bright red bolt of stupefy came from a different direction and hit him. He staggered, turning to face me. Draco blindsided him and swung a clay pot against the auror's head. It cracked and sprayed soil everywhere on impact. Draco kicked the man, who doubled over wheezing, making his head available for a knee to the face.

When the auror collapsed unconscious on the ground, Draco cast obliviate. "He won't remember us being here," he told me. "But we don't have much time. Others are probably on their way already."

I returned Narcissa's watch to her, noticing Lucius' hand was fully on prison now, then glanced between Draco and the body on the ground. "You just assaulted an auror!"

"Are you going to report me?" he snarked.

Draco and I guided Narcissa back into the house, slammed the double doors shut, and locked them with a spell.

"She'll look even guiltier now," I said. "We don't even know what's going on!"

"Doesn't matter," he replied tersely, leading the way upstairs.

"Why doesn't it matter?" I knew this wasn't the time for questions, but I had to understand.

He let Narcissa walk a little ahead of us, then whispered, "Once she's in the system, they won't let her go. She knows that, and that's why I absolutely cannot let them take her away. She'll die."

"Die?" I whispered back. "Why do you assume they'll execute her?"

His face tensed into a pained expression. "I don't. Mother would kill herself if she were imprisoned for life. Being trapped and hopeless is the worst thing in the world to her. She's even specified that she doesn't want to be kept alive in a coma."

My hand flew up to cover my mouth while he spoke. Why hadn't Narcissa ever told me this? Then I realized she had told me, more than once in different words, and I missed it. I hadn't realized the full significance of what she was saying. I would sooner give up my life than be locked up forever... I'm not so sure we're lucky to be alive... I would've given up already...

"It's frightening—" I said, throat closing as my eyes teared up. "Frightening that she would let her life go so easily when I want so badly for her to live."

Draco's eyes softened. "Same here. But we'll make sure she stays free. Thanks, by the way."

"I didn't do anything," I said guiltily.

"I heard you screeching at that auror like a banshee. It's the only reason I found her in time."

That made me feel a little better. We entered a familiar room, stopping in front of the huge fireplace in the study.

"I'll be back soon," Draco said. "I'm taking Mother to a safe house. You could go into hiding with her, if you need to."

I was sorely tempted, but knew it would be worse if I did. "I'll stay to help handle the fallout here. And I can help you with her legal defense once we know what the charge is."

He nodded once and asked, "Everyone thinks you already went home, right? We keep polyjuice stocked in the potions cupboard. Could you make sure the aurors think I'm not involved?" He plucked a hair from his head and offered it to me. "But only if you're not risking your own alibi. Mother would be furious."

I accepted the hair, heart pounding. "I'll do it." Protecting him was worth the risk. My childhood enemy gently wrapped an arm around my lover and guided her into the fire. "Draco," I said, getting choked up. "Take care of her. She's not herself, she's—"

"Dissociating, I know. I'll help her. If I'm not back before the potion wears off, sneak home and pretend you were never here. If they come for you, act surprised. Hopefully they'll let you off easy." He grabbed a fistful of floo powder. "Holly Cottage."

They disappeared in a rush of green flame, and I was left alone. At least I knew what to do first: cover for Draco.

Since I didn't know where the cupboard was, I tried summoning the polyjuice potion. A small vial flew to my hand. When Draco's light blond hair mixed with the vial's contents, the color turned to rich emerald. I downed the potion quickly, trying not to taste it. Staggering through the painful transformation, I fled from the study to Draco's room and changed into some of his clothes. At least this wasn't the first time I'd had to turn into a male. I didn't have much time to dwell on it, because there was a blast from downstairs and multiple voices rose up.

"Mother?" I called, jumping slightly at how deep my voice was. I took slow breaths to calm down. "Mother, where are you?" A shudder went through my body at the feeling of homenum revelio sweeping over me. I went to the stairway and ran right into three aurors―a witch, a wizard, and the angry one who now had a knot on his head.

"Excuse me," I apologized, then second-guessed myself. Would Draco be polite or rude to ministry officials? Then I realized it didn't matter, as long as I stayed confident.

"Well, look who it is. Malfoy junior," Knot-Head said. All three of them looked me up and down. If this was the kind of judgment people gave Draco all the time, I could almost understand why he was so snobbish.

"I don't have time for your attitude," I said.

"You'd better make time. Looking for your mum?" Knot-Head asked. "Where might she be?"

"I don't know. She left the party in a hurry and I thought she might've come here, but she wasn't in her room."

He stepped into my personal space and narrowed his eyes. "When's the last time you saw her?" He tried to break into my mind, slamming into the mental walls I kept up instinctively now. My defenses held. Meanwhile, my body was gearing up for a fight. I could practically feel the flood of testosterone from the way this man was challenging me, standing too close on purpose.

"Get out my face and out of my mind," I growled, trying to remember how much time had passed. "I saw her at the ball maybe ten minutes ago. What's going on, anyway?"

"Mummy's in big trouble," he taunted.

Don't punch him.

"She's gonna get locked up like Daddy."

Don't punch him. Don't punch him.

Knot-Head smirked. "Someday you'll join them in a cell of your own. One big happy family in Azkaban where you all belong."

My muscles strained against themselves. I could feel the strength in my arms, feel how much damage this body could do. But that would only prove him right. "My father's not in Azkaban," I spat. "And my mother doesn't belong there. Whatever you think she's done, you're wrong."

"Carty, you're wasting your breath," the witch said, glancing at me with something close to sympathy. "He doesn't know where Black is. She's probably long gone. Let's secure the crime scene."

They went back downstairs without a backwards glance. When they were gone, I felt horribly afraid and wracked by sudden chills. I returned to the fireplace and curled up in front of it, wondering what was happening as my breathing grew more difficult and I broke out in a sweat. When the sensations lessened several minutes later, I belatedly recognized them. When did Draco start getting panic attacks? The calming cufflinks Narcissa gave him made more sense now. Chest tight with emotion, I hoped they were both alright.

I uncurled slowly and calmed myself by perusing the bookshelves, unsurprised to see lots of poetry collections and plays. I found Hamlet and remembered Narcissa's hand pausing on my copy. With nothing to do but wait, I sat down and started skimming it on a hunch that she'd quoted Doubt thou the stars are fire from this book.

***

The polyjuice wore off, and Draco wasn't back yet. The fire crackled in the silence. Newfound lines of poetry made my heart ache as I replaced Hamlet on the shelf. I hurried to Draco's room to change back into my clothes, mentally planning a secretive route home while agonizing over the knowledge that Narcissa was isolated somewhere with accusations hanging over her head.

Chapter Text

 

A firm knock echoed around my apartment. I felt like it had only been a few minutes since I collapsed in bed after making my way home from the manor. A quick glance at the clock revealed it was too late at night―or early in the morning―for visitors. Wand in hand, I tiptoed across the cold floor and waited to see if the knock would come again.

It did. "Miss Granger? It's Hestia Jones. Can you let me in?"

That calmed me a little. Jones was alright. She'd escorted Narcissa and me to debriefing after the mission, and she was in the Order of the Phoenix.

I opened the door, then crossed my arms self-consciously over my pyjamas, braless. "Hi. What brings you here at this hour?"

She came in and rested a hand on my shoulder with sympathy I didn't understand. "I'm sorry, we need you to come to the ministry and answer some questions."

"Right now? What kind of questions?" I asked, knowing full well this had to be about Narcissa's arrest and escape.

"I'll leave that to them to explain. Come along." Jones held my arm and led me out of my apartment―protected with a jinx as of a couple days ago―to apparate somewhere out of sight.

***

We appeared in the Arrivals and Departures area on level ten at the ministry where I'd been debriefed.

"Wand, please," a guard intoned by the first security gate.

I stepped back and held it tighter. "Am I being questioned, or arrested?"

"Detained, technically," he told me.

The guard's outstretched hand waited for my wand. I took another step back. I couldn't help it after what I'd been through on the mission, getting disarmed by muggles and nearly burned alive. "Just let me keep my wand. I'm perfectly willing to answer questions."

"Sorry, I don't make the rules," the guard said. "Handing over your wand is required. You'll get it back afterward, of course."

I gave him my wand with a sinking feeling in my stomach and let Jones pat me down. She guided me through the security gates, into one of the interview rooms.

"Have a seat here, and they'll be in shortly to talk," Jones said, waving to a chair that would put my back to the door. Not what I would've chosen. Once I was sitting, she touched my arm kindly. "Don't beat yourself up too much. It's good to look for the best in people, even if it turns out this way."

I didn't have to fake my confusion and fear at hearing that. Then she left, and suddenly I was angry. Angry that Jones knew more than I did, angry that she assumed the accusations were true, angry that I was brought here so courteously while Narcissa was manhandled even after she surrendered. By the time someone entered, I was in a foul mood.

Edgecombe sat in the chair across from me. She gave me a small, sad smile, then slipped into her professional persona. No water bottles this time. "This interview is being transcribed for our records. Today is December 26, 1998, and the time is 3:17. Please state your name."

"Hermione Granger."

After Edgecombe gave her name too, another familiar Unspeakable came in and set a chair down on my side of the table, looking relaxed as he watched me with a parchment and quill in hand.

"Saul Croaker," he said in a raspy voice. "Researcher, Department of Mysteries."

He was here to look and listen, analyzing my body language and words while Edgecombe asked me questions. I'd read all about it in my manuals. Veritaserum could be resisted, best if used on the unsuspecting, but being fully aware of Croaker's watchful gaze wouldn't help me.

With all names stated, Edgecombe said, "Let's establish some facts first. Can you walk me through a timeline of events, from your arrival at the ball yesterday to your arrival here?"

I answered the best I could, simply leaving out the part where I returned to the manor and the chaos that followed. Then she made me do it all again, backwards. It wasn't hard to leave out the same part.

Edgecombe asked, "Can you give me a more precise time for when you last saw Narcissa Black?"

"No, I wish I could be more specific. Frankly, I wasn't really watching the clock. Probably not long after 21:30."

"And that was the last time you saw her or heard from her?"

"Yes." Pretending to be oblivious while letting my genuine worry show, I asked, "Did something happen to Narcissa? Is she okay?"

"There was a crime, and we don't know exactly what happened afterward. Do you know where Black might go if she were afraid? We're trying to locate her. She may be in danger."

That was a damned lie. They wanted to locate her to arrest her, I thought angrily, keeping my worried expression. The questions continued, about all the places she goes―I held back, of course―and people who might let her stay with them, and so on, and the whole time I was dying to know what the crime was.

Edgecombe said, "An auror was assaulted just outside Malfoy manor. Is there any reason why we might find your footprints nearby?"

Bait. That question was bait, meant to ensnare me. "Well, I was there earlier that day, spending time with Narcissa. So yes, you might find my footprints."

"Were you worried about leaving evidence when you attacked the auror?"

Merlin's pants, she wasn't pulling any punches. But her presumption was clearly a bluff. "No...? I didn't attack anyone, and I'd really like to know what's going on."

Edgecombe sighed and set down the parchment she'd been reading questions from. "Last night, two aurors caught Lucius Malfoy trying to escape house arrest. We believe the ball was supposed to be a distraction. Black arrived on the scene quickly, there was an argument, and..." She pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm really sorry I have to tell you this, Granger. She murdered one of the two aurors."

"Murdered?!" All the breath rushed from my lungs. "You think―you really think Narcissa murdered an auror?"

"With fiendfyre. She cast a Dark Mark in the sky above the manor, then fled. The surviving auror remembers chasing after Black, but his memories after that are gone and he sustained a few minor injuries. Either she escaped alone, or she had help."

I clutched my head, hyperventilating. "Wait, I know this can't possibly be true! She would never murder someone in cold blood. What kind of evidence is there? Maybe it wasn't her." I had to suggest that, even though I knew the woman who ran to me smelling like smoke was really Narcissa. And the knowledge that she'd cast a Dark Mark before was eating me up inside.

"I'm sorry," Edgecombe said gently. "Others at the ball saw Black running to the manor at the right time, she has a motive, she's previously demonstrated the ability to control fiendfyre, and the surviving auror was an eyewitness to his partner's murder."

No wonder he was so angry, I thought for a second. Then I shook my head to clear the thought away. It couldn't have happened like that. "Maybe she was imperiused," I added weakly.

"Her family has used that excuse too much already. No one honestly believes it anymore. They went right back to their master when he returned."

"Narcissa wasn't loyal to him," I declared.

"Her husband was, and everyone knows how supportive she is of him," Edgecombe replied. "By Merlin's wand, the woman got a divorce and still didn't expose any of her ex-husband's crimes. You think she wouldn't go to extreme lengths to stop him from being brought to a higher security prison?"

I shifted uncomfortably. I knew―especially now―how desperate she was to avoid going to prison. Would she fight hard to keep Lucius out of prison too? Narcissa said she'd support him no matter what.

...she murdered one of the two aurors...

Edgecombe nodded at my silence as if it were a confirmation. "I know you're close to Black, and it breaks my heart to see how much faith you have in her, but she's proven herself to be dangerous. We need to know whatever you can tell us about her so we can bring her in."

Tears spilled down my cheeks. In all honesty, Narcissa was quite capable of killing to protect her family. But my memory of last night was vivid.

Hermione...

Her face was frantic, terrified.

....most dear...

Pleading with me to believe her.

...I didn't do it!

She was shaking so badly that anyone else would've thought she must be guilty, but she said those words, our code phrase. What follows will be the truth, she'd promised.

"She didn't kill anyone," I said.

Edgecombe spread her hands, at a loss. "I don't know how I can make the facts any clearer. Why are you so certain?"

Because Narcissa gave her word. "Because I know her."

"Evidently not as well as you think," Edgecombe said sharply. She seemed frustrated with me now. "And Croaker here indicated that you were hiding something when we asked you about the last time you saw Black. So I'm going to ask you again, when and where did you last see her?"

"As I said before," I huffed, "we weren't really paying attention to the time when we said goodbye in the ballroom tent. But as far as I know, it was between 21:00 and 22:00."

Croaker lifted his spindly finger just enough to signal to Edgecombe, who looked incredibly disappointed in me. I tried not to shrink in my chair. I hated lying to people I admired, and I hated disappointing them even more.

"I didn't think this would be necessary," Edgecombe said, sliding a paper across the table. "But we do have a warrant to search your memories of last night. Everyone close to Black is under suspicion."

She looked toward the left wall and nodded. I suddenly remembered that the wall worked like a one-way mirror. Who was on the other side watching us?

The Top Secret level occlumency instructor walked in, and Edgecombe gave him her chair. I'd just barely begun my lessons at that level, and now I was afraid. My mental vaults weren't strong enough to resist him yet. I'd have to use every trick Narcissa ever taught me.

Wishing there were more time to prepare, I hastily blended the memory of returning to the manor with my other memories of being there, pulling it apart, stashing bits of it elsewhere. I hid the name of the safe house in trivia, as if Holly Cottage were the answer to a crossword puzzle clue or the caption beneath a real estate photo, utterly unimportant.

When our eyes met, the legilimens gently tried to read my mind. "Please allow me to look," he said. "If all is well, this won't take long."

It felt strange to decide to let someone in after so much practice protecting my mind, but I carefully allowed him to find my modified memories of last night. Everything seemed fine until he picked up on the slight flaw.

"You brought your cat and luggage home, then went straight to bed?" he asked aloud, picking at the thoughts around that moment like a scab. He started digging in, but I'd tampered with it too much for him to find the missing pieces. The pressure in my head increased as he used more and more power.

"You're hiding something," he accused. "I can feel you hiding something. What is it?"

I reflexively forced him out, and he came right back, stronger than before. My teeth ground together and sweat beaded on my skin.

"Stop resisting, Granger," Edgecombe warned. "It only looks more suspicious. If you come clean right now, we can work this out. We need your help to find Black."

"She's not a murderer," I ground out, fists curled tight around the arms of the chair.

"I can't find anything," the legilimens groused after several minutes. He released my mind, and I gasped in relief. Then I heard footsteps behind me, and the last thing I saw was a startled look on Edgecombe's face before a black hood went over my head. I stiffened, feeling straps being fastened around my wrists and attached to the chair.

The other chairs scraped on the floor as people stood up and moved around. My heart raced. I strained to hear Edgecombe and the newcomer talking, but all I could pick out were whispers about not cooperating like they thought I would.

The door slammed shut as they left, and the room got very quiet. I waited for someone to keep questioning me, but the seconds turned into minutes. It was cold in there. All I had on were my thin pyjamas. I shivered in the chair, feeling like I'd made a terrible mistake letting them bring me in. But what else could I have done?

The minutes turned into hours. I tried calling for whoever might be listening. I told them I was cold. I told them I needed to pee. No one came in. I shook my wrists, testing the thick straps. The word detained swam through my head. What does detained mean? I wasn't a prisoner, but they were treating me like one.

Despite the cold, my head started to droop from tiredness. They'd woken me in the middle of the night, and the darkness inside my hood didn't help. But the moment my chin hit my chest, the wrist straps jolted me with an electric shock.

I sat upright, heart pounding. For a second I felt indignant that they would dare to treat me like this. But the shock was weak. I couldn't complain that much. It's not like they were torturing me. I tried to keep my head up, but over time I faded toward unconsciousness and suddenly felt the shock again.

No sleeping, then.

I lost track of time. I kept seeing Narcissa running, her desperate face, the arrest, the escape. Everything was hazy. I had to pee so badly that I wasn't sure if I could hold it.

The door opened behind me.

I jerked at the sound and exclaimed, "Finally!" I couldn't see the person walking in, but the footsteps sounded heavy and masculine. "May I use the loo? This is ridiculous."

"No."

I waited impatiently while he sat down and got situated.

"Think back to the prison in Groesffordd, on your mission," the wizard said. "Black knew there were Death Eaters present there, and she withheld evidence of that fact from ministry officials. Don't bother denying it. We read the transcripts of both of your debriefings."

The prison? I wondered what that had to do with anything. It was hard to even remember there was a world outside this room. Should I try spinning the story in Narcissa's favor, or would that just make it worse?

Before I could decide, he continued, "What did Black tell you?"

"Narcissa didn't tell me anything," I answered, forcing myself to think straight as I started shivering uncontrollably. "I overheard her. She was talking to herself, and she said something like, 'Death Eaters! What were they doing with them?' She sounded surprised."

"Did she say or do anything else? Tell me exactly what happened," he demanded. After I told him about everything except the Dark Mark, he asked, "Has she told anyone else about it?"

"I have no idea."

"Has she enlisted you to help with her discovery? Has she told you anything, given you anything, shown you any memories? Did she mention who in particular was there?"

I reared back under the barrage of questions, not sure of the answers or how much to say. If Narcissa hadn't just been accused of casting a Dark Mark at the scene of a murder, I might've caved and explained what she'd told me about using it to read some kind of code left behind, but now that would look bad.

And she did give me something! On the night of our first date, she gave me a memory vial and a piece of parchment. It could very well hold the message she'd deciphered, but there was no way I would tell anyone about that. She'd trusted me with it.

"No," I said, far too slowly. "I don't think so. May I please use the loo?"

"Think harder. Are you certain you don't know any more? Does it seem like she's been collaborating with anyone? Has she met anyone secretly?"

"I don't know, you tell me," I snapped. "I don't stalk her like the ministry does."

Right away, I knew I shouldn't have been so combative. A suspicious silence stretched between us. When the wizard spoke again, his voice was deceptively mild.

"I could tell you a great deal. It has come to light that Black is responsible for many of the recent disappearances―"

"What?!" I interrupted.

"―and she has gone to great lengths to hide that fact. How much do you know about this?"

"You've got to be joking," I insisted. "She was shocked when she heard about the first few."

"She may well have been. But she has joined forces with the masterminds."

"This is all wrong. She's been terrified that something would happen to Lucius. She checks on him and stays at home with him."

"Yes, she sure makes it look that way. It's all for show. Black knows where the other Death Eaters are, and she doubtless knew when Malfoy planned to escape. Are you in on it? You don't have to keep covering for her. Or does she put on the act for you too?"

"No." I shook my head and felt dizzy. "It's your word against hers, and I believe her."

"How about her own words?" he asked.

I waited as he rifled through papers, then cringed in the light as my hood was torn away. He stood behind me while I leaned forward to read the parchment he'd placed on the table. I scowled when I saw all but one paragraph was blacked out.

"Show me all of it," I demanded.

"I'm not authorized to access the entire letter," he admitted.

"Well, I'm not going to believe some vague, misconstrued, out-of-context..." My voice trailed off as I started reading Narcissa's familiar handwriting.

You and I both know it's wrong to hold his Death Eaters and other followers captive like this. I'd rather avoid using force, but if you think there's no legal recourse, then I'm out of options. On the bright side, I have a powerful ally inside the ministry now. I intend to prepare a better solution, relocate everyone, and take down the worst of those self-righteous bastards. I'll continue life as usual if I can get away with it. We usually do ;)

I couldn't breathe. I couldn't even convince myself it was a forgery, because it sounded like her, right down to the playful wink at the end. But it couldn't be right. There must be some kind of explanation.

The hood went back over my head.

"We've been working nonstop to untangle the web of lies Narcissa Black has woven," the wizard said. His voice floated around in the dark. "The incident last night is only the latest act in a litany of wrongdoing. You understand we have to stop her, right? Is there anything else you can tell me?"

I set my jaw defiantly, though he couldn't see my expression through the hood. "I don't know anything else."

"Listen, Granger, don't throw away your reputation for a murderer."

"She's not a murderer!" I was certain of that, though my mind was still reeling from his other accusation. I was so cold, so tired. I longed to go somewhere comfortable to sit and think and examine the evidence.

"Do you realize things aren't looking good for you right now? Edgecombe and Croaker suspect you're hiding something. You were with Black at a suspicious gathering of purebloods and supporters. We have a report that you were strangely lenient with Crabbe Sr.―"

"He wasn't abusing his house elf!"

"―and you visited his mansion just before he escaped."

My mouth hung open. "You're trying to connect me to that? But..."

"In short, you're too close to the enemy, and if you continue to hold back, we can only assume she's turned you."

"Turned me?"

"Brought you over to her side," he clarified. "And then we'll have to do this the hard way. This is your last chance. If you have any sense of self-preservation, you'll work with us. Tell me what you know."

I wrestled with myself, unable to think of any information that wouldn't be a betrayal of Narcissa's trust. "I already told Edgecombe everything."

"We'll see."

He snapped his fingers, and two sets of footsteps came in behind me. They detached my wrist straps from the chair and yanked me to my feet. I couldn't see anything they were doing until it happened, and it made me afraid.

"What are you doing?" I asked, trying to be brave as I started to sweat.

They pulled my arms out to the sides, and the clanking of metal made me realize they intended to keep me locked in this room. I suddenly remembered how badly I needed to pee, pressing my legs together tightly, nearly in pain.

"Bring me to the toilet," I said desperately. "Please! I can't hold it any longer."

They clicked things into place without a word, stretching my arms taut, too high up to be comfortable. I pushed myself up onto the tips of my toes, relieving the stress. Then three sets of footsteps left, and the door closed behind them.

I stood there straining at my bonds in the empty room. It could be worse, I told myself. They could've tied up my feet too. They could've pulled my arms behind me and dislocated my shoulders. That would be really bad. This was fine.

And now I had time to think. Except it took enormous effort just to put two thoughts together. This new accusation couldn't be right, because... well, Narcissa never swore she wasn't helping the Death Eaters escape, but she wouldn't do that, right? She knows they're dangerous. And the prison... that's right, she was horrified by the prison, and she'd never help anyone involved with that.

Reaching that conclusion sapped my energy even more. I still hadn't gotten any sleep. The room was utterly silent, and dread seeped in with the cold as my sweat worsened the chill. My fingers and toes were going numb.

Think, Granger!

The legilimens sensed that I was hiding part of my evening. That was worrisome. Long days on the trail came back to me, memories of Narcissa's occlumency lessons. Bits of her advice seeped into my thoughts: if they know you have a secret, let them find one. Invent something worth hiding, something mild or merely embarrassing. That's what I should do if the legilimens tried again. That's how Narcissa would handle it. She was so good at keeping secrets, so good...

I sank into delirium for an interminable amount of time and nearly fell asleep. Then the wrist straps shocked me again. Warmth trickled down my leg. Mortified, I realized I'd wet myself. I groaned and let my head fall.

The door banged open. Did they know? I burned with humiliation. I didn't want anyone to look at me or come close enough to smell it. Everything was still dark under my hood, but the same wizard's voice reached my ears.

"Your wand," he said. "Where did you get it?"

My mouth was dry. "Water?"

"Your wand," he insisted.

"It's new. My old one broke."

"Your new wand looks much like the ones we've just recovered from Malfoy manor. Care to explain why?"

"Narcissa gave it to me," I admitted, since she'd never asked me to lie about it, only to be discrete.

"Indeed," he said knowingly. "There's a tightly locked room in the manor with bundles of various wand woods, exotic supplies, and notes in Black's handwriting. There are dozens of in-progress and complete wands as well. We believe she was constructing them for the Death Eaters who had theirs confiscated while under house arrest."

"No, no!" I said quickly. "That's not why she makes them."

"It's the only clear explanation for why that paraphernalia would be in her home."

"Narcissa is curious, like me. She likes to learn and tinker."

"She told you about her activities and her knowledge of wandlore?"

"Yes."

"And that's the explanation she gave you? She's tinkering?"

"...yes." It had seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but he sounded so skeptical that another shard of doubt lodged itself in my mind. I shivered. My head spun. "Water, please?"

He countered, "Can you tell me about Black's whereabouts or her knowledge of who was at the prison?"

I stayed stubbornly silent.

He left. For the first five minutes, I really thought he would come back with water for me. After ten minutes, I realized he wouldn't. But the room felt warmer. Feeling returned to my toes, which burned in relief. My arms were still pulled taut and my hands tingled, but everything else wasn't so bad. I tried to forget about my accident.

Then it kept getting hotter. I started sweating again. I had no idea how much time passed, but I nearly fell asleep three more times and got shocked into alertness again. The air felt heavy, nearly unbreathable.

The wizard was speaking to me again. I wasn't sure when he had come back to wherever we were.

"It all makes us wonder―what was her real motivation for joining you on the mission? Was it really to protect you? Or was it to ensure that your group never found evidence of the Death Eaters who accompanied the dementors the entire way from Hogwarts to Wales?"

"It was to protect us," I whispered. He didn't seem to hear me.

"And there's the question of how the enemy knew you were coming. Curious, isn't it, that Black was the one who found the warm ashes―did she know to look for them? And Black figured out what it meant―because she was the one who warned them? I find it very strange."

Was it strange? I couldn't think. Sweat dripped into my eyes, making them burn from the salt. I twisted my head, trying to rub my face on my shoulder through the hood. "It was... it was the logical conclusion. She's a quick thinker. All of this is wrong. She was as shocked by the secret prison as we were."

"Perhaps she didn't know its exact nature, but can you be sure she had no idea it existed?"

My head pounded with each beat of my heart. I refused to believe it, but it was getting more difficult. Way back when we began, I'd been suspicious of her presence too. "No... she told me. She swore to me! Narcissa wants everyone responsible for that prison to die."

"She's a master at hiding things, at twisting words. What if she considers us responsible for that prison, because we're the ones who made it necessary? By winning the Battle of Hogwarts, we pushed the remaining Death Eaters and dementors into a difficult position, made them desperate. Perhaps she wants us to die."

"She said she's not hiding their wrongdoings," I said. Everything was swirling around in my head, in the darkness under my hood, in the confining space of this room.

"Wrongdoing is a matter of perspective. She may very well believe she's doing the right thing for her side. But she won't get away with this murder. She slipped up. Maybe she finally snapped, like her crazy sister."

I have the same blood. I've leaned over the edge of the abyss.

I could break, if that's what they want. I could break!

What if he was right? What if Narcissa was so outraged that she broke and burned and couldn't rein herself in before an auror got caught in the flames? What if she panicked and ran, regretting it already, and lied out of fear? What if she and Draco fled and abandoned me?

A long, pitiful sound filled the room, and I realized it was me. I swallowed hard to stop it, wincing at my dry throat. My head throbbed with thirst. Doubt simmered inside. At some level, I knew someone innocent wouldn't need to hide so much. Maybe I was wrong to go along with it. Maybe I should stop being so stubborn...

Bellatrix whispered in my ear, "Well, well, what do we have here?"

I gasped and stiffened. "You're dead." I turned my head and saw her behind me.

"Granger?" the wizard asked. "Who's dead?"

Bellatrix's pointed nails dug into the scar on my arm. "Cissy's little mudblood. Are you really going to let them get to you so easily?"

"I don't... I don't know, I..." Everything was blurry, distorted.

She shook my wrists. "This is nothing." Her face appeared before me, and she grabbed a handful of my hood, yanking at my hair through the fabric. "This is nothing."

"I can't..."

"If you can endure my favorite knife drawing your filthy blood..." she growled, wand tracing my jugular. "If you can endure the Cruciatus curse, my specialty, well..." She pouted, eyes big and glassy and cold. "I would be disappointed if they broke you when I couldn't."

My temper flared. "I won't give up."

"What was that? I couldn't hear you." She lifted a hand to her ear, then hit me with crucio. I screamed and thrashed against my restraints. Bellatrix cackled.

Far away, the wizard was talking to someone else now. "I didn't do anything! I don't know why she's screaming."

"I won't stop fighting," I said louder, panting. The hood made it hard to breath, and the heat was overpowering.

"That's right," Bellatrix said with a demented smile, cursing me again. Pain lanced through me, and I bit my tongue so hard it bled. "Don't give in to them. Don't you dare."

A blast of water hit me in the face, and I gasped and choked as the heat receded. Bellatrix was gone.

"Granger! Can you hear me?" the wizard asked.

I was at the edge of consciousness. "You're wrong about her," I insisted, swallowing blood. "She didn't do it. She didn't do it."

"Why are you trying so hard to pretend that Black is innocent? She manipulated you. Save yourself. Tell us what you know, and all of this ends."

The cavern. The void pulling me in. And then her patronus appeared, an otter like mine. That had to mean something. I clung to that memory like a lifeline.

"We love each other," I mumbled. "She swore she was telling the truth. She swore on everything we have."

Everything faded away. Even the electric shock couldn't stop me from passing out.

***

"Hermione?"

A woman's voice. Unfamiliar, but soft and gentle.

"Hermione, can you hear me?"

With tremendous effort, I said, "Mhm." My lips cracked, mouth dry. "Water?"

"Of course. Someone will bring it for you. I'm going to take your hood off, alright? It'll be bright."

I nodded and closed my eyes as she pulled off the hood. The light was painful. I cried, not bothering to pretend it didn't hurt. It didn't matter what my body did. They didn't break my mind.

"Now I'm going to release your arms. Are you ready?"

I nodded again and sobbed in agony as my arms fell. My shoulder muscles felt stretched and useless. I nearly collapsed, but the witch caught me and held me to her chest.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "Do you know who I am?"

I squinted at the middle aged woman. "I don't think so." Maybe I'd seen her before, years ago, but I couldn't place her.

"My name is Lorelei. I'm an operative with DEPMYS, like you will be soon. I came the moment I heard how they were treating you. It's okay. I've got you now."

I relaxed against her, relief growing as my pain faded to the background. The room wasn't hot or cold anymore.

Lorelei snapped her fingers at someone by the door. "Get her a drink already, for goodness' sake. Something restorative. And a blanket." She shook her head and sighed. "This is not how we do things. I'm going to clean you and your clothes now."

I shivered at the feeling of scourgify covering my whole body in suds. With two more spells, she rinsed and dried me.

"Much better. Have a seat," she invited, helping me back to my chair. She cradled my hands and massaged them with her thumbs.

"I can't feel that," I rasped.

"I'm trying to restore your circulation." She cast a few healing spells. Slowly, sensation returned. "Mighty Merlin, what were they thinking?" she grumbled. "Standing like that so long can cause unfixable damage." She stood behind me and started kneading my sore shoulders.

I let my head tilt back and rest against the back of the chair, eyes closing, all my energy spent. "How long have I been here?" I asked. It felt like it could've been anywhere from half a day to half a week.

"Over 36 hours," she replied. "I'm in charge of your care now. The wizard who interrogated you will be suspended without pay pending a full investigation."

The injustice of it made me mad. "And anybody who was watching."

"Of course," Lorelei agreed. "And rest easy, I know enough about your activities over recent weeks to know you're not part of some horrible scheme." She turned when footsteps came into the room. "Ah, took you long enough."

Someone gave her a blanket and a cup of steaming tea. Lorelei draped the blanket over my shoulders and held my hand again for a moment, rubbing her thumb gently over my skin. This time I felt it.

"None of this should've happened," she said apologetically. I nodded, wishing Narcissa were the one comforting me. Lorelei went around to the other side of the interview table and sat down. "You like tea, right?" she said, waving at the mug on the table.

Having my hands free was a novelty. I reached out eagerly, able to pick up the mug between my palms without needing the fine motor skills that hadn't returned yet. I brought it to my lips. Then I froze when my subconscious dredged up a very vivid memory of Professor Moody yelling Constant vigilance! Though I couldn't pinpoint what made me suspicious, I trusted my gut.

"Sorry, I'm avoiding caffeine," I lied. I was so thirsty that I nearly couldn't bring myself to set the mug back down, but I managed to do it.

"It's an herbal tea, for healing you. No caffeine," Lorelei assured me.

If anything, I felt even more paranoid about what might be in it. Veritaserum? I picked up the mug again, realizing what I would have to do.

Over 36 hours without water...

I wouldn't drink it. I couldn't take the chance.

The memory of my first day of wandless practice came to mind. Channel magic through the mug. Focus, focus...

The liquid vanished.

Pretending to take a sip, I nearly started crying again. I was just so thirsty. Did I dare risk another wandless spell to add clean water to the mug? I'd practiced aguamenti in the forest. I could do this. Focus, focus...

Water. Precious water. I sipped carefully as if it were still hot tea, hoping my strength would return soon.

"I know you might not want to hear this," Lorelei said, "but Narcissa isn't who you think she is. You need to acknowledge that. Persisting in denial isn't healthy."

My body stiffened as she confirmed that my ordeal wasn't really over.

She continued, "You're a smart young woman, but she's been hiding things since before you were born. During your mission, she must've realized you would be the most skeptical of her 'good guy' act. She manipulated your emotions so you would trust her. Your emotional attachment is blinding you."

I set my mug down hard on the table. "NO. No, it's not. It's the reason why I can see clearly! I know her. I know she didn't do this."

"I understand," Lorelei said, looking at me with so much sympathy that I wanted to scream. "You think she loves you―"

"You don't understand at all," I snapped. "I've seen how strong her feelings for me are. If you want proof, consider this: her patronus matches mine!"

She rubbed at her eyebrow thoughtfully, then asked, "Have you considered the possibility that it might be the other way around? That perhaps your patronus matches hers?"

I shook my head. "Mine was an otter before I knew her. That wouldn't make sense. Harry said―"

"Whatever he said is conjecture. No one understands patronuses. You and Narcissa are both very intelligent, but she's much more playful, isn't she? An otter suits her more than it suits you."

My lips parted in disbelief. She had a point. Was it possible that Narcissa's patronus always would've been an otter, and mine matched hers?

"I'm sure you've had your doubts. She's not perfect; she makes mistakes. Have you ever caught her in a lie? Has she ever given you reason to believe she would disregard the law?"

Yes and yes. I was about to deny it, but if she thought I was drugged with veritaserum, I had to give her something. "Yes, a few lies."

"Did she ever ask you to hide something? She may have been grooming you to keep secrets for her."

"Once or twice," I said, though really it was many things. From an Unforgivable Curse to a knowledge of wandlore to a mysterious memory vial. Grooming me? When I stopped to think about it, it could appear that way.

"Do the people you trust feel suspicious of her?"

"One of them." Ginny, who hadn't been with Harry, Ron, and I as Narcissa slowly got to know us―or slowly manipulated us?

"Has she shown unexpected weakness to make you care?"

"It wasn't to make me care. What kind of questions are these?" I objected. But keeping up this paranoia was exhausting. Lorelei hadn't actually given me any reason to doubt her honesty. For all I knew, the tea was simply tea.

Lorelei said frankly, "I'm looking for red flags. Compulsive lying, sudden changes in her attitude, disappearances to make you long for contact..."

I was breathing too fast now, way too fast, hating the dread that was flooding me. Every single thing she listed brought occasions to mind, but they seemed distorted, like I was looking through the bottom of a glass. My head hurt. I could barely think. This was all wrong, wasn't it?

"It wasn't like that," I whispered.

"It's time to stop protecting her under some mistaken belief that she actually loves you. I'm sorry. You're not the only lover she's misled. We brought another in for questioning as well."

I jerked backward. "Brought who in? You're mistaken, it must be an admirer." We're just going to trust each other, I'd said in bed. Was I naive to think that was enough?

She picked up a folder and slid a paper halfway out of it, letting me read the end. "This letter was addressed to him."

I recognized the paragraph I'd read earlier. Now I could see the lines below it.

As usual, my love, destroy this letter promptly and keep your nose clean. I couldn't bear to lose you.

My stomach clenched as a sick feeling grew there.

"I'm sorry," Lorelei said again, shaking her head. "She fooled us too. We never should've trusted her."

I need you to believe me when it really matters.

Tears fell from my eyes, and I broke down, sobbing into my arms on the table. Was it all just to fool me? Was everything a lie, setting me up to swallow the biggest lie of all?

Doubt thou the stars are fire...

I choked down another sob as the lines from Hamlet came back to me.

Doubt that the sun doth move...

They'd thrown everything I thought I knew into doubt.

Doubt truth to be a liar...

And I was on the precipice again, with everything hanging in the balance again.

But never doubt I love.

No.

Never.

I'd already chosen to place my trust in Narcissa, at a time when I was clear-minded, not with my thinking muddled like it was right now. I would believe her against all opposition. It didn't matter what Lorelei or anyone said; they might be lying to my face. Whatever testimony or evidence they had was wrong. Whatever rationalizations they had to explain things away were wrong.

And if Narcissa was telling the truth...

...someone was trying very hard to make her look like a liar.

I was ready to yell some more, to tell Lorelei exactly what I thought about these false accusations, venting my moral outrage. But that's what a Gryffindor would do, and it was only going to make things worse. What if I took a page out of Narcissa's book and did what a Slytherin would do? What if I let them think they'd convinced me, so I could work from the shadows to clear her name?

Narcissa borrowed my bravery. Now I needed to borrow her trickery.

The key to selling a lie is to convince yourself it's true.

I hid my unbroken belief deep inside, then let myself sink into feelings of betrayal. I summoned the very real emotions I'd felt every time I caught her in a deception.

"I'm such an idiot," I cried, crossing my arms and rocking. "I thought we really meant something to each other... I really thought―"

Lorelei hurried around the table and crouched beside me, holding me while I bared my heart to her, venting every frustration I had about Narcissa's tendencies to lie and hide things. I told her about Lockhart pretending to be brilliant and how I'd been fooled then too, and how I thought Narcissa was different.

If I was taking a leap of faith, I might as well go all out.

"I helped her get away," I confessed, pouring out guilt. "I went back to the manor last night and saw the auror arresting her for murder. I hit him with a clay pot and kicked him. Narcissa fled and left me there." I cried and cried, improvising. "It was wrong, but it was for the right reason. I was afraid the trial wouldn't be fair and she'd get the Dementor's Kiss―it nearly happened to Sirius Black, and he was innocent. I thought Narcissa was too. But she's never coming back for me, is she?"

"You poor thing," Lorelei cooed. "I'm sure all will be forgiven. The auror wasn't badly hurt, and everyone knows you mean well. It was just Narcissa's influence."

"How could she do this to me? I... I hate her," I lied, but my gasping breaths were real. I was so relieved at how easy it was to take all the blame. Now Narcissa―or Draco, if they second-guessed his whereabouts―wouldn't be facing additional charges of assaulting an officer of the law.

Lorelei stroked my hair and replied with reassurances about how anyone would've been fooled, and how I'm so bright and charming, maybe Narcissa really did fall for me a little bit, but it wasn't enough to make her give up on her plans. Lorelei was awfully close to me, and that's when I figured out her angle. She was attempting to do exactly what she'd accused Narcissa of doing: seducing me to cloud my judgment. She wasn't just falling for someone else's deception. She was in on it.

But I could turn the tables on her. I could use this to get closer and find out more, separating the truth from the lies. I turned my face toward her, knowing how sad and vulnerable I looked. "You really think she liked me a little bit?"

"How could she not?" Lorelei replied, touching my cheek for a moment before pulling her hand away. "Let's get you home so you can rest. I understand if it's painful to think about Narcissa right now, but perhaps you'll find some satisfaction in putting her behind bars. You know her better than we do, Hermione. You could be a tremendous help in finding her."

I looked her straight in the eye and said, "I'll do whatever it takes."

Chapter Text

H0: Narcissa is innocent of all charges.

That was my starting point, the null hypothesis. Thinking objectively was the only way I could handle the chaos rolling around in my head. It was already hard to pick out details in the hazy memory of my interrogation.

"Come on," Lorelei said, hand on my back as she led me through the security gates. No one else was there anymore. Having her behind me felt like she was invading some invisible bubble, and it was difficult not to twist away from her. At least she gave me my wand back. It almost seemed to share in my relief at being reunited.

We apparated to the Tube station near my apartment. Coming up to street level was jarring. Vehicles drove by, people walked along the pavement chatting, the weather was gray and drizzly―everything seemed so normal, a regular Sunday. I pulled the blanket tighter around my pyjamas, trying to adjust.

There were other hypotheses. Alternatives. I made a mental list, H1 through H6. They'd accused Narcissa of all sorts of things, and I would have to test them against the evidence. The memory vial and parchment were my best bet. They were hidden well, as requested. I concealed them in a little pocket added to Crookshanks' collar with an extension charm. Even if someone looked around my apartment, Crookshanks wouldn't let―

"Oh, no! My cat!" I cried, running into the apartment building. "He must be so hungry! What if he ran out of water?!"

Lorelei hurried after me, saying, "Hermione, slow down! It's probably fine."

Having forgotten to bring keys, I used alohomora to unlock my door. "Crooks? Come here, buddy," I called, flicking the lights on.

The apartment was trashed.

I surveyed my belongings strewn everywhere. Kitchen cabinets hung open, contents spread on the counter. Books lay with their pages splayed in the air. Clothes littered the floor around my wardrobe. All of my furniture, even my woodstove, had been disassembled. Some things were broken open.

"Crookshanks?"

I was at the end of my rope, and coming home to this was...

Lorelei's voice interrupted my thoughts. "I'm sorry our investigators left such a mess. Narcissa likes to stash things in multiple places, we've found. Can I help you get everything sorted?"

My temper flared at seeing her walk around my apartment like she owned the place. How would she like it if I pillaged her home? Maybe I should do that, to make her feel like I did right then.

"Hermione?"

I shook my head, refocusing. "Thank you for taking care of me." It was hard not to grind my teeth together. "I'll see you at work tomorrow."

"What? You should stay home to recuperate―"

"I'll feel better if I have something to concentrate on," I said, then added angrily, "Like taking down the witch who manipulated me."

"I can relate," Lorelei said with a grim expression. "Years ago, You-Know-Who murdered someone precious to me. Hard work and dedication to a cause were the only things that kept me from falling apart." She stepped closer, breast brushing against my arm, and pushed my hair away from my face. "So come to work if you'd like. And remember, you're never truly alone. You have a lot of friends and admirers." She kissed my cheek too close to my mouth to be friendly.

Play along, Granger! I smiled tightly and tried to look bashful. "That's really sweet of you to say." My anger was close to the surface, self control all but gone. Afraid of revealing my true feelings, I turned away and opened the window, calling for my half-kneazle. He didn't come. I knelt down, fist clenched on the sill, forehead resting on my cold skin. My outer two fingers went numb. I didn't care.

***

H1: Narcissa was manipulating my emotions

I'd never been afraid of the dark before. Now it felt like the hood was back over my head, suffocating me. Waking up was a struggle, but I opened my eyes and whispered lumos. My wand lit up, casting a soft glow around my apartment.

Lorelei must have left. Crookshanks hadn't returned. I was alone, curled up in a ball below my open window with freezing air pouring indoors.

You're never truly alone.

Lorelei's statement was designed to be comforting, but it felt threatening. My home was almost certainly being watched in case Narcissa tried to contact me. I shook feeling back into my hands and cast a messenger patronus.

"Working undercover to prove your innocence," my message said. "Be careful, sweetheart. Eyes everywhere."

There were still hours left before sunrise, but sleep didn't sound appealing. I brewed a cup of chai tea in quiet defiance, holding the warm cup between my hands and breathing deep. It evoked memories of Narcissa, and suddenly I felt guilty. Painfully guilty. I nearly stopped trusting her. How did they do that? How did they make me forget about everything outside that room?

A manipulator would try to isolate me from friends and family, but Narcissa joined us willingly. She didn't try to make me dependent on her or undermine my self-confidence; she complimented me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Her lies were protective, her absences explained, her weaknesses genuine. In the light of day, I couldn't believe H1.

But thinking of my friends startled me. Another thing forgotten in the interrogation. Did Harry and Ron try to visit me? They probably weren't allowed.

And Draco! Unfamiliar worry twisted in my gut, not quite motherly, but protective. Did he endure the same treatment I got? Draco had a lot more time to master occlumency, and maybe the hasty polyjuice alibi helped. That was my only comfort. Was he back at law school now? I needed to find and talk to him.

There was so much to do. It would be nice to go to the library and find all the answers there, but this was uncharted territory. I needed to collect the information myself. I started planning.

***

H2: Narcissa murdered an auror.

Most shops weren't open yet in Diagon Alley, but the headquarters of the Daily Prophet never slept. I slipped into their storefront and purchased a newspaper from Saturday, reading it while listening to the half-magical, half-mechanical printing press churn out fresh papers.

Murder at the Manor

WILTSHIRE, Dec 26 – Yesterday Narcissa Black apparently murdered an auror, Edgar Huber, 48, during a Christmas day ball at Malfoy manor. Huber and his partner Raymond Carty were at the manor responding to an escape attempt by Black's ex-husband Lucius Malfoy, who has been living comfortably under house arrest despite his many serious crimes. Black evaded arrest and remains a fugitive. Those close to her have been brought in for questioning to uncover any involvement.

The rest of the article included interviews with guests and details of Lucius' crimes. I skimmed it, but couldn't bear to read statements from guests who thought Narcissa had broken the trust built at the ball. I picked up today's edition as well, hot off the press.

Betrayal

LONDON, Dec 28 – Hermione Granger was released yesterday afternoon after a long day in ministry custody.

Long day? A long day?! I had to stop reading, so furious my blood boiled. A LONG DAY. I clenched and unclenched my fists, overwhelmed for several moments before I could continue.

No charges have been brought against her in connection with Narcissa Black's murder of the auror Edgar Huber on the 25th. Acquaintances confirm that Black and Granger were romantically involved, and some have expressed sympathy for this predictable but painful betrayal. A source in the ministry revealed that Granger has agreed to assist with the murder investigation. Black's trial is set for the 31st, and her nonattendance will be considered pleading guilty.

My anger faded, replaced by urgency. It might be impossible to find enough evidence to set the record straight, especially before the trial. The 31st was Thursday, just a few days away.

***

My first day working in the Department of Mysteries should not have been like this. Narcissa and I should have arrived together excitedly before parting to do our respective jobs. I shouldn't have been alone, dejected, and unsure whether I could trust anyone here.

I crossed the Planet Room and went up the hidden stairway to the offices overlooking it. Walking down the hall toward Maria Edgecombe's office, I overheard her arguing loudly with Lorelei.

"But why did you have to kick me out?" Edgecombe asked angrily. "I already suspected she helped Black get away. What exactly did you do to make her admit it? We have a code of ethics, you know!"

I remembered how startled Edgecombe looked when the hood went over my head, and suddenly understood that she didn't realize what was going to happen. My new mentor didn't deliberately throw me to the wolves. Some of the tightness in my chest loosened.

"The remainder of her questioning is highly classified. You shouldn't have tried to interfere," Lorelei snapped. "We do not discuss things in front of detainees. I told you, she wasn't cooperating."

Lorelei was there the entire time. The entire time. I'd suspected it, but hearing it confirmed was staggering. She must have been laughing inside when she assured me that anyone watching my interrogation would be suspended.

Edgecombe said fiercely, "That isn't reassuring. I swear, I'll go straight to Chun and tell her―"

"No need to bother the department head. I didn't break any rules," Lorelei said dismissively. "Goodness, you're acting like we cursed her fingernails off. Hermione is fine; in fact, she's helping with the investigation now. All we had to do was show her what kind of woman Black really is."

"What about the hood, then? In The Manipulation of Human Behavior, Biderman and Zimmer's contributors found that sensory deprivation may reduce cognitive function, and severe interrogations lead to impaired memory recall and less reliable―"

"You Ravenclaws and your books. We softened her a little, and it worked. Your methods failed."

"I made a mistake! I shouldn't have let you convince me to use a legilimens. It takes time and care to build rapport. You Hufflepuffs are supposed to be patient."

"You have no idea how patient I can be," Lorelei replied.

Edgecombe grumbled, "Excuse me. I'm going to wait for my mentee to arrive and hope that my relationship with her hasn't been completely ruined!"

I hurried back to the stairs and pretended to reach the hallway just as Edgecombe stormed out of her office.

"Oh! You're here already," she said, slowing her steps.

"I wasn't sure where to go," I said. "Sorry I'm early."

"No, that's good. Most Unspeakables get here early to catch up on overnight developments. Come on, we need to talk." She reached for my arm, and I flinched away reflexively to protect my wrists. Her hand froze in midair. "Granger...?"

Struggling to stay grounded, I reminded myself the interrogation was over. I wasn't in that room anymore. "Sorry, just a little jumpy. I'm fine."

"So I've heard. But I think I've been misinformed," Edgecombe said, looking me over as if she could see the damage. "Were you tortured?"

"Not really, it was just minor things," I said, unable to admit it, even to myself. "The ministry wouldn't actually torture me. We're all on the same side."

"The ministry isn't a monolith. There are all sorts of people working here, just like anywhere else. And 'minor things' can combine to be just as intense as torture. Believe me, I'm a trained interrogator."

I took halting breaths, trembling as I started to accept what she was saying. After the war, with Kingsley in charge and my status as a hero, I foolishly felt untouchable at the ministry.

Through a nearby office window, I could see the entire solar system. My eyes found Saturn, then skipped to Neptune. Brin was right.

Lorelei came down the hall toward us. "Hermione, will you help me search Narcissa's office? We might've overlooked some hint of her whereabouts."

My mentor turned around and stood in her way. "Granger needs training. She's staying with me."

"She wants to help with the investigation," Lorelei insisted. "I can train her on the job."

They glared at each other, tension rolling off them in waves. I was torn, desperate to get away from Lorelei but well aware that staying close to her was the best way to find out more.

Ignoring the leaden feeling in my stomach, I tugged on Lorelei's hand and pulled her toward me. "I want to go with you. Let's hunt down Narcissa together."

Appeased, Lorelei led me away.

Edgecombe called out, "Send a memo if you need me. I'll be looking into a few minor things."

I gave her a tentative smile, and she returned it.

***

"Nothing," I huffed, closing a folder. I sat down in Narcissa's desk chair and shut my eyes, imagining she was right there separated only by time.

"Don't get discouraged," Lorelei said, tossing another folder my way. The venus fly-shredder in the corner swayed hungrily at the smell of parchment in the air.

I sighed and opened the folder, finding a stack of stubs from Narcissa's pay cheques. The amounts were small―very small. One galleon and nine sickles a week, increasing only a little over time.

"Merlin's pants, she gets paid like a..." Realization struck. "...like a house elf."

"You're exaggerating," Lorelei said absently, searching elsewhere.

I flipped through the stack, recognizing each raise and becoming certain that this was another rule Narcissa had to follow because of her trial in the house elves' reconciliation court. Some of the pay stubs had handwritten insults from the accounting department.

"Money doesn't lie. Now we know how much you're really worth," I read aloud, then found another taunt. "Maybe they'll give you a raise if you actually do something useful." And another. "Will you ever be an asset, or just a huge liability?"

I scowled at the needless bullying. The fact that Narcissa was still willing to work for such low wages spoke volumes about how much this job meant to her. No one should belittle her for it.

"Maybe she did something useful," Lorelei mused, perusing a small notebook. "Extracting material from dementors to make items that suppress magic... Do you know about this?"

"No, but I knew dementors could have that effect. We both saw it," I said, reading over her shoulder. Narcissa's notes were as meticulous as mine. Merlin, I'd love to collaborate on a project.

Lorelei said, "Death is the division for anything involving dementors. Stay here and keep searching. I'm going to the Death Chamber to take a peek at her laboratory experiments."

"A lab in the Death Chamber? That's a little disturbing," I said. "Are all of her projects related to death?"

Lorelei scanned a concise list on the first page. "Yes. She's a disturbing individual."

***

H3: Narcissa has an ally in the ministry.

Obviously, I did not stay there. With my robes reversed to be invisible, I stealthily followed Lorelei to the Death Chamber, approaching the stone benches around its edge. I avoided looking at the silent, fluttering Veil in the center of the room, but it was impossible to avoid thinking about Sirius. Did Narcissa know this is where her cousin died? Would she care?

"Ah, here it is," Lorelei muttered, waving her security badge over the name Black etched into a stone bench. It shifted with a grinding sound to reveal a large laboratory table with crafting materials and slightly familiar racks of test tubes full of a dark substance.

"Can I help you?"

I nearly jumped out of my skin when a raspy voice spoke behind me. Saul Croaker approached us from some dim corner. To my relief, he was talking to Lorelei, not me.

"Hello, Saul," Lorelei greeted, holding up the notebook. "I'm leading the Black investigation, and one of her projects caught my eye. You both work in here, right? Do you know about her research?"

"I do," he said. "Narcissa was a good colleague before all of this. Which project?"

"She wrote about making two prototype items out of dementor material," Lorelei said, turning pages and glancing at the lab table.

"An amulet and an armband," Croaker confirmed, gesturing to a tray full of necklaces. "The amulet dims your magic enough that it won't interfere with muggle technology. The armbands prevent you from using magic entirely."

"Now that is useful," Lorelei murmured. "Do the armbands work?"

"Of course they work," he responded, letting out a hoarse laugh. "That's what Black would say if she were here. But they're not finished. She's still trying to reduce the long-term side effects. Depression, despair, the usual. They―" He frowned and touched an empty tray. "―should be right here. Over a dozen pairs."

Lorelei searched all over the table. "Maybe someone else has them. Is anyone helping her?"

"Not that I know of, except me, regrettably. I've helped test them since she refuses to touch the damn things."

"There's no one else? Any other colleagues or allies?" she asked.

"Not really. She's rather off-putting until you get to know her. Oh, a friend visited sometimes. The young mister Terence Higgs really looked up to her. He works in your division, doesn't he?"

"Terry. Yes." Lorelei narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "Will you come with me to the Brain Room to ask him about the handcuffs?"

"The armbands?"

"Right."

When they were gone, I picked up one of the metal amulets from the tray. The dark pendant hanging from it felt cold to the touch.

"How about that," I breathed.

Lorelei was keen on the armbands, but to me, this would be way more handy. When I put the amulet on, it felt like wearing a wet blanket, but it wasn't bad.

I hunted for a way to test it and spotted a Gameboy. My heart clenched. I nearly got burned alive after my magic interfered with that kid's game. There were plenty of other devices Narcissa could've used for testing, but she picked this one. She made these necklaces because of me.

I figured out how to turn the Gameboy on. A logo appeared, no glitches. Smiling to myself, I put everything down and headed for the door, hearing the stone bench slide back into place behind me.

Lorelei returned to Narcissa's office and found me right where I was supposed to be, searching through files.

"Have any luck?"

"No," I replied. "How about you?"

"A possible lead on Narcissa's ally in the ministry. The ally may have taken some of her research, but it occurred to me that they would require clearance to access her lab, which greatly narrows it down. There's only Kingsley Shacklebolt, Chun Chang, and Saul Croaker. And me, of course, for the investigation. Do you know if she was close to any of them?"

"I'm not sure. We didn't talk that much about work," I said, then grinned. "How do I know it's not you?"

Offended, Lorelei said, "I would sooner cut off my wand arm than ever help that bitch."

"Yeah?" My grin turned sharkish. I stood up and took a few steps closer. "You're definitely nothing like her." She backed up toward the corner of the office, looking uncomfortable when I held her hips. Was she even gay? I wondered. Just one more step, and...

Lorelei screamed, leaping to the side. The venus fly-shredder chomped happily on a torn-off piece of her robe.

"I'm so sorry!" I lied, trying my best not to laugh.

Flustered, Lorelei straightened her robes the best she could and said, "Work isn't an appropriate place for this anyway."

"You're right." She was wrong. I glanced at the desk, remembering a very heated encounter with Narcissa. Maybe someday we could continue where we left off.

"Meet me at Malfoy manor this afternoon to search there. Have a good lunch hour," she said, leaving quickly.

I tossed a paper ball to the venus fly-shredder. "Good boy."

***

H4: Narcissa made wands to arm Death Eaters.

Doing my best to avoid being followed down Diagon Alley after grabbing a bite to eat, I entered Ollivander's shop with another accusation in mind. A little bell tinkled, but it took some time before the elderly wandmaker appeared.

"Ah, Hermione Granger. Is your wand still treating you well?" Ollivander asked, more stooped over than I remembered. He watched cautiously as I did a few magical sweeps of the shop to detect eavesdroppers.

"Actually, I have a new wand that a... mutual acquaintance crafted for me," I said. "Do you remember teaching wandlore to Narcissa Black? Back when she was a Malfoy and you were―"

"A prisoner beneath their manor," Ollivander said, stroking his chin. "Yes, I remember quite well. Narcissa Black, walnut with dragon heartstring, like her sisters. Twelve inches, quite snappy. Merlin, the arguments we had! Did you know she had the gall to dispute a truth every wandmaker knows?"

I smiled wryly. "The wand chooses the wizard. Yes."

"She wanted to intuit the reasons why wands choose people and reverse engineer it―which is incredibly arrogant, you understand. Almost admirably so. A brilliant apprentice, really, no matter what side she was on. I wish we could've worked together under better circumstances. Haven't seen her since."

"I guess it's too late to reunite now that she's been accused of murder," I said sadly, wishing things were different.

"Ah, the murder. Casts a different light on things, doesn't it. You said she made a wand for you? Let me see."

I let him hold it, reluctant but confident I could trust the man who first sold me a wand.

"Hmm, same core, nicely done. You're still the same person after all. Eleven inches―slightly longer than your first. Pleasantly bendy―hmm, that wouldn't have suited you when you were young, but perhaps now... yes. And blackthorn―how curious..."

"It was close at hand," I commented.

"But not chosen as a last resort, I think. Are you a warrior?"

"I always thought of myself as a scholar," I replied. "But Narcissa saw a warrior in me." Memories rose of fighting alongside Harry and Ron in our Hogwarts years, then the struggles and brushes with death on our recent mission, then resisting my interrogation. "And I suppose I'm both."

Ollivander nodded in understanding, casting sparks with my wand before handing it back. "If you feel well matched to it, then I think Lady Black did well. There are no signs of tampering or hidden weaknesses or anything else you might be concerned about. Murderer or not, she made you a perfectly good wand. That much is clear."

"What?" My mouth fell open. "I'm not worried she did something to my wand. She would never―I know it's perfectly good."

Now Ollivander looked confused. "Then what did you need me for?"

"I was hoping you could make a statement for an affidavit," I said. "The ministry is accusing Narcissa of crafting wands for Death Eaters. You and I both know she makes wands for specific people. So if you look at the evidence and say for sure the wands weren't made for any of Voldemort's followers, then they can't charge her with arming the enemy."

"You want me to testify on her behalf?" Ollivander asked, incredulous.

I looked down. "Yes."

"And what if she truly was crafting those wands for Death Eaters?"

I grimaced but insisted, "I want to uncover the truth, no matter what it is."

He gave me a shrewd look and eventually said, "I'll close up shop for an hour and take a look. Lady Black didn't have to treat us prisoners kindly, you know, but she did. Despite the risk of throwing her loyalty into doubt."

Proud of her bravery, I said, "She didn't really support Voldemort the second time around."

Ollivander responded, "Hmm... not surprising. Most folk only followed him because their families were supposed to be elevated and given power. Instead, they were pawns. Disposable. He drew people in with promises, then used them."

For a moment, I remembered why I despised people like Narcissa in the past. "If they hadn't been so obsessed with power, we could have avoided all of this pain and destruction."

"Power is merely the ability to make things happen according to your will. It magnifies who you are, whether you're cruel or kind, greedy or generous. Your friend Mr. Potter is powerful, as was He Who Must Not Be Named. Both accomplished tremendous feats."

I made a face, not sure if tremendous was the word I'd use. Ollivander sat down heavily in a spindly chair.

"Will you ask Lady Black to come by?" he asked. "There's so much to pass on, so much that shouldn't be forgotten..."

"She's a fugitive," I muttered. "She can't visit."

"Oh, of course. Sometimes recent events don't quite stick," he said apologetically, voice fading as he said, "But I remember every wand I've ever sold." He looked very old right then, and I couldn't help but wonder how close he was to the end of his life.

***

Ollivander was so universally respected that the team of aurors searching the manor let him right in. Two escorted him to Narcissa's tiny, well-secured workroom to examine the evidence. I watched from nearby while flipping through the notes Narcissa had left.

"Hmm, yes, I see," Ollivander mumbled to himself, peering down the length of a wand. He flexed it a little, then set it down next to the others he'd inspected. "All of these wands were made for one person."

The two aurors looked at each other in confusion. "Who?" one asked. "Are they for Malfoy? Lestrange? Macnair?"

"Black," Ollivander replied. "Narcissa Black." He waved his hand over the array of wands on the table, littered with evidence tags. "She made every single one of them for herself. They're all variations on a theme."

I found pages of notes confirming it. "Trying to see how many parameters she can tweak before it's no longer a good match. Which you would know, if anyone had bothered to actually read this."

"Could Death Eaters use them, though?" the other auror asked.

"Hmm... I suppose, just as poorly as they could use your wand," Ollivander replied. "But if Lady Black had intended that, she would have chosen materials to suit them and tuned each one differently; she's more than capable of crafting bespoke wands. These are experimental, that much is clear."

The first auror blew his hair out of his eyes. "Huh. Carty was the one who assumed she was arming the enemy. Alright, Mr. Ollivander, take this and write your statement for our records. There'll be no false accusations on my watch."

H4 could be dismissed. I hid a relieved smile and asked, "Is Carty also the one who accused Narcissa of helping with the escapes?"

"No, some Unspeakable told us that," he replied. "A witch."

"Dark hair, gray eyes, taller than me?" I asked, picturing Lorelei.

"Sounds about right, didn't get a good look at her eyes. She had better evidence, though. A letter Black herself wrote."

***

H5: Narcissa wasn't loyal to me.

When Ollivander was gone, I wandered down the hall, waiting for Lorelei to arrive. That damned letter was on my mind. I needed to learn more about it, perhaps by finding the recipient. I didn't believe it was a lover, but it was someone Narcissa loved...

And I was an idiot. No legal recourse? She loved a young wizard going to law school. Now there was another reason to speak to Draco soon.

I'd completely forgotten about my Christmas present until a friendly auror came up and gave it to me. He handed me a piece of mail as well.

"They go together," he explained. "You can't take home any potential evidence, but you at least deserve to see them. Black seems different than I thought. She really loves you, doesn't she. Sometimes things just go sideways."

Throat tight, I gave him my heartfelt thanks and carried the two items to Narcissa's room to look at them. My growing anger toward aurors faded as I realized that a few bad apples had given me a terrible impression in recent weeks.

The mail was from Andromeda, dated the day after Christmas, and felt thicker than a simple letter. I lifted the already-open flap and found a set of pictures. They were all taken at the Christmas ball. It hurt too much to look at them, so I set them aside and tugged the loose wrapping paper away from my present.

It was a photo album. The first picture was the one of me brushing Narcissa's teeth. She must've asked my mother for the negative so she could develop it magically. I laughed with tears in my eyes as I watched the two of us being so silly and happy and carefree.

The following photos were taken by Andromeda at the Burrow, capturing all the joy of our Yule celebration. There were some tender, candid shots of Narcissa and me amongst our friends and family.

Narcissa must have been waiting for the Christmas ball pictures before giving me this present. But even including them, most of the photo album would be blank, and that more than anything made me break down crying, because it felt like the beginning of something permanent, something so long-lasting we'd need photos to remember it all someday. It was not a gift you give to someone you intend to use and discard. The caricature of Narcissa they'd painted during my interrogation didn't match up to reality at all.

Lorelei found me crying there. I let her think the album was twisting the knife in my heart, though in truth it gave me a sense of peace I hadn't felt since Narcissa and I last parted.

***

I headed home after a long afternoon of searching. We found no signs of where Narcissa had gone, though I did find out where Draco's law school was so I could find him tonight. Out of curiosity, I also took a peek at the crime scene. It was just a room blackened in unnatural patterns from fiendfyre. But I started to wonder about the timeline. Carty was chasing Narcissa, so how did he have time to bring Lucius to prison? A portkey could work inside the manor, but even that takes time. And why would Narcissa stick around long enough to cast a Dark Mark instead of fleeing immediately? Something didn't add up.

***

A welcome sight greeted me at my apartment. I'd left my window open all day, and now Crookshanks sat in the middle of the messy floor, licking his shoulder nonchalantly.

"Crooks!" I cried, sweeping him up into my arms and burying my face in his dense fur. "I was afraid something happened to you! Did the search scare you off?" He smelled faintly of Phoebe's apartment. "Is that where you were? With Phoebe? I'll give her something nice for taking care of you. Even if it did make me worry. I missed you!"

He looked affronted by my overflowing emotions, so I sat down with him and gave him a good scratch. After bonding and eating and talking for a while―okay, I did most of the talking―I tucked my hand under his collar and pulled Narcissa's memory vial and note from the hidden pocket.

"Let's see what we have here," I mumbled, unfolding and decrypting the note first. It was a set of instructions on how to read messages passed through Dark Marks. Not too surprising, and now I felt sure the vial contained Narcissa's memory of the message she found in the cell block. But I needed a pensieve to view it. Perhaps I could kill two birds with one stone, since a magical law school might have one available. I'd have to be careful visiting Draco, since both of us were certainly being watched.

***

H6: Narcissa is helping Voldemort's followers escape.

The threat of constant surveillance felt like tight bands around my chest. I was new to all of this, but I finally had an inkling of what life was like for Narcissa. Using everything I'd learned in my training, I hopefully avoided being followed on my way to the law campus and looked around. No pensieves that I could find. Too expensive, I supposed. Maybe there was one in the Brain Room, but I'd have to avoid Lorelei.

I found Draco's room in the dormitories and slipped a message under the door to lure him out. He came out after a few minutes and walked down the hall with a textbook, thinking a classmate needed to borrow it. I sidled up next to him, invisible in my Unspeakable robes.

"Draco, it's Hermione," I whispered. "Don't react. Follow me so we can talk."

He hid his initial surprise well and followed my whispered instructions through an SDR―surveillance detection route―that I'd planned out. Over time, I noticed two wizards tailing him. It took five more minutes of evasion before I felt sure we'd lost them, though I cast muffliato just in case. We hid in the campus library amongst the tall bookshelves.

"Alone now?" Draco asked, starting to look angry.

"Yes, as far as I can tell. Are―"

He pushed me against a bookcase with his arm against my throat. "How could you!"

I gasped for air, unable to speak with the wind knocked out of me.

"How could you!" he said again, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes. "She trusted you! She loves you! And all it took was one frame job to make you lose faith?!"

"Draco," I wheezed. "I believe her! Why do you think... I was so careful... to get us alone?"

His grip loosened. "You believe her? But the news..."

"I'm fooling everyone so I can find out what's really going on," I told him, breathing more easily. "Are you okay? Did they interrogate you?"

"I played my cards right and scared them with legalese. They let me go after a few hours. But you..." Draco's haunted eyes met mine. "Mother's pocket watch showed your hand on torture for a long, long time, Granger. I―I kind of hated seeing that."

"Narcissa must've been in agony," I whispered, covering my mouth as I struggled not to cry.

Draco swallowed hard and nodded. "But I was also proud, because... because I knew every moment that went by was proof you hadn't given up on her. On us."

"I almost did," I admitted, ashamed. "But I pulled through. We're going to get to the bottom of this and prove she's innocent, alright?"

He stepped back and looked away, painful emotions rippling over his face.

"Is Narcissa still at the safe house?" I asked. "Can we contact her?"

"No. I think... it's best if I don't tell you."

I winced and squeezed my eyes shut. "Oh."

"Just in case," he added, but it was clear he wasn't sure if I'd given up in the end. I couldn't blame him.

"Could you at least confirm something for me? My interrogators―they showed me part of a letter and said Narcissa wrote it. They tried to convince me she has another lover."

"That's absurd," Draco scoffed.

"I know. I knew as soon as I could think clearly. But more importantly, the letter said she's trying to relocate Voldemort's followers. Is it true?"

He chewed on his lip and wouldn't meet my eyes.

I pressed him about it. "If the letter is real, I know you're the one she sent it to. What else did it say? Help me understand. I don't want to believe she's helping them escape, after everything they've done. Did they take it out of context to make her look bad?"

"I knew you wouldn't understand," Draco sneered. "Mother thought you might come around, but I knew you could never sympathize with Death Eaters."

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me again. "What? What are you saying?"

"I'm saying the letter is real, and you're a heartless, self-righteous Gryffindor who never walked a day in someone else's shoes."

"I'm not heartless!" I yelled, shocked. "I've learned to like some Slytherins. I've defended purebloods! I comforted Rookwood's wife, for fuck's sake." Narcissa's language must have rubbed off on me. "So don't talk to me about what a Gryffindor I am."

"Then why are you freaking out about the letter? I know Death Eaters have done horrible things, I know. I had a front row seat. But they're still people, and we're the only ones who know enough to help."

"It could be a lot worse, you know," I replied.

Disgusted, Draco turned away. I felt like we were talking at cross-purposes, but I couldn't figure out why. House arrest wasn't that bad.

"Wait! Please make sure Narcissa knows I believe her." I caught his arm.

He ripped it away from me. "Don't touch me, you―"

"Call me a mudblood. I dare you."

His lip curled. "―Crouchist." He walked away.

It took a moment for the weight of the unfamiliar insult to hit me. Crouchist. Like Barty Crouch Senior, merciless.

"I won't give up on her!" I called after Draco, but he was gone. And Narcissa might not be innocent of all charges.

Chapter Text

Prologue

"Relashio!" Narcissa's voice hissed in the darkness, sending a jet of purple sparks toward the sound of my footsteps.

The first spell missed, but more followed. "Wait, wait! It's me!" I exclaimed, hastily casting a shield spell as I threw back my hood.

Narcissa stepped out of the shadows with a small bag over her shoulder. My heart leaped in my chest, fairly bursting at the sight of her so close.

"Hermione," she breathed. "I won't let you stop me."

My eyes widened. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion.

"Expelliarmus."

Monday night - one day prior

 

"Hermione!"

Harry and Ron jumped up from where they'd been sitting outside my apartment. I stopped in the hall and stood stiffly as they ran over and hugged me.

"Hermione, are you alright?!" Harry asked.

"We've been going crazy with worry!" Ron said. "The ministry wouldn't let us see you over the weekend. They said you had a breakdown."

"Something like that," I said, reluctant to dwell on those memories. Their worry was overwhelming, making me feel anxious.

"The phone makes this weird sound when we try calling you," Ron added, "so we decided to wait here because surely you have to come home at some point."

"Sorry, I was out and about tonight." Visiting Draco, which could not have gone worse. I grimaced. "And my phone is probably broken." Along with everything else I owned.

"We haven't seen you since before the murder," Harry said. "Please talk to us. Tell us how you're really doing."

"I'm still processing everything," I hedged, ignoring the small voice that told me it wasn't healthy to push my friends away. The shadow of my interrogation loomed over me, making me want to shut down and feel nothing. "It's late. I have a lot to do tomorrow."

Ron held my arm gently. "Hermione, wait. You've got that look in your eye."

"What look?"

"The why-can't-I-figure-out-who-Nicholas-Flamel-is look. You're working on something big. Let us help."

"It's a sensitive matter. I have to do this alone," I said emotionlessly.

"I've thought the same thing before," Harry retorted. "About rescuing Sirius, about hunting for horcruxes... but I was always wrong."

I hesitated with a refusal on the tip of my tongue. Ron didn't have any occlumency training whatsoever. Harry always ran headfirst into trouble. It was too dangerous to tell them, even if I could convince them of my belief in Narcissa. And yet...

Hadn't we learned something over the years? Sirius didn't have to die. If Harry and the Order of the Phoenix had relied on each other and stayed in contact, Voldemort's trap would have failed. And in first year, we could have avoided so much trouble if we had shared more information with Dumbledore. It happened time and time again. Poor communication. Not enough trust. I wouldn't make the same mistake.

"Muffliato."

In the privacy of the spell, I told them everything I suspected so far.

Harry and Ron stared at me, flabbergasted.

"Wait, back up," Ron said. "Framed for murder? Carty literally watched her do it."

"Do you trust him?" I asked.

"Yeah. He's one of us," Ron said.

Harry said, "Well... some people are suspicious of him, for the opposite reason. There were several Death Eater escapes on his watch. Some people accused him of helping them or turning a blind eye. Maybe he's conspiring with Narcissa."

My mind reeled at that. "That doesn't make any sense. Let's not get off track."

Ron was frowning. "Why do you think Carty is lying about Narcissa? You weren't there. Are you just in denial?"

Harry said more kindly, "None of us want to believe she would murder an auror. But do you have any proof?"

I admitted, "No. But Narcissa swore to me, and I trust her."

"That's all you have? A promise?" Ron asked. "A Slytherin's word is worth less than the parchment it's written on."

"Pansy wouldn't be happy to hear you thinking that way," Harry said.

"Everyone thinks that way," Ron said sheepishly.

"I shouldn't have said anything," I whispered. "Forget it. I'll keep investigating on my own. Please don't tell anyone."

The two men exchanged glances, and Ron said, "I didn't mean we're not gonna help you. I'm just skeptical is all. We've always got your back."

"No matter what," Harry confirmed. "What can we do?"

"Oh," I said, breath hitching, touched by their unconditional support. I hadn't yet told them about my interrogation, but that could wait until a time when I could afford to fall apart. "Will you keep an eye on Carty? See who he talks to and who might know things?"

"We can try, whenever we're not busy with work," Harry replied.

"Great, you can write to me if you learn anything interesting, but use this encryption charm." I quickly taught it to them, though I had to correct Ron, "The countercharm is re-TEX-o, not re-TAX-o."

"Same old Hermione," Ron grumbled goodnaturedly.

"Anything else?" Harry asked.

I shook my head and brushed a tear away. They reached out to hug me, and this time I hugged back, resisting the poisonous impulse to isolate myself. "Thank you both. You're the best."

"You've always been there for me," Harry said. "I'm just returning the favor."

***

Everything felt lighter with my friends on my side, doubts and all. I hurried to the Brain Room early the next morning, hoping to find a pensieve to use privately, but Lorelei was there already.

"Good morning," she said as I approached.

"Morning. What are we doing today?" I asked.

"I don't have anything planned. You're welcome to keep trying to find clues, but if you want to go work with your mentor on other projects, you can go."

Her tone was positive, but her disinterested posture told another story. Yesterday was a bust, and she didn't think I could help anymore. My supposed "insight" into Narcissa wasn't useful after all.

"Alright," I said, watching her carefully. "I'll join the project investigating the missing Death Eaters."

Lorelei's head snapped up. "Why that one?"

"Well, they're dangerous, so obviously it's important to catch them," I said. "Would you show me that letter Narcissa wrote? The whole thing? It might help me understand her plan."

"I don't think that's a good idea. It..." Lorelei hesitated. "It reveals... too much about her lover's identity. I'm worried you'll try to get revenge on him."

"I want revenge on Narcissa, not him." It was getting easier to lie, and notice lies. "How did you get that letter? Are there more?"

"It's all we have. We intercepted the owl and copied the letter before he received it. Decrypting it took weeks of effort."

"Weeks? When did she write it?"

"About a month ago. It doesn't matter," Lorelei said.

"I suppose not," I agreed. "See you around."

About a month ago, we came home from the mission. Was that significant? I wasn't sure.

***

I reached my mentor's office by the Planet Room a few minutes later.

"Kingsley is furious," Edgecombe said with a satisfied smile, not bothering with pleasantries. "I told him what I thought about your interrogation. He's personally looking into it, and we talked about starting an ethics review board."

"Good! That's very good," I said, pleased at the news, though I mumbled, "Should've already had one, but better late than never."

"Will you write a report about what happened to you? I can help," Edgecombe offered.

"Yes, at some point," I replied. "Right now I want to focus on something more urgent. Project... what was it? The missing Death Eaters?"

"Oh, right. Project 502. I didn't think that would be your priority after all this, but we're allowed to work on it. After you asked about it last week, I got authorization. Where do you want to start?"

"Hmm..." I considered. "Can I review all the evidence from the internal investigation?"

***

Edgecombe and I retrieved huge stacks of files from the archive room. It's hard to guess how long it would've taken me to find something interesting if I'd had no idea where to look. Harry wasn't kidding about all the suspicion. There was a whole collection of surveillance records on Carty. Most of it was boring, but halfway through the day, a conversation transcript caught my eye.

 

"Thanks for coming by. Did you see the Prophet? The press found out about the disappearances. What's the plan, boss?"

"Patience and silence. We'll carry on as always."

"Everything alright with the ones we've got? No more issues?"

"For the most part. We can only do our best. Keeping so many Death Eaters locked up isn't an easy task, especially with only six of us left in the Ash Society. We're one down."

"Alger Duggan is sorely missed. He was a fine auror. It's a damn shame he couldn't get out of the cell block in time."

"Groesffordd was a debacle. We're lucky some dementors weren't in the cavern. There are just barely enough now."

"It's better not to have so many. We can't control them, Diggory. They're too greedy. A lot of muggles suffered."

"I know. It's terrible. I never wanted that."

"Hey. I know you didn't."

"We should both get back to work. Be careful out there."

I froze with the parchment in my hand. Diggory! Was Mr. Diggory involved in something? It wouldn't be surprising, with how hostile he'd been lately. His son was murdered, giving him more reason than most to hate anyone who supported Voldemort―and hate me, for being too lenient.

But I had even more questions now. Why did Carty call him boss? Was the Ash Society some kind of club with Diggory in charge? Most importantly, what were they hiding? It seemed like their only crime was being bad at preventing escapes. And they sounded so... nice.

The mention of dementors threw a wrench in the works. No one under house arrest had dementors guarding them, did they? Why did having enough dementors matter?

Something... something was just out of my grasp.

And another point was bothering me. It took a few minutes of thought before I figured out what it was.

"Edgecombe, did the entire prison in Groesffordd collapse, or just the solitary cell block?"

"Only that cell block. Why?" my mentor asked.

"Just curious." Did no one else put two and two together? The auror who died was in the same room with Narcissa and me! Did he trigger the explosion? I swayed silently.

"Hey, you're looking a little pale, Granger. Go on and take a break for lunch."

***

I went straight to the Brain Room, trembling, hoping I could finally get a look at whatever was in that memory vial. If this didn't pan out, I'd have to try Hogwarts, which would involve a lot of catching up and questions I didn't want to answer. None of us in the DA had set foot there since the final battle. Too many bad memories.

Terry Higgs and a few other people were eating at their desks, but Lorelei was nowhere in sight.

"Is Lorelei around?" I asked.

"No, she's out to lunch. Are you here to question me about Miss Black too? I don't know anything," he said, sounding glum.

"Don't worry, I'm just looking for a pensieve to use. Privately."

"I can help with that. Follow me." He led me away.

"Terry," I said nervously, "do you ever feel like you can hear other people's feelings in here?"

"Oh, sure, that's not unusual. I've heard it's from some old prank or experiment gone wrong. Have you ever been in a cathedral where you can hear someone's whispers from clear across the room? It's like that. Nothing to worry about."

"I'm worried anyway," I replied as we reached a storage closet stuffed with shelves of supplies, including three shiny metal bowls. "One time I felt like someone hated me, or Narcissa, or both of us."

Terry swallowed and looked down. "That's probably not unusual either. Wait here."

He took one bowl to the big tank in the center of the Brain Room and dipped it into the green liquid. By the time he brought it back to me, the liquid in the bowl was clear and vaporous.

"Should be good to go. Uh..." He scratched the back of his head. "Don't go thinking I'm that secret ally you're all hunting for. But some of us think the killing must've been in self defense. Miss Black isn't the murdering type, see. Maybe you could keep an open mind."

"Thanks, Terry. I'll try," I said softly. "Will you make sure no one disturbs me?"

"Sure thing."

He closed the storage room door on his way out. I took the vial from my pocket and poured its contents into the pensieve. Taking a deep breath, I dove into the memory.

***

The air was stale and damp with a tang of iron. Narcissa glanced over her shoulder and slipped into the solitary cell block of the secret prison. Her hands glided over the torture implements, face drawn in horror. From there, she stepped quietly into a cell with her wand illuminating the bloodstained walls. She traced her fingers over certain areas, frowning.

Breathless, I moved closer. She seemed so real, though it was only a memory. I missed her terribly, even more so with her right there before me, and the pain of it spread all the way down my arm from my heart.

"Morsmordre," she incanted.

A glowing Dark Mark appeared by the wall, and she bit her lip, concentrating hard on the bloodstains. Recalling the note she'd left me, I tried to decipher this supposed message. The stains resolved into letters, and reading them around the twisting snake spelled a name.

Avery

"No." Narcissa stared for a moment longer before moving on to the next cells and casting the Mark again and again. Some revealed nothing, while some showed a name on the wall.

Travers

Lestrange

Rookwood

"I can't believe it. Death Eaters!" Narcissa whispered angrily. "What were they doing with them?" A longer message was drawn below, barely legible.

Abductors:

Duggan

Huber

Carty

? leader, also in ministry?

Moving to new prison. Help.

Light flickering as her hand shook, Narcissa moved on to the last cell. "Can't fucking believe it. Morsmordre."

Dolohov

I shuddered at the name, remembering how he nearly killed me in the Hall of Prophecies. Then the memory ended and pushed me back out into the real world.

***

My grip tightened on the pensieve, turning my knuckles white. After spending so long thinking the Death Eaters were working with the dementors, it was hard to wrap my head around what I'd just seen.

They were their prisoners, abducted by the ministry and tortured in one of the most hellish places I'd ever seen.

Not the ministry, I corrected myself. People within it. The Ash Society?

As I struggled to understand the implications, things finally started to make sense. One of them died trying to kill Narcissa―and me, incidentally―to cover up the evidence. The rest couldn't be sure how badly exposed they were until they read that letter. Then they came for Lucius and framed Narcissa for murder, and now no one would question it if she disappeared forever. If Draco hadn't rescued her, they would've tortured her to find out who else knew the secret.

"Fucking hell!" I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut as tears threatened to spill. And there was a new prison? That's what the letter was about! No wonder Draco was so upset. People were being isolated, haunted by dementors, and tortured. And what did I say to him? "It could be a lot worse, you know." I groaned in dismay.

Terry waved goodbye as I left the Brain Room, but I could hardly see him through the haze of tears and anger. In the Room of Doors, I ran right into Lorelei returning from lunch.

"Oh! Hermione, what's wrong?" she asked, holding onto me.

"I just remembered how much I hate Death Eaters," I snarled. "I want them to suffer."

"You need to calm yourself," Lorelei said. She rubbed my shoulders, making me feel uncomfortable. "Better? Tell me, what brought this on?"

My fists clenched. "They've murdered and tortured people! We don't even know all the things they've done! We need to hunt them down and throw them back into Azkaban, make them pay."

It wasn't subtle, but it worked.

"You're not the only one who feels that way," Lorelei assured me. "Some of us don't think justice was served after the war, so we look for ways to make things right. Maybe you'd like to be part of it."

"I'd help with anything that gives Death Eaters what they deserve," I declared.

Lorelei inclined her head in approval. "Let me go talk this over with a few people. I'll be in touch."

My heart pounded as she walked away. I just got one step closer to Diggory, the Ash Society, and the prisoners. I was sure of it.

***

Nothing came of it until the end of the day. I worked with Edgecombe on a project that would lead nowhere as long as enough people conspired to hide the truth. Harry, Ron, and I exchanged memos. I asked them to watch out for Diggory and invited them to come over after work to hear about everything I'd discovered. In the evening, I waited anxiously for them to arrive.

There was a knock on my door. I opened it expecting my friends, but Lorelei stood there. The shine in her eyes made me uneasy.

"Narcissa slipped up," she said. "We know where she is. Would you like to help us catch her?"

My heart stopped. Caught off guard, I stuttered, "R-really?"

"You could solve your first investigation," Lorelei said, smiling.

I hated her smile. "Yes, um, of course. Where are we going?"

"Come with us, and I'll show you."

I looked out into the hall and realized Carty and two other wizards were with her, which only made my uneasy feeling worsen. What if they'd discovered I was lying?

I hastily scribbled a note for Harry and Ron, wishing I knew where we were going. Throat dry, I put my Unspeakable robes back on. I joined the group in the hall and followed them until we reached a hidden alcove where we could disapparate. Either I was about to get very, very close to my goal, or they were going to transfigure my feet into stone and throw me in the Thames.

***

We landed in a shallow, icy puddle. Industrial smells of iron, grease, and ozone drifted into my nose. Ahead of us were rows and rows of train tracks, all branching out of two tunnels. The entrance to the Chunnel! Were we going to mainland Europe? The undersea tunnel wasn't finished when my parents took me on holiday to France in third year, but I'd read about it.

"Tell no one about what you see tonight, Hermione," Lorelei said, leading our group to a hidden side track. "We've decided to bring you into the fold. There aren't many of us, but we do what's necessary when no one else is willing. We're called the Ash Society."

Carty and the other two wizards climbed into the cab of a small steam engine that stuck out like a sore thumb among all of the electric trains around us. I got in next, then turned and grudgingly helped Lorelei climb up.

"I know what it's like to make hard choices," I said. "You can count on me."

"Not everyone understands why this is necessary," Lorelei went on. "But I think you do. You've seen firsthand what Death Eaters are capable of. This is only fair."

With a tap of his wand, one of the wizards started the engine. The train lurched forward and started down the tracks, joining up with the main line heading into the tunnel. The wind was freezing, and I hoped our ride would be brief as my teeth chattered.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"You said you want to throw them all back into Azkaban. What if I told you we've caught some of them?"

Or abducted all of them. I pretended to be clueless. "Well done. But isn't Azkaban to the north?"

"It's in shambles after the mass breakout in '96, and our temporary minister for magic hasn't devoted enough resources to make it secure. We had to come up with another solution."

"So you made a prison?"

"That's right. A stronghold, with charms to detect perimeter breaches." Lorelei smiled at me again. "Guess who just triggered an alarm?"

The cold sank into my bones. "Narcissa," I said with as much hatred as I could muster.

"Making a pathetic attempt to rescue her husband, no doubt," Lorelei scoffed. "Or all of them! Wouldn't that be a laugh.

Dammit, what was Narcissa thinking! How could I possibly keep her safe?

By my best estimate, we were about halfway through the tunnel when the train slowed down and suddenly swerved toward the wall. I sucked in a breath of air, thinking we were all about to die in a fiery crash.

Then we went right through. I blew out my breath, shaking off the instant cold sweat. Running into the wall at Platform 9 3/4 was way less stressful.

The steam train stopped on a turntable inside a large, dark room that seemed unfinished. Some of the walls were bare chalk formations, while others had been built up. A secret prison a hundred metres below sea level. Merlin, no wonder they didn't apparate directly to the entrance. Being slightly off target could bury them in a rock layer or deep underwater.

"Welcome to our detention center," Lorelei said. "Right on the border between England and France, so neither ministry can be sure of their jurisdiction."

"That's brilliant," I replied.

We headed toward a huge stone door that Carty rapped on three times, then twice. It swung open with a grinding noise to reveal a rough entryway leading into darkness. Another wizard came hurrying out to greet us.

"Thank goodness you're here! I can't find Black anywhere. Now I'm jumping at shadows." Suddenly he spotted me. "Oh! Ah... you're, ah..."

"Hermione Granger," I said, offering my hand.

"I know. Nice to meet you. I'm... John."

Who was he really? Honestly, was everyone always this obvious at lying, or was Narcissa just so good that she made them all look bad? "Nice to meet you too, John. I'll help you find her."

"You can lead the way," Carty said, guiding me deeper into the prison. "She'll go easy on you."</